The Lower Pavilion was in a courtyard dominated by a single tulip tree, artfully hidden within the bounds of the castle itself. The pavilion itself was large, bounded with silk screens and curtains that kept flies and other noisome insects from disturbing the occupants. The columns were painted red, the eaves decorated in other lively colors. The gardens around it were planted with pinks and blue-purple bells—unlike Lin Jingjing’s garden of gingers, not every available space in the Yue sect castle doubled as a place to grow food.
Yue Fengjian walked through the garden slowly, not slow enough to be look reluctant, but not fast enough to seem eager either. Walking in behind Yue Fengjian, Lian Zhidiao didn’t see who was in the pavilion until they were almost at the threshold.
Seated at a low table, Yue Fengjian’s mother was as lithe and beautiful as her husband was brawny and handsome. Lian Zhidiao could see instantly that she was where Yue Fengjian had gotten his striking phoenix eyes: hers turned up at the corners like a swallow in flight. Her lips were thin but soft-looking, and her face had the ageless look of a cultivator. She smiled at Yue Fengjian, but it felt distant; there wasn’t any warmth in it.
Yue Fengjian bowed. “My honored Mother,” he said. “It brings this humble son great joy to see you.”
“And I you,” she replied. Her voice was soothing and quiet, as if she had never once lifted it in anger or fear.
She doesn’t seem that bad. I don’t think she would lose her temper easily. What could Yue Fengjian have meant by being mindful how he answered her questions? Lian Zhidiao cupped his hands and bowed to her.
“I am Lian Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect.”
“I have heard,” she said, meeting his eyes. “You are an uncommon young man.”
An unsettled feeling slid down Lian Zhidiao’s spine. She looked at him the way a farmer inspected a sow’s piglets, picking out which ones should be fattened and which should be sold for meat. Lian Zhidiao lowered his eyes.
Lady Gao held back her sleeve as she gestured to the places that had been made ready for both of them. Yue Fengjian walked up first and spread out his robes, seating himself across from his mother, on her left. Lian Zhidiao followed suit, sitting at Yue Fengjian’s left, keenly aware of how conspicuous he was. Robed in plain black, he was an unwelcome shadow in the sunlit garden of a noble family.
Lady Gao turned her attention to Yue Fengjian immediately. “I hear your campaign in the Western reaches was successful.”
She poured hot water into a dark purple teapot and rested her hands in her lap. “Some might have said it was impossible to subdue a qilin.” She poured the tea with a steady hand and leaned forward only as far as necessary to slide their cups across the table. Lian Zhidiao accepted his cup and took a sip; it was florally sweet and light on his tongue, with a bitter aftertaste that lingered in his mouth. He bowed his head to Lady Gao, and she mirrored it, though not as deeply.
“Certainly not without bearing the weight of its heavenly curse.”
Yue Fengjian took his cup. His face was set in an expression of stoic confidence. He didn’t reply at first, seeming to sense that his mother wasn’t finished speaking. After a moment, he was proved correct.
“Your father is overjoyed at your success.”
Overjoyed? He didn’t look overjoyed.
“This humble son is honored by his consideration.”
“You may take some pride in your achievements,” Lady Gao said, before taking a dainty sip of her tea. “Your father intends to bestow a title on you, the first one he’s given in over ten years.”
Yue Fengjian’s eyes widened; he clearly hadn’t been expecting this. Lian Zhidiao knew, of course. In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, Yue Fengjian had repelled the overwhelming demon attack and been awarded some extravagant title like ‘Demon Crushing Lord’. But here in this world, Yue Fengjian had done something arguably more difficult: subdue a celestial beast, which was not much less than an immortal.
Lian Zhidiao sipped his tea silently.
“This humble son cannot begin to describe the depth of his gratitude.”
A small smile pulled at the corners of Lady Gao’s mouth. “The title he has chosen for you is Leibi-jun.”
Styled in a heroic way, he thought Leibi-jun might be The Lord Who Writes With Lightning. It gave the impression of a man who could effortlessly control the primal force of lightning and bend it into elegant calligraphy, whose mastery was so complete that even the skies would bear his writ. Leibi-jun. Who would have thought that Yue Kuangxiang had a talent for poetry?
Yue Fengjian bowed his head to his mother. “This humble son will strive to always be worthy of such a title.”
“Make sure you show your appreciation to our Lord,” she said. Lady Gao smiled again, but it remained that same distant smile, as if regarding matters that were very far away.
Not ‘your father’. Our Lord. Lian Zhidiao glanced at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian kept his eyes fixed to his mother. “Yes, Mother,” he replied, bowing his head again.
Lian Zhidiao drank the rest of his tea and set his cup on the table without making a sound. It wasn’t his place to speak right now.
A train of servants arrived with rice and dishes of breakfast: lightly steamed vegetables and soft, barely-set egg dishes, with pungent fried spices to add as they wished. Lady Gao’s face was serene as she poured another cup of tea and let the servants set the table. This was a family-style meal, with platters in the center to let them serve themselves. Lian Zhidiao looked between Lady Gao with her perfectly pointed fingers folded in front of her and Yue Fengjian with his stiff back. Even if this looked like a family-style meal, it wasn’t comfortable enough to be home for either of them.
Lady Gao waited until Lian Zhidiao began to eat, and then began to speak. “I received a letter from my cousin a few days ago, but according to the date she wrote, it was delayed. Usually they arrive very quickly. I wonder what could have been the matter?”
How many days have passed since Qianjiao captured me? A week while I was unconscious, and then seven more days while we flew like lightning over the steppes. Then the days spent going after the qilin. That alone would have been enough time for a letter carrier to make his way from Fenfang City to Xuefeng, even if he wasn’t taking the fastest horses and boats up river. A skilled information gatherer could have revealed everything in a letter to Lady Gao about their time in Fenfang City without even rushing. If there had been a hint in the letter of what transpired in the woods below the Lin sect peaks, then Lady Gao—and probably Yue Kuangxiang as well—already knew about the demon’s attempt to kill him. With all that entailed.
Lian Zhidiao glanced at Yue Fengjian.
“Bandits, perhaps,” Yue Fengjian offered, eating at a leisurely pace.
Lian Zhidiao took another bite of his own breakfast. The food was good, even better with the spices, but the flavors turned bitter in his mouth.
“She married into the Lin sect, you know.”
“She told me her daughter had made a good match in the Lin sect to a senior disciple.”
“How fortunate for her,” Yue Fengjian said, nodding. “The Lin sect is strong.”
“Their father will want them to enter the Lin sect, of course, but their children will spend some time learning here.” Lady Gao paused. “More, if they show an aptitude for fire.”
“They will excel in everything they encounter,” Yue Fengjian said, finally picking up his chopsticks. “Of that, I have no doubt.”
“You were abroad in the Lin sect’s lands just recently.”
Yue Fengjian looked as if he was thinking deep thoughts about the bite of egg he’d just taken. “Yes.”
Lady Gao set aside her chopsticks and slid her son a saccharine look out of the corner of her eye. “There are many cultivators in the Lin sect around your age.”
“Did you meet many of them while you were there?”
Oh. This was going to be the same talk every unmarried young person got from their mother at one time or another. For now, Lady Gao was being gentle, talking around the issue.
Yue Fengjian sat up a little straighter and shook his head. “We had just finished taking part in a cleansing operation in the southern part of Lin sect lands.”
In his previous life, Lian Zhidiao remembered that his own mother had been much more direct: Your older brother doesn’t even have time to meet with his fiancee’s family, he is so busy, but I’ve already spoken to them by phone and we are looking at setting a wedding date for next year. I’ve called the matchmaker, but what am I supposed to tell her about you? You aren’t good enough to find someone who can support you if you don’t have anything to offer. You know, you could stand to lose a little more weight. Maybe you’re hoping she likes a fat boy, hm? I’ve seen you going back for seconds. If you have to fail at school, can you at least not fail at getting a wife?
“Ah,” Lady Gao said, snapping Lian Zhidiao back to the present. “You were triumphant in that, as well?”
“Yes.” And at last, Yue Fengjian’s eyes flashed to Lian Zhidiao for a moment before going back to his own plate. “There was a demon there who corrupted most of a town.”
Lady Gao’s face fell. “How awful.”
“Many of the deviates were able to be saved, but the town will probably be a total loss. It’s quite far north of the Choking Wood.” Yue Fengjian’s stern expression became even more grave. “Demons may be pushing further into human lands than we think.”
Lady Gao arched an eyebrow. “Do you think we are in danger here?”
“It has been quiet lately,” Yue Fengjian replied after finishing one bite. “We hurried back from Lin sect lands because we feared the worst, but a large scale demon attack doesn’t seem imminent.”
Lady Gao slowly let her eyebrow relax. “As far as you know.”
“Yes,” Yue Fengjian agreed, pausing before picking up his bowl of rice. “It would be imprudent to say there is no threat, but if there is a major action here, then demon forces beyond the Paling may be acting in disorder.”
The Paling. In normal siege warfare, a paling was part of a palisade, used to create a fortified position on a battlefield or around a castle. Here, it was a term used by the Yue, Yuan, and Lin sects to denote the roughly imaginary line where demon and human lands met. It was a porous, often fragmented border; in the Choking Wood, it wasn’t clear exactly where the Paling was. Cultivators like Hui Songbai made names for themselves in the savage, ruthless reaches of the southern forests. It was a different kind of environment than the demon-blasted earth to the west or the cold, unforgiving wilds in the north. Celestial beast, demons, monsters; in the south, a cultivator might encounter nearly anything.
“It pleases me to hear you speak so frankly about martial matters.” Lady Gao lowered her voice. “Our Lord has wanted to go into seclusion again, but has not felt it was the right time.” She gave Yue Fengjian a serene smile. “If he need not fear that the sect will be mismanaged while he is away, he will be less reluctant.”
Yue Fengjian dipped his head again and continued eating.
“A Sect Leader has other responsibilities as well,” she said. “Ensuring the teachings continue to the next generation.”
Is every mom, everywhere, obsessed with grandchildren? Lian Zhidiao finished his meal and carefully arranged his dishes to indicate he was finished. She’s a cultivator with an unnaturally long lifespan, and she’s still pushing for grandkids! If he’d had the freedom to, Lian Zhidiao would have rubbed his face in irritated exasperation. But instead, he kept his attention on his plate.
Yue Fengjian smiled at his mother. “There are many disciples who would be eager to advance to senior status.”
“Yue Kuangxiang only has one son,” Lady Gao countered. “If you cannot make up your mind about candidates for a wife, you may let me know your favorites.” Lady Gao’s eyes briefly slipped to Lian Zhidiao before looking back at her son. “Or, I can write to my sister and ask her for eligible girls in the Gao family.”
Yue Fengjian bowed his head. “This humble son welcomes the care and effort of his venerable aunt.”
A look of satisfaction settled on Lady Gao. “I’ll write to her tomorrow, then.”
“If it would please my honored mother, however,” Yue Fengjian said, “I intend to go to Shengmen City in the next month or two.”
“Oh?” Lady Gao glanced at Lian Zhidiao with a chill in her eyes. “What for?”
“The Yuan sect has a reputation for discipline and serious-minded women. These traits would be an asset in a Sect Leader’s wife.”
“Yuan Zhuyan has one daughter.” Lady Gao smiled at Yue Fengjian. “She would also be a good candidate for your wife.”
Yuan Shi’an, the Beauty of the Yuan sect. She had been introduced for readers clamoring for a stern love interest who devoted herself completely to the main character. In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, she even referred to Yue Fengjian as ‘Master’. A few fanartists had picked up on Yuan Shi’an’s mile-wide loyalty kink and immediately set about destroying her character in fanart that was either too cute for her serious personality, or tested the boundaries of her loyalty with lewd acts.
“If my honored mother would like to do as she wishes, nothing would please this son more.”
She raised her hand and beckoned, and servants appeared out of nowhere to begin to clear the table. “I am surprised you were not taken with Lin Xianglan. I have heard she is quite beautiful. Perhaps another flower caught your eye while you were in Fenfang City?”
Yue Shipei’s words echoed in Lian Zhidiao’s ears. They went into town to visit a garden of flowers. Lian Zhidiao swallowed. Gooseflesh rose on his skin. It had to be a coincidence. Plenty of women were called flowers. But it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the letter from Lady Gao’s cousin in Fenfang City also included information about Yue Fengjian’s visit to the brothel.
“Lin Xianglan’s beauty is unparalleled. I have never seen a more beautiful or graceful woman. But she is like a young vine. Tender, and not well-suited to the cold.”
“I’ll wait and see how you like Yuan Shi’an,” Lady Gao said. “As long as there aren’t any unexpected circumstances, then we will send an inquiry to Yuan Zhuyan and begin the process.”
“Thank you, Mother. This son is truly undeserving.”
Understanding that the meal was now over, Yue Fengjian stood and bowed to his mother, and Lian Zhidiao followed suit. Lady Gao inclined her head to Yue Fengjian and then turned to Lian Zhidiao with a beatific smile. “Thank you for your indulgence. My son is quite busy, so it’s difficult to get time to see him.”
Lian Zhidiao bowed to her. “This young man is grateful for the invitation to your table.”
Seemingly pleased by this, Lady Gao nodded again, and Yue Fengjian turned and led the way out of the Lower Pavilion. Lian Zhidiao followed him, lost in thought.
In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, the reasons for Yue Fengjian going to Shengmen City had been much more clear: he wanted to recruit more sects to the demon-fighting cause. Obviously he could travel for more than one reason. But in this conversation with his mother, he said he was looking for candidates for a wife? Lian Zhidiao had never written these conversations in his novel, but they appeared to be taking place ‘off-screen’ nonetheless. Yue Fengjian would find a candidate for his wife in Shengmen City. This was just as the plot of Supreme Warlord indicated, so why was Lian Zhidiao’s stomach so unsettled?
Yue Fengjian led them back to his chambers, and only when the door was closed did he let out a small breath.
“No,” Yue Fengjian said. “No instructions to march you out of the city, so you can probably take a room up at the Quanyuan.” Then Yue Fengjian gave Lian Zhidiao a serious nod. “It went about the best way it could go, in fact.”
“Why is that?”
“Being awarded a title?” Yue Fengjian blinked like he was still trying to get over the shock.
“You defended the western border from a new and dangerous threat. Sect Leader Yue values that.” Lian Zhidiao said.
“It’s more your doing than mine.”
“Neither one of us could have done it on our own.”
Yue Fengjian scowled. “But I got all the recognition.”
“I’m not in the Yue sect,” Lian Zhidiao said gently. “It would be improper to award me a title if my own sect didn’t recognize me first.”
But saying this out loud made Lian Zhidiao realize that any internal sect deliberations over awarding Yue Fengjian a title were subject to the Yue family’s dynamic. Of course Lady Gao also held power in the sect, even if she wasn’t an instructor or a powerful cultivator herself.
And Lian Zhidiao had gotten a glimpse of what should have been a very private, family-only discussion about Yue Fengjian’s glory, his future as a Sect Leader, and his impending marriage plans. It was all theatre. Lady Gao had wanted Lian Zhidiao to see the wide gulf open between him and Yue Fengjian, to feel the distance between them. Different sects, different social class, different futures that awaited them.
She didn’t say anything to Lian Zhidiao, but she didn’t have to. Lian Zhidiao understood perfectly.
In Lian Zhidiao’s dantian, the other core turned over, the deviate qi stewing like thick, hot mud.