Wa Zhuangzhou and Lian Angua led the way through the gardens, with the prospective newlyweds walking behind them. At Lian Zhidiao’s side, Wa Yingyue glided with the air of a fairy, seeming to float above the ground as they slipped between golden leaves and dying grasses to the great hall.
Soft footsteps followed along behind him at a distance, slipping in and out of the shadows of plantings, darting down side paths, doing his best to be unobtrusive. Sui Zhong. So heavily invested in the outcome of the marriage meeting that he couldn’t stay away. If it were anyone else, he might have thought it the work of someone collecting gossip, but Sui Zhong’s loyalty was genuine. And Lian Zhidiao wasn’t the only one to notice it.
“Your servant follows you so closely,” Wa Yingyue said. “Is he always attached at your hip?” Her tone sounded sweet and innocent enough.
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao replied, feeling a little pleased with Sui Zhong, even if he himself had not been the one to earn such loyalty. “He’s well acquainted with my needs and fulfills them without being told, anticipates my desires in things that should please me, and speaks well when given occasion to.”
“Mm,” Wa Yingyue hummed appreciatively. “I should like to have such a loyal servant. Won’t you give him to me?”
Give him to her? The only person he could count on in this viper’s nest of a house? Lian Zhidiao smiled uneasily. “A man’s servant is different from a woman’s,” he said at last. “I doubt he could know the concerns of a woman as well as he does those of a man.”
“Oh?” Her smile widened. “The concerns of women are more difficult to satisfy, not less. If he has reached his pinnacle with you, then he can only improve as my servant.”
Is she suggesting that being in my service is a dead end? He may not have been used to having servants, but Sui Zhong was so genuine that Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but think of him as a friend, one he desperately needed at the moment. Irritation pricked Lian Zhidiao’s scalp. But he kept his voice light and pleasant. “Then once we are wed, you may command him to your heart’s content.”
The smile on her face flickered and then she resumed looking forward as they approached the great hall.
Lian Zhidiao wasn’t sure whether that was a battle he won or not, but at least he seemed to have avoided a heavy casualty.
Warmth poured out of the open doors, sweeping the garden’s chill from their limbs as they approached the great hall. Sui Zhong was hovering behind the orange color of a wisteria trained to trellis just off the path when Lian Zhidiao, pausing at the threshold, caught his eye.
At this subtle acknowledgement, Sui Zhong hurried forward, and Lian Zhidiao leaned in to speak, keeping his voice down.
“I will endeavor to speak to my lady alone after dinner, before she leaves. Have my black rabbit cape ready so that she may walk with me comfortably.”
“Yes, gongzi,” Sui Zhong said, glancing beyond him into the hall. “And afterward?”
Lian Zhidiao searched Sui Zhong’s face, puzzled. “Afterward?”
“Would the young master desire some wine before bed?” Sui Zhong’s expression was clear and eager; his desire to help Lian Zhidiao couldn’t be more plain.
Drinking after this? Was there any way it could end in something worth celebrating? Or would he be drowning himself in wine for another reason? “It will be a very long night until then,” he murmured, glancing at the occupants of the hall as they sat down. “I should like to relax, but I don’t feel like drinking, so I think I will go straight to bed.”
Sui Zhong nodded smartly and gave his master a crisp bow. “I will make the preparations, gongzi,” he replied.
Lian Zhidiao blinked. What a curious reply. Then he felt the eyes of his father on him through the open door and he couldn’t put off entering the great hall any longer.
Braziers with red-hot coals kept the large hall warm, even stuffy. Standing lanterns were already lit in anticipation of the coming sunset, driving away the shadows between ceiling beams and setting gold leaf and lacquer aglitter. At a broad table set up in the center of the room, the Wa sat on one side, and the Lian on the other, with the parents and betrothed facing each other respectively. The formal distance between noble cultivators wasn’t observed here; this was more intimate, more familiar.
A servant brought in tea, and Wa Yingyue served them, pouring a delicately fragranced ribbon of tea into each cup. Wa Zhuangzhou began to look at his ease; the brooding cast to his expression faded into serenity as he took the golden cup in his hands and sipped from it, the picture of refinement. Although this was ostensibly a meeting for the purposes of their children’s marriage, it seemed that Wa Zhuangzhou and Lian Angua had already moved past this point in their conversation some time ago. There was no mention of ‘take care of my girl’ or ‘my son is a very hard worker’: the bloviating that Lian Zhidiao had expected between prospective fathers-in-law was missing entirely.
I suppose they must have had all those talks years ago, when this was first agreed upon. Lian Zhidiao glanced at Wa Yingyue, who was paying close attention to her father. In the end, all they need is for me to do my part. In his lap, he gathered his hands into loose fists. All Yue Fengjian needs is for me to do my part.
“Even though it has been but a few days since we spoke, I have news to share with you.” Wa Zhuangzhou had an amiable voice; he was clearly eager to broach whatever topic he had brought with him.
Lian Angua’s expression was neutral. “Oh?”
“I received a message from Sect Leader Zhou Tai’an just yesterday.”
Lian Angua lifted his chin, suddenly interested. “What was his proposition?”
Wa Zhuangzhou smiled. “You know him well enough to know that he always has one.”
Lian Zhidiao’s heart lifted a little bit at the sight of Wa Zhuangzhou’s smile. It wasn’t as precious as Yue Fengjian’s smile, but it did much to banish the image of an unsociable recluse. If Wa Yingyue was a fairy, then her father’s beauty, while severe, certainly made him a fairy king.
Wa Zhuangzhou put his cup down, letting out a small sigh. “As you’ve already suspected, he wanted to know if I had any candidates in mind for their Living Memory.”
“Their Living Memory.” Lian Angua could not hide a knowing smirk. “Have they run out of orphans with good spiritual roots?”
A Living Memory. Lian Zhidiao’s brow creased. What could that be?
“Just so,” Wa Zhuangzhou replied. “Their list of candidates grows perilously short, he tells me. They only have two candidates in line for the next four years. And these may have to serve longer terms.”
“They should record their manuals by hand as a backup,” Lian Angua replied with a dismissive tone.
“Just so,” Wa Zhuangzhou agreed. “The current Living Memory has already undertaken this task, he says. But with over a thousand years of techniques, it will take some time.”
“And the seniors, the bearers of the Whisk?” Lian Angua said, pointedly. “Can they not simply draw upon previous Living Memories to shoulder the burden again?”
“They never have before,” Wa Zhuangzhou said, inclining his head to concede that raising the point was valid. “Despite there being no fewer than 30 or 40 in the Order.”
“And perhaps several more who do not maintain their membership.”
Wa Zhuangzhou nodded. “The Purple Orchid demands a contribution, which is harder and harder for the members to satisfy as they collect more and more techniques.” His eyes flashed briefly to Lian Zhidiao.
Lian Zhidiao met his eyes, his expression slowly changing to one of realization. Technique hunters like Zhou Xianzhi and Zhou Xiangu. The Zhou sect is well-known for their technique hunters; the Living Memory must be the ultimate destination of those techniques. He swallowed a feeling of unease that rose in his throat under Wa Zhuangzhou’s eyes.
“And it’s true that those holders of the Whisk who knew the techniques might be easily targeted. Still,” Wa Zhuangzhou continued, “I suspect there must be some thornier reason they cannot don the mantle again.”
“Even if we knew such a reason, who could say the Zhou explanation could be trusted? They might say anything if a rare technique was in the offing.” Lian Angua’s mild derision lent a twist to his lips. “So will you help him?”
“Probably,” Wa Zhuangzhou said, his thin fingers pale even against the silver scrollwork on his teacup. “There are one or two orphans in the academy who might be suitable. Perhaps you could write to your brother and have him survey his students there?”
Lian Angua accepted Wa Zhuangzhou’s directive without questioning it, the lips that had previously sneered curving in a smile. “Of course. I would be delighted to do so.”
Hearing his father be this agreeable towards his social betters chafed against his psyche. Only a tyrant to those who can’t fight back. Lian Zhidiao glanced briefly at Wa Yingyue, only to find her looking back at him. Startled, he lowered his eyes.
They were interrupted by servants bringing in the evening meal. It was sumptuous, with braised chicken, spiced and sweet with fennel, boiled spicy fish, dumplings, a clear soup, bean curd lightly fried with green onions, and oranges to satisfy a sweet tooth. The warming meal was greeted with satisfaction as the temperature began to drop outside.
After the dishes had been cleared, warmed wine was brought in. Wa Zhuangzhou and Lian Angua slipped into deliberation about the sect and the various masters who were teaching their own disciples, weighing which ones were promising and which ones were lagging behind. They even considered setting up a tournament of sorts to determine who was the strongest among the juniors, and Wa Yingyue began chiming in with names that Lian Zhidiao didn’t recognize, speaking positively about their development. The atmosphere was easy-going and friendly.
But he had much to discuss with her and there would be no better time to ask Wa Yingyue to walk with him. At the risk of breaking the relaxed mood, Lian Zhidiao smiled across the table at her. “Would my lady care to join me for a short walk?”
She looked to her father for permission. Wa Zhuangzhou met his daughter’s eyes, before giving Lian Zhidiao an approving smile and nod.
No sooner had Lian Zhidiao followed Wa Yingyue outside than Sui Zhong appeared at his elbow, offering his black rabbit cape. He had even warmed it. After relinquishing it to his master, he melted into the shadows. Resolving to reward him later, Lian Zhidiao settled it around Wa Yingyue’s shoulders to ward off the chill.
The sun had already sunk beyond the garden wall; servants lingered in the eaves of the side buildings, scuttling away as Lian Zhidiao and Wa Yingyue walked through the garden. It was not yet cold enough to freeze the water around the footings. There were no splashes of inquisitive carp coming to the surface; they sheltered in the warmer depths.
How was this done? He’d gotten as far as this, but he had no idea how to actually go about winning her over. Lian Zhidiao snuck a look at Wa Yingyue. Her eyes were lowered. The cold brought pink blooms to her cheeks in the beginning of winter. Given the rarity of second chances, he should feel honored to court her, but instead he felt only trepidation, glazed with guilt. It wouldn’t be that bad a sacrifice. He could do what he had to in order to secure an heir. But he didn’t love her.
What could he do if these were the circumstances of his second life? It’s not that bad to stay alive like this! He repeated it to himself again, and then again, looking at the light catching in her hair, the embroidery shining on her robes.
Reading this story earlier in his life, he would have railed against the bad choices of a character like himself. Acting only to please his father? Making sensible moves to secure his future and the future of his sect? Forgoing the desires of his heart for duty? Leave that pragmatic crap out of an adventure novel! But here he was, trapped in a box of his predecessor’s making, hemmed in between his own decisions and his heart. He could not stop the way he felt about Yue Fengjian any more than he could summon up more than a forced smile for Wa Yingyue now.
Somehow, I ended up with this kind of forbidden desire in a harem novel. If he’d known this would be his fate, he would have worked harder to guard his heart against falling in love with his own protagonist.
“Lian-shidi is staring at me most attentively,” Wa Yingyue said as they walked past a lit brazier. Her voice was gentle, with a sweet tone. “Has he forgotten what I look like?”
“How could one forget such beauty?”
Wa Yingyue gave a secretive smile. “You don’t need to flatter me so, Lian-shidi. We have known each other for so long that it lands poorly on my ear.”
Lian Zhidiao winced inwardly. Doubtless beautiful women like her heard this kind of thing all the time. “I did not intend offense.”
“You have always had such borrowed ideas of flattery,” she responded. “Can’t you come up with anything on your own?”
With my head full of visions of broad shoulders and a stern face? No! I cannot!
“I fear that I alone am no longer good enough,” Lian Zhidiao said. “Borrowing the valor of better men is the only way I can hope to redeem myself.”
Her lips quirked in a small smile. “At least this part of you is still the same,” she said. “Never afraid to use what you can to get ahead.”
“I will… take that as a compliment, even if my lady doesn’t intend it as one.”
She pulled the black rabbit cape closer around her body. “As usual, you will pick what suits you without a thought for other people.” She turned to face him, the railing overlooking the pond at her back. Her dark eyes appraised him before she continued. “That’s why we work so well together.”
Lian Zhidiao blinked. “I don’t take your meaning.”
“Don’t be coy,” she said. “I have always liked that kind of distant, detached air you have, the way you looked at juniors and excoriated us for our faults, reading out a list of the smallest infractions of the rules.” She gave a sharp gasp of laughter at Lian Zhidiao’s lined brow. “Don’t pretend you didn’t, I can still see your little face as you took my brother to task for failing to prepare his medicine by stirring the correct number of times.”
Oh, he really didn’t remember it. He drew himself up, affecting a sense of righteousness. “It’s a senior’s duty to correct his juniors.”
Wa Yingyue didn’t seem to notice him puffing himself up. “I think it’s because you were so lonely out there with Guizai. You jumped at any chance to spend time with us when you came back to the city, but you were so bad at it.” She hid a chuckle behind her sleeve.
The good humor that she was feeling from reminiscing about their past couldn’t reach Lian Zhidiao. He cleared his throat uncomfortably.
She turned to look down into the pond below them. “It’s good that you brought me out here. We can speak at our ease and make sure everything is out in the open.”
“So you’re ready to talk about the marriage then,” he said.
“In so many words,” she replied. “You seem to understand your place in this match better than you did before.”
Warning bells rang in Lian Zhidiao’s head, but he pushed them aside. “My lady sounds as if she already has something in mind to say.”
“I do. This marriage will proceed solely at my discretion. I may play the good daughter for my father, but only as far as I care to.” Her dark eyes were direct. “Our marriage will be the same.”
“You have…demands that you would make of me.”
“I have requirements.”
The edge of winter cut through the many layers of Lian Zhidiao’s robes, but it was warm in comparison to the chill that ran down his spine. “What are those?”
“You won’t find them too much, I assure you.” Her small white hands poked out of the black rabbit cape and wrapped around the railing, as if she were holding on to a ship pitching in heavy seas. “Not long after we are wed, you will become a guardian of the cache of the Swords of the Myriad Dead, as you would have always been. In public, I will be your obedient wife, but in private I will speak my mind as I desire. You will have no power over me. I will not give you my heart; you lost any chance at that long ago. We can produce an heir, but beyond that, we are husband and wife in name only.” She turned to offer him a wry smile. “But then again, that was always your plan, wasn’t it?”
Lian Zhidiao swallowed down the lump in his throat. “And in our old age? Will you have no loyalty for me or my family after I have been so faithful to you?”
“Don’t misunderstand, I won’t shirk my duty to your family,” she said airly. “But my youth doesn’t belong to you. I won’t waste it on someone who won’t hold me above everyone else.”
Lian Zhidiao licked his lips. “Then I have some demands of my own, as long as we are being honest.”
“Of course you do,” she said, her smile fading. She held his eyes, her attention sharp, daring him to say something.
“Give me the ear of your father,” he said, his hand in a fist at his side. “I need him to listen to me, and trust me on worldly matters with regard to other sects.”
“Oh?” Her eyebrows lifted. “It’s unlike you to care about sect politics.”
“Traveling has made me friends in other sects, and their causes are now my own.”
She let out a small sigh. “You know how he feels about outsiders, so you’ll have to make your case to Father yourself, but you’ll have ample opportunity to do that.” She was matter-of-fact, almost chatty, about the difficulties he would soon face. “Especially once he elevates you to Master and allows you to take on students.”
Lian Zhidiao clenched his jaw. Alone out in the bogs and fens, he doubted he would have much time to speak to Wa Zhuangzhou of politics or daring forays to do battle with an existential demon threat. He would still have to contend with Guizai, and whatever troops of humans or demons that came along prepared to kill him for the chance to grab the swords. Could he even get along with Guizai? He had no idea one way or the other. Potentially, the life in front of him was lonely and distant, no different than the life he’d left behind in the modern world.
“You aren’t saying much,” Wa Yingyue said, intruding on his reverie. “Is that really all you desire out of our marriage?” She sounded a little disappointed, but a fairy princess like her must be used to men laying down their lives for her beauty. By comparison, Lian Zhidiao’s response to her was as flat as a piece of paper.
At first, Lian Zhidiao couldn’t say anything. He’d wagered so much on this chance, he couldn’t say no. But agreeing to it felt like signing his life away for a pittance. A moment later, his shoulders slumped in defeat. “I’m sure we can smooth out any differences in the future with frank discussion,” he all but mumbled.
Wa Yingyue’s answering smile was warm and genuine. “I’m glad,” she said, stepping close to him. With some fondness in her touch, she pushed his hair back from his face, gazing earnestly into his eyes. “It seems like a lot, but we won’t be unhappy, I promise.”
And then she swung the black rabbit cape off her shoulders. Pressing it into his hands, she walked back down the garden path to the great hall alone.
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