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What would the Shrouded Mountain Sect want with me?

 

Xiulan pondered the development as she was led back to the manor by Bolin. The question whirled in her mind.

 

The Shrouded Mountain Sect had called on her personally. Such a thing was not done. Sects from out of province rarely, if ever, ventured into the Azure Hills. They disregard them completely as beneath their notice. A Young Master or Mistress her age in those provinces would be nearing, or within the Spiritual Realm, not barely breaching the Profound.

 

The Azure Hills, for all intents and purposes, were cut off from the rest of the world. They were too weak and too Qi deprived to produce anything of value.

 

It protected and sheltered them from the greater machinations of the powerful.

 

If the Hills were so weak, why did cultivators not venture beyond them to get stronger?

 

Many, who started young, did. Or at least, they tried. They tried and perished. At the age they were and at the level of cultivation, they were simply too weak. Even with an outside backer, it was well known that most from the Azure Hills simply grew more slowly than people of other provinces, even when they were given equivalent resources. Some did get stronger… but either way, those that left rarely returned.

 

Xiulan imagined the other reason was far more simple. The Azure Hills was their home. The sects stayed out of obligation for the millenia that their ancestors had spent building their homes. She knew that every Sectmaster of the Verdant Blade Sect swore to guard the Heartgrass that grew in the center of the sect until their deaths, and had done so for thousands of years. Ancient oaths bound them. Others… did leave. Either suppressed by the Grand Ravine, or seeking to improve their fortunes, they left and tried to get stronger.

 

She hadn’t heard of a single one that had not been destroyed for encroaching upon another, stronger sect’s claim.

 

“Formal attire, Young Mistress.” Bolin whispered to her, and Xiulan nodded.

 

The first thing Xiulan had to do was change. Xiulan sighed as she got out the box filled with layer upon layer of silk, in pinks and purples. Her finest clothes. Despite her dress being perfectly acceptable for most occasions, for greeting the Shrouded Mountain Sect she could only wear her best. So she changed into her finest clothes. It was many-layered, in an imported style, and a bit hard to move in—if only because she may tear it if she moved too quickly.

 

Xiulan disliked the garment and the design philosophy within it. It was said that cultivators of other provinces used the most fragile and rare fabrics imaginable—that a single errant breeze would render the clothes to dust, and it was proof of mastery that they could move with ease in them.

 

The Azure Hills only really had some particularly thin silks, and the entire thing was normally an exercise in frustration and concentration. It's only redeeming quality was that it did look rather nice, like a many-layered orchid… but it would probably look better on someone else. Xiulan preferred things with more movement. Xiulan did her hair up in a more formal style as well, placing the head dress only reserved for very formal occasions on her head.

 

Xiulan idly imagined Senior Sister in the garment, and smirked as she visualized the look of disgust that made Senior Sister’s nose scrunch up and her eyes narrow into slits. Yes, Senior Sister would probably hate this piece. Her own and Master Jin’s styles were much more appealing, but arriving in front of the Shrouded Mountain Sect wearing the ‘flannel’ and pants was likely asking for trouble.

 

At least the garment was easier to walk in than she remembered.

 

Bolin led her to the meeting room. She felt the other cultivator before she saw him. He was leaking power like a river. There was the tang of recently struck lightning that pressed down on Xiulan, and the charred smell of ash.

 

Fire, and enough Qi to make any amount of grass burn… but it felt a little strange.

 

Her father and the three Elders were already within when she arrived, entertaining their guest. Xiulan knocked twice on the door and was admitted.

 

“May I present my daughter, and the pride of our Sect, Cai Xiulan.” Her father proclaimed.

 

Xiulan bowed low, hiding her lower face behind the voluminous sleeves instead of giving a more standard gesture of martial respect between sects.

 

The bowing and scraping one must do, when the disciples of a sect can handily defeat the Elders of another. Especially when that man was leaking fire Qi in such great amounts.

 

“This one is Cai Xiulan, of the Verdant Blade Sect. She greets the Disciple of the Shrouded Mountain Sect.” Xiulan intoned formally, keeping her eyes low. She had a brief glance of him as the door opened, holding out his cup so that Elder Yi could pour him a drink.

 

“Hmm, a fast reception and hospitality.” The man stated. “You may be of the Azure Hills, but you understand yourselves well.”

 

Xiulan kept her head bowed as she smelled a waft of maple. The man shifted slightly in his lounging position.

 

“This Young Master is Zang Li, Young Master of the Shrouded Mountain Sect.” He stated, and Xiulan was a bit surprised at the polite and formal language that flowed from his mouth. He was giving them quite a lot of face to speak with them like this. Yet Xiulan could feel the intent upon her as the Disciple of the Shrouded Mountain Sect weighed her. She looked up, raising her eyes to meet the man who had requested her.

 

He was stunningly handsome, in the traditional style. Long silky hair in a topknot. A soft, pale, and flawless face with just a bit of hardness underneath. The clouds shrouding the unyielding rock of a mountain. He had a haughty, domineering expression and there was a flame burst symbol painted in red on his forehead. His face was timeless—but he still appeared rather young to her eyes. She knew he was at least several years younger than herself, for she had heard he was eighteen.

 

He was also the one who had been staring at her from the box seating. She didn’t quite like his eyes as they roved over her, but said nothing.

 

Even as she began to feel uncomfortable from the steady lapping of his fiery Qi as it touched her.

 

He suddenly smiled, a charming, boyish thing, and nodded to her.

 

“This Young Master shall get right to business then. I am here on behalf of the Shrouded Mountain Sect. The purpose of our visit is to scout new talent. Indeed, I would like to think it is fate or the heavens smiling upon us. For the first time in centuries we send an envoy to this tiny well and find a small gem among the inhabitants.”

 

The bottom dropped out of Xiulan’s stomach at the implication.

 

“I have seen enough from your daughter. I would give her the gift of being able to join my retinue and see the Shrouded Mountain.” His voice was commanding and imperious, as he all but demanded her. “Of course, our sect would look kindly upon such an exchange.”

 

The entire room was silent at his words, save for the small fire that was used to boil tea. The crystal hummed softly and the flame burned as the water started to boil.

 

“It is a fantastically generous offer, Young Master.” Her father stated. She could see the tenseness in his shoulders. “May we have a moment to discuss such a… wonderful opportunity?”

 

“Oh? You need to discuss my offer?” He asked blandly. He gazed at them all with a touch of amusement at the collective pause. “Very well. Bring me some more of this.” He waved a cup that smelled of maple. Her father winced slightly. “Speak quickly, for I shall be leaving soon. Your daughter can show me your hospitality.”

 

“Of course, Young Master.” her father agreed. They bowed and exited.

 

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

 

Ri Zu smiled up at the moon as she hopped across the rooftops. She leaped higher and higher, jumping through the air like Bi De did. Nobody was looking up at the rooftops, and her paws didn’t make a sound when she landed. The night air was pleasant on her fur, out of the confines of Gou Ren’s shirt. He was quite comfortable, but Ri Zu had decided enough was enough when he offered to walk Xianghua home.

 

So she bid everybody goodbye and went out into the night. She had debated going to find the cat, but she was out with Loud Boy and Rags, so that was right out. The little annoying one hurt her ears.

 

So, back to the manor it was. Ri Zu had scrolls to read and she was a bit curious about why Miss Lanlan had to leave. A meeting with the Something Mountain. She had heard that much, and for some reason the name sounded vaguely… familiar.

 

It bothered her, and she was having a bit of trouble recalling why.

 

She shook her head and hopped the wall, alighting on the guest house. The little courtyard was quite aesthetically pleasing. A wonderful collection of trees and a pond, where there were some busy looking people packing things away. Ri zu glanced down. The guest house was cold, dark and still, with nobody in it.

 

Ri Zu didn’t like silence, despite her love of reading. She normally went to find a room with somebody else. So she considered her options, when a conversation caught her ear.

 

“Yes, he said the Shrouded Mountain.” One of the servants muttered to another as they walked past the building with loads of laundry.

 

“Really? Shrouded Mountain Sect, here?” The smaller servant girl said, excited. “The heavens smile on our sect to have such auspicious guests.”

 

“Don’t be too happy. There's… well, I talked to a girl from the, you know. The one with the lip who cleans the girls clothes. She said he goes through girls like a scythe through rice.”

 

Shrouded Mountain?

 

A memory surfaced. Hadn’t the Mistress told her of a man who claimed to come from there?

Ri Zu frowned. She shuffled her feet.

 

“Yeah, finger marks on their necks. Qiqi is kind of a freak though, she volunteered for a second round.”

 

Ri zu flushed as one of the other girls let out a scandalized shriek.

 

Eavesdropping was quite rude…

 

But the memory was making her worry. There was somebody from Shrouded Mountain here. Ri Zu rubbed her hands together as she glanced at the main house.

 

She could sit and wait… or she could go and take a look.

 

She mentally apologized to her hosts.

 

Ri Zu hopped to the main manor and entered through one of the open windows. Her heart slowed and her Qi pulled into herself, as it always did when she wanted to hide. When she actually made an effort to hide her presence even Tigu couldn’t find her.

 

Oh? You need to discuss my offer? Very well. Bring me some more of this. Speak quickly, for I shall be leaving soon. Your daughter can show me your hospitality.”

 

The voice was haughty and arrogant, and made Ri Zu immediately dislike the speaker.

 

“Of course, Young Master.” the voice of Xiulan’s father called. A door opened and shut, not too far from where Ri Zu was. She followed the noise. She hadn’t actually been in this section of the house, and finding where things were with sound and without being able to know which room was where was a bit of a problem.

 

If there was one thing Ri Zu both liked and hated about herself was just how good she was at sneaking and remaining unnoticed. Tigu always spoke of the amount of effort needed to place each paw just so, but Ri Zu could move quite quickly, her light body and lighter steps did not disturb anything, even the dust in the roof.

 

Silence and darkness. The things that Chow Ji liked, once upon a time. A sneaking, slinking rat.

 

“No, I will not even consider it—” she heard Xiulan’s father snarl, and she paused as they passed right under her.

 

“”Your emotions get the best of you, Sectmaster.” another voice stated. “Calm yourself, you look like you’re about to spit blood.”

 

“Indeed.” she heard another voice rumble. “We will consider this offer in its entirety, and its use to the sect. We would not wish to give up an advantage when it dangles itself in front of our faces.”

 

“And what do you think of this offer, Yi? It's a very good one, I do imagine…” Xiulan’s father’s voice was still angry, but a bit more in control.

 

“It is indeed…” “Yi “ said calmly, his voice fading as they passed underneath her and into another room.

 

Ri Zu debated going after the old men… but instead sniffed the air.

 

Maple, ash, and Xiulan.

 

She set off in that direction, carefully moving along the beams, until she could poke her head out into the room where Xiulan was, her needle clutched tightly in her paw, just in case.

 

She frowned at the scene she witnessed.

 

Xiulan was seated beside a thin, pale man with long hair who smelled so strongly of fire even Ri Zu could smell it. She calmly poured him a drink—well, it wasn’t a drink, but a cup of maple syrup.

 

An entire cup? How greedy. What was he, Wa Shi?

 

“Another little gem in this place, this stuff. Quite the find. Perhaps I shall ask your Elders for some more, hmm?” the man asked.

 

“If you wish, Young Master.” Xiulan replied demurely. Her face was a soft mask of a smile. The one she used when she was really angry.

 

The man just seemed to find it amusing, or perhaps he just liked the sound of his voice. He was smirking and acting like he was an emperor, lounging and lazing arrogantly.

 

Ri Zu developed an immediate distaste for the man.

 

“And my congratulations at standing atop this whole pile. A small feat, but quite worthy of praise for your humble origins.”

 

“My thanks for your kind words, Young Master.” Xiulan commented.

 

“More of this dish,” the man commanded.

 

Xiulan served him. He ate a mouthful, his eyes upon her, and drank the syrup out of the cup.

 

Who was this man, to treat Miss Lanlan like a servant?

 

“I disliked this place at first. But the more time I spend in this province, the more palatable it becomes. Tea.” he demanded. Xiulan glanced at the pot, and leaned slightly across the table—

 

He caught her chin between two of his fingers, and pulled her face to meet his. “Truly a beautiful gem.”

 

Ri Zu felt her blood boil, and her grip tightened on her needle. But she could feel the man’s power. She remembered her Master’s lessons. Patience. She couldn’t do anything, yet. And Tigu had pounded into her head how not to approach a being that eclipsed her.

 

He leaned forwards, like he was about to bring his lips to meet Xiulan’s. The woman’s eyes narrowed, and Ri Zu felt the spike of intent from her, murderous fury wafting off her.

 

The man drew back instead, releasing her chin. He smirked.

 

“My apologies, Cai Xiulan. Merely a joke.” His grin was that of a child playing an amusing game.

 

“A wonderful joke, Young Master.” Xiulan stated. “Truly, Zang Li of the Shrouded Mountain Sect has wit beyond measure.”

 

Zang Li.

 

The name was like Brother Chun Ke accidentally stepping on her that one time. Her breath wheezed out.

 

Zang Li.

 

“The weedy bastard walked around the corner, and just demanded Meihua sleep with him.” Her Master snarled, scorn lacing every word. “‘This Young Master is Zang Li, you shall have the honour of sharing my bed tonight.’ Of course, Jin was having none of that. The stupid bastard broke his fingers on Jin’s chest. I can only imagine what kind of torment he’s going through, for daring to impersonate the Shrouded Mountain Sect.” Her face had split into a vicious grin. “I wonder what cultivators do to people like that. I wouldn’t mind learning.”

 

Master’s grin was vindictive and cruel, something that scared Ri Zu whenever it crossed her face.

 

Ri Zu shook her head, startled, as she realized somebody was speaking again.

 

“Hmmm. A bit feisty. I do enjoy women like yourself. Like your companion, Rou Tigu. She reminds me of somebody. Is she of any relation to a man named Rou Jin?”

 

The man, Zang Li’s eyes suddenly focused as for a brief moment Xiulan’s mask cracked, confusion overcoming her features.

 

Then, he smiled.

 

“My apologies. Rou Jun. I do tend to forget his name.”

 

Xiulan started to answer, her mask slamming back into place. “I do not believe I know a man by that name.”

 

The door opened, and Ri Zu nearly jumped out of her skin as the old men and Xiulan’s father walked in.

 

As one, they bowed. “We thank the Young Master of the Shrouded Mountain Sect for his offer, and the face it gives us. It truly is most generous, and something we would be honoured to accept. To have our daughter accompany you would be a boon.”

 

Ri Zu gaped. Just what the hells was going on here?! They were going to just give Miss Lanlan to Zang Li?! They were going to—

 

Ri Zu nearly lept from her hiding spot. She had to warn Xiulan!

 

“Unfortunately, our Young Mistress has too many duties, diplomatic and martial, for her to be spared.” Xiulan’s father continued, and Ri Zu scrambled to return to her hiding spot. “The drink you so enjoy is the result of her efforts with a hidden master to whom the Verdant Blade Sect is connected to. We dare not insult him by taking away his point of contact—or the Shrouded Mountain Sect by requesting greater compensation than what they were prepared to offer our lowly sect. This is the decision of the Sectmaster of the Verdant Blade Sect, in unison with all his Elders. We will of course be discrete, none will breathe a word of this… disagreement.”

 

Zang Li’s eyes darkened for a moment before he shrugged.

 

“Hmm, a Hidden Master. A Hidden Master in these hills! How interesting. Truly, you are blessed by the heavens to have so many eyes upon you Cai Xiulan.” Zang Li looked amused, before nodding to her father. “Ah, it matters little. Very well, I shall allow it. This meeting never happened. I merely wished to be served by your daughter and show my appreciation. You may thank me for my generosity.”

 

The older men bowed their heads. “Thank you, Young Master.” they choroused.

 

“Tis a pity. I may have even deigned to marry her.” Zang Li said as a parting jab, rising to his feet. “But I have a busy night ahead of me. I thank you for your hospitality and your time.”

 

Xiulan’s father nodded his head. “Please, allow me to escort you to the door.”

 

“But of course. It is likely the last time we shall see each other.”

 

Ri Zu’s eyes flicked from side to side, first to Xiulan, then to the man who was leaving. She saw Xiulan slump in relief, as the old, strong men surrounded her. She was safe, for now.

 

She scrambled after the two men who were leaving.

 

He had asked about Master Jin and Tigu.

 

Ri Zu scribbled out a note. She couldn’t get Xiulan’s attention without alerting everyone else at the moment, so she took a detour, throwing the small pad of paper with her writing on it to the guest house's door.

 

She managed it just in time to see Xiulan’s father bow to Zang Li. The boy didn’t bother to bow back.

 

Ri Zu shadowed his movements as he walked past the manors, until he came to the corner of the street… and jumped.

 

He was moving faster than Ri Zu could track..

 

Ri Zu swore.

 

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

 

Xiulan sighed, slumping.

 

Elder Yi’s eyes narrowed at her, and she straightened up again. He looked away.

 

“Did he touch you?” Elder Shen asked, his brow wrinkled with concern.

 

Xiulan shrugged. “A small amount.”

 

Shen began to grumble, his Qi spiking for a moment before he calmed himself.

 

Xiulan smiled at his outrage. Really, it wasn’t that bad. But there was one thing that was surprising.

 

Xiulan turned to Elder Yi, whose face was a mask of calm.

 

He turned to her, his eyes judging.

 

“Disciple, explain to me why our decision was unanimous.” he demanded.

 

“Guaranteed resources from the Hidden Master are more useful than some “maybes” from the Shrouded Mountain Sect.” Xiulan answered immediately, thinking of the likely answer.

 

“Correct. The Hidden Master has already helped us, and is poised to help us in the future. Secondly, I know his type. He had no virtue. He wished for a pretty flower to warm his bed, and would likely go back on any promise he did make. Unacceptable.” Elder Yi was obviously angry. “And he gave up too easily.”

 

Xiulan nodded. “He did.”

 

Yi considered her.

 

“You are released back to the festivities, if you can maintain your bearing, Disciple.” Yi decided. “I do not believe even he is brazen enough to make trouble tonight. I shall be leaving presently, to scout the road ahead, and Elder Shen is going to the Misty Lake Sect with Elder Bingwen. Tomorrow, you shall be in command of the servants for the final preparations.”

 

“I obey, Elder Yi.” Xiulan said. Elder Yi waved her away. Permission from Elder Yi? How rare.

 

She changed out of her clothes, a chore that she eventually called in the servants to help her with, folding all the silk and getting it back into the box.

 

That piece truly was a pain.

 

After that, she scrubbed her face until it felt a bit raw. She was a little unsettled. The man’s sudden question about Master Jin, even if he “corrected” himself, was a bit... concerning.

 

A dark spot on an otherwise wonderful night.

 

But it was still young, and there was still plenty of time to have some fun.

 

And find Tigu just in case.

 

Xiulan nodded, her course set—until a panicked, squeaking rat impacted her stomach.

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A note from Casualfarmer

A final little cliff hanger.

Art, as always, is by Tsuu.

Thank you, everybody for reading so far, and I'll see everybody in the new year!

Now, I sleep.

 


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