Fanfiction3: A-Li's Three Lives, Three Worlds - Chapter 87 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 87

written by LigayaCroft
edited by Kakashi

A month later and they were all fully-settled in a fairly-sized mansion in the north section of Lijiang on the other side of the bridge that connected the residential area to the marketplace, with a legitimate tea trading business as a front. The men and women who had traveled with the Weis assumed roles of storekeepers, housekeepers and servants in Li’s household. Wei Qiang posed as his grandfather, and Wei Xiaolian as his cousin.

His past knowledge of growing teas had come in very handy, and differentiated him from the rest of the sellers on Tea Street. The teas he ended up selecting for reselling from the caravans were only a few, and even with the same tea variety from the same suppliers, he only selected the best of the stock. The teas they sold were thus both limited in variety and supply. Within the next month, he had built up quite a reputation and demand— first with the first class citizens of the town, then the working class soon followed, because he had teas for all price points.

Every day was an endless parade of samples from suppliers, who had caught on the importance of gaining the prestige of being recognized by Tōng Yuán (通圓) Tea Shop. Once a sample had been selected, the whole stock was brought in and Li worked on choosing the sacks that were up to his standards which they would then post in their shop for sale. It was an arduous task to check for quality with no other person to back him up, but Li relished the opportunity because outside of his little work bubble, there was her.

This younger version of her was too full of life, and hardly kept still. She refused to conform to societal standards to dress in more feminine clothes, frequented gambling houses, and could be bribed with liquor. Only Wei Qiang and the sect quartermaster who traveled with the Weis, Wang Jiantong, could keep her in line. But if not training them, Wei Qiang was busy going through sect affairs delivered by messengers or by carrier pigeons. On the other hand, Wang Jiantong was always in meetings with sect members from Lijiang and other nearby cities, as Wei Qiang rarely ventured out of the compound.

Why Wei Qiang was in Lijiang was not yet revealed to Li, but he had seen enough of the clean-clothed sect members who met in his tea rooms, and the dirty-clothed sect members who frequented the back gate, to make him suspect that the sect was after something big. However, his status as a ”one-bag“member did not afford him the right to ask questions, no matter how obvious it was to everyone that Wei Qiang favored him.

Still, instead of moving out of his way and despite his best efforts to ignore her, Wei Xiaolian kept on tailing after him.

Like today.

Li took a deep breath and reminded himself to pretend to be surprised.

Wei Xiaolian pounced and pushed him from behind, shouting “Shidi!”

“Shixiong!” he pretend-yelped, yet didn’t turn his head to look at her. The honorific still sounded off to his ears as it meant a male Senior Brother/Disciple. But she insisted, gloating that she finally had a junior, which had been her status in Wei Qiang’s traveling group until Li arrived. “You have to stop surprising me.”

Wei Xiaolian joined him at the gazebo, and pushed three tea sample bags aside to sit on the edge of the table in front of Li. She had a persimmon which she tossed and caught in her hand, then threw it toward his chest.

Li caught the persimmon before it hit his body.

“Stop insulting me by pretending that I surprised you. I know you knew I was coming,” she drawled, rolling her eyes. “I don’t expect anything less from Wàigōng’s star student.”

Wei Xiaolian perched one foot on top of the table and bent forwards to grab the persimmon from his hand. Then, taking out her right dagger from its sheath, she proceeded to peel the fruit.

“How thoughtful of you to buy this from a Shaanxi merchant,” she said as she dug her dagger in to cut off a slice. “Persimmons are my favorite, but they are quite hard to acquire unless you live up north. Usually they are almost sad looking by the time they get here. But this batch is plump and fresh! It must have been transported via water channels so this must be so expensive! Wàigōng will not like this.”

She didn’t need to know he had hand-picked the persimmons himself fresh from Shaanxi before she woke up that morning.

“But you like it?”

“I will still tell Wàigōng that you have been wasteful,” Wei Xiaolian decided, casting him a side glance before tipping her head back to drop the piece she had just carved into her mouth. She chewed with her mouth open while carving another piece but this time, she pierced it to dig it out and pointed the fleshy prize toward him. “It’s sweet enough. You’ll like it.”

It was scenes like this that made Li reflect on how different Wei Xiaolian was from her two other incarnations, and yet she was still the same person.

“Take it, Shidi.”

Li cautiously reached out to retrieve the fruit piece from the end of her dagger and popped the fruit in his mouth. Its sweetness melted on his tongue, bringing with it dozens of memories from their two past lifetimes.

“I have observed that you like sweets. You always have a small bag of candies with you.”

Had he always been that obvious? All three incarnations had easily sniffed out this guilty pleasure of his.

She sheathed her dagger, bit on the fruit and stood up. “I will be going on a mission tomorrow and I will bring you back some candies when I come back, because that’s what a thoughtful Shixiong would do.”

“A mission?” It was Li’s first time hearing they had one planned out for somebody from the manor.

“Yes, and who knows, I might be able to get a promotion.” She patted the four bags on her side while casting a glance at Li’s one bag with a gleam in her eyes.

“Do you need somebody to accompany you?”

“No need. I am just delivering some wares to Yongchang, that’s all.”

Li had been with the group long enough to know wares meant information.

“But you can qualify for a promotion doing that?” Li cleared his throat to dispel the sinking feeling in his stomach. “Are you sure?”

She raised a brow at him. “Are you doubting your Shixiong’s ability to overcome, Shidi?”

He shook his head although his heart felt leadened.

She stood up and patted his left shoulder. “Don’t look so glum. In a fortnight, you will have more work to be able to catch up with me.”

“Good. Good. You are both here.”

They both turned to the East to see Wei Qiang walk toward them. His wine gourd swayed freely with his gait, which most probably meant it had been emptied last night.

“Shifu,” Li stood up, bowed and showed Wei Qiang his just vacated seat.

Wei Qiang held out his hand. With his fingers, he motioned for them to instead join him under the noontime sun.

They stood shoulder to shoulder, and Wei Qiang stroked his beard several times, slightly nodding while he looked at them side to side.

“Bai Li, now that the store operations have mostly been stabilized and we have enough supplies in the warehouse to last us a month, would you like to accompany Xiaolian to Yongchang?”

Recalcitrant, obstinate and competitive were the three best descriptions for this new incarnation of Suiren. Thus, this bit of news was of course both unexpected and unwelcome. The way the color flooded out of Wei Xiaolian’s face almost made Li burst out laughing.

“B-But—“

“The roads are not safe and I do not want to worry about your safety, Xiaolian.”

“B-But—“

”Your duty is to protect our delivery,” Wei Qiang explained with a firm tone. “Bai Li’s duty is to protect you.”

Wei Xiaolian looked from Li to her grandfather. “He hasn’t even been with us for three full months, Wàigōng. It is too early—”

Wei Qiang’s expression turned stern and he pounded his staff on the ground. The earth rumbled, effectively cutting off Wei Xiaolian’s rhetoric.

“What I said is final. You both leave at dawn.” Wei Qiang announced. To Li, he commanded, “Protect her with your life. Don’t even think of coming back if you fail.”

If only Wei Qiang knew the lengths he could go for her. Outwardly, Li remained unaffected and bowed.

Satisfied, Wei Qiang shot another warning look toward Wei Xiaolian before he turned and walked away.

With so many things to do before their trip tomorrow, Li went back to the gazebo and started closing up the sample bags that he had been evaluating. Only after he was done did he realize that Wei Xiaolian still stood where Wei Qiang had left them earlier.

“Shixiong,” He called out. “What seems to be the matter? We should start preparing for our trip tomorrow. Why are you still standing under the sun?”

Wei Xiaolian turned to face him— chin high and fists tightened.

“I am sorry.”

Li frowned. “Sorry?”

Something about the way she stood in front of him reminded Li of seeing the vision of Suiren when she was as big as a mortal six year old child, firm and resolute, as she walked into battle.

“You can’t come.”

He was taken aback at the command. Had she always been this hard-headed, and so desperate for notoriety that she didn’t want to share any of the glory?

“That is not for you to decide,” he reminded her.

Wei Xiaolian ran her gaze over him, lips pursed tight. Her body was drawn tight like a string, and something in the set of her jaw made her look like she was about to break.

“We’ll see about that,” she declared, and walked away.

* * *