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A World Filled With the Scent of Sage

Chapter Text

Not breathing was the most difficult part. When his wounded body was pushed off the horse, Xue Yang felt such an explosion of pain that he nearly shrieked at the top of his lungs. But he managed to swallow the scream down and forced himself to relax, holding his breath so that his chest would not move.

The men on horses stomped next to him; a heavy hoof pressed into the ground near his head.

“Looks like he’s dead.”

“You should cut his throat to make it certain.” 

“I’d just dirty my sword for nothing. Let’s go.”

When the clatter of hooves retreated and then quieted down, Xue Yang eagerly inhaled the dusty air and grinned. They underestimated him. They were going to pay for it yet.

Jin Guangyao will pay.

They rode not less than an hour and crossed a river; that meant that the Koi Tower was located in the east. Xue Yang knew that road. Deserted, but with a few small villages scattered here and there. So he will just go to one of those. There will be people. Maybe even a doctor. Xue Yang didn’t have money, but he was sure that he’d think of something. He could rouse pity, promise some sort of reward, or use threats, if it came to that. He knew how to make people do what he wanted.

He turned his head with difficulty and coughed out some blood that was clotting in his throat. Breathing was hard but still possible. And there was no wheezing in his chest. That was good. A pierced lung would be a nasty business; the only thing even worse would be pierced guts.

He was stabbed with a sword in the chest and at his side, but as he was still alive, both of these wounds were not grave. He just bled a lot, soaking all his clothes so that they were heavily sticking to his skin. That was probably the reason they thought he was dead, and didn’t want to sully their hands with him.

When Xue Yang captures those bastards, he will hang them heads down and bleed them like pigs at a slaughter. Bleed them little by little, with just a tiny stream of blood. He will listen to those swines squealing in terror and take his pleasure in it. And as for the guard that spitted in his face, he’d scrub the skin off his head and clean his boots with it.

He turned to his side, and touched the hard ground with his fingers. Two were definitely broken. He wondered whether they’d heal this time. Also, his right leg. And ribs. Xue Yang lay still for a while, waiting for the pain to lull down, and then turned again, on his stomach. His mouth filled with blood once more, but spitting it out was easier this time. Now, brace himself with his elbows. Thrust his knee forward. He will survive. Crawl out of here. His kind always survived. And returned to pay what was due.

Xue Yang already had a long list of those whom he owed a long, painful death.

The pain was flowing into his whole body with every move, but Xue Yang didn’t pay it any attention. Pain doesn’t kill. You just have to suffer through it, that’s all.

Brace himself with his elbow. Push himself up with one knee, drag the other one under his body. Again. And again. He seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness, because at times he found himself lying face down on the ground. That, too, was nothing tragic. Brace himself. Elbows up. Knee forward.  

Several hours might have passed, or maybe a whole day. Xue Yang didn’t know how much time he spent crawling along the road, scraping his palms and knees against the pebbles lying there. If the sun above him managed to set and rise again, he didn’t notice.

The last thing Xue Yang saw was the blade of the knife cutting into his right eye.

His left eye had been cut out a few moments earlier.

 …

He found out that he was awake again because someone was holding his shoulder, and a high feminine voice was saying from up above:

“What is it? He’s dead, right? Are we gonna bury him?”

Go bury yourself, stupid bitch, was what Xue Yang wanted to say, but all he managed was a cough.

“He is still alive,” a man’s voice replied very close to him, and the hand on his shoulder squeezed and pulled, making Xue Yang’s body turn around. “But he is badly…”

Once turned to face them, Xue Yang let his head fall back and the man stopped in a middle of his sentence. Xue Yang tried to imagine how his bloody eye sockets and face must look, and bared his teeth in a grin.

“Hurt,” the man finished after a beat. His fingers were lightly brushing Xue Yang’s neck, running over his head, touching him. “Let’s take him with us. Otherwise he will not last long. A-Qing, help me.”

He pulled Xue Yang towards him, lifting him up.

“Raise your arms. And hold on, if you can.”

As he leaned on the man’s back, Xue Yang thought that he got lucky after all. He’d always been lucky, he knew that. This time, too, he ran into some good natured fools. Local farmers, probably. They will bring him to their village, heal him and feed him. And in return, he will probably not kill them. He can also be good, when he wants to be.

The stranger carrying him was thin, but he had lifted Xue Yang with ease and walked with grace. His clothes smelled of sage and, when they came into contact with Xue Yang’s hand, he found that they were made of some good, fine fabric. So maybe not farmers, but merchants? Even better. They probably have money, too. And maybe…   

The next time Xue Yang came to, he was lying on something hard. His chest was exposed to chilly air and someone was cleansing the wound on his side with a hot wet cloth.

“Lie still,” the same man’s voice told him when Xue Yang winced from the pain. “Your wounds need cleansing. Try to endure.”

Xue Yang made himself relax. A blindfold pressed down on his eyes, and he was glad that at least these wounds had been bandaged while he was unconscious. It would probably hurt like hell. Like that knife…

“Your leg is broken,” the man went on. He had a pleasant, slightly raspy voice. Young. “I applied a bandage, but you shouldn’t lean on it, otherwise the bones will grow back crooked.”

Xue Yang nodded. A sharp pain ran through his eyes and he immediately froze so that his wounds wouldn’t reopen.

“Here’s more bandages.”

“Thank you, A-Qing.”

A woman, also young. Maybe even a girl still. Or maybe her voice was just too high. It was maddening that he couldn’t just look around and see how many people were there, who were there, what was going on.

“Where am I?” Xue Yang rasped. His throat burned like hell.

“You are in our house,” the man’s voice was even, soothing, as though he was talking to a sick animal. Well, a lot of people claimed that Xue Yang was nothing but a rabid beast. “In Yi City. It is two of us here, me and the young maiden A-Qing. We are simple people and pose no danger to you.”

‘Young maiden A-Qing’ let out a loud snort.

“Daozhang, why are you bothering with telling him all this? It’s not like he told us his name.”   

Daozhang, was it? So not at all a farmer or even a merchant, as Xue Yang had first thought. Those Daozhangs were spreading like the plague. He will find Xiao Xingchen, Xue Yang promised himself, and won’t let him die a simple death. Xiao Xingchen will suffer like no one in this world has suffered before, together with his friend. Xue Yang never forgets.

But what if… for a moment, Xue Yang froze as a thought entered his head, but he immediately discarded it; no, this Daodzang couldn’t be Xiao Xingchen. Even if Xiao Xingchen picked up his wounded enemy, he wouldn’t treat him with such kindness. He would bandage his wounds and drag him to justice. That arrogant bastard, considering himself the most righteous, the most proper. One day, Xue Yang will stick this very righteousness into Xiao Xingchen’s throat and watch him writhe and cry with pain.

One day he will show him the true justice as Xue Yang knows it.

“If he didn’t tell us his name, he must have a reason.” A bondage was applied to his wound, and then Xue Yang was lifted and moved on something soft. And covered with a light blanket. Or a cloak. Well, they covered with something, what difference did it make? Anyway, it was just in time, as he was already beginning to shiver.

“Try to sleep. You are tired, and wounds heal better during slumber.”

“Daozhang, why did you let him have the bed?” The girl’s whiny voice reached his ears. “He could’ve slept in a coffin just fine.”

In a coffin? Was she joking, or what? As in, that they wouldn’t have to move him ever again? Some strange humor.

“He is our guest and he is wounded. Please sleep outside for a few days. Were you not complaining that the house is chilly?”

“Of course it is, with walls made of stone!”

Tomorrow, thought Xue Yang. Tomorrow, he will ask the girl – she seemed to be the chattier one – and find out where he ended up. And then he will think about what he will do next.

… 

When he woke up, it was quiet. The only sound was the muffled pounding of rain on the roof, and from time to time, loud clatter of raindrops was also heard from somewhere inside the house.  

“Daozhang?” Xue Yang tried to call out. They wouldn’t leave him alone in the house, right? But actually, why not, it wasn’t like he could steal anything in his condition, or run away.  

“He’s not here,” the girl’s voice told him grumpily. “He went out for your medicine. And it’s raining, you know! And Daozhang has been sick just a few days ago. Why couldn’t you come in our way in better weather?”

Little bitch. Xue Yang would break her thin chicken neck with one hand. But right now, he still need those people, so he carefully schooled his features into an expression of guilt. 

“I am sorry, maiden A-Qing, I didn’t want to trouble you.”

“Stop calling me that! Am I some noble, or what?! I’m A-Qing, just A-Qing, alright?”

 “You’re probably as beautiful as a noble maiden, Daozhang told me so,” Xue Yang was quick to reply. 

The girl shut up. Xue Yang inwardly grinned. It was so simple with women – if you tell one that she’s beautiful, you can do whatever you want. In reality, she was probably ugly. With a bad personality, too.

“What do you want?”

“Tell me more,” he asked her. “What is this place? What kind of people are you? Why did you save me?”

A-Qing snorted.

“Because Daozhang saves everyone. He’s like that. He saved me, too, from some jerk. Even gave me money. And then he took me with him, and so we’re living here together.”

The girl didn’t miss her chance. She found a good-natured Taoist priest and clang to him like a vice. Oh, that maiden A-Qing! Xue Xang now understood why she was so hostile – she was afraid that the second freeloader will also get a piece of her benefactor.

“What kind of city is this?”

“A shithole! Daozhang says that there’s a lot of negative energy here. People keep dropping dead like flies. The main street is full of funeral shops. Speaking of which,” she let out a giggle, “we also live in an old funeral home. If you think of dying – there’s a coffin ready for you.”

“Thanks,” Xue Yang told her with a heartfelt gratitude. So she hadn’t been joking about the coffin. Funny.  

He wasn’t afraid of death; Xue Yang had sent so many people to the other side that the merchants dealing in funeral goods should bow down to him. It was just an odd choice for a priest. The feng shui here was probably so bad that it might be easier to level this city to the ground and build a new one. Taoist priests usually cared about such things, while Xue Yang didn’t give a damn. If he had food and a place to sleep - that was all the feng shui he needed.

“Why do you live here, then, if it’s all so bad?”

“Daozhang says that the bad energy attracts all kinds of monsters. He stayed here to protect the people from them. And I stayed with him.”

Is that so, Xue Yang thought. This Daozhang turned out to be a cultivator, then, if he protects people from monsters instead of just praying in a monastery. He had made the right choice in not divulging his name. Among cultivators, everyone knew him, Xue Yang had made sure of it. He doubted that this Daozhang’s goodness would stretch to a murderer of an entire clan. 

“Well?” A-Qing asked him expectantly. “What about you? What happened? I told you everything about us, it’s your turn now.”

“Oh, there’s nothing interesting to tell,” Xue Yang lied. “I come from a small village north of Qinghe Nie. I went to visit an old relative, and was attacked by some bandits on my way back. They roughed me up, took my money and left me to die. That’s all.” Xue Yang smiled, once again faking gratitude. “Bless the heavens for sending you and the Daozhang. I would have died otherwise.”

“Exactly,” A-Qing agreed with him. “You were lying there like a corpse, I was afraid that we’d have to go through the trouble of digging you a grave.”

The girl had been right; there was not an ounce of nobility in her.

The door opened with a creak and A-Qing ran towards it at once.

“Daozhang, you’re all wet!”

“Don’t worry about me…achoo!”

“I told you that you shouldn’t go out because of him! He could’ve waited, it’s not like he’s going to die.”

“Everything is alright, A-Qing.”  

Xue Yang heard the Daozhang coming towards his bed.

“How are you feeling?”

“Better. Thank you for your care.”

Cold fingers touched his forehead. Xue Yang paid attention to that sensation, but he didn’t find out anything; they were fingers like any other. He will have to find a reason to take the Daozhang’s hand, to check it for sword calluses.

“I will exchange your bandage,” Daozhang said. “With this ointment, your wounds will heal faster.”

“And you’re wasting such good medicine on him, too,” A-Qing grumbled. “He wouldn’t have died anyway.”

“Bring the cloth, A-Qing. It is on the table.”

“Should a young girl see such things?” Xue Yang asked when Daozhang pulled back the covers and began to undo his bandage. The binding pulled at his wounds mercilessly – it was probably glued with dried blood – even though the Daozhang was undoing the layers very slowly one at a time, while holding the fabric down with his other hand.

“Isn’t she afraid of blood? And – mhm – is it even appropriate?”

He didn’t give a damn about appropriateness, but he didn’t want the girl to see him so vulnerable. Even if it filled her with sympathy and stopped her from persuading the Daozhang to get rid of him. He just didn’t want her to see.

The hands hovering above his wounds stopped in mid-air.

“Don’t worry about it. A-Qing is also blind, like you. She will not see anything horrible.”

Xue Yang was so surprised that he forgot about the pain.

“Really?! Have you been cured from an eye disease and made an oath to help all the blind you run into?”

Daozhang started to laugh, but immediately stopped himself.

“It’s just a coincidence.”

He reached for the binding again, slowly and carefully peeling off the fabric that had stuck to the wounds. Xue Yang focused on the sensations. It was strange to feel that someone was trying not to cause him unnecessary pain. Usually it was the opposite.

“I don’t want to be a bother,” he said with a perfectly calculated dose of awkwardness. “I’m sure that your miraculous medicine will get me back on my feet soon enough.”

“It doesn’t mend broken bones,” the Daozhang objected. “I told you that you shouldn’t be walking yet. You will not be a bother. You can stay as long as you’d like.”

“Thank you for your care, Daozhang,” Xue Yang expressed his gratitude. “You are obviously a holy man.”  

This was exactly the response he had been counting on.

And as expected, the Daozhang mumbled something in the lines of “who’s holy, what are you talking about,” falling for the plain flattery. Because flattery worked on everyone. And especially on those who liked to play the savior of the unfortunate and miserable.

Chapter Text

Xue Yang spent the first few days in bed. Sleeping. Eating. They wouldn’t feed him with meat in this house, only with vegetables and porridge, but he didn’t turn up his nose at that; it even tasted good. Xue Yang wasn’t picky – someone who used to collect scraps from garbage cans wouldn’t be particular about such things.

He was only sorry that the handful of sweets in his pockets didn’t survive – they got all soaked in blood.

Every day, the Daozhang changed his bandages, treated his wounds with an ointment that smelled of herbs and something sour, and wiped his face and neck with a damp cloth. He brought him a bowl of food and a spoon and helped Xue Yang hold it, when the latter’s hands began to tremble from weakness. He talked about all kinds of things to distract Xue Yang from pain – about the town, about the people in it, about the weather outside. He really seemed to be just as good as A-Qing had said. Holy, Xue Yang corrected himself. Only a holy man would bother himself with not one but two blind people, with such a patience, too. A-Qing didn’t need as much care as Xue Yang, but she kept grumbling and being such a pain in the ass all the time that Xue Yang wanted to beat her to a pulp. Yet the Daozhang didn’t even raise his voice at her. He had the patience of the Buddha.

“You shouldn’t get up,” the Daozhang said when Xue Yang tried to leave his bed for the first time, letting out groans and courses. He was the only one to sleep on an actual bed, as there was only one. The Daozhang made himself a place to lie down on the floor, and A-Qing generally slept somewhere in the yard.

“I can get myself to the latrine,” Xue Yang snapped. “Just show me where it is.”

The Daozhang put Xue Yang’s hand on his own shoulder.

“Let’s go, I will take you there. We will have to find you a walking stick later.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me, Daozhang,” Xue Yang laughed, leaning against the other man. “I always heal fast, just like a dog. I’ll be up and running in no time.”

“That would be good,” the Daozhang agreed with him. “But a walking stick would still be of use to you.”

“I’m not-“ Xue Yang stopped in a middle of his sentence.

I’m not a cripple, was what he wanted to say. But he was one. A blind cripple who has to feel the ground in front of him at every step so he wouldn’t trip and fall. He was no longer able to run, jump on roofs, climb over fences. These wounds of his will not heal like the others, leaving behind only scars and a mental note saying whom he owed his revenge. A cripple with a cane in his hand, moving while touching the ground with it – that was him now.

“Are you unwell?” was the Daozhang’s worried question. “Do you want to lie down?”

Xue Yang shook his head and took a step forward.

“If you find me a stick,” he said sullenly, “it better be a hard one.”

He no longer had his sword, but he wasn’t planning on staying unarmed.

He whiled away his forced idleness by imagining how he would take revenge on everyone that made him lose his eyes. These were sweet dreams, even if they were not feasible – yet. Xue Yang believed that if he really wanted something and spared no efforts to get it, he would find a way. The first on his list was Jin Guangyao. The whore’s son knew perfectly well what he was doing when he blinded him. Had he wanted Xue Yang killed, he would have made the men cut off his head. Oh no; it was an intentional, well-thought-out mockery. Jin Guangyao knew that Xue Yang was stronger and would win in a man-on-man fight; he knew that Xue Yang could do things that he himself could not — for example, restore the Stygian Tiger Seal and control fierce corpses. Having ordered Xue Yang to be beaten half to death and his eyes cut out, Jin Guangyao wanted to show his power over him. To get back at him for all the minor jabs Xue Yang took the liberty of making while Jin Guangyao still needed him. Oh, how Xue Yang understood him, understood him all too well. 

He was coming up with one excruciating death after another, imagining them in detail. Unfortunately, not a single one seemed cruel enough to clench his thirst for revenge. Lingchi – too banal, not original enough. Skinning alive – too much work. Drowning in a cesspit – not enough suffering. Letting bamboo shoots grow through his body? Boring.

In the beginning, he will have to find a way to shame Jin Guangyao in front of all the Great Sects. The bastard dreamed of having everyone’s respect – let him crawl in the dirt under the lashing of other people‘s ridicule and contempt. Xue Yang knew quite a few interesting things about him. The circumstances of Jin Guangshan’s death, for example. Or about certain objects hidden in the secret room of the Koi Tower. Xue Yang will then have to find the right people and make them believe him. Him, and not Jin Guangyao, who is able to deceive anyone, and not execute him, finishing what Xiao Xingchen had started, and at the same time managing to conceal the extent to which Xue Yang himself had participated in Jin Guangyao’s nefarious deeds…

Being blind was so inconvenient! He couldn’t even rely on himself.

When the Daozhang brought him a stick – a good one, so strong and heavy that one could crack someone’s skull open with it – Xue Yang waited until he left, called A-Qing, who had been wandering around the house, and grabbed her hand.

“Show me around,” he said, heavily leaning on the stick. “What’s where in here.”

“But the Daozhang ordered you to lie,” the annoying girl reminded him.

“We don’t have to tell him.”

The house turned out not to be so bad; for some reason, Xue Yang had expected just a tiny cottage, but there was actually enough space, and even a separate kitchen. He was remembering the number of steps – to the door, to the wall, to the table. A-Qing chattered on, telling him where everything was; then she just grabbed his hand and began to place his palm on different objects. She herself was navigating her surroundings as freely as if she were sighted. Never mind, Xue Yang thought, he can also do this. It wasn’t difficult. His memory had always been good.

Then they went out into the yard. As he descended the steps, pain shot up his leg and Xue Yang winced so hard that he nearly fell. A-Qing refused to move on unless they rest a bit. She was probably afraid of the Daozhang scolding her. Xue Yang didn’t protest as he actually needed that break. The steps of the porch were warm, heated by the sun. There was a pleasant warmth on his face, too. He could almost imagine that he was just squinting his eyes from the sun – but no, no matter how hard you squint, the light still bleeds through your eyelids. But he saw only black, impenetrable darkness. Just like in the dead of night, when not a single star shines in the sky, and there’s not a single light ablaze on the ground.

It will always be like this. Always, until he dies. The blueness of the sky, the outlines of mountains in a misty haze, the greenness of the trees, the water streams glistening in the sun – he will never see any of that again. Not even the city slums, which he wouldn’t want to watch too closely anyway. Not even a fucking pile of garbage. Anything that he had seen before and took for granted that he would always going to see it. He will see nothing but blackness. 

If only Jin Guangyao had cut off his tongue! Or chopped off his arm, disfigured his face, cut off his nose and ears. Then Xue Yang would not feel so helpless.

The wounds in his eyes started to sting. Xue Yang shook his head and rose, heavily leaning on his stick.

“Enough sitting, let’s go.”

In the yard, there was a coffin standing under a canopy. It was big, apparently made for some rich person. Inside, it was lined with a blanket, which was in addition lying on a thick layer of straw.

“This is my coffin,” A-Qing told him, “I sleep here. Because someone took the bed!”

You should be thankful that you’re sleeping and not lying with your throat cut, thought Xue Yang, but he remembered that he was supposed to impersonate a simple villager, grateful for having been saved, so he humbly offered:

“I’ll sleep on the floor if you want.”

A-Qing was silent.

“There’s no need,” she finally muttered in a sullen tone. “It’s not that bad here. The air’s fresh.”

Why were you whining, then? Idiotic girl, not knowing what you want.

It turned out that there was a small garden behind the house, containing rows of radish, cabbage, onions and bell peppers. A-Qing told Xue Yang about it with such pride that he understood at once who was in charge of the vegetable growing.

“We will get huge radishes! Better than those on the market. They’re all grown, I’m just waiting for the Daozhang to take a look and decide whether we can dig them out. And then we need to sell them. And we already harvested the bell peppers, they grow really fast – look away and you’ll miss it. Stop, stop, don’t step there!”

Xue Yang touched some sort of herb, tore away a leaf and rubbed it between his fingers. The air filled with the scent of sage.

“These are the Daozhang’s herbs,” A-Qing explained. “There are bellflowers, mint, and some others. Don’t yank them out, he needs all of them.”

“And which one of you will sell the radishes?” Xue Yang inquired. “You or the Daozhang?”

“Me, of course. The Daozhang just gives everything away for free, and if he doesn’t, he gets robbed. Half the people he meets try to deceive him, and he doesn’t even notice.”

She took a pause, apparently thinking.

“Or he just pretends not to notice. He says that they’re poor people who need to feed their children, and that we don’t have it that bad But I keep telling him – if some poor wretch deceives you, they don’t deserve your pity! We’re also poor and it’s not our job to help everyone.”

“And you’ve never deceived anyone?” Xue Yang took a jab at her. The girl choked on air.

“I don’t – I mean – that’s completely different!”  

So you deceived someone alright, Xue Yang thought to himself with a grin. What could such a spirited girl, albeit blind, do to survive on the street?

Begging, lamenting her difficult fate – while lying through her teeth – and maybe even stealing when the good people came too close to show her the way or help with something. A-Qing definitely didn’t belong among those who would resignedly wait for other people’s mercy. She was of his kind, one of those who counted only on themselves and used others.

The Daozhang was the one who was holy – and there was nothing wrong with that. Because no one else would have helped Xue Yang. They would leave him on the road, even go through his pockets to see whether there was some money in them. And if everyone who so wished exploited his kindness, then it was the Daozhang’s problem.

Xue Yang broke off another sage leaf, rubbed it between his fingers and then traced his collar with them.

“Let’s go back,” he commanded. “No, wait – I’ll go by myself. You just tell me if I go the wrong way.”   

“I told you that you shouldn’t get up,” the Daozhang told him in the evening while exchanging his bandages. He somehow managed to do it without it sounding like a reproach.

“Did Little Blind tell you that?”

The Daozhang laughed, touching Xue Yang’s hand. He was easy to laugh, Xue Yang had already learnt; any reason would do.

“Your fingers smell like herbs. Why do you call her Little Blind? I doubt that she likes it.”

“So what if she doesn’t?” Xue Yang said with a shrug. “No one has to like their nickname. I’m big blind, she’s little blind – there’s nothing to be offended about.”

“I would still prefer calling you something else,” the Daozhang objected gently. “If you want, you can choose something other than your real name. Just… something to call you with.”

A long time ago, Xue Yang had told another man: “Just call me any name you like.” It turned out that the man loved a good joke, and Xue Yang appreciated that particular one.

“Chengmei,” he said. “You can call me Chengmei.”

When he takes his revenge on Jin Guangyao, he will definitely remind him of this joke, and see if he still finds it funny. Xue Yang will laugh for certain.

“Chengmei,” the Daozhang repeated after him. “A nice name.”

If he only knew. Xue Yang was as far from virtue as Kauizhou slums were from the courts of noblemen.

“Do you not wish to know mine?”

“Why should I?” Xue Yang shrugged his shoulders. “Little Blind calls you Daozhang, so that’s what I will call you, too. You don’t mind, do you?”

“She called me brother at first.” Xue Yang heard a smile from the Daozhang’s voice. “I told her that I’m not a brother, but a Daozhang. And she said – why can’t a Daozhang be a brother? But then she began to call me Daozhang anyway. I suppose I’m not much of a brother.”

The Daozhang finished with the wound on Xue Yang’s side, putting the latter’s hanfu back in place.

“Now your eyes. I’m taking off the bandage, so brace yourself.”

His fingers touched the healing wounds with care and precision, almost as if the Daozhang was the blind one and was afraid to cause pain with some unintended movement. The room smelled bitterly of medicine and all those herbs.

“Do not rub at your eyes. They’re not healing very well.”

“They’re itching.”

“I know.” The Daozhang touched his shoulder in a sympathetic gesture. “But still try not to rub them. I’ll use an ointment on them, one that should relieve the itching.”

Xue Yang obediently lifted his chin, allowing for the ointment to be rubbed over his wounds. It really felt cool and soothing, and the itching in his eyelids started to diminish.  

“How can you help me when you don’t know anything about me, Daozhang?” he asked. He was playing with fire, but Xue Yang knew that it was better to snag other people’s suspicions with a hook, like catching a fish, and bring them to light, than to let them ripen and grow deep down in their hearts. Good people were so afraid of their own ugly suspicions that they would rather discard them than admit them out loud. “I might be a killer. Or a rapist. Maybe I’ll leave this house and go on killing and torturing people, only because you didn’t let me die on that road. Are you not afraid of that?”

“No,” the Daozhang replied levelly while bandaging his head. “I will not be guilty because I saved you. If you commit any crimes, the guilt will be yours only.”

“And if I’ve committed them already?”

The Daozhang’s hands froze for a moment.

“Then my duty is to deliver you to the authorities for a fair trial. But...” he fell silent. “Will the trial be truly fair?”

Xue Yang laughed.

“Got it in one, Daozhang. In our times, trials are a curious thing. When you’re guilty, they acquit you, and when you did what you were ordered to do, they have you executed.”

“This is why,” the Daozhang went on speaking, “I will not ask you who you are and what you’ve done. If you do not harm anyone, you can live here as long as you want. If you need to let your relative know what happened to you-”

What relative? Oh, right.

“Unfortunately,” Xue Yang said woefully, “my relative was very old. He died shortly before I came to visit him.”

“I see.”

The Daozhang didn’t believe him. Never mind that. If the holy Daozhang was willing to suffer the presence of a suspicious stranger in his home, who was Xue Yang to object? He’ll lie down for a bit, lick his wounds, give his planned revenge against Jin Guangyao some proper thought – all of this while having a roof over his head with a warm bed and people who will feed and heal him. When was the last time he had such luck? With people – never, if he thought about it. Even doctors demanded money, and the Daozhang was buying him medicine without a single word about repayment. He was truly a holy man.

Chapter Text

He started to leave the house. At first he did it while feeling the walls and doors, carefully placing one foot after another so he didn’t miss a step. Later he gained confidence, already remembering where to turn and where to stop. He sat on the porch, exposing his face to the sun, listening to how the Daozhang was getting ready for the town, how A-Qing was complaining about something – she complained all the time, as though the world had made a promise to her and failed to deliver. Then the Daozhang left and Xue Yang entertained himself by coming up with ways of revenge against his enemies, a different one every day. Soon he got sick of that as well.

When he was a boy, roaming through the streets in search of something to eat or work that would get him food, always hungry, cold in winter, bitten by mosquitoes and gadflies in summer, Xue Yang dreamed of having his own house. It didn’t have to be big and fancy, just his own. He imagined himself sitting on the porch all day long, watching people walking by while doing absolutely nothing. What a life that would be, to be able to just sit back and relax!

He never thought that it might be this boring.

If only he could spread out his knives, get the whetstones and grind slowly, bringing the sharpness of the blades to perfection. Or polish his sword so well that its blade could be used as a mirror… well, he didn’t need that anymore. And Jiangzai stayed with Jin Guangyao. Together with the knives. The whore’s son had the foresight to take away all his weapons, while the guards took care of his money. They left him only with that handful of sweets in his pockets, probably out of squeamishness. Too bad that it didn’t survive; he craved sweets something terrible. 

After waiting for the Daozhang to leave, Xue Yang rose and crossed the yard, leaning on his cane. It took him fewer steps to reach A-Qing’s coffin than he had counted the last time. They’d probably been shorter then, as he’d been almost hobbling at that time.

“Why are you wandering around?”

“I’m bored,” Xue Yang said while turning towards A-Qing’s voice. “What do you do when the Daozhang’s not here?”

“I’m always busy. I sweep the yard, weed the garden, loads of things.”

No one has ever hired Xue Yang to sweep the yard – or wait, it did happen once, when he was a child. The first time he got paid for his work, but the second time he broke the broomstick – and the master of the house broke its pieces once again, against Xue Yang’s back, and then chased him out. Later that night, Xue Yang returned to burn the man’s house down. It was a bright, merry fire.

“Gimme some work, too.”

“Why?”

“I’m bored.”

A-Qing thought about that for a moment while tapping her heel.

“It’s not like you can lift anything heavy… what about sewing, can you do that?”

Xue Yang raised his bandaged hand, only to remember that A-Qing was blind as well.

“My fingers are broken.”

“Completely useless,” muttered A-Qing without a trace of sympathy. Little bitch. “Let’s go to the garden, then.”

He had to count the number of steps to the garden again, too. A-Qing held onto his sleeve so that he wouldn’t step on some precious radish.

“Keep away from the Daozhang’s herbs,” she warned him right away. “You can’t tell them from weeds. Look, here are the radishes.” She laid his hand on a dense bunch of stems. “And there are onions in between. Everything else must go, and the soil needs softening.”

If he ever kills someone, he may bury them right here. The vegetables will grow nice and fat. He’d just have to put his victim’s soul to proper rest, or they’d rise as a fierce corpse and stomp all over the garden rows. He’d never hear the end of it from A-Qing. And the Daozhang would be upset that his herbs got trampled.

Xue Yang grinned at those thoughts and started to dig out some tiny weeds, throwing them aside. A-Qing was rustling nearby, digging or something like that. An outsider would see a peaceful pastoral picture – a hardworking peasant family earning their living.

It was a good thing that no one was watching.

The Daozhang found them in the garden when he returned.

“A-Qing, it’s not polite to make a guest work.”

“He wanted to!”

“Really?”

The surprise in the Daozhang’s voice was so sincere that it almost made Xue Yang laugh.

“I was bored just lying around doing nothing.”

“I told him not to touch your herbs,” A-Qing stepped in. “And the radishes are ready for harvest, look.”

“Yes, they seem big enough,” the Daozhang agreed. “A-Qing, I bought pumpkin and turnips, they’re on the table inside. Would you mind cleaning them? I’m going to make soup.”

The girl didn’t bother with a reply, just springing to her feet and running towards the house, as fast as if she were sighted. Xue Yang told himself not to be envious. If an ordinary blind girl could adapt herself like that, then he’ll be able to do it all the more so.

The Daozhang sank to the ground next to him, ever so slightly touching his sleeve. As though Xue Yang couldn’t determine that he was very close by hearing alone. He was blind, of course, but not deaf.

 “Please, don’t be angry with A-Qing, if she doesn’t show you enough respect. She has had a hard life.”

The polite request contained a clear warning.

“Don’t worry,” Xue Yang snorted. “I don’t kill children.”

“I’m glad to hear it. But I hope you also refrain from milder forms of punishment.”

“I don’t beat them either.”

There was no denying that A-Qing’s grumbling could drive a dead man crazy. But Xue Yang liked her gall. She was like him, a street rat, making her way with elbows and cunning. Xue Yang also thought that she could help him adapt to blindness. She showed a painful ease in running around the house and dealing with things in general. Sighted people didn’t understand what it was like to live in eternal darkness. He himself had not understood until recently.

“I’m glad,” the Daozhang repeated, touching his hand. Xue Yang didn’t flinch at the touch. The gesture was meant to calm him, convince him of the sincerity of the Daozhang’s words. Strangely enough, it really did calm him down. “She sometimes forgets the importance of respect for one’s elders.”

“She swears and whines, you wanted to say.”

“She has a good heart,” was the Daozhang’s prim reply, which meant: she swears and whines like there’s no tomorrow, but it is not proper to say it behind her back.

“Daozhang!” the proprietress of a good heart screamed from the house. “I can’t believe that they slipped you rotten vegetables again, what were you looking at? Can you even really see or what?!”

“That’s not possible,” the Daozhang objected weakly. “All vegetables sold by that merchant looked good.”

“You mean the vegetables lying on the counter?” Xue Yang inquired.

“Yes, but – the vegetables he gave me came from the counter, too.”

“From the back of the pile, right?”

“Well… yes.”

The Daozhang’s voice sounded so confused that Xue Yang started to laugh.

“You’re stupid, Daozhang. This merchant put the good vegetables atop the bad ones, and pulled the rotten vegetables from the bottom of the pile while distracting you with his talk. And then put normal vegetables on the top of your basket, so that you wouldn’t notice right away. They all do that. You should’ve checked right there on the spot.”

The Daozhang just sighed.

“But had the turnips turned out to be good, I would have offended him with an unjust suspicion.”

“He’s a merchant! All of them cheat. What kind of mountain have you descended from that you trust people so much, Daozhang?”

The Daozhang laughed.

“A high one.”

“That’s obvious. Next time, I will go with you.”

The laughter stopped.

“Your leg has yet to heal.”

“So I will walk slowly. I’m not going to eat a rotten soup.”

Finally a reason to find some amusement; he had already been climbing the walls of the coffin house out of sheer boredom.  

Nevertheless, the Daozhang took Xue Yang with him only when the latter’s leg finally stopped hurting. Now it was just aching after walking, and often threatened to sprain.

“I told you that it might grow back crooked,” the Daozhang said in a voice full of rightful indignation. “You shouldn’t have started walking so early.”  

Xue Yang just waved his hand. He had already grown used to walking with a slight limp on the healed leg, and it wasn’t any worse than usual. In comparison to his blindness it was a mere trifle. Where would he even hurry? To the nearest boulder or a pit in the ground?

When they went through the gate, Xue Yang lowered his stick, feeling the road in front of him. How wide was it? Which direction did it lead to? He wouldn’t know until he explored it; how humiliating: to poke around like a blind mole, while the Daozhang was looking at him and waiting patiently...

The Daozhang lightly patted his elbow.

“If you hold onto my arm-”

“I’m not a cripple,” Xue Yang growled. “Or if I am one, at least I’m not helpless.”

But you are a helpless cripple, a voice inside his head told him mockingly for what was definitely not the first time. It sounded disgustingly like Jin Guangyao. A blind, helpless cripple who doesn’t even know where to go.

“You have never walked on this road,” the Daozhang told him gently. “Even sighted people need a guide when they are on an unfamiliar road. Please, let me be your guide. At least for the first time.”

“Tell me, Daozhang,” Xue Yang said in a perfectly earnest voice. “Why did you descend among us mortals? Did you manage to sin when you were already in heavens, so they banished you and won’t take you back until you regain your sainthood?”

The Daozhang laughed like any other human – so there was at least something of a mere mortal in him. Apart from that stunning naivety, of course.

“Stop it. Would you not do the same, if you were in my place?”

“I wouldn’t.”

“Why?” the Daozhang asked, obviously puzzled.  “If it were me who didn’t know the way, wouldn’t you show it to me?”

“Oh, Daozhang, what are you talking about? Of course I’d show it to you, but not to some stranger.”

“You’re also not a stranger to me, Chengmei.”

“That’s not the point! You-” Xue Yang was groping for words. “You’re too holy. People can’t be like that.”

“Why not?”

“Because everyone will use you, that’s why! And they’ll even think that you owe them.”

“You sound just like A-Qing,” the Daozhang noted. It seemed to make him smile.

“I sound nothing like Little Blind!” Xue Yang snapped and grabbed the Daozhang’s elbow. “Come on, show me where to go.”

“If you go right, you will leave the town. If you go left, you’ll reach the center. It’s not a big road, few people take it. But it’s quite smooth.”

The Daozhang’s elbow under Xue Yang’s hand was firm, tensing slightly whenever Xue Yang missed a step, as though the man was ready to serve him not only as a guide, but also as a support. Xur Yang tapped the road with his cane, remembering its sound and its feel under his feet.

“Now the road has widened and there are houses on both sides. There is a shop with funeral supplies on the right.”

“Apples.”

“Excuse me?”

“Apples,” Xue Yang repeated. The sweet smell was so strong as though the apples were growing right beside them, close enough for him to reach with his hand and pluck the ripe fruits. “Is there a garden to the left?”

“Yes, you’re right, there is an orchard with apple and plum trees. It has a good harvest. Now the road forks: on the left is a small alley, on the right one reaches the main street. There is a teahouse on the right, and one more funeral shop on the left.”

“I thought that Little Blind was joking when she said there’s loads of funeral stuff here.”

“No, it is indeed the case,” the Daozhang laughed. “I was also surprised at first, but then I got used to it. There’s a little restaurant on the left, they serve delicious mantou. On the right, there’s a small path leading to the local temple...”

Xue Yang was memorizing sounds and scents while the Daozhang talked. If he came here alone-

But what business did he have coming into this town alone? He needed to get to Lanling, into the Koi Tower. Find Jin Guangyao and take a revenge so cruel that it would make all the Great Sects flinch in terror.

“We’re almost here,” the Daozhang told him, just as Xue Yang noticed some sort of noise ahead of them – voices, creaking of carts, clucking of chickens and piercing cries of ducks.

“Let’s go to that merchant,” he said. “The one that slipped you the rotten turnips.”

They walked a bit further. Xue Yang put his cane forward, but strangely enough didn’t hit anyone with it, even though there was a lot of people around. A watchful lot.

“Good afternoon,” the Daozhang said when they stopped.

“Good afternoon, sir. What would you like to buy? I’ve got turnips, cabbage, apples, sun-dried plums…”

“I’d take some apples. But there’s a slight problem – the last time I bought produce from you, some of it turned out to be rotten.”

“That’s impossible!” the merchant cried indignantly. Probably waved his hands around for good measure, too. Xue Yang could easily picture his feigned indignation. “Then you didn’t buy it from me! My goods are never bad!”

“It was from you, my friend.”

“That simply can’t be true! I sell only the best produce! Give me your basket, I’ll put some in.”

Xue Yang stood there in silence, leaning against the counter on which the merchant laid out his goods – almost certainly good and pretty from the side that the buyers could see. When the sound of falling apples stopped and the basket moved closer to the Daozhang, Xue Yang reached out.

“Give it here.”

The Daozhang pushed the basket to him and Xue Yang reached to the very bottom. Already on the second apple he touched his fingers found a soft side.

“Only the best, you were saying?” Xue Yang clarified.

“The very best, don’t you doubt it,” the merchant replied, and Xue Yang threw the apple at the direction of his voice with force.

A dull thud and a shriek from the merchant told him that he hit his target.

“It’s rotten,” Xue Yang said with satisfaction while his fingers touched another apple.

“Young sir, what are you- mmhm!”

“Rotten.” From the way the merchant shut up, the next apple hit him right in the open mouth. “Rotten.”

“Chengmei,” the Daozhang admonished him, but his voice somewhat lacked conviction.

Xue Yang flashed a toothy grin, took up the basket and turned it upside down over the counter, making the apples spill on the ground with quiet thuds. Then he lurched forward and grabbed the merchant by the front of his robes. He would have preferred to go straight for the throat but did not take any chances, as he has yet to master orienting himself by sound alone.

“What if I stick this rotten apple down your throat,” he rasped, taking an apple from the counter and forcefully thrusting it in the merchant’s face. The man was trying to break free, but Xue Yang took him by the collar and hold him in a strangling grip. “And then another one. And another. How long until you choke on them and die, what d’ya think?”

“S-s-sir, don’t-please…help-“

“Chengmei!”

Too bad Xue Yang didn’t have a knife on him. He was sure that he wouldn’t miss this bastard’s ears.

“This holy Daozhang protects your stupid fucking town from evil! You should be kissing the ground he walks! And this is how you repay him? With rotten turnips?!”

“Have mercy-”

The throat under his fingers tensed and pulsated. If he squeezed a bit harder, jerked his hand to the side, the bastard would draw his last breath right here on his own damned turnips.

“Chengmei!” The Daozhang’s hand fell on his shoulder. “That’s enough. I think that this good man has realized his mistake and is now repenting. Am I right?”

 “Y-yes,” the merchant rasped out.

Xue Yang held him a little longer, and then released his grip. There was a sound of a falling body.

“Fill the basket again,” Xue Yang commanded. “If I find a single rotten one…”

He was almost wishing that it would be the case. Anger boiled in him, raged like a predatory beast, furious that its prey got taken away and it couldn’t throw itself at it and cut it to shreds. But the Daozhang’s hand was still lying on his shoulder, which gradually calmed the beast down.

“Here,” a heavy basket hit the counter. “The very best, I swear…”

“We’ll see about that,” Xue Yang said with a wry grin. “Let’s go, Daozhang.”

“Thank you, my friend. Here, take-“

“Wait!” Xue Yang almost leapt from sheer surprise. “You’re seriously paying him?!”

“Of course,” the Daozhang replied placidly. “We are buying, not stealing.”

“This bastard should be thankful that I didn’t-”

“He is thankful,” the Daozhang’s hand once again covered his shoulder. “As am I. Thank you, Chengmei.”

“Whatever,” Xue Yang snapped. “It’s not like I was really gonna do him in. There’s no reason to thank me.”

He would have gladly cut the merchant’s ears, though. Or a few fingers. If only he had a knife. He needed to get one from somewhere, even if that somewhere was the Daozhang’s kitchen. The Daozhang would naturally know at once what Xue Yang needed a knife for, but he could ask Little Blind to take it from him, feed her some story…

“Thank you for not letting him deceive me further.”

Xue Yang opened his mouth only to close it again. He didn’t do it for the Daozhang, but for himself. Took the opportunity to rough someone up, at the same time getting rid of rotten vegetables. Took out his anger on a crooked merchant. And that was all there was to it.

But the Daozhang thanked him as though Xue Yang had really stood up for him. And that was… strange. Wrong. Alien.

Xue Yang had no idea what to do with that.

“Let’s go,” he repeated, pushing those annoying thoughts aside. It was better this way. The Daozhang’s elbow once again found itself under his hand, and Xue Yang grasped at it before he realized what he was doing. “But if the bastard lied to us again-”

“You’ll stick an apple down his throat.” The Daozhang’s voice held a smile. Did he not understand that Xue Yang wasn’t joking? “It was indeed very impressive. Do you want some mantou? They make delicious ones at the restaurant we passed.”

Xue Yang had just almost killed a man before his eyes and the Daozhang was chattering about mantou of all things. As though he was sure that Xue Yang wouldn’t do anything.

A saint.

“I’d rather have something sweet,” Xue Yang grumbled. “If you’ve got enough money.”

“Of course.”

They were in no hurry to get back, and Xue Yang was learning the way in the reverse order: the clinking of dishes from the teahouse, the smell of apples, the trampled earth that replaced the scattering of small stones. Only when they almost reached house did he suddenly realize that he was still holding the Daozhang by the elbow. And, most importantly, he did not even remember that he wanted to go by himself. As though it was his intention to hold onto the Daozhang like that.

Of course he made it seem like it was. He would have looked very stupid otherwise.

Their story about the merchant was met with warm approval from A-Qing. Xue Yang had been right about her. The Daozhang was the holy one who didn’t even want his money for the rotten turnips back, but the girl wouldn’t let anyone walk all over her.

“You should’ve stuck an apple down his throat for real! At least one.”

“I’d have to beat him up first,” Xue Yang explained knowledgeably. “So he wouldn’t fight back. But Daozhang wouldn’t let me do that. Right, Daozhang?”

“I wouldn’t,” the Daozhang agreed.

“Because he’s holy.”

“Yeah,” A-Qing giggled.

“Why are you talking about me as though I’m not present?”

“Because we don’t see you,” Xue Yang grinned. “So we can pretend you’re not here.”

They had gathered in the kitchen; the Daozhang was cooking a soup while Xue Yang and A-Qing sat on the floor, munching on apples. Sweet, with barely any trace of sourness, almost overripe. It was Xue Yang’s favorite kind.  

“Or you should’ve hit him with your cane! What use is it to you if you just keep clinging to Daozhang?”

Look at the little bitch, how does she know all this? If he had his cane close by, Xue Yang would have hit her with it. But by now, he knew the house and yard as the back of his hand, to the last rotting tile, so his cane was lying by the threshold, unneeded. And she was too far for him to smack her, and he was too lazy to get up.

“I’m gonna hit you with it!” Xue Yang threatened so that the girl’s insult didn’t go unanswered.

“But of course, you can always hit me,” A-Qing whined in response. “I’m small, helpless, anyone can hurt me! What have I ever done to you?”

She kept whining on, obviously counting on the Daozhang taking her side. A clever little bitch. And he couldn’t even really do anything; the Daozhang would immediately stop him, and say “Chengmei!” in such a reproachful tone as if Xue Yang had offended him, and not pinched the girl’s sharp tongue. The Daozhang had no idea what it was like to be a cripple, and to be reminded of that at every opportunity on top of it.

Next time, Xue Yang will go to the market alone. Even if he falls into a ditch ten times over, he’ll get there. He doesn’t need a guide. He can do everything by himself. Including hitting someone, if the need arises. And getting food. And killing those who crippled him-

“A-Qing, stop,” the Daozhang said quietly. “Chengmei, please don’t mind her.”

A-Qing sniffed, clearly offended. What was going on? The Daozhang didn’t stand up for the poor, misfortunate girl, but took the side of the one she was pestering? She didn’t expect such development. Xue Yang suppressed the urge to stick out his tongue at her as it was childish as well as pointless – Little Blind wouldn’t even see it.

“You should learn to bite your tongue,” he told her with a grin. “If you keep being so mean, no one will marry you. You’ll be left lonely with no one caring for you.”

“So what?” A-Qing snapped, not overly frightened by such a grim vision of her future. “I will care for myself. What’s so good about getting married, anyway? It’s just too much hassle. Look at Daozhang, he’s not married and everything’s fine for him. Right, Daozhang?”

“Staying unmarried is easier for men than it is for women,” the Daozhang objected. “If a woman doesn’t devote herself to cultivation, someone needs to take care of her.”

“So you will take care of me.”

“When the Daozhang gets married, his wife will chase you out of the house,” Xue Yang commented snidely. “No one likes a freeloader.”

“Why the hell would he get married?!”

“And why the hell not? There should be a line of women wanting to marry him. Our Daozhang is young, caring, goes to the market, cooks.” Xue Yang was openly laughing by now. “He even repaired the roof. And he’s probably handsome, too. Are you handsome, Daozhang?”

“Stop it, both of you,” the Daozhang asked them, but there was laughter in his voice, too.

“Just say – are you handsome?”

“Just average… I guess. How would I know?”

“And modest, too, look at him!” Xue Yang added gleefully, springing up to his feet. “Come on, let me-”

He reached out with his hand without thinking, only to find himself caught by the wrist. Xue Yang frowned; so far, the Daozhang had never stopped him from touching his shoulder or arm. But the grip loosened after just a few moments, and the Daozhang slowly guided Xue Yang’s palm towards his own face.

“There you go.” Xue Yang reached with his other hand as well, to be able to feel more at once. “A smooth face, narrowed at the chin. A high forehead. Straight eyebrows, and a straight nose, too.” He suppressed the urge to flick that nose, fearing that the Daozhang would cut his exploration short.  “Mouth… beautiful,” his fingertip carefully traced the curve of the upper lip, all the way to the corner. “High cheekbones. Close your eyes.”

His fingers traced the closed eyelids. There was something… uncanny in all this. In how obediently the Daozhang hung his head and offered himself to Xue Yang’s hands, as though he knew he would come to no harm. How was it possible? Eyes were such a fragile thing – press a bit too hard and they’ll… wasn’t he at all afraid that Xue Yang could blind him simply on some evil whim?

“Big eyes. With long lashes. You really are handsome, Daozhang.”

The cheekbones under his fingers immediately became warmer.

“Hey!” A-Qing cried out in indignation. “What are you doing, feeling Daozhang up?!"

Xue Yang started to giggle.

“Envy me in silence.”

“Chengmei!” The Daozhang said reproachfully, but he didn’t pull back. And while A-Qing was mumbling something about shameless people, not knowing any decency, Xue Yang’s fingers traced the high, straight and gentle cheekbones one last time.

They were so hot one could bake flatbread on them.

Chapter Text

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?”

“Fierce corpses?”

“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.

“Of apples?”

“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.”

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

On the next day, the Daozhang behaved as usual. Xue Yang watched him closely; would something change in him now that he knew what kind of man was living next to him? Would he be more careful, or keep his distance?

Nothing changed. The Daozhang still laughed, touched his arms and shoulders, and if they talked less than usual, it was only because Xue Yang didn’t really want to talk. He had already said too much last night.

In the evening, when it was time to go to bed, Xue Yang heard the Daozhang stop in the middle of the room and silently move to the edge of the bed. Almost immediately, the other man’s body sank down beside him and Xue Yang turned to him.

They lay there without touching each other, and it seemed that the Daozhang was going to fall asleep like that. As if yesterday’s kisses, and the embrace which they did not break even in their sleep, never happened. So things did change, after all, Xue Yang thought bitterly. You should sleep on the floor then, if you hate to touch me.

Then warm fingers touched his palm.

“Chengmei,” whispered the Daozhang.

Xue Yang’s heart was beating like mad.

“What?”

“If I…” the Daozhang grew silent.

Smiling to himself, Xue Yang reached out and touched his face.

“What do you want to ask, Daozhang, if it makes you blush so hard?” he intoned.

“Stop it.”

Xue Yang’s fingers slowly traced the other man’s burning cheeks, cheekbones and brows. He wasn’t exploring anymore, just enjoying how soft the skin under his fingers was and how easily Daozhang accepted his touch. When he moved lower to his lips, they parted and hot breath blazed over Xue Yang’s palm.

“You are so beautiful,” he whispered. “Too bad I cannot see you.”

Lips pressed to his palm before moving to his wrist.

“You are also beautiful.”

Xue Yang snorted.

“Yeah, especially if you take off the bandage. Than my handsomeness would know no match.”  

“I took it off,” the Daozhang reminded him. “Believe me.”

Xue Yang did not know how to respond to this. He leaned forward, and the Daozhang, as if he was waiting exactly for this, put his arms around him. Xue Yang pressed his lips onto his chin and found his bearings before kissing first the corner of his mouth and then the very edge of his upper lip, already deliberately teasing the other man. The Daozhang could not stand this for long; he leaned forward, catching his lips with his own.

It was nice to lie on the bed like that, hugging the Daozhang and kissing him. Xue Yang never did this with anyone. All his experience in the pleasures of the flesh came from the brothels where he accompanied Jin Guangyao. The whores, especially the older ones, invited him to their chambers more than once. Without even wanting any money in return, they tried to teach him the art of love, but Xue Yang snatched away carnal pleasures just like everything else in his life – quickly, greedily, not caring about others. “A little beast,” one whore whose lip he bit called him tenderly. She enjoyed herself, but no thanks to Xue Yang. He couldn’t care less about her.

With the Daozhang, he could spend an eternity just kissing. Explore the taste of his lips, lick them, trace his teeth with his tongue – as a cultivator he had the benefit of having all his teeth intact. Well, Xue Yang also couldn’t complain in this respect.

When the Daozhang’s tongue entered his mouth, Xue Yang bit down on it lightly with his fangs, which made the Daozhang release a quiet moan. His hands were running through Xue Yang’s hair before they moved to caress his shoulders, but didn’t go any lower. Xue Yang didn’t suffer from the same reserve, already managing to touch the Daozhang’s back, chest and waist, and his palm now confidently found its way to his buttocks.

All of a sudden, the Daozhang broke their kiss and let out a long, heart-felt yawn.

Despite his disappointment over the interruption of their intimacy, Xue Yang couldn’t hold back laughter.

“You didn’t have a good sleep, Daozhang?”

“I’m sorry,” the other man mumbled in embarrassment.   

That meant that he really didn’t get any sleep last night, after listening to Xue Yang’s story. Well, that was his own fault. Xue Yang pushed the Daozhang, making him lie on his back, and grabbed him with everything he could – with his arms and one leg, and even put his head on the man’s shoulder.

“Sleep.”

A pair of soft lips touched the top of his head.

“Thank you.”

Now when the Daozhang learned who he was, Xue Yang finally did what he should have done a long time ago. He took up his stick, went out to the courtyard and for the first time in several months assumed a fighting stance. The stick was lighter than a sword, and he had no balance to speak of. As his right leg threatened to give out under him, he had to shift his weight to the left one. Everything was just terrible, diametrically different from the past, when he used Jiangzai with playful ease. But this was the first step. Xue Yang waited too long already.

First, he will take his revenge against Jin Guangyao. Then he will find Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen. Those were the goals he had to reach. Even if blind and limping. He would get there. Xue Yang was persistent. When there was a goal, he always found the strength to reach it.     

He heard the Daozhang come to the courtyard and stop in his tracks. Xue Yang didn’t interrupt his training. Why would he, after all he had told the other man?

“Are you going to fight with a stick or with a sword?”

“What do you think?”

“Where will you get a sword?”

“I’ll find one. Steal it. Buy it. Take it from someone,” Xue Yang said, accompanying every word with a charge of his stick. He needed to work on his fingers; they moved alright, but his grasp was still weak.

“And all that for revenge?”

“For what else?”

“I see,” was all the Daozhang had to say to that before he left.

Xue Yang gritted his teeth and started to swing his stick around with even more fervor. So what if the Daozhang didn’t understand him. Of course he had other, nobler goals in his life. To save the world, to protect people. Xue Yang’s situation was simpler than that; he had to think about himself. There was no one to save him or protect him… hadn’t been, before. But when he goes to Lanling, the Daozhang won’t go with him. He will stay in Yi with A-Qing. And Xue Yang will be alone again. That’s how it always has been, he won’t have to get used to it. He has lived like this, and would survive on his own again. Without the Daozhang, without the girl, who’s useless anyway. He will find himself food, and place to sleep. He always survives. Even blind. He’ll manage.

He stopped when his arms started to go numb from fatigue, and the thin material of his inner robes was soaked with sweat. He wiped himself with a wet cloth, took up a bucket with only a little water left splashing at the bottom, and went to the water source. Usually it was the Daozhang who got water. The road was rocky and full of gnarly tree roots, so Xue Yang trod it carefully even with the stick. All the better. When he leaves, no one will even his road for him.  

That evening, he and the Daozhang started to kiss already in the courtyard, very quietly so that A-Qing wouldn’t hear them. It was the Daozhang himself who pulled Xue Yang inside the house, laid him on the bed and lay on top of him, kissing his lips, cheeks and forehead. Xue Yang slid his hand down his back, from the nape of his neck all the way down to his buttocks, grasping the flesh there – and the Daozhang froze.

“You don’t want to?” Xue Yang asked, even though he had no intention of stopping.

“No… I mean, yes. I want. It’s just…”

“You’ve never been with a man, Daozhang?”

“No.”

“And what about women? It’s a long time you left your monastery; don’t tell me there was no beauty who’d steer you off the right path.”

“Please don’t mock me,” the Daozhang asked him quietly. “I thought that I still had time, to find a cultivation partner I could share my life with. And then I found myself here. I’m sorry, I just didn’t have any opportunity to learn about these things.”

“I’m not mocking you, Daozhang,” Xue Yang whispered against his lips. “It’s a good thing that you didn’t have anyone to teach you, very good. Excellent.”

Because imagining the Daozhang with some whore, the likes of which pulled Xue Yang himself to their bed, was unpleasant. It was wrong, something that didn’t suit his holy Daozhang at all. With him, anything like this could happen only when there were feelings involved… and imagining that the Daozhang experienced enough feelings towards anyone that things would end up in bed was even worse.

“I’ll show you, Daozhang, I’ll show you everything.” Xue Yang’s voice started to tremble, and there were slight tremors running through his whole body as well. The idea of himself teaching the Daozhang, guiding him, showing what to do… oh, Xue Yang didn’t even think it was possible to feel so much excitement. He could have whimpered aloud from that thought alone. “It’s actually very simple. You can do whatever you want with me. That’s about it.”

The Daozhang caressed his cheeks and then his fingers slid to Xue Yang’s neck.

“But what if I want one thing and you want another?”

“The point is, Daozhang, for us both to want the same thing,” Xue Yang said and mimicked his movement. “For example, I want to kiss you now. Do you want that?”

“I do.”

Xue Yang kissed his lips, prompting him to open them. The Daozhang let him. That was good. Wonderful. The idea of what else the Daozhang might let him do made Xue Yang feel hot heaviness in his abdomen.

“Your turn.”

“I want to… touch you?” the Daozhang intoned uncertainly.

“But you’re touching me already,” Xue Yang objected. “Is it not your hand on my shoulder? That doesn’t count.”

Even without touching his face, Xue Yang knew that the Daozhang was blushing like a wild poppy flower. But toying with him, provoking him like this was just too delicious to pass up. It was like opening a candy wrapper, which was, however, not made of any ordinary dirty paper but of good and expensive one, hinting at the sweetness hidden inside…

“Under your clothes.”

“What a coincidence, Daozhang,” Xue Yang purred, “I also want the same thing.”

He opened his arms in invitation. The Daozhang hesitated a little before he started to pull at his sash, untying it. Xue Yang was thinking about helping him, but the Daozhang managed by himself; not to mention that he wasn’t the one who was blind here. Xue Yang just needed to lift himself up and slip out of his sleeves. When he was wearing just his inner robes, the Daozhang stopped once again.

“Come on,” Xue Yang encouraged him, “I want it too, remember?”

The Daozhang trailed his fingers over his chest. Slowly, from top to bottom, tracing the contours of his muscles. He’s watching, Xue Yang realized, and then he remembered his scars. The Daozhang had already seen them, as it was him who washed and bandaged Xue Yang’s wounds.

But that was before, and now he probably didn’t like to look at them. There were others, older ones, but those at least didn’t stand out like that.

The Daozhang’s hands reached for the belt of his pants and then stopped. Xue Yang impatiently raised his hips, and the Daozhang complied with this gesture. He started caressing Xue Yang’s legs, from hips to ankles and vice versa, sometimes adding pressure, at other times just lightly sliding over the skin. For some reason, it was those light touches that made Xue Yang tremble and reach out to meet them.

“Beautiful,” the Daozhang said quietly. Xue Yang bit his lips and leaned back on the bed, clenching his fists. He wanted more. He wanted the Daozhang to lie on him, press him down with his weight. He wanted to feel him with his entire body, skin on skin. And at the same time, he wanted him not to stop, to keep petting him like this, to watch him without interruptions. If he truly found Xue Yang beautiful. How stupid. Only the holy Daozhang could think that…

When the Daozhang’s palm enveloped his member, Xue Yang moaned.

“Is this good?”

“Very,” he breathed out, jerking his hips. “But Daozhang…”

The Daozhang might have not found a partner for dual cultivation, but he clearly wasn’t neglecting himself; he pleasured Xue Yang with confidence, stroking him and squeezing him in exactly the right way. That was good. Wonderful. A hundred times better than when those women did it. Maybe it seemed that way because Xue Yang was now surrounded by darkness and the sensations he felt were sharper than ever before. He was biting down on his lip, arching when the Daozhang slowed his motions, and then suddenly started to stroke him harder. If he went just a bit faster, he would… he would…

And then the Daozhang removed his hand, leaned down to him and whispered right next to his ear, “Your turn.”

At first, Xue Yang couldn’t quite get what he meant, and reached out to catch his palm with the intention to put it back in place, because it had felt so good. And then he understood, and almost howled from sheer frustration and disappointment. Why did he suggest this?! He was a fool in wanting to provoke the Daozhang. Now the Daozhang was paying him back. But what could he do? Xue Yang took several breaths to keep his arousal under control. Let it be so. The longer the wait, the sweeter the pleasure.

“Of course, Daozhang,” Xue Yang agreed, lifting himself up. His body protested, as it already relaxed under the other man’s ministrations and wanted them to go on. “My turn. I also want to touch you. Everywhere.”

“Should I undress myself?”

The Daozhang was also not a little aroused, judging from how quickly he breathed, and how his voice shook. Xue Yang licked his lips.

“Untie your sash.”

After a few moments, the Daozhang placed Xue Yang’s palm over his untied sash, and Xue Yang started to disrobe him, one layer after another. He wanted to do it slowly, thoughtfully, but he didn’t have enough patience for that, so he ended up pulling off both sets of robes so hard that the fabric almost tore. He pushed at the Daozhang’s chest to make him lie down on the bed and got on top him, propping himself up with both his arms. He wanted to pounce, crush, grab, scratch and bite. To make the Daozhang moan and scream under him, trying to break free but to no avail, and Xue Yang would go even wilder from those cries…

He buried his nose in the nape of the Daozhang’s neck, so trustingly offered, and took a deep breath of the smell of herbs and the Daozhang himself – familiar, soothing. He couldn’t do that. Not with his Daozhang. He licked under the other man’s ear and immediately pressed his lips there. The Daozhang’s neck was tender and long. As if it was made for biting… but what would be the point if he couldn’t see the result afterwards? 

He needed to skin Jin Guangyao alive after all; never mind the bother.

Xue Yang placed another kiss on the Daozhang’s neck, tracing his clavicle with his finger. It felt very thin. The Daozhang himself was thin as a reed – Xue Yang caressed his body, wondering how one could be so strong with such a girlish slenderness. Naturally, he also felt the strings of muscles, straight and strong. Not a single scar. That was cultivators for you.

He traced his fingers over the other man’s chest, enjoying the feel of smooth, hot skin. The Daozhang didn’t make any sound, just panting and twisting under him when Xue Yang’s hand brushed against a nipple. Naturally by accident. That first time, at least.

Xue Yang caressed the middle of his chest for a while, to lull the Daozhang into a false sense of security, and then gave his nipple a powerful lick.

“Chengmei!”

“What?” Xue Yang sniggered. From his persistent licking, the nipple grew hard and Xue Yang gave it a light bite. The Daozhang gasped.

“But you wanted…”

“To touch you, yes. But did I say that with my hands only?”

Now he was exploring the Daozhang’s body with his lips, which was much more interesting. Lips were a lot more sensitive than fingers. Xue Yang kissed, grazed the skin with his teeth, ran his tongue along the ribs, while the Daozhang’s loud sighs turned almost into a whimper, from which Xue Yang concluded that he was ticklish, which had to be tested out one day. Not now, though.

Now he went lower, to a neat belly-button and a trail of hair leading to the Daozhang’s cock. When he bit down on the skin over the protruding hipbone, the Daozhang involuntary pulled his stomach in and bated his breath. The skin was so delicate that Xue Yang almost feared touching it – it seemed that any touch there could leave bruises. It was unlikely that Daozhang often undressed, allowing the sun to caress his body, which meant that his skin would be completely light. Xue Yang decided to imagine it like that – white as china, tender and smooth. That would suit the Daozhang nicely.

Xue Yang intentionally avoided the most sensitive part of the other man’s body. He breathed over his hip and tasted it with his lips. Listened to the Daozhang’s whimpers. Brushed him with his cheek, as if by accident, and stopped.

The Daozhang’s hips jerked forward in an unambiguous gesture. Xue Yang grinned and slightly turned his head. And let out a hot breath.

“Chengmei…”

“What?” Xue Yang asked him innocently, inching closer. The Daozhang naturally didn’t answer. He probably didn’t know himself what he wanted. “If you don’t like something…” This time, he exhaled against the base of the Daozhang’s member, almost touching it, “just say it. And I’ll stop right away.”

The Daozhang let out some completely incomprehensible sound. Did he choke on air? Xue Yang pushed his hips down to the bed and finally traced the base of the Daozhang’s cock in a slow, wet slide of his tongue.  

“Chengmei!”

“I don’t understand you, Daozhang,” Xue Yang said, rubbing his cheek against the other man’s cock, “Tell me if you like it or not. I can’t see, remember?”

The Daozhang was so incredibly hot. And smelled so good – with himself, a bit a musk and an almost imperceptible trace of herbs – that Xue Yang wanted to lick him all over. He had a hard time stopping himself from humping against his leg; his own arousal was so big that he had to hold his breath to calm himself down.

“I like it,” the Daozhang said with difficulty. His voice was almost unrecognizable, sounding as if someone had cut his throat. “Very much.”

As a reward, Xue Yang replaced his lips, kissing and licking. He also liked it. It was surprising; he had never before wanted to caress another person, to give them pleasure which, according to other men’s words, only whores could provide, and that’s why they ran away to them from their modest and virtuous wives. He was always taking, only thinking about himself. But pleasuring the Daozhang turned out to be so good it was driving him crazy. Especially when the other man started to moan. Xue Yang never played any musical instrument, but there was something delightful about the sounds created by the movement of the Daozhang’s lips and tongue.

“Chengmei…” the Daozhang’s voice reached him through the haze of pleasure, “Chengmei!”

Xue Yang reluctantly stopped and lifted his head, licking his lips. They were wet with saliva. The Daozhang inhaled through his nose and swallowed.

“Chengmei, I… come to me,” he said, pulling at his shoulder. Xue Yang obediently hoisted himself up and lied on top of him, pressing to the other man with the entire length of his body. The Daozhang put his hands around the back of Xue Yang’s head and kissed him – passionately, immediately thrusting his tongue into his mouth, and Xue Yang understood right away that the Daozhang had to taste himself there at this moment. This thought sent a hot wave of arousal surging through his body. He rubbed his hips against the other man as hard as he could, no longer holding back. It felt so good.

His mouth never leaving Xue Yang’s, the Daozhang put his hand between their bodies and encircled his fingers around them both.

“M-m?”

“Mm!” Xue Yang agreed, arching against his palm. The Daozhang let out a breathy chuckle and started to move his hand. And Xue Yang finally forgot about everything, yielding to his own pleasure, but that didn’t matter anymore because his and the Daozhang’s pleasure was one and the same thing.

Coming back to reality was a slow, lazy affair. Xue Yang was lying on top of the Daozhang, spread out like a fallen leaf, listening to the beat of a gradually calming heart. The Daozhang stroked his back.

“Chengmei.”

“Mm?”

“Lift yourself up.”

“No.”

The Daozhang chuckled.

“We need to wipe ourselves, before it dries up.”

Xue Yang reluctantly raised himself up, releasing him. The Daozhang went to the kitchen; there was a sound of splashing water. When he returned and ran a damp cloth over Xue Yang’s stomach, he grimaced – the water was cold.

“Come here, Daozhang.”

“I will,” the other man agreed. He lay down next to Xue Yang and covered them both with a blanket. Xue Yang hugged him with both arms and legs, burying his nose in the crook of his neck. It was nice like this. Peaceful. 

The world that was once a black nothingness filled with life – with the warmth of the Daozhang’s body, their talks, intimacy, the scent of sage, the sounds of their house – the creaking of floorboards, the chirping of birds on the roof, the rustling of mice under the porch. With A-Qing’s chatter. With the Daozhang’s laughter. The world became pleasant, cozy. A place where one would like to stay.

Xue Yang knew that his life in Yi City would not last long, but now this world surrounded him, embraced him along with the Daozhang’s arms, and he could afford to enjoy its warmth without thinking about how it would feel to lose it all.

His training went amazingly well that morning. After waking up in the Daozhang’s arms and exchanging morning kisses – Xue Yang almost managed to persuade him to repeat yesterday’s happenings, but then A-Qing’s footsteps were heard on the porch and they had to hastily put their clothes on – Xue Yang vibrated with so much energy that he felt ready to fight a whole squad. If only he had a sword. The stick swished through the air, and the first drop of sweat ran to his temple; Xue Yang reminded himself to bandage his forehead. The forehead, the eyes ... he’ll end up walking completely bandaged like that. What about a bandage that would hide his whole face?

The Daozhang walked out from behind the house, put something on the porch and stopped to watch. Xue Yang was aware of being watched. He spun around in place, fighting off two imaginary opponents at once, perhaps showing off a little more than he should have. But he knew his fighting style was beautiful. He had been told this more than once before.

“Fight me, Daozhang!”

“I don’t want to,” the Daozhang refused. But Xue Yang wasn’t going to give up that easily.

“Come on, I’m not asking for a sword. Take up a stick and attack me.”

“I don’t want to fight you.”

“I don’t mean for real. Oh, but you’re no fun, Daozhang!” Xue Yang sighed in frustration, still spinning around in place and cutting the air with his stick. “How will I learn to fight blind without opponents?” 

The Daozhang was silent. Alright, let it be then, if he had to adhere to his principles… or actually no, it was not alright; Xue Yang still felt offended. He didn’t ask for anything much, just wishing to spar together. Xue Yang got already used to the Daozhang not telling him about his night hunts, and not wielding his sword around him – Xue Yang didn’t even know where he hid it, because otherwise he’d have found it and explored it with his hands, to find out what kind of the sword Daozhang had, ordinary or not. He just wanted to spar. With sticks. What was the big deal with that?

He hardly registered the quiet swish and parried the blow before realizing that he was being attacked only thanks to his body’s reflexes. There was a hollow sound of wood hitting wood, and Xue Yang grinned in triumph.

“Look at you, Daozhang! Attacking without a warning?”

“Your enemies won’t give you a warning,” the Daozhang replied calmly, attacking again. Xue Yang dodged, deflected the blow, and made his own attack. He wasn’t holding back – no one has ever died because of wooden sticks.

But he never managed to get at the Daozhang. He walked away from the blows like an ethereal spirit, and his own attacks were quick and accurate. Xue Yang barely managed to fight back, and at the same time he had a persistent feeling that the Daozhang was not fighting at full strength.

Even if Xue Yang could see, the Daozhang would be a worthy opponent for him.

“You can barely fight back with a stick,” Daozhang spoke again. His voice was even, and his breathing inaudible. It was as if he was standing still and not fighting.  “What will you do against a dozen swords?”

Xue Yang made a deceiving move at a shoulder and then immediately went for the stomach. But the Daozhang was not fooled.

“I will make the dozen swords disappear.”

“As soon as Jin Guangyao finds out that you have returned and are going after him, he will order you to be killed.”

“So I’ll start with Song Lan and Xiao Xingchen.”

The Daozhang’s stick touched his arm in a suggestion of a blow. If it were a sword, Xue Yang would already be bleeding.

“Did they really cause you so much grief? Why do you want to take revenge against them so badly?”

“You don’t understand anything, Daozhang,” Xue Yang said, baring his teeth. One more false attack, which the Daozhang evaded again. “You think revenge is when you got hit and you hit back? No! Then they will hit you again, they will beat you until you die. You must take your revenge in a way so that no one” - attack – “ever” - blow – “dares to touch you, or even think of it! So that everyone fears you and avoid you – that’s how it should be!”

The Daozhang no longer attacked; he only fought back, with the same ease. As if Xue Yang was a child who first took up a sword and not a seasoned fighter.

“Then you will become the one who hits first.”

“So what of it? Better to hit than to be beaten.”

“This is wrong, Chengmei. Unfair.”

“And what do you suggest?” Xue Yang was already panting for breath. It was embarrassing how weak he had become! His leg started to ache, struggling under his weight. “Should I sit here in the coffin house, afraid they’d find and kill me? Together with you and Little Blind, by the way.”

“You can tell the world about everything that Jin Guangshan and Jin Guangyao made you do. If their orders were criminal, other clans would condemn them.”

“Condemn them?” Xue Yang sniggered. “You’re a fool after all, Daozhang. They will find a way out of it, and I’ll get executed. Who will the noble cultivators trust – the head of a Great Order or a scum like me?”

“You’re not–” the Daozhang cut himself short as he had to parry an attack. The stick in Xue Yang’s hands trembled with the force of the blow. “Then leave them alone. When people do harm to others, sooner or later it turns against them. If you find a chance to give them what they deserve without putting yourself in danger, take it, but for now live. Here. With me. Is it so bad you can’t wait to rush to your death?”

“You’re suggesting that I sit on my ass and wait for someone else to kill the whore’s son for me? And then what? Go piss on his grave?”

“I’ll even hold your stick for you,” the Daozhang replied evenly.

Xue Yang froze for a moment, unable to believe his ears; a sharp blow immediately knocked the stick out of his hands, and the Daozhang lightly touched his stomach, then his heart.

“Was that a joke? Did you make a joke, Daozhang?”

“I’m sorry,” the Daozhang apologized, “Was it not funny?”

“No, it…” Xue Yang started to laugh. “Don’t joke like this, Daozhang, it’s not like you at all. It was unfair!”

“Forgive me.” The Daozhang made a step towards him and hugged him. Xue Yang relaxed with relief, leaning on him; standing was already difficult. “Your enemies will fight honorably, of course.”

“I know they won’t,” Xue Yang mumbled into his shoulder. “I’m not a fool, Daozhang, what do you take me for? I’m not going to leave right now. I will train. I will plan it all out. I’m not going to die that easily.”

“I don’t want to lose you.”

Xue Yang knew what this meant. When he leaves to kill, he can no longer go back. It doesn’t matter if he manages to stay alive or not – a cold-blooded killer has no place next to the good, holy Daozhang. This was the price he would pay for his revenge. But he could not give up on it. And so Xue Yang didn’t say anything, only hugged the Daozhang as tightly as the man hugged him.

He wasn’t going to leave right away, after all.