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Jin surely could have left first thing in the morning, and left them all in the dust on their way to the city.

Instead, he was helping stack some of the crates of mushrooms with her little brother clinging to his back like a monkey. Meihua’s father had even given him an ox to borrow for their trip to the town, instead of him carrying his own load, as thanks for his help which sped the preparations considerably.

And now her father was giving her pointed looks, and smirking when he caught her looking at Jin.

He hadn’t believed that they had just found and chased off a wolf. He thought they had snuck off to do...other things. Like kissing in the moonlight, or something equally ridiculous. It didn’t help that he had just completely ignored her when she told him her actual name, and just continued to call her Meimei.

She snorted, and buried her face back into the medical scroll. As if any man would want to do that with bony, freckly Meiling.

She saw, out of the corner of her eye, a wagon start to tip, as it’s wheel got stuck in a hole.

Jin lifted it out one-handed, without breaking stride, and winked when he caught her looking.

She scowled and looked away, hits of red blossoming on her cheeks.

Bastard.

///////

For two days had the Great Master been gone, and for two days had Bi De kept the Great Master’s coop. None had so far dared to challenge him, no more of Basi Bu Shi’s ilk slunk around in the shadows. In his beak he held a twig that was split many times to form bristles, and swept away the dirt that threatened to invade where it wasn’t wanted. Soon, he would be able to use his wings for this, but not yet. His Great Master’s medicines were most potent, turning what should have been a life ending injury into a mere inconvenience. Loath as he was to have consumed such rare reagents, his Great Master’s beneficence was impossible to refuse.

He stalked among his master’s crops, and tried to empower them as his Great Master did. His efforts were laughable compared to his Great Master, and only revealed the truly vast gulf between them. On the first day, merely tending to the herb pots sent him to the ground, gasping and dizzy from exertion, with barely enough strength to sup upon the lesser beasts that came to try and eat them. His master could work the entirety of The Great Fa Ram without breaking sweat. Truly, his Great Master’s power was beyond his current comprehension.

He stalked back to his own pavilion, in the place with all the females. They were… disappointing to him in some ways. They held not the same spark as he, despite being in the Great Master’s presence, and occasionally consuming some bit of Heavenly Herb.

He wondered why, yet could not come up with a satisfactory answer. It was beyond his current comprehension.

He shook himself, and attended once more to Great Fa Ram.

////////

Verdant Hill crested the horizon. It was a town of about two thousand people, on top of a hill. Unlike Meimei’s little village of about 50, Verdant Hill had some impressive walls to it, and a palace looking administrative building in the center of it.

The people of our little caravan were surprised that we made such great speed. Normally they arrived late on the second day, but this time we got into Verdant Hill early in the morning of the second day. The distance itself wasn’t too far, but, you had to cross an extremely hilly section to actually get here. Though to call them merely hills was a disservice, they were damn near mountains, and the carts had to travel single file.

The geography here was really weird. Lots of potholes on the road too. I may have to fix that, if only for my sake.

Our party was Meimei, her little brother, Xian, her father, who was also named Xian, The getting married girl (Meihua), her dad (Yao Che), and two more young men (Gou Ren and Yun Ren), who were supposed to help unload the mushrooms, and other goods.

The guards seemed to know Meimei’s father, and so waved us in without any trouble, and I bowed to Yao Che in thanks for letting me borrow the ox...even though I hadn’t actually needed it.

It was the thought that counted, and I greatly appreciated his generosity. We all agreed to meet up at the inn later. We would be staying the light at least, and maybe another night too. We all departed after stabling the animals, and locking away our carts. Meimei was instructed to bring a bottle of what I assumed was alcohol to “Brother Bao” by her father, while the rest went off to sell mushrooms at the exchange.

Well, first things first. Time to (hopefully) find out what the weird root was. It was still back at the farm, but I had drawn a fairly good rendition of it.

I could feel Meimei’s eyes on me, as I set off. We were heading in the same direction.

“You headed to the Archives too?” I asked her, and after she looked at me suspiciously for a moment, nodded.

There was a pause, as we walked, until Meimei spoke.

“What are you looking for at the Archives? I may be able to help you find it.” she offered.

“Trying to get out of making dumplings for me by doing me a different favour, Meimei?” I teased. The girl rolled her eyes, but I could tell she was amused, while I chuckled. “I take it you’re familiar with the Archives then?”

“Father used to be an Imperial clerk, before he had to go back to the village and take up grandfather’s place when he passed. I spent most of my childhood in the Archives.” She replied, and once more had her “watching cat look” on her face, gauging my reaction.

“Great!” I replied, and she looked shocked at my statement, “I don’t know what exactly I’m looking for, but I sketched it down. A root of some kind, wanted to know what it was.”

I took out the picture, and the notes I had made, and handed it over to Meimei.

She recovered quickly though, and accepted my drawing as we reached the Archives. It wasn’t particularly large, but His Imperial Majesty had decreed that every town and city have one, along with a collection of standardized books and scrolls, and some more local knowledge. It also had land and tax records, and everything else an archive should have.

“Well… come on then, I know the First Archivist, so we can start with him.” Meimei muttered, looking at my drawing. "I’m not supposed to be able to look at the advanced scrolls, now that father isn’t part of the Imperial clerks anymore… but Uncle Bao lets me anyways.”

“Ah, Lady Hong Meiling, she with friends in high places.” I said, putting on my most “courtly” voice, and Meimei actually laughed out loud, smiling brightly, before she realised what she was doing, and her smile dimmed.

She kept a cute little smirk though.

We ascended the stairs, the guards once more just waving Meimei through, and giving me an odd look, but then just shrugging and resuming their watch with bored expressions.

“Uncle!” Meimei called, and we were rewarded with a happy gasp.

Uncle Bao was.. Well, bao shaped. A very rotund, balding man, but he looked jolly, with many smile lines on his face.

“Mei’er! Daughter of my Brother Xian! It’s so good to see you again!” he exclaimed, and waddled around his desk so he could embrace Meimei, who contrary to my expectations seemed happy with the treatment.

“It’s good to see you too uncle. Father sends his regards, and prays that you meet him at the usual place.”

Bao beamed at her, accepting the alcohol jug. “I shan’t miss it, Mei’er!”

He then turned to me, his eyes suddenly piercing. “And who does stand before me here?” he demanded of me.

I smiled at him, and made the proper gesture of courtesy. Thank god for Jin’s memories, otherwise I would have fucked up which hand went where.

“This one’s name is Jin Rou. I greet you, and hope that you have good health, First Archivist.” I replied.

“Hes a friend of our family, uncle.” Mei whispered to him. “Father trusts him.”

The piercing quality suddenly went away, and Bao’s smile came back.

“Well, for my Brother to trust you with his daughter, you must be a man of virtue!” Meimei’s face went red, but she didn’t say anything.

“I’m guessing you want to use the archives, Mei’er? You know I can’t let you into the advanced scrolls. But I’ll be here in the back room if you need me, and I’ll be joining your father tonight! Mark my words well!”

Bao winked at her, and then waddled away. Meimei picked up a key he put on the desk.

“To the archives?” she asked.

The guards ignored us as we walked up, and opened the locked door.

We grabbed the first of the scrolls on herbs, and sat down to read.

///////

Jin was strange, Meiling thought, as she looked at him from the corner of her eye. Not even “strange for a cultivator”, but just strange. A lot of men had grimaced when they found out that she could read the Courtly Characters, or scoffed when they heard about her time in the Archives. Useless for a woman, they said.

Never mind that she was the best at making medicine within 50 li. Never mind she knew how to cure the shaking fevers, how to set broken bones, and how to drain a cut to stave off infection. And she knew how to cook and clean and mend so she knew her womanly duties. She had taken care of her household ever since her mother’s passing.

But the archives just sealed the deal.

They saw gloomy Meiling. An impudent woman with a tongue like a knife, spitting poison at their “good sons.”

Jin had looked impressed. Happy even. And had willingly sat down with her amongst the mass of scrolls, as they got to work.

And now they were sitting shoulder to shoulder.

He smelled of earth and the harvest.

Her face flushed. She redoubled her concentration on the scrolls.

////////

I yawned and stretched. It was starting to get dark out, and today had been a bust so far. Nothing that looked even remotely like what I had, and we had gone through most of the scrolls on herbs.

“C’mon, Meimei, we’ll look again tomorrow. I’ve got some stuff to do in the morning first though. Gotta sell my furs, and pick up some more supplies.”

Meimei yawned too. She seemed annoyed that we hadn’t found anything., but nodded.

We started putting the scrolls away, when something caught my eye. A scroll Jin had read before. Contemplations of the Flamebud, it was titled.

It was a tale of two men.

They each find a Pearlescent Flamebud. It has taken a thousand years for it to bloom, to gather it's power for the sole act of reproducing, spreading it's pollen on the aetheric currents.

One of the men, upon finding this flower, cackles with joy. He tears it out of the ground, root and all. He shoves it into a spirit furnace, and burns away everything of the flower he deems superfluous, concentrating a sole aspect of it's essence. He then consumes this pill, greedily devouring it's essence to slightly improve his fire resistance.

The other man, upon finding the flower, is struck with it's beauty. He contemplates the flower, the way it delicately draws in energy. They way it's life disperses on the currents of the world, traveling far and wide to find a partner. He observes the cycle of it's life, and when it finally withers, and begins storing energy to make it's seeds... He thanks the flower for it's wonderous life, and leaves, gaining little from the encounter.

Obviously, this wasn’t the way it was really told, lots more flowery language, and to cultivators, the moral of the story was basically “YEAH, SNORT THAT MAGIC FLAME FLOWER, THE OTHER GUY IS DUMB AND WEAK”

Jin Rou had agreed with that interpretation.

My only thought after remembering the story was “maybe all those contemplation guys actually ascend, while you’re all stuck here.”

I shook my head, and finished putting away the scrolls. Meimei returned the key to the Archivist, and we wandered back through the pleasant night to the inn, and returned together, just as her father was about to go out.

A massive, shit eating grin spread across his face.

“Did you two have a good day together?” he questioned in a leading voice, just loud enough for the rest of the people of their village to hear, and Meimei flushed crimson.

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