Lian Zhidiao carried his rusted sword gingerly, its weight unfamiliar in his hand. Even though they were up and on their way as the sky changed from grey to blue, there were already dozens of people crowding the streets. Most weren’t wearing sect colors, but there were cultivators already up and moving at this hour. Doubtless many of them had business at the Sacred Gate. Many food carts were set up to capture early-morning business. Lian Zhidiao, remembering that Yue Fengjian tended to ignore eating properly when left to his own devices, suggested they eat breakfast together. Yue Fengjian agreed, but Lian Zhidiao noticed him giving longing glances to the cart of a zongzi vendor as they walked by.
The local breakfast specialty was rice noodles in a subtle, salty broth with pickled vegetables. There were concessions to the widely-traveled cultivators, who could add spices, chilies, extra oil, or meat and eggs, according to their tastes. Yue Fengjian added spices and meat, while Lian Zhidiao added more pickles and chilies. It was possible to just hop on a sword and fly wherever one needed to go, but finding a place to land in the crowded streets required finesse and more than a little luck. Therefore, everyone seemed committed to walking short distances. The two weren’t exactly slow in eating, but in the few minutes it took to slurp down some noodles, the streets became much busier. They hurried ahead, walking toward the ridge.
This side of Shengmen City had a time-worn look, built of the same strong gray sandstone as the hills. The streets were narrower, and the oldest buildings had softened edges, with unfamiliar decorative motifs above their doorways and scrolling under the eaves. Windows were smaller, barely large enough for a child or small woman to get through, and higher up on the walls. A kind of architecture that spoke of a long-past but serious threat of banditry.
These buildings must be from a time before the sects had such tight control over their territories. Lian Zhidiao was amazed again by the implications of his world fleshing itself out again. One day, if he had time, he would love to read a history of it.
Following the cultivators’ foot traffic made clear which street led to the Sacred Gate. As they got closer, the walls of storehouses and weathered siheyuan funneled them toward an enormous, ancient gatehouse with five gates, each painted in a different color: red, blue, white, green, and black. The Wa gate wasn’t too busy, the only people there were a small group of juniors and two inner disciples who were clearly their chaperones. The inner disciples were already through the gate and waiting for their charges to be allowed in. Occasional drumbeats echoed in the distance.
“Meet me on the other side,” Yue Fengjian said, walking toward the red gate.
Lian Zhidiao nodded, and watched him leave. His height and broad shoulders made him instantly recognizable, even at a distance; it wouldn’t be hard to find him again. With frequent glances at the red gate, Lian Zhidiao ambled toward the black, wishing they could have stayed together.
Two clerks in gray and white robes were seated at high desks, taking down the particulars of entrants and sending runners out with each name given to them.
Lian Zhidiao hardly noticed; he was lost in thought until a voice snapped him back to reality.
The question was asked of a junior in front of him and a sudden surge of anxiety blotted out whatever answer the junior gave from his mind. What questions are they going to ask me to see about repairing my sword? Will they let me in if I can’t remember? Why did I put so many minor characters in my novel, if none of them were important enough to have their swords named?!
Then the clerk was finished with the junior, who rejoined his friends, chattering excitedly. It was Lian Zhidiao’s turn.
The clerk did not lift his head. “Name?”
“Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao,” he replied.
“Oh, yes,” the clerk said, a slight lift to his eyebrow, as if he had suddenly come across a challenging puzzle. “Fengxueya, right?”
The Sharp Edge of the Crescent Moon?
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao replied, his heart racing. What luck!
“And the reason for your visit?”
“Repairing my sword,” Lian Zhidiao managed. “I…fell into a river and it has gotten rust on it.”
The clerk smiled, marking down the name with a thin brush on a slip of paper. “Fengxueya, sword renewal.” He handed the paper off to a young boy, who took off out a side door with the message. Then he turned back to Lian Zhidiao, his smile lingering. “Perhaps Lian-gongzi does not remember me, but I remember him.”
“I’m fortunate to make your acquaintance again,” Lian Zhidiao smiled back, cupping his hands in front of him.
The clerk’s smile faded slightly, replaced by a gentle blush on his cheeks. Wordlessly, he waved Lian Zhidiao through, into the gatehouse.
The windows at the top of the enormous gatehouse were open, but they were so small that the floor was still dark. The great room was further partitioned with screens and low walls into a series of small, semi-private parlors. Lanterns lit at each occupied alcove revealed seating cushions and low tables for those cultivators waiting their turn to approach the Sacred Gate. A low hum pervaded the space, as the soft conversation in the common room of a library, with the occasional pouring of tea and a clink of cups.
While walking through the aisles between parlors, Lian Zhidiao realized to his great relief that members of all sects were in the alcoves. He need not have worried about being separated from Yue Fengjian. He didn’t see many Yue cultivators, but Yuan cultivators were well represented, their alcoves disciplined and serious. There were also several parties of Lin cultivators, who seemed to travel in larger groups. The Zhou sect had but two separate parties, a single cultivator and a pair. There was something habitual about the entirely-too-comfortable way they reclined in their parlors. The Wa sect was similarly sparse: it was only himself and the other party of outer and inner disciples. He caught a glimpse of the two inner disciples as he walked by.
They wore stunningly thin robes. There were other black clothes underneath, but these were thinly woven as well. Each one of them wore at least three layers, and yet their bodies didn’t seem hidden at all. Like Lian Zhidiao, they were covered up to their necks, but the cut of their robes was trim. Their see-through dachang and beizi, fancifully embroidered, barely added any modesty.
If this is what the average inner disciple wears, then…
Lian Zhidiao kept walking down the aisle, but his fingers drifted to the collar of his robes, the ones Yue Fengjian had gifted him. Compared to those ‘legit’ Wa sect disciples, his new robes may have been black in color, but they were made in a decidedly Yue style, completely opaque. Well, being more modest was fine with him.
It’s not like I want anyone to see my body, anyway.
A hand reached out from a parlor and caught his sleeve. Yue Fengjian’s familiar low voice reached his ears. “Are you looking for someone?”
Lian Zhidiao let out a sigh of relief at having finally found him. “It’s really dark in here.”
“Sit down already. We’ll be waiting for a while.” Yue Fengjian’s hand was resting on the top of the door frame. He leaned back into the alcove, sitting back down just inside the doorway. There was a step up into the parlor, which Lian Zhidiao didn’t see in the darkness. The toe of his boot caught the edge of it, and he stumbled forward.
Yue Fengjian reached out to catch him, but he landed half-in, half-out of Yue Fengjian’s lap. “Oof!”
Lian Zhidiao lay paralyzed, his stomach against Yue Fengjian’s thigh, ass high in the air.
How do I get out of this?? Do I get on my knees, definitely putting my butt in his face? Drag myself forward and dirty him with my boots before an important meeting? Try to worm backwards and get up? I should have gone around the other way! Who put a step in such a stupid place? It’s not even marked with caution tape!
“I… I didn’t see the step.”
“Never mind that.” Yue Fengjian clicked his tongue. “Are you going to just stay like that?”
To Lian Zhidiao’s ears, there was something like a threat in Yue Fengjian’s words. At the profoundly embarrassing thought of Yue Fengjian staring at his ass in his lap, he finally just dragged himself forward, so that at least his shame could be contained in just one little closet-like room.
Yue Fengjian straightened his robes with short, irritated movements. “They’ll bring tea in a moment.”
Lian Zhidiao, wishing he had more grace than a three-day-old kitten, nodded.
A young servant brought their tea, and they sipped it in silence that strangely became more comfortable the longer it went on. Lian Zhidiao had no desire to talk (ever again, to anyone, in this life or the next) and Yue Fengjian closed his eyes, resting against the wall. Maybe he hadn’t slept well? As the minutes passed, Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but look at Yue Fengjian wistfully, his heart aching for what would happen later that afternoon in the Yuan family palace. A momentary thought of dragging the sword renewal out as long as possible crossed his mind, but then he rejected it. Even if the thought of Yue Fengjian marrying Yuan Shi’an was like a stone in his guts, he had no more right to stop him than he had to stop the sun from rising. His place was to support Yue Fengjian.
The hours passed, slowly at first, and then quickly. Then, around noon, they were called.
Behind the gatehouse, there was a large courtyard partially paved with smooth white stone. On the left, the rock face was left exposed, with soft-edged calligraphy as deep as his arm was long engraved into the gray sandstone.
Any cultivator without a spiritual weapon may enter the Sacred Gate.
Any cultivator with a spiritual weapon may not enter the Sacred Gate.
Any cultivator with a damaged spiritual weapon may have it renewed.
Any cultivator with a spiritual weapon that is not their own may deposit that weapon in the Hidden Realm.
The rest is the province of the Judge.
In the center of the courtyard, the white stone paving stopped short of a strange stone formation: in a narrow cut through a canyon, two great spans of sandstone leaned against each other in a high, steepled point. The shadowed canyon beyond was inaccessible except through a small triangular opening underneath the stones that suggested a keyhole. The raw spiritual power in the air forced a hush on those first entering its presence. This was a primeval space, one that had called to humanity for millennia, or longer. It commanded respect, even fear.
To the right, there was a long building with a gallery; it was worn, but looked positively modern juxtaposed with the feeling of deep time from the Sacred Gate. The doors and shutters were pulled back so that the courtyard was visible to the gallery’s occupants. Three clerks sat at a lower level, with scrolls in front of them and pillows on a table next to them. Above the clerks sat a Yuan cultivator, a silk fan in his hand keeping his hair fluttering. As he watched, a gray-robed man collected something long and thin from the threshold of the Sacred Gate and delivered it to a clerk at the edge of the gallery. When he was finished, the clerk returned to his workstation, and the single Zhou cultivator he was assisting. The gray-robed man resumed his post at a skin drum in the courtyard, holding his sticks at the ready. A dozen or so Yuan cultivators, dressed in shimmering white, stood as solemn guards.
Although the Sacred Gate of the Hidden Realm had no ‘official’ sect affiliation, its presence in the Yuan sect capital made it impossible to completely separate it from that sect. Likewise, the Speakers, though technically impartial, were also not completely separate from the Yuan sect. Though the White Emperor’s death two centuries before had left the cultivation world headless, the Yuan sect’s proximity to the Hidden Realm still afforded them a great deal of power in the cultivation world.
One of the clerks beckoned to them. He had two slips of paper in front of him; Lian Zhidiao recognized the one that had been sent from the clerk at the black gate. A scroll with red silk was unrolled at the clerk’s writing surface. The wooden tag hanging off of one end said ‘Wallbreaker’. Another scroll with black silk lay in a tray on the corner of his desk.
“Yue Fengjian, with Wallbreaker.”
Yue Fengjian placed his shuangshou jian on the table, on the pillows provided.
“Lian Zhidiao, with the Sharp Edge of the Crescent Moon.”
Lian Zhidiao followed Yue Fengjian’s lead, placing his sword on the other set of pillows on the table in front of them. It was kind of cute, treating swords like little girls treated their dollies, letting them rest on pillows.
“Yue Fengjian, you are here as a guest of… Lian Zhidiao of the Wa sect?” The clerk registered obvious surprise at the words he was reading off the slip of paper in front of him. “And you have no reason to seek renewal of your sword?”
“That’s correct,” Yue Fengjian said.
With a satisfied nod, the clerk took up his brush and began to make a note in Wallbreaker’s scroll.
Lian Zhidiao craned his neck a little bit to see if he could read what was being written, but when the clerk shot him an acerbic look, he quickly looked away.
The clerk lifted his hand and a young girl scurried forward, her head bowed. “Take this to the drying rack,” the clerk ordered. She held the open scroll out in front of her and walked away, as carefully as if she was carrying a tray of tea to a princess.
So they keep records of when the swords return to them. He looked at the black silk around Fengxueya’s scroll as the clerk unrolled it. They probably have the swords of living cultivators separated out, color-coded by sect, so there’s not a long delay in finding it when someone arrives with a sword.
“Lian Zhidiao, you are here to have your sword renewed.”
“Then you may go and renew the sword in the Sacred Realm,” the clerk said, gesturing to a set of doors marked with the phases of the moon, at the end of the building gallery.
Lian Zhidiao stood and collected his sword from its resting place atop the sword pillows before walking with it to the set of doors. When he passed through the doors, the gray-robed man in the courtyard beat the skin drum twice.
Oh, is that what the drumbeats were for? To announce when someone goes up?
Beyond the doors, a set of winding stairs in a windowless tower went up and up and up. At last, when he reached the top, there was another set of doors, emblazoned with the rays of the sun.
There was no protection for him once he left the tower: it spit him onto the highlands of the canyon without so much as a spot of shade. A small pavilion sheltered another Yuan sect cultivator, and another man with a skin drum. Before him, the canyon was a fissure, a winding, splitting gash in the earth. Set atop it, a bottomless bronze bowl three meters across, lotus-edged, that would render the contents down into the canyon below.
“Place your weapon into the lotus,” the Yuan sect cultivator said, a touch of boredom in his voice.
Lian Zhidiao swallowed down his nerves and walked to the rim of the bowl, which came up to his waist. He gave the sword another small tug, but it remained stuck fast. He made a face.
Don’t know why I thought it would suddenly spring free now.
Lian Zhidiao placed Fengxueya into the lotus, on sun-heated bronze that made the air above it dance. Slowly, smoothly, the sword slid away from him, as if being carried away by the current of a river. It floated down to the hole at the bottom of the bowl and dropped noiselessly out of sight.
Behind him, two heavy drumbeats from the man with the skin drum.
“Go back down,” the Yuan cultivator said. “Your sword will be waiting for you.”
“Is that it?”
“That’s it,” the Yuan cultivator responded. “Hurry up, there are others waiting.”
Lian Zhidiao cupped his hands and then went back down the stairs, suddenly awash in giddy excitement, like he was about to open a birthday present.
At the bottom of the stairs, he opened the door to curious looks from the clerks, and the Yuan cultivator’s fan had stilled.
“I’ve searched, my lord cultivator,” came a voice in the courtyard. The man at the skin drum had laid aside his sticks and gone to collect the renewed sword at the Sacred Gate. Slowly, the Yuan cultivator got to his feet, his eyes keenly trained on the man in the gray robe in the courtyard. The man in the courtyard looked up at the clerk, and then at the Yuan cultivator above him, the Judge presiding over the Sacred Gate. “There is nothing here at all.”