An Ran and her fellows managed to recover their composure after the boisterous girl’s greeting, and led them to the prepared room.
None of her Senior Sister’s companions were what they expected. Rou Tigu, as she had introduced herself, fairly skipped along, her eyes taking in as much as she could as they walked through the courtyard to the separated entertaining room. The other two were more sedate but were obviously keeping an eye on their junior.
Huyi snorted, his dead-fish eyes on the back of the girl's head. “Reminds me of my little sister,” he drawled. Her other companions kept their thoughts to themselves, as she opened the door for their guests.
All of their eyes became interested in the interior. At the fine cushions, and lacquered tables, the room set up on a bit of a short notice to entertain them.
They entered the room, and one of her companions called for a servant to bring the food.
An Ran left the head of the table to the Young Mistress, and bowed to the honoured guests.
“We apologise that the sect Master and the Elders cannot meet you this time, they are at the dinner finalizing the tournament structure. Please, allow us to introduce ourselves further, as we are to be at your disposal tonight. This one is An Ran.”
“Hi Huyi,” he said from beside her. He was slouching a bit, so Ran would scold him later, but none of their guests seemed concerned.
“Xi Bu,” the shortest and youngest stated. He was even shorter than Tigu, but their small member had an air of quiet contemplation about him.
“Lee Li,” their last member called excitedly. His bright green, spiky hair was pulled into a ponytail, and his green Verdant Blade Uniform was a bit rumpled from his time on the roof.
“Together, we are the Orchid’s Petals,” An Ran said, bowing once more. “Please, honoured guests, if you require anything do not hesitate to ask.”
“The orchid’s petals?” Tigu asked, confused.
“I aided them in their training, and they have grown wonderfully,” the Young Mistress explained, though she seemed a little embarrassed. “So the mortals and some of the other disciples began calling them that.”
The orange haired girl perked up.
“Aha! My sparring partner’s students?! I shall show them how to land blows on you better, Blade of Grass, prepare yourself!” She declared boisterously.
An Ran recoiled at the words that passed her lips. This little girl, landing blows on the Young Mistress? Her sparring partner?!
“She lands blows on Senior Sister?” Li whispered incredulously.
The Young Mistress chuckled at the statement.
“I am sure they would appreciate your guidance, Tigu,” she smiled at all of them.“It is good to experience how others fight, and learn new movements. Tigu is a powerful foe… And a good training partner.”
An Ran saw the evaluating stares on her fellow’s faces.
“Ah! Right, I’m supposed to show you my strength!” Tigu declared.
There was a burst of Qi and intent. The Orchid’s petals froze, their sweat travelling upward on their faces from the sheer pressure. An Ran could barely breathe as she felt the vast, predatory presence gaze upon her.
As soon as it was there, it was gone.
Rather conspicuously, the two men and the Young Mistress looked unaffected.
An Ran swallowed. “We would be honoured to trade pointers with you, Young Mistress Rou.”
The girl preened, as Senior Sister shook her head with amusement. “Come, let us all sit, and relax before the tournament tonight,” she decreed.
It was a little bit awkward, at first. An Ran, at a slight nudge from Senior Sister, had ended up beside “Gou Ren”. He smiled awkwardly at her, and gave her a nod.
An Ran inclined her head slightly, as the decorum manual dictated, her face impassive. The man seemed a bit amused by it.
But the tension was still there. These unknown people, who were travelling with their Young Mistress. An Ran herself had a burning desire to know who they were.
“So… how did you end up meeting Senior Sister?” Li asked, ever quick to drop decorum. He glanced at Senior Sister, who nodded at the topic.
“Master and Mistress healed her after she collapsed from her wounds!” Tigu said, nodding her head authoritatively.
An Ran bit her lip. Senior Sister had come back looking unharmed! But… she knew it had to be the truth. Sun Ken was Sun Ken. The battle must have been truly legendary, and not even graceful Senior Sister could have escaped completely unscated.
“Yeah, she was pretty beat up.” Gou Ren stated. “What did Meimei say? Her intestines were nearly exposed? Not to mention all that demonic Qi…”
“She was better by morning though. Barely recognised her!” the fox-faced boy finished.
And how powerful was their master, to have healed the wounds and Demonic Qi in a single night? It took Ty An a bit over a week to repair a bone after it had been broken.
“Yes. Master Jin and Senior Sister saved my life,” Cai Xiulan said wistfully. “I owe them much.”
Slowly, more of the tension started to go out of the room.
Xi Bu clasped his hands in front of him. “Thank you for aiding our Young Mistress, then,” he stated, bowing. “I look forward to an honourable bout in the ring.”
The fox faced boy blinked. “Ha? Oh, it's Just Tigu in the tournament. Me and my brother are just here to watch.”
Of course, there had to be another statement that defied belief.
“You do not wish for the fame, or the pills awarded to those who go far?” Huyi asked, incredulous.
“Tigu just likes fighting,” the man beside her said with a sigh. “As for the other stuff, I don’t think we need it.”
How blunt a declaration of power! An Ran swallowed, and resolved to learn more.
Lu Ban was in an increasingly foul mood as the day progressed. He hadn’t noticed it really, the first time as he traveled through the Azure Hills. His Qi had been unstable, and leaking, and he needed all his concentration upon himself, until he stabilized enough to begin feeding again.
But now? In the carriage with its yoked spirits, carrying them tirelessly onwards, he could feel it. The lack of Qi.
It added irritation upon irritation. It scratched and gnawed, and took a small measure of his concentration to keep his Qi inside his body at times. Like the very air was attempting to drink him dry.
Though, over the course of the year, he had achieved much merit… this was still something he had to do.
“Scout the Dueling Peaks Tournament for talent.”
It was a fool’s errand. It was an insult, to be sent once more to this gods-forsaken province. When he was at the Fourth stage of the Profound realm already? They should have struck it off without him even needing to tell them.
But when he directly brought the matter to the Elders… He was rebuffed. Rebuffed with cold eyes, even as this body’s father complained to his fellows, it was set. His ‘father’ assured him that this was the last indignity he had to suffer for his “youthful indiscretion”
Youthful indiscretion now, rather than “Great Shame”.
He glared out the windows of the carriage.
Back to the Azure Hills. Back to his original stumbling block.
In his mind, he cursed his true Master for even suggesting the place for stabilizing his technique. And he had been too proud of his results to even question the man. It is safe, and you need time, were the man’s last, rasping words, before Lu Ban found himself cold and alone again.
It would have been better to climb back up the mountains, and go into the Howling Fang Mountains. It was more dangerous, yes, but at least that bastard wasn’t there.
Or perhaps it was fate conspiring against him? He had received a healthy helping of fortune after meeting his Master. Perhaps this was fate trying to balance the scales.
And that man was obviously important, to have some Expert searching for him. And willing to invade one of the Shrouded Mountain’s fortresses to interrogate a Young Master.
He told himself it had been mostly surprise that had shocked him into inaction. The man was far above himself, but he likely could not have slain him in a single blow. But his cursed instincts from his time on the streets told him it was safer to roll over and give the man what he wanted than to fight. He would have to master them better, so it would not happen again.
In addition to the myriad charms and talismans that he wore under his shirt. At least three times, he should be able to escape certain death. It had taken most of his resources, but he had gotten them complete. If anything else, if the man with the hole in his hat, or this “Jin” appeared again, he would be able to bring down the might of Shrouded Mountain upon them, or at least escape.
He sighed again. The only bonus was the fact that he had no minder for this mission. Only a few of his new ‘companions’ who were annoyed as he was about coming to this weak place.
Still, even if he couldn’t cultivate normally with the lack of Qi, he should be able to improve his main technique. There would be many available to him, even if they were weak, quantity had a quality all of its own.
Eventually the carriage stopped, and their party got out. He was received by the organizers, and a procession of what this place called “masters” and “Elders”. It was a pitiful showing, so he dismissed them all as they tried to curry favour with a mere Young Master of the Shrouded Mountain.
The dinner was boring, as they “Greeted the Young Master” in his place of honour, and thanked him and his sect for taking the time to glance in their direction.
Like he would have if he had not been forced to. He was the highest ranking Disciple of the Shrouded Mountain to venture to this place in decades. Sometimes, they even sent mortals as the main delegation, who would pass judgement upon the cultivators of this land.
There was, however, one redeeming quality.
The Tournament Grounds. The Earthly Arena.
It was not the stage that impressed him. It was not its construction, having only rudimentary barriers to protect the audience, and even those were failing in some sections.
No, it was one place where there was failure, that was the most interesting. The giant stage that was lifted higher and higher into the heavens upon the backs of your defeated enemies.
In that, the Azure Hills had made a wonder. A place where your lessers were both figurative, and literal stepping stones.
His contempt was easier to hide, after he learned that. Perhaps these worthless people had some good ideas after all. He would have to bring it up to his ‘father’.
He would very much like to make some changes to the tournament grounds back at the sect.
He stared out over the quiet town, as day turned to night.
And made clear his intent to have copious amounts of alcohol in his box, for the boredom that was sure to follow.