Most cultivation sects still emphasized seclusion as the path to immortality. In an ironic twist, Yue sect cultivators, who had the most suitable environment for this, were least able to make use of it. Isolated from humanity by mountains and hemmed in on two sides by demons, the ancient Yue sect had incorporated community protection and hard work as core precepts over going into seclusion for long periods of time.
The effects were clear to see: though the Wa specialized in earth magic, the mountain-bound Yue were superior miners, masons, and plasterers. With spun fire, Yue cultivators lit and tended lime kilns, as the Lin sect did with pine to manufacture pitch in the south. Pitch, trees, quicklime, and building stones were moved back and forth along the Red Highway via Shengmen City. Though the demon attacks had occurred only two months ago, huge tree trunks from the South began to arrive only a month later on barges towed up the Sanma River. In return, the Yue sect sent teams of masons and plasterers to assist with the rebuilding of Sancha Town. As had happened many times before, the Yue-Lin alliance was strengthened by their mutual struggles along the Paling.
When Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian defeated the qilin, the planting season had just begun; even with the Yue sect’s help, the villagers hadn’t been able to get the upland rice transplanted until two weeks into that critical window. Winter came early in the mountains. Every day mattered.
Close to Xuefeng City, Yue Shipei let Lian Zhidiao off at the edge of a field which had lain fallow over winter. A group of men were working to repair an irrigation pump in the field just up the slope. The heavy stock had split, and a new one was ready to be put in place. But that wasn’t Lian Zhidiao’s work. He was hunting for a jade beast lost in the field.
During his months at the Quanyuan, Lian Zhidiao had passed some of the time thinking about how to use his skills to find and cleanse jade beasts. After all, even with the qilin defeated, there might still be some good he could do for the Yue sect. That would give Yue Fengjian the breathing room he needed to unite the sects. And there was, he had to admit, a part of him that wanted Yue Fengjian to praise him for the effort he’d made. It was fine with him if the entire cultivation world focused on Leibi-jun and never looked at Lian Zhidiao, as long as Yue Fengjian would look at him approvingly. Somewhere along the way, his shrewd calculations to just play the part of a cannon fodder character in order to survive had become an actual commitment to Yue Fengjian as his leader for whom he would sacrifice almost anything. In other words, he stopped pretending to be cannon fodder and became…actual cannon fodder. Realizing this while Liao Kuaiyu was in seclusion had made Lian Zhidiao chuckle.
It wasn’t going to change any of the actions he was taking, of course. It was just funny.
The voices of the men in the nearby field kept time as they pulled the old stock out of the irrigation wheel. Feeling fairly safe that no one was watching, Lian Zhidiao knelt in the rough-chopped field grass and dug his hands into the ground.
It was Lian Zhidiao’s first time using earth-seeing in a ‘normal’ way. The earth here was a mix of deviate and correct qi, in healthy balance between chaos and order. So this is why the Wa guard earth-seeing as a precious technique. It provides so much information toward the mastery of the land that it seems essential. If he lingered underground, he could start to see evidence of the previous centuries of farming, extending down as far underground as a man was tall. With a simple glance, he could see which fields needed amending and which ones needed to rest for a season.
More importantly, he could detect local concentrations of either deviate or correct qi. Eventually, he felt more than saw the presence of a jade beast in the field; it was like a cool shadow on the surface of the earth, where sunlight had not been encouraging growth. As he returned to himself, he couldn’t shake the lingering traces of deviate qi that clung to him, even though he was using the technique on land that was in-balance.
Lian Zhidiao found the jade beast after clearing away straw that had been placed in the fields the previous year. It was a snake, which he might have assumed was living if it was not still as stone and the same color as the cows in both Sancha Town and Shuangwan Village. Lian Zhidiao laid on his belly facing the snake and gave it a breath of life, shattering the deviate scale and drawing the deviate qi into his other core. The other core roiled and then settled down. The cold, unsettled feeling, and mouth full of needles were the same as ever. Lian Zhidiao’s whole body sagged down into the grass.
The jade snake lifted its head, its forked tongue flipping in and out of its mouth.
“I imagine you keep the rats away,” Lian Zhidiao muttered, feeling the late summer sun beat down on his back. “Makes sense, even if you can’t eat them.”
The snake’s tongue wagged in the air. Looking up at the edges of the field, Lian Zhidiao realized that the snake’s low profile likely kept it safe from demons who were looking to wreak havoc in the area. Can’t destroy it if they can’t find it, I guess? Smart.
“If you know what has to be done, then go do it,” Lian Zhidiao said to the snake, rolling over and waving it off into the rice field with a tired flap of his hand. “Everyone is depending on you.”
The snake began to slither off toward the rice field, leaving Lian Zhidiao lying in the stubby grass.
He didn’t start to move until he heard the men in the field next door begin to keep time again.
Excitement flooded through his body, Lian Zhidiao sat up. He rolled to his knees and tried to stand. It took him too much effort, but he stood up and dragged himself to the edge of the field to watch the men.
The broken stock lay on the field border; the new stock was being lifted into place by five men stripped to the waist, their pants shortened up to keep the hems clean. Four of them were peasants. The fifth was Yue Fengjian.
“Heave!” Yue Fengjian shouted.
And with a great shout, the men lunged together, pushing the stock forward.
“Heave!” Yue Fengjian shouted again.
They strove with the stock on their shoulders, the sun shining down on them, burnishing their bare backs. Yue Fengjian was at the front of the stock, guiding the end of it into the hole at the center of the wheel. His hair was bound up, but the locks around his face were damp with sweat, clinging to his skin. Even with strength like his, the mighty stock, made out of the entire trunk of a tree, was difficult to fit to the collar. Yue Fengjian grit his teeth.
Then with a sudden, heavy thunk, the stock slammed home. “Hold!” Yue Fengjian yelled. Two more men ran up behind the lifting team and put a stand under the stock to hold it until the other end of the waterwheel could be rebuilt.
One by one the lifting team moved out from under the stock, letting the stand take the weight. The last one from under the yoke was Yue Fengjian.
In the modern world, with the hardest part of the work done, this would have been the time for self-congratulations. But Yue Fengjian jumped down from the platform into the field, looking at the stock even as the rest of the men began to fit the other half of the irrigation pump to the free end of the stock. The sound of wooden hammers and chisels trimming down the free end of the stock echoed out over the fields.
Still feeling weak, Lian Zhidiao trudged up the slope, drawn by the prospect of seeing Yue Fengjian again.
The men who had helped drive the stock were waiting their turn to drink from a bucket with a dipper, with all the older men going first. At his turn, Yue Fengjian drank deeply, unaware that one of the other men had spotted Lian Zhidiao, standing on the slope. Although his eyes were sharpened on the black robes, once Yue Fengjian was done, he offered the dipper. “Wa-gongzi! Drink!”
Yue Fengjian’s head snapped back around in surprise. His eyes darted all over Lian Zhidiao, as if verifying each time that he was there in front of him.
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t hold back a smile of genuine delight at the sight of him and offered him a salute. “Leibi-jun, it’s good to see you again.”
Something complex passed over Yue Fengjian’s face—frustration, perhaps—and then he stepped forward and took the dipper from the peasant man and drank again. Yue Fengjian then offered him the dipper, still mostly full. Only after Lian Zhidiao had the dipper in his hand did it occur to him that he would be drinking after Yue Fengjian.
Instead of just letting it slide—the other workers had drunk from this dipper as well, after all—Lian Zhidiao hesitated for a heartbeat. His eyes met Yue Fengjian’s, finding a gaze that was steady, insistent. Cold well water filled his mouth, but it was like he’d forgotten how to swallow.
It’s kind of like… an indirect kiss.
When he broke eye contact with Yue Fengjian, he gulped it all down, hoping it would drown the butterflies in his stomach. What was more inexplicable was that there were butterflies at all.
He handled the ladle back to Yue Fengjian, who dropped it in the bucket.
“Walk with me,” Yue Fengjian said, and the two of them started down the border between the fields. Behind them, the workmen began to hammer wooden steps into holes drilled in the stock, the constant knocking reverberating across the fields.
“I take it you’ve found the jade beast already?”
Of course he knows why I’m here. He probably sent Yue Shipei to fetch me. “Yes,” Lian Zhidiao said. At the same time, the longer he looked at Yue Fengjian, the wider Lian Zhidiao could feel his smile getting, well beyond what was appropriate. In a bid to get control of the giddy excitement, Lian Zhidiao looked out at the horizon.
“You work quickly.”
He didn’t want to say that he’d spent the downtime in the Quanyuan fine-tuning how to use his abilities, but he had put in the effort. “Working with normal earth is easy enough,” he said finally. “I had expected you might call for my aid sooner, but I am happy to help now.”
Yue Fengjian absorbed this silently. They continued walking, putting distance between them and the irrigation wheel. Lian Zhidiao looked at him as they walked, realizing belatedly that he must have something he wanted to say that he didn’t want the other men to hear.
“How has life been at the Quanyuan?”
“Quiet,” Lian Zhidiao answered.
“I did not expect you to stay here so long,” Yue Fengjian said abruptly.
“I knew you wanted to visit Shengmen City, which I also have a reason to visit.”
“You could have left and taken care of that business weeks ago.”
“If I had been needed here and not been available, that might have been troublesome for you,” Lian Zhidiao said, looking up at Yue Fengjian’s profile. “I am not in a rush.”
Yue Fengjian nodded after taking in this information, and then looked back at the workmen who were getting on with their work. His voice was lowered. “As you’ve guessed, I will be leaving for Shengmen City in two weeks. Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei will be coming with me. You are welcome to accompany me, if you choose. Even if you don’t, I have something for you.” He had an uncomfortable look. “To thank you for your assistance with the qilin.”
Ah. Had Lian Zhidiao’s use of his title made him feel self-conscious around the others? “You don’t have to give me anything.”
“I want to reward you.”
Lian Zhidiao shook his head again. “I really couldn’t accept anything.”
After several minutes of quiet talking, Yue Fengjian’s (comparatively) soft expression finally became his usual frown. “Don’t you have any sense of propriety? I want to give you a token of thanks for your help. Accept it.”
Lian Zhidiao blinked, brought up short. So commanded, what could he do but accept it? He gave a timid nod. “When?”
“Tonight,” Yue Fengjian said, turning to face him. “Come down to Xuefeng City and we can drink together and discuss plans to travel.”
Lian Zhidiao froze, looking up at Yue Fengjian. Does he not remember what happened the last time we drank together?!
His pulse was still elevated at the thought that he had shared a cup of water with Yue Fengjian. He now couldn’t deny there was a new tension created by their closeness in traveling together and fighting the qilin. If Lian Zhidiao had been hoping the time at the Quanyuan would make him forget some of the ease with which he’d accepted Yue Fengjian’s closeness before, he was only disappointed by the leap of his heart when laying eyes upon him again.
Seeing you, for some reason, makes me really happy.
Whatever the reason for his heart quickening when he saw Yue Fengjian, it wasn’t the result of a plot he’d contrived. It was something that happened here, in the world he’d made, as naturally as breathing.
“I’ll see you tonight, then,” he said, turning back to face Yue Fengjian.
“Good,” Yue Fengjian said. “Hold still for a moment.”
Lian Zhidiao swallowed as Yue Fengjian reached up, his presence like an unsheathed blade at Lian Zhidiao’s neck. Yue Fengjian gently pulled a few pieces of straw from where they were tangled in Lian Zhidiao’s hair.
“There,” he said.
A blush dusted Lian Zhidiao’s cheeks. “Until tonight,” he said, his voice squeaking out of his tight throat. Then without waiting for anything further, he turned on his heel and strode out of the fields without looking back.
Lian Zhidiao had a brief moment of panic when he thought tonight’s discussion with Yue Fengjian might technically be a date, but Yue Shipei picking him up from the fields and accompanying him to the castle made it clear that it wasn’t. In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, slaying demons together or rescuing a girl from a demon might count as a date, but they did still only involve two people. Yet, in the castle hall, Yue Shipei and Hu Baitian were both present, as were Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa. It really was just a group discussion about a trip to Shengmen City.
The servants in the Yue ancestral home were prompt in anticipating their masters’ needs, so that after dinner, there was already wine warmed and waiting for them. The windows of the hall were opened, with screens placed to allow the cool night breeze to move through the room. Liao Kuaiyu had brought a ruan and began to play without a pick. At times, Yue Yaosa would sing, or accompany him on a flute.
Yue Fengjian’s room was just upstairs from the hall, and Lian Zhidiao could hear Liao Kuaiyu’s soft strumming floating through the evening air as he waited to see what it was that Yue Fengjian wanted to give him. Yue Fengjian approached him with something offered on both palms: a solid jade bangle.
It reminded Lian Zhidiao of the kind of thing his mother would wear, or a gift his sister had received from an auntie once she went to college. That’s not to say it was bad—the jade was of fine quality, translucent green without being overly figured. Clouds were lightly engraved all over it; set into one side was a tiny gold medallion with an engraving of the Yue family crest.
Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian, questions written on his face.
“There’s more inside,” Yue Fengjian said.
Inside? Lian Zhidiao was puzzled as to where ‘inside’ was, when he remembered vaguely that Liao Kuaiyu had mentioned something about storing an array in a ring.
It’s jade, so this might be a spiritual tool?
Tentatively, he fed a thread of qi into it, sliding his fingers around the outside. To his astonishment, the ring grew in his hands until it was about as wide across as a dinner plate. When he passed his hand in through one side, his arm went through like normal. But if he put his hand in from the other side… his hand disappeared!
“Go ahead,” Yue Fengjian urged him.
Swallowing down the wrongness of seeing his hand disappearing into the jade ring, he felt around inside the ring, and his fingers caught on something soft. Gingerly, he pulled it up out of the ring, and was surprised to see black fabric.
“They’re not like the ones you’re used to, probably,” Yue Fengjian said, suddenly sheepish. “But I hope you can appreciate them.”
The silk shone in the lantern light as he pulled it out. Lian Zhidiao stared; he’d never seen something so finely made in his life. It was a set of robes, dyed in black, with a subtle motif of creeping vines woven into the fabric. They were trimmed in green with tone-on-tone embroidery of plum blossoms among more vines.
Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian, who was still looking at him with a hint of trepidation. On one hand, Lian Zhidiao felt ashamed that the threadbare nature of his robes had been so unsightly that even Yue Fengjian had felt the need to address the situation. After all, Lady Gao had been the one to make him feel inadequate about his social standing in the first place. But on the other hand, now he wouldn’t look out of place next to Yue Fengjian. And since the robes that made him look like he belonged came from Yue Fengjian himself, he must want Lian Zhidiao to be close to him.
“If you’d like to come to Shengmen City,” Yue Fengjian said, “The storage ring will be useful while traveling.”
“I’m sure it will,” Lian Zhidiao replied. His cheeks warmed again. Lady Gao may have made her feelings about his station crystal clear, but so too had Yue Fengjian. “Thank you.”
With this gift, it seemed that he had finally become a fully-fledged member of the protagonist’s party.
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