An Ran stared with interest at the image of Pale Moon Lake City from the top of the mountain. She had never actually been before. None of them had, living out almost all their lives in the Grass Sea, and the only City they visited was Grass Sea City.
“This thing is very useful,” Li said, examining the wafer of crystal in Yun Ren’s hand. “Why has nobody thought to do such a thing before?”
Yun Ren’s shrugged. “The crystal was defective. Nobody wanted it because it couldn’t record moving images or sound. But at this size, and just being able to record like this?”
“Whoever made this must be one skilled beyond measure,” Xi Bu stated.
Yun Ren’s chest puffed out with pride. “I can put you in touch, yeah? It’s way cheaper than a full crystal.”
“You’d do that for us?” Huyi asked, leaning in. He absently moved a piece on the gameboard. Tigu stared blankly at it, then let out a noise of anger and frustration. She fell backwards and started kicking her legs, scratching at her head. An Ran thought she heard what sounded like squeaking laughter coming from the girl, but it was a bit hard to tell. Huyi snorted, but something approaching a smile crawled across his face, softening his rotten eyes to something almost handsome.
“Course I can.” Yun Ren nodded. “I’ll put in a good word!”
“Cheers for Brother Yun Ren!” Li decided, and the men whooped, filling his cup. There was a snort from beside her, as the wild Gou Ren looked on. He held up a bottle, and she nodded. He poured her a drink. They were strictly rationed tonight, much to the boy’s disappointment.
And a bit to An Ran’s. The plum wine was very good. And the company was acceptable, at the very least, though she would be keeping a close eye on the men. Tigu obviously reminded Huyi of his little sister, while the boys were… well, they were alright, An Ran supposed. Yun Ren was very eager to show off his amazing images, and while Gou Ren chimed in occasionally, he seemed content to simply sit and watch his brother’s presentation.
Senior Sister had gone out of the room for a moment, saying she needed to speak to the servants.
“So… what’s life like here like, anyway? I’ve heard a bit from Xiulan, but I was wondering what you thought about it?” Gou Ren asked her.
An Ran startled at the question. A bit at the fact that they were overly familiar with Senior Sister. They just called her by her given name! But An Ran was a good host, so she entertained his question. “We train our martial spirit, and contemplate the Mysteries of the Verdant Blade Scripture,” she said. “There is always some manner of chore to be done too, but those aren’t so bad. Not when one is so strong and enduring.”
An Ran really couldn’t imagine going back to being a mortal. Not that she was exactly an immortal herself, at the second Stage of the Initiate’s Realm, but it certainly was nice.
Gou Ren laughed. “Yeah, I never get tired of lifting up rocks, or carrying in pails of water like they're nothing!”
An Ran smiled at his honest joy. Really, she had tried speaking to another cultivator from a different sect about it, and she had gotten a sneer in response. Where was their wonder at this strength?
“Yourself?” she asked politely.
Gou Ren smiled. “It's hard at times… But I think these are some of the best days of my life.” His grin was infectious.
Indeed. These days were the best days of An Ran’s life. Aside from listening to Xi Bu’s mind bending riddles, dealing with Huyi’s normally acidic tongue, and whatever damn-fool idea Li got into his head. But these were minor distractions. Within the peaceful confines of the verdant Blade sect, and learning from Senior Sister’s movements. These days were a treasure. To learn from her inspiration even moreso.
They were very different than An Ran had thought—
She caught herself.
No! In the stories, that was how they caught you! Luring you in by being personable! They were still men! They had traveled around Senior Sister, and no one could resist her beauty! Surely they would be toads lusting after swan’s flesh!
“And this is Biyu,” Yun Ren said with pride. The image was of him with his arm around a fluffy woman. Both were sporting small smiles. “Shes… well, shes we’re… Ya know?”’
“Ah? Look at this bastard, showing off!” Huyi complained. Xi Bu smirked, while Li clapped him on the back.
The image was of an owlish-looking girl, with a soft smile on her face. Yun Ren had his arm around her, and was grinning widely. His contentment was obvious.
Okay, while maybe he wasn’t lusting after her…
“Disciple Gou Ren! Disciple Gou Ren! I require your assistance!” Tigu whined, slamming into the man, who rolled his eyes. She glared at Huyi from her place in Gou Ren’s lap.
“Ha?! You bullying our Tigu?” He demanded jokingly. Huyi snorted, but looked a bit worried.
“Yes! He tried to throw the game!” Tigu whined. “He won’t use his full power!”
Gou Ren laughed, standing up. “I see. Then I shall lend you my power.”
He settled down on the other side of the game board, Tigu leaning over his shoulder… And the rest of the disciples quickly migrating to that side of the board, leaving Huyi alone against Gou Ren.
Well, he did always win those. An Ran even found some of her traitorous heart yearning for Huyi to be defeated.
He gloated annoyingly when he won.
She stood... then deliberately walked over to sit down on the side opposite Huyi.
He looked very offended.
Gou Ren was quite good at the game. “You use old men’s tricks!” Huyi complained, as a piece snapped into place, taking one of Huyi’s.
They watched the game go back and forth, tricks and traps and feints. It wasn’t particularly high level, by any means. An Ran had seen a game between two of the elders once before, with their consummate attacks and defences. This was a dirty pub-brawl in comparison.
The game wound down. Huyi clicked his tongue.
“Draw?” Gou Ren offered.
Huyi considered the board.
“Draw,” he agreed.
“Oh? You youngsters seem like you’re enjoying yourselves,” a strong, rich voice that An Ran knew stated.
An Ran and the rest of her fellows shot to their feet at the Sect Master’s entrance. The powerful man stood in the doorway, his green robes immaculate, four swords floating behind him, each in a beautiful green scabbard. With him stood his daughter, the Young Mistress, amusement dancing in her eyes.
“We greet Sect Master Cai!” they shouted as one.
He nodded his head, and raised his hand in dismissal, as he gazed upon Senior Sister’s companions. His presence filled the room, not oppressive, not focusing, but inquisitive.
“I bid you welcome to our home, Honoured guests,” he declared, clasping his fists in front of him. “I must admit you are all not what I expected,” he stated, gazing upon the tribal and wild garb that was most prominent, “yet my daughter vouches for you; so as these disciples said, you may partake of our hospitality as long as you wish, honoured guests.”
All of their guests had risen to their feet, and showed the Sect Master proper deference. Even Tigu, who bowed her head at the right angle, and was the picture of a Mortal Lady, if only for a moment.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” they intoned. The Sect Master nodded his head in acknowledgement. He stroked his beard. His gaze lingered for a moment upon the men, who straightened slightly under his gaze, before turning to Tigu, and raising an eyebrow at her rather blatant stare.
The orange-haired girl smiled. “Your eyes are as pretty as the Blade of Grass’s! I see where she gets it from!” the girl declared.
Crystal blue eyes wided. An Ran could not even voice her shock.
The Sect Master stared for a moment at the earnest statement, before he laughed. It was deep and rich, filling the room with honest amusement.
“Ah! I have never had anyone compliment my eyes, save for my wife! I thank you for your words, little one,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “Your orange hair is as vibrant as a tiger’s fur, and I am certain you are just as fierce!”
“I shall not keep you from your last moments before the tournament. I bid you all a good night, and may your hard work reap you your rewards. Daughter, I place everything in your capable hands.”
Senior Sister bowed. “I shall meet your expectations as best as I am able, Honoured Father.”
He nodded one last time, and departed.
The room slumped.
“I can’t believe you said that!” Li exclaimed, impressed by her fortitude.
“The heavens favour fools, it seems,” Xi Bu muttered, though he was smirking.
The others went back to their game, but An Ran stayed behind a bit. She looked to Senior Sister, who was staring at the scene with a small smile on her face.
She stared at the scene like An Ran remembered her mother staring, her small smile set in place as her children got along, and helped each other.
An Ran blushed at such warmth being directed at her, and flushed slightly further when Senior Sister gestured her over.
“Are you enjoying yourself, Junior Sister?” she asked quietly.
“Yes, Senior Sister. You companions are… unique,” An Ran answered.
“A bit strange, you mean?” Senior Sister asked, amusement dancing in her eyes.
Senior Sister chuckled, turning back to where the boys and Tigu were arranged in a circle, each with a small wooden rectangle with different colourings and numbers on them.
They all watched intently, as Yun Ren flipped another card.
“Twenty two! Your gamble failed, Head of Grass!” Tigu cackled.
The green-haired boy slumped.
“…better luck next time, Head of Grass,” Huyi said, a shit-eating grin on his face.
“Your skills must improve, Head of Grass,” Xi Bu stated blandly.
“The good kind of strange though,” Xiulan whispered fondly.
“Blade of Grass! Smaller Blade of Grass! What are you doing, skulking about!” Tigu shouted, waving them over.
“Shall we?” Senior Sister asked.
An Ran joined the game.
And when they did retire for the night, she slept quite well.
The next morning, the nervousness had come back in full force. All of her companions looked nervous or in Li’s case, excited.
Their guests however, looked none the worse for wear. Tigu was bouncing up and down with a smile on her face, while Yun Ren fiddled with his crystal, and Gou Ren tried to get the orange-haired girl to calm down.
She glanced around the room, Senior Sister was setting up some knives and several pots. An Ran felt a flash of irritation. Just where were the servants? And why was the Young Mistress preparing this?!
“It took a bit to convince them last night, but they gave in eventually,” she heard Senior Sister say to Yun Ren. She seemed to be preparing for something. The man nodded.
Knives rose into the air.
The table went silent.
An Ran could make a single practise artifact wobble slightly. On a good day, she could levitate it a finger’s breadth above the floor.
She beheld a symphony. A dance. A martial formation that never erred.
Used for cooking.
None spoke. Until the food was finished, and there were plates set in front of them.
“Thanks for breakfast, Xiulan,” Gou Ren said.
“You are welcome. I hope this gives you strength to make it through the day,” she said, nodding her head.
The Young Mistress of the sect, her Senior Sister, had taken time to craft them all a meal. How blessed by the heavens were they?! How benevolent was their Young Mistress!?
“Our Young Mistress is too generous,” Xi Bu whispered.
Huyi and Li just started stuffing their faces.
Only An Ran remained staring. Even as her mouth watered.
A chopstick prodded her in the side, and she startled.
“Come now, eat up… Smaller Blade of Grass,” Senior Sister chided, an amused lilt in her voice. An Ran flushed at the nickname, but it wasn’t too bad, if she was directly compared to Senior Sister. At least Tigu didn’t call her Fish Eyes, like she called Huyi.
She hesitantly put a bite into her mouth. It was delicious.
“Okay, so we’re going here, for the spectator portion… And Tigu, you’re over here, okay?” Yun Ren said.
“Yes, West Gate!” she shouted.
The gong sounded, and she took off.
Senior Sister watched her go, and turned back to her Junior Disciples.
She took a little breath, and turned from Senior Sister to the Young Mistress. Yet… it wasn’t quite as cold, or dispassionate as it once was.
An Ran picked up the flag, bearing the symbol of their sect.
Her Juniors fell into step behind her, the Young Mistress at their head.
The mortal servants cheered, waving flags, and dropping flower petals upon them, following behind as they entered the rapidly crowding streets.
The first day of the tournament had begun.