It was a scene of organised chaos the night before they left. There were items lined up or scattered around the room. The atmosphere was tense with anticipation, as Xiulan stared at the flat piece of stone in her hand.
“Turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself!” Yun Ren decreed, sitting back and nodding with pride. He wiped a hand along his sweaty brow.
All Xiulan could do was nod, as she stared at her own smiling face. There was another, this piece’s twin, affixed to the wall, that was prominently displayed. Master Jin had been spectacularly happy with this development, praising Yun Ren until he flushed with embarrassment. He had asked Yun Ren for any pieces he would be willing to give, so that they could be displayed proudly around the house.
The man looked like all of his dreams had come true at once.
“Thank you,” she said earnestly, while Yun Ren just nodded.
“I don’t know how long it will last. I think… less time if it’s in shade, more time if it gets light regularly? It’s not perfect yet. I already had to refresh one of them.” He absently poked at one of his slightly too sharp teeth with his tongue. Some manner of bloodline awakening, perhaps? His story about the fox did point to that.
She glanced up to where Tigu was sitting on her knees, her face intent, while Junior Brother examined his bow, before setting it aside.
Master Jin’s eyes narrowed at Tigu. “Undergarments!” Master Jin demanded, and the girl held up a set of plain white bandages and cloth, like a soldier holding up her blade or armor for inspection.
Master Jin nodded, and the girl packed them away in her bag.
“Shirts?” he asked.
This grin was a wide one, as Tigu purposefully let the folded garment fall open, to reveal the symbol on the back. She stared at it with pride, before carefully folding it.
It matched the one all of them had. And though Xiulan could not wear it at the tournament… She was touched that Senior Sister had given her one of the shirts.
“Good! We always pack the night before, and then double check in the morning to make sure we don’t forget anything!” he said.
‘And you always need more supplies than you think,’ Bi De stated from his position on Master Jin's shoulder.
Tigu nodded rapidly, determination blazing in her eyes.
Senior Sister soon stomped in, carrying an armload of things. She had a big smile on her face.
“Okay! Burn ointment, bruise salve, thread for stitching up wounds, some dried fronds of Spirit Herbs…” She listed things off, separating the ingredients into little kits;Including the Spiritual Herbs that had once healed Xiulan.
“This one is yours,” Senior Sister told her, depositing the medical kit onto the table.
Xiulan thanked her, as she held the gift. She looked back to where the others were still sitting by the door. They had been given many things for their journey. Wheat and rice. The vegetables, the maple syrup.
And Master Jin still tried to give her more. Her lips quirked into a smile, as Tigu’s list completed.
“And I think, with that, it's time for bed,” Master Jin stated. “You’ve got an early day, and a long way to travel.”
There were muttered agreements from the disciples, and wishes for a good sleep.
She ascended the stairs, to the ro--- to her room.
Opening the door, she glanced around. She still needed to pack herself.
It had filled up a bit more than she was expecting, when she came to live here. She had arrived with gifts, and the clothes on her back.
Now, there were a myriad of things gathered from her time here. She would have to pack them all away to take them back to her sect.
She smiled at the objects scattered around the room. A scroll of acupuncture, given to her by Senior Sister. She would explain what she was doing while she worked upon Xiulan’s body, and by this point, she could follow along.
A beetle pupa, given to her by Xian, and fully intact. He had regaled her with a story about how long it took him to find a good one. She ran her fingers over the large horn, and trailed it to the carving of an unfurling fern. When she had asked Tigu about it, the girl had pretended to not know what she had been talking about, but time had clearly been spent on it, to make it so realistic and lifelike.
A pressed flower. The first one she had grown, with Master Jin’s techniques.
She smirked at the pieces of paper on the rough table, Junior Brother Gou Ren’s attempts at poetry.
It was not going well, to say the least, but he was improving!
She took a nut from the small bag Chun Ke had given her, popping it into her mouth, as she carefully rolled up several other items. A feather from Bi De, bright and vibrant. A dragon scale, along with a note pleading for her to bring back tasty things.
As she thought back over her time at Fa Ram her hands moved, preparing each object with care. The images flowed through her mind. ..
A ball of mud thrown at her. Field Ha Qi. Burgers. Wa Shi being chased around Hong Yaowu, as he became the dragon for their Dragon Dance. The bright summer sun on her face, warming her body. Picnics with Senior Sister. Ruffing Junior Brother's hair.
Until her hands stopped moving. Until she looked around, and the summer morning had turned back into night, and all she was left with was an empty room.
All that was left were the things she had come here with.
Slowly, Xiulan pulled on her silk dress, wearing it for the first time in months. It felt a bit strange on her skin, after her time wearing clothes of a simpler make. The extravagantly expensive piece, long since repaired. Proof of her status.
She picked up the pieces of gold thread, styled to look like blades of grass, and wove them into her hair. Made of the purest gold, they were so different than the flower crowns that withered, or the simple bows of cloth too small to have any other use.
And yet… It was not uncomfortable.
She turned to the burnished disk in her room, and stared at her reflection.
It still looked like her.
She shook her head, and changed out of the rich clothes into her sleeping attire.
She took her packed bags, and walked out of her room, into the silent hall, and down the stairs, to place them by the door. Near to the other four packs, three large and one tiny. She snorted, as all of them had a little touch added by Senior Sister. A cat, a monkey, a fox, and a rat.
She turned, and climbed on to the roof, for one last time… and found it already occupied.
Master Jin, with a rooster on his shoulder.
No words were said. He smiled at her, and tapped his pot of tea.
They were gathered outside the next day, before the gate.
“Yeah, I’ll talk to Biyu for you, okay? We’re gonna stop in the city, the best route, before we continue on,” Yun Ren said, as he and Master Jin clasped forearms, and pulled each other into a hug.
“Thanks. I think I’ll be heading down that way pretty soon. Just got a few more things to do here first,” he said, before releasing the man so that Senior Sister could give him her own hug.
He grinned, as he hugged Tigu, the girl bouncing excitedly. He ruffled her hair, as the girl grinned back up at him.
“Listen to Xiulan, okay?” he said, and Tigu nodded. Xiulan’s heart leapt to her throat for a moment, at the trust that had been placed in her.
“This Cai Xiulan swears upon her very name that she will bring them back safely,” she intoned, her eyes and heart set, as he stopped before her. Her hands clasped in the traditional gesture of respect.
Master Jin nodded solemnly.
Xiulan let out a terribly undignified sound as two strong arms wrapped around her. Her body went rigid, and her face flushed, as she was pulled into an embrace like the others.
“Bring yourself back safe too, okay?” he asked her quietly.
Some of the tension within her faded. Slowly, she returned the embrace.
She stared at Senior Sister’s expression. Ah. Her husband had just embraced another woman in front of her. It was terribly improper… and yet, it was very Master Jin. She was just tall enough to see over his shoulder, at Senior Sister’s bemused expression.
She approached, as Master Jin went to Gou Ren, both of them clapping each other on the back
Senior Sister opened her arms, and Xiulan obliged her, wrapping the smaller woman up.
Xiulan smiled at Sister Meiling.
“Our house is always open to you.” She said, as they held each other's hands. Xiulan felt the warmth suffuse her at that—
“Our bed too.” The other woman’s eyebrows bounced up and down.
She slumped, as Meiling began cackling, pulling her down to press a kiss into her cheek.
She left Xiulan pouting, as she hugged Gou Ren, and rubbed the top of Ri Zu’s head.
She was bid farewell in turn by each of the disciples. A dragon, conspiratorially winking at her. A boar, chuffing happily as she scratched the scar across his face. A sow, giving her a polite and dignified bob of the head. A snake and a rabbit that offered her nods.
The rooster, tall and proud, combed his beak through Ri Zu’s fur, and flapped up to the fence post.
“Goodbye.” She said, as they all waved their farewells.
“See you again soon.” Master Jin replied.
She turned, as they started walking on the road. Almost marching, like she was on a mission…
When an orange-haired girl darted ahead, practically skipping, while Ri Zu sat on her head, squeaking in agreement.
“Which way, which way? This way, right?!” She demanded. “I can’t wait to see!”
Junior Brother sighed. “Man, she’s gonna be a pain,” he muttered, before he lengthened his strides.
Yun Ren just laughed, pulling out his recording crystal. He examined it for a moment, before he started a loping run, catching up to his brother and Tigu.
Xiulan chuckled. Her feet pounded down the road as she caught up to the squabbling duo and the one who was recording them.