True to his word, Hu Baitian left for Shengmen City the very next morning.
Lian Zhidiao wasn’t surprised by that, or by the news that Yue Shipei went with him. Though Yue Shipei’s efforts to convince Hu Baitian to stay had been unsuccessful, just letting him leave alone wasn’t in his nature either. Yue Shipei might have obvious loyalty to the Yue sect and affection for his cousin Yue Fengjian. But he also clearly cared a lot about his friend. In any case, he left a note with the location of the Hu family home in Shengmen City, where he’d be staying as a guest of Hu Baitian.
In the absence of Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei accompanying them, Lian Zhidiao thought that Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa might come along. He thought it would be fun to travel with them again. He had gotten used to Liao Kuaiyu’s reassuring (but smart-aleck) elder brother demeanor around the junior disciples. Yue Yaosa had a dependable, big-sisterly vibe about her, even though she was younger than Lian Zhidiao. Having those two along felt like nothing could possibly go wrong.
But a week before they were due to leave, Yue Yaosa announced that she and Liao Kuaiyu were definitely staying behind, at least until more Masters came out of seclusion. If another demon attack happened, they would need all the warriors that Xuefeng City could muster. Liao Kuaiyu’s magic would be especially helpful in defending a stronghold. Lian Zhidiao had to admit it made strategic sense. A repair mission and visit to a prospective wife shouldn’t take priority over the safety of the people. Then again, in the face of such a mighty threat, would there ever again be a time that was safe for the Yue cultivators to leave? With the sect this pressed for manpower, it seemed impossible that even one cultivator could be spared for non-essential travel.
To a casual observer, Yue Fengjian might have seemed unaffected by this almost complete abandonment, but to Lian Zhidiao, it seemed like his frown became even more deeply engraved on his face.
In the last days before they departed for Shengmen City, it dawned on Lian Zhidiao that situations like this were exactly why Yue Fengjian needed the help of the other sects. The Yue sect was spread too thinly as it was. Yue Fengjian needed to secure the assistance of the other sects at any cost. What better way to do so than a series of political marriages? As much as Lian Zhidiao needed his sword repaired, this was potentially an even more necessary trip for Yue Fengjian.
He has to make sure the Yuan sect will help. It will be more difficult for him since he has slapped the Hu family in the face by refusing to dismiss me, and so it’s all the more crucial that things go right.
Lian Zhidiao thought back on the plot of Supreme Warlord of the Beast World. What was wrong with the Yuan sect? What problem had Yue Fengjian solved? But no matter how he tried, all he could recall was that it had something to do with the Beauty Yuan Shi’an’s father and an illness. In the thread of ‘Supreme Warlord new chapter discussion’ on the forums, there were plenty of people discussing how boring the arc was, because there wasn’t any demon-thrashing action. It was true that he hadn’t been good at writing intrigue—he had still been a novice writer, after all. But the experience of being awarded a decidedly ‘meh’ reaction to his first attempt at an intrigue plot made him watch more palace intrigue dramas to get a better handle on how the tropes worked. In the end, he hadn’t gotten any better at writing intrigue and just ended up with a bad binge-watching habit that made it harder for him to write his scheduled chapters.
The night before they were to leave, Lian Zhidiao spent the night in Yue Fengjian’s quarters again, sleeping on the bed he’d used when he first arrived. A perversely petty part of him wanted to see what would happen if they had another meal with Lady Gao, but he and Yue Fengjian ate in private that night. It made Lian Zhidiao even more certain that Lady Gao only had ‘family style’ meals when it suited her schemes, and not when she wanted to spend time with her family. He pitied Yue Fengjian’s future wives, having to march into this lioness’ den unprepared.
The flight to Shengmen City took a week. They followed the Sanma River Valley south and east as it wound through the mountains. This far downstream, some parts of the river were still wild, with white-capped rapids and waterfalls. For the most troublesome areas, canals had been dug, and heavy barges were towed upstream using oxen and long ropes. Twisting up the northern mountain sides above the Sanma was the Red Highway, which directly connected Xuefeng City with the Imperial City. From above, the Red Highway was a ribbon of white stone that followed the curves of the mountains, sometimes so narrow as to be obscured by trees. Putting in the Red Highway must have required some impressive engineering, compared with the ease of building a road over the mostly flat land of the Lin sect.
Each night, they landed in river port towns to sleep, often in rooms that had only one bed. Before, Lian Zhidiao might have thought nothing of the jittery feeling in his stomach, or chalked it up to a generalized sense of anxiety about his situation in a strange-yet-familiar world. But ever since acknowledging the way that Yue Fengjian’s presence made his heart flutter, he had become hyperaware of everything that Yue Fengjian did. There was no more secret pining for Yue Fengjian’s hand to brush his in passing—Yue Fengjian was now constantly in contact with him. His arm around Lian Zhidiao’s waist as they flew was just a safety precaution, as it had been since the beginning. Maybe it was because of the relationships that had been damaged by keeping Lian Zhidiao around, but his hold seemed even more protective than it had been before. Yue Fengjian had also taken to reaching out to tuck a few wind-tossed strands of hair behind his ear when they landed. He even offered to brush out his hair one night, which Lian Zhidiao politely declined on account of not being sure he could control his reaction.
All this in addition to constantly sharing a bed (and frequently, a bath), the trip was damn near torture. At the beginning of this trip, Lian Zhidiao was merely aware that Yue Fengjian made him happy in ways that were hard to put into words. By the end of it, he had a full-blown crush with no hope that his feelings would ever be reciprocated. Better than anyone, he knew what was waiting for Yue Fengjian at the end of the book.
They reached Shengmen City as the sun set. Shengmen City itself was built at a strategic point where the river cut through the highlands at the edge of the high steppes on its way to the floodplains downstream. The city itself was nestled in a valley that drained the western watershed. The areas south and east of the city were dominated by heavy agricultural use, growing mostly millet and vegetables, with flooded rice fields along the river. To the west, a high hogback ridge sheltered the city from the cold wind that howled down across the steppes. Nestled in one of the canyons of the hogback was the Sacred Gate to the Hidden Realm, from which the city got its name.
The buildings were a mixture of earthen walls, stone, and timber, building heights varying across the city so that the pale rooftiles formed a glittering patchwork of golden light and blue shadow. The White Highway approached from the south, a perfectly straight stripe of snow-white stone that cut through the fields and led to a round timber-framed building in the center of the city. The home of Shengmen City’s Great Jade Beast, no doubt.
Near the Sacred Gate, cultivators on their swords were as thick as dragonflies over a lake. There were a variety of inns that catered to cultivators coming to repair or obtain their spiritual weapons; all five colors were present on the street when they landed. A few cultivators in black turned to look at the sight of one of their own jumping down from the sword of a Yue cultivator. Their stares needled at him, but Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes on Yue Fengjian’s broad back as they walked into the courtyard of an inn with red-trimmed eaves. A troupe of musicians had set up in the courtyard, and was playing lively music as some of the inn’s patrons got to the evening’s drinking.
The innkeeper was clearly torn between showing his displeasure at Lian Zhidiao’s presence and pleasing the Yue sect leader’s son. In the end, he chose the latter, giving them two adjoining rooms that were finely appointed. The cook was well-trained, producing both the heavily spiced dishes of the northern Yue and a fresh, delicately-flavored cuisine that Lian Zhidiao had to assume was the specialty of the Yuan sect.
Then two young men that wore no sect color (but seemed friendly with the musicians) began to cajole a third into singing, plying him with wine.
“You know which one we want to hear,” one of the two men said.
“There’s been so much excitement,” the other said. “But we leave for the coast in the morning, so it’s almost time to sleep. It would help this younger brother to hear something to quiet down my heart.”
Thus charmed by the thought of helping to put his junior to bed, the young man stood up and walked over to the musicians. After speaking to them in low tones and paying them some coin, the musicians began to play accompaniment on their instruments. It was a lingering, soft ballad, like a love song, but from the beginning there was an undercurrent of sorrow. The young man’s voice had a tone like a bell; it was clear why his two friends had bullied him into singing.
The bee had honey, fine and sweet
The butterfly had none to eat
The bee let the butterfly share his seat
In the Rainbow Valley where the flowers grow
The bee and the butterfly lived so fair
Tending their garden of orchids with care
But hives must have lilies to bring forth an heir
Down in the Valley where the rivers flow
Something about the song seemed familiar to Lian Zhidiao, as if it was a melody he should know, hummed by a man who didn’t exist, long ago in a dream he once had. He glanced at Yue Fengjian next to him, only to find that his gaze was distant, caught up in the story the song wove around the men in the courtyard, like a spell.
The bee knew his duty; he sought a blue queen
A wedding planned for spring’s first green
The butterfly in jet kept a mournful mien
In the Rainbow Valley under whitest snow
Fain would the garden have suffered two kings
Alas, the bee died of jealousy’s stings
Killed by a hornet with butterfly wings
Down in the Valley with the jade below
Near the end of the song, the young man’s two friends were weeping quietly, so beautiful was the performance and so tragic the ending. Lian Zhidiao wasn’t immune either. Something haunting was hidden in the notes, in the clear sound of a young man’s voice, in the betrayal after so much good had been shared.
Yue Fengjian stood up, and his expectant pause indicated that Lian Zhidiao should stand as well.
Their rooms were small but richly appointed, at least as nice as the Pavilion in the Lin palace. In the front was a sumptuous parlor, where they could take tea or be served meals without associating with the other inn patrons. In the back, a sleeping chamber large enough for Yue Fengjian and two or three attendants. But it was just the two of them, moving quietly in the awkward silence the tragic ballad had made.
“You will go to the Yuan sect tomorrow, I imagine?” Lian Zhidiao said.
“…Yuan Shijun has agreed to meet me tomorrow afternoon.” Yue Fengjian unbelted his robes, his voice heavy.
Lian Zhidiao froze midway through taking off his own belt. So he’ll go to speak to his future brother-in-law tomorrow. It was already scheduled. It had to be done. But it made a knot of dread in Lian Zhidiao’s stomach. “Why wait until the afternoon?”
“It shouldn’t take long for your sword to be repaired in the Hidden Realm,” Yue Fengjian said.
“You’re coming with me?”
“I carried you here, I won’t just stop before the work is finished,” Yue Fengjian said. He threw a teasing look over his shoulder, the funereal mood at last lifting off their heads.
“I should think it would not be difficult to walk the rest of the way,” Lian Zhidiao sniffed, turning his back while he shrugged out of his robes. A hot feeling bloomed on his back, as if he was the target of lustful intent, but when he dared to look at Yue Fengjian, he found the other had already settled down on his bed, with the rolled pillow under his head as he stared at the ceiling.
I must be imagining things.
“I may take some time at the Yuan residence,” Yue Fengjian said in a resigned voice.
“I would accompany you, if you wanted.”
“It’s just a marriage meeting. It would be strange if a man couldn’t handle the stress of something as trivial as that,” Yue Fengjian said, turning his head to look across the room at Lian Zhidiao.
Lian Zhidiao’s movements slowed as he got into bed. “Even if a man was blissfully happy with the idea of marrying his future wife,” he said haltingly, “some nervousness would be understandable.”
“You’re speaking from experience.”
“Me? No,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled. “I didn’t have anything like that.” Yue Fengjian stayed quiet for a moment, opening a space for him to keep talking. “My older brother had some, though. Even for someone like him with so much to offer, he was still nervous.”
Lian Zhidiao turned on his side, measuring the distance between his bed and Yue Fengjian’s. It was only a few steps away. Not far at all. He creased his lower lip with his teeth. “Anyway, it will be good to just get it out of the way, I imagine.”
“Yeah,” Yue Fengjian said.
“The plans you’re making, for all of the sects to come together to fight demons…”
“What do you think you’ll do after that?”
“If you’re trying to get at why I’m keeping you around, I intend to put your ability to work sooner rather than later. There are jade beasts in our lands that were simply broken, not destroyed. Like the snake. Once your sword is repaired, it will be easy for you to find them without anyone else’s help.”
Lian Zhidiao thought of the nausea, the chilled fatigue, that unsettling feeling whenever a little bit of deviate qi dropped into his other core like a slug of tar. Doing that over and over again, to cleanse who knew how many jade beasts as they prised them from forgotten forests. Could his other core even hold that much deviate qi? Did it matter, if he was willing to do it anyway? Lian Zhidiao spoke up, his voice soft. “Cleansing the land will push the Paling back to where it was hundreds of years ago. Are you satisfied with that? Or would you want more?”
Across the room, Yue Fengjian turned to face him, his eyes sliding sideways up the legs of Lian Zhidiao’s bed to rest on his face. There was a pause before he spoke, an unmistakeable space where Yue Fengjian sidestepped a more self-serving interpretation. “What do you mean by that?”
“Would you want to claim some of the demon lands as your own? Or deal their forces a crippling blow?”
“That’s more than what I’m asking the other sects to help with. I have thought of it, but…” He shook his head, looking at the floor again. “It doesn’t make sense to plan a second war when the first one hasn’t begun.”
“You’ll be successful,” Lian Zhidiao said quietly.
The corner of Yue Fengjian’s mouth turned up in a half-smile, making Lian Zhidiao’s heart speed up. “Your confidence in me is appreciated.”
Lian Zhidiao gave him a small smile in return. There was no way to say why he knew it would be the case, that Yue Fengjian would be the next Red Emperor, but… “You have the strength needed to push the Paling west as far as your sword can carry you. Nothing will stand in the way of what you desire. You only have to reach out and take it.”
Yue Fengjian’s smile faded slowly and then he shifted in bed, settling on his back. “Get some sleep. I won’t keep Yuan Shijun waiting tomorrow.”
Lian Zhidiao got up and blew out the lamp, finding his way back to his bed by feeling what was in front of him. He listened, hearing the streets of Shengmen City quiet down, and the time of night beaten out on drums for the night watch. He waited to hear Yue Fengjian’s breathing to slow and deepen. But he fell asleep himself long before Yue Fengjian.
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