Old Niu and Auntie Ma stood by the door, crutches and bamboo staff at the ready.
A knock came on the door and they stiffened up.
“It’s me,” came a familiar baritone.
They heaved a sigh of relief and opened the locked door.
Di Mie walked in and swiftly closed the door behind him.
“Valley Lord Di, thank the heavens you’re here,” said Old Niu. “Rong Jing’s men outside our door looked ready to going to barge in.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Di Mie.”
“You’re finally here. Please talk to Ah-Li,” said Auntie Ma, worried. “He’s been fussing over the sword he took from the Phoenix Manor and won’t tell us anything.”
Xie Li was sitting on the floor, with talismans and paper strewn around him. He was trying to finish drawing a seal with a sword in his lap.
Taking off and setting his veiled hat on the table, Di Mie sat down next to Xie Li on the floor.
“Shizun, what are you doing?” he asked, in a gentle voice.
“Activate this,” said Xie Li, holding up the sword he’d covered in talismans.
“Sure,” said Di Mie, following his instructions.
Xie Li tentatively let go of the sword and observed for a minute.
Satisfied that the sword was sealed, he relaxed and felt the weariness course through his body. His back felt wet and sticky, the cuts on it throbbing with every breath he took.
“The floor is hard, come sit with me on the bed,” said Di Mie.
He steadied Xie Li, who wobbled as he got to his feet.
“I’m pretty sturdy. You can lean on me,” suggested Di Mie once they both sat down.
“No. Your shoulder armour is hard,” said Xie Li.
“Well, how about I lean on you?” said Di Mie.
Xie Li reached behind him and pulled out two well-stuffed cushions, showing them to Di Mie.
“Did you make this?” said Di Mie, marvelling at how well-stuffed they were.
“Ready-made covers. I just needed to sew up this edge,” said Xie Li.
“What did you stuff it with?”
“You kept the wool from last time?” grinned Di Mie.
Xie Li nodded.
“Shizun made this, isn’t it amazing?” said Di Mie, holding up a cushion and showing it off.
“Ths handiwork is pretty good,” said Old Niu, impressed.
“Indeed,” said Auntie Ma, looking a little confused. “Did you do the stitching? It’s pretty even. To think you can’t hold chopsticks but you can sew such a neat stitch…”
“Please sew your obedient disciple a handkerchief,” grinned Di Mie.
“Don’t you already have one?” asked Xie Li.
“It’s old. I want a new one.”
Old Niu and Auntie Ma began to relax after seeing how Di Mie and Xie Li bantered. They took a seat at the table facing the bed and formed a little discussion circle.
“So Xie Li just wanted to seal this Jiutian sword?” said Old Niu. “The Rong Clan is huge and full of strong cultivators; surely you could’ve left it to them to settle it.”
“They don’t have the ability. Their barrier around the sword was breaking. They’ll probably die so I picked up the sword,” said Xie Li.
“Uh…could you elaborate?” asked Old Niu.
Di Mie chuckled.
“I think what Shizun meant is that after some observation, he concluded that the Rong Clan disciples couldn’t seal the undead properly. They had sealed the Jiutian sword in a barrier about to break. More people were going to die so he stepped in to do something about it,” said Di Mie. “Is that right?”
“Mn,” said Xie Li, looking at Di Mie and adding, “in the worst case, I’ll flash two cannons. Dead aura is in Border Mountains’ purview.”
“What does that mean?” said Auntie Ma.
“He said that in the worst-case scenario, he’ll just use me and Big Bro Lingfeng to get them to back off. Incidents involving dead spirit gates and dead aura are within the Border Mountains Sect’s purview after all,” said Di Mie.
“Oh my, Ah-Li, I didn’t realise you had thought that far ahead,” said Auntie Ma. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Ah, actually, I think he might have tried but we didn’t understand what he was saying,” said Old Niu.
“Aiyah, I was so worried I forgot that Ah-Li has problems speaking sometimes,” said Auntie Ma, doing a little blep.
“Your nephew is too shy,” said Old Niu.
“Shizun is actually pretty talkative,” said Di Mie, taking Xie Li’s hands to warm them, but saw his palms were smudged with blood from popped blisters.
Auntie Ma watched as Di Mie carefully treated Xie Li’s blisters and wondered how it was possible. The Xie Li she knew wasn’t tactile. To be frank, he was downright touch-averse to everyone. Yet young master Di seemed like the exception, easily getting in close time and again.
Then again, he was the Fallen Leaves Valley Lord, thought Auntie Ma. Anyone would say yes to the most popular cultivator of all seasons. She would’ve said yes to those board shoulders and that handsome face in a heartbeat.
She glanced over at Old Niu, who had a look of envy written all over his face.
Yes, she was sure that Old Niu himself would jump at the chance to have a passionate Shizun-disciple roleplay with the young master Di…
“Uncle Niu, Auntie Ma, tell me what happened at the Phoenix Manor,” said Di Mie.
They recounted what they saw, describing as much as they could remember of the revenants that were sealed. They also overheard the disciples recognise the undead that were summoned; that they were all people who Rong Yaozu killed.
“If that’s the case, then it’s likely that all the undead used to be people who were killed by the Jiutian sword,” said Di Mie.
“Only people?” asked Xie Li.
“Ah, there were beasts as well. What caught our attention was a pack of foxes,” said Auntie Ma.
“How many?” said Xie Li.
“Maybe around seven or eight?” said Auntie Ma.
“I counted ten,” said Old Niu, stroking his chin.
“Are you suspecting that it’s linked to Huahu Island?” said Di Mie, catching onto Xie Li’s line of questioning.
“…I don’t know.”
“I’ll ask Cloudrest Peak to investigate it,” said Di Mie.
Old Niu stroked his sparse beard and wondered aloud, “So, if this Rong Yaozu was summoned as well, does it mean he was killed by his own sword?”
They were interrupted by someone banging on the door.
“Looks like they couldn’t wait anymore,” said Di Mie, getting up and putting on his veil. “I’ll go deal with it.”
After a while, he came back with Qing Lingfeng in tow.
“Sect Leader Qing,” Old Niu stood up and greeted out of habit as a former disciple.
“We have informed the Rong Clan that the Jiutian sword is officially in the possession of the Border Mountains Sect,” said Qing Lingfeng. “We’ll bring the sword to the conference for them to sort it out among themselves.”
“Rong Jing’s men aren’t that eager to pick a fight with the Border Mountains Sect over a cursed sword they don’t want to touch,” said Di Mie.
“Well then,” said Qing Lingfeng, looking a little doubtful at Di Mie. “Where’s the sword?”
“It’s right there,” said Di Mie, pointing to a wrapped-up sword among the mess on the ground.
“And how is he?” said Qing Lingfeng.
“He seems to be fine…wait—” said Di Mie, rushing over when he saw Xie Li slumped over the cushions.
“Is there something wrong with Ah-Li?” asked Auntie Ma, concerned.
Pressing his fingers to Xie Li’s neck, Di Mie frowned when he felt Xie Li’s erratic pulse.
“I’m fine,” said Xie Li, brushing his hand off.
“Uncle Niu, Auntie Ma, we’ll examine him, so please leave the room,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“Come, Ma Erniang, don’t you worry,” said Old Niu, pulling Auntie Ma with him out of the room. “Lord Di and Lord Qing are skilled in medicine. Let’s leave it to them.”
Once the door was closed and a barrier cast, Di Mie took off his veil and helped Xie Li sit up.
“Check the flow in his meridians,” said Qing Lingfeng.
Di Mie pressed his hand on Xie Li’s chest but was pushed away.
“Shizun, let me just check which acupoints are blocked,” coaxed Di Mie.
“No need,” answered Xie Li. “It’ll clear out after a while.”
“Not letting us check means they’re all blocked,” concluded Qing Lingfeng. “You overexerted yourself again, didn’t you?”
Xie Li did not refute him.
Di Mie sighed and took Xie Li’s hands, channelling his aura through the jade bangle to ease the blockage.
“I should’ve locked you up before I left so you wouldn’t go around picking trash off the ground,” said Di Mie.
“It’s not too late,” said Qing Lingfeng. “Maybe we should bring him back to the Border Mountains.”
“You have a point,” considered Di Mie. “With Sister Ye and Suiyu keeping an eye on him, we wouldn’t have to worry even if he hibernates for the winter.”
“I don’t want to go there,” said Xie Li.
“That’s probably the safest place for you to stay,” said Qing Lingfeng.
Xie Li pulled his hand away from Di Mie and narrowed his eyes.
“Hey, it’s okay,” said Di Mie. “If you don’t want to go there, no one’s going to make you.”
“Anyway, the story coming out from the Phoenix Manor was that the Border Mountains disciples took the sword from some worker who picked it up,” said Qing Lingfeng. “No one’s seemed to have noticed you, which is good.”
“I guess dressing like a waiter worked out for you,” said Di Mie. “You’re all dusty, though. You should wash up and change.”
“I can’t walk,” said Xie Li.
“I’ll carry you~”
“You two, ugh,” groaned Qing Lingfeng. “Please wait for me to leave first…”
“Lingfeng,” said Xie Li.
“Huh…” said Qing Lingfeng. “Valley Lord Di, you’d better check if he has a fever.”
“I don’t—“ tried Xie Li.
“Will do,” saluted Di Mie. “See you, Big Bro Lingfeng~”
Qing Lingfeng all but ran out of the room.
After a while of Di Mie channelling aura, Xie Li began to cough. He covered his mouth with his sleeve and it came away red.
“There are a lot of blockages. Just let it out,” said Di Mie, sighing and rubbing Xie Li’s back.
The pressure on his stinging back made Xie Li choke and the blood went into his nose instead.
“See? You’ll choke if you don’t let it out,” said Di Mie, grabbing some water for him.
Xie Li felt his nose itch and wiped it with his other sleeve. Looking at his bloodied sleeve, something he read came to mind and then he concluded:
“I think I’m horny.”
Di Mie dropped the cup and choked on his own saliva.
They both coughed together for the next five minutes.
“What—cough—trashy booklet did you read this time?” said Di Mie.
“Something at the bottom of that pile,” said Xie Li, pointing to a stack of gossip booklets at the end of the bed. “It says you get a nosebleed when you’re horny.”
“Well then, are you? Horny, that is,” said Di Mie, his lips twitching like he was about to laugh and cry at the same time.
“I don’t know,” said Xie Li, nasal and sniffling. “Am I?”
“I wish,” muttered Di Mie to himself.
“These gossip booklets are just using a nosebleed as a figure of speech,” explained Di Mie.
“Is that so…” said Xie Li, pouting ever so slightly as he looked at the blood on his sleeve.
“Wait,” blinked Di Mie. “Did you want to be…horny?”
“Forget it. Seems like I got it wrong,” said Xie Li, using the last inches of his clean sleeves to the blood off his face.
And then Di Mie realised he had a much bigger problem—
“Wait, does that mean you’ve never felt horny before in your entire life?”
“I never needed to,” replied Xie Li casually.
“Come on, let’s get you cleaned up,” said Di Mie, giving up and taking off his outer garments. Leaving his undertunic on.
“If you want to bathe, you should go first,” said Xie Li.
“We can bathe together to save time,” said Di Mie.
“Come on,” said Di Mie, helping Xie Li strip down to his undertunic and scooping him into his arms before he could refuse.
He dropped a few heating talismans into the water to warm it up quickly and stepped in, slowly lowering Xie Li into the tub with him. The water rose to their shoulders with the both of them sitting in it.
Xie Li hummed, feeling the warm water ease the deep aches in his core acupoints.
“Take your top off before it dirties the water,” said Di Mie.
“I promise not to look at your back.”
Di Mie sighed and sat up, pulling off his tunic, leaving him in only his dudou.
“You can put this on.”
Xie Li nodded and made to remove his own tunic.
Di Mie slowly peeled the undertunic sticking to Xie Li’s back, keeping his eyes away as he pulled off and tossed the bloodied garment out of the tub.
Xie Li tensed up as the stinging came back with a vengeance. He draped Di Mie’s white undertunic over his shoulders to cover his back.
“I know you want answers, but I can’t tell you now,” said Xie Li.
Di Mie sighed and leaned back on the tub, pulling Xie Li down with him.
“I’ve already waited seven years, what’s a little while more?” said Di Mie.
“If you’re angry, I’ll let you kick me a few more times.”
“Don’t regret it later,” said Di Mie, raising a brow.
Xie Li played with Di Mie’s hair, swishing the silver locks in the water and watching how the silver caught onto the light falling upon the water.
“Did you go out to see the world all this time?”
“I’ve had more than enough time to see everything twice,” said Di Mie.
“I thought you preferred to stay in the big cities, so why did you go back to the Border Mountains? Did you run out of money?”
“Run out of—” Di Mie snorted a laugh and shook his head. “No, money wasn’t a problem. I’ve stayed in all the big cities for a time, from Chongjin City in the west to Bainiao Lake City right here. Yet they pale in comparison.”
“Compared to? The Border Mountains?” said Xie Li, tilting his head.
Di Mie shook his head and smiled.
“Compared to being in this bathtub with you.”
“It’s not a metaphor, is it?”
“No, not at all,” said Di Mie.
“I read that Chongjin City is famous for its beautiful brocades and their brothels,” said Xie Li. “Have you visited them?”
“Uh,” said Di Mie, finding himself a little lost for words at the sudden mention. “Maybe?”
“Maybe I should go visit Chongjin City soon,” said Xie Li, looking around.
“You know what a ‘brothel’ is, don’t you?” ventured Di Mie, sitting up and shifting them to a more comfortable position and passing him a wash towel.
“Isn’t that a place where people visit to watch performances?”
“Did you read a book about it?”
“I asked Uncle Niu and he said the brothels of Chongjin City have the best song and dance performances.”
“In a sense, he’s not wrong…” said Di Mie. “Ahem. Rather than that, why not enjoy what Bainiao Lake City has to offer first while we’re here? I’ll bring you to a good teahouse after the conference.”
“I’ve been to one,” said Xie Li, wiping his face with the wash towel. “It was not bad.”
“Oh? Which teahouse did you go to?” said Di Mie, keeping the topic far, far away from brothels.
“The tallest one overlooking the lake. I saw Rong Zhong there. Oh, he called himself Hu Xun.”
“You were at the teahouse with him?”
“Mn. The food he ordered was pretty tasty.”
Di Mie regretted this topic.
“Let’s not talk about him,” said Di Mie. “And stay away from him.”
“I just don’t like seeing you near him.”
“Hm, all right,” said Xie Li.
They spent a moment in silence, Di Mie resting a hand over Xie Li’s stomach, absently thumbing a scar on his right side.
After a while, Xie Li sat up and turned around to face Di Mie. Straddling Di Mie’s hips, he started wiping Di Mie’s face with the wash towel.
“Hey, you don’t have to help me wash. I’m not a kid anymore,” said Di Mie, but made no move to push Xie Li away.
“You always forget to wash behind your ears,” said Xie Li, wiping them as well. “Hm? They’re a bit red. Is the water too warm for you?”
“Okay, that’s enough,” said Di Mie, moving to get up, only for Xie Li to slip and sit right down on him.
“Do you need to go to the toilet? You’re getting ha—”
“Please don’t complete that sentence.”
Di Mie took deep breaths and tried to think of Rong Zhong’s punchable playboy face in an attempt to cool off. It worked, somewhat.
He hastily whisked Xie Li back onto the bed and covered him in a large dry towel before marching out of the room dripping wet.
“I guess he really needed to go,” thought Xie Li to himself.
Di Mie walked out to the small open kitchen behind their room, opened the water jar, and took a cold shower in the last days of autumn.
Jianshi and Jianjin arrived at the Juxian Inn and hastily made their way to their Shibo’s room.
The sun had set and there was a cold bite in the air. The two young men found themselves face to face with their Di Shibo standing outside the room door.
He was wearing a pair of white pants, dripping wet and holding an exquisite dudou in his hands. His long silver hair cascaded down his back and he looked pale and otherworldly under the yellow glow of the lanterns.
“I’m sorry, Di Shibo!” cried out Jianjin, falling to his knees, praying and begging.
“Jianjin, you brat, what are you doing?” said Di Mie.
“I don’t know! Shibo looks like a drowned ghost—mmpgghghh!”
Jianshi clapped a hand over his brother’s mouth but it was too late.
“Di Shibo, sorry we arrived late,” said Jianshi. “We had a bit of an issue back at the Border Mountains.”
“Wait here,” said Di Mie, rolling his eyes as he went back into the room.
“What’s going on?” said Xie Li, wrapped up in a giant towel and sneezing out flakes of dried blood.
“Jianshi and Jianjin have arrived,” said Di Mie, changing out of his wet clothes. “I’ll have them accompany you to the Zhuiyue Cave.”
“Zhuiyue Cave?” said Xie Li.
“As long as someone knows the Jiutian sword is at the inn, you won’t be safe,” said Di Mie, passing Xie Li a fresh set of clothes to pull on. “I can’t be by your side all the time so I want you to hide for a few days.”
“I can go stay at another inn.”
“Some people have seen your face, it’s not safe.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“All right,” conceded Xie Li. “Where’s this Zhuiyue Cave?”
“It’s just east of here. To avoid being detected, you should go by wagon. You’ll get there in less than two hours.”
“Two hours…” mumbled Xie Li.
Seeing Xie Li turn a shade paler, Di Mie chuckled and dragged the bamboo coffin over, laying a clean bedsheet in it and throwing the wool-stuffed cushions in.
“Just take a nap in here and you’ll be there before you know it.”
“Hm,” said Xie Li, looking a little doubtful.
“I’ll wait till you’re asleep,” said Di Mie.
“I think it’s easier to just knock me out,” said Xie Li, pointing at the pressure point behind his neck.
“Don’t always pick the unhealthy option,” said Di Mie. He took the teapot from a little stove and added some sleeping powder into it. Adding a spot of wine to sweeten the tea, he poured a cup for Xie Li.
“Shizun, have some of this tea,” he said, playing obedient disciple. “It’ll help you sleep.”
“You don’t have to keep calling me Shizun. You can call me whatever you like,” said Xie Li, huffing in amusement as he sipped at the tea.
“This disciple just enjoys calling you Shizun,” said Di Mie. He helped Xie Li put on the same soft green robes he had on this morning and combed out his hair.
“Mie’er’s hair is so soft,” said Xie Li, reaching a hand out to stroke Di Mie’s head.
“Ah, the medicine’s working,” said Di Mie.
“Little sheep has little horns,” muttered Xie Li, running his fingers through the silver hair as he fought to keep his eyes from closing.
“Sleep,” said Di Mie, pushing him down onto the bed.
“I don’t want to sleep anymore,” said Xie Li, making to get up.
Thinking quickly, Di Mie pouted and said, “But I want to sleep.”
Xie Li stopped trying to get up and patted the space next to him.
“Ah, right. You don’t like to sleep by yourself,” mumbled Xie Li, clumsily tucking pillows and blankets around Di Mie. “I’ll keep you company.”
Di Mie lay down on his side, amused as he let Xie Li fuss over him and stroke his head. He almost dozed off when he heard Jianshi and Jianjin complaining outside and jolted awake.
He carefully tucked the fast-asleep Xie Li into the coffin with blankets and heat pouches before closing the lid. Then he fastened it tight with a thick cord and numerous seals.
“Come in,” he said to the two waiting Mad Tiger Peak disciples outside.
“Di Shibo,” greeted Jianshi and Jianjin.
“I have a job for the two of you,” said Di Mie.
“Uh, just so you know, I think my spirit aura got sealed so I can’t fly on my sword,” said Jianjin.
Di Mie raised a brow and held up his hand. “Give me your wrist.”
Jianjin obeyed, letting his Di Shibo take his pulse.
Di Mie slapped the boy upside the head.
“Ow! Why does everyone like to hit my head…” complained Jianjin.
“Because it’s still there. You just need to unseal it by yourself,” said Di Mie, saying the same thing Diao Suiyu had told them.
“It’s something you’ll have to figure out for yourself. If you’re really desperate, you can ask the expert when he’s awake,” said Di Mie, pointing at the coffin.
Jianshi looked at the coffin and worked out who was in it instantly.
“Is Senior Xie the expert?” asked Jianshi.
“Wait, Senior Xie’s in there?” said Jianjin.
“Your job is to escort my Shizun to Zhuiyue Cave and keep him safe for as long as he’s there,” said Di Mie.
“Yes, but why is Senior Xie in a coffin?” said Jianjin, wondering why no one’s pointing out the obvious.
“Isn’t Zhuiyue Cave rumoured to be demon-infested and uninhabitable?” asked Jianshi.
“That’s why it’s the safest place for now,” said Di Mie.
Just two guys sitting in a hot tub…
RIP Di Mie.
Zhuiyue Cave 追月洞 = Chasing Moon Cave