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Xiulan’s eyebrows raised at the tall, solidly built Young Master of the Hermetic Iron Sect. His face was flushed, he nervously glanced back at his junior disciple, who was nodding rapidly. He took a breath and then held out a necklace with an intricately carved pendant.

“Rou Tigu! I—I, uh, made this for you.”

The night had started rather innocently enough at a Chao Baozi, aside from Xianghua’s interruption. The restaurant was crowded at this time of night. Rags’ and Loud Boy’s mortal friends had gone to get more drinks. Even Xianghua’s sudden arrival had been but a splash in the pond. As the ripples settled from her arrival, her Junior Brother, having swiftly retreated from the overtly flirty woman, was sitting with the boy Xianghua had brought with her. Xiulan felt a certain measure of satisfaction that her Junior Brother recognised trouble when he saw it.

It had taken her a second to place this Bowu, though. A half forgotten memory had risen of coming to the aid of a crippled boy when she had visited the Misty Lake Sect. Xiulan had intervened when she saw a junior disciple mistreating him. After sending the disgraceful junior disciple on his way with a warning she had then aided the boy in getting back to his home. She hadn’t even known Xianghua had a sibling at the time; the familial resemblance was obvious though, once you saw them together.

Xianghua had let Gou Ren go without much complaint, simply smiling as Gou Ren started his conversation with her brother as she was accosted by Tigu.

An Ran had seemed to not really know what to do at the stronger cultivator’s sudden intrusion, and had retreated to speak with the rest of the Petals.

Which is when Rags’ mortal friends had returned, each one carrying a tray, an entire tray of wine bottles.

Xiulan had understood that there were no fights the next day, but really, the fact that they were so loose about things was astonishing. She was fine with them getting a little drunk, but that was altogether a bit much.

She had joined in, although in moderation, when something else unexpected happened.

She had noticed the Young Master of the Hermetic Iron Sect, Tie Delun, entering the establishment, which was a bit strange. None of the other sects were here, and he seemed nervous and uncertain.

After Tigu had spotted him she’d eagerly waved him over to join them.

“Handsome Man! Come eat with us!” she had shouted merrily, hanging off Xianghua’s shoulder.

The man’s face had flushed at the attention from Tigu. He’d squared his shoulders, glanced at his junior for a moment before marching over to Tigu to present the necklace.

Tigu cocked her head to the side. Her eyes shone as she looked over the piece and its intricate detailing.

“Why did you make this for me?” she asked.

The man blushed deeper. “Ah… A token of my appreciation, for your support during my match, Miss Rou. Your words… er, inspired my strikes.”

Tigu actually colored and she scratched the back of her head. Xiulan raised an eyebrow. Was she about to see Tigu try to run off and inform Master Jin of a suitor?

“Ah, it truly helped you? Ah, then—” She stood, and performed a proper bow. “Thank you for this gift.”

She took it, her fingers ghosting over the carvings. Tie Delun grinned and breathed a sigh of relief. He nodded happily, oblivious to Loud Boy and Rags, who were staring daggers at the man.

Tie Delun bowed his head to Tigu. “I’m pleased that you accept this token. I shall leave you to—”

Tigu grabbed his arm, stopping him. She pulled him into the seat next to her.

“How did you make it?” Tigu asked, her eyes shining. “Do the carvings mean anything? What material is it?”

The man seemed taken aback at the rapid-fire questions while Yun Ren leaned in, staring at the pendant curiously. “Ah, it is made of silver, from the mines near The Silver Shore,” Tie Delun began.

Two of her fellow disciples, Huyi and Li, decided that the table had gotten a bit too cramped for their tastes, and stood, dragging another over to sit elsewhere. They nodded to Delun’s Junior brother who, after a glance at his Young Master tentatively came over and sat with them.

Tigu calling out to Tie Delun seemed to be some sort of breaking point.

Another cultivator, wearing a blue tunic approached the full table, curious at the sudden gathering. “What is going on here?” he asked, looking around at the strange group that formed.

“A good time!” Rags declared. He took a sip of wine, tilted his head to the side and then offered up a bottle to the newcomer.

“This is pigswill.” The cultivator in blue stated primly, brushing down his expensive clothes. He brought out a bottle that was tied around his waist. “This is what a man should have.”

Rags took a swig of the proffered bottle. He nodded at the taste. “Smooth, have a taste brother,”

He handed it to Loud Boy, who indulged and promptly started coughing.

Uproarious laughter followed. Rags offered a seat at the table to the cultivator and the man in blue sat down.

Xiulan drifted off to the side, simply observing. She sat at the bar and watched as the others interacted, Tigu somehow managing to pull in more and more people with her boisterous attitude. It was amusing to watch how happy she was. There were some intense stares some of the men sent her way, but so far none had tried their luck with her, which she was grateful for. Being seen as aloof and untouchable had some benefits after all. She watched the gathering in peace.

It was like the soldiers she once knew. Rowdy and growing rowdier. The thought invited a dull ache, but it did not hurt as much as it once did. She idly sipped her drink, remembering the names.

More and more people came to see what was going on as the table grew louder. Two disciples from the Misty Lake Sect, who Xianghua waved at, joined the Petals. A nervous looking woman wearing a beautiful brooch who Tigu seemed to know was waved over. The orange-haired girl slung an arm around her shoulder, declaring them friends.

Members of the Framed Sun Sect, their forces entirely defeated and looking tired, noticed the commotion and wandered in. They saw the mix of three different sects and independents. Several scoffed, and Xiulan thought they had a mind to start trouble, until they saw an image projected on the wall. Yun Ren had brought up the image he took of the Dueling Peaks’ sunset, the inspiration for their sect’s techniques.

The Young Master of the Framed Sun Sect marched over immediately, his eyes focused on the image.

And another group joined the party.

The crowd grew rowdier, gathering more stares from the curious. Cultivators wandered in from the outside, happily joining the group in their celebration. Disciples went back to their sects to spread the word of the gathering bringing even more to the establishment.

There was some commotion as Tigu started arguing with someone about art, clearly getting frustrated.

“Oh, so it's like that?! Well, allow me to show you!” Tigu suddenly boomed, pointing at another person. She raised her hands, a single Qi Blade forming over each. They were quite small, Tigu being too tired from the competition to summon her full strength.

It was enough for her desires though, and Tigu’s Qi blades rent into the table.

“Hey!” the owner of this branch of Chao Baozi shouted, who until this point had merely been watching them warily. He was fat around the middle with massive arms and a bright red nose. His face was a cross of fear and indignation, and an older gentleman, who had been leaning against the bar all night, straightened up. He was some manner of cultivator, that was clear to Xiulan, the fifth stage of the Initiate’s Realm from what she could gather. She had not seen him in the tournament however.

Tigu flushed, seeming to realise what she had done, and stood, bowing her head to the owner.

“Rou Tigu apologises for the damage to your property!” she said contritely. “I shall acquire another for you!”

The man seemed surprised at her display of remorse.

“Ah…uh… if it can be repaired, we’ll do that instead,” he offered, “How bad is the damage?”

Tigu nodded, and several people lifted up their plates, bowls and cups so she could pick it up and show the owner.

A carving of Tie Delun stared back, his muscles bulging as he and his hammer, in mid-motion, as he delivered a strike to an opponent. So lifelike it seemed that the hammer would whirl out of the carving and strike down whoever was facing it.

There were gasps of shock and whistles of appreciation from the crowd.

The owner stared at the carving in his table. He licked his lips. A mercenary smile stretched across his face.

“I’ll forgive you if you do the rest of the tables like that. A different one for each,” he offered.

Tigu brightened.

“Handsome Man, I challenge you!” she shouted. “I shall finish more tables, and at a higher quality than you!”

The man seemed utterly confused as Tigu gave her terms to her fellow carver, but he squared his shoulders and nodded.

“As you say, Miss Rou. I apologise, but I’ll be challenging your might.”

Tigu laughed. “I welcome every challenge! Never apologise for it!”

The pair spread out and began to work. Ragged cheers rose up from the crowd as splinters of wood started to fly.

“Hmmm? Sitting off to the side like always, how boring.” Xianghua sprawled into the seat next to Xiulan. She had a wide smile on her face as she took a swig of her own wine. “Though I’m surprised you’re here at all. I try for years, and nothing. Tell me, who succeeded in making Cai Xiulan come to a bar? Who stole this accomplishment from me?”

Xiulan let the needling comment slide off her back. Even after nearly a decade of tolerating Xianghua, Xiulan didn’t know what to make of the woman. They didn’t see each other often, and she was everything Xiulan wasn’t, or so she had thought. Arrogant and boastful. Free with her words and rebellious. Constantly needling Xiulan, or demanding that she go out and do something not related to cultivation…

Everything she had learned from Master Jin. And Xiulan had refused her every time, claiming that the time was better spent cultivating.

She could admit now that Xianghua had tried to be her friend and she had rejected her. Xiulan looked at Xianghua, whose eyes were on Bowu who was deep in discussion with Gou Ren. A sister’s smile. Shoulders not tense. Like Xiulan herself felt when she left Fa Ram.

“…I wish I had done so sooner. Back when you offered.” Words tinged with regret. Memories of a friendship that could have been, if not for her own thoughts on duty. “It is an enjoyable experience. As are the songs. Have you heard of the one with the Whore and the Donkey?”

Xianghua made a show of glancing into her cup curiously, then back at Xiulan.

“Are you sure you’re the same person?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

“…no. I don’t think I am,” the Blade of Grass admitted after a moment.

Xianghua’s face went blank as she examined Xiulan’s expression, before scoffing.

“Don’t change so much, fool. It makes things difficult for me,” she said bluntly, turning back to the party. Several shirts had come off at some point, and Yun Ren had stopped his images, instead setting up a collection of cups and a ball, a game he had learned from Master Jin. But there was almost a fondness in Xianghua’s voice.

Xiulan closed her eyes. They sat together, both watching as the carvings got more and more intricate and the game became quite competitive.

Xiulan poured Xianghua a drink.

“Hmph. Took you long enough,” Xianghua said.

She held up her cup.

Xiulan hooked her arm around Xianghua’s.

They drank, their arms linked.

Xianghua seemed inordinately pleased with herself.

“Before the semifinals, will you have another drink with me?” Xiulan asked.

The answer was immediate.

“Of course not,” Xianghua stated bluntly, sticking her nose in the air. “I have to take care of that handsome brother over there.”

“Do not toy with him or his heart,” Xiulan said, focusing her intent on Xianghua. The other woman paused and raised an eyebrow. “And don’t interfere with my juniors.”

“She certainly let me monopolize his time easily enough.” Xianghua smirked.

Xiulan frowned.

“You are infuriating sometimes.”

“This Young Mistress can only be infuriating to her lessers. Do work on your composure, Blade of Grass.” She smirked again, before her eyes turned serious. “…it is not my intention to toy with him.”

“What about your father?” Xiulan asked.

“What about him?” Xianghua replied derisively. “If he thinks to choose my future, he is a fool. I choose my own destiny. Is that not what a cultivator does?”

Xiulan went quiet, digesting her words when there was a sudden commotion as two men stood and started snarling at each other. Tigu for a brief moment perked up, happy that Master Jin’s statement about cultivators and restaurants was about to come true, before she slumped, remembering the tournament rules. No fighting outside designated areas. She considered the two men, before her eyes widened with an idea.

Things were getting heated in the argument, when Tigu came back with a barrel. She went to the arguing pair with it.

“This doesn’t count as fighting, right?” Tigu asked as she slammed a barrel down in between the two angry men. She looked over at the owner of the restaurant for confirmation.

The fat man nodded tentatively.

“Go on then!” Tigu demanded. The men seemed utterly confused… but complied with her demand. The two angry cultivators rammed their elbows onto the barrel and clasped hands.

The entire restaurant’s attention turned to the pair.

“The next round on the one in yellow.” Xiulan stated.

“A fool's bet, but I shall oblige you. Be thankful for my charity, Cai.”

Both women snorted.

There was a roar as the yellow clad man toppled his opponent. Xianghua waved for the bottle as they watched another man walk up to challenge the man in yellow.

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

Eventually, the night wound down. Xianghua collected her sleeping brother from Gou Ren. The groups of cultivators broke off, or some simply fell asleep across tables, much to the owner’s exasperation.

But one thing stuck with Xiulan.

Xianghua’s statement, of choosing her own destiny.

It invaded her thoughts as she tried to get to sleep, Tigu curling into Xiulan’s side.

She thought of it on the day of rest, as Tigu slept, recovering her strength.

She thought on it up to the last minute before her match, the first of the day.

Duty warred with desire. She pushed down the intrusive thoughts, and tried to focus— when she saw Xianghua cheerfully leaning up against Gou Ren. Junior Brother looked mildly concerned at the aggressive tactics, and seemed to be trying to use Bowu as a shield against his sister. Yun Ren just kept taking pictures.

“The Beautiful and Graceful Demon Slaying Orchid Versus—”

Xianghua caught Xiulan’s gaze, and winked.

The match started. Her opponent took advantage of her lapse in concentration, throwing himself forwards. Her own destiny. What was her own destiny? It was still something she was figuring out.

She thought about it as her body moved of its own accord.

What happened next was neither beautiful nor graceful.

There was an ugly crack as Xiulan stepped forwards.

Two foreheads connected. Her opponent sprawled to the ground.

The shocked silence afterwards was punctuated by Tigu’s laughter.

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A note from Casualfarmer

A very late post.

 

Xiulan learns her lessons well, I would say.

 

And As always, if you wish to read the next TWO chapters, I do have two advanced chapters on patreon

 

Finally, I will be announcing that I'm taking Friday, November 26th off, because its my birthday, and I'll be doing birthday thing then.


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