There was only one way to interpret the presence of a beautifully crafted jade tool made in the shape of a penis. Only one reason for it to be kept at his bedside.
A very, very small voice in the back of Lian Zhidiao’s head suggested that maybe the original Lian Zhidiao was using it on his partner. But this didn’t explain Sui Zhong interpreting his master’s appraisal of the dildo as a time to offer ‘ointment’, whatever that was. Nor was it likely to be the case, since Lian Zhidiao had a perfectly serviceable unit himself, and so a jade facsimile was not needed. There were also the lascivious presumptions that Zhou Xianzhi had made.
And so this (it must be said again, lovingly detailed) jade dick had sat here, when his other things clearly showed signs of tampering. Sui Zhong clearly knew, and so his father clearly knew. His mother? His sisters? How loose was Sui Zhong’s tongue?
Investigation of the other boxes in the drawer once Sui Zhong had withdrawn didn’t produce anything better: one cock more roughly carved from ivory, and another one made from bronze, with a large ring attached to the base. Presumably this was so it could be pushed and pulled, with the ring as a handle. The verdict seemed clear. The original Lian Zhidiao was not only gay, he was a bottom.
Not that it was any of this Lian Zhidiao’s business, who had to deal with the fallout from his sullied reputation.
He half-expected his father to call on him for dinner that first night, but no summons came, and Sui Zhong led a bunch of servants in with a meal for him. The food was good, it was true, but company was what made eating meals enjoyable. Sui Zhong and the other servants were loyal to his father. Inviting Yue Fengjian to join him probably wouldn’t be allowed, and him leaving the family estate after having so dearly bought his father’s support would not be prudent either.
So he ate alone.
His bed, for all the action it may have seen in the past, was quite comfortable. Better than any bed in this world he’d slept in yet. The cushion was thick and soft, and Sui Zhong made sure that his room was warmed by a brazier and he didn’t want for blankets. In the morning, Sui Zhong pulled aside the netting around his master’s bed and woke him with a soft voice.
The days passed slowly; Lian Zhidiao didn’t see much of his father. His mother never called for him either. This made Lian Zhidiao suspect that even though Sui Zhong had spoken of her will as being something that had to be followed, that she was not in a position to exert her will directly. Perhaps his father had privately told her to give him the silent treatment. Lian Zhidiao supposed that it wasn’t all bad: if he had to also face a stranger-who-was-his-mother as well, it might be too much for him. He spent more time with Sui Zhong than he did with his family.
In fact, if Lian Zhidiao had to guess, the longer Sui Zhong spent with him, the more at ease he was taking care of his master, and the more fondness he seemed to show. When Lian Zhidiao made an offhand comment about wanting more pickled peppers, the next meal had an extra dish of them. Every meal after that also came with a few extra peppers in a dish. Doubtless this Lian Zhidiao’s bathing requirements were more strenuous than the original’s, but Sui Zhong saw to it that the baths were ready promptly and scented with floral water. His hand was tender when he combed out Lian Zhidiao’s hair, as if he didn’t want to give his hair a painful jerk.
After days of this kind of behavior, Lian Zhidiao developed a nagging suspicion that Sui Zhong had stayed in the Lian family’s service only to have the chance to see him again.
When a week had gone by, and a light frost overnight announced the arrival of winter, a messenger came bearing a small box, with no clue as to the sender. Sui Zhong presented it to Lian Zhidiao, his neutral expression hiding his curiosity.
Desperate for something to break up the dreadful monotony, Lian Zhidiao opened it without a second thought. Inside were a few pieces of fragrant wood, labeled with minute brushstrokes, and a small slip of paper, with instructions written down on how many parts to use of each kind of wood. .
“Incense?” Sui Zhong could not contain his curiosity any further, and had come forward to see what was inside.
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao said. But what kind of incense? “Bring me a knife and some scales.”
Once Sui Zhong did so, Lian Zhidiao carefully shaved off splinters of incense wood. Using the scale, he weighed out shavings in the correct proportions, and then placed them in the incense burner. A coal to start them burning, and within a few seconds, a blue ribbon of smoke filled the room with an unmistakable fragrance. Lian Zhidiao covered his mouth with his hand.
Yue Fengjian had sent the same incense that was used to perfume his robes. The smell was so comforting. If Lian Zhidiao closed his eyes, he could almost feel Yue Fengjian in the room with him.
He looked at the list of proportions, at the neat and regimented brush strokes. To be so close to something Yue Fengjian had touched, and yet feel so far away from him! Lian Zhidiao wafted more of the incense toward his nose, feeling as if he had been a tightly wound spring that was only now able to relax.
He thought about how isolated I would feel. He wanted to express his support, even if he couldn’t do it personally because of appearances. Then, recalling the lustful afternoon in the inn, another thought came forward. Perhaps, he is thinking of me being wrapped in his scent, as if I’d been wrapped in his robes. Used enough, the incense would impregnate his robes, making him always smell as if Yue Fengjian was by his side, even if Yue Fengjian had never been in the room.
Yue Fengjian making sure that Lian Zhidiao was always reminded of him, wanting to stain him with fragrant oil, to claim him—heat began to rise in Lian Zhidiao’s face.
Lian Zhidiao cleared his throat, well aware of his warm cheeks. “It’s a good proportion.”
“Does the young master know who sent it?”
“No,” Lian Zhidiao lied, as easily as he breathed. “But it would be a pity to waste it. I—”
His eyes fell on the slip of paper with the instructions for proportions of each wood. “I’ll write down the instructions later,” he said, tucking the paper into his sleeve, “but this should be used to perfume my robes from now on.”
Sui Zhong gave him a bow and removed the box to another room, while Lian Zhidiao enjoyed the rest of the incense. He even carried the burner around his bed, making sure the comforting smoke saturated the netting.
That original Lian Zhidiao may have been onto something, making even his bed smell this good.
That evening, his father called him to join him for a meal. Although Lian Zhidiao was not at all looking forward to the idea of seeing Lian Angua, he was looking forward to seeing someone other than Sui Zhong. A low, round table was set up in the room just off the hall, clearly sized for at least three people, and seeming too big with just two. Lian Angua came into the room, looking more stately than he had when he blustered into the hall last week, and he even offered his son a smile.
“You have settled back into your rooms. I trust Sui Zhong made sure that everything was satisfactory.”
“Yes, Honored Father,” Lian Zhidiao said, forcing himself to give a gentle smile. “It is like I never left.”
A curious look crossed Lian Angua’s face, but it passed and he didn’t comment on that statement. “You haven’t left to visit any of your old haunts.”
Lian Zhidiao’s face fell into a serious expression. “My honored father is taking such extensive measures to restore my standing in the eyes of Sect Leader Wa. I dare not do anything to place such delicate negotiations in jeopardy.”
“Not even for a visit to a teahouse?”
“And pass by many eyes on the way there, to be entertained behind closed doors?” Lian Zhidiao shook his head. It was far too likely that his well-besmirched reputation would lead to someone getting the wrong idea, setting tongues wagging all over Jiuluwei City. With his luck, he’d end up at that kind of teahouse, and much worse off than before.
The fine lines in Lian Angua’s face softened as he hummed in understanding.. “Your thoughtfulness is uncharacteristic, but perhaps spending the last two years as you have has been instructive for you.”
Oh. Hearing that in his father’s voice made a lump rise in his throat.
Well, if the original Lian Zhidiao wasn’t exactly thoughtful, this Lian Zhidiao couldn’t really say he was surprised by the news. After all, he’d run away from his familial duty, lied about Hu Baitian’s involvement in a plot, stolen a jade beast, slept with two brothers, possibly at the same time—if anything, only someone else taking over his life could save his reputation. It was just unfortunate that he took his own life before things could really improve for him.
“Your rectitude has not gone unnoticed.” Lian Angua said after finishing a bite. “Sui Zhong has told me that there are whispers of your return in the streets, but that you have not been seen. Sect Leader Wa himself expressed doubts that Yingyue could be convinced of your presence without seeing for herself.”
A clammy feeling spread on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck. “I see. This foolish son did not consider that.”
Lian Angua shook his head. “There is no need to worry. Sect Leader Wa has agreed to bring Yingyue to a dinner here in a few days where the two of you can become reacquainted.” He took a sip from his tea. “You will apologize to her for your behavior and seek her forgiveness.”
Lian Zhidiao’s appetite fled; he laid down his chopsticks. “And if she does not forgive me?”
“That is not something you, I, or even Sect Leader Wa can control,” Lian Angua said. “Which is why you should throw yourself on her mercy, without reserve.” He spoke in a distant, casual way, as if this were the easiest thing in the world to do.
Throwing myself upon her mercy. As if he had not suffered embarrassment enough at throwing himself on his father’s mercy, at his business being the topic of discussion among the town. It would be worse still if everyone knew that he was gay, and that this marriage—
That this marriage will be a sham from the beginning.
“This humble son will spare nothing in seeking Wa Yingyue’s grace,” Lian Zhidiao said in a hollow voice.
Folding his hands in his lap, Lian Angua smiled, pleased with the change in his son’s attitude. “Once you have convinced Wa Yingyue of your sincerity, the preparations for the wedding will resume.”
Bitterness flooded Lian Zhidiao’s heart. He should be grateful for the chance to regain his standing, to help his father secure the family’s future, but instead, he felt only resentment. He nodded, bowing his head to his father. “Of course, Honored Father.”
Lian Angua sat back from the table, looking satisfied. “Once the future has been secured, you can work as you like on your own projects, of course. Master Guizai will want to see you back for more training. Long periods of seclusion will make time pass in the blink of an eye.” A slightly misty look entered his eye. “Before you know it, you’ll have children of your own that you will want to see married and successful, with children of their own.”
Lian Zhidiao wasn’t sure about that. But Lian Angua seemed to have made up his mind about it. Having yoked himself to his father’s ambitions, he could only nod. The dinner concluded, and Lian Zhidiao returned to his chambers, his outlook bleak. The braziers had been lit, but there were no lanterns lit; doubtless something had called Sui Zhong away.
Upon smelling Yue Fengjian’s incense lingering in his room, his heart twisted painfully again. He sank to his knees next to his bed, pressing his face against the cushion. Already, it smelled of the man who wasn’t there, and this alone kept him from bursting into tears.
It’s just a marriage.
Would Yue Fengjian even be interested in him once he was married? Would they both be unfaithful? Historically, it had always been the prerogative of powerful men to have whatever they wished, but only as long as other prerequisites were satisfied.
The wife, the kids. Lian Zhidiao inhaled the scent of Yue Fengjian’s incense.
It’s just a marriage.
Lian Zhidiao heard footsteps coming down the low wooden walkway that led to his buildings. Letting out a wistful sigh, he pulled himself together and got to his feet before a knock sounded on the door.
“Enter,” he said wearily.
Sui Zhong had the restrained, polite excitement of a servant who has just learned of his master’s windfall. He was a touch out-of-breath as he spoke. “Gongzi, your father has just told me about the visit to be made by Sect Leader Wa.” Sui Zhong gave him an earnest smile. “We will make every effort to impress her with your sincerity, gongzi.”
Lian Zhidiao nodded.
Sui Zhong at last seemed to realized his master’s enervation; concern slowly ate away at his smile. “Is there something wrong?”
“I… have my own fears about the marriage meeting.”
There was a long pause, so long that it seemed like Sui Zhong had been struck speechless or otherwise rendered mute. He was more subdued when he spoke again, quiet trepidation in his voice. “You said as much before.”
Lian Zhidiao looked up. “Before?”
“Those years ago.” Concern was written over Sui Zhong’s face.
Ah, so original Lian Zhidiao did confide in him.
“I see,” Lian Zhidiao said. “I didn’t know if you would remember that.”
“How could this one forget?” Sui Zhong’s voice was soft.
“What should I do?” It was probably inappropriate to ask his servant for advice, but by this point, the outcast Lian Zhidiao had no one else he could ask. Though he was heavily compromised to Lian Angua, Sui Zhong was still the closest thing Lian Zhidiao had to a friend at the moment.
“All of us have our parts to play, gongzi.” He hesitated for a moment and then continued, “It brought me great joy to hear that you had returned and that this one could once again lift you up above the others. Our lives have been linked since we were young. Naturally, this one will do whatever he can to ensure your courtship goes well.”
Hearing Sui Zhong profess such strong loyalty to him wasn’t the kind of comfort he wanted, but it sounded like it might be possible to steal such loyalty away from his father.
Lian Zhidiao forced a smile. It wasn’t the way he’d thought sacrificing himself would work, but modern interpretations of cannon fodder could probably include this. “We’ll do our best, then,” he said gently.
Sui Zhong smiled back, and Lian Zhidiao felt a sinking feeling at this display of genuine happiness and willingness to serve. It wasn’t Sui Zhong’s fault. It was his own personal failings that made it impossible for him to accept something offered so generously.
The next few days dragged on, until at last the date of the dinner was fixed, eleven days after he arrived. For the occasion, Sui Zhong suggested a robe adorned with a motif of paired cranes under a gold-embroidered willow, to express his desire to be married in the approaching spring. Lian Zhidiao agreed without argument.
The morning of Wa Zhuangzhou’s visit, Lian Zhidiao spent half the morning in a bath, and had his robes heavily perfumed with Yue Fengjian’s incense. Sui Zhong put his hair up in a sleek topknot with a gold xiaoguan, and accented his eyes with a small bit of rouge. Lian Zhidiao kept the Yue storage ring near him like a talisman, and waited.
Wa Zhuangzhou and Wa Yingyue arrived in a litter, their family crest of a mist-shrouded lantern prominently emblazoned in gold on the side. No doubt the purpose of their slow crawl through city streets was being seen by those who would spread gossip.
Lian Angua waited for Wa Zhuangzhou to alight from the litter before cupping his hands and offering him a bow that was appropriately respectful and conciliatory.
The reclusive sect leader bowed back before turning his eyes to Lian Zhidiao. He had a high forehead, with a brooding brow, and thin, pursed lips. He did not look like a man who spent very much time being happy, but to Lian Zhidiao’s surprise he smiled, and offered him a bow.
Lian Zhidiao bowed back. He doesn’t seem too bad.
Wa Zhuangzhou turned, offering his hand to help his daughter out of the litter.
Upon seeing her, Lian Zhidiao could not help but think that his original estimation was right: Wa Yingyue was the most beautiful of all the women he’d written. She had lips like ripe cherries, silken black hair pulled into loops on top of her head, decorated with flowers and jet-adorned hairpins. Her eyes were tilted upwards; phoenix eyes, like Yue Fengjian. She looked every inch the fairy maiden, her cheeks the color of pale peach blossoms, her skin as luminous as a pearl against her sheer black robes. These were embroidered with white peonies, edged with gold. On the robe underneath, a lantern.
For all its beauty, her face was carefully set in a mask of pleasantness, as if it had been carved into stone.
Lian Zhidiao met her with a bow, which she returned gracefully, her demure smile giving him hope that perhaps she might actually forgive him. With his hand on the rudder, he could steer Wa Zhuangzhou’s goodwill to the Yue sect.
Lian Zhidiao covered his eyes with his hand. Given his goals—to support the protagonist as he builds his harem of political brides—he might have thought that the untimely arrival of Lian Zhidiao’s sister saved him from making a mistake. But any efforts at a logical or thankful mindset were drowned by the tide of lust still pulsing in his blood.
Of all times! I was so close!
Yue Fengjian stood, his own arousal still obvious, and walked to the door. He opened it by a crack and spoke to the innkeeper in a low voice. “Stall her for a few minutes and then bring her up.”
From the quick way the door was shut, Lian Zhidiao assumed that the innkeeper had agreed.
He drew in and then let out a deep breath to try to dispel the ache in his lower body. As he pulled his robes together, he caught a glimpse of his nipples, so intensely sucked and pinched that they were still standing proud on his chest. His face flushed red and he stood up to tie his inner robes back together.
Yue Fengjian walked back over, his expression dark. “Did you go to see your family while you were waiting for me?”
“No,” Lian Zhidiao said shortly. He pulled his outer robes together, wishing his irritation would make his erection subside faster.
Yue Fengjian narrowed his eyes. “And yet she has already heard of your arrival.” His eyes slid toward the door. “Your swamp contains many snakes, I see.”
“I should have expected it,” Lian Zhidiao groused, half under his breath. “After all, I’m the one who—” He stopped himself just before the words slipped out of his mouth.
I’m the one who wrote this secretive, intrigue-ridden sect! I should have known there would be people watching the inns, or the sect school!
Yue Fengjian waited to hear him finish his sentence, one brow arched.
Lian Zhidiao shook his head. “Forget it. It has to be dealt with now.” He sighed with irritation and smoothed down his hair. A small voice in the back of his mind said that this left the thorny matter of nearly sleeping with Yue Fengjian unresolved, but that was a problem for another time.
What was Lian Zhidiao’s sister like? Since he didn’t remember anything about the character Lian Zhidiao himself, it was likely that Lian Zhidiao’s sister wasn’t anyone he’d thought up or written at all. She was an entirely original person, created by the world itself. To deal with her, he would have to read and understand her without the luxury of any of the insider knowledge he’d been relying on with Yue Fengjian.
Best to let her talk as much as she likes and try to draw information out of her. Lian Zhidiao tugged at his robes and then looked over at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian’s collar was still slightly askew, his lips a telltale shade of pink, but at least his erection was slowly going down. If he sat and draped his robe a certain way, the bulge was sure to disappear. Lian Zhidiao stepped closer to him, straightening his collar.
“What are you doing?” Yue Fengjian’s voice had a hard edge.
“Making it look like we were not in the middle of…” Lian Zhidiao’s words caught in his throat, and he felt his cheeks heating up.
“Why?” Yue Fengjian’s scowl was particularly uncharitable. “If she gets the idea she interrupted something, maybe she will leave suddenly.”
“I haven’t seen her in years,” Lian Zhidiao protested. “I can’t just send her away for no reason.”
Yue Fengjian’s face said that there was a very good reason, but he let Lian Zhidiao straighten his collar and make sure his hair wasn’t mussed. After a few seconds of Lian Zhidiao fussing over him, he caught one of Lian Zhidiao’s wrists in his hand. His sharp scowl had softened. It looked like he might embrace Lian Zhidiao again at any moment.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Lian Zhidiao whispered, that look stealing his breath as surely as any kiss.
Yue Fengjian didn’t show any signs of contrition for his last-ditch appeal to Lian Zhidiao’s libido. But at soft approaching footsteps, he did let go of Lian Zhidiao’s wrist and turned away. He had just crossed his arms over his ample chest when a knock sounded at the door.
Now he is sulking like a spoiled young master!
Lian Zhidiao gave Yue Fengjian a look that entreated him to please just be good until this is over, and composed himself the best he could as he walked to the door. His heart pounded in his chest as he drew back the bar and opened it.
The plump-cheeked innkeeper whispered, “She’s here, gongzi.”
Lian Zhidiao opened the door wider and the innkeeper stood back against the wall to let a hooded figure in a black cloak slip inside. With a nod to the innkeeper, Lian Zhidiao closed the door and bolted it behind her.
Lian Chanrong pushed back her hood, revealing a narrow face with high cheekbones made more severe by all her hair gathered in a round bun at the back of her head. She had the same sad eyes as Lian Zhidiao himself. Based on this alone, it was easy to see that they were brother and sister.
“Jiejie,” Lian Zhidiao said slowly, unsure how friendly they had been. As he’d learned with Yue Fengjian’s family, there might be complications.
“You might have sent a letter, or something,” she sniffled. Before he could reply, she immediately enfolded him in a soft, light hug, resting her head against his. “All this time with no word, never knowing what became of my crybaby little brother…”
A catch in her voice lanced through Lian Zhidiao’s heart, as surely as if he’d heard his own big sister panicking over his disappearance. She must have cried over him when he died in the street, the same as Lian Chanrong must have worried for her brother. He could not dry his own sister’s tears, but he could keep Lian Chanrong from fretting so. “I’m sorry I didn’t send word,” he mumbled into her shoulder.
“Stupid little brother,” she said, but her voice was so colored with tears of relief that the affectionate insult landed on his ear as softly as clouds.
It was at this point that she realized at last that Lian Zhidiao wasn’t alone in his room. She froze stiff in Lian Zhidiao’s arms.
Despite his scary countenance, Yue Fengjian gave her a proper bow. “I am Yue Hanqi, courtesy name Fengjian, of the Xinxue Yue sect.”
Like a frightened deer, Lian Chanrong’s eyes flashed back to her brother. Seeing an expectant look on Lian Zhidiao’s face, she turned back to Yue Fengjian and returned his bow. “Lian Chanrong. Are you…” She hesitated for a moment and then an uneasy smile formed on her face. “I apologize, I wasn’t expecting anyone else here. I thought xiaodi and I would be able to speak privately.”
“You can speak with him here,” Lian Zhidiao said, standing next to his sister and looking at Yue Fengjian. “He’s trustworthy.”
Lian Chanrong unfastened her cloak and laid it aside, revealing a ruqun in green and purple with gold chrysanthemum embroidery climbing her sleeves. Over that were two sheer robes, the colors of pumpkin and padparadscha, that even together could not have offered her any warmth. She was thin and frail, just Lian Zhidiao’s height, and seemed to shiver the moment she doffed the cloak. She moved closer to the brazier and sat down, blessedly not on the bed that had just seen intense use.
Lian Zhidiao called for the innkeeper to bring them some tea and then sat down next to her, across from Yue Fengjian. Time to find a delicate way to open conversation. “I had intended to come see you soon. We only arrived in the city today.”
“I know,” she said, facing him with her expression still pinched. “I couldn’t believe it.” She stared at Lian Zhidiao’s face for a moment, drinking him in. “What have you been doing?”
“Traveling,” Lian Zhidiao said obliquely. “Found work where I could.” He didn’t want to say that Lian Zhidiao had been down to two taels of silver and fairly threadbare robes before falling in with the well-heeled ‘prince’ of the Yue sect.
Lian Chanrong glanced at Yue Fengjian and she looked expectantly at Lian Zhidiao, as if to ask, And him?
Lian Zhidiao wanted to just let the obvious request for information slide—he hadn’t yet come up with a real reason that her little brother would have taken up with a Yue sect member—but he was saved by Yue Fengjian’s quick thinking.
“He’s a skilled cultivator and magician. And he’s already proven himself essential in handling various problems,” Yue Fengjian offered.
Lian Chanrong nodded in understanding. “Mother told me that the household received a payment for services you rendered to the Lin sect. Father wasn’t happy about it.”
“I take it he didn’t like it?”
“No,” Lian Chanrong said.
So the rift between father and son is that deep. Given that I likely ruined a lot of his plans, that is to be expected.
The tea arrived, and the act of pouring it out gave Lian Zhidiao time to think. But on the other hand, it’s quite normal to send money home to the family. With the Lin and Yue sects just sending remuneration on their own without checking with me, it’s like direct deposit! Why did it make him mad?
Lian Chanrong gratefully warmed her hands on her teacup. “Considering the circumstances you’d left in, he said he didn’t even want to hear your name. But then,” she paused, with a small nod to Yue Fengjian, “there was more money, coming from the Yue sect. There was a curious note on it which drove Father to distraction. It said, ‘for the destruction of a peach orchard’.”
Lian Zhidiao slowly turned his head to look at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow in response, daring Lian Zhidiao to say something.
“Is that so,” Lian Zhidiao said, setting his jaw. “I do seem to recall an incident regarding a few peach trees in the Western lands, but it hardly seems like something the Yue sect should offer payment for.”
“He sent me a letter, asking if I knew anything about it—because of that time in the peach orchard when we were little. I had no idea. But,” she favored him with a sunny smile, “That was when I started to leave instructions with certain people to contact me if they saw anything. Especially anyone with the Yue sect.”
No wonder they were found so quickly; Yue Fengjian was eye-catching even in a sea of red robes. One red-robed man in a city of black would have caught anyone’s attention, much less someone who was looking for a member of the Yue sect. Lian Zhidiao could only nod.
“You’re going to see Father, right? That’s why you came back?” There was a hopeful note in her voice that made Lian Zhidiao’s heart sink.
“Actually, we’re here on my business,” Yue Fengjian cut in. “I’ve sought an audience with Sect Leader Wa Zhuangzhou on a matter of some importance.”
“Sect Leader Wa hasn’t been seen much lately, I’ve heard,” she said. “There was a moon-viewing party last month, and then a few weeks before that, my wedding.”
Surprise showed on Lian Zhidiao’s face. “The wedding!”
Roses bloomed in Lian Chanrong’s cheeks, and she lowered her eyes demurely and nodded. “That was the last time dajie was out as well.”
She’s the middle sister! Lian Zhidiao’s brow wrinkled. “Is dajie okay?”
Lian Chanrong looked stricken. “Her pregnancy has been difficult. The doctors have told her to stay in bed until the baby comes, with no excitement.”
So the older sister is married too! And pregnant! I’m going to be an uncle?! Lian Zhidiao couldn’t keep a smile from breaking out on his face at the thought of having a little one running around. He nodded, trying to keep his smile sympathetic instead of looking like he was gleeful about the prospect of his sister losing her pregnancy. “It’ll be okay. Dajie will be fine.”
He said it with the confidence of a writer who knew the story, but he didn’t know the story at all. Rather, he merely wished for it to be so with all his heart.
Lian Chanrong nodded. “I hope so.” She glanced at Yue Fengjian again, and then met Lian Zhidiao’s eyes earnestly. “Please try to reconcile with Father.”
“Erjie,” Lian Zhidiao started to protest. “I don’t think any amount of money is going to undo what I did.”
“Please try. You have a little credit to your name now, having lined his pockets some. He would have to at least hear you out.” She looked him over, taking in the robes that Yue Fengjian had given him, which were thick and heavy compared to the gauzy layers that the Wa sect favored. She reached out and took his hand, squeezing it gently. “You haven’t done so badly you can’t show your face to him. Please, for the good of the family.”
Lian Zhidiao’s heart twisted. Usually when his own sister had said things like that, it was because whatever small peace offering his parents made hadn’t worked to repair their everyday interactions. ‘For the good of the family’ was always so he would paper over an insult, let go of a cutting remark, ignore the way others talked about him. So that he would forget when he was wronged to preserve happiness in the home.
Now, to be asked to do something ‘for the good of family’ when he was surely the one at fault…
Lian Zhidiao let out a small sigh. Accepting consequences for the original Lian Zhidiao’s crimes had been galling, but he’d had no other choice. Likewise, he now had to make peace the same way. “I’ll go tomorrow.”
Lian Chanrong gave him a dazzling smile, and wrapped him up in a hug.
I miss my family. Lian Zhidiao’s heart twisted even more. But I can’t go back now. I can only stay here, and make the best of this one. He awkwardly hugged her back.
“I have to go; I didn’t tell my husband where I was going. He’ll be worried.”
“Oh,” Lian Zhidiao looked at the windows; the light was fading. “Do you need an escort?”
“I have my litter downstairs,” she said. “They’ll see me back safely.” She smiled at him again. “I’ll be waiting for a message from Mother. She will be so pleased.”
Resigned to his choice, Lian Zhidiao nodded. He rose and fetched her cloak, hanging it around her shoulders. With a fond smile for Lian Zhidiao and a bow to Yue Fengjian, she left.
Lian Zhidiao opened the shutter and looked down into the street. Sure enough, she got into a litter, and they trotted off into the gloaming. He heard Yue Fengjian pour himself some more tea, and closed the shutters against the chill in the night air.
“We shouldn’t wait too much longer to eat,” Yue Fengjian said.
“Mn,” Lian Zhidiao agreed.
Yue Fengjian finished his tea and then let out his own sigh.
There wasn’t much to say. Lian Zhidiao knew how Yue Fengjian’s parents hemmed him into a tight spot, and how only his continued, demonstrated excellence kept him from being crushed under their expectations. He was a prince who acted like a prince, with the soul and heart of a prince. He could be exactly what he was supposed to be.
Lian Zhidiao on the other hand, was a modest failure. Sneak thief and runaway groom, he squandered his natural talents with his unfilial choices. Who knew why he’d made them, but they’d ended up in his early death. Chen Jiajian also had his own failures, his own early death. The comparison created a deep well of realization in his mind that he didn’t want to draw from. The effort required in sliding his consciousness around it without looking left him sullen and withdrawn.
Even a sumptuous meal of crispy duck, lightly fried water chestnuts and green beans, spicy celtuce with wood ear, white soup with a luxurious texture, and silken tofu with syrup didn’t make him feel any better. He’d half-expected Yue Fengjian to continue trying to romance him after they had a bath, but Yue Fengjian seemed to have picked up on the muted mood without him saying anything. New coals were put in the brazier, and they went to sleep, each in their own beds, without much discussion.
The morning dawned clear and cold; when Lian Zhidiao peeked outside, he could see his breath. He exhaled deeply, letting the cold air brace him against the unsettling dread that was already starting to build.
Yue Fengjian opened his eyes when Lian Zhidiao closed the shutters. He gave a mighty stretch and then sat up in bed, looking across their bedroom at Lian Zhidiao.
Lian Zhidiao started dressing for the day in silence, combing through his hair, lost in imagining how to react to a father he didn’t know when just seeing his not-sister had animated a pang of longing for home.
“Do you want me to come with you?”
Lian Zhidiao looked up at Yue Fengjian’s sleep-roughened voice. He opened his mouth to say no, that he didn’t need help, that he could handle it on his own. But then he closed his mouth and nodded.
Yue Fengjian pushed back his blankets and stood up. As he walked past Lian Zhidiao to get to his own clothes, he put a reassuring hand on Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder. The warmth of his palm lingered long after he stepped away.
The little village that sprang up around the inn was not much more than one extended family, but it wasn’t far from the next little village. Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian followed the Black Highway north; the land buckled into softly rolling hills below them. The broad, even road snaked to and fro through gentle valleys carpeted with rice fields. Villages sprang up along the way with barely a day’s ride between them. With the harvest collected, all that was left in the fields was straw which would be put to the torch as soon as it was dry enough to light. Manure crops were being planted to hold the winter sunlight for safekeeping in a green larder, waiting for spring.
During their stays in smaller inns, they shared rooms (which did, indeed, only have one bed), and Yue Fengjian undertook the task of teaching Lian Zhidiao the art of demon tracking.
In principle, Lian Zhidiao understood how this fantastic form of cultivation worked, but he had always envisioned it with kind of a gamer mindset. One cultivated and leveled up by breaking bottlenecks, getting stronger with time. Like a character in a game, he would acquire new skills immediately when reaching a new level, and understand intuitively how to use them. It had certainly contributed to this viewpoint, that the original owner of his body had left all his techniques in a jade slip for him to learn instantly. Receiving Shanzhen (which made his spiritual techniques available) also added to this perception of ‘leveling up’.
The actual process of learning a technique, however, was vastly different than he’d imagined.
Yue Fengjian’s attitude toward Lian Zhidiao changed completely once the mantle of ‘student’ was bestowed upon him. Up to a point, Yue Fengjian was a patient teacher. But he continually described the technique of tracking as needing to ‘feel’ for something in the area, and Lian Zhidiao, try though he might, wasn’t very good at feeling things he couldn’t see. Frustrated by the conflict between their teaching and learning styles, Yue Fengjian let the matter rest.
Four days after stopping at that riverside inn, the gentle valleys were overwhelmed by flat farmland.
At the foot of the last rolling hills, Yipan Town was a larger trading center that straddled the Caifeng River. The Black Highway ran through it, via a hump-shaped bridge that rose high over the river. Once on the northern bank, the road turned east, running roughly parallel to the river, but drifting to the north. Yipan Town was a center for the collection and production of items made of precious jet, and their first step deep into Wa territory. Most towns south were a mixture of Lin and Wa sect members, interspersed with the occasional Zhou sect member. Yipan was the first town along the Black Highway fully controlled by the Wa sect.
Though the sun was still high in the sky, Lian Zhidiao motioned for them to land in the city below them. Almost immediately upon landing, several villagers turned to watch them walk past. It might have been that they didn’t often see Yue sect members. Despite their shared border, there was a mountain range between the two sects. But it also might have been Yue Fengjian himself: broad-shouldered, tall, handsome, obviously full of male vigor, he turned heads no matter where he was. It was hard to tell which was the bigger draw.
After asking around for a map, Lian Zhidiao was directed to a mapmaker. Yue Fengjian let him lead the way, looking at the hustle and bustle around them. The streets here were dominated by Wa sect members in black robes with silk blackwork embroidered on the sleeves. Every sect member they saw was dressed to the nines, their multiple layers set apart so they could be easily seen by others, telling stories in the figures sewn over their shoulders and hems. One sect member wore inner clothes embroidered with pale yellow osmanthus, and a moon on her shoulder, barely visible through sheer black robes embroidered with black rabbits that had coral and pearl eyes. About half of the magicians wore a spindle belt dyed black instead of red, as Lian Zhidiao wore his. Many of the sect members wore jet in addition to their jade spindles, either in jewels suspended from their ears, or as beads garlanded around their necks. Some even wore the jewels threaded through their hair, making them sparkle mysteriously each time the subtle gems caught the light.
Out of the corner of his eye, Lian Zhidiao saw Yue Fengjian’s head turn slightly whenever a Wa sect member walked past. But whenever he sensed that Lian Zhidiao was watching him, he immediately acted like he hadn’t just been looking. Unexpectedly, Lian Zhidiao found himself eating vinegar every time he saw a Wa sect member approaching. Even more surprisingly, Yue Fengjian slowly started to show signs of a good mood, the corners of his mouth rising in an almost constant smile as they walked. When they reached the mapmaker, Lian Zhidiao was secretly relieved just to get Yue Fengjian out of the street.
The mapmaker worked out of his home, a siheyuan off the main streets. Upon arriving, they were offered tea while the mapmaker had his apprentice bring out the maps he had to offer for sale. After some back and forth between Lian Zhidiao and Yue Fengjian over which to invest in, and some haggling over prices, they selected a map of all the human lands and a map of the eastern shores: the eastern Lin sect, the Wa sect, and the Zhou sect.
On a whim, Lian Zhidiao decided to ask a risky question. “Uncle, do you know where Guizai might be found?”
“Hmm?” The mapmaker looked a little surprised. “Why would you need to know that?” His eyes shifted to Yue Fengjian. “Going to try to lose your swords?”
“No, no,” Lian Zhidiao said. “He’s my Master, and I was thinking I would make a trip back to see him. I know the way from Jiuluwei City by landmarks, but when it comes to reading a map, I’m liable to get lost if the way isn’t pointed out for me.”
“Ah,” the mapmaker said, and he took out a small stylus, making a gentle divot in the map. “Here, north of Ranzhao Village.”
“Thank you, Uncle,” Lian Zhidiao said, smiling. “Even if I fly as high as I can, I can’t see as much land as your map shows, and certainly not with this level of painstaking detail.”
The mapmaker couldn’t hide a pleased chuckle at having his work praised so effusively. Yue Fengjian paid him for the maps and tucked them away in his storage ring. They were barely out on the street again before Lian Zhidiao heard a scoff from Yue Fengjian.
“That was quite a performance.”
“What part of that was a performance?”
“The sugary part at the end.” Yue Fengjian looked sidelong at him. “If you’re going to fawn over him, you could make it less obvious.”
“It’s good manners,” Lian Zhidiao sniffed.
“You don’t have to flatter someone you’re paying. He knows the value of his maps, given what he charges.”
“A local mapmaker will know the area better than a distant one,” Lian Zhidiao replied, one corner of his mouth lifting. Not every mapmaker will be able to claim they sold to the Emperor. His prices will likely go even higher after you’ve taken the throne. “He’ll be happy to have had your custom later.”
Yue Fengjian was giving him a quizzical look when he suddenly stopped still in his tracks and turned to look over his shoulder. They weren’t yet back to the main streets, but the sound of Yue Fengjian stopping made Lian Zhidiao halt as well. Yue Fengjian tilted his head, almost like he was listening, or considering someone’s words, and then his eyes flicked to Lian Zhidiao.
He reached out and took Lian Zhidiao’s wrist, dragging him down the street in the opposite direction.
“Where are we going?”
They emerged onto a narrow street, which Yue Fengjian looked up and down. It was still early in the day, and there were plenty of people walking about. “Here,” he said in a clipped tone, releasing Lian Zhidiao’s wrist. “Follow me.”
Bewildered, Lian Zhidiao followed him as he flew up and out of the town, just to the northeast, and alighted on the ridge of a field boundary.
“We’ve been having trouble with teaching you,” Yue Fengjian said, before Lian Zhidiao had even sheathed Shanzhen. “Because if there’s no demon around, there’s nothing to track.”
Lian Zhidiao turned and looked back at Yipan Town. “Is there a demon in there?”
“Depends,” Yue Fengjian said. “But I’m going to show you how to find it. Sit down.”
They sat down cross-legged along the dry, browning grasses, with Yue Fengjian sitting entirely too close. He pulled back his sleeve a little, offering his wrist to Lian Zhidiao.
“Watch how I use the technique. Keep some distance,” he added hastily, as if he’d just remembered that Lian Zhidiao’s other core contained enough deviate qi to poison him. “Just watch what I do.”
Lian Zhidiao made absolutely sure that the path to the other core was closed before taking Yue Fengjian’s forearm and concentrating on looking inside. A mighty sun blazed inside him, more brilliant than Lian Zhidiao’s own core, and without a core of shadow besides. He might have been able to better appreciate Yue Fengjian’s power if he wasn’t also looking at the bare skin revealed under his sleeve.
The longer Lian Zhidiao looked, the more he was able to perceive certain things: an increase in qi collected around Yue Fengjian’s eyes and hands, and a soft exhale from his mouth. Like a scene from a spy movie, Yue Fengjian breathed out, and a small thread of light was visible, if only for a moment.
Yue Fengjian lifted his hand and ran his fingers under the light, as if he might pluck the string of an instrument. Lian Zhidiao watched as he lifted his fingers ever so slightly, letting it pull against the pads of his fingers. Then he lowered his hand.
“Did you see it?”
Lian Zhidiao licked his lips; his mouth had gone dry. “Yes.”
“Then give me your hand.”
Yue Fengjian shifted in a flash, collecting Lian Zhidiao between his legs and sitting them back-to-front. He looked over Lian Zhidiao’s shoulder at their hands, and put his forearm back into Lian Zhidiao’s hand while holding the other hand ready. Lian Zhidiao was completely still as Yue Fengjian moved him into position. It was like they were a music teacher and his student, having his body moved to put him in the right position to play—but it was all right between Yue Fengjian’s legs!
“Look inside again,” he directed, but his voice was low and close to Lian Zhidiao’s ear. It was less a request and more an entreaty.
Why does he have to sound like that when we are like this?! Their closeness reminded Lian Zhidiao of the way they flew together. It was familiar, if not exactly comfortable, to be this near to him. Pushing down the emotions that churned in his heart, he focused on the technique. Again he saw Yue Fengjian’s qi gathered around his fingers and his eyes. This time, when he breathed out, he saw the thread of light a little more clearly.
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao said.
“You see how they disappear if you stop breathing?” Yue Fengjian murmured. “The land here is balanced, so you can see it with little effort. In areas with stained earth, it is easier to see correct qi, more difficult to see deviate qi.”
“And crawling earth?”
“Very easy to see correct qi.” Yue Fengjian hesitated before adding, “In crawling earth, one does not usually need to track demons.”
“Demons find you, I imagine,” Lian Zhidiao said.
Lian Zhidiao turned his head halfway. “Does this mean you can’t track a correct qi user in roaring earth?”
“It’s nearly impossible.”
“The trace disappears. Like red writing under red light,” Lian Zhidiao murmured. These traces, these threads of light, were visible only a little because they were of correct qi in a balanced environment. “Then, the demon…?”
Behind him, Yue Fengjian drew in a deep pull of qi from the surrounding area, and breathed out his mouth at the same time. A small thread of purple light floated in front of his eyes.
Yue Fengjian took Lian Zhidiao’s free hand and matched their fingers together. “Concentrate,” he ordered.
Lian Zhidiao took a deep breath, and Yue Fengjian lifted their paired fingers up against the purple thread of light. Amazingly, he could feel it running over his fingers, like a vine whip, rough and knobbly. Yue Fengjian was careful never to let the thread go taut, and carefully guided Lian Zhidiao’s hand again.
“This is a Yao,” Yue Fengjian said. “Maybe a half-Yao.”
He let the purple thread move off their fingers. “Be careful not to pluck them or pull them like you would draw a bowstring,” he warned. “There are some who can tell they are being tracked.”
The purple light lingered much longer than their own traces, but it, too, disappeared.
“And demons? What do their traces look like?”
Yue Fengjian’s expression darkened. “A black rope that will shred your hand if you’re careless. Demons using their energy to fly will leave one behind them. Not the only way to track them, but the easiest.”
Lian Zhidiao’s thoughts drifted back to Zhang Hundun. So spotting him working in Shengmen City would have been difficult if he wasn’t using demonic energy, unless I’d used earth-seeing. If he hadn’t pursued me, he could have continued working in Shengmen City undetected. Who knew how many demons were still there who didn’t give chase? The realization sent a shiver down his spine at odds with the warmth of Yue Fengjian at his back.
Lian Zhidiao shook his head as he pulled his hand away from Yue Fengjian’s forearm. If anything, the proximity of their bodies was making him a little hot. Yue Fengjian’s arms were draped around him, his legs on either side of Lian Zhidiao’s, paired up like a set of spoons. He seemed quite content to be so close, enjoying a farm boy’s kind of privacy nestled in the tall, dry grass of a canal bank.
“We should go,” Lian Zhidiao said, rocking forward and standing up. He dusted off his bottom and turned to look at Yue Fengjian, still on the ground. “We can still cover a long distance before nightfall.”
Yue Fengjian’s scowl snapped into place on his face almost instantly. If Lian Zhidiao didn’t know better, he would have said he was pouting. But he grunted in agreement and got to his feet.
They flew as fast as they dared, following the Black Highway. Just after sunset, they crossed a long bridge over another river, this one with heavy river traffic. A few lanterns were still lit on the boats lining up and down the banks; they bobbed slowly as a fisherman punted by.
There were several ramshackle buildings that were piled almost on top of each other at the river crossing. Some of them had to be older than the Black Highway itself, their facades faded to a lustrous silver that glowed in the intense pink and orange sunset. The inn was in the process of barring the door when they saw Lian Zhidiao approach, and hurried him and Yue Fengjian inside.
Having arrived so late, there wasn’t much in the way of a meal, but the innkeeper promised that in the morning, his wife would make them a breakfast like they’d never had before. With these words to fill their bellies, they retired to their room. It was modestly appointed, with two beds, a sitting area, and the finest feather mattresses to cradle them to sleep.
The morning brought a heavy rain, and the promised palatial breakfast was even brought up to them in their room. Lian Zhidiao thought this was a little unusual, but it was appropriate for their rank and provided them a modicum of privacy. This was just fine with him, as he had an idea.
“Take out the maps,” he said, once the dishes had been taken away.
“What else do you use maps for?”
“Moving troops?” Yue Fengjian took out his storage ring, bemused. “Are you planning a battle in your own sect’s territory?”
“I’ve been thinking about the demon. Wondering how many there are in human lands, how many could rise up if they were ordered to.” His lips thinned. “The presence of a Yao in that town isn’t encouraging.”
“Your own Master is half-Yao,” Yue Fengjian responded, withdrawing the maps from the ring.
Lian Zhidiao took the maps and unrolled them on their table. “Be that as it may, nothing prepares you for enemies on all sides like having enemies on all sides.” He looked over the map, his eyes darting until he found Yipan Town, then Ranzhao to the north of the Black Highway, and Guizai’s grotto further north than that.
Yue Fengjian sat back, watching Lian Zhidiao pore over the maps for several minutes before speaking. “You’re scared.”
Lian Zhidiao’s fingers paused as they followed the line of a river on the map: Caifeng, the Tailor’s River. Then he let out an inconclusive hum that was intended to neither confirm nor deny Yue Fengjian’s assertion.
“Demons are selfish creatures,” Yue Fengjian said. “Working together goes against their nature.”
“Even a wild animal understands fear,” Lian Zhidiao countered. “If a demon can be afraid of another demon, can’t it be made to obey? Out of fear?”
Gentle thunder rolled over the land outside.
“Why are you suggesting this?”
“When I killed that demon—Zhang Hundun—he said, ‘we can continue our work’. He may have pursued me alone, but he wasn’t acting alone.” Lian Zhidiao looked back down at the map, despair creeping over him. “They are in Shengmen City, in the villages… they could be everywhere.”
The measures Yuan Suwei had taken to root out demons in Shengmen City were starting to look less and less like paranoia.
They left behind the sweet grass meadow on the muddy flat, with its secret safely concealed in the storage ring in Lian Zhidiao’s robes. There was plenty of daylight left, and a great distance still to travel. They continued following the river east, then north.
This time, Lian Zhidiao could fly without worrying about any demons breathing down his neck. He could actually enjoy it. Though they were moving at speed, he flexed his ankles back and forth, lazily making wide sweeps to and fro behind Yue Fengjian. The freedom of having his own sword to fly around with hadn’t swept away the feeling of Yue Fengjian’s arm around him as they had soared over the landscape, but it did reveal just how close they had been when he’d ridden as a passenger on Wallbreaker.
Did I really cram onto that sword with him? How could there have been any room? The only way I could have been closer was if he’d carried me!
It was clear that Yue Fengjian didn’t treat flight as something to enjoy: he had the stern look on his face that he always did, like a factory foreman on the subway anticipating a difficult day on the job.
But then again, he always looks like that.
The soft look on Yue Fengjian’s face from not even a few hours prior flashed in front of his eyes. In spite of the chill wind blasting his face, his cheeks heated up.
Well, almost always.
Just before nightfall, they saw the Black Highway’s river crossing below them, with a large, venerable inn at the side of the road, and several long boats moored at a pier not far from it. The waning moon was already high above the horizon when they alighted on the Black Highway in front of the inn. The ends of the rafters were ornately carved, and decorated with flourishes of red and black paint. The tile roof was a dark gray that looked black in the dying light. Several small buildings were scattered around it. It was practically its own small town.
The interior was well-appointed, especially for a roadside establishment that wouldn’t necessarily cater to an elite clientele. There were several other patrons inside, most of them dressed like merchants. The innkeeper was a thin man with bags under his eyes, who welcomed them with grace if not warmth. He paid special attention to Lian Zhidiao, offering him a hot bath immediately after dinner, and then turning to see if Yue Fengjian would like one as well. The reversal in their fortunes had Lian Zhidiao’s lips quirking in amusement.
For once, I get to be the one treated like a prince at an inn! He could hardly hide how this improved his mood.
They had a meal with white broth, a spicy-sour mix of peppers, some lightly pickled vegetables, and barbecued pork. There was also a delicious fish with water vegetables arranged to look like it was still swimming among the reeds, with little red pearls of chili oil skating on its back. Starving for the past few days made every plate a banquet; every bite had him smiling with pleasure. After eating what Lian Zhidiao presumed was his fill, Yue Fengjian seemed content to just drink wine and watch him stuff his mouth. He even waved away Lian Zhidiao’s attempt to offer him more fish or pork, and instead stood up when the innkeeper informed them the bath was ready.
Lian Zhidiao took his time drinking the last of his soup and scraping the last of his rice into his mouth.Then, feeling the nicest he had in weeks, he followed the innkeeper’s direction to a room for bathing in the back half of the inn. There were some benefits to having written so many bath scenes in the original novel; many of the inns just offered baths as a matter of course.
When he arrived, there were two small lanterns placed in the room, which barely banished the shadows from the corners of it. There was no partition between the two tubs of water, owing to a lack of space for scrubbing in the smaller sitting tubs beside the larger soaking ones. Lian Zhidiao was pleased to discover that Yue Fengjian was already sitting in the soaking tub—no awkward moments of watching him get in or out!—and he could slip by without looking too closely at him.
His own bath was steaming; he undressed as quickly as he could. The same little flower-scented orange soaps were here as well. After wetting down, he started scrubbing all the dirt off of him and out of his hair, festooning himself with suds. It had been days; he was pretty sure the last bath he’d had was under Yuan Suwei’s roof. The thought made him scrub his skin even harder until it turned pink. He didn’t stop until he was sure he’d gotten everywhere, and then rinsed himself in the small sitting tub, unable to hold back another sigh of satisfaction.
Lowering himself into the larger tub, he groaned with delight and sank himself up to his neck. He was full of tasty food and finally clean after a few days of sleeping rough. He let his eyes flutter closed.
Next to him, he heard Yue Fengjian shift. After a moment, he opened his eyes.
Yue Fengjian was leaning against the side of his tub, supporting his temple on his fist. The dim lanterns still caught the water on his skin, making him almost glow in the low light. His hair was drying slowly, plastered against his shoulders. His eyes were half-lidded, but they roamed at liberty over what parts of Lian Zhidiao were visible.
Lian Zhidiao sank a little lower in the tub. “You’re watching me so intently.”
Thank goodness for the low light in here! After a few moments, Lian Zhidiao cleared his throat. “I got that demon’s name, by the way.”
That made Yue Fengjian lift his head off his fist.
“Does ‘Zhang Hundun’ mean anything to you?”
Yue Fengjian’s eyes narrowed and then he let out a breath. “No,” he said.
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but feel crestfallen. “Would you recognize a specific name?”
“I keep track of the ones we’ve killed.” Yue Fengjian lifted his hand and pushed it back over his head, collecting his hair under his palm and fluffing it a little. “Their numbers don’t feel endless if you can write down which ones are no longer a threat.”
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes slipped under Yue Fengjian’s arm, following the trail of a drop of water down over his chest before he snapped his head back in front of him and sank even lower in the water.
“How was your sword?”
Yue Fengjian had sunk down in his tub as well, but he was so tall that his knees stuck out of the water. “Your sword,” he said. “What does it do?”
“Ah.” Lian Zhidiao thought about teasing Yue Fengjian—you want to know more about the Betrayer’s sword?—but in the end, decided against it. “It calls lightning.”
“Oh.” Yue Fengjian’s voice was soft. Maybe he didn’t expect the sword of the Emperor’s killer to be that good? “Was that how you killed him?”
“Maybe. Probably?” Lian Zhidiao propped his feet up on the edge of the tub. “I cut off his head and took his core as well.”
A small chuckle came from Yue Fengjian’s tub.
“Striking him with lightning, cutting off his head and crushing his core? You’re very thorough.”
“I saw you do it to Tangyi,” Lian Zhidiao said. There was no need to say that the core was still rolling around in his storage ring; he could still find some place to destroy it where it wouldn’t matter if it poisoned everything for kilometers in every direction. “Should I have done more or less?”
“Usually cutting off the head is enough,” Yue Fengjian said.
“I took the core because I didn’t know how many of them were following me.”
Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow. “Prudent.” Yue Fengjian shifted forward in the tub and then stood up.
Lian Zhidiao kept his eyes firmly fixed on his toes at the end of his tub.
Just a few feet away, Yue Fengjian wrapped a cloth around himself, drying off with slow, thoughtful motions. “Come to think of it,” he mused aloud, “With your sword being…what it is, it might be good to teach you how to track a demon.”
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t help but turn and look at Yue Fengjian. “Really?” The question was barely out of his mouth before his eyes caught up with everything they were seeing. All his attempts to give Yue Fengjian a little privacy—and himself a little sanity—were for naught. He saw everything. His full chest, the serratus muscles around his ribs laddering down the sides of his body, the lean planes of his abs that cut in around his hips, the girdle of Apollo that guided his eyes further down, the dusting of dark hair that trailed down between his hips… Without meaning to, Lian Zhidiao’s mouth fell open a little. The seconds passed like minutes, in which he sat in full knowledge of the magnificence of Yue Fengjian’s body.
Mortified, he dragged his eyes up Yue Fengjian’s body to find that Yue Fengjian was looking directly at him, that same eyebrow lifted in interest. And then the corner of his mouth rose in a lopsided grin.
“Yes,” Yue Fengjian said, continuing on with the conversation like Lian Zhidiao hadn’t just been caught admiring the art. “There’s techniques for tracking both over land and in the air. Normally, lightning is a spun spell, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Lian Zhidiao squeaked, his voice as small as he dearly wanted to be at that moment.
“With the ability to call lightning while you fight, you could be a capable executioner.” Yue Fengjian sounded pleased with himself, and left the drying cloth on a small stool nearby while he put on his inner clothes. “Shipei and Kuaiyu are less adept at heavy killing, but I think you could really clear some terrain.” He sounded a little excited by the prospect.
As expected of a great military man.
Once Yue Fengjian had his inner clothes on, it was much less dangerous to look around the room. Spying his own drying cloth, Lian Zhidiao wrung out his hair and stood up to take his drying cloth. Attempting to keep the conversation light (and not directed at himself), Lian Zhidiao talked while he dried himself off. “It’s not as lively without them.”
“Mn,” Yue Fengjian replied.
With the rest of the cloth held against his body, Lian Zhidiao used one corner of it to blot his hair dry so he wouldn’t risk staining his robes. “Why don’t you travel with a retinue?” He looked over his shoulder at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian was watching him. He had that same deceptively drowsy look as before, but in truth, he was like a lion at his repast, gobbling up the view of Lian Zhidiao’s water-slick legs and backside.
Such a hungry look!
And then, he met Lian Zhidiao’s eyes in a smooth rise up his body, without even bothering to look away or seem embarrassed until Lian Zhidiao turned to hide his naked flanks. Then, at last, he seemed to realize what he’d been doing, and averted his eyes.
“I don’t see the need for a retinue,” he said, pulling on his middle clothes. “I can feed myself, wash myself, dress myself, and speak for myself without help. I don’t want to take competent people away from important work for the sake of vanity.”
Lian Zhidiao slipped on his inner clothes as fast as he could, awkwardly holding up the drying cloth until he could at least get the lower ones on. The innkeeper knocked at the door and told them their room was on the second floor, which Yue Fengjian answered with only a grunt of acknowledgement. Yue Fengjian didn’t look at him again even after he had put on his outer clothes and hastily put up his damp hair. Without a word, he slipped out of the bathhouse.
Did he get embarrassed by all the looking he was doing? Lian Zhidiao dressed himself thoughtfully, looking at the door. Serves him right, even if I was looking too.
He combed out his hair and patted it dry one more time before putting it up for the night. I didn’t intend to look at him like that, but having seen that, it certainly makes some things crystal clear.
As a writer of harem novels, he was familiar with several of the most widely-seen tropes across the genre. For the ones that dared to include any kind of lewd material, a certain amount of description was involved, and there were expectations about the harem protagonist. He would be strong, tall, and handsome. In the bedroom, he would be well-endowed, with the stamina of a bull and the sexual technique of a master of seduction. Convinced of the trope’s necessity by a vocal set of fans, Lian Zhidiao had just gone along with what everyone expected. He wrote a harem protagonist to be a paragon of masculinity and sexual prowess. He hadn’t yet seen the full reality of the situation, but from what he knew and what he had seen, there could be no doubt: Yue Fengjian was hung.
It wasn’t supposed to be my concern! Except that now, it kind of was his concern. He began to pity the heroines he’d written, trying to handle something like that during their sexual debut. Just thinking about it made him blush to the tips of his ears at the same time that he felt an unbearably tense anticipation tighten in his stomach.
It’s definitely a possibility that he’ll want to do something with me. Lian Zhidiao looked up at the ceiling, thinking about their room. They’d only kissed—really kissed—that day. He wasn’t ready to do anything else.
And Yue Fengjian, given the way he’d run hot and cold today, wasn’t ready either. Lian Zhidiao tied his belt tightly shut and apprehensively mounted the stairs. Or if he wanted to, they’d regret it later.
He stood in front of the door to their room, nervousness coiling and uncoiling in the pit of his stomach. Why was he so unsettled? Steeling himself, he opened the door and went in. Inside, there were two solidly-constructed wooden beds with black cushions, blankets, and bolsters, as well as a lantern, and a stone brazier with coals in it to keep the chill out. Yue Fengjian had picked one bed and was sitting on it, combing his hair out more thoroughly. He looked up as Lian Zhidiao came in, but closed his eyes again as he ran the comb through his hair.
Lian Zhidiao went to the other bed and sat down on it, taking off his boots. The knot of tension in his stomach frayed and relaxed: there were two beds.
But one bed wouldn’t have been so bad…
The realization painted a heavy blush on his cheeks, and he silently reached up and covered his face with both hands for several long moments.
“I take it you think I should be traveling with a retinue.”
Lian Zhidiao talked around his hands. “It seems appropriate for your rank. But Liao Kuaiyu, Yue Yaosa and the others… they don’t seem like a retinue.”
“We’re a hunting team. It’s more important that we bring different skills that work well together.”
He couldn’t help but think of how the ‘team’ wasn’t what it was before, with Hu Baitian and Yue Shipei in Shengmen City. “Hu Baitian was part of that team,” he said, trying to get his mind off the thought of just one bed with Yue Fengjian.
“Hu Baitian’s skills in the healing arts gave us a certain amount of autonomy. We could go on extended hunts, deep in enemy territory, without coming back for weeks.” Yue Fengjian put aside his comb, gathering his hair into a loose ponytail. “It will hurt to be without those skills, but he made his own decisions.”
Even after all the business with the Hidden Realm and the cursed sword, he still thinks it’s okay for Hu Baitian to go and me to stay. Lian Zhidiao watched Yue Fengjian put up his hair, chewing over his words. “If he came to you with his problem about his brother, then there must have been a demon involved, right?”
“He came to me and asked to be taught demon-hunting well before his brother disappeared.” Yue Fengjian carefully finished his ponytail, his hair as sleek as satin. “He asked for our help with his brother simply because we were friends. He’d had precious few of those, even after the Speakers cleared his name.”
“He’ll be going back to learning his father’s medical techniques instead of spending time with other sects.”
The scene in front of the Yuan palace replayed itself in his mind: the way Hu Baitian and his father dovetailed together, his father doting upon him, and Hu Baitian being relied upon for assistance in treating a very important client. They were close. Anything the elder Hu asked was something Hu Baitian would jump to accomplish. But given his father’s focus on medicine, it was unlikely that Hu Baitian’s time with the Wa and Yue sects was something his father approved of.
It had been fine for Hu Baitian to seek a semester abroad until it looked like he had found a place for himself outside the Yuan sect. Add in the disappearance of his brother, and any father would be eager to have his son come home and participate in the family business. Learning his techniques, slowly taking over his clients. Hu Baitian’s father would be at ease.
“Was his brother a doctor, too?”
Yue Fengjian stood up. “I don’t know.” With one puff of air, he blew out the lantern. “But I doubt it. I always got the sense that he didn’t tell Hu Baitian what he was doing away from their sect, which is why we had so little to go on in looking for him.”
Lian Zhidiao laid down and pulled a blanket over him, yawning. A vague memory tickled Lian Zhidiao’s brain. “Maybe like a Speaker? They travel a lot.”
“Mn,” Yue Fengjian replied. “They do.”
A few moments later, Yue Fengjian tucked his feet into bed. Lian Zhidiao heard Yue Fengjian stretch his body out the full length of the bed, and then roll over, facing away from him. After a few moments, Lian Zhidiao heard his breathing start to deepen.
He really can just lie down and fall right asleep in the middle of a conversation! Lian Zhidiao turned away from Yue Fengjian as well, letting out a small sigh. It’s for the best. He can tell when something is a bad idea. Restraining ourselves is the right choice.
But their earlier roll in the grass on the riverbank had done much to strip away the careful barriers he’d constructed to blind himself to Yue Fengjian’s desire. He couldn’t ignore that, or the answering desire in his own heart.
It kept him awake long after Yue Fengjian had nodded off.
After the night that Lian Zhidiao had gone through, lying in the warm, sweet grass with Yue Fengjian was Paradise. Yue Fengjian’s arms curled around his back like his hands were trying to push up the hem of his robe, or to pull it apart. Lian Zhidiao rested fully against him, rising and falling with every eager breath Yue Fengjian took. His palms lay on Yue Fengjian’s chest, with Yue Fengjian’s thigh sliding up to part his knees. His inner robe wasn’t tied shut—not really—and Yue Fengjian’s hands scorched through it anyway. Just being held by him lit up Lian Zhidiao’s skin like fireworks.
Every kiss that ended was followed by Yue Fengjian lingering in his space, their lips just a hair’s breadth apart, as if he was weighing the price of kissing him again. Dazed by their embrace, Lian Zhidiao had no room to object as Yue Fengjian claimed his mouth with a deep kiss that made his toes curl. Lian Zhidiao sighed against him. It was a bad idea, and Yue Fengjian had to know it too.
But his kisses were intoxicating, and Lian Zhidiao held on to Yue Fengjian’s neck even as he shifted and rolled him over. Lian Zhidiao held his breath at the delicious weight of Yue Fengjian settling on top of him.
Is he going to do ‘something’ to me? Or with me? Here, in broad daylight on a riverbank in the middle of nowhere? The thought of something like ‘that’ happening made him shiver in anticipation. Lian Zhidiao could hardly put his wits back in order before Yue Fengjian pressed their foreheads together. This time, Yue Fengjian kissed him slowly, his hand at Lian Zhidiao’s jaw, the gentle pressure of his fingers enough to hold him still. Lian Zhidiao was caught by his touch, the whole of their embrace seeming to balance on his fingertips, until Yue Fengjian reluctantly ended the kiss.
This shouldn’t be happening. I don’t want to stop him, but I should. This will ruin his chances in the Final Battle, leave him too weak to destroy the enemy that awaited them. Heavy-lidded, Lian Zhidiao eyes roamed down Yue Fengjian’s neckline, below the edge of his collar. If he doesn’t get the support of the sects, he won’t have enough men to face the demon hordes. Reluctantly, he placed a kiss at the corner of Yue Fengjian’s mouth, and let his head fall back into the grass. Even so, I’m glad he’s here.
“How did you find me?”
Yue Fengjian’s voice was hoarse. “I left as soon as I knew you were being pursued, picked up the trail of a demon not long after that,” he replied. “It wasn’t hard to work out who he was tracking. But he was being careful.” He paused, gathering his thoughts, brow furrowing as he looked at Lian Zhidiao underneath him. “He was nearly a day ahead of me.” With Lian Zhidiao’s life on the line, he’d been flying as fast as he could, all the time fearing he would be too late.
“How many were there?”
“Just one,” Yue Fengjian replied. “I lost his trail some distance back.” He searched Lian Zhidiao’s face, and then reached up and tucked one of the loose locks of Lian Zhidiao’s hair back behind his ear. “I feared the worst. But you’re safe.”
Lian Zhidiao could hear the relief in Yue Fengjian’s voice, gusting out of him like a sigh he hardly dared to let go. His heart felt like it was going to burst. “You were worried he’d kill me.”
The stern set of Yue Fengjian’s eyebrows softened. “Many months without a sword would have dulled your martial senses.” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed tightness in his throat.
“I flew out just fine,” Lian Zhidiao replied, feeling a little smug. “The demon wasn’t too much of a problem either.” The body of a prodigy certainly had its benefits.
A guarded look slowly came over Yue Fengjian’s face. “It takes weeks to get used to a spiritual weapon.”
“I didn’t have weeks.” I barely had minutes before I was fleeing for my life.
“Was…” Yue Fengjian hesitated. “Your spiritual weapon. It’s not Fengxueya, is it?”
Lian Zhidiao grimaced. Did that demon just yell everything out to anyone within earshot?! Vigilant, Yue Fengjian’s eyes never left his face, Lian Zhidiao’s obvious discomfort absolutely excruciating. Yue Fengjian wanted to hear Lian Zhidiao deny it, to triumphantly announce that he’d gotten his sword back, that it was all a mistake. He could lie, but the truth of it was only ten feet away, bared to Yue Fengjian’s gaze.
Lian Zhidiao let out a small, defeated puff of air. “It’s not Fengxueya anymore.”
A hard edge entered Yue Fengjian’s voice. “So the rumors are true?”
Lian Zhidiao swallowed a lump in his throat. “I don’t know what rumors you heard, so I don’t know if they’re true or not.”
“That the sword that killed the Emperor has chosen a new master. The sword of the Betrayer is back, in the hands of a Wa cultivator—” Yue Fengjian cut himself short, as if there were other, less savory things that he’d heard. The stern look settled back on Yue Fengjian’s brow as his expression darkened. “The entire district around the Sacred Gate was in chaos.”
“…It’s true.” Lian Zhidiao said, his ardor wilting.
“I told you not to take long. I didn’t mean you should grab the first cursed sword you saw and dash right out again,” Yue Fengjian grumbled, easing his weight off of Lian Zhidiao.
“I didn’t know how long it was going to take,” Lian Zhidiao protested, already missing the warmth of Yue Fengjian’s body, already wishing for that weight on top of him again in spite of himself. “And it’s not cursed.”
“Most people take three or four days, not a day and a half.” Yue Fengjian stood up and picked up Wallbreaker from where it lay next to them in the grass. “And it is cursed.”
“It…” Lian Zhidiao got to his feet and picked Shanzhen up. His tone was insistent. “It doesn’t feel cursed, not to me.”
Yue Fengjian rubbed one of his temples. “You can’t keep it.”
After all I went through to get it?!
“It’s my spiritual weapon, not a lost kitten,” Lian Zhidiao snapped. “And it can’t be returned until I’m dead, anyway.”
Exasperated, Yue Fengjian put one hand on his hip. “Why? Why this sword? Why not any of the others?”
Lian Zhidiao was brought up short by the question, and all the emotions that had flooded him when he picked up Shanzhen surged forth again. It’s not a simple answer…
“Does the sword of a traitor resonate with you?” Yue Fengjian’s voice was the sharpest Lian Zhidiao had ever heard it. “Does it speak to you?”
“When you got your spiritual weapon, did yours speak to you?” Lian Zhidiao fingers tightened around Shanzhen’s scabbard as he looked up into Yue Fengjian’s face.
“It…” Yue Fengjian glanced down at Wallbreaker in his hand, and then shook his head. “No, it was silent.”
“But there were others, right? Other swords you touched, and they had a feeling about them? Or maybe they even said something?”
“You’re not supposed to touch all the swords, only your own!”
Lian Zhidiao blinked. Is he actually angry at me? “…What do you think the sword of a betrayer would feel like?”
“There’s nothing to feel or experience. It may be the most important tool you have, but it’s still just a tool.” Yue Fengjian’s expression was beleaguered.
“It wasn’t like that in the Hidden Realm. Several of the swords… communicated with me. I waited until I felt one that was clearly for me.”
“You’re supposed to do that in the first place,” Yue Fengjian scolded him. “Not walk around and touch everything like you’re looking to loot the place.”
Lian Zhidiao “I was only able to take this one; the other swords refused my hand.”
“And it was the sword that killed the White Emperor.”
Lian Zhidiao hesitated, and then looked down at Shanzhen’s black scabbard, the silver clouds rolling over the hilt. “I…know that is what is said or recorded about it. But I don’t know if I believe it.” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yue Fengjian shaking his head, but he continued. “When I accepted the sword—or it accepted me—it was filled with devotion and duty.” He didn’t mention the love and yearning in the blade. Things were bad enough without Yue Fengjian realizing the love—not the traitorous murder—was the part that resonated with him.
Yue Fengjian’s expression swung between anguish and derision. Lian Zhidiao’s heart twisted to see him struggling. He clearly didn’t want to even think about its loathsome history. Maybe he felt a little pity for Lian Zhidiao being the one to carry such a woe-stained weapon. “What were you doing here, anyway?” he said in a muted tone. His eyes flitted over Lian Zhidiao dressed only in his inner clothes, as if the thought just occurred to him. “And in such disarray.”
So he’s going to let it lie… Lian Zhidiao gladly accepted the change in subject. It was better than continuing to argue over something that couldn’t be changed. “Do you remember the memory in the jade slip?”
“The one we left with Uncle.” Yue Fengjian nodded, his eyes narrowing.
“Do you remember how he hid little bundles under a tree and in a box?” Lian Zhidiao fiddled with the closure of his inner robe, preparing to take it off again.
“You think that’s here?”
“There was a stump further upstream, with that same strange hollow in it.”
“There wasn’t anything there, but… I don’t think they were that important.” Lian Zhidiao pulled his inner robe off and started to pull a few fistfuls of grass up to make a pathway over the muddy flat. “Remember, ‘one more for A-Feng, the most important one’. I think he was trying to confuse whoever—whatever was following him.”
Yue Fengjian mulled this over in silence, his arms folded over his chest. “…You really think the box is still down there?”
Lian Zhidiao shrugged one shoulder. “I won’t know until I look.” He laid down the grass in a small raft over the mud, and then gave the cold, black river a resigned look. I really didn’t want to before, but maybe a dunk in a lot of freezing cold water would help me clear my head of those kisses. He gathered his fists to get up his determinination, and turned and looked over his bare shoulder at Yue Fengjian, who was giving the river an equally dubious look. “If you’d turn around, please.”
Yue Fengjian bristled and then turned around to look up the bank.
With this gesture as his only shred of modesty, Lian Zhidiao skinnied out of his inner clothes, leaving them on the nearest tuft of grass, and picked his way down the grass bridge until he could dip a toe in the water.
COLD! How the hell did he swim in this? But he couldn’t stop now, not with his suspicions about what might be waiting at the bottom. Maybe going in all at once is the best way, just rip the bandage off. He jumped forward till he was immersed up to his waist, and could not help but let out a whimpering yelp.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m… fine,” Lian Zhidiao chattered, calming his breathing. It felt like his balls were trying to climb up inside his skull to get away from the river. “It’s really cold.”
“I remember,” Yue Fengjian said, half-turning in place.
“Stay facing that way,” Lian Zhidiao said through his clenched teeth.
Yue Fengjian turned back toward the bank.
No reason to drag this out. Just get it over with as soon as possible.
Carefully regulating his breathing, he strode down the river bank until he was up to his neck. When he was sure his cold-shocked body wouldn’t inadvertently gasp in the cold river water, he took a deep breath and plunged beneath the surface.
The frigid water was fast-moving; he had to swim strongly to even stay in one place. Every time he peeled his eyes open even a little, the current threatened to tear his eyelids open. Swimming upstream and then turning himself underwater to protect his eyes from the current, he scanned the river bottom. Everything was blurry, and he was moving so much that it was hard to see any of the shapes at the bottom.
Then, on his second pass over the river bottom, he saw a funny little pile of stones.
Kicking his feet, he swam down to them, closing his eyes as much as he could. With one hand, he held on to a large flat stone jammed into the riverbed. With the other, he removed the stones one-by-one. When he was down to the last one, he groped his fingers into a crevice between the rocks and felt the hard, square edge of a box.
He held down the box with one hand to keep it from floating away, and then shuffled the last rock aside with his feet. The box came loose from a coffin of sand, which had slowly filled in the cracks in the cairn, cementing its contents in place. With his prize in hand, Lian Zhidiao pushed up off the riverbed and kicked his feet toward shore.
He broke the surface with a great gasp, looking toward the shore. Yue Fengjian was searching the river surface with his characteristic stern expression.
After I told him not to look!
Lian Zhidiao’s feet found the sandy part of the river bottom close to the muddy bank, and he crouched in the river, meeting Yue Fengjian’s judgemental gaze.
“Are you waiting for me to freeze to death in this river? Or will you turn around?”
Exasperated, Yue Fengjian chose the latter.
Lian Zhidiao stood up out of the water, slinging his wet hair out of his face.
“You were underwater for a long time,” Yue Fengjian called over his shoulder.
“It’s hard to see underwater.” He glanced at Yue Fengjian’s broad back, and thought for a moment about asking him to help comb his hair out. A few seconds of imagining Yue Fengjian’s fingers threading through his hair, and he was grateful that his body was still nearly frozen.
“Did you find it?”
Lian Zhidiao looked down at the fatwood box in his hands. It was darkened with age, but water still beaded up at some places, so it may still have had some effect at conservation of the contents. “Yes.” Lian Zhidiao picked up his inner clothes, walking up the grass raft to keep his feet from being muddy. Once he was behind Yue Fengjian, he reached around him and offered him the box. “Hold it while I get dressed.”
At Lian Zhidiao’s voice so close to him, Yue Fengjian stiffened, but he gently—almost reverently—took the fatwood box from Lian Zhidiao’s ice cold fingers.
Getting dressed was a bit more difficult than he thought it would be; his clothes stuck to his still-wet skin. Annoyed, he blew a little qi out of his body, getting everything just dry enough that he could stand to put his clothes back on. Each layer was sun-warmed and dry, so he was positively toasty by the time he was tying his spindle-weight back around his body.
Yue Fengjian stopped averting his eyes once Lian Zhidiao was more modestly attired. He had the unflappable confidence of someone who felt he won the substance of an argument, even though the argument was far from decided. With nothing left for Lian Zhidiao to do, he walked forward and offered the small wooden box.
Faltering for a moment, Lian Zhidiao could hardly help but be reminded of a man offering a ring.
But looking at Yue Fengjian, it was clear he thought nothing of offering the box this way. The similarity to a modern romantic proposal for marriage existed only in Lian Zhidiao’s own mind, a product of wishful thinking. Pushing the frivolous thought away, he accepted the box with both hands.
I hope there’s something inside here, for all the trouble it was to get it.
He sat down in the grass. Yue Fengjian took that as an invitation and sat down next to him, so close their arms were almost touching. “Open it.”
Fighting down the butterflies that fluttered in his stomach at Yue Fengjian saying that in his deep voice, Lian Zhidiao pushed at the lid of the fatwood box. Still impregnated with fat, the top slid aside easily.
Inside, there was a wad of black silk.
Lian Zhidiao’s heart started to race. He looked up at Yue Fengjian.
Yue Fengjian leaned in even closer.
Swallowing down his nervousness, Lian Zhidiao pulled out the bundle. Amazingly, the box had worked so well to protect it that the silk was still dry. Lian Zhidiao gingerly pulled the black silk apart, and the white-and-gold fabric came into view, stained dark brown with dried blood. The white-and-gold was a heavy brocade, with dragons grasping branches of peach blossoms in five claws.
With trembling fingers, Lian Zhidiao pushed open the blood-stained brocade.
Nestled inside was a small carving of a dragon about as long as his palm, made from magnificently pure, translucent green jade.
Yue Fengjian was speechless, only able to let out a small breath.
This can only be something of the White Emperor’s. Lian Zhidiao touched the small carving; it was so delicate and beautiful he worried that even touching it might damage it.
“The man in the memory…” Even with his arm torn off, surely bleeding to death, he had risked everything to hide this jade figurine, a priceless piece of art with unknown personal meaning to Shanyin, the White Emperor. A Wa sect member close enough to the White Emperor to take his valued possession, wrapped in a scrap of silk brocade stained in his blood… “Doesn’t this mean he is Jiang Huolu?”
“It doesn’t seem that he could be anyone else.”
“‘They’re coming, they’ll find it,’” Lian Zhidiao quoted. “‘Have to hide it for A-Feng.’”
“I know,” Yue Fengjian said. He sounded shaken.
“Whatever this is,” Lian Zhidiao said, wrapping the silk back over the bundle, “he hid it at the cost of his own life.”
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
“No.” Lian Zhidiao said. Feeling like the dragon carving needed to be protected just as Jiang Huolu had protected it, Lian Zhidiao put it back in the fatwood box and then dropped it in his storage ring. “It doesn’t seem like the actions of a betrayer.”
“It’s too convenient for a Wa sect member to discover that his sect’s greatest shame may not be what it seems.” Yue Fengjian’s eyes lifted to meet Lian Zhidiao’s; he was measured and slow, laying out the evidence behind his suspicions. “Especially if he carries the sword that is the source of that shame.”
There was still the note of accusation in his voice, as if Lian Zhidiao had any control over which sword he’d gotten. A pang of sadness rang in Lian Zhidiao’s heart.
Yue Fengjian gave him an appraising look, and spoke slowly. “You have this memory of the betrayer that no one else recognizes. You were not able to use your spiritual weapon, only to have the Hidden Realm award you the sword of the Emperor’s murderer?” Yue Fengjian shook his head.
“You don’t trust me?”
Yue Fengjian was silent.
Lian Zhidiao’s stomach dropped like a stone. After all he’d done to be useful, after they’d spent so much time together, after they’d given in to something raw and passionate that had them clinging to each other in a riverside meadow? He was still so quick to suspect him? Lian Zhidiao folded his hands in his lap, considering his words carefully before he spoke up.
“When I was in the Yue family castle, when I was at the Quanyuan with so much deviate qi in my other core that I could have poisoned the earth for generations, I didn’t. When your lands were threatened by the qilin, and the choice was between letting you be cursed or doing what needed to be done, I did what needed to be done.” He held back a sudden stinging in his eyes with an iron will. “Can you trust that?”
Yue Fengjian was silent for a long time, all but caressing Lian Zhidiao’s face with his eyes. There was a conflict between suspicion and sorrow in his face, a back-and-forth that was rootless, writhing inside him. Then, with a short breath, he broke their eye contact and turned away from him. “For now.”
END OF SHENGMEN CITY ARC
NEXT ARC: WA-GUIZAI
Content Warning For Chapter 50: Gore, Decapitation
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes widened. Where did he go?
The sound of the river flowing filled his ears. He turned in place, his boot scraping up some of the river pebbles. But there was nothing behind him, not a whiff of perfume or incense or blood, no sound of breathing or gnashing of teeth.
Maybe stopping to face him was a bad idea… although I don’t really like the idea of fighting in flight either.
He shook his head, turning in place again and looking around him. He had to think. What advantages did he have? What advantages did the demon have?
He frowned, trying to figure out what he knew. The demon didn’t have a sword; the impression that he was a cultivator flying like any other cultivator would have been part of the illusion.
But he had that dagger, the one made with black steel. He’ll have to move quickly and get inside my guard to use it or risk being run through. Being armed with only a dagger also means ambush is his best chance of catching me.
Lian Zhidiao turned again, backing up toward the river. But no sword means he can fly on his own, or maybe he has some other device he’s using to fly. Perhaps he used a jade tool, or whatever demons used instead of jade tools.
Flight and ambush means…
He felt the killing intent wink into existence above him, boring into his skull, down his spine. It skewered him, an awful, bladed spit, from nose to tip. He raised Shanzhen even as he lifted his head. Their eyes met above their blades, the faint glow of demon-red already visible in twilight. The black, nameless dagger met Shanzhen, white with lightning.
A wave of pressure exploded from them where they met, blowing the two of them apart. The demon’s snarling howl echoed off the river.
Lian Zhidiao stared wide-eyed, at the furrow carved between them, at his enemy, fully stripped of the illusion of being human. The demon’s loose white hair tangled around his horns as he spit fury in a language Lian Zhidiao did not know.
“You went to so much effort to follow me from Shengmen City. You should curse my blood so that I can understand you,” he admonished. “Your name, demon.”
The demon’s red eyes narrowed, the only part of color in his entire body. “Do you want this mighty one’s name to be the last thing to echo in your round ears?”
“I will give my name as well, so that it can be the last thing to cut into yours.”
The demon growled. “This mighty one is called Zhang Hundun, though knowing it will not give you the upper hand.”
“I am Lian Zhidiao. You may call me gongzi, if you wish.”
Anger took hold of Zhang Hundun, and he snarled, “Such impudence! You’ve not earned any deference from me. This mighty one cannot see it!”
Lian Zhidiao’s connection with Shanzhen was strong, but he fed it more of his qi, joining them together more completely. “Come at me directly, then, and I will show you.”
Zhang Hundun launched himself at Lian Zhidiao.
Though the Wa sect was obsessed with beauty, when it came to swordplay, their techniques resembled those of the Yue sect much more than those of their allies, the Zhou. Where the Zhou sword moved fluidly to exploit holes that the enemy left on his own, the Wa sect created openings with quick, misleading movements, or outright sabotage. It was about using whatever weaknesses the enemy had against him, then dominating him with a sudden blow of cruelty.
As a magician, he had the option of spinning qi into elemental magic. As someone who did not sight along his spindle like an arrow, who could understand the jade spindle-weight as the sights of a gun, he was singularly deadly.
The swordplay which Lian Zhidiao had known for months in a purely academic sense, which had seemed lifeless and tired without a spiritual weapon, now awakened in his arms and legs. The constant, grinding point of killing intent against his chest made clear that he could not afford to hesitate even for a moment. If he did, he would die.
The dagger was aimed at his heart; Shanzhen rang as it struck the blade and dragged down the metal. They were face-to-face, Zhang Hundun trying to push his dagger home, and Lian Zhidiao holding him at bay.
With a shout, Lian Zhidiao pushed the demon off of him and made space with a swing of Shanzhen; lightning crawled down the blade. He spun metal through the silk belt; it would not take much. He held the string of qi taut; his spindle-weight hovered at his side, out of the way of his sword.
Zhang Hundun came at him again, riving the air with the dagger.
Lian Zhidiao parried him once, twice, clang, clang.
Undaunted, Zhang Hundun launched himself forward.
Lian Zhidiao parried again, turning in place. He planted his foot, raised his sword and then let his metal spell fly.
The crack of a gunshot echoed across the river. It didn’t hit Zhang Hundun, but it didn’t matter. Flinching, the demon raised his dagger. Lian Zhidiao stepped into the opening in Zhang Hundun’s defenses and brought Shanzhen up, turning the thread of qi between him and his sword into a rope, into a bridge, into a highway. He was looking into the demon’s eyes when Shanzhen bit into his side and a column of lightning blinded them both.
A clap of thunder split the cloudless night sky. The acrid smell of ozone filled the air; Lian Zhidiao had no choice but to breathe it in. Blinded by the afterimage, his ears ringing, he didn’t let go of Shanzhen. He could feel weight on the end of it. And then he felt it slowly slide off.
He produced a flame from his spindle-weight, blinking against the dark-bright shape of light still buzzing in his vision.
Lying on the river rocks was Zhang Hundun, his face frozen in a grimace.
Without hesitating, Lian Zhidiao stumbled over and grabbed that white hair in his fist. With two blows from Shanzhen, the heavy weight of Zhang Hundun’s head was dangling from his fingers.
He threw it away from him with a grunt and sank to his knees.
It’s over. He’s dead, it’s over.
His eyes fell upon the dagger in Zhang Hundun’s hand.
No, there’s one more thing that has to be done, isn’t there?
He ripped open the front of Zhang Hundun’s robes with it, like cutting open a parcel. Somewhere near the dantian…
The black blade was wickedly sharp. Zhang Hundun’s flesh seemed to fall apart almost before the edge touched him. Lian Zhidiao pulled his sleeve back and pushed his hand inside the wound he’d made. The demon’s innards were tight and bitterly cold, in a way that seemed to suck the heat from his skin. He could feel nothing but blood and slime and the tense, marble-like smoothness of muscle, and was about to give up looking when his fingers grazed something round. Carefully, carefully, Lian Zhidiao closed his hand around it and brought it out. Within a few moments, Zhang Hundun’s midsection caved in. His skin turned gray, like a log burned to coals, and his body began to collapse into piles of ash.
Lian Zhidiao opened his fingers.
Cupped in his palm was a sphere, perfectly black, but not like the color of his robes, or his hair. This blackness consumed the light of his torch and returned a dulled reflection only when the flame was very close and very bright.
A demon core.
A quick glance over at where he’d thrown Zhang Hundun’s head showed that it, too, was crumbling into powder. So it wasn’t Yue Fengjian crushing the demon core that destroyed the body. Taking possession of the core itself destroys the body. Lian Zhidiao took in a deep breath. Good to know, but now what do I do with it?
The core was full of demonic energy, the refined form of deviate qi. If deviate qi alone could turn the earth tainted, then demonic energy might well turn the earth crawling in one fell swoop. In Sancha Town, the earth had already been tainted, so adding whatever was in a demon core, even a strong one, was unlikely to make things worse. But here…
Lian Zhidiao took a moment to use earth-seeing, pressing his mind into the ground. To his dismay, everything here seemed relatively normal, with correct and deviate qi in balance. Lingering in his mind was the image of the ground he’d poisoned with just a mouthful of deviate qi from the qilin. Without a jade beast, who knew how long that would take to fade away? The stuff in a demon core had to be at least that concentrated, if not more so. But demons became more powerful by consuming the cores of other demons. So leaving it here for something else to find was out of the question.
Lian Zhidiao looked up at the night sky, the unfamiliar waning moon, the stars in their different patterns. In the high steppes, it was too dangerous for humans to fly at night. They’d even landed well before sunset if it meant they wouldn’t make it to another caravanserai before night fell.
Yue Fengjian definitely wouldn’t attempt to fly at night; he knew the dangers too well. Demons, however, were at their strongest and most mobile at night. A lightning strike on a clear evening would probably draw the attention of anything in the vicinity looking to exploit a weak target.
He couldn’t stay here and be prey for the demons, he could neither destroy the demon core nor leave it here, and Yue Fengjian definitely wouldn’t be coming to his rescue before dawn.
A small bubble of water from his spindle-weight cleaned his hands, the dagger, and the demon core. Contact with water hardened the outside of the demon core into a glassy surface that now properly reflected light, like a marble of pure black jet.
Lian Zhidiao took the storage ring out of his robes and opened it, then slipped the dagger and the demon core inside and tucked the ring away again. He dropped Shanzhen for flight. With a kick to scatter the last of Zhang Hundun, he slipped off in low flight over the black water. He stole away from the scene of his fight, hiding the faint sounds of his escape in the noise of the river.
Without light to guide him, he went fast, but not far. The river crept down over the countryside, hemmed in by trees and heavy brush. Then, on the south bank, the bank was wrapped in soft grasses. Lian Zhidiao dropped into the grasses like he would fall into a thick feather bed. It was a chilly night, but he didn’t dare build a fire; it would draw too much attention. He tucked himself under the leaves and fell into an uneasy sleep, jerking awake at the soft hooting of owls, or the occasional splash of a fish. By the time dawn began to limn the horizon, he was sleeping soundly.
Hours later, warmed by the rays of the sun, Lian Zhidiao slowly opened his eyes, squinting up at the bright sky. Slowly, it all sank in—all that had happened the day before. He watched birds twitter and flap about overhead, feeling tired and slightly numb.
I should keep going. But exhaustion weighed down his arms and legs, and he didn’t get up to continue flying.
A magpie flew low across the river and over his head, coming to rest on the tall silver stump of a tree that had been split in a storm. Resplendent in black and white, the magpie lingered where it landed, on the edge of a strangely-shaped hollow, and then leaned down to scrape its beak on the wood.
Lian Zhidiao rolled to his side, looking at the magpie, and then at the tree.
I feel like I have seen a tree like that before.
The magpie turned its dark head toward him and gave a sharp call, like a burst of fire from a laser rifle in a video game.
The strange hollow called his attention, dark in the silver, weathered wood; he traced it with his eye. Slowly, the hair on the back of his neck began to stand on end.
Lian Zhidiao stumbled to his feet. The magpie called a warning of short, angry screeches, to which Lian Zhidiao bowed his head. Agitated, the magpie flew away, but Lian Zhidiao could not escape the pull the tree had on him. Even though the hollow looked inviting, as if the magpie would have hidden trinkets inside, he knelt in front of it.
Something was buried here, wasn’t there?
He pulled the grass between the roots up by the fistful, clearing away the worms and beetles.
It WAS here, wasn’t it?
But though he pawed through the damp earth, getting mud under his fingernails, there was nothing there. A blood-soaked token buried here had long ago been sniffed out and dug up. Deflated, he sat on his knees for a moment before he remembered.
No, there was one more, the most important one. He turned and looked at the river. One more for A-Feng.
He hopped on Shanzhen, flying slowly over the river. He inspected the overgrowth on either side, looking into the shadows for things he recognized. The encroachment of nature over the bridge was so complete that he would have missed it entirely if the stones scattered on the shore had not been so regularly shaped. Under a carpet of deep green leaves, he could just make out the dressed stone of bridge abutments.
The high arch bridge collapsed. And just beyond the bridge… Lian Zhidiao craned his neck as he floated past the vine-encrusted stone.
A muddy shore, and beyond it, a flat bank, thick with sweet field grasses.
The thrill of discovery raced down his spine. Just like in the memory.
He looked at the river, remembering how cold the water was, how swift the current. From his previous experience with rivers, Lian Zhidiao knew that he would not want to get dunked in this one and spend the rest of the day shivering.
Stripping naked to keep his clothes dry was the sensible choice.
His eyes fell on the ruined bridge. No road, no traffic, and no signs of anyone living on the river either, so he wasn’t likely to inadvertently flash anyone.
Lian Zhidiao carefully set Shanzhen down in the grass, far away from the water. His warm, dry boots were used to keep it up off the grass, away from any dew that might still be lingering. He untied the woven silk belt with his spindle weight, and put that next to Shanzhen. Then he uncinched his sash and peeled away his outer robes until he was just in his inner clothes.
He loosened his upper garment and slipped it off his thin shoulders. As he folded it to put on top of his robes, an autumn wind snaked around him, making gooseflesh rise on his skin. He chafed his arms with a doubtful look at the black river.
Why couldn’t I have found this place in the heat of summer? The cold might have been refreshing then!
He delayed a little longer, dreading the icy plunge.
And it was at this moment that another cultivator zipped down the river, a blur of red as fast as a falcon.
While I am in THIS state of undress, no less!
Lian Zhidiao had just registered that it was a human, in red, when the cultivator wheeled around, and Lian Zhidiao recognized that strong physique, that huge sword, that high ponytail rippling in the wind. Lian Zhidiao fumbled for his inner robe, hastily wrapping it back around his body. Equal measures of surprised, relieved, and embarrassed, Lian Zhidiao still couldn’t keep a brilliant smile from lighting up his face as Yue Fengjian landed on the grassy bank, just a few meters away from him.
Wallbreaker sheathed itself in Yue Fengjian’s hand; he was breathing heavily, as if he had been sprinting since daylight broke. He had his usual stern expression, but his keen eyes raked Lian Zhidiao, even as he closed the distance between them.
“Yue Fengjian—” Lian Zhidiao’s words died in his throat as Yue Fengjian swept him into his arms, holding him close. His hand rested protectively over Lian Zhidiao’s head; the sound of his thundering heart filled Lian Zhidiao’s ears.
Lian Zhidiao was frozen in shock. His inner clothes weren’t even closed all the way, he was a mess from the fight and about to freeze himself to the bone in a river, and he’d intended to get to an inn and make himself presentable, and then maybe he could think about returning all the debts of hospitality that he owed Yue Fengjian for all these months—
Yue Fengjian pulled back slightly, and tipped Lian Zhidiao’s head back. Then, with no one watching, he lowered his head and kissed Lian Zhidiao.
All of the yearning that Lian Zhidiao had so prudently held back in Shengmen City burst free, sweeping him away. Yue Fengjian was still out of breath, pulling Lian Zhidiao closer, into a hungrier, deeper kiss. Lian Zhidiao wound his arms around Yue Fengjian’s neck, knowing that this was worse than a terrible idea. But then Yue Fengjian’s lips crept away from his mouth, burning a trail of fire along his jaw. Lian Zhidiao stiffened, tense as a bowstring at the warmth of Yue Fengjian’s kisses at his earlobe, the heavy panting in his hair. He could not hear Yue Fengjian getting so carried away and not get carried away himself. The quivering passion in his belly demanded he give in, and he did, leaning forward.
Breathless, Yue Fengjian gave in as well. His knees buckled, and he pulled Lian Zhidiao down on top of him in the sweet grass.
Lian Zhidiao awoke when the morning light was dew-laden and blue. He had fallen asleep with his arms wrapped around Shanzhen, the spiritual weapon he’d risked everything to get. With the scabbard as his pillow, he wouldn’t be surprised to find the imprint of a cloud on his cheek. He couldn’t help but chuckle inwardly.
Somehow I became the image of a hardened swordsman who falls asleep holding his sword, ready to fight at the slightest sound.
The sand in his eyes put the lie to that thought almost as soon as it was formed: he had been so exhausted, almost nothing could have roused him. The fire had burned down to warm-white coals; the ash stirred in the morning breeze. He had no food, no water.
Once I’m a little farther away from the Yuan sect, it’ll probably be okay to find a room while traveling. Less likely to be turned over by an innkeeper.
But first, now that he had escaped the Yuan sect’s clutches, he had to make sure he stayed both free and breathing. And that meant understanding—and using—the Swords of the Myriad Dead.
He could use only five swords, with varied techniques; clearly Guizai (or the original Lian Zhidiao) had thought it wise to take a generalistic ‘toolbox’ approach. Combat abilities were a common component of spiritual weapons, being the backbone of most, if not all of them. But as Lian Zhidiao was now recalling, there were a few spiritual weapons whose abilities were not about overpowering your opponent. In fact, he had one in his arsenal that might be able to answer whether he should continue on to the Wa sect or go back to find Yue Fengjian. He fed Shanzhen a thread of qi and began.
The sword’s name was Liuxingdilian, Lotus Dripping With Stars; Lian Zhidiao could see it clearly in his mind’s eye. An elegant jian with a large white jade cabochon carved like a lotus, and a pearl-ornamented tassel. The feelings of this spiritual weapon’s former wielder were stuck in the jade of this sword; Lian Zhidiao settled them on top of his own mind, like wearing a mask.
Lian Zhidiao felt a presence, like someone stepping close to him.
The sword’s wielder was a scholar from the Yuan sect, an oracle—no, an astrologer. There was a sense of irritation, like at any moment someone would grumble, ‘This had better be a good use of my time.’
The Speakers were new. Their art involved placing carved jade weights on the tongues of corpses, directing the qi from roaring earth to blow through the body. Words sighed out of the cadaver, like notes out of a flute when the wind whistled through it. The Astrologer loathed the practice; this was not the way to seek answers. If there were answers to be gotten, the stars alone would provide.
There was an image of water on a lotus leaf. In his hand, the lightning needle became the lotus leaf; not a black sword, but white. Not a heavenly judge, but a vessel that collected the signs.
Lian Zhidiao turned his sword so that his palm was up; he couldn’t explain why, but it felt appropriate. There was a sensation in his hand that he was holding the leaf like a bowl, watching the droplets skate around. The lotus leaf appeared in light over his sword hand, a glamour, a suggestion. The dawning sky overhead darkened; he was illuminated only by starlight. The scholar knew; Lian Zhidiao knew as well. They were not simply droplets, but earthly mirrors, moving in a regular, predictable pattern, like the stars in the night sky.
The drops circled; the heavens wheeled overhead.
Lian Zhidiao felt the question more than phrased it, because it was the first thing that rose in his mind, the first thing that he wanted to know about: Yue Fengjian.
The droplets stopped in place, tense, trembling like bells that had been struck. Then they came together in one shining pool in the center of the leaf, perfect and round.
And then the illusion started to fade. The mansions in the heavens receded into the blackness of the firmament. The presence stepped away. The blushing sky of dawn returned, supplanting the illusion of a starlit night. The last traces of Liuxingdilian’s image over Shanzhen disappeared with a sparkle of light, and the Astrologer was gone. He had asked and received his answer.
But Lian Zhidiao had no idea what it actually meant.
Perhaps the Astrologer would know better how to interpret this, whether weal or woe. He had the resolute sense that the Astrologer would not intercede with the heavens on his behalf again for some time. But even if Lian Zhidiao had not received a direct answer to the loud, unformed din of worries for Yue Fengjian, the wholeness of the water at the center of the leaf lightened Lian Zhidiao’s heart a little.
Three of the other four swords were best used in combat: Scattering Petals Snow Armor, Wings For A Hunting Tiger, and Stealing The Earth’s Breath. The last, Veil Of The Benevolent Mother, was a sword that could be called upon as a last resort, when defeat was inevitable and the only way to survive was to escape.
He hoped he’d never have to use it.
He considered himself and Shanzhen. Their connection was not at all like using Swords of the Myriad Dead. There was no presence to stand with him, only the sword as an extension of himself. When he spun it in his hand, his body remembered the feeling of a sword’s weight. The purple jade was a conduit, a transformative medium burgeoning with vitality. He felt as if he could strike out with Shanzhen, and there would be retribution in every one of its blows.
To test it, he swung his sword, and a faint crackle of blue-white electricity sizzled on the edge of the blade. At the same time, he felt a heavy pull on the thread of qi between them, and understood at once the special gift that Shanzhen possessed.
In the hands of a neophyte, Shanzhen was little more than an electrified saber; a meat cleaver with a sting. In the hands of a Master who was not limited by his golden core, who could call the very earth’s qi his own, it might be far more dangerous.
The sheer competence required made a shiver of anticipation run down his spine, as if someone were combing through his hair. Was this what using a spiritual weapon felt like? No wonder everyone in fantasy dramas was always so willing to cross swords with literally anyone. It made him feel almost giddy.
He spun some water on top of the coals to make sure they were truly extinguished, and then dropped Shanzhen for flight, breaking through the canopy just as the sunrise burst over the horizon.
Mist still lay in the valleys, but within an hour of flight it burned off, revealing the land spread out before him. The Red-White Highway snaked through the bucolic landscape of small towns and villages, some fields shorn of their grain or beans, others deepening into gold. Here and there he could see one or two trees beginning to change their colors, the deep green of summer ebbing away and hinting at yellow, orange, and red underneath.
Later in the day, his stomach growling, he at last found a roadside inn where no one batted an eye when he walked in. He still had the two taels of silver, and the innkeeper here was fat enough that he made change without any complaint. The food was a mix of the Lin sect’s rich, salty meats, and the Yuan sect’s subtly-flavored fresh vegetables. As far as Lian Zhidiao could tell, it was a serviceable interpretation, but as they say, hunger is the best spice. Perhaps as a nod to his black robes, a small dish of sour pickled peppers was placed at his table, for which he was grateful.
After he wolfed down his meal, and before the luxurious thought of being under a roof and in a bed seduced him into staying, he quickly took his leave. Within a few hours, the signposts along the highway began to turn into guard outpost buildings with patchy tile roofs. Still standing because they had been repurposed and repaired by industrious people, they spoke of a time before the present, when everything in the realm moved according to the wishes of one man.
In the distance, he saw the Green Highway come up from the south, slithering through the greenery like a snake, and then, so quickly he barely realized he was upon it, the forest shrank back from the footings of a great gatehouse.
It was enormous, a small mountain, at least 30 meters tall. The size of it made Lian Zhidiao realize how accustomed he’d grown to the kind of pre-Industrial landscape he’d been living in the last several months. As a building, this gatehouse was not even taller than a run-of-the-mill apartment building, seven or eight storeys. But when the largest buildings he’d seen for months were the enclosures for the Great Jade Beasts and the Yue family castle, the gatehouse suddenly seemed very large indeed.
Still present were a few of the gates, although the center gate and the one at the end stood open. Lian Zhidiao could still read the name of the gate, set in stone tile over the center: Gate of Virtuous Humility. But a couple hundred years of neglect had taken their toll. Large swathes of the city were picked clean. The wooden buildings had been disassembled or perhaps burned, and the roof tiles carefully carted away. Other buildings were piles of rubble crushed by collapsed roofs.
There were a few small wooden buildings outside the city gate, and wheel ruts trailing into the city, into the market square closest to the gate. The Highways still facilitated trade, and all of them led back here, to the Imperial City.
Flying over the market square, however, he could see that the signs of traffic didn’t go deeper into the city. Why would they? As long as merchants could trade with each other at the market square, there was no need. So the further north he went, the more and more dilapidated the Imperial City became, until he reached the heart of it.
The Palace of Radiant Peace. The Pavilion of Earthly Benevolence. The Pavilion of Five-Colored Beauty. The Garden of Eternal Delight. Lian Zhidiao floated through the abandoned Imperial Palace grounds like a ghost. The entire palace was in ruins; most of the steles and signs were missing or faded. In their place were mere hints of scholarly opulence. Agarwood trees, bent and twisted, still filled one garden with their spicy aroma. A large orchard of peach and pear trees must have produced a blizzard of blossoms in their prime, but several had been felled by storms. They lay across the smashed remnants of pathways and lanterns and interesting rocks brought from far away. There was a pleasure canal that had silted up; only the stone finials of a half-buried bridge revealed it had been there at all.
He had almost expected Shanzhen to react in some way, as it had when he first found it in the Hidden Realm. This was where Shanyin was at home, while he had lived. Presumably his close friend Jiang Huolu had been here as well, walking through these broken gates, taking tea in that now-wrecked pavilion. All that time living here, and it had left only the faintest trace in Shanzhen’s jade, which the Hidden Realm had mostly scrubbed away.
Shanzhen, bound to a new master, was silent.
Lian Zhidiao left the Imperial City behind, flying northeast. Not a few minutes later, the earth opened up underneath him into a great gorge. The last of the high steppes were shattered into isolated peaks; the rocky cliffs tumbled down into the valley below. At the bottom of the gorge was a river, deep and black. Countless caves and grottos were hidden under outcrops or in the shadows of boulders. Lian Zhidiao sailed down into the shade between the rocks, watching their colors shift as he moved down the gorge. Gold-flecked quartz was scattered high and low, glittering in the afternoon light, but it had been cast aside, mixed in with occasional chunks of rainbow-colored stone.
Spellbound by the scenic vista, Lian Zhidiao followed the river through the countryside.
Rivers and waterways were the province of the Wa sect. As he got closer to the ancestral stronghold, it made sense that he should start seeing more and more people dressed in black, or be offered more deference. He was kind of looking forward to having a little more courtesy paid him instead of weathering the constant dirty looks in silence. Or trying to ignore the feeling that Yue Fengjian’s odd choice of companions was being tolerated simply because he was the Yue family’s ‘crown prince’.
So he eagerly zipped down the river’s course, sure that whatever villages were on this stretch of river, they would at least be deferential.
But there was not a barge to be seen, not even a skiff with a poleman. The river ran wild through hill and dale, splashing down over rocks and stretching out under the trees. Lian Zhidiao stuck with it, waiting for it to level out. Surely then, there would be signs of life.
And then, behind him, he started to feel something like a sharp point drawn down his back.
He was being hunted.
Compared to the oppressive power of the demon at Sancha Town, this wasn’t nearly as strong. But then again, an entire team of demon-hunting cultivators had been necessary to take down Tangyi. And Lian Zhidiao was all alone.
He leaned forward on the sword a little bit, speeding up.
The point pressed into his back, like a dagger.
Is it the same one who was tailing me before? Lian Zhidiao sorted through his options. If the attacker believed their killing intent had not yet been discovered, they might wait for nightfall to strike. Lian Zhidiao might then have a disadvantage, but at least he would not be attempting to fight over a river.
Is it stronger at night? He cursed under his breath. Did it pick up my trail from the time I stopped at the inn?
A rock-lined beach emerged from the trees on the north bank of the river. Unwilling to pass up the chance to choose his battlefield, Lian Zhidiao flitted over to the bank and landed, pulling Shanzhen into his hand, ready.
The killing intent fluttered.
Lian Zhidiao fed more qi into Shanzhen; the surface of the blade began to emit a very faint, but still audible, hum.
“Come on,” Lian Zhidiao called out, his voice echoing over the water. “You’ve been following me for some distance.”
A single figure, clothed in shimmering silver-white, emerged from the treetops near the river and slowly flew towards him, alighting at the edge of the river.
Yuan sect. Lian Zhidiao narrowed his eyes; the robes were the same as the ones the oracle at the Sacred Gate wore. I guess I’ve run out of time.
“I got ahead of myself,” the Yuan sect member said, with a voice that was both honey and broken glass. His hair was half-up, and his eyes drooped slightly, giving him a slightly sad look. “You don’t know how agitated I’ve been since that sword came back into the world. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
Lian Zhidiao winced. That voice…doesn’t sound like it came from a human. “It’s not in my nature to forgive demons,” he said.
“Your kind have been so willing to work with the Yao,” the Yuan cultivator replied, ending with a bit of a simper. “Don’t you think you could be more agreeable?”
“If you’ve been watching, then you know the kind of company I prefer,” Lian Zhidiao said. “Decide for yourself if I will be agreeable.”
The Yuan cultivator made a face. “You’ve made a real mess of things, you know.”
The hair on the back of Lian Zhidiao’s neck stood on end. “So I’ve been told.”
“There’s been so much work done in Shengmen City. Yuan Suwei is the last holdout. Difficult to crack, but easy to isolate.” A creepy smile spread over the cultivator’s face. “The rest of them, though. All puppets, dancing on sticks, so desperate to find the Emperor’s Jewel that they’d do anything, anything.”
The Emperor’s Jewel.
“That has nothing to do with me.”
“You fool. You simple idiot.” The Yuan cultivator’s voice changed, hard-edged and soaked with venom. Twilight was beginning to gather around them as the sun set. So empowered, the illusion of the Yuan oracle started to disappear, revealing a demon untouched by the golden light or blue shadow, with long horns sprouting out of white hair, his skin as black as pitch. “They were very near simply declaring that they’d found it, daring the others to come and look, come and see for themselves just who is Favored of Heaven.” The demon spat the words as he withdrew a straight dagger from his robes, pulling the leather sheath off and flinging it aside. “But then, the sword that killed the Emperor just magically appears again, and all of them are in a panic, fearing for their lives!”
The blade of the dagger was dull, black, as if it had been burned. The deviate qi in him stirred at the faint recognition of that blade, so similar to one that had been in his past, but Lian Zhidiao ignored it.
“It doesn’t matter if they never know the truth,” the demon hissed. “Your head and that sword will make them realize they have nothing to fear, and we can continue our work unencumbered.”
“What work?” Lian Zhidiao gripped Shanzhen a little tighter. “What are you doing in the Yuan sect?”
“Ah-ah,” the demon chided him. “Answers are for winners.” Then he moved sideways, wrongways, and disappeared right in front of Lian Zhidiao’s eyes.
Lian Zhidiao inspected the scroll; the words were put down exactly the way the clerk had read them out. The faces of the other disciples in gray were turned toward him, following him with fearful eyes, looking for his reaction.
The warmth in his heart from the Hidden Realm began to fade. As if I could have a reaction other than shock…
Uncertain, Lian Zhidiao spoke up. “Senior Yuan…if I could speak to you for a moment?”
Yuan Suwei hesitated for a moment, his cold and otherworldly beauty making his thoughts inscrutable. Then, he nodded, stepping down from his dais, and escorting Lian Zhidiao down the gallery, toward the staircase to the top of the canyon. The rain fell softly, unceasingly, on the stones of the Sacred Gate. Two disciples fell into step next to Yuan Suwei, accompanying him as they walked.
“Whatever you need to say, you may say it.” Yuan Suwei gestured to the two disciples on either side of him. “These two are trustworthy.”
The two disciples had their hands around their swords, and the looks on their faces said that they would run him through as soon as look at him. Trustworthy for you, maybe! But he couldn’t afford to waste his energy on them. “What did you mean about the other oracles sending their messengers?” Lian Zhidiao asked slowly.
“The appearance of a sword that has killed an emperor is undoubtedly an omen.” Yuan Suwei lifted his chin. “It will demand action from those who seek the throne for themselves.”
“Is there such a person? The White Emperor has been dead for so long…”
Yuan Suwei studied him, his eyes probing Lian Zhidiao’s sincere expression. “He was wise. His laws, which he enforced with a firm hand, became the basis of peace between the sects.” Yuan Suwei folded his hands behind his back. “The Lin sect, with their love of tradition, is slow to change. Their role as mediators has preserved this durable peace. It is itself a deterrent; no one wants a war to disturb their comfortable lives. But it has been fraying for too long, even despite the Lin sect’s best efforts.”
The Lin sect, but not the Yuan?
Yuan Suwei’s lips thinned. “The appearance of a sword to kill an emperor will convince many that there is an emperor to be killed.”
Lian Zhidiao’s gaze fell steadily as Yuan Suwei spoke, every word like a rock tied to his ankles before he was dropped into the sea. He’s right, of course. There will be an emperor; Yue Fengjian’s rise at this point in the novel would be hard for any sect to ignore. But the novel he’d written and the life he now lived had diverged some time ago. If someone else aspiring to claim the emperor’s throne after so long took power just when Yue Fengjian was beginning to rise to prominence…
Protectiveness surged through Lian Zhidiao, but it was tainted with the knowledge of Shanzhen’s history. He had believed that getting his spiritual weapon would make him at last able to contribute more directly to Yue Fengjian’s rise, to his defense. And yet, without a Protagonist’s Halo, Yue Fengjian would be vulnerable to any strikes that came from someone close to him.
I might be best equipped to kill an usurper. But I would also be close to Yue Fengjian, just like Jiang Huolu was close to Shanyin…
He couldn’t see how something like that could be possible, and yet Lian Zhidiao’s voice was choked with the awful potential he now held against his chest. “Am I destined to kill the emperor?”
“That would take a lengthy inquiry on the part of the oracles, and that is not a luxury you have. Certainly the Yuan sect will not entertain your request.” Yuan Suwei tilted his head to the side, regarding Lian Zhidiao with a kind of owlish interest. “You honestly did not expect this.”
“No, I…” Lian Zhidiao let out a resigned sigh. “I had no ill intent. I only wanted a sword that I could use.”
“Truly a case where wishing to profit brought only loss,” Yuan Suwei replied. “You won’t have much time to make an escape.”
Lian Zhidiao’s head snapped up. “What?”
A muscle tensed in Yuan Suwei’s temple. His eyes were hard and distant. “An exchange. Your information for… a moment of inattention on my part.” An undisguised threat simmered in his voice. “I caution you. If I find your information to be unreliable, I will personally accompany the group of Speakers that hunts you down.”
“You’re letting me go?”
Yuan Suwei drew himself up, looking down on Lian Zhidiao even more. “I’ve administered your spiritual weapon to you. What the Yuan sect chooses to do with you if they catch you here is none of my affair.”
This seems like a trap, but can I really afford not to take the chance? Lian Zhidiao’s eyes flicked to the disciples on either side of Yuan Suwei, but they were as inscrutable as their master. “It seems like it might put you through a lot of trouble,” he mused in a leading tone of voice.
Yuan Suwei snorted softly, turning away, but not before Lian Zhidiao caught a hint of a smile on his face. “Get out of Shengmen City, Lian Zhidiao. Don’t come back.”
Giving him frosty looks, the disciples turned and flanked Yuan Suwei as he walked back to his dais.
Can I leave? Do I leave? A small smile of realization pinched his lips. Can I fly out of here?
There was a commotion at the end of the gallery closest to the gatehouse. There was a flurry of gray and brilliant white, voices raised in indignation. Then, the unmistakable sound of swords being pulled from their scabbards, that faint and deadly ring that sounded like a bell in the courtyard.
Lian Zhidiao’s head snapped to Yuan Suwei.
Yuan Suwei was standing at his dais, his eyes pinned to the flash of steel at the gatehouse, indignant at this intrusion into his domain.
He has to look away.
Lian Zhidiao unsheathed Shanzhen.
He can’t look; this is the moment of inattention.
A shout rose over the din. “Is that him?”
Lian Zhidiao spun a thread of qi into Shanzhen.
Shanzhen, we have to leave!
He dropped the sword. Amazingly, he felt the thread between himself and Shanzhen together become filled with tension in a pleasant way, like stretching out muscles that had been cramped up in a small space for too long. The sword hovered above the white stone, waiting.
A woman’s voice barked a command; it echoed in the gallery. “Take him! Seize him!”
Lian Zhidiao leapt onto Shanzhen, wobbling in midair—the blade was narrower than Yue Fengjian’s shuangshou jian. But the sword responded to his will immediately, catapulting him into the rainy sky with such speed that Lian Zhidiao nearly blacked out.
Doesn’t matter where, just have to fly!
The rain stung his cheeks as Shanzhen responded like an eager yearling. New air was continually braided in with the thread of qi, only to be fed out behind him a moment later. Shanzhen was funneling in countless streams of air, then pulling itself past each one. Rooftops disappeared behind him at a dizzying rate; he had already crossed half the city in his panicked flight. Somewhere in that raucous blur of thatch and wood and clay tile, Yue Fengjian probably didn’t even know he’d emerged. Lian Zhidiao could come back later and rejoin him, but not today.
Lian Zhidiao looked over his shoulder; there was no one behind him, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t being pursued. He crouched on the blade, slowing until he could get his bearings. The sky was overcast, but he remembered from their approach that the river on the north side of the city had been flowing south and east.
I need to cross the river, head north. Leaning back on the sword even a little produced a profound curve in the arc of his flight. In the space of a few minutes, he had mastered the simple flex of his ankles that was sufficient to steer.
Shengmen City was soon behind him. He followed the rain-swollen Sanma River, at first staying high up to see the lay of the land. But then he checked over his shoulder, and saw, just barely, the outline of someone on a sword, a speck of white set against the grey horizon. He was being followed after all. From this distance, it wasn’t clear how many there were, or if it was just one person, but if that speck wasn’t red, Lian Zhidiao wasn’t going to slow down.
Lian Zhidiao swooped down into the river valley. With the river as his path, he flew fast and low to the ground, hugging the curves of the river itself. It would be easy to track him from higher up, so he might have a better shot of losing them in the trees, whoever they were.
A rope bridge over the river indicated the presence of a footpath or road, and Lian Zhidiao wheeled north to take it, flying under the patchy forest canopy. He slowed suddenly and started weaving his way through the eastern forest, counting on the shadows to hide him. The rain slowed to a drizzle under the leaves, but somehow the drops hit him more heavily.
I’m already soaked to the skin. Even if I lose them, I should try to find some way to get dry soon. Lian Zhidiao looked up at the sky; he would have no idea if this little maneuver worked until he emerged from the forest again. It seems a little early for Speakers to be involved in chasing me down, unless Yuan Suwei was lying. It was possible, but Yuan Suwei didn’t seem like the type of person to lie. A hard man with little give about him, he wasn’t someone to blunt his words. Rather than lie, he seemed like the kind of man who simply stated the facts, and expected everyone else to adjust.
That still left others who would want him caught or dead. Hu Baitian was a candidate, and he would know that Lian Zhidiao was in town because Yue Shipei would have told him. If he already had a man in the oracles waiting to deliver any news, then he could have found out quickly. Maybe it was Yuan Shijun’s men, but Lian Zhidiao didn’t know why Yuan Shijun would be after him. His time in the Hidden Realm had only been the space of a day, but as Lian Zhidiao was well aware, a lot could happen in one day.
The trees around him teemed with abundant life that barely stopped to hold its breath as he passed. He wound his way through the woods, nimbly avoiding larger tree limbs and using Shanzhen’s scabbard to push smaller branches aside. When he felt as if he’d been weaving through the trees for hours, he stopped to listen for the river. Failing to hear it, he had no choice but to poke his head above the canopy to try to get his bearings.
At altitude, Lian Zhidiao could see how the Sanma River turned further south, bringing water to quench the plains. The White Highway had crossed the Sanma at one point and joined the Red Highway, stretching to the east.
Those highways were built for the Great Jade Beasts; they converge at the Imperial City. So if I follow them, I will eventually find the Black Highway and be able to go toward the Wa sect. If I’m forced away from the Highway, traveling roughly north should eventually have me run into the mountains, and the Wa sect’s lands should be due east from there.
He considered skulking back toward Shengmen City, but Yuan Suwei’s words about a future emperor haunted him. A wistful feeling came over him as he looked back toward the west; he could no longer see Shengmen City, even in the distance.
He will have to visit the Wa sect. I can wait for him there.
That made his heart clench even harder.
Will he try to find me again? Or will he just do what he knows has to be done?
Lian Zhidiao couldn’t decide which was more likely. Yue Fengjian was surely devoted to his sect, and would do anything to see it survive. But there had been a time or two when his eyes had drifted toward Lian Zhidiao, looking at him with a blazing heat that made barriers between them melt away.
Even if he wanted to, (and Lian Zhidiao’s stomach did a somersault at the thought), then it’s still not a good idea to get entangled romantically with him. It would make it difficult for him to secure the support he needs from other sects. But Lian Zhidiao’s traitorous body wasn’t interested in why something was a bad idea. Drenched from head to toe, the warm tingle that swept over his skin made him shiver.
Wary of villages and roadside inns along the White Highway, he decided to fly as far as he could toward the Imperial City. He looked up at the overcast sky, finding it difficult to tell what time of day it was. I guess I’ll just fly as far as I can.
The rain slowly stopped, but Lian Zhidiao’s clothes were still damp even when advancing darkness forced him to land for the night. When he stepped off the sword, it was easy to use the thread of qi to whip it back into the scabbard at hand; it hadn’t been the swords sheathing themselves, but the wielder expertly moving the sword.
Lian Zhidiao used the last of the light to find a small clearing. He spun qi into stone and mud, making a bed of earth, and then wrestled chunks of a fallen log onto it. Another thread of qi through the spindle-weight, and he had a fire that would hopefully keep some of the chill away.
And with that done, he had no time left to consider food or water before night was upon him and he was alone in the wilderness. He was tired; the fatigue of the 32 hours that had passed in the world while he’d been in the Hidden Realm hit him all at once, on top of the exhaustion involved in fleeing for his life. He huddled closer to the fire.
This must be how Lian Zhidiao lived much of the time. Having left his sect for unspecified reasons, the world would be unfriendly toward a noble cultivator without an expense account. Trading his services and skills for money or food and lodging had to be the only way for an outcast to survive.
Somehow he figured out how to do something with jade beasts, and preferred using that to eke out a living rather than go on living with his sect. He had some suspicions about why—a vague recollection of some story Zhou Xianzhi had told while he was drunk and only half-paying attention. It had gotten swamped by the discovery of the System and the emergency terminal, so the details were fuzzy.
How quickly will Yue Fengjian leave for the Wa sect? Was his business with the Yuan sect concluded, marriage decided? Going back to the Wa sect before him might ease his way. Lian Zhidiao drew his knees up close to his chest and pillowed his head on his arms. If that was the case, then a few nights in the forest wouldn’t be so bad.
At least now he had a sword to defend himself.
Lian Zhidiao’s eyes fell on Shanzhen, close at hand. He would be able to use the Swords of the Myriad Dead now. Doubtless part of the fear of the technique came from the name.
The Swords of the Myriad Dead existed because of the cache of unreturned spiritual weapons in the possession of the Wa sect, and more specifically, his Master Guizai. Having now experienced the Hidden Realm for himself, Lian Zhidiao could think a little more clearly about how the technique worked. With some sinking guilt, he realized that when he’d talked to Liao Kuaiyu and said that he was not a necromancer, that was probably not entirely true.
In an abstract sense, the Swords of the Myriad Dead was a necromantic technique.
Lian Zhidiao picked up Shanzhen and popped it out of the scabbard, looking at the firelight dancing over the cloud-carved purple jade. The jade was the key to how spiritual weapons moved qi, channeled it, transformed it. And the jade in every spiritual weapon was a little sticky. Even if the blade could not be wielded in the traditional sense, the jade in the weapon was itself a jade tool, and anyone could interact with that. A cache of a thousand spiritual weapons was closer to a cache of jade tools, each with its own spell that could be learned.
Shanzhen itself had the ability to call lightning when it struck, which was fearsome enough on its own. A wielder who could use the abilities of a thousand such spiritual weapons could conquer the world.
But they hadn’t. And the reason was clear when he thought about the techniques he knew and how he knew them: he could only clearly recall the abilities of five swords other than his own.
Lian Zhidiao’s Master, Guizai, had to know many more, but given that Lian Zhidiao, a fifth-rank magician, had only achieved an understanding of five? There was no way that anyone could know a thousand of them. Better that the Wa sect’s enemies be unclear about how many abilities an individual user could know. Better that the technique remain shrouded in mystery.
He resheathed Shanzhen and held it in his lap as he stared into the fire, finally feeling the warmth begin to sink into him. That he had escaped the Yuan sect’s clutches with both his sword and his life intact was nothing short of a miracle.
But alone in the wilderness, relief at his escape was slow to come.