A couple months had passed since our trip to Old Cathay and a lot of things had changed. Ren’s wedding had been significantly postponed at her request. Given that the Sen Clan was now ruling over a prosperous trade hub, Ald Sen had been willing to grant her request. I was there when they installed the Weystone in the center of the village. The stone had been locked into a platform made of marble and inscribed with a flowing script that I had no reference for. It wasn’t Chinese, Korean, or any language I’ve seen, and I’ve seen most of the common ones.
When it was installed it fired a beam of light into the sky and the world split open above it. A wavering view of a city covered in wood-paneled buildings and a grand castle in a style that blended Chinese and Japanese architecture. It was my first view of the Faerne capitol: New Cathay. The moment it opened a delegation of men in elaborate silk robes came through carrying a scroll made of silver. He made an announcement in a language I’d never heard then handed the scroll to Ald Sen. Then, thankfully, Ald Sen made an announcement in the trade language. “From this day forward this settlement is to be named the City of Sen Xe.” Then he made a big show of thanking his fiancé for bringing him an artifact worthy of a great city and how her Guild had done what few could hope to accomplish, blah blah blah. I didn’t get so much as a mention, for which I was very grateful.
With all the political bullshit going on I was perfectly happy to be nobody. Unfortunately, the two other Weystones we had were appropriated by the Emperor and we got a pittance. Well, we got a thousand gold chits, which is a lot under most circumstances. But it represented about 1 percent of the value of the two other stones we’d brought back. Ren split it between the three of us. After that, we sold off most of the tools to the craftsmen in the village and we had the machines auctioned off in New Cathay. That got us an addition 834 gold chits. Then there was the silk. Ren ordered us to store it in the guild house until we found a use for it.
It was also the first time I regretted trying to bargain about my guild contract. In my lust of a better deal, I’d bargained Ren down to 6 months of service to the Guild but I hadn’t stipulated a buyout price so I couldn’t buy my freedom. I was stuck with the Guild for another 3 and a half months, give or take a few days. The bright side was that we had such a huge cash influx that people were signing up by the handful to be part of the Guild. Ren actually had to start turning people away until we got a core membership that could help with training and leveling. That took a full month. To my chagrin, Ren put me in charge of trade skill training since I now had two trade skills, one of which was apparently rare.
My Qi enchantment skill was not unheard of, but it did require Qi manipulation as a prerequisite and exposure to pre-Mist aetheric technology to get the skill itself. There were less than 5 Qi Enchanters among the top clans, maybe a couple more who worked outside the Clan hierarchy, according to Ald Sen. The crazy bastard had taken a bit of an interest in me after learning I’d been blessed by a dragon. Again, a fairly rare thing.
That brought me to my current priority in life. The dragon, named Xiaohuxing, had told me the being that brought me here had done so for their own purposes. I kind of figured that was the case, but he made it sound like they had big plans in the works. And, with just how lucky our little trip to Old Cathay had been, I was inclined to believe that I had no idea what Azarias’ real goals and motivations were. Thinking back, I had to do a number of very strange things to be able to survive our trip. First, I had to join Ren’s guild. I had been dropped right in front of someone whose first instinct was to give me to Ren. I had to become a Qi user, which had required me to end up in a place where there was one and to get him to unlock the skill for me. Ald Sen had only done so because he’d been engaged to my Guild leader and because I’d been rude. In order to survive the Nifir’s attack, I needed Kin to use an illusion ability. To make that possible, I had to save a thief orphan then refuse to enslave her, thereby earning her trust. Anyone from this society would have done neither of these things. No, there were simply too many coincidences stacking up in my favor, Azarias was stacking the deck in my favor. Words fail to describe just how uneasy that made me. When this whole thing started I had one job: take care of some pregnant woman and her kid. Tough job in a pre-industrial world? Sure. But having been given some very powerful skills through statistically suspect avenues, I was betting things weren’t going to be that simple.
“I’m somebody’s puppet alright.” I muttered as I cooked. Ren had made good on her promise of using me as a recruiting tool. Once people figured out that we had food that tasted good, the pool of potential recruits went up in quality. We got some prospective members coming in from other major cities in Weyfaer. Hell, we’d even gotten a few recruits from other races. One of them was a race called Muranaki. Weird little guy, and he had a pretty fucked up sense of humor, but I liked him. They were humanoid with ink-black skin, but they tended to be less than 4 feet tall and they had no eyes. I think they had some kind of thermal sense to compensate, but the only one I’d met hadn’t told me.
“We’re all somebody’s puppet.” The Muranaki said as he sliced meat for the meal we were cooking. “But being a puppeteer isn’t all that fun. So many strings, hard to keep them from choking you.”
“Speaking from experience, Doji?”
“Of course.” He twirled the knife in his dexterous fingers, a wisp of shadow leaking from the edge of the blade. It sliced through the tough meat of the Porcine Charger like a scissors gliding through paper.
“I couldn’t do it. I like freedom.”
“Freedom? Explain that to me. Through the aether my people speak your language, but we have no equivalent in our home tongue. Closest is shouhinsha.”
“Freedom means you get to determine your own fate.”
“Ah, then you are shouhin.”
“And what does that mean?”
“A term of endearment, nothing more.”
“Riiiiight.” I drawled sarcastically. “Incidentally, you’re what my people would call le utter cock.” I said that last bit in faux French instead of tradespeak, ensuring he’d have no idea what I’d just said. When he cocked his head I threw his words back at him. “A term of endearment.”
“Of course.” He kept slicing meats, readying them for a stir-fry with a sauce I’d recently made. It tasted a little like hoisin, except spicy and with a mild herbal finish. No, I didn’t put anything weird into it, unlike my five-alarm chili in which I put an herb which causes mild hallucinations. It’s good to have seniority.
When all the ingredients were ready I oiled the wok and set it over the kitchen coals to heat up before tossing in the ingredients. We had enough to feed 60 hungry people, meaning I was going to be working the wok for a long time. “Tad, we have the scouting group coming in at sundown. Is the food going to be ready on time?” Mei asked from the next room over. Ren had put her to work as a kind of bureaucrat, making sure the timing of the work was achieving maximum efficiency. Personally, I think the authority has gone to her head.
“Is it ever not ready on time?”
“Well, that depends on your definition of ‘on time’.” Mei held a device called a chronograph in one hand and a scroll in the other. The chronograph tracked the movement of the five moons and two suns, giving a rough estimate of the daily time and provided a warning when the Time of Spirits began each night. “We’re getting close to nightfall and the entire Guild membership will be here soon.”
“Do you see the size of this wok? I can cook 20 meals in ten minutes. And I know everyone is going to want their meal hot when they eat. Besides, they need to do inventory before coming to the mess hall, so I won’t be getting everyone at once.”
“You say that, but I’m the one getting yelled at when hungry people don’t have food.”
“…You’re getting yelled at? By who?”
“That’s not important.”
“Yes, it is. All carrot and no stick makes for an unruly horse.”
“If you let Guild members who rank low yell at you they won’t respect you. Can’t you curse them or something? Maybe trap one in a barrier overnight to reflect on his actions?”
“Or just tell Ren. She likes beating people with very literal sticks.”
“Hell, bring them to me. I think beating someone with a stick sounds like great stress relief after dealing with Doji and Kin all day.”
I have done literally nothing this entire time. Kin grumbled in my head.
“Can I have a turn? Tad may have had to put up with me but I had to put up with Tad.” Doji joined in.
“No one is getting beaten with a stick!” Mei shouted.
“They are if they don’t get to work and stop wasting time on idle chatter!” Ren shouted from inside her office. Mei shot me an unpleasant look. I held out my single greatest culinary achievement as a peace offering.
Name: Fried Gresh Dough HQ
Cuisine Level 6
Description: Gresh ground to powder, sweetened with processed sugar from Hama Roots, and fried in Yang Oil. Topped with various other sweet ingredients
Effects: Quick Energy, physical and mental statistics multiplied by 1.1 for 2 hours. After the time has passed reduce remaining stamina by 20% of maximum stamina.
Additional Effect: Improves general mood of the person who eats it.
Mei took my offering and nibbled on it. “Just don’t take too long with the food.” She said sullenly.
“She is your family, correct?”
“Adopted daughter, technically. She doesn’t think of me as a father. Maybe a big brother but certainly not a father.”
“I’m not so certain. She seems to take particular care that you appear as competent and prestigious as possible. Last week she insisted that you wear an aristocratic garb even while cooking.” Doji was right. She had harangued me into buying a Bao suitable for the Tsu Clan’s leader and had given me a crest to have a tailor weave the pattern into the coat. Then, whenever I was seen without it on, like in the kitchen where I regularly spill or smear things on my clothes, she would ask me why I wasn’t wearing it. Any attempt to explain was met with that same question, as if there was no appropriate answer except to go put on the Tsu Clan Bao.
“Since I’m her Clan leader I think she just wants the Clan to look like it’s becoming more prosperous.”
“What about how often she comes to speak with you despite having responsibilities of her own?”
“I think part of it is her trying to spend time with you.”
“Why?” I asked, genuinely confused.
“Forgive me if I’m overstepping here, but what were your parents like?”
“Mostly not around.”
“You want to say something about it?”
“I don’t wish to presume.” I felt a twinge in my temple as a headache began to form.
“Spit it-“ I stopped myself from finishing that statement and spoke in more clearly understandable words. “Please, tell me what you think.”
“Very well. I think your childhood experience has left you blind to how children normally behave. She wants you to be a parental figure.”
“Why? I’m not really role-model material.”
“You must have done something to impress her or to ingratiate yourself to her in some way. Oh, I think the wok is ready.”Doji may not have had eyes, but his ability to sense the level of heat in objects was invaluable to precise cooking. In a world without oven settings, adjustable burners, and thermometers, Doji's thermal vision was a godsend.
I was more than happy to let that awkward conversation die in favor of doing some cooking. I tossed vegetables and meat in the hot oil, using a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom and prevent burning and sticking. Then, once they were softened a bit, I added the sauce and noodles. Once I’d turned Gresh into flour, I’d opened up a whole branch of possible recipes to use. I did have to buy a recipe codex from a vendor in New Cathay before I could successfully make the noodles, but I did make them.
“Almost done. Bowls?” Doji swept piles of stir-fry into wooden bowls and covered them, keeping the contents hot while they waited for people to claim them. It amazed me just how dexterous the Muranaki was, even though it was just with bowl and spoon. The idea of him coming at me with a knife sent a chill down my spine. The first batch had made 18 bowls full of stir fry.
Name: Imperial Medley Sir-Fry
Cuisine Level 9
Description: A medley of vegetables and meats once served in the courts of Old Cathay as an afternoon meal.
Effects: Balanced Meal,+2 to Vitality for the next 3 hours, +1 to Physical Strength for the next 3 hours; Superior Nutrition, Increase speed of class growth by 5% ; Cultural Heritage, will positively affect your reputation with citizens of Faerne who are members of the WeyFaer Empire.
When word got around that I, as a cook, could increase the speed of class growth, everyone who wasn’t a member of a Clan was very interested in Guild membership or at least interested in buying food from me. The nutrition bonus gave boosts to class growth for both combat classes and trade classes. The bonus was still small, but I was still just getting started in my craft. Given time I could cook meals which would give enormous, if temporary, bonuses to growth and stats. There was a recipe in the codex I’d bought for the WeyFaer Imperial Feast. There were actually permanent bonuses to eating at a Feast, but the ingredients were prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain. The priciest ingredient on the list was meat from a creature called LughDao, a giant sea serpent. I was not getting myself drowned in the ocean for a chance at a permanent stat bonus.
Three more batches of stir-fry later I sat down to eat my own meal. I still hadn’t made an HQ version of this meal, but it still tasted good and the bonuses were very useful. In fact, after cooking this meal a dozen times over the last month, most of the new Guild members has a very favorable view of me. Which might also explain why they’d taken their complaints to Mei, rather than yell at me. When I was done I took food to Ren in her office. She didn’t pay me any mind, to busy sorting through the reams of paperwork the Guild now had to process. Then, while the mess hall was still mostly full, I took Mei a bowl of the stir fry. I made sure to pat her head in front of the entire Guild membership present at the time, hoping my reputation bonus would rub off on Mei. After that it was time for me to retire to the workshop.
The N’san Guild workshop was usually deserted at night. We only had a couple of wood and metal craftsmen, and they only worked in the daylight. I was glad for the solitude, no one likes to have other people watch themselves fail and I was planning for a lot of failure tonight. I pulled the simple straight sword from a case in the back of the room and laid it on the nearest workbench. My Qi Enchantment class was still at Level 1 because I hadn’t successfully enchanted a single object. But, every failure had given me a single experience point. I was sitting three points away from Level 2 and I was hoping that the level gain might give me some insight into what I was doing wrong.
I pressed my right palm to the flat of the sword blade and began to project a small amount of Qi at it. As before, the Qi didn’t just flow into the metal, I had to force it into the material. The more I forced in, the more the weapon’s stability declined. I’d tried a few different things in the past. I’d tried elemental transformations to see if fire or metal might been needed to enchant a metal weapon, I’d tried simply wrapping the Qi around the sword, I’d tried focusing it into a stone set into the base of the handle. Every attempt had either failed or ended in the destruction of the sword I was trying to enchant. I’d destroyed 5 swords so far, three of which disintegrated. One deformed into a spiky lump of metal. The last one exploded. Ren still held the medical bill over my head.
I’d gotten a feel for how much stress the blade could take before it fell apart, so I’d been working with the same sword for the last two weeks. No matter what I did, any Qi I imbued it with simply dissipated over time. Hell, I once dipped it in blood to see if I needed an organic catalyst to make the Qi hold inside the blade. It didn’t work and the smell was terrible the next day. Ren had been looking for someone who could teach me, but it hadn’t worked out. There weren’t any books either. I went through the Book of the Jade Rabbit, hoping there might be a hint. Again, nothing.
On impulse, I tried drawing a symbol in Qi on the blade. Strangely enough, the symbol held together for almost a minute before dissipating. But, other than that, it accomplished nothing. It may have been a failure, but it did give me two points toward the next level. Rather than try for success, I tried drawing with Qi again, going through a couple of symbols from the book along with a few I’d seen around the village. Nothing came of it. And, this time I didn’t get any experience points for it. I was stuck.
“Are you still awake?” Mei’s voice startled me and the symbol I’d been drawing got smeared along the blade.
“Is it late?”
“Very.” She consulted her chronograph. “We have about four hours before first light.”
“Thanks for coming to get me. I probably would have kept at this until I realized the sun was up.” My body felt tight, muscles stiff and clenched. My Qi gauge showed I was down to 43 Qi. “I was hoping to turn this piece of shit into something useful before the night was over.”
“Look for yourself.” I handed the blade to her. She took it, her small hands gripping the handle and holding it at eye level. She looked at the sword, then at something just above it, likely a screen telling her that it was a piece of shit.
“This is a piece of shit.” I knew that was going to be her reaction, but I was surprised she would phrase it that way. Maybe Doji was right and she did think of me as a role model?
“Um, Mei.” She looked up at me, frowning. “I think it’s great that you look up to me, but my way of speaking is something you probably shouldn’t imitate.”
“I’ve never been a parent before so I really have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I have some bad habits I’d rather you didn’t pick them up. Not that I’d care, personally, but it might make life more difficult for you. If it was up to me, I’d tell you to do whatever you want. But, if Ren and Ald are considered normal, acting like my might get you killed. So, if you want to imitate me, try to imitate my best qualities. OK?” It all came out in a nervous, uncertain rush. The only thing I could think the whole time was ‘holy shit, I’m really bad at this’. Mei stood there, still frowning, but her eyes had this shocked and bewildered quality to it.
“What I meant was, this sword’s name is ‘a piece of shit’. So, congratulations?” She held the sword out for me to inspect. When I took it the inspection screen opened up.
Name: a piece of shit (Jian Sword)
Qualities: +15 slashing damage, +5 Qi damage
Description: A steel Jian infused with life. Due to the poor craftsmanship, enchantment quality, and demeaning name, this sword cannot grow or awaken to genuine sentience.
“Huh.” I said, trying to think my way through what I’d just learned.
“I don’t consider you a role model, by the way.” Mei asked, breaking my train of thought.
“That’s probably for the best.” My mood was now rock bottom. I hadn’t realized that the thought of being a role model to a child had boosted my mood so much. Or maybe being told I wasn’t as important to someone as I thought just sucks in general. “Thanks for clearing that up. Now I have to dispose of this apparent crime against nature.”
“It’s progress, at least.”
“Then why do I feel like I’ve done something a lot worse than failing?”
“Because it’s the Time of Spirits and you’re still awake. Go, sleep.” I put the sword back in storage and went to bed, Kin already sleeping on my pillow. He’d gotten a lot bigger in two months. He was about the same size as the stuffed foxes I’d seen in the museum as a kid but he told me he was still only half grown. By that estimate, I was betting he’d be coyote sized as an adult. He stirred a bit when I laid down, putting my head on the corner of the pillow he wasn’t occupying. Sleep would do me some good.
“You actually enchanted something? Let me see it.” Ren had barged into my room in the morning with those two sentences. Kin had left my room an hour before, while it was still completely dark outside. If he’d been there, he probably would have barked at Ren for startling him awake. Like all teenagers he was cranky when he woke up. Then again, I was feeling pretty grump myself after the late night and the rude morning awakening.
“This is my room, dammit. Privacy.” I groaned. She kicked the blanket off of me and hauled me roughly to my feet by the front of my shirt. “I’m getting very tired of this, Ren.”
“I don’t care. You made a sword imbued with Qi. I need to see it.”
“Let me save you the trouble. It’s a failure. I have no idea how I did it and the sword itself isn’t particularly valuable.”
“Do you not understand the importance of this? Qi Enchantment is part of what allowed Old Cathay to withstand wars and natural disasters that crushed the other ancient cities. If my Guild revives the craft, we could be credited for saving the Empire. Our names would live on for as long as the Empire does.”
“Who cares?” That off-the-cuff statement hit Ren like a visible slap in the face. She let go of my shirt. “So, some ink-fingered scholars remember our names a hundred years from now. IS that worth my being hauled out of bed and practically assaulted first thing in the morning?”
“I keep forgetting you’re an ignorant outlander.” Ren shook her head in pity, which really pissed me off.
“You know what? That’s it. That’s the last straw. Explain this shit to me now, or I’m not doing a damn thing more for this guild. No cooking, hunting, nothing.”
“You’re in no position to give ultimatums.”
“Really? Because you just told me that I have an impossibly valuable skill. I’d say that gives me some leverage.” I got a notification that my bargaining skill had just jumped up yet another level.
“Why can’t you be a good subordinate and do as you are told?”
“Because I’m a man, not a dog. I signed contract, I didn’t put on a collar. You want me to give you my best effort then I need at least a modicum of respect. Knock before coming into my room, stop tossing me around like a bag of dirty laundry, maybe find me a tutor so I’m not so damn ignorant of everything that’s going on.” Ren growled at me under her breath but let go of my shirt and took half a step back. Grumpy Tad wanted to flip her off and go back to sleep. But I had just made an agreement, even if it was an informal one. “I’ll show you the sword and tell you everything I did. Then I need to start laying out breakfast for the mess hall. Is that alright with you?”
“Of course, your highness. Whatever you need, mighty one.” I didn’t care for the sarcasm, but it was better than being bitchslapped by a were-lion/panther. I put that one in the win column. Not bothering to throw on my Bao coat, I walked over to the workshop and showed her the sword. But, when I was holding it I found out something interesting. The status screen had a large banner over it saying “DECEASED”.
“Well, I guess that resolved itself.”
“You were correct. A dead weapon is worthless. Now, explain what you did. In detail.” I took Ren through the process I’d used, answering her questions where asked. But then she asked something unreasonable of me. “Draw the pattern you put into this sword.”
“How? It was a mistake and it’s gone now.”
“Is it? When water is poured over earth it leaves an impression. If you pour more water in it will likely follow the same pattern.”
“That’s… actually a really helpful idea. Just a second.” I raised my right hand and let Qi flow over the steel blade. Sure enough, like condensation on an uneven surface, the Qi seemed to coalesce into the smeared shape I’d made when Mei interrupted me. It wasn’t visible to Ren so I ended up repeating the process a few times with my left hand and drawing the pattern with my right. It took longer than I’d like to admit, but let’s just say I’m not an artist.
“You have no idea why this worked?”
“If you ask me again I’m going to set this workshop on fire.” I growled at her, Grumpy Tad pushing his way to the fore.
“Well, keep trying. And next time you make progress, tell me yourself. Hearing it from Mei makes me think you’re trying to hide things from me. Now, get yourself cleaned up. You smell like a corpse left in the sun for three days.” I had to fight not to set the room on fire right there. I’d spent weeks being cooperative and understanding of the pressures a guild leader must be under. I’d taken the sleights, jibes, and insults. I’d even put up with the occasional physical abuse. But all things have a limit, my patience not least among those things. Unfortunately, my loss of patience expressed itself through words.
“I can’t wait until you marry Ald Sen.” Her reaction was immediate and violent. To those of you lucky enough to have never been punched in the stomach hard enough to vomit, let me tell you why I’d rather be punched in the face. First, you lose your breath. Next, you get a sense of nausea and that almost painful feeling of abdominal muscle spasm. Then you puke, but it’s worse than that because you already felt like you couldn’t breathe. Then, to add to the indignity of it all, you start choking on the last of the vomit because you’re desperate to take a breath. That’s what happened to me when Ren turned and slugged me in the gut.
When I finally stopped coughing I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and got to my feet. “Anything else you’d like to say to me, outlander?” Ren asked, her now protruding fangs making her words slightly slurred.
“You’re a hateful bitch.” The next punch hit me in the same spot. I had nothing left to puke up so I just dry-heaved for a while. “I would probably like you if you at least made an effort not to be a bitch.” I was only halfway to my feet when her backhanded slap knocked me back down. Even through the remnants of bile I could taste blood in my mouth. I wanted to kick my Qi Circulation into gear and beat the life out of her but the rational, cold-blooded part of my brain vetoed that idea. I'd still get my ass kicked and I might get seriously injured or crippled in the fight.
“Even dumb animals know better than to make the same mistake 3 times. Learn your place and do as I say. Without complaint or question.” Ren said before leaving me to clean my blood and vomit off the workshop floor.
“Now I know Ald Sen is insane. Who the fuck would want to marry that?” I muttered.
“Tad, the morning meal is going to be late if you don’t…” Mei walked in to see me wiping up a puddle of vomit with half of my face starting to swell and bruise. “What’s going on?”
“None of your business. I’ll get breakfast started in a couple minutes after I wash myself.”
“Are you well?” Mei asked, more insistence in her voice this time.
“Not yet. But I will be.” Ren had crossed a line. I wasn’t strong enough to deal with the problem head-on. Not yet. But I was getting stronger and more acclimated to this world every day and in just a few more months I wouldn’t be contractually bound as her subordinate. Patience. I had to have patience.
“Was it Ren?” Mei’s voice actually made me stop for a moment. Was she actually concerned? No, if she was concerned it would be about her position as a member of the Tsu Clan.
“None of your business, Mei. Now let me get this finished so I can get cleaned up and get to work.” Mei didn’t leave right away, but after I started cleaning up the mess again she left the room.
“That’s quite a bruise. How did you say it happened?” Doji asked when I came into the kitchen. He’d already been setting out dishes and plates when I came in, thankfully free of the smell of vomit. But without some kind of medicine, I couldn’t do much about the swelling or the bruises on my stomach and face. Mei had given me a healing charm when she’d raised her level a couple of weeks ago, so I’d be fully healed after a good night’s sleep. Man, what I wouldn’t give for a health-regen ability.
“I tripped over a broom someone left laying around and fell into the wall.”
“Then how did your stomach get so badly bruised?”
“You can see that?”
“Yes. Bruising changes heat patterns in the body.”
“The things I’m learning today. Oh, before I forget. A couple of our members have the Fishing class so we’ll have some fresh fish coming in this afternoon. Roasted fish and vegetables for dinner?”
“That does sound nice, but you didn’t answer my question.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. The Tad shop is all out of answers for the day. Can we interest you in a sarcastic comment?”
“Today must be free sample day.” Doji said dryly. “Are we going hunting after the morning meal is finished?”
“Not today. I have business in the market.”
“May I join you? The merchants here are less than willing to do business with my kind. Something about quick hands and sticky fingers.” I laughed a bit. That reputation wasn’t an exaggeration in the least. An entire building at the edge of town had been disassembled and taken away practically overnight a few weeks ago. It fit the Muranaki motif to a “T”. Stripping common resources to take back to their original world.
“Gee, I wonder where they got that idea.”
“All the same, I still need to be able to barter for certain goods.”
“You can come with me. I know a few merchants who will take your business if I vouch for you. Just don’t complain to me when they rip you off.”
“I would expect nothing less. They exist to separate the unwary and ignorant from their money. It is an honorable trade to practice.” I honestly couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not. From what I’d learned of the Muranaki, they valued victory and success above everything else. Anything was permissible if you obtained your desired outcome. That was probably an exaggeration, but Doji hadn’t exactly defied the stereotype so far.
After making sure the guild members were fed for the morning we armed ourselves and went to the market. The ridiculous increase in the number of pickpockets since the Weystone was installed made me very glad for my magical pack. No one but the owner can take anything out of the pack and it was apparently impossible to cut the straps and run off with it. Of course, you could still kill the owner and take the pack, but goods from previous owners would remain inaccessible.
Doji had to stop several street kids from running off with a small handful of coins from his belt pouch. On the third failed attempt he pulled out a knife and sliced a notch in the ear of one of the pickpockets. The kid bolted as soon as Doji let go of his arm. “Not enjoying the marketplace?” I asked, still unable to read his facial expressions.
“Actually it reminds me of home.” He pointed to his right ear which had a faded scar on it. “A good try, but he needs to learn caution.”
“He needs parents and education in a trade.”
“I can’t give him either of those things, but I could give him a small bit of wisdom.” The Muranaki was wearing a large-brimmed hat to help with the bright light of the sun. Even though he lacked eyes, bright light seemed to bother Doji.
“I would ask about your parents and your childhood, but I’m already depressed just thinking about it.” We moved on to a couple of vendors I knew, picking up spices and staple foods for the kitchen. Then it was on to the things that Doji had come here for: medicinal powders. The primary reason Ren had allowed the Muranaki into the Guild to begin with was due to his skill as a Surgeon. While torn flesh was easily healed by aether-based magic, bones, dislocations, and objects embedded in the body couldn’t be healed like that. A Yishen was someone who could make those more major repairs without killing the patient. The patient would be sent to a magical healer shortly after that to speed up recovery. If none was available, then the Surgeon would rely on medicinal herbs and powders.
“Good afternoon Yi.” I said to the vendor. Yi was an old, matronly woman with narrow eyes and gray hair threaded with strands of black. Her face had a few smile-lines that lent her a kind of harmless aura.
“Good afternoon, Lord Tsu. Always nice to see a clan head making his own purchases.” You might be thinking she was saying that as a term of respect. Nope, she was poking fun at the disparity between my supposed rank and my actual station in life.
“Is it really that fun to tease me?” I asked.
“The highlight of my day, Lord Tsu. And you’ve brought a vassal with you?”
“Oh yes. It is such a joy to serve his lordship.”
“I made a mistake. I made a horrible mistake. Yi, this is Doji. He’s here to buy medicine and surgical tools.”
“Customers are always welcome. Do you know what you’d like?”
“I have a list of things I need to stock to be an effective Surgeon. Do you have-“ they went back and forth for a while on the list of goods, and later on the price of the goods. I got bored and scanned the interior of the small stall shop. A wooden chest with probably a hundred small drawers, each labeled as a kind of medicine with the common treatment purpose written below the name. A case full of sharpened knives with strange curving blades. A chart on the wall showing what looked like the arteries and veins in the human body. But something caught my eye. If they were veins and arteries then why didn’t I see the heart on the left side of the chest? No, there were seven clusters of lines at various points on the body, but with the exception of the head they didn’t correspond to major internal organs.
“Pardon me, but what is that?”
“My Pulse Diagram? Nothing you would be interested in.” Yi said, a bit dismissively as she folded powders into paper pouches and handed them to Doji.
“What’s a Pulse Diagram?”
“A display of the energy flow in the human body.”
“Energy. You mean Qi?”
“Some call it that, yes.”
“How much?” Her eyes widened a bit and she tilted her head. But, like any good merchant she kept her focus on earning coin.
“Three large silver chits.”
“One large silver and five large copper.”
“Two large silver and five large copper.” She countered, still packaging medicine as she haggled with me.
“Two large silver, I can’t afford to go any higher.”
“Two large silver and a free meal.” Yi countered, stepping around the monetary limit I’d set.
“Done and done.” She didn’t know it, but Yi might have just solved my enchanting problem.
Brother, we have a problem. Big, big problem! Kin’s voice sounded in my head, loud enough to make my psychic ears ring. I’d left the fox back at the Guild. What could have possibly gone so terribly wrong that he was shouting at me?