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First Impressions

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Bi Changfeng, or Bi-shushu as he was known to the disciples of Four Seasons Manor, was generally an easy going man. Well, in his opinion, in comparison with the other elders, he was a very easy going man.

Though sometimes, he wondered if he tolerated too much nonsense from his peers. He watched said peers with a judging look as they gossiped and bickered about their new leader as soon as their new young leader left the room. He shook his head at them, lips thinned as his colleagues whispered about how inexperienced and unsuitable their new leader was.

"What a load of bullshit," Cheng Xiu spat in annoyance once they had retreated to the privacy of Bi Changfeng's office for some tea. "If the late Zhuang-zhu has decided that Zhou brat will become the leader, what should it matter what the other elders want. Those old codgers should just shut up and sit their asses down."

Bi Changfeng thought that it was rich that Cheng Xiu was conveniently exempting himself from 'those old codgers'. His friend was a crude, blunt man who doesn't sugar coat his words. It was part of the reason why Qin Huaizhang had valued Cheng Xiu's opinion so much. It was also why they were such good friends even though they were both so vastly different personality wise.

"Haiya! Huaizhang was still so young," his friend said with a sigh. "It really should have been our funerals that he arranges, not us his."

Bi Changfeng couldn't help but agree with that. It really was such a pity. And then to lose Madam Qin so soon after was a blow to the Manor. They had such a young son too, now an orphan.

And furthermore, with the Manor at odds with so many sects in the Jianghu, their situation was precarious to say the least. With the inauguration of a new leader, the sect would usually be celebrating but given the circumstances, their young leader was met with grim, skeptical looks.

Some of the elders think that Qin Huaizhang's child, Jiuxiao, should be the one inheriting even though he was even younger still. Their argument was that he was the direct descendant and therefore more 'suitable' for the position. However, Bi Changfeng knew that this was just a bid for the elders to get more power and influence over the new Manor Lord. If the Manor's position was in any better position among the Jianghu, Bi Changfeng knew for sure that the elders would have made more effort on that front.

To be honest, Bi Changfeng doesn't know if Zhou Zishu could have done anything if they did, given his youth and inexperience, though Bi Changfeng at least knew for sure that Zishu would have him and Cheng Xiu on his side.

"He's young," Bi Changfeng said, referring to their new lord, "but he's brilliant. Just needs to experience life a little so that he knows how to make his own judgement. Then he won't have to listen to us bunch of old men trying to clamor for his attention."

"I hope to live long enough to see that and when that happens...," Cheng Xiu said with a chuckle, "Mark my words! That boy is gonna show up those old codgers and make a difference!".

*****

Lao Cheng really does have a golden tongue, Bi Changfeng thought to himself.

Just a day after their conversation, their young leader called for a meeting out of the blue. When he arrived, Bi Changfeng was thrown off guard by his informal dressing and semi-loose hair, which was borderline disrespectful to his position as a sect leader. He had been so formal, perhaps too formal, before. What had changed?

Then he spoke, handing papers listing strategies that they would use for the Manor's new defenses, improvements to be done on the pre-existing defense systems and schematics for trapping mechanisms.

Bi Changfeng only needed to take a brief glimpse to see that they were well thought-out plans that would have probably taken weeks if not months to think of and plan. However, it was the way he spoke that took most of Bi Changfeng's attention.

His words were clear, concise and eloquent with a soft voice that carried through the room and a tone that was respectful but commanding. He spoke like a true leader. Like he had no doubt that he would be heard and obeyed.

It was a change from the day before, where he would listen to the elders more than speak his mind. Bi Changfeng knew that he was constantly worried that making the wrong decision would cost the occupants of the Manor their lives. But it seemed that he had reached a decision the night before and came up with more than one plan to save them from the sharks circling their home.

Bi Changfeng approved of the decisiveness and the change in demeanor but he could already see some dissension among the elders.

"With all due respect, Zhuang-zhu," Li Ching said, almost simpering. Bi Changfeng could see Cheng Xiu's lips curl in obvious disgust. "But are you sure these designs will work?"

The young Lord tilted his head, not answering for a moment. Then he spoke, in the same tone that he had adopted since the start of the meeting.

"Are you questioning my judgement?"

Bi Changfeng wasn't the only one taken aback by the abruptness of the question, which sounded almost rude for Zishu, who had always been deferential to the elders' opinions. Now he sounded almost like he didn't care for them at all.

"Ah no," Li Ching said, trying to sound placating but Bi Changfeng could tell that he thrown off by the change in behaviour. "I just think that perhaps we should review these-"

"I was not aware that I was asking for your opinion on the plans," the young man interrupted. "Should I make it clearer that this is an order? Because I thought that I was being very specific in my instructions."

There was a bout of silence. Bi Changfeng shot a glance at Cheng Xiu, who was valiantly (but failing badly) trying not to laugh at Li Ching's gobsmacked expression.

"Yes, of course, Zhuang-zhu," to Li Ching's credit, he recovered quickly to simper again.

Bi Changfeng definitely did NOT imagine that eye-roll from his leader.

"Don't worry," Zhou Zishu said with a condescending smile, "I will personally test the mechanisms when it is completed so that you don't have to lose any limbs."

Clever, Bi Changfeng thought, this way Zishu could make sure that the instructions were followed to the letter and that there was no chances of ill-advised foul play.

*****

Cheng Xiu burst into laughter the moment they arrived at his office and Bi Changfeng was pretty sure he did that deliberately as the other elders were still shuffling outside the shared courtyard heading towards their respective rooms.

"Did you see that old fox's face! It was hilarious!"

Bi Changfeng couldn't help the smile that he had valiantly tried to keep tempered during the meeting from spreading on his lips in the privacy of his own office. When he remembered the sour expression that Li Ching adopted after that encounter, he started chuckling himself.

"That was certainly a change," he said finally, after the laughter subsided.

"Yes," Lao Cheng said, "Almost like he is a completely different person."

"Maybe he was just bidding his time while he planned," Bi Changfeng replied. It would certainly be like Zishu. That boy had always been cautious and somewhat cunning. He was just never sure of himself enough to show it or never found the need to yet.

"If he did, he certainly showed us up!' Cheng Xiu said with a laugh. "Those plans. I never would have thought them up in a hundred years! He really is a genius!"

Bi Changfeng nodded in agreement as he poured the tea.

"Whatever happens next, I'm looking forward to it!" his friend announced, lifting his tea cup in a mock salute. Bi Changfeng lifted his own to clink their cups together. He too was looking forward to see what the future brings.

*****

Surprising absolutely no one, the trapping arrays worked perfectly. The sieges on the sect lessened as more traps go up, each one designed meticulously by the Lord of the Manor.

The stragglers that make it through was then treated to hospitality from their very own sect leader and his infamous Baiyi sword. Once or twice, their leader would drag one of them into the Manor to be interrogated just so they could gather intel on the outside world. Since the death of their previous leader, the Four Seasons Manor had been in isolation.

When Zhou Zishu really took the mantle of the leader (since that fateful meeting), they actively became secluded. No one from Jianghu could bypass their parameters without receiving permission from the Manor Lord. And none had managed to do so yet.

******

Everything got better after that.

Of course, there was still comments here and there, but after the elders watched their young Lord cut out an interloper's tongue for being too rude and spitting at an elder during an interrogation, they subsided.

Bi Changfeng personally thought that the part where he force-fed it back to the would-be-attacker with nary a change in expression was what clinched the deal. That boy could be brutal if pushed. And clearly, he suffered no disrespect to his person nor to his people.

One day, two newcomers (a brother and a sister, reportedly) joined the Manor and for some reason, Li Ching and his cronies decided to make noise about their newest additions.

"It's not proper! For the Manor Lord to have another boy sleeping in his rooms!"

Bi Changfeng wondered why they conveniently forgot about the little girl that was also rooming in the same chambers.

According Jiuxiao, she was a chirpy little thing who was a delight to be around. Bi Changfeng had seen her from a far and had even spied Lao Cheng sneaking her some candy once. He had fun ribbing his old friend about it for days but Lao Cheng didn't even look embarrassed about it. In fact, he looked proud to be called Cheng-shugong.

"I like that boy," Cheng Xiu said, interrupting the tirade, "Very polite. Minds his sister very well."

"That's not the point!" Li Ching snapped, his expression showing that he was at his wits' end.

"Then what is the point?"

All of the gathered elders turned to see their illustrious leader, face stony and cold.

Bi Changfeng's lips pressed together to hold the smile that was threatening to break out as Li Ching paled.

The young leader of the Manor then rolled his eyes at them and walked pass them to sit at his table.

"I see the rumour mill has been very active these days," their leader said in annoyance. "Since you all have time to rant and bicker like fishmongers' wives at a market, I shall delegate most of my work to all of you. I'm sure you can manage without supervision."

"Zhuang-zhu," Lu Yan said when the other elders shot each other looks of confusion but remained quiet, "Are you leaving?"

"No," Zhou Zishu said, dividing his papers and scrolls in stacks. "I'll be taking leave for a while to take care of Kexing."

"Kexing?" Bi Changfeng asked, mouth moving without him realising. Zishu looked up at him and his annoyance seem to lessen.

"Yes. Wen Kexing. He used to be known as Zhen Yan, the 2nd disciple that Shifu took before he disappeared," Zishu answered. Almost offhandedly. So much so that Bi Changfeng was a little thrown by how nonchalant he was, given his answer.

"The heir of the Divine hands?" Bi Changfeng asked.

"The heir of the Healer Valley," Zhou Zishu confirmed. "His identity is a secret because the people who murdered his parents are still out there so he changed his name."

"But," Lu Yan was wide-eyed when he asked; "Where has he been all these years?"

"He was abducted by those unsavory individuals that killed his parents. He couldn't get free himself until recently with a little girl he now calls his sister," Zishu said as he continued to pile his work neatly into stacks.

"Sir, with all due respect. I'm not questioning your judgement but how do you know if he truly is who he claimed to be?" Lu Yan asked, "You have only met him once and been separated since."

"I know him. He is my soulmate. My person," their leader said, with such a serious countenance that none of them could doubt the validity of his words. "I will not have any of you questioning his place beside me."

The elders looked at each other, not sure what to think of the identity of the newest arrival. On one hand, housing the heir of the healing genius couple would surely benefit the Manor but to have their leader so outwardly lay claim on another so suddenly was shocking, especially one who is still just a boy.

"If everyone is done sticking their necks into my personal business," their leader said with an annoyed twist to his lips, "then take these papers and finish them for me. I'm behind already."

They shuffled forward in tandem to retrieve their delegated work. Bi Changfeng was slightly annoyed to see that Cheng Xiu's stack was smaller than his.

"Before anyone leaves, I have one last thing to say," their leader said at the end of the meeting, right at the moment he should be dismissing them.

"I think I don't need it to be said that what was revealed here today can NOT be mentioned outside this room," their leader said with an expression did not bode well for anyone who had loose lips. "You are all my closest advisors. I would hate to cut down any of you for breach of my trust."

Then Zishu gave them a cold smile that promised that death would be easier for anyone who was caught betraying him and the manor. He knew they were thinking about the man who gurgled as their leader sliced his tongue and force-fed it to him for merely being unable to hold his tongue from uttering profanities.

For the first time in a long while, Bi Changfeng felt a shiver of fear creep up his spine as the temperature in the room seemed to drop.

"You are all dismissed."

*****

Bi Changfeng thinned his lips in annoyance as the others clamored for him to be one of the four to test the Wen child. Understandable, since Bi Changfeng and Cheng Xiu was the two most proficient martial artists amongst the elders but it was still annoying.

Zishu had called for another meeting two weeks after that fateful meeting where he threatened to cut them down if any of them decided to blab without care for their words. He told them that Wen Kexing had agreed to a friendly spar with four elders 'to prove his worth'.

This was said in a very light tone that Bi Changfeng could tell was meant to be mocking. It was clear, to him at least, that Wen Kexing had already proven his worth to the leader a thousand times over and was, at the moment, worth more than some of the elders that were getting to his nerves with all their tongue-wagging. Their only saving grace was that no word of the boy's presence had slipped outside the Manor walls. Bi Changfeng had no doubts that Zishu would do as he promised if even a whisper had made its way to the outside.

To be fair, Bi Changfeng was sure none of the elders would even dream of doing so. Some of the elders were arseholes but they were not idiots. There was nothing advantageous letting other sects know that they were sheltering the heir of the Healer Valley. It would only serve to put the sect at risk.

"Lao Bi! You must agree with what I said," Li Ching said and Bi Changfeng returned to the present with an irritated grimace at the annoying elder.

"No, I don't have to agree with what you said," he returned automatically, without knowing or caring what that old bat had just said. Li Ching's indignant look only served to make him want to be even more contrary.

"Lao Bi," Cheng Xiu called, "Join in! I want to see how good that boy is!"

"Fine. Fine," he replied his friend. Bi Changfeng felt an unhealthy amount of satisfaction as witnessing Li Ching's annoyance tenfold at his words.

He wondered how good that boy really is.

*****

"Gathered elders, Wen Kexing greets everyone a good afternoon," the youth, maybe 15 years old, saluted in respect.

Bi Changfeng was gratified with the amount of consideration afforded to them despite the circumstances. No other disciple had been treated with such blatant discourtesy upon their admission into the sect yet this poor boy, who had already suffered from the loss of his parents and an abduction, was showing such respect for these old codgers who bickered among themselves merely because he was their Lord's chosen.

"Bi Changfeng greets Young Master Wen," he said, bowing lower than his station required as a compensation for their sheer audacity for making the teen fight for his place at the Manor when their late leader had already pre-determined it. When he looked up, he could see that the boy's smile had become a tad more authentic.

"I will be your first opponent," Bi Changfeng continued with an equally amicable smile, trying to convey that not all the elders present were arseholes.

"Ah, that," the youth said, unfurling his fan smoothly, "I think we can forego that and do a melee instead."

"What?" Lao Cheng asked in surprise before Bi Changfeng could himself, "As in all four of us against you alone?"

"Yes," the handsome youth said easily with a confident smile.

"Are you sure?" Bi Changfeng asked, thrown off guard by the request. The other elders looked at each other in disbelief.

"I've been sitting and sleeping for so long, I need to stretch myself a little now that Ah-Xu has allowed me to leave his bed," the Wen boy said audaciously, in a teasing tone.

"Shameless!" Bao Qing said, pointing his sword at the child in indignation.

Bi Changfeng swore he heard a snort from his leader but when he turned to him, Zhou Zishu had a straight face that revealed nothing.

The Wed child fanned himself, smile not wavering even when faced with the enraged looks from the elders.

"It will save time and then I can go make a nice meal for my Ah-Xu since he hasn't eaten my cooking for a while now," he said carelessly.

Since Bi Changfeng was still turned towards his leader, he had a good view of the young Lord's face changing to mirth at the taunt before he schooled it back to nod seriously.

"Yes, please make this quick," Zishu said, "Lao Wen's cooking is very good. I'd like to have a meal with my future husband tonight so please make haste."

Bi Changfeng actually stepped back in shock, now completely thrown off by the uncharacteristic behaviour his leader was displaying. Were these two trying to give the collective elders heart attacks!?

The other elders were slack jawed, mouth gaping so wide it was as if they were in a competition to see whose jaw would hit the floor first.

"Well? Don't keep me waiting," the arrogant little brat said with a cheeky smile.

After a moment of hesitation, Bi Changfeng unsheathed his sword. If the leader had confidence that the Wen kid can take all of them at the same time, then it would be at the height of discourtesy to give anything less than his best.

*****

The child disarmed Lao Bao easily with his fan and in a move so fast their eyes couldn't follow, disabled the movement of his arm via acupuncture points. Then, he rotated smoothly and performed a maneuver that brought Bao Qing down onto the ground hard.

Bi Changfeng had a glancing thought that Lao Bao was guaranteed going to complain about his aching waist tomorrow.

Having stripped Lao Bao of his sword, the boy then used it to perform the Eighteen moves of Qiuming perfectly on the rest of them. There was no question to his identity after that.

But what was truly impressive was how well he utilised it to defeat four expert martial artists who was stronger, larger and more experienced.

"Ah, the young ones are getting really scary these days," Lao Cheng said, rubbing his shoulder where the young Wen kid had struck his acupuncture points with 2 fingers, disabling the feeling and strength of his right arm.

Bi Changfeng couldn't help but agree. He had landed hard on his knee after being disarmed seven moves in and he was sure that he would have a large black bruise on his knee tomorrow.

"Cheng-qianbei. Bi-qianbei."

The two doddering elderlies turned to the Wen child.

No, Bi Changfeng told himself, this boy is Kexing. He is now part of Four Seasons Manor. Zishu's second-in-charge and future spouse. He deserves the respect.

"Young Master Wen," they both greeted back, saluting.

"You gave us a great showing," Bi Changfeng said to the smiling youth.

"Thank you, qianbei." the youth replied. "Now perhaps let me take a look at your shoulder, Cheng-qianbei?"

Lao Cheng frowned in confusion. Then, he waved his hand dismissively. "This? This is nothing!"

Wen Kexing's fair countenance adopted a reprimanding expression.

"Cheng-qianbei. It might be nothing now but it will result in more pain and aches for you further down the line."

Lao Cheng was still rubbing his shoulders so Bi Changfeng knew that Kexing was right in his assessment. Given that his predicament was caused by the youth himself, Bi Changfeng was fairly certain the boy can undo the damage so he persuaded his friend.

"Just let him take a look," he said to the stubborn man, who looked as if he wanted to protest but decided to relent when he saw their leader approaching.

"Fine," Lao Cheng grumbled. Then he sat down cross-legged on the ground. Kexing knelt behind him and in three moves, perfectly pressured on the acupuncture points, Lao Cheng's face instantly cleared of any discomfort. "Huh. That was good."

"I do my best, qianbei," Kexing said as humbly as he could given his complacent smile.

"Now if only you can do something for my knee," Bi Changfeng grumbled. Zhou Zishu, who had now joined them, gave Bi Changfeng a crooked smile that wordlessly conveyed: Feeling old?

Sometimes, Bi Changfeng missed the days where he could put this kid over his knee and switch his bottom.

"I apologise for being too rough on you, Bi-qianbei," Wen Kexing said, his face half-hidden behind his fan. Bi Changfeng had a feeling that he had caught the look Zishu had sent him and was valiantly trying not to smile.

"No, no. You did well, kid," Lao Cheng said honestly. "You really taught us old codgers not to underestimate anyone just because of their youth."

"Thank you, qianbei," Wen Kexing said with a polite bow, "But to be frank, I would not have fared so well if it was a one to one."

"Why not?" Bi Changfeng asked, curious.

"My stamina and strength are still lacking," he explained truthfully. "I can only perform the Eighteen Moves of Qiuming once at this moment. So it was best if I faced all four of you at the same time."

So their leader and his second must have decided beforehand that a short melee would be the best tactical move for a youth who was lacking the physical strength and stamina to win against four grown adults. Still, the fact that he could defeat them with just a fan was impressive.

"I am grateful for the privilege of exchanging hands with the elders of Four Seasons Manor," Wen Kexing said with a salute to the gathered elders. "This Kexing implores the elders for their kindness and guidance."

*****

In the next sect meeting, Bi Changfeng was not surprised to see the newly minted second disciple, Wen Kexing, seated beside their leader.

He had earned his place and there was nothing the elders can say to revoke it.

*****

 

Extra Scene

Bi Changfeng blinked at the little girl staring up at him in curiousity. He knelt down to be at eye-level with her. Normally his knees would crack in pain at the movement but ever since Kexing started sending him daily poultice for his knees, they were feeling better even during cold rainy nights.

"Hello. What is your name?" he asked kindly. The Four Seasons Manor had not seen a child this young for years so this girl must be the sister of Kexing.

"Hello," the girl greeted back with practiced politeness. "I'm Xiangxiang."

"Is Xiangxiang lost?" Bi Changfeng asked. The toddler shook her head.

"Find Shu-gege," she said matter-of-factly. "Gege busy. Cooking."

"Shu-gege?" he mumbled to himself. Who is Shu...oh, it must be Zishu.

"Well, I can take you to your Shu-gege," he said holding out his hand but the toddler shook her head.

"No." she said. "Gege say no follow people."

"Don't follow people?" Bi Changfeng repeated to himself in confusion.

"Don't know gonggong. So no follow," she said.

"Oh!" he exclaimed, suddenly understanding the sentiment. "You mean don't follow strangers. People you don't know."

The precocious little girl nodded, swaying on her feet lightly as if she wanted to leap away at anytime.

"Well, my name is..," he trailed off remembering the proud tilt of Lao Cheng's chin at being called Cheng-shugong. Then he said impulsively; "You can call me Bi-shugong."

The girl blinked at him. Then, she nodded.

"Okay, Bi-shugong," she greeted him with a dimpled smile. Bi Changfeng suddenly felt as if he had just won a large wager and could tell Lao Cheng to suck eggs.

"Okay," he repeated to her, "Now you know me and I can take you to your Shu-gege."

Xiangxiang thought for a while, tilting her head like a little kitten. Then she lifted her arms and he easily carried her up. Tian ah. This kid needs more food. She's way too light.

"Bi-shugong take me to Shu-gege!"

 

End Chapter 4