Xiulan’s clothes shimmered in the light. Her skin was pale and flawless, like she hadn’t been out in the sun for the entire summer. Her lips were red and inviting. Her hair was braided immaculately, silky locks that otherwise cascaded down her back.
It was a production. An image projected… but she didn’t mind this one. This one was real. Not a mask that had been put on for a falsehood.
It looked right.
She turned from the mirror to her companions. Yun Ren was just staring out the window, while Tigu and Ri Zu were looking intently at the drawings Junior Brother was doing, leaning over his shoulder as he muttered something about arches.
“I shall be two hours or so in making my report,” she informed them. “I shall go alone at first, and things shall progress from there.”
Yun Ren looked up from the window. “So we just wait around here then?” he asked, and she shook her head.
“Why would that be? To be cooped up in here and waiting wouldn’t be productive. The tournament truly begins tomorrow, but there is still much to experience today. I shall come find you, when I am finished.”
Her friends all glanced at each other, and shrugged.
“See ya later then.” Gou Ren waved at her. “Good Luck with your Sect stuff.”
Xiulan’s lips quirked into a small smile.
“I will see you all soon,” she declared, as she descended from the room, her swords floating openly behind her.
“Good Morning, Honoured Custom…er…” The woman at the front counter paused mid-bow as she beheld Xiulan. Her eyes widened in awe, and her mouth opened slightly. “Demon Slaying Orchid…” she whispered to herself.
“The accommodations were excellent. My compliments to the Master of the establishment,” she said, as she turned for the entrance.
“Ah… um… Yes, Lady Cai! Thank you for your words, Lady Cai!” she managed to get out, as Xiulan exited the inn.
The streets were already bustling in the early morning light, yet she found none that impeded her path. The people in the streets parted as if they were water before a ship. Whispers of “Demon-Slaying Orchid” followed her as walked toward the mountain. Some eyes were awed. Some eyes were narrowed in concentration, as they watched her.
Her pace was calm and unhurried. The stares…. they didn’t matter.
It was actually rather nice, walking through the town, smelling the cooking fires that made delicacies from all over the Azure Hills.
But her leisurely walk did not last forever.
A group approached her, wearing the colours of her sect. They walked openly and with purpose, heading towards her, with one man in the lead.
“We pay our respects to the Young Mistress!” they shouted as one, their fists clasped in front of them. Their leader, Bolin, who had joined the sect a mere year after she awakened her cultivation, offered her the deepest one.
“I have returned. It is good to see you all again,” she said, and meant it.
They looked like they had been doing well.
Xiulan inclined her head, and the group formed up around her, allowing her to lead as she followed the path.
The one who walked closest to her spoke.
“Did you have a good trip, Young Mistress?” Bolin asked. Older than her, at any rate, yet he was still “Junior Brother.” He had previously been one of her tails, before she had lost him.
“It was quite the adventure.” she stated simply, gracing him with a smile. “What about you, Junior Brother? I do hope it wasn’t spent entirely in the wilderness, or being sent on errands for the Elders…”
She hoped Bolin hadn’t been searching for her the entire time, or heavens forbid, been punished. She could not admit that she had evaded their eyes on purpose. Such a thing would be tantamount to admitting that she was hiding something, and acting like she didn’t know what they had been doing gave them both some cover.
A branch of peace.
Bolin smiled at her, accepting her reconciliation. “Thank you for your concern, Young Mistress, but all was well.” He probably hadn’t spent too long looking for her after she disappeared. He would perform the task his elder set for him… but no one could blame him for losing the Young Mistress that eclipsed his cultivation. “We had much work to do though. The Plum Blossom’s Shadow… it is a wily new player, and we’ve had our hands quite full.”
Xiulan filed that away for later, as they approached the gates of the compound.
“The Elders wish for a private audience immediately,” he stated simply. “They’re a bit upset that you cut it so close, and Elder Yi is Elder Yi.”
“Thank you for the warning.” It was quite kind of him to give her that much.
Bolin accepted her thanks, moving forward as the rest to open the enormous, heavy gate to the courtyard for her. He paused, turning back to her.
“Was it worth it?” Bolin asked.
Xiulan did not even have to think. She turned directly to face him. “Yes.”
Bolin let out a pleased breath, and bowed his head.
The gates opened.
“We Pay Our Respects to the Young Mistress!” The members of the sect shouted as she passed the gates.
Lined on either side of the path were all who had made the journey to the Dueling Peaks.
The older members of her sect, who looked at her with pride. Those who had stalled in the first stage of the Initiate’s realm, never to rise higher.
Her Junior Brothers and Sisters, who had asked for entrance to their Sect. Who wished to follow the path of her ancestors. They now bowed to her, overjoyed at her return.
The mortals, and the servants, slightly behind them. Some of the servants she had known since she was first aware of her surroundings. Mortals that had served the Verdant Blade Sect for untold generations.
The street-sweeper Tao. The kindly old grandmother, who had once snuck her sweets.
But… she did not truly know that much about them, did she? They looked so happy to see her, and she had repaid them poorly for their devotion. Rarely were they allowed entrance to the heart of the sect, but they did perform most of the vital duties.
They were only slightly larger than Hong Yaowu, weren’t they?
Yet she knew another village better than those who were her own people.
It was a slightly sobering thought. But one that sounded right. Her people.
Her head held high she entered the Elders’ chamber. The Elders were sitting on their knees on cushions, watching her intently as she bowed her head to them in greeting.
“Cai Xiulan pays her respects to the Elders of the Verdant Blade,” she stated, raising her head and meeting the gazes of her elders. The mood was tense. Her father’s gaze was searching, but he was relieved to see her. Her appearance seemed to be calming them down as well, now that they laid eyes upon her.
Elder Yi was outright glowering.
“Cutting it close, my daughter,” her father said, looking mildly amused. “But I have never known you to be late. Are you all satisfied with this, brothers?” he asked the room.
“Indeed. The Verdant Blade’s Dutiful Daughter is ever reliable,” Elder Han stated, stroking his beard, and nodding.
Some of the tension drained. There were a few amused smiles, but most seemed satisfied that she was among them.
All except Elder Yi.
“I am satisfied that she is here… but… where have you been, Young Mistress?,” he rumbled, his face a soft smile, but his eyes sharp. “After such accolades, one would expect you to continue racking up merit, and for your name to continue to spread. But after Grass Sea City,there was a remarkable lack of news.”
Her father frowned at Elder Yi. Ever ambitious Elder Yi, as some muttering broke out among the other elders.
One might think her growth would be something to celebrate… but her success had always left the man’s son in her shadow. A frustrating fact for the ambitious Elder Yi.
After she had returned from Fa Ram for the first time it had grown even worse.
Her eyes narrowed slightly.
“Well, do you have an answer for us, Young Mistress?” He asked.
“Yi!” Her father began to rebuke, but another of her Elders spoke up.
“I must confess some interest as well,” he said idly. “And if you have found any more of that rice.”
There were more nods. Her father glared. But even he could not completely shut down all other Elders if they wished to know.
All of the elders had their attention upon her.
Perhaps at one time she would have stumbled over her words to explain herself.
Now, she felt no such urge. To Elder Yi, she was still so far below him, he still had authority over her.
None of them were truly trying to see. They assumed she would still be at the fourth stage of the initiate’s realm, after all, it took decades of careful effort to grow.
So she enlightened them.
She let out a breath, as her own power swelled. It filled the room. Her father’s jaw dropped. Elder Yi’s eyes widened, as he coughed.
“I have been in deep meditation and training with a Hidden Master,” she stated simply. “Is that not sufficient?”
There was silence, as they digested her strength.
“My Honourable father, our Sect Master, knew my intentions, for he wished not to be disturbed.”
“So, what did this hidden master get in return for this generosity?” Elder Yi asked leadingly.
Xiulan frowned at the insinuation.
“My purity is intact, if that is what you are asking,” she shot back. She brought out the jar of Maple Syrup, and placed it upon the table. Once more there was a shocked silence, as the elders beheld the simple glazed clay bottle. The simple unassuming bottle that was so full of Qi.
“He wishes for an amicable relationship with us. And that we take care of his disciples, while they are here.” All knew that Hidden Masters were the greatest allies, or most terrible enemies. She would like to have kept the syrup for herself.. But she knew it would bring Jin his peace.
There were noises of interest. It was much more understandable, that a man was asking for a favour from them.
Even though he was not. Even though a reward for this was not on his mind.
“So you have gained us a new ally, Cai Xiulan,” Elder Han said, stroking his beard, and staring at the syrup. His eyes were focused completely upon it, as he took short breaths, tasting the scent that made him swallow, for his mouth was watering. Even Elder Yi could barely keep his eyes off the prize.
“He wishes for his seclusion, but he is willing to sell his goods to us. We should keep such things quiet, should we not, to retain access to them?” Xiulan asked, putting it to the Elder’s decision.
There was another set of nods. Elder Han laughed at the thought.
“Indeed my daughter,” Cai Xi Kong stated, smiling at her. “In fact, brothers, should my daughter, who already has a good relationship with our mysterious master, continue it? It would bring us great things, would it not?”
The Elders stared at the bottle of syrup, and one by one, they nodded.
Even Elder Yi, as grudging as it was.
“And so it shall be. We shall all show respect to the disciples of this Hidden Master,” her father said, smiling at her. “But now, we must discuss our strategy for the tournament. My daughter, I would like to hear your insights…. “
Xiulan grimaced internally and then nodded.
She hoped everyone else was having a much better time than she was.
Gou Ren was not having a particularly good time. Oh, it had started well enough. The town/city place was incredibly interesting. The countless thousands of sights and smells had been intoxicating. It was like the festival at Verdant Hill, yet a thousand times more.
They had perused the stalls, and eaten some food, and generally had a good time… until the crowds started getting worse. Then Gou Ren had stopped, because a scroll had caught his eye, and when he looked up again, everybody was gone.
So now Gou Ren was wandering idly through the streets of the market, searching for his brother and Tigu. He had already doubled back a few times.
He snorted, irritated, as he pushed through the people. Lots of silk clothes here, but for the most part, there were actually a lot of normal people. Certainly more than the cultivators he had seen, they all seemed to be gravitating toward the mountain.
Gou Ren shook his head in frustration, as he decided to get out of the crowded area, and press into a side street. They had been travelling closer to the mountain, so maybe they were this way…?
He was studying the crowd, when he noticed an old man who was walking backwards, looking around, a bit confused. He turned, and started to walk, not really looking where he was going… and went right into the path of a woman in a blue dress with a cloud pattern on it.
The old man fell, shocked at the sudden resistance, and kicked up a bit of dust.
Gou Ren frowned, as the woman put her hands on her hips, glowering down at the fallen grandfather.
“Look what you got dirty, old man,” the woman sneered. “Wandering around with your head in the clouds… You’re courting death!”
She reached for the old man, and Gou Ren’s blood ran cold. Bad stories Meimei had told about cultivators swirled unpleasantly.
Wait, was she actually about to—?
His body began to move as she grasped the back of the old man’s robe, her eyes disdainful. She lifted him into the air—
And set him back down, as she began to strike the dirt from his robes.
“Look at this! You court death, gawking as you do! Foolish, impudent! You dare to not pay attention in this place?”
Just as she spoke, a cart rolled out. If the old man hadn’t bumped into the woman he probably would have gotten run over.
The man seemed utterly bewildered, and began to try and bow awkwardly, as the woman’s hands swiftly danced over her hoops, checking a bit like Meimei did for any contusions.
“Thank you, Young Miss—” The man tried, and the beautiful woman harrumphed
“Hpmh! Never act this way in my sight again, or beyond! You might die if you continue to act in such a way! Your bones would be shattered, your organs ruptured, and you would die unmourned in a ditch!”
Gou Ren stared at the scene, as the woman pushed the old man on his way.
There was almost certainly a better way for all that to have been said. The woman watched the old man go… and then turned back to the crowd, pointing at Gou Ren. Her storm-grey eyes were narrowed in anger, and her red lips pulled into a scowl.
“And you! Who are you to gaze upon me with such eyes?!” She raised a haughty brow. “Show yourself!”
Gou Ren stepped forward. “Ah… sorry. A bit of a misunderstanding, miss,” he apologised.
The woman glared at him, lingering for a moment at the edges of his open shirt as her face went slightly red.
“Oh, what manner of ill thoughts did you have?”
“…I thought you were gonna hurt him,” he muttered, deciding on the truth. She couldn’t be too bad if she had done that, could she?
“Oho? And you would have stood against me if that was the case?” she sneered.
“Yeah,” Gou Ren said bluntly.
The woman paused. She seemed taken aback by his words. She bit her lip as she stared at his face. She was nearly as tall as he was, with a willowy figure, a sword strapped to her waist, and a strange contraption on her back, that at first he had mistaken for a pack.
“…You are a fool twice over for your words! I don’t hate it! Liu Xianghua, The Young Mistress of the Misty Lake Sect, approves of your foolishness!”
“Xiulan’s friend?” he blurted out.
The woman recoiled as if he had just slapped her.
“Friend?! I, who ascended to the fourth step of the initiate’s realm to challenge her once more?! Nay, we are fated rivals! Our battle will be legendary!” She posed at that, one hand on her hip, and a fist raised to the sky. “Naturally, I shall emerge victorious. And who are you, to know me through the Blade of Grass?!” She demanded.
“Her um... friend…? Xong Gou Ren. Nice to meet you?”
He bowed to the strange woman.
She stared at him, her head cocked to the side.
“…uh. Listen, I gotta find my friends, so…..bye?” He managed, backing away.
“I see!” the woman declared, and quickly fell into step beside him.
Gou Ren glanced at her nervously.
“I shall aid you, of course,” she stated, refusing to look at him.