The meeting with the Elders had gone on for longer than Xiulan would have liked. After the discussion of the tournament, they had moved on to sampling the syrup… which was a bit amusing, when her Honourable Father had groaned with pleasure.
It appeared they had something amusing in common. Though his was more a deep grumble of contentment rather than her undignified sounds.
Senior Sister said it was endearing, but Xiulan still tried to keep a tight grip on it.
“I think this concludes all that needs to be spoken of,” her father stated.
The rest of the Elders nodded.
“Then this meeting is adjourned. Bring the Hidden Master’s disciples to be introduced. Tomorrow, we shall make the name “Verdant Blade” resound throughout the Azure Hills once more.”
The Elders nodded in agreement. Satisfied smiles upon their faces.
The meeting was then adjourned, and Xiulan dismissed.
She walked out of the building, thinking upon what had transpired. She would likely be made an Elder for this, but she was still a bit concerned about Elder Yi. Should she bring her friends to her Sect’s manor here?
She was startled from her introspection by a hopeful voice. She raised her head to gaze upon a familiar face.
An Ran, one of the disciples that she had personally taught. Behind her stood several others. Those chosen for the tournament… surprisingly, most of them were her once-students.
She felt a small welling of pride at that. They had taken what she had said to heart, focusing on improving themselves.
“Junior Sister, it is good to see you.Your stance has improved!” she complimented. “To see you all in good spirits is a blessing.”
The disciples perked up at her words, relief flooding them.
“We just wished to welcome you back, Senior Sister. And to thank you for your guidance.”
To think that she had been annoyed training them. What sort of teacher would be angry about eager students?
Perhaps it was from the looks they were giving her, so full of awe. The admiration had felt undeserved before. A stinging betrayal of the memory of those who fell.
It was different now.
Their eyes did not make her feel bile climbing her throat. Instead, she felt calm.
Xiulan smiled at them, and there was a little intake of breath from the diciples. The meeting had gone on for a while, but there was still time before she had to return .
“Thank you for greeting me, Junior Brothers and Sisters. I’m honoured to have such diligent Juniors. Would you do me the honour of showing me how far you’ve grown?”
The junior disciples brightened, scrambling to get their swords, as she moved to await them in the arena.
She noted in all of them an undercurrent of tension, and a bit of a lack of focus. Worry, nervousness, fear lay upon their minds.
They were happy to see her, yet tense, and unfocused.
She would have to rectify that.
Their training began, yet… there was something different about it. Before, she still had to focus upon her movements. She still had to consider herself.
Now, her body flowed. She could devote all her time and effort to her students, to move their bodies, and make them batter. A little tap here. A small shift there.
Her students were silent, as they watched with wide eyes.
A sword clattered to the ground.
“You have improved, An Ran,” Xiulan complimented. “The holes in your defence have closed, and your increasing skill shows your diligence.”
“Thank you for your pointers, Senior Sister!” the girl shouted, bowing to her.
She stared around the ring at the hopeful disciples. “All of you have grown. Be proud of your accomplishments.”
The disciples smiled at each other.
“Senior Sister, do you have any advice for us?” one of her students asked. His voice was nervous.
“Go into this tournament with your mind upon your future growth, rather than your current limitations. This tournament is but another lesson, and what you learn from it is the true prize.”
The disciples nodded, their gazes considering. A bit of strange advice, rather than “show the sect’s strength,” she supposed.
However, it was something they needed to hear. The tension was slightly less, and hearing that she was satisfied with their growth calmed their nerves.
An Ran especially was considering what she said, her brow furrowed.
“Now, I must go, but I shall be back tonight. Meditate, rest, for it would do you no good to hurt yourself before the tournament.”
The Disciples chorused their assent. Satisfied with what she had accomplished, Xiulan returned to the town at the feet of the Dueling Peaks.
“See him?” Yun Ren shouted at Tigu from her position standing on his shoulders.
“No!” she called back, before hopping down onto the road with a frown. She bit her lip, as her eyes searched fruitlessly.
The day had started well enough, after Xiulan had left. They had decided to go to the outskirts, and then work their way in, which had been a bit of a mistake.
Honestly, there were actually a lot more people than Yun Ren was expecting here. Merchant caravans poured in, erecting pop-up shops or stalls. The roads were a whirlwind of activity… but everybody seemed to be concentrated in the outskirts. The only people he saw walking towards the mountain were those with nicer clothes.
But that was mostly irrelevant at the moment.
Yun Ren raised an eyebrow at Tigu, who caught his eye for a moment, before studiously looking away, pretending like she was still searching the crowd.
“Tigu,” he said, and the girl slumped a little, turning to face him directly, her head held high, but resigned.
‘This is Ri Zu’s fault. She smelled medicinal herbs this way.’ The rat’s nose was poking out of Tigu’s shirt, and her hands were wringing together.
“No, I disobeyed the Master’s orders, and got too excited,” Tigu muttered, as the two of them looked at him.
Yun Ren sighed, and tugged at his ponytail. He didn’t do scolding. He left that to Meimei. But here he was, the arbiter of justice as Tigu looked incredibly guilty.
It was kind of annoying that she’d done it. But he had seen the signs and chased after her, stopping outside a shop closer to the mountain. She had been a bit embarrassed then… And then even more so when Yun Ren realised that his brother wasn’t right behind them.
Even retracing their steps hadn’t turned him up, which is when Tigu went from slightly guilty to worried and ashamed.
Yun Ren chopped his hand into Tigu’s head. The girl blinked curiously at the light blow.
“Are you gonna do it again?” he asked.
“No, I shall not,” Tigu stated with conviction. Having something unfortunate happen often got lessons to stick, so he probably wouldn’t have to keep too much of an eye on her.
“Then there's no sense worrying about it. Gou is gonna be fine.”
“Indeed! Our fellow disciple is more than a match for any challenge!” Tigu said, reassuring herself.
Yun Ren pondered for a moment.
“You mentioned smell, Ri Zu, do you have anything?” he asked. The rat sniffed the air, and shook her head with a grimace.
‘Too many people, that even Disciple Gou Ren’s smell does not stand out,’ Ri Zu squeaked at him.
Yun Ren sighed again.
Their search was largely fruitless, so they continued their walk through the overcrowded outskirts, to the less crowded streets, and eventually to the restaurant.
“My friends!” They heard a shout, and Yun Ren turned. They had found Xiulan before his brother. She looked a little tired, and her eyes searched for Gou.
Yun Ren shrugged, as Tigu tried to hide behind him.
“He’s probably at the meeting spot,” Yun Ren explained.
Xiulan nodded, looking a little concerned, as they turned to the restaurant. It was a more opulent place, like the inn, but for some reason, most of the seating was out the back, in little gazebos.
Yun Ren breathed a sigh of relief as he saw his brother’s back. Then he saw that his brother was sitting with someone.
A woman that was leaning forward slightly, her eyes fixed on his dear baby brother. A true classical beauty that obviously wasn't a server judging by the quality of her dress.
Tigu’s eyes widened happily as she saw Gou Ren, and made to rush off to greet their wayward companion. But a hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“Eh?” Tigu asked.
Yun Ren shook his head, smiling proudly at the scene. There was a brief urge to let Tigu gear up for a tackling hug in front of the woman Gou Ren had just met… but Yun Ren was a kind and generous brother.
Which is when the last person he expected to ruin things stepped forward.
“And that is how I defeated the Young Master of The Azure Sky Sect!” Xianghua boasted, as she finished her story. “I threw some medicine at his feet and pitied him for his weakness! He was most incensed! His face went as red as a cherry! It was the Blade of Grass that taught me that insult!”
Gou Ren nodded, surprisingly engrossed. He was still a little unsure of what to make of the girl. They had wandered around together for a little, until Gou Ren got tired of searching, and went to the restaurant they had said they would meet up at.
He assumed that the girl would leave after that, but instead, she had sat down with him, and out of politeness, Gou Ren had started trying to make conversation.
Conversation that had somehow ended up with her telling a story about how she defeated somebody last month in a battle.
And then fixed him up, which made him angry for some reason? As angry as she was when Xiulan “went easy on her” the last time they fought.
Gou Ren really didn’t get cultivators. Xianghua described every act of decency she did as an insult.
“What about yourself, Xong Gou Ren, what manner of martial exploits have you?” she suddenly asked, as if she had just realised she had been the only one talking for the better part of an hour.
Gou Ren was about to say none. But if Xiulan was her “eternal rival…”
“I kicked Xiulan into the river once,” he said, joking. The woman’s eyes widened.
“You landed a blow upon Cai Xiulan?” she stated, shifting around the bench they were sitting on slightly, and getting closer to him. Her eyes were wide and impressed.
“Ah, no it was… kind of a surprise attack…?” he floundered. She took that the wrong way.
Instead, she seemed more impressed.
“Perhaps, after the tournament, we shall trade pointers sometime…?” she asked leadingly.
Gou Ren shrugged. It would be a bit like sparring with Xiulan, right—
“Liu Xianghua,” Xiulan said blandly. “What are your intentions with my Junior Brother?”
Gou Ren turned around. Xiulan was right beside him, while Yun Ren was further back, looking apologetic for some reason.
He felt a hand touch his arm.
“I am merely speaking with your Junior Brother, Cai Xiulan.” Xianghua stated, a smirk in her voice. “You act like I shall steal him away~!”
Xiulan frowned, and her eyes narrowed.
“Oh? That is a fantastic expression, Cai. I hope to see it more often.” The woman abruptly stood. “It was adequate meeting you, Xong Gou Ren. But your companions have arrived, and I cannot stand to stay in this woman’s presence until I have defeated her!”
“I shall see you at the tournament, Cai Xiulan!” she declared in a loud voice, drawing the attention of everyone in the restaurant, before leaving in a storm of silk.
Gou Ren raised an eyebrow, before shrugging. A bit dramatic, that.
“Took you guys long enough,” he grumbled, as they sat down. His brother shrugged, while Tigu started mumbling out apologies.
Xiulan, on the other hand, looked annoyed.
“Steal him away?” she grumbled. “You can do much better than that woman, Junior Brother! I’ll warn her off bothering you.”
Gou Ren raised an eyebrow at the declaration, but Xiulan was deep in thought.
“An Ran perhaps…? She has a much better disposition…”
Gou Ren looked to his brother, who just raised his hands helplessly.