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.”
“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.
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