Chapter 47: Unknown To Death Nor Known To Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love.

Love…and desperation. 

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

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

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

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

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

Shanzhen. Lightning Needle. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lian Zhidiao gave him a sour look. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My lord—” 

“I said, you are dismissed.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This sword killed the White Emperor. 


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

Chapter 46: Leaves Of Grass

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

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

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

“Neither have you.” 

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

“Then why go at all?” 

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

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

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

At this, Yue Fengjian’s scowl deepened.

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

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

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

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

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

“We can’t dawdle.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your name?”

“Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao.” 

“And your business?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll… make a bogflame.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jade again. 

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

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

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

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

“Then explain yourself.” 

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

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

“Yes, my Lady Arbiter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thump. Thump. Thump. 

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

Thump. Thump. Thump. 

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

There was only the sound of his own breathing. 

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

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

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


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

 

Chapter 45: Fortune Favors The Bold

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

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

But he was alone in bed. 

Of course. 

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

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

“Wake up.” 

Lian Zhidiao slowly opened his eyes. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A knock came at the door. They froze. 

Already?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are these rare?” 

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

Lian Zhidiao frowned. “But—” 

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

Yue Fengjian arched an eyebrow. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.” 

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

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

“Even at night?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A desperate man… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And for good reason,” Lian Zhidiao sighed. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yue Fengjian scoffed again. 

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

Lian Zhidiao reddened.

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

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

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

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

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


Previous Chapter < Chapter 44: What Lies Beneath

Chapter 44: What Lies Beneath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They prevent me from looking inward.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hu Baitian?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Father.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your curiosity is going to get you killed.”

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

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

That must be the Great Jade Beast, then. 

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

Tainted earth, but not yet crawling.

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

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

“Yue Fengjian…” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh—”

“Is there something on my face?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lian Zhidiao nodded mutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does Yuan Suwei do that to you?” 

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

Does he?” 

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

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

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

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

“Why?” 

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

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

“Good,” Yang Xihua said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two guards outside, on either side. 

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

Please.

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

Please, please. 

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

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

“Ah—!” 

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

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

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

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

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

“Maid? What maid?” Yue Fengjian rumbled. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do we have here?” 

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

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

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

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

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

Then Yue Fengjian lowered his head and kissed him. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing here?” 

“Isn’t it obvious what I’m doing?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Chapter 42: A Game Of Stones

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Busy night tonight?” 

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

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

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

“Did he ask you anything?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What? But I didn—” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When will this end? 

I want to see you. 

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

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

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

The footsteps stopped. 

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

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

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

Little one?? Don’t tell me…

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

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

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

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

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

“Treasure hunters?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?” 

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

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

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

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

They froze at the same time. 

Sandalwood and cinnamon… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What… what do you mean?” 

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

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

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

“What?!”

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

“The very idea!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What fresh hell? Did Zhou Xianzhi come back? 

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

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

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

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

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


Previous Chapter < Chapter 41: Judging A Book By Its Cover
Next Chapter > Chapter 43: It Has Me Nearly In Tears, This Moonlight

Chapter 41: Judging A Book By Its Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jiejie…” 

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

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

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

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

no part of this kind of duty. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something about that wasn’t right. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did I miss anything?” 

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

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

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

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

“Perhaps there is another explanation.” 

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

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

A muscle tensed in Yuan Suwei’s jaw. 

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

“That’s true.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Chapter 40: A Lie That Tells A Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This does not look good…

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

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

Not good at all.

“Lian Zhidiao.” 

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

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

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

“What are you doing?!” 

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

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

“Keep his feet under him,” one said.

“Stand up!” The one behind him warned. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to get control of this situation somehow. 

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

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

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

“He’s not a demon!” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mind his head.” The Judge again. 

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

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

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

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

That Judge! What a piece of work! 

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

That jade tool…

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

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

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

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

His eyelids drifted closed. 

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

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

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

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

The dryness in his mouth was unbearable.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” he said. 

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

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

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

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

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

“When can I see him?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They shouldn’t be hurting in the first place! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Name?”

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

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

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

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

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

The Sharp Edge of the Crescent Moon? 

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

“And the reason for your visit?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I… I didn’t see the step.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest is the province of the Judge. 

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

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

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

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

“Yue Fengjian, with Wallbreaker.” 

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

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

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

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

“That’s correct,” Yue Fengjian said. 

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that it?”

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

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

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

“Still nothing?” 

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


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

Chapter 38: The City Of The Sacred Gate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bee had honey, fine and sweet

The butterfly had none to eat 

The bee let the butterfly share his seat

In the Rainbow Valley where the flowers grow

The bee and the butterfly lived so fair

Tending their garden of orchids with care

But hives must have lilies to bring forth an heir

Down in the Valley where the rivers flow

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

The bee knew his duty; he sought a blue queen

A wedding planned for spring’s first green

The butterfly in jet kept a mournful mien

In the Rainbow Valley under whitest snow

Fain would the garden have suffered two kings

Alas, the bee died of jealousy’s stings

Killed by a hornet with butterfly wings

Down in the Valley with the jade below

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re coming with me?” 

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

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

I must be imagining things.

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

“I would accompany you, if you wanted.”

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

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

“You’re speaking from experience.” 

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

“…I see.” 

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

“Yeah,” Yue Fengjian said. 

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

“Mn.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lian Zhidiao got up and blew out the lamp, finding his way back to his bed by feeling what was in front of him. He listened, hearing the streets of Shengmen City quiet down, and the time of night beaten out on drums for the night watch. He waited to hear Yue Fengjian’s breathing to slow and deepen. But he fell asleep himself long before Yue Fengjian. 


Previous Chapter < Chapter 37: The Kind Of Writing That Brings Them Back Again and Again
Next Chapter > Chapter 39: Lian Zhidiao Doesn’t Know How Close He Came