“Me next! Me next!” A woman exclaimed, her eyes wide and eager.
“Of course, my lady! Which background would you like?” Yun Ren said in what he probably thought was a suave voice.
It took all Gou Ren had not to snort.
Gou Ren kept his face carefully blank though as he held up two boards, full of images. It was supposed to be a day of exploring, with Tigu gone at the “Hill of Torment” and Xiulan resting at her sect.
Instead, his brother had talked Gou Ren into helping with a new business venture. Something Yun Ren had been up late at night preparing for.
The first time Yun Ren had sold his images, it had been a quick sale. He approached a person on the street, and offered. Which was all well and good, but it was an annoying way to do business.
His brother grinned as a flash of light came from his hands and crystal.
“There you are, my lady, a beautiful portrait for a beautiful woman,” he said cheerfully. The crowd gasped as he turned around the image, cast onto the piece of stone.
Well, it was two images. A landscape and then a second overlayed on top of that, so she looked like she was sitting in a field of flowers.
Let it never be said his brother was unimaginative, or slow to exploit an opportunity to make money.
The heavy coins clinked into Yun Ren’s hand as more people crowded around begging to be next.
Gou Ren kept an eye on his brother. He could see the sweat on his forehead, and he was shaky on his feet, so he was almost certainly overdoing it.
But he was beaming and his eyes were bright with joy. He wasn’t even counting the money anymore, just depositing the coins into the safe beside him, so he would work on the next image. He was already searching for his next customer when Gou Ren loudly cleared his throat.
“I must apologize, dear customers, but the Image Master needs his rest.” He pitched his voice so it could be heard, booming out over the clamouring crowd. Everybody startled at the sound, even Yun Ren, who seemed to notice his shaking hands. He flushed, on realising how inattentive he had been to his reserves.
“One more!” Yun Ren declared, and the crowd cheered. “You sir!” he said, pointing to a young man a bit further back. “How about you? You’ve been here a while!”
The young man, a boy really, not that Gou Ren could talk, came forward a bit awkwardly. Gou Ren winced when he noticed the crutches and his limp leg. His clothes were of fine quality, and he had short, slightly wavy hair. He almost looked a bit familiar. Had Gou Ren seen him before?
His brother however, just nodded, as the boy selected a background. A few flashes of light, and the boy was sitting atop Cloudrest Peak, with Pale Moon Lake City stretching out behind him. His grin brightened, and he bowed.
The crowd grumbled at the attraction closing, but nobody actually got pushy. They all obligingly dispersed.
Gou Ren helped his brother clean up. “I wonder how Tigu is doing?” Yun Ren asked absently, as he picked up some more of the stone slabs. They were actually from the Verdant Blade Sect. The Disciples had to punch through them as part of their training, or so An Ran had said. They had given Yun Ren a set when he had asked earlier in the morning.
Tigu had easily put her fist through an entire stack before they had left to set up, just to see what the training was like, before leaving with Ri Zu.
“She's either having a lot of fun—or that hill is going to be littered with statues of naked Jin,” Gou Ren snarked, as he picked up one of the other signs.
His brother burst out laughing. “Really, she still does that?!”
Gou Ren shrugged. “She mostly puts pants on them now. I nearly pissed myself when I hopped onto a big rock out back and came face to face with Jin’s bits.”
His brother kept laughing.
They finished cleaning up, though his brother was still a little unsteady on his feet.
“I actually think I’m gonna take a nap or something,” Yun Ren sighed. “That was a bit more intense than I thought it would be. The auction is soon, right?”
“A few hours still.”
“I’ll go and see if Lanlan is out of her meeting then. She looked a bit annoyed.”
Gou Ren grimaced. She had been smiling like Meimei did when she was in a particularly vicious mood after a servant had called her up to the Elders. At the gate when they were about to leave, they had offered to wait for her but she had waved them off. “I’ll take this stuff then—don’t look at me like that, I’m good to carry it. You, however, can take some of my load for me.”
Gou Ren’s hand jerked up, as he caught a bag full of coins.
“Thanks for holdin’ the signs, yeah?”
Gou Ren rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t need to be this much.”
“Ladidadida, can’t hear you, too tired,” his brother sang as he walked away, carrying his signs with him.
Gou Ren sighed and started walking, picking a random direction. The entire place was bustling. There were tons of people on the street headed into packed teahouses. He had some time to kill, so he wandered around for a bit. He checked out some more of the stalls grimacing at the prices.
He’d never complain that Yao Che was being stingy with his prices ever again. Sure, the engraved hammer he’d been looking at was pretty, but if he wanted it all done up he’d just buy a normal one and ask Tigu to engrave it.
He grabbed a bite to eat, and kept up his pace, when something caught his eye. The boy with crutches who had bought the image from Yun Ren had tripped; he had dropped the stone tablet. The stone wasn’t broken, but the boy’s face was twisted into a grimace. No one moved to help him, stepping around him without a second glance.
Gou Ren frowned at everybody passing the kid by, before heading over.
“You need some help?” he asked.
The boy startled at the sound of Gou Ren’s voice, looked up at his proffered hand.
He stared at it, almost suspiciously, before reaching out and allowing Gou Ren to lift him to his feet.
“Thanks,” he mumbled, glaring at his limp leg.
“No trouble. The stone is a bit heavy, especially with one hand, yeah?” The boy nodded reluctantly in agreement, it looked like the admission pained him. “How about you tell me where you’re going, and I’ll bring it along for you?”
The boy’s eyes narrowed and his mouth set in a firm line.
“I don’t need pity,” he said, more to himself than Gou Ren it seemed. Gou Ren considered just leaving it, but the kid was probably around thirteen or so. He remembered being that age and how it felt.
“Of course you don’t, honoured customer,” Gou Ren said. “Just offering to help out, yeah?”
The boy mulled his offer over a moment, and nodded in agreement before looking away.
Sheesh, the kid had some pride, he thought.
They set off towards where the cultivator houses were. It was a silent journey with the boy not offering to speak to Gou at all. Gou Ren kept pace with the quiet boy, who kept sneaking glances at him while pretending to look straight ahead..
Eventually, the boy spoke.
“This is far enough.” He bit his lip and looked to the side. “Thank you, sir. What did you say your name was?
“Xong Gou Ren, yourself?”
The boy nodded his head. “Bowu.” The boy’s lips quirked into a smile. “And fear not! This Young Master shall repay you a hundredfold.”
Gou Ren rolled his eyes, at the boy’s earnest grin.
“Yeah, yeah. Have a good day, kid,” he said, waving him away, and setting off.
He paused, and turned around, looking at the open door as the boy hobbled inside. He reached into his pocket, and took out the piece of paper Xianghua had given him.
The symbol on the door matched.
Gou Ren shook his head. Things weren’t that much of a coincidence, were they?
He glanced up at the sun and set off again. It was time to go to an auction.
“And this piece is sold! We thank the Framed Sun Sect for their patronage!” The older woman standing at the front of the room intoned. The woman wore traditional fare for a merchant. She had red hair touched by grey that was put up in a carefully tied knot. Her expressive eyes had some wrinkles but despite the signs of age she looked quite beautiful.
“For the next piece, we have five Initiate earth-element pills! Refined in Yellow Rock Plateau!” she yelled out. There were noises of interest from around the room.
Xiulan sat primly in her seat, as she watched the proceedings from the second level reserved for the sects. The rest of the Elders were in their positions, but they were off to the side, in a more open area. Beside her both Junior Brother Gou Ren and Yun Ren sat looking mostly bored at the proceedings.
“Is this it?” Gou Ren asked, frowning. “It’s just a bunch of those “cores”, some grass, and pills. Ain’t there supposed to be like… heavens shaking treasures or something?”
They had been quite excited at the start, but their enthusiasm had waned as the proceedings went on. Xiulan privately thought they had heard a few too many stories, but she could not blame them. They were still farm boys.
“If there were heavens shaking treasures at every auction, I think the heavens would fall down,” Xiulan said. The brothers let out snorts of laughter. “It is a fairly normal auction, all told. Some things are useful for us, some things we do not need. And normally, ‘heavens shaking treasures’ come at the end anyway.”
The brothers nodded.
The pills were sold after a brief bidding war, the losers glaring at the winners, and the room dimmed slightly.
“Now, we have come to the moment you have all been waiting for. We originally had another item for you today, but this just came in, and we, the Azure Jade Trading Company, could not help but share it!”
She held up a jade slip, with the symbol of the Azure Jade trading company on it.
“We would not normally auction off objects without first presenting them to you, but we are the Azure Jade Trading Company! We swear upon our honour, we will deliver these items without fail!”
There was more murmuring as the crowd speculated.
The woman paused, letting the moment settle. “We, the Azure Trading company, present to you esteemed customers five bags of Gold Grade Rice. Received from an esteemed patron of our illustrious company. We would like to offer you the first bags of gold grade rice to grace this province in a thousand years!”
The murmuring ceased. Eyes sharpened.
“The bidding begins at two hundred and fifty silver coins!”
Hands went up. The woman smiled, showing teeth.
The Xong Brothers glanced at each other.
“Rice?” Gou Ren asked, confused.
Hands kept launching up. Noble mortals battled with Sect Masters.
Yun Ren’s eyes opened completely as the price kept going up. “That's some expensive rice. Bet it's not as good as Jin’s.”
Gou Ren shook his head. “No bet!”
“Kind of a wash, eh?” he muttered to his brother.
“Yeah. I dunno what I expected,” Yun Ren muttered, as they waited at the gate for Tigu to return.
Only a few people were actually waiting at the gate. Xiulan was waiting with them, along with a few other people. It was surprisingly empty.
Gou Ren squinted into the darkness, the sun having long since set—
“Hey, I think I see them!” His brother perked up.
At the front of the procession was a flash of orange hair, the giant smile on Tigu’s face plainly noticeable. Gou Ren raised his hand to wave.
Then he saw the people behind her.
Xiulan’s students, along with two people he didn’t know, trudged along.
In contrast to the smiling, orange-haired girl, the rest of them looked exhausted and sweaty, with minor wounds and bandages covering their bodies. Li and An Ran looked vaguely traumatized.
Gou Ren raised an eyebrow at Tigu, and the makeshift basket full of odd, black… He squinted.
They looked like enormous spider legs.
“We found a nest! And they taste good! It was great!” Tigu enthused. She shoved a goopy leg into his hand.
Gou Ren stared blankly at it.
At least she hadn’t set it outside his door.