They soon reached the Cat’s Paw restaurant, which was filled with customers having a drink and chatting.
“Captain, Administrator,” greeted Jinbei, his shifty eyes looking around. “Is there something you need?”
“We’re just here for a drink,” said Heigou.
Jinbei gave an inaudible ‘phew’.
“Oh, Senior Xie is right there,” pointed out Jianjin.
“He fell asleep so I let him be since the lady customers like looking at him, heheh…” said Jinbei.
“We’ll use the private tables upstairs,” said Heigou.
“Certainly,” said Jinbei, and sidling over to Lan Yinqiao, he rubbed his paws and added, “Do you want extra ‘service’ that comes with the private tables? It’s just five coppers per ‘companion’—”
“No thanks,” interjected Heigou before Jinbei can finish his pitch.
“Another time, perhaps,” said Lan Yinqiao, looking a little disappointed.
There were a few low tea tables upstairs on straw mats with soft cushions to sit on. In the corner was a well-used scratching post and feathered toys on strings.
Heigou carried Xie Li upstairs and nestled him between them to keep him warm.
“Bwee?” A little dark-furred boar popped out from the shadows by Xie Li’s feet.
“Cangshi? Were you following this mister the whole time?” said Lan Yinqiao, pleasantly surprised.
“Aw, so cute~” said Jianjin.
“Come join us for supper, little one,” smiled Lan Yinqiao, patting her lap for Cangshi to sit on. “I’ll order some apple biscuits for you.”
Despite their commotion, Xie Li remained fast asleep.
“I thought Senior Xie would have woken up by now, being a light sleeper and all,” whispered Jianjin, trying to keep it down.
“It’s probably the medicine,” whispered back Jianshi. “The prescription Physician Hong wrote had soporific herbs in it.”
“This is the young master’s friend who came here in a coffin, isn’t it?” said Lan Yinqiao.
“Pfft,” snorted Jianjin.
“He’s the Dream-Wandering Immortal your Border Mountains bards sing about,” said Heigou.
“Oh, he’s real?” said Lan Yinqiao. “I thought the young master made him up to sell tea-wine and soap.”
“Ah, I’m sure that image is mostly made up,” chuckled Heigou. “I mean, look at the way Jinbei is using him to promote his tea sales.”
“Wait, he has a soap line too?” said Jianjin.
“Shouldn’t you be more surprised that Senior Xie is the Dream-Wandering Immortal?” said Jianshi.
“Wait, he’s a real person?” said Jianjin, surprised. “I always thought the Dream-Wandering Immortal was a ghost story my senior sisters told me to scare me…”
“How on earth did you interpret that into a ghost story?” said Jianshi.
“An immortal who wanders the mountains on moonlit nights and isn’t seen in the day—if that’s not a ghost then what is it?” asked Jianjin.
“Apparently It was Senior Xie…?” answered Jianshi.
Heigou and Lan Yinqiao chuckled as they watched the two boys’ banter.
“Lan Shijie,” said Jianjin, eagerly. “Tell me more about yourself! It’s not every day I get to chat with a senior sister from another peak.”
“Tone it down a notch,” shushed Jianshi, pointing at the sleeping Xie Li.
“Oh, right,” said Jianjin, toning down his excited voice.
“It feels nice to have juniors around for a change,” giggled Lan Yinqiao. “The only other disciples I talk to around here are all my seniors.”
“Do you feel lonely working here by yourself?” asked Jianjin.
“Not at all. The townsfolk here are like family to me,” said Lan Yinqiao as she fed another biscuit to Cangshi.
Jianjin looked on with envy, so Lan Yinqiao placed a biscuit in his hand. Cangshi sniffed and pushed her snout into his hand to eat the treat.
“You look comfortable being around demons, Lan Shijie,” observed Jianshi.
“Yeah,” agreed Jianjin, trying to pat Cangshi’s head but failing as she squirmed away. “You know what to do to make them like you.”
“That’s because I grew up with demons,” smiled Lan Yinqiao.
“Eh?” said Jianjin. “How did that happen?”
“I was brought to Physician Hong for treatment when I fell sick as a child. When I recovered, I chose to stay with demons. Anyway, this is why I’m assigned to handle demon-related diplomacy after I passed my senior exams.”
“Wow, Lan Shijie is so capable…” said Jianjin. “Were the senior exams hard? I want to take them soon too.”
“Cloudrest Peak exams are very different from Mad Tiger Peak ones,” chuckled Lan Yinqiao. “You should ask your senior sisters instead.”
“Word is that Cloudrest Peak processes more paperwork than all the other peaks combined,” said Jianshi, seriously. “And therefore all senior disciples must be highly proficient…in paperwork.”
“You mean the Bard Peak’s senior exams aren’t just music exams…?” said Jianjin, horrified at the thought of paperwork.
“You’re right about the paperwork,” affirmed Lan Yinqiao. “Though if politics isn’t your strength, you can also choose to focus on music-related…paperwork.”
“Paperwork,” shuddered Jianjin. “I’m so glad I’m a Mad Tiger Peak disciple…”
“Is that why Lan Shijie calls Di Shibo ‘young master?” asked Jianshi. “It seems that everyone who lives here calls him that.”
“I could call him senior Di, I suppose,” said Lan Yinqiao.
“Hm? Shouldn’t it be ‘Shishu*’ or ‘Shixiong’?” pointed out Jianjin.
*Shishu = junior uncle, Shixiong = senior brother (cousin, in this case)
“Well, the Hermit Moon Peak Lord refused to be the former sect leader’s disciple and didn’t martially acknowledge any of the Peak Lords, and neither did the young master…” said Lan Yinqiao.
“Eh? If that’s the case, why are we calling Di Shibo ‘Shibo’…?” said Jianjin, scratching his head.
“Um, I don’t really know either,” said Jianshi.
Auntie Ma and Old Niu tidied up the rooms at the Juxian Inn, wiping their foreheads when they were almost done.
“I can’t believe a first-class inn didn’t offer us cleaning services,” said Old Niu.
“Maybe these rich people bring their own servants?” wondered Auntie Ma aloud.
“Ah, that,” said Gouzi, who walked past the opened door with a basket half filled with laundry. “This inn is meant for the elite clans, not commoners. Most clans also bring their own servants since the tools lying around may contain clan secrets.”
“Hahah, I’m so used to the Border Mountains Sect that slipped my mind that these cultivator clans really care about status,” said Auntie Ma.
“I suppose it’s safer if we clean up the rooms ourselves,” said Old Niu, looking at a stack of papers with half-drawn talisman designs on them. “Look at all these…’ top secrets’ we have lying around.”
“Oh, Ah-Li and his books,” sighed Auntie Ma, carefully putting the pile of papers into a box together with the books. “I wonder where he is right now.”
“I’m sure they’re fine,” assured Old Niu. “Valley Lord Di is with him, isn’t—”
Qing Lingfeng landed into the courtyard on his sword and strode up to them.
“Gouzi, go and meet Valley Lord Di at the White Crane Publishing House and follow his orders. Be quiet about it.”
“Yes, Shizun,” said Gouzi without question, dropping the laundry and leaving swiftly.
Qing Lingfeng sighed. His normally curious disciple now had the air of quiet professionalism. Maybe he was finally ready for the senior exams.
“What’s wrong, Sect Leader Qing?” asked Old Niu.
“Uncle Niu, Auntie Ma,” said Qing Lingfeng. “I think there’ll be some trouble happening, so it is best you both return to Mountainside Town. I’ll arrange for Yatou to escort you—”
“Where’s Ah-Li?” said Auntie Ma. “You told me to watch over him, Sect Leader Qing.”
“It’s fine,” said Qing Lingfeng. “You’ve done enough. There’s no need to be responsible for him anymore.”
“With all due respect, Sect Leader Qing,” said Auntie Ma. “He’s my nephew now. If he’s not safe, I will worry.”
Qing Lingfeng had a strange expression on his face for a moment, that gave way to an amused smile.
“I didn’t think brother Xie would be this popular,” he said, shaking his head and chuckling. “Even Gouzi was asking about him this morning.”
“Ah-Li might be a little eccentric but he’s a good kid,” said Auntie Ma, and added a sidenote: “It also helps that he’s pretty good-looking too.”
Qing Lingfeng had that strange look on his face once again.
“For Sect Leader Qing to respectfully call him ‘brother’*, was Xie Li a former disciple under your father?” asked Old Niu.
*term used is ‘older brother’
Qing Lingfeng shook his head. “No, nothing like that. I call him brother Xie out of respect as he is older than me by a year.”
“Eh? All this time I thought Ah-Li was twenty-five at most, but he’s much older?” said Auntie Ma. Then, a realisation hit her and she frowned. “The poor dear was unconscious for many years, so he’s must still be quite spiritually young.”
“He does look young for his age,” agreed Old Niu. “To lose all his cultivation at the peak of his youth from an injury, how tragic!”
“You’re just thirsty for a good story,” said Auntie Ma, rolling her eyes at Old Niu. She turned back to Qing Lingfeng and tugged at his sleeve. “Sect Leader Qing, just send me to where Ah-Li is. He’ll probably forget to eat if auntie isn’t there to cook for him.”
“It’ll be dangerous,” said Qing Lingfeng.
“We’ve lived through the Calamity,” said Old Niu. “There’s nothing much I’m scared of anymore.”
“What he said,” said Auntie Ma.
A young man who looked no older than nineteen was helping out in the bookstore, arranging the latest arrivals when Gouzi walked in.
“Welcome,” grinned the young man, his black hair in a ponytail. He was dressed in black, similar to the standard dress of the Border Mountains, yet not adorned with any of the peaks’ colours. He walked up to Gouzi and said softly.
“Gouzi, come with me,” he said. “And call me ‘shixiong’*.”
*shixiong = senior brother
Gouzi stared at him for a moment, reconciling the familiar voice and this disguise, then nodded.
“Good,” said Di Mie, leading Gouzi into the back alley behind the building.
“I tracked down the places where stolen spirit weapons are traded in the city,” said Di Mie, taking out a map and tapping a spot to show Gouzi. “They’re operating out of this area. Be careful, as the entire street belongs to the black market.”
“Er?” blinked Gouzi.
“The Jiutian sword went missing and turned up suddenly. You can’t hide a powerful sword like that from the Rong Clan without powerful friends on the black market,” said Di Mie.
“Ah, I see. Has…’Shixiong’ found a lead?”
“Maybe,” said Di Mie. “Follow me and play along. Act natural.”
“Yes, sir,” said Gouzi.
The street was in the northwestern corner of Bainiao Lake City, close enough to the smaller west gates, but far enough from the surveil of the Du and Rong Clans. It was a place of second-rate brothels and gambling dens; different from the expensive ones for the rich in the central area. Beggars and thieves plied the streets next to pimps and bodyguards.
“Hey, young men, looking for a fun time?” said a pimp, spotting Gouzi’s awkwardness and running up to them. He pointed to a run-down brothel behind him and grinned, “First time here? We’ve got affordable, experienced older sisters who’ll take care of you. Especially if you’re inexperienced…”
Gouzi blushed and looked away.
“No thanks,” said Di Mie, holding a pouch of coins and looking at the gambling dens further down the street. “We want to increase our funds first.”
“Hah, good luck with that,” said the pimp. “You’re better off getting your money’s worth with our girls than over at that demon’s den.”
Di Mie pulled Gouzi away from the brothels towards the gambling dens. The further they went down the street, the livelier it was. There were prominent escort agencies in the middle of the street.
“Escort agencies?” said Gouzi.
“Smuggling,” replied Di Mie.
“Oh,” said Gouzi, realising he had much to learn.
“Here,” said Di Mie, turning the corner and squeezing into a crowded gambling house.
The gambling house had a signboard with an eccentric, foreign-looking hand, with the words “Huahu* Gambling Den”.
*Huahu = Flower Fox
The smell of fragrant incense filled the first floor of the room. The betting tables were so popular that there was a queue just to get a turn at betting. It was filled with noise as people yelled when they won and cried when they lost, goading each other into a betting frenzy.
Di Mie and Gouzi wove their way through the crowd to the grand stairs leading to the second floor. Gouzi had removed the blue from his uniform, and in their plain black uniforms, looked like disciples from some common cultivator sect.
A guard stopped them and pointed them to the tables out front, “The queue for small bets start there.”
Di Mie smiled sheepishly and pressed a silver coin in the guard’s hand. He shook the coin pouch in his hand, letting the sound of clinking silver coins do the talking. Leaning close, he hemmed and hawed, then said softly, “My Shidi is, um, fond of…men, so he’s willing to bet all his savings if he can just get a glimpse of the famous mister Hong…”
The guard looked at the blushing Gouzi and grinned.
“You’re in luck, our boss is in today. You might just get a look from him if you play at the ten-silvers table,” said the guard, letting them up the second floor to the larger tables.
Gouzi bit down on his lips, refraining from commenting about how ten silvers would be his entire month’s salary. The thought of the numbers he’d seen on Valley Lord Di’s invoices calmed him a little, and he followed close behind.
The tables on the second floor were also crowded, but the people here were dressed differently. Some wore masks as if at a masquerade party. The courtesans and servings girls who went around the tables were dressed up in costumes and wigs, pretending to be demons as they flirted with the customers and plied them with wine.
The men here were rich, but not rich enough. If they were truly wealthy, they’d be in the rich men’s square in the south instead of the seedy western quarter. Still, they flaunted their silver, trying to impress and one-up each other at the table.
A man with long red hair wearing a fox mask sat on a third-floor balcony overseeing the second-floor, enjoying a cup of wine and a smoke.
Di Mie strolled up confidently to the table with the biggest stakes and placed a gold coin on ‘big’.
The men around him gasped, not expecting a young lad like him to pull out a gold coin.
“He must’ve stolen it,” said one of the men at the table.
The courtesan tending the dice table did not dare take the bet for fear of losing it.
She and her fellow courtesans looked to their boss upstairs.
“Hey, mister in the fox mask,” said Di Mie, shouting to the man upstairs. “Is your shop going to accept my bet?”
The man in the fox mask got up languidly, revealing the red beneath his white robes like an unfurling lotus as he walked down the steps. His long, crimson-tinged hair bore a golden phoenix crown.
He waved away the courtesan attending the table and smiled.
“Let me, Hong Lian, serve you this round,” said the masked man. Up close, his eyes were a dark brown, but when he moved, the light reflected in them would turn from red to blue. He had a perfect, unwavering smile that reminded Di Mie of someone.
“Young sir, will you be betting it all on ‘big’?” asked Hong Lian.
“Sure,” said Di Mie, not even looking at the table as he smiled at the masked man.
Hong Lian shook the dice in a porcelain jar and then uncapped it to reveal the results.
“It’s small,” smiled the man. “Better luck next time, young sir.”
“One more time,” said Di Mie, pulling out two more gold coins and placing them down.
“If you have the gold, why are you playing in my humble shop when you can go rub shoulders with the rich and powerful in the southern houses? All the famous courtesans there will attend to you as long as you have the coin.”
“We’re not interested in those…ladies,” smiled Di Mie. Gouzi felt his ears burn at how Di Mie could say these things so easily.
The courtesans gasped. The other customers on the second floor also began to gather and watch.
“I see,” said Hong Lian. “I’m not cheap, though. Hmm, the sword at your waist would be a good trade.”
“Well then,” said Di Mie, leaving the coins behind and signalling to Gouzi. “Shall we go somewhere more private?”
“Two of you?” said Hong Lian, raising a brow.
“You’re not up to handling two swords?” said Di Mie.
Gouzi blushed even harder. A couple of men whistled and laughed at them.
“Hm,” said Hong Lian, coming up close and brushing his hand across Gouzi’s sword. Gouzi shuddered as he smelled a sweet incense off the other man’s neck. “It’s not bad, but it’s not good enough either.”
“I guess you’ll have to stay behind,” said Di Mie to Gouzi, who just stared.
Hong Lian led the way and Di Mie followed. The courtesans watched in envy, and even men who saw the fox-masked man up close were swayed by his movement and demonic charm.
Once in his private room, the masked man dropped his coy act and folded his arms.
“Let’s drop that ridiculous act,” said Hong Lian, huffing. “You Border Mountains people have been snooping around this area. What are you after?”
“I want the Jiutian sword,” said Di Mie.
“Your information is outdated. The sword’s not here.”
“So it was here?”
“Tricking me is useless,” said Hong Lian. He looked at the sword at Di Mie’s waist. “Are you operating on your personal interests? Your sword seems too good for you.”
“You look like a fox demon, but you smell like layers of enchantments,” said Di Mie.
“Demon or human, does it matter? You cultivators always think that anyone who looks different must be a demon,” said Hong Lian, a bushy, spirit tail materialising out the base of his spine.
Di Mie gave a low whistle when he saw how Hong Lian materialised a tail of pure spirit aura. It was definitely not merely cosmetic.
“So, mister fox, I’ll get straight to the point. The smuggling trail converged right here to you. Why are you collecting spirit weapons?”
“It’s purely business,” said Hong Lian, slowly closing the distance between them. “Cultivators just want money, power, and pretty faces to look at. Aren’t you the same?”
“If I want to see a pretty face, I just need to look in the mirror,” said Di Mie, smirking.
“Arrogant brat,” said Hong Lian, as he reached a snaking hand around Di Mie’s sword.
Di Mie grabbed his hand. “I’m afraid Ashfire is not for you to touch.”
“Ashfire?” said Hong Lian, eyes widening as he jerked his hand away and stepped back. He grabbed a spirit sword nearby and it lit up upon his touch.
“What’s a high-level cultivator like you moonlighting in a place like this?” said Di Mie. “Could it be that…the Rong Clan isn’t paying you enough, mister ‘steward’?”
Hong Lian’s smile cracked.
“Wow, I was just taking a wild guess since your smile was annoying me, but it looks like I hit the nail right on the head,” said Di Mie, amazed at himself. “Hey, mister ‘Second-Place’, what’s up your new look? Also, weren’t you supposed to be dead?”
“Valley Lord Di, I don’t wish to get involved with the Border Mountains, so why don’t we each take one step back?
“You’re not even denying who you are,” said Di Mie, drawing Ashfire.
“Neither are you,” said Hong Lian, holding out his sword. It crackled with an unstable light, as if unable to contain the immense spirit aura its wielder was channelling.
“Hahah, this is a fun sight,” said Di Mie, charging his left hand with aura while he held his sword in his right hand. “It’s hard to tell who’s the human and who’s the demon.”
Hong Lian brought down his spirit sword, which crackled upon contact with Ashfire. Sparks flew as light met fire. Di Mie scooped up his left hand and a small ball of aura connected with Hong Lian’s side and exploded.
“That was close,” said Hong Lian, brushing off his side. His fox tail had sent a spirit wave barrier up with a swish to block Di Mie’s explosion in the nick of time.
“Looks like a whisk, acts like a third arm,” said Di Mie. “Having a tail is really useful.”
The aura was too much for Hong Lian’s sword and it cracked. He threw the broken sword away and picked up another one lying around.
“All this smuggling and you can’t get a decent spirit weapon?” said Di Mie, raising a brow at the mediocre weapons Hong Lian was picking up.
Suddenly, the door burst open and whips of water shot at the both of them.
They cut down the whips easily and looked at the newcomer who interrupted them.
A crow cawed at them, “Stop.”
A hooded girl walked in; a black crow perched on her shoulder. Removing her hood, she revealed her white hair and red eyes to Di Mie. She was unmistakably a demon.
“Hei Xuan, what are you doing here?” said Hong Lian.
“You—” said Di Mie, his eyes wide in surprise.
“Long. Time. No. See,” said the crow on the girl’s shoulder. “Mie. Er.”
“…Big Auntie,” hissed Di Mie.
The ‘Hong’ in Physician Hong’s name is written as 洪, meaning ‘flood’ or ‘vast’.
Lan Yinqiao 蓝音巧: Lan means ‘Blue’, Yinqiao means ‘Good Sound’ – pretty much a musician’s name.
Jinbei 金被: Gold-Back (cat)
Heigou 黑狗: Black Dog
The word used for soap is ‘washing powder/liquid’ (since there’s no word for ‘soap’ in this fantasy setting), but I translated it to ‘soap’ for simplicity.
Huahu Gambling Den is written as 花狐赌坊, meaning ‘flower fox gambling den’.
Hong Lian 红莲 = Hong is ‘red’ and Lian is ‘lotus’.
Hei Xuan 黒玄 = Hei is ‘black’ and Xuan is ‘mysterious; black’.
Di Mie specifically calls Hei Xuan ‘Big Auntie’ in Chinese, meaning ‘eldest maternal aunt’, so we know she’s his mother’s older sister. This word is also often used as a slang for a woman’s ‘time of the month’, eg. ‘My Big Auntie’s here’ = ‘My period’s here’
Some explanations for relationship terms among masters and disciples!
Being in a Sect is like being in a big extended family, so what you call each other depends on your generation and who your master is.
The ‘Shi’ in Shizun, Shibo, Shijie etc, means ‘teacher’.
‘Shizun’ sort of means ‘most-respected teacher’
Shibo = ‘older brother/sister of your teacher’ (‘uncle’ is used as default to refer to both uncles and aunts)
Shishu = ‘younger brother/sister of your teacher’
In this case, Jianshi and Jianjin are blood brothers, but they are also technically disciple-siblings as they are under the same Shizun. Their Mad Tiger Peak Shijie (senior sisters) are likely their ‘Shishu’ (senior aunts) who are Diao Suiyu’s junior sisters.
It’s easy to see that they wouldn’t like being called ‘aunties’ so Jianshi and Jianjin just call them ‘sisters’. Anyway, it seems that the Border Mountains isn’t that hung up on decorum with the exception of Elegance Peak
Di Mie’s official Shizun was the Hermit Moon Peak Lord, who did not acknowledge the previous Sect Leader as his master. Hence Di Mie isn’t (martially) related to anyone at the Border Mountains.