Cheng Lianji, of the Plum Blossom’s Shadow, was nervous. Master Scribe had called a full assembly for the first time in months. Had they failed somehow? Was their lord displeased?
They had found this ‘Jin Rou.’ Their lord had spoken with him and then he had been spotted leaving the city. Had the meeting gone well? Had something unfortunate happened? They were all questions that had no answers.
There were soft murmurs as they all stood at attention in the hall of the building that once served as the main base of operation for the Long Knives. It had been taken over, cleaned, and repurposed after the fools had attempted to assassinate Master Scribe. Lianji still remembered the lack of change in their Master’s expression as he stood surrounded by fallen men with not a scratch upon him. Not a hair out of place, not any evidence he had moved too fast to see. Not that he had defeated a threat before most knew there was a threat at all.
A poison smoke bomb sealed up. Fires extinguished before they spread. Knives and darts plucked out of the air before they could find purchase in flesh.
He only seemed mildly disappointed at the men for “acting out.”
Lianji shook his head, ridding himself of the image as Master Scribe walked onto the dais, his feet absolutely soundless as always. His aides and top members were with him and all looked pleased.
“We pay our respects to Master Scribe!” the assembled members of the Plum Blossom’s Shadow shouted as one, bowing their heads.
Their lord nodded his head, gazing out over his assembled men. He was stern and proud. Handsome, like he was carved from stone. Yet his eyes were what truly set him apart. They were heavy with a weight that sent a thrill through Lianji when he gazed into their resolute depths.
The eyes of a leader. Of a man already looking beyond the horizon.
“Members of the Plum Blossom’s Shadow. Allow me to begin the meeting with praise.” His voice was calm, and to the point. There were a few breaths of relief, and a few pointed glares at their leaders, who had kept the reward a secret. He could see the amused smiles on their faces, at causing their subordinates some grief.
“Performance in this task has been exemplary. Above and beyond my expectations. Your loyalty, initiative, and ability deserves reward; Today, we are gathered for those among you who have gone above and beyond to receive merit.”
Men stood even straighter at that.
One by one men were called up from the ranks to stand in front of their peers, to be praised and given rewards.
Men who had stepped up to speak with an unknown cultivator, who may have objected to their presence. Men of courage. Men who had the initiative to contact and include every piece of information, no matter if they thought it was irrelevant.
And then it was Lianji’s turn. He had written the main report that his Master had read, organizing all the information. An administrative role.
“For the works of Chen Lianji, I award him a first tier merit and promote him two ranks. His initiative and thoughtfulness should serve as an inspiration to every man in this organisation,” Master Scribe declared. Chen Lianji bowed his head, accepting the pouch of money as well as the scroll that detailed his new position.
Not for the first time did Lianji thank his stars that Master Scribe had taken over. Real rewards. Actual Merit. True respect.
A chance to rise, rather than being forced to run drugs.
He was still lightheaded as he walked back to his position.
Master Scribe nodded his head.
“This concludes the awards for merit,” he stated, his timeless eyes gazing upon them. All felt their backs straighten.
Their Lord considered them for a moment.
“Now, onto the next step. This mission is accomplished. However, there is much speculation about the man you were tasked to find. And while it is not truly necessary for you to know, curiosity can drive men to foolish endeavours. I believe it best to end such speculative endeavors. There are some facts I will share with you.”
There were a few men that shuffled uncomfortably.
No one had actually expected to get answers. That just didn’t happen. That the Master Scribe was willing to let them see even a fraction of what was going on was a measure of trust few of their number had experienced.
“Jin Rou is an important Junior Brother of mine. It is for this reason he is not to be accosted and the area of Verdant Hill is to be designated as priority. If any undesirables attempt to take root, pluck them out, but otherwise do not delve into his business.”
“Yes, Master Scribe!” voices called. Lianji nodded his head. A Junior to Master Scribe? Murmurs broke out in the crowd as they discussed this development. Their mission had been more important than they thought. Any Junior to their Lord would be powerful in his own right—and he was. Did not the Azure Jade Trading Company start asking questions when they involved Master Jin?
Lianji didn’t know why the man would have been in hiding, however, to the point where Master Scribe forged their organization. Perhaps there was some enemy of Master Scribe afoot? Lianji scowled. An enemy that could force one of Master Scribe’s compatriots into hiding would be a powerful foe. Perhaps that is why he chose them? It opened up more questions than it answered, but Master Scribe’s orders were clear. His curiosity would be set aside. Perhaps they were not ready to hear the whole truth yet, but Lianji was satisfied for now.
He nodded. “Excellent. I shall allow your heads to say a few words as well,” Master Scribe stated and stepped back.
Xun Huang, the head of merchant information, stepped forwards.
What followed was more praise and more distribution of merit. The difference was stark. He knew that his previous bosses took them for granted, outside the few leg-breakers who were royally rewarded. That they, the ranks, were receiving such attention… it made Lianji’s heart sing with joy.
Bing Yan of the Underside, his twitchy eyes rolling around, came up next. The man who rubbed shoulders with the criminals, and who rebuked those who would dare resist their Master’s Will.
Zhen of the Palace. The plain, unassuming woman with no surname, who could intercept transmission stone messages.
And finally Aiguo Han of the Beggars. The man who sent his subordinates to be the eyes and ears in the streets. The beggars in particular owed their Loyalty to Master Scribe and the Plum Blossoms. Master Scribe had seen a gold mine of information in the poor and destitute, and now, the slums and secret places were dyed in the Plum Blossom’s colour.
Each boss stepped up. Each boss handed out a reward. Each boss elevated the talents of those beneath them. All the while Master Scribe looked on in approval.
Until Huang stepped up again.
“Finally we, the Plum Blossom’s Shadow, would like to thank our Master Scribe for this tough test of our abilities. However, we have a burning question. What is the next step that we need to take?” Boss Huang asked, his eyes focused.
“Indeed, Master Scribe, we thank you for this opportunity, but we are eager to receive your orders. We request our next assignment so that we may further your designs!”
There were murmurs and nods. That was the consensus among the men. That this mission was either a test, or the first of many. For who would craft an entire organisation to find a single man? Master Scribe obviously had some grand design, and they, his instrument, were only eager to see his will done.
Their lord considered his underlings. His face was stone as always.
He nodded his head.
“The Azure Jade Trading Company is of importance to my Junior Brother. For now, the goal shall be to integrate yourselves with them and aid these operations.”
There were whispers. The Azure Jade Trading Company had been one of the first to use their services, as Master Scribe had defined them. They had been very pleased with their work, driving out the other gangs and making the streets safer for them to conduct their business. A profitable relationship.
Now their private guards were stalking around the alleyways, and the leadership of the organization was asking very pointed questions about why they had accosted “Master Jin.”
It was good that their interests would align.
Information and trade. A grasp upon the entire province.
Their lord truly was an ambitious man.
“As you command, Master Scribe.”
What followed was a grand feast. They ate, they drank, and were merry, the Master’s reward for their service. But he had one more announcement, before the end of the night.
“I shall once more be out of the province, as I have some business to attend to,” Master Scribe informed them. “It likely will not be for very long, and I shall return soon. Huang will be in charge in the interim. Continue operations here for now. I’ll be expecting good news when I return.”
“Yes, Master Scribe!” the roar once more went out.
The Plum Blossom’s Shadow had its new orders. The Azure Jade Trading Company would come to serve Master Scribe. And from there, they would have the whole of the Azure Hills in their palms.
Lianji basked in the glow, the feeling of being worth something. He spoke with his fellows, as they enjoyed themselves. Master Scribe eventually excused himself, leaving his subordinates to it.
But it was still the height of summer, and the room was getting a bit hot. His face flushed with alcohol, he padded out of the big hall, and into the courtyard. To his surprise, there was another here.
“Master Scribe?” he asked the man, staring up at the sky in contemplation.
“Yes, Chen Lianji?” his lord asked, turning from the moonrise. Lianji’s eyes widened, that Master Scribe remembered his name.
“Uh… sorry for interrupting you, Master Scribe. I was just surprised to see you, sir.”
Master Scribe considered him for a moment. “I see,” he stated simply.
Lianji shuffled uncomfortably under his Lord’s gaze, but his mouth got the better of him.
“Ah, Master Scribe, if you do not mind me asking, what is it that you were thinking about?”
Master Scribe seemed a bit surprised by Linji’s question. A small, indulgent smile crossed his Lord’s face. Like he was entertaining the question of a child.
“Contemplating a task. A long, frustrating and tedious task,” he said before raising an eyebrow. “How would you seek to accomplish a long, difficult task, Chen Lianji?” the man asked.
“Uh… Ma always said to start small. Chip away at the base, day by day?” Lianji returned uncertainly. “It’ll get finished eventually.”
His Master considered him for a moment longer.
“As fine an answer as any, I suppose,” he started, turning once more to the moon. It was a dismissal that even his tipsy mind could comprehend. But there was one last thing he felt obligated to say.
“And, um, Master Scribe? May you have good fortune on your journey.”
His lord’s lip twitched into a small smile.
Lu Ri’s face was fixed in a small smile as he sped across the land, heading back to the Cloudy Sword Sect. Each leap took him across another hill, and each moment brought him closer to the mountain. There were some things that were frustrating, true. Jin Rou having refused to return to the sect, for one. That he was once more a messenger, another.
But he had completed his mission. He was not returning empty-handed. He would be able to give his findings to the Masters, and then he might be able to put this frustrating business behind himself.
He took a deep breath as he departed the Azure Hills, into the Howling Fang Mountains. The fastest route back to Raging Waterfall Gorge. Qi once more filled his lungs as it ought to have, as he entered the mountain peaks, invigorating and strengthening him. Washing away some of the fatigue and bleeding out the tension from his body. He felt as light as a feather. Like he finally could breathe again, after his chest had been crushed by a mountain. That Jin Rou had managed to form his odd cultivation in that place was perplexing to say the least, but it was not his place to push the issue.
The deprived land of the Azure Hills was… a complex issue in his heart. On one hand, he hated the place. On the other…
The Plum Blossom’s Shadow.
Truly, the Honoured Founders' teachings were sublime. Such loyalty! Such passion! If only his own subordinates at the sect were half as driven as these mortals, the Cloudy Sword Sect would have never have been brought so low in the Elder’s eyes!
But it was also shameful he had hesitated on seeing their passion. He had meant to hand over control of the organization entirely. Or at least to begin to wean them off his influence.
Yet instead, he only half went through with the plan. With Jin Rou still in the province he may have a need for their abilities in the future.
And… he was loath to give them up so easily. They had aided him greatly in finding Jin Rou. To leave them without giving them further guidance sat ill with him. A part of him wanted to see just how far they could go. What could these mortals accomplish, with just the Honoured Founders’ wisdom?
He pondered what to do as the day wore on until he stopped for the night. His return was not quite as urgent. Elder Ran had received his message, with Elder Ge still upon his own quest. Elder Ran had been pleased the subject had been found… but still wished for Lu Ri to report in person. Transmission stones were hardly secure. His mission was currently complete. He knew where Jin Rou was. He had received news that Jin Rou was not coming back to the Sect. Everything else was up to the Elders… but he had a feeling his own involvement was not yet finished.
He sighed when he stopped for the night. The stars were brilliant in this section of the Howling Fang Mountains, complementing the cold mountain air perfectly. There was no snow here, not yet anyway, yet the vegetation was pale with frost. The hardy trees and plants withstood the conditions, the proud evergreens uncaring of the cold.
Lu Ri settled down to meditate for his rest and took out the gift he had received from his Junior brother.
An entire jar of maple syrup. It made up for quite a bit of the frustration he had felt.
He carefully ladled it out onto the small pieces of bread he had. The almost smoky, savoury-sweet flavour assaulted his tongue. As much as he desired to place upon his meal, instead of a bare drizzle. And the best part was that it was not even too much of an indulgence. There was a quantity of Qi within the syrup. Noticeable, now that he had a greater volume than the tiny amount he had been served in the tea shop.
Enough so that even a cultivator in the Profound Realm could likely derive some use from it. Enough that Lu Ri could likely benefit eventually, though it would likely take gallons of the stuff before it had any true effect. Perhaps if he made a pill out of it? That it was made in the Azure Hills was astounding. And that it was Jin Rou who had made it… It was not quite as good as a lowly spiritual herb, but it was still far beyond what one could expect in those hills.
He finished his consumption and returned to the lotus position. He closed his eyes underneath the stars and took deep breaths of Qi-rich air.
His thoughts wandered back to the scroll he was delivering. His entire mission up until this point.
A messenger. He did wish there was an easier way.
Yes, there was the Imperial Army, and there were Imperial Messengers. But both had their own inefficiencies. Sending a message out of the province, and to a place that wasn’t an Imperial Palace, tended to be a bit of a game of chance whether it would arrive or not.
Spirit beasts. Qi-powered weather. The normal moving and shifting of the world. There were many improvements that could be made, and many challenges that would have to be overcome. But largely, as long as the Palaces remained open to communication, and the sects could be found, there was little initiative to fix or change anything. The System had held together for thousands of years.
Even Transmission stones had their problems, with their connection issues.
Lu Ri frowned. Good messengers were few and far between. It was an inefficiency of the Empire as a whole. Spotty transmission stone connections. Slow speed of messages…
Lu Ri frowned. How could he fix such a thing? Fix it so he wouldn’t have to constantly be sent back and forth?
A set of trusted messengers who would be able to deliver things anywhere. But that was a monumental task. To fully create a different system, and test it out…
“Ma always said to start small. Chip away at the base, day by day.”
Lu Ri paused on that thought. An organization eager to prove itself, and a place to test some ideas…
A place where he could chip away, day by day, at his leisure.
He considered the merits. It may never amount to anything, and would require a bit of research, but the idea was intriguing…