There was only one way to interpret the presence of a beautifully crafted jade tool made in the shape of a penis. Only one reason for it to be kept at his bedside.
A very, very small voice in the back of Lian Zhidiao’s head suggested that maybe the original Lian Zhidiao was using it on his partner. But this didn’t explain Sui Zhong interpreting his master’s appraisal of the dildo as a time to offer ‘ointment’, whatever that was. Nor was it likely to be the case, since Lian Zhidiao had a perfectly serviceable unit himself, and so a jade facsimile was not needed. There were also the lascivious presumptions that Zhou Xianzhi had made.
And so this (it must be said again, lovingly detailed) jade dick had sat here, when his other things clearly showed signs of tampering. Sui Zhong clearly knew, and so his father clearly knew. His mother? His sisters? How loose was Sui Zhong’s tongue?
Investigation of the other boxes in the drawer once Sui Zhong had withdrawn didn’t produce anything better: one cock more roughly carved from ivory, and another one made from bronze, with a large ring attached to the base. Presumably this was so it could be pushed and pulled, with the ring as a handle. The verdict seemed clear. The original Lian Zhidiao was not only gay, he was a bottom.
Not that it was any of this Lian Zhidiao’s business, who had to deal with the fallout from his sullied reputation.
He half-expected his father to call on him for dinner that first night, but no summons came, and Sui Zhong led a bunch of servants in with a meal for him. The food was good, it was true, but company was what made eating meals enjoyable. Sui Zhong and the other servants were loyal to his father. Inviting Yue Fengjian to join him probably wouldn’t be allowed, and him leaving the family estate after having so dearly bought his father’s support would not be prudent either.
So he ate alone.
His bed, for all the action it may have seen in the past, was quite comfortable. Better than any bed in this world he’d slept in yet. The cushion was thick and soft, and Sui Zhong made sure that his room was warmed by a brazier and he didn’t want for blankets. In the morning, Sui Zhong pulled aside the netting around his master’s bed and woke him with a soft voice.
The days passed slowly; Lian Zhidiao didn’t see much of his father. His mother never called for him either. This made Lian Zhidiao suspect that even though Sui Zhong had spoken of her will as being something that had to be followed, that she was not in a position to exert her will directly. Perhaps his father had privately told her to give him the silent treatment. Lian Zhidiao supposed that it wasn’t all bad: if he had to also face a stranger-who-was-his-mother as well, it might be too much for him. He spent more time with Sui Zhong than he did with his family.
In fact, if Lian Zhidiao had to guess, the longer Sui Zhong spent with him, the more at ease he was taking care of his master, and the more fondness he seemed to show. When Lian Zhidiao made an offhand comment about wanting more pickled peppers, the next meal had an extra dish of them. Every meal after that also came with a few extra peppers in a dish. Doubtless this Lian Zhidiao’s bathing requirements were more strenuous than the original’s, but Sui Zhong saw to it that the baths were ready promptly and scented with floral water. His hand was tender when he combed out Lian Zhidiao’s hair, as if he didn’t want to give his hair a painful jerk.
After days of this kind of behavior, Lian Zhidiao developed a nagging suspicion that Sui Zhong had stayed in the Lian family’s service only to have the chance to see him again.
When a week had gone by, and a light frost overnight announced the arrival of winter, a messenger came bearing a small box, with no clue as to the sender. Sui Zhong presented it to Lian Zhidiao, his neutral expression hiding his curiosity.
Desperate for something to break up the dreadful monotony, Lian Zhidiao opened it without a second thought. Inside were a few pieces of fragrant wood, labeled with minute brushstrokes, and a small slip of paper, with instructions written down on how many parts to use of each kind of wood. .
“Incense?” Sui Zhong could not contain his curiosity any further, and had come forward to see what was inside.
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao said. But what kind of incense? “Bring me a knife and some scales.”
Once Sui Zhong did so, Lian Zhidiao carefully shaved off splinters of incense wood. Using the scale, he weighed out shavings in the correct proportions, and then placed them in the incense burner. A coal to start them burning, and within a few seconds, a blue ribbon of smoke filled the room with an unmistakable fragrance. Lian Zhidiao covered his mouth with his hand.
Yue Fengjian had sent the same incense that was used to perfume his robes. The smell was so comforting. If Lian Zhidiao closed his eyes, he could almost feel Yue Fengjian in the room with him.
He looked at the list of proportions, at the neat and regimented brush strokes. To be so close to something Yue Fengjian had touched, and yet feel so far away from him! Lian Zhidiao wafted more of the incense toward his nose, feeling as if he had been a tightly wound spring that was only now able to relax.
He thought about how isolated I would feel. He wanted to express his support, even if he couldn’t do it personally because of appearances. Then, recalling the lustful afternoon in the inn, another thought came forward. Perhaps, he is thinking of me being wrapped in his scent, as if I’d been wrapped in his robes. Used enough, the incense would impregnate his robes, making him always smell as if Yue Fengjian was by his side, even if Yue Fengjian had never been in the room.
Yue Fengjian making sure that Lian Zhidiao was always reminded of him, wanting to stain him with fragrant oil, to claim him—heat began to rise in Lian Zhidiao’s face.
Lian Zhidiao cleared his throat, well aware of his warm cheeks. “It’s a good proportion.”
“Does the young master know who sent it?”
“No,” Lian Zhidiao lied, as easily as he breathed. “But it would be a pity to waste it. I—”
His eyes fell on the slip of paper with the instructions for proportions of each wood. “I’ll write down the instructions later,” he said, tucking the paper into his sleeve, “but this should be used to perfume my robes from now on.”
Sui Zhong gave him a bow and removed the box to another room, while Lian Zhidiao enjoyed the rest of the incense. He even carried the burner around his bed, making sure the comforting smoke saturated the netting.
That original Lian Zhidiao may have been onto something, making even his bed smell this good.
That evening, his father called him to join him for a meal. Although Lian Zhidiao was not at all looking forward to the idea of seeing Lian Angua, he was looking forward to seeing someone other than Sui Zhong. A low, round table was set up in the room just off the hall, clearly sized for at least three people, and seeming too big with just two. Lian Angua came into the room, looking more stately than he had when he blustered into the hall last week, and he even offered his son a smile.
“You have settled back into your rooms. I trust Sui Zhong made sure that everything was satisfactory.”
“Yes, Honored Father,” Lian Zhidiao said, forcing himself to give a gentle smile. “It is like I never left.”
A curious look crossed Lian Angua’s face, but it passed and he didn’t comment on that statement. “You haven’t left to visit any of your old haunts.”
Lian Zhidiao’s face fell into a serious expression. “My honored father is taking such extensive measures to restore my standing in the eyes of Sect Leader Wa. I dare not do anything to place such delicate negotiations in jeopardy.”
“Not even for a visit to a teahouse?”
“And pass by many eyes on the way there, to be entertained behind closed doors?” Lian Zhidiao shook his head. It was far too likely that his well-besmirched reputation would lead to someone getting the wrong idea, setting tongues wagging all over Jiuluwei City. With his luck, he’d end up at that kind of teahouse, and much worse off than before.
The fine lines in Lian Angua’s face softened as he hummed in understanding.. “Your thoughtfulness is uncharacteristic, but perhaps spending the last two years as you have has been instructive for you.”
Oh. Hearing that in his father’s voice made a lump rise in his throat.
Well, if the original Lian Zhidiao wasn’t exactly thoughtful, this Lian Zhidiao couldn’t really say he was surprised by the news. After all, he’d run away from his familial duty, lied about Hu Baitian’s involvement in a plot, stolen a jade beast, slept with two brothers, possibly at the same time—if anything, only someone else taking over his life could save his reputation. It was just unfortunate that he took his own life before things could really improve for him.
“Your rectitude has not gone unnoticed.” Lian Angua said after finishing a bite. “Sui Zhong has told me that there are whispers of your return in the streets, but that you have not been seen. Sect Leader Wa himself expressed doubts that Yingyue could be convinced of your presence without seeing for herself.”
A clammy feeling spread on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck. “I see. This foolish son did not consider that.”
Lian Angua shook his head. “There is no need to worry. Sect Leader Wa has agreed to bring Yingyue to a dinner here in a few days where the two of you can become reacquainted.” He took a sip from his tea. “You will apologize to her for your behavior and seek her forgiveness.”
Lian Zhidiao’s appetite fled; he laid down his chopsticks. “And if she does not forgive me?”
“That is not something you, I, or even Sect Leader Wa can control,” Lian Angua said. “Which is why you should throw yourself on her mercy, without reserve.” He spoke in a distant, casual way, as if this were the easiest thing in the world to do.
Throwing myself upon her mercy. As if he had not suffered embarrassment enough at throwing himself on his father’s mercy, at his business being the topic of discussion among the town. It would be worse still if everyone knew that he was gay, and that this marriage—
That this marriage will be a sham from the beginning.
“This humble son will spare nothing in seeking Wa Yingyue’s grace,” Lian Zhidiao said in a hollow voice.
Folding his hands in his lap, Lian Angua smiled, pleased with the change in his son’s attitude. “Once you have convinced Wa Yingyue of your sincerity, the preparations for the wedding will resume.”
Bitterness flooded Lian Zhidiao’s heart. He should be grateful for the chance to regain his standing, to help his father secure the family’s future, but instead, he felt only resentment. He nodded, bowing his head to his father. “Of course, Honored Father.”
Lian Angua sat back from the table, looking satisfied. “Once the future has been secured, you can work as you like on your own projects, of course. Master Guizai will want to see you back for more training. Long periods of seclusion will make time pass in the blink of an eye.” A slightly misty look entered his eye. “Before you know it, you’ll have children of your own that you will want to see married and successful, with children of their own.”
Lian Zhidiao wasn’t sure about that. But Lian Angua seemed to have made up his mind about it. Having yoked himself to his father’s ambitions, he could only nod. The dinner concluded, and Lian Zhidiao returned to his chambers, his outlook bleak. The braziers had been lit, but there were no lanterns lit; doubtless something had called Sui Zhong away.
Upon smelling Yue Fengjian’s incense lingering in his room, his heart twisted painfully again. He sank to his knees next to his bed, pressing his face against the cushion. Already, it smelled of the man who wasn’t there, and this alone kept him from bursting into tears.
It’s just a marriage.
Would Yue Fengjian even be interested in him once he was married? Would they both be unfaithful? Historically, it had always been the prerogative of powerful men to have whatever they wished, but only as long as other prerequisites were satisfied.
The wife, the kids. Lian Zhidiao inhaled the scent of Yue Fengjian’s incense.
It’s just a marriage.
Lian Zhidiao heard footsteps coming down the low wooden walkway that led to his buildings. Letting out a wistful sigh, he pulled himself together and got to his feet before a knock sounded on the door.
“Enter,” he said wearily.
Sui Zhong had the restrained, polite excitement of a servant who has just learned of his master’s windfall. He was a touch out-of-breath as he spoke. “Gongzi, your father has just told me about the visit to be made by Sect Leader Wa.” Sui Zhong gave him an earnest smile. “We will make every effort to impress her with your sincerity, gongzi.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded.
Sui Zhong at last seemed to realized his master’s enervation; concern slowly ate away at his smile. “Is there something wrong?”
“I… have my own fears about the marriage meeting.”
There was a long pause, so long that it seemed like Sui Zhong had been struck speechless or otherwise rendered mute. He was more subdued when he spoke again, quiet trepidation in his voice. “You said as much before.”
Lian Zhidiao looked up. “Before?”
“Those years ago.” Concern was written over Sui Zhong’s face.
Ah, so original Lian Zhidiao did confide in him.
“I see,” Lian Zhidiao said. “I didn’t know if you would remember that.”
“How could this one forget?” Sui Zhong’s voice was soft.
“What should I do?” It was probably inappropriate to ask his servant for advice, but by this point, the outcast Lian Zhidiao had no one else he could ask. Though he was heavily compromised to Lian Angua, Sui Zhong was still the closest thing Lian Zhidiao had to a friend at the moment.
“All of us have our parts to play, gongzi.” He hesitated for a moment and then continued, “It brought me great joy to hear that you had returned and that this one could once again lift you up above the others. Our lives have been linked since we were young. Naturally, this one will do whatever he can to ensure your courtship goes well.”
Hearing Sui Zhong profess such strong loyalty to him wasn’t the kind of comfort he wanted, but it sounded like it might be possible to steal such loyalty away from his father.
Lian Zhidiao forced a smile. It wasn’t the way he’d thought sacrificing himself would work, but modern interpretations of cannon fodder could probably include this. “We’ll do our best, then,” he said gently.
Sui Zhong smiled back, and Lian Zhidiao felt a sinking feeling at this display of genuine happiness and willingness to serve. It wasn’t Sui Zhong’s fault. It was his own personal failings that made it impossible for him to accept something offered so generously.
The next few days dragged on, until at last the date of the dinner was fixed, eleven days after he arrived. For the occasion, Sui Zhong suggested a robe adorned with a motif of paired cranes under a gold-embroidered willow, to express his desire to be married in the approaching spring. Lian Zhidiao agreed without argument.
The morning of Wa Zhuangzhou’s visit, Lian Zhidiao spent half the morning in a bath, and had his robes heavily perfumed with Yue Fengjian’s incense. Sui Zhong put his hair up in a sleek topknot with a gold xiaoguan, and accented his eyes with a small bit of rouge. Lian Zhidiao kept the Yue storage ring near him like a talisman, and waited.
Wa Zhuangzhou and Wa Yingyue arrived in a litter, their family crest of a mist-shrouded lantern prominently emblazoned in gold on the side. No doubt the purpose of their slow crawl through city streets was being seen by those who would spread gossip.
Lian Angua waited for Wa Zhuangzhou to alight from the litter before cupping his hands and offering him a bow that was appropriately respectful and conciliatory.
The reclusive sect leader bowed back before turning his eyes to Lian Zhidiao. He had a high forehead, with a brooding brow, and thin, pursed lips. He did not look like a man who spent very much time being happy, but to Lian Zhidiao’s surprise he smiled, and offered him a bow.
Lian Zhidiao bowed back. He doesn’t seem too bad.
Wa Zhuangzhou turned, offering his hand to help his daughter out of the litter.
Upon seeing her, Lian Zhidiao could not help but think that his original estimation was right: Wa Yingyue was the most beautiful of all the women he’d written. She had lips like ripe cherries, silken black hair pulled into loops on top of her head, decorated with flowers and jet-adorned hairpins. Her eyes were tilted upwards; phoenix eyes, like Yue Fengjian. She looked every inch the fairy maiden, her cheeks the color of pale peach blossoms, her skin as luminous as a pearl against her sheer black robes. These were embroidered with white peonies, edged with gold. On the robe underneath, a lantern.
For all its beauty, her face was carefully set in a mask of pleasantness, as if it had been carved into stone.
Lian Zhidiao met her with a bow, which she returned gracefully, her demure smile giving him hope that perhaps she might actually forgive him. With his hand on the rudder, he could steer Wa Zhuangzhou’s goodwill to the Yue sect.