Xue Xiangsi had certainly not been called to the Pavilion of Dust, but he still found himself inside, bowing to sect leader Liu and standing next to Bai Yunkai.
Sect leader Liu was sitting on the sect leader’s chair; wide enough to fit three people, yet she only took as much room as she needed. She raised a single eyebrow when she saw Xue Xiangsi but made no comment. He kept his eyes down and went to stand next to Liu Zhuyu, on the right of the room.
The Pavilion of Dust had an ample central hall, several sliding windows and a circular window behind the sect leader’s chair. The window’s paper panes were so thin and delicate it was almost possible to see the plum tree branches behind it. Liu Zhiruo’s chair was carved from the solid trunk of a pine tree that had fallen 500 years ago, the dark wood shone when the light hit it. There were two porcelain incense burners lit on the low side table next to Liu Zhiruo, releasing a calming fragrance. Two sliding windows were open letting in the crisp Autumn air, and making the gauzy white drapes flutter, the whole room had a dream-like quality to it that sat at odds with the charged atmosphere.
Mei Yuyan was standing behind Liu Zhiruo, biting her lower lip, a clear sign she was deeply concerned. It was telling that the only Snowfall Peak representatives in room were her, the sect leader, Liu Zhuyu, and that Bai Yunkai had been summoned in such a hurry.
“Bai Shifu, thanks for coming. We seem to have a little problem,” started Mei Yuyan.
“We have a disaster on our hands, Yunkai,” Liu Zhiruo interrupted, her left eyelid twitching.
“Ah, yes, it could also be called that.” As always Liu Zhiruo started fires and Mei Yuyan tried to put them out.
“Bai Yunkai is willing to do his best to help,” he said, while bowing to Liu Zhiruo.
“Please let’s not be formal at this time, Yunkai. Qiu Yuliang has gone missing while in our sect grounds.”
Xue Xiangsi turned to Liu Zhuyu with a questioning look, but she looked just as shocked as he felt.
Bai Yunkai seemed to stagger, as if feeling faint. Xue Xiangsi held out his left arm to steady him.
“Is Shizun feeling sick?”
“I’m...I’m well. Thanks to Xue Xiangsi for his concern.”
Bai Yunkai was definitely not feeling fine, Xue Xiangsi could feel the slight tremor in his hand, and if possible, he had gone even paler. Xue Xiangsi didn’t know what to think himself. How had Qiu Yuliang simply disappeared? He had just seen Ji Shuren talking pleasantly with sect leader Liu. If something had already happened to his husband how would he be so composed? Did Qiu Yuliang vanish into thin air in the span of twenty minutes? Was Ji Shuren even aware his husband was gone?
Xue Xiangsi’s answer walked into the Pavillion of Dust bursting open the gated doors with a flurry of power, and a murderous expression on his handsome features.
“Liu Zhiruo, how could you have let this happen?” Ji Shuren cut the distance to sect leader Liu with long strides.
“We would also like to know that, sect leader Ji,” Liu Zhiruo answered, accepting the cup of tea Mei Yuyan was offering her.
A silence heavy with tension hung over the room as Mei Yuyan poured tea in five cups. A low-ranking disciple stationed in the Pavilion of Dust went around offering a cup to everyone. Xue Xiangsi accepted his tea and took a sip to dispel some of the anxiety he was feeling, with little success. Ji Shuren dismissed his with a flick of the sleeve.
“Tell me what’s the meaning of this?” Ji Shuren took a crumpled piece of paper from his sleeve’s inner pocket and held it in front of Liu Zhiruo.
She quickly scanned it, her eyebrows furrowing with apprehension at each sentence. She sighed once she finished reading and held the piece of paper between two fingers in Bai Yunkai’s direction.
Bai Yunkai held his palm over the paper and Xue Xiangsi watched entranced as the characters seemed to lift from the paper and dissolve into his skin, leaving behind only a blank sheet. Xue Xiangsi could only pick a few words as they vanished into his teacher’s hand. “Whirlwind Fan”, “fortnight”, and “death”.
“The legendary Whirlwind Fan was in Snowfall Peak all this time?” Ji Shuren was almost as angry about that as he was about Qiu Yuliang’s disappearance.
“Sect leader Ji, this was a matter that both I, and Qiu-shixiong, agreed on.” Bai Yunkai said. His words seemed to have deflated some of Ji Shuren’s indignation, but his eyes were still vicious as he fixed them on Liu Zhiruo.
“You kept the Whirlwind Fan a secret all this time, and now someone wants to exchange Yuliang’s life for it! What does Golden Crane have to do with any of this?”
“That is somewhat confusing.” Liu Zhiruo sighed and rubbed her temples. “They could have taken any Snowfall Peak disciple and we would want to save them just the same.”
“If Aunt allows me,” Liu Zhuyu said, stepping forward. “Zhuyu hasn’t heard of the Whirlwind Fan before, but it seems like a powerful weapon. We can assume that the people who took Master Qiu know this, and made sure they took someone whose life we would not risk, by using alternative strategies to avoid delivering the Fan into enemy hands.”
Xue Xiangsi thought whoever took Qiu Yuliang had another, more insidious intention as well. “Shijie is right that these people know how powerful the Whirlwind Fan is. However, this disciple believes they took Master Qiu because they wanted to make it impossible to hide that such a powerful weapon had been in Snowfall Peak unbeknownst to the other sects.”
Liu Zhiruo looked from Xue Xiangsi to Liu Zhuyu before nodding, and rubbing her temple. “As always, every word out of Xue Xiangsi’s mouth drives me closer to qi-deviation.”
Liu Zhuyu bit her lip to hide her smile. Xue Xiangsi hid his behind a sleeve and disguised it as a polite cough.
“Unfortunately, you are both right. This is an attempt to gain possession of the Whirlwind Fan as well as to discredit Snowfall Peak with our allies.”
“Naturally we will do everything in our power to bring Master Qiu back to his husband in excellent health,” Mei Yuyan told Ji Shuren with a polite nod.
“Your assurances bring me little comfort while my husband is still missing.” Ji Shuren wasn’t in any way mollified, but he looked less likely to start breaking Snowfall Peak’s most expensive tea set.
Liu Zhiruo ignored him. “Yunkai, you think this can be connected to...”
Bai Yunkai understood the words unsaid. “That possibility can’t be entirely dismissed, however improbable.”
“I’ll pray my destiny isn’t that unkind.” Liu Zhiruo got up from her chair, and walked over to Bai Yunkai, both hands clasped behind her back. “I ask both as sect leader, and as a friend, for Yunkai’s help with this matter.”
Bai Yunkai bowed. “Sect Leader Liu can count on this humble teacher.”
“Take whoever disciples you think are more suited for the task, and bring back Qiu Yuliang. Once you’ve made your preparations, come see me and I’ll give you the Whirlwind Fan.”
“My best disciples are already here, if Sect Leader Liu would allow them to accompany me.”
Xue Xiangsi tried not to look as outwardly excited as he felt. This would be the first time he went on a mission with Bai Yunkai, who rarely left Snowfall Peak. And to rescue Qiu Yuliang, no less!
“I’ll entrust my niece to your care,” Liu Zhiruo said, sparing a soft smile for Liu Zhuyu. “By all means, lose Xue Xiangsi on the way back.”
Bai Yunkai’s amused smile lit up his star-scarred eyes, and he nodded. “I will endeavour to do so.”
“I will stay close to Shizun at all times, he won’t have the chance to lose me,” Xue Xiangsi said, leaning closer to Bai Yunkai.
“Sect Leader Liu, must think me foolish to leave my husband’s rescue entirely in Snowfall Peak’s hands.” Ji Shuren said. Xue Xiangsi was beginning to believe his famed good nature was a collective hallucination. Each of his words reeked suspicion, as if he still hadn’t discarded the possibility of Qiu Yuliang’s disappearance being orchestrated by Snowfall Peak.
“Of course, sect leader Ji is free to send one of his trusted disciples along to oversee the exchange and ensure Master Qiu’s safe return,” Liu Zhiruo said.
Among the discussion, only Liu Zhuyu had been oddly quiet. A worried look glazing her eyes. As people started emptying the room, she was pulled out of her thoughts.
“Aunt, uhm, what about?” Her register became lower with each word to the point that the last word was almost a whisper. Her ears burned bright red.
“What, girl? Speak up,” said Liu Zhiruo, seating back down on her chair.
“Uhm, what about the wedding gift exchange ceremony?”
To Liu Zhuyu’s great consternation, sect leader Liu summarily informed her that the ceremony would be postponed due to the recent events. A conclusion she should have been able to reach herself if she wasn’t so self-centred, completely unfit to be the sect heir, and a disgrace to the Dao, the ancestors, and the Gods themselves, among other colourful insults.
“Aunt Liu never spoke with me like that before,” Liu Zhuyu said, crestfallen, as she and Xue Xiangsi made their way to the Spring Water courtyard. Her ears were still red with shame.
“She speaks like that with me every day.” Xue Xiangsi patted her on the back. “You get used to it. Just don’t point out how she doesn’t follow the Dao that closely with her explosive temper. It will only make her madder.”
“Do you think I’m really unfit to be the future sect leader?” Liu Zhuyu asked, too absorbed in her own worries to have listened to Xue Xiangsi.
“I think sect leader Liu is just nervous. Shijie shouldn’t take her words to heart. I never do.”
Liu Zhuyu nodded absentmindedly. “I should get ready for tomorrow, thanks for walking with me, shidi”
“I know shijie was really looking forward to meeting her bride,” Xue Xiangsi held Liu Zhuyu’s hands, “but we’re going on an adventure with Shizun, that’s also very exciting! And shijie will have an impressive tale of her bravery to tell her bride.”
Liu Zhuyu smiled. “It will be good to put our skills to use out there in the world. Thanks, shidi, for cheering me up.”
“I will see you tomorrow, sleep well, shijie.”
They parted ways in front of the Snow Sprinkled Blossom pavillion, and Xue Xiangsi turned around to walk in the direction of the Willow Courtyard where the pavilions where Snowfall Peak’s male disciples roomed were located.
Xue Xiangsi was so enthralled by his own fantasies of adventure that he didn’t notice when someone approached him.
“It seems I’m going to be even better acquainted with Xiangsi very soon,” a low voice said from his right. Xue Xiangsi unsheathed his sword in one smooth movement, and turned around to raise it against the neck of the person who surprised him.
He came face to face with Zhu Chunlai, who didn’t lose his smirk even with a sword’s tip perilously close to his throat. He pushed the sword to the side with two fingers. “Did I scare Xiangsi?”
Xue Xiangsi sheathed Heavenly Frost again with a sibilant noise. “I wasn’t scared, I was surprised. If you sneak up around people you can’t be surprised when they pull a sword on you.”
“I’m very impressed with Xiangsi’s reflexes,” Zhu Chunlai said, bridging the distance between the two of them and coming to stand very close to Xue Xiangsi. “I’m glad someone as skilled as you will be helping us bring back Second Uncle Qiu.”
Right, Zhu Chunlai was Golden Crane’s sect heir, of course Ji Shuren would want him to come with them to ensure Qiu Yuliang was brought back safely. Xue Xiangsi completely forgot about his existence.
“Zhu-xiong is too kind,” he said, stepping away. “We’ll see each other in the morning.”
“Actually, that’s why I came to see Xiangsi.” If possible, Zhu Chunlai’s smirk got even sharper. “As all the rooms us Golden Crane disciples took up are being investigated, we had to find other accommodations. I was wondering if Xiangsi would let me room with him.”