“Boring!” Tigu muttered as they trekked along as the sun set. “They were boring!”
Xiulan was glad that the trip to the noodle bar had been uneventful. She had been a slight bit worried, hearing Master Jin’s statement upon restaurants and cultivators had shaken her. Through her own experience, it would seem that his words rang true. How many times had she seen a fight break out, or at least start, over something in a restaurant?
“Maybe it had something to do with the giant ethereal tiger?” Junior Brother snarked. “Man looked like he was about to shit himself.”
Xiulan had felt Tigu’s intent often enough. The arrogant, furious, gaze of an apex predator deciding you were prey combined with Tigu’s own instincts. It was quite a bracing feeling.
It got the heart pumping pleasantly, and it injected just a bit of seriousness into their spars. Yet nothing came of it. Aside from the glances from the other patrons, they had been left alone to eat and no altercation had taken place.
This was much to Tigu’s disappointment. The girl had been complaining as much as Gou Ren normally did, petulant and pouty that there had been no entertainment, uncaring or oblivious to the eyes that had followed them out. Xiulan would be concerned, normally. Insulting another cultivator was sure to create a grudge, but the man had no identifying markings on him and she didn't know his name, so he likely could not retaliate.
At least the noodles had been as good as she remembered them.
“Hey, is there a reason we’re travelling with the crowd this time?” Yun Ren asked, glancing around at the throng of carts they were weaving through.
Xiulan smiled, and checked the position of the sun. She knew about where they were, and the timing should be perfect.
“Some consideration for you, Junior Brother. We’ll be leaving the road soon. At that hill there,” she informed him.
Yun Ren’s eyes sharpened, intrigued at her lack of answer, but he obligingly followed after her.
They turned off the road where she said they would and trekked up the hill. The sky darkened, dyeing itself with the colours of sunset.
They crested the grassy hill, and gazed upon the Dueling Peaks.
Two mountains stood tall and proud, jutting into the sky. Near mirrors of each other in height and width.
Perhaps, once, long ago, it had been one mountain. Perhaps some ancient cultivator had cleaved it in two, but there were no records of it. Just the two sheer faces pointing towards each other. Ropes spanned the gap, and from them hundreds of flags and pendants fluttered in the wind. They flew the symbols of the attending sects, merchant trading companies, and the flags of the Crimson Phoenix Empire itself.
And on the ground, in between the two mountains was the Earthy Arena, silhouetted by the setting sun. This time of year it was framed perfectly in between the twin peaks, as the last golden rays disappeared behind the horizon. It cast the town and buildings and caravans that sprawled out from the base of the mountain in sharp relief. The grass below them, dyed orange and gold by the light, swayed in ripples as the wind blew, tousling their hair, and soothing some of the fading sun’s bite.
The most important cultural center for the cultivators of the Azure Hills. It was striking in its beauty, and even from this far away, they could feel the charged atmosphere, and the Qi that there was in this land. The most she had felt since leaving Fa Ram.
Xiulan had always enjoyed this view. She knew few who did not comment at least once upon the beauty of the framed sunset. The Framed Sun Sect was even said to have based their cultivation style on this ancient mount, and the way that it held the sun between the two peaks.
There was the chiming of a crystal. An awed squeak from Ri Zu. TTigu’s eyes sparkled in the light, and Gou Ren was just staring, his lips slowly forming into a smile.
“Thanks for the view, Lanlan,” Yun Ren whispered.
After a little while they descended into the town around the Dueling Peaks.And to their accommodations for the evening.
“Does your sect own this place or somethin’?” Gou Ren asked, trying not to gawk at the intricate architecture and carved reliefs that decorated the pillars outside. It was an opulent palace, in the middle of a small town.
There was gold and lacquered wood in abundance, as Gou Ren inspected one of the joint work with interest.
Xiulan shook her head, as she handed a jade slip with the symbol of her sect on it to the clerk. The man bowed as he received it, his immaculate silk robes unruffled, and his sole job to greet incoming guests. The payment would be directed to the sect accounts later, now that they were so close to the heartland. “We shall be meeting them on the morrow. The Young Mistress must be looking her best when she returns.” She said the last part with exasperation, but she was looking forward to a bath.
“Master, Mistresses, follow this servant, if it pleases you,” one of the attendants said, bowing in servitude, and holding out an arm to the room she had booked. They were silent as ghosts, trained to be barely seen, and heard less. A rather plain looking woman, her face impassive.
Xiulan nodded along, as she held a letter out to another servant, a message informing her father that she would be meeting him tomorrow.
It was rather amusing, how awkward her companions looked. Both of her Junior Brothers had their heads swiveling around, taking in the opulent building as they ascended the stairs. Gou Ren even thanked the female servant, which typically wasn’t done in this sort of establishment. The woman startled, and raised her sleeves to cover her mouth, her face red.
Gou Ren didn’t notice, already walking into the room with interest.
“We shall require no further attendance besides the food tonight,” Xiulan instructed the woman, who jerked her eyes away from Junior Brother’s behind, nodding rapidly.
“Do you not need the bath heated, Mistress?” the woman asked, and Xiulan shook her head.
“We shall do that ourselves.”
The woman nodded, bowing to the will of her customer.
Xiulan examined the room. Four large beds, as well as a room to bathe in, stocked with some oils and soaps. There was a small balcony, able to be open to the night air, but shielded from view.
Soon enough Xiulan was sighing in contentment. The bath had been heated, and after a quick scrub down with the heated water, she was allowing Ri Zu to do her work. There was a slight tingling, as the needles entered her back.
Ri Zu had learned from Senior Sister well.
‘Pull up, yes, like that!’ Ri Zu instructed Tigu, as the girl rolled Xiulan’s ankle. ‘Any spot that catches?’
Tigu shook her head. “Everything moves perfectly!” she declared.
‘Ri Zu was not expecting much change anyway. Master made sure of our bodies’ conditions before we left!’ The rat stated, as she gently removed the needles, nodding.
Xiulan settled into the bath, warmed through Qi, and let out another breath as Tigu leaned back against Xiulan’s chest.
Too bad they didn’t have any of Master Jin’s branches. She had grown fond of the feeling, and they did wonders for circulation. Instead, she contented herself with looking up at the mountain, as Tigu allowed Ri Zu to use her hand as a platform, the rat fastidiously scrubbing herself clean as she always did.
Xiulan sighed, and got out the scented oils, as well as the soaps, and began the process of cleaning her own hair. Tigu helped, but it was an involved process.
She normally had help with it. Tigu was liable to start poking her in the side, or begin to chatter about how interesting the mountain looked. A far cry from the silent girls who attended to the Young Mistress, speaking in whispers if they had to talk at all.
And Tigu took entirely too much delight in seeing if she could tickle her, when she washed Xiulan’s back.
She was also considerably less understanding when Xiulan pinned her down and exacted revenge.
Xiulan was still grinning at the pouting Tigu as they exited the bath, their hair still damp.
“Geez. You two splash out all the water?” Gou Ren demanded, turning around to glare at them. And staring at them oddly.
“…that robe is way too small for you,” he grunted, his face a bit red.
Xiulan glanced down at her robe. Indeed, it was… But neither of the brothers were gazing at her as they once did.
She chuckled at Yun Ren, who was gazing at the table, and muttering “Biyu, Biyu!” to himself.
She pulled the robe closed a bit more, out of consideration.
“I require some assistance, Junior Brother,” she asked, and held out a comb.
Gou Ren sighed, but obligingly got up.
“Seriously? First my brother, then my mom, then Meimei and Meihua…” he grumbled. “I never had any time for my own hair!”
His skilled hands worked through her locks, then Tigu’s, and then, to his exasperation, Ri Zu’s fur.
They ate the meal the servants brought to them, talking and laughing together. The Xong brothers argued about something that wasn’t important, but she took Gou Ren’s side anyway.
That night, when they went to sleep… Tigu was once more her companion.
Xiulan yawned, and pulled the smaller girl close.
I hefted the last sack into the loaded cart.
“Everybody ready?” I asked. The rooster, the snake, and the rabbit all nodded.
I nodded back, and turned to the ones who would see us off.
“Take care of Meimei for me, ‘kay?” I joked to the lad. Little Xian nodded resolutely, while his sister rolled her eyes. Pops looked similarly amused.
Chunky chortled at his enthusiasm, before nudging the boy. His eyes lit up, and they both dashed off.
“Got the list?” she asked, and I nodded, holding up our ‘shopping list.’
“Then have a good trip, my dear husband.”
She smiled at me, and the whole world contracted to just her.
Our lips met in a goodbye kiss, and it wasn’t particularly chaste, judging by the way pops coughed.
We both stuck our tongues out at him.
“See you soon, Meimei,” I told my wife.
“Come back safely, Jin,” she agreed.
I still had a silly little grin as I got behind the cart’s bar, and hefted.
Three hundred bags of Qi-dried rice. 12 tons wasn’t too bad, when you got down to it.
The cart rocked into motion, as the disciples on top of the cart bowed to those they were leaving behind.
One foot in front of the other, to Pale Moon Lake.
Gotta find parts for a still, repair a crystal, and see what those guys who were looking for me were all about. The Magistrate said that their accents were from the south, so Pale Moon lake was probably the best place to start.
I was a bit nervous about it… but, well, if they were using normal dudes, it might be because I forgot to pay a tax or something. Hopefully, anyway.