Mie’er sulked as he sat on a roof. He’d put on his best outfit and braided his silver hair, adding red silk ribbons and fine silver flowers to it. No one in the castle seemed to notice what a good job he did.
His panicking tutor was running in the corridors looking for him. Today was his fifteenth birthday but no one cared enough to even give him a day off classes.
His mother was busy caring for his sister and his father had been swamped with some peace treaty with some human cultivators. He knew why they couldn’t make time for him but it didn’t mean he couldn’t feel shitty about it.
He hopped off the roof and strolled into the lively streets of Night Vigil City, checking in with the residents about town. It was a much more productive use of his time than memorising poetry and discussing useless lofty ideals.
Besides, he was all dressed up and everyone on the streets should be allowed to enjoy the sight of his fine handiwork.
After a day of making sure the snake oil merchants weren’t selling counterfeits, beating a bunch of kids at their skipping games, beating a bunch of old men at their chess games, giving love advice at a teahouse and catching a thieving cat, he figured it was just another regular, uneventful day.
“Come see! Something’s going on at the castle’s main hall!” someone yelled on the streets. Mie’er wondered what the fuss was about—his father usually was in a meeting or busy with paperwork at this time of day.
A gaggle of demons crowded around the main hall, peeking in from the huge doors and windows.
They watched as two foreign visitors sat down next to their lord and started talking. Lord Guishou of Night Vigil City was a tall man with raven black hair and sharp golden eyes. A pair of curled sheep horns rested upon his head.
The two human guests looked rather plain in comparison. One was dressed in modest black and blue robes while the other was covered in black, complete with a dark veil covering the bottom half of his face.
The demons outside the hall chattered noisily:
“What are those stinky humans doing here?” hissed a snake demon.
“Looking at their dress and swords, they are probably from the Border Mountains Sect,” said a cow-headed man.
“Isn’t the Border Mountains just south of our city?”
“Hey, cow-head, you know quite a bit,” said a mouse demon.
“I fought with their disciples once,” boasted the cow-headed man. “Then I came back.”
“You mean you got your ass whooped,” laughed the snake demon.
“Shhhh! Stop talking so we can hear!” shushed another one.
“The young master is here! Quick, make way and let him through!” came a voice from the back.
The crowd of demons parted hastily, making way for a boy with silver hair and golden eyes.
“Father, please explain why these guests are here,” he said.
“Come, Mie’er,” said Lord Guishou, beckoning the boy over. “Vice Sect Leader Qing, Hermit Moon Peak Lord, this is my son, Mie’er. He’s fifteen this year. Ah, right, we age a little slower than humans, so he probably looks younger to you.”
“Young master Mie’er, I’m Qing Lingfeng, head disciple of Crystal Peak and vice sect leader of the Border Mountains Sect,” said the man in blue. Although seated, he cupped his hands to greet the boy at eye level as if greeting an adult of the same rank.
The man in a dark veil next to him did not bother with a greeting and sat there, silent and cold.
“This is our Hermit Moon Peak Lord, Lingzhu,” introduced Qing Lingfeng. “He’s, um, a little reserved.”
Mie’er narrowed his eyes in suspicion but cupped his own hands in greeting.
“As you can see, my son is a little spoiled,” said Lord Guishou. “He’s smart, but he keeps running away from his lessons. The tutors have all but given up on him…”
“Such is the nature of smart children,” said Qing Lingfeng. Mie’er noticed that this man had a friendly smile and a gentle tone that didn’t feel contrived.
“Mie’er, if you’re going to stay here, sit down and listen quietly,” said Lord Guishou.
Mie’er nodded, hopping up the chair next to his father’s and gave the two humans an ‘I’m-watching-you’ glare.
“Let’s finish up what we’ve discussed,” said Lord Guishou.
“All right,” said Qing Lingfeng, taking out a scroll and passing it to the Lord. “According to the terms laid out by Sect Leader Qing Wangyue, the Hermit Moon Peak Lord of the Border Mountains Sect shall be staying here.”
Lord Guishou nodded. “I shall prepare the best guest quarters at our residence—”
“He’s staying here?” interrupted Mie’er, pointing at the black-dressed Lingzhu.
“Mie’er, let us finish before you voice your opinions,” said Lord Guishou. “And don’t point at people. Our guests might find it rude.”
“Apologies,” said Mie’er, giving his father a subtle blep.
Lord Guishou gave his son a look of exasperation and turned back to his guests.
“Well then, now that we are agreed, I shall send you the detailed documents in a month.”
“I shall convey this to our sect leader and the alliance,” said Qing Lingfeng, standing up and getting ready to leave.
“Hermit Moon Peak Lord, I shall have guard captain Heigou show you to the guest quarters,” said Lord Guishou, beckoning a large dog-headed guard who looked exactly as his name suggested*.
*Heigou = Black Dog
As Lord Guishou gave Heigou instructions, Mie’er watched Qing Lingfeng take his black-dressed companion aside for a private talk. He kept a sharp eye on them since his father didn’t seem to be doing it.
“Lingzhu, if you don’t want this, I’ll try talking to my father,” said Qing Lingfeng, quietly.
“I’ll come and visit you when I can.”
Lingzhu ignored him, following Heigou out of the hall without looking back.
“Don’t worry,” said Lord Guishou. “Everyone in my castle will treat the Hermit Moon Peak Lord as a valued guest.”
“You have my gratitude,” said Qing Lingfeng.
Mie’er looked at his father continued trading niceties with Qing Lingfeng and decided to follow Heigou instead.
As they left the main hall, the demons continued their nosy gossiping.
“One of the human cultivators is staying behind?”
“Is he a spy?”
“Lord Guishou mentioned he’s a guest, didn’t he?”
“He’s wearing a veil and not even showing his face! That’s so suspicious!”
“Yeah, he needs to show his face to show us he’s not some spy!”
“Yeah! Show your face, human!”
Lingzhu turned to look at the demons who said that. They took a step back from him.
“Hey, keep it down before you offend our guest, you lot,” said Heigou, anxiously looking between them.
Lingzhu took off his veil and revealed the lower half of his face.
“…” went the crowd as they looked at him.
“Eh, that’s it? No fangs or hidden weapons? So disappointing!” blurted out the cow demon.
“I thought for sure there was something hidden under the veil,” said the mouse demon.
“Yeah!” chirped a few more behind them, making disappointed noises.
“Shush, you lot,” said Heigou as he ushered the guest to his room.
Mie’er sidled up along them and peered up at this black-dressed man’s unveiled face. As the nosy demons said, this Lingzhu’s face was expressionless and disappointingly normal—two eyes, a nose and a mouth, all nicely symmetrical and not too bad, actually…
Lingzhu looked him straight in the face and Mie’er jolted.
“What are you looking at?” blurted out Mie’er, jumping back from the intensity of the stare.
Lingzhu shook his head.
“Young master, don’t antagonise our guest…” said Heigou and hastily ushered Lingzhu away. “Please come this way, sir.”
Lingzhu fastened his veil back on and turned away.
Mie’er pouted. He wasn’t going to let this human get away with ignoring him this easily.
“Mie’er, Heigou says you’ve been an absolute nuisance for our guest from the Border Mountains Sect. If you keep doing that, I’ll have to stop you from going to the guest quarters,” said Lady Xilian.
“I’m just teasing him a bit. All he had to do is tell me to stop and I’ll stop, I promise,” said Mie’er.
“Sooner or later, you’re going to get your ass whooped,” said Lady Xilian, sighing. “All right, let’s go visit your aunt.”
“Eh? Why?,” said Mie’er. “Grandpa and Grandma say she’s a mute who doesn’t understand anything. There’s no point in visiting her.”
“Just take it as doing a favour for me, since she’s my older sister,” said Lady Xilian. “You’re fifteen already and I want her to take a look at you.”
“All right,” pouted Mie’er. “I’ll do it because you asked so nicely.”
“You cheeky little thing,” said Lady Xilian, giving him a pinch on the nose.
They entered two guarded gates and walked down a long, spiralling tunnel until they reached the last gate. It was dark but the walls glistened as if dusted with ice. A wind seemed to pick up as they walked in, and the air was cold and filled with spirit aura. The intensity of the spirit aura made it almost hard to breathe.
“I feel sick,” said Mie’er. “Why is Big Auntie staying here? This isn’t a place we should be staying for long.”
“She is the keeper of this lake and hence cannot leave,” said Lady Xilian.
“That sucks. She should escape if she doesn’t like it here,” said Mie’er.
“If it were only that easy…” chuckled Lady Xilian.
A young woman looking no older than twelve noticed them, got up from a rock she was sitting on, and hopped over as if playing a game. In his previous visits, he never had to come into the cave. He’d just wait for his mother to chat quickly with his weird aunt.
This time, though, his mother asked him to talk to her.
Looking at her up close, he could see in the dim light of the cave that she had silvery hair and red eyes just like his mother. She looked much younger than her age, and he was sure it wasn’t just demon genetics.
She wouldn’t meet their eyes, made strange humming sounds and flapped her hands. He took a step back and baulked. How was he to talk with someone who couldn’t speak?
She took out a book from a leather pouch.
“Read it,” prompted Lady Xilian.
Mie’er read out the words Xiyu pointed out from a worn-out book of poems. She flipped the book to the page she wanted and pointed out a word for him with practised ease.
“Good…?” said Mie’er.
She flipped to another page and pointed, and this went on for a while until Mie’er finished reading—”Good. To. See. You. Mie. Er.”
There wasn’t a word for his name, ‘sheepie’, in her book, so she had pointed to the nearest sounding word—‘eliminate’.
At this moment, he knew for sure his aunt wasn’t the mindless fool his maternal grandparents said she was. He took a deep breath and decided to show her the proper respect she deserved.
“Mie’er greets big auntie Xiyu,” said Mie’er.
“Sister Xiyu, my Mie’er is of age now,” said Lady Xilian. “I hope you can show him a vision.”
Xiyu bobbed her head and carefully tucked her book back into the pouch. Passing her pouch to Lady Xilian for safekeeping, she tugged at Mie’er’s sleeve.
“Huh? That’s the lake, Auntie. We’ll get wet—”
The water merely brushed his boots, but he could feel a coldness shoot up his whole body and then his world was engulfed in darkness.
“Young Master? If you’re going to doze off on the veranda, you should go back to your room,” said Heigou.
“Huh?” said Mie’er, jolting awake.
He got up and dusted off his pleated skirts. Sneaking quietly to the window, he cracked it open and peered in, watching the human inside go about his routine.
“Why are you always looking at him, anyway?” said Heigou.
“I don’t know why he has to stay with us,” said Mie’er. “He hardly talks and looks like a statue with that stone-face!”
Overhearing the conversation outside, Lingzhu picked up a veil and fastened it over the bottom half of his face.
“Do you not want to let me see your face that much?” said Mie’er from the window when he saw what the human did.
He pouted and pushed open the unlocked door, walking right in to grab a stack of papers from a chair and sift through them.
“What’s all this about anyway?” he said, turning the papers around, trying to make sense of the diagrams on them. “They look like talisman designs but they’re not.”
The human cultivator watched him for a while, and then turned away, taking out a fresh stack of papers to continue his work.
“Hey, why won’t you respond?” said Mie’er, waving the stack of papers in his hand. “Just say something and I’ll give them back to you!”
Ignoring me as usual, sulked Mie’er. He threw the papers onto the floor, then stormed off in a fit.
Heigou sighed, picked up the papers and added a quick apology on behalf of his temperamental young master.
In a blink of an eye, it was winter in Night Vigil City. The city streets were quieter as the cold set in. Mie’er spent more time in the castle where it was warmer. Having driven away all his tutors, he’d look for Heigou to spar with and stalk the guest quarters while he was there.
“Mother’s been coming here frequently,” sulked Mie’er as they lightly sparred. “She was here just a few days ago and didn’t even have time to say hi to me.”
“They’re discussing treatment options for the young mistress,” said Heigou.
“I want my little sister to get well more than anything,” said Mie’er. “But she has to live outside the city and Mother has to stay with her most of the time. Why can’t I just stay with them? I can help take care of her too.”
“Lord Guishou needs you here, young master,” said Heigou. “Your regular walks around the city are helping the people quite a bit.”
Mie’er tucked away his sword and folded his arms, sulking.
“Father’s busy with work and Mother’s busy taking care of my little sister. Yet they see Stoneface more than they see me.”
“It can’t be helped,” said Heigou. “The young miss’s condition is getting worse. She needs the help of human cultivators and their medicine. That’s partly why Lord Guishou agreed to the terms of the treaty to host the Hermit Moon Peak Lord from the Border Mountains Sect.”
“And they just left behind a Peak Lord in our house?” said Mie’er. “His own people must care for him very little, to leave him in Night Vigil City surrounded by demons.”
“Young master,” said Heigou. “Have you heard of something called ‘diplomatic hostage’?”
“Is that why Stoneface’s so unhappy? What’s he doing in there today anyway?” said Mie’er, turning back to the guest room’s window and pushing it open to peer inside.
“He’s been busy the past few days, we shouldn’t bother—”
“Why is it so quiet? He’s not at the table. The papers look dirty,” said Mie’er. “Why is it…huh? That’s—!”
He dashed to the door and kicked it in. As he entered, he felt a thin spirit barrier pop and the overwhelming smell of blood assaulted his nose.
Papers stained in dried blood were strewn all over the table and floor. A small, lacquered box stood on the table, still slicked in blood. There was blood all over the floor that trailed to the bed. Lingzhu was sitting on the ground, leaning against the bed, his hand pressed against his side.
Heigou quickly checked the human’s pulse. He was alive but weak.
“Young master, stay here and watch him. I’ll go fetch Physician Hong at once,” said Heigou, turning into a large black dog and bounding off at top speed.
“Hey,” said Mie’er, patting the human’s cheek. “Don’t sleep!”
Lingzhu cracked open his eyes.
“What happened here?” said Mie’er.
He pried Lingzhu’s stubborn hand off and carefully lifted the rag staunching it. Seeing the jagged wound, he baulked. A deep cut across the right side had already been stitched shut with a rough hand. Mie’er grimaced.
Lingzhu pressed his hand to his wound, covering the bloody sight from Mie’er’s eyes. He was pale and wasn’t dressed warmly enough even though it was the beginning of winter. Mie’er didn’t dare move him so he pulled the blankets off the bed and wrapped them around Lingzhu.
“Hey, don’t sleep,” said Mie’er. “The physician’s reaching soon.”
Physician Hong arrived soon and with Heigou’s help, they moved Lingzhu to the bed and dressed his wounds.
“He has quite a bit of internal bleeding,” said Physician Hong, holding Lingzhu’s wrist to gauge his pulse.
“It’s my fault,” said Heigou. “I didn’t check on him yesterday because I thought he was busy.”
Physician Hong pointed at a dark bruise at the bottom of Lingzhu’s neck. “He paralysed his own voice. You couldn’t have known what he was up to.”
“He even put up a barrier around the room,” said Mie’er. “He must’ve planned this.”
“How’s he?” asked Heigou.
“He seems fine for now, but his body is too weak,” said Physician Hong. “His wound should heal, but there’s a substantial amount of internal damage. The rest…is up to him.”
“I’ll inform Lady Xilian and Lord Guishou immediately,” said Heigou, bounding off again.
Physician Hong looked at the lacquered box on the table and went over to it, opening it and checking its contents. Looking at the papers on the table, he found a letter carefully placed away from the mess, as if prepared before all this happened.
“This seems like a letter for the Lord and Lady,” said Physician Hong.
Mie’er snatched the letter out of his hands and unfolded it, pursing his lips as he deciphered the bad handwriting.
“In the box…one for your daughter and one for—ugh, why is his handwriting so hard to read?” grumbled Mie’er. “…if an accident happens…this letter is proof that I died by my own hand…”
“Is this a suicide note? Did he try to kill himself?”
“On the contrary,” said Physician Hong. “It would seem that his gall bladder had ruptured. He had cut it out so he wouldn’t die from blood poisoning.”
“Why did it rupture in the first place for no reason?” said Mie’er.
“We’ll have to ask him about it,” said Physician Hong. “For now, we’ll have to keep him warm and hydrated. This room is too cold for a sick patient.”
Over the days, Mie’er watched as his parents visited the sick human whenever they could. Lady Xilian would bring the warmest furs she could find while Lord Guishou brought him herbs and tonics.
“Mie’er,” said Lord Guishou, addressing his son outside the guest room. “Can you keep him company when we’re not around?”
“Why should I?” pouted Mie’er, folding his arms. “He wouldn’t want me around.”
“Hm? Why do you say that?” said Lord Guishou.
“He only ever speaks with you and Mother. He never says a single word to me. Who knows what he’s thinking when his face doesn’t show a single expression.”
“Have you tried looking at, hm, his hands instead of his face?” said Lord Guishou.
“Huh? Hands?” blinked Mie’er.
Lord Guishou chuckled and patted his son’s head. “Just give it a try.”
“Fine,” said Mie’er.
The next day, he made himself at home in the guest room, glaring at Lingzhu’s sleeping face. It looked like a stone statue, but was still quite pretty, as usual. His face always looked more interesting when a veil didn’t cover it—
And he realised why he never paid attention to Lingzhu’s hands.
“You’re awake?” said Mie’er, seeing Lingzhu sitting up on the bed. “I’ll get you some water.”
Mie’er passed him a cup of water, only for Lingzhu to fumble and drop it onto his blanket.
Sighing, Mie’er poured him a new cup.
Lingzhu looked at the cup, then turned his head away, no longer interested.
“Fine,” grumbled Mie’er, leaving the cup on the table. “I’m just annoying you anyway, so I’ll leave.”
A few days later, Ye Mingzhu, the Mad Tiger Peak Lord, arrived with orders to bring Lingzhu back to the Border Mountains Sect. Peak Lord Ye was gentle and patient with him as she asked if he wanted more time to say his goodbyes, but he shook his head and left with her.
When Mie’er looked upon Lingzhu’s face for the last time, Lingzhu’s eyes were so cold and distant that Mie’er felt a chill in his stomach. Everything seemed wrong. Lingzhu was finally leaving this demon city that was holding him prisoner, so why did he look so…sad?
After his departure, his mother cried in his father’s arms.
Winter was finally over and the first days of Spring began.
Mie’er found himself at the door of the guest room out of habit. It had been a while, yet everything felt the same. He pushed the door open and peeked inside. It looked recently cleaned, but nothing that Lingzhu left behind had been removed.
Lingzhu’s writing tools were laid out and a messy stack of papers sat under a paperweight. A tea set was placed on the table, waiting to be used.
There was the light fragrance of incense in the room, and an altar that he hadn’t seen had been set up in a corner of the room. When he saw the words carved on the tablet sitting on the altar, his breath trembled when he realised why his mother had cried—
In memory of our guest and treasured friend.
They all knew Lingzhu wouldn’t make it through the winter.
Tears rolled down his cheeks as the thought of the human he had come to get used to would never be seen again. He knew his tears wouldn’t change anything.
Yet he continued to cry.
When he woke, he found himself in his mother’s arms. She wiped his tears away and smiled.
“I…I don’t want—” he sobbed.
“Shh,” hushed his mother. “Don’t tell me what you saw. That was just a dream.”
“…a dream?” He blinked and looked around him. He was back at the underground lake where his aunt stayed.
“Yes,” smiled his mother. “Just a dream.”
“If that was a dream, then—”
Once Mie’er realised what could be, he scrambled back onto his feet and ran out of the cave. The dream he had seen was turning hazy and the details began to fade, but he held on tight to the overwhelming feeling of not wanting to have regrets. There was somewhere he had to go to right this very moment.
“Lingzhu!” he called out.
Lingzhu was sitting at his table reading a book when he heard Mie’er calling for him. It was something other than ‘human’ or ‘stone-face’, and he was a little surprised. Wondering if something was wrong, he turned to look at the doorway Mie’er was standing in. His brow raised ever so slightly on his usually expressionless face.
He wondered if there was something funny on his face as Mie’er laughed and sort of cried, and then laughed again.
Mie’er 咩儿 = ‘mie’ is the sound of a sheep (think ‘meh-meh’), ‘er’ means ‘child’, so it means something like ‘little sheepie’
Lingzhu 呤竹 = ‘ling zhu’ means ‘whispering bamboo’
Mie’er’s parents are Lord Guishou and Lady Xilian. They don’t seem to use surnames.
Guishou 归守 = ‘gui’ is ‘return’, and ‘shou’ is ‘protect/guard’.
Xilian 夕怜: ‘xi’ is evening, ‘lian’ is ‘longing/pity’, so it’s something like ‘Sympathy for the Evening’
Xiyu 夕愉: (Lady Xilian’s older sister) ‘xi’ is evening, like her sister, and ‘yu’ means ‘joy/happy’.
Qing Wangyue 清望岳 = ‘Clear Gaze Peak’. He is Qing Lingfeng’s father and (former) Sect Leader of the Border Mountains Sect.