Two figures on horseback trotted down a wide road. They wore the rich traveling clothes often associated with merchant folks. Bright silks with symbols emblazoned on them marked the duo as part of the Azure Jade Trading Company. The pair rode down the path without haste, one keeping a sharp eye on the road ahead while the other looked over the grand vista before them.
Guan Chyou’s eyes roved over the hills around them, a smile on her face. The crisp autumn air felt invigorating. Her head moved to and fro, trying to soak everything in. The height of the trees, the infinite blue sky, and even the road was beautiful. The paving stones were decorated with what looked like carved vines and covered with a thin sheet of red and orange leaves.
“Ah, it's a lovely ride, isn’t it?” Guan Bo turned back to ask her.
“It is nice. I’ve never been this far out. It feels… good.”
Bo grinned back at her. “I’m so glad to be out of that town.”
Chyou nodded in agreement grabbing her hat to keep it firmly in place as a gust of wind blew through the valley between the hills they were in. Her red travelling clothes were emblazoned with a blue dragon, and a lighter blue sash. A pink band of silk went under her chin, keeping her wide brimmed hat on her head, and her red hair flowed freely under it, a crimson streamer that followed the wind. Her brother was dressed similarly, though he also had a sword strapped to his hip. A sword he didn’t know how to actually use, but it was necessary to have at least the appearance of protection, no matter how supposedly safe the roads were.
For the first time since the start of their journey north it was just her and her brother. No guards, no multitude of servants, just her and Bo riding down the road into the great unknown. Almost like a real adventure.
It was a small step. A little adventure.
The road was safe and there were likely no hidden dangers. There would be nothing this close to a cultivator’s abode, or the efficient militia of Verdant Hills, but it was still exciting. Outside the capital and on an adventure, riding down the road to the home of a mysterious cultivator to give tribute to. All to win the right to his secret wares.
And it got them out of Verdant Hill, and away from the Magistrate.
“I’ll tell you, if I have to deal with those two again I’ll go grey,” Bo muttered.
“I would have to agree,” Chyou grunted out. Being on the back foot while a person better than you ran rings around you was highly unpleasant. Yet it was a learning experience. Grandmother always said that steel sharpened steel, no matter how unpleasant the interactions may be. Well, it was her duty to meet the challenge of Lady Wu. She would not be defeated as utterly next time.
“I swear the Archivist enjoyed giving us all those forms to fill out,” her brother continued, complaining as was his wont.
“Oh, is my brother so unused to paperwork? Weren’t you complaining on the road about how much you missed your desk?”
“I miss the nice beds, not the forms,” he grumbled.
He often tried to foist it off on her when he could… and by this point Grandmother just had one of his servants along to help out.
The name “Azure Jade Trading Company” normally waived a lot of the paperwork. Not here, however. The Lord Magistrate had given them all the relevant papers.
It was rather a lot.
“There were so many pages. At least the terms were better than we thought they’d be.”
Chyou had to agree. “For being so difficult, the Lord Magistrate was remarkably even-handed,” she mused as she glanced at the wonderful blue sky and breathed in the crisp air.
The terms they had been given were not too onerous, after they had sat down to think rationally about them. Hells, they were downright lenient… for anybody not of the Azure Jade Trading Company. They had to use local workers for most of their needs, rely on the city guard while in town, and take steps to ensure that the trade route was actually a trade route… and not just a road that solely catered to Master Jin’s needs.
It was… well, it was everything that they had been prepared to give, if she was being realistic. The concessions to the local authorities could barely be considered concessions at all. Just good sense.
In the end, it had all been a very effective play by Master Jin’s servant. The man was supremely skilled. Chyou could admit when she had been outplayed—yet better humbled by an ally than a true enemy. She could bow her head if it meant succeeding in her endeavors. Business was no place for pride. Besides, they had gotten everything they wanted, largely.
The positions of the respective players were confirmed, and thus, their relationship could continue. Chyou had even received a lovely silk dress embroidered with blossoms as a gift from Lady Wu. Peace had been established.
However, after all the paperwork had been completed, the relevant messages sent to Grandmother, and the construction of their building well underway, they now had time to complete their real task.
The man who held such wondrous goods. The profits upon the Gold Grade rice already justified everything they were doing now. They had completely sold out of the three hundred bags.
Chyou had their profit reports, as well as the estimations for the grand expedition to the south that he had spoken of. It would be hellishly expensive… but she hoped he would still wish to commision the journey. Chyou still remembered the passion with which he had spoken with regards to the rare plants of the south. The way he had complimented her skills in management and logistics.
And the way he had implied that she would be a good fit to lead such an expedition.
Chyou shook her head and banished the thoughts. Instead, she returned to the present, concentrating on the lovely views.
The north looked quite a bit different from the lands around the capital. The hills were more jagged, and there were a great many more pines. The last vestiges of the leaves on the trees were more colorful as well, even if most of them had fallen off. They had been traveling down the well-made road for several hours already, and it would likely be several more, but they should arrive at the village of Hong Yaowu by nightfall.
Eventually, they stopped to get off the horses and stretch their legs in what looked like an area meant specifically for camping. The road veered off to the relatively smooth area by a hill, and there were stone benches and an obvious firepit prepared nearby.
They slid off the horses, and Chyou grimaced at the soreness, rubbing at her legs.
“Yeah, that happens,” Bo said, as he got out a pack of jerky, handing her some. Chyou took it, biting into the salty snack. “Be thankful the road is so nice.”
“It doesn’t hurt too badly,” Chyou deflected, and Bo laughed.
“You’re a trooper, sis.” he said, shaking his head. “You’re doing a lot better than I thought you would. Not a peep of complaint. You would have made a good caravaneer, if granny hadn’t poached ya.”
Chyou flushed a bit at the compliment. Her brother didn’t know exactly how much she enjoyed this. She had always loved the grand stories of adventure, and seeing the members of her family off when they departed for the wider world. Of listening to Grandmother’s stories about the early days she had been with the company. She’d wanted to do what they had, not that she had shared that ambition with anyone. Chyou had kept that particular dream to herself. It was, after all, infeasible. Especially with her role in the company. Grandmother had chosen her for a different purpose.
The Flower to entice bees. A valuable piece for the company to use, to expand their influence and prestige.
She didn’t resent her role, not really. It was logical. She understood her grandmother’s reasoning, and largely agreed with it. Chyou likely would have made the same decision her grandmother had made.
She had a duty, and she would see it through… but now, things were a bit different. Chyou had a chance to do something else. A small one, but she could not help hoping. Master Jin had changed things, and now, just a little, her old, childish passions were coming again to the fore.
A path… like the one up the hill she was staring at. Up, into the trees. She glanced furtively at her brother.
Bo sighed as he noticed her look. He chewed his lip.
“It should be safe,” he allowed after a moment. “Just don’t break your neck or something.”
Chyou blinked, turning to stare at her brother, at his permissiveness. Normally she would have had to have been escorted. Prudence warred with the part of her that lusted after the chance to wander on her own. A lone woman in the wilderness was a bit foolish, but the urge to explore and her brother's trust in her made it an easy choice. Deciding not to wait to see if he changed his mind, she started up the hill.
Her heart beat happily as she marched up, her traveling robes swirling behind her in the slight breeze. She hummed to herself as she wandered around, imagining herself in some other, far-off land. She crouched down near a stand of bare trees, looking at the strange mushrooms that were poking out of the soil, and ran a finger along the bark of a tree. Eventually, the path she followed took her to a large rock that looked out of place. It was a huge thing that struck out of the ground, with bare and loose dirt around it. It looked a bit oddly placed.
She shook her head and looked around, noticing the small gap in the trees and canopy.
The view from the top of the rock must be spectacular.
Something seized her. The rock was slightly sloped on the back side and looked easy enough to climb. Her hands almost unbidden, landed, seeking handholds.
Her well-manicured hands with glossy brightly painted fingernails gripped the rocks, ready to pull. She stared at her hands gripped on the rock, then down at her pristine clothes despite the travel she had managed to ensure she looked as always… the flower of the Azure Trading House.
The desire to climb the rock fell away.
Chyou sighed, and let go of the rock. She was about to meet Master Jin again. She would have to be presentable, and scuffed hands from rock climbing was hardly acceptable.
She patted the rock twice, then set back down the hill, her good mood dampened.
It was evening, when they reached a quaint little village, nestled in the hills. The villagers were curious about them, but settled down when Bo said they had been invited by Master Jin.
They ended up sleeping in the village chief, Hong Xian’s, house. The man was polite and soft-spoken… And another one of those men who looked like they should have been living in the capital, instead of out here.
He had seemed a bit distracted, however, and for all that he was a fine host, he made himself scarce after fulfilling his duties as one.
They settled down and slept in the surprisingly comfortable beds, partaking of the man’s hospitality, and then left first thing in the morning.
The next day was damp and foggy. It had rained during the night and the clouds still covered the sky as they followed the road that would take them to Master Jin’s home.
They were in a relatively good mood at the start, but as they traveled onwards and the sky remained overcast, there was a change in atmosphere.
The fog got denser. The trees had shed most of their leaves, and their spindly branches seemed to loom over them.
Chyou felt her heart pump faster, as she shivered. Her brother’s eyes darted around.
“...this place feels a bit strange, doesn’t it?” He mused, his body tense. The silence was unnerving.
There was a sudden rustling behind them. A screech sounded in the air followed by the deeper sound of an owl's hooting.
Chyou felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.
“It’s a little… unnerving,” she admitted.
She looked to her brother, who had slowed the pace. He had a frown on his face. He glanced down to check on his steed. The horse seemed alert, but relaxed.
Bo patted the side of his horse’s neck. He turned to her. “Always trust the animals. They’ll know before you if something is up.” her brother stated sagely. “Whether it's a freak storm or a beast about.”
Chyou was no fool, she knew all about them. These were the finest steeds money could buy. Grass Sea Horses, known for their sensitivity to Qi and their alert, protective nature. If there was any foul creature or something with ill intent in these woods, the horses would have turned tail and fled long ago. It was a recurring story from most of their caravaneers. If the animals were nervous, everybody was on high alert. They had saved many lives that way.
“Besides, Master Jin wouldn’t ask us to come just to have something that could potentially kill us living around his house, right?” Bo asked.
“That does seem rather counterproductive,” Chyou agreed, letting out a small nervous titter before glancing up at the gnarled branches overhead.
They looked like skeletal fingers.
She shivered again and turned back to the foggy road.
The ominous feeling didn’t get better as they travelled further down the path. They didn't stop and get off, simply eating some jerky on the road. Her brother complained about it often, but Chyou rather liked the taste… even if she couldn't enjoy it at the moment, as her eyes darted around the forest.
With the fog and the dark clouds, it felt like night despite it being fairly early yet.
Chyou felt the tension slowly mounting… until they noticed pillars rising from the gloom.
“Look, I think that's our destination.” she said, pointing, relief flooding her.
“See, no problem, no problem. Just a bit of fog.” her brother said as more of the large fence came into view.
Chyou took a deep breath and shook her head. He was right, It was just a bit of foolish fear.
They rode up the path and the mist broke enough so that they could see a fence appear, rising up taller than the tallest men. It was a sturdy construction formed out of what looked like entire trees.
As they got closer, more of the imposing logs loomed into sight, swirls of mist crawling over the dense pine logs. Each one was topped with a round-ish object that they were just starting to make out from the gloom—
Chyou’s breath froze in her throat, as the fog lifted enough to let her see what the bulbous things were.
A face, twisted in agony, stared back at her from atop one of the pillars. Its eyes had been torn out, two hollow, gaping pits that stared into her soul. Its face was twisted and withered, like it had been laying, baking in the sun.
The visage of a damned man.
“Ancestors in Heaven!” Bo exclaimed. The siblings pulled on the reins, pulling their horses to a stop at the macabre sight. Each post was topped with another bulb, barely visible through the gloom.
Chyou felt bile crawl up her throat, as she looked on in horror. She felt numb, as she stared at the head, staring blankly down at them.
The softest smiles hid the most dangerous men. Master Jin’s cheerful smile came back to her, he’d looked more like a farmer than a powerful master; yet here proof lay before her of the terror of cultivators.
Her breath came out in pants, as she stared, transfixed.
Finally, she tore her eyes away, and looked at her brother.
Bo was white as death, as he stared at the cadaver. He swallowed thickly, and both of them flinched when the owl hooted again.
Finally, he turned to look at her. “...do we run?” he asked in a small voice.
Her breath came short and shallow. She licked her lips.
“We have a job to do,” she declared. “Like you said, it's bad business to kill us, isn’t it?” she said with more bravery than she felt.
They would meet with Master Jin. They would accomplish their mission.
Bile rose in her throat, her image of the smiling man who had shared with her a grand vision of an expedition that she could head, dying an ugly death.They gripped the reins tighter and started forwards, eyes were locked onto the heads. Even as the sky was becoming lighter, the clouds moving away from the sun, all they could feel was darkness.
A beam of sunlight broke through the canopy, burning away some of the mist, and revealing the corpse’s green, speckled skin, as well as the stem on top.
Chyou blinked, the terror vanishing like the mist.
And then wheezed, letting out the breath that had stuck in her throat. Beside her, her brother, noticing what she had, broke into laughter that grew into body-bending howls.
They weren’t heads. They were squashes.
Squashes carved with faces. The rest of them were revealed, as the sun broke through the clouds. Some had leering grimaces, and others jaunty smiles. One looked like a smirking fox, and still another was carved into the shape of a flower.
The one in front of them, of the screaming man, was carved so realistically that she had to praise whoever had done it… even if the effect was wholly disturbing. It looked real.
The one on the next post looked like it had been carved by a child, a dopey, smiling face of crooked lines.
“I thought I was going to piss myself!” Bo wheezed, staring at them.
Chyou chuckled alongside him, relief flooding through her body. The broken image of Master Jin quickly repaired itself. Perhaps there was some manner of festival he had celebrated, or perhaps they were warding talismans? Chyou didn’t know, but they looked quite good now that she knew what they were.
They two of them approached the gate, looking at all the different carved faces. The vision of horror was now just a passing amusement. There were two signs hanging from the large post.
One was of a maple leaf; the same one on the back of Master Jin’s shirt. The other was a sign—
“‘Beware of Chicken?’” Bo asked, staring at the sign. “Who is going to be scared off with that?” her brother asked, sounding amused.
Chyou frowned. “Didn’t he have a chicken with him in the city?”
Her brother considered it. “Well, if it's a Spirit Beast, then maybe…”
“Indeed. This Fa Bi De is a Spirit Beast.” a smooth, deep voice intoned. Both of them startled, glancing up at the fence, where there was indeed a magnificent rooster revealed by the now brighter sunlight atop it.
A magnificent rooster, with a fox fur vest and a silver pendant, that spoke.
“Guan Chyou. Guan Bo. Welcome to this Fa Ram, guests of our Master.” the rooster declared, sweeping into a bow.
Both Chyou and her brother stared at the chicken blankly.
He knew their names. The siblings glanced at each other, a little of the eerie feeling crawling back up their spines.
Tentatively, they returned the bow.
“Excellent. Please, come in,” the rooster stared primly, beckoning them through the open gate.
Chyou hadn’t known what to expect in venturing into a cultivator’s home. Were there to be floating islands? Strange energy fields? Any other manner of things?
Instead… instead she got something that looked almost mundane. Yet just because there were no obviously cultivator things, didn’t mean the view wasn’t breathtaking. The sun had risen fully. Burning through the clouds and dispelling most of the fog, revealing the sight from the top of the hill.
A grand manor was nestled on the small island between two rivers, surrounded by a carpet of red leaves. It was a strange looking house, defying most of the conventional wisdom of architecture, and the Imperial Styles. It was not enclosed by a wall, but rather open.
It looked welcoming and inviting, despite the strange style. A wall would have ruined it, somehow.
There were several buildings nearby as well as a few homes, likely for servants. In the distance she could see barren rice fields and farther out deep wild woods. Further back, there was another set of buildings against the river, already belching smoke into the air.
The path to the house was lined with garlands of red persimmons and plack bark, as well as more of the gourds and squashes, all carved into various leering faces. The rooster noticed their curious looks.
“Ah, we have just celebrated the Hallowed End. It was quite an enjoyable festival,” the rooster stated. “You must partake of the squash pie. We still have some left.”
“We… would be delighted to?” Bo asked, a slight tremor believing his nervousness.
“Indeed, the fruits of Fa Ram are a delight.” The rooster paused, turning to them. “You may leave your horses here. Brother Chun Ke shall see to their feed and water.”
They both obeyed, sliding off their steeds at the bridge to the island, and removing their packs.
Chyou had only a moment to think on who ‘Brother Chun Ke’ could be when a boar that was nearly as tall as her trotted around the house and chuffed. The massive, fierce looking creature had three massive scars that ran down his face, and tusks large enough that they could gore bears.
Chyou and her brother froze up as the great, rust-red beast bowed politely then sniffed at them curiously. He paused for a moment considering them before he let out an approving oink and then turned to their horses and let out a happy chuff, trotting towards a large red building.
Their horses followed behind without a second thought.
Well… there was the strangeness of cultivators. As if the talking chicken wasn’t enough, Chyou thought as the boar opened the door to what had to be a barn. She watched, a bit dazed, as the massive creature left to tend to their mounts as if he did it every day.
The rooster clucked, and they both startled, breaking out of their shock. Bi De moved forward and held open the door to the house for them.
“This way, please,” the rooster stated simply. “You may wait here while I inform the Master of your arrival.”
“Of course, we don't want to keep Master Jin waiting,” Bo declared nervously, putting on his charming smile. Chyou took off her hat, quickly fixing her hair. Her brother stepped behind her, and gave her a once over before nodding to her.
“Good?” she whispered, as they approached the cavernous doorway.
“As good as it’ll get. Your hair is fine, even with the damp. And everybody knows you don’t look your best after hard travel,” Bo agreed. “He struck me as the kind of man who wouldn’t care if we showed up wearing rags anyway.”
Chyou had to agree. In the entryway, she quickly took the waterproof wrapping off the sheafs of paper, and they both removed their shoes as the rooster disappeared further down the hall.
Five minutes later he returned, just as they managed to finish their preparations. She took a breath, and stepped through the door.
Master Jin was waiting for them, seated at a table, in a warm, inviting room.
“Guan Bo. Guan Chyou. Good to see you both,” he said, as he rose. He had a smile on his face, as always, nodding to both of them. Chyou couldn’t help smiling back at him. Chyou and her brother bowed respectfully, even as Chyou’s eyes darted around the room, taking in the others.
They were an odd collection of… people. The first of them caused Chyou to raise her eyebrow, a prim looking pig with a brush in her mouth and a ledger open in front of her. She didn’t know how a pig could look prim but she did. The pig glanced up and set her brush aside to bow silently to the siblings before returning to her task. There was a wild looking man a bit like a monkey with his own ledger beside the pig who smiled and bowed as well. Chyou assumed they were like the rooster and the boar, servants of Master Jin.
Two women were present as well. One was dressed in plain robes though Chyou could see the maple leaf and rice sheaf upon her back. She had green hair and an unfortunate amount of freckles covering her nose. Likely the maid that Bo had mentioned. She was tending to the fire and warming up water in a large teapot. The second woman nearly made her trip over herself. She was perhaps the most beautiful person that Chyou had ever laid eyes on, the kind of beauty that struck men dumb. The woman eyed them briefly, seeming a bit disinterested, as she sat off to the side, reading.
So that was Master Jin’s wife. No wonder he was completely uninterested in her.
“Was the trip alright?” Master Jin asked as he led them to the table.
“It was very peaceful, Master Jin,” Chyou reassured him with a smile as they were invited to sit down, and the freckled maid came to the table with cups of tea.
There was a slight swell to her belly that didn’t look like fat. The woman smiled at Chyou, who nodded absently, dismissing the servant… before she realized something. Her eyes darted to the other woman.
…hadn’t Master Jin said his wife was pregnant…?
“Yes, it was a completely uneventful Journey, Master Jin,” her brother agreed. “And I must say, it's excellent to see you and your lovely wife again.” he had a bright smile on his face, as he nodded to the beautiful woman.
The beautiful woman who very conspicuously wasn’t pregnant.
Both the beautiful woman and Master Jin froze.
Master Jin’s freckle-faced wife raised an eyebrow. “Oh? When did you two get married?” she asked blandly.
Her brother’s face paled.
Editors: Brandon “Philosophysics” Zhang-Leong, Heavenly Daoist, Chris Shaw, Ayje, Massgamer, Oshi