“Thanks, Pops,” I said as I took the waterskin from him. Hong Xian smiled and nodded his head at me as I took a few gulps of the nice and cool drink. I leaned on my shovel, and looked back at our work.
“Comin’ along good, isn’t it?” I asked my father-in-law.
“Coming along good?” he snorted. “It's coming along a bit better than good,” eh declared, looking at the road, and the work gang that was with us. What had started as a few people coming to bring us water and food had swiftly turned into what seemed to be the entirety of Hong Yaowu helping us out. Sure, the cultivators were doing the lion’s share of the work, but they were helping out more than I thought they would. Even just combing the hills for more rock was useful, because this thing was eating stone like no tomorrow.
Still, nearly to Verdant Hill already. We had managed to shorten the road a bit, instead of just following the old one. Straightened out some corners, and in one case, got a bridge up, with Pops’ help. That one had been a bit frustrating, but it had turned out in the end, and cut nearly three hours off the journey.
“Yeah. It's coming along better than good,” I agreed, as somebody told a joke, and laughter echoed out.
Miserable, backbreaking labour that had turned into something with the air of a summer camp. Cookouts at night, singing and laughter during the day.
And, well, not all of the warm fuzzies I was feeling were from the joy of people coming together. Having people calling me “boss” or looking to me for guidance and following what I asked them to was kind of nice. Being a part of a community, a big part even, stroked the ego pretty nicely.
And distracted me a bit from my still hesitant thoughts on the whole tournament situation. It was stressing me out a bit. I was torn between the fact that I didn’t want to go and get involved, and the feelings of obligation. Maybe I should go anyway?
I shook my head, and took another swig of water.
“Haha! Good work, small one! I shall praise your efforts!” a voice sounded out, and I turned.
I snorted, as I watched Tigu gesticulate at a bunch of kids, who cheered. Flower-crown girl had her chest puffed out with pride, a paving stone laid in front of her.
One that apparently met her exacting standards. She was obviously excited and nervous, as I said she would have her test in Verdant Hill, but unknown to her, her test had already begun.
Combat? Nah. I knew she could fight. What I needed to know was if she could people.
She was doing pretty well, I guess, but these people were already predisposed to liking her. It's easy to interact with people, when nobody is getting on your nerves, and everybody is trying to please you.
The real test was… Well, it was a bit mean, but if she could keep her head through that, then she was as ready as she would ever be. And calmer than a lot of people I knew, honestly.
“The Lord Magistrate Approaches!” The booming voice cut through my thoughts, and we all paused in our work on the road.
A party approached. Two guards, and the Lord Magistrate, trotting toward us. Honestly, I was a bit impressed, and a tiny bit jealous. He looked like some general out of a period drama, with his commanding features as ramrod posture, along with his flowing hair.
There was a reason why I kept mine short. It was pretty shaggy, and I looked like I was homeless the instant it passed my ears.
“Lord Magistrate!” I greeted, smiling at him. His face was calm as always, as he took in the road.
“Rou Jin, I greet you.” He nodded politely, as his eyes took in the road, just at the last bend before we came into view of Verdant Hill.
“I see your road is as grand as expected. You have put in more work than I imagined, to have built this in the months since you brought it up.”
“Eh, about a week and a half for this,” I stated simply, staring back down the road. Faster than some modern work crews. Those dudes always dragged their feet.
He coughed.”Yes, astounding work. And I see a face I am unfamiliar with,” He prompted, staring at Tigu. The girl was watching the proceedings, and listening to everybody shout greetings of their own.
She had heard his question, and so she approached.
“This one’s name is Tigu!” she declared, bowing and introducing herself properly.
The Lord Magistrate nodded imperiously, returning Tigu’s gesture of respect. Her greeting complete, the girl went back to work, going back to the flower girl to praise her efforts to split the stone again.
The Magistrate watched her go, looking at her a bit strangely.
“The same name as your cat?”
I blinked in surprise. He had only heard Tigu’s name once before, during the wedding, and he remembered? He had a good head for names.
I pondered for a brief moment on how to say this.
“Ah. She is the cat.” I settled on being both blunt and honest. The man stared blankly at her for a second longer, his eyes flicking to her facial markings, and her slightly too sharp incisors.
For a brief, brief moment, his eyes raised toward the heavens, and he took a small breath.
“In any case, feat of engineering aside, I do have something to speak to you of, in private.” His eyes shifted to his guards, who were chatting away with the rest of the villagers.
I nodded, wondering what this was about. He waved to his captain, as we went up the road a bit more, the Magistrate hopping off his horse.
“Three days ago, a man was in town, asking around for one Jin Rou, and not the butcher,” He stated without preamble.
“He asked for Jin Rou?” I questioned, a bit confused. Jin Rou? I hadn’t really used that name since I got here. But who could be looking for me? I didn’t really know anybody from any other provinces, gramps was gone after basically dumping me at the Cloudy Sword sect.
“They were inquiring with the guards about the nature of your… altercation with the cultivator last year, as well as searching for you by this name,” the Lord Magistrate stated calmly. “He was not a cultivator, and his accent was that of the Grass Sea.”
I frowned a bit. Fishing for info about the imposter, huh? Maybe they were looking for dirt on the Shrouded Mountain.
“You had asked to be labeled as a wandering cultivator, so that is all the man received, though he bore the mark of an Imperial Inspector.” The Magistrate continued.
He had covered for me. I felt a smile cross my face. It would have been easy to just go, ‘I don’t know Jin Rou, but I do know Rou Jin.’
Instead, he had helped me out, when somebody came snooping around to bother me. If he wasn’t a cultivator, I didn’t think that was too worrisome. Most of the time those guys used their super secret spy assassin groups.
“Thank you,” I said honestly. This dude kept doing me solids. I would need to repay the favour. “But if they come back… well, I’ll talk to them, okay?”
I mean, I didn’t want them in my house, but I would have to do something if these people kept coming around.
The Magistrate blinked, and then nodded his head.
“Though this road will be a bit hard to hide,” he mused.
“Not if all of them are like this,” I said blandly. Babe did want to build roads. Or at least plow them.
The Magistrate paused, and then nodded with that kind of stern expression he always had. Hopefully this would pay him back a bit, huh?
We started walking back to the road. We should be finished tonight, if we put on a bit of a hustle.
But really, why could somebody be using that name? What had I done that would warrant somebody looking for me?
It's not like I was anybody important.
Shrugging, I got back to work. Maybe I’d do my own investigation. Put my name out somewhere a bit away, and see if anybody came to investigate?
The seat was too comfortable.
Lu Ri shifted slightly, as he sank into the cushion of the waiting room. The irritation he had felt in the Azure Hills was nothing compared to the irritation he felt now. He would rather be back in the Qi deprived Azure Hills than sit here for another hour.
Lu Ri stared around at his surroundings, and barely kept his lip from rising at the sheer opulence. Shrouded Mountain was a monument to vanity and excess. So full of distractions from cultivation, and earthly pleasures to indulge in.
The Cloudy Sword Sect was stark in its beauty. Its chill focused the mind. Its place above the clouds allowed one introspection. The ancient stone was steeped with the weight of ages. The accommodations that the disciples lived in were normally simple, but comfortable.
This place had even the least disciple in silk. It had consumed entire forests. Had emptied entire gold mines, and spent spirit stones like water on appearances.
They proclaimed their strength to the world in gold and silver, in scented water and fine oils.
There was even a brothel, not even a li away from the mountain, that had many disciples within it.
This surpassed comfort. This was decadence.
At least the rumour had been confirmed. The Young Master, Zang Li, had been confined to the mountain, after some incident in the Azure Hills.
The rumour mill was in full swing as to what had happened. He was not a very popular one, this Zang Li. He went around suppressing all who dared to look at him, and those disciples who had felt his wrath were all too eager to spread their woes onto a stranger.
So, Lu Ri sought to arrange a meeting with the boy. To hopefully ask him some questions.
Only to find out there were barely any procedures to follow to request a meeting with a member of the sect, other than essentially standing outside the mountain and shouting a challenge, for the Shrouded Mountain did not allow visitors outside tournaments.
This place had no Senior Disciples either, merely more disciples, so he could not ask one of his peers.
He had eventually found someone who managed these things, and was brought to the waiting room.
Where he had been for the past two hours.
At least the tea was good.
He took another sip, as the harried clerk bustled back in, sweating slightly.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir, but the Young Master left a week ago, to the Northern Fangs, as part of an expedition. He should be back before the end of summer.”
Lu Ri sipped his tea, as his eye twitched.
He was heading north that night.