If there was one way I thought my day was going to go, I’ll admit. It certainly wasn’t like this.
I had strode into the pavilion as resolved as I could be. Senior Brother Lu Ri was already waiting for me. His dark hair in a topknot. Dressed to the nines in courtly clothes sitting in the pavilion "with moonlight shining on him. It was like something out of a book. If you looked up “severe court scholar” you’d probably get an image of Lu Ri.
Instead of stern, resolute and scary, my once Senior Brother was polite. Too polite. He greeted me first. He nodded to Big D, Noodle, and Yin, which showed a great amount of “face” to use the term. That he even acknowledged their existence meant something, and then he poured my tea.
Tea from the district Rou was from. Something within me spasmed when I smelled it. A warm flood of nostalgia, remembering the times Rou’s parents made this, mixed with sorrow and grief, threatening to burst out of the dam that I had built around my memories.
I was off balance and reeling when he went and delivered the finishing blow.
I’d expected at least a bit of posturing. Of dancing around the issues. But that went out the window.
All that, all the fear I felt… because of a letter?
I stared blankly at the envelope that Lu Ri held out to me. I recognized Gramp’s handwriting scrawled across the front.
The memories came unbidden. The little shack we lived in, after gramps pulled me off the streets. Him teaching me the courtly characters. Every morning, running through the katas I still ran through. Playing in the river. Throwing dung at his head. Him chasing me down and tying me to a tree in retaliation. Falling asleep against his side, after we ate a slightly burned dinner, because the old man could barely boil water.
Although he wasn’t bound to this body by blood, the old man was all the family Rou’s had ever known. I'd felt…Rou had felt lost when Gramps turned his back on me, and sternly stated he had to go away. After the time spent without a word, I'd thought something terrible had happened to him.
I hadn't heard from him for nearly three years. Rou hadn't seen him for nearly three years. Now he was writing a letter?
What the hell?
With shaking hands, I took it from Lu Ri, the man’s face as inscrutable as the Lord Magistrate’s. I briefly contemplated tearing it open right then, my friends looked on curiously, and Lu Ri sipped his tea.
“When you looked at how to leave the Sect, did you not also read the sections on honourable departure?” he asked curiously.
“Ah… no?” I replied.
“In addition to mail, you may also rejoin the sect at any time, and may beg for refuge for your kin in times of peril,” Lu Ri stated authoritatively.
I frowned at that. I guess reading ahead on the benefits hadn't really occurred to me. I just wanted out fast.
“It's a bit strange that they have those rules,” I admitted. Lu Ri looked vaguely amused at the statement.
I toyed with the letter, flipping it back and forth, before sighing.
“…thanks,” I whispered. Lu Ri nodded his head magnanimously.
“It took longer than I expected, but this is a good result,” he stated. I glanced at the date on the letter.
It was sent nearly a year ago.
I leaned back in my chair, and looked at his clothes again. They were fresh, and well cleaned, but his hat had been mended multiple times and he seemed a bit tired.
“I see your defeat did not crush your spirit entirely, Jin Rou. It speaks well of you. Did you end up becoming a farmer?”
Again, Lu Ri’s words were knocking me off balance. Honestly, they shouldn’t have. Lu Ri was the man who gave me back my money when I left the sect. There was only curiosity in his eyes. There was no real reaction to my friends, other than a nod in their direction.
Just small talk over tea. No threats, no sudden fight in the Pavillion. Just a mail delivery.
I smiled tentatively.
“Yeah. Yeah, I did. It’s been pretty great, actually—here.”
I opened up the box I had brought along. I had made it on a whim. Just in case the meeting did turn out to be nothing, and to take my mind off the impending meeting.
Candy-making is really easy when you can use a Sun-rabbit as a stove.
Lu Ri raised an eyebrow, as the fudge was revealed.He sniffed indecorously. “Maple…?” he ventured, his tone curious.
“Oh, you’ve had some before?” I asked curiously.
“Yes, I have. A delectable offering, but the city contains no more—” He paused, looking up at me, before closing his eyes, and chuckling. “It appears the heavens are fickle. To think that I had something produced by your hands months ago. It reinvigorated me during my search.”
That was kind of funny, actually.
He took a piece and put it into his mouth. His eyes closed briefly, as the taste hit.
“I’ve been growing rice, wheat, veggies…” I took a gamble. “And some of the Lowly Spiritual Herbs.”
“You actually managed to grow them here?” he asked. He was surprised, but unconcerned. He frowned slightly, and shook his head. “Remarkable. I am glad that you have had good fortune, Junior Brother, to create things of such quality.”
He took another bite of fudge, and a sip of tea, considering how the flavours blended together. He seemed to be mulling something over.
“There is another matter, however,” he finally stated.
And just like that, the tension ratcheted back up. His back straightened again, and he held his hands in front of his face, inclining his head.
“Jin Rou. The Cloudy Sword Sect wishes to apologise for the actions one of its Young Masters took against you. The man has been punished. Such an occurrence was not meant to happen, and we accept full responsibility.”
I was floored. The sects did not apologise. The Cloudy Sword Sect did not go to weak outer disciples, and say “sorry for getting you beat up.”
Just what the hell was going on? Why me?
“Additionally I would request that you return to the sect with me,” Lu Ri stated. “You will be reinstated as a disciple, and reparations will be paid for this unfortunate occurrence. Your Disciples are of course welcome to come with you, and they will be under my, and the Cloudy Sword Sect’s protection.”
Lu Ri’s calm, matter of fact voice warred against the impossible things coming out of it. I think I was getting a taste of my own medicine here, with the whole “shocking revelation” thing. My heart thundered in my chest. I felt a light headed.
The Cloudy Sword Sect wanted me back.
Delivering my mail, because I left through the proper channels. Finding me, because I left through the proper channels. Asking me to come back to the sect, because I left through proper channels.
“…why?” I croaked out finally.
“Because the Elders wish it,” Lu Ri stated simply. “Your benefactor is of great importance to the sect.”
Benefactor? Gramps? Just what was this?
Lu Ri looked at my expression, and took another sip of tea.
“I have given you much to ponder. I do not need an answer immediately. You may take your time. We shall meet again tomorrow, if it pleases you. If you need me, I am available.” He placed a crystal on the table in front of me, as I just kind of sat there, chewing my lip.
Lu Ri left the pavilion. I didn't get up.
I stared at the letter.
A letter that got the Cloudy Sword sect to find me and ask me to return.
I broke the seal.
I am alive, if you doubted me, you little brat. And I have not forgotten you. I apologise for my abrupt departure, and lack of contact, but things beyond my control intervened. If you can avoid it, never owe another man a favour. They tend to call them in at inopportune times!
I am well! This duty is merely tedious, and not actively threatening, though it is taking longer than I would like. And yes, it is a duty, boy, even though I cannot say much about it. I know you like to call me a drunkard, but this is not a mere social call to some beauties and a fine bottle of wine!
Even though I wish it was. It would be much more enjoyable. You’ve hit your majority, haven't you? The women were quite enamoured with me in my youth. Kowtow a hundred times, and I may just teach you my secrets!
Perhaps on the road. When this is all over, I’ll take you with me for a little excursion. The world is too large to stay in one city all your life!
Yet this is not about me. How are you enjoying yourself in my old sect? I know you passed, boy. A friend told me. But don’t get a big head now, even if passing the entrance exam of the Cloudy Sword Sect is a feat to be acknowledged!
Perform your duties there well, even if they must be easy compared to all the work you used to do. I’m sure you have plenty of time to meditate, and grow your strength.
But, I, your grandfather, am feeling generous, and will give you some pointers.
First, the best place to read in the library is the south corner. Take your time, and examine the texts there thoroughly.
Second, When you can, I would suggest you take a walk through the Cloudy Forest. There are the occasional caves there that are most effective for one’s meditation.
Third, ask your seniors for pointers when you can. It may be a bit painful, for your lack of skill, but it's the best way to learn quickly!
Lastly, a gift. I know you were frustrated I would not allow you to hold a sword, but do you see the seal at the bottom of this letter? When you hit the second stage of the Profound realm, It will unlock. Take it, and learn what you can.
I look forward to seeing what you do with it, if you even can hit the Profound realm with your talent! A challenge. If you show sufficient mastery of the technique I may even allow you to ask a boon of me.
Rou. When you can, send me a reply. This old man worries sometimes about your health. I know you are in good hands, for the Cloudy Sword is righteous, but I do wish to hear of your time first hand.
Though only if you refrain from stuffing this letter full of dung.
My contacts in the Imperial Army will ensure its delivery.
Jin Rou dropped the letter on the table, and rubbed at his eyes. The pale moon cast its glow across the pavilion, staining the leaves and the flowers silver.
He looked up at the sky, leaned back in his chair, and sighed. Remembering.