“So, everything looks fine with the crystal master?” I asked Noodle, coiled around my arm as he was. Big D and Yin had gone off somewhere today to explore the city, so it was just me and the long green man. All of them had been unconcerned when I came back to the inn in the morning, but they got an apology anyway. Getting wasted and having to crash somewhere else and then not sending word of it was a bit rude.
‘Yesss, it is as you suggested. I simply asked him, and he answered. He said he knows a Spirit Beast, and that we shall understand when we meet Master Gen.’
“Well, it should be cool to meet somebody else,” I mused, as we ventured through the streets, heading back to the Azure Jade Trading Company with my cart. They wanted to store it on site, so I went and got it for them.
Guan Bo was already up and about, organising a team of ten oxes. The man looked a little ill from last night's celebration. I was surprised he was up already, after how much he had drunk last night, but he seemed to be working through it.
Guan Bo was directing a flurry of activity and hadn’t noticed my arrival. “Yo!” I called out. The man turned at my voice, putting on a smile… when he paled at the sight of me carrying the load.
“Master Jin!” he yelped. He gawped and opened his mouth to say something but seemed to think better of it, closed his mouth and bowed instead. “Thank you very much, Master Jin. We were just preparing to collect the rest of your goods.” The rest of the milling men had stopped to stare as well.
“I was headed in that direction anyway.” I shrugged, setting down the cart. “So how's this trip to the Forge District going to work?” I asked.
Guan Bo bowed again as the men who had been staring at me with wide eyes snapped out of their stupor, and started arranging the oxes to take the load.
“Master Jin, I will be taking the lead. We will be accompanied by three accountants of our household. As you expressed a desire to inspect the goods at their source, the Foremen and Forgemasters have been informed of your impending arrival, so we may proceed at your leisure.”
It was a little weird to have everyone waiting on me, but I nodded. Guan Bo gestured to his right, and a few waiting bodyguards settled into loose formation around us.
It was still fairly early in the morning, so the streets weren’t completely packed yet, but there were still enough people out gawking at the armoured guards. They wore a thick coat of interlocking plates, and carried long spears and swords, but had no helmet, instead a cloth headband. The Pale Moon Lake City Guards gave us nods as we walked past checkpoints, the buzzers rattling as we got close. We were headed for the outskirts of the city, to where one of the many rivers forked off Pale Moon Lake. There was a giant stone divider, and a massive, open gate that indicated the entrance.
I looked around with no small amount of wonder, as we entered the forge district. Yao Che’s small forge was impressive enough, as were the ones in Verdant Hill.
But this? This was industry. Great furnaces pumped smoke into the air, and drop hammers, too large and expensive to use near Verdant Hill, swung down in with thunderous booms.
Hundreds of men toiled, pumping bellows, grinding metal, and feeding the vast furnaces. Even through the wood smog and pollution obscuring the district, it was impressive as hell.
‘Thissss is amazing,’ Noodle whispered, as he stared around in wonder. ‘The lassst we were here, we gave little attention to this place. I am glad we have this opportunity.’
Guan Bo spoke up and announced, “The first destination will be Copper Hands. As you said, you are looking primarily for purity, so we have the best of the best arranged for you. Master Hu’s family has the purest copper in the entirety of the Azure Hills, with their finest grade being ninety eight percent pure.”
“Lead the way, Guan Bo,” I declared. The man nodded, and led the way to a large stone building. Guan Bo wasn’t joking about having people wait for me. We were received swiftly by a servant who led us to the meeting room. An old, stern looking man whose face was cragged and wrinkled greeted us, kneeling on a cushion in front of a line of his apprentices. He looked like a stereotypical old master blacksmith.
“This Tong Hu greets the esteemed son of the Azure Jade Trading Company and the Master Cultivator,” he said bowing low.
I returned his greeting, as he waved an apprentice dressed to the nines in expensive silk as well over. The man carried in a tray of three small copper bars on a lacquered wooden plank. The apprentice presented the bars to us bowing low.
“Ninety-nine percent pure, on my, and my family’s honour. Only the finest for the Master Cultivator,” Tong Hu said. “May the heavens strike me down if this is a lie, Master Cultivator. This is the finest copper in the city, refined using techniques my family has practiced for generations.”
It certainly looked right, the warm reddish orange hue. I think that was pretty much good enough, and god damn fantastic for people using these old tools. Seriously, ninety nine percent? Cultivators could probably get pure elemental copper fairly easily...
I frowned. Could you put copper through a pill furnace? It would certainly make things easier. I shook my head putting the thought aside, and picked up a piece of copper. I currently had no real way of knowing if he was telling the truth—
Ninety nine point one percent pure popped into my head. I froze at the realization. Like with the wheat, things had gone a little bit wonky. I could feel that there were slight traces of other elements too. Some iron, it seemed like, and a bit of oxides, but there wasn’t any lead. I shook my head, looking back up at the forge master. His face was pale, and a dribble of sweat ran down his face. I blinked at the sudden tension in the room.
“This should work,” I said, and the man let out a breath, the tension abruptly dropping out of him.
“Very good, Master Cultivator. How much of our metal do you require?”
I looked at the bars on the tray before me, and then took out my own notebook. Maintiao considered the offerings, before whispering in my ear. He wasn’t the best at metal, but he was definitely better than me, at least. Guan Bo froze in a comic horror as Noodle slithered away from me to tap his tail on the proper figure. The rest of the room just stared incredulously.
“About twenty of these,” I said simply. Noodle returned to his place and Tong Hu closed his open mouth then bowed.
“It shall be as you command, Master Cultivator,” I turned to Guan Bo, who nodded hesitantly, recovered from his shock.
“Thank you for your time, Master Tong. I, Guan Bo, shall discuss with you the price.”
I sat back, content to let the person who knew what he was doing haggle for me.
The day went pretty well. Honestly, better than I hoped. I tried not to enjoy the privilege of just getting to walk to the front of the line, and talk to whoever was in charge too much, but yeah, it was nice.
Then I also got to just throw Guan Bo at people. Behold, my overpowered technique, delegation.
Guan Bo smiled, as he secured another deal, this time for the lead free flux, the substance that made metals more liquid and let them expel impurities. Then we headed off to our next destination.
With the sudden windfall I had, I had decided to kind of double dip on the pipes for the still. I took some of the copper to an artisan, some big shot guy in the city, and gave him the designs to make the pipes. His eyes gleamed with interest, and he was quite accommodating, when I asked if I could watch… mostly so I could see what he was doing, and try it again with Yao Che at home.
If it worked out, we had two stills, and Hong Yaowu got their own. If it didn’t? Well, at least we tried.
At the Glassmakers, however, I got an amusing treat.
‘Tch. look at them. Their technique is all wrong!’
To say Noodle was unimpressed by their showing was an understatement.
‘Look at how many hours that polishing will take, if you do it like that!’ he hissed. ‘Oh, if my master could see these men, he would weep bitter tears for his craft, and jump from joy at the opportunity!’
“…Master Jin, your… companion knows of glassmaking?” Guan Bo asked. He looked a bit light-headed and was pinching his finger, staring at the snake.
“Yeah. Noodle is pretty great at this sort of thing.”
‘Miantiao?’ Guan Bo mouthed the name incredulously.
I personally couldn’t tell you what skilled glassmaking looked like. They had blown a glass cylinder, and then cut it in half, unrolling it and laying it against an iron work surface to cool. It was fairly clear—Miantiao had only good things to say about the quality of the sand, and the bulk order was cheap but unwieldy. Many others were grinding away at the slightly warped surface, carefully cleaning, and making it as clear as they could, despite the slight ripples in the end product.
It was long, labour intensive work. And for some reason it seemed off to me. Wasn’t there something about floating the glass? On liquid metal or something? I think that's how we did it back in the before, but I had no idea if the idea was even viable here.
I’d bring it up to Noodle later.
It turned into a tour of the entire area. It was nice, aside from the occasional itching in my back.
Felt a bit like somebody was watching me, but nobody ever came out to say hello.
So I kept a bit of an eye out, but… nothing out of the ordinary happened.
Well, nothing until I got an invitation to dinner from Chyou, Guan Bo’s sister.
Huh, she had found those books rather fast.
Two men skulked in an alleyway, their eyes focused on the man as he greeted the beautiful daughter of the Azure Jade Trading Company, Guan Chyou. The woman had spent all day with doctors and scholars, asking about medical books from what they had gathered.
“Are you sure?” the younger of the two watchers asked his partner. His costume was ragged, as if he was a pauper, but his accent gave him away as being higher class. The older one was dressed just as shabbily in mismatched rags. If you saw them on the street you wouldn’t look twice. Unless of course you looked closely enough to see a set of matching plum blossom pins hidden in the folds of their rags.
“Did you not see the caravan he pulled in? He's a cultivator. And he matches the description.” The elder observer declared, his sharp eyes taking in the two as they conversed briefly.
“The name is spelled completely differently,” the younger said, referring to the records at the inn.
“Yes, this is true. However, Master Scribe said he would rather be interrupted with a lead that turns out to be useless, than to let his search be stymied by something we found that we thought was useless,” the elder chastised.
“As you say, Senior Brother.”
“Now, let us go. We know where he is going to be, did you see that pearl of a woman? He’ll be there all night. Let us leave him to his fun. If he is who we are looking for, Master Scribe decreed he will tolerate no insult to his person.”
“Back to the headquarters. We’ll make our report.”
The two shadowy forms departed.