The land whipped by below Lu Ri in a green blur. Each bounding leap took him over enormous, forested hills and tiny villages.
He had pushed himself hard, moving as fast as he was able. The air had long since stopped screaming in protest. It simply wasn’t efficient, the circular breathing of The Clouded Steps useless when there was no Qi to replenish. Instead, with his tight grip on his power unleashed for haste, the very air that entered his lungs wicked away his energy with every breath.
Far from the more leisurely stroll up north he rushed to his destination. His stride slowed by necessity, but it was still an acceptable speed. An annoyance, and one that had to be borne. His only regret was that he was still lacking. There was no flying sword for him, standing calm and unflappable as a cultivator should. Instead, his hair and clothes were tangled and wrinkled, as sweat poured down his body.
Yet his haste was rewarded. A mere day and a half after his message was received, Lu Ri could see Pale Moon Lake City at the apex of his jumps.
His transmission stone buzzed.
He drew his Qi inwards after one last jump. It would do no good to shatter all of the detector stones again, and rouse the city guards.
“Report,” he commanded, as he slowed his pace to that of a mortal, and placed his mended hat back upon his head. Joining the crowd moving into the city, his pace took him past the carts and masses of people towards the Plum Blossom base. A bath was in order, to cleanse himself of his exertions, as well as the final reports his men had made.
While making Jin Rou wait was impolite, it was doubly impolite to arrive looking so harried with the filth of the road upon his body. He had an image to maintain as a member of the Cloudy Sword Sect!
“Jin Rou will be at the Pale Moon Pavillion, Master Scribe.” The man on the other end of the transmission stone informed Lu Ri. “We have a report prepared and ready to be pursued at your leisure.” There was a pause as the agent seemed to gather his courage and said hesitantly. “...there is one complication.”
Lu Ri frowned. “Complication?”
“Yes, Master Scribe. We knew Rou Jin was important to the Azure Jade Trading company. We underestimated just how important. They have taken issue with us impeding his path. There are discussions going on between us at this moment. It has been...contentious.”
“I see.” Lu Ri considered this.
The Honoured Founders were conflicted upon the nature of merchants. They decried most as money-grubbers, but also stated their necessity. Their writings on how to deal with them were clear. Courtesy, if no other recourse was available. The grudge of merchants was not something to underestimate. If they were not destroyed completely, one’s enemies might suddenly find themselves suspiciously well equipped.
Yet if the Azure Jade Trading Company served Jin Rou as the Plum Blossom served Lu Ri, he would give them face. It was not their place to question Jin Rou or his motives, but doing so out of concern for their master was admirable.
“Convey our apologies for the inconvenience, and arrange reparations. Information is to be invaluable to merchants, is it not?”
“As you Say, Master Scribe.” The man obeyed.
Lu Ri nodded. Their mission was soon to be complete, in any case. However, abandoning a man after giving him purpose was to be avoided at all costs. Lu Ri would likely never return to the Azure Hills, so the men of the organisation he had created had to be given a new purpose.
And if his Junior Brother had close ties to these merchants, in that they were willing to investigate threats to him… well, it was something easy to manage.
His path took him to the inner city, to a quaint little walled villa near the tiny Imperial Palace. It was incredibly small for a provincial capital. He entered through one of the side entrances, where he was immediately received.
One of his men, simply known as Chan, greeted him. His most regular aide in the city “A bath has been prepared for you, Master Scribe,” handing Lu Ri the current findings on Jin Rou.
He took the report, and leafed through it.
“His temperament?” Lu Ri asked.
Chan seemed amused for a moment before replying. “He is in a fine mood this morning, Master Scribe, he was singing to himself, and went to the kitchens to prepare himself a meal. The staff were shocked. Other than that, he stayed within his room.”
Lu Ri quirked an eyebrow then nodded, as he walked through the house. Men immediately stepped aside bowing, as Chan led him through the rustic, almost spartan, house.
“The men who participated?” he asked, and immediately another page was produced, detailing the actions each member had undertaken. Lu Ri nodded his head, committing the names to memory.
Merit would be assigned later.
Chan bowed, and gestured in front of the door leading to a bathing chamber. The bath was already prepared, but there was little time to enjoy it. Lu Ri cleaned himself quickly. The dirt and sweat gathered from pushing himself sloughed off quickly, and he tended to his hair, ridding it of the few tangles. A testament to his speed that it was tangled at all.
A fresh set of clothes was taken from his storage ring, and a replenishing pill took the worst off the dull ache from lightly depleted Qi reserves.
Finally, he looked upon the reports in detail.
Arrived with a large cart that would be impossible for a man to pull. Contents tentatively confirmed to be rice, but the number of guards and the tight lipped nature of the Company leads to something else.
Addendum. Report from Dueling Peaks Auction. Azure Jade Trading Company reports Gold Grade Rice for sale. Correlation likely, but unknown.
Lu Ri raised an eyebrow at that. Gold Grade rice? Jin Rou had expressed his intention to become a farmer when he had left. It seems he had used the skills gathered in tending to the spiritual herbs to great effect.
Lu Ri idly wondered what Gold Grade rice tasted like. It was considered decadent, to consume such a thing, and a waste of money when one could buy cultivation resources instead.
He shook his head, and continued.
Spent the night with Guan Chyou of the merchant company in a private setting. That she was with him after but a single night indicates extreme favour from the Azure Jade Trading Company.
With Guan Bo, visited, or made purchases at the following shops…
Lu Ri scanned the list. Copper, glass, sand, all mundane materials, if in high purity, and large amounts.
Temperament seems mild. Was observed getting bumped into on the street, and waved off the culprit. Was polite to all agents. Initially surprised at contact, but accepted easily.
Good news, and confirming what his men had said. There was one last note, however, that gave him pause.
Currently in the company of two or more animals at all times. Rooster, Rabbit, Snake. Talks to them, and they seem to respond. Tales from the north indicate some manner of rooster that fights against the wicked. Pervasive rumours, from caravaneers. Highly likely they are Spirit Beasts..
Lu Ri stoked his chin. Spirit Beasts? That was surprising. But he would take things as they came.
Lu Ri centered himself.
Finally, he was nearly at the end of this task.
“He is here, Master Scribe,” the man beside him whispered.
Lu Ri pulled himself out of his contemplations. Running the scenarios through his head would do him no more good. Jin Rou could be violently angry, meek and cowed, or a hundred other things, but until he actually met the boy, he wouldn’t know. Any of them were acceptable, as long as he completed his task.
Instead, he turned his attention to the Pale Moon Pavillion. He had reserved the entirety of it, the other small places empty in the vast garden. It was a calm, quiet place. Ivy climbed the wooden poles, and the last flowers of summer let loose their heady scents into the air. A small river dlowed, the gentle trickle of water masking conversations to any attempting to listen from outside. While renting out the entirety of the place was a show of power, hopefully the surroundings would properly convey his peaceful intentions.
It was, after all, rude to damage a mortal’s dwellings, unless there was no other recourse. So spoke the Honoured Founders—
Lu Ri paused. Had Jin Rou even read their teachings? He hadn’t been in the sect very long, and his time had been consumed with maintenance.
He frowned, considering that the Young Master who beat Jin Rou had deprived him of reading those enlightened texts.
But there was no more time for further introspection. There was power approaching. It felt a bit strange, however. IT was hazy, and it took a moment for him to be able to clearly see it. Second Stage of the Profound Realm? A more than acceptable increase, considering he had been here all this time. Lu Ri couldn’t imagine gaining a stage, let alone ascending a realm in this deprived province. The fact that he had not neglected his cultivation boded well. Elder Ge would certainly be pleased.
Yet something was amiss. There were two others with him. Two initiates, both of the third stage, with one edging on the fourth.
Lu Ri stood, and brushed out his clothes, to make sure he was immaculate. His hat was hanging on the side of his chair, and he raised his arm, dismissing his men.
Jin Rou entered the pavilion. He had, as said, a rooster on one shoulder, a rabbit on the other, and a snake curled around his arm. He also had a small box in his hand.
It had been nearly two years since he had last laid eyes upon his Junior Brother. An eyeblink, to a cultivator.
Yet Lu Ri wondered if the man before him now was the same boy he remembered.
Jin Rou had always been the odd one out. Poor. Low Class. His fellows sometimes said he was barely a cultivator. His tanned skin and freckles had spoken of a lifetime of heavy labour, without the higher realms to prevent them.
He always had an energy about him, however. Always doing something. Filled with fire and a drive that saw him picking up every task he could, and doing the ones forced on him without complaint.
The man before him was calm. Steady. His eyes met Lu Ri’s without fear, as his stride took him towards the table.
Jin Rou had always been tall, yet he had, in his absence, grown even taller. His frame had always been unfortunate for a cultivator. Too much bulk, instead of lithe and deadly grace. That feature had only increased, his frame filling out with thick slabs of working muscle. His freckles had multiplied and a dark tan deepened the tone of his skin..
Lu Ri’s eyes narrowed, flicking to the rooster. It was a magnificent beast, to be true. Its colouration was sublime. It wore a fox fur vest, and was gazing upon him.
Yet it was the power. It was the Profound realm he had felt.
The snake and the rabbit were the initiates. The snake was old, and had been damaged by something, missing an eye, with odd burn marking on it. The rabbit was a bright silver, andwas glowering at him. From Jin Rou, at his passive detection, he felt nothing.
Lu Ri paused, as he took the beasts in. Such creatures were not particularly common, but they did appear occasionally.
As harbingers of calamity. If not properly dealt with, they were often an unintentional bane to their owner. The creatures attracted powerful Spirit Beasts to feast upon them, and often leading to the complete destruction of any village they lived in.. if the beast did not get designs, and murder its owner. If one appeared, it was standard to call a sect, or the government to take the creature, or sell it to a noble. In those cases, they were consumed immediately.
But a mere rooster, in the profound realm? To think that a rooster in these weak hills could be stronger than most of the Elders of this province. To raise something like this up.
Lu Ri knew not his intentions, and it was not his place to ask.
But the fact that he could not feel Jin Rou concerned him. He was clearly a cultivator. Yet Lu Ri could not feel him. He cast out his senses. It was an art, to gauge another’s cultivation accurately, without being intrusive.
There was an inkling of something. But pressing any deeper would be intrusive to the point of offense, so he retracted himself. He was here to make peace, not assague his curiosity. Was he practising some strange art? All things to put in his report to the Elders. Yet that, Lu Ri supposed, was the power of even the least disciple of the Cloudy Sword Sect. He could surprise his Senior Brother by disappearing to this backwater, and arriving with Spirit Beasts and.. Something. what , Lu Ri did not know.
Once more, Lu Ri felt irritation at the Young Master who beat Jin Rou.
He shoved his thoughts on the matter aside, as Jin Rou made to greet Lu Ri first as their stations demanded.
The situation however was different. Lu Ri was to offer Jin Rou face, as it was the Cloudy Sword who had erred.
Lu Ri moved with almost unseemly haste.
“Lu Ri, Disciple of the Cloudy Sword Sect greets Jin Rou,” he intoned, giving the man proper respect.
Jin Rou froze, confusion on his features, as the spirit beasts with him hopped down. He was obviously confused about the meeting, and he was guarded. But he too bowed, along with the amusing sight of three Spirit Beasts also offering Lu Ri bows.
“Rou Jin greets Senior Brother Lu Ri,” he said, then Lu Ri was surprised as the spirit beasts too spoke.
‘Fa Bi De, First Disciple of Fa Ram Greets Lu Ri,’ a deep, smooth voice intoned, as the rooster lowered his head.
‘Liang Yin greets Lu Ri,’ the rabbit stated, her voice as smooth and perfect as Senior Sister Yeo Na’s.
‘Miantiao greets Lu Ri.’ The last one was aged and tired sounding. The snake’s one good eye examined Lu Ri closely.
“My disciples,” Jin Rou said, a wane little smile on his face.
The idea would be laughable if Lu Ri did not have them before his eyes. Purposefully training it? Interesting. The Rooster alone was powerful enough to fight in a tournament in Raging Waterfall Gorge. It was enough to make Lu Ri want to examine these creatures in greater detail.
Was this ability to raise Spirit Beasts what caught the powerful expert’s attention? That Jin Rou had brought them was an odd statement.
Lu Ri gave them all brief nods of acknowledgement, as outlined in proper courtesy for lesser disciples, and gestured to the table offering the odd group seats. The humans sat down, with the…disciples taking their places on top of the table. Jin Rou set the box he was carrying atop it as well. Lu Ri set about pouring them both tea. Another technical breach of etiquette, as the Junior was supposed to serve the senior, but this would be abandoned for this meeting. It was a fragrant blend directly from the lower quarters of Crimson Crucible City, where Jin Rou once lived. Lu Ri noted Jin Rou’s eyes widened in surprise at the scent, his hand spasming briefly against the table.
“It is good to see you again, Jin Rou—or Rou Jin, as it is. It did give me a bit of trouble finding you, I must confess,” Lu Ri began. The man flinched at his mention of the deception, and laughed nervously.
“Yeah. I wanted a clean break, you know? Just in case that one guy wasn’t finished yet,” Rou Jin said. Lu Ri winced internally. That was perhaps a good choice, in all honesty. Changing the characters one spelled their name with, as well as the order had been surprisingly effective.
“Indeed. I see you have been doing well for yourself. That is good.”
Jin Rou narrowed his eyes, confused and suspicious. He tentatively nodded, taking a sip of tea. His breath hitched for a moment, before he swallowed thickly. He squared his shoulders.
“Senior Brother. I hope it's not too rude… but why are you here?” he asked. “I’m sure it is not for a social call.”
Lu Ri nodded. Straight to the point, then. He cleared his throat, and took out his storage ring.
Jin Rou tensed.
“This Lu Ri is here, on official business of the Cloudy Sword Sect, as outlined in the rules and regulations of the Honoured Founders,” he intoned. The man across from him folded his arms, as Lu Ri pressed his hand to the ring. Rou Jin's eyes narrowed.
Lu Ri pulled out the letter, took it in both hands, and offered it politely.
“Pertaining to the laws of the Cloudy Sword Sect, and the stipulations on honourable departure— Jin Rou, your mail.”
The envelope was pristine. The seal undamaged. Routed through the imperial army, the name on the front simply was “grandfather”.
Jin Rou stared blankly at it. He looked back up at Lu Ri, a completely dumbfounded expression on his face.