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Senior Sister was an odd teacher. Good, but odd. While her own teachers would explain in exacting detail how she must move her body, and the proper stances she was expected to follow, book education was more… free form. She was assigned texts to study, then given a test. What she did not comprehend was set as revision, and she was expected to figure it out herself. Or she was just told to research things on her own time. It was the way most cultivators did things. You either comprehended something, or you didn’t.

And many masters had no time for those who could not figure things out swiftly.

Senior Sister had asked about her experience with medical techniques, and she had honestly answered “none”. She supposed some would find this more...involved way of doing things the way of the weak and dimwitted. Like her martial instructors, every part of the formation was explained in exacting detail.

The beginning made her head spin a bit. There was...quite a lot of math involved. But once she worked her way through that, along with a full stick of chalk, they moved on.

From why it was an octagon that was used, to which characters were used, to the placement of the characters within the octagon. All the way up to how to create the “energy differential” that would draw out qi.

It was an involved process. But... it was dramatically more simple than she was expecting, once Senior Sister explained it. The initial concepts were hard, but once one comprehended those, it was relatively simple in execution. It didn’t actually need the powerful reagents used: that was just what they had on hand. Normal chalk. Any plant with qi, a copper wire, and clean water.

It was so easy a mortal could use it if they had a good head for numbers and a steady hand. And yet it had defeated demonic qi.

Most medical formations were supposed to be extremely complex. This one had taken a few hours to explain, not just how it worked, but why it worked.

And now she had a copy of the formation in a gifted scroll.

“Senior Sister, where did you learn this, if you don’t mind my asking?” Xiulan questioned.

“Hm? Oh, in Pale Moon Lake City. The Grand Archive there has some interesting stuff. I didn’t get down all of the book, but the formation was interesting. I mean, it didn’t work right at first, Father, uncle and I had to swap out most of the characters, but the concept was fascinating.”

The capital of the Azure Hills? It was a quaint place, with few cultivators, and no tournaments. Most of the true business of the Azure hills took place on Azure Cloud Summit.

“How did you gain access to the Grand Archive? Surely this book must have been well guarded?”

Xiulan didn’t know how the “Grand Archive” worked. It was a mortal institution, for mortal information. To go to the Grand Archive would be a loss of face. It was simple information, not their profound secrets. To admit that they couldn’t figure it out on their own would be… unwise.

Besides, the archive system was barely three hundred years old. They couldn’t have much good information simply because of their youth.

“I walked in with my father, and while he was in a meeting, I found it on one of the carts. I asked one of the Junior Archivists if I could copy it, and he let me. On Formations, Mathematics, their applications in the healing arts, and their interaction with qi. Most of the time was spent on the theory, and I haven’t had much chance to use it.”

Ah, so she was a powerful noble mortal before this, that made sense.

Senior sister shrugged. “I’m more knowledgeable on plants and mushrooms and their effects than formations, though. Formations are interesting, in the more academic sense, but herbology is much more exciting.”

Senior Sister got a disturbing gleam in her eye.

“Did you know that you can make a tasteless laxative by combining Yellow Glass Fungus and the juice from reedthistles?”

Her face twisted into a smile. It was extremely vindictive.

Xiulan learned rather more about debilitating concoctions and mortal medicine in that hour than she probably should have.

It was almost a relief when Master Jin returned.

He looked absolutely serene, as he entered the house, steam rising from his body from wet clothes, and a large carp dangling by the tail from his hand. The fish lay there, resigned to it’s fate.

The fox boy and the monkey boy walked in shortly after, looking incredibly amused.

“There's no more ice on the pond.” The fox boy said cheerily, “we got some nice fish though.”

The Hidden Master walked into the back room, and came back into the house with a jar filled with water.

The fish’s head popped out of the jar, and it began slapping it’s pectoral fins on the edge of the vase, swinging from side to side happily.

Xiulan was silent for the rest of the time spent preparing dinner, taking deep breaths. It was not her place to question the Hidden Master.

Not even when her dinner companions were a fish, two pigs, a rooster, a cat, and a rat.

Not even when after dinner, the fish launched itself out of it’s jar, and flopped itself across the house into the “river room” and started acting like it had been starved all day, begging for the dishes.

/////

Meiling felt some kinship with Xiulan. The poor girl looked completely baffled as the carp got a bowl of food and began scarfing it down, pulled nearly entirely out of it’s jar of water. With the addition of Wa Shi at the dinner table, Jin’s general weirdness was starting to get to even her.

Well, as she said to Xiulan: You get used to it.

Hopefully.

Xiulan was the only cultivator other than Jin she had really interacted with. And she was… strange. Not Jin strange, but in a different way.

Her emotions seemed.. magnified. With her guard down, everything showed on her face. The sheer joy she had at learning something new. The almost frightening anger at Yun and Gou when they were staring. The naked shock on her face, like her entire worldview had just been shattered when Ri Zu walked in. The awe like she was seeing a god walking the earth at breakfast, when she was staring at Jin.

The boys hadn’t seen it. Yun Ren and Gou Ren were too busy trying not to stare at Xiulan’s chest, and Jin was too busy staring at her.

She appreciated that her intended had eyes for no other woman, but she wouldn’t have minded. Even she had stared a bit at Xiulan’s general Xiulan-ness.

But… Meiling didn’t think Xiulan was a bad person. And not just because the girl was an eager student who called her “Senior Sister”! She was even taking notes when she was talking about herbology! Her passion hadn’t scared her off!

No, the first thing Xiulan had tried to do was warn them of danger, and the next was to assure them that she would die before she let anything hurt them.

That oath, said with that conviction...She meant it. She would have to talk to Jin later. He seemed to be taking Xiulan’s oath lightly. Like she wouldn’t go and charge headfirst into certain doom if Jin asked her to.

And Meiling was certain that the girl had some… strange ideas about what was going on, with her calling Jin “Master Jin”. Did she think was some kind of “hidden master” from the stories? It was preposterous--

She paused, and thought it over.

Actually, now that she thought about it, it was true. Jin really was some kind of hidden master, wasn’t he? Powerful, with strong “disciples”, and living as to not be disturbed?

She looked over at her intended, and he perked up, giving her a big, goofy grin.

Meiling grinned back, for an entirely different reason.

He would figure it out, or he wouldn’t.

/////////

The next day, Senior Sister and the two boys had to leave, to return to Senior Sister’s father. It was unfortunate, but they had planned to leave on the day of her arrival, and had already stayed longer than thay had said they would.

Senior Sister smiled at her. “Stay safe, Xiulan.” she said, “I would be happy to see you again.”

And then, she was given a ride worthy of a princess: A sleigh, pulled by a spirit beast, with little Ri Zu on her shoulder. The monkey boy, Gou Ren, was given endurance training, as he was lashed to the boar, and sent careening around the trail.

These were certainly strange beings. No spirit beast would allow itself to be yoked, but these seemed to enjoy the treatment, eager to carry out Master Jin’s will.

Were they not to be food, then? Was he trying to make them ascend to human form?

She was mostly healed, so she should be going back home as well...but something compelled her to stay. She was curious about the hidden master.

Master Jin stared at her, as if wondering why she was still here. She swiftly made up an answer.

“May… may I see Ha Qi? I did not get to yesterday, with Senior Sister teaching me.”

The worst he could say was no.

Master Jin grinned. He went into his house, and returned with the strangely shaped sticks… and two sets of broken swords.

“You’re a bit higher level than the Xong Brothers, so you should be able to handle this.”

She was taken downstream, past a pond with ice chunks strewn about it, and into a frozen lake.

She first had to learn how to stick the blades to the soles of her shoes with qi alone. When she finally managed to, and stood up, he gave her a short moment to gain her balance.

Master Jin’s eyes turned predatory, as she made a lap around the lake without falling over.

And then her training began.

He was grace and ferocity incarnate upon the ice. The blades on his feet propelled him at speed, even when he used barely a fraction of his might. He never struck her directly, but instead tweaked her balance, forcing her to correct or be sent into a humiliating sprawl.

Perception. Endurance. Balance. Timing.

Ha Qi was a multi-layered art. The blades on her feet tried their hardest to throw her to the ice. The speeding stone puck forced her to dodge or block with the stick.

She was hunted relentlessly, pushed always to the edge and forced to stay there. There was no mortal peril to this, but being hounded by a more powerful cultivator was always thrilling. He had found her limits, like all Great Masters found, and then proceeded to push.

“Come!” he demanded, “stop trying to hit me, and hit me!”

And then he forced her to go on the offensive. He danced around her blows, sprays of ice slashing out from their bladed feet. He blocked every shot at the “goal”

Finally, she could take no more, and begged respite.

Master Jin had a great smile upon his face. “Ah, that was great fun, wasn’t it?” He asked, looking cheerful.

Fun? She supposed it was. She put on a tentative smile, and he helped her to her feet. They took a slow path back to the house. It was wonderfully picturesque here.

“I’ll go draw a bath so you can clean up. We’ll have some more fun after.” His grin was sly, as he stared at her.

Ah. Her smile turned slightly brittle.

Well, such a thing was within his rights, and his betrothed was not here to comfort him.

“Yeah, we’re gonna play answer-go!” he said cheerfully. “Winner gets to ask the loser one question! Dare you challenge me?”

She paused. Wait, what?

“...you are not…?”

“Not what?” he asked.

She smiled at him. “Nothing, Master Jin. Forgive this Cai Xiulan, but she will be challenging your might.”

The hidden master drew her a bath. It was strange, so strange, to be served by one so much more powerful than her, but Master Jin did not seem to care. She was his guest, and so she would be served. The bath was fragrant with herbs, and wonderfully warm. It was heavenly to sore muscles.

But some small part of her still doubted. Still thought that what he said was a euphemism. It pained her to doubt, but this world was not kind to women who trusted. She would do as he asked, but…

“Master Jin, I am finished.” she said, her body wrapped in a towel.

He perked up, and nodded, as she entered the house.

“You’re done? Awesome. My turn. Come on Bi De, let's get cleaned up!”

He brushed past her, along with the spirit beast.

“Your clothes are by the fire.” he told her, and then entered the bathhouse.

She stood alone in the house, save for the spirit beast cat that was glaring at her. Indeed, her clothes were by the fire. She picked them up. They warm and clean. She looked at the table. There was a go board on it.

She hugged her clothes to her chest, and laughed until she started crying.

//////////

I sighed, and my eyes roved over the board, one hand scratching Tigger’s back. She really didn’t like Xiulan for some reason, and I didn’t know why. Constantly glaring and turning her nose up at her.

I looked up at the girl. Well, she wasn’t really a girl. She was older than I was, at twenty one, but she looked a bit younger than I was. Maybe. Her face has a kind of ageless quality to it.

And I knew that bit of information because I won my first ever go game against somebody.

I’m pretty sure she threw the first match.

“Alright, ask away.” I said, wondering what she wanted to know.

She pondered her question, and finally, she answered.

“Master Jin, what do you think the most important thing is to remember?”

“A clean pair of socks.” I said, and she pouted at me. I laughed and shook my head.

Well, that was a broad question, wasn’t it? But she was a cultivator, so she probably wanted something profound. I dunno If I could do profound.

“Remember that everything is connected.” I finally settled on. “The water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat. Everything has some part of it that leads into each other. Disrupting one thing can disrupt many others. Fixing one thing can fix many others.”

////////

“Master Jin?” Xiulan asked, as they were getting ready for bed.

“Yes, Xiulan?”

“If it is not too presumptuous of me, is there a place that I could meditate this night?”

He considered the question for a moment.

“The roof might be best.” he eventually told her, and she bowed her head in thanks

She traveled to the roof of the house where she could be out in the bracing cold. She examined the strange snow golem briefly, before deciding that it was some sort of qi construct. A brief flash of insight revealed that a web of power circulated through it, like it circulated through this entire domain. The land here was shy. It was unwilling to reveal itself, and she could only conclude that it was by design.

This Hidden Master was the strangest, and most eccentric she had ever heard of. His methods were completely alien to her, but what power that she could sense was undeniable. His gifts to her, unparalleled.

His future wife was strange too. Strange, but kind in her own way, terrifying concoctions aside. She had been… fun to talk to. And a wealth of information.

Xiulan closed her eyes

She circulated her qi properly for the first time in three months. Her body was tense as she focused.

It was a balm, to feel her energy moving throughout her body once more. She would soon be able to return home. Return home with Sun Ken’s sword, and a new technique.

“Xiulan.”

She nearly jumped out of her skin at Master Jin’s voice, his silent ascent catching her by surprise.

“Here. Drink this. It will ward away the cold.”

He handed her a herbal tea, and she bowed her head in thanks, crushing any annoyance that she might have at being interrupted. The hidden master had his reasons.

It was warm. It was fragrant and herbal. It tasted delicious.

She relaxed.

She gazed out over the land. It was beautiful, even covered in snow. The air was fresh and pure, the most fresh and pure she had ever smelled, even more so than the air of her own sect in the grassy hill on which they lived.

She let the peace of this place fill her soul.

It was beautiful.

She closed her eyes once more. Threads of energy, protecting and invigorating.

It was all connected.

When she opened them again under the dawn light, she was at the fourth stage of the initiate’s realm, the lingering taste of the herbal tea on her lips.

////////

It was time for her to leave. She was a dutiful daughter, and so would finish her mission to report the death of Sun Ken.

No matter how much she currently wished to get on her hands and knees, and beg Master Jin to take her as a disciple. The fourth stage. The fourth stage! It had long eluded her, and in a single night, after being grievously injured, she had managed it.

She was prepared to do anything he asked of her. What were his orders, surely he would have some task that she would do after she reported Sun Ken’s death. Would it be to gather some herb, or powerful cultivation ingredient? Would it be to strike down his enemies?

Master Jin handed her a bag of rice.

“Now, we like our privacy here, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t spread the word.”

She clasped her hands, and bowed.

“On my life and honour, none shall disturb you, Master Jin.”

He smiled at her, and trusted in her words.

“Well, other than that, don’t be a stranger. It's always nice to have someone to talk to. Our wedding is after the first snows melt, if you feel like coming.”

She nodded. She would not miss it, even if the heavens tried to prevent her from coming!

Master Jin gave her a small bow of respect, his hands clasped.

“Then Good luck on your journey, Cai Xiulan. May fate favour you.”

And that was it. No orders of repayment, no demands for her.

A gift, and a blessing. Tears sprang to her eyes.

“This Cai Xiulan will never forget the kindness you have done her.” Her face was parallel with the ground.

She forced herself upright, and began her march out of his “Fa Ram”. Back towards her home.

She paused, outside the gate, and turned.

Beware of Chicken, the sign beside the maple leaf said. From on top of the posts, the rooster watched her, the profound spirit beast’s gaze intense.

He bowed.

This time, she bowed back without reservation.

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