“The Azure Blade goes in, Huo Jian tries to counter— No, the blade strikes true! And there it is, The winner is the Young Master of the Azure Horizon Sect! Raise your voices for his victory!” Bai Huizong, His Imperial Majesty’s Director of Spiritual Ascension Affairs for the Azure Hills, shouted into his Resounding Crystal Dias.
There was some polite clapping and cheers from the spectators. The fight had been quite good, in Huizong’s own humble opinion, but the crowd had gotten a taste for grander fare. He once more cursed the fact that Xianghua and Tigu were placed so close together in the brackets. That had been a semifinal match at least. Hells, if it was within his power he would have torn out one of the other competitors instead, just to bring her back! Xianghua was a serious money maker.
Huizong’s eyes scanned the crowd as the groups settled into idle chatter. It was quite low energy today, the crowds watching out of the corners of their eyes while chatting about Xianghua versus Tigu. They felt like there was nothing to look forward to, even after the amusing defeat Cai Xiulan handed her opponent. Really, that was most unexpected! It took until the next competitors were in the arena for the shock to wear off.
Though it did present Huizong with a problem when writing out his narrative account of the tournament. What manner of upstanding Young Mistress would headbutt her opponent?
He considered his choices. He could either turn it into just a punch, omit the fight… or say that it was retaliation against some manner of unwanted advance. That one was probably the best, and it wasn’t like On Gang’s sect was particularly powerful if they did take offense. Huizong vaguely remembered that they had interacted once before. Young Mistress Cai had rebuked him then as well. Huizong nodded, that would definitely work.
The next match too was met with polite clapping.
An Ran versus The Young Master of the Grand Ravine Sect.
According to the rumours going around she had recently gained the moniker “Smaller Blade of Grass”, which was apt, he thought with a smirk. She certainly was smaller, especially where it counted. Against her was Guo Daxian, the favoured son of his sect. From what he knew of the place, Daxian was some kind of revered name granted to the leaders of the sect and their direct line.
It was another mismatch, but it was notable for the Verdant Blade Sect to get so many disciples so far into the tournament. He had assumed after the devastation that Sun Ken had visited upon them they would have lost some strength, but their newer recruits and the Young Mistress seemed to have shored up that weakness.
“An Ran, The Smaller Blade of Grass, Versus The Mighty, Unflinching Young Master of the Grand Ravine Sect, Guuuuuoooooo Daxian!”
There was no talk this time, to Huizong’s disappointment. Pre-fight banter always got the crowd more invested. Instead, all An Ran was doing was taking deep, calming breaths while her opponent studied her. Daxian’s face was a stoney mask.
“Begin!” He commanded.
Guo Daxian moved immediately. His rope-sword lashed out, stabbing into the ground near An Ran.In an eyeblink, he was right next to the younger woman..
An Ran barely got her sword up to block the attack, the blade skittering off her own, when Daxian hammered a fist into her gut, folding the woman in half from the force of the blow.
“A fiery beginning!” He shouted out. Guo Daxian seemed to have tried to take her out quickly, so as to not lose too much face. Cai Xiulan had instantly defeated one of his own sectmates, so the Young Master would match her deed. A bold strategy, and the fast paced nature of the attack caught the crowd’s attention.
Daxian continued his combo, hammering into his younger opponent. A strike to the side of her head. The girl barely managed to deflect the blow. A long line formed on her arm spraying blood. It was looking like her defeat was assured, as Daxian closed to end it. The rope part of his weapon went to wrap around and snare her arm, while the blade was in Daxian’s hand, ready to end the fight.
An Ran's sword split in two, a smaller dagger allowing her to parry the blade, and a second blow making Daxian retreat.
An Ran staggered regaining her balance from the vicious assault and took a breath, returning to her stance.
Daxian’s frown grew heavier at his still standing opponent, his eyes narrowing with wrath.
But the distance she created was not to her advantage, as the Young Master from the Grand Ravine Sect switched tactics.
The attacks came absolutely relentlessly. The weapon Daxian used was a strange one, his blade attached to a long rope. The rope snared, while the blade danced about in unpredictable patterns. Attempt to deal with the blade, and the rope would suddenly be tangling a foot. Strike the rope, and the blade would whip around like a snake, striking from an unexpected angle.
An Ran desperately parried, her eyes darting about tand attempting to keep track of everything, while still trying to close the distance. Daxian’s weapon snaked and slithered like it was a living thing, foiling any attempt. Against Cai Xiulan, or any core disciple of the Verdant Blade Sect, this would not be so nearly a devastating advantage. Their floating blades would turn the distance back into an even fight. An Ran, however, could not make her blades float, locking her into one range. She had no recourse but to charge forwards, into the space Daxian controlled.
Daxian denied her charge. He was carefully keeping An Ran away while whittling her down. Some may call it cowardly, but the Grand Ravine’s people were notorious for their hit and run style of combat. Huizong didn’t care either way. It certainly made for a tense show.
“Another strike! Even with her two Blades of Grass, An Ran can’t close the distance!” Huizong’s voice boomed as he narrated, trying to rouse the crowd’s spirits. Tigu was certainly loud enough, shouting and heckling both combatants, for which Huizong was thankful for. She had gotten the crowd back into the bout.
He might even do something nice for the girl. She was already making his wallet much heavier.
An Ran charged, purposefully ramming into the rope and trying to unbalance her opponent. She threw her short, ghostly blade through the gap. It seemed to curve of its own accord, almost flying through the air, and headed right for her opponent.
Daxian backhanded it out of the air unconcerned. The blade exploded into wisps of Qi. His rope curled, wrapping around the woman’s body, its blade coming to bear, ready to punch deep and end the fight.
Guo Daxian grimaced and pulled his strike. The blade on the end of the rope, instead of striking home, curved at the last moment, wrapping around An Ran’s chest and neck, binding her tight. The blade kept up its momentum, landing back in it’s master’s hand. Guo Daxian pulled on the rope, part of it wrapped around his arm, and the other attached to the blade in his hand. An Ran was pulled off her feet, and towards the Young Master of the Grand Ravine Sect.
Daxian caught her out of the air and pinned her with one arm, the other pushing his blade against An Ran’s throat.
Immobilized and unable to struggle free, the girl went limp, surrendering.
The gong sounded.
“And Victory for the Young Master of the Grand Ravine Sect!” Huizong shouted.
There was some grumbling from the crowd, but it was mostly drowned out by polite clapping. They always appreciated when a beautiful woman walked away relatively unharmed. She was a cute little thing. It was almost a shame she was a cultivator, but alas, that’s what she was.
Though Guo Daxian’s concerns were likely of a more practical nature, if Huizong’s guess was right. The young man rarely restrained himself so much, and cared little for the sex of his oppoenent. No, his concern was honour, and something more immediate. The Demon-Slaying Orchid had restrained herself when facing one of his own sect members, handing him a polite defeat without even injuring him. A bit of an insult, but that was preferable to being absolutely brutalized.
The Young Master of the Grand Ravine Sect turned to the Verdant Blade’s competitor section, and nodded his head. Cai Xiulan inclined hers in return.
It was only intelligent that Daxian did the same. The girl seemed close to her Young Mistress… And Daxian was going to have to face the Demon-Slaying Orchid in the semifinals.
The Demon-Slaying Orchid who so far had not shown a single technique. Who had defeated most competitors in a single blow in a display of absolute dominance.
Yes, the smart thing to do was to repay her kindness, and none had ever accused the Grand Ravine Sect of being foolish. Barbaric Tribals, perhaps whispered behind their backs, but never foolish.
Huyi versus Tie Delun was another swift defeat. Huyi gave a surprisingly good showing, managing to get close and hammer his blade into places that were generally weak points… Only for those strikes to skitter off Delun’s skin and a massive hand to close around Huyi’s throat, lifting the Verdant Blade Sect disciple completely off the ground. One last strike to the elbow failed to accomplish anything and Huyi surrendered.
The next fight was another odd one. It started out as expected, with Zang Wei getting the hells kicked out of him by his more experienced opponent. Each strike was perfect, laying the little independant out on his arse in short order. Huizong blinked as Zang Wei was on his back, his opponent going for the finishing blow, but in that space Zang Wei was standing again, the beaten boy grinning through his swollen face. His opponent collapsed on the ground, eyes rolled up into his head and unconscious.
Chants of “Loud Boy! Loud Boy!” Filled the arena as he basked in his victory.
The last fight of the day was for the second time in a row Tigu, and she delivered. A knock-down-drag-out slugging match against Dulou Gan, though it was more due to the man’s resilience than anything else. He got the worst of it as Tigu pummeled him. Less exciting than the charged match against Liu Xianghua, but acceptable for a final bout.
Huizong took a swig of his water as the Earthly Arena was raised again, and closed his eyes as the cool breeze whispered across his balding head.
Rising higher into the sky never truly got old.
An odd tournament this year. Full of upsets, and with a twisting turning story.
A small smile spread across his face.
Now, it was time for his other job.
“No, no, not that one. The muscles are too big, soften her out a bit. Fix her eyes too, too narrow. Too predatory.” Huizong shook his head at the artist as he continued to draw out his newest article.
The artist frowned, considering his work. “Dangerous, but not entirely villainous? Play up the young girl angle, rather than the “fighter” angle?”
“Exactly!” Huizong nodded. “She is your cheeky daughter. A bit different than we were going for at the start, but it's fine this way too. Cocky and impertinent, but not some beast that will ambush you on the side of the road. Like a beloved youngest daughter.”
“Yes Sir, I’ll get it done.” The artist bowed.
“Good man!” Bai Huizong set down his brush and handed the scroll off to one of his aides. He was seated at his desk on a small balcony overlooking the workshop below. Hammers pounded and needles flashed as his workers below crafted the designs for the dolls that he would be selling.
“Get that over to the transmission stone. If we work fast we’ll still manage to get it out today.” His aide nodded his head, scurrying off. “Hu! How was the previous report received?”
Another aide stepped up and bowed.
“Very well, sir. The scribes put on a rush order, as you said, and they got the banners up. Reception for Liu Xianghua and Rou Tigu has been excellent in Grass Sea City, and we’ll know by tomorrow how things pan out in Pale Moon Lake.”
“Sales figures?” He asked.
“In line with expectations, sir. The scribes had to pull a second shift though, they sold out of the first copies.”
“Excellent! Add a bonus for whoever completes the most copies,” Huizong declared.
“As you say, sir.”
Huizong smiled, stretching and plucking another honey candy from the bowl on his desk. The honey helped soothe his voice after a long day. He certainly wasn’t getting any younger, and his voice tended to start to blow out at the end of an event.
“How are the designs going?” He asked the head of the workshop, Hei Cho. who had been working for him for over two decades. She knew what he wanted.
A tray of dolls was presented to him.
“Simple but effective,” Huizong stated as he picked up the one of Rou Tigu. It was quite well designed, with the markings on her face being prominent, with yellow painted eyes and orange yarn hair. Easy to produce.
“Yes, sir. Overhead on Liu Xianghua will be higher if we include her furnace, however.” Cho warned.
Huizong scratched his chin as he picked up the other doll. The green furnace and smokestack, made out of carved wood, was strapped to the doll’s back. “...Keep the furnace and the price the same. We’ll make up for lower profits with more sales. I have a good feeling about this one. Are we still in line with the timetable?”
“We can probably get one more out, and keep the main release in-line with the end of the tournament,” Cho informed him.
Huizong pondered for a moment before shaking his head.
“No, these are good enough. Get them and the designs to the runner, and start production as soon as you can.”
“Yes, Sir.” Cho said with an elegant bow.
Huizong kept his eyes on her rear as he watched her go.
Until he heard her chuckle.
He coughed, shaking his head, and turned to the rest of his men.
“Anything else to report?” He asked.
Hu nodded, stepping forwards again. “There are whispers of another party that is going to happen on the first day of the break before the finals. We missed the last one, which was cordial, but this one seems like it's going to be significantly larger.”
“Is there a main organiser?”
“Chen Yang of the Framed Sun Sect… and Liu Xianghua. There are invitations. From the rumors? Every person who has taken part in the tournament is invited.”
“Interesting. Get some men into the crowd, and inform the merchants. The brave can get their reward, with our cut of course. And if things turn sour with a bunch of drunken youngsters; make it clear it's not our problem.”
“Indeed.” Hu chuckled at the statement.
“Anything else?” Huizong asked.
“The owner of Chao Baozi is refusing to sell to us. He wants to keep the tables in the restaurant.”
“....change tack, see if he’ll let us take charcoal reliefs of them, and if he says no to that... just do it anyway.”
“As you say, sir.”
Huizong nodded. “Then I’ll get started on tomorrow’s paperwork. Get the lads down there something special, they’ve worked hard these past days.”
Hu clasped his hands together and bowed, accepting the dismissal.
Huizong reached into the tray his aides had organised for him, grabbing the one right at the front. He frowned at the piece of parchment before him, authorizing another set of barrels for the delegation from the Shrouded Mountain Sect. How much could those bastards drink?!
With an irritated sigh, he signed it.