Lian Zhidiao wasn’t even sure why he was packing the women’s clothing into the storage ring, but if he had to guess, it was due to the sharpened senses of a hunted man wishing to leave no trace.
Yue Fengjian frowned, watching the fabric disappear through the jade ring. “What are you doing?”
“Packing. If this doesn’t work, I’ll have to leave in a hurry.” Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengian, his hands slowing. “I guess you wouldn’t have to pack like you’re running from pursuers. You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Neither have you.”
“I was fortunate last time. The Immortal Willow—that jade whip—revealed that I wasn’t a demon. Yuan Suwei bound me to keep me from using my golden core because he had other things on his mind. I don’t think he’ll make the same mistake again.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yue Fengjian clench his fist.
“Then why go at all?”
“I need a sword. A real one, not a lowly piece of steel.” He straightened out the pibo and folded it up before glancing sidelong at Yue Fengjian. “You must be a little curious about actually watching me fight.”
“I’m not willing to trade—” Yue Fengjian bit off his sentence, and even though Lian Zhidiao waited, he didn’t finish his thought.
“Not willing to trade earth-seeing for the potential Swords of the Myriad Dead?” The pibo stowed inside, Lian Zhidiao tucked the storage ring into his robes. “Should I keep riding your sword like a junior who hasn’t formed a core yet?”
At this, Yue Fengjian’s scowl deepened.
“You would not tolerate being without a sword. You said so yourself. How long should I go without having one? A year? Two years?”
“It doesn’t have to be today.” Yue Fengjian folded his arms over his chest. “I could set up a meeting with Yuan Suwei, offer him the information on what you found under the palace.”
“And give his men time to surround this place? Hold you at the tip of a sword while you try to negotiate?” A lump rose in his throat; Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “At the very best, we are three, and it’s much more likely that it’s just you and I.” He walked into the parlor and picked up the manacles off the table where Yue Fengjian had left them. “Yuan Suwei will not be expecting me to approach him; it will make him imagine that I have an advantage I haven’t yet revealed.” He looked at the manacles in his hand and then slipped those into the storage ring as well. “He will be cautious, and that will buy me a better bargaining position.”
Yue Fengjian let out a heavy sigh, still not looking at all convinced by this logic.
Lian Zhidiao reassured him with a firm hand on his bicep and a small smile. Under his hand, Yue Fengjian’s muscles tensed.
“We can’t dawdle.”
“It’s almost like you want to be caught,” Yue Fengjian grumbled.
“I want to choose when and where I face an adversary.” Lian Zhidiao looked up at him with clear eyes.
A flicker of emotion passed over Yue Fengjian’s face: it was clear he understood the logic, in the way a military man could dispassionately discuss strategy while keeping a firm barrier between himself and the real human cost of a campaign. He would rather have nothing than this reckless walk into the jaws of the enemy, but the only other choice was waiting for the jaws of the enemy to close around them. If Lian Zhidiao couldn’t effectively defend himself, what then?
The street in front of the inn was even busier than it had been two weeks ago, perhaps due to the time they’d taken for breakfast. The rising sun pushed them down the street at a brisk clip. Without running, they could not have gotten there any faster.
Once again, they parted in the courtyard in front of the gatehouse. Stiff-backed, Lian Zhidiao walked to the black gate. When he looked over at the red gate, he was surprised to find that Yue Fengjian was looking in his direction instead of standing to see a clerk. His stomach gave a funny leap; he looked away quickly, his cheeks burning.
Just stay focused. There weren’t any Wa sect members in front of him and the clerks seemed to still be half asleep. He didn’t see the clerk that had known him before, which could be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how this went. Swallowing his quickening heartbeat, he stepped up to the sleepiest clerk.
“Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao.”
“And your business?”
Getting a spiritual weapon at his age might look odd, but he supposed that disciples could form golden cores at every age. “Getting a spiritual weapon,” he answered.
The clerk scrawled fluidly with the brush and handed it off to a gray-robed disciple who read it then gave Lian Zhidiao a funny look, but dutifully carried it out through the same back doorway as before. Then the clerk motioned him to go through to the parlor and went back to staring off into space. Yuan Suwei hadn’t put everyone on alert yet; maybe he didn’t even know. Maybe he hadn’t thought to check on his little black canary first thing in the morning after a party. As Lian Zhidiao passed through into the parlor, he hoped that Yuan Suwei would go easy on his three ‘wardens’.
Lian Zhidiao was shown to one of the semi-private parlors, and a gray-robed disciple came by to ask about tea. No sooner had he left than Yue Fengjian filled the door frame. Worry was written all over his face, but he relaxed the moment he saw Lian Zhidiao.
He sat next to Lian Zhidiao at the low table and leaned over to speak in a low voice. “You got through.”
“Fortune is as unpredictable as the weather,” Lian Zhidiao replied. The fragrance of Yue Fengjian’s incense wafted over, and Lian Zhidiao surreptitiously took a deep breath.
“Do you have a plan for getting out of here once you have your sword?” Yue Fengjian glanced at the doorway. “Or do you think he will just let you leave?”
“If all goes well, I can just walk out, but if not, then…” Lian Zhidiao trailed off as the disciple brought back a tray with tea. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to think about the next place Yue Fengjian needed to go. The Wa sect made the most sense; it would be to the north and east. As a Wa sect member, if he had to flee the Yuan sect, it made the most sense for him to head for home territory. However rough his relationship with his family was, it had to be better than imprisonment. Dispelling the thoughts crowding his mind, he opened his eyes and took a sip of tea, cradling the cup in his hand.
“I would probably try to go home. Maybe I could make some kind of signal to get your attention outside the city.”
The murmur of other conversations in the parlors was constant, along with the ring of porcelain cups and the swish of silk robes as cultivators walked up and down the aisles. Yue Fengjian’s deep voice cut through the din. “Tell me what you’ll do. No half-thought out plans.”
“I’ll… make a bogflame.”
“How would I see something small like that?” Yue Fengjian muttered, his voice too close.
I know he is trying not to be overheard, but I don’t think he knows what this is doing to me.
“Would Leibi-jun prefer me to summon lightning?”
A scolding note entered Yue Fengjian’s voice. “You of all people should know that title isn’t all mine.”
Of course it’s yours! Do you think I went through that for nothing? But with his large frame pressing into Lian Zhidiao’s space, Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes trained on his teacup. “Is that so, Leibi-jun?”
“Mn. So that kind of formality isn’t necessary from you.”
“I’ll call you dage, then.” He said it cheekily, with a half-smile on his lips as he turned to see the joke land.
But Yue Fengjian was closer than he thought. He had very nearly kissed him.
Lian Zhidiao snapped his head down, only to feel Yue Fengjian’s breath in his hair. He clutched his teacup like it was a lifeline. “Perhaps Leibi-jun is better after all.” His voice was thin and uncertain.
Yue Fengjian took the teacup out of his white-knuckled hands; once those warm fingers grazed his, Lian Zhidiao let it go without a fight. Those same firm fingers tilted his face up, so that they were looking at each other again. Yue Fengjian’s eyes were heated, magnetic, drawing him into their depths. Their gazes locked; Lian Zhidiao couldn’t look away.
Yue Fengjian put the teacup on the table. “Try it out.”
Try what out? His heart was racing; he swallowed hard, his mind blanking. “W-What?”
One corner of Yue Fengjian’s mouth lifted in a smile. “‘Dage’.”
Lian Zhidiao’s throat tightened; if he made any sound at all, it was going to be a whimper! What is this flirty attitude toward me? Where did you learn this?! I didn’t ever give you lines like this in the book!
There were footsteps in the hall, and Yue Fengjian released his chin just as one of the gray-robed disciples appeared in the doorway to call them forward.
Now I have to go try to convince Yuan Suwei to let me have a sword, while my head is full of you! Lian Zhidiao gulped down the rest of the hot tea and stood up abruptly, eager to flee the scene as quickly as possible. Yue Fengjian was a little slower to follow him, but his heavy footsteps dogged Lian Zhidiao all the way down to the Sacred Gate.
The long gallery seemed even longer when they walked down it. Lian Zhidiao looked around at the guards; he didn’t think he recognized any of them, but then again, he hadn’t been able to study faces in detail last time. He looked up at the Judge’s platform, preparing himself to do battle.
And instead of Yuan Suwei, a beautiful young woman met his eyes with a discerning gaze.
Her center-parted hair framed her face, the rest of it gathered up in a high ponytail on the top of her head. She had an impartial expression, fanning herself slowly. With the steel in her eyes, it seemed as if she was merely playing the part of a Judge, and would be much more at ease in a savage sword fight. A woman this beautiful and this close to the Judge’s throne could only be Yuan Shi’an herself, said to be so skillful at interpreting the law that even her older brother—the actual Judge—turned to her for guidance.
Yuan Suwei was going to be difficult, but at least I had the blackmail! How am I supposed to talk to her??
One of the disciples brought her a slip of paper, which she read in silence. Then she motioned for some of the disciples to leave.
“Lian Zhidiao.” She closed her fan; her voice reminded him of a nun, frosty with authority. “You have come to receive a spiritual weapon. You affirm that you have none?”
Lian Zhidiao gave her a bow. “That is correct, my Lady Arbiter.”
Her eyes narrowed for a moment, as if she was going to scold him for that title, but then she thought better of it. “Then take in hand this Pearl and speak again your convictions.”
One of the disciples brought forward a jade sphere on a cushion.
Lian Zhidiao took the Pearl and spun a thread of qi into it. It glowed with a soothing green light. “I say that I have no spiritual weapon, and seek one to be granted by the Hidden Realm beyond the Sacred Gate.”
After a moment, she gave him a short nod. The disciple stepped forward and accepted the jade pearl as he laid it back on the cushion.
“You are older than is usual to receive a spiritual weapon. I can think of no sect that would allow a cultivator to spin before receiving a weapon. Certainly, receiving the fifth rank as a magician is unusual enough even if one has a sword. To have received the fifth rank without a sword would be unheard of.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded, but internally he was cursing himself. He had worn his spindle-weight without even thinking about it—it was everyday attire—but it would immediately reveal him as a much more advanced magician than someone who had just formed a golden core. “My Lady Arbiter is as observant as she is wise.”
“Then explain yourself.”
“This young man wishes he could, my Lady Arbiter. The truth is that I had a spiritual weapon which had been damaged, and sought to have it restored here. I placed it in the bowl at the top of this cliff, but the Hidden Realm did not return it to me.”
“You say this with full knowledge that you have just demonstrated you have a golden core.”
“Yes, my Lady Arbiter.”
“And Senior Yuan Suwei had nothing to say about this?”
“On the contrary, my Lady Arbiter. My Lord Arbiter seemed to think that this young man was some kind of malevolent actor, here to do evil, and struck me with the Immortal Willow.”
A small murmur started in the wings of the gallery, but at a glance from Yuan Shi’an, the gray-robed disciples fell silent.
“With his grace, I have recovered from this trial and seek again the right to use a sword.”
“With his grace?” Yuan Shi’an leaned forward, a keen glint in her eye. “Do you mean to say Senior Yuan Suwei offered you assistance after this…trial?”
“Indeed, my Lady Arbiter. Upon seeing that there was no wrong committed, he set about making the situation right again. This young man is grateful to my Lord Arbiter for his caution and prudence in protecting the Hidden Realm. Surely no harm can come to this place while he guards the Gate.”
A lie, of course. I’m not grateful for the beating at all. But these kinds of fawning speeches always seemed to go well in court dramas.
Yuan Shi’an leaned back, tapping one finger on her folded-up fan in thought. “Why should I allow you to enter the Hidden Realm, if the Hidden Realm saw fit to take your original sword away?”
“This young man cannot begin to guess at how the Hidden Realm decides what sword one should receive, or, as now, when the sword should be reclaimed.” Lian Zhidiao cautiously glanced at her face. “Does my Lady Arbiter know why the Hidden Realm would take away the sword of a cultivator who has demonstrated he has a golden core?”
Her finger stopped tapping on the fan. “I must admit I do not.”
Lian Zhidiao smiled gently. “If we are both mystified by this course of events, then how wise were the ancestors in setting down their laws so that they could dispel any uncertainty we face?”
He saw her eyes move over his head, flicking to the laws written deeply in the stone on the other side of the courtyard. The first law, the law which took precedence above all others, which ensured the lawful actions of all sects and petitioners, without which order could not be maintained.
Any cultivator without a spiritual weapon may enter the Sacred Gate.
After a moment of perfect silence, she gave him a cold, self-satisfied smile, acceding his point without acknowledging him as being superior in any way. “I am not sure that the Wa sect is the right place for a man with your talent for rhetoric, but that will have to be a lesson for the rest of us.” She nodded to the gray-robed disciples. “He may pass.”
The disciples moved at once to do her bidding. The other clerks, spellbound by the unique events that were unfolding in their presence, finally seemed to shake off the magic and turn their attention to petitioners waiting to be addressed in front of them.
Lian Zhidiao turned to face Yue Fengjian, and the two of them walked out in the courtyard in front of the Sacred Gate.
When they were far enough away from the gallery, Yue Fengjian leaned in. “That was amazing.”
“It was necessary.” Lian Zhidiao let out a shaky breath, and reached up to brush his hair back from his face. His fingers were trembling. “It might have been less nerve-wracking if it had been Yuan Suwei. But the hard part is over.”
Almost at the same time, they turned to look at the Sacred Gate itself.
“Don’t take too long,” Yue Fengjian said.
Lian Zhidiao hesitated, looking up at him. Did that mean ‘don’t take too long, it won’t be safe out here for too much longer’? Or did it mean ‘don’t take too long, I’m waiting for you’? Yue Fengjian’s earnest look didn’t indicate what he meant, but Lian Zhidiao’s addled mind automatically slid into the second meaning, and a blush rose in his cheeks.
When I get back we are going to have to set some boundaries so that this story doesn’t get mucked up even more than it already is.
Lian Zhidiao walked toward the Sacred Gate, and once he stepped off white paving stones onto the gray gravel of the natural earth, a gray-robed man in the corner began to beat on the skin drum.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
He walked up to the gray sandstones and then passed under them.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The space was tight, but he didn’t need to duck his head. Under his feet, the gravel gave way to a pillowy floor of sand. The passage in the stones twisted around. He slipped out of sight of the courtyard, and then the drumming suddenly stopped.
There was only the sound of his own breathing.
He walked further inside, the soft gray sand yielding under his feet. Every step wove him between leaves of sandstone that slowly parted, like the opening of the folds of a cloak, to reveal the space within.
Overhead, the passage widened into a canyon open to the sky, but the sky was the brilliant, indistinct white of an overcast day in summer. There was no heat, no rays of sunlight, no sounds of insects or birds, no wind. Shards of rock stuck up out of the sand, and sticking up in the same way around them, were swords. Swords rusted beyond recognition, their handguards and hilts gone, the layers in the naked tangs bursting apart with iron red and copper green.
Everywhere Lian Zhidiao looked, they were growing out of the sand, like leaves of grass.