Lian Zhidiao rubbed one wet cheek with his sleeve. “What do you mean?”
Yang Xihua lifted her chin. “I heard everything that happened just now.”
Bitterness twisted Lian Zhidiao’s mouth. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you to mind your own business?”
“You can’t keep secrets in a manor like this,” Yang Xihua replied, sitting down opposite him and leaning forward, looking a little like a loan shark who was about to change the terms of the ‘understanding’ they had. “I didn’t realize you knew Master Zhou as well.”
Oh for pity’s sake, can you not remind me! Lian Zhidiao gave a big sniff. “We have some history. I didn’t… I didn’t think he would leave me here.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Yang Xihua said. “My Master is Sect Leader Yuan’s brother. Even if Master Zhou is only selling him jade tools, that’s an important client he shouldn’t lose for the sake of a man who’s rejected him.”
“He’s not only selling him jade tools,” Lian Zhidiao muttered.
“That’s not any of your concern either,” Yang Xihua replied. “Especially since you already have a lover. Do you expect Master Zhou to come whenever you crook your finger?”
“You’ve got it wrong. I don’t… have a lover.” The words came out of his mouth haltingly, an admission of truth that he wished were a lie even as he said it.
“Really?” Yang Xihua scrutinized him closely. “I have seen many people that come to visit my Master, and how they bow and scrape for their own Masters, and none speak about their Masters with such high praise.”
Lian Zhidiao opened his mouth, but the blush that darkened his cheeks wouldn’t let him say anything more.
“You have feelings for him, don’t you?”
Lian Zhidiao nodded mutely.
Yang Xihua’s look of smug satisfaction was intolerable. “You’ve been on your best behavior to get in my Master’s good graces so you could contact your lover, or whatever he is. But my Master has no intention of letting you go.”
Well, of course. Lian Zhidiao hung his head and let out a heavy sigh.
“You didn’t seriously think he would, did you?”
Lian Zhidiao’s voice was small. “I hoped that he would.”
Yang Xihua shook her head in disgust. “You are the worst kind of young master. I much prefer a young master who is outspoken about things he does not know, or too quick with his hands under my dress.”
“What?” Lian Zhidiao frowned, looking at Yang Xihua. Her body was still growing; he’d never asked her age, but she had to be no older than fifteen or sixteen. “Does Yuan Suwei do that to you?”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” Yang Xihua tapped the floor pointedly. “A young master who thinks of a servant when he himself is in dire straits?” She made a noise of contempt.
“Does Yuan Suwei do that to you?”
Yang Xihua leaned back, rolling her eyes, at the limit of dealing with this young master’s faults.
“No, he doesn’t,” Yang Xihua snapped. “My Master’s manhood is nearly insatiable. Someone visits him nearly every night. What would a man like my Master want with a servant like me when he can have nearly anyone in Shengmen City present themselves to him that evening? Disrespect him like that again and I won’t help you escape.”
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes widened. Every night?? What is he, a sixteen year old boy? Even if it had been Yang Xihua’s intention to absolve her master in Lian Zhidiao’s eyes by speaking of his…virtues, she’d only complicated the picture Lian Zhidiao had of him. Lian Zhidiao spent several seconds trying to process everything in her words. Not a sex pest or someone who used his power to go after young girls, but definitely a lecher. Did he just have a string of anonymous sexual encounters, or a preferred mistress? Then he realized that every time he’d heard the creak of the servant’s gate open at night must have been one of Yuan Suwei’s lovers slipping in or out of the palace grounds. Zhou Xianzhi’s comment about the ‘certain benefits’ of his bed, or his ‘demanding’ nature made Lian Zhidiao’s upper lip curl. Putting this new information together with the shrewd, impartial personality of the cool-faced Judge was making his head hurt.
Who knew a man like that could hide passions like those? Lian Zhidiao’s eyes flicked up to Yang Xihua’s face. But then again, they aren’t hidden at all. As she said, you can’t keep secrets in a manor like this.
Yang Xihua took his stunned silence as acquiescence. “To that end,” she said. “I have been thinking about you. You are clearly not dangerous, or he would not be holding you here in his private home instead of the prison the Speakers have under the mountain.” She planted her palms on each of her knees. “So I’ll help you escape.”
“As long as you get that scary man away from where he’s terrifying A-Wen, you can call us even.”
Lian Zhidiao’s face softened. So in the end, it’s about protecting Xia Qingwen. “He won’t trouble you anymore. That’s a promise.”
“Good,” Yang Xihua said.
Lian Zhidiao got to his feet, looking over clothes she’d brought in. He picked up one piece, looking at the soft color and flowery embroidery with a sinking feeling. “These are all…”
“Well, my lady was going to throw them out. She said she had been seen in them too many times, and didn’t want anyone to think my Master couldn’t afford new ones. I’ve been hiding them to take them home, but… maybe you can use them more.”
Wait, does that mean Yuan Suwei has a wife and is still sleeping around that much? It’s too much like a court drama! Then again, if he’s that virile, she’s probably happy for someone to share the burden she’d have to shoulder on her own every night…
Lian Zhidiao covered his face as Yang Xihua’s con sank into his brain. His despairing voice leaked out around his hands. “You want me to dress up like one of Yuan Suwei’s lovers.”
“My Master has had many visitors tonight, on account of the party. The guards have heard the gates open and shut so many times, they will not be on high alert.”
“I have to walk out in public like this.” Lian Zhidiao gave Yang Xihua a mournful look. “Anyone who hears me talk will know right away.”
“Please, you’re only a little taller than I am, just hide your face behind your sleeve. You only have to go find your scary man, don’t you?” At the way the blood drained from Lian Zhidiao’s face, she added, “If you get far enough away from the grounds, you could even change your clothing.”
Lian Zhidiao made up his mind at that moment that that was exactly what he was going to do. He looked over the clothes she’d brought, having no idea what went where. It all looked like standard period drama stuff, prettily patterned silks and filmy chiffons in a wide variety of feminine colors that ranged from soft to vibrant. “Do you know how to put them together?”
Yang Xihua slapped his arm. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Ow!” She’d hit him so hard! “I mean, do you know how to make an outfit?”
Yang Xihua gave him a withering look. “I have been a lady’s maid for years, so please have a little faith in me.”
Giving a small nod, Lian Zhidiao swallowed down his apprehension. What was the saying? Trust the process? “Very well. Please do what you can.”
At her insistence that any lady visiting in a non-cultivator capacity would be wearing her hair styled as such, Lian Zhidiao took down his hair for her to style. His ears burned for letting a girl see him like this, even if she was a servant girl like Yang Xihua. If she noticed him steadily getting redder, she was already in a very professional mode and said nothing. She combed his hair back into a sleek shape that hung down very near his shoulders in soft rounds, with an asymmetrical knot of hair at the top. After powdering his face, rouge stained his cheeks, making his blush semi-permanent. She quickly smudged on some eyebrows. With a fine brush and quick fingers, she painted his lips a full red, and then added a small huadian in the center of his forehead.
After some discussion, he shrugged out of the top part of his robes and wrapped them around his chest to give a slight illusion that he had a bosom. Then Yang Xihua put on him a high-waisted ruqun with a parallel collar over it. The top was red, edged with white and embroidered with simple flowers. The skirt was a dark indigo, tied in place over his chest with a bright emerald ribbon. Over his arms, she draped a white pibo that had been dyed in a pattern with yellow ochre. Yang Xihua adjusted the clothing so that he looked the part of a slightly-wilted flower of the night, exposing his collarbones a little more and pulling a few strands of hair loose. With a small sprig of osmanthus flowers tucked into his hair, she pronounced the transformation complete.
Yang Xihua picked up the clothes that hadn’t been used and doused the flame. He picked up his spindle-weight and the storage ring, tucking them into the folds of fabric under the top of the skirt. They gathered together at the door.
“You first,” she said. “Beyond the screen wall, to the right. I will follow after a few minutes.”
Lian Zhidiao’s heart was racing “Right. And…thank you.”
“Don’t thank me, just make sure you get that scary man out of here,” she hissed.
Then the door to the cell creaked open and her hand at his back pushed him until he was outside.
The moonlight made it easy to see where he was going, but he constantly checked his walk to make sure he was keeping a demure gait. Swallowing down his nerves, he arrived at the servant’s gate and pulled the door open.
There were two guards outside, on either side.
There are even guards at the servants’ gate? Lian Zhidiao continued opening the door, thinking that the guards would look askance at someone who was timid, or who thought there wouldn’t be guards. Don’t panic. No one knows you’ve left yet. He lifted up his skirts and stepped out into the street, pulling the servants’ gate closed behind him. Without waiting, he began to walk down the road, keeping his skirt close. He walked without looking behind him at all. Just seeking out the shapes in the night that told him where to walk. Ahead was a side street that opened off of this one. He just had to make it there and he’d be out of view of Yuan Suwei’s guards. Cold sweat poured down his back.
He turned the corner. The street in front of him was clear of foot traffic, as might be expected at this hour. There were no crates or carts, just one long, single road with no one on it.
He proceeded down the street, and when he was sure the guards could no longer see him, he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Fanning himself with his hand, he took stock of the situation. He just had to put some distance between Yuan Suwei’s house and himself. Then he could change clothes and try to figure out what to do for the night. In the morning, he could get back to the inn and Yue Fengjian.
Suddenly, a shadow in a broad hat broke away from the blackness under the eaves of the wall and grabbed Lian Zhidiao’s wrist.
A hand clamped over his mouth, muffling his noise of alarm. The attacker’s superior strength trapped him against the wall; even though he struggled, it was as if he’d made no effort at all. Lian Zhidiao wanted to cry for the second time that night. He’d finally escaped Yuan Suwei’s palatial villa only to be attacked in the street just steps over the threshold? Lian Zhidiao wrenched his arm up again, trying to get away, but then the attacker pinned both his wrists with one hand. The darkness under the wide-brimmed hat was too deep to see under; whoever he was, Lian Zhidiao was completely at his mercy.
“Guniang,” a familiar deep voice said. “Please, I only need information. I’ll reward you handsomely.”
Lian Zhidiao could hardly believe his ears. “Yue Fengjian?”
The shadow froze, and then pushed the hat back. Yue Fengjian looked down at him, taking in the high-waisted skirt bound over his chest, his hair bound up like a woman’s, lip paint so intense it could still be seen in moonlight. “Lian Zhidiao…”
“What are you doing?” Lian Zhidiao hissed, his voice low. “Did the maid tell you I’d be coming?”
“Maid? What maid?” Yue Fengjian rumbled.
“The one who gave me these clothes.” Lian Zhidiao looked down at his flower-embroidered decolletage, as if to offer the example. “You didn’t plan this with her?”
“No.” Yue Fengjian let out a small breath, releasing Lian Zhidiao’s wrists. His relief was plain in his voice. “No, I didn’t. But you’re out now.”
Lian Zhidiao could feel some of the tension drain from Yue Fengjian where they were pressed together. “Yeah.”
The sounds of the night closed in around them, and yet Yue Fengjian didn’t pull away, didn’t suggest they flee the city, or at least go back to the inn and sleep. The heat of his body soaked through Lian Zhidiao’s thin clothes; he shivered in spite of feeling too hot.
“Yue Fengjian…” Lian Zhidiao’s protest was weaker than he wanted it to be, but it had been so long since he’d seen Yue Fengjian, he was scared that he wouldn’t be too good at making decisions right now. He had to make him move away. “We should…”
Footsteps began to echo down the street. Yue Fengjian leaned down, pressing his cheek to Lian Zhidiao’s. “Follow my lead,” he muttered in a low voice.
Lian Zhidiao’s heart stopped. Follow your lead?! If we stay, I’m going to get captured again! Whatever your plan is, it better be good!
“What do we have here?”
Lian Zhidiao risked taking a peek. It was a group of three night watchmen, carrying a lantern. Not Yuan Suwei’s guards. He hadn’t been discovered missing yet. He could still get away.
But Yue Fengjian didn’t move away. In fact, he seemed to press even closer, his body a barrier between Lian Zhidiao and the footsteps that were rapidly approaching from the direction of Yuan Suwei’s palace. Yue Fengjian’s fingers brushed against his earlobe, sending electricity racing over his skin. Lian Zhidiao couldn’t hold back a small, sudden intake of breath.
At that soft sound, Yue Fengjian’s fingers stilled, even as the footsteps drew closer.
That was right next to his ear. Lian Zhidiao closed his eyes, wishing he could just melt into the ground and disappear forever. There’s no way to explain that away, is there? It sounded so wrong.
Yue Fengjian’s breath fanned his face, and Lian Zhidiao was sure he was shocked by what he’d heard, too shocked by the awkward sound to act.
Then Yue Fengjian lowered his head and kissed him.
Lian Zhidiao’s mind went blank, a flurry of confusion and desire making his brain into a thick soup. His body acted on its own, sliding an arm around Yue Fengjian’s neck. Yue Fengjian’s hands felt down his side, finding the sensitive flesh of Lian Zhidiao’s ribs, molding his fingers against him as if he could consume him with a touch. What might have stayed a simple peck changed the moment the tiniest moan slipped from Lian Zhidiao. Yue Fengjian deepened the kiss, sliding his tongue into Lian Zhidiao’s mouth. The hand that teased his ribs pulled them closer together.
“Hey, can’t you hear us?” The man’s voice sounded irritated.
“He’s got something else on his mind.”
Yue Fengjian broke the kiss abruptly and turned to face the voices.
Lian Zhidiao lifted his sleeve to hide his face, but not before seeing the lantern-light reveal that Yue Fengjian was dressed like a commoner, wearing simple brown and white clothes. There was nothing to mark him as a member of the Yue sect. Had he finally tried to blend in somewhat? The idea would be funny if this wasn’t a life or death situation.
Yue Fengjian, I’m entrusting my freedom to you, so please don’t let me down!
“Is this interruption really necessary?” Yue Fengjian sounded actually irritated.
“What are you doing here?”
“Isn’t it obvious what I’m doing?”
Yue Fengjian sounds such the spoiled young master. Unconsciously, Lian Zhidiao swayed toward him.
“Don’t be so uptight, she’s just one of Sect Leader Yuan’s ‘visitors’, leaving for the night,” another of the watch said.
Yue Fengjian’s hand cupped the nape of Lian Zhidiao’s neck protectively. “She’s not his anymore,” Yue Fengjian said, pulling Lian Zhidiao tight against his chest. Lian Zhidiao turned his head so that he was facing the other direction. He could hear Yue Fengjian’s heart racing under his ear.
“Look, it’s none of my business what you want to do with Sect Leader Yuan’s leftovers, just don’t do it in the street.”
“Very well,” Yue Fengjian said, lowering his voice and purring into Lian Zhidiao’s ear. “Did you hear that, my dear? We should get going.”
Lian Zhidiao, stunned into silence, could only nod. Yue Fengjian’s arm curled around his shoulders and guided him so that he was facing away from the watch. “Good night, good sirs,” Yue Fengjian said over his shoulder.
“You’ll have a better night than us,” one of the watchmen said, a lascivious tone in his voice.
The light of the watch’s lantern was broken by their shadows turning and walking back the way they came.