Yun Ren stalked through the forest, his footfalls as quiet as he could make them. He wasn’t the best hunter in Hong Yaowu, but he was second place. First was his father, who supplied most of the wild game that the village ate, and the hides that went to the city. Fat juicy boars, bears in winter, and deer. Most of Yun Ren’s game ended up being rabbits and other small game, which got him relentlessly teased about how even his hunting habits were fox-like.
He honestly didn’t mind that much. His eyes were the same as his mother’s, and all of the qualities ascribed to him were positive, as far as he was concerned. Devious and cunning. That just meant he was smart.
And his traps were excellent, thank you very much. He caught his rabbits and the occasional one of his “kin” with them, the foxes being the rarer of the two. He didn’t really have to do much stalking at all. Which gave him more time to train with his sword--not that he had ever actually had to use it in anger, but it was cool. Sure, it got him put on guard duty, or escorting people, but that just meant he got to travel a bit, and people paid for his food.
But today, he was going after larger game. The deer with the giant horns. His own brother had cast doubt on his story! He had not lied to him… this week. It was perfectly trustworthy information!
At least Jin had believed him. He had told him to be careful though, before he left. Such a thing may be a spirit beast. Yun Ren doubted it though. It was just a big deer, no more, no less.
Still, he was hours in, and on a fresh trail. Soon, he would find his quarry, and soon, he would bring it down. He would have deer with Jin’s rice. And it would be delicious.
There was a snap, as a deer broke a twig. He froze, and redoubled his efforts at stealth. He crept forwards, inch by inch, until he saw it.
The buck. It’s antlers were massive, spreading out like the branches of a tree. It was unaware of his presence.
He focused, and steadied his breathing. Like how Jin, and Elder Hong said to breathe. Deep, and measured. His vision sharpened. The world fell away. Just him, and his target. He could see every hair on it’s body, every bit of moisture glistening on it’s nose, he could count the beats of its heart as its lifeblood pulsed beneath it’s skin.
He pulled back just a little more, just that extra bit--
There was an ugly cracking noise as his weapon splinted where he was grabbing it. His bow snapped in two.
The buck’s head shot up at the noise, and bolted, fleeing deep into the forest.
Yun Ren gaped. How the hells had his bow broken?! He took good care of it, damn it!
He slumped. He had been so close. So close! And it had evaded him. Stupid, worthless bow, and stupid, wothless bad luck!
Frustrated, he kicked a rock, and was surprised when the part he kicked cracked off, flipping off into the forest. He stared blankly at the chunk.
Had it been weakened by the frosts?
He shook his head, and began his meandering route back home in a foul mood.
“A joyous New Year to you, Lord Magistrate!”
“Yes, Happy New Year, Lord Magistrate!”
“A toast, to our illustrious leader’s health! May his life be long and prosperous!”
The Lord Magistrate was in his element. This… This is what he lived for. The common folk came up to him, to give him small gifts, or pour drinks for him, and toast to his health. His guards in the barracks shouted his praises for their New Years bonuses. His clerks spoke in whispers of his foresight over the festivities.
He greatly enjoyed listening in when they thought he wasn’t around. This truly was the apex of life, to have men sing your praises, and kiss the hem of your robe because they wanted to. Because they truly admired you.
He could have more power in a city. He was certain his administration skills were more than capable to handle two hundred thousand souls, nay, five hundred thousand! But in those cities, could he walk around without guards, without any kind of escort, secure in the knowledge that none would even think of harming him? That those that would dare would risk the wrath of all their peers, to this simple, common born man, who had achieved greatness on his own?
Still, he did have some people. His wife was with him, arm in arm, and one of his junior guards was along, to carry the excess gifts he was given.
Yes, this was the life. The fireworks were marvellous colours this year as well. He’d have to personally pay his complements to their makers. The New Year festivities were much more exciting than the Sun Dance. Yes, yes, it was tradition, but staying up all night was so boring. The old men of those old families were impressive that they could keep dancing for so long… but it was hell standing there for nearly twelve hours, ringing the gong occasionally, and watching over them. He would have to learn how to fall asleep with his eyes open, and delegate the gong to someone else. At least his padded mat took the worst of the pain off his back.
He had stayed up all night enough when he was studying for the civil service exams! He should be able to rest, damn it.
He nodded imperiously at the gaggle of venerable grandmothers as he walked past them, even the one that was absolutely insane and lived in the hovel. The others seemed to like her. They giggled at his passing, and made noises about how handsome he was.
His tour of his town was going splendidly. He graciously rejected the food he didn’t like, and accepted those he did. He would be calling on every family of interest, to check up on them, though mostly to receive their hospitality.
He was in a good mood as he wandered into the Zhuge compound.
“Lord Magistrate!” The Patriarch of the Zhuge clan greeted him along with his family. He was one of the old families, and his son did good work. Tingfeng was a credit to his clan.
And to his office, when he brought his wife around. The other men loved to stare. The woman was absolutely stunning. His heart pounded whenever he looked at her. He had nearly asked her to accompany him to his quarters!
But such things resulted in lynchings. And to break all of his hard earned reputation for simply a pretty face?! Unthinkable. Besides, he doubted the girl would enjoy the kinds of things he and his wife did. Ropes were an acquired taste.
So he ignored her as much as he could. He nodded his head, and took in the pleasantries. His wife giggled at the appropriate moments, and complemented the girl on her pregnancy.
Simple safe topics. A fine visit, with the Zhuge Patriarch once more affirming that he was at the Lord Magistrate’s command, and that his son would serve however he decided.
He was about to leave, when another voice called.
“Lord Magistrate!” His smile froze on his face at the voice. “It's great to see you, sir!”
“Ah, yes. It is...good to see you too.” He managed, his body freezing under the cultivator’s grin. Hong Meiling stood with him, and the youngest of the Hong Family was on his shoulders.
“Here, I wanted to give these to you, as thanks for everything you do.” The man gave him a sealed box that smelled a bit medicinal and spicy, and a bow. His arms managed to move, and take the box.
“Let us hope this year is as productive as the last.” He said with a smile.
The Lord Magistrate nodded his head, but his gut had started to churn again.
“May our relationship continue.” He managed to get out, and the cultivator nodded, as Hong Meiling started to gush over Yao Meihua.
His night… Well, it wasn’t ruined after the visit from the cultivator. He had given him a gift, and then left him alone. Even so, he kept the box on him, and only opened it when he was once more safely in his office.
He stared blankly at the Seven Fragrance Jewel Herbs. That had come with cooking instructions.
He was so confused.
“Thank you for your pointers, Senior Sister!” The boy said, bowing respectfully. He was exhausted and sweating, and had some light bruises, but was otherwise uninjured.
“Footwork is key, remember this.” Xiulan instructed him, “You live and die by your positioning. Could the next come for instruction?”
“Yes, Senior Sister! This An Ran humbly requests to trade pointers with Senior Sister!” The next disciple came up, bouncing with enthusiasm.
They bowed, as was custom, and began their bout. The girl was enthusiastic, but her defence was full of openings. She maneuvered her blade with ease, gently chastising the girl with a swift rap to the forehead.
The girl fell back with a cry, nearly hitting the ground, but managed to remain standing.
“Aggression and enthusiasm are good, but to not forgo your defence. A more measured approach is necessary. Now, again.”
The girl nodded, and struck again, taking her lesson to heart. They traded a few more blows, with Xiulan looking for things to correct. Feet were smacked into the right position. Arms guided gently. And the girl's blade struck from her hands when she let her grip loosen.
“Adequate for now, but you need more experience. Train diligently, disciple.”
“Thank you for your pointers, Senior Sister!” The lightly bruised girl panted, bowing in respect.
Xiulan nodded her head. “This will be all for today, disciples. This year is the Dueling Hill Summit, the tournament for our generation. The best of you will be chosen to come along, and observe the proceedings. Continue to polish your technique, and cultivate your strength.”
“Thank you for your instruction, Senior Sister!” the voices shouted, and Xiulan departed.
She strode swiftly through the compound, and managed to get to her rooms without any more interruption.
She entered her room, and performed the most important action of the day.
She let out a sigh, when she was safely in her rooms. Training others was so taxing. She knew why the other teachers had no time for fools, but sometimes the clumsy movements of the students did provide valuable insight. And it was good to have “The Demon Slaying Orchid” inspiring the disciples to greater heights.
She loathed the name, but bore it without flinching. The praises lavished on her had been high. Cultivation materials and more instruction had been spent like water on her. Yet… they had not improved her cultivation as much a simple meal, and a revelation from a master. Her blades had grown from eight in number to twelve, but that was her musings on the nature of connections, more than the spiritual pills.
While the eyes of the Elders brought great rewards, it also brought great pressure. She was to win the Tournament at the Dueling Hill Summit. Not just bring glory to the sect, as theirs was middling in power for the Azure hills, but she was commanded to win it outright.
She had even been given a leave of absence, so that she could go out into the world and train, coinciding with the spring melt. Her honourable father was as good as his word, and The Crimson Demon’s Tooth was now a plow.
Still, she would be taking a roundabout route, and trying to lose any pursuers. The heavens knew all sorts of men had come out of the woodwork since she had returned. Her suitors were weak, and arrogant. Completely and utterly unsuitable.
Just thinking about it made her bite down a bit harder than necessary.
She served herself another bowl of rice.
How quickly the bag of rice disappeared. The sect elders took their due, and left her with half of it, which was frustrating in the extreme. She suppressed her negative emotions. She would soon be able to meet the hidden Master again, and hopefully, her stay would be measured in months, rather than mere days.
Soon, she would be able to see Master Jin and Senior Sister again.