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A World Filled With the Scent of Sage

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“Daozhang, tell us a story,” A-Qing requested.

They were sitting in the yard. The sun had already set but the air was still warm – summer had only just started to give way to autumn and Xue Yang only knew about it because the morning chill lasted longer. The Daozhang was repairing a basket he used when he went to the market while A-Qing was doing nothing, as always. Xue Yang was sharpening knives. It turned out that there were only two of them in the house, a big one and a smaller one, and the Daozhang used both knives for cooking, so Xue Yang couldn’t make away with not even one of them. But the Daozhang gladly allowed him to sharpen them.

“I don’t know any stories,” the Daozhang replied, not for the first time. “Sorry. No one ever told me stories when I was young.”

At times, something would come over A-Qing and she would behave like a child. She would get fussy, make a nuisance of herself, demand to be picked up and held like a baby or, just like now, request a story. Xue Yang was of the opinion that such silliness would be best cured with a few smacks on the head, but the Daozhang wouldn’t let him. He said that it was because she didn’t have a happy childhood.

Who did have a happy childhood? Xue Yang thought with scorn.

“Really? Not even once?”

“My parents died when I was very young. Even if they told me any stories, I don’t remember them anymore.”

“And how old were you when you came to the monastery?”

“Five or six.”

“And your teachers didn’t tell you any stories?”

“No,” the Daozhang replied drily.

“Right,” Xue Yang intoned, hoping that the Daozhang would get the hidden ‘your teachers weren’t worth a damn’.

The Daozhang just sighed. It seemed that he got it.

“What about you, Chengmei?” A-Qing switched to a new victim. “Don’t you know at least one story?”

“Who the hell needs stories,” Xue Yang grumbled. “Everyone in them lies.”

“Come on, tell us something.”

“Something,” Xue Yang repeated thoughtfully. He suddenly realized that he wanted to talk. Not for A-Qing’s sake but the Daozhang’s. He wanted to show him at least a part of the real Xue Yang. This part, which was not dangerous and wouldn’t repulse, would be a good starting point.

“Alright, I’ll tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a little boy…”

To someone else, this story might seem just like an ordinary tale of an aggrieved child. To Xue Yang, it meant much, much more. It was then when he learned what revenge meant – not just a desire to strike back, but a passion carefully nurtured and grown in one’s heart. It was giving strength and meaning to his whole life, guiding his steps forward. Revenge was calling him, and everything Xue Yang did was subjected to that call. He stole food and money, learned to fight first with his fists and then with a sword in order to get his revenge.

When he was finished with the Chang Clan and that initial fierce joy he felt when he finally dealt with that bastard Chang Cian subsided, Xue Yang actually felt a kind of emptiness inside. There was no more purpose, and life began to seem insipid to him. He got into fights, fooled around with resentful energy, raised the dead, but it was all wrong. Boring. Useless.

And then along came Xiao Xingchen and life once again acquired the familiar flavor.

Xue Yang naturally didn’t say anything about that. His story for the Daozhang and A-Qing ended on a dirty courtyard – with injustice, pain and a crippled hand. They didn’t need to know the rest.

“What an asshole!” A-Qing exclaimed in indignation when the tale was over. “Killing him wouldn’t be enough!”

Xue Yang started to laugh.

“Exactly!”  

“If I were you, I would find him and… do something. Throw dog shit inside his house! Or wait for him on the street and pour manure over his head!”

“He got what he deserved,” Xue Yang assured her. The revenge plans A-Qing came up with were laughable, but still pleasant to hear.

A-Qing was not appeased.

“It’s horrible how many assholes walk this Earth! And where were the others looking? When I was on the streets, I also got treated badly from time to time but someone always came to my help. Why didn’t anyone help you?”

“Because you were a cute girl, blind on top of it. And me? I was just a dirty ragamuffin.”

And thanks be to all gods that he wasn’t a cute boy. At least in this respect he got lucky.

“And what say you, Daozhang?” Xue Yang asked. He didn’t like that the Daozhang remained silent while he was talking about his misfortune, and didn’t say a word after Xue Yang finished. “How did you like my tale?”

Even a direct question didn’t merit an answer right away.

“It was… a horrible injustice,” the Daozhang said slowly. “All those people took their anger out on an innocent child. I am very sorry that this happened to you. And that there was no one who’d protect you.”

“Do you also think that killing them wouldn’t be enough?”

This question was met with an even longer spell of silence.

“I don’t know,” the Daozhang said finally. “I wouldn’t kill them but asked for their punishment. But it wasn’t me who suffered.”

Of course, Xue Yang thought viciously, of course you wouldn’t kill them. You’d forgive them everything, you holy fool.

The Daozhang lived on his mountain, where he didn’t have to think about how to get through the day. On the mountain, he just had to sit on his ass, read prayers and meditate while there was food every day. He did not understand that a broken hand didn’t mean simply pain. Without a hand, one cannot even earn a handful of rice, or fight off other vagrants. Chang Cian nearly killed Xue Yang; it was no thanks to him that the boy clang too much to his life, and the local doctor, who accidentally stumbled upon him two days later, was too compassionate. Xue Yang involuntarily wiggled his fingers – those that the doctor managed to save. They sometimes ached from damp weather, but they worked almost as well as those on his other hand. And now, too, they were almost healed.

“And I would kill them!” A-Qing cried again. “If I started to beat him with my stick, he’d be sorry in no time!”

“It’s past your bedtime, A-Qing.”

“It’s not!”

“It’s already late. You got your story, did you not?”

“But Daozhang!” the girl whined, but it was to no avail. “Alright, I’ll go, but you’ll have to carry me. My legsʼve gotten stiff, I can’t stand up.”

“You can crawl,” Xue Yang snorted. “Your coffin’s right there.”

“But Daozhang!”

“You’re a big girl, A-Qing,” said the Daozhang, but it was clear he wasn’t going to deny her. “And you still behave yourself like a little child.”

“That’s not true! I really can’t stand up!”

“She’s lying,” Xue Yang couldn’t help but snap, when the rustling sounds and A-Qing’s satisfied giggling told him that the Daozhang did pick the girl up despite his protests. “She just wants you to carry her. Don’t believe her, Daozhang.”

“So what if I do,” argued A-Qing, who was granted her wish. “It’s not such a hardship for the Daozhang. What’s your deal? Didn’t you get carried as a child? It’s nice!”

“I don’t know,” Xue Yang replied with a shrug. He didn’t remember anything like that. “I was probably carried when I was just a baby.”

“And later?” the Daozhang asked.

A-Qing was already in her coffin, settling down in a pile of blankets.

“If I understand correctly, you also lost your parents early.”

“I don’t remember them at all. It might be that they died, or they just wanted to get rid of me. What’s the difference? I managed to survive on my own.”

He didn’t think much of it. So he didn’t have parents. And who did have them? Some children whose parents made them beg on the streets and then took all the money away, even food, if the children didn’t eat it fast enough. Or children with parents who would beat them until their whole body turned black and blue. Xue Yang had seen such children and parents, and thought that being an orphan was better.

The Daozhang suddenly came close, grabbed his arms and threw them around his neck. Xue Yang didn’t even have the time to protest.

“Hold tight.”

“Wh-what?”

And then there were arms under his back and knees and he was being picked up.

“Daozhang!”

“Stop kicking or I’ll drop you.”

Xue Yang clung to his neck, because what else he was left to do, and the Daozhang carried him into the house, accompanied by A-Qingʼs mocking laughter. He walked as easily as if Xue Yang weighed nothing. And when they passed through the doorway, Xue Yang’s feet didn’t even brush the doorframe. Cultivators really were something else.

It seemed that A-Qing had been right. Being carried was… nice.

The Daozhang carefully lowered him on the bed and became still. Xue Yang didn’t remove his hands, and the Daozhang didn’t try to move away. His hair fell on Xue Yang’s throat, its cool touch tickling his skin, and his robes gave out a faint, almost imperceptible fragrance of sage.

“Lean closer, Daozhang,” Xue Yang whispered. “Remember I can’t see you.”

Warm breath touched his lips, and all Xue Yang had to do was to tilt his head a little upwards.

They kissed so carefully as though both of them were blind and learned each other for the first time with the touch of their lips. The Daozhang’s lips were dry and soft; Xue Yang imagined gnawing at them with his teeth and tormenting them, tearing them apart and then licking the blood away.

But he didn’t want to. He wanted exactly this – for the Daozhang to kiss him of his own accord. Slowly, not rushing anywhere. Xue Yang could not resist and licked with the very tip of his tongue. Then he sighed in disappointment when the Daozhang pulled back.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Xue Yang let him go and the Daozhang sat down on the bed, leaning against the headboard. Xue Yang immediately pulled himself with his arms, hoisted himself up to press his back against him, and felt himself being embraced.

This was also nice. To sit in silence, enjoy the warmth of someone else’s body and feel light touches of the other’s lips on his temple. He might doze off like this, but the Daozhang would probably get uncomfortable...

“Your story,” the Daozhang said suddenly, and Xue Yang involuntarily tensed. “What happened next?”

“You’re better not knowing, Daozhang.”

“But I want to,” the Daozhang objected. “I want to know you. Is that wrong?”

“Oh well…” Xue Yang laid his head on the Daozhang’s shoulder. He asked for this himself, so what was Xue Yang to do? “The boy grew up but he didn’t forget how he lost his finger. The day came when he found the man who treated him so cruelly. And killed him.”

“I understand.”

What is it that you understand, Xue Yang thought while anger rose in his chest like a provoked snake. That he killed Chang Cian? And the Daozhang would now say that it’s horrible, naturally, but because of the child’s suffering he is ready to understand and justify such a cruel deed? If that was the case, then he’d probably know even less about Xue Yang than if the latter had remained silent.

So listen well, Daozhang, and remember that you asked for it yourself. You wanted to bring justice to the world? This is this world’s justice for you. Try to accept it and not run back to your mountain.

“When I went to kill him,” Xue Yang went on, smiling and realizing how repulsive that smile must look, “he had the time to call for help. His relatives came running. I told them why I killed him, and do you know what? They were all on his side. They called me a criminal and wanted to turn me to the authorities to punish me for his murder. As if it was just a murder! They were the same, Daozhang. They were all just like him. And would have done the same thing. That’s why I killed them all.”

He took a pause, as if to remember, and then added, “It was about fifty people. I didn’t really count, you know. Didn’t have the time for that.”

The grip of the arms embracing him was as hard as if they were made of iron, but Xue Yang didn’t try to break free. On the contrary – had the Daozhang tried to pull away, he’d grab onto him and not let him go. The snake in his chest was filled with poison, and wanted to spill it all out on the one who had awakened it.

“What happened next?” the Daozhang repeated, his voice sounding like that of a stranger.

“Then along came a fair hero who was horrified by my evil deeds and wanted to hold me accountable. Daozhang Xiao Xingchen – also a Daozhang, what a funny coincidence, right? He brought me to the Lanling Jin Clan and asked them to execute me.” Xue Yang started to laugh when he remembered the noble indignation Xiao Xingchen burned with. If his Daozhang used to have only a half of that idealistic self-righteousness in his youth, it was no wonder he didn’t want to remember it. “But that fool didn’t have any idea that the clan leader already hired me for some work he didn’t want anyone to know about, so he naturally didn’t want to get rid of a useful man like that. At first he changed the death penalty into imprisonment – and it was a very comfortable prison, trust me on that. And then he let me go. Imagine the indignation of all those rightful cultivators, when they found out that I got away! The Clan Leader Nie almost had a stroke. I had never laughed so hard in my life as I did then.”

It was indeed funny. Xue Yang didn’t see it for himself, but he imagined how much Jin Guangyao had to squirm to explain setting a criminal free to the other clans while not spoiling the Jin Clan’s relationship with them. The whore’s son was a master of evading direct questions, saying one thing while suggesting another, and he did all that with an amicable, respectful smile. He probably learned that in the brothel he grew up in, as whores are supposed to be smiling and accommodating, while luring money and gifts from their clients, and bad-mouthing them behind their backs.

“If you were such a valuable person, how come you ended up lying on that road, wounded on top of that?”

“That’s obvious, Daozhang,” Xue Yang said with a wide smile. “First they needed me, and then they didn’t. That’s how it always goes. I thought that I would be able to feel that something was wrong and run away in time, but the whore’s son got the better of me. What can I say… he should’ve killed me himself, not entrust it to his goons. That was his mistake. When I come after him, he’ll be sorry a thousand times over that he didn’t order them to cut my head off before they threw me on the road like garbage.”

“If I’m not wrong, by the whore’s son you’re referring to Jin Guangyao,” the Daozhang said drily.

Xue Yang erupted into laughter.

“This is priceless! Even a poor Daozhang from this backwoods town knows that Jin Guangyao is a son of a whore. Do you know how much he wanted everyone to forget that? And his father continued to hang about brothels and Jin Guangyao had to fetch him from there numerous times, to appease Madame Jin. You should’ve seen his face when he watched his father and his whores. You’d have rolled with laughter!”

The Daozhang didn’t laugh. How strange; usually he’d laugh over every trifle, and now there was something so amusing and he didn’t. He didn’t understand anything. It was so funny to remark in passing that Jin Guangyao perhaps didn’t have difficulties in finding his esteemed father, who was indulging himself in some house of pleasures, because he knew his father’s tastes very well and was able to navigate the many brothels of Lanling with ease – and then watch that ever-present polite smile freeze on the beautiful face of its owner. It brought him a pleasure sweeter than candies.

Xue Yang took the liberty of provoking Jin Guangyao because he knew that the man wouldn’t touch him until he received the Stygian Tiger Seal. After its completion, he was hoping to promise to the clan leader several more interesting things, buying himself safety and new opportunities. Who could have known that Jin Guangyao would decide to get rid of him the moment he got the Seal, and succeed in catching Xue Yang unawares.

“You killed fifty people,” the Daozhang said slowly. “Out of revenge. You were blinded. Stabbed with a sword. And left to die. If I hadn’t found you, you’d have died. That… might be considered capital punishment.”

“It didn’t happen only thanks to you,” Xue Yang sniggered. “It seems that you obstructed justice, Daozhang.”

“That will be on my conscience.”

Now what was that supposed to mean? Xue Yang only meant it as a joke!

“It was no punishment,” Xue Yang said with emphasis. “The whore’s son wanted to get rid of me, and mock me one last time. But he didn’t see things to the end, so now it’s my turn. I will find a way to get at him. None of those who tried to kill me will lead a peaceful life on this Earth. That’s justice, Daozhang. Not yours. But it’s the only justice that can exist in this world.”

The iron grip around him became even tighter, as though the Daozhang was afraid that Xue Yang would break free and rush to carry out his revenge at this very moment.

“Why don’t you stop? You committed a crime and paid for it. You commit another one, and they’ll be looking for you to have you executed again. And if you commit it against Jin Guangyao – rest assured that they’ll find you. They won’t leave a murderer of a leader of one of the big clans in peace.”

“And what about me?!” Xue Yang snarled. The Daozhang was holy, of course, but this much? “Are you suggesting that I leave him in peace? After what he’s done to me?!”

“I was thinking,” the Daozhang said gravely, “that you estimated the value of one of your fingers at fifty lives. And your entire life – at just a single life, moreover of a man like that? And you’re telling me that they cheat me at the market? Look at you, my friend. You’re going to cheat yourself.”

Fury surged through him in a wave; Xue Yang tried to break free, but Daozhang held on tight, not allowing him to either leap up or hit him. If Xue Yang could, he would have bitten the hands around him with his teeth, like a wild beast. But he couldn’t do that either, so the only way left for him to attack was with his words.

“Why just one life?” He let out a bout of malicious laughter. “For Jin Guangyao, I will find the most painful death possible, that’s true, but there are others. For example Xiao Xingchen. Do you know how many interesting things I came up with for him when I was sitting at that jail, and after that?”

“Tell me,” the Daozhang asked him calmly. His tone might be calm, but he held him even tighter, leaning down so that Xue Yang felt the touch of the man’s cheek against his temple. As though he was trying to cover Xue Yang with himself, as if Xue Yang wasn’t going to torture and kill, but someone else was going to do that to him. There was something wrong about it… no, everything about it was wrong.

“To begin with, I would drop by to visit his friend. He’s got a friend called Song Lan, who is also an arrogant bastard. We met once,” the memories of the burning pain in his hand and the contemptuous look the Daozhang in black gave him made him furious to this day. “He hit me. It's not that the bastard had any particular reason; he just thought he was better than me. I would go to his monastery and see if they all think themselves as holy. And then I’d have a go at him. Maybe I’d cut off his ears. Or nose. Or both. So he’d hide from peopleʼs eyes for the rest of his life, and stop looking down on everyone.”

“You don’t think he’d take revenge against you?”

So he was getting through, Xue Young thought when he noticed the slight quiver in the Daozhang’s voice. Even though this was nothing but a warm-up before the main course.

“So I’d cut off his arms,” Xue Yang brushed it off. “Or legs. Let's see what kind of revenge he’s capable of after that. And then I’d go after Xiao Xingchen. He’s… even more unbearably holy. He considers himself the most righteous of all and thinks he can judge others, even when he doesn’t know shit about them. I’d start by carving out his eyes. He had such beautiful eyes, like a doe. I’d like to hold them in my hand. And then… he’s got a sword that can point at evil, but do you know the problem with such things? They don’t distinguish the undead from living people under corpse poisoning. I’d follow Xiao Xingchen and push him towards innocent people who I’d poisoned and cut off their tongues so they wouldn’t beg for their lives. And he’d kill them! A wonderful idea, don’t you think?” Xue Yang started to laugh, but the Daozhang naturally didn’t join him in his laughter. It’s not like Xue Yang expected him to. “Can you imagine how he’d feel when he found out? He’d think he was saving people from evil and instead he’d be killing poor villagers. Or whomever that’d come along. I’d like to see whether he’d stay as self-righteous as before.”

“I think,” the Daozhang said quietly, “that he wouldn’t want to live after that.”

“What he’d want doesn’t matter,” Xue Yang laughed, “because no one would ask him! I’d turn him into a fierce corpse and make him into my servant. Oh, what a marvelous idea! I wouldn’t have to trouble myself with corpse poisoning, because he’d just kill anyone I’d point my finger at. Daozhang Xiao Xingchen would become a vicious killer. He’d be loathed and feared just like the Ghost General. And I wouldn’t be any worse than the Yiling Patriarch. A marvelous idea indeed!”

He had always envied Wei Wuxian who had a faithful fierce corpse following him. The dead raised by Xue Yang were dumb and aggressive, obeyed only the simplest commands, and even that they did reluctantly. But if he got his hands on Xiao Xingchen’s body… Xue Yang would crawl from his own skin and search the Burial Mounds with a comb to find the way Wei Wuxian had designed to raise the dead while keeping their minds intact.

And he could test it on Song Lan; in case something went wrong, it wouldn’t be such a pity.

“And what if you couldn’t raise him?” the Daozhang interrupted his pleasant musings. “It is said that if a human soul experiences suffering it cannot stand, it breaks into pieces and nobody can retrieve it.”

What a spoil-sport!

“I’d retrieve it. When I want something, I always get it, trust me on that. I even…“ He bit down on his tongue. He shouldn’t talk about the Stygian Tiger Seal. Maybe he’d talk about it later, but not now. And the same went for the fierce corpses he raised for Jin Guangyao. “I can do things nobody else can, Daozhang. And what I can’t do, I learn fast. To retrieve someone’s soul – ha ha. What a trifle!”

The Daozhang was silent. But it wasn’t the calm, warm silence Xue Yang enjoyed earlier, when he sat next to the Daozhang by the fire or when he listened to the sounds the Daozhang made when he busied himself around the house. This time, the silence was hollow, and Xue Yang felt this emptiness with his skin, like one feels the emptiness of an abandoned house right from the door.

“Do you want to hear something funny?” he asked, and his own voice seemed unnaturally loud in the surrounding quiet. “I told the whore’s son about this; I thought he’d appreciate it. He did. He just told me to wait, because the two famous Daozhangs weren’t like some God-forsaken clan and he wouldn’t be able to protect me anymore. And then – you can see for yourself,” he said, pointing at the bandage. “He told me, ‘what a good idea’. It was my idea, don’t you understand? And he did it to me. Isn’t it funny?”

To be honest, it didn’t seem funny even to Xue Yang himself. Even though it was a hell of a joke. Probably. For Jin Guangyao.

Xue Yang bit into his lip to stop himself from asking, “Say something,” because that would sound really pathetic, and waited.

“You killed fifty people,” the Daozhang said at last. What was it with him and those fifty people?! “And you were punished for that. I think that’s all I need to know.”

“Haven’t you been listening to what I said afterwards? Or do you agree that Xiao Xingchen deserves everything I’ve planned for him?” 

“But you didn’t do it.”

“I just didn’t have the time. I can still do it from now on.”

“You didn’t do it,” the Daozhang repeated. “If our intentions weighted the same as our deeds, what would be the difference between the former and the latter?”

“You…” Xue Yang had to suppress a groan. At times, the Daozhang was simply impossible to understand. What did it matter if he carried out his revenge against Xiao Xingchen already or not, when he was planning to do it anyway? “I don’t want to talk anymore.”

“As you wish,” the Daozhang agreed peacefully and unclenched his hands.

“Wait.” Xue Yang grabbed his wrist before the Daozhang could get up. “You don’t have to sleep on the floor. There’s enough space.”

The Daozhang grew stiff. Xue Yang had to bite his lip not to laugh.

“To sleep, Daozhang. Just sleep. What were you thinking?”

“You… the same thing! I was thinking the same thing. It’s only that first we have to…” the Daozhang paused, sounding uncertain. “Undress?”

“Of course,” Xue Yang almost purred. “Of course we have to undress before… sleeping.”

“Chengmei!”

“What? You said it yourself.”

And then he erupted in shameless laughter while he heard the rustle of the Daozhang’s clothes next to the bed.

He thought that the Daozhang would lie primly on his back with his hands crossed over his chest, like a corpse, and take pains not to touch his sleeping companion even by accident. So he was all ready to “accidentally” throw a leg or arm over him and enjoy how the Daozhang would wiggle free while trying not to wake the culprit of his discomfort. But the Daozhang just lied right next to him and embraced him as though he did it every night. Xue Yang fidgeted a bit, adjusting to someone else’s body. Lying so close to another person was strange but pleasant. The Daozhang’s breath was even and shallow, almost as though he was asleep, and Xue Yang dozed off almost right away, lulled by that breathing.

He woke up and, not immediately understanding who held him, tried to break free, ready to fight back. But then he smelled the familiar scent and heard a quiet voice say, “Sleep. It’s still early.”

Xue Yang obediently relaxed, even though his heart was pounding like mad. The Daozhang pulled him closer and stilled.

For some reason, Xue Yang was sure that the Daozhang didn’t get a wink of sleep that night.