Snowfall Peak was in uproar, at least considering its usual quiet state. Disciples walked as fast as decorum, and the slippery ground, where snow had turned to mush, allowed. Carrying bolts of cloth, decorations, food, messages, from one pavilion to the next, and memorably two new decorative carps for the sect’s central pond which had been mistakenly taken to the sect leader’s courtyard.
The sect was located on the Huangshang mountains, nestled between granite peaks and imposing pine trees. The buildings were arranged in serpentine courtyards that hugged the peak’s geography, low buildings of wood and strong roof tiles to withstand the weight of the snow and the frequent summer rains. Every pavilion had sliding oiled paper windows to let in the crisp mountain air, and the sweet smell of red plum blossoms. For most of the year the entire sect grounds were blanketed in white, and the air was filled with the gentle music of spring water flowing free, sometimes broken by the sorrowful cry of the guqin when disciples practiced or entertained each other. Snowfall Peak was a paradise of asceticism and tranquillity. On most days.
“I don’t remember this much panic during our actual wedding ceremony,” said sect leader Liu Zhiruo as her wife, Mei Yuyan, helped her into her outer robe. Liu Zhiruo was a woman with a face like a knife, all honed and shining edges, at once intimidating and alluring. Her wife was all curves to her sharp angles. If Liu Zhiruo’s smile was a threat, Mei Yuyan’s was a sweet promise.
“It’s all a bit much,” Liu Zhiruo said, and kissed Mei Yuyan’s cheek in thanks for helping her with her clothes.
“Your niece isn’t, ah, as composed, as you were at her age, dear,” said Mei Yuyan, smiling her demure diplomatic smile, which she always used when talking about Liu Zhuyu, whom Liu Zhiruo doted on excessively, some would say. Those some were often led by Mei Yuyan.
Liu Zhiruo smiled fondly. “She is as spirited as a new-born phoenix. It’s auspicious a for a future sect leader to have that much energy.”
“Yes,” Mei Yuyan conceded. “However, it would be ever more auspicious if she used that energy to observe sect rules and enforce them among her fellow disciples.”
“Marriage will bring her balance.” Liu Zhiruo was confident that marital bliss would bring her niece as much prudence and sensibility as it had her. One would never want their rash actions to reflect badly on their spouse.
“There is the issue of her bride...” Mei Yuyan didn’t share her wife’s optimism.
Liu Zhiruo flinched. “Yes, that could take some careful navigating.”
At that moment Liu Zhuyu was in her Snow Sprinkled Blossom pavilion being attended by five of her younger sect sisters. They were all helping her get ready for the gift exchange ceremony. Today, all her future bride’s sect, and a few invited sects, would celebrate as Snowfall Peak, and Flaming Pearl exchanged gifts to cement the betrothal, and choose and auspicious date for the wedding ceremony.
Many centuries ago, the elders of all the most renowned sects had come with an ingenious solution for the issue of succession among the sects, which often led to coups, internal division, and slaughter as brother and sister turned on each other in a mad grab for power. Naturally, the most powerful cultivators married each other in the hope of producing children even stronger than themselves. Those children would grow into powerful adults who would prove hard to contain if their intentions turned malicious. If they began to resent their more capable brother, their favoured sister.
The elders decided that these marriages would continue, but only among individuals of the same sex, who were forbidden from having any children, impossible within the bounds of marriage, and a great shame if outside. Even adoption, readily available to all the common folk in the same type of relationship, was denied to them. These sect leaders would devote their lives to their sects, respect their spouses, and help guide the future sect leader. That future sect leader would be selected as the one with the strongest golden core among all young disciples, and would take up the mantle on their 25th birthday, at which point the previous sect leader would abdicate and become an elder and teacher. If they died the current sect leader would continue their rule until the next generation of cultivators developed their golden cores. No room for usurpers or alliances. Any sect that disrespected these tenets would be shunned by all.
That council many centuries ago, had managed to keep balance among all of Jianghu. Extraordinarily powerful individuals were paired off, given a purpose for their ambitions, and it was ensured that there would be no future progeny to multiply their power and threaten the delicate peace that had been achieved. Not even adopted children, whom indulgent parents would want to see achieving greatness at all costs.
Liu Zhuyu started developing her golden core at the age of 11, the youngest Snowfall Peak disciple to do so in 50 years. She was declared the future sect leader on the same day her teacher noticed qi had begun to coalesce within her. The next year she was engaged to the second most powerful Flaming Pearl disciple, a girl two years older than her. A union that would cement the two sects already strong friendship, and facilitate a trade deal that would make sure the cities and villages under Snowfall Peak care would never lack iron in their forges for the foreseeable future.
The day she had been appointed sect heir was the happiest of Liu Zhuyu’s short life. The day she was told she would be married, and shown a painting of her betrothed was the second.
Today they would finally meet in person. Liu Zhuyu could barely contain her glee. “Someone, extol my bride’s virtues.”
“To answer shijie, young miss Hua Rushi, is an unparalleled beauty in all of Jianghu. Her cultivation is most excellent, and she is very skilled with the sword and the guqin, just as shijie herself. It is said that her hair is black as the night and smooth as silk, her jade-like skin is unblemished and dewy, her smile could topple cities, her body is delicate, and her waist so narrow a single hand could span it entirely. It is firmly believed shijie’s bride is the only girl in the world who is worthy of shijie’s own beauty.”
Liu Zhuyu sighed and relaxed back into her chair. The youngest sect sister, who had just answered in one breathless swoop, lowered her head and continued to buff Liu Zhuyu’s nails until they were smooth as shells.
“Thank you, A-Ling, my heart rests easy knowing I will marry such an extraordinary woman.”
“Of course, shijie, sect leader Liu would only choose the best for her own blood niece,” said Ye Mingyan, with a congenial expression, but a glint in her eyes.
There were hurried steps from outside, definitely not within keeping with Snowfall Peak noise rules. The doors opened, and Xue Xiangsi entered, smiling brilliantly.
As all disciples, he was wearing the official sect robes, silver and white, embroidered with mountain and tree motifs, his headpiece was a simple silver cuff with geometric patterns and a single green jade gem in the middle. According to sect rules he should have worn the top half of his hair in a smooth topknot to keep hair away from his face, and the lower half unbound, but he preferred tying up the top into a high ponytail, and leaving a few strands loose around his face. He said “preferred” but almost everyone knew he was terrible at doing up his own hair, and used to scream dramatically every time someone tried to do it for him. These days, Sect leader Liu Zhiruo called him a disgrace every time she looked at his hair but left it at that, which suited him just fine.
“Shijie, I climbed Phoenix’s Nest peak to see the road, and the Flaming Pearl sect is on the way. They’re bringing eight gift carts.” he made his way through his younger sect sisters, smirking at their pretence at being shocked by his presence in a lady’s rooms and sat beside Liu Zhuyu. “Your bride really wants to impress you, A-Yu.”
Liu Zhuyu couldn’t be more pleased to hear that. “You think we’ll fall in love, shidi?”
“She’ll certainly fall in love with you. Who wouldn’t love my shijie?” he said, and kissed Liu Zhuyu’s hand.
“Yes, but will I love her?” Liu Zhuyu asked, gripping Xue Xiongsi’s hand tightly in hers.
Xue Xiangsi pretended to think really hard about this. “Let’s see, is she beautiful?”
“Very beautiful,” supplied Huang Ying, looking up at Lu Zhuyu starry-eyed. “Everyone says so.”
Xue Xiongsi nodded and stroked his long, non-existent beard. “Is her cultivation strong and powerful?”
“She’s the strongest in her sect and one of the most powerful in her generation,” said Huang Ying again, her mousy chin trembling with excitement. She had yet to meet a question she didn’t love answering.
“Good, good,” said Xue Xiangsi, as his beard got longer and longer. “Is she talented in the four arts?”
“Yes, shixiong, they say she is a great guqin player, like shijie” said Huang Ying again. “Her calligraphy is exceptional, and she can paint lifelike landscapes.”
Xue Xiangsi stopped stroking his imaginary beard. This woman sounded like an immortal in both her looks and achievements. He was starting to suspect some gross exaggeration was at play.
He was about to say something, when he looked at Liu Zhuyu, and lost his nerve. She looked resplendent in her robes, the most carefully made, and intricate she had; the kind of robes that would be considered “tasteful” by any other sect, but in Snowfall Peak where downright extravagant, as were the two silver hairpins in her hair. One a silver and pink peach blossom with a trail of leaves almost down to her ear, and another a more discrete geometric piece. She looked so happy and radiant; he wouldn’t dare upset her with conjectures about her bride’s existence being possible only in some far-fetched legend.
“Is she shorter than shijie?” He asked Huang Ying, directly this time, because it wasn’t as if she was giving anyone else the room to speak.
“She...I...I don’t know, shixiong, no one has ever commented on her height.” Huang Yin said, and hung her head.
“Uhm, it’s possible she might be taller than you, A-Yu, please, dampen your expectations.”
Liu Zhuyu laughed, and punched him softly in the shoulder. “It won’t be horrible if she’s taller than me. You’re taller than me and I haven’t had you cut at the knees yet.”
Xue Xiangsi, pulled her ear, and fought off her hands. Their usual kind of play-fighting which would normally draw amused smiles, today almost deafened him when five young girls started screaming that he would ruin Liu Zhuyu’s hair and makeup. He was bodily removed out of the Snow Sprinkled Blossom pavilion by his younger sect sisters, and would have protested more if their little angry faces weren’t so amusing.
He considered raiding the kitchen, but it was very unlikely Granny Song would indulge him with so many guests coming.
No matter, there were several other places where he could make a nuisance of himself.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter, I'll try to update as regularly as possible.