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Bi De witnessed his Great Master’s fervour. Wooden edifices were constructed with beguiling speed. Poles were erected, and upon them the Great Master planted spring flowers. The worn dirt path from his previous coop had been torn up in minutes, and then filled first with gravel, and covered with stone.

The land returning to wakefulness had stirred a fire in his Great Master’s Soul. He could not stop moving or working, and even at night he would lay awake and bounce his knee, staring at the ceiling of his new coop. He was buzzing with energy.

Soon, the Great Healing Sage would arrive. And there, the Great Master would have a wedding. The word sounded familiar to him. He knew of females, to make the next generation, but he knew little of marriage.

“It is a promise to spend our lives together.” was his Great Master’s response, when questioned on the subject. “In sickness and health, in the bad times and the good. Like Chun Ke and Pi Pa.”

And thus, he was enlightened. The relationship between his brother and sister disciple was one that he yearned for. The trust and love between them was something beautiful to behold, as was their fury in defending each other.

He supposed, if anything, Sister Ri Zu was his wife. She defended him at his weakest and most loathsome, and her presence was calming.

But they had not a ceremony. Neither himself, nor Brother Chun Ke.

It was something to consider. But in the end, he supposed it didn’t matter.

The Great Master suddenly slapped a hand against his forehead. “You guys have nothing to wear!” he shouted in distress.

The Great Master got cloth, scissors, and flowers.

He was about to receive a second article of clothing from his lord! How auspicious!

//////////

The trip to Jin’s house had never seemed so long before. The hours seemed to drag on, and the air was simultaneously too cold, and the sun too hot. It was only the first day, and already she was begging to get there already.

Though at least there was one thing to pass the time. With Xiulan in the guard position, she could talk to her. And Xiulan was a much better conversationalist than Elder Che. Or at this point anybody. Her father’s face was set deep in contemplation, and Yun Ren was flitting around like a butterfly, completely engrossed in Jin’s recording crystal still. Meihua was back in the caravan.

However, it was less talking to Xiulan, and more “story time.” Meiling had asked how Xiulan had been, and was now getting treated to everything Xiulan had done.

It was doing a wonderful job of distracting her from her fluttering stomach.

“So she said to me, “You are courting death!”” Xiulan narrated. “Liu Xianghua always did have an explosive temper, though her words are harsher than her blades. I suppressed her, and won the Ten Poison Resistance herb.”

“Suppressed?” Meiling asked. Wasn’t that cultivator phrase for “beat up”?

“I broke her arm and three of her ribs, Senior Sister. A light amount of injuries, on account of our Sect’s relationship.”

“Oh?”

Xiulan nodded. “We have no true quarrel with the Misty Lake Sect. Xianghua and I have fought side-by-side before during the Dueling Peaks Youth Tournament. The First Level of the Hill of Torment was quite terrifying. Of course, we dueled at the end, though it was indecisive. And again during the sect visit. This is the first time there has been a decisive victor.”

The tale of her adventures had been...enlightening. Reading a cultivator’s adventures, or listening to an Elder tell a story was one thing. Hearing it first hand from the source about killing bandits and fighting spirit beasts and “friendly duels” made her glad she had nothing to do with it.

It was a tale out of all the books Meiling had read. She had no doubt that the story of Xiulan would become some sort of play or scroll. The Young Mistress’ exploits almost had her questioning them. Save for the fact that she had proof of every single deed.

The saplings of Grass Sea City’s palace garden, for destroying the Face Snatcher Gang. The Skulls of marauding spirit beasts. An odd assortment of things from escorting a merchant. And several unused spiritual herbs, carefully potted. She honestly expected the Ten Poison Resistance herb to have been turned into a pill already.

They were all kind of odd, if she was honest. Save for the skulls of the Spirit Beasts, she wondered what the other things were for.

So she did the obvious thing, and asked.

“Ah, I would bless your wedding, unworthy though my gifts are, Senior Sister.” Xiulan explained.

Ah, yes, the unworthy gifts that her father and Uncle Bao were staring at. The very rare Ten Poison Resistance Herb.

Well, she supposed compared to Spiritual Herbs from the Cloudy Sword Sect, they were humble. Though she still didn’t know exactly what kind of herbs Jin had. He always just called them “Lowly Spiritual Herbs”.

Ah well, a mystery for later.

They travelled until it got dark, and began setting up camp. Instead of a sleeping bag shared with the Xong Brothers, this time she was with Meihua. Her friend was now visibly pregnant, her belly swelling with her child.

“Rest well, Senior Sister,” Xiulan declared, bowing respectfully, “This Xiulan shall ensure nothing bothers you this night.”

She planted her feet outside Meiling’s tent, her stern gaze warning off all who would dare approach.

Meihua didn’t bother with her own bedroll, simply sliding in beside Meiling, and holding her close. Meihua’s lips rested on her forehead, and a lullaby both of their mothers used to sing echoed in the tent.

She slept more soundly than she thought she would have.

When she arose in the morning, Xiulan was as she left her. Had the cultivator even slept? She didn’t seem worse for wear, in the morning. No bags marred her eyes, and all of the scuffs she had come in with had disappeared.

They all sat down for a meal before they departed. Gou Ren had gotten the pancake recipe off Jin. They were a little thick, but they still looked fine. Xiulan watched his hands carefully as he worked, seeming bemused at the thin cake.

Until Gou Ren brought out the syrup. Now that Meiling was away from Jin, she could definitely smell the Qi in it. Except it smelled exactly like the syrup itself, just with more fire. Gou Ren poured a generous helping onto Xiulan’s share.

“Ya gonna eat it or just stare at it?” Gou Ren grumped, as the cultivator looked on at the food, slack-jawed.

She jolted, her head whipping up, looking from Gou Ren back to the food.

With shaking hands, the cultivator rose a bite of pancake and syrup to her mouth.

The moan that came out made even Meiling flush.

///////

And so their march continued. Soon after they started, they hit a wall of scent. Life. New growth. Wet soil, and warming earth. It was a good smell, a comforting one. Meiling breathed in deeply, letting the air fill her lungs.

As quickly as it came, the smell faded into the background. Her stomach felt warm, and the feeling of anxiety stopped.

They marched until they came to a fence, though unusually, the gate was closed. It was formed out of massive logs, thick and sturdy. Upon the gate, lay two signs. One, of a maple leaf. One declared “Beware of Chicken” to the world.

Upon the great fence post, in his usual spot, stood a rooster. His fox-fur vest was resplendent. His plumage, magnificent. His spurs were sheathed in leather, blunting the deadly instruments. Around his neck, there was a black piece of cloth, forming into a bow.

The rooster observed them all. It’s eyes were piercing, especially upon Xiulan, who flinched under his gaze.

The rooster continued, after lingering a moment upon Xiulan. Everything seemed to be to his satisfaction. He left his position, at the top of the posts, and with a single flick of his wings, opened the heavy gate. He turned once more to his guests, and bowed low in respect.

She heard someone start to make little choking noises.

Her father bowed back. Bi De rose, and gestured his most honoured of guests into his home. Though he did pause to collect a small red dress, and give it to Ri Zu. The little rat squealed happily. Poles had been erected, filled with pots of flowers. There was now a road that passed Jin’s old shack, one made out of stone dug into the earth.

They crested the hill, and found Jin. He had set up an altar, like the one Meihua had used. There was seating, and a pavilion that had been erected. There was also, for some reason, a large rock sitting beside Jin’s house, that hadn’t been there last time.

Jin was standing there, waiting for them in his own red garment. Beside him, stood his animals. Chun Ke had flowers woven into his coarse fur, and like Bi De, had a black cloth around his neck, and a red cloth vest. Pi Pa and Tigu also had garlands of flowers upon their heads.

He lacked any human family to support him in this time. No mother or father to welcome Meiling’s family, and their guests. Jin strode forwards in time to meet Meiling’s father.

Both men bowed to each other, as formality demanded.

Then they embraced as father and son.

Meiling was helped off her horse. Her steps felt surer than she felt, as the bride and groom stood before each other. Jin’s expression shifted from awe to excitement to worry to something soft that made her stomach feel even warmer.

////////

Gods, Meiling was beautiful. Anybody who didn’t think she was attractive couldn’t see Mount Tai.

But the moment where the world shrunk, and it was just the two of us was short-lived. There were more formalities to observe. We all gathered in the pavilion, myself on one side, and Xian on the other.

Surprisingly, the Magistrate sat between us as the most senior official. I was expecting him to send a gift or something, not actually come himself. Still, he looked suitably regal and formal.

“Rou Jin. Hong Xian. This Lord Magistrate will officiate the exchange of the dowery and the bride price. Let there be no objections, or false dealings, for the heavens are surely watching.”

“For the hand of Hong Meiling, I offer Hong Xian this: Eight beehives. Eight bags of rice. Eight jars of maple syrup.” Xian was nodding along. This was part of a show. We already knew what we were giving each other. That had been hashed out a while ago...even this last part, though Xian had tried to refuse. “And eight satchels of spiritual herbs, along with instructions on how to grow them.”

While most of the stuff was your standard wedding gifts, the Spiritual Herbs… not so much, at least in the Azure hills. Meimei had told me the stuff was potent, so who better to give it to than a doctor? He could probably make some nice stuff with it.

I heard somebody gasp. I think it was Xiulan.

“...a price worthy of a princess.” The Magistrate commented, as if discussing the weather.”And the dowry?”

“For the daughter of Hong’s dowry, the House of Hong offers this: Two cows, to be calved this spring. An ox. Three sheep. A set of medical scrolls, and all equipment to create and process medicine, as it is in Hong Yaowu. Seeds for the growth of the medicinal plants grown in Hong Yaowu, and the spores of a selection of our more potent medicinal mushrooms.”

The Lord Magistrate nodded. “Both of you accept these terms?” At our nods, he continued. “Then we shall proceed.”

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A note from Casualfarmer

And we're into the final stretch. Theres going to be 2-3 more chapters of Volume 1, and an epilogue. I will then be taking a week for a break, in order to consolidate everything and do some editing, before Volume 2 will start.


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