“Mie’er!” Xie Li called out to the familiar figure before him.
“Yes?” smiled the young man, turning around to face him. His sharp eyes and boyish grin easily caught the attention of the ladies around him.
“Mie’er,” said Xie Li once more. His hands came up instinctively, then he put them down by his side.
“Hey, it’s dangerous, get out of the way,” yelled a man driving an oxcart down the busy street.
“Oh,” said Xie Li, turning around to look at the busy traffic on the street he was standing in the middle of.
“Careful,” said the charming young man, grabbing Xie Li’s arm and pulling him away from the street.
He ran his hand over the young man’s chest and felt the leather ridges differ from what he was seeing. “The clothes are enchanted?”
“Yes,” said the young man. “It’s more convenient this way.”
“Speaking of clothes…” said the young man, his lips pouting slightly at Xie Li’s outfit. “Blue really isn’t your colour.”
“Where did Mister Xie go?” asked Jianjin, looking about the wagon. He looked at his brother and followed his gaze across the street.
“Oh my heavens,” gasped Jianjin. “That’s Di Shibo in disguise, isn’t it? What’s he doing with—”
“Shh, leave it be,” said Jianshi to his brother. “We didn’t see anything.”
At the clothing shop nearby, Di Mie grinned as he picked out a few ready-made outfits and placed them on the counter.
The shopkeeper, seeing he was picking out a particular colour scheme, quickly helped bring suitable accessories to match.
“If you find something to your liking, we can alter them on the spot,” said the shopkeeper cheerfully.
“You’re always making me try on clothes,” huffed Xie Li. “Is this that fun?”
“I haven’t done this for ages,” said Di Mie. “I’m going to do whatever I like. You’ve got a problem with that?”
Xie Li shook his head.
“Do what you want.”
“I damn well will.”
In the end, he picked out only one outfit that didn’t need much alteration. He frowned at the lack of suitable accessories and picked out a simple hair ribbon with a spot of jade instead. He held up a face veil, wondered for a moment, and then put it back.
“I guess we’ll have to put up with this for now. The bigger towns should have a better selection.”
“I’m not the one picky about clothing…”
“Sit down and let me fix your hair—” Di Mie paused, looking at Xie Li’s wrapped wrist. “Can you take this off?”
“Mn,” said Xie Li, taking it off to reveal a jade bangle.
Di Mie raised a brow, but said nothing. He continued perusing the accessories. “We’ll have to add another piece of jade to your sash to match the bangle.”
The shopkeeper watched on, feeling full in both her heart and purse.
“Oho?” said Auntie Ma, her eyes sparkling. “Who are those two beautiful men across the street?”
“Isn’t that Xie Li?” said Old Niu. “Oh wow, now that I see him wearing some proper clothes, I realise how inadequate my hand-me-downs were.”
“Ehh? Ah-Li?” gasped Auntie Ma, looking at Xie Li up and down once he walked up to the wagon. “How?”
“Hello, Auntie Ma. I hope you don’t mind me dressing him up,” grinned Di Mie.
“Wait—” realised Auntie Ma. “Young master Di? Oh my heavens! You look exactly how you were ten years ago! I feel as if I was back working in the canteen.”
“Ahh, to even change your features and hair colour, this must be a very advanced spell,” admired Old Niu.
“It’s not that hard,” said Di Mie. “It’s just a seal-based spell.”
Xie Li narrowed his eyes a bit.
“Heavens,” gushed Auntie Ma. “You two look so dashing that Auntie could faint.”
“Are you all going to wear disguises and have aliases?” asked Old Niu.
Di Mie looked at Jianshi and Jianjin and felt the look of despair on their faces was going to be worth it.
“Why not?” said Di Mie, easily playing along. “Jianshi and Jianjin can continue to be disciples of the Border Mountains. I look about their age, so they can be my senior brothers.
“Hmm?” said Di Mie.
“Uh, Di…Shi, shi…shidi*…” Jianjin tried, and immediately cried uncle. “I cannot do it, Di Shibo, please spare your pitiful junior nephew!”
*Shidi = junior brother
“Now, this Brother Xie looks older than us, so…” Di Mie had a mischievous sparkle in his eye. “We’ll call him Shizun*.”
Shizun = master/teacher
Jianshi looked at Di Mie and blinked very fast, trying to process what he just heard.
“Will you let me call you ‘Shizun’?” asked Di Mie.
“If you want to,” said Xie Li.
“Why are you not refusing him?” said Jianjin, facepalming.
“Di Shibo, please reconsider,” pleaded Jianshi. “We have a Shizun already. We can’t call someone else our Shizun, even if it’s pretend—”
“Okay, then you two call him ‘Senior*’, and I’ll call him ‘Shizun’.”
*in Chinese it’s ‘qianbei’ (senpai)
Jianshi tried to negotiate a little further—”It’s too rude for us to call you our junior, may we call you ‘senior’ too?”
“Hm,” said Di Mie, looking a little reluctant. “You can call me ‘Shixiong’, then.”
Shixiong = senior brother
“Thank you, Di Shixiong,” said Jianshi, breathing a huge sigh of relief at the concession.
Auntie Ma and Old Niu just smiled and looked confused at the whole scene, but they didn’t care since they got to see Di Mie’s handsome bare face, even if it was an illusion.
“Come, Shizun, let me help you,” said Di Mie, hopping up the wagon and holding out his hand for Xie Li.
“Okay,” said Xie Li, taking his hand and letting himself be helped up the wagon.
“Let’s go on a trip,” said Di Mie. “This time, together.”
Jianshi and Jianjin took turns taking the reins next to the experienced Old Niu, who gave them pointers on how to drive a wagon.
In the wagon, a briefing was happening.
“Shizun, here’s the map,” said the younger-looking Di Mie, opening a cloth scroll and pointing out the locations. “At this speed, it’s about fifteen days to Bainiao Lake City. The talks will be held at Du Manor there.”
“If you rode a sword, it would take less than three days to get there,” said Xie Li, seeing how they’d have to take a long way around in some parts on land.
“We have time,” said Di Mie. “It’ll be good to do a little sightseeing.”
“Sight-seeing…” sighed Xie Li. He rubbed his chest and coughed.
“Hm? Are you feeling unwell, Senior…Xie?” asked Jianjin.
Xie Li was looking pretty pale now, turning away from them as his coughing intensified.
“Oh dear,” said Auntie Ma. “What’s wrong?”
He raised two fingers and aimed it at himself.
“Stop that,” said Di Mie, grabbing his hand just before it hit the pressure point in his chest. “It’s bad for your health to seal your gag reflex by force.”
“You’re motion-sick?” realised Auntie Ma. “Just hold on, I have some sour plums you can eat.”
Xie Li started coughing again, then clapped a hand over his mouth as he gagged. He tried to jab his pressure point but was stopped by Di Mie once more.
“Just throw up if you need to,” said Di Mie.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” said Auntie Ma, watching as Xie Li threw up all over himself. He glared at Di Mie, then looked away.
“Do we need to stop?” asked a concerned Jianshi sitting with Old Niu.
“There’s a tea shop just ahead,” said Old Niu. “We’ll take a break there.”
“I guess our journey will take longer than planned,” chirped Di Mie. He hopped off the wagon and offered his hand. “Come, let this obedient disciple help you.”
Xie Li ignored his offer and climbed off the wagon himself, heading to the well near the tea house.
He drew a bucket of water, squatted down and began washing the soiled part of his robe, not caring that his long hair was sweeping the floor behind him.
Auntie Ma jogged over and offered to help him, but he shook his head and only asked for her for some soap.
She sighed at her stubborn nephew and walked back to the wagon.
“He looks angry,” said Auntie Ma, digging out a jar of soap flakes from her pack. “Here, help me pass it to him.”
“Why me?” said Jianjin, wanting to cry. “If he’s angry, I’m scared too…”
“I’ll do it,” said Jianshi, taking the bottle from Auntie Ma and sparing his brother the pain.
“The weather’s fine, so let’s have a cup of tea since we’re here,” said Old Niu, hopping off the wagon perfectly while using crutches.
Less than an hour out of town and the road trip had already run into a snag.
“Here’s the soap, Senior Xie,” said Jianshi, holding out the bottle.
Xie Li took the bottle from Jianshi without looking back and continued scrubbing.
Jianshi pondered a while, then squatted next to Xie Li, trying to get down to his level. There seemed to be a lot of incomprehensible things this Xie Li did. However, from what he could see right now, this strange ‘senior’ was trying his best to clean his new clothes.
“Hm,” said Xie Li, holding up the wet part of the robe to inspect his work. “This should be clean enough.”
“Come sit down and drink a bit of this herbal tea to soothe your throat,” said Auntie Ma from the table.
“It’s all right,” said Xie Li, shaking his head and trying to give them a smile. “I’ll go back to the wagon first. Please enjoy your tea.”
“I knew he was kind of shy, but was Xie Li always this…reserved?” asked Uncle Niu.
“He does seem pretty tired out lately,” said Auntie Ma. “All right, let’s finish up our tea and get on the road.”
They managed to get to a village inn by nightfall without incident, but Auntie Ma frowned when she noticed that Xie Li’s lunchbox remained untouched. All he did was sit still with his eyes closed, ignoring everyone and everything.
Not even Di Mie seemed able to get him to eat anything. Only when they reached their destination did he stir.
Jianshi and Jianshi took the horses to the stable while the others checked into the inn.
Xie Li stood straight, looking expressionless and almost aloof as he took his bundle and went into the room with Auntie Ma.
“Ah-Li?” asked Auntie Ma, trying to gauge his mood.
“Let’s rest soon, we have another day of travel ahead of us tomorrow,” said Xie Li, giving her a practised smile.
“All right,” said Auntie Ma, defenceless against his smile. “I’ll go look and see if there’s a restaurant nearby. Come join us for dinner in a bit.”
Outside the room, Di Mie was waiting to change rooms with her.
“Auntie Ma,” grinned Di Mie, exuding so much youthful charm that Auntie Ma couldn’t refuse him.
Xie Li took out a copy of the map Di Mie passed him earlier in the day and pored over it at the table. He traced the marked locations where incidents involving the undead occurred, including the case that involved the spirit-devouring beasts.
There was a knock on the door, but he ignored it, continuing his thoughts and murmuring to himself.
“The two rivers connected to the lake should be investigated as well—”
“At least drink a bit of soup,” came a man’s voice, the unexpected sound jolting him out of his train of thought.
Xie Li looked up and saw Di Mie standing at his table, setting a bowl of hot vegetable soup in front of him.
“Okay,” said Xie Li. He set down the map and took the bowl of soup, looking at the bits of tofu in the soup and taking a deep breath. He took a spoonful and set it down, sighing.
“I dirtied the new clothes you got me,” said Xie Li, staring at the soup.
“Your hair is dirtier than the clothes you threw up on,” said Di Mie, huffing in amusement. He went behind Xie Li and cradled a lock of his hair in his hands, dusting the dirt off the tips. “After I spent all that effort braiding and tying up your hair, you went and swept the floor with it.”
“Oh,” said Xie Li, trying to look over his shoulder.
“I’m not going to share a bed with you when you’re this dusty,” said Di Mie. He brought the washbasin over with a jug of water.
“Drink your soup,” he said.
Xie Li watched as Di Mie’s skilful hands cleaned the tips of his hair, and absently started to slowly drink his soup.
“Ah-Jin, it’s your turn to go,” came a voice outside the door.
“Nooo, I’m scared.”
A knock on the door, and Di Mie stirred. He groaned and lay back down. Mornings were hard for him. Especially on a small, cheap bed like this.
“Mmmphh,” came Di Mie’s sleepy protest.
A second round of knocking.
The door cracked open and it was Xie Li staring at them.
“Senior Xie,” greeted Jianshi. “I’ve come to inform you and ‘Senior brother’ Di that we shall be setting off in an hour.”
“Okay,” said Xie Li. “I’ll let Mie—, uh, Di Mie know.”
Jianshi saw that Xie Li was holding a bundle of wet laundry.
There was a faint smell of blood coming from his hands.
“We’ll be having breakfast outside if you need us…” said Jianshi, backing away.
“Mn,” said Xie Li, closing the door on them.
“That was scary,” whispered Jianjin, his imagination running wild. “Why is he washing his tunic, and why….why is there the smell of blood?”
“Don’t think about it,” advised Jianshi, his mental defences kicking in.
Xie Li finished up his laundry and hung the wet undertunic at the window to dry, then went over to the bed and gently shook Di Mie’s shoulder.
“Mie’er, wake up,” he said.
“Mmmm,” protested Di Mie. He grabbed Xie Li and pulled him into the bed on top of him.
“If you don’t get up, we’ll both be late,” said Xie Li, fumbling to get up from Di Mie’s grip.
“I want to sleep. I don’t care,” said Di Mie.
Another knock on the door.
Xie Li hadn’t bolted the door after opening it earlier and the knock pushed the door ajar.
“Young master Di, Ah-Li, we’ll be having breakfast at the restaurant across the inn. Oh, your door is unlocked—” said Auntie Ma. She stared at the scene for a moment.
“Oh. My. Heavens.”
She left, quickly closing the door behind her, murmuring, “I didn’t know Ah-Li is the dominant type…”
The night before, Old Niu, Auntie Ma, Jianshi and Jianjin sat around the restaurant table and had an intense conversation.
“Di Shibo told me to leave them alone in their room…,” whispered Jianjin. By that, he meant that Di Mie waved him away like he was a pest.
“They are indeed spending a lot of time together,” said Jianshi, trying to be as objective as he could. “I wonder if they knew each other beforehand.”
“I suspected that too,” Auntie Ma joined in. “To be honest, I don’t know much about Ah-Li’s background either.”
“Isn’t he your nephew?” asked Old Niu.
“It’s all my one-sided wishful thinking, really. I’ve always wanted a nephew and I’m glad he lets me call him that.”
“So he’s not really your nephew?” asked Jianjin.
“Ah-Jin,” said Jianshi. “If Auntie Ma feels that way, does it matter?”
“Ah, so he’s got history,” said Old Niu.
“Tell us more, Auntie Ma,” said Jianjin.
“Well, I guess I could, since it’s not like I was sworn to keep this a secret,” said Auntie Ma. She put a finger to her lips. “But let’s just keep it between the four of us, since I don’t want to be a blabbermouth.”
The other three put a finger to their lips in return, promising their silence.
“It was a personal request from Sect Leader Qing Lingfeng himself,” said Auntie Ma, in a hushed tone. “He brought Ah-Li to me about half a year ago and asked me to take care of him. Since I owed him a favour, I agreed.”
“What favour was that?” asked Old Niu.
“Um,” said Auntie Ma sheepishly. “Inns don’t get built from nothing, you know.”
“Ah, so he lent you money,” said Old Niu, chuckling.
“If Senior Xie was at your inn for months,” said Jianshi. “Then how did we not see him until now?”
“He was sick for a long time. Only recently was he able to get out of bed,” said Auntie Ma. She looked left and right, then said in a hushed undertone. “I glimpsed his scars once and it looked terrible.”
“Scars? So his sickness was due to an injury?” asked Old Niu.
“I assumed he was a former disciple from the Border Mountains,” added Auntie Ma. “And for someone to have such terrible scars, he must’ve been injured during the Calamity.”
“Would it at the Battle of the North Gate?” asked Jianshi.
Old Niu nodded. “Probably. There were a lot of casualties among my former senior brothers and sisters. I myself lost a leg there.”“Okay, let me get this straight,” said Jianjin. “So, in summary, you’re saying that Senior Xie was someone from the Border Mountains Sect. He got injured badly during the Calamity and is recovering at your inn.”
“I think that Ah-Li was a retired disciple and perhaps was a junior brother to Valley Lord Di,” said Auntie Ma.
“If that’s the case, isn’t it rather inappropriate for Di Shibo to call Senior Xie ‘Shizun’?” said Jianshi.
“Oh, that,” said Auntie Ma, as if knowing something. “Maybe it’s because you’re young, but us older ones who worked at the Border Mountains know that young master Di has a bit of a Shizun complex…”
“It’s not just ‘a bit’, Auntie Ma,” laughed Old Niu.
“A Shizun complex??” blurted out the two juniors.
“Shhh!” hushed Auntie Ma.
“You know of this too, Uncle Niu?” asked Jianjin.
“You bet. A senior sister from Cloudrest Peak even penned a song back in the day. It’s a little cheesy, but I remember it quite well,” said Old Niu. He stroked his sparse beard and sang for them:
The lonely disciple of Hermit Moon Peak
Neglected by his master, more he doth seek
He fought among the Tigers and searched the Cranes
But none could take him for his Master remains
The lonely disciple did find some solace
In the company of many a lords’ grace
But he’d knelt in the hall of the Hermit Moon
With no one else he’d be allowed to commune
On nights when the moon is bright and shadows wane
A Wand’ring Immortal appears, shine or rain
The lonely disciple calls him his master
So that for a night, his dreams would be sweeter
“Heavens! They even have a song about it? My head hurts,” said Jianshi, pinching his brow.
“The biggest conflict I’m feeling is that I feel sorry for the ‘lonely disciple’ in this song, but when I picture Di Shibo, all I can see is the face of a scary demon king…” said Jianjin, hiding his face in his hands and shaking his head in despair.
“You remember the whole song!” said Auntie Ma. “And you sing pretty well.”
“Heheh,” said Old Niu, rubbing his nose, slightly embarrassed. “Even if it was for a short while, I was a proper disciple of the Bard’s Peak. As fate would have it, I am now travelling with the famous ‘lonely disciple of Hermit Moon’.”
“So, what that song means is that the young Di Shibo was always looking for someone to be his Shizun*?” said Jianshi.
*Shizun = Master
“So Di Shibo is roleplaying Shizun and Disciple with Senior Xie because of his Shizun complex,” said Jianjin, feeling a shudder down his back now that he’d said it aloud.
“I don’t remember anyone called ‘Xie Li’ back when I was at the Border Mountains, though,” said Old Niu. “Maybe he was an out-of-town disciple.”
“Ah-Li told me he briefly stayed at the Hermit Moon Peak before,” said Auntie Ma.
“He did?” gasped Jianjin. “That place is hell even for a weekend stay.”
“Oh, you’ve been there before?” asked Old Niu.
“Uhh…” said Jianjin, and pressed his lips shut.
“We stay at the Fallen Leaves Valley, which is at the foot of Hermit Moon Peak,” said Jianshi, knowing the right things to say. “We go a little way up to sweep now and then.”
“I see,” said Old Niu, stroking his not-really-there beard. “This Xie Li really is a mystery, then.”
“Has Auntie Ma asked him about his past before?” said Jianjin.
“This auntie doesn’t dare ask so much,” said Auntie Ma. “I have no tact at all. What if I bother him with my questions until he vomits blood?”
“Surely you exaggerate,” said Jianjin.
“I’m not,” said Auntie Ma. “There was this one time he vomited blood when we argued.”
Everyone else stared at her in silence for a minute.
“Wow. It seems like we need to be careful with your nephew’s health,” said Old Niu.
“Di Shibo seems to be getting along with Senior Xie Li well,” said Jianshi.
“I’m sure it’s due to the power of his—” said Jianjin, with Old Niu and Auntie Ma completing his sentence in unison—”‘Shizun complex’.”
Meanwhile back at the inn at this moment:
“Achoo!” sneezed Di Mie.
“Did you catch a cold?” asked Xie Li.
“No,” said Di Mie. “It must be those two brats talking about me behind my back. I’ll get back at them tomorrow.”
Jianshi and Jianjin felt a sudden chill running down their backs.
In case anyone’s confused about the meaning ‘song’ here Old Niu sang – here’s a quick rundown!
I assume the song’s about Di Mie when he was young and the only disciple of Hermit Moon Peak, and since he’s ‘knelt’ at Hermit Moon Peak, (meaning that he officially acknowledged the Hermit Moon Peak Lord as his Shizun) so he couldn’t take on a second Shizun(master) here.
The Tigers and Cranes refer to the Mad Tiger Peak and Cloudrest Peak.
Eventually, he called the Dream-Wandering Immortal “Shizun” because of his thirst, uh, desire to have a master who wouldn’t neglect him.
…something like that. 😀