Lian Zhidiao covered his eyes with his hand. Given his goals—to support the protagonist as he builds his harem of political brides—he might have thought that the untimely arrival of Lian Zhidiao’s sister saved him from making a mistake. But any efforts at a logical or thankful mindset were drowned by the tide of lust still pulsing in his blood.
Of all times! I was so close!
Yue Fengjian stood, his own arousal still obvious, and walked to the door. He opened it by a crack and spoke to the innkeeper in a low voice. “Stall her for a few minutes and then bring her up.”
From the quick way the door was shut, Lian Zhidiao assumed that the innkeeper had agreed.
He drew in and then let out a deep breath to try to dispel the ache in his lower body. As he pulled his robes together, he caught a glimpse of his nipples, so intensely sucked and pinched that they were still standing proud on his chest. His face flushed red and he stood up to tie his inner robes back together.
Yue Fengjian walked back over, his expression dark. “Did you go to see your family while you were waiting for me?”
“No,” Lian Zhidiao said shortly. He pulled his outer robes together, wishing his irritation would make his erection subside faster.
Yue Fengjian narrowed his eyes. “And yet she has already heard of your arrival.” His eyes slid toward the door. “Your swamp contains many snakes, I see.”
“I should have expected it,” Lian Zhidiao groused, half under his breath. “After all, I’m the one who—” He stopped himself just before the words slipped out of his mouth.
I’m the one who wrote this secretive, intrigue-ridden sect! I should have known there would be people watching the inns, or the sect school!
Yue Fengjian waited to hear him finish his sentence, one brow arched.
Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “Forget it. It has to be dealt with now.” He sighed with irritation and smoothed down his hair. A small voice in the back of his mind said that this left the thorny matter of nearly sleeping with Yue Fengjian unresolved, but that was a problem for another time.
What was Lian Zhidiao’s sister like? Since he didn’t remember anything about the character Lian Zhidiao himself, it was likely that Lian Zhidiao’s sister wasn’t anyone he’d thought up or written at all. She was an entirely original person, created by the world itself. To deal with her, he would have to read and understand her without the luxury of any of the insider knowledge he’d been relying on with Yue Fengjian.
Best to let her talk as much as she likes and try to draw information out of her. Lian Zhidiao tugged at his robes and then looked over at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian’s collar was still slightly askew, his lips a telltale shade of pink, but at least his erection was slowly going down. If he sat and draped his robe a certain way, the bulge was sure to disappear. Lian Zhidiao stepped closer to him, straightening his collar.
“What are you doing?” Yue Fengjian’s voice had a hard edge.
“Making it look like we were not in the middle of…” Lian Zhidiao’s words caught in his throat, and he felt his cheeks heating up.
“Why?” Yue Fengjian’s scowl was particularly uncharitable. “If she gets the idea she interrupted something, maybe she will leave suddenly.”
“I haven’t seen her in years,” Lian Zhidiao protested. “I can’t just send her away for no reason.”
Yue Fengjian’s face said that there was a very good reason, but he let Lian Zhidiao straighten his collar and make sure his hair wasn’t mussed. After a few seconds of Lian Zhidiao fussing over him, he caught one of Lian Zhidiao’s wrists in his hand. His sharp scowl had softened. It looked like he might embrace Lian Zhidiao again at any moment.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Lian Zhidiao whispered, that look stealing his breath as surely as any kiss.
Yue Fengjian didn’t show any signs of contrition for his last-ditch appeal to Lian Zhidiao’s libido. But at soft approaching footsteps, he did let go of Lian Zhidiao’s wrist and turned away. He had just crossed his arms over his ample chest when a knock sounded at the door.
Now he is sulking like a spoiled young master!
Lian Zhidiao gave Yue Fengjian a look that entreated him to please just be good until this is over, and composed himself the best he could as he walked to the door. His heart pounded in his chest as he drew back the bar and opened it.
The plump-cheeked innkeeper whispered, “She’s here, gongzi.”
Lian Zhidiao opened the door wider and the innkeeper stood back against the wall to let a hooded figure in a black cloak slip inside. With a nod to the innkeeper, Lian Zhidiao closed the door and bolted it behind her.
Lian Chanrong pushed back her hood, revealing a narrow face with high cheekbones made more severe by all her hair gathered in a round bun at the back of her head. She had the same sad eyes as Lian Zhidiao himself. Based on this alone, it was easy to see that they were brother and sister.
“Jiejie,” Lian Zhidiao said slowly, unsure how friendly they had been. As he’d learned with Yue Fengjian’s family, there might be complications.
“You might have sent a letter, or something,” she sniffled. Before he could reply, she immediately enfolded him in a soft, light hug, resting her head against his. “All this time with no word, never knowing what became of my crybaby little brother…”
A catch in her voice lanced through Lian Zhidiao’s heart, as surely as if he’d heard his own big sister panicking over his disappearance. She must have cried over him when he died in the street, the same as Lian Chanrong must have worried for her brother. He could not dry his own sister’s tears, but he could keep Lian Chanrong from fretting so. “I’m sorry I didn’t send word,” he mumbled into her shoulder.
“Stupid little brother,” she said, but her voice was so colored with tears of relief that the affectionate insult landed on his ear as softly as clouds.
It was at this point that she realized at last that Lian Zhidiao wasn’t alone in his room. She froze stiff in Lian Zhidiao’s arms.
Despite his scary countenance, Yue Fengjian gave her a proper bow. “I am Yue Hanqi, courtesy name Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect.”
Like a frightened deer, Lian Chanrong’s eyes flashed back to her brother. Seeing an expectant look on Lian Zhidiao’s face, she turned back to Yue Fengjian and returned his bow. “Lian Chanrong. Are you…” She hesitated for a moment and then an uneasy smile formed on her face. “I apologize, I wasn’t expecting anyone else here. I thought xiaodi and I would be able to speak privately.”
“You can speak with him here,” Lian Zhidiao said, standing next to his sister and looking at Yue Fengjian. “He’s trustworthy.”
Lian Chanrong unfastened her cloak and laid it aside, revealing a ruqun in green and purple with gold chrysanthemum embroidery climbing her sleeves. Over that were two sheer robes, the colors of pumpkin and padparadscha, that even together could not have offered her any warmth. She was thin and frail, just Lian Zhidiao’s height, and seemed to shiver the moment she doffed the cloak. She moved closer to the brazier and sat down, blessedly not on the bed that had just seen intense use.
Lian Zhidiao called for the innkeeper to bring them some tea and then sat down next to her, across from Yue Fengjian. Time to find a delicate way to open conversation. “I had intended to come see you soon. We only arrived in the city today.”
“I know,” she said, facing him with her expression still pinched. “I couldn’t believe it.” She stared at Lian Zhidiao’s face for a moment, drinking him in. “What have you been doing?”
“Traveling,” Lian Zhidiao said obliquely. “Found work where I could.” He didn’t want to say that Lian Zhidiao had been down to two taels of silver and fairly threadbare robes before falling in with the well-heeled ‘prince’ of the Yue sect.
Lian Chanrong glanced at Yue Fengjian and she looked expectantly at Lian Zhidiao, as if to ask, And him?
Lian Zhidiao wanted to just let the obvious request for information slide—he hadn’t yet come up with a real reason that her little brother would have taken up with a Yue sect member—but he was saved by Yue Fengjian’s quick thinking.
“He’s a skilled cultivator and magician. And he’s already proven himself essential in handling various problems,” Yue Fengjian offered.
Lian Chanrong nodded in understanding. “Mother told me that the household received a payment for services you rendered to the Lin sect. Father wasn’t happy about it.”
“I take it he didn’t like it?”
“No,” Lian Chanrong said.
So the rift between father and son is that deep. Given that I likely ruined a lot of his plans, that is to be expected.
The tea arrived, and the act of pouring it out gave Lian Zhidiao time to think. But on the other hand, it’s quite normal to send money home to the family. With the Lin and Yue sects just sending remuneration on their own without checking with me, it’s like direct deposit! Why did it make him mad?
Lian Chanrong gratefully warmed her hands on her teacup. “Considering the circumstances you’d left in, he said he didn’t even want to hear your name. But then,” she paused, with a small nod to Yue Fengjian, “there was more money, coming from the Yue sect. There was a curious note on it which drove Father to distraction. It said, ‘for the destruction of a peach orchard’.”
Lian Zhidiao slowly turned his head to look at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow in response, daring Lian Zhidiao to say something.
“Is that so,” Lian Zhidiao said, setting his jaw. “I do seem to recall an incident regarding a few peach trees in the Western lands, but it hardly seems like something the Yue sect should offer payment for.”
“He sent me a letter, asking if I knew anything about it—because of that time in the peach orchard when we were little. I had no idea. But,” she favored him with a sunny smile, “That was when I started to leave instructions with certain people to contact me if they saw anything. Especially anyone with the Yue sect.”
No wonder they were found so quickly; Yue Fengjian was eye-catching even in a sea of red robes. One red-robed man in a city of black would have caught anyone’s attention, much less someone who was looking for a member of the Yue sect. Lian Zhidiao could only nod.
“You’re going to see Father, right? That’s why you came back?” There was a hopeful note in her voice that made Lian Zhidiao’s heart sink.
“Actually, we’re here on my business,” Yue Fengjian cut in. “I’ve sought an audience with Sect Leader Wa Zhuangzhou on a matter of some importance.”
“Sect Leader Wa hasn’t been seen much lately, I’ve heard,” she said. “There was a moon-viewing party last month, and then a few weeks before that, my wedding.”
Surprise showed on Lian Zhidiao’s face. “The wedding!”
Roses bloomed in Lian Chanrong’s cheeks, and she lowered her eyes demurely and nodded. “That was the last time dajie was out as well.”
She’s the middle sister! Lian Zhidiao’s brow wrinkled. “Is dajie okay?”
Lian Chanrong looked stricken. “Her pregnancy has been difficult. The doctors have told her to stay in bed until the baby comes, with no excitement.”
So the older sister is married too! And pregnant! I’m going to be an uncle?! Lian Zhidiao couldn’t keep a smile from breaking out on his face at the thought of having a little one running around. He nodded, trying to keep his smile sympathetic instead of looking like he was gleeful about the prospect of his sister losing her pregnancy. “It’ll be okay. Dajie will be fine.”
He said it with the confidence of a writer who knew the story, but he didn’t know the story at all. Rather, he merely wished for it to be so with all his heart.
Lian Chanrong nodded. “I hope so.” She glanced at Yue Fengjian again, and then met Lian Zhidiao’s eyes earnestly. “Please try to reconcile with Father.”
“Erjie,” Lian Zhidiao started to protest. “I don’t think any amount of money is going to undo what I did.”
“Please try. You have a little credit to your name now, having lined his pockets some. He would have to at least hear you out.” She looked him over, taking in the robes that Yue Fengjian had given him, which were thick and heavy compared to the gauzy layers that the Wa sect favored. She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it gently. “You haven’t done so badly you can’t show your face to him. Please, for the good of the family.”
Lian Zhidiao’s heart twisted. Usually when his own sister had said things like that, it was because whatever small peace offering his parents made hadn’t worked to repair their everyday interactions. ‘For the good of the family’ was always so he would paper over an insult, let go of a cutting remark, ignore the way others talked about him. So that he would forget when he was wronged to preserve happiness in the home.
Now, to be asked to do something ‘for the good of family’ when he was surely the one at fault…
Lian Zhidiao let out a small sigh. Accepting consequences for the original Lian Zhidiao’s crimes had been galling, but he’d had no other choice. Likewise, he now had to make peace the same way. “I’ll go tomorrow.”
Lian Chanrong gave him a dazzling smile, and wrapped him up in a hug.
I miss my family. Lian Zhidiao’s heart twisted even more. But I can’t go back now. I can only stay here, and make the best of this one. He awkwardly hugged her back.
“I have to go; I didn’t tell my husband where I was going. He’ll be worried.”
“Oh,” Lian Zhidiao looked at the windows; the light was fading. “Do you need an escort?”
“I have my litter downstairs,” she said. “They’ll see me back safely.” She smiled at him again. “I’ll be waiting for a message from Mother. She will be so pleased.”
Resigned to his choice, Lian Zhidiao nodded. He rose and fetched her cloak, hanging it around her shoulders. With a fond smile for Lian Zhidiao and a bow to Yue Fengjian, she left.
Lian Zhidiao opened the shutter and looked down into the street. Sure enough, she got into a litter, and they trotted off into the gloaming. He heard Yue Fengjian pour himself some more tea, and closed the shutters against the chill in the night air.
“We shouldn’t wait too much longer to eat,” Yue Fengjian said.
“Mn,” Lian Zhidiao agreed.
Yue Fengjian finished his tea and then let out his own sigh.
There wasn’t much to say. Lian Zhidiao knew how Yue Fengjian’s parents hemmed him into a tight spot, and how only his continued, demonstrated excellence kept him from being crushed under their expectations. He was a prince who acted like a prince, with the soul and heart of a prince. He could be exactly what he was supposed to be.
Lian Zhidiao on the other hand, was a modest failure. Sneak thief and runaway groom, he squandered his natural talents with his unfilial choices. Who knew why he’d made them, but they’d ended up in his early death. Chen Jiajian also had his own failures, his own early death. The comparison created a deep well of realization in his mind that he didn’t want to draw from. The effort required in sliding his consciousness around it without looking left him sullen and withdrawn.
Even a sumptuous meal of crispy duck, lightly fried water chestnuts and green beans, spicy celtuce with wood ear, white soup with a luxurious texture, and silken tofu with syrup didn’t make him feel any better. He’d half-expected Yue Fengjian to continue trying to romance him after they had a bath, but Yue Fengjian seemed to have picked up on the muted mood without him saying anything. New coals were put in the brazier, and they went to sleep, each in their own beds, without much discussion.
The morning dawned clear and cold; when Lian Zhidiao peeked outside, he could see his breath. He exhaled deeply, letting the cold air brace him against the unsettling dread that was already starting to build.
Yue Fengjian opened his eyes when Lian Zhidiao closed the shutters. He gave a mighty stretch and then sat up in bed, looking across their bedroom at Lian Zhidiao.
Lian Zhidiao started dressing for the day in silence, combing through his hair, lost in imagining how to react to a father he didn’t know when just seeing his not-sister had animated a pang of longing for home.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian’s sleep-roughened voice. He opened his mouth to say no, that he didn’t need help, that he could handle it on his own. But then he closed his mouth and nodded.
Yue Fengjian pushed back his blankets and stood up. As he walked past Lian Zhidiao to get to his own clothes, he put a reassuring hand on Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder. The warmth of his palm lingered long after he stepped away.