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If there was one season Meiling absolutely loathed, it was winter. The cold cut right through to her bones, and made travel a chore. But the worst part about it was that everybody got sick. The shaking fevers and wracking coughs always proliferated around this time, and it was her family’s job to fix it.

It was hard, soul-draining work that sometimes ended in the deaths of the patients. That was always the hardest bit. Trying so hard to save somebody, only to have their life pass through your fingers.

Still, she would count her blessings this year. Sickness had largely avoided Hong Yaowu, and save for the occasional case of the sniffles, things were good. Even the cold didn’t seem as bad. Which is why they were even out here at all. Her father had asked her to deliver a letter to Jin from Uncle Bao. He could have just gotten another messenger, but he told her to spend some time with her betrothed.

Now, she trudging through the snow towards Jin’s house. The snowshoes made things easier, but it was still difficult work. Especially for the two heavier boys. She was a little annoyed that her two “guards” were coming, especially Yun Ren. The narrow-eyed man had been even more fox-like than usual, grinning and constantly making references to her “beloved’s palace”, calling her “The Princess of Hong Yaowu.”

She spiked some of his clothes with itching powder for his cheek, but even that couldn’t keep the insufferable smirk off his face.

The one good thing about the brothers being here was that she didn’t have to forge her own path. Yun Ren or Gou Ren took the lead, switching off, and all she had to do was walk in their footsteps.

Gou Ren more than Yun Ren. He was just as excited as she was to go and visit Jin again.

The night they had spent on the road was cold, but not unbearably so. The trees provided plenty of protection, and Gou Ren’s body was a furnace compared to theirs. He complained mightily about the chilly feet and clammy hands that pressed against his skin, but he rarely made any real effort to head them off. Furnace duty got him out of tending to the fire and cooking.

They were getting close, she could feel it. Though instead of rice and the harvest, the crisp scent of pines and cedar filled her nostrils, with the faint hint of something almost spicy.

They trudged for a while longer, when for the first time in Meiling’s life, she was caught completely off guard by something with qi.

A large, rust-red boar with a black mane seemed to spring up out of nowhere anong the path. Three massive scars decorated it’s face, and tusks curled out from it’s lips.

It was a fearsome looking creature, one of violence and destruction. Steam hissed from it’s nostrils as it beheld them.

Gou Ren flailed, staggering backwards. The scent of pines and cedar was thick on the boar, and entirely too strong for it not to have qi. Meling froze.

“Hey, Chun Ke.” Yun Ren greeted it, entirely unconcerned, while Gou Ren tried to skitter backwards on his hands. Meiling let out a breath she had been holding. One of Jin’s.

The boar let out a happy squeal and approached them, moving aside the snow without a care in the world. Yun Ren grinned, as he started scratching along the boar’s mane. The porcine beast leaned into his touch, whuffing and snuffing with joy. The last time Meiling had seen him, it was hairless and pink, not this. Its shoulders already reached her waist. She could probably ride him.

Yun Ren gave him a dried persimmon, and the beast was even happier, nuzzling Yun Ren’s legs.

It was a far cry from the regal rooster, who bowed, and insisted on courtesy.

There was another pig watching them from the path. Probably Pi Pa, if she remembered Jin’s strange names right. The female didn’t approach, but seemed satisfied with the affection Chun Ke was receiving.

Eventually, Chun Ke got tired of greeting them, and oinked, turning around to trot along the path. The clear path. They didn’t need their snowshoes anymore, it looked like a combination of a shovel, and a boar’s snout had done most of the work.

“Why didn’t you tell us that Brother Jin’s pig turned out like that?” Gou Ren snarled at his brother.

“Because it was funnier this way.” Yun Ren said cheerily, as he walked and whistled.

Meiling and Gou Ren looked at each other. They nodded.

Meiling’s foot smacked into the back of Yun Ren’s knee, while both of Gou Ren’s hands slammed into his shoulders.

Yun Ren went head first into a snow drift.

He caught up to them a minute later, scowling and shaking snow out of his shirt.

They made excellent time along the path, with Jin’s boar in the lead. The female had disappeared, likely gone ahead.

It was nearing noon when they finally arrived, and once more, they stood outside the fence.

The “Beware of Chicken” sign now had a companion, a carved leaf.

Gou Ren squinted at it, before shrugging. “A maple leaf of some kind? Looks spikier than I’m used to seeing.”

Meiling studied it a moment, before recognising the shape.

“We’ve got a maple with leaves like that in the forest to the north. I think they’re known as Giant Vermillion Maples. Or at least that's what father called it.” She said, before shrugging.

Yun Ren looked smug again. “Brother Jin called it a Sugar Maple.”

“What? A sugar maple?” Gou Ren sounded excited. “Is it like sugar cane? Do you cut it down and squeeze it?”

They reached the fence where the rooster sat.

They bowed to the Rooster, who bowed back. This time did not impede their way as they ascended the hill, staying on the fence. He smelled a little… off this time, a little acrid, and with an underlying scent of medicinal herbs.

“I don’t know, I didn’t ask him how it worked. All I got was the name. I think he might have said something about-- what the hells?”

Yun Ren stopped and stared as he finished cresting the hill. Gou Ren burst out laughing. Meiling’s hand met her face.

Before them, on another hill, was a massive edifice of snow, taller than the Imperial Palace in Verdant Hill. Taller than the buildings in the city that Meiling remembered seeing. It had the crude form of a man. Ash and soot made up its eyes, as well as buttons, entire tree branches made arms, and a bunch of carrots lashed together made a truly magnificent pointed nose. There was even a strange hat in construction near it. Tall and cylindrical with a wide brim, and made out of dried grass.

Jin stood atop it’s head, his hands on his hips, and grinning like a madman. He wore a bright red hat and lumpy looking mittens.

“BEHOLD!” He boomed, his voice carrying across the farm. “THE GENERAL THAT COMMANDS THE WINTER!”

Meiling was flabbergasted. She raised her hands in confusion as Yun Ren started cracking up beside her, struggling to comprehend just-- why?

It was so dumb. That stupid smile, and he looked so proud of it.

Eventually, she gave up and started laughing too. It was just too absurd.

A snowball slapped into Gou Ren’s chest.

“You dare mock The Great General That Commands The Winter?!” Jin yelled in mock outrage. He jumped down into a drift, and then sprung up to his feet, another snowball pelting Yun Ren in the face, and sending him spluttering.

The boys immediately started up a war, the brothers teaming up and striking back.

She sighed. Boys and their games, they never grew up--

A snowball struck her right in the forehead.

“I’m going to murder you sons of a fleabitten whore!”

Meiling joined the fray.

/////////

It ended with them soaking wet from the snow and exhausted, two things that nobody wanted to be in the cold, and could have been deadly, were it not for Jin’s house.

And she had to admit, Yun Ren calling it a palace wasn’t entirely without merit. It was big. Certainly bigger than her father’s house, with two stories to the building.

Inside the house was incredibly warm, with a merry fire going in the fireplace, crackling and snapping. There was also no draft, and when the door closed, it was as if the elements were cut off completely.

“Alright, lets get warmed up!” Jin said, and they stripped out of their wet clothes.

Blankets, warmed by the fire, wrapped around them. They leaned against thick cushions made out of leftover rice bags, filled with cedar fiber.

Meiling’s mind replaced Yun Ren And Gou Ren with two significantly younger children. One with green eyes, and one with her violet. She shook her head and blushed, snuggling into the blanket.

Jin made them tea, and got them bowls of fish soup from on the fire.

He collapsed onto the cushion next to Meiling, and took a big spoonful of soup.

Gou Ren was looking around eagerly. “This place is great, Brother Jin! Yun Ren wasn’t exaggerating things when he called it a palace!”

Jin blushed. “Well, I might have gone a bit overboard with the size, but that just means that I can host more people. Brother Yun Ren, Brother Gou Ren, you two are welcome to stay whenever, so shamelessly take advantage of my hospitality.”

Yun Ren laughed, and raised his bowl of soup in salute. “Don’t mind if I do!”

“Not that I’m complaining,” Jin said, as he adjusted his position, pressing up against Meiling, “But what brings everybody around?”

Gou Ren shrugged, “Boredom, mostly,” he said with a grin. “Done most of the stuff that needed doing, and we were told to take a break. Oh! And Meimei has a letter.”

Meiling started. She had almost forgotten about it, but she would need to get up to actually get it.

She stared sadly at Yun Ren, pleading him with her eyes. He sighed and shook his head, but he got up.

“In the pack, top left.” she told him, and snuggled closer to Jin.

Yun Ren tossed Jin the scroll, who opened it and began reading. He seemed a little confused and concerned, until he reached the end of the letter, and he smiled. He looked down at her expectant face, considered for a moment, and then nodded.

“There was a little bit of a mix up with the rice prices, but Uncle Bao sorted it out for me. He also said that there would be merchant going to Verdant Hill with some recording crystals, I was asking around for one earlier.”

Meiling cocked her head to the side. “A recording crystal? What did you want that for?” Was he doing some kind of strange cultivation art with it?

He blushed, and his grip around her waist tightened a little. “....So I could record our wedding.”

Her jaw dropped, and red bloomed across her face.

“See! Princess Meiling!” Yun Ren shouted.

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