Gou Ren yawned, as the first light of dawn filtered into his “home”. He was originally planning on staying in Jin’s nice, big house... but. Well. Things happened. Good things, as far as he was concerned. He had gotten a good friends, and gotten to see his sister in all but blood, the woman who had joined enough of his pranks, married. He had a great, if tring job, he got to eat as much as he wanted, and he was helping his village.
His only complaint was that they were extremely inconsiderate of their guests, but he supposed he would be just as inconsiderate if he just got married.
So he had claimed Jin’s old shack. It was strange, having a place that was mostly to himself. He normally slept in the same room as his brother, or he heard his parents occasionally move around during the night. Outside Jin’s, it was oddly silent, and he had a bit of trouble falling asleep, with only the sounds of nature as his company.
Most nights, Chun Ke and Pi Pa joined him. They never slept unless they were together, and their breathing and soft shuffling around did wonders for his peace of mind. He had spent his entire youth wishing for more privacy, and now that he had it, the first thing he did was get more people around.
It was still a bit strange to think of animals as “friends” But Chun Ke was more expressive, and a better companion than most he had met save his own brother and Jin. Pi Pa was strange, prancing around like she was some high-class lady, but ever since Jin had arrived, he had found himself increasingly able to ignore weird things happening.
He patted Chun Ke on the side, and the boar opened his eyes, not looking tired at all. He oinked at Gou Ren in greeting, and nudged Pi Pa, who also awoke.
Gou Ren got up, wandering out into the morning light. He stretched, grumbling under his breath, and both pigs beside him stretched as well.
A rooster crowed, though it was a lot quieter than normal. Just enough to let people know that it was morning.
It was peaceful, in the early dawn.
Jin was right, Gou Ren decided. There was something special about waking up like this. He wasn’t normally introspective, but...he was glad he was here, even with the minor inconveniences.
He wandered over to the main house, nodding to Bi De, who nodded back. Gou Ren got some eggs from the coops along with cold, day old rice, and some venison from their pots in the river. It was a bit strange not to have the carp guarding things, and attempting to extract a toll from all who entered the river room.
He was happy he didn’t have to deal with the greedy little bastard. Getting a spray of cold water to the face when the fish thought you were being stingy was not something he needed or wanted first thing in the morning.
He decided to eat outside. It was too nice a day to prepare food indoors.
He stoked the fire pit, he got out the wok, and he started on fried eggs and some slabs of venison over rice. The fire was stoked, the eggs were cooking, and he was absently scratching Chun Ke behind his ears when he heard voices.
“Perhaps meditation upon the human form would be most effective? One must first understand what they wish to be, before they strive to realize such a thing.” A woman mused, her voice a wonderful melody, before pausing and sounding rueful. “As this one was reminded.”
Gou Ren’s heart started thundering faster at the mere sight of her, at the vision of beauty that haunted his dreams at night. Xiulan approached, along with Tigu.
Xiulan’s borrowed, too big robe had opened slightly, exposing an expanse of smooth, pale flesh and a deep valley--
Gou Ren tore his eyes away, and chastised himself. The cultivator was ethereally beautiful, but it was no excuse to stare. She had finally stopped looking at him like he was a pile of dung, downgrading from absolute disdain to mild distaste over the course of the week. Progress!
Tigu meowed and Xiulan frowned.
“Observe the full body? I suppose it would be best to do it that way. This is a debt, however, and one you must repay.”
The cat glared at Xiulan, but eventually Tigu bowed her head in what almost looked like respect and acknowledgement.
“Okay. Strange. But not important.” Gou Ren thought to himself. “Don’t mess this up, don’t mess this up--’
“Good Morning.” Gou Ren called, raising his hand in greeting, and trying to sound nonchalant. Tigu nodded to him, while Xiulan’s eyes narrowed.
“I bid you good morning, Disciple Gou Ren.” Her voice was cold to him, but she inclined her head ever so slightly.
Inside, Gou Ren was cheering his heart out. She had actually talked to him! She had stopped calling him monkey boy! Even though last night she had just frowned and walked away. He supposed he had been a little forward, asking to share such a small shack, but he had the best of intentions!
‘That went all right, right? She wasn’t looking particularly irritated at him. Now, step two.’
“I’m making breakfast, do you want any?” He asked, his voice a little gruff. The woman’s eyes flicked to the wok, and back to him. She nodded.
He concentrated valiantly on the cooking as Xiulan sat down. He held out his hand for Tigu, and the cat allowed herself to be stroked a single time, before she batted his hand away and sat beside Xiulan.
There was silence, as he cooked, and served everybody but the master and mistress of the house. Xiulan nodded in thanks, remembering him cooking pancakes for her before. She didn’t make any of the noises he was so fond of, or even squirm around, but she was enjoying the meal he made. There was a slight smile on her face.
It was as the sun had just risen again.
They ate in silence for a while, before Xiulan heaved a sigh.
“….Rough night, huh, Miss Cai?” He asked, searching for a topic of conversation.
The woman sighed. “Quite.” was all she said, returning to silence. Gou Ren shrugged. Not really his problem. If she wanted to talk, she wanted to talk. If she didn’t well, that didn’t matter either.
“Whats it like, going to a tournament, Miss Cai?” He asked. One of the burning questions he wanted to know the answer to. He knew about the massive fights between cultivators, that were apparently a great show to watch...but none of them happened around here. The woman seemed confused for a moment, bewildered that he had never been.
Eventually, she answered.
“It is exhilarating. Displaying your skill, and winning glory for your Sect in front of a hundred thousand people---Meeting people from all over the Azure Hills, and defeating their techniques. The roar of the crowds, the taste of the food---the biggest festival you’ve ever been to.” She was smiling slightly, remembering something fondly. Tigu was staring at her, the cat’s eyes wide.
Her smile faded, and she took another bite of food. “The Dueling Peaks Tournament is the most important one of my life. The largest in the Azure Hills. It is held once every eight years, at the end of summer. There will even be those from out of the province, and rewards beyond imagination. Your name will surely resound through the entire province, should you win. My Sect has...great expectations of me. I must perform adequately--no. No, I must win.” She took another bite, frowning.
“Why, do you wish to participate, Disciple?” She asked him. Gou Ren pondered. Probably not. He knew how to throw a punch--Elder Hong had shown him how to put his full body into the strike, and it had served him well in the few scraps he had gotten into, but against people who had trained their entire lives?
Gou Ren shook his head.”I’d like to see it...but I’ll just cheer for you instead. Maybe I’ll be able to come watch?” It would be cool to see that many people. The furthest away from the village he had been was the one time he had visited Gramps up north. Maybe Jin would let him go?
Xiulan looked….well he wouldn’t say touched by his statement, but her eyes softened slightly.
“...thank you, Gou Ren.” She said with a soft smile. “And thank you for the meal.”
Gou Ren tried to hide his blush as he looked away. He finished his meal. He would go hunting today, he decided. He had finished the terraces yesterday so he deserved a break!
There was a sharp cracking sound. He jumped, and looked up, startled.
He saw Tigu and Xiulan punching rapidly at each other, the cat looking annoyed, and Xiulan amused.
“What? More information? Fine, the First Layer of the Hill of Torment is all I was allowed into last time. The Slash-cloud Nests are the things one has to be the most wary of…”
Gou Ren observed the tableau for a moment longer, before deciding this wasn’t his problem. He could barely see the strikes they were throwing out, and they looked like it was just a game to them.
He patted Chun Ke on the head, and went to get his bow. He was just taking stock of his last supplies, when Jin staggered downstairs, looking a little worse for wear, but in a good mood.
“I made Breakfast. Xiulan might still be out here.” He told him. Jin nodded, and clapped him on the back.
“Thanks for breakfast, Gou.” He said earnestly.
Gou Ren smiled. "Any time, Brother Jin.” Jin rolled his eyes at the respect. He was a good friend.
“You better catch us something big, you slacker.” He chided.
“Me, a slacker? You bastard, you’re just a slaver!” He complained.
Gou Ren held out his fist.
Jin grinned, and they bumped knuckles.
You know, of all the things I would be doing, I didn’t really think I’d be holding hands with a woman other than my wife not long after I woke up. Though I had woken up pretty late.
In my defence, My wife was holding my other hand, and was entirely on board with this. A flower in both hands. Truly, I was a harem Isekai protagonist!
Pffft. Yeah, right. Xiulan was cute, but I’m not going there. Hell lies in that direction.
Originally, this lesson was just supposed to be myself and Xiulan, but Meiling had wanted to learn as well, so she pulled herself out of bed and limped over. So now I was teaching Qi infusion to two people.
Qi infusion was difficult to learn, from what I remembered. Many, many exploded plants had followed Jin Rou, before he learned how to do it properly. And then make it work better, because the scroll he was working from was stupidly vague, so he had to research it in the Sect’s library. There were so many pitfalls you could fall into. Some of them made the plants wilt a bit, and if you didn’t monitor the soil properly, you got substandard results. Infections, diseases, bugs, and even some sort of Qi overload were common mistakes, damaging the final product.
There was nothing I… Jin Rou had hated more than not doing your best on an assigned task, even if it was shitty, and even if you were forced into it. Learn how to get good at it, and then cheat like hell. It let him skim plants off the top without anybody noticing, and sell them to get more cash. It was devious, and could have ended poorly if anybody found out, but considering Jin Rou’s experiences? I approved. The Sect didn’t even notice. In fact, one person had even complimented the Outer Sect Disciples for producing so many herbs. Jin Rou had been a little upset that all of them had been complimented, seeing as he was doing nearly all the work, but he grit his teeth and bore it.
While I didn’t have that scroll on me, I decided to take a different approach. Show directly. And that needed physical contact.
Xiulan seemed a bit less frustrated today than she was yesterday, which was good. I even saw her getting along with Tigger, sitting beside each other and whispering to the cat, a bit sweaty from whatever work she had decided to do this morning. That was a relief. I was afraid that they might come to blows.
I took a small breath, and concentrated, moving my Qi slowly so that they could get a good feel for it. Gently wrapping around and guiding both of their Qi.
After Meimei said my Qi was easy to control, I was expecting hers to at least attempt to follow me, and I was right. It obediently trailed behind me, and did everything I was trying to show it.
Xiulan’s was surprisingly obedient too, but I guess that was just her control. She had to be good if she could make swords float. Her Qi also felt pretty similar to Meimei’s, if a bit sharper. Like razor grass. I suppose it fit.
It was about an hour, as I showed them carefully what to do. And then I let them go.
“Alright, your turn. We won’t use any of the Spiritual Herbs just yet, but instead, we’re going to use just some grass.”
Both women nodded. I’d need to teach this to Gou Ren later too, but he was out getting us some more meat. We’d probably have a deer, or some rabbits tonight.
And now.. Well, I should probably supervise, in case something weird happens. I went to tend to the Poison Resistance Herb Xiulan had brought along.
This one had been in the scrolls, when Meimei and I went looking for the root at the Archives. It hadn’t contained any growing instructions, but it had contained where it liked to grow. It preferred rocky soil, and needed cold water. It’s leaves were mostly green, but they had purple edging, and the underside was covered in soft fuzz.
It was looking much better in it’s little pot. It was looking a little droopy when I replanted it, and after a little bit more watering, it would look big and strong.
I honestly… didn’t know what I was going to use it for. If I could somehow get some seeds, or however it reproduced, I could start growing more, but I don’t think I needed it for it’s poison resistance. I mostly just wondered what it tasted like.
The girls worked on their Qi stuff. I heard a muffled curse and looked behind me. Meimei had melted one of the grass stalks, and was wiping green sludge off into the soil.
Gou Ren came back with a deer for us, and we had a nice dinner. All in all, the slow, relaxing day was something I needed, especially after what happened last night.
“Hey, Meimei, have you seen Tigger?” I asked, as we were getting ready for bed. My wife considered my question, as she got into her night robe.
“I think she's with Xiulan.” Meimei guessed, sniffing the air.
I nodded. “Its good that she's made a friend. I was going to ask her if she wanted to sleep with us tonight, but if she's off having some fun, I’ll leave it.”