Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao went back down to the hall together. The new robes were stashed in the storage ring, and the ring itself tucked into Lian Zhidiao’s robes. The weight of the jade ring against his chest where no one else could see felt clandestine. If Yue Fengjian wanted everyone to know he was giving something like this, wouldn’t he have done so in front of them? Or was he the type of man to just take action and let others figure out what kind of meaning there was in it?
Lian Zhidiao glanced sideways at Yue Fengjian’s profile as they entered the warm, soft light of the hallway. He’d written the protagonist as a man of action who inspired action in others. (For the Beauties in the story, that action had been opening their arms to him, as the genre and his readers demanded.) He had never bothered to write the details of Yue Fengjian’s thoughts. Introspection was boring—readers wanted action, intrigue, drama. Something juicy that made them hold their heads and scream with frustration. That was the kind of writing that brought them back to Supreme Warlord of the Beast World time after time.
For example, in Supreme Warlord, Yue Fengjian had daringly rescued Lin Xianglan from the demon who abducted her and slaughtered the demon. These acts of heroism won him the heart of the Lin Beauty, and the future cooperation of the Lin sect. Likewise for the Yue sect: Yue Fengjian fighting back-to-back with Yue Yaosa had convinced the latter of his worthiness as a husband (and sparring partner, which was of immense importance to the readers who wanted to see a healthy, strong girl who wouldn’t back down.) They were both showy displays that any reader could understand immediately.
Yue Fengjian giving him something in private wasn’t dramatic at all.
The hall was set up for a small, intimate party, with a table in the center laid out with snacks and a warm cauldron of huangjiu, similar to the Lin sect party. Liao Kuaiyu was laying on one of the low beds close to the table, his ruan tucked up against his chest as he played. On the floor next to him was Yue Yaosa with a cup of wine in her hand, her eyes glued to the hypnotic movement of Liao Kuaiyu’s fingers.
Opposite them, at a bit of a remove, Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei were sitting next to each other on another low bed, engaged in a conversation too low to hear. Yue Shipei’s head was tilted, his face pleading, as if he was trying to get Hu Baitian to look at him or talk to him. The bitter expression on Hu Baitian’s face said he would much rather be elsewhere.
Liao Kuaiyu strummed a small fanfare as Yue Fengjian walked through the doorway, and then seamlessly went back to playing whatever song he’d been lazily picking out. Their cups were already partially emptied.
“We didn’t wait for you,” Yue Yaosa said, leaning on the edge of the bed and looking at Yue Fengjian as they walked past.
“I had a few things to discuss with Lian Zhidiao,” Yue Fengjian said, sitting down closer to the table.
“It’s good to take a break,” Liao Kuaiyu said, continuing to play quiet triplets on the ruan. “Shipei-shixiong told us you’d been working too hard again.”
Yue Fengjian glanced at Yue Shipei.
“He’s right,” Hu Baitian said in a tight voice.
“Oh, are you speaking on this, Hu Baitian?” Yue Yaosa said with a smile on her face. “You have been just as desperate to drown yourself in work.”
“A-Zhen,” Yue Shipei said, as if warning her not to take her teasing further.
Yue Yaosa’s smile melted away; she looked at Yue Fengjian and then went back to drinking.
To keep his hands busy, Lian Zhidiao picked up a cup and ladled out some huangjiu for Yue Fengjian, and then himself.
“You wanted to talk about a trip to Shengmen City,” Hu Baitian said.
“It may be better to speak of larger things first,” Yue Fengjian said, reaching out to take the cup in front of him.
“Oh?” Yue Shipei’s attention at last seemed to be pulled away from Hu Baitian.
“Mm,” Yue Fengjian said, looking around at them. “You remember that I had a meeting with Sect Leader Lin Buhuan while we were in Fenfang City.”
“You never did tell us what that was about.”
“I needed to discuss it with my honored father first,” Yue Fengjian said. “I spoke with him when we returned to Xuefeng. He sent letters to Lin Buhuan and to Yuan Zhuyan, and has been waiting for their replies.” Yue Fengjian drank from his cup. “Last week, he received a letter from Lin Buhuan expanding on the discussion I had with him. But from Yuan Zhuyan, he received nothing.”
Hu Baitian’s hands gathered into fists on his lap.
Yue Fengjian drained the last of his wine and then let out a small breath. “Instead, he received a letter from Yuan Shijun.”
“Yuan Zhuyan’s eldest son.” Yue Shipei glanced at Hu Baitian again. “What did it say?”
“What exactly, I do not know,” Yue Fengjian said. “But it convinced my honored father that larger efforts are needed to repel demons.”
“How large?” Yue Yaosa reached out to take the ladle of the wine vessel, filling a cup for herself and Liao Kuaiyu.
“All the sects.” Yue Fengjian said. “Lin, Yue, Yuan, Zhou, and Wa.”
Yue Shipei frowned. “The last time all the sects worked together was hundreds of years ago.”
Suggesting the sects unite for a cause isn’t a normal viewpoint right now, Lian Zhidiao thought. The Lin and the Yue worked together because of their common enemy to the west. The Yuan were a little more insulated from the Paling because of the high steppes that extended into Yuan lands, but gaining the support of the Wa and Zhou would be difficult, since they had little reason to care what was happening far to the west.
“A single sect has little hope of making any significant progress against the demons. Not when we have been losing land we held for centuries. We are crowded into smaller and smaller areas by land corrupted with deviate qi. If left unchecked, our borders may be pushed back to this very valley. They might even dare to assault the Quanyuan itself.”
Liao Kuaiyu slowly stopped playing while Yue Fengjian spoke and did not start playing again immediately. Everyone sat uncomfortably, the idea weighing down the air like a stone.
Yue Yaosa looked at Lian Zhidiao. “If he can cleanse jade beasts, then—”
“He can cleanse them, but he can’t fix them,” Liao Kuaiyu said, finally plucking out a pensive triplet on the ruan. “Isn’t that right?”
“Yeah,” Lian Zhidiao replied. He didn’t mention the personal cost of cleansing jade beasts: each one would bring him closer and closer to having the other core filled with deviate qi. It wasn’t like there was a ‘fill to here’ line, either. Lian Zhidiao might not lose his golden core through pollution and destabilization. But as a trade-off he was building an unpredictable bomb in his dantian.
“Lin Buhuan said that an increasing number of demons are being found in the Choking Wood. They fear that the demons have found a way to force the Wood to submit.”
“If that is the case, the natural barrier that protects the Lin sect in the south will be gone,” Yue Shipei pointed out.
Yue Fengjian nodded. “Struggling against the Wood and the small gap in the Paling already takes a large number of cultivators.”
Lian Zhidiao refilled Yue Fengjian’s cup.
Yue Yaosa drained her cup and set it down with a satisfied smacking of her lips. “So what are you suggesting we do?”
“Ask the sects for their support.” Yue Fengjian reclined on a cushion, cradling the new cup of huangjiu. “Lin Buhuan was impressed by our efforts at Sancha Town. The letter he sent to my honored father recognized the difficulties we would soon face. He said that he would support any efforts to strike first at the demons.”
“And Yuan Shijun?”
“His letter said he would meet with me to discuss it, but that any decisions would be up to his father.”
“Why didn’t his father send a letter?” Yue Yaosa mused out loud as she refilled her cup.
“I don’t know,” Yue Fengjian said. “But we will need to make a trip to the other sects to ask for their assistance, make arrangements for surveillance, consult with the Yuan oracle for a good time to lead an attack. Shengmen City should be our first stop.”
“Is he coming too?” Hu Baitian asked softly.
Lian Zhidiao felt cold and slightly sick as Hu Baitian’s eyes turned to look at him, his expression full of undisguised contempt.
“Yes,” Yue Fengjian said, without looking at Lian Zhidiao.
“I won’t go back to my home in the company of a liar and a thief,” Hu Baitian said, his voice hardening instantly. “You may have a face as thick as a mountain, but I don’t.” He stood up.
A liar and a thief? He means me!
Yue Shipei stood up as well. “Where are you going?”
“To bed. With respect, Yue Fengjian, I will leave in the morning to go home.”
“What?” Yue Shipei’s voice was soft now, sounding as if he was confronted with the possibility of losing something precious.
“Stop.” Lian Zhidiao hadn’t told the group about his ‘amnesia’, in an effort to limit how many people he had to keep track of when recounting the lie. But maybe saying that he couldn’t remember things might have at least given him some credibility when he didn’t know what was going on in situations like this. Still, his pride wouldn’t let Hu Baitian say whatever he liked. “You can’t just say something like that and leave.”
“What, did you at last develop a sense of shame for what you did? As if you could undo it with an apology or by prostrating yourself in front of me?” Hu Baitian sneered. “I can’t stay here any more. The sight of you sickens me.”
“Hu Baitian,” Yue Fengjian said, with a note of authority in his voice.
“I told you what he did.”
“The facts are well known by everyone.” Yue Fengjian glanced at Lian Zhidiao. “When he departed from his sect some years ago, you were accused of stealing a jade beast.”
“He accused me of stealing it, despite stealing it himself! And you still took him along!” Like lancing a boil, animosity and hatred that had festered for weeks flowed out of him. Hu Baitian’s face turned red, the rims of his eyes wet with anger. “He magically shows up with some skill that you need, and you just allow him to accompany you. I warned you in Shuangwan Village and you took him along anyway.”
“You act as though this is a simple problem that can be solved by taking one side, like a child dealing with a bully.” Yue Fengjian looked completely at ease, leaning back on his cushion.
“I don’t remember any—” Lian Zhidiao started.
“Do not say another word or I will cut out your tongue.” The intensity of Hu Baitian’s gaze made Lian Zhidiao close his mouth.
Lian Zhidiao dropped his eyes to the table, but he was keenly aware of how the blood had drained from his face. Not only had he gotten placed in the body of cannon fodder, he was scum cannon fodder. A member of the Wa sect, well known for qi deviations, and a thief and a liar besides? The cat in his carrying case must be the jade beast that Hu Baitian had been accused of stealing. Knowing that the cat couldn’t be returned and the offense materially set right made him feel even worse. The deviate qi in his other core began to stir.
“You don’t have to go,” Yue Shipei said, finding his voice at last. “You and Lian Zhidiao need never interact.”
Hu Baitian turned on Yue Shipei. “You want me to stay and work with the man who did all this to me and spit upon the shreds of what remaining dignity I have? You don’t care what he did to me because why should it affect you?”
Yue Shipei recoiled, as if he’d been slapped.
Hu Baitian leveled his livid gaze on Yue Fengjian. “And you! How can I continue to learn any techniques from you? What must you think of me?”
Yue Fengjian shook his head. “I think you’re telling the truth.”
“You can say that with certainty only because the Speakers proved it!”
“You can think that.” Yue Fengjian at last shifted into a seated position again, putting his empty cup on the table. “But I would have known that you are an honest man just from seeing how you act. Subjecting yourself to a Living Inquiry is not his fault.”
The Speakers. A Living Inquiry. An impartial enclave of the Yuan sect, the Speakers solved mysteries, usually murders, with information only the dead held. The recently deceased would be taken to an area of roaring earth and a secret technique used to interrogate the dead. As long as the spirit had not left this world, the dead could be made to answer questions. Or, if the body was still preserved, information could be directly obtained from the corpse. The entire set of processes was referred to as an Inquiry, regardless of which ones were used.
A Living Inquiry was simply one part of a standard Inquiry: obtaining information directly from the ‘corpse’, except in a Living Inquiry the ‘corpse’ was still alive. The subject was placed in a deep sleep by a specific preparation of herbs. Then a number of Speakers, chosen at random from their ranks, rifled through their memories. Like police going through CCTV tapes to see the facts of a crime, the Speakers exposed the experiences and emotions of the living subject. Every part of a person’s life, no matter how intimate, had to be examined.
Hu Baitian had been that desperate to have his name cleared…
“Your mother!” Hu Baitian swore. “He took any choice I had away from me! How could I hold my head up if everyone thought I’d stolen that jade beast?”
Lian Zhidiao winced at the curse, but his shame was so great he could not even raise his head to face Hu Baitian’s invective. How indeed, Lian Zhidiao thought, swallowing down the nausea that was rising in the back of his throat. I don’t blame you, Hu Baitian, not at all. I wouldn’t forgive me either.
“Hu Baitian.” Despite a tightness around his mouth, Yue Fengjian’s voice was measured and calm, completely unfazed by Hu Baitian’s wrath. “When you begged to follow me and learn from me, you asked what was most important in fighting demons. And I told you that the demons will not hold back, so the most important thing was using any means necessary.” The air was heavy between them, seething with tension. “If the hand that is offered to save your life is dirty, you still take it. Even though he is a thief and a liar, he has a useful ability that no one else does, something I need. I—we—cannot afford to throw that aside.”
“And when he goes into qi deviation? When he renders the entire city unlivable and kills all the crops in the fields? Is he still useful to you then?” Hu Baitian scoffed, finally turning to look at Lian Zhidiao. “I don’t know where you picked up your tricks with the jade beasts, but given what happens with everything else you touch, it would be better if they stayed broken.” He gave Lian Zhidiao a look like hot acid, and then walked out of the room.
Yue Shipei hesitated for a moment, looking at Yue Yaosa and then Yue Fengjian. After a heartbeat, he walked out after Hu Baitian, calling after him.
Silence pressed down on them like lead. Lian Zhidiao hung his head, wishing he could sink into the floor.
If this character was scum fodder, then there’s no chance of me surviving, is there? I won’t even get a heroic death. No wonder I didn’t remember his name—who remembers the name of a mob NPC?
Liao Kuaiyu started to pluck triplets again, letting out an exaggerated sigh.
“Don’t be flippant,” Yue Yaosa said, slapping his leg.
“I’m not,” Liao Kuaiyu said. “But how do you move on from that?”
“If he wants to go back home, let him,” Yue Fengjian said. “We can see him again in a few weeks when we go to Shengmen City. Maybe time will cool his head.”
“I don’t think so,” Lian Zhidiao said in a small voice. “I didn’t remember doing that to him, but—”
“There’s no point protesting like that,” Liao Kuaiyu said with a particularly vigorous strum. “He would only accept that if you underwent a Living Inquiry to prove it.”
Me? A Living Inquiry? Lian Zhidiao could only imagine the modern world with cars and the internet and webnovels being revealed to the Speakers. Would they treat him as a madman? Lock him away? Kill him? There was no telling what might happen. He shook his head mutely.
“I thought not.” Liao Kuaiyu began to pluck out a wistful melody.
“This isn’t right,” Yue Yaosa said, shaking her head. Lian Zhidiao could see her going over it in her head, examining different parts of what had happened and not being satisfied by any of them.
Yue Fengjian filled his cup of wine again, seemingly unconcerned.
“You don’t think that you’ve made a mistake?” Lian Zhidiao said softly. His heart twisted; he wanted to keep Yue Fengjian from making bad decisions. Without a Protagonist’s Halo, he would be completely exposed to grave harm in the event of Lian Zhidiao going into qi deviation. As if to emphasize, the deviate qi in the other core swirled slowly. “If I leave, then Hu Baitian will come back and it won’t be troublesome to you.”
Yue Fengjian gave him a searching look, his eyes probing every part of Lian Zhidiao’s face. And then he shook his head.
END OF XUEFENG-QILIN ARC
NEXT ARC: SHENGMEN CITY
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