Shengmen City was baking between the southern plains and the sun-warmed mountains that stood at its back. During the summers, even the palatial residence of Yuan Suwei with its gardens and trees was steamed like a fish. In an act of mercy, the maids allowed the door to Lian Zhidiao’s gilded cage to stand open, letting a breeze sweep over the shade-cooled stone and freshen up the interior. Lian Zhidiao lifted up his hair to let the wind cool the back of his neck, wishing he had a fan.
It’s nice, but it’s not air-conditioning nice.
Ming Yan and Xia Qingwen were playing a children’s game with flat stones. Ming Yan had agreed to humor Xia Qingwen, and was expertly chipping one stone into another, scooping up the two stones as a prize, and then moving on to the next one. To her credit, Xia Qingwen never once expressed outrage that she was being so handily beaten. She watched each move that Ming Yan made with a serious expression.
Yang Xihua walked up. “Cook asked for your help in the kitchen, Ming Yan.”
Ming Yan sighed, standing up and handing her stones to Yang Xihua, with the clear implication that she should take over thrashing Xia Qingwen in her place.
Yang Xihua bounced the stones in her hand and then hunkered opposite Xia Qingwen.
“Busy night tonight?”
“Well, the dinner will be tough to put together, probably, and Ming Yan knows how to do some kitchen work.” Yang Xihua cracked a grin. “Not like us. All I can do right now is run errands.”
“That scary man came back today,” Xia Qingwen said, looking up.
“Again?” Yang Xihua clicked her tongue. “I told him to leave.”
“Did he ask you anything?”
“Mm, just something about…” Yang Xihua’s eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao and then she shook her head. “Never mind.”
“I know I’ve asked before, but, is he tall, with a ponytail?” Lian Zhidiao tried to sound as nonchalant as possible, but in spite of himself, he sounded too eager.
This time Xia Qingwen was preoccupied, focused on her next move in the game, and nodded. “He’s one of the mountain men, wearing dark red.”
It can’t be anyone else. I can’t think of anyone I saw in the Yue sect who has a scarier face than he does. But Yue Fengjian has been skulking around the Judge’s house? Why? His heart skipped a beat. For me?
“His name is Yue Fengjian,” Lian Zhidiao said. “He’s the sect leader’s son.”
“Don’t be naive, A-Wen,” Yang Xihua said, with a dirty look at Lian Zhidiao. “Sect leaders’ sons don’t hang out in back alleys bullying kitchen maids.”
“He would never,” Lian Zhidiao said, lifting his chin. “Did you know? His father recently awarded him a title, Leibi-jun.”
Yang Xihua frowned, but Xia Qingwen seemed impressed. “A titled young master?” She looked at Yang Xihua. “Do you think he’s telling the truth?”
“Sect leaders’ sons don’t hang out in alleys. He’s a ruffian, or worse, a pimp, and he’ll sell you to a cagehouse if he gets a hold of you, so you better not go out unattended.”
Cowed, Xia Qingwen nodded emphatically to indicate that she understood.
“If that man did that, then he wouldn’t be Yue Fengjian,” Lian Zhidiao said with an air of superiority.
“What does a Wa sect member know of the Yue sect’s young prince, anyway?” Yang Xihua chipped one set of stones into each other and collected them, but missed the next set, letting Xia Qingwen take her turn.
“He is noble and good, and kind. He is fearless in the face of great corruption of the spirit and isn’t too proud to learn from a subordinate. We have fought together before, and he is like a lion in battle. Relentless, unconquerable. But in private he is thoughtful and sincere. He’s the kind of master that anyone would give their life for.”
Xia Qingwen had stopped looking at the game surface to listen to Lian Zhidiao. “Wow,” she said quietly.
But Yang Xihua just gave Lian Zhidiao an even dirtier look. “A-Wen,” she said, “I think I hear Cook calling for you.
“What? But I didn—”
“Just go. Help. Cook!” Yang Xihua snapped. Xia Qingwen scurried off toward the kitchen without waiting to be scolded further. Then Yang Xihua turned reproachful eyes on Lian Zhidiao. “Don’t say things like that. You’ll fill her head with nonsense. When she gets hurt or carried off, it’ll be your fault.”
“It’s not nonsense,” Lian Zhidiao said. “It’s true. All of it.”
Sullen, Yang Xihua closed the door to the cell and lifted the bar in place without another word, condemning him to roast in the summer heat for his insolence.
That night, he was left mostly to his own devices, listening to the main gate nearly flapping off its hinges with all the guests that were arriving. A troupe of dancing girls was brought in—they walked past Lian Zhidiao’s cell with the sounds of swishing silk and the tinkling of tiny bells. Ming Yan brought him his dinner, but it was nothing special; he clearly didn’t warrant whatever royal treatment the party guests were receiving.
Faint strains of beautiful music floated through the night air. The heat had long since disappeared, and this put everyone in a good mood for attending a party. By this point of the evening, the ‘official’ style of entertainment—similar to what he’d been treated to at the Lin sect’s villa—was long over. A much more informal style of amusement was going on now. Pressing his face against the silk screens, Lian Zhidiao could make out the glow of lanterns in the gardens, and the occasional shifts in brilliance or dimness as people moved among them. Occasionally he heard a high-pitched laugh, or the garden echoing with the indistinct voices of two or three men having a serious discussion. With time, even these sounds grew more and more infrequent.
At the same time, there were fewer sounds of the main gate opening and closing; the guests that were not partaking of Yuan Suwei’s gracious offer of hospitality had all left.
When Lian Zhidiao could finally hear the song of crickets over conversations, he realized the most exciting thing that had happened in two weeks of confinement was over. Lian Zhidiao’s shoulders slumped. After spending every day counting the hours until he might be allowed to contact Yue Fengjian, he might finally be close to getting word to him. Yuan Suwei would probably want to go over the message before it was sent. It was a shame that there was no code he could work into the message, no agreed-upon secret saying that Yue Fengjian would realize the meaning behind.
That kind of thing is really more the province of lovers anyway. He had never written anything so poetic or romantic in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World: Yue Fengjian was the male lead, the female characters were the love interests. Everything followed naturally from there. What did a harem novel author need poetry for? It wasn’t like his readers were masters of literary critique: they knew what they wanted, and after a few tepid offerings, he knew how to provide it.
Except now he wished he had spent more time considering it. Lian Zhidiao sat up with a small lantern and a heart full of anxiety, thinking over what he might write. The messages he came up with in his head were painfully short or painfully long, either walls of text or short messages so vague that they might as well have no meaning at all. In the end he decided that if given the chance, he would tell Yue Fengjian that he should continue on his quest to unite all the sects using whatever method necessary. After all, he would have to go on to the Wa sect after this, where Lian Zhidiao would have the benefit of the doubt in dealing with the sect’s leaders. There would be time to reconnect there.
Lian Zhidiao decided that he would write, Leibi-jun: Doing well, inside and out. Please advance as we discussed. I will contact you when everything is resolved. Communicated the state of his dangerous second core, directed him to keep the plot moving, and made a promise for further action. A great business letter, or maybe a short email to a boss. It was easy to completely hide his feelings in that vague, disconnected tone.
I hope you’re okay. I hope you have been doing what you’re supposed to do.
His chest swelled with an unspoken feeling. In the dark, he reached up and covered his face with both hands. A heavy sigh that had been caught in his throat for two weeks shuddered out of him.
When will this end?
I want to see you.
I want to feel your arm around me again, just one more time.
He pursed his lips together to fight down a wave of panic and fear. Whatever Yuan Suwei asked, he would do his best to tell him. He had to be able to send that message to Yue Fengjian.
Then came the light click of approaching footsteps, moving slowly. One of the girls was coming to check on him before going to bed, probably. He stood up and walked to the screen. “Ming Yan? Is that you?”
The footsteps stopped.
Lian Zhidiao frowned. “Not Xia Qingwen? Those two shouldn’t have kept you up this late and made you come to check on me.”
Whoever it was, they didn’t reply immediately. Lian Zhidiao saw the shape silhouetted against the moonlit garden. Tall, with long hair. A stranger.
A soft voice came through the screen. “Little one?”
Little one?? Don’t tell me…
The doors rattled. Lian Zhidiao heard the sound of hands sliding over the wood, and then the security bar being lifted and set aside. A spindle-flame sprang to life as the door slowly opened and a tall, slender man dressed in blue slipped inside.
Lian Zhidiao felt an unbearable tension between the surprise of seeing someone he knew, and that person being Zhou Xianzhi. But without even realizing it, he smiled as he looked him over. Zhou Xianzhi was dressed in regal finery, robes of peacock blue and cerulean woven with a wave motif that caught the light, and with a pearl-studded dark indigo robe over the top of it. Instead of wearing his hair loosely, a silver xiaoguan with a crescent moon encircled his topknot. He carried a silver whisk, the horsehair dyed a deep Tyrian purple, the color of the horizon long after sunset. He looked like a calm sea, placid and serene.
Zhou Xianzhi pushed the door to behind him. “I thought I recognized that voice. Imagine my surprise to find you here. What good fortune!”
Your surprise? My surprise is pretty boundless as well. Still unsure as to whether this ‘fortunate’ meeting was boon or bane, he spoke cautiously. “What are you doing here?”
“I was here for the party with the other treasure hunters, of course.” Zhou Xianzhi’s soft voice was full of regret. “I didn’t see you once, or I would have said hello.”
“Mm,” Zhou Xianzhi said with a smile tickling the corners of his mouth. “Yuan Suwei has been surreptitiously seeking the services of treasure hunters for a little over two years. He planned this meeting around four months ago, but everything really came to a head recently, so he was eagerly looking forward to seeing if I had anything new to offer him.”
Not a banquet, but a party? “Senior Yuan didn’t tell me that there would be a party,” Lian Zhidiao said cautiously.
“Really?” Zhou Xianzhi blinked in surprise. “I would have thought your little trick with jade beasts would very keenly interest him.”
The color drained from Lian Zhidiao’s face. A “I haven’t been telling anyone about that, and it’s better if you don’t either.”
“Jade practitioners are rare outside of our sect, you know,” Zhou Xianzhi said. “He’s not overly fond of the Wa sect—Yuan sect, you know—but he is a man who is… very driven.” He tapped one finger thoughtfully on the silver handle of the purple whisk. “He didn’t want his brother to know exactly who would be here tonight, but a little bird told me that may not be a concern any more, after…” Zhou Xianzhi trailed off, seeming to have lost his train of thought. His eyes raked Lian Zhidiao from top to bottom, and then a small sigh left him. “I didn’t get a chance to see you in Fenfang City after that terrible night.”
“The demon abduction, yes,” Lian Zhidiao said.
Zhou Xianzhi pouted a little. “Cultivators would know exactly what kind of danger getting close to a deviate would entail, but that Yue Fengjian was like a guard dog, hovering around the pavilion and warning people away, saying it wasn’t safe.” He stepped a little closer, holding his spindle-flame aloft to shed light more evenly.
In spite of himself, Lian Zhidiao reached out and pulled Zhou Xianzhi’s arm down.
In response, Zhou Xianzhi let the spindle-flame go out and the jade spindle floated down to his side.
The low light from Lian Zhidiao’s lantern was barely enough to see by, but the moments with the spindle-flame held high had revealed enough. There was audible relief in Zhou Xianzhi’s voice. “You look…okay.”
“What does that mean?”
Zhou Xianzhi’s beautiful face broke into a relieved smile.“I mean, you look none the worse for wear, despite your close encounter with death.” He reached out and pushed a lock of Lian Zhidiao’s hair back from his face. “We didn’t hear any news after Yue Fengjian whisked you away to the north.” His fingers brushed Lian Zhidiao’s cheek and lingered; his voice was hesitant, but sweet. “I’m glad you survived.”
The look on Zhou Xianzhi’s face was so tender that a pang of regret struck Lian Zhidiao. He had been pining after Yue Fengjian with little hope that his affections would ever be returned. But Zhou Xianzhi was still carrying a torch unaware that the Lian Zhidiao he’d shared a bed with was dead. In his place was a man whose heart burned for someone else, and Zhou Xianzhi would never know the reason why his former lover spurned him.
Offering comfort while still rejecting him seemed like an unfair thing to do. His insides knit themselves into a complicated knot. He lifted his hand, gently patting Zhou Xianzhi’s wrist. A feeble attempt, but one he made nonetheless.
Zhou Xianzhi pulled him closer, catching Lian Zhidiao off-guard and bringing him to rest against the pearl-scattered robe covering his chest. A faint scent of sandalwood and cinnamon clung to him; Lian Zhidiao caught the scent as Zhou Xianzhi leaned in and kissed his fingers. The jade manacle brushed against Zhou Xianzhi’s chin.
They froze at the same time.
Sandalwood and cinnamon…
Zhou Xianzhi pulled back his sleeve to look at the jade manacle, and then he looked accusingly at Lian Zhidiao.
Lian Zhidiao, on the other hand, had just remembered exactly who smelled like sandalwood and cinnamon. “Zhou Xianzhi…!”
“Little one, you might have mentioned you were being confined here before now.”
“Me?” Lian Zhidiao’s hackles rose. He kept his voice down, but whisper-yelled as forcefully as he dared. “I am not the one who is kissing someone’s fingers while stinking of another man’s incense!”
Zhou Xianzhi had the decency to look surprised, but a wounded expression quickly followed. “You cannot expect a man to ignore a meal that is freely offered, especially when it comes with certain benefits.”
Lian Zhidiao’s brow furrowed. “I do not want to hear about whatever ‘certain benefits’ Yuan Suwei’s bed has to offer.”
“Even with your tastes tending towards more beautiful men, has he not offered them to you himself?” Zhou Xianzhi gestured accusingly at Lian Zhidiao with his own wrist. “These manacles are not the property of the Sacred Gate, you know.”
“They’re Yuan Suwei’s personal property.” Zhou Xianzhi released Lian Zhidiao’s arm. “I should know, because I sold them to him.”
“You what?” Lian Zhidiao shook his wrists at Zhou Xianzhi. “These are your fault?”
“You need not say something so threateningly,” Zhou Xianzhi said, as if he was swatting away Lian Zhidiao’s words with his whisk. “Yuan Suwei was interested in ancient jade tools, from the White Emperor’s time or earlier. I sold him these last year as proof of my seriousness in courting his favor among treasure hunters.”
Lian Zhidiao hesitated, but only for a moment. He shoved his wrists against Zhou Xianzhi’s chest, not too proud to beg. “Can you take them off? Please?”
But Zhou Xianzhi seemed to be putting everything together at last: the Judge, the barred door, the manacles. “Little one, why does he have you locked up in here?”
“It…” Explaining why would only cast suspicion on himself, and that didn’t seem like a good idea, especially to a former lover, who might feel called-upon to act to protect the man he cared about. He looked up at Zhou Xianzhi. Does he care about me? Dare I use that to try to escape? Remembering the tender look Zhou Xianzhi had given him, he decided to try to get him to help without being too specific with why he was locked up. “It’s a long story,” he said finally. “And I don’t have much time.”
“Hmm,” Zhou Xianzhi said softly. “It is one thing to be unexpectedly reunited with a lover on a moonlit night. It’s quite another to risk getting the wrong sort of attention from a demanding man like Yuan Suwei.”
“What… what do you mean?”
Quick as a flash, Zhou Xianzhi stepped back, and the door, which opened and shut in the blink of an eye, was closed to him.
Lian Zhidiao pulled at it, but Zhou Xianzhi’s grip was stronger than he expected of such a willowy man. Lian Zhidiao scratched at the door with his fingernails as the chance at freedom evaporated into thin air. “Zhou Xianzhi!”
“Call me ‘darling’,” Zhou Xianzhi said, holding on tightly to the door.
“Call me… ‘darling’.” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice sounded labored, as if he were struggling to hold the door closed.
“The very idea!”
He heard the security bar slam into place on the other side. Desperate, he moved to the silk screen. “Zhou Xianzhi!” He rattled the screen, trying to peer out into the darkness. “Don’t leave me in here!”
“I can’t be a rude guest. If he has you, he can keep you,” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice was so close that it indicated he was right on the other side of the screen, even though Lian Zhidiao couldn’t see him.
“Zhou Xianzhi, please, listen to me, at least get a message to Yue Fengjian for me, please? Just tell him that I’m okay and that he doesn’t have to wait for me.” There was no response. It was so quiet that Lian Zhidiao thought that Zhou Xianzhi must have just disappeared or flown away, or teleported or something, but then he heard the sound of his footsteps walking away. “Please!” He called after him.
Zhou Xianzhi’s footsteps didn’t stop. A few moments later, Lian Zhidiao heard the front gate open and then creak closed.
Hot tears of frustration spilled down his cheeks as he sank to the ground. What now? What would he do now? It was so much more bitter now that the prospect of freedom had been dangled in front of him. He swore under his breath. “Fuck!”
Nothing. He could do nothing with these cursed manacles on, in this cursed cell, forced to be on his best cursed behavior, in the grasp of this cursed man! A low sob broke from his mouth.
Then he heard the scrape of the security bar being lifted.
What fresh hell? Did Zhou Xianzhi come back?
The door opened a crack and then Yang Xihua bumped it open with her hip, her arms full of clothes. “A man weeping is a pathetic sight.” She spread the clothes out on the bed and then turned to look at Lian Zhidiao with obvious pity.
With a sniff, Lian Zhidiao stared at Yang Xihua, hating that he’d been caught crying by a girl several years younger than him. “Go ahead and stare, then.”
“I’d rather not,” Yang Xihua said, shaking her head.
Miserably, he asked, “Don’t you have somewhere else to be? Like in bed?”
She folded her arms over her chest and gave him a hard look. “I was thinking about what you said this afternoon and I have an idea. If you’re not too scared, that is.”
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