The rescued women sat in the wagon, huddled against each other and already warming up and chatting with each other, all relieved to be safe.
Auntie Ma and Old Niu were taking care of the women when the four of them returned from their bandit hunting.
Seeing Xie Li all dishevelled, Auntie Ma gave a cry and ran over.
“Heavens! Ah-Li, are you hurt?”
“How are the women?”
“They’re fine. It seems the bandits didn’t do anything to them.”
“Good,” said Xie Li. He sneezed again.
“Oh dear, you’re catching a cold,” said Auntie Ma. “I’ll get you a change of clothes—”
“Allow me,” said Di Mie, heading to the wagon.
“How was it? Did you defeat all the bandits?” asked Old Niu.
“Yep, every single one of them, including the boss,” said Jianjin. “We’ll let the villagers decide what to do with them.”
“We’re just daughters of simple merchants. I didn’t think the Border Mountains Sect would send someone to rescue us,” said one of the women from the wagon.
“The Border Mountains’ Mad Tiger Peak won’t stand idly by when injustice reigns,” said Di Mie, adding a little dramatic flair as he hopped onto the wagon to grab some supplies.
“Mad Tiger Peak!” gasped one of the women. “I heard of them. They’re the peak of female warriors!”
“Yep,” said Di Mie, putting on a boyish grin and acting cute. “General Ye is the coolest!”
“They accept male disciples now?”
“My two senior brothers wearing red are junior disciples,” said Di Mie. “I’m just a newcomer who keeps failing at the selections.”
“Awww,” gushed the women.
He put on a charming smile and dipped his head in apology. “Sorry, older sisters, I just need to get something from here…”
*he calls them ‘jiejie’, basically ‘oneesan’
The younger women giggled to each other in delight as he reached for the bundles by their legs.
“He’s a man but his lashes are so long!”
“He’s got braids in his hair, that’s so adorable!”
“Ahhh, he’s so close!”
“If only I were twenty years younger,” chuckled Auntie Ma as she watched these young women get excited by a boyish handsome face.
“Me too,” said Old Niu. “I was not too shabby myself back then…”
Jianshi and Jianjin just rolled their eyes at how their ‘righteous’ Fallen Leaves Valley lord easily dropped lies like flies.
“Come and sit with us, younger sister,” said the oldest of the rescued women sitting in the wagon, seeing Xie Li standing there in his torn dress. “We’ll take care of you until you get home. Are you from a neighbouring village?”
“Huh?” said Xie Li.
Di Mie tried hard not to laugh.
“No, no, he’s not, uh…” said Jianshi.
“You poor dear,” said another woman, looking at his dress. “Those brutes even tore your sleeve! You must’ve been scared.”
Di Mie hopped back over to Xie Li and took his hands. Then with a straight face and in a concerned tone, he asked, “Honestly, though, did the bandits do something to you?”
“Yes,” said Xie Li, without hesitation.
“Oh no…” said one of the younger women at the back of the wagon.
“Is he really saying that?” said Jianjin, shocked.
“I think he’s just being literal,” said Jianshi, also shocked.
“The bandits’ boss came at me a few times,” said Xie Li.
The women gasped. They weren’t assaulted by the bandits as they were deemed precious merchandise to be sold, but this sister here seemed to have suffered otherwise.
“With his…sword?” asked Di Mie.
“Wait,” said Xie Li. He narrowed his eyes slightly at the pauses in Di Mie’s question. “Why are you asking this?”
Di Mie bit down on a laugh.
Xie Li sighed. “I probably said something wrong again, did I?”
“No, no,” said Di Mie, taking Xie Li aside. “You didn’t say anything wrong. Let me teach you how to handle this, all right?”
“Look in the direction of that big sister in front. Smile, wave and say ‘Thank you for your concern, elder sister. Nothing happened to me, so please don’t worry’,” said Di Mie, dying of laughter inside.
Xie Li nodded, then turned to look at the oldest woman sitting in the wagon. He put on his waiter-standard professional smile, waved at them and copied Di Mie, “Thank you for your concern, elder sister. Nothing happened to me, so please don’t worry.”
The women felt a twinge in their hearts from this tall lady’s sweet smile.
“It’s good to hear you are fine, younger sister,” called out the older woman.
“Are you two sweethearts? I’m so envious!” called out a younger woman cheekily.
“No matter how you look at it, they suit each other,” said her friend next to her.
“Your voice sounds a little low,” commented another. “You must be falling sick, please take care!”
“His smile is as beautiful as ever,” sighed Auntie Ma, letting the image of Xie Li’s smile warm her heart.
“Mie—uh, Di Mie, I’m older than all of them, I should’ve called her ‘younger sister’,” said Xie Li quietly to Di Mie, away from the ears on the wagon. “Also, why were they worried about me but not you or the others?”
“Oh my heavens,” said Jianjin. “Is he for real?”
“Oh my heavens,” said Jianshi. “I think he’s for real.”
“I’ll explain it to Shizun later,” said Di Mie, beaming happily.
“The wagon can’t carry all of us,” said Old Niu. “How about this old man and Auntie Ma bring the women back to the village while you wait here?”
“Actually, we’ll make a quick trip back to the Border Mountains to report this incident to our senior sisters,” said Jianshi.
Xie Li sneezed again as Di Mie wrapped an outer robe over his shoulders to warm him up.
“Ah-Li, should I bring you back to the village’s inn to rest? I’m sure we can squeeze one more somehow,” said Auntie Ma. Everyone on the wagon nodded enthusiastically at her suggestion.
Xie Li looked at the wagon packed full of people and quickly shook his head.
“Shizun and I will fly there on my sword,” said Di Mie. “There’s nothing in the village, so we might as well head straight to the city. They have better clo—medicine there.”
He was going to say ‘clothes’!
Jianjin raised a finger, and Jianshi clapped a hand over Jianjin’s mouth before he could even open it.
“Can we just…walk there?” said Xie Li, looking at both options and feeling even sicker.
“You get sick whether by horse wagon or by sword-riding,” said Di Mie. “So let’s just get that over with as fast as possible.”
“Is walking really not an option?” repeated Xie Li, getting paler.
“That’s a good idea. There are good physicians in the city,” said Auntie Ma. “I’ll leave Ah-Li in your capable hands, young master Di.”
“Auntie Ma and I will look for you at Bainiao Lake City,” said Old Niu.
“We’ll take our leave, Di Shi…xiong, Senior Xie,” said the two juniors.
“Go,” shooed Di Mie.
So here they were, riding his sword through the skies, Xie Li stepping on his toes, his back pressing up against Di Mie’s chest.
“Just bear with it a while longer,” said Di Mie, his signature silver hair back in play. He had dropped his disguise to better control his aura. Wrapping his arms around Xie Li’s slender waist, he could feel Xie Li’s muscles tensing up as they zipped through the skies.
“Urp,” said Xie Li.
“Throw up if you need to,” sighed Di Mie.
Xie Li shivered, and made more retching sounds, but he had nothing left in him to throw up.
“Whoever’s down there better thank their lucky stars that your stomach’s empty,” said Di Mie.
“Cold,” muttered Xie Li, shivering.
“That’s because you’re tired and hungry. I’m already using a barrier to keep the wind out. Don’t fall asleep, okay?”
He was already going twice the normal speed, something Ye Mingzhu would approve of, trying to get there as fast as he could, which meant he could feasibly get there in a day.
“Let’s play a round. Eleven positions: Six soldiers, two demon hounds, two cannons and one knight, Battering Ram Formation.”
“Objective?” asked Xie Li, perking up.
“Attacking a city gate with a ten point defence.”
“I’m on defence? Then I’ll have six soldiers, one demon hound, two archers, one knight,” said Xie Li, closing his eyes to think of his moves. “And one cannon, White Lotus Formation.”
“Heh,” said Di Mie.
They spent the next two hours playing this strange game, with Xie Li declaring his defeat when he was about to win. He ‘lost’ three games and was about to ‘lose’ his fourth.
“My archer will kill your last hound in three moves. I can’t, cough, solve this one. I admit defeat,” said Xie Li, giving up after he saw the outcome of yet another certain victory.
“You could’ve won if you hadn’t insisted on achieving a stalemate,” said Di Mie. “If I didn’t know how you play, I’d think you were doing this on purpose.”
“Sometimes, winning—” he shivered, taking a break to catch his breath—”isn’t enough.”
This game alone was worth the wait, thought Di Mie.
“You are so greedy,” he said, his voice filled with fondness.
Xie Li had felt something prodding the small of his back for a while now. He reached behind him and grabbed at it. “Your sword hilt’s in the way. I’ll move it away—”
“Wait, don’t grab—ow!…”
“Oh,” blinked Xie Li, stopping immediately at his pained reaction. “Did I hurt you?”
“Mn. It hurts very much,” said Di Mie.
“Ah, sorry,” said Xie Li, rubbing that sore spot by instinct. “I’ll go find some medicine for you later.”
“Do you know where you’re rubbing?” said Di Mie.
“Eh? That’s your—” said Xie Li. “Oh.”
His surprise lasted for only a second. He looked at his hand and stared at it, deep in thought on a more pressing issue. A small frown showed on his face as he came to a conclusion.
“That’s not right.”
“…what’s not right?”
“According to the book, ‘Common Comparisons’, yours is too big, even if the dawn-measurements are accounted for.”
“Heavens, are you really using that trash gossip booklet as a reference book?”
“It’s data compiled from a few hundred people, it should be a decent reference,” said Xie Li, his words slower and slurring. “Calculating…the healthy size to height ratio, your height is…hm? Did you grow taller?”
“Yes, I did,” said Di Mie, nuzzling his nose against Xie Li’s temple. “Look, if you account for the fact you’re standing on my feet, I’m quite a bit taller than you.”
“I’m not a kid anymore, you know.”
“It’s fine, don’t think about it,” sighed Di Mie. “Hang in there, okay? Let’s play one more round. Offence, fourteen—”
He realised Xie Li’s stopped shivering in his arms.
Di Mie pressed his lips to Xie Li’s cheek to check his temperature. His skin was cold and his breathing shallow. His eyes were half-opened and he wasn’t blinking.
“Shit, you fell asleep.”
Meanwhile, Jianshi and Jianjin were facing a problem trying to go back to the Border Mountains.
“I can’t summon my aura, bro,” said Jianjin. “I just can’t feel it.”
“Maybe it’s a side effect that’ll wear off after a while,” said Jianshi. “Let’s go make a report to our Shizun first.”
“But what if it never comes back?” said Jianjin. “Does that mean I’ll be kicked out of Mad Tiger Peak?”
“Even if you don’t have aura, you’ll be fine. Senior Xie seems to be doing all right without aura.”
“Yeah, but he’s super talented to do this much without aura!”
“Looks like hard work rather than talent to me.”
“Oh yeah, how are we going to go back if I can’t fly?” asked Jianjin.
“We’ll both get there on my sword,” said Jianshi.
They tried a few positions but kept failing.
“It’s hard to stay balanced with two of us on it,” said Jianshi.
“Didn’t Di Shibo say he was going sword-riding together with Senior Xie? How do you think they managed to balance?”
“Hmm…given what they’ve been doing so far, they probably got physically really close,” deduced Jianshi.
“You’re right,” said Jianjin, suddenly remembering the times they walked in on those two. “I guess the solution is to stick really close—wait, I’ve got an idea!”
He stepped on his brother’s feet, and they tried lifting off the ground a bit, but the balance still wasn’t right.
“Hm, let’s try it the other way,” said Jianjin, turning around and pressing his back against his brother’s chest. “Oh, this is just like how a dad would teach their kid to walk, isn’t it? It’s really stable and balanced.”
“Oh, this might just work,” agreed Jianshi.
And they flew that way back to Mad Tiger Peak, where the head disciple, Diao Suiyu, spotted their landing from her window.
Diao Suiyu was a woman in her twenties. Her aura core was as strong as her brow was furrowed. Dressed in the black and red, her collar and gauntlet cuffs were lined in soft ferret fur. The capable head disciple of the Mad Tiger Peak, she was the leader in charge when Ye Mingzhu was away.
This capable head disciple was glaring at Jianshi and Jianjin from behind her pile of paperwork as they entered her office.
“Shizun,” they greeted.
“Did your Di Shibo teach you that terrible way of sword-riding?” asked Diao Suiyu.
“No,” said Jianjin. “But, uhh, imagining how Di Shibo might do it was kinda the inspiration for it…”
“Don’t you both do that again. The last time I saw that cursed image…” said Diao Suiyu, pinching her brow.
Seeing the marks of battle on them and Jianjin’s missing boot, she knew they had something to tell her.
“Report your situation.”
“Yes, Shizun,” saluted the both of them.
They told her as much as they could without revealing Xie Li’s secret. When they told her about how Di Mie seemed to get along with Xie Li, she sighed.
“You two are grounded,” said Diao Suiyu, the permanent furrows on her brow getting even deeper.
“But our mission to attend the meeting of the clans was issued by General Ye,” said Jianjin.
“I’ll talk to her about it,” said Diao Suiyu. “You both are to stay here—no. it’s not safe here. Crystal Peak is probably not safe either. I’ll arrange it with Peak Leader Du for you to stay at Elegance Peak.”
“Won’t you tell us why?” said Jianshi, catching on to the urgency in his Shizun’s tone. “Is something happening?”
“Your Di Shibo’s is going to kill you both,” said Diao Suiyu.
“Isn’t he already trying to kill us every training session?” said Jianjin.
“For real this time, you brat,” said Diao Suiyu, smacking Jianjin’s head with a scroll.
“Shizun, stop hitting my head, I’ll become stupid—” Jianjin looked at the frown still set on Diao Suiyu’s face— ”You’re serious.”
“We’ve been with Di Shibo for seven years,” said Jianshi. “I can’t think of an instance where we’ve done him wrong.”
“You haven’t,” said Diao Suiyu. “But he’ll come after you both anyway.”
“Why??” said Jianjin. “How about this—maybe if we stick close to Senior Xie, he won’t let that happen. He saved my life after all!”
“This Xie Li’s appearance is the very reason you’ll both get killed,” said Diao Suiyu, pinching her brow for the umpteenth time.
“Eh?” said Jianjin. “This makes no sense!”
“Oh well,” said Jianshi, patting his younger brother’s shoulder. “Our lives are Di Shibo’s to begin with. What does it matter if he wants them back?”
“Bro, why have you already given up…” cried Jianjin.
“Ah-Jin, there’s no use in thinking so hard if we’re just going to die anyway,” said Jianshi, resigned.
“Jianshi, you are a good kid, but please have a stronger sense of survival,” said Diao Suiyu.
At the gates of Bainiao Lake City, a tall dark veiled figure walked up to the gates carrying a large woven bamboo coffin strapped to his back.
“H-Halt! Please state your business,” stammered one of the guards.
“I’m from the Border Mountains Sect,” he said, holding up his token.
“The Sect up north that’s full of commoners?” said the supervising guard, sneering. “You’re hiding your face behind a veil—is that how these commoners should dress?”
“Then how should I dress? High and lofty—like you?” said Di Mie, and then realised he should not be picking fights right now.
“You—” said the rude guard, looking him up and down, trying to find fault. “Who knows what you’re trying to smuggle in that ominous coffin you’re carrying?”
“Oh, this?” said Di Mie, setting the coffin down at the guards’ feet. “This is for containing lost souls. I’ve already collected some on the way here. I can open it for you to inspect if you like…”
“Shoo, get that ominous thing out of here!” said the rude guard, spooked.
The hesitant guard asked, “I’ll need to record your name in the visitor book, sir…”
Di Mie rolled his eyes under his veil. Time to be a little flashy, he thought. A little breeze, the right angle, a group of traders who were having their merchandise inspected looking his way…
“I’m—” he began.
“Ahhh!!” came a woman’s scream. “Silver hair! That’s the Fallen Leaves Peak Lord of the Border Mountains!”
Di Mie smiled.
“I saw it! His smile!”
“Oh my heavens, I must tell my wife about this! She’s going to be so jealous!”
“What’s going on?” yelled the rude guard.
“Sorry, sorry,” said the traders. “It’s just—we’re excited to see someone so famous here.”
A few other guards rushed over to see the commotion and became part of the commotion.
“Heavens, it’s really the Fallen Leaves Valley Lord! He’s the one who took down that bandit lair single-handedly, you know, the one the Rong Clan put a bounty on—”
“That’s old news! I heard he sent a horde of demons packing just east of here ten days ago!”
“Ah! Look here, look here please!”
One of the guards enthusiastically explained to the rude guard, “Supervisor, he’s that really famous Peak Lord the bards sing about!”
“Pah, who’d pay attention to what those commoners sing about?” said the rude guard. He knew he was outnumbered, and left in a huff.
“Welcome to Bainiao Lake City, sir! Are you here to help with the cleansing efforts? I’ll make sure the other guards know to let you into the restricted area without delay!”
“You have my thanks,” said Di Mie as he strolled through the wide opened gates, his silver hair fluttering behind him in the moonlight breeze, blessing the eyes of the people who saw him.
Finally. Time to look for the best inn in town and get some fine dining and a large, comfortable bed, thought Di Mie as he walked down the richest city in the south with a suspicious-looking bamboo coffin on his back.
“Shizun and I will fly there on my sword,” said Di Mie. “There’s nothing in the village, so we might as well head straight to the city. They have better clo—medicine* there. He can get looked at by a physician.”
Di Mie wanted to say ‘clothes’ 衣装 (yi zhuang) but quickly corrected himself to ‘医药’ (yi yao), so it wasn’t that obvious to people who didn’t know him that he wanted to say ‘clothes’
Diao Suiyu appears in person for the first time here!
The Shizun (master) of Jianshi and Jianjin, her name is written as 貂随遇, Diao being a common surname, meaning ‘Ferret’, and Suiyu probably coming from an idiom ‘隨遇而安’(sui yu er an) meaning ‘to be at home wherever one is’/’to take what comes along’.
Sword-flying is a common trope in the cultivation fantasy genre. Just imagine it as riding some kind of a flying sword like a skateboard.