After the night that Lian Zhidiao had gone through, lying in the warm, sweet grass with Yue Fengjian was Paradise. Yue Fengjian’s arms curled around his back like his hands were trying to push up the hem of his robe, or to pull it apart. Lian Zhidiao rested fully against him, rising and falling with every eager breath Yue Fengjian took. His palms lay on Yue Fengjian’s chest, with Yue Fengjian’s thigh sliding up to part his knees. His inner robe wasn’t tied shut—not really—and Yue Fengjian’s hands scorched through it anyway. Just being held by him lit up Lian Zhidiao’s skin like fireworks.
Every kiss that ended was followed by Yue Fengjian lingering in his space, their lips just a hair’s breadth apart, as if he was weighing the price of kissing him again. Dazed by their embrace, Lian Zhidiao had no room to object as Yue Fengjian claimed his mouth with a deep kiss that made his toes curl. Lian Zhidiao sighed against him. It was a bad idea, and Yue Fengjian had to know it too.
But his kisses were intoxicating, and Lian Zhidiao held on to Yue Fengjian’s neck even as he shifted and rolled him over. Lian Zhidiao held his breath at the delicious weight of Yue Fengjian settling on top of him.
Is he going to do ‘something’ to me? Or with me? Here, in broad daylight on a riverbank in the middle of nowhere? The thought of something like ‘that’ happening made him shiver in anticipation. Lian Zhidiao could hardly put his wits back in order before Yue Fengjian pressed their foreheads together. This time, Yue Fengjian kissed him slowly, his hand at Lian Zhidiao’s jaw, the gentle pressure of his fingers enough to hold him still. Lian Zhidiao was caught by his touch, the whole of their embrace seeming to balance on his fingertips, until Yue Fengjian reluctantly ended the kiss.
This shouldn’t be happening. I don’t want to stop him, but I should. This will ruin his chances in the Final Battle, leave him too weak to destroy the enemy that awaited them. Heavy-lidded, Lian Zhidiao eyes roamed down Yue Fengjian’s neckline, below the edge of his collar. If he doesn’t get the support of the sects, he won’t have enough men to face the demon hordes. Reluctantly, he placed a kiss at the corner of Yue Fengjian’s mouth, and let his head fall back into the grass. Even so, I’m glad he’s here.
“How did you find me?”
Yue Fengjian’s voice was hoarse. “I left as soon as I knew you were being pursued, picked up the trail of a demon not long after that,” he replied. “It wasn’t hard to work out who he was tracking. But he was being careful.” He paused, gathering his thoughts, brow furrowing as he looked at Lian Zhidiao underneath him. “He was nearly a day ahead of me.” With Lian Zhidiao’s life on the line, he’d been flying as fast as he could, all the time fearing he would be too late.
“How many were there?”
“Just one,” Yue Fengjian replied. “I lost his trail some distance back.” He searched Lian Zhidiao’s face, and then reached up and tucked one of the loose locks of Lian Zhidiao’s hair back behind his ear. “I feared the worst. But you’re safe.”
Lian Zhidiao could hear the relief in Yue Fengjian’s voice, gusting out of him like a sigh he hardly dared to let go. His heart felt like it was going to burst. “You were worried he’d kill me.”
The stern set of Yue Fengjian’s eyebrows softened. “Many months without a sword would have dulled your martial senses.” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed tightness in his throat.
“I flew out just fine,” Lian Zhidiao replied, feeling a little smug. “The demon wasn’t too much of a problem either.” The body of a prodigy certainly had its benefits.
A guarded look slowly came over Yue Fengjian’s face. “It takes weeks to get used to a spiritual weapon.”
“I didn’t have weeks.” I barely had minutes before I was fleeing for my life.
“Was…” Yue Fengjian hesitated. “Your spiritual weapon. It’s not Fengxueya, is it?”
Lian Zhidiao grimaced. Did that demon just yell everything out to anyone within earshot?! Vigilant, Yue Fengjian’s eyes never left his face, Lian Zhidiao’s obvious discomfort absolutely excruciating. Yue Fengjian wanted to hear Lian Zhidiao deny it, to triumphantly announce that he’d gotten his sword back, that it was all a mistake. He could lie, but the truth of it was only ten feet away, bared to Yue Fengjian’s gaze.
Lian Zhidiao let out a small, defeated puff of air. “It’s not Fengxueya anymore.”
A hard edge entered Yue Fengjian’s voice. “So the rumors are true?”
Lian Zhidiao swallowed a lump in his throat. “I don’t know what rumors you heard, so I don’t know if they’re true or not.”
“That the sword that killed the Emperor has chosen a new master. The sword of the Betrayer is back, in the hands of a Wa cultivator—” Yue Fengjian cut himself short, as if there were other, less savory things that he’d heard. The stern look settled back on Yue Fengjian’s brow as his expression darkened. “The entire district around the Sacred Gate was in chaos.”
“…It’s true.” Lian Zhidiao said, his ardor wilting.
“I told you not to take long. I didn’t mean you should grab the first cursed sword you saw and dash right out again,” Yue Fengjian grumbled, easing his weight off of Lian Zhidiao.
“I didn’t know how long it was going to take,” Lian Zhidiao protested, already missing the warmth of Yue Fengjian’s body, already wishing for that weight on top of him again in spite of himself. “And it’s not cursed.”
“Most people take three or four days, not a day and a half.” Yue Fengjian stood up and picked up Wallbreaker from where it lay next to them in the grass. “And it is cursed.”
“It…” Lian Zhidiao got to his feet and picked Shanzhen up. His tone was insistent. “It doesn’t feel cursed, not to me.”
Yue Fengjian rubbed one of his temples. “You can’t keep it.”
After all I went through to get it?!
“It’s my spiritual weapon, not a lost kitten,” Lian Zhidiao snapped. “And it can’t be returned until I’m dead, anyway.”
Exasperated, Yue Fengjian put one hand on his hip. “Why? Why this sword? Why not any of the others?”
Lian Zhidiao was brought up short by the question, and all the emotions that had flooded him when he picked up Shanzhen surged forth again. It’s not a simple answer…
“Does the sword of a traitor resonate with you?” Yue Fengjian’s voice was the sharpest Lian Zhidiao had ever heard it. “Does it speak to you?”
“When you got your spiritual weapon, did yours speak to you?” Lian Zhidiao fingers tightened around Shanzhen’s scabbard as he looked up into Yue Fengjian’s face.
“It…” Yue Fengjian glanced down at Wallbreaker in his hand, and then shook his head. “No, it was silent.”
“But there were others, right? Other swords you touched, and they had a feeling about them? Or maybe they even said something?”
“You’re not supposed to touch all the swords, only your own!”
Lian Zhidiao blinked. Is he actually angry at me? “…What do you think the sword of a betrayer would feel like?”
“There’s nothing to feel or experience. It may be the most important tool you have, but it’s still just a tool.” Yue Fengjian’s expression was beleaguered.
“It wasn’t like that in the Hidden Realm. Several of the swords… communicated with me. I waited until I felt one that was clearly for me.”
“You’re supposed to do that in the first place,” Yue Fengjian scolded him. “Not walk around and touch everything like you’re looking to loot the place.”
Lian Zhidiao “I was only able to take this one; the other swords refused my hand.”
“And it was the sword that killed the White Emperor.”
Lian Zhidiao hesitated, and then looked down at Shanzhen’s black scabbard, the silver clouds rolling over the hilt. “I…know that is what is said or recorded about it. But I don’t know if I believe it.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yue Fengjian shaking his head, but he continued. “When I accepted the sword—or it accepted me—it was filled with devotion and duty.” He didn’t mention the love and yearning in the blade. Things were bad enough without Yue Fengjian realizing the love—not the traitorous murder—was the part that resonated with him.
Yue Fengjian’s expression swung between anguish and derision. Lian Zhidiao’s heart twisted to see him struggling. He clearly didn’t want to even think about its loathsome history. Maybe he felt a little pity for Lian Zhidiao being the one to carry such a woe-stained weapon. “What were you doing here, anyway?” he said in a muted tone. His eyes flitted over Lian Zhidiao dressed only in his inner clothes, as if the thought just occurred to him. “And in such disarray.”
So he’s going to let it lie… Lian Zhidiao gladly accepted the change in subject. It was better than continuing to argue over something that couldn’t be changed. “Do you remember the memory in the jade slip?”
“The one we left with Uncle.” Yue Fengjian nodded, his eyes narrowing.
“Do you remember how he hid little bundles under a tree and in a box?” Lian Zhidiao fiddled with the closure of his inner robe, preparing to take it off again.
“You think that’s here?”
“There was a stump further upstream, with that same strange hollow in it.”
“There wasn’t anything there, but… I don’t think they were that important.” Lian Zhidiao pulled his inner robe off and started to pull a few fistfuls of grass up to make a pathway over the muddy flat. “Remember, ‘one more for A-Feng, the most important one’. I think he was trying to confuse whoever—whatever was following him.”
Yue Fengjian mulled this over in silence, his arms folded over his chest. “…You really think the box is still down there?”
Lian Zhidiao shrugged one shoulder. “I won’t know until I look.” He laid down the grass in a small raft over the mud, and then gave the cold, black river a resigned look. I really didn’t want to before, but maybe a dunk in a lot of freezing cold water would help me clear my head of those kisses. He gathered his fists to get up his determinination, and turned and looked over his bare shoulder at Yue Fengjian, who was giving the river an equally dubious look. “If you’d turn around, please.”
Yue Fengjian bristled and then turned around to look up the bank.
With this gesture as his only shred of modesty, Lian Zhidiao skinnied out of his inner clothes, leaving them on the nearest tuft of grass, and picked his way down the grass bridge until he could dip a toe in the water.
COLD! How the hell did he swim in this? But he couldn’t stop now, not with his suspicions about what might be waiting at the bottom. Maybe going in all at once is the best way, just rip the bandage off. He jumped forward till he was immersed up to his waist, and could not help but let out a whimpering yelp.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m… fine,” Lian Zhidiao chattered, calming his breathing. It felt like his balls were trying to climb up inside his skull to get away from the river. “It’s really cold.”
“I remember,” Yue Fengjian said, half-turning in place.
“Stay facing that way,” Lian Zhidiao said through his clenched teeth.
Yue Fengjian turned back toward the bank.
No reason to drag this out. Just get it over with as soon as possible.
Carefully regulating his breathing, he strode down the river bank until he was up to his neck. When he was sure his cold-shocked body wouldn’t inadvertently gasp in the cold river water, he took a deep breath and plunged beneath the surface.
The frigid water was fast-moving; he had to swim strongly to even stay in one place. Every time he peeled his eyes open even a little, the current threatened to tear his eyelids open. Swimming upstream and then turning himself underwater to protect his eyes from the current, he scanned the river bottom. Everything was blurry, and he was moving so much that it was hard to see any of the shapes at the bottom.
Then, on his second pass over the river bottom, he saw a funny little pile of stones.
Kicking his feet, he swam down to them, closing his eyes as much as he could. With one hand, he held on to a large flat stone jammed into the riverbed. With the other, he removed the stones one-by-one. When he was down to the last one, he groped his fingers into a crevice between the rocks and felt the hard, square edge of a box.
He held down the box with one hand to keep it from floating away, and then shuffled the last rock aside with his feet. The box came loose from a coffin of sand, which had slowly filled in the cracks in the cairn, cementing its contents in place. With his prize in hand, Lian Zhidiao pushed up off the riverbed and kicked his feet toward shore.
He broke the surface with a great gasp, looking toward the shore. Yue Fengjian was searching the river surface with his characteristic stern expression.
After I told him not to look!
Lian Zhidiao’s feet found the sandy part of the river bottom close to the muddy bank, and he crouched in the river, meeting Yue Fengjian’s judgemental gaze.
“Are you waiting for me to freeze to death in this river? Or will you turn around?”
Exasperated, Yue Fengjian chose the latter.
Lian Zhidiao stood up out of the water, slinging his wet hair out of his face.
“You were underwater for a long time,” Yue Fengjian called over his shoulder.
“It’s hard to see underwater.” He glanced at Yue Fengjian’s broad back, and thought for a moment about asking him to help comb his hair out. A few seconds of imagining Yue Fengjian’s fingers threading through his hair, and he was grateful that his body was still nearly frozen.
“Did you find it?”
Lian Zhidiao looked down at the fatwood box in his hands. It was darkened with age, but water still beaded up at some places, so it may still have had some effect at conservation of the contents. “Yes.” Lian Zhidiao picked up his inner clothes, walking up the grass raft to keep his feet from being muddy. Once he was behind Yue Fengjian, he reached around him and offered him the box. “Hold it while I get dressed.”
At Lian Zhidiao’s voice so close to him, Yue Fengjian stiffened, but he gently—almost reverently—took the fatwood box from Lian Zhidiao’s ice cold fingers.
Getting dressed was a bit more difficult than he thought it would be; his clothes stuck to his still-wet skin. Annoyed, he blew a little qi out of his body, getting everything just dry enough that he could stand to put his clothes back on. Each layer was sun-warmed and dry, so he was positively toasty by the time he was tying his spindle-weight back around his body.
Yue Fengjian stopped averting his eyes once Lian Zhidiao was more modestly attired. He had the unflappable confidence of someone who felt he won the substance of an argument, even though the argument was far from decided. With nothing left for Lian Zhidiao to do, he walked forward and offered the small wooden box.
Faltering for a moment, Lian Zhidiao could hardly help but be reminded of a man offering a ring.
But looking at Yue Fengjian, it was clear he thought nothing of offering the box this way. The similarity to a modern romantic proposal for marriage existed only in Lian Zhidiao’s own mind, a product of wishful thinking. Pushing the frivolous thought away, he accepted the box with both hands.
I hope there’s something inside here, for all the trouble it was to get it.
He sat down in the grass. Yue Fengjian took that as an invitation and sat down next to him, so close their arms were almost touching. “Open it.”
Fighting down the butterflies that fluttered in his stomach at Yue Fengjian saying that in his deep voice, Lian Zhidiao pushed at the lid of the fatwood box. Still impregnated with fat, the top slid aside easily.
Inside, there was a wad of black silk.
Lian Zhidiao’s heart started to race. He looked up at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian leaned in even closer.
Swallowing down his nervousness, Lian Zhidiao pulled out the bundle. Amazingly, the box had worked so well to protect it that the silk was still dry. Lian Zhidiao gingerly pulled the black silk apart, and the white-and-gold fabric came into view, stained dark brown with dried blood. The white-and-gold was a heavy brocade, with dragons grasping branches of peach blossoms in five claws.
With trembling fingers, Lian Zhidiao pushed open the blood-stained brocade.
Nestled inside was a small carving of a dragon about as long as his palm, made from magnificently pure, translucent green jade.
Yue Fengjian was speechless, only able to let out a small breath.
This can only be something of the White Emperor’s. Lian Zhidiao touched the small carving; it was so delicate and beautiful he worried that even touching it might damage it.
“The man in the memory…” Even with his arm torn off, surely bleeding to death, he had risked everything to hide this jade figurine, a priceless piece of art with unknown personal meaning to Shanyin, the White Emperor. A Wa sect member close enough to the White Emperor to take his valued possession, wrapped in a scrap of silk brocade stained in his blood… “Doesn’t this mean he is Jiang Huolu?”
“It doesn’t seem that he could be anyone else.”
“‘They’re coming, they’ll find it,’” Lian Zhidiao quoted. “‘Have to hide it for A-Feng.’”
“I know,” Yue Fengjian said. He sounded shaken.
“Whatever this is,” Lian Zhidiao said, wrapping the silk back over the bundle, “he hid it at the cost of his own life.”
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
“No.” Lian Zhidiao said. Feeling like the dragon carving needed to be protected just as Jiang Huolu had protected it, Lian Zhidiao put it back in the fatwood box and then dropped it in his storage ring. “It doesn’t seem like the actions of a betrayer.”
“It’s too convenient for a Wa sect member to discover that his sect’s greatest shame may not be what it seems.” Yue Fengjian’s eyes lifted to meet Lian Zhidiao’s; he was measured and slow, laying out the evidence behind his suspicions. “Especially if he carries the sword that is the source of that shame.”
There was still the note of accusation in his voice, as if Lian Zhidiao had any control over which sword he’d gotten. A pang of sadness rang in Lian Zhidiao’s heart.
Yue Fengjian gave him an appraising look, and spoke slowly. “You have this memory of the betrayer that no one else recognizes. You were not able to use your spiritual weapon, only to have the Hidden Realm award you the sword of the Emperor’s murderer?” Yue Fengjian shook his head.
“You don’t trust me?”
Yue Fengjian was silent.
Lian Zhidiao’s stomach dropped like a stone. After all he’d done to be useful, after they’d spent so much time together, after they’d given in to something raw and passionate that had them clinging to each other in a riverside meadow? He was still so quick to suspect him? Lian Zhidiao folded his hands in his lap, considering his words carefully before he spoke up.
“When I was in the Yue family castle, when I was at the Quanyuan with so much deviate qi in my other core that I could have poisoned the earth for generations, I didn’t. When your lands were threatened by the qilin, and the choice was between letting you be cursed or doing what needed to be done, I did what needed to be done.” He held back a sudden stinging in his eyes with an iron will. “Can you trust that?”
Yue Fengjian was silent for a long time, all but caressing Lian Zhidiao’s face with his eyes. There was a conflict between suspicion and sorrow in his face, a back-and-forth that was rootless, writhing inside him. Then, with a short breath, he broke their eye contact and turned away from him. “For now.”
END OF SHENGMEN CITY ARC
NEXT ARC: WA-GUIZAI