Grandpa Shan, auntie and I were in her carriage and were on our way to the Heaven Dou Empire capital. We left yesterday from the foot of the mountain where aunt Yuehua's guards were waiting for her, and as someone with deep ties to the nobility of the capital, it was in a lot of people's best interests to keep her safe—the sect more so. Auntie had eight people in her entourage, four Spirit Grandmasters, two Spirit Elders, and another two Spirit Kings. The four grandmasters were employed by the various spirit master families she associates with, while the other four were from the Clear Sky's outer sect—the ones who didn't inherit the Clear Sky Hammer.
"Little Jin," said aunt Yuehua, "please sit down."
I settled back into the too soft cushion and felt every freakin' bump on the goddamn road. It was unsettling to ride something so… rickety, when I could run way faster and more comfortable than this. "I'm not very fond of carriages," I said.
"And I suppose grandpa Shan carried you all the way to Star Dou Forest when you went?"
Grandpa Shan met my eyes. "It was the most efficient way to do so," I said.
"But not everyone can run a span of eight hundred Li in a few hours," she said.
I leaned in close to her, she smelled of jasmines and warm Sunday mornings, then whispered, "And not everyone has a Titled Douluo for a father." I stepped back and laughed in my haughtiest spoiled brat impression.
Still though, I had a few ideas on how to improve our ride. Something like a suspension system or some inflatable wheels, but the difficulty there lied in however the hell I'd pass off my knowledge without arousing suspicion, as well as manufacturing the goods. I knew metalworking existed here from the various fixtures that decorated our home and this carriage, but the techniques for making the materials I'd need I'd have to figure out somehow.
An extra big bump threw me up off my seat, and auntie and grandpa laughed. I sighed and sat back down, straightening out my robes. Judging from that, this carriage probably has a solid axle, and I bet I'd make a fortune just trying to recreate the shit I can remember from my past life. Things like a leaf spring suspension, hydraulic tubes for heaavy lifting, hell, even something like a hedge fund or life insurance plans might even work here.
Someone knocked on the carriage door, and auntie opened a little window, showing a middle-aged man's bearded face.
"Lady Yuehua," said uncle Geng Wei, "we should be able to reach Riverstone village by sundown at this pace."
"No need to rush, Geng Wei," she said, "we're in good company."
"Understood, lady Yuehua." He excused himself and auntie closed the window again.
Neither I nor grandpa Shan were very fond of small talk, and after aunt Yuehua had exhausted her more interesting stories, the inside of the carriage fell into a stale silence. It was times like these when I missed the smaller comforts of life, like shitty radios or 4G internet streaming.
For lack of anything better to do, I brought my hands up in front of me and started concentrating spirit power out of my palms and forming it into a ball, generating a faint condensation of yellow light.
I looked up and saw grandpa Shan watching me with glazed eyes, then turned to auntie who pursed her lips.
"Why don't you cultivate," she said. "There's no harm in doing so."
I shrugged. "I'm still a few ways away from the sixteenth rank," I said. "Even if I skip cultivating one day, it wouldn't make much of a difference."
She looked at grandpa Shan. "I agree with little Jin," he said. "His progress is already good at still so young, having him always cultivating would make his foundation easy to shake. If possible, I'd rather he go through adversity, or barring that, to keep on exchanging pointers with his peers. At least until his body develops."
"And there you have it dearest aunt," I said—then emptied a full fifth of my spirit power into my hands and the ethereal ball became a near solid light. The power was pushing my hands apart but I kept it together through sheer force, like pushing two magnets into each other. It was starting to hum.
Auntie scooted closer to grandpa. "That looks a little dangerous, dearest nephew."
"Sorry auntie," I said. I opened my Domain over my hands and reabsorbed my spirit power, but part of it bled out and I was only able to reclaim half of what I'd spent. I then brought both legs up to sit in the lotus position over the cushions and opened Pranus Core. "I think I'll just follow what you said and cultivate instead."
She scooted back next to me and ruffled my hair. "Thank you, dearest nephew," she said. "If you'd like, auntie can keep you in her arms so you don't fall over like earlier."
It was a very tempting offer.
"No, little Jin," said grandpa Shan. "Sit next to me instead, I'd like to see how you circulate your energy."
Auntie tilted her head at him and said, "What for?"
I looked up at grandpa as well, before turning to auntie. "No one ever taught me how to cultivate."
Aunt Yuehua was a lady with a depth like the sea, but to see her so bewildered was a sight I never knew possible. She looked at me like I were a tiny talking duck: utterly ridiculous. "What?"
"He's right," said grandpa Shan. "I was out one morning then I happened upon him lying amongst the flowers already wearing his Crown and cultivating all on his own."
Though in hindsight, I probably should have lied about this or something. Maybe blamed it on watching my cousins. Saying I got it from awakening my Crown could be an invitation for trouble.
"How come I was never told of this?" she said, turning to me.
I now knew what deer felt like just before a car hit. "No one ever asked," I said.
Auntie's imposing demeanor just now seemed to deflate with her slumping against the back rest. "Of course," she said with a terse smile. "That's definitely in character for you."
"Come on little one," grandpa said, patting the spot next to him.
He had me sit with my back facing him in the small carriage and he set his hand on the center of my back. I breathed in and out, then sank into that trance-like state, taking in the energy of the universe. It had the faint fragrance of mountain flowers and sunshine.
A foreign sensation entered together with the energy I took in, this one like a heavy syrup versus the usual thin oil. The energy pulsed within my chest somewhere between my back and nestled between my lungs before radiating outwards towards my limbs then concentrating again by just behind my belly. It cycled a couple of times like that before settling down. It was a path I'd never taken before, or even ever considered.
I waited for a few moments before starting my own circulation—following the paths of the chakras. Starting from the base of the spine, the energy I took in condensed into that mass of power and rotating as it entered in a direction I could only call clockwise. The energy pooled to the brim and churned before extending towards the next chakra in the groin, and rotated there as well. Next came the solar plexus, then the heart, throat, third-eye, and finally the crown of my head. Each pool was filled to capacity before I let it all start pooling into my Crown through Pranus Core. Each chakra rotated at its own speed and in its own comfortable concentration as more and more energy traced paths upwards into my spirit, with each pool slowly expanding.
After a while, a gentle nudge brought me out from that trance-like state.
"Little Jin," grandpa said.
I opened my eyes and saw the baffled looks of my family. I sighed, and said, "Yes?"
Grandpa seemed to hesitate before saying, "You don't let the energy nourish your body?"
The chakras and how they were connected was something I learned about for my novel. Supposedly, my Amber Crown was for absorbing prana from the universe—so it wasn't too far off the mark. But this news of letting qi or whatever 'nourish' my body was an entirely new concept. "I can do that?" My voice rose in pitch.
Grandpa and auntie shared a look. "Is that how you're able to raise your ranks so fast?" grandpa asked.
"I don't know," I said, somewhat scandalized. "I don't even know how other people do it, but this has always worked for me so I never bothered asking." Auntie stuck her tongue against her cheek and grandpa pursed his lips. "And it's not like there's anything wrong with my spirit power, right?"
"You're not wrong," said grandpa, stroking his beard.
"And I'm not weaker than any of my cousins either." I was undefeated when it came to my spirit rank group because I had two abilities for one ring, then those higher than me I could beat with my little knowledge of some of my world's martial arts. But, the difference of another ring was something undeniable, and anyone above twenty was already too much to handle.
Grandpa nodded. "I really hope Yu Xiaogang is as good as we believe him to be."
"I hope so too," I said.
We later arrived at Riverstone just before sunset. It was good time for a shitty carriage, and the horses weren't too beat up from the hard journey. The guards took care of procuring lodging for us, and me and auntie were to share a room—score—while grandpa had one to his own, and the guards took up the ones surrounding ours. We then all ate together for dinner that night, and our meal was a simple helping of vegetable chowder and steamed buns but it had a taste close to home.
The following day, we woke up a little later than normal but got on the road within schedule. There were no stops left until the Heaven Dou capital so we rode on until well into the night. I kept cultivating on the road while auntie and grandpa sat bored to high heaven. Thankfully, there were no problems and we arrived at the city around nine in the evening. We then made our lodging in the Moon Pavilion itself and spent the rest of the night in relative comfort.
We agreed to stay in the capital for a few days before setting off for Nuoding city in the far West. This was time enough for grandfather to check whether the guards we'd hire were trustworthy, since we couldn't get too many of auntie's own forces, and for me to get some stuff I wanted.
I was out in the city with uncle Wei and was tasked by aunt Yuehua with familiarizing myself with the state of the market, as well as to buy myself a good spirit tool. I was then to report back to aunt Yuehua for evaluation. It was an effective way to keep a little brat occurpied, all things considered.
We were walking on the brick paved road of Merchant Street and basking in the sounds of the bustling city life. Out here, I was free to wear whatever I wanted since I blended in with the other little masters scattered about. It was entertaining how the people reacted to my looks, some made sure to steer clear off my way, some stared brazenly, and some still looked way too hungry. I was always told by my aunts—especially aunt Yuehua—and my mother that I had good looks, but to have it confirmed was still quite a confidence boost. Still, the implication of looking like that at a kid was off-putting.
I stopped at a stall selling raw gemstones, and found a sapphire geode the size of a melon with bits of it shining with the color of the sky. After a quick bout of haggling and trading for half off the price with a map of the greater Heaven Dou empire—since I only needed to look at pictures once to memorize them thanks to Brain Charger. I was able to buy it for dirt cheap at seven silver pieces. Like that, I traded my hand-drawn maps—which I totally copied off the other shops here and some of the maps we had back home—for some other bits and pieces: chunks of raw platinum, bottles of rubber tree sap, thumb-sized quartz and diamond crystals. It was an endless treasure trove of things valued way under what they were good for. There was even some magnesium powder and flints, and all I spent for it barely even reached a gold piece.
After that was a quick look at some metal works, and I bought a set of four steel plates and chopsticks for a measly eighty copper pieces a set. It was almost pitiful how little metal products were valued. Perhaps if I figured out how to make guns here I could do some real magic, and I bet Spirit Hall wouldn't expect any shrapnel filled bombs. Another few passes through the stores and I was able to get what I needed: glass jars of sulfuric acid, nitric acid, sulfur, and saltpeter. It was easy to tell from their characteristic smell and colors, and to think they were selling these off as 'alchemic' materials, well, they were all about to get a taste of some fancy chemistry sooner or later. The tallow will have to wait until after I set up a lab or some mobile set-up, and the charcoal I can get anywhere.
After all that though, uncle Wei didn't question my strange shopping habits, probably filing it away as a quirk of a little rich kid.
We were on our way to look for my next big purchase: a storage tool.
"Uncle Wei," I said, "do you happen to know of any famous foods in the capital?"
Uncle Wei looked to me and scratched his chin. "Besides the Peach Court's Five Treasure soup," he said, "not much else, though your aunt is quite fond of the Millennium Chef Parade's dumplings.
"Maybe we can check those out later," I said.
We then passed by a large shop marked 'Spirit Goods' in large lettering and I went in to check out the prices. They had some small volume storage tools going as high as two hundred gold coins for the shittiest looking pouch like grandpa Shan had, which had only three cubic cun of space. There were other shapes too, like women's purses with two cubic cun of space and some jewelry box looking things. But if we were talking about a storage tool, the best choice would be something inconspicuous and easy to conceal—preferably a ring.
I scoured the shop further, passing enchanted chests whose insides were as large as rooms and little boxes that could fit upwards of ten cubic cun, and still none caught my eye. I left the store disappointed, but just as determined to get the best.
We went through the produce and meats so I could do what I was told, and dearest lord saltwater fish was way too fucking expensive. This city wasn't that far from the sea so perhaps it was more an issue of access, like maybe there were some shit strong spirit beasts there or something. Vegetables were reasonably priced and even no matter where I asked, while meats were a lot more varied, still, quality was good for both, showing the strong agricultural ties of the city.
At eleven in the morning, lunch was approaching fast but I still wanted my storage tool. I hunted down every shop that sold even some semblance of them, and found some truly absurd prices. However, I eventually found the only shop that had a ring, and it had an amazing storage capacity of fifteen cubic cun, or approximately three cubic meters. It was just enough space as a small moving truck, and the price was just as impressive: a total of three thousand gold pieces.
Uncle Wei whistled beside me. "That's way too rich for my blood."
I sighed. "Same."
"Pretty sure if you ask your aunt she'd get it for you," he said, the sincerity was unmistakable.
"Nah," I said, "That's way too much money to spend on something not that important."
But I couldn't help myself and asked the clerk to see it. It felt real good in my hands, and for some reason, I could feel my spirit power react to it. Out of curiosity, I willed my Domain to cover the ring, and a new window appeared in Interface—indicating an Inventory.
I gestured uncle Wei to lean over, and whispered, "How unacceptable is murder as a bartering tool?"
The clerk looked at me funny, then uncle Wei laughed, slapping the man's shoulder. "Kids," uncle said, shrugging before laughing again, but the other guy just kept staring straight at me.
"One thousand gold pieces," I said, meeting his gaze with the most innocent smile I could muster.
"Three thousand," he said, unfazed.
I looked around and saw no one else nearby. I'd be lying if I said I didn't actually consider murder there and then. With Devour, having him die of 'unknown' causes wouldn't have been difficult. "One and five," I said. "You'd be trying your luck too hard to charge three for that, and it'd be smarter to turn a profit now than regret it later, yes?"
"Three thousand," he still said, completely unperturbed.
"Fine, you win." I sighed and set three purple jade tablets on the table, and the clerk swiped them before my eyes.
The clerk bowed and said, "Pleasure doing business."
I shrugged. "Anything else you'd like to sell me?"
A smile played on that sly fox's lips. "Perhaps," he said.
The next few things the clerk showed me weren't as interesting, so we just left the one hit wonder. I then treated uncle Wei to a meal at some cubby noodle house he suggested, and I had my fill of some rich beef noodles and freshly cracked eggs. It was worth every damned copper piece I spent.
We then made our way back to auntie and I had to give my report in her main study. She sat on an ornate couch of dark and heavy wood, with cushions decorated with golden embroidery. The room wasn't very large, but all the furnishings were elegant and regal. Auntie also had a small corner filled with tomes and books, some for learning the ways of the court, some for entertainment, and another some for knowledge in general.
"Crops are doing great to the South and East, and the less temperate goods are in better condition than the ones coming from the tropical areas. Judging from the trash heaps there are barely any losses in a day, which means good transportation and excellent storage methods. Though there was a slight shortage of pumpkins, but I'm not sure why, maybe a storm or a disease. Metal prices were also almost the same as back in that frontier city near Star Dou Forest, and there were a surprising number of people buying at face value."
Auntie kept nodding as I listed off what I found out.
"Fresh water fish are cheaper than the meats, but anything from the sea costs an arm and a leg and I don't understand why. The sea isn't even that far from here, and spirit tools make transportation so much easier." A five Jin chunk of tuna was being sold for ten gold pieces—a Jin is approximately half a kilogram—so about two and a half kilos. "And we all share the same roads, so it doesn't make sense unless there're some damn evil things out in the sea."
She chuckled at that and motioned me to keep going.
"Literacy is also higher here since there were a lot of shops selling books, paper, and ink." But there was still no printing press judging from how expensive the damned things were. I also didn't see much rubber goods besides the sap, so that was another thing filed for future use. "However, the market can easily be exploited because shops don't adhere to any one standard."
Auntie raised an eyebrow at that.
"And by that I mean I was able to trade them all some maps I made to give me discounts for things, and no one bothered checking with how I kept bartering for goods from shop to shop." Using the beautiful technique called arbitrage in my previous life.
"I'd like to see this map of yours," she said.
So, I passed her one of my maps. Auntie looked it over, then brought out one of her own from her shelves. She compared them side by side on the table and got a compass to check the finer points. "This is very detailed," she said. "and I do recognize these landforms and roads." She traced her finger along a familiar path leading to Star Dou Forest. "And the scale is also good." She set it down and looked at me, her pinkish lips forming an unvoiced question.
"I can memorize things easy," I said. It was also thanks to that that I was able to trade back and forth for the goods I wanted, memorizing prices and what those misers were wanting for. "I also made sure to omit the Clear Sky's lands from it, just in case."
"That was very thoughtful of you," she said.
Then I lowered my head and twiddled my thumbs. "Theeeen there's also the matter of my storage tool," I said. I walked over to her and showed her my ring. "I uhh… had to spend three thousand gold coins for this."
She shook her head as if swallowing something large and barbed and bitter. Personal spirit tools averaged five hundred gold pieces to about two thousand, and those higher than that were considered for home or travel use already.
"But it has fifteen cubic cun of space," I said, "and for some reason, it connects with my Crown." I summoned my spirit, bathing the room in a gold glow and concentrated on the new Inventory menu. A list of items appeared in my view, overlaid with a three-dimensional display of where and how the items were stored in those three cubic meters of space.
Then I expanded my Domain, filling the room with my Crown's light. I concentrated on the chair I'd taken earlier from her dining room, and an outline of it replaced all the other views—like setting down furniture in The Sims. Concentrating again, I summoned the chair to just in front of auntie, though the process from start to finish took a good half minute or so to do.
Her expression remained neutral. "Interesting," she said.
The display ate about five percent spirit power for the summoning, then I felt for the vase on the window sill and stored it away. A new item appeared on the menu, and the vase appeared in that ethereal box in Interface. My consumption of spirit power was the same whether via summon or storage and didn't matter whether large or small, but the degree of control and the range at which I could summon things was limited only by my Domain's own, and right now I could do all that anywhere within ten meters of me.
I then summoned the vase to on top of the chair, surprising auntie with the small crash since I missed the seat by a good centimeter. It's only real limitation was it couldn't store living things. The ant I tried storing died the moment it entered. "I had to have it, auntie."
Her eyes had a twinkle in them. "Can you also store any articles already on another person?"
After some quick experimentation, we found out that I couldn't as long as some part of the item was touching the person. And some proximity to their body was within that limit, like coin purses tied to a sash—or clothes. However, this ranged summoning and storing only worked with my Domain out, and without it I could only do normal spirit tool things.
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