Xiulan was marveling at the world. The last time she had been out of the Sect, it had been a mad dash after Sun Ken, and then a swift march home.
After months of training the juniors, and dealing with men who were entirely too pushy, she was finally released, with a command that she had to be at the Dueling Peaks in time for the tournament as her only restriction. But she had been sneaky. The snows melted in the Verdant Blade Sect far faster than they should melt up near Verdant Hill, so she had been released, unknown to her honourable father. early.
She never knew how much the world inside the compounds of her sect grated, until she had truly seen the world.
This time she was taking her time and enjoying herself. The world outside was really quite beautiful, the meadows filled with spring flowers. She took her time to observe everything, the first bees rousing from hibernation, pollinating the flowers, the fresh shoots of grass, bursting from the ground. She tried to see the connections between things.
She must have made an odd sight, a lone woman travelling while carrying a large bundle on her back. The plow was disassembled to transport. She had to stifle a chuckle at the sight of the legendary sword that had been broken and hammered down into this.
She hoped that this, in addition to her other wedding gifts, would be well received.
Now, she just had to find a way to lose her watchers. She could feel them. Elder Yi had been suspicious of her sudden request to leave, and now, she endangered her promise to Master Jin to not disturb him with such petty matters.
She pondered as she walked, humming to herself. Could she just run immediately? Would they be able to catch her?
And then she hit upon an idea.
She smiled to herself, and slowly adjusted her course away from Master Jin’s house. They expected her to do something strange. Or hide or run. She would do nothing of the sort. They would see exactly what she had told the other elders she was doing. Leaving the sect for world experience.
So she would be loud. Draw attention to herself. And then, once her watchers got complacent… then she would be able to escape their sight.
In the next town, she heard tales of a marauding Four-Venom Serpent.
And so the name Cai Xiulan resounded once more across the Azure Hills.
The snow melted away. First slowly, and then with increasing speed as the days got warmer and warmer. The river rose, but like I planned for, never rose enough to flood the house, even with the meltwater surging down the hills.
In what seemed like no time at all, the ground was revealed, and the hardy spring plants were pushing their way out of the ground.
There was one piece of snow left on my property—The General That Commands The Winter. He had been a worthy sentinel, standing guard over the farm. His nose had long since been eaten, the bundled carrots going into soup stocks or stir frys. His ash-coloured buttons had been snowed over, or carried off by winter winds. His hat and arms had been casualties of our need for fuel for the syrup fires. Really, all that was left was a formless pillar, and two eyes just managing to look out.
It was time for spring. I could let him slowly melt, but I needed the spot he was sitting on. I was going to have a lot of guests, and I would be erecting a temporary building—more a wooden floor to keep it off the wet ground. So with my shovel, I began the process of dispersing The General That Commands The Winter. He was still gods damn massive, even when he was getting worn away by heat and rain.
The snow was easy to get through, coming away in great chunks, with most of it getting tossed into the swollen river. I was just getting into the zone, when I hit something that wasn’t snow.
Huh. He was so big that he had a small core of completely solid ice, starting to turn blue from the pressure. I carefully excavated out the piece of ice. It was about the size of my palm, and almost blue in colour.
I frowned at it. It had Qi in it. My own Qi. And it wasn’t melting, even when it was in the palm of my hand.
...Had I accidentally made an ice crystal? Just as I thought that, it did release a drip of water. Okay, into the ice pit you go, along with Tigger’s statues. I idly wondered if next year, I should put it into another General Winter.
Ah, well, a bit more until I can go and see the wedding preparations. Then I could put my recording crystal to use!
Yun Ren was extremely nervous, as he held his precious cargo. Jin had been very upset when he was told that he couldn't see Meiling for the week before the wedding, as it was bad luck. So Yun Ren and his brother had been press-ganged into learning how to use a recording crystal. He had ended up being better than his brother… but Yun Ren had a feeling that Gou Ren had flubbed being able to use it on purpose. He didn’t want the responsibility of taking care of something so valuable.
So now he was the official wedding recorder. A dubious honour.
His palms got all sweaty at holding the ridiculously expensive item. He was afraid he was going to drop it. Would it shatter if he did?.
“Now say…. cheese?” Why did Jin say a person had to say “cheese” of all things when they knew they were being recorded? Well, it was a custom he was going to follow. Maybe it made the Qi and the recording work better?
“Cheese?” Meiling and Xian asked, amused. Xian was standing in his formal clothes, while Meiling was seated on a chair, in her red wedding dress. Yun Ren’s Qi pressed into the crystal, and it shuddered. The image had been recorded.
“How did Jin say to— okay, there we go.” He carefully manipulated the crystal, and it began floating in the air. It was damn exhausting. This thing ate Qi worse than boiling water. With a careful prod, the picture projected itself onto the air, an oval disc, hovering and two dimensional.
Yun Ren stared in fascination. This was so amazing!
“See?” Xian told his daughter. “You’re as beautiful as your mother was.”
The freckled girl flushed.
Yun Ren prodded the crystal. The image changed from Xian and Meiling looking formal, to her smiling warmly at her father. That was a good image too. Jin would like it.
He prodded the crystal again, and his own face, staring and considering, hovered in the air. Huh. So that's what he looked like. He had seen his reflection a couple of times before, in water, or in the burnished bronze disk the Hong family had. But this one… It was so clear. It recorded even the little scar on his cheek that he had, from when a branch had whipped back and cut him.
Yun Ren carefully collected the crystal again. He considered putting it away in the box Jin had given him— but he paused.
Jin had never told him how many images he wanted preserved— just that he wanted to see the preparations. So he went out into the village. There were carts being prepared. Meihua sharpening a knife, and talking fondly with her father, while Tingfeng went through everything that was being brought along for the wedding.
His own father, cleaning a deer hide. His brother, playing absently with his new sickle, a gift for when he went to work. The man going over the flags and banners. His neighbour, grooming the white horse. The sky, beautiful and blue. The spot on the shrine roof that let you look over the entire village. He was a little lightheaded, from all the Qi he was using, but he flipped through the images delightedly.
He got an idea.
“Hey! Everyone, gather around!” He shouted out, drawing the entirety of Hong Yaowu’s attention. “Jin wants to see everyone! Gather around!”
Bemused, the village gathered, crowding around the shrine. He could see the image that was going to be captured in his mind’s eye.
“Now, everybody, there's some profound words you have to say, for this to work right.”
The adults were bemused. The children, enthusiastic.
That night, he felt absolutely exhausted. Especially because he kept pushing his Qi, staring at the recorded images. The oval disks floated in the air. That one— the sun had gone behind a cloud. The image he had tried to capture had been ruined. In this one, if he had told his mother to tilt her head, just a little bit more, then it would definitely look better.
Long into the night, he studied the images he had captured, marveling at some, and purging others from the crystal. It was really quite intuitive, once you got the hang of it. He kept going until “lightheaded” turned into a pounding headache.
The crystal finally dropped onto his chest as he stared at the ceiling, his brother long since asleep beside him.
His last thought before sleep claimed him was “I gotta get me one of these.”
Tigu sighed as she prowled the area. Conquering new lands was proving frustrating. Mostly because there was nothing to conquer. She marched into the new territory, proclaimed her dominance, that all under heaven and upon the earth now belonged to the Master, and dared any to test her blades.
So far, nothing had taken her up on her offer. She had added many Li to The Master’s land, but it all rang so hollow.
She sighed again. At least carving had taken the edge off. Turning base ice and wood into things of beauty was a worthy pursuit, for one such as herself. And of course, her subject matter was beauty and power incarnate. Both she, and her Master were the only things worthy of being produced by her claws.
Her original works were even stored in the gallery of ice, the Master preserving them for her. He had praised her greatly for her skill!
She ambled through the forest, glancing around. Well, if she couldn’t find anything to fight and kill, she could find something to carve. She had done wood and ice. Perhaps she could try her hand at stone, next?
She marched into the next section of forest, and declared herself and her intentions.
The silence was deafening.
She sighed again, and cut a promising looking branch off a tree. While she had been foiled today, she would just have to range further!
His name Chunky. Wife and friends say Chun Ke. Ears full of hair and feathers. Big Brother’s names that he gave them were weird. But that fine. They were friends.
He lay on porch in sun. Or was Engawa? Or Veranda? Or Yangtai? Head hurt to think too long. Some things jumbled. So he stopped. Not important. It was what it was.
Sun nice. Warm. Wife pressed against side. Peppa was good wife. Pretty lady. Kind, paitent, even when he was slow.
Big Brother on other side. Big Brother was nervous. His leg bounced, and his face was pale. He kept twitching. Chunky wondered why. It was supposed to be happy time soon, yes?
He oinked, and nuzzled closer into Big Brother’s side. The bouncing leg paused. Big Brother Started scratching Chunky’s scars. Light touch. Feels good. Big Brother kind too. Help Chunky. Take him out of the jumbled nightmare, where everything swirled and went on forever.
Nasty place, made by nasty Chow Ji. The scratches and wife kept away the shakes.
Big D came to sit with them. Strange name, Big D. He small. But big power? Perhaps.
Tigger was next, carving a branch. She was supposed to bounce and be cheery, but she only bounced. And cut things. Silly little friend.
Finally came Washy. Flip flopping to lay beside them, and sploshing into his jar.
He felt the heartbeat of the land, the comforting fingers of Big-Little Sister, waking from her long sleep.
All friends here but Rizzo. Sad no little Rizzo.
But soon, they’d be whole again.
Pretty Healing Sage would come. And friends and family would grow.
He sighed happily as they sat together.
Meiling felt like she was going to throw up as her father helped her onto the horse.
“Deep breaths, Meimei, deep breaths!” Meihua encouraged.
Meiling said nothing. ‘Oh gods, it's actually happening.’ she thought. The red lanterns were out. The wagons were loaded. Yun Ren was wandering everywhere with the recording crystal. He had fallen in love with the thing. Meiling wondered if it had a limit to the number of images it could store, because at the rate he was going, Yun Ren would soon find out.
She had to admit though, some of the images he took were very striking.
She tried to concentrate on Yun Ren instead of the fact that the Lord Magistrate was here, and with him came an entire feast.
This day could not get any more stressful.
“Senior Sister!” A voice called happily.
Meiling turned to the voice.
“Good morning, Xiulan.” she said, her voice steadier than she felt.
The girl was a bit sweaty, and her clothes were scuffed, but she had a brilliant smile on her face.
She was using a cart like Jin did. It was loaded down with a big bundle, five saplings, and what looked like several large animal skulls.
She heard someone mutter "godsdamnit, another one?" Under their breath.
Xiulan's eyes widened as she beheld Meiling fully.
"Xiulan pays her respects to Senior Sister during this auspicious time." The girl said earnestly. "Please allow this Xiulan to accompany you!"
Well, another guard wouldn't hurt.
Meiling inclined her head. The other woman marched to the guard position seemingly without thinking, ousting Yao Che.
He looked like he was going to complain at the sudden seizure of the position. He puffed up to start scolding.
The swords floating behind Xiulan multiplied from two to sixteen, and Yao Che offered to take care of her cart instead.
The gong in the village sounded, as they finished assembling.
And so the march began.