I realized that I had misspoke. Ma Xiujun stopped in front of me to say, “I’m actually already 117 years old, probably older than your grandpa, so no need to call me older brother.”
117 years old?!!
He must be joking! He looks to be just 22, 23. My mouth was opened wide even my linked up chin dropped, making me hastily mended it again.
Ma Xiujun smiled at my disbelieving expression. “It’s no big deal. I’m one of the younger ones here. I’ll tell you a little about Phantasm Rain Pavilion. There’s only 275 of us here. With you, 276. We have eight leaders, with the ranks Emperor, Prince, Minister, Duke, Earl, Advisor, Messenger, and Citizen. I’m a Prince, my real name is Ma Jun.”
“… Emperor, Prince, Minister, Duke, Earl, Advisor, Messenger, and Citizen…” I’ve heard of these titles from the Xu family. But I had never thought that that Ma Xiujun, I mean, Ma Jun, was one of the leaders.
No wonder he was so powerful. I sure got lucky, ending up with a leader of Phantasm Rain Pavilion without even trying, and he seems like a good person too. This doesn’t make sense, I usually have pretty rotten luck!
I said with respect. “I shall call you “Prince” then, just like the other two earlier.”
“Alright.” Ma nodded and kept walking. “Where did you learn your fire manipulation skills?”
I answered. ”From my teacher, Niu Jingtao, he’s a Taoist priest too. I got my fire control power from him.”
“Niu Jingtao… I’ve never heard of the name. Where is he now?”
“He passed a year ago.”
Ma seemed to show regret. “Since you already have a teacher, you can’t join our rank. You can’t be my personal nor are you an inner discipler. So, you could only become an outer disciple. Status-wise, the two are quite different. For example, inner disciples don’t have to keep watch, have more freedom, while outer disciples have a lot of chores and limited freedom.”
“Limited freedom?!” I frowned.
“Phantasm Rain Pavillon is a secret organization, if all students were allowed to go anywhere freely, the place wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”
I took out my cell phone, there was no signal at all! I thought my luck had turned, but now that I’m at Phantasm Rain Pavillion, I’m in a sort of jail!
I had no time to let my parents or Xiaoling know, since it was was too late last night. This morning I left very early and they weren’t up yet. I wanted to tell them at the train station or airport, but it’s too late now.
Ma Jun didn’t seem to notice my wandering thoughts, he said as he walked, “Even though outer disciples are more limited in their freedom, Phantasm Rain Pavilion isn’t a prison. You have to work for your freedom. There’s a competition every six months, and the top three winners earn one month of travel time. Of course you can’t reveal any of our secrets, or you’d be captured and never be allowed to leave again. The competitions are on June 1st and December 1st of every year. Disciples who never win could ask for two weeks off every three years. This way, our secrets are protected and the outer disciples get to improve quickly. I really think you can make it. If you want some freedom, earn it, nothing comes for free.”
He’s right. There’s nothing given for free. Anything good comes with something bad. My freedom may be controlled but it’ll make me train like crazy for one of the top three spots. There’s 276 people at Phantasm Rain Pavilion, which is 268 minus the eight leaders. Just how many are outer disciples? I asked, “Prince, Please tell me how many outer disciples are here?”
“There’s 26 inner disciples.”
So, if it’s 268 minus 26, there’s 242 people fighting for the top three rankings… Having seen the last two people’s power, my chances of earning a top spot is pretty slim. But if I can’t win, I’d have to wait three years to leave here. I can’t contact anyone from here. My parents would go crazy with worry!
Leave Phantasm Rain Pavilion?
I had already joined, it’s not gonna be easy to leave knowing their rules, even if I did quit, what would I tell the Xu family?
Now I understand why the leader of the Xu family was so nice to me last time. He must have taken me for an inner disciple, since only they could move freely, and I was always in Qiling City. He must know about the “no leaving” rule here.
I have no choice now. I have to make the most of it. Rather than regret, I better figure out how to get in the top three.
Ma Jun said, “If you are outstanding enough, I’ll promote you. Work hard! Let me take you over to the outer disciples office to sign in.”
Then he grabbed my arm. I could feel myself being lifted, everything around me quickly receded and became blurry. Moving this fast in the wind made it hard to open my eyes; after another minute or so, we finally stopped. My hair was already standing on end.
Before I could make myself neat, I started looking around. In front of me was a big house with a courtyard, with a banner that read: Outer Court.
When we walked in, the 20 or 30 people inside the yard all bowed down on one knee.
“Respectfully greeting the Prince.”
Ma Jun said with kindness, “Please get up.”
A chubby middle-aged man rushed out to receive us. “Prince, I apologize for not welcoming you earlier.”
“No worries. I brought a new kid for the Outer Court. Do all the necessary procedures for him, and let him know what to do. Don’t give him special treatment just because I brought him here.” Ma patted my shoulder. “Do the best you can. Hope you can get one of the top spots in four months. I’ll see you later.”
I definitely didn’t come here for special treatment. I made a bow with my hands folded, “Safe travels.”
As Ma Jun left the yard, everyone chanted goodbye in unison.
I had no idea Phantasm Rain Pavilion had such complicated politics. I thought Ma Jun would be my protector of sorts, but everything was is up to me.
Everyone started checking me out when Ma left. Their gazes weren’t forgiving, and I began to feel uncomfortable. The chubby older man said, “Kid, the Prince seems to think you’re quite special. Come with me to sign up, I’ll tell you what you need to know.”
The architecture here is old-fashioned, in an ancient style with wooden doors and windows covered in paper, like those old movies where the paper could be poked with a finger. Although in ancient times, the window pane papers were soaked in oil and water- and rain-proof.
We walked into a parlor. He had me sit down. “I’m Sun Yongfu, I’m in charge of the outer disciples here. What’s your name? Where do you live? How old are you? Are you married? Tell me everything, we have to record all the outer disciples’ information.”
I answered honestly. Sun Yongfu told me, “That should be fine. Here you go.” A file envelope materialized out of thin air in his hand, it held a few pictures and a book.
He said, “These are photos of the eight leaders of Phantasm Rain Pavilion. You have to greet them when you see them. This book is on the do’s and don’ts here, it has a map showing you where you’re allowed or not allowed to go. Also, we have a meeting here the first of the month, but you’re free for the rest of the time.”
“Hm, where do I live?”
“There’s no provided housing for outer disciples. As you can see on the map, the 12 mountains nearby are your turf. You can build a house, dig a hole, or make a cave in the mountains. Of course, if you feel strong enough, you can take someone’s home too, but you can’t maim or kill them.”
There’s no dorms here? And I could steal other people’s homes? Such bizarre rules.
“Other rules are all in the book, you can read them yourself. You need to pay attention to three things. One. Do not leave the outer disciples’ territory. Two. Do not kill or maim anyone. Three. Report here at 5 am the first day of every month. Alright, that’s about it. Is there anything else you need as a new disciple? I’ll do my best.”
I considered. “Can I write a letter and ask someone to send it for me?”
“That’s not possible.” Sun shook his head.
I said with disappointment, “Can I please have a lighter outfit? I overdressed and feel hot.”
“That’s easy enough.” A paper box showed up in his hand. I opened it, inside were many black and white chess pieces. “You can pick-up the clothes yourself at the Outfit Pavilion. Give the black chess pieces to the manager there. Every black chess piece gets you one outfit, as in, one top, one pair of pants, one pair of shoes, underwear, and socks.”
“What do the white chess pieces get you?” I asked as I counted the chess pieces.
“You can read the book and find out yourself. I’ve gotta warn you though, take care of these chess pieces! You have three hours to read the book here, then you need to leave. Anyway, I have to take care of something, I’m heading out.” He got up and left.