“So, you gonna meet up with her again?” Yun Ren asked after a mouthful of food. His smile was wide. “We saw some places you could take her. Need my help again?”
He looked entirely too amused.
Surprisingly, it was Xiulan who answered, even as Disciple Gou Ren’s brow furrowed in irritation.
“Junior Brother can do much better. Xianghua is too… too…” She seemed to struggle with her words. Like she couldn’t quite find anything truly wrong with her.
Tigu didn’t know why. Was not their goal to aid their junior brother? He seemed quite comfortable with the woman, so they must have enjoyed each other's company.
She was able to challenge Xiulan. Sure, she had lost in the end, but so had Tigu! She might be worthy!
“I think it shall be a fine idea!” Tigu declared. Xiulan shot her a look of betrayal.
Hmph! They were rivals, and the Blade of Grass thought she would match her desires? How impudent! If she backed this contender, she already had a head start!
Gou Ren sighed.
“Where are we headed next?” he said, changing the subject.
“Registration,” Xiulan said authoritatively. “While my sect handles things for me, Tigu needs to reserve her place for tomorrow.” She seemed glad for the change in subject.
“We shall accomplish this… and anything else, before I introduce you to my sect.” She said the last part nervously.
‘Then herb shops?’ Ri Zu requested.
“Of course! I know several places,” Xiulan replied.
They finished their meal, and set off into the wide avenues.
“It’s arranged a bit like Pale Moon Lake, with the rings,” Disciple Gou Ren noted, as they got closer to the mountain.
“Yes. It is a bit of an unofficial rule, that the mortals stay in their ring, until the Earthly Arena opens its gates,” Xiulan explained. “It is the common folk, the rich merchants… And then the cultivators.”
Tigu looked around with interest. There were lots of walled compounds, and they all had symbols and colours presented proudly upon their closed gates but… Well, Tigu might have been expecting a bit more.
It looked mostly like the city. There weren’t any fights breaking out, or people challenging each other.
The people, however, were much more colourful than even the noble city folk, wearing long silk robes, or standing around with their weapons on full display.
Yet there was something off.
“Why is it so quiet?” Tigu asked.
“Last minute preparations,” the Blade of Grass stated, “Most will be within their compounds, in meditation, or receiving instruction. However, as the tournament progresses, things tend to become a bit looser.”
“One big party, huh?” Yun Ren asked.
“I suppose. I have never attended. Xianghua tried to drag me out, once, but I needed to train more.” Xiulan trailed off and shrugged.
Disciple Yun Ren and Gou Ren looked at each other and nodded. The grins they sported spoke of mischief.
They continued walking to the mountain. Built into the side of it was their destination, an enormous stone vault with the character for “Azure” carved into it.
“Here we are. While Tigu is doing this, there are some interesting carvings, said to have been done by the First Emperor—” Xiulan started, but before she could finish Tigu interrupted. She was too excited. She was ready. She could not wait to be in this room!
Tigu squared her shoulders, straightened her back, and pushed open the doors.
“I am here to join the tournament!” She announced herself, her voice booming off the vaulted ceiling.
There was a pause, as everybody turned to look at her. The room wasn’t very full. There were a few people, all hunched over desks, and several official looking men with veils over their faces.
She heard Xiulan snort from behind her, and amused noises from the brothers.
She had expected some manner of preliminary bout, or tough looking masters, gazing down upon her.
Instead, they all looked a bit like Uncle Xian.
One of the men coughed politely.
Tigu turned her attention to him.
“Number three can see you, miss,” the nasal voice told her.
Tigu nodded, and turned to where he was pointing.
“Ah. Thanks,” Tigu said, as she approached. The man seemed pleasantly surprised, as he took a piece of chalk and marked something on a board on his desk.
“…I am here to register,” she informed man number three.
He nodded politely, and deposited a stack of paper before her.
It was rather large.
“It is the code of conduct, young miss, as well as the necessary dispensations all Tournaments are required to include. As of the Cloudy Sky Decree, issued in the five thousandth, one hundredth, and sixty seventh year of the Crimson Phoenix Empire.”
Tigu stared at the papers.
“Thank you. I shall fill these out.”
She picked up the stack of papers.
The door banged open.
“I, Zang Wei, Have come to register for the tournament!” A voice boomed off the walls.
Everybody turned to look at the boy. His face went a bit red.
There was a polite cough, and the boy turned to the man at the front.
“...Number four can see you, sir,” the nasal voice stated, as he sent the boy on his way.
The man at the front made another mark on his tablet.
In accordance with the previous statements this body shall require all contestants to maintain a…
Tigu’s finger paused at the courtly character.
‘Virtuous bearing. That character is rare. They mostly use this,’ Ri Zu squeaked, as she looked at the paper. Her little finger traced the character on Tigu’s neck. One Tigu recognised.
“Thanks,” she muttered, and got back to reading.
This whole registration business was a chore. And not the fun kind of chore, like sleeping on—guarding the sheep, or even Ri Zu’s lessons. This was just a bunch of boring reading and writing.
Who knew tournaments needed so much paperwork? She could almost hear Pi Pa chiding her that of course such an undertaking would require much accounting.
The man who had given her this actually seemed a bit surprised that she was sitting down to fully read it. The other guy just signed everything and left, the fool.
She would not shirk from this. Mistress and Pi Pa had told her to read everything she was given before she signed anything.
She had already messed up once today, running ahead of Yun Ren like she had promised not to, so she sat and read everything.
No killing, unless it was by accident. No assaulting the spectators, once this form was signed all fights would be confined to designated areas…
Most of them seemed fairly straight forward. There was even a place where fighters could go and receive a free meal, “Courtesy of Chao Baozi”.
Tigu stretched after reading the last portion. She made sure everything was in order, affixing her signature to the documents, and returned to the front.
The man examined the documents, and nodded. He reached into his desk, and brought out a token, handing it over.
“Here is your jade token. Do not lose it. As the official gong sounds tomorrow, bring it to the western entrance. At the fourth gong, the gates will close, and the judging will start. If you are not here by then, you will be disqualified. Do you understand everything you have been told?” the man with the veil covering his face droned on, like he had said the same speech far too many times already.
Tigu nodded her head, and took the jade piece. It was about the size of her palm, bright green and carved with the image of the Dueling Peaks.
“We wish you luck in the tournament tomorrow, Rou Tigu. May the heavens favour you.” And with that, she was dismissed. Her fellow disciples were all waiting for her. Gou Ren was drawing in his scroll again, while Yun Ren held his crystal in one hand. He was swapping his thumb over it, an interested look on his face, as the images hovered slightly above it. He was sweating slightly, intent and concentrating, as Xiulan watched.
“That took a while,” Xiulan said, as she looked up “Was there a problem?” Tigu shook her head, and held up the token. Ri Zu had disappeared back down her shirt.
“Well then, this way to the Medicinal herbs,” Xiulan decreed, as they stepped out into the air once more.
It was late afternoon, as they headed back to the merchant’s quarter. The building they came to was large and stately. It smelled like herbs, quite like the Mistress, if Tigu was honest.
Ri Zu squealed with excitement, as they entered the shop. Only her little head peaked out, her nose shaded by Tigu’s hair and sniffing excitedly. Disciple Gou Ren’s footsteps echoed as he walked on the marble floors, in contrast to the rest of their silent footsteps.
There was row, upon row, upon row of shelves, each with immaculately lacquered drawers. A pressed version of what was inside them on the front between two panes of glass.
Tigu had only seen Hong Xian’s storage before. Although it was diligently maintained, it was nothing compared to this vast room. Curiously, the air was much cooler than outside.
Tigu supposed it may have something to do with the odd crystals in the wall, blue in color, that seemed to be giving off cold air.
A sharp poke hit Tigu’s back. She rolled her eyes, and stepped forwards.
‘Hot-Touch Petals! Two Element Flower roots! Ah! Antbane Fungus!’ Her little voice chittered away as they passed each drawer. ‘Ri Zu has only read of some of these! Oh, Master will be very-very Overjoyed! Now, what are the price…es…’ Ri Zu trailed off.
She stared at the sign with the prices. Tigu stared at it too.
…were those numbers in the right place? It seemed like there were one or two too many.
Tigu pulled open her coin pouch, and checked the amount. That… Was basically everything they had, if they wanted to buy what Ri Zu wanted.
Ri Zu looked in the pouch, and squeaked something most uncharitable about the owners of this shop.
“…this is nuts,” Yun Ren muttered, as he approached. “I thought the prices in Pale Moon Lake, City were bad, but this…” He shook his head, as Ri Zu squeaked her agreement.
“Is everything all right?” Xiulan asked.
‘Expensive!’ Ri Zu said.
Xiulan stared at the prices.
“Oh!” she said, realising their predicament. “Do not concern yourself.” She pulled out the token with the symbol of her sect on it.
“Let your Senior Sister take care of it!”
The Blade of Grass was quite insistent.
As Xiulan concluded their shopping, Yun Ren chewed his lip waiting near the front of the shop.
“We can’t have her buy us everything,” Yun Ren muttered, staring out of the large window.
Tigu shrugged, not seeing the problem. “She is a fellow disciple, is she not?” Tigu asked, looking back to where Xiulan was speaking with a man in fine robes.
Yun Ren didn’t answer.
Tigu turned back to him. He was studying a man on the street, who handed a painting to a well-dressed lady. He had several pieces of paper beside him, and a few portraits of people’s faces. There was a list beside him, saying how much each level of detail for a portrait cost.
Yun Ren stared at the price.
Yun Ren grinned, showing all his teeth.
“So, what do you think the Young Mistress’s companions are like?” Huyi asked, as he oiled his blade.
An Ran looked up from tending to her own sword. It was a wonderful jade colour, the same as Senior Sister’s. They were seated together as they always were, the “Orchid’s Petals'' as they were called in the sect. It was a name An Ran wore with pride, but her fellows were a bit more ambivalent about it. They said it wasn’t manly enough.
Yet they still proclaimed their membership, standing above the others of the sect, and the fresh recruits, who had poured in after hearing of the Demon Slaying Orchid.
They had been hurting, with the loss of so many of their cultivators to Sun Ken, but the fresh blood ensured that the Verdant Blade would not wither.
Xi Bu pondered the question
“Powerful. Serene. Like our Senior Sister,” he decreed in his taciturn manner.
An Ran nodded her head. They surely would be. Senior Sister was a paragon of virtue. Kind, good and so beautiful. Her journey had only seen her grow even more so. Her skin like the purest Jade, her complexion soft as resin. Her eyes saw every gap in their form, every mistake and imperfection in their work. Her body flowed like a dance, as she adjusted their stances, and already An Ran felt her body move with more grace, an imperfect mirror to her Senior Sister. The little taps of Senior Sister’s foot that directed her body into the proper manner.
It was humbling and enlightening at the same time, to face such a woman. To be a part of her sect and receive her personal tutelage.
“I agree. They must be something special, to warrant Senior Sister’s regard,” An Ran decreed.
“Oi, oi, I think I see them!” Li shouted from his position hidden on the roof.
“Places, everybody. We must show them the hospitality of our sect,” An Ran commanded. Her fellows nodded. One must always show their best face to visitors.
She saw her Senior Sister as she entered first. Her refined features were pulled into a small, amused smile. Her blue eyes sparkled like sapphires.
She prepared to receive the guests of the Young Mistress. Those who had earned her regard—
“Ah, so this is your home, Blade of Grass?” a brash, excited, and young female voice called, staring around at the walls. A girl wearing only a too large Gi walked in, chewing on a candied peach. She had a set of markings on her cheeks, and big yellow eyes.
She was wild and tanned, unrestrained in her manners as she wandered curiously around.
The others were just as strange. A fox-faced man was giggling to himself as he patted a pouch of money. He had a scarf around his neck, and was wearing the clothes of tribesmen, of all things. How far had she travelled, to meet people from outside the Empire?!
The last was tall. His face was stern, as his eyes took in the courtyard, but his shirt was open at the front, exposing an expanse of muscle.
“Hello!” a bright and cheery voice shouted right in front of An Ran’s face. She recoiled.
The tanned girl cocked her head to the side.
“This one is Rou Tigu! I greet you, Smaller Blade of Grass!”
“We greet the Young Mistress’s honoured guests…” she managed to get out.
These were the companions of the Mistress?