Chapter 41: Judging A Book By Its Cover

Lian Zhidiao quickly grew to understand the function of the jade manacles: they did not bind his qi, preventing him from using it. Instead, they blinded him to the movement of his own qi through his body. Any attempt to pull on his qi to spin spells or to feed into a jade tool only made him feel as if he was stumbling around in an enormous cave, groping feebly in the dark to find the thinnest thread in a spider’s web. There was also the creeping sense of dread that the thread he grasped in his blindness would lead to the other core. That he would begin to spin it, none the wiser, and not know the truth until it was too late. 

Lian Zhidiao also had reason to suspect that the manacles prevented others from looking into his meridians for themselves while he was unconscious. He doubted the Judge would be treating him so kindly if he knew of the existence of the other core. Lian Zhidiao decided he would assume that everything was fine, because as far as he knew, it was. 

His three unlikely wardens were often gone, or they appeared to be. He noticed that every time he left the confines of his bed, any time he paced the length of the room, one of them would show up, out of breath. His cell was being watched. 

But the cell’s location, on the southwest side of the palace, meant he often got treated to the goings-on at the main gate on the southern wall. He couldn’t see beyond his screen wall, but he learned to recognize the sound of the heavy wooden gate shuddering open. He also learned the sound of the smaller gate with a squeaky hinge, the one he couldn’t see. In any other house, it might be used only for servants and deliveries, but more than once his light sleeping was disturbed by the sound of that squeaky hinge. He pressed himself against the silk-covered window screens until they bulged out, but could not make out who came or left. It didn’t matter, really. No decent business would be conducted by that door in the dark of night.

The worst thing about the confinement was not being able to get word to Yue Fengjian. Lian Zhidiao was fed, given baths when he asked for them, and given medicine for the ugly bruises that bloomed dark purple on his shoulders and belly. But he was not given the opportunity to write any letters, or to send any messengers. He might be a “guest” in the Judge’s home, but he was still a prisoner. Lian Zhidiao feared that Yue Fengjian would not leave him as much as he feared that he would. He wished for rescue as much as he hoped for release. 

Days passed. The edges of his bruises started to green up. The three maids, who sat with him while he ate, began to make conversation with him because sitting in silence while he ate was uncomfortable. They were tight-lipped about their Master’s business, but not so careful about their own. Their complaining and commisserating drew him into their world of running errands and doing housework. 

“That cook has been after my hide for no reason!” Xia Qingwen complained, sitting on the threshold of the cell. “He has already threatened to beat me three times this week.” Ming Yan and Yang Xihua gave her a sympathetic look; being the youngest servant often came with these kinds of trials.

Lian Zhidiao looked down at his own meal, a cooling set of dishes with okra, eggplant, green shoots, and tofu. 

Ming Yan seemed to notice his actions and shook her head. “It isn’t because of you, gongzi. Cook just has a lot on his mind right now.” 

A lot on his mind? “If you’re needed elsewhere, you shouldn’t waste time here with me,” Lian Zhidiao said. 

“Wasting time with you is the only rest we’ve got for a while,” Yang Xihua said, stretching. “I don’t mind taking a little longer here.” 

“How can you be so wicked?” Ming Yan chided her. “What will you do when I am not around and you need her to help you? If she behaves like you, you will be in a very sticky spot and have only yourself to blame.” 

Yang Xihua waved a hand dismissively. “A-Wen is too good to be warped by my wickedness.” 

“You could stand to get some of her goodness,” Ming Yan shot back as she stood up. She opened the door to the cell to leave. “I will be out in the city running errands for Cook the rest of the day, so you will need to mind yourselves.” 

“Be careful,” Xia Qingwen said, standing up and tugging fearfully at Ming. “That scary man has been seen outside again today.” 

A scary man? There was only one person that Lian Zhidiao could think of that fit that description. But then again, it wasn’t like Yue Fengjian was the only man in the world with a slightly scary expression. 

“You are so afraid of strangers,” Ming Yan said, stroking her hair soothingly. “You would think working for our Master would dispel that fear.” 

“Seeing more strangers doesn’t make you less afraid of ‘em,” Yang Xihua said. “Just means you spend more time being scared.”

Xia Qingwen nodded emphatically, and looked to Ming Yan for comfort again, but Ming Yan simply gave her another pat on the head and walked away. 

Yang Xihua watched her walk away and then clicked her tongue. “Don’t worry, A-Wen,” she said. “I’ll go out and chase that scary man off.” 

Lian Zhidiao finished his meal and laid down his chopsticks. “Does your master bring a lot of scary men here?” He gestured to the cell around him. “He has a place purpose-built for it.” 

“Sometimes. But I don’t question my Master on why he brings in those that he does.” 

Lian Zhidiao creased his lower lip in thought. “Are there many like me? Of the Wa sect, I mean.” 

Yang Xihua shook her head. “If there’s more of any particular kind of person he holds here, then it’s not obvious to this lowly girl,” she said, but the tone in her voice made it clear that she wasn’t interested in offering information freely.

Lian Zhidiao let out a sigh. It was too much to hope that the Judge was simply acting on old hatreds the Yuan sect had for the Wa. “Your Master seems to do whatever he likes.” 

“He lets a few of them stay here, if it will cause embarrassment to the family.” 

“Prefers doing things in the shadows?” Lian Zhidiao asked wryly. 

“Do you think everything ought to be something for others to gawk at?” 


“Some things are supposed to be private and not seen by everyone.” Yang Xihua gestured at Lian Zhidiao’s dishes, and Xia Qingwen picked them up dutifully and carried them out of the cell. “My Master knows what’s important, or he wouldn’t be a good Judge.” 

Just then, Ming Yan came rushing back to the cell with a tense look on her face. “My Master has asked for you to be brought to him,” she said. 

Lian Zhidiao stood up. “So suddenly?” He reached up to touch his hair, worried at once of how to make a good impression on the Judge. But since being captured, he hadn’t really paid attention to his looks and his hair was in need of some attention. This could be my only chance to make a good impression, if I can make one at all.

Xia Qingwen flew away towards the kitchen, as if a wind was blowing her along, clearly wanting 

no part of this kind of duty. 

Yang Xihua made a pinched face. “You fussy young masters are all the same, wanting to preen before someone sees you. Very well, I’ll bring you some water to wash up.” 

They locked him back in the cell, where he anxiously combed out his hair until it was smooth and glossy. He washed his hands and face and then put his hair up again and tried to make himself look presentable with only the aid of a small hand-mirror. Yang Xihua stood outside the cell, practically tapping her foot until he was ready. 

The grounds of the estate were grand and well-kept; whoever the Judge was, he was clearly on the upper echelons of Shengmen City society. Yang Xihua led him along until he arrived at a hall on the eastern side of the palace. He had expected that it would be terribly ornate, and it was, but only in the sense that the materials themselves were expensive. The same white stone from the Sacred Gate’s courtyard was used to lay paths through the grounds, every step glittering as if made of diamonds. 

The hall was blessedly dark inside, a relief for his eyes after his brief pass through the harsh sunlight. Yang Xihua closed the doors of the hall behind him. He blinked into the sudden darkness, and stepped forward. 

“This way,” a man’s voice called in front of him.  

The hall was actually airy, with pale wood and white silk screens that made him feel cold when a breeze blew past, carrying the unmistakable scent of sandalwood and cinnamon. In the center was a short table, set up for tea. The Judge stood next to it, his hands folded behind his back. He wore his long, sleek hair half-up, loosely gathered at the back of his head. He had a prominent widow’s peak and elegant eyebrows, with the bewitching, detached look of a fairy gentleman. He was wearing a light grey robe, with a glittering silver robe underneath as a set of middle clothes. 

Lian Zhidiao cupped his hands and gave him a deep bow. The jade manacles loomed large in his vision as he looked up at the Judge. “I am Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect.” 

Almost reluctantly, the Judge returned his bow with a smaller one. “Yuan Suwei,” he said, almost as an afterthought. “Sit down and take tea with me.” 

Neither Yuan Shijun, nor Yuan Zhuyan. With this kind of estate, definitely part of the main family. An uncle? A brother? I can’t tell how old he is, so I have no idea…

They sat down opposite each other. The tea had already been made, but it was clear from Yuan Suwei’s bearing that it would fall to Lian Zhidiao to pour it. It was only as he set down the teapot that he realized that there was a scroll next to Yuan Suwei’s hand.

Yuan Suwei caught the moment that Lian Zhidiao froze, and moved the scroll so that it was a little bit closer to his own thigh. 

Lian Zhidiao sat down, staring into his teacup, his thoughts a muddle. 

“Tell me about yourself, Lian Zhidiao,” Yuan Suwei said. 

This seems like a trap. But he couldn’t see any way to avoid the question, either. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes fell on the scroll and then he lifted them to Yuan Suwei. “My lord Arbiter seems as if he already knows much. I fear I would bore my lord Arbiter with information he already knows.” 

“Mm,” Yuan Suwei said, before reaching out and taking his tea off the table. 

“Since my lord Arbiter has all the answers he could need, perhaps this young man could ask a few questions of his own.” 

Yuan Suwei set down his teacup and gave an amiable smile. “Very well. You may ask.” 

“Why are you holding me here? Why haven’t you allowed me to contact my friend, my lord?” Lian Zhidiao belatedly tacked on the end, his eagerness to get the answers nearly getting the best of his manners. 

“Until I know what you are, I’m not allowing you to do anything.” 

What I am? Speaking about me as if I were a thing! Impotent anger boiled up in Lian Zhidiao, but Yuan Suwei continued talking. “The Jade Branch of the Immortal Willow did reveal that you do not carry a demon seed. That is why you are here, and not dead.” 

“I am just a man,” Lian Zhidiao said helplessly. 

“Are you?” Yuan Suwei’s cool expression passed over Lian Zhidiao. “The Immortal Willow only revealed that you do not have a demon core. You may still be a threat that the Immortal Willow does not detect.” He took a delicate sip of his tea. “A ghost? One of the fabled Yao from the north? A celestial beast? The possibilities are endless.” 

Lian Zhidiao stared at the pale tea in his cup. All the Willow Branch could detect was the presence of a demon seed, the beginning of forming a demonic core. This was likely due to deviate qi being present everywhere already. Looking for a demon seed would exclude natural deviate qi, as well as anyone in qi deviation. If it said he didn’t have a demon seed, then the other core likely didn’t raise any red flags either. 

But the other questions Yuan Suwei raised—and left unclear as to what information he’d already obtained—gave him pause. At the Sacred Gate, he had something to-hand that could identify demons and demonic cultivators. Were there no jade tools that could identify ghosts or Yao? Not something he could obtain for “security purposes”, or be able to get his hands on in the days since Lian Zhidiao had been seized? And he was fairly high up in the Yuan pecking order…

Something about that wasn’t right. 

“My lord Arbiter has a fanciful imagination,” Lian Zhidiao said at last. “This young man is only sorry he is not something more than what he seems.” 

Yuan Suwei’s faint bemusement at the situation faded; ice covered his face once more. “It would be a great help for you to tell me what you know.” 

“Forgive me, my lord Arbiter, but you know as much as I do.”

“Let’s start again from the beginning.” Yuan Suwei reached down and picked up the scroll, rolling it out in his hands. “Lian Zhidiao, your parents were accepted into the Wa sect at birth. The noted Lian family, valued vassals of the Wa sect, with control over the southernmost part of their dominion, with close ties to both Lin and Zhou settlements in the area, very good,” he said, unfurling the scroll a little further. “Mother and father both alive. How many siblings would you say you had?” 

A simple question, but the wrong answer would immediately reveal that he was not Lian Zhidiao. He closed his eyes. “Three?” 

“Two,” Yuan Suwei corrected him, “older sisters.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s heart sank. Something as simple as that and he’d gotten it wrong.

Yuan Suwei continued, his voice a soft drone. “You’re something of a prodigy. Formed your golden core at the age of 8—impressive, and a credit to your family. You received your spiritual weapon, Fengxueya, also at the age of 8. Betrothed to Wa Yingyue at the age of 9, but you waited until rather late to complete your manhood rite. Because of your keen mind and cultivation level, you were selected to train with the Wa sect Master Guizai. Then three years ago, you left your sect for unknown reasons, but it’s widely suspected that you did so to avoid marrying Wa Yingyue, who has remained unmarried to this day. In the process of fleeing, you implicated a Yuan sect member in a crime you yourself committed, and vanished into the countryside.” Yuan Suwei looked up at Lian Zhidiao with the self-assured air of a man who has intently studied the material on the exam and can’t be surprised by any of the questions. 

Lian Zhidiao gave a small bow from his waist. “My lord Arbiter is thorough.” 

“Did I miss anything?” 

“It sounds complete to me,” Lian Zhidiao said. 

Yuan Suwei rolled the scroll back up slowly and set it aside with a wave of his hand. “Whether that is you or not remains to be seen.” 

“How charitable of my lord Arbiter to accord me the benefit of the doubt.” 

“—But the fact remains that a man with Lian Zhidiao’s face and Fengxueya, which we have recorded to be his spiritual weapon, placed the sword into the Hidden Realm, and the sword did not emerge.” 

“Perhaps there is another explanation.” 

“An outlandish one, to be sure,” Yuan Suwei said, in a slow and deliberate manner. “Spiritual weapons respond to the seed in the golden core. To have the same face, but a different golden core than the one you first made at the age of 8 would not be impossible, but I have found no reports of a qi deviation by a Wa cultivator outside the sect. Wandering the world, the destabilization and collapse of your golden core would surely have been noticed instead of being hushed and concealed by the grace of your birth. And you would have had to have recovered and formed a new golden core, all in the space of three years. It’s quite hard to believe.” 

“But I am a prodigy,” Lian Zhidiao pointed out. 

A muscle tensed in Yuan Suwei’s jaw. 

“And the Immortal Willow found no demon seed in me, so I haven’t developed a demon core.” 

“That’s true.” 

“Then whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth,” Lian Zhidiao said. “You have no reason to hold me against my will other than whatever interest you have in a freak occurrence.” 

“I was the Judge presiding over your visit,” Yuan Suwei said. “My will alone is reason enough to hold you. You would do well to remember that.” 

“There must be some other way to prove I am Lian Zhidiao.”

 “Given that your Master likely trained you in the technique Swords of the Myriad Dead, I’m not inclined to find any reason to let you move about freely.” 

“That technique—” Lian Zhidiao said, and then stopped himself. That technique won’t work without a sword, so it’s pointless for that to be the basis of you keeping me here! Was what he wanted to say, but that also offered information that he wasn’t sure Yuan Suwei had. 

Yuan Suwei paused in rolling up the scroll, waiting with a razor-sharp stare to see if Lian Zhidiao would complete his thought. When he didn’t, he pursed his lips in a forced smile. “Good behavior may engender my admiration, or my cooperation.” 

“Cooperation?” Lian Zhidiao gestured with his manacled wrists. “ I am not in a position to withhold ‘cooperation’ from you. You can simply demand whatever you like from me.” 

Yuan Suwei smiled. “I’m glad to see you understand. The Yuan sect doesn’t look kindly on those who don’t have the spirit of cooperation in mind.” His words were kindly couched, but there was an undercurrent of bitterness in his voice.

“May I at least send a message to Yue Fengjian?” 

Yuan Suwei reached out and took his teacup again. “I am preoccupied with a certain function that will be happening in a week. But as long as you remain on your best behavior, I will consider it.” 

The tone in his voice, like a father talking to a grounded child, left no room for argument.

Previous Chapter < Chapter 40: A Lie That Tells A Truth
Next Chapter > Chapter 42: A Game Of Stones

Chapter 40: A Lie That Tells A Truth

Lian Zhidiao looked helplessly at the gray-robed man in the courtyard. 

That can’t be right. I put the sword in at the top, I watched it go in, it went in—

“Call him down.” The Yuan sect Judge did not even spare Lian Zhidiao a glance. “We must be sure no mistakes have been made.” 

The man in the courtyard beat three times on the skin drum. 

“What does that mean?” Lian Zhidiao looked between the clerk and the Judge, but they were exchanging their own meaningful glances as they waited for a response from the Yuan cultivator on top of the canyon. Getting no acknowledgment from the clerk or the Judge, his eyes sought Yue Fengjian. 

Yue Fengjian’s frown was deeper than Lian Zhidiao had ever seen it. Leveled first at the clerk and the Judge, discussing the situation under their breath, and then at Lian Zhidiao. Lian Zhidiao hoped to see that scowl soften, but it didn’t. If anything, his gaze on Lian Zhidiao was more piercing than before. It looked like there would be no help from him, no one to sweep in and demand to know what was going on. 

The other clerks had stopped working, their papers still in front of them. Their eyes were on the Judge. The Yuan sect cultivator from the top of the canyon walked through the doors, his expression annoyed, but only a moment of conversation behind his sleeve with the Judge changed his face again. He looked at Lian Zhidiao with open suspicion, then eyed the Judge sidelong and shook his head before walking down the gallery toward the gatehouse. 

This does not look good…

Lian Zhidiao followed him with his eyes. Yue Fengjian moved to the side as he passed. Perhaps Yue Fengjian at last saw the rising fear on his face, because he shook his head once he caught Lian Zhidiao’s eyes again. 

Before he realized an order had been given, the Yuan cultivators that had been standing guard were closing in slowly, their weapons held at the ready. 

Not good at all.

“Lian Zhidiao.” 

Lian Zhidiao turned to find the cold, serious gaze of the Judge bearing down on him. His mouth went dry. His voice was very small. “What is happening?” 

But the Judge only answered him with a nod to the guards. 

The first pair caught his arms, binding his waist with white rope that shone like woven glass. Lian Zhidiao didn’t struggle until his perception of his golden core—and the other core—winked out, like someone turning off the lights. 

“What are you doing?!” 

The guards held him fast. “Quiet!” one of them snarled. 

“Yue Fengjian!” The name spilled out of his lips, though he was now totally surrounded by Yuan cultivators. They crushed him between them, holding him immobile with their bodies. He could feel hands snaking around his waist again, pushing him into place. Hands stirred his robes around his ankles, and ropes were cinched tight. Then his arms were clamped with jade manacles, and all his perception of qi circulating in his meridians disappeared. He could not have spun a spell nor stepped on a sword. It was like just being… normal. Like he had been in his former life, with no golden vessel alight inside him. He had gotten used to the shine and shadow of the twin cores inside him. The horror of feeling it just… vanish from his perception of his self took all the fight out of him. He sagged against the Yuan cultivators who held him.

“Keep his feet under him,” one said.

“Stand up!” The one behind him warned. 

“What are you doing to him?” Yue Fengjian’s angry voice reached him through the crush of bodies. Lian Zhidiao lifted his head, his eyes directed at the ceiling. He couldn’t even catch a glimpse of the top of Yue Fengjian’s ponytail. 

“Calm down,” the Judge said dispassionately. “And watch.” 

The Yuan sect cultivators stepped back from around him, revealing the harness of white ropes that made a pattern over his black robes. Two more white ropes—qi-binding cables—were attached to the heavy jade manacles on his wrists. Lian Zhidiao looked miserably at Yue Fengjian, but he could now see that two Yuan cultivators were holding him back at swordpoint. Upon seeing his face, Yue Fengjian started forward again, but Lian Zhidiao shook his head. 

Yue Fengjian, you can’t. You can’t help me and you shouldn’t. 

Yue Fengjian clenched his jaw—Lian Zhidiao’s message had been received loud and clear—and stepped back from the swords of the Yuan guards.  

The Yuan behind Lian Zhidiao pushed him forward. “Walk.” 

Hobbled, Lian Zhidiao shuffled down from the gallery into the courtyard. The guards put their hands on his shoulders to make him kneel on the white stone. Two of them on either side pulled his arms out from his sides. 

Then the Judge stepped down from the gallery, wielding a hard whip made of jade carved to resemble a willow branch. He held it ready at his side like a man approaching a snarling dog.

I have to get control of this situation somehow. 

“My lord Arbiter, this foolish young man does not know why he has been treated thusly,” Lian Zhidiao managed, his eyes following that whip. 

“Irregularities are… uncommon at the Sacred Gate,” the Judge said in a clipped tone. “As such, this jade tool will determine if you are or are not a demon.” 

‘Jade tool’!? It’s as big as a sword! 

“He’s not a demon!” 

The Yuan Judge looked at Yue Fengjian sidelong, his cool never wavering. Lian Zhidiao gave the jade whip a distrustful stare, which he shifted to the Judge’s detached face. It appeared that if things had gotten this far, then there was nothing he could do to stop this from happening without making it worse for them both. He looked at Yue Fengjian, who was being threatened once again by the swords of the Yuan cultivators. Despite the live steel being brandished in front of his face, his eyes never left Lian Zhidiao. Defeated, Lian Zhidiao hung his head. “This young man understands,” he said slowly.  

“Good,” the Judge replied. “Then this will not be difficult.” 

Qi filled the jade whip; it gave off a luminous glow, even under the noonday sun. A part of Lian Zhidiao’s mind that was trying not to focus on the situation noted that it looked a lot like a beam saber from a popular science-fiction series. 

The Judge stepped behind him. The cultivators on the ropes pulled his arms up. Lian Zhidiao fixed his eyes on a blemish in the white stone and waited. 

The jade whip came from his left, hitting his guts with enough force that his vision sparkled at the edges. A small cough of pain was all he could manage. The next blow came from his right, a heavy slug that hit the same place on his stomach and knocked the wind out of him. His vision went black. He rocked forward, all his weight pulling on the ropes. Then one last strike fell across his back, viciously laid across his taut shoulders. 

The ropes went slack, and Lian Zhidiao sagged to the ground. He struggled to take a breath, even as the Yuan cultivators stepped forward to inspect the Judge’s work. 

“Good,” the Judge said, sounding satisfied, but very far away. “Take him to my palace. See that he…” 

Lian Zhidiao couldn’t hear the rest; he had already passed out. 

Some time later, he began to come around, fighting off the heavy pull of unconsciousness. He was lying on something hard and unyielding. His body rocked back and forth; he was being carried. 

“Mind his head.” The Judge again. 

The question fell out of him with a breath, barely voiced. “Where…” 

He heard the scrape of a shoe close to him, and then the smell of sandalwood and cinnamon surrounded him. A cool fingertip touched his forehead. “You’re not yet ready to wake up.” The Judge’s voice again, surprisingly soft. The cool touch broadened; his whole hand rested on Lian Zhidiao’s forehead. “Sleep a little longer.” 

And then, with those words, Lian Zhidiao felt suddenly as if he could do nothing but sleep. The blackness washed over him and pulled him under. 

The next time he awoke, it was to the scent of camphor wood incense. He opened his eyes, Wherever he was, it was too dark to see. He was resting in a bed, with a pillow under his head. He still had no sense of his golden core or his meridians. His wrists were heavy, weighted by the jade manacles. Fire raced through his midsection when he tried to move further. 

That Judge! What a piece of work! 

Prepared for the pain this time, Lian Zhidiao lifted one manacled hand, and tried his legs; he wasn’t physically bound in any way, but he sure didn’t feel like moving was a good idea either. Was it night, or was he just someplace where light couldn’t reach? How much time had passed? Was Yue Fengjian okay? 

That jade tool…

Anything made of jade could potentially be a spiritual tool. There were other spiritual tools in novels or dramas that had similar effects, dispelling evil spirits with one blow, or breaking enchantments or sorceries. But in this world, jade itself seemed to have unique, almost magical properties. The spindle-weights could spin elemental power out of his own qi, the jade whip could reveal demons. Given the number of undead, there were probably jade tools that worked on ghosts and corpses. 

Fundamentally, I am a ghost possessing this body, aren’t I? Until I know better, I should try to avoid spirit-exorcising charms or things of that nature. Given the way we dispatched the recently undead in Sancha Town, I should count myself lucky that I haven’t been exorcised already. 

The light changed as a cloud moved; there was weak moonlight, the moon still in its first phase. But his eyes were so used to the dark that he noticed it immediately. He was in a fully-enclosed bed, with the hangings around it left slightly open to allow the incense inside. Turning his head, he could see the silhouette of pillars and window openings, and a set of doors as a dark blot. Faintly, he became aware of the sound of grass rustling in a breeze.

Not a prison cell, not dead. Lian Zhidiao sighed, wincing even as he breathed out. But the Yuan don’t like the Wa, so there’s not any particular reason he should be this kind to me other than maybe feeling bad for beating the daylight out of me. Why do I feel like that isn’t the end of it? 

His eyelids drifted closed. 

The sound of someone in his room woke him. The camphor incense had finished burning hours ago but the scent lingered in his bedclothes and his hair. He opened his eyes; the room was fairly bright. Beyond the screens he could see the green of a garden. He shifted in bed. 

“Is Lian-gongzi awake?” The voice of a woman, barely older than a girl, but he couldn’t see her from the bed. 

Lian Zhidiao opened his mouth, wanting to speak, but his tongue felt like a wadded up towel. “Is there something to drink?” he croaked.

“Oh!” Her footsteps scurried away, but Lian Zhidiao heard the unmistakable sound of the door closing firmly, and a bar set in front of it. He closed his eyes. A security bar was not really a feature of a room for honored guests.

The dryness in his mouth was unbearable.  

Then, the sound of the bar being pulled aside. Like a fairy goddess appearing out of nowhere, the young woman brought him a cup. He pushed himself up on one elbow and gulped down half of its contents before he realized how very bitter it was. Suspicious, his eyes lifted to the young woman. “What’s in this?” 

She refused to meet his eyes. “This foolish girl does not know—”

“Medicine. I heard my Master give orders that it be mixed into whatever you drank.” Another young woman’s voice, this one considerably less timid, came from outside the room.  He saw the silhouette of another maid’s head outside, her hair tied up on her head. 

The first young woman hissed over her shoulder. “Jiejie!” 

“Whatever, look at how thirsty he is. It’s not like he’s going to stop drinking it.”  

Lian Zhidiao’s fingers tightened around the cup. Whether it was medicine or not, whether these maids were lying or not, he didn’t have any way to know. But given the care he’d received, he could probably assume it wouldn’t kill him. A sleeping draught, maybe. He swallowed the rest. 

“Thank you,” he said. 

“You see, A-Wen. He can’t not drink it.”

Lian Zhidiao reached out to give the cup back, ignoring the maid with no manners. “If I may ask, what is your master’s name?” 

Shock showed plainly on the first maid’s face. “You don’t know?” 

“No,” he said. “I assume he is the Judge at the Sacred Gate, but his name escapes me.” 

“That’s for our Master to tell you, if he wishes,” a third, older girl’s voice said sniffily from the other side of the door. She pushed it open and stepped inside, attired like a lady’s maid. The no-manners maid stepped in after her. The three of them formed a neat set, shortest to tallest, youngest to oldest. That the middle-in-age was no-manners maid was somehow unsurprising to him. 

“When can I see him?” 

“He will call for you when he’s ready, but he’s very busy.” 

“It sounds like he intends to make me wait.” 

“You don’t have a choice with that either,” the no-manners maid said in a dismissive tone. 

Lian Zhidiao put his head back down on the pillow. “Are you my prison guards, then? Were there no fighting men available?” 

“Your power is sealed and our Master’s palace is heavily guarded,” the oldest maid said, putting her hands on her hips. “You won’t escape here.” 

Lian Zhidiao’s ribs throbbed. “Not that I could after he beat me.” 

“Serves you right, bringing suspicion upon yourself like that,” the no-manners maid said. “Did you think you wouldn’t be caught in a lie? Showing such a lack of respect, you deserve to be—” 

“Xihua, that’s enough.” The oldest maid silenced the no-manners maid, who continued to stare at Lian Zhidiao reproachfully. Turning her head back to Lian Zhidiao, the oldest maid folded her hands in front of her. “Our Master has said that you should be treated as a guest while you’re here, so we will serve you accordingly.”

Lian Zhidiao leaned up on one elbow again, casting dubious looks at the three of them. “Well, then, what are your names? Unless you will respond to ‘hey, you’.” 

The oldest maid blinked in surprise and then bowed to him. “I am Ming Yan.” 

No-manners maid actually straightened up and gave him a proper bow. “I am Yang Xihua.”

“I am Xia Qingwen,” the youngest and first maid said. 

None of them sounded like vassal families to the Yuan sect. Maybe their allegiance to their master could be swayed. “I am Lian Zhidiao,” he said, inclining his head. “Thank you for your care.” A cultivator treating servants without being unkind spoke well of his upbringing. If the Yuan sect servants were going to look down on the Wa sect, it wasn’t going to be because of him. 

The maids looked at each other awkwardly, unsure of how to react to this kind of behavior from a prisoner. 

“Is there no one else that came here with me?” Lian Zhidiao couldn’t keep an anxious note from creeping into his voice. “A tall man with a ponytail?” 

“You came here alone,” Ming Yan replied. The other two maids nodded in agreement. 

Lian Zhidiao’s face fell and he lay back down. 

The medicine appeared to be just that; he didn’t immediately fall asleep, but his guts did seem to hurt slightly less.

They shouldn’t be hurting in the first place! 

Awake and with nothing to do, he made a few small discoveries. The first was that the Judge had an uncanny ability to hit the same spot from two different sides of him. Perhaps there was something special about the location and his meridians. Maybe he was just a mean son of a bitch. Either way, there wasn’t any movement he could make with his upper body that didn’t hurt like hell. 

The second was that the storage ring that Yue Fengjian had gifted him, and his spindle-weight, were both still with him. The reason for this quickly became clear: he was still shackled in the jade manacles with qi-binding ropes. Try as he might, he couldn’t think of a way that he could break out and have the manacles removed. Maybe if he was on good behavior, he could meet the Judge more quickly. 

But the words of Yang Xihua echoed in his head. He had been caught in a lie, the lie being that he was Lian Zhidiao, or someone that looked exactly like him and had his sword but could not draw it. 

Lian Zhidiao grimaced. Fair enough, it is kind of suspicious. But worth a beating without any other provocation? Imprisonment? He hadn’t even been able to tell Yue Fengjian where he was going, no chance to tell him where he would be. Had Yue Fengjian been able to keep his appointment with Yuan Shijun? 

…I hope the marriage meeting went well, despite everything. 

Lian Zhidiao closed his eyes. A deep sigh that came from the bottom of his toes slowly spilled out of his lips, leaving him feeling completely empty.

His chest ached, but not because of the jade whip. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 39: Lian Zhidiao Doesn’t Know How Close He Came
Next Chapter > Chapter 41: Judging A Book By Its Cover

EXTRA: The Court Of The Silver Peony

The Court of the Silver Peony took up a long stretch of one side of the road, with a few working rooms overlooking the food carts and foot traffic crowding the street down below. Prostitutes usually worked out of cagehouses, reclining in windows with bare shoulders, eye-catching hair, and makeup; goods for sale on display. Whores that were less fortunate lingered in doorways, working out of dingy rooms, or even the alleys themselves. The Court of the Silver Peony, however, was the most high-class brothel in Fenfang City. The walls were thick and the windows covered with silk screens; the beauties here were so renowned that they didn’t even need to be seen to garner appointments for months in advance. 

The madam, Li Miao, was clearly a woman who had been in the trade herself; her beauty had faded as she aged, but she was still striking. Her lips were full, stained deep red to match the makeup around her eyes and the slightly-too-heavy rouge on her cheeks. Though she’d put up her hair carefully, a few strands of gray were still visible; there was no reclaiming the glow of youth. But far from being self-conscious about her age around cultivators, the madam was suffused with a lush, full sensuality.

Not that it had any effect on Yue Fengjian. His thoughts lingered on a conversation back in Shuangwan Village.

Just for this mission. A necromancer might be useful in a town full of undead. 

He’s not a necromancer, he’s a liar and a thief, Hu Baitian had said. Pretending he doesn’t know me means he’s up to something for sure. If you’re going to use him and then throw him aside, great, but be careful that he doesn’t fool you. 

He doesn’t look dangerous. Why hasn’t the Wa sect dragged him back?

He may be a liability and personal embarrassment to the Wa, but he’s also a fifth-rank magician, Hu Baitian said. Do you think he would go back without making a scene and announcing their shame to the world?

“More wine?” 

Yue Fengjian nodded, deep in thought as he waited for Li Miao to ladle out another cup from the bronze vessel on the table. 

Who didn’t know about Wa Yingyue’s tragic plight, or the lying, thieving coward that left her stranded without a husband? Even though the Wa sect had remained as secretive as ever, information slowly filtered out that the Wa princess might be in the market for a fiance, despite the Wa sect famously refusing to allow marriage outside the sect. If the princess were desperate enough—or the man good enough—anyone might be able to marry her. She was quite a beauty too, according to the gossip. 

Yue Fengjian hadn’t expected her runaway groom to have a pretty mouth and a silver tongue that knew exactly what he wanted to hear. Far from suspecting the motives of the Yue sect member taking him under his wing, Lian Zhidiao seemed to trust him on sight, even though they should be bitter enemies. It was as if Yue Fengjian had been sitting in the woods, ready to hunt, and a doe had walked over to lay her head in his lap. Along with his somber mien, Lian Zhidiao had a thoughtful mindset, which only highlighted his sour but scholarly beauty. Which somehow made it even more cute when he’d been afraid of the empty tombs in Sancha Town.

It was so innocent, as if he’d never seen a walking corpse before. 

Unlike other Wa sect members, Lian Zhidiao’s black robes were plain, completely opaque and utilitarian. He didn’t tantalize with translucent fabric that hinted at prettier things underneath. He wore his underclothes fastened shut all the way up his neck. And he seemed reluctant to show even a flash of skin at his wrists. Perhaps it was just vanity—the Wa disciples were famous for it—but Lian Zhidiao seemed to have no idea of his own eroticism. His half-dressed state from the day before swam before Yue Fengjian’s eyes. Still tying his robes shut as they clung to his damp body, his hair barely combed, like he’d spent all night with a lover and slept in late. He’d even demurely averted his eyes when Yue Fengjian began to strip for the bath. 

Yue Fengjian stared at his reflection on the surface of the wine. He’s like a maiden. I want to make a mess out of him. He drank the rest of the huangjiu in one gulp. 

Fifth-rank magician or not, Lian Zhidiao had no sword he could use as a spiritual weapon. The (allegedly) half-Yao cultivator Guizai was his master, so he would likely have learned the fearsome technique Swords of the Myriad Dead, but what good would it do him without a sword? He was like a defanged cobra; a bite would still hurt, but it was far less dangerous than if he were fully armed.  If Lian Zhidiao in this weakened state still wanted to clutch at the hem of Yue Fengjian’s robes and look up at him with those soulful peach blossom eyes, then Yue Fengjian wasn’t going to kick him away. It helped immensely that he had a secret technique that no one else had yet developed. For now, they would put off repairing his spiritual weapon until Yue Fengjian was sure he could be trusted.

Upstairs, a long, drawn-out moan echoed down the corridor. 

Yue Fengjian glanced at the ceiling, the corners of his mouth tightening.

Li Miao, nonplussed, filled their cups again and then set about packing the bowl of her pipe. 

The Silver Peony was famously discreet about the parlor where a customer selected their company for the night; even groups that came in together selected their partners one-by-one. If a customer wanted to go straight up to the room, then they could take a back staircase up to the second floor and begin their night together right away. For those who wanted more of an entertainment experience, the lower floor of the Silver Peony was a common room, where the prostitutes could spend time singing, dancing, and drinking with their clients before taking them upstairs to offer them behind-closed-doors hospitality. 

Hu Baitian and Yue Yaosa had both made their selections and headed upstairs, but that was always their preference. Hu Baitian was not given to conversation with prostitutes. As Yue Shipei liked to say, he was there for the dumpling, not the soup. In contrast, Yue Yaosa frequently had to be all but pulled out of her lover’s arms by the rest of the group who were eager to get back to the inn. Once, she had even stayed the night, sheepishly rejoining the group in the morning and taking plenty of teasing for her shamelessness. 

It didn’t matter, Yue Fengjian supposed. The sky is wide and the Emperor is far away; this kind of social relief won’t be noticed. If it did, it wouldn’t be commented upon. Even his mother had better things on her mind. 

“My lord cultivator is preoccupied this evening.” Li Miao took a sip from her own wine, slipping into the role of entertainer. 

Yue Fengjian didn’t reply, although she wasn’t wrong. His frown deepened. 

“Will my lord cultivator ease his burdens with a little more wine?” 

To answer her, Yue Fengjian drained dry his newly-poured cup of wine and put it carefully on the table, then he slid it towards her. 

A slow smile spread across Li Miao’s face. “Everyone else in my lord cultivator’s party has selected a flower.” With a graceful hand that didn’t spill a drop, she ladled more wine into his cup. “Perhaps my lord cultivator is shy?” 

“No.” Yue Fengjian tilted his head to the side, regarding the full cup. He reached out to fold his hands around it. “I doubt you have what I am looking for tonight,” he said finally. 

“My garden has many flowers, with enough beauty and fragrance to make your head swim in a sea of delight.” Her eyes brightened. “Perhaps you already had a favorite flower and she was taken by someone else?” 

Yue Fengjian looked down at the table, rubbing his finger along the rim of his cup. 

“I could suggest another, equally bewitching girl to charm your worries away.” She reached out and took a deep drink of her own wine. “Or perhaps my lord cultivator did not know that I tend more than one kind of garden?” 

That stoked Yue Fengjian’s interest; he arched an eyebrow. Maybe there is a way to scratch this itch without any messy entanglements. 

Li Miao smiled and put her cup down with a ringing sound. “I have a select group of chrysanthemums, if those are the flowers that my lord cultivator prefers.” 

“Show me,” Yue Fengjian said, standing up. To be rid of this craving for him, I’ll try anything.  

Li Miao inclined her head and rose from the table, putting her pipe back in the stand. She led Yue Fengjian back to the parlor where they first entered, and sent a young boy running into a back hallway to fetch the ‘chrysanthemums’. 

A tingle of anticipation swept over Yue Fengjian’s scalp as he watched them walk into the parlor. Where there had been obvious signs of wealth among the women—filmy silks and gold hair ornaments, more indulgent fragrances—the male prostitutes were less likely to wear such ostentatious finery. There were fewer of them, and yet somehow more variety in their faces and bodies. 

The two youngest did not have even the shadow of maturity on their faces, and Yue Fengjian dismissed these out of hand. There was one older man as well, and he wasn’t going to be picked either. Then there were two more that he could dismiss, because they were nearly as tall as he was, and he wanted to be able to look down at his partner. He shook his head at the ones he could reject immediately, and Li Miao’s pointed look directed them back to their rooms to wait to be called on again. 

That left five prostitutes to choose from. 

I thought it might be easy to just pick one to use, but… This one’s chin was too pointy. That one’s mole was in the wrong place. Two of them wore much more feminine clothing, for the ones that preferred that kind of experience. Yue Fengjian didn’t mind it; after all, the customers knew exactly what was underneath those clothes. But it was hard to imagine Lian Zhidiao wearing soft, bright women’s clothing. Lian Zhidiao wasn’t the kind of person who smiled. At least, not a lot. He’d seen it once? Twice? Each time, the sight of his normally dour face lit up plucked at Yue Fengjian’s heartstrings. What made him look like that when he was usually so gloomy? Just last night he’d been favored with a smile that had made his heart stumble. It had made him want to just spend the evening drinking Lian Zhidiao’s inhibitions loose enough to leave them on the floor of the pavilion. 

Yue Fengjian wasn’t the only one that noticed the way Lian Zhidiao came alive when he smiled, either. Zhou Xianzhi certainly had his eye on him, if he hadn’t already bedded him before. Given the glances he’d slid Yue Fengjian while they were both peeling lychees for Lian Zhidiao, he knew. Drunken Lian Zhidiao hadn’t been able to pick up on it until Zhou Xianzhi’s boldness demanded more direct action from Yue Fengjian. At the time, Yue Fengjian hadn’t decided what he’d wanted to do with Lian Zhidiao, if anything. The hesitation wasn’t like him. The overthinking wasn’t, either. But he wasn’t going to let Zhou Xianzhi swoop in and carry Lian Zhidiao off when he himself hadn’t decided what to do yet. 

“Has my lord cultivator chosen?” 

Yue Fengjian blinked. He’d drifted off in thought while standing before one of the effeminate prostitutes, who had unfolded a fan with a coquettish look up at him. 

‘Coquettish’ wasn’t the look he wanted. He wanted something a little more distinguished. Yue Fengjian shook his head and moved on.  

The last one was wearing dark grey, with long hair loosely held back. Yue Fengjian paused in front of him. A few strands of hair escaped the pin at the back of his head and fell forward against his face, inviting Yue Fengjian to tuck them behind his ear. He was thin, almost frail, giving him a delicate feeling, as if he might break if Yue Fengjian were too rough. 

He’s close enough. Yue Fengjian reached out and tilted the young man’s face up to look at him. Similar sad eyes, with long, thick eyelashes. His skin was clear and unblemished, his lips prettily shaped. If Yue Fengjian let his eyes unfocus…

The whore, sensing his impending good fortune to be chosen by the Yue sect leader’s son, gave him an easy, relaxed smile. 

Unbidden, Lian Zhidiao’s heart-stopping smile from last night appeared before him. 

Yue Fengjian let out a short sigh and shook his head. “You are lovely,” he said. “But it’s not you I want.” He turned to face Li Miao. “Madam proprietor, none of these are right.” 

All her finest blossoms rejected, Li Miao folded her hands in front of her, with a secret smile on her lips. “My lord cultivator must have refined tastes indeed.” With a flick of her hand, the chrysanthemums bowed and filed out of the parlor. 

“The wine will be enough for me tonight,” Yue Fengjian said. 

Li Miao kept his cup full, and stayed at the low table with him for another hour, only leaving when another client needed to be welcomed. Yue Fengjian drank most of a warming vessel full of wine, and was finishing a cup when Liao Kuaiyu sauntered down the stairs and made his way over to his table. 

Liao Kuaiyu sat down at the table; Li Miao was almost instantly at his side, pouring him a cup of huangjiu. He sucked some down with a sigh of pleasure before looking over at Yue Fengjian. “Did you finish that fast?” 

“I didn’t pick anyone,” Yue Fengjian said, his words slurring. 

Liao Kuaiyu’s eyebrows flew up. “That’s not like you,” Liao Kuaiyu said after taking a drink. “None of them were pretty enough for you? I know your tastes tend toward the prettier ones.” 

“Who doesn’t like pretty whores?” Yue Fengjian muttered disagreeably into his cup. 

Liao Kuaiyu smiled. “Or perhaps a whore isn’t what you want?” Yue Fengjian gave Liao Kuaiyu a black look, which only prompted Liao Kuaiyu’s grin to widen. “Did I get it right?” 

“Don’t talk to me about it.” 

“You know he’s into men.” Liao Kuaiyu took another sip of wine. 

“I know,” Yue Fengjian grumbled. 

“It’s not exactly a secret why he ran away from that wedding.” 

Didi, I know.” 

Hu Baitian ambled down the stairs, rubbing his shoulder as he joined them at their table. Li Miao had a cup ready for him, but Hu Baitian waved her off. “I knocked on Yue Yaosa’s door,” he said as he approached. “Maybe she won’t keep us waiting for too long.” 

“Not long at all,” Yue Yaosa’s blissful voice sang out behind him. She floated down the stairs, looking supremely happy and relaxed. 

“We didn’t have to come get you? I’m impressed,” Liao Kuaiyu said. 

“I can tell what time it is,” Yue Yaosa replied. “There was a water clock in the room.” 

“Did word of your legendary abuse of prostitutes’ good graces find its way here?” Hu Baitian asked wryly. 

“It’s important to pack as much as you can into the time you have,” Yue Yaosa declared. “Grass has but one spring, you know.” As she said this, her eyes landed on Yue Fengjian, who was leaning heavily on the table. “Don’t tell me yours got you this drunk?” 

“He didn’t see anyone.” 

“You got like this on your own?” Her brows slanted in an expression of concern. “Dage, is something wrong?” 

“Nothing’s wrong,” Yue Fengjian grunted. 

Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu exchanged glances, and that was the last straw. Yue Fengjian stood up in a huff, motioning Li Miao over to settle the bill. With that done, he stalked out of the Silver Peony and sought refuge in the still-busy streets below, his arms folded across his chest. A few moments later, Hu Baitian joined him, followed by Yue Yaosa and Liao Kuaiyu, each of them with a half-smile they couldn’t keep hidden. 

“Should we get a litter back to the palace?” 

“Maybe not,” Yue Yaosa said. “Dage should probably walk this off.” 

Yue Fengjian clicked his tongue, irritated. “One night drinking instead of fucking and it’s everyone else’s business.”

Liao Kuaiyu was grinning again when they heard a voice calling out. 


Above them, a pretty young woman with unbound hair leaned out of an open window of the Court of the Silver Peony, waving at them. 

“Yes!” Yue Yaosa called up. 

A dreamy smile revealed a dimple in each of her cheeks. “Come back whenever you like! I’ll be waiting for you!” 

“I’ll come see you whenever I am in town!” Yue Yaosa blew her a kiss.

Yue Fengjian closed his eyes and let out a sigh, beginning the walk back to the Lin family palace a few miles away. 

The girl in the Silver Peony laid her head down on her folded hands to watch them walk down the street.

Chapter 39: Lian Zhidiao Doesn’t Know How Close He Came

Lian Zhidiao carried his rusted sword gingerly, its weight unfamiliar in his hand. Even though they were up and on their way as the sky changed from grey to blue, there were already dozens of people crowding the streets. Most weren’t wearing sect colors, but there were cultivators already up and moving at this hour. Doubtless many of them had business at the Sacred Gate. Many food carts were set up to capture early-morning business. Lian Zhidiao, remembering that Yue Fengjian tended to ignore eating properly when left to his own devices, suggested they eat breakfast together. Yue Fengjian agreed, but Lian Zhidiao noticed him giving longing glances to the cart of a zongzi vendor as they walked by. 

The local breakfast specialty was rice noodles in a subtle, salty broth with pickled vegetables. There were concessions to the widely-traveled cultivators, who could add spices, chilies, extra oil, or meat and eggs, according to their tastes. Yue Fengjian added spices and meat, while Lian Zhidiao added more pickles and chilies. It was possible to just hop on a sword and fly wherever one needed to go, but finding a place to land in the crowded streets required finesse and more than a little luck. Therefore, everyone seemed committed to walking short distances. The two weren’t exactly slow in eating, but in the few minutes it took to slurp down some noodles, the streets became much busier. They hurried ahead, walking toward the ridge. 

This side of Shengmen City had a time-worn look, built of the same strong gray sandstone as the hills. The streets were narrower, and the oldest buildings had softened edges, with unfamiliar decorative motifs above their doorways and scrolling under the eaves. Windows were smaller, barely large enough for a child or small woman to get through, and higher up on the walls. A kind of architecture that spoke of a long-past but serious threat of banditry. 

These buildings must be from a time before the sects had such tight control over their territories. Lian Zhidiao was amazed again by the implications of his world fleshing itself out again. One day, if he had time, he would love to read a history of it. 

Following the cultivators’ foot traffic made clear which street led to the Sacred Gate. As they got closer, the walls of storehouses and weathered siheyuan funneled them toward an enormous, ancient gatehouse with five gates, each painted in a different color: red, blue, white, green, and black. The Wa gate wasn’t too busy, the only people there were a small group of juniors and two inner disciples who were clearly their chaperones. The inner disciples were already through the gate and waiting for their charges to be allowed in. Occasional drumbeats echoed in the distance. 

“Meet me on the other side,” Yue Fengjian said, walking toward the red gate. 

Lian Zhidiao nodded, and watched him leave. His height and broad shoulders made him instantly recognizable, even at a distance; it wouldn’t be hard to find him again. With frequent glances at the red gate, Lian Zhidiao ambled toward the black, wishing they could have stayed together. 

Two clerks in gray and white robes were seated at high desks, taking down the particulars of entrants and sending runners out with each name given to them. 

Lian Zhidiao hardly noticed; he was lost in thought until a voice snapped him back to reality.


The question was asked of a junior in front of him and a sudden surge of anxiety blotted out whatever answer the junior gave from his mind. What questions are they going to ask me to see about repairing my sword? Will they let me in if I can’t remember? Why did I put so many minor characters in my novel, if none of them were important enough to have their swords named?!

Then the clerk was finished with the junior, who rejoined his friends, chattering excitedly. It was Lian Zhidiao’s turn. 

The clerk did not lift his head. “Name?” 

“Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao,” he replied. 

“Oh, yes,” the clerk said, a slight lift to his eyebrow, as if he had suddenly come across a challenging puzzle. “Fengxueya, right?” 

The Sharp Edge of the Crescent Moon? 

“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao replied, his heart racing. What luck! 

“And the reason for your visit?” 

“Repairing my sword,” Lian Zhidiao managed. “I…fell into a river and it has gotten rust on it.” 

The clerk smiled, marking down the name with a thin brush on a slip of paper. “Fengxueya, sword renewal.”  He handed the paper off to a young boy, who took off out a side door with the message. Then he turned back to Lian Zhidiao, his smile lingering. “Perhaps Lian-gongzi does not remember me, but I remember him.” 

“I’m fortunate to make your acquaintance again,” Lian Zhidiao smiled back, cupping his hands in front of him. 

The clerk’s smile faded slightly, replaced by a gentle blush on his cheeks. Wordlessly, he waved Lian Zhidiao through, into the gatehouse. 

The windows at the top of the enormous gatehouse were open, but they were so small that the floor was still dark. The great room was further partitioned with screens and low walls into a series of small, semi-private parlors. Lanterns lit at each occupied alcove revealed seating cushions and low tables for those cultivators waiting their turn to approach the Sacred Gate. A low hum pervaded the space, as the soft conversation in the common room of a library, with the occasional pouring of tea and a clink of cups. 

While walking through the aisles between parlors, Lian Zhidiao realized to his great relief that members of all sects were in the alcoves. He need not have worried about being separated from Yue Fengjian. He didn’t see many Yue cultivators, but Yuan cultivators were well represented, their alcoves disciplined and serious. There were also several parties of Lin cultivators, who seemed to travel in larger groups. The Zhou sect had but two separate parties, a single cultivator and a pair. There was something habitual about the entirely-too-comfortable way they reclined in their parlors. The Wa sect was similarly sparse: it was only himself and the other party of outer and inner disciples. He caught a glimpse of the two inner disciples as he walked by. 

They wore stunningly thin robes. There were other black clothes underneath, but these were thinly woven as well. Each one of them wore at least three layers, and yet their bodies didn’t seem hidden at all. Like Lian Zhidiao, they were covered up to their necks, but the cut of their robes was trim. Their see-through dachang and beizi, fancifully embroidered, barely added any modesty. 

If this is what the average inner disciple wears, then…

Lian Zhidiao kept walking down the aisle, but his fingers drifted to the collar of his robes, the ones Yue Fengjian had gifted him. Compared to those ‘legit’ Wa sect disciples, his new robes may have been black in color, but they were made in a decidedly Yue style, completely opaque. Well, being more modest was fine with him. 

It’s not like I want anyone to see my body, anyway. 

A hand reached out from a parlor and caught his sleeve. Yue Fengjian’s familiar low voice reached his ears. “Are you looking for someone?” 

Lian Zhidiao let out a sigh of relief at having finally found him. “It’s really dark in here.” 

“Sit down already. We’ll be waiting for a while.” Yue Fengjian’s hand was resting on the top of the door frame. He leaned back into the alcove, sitting back down just inside the doorway. There was a step up into the parlor, which Lian Zhidiao didn’t see in the darkness. The toe of his boot caught the edge of it, and he stumbled forward. 

Yue Fengjian reached out to catch him, but he landed half-in, half-out of Yue Fengjian’s lap. “Oof!” 

Lian Zhidiao lay paralyzed, his stomach against Yue Fengjian’s thigh, ass high in the air.  

How do I get out of this?? Do I get on my knees, definitely putting my butt in his face? Drag myself forward and dirty him with my boots before an important meeting? Try to worm backwards and get up? I should have gone around the other way!  Who put a step in such a stupid place? It’s not even marked with caution tape!

“I… I didn’t see the step.” 

“Never mind that.” Yue Fengjian clicked his tongue. “Are you going to just stay like that?” 

To Lian Zhidiao’s ears, there was something like a threat in Yue Fengjian’s words. At the profoundly embarrassing thought of Yue Fengjian staring at his ass in his lap, he finally just dragged himself forward, so that at least his shame could be contained in just one little closet-like room. 

Yue Fengjian straightened his robes with short, irritated movements. “They’ll bring tea in a moment.” 

Lian Zhidiao, wishing he had more grace than a three-day-old kitten, nodded. 

A young servant brought their tea, and they sipped it in silence that strangely became more comfortable the longer it went on. Lian Zhidiao had no desire to talk (ever again, to anyone, in this life or the next) and Yue Fengjian closed his eyes, resting against the wall. Maybe he hadn’t slept well? As the minutes passed, Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but look at Yue Fengjian wistfully, his heart aching for what would happen later that afternoon in the Yuan family palace. A momentary thought of dragging the sword renewal out as long as possible crossed his mind, but then he rejected it. Even if the thought of Yue Fengjian marrying Yuan Shi’an was like a stone in his guts, he had no more right to stop him than he had to stop the sun from rising. His place was to support Yue Fengjian.  

The hours passed, slowly at first, and then quickly. Then, around noon, they were called. 

Behind the gatehouse, there was a large courtyard partially paved with smooth white stone. On the left, the rock face was left exposed, with soft-edged calligraphy as deep as his arm was long engraved into the gray sandstone. 

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

Any cultivator with a spiritual weapon may not enter the Sacred Gate.

Any cultivator with a damaged spiritual weapon may have it renewed. 

Any cultivator with a spiritual weapon that is not their own may deposit that weapon in the Hidden Realm. 

The rest is the province of the Judge. 

In the center of the courtyard, the white stone paving stopped short of a strange stone formation: in a narrow cut through a canyon, two great spans of sandstone leaned against each other in a high, steepled point. The shadowed canyon beyond was inaccessible except through a small triangular opening underneath the stones that suggested a keyhole. The raw spiritual power in the air forced a hush on those first entering its presence. This was a primeval space, one that had called to humanity for millennia, or longer. It commanded respect, even fear. 

To the right, there was a long building with a gallery; it was worn, but looked positively modern juxtaposed with the feeling of deep time from the Sacred Gate. The doors and shutters were pulled back so that the courtyard was visible to the gallery’s occupants. Three clerks sat at a lower level, with scrolls in front of them and pillows on a table next to them. Above the clerks sat a Yuan cultivator, a silk fan in his hand keeping his hair fluttering. As he watched, a gray-robed man collected something long and thin from the threshold of the Sacred Gate and delivered it to a clerk at the edge of the gallery. When he was finished, the clerk returned to his workstation, and the single Zhou cultivator he was assisting. The gray-robed man resumed his post at a skin drum in the courtyard, holding his sticks at the ready. A dozen or so Yuan cultivators, dressed in shimmering white, stood as solemn guards. 

Although the Sacred Gate of the Hidden Realm had no ‘official’ sect affiliation, its presence in the Yuan sect capital made it impossible to completely separate it from that sect. Likewise, the Speakers, though technically impartial, were also not completely separate from the Yuan sect. Though the White Emperor’s death two centuries before had left the cultivation world headless, the Yuan sect’s proximity to the Hidden Realm still afforded them a great deal of power in the cultivation world. 

One of the clerks beckoned to them. He had two slips of paper in front of him; Lian Zhidiao recognized the one that had been sent from the clerk at the black gate. A scroll with red silk was unrolled at the clerk’s writing surface. The wooden tag hanging off of one end said ‘Wallbreaker’. Another scroll with black silk lay in a tray on the corner of his desk.

“Yue Fengjian, with Wallbreaker.” 

Yue Fengjian placed his shuangshou jian on the table, on the pillows provided. 

“Lian Zhidiao, with the Sharp Edge of the Crescent Moon.” 

Lian Zhidiao followed Yue Fengjian’s lead, placing his sword on the other set of pillows on the table in front of them. It was kind of cute, treating swords like little girls treated their dollies, letting them rest on pillows. 

“Yue Fengjian, you are here as a guest of… Lian Zhidiao of the Wa sect?” The clerk registered obvious surprise at the words he was reading off the slip of paper in front of him. “And you have no reason to seek renewal of your sword?” 

“That’s correct,” Yue Fengjian said. 

With a satisfied nod, the clerk took up his brush and began to make a note in Wallbreaker’s scroll.

Lian Zhidiao craned his neck a little bit to see if he could read what was being written, but when the clerk shot him an acerbic look, he quickly looked away. 

The clerk lifted his hand and a young girl scurried forward, her head bowed. “Take this to the drying rack,” the clerk ordered. She held the open scroll out in front of her and walked away, as carefully as if she was carrying a tray of tea to a princess. 

So they keep records of when the swords return to them. He looked at the black silk around Fengxueya’s scroll as the clerk unrolled it. They probably have the swords of living cultivators separated out, color-coded by sect, so there’s not a long delay in finding it when someone arrives with a sword.  

“Lian Zhidiao, you are here to have your sword renewed.” 


“Then you may go and renew the sword in the Sacred Realm,” the clerk said, gesturing to a set of doors marked with the phases of the moon, at the end of the building gallery.

Lian Zhidiao stood and collected his sword from its resting place atop the sword pillows before walking with it to the set of doors. When he passed through the doors, the gray-robed man in the courtyard beat the skin drum twice. 

Oh, is that what the drumbeats were for? To announce when someone goes up? 

Beyond the doors, a set of winding stairs in a windowless tower went up and up and up. At last, when he reached the top, there was another set of doors, emblazoned with the rays of the sun. 

There was no protection for him once he left the tower: it spit him onto the highlands of the canyon without so much as a spot of shade. A small pavilion sheltered another Yuan sect cultivator, and another man with a skin drum. Before him, the canyon was a fissure, a winding, splitting gash in the earth. Set atop it, a bottomless bronze bowl three meters across, lotus-edged, that would render the contents down into the canyon below.

“Place your weapon into the lotus,” the Yuan sect cultivator said, a touch of boredom in his voice. 

Lian Zhidiao swallowed down his nerves and walked to the rim of the bowl, which came up to his waist. He gave the sword another small tug, but it remained stuck fast. He made a face.

Don’t know why I thought it would suddenly spring free now. 

Lian Zhidiao placed Fengxueya into the lotus, on sun-heated bronze that made the air above it dance. Slowly, smoothly, the sword slid away from him, as if being carried away by the current of a river. It floated down to the hole at the bottom of the bowl and dropped noiselessly out of sight. 

Behind him, two heavy drumbeats from the man with the skin drum. 

“Go back down,” the Yuan cultivator said. “Your sword will be waiting for you.” 

“Is that it?”

“That’s it,” the Yuan cultivator responded. “Hurry up, there are others waiting.” 

Lian Zhidiao cupped his hands and then went back down the stairs, suddenly awash in giddy excitement, like he was about to open a birthday present. 

At the bottom of the stairs, he opened the door to curious looks from the clerks, and the Yuan cultivator’s fan had stilled. 

“Still nothing?” 

“I’ve searched, my lord cultivator,” came a voice in the courtyard. The man at the skin drum had laid aside his sticks and gone to collect the renewed sword at the Sacred Gate. Slowly, the Yuan cultivator got to his feet, his eyes keenly trained on the man in the gray robe in the courtyard. The man in the courtyard looked up at the clerk, and then at the Yuan cultivator above him, the Judge presiding over the Sacred Gate. “There is nothing here at all.” 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 38: The City Of The Sacred Gate
Next Chapter > Chapter 40: A Lie That Tells A Truth

Chapter 38: The City Of The Sacred Gate

True to his word, Hu Baitian left for Shengmen City the very next morning. 

Lian Zhidiao wasn’t surprised by that, or by the news that Yue Shipei went with him. Though Yue Shipei’s efforts to convince Hu Baitian to stay had been unsuccessful, just letting him leave alone wasn’t in his nature either. Yue Shipei might have obvious loyalty to the Yue sect and affection for his cousin Yue Fengjian. But he also clearly cared a lot about his friend. In any case, he left a note with the location of the Hu family home in Shengmen City, where he’d be staying as a guest of Hu Baitian. 

In the absence of Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei accompanying them, Lian Zhidiao thought that Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa might come along. He thought it would be fun to travel with them again. He had gotten used to Liao Kuaiyu’s reassuring (but smart-aleck) elder brother demeanor around the junior disciples. Yue Yaosa had a dependable, big-sisterly vibe about her, even though she was younger than Lian Zhidiao. Having those two along felt like nothing could possibly go wrong.  

But a week before they were due to leave, Yue Yaosa announced that she and Liao Kuaiyu were definitely staying behind, at least until more Masters came out of seclusion. If another demon attack happened, they would need all the warriors that Xuefeng City could muster. Liao Kuaiyu’s magic would be especially helpful in defending a stronghold. Lian Zhidiao had to admit it made strategic sense. A repair mission and visit to a prospective wife shouldn’t take priority over the safety of the people. Then again, in the face of such a mighty threat, would there ever again be a time that was safe for the Yue cultivators to leave? With the sect this pressed for manpower, it seemed impossible that even one cultivator could be spared for non-essential travel. 

To a casual observer, Yue Fengjian might have seemed unaffected by this almost complete abandonment, but to Lian Zhidiao, it seemed like his frown became even more deeply engraved on his face. 

In the last days before they departed for Shengmen City, it dawned on Lian Zhidiao that situations like this were exactly why Yue Fengjian needed the help of the other sects. The Yue sect was spread too thinly as it was. Yue Fengjian needed to secure the assistance of the other sects at any cost. What better way to do so than a series of political marriages? As much as Lian Zhidiao needed his sword repaired, this was potentially an even more necessary trip for Yue Fengjian.

He has to make sure the Yuan sect will help. It will be more difficult for him since he has slapped the Hu family in the face by refusing to dismiss me, and so it’s all the more crucial that things go right. 

Lian Zhidiao thought back on the plot of Supreme Warlord of the Beast World. What was wrong with the Yuan sect? What problem had Yue Fengjian solved? But no matter how he tried, all he could recall was that it had something to do with the Beauty Yuan Shi’an’s father and an illness. In the thread of ‘Supreme Warlord new chapter discussion’ on the forums, there were plenty of people discussing how boring the arc was, because there wasn’t any demon-thrashing action. It was true that he hadn’t been good at writing intrigue—he had still been a novice writer, after all. But the experience of being awarded a decidedly ‘meh’ reaction to his first attempt at an intrigue plot made him watch more palace intrigue dramas to get a better handle on how the tropes worked. In the end, he hadn’t gotten any better at writing intrigue and just ended up with a bad binge-watching habit that made it harder for him to write his scheduled chapters. 

The night before they were to leave, Lian Zhidiao spent the night in Yue Fengjian’s quarters again, sleeping on the bed he’d used when he first arrived. A perversely petty part of him wanted to see what would happen if they had another meal with Lady Gao, but he and Yue Fengjian ate in private that night. It made Lian Zhidiao even more certain that Lady Gao only had ‘family style’ meals when it suited her schemes, and not when she wanted to spend time with her family. He pitied Yue Fengjian’s future wives, having to march into this lioness’ den unprepared. 

The flight to Shengmen City took a week. They followed the Sanma River Valley south and east as it wound through the mountains. This far downstream, some parts of the river were still wild, with white-capped rapids and waterfalls. For the most troublesome areas, canals had been dug, and heavy barges were towed upstream using oxen and long ropes. Twisting up the northern mountain sides above the Sanma was the Red Highway, which directly connected Xuefeng City with the Imperial City. From above, the Red Highway was a ribbon of white stone that followed the curves of the mountains, sometimes so narrow as to be obscured by trees. Putting in the Red Highway must have required some impressive engineering, compared with the ease of building a road over the mostly flat land of the Lin sect.

Each night, they landed in river port towns to sleep, often in rooms that had only one bed. Before, Lian Zhidiao might have thought nothing of the jittery feeling in his stomach, or chalked it up to a generalized sense of anxiety about his situation in a strange-yet-familiar world. But ever since acknowledging the way that Yue Fengjian’s presence made his heart flutter, he had become hyperaware of everything that Yue Fengjian did. There was no more secret pining for Yue Fengjian’s hand to brush his in passing—Yue Fengjian was now constantly in contact with him. His arm around Lian Zhidiao’s waist as they flew was just a safety precaution, as it had been since the beginning. Maybe it was because of the relationships that had been damaged by keeping Lian Zhidiao around, but his hold seemed even more protective than it had been before. Yue Fengjian had also taken to reaching out to tuck a few wind-tossed strands of hair behind his ear when they landed. He even offered to brush out his hair one night, which Lian Zhidiao politely declined on account of not being sure he could control his reaction. 

All this in addition to constantly sharing a bed (and frequently, a bath), the trip was damn near torture. At the beginning of this trip, Lian Zhidiao was merely aware that Yue Fengjian made him happy in ways that were hard to put into words. By the end of it, he had a full-blown crush with no hope that his feelings would ever be reciprocated. Better than anyone, he knew what was waiting for Yue Fengjian at the end of the book. 

They reached Shengmen City as the sun set. Shengmen City itself was built at a strategic point where the river cut through the highlands at the edge of the high steppes on its way to the floodplains downstream. The city itself was nestled in a valley that drained the western watershed. The areas south and east of the city were dominated by heavy agricultural use, growing mostly millet and vegetables, with flooded rice fields along the river. To the west, a high hogback ridge sheltered the city from the cold wind that howled down across the steppes. Nestled in one of the canyons of the hogback was the Sacred Gate to the Hidden Realm, from which the city got its name. 

The buildings were a mixture of earthen walls, stone, and timber, building heights varying across the city so that the pale rooftiles formed a glittering patchwork of golden light and blue shadow. The White Highway approached from the south, a perfectly straight stripe of snow-white stone that cut through the fields and led to a round timber-framed building in the center of the city. The home of Shengmen City’s Great Jade Beast, no doubt.

Near the Sacred Gate, cultivators on their swords were as thick as dragonflies over a lake. There were a variety of inns that catered to cultivators coming to repair or obtain their spiritual weapons; all five colors were present on the street when they landed. A few cultivators in black turned to look at the sight of one of their own jumping down from the sword of a Yue cultivator. Their stares needled at him, but Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes on Yue Fengjian’s broad back as they walked into the courtyard of an inn with red-trimmed eaves. A troupe of musicians had set up in the courtyard, and was playing lively music as some of the inn’s patrons got to the evening’s drinking. 

The innkeeper was clearly torn between showing his displeasure at Lian Zhidiao’s presence and pleasing the Yue sect leader’s son. In the end, he chose the latter, giving them two adjoining rooms that were finely appointed. The cook was well-trained, producing both the heavily spiced dishes of the northern Yue and a fresh, delicately-flavored cuisine that Lian Zhidiao had to assume was the specialty of the Yuan sect. 

Then two young men that wore no sect color (but seemed friendly with the musicians) began to cajole a third into singing, plying him with wine. 

“You know which one we want to hear,” one of the two men said. 

“There’s been so much excitement,” the other said. “But we leave for the coast in the morning, so it’s almost time to sleep. It would help this younger brother to hear something to quiet down my heart.” 

Thus charmed by the thought of helping to put his junior to bed, the young man stood up and walked over to the musicians. After speaking to them in low tones and paying them some coin, the musicians began to play accompaniment on their instruments. It was a lingering, soft ballad, like a love song, but from the beginning there was an undercurrent of sorrow. The young man’s voice had a tone like a bell; it was clear why his two friends had bullied him into singing. 

The bee had honey, fine and sweet

The butterfly had none to eat 

The bee let the butterfly share his seat

In the Rainbow Valley where the flowers grow

The bee and the butterfly lived so fair

Tending their garden of orchids with care

But hives must have lilies to bring forth an heir

Down in the Valley where the rivers flow

Something about the song seemed familiar to Lian Zhidiao, as if it was a melody he should know, hummed by a man who didn’t exist, long ago in a dream he once had. He glanced at Yue Fengjian next to him, only to find that his gaze was distant, caught up in the story the song wove around the men in the courtyard, like a spell. 

The bee knew his duty; he sought a blue queen

A wedding planned for spring’s first green

The butterfly in jet kept a mournful mien

In the Rainbow Valley under whitest snow

Fain would the garden have suffered two kings

Alas, the bee died of jealousy’s stings

Killed by a hornet with butterfly wings

Down in the Valley with the jade below

Near the end of the song, the young man’s two friends were weeping quietly, so beautiful was the performance and so tragic the ending. Lian Zhidiao wasn’t immune either. Something haunting was hidden in the notes, in the clear sound of a young man’s voice, in the betrayal after so much good had been shared. 

Yue Fengjian stood up, and his expectant pause indicated that Lian Zhidiao should stand as well. 

Their rooms were small but richly appointed, at least as nice as the Pavilion in the Lin palace. In the front was a sumptuous parlor, where they could take tea or be served meals without associating with the other inn patrons. In the back, a sleeping chamber large enough for Yue Fengjian and two or three attendants. But it was just the two of them, moving quietly in the awkward silence the tragic ballad had made. 

“You will go to the Yuan sect tomorrow, I imagine?” Lian Zhidiao said. 

“…Yuan Shijun has agreed to meet me tomorrow afternoon.” Yue Fengjian unbelted his robes, his voice heavy. 

Lian Zhidiao froze midway through taking off his own belt. So he’ll go to speak to his future brother-in-law tomorrow. It was already scheduled. It had to be done. But it made a knot of dread in Lian Zhidiao’s stomach. “Why wait until the afternoon?” 

“It shouldn’t take long for your sword to be repaired in the Hidden Realm,” Yue Fengjian said. 

“You’re coming with me?” 

“I carried you here, I won’t just stop before the work is finished,” Yue Fengjian said. He threw a teasing look over his shoulder, the funereal mood at last lifting off their heads. 

“I should think it would not be difficult to walk the rest of the way,” Lian Zhidiao sniffed, turning his back while he shrugged out of his robes. A hot feeling bloomed on his back, as if he was the target of lustful intent, but when he dared to look at Yue Fengjian, he found the other had already settled down on his bed, with the rolled pillow under his head as he stared at the ceiling. 

I must be imagining things.

“I may take some time at the Yuan residence,” Yue Fengjian said in a resigned voice. 

“I would accompany you, if you wanted.”

“It’s just a marriage meeting. It would be strange if a man couldn’t handle the stress of something as trivial as that,” Yue Fengjian said, turning his head to look across the room at Lian Zhidiao. 

Lian Zhidiao’s movements slowed as he got into bed. “Even if a man was blissfully happy with the idea of marrying his future wife,” he said haltingly, “some nervousness would be understandable.” 

“You’re speaking from experience.” 

“Me? No,” Lian Zhidiao mumbled. “I didn’t have anything like that.” Yue Fengjian stayed quiet for a moment, opening a space for him to keep talking. “My older brother had some, though. Even for someone like him with so much to offer, he was still nervous.” 

“…I see.” 

Lian Zhidiao turned on his side, measuring the distance between his bed and Yue Fengjian’s. It was only a few steps away. Not far at all. He creased his lower lip with his teeth. “Anyway, it will be good to just get it out of the way, I imagine.” 

“Yeah,” Yue Fengjian said. 

“The plans you’re making, for all of the sects to come together to fight demons…” 


“What do you think you’ll do after that?” 

“If you’re trying to get at why I’m keeping you around, I intend to put your ability to work sooner rather than later. There are jade beasts in our lands that were simply broken, not destroyed. Like the snake. Once your sword is repaired, it will be easy for you to find them without anyone else’s help.” 

Lian Zhidiao thought of the nausea, the chilled fatigue, that unsettling feeling whenever a little bit of deviate qi dropped into his other core like a slug of tar. Doing that over and over again, to cleanse who knew how many jade beasts as they prised them from forgotten forests. Could his other core even hold that much deviate qi? Did it matter, if he was willing to do it anyway? Lian Zhidiao spoke up, his voice soft. “Cleansing the land will push the Paling back to where it was hundreds of years ago. Are you satisfied with that? Or would you want more?” 

Across the room, Yue Fengjian turned to face him, his eyes sliding sideways up the legs of Lian Zhidiao’s bed to rest on his face. There was a pause before he spoke, an unmistakeable space where Yue Fengjian sidestepped a more self-serving interpretation. “What do you mean by that?” 

“Would you want to claim some of the demon lands as your own? Or deal their forces a crippling blow?” 

“That’s more than what I’m asking the other sects to help with. I have thought of it, but…” He shook his head, looking at the floor again. “It doesn’t make sense to plan a second war when the first one hasn’t begun.” 

“You’ll be successful,” Lian Zhidiao said quietly. 

The corner of Yue Fengjian’s mouth turned up in a half-smile, making Lian Zhidiao’s heart speed up. “Your confidence in me is appreciated.” 

Lian Zhidiao gave him a small smile in return. There was no way to say why he knew it would be the case, that Yue Fengjian would be the next Red Emperor, but… “You have the strength needed to push the Paling west as far as your sword can carry you. Nothing will stand in the way of what you desire. You only have to reach out and take it.” 

Yue Fengjian’s smile faded slowly and then he shifted in bed, settling on his back. “Get some sleep. I won’t keep Yuan Shijun waiting tomorrow.” 

Lian Zhidiao got up and blew out the lamp, finding his way back to his bed by feeling what was in front of him. He listened, hearing the streets of Shengmen City quiet down, and the time of night beaten out on drums for the night watch. He waited to hear Yue Fengjian’s breathing to slow and deepen. But he fell asleep himself long before Yue Fengjian. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 37: The Kind Of Writing That Brings Them Back Again and Again
Next Chapter > Chapter 39: Lian Zhidiao Doesn’t Know How Close He Came

Chapter 37: The Kind Of Writing That Brings Them Back Again And Again

Yue Fengjian and Lian Zhidiao went back down to the hall together. The new robes were stashed in the storage ring, and the ring itself tucked into Lian Zhidiao’s robes. The weight of the jade ring against his chest where no one else could see felt clandestine. If Yue Fengjian wanted everyone to know he was giving something like this, wouldn’t he have done so in front of them? Or was he the type of man to just take action and let others figure out what kind of meaning there was in it? 

Lian Zhidiao glanced sideways at Yue Fengjian’s profile as they entered the warm, soft light of the hallway. He’d written the protagonist as a man of action who inspired action in others. (For the Beauties in the story, that action had been opening their arms to him, as the genre and his readers demanded.) He had never bothered to write the details of Yue Fengjian’s thoughts. Introspection was boring—readers wanted action, intrigue, drama. Something juicy that made them hold their heads and scream with frustration. That was the kind of writing that brought them back to Supreme Warlord of the Beast World time after time. 

For example, in Supreme Warlord, Yue Fengjian had daringly rescued Lin Xianglan from the demon who abducted her and slaughtered the demon. These acts of heroism won him the heart of the Lin Beauty, and the future cooperation of the Lin sect. Likewise for the Yue sect: Yue Fengjian fighting back-to-back with Yue Yaosa had convinced the latter of his worthiness as a husband (and sparring partner, which was of immense importance to the readers who wanted to see a healthy, strong girl who wouldn’t back down.) They were both showy displays that any reader could understand immediately. 

Yue Fengjian giving him something in private wasn’t dramatic at all. 

The hall was set up for a small, intimate party, with a table in the center laid out with snacks and a warm cauldron of huangjiu, similar to the Lin sect party. Liao Kuaiyu was laying on one of the low beds close to the table, his ruan tucked up against his chest as he played. On the floor next to him was Yue Yaosa with a cup of wine in her hand, her eyes glued to the hypnotic movement of Liao Kuaiyu’s fingers. 

Opposite them, at a bit of a remove, Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei were sitting next to each other on another low bed, engaged in a conversation too low to hear. Yue Shipei’s head was tilted, his face pleading, as if he was trying to get Hu Baitian to look at him or talk to him. The bitter expression on Hu Baitian’s face said he would much rather be elsewhere. 

Liao Kuaiyu strummed a small fanfare as Yue Fengjian walked through the doorway, and then seamlessly went back to playing whatever song he’d been lazily picking out. Their cups were already partially emptied.

“We didn’t wait for you,” Yue Yaosa said, leaning on the edge of the bed and looking at Yue Fengjian as they walked past. 

“I had a few things to discuss with Lian Zhidiao,” Yue Fengjian said, sitting down closer to the table. 

“It’s good to take a break,” Liao Kuaiyu said, continuing to play quiet triplets on the ruan. “Shipei-shixiong told us you’d been working too hard again.” 

Yue Fengjian glanced at Yue Shipei. 

“He’s right,” Hu Baitian said in a tight voice. 

Oh, are you speaking on this, Hu Baitian?” Yue Yaosa said with a smile on her face. “You have been just as desperate to drown yourself in work.” 

“A-Zhen,” Yue Shipei said, as if warning her not to take her teasing further. 

Yue Yaosa’s smile melted away; she looked at Yue Fengjian and then went back to drinking. 

To keep his hands busy, Lian Zhidiao picked up a cup and ladled out some huangjiu for Yue Fengjian, and then himself. 

“You wanted to talk about a trip to Shengmen City,” Hu Baitian said. 

“It may be better to speak of larger things first,” Yue Fengjian said, reaching out to take the cup in front of him. 

“Oh?” Yue Shipei’s attention at last seemed to be pulled away from Hu Baitian. 

“Mm,” Yue Fengjian said, looking around at them. “You remember that I had a meeting with Sect Leader Lin Buhuan while we were in Fenfang City.” 

“You never did tell us what that was about.” 

“I needed to discuss it with my honored father first,” Yue Fengjian said. “I spoke with him when we returned to Xuefeng. He sent letters to Lin Buhuan and to Yuan Zhuyan, and has been waiting for their replies.” Yue Fengjian drank from his cup. “Last week, he received a letter from Lin Buhuan expanding on the discussion I had with him. But from Yuan Zhuyan, he received nothing.” 

Hu Baitian’s hands gathered into fists on his lap. 

Yue Fengjian drained the last of his wine and then let out a small breath. “Instead, he received a letter from Yuan Shijun.” 

“Yuan Zhuyan’s eldest son.” Yue Shipei glanced at Hu Baitian again. “What did it say?” 

“What exactly, I do not know,” Yue Fengjian said. “But it convinced my honored father that larger efforts are needed to repel demons.” 

“How large?” Yue Yaosa reached out to take the ladle of the wine vessel, filling a cup for herself and Liao Kuaiyu.  

“All the sects.” Yue Fengjian said. “Lin, Yue, Yuan, Zhou, and Wa.” 

Yue Shipei frowned. “The last time all the sects worked together was hundreds of years ago.” 

Suggesting the sects unite for a cause isn’t a normal viewpoint right now, Lian Zhidiao thought. The Lin and the Yue worked together because of their common enemy to the west. The Yuan were a little more insulated from the Paling because of the high steppes that extended into Yuan lands, but gaining the support of the Wa and Zhou would be difficult, since they had little reason to care what was happening far to the west.  

“A single sect has little hope of making any significant progress against the demons. Not when we have been losing land we held for centuries. We are crowded into smaller and smaller areas by land corrupted with deviate qi. If left unchecked, our borders may be pushed back to this very valley. They might even dare to assault the Quanyuan itself.” 

Liao Kuaiyu slowly stopped playing while Yue Fengjian spoke and did not start playing again immediately. Everyone sat uncomfortably, the idea weighing down the air like a stone. 

Yue Yaosa looked at Lian Zhidiao. “If he can cleanse jade beasts, then—” 

“He can cleanse them, but he can’t fix them,” Liao Kuaiyu said, finally plucking out a pensive triplet on the ruan. “Isn’t that right?” 

“Yeah,” Lian Zhidiao replied. He didn’t mention the personal cost of cleansing jade beasts: each one would bring him closer and closer to having the other core filled with deviate qi. It wasn’t like there was a ‘fill to here’ line, either. Lian Zhidiao might not lose his golden core through pollution and destabilization. But as a trade-off he was building an unpredictable bomb in his dantian. 

“Lin Buhuan said that an increasing number of demons are being found in the Choking Wood. They fear that the demons have found a way to force the Wood to submit.” 

“If that is the case, the natural barrier that protects the Lin sect in the south will be gone,” Yue Shipei pointed out. 

Yue Fengjian nodded. “Struggling against the Wood and the small gap in the Paling already takes a large number of cultivators.”  

Lian Zhidiao refilled Yue Fengjian’s cup. 

Yue Yaosa drained her cup and set it down with a satisfied smacking of her lips. “So what are you suggesting we do?” 

“Ask the sects for their support.” Yue Fengjian reclined on a cushion, cradling the new cup of huangjiu. “Lin Buhuan was impressed by our efforts at Sancha Town. The letter he sent to my honored father recognized the difficulties we would soon face. He said that he would support any efforts to strike first at the demons.” 

“And Yuan Shijun?” 

“His letter said he would meet with me to discuss it, but that any decisions would be up to his father.” 

“Why didn’t his father send a letter?” Yue Yaosa mused out loud as she refilled her cup. 

“I don’t know,” Yue Fengjian said. “But we will need to make a trip to the other sects to ask for their assistance, make arrangements for surveillance, consult with the Yuan oracle for a good time to lead an attack. Shengmen City should be our first stop.” 

“Is he coming too?” Hu Baitian asked softly.

Lian Zhidiao felt cold and slightly sick as Hu Baitian’s eyes turned to look at him, his expression full of undisguised contempt.  

“Yes,” Yue Fengjian said, without looking at Lian Zhidiao. 

“I won’t go back to my home in the company of a liar and a thief,” Hu Baitian said, his voice hardening instantly. “You may have a face as thick as a mountain, but I don’t.” He stood up. 

A liar and a thief? He means me! 

Yue Shipei stood up as well. “Where are you going?” 

“To bed. With respect, Yue Fengjian, I will leave in the morning to go home.”

“What?” Yue Shipei’s voice was soft now, sounding as if he was confronted with the possibility of losing something precious. 

“Stop.” Lian Zhidiao hadn’t told the group about his ‘amnesia’, in an effort to limit how many people he had to keep track of when recounting the lie. But maybe saying that he couldn’t remember things might have at least given him some credibility when he didn’t know what was going on in situations like this. Still, his pride wouldn’t let Hu Baitian say whatever he liked. “You can’t just say something like that and leave.” 

“What, did you at last develop a sense of shame for what you did? As if you could undo it with an apology or by prostrating yourself in front of me?” Hu Baitian sneered. “I can’t stay here any more. The sight of you sickens me.”

“Hu Baitian,” Yue Fengjian said, with a note of authority in his voice. 

“I told you what he did.”

“The facts are well known by everyone.” Yue Fengjian glanced at Lian Zhidiao. “When he departed from his sect some years ago, you were accused of stealing a jade beast.”

He accused me of stealing it, despite stealing it himself!  And you still took him along!” Like lancing a boil, animosity and hatred that had festered for weeks flowed out of him. Hu Baitian’s face turned red, the rims of his eyes wet with anger. “He magically shows up with some skill that you need, and you just allow him to accompany you. I warned you in Shuangwan Village and you took him along anyway.” 

“You act as though this is a simple problem that can be solved by taking one side, like a child dealing with a bully.” Yue Fengjian looked completely at ease, leaning back on his cushion. 

“I don’t remember any—” Lian Zhidiao started. 

“Do not say another word or I will cut out your tongue.” The intensity of Hu Baitian’s gaze made Lian Zhidiao close his mouth. 

Lian Zhidiao dropped his eyes to the table, but he was keenly aware of how the blood had drained from his face. Not only had he gotten placed in the body of cannon fodder, he was scum cannon fodder. A member of the Wa sect, well known for qi deviations, and a thief and a liar besides? The cat in his carrying case must be the jade beast that Hu Baitian had been accused of stealing. Knowing that the cat couldn’t be returned and the offense materially set right made him feel even worse. The deviate qi in his other core began to stir.  

“You don’t have to go,” Yue Shipei said, finding his voice at last. “You and Lian Zhidiao need never interact.”  

Hu Baitian turned on Yue Shipei. “You want me to stay and work with the man who did all this to me and spit upon the shreds of what remaining dignity I have? You don’t care what he did to me because why should it affect you?”

Yue Shipei recoiled, as if he’d been slapped. 

Hu Baitian leveled his livid gaze on Yue Fengjian. “And you! How can I continue to learn any techniques from you? What must you think of me?”

Yue Fengjian shook his head. “I think you’re telling the truth.” 

“You can say that with certainty only because the Speakers proved it!” 

“You can think that.” Yue Fengjian at last shifted into a seated position again, putting his empty cup on the table. “But I would have known that you are an honest man just from seeing how you act. Subjecting yourself to a Living Inquiry is not his fault.” 

The Speakers. A Living Inquiry. An impartial enclave of the Yuan sect, the Speakers solved mysteries, usually murders, with information only the dead held. The recently deceased would be taken to an area of roaring earth and a secret technique used to interrogate the dead. As long as the spirit had not left this world, the dead could be made to answer questions. Or, if the body was still preserved, information could be directly obtained from the corpse. The entire set of processes was referred to as an Inquiry, regardless of which ones were used.

A Living Inquiry was simply one part of a standard Inquiry: obtaining information directly from the ‘corpse’, except in a Living Inquiry the ‘corpse’ was still alive. The subject was placed in a deep sleep by a specific preparation of herbs. Then a number of Speakers, chosen at random from their ranks, rifled through their memories. Like police going through CCTV tapes to see the facts of a crime, the Speakers exposed the experiences and emotions of the living subject. Every part of a person’s life, no matter how intimate, had to be examined. 

Hu Baitian had been that desperate to have his name cleared…

“Your mother!” Hu Baitian swore. “He took any choice I had away from me! How could I hold my head up if everyone thought I’d stolen that jade beast?” 

Lian Zhidiao winced at the curse, but his shame was so great he could not even raise his head to face Hu Baitian’s invective. How indeed, Lian Zhidiao thought, swallowing down the nausea that was rising in the back of his throat. I don’t blame you, Hu Baitian, not at all. I wouldn’t forgive me either. 

“Hu Baitian.” Despite a tightness around his mouth, Yue Fengjian’s voice was measured and calm, completely unfazed by Hu Baitian’s wrath. “When you begged to follow me and learn from me, you asked what was most important in fighting demons. And I told you that the demons will not hold back, so the most important thing was using any means necessary.” The air was heavy between them, seething with tension. “If the hand that is offered to save your life is dirty, you still take it. Even though he is a thief and a liar, he has a useful ability that no one else does, something I need. I—we—cannot afford to throw that aside.”

“And when he goes into qi deviation? When he renders the entire city unlivable and kills all the crops in the fields? Is he still useful to you then?” Hu Baitian scoffed, finally turning to look at Lian Zhidiao. “I don’t know where you picked up your tricks with the jade beasts, but given what happens with everything else you touch, it would be better if they stayed broken.” He gave Lian Zhidiao a look like hot acid, and then walked out of the room. 

Yue Shipei hesitated for a moment, looking at Yue Yaosa and then Yue Fengjian. After a heartbeat, he walked out after Hu Baitian, calling after him. 

Silence pressed down on them like lead. Lian Zhidiao hung his head, wishing he could sink into the floor. 

If this character was scum fodder, then there’s no chance of me surviving, is there? I won’t even get a heroic death. No wonder I didn’t remember his name—who remembers the name of a mob NPC? 

Liao Kuaiyu started to pluck triplets again, letting out an exaggerated sigh. 

“Don’t be flippant,” Yue Yaosa said, slapping his leg. 

“I’m not,” Liao Kuaiyu said. “But how do you move on from that?” 

“If he wants to go back home, let him,” Yue Fengjian said. “We can see him again in a few weeks when we go to Shengmen City. Maybe time will cool his head.” 

“I don’t think so,” Lian Zhidiao said in a small voice. “I didn’t remember doing that to him, but—” 

“There’s no point protesting like that,” Liao Kuaiyu said with a particularly vigorous strum. “He would only accept that if you underwent a Living Inquiry to prove it.” 

Me? A Living Inquiry? Lian Zhidiao could only imagine the modern world with cars and the internet and webnovels being revealed to the Speakers. Would they treat him as a madman? Lock him away? Kill him? There was no telling what might happen. He shook his head mutely. 

“I thought not.” Liao Kuaiyu began to pluck out a wistful melody. 

“This isn’t right,” Yue Yaosa said, shaking her head. Lian Zhidiao could see her going over it in her head, examining different parts of what had happened and not being satisfied by any of them. 

 Yue Fengjian filled his cup of wine again, seemingly unconcerned. 

“You don’t think that you’ve made a mistake?” Lian Zhidiao said softly. His heart twisted; he wanted to keep Yue Fengjian from making bad decisions. Without a Protagonist’s Halo, he would be completely exposed to grave harm in the event of Lian Zhidiao going into qi deviation. As if to emphasize, the deviate qi in the other core swirled slowly. “If I leave, then Hu Baitian will come back and it won’t be troublesome to you.” 

Yue Fengjian gave him a searching look, his eyes probing every part of Lian Zhidiao’s face. And then he shook his head.



Previous Chapter < Chapter 36: A Kiss He Assumed The Other Wouldn’t Notice
Next Chapter > Chapter 38: The City Of The Sacred Gate

Chapter 36: A Kiss He Assumed The Other Wouldn’t Notice

Most cultivation sects still emphasized seclusion as the path to immortality. In an ironic twist, Yue sect cultivators, who had the most suitable environment for this, were least able to make use of it. Isolated from humanity by mountains and hemmed in on two sides by demons, the ancient Yue sect had incorporated community protection and hard work as core precepts over going into seclusion for long periods of time. 

The effects were clear to see: though the Wa specialized in earth magic, the mountain-bound Yue were superior miners, masons, and plasterers. With spun fire, Yue cultivators lit and tended lime kilns, as the Lin sect did with pine to manufacture pitch in the south. Pitch, trees, quicklime, and building stones were moved back and forth along the Red Highway via Shengmen City. Though the demon attacks had occurred only two months ago, huge tree trunks from the South began to arrive only a month later on barges towed up the Sanma River. In return, the Yue sect sent teams of masons and plasterers to assist with the rebuilding of Sancha Town. As had happened many times before, the Yue-Lin alliance was strengthened by their mutual struggles along the Paling. 

When Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian defeated the qilin, the planting season had just begun; even with the Yue sect’s help, the villagers hadn’t been able to get the upland rice transplanted until two weeks into that critical window. Winter came early in the mountains. Every day mattered. 

Close to Xuefeng City, Yue Shipei let Lian Zhidiao off at the edge of a field which had lain fallow over winter. A group of men were working to repair an irrigation pump in the field just up the slope. The heavy stock had split, and a new one was ready to be put in place. But that wasn’t Lian Zhidiao’s work. He was hunting for a jade beast lost in the field. 

During his months at the Quanyuan, Lian Zhidiao had passed some of the time thinking about how to use his skills to find and cleanse jade beasts. After all, even with the qilin defeated, there might still be some good he could do for the Yue sect. That would give Yue Fengjian the breathing room he needed to unite the sects. And there was, he had to admit, a part of him that wanted Yue Fengjian to praise him for the effort he’d made. It was fine with him if the entire cultivation world focused on Leibi-jun and never looked at Lian Zhidiao, as long as Yue Fengjian would look at him approvingly. Somewhere along the way, his shrewd calculations to just play the part of a cannon fodder character in order to survive had become an actual commitment to Yue Fengjian as his leader for whom he would sacrifice almost anything. In other words, he stopped pretending to be cannon fodder and became…actual cannon fodder. Realizing this while Liao Kuaiyu was in seclusion had made Lian Zhidiao chuckle.

It wasn’t going to change any of the actions he was taking, of course. It was just funny. 

The voices of the men in the nearby field kept time as they pulled the old stock out of the irrigation wheel. Feeling fairly safe that no one was watching, Lian Zhidiao knelt in the rough-chopped field grass and dug his hands into the ground. 

It was Lian Zhidiao’s first time using earth-seeing in a ‘normal’ way. The earth here was a mix of deviate and correct qi, in healthy balance between chaos and order. So this is why the Wa guard earth-seeing as a precious technique. It provides so much information toward the mastery of the land that it seems essential. If he lingered underground, he could start to see evidence of the previous centuries of farming, extending down as far underground as a man was tall. With a simple glance, he could see which fields needed amending and which ones needed to rest for a season. 

More importantly, he could detect local concentrations of either deviate or correct qi. Eventually, he felt more than saw the presence of a jade beast in the field; it was like a cool shadow on the surface of the earth, where sunlight had not been encouraging growth. As he returned to himself, he couldn’t shake the lingering traces of deviate qi that clung to him, even though he was using the technique on land that was in-balance. 

Lian Zhidiao found the jade beast after clearing away straw that had been placed in the fields the previous year. It was a snake, which he might have assumed was living if it was not still as stone and the same color as the cows in both Sancha Town and Shuangwan Village. Lian Zhidiao laid on his belly facing the snake and gave it a breath of life, shattering the deviate scale and drawing the deviate qi into his other core. The other core roiled and then settled down. The cold, unsettled feeling, and mouth full of needles were the same as ever. Lian Zhidiao’s whole body sagged down into the grass. 

The jade snake lifted its head, its forked tongue flipping in and out of its mouth. 

“I imagine you keep the rats away,” Lian Zhidiao muttered, feeling the late summer sun beat down on his back. “Makes sense, even if you can’t eat them.” 

The snake’s tongue wagged in the air. Looking up at the edges of the field, Lian Zhidiao realized that the snake’s low profile likely kept it safe from demons who were looking to wreak havoc in the area. Can’t destroy it if they can’t find it, I guess? Smart.

“If you know what has to be done, then go do it,” Lian Zhidiao said to the snake, rolling over and waving it off into the rice field with a tired flap of his hand. “Everyone is depending on you.” 

The snake began to slither off toward the rice field, leaving Lian Zhidiao lying in the stubby grass. 

He didn’t start to move until he heard the men in the field next door begin to keep time again.


That voice… 


Yue Fengjian!

Excitement flooded through his body, Lian Zhidiao sat up. He rolled to his knees and tried to stand. It took him too much effort, but he stood up and dragged himself to the edge of the field to watch the men. 

The broken stock lay on the field border; the new stock was being lifted into place by five men stripped to the waist, their pants shortened up to keep the hems clean. Four of them were peasants. The fifth was Yue Fengjian. 

“Heave!” Yue Fengjian shouted. 

And with a great shout, the men lunged together, pushing the stock forward. 

“Heave!” Yue Fengjian shouted again. 


They strove with the stock on their shoulders, the sun shining down on them, burnishing their bare backs. Yue Fengjian was at the front of the stock, guiding the end of it into the hole at the center of the wheel. His hair was bound up, but the locks around his face were damp with sweat, clinging to his skin. Even with strength like his, the mighty stock, made out of the entire trunk of a tree, was difficult to fit to the collar. Yue Fengjian grit his teeth.



Then with a sudden, heavy thunk, the stock slammed home. “Hold!” Yue Fengjian yelled. Two more men ran up behind the lifting team and put a stand under the stock to hold it until the other end of the waterwheel could be rebuilt. 

“It’s supported!” 

One by one the lifting team moved out from under the stock, letting the stand take the weight. The last one from under the yoke was Yue Fengjian. 

In the modern world, with the hardest part of the work done, this would have been the time for self-congratulations. But Yue Fengjian jumped down from the platform into the field, looking at the stock even as the rest of the men began to fit the other half of the irrigation pump to the free end of the stock. The sound of wooden hammers and chisels trimming down the free end of the stock echoed out over the fields. 

Still feeling weak, Lian Zhidiao trudged up the slope, drawn by the prospect of seeing Yue Fengjian again. 

The men who had helped drive the stock were waiting their turn to drink from a bucket with a dipper, with all the older men going first. At his turn, Yue Fengjian drank deeply, unaware that one of the other men had spotted Lian Zhidiao, standing on the slope. Although his eyes were sharpened on the black robes, once Yue Fengjian was done, he offered the dipper. “Wa-gongzi! Drink!” 

Yue Fengjian’s head snapped back around in surprise. His eyes darted all over Lian Zhidiao, as if verifying each time that he was there in front of him.

Lian Zhidiao couldn’t hold back a smile of genuine delight at the sight of him and offered him a salute. “Leibi-jun, it’s good to see you again.” 

Something complex passed over Yue Fengjian’s face—frustration, perhaps—and then he stepped forward and took the dipper from the peasant man and drank again. Yue Fengjian then offered him the dipper, still mostly full. Only after Lian Zhidiao had the dipper in his hand did it occur to him that he would be drinking after Yue Fengjian. 

Instead of just letting it slide—the other workers had drunk from this dipper as well, after all—Lian Zhidiao hesitated for a heartbeat. His eyes met Yue Fengjian’s, finding a gaze that was steady, insistent. Cold well water filled his mouth, but it was like he’d forgotten how to swallow.

It’s kind of like… an indirect kiss. 

When he broke eye contact with Yue Fengjian, he gulped it all down, hoping it would drown the butterflies in his stomach. What was more inexplicable was that there were butterflies at all

He handled the ladle back to Yue Fengjian, who dropped it in the bucket.

“Walk with me,” Yue Fengjian said, and the two of them started down the border between the fields. Behind them, the workmen began to hammer wooden steps into holes drilled in the stock, the constant knocking reverberating across the fields. 

“I take it you’ve found the jade beast already?” 

Of course he knows why I’m here. He probably sent Yue Shipei to fetch me. “Yes,” Lian Zhidiao said. At the same time, the longer he looked at Yue Fengjian, the wider Lian Zhidiao could feel his smile getting, well beyond what was appropriate. In a bid to get control of the giddy excitement, Lian Zhidiao looked out at the horizon. 

“You work quickly.”

He didn’t want to say that he’d spent the downtime in the Quanyuan fine-tuning how to use his abilities, but he had put in the effort. “Working with normal earth is easy enough,” he said finally. “I had expected you might call for my aid sooner, but I am happy to help now.” 

Yue Fengjian absorbed this silently. They continued walking, putting distance between them and the irrigation wheel. Lian Zhidiao looked at him as they walked, realizing belatedly that he must have something he wanted to say that he didn’t want the other men to hear. 

“How has life been at the Quanyuan?”

“Quiet,” Lian Zhidiao answered. 

“I did not expect you to stay here so long,” Yue Fengjian said abruptly. 

“I knew you wanted to visit Shengmen City, which I also have a reason to visit.”

“You could have left and taken care of that business weeks ago.” 

“If I had been needed here and not been available, that might have been troublesome for you,” Lian Zhidiao said, looking up at Yue Fengjian’s profile. “I am not in a rush.”

Yue Fengjian nodded after taking in this information, and then looked back at the workmen who were getting on with their work. His voice was lowered. “As you’ve guessed, I will be leaving for Shengmen City in two weeks. Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei will be coming with me. You are welcome to accompany me, if you choose. Even if you don’t, I have something for you.” He had an uncomfortable look. “To thank you for your assistance with the qilin.” 

Ah. Had Lian Zhidiao’s use of his title made him feel self-conscious around the others? “You don’t have to give me anything.” 

“I want to reward you.” 

Lian Zhidiao shook his head again. “I really couldn’t accept anything.” 

After several minutes of quiet talking, Yue Fengjian’s (comparatively) soft expression finally became his usual frown. “Don’t you have any sense of propriety? I want to give you a token of thanks for your help. Accept it.”

Lian Zhidiao blinked, brought up short. So commanded, what could he do but accept it? He gave a timid nod. “When?” 

“Tonight,” Yue Fengjian said, turning to face him. “Come down to Xuefeng City and we can drink together and discuss plans to travel.” 

Lian Zhidiao froze, looking up at Yue Fengjian. Does he not remember what happened the last time we drank together?! 

His pulse was still elevated at the thought that he had shared a cup of water with Yue Fengjian. He now couldn’t deny there was a new tension created by their closeness in traveling together and fighting the qilin. If Lian Zhidiao had been hoping the time at the Quanyuan would make him forget some of the ease with which he’d accepted Yue Fengjian’s closeness before, he was only disappointed by the leap of his heart when laying eyes upon him again. 

Seeing you, for some reason, makes me really happy. 

Whatever the reason for his heart quickening when he saw Yue Fengjian, it wasn’t the result of a plot he’d contrived. It was something that happened here, in the world he’d made, as naturally as breathing.

“I’ll see you tonight, then,” he said, turning back to face Yue Fengjian. 

“Good,” Yue Fengjian said. “Hold still for a moment.” 

Lian Zhidiao swallowed as Yue Fengjian reached up, his presence like an unsheathed blade at Lian Zhidiao’s neck. Yue Fengjian gently pulled a few pieces of straw from where they were tangled in Lian Zhidiao’s hair. 

“There,” he said. 

A blush dusted Lian Zhidiao’s cheeks. “Until tonight,” he said, his voice squeaking out of his tight throat. Then without waiting for anything further, he turned on his heel and strode out of the fields without looking back. 

Lian Zhidiao had a brief moment of panic when he thought tonight’s discussion with Yue Fengjian might technically be a date, but Yue Shipei picking him up from the fields and accompanying him to the castle made it clear that it wasn’t. In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, slaying demons together or rescuing a girl from a demon might count as a date, but they did still only involve two people. Yet, in the castle hall, Yue Shipei and Hu Baitian were both present, as were Liao Kuaiyu and Yue Yaosa. It really was just a group discussion about a trip to Shengmen City. 

The servants in the Yue ancestral home were prompt in anticipating their masters’ needs, so that after dinner, there was already wine warmed and waiting for them. The windows of the hall were opened, with screens placed to allow the cool night breeze to move through the room. Liao Kuaiyu had brought a ruan and began to play without a pick. At times, Yue Yaosa would sing, or accompany him on a flute. 

Yue Fengjian’s room was just upstairs from the hall, and Lian Zhidiao could hear Liao Kuaiyu’s soft strumming floating through the evening air as he waited to see what it was that Yue Fengjian wanted to give him. Yue Fengjian approached him with something offered on both palms: a solid jade bangle. 

It reminded Lian Zhidiao of the kind of thing his mother would wear, or a gift his sister had received from an auntie once she went to college. That’s not to say it was bad—the jade was of fine quality, translucent green without being overly figured. Clouds were lightly engraved all over it; set into one side was a tiny gold medallion with an engraving of the Yue family crest. 

Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian, questions written on his face. 

“There’s more inside,” Yue Fengjian said.

Inside? Lian Zhidiao was puzzled as to where ‘inside’ was, when he remembered vaguely that Liao Kuaiyu had mentioned something about storing an array in a ring. 

It’s jade, so this might be a spiritual tool?  

Tentatively, he fed a thread of qi into it, sliding his fingers around the outside. To his astonishment, the ring grew in his hands until it was about as wide across as a dinner plate. When he passed his hand in through one side, his arm went through like normal. But if he put his hand in from the other side… his hand disappeared!

“Go ahead,” Yue Fengjian urged him. 

Swallowing down the wrongness of seeing his hand disappearing into the jade ring, he felt around inside the ring, and his fingers caught on something soft. Gingerly, he pulled it up out of the ring, and was surprised to see black fabric. 

“They’re not like the ones you’re used to, probably,” Yue Fengjian said, suddenly sheepish. “But I hope you can appreciate them.” 

The silk shone in the lantern light as he pulled it out. Lian Zhidiao stared; he’d never seen something so finely made in his life. It was a set of robes, dyed in black, with a subtle motif of creeping vines woven into the fabric. They were trimmed in green with tone-on-tone embroidery of plum blossoms among more vines. 

Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian, who was still looking at him with a hint of trepidation. On one hand, Lian Zhidiao felt ashamed that the threadbare nature of his robes had been so unsightly that even Yue Fengjian had felt the need to address the situation. After all, Lady Gao had been the one to make him feel inadequate about his social standing in the first place. But on the other hand, now he wouldn’t look out of place next to Yue Fengjian. And since the robes that made him look like he belonged came from Yue Fengjian himself, he must want Lian Zhidiao to be close to him.  

“If you’d like to come to Shengmen City,” Yue Fengjian said, “The storage ring will be useful while traveling.”

“I’m sure it will,” Lian Zhidiao replied. His cheeks warmed again. Lady Gao may have made her feelings about his station crystal clear, but so too had Yue Fengjian. “Thank you.” 

With this gift, it seemed that he had finally become a fully-fledged member of the protagonist’s party. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 35: Great Jade Beast Danxiong, The Red Bear
Next Chapter > Chapter 37: The Kind Of Writing That Brings Them Back Again and Again

Chapter 35: Great Jade Beast Danxiong, The Red Bear

Everyday Lian Zhidiao heard that repairs were proceeding in the mountains, but only some of the junior disciples were allowed out at a time to help with the work necessary to rebuild the pillaged settlements. The rest worked fields and orchards when they could, under the tutelage of a few Masters that had come out of seclusion. The first few days, Lian Zhidiao lingered around the front gate, hoping that Yue Fengjian would come back. But two days passed, and then six days. He did not come flying over the walls. The gate remained closed. 

It was not like Lian Zhidiao had nothing to do. He learned that although Liao Kuaiyu had given off the impression of a laid-back guy with tons of flash and firepower, his personality was more like that of a dependable elder brother. The novitiates, the students who had yet to form a golden core, were fewer in number than Lian Zhidiao expected for a sect with such well-known demon-hunting capabilities. Among their ranks were many orphans and impoverished children who had been given a home at the sect because of their spiritual potential. Every member of the Yue sect started here, with no valor to their name, and had to work hard to advance to the next levels. 

But even to the unproven novitiates, Liao Kuaiyu was firm and kind. He encouraged all the outer disciples to follow his lead. Although Yue Fengjian, Yue Shipei and Yue Yaosa were all inner disciples, their relationship to the outer disciples was one of authority and semi-distant responsibility. Only Liao Kuaiyu worried after them as he would brothers or sisters. 

Living with Liao Kuaiyu fell into a predictable sort of rhythm. Lian Zhidiao was largely left to his own devices, though he couldn’t shake a feeling of being watched—no, inspected. He expected to be called to speak with a Master at any time, but the days slipped by and he was never summoned. Perhaps due to the constant feeling of having his behavior scrutinized for misdeeds, he felt a sense of belonging to the Wa sect, even though he had not met any of his sect brothers or sisters. As the first Wa sect member many of the Yue sect juniors had spent any time with, he used his time wisely to dismantle some of their preconceived notions. He could not help but want the Wa sect to be viewed favorably by the Yue. After all, Yue Fengjian was going to be Emperor some day, as well as lead the Yue sect. When that happened, these juniors would have to comport themselves with dignity. 

In the end, Lian Zhidiao found himself connecting with them in an unlikely way for a Wa magician: fire. The juniors who had already formed golden cores were deciding whether or not to become magicians, to learn the ways that qi could be bent into the shape of the five elements. Unlike fire, earth was a very passive element. Most of the Wa sect’s techniques and spells were based around correctly using the earth around them. But there were a few spells that had immediate, observable effects. One of them was bogflame. 

Lian Zhidiao demonstrated bogflame for the juniors at night. He had Liao Kuaiyu make a small fireball as an example of the Yue sect’s approach to fire. Liao Kuaiyu did so, and then tossed the fireball away, reminding Lian Zhidiao of a certain plumber from another world. Then Lian Zhidiao fed qi out through his spindle and let his mind call up a mud puddle hissing with gas. His breath made the same sound through his teeth as he pushed the qi through the jade spindleweight. Above the jade, a pale, sickly fireball emerged. 

“That’s not as good as Senior Liao’s!” someone whispered before being quickly hushed. 

“The appeal of the spell bogflame,” Lian Zhidiao murmured, “is precisely that it looks nothing like anything you have seen.” He moved the bogflame around, its weak light barely scattering the darkness. Like moths, the eyes of the juniors were drawn to the strange fire, even after Lian Zhidiao threw it up into the air. It drifted through the night; a wan, watery moon drenched in an oil slick, many-colored. Only when it landed on the earth and vanished was the spell broken. All at once, they seemed to realize how spellbound they had been. Then, they began clamoring for him to teach them, only leaving him be when he said that they would learn the spell if they spent time with the Wa sect. 

The last of Lian Zhidiao’s possessions arrived not a week after he did: the wooden box with the broken jade cat. It seemed to have survived the overland journey fairly well, but then again, it had already been broken. His situation couldn’t have gotten worse even if it had broken more. He had hoped that Yue Fengjian would bring it up to the Quanyuan himself, but it was delivered by an anonymous porter along with a supply of ink sticks, incense, and specially-made paper from the Lin sect. 

After fifteen days passed with no word from Yue Fengjian, Liao Kuaiyu went into seclusion for several weeks. It was to be expected, given how much qi he had used when casting high-power spells like the inferno at Sancha Town. But this left Lian Zhidiao looking for something to do. In the end, he began to cultivate as well. As cannon fodder, the idea of chasing immortality by filling his golden core seemed silly at first. But as a sign that he was cultivating correctly, the sluggish turmoil in his other core slowly died down after two weeks of quiet reflection. 

While Liao Kuaiyu was in seclusion, Lian Zhidiao had the run of their little house, so he brought the wooden box out onto the stone outcrop and opened it in the sunlight. The little cat and its head were still wedged among the brocade cushions that lined the box. He pulled it out and set the two pieces down in front of him. The cat’s legs were half-outstretched, as though it had reached out to claw something. Its tail was tucked up tight between its legs. On the head, its ears were flattened back against the skull, the mouth slightly open with teeth bared. It looked like it had been broken in the middle of a violent fight for survival. 

Assembling the little cat in front of him as it would have looked before it was broken, he noticed something he hadn’t before. There was a distinct chip taken out of one side of its neck. Lian Zhidiao rubbed his thumb over the parts that were missing.This must be how it was broken. Something hit it. Jade was durable, but it wasn’t impossible to break. With a spiritual weapon, it might even be easy to break a jade beast, blowing it apart from the inside with a maelstrom of qi. 

As was the case with bruises, all the purple and green marks on his body had faded away without Lian Zhidiao realizing the last time he’d seen them. The cuts on his arms—all of them on the outside, from an attacker who had been bearing down upon him—were newly-red, barely closed. 

He smoothed his fingers over the jade cat’s half-closed eyes. 

Were you broken at the same time the old Lian Zhidiao was injured? Did you break so that he could live? Poor thing. Your sacrifice was in vain.

Looking inside the box under the bright mountain sunshine, he saw that there was a slip of printed brown paper glued to the inside. Turning the box on its side, something shiny caught the light: a name, written in gold ink.  

His Imperial Majesty, Shanyin, Favored of Heaven, may he live ten thousand years, presented this Jade Beast to Jiang Wuliu, for his faithful support following the War of Five Ways. 

Jiang Wuliu? Lian Zhidiao frowned. The Jiang family had been listed in the System’s summary of the Wa sect, but he was very sure it had been listed as ‘extinct’. It was hard to imagine any meaning for ‘extinct’ other than the obvious one: the Jiang family had been exterminated, root and branch. But why? And how did Lian Zhidiao come to have the jade cat if it had belonged to the Jiang family? 

Wishing that the cat could tell him everything that it knew, Lian Zhidiao picked up the cat’s head and put it to his mouth. He blew qi into the cat’s nose, his attention directed inside it. But the qi was gone as soon as it left his lips. It was as if he had been breathing out into the air. 

I guess there’s no coming back from something like this, even if it wasn’t really alive to begin with. 

He carefully put the jade cat back in the box and stowed it away under his bed. 

In the blink of an eye, two months passed. The pleasant warmth of the cusp of spring became the sweltering heat of late summer. Even the Quanyuan wasn’t immune. The heat wasn’t as heavy as in the valleys, but the sunshine at altitude was keen, its glare cutting through the pines. More than once the juniors begged seniors with knowledge of water spinning to relieve them all from the heat. (All their efforts were rebuffed, and they were chastised for plotting to use their golden core so thoughtlessly.) The frigid water from the spring was used to chill melons and cucumbers. Lian Zhidiao began to look forward to eating a chilled snack to make it through the late afternoon. 

It was at the end of the second month that finally, someone came to fetch them. 

The library of the Quanyuan had both bamboo and paper books as well as scrolls written by a variety of scribes. Most of them were catalogs of demons and histories of their interactions with the Yue sect. Every one of them ended with the death of at least one demon. Initially, Lian Zhidiao had taken to reading whichever one caught his eye when he looked at the shelves. But in the last two weeks he thought he might begin looking for the demon that Qianjiao mentioned: Shen Qingyu. 

He was doing just that when Yue Shipei and Liao Kuaiyu walked into the library, talking animatedly. Yue Shipei’s smile faded slightly when he saw Lian Zhidiao. 

“Yue Shipei!” Lian Zhidiao stood up and offered him a salute. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes looked past the two of them, as if wanting to see someone else who would be arriving, but there was no one else.

Yue Shipei returned it with only a hint of the smile he’d had before. “I see Liao Kuaiyu was correct in his assumptions. You were in the library.” 

“I told you he’s been studying up.” Liao Kuaiyu grinned and stepped over to Lian Zhidiao’s side and urging him closer. “We’ll have to train him in proper demon-hunting.” 

“A demon-hunter without a weapon is useless,” Yue Shipei replied.

“He’s got magic,” Liao Kuaiyu countered, his cheeks puffed out. 

“Even you bring your sword when you know demons will be about,” Yue Shipei replied. “But to that end, we need to put that jade tool in Danxiong’s care. It should have been done before now, but the rebuilding…” He shook his head, clearing away the excuses that were clinging to his words like cobwebs on a broom. “There just hasn’t been time.” 

“Have you been busy?” 

“This is the first moment I’ve had to myself since the two of you left,” Yue Shipei groused. 

Liao Kuaiyu grinned. “Back to his usual habits, huh?” With a motion of his hand, he beckoned both Lian Zhidiao and Yue Shipei to follow him. 

Lian Zhidiao looked back and forth between them. “What do you mean?” 

Shixiong is the kind of person who is the first to get to work, and last to stop.” Liao Kuaiyu said. “It’s usually not bad, but if there’s real work that needs to get done, like with rebuilding villages—” 

“He overworks everyone, and himself most of all.” 

“Hu Baitian likes it, though.” 

Yue Shipei’s expression softened almost imperceptibly. “He can be convinced to sit down and have a meal, at least.” 

“What? Yue Fengjian is not eating?” Lian Zhidiao couldn’t keep a note of alarm out of his voice. 

“He eats plenty when he works,” Liao Kuaiyu interjected. “But it’s all glutinous rice and sausage—something he can have out in the forest or fields without taking time for a proper meal.” 

Yue Shipei nodded, confirming Liao Kuaiyu’s words with obvious consternation.

Lian Zhidiao imagined what would happen if he’d subsisted entirely on glutinous rice and sausage for two months while doing almost nothing up at the Quanyuan. He’d have attained a rounder shape, for sure. 

“Were you able to spend much time in seclusion?” Yue Shipei looked over at Liao Kuaiyu. 

“Some. I’m not any further along than I was before we began traveling.” 

Meimei said that her sword has been too light lately, and that you should hurry up.” 

“She should also spend some time in seclusion, instead of just depending on me to do all the fighting,” Liao Kuaiyu retorted, but he had a look on his face that said he was secretly pleased. 

Yue Shipei seemed eager to return to work (despite his complaint that he had gotten no rest in days) and urged them to hurry. Lian Zhidiao fetched the jade lotus bud, still totally black, and met the other two in front of the main gate. 

Without Yue Yaosa to fly with, Liao Kuaiyu had to use his own spiritual weapon for flight: an elegant, slender jian with gilded dragon fittings, cloud-figured red jade set into the guard, and a brilliant red tassel. It was the kind of sword expected in the hand of a high-ranking nobleman or a prince. But as Liao Kuaiyu unsheathed it for flight, the name, etched in the blade, caught Lian Zhidiao’s eye: Pig-killing knife

Lian Zhidiao also took a second look at Yue Shipei’s sword; also a jian, it was well-appointed, Silver blossoms and acanthus leaves curled around the jade-inlaid pommel and guard, and the name of the sword was etched in platinum in the steel blade: Peach Wind Storm. As much a piece of art as a weapon, it was at home in the hands of a son of the local ruling family.

Yue Shipei cast a glance at Lian Zhidiao and then gestured to his sword. “I will carry you down the mountain.” 

Lian Zhidiao had half expected that Yue Shipei would offer a hand to help him up, the same way Yue Fengjian did. But after a moment, when no hand was offered, he took the initiative and hopped up onto the blade, fixing his feet to it with qi. Yue Shipei’s arm didn’t settle around his waist as Yue Fengjian’s arm had. There was less of a feeling of security as they flew; Lian Zhidiao felt like this was probably closer to what flying on his own sword would feel like, when he finally got one. Somehow, the thought wasn’t something he looked forward to all that much. 

Liao Kuaiyu zipped ahead of them, floating down the mountain with ease, despite not using his own sword for much of his travel. Lian Zhidiao’s eyes followed him as he swooped down toward the city and then banked hard right, flying low over the fields. For anyone else, pig-killing knife might have been easy to view as a kind of educated man’s joke: anyone could see that such a beautiful sword would not be used for anything so common. But the comment Liao Kuaiyu had made about vassal families weeks ago pushed to the front of his mind. Liao Kuaiyu had received a sword fit for a prince, but it had a name like such a common thing. 

Yue Shipei and Lian Zhidiao circled the city once before coming in close and landing at the large circular building at the center of the city. Just as it had been in Fenfang, the building that housed the Great Jade Beast Danxiong was circular and high-roofed. Yue Shipei dismounted at the same time that Lian Zhidiao hopped off, and led the way around the side of the building to an entrance that wasn’t meant for the general public. 

They entered the large arena from a private door, and Lian Zhidiao’s very heartbeat hushed at the sight of Danxiong. A hulking bear entirely of red jade, shot through with white veins that seemed to highlight his beautifully carved fur, Danxiong’s size rivaled Qinghu’s. His back was high, shaped like the mountains around Xuefeng City. His claws were long, sickle-shaped and sickle-sized.   

“Over here,” Yue Shipei said. 

Lian Zhidiao had to close his mouth a little, and kept up with Yue Shipei as they walked to meet one of Danxiong’s attendants. Danxiong himself lumbered over, watching over the exchange between them. The jade tool was accepted (with a sober look at Lian Zhidiao, who bowed deeply and thanked them for looking after it.) The attendant placed it in a small crypt in the floor of Danxiong’s palace, to receive the constant roaring earth effect that the Great Jade Beasts generated. Over time, it would wash the deviate qi away from the tool, leaving it clear and ready to cleanse deviation again. 

With one final bow to the attendant and Danxiong, Lian Zhidiao turned to leave, but not before hearing the clack-scratch of claws on the stone floor. Turning, he was nearly knocked flat by Danxiong’s muzzle, and caught himself on the great bear’s nose. 

Without meaning to, he looked into Danxiong’s meridians. Fractal patterns, rivers into rivers of qi going in as deep as he wanted to look, but shaped differently, moving differently. They were of-a-kind with Qinghu, but not the same. Danxiong moaned, sounding more like a baby bear than an adult, and pressed his nose against Lian Zhidiao for a moment. 

“What are you doing?” Yue Shipei’s voice was deadly quiet. 

Lian Zhidiao returned his attention to the outside world and rubbed Danxiong’s muzzle soothingly. “He’s the one that’s doing it, not me.”

Yue Shipei watched for a moment longer, observing that Danxiong panted and moaned again, like a cub calling for his mother. Then Yue Shipei reached out and pulled on Lian Zhidiao’s sleeve, drawing him away. “Come. We still have things to do.” 

Danxiong sat down and continued to watch even as the door closed between them. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 34: Sun-dappled Parting On Stone Steps
Next Chapter > Chapter 36: A Kiss He Assumed The Other Wouldn’t Notice

Chapter 34: Sun-dappled Parting On Stone Steps

The Xiongji Mountains dominated the western half of human-controlled lands. Their southernmost reaches were awash in the Choking Wood, the primeval forest which neither human nor demon could master. Moving north, the mountains thickened into rugged high steppes, with still higher mountains to the west, forming the most impenetrable section of the barrier between human and demon lands. In the northern part of the mountains, they split into two major ranges.

The Sanma River followed the western range north while the Cangta River followed the main mountain range northeast, and they flowed together at the foot of Xuefeng Mountain. Surrounded on all sides by the very heart of the mountains, the founder of the Yue sect had stumbled upon a spring that flowed with crystal clear water, even in winter. The academy for the sect he founded would be called the Quanyuan: the Springhead. 

Yue Fengjian’s arm was warm around Lian Zhidiao’s waist. Lian Zhidiao had grown used to that comforting weight as they flew up the mountainside, trusting Yue Fengjian’s strength to hold him on the sword as securely as his own use of qi. He shouted over the wind. “Are we almost there?” 

“To the gate, yes.” Yue Fengjian said, leaning close enough to Lian Zhidiao’s ear that he didn’t have to raise his voice. 

A shiver raced down Lian Zhidiao’s spine, but he pushed it away, focusing on the land below them. A large, red-roofed gate stood at the edge of a meadow, guarding a courtyard paved with black granite. Yue Fengjian let him off at the stone landing just in front of the gate. Two carved stone bears taller than Lian Zhidiao flanked broad, level steps that sparkled in the dappled sunlight near the treeline. 

Ah, the long set of stairs up to the martial arts academy. I included these in the story because everyone else did, but… Lian Zhidiao looked up with dismay at the stairway vanishing into the dim light of the forest. Maybe it would have been better to just make it like any other martial arts school that can be reached by public transit. 

“Do I want to ask how many steps there are?” 

“3,688,” Yue Fengjian replied, stepping off his sword. Wallbreaker sheathed itself in his hand. 

The steep stairs almost seemed to go straight up, dipping in and out between the trees. “I have to climb these?”

Yue Fengjian looked up at the mountain with no small amount of pride. “Everyone does.” Yue Fengjian’s eyes dropped down to the spindleweight, and then darted back up to Lian Zhidiao’s face. “At least, the first time they visit the Quanyuan.” 

“It seems calculated to be more difficult on someone who lives close to the sea,” Lian Zhidiao grumbled, tying his bag around his shoulders and taking the first step. Each one was taller than he expected, more like an actual mountain climb than any set of stairs he’d ever encountered.

Yue Fengjian began to climb with him. 

Lian Zhidiao glanced at Yue Fengjian. “Aren’t you going back home?” 

“Yes. I will be assisting with the rebuilding effort. The outer disciples can render aid once we have a plan.” 

“I see,” Lian Zhidiao said, running a few steps up in a burst of speed before looking back down at Yue Fengjian. The higher angle hid some of the strength of his features, making him seem more beautiful than handsome. 

He looks so elegant. It’s no wonder he stole the heart of every Beauty. 

Yue Fengjian also stopped, meeting Lian Zhidiao’s gaze. He arched an eyebrow but kept steadily walking up, drawing level with Lian Zhidiao in only a few strides. His body heat warmed the thin mountain air, and he was close enough now that Lian Zhidiao could feel it. 

Lian Zhidiao abruptly turned on his heel and began climbing up the stairs again. His heart was beating faster than he expected. The effect of exercising at high altitude, he supposed. He kept his eyes on the stairs in front of him. “Were you the kind of student who would race other students up the steps?” 

“No,” Yue Fengjian said, keeping in step with him. “Are you challenging me to a race?” 

“No,” Lian Zhidiao answered back. “I feel certain you would win, and it’s not fun going into a game you have no chance of winning.” 


“If there’s even a little chance to win, that makes it more fun.” 

“When we were little, Liao Kuaiyu used to race up the steps.” 

“But not with you?” 

“No.” After a moment, Yue Fengjian spoke again. “He would challenge Yue Yaosa, and run circles around her up and down the stairs if she wouldn’t agree to the race.” 

“And if she accepted?” 

“The older she got, the more she won.” Yue Fengjian sounded pleased. 

Spinning qi into magic drains the golden core. Liao Kuaiyu would have probably gotten tired more easily if he was doing a lot of training. “Did that cause bad feelings between them?” 

“They became a team because of it.” Yue Fengjian skipped a few steps up past Lian Zhidiao. He stopped on a stone landing and looked down on him. 

Lian Zhidiao stopped a few steps below him. From this angle, his elegance receded, and only his strength was visible. Like an emperor looking down from his palace. I guess if I manage to live through this story, I’ll only see him from this angle after he takes the throne.  “I thought you weren’t the kind to race up stairs?” 

Yue Fengjian hesitated for a heartbeat before answering. “I’m not.” Then he unsheathed Wallbreaker and dropped it in readiness for flight. “Liao Kuaiyu still lives at the Quanyuan. He can help you get settled in.” 

Lian Zhidiao nodded. Watching Yue Fengjian step onto his sword, it dawned on him that this would be the first time since he’d walked into the inn in Shuangwan Village that he would be separated from Yue Fengjian for more than a night. In fact, since cleansing Sancha Town, they had not been separated at all. I’m supposed to stay close to him, either to fulfill my role as cannon fodder, or to hide in his shadow and hope I survive. It would be fine to stay at the Quanyuan, probably. Even though some events were different from the story of Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, nothing too unexpected had happened yet. 

With his signature scowl in place, Yue Fengjian looked him over, as if he was going to ask if the stairs would be too taxing for him, and then thought better of it. A gentle breeze picked up, tossing the leaves above and scattering sunlight over them. Lian Zhidiao held his breath, watching the gold in Yue Fengjian’s hair glitter, and the shine of light playing in his ponytail. 

A protagonist really is beloved by the world itself. 

Lian Zhidiao opened his mouth and then closed it as Yue Fengjian flitted through the gate.  He couldn’t shake a wistful feeling that lingered even as Yue Fengjian shrank from view in the bright blue sky. 

I wonder when I’ll see him again…

The breeze died down, and Lian Zhidiao turned and looked up at the stairs. With a small sigh, he started to climb. The walk was pretty enough, laddering up the hillside with switchbacks that occasionally showed glimpses of the picturesque vistas beyond the trees. Almost an hour later, gasping for air, he emerged from the trees into a large clearing. An imposing rock wall cut across it, with demon-repelling arrays cut into it. In the center of the clearing was another red gate, with heavy-looking timber doors that were firmly shut. A bronze plaque on the wall proclaimed that this was the Xinxue Yue sect. 

“Lian Zhidiao!”

Lian Zhidiao shaded his eyes to see Liao Kuaiyu giving him a lazy wave from a lounging position atop the roof. 

“Mmm? Shixiong didn’t come with you?” 

Lian Zhidiao shook his head. 

“Oh…” Disappointment was plain on Liao Kuaiyu’s face. He got to his feet and then looked down inside the walls of the school to motion someone over., before he jumping down outside with Lian Zhidiao. He lowered his voice so it wouldn’t carry. “You’re not the only one she acts like that with,” he said. “Don’t take it personally.”  


“Lady Gao, of course.” Liao Kuaiyu gave him a sympathetic smile. “There’s benefits to being a Sect Leader’s son, but there are also… drawbacks.” He patted Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder comfortingly. “Vassal families are all the same as far as she’s concerned. Don’t listen to her criticism.” 

A small frown appeared on Lian Zhidiao’s face. It was true that Lady Gao had made her feelings on his presence clear—after all, he’d been pushed out to the Quanyuan rather than stay under her roof. But she hadn’t been rude to him. The very bare minimum of civil, but not rude. Whatever terrible things she’d said to Liao Kuaiyu, she certainly hadn’t said to Lian Zhidiao. He watched Liao Kuaiyu knock on the gate and listen for the lock to be lifted. 

“Open up! It’s cold out here!” 

At least I am from another sect and might never have to see her again. Liao Kuaiyu has likely had to endure her multiple times. Lian Zhidiao pursed his lips and stepped forward next to him at the gate. 

The voice of a boy rose in the air. “Senior Liao, who is it?” 

A girl’s voice chimed in. “Song Zhu, get out of the way and let them come in!” 

The heavy gate creaked open wide enough for them to pass, and Liao Kuaiyu flashed Lian Zhidiao a grin. “Welcome to the Xinxue Yue sect, Lian Zhidiao.” 

Two boys and a girl took in Lian Zhidiao’s appearance as he stepped over the threshold, and all fell silent. In his black robes, it was obvious which sect he was from, and his somber mien only made him look more severe. The boys looked at Liao Kuaiyu, their apprehension plain on their faces. The girl’s eyes were as wide as saucers. 

Liao Kuaiyu folded his arms over his chest and looked at the junior disciples. “This is Senior Lian. He’ll be staying with us for a bit.” 

The younger boy appraised Lian Zhidiao with a skeptical eye. “Is he here to learn magic?”

“Watch your tone,” Liao Kuaiyu warned him. “Senior Lian is here as Young Lord Yue Fengjian’s guest.” 

The girl’s mouth fell open. The older boy elbowed the younger one in the side, giving him a dirty look, and then took control of the group, giving Lian Zhidiao a salute. “This student’s name is Song Yang.” 

The younger boy recovered quickly and followed suit. “This student’s name is Song Zhu.” 

“This student’s name is Wu Que,” the girl piped up. 

Liao Kuaiyu nodded approvingly and cast his eyes over the three of them. “Did you prepare his bed?” 

“Yes, Senior Liao.” Song Zhu had a ready answer and a determined glint in his eye, which he turned on Lian Zhidiao. “Did you really see Senior Yue kill the qilin?” Song Zhu asked. 

Lian Zhidiao blinked and then glanced at Liao Kuaiyu. Liao Kuaiyu’s smile began to fade, and then Lian Zhidiao turned his attention back to the juniors. “If a public declaration hasn’t been made yet, I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.” 

“Aw!” Song Zhu had clearly been hoping to drink the cleanest water right from the source. 

“Perhaps later I can tell you more about it, but Sect Leader Yue should be allowed to speak on such matters first, shouldn’t he?

“Alright, alright,” Liao Kuaiyu said, shooing the juniors away before they could pry further into Lian Zhidiao’s reasoning. “You can talk to him more tomorrow.” The juniors began to move away, still talking excitedly, when Liao Kuaiyu hushed them into silence. They bobbed away through the courtyard like birds.

Liao Kuaiyu looked at his belongings. “Is this all you brought with you?” 


Liao Kuaiyu gave a satisfied nod and started to lead the way down one of the paths. “Hope you don’t mind sleeping in my room with me.” 

“Were there no other rooms available?” 

“Hey!” Liao Kuaiyu frowned. 

“I’m kidding.” 

“It’s okay. If I’m being honest,” Liao Kuaiyu lowered his voice conspiratorially, “it was part of the conditions for keeping you up here.” 

“I see.” 

“But even given your talents, once they knew you’d be sleeping near a magician twice as strong as you are, well,” he gestured with his hand as if the conclusion was plain to see. 

“I’m thankful for your intervention.” 

“The sarcasm is appreciated,” Liao Kuaiyu replied. 

“No, I really am,” Lian Zhidiao insisted, his expression softening with sincerity. “If that made it possible for me to stay at the Quanyuan, then I’m grateful to you.” 

Liao Kuaiyu stopped in his tracks and stared at Lian Zhidiao for the space of two heartbeats. Then, with a sympathetic face, he shook his head and urged him to keep walking. 


“Don’t worry about it.” Liao Kuaiyu said. 

The grounds of the Quanyuan were quiet and austere. Walkways paved with black granite wove in and out of the gnarled pines and granite outcrops, with small snow piles here and there. Most of the buildings were small and scattered around the peak to better facilitate isolation and a distraction-free environment. The outer disciples lived together in dormitories, but the inner disciples—the seniors—were afforded small cottages. 

Liao Kuaiyu’s cottage was on the south side of the mountain, tucked in a wind-blasted space above a stone outcrop. Despite being surrounded by wilderness, the area looked well-manicured. The pines were flush with tender needles, but clustered tightly around the cottage to protect it from the elements. Hardly anything grew in the crevices of the rocks on the outcrop. The cottage itself was built from stones, the cracks between them sealed up with wool and mud to make it cozy.  Looking around, Lian Zhidiao felt sure that whoever had built Yue Danquan’s reclusive hut had given design input on this one. Although small, it had two rooms. The bedroom with (thankfully) two beds, and the front hall, with the half-outdoor kitchen to the side. Liao Kuaiyu clearly lived here alone: papers covered in half-sketched designs and notes were strewn over the floor, seemingly picked up and set aside in distraction. 

What a mess. He really fits the wizard archetype to a tee

Liao Kuaiyu gestured to one bed. “Might be a little hard, but it should be okay for now.” 

Lian Zhidiao put his bundle down on the bed and looked around. It was cramped, a bit like a monk’s cell, but given the Yue sect’s emphasis on service and hard work, an ascetic lifestyle was probably normal for disciples.  

Liao Kuaiyu walked back into the main room, his feet scuffing the floor. “We’re in mourning for the disciples we lost two days ago, so I’m afraid you probably won’t be able to meet any of the masters for a while.” 

“I doubt they’d want to meet me anyway,” Lian Zhidiao mused. 

“Don’t be too sure. They’re very interested in what happened with the qilin,” Liao Kuaiyu said. “And speaking of that…” His voice lifted up leadingly, inviting Lian Zhidiao to speak.

Lian Zhidiao let out a sigh. “What do you know?” 

“Only what I was able to get out of Yaosa, which is what she was able to get out of Yue Shipei.” 

“And that is?” 

Liao Kuaiyu unfolded his fingers in two counts. “The qilin wasn’t killed, and it won’t trouble the western mountains any more.” He rubbed his neck self-consciously. “It sounds like the kinda thing that an older brother tells a kid when they don’t want them to know their dog has died.” 

“Too nice a thing to happen?” 

“Mm,” Liao Kuaiyu grunted. “That’s it.” 

“I see.” Lian Zhidiao let out his breath in a huff. “Well, it’s true, in essence,” he said. “It had entered qi deviation.” Liao Kuaiyu looked up with shock at those words. “We had a jade tool given to us by Yue Danquan. We were able to heal it instead of kill it.” 

“Heal it?” Liao Kuaiyu frowned. “Had you spent enough time with the Yuan sect to learn their healing arts?” 

“No, I only did the bare minimum of study in metal,” Lian Zhidiao said. “But, fortunately, it turns out that a qilin is not too different from a jade beast.” 

“Oh.” Liao Kuaiyu walked to a deep bucket standing against the wall and used a dipper to fill a pot with water. “And you know how to cleanse those.” 

“Mm,” Lian Zhidiao said. “Yue Fengjian forced it to the ground and gave me an opening to try. We worked together.” 

Liao Kuaiyu chuckled, shaking his head. “It really was lucky for us to run into you in that Lin sect village. If Hu Baitian had found his elder brother’s whereabouts the first week we were out, we might never have met you.” 

As a writer who had never made any attempts to fill in the reasons behind why Supreme Warlord of the Beast World began the way it did, this was new information to Lian Zhidiao. “Was that what you all were doing in Lin sect lands?” 

“Mm,” Liao Kuaiyu said. “Yue Fengjian had agreed to take him on as a student in demon-hunting a couple years back, so he could take some useful experience back to the Yuan sect.” He took the pot outside and put it atop a small oven, sheltered from the wind by a wall. Shoving the kindling into the firebox, he kept talking. “Hu Baitian kept in regular contact with his elder brother until his letters just stopped coming. But he’d heard something in a letter from his brother about demons, so he asked us all to help look.” 

Liao Kuaiyu walked back into the hut and opened a cabinet, taking down a wooden box of tea and two porcelain cups. “Ah, but you already know how dutiful he is, since you knew him while he was at the Wa sect.” Then Liao Kuaiyu froze in his movements, as if he’d spoken of something that was not to be discussed aloud. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I talk too much.” 

What? What happened at the Wa sect? 

“It’s fine,” Lian Zhidiao finally managed. “That’s all in the past.” 

Liao Kuaiyu slowly put tea leaves into the cups. Then, with an uncomfortable chuckle, he put the box away and changed the subject. 

Previous Chapter < Chapter 33: A Mother’s Love
Next Chapter > Chapter 35: Great Jade Beast Danxiong, The Red Bear

Chapter 33: A Mother’s Love

The Lower Pavilion was in a courtyard dominated by a single tulip tree, artfully hidden within the bounds of the castle itself. The pavilion itself was large, bounded with silk screens and curtains that kept flies and other noisome insects from disturbing the occupants. The columns were painted red, the eaves decorated in other lively colors. The gardens around it were planted with pinks and blue-purple bells—unlike Lin Jingjing’s garden of gingers, not every available space in the Yue sect castle doubled as a place to grow food. 

Yue Fengjian walked through the garden slowly, not slow enough to be look reluctant, but not fast enough to seem eager either. Walking in behind Yue Fengjian, Lian Zhidiao didn’t see who was in the pavilion until they were almost at the threshold. 

Seated at a low table, Yue Fengjian’s mother was as lithe and beautiful as her husband was brawny and handsome. Lian Zhidiao could see instantly that she was where Yue Fengjian had gotten his striking phoenix eyes: hers turned up at the corners like a swallow in flight. Her lips were thin but soft-looking, and her face had the ageless look of a cultivator. She smiled at Yue Fengjian, but it felt distant; there wasn’t any warmth in it. 

Yue Fengjian bowed. “My honored Mother,” he said. “It brings this humble son great joy to see you.” 

“And I you,” she replied. Her voice was soothing and quiet, as if she had never once lifted it in anger or fear. 

She doesn’t seem that bad. I don’t think she would lose her temper easily. What could Yue Fengjian have meant by being mindful how he answered her questions? Lian Zhidiao cupped his hands and bowed to her. 

“I am Lian Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect.”

“I have heard,” she said, meeting his eyes. “You are an uncommon young man.” 

An unsettled feeling slid down Lian Zhidiao’s spine. She looked at him the way a farmer inspected a sow’s piglets, picking out which ones should be fattened and which should be sold for meat. Lian Zhidiao lowered his eyes. 

Lady Gao held back her sleeve as she gestured to the places that had been made ready for both of them. Yue Fengjian walked up first and spread out his robes, seating himself across from his mother, on her left. Lian Zhidiao followed suit, sitting at Yue Fengjian’s left, keenly aware of how conspicuous he was. Robed in plain black, he was an unwelcome shadow in the sunlit garden of a noble family. 

Lady Gao turned her attention to Yue Fengjian immediately. “I hear your campaign in the Western reaches was successful.” 

“Yes, Mother.” 

She poured hot water into a dark purple teapot and rested her hands in her lap. “Some might have said it was impossible to subdue a qilin.” She poured the tea with a steady hand and leaned forward only as far as necessary to slide their cups across the table. Lian Zhidiao accepted his cup and took a sip; it was florally sweet and light on his tongue, with a bitter aftertaste that lingered in his mouth. He bowed his head to Lady Gao, and she mirrored it, though not as deeply. 

“Certainly not without bearing the weight of its heavenly curse.” 

Yue Fengjian took his cup. His face was set in an expression of stoic confidence. He didn’t reply at first, seeming to sense that his mother wasn’t finished speaking. After a moment, he was proved correct. 

“Your father is overjoyed at your success.” 

Overjoyed? He didn’t look overjoyed

“This humble son is honored by his consideration.” 

“You may take some pride in your achievements,” Lady Gao said, before taking a dainty sip of her tea. “Your father intends to bestow a title on you, the first one he’s given in over ten years.” 

Yue Fengjian’s eyes widened; he clearly hadn’t been expecting this. Lian Zhidiao knew, of course. In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, Yue Fengjian had repelled the overwhelming demon attack and been awarded some extravagant title like ‘Demon Crushing Lord’. But here in this world, Yue Fengjian had done something arguably more difficult: subdue a celestial beast, which was not much less than an immortal.  

Lian Zhidiao sipped his tea silently. 

“This humble son cannot begin to describe the depth of his gratitude.” 

A small smile pulled at the corners of Lady Gao’s mouth. “The title he has chosen for you is Leibi-jun.” 

Styled in a heroic way, he thought Leibi-jun might be The Lord Who Writes With Lightning. It gave the impression of a man who could effortlessly control the primal force of lightning and bend it into elegant calligraphy, whose mastery was so complete that even the skies would bear his writ. Leibi-jun. Who would have thought that Yue Kuangxiang had a talent for poetry? 

Yue Fengjian bowed his head to his mother. “This humble son will strive to always be worthy of such a title.” 

“Make sure you show your appreciation to our Lord,” she said. Lady Gao smiled again, but it remained that same distant smile, as if regarding matters that were very far away. 

Not ‘your father’. Our Lord. Lian Zhidiao glanced at Yue Fengjian. 

Yue Fengjian kept his eyes fixed to his mother. “Yes, Mother,” he replied, bowing his head again.

Lian Zhidiao drank the rest of his tea and set his cup on the table without making a sound. It wasn’t his place to speak right now. 

A train of servants arrived with rice and dishes of breakfast: lightly steamed vegetables and soft, barely-set egg dishes, with pungent fried spices to add as they wished. Lady Gao’s face was serene as she poured another cup of tea and let the servants set the table. This was a family-style meal, with platters in the center to let them serve themselves. Lian Zhidiao looked between Lady Gao with her perfectly pointed fingers folded in front of her and Yue Fengjian with his stiff back. Even if this looked like a family-style meal, it wasn’t comfortable enough to be home for either of them. 

Lady Gao waited until Lian Zhidiao began to eat, and then began to speak. “I received a letter from my cousin a few days ago, but according to the date she wrote, it was delayed. Usually they arrive very quickly. I wonder what could have been the matter?” 

How many days have passed since Qianjiao captured me? A week while I was unconscious, and then seven more days while we flew like lightning over the steppes. Then the days spent going after the qilin. That alone would have been enough time for a letter carrier to make his way from Fenfang City to Xuefeng, even if he wasn’t taking the fastest horses and boats up river. A skilled information gatherer could have revealed everything in a letter to Lady Gao about their time in Fenfang City without even rushing. If there had been a hint in the letter of what transpired in the woods below the Lin sect peaks, then Lady Gao—and probably Yue Kuangxiang as well—already knew about the demon’s attempt to kill him. With all that entailed. 

Lian Zhidiao glanced at Yue Fengjian. 

“Bandits, perhaps,” Yue Fengjian offered, eating at a leisurely pace.

Lian Zhidiao took another bite of his own breakfast. The food was good, even better with the spices, but the flavors turned bitter in his mouth.  

“She married into the Lin sect, you know.” 


“She told me her daughter had made a good match in the Lin sect to a senior disciple.” 

“How fortunate for her,” Yue Fengjian said, nodding. “The Lin sect is strong.” 

“Their father will want them to enter the Lin sect, of course, but their children will spend some time learning here.” Lady Gao paused. “More, if they show an aptitude for fire.” 

“They will excel in everything they encounter,” Yue Fengjian said, finally picking up his chopsticks. “Of that, I have no doubt.” 

“You were abroad in the Lin sect’s lands just recently.” 

Yue Fengjian looked as if he was thinking deep thoughts about the bite of egg he’d just taken. “Yes.” 

Lady Gao set aside her chopsticks and slid her son a saccharine look out of the corner of her eye. “There are many cultivators in the Lin sect around your age.”


“Did you meet many of them while you were there?”  

Oh. This was going to be the same talk every unmarried young person got from their mother at one time or another. For now, Lady Gao was being gentle, talking around the issue. 

Yue Fengjian sat up a little straighter and shook his head. “We had just finished taking part in a cleansing operation in the southern part of Lin sect lands.” 

In his previous life, Lian Zhidiao remembered that his own mother had been much more direct: Your older brother doesn’t even have time to meet with his fiancee’s family, he is so busy, but I’ve already spoken to them by phone and we are looking at setting a wedding date for next year. I’ve called the matchmaker, but what am I supposed to tell her about you? You aren’t good enough to find someone who can support you if you don’t have anything to offer. You know, you could stand to lose a little more weight. Maybe you’re hoping she likes a fat boy, hm? I’ve seen you going back for seconds. If you have to fail at school, can you at least not fail at getting a wife? 

“Ah,” Lady Gao said, snapping Lian Zhidiao back to the present. “You were triumphant in that, as well?” 

“Yes.” And at last, Yue Fengjian’s eyes flashed to Lian Zhidiao for a moment before going back to his own plate. “There was a demon there who corrupted most of a town.” 

Lady Gao’s face fell. “How awful.” 

“Many of the deviates were able to be saved, but the town will probably be a total loss. It’s quite far north of the Choking Wood.” Yue Fengjian’s stern expression became even more grave. “Demons may be pushing further into human lands than we think.” 

Lady Gao arched an eyebrow. “Do you think we are in danger here?” 

“It has been quiet lately,” Yue Fengjian replied after finishing one bite. “We hurried back from Lin sect lands because we feared the worst, but a large scale demon attack doesn’t seem imminent.” 

Lady Gao slowly let her eyebrow relax. “As far as you know.” 

“Yes,” Yue Fengjian agreed, pausing before picking up his bowl of rice. “It would be imprudent to say there is no threat, but if there is a major action here, then demon forces beyond the Paling may be acting in disorder.” 

The Paling. In normal siege warfare, a paling was part of a palisade, used to create a fortified position on a battlefield or around a castle. Here, it was a term used by the Yue, Yuan, and Lin sects to denote the roughly imaginary line where demon and human lands met. It was a porous, often fragmented border; in the Choking Wood, it wasn’t clear exactly where the Paling was. Cultivators like Hui Songbai made names for themselves in the savage, ruthless reaches of the southern forests. It was a different kind of environment than the demon-blasted earth to the west or the cold, unforgiving wilds in the north.  Celestial beast, demons, monsters; in the south, a cultivator might encounter nearly anything. 

“It pleases me to hear you speak so frankly about martial matters.” Lady Gao lowered her voice. “Our Lord has wanted to go into seclusion again, but has not felt it was the right time.” She gave Yue Fengjian a serene smile. “If he need not fear that the sect will be mismanaged while he is away, he will be less reluctant.” 

Yue Fengjian dipped his head again and continued eating. 

“A Sect Leader has other responsibilities as well,” she said. “Ensuring the teachings continue to the next generation.” 

Is every mom, everywhere, obsessed with grandchildren? Lian Zhidiao finished his meal and carefully arranged his dishes to indicate he was finished. She’s a cultivator with an unnaturally long lifespan, and she’s still pushing for grandkids! If he’d had the freedom to, Lian Zhidiao would have rubbed his face in irritated exasperation. But instead, he kept his attention on his plate. 

Yue Fengjian smiled at his mother. “There are many disciples who would be eager to advance to senior status.” 

“Yue Kuangxiang only has one son,” Lady Gao countered. “If you cannot make up your mind about candidates for a wife, you may let me know your favorites.”  Lady Gao’s eyes briefly slipped to Lian Zhidiao before looking back at her son. “Or, I can write to my sister and ask her for eligible girls in the Gao family.” 

Yue Fengjian bowed his head. “This humble son welcomes the care and effort of his venerable aunt.” 

A look of satisfaction settled on Lady Gao. “I’ll write to her tomorrow, then.” 

“If it would please my honored mother, however,” Yue Fengjian said, “I intend to go to Shengmen City in the next month or two.” 

“Oh?” Lady Gao glanced at Lian Zhidiao with a chill in her eyes. “What for?”

“The Yuan sect has a reputation for discipline and serious-minded women. These traits would be an asset in a Sect Leader’s wife.” 

“Yuan Zhuyan has one daughter.” Lady Gao smiled at Yue Fengjian. “She would also be a good candidate for your wife.” 

Yuan Shi’an, the Beauty of the Yuan sect. She had been introduced for readers clamoring for a stern love interest who devoted herself completely to the main character. In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, she even referred to Yue Fengjian as ‘Master’. A few fanartists had picked up on Yuan Shi’an’s mile-wide loyalty kink and immediately set about destroying her character in fanart that was either too cute for her serious personality, or tested the boundaries of her loyalty with lewd acts. 

“If my honored mother would like to do as she wishes, nothing would please this son more.” 

She raised her hand and beckoned, and servants appeared out of nowhere to begin to clear the table. “I am surprised you were not taken with Lin Xianglan. I have heard she is quite beautiful. Perhaps another flower caught your eye while you were in Fenfang City?” 

Yue Shipei’s words echoed in Lian Zhidiao’s ears. They went into town to visit a garden of flowers. Lian Zhidiao swallowed. Gooseflesh rose on his skin. It had to be a coincidence. Plenty of women were called flowers. But it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the letter from Lady Gao’s cousin in Fenfang City also included information about Yue Fengjian’s visit to the brothel. 

“Lin Xianglan’s beauty is unparalleled. I have never seen a more beautiful or graceful woman. But she is like a young vine. Tender, and not well-suited to the cold.” 

“I’ll wait and see how you like Yuan Shi’an,” Lady Gao said. “As long as there aren’t any unexpected circumstances, then we will send an inquiry to Yuan Zhuyan and begin the process.” 

“Thank you, Mother. This son is truly undeserving.” 

Understanding that the meal was now over, Yue Fengjian stood and bowed to his mother, and Lian Zhidiao followed suit. Lady Gao inclined her head to Yue Fengjian and then turned to Lian Zhidiao with a beatific smile. “Thank you for your indulgence. My son is quite busy, so it’s difficult to get time to see him.” 

Lian Zhidiao bowed to her. “This young man is grateful for the invitation to your table.” 

Seemingly pleased by this, Lady Gao nodded again, and Yue Fengjian turned and led the way out of the Lower Pavilion. Lian Zhidiao followed him, lost in thought. 

In Supreme Warlord of the Beast World, the reasons for Yue Fengjian going to Shengmen City had been much more clear: he wanted to recruit more sects to the demon-fighting cause. Obviously he could travel for more than one reason. But in this conversation with his mother, he said he was looking for candidates for a wife? Lian Zhidiao had never written these conversations in his novel, but they appeared to be taking place ‘off-screen’ nonetheless. Yue Fengjian would find a candidate for his wife in Shengmen City. This was just as the plot of Supreme Warlord indicated, so why was Lian Zhidiao’s stomach so unsettled?

Yue Fengjian led them back to his chambers, and only when the door was closed did he let out a small breath. 

“Something wrong?” 

“No,” Yue Fengjian said. “No instructions to march you out of the city, so you can probably take a room up at the Quanyuan.”  Then Yue Fengjian gave Lian Zhidiao a serious nod. “It went about the best way it could go, in fact.” 

“Why is that?” 

“Being awarded a title?” Yue Fengjian blinked like he was still trying to get over the shock. 

“You defended the western border from a new and dangerous threat. Sect Leader Yue values that.” Lian Zhidiao said. 

“It’s more your doing than mine.” 

“Neither one of us could have done it on our own.”

Yue Fengjian scowled. “But I got all the recognition.”

“I’m not in the Yue sect,” Lian Zhidiao said gently. “It would be improper to award me a title if my own sect didn’t recognize me first.” 

But saying this out loud made Lian Zhidiao realize that any internal sect deliberations over awarding Yue Fengjian a title were subject to the Yue family’s dynamic. Of course Lady Gao also held power in the sect, even if she wasn’t an instructor or a powerful cultivator herself. 

And Lian Zhidiao had gotten a glimpse of what should have been a very private, family-only discussion about Yue Fengjian’s glory, his future as a Sect Leader, and his impending marriage plans. It was all theatre. Lady Gao had wanted Lian Zhidiao to see the wide gulf open between him and Yue Fengjian, to feel the distance between them. Different sects, different social class, different futures that awaited them. 

She didn’t say anything to Lian Zhidiao, but she didn’t have to. Lian Zhidiao understood perfectly. 

In Lian Zhidiao’s dantian, the other core turned over, the deviate qi stewing like thick, hot mud.

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