“Only what I should have done in the first place.”
At this pronouncement from Lian Zhidiao, Yue Fengjian’s fingers tightened around his shoulders. “Whatever it is, you’ll regret it.”
Well, that’s probably true. “My father wishes to re-open my betrothal to Wa Yingyue.”
“Your—” Yue Fengjian narrowed his eyes. “Even after all this time? After what you did?”
“I don’t hold much hope for it being successful, given the circumstances. She is bound to have her own feelings on the matter.” A heavy sigh left Lian Zhidiao’s lips as he tried to accustom himself to the idea of getting married— and having a wife. “If she will forgive me for my actions, then her father likely will as well.”
If she doesn’t marry me, then she won’t have many other options. Fathers often indulge their children, but only up to a point. Even Wa Zhuangzhou’s doting patience might be taxed to its limit by the demands of his daughter.
“Why?” Yue Fengjian shook his head almost imperceptibly. “You had already paid the price for abandoning your duty. Why not just take your freedom and run with it?”
“A man can’t run from duty forever, I suppose,” Lian Zhidiao said, but the words made him feel heavy. “Come with me. I’ll walk you out.”
They trailed back through the extensive gardens; the fall color seemed more gloomy now than it had when they walked in. Lian Zhidiao was not relishing the idea of spending an entire winter indoors with his ‘father’ – a stranger who didn’t feel like a stranger when he spoke. His spirits weighed down by the prospect, Lian Zhidiao trudged through the garden paths slowly, nearly dragging his feet.
Under the drooping golden-orange fronds of a willow tree, Yue Fengjian reached out and caught the hem of his sleeve, keeping him from going any further. There were lines of concern in his brow. “You did this for me.”
“You spoke up for me when Hu Baitian raised his objections.” A ghost of a smile touched Lian Zhidiao’s eyes. “I didn’t forget that.”
“That was different.”
“It was purely tactical,” Lian Zhidiao said. “I know. You wanted me to use the skills I have to support you. Let this be another one of them.”
Yue Fengjian’s scowl deepened with every word. “You misunderstand.”
“I don’t think I do,” Lian Zhidiao said. “I’ve brought you uncertainty more often than not.”
“You don’t even know if this wild scheme is going to get anything I need.” Yue Fengjian seemed to be clenching his teeth at the same time he was speaking, his voice low enough that it would not pass beyond the willow tree. “You could be trading jade for a cabbage.”
“What of your marriage meeting with Yuan Shijun?” Lian Zhidiao searched his face. “Did that go as planned?”
Yue Fengjian’s eyes sharpened. “You’re turning this on me?”
“I genuinely want to know.” Lian Zhidiao’s gaze was intent.
“Yuan Shijun found no fault with the match, although he would prefer that Sect Leader Yuan be the one to make such decisions, but…”
Yue Fengjian let out a short, angry sigh. “It’s just a marriage.”
It’s just a marriage.
That probably means things will be moving along. Lian Zhidiao lowered his eyes and gave a small nod. A vaguely queasy feeling started to turn over in his stomach. “Did you recognize her at the Sacred Gate?”
“No, she wasn’t at the marriage meeting,” Yue Fengjian replied. “Although I supposed that Judge must be her.”
“You would have married her without seeing her?”
“It happens often enough.” Yue Fengjian folded his arms over his chest.
Lian Zhidiao had to admit he was right. After all, he had all but agreed to marrying Wa Yingyue sight unseen. Her appearance hardly mattered. When it came to marriage, there wasn’t anyone he’d been interested in. He had always avoided discussions of marriage, slinking out of the kitchen when his sister and mother would begin talking about it. Well, what could he, someone with nothing to offer a wife, contribute to such a discussion? His heart had never been in it.
In the original novel, Lian Angua’s ambitions were broken by his errant son. Instead, Wa Zhuangzhou had accepted Yue Fengjian as his son-in-law, and promised aid to their new ally the Yue sect. It was the very definition of a political marriage, Yue Fengjian’s seduction of Wa Yingyue notwithstanding. But with Lian Zhidiao no longer missing, there was no incentive for Wa Zhuangzhou to accept an outsider as his daughter’s husband. There was every incentive for Lian Angua to continue with his designs on power in the sect. Modern romantic notions didn’t enter into the calculations.
Lian Zhidiao frowned. But marriage…
There was a soft touch on his cheek.
Yue Fengjian’s fingers rested fondly against his skin. He had a soft look in his eyes, even though his brow was still creased. “Are you that upset by it?”
A soft pink color suffused Lian Zhidiao’s cheeks; he averted his eyes to avoid that look. “You should have more care for your future wife.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded.
“Mmm,” Yue Fengjian mused, with practiced nonchalance. “I can hardly recall what she looks like.”
“But she was the Judge.”
A fraction of smile started on Yue Fengjian’s face, and then it grew slowly, blooming into a full smile in the light of Lian Zhidiao’s presence. “I wasn’t looking at her.”
Yue Fengjian had laid a trap for him, and he had walked right into it. The sudden blush that warmed Lian Zhidiao’s face was so intense he lifted his sleeve to hide it. To his embarrassment, his ears were filled with Yue Fengjian’s low, warm chuckle. A chilly wind began to stir the willow branches. Gold leaves floated around them.
Yue Fengjian drew closer, and pulled Lian Zhidiao’s hand down to gaze upon his reddened face. “You really are delicate.”
“No, not like that.” Yue Fengjian arched one eyebrow, but his lips were curled in a smirk. “Just ‘Fengjian’, like before.”
The ‘before’ in question: when he had been spread out on the bed at Yue Fengjian’s mercy, begging to be touched. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes widened in indignation.
Almost as quickly as Lian Zhidiao sought to pull away, Yue Fengjian took hold of his wrist, preventing him from moving at all. His lowered voice was nearly lost in the rustle of the willow. “I’ll stay at the same inn. If there’s trouble, come to me.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded slowly. He wasn’t going to back out of the promise he’d made, despite his trepidation. Instead, he would use it to help Yue Fengjian.
The wind pushed at their backs even as Lian Zhidiao walked Yue Fengjian toward the front gate, his heart fluttering. Watching Yue Fengjian disappear through that black gate made his feet ache to follow. The gate closed and Lian Zhidian let out a silent, weary sigh.
It’s not that bad. It won’t be that bad.
Lian Zhidiao turned to find an attractive young man in black bowing deeply to him. Unlike the other servants, his clothes were finely woven and had a slight sheen. His personal manservant, then? Lian Zhidiao composed himself. “Sui Zhong.”
Sui Zhong bowed his head. “Yes.”
“Is my room ready?” Surely not, after having been away for more than two years?
“Yes,” Sui Zhong replied.
Lian Zhidiao blinked in surprise. “You made quick work of it.”
“Lady Huo bid that it be kept just as you left it, in case you came back.”
Lady Huo… Probably my mother. “I will have to thank her for thinking of me,” Lian Zhidiao said.
“If this one may… she never gave up hope that you would return.”
For some reason, those words made a knell of sorrow ring in his heart. Lady Huo would never know how futile her hope had been. If someone had ended up in my body, I’d want them to play my part, so that my family could go on believing I was alive. Lian Zhidiao gave a sharp nod and waited for Sui Zhong to lead him to his room.
They walked back through the gardens, and turned right instead of going to the large hall, taking a walkway on piers out into the jewel box setting. Carp danced in the water below his feet as Sui Zhong led him to a wooden building surrounded by water against the eastern wall. It was decorated with artful carvings in the wood. Heavy shutters had been put over the windows for the winter.
Sui Zhong opened the doors to Lian Zhidiao’s room with a minimal flourish, revealing a splendid set of chambers. Pretending to be a young lord inspecting his servant’s work, Lian Zhidiao took his time looking around. His bed was hung with netting, presumably to keep bugs from biting during the night. There was some kind of nightstand next to it, a low box with drawers that would be a good place to have a lamp were it not for the netting. Below one window, he had a short writing desk, with papers still strewn on top of it, a brush laid to the side, ink dried in the grinding vessel. There were more chambers for entertaining, or perhaps for him and his wife to live in, once she was moved in.
A chill raced down Lian Zhidiao’s spine.
“Does everything meet with the Young Master’s satisfaction?” Sui Zhong, who had heretofore seemed unflappable, asked his master for his approval.
“It does,” Lian Zhidiao said breezily, putting on airs to the best of his ability. It was not as richly appointed as Yue Fengjian’s quarters had been, but for a vassal family’s ‘prince’, it was sumptuous enough.
Sui Zhong bowed his head. “This one is pleased that the Young Master finds nothing wanting this time.”
This time? Had original Lian Zhidiao been a spoiled young master type? In these kinds of novels, it was to be expected.
“Will my father want to have dinner with me this evening?”
“He will be spending time at the academy, as is his custom,” Sui Zhong replied.
Both sisters married and living with their husbands… was it the prospect of being alone with his parents that made the original Lian Zhidiao so desperate to leave?
Keeping his tone light, Lian Zhidiao let out a small sigh. “Where are my clothes?”
Tension entered Sui Zhong’s voice. “Does the young master anticipate going somewhere?”
That note of caution caught Lian Zhidiao’s ear. It likely meant that even if Sui Zhong was his manservant, anything out of the ordinary would be reported to Lian Angua. He had to be nonchalant.
“No. While traveling, I have forgotten much of what I had,” he said. “I should like to get reacquainted with it.”
This seemed to put Sui Zhong at his ease. He nodded and then disappeared outside for a few minutes. Upon reappearing, he was surrounded by a small number of servants, more modestly attired than he was. Once they were all assembled, Sui Zhong directed them to bring out selections of Lian Zhidiao’s clothing.
There were dozens of black robes, as might be expected. But rather than the sturdy luxury of the Yue sect robes, the ones that had lain waiting for their master to return were very much the Wa aesthetic: translucent to sheer, embroidered with various motifs in black, silver, or gold, with occasional touches of color from a bead. Worn together, the motifs would send a direct communication to those who knew how to read it. Lian Zhidiao supposed it was no different from knowing what a specific flower or two animals together on a silk painting meant.
Up until now, he’d been able to skate by on his patchy knowledge of his own world. But to live in the Wa sect, he was going to have to learn how to actually read these signs, or risk making missteps that could cost him support.
So today… He walked past the robes as his servants displayed them, pulling them out to look at the motifs.
A pair of ducks with lotus flower and fruit, which mated for life, could represent marriage. But then there was also the other meaning of a duck. Perhaps that interpretation was possible in this world, perhaps not, but he couldn’t risk it being misinterpreted. He glanced at his servants, ending his gaze on Sui Zhong. They would report this to his father, and for Lian Zhidiao’s sake, they needed to say the right thing.
He indicated with his hand. “The pair of cranes, the two carp, and that one, with the lotus.”
The lotus he would wear closest to his skin, a member of the Lian family at his core. The pair of cranes which mated for life, for marriage. The carp for strength, for filial piety, for a wish. It would read like an act of sincere contrition.
“And these robes?” Sui Zhong said, motioning to the ones he was wearing.
The ones Yue Fengjian had had made for him. Yue Fengjian’s smile under the golden willow still warmed him from the inside out. These robes were what Yue Fengjian wanted to see him in. No one here knew where they came from, or what they meant. They would simply be unfashionable, close-mouthed about his desires or ambitions. “Launder them and return them to me.”
Sui Zhong nodded.
He untied the silk cord for his spindle and set it aside, as well as the storage ring. His servants glanced at each other.
“If the young master wishes, we will undress him.”
“I do not wish it,” Lian Zhidiao said, loosening his sash. “I have gotten accustomed to doing some things myself.”
Doubtless this would be reported to his father as an example of changed behavior, but the thought of being undressed by multiple people he didn’t know made him feel unsettled. Hardly the appropriate attitude of a young nobleman.
Only once he was down to his inner clothes did he give Sui Zhong the nod to approach. As he’d expected, the feeling of multiple pairs of hands tugging his clothes on was still disconcerting, but he stood still, letting them dress him. The servants were finished sooner than he expected. Some of the black lotus embroidery was visible near his neck, even if the layers hid the larger motif from view. The middle layer, the cranes, danced in shadow over his chest. On the topmost layer, the carp were embroidered in vibrant gold, swimming around his ankles and over his sleeve. A gold tassel hung from the bottom of each sleeve. Not appropriate for battle, but appropriate for being seen.
Surprisingly, the many layers proved quite warm against the chill in the air. He waved the servants away when they came forward with a heavy cape trimmed in black rabbit; at least today, he would not need it. He tucked the storage ring back into his robes.
“That will be all, thank you.”
The servants bowed and crept out. Sui Zhong stayed, looking over his young master’s appearance. Lian Zhidiao watched him openly, meeting his eyes directly when Sui Zhong dared to look at his face.
Let him feel observed. Let him know that I know he will report to Lian Angua.
Sui Zhong produced a box, and from it he took out a xiaoguan made of black silk and ornamented with jet. It looked very similar to the one his father wore. Lian Zhidiao nodded, trusting Sui Zhong’s selection.
“Leave it like this. It’s cold, so I don’t care to wear it all up.” Lian Zhidiao sat down next to the bed and waited.
With light hands, Sui Zhong took down Lian Zhidiao’s hair and began to comb it out. It didn’t feel like Sui Zhong bore any ill will toward him. He was gentle with the comb and didn’t jerk his head once. He may report to my father, but I don’t think he had a bad relationship with the previous Lian Zhidiao.
“It must have been difficult for you, when I left.”
Sui Zhong’s hands hesitated for a moment. “The young master need not concern himself with this one.”
Lian Zhidiao fidgeted. “It was… rash, and foolish.”
Sui Zhong gathered his hair up and expertly folded the hair in on itself without saying anything.
“I won’t leave you in that position again,” Lian Zhidiao went on.
Again, Sui Zhong’s hands slowed, but he recovered more quickly, fastening the xiaoguan around the gathered hair on top of Lian Zhidiao’s head. But this time, Sui Zhong said nothing.
There’s nothing more I can do about that. Insisting might make it more awkward.
Still looking for something to do with his hands, Lian Zhidiao reached over to the small cabinet next to the bed and opened one of the drawers. A small jar filled with ashes, an incense press, a few slivers of agarwood. Strange to find it next to the bed, but perhaps the previous Lian Zhidiao had wanted to be perfumed even while he slept?
The drawer below that had a few folded papers in it, letters by the look of them, but they were in disarray. Doubtless someone had gone through them when he left.
Lian Zhidiao opened the drawer below that and found a few small boxes that were unmarked. Curious, he pulled one out on his lap and lifted the lid.
Nestled inside on a red cushion was a lovingly crafted jade cock, the pale swirls in the green stone worked into veins across its length. Polished to a mirror shine, it had the fine detail of a thin line to denote the foreskin, and a small slit carved at the tip. A pair of testicles, carved from the darker green part of the stone, completed the jade tool.
Lian Zhidiao put the lid back on the box, closing his eyes and willing himself to fall into the deepest reaches of the earth, never to be seen again.
Lian Zhidiao! What were you doing in your father’s house?! This has been here the whole time?! Someone has been through your things! There’s no rational explanation for this other than—
“Will young master want me to prepare the ointment this evening?”
Of course Sui Zhong knows, too!
“That won’t be necessary,” Lian Zhidiao said, clearing his throat and putting the box back into his nightstand. “Some other night, perhaps.”
Sui Zhong putting the finishing touches on his hair was the only thing keeping him from curling up into a ball on the floor.
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