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“Ha! We’re on top of the world!” Loud Boy shouted, his voice echoing off the mountain and down into the valley below.

 

Tigu grinned wildly, up in the cold air. They stared together from the top of the Dueling Peaks. The Earthly Arena was directly below them on one side, and the other stretched off into the distance as a field of verdant green that rolled into the horizon.

 

“Hello!” Tigu shouted, her voice echoing down. She giggled.

 

Rags rolled his eyes from beside her. “You Brats,” he muttered.

 

“So? How you feeling about your match tomorrow?” Loud Boy asked her. “Gonna be tough going up against Miss Cai, yeah?”

 

Tigu shrugged. “It's just another fight against the Blade of Grass.”

 

“‘Just another fight against the Blade of Grass.’” Rags mocked, shaking his head.

 

“Hey! I’ve beaten her once!” She retaliated… before frowning, “but it didn’t really count because she was being stupid.”

 

Both of her friends stared at her with raised brows.

 

“What? She hadn’t slept for a week, the fool. Master and Mistress had to fix her before she hurt herself.”

 

“Master, huh?” Loud Boy mused. “What kind of man is he, if you don’t mind me asking?”

 

“The best and the strongest.” Tigu said immediately. “Mistress is amazing too.”

 

“Oh? Was he that confident that you were going to win the prize?” Rags asked.

 

“Prize? I just wanted to fight.” Tigu declared.

 

The boys looked at each other. “That… well, that explains a lot.” Loud Boy said.

 

Tigu shrugged again, staring out onto the horizon. “I wish he was here. He said he might come… but he doesn’t like this kind of stuff. Or other cultivators at all really. He said the sect he was from was…” she cut herself off and pouted.

 

“Well, Master does what Master wants to do. Besides, the First Disciple needed his help more. I am entirely self-sufficient! He may be stronger than me, but he always needs me to look after his mistakes!” She declared pompously.

 

“Wait, stronger than you?!” Loud Boy’s shout of shock lived up to his name.

 

“Mmm. For now at least.” She shook her head. She took one last breath of the air, then slashed her claws down into the snow. “Well, I’m good to go!”

 

Both the boys stared at her.

 

“Wait, that's it? I thought you got us up here to get in some last minute training.” Loud Boy admitted.

 

“Eh? No, I just wanted to carve my name into the top of the mountain. Besides, Handsome Man wants to meet us for tea!”

 

“He wants to meet you for tea.” Loud Boy muttered.

 

Rags just laughed as they started back down the mountain. Down the severe slope at the top, clear of trees. Down the side, where there was the occasional stone entrance hacked into the side of the peaks. Some were ancient, and caved in, while others still lead into empty chambers. Slowly, the mountain transitioned into town. Into the massive manors of the sects, and from there, into the crowded streets beyond. Loud Boy and Rags heckled each other constantly while Tigu skipped along, humming to herself as she went to visit another friend.

 

Which is when her back began to itch.

 

She felt like she was being watched. A tingle on the back of her neck. Something that set her instincts ablaze—

 

“You alright, Tigu?” Loud Boy asked.

 

Tigu shook off the feeling, her heart hammering in her chest.

 

She frowned, but the feeling was gone.

 

“Ah, Tigu!” Handsome Man called her, his face bright with a smile. He strode forwards, happily… before he noticed her other companions. His face fell.

 

“Handsome Man!”

 

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

 

Little hands worked, writing things down on a small pad of paper. Acupuncture points, hypotheses on damage locations, a treatment plan.

 

A distraction for her own nervousness. Which was a bit foolish considering Ri Zu had asked for introductions to be made.

 

“Ah! There you are!” Rizu heard Tigu proclaim as she entered the small storage room where she had been deep in contemplation. “They shall be here soon!”

 

Ri Zu nodded her head as the cat-turned-girl sat down in front of her with a smile. She took a breath trying to calm herself.

 

The feeling in her stomach just wouldn’t go away. There was always that tiny voice in the back of her head, making her shy away from those she did not know. It was just part of who she was. An instinct that couldn’t be ignored, like Tigu’s own predatory behavior. It had saved her life when Chow Ji was in charge… but it proved to be an impediment now.

 

She had needed a kick in the rear to meet people last time, only intervening when it was life or potentially death for the Petals.

 

Yes. I am preparing things. Ri Zu needs to do a closer inspection of his leg, but she does not think it should be as damaged as it is.’

 

Tigu nodded her head, grinning. “Hopefully everything will go as well as when Loud Boy and Rags asked you for help! They fell down at your feet in praise!”

 

It was just some of Master’s acupuncture.’ Ri Zu deflected. The two of them had asked for her assistance after Loud Boy had been injured in the battle against Tie Delun. The fool boy’s jaw had needed setting, but Rags had to drag him to Ri Zu. He seemed quite surprised that she helped him.

 

“I don’t have any money.” He had whispered in shame.

 

‘You may pay Ri Zu back later then.’ She had replied to the dejected man. It wasn’t like she particularly needed it.

 

The number of times his head hit the floor as he kowtowed had been quite embarrassing.

 

Rag’s liver was in truly deplorable condition, and Loud Boy had some strange snarl in his Qi. Ri Zu thinks it was from all the times he blocked hits with his face.’

 

Tigu started laughing.

 

“Ah, hard to believe it’s almost over. One more match against the Blade of Grass!” She had a giant grin on her face, and Ri Zu offered her a small smile in return. “We shall have to come here again! Or visit Handsome Man or Loud Boy and Rags!”

 

Perhaps…’ Ri Zu said noncommittally. ‘Ri Zu is sure you will at least have made some friends here.’

 

Tigu frowned slightly at the awkward pause in the conversation. She bit her lip and stood up, walking over to the small window.

 

“…This hasn’t been enjoyable for you, has it?” Tigu asked. “And.,. well, I have been doing things and paying you little mind, haven’t I?”

 

Ri Zu’s eyebrow raised as Tigu carefully looked out the window. It still struck her how much Tigu had changed. Tigu, who mere months ago, never would have even considered the words that now came out of her mouth. Apologizing to the “prey” would have only happened over her corpse.

 

But… there was truth to Tigu’s words. Tigu came back each day with a smile, talking rapidly about how fun things were. Ri Zu listened, but it was hard not to feel a bit left out. But at the same time, she often didn’t know what to say. All she knew was medicine. And when she spoke of her passion to An Ran, the Smaller Blade of Grass’ eyes had started to glaze over and she couldn’t keep up. It was simultaneously frustrating and scary. She was frustrated with herself every time she decided not to join in, and whenever she did start to talk to people, it got awkward. To think that she, the one who learned to truly speak first, was the worst at conversation.

 

Ri Zu shrugged. ‘Some parts have been quite fun. Looking for herbs. Preserving the spider legs. Ri Zu thought she would be more fine with simply observing… but she thinks she knows how you felt now. Ri Zu appreciates your concern, Tigu.

 

The cat crossed her arms and grumbled. “I feel kind of bad now, though.” Tigu muttered.

 

Indeed. This entire adventure was not quite what Ri Zu had imagined it to be. All the fighting, meeting with the Petals, Rags paying her in bottles of wine that she still had no idea what to do with.

 

It was… well, an interesting experience to say the least. She flipped the scroll over and looked at the notes on transformation she had made.

 

Well. Ri Zu will simply make you carry her things when she visits these places again.’

 

Tigu perked up and grinned. “Or we could find some place you want to go. There’s supposed to be a big herb auction in Grass Sea City—I asked Xiulan about it. We could go over there?”

 

Ri Zu chuckled and shook her head. ‘Ri Zu would like that. Just the two of us, a trip for us girls?’

 

Tigu cocked her head to the side, “But why wouldn’t we want Master and Mistress and our nrother disciples?”

 

Tigu didn’t seem to get the same exhaustion Ri Zu got when talking to multiple people… but it was a good idea. All of them together. ‘Ah, yes, a trip with the Master and Mistress sounds grand.’

 

Tigu’s grin spread across her face. “Of course my idea is good— Ah! They’re here!”

 

Tigu held out her arm.

 

Ri Zu steeled herself, scampered up Tigu’s arm, and settled into the back of her shirt.

 

Underneath Tigu’s collar was warm and safe, Ri Zu reflected. Almost as warm and safe as underneath Bi De’s coat.

 

It was warm and comfortable. Safe, riding on the back of a cat. How strange.

 

Ri Zu could feel Tigu’s steps were bouncy as she entered the main meeting hall. There was a clink of teacups as their guests were served.

 

“You said a great doctor wished to speak with us, Cai Xiulan?” The voice of Xianghua was domineering and demanding, but there was an undercurrent of worry and hope.

 

Ri Zu steeled herself and slid out of Tigu’s shirt. She alighted on the table before them. Xianghua flinched at the sudden movement and aborted shoving herself in front of her brother.

 

Good Day, this one is Hong Ri Zu. She greets you, Liu Bowu, Liu Xianghua.’ Her greeting was clear and enunciated properly. Her accent and speech was under control. It was a perfect introduction!

 

Still, the stares always made her squirm. Bowu, the small boy with the limp, seemed curious, but his elder sister was kind of amusing. Her jaw dropped, her eyes went wide, and she looked absolutely flabbergasted

 

She pointed a finger at Ri Zu and turned to Xiulan, a look of utter bafflement on her face.

 

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

 

‘The damage to the knee is less severe than Ri Zu thought. The scarring is there, yes, but it is spread out along these sections.’ Ri Zu muttered as she worked, tracing her paw lined with medical Qi down the boy’s leg.

 

He was laid out on a cushion with his head in his Sister’s lap. Xianghua’s eyes were sharp as daggers as Ri Zu worked. Her body was coiled tense and Ri Zu could feel Xianghua’s intent on the back of her head. It was almost predatory, but she ignored it. This was her duty.

 

Bowu, on the other hand, just seemed fascinated, and slightly hopeful. He kept pinching his arm whenever he looked down at Ri Zu’s small form.

 

Xiulan was seated at the table along with Yun Ren and Gou Ren. The Petals had vacated the area, giving them some privacy.

 

Xianghua frowned. “I have gotten many doctors to look at his leg. All have said that it was unsalvageable with their techniques…”

 

Her voice was hard as she delivered the statement.

 

‘Ri Zu knows this, but…’ She brought out a sprig of Spiritual Herb. Xianghua’s eyes widened.

 

She chewed her lip. “Some of the same that Tigu gave me?”

 

Yes. This may not be enough, but Ri Zu’s Master is trying to find ways to fix another patient, one whose injuries far eclipse yours. Ri Zu cannot cure this now… but she thinks she can lessen the limp you have.

 

Xianghua’s face was carefully blank.

 

“What sort of payment would your Master require for such a boon?” She asked.

 

You have many plants in the Misty Lake, yes? She would ask you to grant her seeds, saplings, and mushrooms from your home.

 

The woman’s eyebrow raised. “That’s it?” she asked, glancing to Xiulan.

 

Xiulan nodded her head and glanced to Ri Zu.

 

Master’s hobby is… well... She would prefer things that cause debilitating, but not lethal side effects.

 

Xianghua raised an eyebrow.

 

“Your Master sounds terrifying.” She stated blandly.

 

“She is,” Xiulan and Gou Ren muttered in unison.

 

Xianghua considered it for a moment. She looked to her brother.

 

“If you think this will help…” Bowu said. “Then please, do whatever you think needs to be done.”

 

Ri Zu nodded. She would make her Master proud.

 

And after several hours of work, with needles and herbs… It was quite the treat to see the boy take a single, halting step, without his crutch.

 

Ri Zu wiped some sweat off her forehead. ‘Now, the Heavenly Herbs—er Lowly Spiritual Herbs, have an extremely potent regenerative effect. This, placed directly in drops into the muscle, promotes healing of the affected area. However, for this to be completed, it is likely the scar tissue will have to be scraped out and the bones realigned internally.’

 

Xianghua just stared at her brother. She stared as he took another step forwards and stumbled. She rose to catch him, but Gou Ren was already there, smirking as he stopped the boy from hitting the ground.

 

“You require herbs from the Misty Lake, Sister Ri Zu?” Xianghua’s voice was intense. As intense as Xiulan’s had been when she swore her debt to Master Jin and Master Meiling.

 

Ri Zu felt her face heat up at the polite speech.

 

Xianghua stood up.

 

“This Young Mistress will repay these herbs a thousand fold!” She roared. “She will dig up the entirety of the swamp around the lake and carry it on her back to wherever you desire!”

 

Eh?! Ah, no, we just need a few specimens—’ Ri Zu squeaked, but Xianghua’s eyes were shining now.

 

A hand plucked her off the table and planted a kiss onto Ri Zu’s forehead.

 

And then a second.

 

Ri Zu barely managed to escape, scrambling up into Tigu’s shirt as the girl laughed at Ri Zu’s misfortune.

 

She had to hide in Tigu’s shirt again to escape the affection suddenly leveled at her by Damp Pond.

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A note from Casualfarmer

Wow. These past couple of weeks have been kicking my ass. we are quite close to the ending, so its been becoming a bit of a struggle to tie everything together, and thats compounding a bit with the holiday season.

However, there will be three chapters this week, before I go on my break, which starts after friday, and continues to the end of december.

Thank you for your patience!


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Casualfarmer

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