The entire harbour and the streets around it were restricted entry; only cultivators were allowed past the barricades.
A few guards and junior disciples of the allied clans patrolled the area, making sure every person who entered the restricted area was accounted for.
Di Mie was easily recognised and let through, with one of the Rong Clan’s disciples showing him to the quarters reserved for the Border Mountains Sect at the Juxian Inn, the largest, grandest inn in the city. Rather than an inn, it was more like a series of guest houses, with some shared common areas for mingling and private ones for dining.
The inn spanned a few buildings along the lake, and he could see the gates of the Phoenix Manor from here—an atrociously extravagant building across the street with pavilions extending into the lake itself.
“Valley Lord Di!” called out a Border Mountains’ disciple sporting the blue accents of Crystal Peak. “If you’re looking for Sect Leader Qing, he should be around the Phoenix Manor. Shall I go tell him you’re here?”
“It’s fine. I have my own things to do,” said Di Mie as he crossed the courtyard into the guest quarters for the Border Mountains Sect. “Carry on.”
“Yes, sir,” saluted the disciple, confused but wise enough to not question the Fallen Leaves Valley Lord, especially when said Lord was carrying what looked like a really questionable coffin on his back.
There were a couple of empty rooms for him to choose from, so he obviously picked the room with the largest bed he could find.
Which, from the looks of some clothes hanging on a rack, wasn’t exactly an empty room, but he didn’t sweat the details.
He set down the coffin on the large bed, sealed the bedroom with a barrier, and decided to go get some dinner.
The disciples of the Rong Clan who busied about the common areas gave him a wide berth. Some of the female disciples watched him from a distance whispering to each other excitedly, but shuffled away when he got closer for fear of being scolded by their seniors.
He made sure to give a little fan service, because it never hurt to increase his fanbase.
Rather than trying to flag down one of the scurrying Rong Clan’s junior disciples to run his errands, he figured it was better to get things done himself.
The Lord of the Border Mountains’ Crystal Peak, dressed in black and blue, gave a long sigh as he doubled checked the barriers and talismans he’d put up.
“You’d think they could spare more manpower but no, they’re all busy sorting out ‘internal affairs’…” he mumbled to himself. “Look at this nice empty street all to myself…”
“Sect Leader Qing,” greeted a man coming out from the Manor’s gates. His robes bore the golden accents of the Rong Clan. “Thank you for your continued efforts in keeping our city safe.”
“Mister Zhu,” said Qing Lingfeng, returning the greeting. “I’m only doing what should be done. You have been very busy yourself.”
“It’s with your support that we’ve been able to control the situation,” said Zhu Yinghe.
“If it about the dead harming the living, we are glad to help,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“Your help is appreciated, but this is an internal affair of the Rong Clan, so we can’t bother the Border Mountains Sect any further,” said Zhu Yinghe, sounding apologetic. What he meant was that no outsiders were allowed into the Manor at this point.
“Also, my master, Rong Zhong, conveys that he hopes you’ll be able to attend the meeting of the clans at the end of the month.”
“I’ve heard that the Rong Clan’s eldest son, Rong Jing, is hosting this meeting.”
“That is correct. The second son is in charge of the Manor’s situation at present,” said Zhu Yinghe. “He wishes to meet and thank you personally for your help.”
“I see,” said Qing Lingfeng. “Tell your master I cannot promise him, but I shall try.”
“Certainly,” greeted Zhu Yinghe. He motioned for the disciples behind him to help. “I’ll take over from here, so please go ahead and rest.”
“I shall take you up your kind offer,” said Qing Lingfeng.
As Qing Lingfeng stretched and walked away from the Manor after days of work, he saw a familiar figure approach him.
”Hey, Spirit Emperor,” grinned Di Mie.
“Valley Lord Di,” sighed Qing Lingfeng. “Let me guess, you’re not here to help me.”
“I was thinking you could help me instead,” said Di Mie.
“Why is my life so hard,” sighed Qing Lingfeng.
“Who’s that guy?” said Di Mie, raising a brow at Zhu Yinghe from a distance.
“That’s Zhu Yinghe, servant of the second son, Rong Zhong,” said Qing Lingfeng. “Seems like he’s in charge of cleaning up the Manor.”
“Oh, so that’s the famous Zhu Yinghe…” said Di Mie. “Anyway, I had a few drinks with this Rong Zhong some years back. He seemed like a pretty easy-going guy.”
“Anyway, what do you want?” said Qing Lingfeng.
“I’m looking for dinner,” grinned Di Mie under his veil.
”Shizun!” called out two figures as they made their way out of the street.
“Gouzi, Yatou*,” said Qing Lingfeng.
*Gouzi = dog Yatou = servant girl
“Your two disciples still haven’t changed their names?” said Di Mie, turning to judge Qing Lingfeng.
“Valley Lord Di,” greeted both the Crystal Peak disciples.
“It’s not Shizun’s fault,” said Yatou. “We didn’t want him to bestow us names until we became senior disciples.”
“Your Crystal Peak brats sure are ambitious,” admired Di Mie.
“Where do you want to go for dinner?” said Qing Lingfeng, sighing yet again.
“Come back to the inn and help me cook up some vegetarian dishes,” said Di Mie.
Qing Lingfeng closed his eyes and massaged his brow as he realised what was going on.
He took a deep breath, then opened his eyes and levelled his gaze at Di Mie’s.
“First of all, you and I are canteen regulars. What makes you think I know how to cook?”
Di Mie shrugged. “I was hoping you learnt it in your free time or something.”
Qing Lingfeng turned to his disciples.
“Gouzi, Yatou, can either of you cook?”
“I can,” said Gouzi. “I was a servant before I joined the Border Mountains Sect.”
“Valley Lord Di, is there no vegetarian food available at Juxian Inn?” asked Yatou, confused.
“Our meals are catered from the main kitchen of the inn. I don’t think they serve customised dishes,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“Can’t we order from a vegetarian restaurant somewhere?” asked Yatou.
“I assume this is your first time in Bainiao Lake City,” said Di Mie. “There are no vegetarian restaurants here in this city of excess.”
Qing Lingfeng frowned in thought. “We could arrange for a private cook, but it would take time and approval.”
“I don’t have time for that,” continued Di Mie. “I need the food ready by dinnertime.”
“I didn’t know the Valley Lord is vegetarian,” whispered Yatou.
“He’s not,” said Qing Lingfeng, rolling his eyes. “He probably just felt like it today. Isn’t that so, our Fallen Leaves Valley Lord?”
“You know me so well, Big Bro Lingfeng,” grinned Di Mie.
“Please don’t call me that, I’m getting goosebumps…”
After bumbling about the kitchen for over an hour, the four of them managed to come up with a bowl of vegetable dumplings and some grilled radish cakes. There were two more side dishes Di Mie whipped up himself that looked very dubiously charred.
“Well, I’m sure it’ll work out fine if you serve this with some tea,” said Qing Lingfeng, renowned Spirit Emperor, leader of the Border Mountains Sect, wanting to tear off his apron and be done with this.
“I suppose. He’s not picky with his food if he’s got some tea to wash it down,” said Di Mie.
“‘He’?” asked Yatou.
“Oh, nothing,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“I guess it’s no harm introducing him to them,” said Di Mie. “I’ll need to, sooner or later, if he’s to move about freely with me. Also…”
Qing Lingfeng took a deep breath, and then let out a really long sigh.
“I’ll get the paperwork done.”
“You’re as understanding as usual, Big Bro Lingfeng.”
“I know I’m a ‘pushover’. Now stop smirking under that veil of yours,” said Qing Lingfeng. He turned to his disciples. “Gouzi, Yatou, go get some wine. We’ll need it.”
“Make sure to get ‘Dream-Wandering Immortal’, some quality osmanthus tea, and—” Di Mie dug out an invoice from his sash and handed it to them together with a pouch of silver—”help me collect something.”
“We’re going with Dream-Wandering Immortal?” said Qing Lingfeng. “That’s for the best.”
“Yep,” said Di Mie. “That’s for the best in this situation.”
“Thanks for not stirring shit.”
“Shit will most likely be stirred at the clan alliance meeting, whether you like it or not. I’m just saving it for later.”
“Please let me be far away from this place when it happens,” muttered Qing Lingfeng.
“Dream-Wandering Immortal? I saw those being sold at the restaurant just outside the restricted area,” said Yatou. “I’ll go with Gouzi.”
Qing Lingfeng sighed once more for good measure and looked at the food they prepared. Seeing the ominous side dishes from Di Mie’s own hand, he knew his plate of hardships was just beginning.
When they both arrived outside Di Mie’s chosen room, Qing Lingfeng stared at the door and said, “I’m pretty sure this is my room…”
“Don’t sweat the details,” said Di Mie, taking down the protective barrier and opening the door.
A gush of hot, humid air hit their faces as they went in and set the dishes down on the dining table. The floor of this inn was heated, but it wasn’t anywhere close to this level of heat.
Covered pots of hot water were placed around the bed, followed by a barrier to keep out the wind from the room.
It felt like a warm summer night in this room.
Qing Lingfeng wasn’t concerned about that. Instead, he stared at a large bamboo casket in front of him.
“You put a coffin on my bed.”
“Don’t worry, it’s brand new and clean. I wouldn’t put my Shizun in a dirty box.”
“This looks more like a wake than a dinner. Did you finally commit magistricide?”
“I love your reaction,” said Di Mie, taking off his veiled hat and hanging it over a chair. He took away the pots of hot water he had placed on the bed itself.
“Can we get rid of the coffin before my disciples come back? They’re still young and impressionable. I don’t want them thinking it’s fine to randomly put pots and coffins on people’s beds,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“I really love your reaction,” chuckled Di Mie as he opened the coffin, revealing balls of wool stuffed in the gaps around the person lying within. Said person was wearing a young woman’s style of dress with a man’s robe tucked around him.
“I’m not going to comment on what he’s wearing or where all this wool came from. I’m just going to pray for his soul to rest in peace,” muttered Qing Lingfeng, adding a prayer chant at the end of his comment.
“It should be warm enough, but he’s still not waking up yet,” said Di Mie, pulling out the limp body out of the coffin onto the bed, and tucking him in with a blanket and stuffing all the balls of wool underneath to keep him warm.
“What happened?” asked Qing Lingfeng.
“He dropped into hibernation on the way here,” said Di Mie, checking Xie Li’s pulse and frowning. “His internal organs are still not warmed up. I probably need to try circulating aura through his meridians.”
“If he’s this weak, his body might not be able to withstand it if you try to force your aura on his circulation,” warned Qing Lingfeng.
“I’ll just channel it through his jade bangle since it’s attuned to his aura,” said Di Mie, watching Qing Lingfeng’s reaction. “Somehow this useful bangle disappeared from my room and is right here on his wrist.”
“Haaa,” sighed Qing Lingfeng, knowing he was caught.
“I knew you two were in cahoots once I saw him with the jade bangle,” said Di Mie.
“You can ask him yourself if you want to know more. I was sworn to secrecy.”
“I respect your decision, but I’m still going to get back at you for not telling me.”
“It really wasn’t my decision to make, so please don’t.”
“We’re back,” came Gouzi and Yatou’s voices outside the room.
“Come in,” said Di Mie, putting his veiled hat back on in a practised, swift motion.
“Wow, this room is really warm,” said Gouzi, feeling sweat already beginning to bead on his forehead.
“Hm? Who’s this?” asked Yatou, spotting a figure sleeping on the bed.
“Have you collected my package?” asked Di Mie.
“Here it is,” said Gouzi. “Are these new clothes?”
“Yes,” said Di Mie. “I ordered these months ago but they’ve only recently finished making them.”
“I’m not going to ask how much it costs,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“Don’t worry, it’s not coming out of the Border Mountains’ coffers,” said Di Mie.
“The Valley Lord is rich?” asked Gouzi, ears perking up at the mention of money.
“He’s quite the businessman, like Resting Cloud Peak’s Bai Yunhe,” pointed out Qing Lingfeng.
“I want to learn how to do business,” said Gouzi, his eyes filled with money signs.
“I could transfer you to the Fallen Leaves Valley for a few months if you want to study with Valley Lord Di.”
“No, no,” said Gouzi, quickly recalling the horror stories of the Mad Tiger disciples who were ‘taught’ by Di Mie. “I’m happy at Crystal Peak!”
“Hey, don’t you go pawning your brats off me. My hands are already full with Big Sister Ye’s Mad Tiger brats.”
“Despite his personality, he’s still a Valley Lord of our Border Mountains,” said Qing Lingfeng. “You’re sure to learn something useful from him.”
“What do you mean ‘despite my personality’?” said Di Mie.
“Nooo,” begged Gouzi. “I’ll be good and obedient, please don’t send me there!”
“How about you, Yatou?”
“I’ll be good and obedient too!” begged Yatou.
“Why are you both so scared? It’s not like he’s going to eat you up. He’s a proper Valley Lord of our Border Mountains Sect, you know,” said Qing Lingfeng, slightly taken aback at their dramatic reactions.
“I think the Mad Tiger brats have been exaggerating their tales,” said Di Mie. “But if it means I have to do less overtime, I’m totally fine with it.”
“You do get paid for overtime, you know…”
“That money can’t even buy me a hat.”
“If you didn’t wear so much branded stuff…”
“I’ve got an image to uphold,” said Di Mie.
“I’ll leave the meeting to you. In the meantime, I’ll go check in with the Resting Clouds external disciples stationed in the city, since you seem pretty sure trouble’s a-brewing,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“You do that,” said Di Mie, pointing at him and clicking his tongue.
“Gouzi, Yatou, grab your stuff and let’s move out,” said Qing Lingfeng, taking his belongings from this room.
“Wait, Shizun, isn’t this our room?”
“It’s our Fallen Leaves Valley Lord’s room now,” sighed Qing Lingfeng.
“‘Pushover’,” mouthed Yatou to Gouzi, who nodded back.
“I’ll come visit you with my Shizun when we are ready, Sect Leader Qing,” said Di Mie, clasping his hands together in greeting, finally mindful of decorum for once.
All Qing Lingfeng heard from the smirk in Di Mie’s voice was ‘Heheh, I’m looking forward to your reaction’.
“Valley Lord Di’s Shizun…??” said the two disciples, alarmed. “Isn’t that, uh….he-should-not-be-named?”
“Don’t worry about it, you two,” said Qing Lingfeng, glancing at the jars of Dream Wandering Immortal on the table and taking one with him. “Give me one of these jars. I’ll need a drink if I’m to sleep tonight.”
He also made a note to himself to teach these two not to ask so many questions when dealing with the Fallen Leaves Valley Lord if they wanted to avoid trouble.
Xie Li lay on the bed, drowsy, his back pressed against something warm. His wrist felt almost scorching as the jade bangle he wore glowed gently, spreading tendrils of spirit aura to warm him up.
“Finally awake?” came a soft baritone next to his ear.
He saw one hand holding his wrist and the other slung over his stomach, both almost scaldingly warm. Tucked around them both were a thick blanket and big chunks of wool.
The room’s air was hot and slightly humid, like a warm summer night.
Xie Li sat up and let the blanket fall off him as he surveyed the surroundings, his eyes scanning for the doors and windows.
“We’re at an inn near the Phoenix Manor in Bainiao Lake City,” explained Di Mie.
Satisfied with the observation, he moved on to take stock of what was around him. He picked at the wool beside him, pulling and stretching the material, and then sniffing it. Then he turned around and grabbed a lock of Di Mie’s hair, rubbing the strands between his fingers.
“Are you awake yet?” asked Di Mie.
“Mn,” said Xie Li. He pulled at the thin fabric he was wearing. He had been stripped down to his undertunic but he didn’t feel cold.
“It’s warm,” he commented.
“I’m glad you like it,” said Di Mie. He wrapped both his arms around Xie Li’s waist to stop him from moving off. “Look at me, I’m all hot and sweaty from all this heat.”
Xie Li huffed and squirmed, trying to get away from the sticky sensation of Di Mie’s sweat soaking through his tunic. He grabbed at Di Mie’s hands, trying to pry them off his waist, and then he stopped.
Xie Li narrowed his eyes as he ran his fingers over the many small barely visible scars all over Di Mie’s hands.
Di Mie sighed and let go.
“Let’s eat some dinner and wash up,” he said, getting out of bed, not bothering to put on a tunic in this heat.
He grabbed a plate of dumplings over and held a piece of it with his chopsticks in front of Xie Li’s lips. “I’ll feed you.”
Xie Li shook his head and got out of bed to sit at the table. Di Mie passed him a pair of chopsticks, which he held it crossed, then corrected it, then frowned in concentration as he picked up the food.
“Just stab it,” chuckled Di Mie. “No one’s watching anyway. You can even eat with your hands if you want.”
Before Xie Li took a bite, he narrowed his eyes at the dishes.
“These aren’t your dishes.”
“I’m fine, I already ate,” said Di Mie, knowing exactly what Xie Li meant.
Xie Li spotted some side dishes behind the other dishes, plates filled with food that looked very different from the other dishes.
“What’s this?” he pointed to the first plate of what looked like pieces of charcoal.
“Grilled bamboo shoots,” said Di Mie.
“Grilled mushroom skewers.”
“You cooked them?”
“How did you know?”
“Oh,” said Xie Li. He put down his chopsticks and picked up the skewer with his fingers.
The mushroom crumbled into pieces upon his first nibble, having already ascended to charcoal nirvana. He did manage to get one edible nibble out of the bottom mushroom that was burnt outside but raw inside.
“It’s a bit bitter,” said Xie Li as he swallowed a mouthful of grit and coughed.
He took a piece of the ‘bamboo shoot’ with his hand and took a bite as well, then put it down as he swallowed, grimacing just a little. He looked at his black fingers, then wiped it on his tunic. He’d be doing laundry later anyway.
Di Mie quickly poured some osmanthus tea into a cup and served it.
“Shizun, stop eating coal and drink some tea.”
“Mn,” said Xie Li, taking a sip. He didn’t seem all that interested in food anymore after tasting the first two black dishes. Tea was good. Tea was warm. He cradled the cup in his hands and just continued sipping at it.
Di Mie sat down next to him, popped an edible dumpling into his mouth and started explaining the situation with his mouth full.
“It’s been a while, and many things have changed around here at Bainiao Lake City. The Rong Clan’s long-time patriarch, Rong Yaozhu, passed away a year ago. The eldest son, Rong Jing, is currently leading the clan, but the ancestral sword to be worn by every generation’s head of the clan has gone missing, so his position is not official,” said Di Mie.
Following Di Mie’s example, Xie Li popped a dumpling in his mouth and started chewing as he listened.
“There are rumours that the second son, Rong Zhong, is the one Rong Yaozhu wanted to be the clan’s successor. According to the Resting Cloud Peak’s intel, this hypothesis isn’t unfounded.”
“What’s the intel about?” said Xie Li, following Di Mie’s bad example of talking with his mouth full.
“Zhu Yinghe. This guy’s a senior disciple of the Rong Clan and also the personal servant of the previous patriarch. Zhu Yinghe was given to Rong Zhong a few years before he died. Since this Zhu Yinghe is the steward of the manor, it seems that the wily fox, Rong Yaozu, may have been favouring his second son all along.”
“I see,” said Xie Li. “Is the outbreak in their manor related to this?”
“I’m not sure,” said Di Mie. “It could be infighting between the two brothers, but it could also be sabotage. The Rong Clan aren’t short of enemies.”
“I remember this Rong Yaozhu had more children.”
“The rest were either banished or dead, so all that’s left are these two sons and a daughter.”
“What about the daughter?”
“The daughter, Rong Ci, was widowed a few years ago shortly after her marriage into the Yang Clan in Fanhua City west of here. She has told the public that she has returned to take care of her mother after her father’s passing and will not partake in any politics.
“Widowed?” said Xie Li.
“The head of the clan and most of his family were killed during a botched exorcism. That happened about three years ago,” said Di Mie, eating a piece of radish cake with his hands.
“Sounds complicated,” said Xie Li, mirroring Di Mie and picking up a piece of radish cake himself with his fingers.
“I’ll remind you if you forget,” said Di Mie. “Just know that there’ll probably be drama happening at the allied clans meeting.”
“Hm? I’m attending?”
“I’m not a senior disciple or anything,” said Xie Li. “I don’t have the rank to attend.”
“You’re my Shizun. That’s senior enough.”
“I think people are going to misunderstand.”
“I have a plan. I will also have the paperwork,” grinned Di Mie.
In the room next door, Qing Lingfeng shuddered.
Not long after, Di Mie invited himself into his room to use his bath tub since the tub in his room was occupied.
It was then Qing Lingfeng decided he was better off at work than resting at the inn.
Juxian Lou 聚仙楼
Immortal-Gathering Inn (‘Lou’ means building, but refers to an inn in this case)
Qing Lingfeng 清岭枫 Clear Ridge Maple
He’s the Sect Leader of the Border Mountains and has the title of ‘Lingdi’ 灵帝 (Spirit Emperor).
Crystal Peak 清凌峰 is ‘Qingling Feng’ in Chinese (meaning ‘clear-cool/crystal-clear Peak’), hence the pun of his name sometimes.
His two disciples’ names are:
Gouzi 狗子: name just means ‘Dog’.
Yatou 丫头: her name just means ‘girl’, or ‘maid(servant)’.
The Phoenix Manor’s Rong Clan:
Rong Yaozu 荣耀祖 – the deceased patriarch of the Rong Clan
It’s a common surname, meaning ‘Glory’ or ‘Honour’. His name Yaozu means ‘shine (upon) ancestors’
Rong Jing 荣敬 – the eldest son
Jing means ‘respect’
Rong Zhong 荣忠 – the second son
Zong means ‘loyalty’
Rong Ci 荣慈 – daughter
Ci means ‘charity’
Zhu Yinghe 朱迎荷 – servant of Rong Zhong
Zhu is a common surname, meaning ‘crimson’, Yinghe means ‘welcome lotus’.
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