Buying and processing raw ores was a time-consuming task. Naturally, Yan Qingsang returned long after Yan Jinnan and his cronies had. Evidently, they’d already lodged complaints about him.
The residence that House Yan’s visitors lived in was shrouded with displeasure. Wherever Yan Qingsang looked, he found faces with dark expressions. As a temporary sidekick, Jiang Chen feigned unease as well. In truth, he’d never been more excited in his entire life.
He had a feeling that he and Huang’er were right under each other’s noses. The sensation of being unable to acknowledge each other made his heart beat faster. He was anxious and sorrowful all at once.
“Who is this, Qingsang?” One of the house elders furrowed his brow further when he saw a stranger being brought in.
“Elder He, this is a friend I’ve made here. We get along pretty well and I’ve learned much about ancient jade from him. I invited him back so I can learn more.” Yan Qingsang fashioned an even-handed reply.
He had taken a softer approach back at Jade Revel Lodge for the sake of the greater good. He didn’t want to show House Yan’s internal strife before outsiders. Now that he was back and knew Yan Jinnan had already tattled, he was in a sour mood. He saw no reason to hold anything back now.
“Hmph!” Yan Jinnan slammed his hand on a table. “Qingsang, you’re falling further by the day. I’d like to know what you meant by your actions back at the Jade Revel Lodge. Are you trying to drag the house down? It took a lot of effort to invite Xiahou Xi, but you intentionally ruined the situation! Your obstinance destroyed any good we were doing!”
The other House Yan members glared at Yan Qingsang as well. Clearly, Yan Jinnan had riled up their anger ahead of time.
Yan Qingsang snickered. “Yan Jinnan, I didn’t turn on you back at Jade Revel Lodge because I wanted to hide any internal bickering from outsiders. I have no problem if you want to build a good relationship with Xiahou Xi, but your shameless groveling and brown nosing was only losing the house’s face! You were itching to kowtow to him! House Yan’s heritage spans tens of thousands of years, and we’ve maintained an excellent reputation for millennia. Actions like yours are the kind that really humiliate our house!”
“That’s a load of bull! You didn’t know what’s good for you, and now you’re slandering me!”
“Good for me? What, is licking Xiahou Xi’s boots supposed to be a good thing, Yan Jinnan? Don’t you see how they saw you as a clown? You were paying for their drinks and whoring, but you were also part of the show! We are a first-rate house just like them. Why can’t we socialize with a bit more pride, even when we want to offer an olive branch? There’s no need to stick your head into their crotch. Unless you were born wanting that, of course!” Yan Qingsang had finally had enough.
“Quiet, both of you! You can’t talk like that, Qingsang!” Elder He hectored.
Yan Qingsang kept his head held high. “Elder He, I’m not good at with wordplay. But I do know that strength and foundations are the basis of mutual respect between first-rate houses. Flattery and currying favor will only yield temporary self-delusion. We can’t possibly hope to be respected in the long-term doing that. If we don’t want to be pushed out by our peers, we must hone ourselves and rise up again, not debase and make fools of ourselves. That will only make others think even less of us!”
He made a good amount of sense too. House Yan had been one of the biggest houses once upon a time, essentially on the same level as House Xiahou. Its weakening had occurred only in the last few centuries or so.
Thus, Jinnan’s slavish behavior did cheapen and dishonor the house to a degree.
The house elders traded looks with each other, unsure of how to respond. Because Jinnan and Qingsang were backed by different parties, they weren’t at liberty to easily pronounce judgment. They couldn’t afford to be biased to either side, since they would face wrath from the other.
“Jinnan, Qingsang,” Elder He advised. “You two have different approaches to things, but you’re both acting for the good of the house. I hope you can let go of your prejudices towards each other and discuss a unified course of action ahead of time. Don’t leapt into things impulsively. Our house can’t take much more conflict. Don’t mind what happened this time. Xiahou Xi is a genius in his house, but he is far from one who holds authority. His likes and dislikes can’t influence decision-making… at least, not for now.”
“What, that’s it?” Yan Jinnan was dissatisfied with the conclusion. “Isn’t it obvious Yan Qingsang was thwarting the house’s interests?”
“Enough of that, Jinnan. Qingsang is part of House Yan as well. No one in the house would tolerate him if he were to intentionally act to our detriment.”
“You should be a little more careful, Qingsang. Calm yourself in situations like these. No matter how unhappy you are, you should discuss it only after you’re home.”
“I understand.” Yan Qingsang nodded coolly.
Butting heads with Yan Jinnan any more wasn’t going to get anything done. A lukewarm resolution like this was probably already for the best.
Yan Jinnan thought rapidly and snorted. “I suppose that can slide. But what about Qingsang bringing a stranger back? That’s pretty undisciplined, right? Elder He, Elder Quan, do you think this should be allowed?”
Yan Qingsang burned with indignation. “Yan Jinnan, you just won’t let things rest, will you? What’s wrong with me making a new friend? Is there some rule forbidding that?”
“There are bad apples everywhere,” Yan Jinnan cackled. “You might think he’s a friend, but how do you know he thinks the same of you?”
Elder He glanced at Jiang Chen, then back at Qingsang. “Where is your friend from, Qingsang? Why did you bring him back?”
“His name is Shao Yuan. He’s a master of all things jade-related. The jade festival is about to begin,and I’d like to learn as much as I can from him. Is there a problem with that, Elder He?”
Elder He was foiled by this explanation. Yan Qingsang’s actions were mildly inappropriate, but there was certainly no regulation forbidding making acquaintances of outsiders. He couldn’t exactly say that things were inconvenient right now, could he? The reasons for it were too clandestine to divulge.
“I can’t really criticize you, Qingsang, though I do think you’re young and rash. However, you’re responsible for anyone you bring back. Take care he doesn’t inconvenience the rest of the house.”
“Naturally,” Yan Qingsang retorted indifferently. “I have my reasons for doing things. This is better than trying to butter up people that don’t care about us anyways, no?” Saying this, he raised a cupped fist salute. “I’m going back to my room.”
He turned to Jiang Chen. “Brother Shao Yuan, come with me.”
Jiang Chen put on an apologetic expression, pointing abashed looks at the members of House Yan. Deep down however, he was mildly disappointed. He didn’t see Huang’er anywhere.
Huang’er, where are you? He called out silently. The residence and its courtyards were quite sizable. Where was Huang’er within these walls?
He lost himself for a few moments, the strength sapped from his soul as he shambled along behind Yan Qingsang.
Back in the hall, Yan Jinnan gritted his teeth. “Why do you keep spoiling him, Elder He! He’s positively lawless. If something happens because of the stranger that he brought home, who’s going to be responsible?”
Elder He sighed. “Elder Quan,” he turned to the old man by his side. “Do you think there will be issues with the man Qingsang has brought back?”
Elder Quan sighed as well. “He didn’t look like he meant us any ill will. He’s not plotting anything, as far as I could tell. Perhaps he’s a wandering cultivator who wants to earn our favor?”
“Should be.” Elder He nodded as well. “Qingsang’s grandfather is a venerated elder of the house. We can’t apply too much pressure to him. Let him be and keep an eye on his new friend. If the stranger really does have ulterior motives, we’ll just kill him at the earliest juncture.”
“A wandering cultivator is nothing to worry about. Be at ease,” Elder Quan assuaged the crowd. “House Yan may be down, but we are still an enormous entity. A mere wandering cultivator here in the Bluesmoke Isles won’t dare cause trouble for us!”
Everyone could agree with that statement. More than likely, this was simply an overreaction. The cultivator wasn’t even empyrean realm. So what if he’d gotten in? What could he possibly pull off?
Jiang Chen recovered from his reverie. While he walked behind Yan Qingsang, he used his consciousness to probe all around himself for Huang’er’s presence. Suddenly, he stopped dead in his tracks. There was music from the other side of the wall – the sound of a familiar zither.
It was the Ethereal Soothing Melody!
He had taught this piece to Huang’er many years ago. How would he not know it? In fact, it was what they’d cemented their affections with.
He froze, petrified.
“Are you alright, Brother Shao Yuan?” Yan Qingsang turned around.
Jiang Chen finally realized his loss of composure. Reacting quickly, he asked with some emotion, “Brother Yan, do you hear that? The zither! The melody is excellently played, an almost heavenly musicality. May I ask where it comes from?”
He could barely restrain himself. It was all he could do to show no aberrant behavior.
Yan Qingsang blinked. Sorrow flashed through his eyes. “It comes from a younger female cousin of mine, Brother Shao Yuan. Let’s go!”
“Hold on,” Jiang Chen waved. “This zither is so captivating to the ear. I’ll regret it for my entire life if I miss it.”
How could he manage another step? He desperately wanted to flip over the courtyard walls to find the source of the sound. He was almost a hundred percent sure that Huang’er was behind the music.
Yan Qingsang was taken aback. “Do you understand music theory, Brother Shao Yuan?”
“A bit,” Jiang Chen admitted readily. “Such music can’t possibly have been played by mortal hands. Do you house an immortal in this residence, friend? May I see the fairy behind these notes?”
Yan Qingsang’s face colored. “No, absolutely not. Don’t chase after impossibilities, Brother Shao Yuan. Let’s go.”
Jiang Chen sighed softly, then suddenly shouted. “Oh, fairy beyond the wall, I am Shao Yuan, a wandering cultivator. The honor of catching such a wondrous piece is one unparalleled by three lifetimes!”