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Bi De considered at length the bundle of cloth that was to be his source of rations. Small, but not too small. Big enough to carry food, yet not big enough to get in the way. He could certainly live off the land--there were always insects and grains but his brief foray as a test into the lands outside Fa Ram had proved one thing, and one thing only: the world outside was not blessed. The Qi was lower, the taste of the morsels lesser. They were of greatly inferior quality, and he had returned quickly.

Though for some reason, the borders of Fa Ram seemed to be getting larger. The air was sweeter even beyond the boundary the Great Master had shown him. He reasoned that even now, even supporting the entirety of Fa Ram as he was, the Great Master’s power still grew, allowing the land to grow even further.

He pondered this. Perhaps one day his Great Master’s power would one day encompass the entirety of the world? It was not beyond thinking about, despite his Great Master's claims of weakness. He believed him, of course. The Great Master would not lie to them about this. But… he was growing. The land he offered supplication to was still growing as well, more active than he had ever felt it.

Now, instead of simply consuming his energy, he felt as if there were hands that stroked his comb and wattles as the Great Master did. Inexpert and excitable, but full of enthusiasm.

His beak added another log to the fire, as the worms smoked on their skewers. They would make fine jerky, along with sun-dried hoppers. The young ones were all crawling out of the ground, their legions of long legs and ravenous maws. Even his flock was barely keeping them in check this year. He could not remember so many last spring, but his memory of that time was dim and hazy.

His Great Master had thrown open the vaults for him, insisting he take any amount of food he could desire, but the grains were heavy and awkward, so he took few. Just enough so that he would not have to unduly dine upon things of inferior quality.

‘Yes, the guard rotations will be difficult for a time, but if the Master hurries back, I do not believe we shall suffer unduly. Bi De took care of our lands alone, and though we have grown, we can keep things in working order.’ Pi Pa mused.

Tigu scoffed. ‘Without the lazy bird around, Fa Ram shall reach even greater glories. This Young Mistress shall do his job better than he ever could.’ Her words were insulting, but her tone had no heat. She was still extremely pleased that he had approached her first, to be the primary guard in his absence, and take over his duties.

‘I do not doubt your martial abilities, Tigu. You shall certainly be better equipped than I was, the first time the Great Master left.’ Bi De stated simply, and the cat preened from her position atop Chun Ke. It seemed even the arrogant and surly Tigu could not resist Brother Chun Ke’s aura of peace and quiet strength.

Though there were still tensions, he was pleased that Tigu was joining in more, even if the only company she enjoyed was Chun Ke’s. Progress, in small amounts until completion. That was the Wisdom of the Great Master.

Little paws deposited a small satchel of medicine near his preparations.

Are you certain you do not wish to come?’ he asked quietly.

Ri Zu nodded her head, though there was clear conflict on her face. ‘Ri Zu still needs more experience before she travels with Brother Bi De. And her place is here, tending to the little ones, while her Master is away.’ She eventually replied, and smiled up at him.

Bi De accepted her words. It would be strange, to once more be alone, but it would be enlightening.

He stood straighter, and then lowered his head to his fellows.

The First Disciple once more thanks his fellow disciples. I leave our home in the most capable hands.’

Chun Ke oinked happily. ‘Friend come back safe.’ he stated, as if it was a foregone conclusion. Bi De smiled at the praise, some of his old fire coming back

Of course. Nothing in these Azure hills shall keep me from returning!’ He declared, his feathers puffing up, and his eyes gazing imperiously at them.

There were snorts of amusement, and Ri Zu blushed at his sudden authoritative stance.

The lapsed into companionable silence.

The worms finished drying, and he packed all but a single skewer, which he took in his beak, and departed outside. His Great Master always shared his cooking, so he would try to do the same!

The Great Master was working on something, some form of chair. His strong hands shaped the wood with exacting ease, adding what looked like sleigh runners to the bottom.

The Great Healing Sage had Disciple Gou Ren’s head in her lap, and was probling at his ears with some manner of tools. “Your ears are very clean this year.” She whispered to him while the younger Disciple groaned in contentment.

Disciple Xiulan was tending to her blades, her eyes closed as she held her hand against their sides.

“How's it going, Bi De?” His Lord asked as Bi De approached with some of his cooking.

Bi De offered him the skewer.

His Great Master eyed the worms offered to him. Gingerly, he reached out, taking one off the skewer. He brought it up, sniffed at it, and after a brief moment of hesitation, put it into his mouth.

Bi De watched his impassive face. His Master swallowed, the loud gulp sounding like it took a lot of effort.

“....most humans won’t like this, buddy.” His Great Master told him regretfully.

Bi De hung his head at the rebuke, disappointed. Everything that the Great Master made was delicious, yet his own efforts yielded this. He thought they tasted grand!

His Lord laid a comforting hand on his back, and started scratching.

“Alright, you’re done, off.” The Healing sage commanded Gou Ren, shoving him and sending him rolling bonelessly off.

She swiftly cleaned her tools, green Medicinal Qi flowing around them. Once satisfied at their cleanliness, she turned to the other Disciple.

“Lanlan~!’ she commanded cheerfully, patting her lap. Disciple Xiulan opened, her eyes, and turned curiously to the proffered place to put her head.

“I have never done anything like this before.” She said, “I do not believe I have any earwax to clean.”

The patting got a bit more commanding.

“Just lay back and let Senior Sister take care of you.” The Healing Sage instructed.

Disciple Xiulan smiled softly, and did as instructed, laying her head down in the Healing Sage’s lap. A devilish grin stole over the Healing Sage’s features.

Her head went down, and she blew softly in Disciple Xiulan’s ear. The woman yelped and jolted, her face flushing crimson.

“S-Senior Sister!” she scolded as great peals of laughter sounded.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll make it up to you.” The healing Sage commented.

Disciple Xiulan pouted, but allowed her head to be pulled back down.

===========================

A stern-faced man gazed imperiously down at his own domain. His balcony was high above the rest of the town, affording him a commanding view. His hands were clasped behind his back. The wind blew his long, silken locks, and teased his immaculately groomed facial hair. His dark eyes roved around his domain, cataloguing and pondering ways to improve. His clothes were of the finest silk, a light green colour, with a gold sash, denoting his position as one of His Imperial Majesty’s Lord Magistrates.

From behind his lofty dias, music drifted. A stately woman, with milky skin and red lips played a guzheng. The warm, pleasant notes drifted out over the Lord Magistrate’s city, and soothing the scribes that worked, and made ready for their spring reports.

Standing at attention were two steely eyed guards. They expected no trouble this day, yet were alert anyway, eyes carefully scanning for any threat to their master, ready to lay down their lives in his defence. Their green armor was polished to a shine, and their weapons glinted with razor edges.

The various scribes and functionaries looked upon the scene with the utmost respect.

“The Lord Magistrate is in fine bearing today.” one of the scribes muttered to the other.

“Indeed he is,” the other scribe noted. “His back seems straighter and broader this year. He goes from strength to strength, drawing power from his time, rather than being diminished by it. It is good that we rest upon such capable shoulders.”

The scribe looked knowingly at the other. “An increase in lumber production this year as well?”

“As you say. I hardly have to ask about the tanneries.” The scribes nodded to each other, and there were murmurs of assent from those in charge of the fisheries and the mines.

They turned back to the Patriarch of Verdant Hill, and waited for him to receive their reports. He would do so at the designated time, and not a moment before.

They didn’t see the wide, almost perverse smile that had spread across his face, his ears pricked and listening intently to their comments. His wife’s music provided a soothing tone that would make one think that the Lord Magistrate could not hear their words.

Ah,’ the Lord Magistrate thought to himself. ‘How wonderful this time of year is. It makes all the hard work worthwhile.

He listened eagerly to the praises, and the small conversations that praised his leadership, all while standing like the statesman he was. If only he could dance about and cheer! But he kept his body stable and firm, his back straight.

His wife played a slightly louder note, startling him out of his enjoyment of his subordinate’s praises, and notifying him of the coming time. He took a breath, forcing the smile down into his stern, neutral face, the face of the Lord Magistrate. He turned his head slightly, and nodded to his wife. One eyebrow with a few streaks of grey raised in fond amusement.

A grand night last night, and an even grander day today. He turned, keeping his hands behind his back, and within his large sleeves. He rubbed at the slightly abraded skin on his wrists, and kept his back straight to avoid undue movement on the marks on his back.

His wife smiled languidly, finishing her song. She too had been in fine form last night.

The gong sounded, signalling the appointed hour, and the Lord Magistrae turned. His head was held high, as he walked to the interior of the room, and his ‘throne’. He stood before it, and the guards slammed the butts of their spears into the ground.

The assembly bowed as one. ‘We pay our respects to the Lord Magistrate!’ they intoned. He bowed his head slightly in acceptance, and made a gesture of respect to his subordinates.

“His Imperial Majesty’s Lord Magistrate thanks you for your prompt gathering as always. Now, the Lord Magistrate would listen to your reports, as we prepare to act upon our strategy this year.” The scribes bowed their heads once more.

First Archivist Bao pulled out his scroll, so that he could call up each man. It was a formality. Each knew their place.

He spent his morning listening to his men. The flattery to his face was nearly as nice as the flattery they spouted when they thought him not around to hear.

“Thanks to the Lord Magistrate’s foresight…”

“As devised last year, by the Lord Magistrate…”

“The people of the flooded areas thank the Lord Magistrate for his benevolence, and promise to repay him a hundred fold!”

Yes, these were the days he cherished. The men under his command bowing their heads. The people in the far flung villages thanking him.

He was truly the master of Verdant Hill here, and today was a perfect day!

=================================

“I pay my respects to the Lord Magistrate.” Rou Jin said with a smile.

The Lord Magistrate gazed upon him calmly, while internally he was grumbling. He was fairly certain that the Cultivator meant him no harm today, but Cultivators had mercurial tempers at the best of times. He tensed slightly as the man turned his attention to his wife. Vague thoughts of unease churned through him, but he had seen her before--

Rou Jin bowed respectfully to her as well. A breach of protocol, truly, but he wasn’t going to say anything. His lady wife inclined her head back, and graced him with a smile.

No, no, don’t do that, that's how cultivators got ideas!

The Magistrate woodenly made a gesture of respect back.

“And what brings you here today, Rou Jin?” He asked politely, keeping his face firm.

“Well, I was in town, and wanted to pay my respects and thank you again for coming to the wedding.” The Cultivator started, and pulled out another jar of Qi filled liquid. One much larger than the one previously gifted.

The Lord Magistrate’s eyebrow aborted a twitch.

“Ah, well, it is the duty of the Magistrate to make sure his new subjects are settling in, especially with such an… auspicious marriage.” He commented.

The cultivator smiled at him.

“But… there was another thing.”

He schooled his features, waiting for the cultivator’s true intent. He knew he had been too kind so far. What manner of thing might he ask for?!

“I was wondering if there was any paperwork or anything to fill out if I wanted to build a proper road from here to Hong Yaowu. I was going to ask Uncle Bao, but if I’m here now...”

The Lord Magistrate frowned internally. The dirt path was serviceable enough, and the reason there was no road out there was due to the difficulty and the terrain, but a cultivator wouldn’t think about that.

But in all honesty a road was.. reasonable, in terms of requests. Prioritising Hong Yaowu would draw a lot of comments, and quite a few pointed questions, as well as eat into a good chunk of his hard earned profits. But if this was the price...

“It will take some time for the road to be built, but if it pleases you, I could file the paperwork?.”

The cultivator brighted. “Well, we’ll say the roadwork is part of my household’s Corvee?” The cultivator asked, referring to the manual labour that was instituted as part of most men’s taxes. You either worked… or paid to get out of work. But for his household’s corvee...

The Lord Magistrate’s mind went back to what the cultivator said. “If I wanted to build the road.” He was going to do it himself? That was.. Well within the abilities of a single cultivator, he supposed.

Well, maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad after all? A bit of paperwork, a bit of… number fudging, and nobody would look twice at the road!

“Well, if that is all…?” The Magistrate asked hopefully. Even a few minutes of dealing with this one was exhausting.

The cultivator paused. “A... friend of mine is going to be wandering around these parts for a little. If you have any… problem spots, any rogue Spirit Beasts, I’m sure he could go and help clear them out for you.”

“I shall have one written up promptly.” The Magistrate declared.Internally, he was screaming. More cultivators?! This bastard was attracting them like flies to a corpse! This was supposed to be a quiet post, damn it all!

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