The heart of Jiuluwei City was built out of earth—woven by the Wa founder himself, who walked on water around the spring to set the nine reeds that defined its original city walls, and then all but emptied his golden core to lay the foundation. Although he had created stability on a shifting mire out of nothing, the city itself was built from more humble materials: black clay tiled roofs baked to dark gray, and subtly shining bluestone from the mountains to the west. Like any city, it had its low houses as well as its great ones. The Lian family home, near the eastern wall of the original city, was careful to keep its grandeur at a respectful remove from the Wa family’s superior position.
Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian walked through the streets rather than fly. Flying would drop them at his father’s doorstep in mere moments. Yue Fengjian fell into step next to him without commenting on this choice, for which Lian Zhidiao was grateful. He had to think.
Unlike Wa Zhuangzhou, Lian Zhidiao’s father had no name that he could recall. In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, all of Yue Fengjian’s dealings in the Wa sect had been with the sect leader. The Lian family had been the offscreen shame of the Wa sect, mentioned only slightly more than their irresponsible son who all but left Wa Yingyue at the altar. If it hadn’t been for the story that Zhou Xianzhi had told that night in Fenfang City, Lian Zhidiao might not have been able to piece it together. He wasn’t sure what stage of marriage preparations the original had ducked out on, but from his recollection, he’d written some foolish storyline that the Wa princess was heartbroken, and no one would measure up to her runaway groom.
Him. Me. I’m the runaway groom.
Among the Beauties, Lin Xianglan had been the fan favorite, for both her sweet disposition and unstained beauty. But if there was a ‘most beautiful’ Beauty in Chen Jiajian’s mind, that title belonged to Wa Yingyue. He had described her as a beauty that bewitched men just by looking at them, an unearthly fairy almost painful to behold. After their betrothal went unfulfilled, her reclusive father could neither force her to marry someone against her will, nor stand to see her go unmarried. But, like every other woman Yue Fengjian had set his sights on, she could not resist him, and joined his wives.
It was no wonder that her father kept her hidden away until she was to be married.
Lian Zhidiao had worked out that he’d skipped out on the wedding. What was not clear to him was why.
The walls of the Lian estate were made of stone rather than earth, an impressive badge of wealth in a city surrounded by mud. The crest, a stylized image of a half-open lotus flower, was set in relief on the black front gate.
Have I seen this before? Lian Zhidiao reached out and smoothed his fingers over part of the crest. There weren’t any crests anywhere among his things when I took them, except for… the jade slip. That was the only thing he kept. He pulled his hand back, unsure of what to do. Do I knock? Or do I walk in? Will I even be allowed to see him?
His paralysis was interrupted by Yue Fengjian banging on the gate.
Almost as quickly, a door within the greater gate opened, revealing a servant in black. His eyes landed on Yue Fengjian and instantly had a suspicious look. “Yes?”
“I need to speak to Senior Lian.”
“If you haven’t sent your request ahead of time, this one cannot—” The servant’s eyes at last looked at Lian Zhidiao and his voice stopped at once. He took Lian Zhidiao in with shock and then gave a hurried bow. “Young Master!”
Lian Zhidiao swallowed down his anxiety and gave a small smile. “Please let my father know that I’ve come to see him.”
“Oh! Yes, but…” The servant looked at Yue Fengjian, asking the question with his eyes.
“He’ll be with me,” Lian Zhidiao said.
“Yes, Young Master. Please, come inside.”
They stepped in through the gate and found themselves in a courtyard paved with gleaming bluestone. Just beyond the screen wall, a mature garden opened up before them, bursting with gold and red and purple trailing from the trees and creeping over the ground. The buildings were made of dark wood on heavy stone footings, with luminous gilding on the eaves. Much of the estate was on dry land, but portions of it were flooded with water, turning the surrounding buildings into jewels scattered at the edge of a pond. Bright ornamental carp lingered near the footings, never venturing too far from cover.
The servant hurried away down one path, meeting with one servant, and then another. All of them turned to look at the pair of recent arrivals with shock, and then scattered like startled birds.
“It seems your sister did not prepare anyone for your arrival,” Yue Fengjian murmured.
“It’s just as well,” Lian Zhidiao replied in a low voice that matched Yue Fengjian’s. “He might have barred the door.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yue Fengjian turn to look at him, but he kept his eyes facing forward, on a servant who was walking toward them with intent. His focus had already shifted to navigating the stormy seas in front of them.
“This one will show you in,” the servant said.
The estate occupied an even larger plot of land than the street frontage had suggested. They walked for a full minute before a large hall emerged from a curtain of golden willow trees. It was fastidiously ornamented on the exterior, gilded more completely than any of the other buildings. As with the inn, black was the main color in the decor, but the display of wealth was much more ostentatious. It was sumptuously appointed, with heavy curtains to keep out the draft, fine ebony furniture, bronze braziers filled with coals for warmth, and screens inlaid with mother-of-pearl and gold.
Lian Zhidiao seated himself on a low bed; Yue Fengjian sat next to him and said nothing. The air felt heavy; in his dantian, the deviate qi turned over lazily. He let out a small breath to steady himself.
Then the door opened with a heavy sound, and Lian Zhidiao shot to his feet.
His father barreled into the room at full speed, but as soon as he laid eyes on his son, his steps slowed and then came to a stop. He was taller than Lian Zhidiao, with a furrowed brow and a mien that was both sharp and reserved, like a hunting owl. He wore his hair fully tucked up in a topknot, with a black xiaoguan ornamented with glittering jet. His robes, like the rest of the Wa sect, were many-layered, each one embellished to complement the others. Lian Zhidiao was relieved to see that this man was a stranger to him, looking nothing like his own father at all.
I say that he looks nothing like him, but… He had the same tense set in his jaw, as if he was in the process of both expecting things to go wrong and finding out whose fault it was. Not his actual father, but a man that was fundamentally the same: quick to find fault and slow to forgive, with expectations as high as the sky.
A lump rose in his throat. Lian Zhidiao bowed as deeply as he dared without kneeling. “Honored father. This foolish son has returned.”
His father’s eyes flicked behind him, to Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian was ready, clasping his hands in a bow. “I am Yue Hanqi, courtesy name Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect.”
His father inclined his head. “Lian Angua,” he responded, in a cool but civil tone. He looked back at his son, a muscle in his jaw twitching.
Yue Fengjian said nothing.
Lian Angua took a seat across from them, and before any of them could speak, a servant came in carrying a tray of tea. Without saying a word, she set the cups of tea on a low table and left.
“It’s been how long?”
Lian Zhidiao’s heart froze. Although Lian Angua looked nothing like his own father, his voice was a perfect facsimile. It was the kind of voice that spoke of a heavy smoking habit or a penchant for yelling too much. With Lian Zhidiao’s eyes averted, it was no different than hearing his own father right in front of him.
He struggled to get his thoughts in order. How long had it been? What had he written in his suicide note? “Two winters, Father,” Lian Zhidiao said in a small voice.
“Two winters,” Lian Angua repeated. “And you thought you would show up here now.”
“We arrived here only yesterday,” Lian Zhidiao said. “The—”
“You and him?”
“…Yes.” Lian Zhidiao said.
Lian Angua let his hands rest on his lap, loosely gathered into fists. “You’re traveling together?”
“The demons in the west have become more unruly and more daring,” Yue Fengjian said. “I am seeking the assistance of the other sects in repelling this threat.”
Lian Angua snorted softly. “Isn’t demon-hunting supposed to be what your sect is good at?”
Yue Fengjian hesitated.
You can look down on me, because I deserve it, but you dare target Yue Fengjian! Lian Zhidiao’s eyes flashed. “The demons corrupted a qilin,” Lian Zhidiao interjected, steel in his voice. “That is how powerful they have become.”
“Honored Father, the situation could not be more dire. We battled the qilin ourselves, and only through cunning and the use of many techniques from the different sects were we able to heal its sickness.” Lian Zhidiao leaned forward. “It made clear to me that we must have a united front, or else we will all be at risk.”
“The Yue sect might be at risk, but the Wa and Zhou sects will not be,” Lian Angua said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “They have no power here.”
Lian Zhidiao frowned. “But they will.” As uncomfortable as it was, keeping his eyes on Lian Angua was the only way to remind himself that this was not his father. As if I’d ever discuss this kind of fantasy setting with him! Without looking at him, it would be too close to arguments he’d had in the past with his actual father. “Already there have been multiple demons found deep inside human lands, crafting blood pits for the movement of large numbers of their kind. Even the Yuan sect has had difficulty.”
Lian Angua lifted his chin. “Oh?”
“One of the senior members has begun procuring jade tools to subjugate demons, and large tracts of land under the city are out of balance.” Not exactly keeping the Yuan sect’s secrets, but at the same time, the demons’ efforts seemed to be to the main family. It’s not like hiding Yuan Suwei’s body count—the Wa sect needs to know about this to prepare for the worst and make good decisions.
Lian Angua narrowed his eyes. “How out of balance?”
“Were Baima not quartered in Shengmen City, much of it would be crawling earth. As it is, even with the presence of the Great Jade Beast, parts of the city are stained.”
Lian Angua’s face went ashen. He slowly leaned back where he was sitting; one hand lifted and started to slowly stroke his chin. He glanced at Yue Fengjian again. “And what do you want?”
Yue Fengjian inclined his head, his palms on his knees. “My father, Sect Leader Yue Kuangxiang, has given me authority to seek audience with Sect Leader Wa to discuss alliances and fair terms.”
Lian Angua waited almost too long to answer, as if he was giving Yue Fengjian space to continue talking. But Yue Fengjian didn’t continue, and so Lian Angua glanced at his son before returning his eyes to Yue Fengjian. “I will take a moment to speak with my son alone.” Shooting meaningful daggers at Lian Zhidiao with his eyes, he stood up and walked into the next room.
Lian Zhidiao had no choice. He had to follow him.
The next room, a more intimate chamber of the great hall, had not been occupied yet that day, the braziers still cold.
Lian Angua shut the door and caged Lian Zhidiao in with a ferocious glare. “You dare come back here now, using someone I can’t ignore to get into my house?”
“Father, the threat from the demons is real.”
“So what if it is? What business is it of ours if the Yuan sect wants to rot itself from the inside, or that mountain fool wants to send his people into the waiting claws of the demons. Good riddance!”
“It won’t stop there.” Lian Zhidiao’s voice grew pleading. “They bear us great enmity—”
Lian Angua’s look could have cut glass. “You think you know everything about demons now?”
Lian Zhidiao flinched, the sharp barb making him avert his eyes in spite of himself. “No, Honored Father.”
“Have you forgotten what I told you when you left?” His father’s gravelly voice, stretched with anger, became a low, private roar. “‘Do not come back unless you can fulfill your duty. Do not bring shame upon this house again.’ And you still appear in front of me, as if you did not already drag my name through the mud. The theft of the jade beast! I had to make reparations to the Hu family for what you did!” Lian Angua paced back and forth like a restless tiger. “Wa Langhe hasn’t returned, and you have already drawn another man into your clutches!”
Lian Zhidiao wavered under the blistering tirade, but he could say nothing to answer it.
“Now, of all times, when Sect Leader Wa has finally encouraged his daughter to begin courting again. You dare show your face in this city. It’s like you want to ruin her prospects, the way you almost ruined your sister’s!”
“I saw erjie yesterday.” Lian Zhidiao’s throat was so tight he could barely speak.
A vein pulsed in Lian Angua’s temple. “Would that she was the only member of this family you saw!”
Lian Zhidiao recoiled. It’s not fair.
With a swish of his robes, Lian Angua turned away, fuming.
“Will nothing please my honored father?” His voice was small.
“That you even have the boldness to ask that shows how little you understand,” Lian Angua hissed.
None of this was meant for him; he’d done nothing wrong. But Lian Zhidiao’s original self—dropout, recluse, accidental vehicular manslaughter statistic—was completely invisible.
Now, he was the only son of a powerful family, wealthy and comfortable, betrothed to a beautiful woman from an even more powerful family, commanding immense magical power and secret techniques. What did it matter if he was the original Lian Zhidiao or not? Couldn’t he be happy with what he found waiting for him? Simply by accepting the duty laid out for him as Lian Zhidiao’s life had left it, the future of humanity would become all the brighter, and his own besides. What more could he want?
If someone had all that, and they still couldn’t find happiness on their own, could anything really satisfy them? It was still better than being dead. Wouldn’t anyone laugh at someone who wasn’t happy with that, and think them blind to the realities of life?
His breath caught, trapped by the caved-in feeling in his chest. In his other core, the deviate qi stirred around like a toxic soup.
When you’re not supposed to exist, what right do you have to complain?
His hand curled up into a fist. He sank to his knees and then bent himself in half. He spoke to the cold stone floor of his father’s Hall, and heard his words reflected back at him. “My honored father is right.”
Lian Angua’s feet turned, but Lian Zhidiao dared not lift his head. Below him, behind the curtain of his hair, dark wet spots appeared on the stone.
Without Yue Fengjian seducing and marrying Wa Yingyue, his chances of getting the support of the Wa sect were slim. As her once-fiance, Lian Zhidiao was supposed to disappear to open the path to an alliance between the Yue and Wa sects. This was the truth of his throw-away name: mentioned once in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World to shame the man who had run away from his duty to marry.
Why did I name him? Why did his name fall to me?
Lian Angua took a few steps toward him, but Lian Zhidiao still did not lift his head. The weight of Lian Angua’s gaze between his shoulder blades made him shake silently.
“…I will speak with Sect Leader Wa,” Lian Angua said in that low, gravelly voice. “But in his audience, your friend will have to do his own convincing.”
“Thank you, Honored Father.” Lian Zhidiao’s words tasted bitter and jagged. “This foolish son is undeserving.”
Placated by his son’s contrition, Lian Angua’s tone calmed further. “If he agrees to overlook your mistakes, then Wa Yingyue will surely have no objections to resuming the process of marriage. I assume you have none either.”
The words kicked him in the stomach; all Lian Zhidiao could do was nod.
“Sui Zhong will make your room ready.”
My room… Of course, having gained this power over his son, Lian Angua would not want him to go back out into the world until he’d gotten what he wanted. The father conceals the son’s defects, so the son must conceal the father’s. “Yes,” Lian Zhidiao replied in a hollow voice. “Thank you.”
Lian Angua hummed with satisfaction and walked toward the door. Before Lian Zhidiao could move from his position on the floor, he’d opened it, going back into the Hall with Yue Fengjian. Lian Zhidiao scrabbled back on the floor, out of view, but there was no way that his prostration on the floor wasn’t seen. He stood up as quickly as he could, wiping his cheeks and clearing his eyes.
“Sect Leader Wa is a busy man,” Lian Angua said, walking back into the hall. “But I will see that he sends for you as soon as he has the time.”
Lian Zhidiao straightened his shoulders and stepped back into the room.
With a neutral expression, Yue Fengjian kept his eyes trained on Lian Angua and offered him a respectful bow. “I’m grateful for your intercession, Senior Lian. I look forward to presenting you with favorable news that will help us both.”
Lian Angua gave a short nod, and then, with a fleeting glance at his son, left the hall, the tea untouched.
Yue Fengjian’s head snapped to Lian Zhidiao. He crossed the space between them in a heartbeat and took hold of his shoulders, pinching his thin arms in broad, warm hands. An angry whisper, only for him, filled his ears. “You little fool, what did you promise him?”
Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian, meeting his concern in his eyes with sad resignation. To give you the best chance at success, I should be dead. Having known you now, I hope you can forgive me for not wanting to disappear. If it works, me marrying Wa Yingyue should be the next best thing. “Only what I should have done in the first place,” Lian Zhidiao managed, his voice weak.
As long as I know you live, then this life will bring me joy.