Chún leaned up against the warm boulder that the young woman had been laying across, feeling the gentle pulse of Essence radiating out of it. He had strategically placed the large stones around the spring to act as focal points for the Dao Patterns; to ensure that the patterns would remain stable, grow in complexity, recycle the Essence and even reinforce the Dao Patterns that he had grown to create an Essence Spring where none had existed previously.
As long as no one came and swept clean all the various Essence plants and herbs he had woven into the pattern, this hot spring would take root and flourish, slowly acting as a seed to improve the Essence levels and fertility of the surrounding forest.
Listening to the energetic splashing coming from the other side of the wall as the young woman washed herself - quite vigorously - from the sound of it, he took a deep breath and let his racing heart steady a little. This Heiress - was she not aware of her beauty? Chún thought that if it was not for his high Cultivation level and exposure to the inhuman levels of perfection of the Crystal Empresses or the Lady of the North Heavens he would be struggling to form coherent thoughts - let alone converse with her.
Scratching his head, Chún tried to think things through. If it was not for his locus' insistence that this woman was indeed a city-toppling beauty, he would have started to wonder if every noble Cultivator lady was at the same level - like in those stories the StoryTeller always recited - and so she behaved as if she was just ordinary.
It still did not really explain the deference she was showing - or how forward she was being.
Chún would be the first to admit that he knew almost nothing about girls. He had only barely started to notice that they were different from boys a few months before he had run into the old man on the mountain - and even then he had been barely scraping by trying to survive - so any notice of the village girls had taken a back seat to day to day necessities.
Not that anyone would have taken well to his old self noticing any of the village girls, he thought ruefully - still, it seemed odd. He had vague memories of half overheard conversations between adults and one or two plotlines in the StoryTeller's repertoire that made him think something was - odd - in the way the Noble Fairy Consumer was behaving around a male she barely knew.
"Why did you have me respond that way to her - and stand up in the water?" Chún asked his locus in embarrassment, thankful the link was non-verbal.
"She was trying to put you off balance," interjected his locus, "she evidently feels at a disadvantage and is trying to use every weapon at her disposal to try and balance the scales."
"She has not tried to attack me with her daggers," pointed out the young True Cultivator, remembering the sight of the blades prominently strapped to slender wrists as the young woman gestured elegantly, while asking questions about the bushes around the spring as her bare shoulders and flushed features rose above the hot water.
"That is not the weapon I was referring to," returned his stony friend dryly, "if I was not controlling your hormones you would not be able to think straight around her, let alone hold a conversation. I merely made sure you did not cede her an advantage in your little battle of wits. You seemed to enjoy her attention. But it is to be expected - you are a young human with no experience around the opposite gender and you are not attracted to your own gender."
Chún stiffened in alarm, "You are controlling me…? Tai, we have spoken about this sort of thing."
"It is necessary. I am merely lending you my stone as you lend me your quickness of thought - just more so than normal perhaps," amended his locus, "Noble Consumers are bred to affect those around them - it is merely another sort of power. Your own strides towards a perfect form help resist it, but you have already noticed her behaviour is abnormal."
"She is trying to affect my mind?" asked the young man, "I did not notice any Essence being manipulated."
"No, it is not deliberate on her part - she appears to Cultivate as a warrior rather than practicing techniques to ensnare - besides her being a beauty, of course. But all Cultivators - Consumers or True - affect the weaker with their presence. The more powerful they are, the more the effects are accentuated - a large warrior is more fearsome, an elder seems wiser or more malevolent - a beauty bewitches with her very presence. If I was not guarding you, your natural attraction to her would be uncontrollable - you would likely be willing to do anything she asks."
Chún scrunched his forehead, "I assume that does not work on people who are stronger? Or at least, less?"
"Yes," agreed the Mountain, "but at some level she is desperate to have you regard her well - or at least be favourably inclined towards her, so…"
"If I was evil minded and stronger that would be a bad move for her," pointed out Chún, "another male Cultivator may take her forwardness and force her - she does not seem the sort to run that sort of risk…"
"It is not entirely deliberate on her part," pointed out the Mountain, "your own Cultivation and Dao Pattern is closer to perfection than her own - you are affecting her on an instinctual level as well - and she does not have a Mountain to guard her."
"She seems strong willed and likely more aware of that sort of thing than I am," pointed out Chún reasonably, "or is this something Consumers are unaware of?"
"No, it is common knowledge at an almost basic knowledge level," answered his locus, "something every Consumer is aware of and learns to guard against from a very early age - any Consumer overpowering or pushing their Essence beyond the surface of the skin of another Consumer's Essence without informed consent is considered to be improper. Consumers do not care much about physical violation against each other - but all but the worst unorthodox will avoid trying using techniques that involve pushing their Essence into another's. Even scanning or sensing deeply is considered a grave violation."
"What about Healers?" asked the young teen, then he nodded, "Ah - healing should be different from coercion or domination."
"They take Oaths on their cultivation and the Heavenly Daos not to use their abilities to bend minds or Essence that way," answered Tai, "but what I am talking about between the two of you is a purely passive effect that strong Cultivators have. "
"Which she should be used to resisting, if what you say is true," pointed out Chún.
"She considers herself indebted to you, from what she has said," speculated Tai, "it may be affecting her Dao. But you are likely correct in thinking there is more to it. Ask her. Since she is already being so direct, I doubt she will be offended."
"Is it normal?" asked the young teen tentatively, "her being so direct, I mean."
"I am not a human," pointed out his locus, pausing in what sounded like exasperation, then relenting, "but the Land's memories of your culture generally indicate that it is considered highly unusual for an unmarried woman to express direct interest in a man. Generally, it appears to be frowned on, although I must say that seems to be counterproductive to the continuation of your species," remarked the Mountain as if commenting on the weather, "it is strange there are so many of you, if that custom is actually followed."
Chún shrugged in confusion - he did not understand any of that either - he just thought the noble lady was acting very odd. Paying attention to the noises from behind the spring bamboo wall, he could still here washing splashes and noises that indicated... Dàilán, was still occupied.
His Essence Sense still showed nothing nearby, although after Tai's comments he made a deliberate effort to avoid the other side of the spring with his Essence Sense - just in case it caused offence.
Bored, he looked around and spotted the hand-made instrument sitting on top of the boulder.
Curious, he picked it up and examined it, focussing on it with his Essence Sense. After a moment he frowned slightly, tracing the Dao patterns in the piece of bamboo.
Despite being an Essence treasure specially grown with his assistance and the higher Essence levels around the hot spring, Essence was slowly leaking out of the damaged stalk of Jade Bamboo.
The Treasure level Essence plant had done its best to adapt to the situation by using the Essence the young Heiress had pushed through the instrument while playing, slowing the degradation of its pattern, but it was slowly withering regardless.
"How long have you played the bāwū Lady?" he asked conversationally as he examined the instrument - not bothering to raise his voice - as he knew that someone with her level of Cultivation would have no trouble hearing him.
"When I was only a year or two old - my mother…" she paused and the splashing stilled momentarily, before resuming along with her voice, "I had a Tutor for several years, but I was judged a True Master bāwū player in my own right during my fourteenth birthday celebration."
There was a humorous note in her voice as she continued, the sound of water being moved around a delicate counterpoint. "That was after a formal performance judged by several Sage Master players. Being considered a True Master with a single instrument is not considered a great accomplishment - most True Masters usually can play multiple instruments to similar levels of skill. It was considered only noteworthy for my age. To progress further to Sage I will have to develop a technique or several notable compositions of my own."
"This is not something I know much about," admitted Chún as he started mending the damage that he could see in the Dao Pattern of the piece of Bamboo Jade - it was twisted between the form of the bamboo and the concept of a bāwū flute - frayed and flickering in his Essence Sense.
"It is a Noble Clan sort of thing," admitted Dàilán, her voice drifting easel;y over the bamboo fence, "it is expected that noble women learn instruments, dancing, gardening, tea ceremonies, embroidery, defensive formations… I am something of a scandal because my Mother insisted I also be trained as a noble man as well and my Father has continued this - so I know only the one instrument well. Most of my skills are those usually expected of Noble men…"
"Like stabbing people," interjected Chún, letting his smile stand out clearly in his voice as he carefully nudged the Dao Pattern, carefully strengthening the threads of Essence as it shifted into a more balanced form that was mostly bāwū, while retaining the living Jade Bamboo elements - and adding threads that would actively adapt the instrument to the Essence of the person playing it.
"Yes," agreed the young woman with an almost audible eyeroll in her voice, making Chún grin, "like stabbing people. But my Father has also taught me financial and Clan management, politics..."
"So you are a genius then?" asked the young man, smiling as the bamboo flute brightened and its Dao Pattern locked into place, actively drawing in the Essence it needed to survive, while its form shifted slightly, hardening into the shape of a bāwū, with elegant natural grains showing along its length.
Near the end of the flute, a sprout of colourful fragrant flowers and leaves blossomed from the body of the bamboo to hang downward like the traditional tassels often wrapped around such instruments.
"I dislike that label," replied Dàilán shortly, "I do not feel… what did you do to my bāwū?"
Chún looked up from the instrument and blinked to see the beautiful young woman looking up at him from the steaming water, her shoulders, throat and face visible above the surface, delicately glowing jade white skin gleaming and long, wet ink-black hair shining with moisture.
Drawing in a breath, Chún squatted on his haunches to look at her in the eyes and held the bamboo out to her, "I... fixed it. It will not die now. And it will change to match your Essence as you play it."
Dàilán's slim, delicate white jade hand and wrist, dripping with sparkling droplets in the dim light of the glowing Essence plants and motes that left the hot spring in a multi colored twilight and accepted the flute.
She looked at the bamboo piece, her other hand coming up to draw fingers along its length .
After a moment she drew it to her lips and blew softly, releasing an echoing, sonorous note. The flute shimmered under her hands and glowed, casting shadows outward against the dimmer surrounding light. The 'tassel' leaves on the end of the flute shifted and glowed, with the flowers shining and emitting tiny motes of Essence that drifted away across the spring.
After a moment, Dàilán stopped and lowered the flute, slowly shaking her head as she reverently placed the flute on a rock on the side of the spring, a dark flush visible on her exposed skin. Chún looked at her in confusion, "is there a problem… I did not mean to give offence, just wanted to make sure it did not die?"
Drawing in a deep breath Dàilán stepped to one side and leaned against a rock, lowering herself in the water up to the neck and look out over the pond away from him, "No," she replied after a moment, "it is the finest instrument I have ever touched… kingdoms would go to war over such an Essence Treasure."
Chún chuckled, "it is just some bamboo. I am glad that you like it. You did most of the work - I just adjusted it a little."
Dàilán laughed under her breath, "Just some bamboo." She turned her head and looked up at him in amazement, "Ever since I became a woman, suitors have given me gifts to seek my favour, my dowry and my body - you give me my life, my father's life and kingdom shattering treasures," her chin pointed out over the hot spring and a hand brushed against the bamboo flute, "and - ask for nothing more than my silence and friendship."
She bowed her head and fell silent, evidently deep in thought and after a moment, Chún shrugged and rose back to his feet returning to the boulder where her robes were draped across and leant against it again.
After several Fēn, Dàilán raised and turned her head to look at Chún her face set with determination, "Rén Chún, Spirit of the Mountain," she spoke with a formal cadence and Chún straightened in surprise, "I, Guan Dàilán, Heir and Sect Leader, formally give oath on my Cultivation and my Dao - to hold your secrets, to protect and guard your lands as my own and your equal - for as long as you likewise hold my secrets and give those that serve me resources, homes, protection and succor. If any betray my oath let them be cast out to their death."
Tai's instructions echoed down the link and Chún carefully relayed his words as the Essence in the area stilled as if holding its breath, "And what would - you - have of me in return for this Lady Guan? You only ask for benefits for your family and followers in return for your oath."
"I owe you a debt I cannot repay already," replied the Heiress steadily, "and since you seek friendship and trust - it is something I would wish for myself. Someone I can rely on in the future…" her voice was shadowed and she looked away, across the gently steaming water, "it is a great gift that I desire more than anything."
She looked back at him, resolute, "I would prefer not to be more specific in an oath such as this for fear of trapping ourselves in the future.
"You have not yet had a chance to talk to your father or your advisors about me," noted Chún at Tai's silent prompting, "why do you choose to do this now? For that matter…" he hesitated and then went on in a rush, ignoring Tai's cautions, "why are you acting like this around me?" He gestured to indicate her state of undress and everything else in a sweeping gesture across the spring, trying to ignore the heat on his cheekbones.
Dàilán blinked; and then she started laughing, deliberately letting the rest of her body float upward to just below the surface of the water, visible as an indistinct jade white shape as she leaned her forearms on the grass at the side of the spring and she looked up at Chún playfully, "You are young - are you not?" her eyes laughed at him as her smile broadened at his widened eyes, "at first I thought you might be an old monster, but…"
Chún swallowed and tried not to let her see the effect her casual behaviour was having on him, "would that make a difference to your oath?" he got the words out past a tight throat.
A delicate foot and perfect toes peaked momentarily out of the water with a light splash, drawing his attention and the young woman giggled again, "hardly. If anything, if you are this young and already so powerful - creating Essence Treasures with a wave of your hands as if they were trash," her voice became serious, "I would be a fool not to take this opportunity. Who knows how powerful you will become in the future," her voice turned bitter and Chún looked down to see a look of self loathing on her face, "if there is anything we need more now than a golden thigh to cling to now - I do not know what it is - and I am the only tile left to offer…"
Chún frowned, "Is that how you see me?"
"We have known each other less than a day," replied the Noblewoman and Chún noticed a distinct shift in her body language - the lightness gone, every word chosen carefully. She rose higher in the water, clearly standing upright, although only her shoulders and the top of her bust became visible above the steam. Despite the beauty exposed, Chún's gaze was pinned irresistibly to eyes that glowed with iron will as she continued to speak, "Simple cold calculation tells me I would be a fool to make any other choice, given what I have observed. But…"
Dàilán's face softened, "That is not why I choose this - why I choose to make this decision as the leader of my group."
"I do not understand," Chún admitted, "but I will say that I have no interest in being treated solely as an asset to help your group regain their power," he warned sternly.
Dàilán nodded enthusiastically, "Exactly! That is why I must make this decision on my own. I must act as a Leader - not as an asset to be traded in return for considerations," she looked up at the young man firmly, "understand that you are… your skill, make you attractive on many levels," she shook her head slowly, "no doubt many in my group would urge me to agree to any term you set as long as you provided… resources like these," she gestured around her and nodded in understanding as Chún started shaking his head, "but you have no intention letting anyone else know about your real strength, do you," she finished, questioning, "why me?"
Chún hesitated, "I have reason to believe… you are… important," he blushed and rubbed his forehead, "Not as a heiress or all that other useless stuff - to the world… and… you are the one of the strongest and most beautiful women I have ever met… and you are my age..."
Dàilán blinked and laughed, unaccountably pleased at the honest compliment, "My group would be most indignant to hear all their treasured nobility considered 'useless'." Her voice turned serious, "all my life, that is all people saw - even the fact that I was beautiful was merely an extra reason to treat me as an object. But you have treated me as an equal since we met today, even though…" she gestured around, droplets shimmering on her skin and Chún blushed.
"So - I wish to make my oath as an equal - Leader to Leader - not just for power or politics," she declared, "which is surely what the others would reduce it to. Neither of us subordinate," she spat fiercely, then she sighed and sank back down into the water.
Chún could not help a slight sigh of disappointment as the skin vanished back up to her neck again and Dàilán looked up at the sound with laughing eyes, "and yes, my Father would most strenuously disagree with my behaviour at the moment - not to mention all my fellow clanswomen." She snorted delicately and Chún raised a hand to hide his grin at the somehow lady-like sound of disgust, "as if I would give up any disadvantage in a negotiation between Cultivators."
"Negotiation between Cultivators?" prompted Chún after a moment, when she did not continue.
Dàilán turned her head away again to look across the spring, "It was a battle I fought constantly between my Grandmother and the other women in the Clan - to say nothing of the other Noble Clans," there was an old bitterness buried under the more recent sadness in her voice, "My Mother taught me that a Cultivator fights against the Heavens. Male or Female is irrelevant - in a battle they fight with all their strength. They do not let themselves be limited by the Heavens - and they certainly do not let themselves be limited by 'respectable behaviour for young women'."
She turned her head to glance at Chún who caught a glimpse of a sardonic expression on her face before she turned back to face across the water, "can you imagine any Cultivator willingly acting meek and submissive - they would never win any respect. There must be a balance and both sides must show their strength. So I will fight you with every weapon I have."
"We are battling?" Chún blinked, "I do not wish to fight with you." He pulled a wry face, "You would kill me quickly in a fair contest."
"Life is never fair," shot back the young woman and Chún found himself nodding unconsciously, "yes, we are fighting - and I am already at a disadvantage as I owe you my life. My honour, my Dao, is at stake if I use what I have learnt against you. Something I am quite sure you are aware of," she rolled her eyes, "since you are acting so open around me."
"A lot of Con… Cultivators would not care about honour or even their Dao," Chún observed mildly, "they would only care about the resources," he gestured at the spring and Dàilán laughed harshly in response, still facing away, "it is thinking like that that destroyed my Clan," she growled out, "I will not forsake honourable behaviour for short-term gain. In the end it destroys everything."
Chún pulled a face, but Tai's firm admonitions kept his mouth closed as the beauty in the spring below him continued, "I am fighting to establish an equal relationship with you. If my beauty keeps you off balance, affects your decisions then - I will use it."
She took a deep breath, her voice turning matter of fact, "If I am the only one who knows about your secrets, and your resources - having control of the resources you can provide gives me the leverage to maintain support of my leadership of the Knife and the Clan - I know that as soon as the crisis is past, the older members left will be wondering why someone who has not seen fifteen summers yet should lead."
She continued as Chún scratched his head in puzzlement, "so that means this has to be my decision - I am the only one who can know about - the Mountain Spirit."
She turned again to face him and looked up firmly at Chún who nodded, "that suits my wishes as well Princess. I know too well what most… Cultivators would do if they knew as much as you do already."
She looked up at him, impassive, "I will keep my word and honour my debt with my silence. I cannot promise that about others. We - my Clan, my Sect - need to find a refuge to rebuild so we can avenge those who sought to destroy us. You - this place in the wilderness - is my group's best hope. You are my best hope for a… equal partnership. Anyone else…" she looked away again, "they would demand too much and I would have no way to refuse them. They would keep us weak so we could never be a threat."
Suddenly Dàilán took a deep breath and came out of the water, the movement so sudden that Chún took a step back in reflex as her hair whipped around with the movement, "You need us. If any other group finds this area - they would move in and strip it clean." Her crossed arms were the only things obscuring her chest as it heaved with emotion, "Hells, we would have done it too - but we have not the ability now. And if this area of the Wilderness became our new lands - we would defend and tend it, instead of plundering it," she tilted her chin up imperiously, "that is what your intentions are - are they not?"
She closed her eyes and slowly dropped back down below the surface of the water and did not speak for several breaths, "I will not lie - I find you and your power attractive. If you wish it I - would - choose your bed over some old monster. But it will be - my - choice."
Her eyes opened and she smiled dangerously, "besides, if you really are only my age, you would quickly find - I would be in charge eventually."
Chún choked back a disbelieving laugh, "You find me…" he shook his head, "let us leave that to the side for now."
Dàilán cocked her head to the left, curiosity sparking in her eyes, "just how many summers have you seen, exactly?"
"That would be part of the secrets that you would keep under your oath," replied Chún dryly. and the girl grinned before her expression fell into solemn lines,"You will accept it then," Dàilán said quietly, "as an equal?
"I would," he grinned and gestured at her robes, "would you prefer I move to the other side so you can dress?"
Dàilán pulled a face, "I feel my worn and smelly robes would be a distinct decrease in dignity than to remain clad in my own power and beauty as I am, to be honest." She looked up at him with an impish grin.
Chún could not help it. He laughed until he collapsed to all fours for a solid fēn, quickly accompanied by tinkling laughter by the side.
"Lady, I pray to all the gods," he said at length wiping his eyes, "that we become fast friends quickly," he held out his free hand over the edge of the spring and smiled as a jade white hand heated from the water was placed into it, "I, Rén Chún, known also as the Spirit of the Hidden Mountain and the Golden Emperor Quilin," Dàilán's eyes widened and he grinned at her, "Accept this Empress' oath in the spirit and word it was given, on my Dao and Cultivation - to guard, protect and keep her and hers safe for as long as she and they keep their words, by deed and speech. Let any who would break these terms, be cast out to death."
The waiting stillness became a crushing pressure of Essence as he finished uttering the last words. For a moment the hot spring flared with brilliant spears of heavenly lightning that fell on the two of them, echoed by a peal of thunder.
Both of them gasped, but rather than pain or death, there was a feeling of something within them closing shut and sealed - a breath later - and both of them blinked in confusion at each other as everything returned to normal.
"Oh… well," stammered Chún, "that was something…"
"Indeed," agreed Dàilán, dropping her eyes to her hand closed in his, "Empress?"
"It is a long story," replied the young man in relief, "but you said you wished to be considered equal."
Dàilán nodded, before lifting her head to give him a firm look, "Might it start with you releasing my hand, by any chance?"