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“So what were you two up to last night?” I asked as we walked down the street. Big D and Yin had returned late last night. They hadn’t exactly snuck in, but I waited until the morning to see what had happened. It would have been kind of funny to pull the “Stern dad” routine, but neither of them seemed injured, just out late. I trusted them to guard my farm. They had been in the city before too. They could be out as long as they wanted.

 

We explored!'' Yin enthused. ‘We found a bunch of abandoned gardens and then listened to a man play a nice song. Then we went swimming in the lake, and watched the moon rise.’

 

The rabbit nodded happily.

 

“So you guys had a good date then?” I asked teasingly.

 

Yeah, it was great!’ the rabbit said guilessly. ‘We should go together next time, Master Jin! With everybody!

 

Teasing denied by a rabbit who really wanted to make friends, and share new experiences with them. I rubbed Yin’s head affectionately. “Yeah, we’ll be with everybody next time, and explore the city together. Maybe we’ll rent a boat or something, and see if there are any islands we can visit.” I said. “So, you just stayed out watching the moon?”

 

Indeed we did, Great Master.’ Big D declared. ‘The full moon, reflected in the lake, was a most pleasing sight. The body of water and the city were both aptly named. It was a pleasant night, but as Yin said, it would be all the better with the rest of the flock.

 

I nodded. “Well, We’re going to meet up with everybody else soon. There's one last thing I want to see, then we’ll check in with the merchant company, and head out to meet Master Gen for the crystal. It’s pretty close to the tournament.. So we may check that out too.”

 

The disciples made noises of interest, as I jogged through the city, heading for the thing I’d heard of, and wanted to see.

 

The old ‘refiner’ Pops had mentioned. A device that once concentrated and purified liquids, now standing unused and broken. It really was massive. It looked like something from a modern factory, almost, with just how big it was, taking up an amount of space that could have housed a building. It was mostly made of dark metal, with bronze-gold highlights and designs swirling all over it. There were vents in it, Glowing so dully, they were hard to see, a tiny puff of steam would occasionally issue forth from the top.

 

And yet everybody on the street simply passed by this ancient marvel. There was no cordon off from it. There was no guard. It simply sat there, an old machine, without a purpose.

 

I approached, and out of curiosity, pressed my hand to it.

 

Nothing happened. I didn’t get any strange epiphanies. I didn’t see anything that would let me fix it.

 

It was just an old curiosity. It did look amazing, though.

 

I stared up at it, and shook my head, dispelling the desire. I did like the whole steampunk aesthetic it had going on, but really, picking up a building sized still and carting it away was too much.

 

No matter how cool it would look next to a big bath house or something. I wasn’t going to become the guy who hoarded fixer-uppers, and had junk everywhere.

 

I patted the old machine affectionately, and left.

 

===================================

 

Lu Ri moved through the forest, heading north. His pace was measured, as he leapt over another hill, his sharp eyes searching for a landing spot.

 

In retrospect, he should have not stayed at the tournament, or even considered it. Jin Rou had seemed scared and defeated. There was the possibility that he would wish to strike at those weaker than him, to crush the tournament as he might have been able to, but he was not born in the Azure Hills, so he could not participate.

 

Lu Ri had scoured the tournament grounds, and stayed only for the opening ceremony, then departed. His men were prepared to transmit to him on the off chance that Jin Rou did appear at the tournament, but Lu Ri was fairly certain he wouldn’t.

 

A bit more time wasted… but it was not too bad. The lead in the north was solid, and he would reach Verdant Hill soon, at the pace he had set. Though he kept his hopes quiet. He may have to search far and wide around the empty north, searching for more clues.

 

He would not be surprised if it took months, the way this search was going.

 

His transmission stone crackled and buzzed. Lu Ri startled, as he was not expecting any updates today. He considered it for a moment wondering if it truly was important or not. He was so near to his goal, he could almost feel it. But in the end, duty won out. Lu Ri aborted his next jump, landing on top of one of the hills. Moving too quickly disrupted the connection. He brought the crystal up to his mouth, pouring Qi into it to stabilize the spotty connection.

 

“Pale Moon Lake City, Main Branch reporting, Master Scribe.” the voice from the other end stated.

 

“Is it important?” He asked calmly.

 

“We believe so, Master Scribe. Members report a man who matches the description given. Tall, Freckles, brown hair. Came into Pale Moon Lake City with a large cart only a cultivator could pull, carrying what looked like rice bales. Name given to the inn he stayed at was Rou Jin, though spelled with “Soft” and Gold” rather than the characters we were requested to search for.”

 

Lu Ri’s mind processed the information. His eyes widened, and he nearly cursed. Neither the north, nor the tournament grounds?

 

“Is this accurate? Are you absolutely certain?” He demanded. That sounded extremely promising. Was Jin Rou within his sights, not just as a rumor, but were his men truly seeing him right this instant?

 

“Yes, Master Scribe, we have passive observers—” The man suddenly cut off, as there was a voice from the other end. There was a short conversation, and Lu Ri held his tongue, waiting for the men to do their jobs.

 

“Apologies, Master Scribe. He just met with the Azure Jade Trading Company, and he has a large pack on his back. Our man on the scene says that he may depart the city soon. Orders?”

 

Lu Ri’s mind whirled. He was too far away, and only his men were on the scene. They had already served him well. He could only pray that they would continue to serve him for just a bit longer, and Jin Rou was amenable to meet.

 

Lu Ri took a breath, and made his choice.

 

“Gentlemen. I commend your work.” He said, and meant it. “You have served me well, and now, I must ask you to risk yourselves.”

 

Lu Ri did not know how Jin Rou was going to react. The image painted of him, from those he had interacted with on his travels to the hills, was of a virtuous young man.

 

Yet even virtue may be strained, when approached by one who had wronged you.

 

The man on the other end of the recording stone was silent for a moment.

 

“We serve Master Scribe.” He stated formally, and with a determination that Lu Ri could hear.

 

Lu Ri bowed his head at such loyalty. Truly, the founders were correct when they wrote on the subject. Lu Ri had striven to be a good master, and his work had been rewarded.

 

Lu Ri gave the command. The man on the other end received his orders.

 

Then his legs tensed, and the air boomed, as he forced all his strength into his legs.

 

He sped back south, as fast as his legs could carry him.

 

The men working on the road, not a hill away, startled. Many wondered what the great noise was. They were quite sure the Lord Magistrate had an answer.

 

======================================



“It shall still take a week or two to gather everything you need, and in that time it will be stored here. It shall remain here as long as necessary. Or, should you require it, we can deliver your goods to anywhere in the Azure Hills.” Guan Bo informed me as he bowed to me. We were in his office, with him and his sister.

 

Chyou was still fanning herself, from the shock of a bunch of animals bowing at her in greeting, the most emotion I had ever seen on her face.

 

His sister, and a bunch of workers were all lined up out front of the trading company’s walls, their heads inclined into bows.

 

“Thanks. It would be one hell of a pain to carry everything with me.” I said, as I bowed back. “Thanks for all your hard work, and I should be back pretty soon.”

 

Chyou cleared her throat, And I turned to her. She visibly calmed herself, before speaking. “It will take at least several months to even start to plan the expedition you wanted, Master Jin. And… well, I was quite enthused with the idea last night, yet… even the roughest costs I devised will be exorbitant.”

 

Bo looked hesitant, as Chyou mentioned the expedition.

 

“Yeah, I got a bit too excited about that too last night.” I scratched at the back of my head sheepishly. The idea had struck me, but I hadn’t really thought it through as much as I probably should have. The dangers of the Before was one thing. But the dangers here were.. Well, was it even worth the risk? Having to run from earth crushing devil serpents, and all the Qi filled horrors of the south?

 

“We’ll talk about it.” I settled on. “We’ll see what we need, and discuss it in depth.”

 

Chyou gave a small bow.

 

“As you say, Master Jin.” She said courteously.

 

“I think that’s everything.” I said, and Bo nodded.

 

“May you have good health, Master Jin. Should you wish for anything at the Dueling Peaks, you need only ask. Honoured Grandfather, and Honoured Grandmother humbly request to meet you.” Guan Bo said.

 

I nodded. “Definitely. I’ll tell them what a good job you two have done.”

 

Both of them blushed at that. Bo looked like Christmas had come early, while Chyou bit her lip, and twirled a strand of hair around her finger.

 

I waved them goodbye. And walked out onto the streets. I’d already given Biyu and Master Jing the heads up, so all that was left was a leisurely run to the spot on the map.

 

But, it appeared that fate had other plans. Some men started approaching me, as we neared the city outskirts.

 

All of them were immaculately dressed, like noblemen, their hair shiny and in topknots.

 

But what really kind of worried me was that the street started to clear out of pedestrians.

 

As one, the line of men bowed to me.

 

“Master Rou Jin. Forgive these unworthy men for impeding your path.” The man said formally, bowing nearly the deepest a man should bow to another. “We come bearing a message. Yet if this code is unfamiliar to you, we can only apologise, and request that you stay your wrath for this interruption.”

 

I frowned, my eyes narrowed. The Magistrate had warned me that people were looking for Jin Rou, but these guys had said Rou Jin. Miantiao didn’t seem worried, and neither did Big D, but that could mean anything.

 

It's times like these that I wished I could properly feel Qi. Were they strong? Or were they just guys who made a mistake in identity?

 

“What message were you asked to convey?” I asked.

 

The man rose.

 

“Your once Senior Brother above the clouds requests a meeting in this city. Failing that, he requests a meeting in the place of your choice.”

 

Above the clouds—Cloudy Sword Sect. Senior Brother Lu Ri?! What the hells could the sect want with me? I had broken ties cleanly, paid their dues—

 

And made off with quite a few spiritual herbs, but that couldn’t be it, could it? Could I have screwed up a form somewhere? Just why was the Cloudy Sword Sect looking for me?

 

I swallowed thickly, as my guts churned.

 

I could probably run away. Running away from my problems had worked pretty great the first time!

 

But....

 

I sighed. They had already found me once, and this was something I couldn’t run away from. I squared my back.

 

And I nodded my head.

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A note from Casualfarmer

The Plum Blossom's Shadow actually accomplishes its mission.

 

Senior Brother inbound.

 

Additionally, I will not be posting any BOC on public platforms from the 25th to the 29th, and will be taking a small break. Thank you for understanding.

 

And As always, if you wish to read the next chapter, I do have an advanced chapter on patreon


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