Swords whirled through the air reaping rice. A girl ran as fast as she could along the rows, orange hair in two trailing streamers, her arms grabbing great bundles of the grain. She moved swiftly, tying them together, and setting the bundles against the erected scaffold so they could dry.
I rolled my eyes at the little competition going on between Xiulan and Tigu. The cat-turned-girl was surprisingly good at dragging people into doing silly things, now that she wasn’t as aggressive about it.
They were also either matching speed, or going faster than any machine harvester I’d seen, tearing through the rice.
Gou Ren actually looked a little put out, glancing at his own sickle forlornly, and the much smaller patch he had finished.
The yields… well, the yields were insane this year as well. The fat heads of grain I think should have snapped their stalks, but instead the rice stood tall and proud, swaying, but refusing to snap. We had gone from half an acre of rice, and half an acre of veggies to over 30 combined acres of food.... yet the workload didn’t seem insurmountable. In fact, we had probably cleared most of ten acres already, and nobody looked at all worse for wear but the harder stuff was still left to come.
We were going to need an absolutely massive amount of storage, though. Even with my preparations, I would still probably need to order or make more bags at least. I glanced off to the side, where there was a makeshift kiln. Big D pushed a large storage vessel out of it, while the Noodle snake inspected it, rubbing his chin.
‘Lessss heat next time, Yin,’ I heard him call, and there was an affirmative from inside the stack of bricks.
Sun bunny and moon rooster. I’m sure there was a joke in there somewhere.
I was still a little unsure of what to make of the duo, but neither of them seemed like they would be an issue. Yin was bouncy and excitable, while Noodle… we had a bit of an understanding, us two.
And Big D was right. It was a pleasure hearing a master speak at length about his work.
The next busiest place was the vegetable garden. The rows of neatly harvested carrots and onions sitting behind Babe’s plow, and the equally neat row behind Chunky. Meiling was wandering behind, bending down to pick everything up, and not looking like the swelling of her stomach was bothering her at all, even though it looked a bit awkward for her.
Even Washy was helping, and not partaking… too much. I caught him swiping a couple of carrots.
I was about to get started again, when I heard a voice call.
“Hey! You started without me!” Yun Ren shouted good naturedly.
Gou Ren’s head immediately snapped up, his face brightening.
For there stood his brother. Yun Ren had a big smile on his face, and even in the heat, a scarf was wrapped around his neck with the same design on it that his mother had on some of her clothes. His “camera” chimed, and he grinned at us all.
And in addition to him, we had other company.
“Jin! Meimei! Lanlan!” Xian junior shouted, as he and Pops hopped off the cart they were on, and I did a bit of a double take.
“Brother Ting Feng and Meihua!” I shouted in surprise, as I saw who the cart belonged to. I had visited the couple of times I had gone to Verdant Hill, but I certainly wasn’t expecting them, or Yao Che, her father.
Or the gaggle of other villagers, including the Xong Brothers’ parents. Or the set of sickles and hoes they were carrying.
Well, it seems that every year, the number of people wanting to lend a hand went up.
“I did not expect to be able to visit like this either, Brother Jin, but the Lord Magistrate allowed me a break.” Tingfeng laughed. “He made it sound like he was giving me more work, in coming to visit my friend! But here, my ‘mission’, to deliver this to you!”
I stared as he reached into the cart, and pulled up a bucket. A bucket with some very familiar, bright red fruit in them.
“Ah, you’re getting so big!” I praised the child in my arms. At six months old, he was a lot bigger than I remembered. The child giggled at me as I wagged a finger in front of his face, grasping for it.
We had quickly descended into organized chaos, as everybody pulled up a seat, and started catching up.
“Thanks for bringing the tomatoes to me, Tingfeng.” I started, but he waved me off.
“I can’t believe he spoke of this as if it would be a chore,” Tingfeng muttered as he sipped some of my specialty. The peaches were perfectly ripe, from the trees Xiulan had given me, and mixed oh so wonderfully with tea, as well as my stores of ice. A proto-slushie, if you will.
He groaned in contentment, and poured himself a bit more. I just smiled, and looked up at everything else that was happening, just in time to catch a rather nice pelt that had been tossed at me.
“Right, furs for Jin, Granny said this one is for Meimei...” Yun Ren muttered as he rummaged through his pack, listing things off. My friend didn’t look much different, having only been gone for three months, but I did keep catching flashes of his insiciosrs when he talked. Were they a bit longer than normal…?
“This one's for you, Gou. Gramps wanted you to have it. He said that you were welcome up north any time.” Yun pulled out a piece of cloth that had the same design as his scarf, and handed it to his brother. He seemed a bit shocked, and unsure of what to do with it. He stared for a moment… before tying it like a headband.
…he looked like a street fighter character. I saw Tigu giving him a considering glance, her eyes on the headband.
“Yes, we did finally get them to grow,” Hong Xian said, as he carefully pulled out a leaf of the spiritual herb, and laid it beside one of mine. It was much smaller, and a lighter green, but it still looked serviceable.
“I helped!” her brother called, bouncing up and down eagerly. “Jin’s instructions never said you had to dance for them, but they really like it!”
Xian nodded, ruffling his son’s hair.
“And… well, I thought you might like this, daughter.” He pulled out a scroll, and Meiling gasped. I managed a glance at the title.
Observations on Seven Fragrance Jewel Herb interacting with mortal medicine: 77th Hong Xian, 3rd Hong Meiling, 1st Hong Ri Zu.
“It’s… it’s in the family records?” she asked, with a wavering voice.
“It will need a bit more, to be officially entered into the family records... But I would like some help, daughter, if you would give it.”
She flushed, and nodded her head rapidly.
Xian smiled at his daughter, and turned to me with a bemused expression. “And I cannot believe that the Cloudy Sword Sect simply calls them ‘Lowly Spiritual Herbs’,” he muttered.
I shrugged. So they did have a more xianxia name.
“In any case, some ointments, so that we may test the effectiveness between the ones grown in Hong Yaowu, and the ones grown here…” he started, and Meiling’s eyes brightened, as she learned forward eagerly.
I smiled at the expression on her face.
The rest of us got to work again. Eventually.
Xiulan sat on the roof in the setting sun. She looked down, over and across the farm. Master Jin’s ‘Banjo’ twanged rapidly as he played some song she had never heard before, as most of the adults stomped their feet and danced around the firepit. The whooping of children, as Wa Shi carried them through the water. The cheers as they slid down Chun Ke’s back.
Senior Sister in deep discussion with her father, as they compared the leaves of Spiritual Herbs. The look of pride on her face, as she marked down something in the scroll. Something that would be with her family for generations, if she didn't miss her mark.
Gou Ren nodded along as an image was projected on the wall, his new headband bobbing slightly. Yun Ren’s smile, with his just slightly too sharp canines, as several people oohed at the image of the waterfall.
Bi De, standing proudly upon the fencepost, a look of contentment on the rooster’s face.
She closed her eyes, and took a breath. She burned the images into her memory. The feelings.
To think the summer she worked as a farmhand was the most productive of her life. More productive than her years of meditation, or refining Spiritual Grass, of rigid forms and harsh lessons.
She remembered how she had felt at first. Like she was drowning on air. Like the enormity of her situation was going to crush her.
The tightness in her chest was gone. Each breath was easy. The tenseness in her muscles a memory.
She took another breath. There was still a hint of sweetness on her lips from the tea Master Jin had made.
The tournament was soon. So soon. Within a week, she would be back with her fellow disciples of the Verdant Blade, and fighting in the tournament.
At the fourth stage of the Initiate’s realm, winning the tournament was a hard possibility, but it was possible.
At the first stage of the profound realm? Her victory was all but assured, as arrogant as it sounded. She was likely the most powerful of her generation, in these Azure Hills.
She would win the tournament… and then what?
Would she be back to training with the other disciples? Would she be elevated to elder status? Her accomplishments were great, to be true, but after her last experience commanding men, she was not particularly eager to take such a prominent role.
She was a dutiful daughter. All her life, she had lived for her sect.
Yet… some small tratorous part of her simply said “stay”.
It was not something that could be stomped out. It was something that would have to be reconciled.
“Xiulan!” Senior Sister called.
She opened her eyes again, as the beat sped up, and Master Jin shouted out a song that he seemed to be translating from the strange language that he knew.
Senior Sister waved up at her, holding out her arms.
The Young Mistress of the Verdant Blade touched the crown of flowers woven into her hair.
Xiulan slid off the roof, tapping lightly to the ground. She hugged Meiling, swirling her around, before the song took her.
Whatever did come, she would face it. Her feet would move to a tune only she could hear, and carry her along this path, even if she could not see where it was going.
It was the path she wanted to walk.
Her body moved, it twisted and swayed, until she was the only one left dancing, the others all having paused to watch her.
And when the song ended, the feeling of bodies pressing up against her. Senior Sister with an arm around her waist. Tigu on her back. Junior Brother and Master Jin with either arms slung around her shoulders
Squashed in the middle of a pile of bodies, and grinning at the recording crystal.
“Okay everybody, now make a dumb face!” Master Jin commanded.
His top teeth jutted out over his bottom lip, as his eyes went vacant. Giggling, Senior Sister stuck her fingers in her mouth, and pulled her cheeks apart. Junior Brother began to make a dumb face, when Yun Ren stuck his fingers in Gou Ren’s nose. He grabbed Yun Ren’s cheeks in retaliation, squashing his face sideways.
She couldn’t exactly see Tigu’s expression, but she didn’t need to. The Young Mistress of the Verdant Blade Sect stuck out her tongue.
There was a crystal chime.