The west quarter of the city was a bustling place in the day as the noisy gambling dens and colourful brothels ushered in customers from all over. The lights and noise they kept on hid what went on behind the streets—a large, sprawling slum.
What made the Huahu gambling den stand out among its competitors was the vibe of the place. The fun of being served by the ladies in colourful makeup and wigs reeled in customers, rich and poor, from all over the city.
A group of women sat in the back room of the gambling den and enjoyed their break after their shift.
“Business is slow these days,” yawned a courtesan with golden wig, pouring herself a cup of wine.
“It can’t be helped,” said a waitress with blue lipstick. “Those mercenaries hired by the Rong Clan keep coming to harass us.”
“They’re harassing all the shops around here,” said another serving-girl with feathers in her hair. “I’ve got a cousin who was a servant-disciple at the Phoenix Manor. He got fired after an injury with hardly any compensation. I think he got off lucky if you ask me. He says that their mistress has dirt on everyone working for her.”
“That’s why most of our neighbours don’t dare to stand up against them,” said the courtesan, sighing. “Why isn’t the Rong Clan’s second young master doing something about this?”
“Maybe he’s already secretly done in by Rong Ci,” whispered a serving-girl.
An older woman with a gnarled bone hairpin in her grey hair walked in and sat at their table.
“So noisy. Are you girls running a fish market?”
Her scolding fell on deaf ears as the women pulled her into their gossip circle.
“Ah, Mama Luo! You must know about that child that Boss Hong brought in the other day,” said the serving girl, quickly pouring her elder a cup of wine. “Is the little girl he brought in the other day his illegitimate child?”
Mama Luo sat down, gulped down a cup of wine, and leaned forward to spread the gossip.
“Boss Hong told me that she is a cultivator from the north. If you ask me, I think her white hair is related to the Border Mountain Sect’s Valley Lord.”
“A cultivator? But she’s so young! Wait, did you just imply that she could be top ranker Di Mie’s—” she gulped as she finished her sentence—“illegitimate daughter?”
Mama Luo stared at the girls for a moment then explained herself, “Take your mind out of the gutter! I meant she suffered from ‘aura deviation’! Valley Lord Di’s hair turned silver from aura deviation, didn’t it?”
“Is that all?” said the waitress, clicking her tongue in disappointment.
“So whose secret child is that white-haired girl?”
“Is she Boss Hong’s child after all?”
“Why are you obsessed with illegitimate daughters—ah, Miss Hei Xuan,” called out Mama Luo.
A girl looking no older than twelve had walked into the room. She had fluffy white hair and red eyes but fit right in with the dressed-up women in the room. Like a lost child, her gaze wandered about the room until Mama Luo got up, took her hand and guided her to sit at the table.
“Come, you must be hungry,” said Mama Luo, putting a bowl of porridge in front of her.
Hei Xuan picked up the spoon and ate clumsily, making the women giggle.
“There,” said the courtesan, pointing to a corner of her mouth.
“Ahh?” uttered Hei Xuan.
“Let Auntie Luo help you,” said Mama Luo, taking the handkerchief and wiping a bit of green onion off Hei Xuan’s cheek.
“It’s so hard to believe this little girl is a cultivator,” whispered the serving-girl.
“Cultivator or not, she’s just a child,” said Mama Luo.
“You’re one of us now. We’ll take care of you while you’re here, Miss Hei Xuan,” promised the serving-girl.
“That said, who are your parents?” asked the waitress, eagerly.
“Is it the beautiful, mysterious Hong Lian, or is the popular and also mysterious Di Mie?” chirped the serving-girl.
The other women gushed along fantasizing about Hei Xuan’s parentage.
“Tsk, what a bunch of busybodies you lot are,” said Mama Luo.
“The Rong Clan’s ruffians are here again!” yelled a neighbour.
“Again?” grumbled the waitress. “They always like to come and harass us when our boss isn’t around.”
“Ahh?” said Hei Xuan.
“I’ll go see what they’re up to this time,” said Mama Luo.
“We’ll come with you,” said the other women in the room.
Hei Xuan stood up, but the courtesan who wiped her mouth placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her.
“Miss Hei Xuan should stay here,” said the courtesan.
“Ahh,” protested Hei Xuan, pulling at the courtesan’s sleeve.
“We’ll watch quietly from a distance, then,” relented the courtesan, putting a finger to her lips.
“Everyone here knows the incidents at the Phoenix Manor were caused by in-fighting among the Rong Clan!” shouted a shop owner.
Rong Ci frowned.
The Rong Clan disciples with her leapt into action, pointing their swords at the shop owner to shut him up. The head disciple quickly ran over and assured her that they would have everything under control.
“The people here are as uncouth as this place,” said Rong Ci with a look of disdain on her face. “Just get the job done without getting the Du Clan involved.”
The disciples saluted as the clan’s elite bodyguards escorted her out of the west quarter.
Once out of earshot, the disciples turned their annoyance back to the workers of the street.
“I’ll say it once more: it was the work of demons,” said a Rong Clan disciple. “You people are safe because of our efforts. Now we are requesting that you do your part in supporting the extermination of demons.”
“What do you want this time, you ruffians? Aren’t we already paying the Rong Clan a tenth of our earnings? ” said the angry shop owner, pointing his finger at them in frustration.
The Rong Clan disciple swung his sword and cut off the business owner’s accusing finger, causing the man to cradle his bleeding hand and cry out in pain.
“I gave you a chance and you continued to insult the clan. According to the Rong Clan’s rules, your life will be forfeit if you insult us a third time,” said the disciple.
The shop owners and workers quickly backed away and kept their mouths shut.
The disciples handed out papers to the business owners as their senior explained, “You lot are to sign this contract with the Rong Clan for your own good.”
The business owners read the terms and gasped.
“You want eight parts* of our revenue every month? Why don’t you just kill me and take my shop?” yelled out an angry red-faced business owner.
“Don’t be hasty,” said the senior Rong Clan disciple who led the others. “This arrangement is for us to keep you safe from demons. If you don’t let us protect you, who knows what might happen to your family…?”
The angry business owner turned back and saw his scared children peering out his shop window.
“Damn it!” cursed the business owner, biting his lip as he stamped his seal on the contract and gave it over.
“See? It’s not that hard,” grinned the disciple.
“Hey, newcomers. If you want to get paid, go to the shops and bring the other business owners here,” ordered the senior disciple. “And don’t let anyone in the west quarter leave.”
“Dibs on the brothels,” laughed a mercenary loudly.
Hei Xuan watched on as the mercenaries and newcomers who joined the entourage eagerly rounded up the women from the nearby brothels.
“Ah,” said Hei Xuan, pointing her finger in the direction of the Rong Clan’s entourage when she noticed a familiar face—a young man standing at the back, half-blended into the shadows of the buildings.
“Damn it, my Big Auntie’s here again,” cursed Di Mie under his breath, knowing he was spotted.
“Your ‘Big Auntie’* is here?” whispered a newcomer next to him, horrified at what he heard.
*Big Auntie: slang for ‘period’
The courtesan pulled Hei Xuan towards the slums and whispered, “Hurry and go hide somewhere while I distract them.”
“Hey, do you think we can sell these women to the other brothels?” said a mercenary as he looked at the women they rounded up.
“The Du Clan will have your head if you try that in this city,” warned a Rong clan disciple who overheard him.
“Yes, but what if we smuggle them to the west? I hear there many rich buyers over there.”
“And risk not being able to step foot into Bainiao Lake City again? I won’t do that if I were you, considering the good money to be made here in the long term,” advised an older mercenary.
“Hey, there’s a kid running away,” pointed out a disciple. “Someone go catch her!”
“I’ll go!” volunteered the newcomer standing next to Di Mie.
“Me too!” said Di Mie, seeing his chance to get away from the group without suspicion.
“These newcomers are so soft that they can’t handle chasing a kid by themselves,” scoffed a mercenary.
Di Mie followed the newcomer into the slums. It was not as bad as some of the other slums he’d seen in other cities but the people here seemed wary of outsiders. Upon seeing the newcomer charge in after a white-haired girl with a sword, they scattered like mice.
Hei Xuan clumsily ran into the first alley she saw, only to find it was a dead end.
“There’s nowhere to run, kid,” grinned the newcomer as he blocked off her exit.
“Don’t get in my way, newbie. This one’s all mine,” said the newcomer.
“Sure,” said Di Mie, stepping back.
Di Mie watched as a crow swooped in and pecked at the newcomer’s face.
“Ow!” yelped the newcomer, covering his bleeding eye with a hand and swatting his sword at the crow with the other.
Thin whips of water lashed out at his legs, sending him crashing to the ground. The newcomer screamed but was quickly muffled by the water smothering his face. Hei Xuan released her whips once the man fell unconscious from suffocation.
Di Mie thought it resembled a giant squid attack and made a mental note to himself not to cross his aunt if he wanted to retain his dignity.
“Is he dead?” said Di Mie, kicking the man in the leg.
“Not. Yet.” said Hei Xuan’s crow.
“The Rong Clan disciples have put up seals over the exits,” said Di Mie. “What do you want to do, Auntie?”
“I. Hide.” said the crow on Hei Xuan’s shoulder.
“I’ll hide too,” said Di Mie. “Since it seems the Rong Clan disciples don’t intend to kill anyone, I won’t interfere and risk Cloudrest Peak’s wrath.”
And so, they somehow ended up in someone’s wood shed.
“I’ve put up a barrier to block the sound, so we can speak comfortably without being heard,” said Di Mie. He drew something on the ground with his finger and a moment later, his shadow wavered.
“Oink,” came a low grunt from beneath his feet. Two more shadows split from his and took the shape of large boars.
Hei Xuan visibly jerked and backed away, waving her hands at the shadows.
“Oh, you’re scared of Spirit-Devouring Beasts?” grinned Di Mie, filing this information away for future use.
“Shiwei, go to the street and let me know if something happens,” said Di Mie.
The shadow grunted and sped off.
“Shimei, you stay here and keep us hidden from view.”
“Bwee,” squeaked the shadow.
“Ahh,” said Hei Xuan, swatting at the shadow spreading underneath them. She clambered up onto the dried twigs to get away from the ground.
“That looks comfortable,” said Di Mie, smirking as he gathered a bunch of twigs and fashioned himself a seat as well.
Hei Xuan pouted and arranged the twigs around, building a nest in the corner of the shed. Her long white hair was a mess, with dried twigs and leaves sticking out from it.
“Here, make yourself comfortable with this,” said Di Mie, taking off his outer robe and tossing it over.
The robe landed on her head and she gave a little grunt. She lined her nest of twigs with it and settled in.
The crow flew over and landed on Di Mie’s shoulder. With a swift grab, he caught it and glared at the squirming crow in his hand.
“This crow of yours,” said Di Mie, clicking his tongue in displeasure as he felt an unmistakable aura coming from it. “I thought it sounded like my mother’s voice because you made it so. Why does it even have her aura?”
“Gift. No,” said the crow in his hand, giving a short pause before finding the right word. “Keepsake.”
“My mother gave you a bird?”
The crow squirmed out of his grip and turned into a book that fell onto his lap.
“A book,” said Di Mie, picking it up and flipping through it. The book was worn out, each page well-thumbed and stained with watermarks. Despite that, the ink was well-preserved and unsmudged, as if enchanted.
With a wave of her hand, Hei Xuan summoned the book back into her hands.
Di Mie realised once he saw the book turn back into a crow and said, “It’s a bonded spirit weapon. What’s its name?”
“’Nian‘, as in ‘reading’ and ‘studying’?”
“Ahh,” nodded Hei Xuan. She pouted and pointed at the sword at his waist.
Di Mie took out his sword and showed it to her.
“This is Ashfire.”
Hei Xuan touched the sword, felt its aura for a moment then burst out into a snorting fit.
“Did you see the memories of this sword from just a touch?” said Di Mie, raising a brow.
“Ash. Fire. Funny. Name,” said the crow while Hei Xuan continued her snorting laughter.
Di Mie looked at Hei Xuan and pouted.
“You have a keepsake; good for you. I wish Mother had left me something,” said Di Mie. “I left Night Vigil City when I was sixteen and couldn’t bring anything with me.”
“You,” said the crow as Hei Xuan pointed at him.
Di Mie could only give her a wry smile.
They heard a commotion outside and ventured outside to take a look.
“The Huahu gambling den’s boss is back and fighting those damned cultivators! One man against ten, he’s not backing down!” yelled a resident running through the slums.
The residents came out in droves hearing this. The braver ones ran off to see the fight.
“I guess that’s our cue to leave,” said Di Mie.
“Ahh,” said Hei Xuan, holding out the outer robe offered to her just now.
“Keep it. It’s cold and you could use it,” said Di Mie.
“You. Might. Need. It. Later.”
Di Mie rolled his eyes at her prophetic choice of words but took his robe back.
The street was filled with injured cultivators writhing on the ground. The Rong Clan disciples were panicking as the business owners either ran off into the slums or locked themselves in their shops.
“That fox-demon cosplaying bastard is ruining our plans again! Get him!” yelled the senior Rong Clan disciple, pointing in the direction Hong Lian had fled.
“He’s too strong,” groaned the newcomers on the ground.
“What’s the reward?” said the mercenaries, grinning. This was a group of veteran cultivators whose clans were decimated during the Calamity and took up mercenary work to survive.
“That’s too little to split amongst us.”
The mercenaries folded their arms and dawdled.
“Fine. Five hundred silvers,” gritted out the senior Rong Clan disciple. “Take it or leave it.”
“Thank you for your business, boss.”
The mercenaries jumped onto their swords and took to the sky to go after their bounty.
Side Story: A Little Contest
One fine day, a squirrel poked his head out of a hole in a tree. He shimmied up and down the branches collecting fruit and nuts. He paused in the midst of his work and tilted his head as he watched three men amble out into the garden.
“Oh man, I think I drank too much,” said Jianjin, looking a little tipsy. “I’m drunk!”
“You can’t be,” said Jianshi. “I made sure to cook away the alcohol before giving any wine to you.”
“Toilet~” whistled Jianjin.
“It’s under renovation today,” said Jianshi. “We’ll have to go out to use the public outhouse.”
“That’s too far! I’m just gonna go behind a bush,” said Jianjin.
“I guess we have no choice but to do that,” came Di Mie’s voice from behind him.
“Ahh!! Di Shibo! Why are you here?” said Jianjin.
“What do you mean ‘why’? I drank a lot of wine too,” said the teenage-looking Di Mie, looking barely old enough to drink.
“But Di Shibo,” blinked Jianshi, puzzled, “I thought cultivators at an advanced stage can go without food and bypass bodily functions?”
“Yes, I can, but it’s so much easier to just pee it out after drinking so much,” said Di Mie.
“Toilet?” came the softer voice of Xie Li as he walked out into the garden behind them.
“The toilet’s currently unavailable,” said Di Mie. “Let’s just go behind the bushes.”
“Don’t worry. This is my garden. We can do whatever we want here,” said Di Mie, smiling a little too brightly.
“Oh, okay,” said Xie Li, shrugging.
Jianshi nodded and suggested, “Let’s just take turns for privacy—”
“Pissing contest! I’m gonna shoot further than all of you!!” interrupted Jianjin.
“Ah-Jin, you’re drunk and I don’t even know how,” said Jianshi, facepalming.
“You picked the wrong guy to compete with, you brat,” said Di Mie, walking up to Jianjin and jerking his thumb down in a show of confidence, looking every part like a cocky young man.
“Di Shibo, why are you—” said Jianshi.
“Beat that, bro!” said Jianjin, fumbling with his pants behind the bushes and shooting a stream on a rock three yards away.
“You’re not a kid anymore,” sighed Jianshi, joining him behind the bushes. He huffed and doubled the distance.
“You’re using spirit aura? No fair!” wailed Jianjin.
“Is that all you boys got?” smirked Di Mie, flicking his robe aside and shooting his stream to the edge of the garden and right into the hole of a tree.
The squirrel dropped his nuts in shock as he watched his home get destroyed.
“Why are you all peeing all over the place?” said Xie Li, tilting his head, confused.
Jianjin pouted as his face turned red in embarrassment over his lack of performance. He ran up to Xie Li and wailed, “Senior Xie! Please avenge me! I’m sure you’ll do better than Di Shibo!”
Di Mie gave a sharp laugh and walked over, hand on his hip as he said with absolute certainty, “No, he can’t.”
“Why are you so sure—wait,” said Jianjin, blinking in confusion as he watched Xie Li make his way behind the bushes and disappear from view.
“Ah, he’s squatting,” noticed Jianshi.
“Why is he squatting?” said Jianjin. “Does he need to take a dump?”
“That’s just how he does his number one,” said Di Mie, dusting off his clothes.
“Wait, what?” said Jianjin, shocked again. “Is Senior Xie shy?”
“What’s going on?” said Xie Li, emerging from the bushes after finishing his business.
“Senior Xie! Why do you squat to pee?” asked Jianjin so bluntly that Jianshi whacked him on the arm.
“Hm?” said Xie Li. “That’s what everyone does, isn’t it?”
“Did I say something wrong?” said Xie Li, casually. He went over to the water barrel and scooped out a ladle of water.
Di Mie immediately held his hands out, washing them with water poured from the ladle. He took the ladle from Xie Li and returned the favour. Jianshi marvelled as he watched the both of them habitually move around the other as if they’d lived together for a long time.
“Ah-Jin, come wash your hands too,” beckoned Jianshi, following their example.
“Shizun is totally right,” smiled Di Mie. “Everyone pees squatting down. It’s just that some people like to do it standing up.”
“That’s right,” said Xie Li. “Everyone does that. That was how I was taught as a child.”
“I don’t get it,” whispered Jianjin to his brother, scratching his head in confusion.
“He grew up around women,” whispered Di Mie to the boys, taking pity on them after enjoying a full minute of the confusion on their faces.
“Ah,” said both of them.
The next day, Jianshi walked into the garden to find Xie Li tying a small wooden box on the sturdy branch of the tree.
“There you go,” said Xie Li to the squirrel supervising him on the branch above him.
The squirrel shimmied down and examined his new home. It was filled with fresh fruit and nuts. This was an acceptable compensation. Satisfied, he shooed Xie Li’s hand away from the box and moved into his new home.
“Bwee!” squeaked Cangshi.
“I’ll be careful,” said Xie Li.
He proceeded to promptly miss a footing on a low branch and fall flat on his face.
Jianshi rushed over and quickly helped him up.
“Are you all right, Senior Xie?”
“Mn,” said Xie Li, getting up and dusting the dirt from his clothes. He picked Cangshi up and stroked her head. “I’m fine. It’s hard to balance up there.”
“What is Senior doing up on the tree?” asked Jianshi.
“A squirrel lost his home so I got him a new one.”
“Ah, from yesterday’s, uh, contest? It wasn’t Senior Xie’s fault. You could’ve asked us juniors to do it,” said Jianshi.
“It’s fine,” said Xie Li. “A master should take responsibility for his disciple’s mistakes.”
“Taking responsibility for—” muttered Jianshi to himself. “I’m starting to see how the Hermit Moon Peak Lord might’ve earned his reputation.”
These boys and their shenanigans…
Di Mie is a menace to squirrels.
Hei Xuan’s crow is a spirit weapon named ‘Nian’ (念)
‘Nian’ is a word with multiple meanings such as ‘to read’, ‘to speak’, ‘to study’, ‘to miss’, ‘to believe’ and ‘to remember’. It seems suitable seeing it’s a book of poems that was often recited to her. Since it’s hard to pin down the meaning, I’ll use the original Chinese name in the chapter.