The travelers chatted together, and they arrived at the foot of the mountain before half a day had passed.
Qingshan was surrounded by immensely tall mountains that pierced the clouds.
The mountain gate and its accompanying steps of the mountain path were hidden by the cloudy mist, its end out of sight.
At the foot of the mountain was an enormous boulder engraved with ‘Qingshan’.
The writing style was bold and forceful; the engraver was surely one of profound skill.
Beside the boulder was a boy servant, who had been waiting for some time to lead the way.
The boy servant’s hair was bound into a bun on the top of his head, and he wore moon-white robes embroidered with silver bamboo patterns.
Seeing that people had arrived, he came forward in welcome.
“These shijie and shixiong have come to attend the Sword Conference, then.”
“Yes.” Shen Xiuqi answered, his voice clear, resonant, and articulate.
Because of his tall stature, reaching almost to the heavens, as well as him often being in Xibei—unlike a woman of a respectable family, he did not attach much importance to his skin, so his skin was burnished by the sun and quite tanned—he bore a remarkable resemblance to the men of Xibei.
Although he wore refined clothing, he was unavoidably fierce-looking.
When he stepped forward to hand over his name card, the boy servant could not help himself from taking a few steps back when he saw his appearance.
“Shixiong, you’re scaring everyone.” Shangguan Qing smiled, stepping forward gracefully.
She took the name card from Shen Xiuqi’s hand and passed it to the boy servant.
The boy servant looked over the name card and said: “So you are shijie and shixiong from the Yueluo Sect.
You must be weary from the long journey.
The Sect Leader has already arranged for your residences.” As he spoke, he pulled a jade token from his pocket.
The jade token was marked with crimson channels and emerald bamboo, with the characters for ‘Yueluo’ inscribed in the center, exquisite and beautiful.
With this level of meticulousness and consideration, Qingshan was indeed worthy of being a major sect.
“When you ascend the mountain, show this token to the gatekeepers and they will show you to your residence.” The boy servant’s speech was extremely reverential, with a thorough presentation of etiquette.
Shangguan Qing received the token and placed it in her sleeve, smiling sweetly at the boy servant as she said: “Thank you, shidi.”
The boy servant slanted his body to peer around these two and discovered that the trio behind them were not wearing the same clothing of the Yueluo sect members.
He asked: “Excuse me, which sect are these shijie and shixiong from?”
Yun He saw that the two from the Yueluo Sect had brought a name card, but all she remembered from her previous time coming with shifu was entering directly through the mountain gate; there had not been nearly as many convoluted formalities.
Thinking about it, this year’s Sword Conference also included disciples from other sects, so it must be a little different from previous year’s.
Yun Yangzi had not left them any kind of name card either, so the trio felt a bit discomfited.
Yun He remembered the letter she had received from Yun Yangzi.
Contained in the letter were a few trifles that occurred in Minghe since they left, details of the banquet after the Sword Conference concludes, as well as the instruction that after the banquet, the trio need not hurry back to Minghe, lest there be a breach of etiquette.
Yun He pulled out the letter and gave it to the boy servant.
When he saw the sender’s name of ‘Yun Yangzi’, his eyes lit up: “So you are the disciples of Yun Yangzi shibo, the one shizun always talks about.
Shizun has been waiting for you for a while.”
As he spoke, he pulled out another three tokens, which were styled similarly to Shangguan Qing’s, with bamboo patterns on the surface.
However, the front of the tokens were inscribed with the names ‘Yun He,’ ‘Gu Yun,’ and ‘Jiang Ling,’ and the backs were inscribed with the words, ‘Qingshan Sect,’ surrounded by carved patterns of auspicious clouds.
“Thank you, little shidi.” Yun He took the tokens and divided them up to Jiang Ling and Gu Yun.
The three of them each inspected their own token; the scene was like a wander returning to their hometown.
The little boy servant said: “At the mountain’s entrance, there are some shixiong that will meet you and make arrangements.
Shixiong and shijie, please continue on your way.”
The trio nodded, bid farewell to the boy servant, then followed after Shen Xiuqi and Shangguan Qing.
Shangguan Qing teased them that they were receiving the home-coming treatment.
Each of them held a jade token, so she was a little envious.
“Dong, dong, dong”
He Xi sat cross-legged on the divan in her room, circulating her breath as the sunlight filtered gently through the window, but the dissonant knock broke up the peacefulness of the scene.
Hearing the knock, He Xi opened her amber-colored eyes and moved from the divan to sit beside the table.
She picked up the teapot on the table and poured tea into a cup.
Then two men came into the room.
The first, named Ye Qi, was in his twenties with the appearance of a westerner: stalwart frame, prominent brows, and the lingering stubble of a beard, despite having shaved.
The other, named A Na, was also in his twenties and, even though he wore clothes of the west, had the appearance of one from the central plains: likewise tall, a slender eye shape, a lean facial structure, and a wispy beard on his chin.
Upon entering, the first thing both of them did was salute He Xi with a single arm slanted across their chests.
A Na said: “My lady, all of the goods have been cataloged.”
“Mm.” He Xi nodded, “Ye Qi, Jiangdu’s silk is fairly good.
Take a turn about town and purchase some.”
“Understood, my lady.”
Once the two finished reporting on their tasks, they left the room, lightly closing the door behind them.
He Xi sat beside the table, one hand supporting her head and the other twisting the cup in her fingers, lost in thought.
As her hand gently spun the cup, the tea leaves within followed the flow of the water as it circled inside the cup.
As for the group on Qingshan, they all practiced martial arts, so they effortlessly ascended the mountain that seemed to reach the clouds.
Along the way, they chatted freely and admired the scenery, and with their skills and light steps, they reached the mountain gate within an incense stick’s worth of time.1
An archway, large enough for three people to walk through at once, stood before the mountain gate, the words “Qingshan Sect” engraved on the front.
Supplemented by the clear blue skies above, its dignified appearance was extraordinarily striking.
“Ho ho, as expected of Qingshan Sect, with great panache!” Shangguan Qing was stunned, “We in Longxi are truly remote.
We could never construct something so beautiful.”
Although Shen Xiuqi did not say anything, one could see from his expression that he agreed with Shangguan Qing’s words.
Past the mountain gate was a large square, which was paved with evenly cut, perfectly fitted stones.
Wherever one looked, white palaces with turquoise-tiled roofs and upturned eaves unfolded across the space one after another, scattered on different mountain peaks and linked together by bridges.
The square itself was lively, with some disciples dressed in the style of the Qingshan Sect practicing meditation, others wearing their own clothing style and conversing with old acquaintances, and a few outer disciples arriving to admire the scenery.
The disciples below the mountain arch had already waited for a while.
Shangguan Qing produced their jade token, and the little disciples led the way to their residences.
Shen Xiuqi cupped his hands, saluting Yun He: “Yun shimei, may the Sword Conference determine the victor.” The corners of Yun He’s lips raised slightly and she bowed in farewell.
“Jiang Ling’er2, let’s talk again when you’re free.” Shangguan Qing winked at Jiang Ling, then waved at her as they parted.
Jiang Ling waved back at Shangguan Qing.
Gu Yun stood to the side, then said to Jiang Ling sourly: ”Even that eldest shijie is like this.
She’s like a heavenly goddess descended to the mortal realms, and I am also dignified in appearance.
Then, why didn’t Lady Shangguan give me a second glance, while in the span of half a day, you both have become dear sisters?”
“You want to be our sister, too?”
“That’s not it, either.” Gu Yun huffed a dry laugh.
In the midst of their quarrel, Yun He had already pulled out her token.
When the little disciple, who was about thirteen or fourteen years of age, saw that the trio was Yun Yangzi’s three disciples, he led them to the disciples’ quarters.
The disciples at the gate were outer disciples who strengthened their bodies’ through martial arts, but were not instructed directly.
“Shixiong and shijie may call me A Du.” A Du introduced himself first, “Shixiong and shijie are the disciples of shibo, Yun Yangzi, and therefore disciples of Qingshan Sect, as shizun always tells us.
Since Yun Yangzi was his own disciple, you are also inner disciples, and should naturally live in an inner disciples’ courtyard.” Said courtyards, while located on a sizable mountain top, were also scattered in a pleasantly chaotic manner, unlike the regimented, square layout of the walled town at the foot of the mountain.
A Du walked and presented simultaneously, “This is the courtyard where the Sect Leader’s disciples lived in the past.”
Gu Yun looked around, asking: “Then eldest shixiong also lives here.”
A Du nodded, then replied: “Eldest shixiong descended the mountain a few days ago with third shixiong.
They should be back in a couple of days.” He led the trio and introduced some of the elder’s residences, then at last showed them to where they would be staying.
“This is where Yun Yangzi shibo lived with his fellow shixiong and shijie back when he was a disciple, ‘Condensing Heart Courtyard’.
Shizun made sure to have us prepare it for your arrival.
Once shijie and shixiong have settled in, please have a rest.
The Sword Conference will begin in five days, and if you need anything, just call for me.”
The Qingshan Sect disciples had prepared two residences for them, which were speckled across a small mountain top and encircled by green bamboo.
Within each residence was a courtyard fenced in by bamboo, and within each courtyard were a few old trees with expansive foliage.
A stone table rested beneath a tree, a chessboard set in it.
While the residence lacked the dignified construction of the other palaces, it was much better than their living quarters on Minghe Mountain.
The trio entered the two-room residence, and Gu Yun entered his single room.
Jiang Ling walked into the room; it was quite clean and tidy, with all living necessities.
On the bed were two sets of clothing, beside the bed was a washstand, and below the decoratively carved window was a writing desk with a few brushes and inkstones—entirely appropriate arrangements.
After running about all day, Jiang Ling felt exhaustion pull at her, and she fell asleep almost as soon as she laid down.
“A Ling, come eat.” Gu Yun knocked on Jiang Ling’s door.
“Coming.” Jiang Ling had unexpectedly slept until dinnertime.
She tidied up a little, then walked over to Gu Yun’s area.
Yun He had already sat down, and they had just been waiting for Jiang Ling.
“I didn’t expect that the Qingshan Sect would be so considerate.
Next to my room, there’s even a small kitchen, with cooking supplies already prepared.” Gu Yun had always been responsible for the food in the Minghe Sect, so it suited his purposes.
After the meal, Gu Yun pulled out a bronze mirror from his lapel and passed it to Jiang Ling.
Jiang Ling lifted her head to look at Gu Yun, her gaze revealing her confusion.
“Don’t misunderstand, I found this mirror in a drawer when I was tidying up the room.
A big man like me doesn’t need something like this, so I’m giving it to you.” Gu Yun rushed to explain, and by trying to avoid a misunderstanding, he made the situation awkward.
Having heard this statement, Jiang Ling picked up the bronze mirror and inspected it.
Gu Yun had definitely not bought it, as it was unconventional and exquisite, and one could see that it was aged; a few scratches marred the surface, but it was still usable.
“Why didn’t you give it to shijie?”
“How is shijie like you, who’s unlike a girl at all.”
“Gu Yun, You—” Jiang Ling smacked the table, looking ready to hit Gu Yun.
Yun He, in response, hurried to hold them both back, then sent Gu Yun off to wash the dishes.
“Shijie, look at him, he’s been misguided by shifu!” Jiang Ling still had not forgotten about her earlier complaints.
She could not say three sentences to Gu Yun without quarreling.
“A Yun spoke poorly.” As Yun He laughed softly, she looked at Gu Yun and Jiang Ling, who were like her own brother and sister.
She loved these little squabbles, as they were the actions of genuine siblings.
That night, Jiang Ling looked into the bronze mirror by the candle light.
The self in the mirror was no stranger; she had seen herself many times before.
This time, however, she brought the mirror close and carefully looked at her eyelashes.
Were they pretty? She did not know.
Gu Yun said that she was not like a girl, but He Xi had said her eyelashes were beautiful.
That was the first time she had heard someone compliment her appearance.
Jiang Ling went through her memories of He Xi’s looks; her eyelashes were really pretty, too.
The He Xi that stood beneath the lantern light, the He Xi that wished her happiness.
Jiang Ling’s heart heated up.
She picked up the pot of cold tea and drank two mouthfuls, but it could not extinguish the fire in her heart.
She did not know what was wrong with her, but it was like she wanted to immediately descend the mountain…
1 A short time frame.
Not super specific, but anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes.
2 Adding an er 儿 indicates affection
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