The Daozhang wasn’t at the house in the morning. Xue Yang usually woke when the other man rose from the floor and rolled up his bed – quietly, trying not to disturb him, but years of living on the street had gifted Xue Yang with sharp hearing. He was usually lying in his bed, guessing what the Daozhang was doing from the sounds. But this time, he couldn’t hear any of the usual noises, nor the light breathing of a sleeping person. And the bedroll wasn’t put away; he bumped into it when he got up.
Xue Yang put on his clothes and left for the yard. The air was fresh – in a morning kind of way, not nighttime-like. Birds were chirping on the roof, and rustling sounds of a little mouse romping about were coming from under the porch. From behind the house, he could hear steady thuds of a hoe hitting the ground. Xue Yang grinned and followed the sound. There was no chance of A-Qing working at the garden at this hour, as the girl liked to sleep in and never got up before the sun did. And there was no sun yet, that Xue Yang could feel.
“Did I wake you?” the Daozhang asked when Xue Yang reached the rows. “I’m sorry.”
“No, you didn’t, I just woke by myself. What are you doing up so early?”
“I want to dry some herbs for the winter. It’s best to collect them at dawn, as they lose their strength later. And I decided to rake the soil while I’m here.”
“Do you need them often, those herbs?”
“Sometimes.” There was a sound of rustling clothes, and Xue Yang imagined how the Daozhang stood up over the rows and stretched his back. “I’m going to sell most of them to doctors. Do you want me to show you what grows here?”
Xue Yang mentally rolled his eyes – what use were those herbs if you couldn’t even eat them? – but sank to the ground next to the Daozhang and held out his hand. The Daozhang took it into his and directed it towards the plants.
“This is bellflower, it helps with fever. This one is burnet, it stops bleeding. Skullcap keeps away heat. Baneberry is a good antidote, it will save you even from corpse poisoning. Mint has a soothing effect. Sage treats inflammation…”
Xue Yang touched the leaves and stalks, memorizing the information. These herbs seemed really useful. The mint leaves were pleasantly fluffy and soft. When pressed, they smelled fresh and sweet. Xue Yang ran his fingers over a bunch of cutleaf anemones, and then over the Daozhang’s palm. The man shuddered and froze, but didn’t pull his hand away.
“You have calluses,” Xue Yang commented. He didn’t have to explain what kind of calluses he had in mind.
“You have them too.”
Xue Yang shrugged his shoulders.
“You saw them.”
“I did. But I told you that I wouldn’t ask.”
“What’s there to ask about?” Xue Yang frowned. Something was coming together, arranging itself into a new picture. “You smelled of herbs. On that day, when you found me. And Little Blind said that you’d been sick. But you cultivators never get sick…”
He leaned closer, sniffed and clarified:
“By the way, you still smell like that.”
The Daozhang let out a soft laugh.
“Didn’t A-Qing tell you that I go on night hunts?”
“Usually. This time, however, something angered them terribly. They almost ripped my throat open. It happens sometimes, as this is a very bad place. There used to be a lot of robbers in this area, so there are many restless spirits around, as they left the dead simply lying there, without a proper burial. I had to tell A-Qing that I got a sore throat from a cold. She doesn’t know that we can’t get sick. And I- I don’t want her to worry. I don’t want her to be afraid of being left on her own once again.”
And then he added, in a completely different tone, as though he hadn’t just been talking about his own demise but about some trifle:
“The scent you can feel now – it’s coming from my clothes. I usually add sage to water when I wash my hanfu. It repels insect, and I also simply enjoy its smell.”
He enjoys the smell, huh… But how lucky did the Daozhang have to be, to have a fierce corpse grabbing his throat and not killing him? Xue Yang let out an involuntary cough. He controlled the dead – with the Stygian Tiger Seal, nails and spells – but even as he amused himself with them, made them obey ridiculous commands or shred each other to pieces, he was aware of their strength. And the Daozhang didn’t have the Seal. Just his sword. Some talismans, probably. And he was alone. Even powerful cultivators didn’t go night-hunting by themselves. And the Daozhang was hardly powerful, if he lived in a middle of nowhere and bought rotten fruits at the market – what cultivator would deign to do that?
And how long will this luck last?
Had that fierce corpse been a little more agile, or the Daozhang less lucky, he wouldn’t have returned from that hunt. And wouldn’t have found Xue Yang. This was why the idea that the Daozhang could’ve died made him feel so alarmed. Yes, this makes sense. The Daozhang fed him, let him live in his home – that’s why Xue Yang didn’t want him to die. Everything was as it should be.
“What’re you doing here, Daozhang?”
“I- live here?” the Dozhang replied, slightly befuddled.
“But why here? You could become a part of some sect, leave for a big city – why do you stay here? This place,” Xue Yang frowned, waving his hand in the vague direction of the town, “is a shithole. A funeral home, all these coffins – who in their right mind would stay here? And as you say, dark creatures keep coming at you, and you don’t even get paid for that. Are you hiding from someone, or what?”
This, he thought, was a very likely reason, given that the Daozhang had been very understanding in face of Xue Yang’s reluctance to divulge his name. They could’ve had much more in common than it seemed.
The Daozhang was silent. Xue Yang was readying himself for being told very carefully, even politely, as was the Daozhang’s habit, not to stick his nose into other people’s business, but he was wrong.
“I grew up in a monastery,” the Daozhang spoke up quietly. “It was very secluded. We didn’t see the world at all, didn’t know what was going on in there. We just knew that there was a lot of evil and suffering. In the monastery, everything was simple – what is black and what is white, what is good and what is evil. Ba- our teacher said that we must focus solely on cultivation, and everything else is just fleeting and meaningless. But I couldn’t live like that. If there was evil somewhere, and I could fight it – was it not my duty to do so? That’s why I left the monastery. I decided to restore justice, destroy evil, help people, things like that.” He laughed hollowly. “Can you imagine how naïve I was?”
“Yeah,” Xue Yang snorted. If the holy Daozhang thought his younger self naïve, it was terrifying to imagine what he had been like then, given what he was like even now. “Let me guess – it didn’t end well?”
The Daozhang chuckled.
“It could have been worse. All that happened was that one day, I learned that the world doesn’t need justice. That people are willing to put up with evil if they see some benefit in it. Not some bandits, or at least ignorant people, but noblemen, the kind who rule other people and lands. And the common people are the same… Everything that I dreamed of turned out to be useless. I wanted to save the world, but no one needed that from me. I-”
“Was disappointed in the world?” Xue Yang suggested emphatically. The Daozhang was definitely still a naïve fool, but so earnest that Xue Yang almost felt pity for him. The Daozhang could’ve stayed holed up in his monastery, but no, he had to go and try to save the world. And the world would eat him alive for it; he was lucky that he got off so lightly.
“In myself. I didn’t know what to do. To keep fighting evil is not as easy when you’re not sure that the evil is where your sword is pointing at, and not behind your back, waiting for you to clear its way. Or I could sit idly, not doing anything – but what would be the point of living? So I just went where the road took me, and came here. The people in this town really need help. A-Qing needed it, too. And you as well. And here we are,” the Daozhang finished with a deep sigh. “I’m sorry for talking too much. I wanted you to understand.”
“Why didn’t you go back to your monastery?”
“Those who leave are not allowed to return ever again. Our teacher forbade it. I was aware of this when I left.”
“Yeah, sure,” Xue Yang snorted. “So you wouldn’t tell them what kind of shit they fed you with.”
“You’re being unfair.”
“Unfair?!” Xue Yang abruptly withdrew his hand, which had still been held by the Daozhang without him noticing. “Let’s see. They taught you all kinds of righteous things, told you what’s good and just, scared you with the horrible world outside. Told you that everything around was bad, and only you were the good guys. And if someone dares to go out in that world with the best possible intentions, they just kick him out if he ever returns. Wow, such goodness! So you now live in your little town and get deceived at the market. You’ve got nobody to dress your wounds, and when the dead tear you apart, nobody thanks you for that. And where are your teachers? Where are your classmates? Where are they all? There’s no one, and do you want to know why? Because they don’t give a fuck about you now! Your precious teachers are exactly the same as the people you helped who already forgot you. But of course they did, because this world is the way it is – the more you do for people, the more they take from you in return. No one here pretends to be holy. But your teachers pretended to care for you and then washed their hands off you when you refused to follow their rules. That’s some bullshit, I’m telling you.”
“It’s not like that,” the Daozhang objected quietly. “The people living in the monastery devote their lives to cultivation. If I returned, I would lose my old goal without attaining the new one. They told me that I would meet with injustice in this world, but for some reason I didn’t think it would be aimed at me. Yes, I was too naïve and arrogant, but every child falls downs when he learns to walk. I know there are people who’d help me. I have a friend… we had a fight, but if I came to him, he would forgive me. But I don’t want to go back. I want to get to know this world, as it really is. If I do that, then I might be able to help it in some way.”
“And you’re telling me that you were arrogant,” Xue Yang grumbled. He couldn’t help but feel offended on the Daozhang’s behalf. As if it wasn’t enough that he wanted to do good by everyone, and got punched in the face for all his trouble; he had to blame himself for that on top of it. As if it had been bound to happen. Of course, this was what always happened to good people, Xue Yang knew that well, but the Daozhang… the Daozhang was different. This shouldn’t have happened to him. “Do you think yourself less arrogant now?”
“You have no idea,” the Daozhang chuckled. “At that time, I didn’t even think there was something I couldn’t do. I even wanted to start my own sect. Thank gods that it didn’t come to that. It would have been embarrassing to no end.”
Xue Yang joined in his laughter.
“Oh, that wouldn’t be so bad – the Sect of Holy Daozhangs, I can totally picture it. You’d pick up blind people left and right, indulge crooked merchants and sleep in coffins. People will even make legends about you, mark my words!”
“Chengmei!” the Daozhang whined between bouts of laughter. “What are you talking about? I don’t sleep in a coffin!”
“Oh, so you’ve got nothing against the merchants?”
“I’ve got you,” the Daozhang said, no longer laughing. And it made Xue Yang feel so… light that he momentarily found himself at a loss.
“Yeah,” he said after a beat, trying to come up with more outlandish ideas. When the Daozhang was laughing, everything somehow become simple. Everything felt right. “I’ll be… the demon of retribution of your sect, that’s what I’ll be. As soon as someone thinks of offending your adepts, I’ll appear and stick an apple down their throat. Oh, Daozhang, imagine,“ he waved his hands around, “after a few years, your sect will get its own temple, and there’ll be two huge murals: you wearing all white with healing herbs in your hands, as the founder of the sect, and me wearing all black, with an apple as the symbol of retribution. And people will worship me as well,” he added, immensely satisfied with his idea. “They might even bring some offerings.”
The Daozhang laughed so hard he could hardly speak.
“Something like that,” Xue Yang answered evasively. He actually imagined a bowl with cut-off tongues. Or eyes. If he was going to be a demon, the offerings should look the part, shouldn’t they?
“What are you two laughing about?” A-Qing yelled at them from the yard, and Xue Yang heard steps coming their way. “Won’t let a poor girl sleep…”
“We decided to establish a new sect,” Xue Yang shouted at her. “The Sect of Healing Herbs and Apples of Retribution.”
“What kind of stupid name is that? And what about me, will I be in your sect?”
“No, you won’t,” Xue Yang told her merrily. “Women are not allowed in our sect.”
“Why the hell not?!” A-Qing spluttered with indignation, already right next to them. “Who said that? Do you think me worse than you, just because I’m a woman?”
“They’re allowed, don’t worry,” the Daozhang hurried to reassure her while still laughing. “Of course you can be in our sect.”
“Of course,” Xue Yang agreed. “Someone has to sweep the floor in our temple.”
“Sweep your floor yourself!”
“The floor-sweeping will be the job of junior adepts,” the Daozhang suggested in a conciliatory manner. “And you will be a teacher. You will teach young and stupid adepts all the wisdom of this world.”
“I could do that,” A-Qing said proudly. “Do you think I know nothing about life? I definitely know more than some stuffy scholar. They just read books and know nothing of real life. Oh, I could teach them a thing or two!” She laughed with satisfaction. “Teacher A-Qing, ha-ha! Sounds good to me.”
“And that’s the end of our sect,” Xue Yang summed it up mournfully.
“I didn’t think that I’d able to laugh about it one day,” the Daozhang said in a hushed voice, when ‘Teacher A-Qing’ left for the house while mumbling something under her nose. She was probably preparing lectures for her future students. “Not the way I laugh about my lost illusions, but for real. You are a remarkable person, Chengmei. The longer I talk to you, the more I’m aware of how much I don’t know about you.”
Xue Yang’s smile had frozen on his lips, when he felt a touch on his palm. The gesture was gentle, yet firm. The Daozhang took his hand not to get his attention, but to express sincere liking towards him.
Oh yes, there was a lot of things the Daozhang didn’t know. That the person beside him was a murderer who massacred a whole clan – no less than fifty people – and if he were to count everyone he killed over the course of his life, the number would reach a full hundred. He raised the dead and made they obey him. And if he thought of everything he planned to do in revenge against Jin Guangyao and his henchmen, Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan and all the others who had the misfortune to cross his path, hardly anyone could compete with him in cruelty. Except maybe the Yiling Patriarch; Xue Yang still had far to go to match him.
Would the Daozhang hold his hand if he knew about all this? Or would he recoil in horror and disgust? Would his holy friendship extend not just to Chengmei, but to Xue Yang as well?
After all, Xue Yang will remain Xue Yang, whatever his name may be. And the Chengmei that the Daozhang wanted to get to know so bad will disappear just as soon Xue Yang finishes planning his revenge and leaves this house. And it will be better for everyone this way.
“Your herbs,” he said, and his mouth felt as bitter as though those herbs got stuck in his throat, “are you done picking them?”
“Yes, I am,” the Daozhang answered in a light tone, ignoring his spoiled mood. “They’re here, in the basket. Now I need to wash their roots and separate the leaves from the stalks. Would you like to help me?”
I could help you kill someone, thought Xue Yang. Give them a beating, scare them, torture them. But all this – living in this house, talking with you, your herbs – I don’t know what to do with it.
“Of course,” was what he said, clasping the Daozhang’s hand in return. “You’ll show me how.”