On a bright moonlit night, a young Di Mie followed the path down the mountain.
He was dressed in the full black of the Hermit Moon Peak. Extricate braids decorated both sides of his dark hair, swept up into a high ponytail that bounced behind him. He skipped down the stairs past Elegance Peak with a basket in hand.
He followed the spirit echoes left behind on the ground, hearing the soft chiming of crystal bells as he ran all the way to the Border Mountains’ front gate.
A disciple of Elegance Peak sweeping the main gate’s courtyard clicked his tongue at him and lectured, “You again! Stop running about like that. Also, aren’t you supposed to be wearing a face veil?”
Di Mie stuck his tongue out in defiance. “I’ll show my face if I want to.”
“To do what you want is the Mad Tiger Peak spirit!” cheered a random Mad Tiger disciple passerby.
“You are the official disciple of the Hermit Moon Peak Lord, so you ought to follow his rules. Stop seeking attention from the other Peak Lords when you already have a Shizun,” nagged the Elegance Peak disciple.
“I can’t stop them from showering their attention on me when I’m this cute and smart, you know,” said Di Mie. “Even your respected Peak Lord Du gives me candy when he sees me~”
“Yes, I’m shameless!” laughed Di Mie. “Senior of Elegance Peak, I know you mean well, so just sweep your floor and ignore this unruly junior.”
“Aww, the lonely disciple of Hermit Moon Peak is looking for his Dream-Wandering Immortal again,” said the female disciples who have gathered for a late night show.
“Why are you lot here again,” groaned the Elegance Peak disciple. “Is it that fun to be busybodies?”
“Shh! Don’t underestimate the power of a new song in the making,” said a Resting Clouds disciple, shushing him.
“Argh! Why won’t you all learn some decorum? This is why other clans look down on our Border Mountains Sect…”
The gathered group stayed a respectable distance away, knowing that the Dream-Wandering* Immortal tended to shy away when approached. One of them took out a packet of nuts and passed it around to the others.
*Dream-Wandering also means ‘sleepwalking’
“Shi~zun~! Why are you so high up?” grinned Di Mie as he cheerfully jogged over to the main gates where a figure sat atop.
“The moon is bright tonight,” said the Dream-Wandering Immortal as he gazed at the night sky.
He was dressed in a flowing pale green robe embroidered with silver threads. A string of silver bells hung around his ankle that tinkled softly like crystal chimes on a breeze when he moved.
“You forgot to wear your shoes again,” said Di Mie as he hopped onto his sword and flew up the gate in a swift motion.
“It is pretty high up here,” said the Dream-Wandering Immortal, looking down and regretting it.
“You’re scared of heights, so what are you doing sitting here?” chuckled Di Mie.
“I can see the Dark Forest from here,” he said, pointing east.
“Wow, you got your directions right this time. Though, I don’t think you can see that far in the dark.”
“The moon shines there.”
“The moon shines everywhere, even in Night Vigil City where the sun shies away,” says Di Mi, allowing himself a wry smile.
“Hmm, for a moment, I thought you were going to say ‘the moon even shines on your butt’.”
“Come on, I haven’t made that sort of joke for like, ten years.”
“Technically, that was three years ago.”
“Ohh, I love it when you discuss technicalities with me,” said Di Mie, cheekily.
The Immortal huffed, amused.
Di Mie placed his warm palms over cold hands, smiling to himself as he saw the translucent jade bangle hang off the pale wrist.
The Dream-Wandering Immortal stared at the wine bottle and two cups sitting at the bottom of the basket Di Mie had brought along.
“You’re still young to drink wine.”
“Your constitution makes you age slower. Your enrollment lists you as not yet sixteen.”
“Pssshh. As if you’re someone who follows stuffy paperwork,” said Di Mie. “Fine. I’ve already watered the wine down with tea. Let me watch the moon with you.”
“All right,” said the Dream-Wandering Immortal, his hand coming up to stroke Di Mie’s head.
Di Mie woke, touching his head and wondering what he’d just dreamt about. From the light streaming through the window screen, he knew the sun was high.
Xie Li was curled up with his back pressed against the wall. He shivered when Di Mie moved and cool air filled the space. He opened his eyes and seeing that Di Mie was awake, he quickly sat up.
“You’re up. I’ll go get you some food,” said Xie Li, instinctively.
Di Mie snorted a laugh. “Do you even know where we are right now?”
“Hm…” he started looking around.
“You stay here, I’ll go get us some breakfast,” said Di Mie, pulling on his clothes and his veiled hat.
Auntie Ma had been modest when she said her ‘nephew’ was in poor health. Trying to gauge Xie Li’s spirit aura was like trying to read a pulse from a dead man. The past days had overexerted him to the verge of collapse.
Di Mie needed an assistant to help him.
So he went next door and stole one of Qing Lingfeng’s disciples, coming back with a suitable servant in tow.
Xie Li sneezed. He had just finished putting on a fresh set of underclothes when the door opened and let a draft in.
Gouzi quickly closed the door behind them and Di Mie sealed the gaps with a barrier.
“A bit of cold won’t kill me,” said Xie Li. He sneezed again.
“Sure, but why suffer if you don’t have to?” said Di Mie, helping him tie the sash of his outer robes. He took out a heat talisman and placed it in an embroidered pouch, tucking it into the sash.
Feeling the warmth spread over his stomach, Xie Li looked at Di Mie.
Di Mie smirked and made two more for him.
Xie Li took them and tucked them into the pockets under his robes.
“More?” said Di Mie, pulling out three more.
Xie Li hesitated for a moment, then nodded.
“If someone else offered you their…six-packs, would you take it?” said Di Mie, teasingly.
“Why would anyone offer me that?” said Xie Li, taking the pouches and finding good spots to tuck those pouches in.
“Say, if Qing Lingfeng or Ye Mingzhu offered you to let you touch their six-pack….worth of heat pouches?”
“Unlikely. They can just use a barrier to keep the cold out. They don’t need to carry something as trivial as heat talismans.”
“Yes, but what if—”
“Mie’er,” said Xie Li, turning to look at him, concerned. “Do you not have enough talismans to use? Shall I give them back to you?”
Di Mie sighed. “Keep them, I can easily make more.”
Gouzi just smiled, completely confused.
“Gouzi, is it? I’ll give you overtime pay if you assist me until the clan alliance meeting,” said Di Mie. “Just say yes and I’ll arrange it with Sect Leader Qing.”
“Actually, Shizun’s already told me to attend to you, but, um, regarding the overtime pay,” said Gouzi, his eyes sparkling.
“Hahah,” chuckled Di Mie. “I’ll make sure you’re paid.”
“Okay!” said Gouzi.
“There are just two things you need to do above all else: get him food, and stick to him if he leaves this room,” said Di Mie.
“Leave it to me!” said Gouzi, happy to do something he was comfortable with. He’d worked for years as a domestic servant before he joined the Border Mountains Sect. Being an attendant should be a breeze.
Except it was not, for a simple reason—
Di Mie would never give anyone an easy job.
The first few days had been all right. He’d even gotten quite used to seeing the Valley Lord without his veil and thought it’d be something to boast about to his fellow disciples.
All Gouzi needed to do was prepare food and run a few errands. He had run to the medicinal hall to purchase herbs according to a prescription Di Mie wrote, which included the rarest snow lotus and wild ginseng, just to name a few. He almost fainted seeing the invoices.
From what he’d gathered, this Senior Xie was someone Sect Leader Qing and Valley Lord Di knew. He kept hearing Di Mie call Senior Xie ‘Shizun’, but from the playful way he was behaving, it looked like Di Mie was just fooling around.
This morning, as he came into the room to serve them breakfast, he was surprised when he saw them already dressed. At this time, the two seniors would usually be sleeping with the bed curtains still drawn. He quietly set the food on the table and began cleaning the room, hoping he wasn’t interrupting anything.
“Is this really necessary?” asked Xie Li, tilting his head as Di Mie fastened a silver chain of crystal bells around his ankle.
“Of course. Now that you’re more or less recovered, you’ll probably wander off. Given your terrible sense of direction, I can at least somehow track you down if you get hopelessly lost.”
Xie Li huffed and reached out, hesitated, and then withdrew it. For a moment, Gouzi thought Senior Xie was going to pat Di Mie’s head.
Di Mie raised a brow at the halted gesture.
“Shizun, I’ll be going to the White Crane publishing house today for some business,” said Di Mie. “Would you like me to bring back some books later?”
Xie Li nodded, then shook his head.
“I don’t have money,” he said, dead serious.
Di Mie grinned. “I’ll just put it on your tab, just like everything I got you.”
“I can’t stop you from buying things for me, can I?” said Xie Li. He looked at what he was wearing and huffed.
“Nope.” said Di Mie, handing him eight activated heat pouches this time. He went to the table and poured some tea for himself as he briefly looked through some documents for the day.
“Your eight-pack is good to use,” said Xie Li, using Di Mie’s weird phrasing from the other day.
Di Mie’s hand shook and the tea spilled. He was glad he hadn’t drunk it yet.
Xie Li hummed as he stuffed the handy little heat packs into his clothes. He looked like he was struggling with his sash, so Di Mie put down his things and came over.
“Let me help you put those on your back,” said Di Mie, reaching his hands under Xie Li’s outer robe to tuck one behind him.
“Don’t—” said Xie Li, groaning as the heat pack pressed against his wounds.
“Did I hurt you?” said Di Mie, moving his hand away quickly. “I’ll get you some medicine for the pain.”
“No need, I’m fine,” said Xie Li, sounding a little breathy.
“All right, then. I’ll be going off now.”
“If you want to go out, make sure Gouzi is with you.”
“If you go missing on me again, I’m going to tie you up and dump you in a demon-infested shithole,” said Di Mie, his voice low and threatening.
Gouzi shuddered at the threat. Valley Lord Di didn’t sound like he was joking…
Xie Li levelled his gaze at Di Mie, looking quite stern.
“Don’t say that.”
Gouzi shuddered again. Why was Senior Xie, who seemed sickly and had no aura, scolding the tall and intimidating Valley Lord?
“Fine,” said Di Mie, rolling his eyes and correcting himself. “I’ll dump you in a demon-inhabited…‘territory’.”
That was when Gouzi knew that the both of them were trouble and regretted taking this job.
It was autumn in the prosperous Bainiao Lake City. There was a nip in the air, but the fiery red of the ginkgo and maple trees made the place feel warm. Golden ribbons streamed from the lanterns hung in the streets amidst the brightly-coloured buildings.
The harbour was becoming lively as people started to stream into the restricted areas that were reopened.
“Shizun and Shijie* must’ve been working hard,” said Gouzi, seeing the area around Juxian Inn getting busier with each day.
*Shijie = senior sister (Yatou)
As they walked towards the recently reopened harbour, they saw a bustling scene. The streets and restaurants were filled with both local and foreign visitors eager to have a good time before winter set in.
Gouzi stayed no more than two steps behind Xie Li.
Up close, he could see the exquisite workmanship of Xie Li’s outfit. The simplicity of his robes hid in plain view the effort that went into the seams and subtle embroidery.
If he hadn’t read the invoice when he had gone with Yatou to collect the package, he wouldn’t have been able to tell that the fabric was made of linen and wool instead of silk.
It didn’t make sense to spend so much effort and money to specially treat the fabric until it became as good as silk, but it all clicked after he prepared Xie Li’s vegetarian meal.
Gouzi noticed that Xie Li wore shoes instead of boots. He wondered if that was purely for aesthetics until he noticed the crystal beds woven in the shoes and sensed that they were infused with aura. Probably to keep this senior’s legs warm. He sighed at the extravagant details that went into every part of the outfit.
He still had much to learn when it came to the intricacies of spirit aura tools and its many applications.
“Are you looking for something in particular, Senior Xie?” asked Gouzi as they looked around the shops at the harbour.
“Cushion covers,” said Xie Li.
“I think I saw a hawker over there selling fabric goods,” said Gouzi. “I’ll go ask if they sell cushion covers.”
“Would you like to wait here while I—no, I can’t be more than three steps away from you,” said Gouzi, relieved to have caught himself before he made a mistake. He took a deep breath and gave Xie Li a slight bow. “I’ll lead you there, Senior Xie.”
Xie Li nodded.
He hardly looked at the road as he walked, distracted by the noise of the busy market activity. Gouzi kept looking his way to make sure he didn’t wander off. Once they reached the pushcart stall, Xie Li saw that he could see part of the lake from this spot.
He watched how the sun hit the lake and gazed upon it, lost in thought.
“Gosh, I really can’t tell what he’s thinking,” thought Gouzi to himself as he purchased the cushion covers Xie Li asked for.
Suddenly, Xie Li began to walk towards the row of restaurants and tea houses overlooking the lake.
“Heavens! Wait up—” said Gouzi, hastily stuffing the covers into his sling bag and running after Xie Li.
Di Mie yawned, glad for his veil covering any slip-up in his expressions. The front of the White Crane publishing house was jam-packed with people from all over the region.
He took a secret way to the back of the publishing house to avoid the crowd and discreetly showed a letter to the staff. He was quickly ushered to a waiting room.
The bookshop’s staff stood at attention, alert and serious. A supervisor greeted him and served him a cup of tea, explaining that they would be done setting it up in a bit.
He saw that Zhu Yinghe was already at the table, sipping at a cup of tea. He was dressed in white with red and gold accents, hinting the colours of Bainiao Lake City.
“Mister Zhu,” said Di Mie, holding up his cup of tea in greeting. “I didn’t think you’d accept the invitation to come here given how busy you seemed lately.”
“I needed a break, and this looked like it would be interesting,” said Zhu Yinghe, keeping a painting-worthy smile on his face. “It’s my first time at such an event.”
“Ah, this would make me your senior,” said Di Mie.
“Then I hope you will look out for me at the event later, ‘senior’,” smiled Zhu Yinghe, raising his cup.
A shop staff popped into the back room and called the both of them out to the front.
“Time to work,” said Di Mie, cracking his knuckles.
The moment they walked out, they were greeted by an enthusiastic crowd of screaming fans waving homemade banners and signs.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your patience and cooperation. Please stay in the queue and we’ll make sure your limited edition copies will be signed by our special guests today,” said the shop staff.
“That’s a long queue,” said Zhu Yinghe, a crack appearing at the corner of his smile.
Heh, let’s see how long you can maintain that perfect smile of yours, thought Di Mie to himself with a smirk.
Being a veteran to events like these, Di Mie knew to let his veil flutter at the right times, letting his adoring fans capture a glimpse of his face from different angles. He took a sip of the tea every now and then to tease the fans with a little skin. Some of Zhu Yinghe’s fans were converted on the spot.
“Mister Zhu,” said Di Mie, cocking his head towards a group of fangirls who bought the premium edition merchandise standing at the waiting area, dubbed the ‘viewing area’.
“We need to give our fans a little service.”
“Ah, I’m not sure what you mean,” said Zhu Yinghe, but took the cue to look at him.
“You just have to lean in and talk to me,” said Di Mie.
“Okay,” said Zhu Yinghe, leaning in. “Is this enough?”
“We’ll wait and see,” said Di Mie, leaning in as well until they were inches apart.
A resounding squee came from the girls.
“That’s about right,” said Di Mie.
“Oh, you have a bit of dust here,” said Zhu Yinghe, casually brushing Di Mie’s shoulder, rousing another wave of screaming.
“You learn fast, Mister Zhu.”
Zhu Yinghe smiled, living up to his reputation as the runner-up in last season’s popularity charts with a special award for ‘best smile’.
“Senior Xie,” said Gouzi, seeing how quiet this place was amidst all the other bustling establishments around it. “I don’t think this teahouse is open for business. Shall we go next door instead?”
“Don’t want to. Noisy,” said Xie Li, walking right into the large, empty teahouse and going up the stairs. He climbed to the second floor and saw that the tables had a good view of the lake.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but we’re fully booked today,” said a waiter, frantically coming to them.
“These tables are empty,” said Xie Li, seeing only one table occupied.
“That customer booked the entire teahouse for today,” said the waiter. “Please go somewhere else…”
“It’s all right,” came the voice of the customer who booked the whole place. “Let them have a table.”
“Ah, if this master says it’s okay. Would you like to sit downstairs or…” said the waiter.
“We’ll sit there,” said Xie Li, pointing to the one right next to the occupied one.
The waiter sweated profusely.
“Oh?” said the customer. “I see you want a table with a view of the lake as well.”
Xie Li nodded. And then he remembered his manners and introduced himself.
“Xie Li. Pleased to meet you.”
Gouzi’s mouth fell open when he saw a pure-looking smile on Senior Xie’s face that would make anyone drop their complaint.
“Hu Xun,” said the man, returning the greeting. “Going by your companion’s dress, are you both from the Border Mountains Sect?”
Xie Li shrugged.
“I’m Crystal Peak’s disciple. Just call me Gouzi,” said Gouzi, giving him a proper greeting.
“That’s an interesting name,” said Hu Xun, tapping his table with a folded fan. “Come sit at my table. This place has the best view of the lake.”
He beckoned the waiter over.
“Get us another pot of your finest tea and some cakes. Oh, and a jar of Dream-Wandering Immortal.”
“Yes, sir,” said the waiter, hurrying off.
“I didn’t know this teahouse sold wine,” said Xie Li.
“This is the best teahouse in town, so it must have the Dream-Wandering Immortal,” said Hu Xun. “Do you know how this wine was intended to be drunk?”
Xie Li turned to look at the lake and gave him the textbook answer.
“Two parts tea, one part wine, and if so desired, add goji berries to the pot in winter or a sprig of mint in summer. If the wine is fresh and undiluted, a ladle of it shall do.”
“You do know, as I thought,” said Hu Xun, smiling.
Unlike Xie Li’s innocent-looking smile, his smile was relaxed and laid back; it was the demeanour of someone who made friends easily.
Gouzi just sat ramrod straight and played the part of an obedient statue.
The tea arrived with many dishes. Gouzi was about to serve it when he noticed Xie Li ignoring the food on the table. Realising what might be wrong, he spoke up.
“Um, Mister Hu, my senior is vegetarian.”
Without missing a beat, Hu Xun turned to the waiter and said, “Make sure all these dishes are suitable for vegetarians.”
“I’ll have the cook make these again,” said the waiter, taking away half the dishes.
Gouzi looked longingly at the goodies being taken away. He sighed inwardly and decided he should pour them some tea, but Hu Xun stopped him.
“Allow me,” said Hu Xun, mixing a fragrant spring-harvested Oolong tea with a ladle from a freshly opened jar of wine.
He moved with a calm and easy grace that got Xie Li’s attention back on the table.
Taking the chance, Hu Xun filled their cups and raised his for a toast. “To our fortuitous meeting.”
Gouzi raised his cup and then looked at Xie Li, who copied him and raised his cup as well.
“To you, Mister Hu,” said Gouzi.
Xie Li simply drank.
The tea was at the perfect temperature after the mixing. The delicate flavours even made him want to eat a little something.
Hu Xun put down his cup and began the conversation now that his greeting was done.
“So, Mister Xie, Gouzi of Crystal Peak, what brings you to Bainiao Lake City? It’s quite a bit of distance from the Border Mountains.”
Gouzi continued being a good statue.
“I just followed other people here,” said Xie Li, truthfully.
“I’ll be honest with you,” said Hu Xun. “From the spirit sword at your waist, I would have thought you a fellow cultivator, yet I don’t feel any aura from you.”
Xie Li shrugged. “It got lost.”
*the term Xie Li uses means ‘I dropped/misplaced it’
“Please, help yourselves to the food,” said Hu Xun.
Xie Li crossed his chopsticks as he tried to pick up an osmanthus cake. He glared at it for a while and decided to simply stab it, eating it like meat off a stick.
“Interesting,” said Hu Xun, following his lead and poking a piece of mungbean cake. “Etiquette shouldn’t get in the way of enjoying one’s food.”
“Mn,” said Xie Li.
“Try some lotus seed soup too,” said Hu Xun. “This dish is a speciality of this area.”
Xie Li shook his head after trying a spoonful. “Too sweet.”
“Ah, not a fan of sweet foods?” said Hu Xun, quickly recommending another dish. “Then these chive dumplings might be more to your taste.”
Gouzi marvelled at how this Hu Xun was able to get Senior Xie to eat so much. That said, he found himself refraining from scarfing down the food himself, as it was very tasty. Mister Hu had been generous in ordering many dishes, but teahouses that prized aesthetics had smaller servings for savouring rather than for filling one’s stomach.
“I’ve eaten enough. I want to look at the lake,” said Xie Li.
He turned to the window and leaned his elbow against the sill, chin resting on his hand. He gazed at the lake, lost in his own world.
“The world is a big place and I still have many interesting people I have yet to meet,” said Hu Xun, amused.
Some of the names of places and people!
“I can see the Dark Forest from here,” he said, pointing east.
The Dark Forest the Dream-Wandering Immortal mentioned as he pointed east is written as 幽森 (Yousen), meaning ‘dark/distant/spirit forest’.
“The moon shines everywhere, even in Night Vigil City where the sun shies away
Night Vigil City is written as 夜守城 (Yeshou Cheng) meaning night-guard/vigil city
The Dream-Wandering Immortal
梦游仙 Mengyou Xian, pronounced ‘mung-yuu see-en’. ‘Mengyou’ means sleepwalking. The wine often mentioned is named after him~
Hu Xun 胡驯 (pronounced ‘hoo shin’)
Hu is a surname but sounds like some other words, such as ‘lake’ and ‘fox’, and Xun means to tame/train.
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