Heigou, the dog-headed guard captain at Zhuiyue Cave, shook his leg nervously as he sat beside Xie Li while they talked to the boss of the Cat’s Paw Restaurant.
“Do you have any relevant work experience?” asked Jinbei, the cat-faced boss of the restaurant.
“I helped at an inn for a while,” said Xie Li.
Heigou glanced at a painting of a man in green hung over a display of wine at the back of the restaurant, and then back at Xie Li. And then back at the painting again.
“Cook or waiter?” asked the boss, checking the restaurant’s schedule.
“My restaurant can always use more part-timers, nya,” said the boss.
“Mister Xie Li, are you sure about this…?” said Heigou.
“I’ll just have to learn,” said Xie Li.
“No problem, you can take it slow,” said the boss. “Just come in tomorrow afternoon and wear what you’re wearing today.”
“Don’t you require uniforms?” asked Xie Li, looking over at the other part-timers milling about the restaurant wearing aprons.
“No, not at all,” said the boss.
Heigou looked at the painting again and then at the restaurant boss, who just grinned and rubbed his paws together.
When they left the restaurant, Heigou looked over at Xie Li and asked.
“You don’t have to work, you know,” said Heigou. “The young master said he’ll pay for all your expenses.”
“I can’t rely on him forever,” said Xie Li, looking ahead as he hummed and walked down the street back to the manor.
“The young master will be upset if he hears you say this,” said Heigou.
“It might make him feel like he can’t be relied on.”
“That’s not my intention,” said Xie Li. “I just want to be able to support myself.”
“I saw how you taught young Miss Suiyu’s two disciples. You’d make a good instructor. Why work as a waiter?”
“I have no spirit core or even aura. Who would hire me?”
“I’m sure the Border Mountains Sect—”
Xie Li closed his eyes for a moment and looked away.
“Ah, I won’t talk about it anymore,” said Heigou. “Oh, the medicinal hall’s just this way. Wait here a while. I need to zip in and get some supplies.”
Xie Li nodded. He stood there and looked at the shops and stalls lining the street.
A group of kids were playing in front of a stall across the street. One of the boys spotted Xie Li and pointed at him.
“Hey, I’ve never seen that guy before. He looks human.”
“His green clothes are pretty,” remarked a girl.
“Yeah! He looks just like the person in the painting at the shops!” said another kid who joined in the pointing.
“Shh,” hushed a stall owner babysitting them. “Don’t point your fingers at people. He might find it rude.”
Xie Li tilted his head, wondering why the kids were pointing at him. Was he that strange? Maybe his expressionless face was annoying them. He didn’t have a veil on, so there was only one thing he could do right now—
“Oh my, what a sweet smile he has,” said the stall owner.
“Hey, are you new to town? Come play with us!” yelled the kids, waving at him.
“Come on,” said a girl who ran up to him and pulled him by the sleeve over to the stall.
“You must be one of the guests staying at the manor everyone’s gossiping about,” said the stall owner, looking embarrassed. “It’s a small cave and everyone knows everyone, so these kids are making a fuss because you’re new. Sorry about that.”
“It’s fine,” said Xie Li, squatting down to their level. His long hair and the hem of his robes swept the dusty stone floor. He was glad he left Twig back at the manor with Jianshi and Jianjin. It would’ve felt uncomfortable squatting with a sword at his hip.
“How about we play catch?” suggested one of the boys. “You can be the bad guy—Oww!”
“Not allowed. You break things when you run around like that,” said the stall owner, pulling the boy’s ear.
“Do you know any skipping games? Word games?” asked a little girl.
Xie Li shook his head again.
“Do you know any games?”
“I know a chess game,” said Xie Li.
“Bleh, chess is for old men,” she said.
“How about stories? Know any exciting ones with sword-fighting?” asked a boy, waving his toy sword.
“I don’t know how to tell stories,” said Xie Li.
“Ehh…you’re so boring!” said the kids, disappointed.
“Mister Xie Li,” Heigou called out from across the road.
“Captain Heigou!” cheered the kids, abandoning the boring new guy and running over to Heigou in an instant. “Come play with us!”
Xie Li stood up and dusted off his clothes.
“Sorry about these mischievous kids,” apologised the stall owner.
“It’s good they are lively,” said Xie Li, smiling.
“Indeed,” said the stall owner, beaming back.
The girls hung off Heigou’s arms while the boys climbed him like a tree. Laughing as he balanced the bunch of squealing kids on his tall body, he walked over to the stall.
“Rawr,” he playfully growled at them as he pried them off and ruffled their hair. “Hey, cut it out, that’s enough.”
“Don’t mess up my hair!” whined a little girl, trying to neaten her hair with her fingers.
“You can use this,” said Xie Li, holding out a wooden comb for her.
“What a pretty comb!” said the girl, taking it and looking at the cute rabbits painted on it. “Where did you get it from?”
“An accessories shop near the northern gate of Mountainside Town,” said Xie Li.
The stall owner took the comb from the little girl and looked at it.
“It’s pretty well-made,” she said. “I should go find this shop the next time I stock up my wares.”
“You can have it,” said Xie Li.
“Are you sure? It looks really pretty.”
“Ah, then thank you for your gift,” said the store owner, lightly blushing as she held the comb to her chest.
“Hey, I want to use that too!” said the little girl who saw the comb first. She hopped off Heigou and rushed over to her babysitter.
“Sure, sit quietly and I’ll fix your hair with this,” laughed the store owner.
“All right, kids, me and this mister need to go back now,” said Heigou, swishing his fluffy tail to keep it out of the kids’ grabby hands.
“Come by again soon,” said the stall owner.
“Come back soon, Captain Heigou!” said the kids.
“Sure thing,” said Heigou, swishing his tail up and down to make the kids laugh as he left.
“You are good with kids,” said Xie Li, dropping his smile and sighing.
“Those pups can be a handful,” admitted Heigou. “Are you all right? Were the kids too much for you?”
Xie Li shook his head and looked at the ground as they walked back to the manor.
“I just realised that I am a very boring person.”
“Where should we put him?” said Di Mie, pointing at the injured Rong Zhong behind them.
“Not my room, please,” said Qing Lingzhu.
Di Mie rolled his eyes and turned to Rong Zhong.
“Why did you reject Du Yichen’s offer of staying at his manor? He’s got everything you need and you’ll be safe there.”
“He’s got a point,” agreed Qing Lingzhu, opening the door to Di Mie’s suite at the Juxian Inn and ushering Rong Zhong in. “It’s bad for your reputation if you stayed with us.”
“Especially since you’re now officially the head of the Rong Clan,” said Di Mie.
“Let them,” said Rong Zhong, looking subdued. “I don’t care what they say.”
“That’s unlike you to not care,” said Di Mie. He closed the door behind them, took off his veiled hat, and pulled out a big medicine box from under the bed.
“I see you’re well-prepared,” remarked Qing Lingfeng.
“But of course,” huffed Di Mie. “He gets into more trouble than the whole of Mad Tiger Peak combined if no one’s watching him.”
“Like master, like disciple…” muttered Qing Lingfeng.
“Sit down and show me your arm,” said Di Mie, turning to the unresponsive Rong Zhong.
Qing Lingfeng carefully peeled back the seals to look at Rong Zhong’s condition, and concluded, “The dead aura’s embedded so deep that the seals can’t do anything. We should be able to save his life but not his arm.”
Di Mie pursed his lips as he tore one of his sleeves and bound it over Rong Zhong’s chest, stemming the movement of the dead aura with enchantments.
“I feel bad for ruining your clothes,” said Rong Zhong.
“You’d better,” said Di Mie. “The enchantments in this one sleeve alone took me many months to weave.”
“It’s not going to be easy to push the dead aura away from his chest and keep it contained in his arm,” said Qing Lingfeng. “We need more help.”
“And there’s only one physician I know of who isn’t afraid to work on someone poisoned with dead aura,” sighed Di Mie.
They both said at the same time:
“Physician Hong, I guess—”
“That old man Hong…”
“I’ll leave that to your judgement, Valley Lord Di,” said Qing Lingfeng.
Di Mie looked at Rong Zhong.
And gauged the value of their friendship.
“Mister Xie Li, the young master wishes to talk to you,” said Heigou, handing him a hand mirror.
“Ah, okay,” said Xie Li, taking the mirror.
“Shizun~” came a voice from the mirror as well as Di Mie’s younger face.
“Are you in disguise again?” said Xie Li.
“Yes,” said Di Mie, sporting a black ponytail with braids on the sides. “Does it look good?”
“It’s dangerous to apply seals to yourself,” said Xie Li. “You shouldn’t do it if possible.”
Di Mie raised a brow at the mirror and said nothing.
“Hm? What’s wrong?” said Xie Li.
“Anyway, some new information was brought up at the conference,” said Di Mie. “They’ve uncovered nests of undead creatures midway on the path from Fanhua City.”
“Fanhua City’s Yang Clan was the clan that you said fell after a series of incidents,” said Xie Li. “So perhaps the incidents were related to dead aura as well.”
“Since the incidents happened not long after Rong Ci was married off to the Yang Clan, the alliance suspects it could be the work of someone with a grudge against the Rong Clan. That said, both of these big clans aren’t short on enemies.”
“Hm, would there be someone capable of controlling dead aura?” said Xie Li.
“It’s hard to imagine. Dead aura is hard to control but perhaps sabotage is possible if someone has the tools for it. That might explain the smaller incidents in our area,” said Di Mie, twirling his finger around his braid in a playful manner.
“Curse talismans,” said Xie Li, remembering something.
“…what about it?”
“I think there’s someone making and selling talismans cursed with dead aura.”
“And you would know because—oh. Where did you come across that?”
“Back at the bandit cave, the bandit boss used curse talismans?”
“Mn,” nodded Xie Li. “They were quite strong.”
“That explains the mess I saw back there. Will you tell me what happened?”
Xie Li shook his head.
“Fine, I’ll just keep guessing,” said Di Mie, making a note to investigate it.
“Anyway, all those leaders and representatives at the conference were so scared just at the thought that someone could control dead aura. Even the old monk from Mingsi Temple didn’t dare to invite Rong Zhong to be a guest at his temple anymore.”
“They think someone might try to finish the job of destroying the Rong Clan now that the older son’s dead and Rong Zhong’s the clan leader.”
“By the way, Rong Zhong’s injured and I’m thinking of asking old man Hong to help treat him.”
“He got poisoned by the Jiutian Sword,” said Di Mie. “Big Bro Lingfeng and I have already applied binding and suppression talismans. I’m thinking of asking old man Hong do the amputation.”
“Wait,” said Xie Li. He put the mirror down and Di Mie could hear papers rustling from the other end. After a while, Xie Li came back with a piece of paper with a seal design drawn on it.
“Interesting,” said Di Mie as he looked at it.
“By rapidly draining the spirit aura from the applied area, it can slow the spread of dead aura since it follows the path of spirit aura in one’s body,” said Xie Li. “I’ve rounded the edges and added limiters to minimise meridian damage…”
“It’s just like you to come up with something so dangerous but effective,” chuckled Di Mie. “Hold it to the mirror for a bit and let me copy it down.”
“If you applied this wrong way round, it could result in a backflow causing aura deviation,” said Xie Li, humming and absently waving a hand as he continued to talk about the talisman design.
“Mn,” hummed Di Mie, showing that he was listening.
“And with dead aura factored into it, I can think of at least four outcomes of an aura deviation caused by draining spirit aura the wrong way. With the limiters added, it shouldn’t be risky at all, but if external factors such as—” Xie Li stopped and trailed off.
“Hm?” said Di Mie after he finished copying and realised that Xie Li had gone quiet. “Why did you suddenly stop?”
“Mie’er,” said Xie Li, quietly.
“Do you feel bored when you’re with me?”
“Why do you suddenly ask?”
“I realised that I’m a very boring person.”
“Did someone call you that?” said Di Mie.
“The children I met on the street this morning said so.”
“You normally don’t care what people think of you, so why would you care about what those children say?” said Di Mie.
“You don’t like being bored.”
“Hm, you’re right, I don’t like being bored,” said Di Mie with a little smirk on his face. “So what do you plan to do about that?”
Xie Li mulled for a while, and said, “I think I should learn some games.”
“That sounds interesting,” said Di Mie. “Tell me about it when I come back.”
After Di Mie discussed some arrangements with Heigou and then ended the communication spell, he found Rong Zhong staring at him.
“What are you looking at,” said Di Mie, flatly.
“Nothing,” said Rong Zhong, but continued to stare.
“Does your hand hurt?” said Di Mie, his smile getting sinister. “I think Ashfire is itching to do an amputation…”
“Anyway, what are you going to do about the Rong Clan?”
“Let my younger cousin Tianhong handle it,” said Rong Zhong. “I’ve already sent Li Gang back to help him.”
“You said you don’t care, but you still got stuff done,” huffed Di Mie. “Anyway, where’s that steward of yours—that fox-faced smiley guy?”
“I don’t know,” said Rong Zhong, looking down.
“I heard something might’ve happened to him.”
“I don’t know,” he repeated.
Di Mie sighed.
“All right. Since you call me ‘brother’, I’ll keep you safe for now.”
A while later…
“And that’s why he’s here,” said Di Mie, jerking his thumb at the guy behind him on the horse.
“Let me help you, sir,” said Heigou as he helped a rather shaken Rong Zhong off the horse.
Sitting behind Di Mie on the horse that ran at top speed and not being allowed to use his arms meant he had to hold on for dear life with his legs. He learned the hard way that Di Mie’s enchanted armour would zap him if he tried to put his hand on Di Mie’s shoulder. It was a terrifying journey all the way to Zhuiyue Cave. His legs were shaking and his throat felt sore.
He might’ve screamed part of the way…
Di Mie hopped off as well and handed the reins over to a guard.
Rong Zhong’s wobbly legs gave way and the dog-headed guard captain caught him in his large, furry arms just before he fell.
“Ah, uh, thank you,” said Rong Zhong, unsure of what to feel being cradled by a giant dog demon.
“Heigou, you can eat him if he misbehaves,” said Di Mie.
Rong Zhong gave a shaky laugh.
“You’re Mister Hu, right? The young master informed me about you,” said Heigou, showing off a big grin and his rows of sharp teeth. “I’m Heigou, guard captain stationed at Zhuiyue Cave at the moment.”
“Hu Xun. Pleased to meet you, captain Heigou,” gulped Rong Zhong.
“Mister Hu, allow me to escort you to the manor’s guest room,” said Heigou. “I have informed Physician Hong to come by tomorrow morning.”
“Ah, thank you.”
“Hey, Hu Xun,” said Di Mie, his younger black-haired look making him look more impertinent as he bluntly addressed Rong Zhong.
“Remember this: you were never here and you know nothing about Zhuiyue Cave.”
“Understood,” said Rong Zhong.
He looked around as they walked down the street to the manor and took in the sight of a small town in a spacious, deep cavern. The air was fresh and the chill of winter couldn’t reach them. Rong Zhong put on a polite smile as a gaggle of diverse demons gawked at him. There was so much to see that he couldn’t help but look around.
Di Mie huffed and shook his head at the rich, useless young master of a friend.
Some of the older townsfolk recognised Di Mie but he’d put a finger to his lips to hush them to keep his cover.
“By the way, Mister Xie Li’s at the Cat’s Paw restaurant,” said Heigou. “Jianshi and Jianjin are with him.”
“Go on ahead and don’t wait up for me,” said Di Mie, instantly abandoning them.
The cat-like boss of the Cat’s Paw restaurant spotted Di Mie and rushed to the entrance, greeting him.
“Shh,” said Di Mie, putting a finger to his lips.
Xie Li was sitting at a small, well-decorated table at the back of the restaurant, measuring out tea leaves and preparing pots of blended tea. It was as if he was conducting a little tea ceremony in his own quirky way.
The customers chatted and giggled as Jianshi and Jianjin served them trays of tea and cakes.
Di Mie pulled aside the sensible junior nephew and quietly asked.
“What are you all doing here?”
“Di Shibo,” greeted Jianshi quietly, making sure his excitable brother wouldn’t spot them. “Senior Xie said he works here so we accompanied him.”
“Young master,” whispered the cat-faced boss, sidling over to join in the discussion.
“Jinbei, is your restaurant so short-handed that you dare exploit my Shizun and make him work as a waiter?” said Di Mie, raising a brow at the restaurant’s cat-faced owner.
“Ah, no, I didn’t do anything wrong!” stuttered the owner, rubbing his paws nervously. “Mister Xie asked me to give him a job so I said yes. Even though I thought it would be good for business to have the Dream-Wandering Immortal—no, no, I’m not exploiting him or anyone! I pay everyone on time; just ask any of my staff!”
“Hahah, I was just teasing you,” chuckled Di Mie, pinching Jinbei’s cheek. “I know you’ve come a long way from being a thieving cat.”
“Oh,” said Jinbei, letting out a sigh of relief as he rubbed his pinched cheek. “Don’t scare me like that, young master.”
“I’m not getting paid,” muttered Jianjin.
“We volunteered to help Senior Xie, so of course we aren’t getting paid,” added Jianshi.
Di Mie raised a brow at Jinbei, who quickly ran away. He clicked his tongue and pulled up a seat at Xie Li’s table. He watched the adorable way Xie Li measured the tea leaves and smiled.
“Hm? Mie’er, why are you here?” said Xie Li, finally noticing him.
“Shizun, don’t work here in this small restaurant,” said Di Mie. “How about you work for me? I’ll pay you double what the cat boss here pays you.”
“What would you have me do?” asked Xie Li.
“Hmm,” said Di Mie, putting a finger to his chin as he thought about it. “All you have to do is whatever I say.”
“Is that all?” said Xie Li.
“Yep. Easy, isn’t it?” said Di Mie.
The customers nearby perked up their ears and watched the free show.
“No,” said Xie Li, shaking his head. “That’s not right.”
“Hm? What’s wrong?”
“That isn’t work,” said Xie Li.
“If it’s not work, then what is it?” asked Di Mie.
“Di Shibo, we’re working,” Jianshi interrupted softly as he stood there with a tray waiting for Xie Li’s pots of tea.
“Go back first, Mie’er. I’ll talk to you after my shift,” said Xie Li, getting back to work.
“Cheh,” said Di Mie, pouting as he walked off.
“Di Shibo got rejected,” blurted Jianjin.
“Ah, that’s so adorable,” gushed some young women as they watched the free show and ordered more cakes.
After the shift at the restaurant, the three of them slowly walked back to the manor. Xie Li took the day’s wages and split it three ways with Jianshi and Jianjin.
Jianjin promptly exchanged everything for two sticks of candied haws at a street vendor. He passed a stick to Xie Li and looked at his own glumly.
“I guess we’ll have to share this one stick, bro,” said Jianjin.
“You can have the whole thing,” said Jianshi.
“No, you’re my bro, we share everything,” said Jianjin.
“Oh fine,” said Jianshi, buying one more stick from the vendor, solving Jianjin’s dilemma.
“Too sweet,” said Xie Li after a nibble.
“Anyway, it’s weird how Di Shibo likes to act wilful and clingy around you, Senior Xie,” said Jianjin, blurting out his thoughts as he chewed on the sticky candy.
“He’s always been this way,” said Xie Li, staring at the candy and internally rejecting it.
Jinbei the cat-faced owner is 金被, meaning ‘gold blanket’, probably means the cat is orange-backed.