Zhu Long Gu (Valley of the Torch Dragon),
Southern borders of the Ghost and the Celestial Realm
As far as interrogation hideouts went, one couldn't ask for a better one than a cavern on a mountain in the middle of the desert. 14th had turned the cave system into a veritable home where, engrossed in his experiments, he holed himself up for months. Long, narrow tunnels connected the rooms—and 14th’s den had quite a few. Complete with living quarters consisting of a bedroom, tearoom, and study, the den boasted of a forge, an alchemy room, a workroom, multiple storerooms, and a courtyard. Bamboo doors covered the entrances. The curved ceiling that was high in certain places and low in others was hung with thousands of year old stalactites. During the day, the cave would be lit orange and golden from sunlight sneaking in through the many crevices. Right now, however, it was night time and the rooms were dark unless one lit one of the candle sconces along the walls or used a night pearl. The smell of sand floated along the dry air circulating through the tunnels.
The small study had a couple of shelves of scrolls, a desk and chairs. On one corner of the desk sat a glass jar with starmoths fluttering inside. Inksticks, inkstone, scrolls and brushes were strewn across the rest of the desk.
Die Feng led Xian Cai into the empty study and finally turned to speak to him. “What is it?”
“Your Highness, you must return to the West Sea. The King and Queen—”
“What is the matter?” Die Feng asked again.
“Another of our fairies had fallen ill,” said Xian Cai.
“Another one!” Die Feng exclaimed, aghast. “Who?”
“Lady Ren Mei. And that is not all.”
“What else? Speak quickly.”
“Donghai Shuijun’s forces were spotted in our territory again.”
Die Feng groaned inwardly. The Eastern Sea King had been more than a minor annoyance lately.
“What were they doing?”
“Lady Ren Mei sent her servant to report that Donghai Shuijun’s missionaries had offered her a cure if she agreed to accept the East Sea’s protection. She had them thrown out, of course. Even in her sickness she remains loyal to the West.”
Die Feng frowned. The East Sea had no business seeking to bring autumn fairies under its protection. Each Sea Kingdom had its own subjects to take care of. How had Donghai Shijun even heard of this internal matter of the West Sea when Die Feng had been so careful about keeping it quiet? Spies...He shouldn’t be surprised.
When fairies had started falling sick with no apparent cause, the King had decided to request High God Zhe Yan to take a look. Careful not to alarm the aging Xi Hai Shuijun, Zhe Yan had privately conveyed his suspicion to Die Feng. Die Feng remembered the words exchanged in the Crystal Palace garden.
“Your Highness, have you examined the White Chrysanthemum Star lately?”
“The Chrysanthemum Star? What about it?”
“As you know, your fairies derive their life force from the Star. It seems they are not getting
“High God Zhe Yan, that is a grave notion indeed.”
“If something happens to the Star, I’m afraid no treatment of mine will succeed.”
Looking up, Die Feng asked, “Any word from the other two fairies?”
“They are still stable, Your Highness. High God Zhe Yan’s medicine worked.”
“All right, I will—”
A loud crash interrupted Die Feng. Hand on sword, he burst into the tea room to see 14th junior, Yan Wei, running in circles, dodging what seemed to be a woman though her clothing was the opposite of feminine. What was even more bizarre was the fact that 5th and 8th juniors sat nearby, with calm expressions as they played Go while sipping tea, completely ignoring the scene before them. Well, not completely, since the lady in question threw what seemed to be a scroll at 14th, who ducked. The scroll continued to head straight at 8th junior, Lou Jin, but without looking, he lifted his white jade flute with one hand to block the hurling item, while making his next move on the board with the other hand. 5th junior, Zheng You, smiled with a quick glance at the two scuffling figures next to them before grabbing another Go piece.
“What in Fuxi’s name is going on here?” Die Feng demanded. 14th and the woman froze. Zheng You and Lou Jin looked up innocently.
The lady, correction, the unruly female in question, turned to look at him. She was young, yet her eyes were shaded with the hardships of life. It was not her disorderly clothes that gave her away. Unlike women of all realms, who took pride in their beauty, this women wore no makeup, her hair was tied up in two messy half buns, her hands were not delicate, but smeared with seemed to be dirt. The woman slowly lowered the vase she had been about to throw and cleared her throat. Keeping one eye on Yan Wei, who, for some reason, seemed happy at her hostile glare, she asked Die Feng, “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” Die Feng countered in his usual authoritative tone.
“I’m Liu Rong, and this man has failed to pay up the money he owes me,” said the woman, pointing at Yan Wei. “Again.” Zheng You coughed in the background while Lou Jin poured him some tea.
“14th?” Die Feng narrowed his eyes.
“I apologise, Senior.” said Yan Wei. “We will take the matter outside.”
“You will do no such thing,” said Die Feng. “Explain yourself.”
“My parents cut me off, recently, due to the heavy expenses of my new project,” 14th explained sheepishly. His expression took on an air of determination. “But rest assured, once I get the money for my new invention, I will pay her back promptly.”
“When will that be?” Liu Rong demanded. “It’s been 6 months! You promised me triple!”
“6 months? Triple?” Die Feng stared at 14th. “You borrowed from a loan shark?”
“Excuse me,” Liu Rong snapped, her patience wearing thin, “unlike that silver spoon, who lives off his parents’ wealth, I have my siblings to feed! And it was your conniving junior who promised me triple, since I refused to loan him again.”
“Miss Liu, as I told you earlier, I don’t have funds at the moment. You will have to come again,” Yan Wei smiled ruefully. Liu Rong glowered back.
His head shaking, Die Feng took out a pouch from his sleeve and turned to Liu Rong. “Here. This should be sufficient to cover his debt.”
The smile slid off 14th’s face. “No! Senior, you don’t have to—”
Die Feng waved him off. “It is no trouble.”
“Oh, thank heavens!” Liu Rong snatched the pouch and poured out the pearls into her palm, smiling as if for the first time, her youthfulness radiating.
“No, really—” Why did 14th look dismayed?
Ah…his junior had too much pride. “Consider it repayment for the use of your den.”
“You, sir, are a real man,” Liu Rong smiled brightly, pouring the pearls back into the pouch. She turned to 14th. “You should count yourself lucky you have such a generous senior, or I would have turned you into my slave,” she told him.
“Slave?” 14th’s eyes widened at the word.
“Well, there’s no need for that now. I have to go, my next job is calling.” Liu Rong turned to Die Feng, but this time with an appraising expression. More precisely, with an expression like that of a money grubber gazing upon a golden goose. “Thank you, kind sir. If you need any work done in this valley, please come to me. I live in an outskirts village, south of Wu Ming Shi (无名市, No Name City). I am a jack of all trades, my reputation is well known here. Even if I can’t do the job for you I can find someone who will,” she assured him with enthusiasm.
“I will keep that in mind, Miss Liu,” Die Feng responded politely, which earned another bright smile from her.
Her attention turned back to Yan Wei, who had become oddly speechless during the exchange. “Yan Wei, you should be happy now that I won’t be chasing after you anymore,” Liu Rong smirked at 14th before heading towards the door.
After Liu Rong left, 14th stared after her, frozen in place, with an expression of disappointment.
14th was too scrupulous. Die Feng lightly smacked him on the head. “Don’t be too proud to accept help from your senior. You should be demanding allowance from me.”
“She said slave…” Yan Wei whispered to himself in anguish, making Zheng You chuckle behind him.
“Lost opportunity, I see,” Lou Jin laughed, taking a sip of his tea.
“Indeed, if only our Senior were not here,” 5th added in a regretful voice. “Our unfortunate 14th, what he would give to offer his body as payment.”
“I was so close,” 14th covered his face with an agonized groan.
“Are you saying—” Die Feng turned to 8th and 5th, who raised their tea cups at each other.
“Senior, did you not wonder how she got in here?” Zheng You smiled, his attention back on the board of Go. “This is a secret hideout that even you thought of using for your private matters.”
“The traps that 14th placed for miles around the entrance? Not many can pass them without a map,” said Lou Jin, placing his piece on the board.