Glacier Palace was land of eternal ice but it still had occasional shifts in weather that signified the changing seasons. It was the middle of summer. The snowbanks were at their lowest depth. Glaciers retreated up the mountain valleys, exposing trickling brooks of crystal-clear meltwater. The roads leading up the mountain were clear of snow and ice; it was the only time of year this happened.
Long Yifei walked down the winding narrow rocky path in the company of scores of other disciples. Their robes were snow-white but not as white as the woman who was at the front of the column.
"Faster! We're not on a stroll. We have to get back before nightfall or it will be no dinner for all of you!"
The stern voice made everyone nervous.
"Yes, Managing Elder!"
Long Yifei's voice was among the chorus. She quickened her steps to follow the managing elder and gave a tug on the rope in her hand.
A loud snorting sound came from behind, belonging to a peculiar animal that looked like a mix between a stout horse and a very shaggy carpet. The hairy arctic mule glared at Long Yifei but she rubbed its snout softly until it calmed down. It then gave a happy grunt and trotted after her.
The other disciples were each leading an arctic mule but their animals were less than cooperative. Their slow pace was mainly due to this and not a desire to slack off. They pulled, they coaxed, they even beat the animals but none achieved the same effortless results as her.
"Sister Long, how do you get your mule to be so obedient?" A voice came from beside her.
Another disciple managed to catch up to her. She looked no older than thirteen or fourteen with a round face and long black hair.
"Sister Jin, I'm not sure. I just rubbed its head and it became happy…" Long Yifei was helpless. She really didn't do anything special. "Perhaps this little guy just has a naturally good disposition?"
"Don't joke with me, sister! That ass is one of the meanest in the whole stable…"
Sister Jin suddenly lost her voice after realizing she had revealed something she shouldn't have.
"Hehe, Sister Jin, you're the one joking. How can the mule in Sister Long's hands be mean? Look at it, it's so nice!" Another voice chimed in from the rear.
The girl that walked up was tall and bony, with a disproportionately small head. She smiled towards Long Yifei but there was little warmth behind that smile.
"Ah, greetings Senior Sister Pei."
"Yifei, the girls and I are going to train together after we get back. Do you want to join us?"
Long Yifei didn't reply. She rarely got asked by them since they weren't close and weren't friends. When she had accepted their invitation in the past, it usually wasn't a very good use of her time. Her talent was far beyond theirs and she spent most of her time teaching rather than practicing.
"Come on, sister. The second chapter of the Ice Sword is so hard. None of us can understand it!" Sister Pei begged, tugging at her sleeves. "Please?"
"Oh, I guess…"
"Yifei!" The sharp voice of the managing elder interrupted her.
"Come to my room after dinner. We can discuss the questions you had during lessons today."
"Yes, elder." Long Yifei said and turned to her sister, "Sister Pei, I'm really sorry. I had forgotten about that completely. Perhaps next time."
"Ah… no problem, no problem." The girl was still smiling but her tone was frosty.
The party continued down the mountain and eventually arrived in the valley. At the trailhead, there was a wide-open, sandy area where there were many people gathered along with wooden carts and many draft animals. It was a trading caravan that arrived occasionally to sell goods to the sect. The traders were all women naturally and they had everything from bolts of cloth to soap to fresh vegetables.
The young disciples dispersed among the traders, each with an assignment for what kind of goods they needed to buy and bring back to the sect. They went in pairs to help each other and Long Yifei was paired with a girl named Gao Hong. Their relationship was good. Although not close enough to be considered sisters, they talked often and Long Yifei liked her attitude.
Gao Hong led the way and they in front of a cart that sold tofu. There were all kinds of tofu on display; soft, firm, fried, even sheets of tofu skin.
"Come, noble ladies, come. Best tofu you've ever tasted. The silken tofu is freshly made yesterday!" The tofu lady hawked her goods enthusiastically.
Gao Hong stooped down and peered at each of the bins of tofu carefully. She made sure they were all fresh and not stinky before pulling out a money pouch.
"Auntie, I need two buckets of silken tofu, four buckets of soft, and four buckets of firm tofu. I also want five bags of tofu skin as well five sacks of white soybeans."
"No problem, no problem."
The seasoned merchant quickly gathered everything together. It ended up being a mountain of tofu but this was why they brought the mules.
"That will be thirty taels of silver." She said once everything was tabulated.
She held a worn hand expectantly but Gao Hong hesitated.
"Auntie… how did the prices rise so much?" She asked in an aggrieved voice, "Two weeks ago, all of this would have only cost twenty-six silver!"
"Noble lady." The merchant gave a heavy sigh, "Your sect is so far from the village. It takes us a whole day to drive our carts up here. The roads were particularly tough because of some recent floods. Once I get back, I will have to pay a carpenter to fix it up or it won't last another trip. We are just some peasants trying to earn a living, please understand."
Both sides tried to act as pitiful as possible and neither backed down. Gao Hong clutched her money bag and refused to open it. The sect wasn't rich and money was tight. They were given a certain amount of silver to make purchases. If they went over, it would have to come out of their own pockets. If they scored a good deal, it would mean they could save a little more.
Long Yifei observed the situation for a few moments and finally could not help but step in. She felt slightly ashamed for her sister acting so stingy in front of a commoner. They were supposed to be disciples of an immortal sect.
"Sister, I have an extra two taels of silver here. Let's do the deal at twenty-eight silver?" She pressed two small nuggets into Gao Hong's hands.
"Let's head back early so we can practice together." She turned to the merchant, "Auntie, we may belong to Glacier Palace but we are simply the lowest tier disciples. We do not get a lot of money so please, don't make it too difficult for us."
The middle-aged auntie suddenly lost her voice after she saw Long Yifei clearly. This disciple was completely different from the others who all paled in comparison. Her demeanor, her poise, not to mention her beauty that would only grow more devastating as she grew more mature.
"Wow… I mean, sure!" She mumbled in awe, "Twenty-eight is fair!"
Long Yifei smiled, "Thank you."
"No problem, no problem!"
The deal was quickly closed and the merchant auntie even helped them load everything onto the two mules. Using wicker baskets and plenty of rope, everything was secured for the climb back up the mountain.
"Noble miss, may I ask your name?" The auntie asked.
"Long Yifei," Long Yifei replied, "I hope we can do business again in the future. I can tell your tofu is excellent."
"Haha, you flatter me. Long Yifei… Long Yifei… what a great name! Fairy Long, next time come find me for tofu directly. Don't go to those others. I'll give you a good deal!"
"Then, we shall take our leave." Long Yifei bowed. "Sister?"
Gao Feng had a difficult expression but she quickly hid it. She bowed as well out of courtesy and both of them led their mules away. They started on the return trip up the mountain path, one was calm while the other was displeased.
Because of the dream array, Long Yifei was reliving her memories as if she was experiencing them first hand. She only wanted to explore her past but she had little control over the specifics. She was subject to the whims of her subconscious.
She didn't know how much time had passed but she continued to relive her teenage years. It was a formative period in her life even though she didn't realize it back then. A lot of her current habits arose from back then and it was enlightening as well as painful to watch again.
It would take a few more years for her to formally become the sect master's personal disciple but her talent was already apparent. Some sought her help for their own benefit. She saw through their hearts and kept them at arm's length. This was also the intent of the elders as they did not want her to associate with those that would stunt her growth.
What hurt her was the realization that even those she tried to get close to didn't really like her. Gao Hong ended up being one of her confidants, one of the ten talented disciples that followed her everywhere. Yet, the distance between them was vast as a canyon. This was established from day one and the gap only increased from there. She was the first disciple. They were her capable servants. They were never friends, never sisters.
Observing these scenes gave her feelings of regret. She questioned if there was anything she could have done better, if there was any way for her to foster better relationships.
Would having a group of sisters saved her from Murong Aiyin's betrayal? Would having better relationships have helped improve her cultivation faster? Would any of it have mattered when she still couldn't recall those memories?
She shook her head. Her answer was not here, she had to go back further.
The dream responded to her will. The memories of her teenage years disappeared and another took its place…
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