“Sister Ye,” greeted Di Mie as he walked into the hall of the Mad Tiger Peak.
This ‘Sister Ye’ was a stout, middle-aged woman, dressed in red and black leathers. A generous cape embroidered with a fierce tiger emblem flowed from her shoulders. Rather than delicate jade and silver pins, she wore an intimidating bronze headdress more suited for battle than parties.
“I see you’ve returned, Valley Lord Di,” said Ye Mingzhu. “I hope Jianshi and Jianjin haven’t given you too much trouble on their first independent investigation.”
“You look like you’ve just returned yourself,” said Di Mie.
“Just this morning, actually,” said Ye Mingzhu. “I’ve come back to make arrangements with Cloudrest Peak.”
“Why not just send a messenger—oh it’s much faster to do it yourself, huh,” chuckled Di Mie.
“Of course,” said Ye Mingzhu. “I still hold the region’s record in sword-riding.”
She raised a brow when she saw something a bit off about him.
“Where’s your sword?” she asked.
“My sword?” repeated Di Mie, patting Ashfire by his side.
“Your other one,” said Ye Mingzhu.
“I gave it away.”
“Okay, forget I asked,” she said. “But know that we’re tight on funding right now.”
“One sword is enough for me,” said Di Mie. Getting back to the topic, he continued, “I take it you’re not staying long. Suiyu was complaining about the paperwork you left behind.”
“This Diao Suiyu is already doing such a good job that no one would notice if I retired tomorrow,” laughed Ye Mingzhu. “What about your Fallen Leaves Valley? Have you thought about taking on disciples? We’ve got some new candidates this year you can consider.”
“No thanks. Babysitting your Mad Tiger brats is more than enough for me.”
“Thank you for always going out of your way to take care of these children,” laughed Ye Mingzhu.
She went over to her war table and tapped on the map unfurled on it.
“Anyway, I’ll get to the point. As you know, I just got back from Bainiao Lake City in the south.”
“You were checking on the Rong Clan’s situation, right? What’s the situation there?”
“When we arrived, Phoenix Manor was overrun. The undead creatures spilled out and the guards have cordoned off whole streets.”
“Where’s the source?” asked Di Mie.
“Seems like the undead came from within the manor,” said Ye Mingzhu. “Qing Shixiong* stayed behind to keep the creatures at bay. It’s a big mess there.”
Shixiong = senior brother
“The Rong Clan is getting aid from the Du family’s manor in the same city. We offered to help but both the Rong Clan and the Du family said they do not require help from ‘commoners’. However, they were very eager to accept ‘unofficial’ help from our Spirit Emperor,” said Ye Mingzhu, clicking her tongue in displeasure.
“Big Bro Lingfeng has always been a pushover.”
Ye Mingzhu took out some pieces and placed them on the map.
“The Rong Clan didn’t care about our warnings when we informed them of the increasing incidents in the south. Still, I hadn’t expected something of this scale to happen. We need to stay on guard.”
“They hadn’t even bothered with the bandits just outside the city until their own family got robbed.”
“And you swooped in to capture them for the bounty, heh,” said Ye Mingzhu. “That money helped with our much-needed renovations. Please do more of that.”
“Are we that short on money?” said Di Mie.
“Always. By the way, the Rong Clan have invoked their right to call upon a meeting of the allied clans and we’ve been asked to attend,” said Ye Mingzhu.
“We can just send some senior disciples from Cloudrest or Elegance.”
Ye Mingzhu shook her head. “No can do. They specifically asked for Qing Shixiong, you, and me to be there.”
“Picking all the fighters? Sounds like they just want us to be bodyguards.”
“Yep,” said Ye Mingzhu. “I told them as much. You should’ve seen some of their faces turning black when I flat-out rejected them, heh.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“Qing Shixiong’s turned them down, saying he’ll be busy. Still, one of us has to go to keep those little princes happy, so it’s either you or me.”
“All right. I’ll go,” volunteered Di Mie.
“That was fast,” said Ye Mingzhu.
“If I let you leave, your precious head disciple’s going to kill me,” chuckled Di Mie.
The feast was underway at Auntie Ma’s inn, and Xie Li was busy bringing dishes to tables from the kitchen.
“It feels like I’m in a high-class restaurant,” said a man being served by a waiter dressed up in a neat blue robe.
“Yes,” agreed the woman next to him. “I really like how Auntie Ma’s nephew looks with his hair down. His hair can get into my food and I will thank him.”
“Give us another two jars of Dream Wandering Immortal, Auntie Ma!” yelled another man.
“Coming!” yelled back Auntie Ma, handing two jars of wine to Xie Li to bring to the tables.
“To the young men who saved our friends,” said one of the guards at the table, raising a cup of wine to toast their saviours.
Jianshi and Jianjin quickly stood up and held out their wine cups to return the gesture.
“We regret we couldn’t find the missing people earlier,” said Jianshi. “I give this wine to those departed.”
“It wasn’t your fault. You did your best. I’m grateful that all the young ones survived,” said the old woodcutter who was there too. He held up his wine cup and poured the contents over the floor. “Old friends, be at peace. I’ll make sure you have all the proper rites done.”
“May their spirits find rest,” said Jianjin, following the woodcutter’s gesture.
The crowd observed a moment of silence for those who didn’t make it, and the party soon resumed.
“You two really impressed me with how fast you found them!” said the woodcutter, now heady with drink and laughing. He even started singing a song about the might of the ‘Wild’ Tiger Warriors.
The inn was filled with laughing and cheers, buoyed by the effects of alcohol.
“Keep up the good work, young disciples of Mad Tiger Peak,” said another one.
“We didn’t do it by ourselves,” said Jianshi. “Mister Xie here helped us out a lot too.”
Xie Li shook his head. He didn’t want to get involved.
The rowdy crowd in the inn laughed and yelled at him to tell the tale.
“Oh? Is that so?”
“Looks like Auntie Ma’s nephew is a remarkable young man himself!”
They let loose a round of wolf whistles and cheering.
Xie Li narrowed his eyes, looking annoyed by the din. He set down the tray on the counter and looked away.
“Is the noise getting to you? Go take a break in the back,” said Auntie Ma, noticing his unease.
He nodded and walked off.
“Aww, he’s so shy,” said a couple of aunties. “I hope he comes back and chat with us later.”
The atmosphere was lively as the people chatted with Jianshi and Jianjin, asking them about their training at the Mad Tiger Peak.
“Is it true there are bearded female disciples—”
“Can General Ye really lift a cow with one arm like the rumours say—”
Everyone turned their attention to the yelling woman, who pointed to the doorway of the inn.
Through the opened doors, a tall, black-veiled imposing figure walked in.
A mysterious breeze and a wisp of moonlight seemed to trail in his footsteps. His veil fluttered, revealing his handsome jawline to those lucky enough to be sitting in the right spots.
“It’s him! It’s the Fallen Leaves Valley Lord!”
“Oh my heavens, it’s been six months since he was last in town!”
Di Mie looked to Auntie Ma and said, “My two juniors here have been imposing on your inn.”
“No, no,” said Auntie Ma, who couldn’t stop beaming. “They’re very welcomed, as are any disciples of the Border Mountains!”
“Yes!” added the crowd.
“Please join us if you like, Valley Lord!”
Di Mie shook his head. “I’m afraid I’ve been assigned to a new mission. Perhaps next time.”
He turned to the two juniors. “Jianshi, Jianjin, finish up and come with me.”
“But we’ve just started,” pleaded Jianjin. “At least give us time to eat our dinner.”
“All right. One hour,” said Di Mie. “I’ll wait outside.”
“If you don’t mind,” suggested Auntie Ma. “You can wait in the room upstairs away from the noisy fellows here. I’ll bring up some food.”
“We’re not noisy, we’re lively!” laughed one of the customers.
“Thank you, Auntie Ma,” said Di Mie.
“Oh, would you like to meet with Xie Li?” said Auntie Ma. “He’s resting in the back room. I’ll go fetch him if you want.”
“Oh, right,” said Di Mie. He held out a package. “This is for him.”
“Oh?” Auntie Ma’s eyes sparkled. “What is it?”
“I have some clothes that might suit him, so I brought them,” said Di Mie.
“Heavens, I’m going to love—I mean, I’m sure he’ll appreciate this,” beamed Auntie Ma.
Xie Li was sitting on a chair at the table in the backroom, fiddling with the bun in his hair, trying to undo it.
“Come, let me fix it for you,” said Auntie Ma. She deftly undid the bun and absently combed his hair out with her fingers.
Xie Li flinched.
“Oh, sorry,” said Auntie Ma, quickly taking away her hands.
“It’s okay,” said Xie Li.
“Anyway, the Valley Lord asked me to pass this to you,” said Auntie Ma. “Shall we open it?”
Xie Li nodded.
She pulled out a fine robe with silver embroidery.
“Oh my, this is beautiful,” gasped Auntie Ma. “Why would he give you something this expensive-looking? Goodness…”
Xie Li raised a brow at the robe.
“Will you wear it?” she asked.
Xie Li shook his head. “I don’t know how to wear it and will only dirty it. Give it back to him.”
“But he brought this specially for you,” said Auntie Ma. “Auntie Ma will help you wear it. You can wear a layer beneath this if you are scared of dirtying it.”
“No. Please return this to him,” said Xie Li, his eyes narrowing.
“Aww,” said Auntie Ma. “But wouldn’t that be a bit rude…”
“I’ll return it to him myself,” said Xie Li, gathering the clothes into his arms. “Where is he now?”
“In one of the guest rooms upstairs,” sighed Auntie Ma. “How about you do it tomorrow? Your illness looks like it’s acting up—”
Xie Li stormed out of the room.
“Hmm?” said Jianshi as he spotted Xie Li making his way across the counter and upstairs to the rooms.
“No time for idle staring, bro,” said Jianjin. “We’ve got less than an hour to eat all this roast duck!”
Jianshi whacked the back of Jianjin’s head. “Don’t be greedy!”
Xie Li knocked on the door and waited.
Di Mie opened the door.
“It’s you? Come in.”
“This. Return,” said Xie Li, holding out the clothes. The narrowed eyes and mild pinch of his brows made him seem displeased with the clothes.
Di Mie frowned, but his demeanor suddenly became gentler.
“Okay. Just come in and rest a while,” said Di Mie, softly.
“Mn,” said Xie Li. He walked in and placed the clothes on the table.
“Sit down,” said Di Mie.
Xie Li stared at the table.
Di Mie swiftly drew out a talisman and stuck it on the door. A warm spirit barrier extended around them. The noise from the tavern downstairs faded away and the room became quiet and dimmer.
After a while, Xie Li slowed his breathing and sat down.
“Give me your hand and let me take your pulse,” said Di Mie.
Xie Li obliged.
After a while, he let go and did not comment.
“Sorry,” mumbled Xie Li, drawing his arms into himself and slightly rocking in his seat.
A knock came on the door and Xie Li stopped his movement and stiffened up in attention. His face was blank and cold.
“This is Auntie Ma,” came the voice from outside. “I brought some roast duck for you.”
Di Mie opened the door, and Auntie Ma tried to peek around his shoulder.
“Is our Ah-Li here?” she asked.
“He’s here. We were just idle chatting,” said Di Mie.
Auntie Ma brightened up at his reply.
“Good to hear,” she said. “I hope I didn’t interrupt you two, then!”
“No, no. Thank you for bringing the food. I’ll take it from here,” came Di Mie’s charming voice, taking the tray of food from her.
“All right, then,” said Auntie Ma, scooting back downstairs to tend to the customers.
After he closed the door and stuck the talisman back on, he took off his veiled hat and placed it on the table, covering the pile of clothes.
“Did I go too far?” said Di Mie.
Xie Li shook his head, muttering out half-words. “Just. Noisy.”
“Okay,” said Di Mie, huffing amusedly. “Let me know when you can speak again.”
Xie Li slowly raised his head, his gaze moving from Di Mie’s unveiled face to the elaborate accessories in his hair. Di Mie tilted his head, giving him a better look.
“Hmm,” said Xie Li, his eyes following the side braids on Di Mie’s hair like a cat.
After a while, Xie Li yawned. Now the tension was gone from his muscles, he felt the exhaustion sink in like a ton of bricks.
”Sleep here,” said Di Mie. “It’s quieter.”
“No kick me?”
“No, not tonight,” chuckled Di Mie.
Xie Li narrowed his eyes and nodded cautiously. He settled into the bed and curled up against the wall, glaring in the direction of the door. The moon light from the window caught onto the silver beads on Di Mie’s hair pieces and he followed it again. It calmed him and he found himself drowsing off.
After a while, Xie Li could hear quiet voices from the door—
“I’m tired and am going to sleep. Both of you can report to me tomorrow morning.”
Eyes half-closed, he watched as a comforting figure sat down next to him, pulling a blanket over the both of them.
Familiar scent, familiar warmth.
“I just have one question for you—” came the voice that seemed familiar yet new. “Do you remember what you promised me before you sent me away?”
“Mn. Remember, ” said Xie Li.
The night was silent, the sounds from outside the room blocked off by the ward. The moonlight shadows gently danced on the floor as they slept.
Morning came and there was a knock on the door.
“Woah, I can sense that there’s a seal on the door,” came a whisper from the outside. “I wonder what Di Shibo’s doing in there that needs that much privacy…heheh.”
“Shhh. He’ll hear you.”
The talisman was deactivated and the door cracked open.
“Come in quickly,” said Di Mie, sitting up on the bed in only his inner robes.
The two juniors quickly stepped into the room and shut the door behind them. Just in case, Jianjin took the initiative to reactivate the talisman.
“Di Shibo,” greeted the two of them.
Looking at him up close, the two could see their Shibo wore a dudou* underneath his loosely fastened undertunic.
*dudou = belly warmer, refer to T/N
“Oh my heavens, he wears a dudou…” whispered Jianjin.
Di Mie raised a brow.
Jianjin slapped a hand over his own mouth lest he let slip more of his thoughts.
“Mn,” came a groan from behind Di Mie on the bed.
“It’s just Jianshi and Jianjin, you don’t have to mind them. Go back to sleep,” said Di Mie to the man on the bed behind him.
“It’s fine,” came the monotone voice. “It’s late. I should be getting up.”
“…Mister Xie?” said Jianshi and Jianjin.
“Hm?” said Xie Li, rubbing his eyes and looking comfortable hiding behind Di Mie’s broad shoulders.
Both juniors looked like they could turn to stone.
“I’ll go down and bring up some breakfast,” offered Xie Li. His clothes were rumpled and his hair dishevelled from sleep.
Once he left the room, Jianjin ‘de-petrified’ and stared wide-eyed at Di Mie.
“Di Shibo…are you and him…”
Di Mie gave him a look, challenging him to finish his sentence.
Xie Li returned to a heated discussion at the table.
“I know General Ye said you should bring a few people with you, but why us??” complained Jianjin.
“Yes,” agreed Jianshi. “Shouldn’t you be bringing the senior disciples?”
“The recent incident is no coincidence,” said Di Mie. “The more capable the disciples we leave behind, the better. Ye Mingzhu should be able to hold the fort if anything happens.”
“Are you saying you’re bringing us along because we’re not capable?” said Jianjin.
“You both lack experience, so this is an opportunity to go see the world,” said Di Mie.
“With Di Shibo supervising us?” said Jianjin. “We’re as good as dead…”
“Hah,” chuckled Di Mie. “You little brat.”
“Um, that’s good and all,” ventured Jianshi. “I wonder though, why Di Shibo is bringing Mister Xie with us.”
“Is it because last night you two mmph—!”
Jianshi slapped a hand over Jianjin’s mouth before he could finish his sentence.
“Hm?” said Xie Li. “Am I going somewhere?”
“Yes,” said Di Mie. “I’m bringing you with me to Bainiao Lake City.”
Xie Li looked away for a moment, as if in thought.
“Di Shibo,” said Jianshi. “If Mister Xie isn’t currently affiliated with the Border Mountains Sect, there’s paperwork to process…”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” said Di Mie. “I’ll take responsibility for this.”
“Actually, there might be a small problem,” said Xie Li.
“Are you not willing?” said Di Mie.
Xie Li shook his head. “It’s not that. It’s just that if I’m leaving town, there might be complications.”
“How did it come to this?” said Jianjin, staring in disbelief at Old Niu loading up the wagon with supplies while Auntie Ma and Xie Li closed up the inn.
“I promised someone that I’ll keep an eye on him,” said Auntie Ma. “I’m keeping my promise even if I have to close the inn.”
“My daughters don’t need me around, so I’m here to tag along,” grinned Old Niu. “I’m sure Ma Erniang* wouldn’t mind an extra hand.”
*Auntie Ma’s name
“You just wanted to join in the fun, you big kid,” chuckled Auntie Ma. “You’d better make yourself useful.”
“Of course,” said Old Niu. He nimbly lifted a bundle of supplies onto the wagon using the tip of his crutches. He was moving pretty fast despite his prosthetic leg.
“How did it come to this??” repeated Jianjin again as he hitched the horses to the wagon.
Jianshi patted the back of his younger brother’s head and sighed.
“Just accept that as long as our Shibo is around, everything is random and unpredictable,” said his brother.
“How can you just pretend that everything’s normal?” said Jianjin.
“Our lives have been anything but normal ever since we met Di Shibo,” said Jianshi. “It’s our fate, just accept it.”
“Come here, you two,” said Auntie Ma, beckoning the two juniors over. She held out two small packages. “I made some almond biscuits for you two this morning. Take it as a little thank-you for letting us tag along.”
“Thank you, Auntie Ma!” said Jianjin, recovering immediately.
“I’m more surprised at how fast you bounce back with just a treat,” sighed Jianshi.
Xie Li finished handing the last box of the perishables packed from the inn to be moved, and took out a piece of paper from behind the counter.
“We need a notice to put on the door,” said Xie Li. “Shall I write it?”
“Go ahead,” said Old Niu, picking up the box to be loaded onto the wagon. And he immediately regretted it.
“Oh my, I can’t read it at all,” said Auntie Ma, looking at the paper filled with illegible scribbles.
“Wow, I didn’t expect his handwriting to be so…cursive,” said Old Niu.
“There’s still a crate of wine at the back,” said Auntie Ma, sighing. “I don’t know what to do with those.”
“You can leave the rest to my daughters,” said Old Niu. “Just leave them a note on what to do. They’ll come around later and take care of it.”
“Such reliable daughters you have,” said Auntie Ma. “You should be proud of them.”
“I wish they’d get married, though,” sighed Old Niu. “With husbands to nag at, maybe they’ll nag at me less. Now with your inn closed, there’s nowhere for me to escape to…”
“Aha,” laughed Auntie Ma. “That’s the real reason you’re tagging along, isn’t it?”
“Do you suppose your Xie Li will be interested in one of them? They’re independent and strong. He won’t want for anything.”
“Oh please,” chuckled Auntie Ma, slapping Old Niu’s arm.
“It’s bad, huh,” said Xie Li. He pulled out a second piece of paper to try again.
“It’s all right, Ah-Li,” said Auntie Ma, quickly taking the brush away from his hand and writing the notice herself. “You know you can’t write properly when you’re tired. Go sit in the wagon.”
Xie Li looked a little disappointed but obediently walked over to the wagon. He stood there in a plain blue robe, some of his hair gathered in a loose bun and the rest flowing down to his waist. He watched the people in the street and caught a familiar figure.
A young man looking around seventeen or eighteen stopped at the stall opposite the inn, viewing the wares.
He was dressed as a disciple of the Border Mountain Sect, and instead of sporting any of the Peaks’ colours, his robe was a plain black. His dark, slightly wavy hair was in a high ponytail with meticulous braids on the side.
Without hesitation or care for the busy street, Xie Li ran over to the young man.
“Mie’er!” he called out.
Ye Mingzhu 夜鸣蛛 (Night Cry Spider)
The Lord of the Mad Tiger Peak. Her name sounds like it should be a generic name such as 叶明珠 (Leaf Bright Pearl), but the characters used in her name are unexpectedly dramatic…kinda chuunibyou.
Bainiao Lake City and Phoenix Manor: Bainiao means ‘Hundred Birds’. This is a play on the story of 百鸟朝凤, meaning that ‘Hundred Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix’. It’s a story of how the phoenix earned its respect and became the king of birds. You can look up the story if you like, it’s quite interesting!
Her head disciple Diao Suiyu 貂随遇 is mentioned in passing here, so I’ll just include the Chinese characters for anyone interested.
Dudou: 肚兜 a traditional ‘belly warmer’ that covers the chest and stomach area, sort of an ancient Chinese underwear. Can be worn by anyone, especially for children. Usually depicted in media as cute undergarment for children or (sexy) women.
Ma Erniang (Auntie Ma’s full name) is written as 马二娘 (Erniang meaning ‘second-daughter’)
Mie’er is written as “咩儿”, ‘mie’ being the sound of a sheep and ‘er’ meaning ‘child’. Basically means ‘little sheepie’.