Tingfeng and Meihua’s heads bowed three times towards the west.
Yao Che and Tingfeng’s father and grandfather bowed to each other.
And then it was done.
It had been several months in the making, this wedding. And now, Meiling’s best friend would be a two day journey away, instead of right next door.
Their parting would hurt, but she would endure it. She was happy that her friend was married to someone she actually liked. Tingfeng was a good man, and he would take care of her.
She tried not to cry as Meihua caught her eye, unshed tears in them. In the absence of her deceased mother, it was Meiling that had done the traditional dressing of the bride. It was her who had helped to hand her away.
Meihua’s smile towards her was radiant. It was like the sun moved on her whims, to perfectly illuminate her face, and the decorations around her took on vibrant new life.
Meiling guessed that it was just her emotions getting the better of her.
But for now, their participation was at its end. The young couple departed to their rooms, and the feast began.
Meiling’s heart was full of joy, but there was a blemish on the proceedings that had come out of nowhere. Meiling had expected this to be a joyous day. A time for thanksgiving and a time to enjoy herself after the union was done.
And then something happened last night.. His once warm, and refreshing scent had churned and boiled like an untended cauldron. He smelled wrong. Like overboiled rice and peat. It was an exercise to get close to him, instead of just trying to gain some distance, but last night, his face had been pale, and mannerisms off.
She knew something really must have disturbed him if he had told her to leave, instead of making even a token effort of getting her to sleep beside him. So she had braved the smell, and held him tightly, no matter how much her stomach roiled.
Her presence seemed to have been a balm, and most of the ugly churning had died down. When she had slipped out of his embrace in the morning, he was almost completely scentless.
But then Jin started… leaking, for the lack of a better word. The smell was slightly too sweet. The smell of overripe fruit. It was minute, but it was there. An undercurrent to his normal smell.
Oh sure, he had acted the same for most of the day. He took Gou Ren’s prank with his normal good humor, and took little Xian out for a walk to return the goat, coming back with a kitten from the grateful owner. Jin seemed bemused by the entire thing, and now the cat was sleeping in his carriage.
But his smiles were slightly off, and his brow was clenched with worry, even as he laughed with other guests, and enjoyed the festivities.
Eventually, he seemed to tire of even this, and wandered to go and sit in the carts.
Meiling smiled at her father, and begged off some of the festivities. She picked up a pitcher of rice wine, and a platter of dumplings, and went to find him. They wouldn’t be missed, and things were starting to get rowdy.
There would be many hangovers tomorrow, that she was sure of it.
She found Jin on his cart, absentmindedly stroking his kitten.
“What should I name you, little girl? Pu Shi?” His lips quirked slightly into a smile. “Nah, that's just rude. You’re going to be a good little girl. And though you may be a girl, this one is a powerful name, from a powerful, wonderful tiger… Tigu’er sounds good, right?”
The kitten yowled, snuggled into him.
Meiling said nothing as she clambered into the carriage beside him, setting down the plate and the bottle. Jin looked slightly surprised, but he smiled for her.
“You’re too good to me, you know that?” His lips quirked into a crooked grin, “Keep spoiling me so much and I’ll become a useless man.”
“Then I’ll just have to set you straight again if that happens.” She declared.
Jin laughed, took a dumpling, and a swig from the pitcher.
They lapsed into silence for a while, listening to the shouts and the laughter of people having a good time.
“You’ve said you’re from Raging Waterfall Gorge before, but what kind of place did you grow up in?”
He paused, and his brow furrowed.
“I’ve never told you what city I was from?” He seemed bemused that it slipped his mind. His eyes defocused again as he reminisced. “Crimson Crucible City, out above Demon’s Grave Ravine. Its.. well its a city. Most cities are the same everywhere you go. Noisy, crowded. Lots of people looking to make it big, and the gutters are filled with those that didn’t,” He frowned, “Never liked the city. Or any city, really. I’ll go to one if I have to, but I much prefer it out here.”
He handed her the wine, and she took a swig.
“Thats far away. Dangerous, too. The things that live near Demon’s Grave Ravine make the spirit beasts here look like normal animals.” She leaned closer to him, “Is it true that it's attacked by Demons?” She whispered.
Jin nodded. “I saw it once. Well, kind of. You don’t really see much through the defensive formations. Most people just keep on doing what they’re doing. If the Formation falls, everybodys dead anyways, so no sense worrying about it.”
Meiling could scarcely imagine it. To just go about your life while demons battered at the gates? She had seen scrolls of them before, but somehow, they seemed more fantastical than cultivators. All devilish bodies and corrosive qi.
She handed the pitcher back.
“Who taught you to cultivate?” She asked.
“My grandfather. Well, he wasn’t really my grandfather. He picked me up off the street, after my parents died of the Demon’s Black Hate. Watching somebody vomit up their entire stomach is… well, it was pretty gross, I’ll be honest.”
Jin grimaced, obviously replaying the memory. Meiling shuddered too. The reagents to cure it were expensive enough to buy the entirety of Verdant Hill twice over.
“After a couple years, Gramps said I was strong enough, and left. Told me I should join a sect.”
Jin traded her the pitcher again.
“Did you?” She thought he must have not, and instead travelled to the Azure Hills. Likely to get away from all the demons. She took a swig from the pitcher.
“Yeah. The Cloudy Sword Sect.”
Meiling spat out her drink and started coughing.
“Cloudy Sword?!” She gasped. That was one of the most powerful sects that she knew of! The Indomitable Cloudy Sword Sect! Bane of Demons! Masters of the Raging Cloudy Sword Formation! And he left that?!
Jin shrugged. “I basically did what I did now, just with more spirit herbs. I was barely an outer sect disciple. So I did the laundry, the maintenance, and grew the spirit herbs. Fifth Stage of the Initiate’s realm isn’t much out there.”
Jin’s grin was rueful. Still, even if he was barely a disciple at the Cloudy Sword Sect, the fifth stage? That was nearly into the profound realm. The stronger sects of the Azure Hills had inner disciples that were barely into the second stage of the initiate’s realm. Even the rocks of Cloudy Sword were the mountains of the Azure Hills!
She shook her head.
“Jin… why did you leave?” She was thankful that he left, and came to their village.. but she had to know why.
He took the pitcher back from her, and took a big swig. He stared at the moon with a frown on his face. The silence dragged on.
Eventually, he answered her.
“I got into a fight. It was a stupid fight. One of the inner sect disciples was looking for somebody to “trade pointers” with, and I didn’t get out of the way in time. He kicked the shit out of me. Don’t even remember his name. Broken ribs, shattered arm.. The works. He nearly killed me. Or I guess he did kill me… My heart stopped, at least.”
Meiling felt ill at the confession. Jin took another swig.
“The people who dragged me back to my room decided that they deserved a “reward” for being so kind to me, and ransacked it, because there wasn’t anything I could do to stop them. As I was lying there, bleeding and broken, I thought “What the hell is the point of all of this?”
All the fighting. All the stealing. The obsessively hoarding power. The race to get ahead and ascend… I realised that I didn’t care about it. That ascension, that power… wasn’t something that I wanted to pursue if I had to keep company with those people.”
He looked back at her, his eyes full of conviction..
“If men like these rule the heavens, then I want nothing to do with them. I’ll make my own slice of paradise right here.”
The hardness in his eyes faded. Jin shrugged again.
“So I left. Maybe I’m trying to justify my own cowardice. Maybe I could have mustered some noble reason to continue like “I’ll get strong and protect everybody!”...but at the end of the day, I chose to be a farmer.”
He paused again, looking at her, and his eyes turned sad. “Maybe we rushed our engage--”
No, she thought, hes not doing that. Hes not going to weasel out of things.
“Its good you became a farmer.” She cut him off, and he looked surprised. “Any good man would want to rid himself of such company!” Murderers and rapists. “Even if you were scared, you’re no coward. Cowards don’t fight to stop girls they barely know from getting taken by scum.”
He scratched his head, and looked down at the ground. “I’m afraid.” He whispered. “I’m afraid of what I’ll do. If I’ll become like them….”
It was Meiling’s turn to shrug. “The answer is simple. Don’t.”
He looked like she had just brained him with a shovel. “Just don’t?”
“Correct. In fact, you’re not allowed to become like them.” Her eyes narrowed, “You have a home to look after. You’re not allowed to go galavanting around the countryside, getting in fights. Your wife forbids it.” She crossed her arms, and stuck her nose up into the air imperiously.
There was silence. She idly wondered what she was doing, commanding a cultivator. Jin burst out laughing. The kitten on his lap yowled in anger, and leapt off him, glaring as it settled in her lap insead.
He laughed so hard he dropped the jug of wine, clutching his stomach.
She flushed. Was he making fun of her? What did she know of cultivation? Maybe that was dumb--
The sickly sweet smell went away. Jin grinned at her with his stupid grin.
“Of course, my darling wife. I shall do as you command. Forgive your husband's stupidity.”
“I’ll be generous and forgive you. Now stop moping. Honestly, today is supposed to be a joyous one, and you’ve been doing this.”
“Yes, Meiling.” He agreed easily, hopping up out of the carriage, and holding his arm out to escort her. Meiling smiled at him, and gently set the kitten off to the side onto a blanket. They began their way back to the party.
“Just don’t huh?” he muttered.