Renard woke up earlier than expected. If he could trust his internal clock, then it meant it was around five in the morning. However, when he pushed his blanket off and sat up, he found a wooden tray topped with sliced fruit. A chipped wood cup lay at the side, filled with a teal green liquid. A rough tunic - the same type that Li wore - also lay there, folded neatly.
Li put on the tunic first before eating. It felt rough and he had to resist the urge to scratch the itches it brought out. When he got to the fruit, the first thing that hit him was the smell: it was surprisingly strong. It had a sickly-sweet scent underlined with a floral hint. Not exactly what he usually had for breakfast – quick cereal did the trick most of the time – but his stomach still growled. It had been a while since his last meal, and it was evident that whatever magic had healed his broken bones sapped a lot of energy from his body.
With eager hand, Renard drew the tray close to him and picked up the fruit. The bright yellow of its flesh and its leathery red skin reminded him of a mango, but the taste was entirely different. It had a strong blend of sweet and bitter that thoroughly confused his taste buds. However, it was filling, and when he scarfed down the palm-sized fruit, he found himself completely satisfied.
The drink, however, was just ordinary green tea. Strangely disappointing after he'd had this otherworldly fruit.
Three precise raps echoed from the door.
"May I come in?" said Lady Zhou, her voice muffled by the door.
Renard put the wooden tray and cup aside and said, "Of course."
The door opened with a slow and measured pace, and Lady Zhou came in with an equally calculated walk. She had on the same crimson robes as yesterday, but her hair had loosened, falling to her waist in a cascade of black. The ends of her hair were messy and frayed and her eyes were underlined with dark bags.
"How did you like the meal?" said Lady Zhou as she seated herself once more, hands laid across her lap. "I know it is not much, but this sect produces little and survives off of little. You will have to bear with it."
"It was fine. Great, even. Speaking of, what was the fruit? It didn't exist in my world."
"Goldlemon. A rarity in the West, I hear, though knowing that would do you no good. It is grown when fruit trees are fertilized with salamander blood."
"Excuse me?" Renard remembered how Li had called those black lizard monsters salamanders. "You take monster blood and make trees grow this fruit?"
"I suppose this is a foreign concept to you?"
"From where I am, magic doesn't exist, let alone the idea of peppering a tree with blood to make it pop out super lemons."
"Ah, that explains it." Lady Zhuo cocked her head. "Though a world without magic sounds quite dreary, I must say. Or rather, it may be better. Magic and cultivation have only bred greed and violence in this world."
Renard shrugged. "People are greedy and violent without magic, too."
"That we agree upon." Lady Zhuo shook her head. "But let us move on to more relevant topics. I have spent some time arranging how you will stay with this sect. Firstly, your living arrangements. I have decided that staying here is most convenient for you, as the training ground where you are to work is nearby."
"Where is this, though?" Renard asked, looking around at the room he was in. It was cozy, but bare. Aside from the hearth providing warmth, the room was all wood and nothing else, no furniture or decorations or anything.
"A spare room in my house."
"Are you okay with that?" Renard glanced at Lady Zhuo. "With me living with here, with you. We don't really know each other, so I figure it would be kind of awkward."
"I appreciate your consideration, but my home is quite spacious. It is the house of a Patriarch, after all, and since I have no surviving family, it has been left quite empty with just me in it. If it gives you comfort, a few servants also live here along with Li and his brother."
"Li, huh – Gotta say, that doesn't really give me a lot of comfort."
Lady Zhuo smiled. "Li is not so bad a person. Short-sighed, brash, and a little selfish, perhaps, but there is good within."
"I'll take your word on that." Renard nodded. "I'll try and work things along with him, make things better between us."
"I do hope so, as you two will be working together daily now."
Renard furrowed his brows. "Hm?"
"Li is this sect's main combat instructor. As a combat instructor yourself now, you will be cooperating with him in training the villagers."
Renard frowned. Li would rather lop off his head than listen to him, let alone work with him. However, Renard wasn't one to judge people quickly. He gave them chances, and he'd give Li one too.
"Alright, I'll try," he said. "As long as he doesn't try to kill me while I'm at it."
"I can guarantee that much. And if it gives you any peace of mind, I can heal any wounds that do not obliterate your brain or heart."
Renard gulped. That was not at all a comforting statement, but he appreciated Lady Zhou's sentiment. "Well, if I ever come to you with a flaming sword in my gut, I guess you've got my back."
Lady Zhuo smiled faintly. She wasn't the type to laugh or have much expression at all. It was in the nuances of her smile that Renard could tell what emotion she was expressing. There was her polite, unassuming smile, then her laughter smile – a little wider, showed a little more of her teeth – and then her happy smile, one that made her dimples apparent.
Right now, she had on a laughter smile. Thank goodness for that, too. It made her feel so much more relatable, that much more human and likeable.
Renard stood up and stretched. "So, when do I start working?"
Lady Zhuo also rose, standing a little taller than Renard. "In an hour."
"That early? I doubt it's past six right now."
"Most of this sect work in the fields or go foraging when the sun is bright. It is more efficient for them train in the early mornings and evenings for that reason."
"Makes sense." Renard bent down to pick up the wooden tray and cup, but lady Zhuo stopped him with a wave of her hand.
"The servants will tend to that," she said. "You must spend your energy planning your lesson for today."
Renard nodded slowly. He felt uncomfortable leaving people to clean up after his mess. Lady Zhou noticed him staring at the tray and said, "I presume your world has no concept of servants? In here, it is normal for them to tend to the house they are beholden to, particularly here, in a patriarch's home."
"No, no, there are people like servants in my world too," said Renard. He thought of the maids his wealthy family had hired. His mind passed by people in the service industry, but an on-call IT dude was definitely not comparable to a servant. "I've just always picked up after myself. Never wanted to give people work that came from my messes."
"An admirable sentiment, but much too generous. You will have to temper that heart of yours if you are to survive in this world." Lady Zhou turned towards the door beckoned Renard to come with a commanding wave of her hand. "Come. I will lead you to my courtyard where the villagers are to train. It is quite a distance away, and I will explain to you the goals for your job."
Renard hurried behind Lady Zhou – she walked rather quickly. When they left the room, Renard found himself walking through a massive hallway, his bare feet stepping on smooth, sanded wood. The ceiling here was much higher and the hallway was wide, meant to accommodate many people. There were lanterns every so often, their wicks flickering with dim light, illuminating the vast length of the hall. Between every four or so lanterns was a door much like Renard's own, and he figured it led to a room identical to his.
"Wow, you weren't kidding when you said this place was huge," said Renard.
"This area is merely the servant's quarters," said Lady Zhou. "Though they are not in their rooms now, as their day starts even earlier than yours."
"Preparing early meals, checking the house for any issues, and the like. But mostly, they do not have much work to do, considering how few live here. I start their days early so that they have more time to go back to their families and help them with farming or household chores."
"That's sweet of you."
"It is a matter of efficiency." Lady Zhou kept her pace quick as she crossed the hallway, never looking anywhere other than straight forwards. "There is no need for the servants to tend to the needs of but a handful of people. It is far better for the sect's productivity that they contribute to farming or foraging."
"I get that, but that still doesn't change the fact that you're doing them a huge favor. I haven't known you long, but I think you're a great person."
Lady Zhou kept walking forwards. She didn't look back, but Renard could feel a smile on her.
"Flattery will get you nowhere, Renard. You will not earn your place in this sect with sweet words, and to that end, I shall tell you exactly what to keep in mind when you begin your training."
"I just teach them how to use a sword, right?" Renard recalled his countless hours practicing fencing. He didn't like to brag, but he was top tier at the national level, and if he kept at it, he fully believed he could have gone to the Olympics. If just teaching how to fence was all he had to do, then he was somewhat confident.
"A little, but not quite. Listen closely, for what I am about to tell you does not concern the sword, but rather concerns cultivation, for ultimately, that is what you are to grow."
Renard gave a slow nod. He was finally going to learn more about the magic in this world and how someone like him, someone who had no idea what it was or how to teach it, was going to help others with it.