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Hong Jin’s whole family was sitting at the table when Cha Ming walked in. They let out a loud gasp once they saw the cleaned-up youth in pristine robes. He now looked like a young scholar, one who was in the process of preparing for the government official examination. His hair was tied back with a pin, leaving only his wavy bangs hanging. His hazel eyes were a glaring contrast to the usual dark brown or black eyes in this part of the world.
“Wow! Second brother Xun is so skillful, he can make Cha Ming so handsome in just a half hour!” Xin exclaimed. Her almond-shaped eyes were now perfectly round.
“It’s not just Xun’s hard work,” said Madam Xu. “Cha Ming is clearly naturally quite handsome. I’m sure anywhere he goes, all of the young women will be chasing him.” She put her hand to her mouth while chuckling.
Hong Jin cleared his throat. “I’m sure Cha Ming is starving. Let’s eat!” he said, gesturing to the table full of vegetable and tofu dishes. “My apologies on the meager fare. Our family follows Buddhist traditions, and so we usually eat vegetarian food.” He shook his head apologetically.
Cha Ming smiled politely. In his past life, he had also been a vegetarian—he rather liked the idea of not causing harm to others when it was within his ability. It was very difficult to behave this way in this world, where everyone was struggling to survive. Like most things, it was also easily achievable once a family attained a certain level of wealth.
“I sincerely appreciate your family for having me over for dinner, and Madam Xu for cooking the meal. I have lived as a vegetarian in the past, and although it has not always been possible these past years due to poverty, it is surely something I would like to get back into.”
Cha Ming helped himself to several dishes. While he was starving, he held himself back, as overeating would cause him a stomachache. The Hong family had clearly not planned for his arrival, and it seemed a few extra dishes had been prepared just after his arrival. He didn’t want to deprive the rest of the kids from the unusual feast that had been prepared due to his presence.
Throughout the meal, Xin and Xun asked him about the many places he had seen on his journey to the city. Ling paid attention while quietly eating his meal. Due to his low level of strength, he would never get to explore the world like his little brother and sister would. Any information from outside the city was quite useful for his future business. He listened attentively, and the conversation continued until the meal was complete.
Once everyone else was full, Cha Ming shyly ate up the remaining dishes, causing Madam Xu to let out a small laugh. He blushed; he had been this way as far back as he could remember.
“Little Ming, you’ve just arrived, and tomorrow is the last day of the Green Leaf Academy recruitment. Do you intend to participate?” Hong Jin asked curiously.
Cha Ming had heard of Green Leaf Academy, of course; every city government was quite avid in educating young cultivators, since these cultivators would become the core of the city’s economy, defense, and prestige.
“I…” Cha Ming said hesitantly. “I am interested in going to take the test, but I am unsure if I have the talent.” Talent was something someone was born with and was passed down in the family; his parents had never practiced cultivation, and as such he was unsure of their talent, if any.
“I understand,” said Hong Jin. “Xin has already undergone the entrance examination and will be starting at the academy in two days. Xun is currently in his second year. Ling, however, is eighteen, but he was evaluated and determined to have no talent for cultivation. He is currently being educated as an appraiser at a prestigious auction house as he is quite intelligent and has financial talent. There are many paths to walk in life, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t have cultivation talent. Less than one in a hundred of the general population have this talent.”
Despite his encouraging words, it was plain that Hong Jin had a proud smile on his face—with two younger generation cultivators in his family, their family’s future was guaranteed. He was a cultivator himself and knew very well how much preferential treatment they received. He was a guard captain, after all, and even regular city guards had to have a minimum cultivation requirement.
But Hong Jin’s words also surprised Cha Ming. He had known that not everyone could become a cultivator, but he had never known the odds were so stacked against him. Then again, he had been reborn in a very strange way, and thinking back to the image of the clear staff, he found it very difficult to believe that he would not be able to cultivate after his miraculous rebirth.
“I’m… somewhat confident for some strange reason. I will give it a try tomorrow and see if my luck pays off. Then Xin and Xun and I could be schoolmates.” Xin and Xun responded to his words with encouraging looks.
“Daddy, maybe… It can be quite embarrassing if he goes to test his talent in front of so many people. Could we maybe try with the last affinity-testing talisman?” Xin asked, looking at her father with an embarrassed expression. It was not something she should have asked, because affinity-testing talismans were quite valuable.
“This…” Hong Jin stopped to think. While the talisman was valuable and a single-use talisman, it would not get used up if Cha Ming had no talent. If it did trigger, his kids would have another friend in school. Although he still had an affinity talisman out of the set of three he had bought for his children, it could be sold for money. However, he would also be able to save Cha Ming some embarrassment if he was not talented.
“All right, let’s try it out. If it gets used up, be sure to help make sure Xin isn’t bullied when you get into Green Leaf Academy!” said Hong Jin. He then wandered off upstairs and came back with an ornate wooden box. He opened the box using a brass key around his neck and took out the elemental affinity talisman.
“Cha Ming, look closely. This is a lesser-five-elements affinity-testing talisman. The first requirement for using this talisman is that a practitioner helps you circulate the qi inside your body. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done it before. Once your qi is circulating inside your body, you will keep trying to circulate it as hard as you can while you hold the talisman in both hands.”
He motioned with his hands to show what came next. “You will then attempt to force the circulating qi into the talisman—it doesn’t take a lot. The reaction of the talisman will depend on the elemental affinity you have. If you have affinity to wood, the talisman will split up into green leaves and fall to the floor. If you have an affinity for fire, the talisman will burst into flames. If you have affinity for earth, the talisman will crumble into sand. If you have affinity for metal, the talisman will turn rigid and shiny, like gold. If you have affinity for water, the talisman will melt into a puddle of water.” Hong Jin said all this calmly. He had guided his three children through the process.
“I will do my best. Many thanks for helping me,” said Cha Ming. The family migrated to the living room. Aunt Xu proceeded to clean up the dishes, and Ling went upstairs to study. Only Xun, Xin, and Uncle Hong remained in the living room with Cha Ming.
As Cha Ming sat down in a meditation pose, Hong Jin pressed his hand gently on his back to start the circulation of qi. Slowly but surely Cha Ming became aware of the strange but invigorating feeling of having his qi circulate through his meridians. Once the flow was maximized, Uncle Hong removed his hand, and Cha Ming continued to try and circulate. The flow dropped down to one-tenth of its original flow, but there was still circulation.
There is hope! he thought.
Uncle Hong placed the talisman in Cha Ming’s hands about a minute later. After building up his courage, Cha Ming stared at the talisman and started forcing the circulating qi toward it. At first, there was no reaction. Then something strange happened. The talisman did not flutter, burn, crumble, shine, or melt. Instead, it started drifting off little by little. In ten seconds, the talisman had completely transformed to a soft white mist that drifted off into the air, never to appear again.
Hong Jin frowned deeply. Surely Cha Ming had cultivation talent, but it was definitely not in one of the five elements. “This… I’ve never heard of this reaction from a lesser-five-elements affinity-testing talisman before. The good news is, I’m one hundred percent sure you have some level of cultivation talent. The bad news is, I’m not sure what element it would be in. This isn’t actually bad news. In fact, it's good news! There are two possibilities.”
He had the children’s full attention. “The first possibility is that you are gifted in more than one element, and this grade of talisman is not at a high enough level to detect it. This is an advantage. For starters, this gives you a choice of elements if you want to cultivate a single element, and certain combinations of elements are superior to only having a single element. In addition, certain professions require the cultivation of multiple elements, such as an alchemist, a spiritual blacksmith, or a spirit doctor.
“The second possibility is that you’re not gifted in one of the five elements but something much rarer. This could be wind, thunder, light, darkness, and in some very rare cases, space. That is definitely an advantage. Either way, Green Leaf Academy will be able to inform you specifically on your talent. Congratulations! I’ll take some time off and take you to Green Leaf Academy to register tomorrow.”
Uncle Hong got up and patted Cha Ming on the back. Cha Ming was quite touched by the care and attention he was receiving. Everyone continued to talk for a couple of hours, then they went to sleep. Cha Ming shared a bed with Xun.
They had a long day ahead of them since the lineups for testing at Green Leaf Academy were always quite long. Cha Ming and the other children woke up early in the morning. Xun and Xin wanted to tag along with Cha Ming to the academy as they were very curious as to what kind of results he would achieve. The strange behavior with the talisman indicated that his test would be anything but ordinary.
The group set out before sunrise and lined up behind what had to be at least ten thousand people. These people had clearly been waiting a good portion of the night, not wanting to miss out on the last day of testing. The line snaked back from the main square, where Green Leaf Academy had set up a temporary testing facility. The tests were to be conducted out in the open, not so much for the sake of transparency but more for advertising and public relations.
In front of the test square, several chairs were set up for representatives from the different departments at Green Leaf Academy: the city lord’s faction, the city guard, and various high-profile merchant associations. There was only one covered pavilion, and it was clearly there for someone of very high stature. The heads from the different departments in the academy were there to see if any particularly talented individuals popped up to be recruited to their respective groups.
The various other factions in the city were also there to keep track of any budding talents that should be recruited or roped in before they graduated. After all, these children wouldn’t go to school their entire lives.
A little goodwill up front would go a long way into strengthening their respective factions.
 In Chinese culture, calling someone of the older generation with whom you are on friendly terms with, aunt and uncle is appropriate. This is especially so if they are your friend’s parents. Likewise, calling someone your older or younger brother, or older or younger sister, is also appropriate between friends.
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I was an engineer for seven years, but now I'm a full time writer. I mostly play board games and read books for fun, but I did Taekwondo once upon a time and earned my second degree black belt.
I write the kind of things I'd like to read, and I'm always trying to improve. My goal is to hit you right in the feels, so if I do it, let me know. Nice to meet you, and happy reading!