Fog rolled in during the night. It was still there the next morning, a cool cloak for Shengmen City as the city began to stir from slumber. The distant squeak of wheeled carts on the street in front of the inn roused Lian Zhidiao, and a pang of hunger kept him from drifting off again.
Lian Zhidiao shifted in bed, his eyes still closed. He took a deep breath, his nose full of a sweet spice, familiar and comforting—Yue Fengjian’s incense. It was so strong that for a moment he imagined that Yue Fengjian had climbed into bed with him. He stretched out lazily, hoping that his hands would find a solid, warm wall of muscle.
But he was alone in bed.
Across from him, Yue Fengjian got out of bed; the scent of his incense got stronger.
Even if Yue Fengjian had kissed him, as he’d said, it was part of the ruse. A good trick. A way to escape his pursuers, not something to crow about, and certainly not something Yue Fengjian should be looking to repeat.
Lian Zhidiao slowly opened his eyes.
Yue Fengjian was tying his robes together, his back to Lian Zhidiao. With his eyes, Lian Zhidiao traced the line of his shoulders, down his back, staring covetously at someone that wasn’t for him. A strange kind of loneliness roosted in his ribcage; he felt like his heart was being crushed under its weight.
How can you be so close and yet feel so far away from me?
Yue Fengjian knotted the sash around his belt with a sharp tug.
Lian Zhidiao sat up in bed, pulling the edges of his inner clothes closer together. Thin as they were, they felt like armor for his heart. He had to pull himself together, had to figure out what to do next. “Do you think Yuan Suwei will look for me?”
“I have spent the last two weeks trying to work out exactly what happened,” Yue Fengjian replied. “All I’ve come up with are more questions.”
Lian Zhidiao swung his feet out over the floor and sat up. “We should compare what we’ve learned. Even with the questions you’ve found, I think you will have more information than I do.”
No kidding. All I learned was that maids can be incredibly cheeky, and that Yuan Suwei has an obscene carnal appetite.
A knock came at the door. They froze.
Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao traded glances. Yue Fengjian took up Wallbreaker from a stand next to his bed and strode through the parlor to the door of their room. He heard the door open. Yue Fengjian spoke in a voice too low to be heard, but then Lian Zhidiao heard the door close, and two sets of footsteps walk back through the parlor.
“A surprise visitor,” Yue Fengjian said, reentering their bedroom.
Behind him was none other than Yue Shipei. Yue Shipei averted his gaze from Lian Zhidiao still in bed in his underclothes, only for his eyes to land on the pile of women’s clothing that was still on the floor. At the same time, Lian Zhidiao was keenly aware that his hair was still done up like a lady’s, though a little worse for having slept in it.
I didn’t want to have my hair down in front of Yue Fengjian but…this might be worse.
“I’ll… wait in the parlor.” Yue Shipei said in a delicate tone of voice.
Yue Fengjian watched him turn on his heel and walk into the parlor, before giving Lian Zhidiao a cautious look. After a moment, he followed Yue Shipei into the parlor.
Lian Zhidiao took down his robes, putting them on with a red face. Yue Shipei’s seen all he needs to see. It gives the absolute worst impression—which isn’t even true!—but it can’t be salvaged now. The damage is done. He took the time to take his hair down and put it up properly to avoid any further embarrassment. There was a knock at the door; tea and a small breakfast from the innkeeper. Lian Zhidiao joined them some minutes later, dressed for the day.
Yue Shipei seemed to be feeling a little more sociable with breakfast and tea available. He had a small smile for Lian Zhidiao when he walked in and sat down with them. Lian Zhidiao surveyed the breakfast options: some wilted water vegetables with garlic, a clear soup, some spiced mutton, eggplants and celery with chili oil, rice—it wasn’t like he’d been starved under Yuan Suwei’s roof, but having a breakfast like this with Yue Fengjian and Yue Shipei gave the morning a touch of normalcy he desperately needed.
“Dage was just telling me about what he’s been doing the last two weeks. I was wondering why I’d heard precious little from him.” Yue Shipei had a slightly amused look on his face.
Lian Zhidiao paused in the middle of getting some tea. “We have not had the chance to talk yet, about what happened.”
“I told him you were a ‘guest’ of Yuan Suwei’s,” Yue Fengjian said.
Lian Zhidiao poured the tea, wondering how much to divulge. Given that Yuan Suwei likely didn’t know about his second core, perhaps the best play would be to treat it as some sort of… mistake?
“How curious that he should take an interest in you,” Yue Shipei said, taking a sip of his tea.
“Is that what you want to call it?” Lian Zhidiao crammed an entire hunk of mutton into his mouth.
“His reputation as a fair and impartial man is widely known.” Yue Shipei gave him a serious look. “The kind of… kidnapping that dage described isn’t the way he usually does things.”
Lian Zhidiao looked at Yue Fengjian, who nodded in agreement. Lian Zhidiao forced the mutton down and started to follow it with some of the wilted vegetables. “That may be, but for two weeks I was very much imprisoned against my will.”
“Yes, I’ve seen that,” Yue Shipei said, gesturing to the jade manacles, which had been laid aside on a floor cushion next to the table. “Normal methods of binding a prisoner would be just qi-binding cables, even for Speakers. These manacles are far beyond what would be needed to subdue a willing cultivator.”
I was far from willing! Lian Zhidiao munched vegetables sullenly. But I also wasn’t prepared to put Yue Fengjian’s life in danger.
“Qi deviation is fairly easy to detect in cultivators,” Yue Fengjian said. “Especially at advanced stages, which need intervention.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded; he remembered seeing what deviation looked like in both the villagers in Sancha Town and the qilin in the mountains. Someone who was dripping black from their mouth and missing all their color would be easy to spot.
Yue Fengjian picked up one of the manacles. “These are more like what you would use if you suspected someone to be a demon in disguise.”
A shiver ran down Lian Zhidiao’s spine, remembering the brutal ‘questioning’ from the Immortal Willow. “Do you think these are the same manacles as the ones he had placed on me at the Sacred Gate?”
“I didn’t get a very good look at them during the struggle,” Yue Fengjian said slowly, as he put the single manacle back down. “But they look like it.”
“Are these rare?”
Yue Shipei inclined his head. “We have a few sets of similar tools in the sect, but they’re old. As far as I know, the technique for making them has been lost.”
Lian Zhidiao frowned. “But—”
But Zhou Xianzhi said he’d just sold these to Yuan Suwei last year. So are these an antique or a new jade tool?
Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow.
“So,” Lian Zhidiao said slowly. “The Judge at the Sacred Gate just keeps demon-binding equipment to hand in case it might be useful during day-to-day administration of spiritual weapons?”
A serious expression darkened Yue Fengjian’s face. “That doesn’t seem right.”
What might the Judge be expecting? A Wa sect member who just happens to be a demon comes to the Sacred Gate, deep in human lands? No, there was something else going on.
“A Judge isn’t technically supposed to have allegiance to the Yuan sect,” Lian Zhidiao mused out loud.
“It’s said that Judges are impartial, but it can’t be ignored,” Yue Shipei said. “The second son of the Yuan sect leader becomes the next Judge.”
“That means Yuan Suwei is Yuan Zhuyan’s younger brother, right? Running the Sacred Gate.”
Suddenly, Yue Fengjian looked at Lian Zhidiao with the disbelieving frown of sudden insight, like someone who couldn’t quite believe the pieces that were being put together. “Last night, when we were walking back….”
Lian Zhidiao met Yue Fengjian’s eyes and nodded slowly before turning to Yue Shipei. “You’ve been staying with Hu Baitian, haven’t you?”
Yue Fengjian picked up on it immediately. “Has he been gone a lot lately?”
“He—” Yue Shipei blinked a few times, as if the line of questioning surprised him. “He usually prefers to study during the day, but when his father does rounds, he goes with him.”
“Even at night?”
At this question, Yue Shipei’s face changed. Anxiety swept over his features, engulfing him in a tidal wave of worry that he’d been holding back all on his own. He lowered a bite of eggplant that he’d been about to eat, as if he’d lost his appetite. “Yes, sometimes. They leave in a great hurry. Sometimes they don’t come back until morning.”
Yue Fengjian had a particularly satisfied set to his jaw. “So Yuan Zhuyan can’t meet with me to arrange the marriage of his daughter, and he’s receiving visits from a doctor in the middle of the night.”
“And his brother, the Judge, has been acquiring demon-binding jade tools and keeping them close to him.”
Yue Shipei looked back and forth between them. “What are you suggesting?”
“Last night, while we were coming back here, we passed by Yuan Zhuyan’s palace. Hu Baitian and his father were just leaving.” Lian Zhidiao set down his bowl. “I used earth-seeing once they’d left. I hadn’t told Yue Fengjian this yet, but underneath the Yuan palace, there are two spots of tainted earth. One of them is near the back of the palace.”
The great hall at the southern end of the grounds, where the master of the household lived.
Yue Fengjian paused with a slice of meat midway to his mouth.
“The other spot was in the center, probably a pond.”
“Not crawling earth, right?” Yue Shipei looked a little pale.
“No,” Lian Zhidiao said. “It didn’t appear to be, but that may be because Great Jade Beast Baima is close enough that the roaring earth is the only thing keeping the earth from crawling.”
Yue Fengjian frowned. “Last night, didn’t they say they had to visit Baima this morning?”
Lian Zhidiao nodded. “And Yuan Shijun said he would make the arrangements.”
Yue Shipei’s voice was faint. “That might be because they have jade tools that need to be cleansed. Placing them with Baima would slowly remove the deviate qi, but there’s limited space for jade tools, especially if there’s a lot stored in them, so that they don’t tax the Great Jade Beast too much.”
The prospects were sobering. A demon working in the Yuan family palace. Maybe Yuan Suwei’s elder brother was a demon in disguise, or an innocent man had been hurt. News might have slowly filtered out that he was sick, but this wasn’t the kind of illness anyone would expect. Maybe he was poisoned, though it was hard to see how someone as important as the Yuan sect leader could have been brought down without any suspicious activity. Perhaps the Hu family were part of the effort to deceive others in the sect (and the cultivation world at large), whether it was about a demon in their midst, or the poisoning with deviate qi.
This concern about demons isn’t new, either. Hu Baitian came to Yue Fengjian asking to be taught how to subdue demons. Yuan Suwei bought those manacles last year. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes caught Yue Fengjian’s and held them.
No wonder Yuan Suwei had demon-binding equipment close at hand, and was quick to use it in any context he found suspicious. Even if the Immortal Willow had cleared Lian Zhidiao of being a demon, Yuan Suwei had to be cautious. After all, if his brother died, he would inherit the right to run the Yuan sect if Yuan Shijun were unfit.
And Yuan Shijun was certainly living in that palace on top of tainted earth. Who knew what his role in all this was? A son concerned for his ailing father? Or a son wanting to shove his father into the afterlife as soon as possible so that he could lead the sect? Just the idea made Lian Zhidiao’s stomach bottom out. He himself had no great affection for his father, but patricide was going too far. It would be much easier to just leave if there was some enmity that made the relationship impossible to withstand.
“It was easier to keep me locked up than to find me again if something went wrong,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled before packing his mouth full of rice.
“It makes a certain kind of sense, for a desperate man,” Yue Fengjian said.
A desperate man…
“I should share with him what I learned with earth-seeing.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Yue Fengjian responded. “He will lock you up again the moment he claps eyes on you, and you won’t be so lucky to escape this time.”
Lian Zhidiao simply nodded, and let out a small sigh. “I still do not have a spiritual weapon, either, but if Yuan Suwei is presiding at the Sacred Gate, I can reject that idea out of hand.”
“I would go as soon as possible,” Yue Shipei said suddenly. “The commotion in the Sacred Gate remained confined to it, as far as I can tell. There hasn’t been any gossip around town about the Wa sect member who was captured trying to enter the Hidden Realm.”
If no gossip about his capture had gotten out, then the cultivators that bound him and delivered him to Yuan Suwei’s villa were no more impartial than Yuan Suwei himself, keeping quiet under Yuan Suwei’s order.
“If his brother is under suspicion, Yuan Suwei would assume that anywhere the Yuan sect rules isn’t safe,” Lian Zhidiao said, finishing breakfast and setting his dishes down. “So the gray-robed cultivators at the Sacred Gate that day were his men. Cultivators loyal to Yuan Suwei, who wouldn’t betray him if he suddenly came into possession of some kind of tactical advantage.”
“Like a Wa sect member who knows the earth-seeing technique, who could answer definitively whether demons were at work under Shengmen City.” Yue Shipei’s hand rested around his teacup. “He might have taken you aside to speak to you privately. He didn’t expect you to also have signs that something wasn’t right.”
“Even without what you can do with jade beasts, earth-seeing isn’t a skill you see every day.”
“And for good reason,” Lian Zhidiao sighed.
“What do you mean?” Yue Fengjian asked cautiously.
“The technique exposes the user to a lot of deviate qi any time they use it. It’s worse in tainted earth, and crawling earth…” Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “If it was widely taught, there would be countless qi deviations in cultivators who weren’t careful enough.”
“It doesn’t take much to destabilize a cultivation base,” Yue Shipei said quietly.
Lian Zhidiao sipped his cup of tea. Neither he nor Yue Fengjian said anything. They’d worked through the breakfast between their discussion, and with only tea left to drink, a quiet tension rose in the air. It was only broken when Yue Fengjian finished his tea with a satisfied sound and looked over at Yue Shipei. “So you think he should go today?”
“If your aim is to get a sword, yes.”
Yue Fengjian sounded resolute. “This problem has gone unsolved too long already. He’s entitled to one and he should have it. A cultivator without a spiritual weapon—being refused a spiritual weapon—”
“I know. I have never heard the like either.” Yue Shipei’s brow wrinkled slightly. “He hasn’t been discovered missing yet, but that window of opportunity is closing. After Yuan Suwei has worked out that Lian Zhidiao is not hiding or being hidden, the next logical place to check is—”
“His brother’s palace.” Yue Fengjian nodded grimly.
Yue Shipei nodded. “If you are not there doing something to his brother, then he would assume you’ve fled. The next thing to do is find those that would aid you in flight.” Yue Shipei gestured to Yue Fengjian. “Friends or relatives. He would pressure them to say whether they’ve helped or seen you.”
Yue Fengjian let out a little scoff of contempt, as if to dismiss the very idea that he would ever respond to such pressure, but Lian Zhidiao nodded. “He will have his men searching high and low, not expecting me to come back within his sphere of influence. Getting into the Sacred Gate might take some creativity, but I suppose the best possible way to do this is to pretend that we are here a second time because of a separate affair.”
Yue Shipei’s expression was grave. “Remind him of the law that allows anyone without a spiritual weapon to enter the Hidden Realm.”
Yue Fengjian scoffed again.
Yue Shipei leaned forward, speaking to Lian Zhidiao directly. “Yuan Suwei is a slave to the law, but he is still a man. Use that against him. After you’ve gotten your sword back, it will be another matter.” Yue Shipei’s lips quirked in a smile. “You have acquired some interesting blackmail as well. I trust you can come up with more brilliant plans of escape than just putting on a skirt and some rouge.”
Lian Zhidiao reddened.
Please don’t let him tell Hu Baitian about this. Bad enough that I’m hated for something I didn’t do, but this is something I could never live down!
Yue Shipei laughed. “Occupying your time further would keep you from more daring foolishness, so I will take my leave.” He stood up, seeming altogether more light-hearted than when he’d arrived. “Besides, he will notice if I’m not there.” He didn’t need to say who he was speaking about.
Lian Zhidiao stood up. “Yue Shipei, please—” He had a hard time finding words that wouldn’t seem patronizing. “…Both of you be careful.”
For a moment, the cool remove was back in Yue Shipei’s expression. The malice that existed between Lian Zhidiao and Hu Baitian had Yue Shipei interposed between them, not as a mediator, but as a protector. Then his expression softened. “Good luck, Lian Zhidiao.”
Yue Shipei inclined his head to Yue Fengjian and left, quietly closing the door behind him.
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