They left behind the sweet grass meadow on the muddy flat, with its secret safely concealed in the storage ring in Lian Zhidiao’s robes. There was plenty of daylight left, and a great distance still to travel. They continued following the river east, then north.
This time, Lian Zhidiao could fly without worrying about any demons breathing down his neck. He could actually enjoy it. Though they were moving at speed, he flexed his ankles back and forth, lazily making wide sweeps to and fro behind Yue Fengjian. The freedom of having his own sword to fly around with hadn’t swept away the feeling of Yue Fengjian’s arm around him as they had soared over the landscape, but it did reveal just how close they had been when he’d ridden as a passenger on Wallbreaker.
Did I really cram onto that sword with him? How could there have been any room? The only way I could have been closer was if he’d carried me!
It was clear that Yue Fengjian didn’t treat flight as something to enjoy: he had the stern look on his face that he always did, like a factory foreman on the subway anticipating a difficult day on the job.
But then again, he always looks like that.
The soft look on Yue Fengjian’s face from not even a few hours prior flashed in front of his eyes. In spite of the chill wind blasting his face, his cheeks heated up.
Well, almost always.
Just before nightfall, they saw the Black Highway’s river crossing below them, with a large, venerable inn at the side of the road, and several long boats moored at a pier not far from it. The waning moon was already high above the horizon when they alighted on the Black Highway in front of the inn. The ends of the rafters were ornately carved, and decorated with flourishes of red and black paint. The tile roof was a dark gray that looked black in the dying light. Several small buildings were scattered around it. It was practically its own small town.
The interior was well-appointed, especially for a roadside establishment that wouldn’t necessarily cater to an elite clientele. There were several other patrons inside, most of them dressed like merchants. The innkeeper was a thin man with bags under his eyes, who welcomed them with grace if not warmth. He paid special attention to Lian Zhidiao, offering him a hot bath immediately after dinner, and then turning to see if Yue Fengjian would like one as well. The reversal in their fortunes had Lian Zhidiao’s lips quirking in amusement.
For once, I get to be the one treated like a prince at an inn! He could hardly hide how this improved his mood.
They had a meal with white broth, a spicy-sour mix of peppers, some lightly pickled vegetables, and barbecued pork. There was also a delicious fish with water vegetables arranged to look like it was still swimming among the reeds, with little red pearls of chili oil skating on its back. Starving for the past few days made every plate a banquet; every bite had him smiling with pleasure. After eating what Lian Zhidiao presumed was his fill, Yue Fengjian seemed content to just drink wine and watch him stuff his mouth. He even waved away Lian Zhidiao’s attempt to offer him more fish or pork, and instead stood up when the innkeeper informed them the bath was ready.
Lian Zhidiao took his time drinking the last of his soup and scraping the last of his rice into his mouth.Then, feeling the nicest he had in weeks, he followed the innkeeper’s direction to a room for bathing in the back half of the inn. There were some benefits to having written so many bath scenes in the original novel; many of the inns just offered baths as a matter of course.
When he arrived, there were two small lanterns placed in the room, which barely banished the shadows from the corners of it. There was no partition between the two tubs of water, owing to a lack of space for scrubbing in the smaller sitting tubs beside the larger soaking ones. Lian Zhidiao was pleased to discover that Yue Fengjian was already sitting in the soaking tub—no awkward moments of watching him get in or out!—and he could slip by without looking too closely at him.
His own bath was steaming; he undressed as quickly as he could. The same little flower-scented orange soaps were here as well. After wetting down, he started scrubbing all the dirt off of him and out of his hair, festooning himself with suds. It had been days; he was pretty sure the last bath he’d had was under Yuan Suwei’s roof. The thought made him scrub his skin even harder until it turned pink. He didn’t stop until he was sure he’d gotten everywhere, and then rinsed himself in the small sitting tub, unable to hold back another sigh of satisfaction.
Lowering himself into the larger tub, he groaned with delight and sank himself up to his neck. He was full of tasty food and finally clean after a few days of sleeping rough. He let his eyes flutter closed.
Next to him, he heard Yue Fengjian shift. After a moment, he opened his eyes.
Yue Fengjian was leaning against the side of his tub, supporting his temple on his fist. The dim lanterns still caught the water on his skin, making him almost glow in the low light. His hair was drying slowly, plastered against his shoulders. His eyes were half-lidded, but they roamed at liberty over what parts of Lian Zhidiao were visible.
Lian Zhidiao sank a little lower in the tub. “You’re watching me so intently.”
Thank goodness for the low light in here! After a few moments, Lian Zhidiao cleared his throat. “I got that demon’s name, by the way.”
That made Yue Fengjian lift his head off his fist.
“Does ‘Zhang Hundun’ mean anything to you?”
Yue Fengjian’s eyes narrowed and then he let out a breath. “No,” he said.
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but feel crestfallen. “Would you recognize a specific name?”
“I keep track of the ones we’ve killed.” Yue Fengjian lifted his hand and pushed it back over his head, collecting his hair under his palm and fluffing it a little. “Their numbers don’t feel endless if you can write down which ones are no longer a threat.”
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes slipped under Yue Fengjian’s arm, following the trail of a drop of water down over his chest before he snapped his head back in front of him and sank even lower in the water.
“How was your sword?”
Yue Fengjian had sunk down in his tub as well, but he was so tall that his knees stuck out of the water. “Your sword,” he said. “What does it do?”
“Ah.” Lian Zhidiao thought about teasing Yue Fengjian—you want to know more about the Betrayer’s sword?—but in the end, decided against it. “It calls lightning.”
“Oh.” Yue Fengjian’s voice was soft. Maybe he didn’t expect the sword of the Emperor’s killer to be that good? “Was that how you killed him?”
“Maybe. Probably?” Lian Zhidiao propped his feet up on the edge of the tub. “I cut off his head and took his core as well.”
A small chuckle came from Yue Fengjian’s tub.
“Striking him with lightning, cutting off his head and crushing his core? You’re very thorough.”
“I saw you do it to Tangyi,” Lian Zhidiao said. There was no need to say that the core was still rolling around in his storage ring; he could still find some place to destroy it where it wouldn’t matter if it poisoned everything for kilometers in every direction. “Should I have done more or less?”
“Usually cutting off the head is enough,” Yue Fengjian said.
“I took the core because I didn’t know how many of them were following me.”
Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow. “Prudent.” Yue Fengjian shifted forward in the tub and then stood up.
Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes firmly fixed on his toes at the end of his tub.
Just a few feet away, Yue Fengjian wrapped a cloth around himself, drying off with slow, thoughtful motions. “Come to think of it,” he mused aloud, “With your sword being…what it is, it might be good to teach you how to track a demon.”
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but turn and look at Yue Fengjian. “Really?” The question was barely out of his mouth before his eyes caught up with everything they were seeing. All his attempts to give Yue Fengjian a little privacy—and himself a little sanity—were for naught. He saw everything. His full chest, the serratus muscles around his ribs laddering down the sides of his body, the lean planes of his abs that cut in around his hips, the girdle of Apollo that guided his eyes further down, the dusting of dark hair that trailed down between his hips… Without meaning to, Lian Zhidiao’s mouth fell open a little. The seconds passed like minutes, in which he sat in full knowledge of the magnificence of Yue Fengjian’s body.
Mortified, he dragged his eyes up Yue Fengjian’s body to find that Yue Fengjian was looking directly at him, that same eyebrow lifted in interest. And then the corner of his mouth rose in a lopsided grin.
“Yes,” Yue Fengjian said, continuing on with the conversation like Lian Zhidiao hadn’t just been caught admiring the art. “There’s techniques for tracking both over land and in the air. Normally, lightning is a spun spell, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao squeaked, his voice as small as he dearly wanted to be at that moment.
“With the ability to call lightning while you fight, you could be a capable executioner.” Yue Fengjian sounded pleased with himself, and left the drying cloth on a small stool nearby while he put on his inner clothes. “Shipei and Kuaiyu are less adept at heavy killing, but I think you could really clear some terrain.” He sounded a little excited by the prospect.
As expected of a great military man.
Once Yue Fengjian had his inner clothes on, it was much less dangerous to look around the room. Spying his own drying cloth, Lian Zhidiao wrung out his hair and stood up to take his drying cloth. Attempting to keep the conversation light (and not directed at himself), Lian Zhidiao talked while he dried himself off. “It’s not as lively without them.”
“Mn,” Yue Fengjian replied.
With the rest of the cloth held against his body, Lian Zhidiao used one corner of it to blot his hair dry so he wouldn’t risk staining his robes. “Why don’t you travel with a retinue?” He looked over his shoulder at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian was watching him. He had that same deceptively drowsy look as before, but in truth, he was like a lion at his repast, gobbling up the view of Lian Zhidiao’s water-slick legs and backside.
Such a hungry look!
And then, he met Lian Zhidiao’s eyes in a smooth rise up his body, without even bothering to look away or seem embarrassed until Lian Zhidiao turned to hide his naked flanks. Then, at last, he seemed to realize what he’d been doing, and averted his eyes.
“I don’t see the need for a retinue,” he said, pulling on his middle clothes. “I can feed myself, wash myself, dress myself, and speak for myself without help. I don’t want to take competent people away from important work for the sake of vanity.”
Lian Zhidiao slipped on his inner clothes as fast as he could, awkwardly holding up the drying cloth until he could at least get the lower ones on. The innkeeper knocked at the door and told them their room was on the second floor, which Yue Fengjian answered with only a grunt of acknowledgement. Yue Fengjian didn’t look at him again even after he had put on his outer clothes and hastily put up his damp hair. Without a word, he slipped out of the bathhouse.
Did he get embarrassed by all the looking he was doing? Lian Zhidiao dressed himself thoughtfully, looking at the door. Serves him right, even if I was looking too.
He combed out his hair and patted it dry one more time before putting it up for the night. I didn’t intend to look at him like that, but having seen that, it certainly makes some things crystal clear.
As a writer of harem novels, he was familiar with several of the most widely-seen tropes across the genre. For the ones that dared to include any kind of lewd material, a certain amount of description was involved, and there were expectations about the harem protagonist. He would be strong, tall, and handsome. In the bedroom, he would be well-endowed, with the stamina of a bull and the sexual technique of a master of seduction. Convinced of the trope’s necessity by a vocal set of fans, Lian Zhidiao had just gone along with what everyone expected. He wrote a harem protagonist to be a paragon of masculinity and sexual prowess. He hadn’t yet seen the full reality of the situation, but from what he knew and what he had seen, there could be no doubt: Yue Fengjian was hung.
It wasn’t supposed to be my concern! Except that now, it kind of was his concern. He began to pity the heroines he’d written, trying to handle something like that during their sexual debut. Just thinking about it made him blush to the tips of his ears at the same time that he felt an unbearably tense anticipation tighten in his stomach.
It’s definitely a possibility that he’ll want to do something with me. Lian Zhidiao looked up at the ceiling, thinking about their room. They’d only kissed—really kissed—that day. He wasn’t ready to do anything else.
And Yue Fengjian, given the way he’d run hot and cold today, wasn’t ready either. Lian Zhidiao tied his belt tightly shut and apprehensively mounted the stairs. Or if he wanted to, they’d regret it later.
He stood in front of the door to their room, nervousness coiling and uncoiling in the pit of his stomach. Why was he so unsettled? Steeling himself, he opened the door and went in. Inside, there were two solidly-constructed wooden beds with black cushions, blankets, and bolsters, as well as a lantern, and a stone brazier with coals in it to keep the chill out. Yue Fengjian had picked one bed and was sitting on it, combing his hair out more thoroughly. He looked up as Lian Zhidiao came in, but closed his eyes again as he ran the comb through his hair.
Lian Zhidiao went to the other bed and sat down on it, taking off his boots. The knot of tension in his stomach frayed and relaxed: there were two beds.
But one bed wouldn’t have been so bad…
The realization painted a heavy blush on his cheeks, and he silently reached up and covered his face with both hands for several long moments.
“I take it you think I should be traveling with a retinue.”
Lian Zhidiao talked around his hands. “It seems appropriate for your rank. But Liao Kuaiyu, Yue Yaosa and the others… they don’t seem like a retinue.”
“We’re a hunting team. It’s more important that we bring different skills that work well together.”
He couldn’t help but think of how the ‘team’ wasn’t what it was before, with Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei in Shengmen City. “Hu Baitian was part of that team,” he said, trying to get his mind off the thought of just one bed with Yue Fengjian.
“Hu Baitian’s skills in the healing arts gave us a certain amount of autonomy. We could go on extended hunts, deep in enemy territory, without coming back for weeks.” Yue Fengjian put aside his comb, gathering his hair into a loose ponytail. “It will hurt to be without those skills, but he made his own decisions.”
Even after all the business with the Hidden Realm and the cursed sword, he still thinks it’s okay for Hu Baitian to go and me to stay. Lian Zhidiao watched Yue Fengjian put up his hair, chewing over his words. “If he came to you with his problem about his brother, then there must have been a demon involved, right?”
“He came to me and asked to be taught demon-hunting well before his brother disappeared.” Yue Fengjian carefully finished his ponytail, his hair as sleek as satin. “He asked for our help with his brother simply because we were friends. He’d had precious few of those, even after the Speakers cleared his name.”
“He’ll be going back to learning his father’s medical techniques instead of spending time with other sects.”
The scene in front of the Yuan palace replayed itself in his mind: the way Hu Baitian and his father dovetailed together, his father doting upon him, and Hu Baitian being relied upon for assistance in treating a very important client. They were close. Anything the elder Hu asked was something Hu Baitian would jump to accomplish. But given his father’s focus on medicine, it was unlikely that Hu Baitian’s time with the Wa and Yue sects was something his father approved of.
It had been fine for Hu Baitian to seek a semester abroad until it looked like he had found a place for himself outside the Yuan sect. Add in the disappearance of his brother, and any father would be eager to have his son come home and participate in the family business. Learning his techniques, slowly taking over his clients. Hu Baitian’s father would be at ease.
“Was his brother a doctor, too?”
Yue Fengjian stood up. “I don’t know.” With one puff of air, he blew out the lantern. “But I doubt it. I always got the sense that he didn’t tell Hu Baitian what he was doing away from their sect, which is why we had so little to go on in looking for him.”
Lian Zhidiao laid down and pulled a blanket over him, yawning. A vague memory tickled Lian Zhidiao’s brain. “Maybe like a Speaker? They travel a lot.”
“Mn,” Yue Fengjian replied. “They do.”
A few moments later, Yue Fengjian tucked his feet into bed. Lian Zhidiao heard Yue Fengjian stretch his body out the full length of the bed, and then roll over, facing away from him. After a few moments, Lian Zhidiao heard his breathing start to deepen.
He really can just lie down and fall right asleep in the middle of a conversation! Lian Zhidiao turned away from Yue Fengjian as well, letting out a small sigh. It’s for the best. He can tell when something is a bad idea. Restraining ourselves is the right choice.
But their earlier roll in the grass on the riverbank had done much to strip away the careful barriers he’d constructed to blind himself to Yue Fengjian’s desire. He couldn’t ignore that, or the answering desire in his own heart.
It kept him awake long after Yue Fengjian had nodded off.