52. Chores
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“The lunar radiance was shining down at our carriage, as it was riding through the dark forest towards our destined objective…”

Bai Lianfei tilted her head, a genuine expression of curiosity painted on her pale and tired face. Zhanzhan thought she’d actually look quite beautiful if she didn’t appear so overworked all the time.

Thus, the catgirl resolved herself to entertain her master.

“Uhh…that’s my take on poetry…what do you think?”

“I sort of like it….” Bai Lianfei gazed at the gloomy pine trees surrounding the cart “I can imagine that for someone who travels this forlorn path for the first time, it might appear as you described. Are you actually frightened?”

Zhanzhan blushed, and denied such accusation vehemently

“No-no way!” memory of the nightmare of Chenfei village being burned to the ground flashed in her mind, and her expression darkened “No way…I’ve seen worse things.”

And soon, they made it to their destination.

What drew Zhanzhan’s immediate attention was how desolate the large household looked. It was almost like one of these haunted mansions from ghosts stories her parents read to her when she was a child…

“That’s because most of the time it is abandoned.” stated Bai Lianfei calmly “when I’m absent, it hosts only four servants during the day and two other servants on night shift doing the absolute minimum to maintain it. There is no traffic, and no one basically lives here…”

Zhanzhan was shocked to hear that.

She knew already that Bai Lianfei’s parents passed away some time ago, but surely she had some relatives…? Wasn’t her family pretty large…? The two-story house with its own inner courtyard, and surrounded by a large garden was clearly meant for many inhabitants…

Speaking of the garden, there was something wrong about it, too. Although it was autumn, and most flowers weren’t expected to bloom around this time of the year, it didn’t excuse all the weeds, leaves, and broken tree branches covering the area. There were even a couple of mole nests around!

…was no one maintaining it?

However, she didn’t want to be overly rude and ask unnecessary questions, and thus followed Bai Lianfei’s lead wordlessly.

The main door leading to the mansion was guarded by a soldier clad in laminar armor, and wielding a spear.
…or at least it appeared to be one from the distance, but upon inspection, it turned out to be a very human-like doll.

Zhanzhan heard about these “Yafan dolls” that became a trend in recent years. Although not one model made it to Chenfei, apparently there was a whole museum featuring them in Yafan, and they were selling like hotcakes in wealthy sectarian elites. It’s not a wonder that affluent family such as Bai could afford these….

“It’s a clay statue covered in porcelain that imitates skin. However, there are human-sized dolls made of other materials as well…this one here is the cheapest, mass-produced model” Bai Lianfei noticed Zhanzhan’s interest, and didn’t fail to hurry with the explanation.

She’s been acting like that ever since they arrived in the town, and it made the cat girl two brain cells hurt….she wished she could just curl somewhere and sleep already…

After a hefty meal, of course~

An elderly cat-type yaren butler served them an exquisite dish of poultry with southern type noodles. Such a dish was not something the catgirl usually ate back in her home village, and on top of that, her master insisted they dine together.

Although they got used to each other quite a bit over the course of the two-month-long journey, it still felt a bit awkward. However, Bai Lianfei had a utilitarian reason for wanting to talk to her personal servant some more…

“As my personal attendant, you are expected to follow me to all the major meetings and negotiations…” Zhanzhan gulped. It certainly wasn’t an exciting perspective… “at least at first…However, due to its sensitive nature, tomorrow’s meeting will be for cultivator ears and eyes only, and thus regular servants like yourself won’t be allowed to participate. Thus, while I am occupied there, I have another mission for you. One of both significant importance in the grand scheme of things, which also hold a sentimental value for me…”

Oh no! Nobody told her she’s going to do anything dangerous!
Sensing her hesitation, Bai Lianfei quickly disclaimed.

“Do not worry. It shouldn’t be beyond your capabilities. All I need you to do is tend my mother’s grave during early morning and late evening hours.”

………..

The next day’s assembly hosted hundreds of masters and cultivators, who arrived from all the corners of the northern region, to discuss how to proceed with the “Wuyun question”. Although many masters were of peaceful disposition and wanted to avoid bloodshed at all costs, some had a more warlike mindset.

Right now, a young man was quoting the achievements of late Lan Caolu and Bai Guwei, the esteemed war heroes who over a century ago not only didn’t sit idle in the face of injustice, but undertook a holy war against the villainous Red Emperor, bringing an end to the old era of tyranny, and beginning the golden age of Changan.

His is name was Wang Shunhu, and he was met with the oration of some, and scorn of many. An elderly man rose up from his seat, and with a shaking, stuttering voice he asked a question that was on the minds of many who gathered today.

“A-assuming we do go to war with the south…” he started, then fell into a lengthy coughing fit, successfully interrupting himself in the process “h-how are we supposed to win against that Wuyun sect, which is a power unlike any other?”

His less than eloquent inquiry was, nonetheless, met with booming applause. There was a reason and logic to his question, after all. However, Wang Shunhu was undaunted by this, and after briefly glancing at Yao Erzhan, his esteemed benefactor, he continued with a counterargument.

“The reason why Wuyun was allowed to become so strong, was because of our passivity! We were feeding the tiger, and soon enough, we will become food ourselves! The attack on Shuangshan sect is evidence of how ruthless and power-hungry the black clouds are! And how little they care for our laws and regulations, and even the contents of treaty of Changan, written by our brave ancestors!”

A young man from a minor eastern sect rose up and asked in a mocking tone:

“Then where are these ancestors now? They have perished, and cannot guide us anymore! And we will perish too, if we pick a fight with a stronger opponent!”

This arrogant remark was met with moderate disapproval from all the gathered masters, but it wasn’t as vigorous as it should have been.

‘Truly, we live in decadent times, if even the sect leaders are cowardly like that!’, thought the prodigious Songshu disciple, and once again looked to Yao Erzhan for instruction. However, his master shook his head lightly, forbidden Wang Shunhu to speak of the matter yet.

The thing was…that Yao Erzhan was an exceptional man, who regained his memories thanks to his splendid cultivation achievements in a previous life. Though this fact wasn’t publically known yet, if revealed, it could tilt the course of discussion in their favor.

Yet still, he was also a patient man, and he was waiting for the most suitable opportunity to strike. He was waiting for something but didn’t quite divulge what that something was even to his closest attendant.

This stoic attitude was also the point of utmost respect in the eyes of his young disciple, though sometimes Wang Shunhu couldn’t help but feel irritated by the lack of trust his master had for him.

Fortunately, this was bound to change in the future….after all, he was the most talented Songshu student in recent decades, and it was only a matter of time until Yao Erzhan appointed him his official successor. Of that, Wang Shunhu was certain.

Thus, reassured by this certainty, he continued doing his job submissively, pushing away unnecessary thoughts and questions, like he always used to do…..

……….

The general assembly lasted day after day, and despite countless heated arguments, no conclusion seemed to be drawn yet. Tensions were rising, and discourse was slowly spilling into the streets of Yafan, threatening the peace of the small northern town.

In this atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and doubt Zhanzhan paid a visit to a certain sheepfolk family, to inform them about Annu’s fate.
What she expected to see was happiness, but instead, the sheepboy’s parents and siblings reacted in a cold and dismissive way to the news of their son, who until now presumed dead, was actually still alive and well somewhere far in the south.

“If he died serving the sect, he’d bring honor onto us; but if he just deserted on his own, it’s a shame upon our kin! Let’s hope he will never come back here….” the old, heavily animalized sheep man shook his horns menacingly and threatened the catgirl “little one, don’t even think of spilling the beans about this to anyone but us! Consider it a warning!”

Morse disgusted than frightened, Zhanzhan left the household, now understanding why Annu didn’t want to have anything to do with his relatives.

Next, she made her way to the Museum of Yafan, sponsored by Songshu sect, to look at the human-like statues assembled within.

She expected to see just a dozen, maybe two dozen, but within the large building open to the public during day hours, there were hundreds of them.
Some portrayed women, some portrayed children, some even portrayed yaren servants, and caretakers…

However, most of them were…

“Soldiers?”

Not very different from the guardian of Bai estate, they portrayed stern-faced men clothed in armor, wielding very really spears, swords, halberds, and axes.

However, unlike the one at the mansion, none of them were covered in elaborate skin like porcelain - their bodies were yellowish like the material they were molded from, and often arranged in terrifying and intimidating poses, they evoke feelings of dread and uncertainty within her 14-year-old heart.

“Ay, soldiers” nodded the old man in charge of the museum “in the past, dolls were known to be toys for girls and spoiled aristocrats. But these warlike statues attract the attention of young men and guards, who dream of wars and battles of ages long gone. Oh, how have the times changed! Makes me wanna take a spear and go to war, too ahahaha.”

Zhanzhan didn’t quite share that sentiment, so she quickly made her way to her final objective. The sun was setting, and just like every day last week, it was the time to tend to Bai Caoren’s grave, just as Bai Lianfei instructed her.

The graveyard was located slightly to the side of the settlement, and one had to walk uphill for a while, then a couple of minutes through dimly lit pine forest, before reaching the warded area where thousands of graves accumulated over centuries stood. It was forbidden for human residents to bury their dead anywhere but there, and for a very good reason.

In addition to being guarded by tall walls, there were also countless protective charms plastered all over the place, a precaution in the case for some reason the dreaded resentful energy would gather there, and animate one of the corpses. The undead were a constant threat to all humanity everywhere in the known world…

The writing on the tombstone was quite simplistic:

Bai Caoren
Beloved mother and caretaker
63-101 Changan

The gravestone itself was made out of the purest marble and was one of the largest on yafan cemetery. This also meant there was also a lot of cleaning to do, in addition to tending the poisonous flowers planted around to ward off vermin, as well as leaving fresh food to leave near the tombstone, to ward of evil spirits that would choose to feast on these objects rather than the remains of the deceased….

However, that was only….

“A superstition. If there were really spirits here, the cultivators would exorcise them immediately”

Zhanzhan nodded.

“Frankly speaking, I don’t understand the human obsession with death and rebirth, but an order is an order…”

After finishing dusting and polishing the marble surface, she broke out of her hyper-focused dream-like state, exhaled in relief, and turned around to look at whoever she just talked to.

She assumed another servant, but it was a fairly tall human female wearing a cloak and hood that concealed most of her face.

“Yo! Long time no see! Wanna talk a bit?”

Zhanzhan gulped…but who could refuse these pristine white teeth grinning at her?
Or this lunar white blade pointed at her throat?

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