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Zhuge Tingfeng sighed with contentment, and continued eating his lunch. He was greatly enjoying his married life. His wonderful bride was as enthusiastic about their marriage as he was, and he was the envy of all of his colleagues. To have such a beautiful and caring flower coming to visit had earned him many dirty looks, though most were in good humor or jest.

Those that weren’t knew that attempting something was foolhardy, and likely suicidal. Everyone knew that a cultivator had once before brutally chastised a man for daring to express uncouth interest in his Meihua.

They didn’t know that Jin had attended his wedding, and gave him a gift that even now the other clerks desperately wished to have. No silks, or fashions, but rice.

Rice that he got to eat every day, and for every meal, if he so desired.

But Tingfeng was a canny man. To gloat about such a thing would be terribly disrespectful, and Brother Jin seemed to desire a simple life. So he endeavored to do his utmost to keep his peace, and Brother Jin’s privacy. Most simply knew him as a “wandering cultivator” who for some reason decided to make the area his haunt.

Reception was mostly positive as well. Most didn’t know what to make of cultivators. They were either the greatest of heroes or the most wicked of villains, but any man who would defend a woman’s virtue without thinking of repayment was surely a righteous man.

He took another bite of his rice. Some had thought he angered his father, to be eating brown rice instead of polished grains, but the truth was far simpler. Brother Jin had been adamant about consuming brown rice, claiming that it cleaned the bowels of harmful impurities, and when eaten regularly made one resistant to the Quivering Death.

Naturally, he and his family deferred to this wisdom.

It helped that his brown rice tasted better than most white rice he had eaten. Brother Jin’s wedding gift of rice was humble on its first appearance, but like the man himself, it’s depths were vast and unfathomable. He would bet his entire salary that His Imperial Majesty would be pleased with brown rice, if this is what had shown up on his table.

Work was fulfilling, his superiors looked kindly upon him, and his grandfather and father were proud of him. He had good friends, and a good reputation.

Life was good.

///////

For the Lord Magistrate of Verdant Hill, life was not good. His stomach churned, and his eye twitched as he tried to stay calm.

“They what.” He demanded.

“They sent a merchant, Lord Magistrate.” One of his men confirmed. The captain that had been investigating the new “commodity” of extremely high quality rice nodded with him.

“They sent a merchant to the cultivator’s farm. After they bought his rice for Blue Grade Prices, drastically less than what the rice is actually worth.”

“Yes, Lord Magistrate.”

“And what happened to this merchant? I presume the cultivator was angry about this?”

“No, Lord Magistrate, he sold him the rice, at Blue Grade prices. Invited him in for tea and made him lunch, too.”

The Lord Magistrate felt a migraine coming on. He waved his hand, and dismissed the guards.

At first, when the polite young man had bought his land, he thought he was some sort of cripple, who wished to live his life out in peace. He agreed with the sentiment. The Azure Hills were peaceful, beautiful, and safe. Sure, it was a bit of a dead end posting, with no room for advancement, but he was happy here. The Sects didn’t bother them, and he got to be involved in the community. Sure, it was mostly to stroke his own ego, but having the populace genuinely like him did wonders for his self esteem. They treated him like their stern and just patriarch, and that appealed greatly to his sensibilities.

It was a small pond, but it was his pond.

And then the...incident happened. Where this Jin had easily defeated a cultivator in the Profound realm, and had gone so far as to say he was so weak he was an imposter.

He wasn’t. It was a genuine member of the Shrouded Mountain, but he certainly wasn’t going to advertise that piece of information.

So he ordered his men to inform the Shrouded Mountain that it was a wandering cultivator who defeated the boy, like Jin had suggested. It would hopefully prevent them from searching.

When cultivators warred, mortals suffered.

He was glad he did, things ended there, or so he thought. And then his men had mistaken the rice’s classification. He couldn’t entirely blame them for it. None of them had the frame of reference, and few even knew that rice went beyond Blue Grade into Silver, Gold, and Jade. It just didn’t happen in the Azure Hills. Maybe in some of the cultivator compounds, but they didn’t sell that sort of thing out here.

Honestly, he was just waiting for some sort of retribution. He still remembered the verdant grass, and sweet smelling blossoms. The dead wood of houses living again. He stared at his lovely oak desk, and imagined spines ripping free from the surface. He shivered.

He pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose, as he turned to his friend.

“What do you make of this, First Archivist?” he demanded.

First Archivist Bao stroked his chin in thought before answering. “I have met this man, “Rou Jin” as he is on his documents, and I believe that I have taken a measure of his personality. That he decided to accept the price in the first place means that he either did not know the value of his goods... or he did this intentionally.”

“Intentionally?”

“I would gather that he knows of your… interdiction on his behalf, and wishes to provide some manner of recompense.”

The Lord Magistrate mulled it over.

“So… he wishes to reward us for services rendered?” He asked, some measure of hope in his voice.

“And if that was not his intention, he did not strike me as a vengeful man. I heard that he was searching for a recording crystal in the Exchange. Perhaps we could accelerate this search?”

The Lord Magistrate sighed. Why did this one have to be so strange?

“Make it so. But… do it discreetly. You’re sure he won’t destroy Verdant Hill?”

“I would say it would take far more than this for him to become enraged enough to begin to destroy our town. Though I would say to avoid trying his patience. Perhaps he shall only be visited by merchants who know their place, and not men who only see a farmer with good land?”

Some of the roiling in the Lord Magistrate’s stomach ceased. “Yes. Yes, and this may also be a good thing. It seems he will continue to visit Verdant Hill, so it shall be good that we have friendly relations with him. Keep his privacy, and we shall only gain from his patronage.”

“And it would be a shame to lose access to his rice.” the rotund First Archivist said, nodding his head.

The Lord Magistrate nodded, some of the tension bleeding out of his shoulders. “A shame indeed.” he muttered, remembering the taste on his tongue. He had eaten Silver Grade rice once before, during his examinations, when a supremely wealthy merchant had thrown a party for his own son becoming a magistrate. “Very well, we shall accept the rice for what it is, and speak no more of Rou Jin’s generosity. Only be grateful that it is there. Until he moves on, at least.”

The First Archivist shrugged. “He will be here for decades at least, considering he is betrothed to Hong Meiling.”

The tension came back, along with the Lord Magistrate’s headache.

The First Archivist had the grace to look embarrassed. “I hadn’t told you? They are to be wed this spring.”

He slumped forwards onto his desk. Hopefully, things would be uneventful. Hopefully, a river had not just connected his pond to a lake, or worse, an ocean.

His stomach churned unpleasantly.

Otherwise he would be going to an early grave.

//////////

Jin has his name reversed on all of his official documentation, as "Rou Jin" So most people looking for him are looking for "Jin Rou". Which won't stop determined people, but it certainly makes things just that little bit harder.

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