There were distinct downsides to being handsome, charming and well-known. In the past two days Pei Ming has been given the brush-off by three different women (well, two women and a fish-tail-person who looked female and anyway had the most charming freckles) when he was recognised. Clearly there need to be some changes around here.
“Noble Jie,” he shouts, jumping into the Palace of Ling Wen, “—stop shouting it’s just me. Noble Jie, you’re a woman right?”
“Why did you break my roof?”
“Your door was closed,” he reminds her, surprised she’s having memory problems. Comes of all those lonely nights alone, can’t be good for the body, but she keeps being a sourpuss whenever he tries to set her up. You try to do your friends a favour and prevent blockages and all they do is say ‘what the fuck,’ and ‘is that a Land of the Tender shoot’ and ‘stop helping you maniac.’ Hurtful.
Pei Ming now notices that Ling Wen was standing in front of a basin of clear water. He notices this because it speaks.
‘One hundred and one.’
He looks sympathetically at her, “Are you so lonely that you’re making imaginary friends now? Tell Papa Pei, let him help.”
Of course he needs help too, but he’s always ready to step back when his friends are in need. And very few people (or gods) are as in need as Ling Wen. Ling Wen, as always, ignores his kind offer.
“What’s with you,” Pei Ming demands, snapping his fingers in front of her nose.
She spares him a squint. “Why,” she demands of him, “are martial gods such children?”
“Our youthful vigour,” Pei Ming responds, waggling his eyebrows.
Ling Wen doesn’t hear this, thoughtfully murmuring to herself: “Probably it’s from too many blows to the head. Should do a study on that. Stronger martial gods equal more blows to the head?”
“I thought I smelt shit, and now I see a fly,” Lord Windmaster announces as she comes in and a sudden wave of flies surround Pei Ming.
Pei Ming rolls his eyes, “What manners you’ve learnt, Qingxuan.”
“Buzz buzz buzz!”
‘One hundred and three.’
“Lord Windmaster,” Ling Wen interrupts pointedly.
She rolls her eyes but speaks politely enough, “We’ve both looked, but there’s no sign of either of them yet. His Majesty is strong enough to cloak himself anywhere.” She shrugs apologetically.
Ling Wen’s brow furrows deeper, “I see. And the other? Surely you’re not telling me he’s too strong for you to find?”
Embarrassedly, Shi Qingxuan fans herself with her spiritual tool vigorously and mutters something.
“What?” Ling Wen asks but Pei Ming’s sharper ears have caught it.
“But even beggars pray at your temples! What do you mean, ‘he’s too poor’?”
“It’s not my fault!” she exclaims, “It seems he’s the anti-wealth. His fate is such that he can only become poorer. He repels our temples.”
They all stare at each other speechlessly. This was… really just, too much!
“What does the honourable Ling Wen Zhen Jun need with such a person?” Pei Ming asks, the prospect of teasing Ling Wen struggling with his insatiable curiosity for gossip.
Ling Wen replies grimly, “Do you know, in the last month, there have been seventy five new temples in the East and South-west?”
Pei Ming, god of the North, shrugs. “Must let the mortals have their fads with the new gods.”
“But Noble Pei, he’s not a god!” Ling Wen says, and smiles with malicious pleasure at the dawning realisation and horror on his face. She has been suffering alone with this knowledge for far too long.
“You don’t mean… that one?” Pei Ming wonders whether he should just give up on this year.
“If enough people believe in him, won’t he be a god whether you like it or not?” Shi Qingxuan says, and smiles again when Ling Wen’s face falls, nicely revenged for being snapped at. Maybe Pei Ming should just give up on this decade.
“What is he a god of?” Pei Ming demands. “Junk and scraps?”
“Luck!” Ling Wen says, “Someone’s built him over a hundred temples and is worshipping him as the god of luck.”
Shi Qingxuan whistles. “What a scam.”
The basin announces cheerfully, ‘One hundred and seven!’
This century is going to be a washout, Pei Ming decides gloomily.
In Yandian, Xie Lian solves a minor curse.
Someone with more spiritual power could have forced it to dissipate, and other, less moral cultivators would simply have dismissed it to go settle in some other town. Xie Lian resolves it by taking it on himself until it dissipates and orders Ruoye to wrap up his face until it’s gone, and does his best to keep his arms in his pockets. The innkeeper who had the curse kindly offers him a place to stay and gives him fresh and dried food packages with relief when he refuses.
He takes the forest road as fast as he can. There may be a cave for him to shelter in for a few days until the curse dissipates, if he can find the stream he’ll have water, and there are much fewer people to get scared of him. He only vaguely notices a crow with an oddly coloured wing following him until two shichen later, when he sighs and sits down to undo Ruoye which has not only tied itself into a tight knot but also somehow got both thorns and burrs stuck on one edge. When he’s sat down it also sits down and accidentally shakes some berries right onto Xie Lian and Xie Lian squints up and sees that it’s the same bird or at least has the same funny marking on one wing. He wonders if it’s an ill luck omen amongst birds as well.
He soothes Ruoye, gathers berries, and finally unwraps one of the still-warm food packages. When it settles across him, he realises that it’s not a crow, it’s a raven. And an unusually large one. He tears off half the bun and offers it to the raven. It stares at him with one intelligent eye and then gently pushes his hand back. He laughs, surprising himself, Ruoye, and apparently the bird, who fluffed itself up in alarm before settling down a little closer. This time, when he offers it the bun, it takes it and eats it surprisingly neatly.
It stays with him until they find some water and then, when he turns around to offer it some more food, he sees it’s gone. His faint smile drops from his face and he sighs as he eats.
At night his swollen hands can’t manage to strike up a spark. He considers the matter, petting Ruoye. He and Ruoye search until they find a big tree going rotten, and he makes a Xie Lian sized hollow in it and puts a barrier in front to keep out the wind. He wakes up once in the night to see a swarm of butterflies lit up like tiny lanterns.
“Ah, you’re too warm,” he murmurs, but makes a soothing noise when one of them flutters its wings apparently trying to say something. He raises a finger for it to sit on. “Extremely cute and smart,” he praises, yawns and falls asleep, sweating a little. The butterflies dim their lights and heat but never quite manage to find the right mix.
At the edge of Anhui, in Tuvas village, there’s a young lady sitting on the ground and playing a guzheng. She would catch his eye regardless, dressed in a brilliant red with her hair down in a messy ponytail, but the reason she’s gathering a crowd is that she’s sitting on the ground outside a temple. Xie Lian sees an abandoned robe next to her, very different than her own and is puzzled.
“Hey miss! Miss, sit on my robe! Your beautiful skin shouldn’t ever touch the ground! Let me carry you everywhere.”
Ah. Xie Lian is no longer puzzled.
The lady seems to be holding her own, but Xie Lian hovers at the side, a little worried but wary of approaching her and frightening her further. Soon after, the decision is taken out of his hands, as one man tries to put an arm around her and is flung backwards by the force of her shove. Xie Lian takes a moment to praise that beautifully executed move, using the minimum of the lady’s own energy, showing excellent training and much natural talent. The man groans and lifts onto one elbow but can’t get up. Everyone around them starts stirring and muttering angrily.
Xie Lian considers this and then gently nudges Ruoye. In the next moment, three things happen. Ruoye pulls down three men’s trousers, Xie Lian uses pebbles he’s picked up to bring up a cloud of dust from the ground, and the lady sees him doing both thing, and swiftly packs up and is gone almost before even Xie Lian can see her. Very well trained. In the pandemonium, Xie Lian escapes too.
He ducks into a small, rather grimy alley and is unsurprised when the lady jumps down from a roof and joins him after. They consider each other carefully. The lady is a little shorter than him, with beautiful doe-shaped dark eyes and a mischievous mouth that is hovering at the edge of a mocking smile.
“Daozhang is very kind, I cannot leave without making some thanks,” she says and offers him a heavy pouch. He bows and shakes his head and presses it back on her. The poor lady must indeed be a rich and spoilt one, from her actions and tone.
She shakes her hair back in a frustrated motion and tries to put it in his sack. He swiftly hauls the garbage sack up on to his shoulder where even the rudest lady wouldn’t dare touch an unknown man. The pouch is now a little open and Xie Lian can see it is full of gold. He suppresses a groan. Truly this young lady shouldn’t be outside alone.
“Why won’t you let me thank you.” She’s still self-possessed, frustration leaking through only in the faint clenching of her well-formed hand.
Xie Lian laughs awkwardly, “My lady, to tell the truth, I don’t believe you were in any danger except being brought up before the magistrate for beating up the whole village.” The dip of her eyes and a sharp grin, here and gone, tell him he’s right.
He concludes, “Therefore my lady was fine and there’s no reason to thank me.”
She responds lazily, “But my reputation! Daozhang, you saved my reputation.”
Gently, Xie Lian says, “I don’t believe my lady cares about that much either. But honestly, my lady, if you will listen to this humble servant, it is not well to pick quarrels with fools. You won’t beat wisdom into them and it’s no use to you.”
She frowns at him, “Daozhang, you have not beaten up enough fools if you say so. Certainly it’s no use to them, but it’s very relaxing to me.”
My lady needs a new hobby! Xie Lian doesn’t say, torn between being amused and scolding. He bows. “But these villagers are poor training for you.”
“This was a mistake,” she admits, “I did not anticipate they’d be such fools.” Her tone says clearly that foolishness is the base status of men. Around her, Xie Lian is willing to admit it may be.
He refuses, somewhat regretfully, her offer to accompany him. Self-possessed and independent she might be, and a strong swordswoman she certainly is but her family must be waiting for her. It would indeed be awkward for her to explain her situation when they get caught up in a scrap due to his luck. She nods coolly after a few moments and bids him farewell.
In the marketplace, where he exchanges the meagre scraps he’s collected for some food and a waterskin to replace his leaky one (it’ll last the whole year, the seller assures him, meaning that it will last at least four months and Xie Lian smiles and thanks him, knowing it will inevitably spring a leak in the next ten days or so) and he overhears a buzz of worry that signals to him that there is something a cultivator should interfere in but isn’t. After some careful eavesdropping he learns that no one is sure why they’re worried but he should probably go south.
Little Tali village is a full night’s walk away, and there the whispers he heard is confirmed with some facts. Twenty seven li to the south of Little Tali lay Xidi village whose main trade was woodworking, and it had been flourishing until this past year. The forest they rely on has slowly but gradually been taking tribute from them over the past few months. Even this far away, there’s already someone who knows someone whose son died in a bizarre suicide.
The person trying to sell him overpriced phao and stale Wu cakes notices his interest and says, “Daozhang, he had just gotten engaged, they were making her wedding dress together instead of buying because they had no money, and then he goes off overnight Heavens-knows-where just to kill himself? Isn’t there any place at home where he could have committed suicide?”
Xie Lian nods absently, now convinced that this is probably the work of a demon. Curses are usually far more specific in who they kill, and low level ghosts couldn’t have enough power to affect someone this far away. He continues considering this and shuffles away slowly as the shopkeeper realises he doesn’t have money and gets pissed off. Then he walks rapidly away from a shout of ‘pretty faces and empty pockets! I know your type!’ and nearly walks right into a child.
The child is scowling in an expression that would be positively terrifying if it didn’t make his cheeks puff up into two little dumplings.
“Don’t listen to that old fool, she likes to spread hot air talking about nothing!” The child shouts. “There’s no curse!”
The ‘old fool’ looks towards them sharply and then rolls her eyes as she sees it’s only a kid.
Xie Lian blinks down at the child who barely reaches his waist and speaks like an adult. He was always the kind that would pat any stray child or dog he met so he bends down to gently pat the head. He got a shocked and mildly offended look and has to suppress a smile.
He bows. “I am Lian, surname Xie. Young master is…?”
The child seems a little shy now but eventually mumbles, “…A-Cheng.”
“Thank you for your assistance, A-Cheng-gongzi,” he says solemnly. “I will investigate myself and tell you if he was telling the truth.”
“A-Cheng will come with you,” the child declares severely. Suddenly shy again, he adds, “A-Cheng can help, Gege!”
Xie Lian can’t suppress his delight. He scoops up the child and whirls him around. The child gives a shout of surprise but doesn’t struggle.
“A-Cheng can surely help,” he agrees and pinches an adorable dimple when A-Cheng smiles. “But A-Cheng is too little now, you must become bigger and stronger and then, when your mother won’t cry if you’re lost, then you can help.”
A-Cheng frowns at him thoughtfully, oddly adult again. “I have to be bigger and stronger and then I can find Gege? You’ll let me come with you?” he checks carefully, like he’s signing a contract.
Xie Lian sincerely hopes the boy belongs to a merchant family, his obvious suspicion would be quite an asset when he was grown.
With a final swing he sets the child down and musses his hair and nods. “When A-Cheng is older and stronger, we will see,” he promises, meaning, of course, that A-Cheng would have forgotten about this by next week.
In Xidi, it’s quite clear that the shopkeeper was correct, with much greater accuracy than gossipmongers usually had.
The details he could gather were: Every single dead person had been seen at the edge where one entered the forest, and then disappeared again. Xie Lian could feel the malevolence coming off in waves. They would be stronger as he approached the source. The forest itself was not malevolent, so there was something or someone hiding in it. Xie Lian considers the situation. He’s not strong enough to get rid of whatever is this malevolent quite by himself, and if he makes a blunder it may either reach a new hunting ground or kill a whole lot of people.
He decides to settle down in the area and check out the rumours for a week or so before he makes a move.
Meanwhile, he seems to have picked up another problem. But (Xie Lian tells himself) he doesn't have spiritual power any more, not even enough for the communication array. So it’s not that he is determinedly ignoring Ling Wen's increasingly sarcastic requests for a "chat," it’s that he can’t answer.
And he's really quite busy too. Unlike Heaven’s officials, he’s a daily wage worker. And occasionally (more than occasionally) he finds himself getting involved in incidents to help random people. He doesn’t get any thanks so perhaps he’s doing it for the good karma.
"Don't fight, don't fight," he says, slipping in front of the young man to placate the man selling lottery tickets. "Here, I'll pay for that."
"It's alright, daozhang," a deep and pleasantly lazy voice says from behind him. "I haven't taken anything."
The shopkeeper's face changes to a slightly sickly smile for some reason. "Y-yes, yes that's true daozhang." Then he turns away and appears to have become deaf to them. Xie Lian also turns away, smile dropping after a brief moment. It is a little tiring to face such rudeness from everyone but he has become used to it. It’s not a big deal.
The young man follows him to the end of the market, looking at him as if he wants to say something.
"It's alright," he says, summoning up a smile.
"It is?" The other man responds.
"I'm sure you didn't mean to cause trouble."
Straightforwardly, the man responds, "Yes I did. He was insulting my god."
Xie Lian says hastily, "That is very bad of him but you really shouldn't fight."
The young man smiles, and it is so charming that Xie Lian can't help but smile back. "If Gege says so," he concedes.
Xie Lian shakes his head at the familiarity but only says, "Shouldn't you be at home?"
The man shrugs. "Had a fight. Chucked me out some days back."
Xie Lian's heart softens further. "What’s your name?" His clothing is of good quality, outer layer dyed black and inner layer peeking out red with some embroidery. He’s clearly slightly spoiled, perhaps it’s the first time he has been out on his own like this. Xie Lian wants him to learn that the world is kind.
"Gege can call me San Lang."
"San Lang," Xie Lian says, then takes out the wrapped bun that was to be his lunch and offers it to him.
San Lang blinks and ducks his head. "Gege should eat that. I am fine."
"I am also fine," he responds. "When have you eaten last?"
At the lack of response, he presses the bun on him. San Lang looks up at him from underneath his lashes then smiles, takes the bun and breaks it in half to share.
Without another word said, when Xie Lian turns to go to the little cave he found two nights ago, San Lang comes with him.
They are not very far on the road when he says, "Gege, give me the sack, I'll carry it."
Xie Lian sends him a glance. "Is it that you think this old man is weak?"
"Gege isn't old, and this San Lang isn't so young, but I'm getting bored so I want to carry it."
Xie Lian snorts a laugh at this excuse, and then hastily has to reach out when San Lang trips. Then, when his hands are occupied with San Lang, he realises: San Lang has taken the sack to carry.
He really must be old to be taken in by such a simple trick, he thinks. "When you get tired you must let me know."
"I will not get tired," the response comes.
They walk along and Xie Lian is impressed when San Lang not only carries it without complaint but seems to make it look easy. His face in repose is jade-like, beautiful and indifferent. Long black hair left loose flutters behind him, and he shakes it back impatiently. His eyes hardly blink, the glitter of passion when he spoke of his god entirely gone.
At this thought, it occurs to Xie Lian to say, kindly, “I'm sorry, you’ve had to leave your home and your shrine.”
"Wherever my god steps is my shrine, and I will worship there," San Lang replies, languid voice briefly full of emotion and eyes sparking to life again.
Embarrassed, Xie Lian says, "There, there," and just stops himself before he says 'you'll get over it.' Perhaps he won't, and it's none of Xie Lian's business anyway. Now that he really looks, San Lang is clearly not quite as young as he had seemed at first, face young and unlined but eyes placid.
"Who is your god?" Xie Lian asks, politely. There was half a chance he wouldn't even know whoever it was, all of these new young stars escape him. Still, he’s curious to know who merits this interesting person’s whole hearted devotion.
San Lang smiles lazily, already recovered from the little outburst, and glances at him sideways. "Does Gege also want to give my god offerings?"
The thought flashes through Xie Lian's mind: one of his old colleagues waking up to find him praying at their temple for his day’s scrap collecting to go well, and he laughs. To avoid an awkward question, he counters with, "Does San Lang want to bring more worshippers to the fold?"
"No, I want to keep him to myself, make sure no one else dirties his name with their fool talk. But he deserves to be worshipped." The easy admission discomfits Xie Lian at how little self-consciousness the boy felt.
You aren't talking about your lover ah, he thinks, think for a moment what you're saying.
It’s only when they’re already back at his spot beside the river that he realises that the little cave he’s been living in really wouldn't fit them both. San Lang isn’t quite as broad as him but he is much taller. They could sleep in the open but he has learned to count on his luck by now: it would certainly rain.
San Lang seems to understand the problem without being told. "I can see lotuses," he says, one white hand shading his eyes, "I can make us a tent out of that."
"San Lang, you have good eyes!" he praises. He can only see lotuses in a blur if he squints and his eyes are better than most.
San Lang smiles, eyes squinting up pleased like a cat. "Gege should rest here," he says, "I'll bring back the lotuses."
Xie Lian tries to protest, but in the end San Lang has his way in some mysterious fashion. He waits until San Lang has set off, loping away unhurriedly, and then gets up to chop wood and collect grass for a temporary mat until he could buy or make one. Xie Lian has been gradually getting used to being a mortal and cursed, and today he finds himself feeling perfectly well, all the aches of his overworked joints and accumulated scratches and wounds somehow sublimated, leaving him feeling as energetic as he had when he was really seventeen and still mortal. Afterwards, San Lang is still not back, briefly he wonders if he has left and he shrugs mentally. It would be better for him if he does, instead of being infected by Xie Lian's bad luck. He takes the chance to clean up and wash his only set of robes in relative privacy.
He washes himself, dips under the water to wet his hair and then puts on his inner robes before he sits on a convenient rock to scrub through the outer robes. It's a meditative task and he's drowsy when he hears San Lang approach. He jerks up when there's a clatter and a soft exclamation that sounds like a curse. He turns and hurries to where San Lang is clutching at a handful of leaves and two wild pheasants, sprawled on the ground and surrounded by a fallen larger stack of leaves.
"What happened?" He puts an arm around San Lang to help but he gently shakes it off and stiffly gets to his feet, face turned away.
Xie Lian shakes his head to himself, dragging the collar of his robe up from where it's gaping; young men and their pride. He notes to himself that San Lang will overdo things if Xie Lian doesn't strictly stop him and so that evening, after San Lang has made the tent, he forbids him from helping with the food and cooks the pheasants himself. He uses some of his precious salt for it and finds berries for after to have with the lotus seeds San Lang brought back. He flushes deep with pleasure when San Lang says, apparently sincere, "Gege, this is the best meal I've had in my life."
Apart from that small hiccup, they've been working together in companionable silence. Even with hundreds of years of practice, Xie Lian hasn't managed to enjoy being alone. It is a deep pleasure to go to sleep with the presence of someone within hand’s distance away from him, breathing silent but the audible rustle of clothing against grass until he sleeps off.
The next day, when San Lang takes an appraising look at their tent (their tent) and says, "Gege, I'm going to build us a wood shelter, if that's okay," Xie Lian beams at him.
It’s a strange sort of pleasure to see San Lang chop through wood like it’s no more than breaking off flowers. He makes even splits in the wood and hauls them a foot high at once without apparent effort. When he takes off his short outer robe, inner robe already starting to stick to him with sweat Xie Lian turns away. He has work to do, he needs to manage their money, he can’t simply stare at San Lang all day. He hesitates and uses some of the abandoned lotus leaves from the night before to weave together a hat for San Lang. When it’s made it’s a little lopsided. It’s very lopsided. He stares at it, dismayed.
“What’s that?” San Lang asks, closer than Xie Lian thought.
He startles then blushes. Hastily, he goes up on his tiptoes and places the ill-made hat on San Lang’s head. He only sees San Lang’s eyes widening before he turns away and walks off determinedly. When he glances back, San Lang is looking at him, not smiling but with something gentle at the end of his thin lips. Xie Lian inexplicably finds himself smiling back before he turns to his own work.
It takes only half a shichen for him to sift through the previous day’s haul. He shakes his head at the poor amount. It would barely be enough if it was just him, he’s used to a constant low level of hunger and he barely feels it nowadays, but he does need to make sure he can buy rice for San Lang if they can’t afford anything else.
“San Lang,” he calls, not very loudly, but San Lang turns to him as if he had been waiting for his call. “I need to go into town and sell these.” He debates for a moment. He himself doesn’t have a thin skin anymore but he doesn’t know how a delicately brought up young man will take blunt honesty. San Lang waits patiently, as still as a statue so finally Xie Lian confesses, “The haul wasn’t very good, my bad luck, so I’m going to try busking.”
Strangely unembarrased, San Lang asks, “What does Gege do? I can help.”
“Oh,” Xie Lian blinks up at him and then says, “I spin plates. Or my signature is ‘breaking boulders on the chest.’”
“I can juggle. Or if there’s paper, I can make paintings.”
“San Lang is so skilled!”
San Lang glances away and then turns back to him. “Gege should let me sell those. I know some people in the town, I’ll get a better price.”
“Ah, you’re doing too much,” Xie Lian protests.
“No,” San Lang responds and then smiles so charmingly that Xie Lian quite forgets to argue with him further.
Xie Lian has barely started on his polite patter, trying to gather an audience, when San Lang sits down on the street as boneless as a cat, and starts tossing a knife. The knife is small and beautifully made, more a toy than anything else at that size but glinting dangerously. It’s oddly hypnotic. Soon, a small crowd is staring silently at him. He adds another knife, a third one, then three tiny stars that also look sharp. After a while, it’s just a blur of silver.
It ends just as silently as it’s begun, and everyone surrounding them stirs like snakes waking up from a snake charmer’s tune. Hurriedly, Xie Lian gets to work, holding out his hat, “Thank you, thank you, for being a patient audience! SUPPORT US WITH YOUR COINS. WE’LL BE HERE ALL WEEK. Please support the artist, thank you. Please support the artist, gongzi!”
He flits around, waving the hat and smiling pointedly at every adult. They glance from him to San Lang, who is still lounging on the ground and smiling an oddly fake smile, and hastily pass along coins. One man tries to pick up change for a copper and then jumps back as if scalded when San Lang makes a warning noise. Afterwards, even without counting, Xie Lian is sure that this is a larger sum than he can usually make in two or even three sessions.
He praises San Lang, who is still frowning faintly at the people passing by. “San Lang really is so impressive.”
San Lang’s face changes rapidly, his white face doesn’t get any colour but the fake smile turns to something warmer. He gets up and shakes out his robes. “I’ll take the scrap to sell. I’ll go alone, they’ll behave better for me. Do you want to head back alone?”
Xie Lian shakes his head immediately. After a moment’s thought he agrees that San Lang will probably be able to negotiate well enough, even if he feels oddly reluctant to part from him even for so long. “I’ll finish buying us some food, and we can meet back here,” he compromises.
At the market it is very pleasant to be able to buy more than one thing. He isn’t extravagant, of course, these aren’t even his earnings, but there is enough to buy rice, more than one vegetable, nails for the wooden structure they’re building and even get a large hat for San Lang. He hurries back, even though they’ve agreed to meet after a full shichen and it’s only been half that, and he’s rewarded when he sees San Lang waiting for him. They smile at each other and he holds out a warm mantou to San Lang, who breaks it in half and gives half back, along with a pouch of coins. They walk back in a warm silence.
Back at their little shelter, Xie Lian considers the coins silently. He has, it must be said, already considered that San Lang ‘knowing people’ means that he was being mildly threatening. He believes in his heart that San Lang would not hurt anyone (unnecessarily) and that a scrap dealer would not insult San Lang’s god, whoever that god is, so he let him go. And yet, this is undoubtedly far more coin than his poor haul would have gained at a fair price. It is far more than twice the fair price.
The implications are obvious, but he doesn’t want to hurt or embarrass San Lang.
In the end, it’s San Lang who speaks first, coming to stand over him. “What’s wrong, Gege? Isn’t it enough?”
Xie Lian smiles up at him, unable to help himself even now. “San Lang, we can speak freely, can we not?”
“Gege can say anything he likes to this San Lang,” he replies and for some reason it makes Xie Lian flush.
“San Lang-ah,” he says, flustered. “It’s only… I don’t.” He thinks for a moment and then says, carefully, “I think, perhaps, you should tell me who you got these coins from.”
San Lang’s brows furrow. “From the scrap dealer,” he replies, promptly.
“San Lang,” he scolds.
San Lang crouches beside him, head hanging, back of his white neck visible. They have just finished putting up the little wooden tent, and he had taken off his outer robe again, only his new hat is hanging against thin cloth. Something twists in Xie Lian’s stomach at the show of contrition.
“San Lang, it’s alright.” He hesitates, then says in a low voice, “I once. I once tried to rob…” he doesn’t finish the sentence but goes on immediately after, making his voice cheerful. “It’s alright, San Lang, but we must give the coins back.” He raises the pouch in emphasis.
San Lang looks up then. He gently presses Xie Lian’s fingers on the pouch, white hand still cool under the last of the evening sun. “Gege, whatever you have done, it is fine.”
Xie Lian finds, to his surprise, that there’s something prickling at the back of his eyes. The kindness of it feels like benediction and when he opens his mouth to speak he finds himself speechless. San Lang waits patiently but he finally shakes his head.
San Lang speaks instead, voice sounding deeper as night falls and the day’s noise ends. “These coins are ours, I promise. I had some small things I brought when I left that house. I pawned a little.”
“Oh!” Xie Lian feels a rush of relief that San Lang hasn’t had to sink to… then he flushes in deep shame. “San Lang, I, I…”
San Lang doesn’t wait for him to finish this time, fingers pressing tight around his. “Gege, anything you say to me is fine. And it means a lot. That you would forgive me if I had done that thing.”
“Of course,” Xie Lian replies then confusedly says, “that is, San Lang forgave me too.”
“Gege can do or say anything, it makes no difference to me,” San Lang says, and he might as well be speaking about his religion, he is so steadfast.
That thing in Xie Lian’s stomach twists again, but it’s not exactly pain he feels.
That evening after they have eaten, San Lang leans back on his elbows. He speaks languidly, looking upside-down at Xie Lian, “Gege, if you keep feeding me like this you won’t be able to get rid of me.”
Xie Lian says, “I will cook every day then.”
They drift off speaking to each other, face to face, hands nearly touching because there really isn’t enough space for two grown men. Xie Lian has shied away from talking about his past and politely stepped away from San Lang’s as well, but San Lang is as voracious a reader as Xie Lian once was, and seems to have a particular fondness for stories of famous or haunted blades.
More than one Xie Lian has seen first-hand and when San Lang says that a sword was rumoured to be haunted by the family of the smith who made it, he speaks without thinking. “Oh, that wasn’t true, we summoned the spirit and it was haunted because the first owner didn’t want to pay the smith and murdered her.”
He realises what he’s said after he speaks, saying ‘we’ about a sword that was destroyed at least a century ago but San Lang is courteously uncurious about his past. Xie Lian doesn’t want to stop talking. He’s unable to not respond when San Lang says a single word. But when his eyes are nearly closed from tiredness, San Lang laughs deep and soft near his ear and says, “Gege, goodnight,” and there’s no keeping awake after that.
Three hundred years of homelessness has made Xie Lian a lighter sleeper than even war did. San Lang walks like a cat at the best of times, but when he rises from Xie Lian’s side it wakes him up. Xie Lian considers for a moment then lets it be. If San Lang wants to go then Xie Lian won’t stop him or even ask him to stay. And yet as Xie Lian shifts from his side to his back, curling up under the warm robe and drowsing, he thinks that San Lang will come back.
When he wakes up in the morning San Lang isn’t beside him but Xie Lian can faintly hear the sound of a fire, and when he sits up he realises: it had been San Lang’s robe he had dozed off under the second time.
San Lang has set water to boil and has put in some fragrant leaves that smell too spicy to be tea but equally refreshing. He has also found bamboo leaves from somewhere and is weaving efficiently. Xie Lian stumbles over and drops gracelessly down and smiles up at him. When they are sitting, even with San Lang slouching Xie Lian has to crane his neck. After a few moments it’s clear to Xie Lian how he’s weaving so he shifts to the other side and picks up two more strands to interweave them. San Lang’s hands falter briefly and then they move faster, smoothly moving between Xie Lian’s in a careful dance. They drink some of the spicy water out of the pot and San Lang washes and sets congee to cook while Xie Lian finishes weaving the sleeping mat, big enough for two.
They have supplies and no needs unfulfilled at the moment so Xie Lian absently strips two branches, scrabbling with his fingernails. San Lang stops him with a hand on the branch, not on his wrist, and offers him the small, curved knife, hilt turned to Xie Lian.
“Don’t hurt yourself.” He’s sharp for the first time towards Xie Lian and Xie Lian stares in surprise.
“It doesn’t hurt,” he protests.
San Lang turns away, mouth in a thin line and Xie Lian murmurs, “It’s a good knife, San Lang, I’ll use it.”
It is a good knife. It catches the light of the sun in a red flash and Xie Lian pauses thoughtfully for a moment and then gently runs a finger over the blade before he continues. Soon he has two wooden sticks that are roughly sword shaped and without splinters.
“Do you want to practice?” He’s almost shy in asking but San Lang, who has been turned away towards the fire all this time turns to him without hesitation. He examines the swords and nods.
San Lang is good. He is not as good as the once-martial god of the East, but he remarkably holds his own, light-footed as a cat and deceptively strong. Their bout ends when the pot boils over and San Lang nearly picks it up with his bare hands and Xie Lian scolds him and they laugh and talk and Xie Lian can’t stop talking at all, a year or decade or lifetime’s store of words spilling out.
After they’ve eaten Xie Lian makes a simple wooden shrine, just an open box with an auspicious symbol carved on it. He offers it to San Lang. San Lang accepts it with an expression of deep contentment, stroking his fingers over the sides. Xie Lian resolves to get him paper so he can put up a drawing of his god and make offerings.
That night, he again wakes up under San Lang’s robe to hear San Lang getting up, and again, he dozes off with a strange assurance that he will come back.
In the end, Xie Lian really should have expected his unexpected good luck to run out. It’s his own fault too, which he may as well carve into a piece of wood and hang around his neck with the cursed shackle. They are in the South-east and whenever he sees a temple of Nan Yang, he says a familiar hello or lights incense if he can, like nodding to a former friend if you see him at a party, although he doesn’t pray because that would be too sticky.
He lit a stick of incense in the last large town he passed before he reached Xidi, and Ling Wen now calls him again to say, excessively politely triumphant, that she knows he is there and she would really prefer he responds rather than making her come down. Xie Lian shakes his head at his own sudden popularity and tries to consider what to do.
First thing first, this morning he has to complete the job he came to this area to do. He had heard there was a curse in the forest nearby and four or more suicides had taken place in a matter of months. He’d marked the spot where the suicides happened when he first reached before he went to the neighbouring villages to discover the details. There was a small clearing--perhaps two feet wide and half a kilometre long-- which was unnaturally silent.
He ponders over what to say for a minute then decides to be straightforward. “San Lang.”
San Lang is lying back in the shade of their hut with his hat over his face but he makes an enquiring noise.
“There’s something I must do. I don’t think it will take very long but if I do not return by evening, please don’t be worried.”
San Lang has taken the hat off now and is looking at him steadily. “Take me with you.”
Xie Lian shakes his head but reassures, “I will come back soon. It is a small thing.”
Several expressions pass over San Lang’s face, until he is placid again and nods, eyes slipping close. “Alright, Gege, don’t take too long. The stew is almost done.”
The clearing is about four li away; Xie Lian takes his sword, a thick stick he was carving to be a walking stick, and the knife San Lang gave him strapped in his belt. He has walked perhaps a kilometre when he considers for a moment, then swiftly leaps back almost seven feet onto a low branch, twirls the stick and lightly sweeps along the ground.
San Lang ducks under it, quick as a fox, avoiding a smack in the face.
He and Xie Lian stare at each other, both panting lightly and then San Lang’s wide-eyed look makes Xie Lian break into laughter. San Lang shakes his head but grins too before raising his arms. Xie Lian flushes for some reason but leans forward, letting San Lang hold him around the waist and place him gently back on the ground. Xie Lian tucks a hand into San Lang’s elbow and they keep walking together.
When they reach the clearing Xie Lian nearly walks past it. The first time he had come, he had marked several trees with paint and a symbol for ill-luck, both to be able to find it again later and to warn off others from coming here before he had a chance to take action.
But now, even after he crosses his own symbols he can’t feel the resentment that dragged him in the first time and made him wary to venture in without further investigation. He presses lightly on San Lang’s elbow for him to stay at one safe spot and then criss-crosses through the clearing right until he emerges by the river again. He can sense some remnants of the resentment that smacked him in the face on his earlier visits but it’s so faint it might as well be from half a hundred years ago. By the time his paint has faded on the trees, this will also be gone.
Xie Lian considers the matter, absently fiddling with the knife at his side and then turns back to go to San Lang. They should pick up some more berries as they go back. San Lang likes to nibble as he whittles wood.
"One hundred and twenty seven temples, and several hundred household shrines," Ling Wen announced grimly. “And I’m the one stuck with his damn prayers.”
Pei Ming shakes his head at the box, stuffed to bursting. “Those are the prayers? He’s very popular isn’t he?”
Ling Wen smiles grimly. “This is just the index.”
Pei Ming’s eyes widened then he snorts. "Bunch of gamblers. Tell their wives to stop them."
"It's the women who are sending them, fool. For luck in love."
"Luck in love," Pei Ming says, affronted, he felt this was his exclusive domain amongst the martial gods. "From that virgin!"
"Luck in love, not the horizontal tango," Shi Qingxuan says, rolling his eyes.
"What's the horizontal tango?" Pei Ming demands. Ling Wen looks at him pityingly to avoid having to confess that she doesn’t know either. Really, these new gods and their new euphemisms. Half of them taken from foreign gods. She'd have to start spending time in their special communication array to keep up.
"What's the plan? Shi Qingxuan asks, brightly, "I volunteer."
"Why?" Ling Wen asks and then immediately regrets it. She says hastily, "No, don't tell me. You can go talk to Nan Yang Zhen Jun, he's requested to handle the matter personally."