The demons of Night Vigil City never had to worry about winter. Some would sleep all winter, some revelled in the cold. A simple stove, a warm coat and a little wine were more than enough for the people here.
Mie’er sighed. He knew their humble stoves and fur capes wouldn’t cut it if Lingzhu was to survive the coming winter. In a community meeting, he asked the residents to come up with something better:
“Keeping warm? I vote for more drinking parties!”
“Nobody’s gonna haul your scaly ass home if you pass out drunk on the street!”
“Well, how about hotpot parties every night?”
“Who’s going to volunteer to work at the restaurants all night? You?”
“That’s simple, just build bigger stoves!”
“Or wear more coats!”
“Your stupid suggestions will just create more work! All we have to do is huddle together for warmth. Isn’t that right, ladies?” grinned a cat-faced demon.
“Not a chance, you thieving cat!”
Mie’er watched with some satisfaction as the lazy cat got his ass whooped.
“What’s it going to be, young master?” asked the eager demons.
Mie’er sighed and massaged his temple.
“I quilted a blanket for my child and have lots of down left, quack. I’ll make one for you too, young master!” offered a woman.
“I got an interesting hot water bottle from my last trading trip. I’ll bring it to you later!” said a merchant.
“Finally, people who have something useful,” said Mie’er, rolling his eyes at the others.
Lingzhu got increasingly busy these days, especially after visits from Lady Xilian. Mie’er knew it was regarding his little sister’s medical condition but his parents refused to tell him more, saying that he needn’t worry about it.
“You spend so much time here that I’d think this was your room,” chuckled Heigou as he watched Mie’er walk right into the guest room.
Mie’er placed a hot water bottle on the table in front of Lingzhu and then went around the room, measuring how much wool he would need for extra curtains and carpets.
When he turned around, he saw Lingzhu blowing on his fingers, having scalded them on the hot copper.
“Do you have medicine?” said Mie’er.
They stared at each other for a while. Lingzhu tilted his head slightly, wondering if Mie’er had wanted something.
“Where is it?” said Mie’er.
Lingzhu pulled open a drawer, took out a medicine bottle and held it out for him.
“Not for me, silly.”
“Give me your hand.”
Lingzhu watched curiously as Mie’er took his hand and poured some medicine over the reddened skin.
Mie’er thought Lingzhu’s hands didn’t match up to his smooth, expressionless face. There were calluses and newly-formed blisters on his palm from all kinds of work; his fingers were thin but strong. This hand looked like it belonged to a dextrous craftsman than a swordsman.
He pouted slightly as his eyes followed the shallow and crack-filled lifeline on Lingzhu’s palm. Lingzhu hesitantly pulled his hand away.
“Um, I’ll leave and let you get back to your work,” said Mie’er, suddenly feeling a little awkward.
As winter approached, Mie’er became more anxious. He peeked into the window and using an enhancement hearing spell he’d mastered, he was able to clearly listen in to the conversation between his mother and Lingzhu.
“After looking at the other options, this is still the best way for Little Sister given the time constraints,” said Lingzhu, handing some papers to Lady Xilian to peruse. He had a quiet, mild voice that was almost as bland as his expressions. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it didn’t stand out, either. It was annoying that he had no problems talking to his mother.
Mie’er scowled at how Lingzhu said ‘Little Sister’ so casually. It was a pet name and no one outside of the family was supposed to use it.
His younger sister had a poor constitution and his maternal grandparents insisted she should not be given a proper name until she was cured. Lady Xilian wouldn’t agree at first, but grudgingly gave in when they told her that it was to avoid the attention of gods and ghosts so that her daughter wouldn’t be ‘whisked’ away to the afterlife.
So to this day, Mie’er’s younger sister didn’t have a name and the family would just call her ‘Mie’er’s little sister’, or ‘Little Sister’ for short.
“Even if we could find a way for my husband to transfer his spirit core to her, we need someone proficient in aura channelling to draw the demon aura out of her or her condition won’t be stabilised,” said Lady Xilian.
“Lord Guishou has far better skill with demon aura than I do,” said Lingzhu. “It would be preferable that he did this himself. The problem is that Lord Guishou’s dual cores were created in tandem with each other. If we removed one, there’s a high possibility he’ll go into aura deviation from the sudden imbalance. We have to prepare for that before we can go ahead.”
Lady Xilian handed him a lacquered box and asked, “I have the high-grade spirit crystals and the ingredients you requested. Are these enough?”
Lingzhu looked through the items and nodded.
“Mie’er has been pestering me to let him help,” said Lady Xilian. “There’s nothing much he can do and I feel bad about it.”
“Hm,” he shrugged.
“Well then, if there’s anything you need, let Heigou know and I’ll have it brought to you.”
“I have enough ingredients,” said Lingzhu.
“I’m not talking about ingredients,” said Lady Xilian. “Is there anything you would like for yourself?”
You are not obliged to do that,” said Lingzhu, looking a little confused.
“It is not out of obligation,” said Lady Xilian, a fond but slightly exasperated smile on her face.
“Hm,” said Lingzhu, going back to his table to continue working.
“All right, I won’t bother you,” said Lady Xilian. “I shall come again soon.”
She left the room and beckoned Mie’er over.
“Yes, Mother?” chirped Mie’er.
“I assumed you overheard us,” said Lady Xilian.
“Hm,” shrugged Mie’er.
“We’re doing all we can, so there’s no need for you to worry too much,” she said, patting his head. “I’m sorry your father and I aren’t free to keep you company.”
“It’s fine,” said Mie’er. “I have tons of friends outside the castle.”
“That’s reassuring,” said Lady Xilian.
Some days later, Mie’er was greeted by a piece of paper pasted on the closed guest room door:
Do not enter.
Mie’er walked over to Heigou who was in the courtyard doing some training on the job. “Hey, what’s up with him?”
“Lady Xilian sent a message to update him on the young miss’s condition. He’s probably busy working on that,” said Heigou.
Mie’er opened the window to the guest room a crack to take a peek. Lingzhu wasn’t at his table, but standing in the middle of the room gathering…demon aura?
“Hey,” called out Mie’er from the window. “What are you doing?”
Lingzhu shook his hand to disperse the gathered demon aura and went to the window, staring at the culprit who interrupted him.
“Your sign on the door said ‘Do not enter’, so I’ll stay right here,” said Mie’er, opening the window bigger so he could get a better view.
Lingzhu tilted his head and huffed. Mie’er thought it sounded almost like an amused laugh.
Lingzhu walked up to the window and raised a hand.
“What, are you going to hit me?” said Mie’er, with a blep.
Lingzhu shook his head. His hand hovered just an inch away from the head of silver hair.
“Do you want to touch my hair?” said Mie’er. He lowered his head a little and gave him permission. “Go ahead, I know I’m plenty cute.”
Mie’er felt the weight of a cool hand press down on his head, exploring the texture of his braids. He was used to being patted on the head, but this felt different. It wasn’t the firm pats he’d get from his parents, nor was it the ruffling way Heigou would do it.
Lingzhu was gentle as he ran his fingers over the braids and stared intently as if figuring out the texture of his hair and the shape of his head.
“…you’re plenty cute.”
“But of course—” Mie’er paused when he realised Lingzhu spoke to him. “Wait—did you just speak to me?”
Lingzhu jerked his hand back.
“Ah, you can continue,” said Mie’er, grabbing Lingzhu’s hand and pressing it firmly back onto his head.
“…” went the both of them for a long while.
Lingzhu slowly drew his hand away, then creaked the window shut.
“Hey, don’t just close the window on me!” came Mie’er’s voice on the other side of the closed window.
Lingzhu tapped his fingers on the window sill, slightly flustered.
“Fine, go be busy or whatever,” came Mie’er’s voice from outside. “I’ll come by again tomorrow.”
Hearing that, Lingzhu huffed in amusement. It wasn’t that long ago that Mie’er seemed angry at him being an unwanted guest and all.
He looked at his hands, thinking it would be nice if he was allowed to touch that soft hair again. It stirred up a spark of curiosity within him:
What does Lady Xilian’s ferret fur cape feel like?
What about Lord Guishou’s horns?
Lingzhu’s hands shook just thinking he might get the chance to find out if he could get his work settled.
With a lighter feeling in his heart, he went back to his papers. Looking at the trajectory of their progress, he knew they wouldn’t make it in time. Lord Guishou was part-human and had a spirit core to spare to give his daughter; but the aftermath would be messy and complicated. The success rate of this was too low without Lord Guishou.
There had to be a better way. Perhaps one that didn’t need Lord Guishou to give up his spirit core at all.
He took out the stack of papers he’d put aside, figuring it was time to go with his alternate plan.
He held up a diagram he’d drawn of his meridians and mulled over it. If he could just move his main core to somewhere less risky to extract, he’d have a good chance of crystalising it with minimal damage.
His limbs were not a choice—they were too far from his spirit core. He pondered, checking through all the options from his guts to his spleen, and for a moment considered the risk of sacrificing half a liver. He shook his head. It was still far too risky. If an accident happened, he wouldn’t be able to finish his work.
That left him just one option…
He heard knocking on the window and lifted his head from the table where he’s fallen asleep at. He took a quick glance at his papers and was relieved he didn’t smudge his drawings with his face this time.
Rubbing his eyes, he pushed the window open to see Mie’er pouting at him.
“You’re finally looking at me,” said Mie’er. “You’ve been cooped up inside for three days. Come out of your stuffy room and take a walk with me outside before the sun sets.”
Lingzhu looked at the work that was pretty much done. He supposed he could take a short break before the last stretch.
“Uh, you don’t have to if you really don’t want to…” added Mie’er as an afterthought.
His parents were always gentle with Lingzhu. Even that guy who came with him—Qing Lingfeng, was it?—was also a kind-looking guy with a gentle voice. Maybe a softer touch was needed to get this strange human to open up to him.
He watched as Lingzhu went to a chest by his bed and started pulling out a bunch of crumpled clothing, looking for something warmer. Everything was dull and black. There wasn’t the slightest hint of accessories.
Mie’er realised in horror: “Oh my heavens, you have nothing to wear.”
Lingzhu was halfway undressing when a set of clothes fell in from the window.
“Wear this,” said Mie’er, out of breath from having dashed halfway around the castle and back. “It’s my father’s old set. It’s soft and warm. It also looks much better than anything you have in there.”
“I don’t need it,” said Lingzhu.
“I need it,” said Mie’er, firmly.
Lingzhu tilted his head and thought for a while, then nodded. “All right.”
“Come out once you finished changing,” said Mie’er, shutting the window to stop the cold air from seeping in.
Lingzhu emerged from his room after a while, his collar crooked and his hair left unbound.
“Don’t you know how to—nevermind,” said Mie’er, trying his best not to criticise how poorly tied the sash was. “Let me help you with your clothes.”
“…” went Lingzhu. Then he added quietly after seeing Mie’er’s dramatic frown, “…if you really want to?”
“Yes, I really, really want to,” said Mie’er, fixing his clothes.
He left Lingzhu’s hair as-is since wearing one’s hair unbound was considered acceptable in Night Vigil City. Still, he made sure to quickly comb it out with his fingers. Lingzhu froze.
“Ugh, fine, I’ll leave it as it is,” said Mie’er, giving up.
“If you’re going out, I’ll accompany you,” said Heigou.
“Sure,” said Mie’er. “I’m not paying for your food, though.”
“Hahaha, good try, as long as I’m with you, I can claim work expenses,” said Heigou.
“All you do is stand here all day instead of patrolling,” said Mie’er, sticking out his tongue. “You’re gonna get fat over winter.”
“A fat dog is a happy dog,” grinned Heigou, slapping his belly.
“Eating out?” said Lingzhu, softly, sounding a little uncertain.
“Of course,” said Mie’er. “You’re not that fond of meat, right? I know a place that makes good radish cakes.”
“No money,” said Lingzhu.
“Don’t worry about it,” grinned Mie’er. “Just make sure to stay close to me.”
It turned out to be harder than they thought.
Like a child fascinated by new sights, Lingzhu would stop and stare, then walk away to look at something else that grabbed his attention. It was hard to keep up with him.
“From the way you’re looking around, I’d think you’d never seen shops before,” said Mie’er.
“Hm,” said Lingzhu.
“Isn’t there a pretty big town at the foot of your Border Mountains? Surely you must have gone there.”
Lingzhu shook his head, then went over to a shop selling dried fish and squatted down to take a closer look.
“Is this really that…interesting?” said Mie’er, wrinkling his nose as he caught a whiff of the dried fish up close.
Lingzhu stood up and looked at the lanterns hanging at the shop front.
“Hey, slow down,” said Mie’er. He was beginning to regret this.
“The restaurant has many things to see too,” said Heigou, ushering Lingzhu with his big paw-like hands. “Let’s go eat first, then you can continue exploring afterwards.”
“Hm?” said Lingzhu, twisting around to look at the big furry hand on his back.
“Oh, sorry,” said Heigou, taking his hand off.
Lingzhu stared at the paw leaving him.
“Come on,” said Mie’er, holding out a hand. “Take my hand.”
Lingzhu blinked, looking lost.
“Fine,” sighed Mie’er. He grabbed Lingzhu’s sleeve instead. “Come on, follow me.”
They went to a restaurant and ordered some vegetarian dishes. Somehow, nosy demons began to congregate around them.
“Is that the human guest from the Border Mountains? He looks disappointingly normal.”
“Oh, so that’s what he looks like! I didn’t get to see him the other day.”
“Young master Mie’er looks good today as usual! Is he here to eat his favourite roast chicken?”
“Captain Heigou is telling you to keep it down!”
“Why don’t you go upstairs?” suggested the owner of the restaurant. “We’ll keep the second floor clear for you.”
“Much appreciated,” said Heigou, standing up and shielding his two charges from nosy, prying eyes.
The second floor had a clear view of the street. Mie’er sat next to Lingzhu and showed him the menu.
“I’ve ordered a dozen different dishes, so you can try and see what you like. I recommend their sour and spicy soup. It good on a cold day,” said Mie’er.
“I’ve never eaten at a restaurant before,” said Lingzhu, picking up the chopsticks and attempting to hold it correctly. “I might…offend you.”
Mie’er blinked. The more answers Lingzhu gave him, the more questions he got.
“Do you know how to, uh, use chopsticks?” said Mie’er, wondering if it was a rude question to ask.
“Yes, but I’m clumsy,” said Lingzhu, who didn’t look like he minded such questions.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Heigou. “I’ve got big hands, so I’m not good with chopsticks either. You can always use a spoon or your hands. Whatever gets food into your mouth—that’s the way of us demons.”
“But he’s not a demon,” pointed out Mie’er.
“Ah,” said Heigou, slapping a hand over his mouth. “My bad, my bad.”
“…maybe I should’ve been born a demon,” said Lingzhu, sounding a little wistful and not offended at all.
“Is that something a human cultivator should be saying?” said Mie’er. “Ah, the food’s all here.”
“Are these all the dishes?” said Lingzhu.
“Is it not enough?”
“Where’s the roast chicken?”
“I thought you didn’t like meat so I didn’t order any,” said Mie’er. “I’ll order one if you want.”
“Mn,” nodded Lingzhu.
“Come, eat before the food turns cold,” said Heigou, nudging at their bowls to get started.
Lingzhu crossed his chopsticks and started eating. He was a little clumsy but it wasn’t catastrophic.
“You should eat more,” said Mie’er, scooping out another bowl of soup for him.
“I’m almost full,” said Lingzhu.
At that moment, the roast chicken finally arrived. Lingzhu clumsily used his crossed chopsticks to pick up a drumstick and dropped it into Mie’er’s bowl.
“Your favourite,” said Lingzhu.
Mie’er blinked and stared at the drumstick, then looked at Lingzhu with an incredulous look on his face when he realised that the roast chicken was specially ordered for him.
“Oh, the look on your face,” snickered Heigou, helping himself to a cut of the chicken as well since his young master was served.
“Stop teasing me,” growled Mie’er, throwing a spoon at Heigou. So much for table manners.
Heigou batted the spoon away easily and chuckled. A waiter came to serve them dessert, a simple fare of cut fruit and jellies.
“Try this osmanthus jelly,” said Mie’er, scooping it up with a spoon and passing it to Lingzhu.
“Sweet,” said Lingzhu as he took a nibble. He then sipped at his tea.
“Too sweet?” said Heigou.
Lingzhu shrugged and continued eating.
After a while, he looked out at the street. The sun was setting and some people went about their shopping. A few children in warm coats played in front of the toy stalls as some people sat around a stove in the restaurant across the street drinking heated wine. It was cold as winter set in, but it didn’t seem to deter the people from going about their business.
“It’s pretty quiet today,” said Mie’er, looking at the street.
“It’s usually much busier than this,” said Mie’er.
“What’s that?” said Lingzhu, pointing at a stall displaying some animal-shaped lanterns.
“They’re just lanterns. It’s really your first time in a shopping street, huh,” said Mie’er. He put down his spoon and stood up, holding out a hand for Lingzhu. “Come, you should go see it for yourself.”
This time, Lingzhu didn’t hesitate to take his hand and let the silver-haired boy lead him back to the dusky streets of Night Vigil City.
“Don’t mind me while I finish up the food and put the bill on your tab,” chuckled Heigou as they left, raising an amused brow when he realised his young master was too preoccupied with their guest to argue.
“Sell me that one,” said Mie’er to the shopkeeper selling lanterns.
“I won’t think of taking your money, young master,” gushed the shopkeeper.
“Business is business,” said Mie’er, putting the coins on the table.
Lingzhu had moved on from the lantern stall and was staring at some dolls.
“Just give me whatever he lays his eyes on,” said Mie’er to the shopkeeper.
By the end of the street, Mie’er had a bag filled to the brim with toys and candies.
“I’ll carry these,” said Heigou, taking the bag from his young master’s arms.
“How was dessert?” said Mie’er. “Don’t think I didn’t see you signalling to the waiter for another three bowls.”
“Heheh,” said Heigou, patting his filled stomach. “Pity I’m on the job. A little wine on this fine evening would be perfect”
“You could let one of your men take over for a few days,” said Mie’er.
“Lady Xilian insists that I take care of sir Lingzhu personally,” said Heigou.
“I can’t understand what Father and Mother see in this stone-faced human,” sighed Mie’er. He jerked his thumb at said human squatting down staring at a drain cover.
“Look at him. He’s probably wondering where the drain leads to.”
“You can tell what he’s thinking?” said Heigou.
“Who knows?” said Mie’er. He skipped over to Lingzhu and squatted down next to him.
Lingzhu felt someone next to him and turned to see the silver-haired boy with a playful grin.
“What are you looking at?” asked Mie’er.
Lingzhu pointed at the sky and then at the drain cover.
“It doesn’t rain often, but when it does, it’s a freakin’ storm,” said Mie’er. “It was Father’s idea to build a drainage system in the city.”
Lingzhu hummed and his eyes quietly sparkled at the mention of Lord Guishou.
“Father might be the most powerful and beautiful demon around but you don’t have to be such a fanboy…” grumbled Mie’er to himself.
They continued down the street until the sun had set and the air turned colder.
“Come on, let’s head back before you catch a cold,” said Heigou.
Crossing your chopsticks is an incorrect way of holding it, but it’s pretty comfy… after typing this chapter out, I feel like having a bowl of sour-spicy soup myself…