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Why would someone acting as a grand Master go ‘pay respects’ to their eldest sect-brother?
Both Cheng Qian and Han Yuan had heads full of confused fog, and their Master wanted to add chaos to the world by means of further explanation. “Don’t worry too much. The eldest is beyond carefree, so don’t be scared of him. Just be like me.”
Wait. What did he mean, ‘be like me?’
In brief, Zhenren Muchun successfully the thin fog in his two young disciples’ heads into a pool of thick mush.
After they passed the mountain gate, a few Daochildren and teenagers came up to welcome them, accompanied by the sound of rushing water.
The Daochildren were as old as eighteen and as young as thirteen. Each one had pretty and delicate features, looking like golden boy figurines set below a divinity’s seat, their flowing sleeves moving on their own without wind.
Han Yuan was dumbstruck, needless to say. Even Cheng Qian, who had held some self-confidence all this day, faintly gained a sense of inferiority.
It was due to that bit of inferiority that he took it upon himself to endure; he subconsciously pulled his face taut, straightened out his back, and rigidly concealed his own curiosity and lack of experience, not letting a bit leak out.
The leading Daochild noticed Zhenren Muchun from a distance. Before the man had come up, he was already laughing, his manner rather casual as he said, “Where did you go to this time, Sect Leader? Why do you look like you’ve fled from a famine… hey, what the— Where’d you kidnap these young men from?”
Cheng Qian ripped apart that friendly greeting to analyze it word-by-word, yet couldn’t extract even a half-speck of respect out of it. It didn’t seem like the Daochild was greeting a ‘Sect Leader’, but ‘Uncle Han from the village over’ or something.
Zhenren Muchun didn’t mind, even displaying a slightly nonchalant smile. “My newly-accepted disciples are still young, so I’ll trouble you to get them settled in,” he said, gesturing at Cheng Qian and Han Yuan.
The Daochild smiled. “Where should they be settled?”
“This one goes to the South Pavilion,” he said, casually pointing at Han Yuan. After that, he bowed his head incidentally to meet right with Cheng Qian’s gaze as the latter looked up at him. The young one’s starkly black-and-white eyes held inherent self-restraint, yet also a subtle trace of fear at being in an unfamiliar environment.
That breezy smile of Muchun’s suddenly ebbed. After a short moment, he indicated Cheng Qian’s destination with an almost serious demeanor, “Have Cheng Qian go to the accessory pavilion.”
This ‘accessory pavilion’ was not a pavilion at all, but small courtyard in a very off-the-beaten-path spot. It had a slight feel of being apart from the world. At one side of the courtyard’s wall was a stream that soundlessly passed by, and on the other was a large bamboo forest, all of it being extremely quiet.
The forest had presumably been around for a few years, dying even the passing breeze a blue-green. The entire courtyard looked like it was placed inside a sea of bamboo, green enough to give it a slightly hermitic aura.
Two Ever-Lit Lanterns were hanging at the gates, one on the left and one on the right. They were engraved with inscriptions, but they were much more refine than that Cheng ‘heirloom’; their halo of light was soft, the wind didn’t move them, and people walking didn’t jolt them. Placed serenely between them was a horizontal door plate with the word ‘Repose’ written upon it.
It looked like that ‘Whirlwind’ at the mountain gate had been made by the same person’s hand.
The Daochild leading the way for Cheng Qian was named Xueqing, ‘Lilac’, who was around the same age as Cheng Qian’s older brother. He was neither tall nor short, fat nor thin, and while he was still pretty upon a closer look at him, his features were a bit bland—amongst all of those Daochildren, he was the most innocuous-looking one. He was also of few words, and seemed to not really like to put himself forwards.
“This is our mountain’s secondary pavilion, also known as the Residence of Repose. I’ve heard that the Sect Leader used to live here. It was later vacated and put to use as a fasting hall,” Xueqing gently explained. “Do you know what a fasting hall is, Third Elder?”
Cheng Qian didn’t, really, but he still nodded with feigned carelessness as he followed Xueqing into the courtyard.
In the middle of the courtyard, there was a one-square-zhang pond, below which was a black elmwood tray carved with inscriptions, which likely gave it a fastening effect; the pond water did not spill or drip, remaining motionlessly solid. When he got closer for a better look, however, he found that it wasn’t a pond at all, but a massive, uncommon gemstone.
The stone was no jade, and it was cool to the touch. Within its dark green was a hint of blue, having a stillness that came from cold and distance.
Cheng Qian had never seen something this rare before. Despite not wanting to seem like a country hick, he had to stare in shock for a moment.
“I don’t know what that thing is, but we all call it the Mind-Purifying Stone,” Xueqing said. “The Sect Leader found it. Whenever he fasted before, he usually sat on it while copying scriptures. With it standing guard, this courtyard is much cooler in the summer.”
Cheng Qian had to point at the inscriptions on the elmwood tray and ask, “Brother Xueqing, what use do those inscriptions have?”
Xueqing seemed to have not expected Cheng Qian to be so courteous to him. After being taken aback shortly, he answered, “I don’t deserve such, Third Elder.—Those aren’t inscriptions.”
Cheng Qian gave him a look.
To his own amazement, Xueqing could pick up some reserved suspicion in his eyes. This young one’s gaze seemed like it could talk—compared to the other one the Sect Leader had picked up, he looked all the more fine-cut.
Xueqing wasn’t sure how to describe this. He could actually tell that this child wasn’t of high birth and might not have even read any books, yet he seemed to be doing all he could to mold himself into being an elegant nobleman. His molding was to the point where he rigidly copied others, his each and every move overcautious; it was as if he didn’t know what face he should use to communicate with other people.
Simply put, he was kind of posturing—just with no objected nor subject to imitate.
In general, people putting on airs would inevitably make others hate them a little. Even though he was a mere child, for some unknown reason, Xueqing didn’t hate Cheng Qian. On the contrary, he inexplicably felt some pity for him. This was why he slowly and carefully answered, “Third Elder, this one is just an odd-jobs-doer with low aptitude. I manage my Sect Leader and Elders’ day-to-day life. The path of inscriptions is wide and deep; none of us can even superficially grasp it. All we can do is listen to the Sect Leader’s scant words of mention, then echo it later. Don’t hesitate to ask him, or our—… your eldest senior.”
Cheng Qian had keenly caught that ‘our’. Thinking back on how these Daochildren were overly familiar with yet underly respectful to the Sect Leader, he became more and more doubtful.
Xueqing quickly gave him a full tour of the Residence’s layout, hurriedly help him wash off the dust from his travels, then gave him a set of fitting clothes to change into. Only after tidying him up inside and out did he lead him back out.
While maintaining his non-ignorant image, Cheng Qian indirectly asked Xueqing about what divinity the Eldest was. He learned that the other had the surname Yan, his full name being Yan Zhengming, and he came from wealth.
What was that wealth’s extent? That was something Cheng Qian was confused about; he was an impoverished child that had no concept of ‘wealth’. The so-called ‘wealthy’ person he’d known had been none other than Landlord Wang’s sort, who’d lived on the other end of the village. That man had been over sixty years old when he’d taken in his third concubine, so in Cheng Qian’s view, that threateningly wealthy enough.
He heard that when Yan Zhengming had been seven years old, he’d run away from home for some unknown, stupid reason, then been picked up by their devious—… astute and wise Master, whose eyes saw all.
That old deceiver had unfurled his long, silver tongue to successfully abduct the Eldest—who had still been young and didn’t know the dangers of the world—into the sect, where he became the eldest sect-starting disciple.
However, the Yan’s son being missing inevitably made his family worry. After expending a vast amount of effort, they found Yan Zhengming, who had already fallen on the wrong path. It was unclear whether Muchun had given an enticing drug to Young Lord Yan or the boy had simply refused to learn proper things, but it was like his mind was lost; he refused to go home, insisting on staying cultivating alongside their Master.
The Young Lord had been pampered since he was small, so his family could never watch their pampered son suffer hardship with a swindler that looked like a vagrant troupemaster. After several bouts of wrangling failed, they’d had to compromise with paying the sect’s upkeep, treating it like they were giving the Young Lord a theatre troupe to play in.
There were very many different grades of cultivation sects in the world, but both genuine, famous, upright sects and demonic orders were few in number. The majority of the ones spread across the Nine Provinces were malfeasant sects.
Cheng Qian made some mental calculations. Like the Whirlwind Sect, if any sect had a wealthy backer and some amount of prestige, they could probably be called a ‘goodchicken’ sect.
Hence, he understood that their Eldest was not just their eldest sect-brother, but had many other sorts of roles, like ‘breadwinner of the sect’, ‘the Sect Leader’s financial backer’, and ‘the Whirlwind Sect’s initial disciple.’ Since he was the sect’s premier, even his Master had to fawn over him.
As for the premier in question… Cheng Qian knew as soon as he saw him that he was a profligate who couldn’t be described in just one sentence.
Four words: arrogant, excessive, lascivious, and lazy. Except the Eldest was fifteen right now and didn’t have the guts to be ‘lascivious’, which left arrogant, excessive, and lazy. He was one who was all sit, no work.
The first time Zhenren Muchun led his two cleaned-up disciples to be presented before Young Lord Yan, who was in the middle of combing his hair. It wasn’t that the Sect Leader was such an old fool that he didn’t know courtesy and would hurry to disturb someone’s early morning routine, but that the Eldest combed his hair several times each day.
It was good that he was still young and had no fear of giving himself bald spots.
The one qualified to comb the Eldest’s hair had to be female, first and foremost. She couldn’t be too young nor too old, couldn’t have a single unbeautiful thing about her, and couldn’t be the tiniest bit inelegant in perfume. She did nothing all day long other than comb hair and light incense. Her hands needed to be soft and white as jade, with no calluses to ruin the vibe.
The Daochildren, like Xueqing, had been Yan slaves. A group of them had been carefully picked out to send to the sect as menials.
The Young Lord had no use for them at his side, supposedly because he didn’t really like men and thought they were clumsy. For this reason, young women were his sole attendants in his courtyard, making it an eternal spring of vibrant hues.
Before going through the door, Cheng Qian furtively stared at his Master’s goatee for a long while, then came to a conclusion: This man’s beard had been combed through.
On the way here, Xueqing had said that Zhenren Muchun had arranged for him to go to the Residence of Repose so that he could settle his nerves; Cheng Qian had felt some vague discomfort, refusing to acknowledge that his nerves weren’t settled. Now that he was at the Eldest’s lodgings and had tilted his head back to see the words ‘Land of Tenderness’, his heart finally went to his stomach.
It seemed that he wasn’t unsettled, but that his Master was an old fuddy-duddy.
Meanwhile, Han Yuan pretended to be cute by wielding his ignorance as a joke. “Master, what’s that written on the Eldest’s door?”
Stroking his beard, Muchun read it to him, after which Han Yuan asked again with a vacant look, “Was that to encourage the Eldest to be more tender later?”
Hearing that, Muchun was greatly alarm. “You must never let your Eldest hear those words,” he warned.
Cheng Qian and Hanyuan both saw how the stately Sect Leader had his tail between his legs like a dejected dog, and had a rare simultaneous thought: This is simply absurd, a perversion of the natural order!
As they thought so, they shared a look, saw the shock on their counterpart’s face, and thus quickly tucked their tails between their legs just like their Master did. This acquired them the sect’s most important skill: The Divine Art of Tail-Tucking.
In truth, once Cheng Qian saw the Eldest for himself, he found him as stunning as a celestial being.
The other’s looks were still juvenile, but his stench had already reached the pinnacle. He was in snow-white, satin robes embroidered with hidden patterns that no one could really see, only a tiny bit of brilliant hints visible when moving between changes of light and dark. He was leaned back against a decoratively-carved chair as if he was alive, yet boneless, his eyes were half-hooded, his chin was propped against his hand, and his hair was as loose as spilled ink.
Upon hearing voices, Yan Zhengming unenthusiastically looked up. The corners of his eyes swept horizontally like faint ink, long and upturned, creating a haughty and effeminate aura for no real reason. He had not a single intent to stand up after seeing his Master, his but planted firmly in his seat as he slowly opened his mouth to say, “Master. You went out on a trip and picked up two more… whatever these things are?”
He seemed to have matured a little later than others, the youthful tinge to his voice not having gone away yet. Blending that with his slightly spoiled tone, it was all the more androgynous.
On the other hand, he was so effeminate as to be completely confident in himself, making that androgyny seem unexpectedly fitting.
The Sect Leader, that old man, smiled ingratiatingly, rubbing his hands together. “Ah, this is your Third Junior, Cheng Qian, and your Fourth Junior, Han Yuan,” he introduced. “They are still young and ignorant of the worlds. As their Eldest, you should help me with giving them pointers from now on.”
Hearing Han Yuan’s name, Yan Zhengming’s brow raised, and his face seemed to spasm. His eyes half-open, he demeaned himself by glancing at his freshly-forged Fourth Junior, after which he speedily averted his gaze like his eyes had been sullied.
“Han Yuan?” he languidly commented, seemingly displeased. “He does indeed fit the name, since his looks are a bit of an injustice.”
Han Yuan’s complexion went white, with a tinge of green.
Tossing him aside, Yan Zhengming turned to Cheng Qian.
“Boy,” he said, “come here. Let me see.”