The line of supplicants was still disappearing around the corner when Huang Shaotian looked up from his chicken for the second time and peered down the length of the hall. If he tipped his head to the right and concentrated, he could pick up the calm voice of his lord, which had remained unwaveringly steady during the four hours or so he’d been accepting supplicants for and was likely to continue to remain steady until the entire queue wrapped up. Moments like these were the ones that made Huang Shaotian wonder with extreme skepticism why Fang Shijing considered him a viable successor to the lordship at all, since his own patience was limited to circling around an opponent’s horse and waiting for the first mistake. Just because Huang Shaotian liked talking a little more than the average person didn’t mean he liked listening to other people talk, especially not when it concerned taxes or crops or petty thievery, which were the only three types of complaints that seemed to show up with any kind of regularity on his lord’s desk.
He stabbed another piece of chicken and contemplated his options. None of them were very good. The bards’ festive music was starting to grate in his ears, drinking himself into a stupor was only acceptable when everyone else was also drunk – and unfortunately, his lord at the head of the table was currently about as far from drunk as it was physically possible to be – talking about the forms of swordplay to someone who could barely hold a sword upright, although likely to kill his boredom, was equally likely to make him wish he had never started any conversation when the inevitably stupid questions arrived, and he sorely lacked Zheng Xuan’s ability to fall asleep on command, which was the only reason he hadn’t joined the other squire in napping on the table. And Huang Shaotian’s favourite option, which involved escaping into the cool winter air and waiting out the endless queue in either the training arena or the stables, had been explicitly banned by Fang Shijing, probably because the memory of what had happened last time was still fresh in everyone’s mind even though it had truly been an accident. He speared a potato and grimly resigned himself to another hour or five of the bards’ playing.
More than one knight sighed in relief when the bells finally rang for midnight and the last petitioner stepped up to the dais. His lord’s voice was as collected as ever as he made the customary greetings, and then the world shifted, sharpening and focusing and slowing until Huang Shaotian could hear his own slightly-unnerved breathing.
He recognised the sensation, of course – what kind of person didn’t recognise their own gift waking after a few tries? Except opportunity-exploiting was the kind of gift that he’d only ever spotted in combat, a brief moment of understanding that let him spot the best twisting motion or sword form to take advantage of an opponent’s equally brief lapse in concentration. It wasn’t the kind of gift to activate in conversations he wasn’t a part of, or at the end of feasts, or in conversations he wasn’t a part of at the end of feasts. He leaned forward slightly, curious.
“I am in search,” the petitioner said in answer to Fang Shijing’s query, “of someone willing to play a game of my own whimsy, so that I may find a suitable owner for this sword. And I am in hope I need not find another town.” There was a wry self-depreciating tone as he added, “Travelling in winter is terrible.”
“Certainly a unique dilemma,” his lord said after only a moment’s pause, which was at least a thousand times as graceful as what Huang Shaotian would have managed if he was the one sitting on the dais. For starters, he figured he would have probably blurted out an extremely rude questioning of why they couldn’t just wait until the seasons turned. “I am sure we will endeavour to find you a solution.”
The stranger smiled. Or grimaced, perhaps; Huang Shaotian couldn’t exactly read his facial expressions from under the blue hooded cloak he wore, and a side view was difficult to read in any case. He took out a plain scabbard with slow, deliberate care, and Fang Shijing inclined his head.
Huang Shaotian’s breath caught.
He wasn’t the only one, either. All around the hall, knights and squires straightened from their food and boredom-induced stupors, even the ones sitting so far down the table that they could surely only see the back of a figure. The fire itself seemed to still, barely crackling under the presence of the sword – a magnificently crafted thing, he could tell, even from the poor angle. Not even the blacksmiths of the Excellent Court would be dismayed with such a weapon. For an instant the sword was too dazzling to look at, reflected firelight blazing off its edges, and when the traveller slid it away a great sigh of loss rippled mournfully through the hall as the spell broke.
And it was a spell, too; Huang Shaotian could feel the lingering vestiges of it slip away from him like glass minnows in water, the enchanted sword pretending at mundanity. “My game in truth is very simple. Merely an exchange of sorts,” the traveller said, mild despite their rapt attention. “I will bequeath this sword to the knight who will behead me with it, on the condition they seek me out to receive an equal treatment at my hands in a year and a day’s time.”
The silence that followed was deafening. Huang Shaotian valiantly fought and won against the urge to comment something inappropriate in the stunned atmosphere by taking a sip of disgustingly lukewarm daisy tea, even as he grappled with the stranger’s words. The last time he checked, being murdered by a stranger in forsaken territory had not been high or low or anywhere at all on his list of fantasies, so how his gift had identified it as an extremely exploitable opportunity with a good ending was beyond him. On the other hand, his instincts had proven themselves trustworthy time and time again, and there was something irresistible about the sword, and Huang Shaotian had the sinking feeling he would agree before the stranger left if only because he was too curious on how this would end. This was not, he knew, the kind of opportunity that appeared in spars, the kind that appeared and disappeared and left as much impact as the flash of damselfly wings in spring; this came with the solemnity of mountains, irreversible and terrible and hungry.
“Of course,” the stranger added into the perfect silence, “if what lies under professed bravery is cowardice, I can continue my travels.”
His lord was already speaking before any knight could make a retort, which was just as well, since Huang Shaotian spotted at least three knights opening their mouths in instinctive, indignant rebuttal. “You bestow an unkind label upon us, traveller,” he said, frowning. “Your situation is unique, your challenge moreso, and they are hardly at fault for pausing to consider the situation. I should hope you agree it is not cowardice to prepare before rushing a wyvern nest, when discretion is the better part of valour.”
“Certainly,” the stranger agreed, “though I hope to be no wyvern. But such replies I have had already, from all six of the… ah, discreet places I have passed.”
The hall murmured with discontent. It was something like standing outside in the stolen minutes before a thunderstorm, moments of bated breath in an electrified atmosphere at once terrible and mesmerising, waiting and dreading the first cry of lightning. Huang Shaotian shivered, his blood hot and pounding away in his ears, and stood up.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
Fang Shijing turned on him an expression that could melt entire armies to dust. It was something of an open secret that Huang Shaotian was his preferred successor, which reckless beheading would certainly prevent. Huang Shaotian silently attempted to convey an I know what I’m doing through his eyes, which probably just made him look aggressively cross-eyed. There was a hollow of a smile catching at the edges of the stranger’s hood when they turned to face him, offering the hilt of the sword.
Huang Shaotian drew the sword. It was lighter than he expected, almost shockingly so, as if the blacksmith had hammered light into a weapon instead of metal. It was also, despite the layers of leather wound around the hilt, colder than the feel of winter sleet sliding between skin and cloth. Goosebumps rose and fell along his arms as he slid it experimentally through the air.
“Well, you have to take off your hood,” he said. “For starters it feels too much like an execution otherwise, and I don’t want to miss because that’s awkward and messy and painful, and also I don’t want to discover that you’ve secretly got two heads under that hood or something. That wouldn’t be remotely fair, since I’ve only got one head and if I behead one head out of two heads then I think you’d still be alive because you’ve still got a head, whereas if you behead me then I only have the one head to lose and I’d be dead and that wouldn’t be very fair at all. Also even if you only have one head you’d still end up with blood all over the wool, and blue’s an expensive colour and the cleaning ladies say it’s a bad idea to stain it with blood when blood takes forever to wash off when it stains. And –”
The traveller took off his hood. Huang Shaotian snapped his mouth shut hard enough to hear his teeth click. “I assure you,” the stranger said, smiling, “that I have only the one head.”
“Um,” Huang Shaotian said. “Uh.”
The world was threatening to go slow and sharp again, so if he’d harboured any lingering doubts about opportunities there was definitely no mistake now, and honestly Huang Shaotian wished it would slow just so he could have more time to stare at the man in front of him. He was unfairly, unfairly handsome, with silvery hair that flowed past his shoulders and eyes rich in mirth. There was a red sun between his eyebrows that marked him as a mage of some sort, and some part of Huang Shaotian’s brain that hadn’t shut down yet wailed over how he was supposed to behead anything so beautiful, even if the mage would probably pick his head up and walk away afterwards because magic was dumb like that. He found he had no regrets at all volunteering himself.
And then the mage sank smoothly to his knees.
Huang Shaotian’s mouth went dry. If not for the staggering cold of the sword, the remaining fragments of sanity he was clinging on to would probably also have fled. As it was, searing pain rushed up from his hands where he had gripped the hilt too tightly, and if his breathing was ragged when he drew in another breath, well, nobody was close enough to hear. Except the mage, who let another of those amused smiles play around the corners of his mouth.
“When you seek me next winter,” he said, “you may ask for Swoksaar at the Blue Temple.”
Huang Shaotian brought the sword down.
Mages, like ordinary people, bled quite aggressively when they received nasty sword wounds, which Huang Shaotian recalled from having stabbed Wei Chen when they’d first met each other, or rather when Wei Chen had picked Huang Shaotian up off the streets by the back of his shirt when he was riding by on a horse and in a panic Huang Shaotian had slashed his whittling knife across everywhere he could reach. It had resulted in a lot of yelling by a lot of people and ended with Huang Shaotian becoming the castle’s newest page boy. Wei Chen himself hadn’t seemed to mind the incident, although probably due to being incurably shameless he’d had no problems using it for both blackmail and guilt-trips to get Huang Shaotian to perform tasks such as stealing whole pot roasts from the kitchen in the dead of night because he was feeling a little hungry and couldn’t be bothered to get out of his cozy blankets. The sword, for all its ethereal lightness, sliced clean and true, and he felt only the most token of resistances before there was red steadily staining the flagstones.
Swoksaar’s head rolled two paces and stopped, watching him with life-bright eyes. For two heart-stopping seconds, it lay serene and unmoving next to the dais in a darkening pool of red, before Swoksaar’s hands carefully picked it up and replaced it back onto his neck. Huang Shaotian fixed his eyes on Swoksaar’s long fingers as they retied the drawstrings of his cloak, unhurried and deliberate. If not for the blood slowly congealing in his long silver hair, even Huang Shaotian would question if the beheading had only been a hallucination.
The mage took a step towards him. Huang Shaotian stayed rooted to the spot as they ghosted their bloodstained fingers across his cheek, praying that everyone in the hall was either inattentive or mistook his reaction for fear. “A year and a day,” Swoksaar murmured, silk and charm and maddening. “Don’t be late.”
He stepped back and bowed to Fang Shijing, who had the kind of expression on his face that promised extensive misery to whoever had inspired it. Huang Shaotian quickly backed away and began investigating with great attention the tapestry hanging behind his lord. “I am delighted that a solution to my persistent problem has been found,” Swoksaar said. “You have my greatest gratitude.”
“A pleasure,” his lord said, freezingly polite.
Swoksaar smiled and turned and left. “Everyone may leave,” Fang Shijing said when he had disappeared out of sight. “Except Huang Shaotian.”
There was a collective scraping of chairs as knights, squires, pages, minor lords, bards and maids bolted for the exit. Huang Shaotian closed his eyes and wondered if it was too late for him to change his name and also run out of the room, since his lord’s decree applied to Huang Shaotian and not – not Huang Duotian or whatever he could change his name to. Except he could hear his lord rising out of his seat, and when he opened his eyes they were looking directly at each other, so he guessed it really was too late to run.
“I sincerely hope,” his lord said, in a voice that wasn’t quite yelling but was at least a thousand times worse because the last time Huang Shaotian had heard that voice was when he’d broken the castle’s plumbing system and the week that had followed had been pure misery, although at least this time he had a slightly better defense, “that you have an excellent reason.”
Huang Shaotian swallowed.
Becoming an overnight sensation, Huang Shaotian quickly discovered, was not what he had imagined it to be.
For starters, practically everyone discovered new levels of pity when talking to him, which was annoying when it came from the cook and downright disturbing when it came from the drill instructor who had never said a gentle word to anyone in maybe his entire life. It was such a novelty that he couldn’t quite decide on whether it was more offensive or dismaying that everyone had already written him off as a lost cause. Really, he was getting beheaded in a year by an extremely handsome mage, not shattering like broken glass in broad daylight from an unkind word. The rumour mill must have been working seriously overtime.
Nobody believed him either when he pointed out the extremely true fact that actually, a year was a long time in magic, and magical agreements were already the most finicky things in existence. Putting them together was a surefire way to guarantee that it was not going to end up the way anybody expected. His favourite baker had started crying when Huang Shaotian tried to explain it to him, and that had been so singularly awkward that if Huang Shaotian hadn’t had years’ worth of Wei Chen complaining about magic in his head, he would have doubted the strength of his explanation too.
At least the conversation with Fang Shijing hadn’t ended so poorly, even if the sheer exhaustion his lord managed to convey with two fingers pressed against his temple was equally guilt-inducing. In a castle full of universal pity, Huang Shaotian was counting his victories wherever he could get them, even the pyrrhic ones that often arose from his lord’s concessions – which, of course, was why he was crunching bones underfoot while ozone hissed in the air and icy sleet splattered over the ground.
“You can’t die until you find him next winter,” was his lord’s reasoning. “Why not take advantage of this? By the time midsummer comes, you’ll have deeds to your name, and you’ll be head and shoulders above the other newly-knighted.”
“I really don’t think that’s how magic works,” Huang Shaotian had protested. “Just because I supposedly can’t die before I see him again doesn’t mean other things can’t happen, like I could lose an arm or something, and I really like my arms. My lord. Also, what if there’s actually no magic on me at all because he assumes like a reasonable person that I’m not going to show up at midwinter and it’s all just a scam, and then I get stabbed and die –”
“Oh, so you admit you’re unreasonable,” his lord interrupted, holding up a hand for silence. “I’m gratified to hear it. Perhaps you should have considered your own mortality before agreeing to behead and be beheaded by someone you don’t know. You are the owner of a highly enchanted sword; the magic will hold, and if not, Healer Xu will patch you up. But do try not becoming the first person to die from putting skeletons back into their graves in thirty years. The indignity would be appalling.”
There was nothing Huang Shaotian could really say to that. His lord had sighed, with a flash of his normal humour, and added, “You aren’t the only one who can pick out magical loopholes, Shaotian.”
The undead were not particularly dangerous to fight. They moved slowly, reacted slowly and even groaned slowly, and they had no weapons of note other than their general foulness. But their tendency to traipse through crop fields and infuse them with a weak decay that led to sudden and catastrophic failures at harvest time gave them high priority on the eradicate list. Not that skeletons could, well, die, but they could be returned to the ground and kept there in broken pieces, and that would delay their return until another few storms had passed and the harvests had inched closer to completion. Also, regularly putting them down in waves stopped the possibility of an enormous skeleton army animating itself after the aftermath of an unpredicted vicious storm. It wouldn’t be a dangerous army, but the smell would have never come out of his clothes.
He slashed his way through another dozen skeletons, bone fragments and dust spilling off the edge of the sword. The nice part about enchanted weaponry was that on top of the regular slashing and hacking, they could also dismantle the lingering storm magic tied to the skeletons to disable them much faster. As far as Huang Shaotian was concerned, that was about the only positive the enchanted sword actually had.
Sure, the self-cleaning and polishing and apparent inability to dull were very nice perks, and if Huang Shaotian could apply them and only them to the rest of his armour he would do it in a heartbeat because cleaning and polishing really took up more time than they were supposed to, but the additional enchantments really had him questioning Swoksaar’s sanity, assuming it was him who had laid its enchantments in the first place. The sword constantly emanated a freezing aura from the hilt that left his fingers numb in minutes, was alternately light and heavy without warning, and apparently had the ability to summon sleet whenever it was drawn, which had cancelled five training sessions before their instructor forcibly relocated them indoors. The problem was, with everyone convinced he’d more or less traded his life for the sword, Huang Shaotian had very little excuse to be not using it.
On the next swing he overbalanced when the sword abruptly turned heavy, and the muddy ground rushed for his face. At the same time, something whistled above his head, and Huang Shaotian heard a “Watch out!” that was far too late to be useful. He twisted around in the mud and watched the stone complete its flight, knocking off the scapula of a skeleton.
Right. He also had to deal with the other knights. Apparently some of them were quite unhappy over being labelled as cowardly by Swoksaar, and their peanut-sized brains had come to the conclusion that taking out their frustrations by sabotaging Huang Shaotian was somehow a good idea. The pity was they were too competent to leave evidence for him to accuse and too senior for him to accuse outright, as much as he wanted to rant at them until some semblance of logical thinking flew back to nest in their brain again.
Huang Shaotian gritted his teeth and pushed himself upright, the sword feather-light again as he pulled it out of the mud. Around him the last of the undead were disintegrating, the smell of ozone washed into the scent of cold wet earth. He found a tree to scrape the mud off the sword – there were some benefits to being impervious to scratches – and slid it away, and the winter sleet softened and melted away into a crisp blue sky for the journey home. Really, it was incredible just how fast his desire to stab something could recharge.
By the time the first shoots of spring had begun poking their way through the earth and his lord had announced the list of who was travelling with him to the Excellent Court in midsummer, Huang Shaotian was thoroughly tired of being famous and even more tired of his mysteriously fraying saddle straps. For once, he realised ruefully, he was looking forward to the Excellent Court, if only to escape the pity-sorrow-envy bathing the Rain Delta and the chance of some tips on how to stop the thrice-cursed sleet.
Naturally, it didn’t go to plan.
“Remind me again,” Zheng Xuan began, with the voice of someone long perished from boredom or bumpiness or both, “why we aren’t at the Excellent Court already.”
Huang Shaotian felt a swell of gratefulness at the opportunity for distraction, even if it came from a conversational topic that had suffered the equivalent of being trampled to pancakes by rabid donkeys over the past three days of travelling. It turned out even he didn’t have a limitless amount of commentary to make about the same grassy meadows that had followed them since the last town had disappeared over the horizon. “Su Muqiu fucked up an experiment and broke all three leystone arrays and they can’t be magically repaired due to some dangers of oversaturation and the Excellent Court actually wanting to keep their castle instead of taking the risk of seeing it melt into a puddle of stone goop. Which is fair, I guess I wouldn’t really trust travelling through anything that has high probabilities of turning me into goop in the first place, except that means the arrays have to be fully replaced and that requires cartloads of materials from all over the country since whoever built it in the first place wasn’t smart enough to go local. That’s why we’re the two lucky squires squashed literally between a rock and a hard place, and I just want to say, I never want to see this much aquamarine in my life again.” He paused for breath, and added, “I feel like we’re being scammed.”
Zheng Xuan lifted his head up from the stack of aquamarine he had repurposed as a headrest. “I don’t think the Excellent Court needs to scam us for aquamarine.”
“Yeah, but surely leystone arrays can’t use this much aquamarine in it,” Huang Shaotian grumbled, gesturing at the three carts bouncing and groaning behind them. “And you know what they look like around rare materials, I’ve seen dragons that looked less greedy than them.”
“I thought you’ve only met one dragon, Shaotian.”
“That’s not the point and you know it,” Huang Shaotian sighed. He lay back and stared at the clear blue skies, wishing the ground could miraculously smooth itself out so the cart would stop bouncing whenever it hit a rock or a clod of dirt or any kind of dip or hollow hidden in the waist-high grass. When this ride ended, assuming he was still sane by the time they found roads again – and their navigator estimated that to be two days away, and that was if they were lucky enough to avoid monsters, which nobody travelling across open country was – he was never going to complain about travelling by cart over cobblestones again.
“Look,” Zheng Xuan said as the cart bounced again, “if it means this will never happen again, I will happily be scammed out of aquamarine and every other rare material I will ever see.”
“Like I wouldn’t hand it all over without a fight to avoid this again too,” Huang Shaotian said, perfectly ignoring his hypocrisy in favour of grimacing as a chip of aquamarine dug into his thigh. “Hey, do you want to play a game of I Spy–”
“Grass, mud, horse,” Zheng Xuan said, and Huang Shaotian cackled loud enough for a knight riding along the cart to hastily shush him.
The next day they got off and limped along the carts until their legs were numb, under their lord’s dry reasoning that there was less rattling in walking than in the cart, and the day after that a crowd of smiling homunculi rose out of the grass in ambush, painted eyes and dolled arms reaching for the aquamarine. Huang Shaotian was almost tempted to let them have it – perhaps the ride would be more comfortable if they weren’t always wedged between hard chunks of rock – but the knights around him were already falling into formation, and then there was no time to think anything as the homunculi charged them.
Putting them down was easy. Keeping them down was not, and keeping them away from the carts was even harder when they rose and fell and rose again in undaunted waves. Rain clung to his skin as Huang Shaotian doggedly defended his side of the cart, the world honey-slow around him while he sliced the constructs apart, waiting for his eyes to spot the opportunity his gift told him was there.
“I found them,” he said to the knight on the other side of the cart.
“Then go,” the other knight said, and Huang Shaotian ducked past the clawing fingers of one homunculus and the spikes in the hands of another and sprinted for their controller, the world snapping back to a blur around him.
The mechanic or alchemist or whatever branch of magic they belonged to saw him coming, of course. It was hard to miss someone in blue and silver with a sword running through grass undecided between green and yellow, and Huang Shaotian was too pressed for time to attempt anything other than a direct approach. The faster their controller lost contact, the faster the homunculi would stay down.
The first spell that greeted Huang Shaotian was the colour of rust-riddled steel, the second the burble of a waterfall. In his hands the sword lightened to air, flashing, and Huang Shaotian lost every pretense of feeling in his fingers as it sliced through both spells to leave sparkles drifting to the ground. The mage was staring, mouth slightly open, and only the cold point of the sword against their throat made them startle out of whatever reverie they had sunk into.
“Call them off,” Huang Shaotian said, and watched them go cross-eyed following the sword up to his hand and then his face. “If you try anything else, I will put this sword through your throat, you have no idea what riding on a cart across all this shitty, shitty grassland has done to my patience and I have been waiting to release all my frustration all this time. And keep your hands where I can see them!” he added sharply, and the mage blanched, as if they were idiotic enough to believe Huang Shaotian wouldn’t notice the slow inching of their hands backwards.
The mage was looking at him now, really looking at him, and their face wore a mask of terror where moments before there had been disdain. It was a change so abrupt that Huang Shaotian frowned, unsettlingly certain that it wasn’t just because of him. But before he could ask he felt the ground lurch with the sickening warp of spacetime, and then he was pointing a sword at a pool of fresh blood, and behind him homunculus after homunculus fell down as the magic between creator and created snapped in two.
Wei Chen had once told him teleportation without ritual was akin to rolling a dice and praying for it to land on a corner. No self-respecting mage would choose it unless they were completely and utterly out of options. Huang Shaotian looked at the blood and the sword and his shoes, and wondered just what the mage had seen that had terrified them so.
He put the sword away. Most likely, it was nothing good.
The Excellent Court, when it rose over the horizon, was a sight for sore eyes.
The moon hung low in the sky when their entourage clattered to a halt in the middle of the courtyard, the knights dismounting as bobbing orange lanterns and the grooms holding them appeared to unhitch the horses and lead them away to a well-deserved rest. Huang Shaotian half-staggered, half-rolled his way off the cart for what he sincerely hoped to be the last time, and resisted the urge to fall and kiss the ground. It took a while for that urge to fade, partially due to the inky sky above threatening to swap places with the shadowed stone walls rising around him every time he blinked, but eventually the smell of food banished his remaining nausea, and he wandered in to the dining hall.
He wasn’t the only one with that idea, either; over the next ten minutes, with the exception of his lord, the entire Blue Rain contingent slumped their way onto the long benches facing the dining table, and the lone squire of the Excellent Court sitting further up the table was throwing them politely curious glances. Then a cook wheeled in an enormous pot of stew, and Huang Shaotian stopped caring about anything else for a good half-hour.
By the time he’d gone through a third bowl and started debating the merits of leaving the hall, Huang Shaotian knew a great deal more about how the loss of leystone travel had affected everyone in the region than he had before he started eating. There was Samsara’s delegation, who, despite departing from one of the more outer regions, had arrived first at the Excellent Court two days ago, possibly because their company had no need to guide carts along rocky roads. Blossom Valley, who had dragged along carts full of all sorts of flowerpots and saplings, had pulled in second a half-day later while complaining vigorously about the journey, although Huang Shaotian doubted being squashed between flowerpots was anywhere near as bad as having chunks of aquamarine digging into his sides. The parties from Howling Heights and the Thundering Plains had met up on one of the northeasterly routes before riding into the court, unintentionally making their heralds all very confused about what to announce to Ye Qiu, and Han Wenqing had sent a note by pigeon expressing his sincere apologies over missing the midsummer gathering, which was reasonable enough considering all the sailing and riding that had to be done from the part-time isthmus, part-time island. Other than the Herb Garden delegation – the only ones close enough to be less than a day’s hard riding away – everyone else was still on the roads and probably towing behind them several carts’ worth of magically useful items for the leystone reparations, and really, the Excellent Court, and by Excellent Court Huang Shaotian only meant Ye Xiu and Su Muqiu, were totally scamming them. But any price was worthwhile for never having to do that awful ride again.
He said as much to Ye Xiu when they ran into each other on the stairs, which earned him what felt like a solid ten minutes of breathless, gleeful laughter while he folded his arms and leaned against the banister. “We did think of that,” Ye Xiu admitted when he brought his laughter under control, “but Ye Qiu vetoed it, which is another good reason why he does all the things that matter to people and I stick with the things that keep them safe. Come along, I’ll show you the mess we’re scamming you to fix.”
“It better be worth all my suffering,” Huang Shaotian told him. “Honestly, you would not believe how awful it is sharing a cart with a big lumpy pile of insentient rock that still manages to poke the worst possible places despite all I did to get comfortable. In fact, I’m pretty sure it became sentient just so it could poke me, then it went back to being lifeless. My entire side feels like it’s made of bruises, and those bruises have bruises, and probably my bruises’ bruises have bruises. Some cleric out there needs to figure out the anti-bruising cream or tonic that doesn’t have an inventory list’s worth of side effects, and they need to figure it out soon.”
“If you’re that full of bruises, you need to lie down,” Ye Xiu suggested, which was so absurdly hypocritical for someone who had become a legend by slaying a behemoth while his arm was shattered in five places that Huang Shaotian spluttered for the rest of the short trip, helplessly unable to deliver any kind of response against sheer shamelessness.
Both Su siblings were busy in the storeroom-turned-workroom, light and fire skittering from Su Mucheng’s palms to flat planes of shale while Su Muqiu painstakingly etched calligraphy onto rosewood. Half the room seemed like it was covered in talismans and charms, and the other half with paper waiting to be turned into talismans and charms. For the first time Huang Shaotian felt like he understood what his lord meant when he complained that it was so messy there was nowhere to step foot onto, except this scene was far more of a controlled chaos and he was wary of disturbing any of their concentration. He didn’t want to ride back, after all.
The fires between Su Mucheng’s fingers died down. She looked up, and waved, and paused, and Huang Shaotian watched a look of confusion bloom across her features before she frowned, squinted and rubbed her eyes. “Ye Xiu,” she said, “is that Huang Shaotian you brought in?”
Huang Shaotian stared back at her. “And here I thought I made an impression on you guys when I visited last year. Way to let someone down. All I did was grow a few centimetres and become more handsome than everyone else. Ye Xiu, shut up, you wouldn’t know what handsome looked like if it gave you a makeover and polished all your armour, and – ”
A giggling Su Mucheng pressed a finger to her lips, and every sound in the room died. “No, no, you definitely made a lasting impression,” she said into the summoned silence. “It’s just… you look like Huang Shaotian and act like Huang Shaotian and talk way too much to not be Huang Shaotian, but what did you do, live in the mists for a year? It’s like you’re trying to be two people, and one of those two people will hex me if I try anything on you.”
“You know I’m not magical enough to find the castle in the mists,” Huang Shaotian retorted. Then his brain fumbled the puzzle pieces together into something approximating an image, and he added, “Wait, this other person, what about him? Tell me more, you can’t just say I’m carrying around a whole extra person and then leave me hanging, that’s just cruel.”
“I never said it was a him,” Su Mucheng said, her eyes narrowing. “And I think you should be telling me more. You can’t just show up on my doorstep carrying around a whole extra person and not explain, that’s just cruel.”
Su Muqiu barely managed to disguise his snort as a hacking cough.
Ye Xiu looked at Huang Shaotian, then at the two mages, then back at Huang Shaotian. “This is a magic thing, isn’t it,” he said, his tone so much more of a statement than a question that nobody bothered to answer. “Right. Well, he can explain tomorrow when Wei Chen gets back so I only have to ignore him once, and in the meantime the aquamarine’s arrived for whenever you’re ready for the next stage of repairs. Apparently there’s a lot of it, Huang Shaotian here won’t stop complaining about how you’re scamming him.” He dodged Huang Shaotian’s elbow. “If you need us, we’ll be, uh – ”
“Sparring in the arena,” Huang Shaotian said immediately.
The glare Ye Xiu sent him was entirely worth the thunderstorm that drenched them both later.
Somehow, Wei Chen managed to pull off aging fifty years in fifteen minutes, complete with straggly white hair and deep-set wrinkles growing progressively instead of instantly. If he hadn’t been using it as a reaction for the events of midwinter, Huang Shaotian would probably have considered it an impressive piece of illusion magic. As it was, he squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his temples twice counterclockwise, and when he reopened them Wei Chen was back to his normal appearance, if decidedly more unimpressed than usual.
“Your reasoning isn’t entirely shit,” Wei Chen conceded after a mutual stare-off, “but it was still incredibly rash. Any normal person would have just let him bother someone else.”
“Any normal person wouldn’t even be having this conversation,” Huang Shaotian countered. “You’re the one who told me I had a powerful gift and should trust my instincts.”
“Look, when I said that to you, contractual beheadings were not on my mind.” Wei Chen peeled and split an orange. “And if I could go back in time and warn myself to warn you about contractual beheadings, my past self would probably laugh me out of the room.”
“Speaking of past selves,” Ye Xiu said, “I can’t help but feel like Swoksaar is the kind of name you’d style for yourself if you were younger and more arrogant, and now I need to know why you ended up as Windward Formation instead. How did you ever decide against a fancy name?”
“I thought style names for mages came from magic,” Huang Shaotian said, before Wei Chen and Ye Xiu could start murdering each other in front of him.
“If I know the kitchens are making soup, I can ask for pumpkin or sweet potato or turnip in advance. That doesn’t mean the kitchens stop making soup.” Ye Xiu’s hands fiddled with the thin ring on his right hand, the one that could twist out into a full spear in duels, because Su Muqiu was a genius when he wasn’t making travel inconveniences across the land. “Of course, there’s no guarantee the kitchens will actually make your soup, but it goes something like that.”
“You’re going to spill all our secrets,” Su Muqiu grumbled halfheartedly at the only person alive who had been both magical enough to see the castle in the mists and stubborn enough to turn it down. There was a private joke somewhere in the smile Ye Xiu tossed back, which was really quite rude of him, before Su Mucheng returned from cleansing aquamarine – a ritual that had to be done at a precise angle of the sun, or something equally time-limited, if the frantic morning rush had been any indication – and they went down to business.
“There are so many problems we’re just going to start with one,” Su Muqiu announced. “Which one do you want to start with?”
“Are you sure you want me to pick? I don’t even know all the problems,” Huang Shaotian said. “Is this a surprise logical reasoning and observational skills test? If so that’s not very fair, all the other squires haven’t mentioned anything about surprise pre-knighting tests. Just because I’m special doesn’t mean I have to get this kind of special treatment. Actually, you know what, let’s just start with the sword.”
“You could have saved yourself so much breath if you just said that first,” Su Mucheng said helplessly.
“Are you really expecting Huang Shaotian to give up an opportunity to talk,” her brother said back flatly.
“Well, you deserve it for just springing it out of nowhere,” he declared. “Anyway, the sword, we’re talking about the sword.”
“Right,” Su Mucheng said, draining a mug of water with a long-suffering expression. “Your sword. Well, its name is Ice Rain, and – actually you know what, let’s not start with Ice Rain. That’s a bad place to start.”
Huang Shaotian resisted the urge to bury his face in his hands. On one hand, he now knew the sword’s name. On the other hand, unless yelling Ice Rain extremely melodramatically into a thunderstorm helped stop the stupid rains the sword constantly brought, it was a piece of completely useless information. He counted to three, then counted to five, and gave up and counted all the way to twenty before signalling that he was listening again.
“The first problem is that your Blue Temple doesn’t exist on any map, not even the ones made before the last breaking.” Su Muqiu took over the explanation. “And you know the quality of the maps we have, so not being able to find your temple on it can only mean a limited number of possibilities. One, that its existence is magical, or two, it doesn’t exist. We’ll ignore two because two’s stupid. Unfortunately, option one has a whole range of possibilities.”
“What happened to limited number of possibilities?” Huang Shaotian asked.
“Magic came into the picture and fucked it up,” was the gloomy reply. “Fortunately, between the three of us mages here, we have a lot of brains.” He ignored Huang Shaotian’s incredulous stare. “A lot of that range can be eliminated with cross examination and magical theory, though there were a couple of really cool threads like – ”
“Focus on the point, Muqiu,” Ye Xiu said, amusement painted across his face. Huang Shaotian wasn’t sure if he wanted to strangle him for his expression or thank him for the interruption, and settled for leaning back in his chair.
“Right, the point,” Su Muqiu recalled. “We eliminated down to the two most likely. One is that the temple is in the glorious country, which explains why it’s not on any map, and the other is that it’s on the other side of the glorious country. Which also explains why it’s not on any map. The reason we’re pretty sure it’s related to the glorious country is Ice Rain.”
The glorious country – the land where magic met the wild to produce impossible wonderterrors, gleefully uncontrolled. A place of great beauty, supposedly; a place of terrible monstrosity, certainly, except… “I thought only mages could find the glorious country,” he said.
Wei Chen had told him that. Now he gave a dry smile. “I had to prevent your nine-year-old self from running off for adventure somehow,” he said. “Anyone can find the glorious country if they go far enough. The difficulty is leaving. It’s one of the first things you learn in the mists. Going in is easy, leaving is difficult, and leaving with your sanity intact… ha. How many theories do we have on the glorious country now, several hundred?”
“Eight hundred and thirty six now, Arisaema published one a few weeks back,” Su Muqiu said. “Not that we can test any of them. Well, no, we can. We’d just never be able to spout out anything other than gibberish again, so we can’t make any use of the results. Anyway, that’s my gripe with the maddening country, but back to you. The glorious country is where Ice Rain comes in.”
“The enchantments on your sword are almost uniquely suited to keeping sane in the glorious country,” Su Mucheng continued. “It’s a pity bringing it ruins the experiment, otherwise maybe we’d finally get those theories tested… but the rain and the cold and the weird unbalancing helps keep your mind sharp, I guess. They stop you falling into the enchantment of the glorious country so you can get out of it. I’m subscribing to the second possibility for where the temple is, by the way.”
“In summary,” Ye Xiu broke in, “go to magic land, swing your sword around, come out of magic land in a completely different place, find your warlock and figure out just what your gift was thinking, then come back and live happily ever after. Easy.”
“It’s not that simple,” began Su Muqiu, just as Wei Chen snapped, “Don’t be absurd,” and Su Mucheng said, “But we’re not finished – ” They stopped and looked at each other, and then turned as one to stare at Huang Shaotian, which was just plain eerie and uncomfortable. Huang Shaotian shrugged.
“That’s the gist of it, right? Go to magic land, use the sword, don’t go insane, find Swoksaar at the temple. How long can people stay in the glorious country before going insane anyway?”
All three mages shrugged.
“You don’t have to go through with it, you know,” Wei Chen suddenly said. “There’s a loophole in the original agreement. If we delay your knighting to next year, or even the year after that, there’s no chance the magic will hold that long. Permanence isn’t magic’s strong suit.”
Huang Shaotian blinked. He let the idea rattle around in his head for a moment, pondering it with all the seriousness he gave to choosing the right apple to carry around for a snack, and then shook his head.
“I chose this opportunity,” he said. “I’m going to see it through.”
He stood up, ignoring the conversation the mages seemed to be trying to hold with nothing but aggressive twitches of their eyes. “With your leave,” he said.
“Certainly,” Ye Xiu replied, and Huang Shaotian turned and left the room, his brain spinning.
Eventually he found his way to the training grounds, deserted but for the afternoon sun, and tried to drown the pounding in his head with the pounding of his feet against the earth, absentminded-steady and lulling. He’d had six months to ponder the situation, although the loophole was a new angle. For a moment he let himself admire how likely it was to work, since it sounded like just the kind of thing that would, and then Huang Shaotian let it slide away from his mind along with all the other alternatives he had imagined in the dead of night.
He had been following a well-trodden path for the better part of his life, every signpost clearly marked and every lantern well-lit. It was an odd feeling, departing to hack apart the undergrowth and trip over the brambles instead, with nothing but himself as both guide and support and nothing but an ominous promise and the ghost of a charming smile at the end. Huang Shaotian didn’t know if it was going to work out, but he rather liked the feeling.
The world sharpened and blurred and sharpened, as it always seemed to do when he meandered down the different scenarios that came and went with thinking about Swoksaar. Huang Shaotian chose to interpret them as good omens. They promised the opportunity wasn’t finished with him yet; he promised he wasn’t finished with it either. On his next lap, he picked the sword up from where he had propped it against the wall. It was feather-light in his hands, full of effortless magnificence, and the rain, when it fell, seemed almost warm against his skin.
Tomorrow, he would be a knight. The day after there would be a tournament, for knights new and old to engage in friendly skirmishes, and then there would be celebrations that lasted until they all departed again, whenever that was, and then a ride to the glorious country – there was no real reason, really, to wait until winter fell, not if adventure more exciting than felling the same undead legions was beckoning – and then, finally, he would know which direction his life was taking, if it was taking any at all.
Huang Shaotian lifted his sword to the first position, and breathed in the smell of rain.
“Will you, through your actions and words, maintain the honour of the knight?”
“Do you swear to serve faithfully and courageously, with all your strength?”
“Then rise, Sir Huang, knight of the realm.”
Huang Shaotian rose, lightheaded with exhilaration and summer heat. The court was clapping politely on all sides as he left the dais, a squire in the greys of Howling Heights stepping up to take his place. He sat down next to someone in the gold embroidery of Samsara, and when he glanced surreptiously around he caught Wei Chen looking at him with an expression of beaming pride before it was adjusted to sullen grumpiness. Huang Shaotian swallowed his own laughter and turned back to the dais, where Ye Qiu – at home in the robes of state in a way Ye Xiu would never be – was waiting for the next squire.
The remainder of the ceremony lasted for both an eternity and an instant, the shadows shifting around the high walls, and then they were all stumbling outside into the warm afternoon sunshine. Huang Shaotian lost track of Zheng Xuan in the commotion as they all staggered vaguely in the direction of the stables, lively with congratulations.
He was chattering away with Tian Sen and Li Yihui over the regional variations of undead – apparently the ambient magic layered in the Herb Gardens was a double-edged sword, in that it slowed the devastating environmental decay but also raised skeletons out of animals, though the witches that gathered in the gardens and surrounding forest constantly maintained a ward to prevent too-small skeletons from stirring, and given the abundance of mice and shrews and voles that lived in that region, he could perfectly understand their desire to avoid deceased rodent-induced famine – when Ye Xiu made his way up to them. “I understand congratulations are in order,” he said, “but I’m more impressed with how nobody’s run away from him yet.”
Tian Sen’s mouth twitched. Li Yihui looked torn between wanting to be polite and wanting to agree, which looked so funny on his earnest face that Huang Shaotian laughed first, and that was the ice broken. His conversation partners drifted off, and Ye Xiu leaned against the stall door with a pensive expression on his face.
“We might have to rename you as Saint,” he told the dapple grey inside. “Only a saint would keep listening once he gets going.”
“Well, Saint and I are really good friends, and that’s why he keeps listening,” Huang Shaotian said, deciding to sneak the horse the slightly-shrivelled apple he’d picked up for a snack at breakfast, except the ceremony had taken forever and dinner was around the corner now. “Unlike some friends I could think of,” he added pointedly. “Hey, which bracket are you in for the tournament tomorrow? I’m sure I owe you a thrashing, and this time I’m actually competing. Are you going to drop out in the later rounds again? You know that’s very rude right, what if the victor like me wanted to beat you as an opponent, did you ever think of that?”
“I thought of that, but then I thought the victor might like to be the victor instead of the runner-up. By the way, what’s our combat record again?”
Huang Shaotian busied himself patting the horse, who was nudging him for more treats.
“Huh, Saint must like you,” Ye Xiu commented. “You’ll find out tomorrow. I’m not giving anything away until then. We changed the structure around this year now that there’s more of you, so don’t expect it to be the same as last year’s.”
It was indeed nothing like last year’s, which had ended with a spectacular duel between Ye Xiu and Sun Zheping of Blossom Valley in the display bouts after the finals, since Ye Xiu had practiced his extremely irritating move of dropping out in the later rounds to avoid potentially becoming the victor in order to maintain the fairness of the Excellent Court in competition, or whatever. Huang Shaotian privately thought that it would be much more interesting to watch without the fairness. This year, however, Ye Xiu wasn’t even on the lists, which was just heart-stoppingly, breathtakingly rude of him when he was, willingly or not, the yardstick by which knights liked measuring themselves by, and the seven spirited challenges to him in the display bouts showed that Huang Shaotian wasn’t the only one who thought that way. At least he had the decency to meet them with good cheer before leaving them with a newfound knowledge of the taste of dirt.
There had been moments in their duel where Huang Shaotian felt the world teeter, slivers of opportunity thinner than a breath, but Ye Xiu had honed his gift for parrying to a far sharper point than Huang Shaotian had mastered opportunity-seeking and dirt-avoidance. But afterwards he thought it was no longer unfeasible to win; that winning duel was perhaps in the distant future, unknowable and unpredictable and inevitable all the same.
The celebrations opened merrily and closed even merrier when Su Muqiu announced, to everyone’s relief, that the leystone arrays were not only fixed but stable and safe again, since only the Herb Gardens had the fortune to be close enough for the journey to fit any definition of short. Huang Shaotian stood back and watched everyone leave, the stones flaring light as delegation by delegation disappeared.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Fang Shijing told him.
“If the pressure gets too much, take a nap,” was Zheng Xuan’s advice.
They disappeared in a wash of blue. The arrays wound down, magical light fading from their carvings until it was plain sunshine winking through the aquamarine again, and then Huang Shaotian was alone. He looked at the leystones for a while, wondering if he should mourn the quiet, simple life behind the portal that he’d never had and would never have, and turned and headed for the stables.
Wei Chen fell into step beside him before he’d gone twelve paces. “I’m fairly certain you’ve made up your mind, and you’re as annoying as a mosquito and as stubborn as twelve bulls, so I’m just going to remind you that the chance of you finding your warlock this far from midwinter is miniscule,” he said. “What are you going to do between now and then?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” Huang Shaotian told him. “Travel the glorious country, wander around, kill some monsters. You’ve all said I can’t die while the magic holds, and I can’t go insane so long as I have Ice Rain, so I’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“The magic could break at any time,” Wei Chen retorted, “and Ice Rain is excellently enchanted, but you could still get seriously injured.”
“Then I’ll just have to not get seriously injured,” Huang Shaotian said, grinning at the exasperated fondness on Wei Chen’s face. “I’m good enough for that. You know I’m good enough for that.”
They had reached the stables. “That’s the part I’m worried about,” Wei Chen said, as Huang Shaotian went to greet Saint. “Here. Take this.”
He looked up from the saddle to see Wei Chen holding out a delicate teardrop pin. “We had a three hour fight over how specific it should be,” he said, “but it will deflect about five fatal blows, which better be good enough. It shines brighter than the sun when it’s in use, though, so you might want to talk fast after the first one.”
That was powerful magic. Huang Shaotian carefully took off his breastplate and pinned it on his tunic, and leaned forward to surprise Wei Chen with a hug.
“Thanks,” he said, muffled into his shoulder. “For everything.”
“You should be,” Wei Chen agreed, but he squeezed back tightly.
The leystones groaned awake as he led Saint through the courtyard, the last traveller of the day. “Good luck,” both Su siblings told him.
“Kill some dragons, Sir Huang,” Ye Xiu said.
They shook hands. Huang Shaotian guided his horse to the centre of the array. There was a moment of freefalling night, and the sound of wailing wind, and then he was standing in the middle of a field, green stretching as far as the eye could see.
Huang Shaotian swung himself into the saddle.
Riding through the untamed frontiers of the glorious country was its own kind of paradise.
Huang Shaotian had no direction in mind and no interest in choosing just one, which let him ride in whichever direction he or Saint fancied. They raced a spirit of the eastern wind down into a valley of clouds, and spent eight days tracing the edges of a lake that knew no bounds. He’d known on an abstract level that magic tended to perform more freely when it was left uncontrolled, creating things as beautiful as they were terrible, but it was one thing to know and quite another to see a jewel of a songbird turn into a pink, wriggling mass of eyes and beaks as it descended on a hapless worm. The sun shone with the same consistency regardless of its position in the sky, and at night the moon never waned from its fullness, and the fires Huang Shaotian built never spat out sparks that could ignite a stray dry reed. Water sources sprang up wherever he rested, even if he had scouted the area before and found no trace of water, but not a single wisp of cloud made its way across the sky – except when he drew Ice Rain, whereupon the fragrant warmth of the glorious country would be replaced with a bone-numbing chill, and the heavens poured out several floods’ worth of rain that stung and lashed his skin, although the ground itself never seemed to become waterlogged.
In the first month he met only three other living souls, mages who loved the power in their surroundings and who could cope with the whimsy and tingling unearthliness of the glorious country, or at least believed they could cope with the whimsy and tingling unearthliness of the glorious country. Two of them were quite mad, and the third seemed utterly unaware of the way her right side alternated between flesh and smoky crystal. None had heard of Swoksaar, or the Blue Temple, although one of the mad – a ghostblade, if the remnants of the shattered blade around him was any indication – had, in what might have been a moment of lucidity, screamed at him to run before he couldn’t anymore. Huang Shaotian had taken his advice, and ran next to Saint for an entire day until his stitches threatened to have stitches.
Maddening country, Su Muqiu had called it, and Huang Shaotian understood perfectly.
In the second month, or something approximating that timeframe, he rode west as hard as he could. The ground whirled by in a haze of multicoloured green, inviting and lovely, and only the freezing burn of Ice Rain’s hilt against his fingers kept him from veering carefree into the fields. For three days, or what Huang Shaotian guessed to be three days, the sun never sailed below the horizon, and a procession of twisted, knobbly trees appeared over and over again on his left. He drew his sword and sliced one of them down, and rode through the ensuing downpour until the grass Saint trampled over was no longer green but strained with yellow and brown, and when he slid his sword back into the scabbard there were clouds lined in gold and pink following the red sun below the horizon.
The closest village dated him well into autumn, with the nearest castle being those of Howling Heights. They didn’t know anything about a Blue Temple. Huang Shaotian slept outside in the fields under a clouded sky, and saddled up and rode north the following day.
This time, he thought he could feel the point at where he entered the glorious country, in the way a shiver of ice skittered down his spine. Then Saint – as trained in the skill of fighting monsters as any knight was – bolted, and a spiked tail punctured the air where Huang Shaotian had been less than a breath before.
Kill some dragons indeed, he thought to himself, only slightly hysterical, and charged.
The glorious country did not give him the sun and water and warmth he remembered. It threw at him uneven earth and dry, hot wind, carrying the dragon’s fire until the entire field blazed, sparks igniting other sparks in seething conflagration. But the rain poured and poured and poured, the heat wicked away by Ice Rain’s unyielding frost, and eventually he found a run that slit the dragon open from jaw to tail. It crashed into the ground, blood hissing onto the earth, and glowered balefully at him before crawling away, the wound steaming as it closed scale by scale.
When the sun reappeared it was sullen, and the water sources were choked with green. Huang Shaotian gave them a wide berth.
He lost track of time soon after that, riding through what had to be days and days of forest so thick the sun never reached the ground, not that it stopped every bush and low tree branch from bristling all over with fruit. The forest ended at the foot of a mountain wearing a crown of clouds, which took three days to round. On the other side of the mountain, winter had visited the glorious country, and every blade of grass bore a white rime of frost that clung to his clothing and refused to melt. Snow crunched pleasantly underfoot as he walked.
Crystal butterflies flashed their rainbow wings in the air, and crystal birds dived to catch them. If he squinted just right, they became tangled hordes of feathers and ice hiding a darkness so pitch it could outdim any moonless and starless night. Ice Rain crushed any creature that tried to land on him without hesitation.
The village he walked into had snow-laden roofs, its inhabitants equally snow-covered as they shuffled around with no lively gait. None of them glanced at him as he passed, even though Huang Shaotian was certain that a knight and a horse, in this place, was rarer than the sight of a unicorn. He’d seen plenty of unicorns in the glorious country, but not a single other knight.
He reached out to catch one of their arms, and it broke away in his hands. The person – though it was a long time since they had been a person – continued drifting away, a dull orange light throbbing in the torso cavity the detached arm had revealed. A wraith, gifted by the whimsy of magic with the trappings of snow, but in possession of nothing more.
“Do any of you know where the Blue Temple is?” he called.
Silence was his only answer.
Huang Shaotian found a mage, sane for once, just outside the village, dressed in eye-searing green and tending to a patch of land where the snow had melted in a perfect square. The broom in his hands seemed as if it had seen better days, but his expression was perfectly content as he swept the soil around. Witch, he guessed, but the only person Huang Shaotian knew from the Herb Gardens was Li Yihui.
He cleared his throat. “Hi,” he said, except the next words that came out weren’t a question on the whereabouts of the Blue Temple but, much more mortifyingly, a demanding, “How are you sane?”
The witch bursted into reassuringly human laughter, and no amount of squinting or tilting his head made them turn into an eldritch nightmare. A green talisman melted in the witch’s fingers, drifting in bright motes to the ground, and the crisp winter air softened. “If you never plan or intend to leave,” he said amidst his laughter, “the glorious country is very kind.”
Huang Shaotian hesitated. “It doesn’t disturb you?” he finally asked, when his curiosity finished pitching its short battle against his politeness. “Everything here is so, well…”
He didn’t find the right word for it, but the witch nodded all the same. “I understand,” he said. “It’s quite eerie at first. But I went through the mists. Some things you can’t pick and choose, and you can’t ignore either. It would disturb me more to not acknowledge this. And who are you?”
“Huang Shaotian, knight,” Huang Shaotian answered, relieved for the change in topic. “I’m here to look for the Blue Temple. Have you ever heard of a warlock with style name Swoksaar?”
The witch shook his head. “I wish I could say yes, but I haven’t got a clue. But you should leave before you can’t. Buildings don’t last long in the glorious country. You’d be better off searching a map.”
“It’s not on any map,” Huang Shaotian said, and made up his mind and added, “but I’ll take the advice. Do you want me to carry a message out?”
The witch smiled. “No need,” he said airily. “The Herb Gardens know where I am. Some of them are even insistent on visiting, though they really know better.”
It took two weeks for Huang Shaotian to find the exit this time, riding a hard east until it seemed as if he was riding into the very sun with how it peered unmoving above the horizon in a great red disk of fire while the moon cycled through an alternately blue and poison pink sky. Lightning webbed periodically above his head, and the ground sprouted swampland infested with wide-eyed ghosts that watched him go by silently, seethingly, and then all of a sudden there were paved stones under him and a yellow sun in a faded-blue sky above, and Huang Shaotian had to blink several times to adjust to the change in light.
Wobbly icicles dangled off the branches of nearby trees. He broke one off, light and slick in his hands, then let Saint follow the road in search of civilisation and of someone to tell him the approximate date. There was no point going back into the glorious country again if his deadline had already passed, although if it had passed Huang Shaotian felt as if some part of him should have known. They passed over a river, frozen solid without a hint of the eldritch lurking in its depths, and crested a hill that didn’t grow with them, and both were so simply normal Huang Shaotian felt almost lightheaded over the uncertainty of whether to laugh or cry.
The village he rode into was snow-covered and wraithless, and its inhabitants perfectly happy to offer him an approximation of the date: not quite midwinter, but very soon, and the world wavered briefly around him at those words. They hadn’t heard of the Blue Temple, but they agreed the lord of the castle might have, and he was just over a day away on foot, so a horse could make it there faster, perhaps even before nightfall. Somewhat oddly, none of them knew what the castle was called, but considering the tendency of the peasants around Blue Rain to simply refer to the whole region as the Rain Delta, it wasn’t too surprising to only hear the name bestowed onto the general area. If the land lived up to its name, Huang Shaotian was going to have to expect to cross a lot of brooks.
It was indeed nearing nightfall when he finally arrived at the castle, a practical piece of architecture that blotted out the sky. He lifted one hand to rap the knocker – brass, he thought, though it was a little hard to tell in the dusk – and felt the world slow around him, something quiet and breathless with dreaded anticipation, as if everything had been culminating to this moment he had foreseen, but never quite known.
Huang Shaotian knocked.