It was decided that due to the uncertain nature of their trip it would be better if they travelled by carriage instead of riding their swords. Snowfall Peak had a series of workers on retainer from the nearby villages. It was them who readied their horses, and luggage; loading bags and crates of weapons, clothes, and medical supplies into one of the carriages.
The five of them would be riding in the other carriage; well-appointed, but not extravagant, like everything else in Snowfall Peak. Unfortunately, it would be a very tight fit.
Xue Xiangsi travelled the whole way to Qi An sitting between Bai Yunkai, and Liu Zhuyu, and feeling like a lychee about to squeeze out of its peel. In contrast, in front of him Zhu Chunlai rode with his legs crossed leisurely on the ample bench he shared with Yan Huaxiang. Occasionally looking out of the window to enjoy the breath-taking view of the Huangshang mountain range.
Yan Huaxiang, was silent the whole ride, the only sound coming from her corner of the carriage was the soft tinkling of the long train of her crown whenever she moved her head.
When they finally arrived in Qi An, Xue Xiangsi's knees were almost fused together. He got out of the carriage with extreme relish and stretched all his joints with a sigh of pleasure. Liu Zhuyu popped her knuckles, keeping eye contact with Zhu Chunlai the whole time.
Qi An wasn't a large city, but to Xue Xiangsi and Liu Zhuyu who had never left Snowfall Peak before, it looked bustling and very loud. It seemed there was a street cart parked in every corner, their owners competing among themselves to see who could peddle their wares the loudest. Hundreds of rough cotton a banners flapped in the wind like conquering flags. Announcing, in varying degrees of legibility, food, rooms, music, tea, and everything someone could think of. It filled Xue Xiangsi's heart with some sort of warm pride to know that the closest city to Snowfall Peak, and directly under their sect's protection, enjoyed such prosperity.
All the people they walked by looked well-fed and carefree, as if they'd gone their whole lives without seeing struggle or unrest. Xue Xiangsi couldn't help thinking there was nothing that he wanted more in the world than for all the peoples of Jianghu to look so peaceful and happy. Their days filled with nothing but sunshine and sweetness.
"Shizun, the people of Qi An look so happy, I wish Shizun could see their smiles. Ah, life must be really good in the shade of our Huangshan mountains," Xue Xiangsi said, turning his head every which way to take in all the new sights and scents around him. "It smells like fresh pastries everywhere, and like some fragrant flower I don't recognize."
Zhu Chunlai snorted. "Xiangsi needs to be careful with happy smiles, they might be hiding rotten teeth."
"Is that why Zhu-xiong only smirks? Afraid a smile would show the cracks beneath his pretty mask?" Xue Xiangsi's words were more acidic than he originally intended, but he couldn't stand Zhu Chunlai trying to ruin his good mood with cynicism. What if not everything was as it seemed? Was he supposed to suspect the moon of being duplicitous for glowing too brightly?
"Xiangsi thinks I'm pretty?" Zhu Chunlai's smirk this time could almost be called a smile, with how far it raised the right corner of his lips.
Xue Xiangsi didn't say anything, and only kept pace with Bai Yunkai and Liu Zhuyu, trying to ignore Zhu Chunlai's presence. Yan Huaxiang was quieter than a ghost so he had already forgotten about her. He could almost pretend it was just him, his shizun, and his shijie, enjoying a nice stroll in a beautiful city.
Of course, Zhu Chunlai never stayed quiet for long. "It's chrysanthemum, by the way."
"What?" Asked Xue Xiangsi, unable to hide his exasperation.
"The fragrant scent in the air. But it isn't the flower Xiangsi smells, it's wine. Tomorrow will be the Double Ninth festival, which is why everyone is so busy. They're getting ready for the celebrations. If Xiangsi wants I can find him some wine to try."
"I believe we've arrived at the inn sect leader Liu arranged for us to stay at." Bai Yunkai's soft voice cut the conversation short, and saved Xue Xiangsi the trouble of answering Zhu Chunlai.
They had stopped in front of a large, two-floor building with a sweeping roof and wide eaves. A wooden sign over the front door read: "The Hare's Burrow".
Xue Xiangsi had long stopped being amazed at how Bai Yunkai always seemed to know his way despite his blindness. Liu Zhuyu had never been, to start with. But Zhu Chunlai was eyeing him with furrowed brows, and a suspicious glint in his sharp eyes. Yan Huaxiang raised a single perfect eyebrow, crossed her arms in front of her chest and looked the building up and down with disdain.
"Sect leader Liu sure is frugal with Snowfall Peak's money." The first words out of Yan Huaxiang's mouths in several hours and they were derisive.
"If the inn isn't to young miss Yan's tastes, she's welcome to go find her own more appropriate lodgings somewhere else, and pay for them." Liu Zhuyu walked past Yan Huaxiang, and into the inn, signalling the men leading the horses to bring the luggage inside.
Yan Huaxiang, followed after Liu Zhuyu without another word, but as she walked by him Xue Xiangsi thought he saw her smiling.
Bai Yunkai walked behind the four young disciples into the inn, wondering how he would keep them from killing each other at least until they found Qiu Yuliang. --- Behind the Hare's Burrow counter stood a plump man, with a full-moon face and rosy cheeks. His face split up into a huge smile as soon as he saw them approaching.
"Immortal cultivators, welcome! We have been expecting you. This lowly one named Mu welcomes the esteemed guests into our humble inn. Your rooms have been prepared."
Bai Yunkai stepped forward and clasped his hands in front of his chest, everyone else followed his lead. "Thanks Old Mu for the warm welcome, we'll be going up to our rooms to freshen up, and then coming back down for a meal in your restaurant."
"As Master wishes, I hope our simple dishes will be to your liking. According to the instructions sect leader Liu sent ahead by carrier pigeon, three rooms have been prepared for you. One for the Master, one for the young ladies, and one for the young masters."
Xue Xiangsi was forced to agree with Yan Huaxiang's earlier rude statement. Sect leader Liu really was too frugal.
"Ah, there's no need for a room just to myself. I can room with Xue Xiangsi, and Zhu Chunlai as a guest of our Snowfall Peak sect can room alone."
"Young miss Yan Huaxiang is welcome to room with him as well," said Liu Zhuyu frostily.
"Ah Master, this humble host is afraid that won't be possible. According to sect leader Liu's instructions the honoured guests are to remain in the rooms in the manner sect leader specified. She also left a message." Old man Mu took out a small scroll from a box beneath his counter and unfurled it, squinting his eyes to make the words clearer. "Allow me to read her words: 'When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills.'"
Xue Xiangsi cursed his bad luck. Sect leader Liu clearly intended for him to take advantage of the opportunity and get closer to Zhu Chunlai. She probably expected him to learn more about whatever Ji Shuren was hiding. But how could he, when every word out of Zhu Chunlai's mouth made his blood boil?
He glanced at Liu Zhuyu hoping she would commiserate with him, but she was locked into a one-sided staring contest with Yun Huaxing. Liu Zhuyu stared and Yun Huaxing inspected her own nails.
"We'll do as sect leader Liu instructed." Bai Yunkai nodded his thanks to Old Man Liu, and then placed hand on Xue Xiangsi's reluctant back, not so subtly nudging him up the stairs.
The room was actually better than he expected, considering sect leader Liu's distaste for wastefulness and the the Hare's Burrow unassuming exterior.
There was a low platform bed, wide enough to fit three people comfortably, with a satiny looking mattress rolled to the side. From the bedposts hung billowy muslin drapes that swayed in the gentle breeze coming in from the open panelled window.
The chests with his and Zhu Chunlai's luggage had already been placed at the bed's feet, inconspicuous and out of the way.
Under the window sat a low table with two small pillows, and a tea set on top. The water had already been heated and some steam came out of the teapot's spout.
"After we get married, we can come back here during our honeymoon to celebrate our first time sharing rooms as an engaged couple." Zhu Chunlai sat down on the bed, and patted the spot next to him in clear invitation.
Xue Xiangsi smiled and walked over to sit next to Zhu Chunlai, who was unable to hide his surprise. Xue Xiangsi leaned closer to his ear and said:
"I won't marry you even after you reincarnate a thousand times." He pinched Zhu Chunlai's arm over his robe, making him hiss in pain. "Now let's go downstairs, Shizun is waiting for us."
Xue Xiangsi left the room without looking back, and missed Zhu Chunlai's pleased smile as he rubbed his sore skin.
The Hare's Burrow restaurant looked as unassuming as the inn itself, but even at that earlier hour was already packed with guests.
The five of them were seated at a low table next to a window, and were immediately served tea and water, by an eager waiter who couldn't stop calling them "immortal cultivators", and bowing after every word.
"Bring us all the house specialties, and include a few vegetarian dishes for us from Snowfall Peak," Bai Yunkai told the waiter.
"If the smell of meat offends Master Bai, and the brother and sister from Snowfall Peak, I'm willing to abstain," said Yan Huaxiang between dainty sips of her tea.
"There's no need, please, we would never expect you to abstain on our behalf."
In Xue Xiangsi's opinion Bai Yunkai was far too polite. He wished he had taken up Yan Huaxiang on her offer. Zhu Chunlai looked like a carnivore; Xue Xiangsi would enjoy hearing his stomach grumble through the night after only having the same light dishes as them.
"Would Master Bai mind if I asked for a bottle of chrysanthemum wine?" Zhu Chunlai didn't wait for Bai Yunkai's answer before signalling the waiter over.
"Young master Zhu and young lady Yan are not my students, they are free to behave as if in their own sect."
"Then, Shizun, can we also..." Liu Zhuyu's hopeful question was cut short with Bai Yunkai's polite cough. "Nevermind," she finished dejectedly.
Zhu Chunlai's wine arrived. As did all their dishes. The waiter listed them off as he placed them in front of them; steamed vegetables, stir-fried vegetables, hairy tofu, potato noodles, braised salted Mandarin fish, brewed mountain bamboo shoots, egg dumplings, and steamed stone frog. All combining in a heady mixture of mouth-watering scents that lifted the spirits, and reminded people why eating was truly one of life's pleasure.
Xue Xiangsi didn't recognize half the dishes in front of him, but he had to admit they looked delicious.
Bai Yunkai noticed him staring wonderingly at the crispy skin of the Mandarin fish. "If Xue Xiangsi and Lu Zhuyu want, they can sample a few meat dishes. I will continue to eat vegetarian dishes throughout our jurney in your name, so you needn't worry that it will negatively impact your karma."
"Thank you Shizun for your kindness. But this disciple is happy to eat vegetarian food, it's delicious and strengthens our mental cultivation. May Shizun keep his good karma." Xue Xiangsi couldn't hide the look of deep admiration in his eyes as he talked with Bai Yunkai.
Someone else noticed too. "If Xiangsi is unwilling to accept Master Bai's good karma, maybe he'll take mine? I'll abstain from any animal dishes, so that Xiangsi might try all the dishes he wants. I won't even drink a drop of alcohol." Zhu Chunlai held the bottle of wine aloft, slightly tipped to the side as if he was about to pour it on the floor.
Such gallant words, did Zhu Chunlai expect him to politely refuse as he had with Bai Yunkai?
He grinned and reached over to Zhu Chunlai's side of the table to bring the Mandarin fish closer to himself. "Then please, Zhu-xiong, enjoy your meal."
Their eyes met over the laden table. Zhu Chunlai's hand wavered on the wine bottle. But after that brief hesitation he tipped it all the way. The clear wine fell in a crystalline arch before splashing loudly on the floor and drawing the attention of the other patrons sitting on nearby tables.
"Xiangsi can be sure that I will." Zhu Chunlai picked up his chopsticks and grabbed a bamboo shoot from Xue Xiangsi's side of the table. He bit into it with a loud crunch. Xue Xiangsi noticed for the first time that his canines were very sharp. A carnivore through and through.