Xue Xiangsi made his way to the Plum courtyard, which was on the way to Pine courtyard where his teacher’s Sword and Brush pavilion was located. Plum courtyard was the first thing visitors saw after ascending all 1000 steps up the mountain. A mesmerizing view of plum trees covered in red blossoms, falling on the crisp snow like blood drops. Two rows of plum trees led the way to central pond where carps sawm lazily even when the water froze over, and to Snowfall Peak’s main hall, the Pavilion of Dust. The entire courtyard was arranged in a semi-circle, and enclosed by towering pine trees as old as Huangshang itself. The pavilion of Dust sat in the centre, an elegant wooden building with a sweeping roof and large wind-chimes hanging from each corner of the upturned eaves.
He was turning around the gate that connected Spring Water courtyard where Liu Zhuyu’s Snow Sprinkled blossom pavilion was located, when he saw Liu Zhiruo talking with Ji Shuren, Golden Crane’s sect leader. He had heard that, much like his sect’s reputation, Ji Shuren was a laidback man, with a fun-loving attitude and a ready smile. Unless someone made a comment about his husband’s legendary beauty, at which point Ji Shuren’s equally legendary temper would make an appearance. Speaking of which, where was Qiu Yuliang?
Xue Xiangsi had a hopeless silent crush on him since the first time they met, when he was just ten years old, and Qiu Yuliang saw him crying, after getting third place in an inter sect competition.
At that time, there was nothing he wanted more than to prove his worth and cement his place in Snowfall Peak. Not getting first place was a hard blow, especially considering it meant he had to wait until the next competition to be awarded his first divine weapon. Or miss out on the opportunity altogether, and make do with a regular weapon, which was the fate of every disciple who wasn't strong enough.
He was doing his best to bite back his tears, but they fell unbidden no matter how he tried to school his face into a neutral expression. It was then that a man approached him.
“Why are you crying, little shidi?” he asked. Xue Xiangsi looked up at the stranger, wearing red and gold robes, and was momentarily stunned by the beauty of his smile, bright as moonlight.
“I...I... didn’t win,” Xue Xiangsi replied.
“That only means you can do better.” Qiu Yuliang said, and pinched his cheek. Xue Xiangsi would normally rebel at being babied but he was still in awe of Qiu Yuliang. “Isn’t it better, knowing there’s still room to grow? The person who won was older than you, it’s only natural.”
“I wanted to win!”
“Then you have to keep training hard, and I’m sure you’ll win in the next competition,” Qiu Yuliang said, still smiling gently.
“Shixiong thinks so?” Qiu Yuliang had a youthful appearance, and Xue Xiangsi had no idea who he was, so he naturally assumed he was another disciple joining the competition.
“I’m sure you will, and when you do, I’ll congratulate you personally.”
Xue Xiangsi took his words to heart, and told all his sect brothers and sisters that he would win the next competition and that he would marry a beautiful and mysterious man as a reward.
He did win the next competition, two years later. Qiu Yuliang did congratulate him on his win, and even personally presented him with his first divine weapon, the sword Xue Xiangsi named Heavenly Frost. He must have thought the tears in Xue Xiangsi’s eyes were due to happiness, and smiled fondly at him. In fact, he had been informed, by sect leader Liu that the man next to Qiu Yuliang was his husband, Ji Shuren, and that if he dared bring up his delusions of marriage to either of them, she would make him copy the Dao De Jing one hundred times, in the snow, at night.
And so, his first love was hopelessly crushed under the cruel heel of sect leader Liu, and Qiu Yuliang’s current marriage, which was, by all accounts, very happy.
Xue Xiangsi tried to make his way through the Plum courtyard without drawing Liu Zhiruo’s attention when he collided with someone’s back.
When that person turned around, Xue Xiangsi first noticed his sharp eyebrows, like twin blades. Strong and defined, angled upwards towards his temples, and furrowed in the middle with the present displeasure of the collision. His eyes were dark and penetrating, almost vicious, but his features were refined and elegant. His sharp cheekbones made him look haughty, but Xue Xiangsi refused to be intimidated.
“You are in my way,” he said, crossing his arms and making his wide sleeves bunch up unattractively.
The man kept one hand behind his back, and bowed to Xue Xiangsi, a gesture with equal parts politeness and derision. “Apologies.”
“I don’t think I will,” he said, and brought his other hand behind his back. Despite wearing Golden Crane disciple robes, red and gold, with cranes in flight, and ostentatious gold thread embroidery, he didn’t have their casual bearing. His posture was so straight even sect leader Liu would have trouble finding fault with it, and he was wearing a very discrete headpiece by Golden Grane standards. The haughtiness and superior look were unmistakable, though, and Xue Xiangsi would have known his sect even if he was wearing beggar’s rags.
“When did your sect get here?” he asked. They hadn’t been announced, and he didn’t see them coming up the mountain with Flaming Pearl.
“I don’t see how that concerns young master,” the stranger said, managing to infuse mockery in every word.
“None of that. My name is Xue Xiangsi, and I’m honoured to make your illustrious acquaintance.” Xue Xiangsi clasped his sword between his hands and held his arms in a circle in front of his chest, using the proper greeting among cultivators to put the insufferable bastard in his place.
He smirked, and returned the greeting. “My name is Zhu Chunlai, and the honour is mine.”
“I warmly welcome Zhu-xiong to our Huangshan mountains, and to Snowfall Peak.” Addressing a disciple from another sect he had just met so intimately on their first meeting wasn’t the height of propriety, but as sect leader Liu, and his teacher often reminded him, Xue Xiangsi wouldn’t know propriety if it hit him upside the head every day.
“The Huangshan mountains are as beautiful as expected, and so are the impressive Snowfall Peak sect grounds, from the little I’ve seen. Thanks for welcoming me, Xue-ge.”
Xue Xiangsi had to give Zhu Chunlai some credit, he didn’t mind rising to his bait and even raised the stakes. “Not at all, today my shijie will be meeting her future bride, I have to make sure I properly welcome all our guests. Isn’t that so, Zhu-didi?” He didn’t actually know if Zhu Chunlai was younger than him, but he had called him older brother first.
“Your shijie is lucky to have Xiangsi-gege.” Zhu Chunlai’s self-satisfied smirk never left his lips, he was smiling as if he had just won this round.
“Zhu-didi is much too kind. We have learned so much about each other with such a short conversation; I feel like I’m already very close with Zhu-didi.”
“I feel the same, Xiangsi,” Zhu Chunlai said, and it could have been Xue Xiangsi’s impression but he could have sworn his voice became lower.
Forcing himself not to blush Xue Xiangsi said, “Xiangsi is glad Chunlai thinks so.”
Zhu Chunlai’s pleased smile was a menacing thing, and Xue Xiangsi couldn’t help feeling he had lost something.
“I never expected that in coming to Snowfall Peak to watch a wedding gift exchange I would be making a friend.”
Zhu Chunlai moved closer to Xue Xiangsi, and lowered his head next to his ear. “I hope to see Xiangsi later, during the ceremony.”
Xue Xiangsi was speechless, how had things come to this? He just wanted to put a Golden Crane bastard in his place, how in heaven did he end up trading pleasantries with him, and letting him address him so familiarly?
He stepped away from Zhu Chunlai and greeted him again with his sword in front of his chest, hoping to put a definite end to the conversation before his competitive nature made him accept a duel, or a marriage proposal, out of spite.
“I’ll be seeing you, Zhu Chunlai.”
Zhu Chunlai smirked knowingly before returning the bow and turning around. The bastard probably thought that Xue Xiangsi had conceded by addressing him by his full name again. No matter, they probably wouldn’t see each other again, Xue Xiangsi just had to avoid him during the ceremony and at any other events where the Golden Crane sect would be present.
He wouldn’t give the encounter any further thought, he had a teacher to find.
He found Bai Yunkai in his Sword and Brush pavilion, where some of their classes were held. As always, the pavilion was spotless. The four low tables for Bai Yunkai’s only disciples where ordered in two neat rows, the training weapons gleaming on their stands, the windows were open, letting in the fragrant autumn breeze, and making the silk wall hangings with Daoist maxims flutter. Xue Xiangsi took off his shoes and walked across the wooden floors, as silent as possible, in the direction of the raised platform at the back of the room where Bai Yunkai was sitting cross-legged behind his own low table, writing carefully on a sheet of paper1. Hanging from the ceiling above his head, was a carved plaque with the words: He who conquers others is strong; he who conquers himself is mighty.
Before Xue Xiangsi could even make it halfway across the room, Bai Yunkai raised his head and said, “Xue Xiangsi, have you decided to pay your shizun a visit?”
Xue Xiangsi didn’t bother to hide his disappointment. Despite his blindness, Bai Yunkai always knew who was approaching him, no matter what direction they were coming from, or how softly they threaded. Ever since they were children, Xue Xiangsi and Liu Zhuyu had always tried to sneak up on him. They had never succeeded.
Xue Xiangsi bowed deeply to his teacher and said, “This lowly disciple pays his respects to Shizun.”
Bai Yunkai smiled and bid him to raise from his bow with an elegant flick of his hand. Despite multiple attempts he never found out his teacher’s real age. Like all powerful cultivators, Bai Yunkai looked youthful regardless of his years, and was notoriously reserved about his private life. No one knew much about his past before he joined Snowfall Peak. The air of mystery combined with his hip length black hair, fine features, and his milky grey eyes speckled with silver, made many disciples pine fruitlessly for him.
“One day Shizun won’t hear me coming” Xue Xiangsi said, sitting down next to Bai Yunkai, and propping his elbow on the wooden table.
“Who says I heard you?” Bai Yunkai said, enigmatic as ever. Xue Xiangsi rolled his eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes at your shizun, insolent disciple.” Bai Yunkai returned to his writing, a faint smile pulling at the corner of his thin lips.
“Xiangsi apologizes for disrespecting Shizun,” Xue Xiangsi would have been more ashamed if Bai Yunkai could see his blush.
“The best apology is avoiding a future one.” Bai Yunkai had a penchant for turning every conversation into a teaching moment, Xue Xiangsi thought he really should feel more resentment towards his teacher, instead he could only let out a fond sigh, and nod. “I believe Xue Xiangsi’s future still holds many apologies.”
“This disciple will endeavour to apologize less,” Xue Xiangsi said solemnly.
Bai Yunkai let out a surprised laugh, and covered his mouth with the back of his hand as if to stop the sound from escaping. “Foolish disciple, just tell me why you’ve come so I can return to my writing.”
“Can’t this disciple visit Shizun because he wants his company?”
“He can, but is that all he wants?”
Xue Xiangsi rested both his elbows on the table, and propped his chin on his open palms. “Shizun knows Xiangsi so well. I originally wanted to visit Shizun and bask in his superior knowledge, but I met an annoying person on my way here.”
“Oh? Who did you meet?”
“Zhu Chunlai. Does Shizun know him?”
Bai Yunkai nodded. “Naturally, he’s Golden Crane’s sect heir.”
Xue Xiangsi could swear he felt his blood start running in the opposite direction.
“I hope Xue Xiangsi made a good first impression.” Bai Yunkai’s placid smile turned knowing all of a sudden.
“I... this disciple was called a friend by Zhu Chunlai, and was addressed informally by him as well.” He had been looking forward to complaining to Bai Yunkai about how rude, and extravagant, Golden Crane disciples were, but he could now see that conversation going poorly for him.
Bai Yunkai stopped writing, and turned his head minutely in Xue Xiangsi’s direction. “Young master Zhu must have been really impressed with Xue Xiangsi.”
“Ah, Shizun is too kind.”
“Of course, he has met you before...”
Xue Xiangsi had no memory of ever meeting Zhu Chunlai, and was about to ask his teacher if he might be mistaken, when hurried steps from outside interrupted him.
A frazzled younger disciple entered the Sword and Brush pavilion with such haste he almost slipped on the smooth wood floor. His bow was so hurried his hair flipped upside his head.
“Bai Shifu, this disciple apologizes for interrupting your studies, but you must come at once to the Pavillion of Dust, one of our esteemed guests has gone missing.”
 China had paper as far back as 100 CE
I hope you liked this chapter. Who do you think disappeared?
Just to clarify, to address someone without their family name shows extreme closeness, which is why Xue Xiangsi's conversation with Zhu Chunlai was so unusual. Addressing oneself in third person shows respect and submission to someone of a higher status/ ranking. I absolutely loooove writing dialogue in third person, it's one of the funnest things in wuxia/xianxia imo.
Shizun - master/teacher, more respectful version of Shifu which means the same thing. I have disciples calling their respective teachers Shizun because I think it sounds cuter and for no other reason. As you might have noticed the prefix "shi-" indicates the relationship exists within a sect.
didi - younger brother - repeating the sound makes it sound more intimate and familiar.
gege - older brother
xiong- older brother, more formal than ge/ gege (this one is never repeated)
jiejie - older sister
meimei- younger sister