Chapter 50: Time And Again, We’ll Find Each Other

Content Warning For Chapter 50: Gore, Decapitation

Lian Zhidiao’s eyes widened. Where did he go? 

The sound of the river flowing filled his ears.  He turned in place, his boot scraping up some of the river pebbles. But there was nothing behind him, not a whiff of perfume or incense or blood, no sound of breathing or gnashing of teeth. 

Maybe stopping to face him was a bad idea… although I don’t really like the idea of fighting in flight either. 

He shook his head, turning in place again and looking around him. He had to think. What advantages did he have? What advantages did the demon have?

He frowned, trying to figure out what he knew. The demon didn’t have a sword; the impression that he was a cultivator flying like any other cultivator would have been part of the illusion. 

But he had that dagger, the one made with black steel. He’ll have to move quickly and get inside my guard to use it or risk being run through. Being armed with only a dagger also means ambush is his best chance of catching me.

Lian Zhidiao turned again, backing up toward the river. But no sword means he can fly on his own, or maybe he has some other device he’s using to fly. Perhaps he used a jade tool, or whatever demons used instead of jade tools. 

Flight and ambush means…

He felt the killing intent wink into existence above him, boring into his skull, down his spine. It skewered him, an awful, bladed spit, from nose to tip. He raised Shanzhen even as he lifted his head. Their eyes met above their blades, the faint glow of demon-red already visible in twilight. The black, nameless dagger met Shanzhen, white with lightning. 

A wave of pressure exploded from them where they met, blowing the two of them apart. The demon’s snarling howl echoed off the river. 

Lian Zhidiao stared wide-eyed, at the furrow carved between them, at his enemy, fully stripped of the illusion of being human. The demon’s loose white hair tangled around his horns as he spit fury in a language Lian Zhidiao did not know. 

“You went to so much effort to follow me from Shengmen City. You should curse my blood so that I can understand you,” he admonished. “Your name, demon.” 

The demon’s red eyes narrowed, the only part of color in his entire body. “Do you want this mighty one’s name to be the last thing to echo in your round ears?” 

“I will give my name as well, so that it can be the last thing to cut into yours.” 

The demon growled. “This mighty one is called Zhang Hundun, though knowing it will not give you the upper hand.” 

“I am Lian Zhidiao. You may call me gongzi, if you wish.” 

Anger took hold of Zhang Hundun, and he snarled, “Such impudence! You’ve not earned any deference from me. This mighty one cannot see it!” 

Lian Zhidiao’s connection with Shanzhen was strong, but he fed it more of his qi, joining them together more completely. “Come at me directly, then, and I will show you.” 

Zhang Hundun launched himself at Lian Zhidiao. 

Though the Wa sect was obsessed with beauty, when it came to swordplay, their techniques resembled those of the Yue sect much more than those of their allies, the Zhou. Where the Zhou sword moved fluidly to exploit holes that the enemy left on his own, the Wa sect created openings with quick, misleading movements, or outright sabotage. It was about using whatever weaknesses the enemy had against him, then dominating him with a sudden blow of cruelty. 

As a magician, he had the option of spinning qi into elemental magic. As someone who did not sight along his spindle like an arrow, who could understand the jade spindle-weight as the sights of a gun, he was singularly deadly. 

The swordplay which Lian Zhidiao had known for months in a purely academic sense, which had seemed lifeless and tired without a spiritual weapon, now awakened in his arms and legs. The constant, grinding point of killing intent against his chest made clear that he could not afford to hesitate even for a moment. If he did, he would die.

The dagger was aimed at his heart; Shanzhen rang as it struck the blade and dragged down the metal. They were face-to-face, Zhang Hundun trying to push his dagger home, and Lian Zhidiao holding him at bay. 

With a shout, Lian Zhidiao pushed the demon off of him and made space with a swing of Shanzhen; lightning crawled down the blade. He spun metal through the silk belt; it would not take much. He held the string of qi taut; his spindle-weight hovered at his side, out of the way of his sword. 

Zhang Hundun came at him again, riving the air with the dagger. 

Lian Zhidiao parried him once, twice, clang, clang. 

Undaunted, Zhang Hundun launched himself forward. 

Lian Zhidiao parried again, turning in place. He planted his foot, raised his sword and then let his metal spell fly. 

The crack of a gunshot echoed across the river. It didn’t hit Zhang Hundun, but it didn’t matter. Flinching, the demon raised his dagger. Lian Zhidiao stepped into the opening in Zhang Hundun’s defenses and brought Shanzhen up, turning the thread of qi between him and his sword into a rope, into a bridge, into a highway. He was looking into the demon’s eyes when Shanzhen bit into his side and a column of lightning blinded them both. 

A clap of thunder split the cloudless night sky. The acrid smell of ozone filled the air; Lian Zhidiao had no choice but to breathe it in. Blinded by the afterimage, his ears ringing, he didn’t let go of Shanzhen. He could feel weight on the end of it. And then he felt it slowly slide off. 

He produced a flame from his spindle-weight, blinking against the dark-bright shape of light still buzzing in his vision. 

Lying on the river rocks was Zhang Hundun, his face frozen in a grimace.

Without hesitating, Lian Zhidiao stumbled over and grabbed that white hair in his fist. With two blows from Shanzhen, the heavy weight of Zhang Hundun’s head was dangling from his fingers. 

He threw it away from him with a grunt and sank to his knees. 

It’s over. He’s dead, it’s over. 

His eyes fell upon the dagger in Zhang Hundun’s hand. 

No, there’s one more thing that has to be done, isn’t there?

He ripped open the front of Zhang Hundun’s robes with it, like cutting open a parcel. Somewhere near the dantian…

The black blade was wickedly sharp. Zhang Hundun’s flesh seemed to fall apart almost before the edge touched him. Lian Zhidiao pulled his sleeve back and pushed his hand inside the wound he’d made. The demon’s innards were tight and bitterly cold, in a way that seemed to suck the heat from his skin. He could feel nothing but blood and slime and the tense, marble-like smoothness of muscle, and was about to give up looking when his fingers grazed something round. Carefully, carefully, Lian Zhidiao closed his hand around it and brought it out. Within a few moments, Zhang Hundun’s midsection caved in. His skin turned gray, like a log burned to coals, and his body began to collapse into piles of ash. 

Lian Zhidiao opened his fingers. 

Cupped in his palm was a sphere, perfectly black, but not like the color of his robes, or his hair. This blackness consumed the light of his torch and returned a dulled reflection only when the flame was very close and very bright. 

A demon core. 

A quick glance over at where he’d thrown Zhang Hundun’s head showed that it, too, was crumbling into powder. So it wasn’t Yue Fengjian crushing the demon core that destroyed the body. Taking possession of the core itself destroys the body. Lian Zhidiao took in a deep breath. Good to know, but now what do I do with it? 

The core was full of demonic energy, the refined form of deviate qi. If deviate qi alone could turn the earth tainted, then demonic energy might well turn the earth crawling in one fell swoop. In Sancha Town, the earth had already been tainted, so adding whatever was in a demon core, even a strong one, was unlikely to make things worse. But here… 

Lian Zhidiao took a moment to use earth-seeing, pressing his mind into the ground. To his dismay, everything here seemed relatively normal, with correct and deviate qi in balance. Lingering in his mind was the image of the ground he’d poisoned with just a mouthful of deviate qi from the qilin. Without a jade beast, who knew how long that would take to fade away? The stuff in a demon core had to be at least that concentrated, if not more so. But demons became more powerful by consuming the cores of other demons. So leaving it here for something else to find was out of the question.

Lian Zhidiao looked up at the night sky, the unfamiliar waning moon, the stars in their different patterns. In the high steppes, it was too dangerous for humans to fly at night. They’d even landed well before sunset if it meant they wouldn’t make it to another caravanserai before night fell. 

Yue Fengjian definitely wouldn’t attempt to fly at night; he knew the dangers too well. Demons, however, were at their strongest and most mobile at night. A lightning strike on a clear evening would probably draw the attention of anything in the vicinity looking to exploit a weak target.

He couldn’t stay here and be prey for the demons, he could neither destroy the demon core nor leave it here, and Yue Fengjian definitely wouldn’t be coming to his rescue before dawn. 

A small bubble of water from his spindle-weight cleaned his hands, the dagger, and the demon core. Contact with water hardened the outside of the demon core into a glassy surface that now properly reflected light, like a marble of pure black jet. 

Lian Zhidiao took the storage ring out of his robes and opened it, then slipped the dagger and the demon core inside and tucked the ring away again. He dropped Shanzhen for flight. With a kick to scatter the last of Zhang Hundun, he slipped off in low flight over the black water. He stole away from the scene of his fight, hiding the faint sounds of his escape in the noise of the river. 

Without light to guide him, he went fast, but not far. The river crept down over the countryside, hemmed in by trees and heavy brush. Then, on the south bank, the bank was wrapped in soft grasses. Lian Zhidiao dropped into the grasses like he would fall into a thick feather bed. It was a chilly night, but he didn’t dare build a fire; it would draw too much attention. He tucked himself under the leaves and fell into an uneasy sleep, jerking awake at the soft hooting of owls, or the occasional splash of a fish. By the time dawn began to limn the horizon, he was sleeping soundly. 

Hours later, warmed by the rays of the sun, Lian Zhidiao slowly opened his eyes, squinting up at the bright sky. Slowly, it all sank in—all that had happened the day before. He watched birds twitter and flap about overhead, feeling tired and slightly numb. 

I should keep going. But exhaustion weighed down his arms and legs, and he didn’t get up to continue flying. 

A magpie flew low across the river and over his head, coming to rest on the tall silver stump of a tree that had been split in a storm. Resplendent in black and white, the magpie lingered where it landed, on the edge of a strangely-shaped hollow, and then leaned down to scrape its beak on the wood. 

Lian Zhidiao rolled to his side, looking at the magpie, and then at the tree. 

I feel like I have seen a tree like that before. 

The magpie turned its dark head toward him and gave a sharp call, like a burst of fire from a laser rifle in a video game. 

The strange hollow called his attention, dark in the silver, weathered wood; he traced it with his eye. Slowly, the hair on the back of his neck began to stand on end. 

Lian Zhidiao stumbled to his feet. The magpie called a warning of short, angry screeches, to which Lian Zhidiao bowed his head. Agitated, the magpie flew away, but Lian Zhidiao could not escape the pull the tree had on him. Even though the hollow looked inviting, as if the magpie would have hidden trinkets inside, he knelt in front of it. 

Something was buried here, wasn’t there? 

He pulled the grass between the roots up by the fistful, clearing away the worms and beetles. 

It WAS here, wasn’t it? 

But though he pawed through the damp earth, getting mud under his fingernails, there was nothing there. A blood-soaked token buried here had long ago been sniffed out and dug up. Deflated, he sat on his knees for a moment before he remembered.

No, there was one more, the most important one. He turned and looked at the river. One more for A-Feng. 

He hopped on Shanzhen, flying slowly over the river. He inspected the overgrowth on either side, looking into the shadows for things he recognized. The encroachment of nature over the bridge was so complete that he would have missed it entirely if the stones scattered on the shore had not been so regularly shaped. Under a carpet of deep green leaves, he could just make out the dressed stone of bridge abutments. 

The high arch bridge collapsed. And just beyond the bridge… Lian Zhidiao craned his neck as he floated past the vine-encrusted stone.

A muddy shore, and beyond it, a flat bank, thick with sweet field grasses.  

The thrill of discovery raced down his spine. Just like in the memory.

He looked at the river, remembering how cold the water was, how swift the current. From his previous experience with rivers, Lian Zhidiao knew that he would not want to get dunked in this one and spend the rest of the day shivering. 

Stripping naked to keep his clothes dry was the sensible choice. 

His eyes fell on the ruined bridge. No road, no traffic, and no signs of anyone living on the river either, so he wasn’t likely to inadvertently flash anyone. 

Lian Zhidiao carefully set Shanzhen down in the grass, far away from the water. His warm, dry boots were used to keep it up off the grass, away from any dew that might still be lingering. He untied the woven silk belt with his spindle weight, and put that next to Shanzhen. Then he uncinched his sash and peeled away his outer robes until he was just in his inner clothes. 

He loosened his upper garment and slipped it off his thin shoulders. As he folded it to put on top of his robes, an autumn wind snaked around him, making gooseflesh rise on his skin. He chafed his arms with a doubtful look at the black river. 

Why couldn’t I have found this place in the heat of summer? The cold might have been refreshing then! 

He delayed a little longer, dreading the icy plunge. 

And it was at this moment that another cultivator zipped down the river, a blur of red as fast as a falcon. 

While I am in THIS state of undress, no less! 

Lian Zhidiao had just registered that it was a human, in red, when the cultivator wheeled around, and Lian Zhidiao recognized that strong physique, that huge sword, that high ponytail rippling in the wind. Lian Zhidiao fumbled for his inner robe, hastily wrapping it back around his body. Equal measures of surprised, relieved, and embarrassed, Lian Zhidiao still couldn’t keep a brilliant smile from lighting up his face as Yue Fengjian landed on the grassy bank, just a few meters away from him. 

Wallbreaker sheathed itself in Yue Fengjian’s hand; he was breathing heavily, as if he had been sprinting since daylight broke. He had his usual stern expression, but his keen eyes raked Lian Zhidiao, even as he closed the distance between them. 

“Yue Fengjian—” Lian Zhidiao’s words died in his throat as Yue Fengjian swept him into his arms, holding him close. His hand rested protectively over Lian Zhidiao’s head; the sound of his thundering heart filled Lian Zhidiao’s ears. 

Lian Zhidiao was frozen in shock. His inner clothes weren’t even closed all the way, he was a mess from the fight and about to freeze himself to the bone in a river, and he’d intended to get to an inn and make himself presentable, and then maybe he could think about returning all the debts of hospitality that he owed Yue Fengjian for all these months—

Yue Fengjian pulled back slightly, and tipped Lian Zhidiao’s head back. Then, with no one watching, he lowered his head and kissed Lian Zhidiao. 

All of the yearning that Lian Zhidiao had so prudently held back in Shengmen City burst free, sweeping him away. Yue Fengjian was still out of breath, pulling Lian Zhidiao closer, into a hungrier, deeper kiss. Lian Zhidiao wound his arms around Yue Fengjian’s neck, knowing that this was worse than a terrible idea. But then Yue Fengjian’s lips crept away from his mouth, burning a trail of fire along his jaw. Lian Zhidiao stiffened, tense as a bowstring at the warmth of Yue Fengjian’s kisses at his earlobe, the heavy panting in his hair. He could not hear Yue Fengjian getting so carried away and not get carried away himself. The quivering passion in his belly demanded he give in, and he did, leaning forward.

Breathless, Yue Fengjian gave in as well. His knees buckled, and he pulled Lian Zhidiao down on top of him in the sweet grass. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 49: The Swords Of The Myriad Dead
Next Chapter > Chapter 51: What’s In The Box

Chapter 49: The Swords Of The Myriad Dead

Lian Zhidiao awoke when the morning light was dew-laden and blue. He had fallen asleep with his arms wrapped around Shanzhen, the spiritual weapon he’d risked everything to get. With the scabbard as his pillow, he wouldn’t be surprised to find the imprint of a cloud on his cheek. He couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly. 

Somehow I became the image of a hardened swordsman who falls asleep holding his sword, ready to fight at the slightest sound. 

The sand in his eyes put the lie to that thought almost as soon as it was formed: he had been so exhausted, almost nothing could have roused him. The fire had burned down to warm-white coals; the ash stirred in the morning breeze. He had no food, no water. 

Once I’m a little farther away from the Yuan sect, it’ll probably be okay to find a room while traveling. Less likely to be turned over by an innkeeper. 

But first, now that he had escaped the Yuan sect’s clutches, he had to make sure he stayed both free and breathing. And that meant understanding—and using—the Swords of the Myriad Dead. 

He could use only five swords, with varied techniques; clearly Guizai (or the original Lian Zhidiao) had thought it wise to take a generalistic ‘toolbox’ approach. Combat abilities were a common component of spiritual weapons, being the backbone of most, if not all of them. But as Lian Zhidiao was now recalling, there were a few spiritual weapons whose abilities were not about overpowering your opponent. In fact, he had one in his arsenal that might be able to answer whether he should continue on to the Wa sect or go back to find Yue Fengjian. He fed Shanzhen a thread of qi and began. 

The sword’s name was Liuxingdilian, Lotus Dripping With Stars; Lian Zhidiao could see it clearly in his mind’s eye. An elegant jian with a large white jade cabochon carved like a lotus, and a pearl-ornamented tassel. The feelings of this spiritual weapon’s former wielder were stuck in the jade of this sword; Lian Zhidiao settled them on top of his own mind, like wearing a mask. 

Lian Zhidiao felt a presence, like someone stepping close to him. 

The sword’s wielder was a scholar from the Yuan sect, an oracle—no, an astrologer. There was a sense of irritation, like at any moment someone would grumble, ‘This had better be a good use of my time.’

The Speakers were new. Their art involved placing carved jade weights on the tongues of corpses, directing the qi from roaring earth to blow through the body. Words sighed out of the cadaver, like notes out of a flute when the wind whistled through it. The Astrologer loathed the practice; this was not the way to seek answers. If there were answers to be gotten, the stars alone would provide. 

There was an image of water on a lotus leaf. In his hand, the lightning needle became the lotus leaf; not a black sword, but white. Not a heavenly judge, but a vessel that collected the signs. 

Lian Zhidiao turned his sword so that his palm was up; he couldn’t explain why, but it felt appropriate. There was a sensation in his hand that he was holding the leaf like a bowl, watching the droplets skate around. The lotus leaf appeared in light over his sword hand, a glamour, a suggestion. The dawning sky overhead darkened; he was illuminated only by starlight. The scholar knew; Lian Zhidiao knew as well. They were not simply droplets, but earthly mirrors, moving in a regular, predictable pattern, like the stars in the night sky. 


The drops circled; the heavens wheeled overhead.


Lian Zhidiao felt the question more than phrased it, because it was the first thing that rose in his mind, the first thing that he wanted to know about: Yue Fengjian

The droplets stopped in place, tense, trembling like bells that had been struck. Then they came together in one shining pool in the center of the leaf, perfect and round. 

And then the illusion started to fade. The mansions in the heavens receded into the blackness of the firmament. The presence stepped away. The blushing sky of dawn returned, supplanting the illusion of a starlit night. The last traces of Liuxingdilian’s image over Shanzhen disappeared with a sparkle of light, and the Astrologer was gone. He had asked and received his answer. 

But Lian Zhidiao had no idea what it actually meant

Perhaps the Astrologer would know better how to interpret this, whether weal or woe. He had the resolute sense that the Astrologer would not intercede with the heavens on his behalf again for some time. But even if Lian Zhidiao had not received a direct answer to the loud, unformed din of worries for Yue Fengjian, the wholeness of the water at the center of the leaf lightened Lian Zhidiao’s heart a little. 

Three of the other four swords were best used in combat: Scattering Petals Snow Armor, Wings For A Hunting Tiger, and Stealing The Earth’s Breath. The last, Veil Of The Benevolent Mother, was a sword that could be called upon as a last resort, when defeat was inevitable and the only way to survive was to escape. 

He hoped he’d never have to use it. 

He considered himself and Shanzhen. Their connection was not at all like using Swords of the Myriad Dead. There was no presence to stand with him, only the sword as an extension of himself. When he spun it in his hand, his body remembered the feeling of a sword’s weight. The purple jade was a conduit, a transformative medium burgeoning with vitality. He felt as if he could strike out with Shanzhen, and there would be retribution in every one of its blows.

To test it, he swung his sword, and a faint crackle of blue-white electricity sizzled on the edge of the blade. At the same time, he felt a heavy pull on the thread of qi between them, and understood at once the special gift that Shanzhen possessed. 

In the hands of a neophyte, Shanzhen was little more than an electrified saber; a meat cleaver with a sting. In the hands of a Master who was not limited by his golden core, who could call the very earth’s qi his own, it might be far more dangerous.  

The sheer competence required made a shiver of anticipation run down his spine, as if someone were combing through his hair. Was this what using a spiritual weapon felt like? No wonder everyone in fantasy dramas was always so willing to cross swords with literally anyone. It made him feel almost giddy. 

He spun some water on top of the coals to make sure they were truly extinguished, and then dropped Shanzhen for flight, breaking through the canopy just as the sunrise burst over the horizon. 

Mist still lay in the valleys, but within an hour of flight it burned off, revealing the land spread out before him. The Red-White Highway snaked through the bucolic landscape of small towns and villages, some fields shorn of their grain or beans, others deepening into gold. Here and there he could see one or two trees beginning to change their colors, the deep green of summer ebbing away and hinting at yellow, orange, and red underneath.

Later in the day, his stomach growling, he at last found a roadside inn where no one batted an eye when he walked in. He still had the two taels of silver, and the innkeeper here was fat enough that he made change without any complaint. The food was a mix of the Lin sect’s rich, salty meats, and the Yuan sect’s subtly-flavored fresh vegetables. As far as Lian Zhidiao could tell, it was a serviceable interpretation, but as they say, hunger is the best spice. Perhaps as a nod to his black robes, a small dish of sour pickled peppers was placed at his table, for which he was grateful. 

After he wolfed down his meal, and before the luxurious thought of being under a roof and in a bed seduced him into staying, he quickly took his leave. Within a few hours, the signposts along the highway began to turn into guard outpost buildings with patchy tile roofs. Still standing because they had been repurposed and repaired by industrious people, they spoke of a time before the present, when everything in the realm moved according to the wishes of one man. 

In the distance, he saw the Green Highway come up from the south, slithering through the greenery like a snake, and then, so quickly he barely realized he was upon it, the forest shrank back from the footings of a great gatehouse. 

It was enormous, a small mountain, at least 30 meters tall. The size of it made Lian Zhidiao realize how accustomed he’d grown to the kind of pre-Industrial landscape he’d been living in the last several months. As a building, this gatehouse was not even taller than a run-of-the-mill apartment building, seven or eight storeys. But when the largest buildings he’d seen for months were the enclosures for the Great Jade Beasts and the Yue family castle, the gatehouse suddenly seemed very large indeed. 

Still present were a few of the gates, although the center gate and the one at the end stood open. Lian Zhidiao could still read the name of the gate, set in stone tile over the center: Gate of Virtuous Humility. But a couple hundred years of neglect had taken their toll. Large swathes of the city were picked clean. The wooden buildings had been disassembled or perhaps burned, and the roof tiles carefully carted away. Other buildings were piles of rubble crushed by collapsed roofs. 

There were a few small wooden buildings outside the city gate, and wheel ruts trailing into the city, into the market square closest to the gate. The Highways still facilitated trade, and all of them led back here, to the Imperial City. 

Flying over the market square, however, he could see that the signs of traffic didn’t go deeper into the city. Why would they? As long as merchants could trade with each other at the market square, there was no need. So the further north he went, the more and more dilapidated the Imperial City became, until he reached the heart of it. 

The Palace of Radiant Peace. The Pavilion of Earthly Benevolence. The Pavilion of Five-Colored Beauty. The Garden of Eternal Delight. Lian Zhidiao floated through the abandoned Imperial Palace grounds like a ghost. The entire palace was in ruins; most of the steles and signs were missing or faded. In their place were mere hints of scholarly opulence. Agarwood trees, bent and twisted, still filled one garden with their spicy aroma. A large orchard of peach and pear trees must have produced a blizzard of blossoms in their prime, but several had been felled by storms. They lay across the smashed remnants of pathways and lanterns and interesting rocks brought from far away. There was a pleasure canal that had silted up; only the stone finials of a half-buried bridge revealed it had been there at all. 

He had almost expected Shanzhen to react in some way, as it had when he first found it in the Hidden Realm. This was where Shanyin was at home, while he had lived. Presumably his close friend Jiang Huolu had been here as well, walking through these broken gates, taking tea in that now-wrecked pavilion. All that time living here, and it had left only the faintest trace in Shanzhen’s jade, which the Hidden Realm had mostly scrubbed away. 

Shanzhen, bound to a new master, was silent. 

Lian Zhidiao left the Imperial City behind, flying northeast. Not a few minutes later, the earth opened up underneath him into a great gorge. The last of the high steppes were shattered into isolated peaks; the rocky cliffs tumbled down into the valley below. At the bottom of the gorge was a river, deep and black. Countless caves and grottos were hidden under outcrops or in the shadows of boulders. Lian Zhidiao sailed down into the shade between the rocks, watching their colors shift as he moved down the gorge. Gold-flecked quartz was scattered high and low, glittering in the afternoon light, but it had been cast aside, mixed in with occasional chunks of rainbow-colored stone. 

Spellbound by the scenic vista, Lian Zhidiao followed the river through the countryside. 

Rivers and waterways were the province of the Wa sect. As he got closer to the ancestral stronghold, it made sense that he should start seeing more and more people dressed in black, or be offered more deference. He was kind of looking forward to having a little more courtesy paid him instead of weathering the constant dirty looks in silence. Or trying to ignore the feeling that Yue Fengjian’s odd choice of companions was being tolerated simply because he was the Yue family’s ‘crown prince’. 

So he eagerly zipped down the river’s course, sure that whatever villages were on this stretch of river, they would at least be deferential. 

But there was not a barge to be seen, not even a skiff with a poleman. The river ran wild through hill and dale, splashing down over rocks and stretching out under the trees. Lian Zhidiao stuck with it, waiting for it to level out. Surely then, there would be signs of life. 

And then, behind him, he started to feel something like a sharp point drawn down his back. 

Killing intent

He was being hunted. 

Compared to the oppressive power of the demon at Sancha Town, this wasn’t nearly as strong. But then again, an entire team of demon-hunting cultivators had been necessary to take down Tangyi. And Lian Zhidiao was all alone. 

He leaned forward on the sword a little bit, speeding up. 

The point pressed into his back, like a dagger. 

Is it the same one who was tailing me before? Lian Zhidiao sorted through his options. If the attacker believed their killing intent had not yet been discovered, they might wait for nightfall to strike. Lian Zhidiao might then have a disadvantage, but at least he would not be attempting to fight over a river. 

Is it stronger at night? He cursed under his breath. Did it pick up my trail from the time I stopped at the inn? 

A rock-lined beach emerged from the trees on the north bank of the river. Unwilling to pass up the chance to choose his battlefield, Lian Zhidiao flitted over to the bank and landed, pulling Shanzhen into his hand, ready. 

The killing intent fluttered. 

Lian Zhidiao fed more qi into Shanzhen; the surface of the blade began to emit a very faint, but still audible, hum. 

“Come on,” Lian Zhidiao called out, his voice echoing over the water. “You’ve been following me for some distance.” 

A single figure, clothed in shimmering silver-white, emerged from the treetops near the river and slowly flew towards him, alighting at the edge of the river. 

Yuan sect. Lian Zhidiao narrowed his eyes; the robes were the same as the ones the oracle at the Sacred Gate wore. I guess I’ve run out of time. 

“I got ahead of myself,” the Yuan sect member said, with a voice that was both honey and broken glass. His hair was half-up, and his eyes drooped slightly, giving him a slightly sad look. “You don’t know how agitated I’ve been since that sword came back into the world. I hope you’ll forgive me.” 

Lian Zhidiao winced. That voice…doesn’t sound like it came from a human. “It’s not in my nature to forgive demons,” he said.

“Your kind have been so willing to work with the Yao,” the Yuan cultivator replied, ending with a bit of a simper. “Don’t you think you could be more agreeable?”

“If you’ve been watching, then you know the kind of company I prefer,” Lian Zhidiao said. “Decide for yourself if I will be agreeable.”

The Yuan cultivator made a face. “You’ve made a real mess of things, you know.” 

The hair on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck stood on end. “So I’ve been told.” 

“There’s been so much work done in Shengmen City. Yuan Suwei is the last holdout. Difficult to crack, but easy to isolate.” A creepy smile spread over the cultivator’s face. “The rest of them, though. All puppets, dancing on sticks, so desperate to find the Emperor’s Jewel that they’d do anything, anything.” 

The Emperor’s Jewel. 

“That has nothing to do with me.” 

“You fool. You simple idiot.” The Yuan cultivator’s voice changed, hard-edged and soaked with venom. Twilight was beginning to gather around them as the sun set. So empowered, the illusion of the Yuan oracle started to disappear, revealing a demon untouched by the golden light or blue shadow, with long horns sprouting out of white hair, his skin as black as pitch. “They were very near simply declaring that they’d found it, daring the others to come and look, come and see for themselves just who is Favored of Heaven.” The demon spat the words as he withdrew a straight dagger from his robes, pulling the leather sheath off and flinging it aside. “But then, the sword that killed the Emperor just magically appears again, and all of them are in a panic, fearing for their lives!” 

The blade of the dagger was dull, black, as if it had been burned. The deviate qi in him stirred at the faint recognition of that blade, so similar to one that had been in his past, but Lian Zhidiao ignored it. 

“It doesn’t matter if they never know the truth,” the demon hissed. “Your head and that sword will make them realize they have nothing to fear, and we can continue our work unencumbered.” 

“What work?” Lian Zhidiao gripped Shanzhen a little tighter. “What are you doing in the Yuan sect?” 

“Ah-ah,” the demon chided him. “Answers are for winners.” Then he moved sideways, wrongways, and disappeared right in front of Lian Zhidiao’s eyes. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 48: Lian Zhidiao Has Unlocked Fast Travel
Next Chapter > Chapter 50: Time And Again, We’ll Find Each Other

Chapter 48: Lian Zhidiao Has Unlocked Fast Travel

Lian Zhidiao inspected the scroll; the words were put down exactly the way the clerk had read them out. The faces of the other disciples in gray were turned toward him, following him with fearful eyes, looking for his reaction. 

The warmth in his heart from the Hidden Realm began to fade. As if I could have a reaction other than shock…

Uncertain, Lian Zhidiao spoke up. “Senior Yuan…if I could speak to you for a moment?”

Yuan Suwei hesitated for a moment, his cold and otherworldly beauty making his thoughts inscrutable. Then, he nodded, stepping down from his dais, and escorting Lian Zhidiao down the gallery, toward the staircase to the top of the canyon. The rain fell softly, unceasingly, on the stones of the Sacred Gate. Two disciples fell into step next to Yuan Suwei, accompanying him as they walked. 

“Whatever you need to say, you may say it.” Yuan Suwei gestured to the two disciples on either side of him. “These two are trustworthy.” 

The two disciples had their hands around their swords, and the looks on their faces said that they would run him through as soon as look at him. Trustworthy for you, maybe! But he couldn’t afford to waste his energy on them. “What did you mean about the other oracles sending their messengers?” Lian Zhidiao asked slowly. 

“The appearance of a sword that has killed an emperor is undoubtedly an omen.” Yuan Suwei lifted his chin. “It will demand action from those who seek the throne for themselves.” 

“Is there such a person? The White Emperor has been dead for so long…” 

Yuan Suwei studied him, his eyes probing Lian Zhidiao’s sincere expression. “He was wise. His laws, which he enforced with a firm hand, became the basis of peace between the sects.” Yuan Suwei folded his hands behind his back. “The Lin sect, with their love of tradition, is slow to change. Their role as mediators has preserved this durable peace. It is itself a deterrent; no one wants a war to disturb their comfortable lives. But it has been fraying for too long, even despite the Lin sect’s best efforts.” 

The Lin sect, but not the Yuan? 

Yuan Suwei’s lips thinned. “The appearance of a sword to kill an emperor will convince many that there is an emperor to be killed.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s gaze fell steadily as Yuan Suwei spoke, every word like a rock tied to his ankles before he was dropped into the sea. He’s right, of course. There will be an emperor; Yue Fengjian’s rise at this point in the novel would be hard for any sect to ignore. But the novel he’d written and the life he now lived had diverged some time ago. If someone else aspiring to claim the emperor’s throne after so long took power just when Yue Fengjian was beginning to rise to prominence… 

Protectiveness surged through Lian Zhidiao, but it was tainted with the knowledge of Shanzhen’s history. He had believed that getting his spiritual weapon would make him at last able to contribute more directly to Yue Fengjian’s rise, to his defense. And yet, without a Protagonist’s Halo, Yue Fengjian would be vulnerable to any strikes that came from someone close to him. 

I might be best equipped to kill an usurper. But I would also be close to Yue Fengjian, just like Jiang Huolu was close to Shanyin…

He couldn’t see how something like that could be possible, and yet Lian Zhidiao’s voice was choked with the awful potential he now held against his chest.  “Am I destined to kill the emperor?” 

“That would take a lengthy inquiry on the part of the oracles, and that is not a luxury you have. Certainly the Yuan sect will not entertain your request.” Yuan Suwei tilted his head to the side, regarding Lian Zhidiao with a kind of owlish interest. “You honestly did not expect this.” 

“No, I…” Lian Zhidiao let out a resigned sigh. “I had no ill intent. I only wanted a sword that I could use.” 

“Truly a case where wishing to profit brought only loss,” Yuan Suwei replied. “You won’t have much time to make an escape.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s head snapped up. “What?” 

A muscle tensed in Yuan Suwei’s temple. His eyes were hard and distant. “An exchange. Your information for… a moment of inattention on my part.” An undisguised threat simmered in his voice. “I caution you. If I find your information to be unreliable, I will personally accompany the group of Speakers that hunts you down.” 

“You’re letting me go?” 

Yuan Suwei drew himself up, looking down on Lian Zhidiao even more. “I’ve administered your spiritual weapon to you. What the Yuan sect chooses to do with you if they catch you here is none of my affair.” 

This seems like a trap, but can I really afford not to take the chance? Lian Zhidiao’s eyes flicked to the disciples on either side of Yuan Suwei, but they were as inscrutable as their master. “It seems like it might put you through a lot of trouble,” he mused in a leading tone of voice. 

Yuan Suwei snorted softly, turning away, but not before Lian Zhidiao caught a hint of a smile on his face. “Get out of Shengmen City, Lian Zhidiao. Don’t come back.” 

Giving him frosty looks, the disciples turned and flanked Yuan Suwei as he walked back to his dais. 

Can I leave? Do I leave? A small smile of realization pinched his lips. Can I fly out of here? 

There was a commotion at the end of the gallery closest to the gatehouse. There was a flurry of gray and brilliant white, voices raised in indignation. Then, the unmistakable sound of swords being pulled from their scabbards, that faint and deadly ring that sounded like a bell in the courtyard.  

Lian Zhidiao’s head snapped to Yuan Suwei. 

Yuan Suwei was standing at his dais, his eyes pinned to the flash of steel at the gatehouse, indignant at this intrusion into his domain.

He has to look away.

Lian Zhidiao unsheathed Shanzhen. 

He can’t look; this is the moment of inattention. 

A shout rose over the din. “Is that him?” 

Lian Zhidiao spun a thread of qi into Shanzhen. 

Shanzhen, we have to leave! 

He dropped the sword. Amazingly, he felt the thread between himself and Shanzhen together become filled with tension in a pleasant way, like stretching out muscles that had been cramped up in a small space for too long. The sword hovered above the white stone, waiting. 

A woman’s voice barked a command; it echoed in the gallery. “Take him! Seize him!” 

Lian Zhidiao leapt onto Shanzhen, wobbling in midair—the blade was narrower than Yue Fengjian’s shuangshou jian. But the sword responded to his will immediately, catapulting him into the rainy sky with such speed that Lian Zhidiao nearly blacked out. 

Doesn’t matter where, just have to fly!

The rain stung his cheeks as Shanzhen responded like an eager yearling. New air was continually braided in with the thread of qi, only to be fed out behind him a moment later.   Shanzhen was funneling in countless streams of air, then pulling itself past each one.  Rooftops disappeared behind him at a dizzying rate; he had already crossed half the city in his panicked flight. Somewhere in that raucous blur of thatch and wood and clay tile, Yue Fengjian probably didn’t even know he’d emerged. Lian Zhidiao could come back later and rejoin him, but not today. 

Lian Zhidiao looked over his shoulder; there was no one behind him, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t being pursued. He crouched on the blade, slowing until he could get his bearings. The sky was overcast, but he remembered from their approach that the river on the north side of the city had been flowing south and east. 

I need to cross the river, head north. Leaning back on the sword even a little produced a profound curve in the arc of his flight. In the space of a few minutes, he had mastered the simple flex of his ankles that was sufficient to steer. 

Shengmen City was soon behind him. He followed the rain-swollen Sanma River, at first staying high up to see the lay of the land. But then he checked over his shoulder, and saw, just barely, the outline of someone on a sword, a speck of white set against the grey horizon.  He was being followed after all. From this distance, it wasn’t clear how many there were, or if it was just one person, but if that speck wasn’t red, Lian Zhidiao wasn’t going to slow down.

Lian Zhidiao swooped down into the river valley. With the river as his path, he flew fast and low to the ground, hugging the curves of the river itself. It would be easy to track him from higher up, so he might have a better shot of losing them in the trees, whoever they were. 

A rope bridge over the river indicated the presence of a footpath or road, and Lian Zhidiao wheeled north to take it, flying under the patchy forest canopy. He slowed suddenly and started weaving his way through the eastern forest, counting on the shadows to hide him. The rain slowed to a drizzle under the leaves, but somehow the drops hit him more heavily. 

I’m already soaked to the skin. Even if I lose them, I should try to find some way to get dry soon. Lian Zhidiao looked up at the sky; he would have no idea if this little maneuver worked until he emerged from the forest again. It seems a little early for Speakers to be involved in chasing me down, unless Yuan Suwei was lying. It was possible, but Yuan Suwei didn’t seem like the type of person to lie. A hard man with little give about him, he wasn’t someone to blunt his words. Rather than lie, he seemed like the kind of man who simply stated the facts, and expected everyone else to adjust. 

That still left others who would want him caught or dead. Hu Baitian was a candidate, and he would know that Lian Zhidiao was in town because Yue Shipei would have told him. If he already had a man in the oracles waiting to deliver any news, then he could have found out quickly. Maybe it was Yuan Shijun’s men, but Lian Zhidiao didn’t know why Yuan Shijun would be after him. His time in the Hidden Realm had only been the space of a day, but as Lian Zhidiao was well aware, a lot could happen in one day. 

The trees around him teemed with abundant life that barely stopped to hold its breath as he passed. He wound his way through the woods, nimbly avoiding larger tree limbs and using Shanzhen’s scabbard to push smaller branches aside. When he felt as if he’d been weaving through the trees for hours, he stopped to listen for the river. Failing to hear it, he had no choice but to poke his head above the canopy to try to get his bearings. 

At altitude, Lian Zhidiao could see how the Sanma River turned further south, bringing water to quench the plains. The White Highway had crossed the Sanma at one point and joined the Red Highway, stretching to the east. 

Those highways were built for the Great Jade Beasts; they converge at the Imperial City. So if I follow them, I will eventually find the Black Highway and be able to go toward the Wa sect. If I’m forced away from the Highway, traveling roughly north should eventually have me run into the mountains, and the Wa sect’s lands should be due east from there. 

He considered skulking back toward Shengmen City, but Yuan Suwei’s words about a future emperor haunted him. A wistful feeling came over him as he looked back toward the west; he could no longer see Shengmen City, even in the distance.

He will have to visit the Wa sect. I can wait for him there. 

That made his heart clench even harder. 

Will he try to find me again? Or will he just do what he knows has to be done? 

Lian Zhidiao couldn’t decide which was more likely. Yue Fengjian was surely devoted to his sect, and would do anything to see it survive. But there had been a time or two when his eyes had drifted toward Lian Zhidiao, looking at him with a blazing heat that made barriers between them melt away. 

Even if he wanted to, (and Lian Zhidiao’s stomach did a somersault at the thought), then it’s still not a good idea to get entangled romantically with him. It would make it difficult for him to secure the support he needs from other sects. But Lian Zhidiao’s traitorous body wasn’t interested in why something was a bad idea. Drenched from head to toe, the warm tingle that swept over his skin made him shiver. 

Wary of villages and roadside inns along the White Highway, he decided to fly as far as he could toward the Imperial City. He looked up at the overcast sky, finding it difficult to tell what time of day it was. I guess I’ll just fly as far as I can. 

The rain slowly stopped, but Lian Zhidiao’s clothes were still damp even when advancing darkness forced him to land for the night. When he stepped off the sword, it was easy to use the thread of qi to whip it back into the scabbard at hand; it hadn’t been the swords sheathing themselves, but the wielder expertly moving the sword. 

Lian Zhidiao used the last of the light to find a small clearing. He spun qi into stone and mud, making a bed of earth, and then wrestled chunks of a fallen log onto it. Another thread of qi through the spindle-weight, and he had a fire that would hopefully keep some of the chill away. 

And with that done, he had no time left to consider food or water before night was upon him and he was alone in the wilderness. He was tired; the fatigue of the 32 hours that had passed in the world while he’d been in the Hidden Realm hit him all at once, on top of the exhaustion involved in fleeing for his life. He huddled closer to the fire. 

This must be how Lian Zhidiao lived much of the time. Having left his sect for unspecified reasons, the world would be unfriendly toward a noble cultivator without an expense account. Trading his services and skills for money or food and lodging had to be the only way for an outcast to survive. 

Somehow he figured out how to do something with jade beasts, and preferred using that to eke out a living rather than go on living with his sect. He had some suspicions about why—a vague recollection of some story Zhou Xianzhi had told while he was drunk and only half-paying attention. It had gotten swamped by the discovery of the System and the emergency terminal, so the details were fuzzy. 

How quickly will Yue Fengjian leave for the Wa sect? Was his business with the Yuan sect concluded, marriage decided?  Going back to the Wa sect before him might ease his way. Lian Zhidiao drew his knees up close to his chest and pillowed his head on his arms. If that was the case, then a few nights in the forest wouldn’t be so bad. 

At least now he had a sword to defend himself. 

Lian Zhidiao’s eyes fell on Shanzhen, close at hand. He would be able to use the Swords of the Myriad Dead now. Doubtless part of the fear of the technique came from the name. 

The Swords of the Myriad Dead existed because of the cache of unreturned spiritual weapons in the possession of the Wa sect, and more specifically, his Master Guizai. Having now experienced the Hidden Realm for himself, Lian Zhidiao could think a little more clearly about how the technique worked. With some sinking guilt, he realized that when he’d talked to Liao Kuaiyu and said that he was not a necromancer, that was probably not entirely true. 

In an abstract sense, the Swords of the Myriad Dead was a necromantic technique. 

Lian Zhidiao picked up Shanzhen and popped it out of the scabbard, looking at the firelight dancing over the cloud-carved purple jade. The jade was the key to how spiritual weapons moved qi, channeled it, transformed it. And the jade in every spiritual weapon was a little sticky. Even if the blade could not be wielded in the traditional sense, the jade in the weapon was itself a jade tool, and anyone could interact with that. A cache of a thousand spiritual weapons was closer to a cache of jade tools, each with its own spell that could be learned.  

Shanzhen itself had the ability to call lightning when it struck, which was fearsome enough on its own. A wielder who could use the abilities of a thousand such spiritual weapons could conquer the world. 

But they hadn’t. And the reason was clear when he thought about the techniques he knew and how he knew them: he could only clearly recall the abilities of five swords other than his own. 

Lian Zhidiao’s Master, Guizai, had to know many more, but given that Lian Zhidiao, a fifth-rank magician, had only achieved an understanding of five? There was no way that anyone could know a thousand of them. Better that the Wa sect’s enemies be unclear about how many abilities an individual user could know. Better that the technique remain shrouded in mystery. 

He resheathed Shanzhen and held it in his lap as he stared into the fire, finally feeling the warmth begin to sink into him. That he had escaped the Yuan sect’s clutches with both his sword and his life intact was nothing short of a miracle. 

But alone in the wilderness, relief at his escape was slow to come. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 47: Unknown To Death Nor Known To Life
Next Chapter > Chapter 49: The Swords Of The Myriad Dead

Chapter 47: Unknown To Death Nor Known To Life

Without any idea of where to start (and the Hidden Realm lacking helpful signs or exhibits about how to select a spiritual weapon), for a moment or two, Lian Zhidiao just looked around, at a loss as to where to begin. But eventually, everything had to come back to the swords, as conspicuous as they were. He had to start somewhere, so he started with a sword in his hand.

The unsoftened edges of the tang in his hand felt too small. Flakes of corrosion stuck to his palm when he pulled his hand back. He tipped his hand over, brushing the flakes off his skin. They fell, glittering green, and then disappeared with a small twinkle of light. He pinched some of the corrosion off the metal, as if he was peeling lichen off a tree trunk. It shimmered and then reappeared on the tang of the sword.

So it seems like the Hidden Realm is conserving the swords. After all, if every curious cultivator who came in took a few flakes of a sword with them, eventually some of the swords would cease to exist at all. He couldn’t help but notice how similar the swords appeared. Every one of them was an ancient bronze sword or crude iron blade. He could not see any dao, and certainly no staffs or two-handed jian

Each one looks just like every other. There’s no way to tell them apart just by looking. 

Lian Zhidiao stood up, looking around at the swords, hundreds of them half-buried in the sand. So the Hidden Realm makes all of them look like swords, regardless of what their form out in the real world will be. He walked further into the Hidden Realm, peering beyond the tall columns of sandstone. The canyon split the mountains open, twisting and turning as he walked, the gray rocks tall on either side of him no matter how far he went.

Or maybe it’s that my spiritual weapon will be a jian, no matter which one of these I pick. 

Lian Zhidiao frowned. Come to think of it, does it matter which one I pick? Does the Hidden Realm already know which sword is mine? 

The story of Supreme Warlord of the Beast World began well after Yue Fengjian became a cultivator and was on his way to getting a full harem. So Lian Zhidiao had never written about the Hidden Realm or getting a spiritual weapon. But even if he had not been thorough in his worldbuilding, it seemed unlikely that rules for the Hidden Realm acted as mere suggestions. They were, after all, so immutable they had been carved in stone. 

There were clues to other rules of the Hidden Realm as well. Spiritual weapons were tied to their wielder’s spirit or core—maybe both, based on what Yuan Suwei had said about reforming a golden core after losing it to qi deviation. The identity of the cultivator and the nature of the spiritual weapon were closely linked. 

So if I just pick up any old sword and try to walk out with it, it should either transform into my personal spiritual weapon, or if it’s not actually my spiritual weapon, the Hidden Realm shouldn’t allow me to take the wrong one. 

With this experiment in mind, he reached out to take one of the swords and pull it out of the sand. 

It slid free with a dull, gritty metallic sound that sounded more like picking up a lead pipe in a zombie video game than selecting an elegant weapon for spiritual and martial techniques. He turned it in his hand, looking down the blade. 

Slowly, in front of his eyes, corrosion faded. Lines of light began to scribe out the shape of a hilt, a pommel, the double-honed point at the end, a piece of jade set into the guard—and then, in the blink of an eye, the sword flew out of his hand and embedded itself back in the sand. 

That one’s probably a ‘no’, then. He’d been hoping that it would be over quickly, but maybe hoping for the very first try to be a winner had been too much to hope for.

Letting out a sigh, Lian Zhidiao looked around at the swords littering the canyon. Do I really have to try all of them? Was this what Yue Fengjian meant by ‘don’t take too long’? 

He gripped another sword and pulled it out of the sand. 

“That which is not beautiful must be useful.” The words entered his mind unbidden as light danced around the sword. Lian Zhidiao had the distinct feeling that the sword itself was doing something. He hesitated to call it the sword’s ‘spirit’, because it was more like a collection of words and emotions that tickled his mind as he held it, like a ghost of a fragrance that drifted through the air. 

This sword, too, slipped out of his hand, like a maiden delicately refusing a confession, placing itself back in the sand. Lian Zhidiao stared at the sword and then at his hand.

Did I just get rejected by a sword? It was so polite, he almost had to laugh. 

He tried another one. This one, like the first, began to form itself in light. Then, like the first, it ripped from his grasp and, like the first, stuck upright in the sand. The next one was much the same: he touched it, it started to reveal itself, and then decided it would rather not. 

Another one began to gather itself in his hand, curving into the long, broad blade of a dao, and then flew from his grasp clear across the canyon, burrowing into the sand until almost none of the tang was visible. That sword gave Lian Zhidiao the feeling of a feral dog who had gotten too close and then fled the danger of human touch, cowering in a corner and snarling. 

They were all different. Some of the swords had distinct emotions. Others were silent but definitely not his sword. 

If the swords had emotions and some kind of spirit, then maybe thinking about this in terms of rules wasn’t the right way to go about it. Maybe this process was supposed to be more like a communion, forming a pact with the Hidden Realm and the sword itself. 

He had to stop trying to figure it out like a quick-time mechanic in a video game, and trust the Hidden Realm. 

Lian Zhidiao straightened his back and crossed his legs in a comfortable position. His breathing slowed; he quickly pushed away thoughts of Yuan Suwei waiting outside the Hidden Realm with guards. Slower to leave him were thoughts of Yue Fengjian pacing in the courtyard and looking up at the Sacred Gate. But eventually, these drifted away as well. The sand made a soft platform for him to meditate, and his thoughts naturally turned inward, to the shining light in his belly. His focus loosened; the seed of light in his dantian suffused all his senses. He swam in it, breathed it in. 

When he started to feel like the edges of himself were softening, something else crept into his consciousness and touched him. 


Love…and desperation. 

Lian Zhidiao opened his eyes. The sky was still that boundless white, the floor still covered in soft sand, the rusted swords all shaped like jian and as common as grass. 

But now, Lian Zhidiao walked through the canyon in the Hidden Realm, searching for that feeling that had played around the edges of his mind. 

He found two swords in the sand in one of the little nooks of the canyon, so close their blades were nearly touching. As easily as he might recognize a face and call out to someone he knew, Lian Zhidiao reached out and pulled free the one on the left.

In his hand, light began to form around the jian. It was long and thin, forged so that the metal formed a patchwork of faint colors, starlight refracted through the edge of mist. The grip was black rayskin, and the guard was silver, made of clouds. A cabochon of purple jade settled into the cloud-figured silver, carved to fit seamlessly into it; a matching purple tassel danced at the end of the pommel. The scabbard formed last, black-lacquered, with silver ornaments that were made to look like clouds. 

Yearning, devotion, duty, love, desperation; they blew through him like a gale as the sword became fully real, its weight settling in his hand. A tear rolled down Lian Zhidiao’s cheek at the intensity within the sword itself, and then the emotions receded, like a river going back between its banks after a flood. He pulled the sword free of the scabbard; it came out easily, eager at his touch. In the heaven-patterned steel, the name flowed in platinum. 

Shanzhen. Lightning Needle. 

Lian Zhidiao let out a sigh of relief as he pushed the sword back into the scabbard. His feet found the way back to the exit on their own, or perhaps the way was made shorter with the gentle guidance of the Hidden Realm. Holding Shanzhen tightly, he paused briefly between the gray stones to look back at the canyon’s stillness, each sword frozen in time, waiting for someone to bring it out into the world again. Then he ducked his head and crept back out through the stones. 

He smelled the rain at the same time he heard it, stepping out of the Hidden Realm back into the real world. The tall sandstones sheltered him from the steady drizzle that was soaking the courtyard—this seemed to have blown in awfully quickly. By his estimation, he hadn’t been in the Hidden Realm more than two or three hours. 

A gray-robed disciple emerged from the gallery with an umbrella, and escorted Lian Zhidiao back to the gallery under it. 

Lian Zhidiao looked around for Yue Fengjian, excited to show his new sword. But he was nowhere to be seen.

“Lian Zhidiao.” Yuan Suwei leaned forward from his seat above the clerks. His fairy-like good looks had an otherworldly sharpness as he considered his quarry, caught in his claws. “Thirty-two hours in the Hidden Realm. A prodigy, indeed.” 

Thirty-two hours? I was in there for a whole day!? “Where’s Yue Fengjian?” 

Yuan Suwei waved his hand dismissively. “Since you presented yourself directly to me, there was no need—”

“We should talk, Yuan Suwei.” The idea of Yue Fengjian waiting for him for so long tore at him; he went back to the inn without him and without any idea of when he would come out, leaving him vulnerable to when Yuan Suwei would again be presiding as Judge. It wasn’t like there were friendly people here who could give Yue Fengjian a tip, either. He had to play hardball or he was just going to end up where he’d been before.  

Yuan Suwei’s mouth tightened. The lack of appropriate deference shown had to be grating on his nerves, especially given Lian Zhidiao’s obsequiousness before. 

“Show proper respect to Senior Yuan,” one of the gray-robed disciples threatened. 

Lian Zhidiao inclined his head. “My Lord Arbiter needs something I have, I think. Unless he has found another disciple of Guizai to provide it for him?” 

Given Guizai’s reputation, that should tell him that I know what he needs to know.

Yuan Suwei’s nostrils flared as he controlled his temper. He was clearly unused to being challenged in public, and yet the fruit being dangled in front of him was ripe and sweet. He stood up, smoothing out his robes. With an impatient look at Lian Zhidiao, he then glanced at a clerk. “Go ahead. Take the name of his sword so it can be recorded in the rolls.” 

The clerk gave Lian Zhidiao an uneasy look but motioned him forward. “Unsheathe your sword, but not all the way. I just need the name.” 

Lian Zhidiao popped the jian free of the scabbard, showing the name written in platinum. “Shanzhen.” 

“Shanzhen,” the clerk repeated nervously, looking at the sword to make sure he wrote the characters down correctly. He handed the slip of paper to a disciple, who hurried from the gallery. “The oracles will bring the scroll forward shortly and I’ll put your name down.” 

Lian Zhidiao gave the clerk his very best customer-service smile and resheathed his sword. Looking back up at Yuan Suwei, he was surprised to find a curious look on the Judge’s face, at once affronted and disbelieving. 

Yuan Suwei stepped down from his dais, walking to meet Lian Zhidiao in person. He held out his hand. 

Lian Zhidiao gave him a sour look. 

“I want to see the truth of it with my own eyes,” Yuan Suwei said cryptically. “Will you show it to me?” The morbid curiosity in his voice was insistent.

Despite that sinking feeling that things were beginning to go wrong again, Lian Zhidiao unsheathed the sword a little to show him the name. Yuan Suwei let out a shaky breath and then nodded, as if he had been identifying a body at the morgue. 

Yuan Suwei turned and took an umbrella from a gray-robed disciple. “Walk with me, Lian Zhidiao. Tell me what you have.” 

They strolled out into the soft rain under the oilpaper umbrella. The scent of sandalwood and cinnamon was overpowering; they were too close together for Lian Zhidiao’s liking, but the pitter-patter of rain would disguise their voices as long as they weren’t loud.

Nonetheless, he’s brazen to have this discussion right in front of everyone. Unless he has nothing to fear from the people he has with him right now. Another point in favor of Yuan Suwei surrounding himself with trusted associates, and therefore another strike against Yuan Zhuyan.

“You are smarter than I gave you credit for,” Yuan Suwei murmured. “If you’ve figured out what I need from you.” 

“Making a simple request would have been fine,” Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help grumbling at him. “Instead of dragging me off to a cell for what should be just an oddity.”

“You are still not the real Lian Zhidiao, and that sword proves it.” There was something raw in that declaration, but Yuan Suwei didn’t stop to let Lian Zhidiao get a word in edgewise. “But more to the point, earth-seeing is not cheap, and neither is discretion. Both are paramount.” Yuan Suwei searched Lian Zhidiao’s face for signs he understood.  

Lian Zhidiao narrowed his eyes slightly. “Your household is still very dependent on the Yuan sect, despite your attempts at being impartial. But what really gives you pause is that you do not want to make an obvious move against your brother, even though you have harbored deep suspicions for some time.” Lian Zhidiao set his jaw. “But accusing others of demonic activity rather than confronting the rot within your own will only leave you in a bad position later.” 

“There is no rot in the Yuan sect,” Yuan Suwei ground out through his teeth.

“So my lord Arbiter says, yet there are visits made by doctors to the sect leader in the middle of the night, and jade tools filled with deviate qi cluttering the altars of Baima with the permission of Yuan Shijun.”

There was a commotion in the gallery; one of the disciples was back, carrying a scroll, but along with him had come a man robed in silver-white, his face drawn with worry. Yuan Suwei let out a short breath. “Our time is up.” They drifted back toward the gallery, their footsteps making soft splashes on the white stone. After a few moments, Yuan Suwei spoke. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

Lian Zhidiao sought and held Yuan Suwei’s gaze. “There are two areas of tainted earth under the sect leader’s palace. Your brother has a pond in the center of his palace, does he not?” 

Yuan Suwei’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. “Yes.” 

“Drain it.” Lian Zhidiao glanced sidelong at Yuan Suwei. “I would wager there is something interesting in the mud.” 

They stepped back under the eaves of the gallery, and Yuan Suwei handed the umbrella off to one of the disciples. He resumed his position behind the clerks, but remained standing, looking down at the scroll below them.

The oracle was agitated, almost frantic. “My lord Arbiter—” 

“Are you the only one who saw the name of the scroll?” Yuan Suwei asked, leveling his piercing gaze at the oracle who had come back with the disciple. 

The oracle seemed cowed. “No. The other oracles saw it as well.” 

Yuan Suwei gave a tight nod. “I suppose that is to be expected, given the sword. You are dismissed.” 

“My lord—” 

“I said, you are dismissed.” 

The oracle gave the scroll a look of longing, but spared no further attention for Lian Zhidiao, even as he left. His hurried footsteps disappeared from the gallery, leaving Yuan Suwei with a look like he’d bitten into a spoiled persimmon. 

He’s clearing the room. He doesn’t want anyone here who doesn’t have allegiance to him. The thought made cold sweat break out on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck. He crossed his arms, enfolding Shanzhen in them, letting it rest on his shoulder.

Once the oracle was gone, Yuan Suwei nodded at the clerk. “You may unroll it.” 

Every sword had such a scroll, with the names of previous wielders, dates, and any notable events the sword was involved in. Oracles from the Yuan sect tracked such appearances with zeal, and certain swords could be said to be omens of things to come. The scroll for Shanzhen was slim, backed with black silk, with the name of the sword on a tag dangling off the end. Yuan Suwei folded his arms over his chest, studying Lian Zhidiao as the clerk unfurled the scroll and began to read aloud. 

“The sword Shanzhen, a jian with the ability to call lightning forth at a strike. First seen nearly a thousand years ago, it does not appear commonly. Its most recent owner…” The clerk visibly paled. He glanced at Lian Zhidiao and then turned to look at Yuan Suwei over his shoulder. “My lord Arbiter.” 

Yuan Suwei replied in a clipped tone, “You may read it. I imagine the other oracles have already sent their messengers, so it does no good to be coy about it here.” 

“Y-Yes, my lord Arbiter.” The clerk cleared his throat, but his voice was unsteady as he read the last entry on the scroll. “Its most recent owner, Jiang Huolu, who cut down the White Emperor Shanyin while he was in seclusion. Returned along with the sword of Shanyin shortly after his disappearance.” 

Lian Zhidiao looked down at Shanzhen, laying across his heart. 

This sword killed the White Emperor. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 46: Leaves of Grass
Next Chapter > Chapter 48: Lian Zhidiao Has Unlocked Fast Travel

Chapter 46: Leaves Of Grass

Lian Zhidiao wasn’t even sure why he was packing the women’s clothing into the storage ring, but if he had to guess, it was due to the sharpened senses of a hunted man wishing to leave no trace. 

Yue Fengjian frowned, watching the fabric disappear through the jade ring. “What are you doing?” 

“Packing. If this doesn’t work, I’ll have to leave in a hurry.” Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengian, his hands slowing. “I guess you wouldn’t have to pack like you’re running from pursuers. You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“Neither have you.” 

“I was fortunate last time. The Immortal Willow—that jade whip—revealed that I wasn’t a demon. Yuan Suwei bound me to keep me from using my golden core because he had other things on his mind. I don’t think he’ll make the same mistake again.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yue Fengjian clench his fist. 

“Then why go at all?” 

“I need a sword. A real one, not a lowly piece of steel.” He straightened out the pibo and folded it up before glancing sidelong at Yue Fengjian. “You must be a little curious about actually watching me fight.” 

“I’m not willing to trade—” Yue Fengjian bit off his sentence, and even though Lian Zhidiao waited, he didn’t finish his thought. 

“Not willing to trade earth-seeing for the potential Swords of the Myriad Dead?” The pibo stowed inside, Lian Zhidiao tucked the storage ring into his robes. “Should I keep riding your sword like a junior who hasn’t formed a core yet?” 

At this, Yue Fengjian’s scowl deepened.

“You would not tolerate being without a sword. You said so yourself. How long should I go without having one? A year? Two years?” 

“It doesn’t have to be today.” Yue Fengjian folded his arms over his chest. “I could set up a meeting with Yuan Suwei, offer him the information on what you found under the palace.” 

“And give his men time to surround this place? Hold you at the tip of a sword while you try to negotiate?” A lump rose in his throat; Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “At the very best, we are three, and it’s much more likely that it’s just you and I.” He walked into the parlor and picked up the manacles off the table where Yue Fengjian had left them. “Yuan Suwei will not be expecting me to approach him; it will make him imagine that I have an advantage I haven’t yet revealed.” He looked at the manacles in his hand and then slipped those into the storage ring as well. “He will be cautious, and that will buy me a better bargaining position.” 

Yue Fengjian let out a heavy sigh, still not looking at all convinced by this logic.

Lian Zhidiao reassured him with a firm hand on his bicep and a small smile. Under his hand, Yue Fengjian’s muscles tensed. 

“We can’t dawdle.” 

“It’s almost like you want to be caught,” Yue Fengjian grumbled. 

“I want to choose when and where I face an adversary.” Lian Zhidiao looked up at him with clear eyes.

A flicker of emotion passed over Yue Fengjian’s face: it was clear he understood the logic, in the way a military man could dispassionately discuss strategy while keeping a firm barrier between himself and the real human cost of a campaign. He would rather have nothing than this reckless walk into the jaws of the enemy, but the only other choice was waiting for the jaws of the enemy to close around them. If Lian Zhidiao couldn’t effectively defend himself, what then?

The street in front of the inn was even busier than it had been two weeks ago, perhaps due to the time they’d taken for breakfast. The rising sun pushed them down the street at a brisk clip. Without running, they could not have gotten there any faster. 

Once again, they parted in the courtyard in front of the gatehouse. Stiff-backed, Lian Zhidiao walked to the black gate. When he looked over at the red gate, he was surprised to find that Yue Fengjian was looking in his direction instead of standing to see a clerk. His stomach gave a funny leap; he looked away quickly, his cheeks burning. 

Just stay focused. There weren’t any Wa sect members in front of him and the clerks seemed to still be half asleep. He didn’t see the clerk that had known him before, which could be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how this went. Swallowing his quickening heartbeat, he stepped up to the sleepiest clerk.

“Your name?”

“Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao.” 

“And your business?” 

Getting a spiritual weapon at his age might look odd, but he supposed that disciples could form golden cores at every age. “Getting a spiritual weapon,” he answered. 

The clerk scrawled fluidly with the brush and handed it off to a gray-robed disciple who read it then gave Lian Zhidiao a funny look, but dutifully carried it out through the same back doorway as before. Then the clerk motioned him to go through to the parlor and went back to staring off into space. Yuan Suwei hadn’t put everyone on alert yet; maybe he didn’t even know. Maybe he hadn’t thought to check on his little black canary first thing in the morning after a party. As Lian Zhidiao passed through into the parlor, he hoped that Yuan Suwei would go easy on his three ‘wardens’. 

Lian Zhidiao was shown to one of the semi-private parlors, and a gray-robed disciple came by to ask about tea. No sooner had he left than Yue Fengjian filled the door frame. Worry was written all over his face, but he relaxed the moment he saw Lian Zhidiao. 

He sat next to Lian Zhidiao at the low table and leaned over to speak in a low voice. “You got through.” 

“Fortune is as unpredictable as the weather,” Lian Zhidiao replied. The fragrance of Yue Fengjian’s incense wafted over, and Lian Zhidiao surreptitiously took a deep breath. 

“Do you have a plan for getting out of here once you have your sword?” Yue Fengjian glanced at the doorway. “Or do you think he will just let you leave?”

“If all goes well, I can just walk out, but if not, then…” Lian Zhidiao trailed off as the disciple brought back a tray with tea.  He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to think about the next place Yue Fengjian needed to go. The Wa sect made the most sense; it would be to the north and east. As a Wa sect member, if he had to flee the Yuan sect, it made the most sense for him to head for home territory. However rough his relationship with his family was, it had to be better than imprisonment. Dispelling the thoughts crowding his mind, he opened his eyes and took a sip of tea, cradling the cup in his hand.

“I would probably try to go home. Maybe I could make some kind of signal to get your attention outside the city.” 

The murmur of other conversations in the parlors was constant, along with the ring of porcelain cups and the swish of silk robes as cultivators walked up and down the aisles. Yue Fengjian’s deep voice cut through the din. “Tell me what you’ll do. No half-thought out plans.” 

“I’ll… make a bogflame.” 

“How would I see something small like that?” Yue Fengjian muttered, his voice too close. 

I know he is trying not to be overheard, but I don’t think he knows what this is doing to me. 

“Would Leibi-jun prefer me to summon lightning?” 

A scolding note entered Yue Fengjian’s voice. “You of all people should know that title isn’t all mine.” 

Of course it’s yours! Do you think I went through that for nothing? But with his large frame pressing into Lian Zhidiao’s space, Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes trained on his teacup. “Is that so, Leibi-jun?” 

“Mn. So that kind of formality isn’t necessary from you.” 

“I’ll call you dage, then.” He said it cheekily, with a half-smile on his lips as he turned to see the joke land. 

But Yue Fengjian was closer than he thought. He had very nearly kissed him. 

Lian Zhidiao snapped his head down, only to feel Yue Fengjian’s breath in his hair. He clutched his teacup like it was a lifeline.  “Perhaps Leibi-jun is better after all.” His voice was thin and uncertain. 

Yue Fengjian took the teacup out of his white-knuckled hands; once those warm fingers grazed his, Lian Zhidiao let it go without a fight. Those same firm fingers tilted his face up, so that they were looking at each other again. Yue Fengjian’s eyes were heated, magnetic, drawing him into their depths. Their gazes locked; Lian Zhidiao couldn’t look away.

Yue Fengjian put the teacup on the table. “Try it out.”

Try what out? His heart was racing; he swallowed hard, his mind blanking. “W-What?” 

One corner of Yue Fengjian’s mouth lifted in a smile. “‘Dage’.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s throat tightened; if he made any sound at all, it was going to be a whimper! What is this flirty attitude toward me? Where did you learn this?! I didn’t ever give you lines like this in the book! 

There were footsteps in the hall, and Yue Fengjian released his chin just as one of the gray-robed disciples appeared in the doorway to call them forward. 

Now I have to go try to convince Yuan Suwei to let me have a sword, while my head is full of you! Lian Zhidiao gulped down the rest of the hot tea and stood up abruptly, eager to flee the scene as quickly as possible. Yue Fengjian was a little slower to follow him, but his heavy footsteps dogged Lian Zhidiao all the way down to the Sacred Gate. 

The long gallery seemed even longer when they walked down it. Lian Zhidiao looked around at the guards; he didn’t think he recognized any of them, but then again, he hadn’t been able to study faces in detail last time. He looked up at the Judge’s platform, preparing himself to do battle.

And instead of Yuan Suwei, a beautiful young woman met his eyes with a discerning gaze. 

Her center-parted hair framed her face, the rest of it gathered up in a high ponytail on the top of her head. She had an impartial expression, fanning herself slowly. With the steel in her eyes, it seemed as if she was merely playing the part of a Judge, and would be much more at ease in a savage sword fight. A woman this beautiful and this close to the Judge’s throne could only be Yuan Shi’an herself, said to be so skillful at interpreting the law that even her older brother—the actual Judge—turned to her for guidance. 

Yuan Suwei was going to be difficult, but at least I had the blackmail! How am I supposed to talk to her??

One of the disciples brought her a slip of paper, which she read in silence. Then she motioned for some of the disciples to leave. 

“Lian Zhidiao.” She closed her fan; her voice reminded him of a nun, frosty with authority. “You have come to receive a spiritual weapon. You affirm that you have none?” 

Lian Zhidiao gave her a bow. “That is correct, my Lady Arbiter.” 

Her eyes narrowed for a moment, as if she was going to scold him for that title, but then she thought better of it. “Then take in hand this Pearl and speak again your convictions.” 

One of the disciples brought forward a jade sphere on a cushion. 

Jade again. 

Lian Zhidiao took the Pearl and spun a thread of qi into it. It glowed with a soothing green light. “I say that I have no spiritual weapon, and seek one to be granted by the Hidden Realm beyond the Sacred Gate.” 

After a moment, she gave him a short nod. The disciple stepped forward and accepted the jade pearl as he laid it back on the cushion. 

“You are older than is usual to receive a spiritual weapon. I can think of no sect that would allow a cultivator to spin before receiving a weapon. Certainly, receiving the fifth rank as a magician is unusual enough even if one has a sword. To have received the fifth rank without a sword would be unheard of.” 

Lian Zhidiao nodded, but internally he was cursing himself. He had worn his spindle-weight without even thinking about it—it was everyday attire—but it would immediately reveal him as a much more advanced magician than someone who had just formed a golden core. “My Lady Arbiter is as observant as she is wise.” 

“Then explain yourself.” 

“This young man wishes he could, my Lady Arbiter. The truth is that I had a spiritual weapon which had been damaged, and sought to have it restored here. I placed it in the bowl at the top of this cliff, but the Hidden Realm did not return it to me.” 

“You say this with full knowledge that you have just demonstrated you have a golden core.” 

“Yes, my Lady Arbiter.”

“And Senior Yuan Suwei had nothing to say about this?” 

“On the contrary, my Lady Arbiter. My Lord Arbiter seemed to think that this young man was some kind of malevolent actor, here to do evil, and struck me with the Immortal Willow.” 

A small murmur started in the wings of the gallery, but at a glance from Yuan Shi’an, the gray-robed disciples fell silent.

“With his grace, I have recovered from this trial and seek again the right to use a sword.” 

“With his grace?” Yuan Shi’an leaned forward, a keen glint in her eye. “Do you mean to say Senior Yuan Suwei offered you assistance after this…trial?” 

“Indeed, my Lady Arbiter. Upon seeing that there was no wrong committed, he set about making the situation right again. This young man is grateful to my Lord Arbiter for his caution and prudence in protecting the Hidden Realm. Surely no harm can come to this place while he guards the Gate.” 

A lie, of course. I’m not grateful for the beating at all. But these kinds of fawning speeches always seemed to go well in court dramas. 

Yuan Shi’an leaned back, tapping one finger on her folded-up fan in thought. “Why should I allow you to enter the Hidden Realm, if the Hidden Realm saw fit to take your original sword away?” 

“This young man cannot begin to guess at how the Hidden Realm decides what sword one should receive, or, as now, when the sword should be reclaimed.” Lian Zhidiao cautiously glanced at her face. “Does my Lady Arbiter know why the Hidden Realm would take away the sword of a cultivator who has demonstrated he has a golden core?” 

Her finger stopped tapping on the fan. “I must admit I do not.”  

Lian Zhidiao smiled gently. “If we are both mystified by this course of events, then how wise were the ancestors in setting down their laws so that they could dispel any uncertainty we face?” 

He saw her eyes move over his head, flicking to the laws written deeply in the stone on the other side of the courtyard. The first law, the law which took precedence above all others, which ensured the lawful actions of all sects and petitioners, without which order could not be maintained. 

Any cultivator without a spiritual weapon may enter the Sacred Gate. 

After a moment of perfect silence, she gave him a cold, self-satisfied smile, acceding his point without acknowledging him as being superior in any way. “I am not sure that the Wa sect is the right place for a man with your talent for rhetoric, but that will have to be a lesson for the rest of us.” She nodded to the gray-robed disciples. “He may pass.” 

The disciples moved at once to do her bidding. The other clerks, spellbound by the unique events that were unfolding in their presence, finally seemed to shake off the magic and turn their attention to petitioners waiting to be addressed in front of them. 

Lian Zhidiao turned to face Yue Fengjian, and the two of them walked out in the courtyard in front of the Sacred Gate.

When they were far enough away from the gallery, Yue Fengjian leaned in. “That was amazing.” 

“It was necessary.” Lian Zhidiao let out a shaky breath, and reached up to brush his hair back from his face. His fingers were trembling. “It might have been less nerve-wracking if it had been Yuan Suwei. But the hard part is over.” 

Almost at the same time, they turned to look at the Sacred Gate itself. 

“Don’t take too long,” Yue Fengjian said.  

Lian Zhidiao hesitated, looking up at him. Did that mean ‘don’t take too long, it won’t be safe out here for too much longer’? Or did it mean ‘don’t take too long, I’m waiting for you’? Yue Fengjian’s earnest look didn’t indicate what he meant, but Lian Zhidiao’s addled mind automatically slid into the second meaning, and a blush rose in his cheeks.  

When I get back we are going to have to set some boundaries so that this story doesn’t get mucked up even more than it already is. 

Lian Zhidiao walked toward the Sacred Gate, and once he stepped off white paving stones onto the gray gravel of the natural earth, a gray-robed man in the corner began to beat on the skin drum. 

Thump. Thump. Thump. 

He walked up to the gray sandstones and then passed under them. 

Thump. Thump. Thump. 

The space was tight, but he didn’t need to duck his head. Under his feet, the gravel gave way to a pillowy floor of sand. The passage in the stones twisted around. He slipped out of sight of the courtyard, and then the drumming suddenly stopped. 

There was only the sound of his own breathing. 

He walked further inside, the soft gray sand yielding under his feet. Every step wove him between leaves of sandstone that slowly parted, like the opening of the folds of a cloak, to reveal the space within. 

Overhead, the passage widened into a canyon open to the sky, but the sky was the brilliant, indistinct white of an overcast day in summer. There was no heat, no rays of sunlight, no sounds of insects or birds, no wind. Shards of rock stuck up out of the sand, and sticking up in the same way around them, were swords. Swords rusted beyond recognition, their handguards and hilts gone, the layers in the naked tangs bursting apart with iron red and copper green. 

Everywhere Lian Zhidiao looked, they were growing out of the sand, like leaves of grass.

Previous Chapter < Chapter 45: Fortune Favors The Bold
Next Chapter > Chapter 47: Unknown To Death Nor Known To Life


Chapter 45: Fortune Favors The Bold

Fog rolled in during the night. It was still there the next morning, a cool cloak for Shengmen City as the city began to stir from slumber. The distant squeak of wheeled carts on the street in front of the inn roused Lian Zhidiao, and a pang of hunger kept him from drifting off again. 

Lian Zhidiao shifted in bed, his eyes still closed. He took a deep breath, his nose full of a sweet spice, familiar and comforting—Yue Fengjian’s incense. It was so strong that for a moment he imagined that Yue Fengjian had climbed into bed with him. He stretched out lazily, hoping that his hands would find a solid, warm wall of muscle. 

But he was alone in bed. 

Of course. 

Across from him, Yue Fengjian got out of bed; the scent of his incense got stronger. 

Even if Yue Fengjian had kissed him, as he’d said, it was part of the ruse. A good trick. A way to escape his pursuers, not something to crow about, and certainly not something Yue Fengjian should be looking to repeat. 

“Wake up.” 

Lian Zhidiao slowly opened his eyes. 

Yue Fengjian was tying his robes together, his back to Lian Zhidiao. With his eyes, Lian Zhidiao traced the line of his shoulders, down his back, staring covetously at someone that wasn’t for him. A strange kind of loneliness roosted in his ribcage; he felt like his heart was being crushed under its weight.

How can you be so close and yet feel so far away from me? 

Yue Fengjian knotted the sash around his belt with a sharp tug. 

Lian Zhidiao sat up in bed, pulling the edges of his inner clothes closer together. Thin as they were, they felt like armor for his heart. He had to pull himself together, had to figure out what to do next. “Do you think Yuan Suwei will look for me?” 

“I have spent the last two weeks trying to work out exactly what happened,” Yue Fengjian replied. “All I’ve come up with are more questions.” 

Lian Zhidiao swung his feet out over the floor and sat up. “We should compare what we’ve learned. Even with the questions you’ve found, I think you will have more information than I do.” 

No kidding. All I learned was that maids can be incredibly cheeky, and that Yuan Suwei has an obscene carnal appetite. 

A knock came at the door. They froze. 


Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao traded glances. Yue Fengjian took up Wallbreaker from a stand next to his bed and strode through the parlor to the door of their room. He heard the door open. Yue Fengjian spoke in a voice too low to be heard, but then Lian Zhidiao heard the door close, and two sets of footsteps walk back through the parlor. 

“A surprise visitor,” Yue Fengjian said, reentering their bedroom. 

Behind him was none other than Yue Shipei. Yue Shipei averted his gaze from Lian Zhidiao still in bed in his underclothes, only for his eyes to land on the pile of women’s clothing that was still on the floor. At the same time, Lian Zhidiao was keenly aware that his hair was still done up like a lady’s, though a little worse for having slept in it.

I didn’t want to have my hair down in front of Yue Fengjian but…this might be worse. 

“I’ll… wait in the parlor.” Yue Shipei said in a delicate tone of voice. 

Yue Fengjian watched him turn on his heel and walk into the parlor, before giving Lian Zhidiao a cautious look. After a moment, he followed Yue Shipei into the parlor.

Lian Zhidiao took down his robes, putting them on with a red face. Yue Shipei’s seen all he needs to see. It gives the absolute worst impression—which isn’t even true!—but it can’t be salvaged now. The damage is done. He took the time to take his hair down and put it up properly to avoid any further embarrassment. There was a knock at the door; tea and a small breakfast from the innkeeper. Lian Zhidiao joined them some minutes later, dressed for the day. 

Yue Shipei seemed to be feeling a little more sociable with breakfast and tea available. He had a small smile for Lian Zhidiao when he walked in and sat down with them. Lian Zhidiao surveyed the breakfast options: some wilted water vegetables with garlic, a clear soup, some spiced mutton, eggplants and celery with chili oil, rice—it wasn’t like he’d been starved under Yuan Suwei’s roof, but having a breakfast like this with Yue Fengjian and Yue Shipei gave the morning a touch of normalcy he desperately needed. 

Dage was just telling me about what he’s been doing the last two weeks. I was wondering why I’d heard precious little from him.” Yue Shipei had a slightly amused look on his face. 

Lian Zhidiao paused in the middle of getting some tea. “We have not had the chance to talk yet, about what happened.” 

“I told him you were a ‘guest’ of Yuan Suwei’s,” Yue Fengjian said. 

Lian Zhidiao poured the tea, wondering how much to divulge. Given that Yuan Suwei likely didn’t know about his second core, perhaps the best play would be to treat it as some sort of… mistake? 

“How curious that he should take an interest in you,” Yue Shipei said, taking a sip of his tea. 

“Is that what you want to call it?” Lian Zhidiao crammed an entire hunk of mutton into his mouth. 

“His reputation as a fair and impartial man is widely known.”  Yue Shipei gave him a serious look. “The kind of… kidnapping that dage described isn’t the way he usually does things.” 

Lian Zhidiao looked at Yue Fengjian, who nodded in agreement. Lian Zhidiao forced the mutton down and started to follow it with some of the wilted vegetables. “That may be, but for two weeks I was very much imprisoned against my will.” 

“Yes, I’ve seen that,” Yue Shipei said, gesturing to the jade manacles, which had been laid aside on a floor cushion next to the table. “Normal methods of binding a prisoner would be just qi-binding cables, even for Speakers. These manacles are far beyond what would be needed to subdue a willing cultivator.” 

I was far from willing! Lian Zhidiao munched vegetables sullenly. But I also wasn’t prepared to put Yue Fengjian’s life in danger.

“Qi deviation is fairly easy to detect in cultivators,” Yue Fengjian said. “Especially at advanced stages, which need intervention.”

Lian Zhidiao nodded; he remembered seeing what deviation looked like in both the villagers in Sancha Town and the qilin in the mountains. Someone who was dripping black from their mouth and missing all their color would be easy to spot. 

Yue Fengjian picked up one of the manacles. “These are more like what you would use if you suspected someone to be a demon in disguise.” 

A shiver ran down Lian Zhidiao’s spine, remembering the brutal ‘questioning’ from the Immortal Willow. “Do you think these are the same manacles as the ones he had placed on me at the Sacred Gate?” 

“I didn’t get a very good look at them during the struggle,” Yue Fengjian said slowly, as he put the single manacle back down. “But they look like it.” 

“Are these rare?” 

Yue Shipei inclined his head. “We have a few sets of similar tools in the sect, but they’re old. As far as I know, the technique for making them has been lost.” 

Lian Zhidiao frowned. “But—” 

But Zhou Xianzhi said he’d just sold these to Yuan Suwei last year. So are these an antique or a new jade tool? 

Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow. 

“So,” Lian Zhidiao said slowly. “The Judge at the Sacred Gate just keeps demon-binding equipment to hand in case it might be useful during day-to-day administration of spiritual weapons?” 

A serious expression darkened Yue Fengjian’s face. “That doesn’t seem right.” 

What might the Judge be expecting? A Wa sect member who just happens to be a demon comes to the Sacred Gate, deep in human lands? No, there was something else going on. 

“A Judge isn’t technically supposed to have allegiance to the Yuan sect,” Lian Zhidiao mused out loud. 

“It’s said that Judges are impartial, but it can’t be ignored,” Yue Shipei said. “The second son of the Yuan sect leader becomes the next Judge.” 

“That means Yuan Suwei is Yuan Zhuyan’s younger brother, right? Running the Sacred Gate.” 

Suddenly, Yue Fengjian looked at Lian Zhidiao with the disbelieving frown of sudden insight, like someone who couldn’t quite believe the pieces that were being put together. “Last night, when we were walking back….” 

Lian Zhidiao met Yue Fengjian’s eyes and nodded slowly before turning to Yue Shipei. “You’ve been staying with Hu Baitian, haven’t you?” 


Yue Fengjian picked up on it immediately. “Has he been gone a lot lately?” 

“He—” Yue Shipei blinked a few times, as if the line of questioning surprised him. “He usually prefers to study during the day, but when his father does rounds, he goes with him.” 

“Even at night?” 

At this question, Yue Shipei’s face changed. Anxiety swept over his features, engulfing him in a tidal wave of worry that he’d been holding back all on his own. He lowered a bite of eggplant that he’d been about to eat, as if he’d lost his appetite. “Yes, sometimes. They leave in a great hurry. Sometimes they don’t come back until morning.” 

Yue Fengjian had a particularly satisfied set to his jaw. “So Yuan Zhuyan can’t meet with me to arrange the marriage of his daughter, and he’s receiving visits from a doctor in the middle of the night.” 

“And his brother, the Judge, has been acquiring demon-binding jade tools and keeping them close to him.” 

Yue Shipei looked back and forth between them. “What are you suggesting?” 

“Last night, while we were coming back here, we passed by Yuan Zhuyan’s palace. Hu Baitian and his father were just leaving.” Lian Zhidiao set down his bowl. “I used earth-seeing once they’d left. I hadn’t told Yue Fengjian this yet, but underneath the Yuan palace, there are two spots of tainted earth. One of them is near the back of the palace.” 

The great hall at the southern end of the grounds, where the master of the household lived. 

Yue Fengjian paused with a slice of meat midway to his mouth. 

“The other spot was in the center, probably a pond.” 

“Not crawling earth, right?” Yue Shipei looked a little pale.

“No,” Lian Zhidiao said. “It didn’t appear to be, but that may be because Great Jade Beast Baima is close enough that the roaring earth is the only thing keeping the earth from crawling.” 

Yue Fengjian frowned. “Last night, didn’t they say they had to visit Baima this morning?” 

Lian Zhidiao nodded. “And Yuan Shijun said he would make the arrangements.” 

Yue Shipei’s voice was faint. “That might be because they have jade tools that need to be cleansed. Placing them with Baima would slowly remove the deviate qi, but there’s limited space for jade tools, especially if there’s a lot stored in them, so that they don’t tax the Great Jade Beast too much.” 

The prospects were sobering. A demon working in the Yuan family palace. Maybe Yuan Suwei’s elder brother was a demon in disguise, or an innocent man had been hurt. News might have slowly filtered out that he was sick, but this wasn’t the kind of illness anyone would expect. Maybe he was poisoned, though it was hard to see how someone as important as the Yuan sect leader could have been brought down without any suspicious activity. Perhaps the Hu family were part of the effort to deceive others in the sect (and the cultivation world at large), whether it was about a demon in their midst, or the poisoning with deviate qi. 

This concern about demons isn’t new, either. Hu Baitian came to Yue Fengjian asking to be taught how to subdue demons. Yuan Suwei bought those manacles last year. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes caught Yue Fengjian’s and held them. 

No wonder Yuan Suwei had demon-binding equipment close at hand, and was quick to use it in any context he found suspicious. Even if the Immortal Willow had cleared Lian Zhidiao of being a demon, Yuan Suwei had to be cautious. After all, if his brother died, he would inherit the right to run the Yuan sect if Yuan Shijun were unfit. 

And Yuan Shijun was certainly living in that palace on top of tainted earth. Who knew what his role in all this was? A son concerned for his ailing father? Or a son wanting to shove his father into the afterlife as soon as possible so that he could lead the sect? Just the idea made Lian Zhidiao’s stomach bottom out. He himself had no great affection for his father, but patricide was going too far. It would be much easier to just leave if there was some enmity that made the relationship impossible to withstand. 

“It was easier to keep me locked up than to find me again if something went wrong,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled before packing his mouth full of rice. 

“It makes a certain kind of sense, for a desperate man,” Yue Fengjian said. 

A desperate man… 

“I should share with him what I learned with earth-seeing.” 

“Don’t be stupid,” Yue Fengjian responded. “He will lock you up again the moment he claps eyes on you, and you won’t be so lucky to escape this time.” 

Lian Zhidiao simply nodded, and let out a small sigh. “I still do not have a spiritual weapon, either, but if Yuan Suwei is presiding at the Sacred Gate, I can reject that idea out of hand.” 

“I would go as soon as possible,” Yue Shipei said suddenly. “The commotion in the Sacred Gate remained confined to it, as far as I can tell. There hasn’t been any gossip around town about the Wa sect member who was captured trying to enter the Hidden Realm.” 

If no gossip about his capture had gotten out, then the cultivators that bound him and delivered him to Yuan Suwei’s villa were no more impartial than Yuan Suwei himself, keeping quiet under Yuan Suwei’s order. 

“If his brother is under suspicion, Yuan Suwei would assume that anywhere the Yuan sect rules isn’t safe,” Lian Zhidiao said, finishing breakfast and setting his dishes down. “So the gray-robed cultivators at the Sacred Gate that day were his men. Cultivators loyal to Yuan Suwei, who wouldn’t betray him if he suddenly came into possession of some kind of tactical advantage.” 

“Like a Wa sect member who knows the earth-seeing technique, who could answer definitively whether demons were at work under Shengmen City.” Yue Shipei’s hand rested around his teacup. “He might have taken you aside to speak to you privately. He didn’t expect you to also have signs that something wasn’t right.”  

“Even without what you can do with jade beasts, earth-seeing isn’t a skill you see every day.” 

“And for good reason,” Lian Zhidiao sighed. 

“What do you mean?” Yue Fengjian asked cautiously. 

“The technique exposes the user to a lot of deviate qi any time they use it. It’s worse in tainted earth, and crawling earth…” Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “If it was widely taught, there would be countless qi deviations in cultivators who weren’t careful enough.” 

“It doesn’t take much to destabilize a cultivation base,” Yue Shipei said quietly. 

Lian Zhidiao sipped his cup of tea. Neither he nor Yue Fengjian said anything. They’d worked through the breakfast between their discussion, and with only tea left to drink, a quiet tension rose in the air. It was only broken when Yue Fengjian finished his tea with a satisfied sound and looked over at Yue Shipei. “So you think he should go today?” 

“If your aim is to get a sword, yes.” 

Yue Fengjian sounded resolute. “This problem has gone unsolved too long already. He’s entitled to one and he should have it. A cultivator without a spiritual weapon—being refused a spiritual weapon—” 

“I know. I have never heard the like either.” Yue Shipei’s brow wrinkled slightly. “He hasn’t been discovered missing yet, but that window of opportunity is closing. After Yuan Suwei has worked out that Lian Zhidiao is not hiding or being hidden, the next logical place to check is—” 

“His brother’s palace.” Yue Fengjian nodded grimly. 

Yue Shipei nodded. “If you are not there doing something to his brother, then he would assume you’ve fled. The next thing to do is find those that would aid you in flight.” Yue Shipei gestured to Yue Fengjian. “Friends or relatives. He would pressure them to say whether they’ve helped or seen you.” 

Yue Fengjian let out a little scoff of contempt, as if to dismiss the very idea that he would ever respond to such pressure, but Lian Zhidiao nodded. “He will have his men searching high and low, not expecting me to come back within his sphere of influence. Getting into the Sacred Gate might take some creativity, but I suppose the best possible way to do this is to pretend that we are here a second time because of a separate affair.” 

Yue Shipei’s expression was grave. “Remind him of the law that allows anyone without a spiritual weapon to enter the Hidden Realm.” 

Yue Fengjian scoffed again. 

Yue Shipei leaned forward, speaking to Lian Zhidiao directly. “Yuan Suwei is a slave to the law, but he is still a man. Use that against him. After you’ve gotten your sword back, it will be another matter.” Yue Shipei’s lips quirked in a smile. “You have acquired some interesting blackmail as well. I trust you can come up with more brilliant plans of escape than just putting on a skirt and some rouge.” 

Lian Zhidiao reddened.

Please don’t let him tell Hu Baitian about this. Bad enough that I’m hated for something I didn’t do, but this is something I could never live down! 

Yue Shipei laughed. “Occupying your time further would keep you from more daring foolishness, so I will take my leave.” He stood up, seeming altogether more light-hearted than when he’d arrived. “Besides, he will notice if I’m not there.” He didn’t need to say who he was speaking about. 

Lian Zhidiao stood up. “Yue Shipei, please—” He had a hard time finding words that wouldn’t seem patronizing. “…Both of you be careful.” 

For a moment, the cool remove was back in Yue Shipei’s expression. The malice that existed between Lian Zhidiao and Hu Baitian had Yue Shipei interposed between them, not as a mediator, but as a protector. Then his expression softened. “Good luck, Lian Zhidiao.”

Yue Shipei inclined his head to Yue Fengjian and left, quietly closing the door behind him. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 44: What Lies Beneath

Chapter 44: What Lies Beneath

The next alley they could duck into might as well have been back in Lian Zhidiao’s original world, for how long it seemed to take to reach it. His heart raced, and his feet itched to break into a run, but with Yue Fengjian’s hand like a vise around his upper arm, Lian Zhidiao had no choice but to stay next to him. Yue Fengjian’s arm curled around his shoulders; the warmth of his body made every hair on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck stand at attention. 

“Don’t look back.” Yue Fengjian’s warning was low.  

“I won’t,” Lian Zhidiao said, his voice catching in his throat. 

Their footsteps echoed off the earthen walls of the houses they passed, like someone clapping to get the night watch’s attention. Finally, finally, a side street opened up. Yue Fengjian steered them toward it. As Lian Zhidiao turned the corner, he looked back the way they’d come. The street was deserted. 

The new street was narrow, and stacked high with crates and a cart or two parked next to the walls.

Yue Fengjian let out a heavy sigh and released Lian Zhidiao from the deathgrip on his shoulder. “That was close.” 

A twinge of deprivation stung Lian Zhidiao. Even if this situation—the midnight meeting, the kiss—had been a farce played out for the night watch, having Yue Fengjian’s arm around him had been the only good thing in this entire situation. Lian Zhidiao perched on the end of the cart, lifting up the tail end of his hair to let air cool the back of his neck. These clothes and this hairstyle were so hot; he was burning up at the same time he was melting. He reached up and touched his face; his sweat mixed with the powder turned into paste on his fingers.  His fingers were trembling with adrenaline. Thank goodness I’ll never have to do this again

“I’m not used to wearing women’s clothes,” Lian Zhidiao said in a weak voice. 

Yue Fengjian was leaning against the far wall, his arms crossed over his chest. His eyes were glued to Lian Zhidiao’s skirts swirling around his booted ankles, the pibo drooping dangerously close to the ground, the gap in his decolletage when he moved without consideration for the parallel collar. The hunger in his gaze made Lian Zhidiao’s heart begin to beat faster again. 

“Mm,” Yue Fengjian replied, standing up straight again.  “You said a maid got you these clothes?” 

“She said they were cast-offs from her lady.” He didn’t want to mention the part about escaping under the guise of being one of Yuan Suwei’s lovers. 

“It’s a convenient story.” Yue Fengjian frowned, looking up and down the street. “Maybe she had another purpose in letting you go.” 

Lian Zhidiao tucked his hair self-consciously behind his ear. The ‘other purpose’ was to keep you from scaring A-Wen to pieces every time she set foot outside! But he couldn’t find it in his heart to be mad at Yue Fengjian, especially now that he’d discovered Yue Fengjian had been continually surveilling Yuan Suwei’s palace. 

When Lian Zhidiao moved his hand, Yue Fengjian’s eyes sharpened on the jade manacle around it; he reached out and took hold of Lian Zhidiao’s arm. “Have you been wearing these the entire time?” 

“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao squeaked, his voice squeezed small by the touch of Yue Fengjian’s hand around his forearm.

“I was wondering why there were no qi-binding cables around you.” 

“They prevent me from looking inward.”

Yue Fengjian’s eyes flicked down for a moment. “Your core?” It was clear from the caution in his voice that he was thinking of the terrible consequences of the other core running amok.

“Fine, probably?” Lian Zhidiao wished that Yue Fengjian would let go of his arm so he could just think

For the second time in ten minutes, Yue Fengjian took both of Lian Zhidiao’s wrists in his hand, feeding qi into both of the manacles at once. The manacles suddenly widened, letting Lian Zhidiao slip his wrists free. 

The perception of his cores flared to life in his belly, one brilliant, the other a dark shadow. Profound joy swept through him at the revelation of that golden light still blazing inside him. He was even happy to see the deviate qi in the other core slowly swirling. It was disturbed, but not threatening, not boiling. Lian Zhidiao’s nerves were settled: during the time he’d been made blind to his own qi, nothing had gone wrong. 

Then it slowly dawned on him that Yue Fengjian was staring at him. 

Lian Zhidiao’s smile melted away. “Is something wrong?” 

“…Nothing.” Yue Fengjian tucked the manacles into his robes and looked both ways down the street again. “We’ll go back to the inn, regroup…” Yue Fengjian trailed off as his eyes raked over Lian Zhidiao’s ruqun. “…And get a change of clothes for you.” 

Lian Zhidiao withered at Yue Fengjian’s appraisal. The one person I didn’t want to see me in this get-up was the one who found me. “There are still the other robes in the storage ring.” Lian Zhidiao lifted the hem of his blue skirt to show his black robes underneath. “And I wore these out.” 

Yue Fengjian set his jaw at the sight of Lian Zhidiao lifting his skirt, and gave a short, stiff nod. “We’ll be quick. If we meet anyone, stay close to me.” 

Yue Fengjian took Lian Zhidiao’s hand, sending another thrill right down to his toes. They darted from shadow to shadow in the streets. The late hour afforded them relative privacy as they walked, but it also instantly made them the target of suspicion. When they passed the occasional watch, or a tramp in the streets, Yue Fengjian brought him closer. Their strides matched, an easy rhythm that rocked Lian Zhidiao against Yue Fengjian’s chest as they walked. 

There was neither the time nor the inclination for extended conversations. Yue Fengjian made the decision on which streets to take. They approached a turn, and then the glow of a lantern off the adjoining wall made Yue Fengjian stop in his tracks and flatten his back against the wall. He motioned to be quiet and slid up to the very corner, peeking around it. Lian Zhidiao crept up next to him and looked around the corner. 

A litter with four footmen sat waiting outside the gate of a great house, with a fancy crest in silver leaf on the back. There were two lanterns hanging from each side of the litter: clearly they weren’t expected to tarry for long. 

Yue Fengjian pressed Lian Zhidiao back and whispered to him, “The crest of the Hu family is on that litter.” 

“Hu Baitian?” 

“Yes. And this is the main palace of the Yuan family, the sect leader,” Yue Fengjian said, motioning at the wall behind them. 

In the middle of the night? I was breaking out of Yuan Suwei’s jail but what would bring the Hu family out at this hour? 

“We can go around,” Yue Fengjian said. “The porters won’t know who we are. We can get to the inn without any trouble.” 

“Wait,” Lian Zhidiao said, pulling at Yue Fengjian’s sleeve. “Why are they here at night?” 

“The Hu family?” Yue Fengjian gave a half-shrug. “What does it matter to you?” 

“I…” Explaining that he wanted to remember exactly what had been going on with his novel plot wouldn’t work. Neither could he explain the details of his conversation with Yuan Suwei that encouraged his suspicion that something was rotten in the Yuan family. He tugged at Yue Fengjian’s sleeve again. “Let’s just wait here for a moment. Maybe it’s something interesting.” 

Yue Fengjian stared at him in disbelief, as if to say I finally got you out of that man’s house and now you want to just wait around another Yuan palace? But whatever sound advice or reasonable protest was going to come out of Yue Fengjian’s mouth next, they were stopped by the creak of the great gate shuddering open. Lian Zhidiao crept forward, looking around the corner. 

Hu Baitian stepped out of the gate, carrying a small cabinet. He turned and waited at the gate, and then another man stepped out. He was older and slightly taller, his hair bound up as tightly as Hu Baitian’s, wearing the same silver-white robes of the Yuan sect. He was also carrying a small case, which he put into Hu Baitian’s hands, and faced the gate. 

“I cannot express the depth of my gratitude at your prompt response this evening,” a man said from inside the gate. Certainly he would be of the Yuan sect, since he was seeing them off. “Without your help, we would be lost.” 

The older Hu—perhaps Hu Baitian’s father?—bowed to the Yuan family member. “Since before my father’s father’s time, the Hu family has been ready to answer the call of the Yuan family. Always it has been, and always it will remain.” 

Hu Baitian also bowed. “Our devotion to Sect Leader Yuan is complete. We would do anything to help him. This humble student is indeed privileged to be able to assist with such an important responsibility.” 

There was a pause, and then the Yuan sect member continued with a warm tone. “You are every bit the healer your father is. At some point, Heaven willing it is far in the future, I will be pleased to entrust my life to you, as my father entrusted his life to your father.” 

The son of the sect leader… so this must be Yuan Shijun. Lian Zhidiao looked up at the high walls around the palace. And this is where the marriage meeting must have been held. That’s how Yue Fengjian knows where we are.

At this lofty praise, the older man—definitely Hu Baitian’s father—bowed to the Yuan family member. 

Hu Baitian also bowed deeply. “I am but a humble student, undeserving of your praise.” But there was a note of pleasure in his voice.

The pleasantries over, Hu Baitian’s father spoke again, his voice so low that it was hard to hear him at this distance. “Keep him as comfortable as you can. We will go to see Baima in the morning to make the exchange.” 

“I’ll make the arrangements first thing,” Yuan Shijun replied. “Please go home and rest, both of you.” 

Hu Baitian and his father both bowed again, and a moment later, the gate closed with a heavy echo. Hu Baitian’s father seated himself in the litter and reached out for the small case. “A-Zu, give that here.” 

“Yes, Father.” 

Once the case had been surrendered and the small cabinet placed in the litter, Hu Baitian got in as well. There was a rapping sound, like the side of the litter was tapped with a fan, and the porters leaned down and picked up the litter. They disappeared into the darkness, taking the light of the lanterns with them. 

Lian Zhidiao let out a slow breath and then gave Yue Fengjian a challenging look. “See? Wasn’t that interesting?” 

“I don’t like eavesdropping,” Yue Fengjian said with obvious distaste. 

“But we have learned something important,” Lian Zhidiao said. “There’s just one thing more, if you’ll watch over me.” 

Yue Fengjian clicked his tongue. “All this for curiosity?” 

“Not just that, there’s a mystery here, and you know it.” 

“Your curiosity is going to get you killed.”

“It won’t,” Lian Zhidiao said, sitting on his knees and leaning forward to press his palms against the earth. “It will only take a moment.” Without waiting for an answer, Lian Zhidiao turned his sight inward and then plunged his perception down into the earth. 

The soil under Shengmen City wasn’t at all like the waterlogged Sancha Town, with its tainted and crawling earth. There was a faint sensation of wind rushing by his face, even though all his perception was underground. Turning to see what was nearby, there was a glittering in the corner of his eye, like the reflection of the sun off of the surface of the lake. The wind was coming from that direction.

That must be the Great Jade Beast, then. 

This close to the roaring earth generated by the Great Jade Beast, the earth should have been sparkling. But under the Yuan palace was only darkness. Lian Zhidiao pushed into it to determine its character. Dry, but still somehow full of the energy of rot. But no swarm of hungry mouths began to nibble and tear at him.

Tainted earth, but not yet crawling.

There were two spots under the estate that seemed darkest: one was under the southern end, a spot of earth that seemed to weakly throb. The other was in the center, probably under a pond, given the moisture of the soil around it. He waited just outside the estate, letting the breath of the Great Jade Beast blow away the deviate qi that had clung to him from the Yuan palace. Then he drew his perception back into his body. 

Yue Fengjian was sitting at his side, his eyes averted. 

“Yue Fengjian…” 

At the sound of Lian Zhidiao’s voice, Yue Fengjian stood up. “Can you walk?” 

“Yes, I think so.” Lian Zhidiao glanced down at himself to find that the pibo was knotted around his neck like a scarf, resting on his chest. He looked up at Yue Fengjian. 

Yue Fengjian looked away. “Let’s go. We still have some distance to cover.” 

Shengmen City quieted even further as the middle of the night passed. It was well past that when they arrived at the inn: the inn’s roadside lantern was cold. But Yue Fengjian gave a knock in a secret pattern on the inn’s gate, and within a minute, it swung inward and they were allowed inside. 

The innkeeper didn’t look too closely at them. He was rubbing sleep out of his eyes as he handed Yue Fengjian a small lantern to go up to their room. 

Lian Zhidiao never thought he would be so happy to see the room of an inn, especially after he’d been cramped in a cell for two weeks. But the room was a sight for sore eyes. The parlor looked almost untouched, but the bedroom had several sets of Yue Fengjian’s robes hung up. The color comforted him; he was safe here. 

Yue Fengjian set the lantern up on a hook to shed some meager light. Once the bedroom was closed and barred, he let out a breath. 

Lian Zhidiao was already pulling off the women’s clothing. He unknotted the pibo from around his neck, draping it over the frame of his bed. “You’ve really been waiting in the city all this time for me?”

“You think I would abandon you when it was my suggestion that we come here?” 

“…No.” Lian Zhidiao yanked at the ribbon that tied his skirt up over his chest. The skirt and then the top fell away, landing in a pile on the floor. It revealed his robes tied just at his bust, but he unknotted them and straightened them out. The outer robes he hung up, hoping that the wrinkles would fall out during the night. He had just shrugged his inner clothes back on with a sigh of relief when he got a good look at Yue Fengjian in the lantern light: his lips were stained red by rouge. The proof of their kiss was visible for anyone to see. 


“Is there something on my face?” 

“Just… “ Lian Zhidiao’s voice was hoarse. “Just lip paint. From when you…” 

“Mn,” Yue Fengjian said. There was a small stand with water and cloths to freshen up, thanks to the thoughtful hospitality of the Yue-friendly innkeeper. 

Lian Zhidiao dampened one of the cloths and walked over to Yue Fengjian’s side of the room. He reached up, in a moment of exhaustion, and dabbed at the stain on Yue Fengjian’s lips. 

Yue Fengjian let him, turning his face against the weave of the cloth. After a few moments, there wasn’t any evidence left of their kiss on his lips, but kindled in his eyes was a fire that all damp cloths in the inn wouldn’t be enough to put out. 

Lian Zhidiao met that ravenous gaze, and wished for the kiss to be the beginning of a mistake, not the end of one. 

I want to put more of the lip paint on him. I want to wipe it away, and then put it back, again and again, until there’s none left on him or me. 

The unspoken desires burning in Lian Zhidiao’s heart forced heat into his cheeks. Of all the people to fall in love with, he had to choose the man who had a destiny to fulfill, who could never belong to him. He had to remember that, even if he forgot all else. Lian Zhidiao snorted a soundless laugh and walked back to his side of the room. He poured water over another cloth and wiped away the paint from his lips and his brow. “Thank you for picking up on the ruse so quickly, treating me like a lady of the evening.” 

“It was very convincing,” Yue Fengjian said in a roughened voice. “I was just taking advantage of it.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s heart gave a heavy thump. Feeling as though he was moving through thick syrup, he dampened another cloth and pulled the collar of his inner clothes aside to make sure he wiped away all the powder from his face. 

“Still,” he said. “It was your quick thinking that saved me.” 

Yue Fengjian’s eyes followed every movement of his hands. Like a lion in a cage watching a man with a hunk of meat, he watched as Lian Zhidiao pulled his inner clothes back into place and tied them shut. 

“It was a good trick,” Yue Fengjian said. He blew out the lantern. 

Lian Zhidiao sat down on his bed, staring into the darkness, pleading with the heavens to do something to stop the unavoidable collision between destiny and his heart.

He heard Yue Fengjian sit on his own bed and then lie down. 

Lian Zhidiao let out a slow, silent, shaky breath. There would be no reckoning tonight. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 43: It Has Me Nearly In Tears, This Moonlight

Chapter 43: It Has Me Nearly In Tears, This Moonlight

Lian Zhidiao rubbed one wet cheek with his sleeve. “What do you mean?” 

Yang Xihua lifted her chin. “I heard everything that happened just now.” 

Bitterness twisted Lian Zhidiao’s mouth. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you to mind your own business?” 

“You can’t keep secrets in a manor like this,” Yang Xihua replied, sitting down opposite him and leaning forward, looking a little like a loan shark who was about to change the terms of the ‘understanding’ they had. “I didn’t realize you knew Master Zhou as well.” 

Oh for pity’s sake, can you not remind me! Lian Zhidiao gave a big sniff. “We have some history. I didn’t… I didn’t think he would leave me here.” 

“Don’t be stupid,” Yang Xihua said. “My Master is Sect Leader Yuan’s brother. Even if Master Zhou is only selling him jade tools, that’s an important client he shouldn’t lose for the sake of a man who’s rejected him.” 

“He’s not only selling him jade tools,” Lian Zhidiao muttered.

“That’s not any of your concern either,” Yang Xihua replied. “Especially since you already have a lover. Do you expect Master Zhou to come whenever you crook your finger?” 

“You’ve got it wrong. I don’t… have a lover.” The words came out of his mouth haltingly, an admission of truth that he wished were a lie even as he said it.

“Really?” Yang Xihua scrutinized him closely. “I have seen many people that come to visit my Master, and how they bow and scrape for their own Masters, and none speak about their Masters with such high praise.”

Lian Zhidiao opened his mouth, but the blush that darkened his cheeks wouldn’t let him say anything more. 

“You have feelings for him, don’t you?” 

Lian Zhidiao nodded mutely.

Yang Xihua’s look of smug satisfaction was intolerable. “You’ve been on your best behavior to get in my Master’s good graces so you could contact your lover, or whatever he is. But my Master has no intention of letting you go.” 

Well, of course. Lian Zhidiao hung his head and let out a heavy sigh. 

“You didn’t seriously think he would, did you?” 

Lian Zhidiao’s voice was small. “I hoped that he would.” 

Yang Xihua shook her head in disgust. “You are the worst kind of young master. I much prefer a young master who is outspoken about things he does not know, or too quick with his hands under my dress.” 

“What?” Lian Zhidiao frowned, looking at Yang Xihua. Her body was still growing; he’d never asked her age, but she had to be no older than fifteen or sixteen. “Does Yuan Suwei do that to you?” 

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Yang Xihua tapped the floor pointedly. “A young master who thinks of a servant when he himself is in dire straits?” She made a noise of contempt. 

“Does Yuan Suwei do that to you?” 

Yang Xihua leaned back, rolling her eyes, at the limit of dealing with this young master’s faults. 

Does he?” 

“No, he doesn’t,” Yang Xihua snapped. “My Master’s manhood is nearly insatiable. Someone visits him nearly every night. What would a man like my Master want with a servant like me when he can have nearly anyone in Shengmen City present themselves to him that evening? Disrespect him like that again and I won’t help you escape.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s eyes widened. Every night?? What is he, a sixteen year old boy? Even if it had been Yang Xihua’s intention to absolve her master in Lian Zhidiao’s eyes by speaking of his…virtues, she’d only complicated the picture Lian Zhidiao had of him. Lian Zhidiao spent several seconds trying to process everything in her words. Not a sex pest or someone who used his power to go after young girls, but definitely a lecher. Did he just have a string of anonymous sexual encounters, or a preferred mistress? Then he realized that every time he’d heard the creak of the servant’s gate open at night must have been one of Yuan Suwei’s lovers slipping in or out of the palace grounds.  Zhou Xianzhi’s comment about the ‘certain benefits’ of his bed, or his ‘demanding’ nature made Lian Zhidiao’s upper lip curl. Putting this new information together with the shrewd, impartial personality of the cool-faced Judge was making his head hurt. 

Who knew a man like that could hide passions like those? Lian Zhidiao’s eyes flicked up to Yang Xihua’s face. But then again, they aren’t hidden at all. As she said, you can’t keep secrets in a manor like this.

Yang Xihua took his stunned silence as acquiescence. “To that end,” she said. “I have been thinking about you. You are clearly not dangerous, or he would not be holding you here in his private home instead of the prison the Speakers have under the mountain.” She planted her palms on each of her knees. “So I’ll help you escape.” 


“As long as you get that scary man away from where he’s terrifying A-Wen, you can call us even.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s face softened. So in the end, it’s about protecting Xia Qingwen. “He won’t trouble you anymore. That’s a promise.” 

“Good,” Yang Xihua said.

Lian Zhidiao got to his feet, looking over clothes she’d brought in. He picked up one piece, looking at the soft color and flowery embroidery with a sinking feeling. “These are all…” 

“Well, my lady was going to throw them out. She said she had been seen in them too many times, and didn’t want anyone to think my Master couldn’t afford new ones. I’ve been hiding them to take them home, but… maybe you can use them more.” 

Wait, does that mean Yuan Suwei has a wife and is still sleeping around that much? It’s too much like a court drama! Then again, if he’s that virile, she’s probably happy for someone to share the burden she’d have to shoulder on her own every night…

Lian Zhidiao covered his face as Yang Xihua’s con sank into his brain. His despairing voice leaked out around his hands. “You want me to dress up like one of Yuan Suwei’s lovers.” 

“My Master has had many visitors tonight, on account of the party. The guards have heard the gates open and shut so many times, they will not be on high alert.” 

“I have to walk out in public like this.” Lian Zhidiao gave Yang Xihua a mournful look. “Anyone who hears me talk will know right away.” 

“Please, you’re only a little taller than I am, just hide your face behind your sleeve. You only have to go find your scary man, don’t you?” At the way the blood drained from Lian Zhidiao’s face, she added, “If you get far enough away from the grounds, you could even change your clothing.” 

Lian Zhidiao made up his mind at that moment that that was exactly what he was going to do. He looked over the clothes she’d brought, having no idea what went where. It all looked like standard period drama stuff, prettily patterned silks and filmy chiffons in a wide variety of feminine colors that ranged from soft to vibrant. “Do you know how to put them together?” 

Yang Xihua slapped his arm. “What is that supposed to mean?” 

“Ow!” She’d hit him so hard! “I mean, do you know how to make an outfit?” 

Yang Xihua gave him a withering look. “I have been a lady’s maid for years, so please have a little faith in me.” 

Giving a small nod, Lian Zhidiao swallowed down his apprehension. What was the saying? Trust the process? “Very well. Please do what you can.” 

At her insistence that any lady visiting in a non-cultivator capacity would be wearing her hair styled as such, Lian Zhidiao took down his hair for her to style. His ears burned for letting a girl see him like this, even if she was a servant girl like Yang Xihua. If she noticed him steadily getting redder, she was already in a very professional mode and said nothing. She combed his hair back into a sleek shape that hung down very near his shoulders in soft rounds, with an asymmetrical knot of hair at the top. After powdering his face, rouge stained his cheeks, making his blush semi-permanent. She quickly smudged on some eyebrows. With a fine brush and quick fingers, she painted his lips a full red, and then added a small huadian in the center of his forehead. 

After some discussion, he shrugged out of the top part of his robes and wrapped them around his chest to give a slight illusion that he had a bosom. Then Yang Xihua put on him a high-waisted ruqun with a parallel collar over it. The top was red, edged with white and embroidered with simple flowers. The skirt was a dark indigo, tied in place over his chest with a bright emerald ribbon.  Over his arms, she draped a white pibo that had been dyed in a pattern with yellow ochre. Yang Xihua adjusted the clothing so that he looked the part of a slightly-wilted flower of the night, exposing his collarbones a little more and pulling a few strands of hair loose. With a small sprig of osmanthus flowers tucked into his hair, she pronounced the transformation complete. 

Yang Xihua picked up the clothes that hadn’t been used and doused the flame. He picked up his spindle-weight and the storage ring, tucking them into the folds of fabric under the top of the skirt. They gathered together at the door.

“You first,” she said. “Beyond the screen wall, to the right. I will follow after a few minutes.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s heart was racing “Right. And…thank you.”

“Don’t thank me, just make sure you get that scary man out of here,” she hissed. 

Then the door to the cell creaked open and her hand at his back pushed him until he was outside. 

The moonlight made it easy to see where he was going, but he constantly checked his walk to make sure he was keeping a demure gait. Swallowing down his nerves, he arrived at the servant’s gate and pulled the door open. 

There were two guards outside, on either side. 

There are even guards at the servants’ gate? Lian Zhidiao continued opening the door, thinking that the guards would look askance at someone who was timid, or who thought there wouldn’t be guards. Don’t panic. No one knows you’ve left yet.  He lifted up his skirts and stepped out into the street, pulling the servants’ gate closed behind him. Without waiting, he began to walk down the road, keeping his skirt close. He walked without looking behind him at all. Just seeking out the shapes in the night that told him where to walk. Ahead was a side street that opened off of this one. He just had to make it there and he’d be out of view of Yuan Suwei’s guards. Cold sweat poured down his back.


He turned the corner. The street in front of him was clear of foot traffic, as might be expected at this hour. There were no crates or carts, just one long, single road with no one on it. 

Please, please. 

He proceeded down the street, and when he was sure the guards could no longer see him, he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Fanning himself with his hand, he took stock of the situation. He just had to put some distance between Yuan Suwei’s house and himself. Then he could change clothes and try to figure out what to do for the night. In the morning, he could get back to the inn and Yue Fengjian. 

Suddenly, a shadow in a broad hat broke away from the blackness under the eaves of the wall and grabbed Lian Zhidiao’s wrist. 


A hand clamped over his mouth, muffling his noise of alarm. The attacker’s superior strength trapped him against the wall; even though he struggled, it was as if he’d made no effort at all. Lian Zhidiao wanted to cry for the second time that night. He’d finally escaped Yuan Suwei’s palatial villa only to be attacked in the street just steps over the threshold? Lian Zhidiao wrenched his arm up again, trying to get away, but then the attacker pinned both his wrists with one hand. The darkness under the wide-brimmed hat was too deep to see under; whoever he was, Lian Zhidiao was completely at his mercy. 

Guniang,” a familiar deep voice said. “Please, I only need information. I’ll reward you handsomely.” 

Lian Zhidiao could hardly believe his ears. “Yue Fengjian?”

The shadow froze, and then pushed the hat back. Yue Fengjian looked down at him, taking in the high-waisted skirt bound over his chest, his hair bound up like a woman’s, lip paint so intense it could still be seen in moonlight. “Lian Zhidiao…” 

“What are you doing?” Lian Zhidiao hissed, his voice low. “Did the maid tell you I’d be coming?” 

“Maid? What maid?” Yue Fengjian rumbled. 

“The one who gave me these clothes.” Lian Zhidiao looked down at his flower-embroidered decolletage, as if to offer the example. “You didn’t plan this with her?” 

“No.” Yue Fengjian let out a small breath, releasing Lian Zhidiao’s wrists. His relief was plain in his voice. “No, I didn’t. But you’re out now.” 

Lian Zhidiao could feel some of the tension drain from Yue Fengjian where they were pressed together. “Yeah.” 

The sounds of the night closed in around them, and yet Yue Fengjian didn’t pull away, didn’t suggest they flee the city, or at least go back to the inn and sleep. The heat of his body soaked through Lian Zhidiao’s thin clothes; he shivered in spite of feeling too hot. 

“Yue Fengjian…” Lian Zhidiao’s protest was weaker than he wanted it to be, but it had been so long since he’d seen Yue Fengjian, he was scared that he wouldn’t be too good at making decisions right now. He had to make him move away. “We should…”

Footsteps began to echo down the street. Yue Fengjian leaned down, pressing his cheek to Lian Zhidiao’s. “Follow my lead,” he muttered in a low voice. 

Lian Zhidiao’s heart stopped. Follow your lead?! If we stay, I’m going to get captured again! Whatever your plan is, it better be good!

“What do we have here?” 

Lian Zhidiao risked taking a peek. It was a group of three night watchmen, carrying a lantern.  Not Yuan Suwei’s guards. He hadn’t been discovered missing yet. He could still get away. 

But Yue Fengjian didn’t move away. In fact, he seemed to press even closer, his body a barrier between Lian Zhidiao and the footsteps that were rapidly approaching from the direction of Yuan Suwei’s palace. Yue Fengjian’s fingers brushed against his earlobe, sending electricity racing over his skin. Lian Zhidiao couldn’t hold back a small, sudden intake of breath. 

At that soft sound, Yue Fengjian’s fingers stilled, even as the footsteps drew closer. 

That was right next to his ear. Lian Zhidiao closed his eyes, wishing he could just melt into the ground and disappear forever. There’s no way to explain that away, is there? It sounded so wrong. 

Yue Fengjian’s breath fanned his face, and Lian Zhidiao was sure he was shocked by what he’d heard, too shocked by the awkward sound to act. 

Then Yue Fengjian lowered his head and kissed him. 

Lian Zhidiao’s mind went blank, a flurry of confusion and desire making his brain into a thick soup. His body acted on its own, sliding an arm around Yue Fengjian’s neck. Yue Fengjian’s hands felt down his side, finding the sensitive flesh of Lian Zhidiao’s ribs, molding his fingers against him as if he could consume him with a touch. What might have stayed a simple peck changed the moment the tiniest moan slipped from Lian Zhidiao. Yue Fengjian deepened the kiss, sliding his tongue into Lian Zhidiao’s mouth. The hand that teased his ribs pulled them closer together.

“Hey, can’t you hear us?” The man’s voice sounded irritated. 

“He’s got something else on his mind.” 

Yue Fengjian broke the kiss abruptly and turned to face the voices. 

Lian Zhidiao lifted his sleeve to hide his face, but not before seeing the lantern-light reveal that Yue Fengjian was dressed like a commoner, wearing simple brown and white clothes. There was nothing to mark him as a member of the Yue sect. Had he finally tried to blend in somewhat? The idea would be funny if this wasn’t a life or death situation. 

Yue Fengjian, I’m entrusting my freedom to you, so please don’t let me down! 

“Is this interruption really necessary?” Yue Fengjian sounded actually irritated. 

“What are you doing here?” 

“Isn’t it obvious what I’m doing?” 

Yue Fengjian sounds such the spoiled young master. Unconsciously, Lian Zhidiao swayed toward him. 

“Don’t be so uptight, she’s just one of Sect Leader Yuan’s ‘visitors’, leaving for the night,” another of the watch said. 

Yue Fengjian’s hand cupped the nape of Lian Zhidiao’s neck protectively. “She’s not his anymore,” Yue Fengjian said, pulling Lian Zhidiao tight against his chest. Lian Zhidiao turned his head so that he was facing the other direction. He could hear Yue Fengjian’s heart racing under his ear. 

“Look, it’s none of my business what you want to do with Sect Leader Yuan’s leftovers, just don’t do it in the street.” 

“Very well,” Yue Fengjian said, lowering his voice and purring into Lian Zhidiao’s ear. “Did you hear that, my dear? We should get going.” 

Lian Zhidiao, stunned into silence, could only nod. Yue Fengjian’s arm curled around his shoulders and guided him so that he was facing away from the watch. “Good night, good sirs,” Yue Fengjian said over his shoulder. 

“You’ll have a better night than us,” one of the watchmen said, a lascivious tone in his voice. 

The light of the watch’s lantern was broken by their shadows turning and walking back the way they came. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 42: A Game Of Stones
Next Chapter > Chapter 44: What Lies Beneath

Official Design For Lian Zhidiao

I have recently commissioned an “official design” for Lian Zhidiao’s robes and overall look from my good friend and artist Kit (twitter user @kittt_n). This is what I call his ‘page one’ look, so this design is actually original!Lian Zhidiao, and what he looks like when Chen Jiajian transmigrates into his body.

Thank you very much to Kit for allowing me to post this art! Her commissions are open, so please check her out!

Chapter 42: A Game Of Stones

Shengmen City was baking between the southern plains and the sun-warmed mountains that stood at its back. During the summers, even the palatial residence of Yuan Suwei with its gardens and trees was steamed like a fish. In an act of mercy,  the maids allowed the door to Lian Zhidiao’s gilded cage to stand open, letting a breeze sweep over the shade-cooled stone and freshen up the interior. Lian Zhidiao lifted up his hair to let the wind cool the back of his neck, wishing he had a fan.

It’s nice, but it’s not air-conditioning nice. 

Ming Yan and Xia Qingwen were playing a children’s game with flat stones. Ming Yan had agreed to humor Xia Qingwen, and was expertly chipping one stone into another, scooping up the two stones as a prize, and then moving on to the next one. To her credit, Xia Qingwen never once expressed outrage that she was being so handily beaten. She watched each move that Ming Yan made with a serious expression.

Yang Xihua walked up. “Cook asked for your help in the kitchen, Ming Yan.” 

Ming Yan sighed, standing up and handing her stones to Yang Xihua, with the clear implication that she should take over thrashing Xia Qingwen in her place. 

Yang Xihua bounced the stones in her hand and then hunkered opposite Xia Qingwen. 

“Busy night tonight?” 

“Well, the dinner will be tough to put together, probably, and Ming Yan knows how to do some kitchen work.” Yang Xihua cracked a grin. “Not like us. All I can do right now is run errands.” 

“That scary man came back today,” Xia Qingwen said, looking up. 

“Again?” Yang Xihua clicked her tongue. “I told him to leave.” 

“Did he ask you anything?” 

“Mm, just something about…” Yang Xihua’s eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao and then she shook her head. “Never mind.” 

“I know I’ve asked before, but, is he tall, with a ponytail?” Lian Zhidiao tried to sound as nonchalant as possible, but in spite of himself, he sounded too eager. 

This time Xia Qingwen was preoccupied, focused on her next move in the game, and nodded. “He’s one of the mountain men, wearing dark red.” 

It can’t be anyone else. I can’t think of anyone I saw in the Yue sect who has a scarier face than he does. But Yue Fengjian has been skulking around the Judge’s house? Why? His heart skipped a beat. For me?

“His name is Yue Fengjian,” Lian Zhidiao said. “He’s the sect leader’s son.” 

“Don’t be naive, A-Wen,” Yang Xihua said, with a dirty look at Lian Zhidiao. “Sect leaders’ sons don’t hang out in back alleys bullying kitchen maids.” 

“He would never,” Lian Zhidiao said, lifting his chin. “Did you know? His father recently awarded him a title, Leibi-jun.” 

Yang Xihua frowned, but Xia Qingwen seemed impressed. “A titled young master?” She looked at Yang Xihua. “Do you think he’s telling the truth?” 

“Sect leaders’ sons don’t hang out in alleys. He’s a ruffian, or worse, a pimp, and he’ll sell you to a cagehouse if he gets a hold of you, so you better not go out unattended.” 

Cowed, Xia Qingwen nodded emphatically to indicate that she understood.

“If that man did that, then he wouldn’t be Yue Fengjian,” Lian Zhidiao said with an air of superiority. 

“What does a Wa sect member know of the Yue sect’s young prince, anyway?” Yang Xihua chipped one set of stones into each other and collected them, but missed the next set, letting Xia Qingwen take her turn. 

“He is noble and good, and kind. He is fearless in the face of great corruption of the spirit and isn’t too proud to learn from a subordinate. We have fought together before, and he is like a lion in battle. Relentless, unconquerable. But in private he is thoughtful and sincere. He’s the kind of master that anyone would give their life for.” 

Xia Qingwen had stopped looking at the game surface to listen to Lian Zhidiao. “Wow,” she said quietly. 

But Yang Xihua just gave Lian Zhidiao an even dirtier look. “A-Wen,” she said, “I think I hear Cook calling for you. 

“What? But I didn—” 

“Just go. Help. Cook!” Yang Xihua snapped. Xia Qingwen scurried off toward the kitchen without waiting to be scolded further. Then Yang Xihua turned reproachful eyes on Lian Zhidiao. “Don’t say things like that. You’ll fill her head with nonsense. When she gets hurt or carried off, it’ll be your fault.” 

“It’s not nonsense,” Lian Zhidiao said. “It’s true. All of it.” 

Sullen, Yang Xihua closed the door to the cell and lifted the bar in place without another word, condemning him to roast in the summer heat for his insolence. 

That night, he was left mostly to his own devices, listening to the main gate nearly flapping off its hinges with all the guests that were arriving. A troupe of dancing girls was brought in—they walked past Lian Zhidiao’s cell with the sounds of swishing silk and the tinkling of tiny bells. Ming Yan brought him his dinner, but it was nothing special; he clearly didn’t warrant whatever royal treatment the party guests were receiving.

Faint strains of beautiful music floated through the night air. The heat had long since disappeared, and this put everyone in a good mood for attending a party. By this point of the evening, the ‘official’ style of entertainment—similar to what he’d been treated to at the Lin sect’s villa—was long over. A much more informal style of amusement was going on now. Pressing his face against the silk screens, Lian Zhidiao could make out the glow of lanterns in the gardens, and the occasional shifts in brilliance or dimness as people moved among them. Occasionally he heard a high-pitched laugh, or the garden echoing with the indistinct voices of two or three men having a serious discussion. With time, even these sounds grew more and more infrequent.

At the same time, there were fewer sounds of the main gate opening and closing; the guests that were not partaking of Yuan Suwei’s gracious offer of hospitality had all left. 

When Lian Zhidiao could finally hear the song of crickets over conversations, he realized the most exciting thing that had happened in two weeks of confinement was over. Lian Zhidiao’s shoulders slumped. After spending every day counting the hours until he might be allowed to contact Yue Fengjian, he might finally be close to getting word to him. Yuan Suwei would probably want to go over the message before it was sent. It was a shame that there was no code he could work into the message, no agreed-upon secret saying that Yue Fengjian would realize the meaning behind. 

That kind of thing is really more the province of lovers anyway. He had never written anything so poetic or romantic in Supreme Warlord of the Beast World: Yue Fengjian was the male lead, the female characters were the love interests. Everything followed naturally from there. What did a harem novel author need poetry for? It wasn’t like his readers were masters of literary critique: they knew what they wanted, and after a few tepid offerings, he knew how to provide it.

Except now he wished he had spent more time considering it. Lian Zhidiao sat up with a small lantern and a heart full of anxiety, thinking over what he might write. The messages he came up with in his head were painfully short or painfully long, either walls of text or short messages so vague that they might as well have no meaning at all. In the end he decided that if given the chance, he would tell Yue Fengjian that he should continue on his quest to unite all the sects using whatever method necessary. After all, he would have to go on to the Wa sect after this, where Lian Zhidiao would have the benefit of the doubt in dealing with the sect’s leaders. There would be time to reconnect there. 

Lian Zhidiao decided that he would write, Leibi-jun: Doing well, inside and out. Please advance as we discussed. I will contact you when everything is resolved. Communicated the state of his dangerous second core, directed him to keep the plot moving, and made a promise for further action. A great business letter, or maybe a short email to a boss. It was easy to completely hide his feelings in that vague, disconnected tone. 

I hope you’re okay. I hope you have been doing what you’re supposed to do. 

His chest swelled with an unspoken feeling. In the dark, he reached up and covered his face with both hands. A heavy sigh that had been caught in his throat for two weeks shuddered out of him.

When will this end? 

I want to see you. 

I want to feel your arm around me again, just one more time.

He pursed his lips together to fight down a wave of panic and fear. Whatever Yuan Suwei asked, he would do his best to tell him. He had to be able to send that message to Yue Fengjian. 

Then came the light click of approaching footsteps, moving slowly. One of the girls was coming to check on him before going to bed, probably. He stood up and walked to the screen. “Ming Yan? Is that you?” 

The footsteps stopped. 

Lian Zhidiao frowned. “Not Xia Qingwen? Those two shouldn’t have kept you up this late and made you come to check on me.” 

Whoever it was, they didn’t reply immediately. Lian Zhidiao saw the shape silhouetted against the moonlit garden. Tall, with long hair. A stranger. 

A soft voice came through the screen. “Little one?” 

Little one?? Don’t tell me…

The doors rattled. Lian Zhidiao heard the sound of hands sliding over the wood, and then the security bar being lifted and set aside. A spindle-flame sprang to life as the door slowly opened and a tall, slender man dressed in blue slipped inside. 

Lian Zhidiao felt an unbearable tension between the surprise of seeing someone he knew, and that person being Zhou Xianzhi. But without even realizing it, he smiled as he looked him over.  Zhou Xianzhi was dressed in regal finery, robes of peacock blue and cerulean woven with a wave motif that caught the light, and with a pearl-studded dark indigo robe over the top of it. Instead of wearing his hair loosely, a silver xiaoguan with a crescent moon encircled his topknot. He carried a silver whisk, the horsehair dyed a deep Tyrian purple, the color of the horizon long after sunset. He looked like a calm sea, placid and serene.

Zhou Xianzhi pushed the door to behind him. “I thought I recognized that voice. Imagine my surprise to find you here. What good fortune!”

Your surprise? My surprise is pretty boundless as well. Still unsure as to whether this ‘fortunate’ meeting was boon or bane, he spoke cautiously. “What are you doing here?” 

“I was here for the party with the other treasure hunters, of course.” Zhou Xianzhi’s soft voice was full of regret. “I didn’t see you once, or I would have said hello.” 

“Treasure hunters?” 

“Mm,” Zhou Xianzhi said with a smile tickling the corners of his mouth. “Yuan Suwei has been surreptitiously seeking the services of treasure hunters for a little over two years. He planned this meeting around four months ago, but everything really came to a head recently, so he was eagerly looking forward to seeing if I had anything new to offer him.”

Not a banquet, but a party? “Senior Yuan didn’t tell me that there would be a party,” Lian Zhidiao said cautiously. 

“Really?” Zhou Xianzhi blinked in surprise. “I would have thought your little trick with jade beasts would very keenly interest him.” 

The color drained from Lian Zhidiao’s face. A “I haven’t been telling anyone about that, and it’s better if you don’t either.” 

“Jade practitioners are rare outside of our sect, you know,” Zhou Xianzhi said. “He’s not overly fond of the Wa sect—Yuan sect, you know—but he is a man who is… very driven.” He tapped one finger thoughtfully on the silver handle of the purple whisk. “He didn’t want his brother to know exactly who would be here tonight, but a little bird told me that may not be a concern any more, after…” Zhou Xianzhi trailed off, seeming to have lost his train of thought. His eyes raked Lian Zhidiao from top to bottom, and then a small sigh left him. “I didn’t get a chance to see you in Fenfang City after that terrible night.” 

“The demon abduction, yes,” Lian Zhidiao said. 

Zhou Xianzhi pouted a little. “Cultivators would know exactly what kind of danger getting close to a deviate would entail, but that Yue Fengjian was like a guard dog, hovering around the pavilion and warning people away, saying it wasn’t safe.” He stepped a little closer, holding his spindle-flame aloft to shed light more evenly. 

In spite of himself, Lian Zhidiao reached out and pulled Zhou Xianzhi’s arm down. 

In response, Zhou Xianzhi let the spindle-flame go out and the jade spindle floated down to his side. 

The low light from Lian Zhidiao’s lantern was barely enough to see by, but the moments with the spindle-flame held high had revealed enough. There was audible relief in Zhou Xianzhi’s voice. “You look…okay.” 

“What does that mean?” 

Zhou Xianzhi’s beautiful face broke into a relieved smile.“I mean, you look none the worse for wear, despite your close encounter with death.” He reached out and pushed a lock of Lian Zhidiao’s hair back from his face. “We didn’t hear any news after Yue Fengjian whisked you away to the north.” His fingers brushed Lian Zhidiao’s cheek and lingered; his voice was hesitant, but sweet. “I’m glad you survived.” 

The look on Zhou Xianzhi’s face was so tender that a pang of regret struck Lian Zhidiao. He had been pining after Yue Fengjian with little hope that his affections would ever be returned. But Zhou Xianzhi was still carrying a torch unaware that the Lian Zhidiao he’d shared a bed with was dead. In his place was a man whose heart burned for someone else, and Zhou Xianzhi would never know the reason why his former lover spurned him.

Offering comfort while still rejecting him seemed like an unfair thing to do. His insides knit themselves into a complicated knot. He lifted his hand, gently patting Zhou Xianzhi’s wrist. A feeble attempt, but one he made nonetheless. 

Zhou Xianzhi pulled him closer, catching Lian Zhidiao off-guard and bringing him to rest against the pearl-scattered robe covering his chest.  A faint scent of sandalwood and cinnamon clung to him; Lian Zhidiao caught the scent as Zhou Xianzhi leaned in and kissed his fingers. The jade manacle brushed against Zhou Xianzhi’s chin. 

They froze at the same time. 

Sandalwood and cinnamon… 

Zhou Xianzhi pulled back his sleeve to look at the jade manacle, and then he looked accusingly at Lian Zhidiao. 

Lian Zhidiao, on the other hand, had just remembered exactly who smelled like sandalwood and cinnamon. “Zhou Xianzhi…!” 

“Little one, you might have mentioned you were being confined here before now.” 

“Me?” Lian Zhidiao’s hackles rose. He kept his voice down, but whisper-yelled as forcefully as he dared. “I am not the one who is kissing someone’s fingers while stinking of another man’s incense!”

Zhou Xianzhi had the decency to look surprised, but a wounded expression quickly followed. “You cannot expect a man to ignore a meal that is freely offered, especially when it comes with certain benefits.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s brow furrowed. “I do not want to hear about whatever ‘certain benefits’ Yuan Suwei’s bed has to offer.” 

“Even with your tastes tending towards more beautiful men, has he not offered them to you himself?” Zhou Xianzhi gestured accusingly at Lian Zhidiao with his own wrist. “These manacles are not the property of the Sacred Gate, you know.” 


“They’re Yuan Suwei’s personal property.” Zhou Xianzhi released Lian Zhidiao’s arm. “I should know, because I sold them to him.” 

“You what?” Lian Zhidiao shook his wrists at Zhou Xianzhi. “These are your fault?” 

“You need not say something so threateningly,” Zhou Xianzhi said, as if he was swatting away Lian Zhidiao’s words with his whisk. “Yuan Suwei was interested in ancient jade tools, from the White Emperor’s time or earlier. I sold him these last year as proof of my seriousness in courting his favor among treasure hunters.” 

Lian Zhidiao hesitated, but only for a moment. He shoved his wrists against Zhou Xianzhi’s chest, not too proud to beg. “Can you take them off? Please?” 

But Zhou Xianzhi seemed to be putting everything together at last: the Judge, the barred door, the manacles. “Little one, why does he have you locked up in here?” 

“It…” Explaining why would only cast suspicion on himself, and that didn’t seem like a good idea, especially to a former lover, who might feel called-upon to act to protect the man he cared about. He looked up at Zhou Xianzhi. Does he care about me? Dare I use that to try to escape? Remembering the tender look Zhou Xianzhi had given him, he decided to try to get him to help without being too specific with why he was locked up. “It’s a long story,” he said finally. “And I don’t have much time.” 

“Hmm,” Zhou Xianzhi said softly. “It is one thing to be unexpectedly reunited with a lover on a moonlit night. It’s quite another to risk getting the wrong sort of attention from a demanding man like Yuan Suwei.” 

“What… what do you mean?” 

Quick as a flash, Zhou Xianzhi stepped back, and the door, which opened and shut in the blink of an eye, was closed to him. 

Lian Zhidiao pulled at it, but Zhou Xianzhi’s grip was stronger than he expected of such a willowy man. Lian Zhidiao scratched at the door with his fingernails as the chance at freedom evaporated into thin air. “Zhou Xianzhi!” 

“Call me ‘darling’,” Zhou Xianzhi said, holding on tightly to the door. 


“Call me… ‘darling’.” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice sounded labored, as if he were struggling to hold the door closed. 

“The very idea!” 

He heard the security bar slam into place on the other side. Desperate, he moved to the silk screen. “Zhou Xianzhi!” He rattled the screen, trying to peer out into the darkness. “Don’t leave me in here!” 

“I can’t be a rude guest. If he has you, he can keep you,” Zhou Xianzhi’s voice was so close that it indicated he was right on the other side of the screen, even though Lian Zhidiao couldn’t see him.  

“Zhou Xianzhi, please, listen to me, at least get a message to Yue Fengjian for me, please? Just tell him that I’m okay and that he doesn’t have to wait for me.” There was no response. It was so quiet that Lian Zhidiao thought that Zhou Xianzhi must have just disappeared or flown away, or teleported or something, but then he heard the sound of his footsteps walking away.  “Please!” He called after him. 

Zhou Xianzhi’s footsteps didn’t stop. A few moments later, Lian Zhidiao heard the front gate open and then creak closed. 

Hot tears of frustration spilled down his cheeks as he sank to the ground. What now? What would he do now? It was so much more bitter now that the prospect of freedom had been dangled in front of him. He swore under his breath. “Fuck!” 

Nothing. He could do nothing with these cursed manacles on, in this cursed cell, forced to be on his best cursed behavior, in the grasp of this cursed man! A low sob broke from his mouth. 

Then he heard the scrape of the security bar being lifted. 

What fresh hell? Did Zhou Xianzhi come back? 

The door opened a crack and then Yang Xihua bumped it open with her hip, her arms full of clothes. “A man weeping is a pathetic sight.” She spread the clothes out on the bed and then turned to look at Lian Zhidiao with obvious pity. 

With a sniff, Lian Zhidiao stared at Yang Xihua, hating that he’d been caught crying by a girl several years younger than him. “Go ahead and stare, then.” 

“I’d rather not,” Yang Xihua said, shaking her head. 

Miserably, he asked, “Don’t you have somewhere else to be? Like in bed?” 

She folded her arms over her chest and gave him a hard look. “I was thinking about what you said this afternoon and I have an idea. If you’re not too scared, that is.” 

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