Lian Zhidiao looked helplessly at the gray-robed man in the courtyard.
That can’t be right. I put the sword in at the top, I watched it go in, it went in—
“Call him down.” The Yuan sect Judge did not even spare Lian Zhidiao a glance. “We must be sure no mistakes have been made.”
The man in the courtyard beat three times on the skin drum.
“What does that mean?” Lian Zhidiao looked between the clerk and the Judge, but they were exchanging their own meaningful glances as they waited for a response from the Yuan cultivator on top of the canyon. Getting no acknowledgment from the clerk or the Judge, his eyes sought Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian’s frown was deeper than Lian Zhidiao had ever seen it. Leveled first at the clerk and the Judge, discussing the situation under their breath, and then at Lian Zhidiao. Lian Zhidiao hoped to see that scowl soften, but it didn’t. If anything, his gaze on Lian Zhidiao was more piercing than before. It looked like there would be no help from him, no one to sweep in and demand to know what was going on.
The other clerks had stopped working, their papers still in front of them. Their eyes were on the Judge. The Yuan sect cultivator from the top of the canyon walked through the doors, his expression annoyed, but only a moment of conversation behind his sleeve with the Judge changed his face again. He looked at Lian Zhidiao with open suspicion, then eyed the Judge sidelong and shook his head before walking down the gallery toward the gatehouse.
This does not look good…
Lian Zhidiao followed him with his eyes. Yue Fengjian moved to the side as he passed. Perhaps Yue Fengjian at last saw the rising fear on his face, because he shook his head once he caught Lian Zhidiao’s eyes again.
Before he realized an order had been given, the Yuan cultivators that had been standing guard were closing in slowly, their weapons held at the ready.
Not good at all.
Lian Zhidiao turned to find the cold, serious gaze of the Judge bearing down on him. His mouth went dry. His voice was very small. “What is happening?”
But the Judge only answered him with a nod to the guards.
The first pair caught his arms, binding his waist with white rope that shone like woven glass. Lian Zhidiao didn’t struggle until his perception of his golden core—and the other core—winked out, like someone turning off the lights.
“What are you doing?!”
The guards held him fast. “Quiet!” one of them snarled.
“Yue Fengjian!” The name spilled out of his lips, though he was now totally surrounded by Yuan cultivators. They crushed him between them, holding him immobile with their bodies. He could feel hands snaking around his waist again, pushing him into place. Hands stirred his robes around his ankles, and ropes were cinched tight. Then his arms were clamped with jade manacles, and all his perception of qi circulating in his meridians disappeared. He could not have spun a spell nor stepped on a sword. It was like just being… normal. Like he had been in his former life, with no golden vessel alight inside him. He had gotten used to the shine and shadow of the twin cores inside him. The horror of feeling it just… vanish from his perception of his self took all the fight out of him. He sagged against the Yuan cultivators who held him.
“Keep his feet under him,” one said.
“Stand up!” The one behind him warned.
“What are you doing to him?” Yue Fengjian’s angry voice reached him through the crush of bodies. Lian Zhidiao lifted his head, his eyes directed at the ceiling. He couldn’t even catch a glimpse of the top of Yue Fengjian’s ponytail.
“Calm down,” the Judge said dispassionately. “And watch.”
The Yuan sect cultivators stepped back from around him, revealing the harness of white ropes that made a pattern over his black robes. Two more white ropes—qi-binding cables—were attached to the heavy jade manacles on his wrists. Lian Zhidiao looked miserably at Yue Fengjian, but he could now see that two Yuan cultivators were holding him back at swordpoint. Upon seeing his face, Yue Fengjian started forward again, but Lian Zhidiao shook his head.
Yue Fengjian, you can’t. You can’t help me and you shouldn’t.
Yue Fengjian clenched his jaw—Lian Zhidiao’s message had been received loud and clear—and stepped back from the swords of the Yuan guards.
The Yuan behind Lian Zhidiao pushed him forward. “Walk.”
Hobbled, Lian Zhidiao shuffled down from the gallery into the courtyard. The guards put their hands on his shoulders to make him kneel on the white stone. Two of them on either side pulled his arms out from his sides.
Then the Judge stepped down from the gallery, wielding a hard whip made of jade carved to resemble a willow branch. He held it ready at his side like a man approaching a snarling dog.
I have to get control of this situation somehow.
“My lord Arbiter, this foolish young man does not know why he has been treated thusly,” Lian Zhidiao managed, his eyes following that whip.
“Irregularities are… uncommon at the Sacred Gate,” the Judge said in a clipped tone. “As such, this jade tool will determine if you are or are not a demon.”
‘Jade tool’!? It’s as big as a sword!
“He’s not a demon!”
The Yuan Judge looked at Yue Fengjian sidelong, his cool never wavering. Lian Zhidiao gave the jade whip a distrustful stare, which he shifted to the Judge’s detached face. It appeared that if things had gotten this far, then there was nothing he could do to stop this from happening without making it worse for them both. He looked at Yue Fengjian, who was being threatened once again by the swords of the Yuan cultivators. Despite the live steel being brandished in front of his face, his eyes never left Lian Zhidiao. Defeated, Lian Zhidiao hung his head. “This young man understands,” he said slowly.
“Good,” the Judge replied. “Then this will not be difficult.”
Qi filled the jade whip; it gave off a luminous glow, even under the noonday sun. A part of Lian Zhidiao’s mind that was trying not to focus on the situation noted that it looked a lot like a beam saber from a popular science-fiction series.
The Judge stepped behind him. The cultivators on the ropes pulled his arms up. Lian Zhidiao fixed his eyes on a blemish in the white stone and waited.
The jade whip came from his left, hitting his guts with enough force that his vision sparkled at the edges. A small cough of pain was all he could manage. The next blow came from his right, a heavy slug that hit the same place on his stomach and knocked the wind out of him. His vision went black. He rocked forward, all his weight pulling on the ropes. Then one last strike fell across his back, viciously laid across his taut shoulders.
The ropes went slack, and Lian Zhidiao sagged to the ground. He struggled to take a breath, even as the Yuan cultivators stepped forward to inspect the Judge’s work.
“Good,” the Judge said, sounding satisfied, but very far away. “Take him to my palace. See that he…”
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t hear the rest; he had already passed out.
Some time later, he began to come around, fighting off the heavy pull of unconsciousness. He was lying on something hard and unyielding. His body rocked back and forth; he was being carried.
“Mind his head.” The Judge again.
The question fell out of him with a breath, barely voiced. “Where…”
He heard the scrape of a shoe close to him, and then the smell of sandalwood and cinnamon surrounded him. A cool fingertip touched his forehead. “You’re not yet ready to wake up.” The Judge’s voice again, surprisingly soft. The cool touch broadened; his whole hand rested on Lian Zhidiao’s forehead. “Sleep a little longer.”
And then, with those words, Lian Zhidiao felt suddenly as if he could do nothing but sleep. The blackness washed over him and pulled him under.
The next time he awoke, it was to the scent of camphor wood incense. He opened his eyes, Wherever he was, it was too dark to see. He was resting in a bed, with a pillow under his head. He still had no sense of his golden core or his meridians. His wrists were heavy, weighted by the jade manacles. Fire raced through his midsection when he tried to move further.
That Judge! What a piece of work!
Prepared for the pain this time, Lian Zhidiao lifted one manacled hand, and tried his legs; he wasn’t physically bound in any way, but he sure didn’t feel like moving was a good idea either. Was it night, or was he just someplace where light couldn’t reach? How much time had passed? Was Yue Fengjian okay?
That jade tool…
Anything made of jade could potentially be a spiritual tool. There were other spiritual tools in novels or dramas that had similar effects, dispelling evil spirits with one blow, or breaking enchantments or sorceries. But in this world, jade itself seemed to have unique, almost magical properties. The spindle-weights could spin elemental power out of his own qi, the jade whip could reveal demons. Given the number of undead, there were probably jade tools that worked on ghosts and corpses.
Fundamentally, I am a ghost possessing this body, aren’t I? Until I know better, I should try to avoid spirit-exorcising charms or things of that nature. Given the way we dispatched the recently undead in Sancha Town, I should count myself lucky that I haven’t been exorcised already.
The light changed as a cloud moved; there was weak moonlight, the moon still in its first phase. But his eyes were so used to the dark that he noticed it immediately. He was in a fully-enclosed bed, with the hangings around it left slightly open to allow the incense inside. Turning his head, he could see the silhouette of pillars and window openings, and a set of doors as a dark blot. Faintly, he became aware of the sound of grass rustling in a breeze.
Not a prison cell, not dead. Lian Zhidiao sighed, wincing even as he breathed out. But the Yuan don’t like the Wa, so there’s not any particular reason he should be this kind to me other than maybe feeling bad for beating the daylight out of me. Why do I feel like that isn’t the end of it?
His eyelids drifted closed.
The sound of someone in his room woke him. The camphor incense had finished burning hours ago but the scent lingered in his bedclothes and his hair. He opened his eyes; the room was fairly bright. Beyond the screens he could see the green of a garden. He shifted in bed.
“Is Lian-gongzi awake?” The voice of a woman, barely older than a girl, but he couldn’t see her from the bed.
Lian Zhidiao opened his mouth, wanting to speak, but his tongue felt like a wadded up towel. “Is there something to drink?” he croaked.
“Oh!” Her footsteps scurried away, but Lian Zhidiao heard the unmistakable sound of the door closing firmly, and a bar set in front of it. He closed his eyes. A security bar was not really a feature of a room for honored guests.
The dryness in his mouth was unbearable.
Then, the sound of the bar being pulled aside. Like a fairy goddess appearing out of nowhere, the young woman brought him a cup. He pushed himself up on one elbow and gulped down half of its contents before he realized how very bitter it was. Suspicious, his eyes lifted to the young woman. “What’s in this?”
She refused to meet his eyes. “This foolish girl does not know—”
“Medicine. I heard my Master give orders that it be mixed into whatever you drank.” Another young woman’s voice, this one considerably less timid, came from outside the room. He saw the silhouette of another maid’s head outside, her hair tied up on her head.
The first young woman hissed over her shoulder. “Jiejie!”
“Whatever, look at how thirsty he is. It’s not like he’s going to stop drinking it.”
Lian Zhidiao’s fingers tightened around the cup. Whether it was medicine or not, whether these maids were lying or not, he didn’t have any way to know. But given the care he’d received, he could probably assume it wouldn’t kill him. A sleeping draught, maybe. He swallowed the rest.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You see, A-Wen. He can’t not drink it.”
Lian Zhidiao reached out to give the cup back, ignoring the maid with no manners. “If I may ask, what is your master’s name?”
Shock showed plainly on the first maid’s face. “You don’t know?”
“No,” he said. “I assume he is the Judge at the Sacred Gate, but his name escapes me.”
“That’s for our Master to tell you, if he wishes,” a third, older girl’s voice said sniffily from the other side of the door. She pushed it open and stepped inside, attired like a lady’s maid. The no-manners maid stepped in after her. The three of them formed a neat set, shortest to tallest, youngest to oldest. That the middle-in-age was no-manners maid was somehow unsurprising to him.
“When can I see him?”
“He will call for you when he’s ready, but he’s very busy.”
“It sounds like he intends to make me wait.”
“You don’t have a choice with that either,” the no-manners maid said in a dismissive tone.
Lian Zhidiao put his head back down on the pillow. “Are you my prison guards, then? Were there no fighting men available?”
“Your power is sealed and our Master’s palace is heavily guarded,” the oldest maid said, putting her hands on her hips. “You won’t escape here.”
Lian Zhidiao’s ribs throbbed. “Not that I could after he beat me.”
“Serves you right, bringing suspicion upon yourself like that,” the no-manners maid said. “Did you think you wouldn’t be caught in a lie? Showing such a lack of respect, you deserve to be—”
“Xihua, that’s enough.” The oldest maid silenced the no-manners maid, who continued to stare at Lian Zhidiao reproachfully. Turning her head back to Lian Zhidiao, the oldest maid folded her hands in front of her. “Our Master has said that you should be treated as a guest while you’re here, so we will serve you accordingly.”
Lian Zhidiao leaned up on one elbow again, casting dubious looks at the three of them. “Well, then, what are your names? Unless you will respond to ‘hey, you’.”
The oldest maid blinked in surprise and then bowed to him. “I am Ming Yan.”
No-manners maid actually straightened up and gave him a proper bow. “I am Yang Xihua.”
“I am Xia Qingwen,” the youngest and first maid said.
None of them sounded like vassal families to the Yuan sect. Maybe their allegiance to their master could be swayed. “I am Lian Zhidiao,” he said, inclining his head. “Thank you for your care.” A cultivator treating servants without being unkind spoke well of his upbringing. If the Yuan sect servants were going to look down on the Wa sect, it wasn’t going to be because of him.
The maids looked at each other awkwardly, unsure of how to react to this kind of behavior from a prisoner.
“Is there no one else that came here with me?” Lian Zhidiao couldn’t keep an anxious note from creeping into his voice. “A tall man with a ponytail?”
“You came here alone,” Ming Yan replied. The other two maids nodded in agreement.
Lian Zhidiao’s face fell and he lay back down.
The medicine appeared to be just that; he didn’t immediately fall asleep, but his guts did seem to hurt slightly less.
They shouldn’t be hurting in the first place!
Awake and with nothing to do, he made a few small discoveries. The first was that the Judge had an uncanny ability to hit the same spot from two different sides of him. Perhaps there was something special about the location and his meridians. Maybe he was just a mean son of a bitch. Either way, there wasn’t any movement he could make with his upper body that didn’t hurt like hell.
The second was that the storage ring that Yue Fengjian had gifted him, and his spindle-weight, were both still with him. The reason for this quickly became clear: he was still shackled in the jade manacles with qi-binding ropes. Try as he might, he couldn’t think of a way that he could break out and have the manacles removed. Maybe if he was on good behavior, he could meet the Judge more quickly.
But the words of Yang Xihua echoed in his head. He had been caught in a lie, the lie being that he was Lian Zhidiao, or someone that looked exactly like him and had his sword but could not draw it.
Lian Zhidiao grimaced. Fair enough, it is kind of suspicious. But worth a beating without any other provocation? Imprisonment? He hadn’t even been able to tell Yue Fengjian where he was going, no chance to tell him where he would be. Had Yue Fengjian been able to keep his appointment with Yuan Shijun?
…I hope the marriage meeting went well, despite everything.
Lian Zhidiao closed his eyes. A deep sigh that came from the bottom of his toes slowly spilled out of his lips, leaving him feeling completely empty.
His chest ached, but not because of the jade whip.
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