Lingzhu had his calculations worked out, but there was still the risk of his theory being wrong since practical applications seldom went according to plan.
Still, he’d done what he could to make it work.
Taking a short break, he hummed as he lined up the set of wooden animal figurines on the window sill Mie’er bought for him the other day. He stuck a colourful pinwheel in an empty medicine bottle and hung up a fish-shaped lantern at the door. The floor was covered in wool rugs and a hot water bottle sat on his table as a warm paperweight. A new set of clothes and blankets sat on a chair next to his bed.
A tea set from Lady Xilian, a stack of books from Lord Guishou and a dozen knick-knacks from Mie’er, there wasn’t an empty corner in this room anymore.
It was beginning to feel like—
He shook his head and stopped his thoughts. What he needed to do right now was to obtain a stable spirit core suitable for Mie’er’s little sister. He’d calculated every outcome with every parameter he could think of.
Just in case he wasn’t able to make it, he left a letter with instructions on how to complete his plan.
He sealed the room and began.
“Damn it,” cursed Mie’er when he felt a barrier in place in the guest room.
He tried to look inside, but the doors and windows were sealed shut. The barrier was at full power and he wasn’t able to crack it.
“Mister Lingzhu said not to disturb him until he finishes the work he wants to do for Lady Xilian,” said Heigou, pulling him back from breaking into the room. “I think we should wait.”
“What if he’s doing something dangerous?”
“Then all the more we shouldn’t interrupt,” said Heigou. He looked at Mie’er’s worried face and gave in. “We’ll check on him again later and break in if he doesn’t let the barrier up by tonight?”
Mie’er reluctantly nodded. Still, he wasn’t about to sit idle. He began gathering supplies and piled them outside the door as they waited.
Heigou blinked, surprised, but did not comment.
After a few hours, Mie’er knocked on the door, trying yet again.
“Hey, Lingzhu, let up your barrier and let me in already,” Mie’er called out. Then added for good measure: “It’s just me. Heigou won’t come in. We won’t disrupt your work, promise.”
As if in response to that added bit, the barrier yielded and he was allowed into the room.
Mie’er pushed open the door slowly, peering in.
Lingzhu was standing over the table, focused on containing the spirit aura within shards of crystallised spirit essence. His hands were covered in blood and he was breathing laboriously through his mouth. His eyes were narrowed and it looked dangerous to disrupt him.
Mie’er beckoned Heigou over and whispered: “Go fetch Physician Hong and wait outside for my signal.”
Heigou took one look and obeyed, quietly shifting into a large black dog and bounding off.
“I’m coming in,” said Mie’er, carefully making his way in and closing the door behind him.
Lingzhu was standing over the table, half-undressed. There were bandages around his stomach, but from the wet trail of blood down his pants, Mie’er could see he was still bleeding and sorely in need of treatment.
“You just keep doing whatever you’re doing. I’ll put some pressure on your wound, okay?” said Mie’er.
“Mn,” said Lingzhu off-handedly, not even looking at whoever was talking to him.
“All right, then,” said Mie’er, grabbing some linen from the supplies he’d prepared. He reached around the taller man and pressed a folded strip of linen firmly over his right side.
Lingzhu grunted slightly but did not flinch. He carefully balanced the ingredients and the crystallised spirit aura contained within. He muttered to himself as he channelled aura into completing the circuitry. He murmured something about dosage and split the spirit essence into two before refining them into pearl-like spheres.
When he completed his task, he carefully placed the pills in a lacquered box. His eyes lifted from his hands and he finally noticed someone at his side wiping the perspiration off his brow.
“Are you done?” said Mie’er, trying hard not to sound nervous.
“Mn,” said Lingzhu, feeling cold and dizzy. “I need to lie down a while.”
“Of course you do,” said Mie’er, giving Heigou a signal.
The next moments were like a blur—he felt Heigou’s arms around him and heard physician Hong complaining.
“I changed the circuitry, I need to add instructions—” muttered Lingzhu, deciding that he needed to get up.
“That can wait. Lie down and let me take a look,” said physician Hong.
“That’s not necessary,” said Lingzhu.
Physician Hong felt a vein pop and took out his set of needles.
The last thing Lingzhu saw was a big needle aimed between his eyes. He felt the tension drain from his body as the needle sent a warm vibration down his meridians, swiftly sending him to sleep.
“That’ll teach you to argue with me,” grumbled physician Hong. He rolled up his sleeves and got to work treating Lingzhu’s injury.
Lingzhu woke up, feeling groggy. Layers of blanket covered him to his neck and there was the smell of medicinal herbs in the air. He pushed himself up and looked around. He groaned when he felt a dull ache in his side. Checking himself, he saw that his stomach was bandaged and his hands were free of blood.
He felt something warm next to him and saw a hot water bottle at his side. He picked it up and put it on his lap, enjoying the heat on his legs. After a while of soaking in the warmth, he decided to get up. He put his feet on the floor and realised it was warm and soft.
He took another moment to enjoy the texture of the soft rug while he looked around the room. A stack of books sat on the table next to a tea set and a bowl of fruit. His work table was tidied up. The papers, some stained with blood, were arranged neatly with a carved wooden sheep sitting atop it as a paperweight. The lacquered box was gone, as were the papers with instructions in them.
He wondered if he needed to look for Lady Xilian to check her daughter’s progress…
He heard the door open and then found himself meeting Mie’er’s golden eyes.
“You’re awake already?” said Mie’er, blinking in surprise.
“The pills…” said Lingzhu, looking at the table.
“Mother took the elixirs,” said Mie’er. “Little sister took a turn for the worse so my parents are treating her now.”
Lingzhu pushed himself to stand and hobbled over to the table, looking through his papers. He took out a new sheet and started writing more instructions, muttering about the possible outcomes and countermeasures. After a while, he handed the papers to Mie’er.
“Give this to them.”
“Sure,” said Mie’er. “I’ll have Heigou deliver these immediately.”
Lingzhu tilted his head, puzzled.
“Why are you staying here? Shouldn’t you be with Little Sister?”
“Father, Mother, even old man Hong are all with her. I trust them to do a good job,” huffed Mie’er. “They’re worried about you so I told them I’ll be here.”
“They don’t have to be worried. I’ll ask Lingfeng to make sure the Border Mountains Sect won’t give Night Vigil City any trouble.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” said Mie’er, raising a brow. “Come on, let’s get you back to bed.”
“Hm?” said Lingzhu, looking a little confused, but allowed himself to be ushered back to bed.
“Here, drink some water,” said Mie’er, passing him a cup.
Lingzhu took the cup, but fumbled and dropped it, spilling the water over his lap. He shook his head and looked away when offered another cup.
Mie’er huffed in amusement, feeling this scene somewhat familiar. He left the room and soon came back with a bowl and spoon. He filled the bowl with water.
“Here, I’ll feed you,” he said, bringing a soup spoon to Lingzhu’s lips.
Lingzhu hesitated for a moment, then drank spoon after spoon.
“Don’t drink too much,” chuckled Mie’er as he saw Lingzhu’s eyes follow the bowl. “You’ve still got to drink your medicine.”
He didn’t know why, but he felt a slight twinge of guilt seeing how thirsty Lingzhu really was.
When Lady Xilian came by, she found Lingzhu sitting on the bed reading a book. Her silver-haired son was sprawled out over the blankets next to him, fast asleep.
“Looks like Mie’er likes you quite a bit,” whispered Lady Xilian.
“He says huddling together is a good way to keep warm,” said Lingzhu, quietly.
Lady Xilian snorted behind her sleeves at his reply. She then took a moment to compose herself and cupped her hands in a formal greeting as she spoke.
“Sir Lingzhu, I apologise for coming at this late hour. I thought it would be good to inform you that my daughter’s spirit core formation is going smoothly.”
“What of the demon aura?” said Lingzhu, not bothering with any decorum in speech or manner.
Taking a cue, Lady Xilian pulled up a chair to the bed and made herself comfortable.
“My husband is helping her with that. Her body is still attracting and accumulating demon aura but at a much slower rate. With the spirit core, that small amount of demon aura doesn’t hurt her body.”
“She should be given regular treatment until her core is fully stabilised,” said Lingzhu.
“My husband and I are part-human, and our daughter ended up pretty much human and allergic to demon aura. We had originally planned to settle her in a human town but the Border Mountains Sect generously offered her a place as a disciple,” said Lady Xilian, smiling gently. “You didn’t have to, but you’ve personally helped my family so much. Is there anything you would like?”
“There is one thing,” said Lingzhu, looking her straight in the face. “I want to marry you.”
“Oh dear, I’m afraid I’ll have to refuse since I already have a husband and can’t take one more,” said Lady Xilian, after a moment of careful thought.
“Oh,” said Lingzhu. “What about Lord Guishou? Can he take one more?”
“You could try asking him,” said Lady Xilian, amused. “He might refuse as well, though.”
“Mn. I’ll go ask him,” said Lingzhu, looking ready to do it.
“There’s no hurry,” said Lady Xilian. “Why don’t you wait until he comes back to the castle with our daughter some days later?”
Lingzhu thought about it for a moment, then nodded.
After Lady Xilian left, Lingzhu remembered something he read—“Ah, I made a mistake. I should’ve prepared gifts beforehand…”
“Hmm? What’s going on?” yawned Mie’er. He sniffed the air, recognising his mother’s perfume. “Was Mother here?”
“Mn,” said Lingzhu. “Lady Xilian rejected me. Maybe it’s because I forgot to prepare proposal gifts.”
“Eh? What are you talking about?”
“If I am to stay here, I have to get one of them to agree,” said Lingzhu, sounding strangely determined.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Mie’er, stretching and flopping over Lingzhu’s blanket-covered lap. “Whatever it is, it’s gonna have to wait till morning.”
“Mn,” said Lingzhu, putting his book aside and extinguishing the candles in the room with a wave of his hand. He absently stroked Mie’er’s head as they rested that night.
It was the height of winter and there was a rare snowstorm raging outside the castle. The people of Night Vigil City were warned about it beforehand and some of them decided to take shelter at the castle saying it would be fun.
Lord Guishou, known to the cultivation world as the demon king of the north, was the leader of Night Vigil City and lord of this castle. He had a quarter human in him and thus had strong human features. He was a tall man with silken raven hair, golden amber eyes and an impressive pair of curled horns on his head. Dressed in black and gold, Lord Guishou was a picture of regal beauty.
He was the complete opposite of the people in this room—who were busy putting out mats and setting up a stove to prepare snacks. They were certainly making themselves very comfortable in the main hall of his castle.
Lord Guishou let them enjoy their picnicking as he continued to discuss with his guards the increasing dead aura that was spreading from the southern spirit meridians. After an hour of discussion and writing down his strategies on paper and handing them to the vice-captain, he looked at the water clock and dismissed them to get ready for his next appointment.
Everyone in the hall watched as the Hermit Moon Peak Lord walked into the hall, dressed in black with a veil covering the lower half of his face. Heigou followed behind him, looking somewhat perplexed. The Hermit Moon Peak Lord, a human guest of Night Vigil City, was dressed formally—with a crown in his hair and a formal outer robe. There were added accessories on his sash and in his hair.
“Sir Lingzhu,” greeted Lord Guishou.
Lingzhu put his hands together to return the greeting.
“I heard you wished to discuss something with me. Please, take a seat,” said Lord Guishou, looking a little surprised as he hadn’t expected such decorum from his guest.
Lingzhu ignored the offer and took out a bound stack of talismans from his sleeve, holding it out with both hands to Lord Guishou.
“I have prepared a hundred talismans of various uses as a gift for you.”
“Eh?” said Lord Guishou.
Heigou quickly went over to help hold the talismans for Lingzhu so his lord could have some time to react.
“Oh, right,” mumbled Lingzhu to himself as he reached into his other sleeve and pulled out a pouch box containing some reels of spirit threads. “These threads can be woven into spirit nets or sewn into clothes to be used for enchanting purposes.”
“These are precious gifts. I’m afraid I do not understand their purpose,” said Lord Guishou, looking perplexed.
“These are wedding gifts,” said Lingzhu.
“Lord Guishou, I want to marry you.”
There was a large collective gasp from everyone in the room. A few dozen pairs of eyes in the great hall were now upon their lord and a most unexpected suitor.
Heigou stared at them, jaw dropped in surprise.
“I…I am not quite sure what you mean,” replied Lord Guishou.
“Please consider my proposal,” said Lingzhu. “If my gifts are inadequate, I shall go prepare more.”
Lord Guishou opened and closed his mouth a few times, not knowing what to say. From the corner of his eye, he saw Lady Xilian snickering behind her sleeve in a corner of the hall.
“My lady, please come here,” said Lord Guishou.
Lady Xilian stopped her snickering and walked out gracefully, putting on her game face.
“What is it, my lord?” she said.
“This isn’t a matter to be taken lightly. I wish to consult you,” said Lord Guishou. As he faced her, his eyes were wide and pleading.
Lady Xilian coughed in her sleeve to hide the smirk on her face.
Like mother like son, thought Lord Guishou.
“I believe we should discuss this in private,” said Lady Xilian. “With sir Lingzhu as well, of course.”
“Certainly,” said Lord Guishou.
As they walked to his chambers, he wondered why he didn’t outright reject Lingzhu then and there. Perhaps it was out of surprise that he froze, or because of the look on his wife’s face, that he thought he had to handle this delicately.
Lingzhu went with them, his eyes flitting between the both of them like a lost lamb. Heigou carried the gifts and quietly followed behind.
Once in Lord Guishou’s room, he closed the door shut and gestured for them all to take a seat.
“So,” began Lady Xilian, mischief creeping up her face. “It’s common for a man of noble status, such as yourself, to take second or third wives…”
“I’m fine being a concubine,” added Lingzhu.
The frown on Lord Guishou’s face turned into a look of sheer horror. His wife finally took pity on him and stopped her teasing.
“Sir Lingzhu,” said Lady Xilian. “What do you understand of ‘marriage’?”
“To marry is to ‘become related’*, isn’t it?”
*Literal translation of ‘成亲‘(marriage)
“You proposed to me the other day as well, so it doesn’t matter which one of us you marry, does it?” continued Lady Xilian.
“If it’s your desire to become related to our family, we could become sworn brothers,” offered Lord Guishou.
“That wouldn’t work,” said Lingzhu. “I’ll be made to return.”
“I see,” said Lady Xilian. “Well, if you wish to stay here at Night Vigil City, we can put heads together and think of something.”
“Short of marriage, that is,” added Lord Guishou.
“Let’s not rule that out,” grinned Lady Xilian. “Who knows if one of our children takes a liking to him in future?”
“That’s highly unlikely,” said Lingzhu.
Lady Xilian raised a brow at his response.
In the end, they couldn’t think of anything and Lingzhu went back to his room. Rumours flew among the people of Night Vigil City that the human cultivator had proposed to their lord and then became a shut-in from the shock of being rejected.
The rumours even reached the Border Mountains that Qing Lingfeng, then vice sect leader of the sect, quickly sent the Mad Tiger Peak Lord to go investigate.
Ye Mingzhu, the Peak Lord of Mad Tiger Peak, was a formidable-looking woman. She was stout, dressed in black and red leathers, and looked ready to charge into battle on a horse.
“I heard you became a shut-in,” said Ye Mingzhu, pouring herself a cup of tea and making herself comfortable in his room. “I’ve told senior brother Bai to put a stop to the rumours since they were getting out of hand.”
“Hm? Rumours?” said Lingzhu. Even with a visitor, he continued with his task of tediously materialising and spinning his gathered spirit aura into spirit thread. Ye Mingzhu watched the growing number of thread reels on his lap and wondered if Lingzhu knew he was spinning thread that was more expensive than gold.
“There’s one crazy story where you attempted to seduce Lord Guishou by offering to become his concubine, got stabbed in the gut by an angry maid, and were put under house arrest,” said Ye Mingzhu.
Lingzhu thought for a moment and replied, “Hm, a part of that’s true.”
“…which part?” said Ye Mingzhu. “Wait, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”
Lingzhu shrugged. “I hope you’re not here to take me back to the Border Mountains.”
“Tsk, it’s bad news,” said Ye Mingzhu, shaking her head. “Sect Leader Qing thinks it’s better for you to be back under the sect’s direct supervision and has ordered me to fetch you back once winter’s over. The other clans have expressed their distrust in you as a diplomatic guest. There’s that rumour of you seducing Lord Guishou with your pretty face behind that veil—they’re terrified of that being even remotely true.”
“Seduce…? If my face was remotely pretty, I wouldn’t have to cover it,” huffed Lingzhu, shaking his head. “Anyway, what of Little Sister’s arrangement with Lingfeng?”
“It’s going well,” said Ye Mingzhu. “Instead of Crystal Peak as you’ve requested, Vice Leader suggested it would be better for Lord Guishou’s daughter to stay with you for a time at the Hermit Moon Peak until she’s fully recovered.”
Lingzhu went quiet for a while, mulling over his options.
“There’s no avoiding going back,” said Ye Mingzhu. “But if there’s something Vice Leader or Sister Ye here can help you with, you just have to ask.”
Lingzhu looked around his room.
Ye Mingzhu followed his gaze.
She saw the little animal figurines on the window sill and the stack of books at the foot of the bed. A quilted blanket was draped over a chair and a hot water bottle sat upon it. An assortment of carved paperweights and an exquisite tea set were set on the table. A cute fish lantern hung at the door next to some wind chimes.
She gave a bittersweet smile as she realised he had made himself a home here—something he didn’t have back at the Border Mountains.
“We’ll bring all these back to your hut and ask them to write you letters,” said Ye Mingzhu.
“Or I can just defeat Qing Wangyue,” muttered Lingzhu to himself. “If I can find a way to amplify demon aura through Ashfire and throw him off guard…”
Ye Mingzhu pretended not to hear his plotting.
There was a knock on the door, followed by Lord Guishou’s son walking in. He was smiling but his eyes watched her like a hawk.
“Peak Lord Ye,” said Mie’er, cupping his hands to greet her. “Pardon my intrusion. I always come in to visit at this time of the day.”
Ye Mingzhu stood up as well, greeting him in return.
“Young master Mie’er. I am grateful for your care of our Hermit Moon Peak Lord,” said Ye Mingzhu. Seeing she was no longer welcome, she smiled and bid Lingzhu goodbye.
Mie’er watched her leave and then dropped his polite smile, turning to Lingzhu.
“Is she here to take you away?”
“Mie’er,” said Lingzhu, looking at the silver-haired boy. “Will you come with me to the Hermit Moon Peak?”
“I’m fine being a concubine,” added Lingzhu.
The frown on Lord Guishou’s face turned into a look of sheer horror.
I’d imagine the look of horror on Lord Guishou’s face to be the screaming hamster face…