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The exchange was always, always just slightly jarring to walk into. From ‘normal’ medivalish things to basically a mall was odd as hell. There was advertising. There was kind of a food court. There was even a chain. Like, a food chain. ‘Chao Baozi’ a colourful sign proclaimed, with a stylized meatbun on it.

Hells, I had seen one of them in Pale Moon Lake City. Did they have a contract with whatever body governed the exchanges?

Well, they were pretty good. Tingfeng had got some for us last night. High end meat buns. Guaranteed to be all pure ingredients, no fillers, on pain of death.

They took things seriously in that shop.

I shook my head as Big D looked around in interest, while Xiulan’s face was a mask of calm. Lots of people were rubbernecking at her.

Or they were rubbernecking at the dude with the chicken on his shoulder. Might be that one.

We ambled through the colourful flags, and small crowd. Nothing nearly like what there was during the harvest time. It was practically empty at this time of day.

In any case, I had some work to do, and one of the stalls caught my eye. A new one, from the Azure Jade Trading Company. That place was supposed to be really high end. More so than the “Heavenly Furs” place. It was so high end I was actually a little curious what it was doing here of all places. The dude manning the stall looked bored and miserable, so maybe some kind of punishment posting?

He glanced over at us, and did a double take at the sight of Xiulan, staring rather blatantly at her.

He looked away after a moment.

“I’ve got some womanly business to attend to, husband, “ Meimei said, glancing around a little and with a slight flush to her face.

“Senior Sister, I’ll come with you if you wish.” Xiulan offered, and Meimei froze a little.

“That will not be necessary.” She deflected, her blush getting a little bigger. “It's just concerning some fabric, and meeting a friend. I’ll be back soon.”

She was hiding something. Kind of badly hiding something, but I let it go. If she wanted to keep it a secret, that was her business.

“You can come with me if you want.” I offered, and at her nod, we set off for market research.

Selling the novelty that was maple syrup. I started off at the usual haunts. Going through the more standard set of merchants I knew, and things were about as what I expected.

About ten silver coins for the luxury good. Seeing as a 40-kilo rice bag was about 4 silver coins… well, it was still expensive as shit. A couple of the guys didn’t want to take on a new product, either.

To be expected, I suppose. Xiulan stayed pretty quiet the entire time, taking the “your wife is so pretty” comments and stares in stride.

The first guy, I had told him that she wasn’t my wife… and he immediately started hitting on her. So I just kept my mouth shut for the next few. That stopped those conversations dead, though didn’t stop the staring.

Even Big D was getting a bit uncomfortable.

“Is your bird for sale? He’s a beaut, I’ll give ya twenty silver for him!” one of the men said, looking greedily at my rooster’s meaty thighs and plumage.

He had swiftly gone from preening under the attention, to repulsed by the naked greed and near drooling some people did, shooting concerned glances at Xiulan, who bore the brunt of it.

“That is why I asked Xiulan to do what she did.” I whispered. The rooster swiftly dragged his tail out from a questing hand that I absently caught, glaring at the old man who had tried to touch the merchandise. The granny pouted.

“I’ll pay you ten silver per clutch of eggs sired.” She stated bluntly.

No, I wasn’t whoring out my chicken, unless he wanted to be whored out.

I ignored her, and walked away.

“Imagine getting swamped like this every day. Having people coming to the farm to gawk. Offers like that.” I muttered. Big D shuddered slightly.

And this was just a town. In a city it must be even more shit.

“I’m going to check these guys out.” I declared, pointing to the Azure Jade place. Kind of a longshot, but eh, might as well see everywhere.

We moseyed on over, as stall guy was writing something in a ledger. He glanced up at our approach, standing and bowing his head in greeting.

“Greetings, honoured customers, how may this Guan Bo of the Azure Jade Trading Company serve you?” The man straightened up admirably, and put on a smile that actually was kind of charming and pleasant. Not sleazy used car salesman like I was expecting. Still a little bit fake feeling though, probably because I had seen him looking so damn bored.

Now that we were closer to the store, I could see the stuff better, and well, it really was a lot...more than the other stuff around here.

And by more I mean extra as fuck.

It was very xianxia. Gaudy gold, jewels, and even some medicinal pills on display. I saw the prices, and nearly snorted.

Capitalism, ho. The Hongs would run these guys out of town on the prices alone. And ‘efficacious on all mortal maladies?’ it was probably true, but damn did it sound like snake oil.

“I was just browsing your wares, sir. You’re rather new here.” I said as I looked at his stuff, noting the guard who had been hidden just out of view.

“Indeed, I heard good things from some friends, and came to this...lovely little village, honoured customer.” Guan Bo said with a little chuckle.

Oh, yeah, he was lying through his teeth, probably hated it here.

“What other kinds of things do you have here?” I asked, curious. There was quite a lot of stuff out front, but most of it still looked stored away.

Guan Bo puffed up. “We, of the Azure Jade Trading Company, deal in everything of superlative quality in these hills! Allow this Guan Bo to show you one of his finer pieces.”

He swiftly went to the back, drawing out a shimmery, gossamer silk dress. It was rather pretty, but why the hells was he getting that out?

“This is a SkyBlue Forest Silk dress, honoured customers. Such a beautiful jewel should be similarly clad, no?” He asked cheerily, glancing at Xiulan.

Oh. well I suppose thats one reason. Lanlan was in the stuff Meiling had made for her, which was decidedly not shimmery gossamer silk.

Xiulan looked at it once, and then dismissed it. I was a little interested in it though. I mean sure, it was very.. Uh. Xianxia, but that was a nice, tight weave.

“How was this weaved?” I asked, examining it closely.

“I’m afraid the makers have their secrets, honoured customer, but it is made of only the finest Skyblue Silkworms, taken from the top of the trees. This piece alone took five years to craft!” He boasted, but a bit more subduedly now that Xiulan wasn’t looking at it.

Her dress was a bit better than this. And much more suited to combat. It was reinforced in places, while this looked like it would tear pretty easy.

His smile stayed in place, however, as he started getting out other jewelry, some furs, medicine, and even a sword.

Yeah, they were all alright, but they were… well, Azure Hills were weak. I had seen street vendors in Crimson Crucible hawking swords better than the dude in the exchange.

But I wasn’t really here to buy, I was here to sell. So I brought out my own wares. The poor dude looked frustrated, but graciously accepted my maple syrup for appraisal.

He poured a bare drop onto his wrist examining it closely.

He stared for a moment. He stared for a little longer.

He stared.

“You’re supposed to eat it.” I said blandly.

Guan Bo swallowed thickly, and carefully licked up the drop.

His eyes closed, and he exhaled. He turned to me.

“How much were you planning on selling, honoured customer?” he asked quietly.

I brought out the three big jars from the cart I was wheeling around.

His eyes widened.

“And the price?” he questioned me.

Honestly? I didn’t know. It couldn’t be too expensive, it was just maple syrup, but lets see how much this guy thinks it's worth.

“How much do you think? I asked.

“Fifty silver coins per jar?” he questioned, throwing out an outrageous number. Really? Fifty?

I frowned a little.

“Sixty.” he swiftly amended at the frown.

Well, it was something new. If he was Azure Jade Trading, he probably had noble contacts, who would pay through the nose for this....

Xiulan coughed.

“Seventy-five?” he asked hopefully.

Okay, now he's going higher. My sense of honour and fair play warred with the fact that I was going to be ripping off some city-slicker.

Old habits die hard. The farm boy in me was screeching like a monkey at the prospect pulling one over on a yuppie, and Rou’s memories were telling me to drive in a knife and bleed him for all he was worth.

I am not a perfect man.

“I would be content with eighty….” The man winced, “And as sole supplier to a man to such an esteemed trading company, if all goes well.”

The man’s eyes widened at that, and a smile broke out on his face.

“It is an honour and a pleasure doing business with you, honoured customer. We shall draw up a contract post-haste.”

“Tomorrow, to the Palace?” I asked him.

He bowed his head in respect. “As you wish, Sir!”

I did feel a bit guilty at what I had just done. Maybe it was a bit of a dick move, when I was giving sweet deals to the magistrate… but things would probably turn out.

===========================

Guan Bo, safely in the back of the shop, danced and hopped around like a madman.

Guan Bo hated this little town. It was in the ass-end of nowhere. It was cold. The food was too rustic. The people were dullards of the highest order, all dirt farmers and pig breeders. Even the whores were disagreeable, farmers daughters without an ounce of skill at the arts of pleasure.

Little people, living little lives.

He was beginning to doubt the veracity of his informant’s information. A recording crystal selling here, of all places? Mayhaps to the magistrate, but he had not said anything besides inspecting his wares with a raised brow, and then ignoring him.

Now he was hemorrhaging money. Alright, not hemorrhaging, because at least everything was cheap here, but he certainly wasn’t making any money. His wares were too refined and expensive for these people. They came to gawk at his fine things, and then their faces paled, and their eyes bugged out when they saw the prices, fleeing from his store.

The only thing he had sold was a necklace, to one of the ‘noble’ families. Zhuge something or other. Barely worth remembering.

Seize opportunities, Bo! His grandfather and master of the Azure Jade Trading company had declared. And he thought he had seized an opportunity. The man was normally trustworthy, having information on crystal seller’s movements. Apparently the Magistrate had asked for them, but for another man. A man who was apparently in the town quite often.

There were also rumors of pelts of superlative quality, rice of a grade unheard of. But these were quiet things, spoken of in whispers.

No normal man could afford a recording crystal. And if the man was regularly in town then he would most assuredly be able to spend money.

A new market he could tap into, after years of going through the motions, and without any merit to his name.

But it was all for naught. Three months, and nothing.

Until this.

He pumped his arms up in the air. This wasn’t a wasted trip!

Now, to protect the source. It wouldn’t do for any rivals to come sniffing around, after he discovered this silver mine. This would be his. His merit. His way of broadening the Azure Jade Trading Company!

Eighty silver coins per jar was a pricey sum. It was certainly to the Cultivator’s favour. But he had a good feeling about this stuff. The kind of feeling that his grandfather said that he had about certain things.

And none would dare investigate the Azure Jade Trading Company. “Secret sources” were respected by the sects they did business with, lest they suddenly find themselves banned from the Azure Jade company.

He raised a bottle of wine in toast. To the Cultivator, his oddly familiar looking wife, and even to their freckly maid!

====================================

I was really, really glad Big D was so understanding. After his experience in the exchange, of nearly getting mobbed, the crass questions, the lustful looks at Xiulan…

He was very adamant that none of these people knew about the farm. I was honestly impressed he didn’t nearly kill somebody. He was vibrating pretty hard at the end, when Meimei came back with a bunch of fabric.

Back at the Zhuge residence, he had even apologised for being angry at Xiulan, in his own way. Of being upset and jealous.

My chicken was more polite than a lot of people. Which said some awkward things.

In any case, we would probably be leaving, after the contract was signed. I got into our bed beside my wife, who was frowning at a scroll, and sneaking glances at me.

“...Jin?” she asked quietly.

“Yes, love?” I asked.

She looked a bit uncomfortable, but she composed herself.

“Meihua is due very soon, and I know you have to get back to the farm… but could I stay until she gives birth?” She asked, biting her lip.

What was she so nervous about? It would be a little lonely without her, but she was worried about her friend. Besides, If I wanted to see her, I’d come visit.

“Yeah, of course.” I stated simply.

The tension drained out of her body at that statement, her lips quirking into a smile.

“You want me to send Rizzo along? You need some money for living expenses?” I asked.

“Meimei?” I asked, as she was quiet for a moment longer.

She kissed me.

“I don’t need anything else, Jin.” She said with a fond smile.

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