One of the best things about potatoes is how fast they grow. Soon after flowering, the tubers start to grow, and while you have to leave them for a while to get the fully matured potatoes, the young, thin-skinned variety are great too. So I was doing a partial harvest for the fresh young ones, while the rest would grow to their full size and go into the cellars.
We were going to be having a bit of a party, now that Meimei was back home. She had arrived early this morning with Hu Li. Gou Ren’s mother had made good on her promise to come over.
My mind helpfully replayed the warm, happy “I’m home,” as we embraced. She dropped her bags, and we just held each other.
Naturally, the cooking began soon after. Baked. Boiled. Home fries. Hash browns. I hummed as I worked, a big, dumb smile on my face. Ever since Meiling had told me, I had been in a great mood. I was going to be a dad! It was happening!
The nervousness quickly gave way to resolve. Projects were approached with new passion. The start of cushions and a new bed for the kids when they were old enough. I even worked off some of my excess energy by doing more of the training that the other guy used to do. It was a few more punches and kicks, simple things, but… Just in case, yanno?
I still had the dumb grin on my face as I wandered back into the living room, the delicious smell of potatoes coming with me.
“That smells great!” Gou Ren enthused, as Washy started to slap his fins happily on his trough, his eyes gleaming with happiness at the spread.
“It does smell great,” Meimei said warmly, and I froze. She was coming down the stairs, in something that had, until this point, been just a flight of fancy.
Flannel. She was wearing the uniform of the country-dweller from my old home. Red and black cloth. Pants. Let me tell you, it worked very well with her freckles, especially with the top couple of buttons undone—!
A finger reached out to close my mouth, and then her lips pressed into mine. She had a flush on her cheeks, and a sway to her hips, as she walked past me to sit down.
“...you found that drawing?” I asked, a bit embarrassed. Not only had she found them, she had made something off them. Looking closer, it wasn’t flannel, it was silk.
“Yes. And I have a little something for everybody. Clearing up a well pays quite… well,” she said with a smile. “The rest of it is for the household finances.”
...Was I a househusband now? My wife was going out and bringing home the bacon! I chuckled at the thought.
Still, food first. We all tucked in, and the sounds of pleasure filled the house. Meimei was pressed into my side.
These were damn good potatoes. Now all I needed was some yeast, and I would have potato rolls and burgers. I was restraining myself from running and splurging on meat and having a barbecue right this instant.
“...these are much better when cooked.” Xiulan muttered, after she finished making Xiulan noises. Most of us were a dab hand at ignoring those by now, but Hu Li had her head cocked to the side, looking incredibly amused.
“Wait, did you try to eat any of these raw?” I asked, and she flushed slightly.
“....they were pleasantly crunchy, but the taste left much to be desired,” she admitted.
I had a good chuckle at that, and scratched Chunky as he oinked happily, chowing down on the potatoes with relish. Peppa’s were disappearing incredibly quickly.
“Well, don’t make a habit of it. They’re a little bit poisonous raw,” I told her.
Both Meimei and Rizzo perked up at that little revelation.
“No experimenting on making more poisonous potatoes,” I commanded, poking Meiling gently in the side. Both girls pouted, but I could tell the interest from Meiling was more of a joke than any real interest in making poison bomb potatoes.
Soon, the potatoes were consumed, and we all sat around the table, as Meiling handed out her gifts. Gou Ren got a couple more shirts she had made, as his own were looking pretty beaten up. Peppa got a brush set, Rizzo a tiny mortar. Tigger, another little beanbag, as she had destroyed the last one. Washy got a rather nice bowl with a dragon painted on the bottom, which he immediately started admiring. Chunky got a hat. It was a bit of a gag gift, but Meiling didn’t particularly know what to do for him. He chuffed happily anyway, wearing the same hat that courtiers did, and nuzzling Meimei’s side.
I… I got a really, really nice coat. I stared in wonder. The outside was a nice blue colour, but the inside was a damn work of art. It depicted a farm, embroidered carefully into silk. Stylized animals and crops populated the scene. This was almost too nice to wear.
“Lady Wu helped me with it.” Meiling said, a slight blush on her face. “I... Well, I did less than I would have liked,” she mumbled. “Outside is waterproof. I remember you complaining about the rain,” she said, and then turned away with a slight blush on her face.
It was then Xiulan came back down the stairs, also wearing the silk styled to look like flannel.
“...I realise why you wanted me to wear that now.” Meimei muttered while taking in her handiwork.
“Men wear that colour too,” I said absently, before tearing my eyes away.
“...I’ll see what I can do,” she whispered.
I nodded, and went to get dessert. The peach was still good, thankfully, and Meimei’s eyes brightened when she laid eyes on it.
“So, where is Yun Ren, anyway?” I asked, curious, as I started to cut up the Qi peach. I kind of expected him to be here too. At my question, Hu Li rolled her eyes, but still seemed a bit concerned.
“He ran off to Pale Moon Lake City, after he learned that the crystal sellers wouldn’t be down this way for at least a few months, and he’s going up north soon. He wanted to see if he could get a crystal before he left, damn fool boy. Like the journey isn’t a month when you’re making good time.”
I pondered this. I was a bit worried, in the sense that it was easy as hell to get lost here… but Yun Ren was a hunter. I'm sure he would be able to find his way.
“If he doesn’t stick to the road, and goes right over the hills, he could cut it down to probably a week,” I said. Hey, it was something I had thought about. The roads bent and weaved, travelling around the massive hills. If you cut through the mountains instead, you could shave quite a bit of time of the journey.
Hu Li frowned. “Dangerous though,” she grumbled in the tone that all moms seemed to have when they understood something, but they didn’t like it. She huffed, but protested no further.
We each got a slice of peach.
It was the best damn peach I had ever tasted. It would take a few years to get fruit, but these were definitely getting planted.
Hopefully Yun Ren was having as good a time.
Yun Ren gasped, cold air filling his lungs. It was a little hard to breathe this high up, but by the heavens, it was worth it.
He laughed from where he was, on top of the hill, staring out onto the horizon. The snow at the peak crunched under his feet as he shifted his position slightly, holding out his hands, trying to frame this wonderful, wonderful view.
The sprawl of Pale Moon Lake city was still far, far away, but he could see the entire city, as well as the grand, slow curve of Pale Moon Lake. They said the lake was a perfect circle. He couldn’t see the other end of the massive lake, as it stretched too far over the horizon, but from what he could see from here? Yeah, it probably was.
The city was a sparkling wonder, and the farmland that stretched beyond dyed the area in different shades of green. He’d definitely come back this way. That was a view that he needed to capture!
He turned around, looking back at his footsteps. The decision to go over the Cloudrest Ridge wasn’t entirely based on speed. He just wanted the view. Still, it was a rather gentle slope, compared to some of the hills he had run through.
It was a damned inconvenience that the Crystal sellers weren’t coming back for months. And now, he was the furthest away from home he had ever been. But he thought he had enough money for the crystal, and he was out of time. He hoped he could get it, so he would have something to do up north. He wanted to show the village the Sea of Snow, if he went up that far. Or show his relatives up north the things he had seen.
The view from up here was all worth it. The cold, the trouble breathing.
Yun Ren began his descent. He half slid on his ass, and half tumbled down the snowy part, which was rather fun, until he got to the wooded section at the bottom, where it rejoined the road. There were quite a few people out and about, glancing at him occasionally as he jogged past carts. He was gaping, his mouth wide in a smile, and his eyes wide open as he took it in.
The city had long since sprawled out, past its defensible walls and into the countryside. While the main avenue was clear, it was flanked on either side by ramshackle buildings that extended for at least several tens of li in every direction.
It was said that this city housed a million souls. Yun Ren could believe it. There were just so many people it was almost overwhelming. Shouts of men hawking their wares, the sounds of cooking, and the rather unpleasant smells coming from the gutters. He went from the higglety-pigglety ramshackle buildings to the “actual” city, where the streets were more organised. This section reminded him of Verdant Hill, more or less. There were guards checking carts, and looking bored out of their skulls.
Yun Ren wondered if he was going to be stopped. He idly noticed one of the guards perk up and notice him, beginning to walk his way— when he was intercepted by another guard, who began shaking his head.
He wondered what that was about. Shrugging, he moseyed on over to the guards anyway.
“How's it goin’ today, boys? A hot one, ain't it?” he said with a smile on his face, and the one guard stiffened.
“Indeed it is, sir,” he said politely. His partner stared straight ahead, and a bead of sweat dripped down his forehead.
“Now, if ya don’t mind me askin’, do either of you know where Mengde’s Crystal trader is?” he asked politely.
“The main office is in the center of the city, sir. Left side of the central district, as you enter.” The answer was prompt and rehearsed.
Yun Ren nodded. Should be easy enough to find.
“Thanks for the directions. Don’t work too hard now,” he joked.
“Yes, Sir,” the guard said, and both clasped their fists in front of them, bowing slightly.
… they made ‘em weird in the city. Polite, but a bit strange.
Yun Ren shrugged it off, and continued, wandering into the vast city It took nearly an hour, at walking pace, to get to the middle. The avenues widened even further, even as there were less people crowding the streets. And the people who were out and about were all in fine silk clothing, and the ladies even had umbrellas, with trains of serving girls trailing along behind.
Yun Ren felt very out of place. He even got a bit nervous, as he approached the “central district” with the fully armed and armoured guards standing just outside, on either side of the gate.
They didn't even look at him as he entered. He quickly found what he was looking for.
Mengde’s was a rather large stone building, with massive pillars holding it up, carvings all over it, and a walkway absolutely lined with light crystals. There was even a fountain, a blue gem sparkling conspicuously, and pouring water out from the top constantly into a basin.
Yun Ren swallowed at the display of obscene wealth. How the hells did the Lord Magistrate have enough pull to get these guys to send out a caravan to Verdant Hill of all places.
He shook his head, and approached the doors. There were a couple of other people milling about. Some of the more noble looking people, and a bunch of people in big, thick coats with giant gloves and hoods that hid most of their faces.
He got in without much trouble, though. It appeared that most of the people who populated this store wore the giant hooded coats. There were glass cabinets, and those were filled with crystals of all shapes and sizes.
He... he honestly didn’t know the etiquette here. Did he just walk up and ask? Well, it never hurt to try.
He approached one of the few people who weren’t occupied with other customers.
He had his hood down, with a pair of goggles, and what looked like a mask that could be drawn up over the lower half of his face.
His eyes flicked to a slightly vibrating crystal as Yun Ren approached, and then back to Yun Ren, before he stood up straighter.
“Welcome, Honoured Customer, to Mengde’s Crystal Emporium. How may we aid you today?” He bowed politely.
Yun put on a winning smile and leaned up against the counter. “I was wondering what kind of recording crystals you’ve got,” he asked.
The man froze, and immediately grimaced.
“I apologise, Honoured Customer, but due to the closeness of the Dueling Peaks Tournament, every recording crystal we currently have is reserved, or has already been sold.”
Yun Ren’s jaw dropped.
“However, in a few months, our stock will be replenished. I apologise profusely for the inconvenience.” The man tried to sound like this was something minor, but he seemed a bit nervous.
“...like, every recording crystal?” he asked.
Yun Ren groaned. Man, what a wasted trip.
“Well, thanks anyway.” Yun Ren sighed, giving the man a smile. Wasn’t his fault. The man stopped looking so ill and tense. Probably got all the rich bastards and cultivators yelling or something if they were inconvenienced. That had to suck.
“...is there any other way we could aid you, to make up for the inconvenience?” the clerk guy asked.
Yun Ren thought on it.
Well, if he couldn’t get a recording crystal, he could see if he could see something cool.
“Could I see one of the crystals being cut?” he asked. The clerk seemed a bit surprised.
“You wish to see our craft?” he asked, and slowly a smile spread across his face. “I have to ask my superior, but such a thing can be arranged, I am sure. The nobility sometimes asks for such a thing...”
It didn’t take long. The clerk talked to somebody, and got a nod in return.
Yun Ren was led into a back room. It was more a warehouse than anything, with a bunch of desks, and a bunch of hooded people carefully working with files and scrapers, and all sorts of tools.
“As you can see, while some crystals may be used immediately, fresh from the ground, most require some work to be fully effective,” the man explained, pointing to a fire crystal that certainly didn’t look like any fire crystal that had been described. It had bits of rock attached to it, and had irregular spikes. “This is especially true in the Azure hills. The crystals here are less potent, and have a tendency to be divergent, or have broken, shapes. However, the Mengde clan’s artisans train for decades in order to be able to coax the most out of our crystals, lest they crack, explode, or do all sorts of... unfortunate things.”
“While we do have our own mines, in a secret location, we often receive commissions from cultivators, or have them sold to us by ordinary miners.”
Yun Ren nodded along, his eyes travelling around with interest. There were about thirty desks in here, often with strange geometric formations drawn around them.
Something caught his eye. Something the same colour as Jin’s recording crystal.
He frowned at it. “...is that one of the reserved ones?” he asked. The man startled, and glanced over at the desk.
“Ah, no, that's one of our apprentices’. That crystal was unsuited for proper refinement, so she was given it to hone her craft. One can expect little from this one..”
Yun Ren frowned. He just wanted something, and the thing the person was holding seemed interesting. He wandered off the path to take a closer look, the man aborting a protest.
“Morning!” Yun Ren greeted, and the masked, goggled, and hooded girl let out a surprised “eep!”, stopping her study of the crystal in front of her.
It was a flat rectangle of blue crystal, translucent.
“When you mean defective, what does that mean? Does it still work? Can you still get images out of it?” Yun Ren asked, holding the inch-thick sheet of crystal up to his eye.
“It doesn’t work properly, sir—” the clerk tried again. But was cut off by a quiet voice.
“Um… that piece should be able to capture images…” the woman interrupted . “It would be images only, however. And it’s far, far less durable than a normal crystal.” She fidgeted, and looked up at him. Her confidence failed. “...I think, at least.”
Honestly? To Yun Ren, that sounded fine. He focused on the crystal. It didn’t float like Jin’s did, but he could feel kind of the same sensations.
There was a crystal chime sound. Yun Ren grinned, as pale, ghostly light projected out of the piece of crystal. It showed his own amused face, and the nervous looking clerk.
Pretty good image quality. It was less than Jin’s but hells, he would take anything at this point.
“This is perfect! Exactly what I need!” he declared. The hooded woman perked up in shock. She slowly pulled down her hood, and pulled off her goggles, staring at him hopefully. With wide, dark eyes. She looked a bit like an owl, with how ruffled her hair was from the hood.
“How much would something like this be?” he asked cheerily.
“... we were not intending to sell this piece... But... If you wish to purchase it, we may be able to come to an arrangement…”
The man said a price.
Yun Ren grinned, and, in his mind, danced happily.
He took an image of himself, the clerk, and the woman who made it. The clerk had a charming smile on his face, while the owl-ish girl was still looking a bit confused and shocked, never thinking that she would have already sold something useful. She was barely five years into training.
Yun Ren practically skipped out of the shop. He was so happy that he nearly ran into somebody, barely managing to dodge around a man in fine robes who looked rather irritated.
“Sorry!” he apologised, as he kept running. Man, what should he look at first. The strange still Elder Hong had mentioned? Or would he climb that tower for a better view of Pale Moon Lake?
I smiled again at my new coat, as I got ready for bed. Today had been a fantastic one. Meimei home, hanging out with Hu Li, and just chilling the day away. Gou Ren and his mom were out camping together. Going to look up at the stars from the top of one of the hills in the back.
I stretched, and finished changing into an old shirt. I was looking forward to cuddling again.
“Jin.” Meimei’s voice had a slight quaver to it, as she came into our room. Slightly seductive, but tinged with embarrassment.
I turned around, and was rendered speechless.
One hand was on a hip, framed by a high cut garment. Her face was a little red, but she did look confident.
Two felted rabbit ears stuck straight up.Praise the heavens.