The next alley they could duck into might as well have been back in Lian Zhidiao’s original world, for how long it seemed to take to reach it. His heart raced, and his feet itched to break into a run, but with Yue Fengjian’s hand like a vise around his upper arm, Lian Zhidiao had no choice but to stay next to him. Yue Fengjian’s arm curled around his shoulders; the warmth of his body made every hair on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck stand at attention.
“Don’t look back.” Yue Fengjian’s warning was low.
“I won’t,” Lian Zhidiao said, his voice catching in his throat.
Their footsteps echoed off the earthen walls of the houses they passed, like someone clapping to get the night watch’s attention. Finally, finally, a side street opened up. Yue Fengjian steered them toward it. As Lian Zhidiao turned the corner, he looked back the way they’d come. The street was deserted.
The new street was narrow, and stacked high with crates and a cart or two parked next to the walls.
Yue Fengjian let out a heavy sigh and released Lian Zhidiao from the deathgrip on his shoulder. “That was close.”
A twinge of deprivation stung Lian Zhidiao. Even if this situation—the midnight meeting, the kiss—had been a farce played out for the night watch, having Yue Fengjian’s arm around him had been the only good thing in this entire situation. Lian Zhidiao perched on the end of the cart, lifting up the tail end of his hair to let air cool the back of his neck. These clothes and this hairstyle were so hot; he was burning up at the same time he was melting. He reached up and touched his face; his sweat mixed with the powder turned into paste on his fingers. His fingers were trembling with adrenaline. Thank goodness I’ll never have to do this again.
“I’m not used to wearing women’s clothes,” Lian Zhidiao said in a weak voice.
Yue Fengjian was leaning against the far wall, his arms crossed over his chest. His eyes were glued to Lian Zhidiao’s skirts swirling around his booted ankles, the pibo drooping dangerously close to the ground, the gap in his decolletage when he moved without consideration for the parallel collar. The hunger in his gaze made Lian Zhidiao’s heart begin to beat faster again.
“Mm,” Yue Fengjian replied, standing up straight again. “You said a maid got you these clothes?”
“She said they were cast-offs from her lady.” He didn’t want to mention the part about escaping under the guise of being one of Yuan Suwei’s lovers.
“It’s a convenient story.” Yue Fengjian frowned, looking up and down the street. “Maybe she had another purpose in letting you go.”
Lian Zhidiao tucked his hair self-consciously behind his ear. The ‘other purpose’ was to keep you from scaring A-Wen to pieces every time she set foot outside! But he couldn’t find it in his heart to be mad at Yue Fengjian, especially now that he’d discovered Yue Fengjian had been continually surveilling Yuan Suwei’s palace.
When Lian Zhidiao moved his hand, Yue Fengjian’s eyes sharpened on the jade manacle around it; he reached out and took hold of Lian Zhidiao’s arm. “Have you been wearing these the entire time?”
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao squeaked, his voice squeezed small by the touch of Yue Fengjian’s hand around his forearm.
“I was wondering why there were no qi-binding cables around you.”
“They prevent me from looking inward.”
Yue Fengjian’s eyes flicked down for a moment. “Your core?” It was clear from the caution in his voice that he was thinking of the terrible consequences of the other core running amok.
“Fine, probably?” Lian Zhidiao wished that Yue Fengjian would let go of his arm so he could just think.
For the second time in ten minutes, Yue Fengjian took both of Lian Zhidiao’s wrists in his hand, feeding qi into both of the manacles at once. The manacles suddenly widened, letting Lian Zhidiao slip his wrists free.
The perception of his cores flared to life in his belly, one brilliant, the other a dark shadow. Profound joy swept through him at the revelation of that golden light still blazing inside him. He was even happy to see the deviate qi in the other core slowly swirling. It was disturbed, but not threatening, not boiling. Lian Zhidiao’s nerves were settled: during the time he’d been made blind to his own qi, nothing had gone wrong.
Then it slowly dawned on him that Yue Fengjian was staring at him.
Lian Zhidiao’s smile melted away. “Is something wrong?”
“…Nothing.” Yue Fengjian tucked the manacles into his robes and looked both ways down the street again. “We’ll go back to the inn, regroup…” Yue Fengjian trailed off as his eyes raked over Lian Zhidiao’s ruqun. “…And get a change of clothes for you.”
Lian Zhidiao withered at Yue Fengjian’s appraisal. The one person I didn’t want to see me in this get-up was the one who found me. “There are still the other robes in the storage ring.” Lian Zhidiao lifted the hem of his blue skirt to show his black robes underneath. “And I wore these out.”
Yue Fengjian set his jaw at the sight of Lian Zhidiao lifting his skirt, and gave a short, stiff nod. “We’ll be quick. If we meet anyone, stay close to me.”
Yue Fengjian took Lian Zhidiao’s hand, sending another thrill right down to his toes. They darted from shadow to shadow in the streets. The late hour afforded them relative privacy as they walked, but it also instantly made them the target of suspicion. When they passed the occasional watch, or a tramp in the streets, Yue Fengjian brought him closer. Their strides matched, an easy rhythm that rocked Lian Zhidiao against Yue Fengjian’s chest as they walked.
There was neither the time nor the inclination for extended conversations. Yue Fengjian made the decision on which streets to take. They approached a turn, and then the glow of a lantern off the adjoining wall made Yue Fengjian stop in his tracks and flatten his back against the wall. He motioned to be quiet and slid up to the very corner, peeking around it. Lian Zhidiao crept up next to him and looked around the corner.
A litter with four footmen sat waiting outside the gate of a great house, with a fancy crest in silver leaf on the back. There were two lanterns hanging from each side of the litter: clearly they weren’t expected to tarry for long.
Yue Fengjian pressed Lian Zhidiao back and whispered to him, “The crest of the Hu family is on that litter.”
“Yes. And this is the main palace of the Yuan family, the sect leader,” Yue Fengjian said, motioning at the wall behind them.
In the middle of the night? I was breaking out of Yuan Suwei’s jail but what would bring the Hu family out at this hour?
“We can go around,” Yue Fengjian said. “The porters won’t know who we are. We can get to the inn without any trouble.”
“Wait,” Lian Zhidiao said, pulling at Yue Fengjian’s sleeve. “Why are they here at night?”
“The Hu family?” Yue Fengjian gave a half-shrug. “What does it matter to you?”
“I…” Explaining that he wanted to remember exactly what had been going on with his novel plot wouldn’t work. Neither could he explain the details of his conversation with Yuan Suwei that encouraged his suspicion that something was rotten in the Yuan family. He tugged at Yue Fengjian’s sleeve again. “Let’s just wait here for a moment. Maybe it’s something interesting.”
Yue Fengjian stared at him in disbelief, as if to say I finally got you out of that man’s house and now you want to just wait around another Yuan palace? But whatever sound advice or reasonable protest was going to come out of Yue Fengjian’s mouth next, they were stopped by the creak of the great gate shuddering open. Lian Zhidiao crept forward, looking around the corner.
Hu Baitian stepped out of the gate, carrying a small cabinet. He turned and waited at the gate, and then another man stepped out. He was older and slightly taller, his hair bound up as tightly as Hu Baitian’s, wearing the same silver-white robes of the Yuan sect. He was also carrying a small case, which he put into Hu Baitian’s hands, and faced the gate.
“I cannot express the depth of my gratitude at your prompt response this evening,” a man said from inside the gate. Certainly he would be of the Yuan sect, since he was seeing them off. “Without your help, we would be lost.”
The older Hu—perhaps Hu Baitian’s father?—bowed to the Yuan family member. “Since before my father’s father’s time, the Hu family has been ready to answer the call of the Yuan family. Always it has been, and always it will remain.”
Hu Baitian also bowed. “Our devotion to Sect Leader Yuan is complete. We would do anything to help him. This humble student is indeed privileged to be able to assist with such an important responsibility.”
There was a pause, and then the Yuan sect member continued with a warm tone. “You are every bit the healer your father is. At some point, Heaven willing it is far in the future, I will be pleased to entrust my life to you, as my father entrusted his life to your father.”
The son of the sect leader… so this must be Yuan Shijun. Lian Zhidiao looked up at the high walls around the palace. And this is where the marriage meeting must have been held. That’s how Yue Fengjian knows where we are.
At this lofty praise, the older man—definitely Hu Baitian’s father—bowed to the Yuan family member.
Hu Baitian also bowed deeply. “I am but a humble student, undeserving of your praise.” But there was a note of pleasure in his voice.
The pleasantries over, Hu Baitian’s father spoke again, his voice so low that it was hard to hear him at this distance. “Keep him as comfortable as you can. We will go to see Baima in the morning to make the exchange.”
“I’ll make the arrangements first thing,” Yuan Shijun replied. “Please go home and rest, both of you.”
Hu Baitian and his father both bowed again, and a moment later, the gate closed with a heavy echo. Hu Baitian’s father seated himself in the litter and reached out for the small case. “A-Zu, give that here.”
Once the case had been surrendered and the small cabinet placed in the litter, Hu Baitian got in as well. There was a rapping sound, like the side of the litter was tapped with a fan, and the porters leaned down and picked up the litter. They disappeared into the darkness, taking the light of the lanterns with them.
Lian Zhidiao let out a slow breath and then gave Yue Fengjian a challenging look. “See? Wasn’t that interesting?”
“I don’t like eavesdropping,” Yue Fengjian said with obvious distaste.
“But we have learned something important,” Lian Zhidiao said. “There’s just one thing more, if you’ll watch over me.”
Yue Fengjian clicked his tongue. “All this for curiosity?”
“Not just that, there’s a mystery here, and you know it.”
“Your curiosity is going to get you killed.”
“It won’t,” Lian Zhidiao said, sitting on his knees and leaning forward to press his palms against the earth. “It will only take a moment.” Without waiting for an answer, Lian Zhidiao turned his sight inward and then plunged his perception down into the earth.
The soil under Shengmen City wasn’t at all like the waterlogged Sancha Town, with its tainted and crawling earth. There was a faint sensation of wind rushing by his face, even though all his perception was underground. Turning to see what was nearby, there was a glittering in the corner of his eye, like the reflection of the sun off of the surface of the lake. The wind was coming from that direction.
That must be the Great Jade Beast, then.
This close to the roaring earth generated by the Great Jade Beast, the earth should have been sparkling. But under the Yuan palace was only darkness. Lian Zhidiao pushed into it to determine its character. Dry, but still somehow full of the energy of rot. But no swarm of hungry mouths began to nibble and tear at him.
Tainted earth, but not yet crawling.
There were two spots under the estate that seemed darkest: one was under the southern end, a spot of earth that seemed to weakly throb. The other was in the center, probably under a pond, given the moisture of the soil around it. He waited just outside the estate, letting the breath of the Great Jade Beast blow away the deviate qi that had clung to him from the Yuan palace. Then he drew his perception back into his body.
Yue Fengjian was sitting at his side, his eyes averted.
At the sound of Lian Zhidiao’s voice, Yue Fengjian stood up. “Can you walk?”
“Yes, I think so.” Lian Zhidiao glanced down at himself to find that the pibo was knotted around his neck like a scarf, resting on his chest. He looked up at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian looked away. “Let’s go. We still have some distance to cover.”
Shengmen City quieted even further as the middle of the night passed. It was well past that when they arrived at the inn: the inn’s roadside lantern was cold. But Yue Fengjian gave a knock in a secret pattern on the inn’s gate, and within a minute, it swung inward and they were allowed inside.
The innkeeper didn’t look too closely at them. He was rubbing sleep out of his eyes as he handed Yue Fengjian a small lantern to go up to their room.
Lian Zhidiao never thought he would be so happy to see the room of an inn, especially after he’d been cramped in a cell for two weeks. But the room was a sight for sore eyes. The parlor looked almost untouched, but the bedroom had several sets of Yue Fengjian’s robes hung up. The color comforted him; he was safe here.
Yue Fengjian set the lantern up on a hook to shed some meager light. Once the bedroom was closed and barred, he let out a breath.
Lian Zhidiao was already pulling off the women’s clothing. He unknotted the pibo from around his neck, draping it over the frame of his bed. “You’ve really been waiting in the city all this time for me?”
“You think I would abandon you when it was my suggestion that we come here?”
“…No.” Lian Zhidiao yanked at the ribbon that tied his skirt up over his chest. The skirt and then the top fell away, landing in a pile on the floor. It revealed his robes tied just at his bust, but he unknotted them and straightened them out. The outer robes he hung up, hoping that the wrinkles would fall out during the night. He had just shrugged his inner clothes back on with a sigh of relief when he got a good look at Yue Fengjian in the lantern light: his lips were stained red by rouge. The proof of their kiss was visible for anyone to see.
“Is there something on my face?”
“Just… “ Lian Zhidiao’s voice was hoarse. “Just lip paint. From when you…”
“Mn,” Yue Fengjian said. There was a small stand with water and cloths to freshen up, thanks to the thoughtful hospitality of the Yue-friendly innkeeper.
Lian Zhidiao dampened one of the cloths and walked over to Yue Fengjian’s side of the room. He reached up, in a moment of exhaustion, and dabbed at the stain on Yue Fengjian’s lips.
Yue Fengjian let him, turning his face against the weave of the cloth. After a few moments, there wasn’t any evidence left of their kiss on his lips, but kindled in his eyes was a fire that all damp cloths in the inn wouldn’t be enough to put out.
Lian Zhidiao met that ravenous gaze, and wished for the kiss to be the beginning of a mistake, not the end of one.
I want to put more of the lip paint on him. I want to wipe it away, and then put it back, again and again, until there’s none left on him or me.
The unspoken desires burning in Lian Zhidiao’s heart forced heat into his cheeks. Of all the people to fall in love with, he had to choose the man who had a destiny to fulfill, who could never belong to him. He had to remember that, even if he forgot all else. Lian Zhidiao snorted a soundless laugh and walked back to his side of the room. He poured water over another cloth and wiped away the paint from his lips and his brow. “Thank you for picking up on the ruse so quickly, treating me like a lady of the evening.”
“It was very convincing,” Yue Fengjian said in a roughened voice. “I was just taking advantage of it.”
Lian Zhidiao’s heart gave a heavy thump. Feeling as though he was moving through thick syrup, he dampened another cloth and pulled the collar of his inner clothes aside to make sure he wiped away all the powder from his face.
“Still,” he said. “It was your quick thinking that saved me.”
Yue Fengjian’s eyes followed every movement of his hands. Like a lion in a cage watching a man with a hunk of meat, he watched as Lian Zhidiao pulled his inner clothes back into place and tied them shut.
“It was a good trick,” Yue Fengjian said. He blew out the lantern.
Lian Zhidiao sat down on his bed, staring into the darkness, pleading with the heavens to do something to stop the unavoidable collision between destiny and his heart.
He heard Yue Fengjian sit on his own bed and then lie down.
Lian Zhidiao let out a slow, silent, shaky breath. There would be no reckoning tonight.
Previous Chapter < Chapter 43: It Has Me Nearly In Tears, This Moonlight