In the end, Biyu had insisted on guiding them around the city. She was a bit overeager, and acting full of confidence…. but she kept glancing back at them, like she didn’t quite know what to do.
Gou Ren guessed she had never really played guide before.
“The City is arranged like the spokes of a wheel, so if you ever get lost, you just walk to one of the main streets, and go from there,” she explained as they walked through the wealthier part of the city. “You don’t go through any alleys unless you were born in that ward, or if you have a death wish, the gangs are a bit bad in some parts. But that's probably not a problem for any of you guys…” she trailed off. She hadn’t actually directly brought up the fact that any of them were cultivators, yet. Gou Ren did catch a muttered ‘didn’t you say she was a cat?’ from Biyu to Yun Ren, but she seemed to be trying not to pry.
“But… well, those Plum Blossom guys are supposed to be taking over? Nobody really knows much about them, other than that they’re eating everyone else,” she mused. “I don’t really keep up with any of that, I’m too busy. I still haven’t seen that production by the Jade Dragon Troupe of the Demon Slaying Orchid.” She grumbled the last part.
“Oh? You enjoy such plays?” Xiulan asked.
Biyu nodded. “I worked on some of the crystals they’re using! I want to see how they work in the actual show!” she said, her eyes shining.
Gou Ren snorted with amusement, and Biyu flushed. “You two are exactly alike,” he said with a grin, shoving at his brother.
“Indeed, they are quite similar,” Xiulan stated, amused.
Biyu tilted her face down, her face flushing red, and shook her head in embarrassment.
“So, how long are you all going to be in Pale Moon Lake City? I know the tournament is soon…” Biyu asked after recovering her composure.
“We were planning to stay a single night,” Xiulan answered for them. “We must arrive at the Dueling Peaks soon.”
Biyu considered that. She glanced at one of the large, lavish buildings she was heading towards, then looked back to Yun Ren. Her eyes firmed and she seemed to come to a decision.
“Then… I have a place better than one of these, I think!” she said, with a little smile. “Well, if you like the kind of stuff Yun likes, at least! It will really give you a taste of the city!”
So they passed by the high end establishments, and continued on, past the wealthy districts, and back into the outer city.
He eyed the heavy crowds, but for the most part, as soon as people noticed their party they moved out of the way after a single glance at the thick cloak and gloves Biyu was still wearing, even in the summer heat. Even the guards nodded respectfully when she passed. It was a bit weird, if Gou Ren was honest. People bowing to you just because of who you worked for. Biyu actually seemed a bit embarrassed by it.
They had headed right for the docks, and in particular, a stand manned by an old man who greeted Biyu like an old friend.
“This place is really good,” Yun Ren said. “The first time, we went to one of the more expensive places, but it was pretty meh. The prices were obscene!”
“I would like to try one of those more expensive places, at least once, just to see what they’re like, but I’m sure this is good too. Is she okay taking us around like this?” Gou Ren asked. “She seems a bit… flustered.”
His brother shrugged. “She’s spent most of her life studying. She likes it. But not too many friends, yeah? She wanted to make a good impression, and ain't too sure how to, I think.”
Gou Ren nodded. “You like her though?” Yun Ren suddenly asked.
“Yeah, she's nice. Mom and dad will like her too.” Gou Ren meant it. She seemed like the kind of girl their mother would like. Driven and hardworking.
Yun Ren rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, we both know what mom thinks every gal should be like. I’ll go help her get the stuff over.”
They didn’t sit near the stall. Biyu led them a bit further on, to a set of tables near a wall that looked out over the water, setting down several plates.
“This is a Moonstone Ward specialty!” Biyu said, putting down the plate.
“It’s green,” Gou Ren commented, cocking his head to the side as the rest of the table leaned in to look at the dish with interest.
“Yup! They use a kind of watergrass that grows in the lake to make the noodles that colour!”
Gou Ren shrugged, and took a bite. It was certainly an interesting flavour. Slightly sour, slightly spicy from black pepper. The meat was a freshwater crab that was quite a bit larger than he was expecting, thick pieces of claw and leg meat peppered with vegetables.
Xiulan had a contemplative look on her face as she chewed. “One for Wa Shi, I think,” she whispered, and Gou Ren nodded. He’d have to come back this way, and see if the grass would survive the journey. “Thank you for taking us to this place, Biyu.”
The woman blushed and scratched at the back of her head, obviously pleased by the complement.
They were seated near the docks, on a raised section that looked out into the lake. It was a bit quieter and less crowded here but below them was still a whirlwind of activity. The ships were way larger than he was expecting. Massive barges laden down with ores, or smaller boats coming in with loads of fish. It was a hustle and bustle that Gou Ren wasn’t quite sure he liked. Tigu seemed to be twitching slightly from the overload of having so many people pressed in around her.
There was a bit of a commotion, and Gou Ren glanced down at the docks, where a bunch of men were chasing an otter that had stolen a fish. Gou Ren chuckled at the scene, then looked up at the seemingly endless blue expanse that took up the entire horizon.
“I grew up in this ward,” Biyu said wistfully, as she stared out over the lake. “Father owned his own boat, and mother had a shop. I like just coming down here sometimes. It's a bit hard to visit them now that they’re on the north end of the lake. Taking a week-long boat ride up there isn’t my idea of fun, but it's better than walking.”
They sat together in companionable silence, as the breeze flowed over them.
“...thanks for letting me show you around,” Biyu said, scratching her cheek absentmindedly. She looked a bit awkward still, but she had a happy smile on her face.
“We shall be relying on your knowledge more, if you would allow us, Biyu,” Xiulan said quietly. “I would like to examine the archives of the city, though I understand one needs some manner of documentation?”
Biyu nodded. “We can use mine, if you want?” she offered.
“I wish to see the chisels of this place, and to witness the Crystal carvers!” Tigu declared.
‘And we shall require knowledge of the herb merchants.’ A little voice squeaked, as Ri Zu crawled out from her position on Tigu’s back, and bowed. ‘Forgive Ri Zu for not introducing herself earlier.’
Biyu’s owlish eyes widened, and they flicked to Yun Ren, before turning back to Ri Zu. “... Nice to meet you?” she asked.
The rat nodded, as Biyu stared for a moment longer, before recomposing herself.
“Not that weird,” she whispered to herself. “Like Master Jing’s monkey, but smarter!”
She perked up again. “So! Let’s go and see what else the city has to offer!”
Lu Ri was not a happy man. In fact, he was a rather annoyed man. His informant’s messages had been a bit garbled, and had to be resent multiple times, but eventually he had the picture. The Magistrate of Verdant Hill had been quite reluctant to speak of Jin Rou, and had seemed outright confused about the name. But he did know something about him.
Along with a few rumours from merchants about high quality goods originating from that area the agent could confirm Jin Rou had been there.
Yet as before, every person was stating that he had left, and the trail ended once more.
How vexing. If all said he left, then he may be travelling to the Dueling Peaks tournament. Yet there were still rumours coming from the north of goods of superlative quality.
So, to go north, and possibly miss Jin Rou travelling to the tournament, or investigate the tournament, and if he did not show up, then it was guaranteed that he would be in the north still.
This required tea and pastries with the wonderful syrup. So he went to his preferred establishment, and ordered his treat.
Instead, he was treated to the master of the establishment coming out, bowing deeply to him, and sweating heavily.
“My deepest apologies, Master Cultivator. The last of the syrup was recently purchased. There is nothing that we can do at this time, other than offer our most sincere regrets that we may not serve you.”
The blow was a minor one, yet it still hurt.
Ah, it was always a shame when something finite came to an end.
He took a deep, soothing breath, as the sensor stone rattled so much it nearly cracked.
It was not the man’s fault.
So, he simply had tea that day. He had tea, as he pondered his choices.
“And then… like this,” Biyu said, as she looked through the lens at the crystal, her fingers barely moving as she carved off tiny portions. Tigu was watching her intently, her eyes focused, considering this new way of carving.
“I see! A formation within carvings, how interesting!” Tigu declared.
Yun Ren smiled at the scene. Tigu had on Biyu’s goggles and it looked rather amusing, as his… well, his friend coached the cat through the very basics of crystal carving.
Patient and kind. His cheeks heated up a bit.
She had gotten better as the day went on, pointing out the little things in the city. From the slightly different clothing styles from each ward, to the way the buildings were built, to the one about the rather vicious gang-feud that happened when she was little that set most of the slums on fire.
Or her complaints about how the current Lord Magistrate rarely addressed any problems in the city.
He got a bit of a new appreciation for the Old Patriarch.
His brother was yawning, slumped against the side of the couch. He looked exhausted. Xiulan, on the other hand, was eagerly reading that scroll she copied from the archives. The one Meimei had found all those years ago.
His brother yawned again. “We should prolly go.” Gou Ren muttered. “Got a long run tomorrow.”
Xiulan paused in her reading, and looked out the window.
“Indeed. I thank you for your hospitality, Biyu.” Xiulan said courteously.
Everybody else started packing up, but Yun Ren himself had something to do.
“I’ll catch up in a sec, yeah?” Yun Ren told them. His brother nodded. “We’re going to the inn Biyu said would have spots.”
They waved their goodbyes, but for the moment, Yun Ren stayed.
Biyu collapsed onto the couch.
“Too much!” she moaned. “I guided the Demon-Slaying Orchid around the city! Why didn’t you tell me she was your friend! You just called her Lanlan!” She grumbled into the cushion.
Yun Ren laughed, as he picked up her legs, and sat on the couch, rubbing some of the knots out.
“She doesn’t like too much attention. I think she was happy you didn’t pry.”
“Shes even more beautiful than the plays say she is. Unfair.” Biyu muttered petulantly.
“One of the prettiest girls I ever met.” Yun Ren agreed. “About as pretty as you.”
Biyu whined into the cushion. “Like she’d put up with you anyway, ass.” Biyu grumbled.
Yun laughed as they sat together.
“...I got somethin’ for ya. I don’t know what it is, but.. Well, he said I should give it to you. The old bastard was mighty impressed with your work. I didn’t exactly know how to give it to ya earlier, neither.”
Biyu perked up, as she pulled open his pack, revealing the crystal.
Her eyes widened to comical proportions.
“Oh.” She squeaked out. “A storage crystal.”
“Is it something good?” he asked. Wide eyes turned to Yun Ren.
“These don’t exist in the Azure Hills. They’re used to make spatial rings.” Her voice was slightly faint.
“Cool. Looking forward to seeing what you do with it!”
Yun Ren rose, and sauntered off, leaving Biyu to stare uncomprehendingly at what he had just left in her house.
“Yun!” she shouted after him. “Yun, you can’t just— I can’t accept—!”
“See ya later, little Owl!” he called instead, still facing away so she couldn’t see the blush on his face.
“....Thank you!” she shouted out.
He raised his arm waving her goodbye.
Yun Ren was in a good mood as he wandered the streets, skipping and humming to himself, when something caught his interest.
He hopped up onto the roof next to his brother. Gou Ren turned to him with a raised eyebrow.
“Good night?” He asked.
“Yup!” Yun Ren said cherrily. “But what about you, I thought you were tired.” he asked his brother.
Gou Ren shrugged, and tilted his piece of paper toward him. A sketch of the city.
“Got stuck in my head. Wanted to draw a bit more, before we left.” Gou Ren’s brush absently tapped the image of a tower. One he looked like he was in the process of redesigning.
Yun Ren smiled at his brother.
“Gonna need to be better at math if you’re going for architecture.” Yun Ren ribbed.
His brother didn’t rise to the bait, simply pondering things.
Ah, he was serious then.
“I’ll take a couple images for ya. Just point out which ones you want, yeah?”
His brother smiled at him, his eyes lighting up.