Xiulan moved through the first form of the Verdant Blade Sword Arts in the light of the setting sun. Her eyes were closed as she felt the flow of the movements. Her form was impeccable, over a decade of practice honing her movements until they were as natural as breathing. Each step was precise. She wove a pattern of steel in the air, a blooming flower, until she came to the end, her sword held to the side and two fingers pointing up in front of her face.
With her breathing calm and steady she opened her eyes and turned to her companion. Jin was watching her, his brow furrowed in concentration.
“It's a bit more grace than I think I can manage.” he joked, absently clenching and unclenching his fist. Xiulan sheathed her blade and turned to look over the young man. Indeed, Jin’s build was not the greatest for her techniques; he was too thickset, his muscles would interfere in his movements.
“I was taught that taking things slow is sometimes best.” Xiulan offered, and Jin nodded, starting to move into the starting stance she had shown him. He had his sword in his hand. A magnificently crafted work, if unadorned. “Now… Shoulders set. Eyes forward. Plant that lead foot.”
She watched him carefully as he steadied his breathing, taking the first form. Technically, one could argue that she shouldn’t be teaching him the Verdant Blade Sword Arts. Jin was, however, her sworn Brother; and thus that made him ‘family of the main branch’.
At least that was her interpretation, and she was prepared to argue it if need be. She was certain none of her Sect would object in any case.
Jin’s sword moved slowly and his eyes were closed as he made the first stroke of his blade. He was focused, yet there was an obvious lack of connection. Xiulan winced at the awkwardness in his movements. Bi De had been correct in his assessment, the sword did not suit Jin completely… yet it was far less awkward then before.
Xiulan had agreed to show Jin the Verdant Blade Sword Arts after he had shown her the scroll he had received from his ‘Gramps’. She knew not what style was depicted within, yet she had been humbled by it. It was the work of a true master. The moves were seemingly simple, only the most basic and efficient possibile. Yet it was undeniable that they were the distillation of techniques from the eyes of a true master of the blade. Just looking at the scroll had allowed Xiulan to adjust her own training.
It was a pure foundation. Utter mastery of form. In its simplicity, the technique was absolutely beautiful. Jin had shrugged and put it on the table for all of them after listening to their assessment of the scroll. After barely one night of practice with the knowledge of the scroll her bladework had already improved.
Bi De and Tigu were spending time studying it, leaving tonight's training session to Xiulan alone. It was probably for the best, Tigu had gotten a bit too excited in their last session and escalated the spar. She had looked quite embarrassed when her Qi claws had shattered on Jin’s skin.
Jin had been dissatisfied with his own progress with the scroll and he wished to see if it was merely the techniques it taught that was the problem or something else; and Xiulan was quite certain now of the cause.
His Cultivation rejected the sword.
“Your foot is too high. A slide, a glide, more than a step.” She instructed, like she had with her own students, the ones that people had been taking to calling ‘The Orchid’s Petals’.
Jin nodded and repeated the movement. Xiulan had come to learn that Jin’s style of learning was a slow, methodical thing. A grinding advance of careful repetition until he accomplished his goal, not unlike how he approached most tasks. For him there were no grand epiphanies or sudden advancements. He just worked until he got it, patiently persisting until he achieved his goal. Even now as he attempted to center himself despite his breathing threatening to destabilize, he kept a grip on his blade.
Xiulan watched over Jin as he soaked in the last rays of the dying sun, his eyes closed, completely focused on his task, trusting her to catch any problems that she noticed.
The world was quiet, filled only with the sound of his breathing and the occasional gust of wind.
The silence was broken by a squawk of outrage.
“I’m going to tie ya to a tree, Meimei!” Yun Ren howled. Laughter echoed out from the house, from Meiling’s giggles to Xianghua’s booming gales.
“Pink hair suits you, Honoured Brother!” She roared.
The disturbance to the peace did not break Jin’s breathing. Instead, it was reinforced. The tension eased from his shoulders.
Xiulan smiled as Jin relaxed into a more firm stance, and then acted. His body moved through the second stance with grace approaching what Xiulan would expect of herself.
He looked relaxed, shifting smoothly from second to third stance, but she could see the minute twitches in his form, the same twitches she had— urges to change the movements from the bladework into a flowing dance. It was a problem Xiulan knew well. One had to mix the two for the best results… but for him to have found the same beat Xiulan had taken years to discover so swiftly was interesting. None of the others she had taught felt the dance.
A little smile crossed her face and she launched into the second part of their training.
“Who is the Sectmaster of the Rumbling Earth Sect?”
Jin frowned slightly before answering. “Dulou Gang.”
Jin had asked for her help, and she had given all she knew. She had written out an accounting of every Sect that she knew of; their masters and mistresses, their heraldries, their territories, historical grudges… everything she could think of from her own training had gone into the little pamphlet.
Jin had stared at it like a drowning man being thrown a rope, and then slammed his hand into his forehead and berated himself for not asking sooner.
“Who are their allies?”
“His sect and the Greywater Sect are technically allies, but the sectmasters hate each other.” JIn responded as he gradually took up the fourth stance.
Xiulan remembered the root of that feud, Elder Gang taking Elder Xinling's sword to the gut had been an unforgettable moment. Elder Gang wasn’t particularly well liked. Avaricious, arrogant, and a boor according to her father and she had little cause to disagree. At least his son seemed to share none of his undesirable traits. Dulou Gan was actually rather sweet when he wasn’t busy putting on an act, trying to gruffly glare at everything.
“And what about the Greywater Sect?”
“Elder Xinling. They live near a set of violent rapids. The gravel and dirt that comes from the mountains dyes the white foam grey. Elder Xinling plays the Guzheng…”
They continued their back and forth for a while, Jin answering every question she posed to him while he completed the forms of the Verdant Blade.
“This is a bit easier than I thought it would be.” Jin mused. “I’m normally terrible with names. I thought I would have to give everybody nicknames like Tigu. Music Lady, Rumble Man, Dad of Grass.” His lips quirked into a smile, and his form continued without flaw. Xiulan snorted at the nickname for her father.
“‘Dad of Grass’? Really?” She asked. “Tigu’s nicknames are better.” Jin pouted at her pronouncement.
Finally, he completed the last movement and rose back into the ready position. His sword was pointed to the side and two fingers were held towards the sky.
He seemed a bit anxious as he opened his eyes and looked at her. She smiled and nodded her head.
“You did excellently.” she stated simply. “You do have some grace to you after all.”
Jin sheathed his blade then scratched at his neck, before taking a breath and bowing formally. “Thank you for your help, Senior Sister,” he said with a little smirk.
“Thank you, Master Jin,” she fired back.
He snorted and stood up from his bow.
“How did the Verdant Blade Sword Arts feel?”
“Strange. Like I was about to break out into… Well—” he frowned, and his feet started tapping out a rhythm.
“Like this?” She asked, clapping her hand to his beat, her own body moving. Xiulan took up the dance that was familiar now. It felt refreshing. Not something to be held back or feared. Jin’s eyes widened as he watched her move. The dance grew like a plant, the smaller movements leading into larger ones, before blooming into the finale.
“Yeah, like that,” he agreed. Jin’s eyes were wide as he watched her. His feet tapped with the rhythm and he began to copy her, following along.
One step, then the second. Slow and halting, but he started to get into it. She matched her movements with his. It was almost like at the Dueling Peaks, when she had danced with Xianghua, Tigu, and the Young Master of the Hermetic Iron Sect.
Something that resided in the depths of her soul recognized the movements and resonated with them.
This dance in particular seemed to fit Jin. The movements of growth and life, vital and strong.
Jin’s grin got bigger and bigger as they reached the final moment, and then they paused, their hands stretched out. Normally the dance would repeat, but she saw the little gleam in Jin’s eye.
His dance changed.
One finger pointed to the sky, and then swung it down to the ground and back again. Xiulan froze at his completely serious expression, and the odd sounding “ba-da-bada-ba-da--dadda.”
Xiulan snorted, thrown off her own movements by the change. With a raised eyebrow, she followed along, swinging her hips and her finger until her laughter couldn’t be contained any longer.
“Who dances like this?!”
“Di si ko is a legendary dance, I’ll have you know. Our ancestors swore by it,” Jin declared pompously.
“I very much doubt my ancestors danced like this.” she said as Jin executed a spin… and then started up a movement that made it look like he was gliding backwards while walking forwards.
“Then they and their bloodlines were weak.” Jin stated. His face remained stone… until he too began to laugh. After recovering the two of them walked up the hill slightly before sitting down, Xiulan shaking her head at the stupid grin on Jin’s face. It was so full of cheer, especially after that stupid dance.
It still felt a bit strange to think of Jin as young and inexperienced. He had seemed so solid, so sure of his path in life when she had met him. His words had been full of wisdom; his actions had raised her to heights she never could have imagined.
And yet, here he was, dutifully being her student.
It was actually a bit appealing. In her mind’s eye she could see him in the robes of the Verdant Blade Sect and following after her like one of her other students, a big grin on his face as he called her ‘Senior Sister’.
Or perhaps, in a different lifetime, all of her companions would have been there from the beginning? It wasn’t a bad thought, was it? To have Jin, Meiling, and the Xong Brothers all in her life for twenty more years would have been a blessing. A reel of imagined situations started up. She pictured herself scolding Meiling for using poisons in a spar again, while the girl whistled innocently. Gou Ren and Yun Ren having done something silly and begging their Young Mistress to get them out of trouble. Tigu challenging Xiulan to spar every day upon the hilltop. And when they went to fight Sun Ken, they would have sallied forth together and brought him low without the blood and the misery.
It was an amusing distraction, yet she knew she would have not appreciated them as she did now. Xianghua had been there for her, and Xiulan had been blind to her aid.
Or maybe they could have knocked some sense into her?
In the end, one couldn’t change the past. She gently laid the appealing image to rest.
Instead, she had to look forward to a future. Where would they be in five years? Ten? Twenty? She did not know, but she was ready to find out.
Eager to share her life with these people who had found her.
Xiulan stared at Jin as he looked at the treeline in the fading sunlight..
“The trees look kind of spooky like this, don’t they?” Jin asked as he stared at the naked branches and the darkening sky. The full moon shone in the sky, a few clouds covering it.
She considered the trees. In truth, she didn’t feel scared, but the slight mist that was forming on the ground drew her attention. It reminded her of the HIll of Torment, which she supposed was a little haunting.
“A bit,” she agreed.
Jin stared at them for a moment longer, his eyes far away.
“You know, at this time of year, a lot of people said that evil spirits come out to steal their souls. So they used to light lanterns, carved with demonic faces to scare the evil spirits away…”
Xiulan raised an eyebrow. “I see. We shall need some of these protections, then?”
“We’re gonna need a bunch of squashes,” Jin said, a familiar impish gleam in his eyes.
Xiulan stood with him as the fire in his eyes ignited, as he started talking about the ‘Hallowed End’.
She knew of the feast of Hungry Ghosts, but that was months gone by now. The Hallowed End sounded a bit similar.
Although dressing up in costumes was strange, Jin seemed excited about it.
“Meimei will make the cutest witch.” he declared simply. Xiulan raised an eyebrow, not knowing how wild hair and talismans on an old crone could be cute. Though she could imagine Meiling giggling over a new poison, a happy gleam in her eye.
They got strange looks as they came back to the house with armfuls of large squashes they had gathered. Yun Ren paused in grinding his knuckles into Meiling’s head, raising a freshly pink eyebrow at them, giving time for her to elbow him in the gut to escape.
“What’s that all for?” he asked, confused.
Soon they all gathered around and Jin explained what they were doing.
A contest to carve the best face into the gourds began swiftly, and as Jin sketched out a large, floppy and pointy looking hat, Xiulan finally got what he was talking about.
The witches of Raging Waterfall Gorge had a strange costume... but he was right.
Meiling would make a cute witch.
…Xiulan kind of wanted one of those hats for herself, if she was honest.