Yu Xiaogang smiled at the question and shook his head before saying, "Please, little Jin, we both know the only person you'll ever call master is yourself."
I was about to say something but stopped. He wasn't wrong with what he said, but that… wasn't an answer I expected. I took a breath before saying, "Perhaps I came on too strong?"
He smiled something warm, eyes betraying a softness I only now saw. "Worry not, Jin. I saw your sincerity," he said, "but you wouldn't have told me what you did unless you saw me as an equal."
I smiled and let out a deflated huff. "I meant what I said though."
"I know," he said. "But instead of that, why don't you just come clean?"
I frowned. "I'm sorry?"
He half smirked. "You've never had much in the way of friends now, have you?"
I shrugged. "I've always found it" —because I'd never say exasperating— "difficult to talk to others my age. It's why I've always preferred the company of myself when my elders weren't there."
Xiaogang brought his hands together, fingers intertwining and sighed. "I've noticed."
He stood from his chair and walked over to the bookshelves, as deft hands browsed the different spines and pulled something thin out of the row. He then went back and opened the book in front of me.
"This," he said, eyes somewhere lost. "This is the same manual you have in your sect, my Ten Core Spirit Principles."
I leaned in closer to get a better look, everything there was hand-written and already fading. "This is the original then?" I said.
He nodded. "It took me the better part of a decade to compile all I could find." He met my eyes. "But I didn't—couldn't do it alone."
I nodded. "People can only do so much after all."
He sighed and said, "I'm glad you can say that, but do you believe it?"
"Of course," I said. "I would have died if it wasn't for Tang San, and neither would I have had such a good fortune with getting such a good spirit ring without my grandpas." I wasn't sure where this was coming from, but he surely had his reasons.
He closed the book with reverence before setting it to the side. "Jin," he said. "I find you extremely peculiar."
I tilted my head at him. "I doubt you meet many four-year-olds who can keep up with your theories."
He chuckled at that. "No. No, I don't, but I don't meet many my age either who can."
I crossed my arms and sat back in my chair. "Most of the people I'd met think with their fists." That brat from the Seven Treasure clan and old man especially, though there's also Spirit Hall and my own sect.
"In a way I can agree," he said. "But at times, action is all that's left, is it not?"
Tongue-in-cheek, I said, "I agree, but only as a last resort. Petty arguments need not escalate to murder, and grave matters don't necessarily lead to bloodshed."
He raised an eyebrow. "But isn't one's honor more important than one's life?"
I stared hard at him. "I agree that honor is important, but not to the point of taking life to prove a point."
"And yet there are sins you cannot forgive," he said.
"Yes," I said. "I am only human after all."
He smiled. "Don't you think that's hypocritical?"
"No," I said. "I don't necessarily need to kill to get what I want. And in a world where the rule of law… isn't enough to restrain those who are able to mete out peerless violence, then only an equally potent force can make them stay their hand."
"And what if they choose violence regardless?"
"Then I make damn sure I win."
We stared into each other's eyes for a moment. Then he said, "What if you can't?"
I huffed and said, "Then there are two ways to proceed from there." I raised a finger. "One, is to stay your moral ground and demand anyway." I raised another. "An two, is to submit for now and take vengeance later."
Xiaogang sat back in his chair. "So simple…" he said. He cloased his eyes for a bit and took a deep breath. "Perhaps, I'd forgotten what it was like to be young." His eyes trailed towards to that far-off place again. "And of course, as someone who never reached above the thirtieth rank, change was something I could only dream of inciting."
"People always have a reason for the things they do," I said. "It's just that sometimes we can't agree to their 'why.' But on a fundamental question of did they do anything wrong?" I shrugged. "If they made sense to themselves, then I'd say they were in the right from a certain perspective."
His eyes revealed a shine. "And what then is the mandate of heaven?"
"The mandate of heaven is an easily twisted message in the clouds," I said. "It's only as good as the claim any one person makes, and even then, it's not really anything but an excuse to justify a cause."
He chuckled again. "Such a cynical view for one so young."
I smiled and said, "You learn to adapt when your sect has a bone to pick with Spirit Hall." I stuck out my chest. "And for the wrong done to my family, I'd demand for them to make a contrite apology for it, but not necessarily destroy them and grind their corpses into dust."
He raised an eyebrow.
"After I make sure I've already won the battle before it even starts, that is."
I leaned in closer and said, "So, what then pains you so?"
A small pause, then he shook his head. There was no surprise in his eyes. "I may trust you somewhat, little Jin, but one does not journey a thousand miles without passing the first ten."
"I understand," I said, and stood from the chair. "But just in case, I'm here anytime you need someone to listen." I moved towards the door and opened it, half-way. "As a friend."
We said our goodbyes then and I went back to my roaming.
I went to the market to clear my head, and bought a few things to replenish the supplies I used on our way here. Nuoding city wasn't ,uch compared to the capital, but in terms of produce it was the best. I went through all the shops I could: tailors, diners, bakeries, then eventually found myself in front of a smithy.
I went in, hoping to ask how much it would cost to have my iron chunks forged into steel, and found there was no front desk or any sort of receiving area—so I headed in without a second thought.
Heat was what greeted me first, air stifling heat that made it difficult to breath. The smithy was filled with the scent of wet iron and burning slag, a bit of a mix between burning rubber, fresh asphalt, and scratched rust. It was a smell I remembered from the auto shop my dad would take our car to for repairs—an unexpected reminder of home.
I was turning five soon enough, and so much had happened these first few years of life.
I tried cycling spirit power to see if it would help—and the strain in my lungs and breathing alleviated. The process made no sense, but it helped. What the hell is spirit power anyway? Still, a lesson learned at least.
The people here were all either smashing away at a chunk of metal, operating some large bellows, or holding onto a gleaming red piece of metal for the first two to work on. No one even paid attention to the kid in the obviously dangerous environment.
It was strange, so the first person I saw, I talked to, "Hello."
"Good day, customer," he said.
I didn't know whether to be flattered or surprised at getting called that when literally everywhere else I'd been to called me boy or little master. "Uhh, is there anyone I can talk to for a quotation?"
The man nodded before saying, "You'll want to talk to Shi San for that." He pointed to a big burly man hammering away at a chunk of ore almost as big as my torso. It was a horribly inefficient way to work metal—but then what did I know about a fantasy world? My knowledge of modern day manufacturing doesn't mean it's the only way to do things.
I bowed and said, "Thank you, kind senior."
The man bowed back and resumed what I figured to be rest. Then I went up to Shi San, not really sure what to expect.
He saw me and stopped his hammering, "May I help you?"
Again, something unexpected. "Hello, I was told to talk to Shi San for any quotations?"
"I am he," he said. His eyes held no trace of either wonder or spurn. "What business did you have in mind?"
No 'little master' or 'where are your parents?' "I was hoping to purchase refined steel from you," I said. "And depending on the quality, I am willing to pay you with high quality iron to buffer and difference my money can't fill."
He nodded, then motioned for me to come with him. We passed through a small out of the way hall and into a room that was a lot hotter than the earlier area, and there were also some large bellows here being operated by two people, and behind them both was a large anvil where continuous hammering sounded out.
"Tang San," said Shi San, and all at once everything made sense.
The hammering stopped, and my cousin walked over to us with a pleasant smile. I waved a hand at him and he smiled something wider back.
"You two know each other?" Shi San said.
I scratched my head. "Well," I said, "he's my cousin."
"That makes sense," Shi San said. "Your cousin here… err?"
"Jin," I supplied.
Shi San nodded before continuing, "Your cousin Jin here wanted to talk about buying steel."
A flash of surprise colored Tang San's eyes. "I'll take care of this, uncle San," he said.
We left the bellows area and went into a small room with a just as small desk by an open window.
"Please take a seat, cousin Jin," he said.
I did and said, "I'm surprised you don't have big sister Wu with you right now."
A small laugh escaped him. "Our supreme sister Xiao Wu Jie needs to maintain order in her territory," he said. "So I hear you'd like to buy steel?"
I nodded. "I was hoping to get enough for a project I had planned," I said. "Though my biggest problem right now is how to shape it after."
He nodded to that as well. "How big of a project are we talking about?"
"Enough to modify a large carriage," I said. "I have some ideas I want to try, and if it works, then I think I can make a sizeable fortune from it."
"Around how much do you think you need?"
"Somewhere upwards of a thousand jin of steel?"
He pursed his lips, then opened his mouth, closed it again, grumbled somewhat, then said, "Are you planning on outfitting this carriage for war somehow?" His eyes and brows were twisted into a quizzical knot.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it was used for that after," I said, "but no. I have a plan to make carriage rides as comfortable as possible. This first order of steel is to account for any errors I make, but to make a sustainable model I can sell to the people must make use of either a quarter to a third of that amount. Less if possible."
"I see," he said. "Please don't be surprised when I say it would take upwards of one hundred gold coins."
I shrugged. "Would the price change if I supplied my own iron?"
A light flashed in his eyes. "How much iron do you have?"
I willed a chunk of raw iron out of Inventory over the table. "I have around one hundred and forty jin so far."
He hefted the chunk in his hands, and said, "This is superior quality iron essence."
I didn't understand anything besides 'good metal'. "Yes," I said. "You'd be surprised how willing people are to let go of things they don't value as much."
Tang San shook his head, but his eyes never left the chunk of metal. "One man's trash is another's treasure," he said.
"If you'd like," I said—and took out a variety of metals, chunks of platinum, some crude silvers, and another of tungsten I was quite proud of identifying, from my ring. "You could also take your pick from here if it would reduce the price." Some of those metals were too few in amount to make use of besides for decoration, and he seemed to know a thing or two, so learning from what he'd take wasn't such a bad deal either.
"You also have iron mother and silver essence," he said, pointing at the tungsten and platinum respectively.
"I can try getting you more," I said. "But I can't guarantee a sure supply, those were just chunks the merchants didn't want."
He nodded while inspecting those small ores, "How much more do you have of these two?"
"I have fifteen jin of the iron mother and twenty-seven of the silver essence," I said. I had double that, but nobody needs to give out all their secrets all at once.
"I'd like to buy all you have of them," he said. "I'm willing to pay twenty silver per jin of the iron mother and fifty for the silver essence."
Those were just above market value, and reasonable enough to turn a profit with. "I'm willing to give you the silver essence for free if you tell me what you want so much of it for."
Tang San smiled, and an energy filled his eyes, but a breath later it disappeared. "I have my own projects," he said. "And I need these both for it."
I raised an eyebrow. To ask for so much platinum and tungsten was anything but normal. "The iron mother is simple enough, it's harder and heavier than normal iron," I said, "but I don't understand what the silver essence is for, is it because it doesn't tarnish?"
He narrowed his eyes just a tiny bit and said, "I simply wish to make sure to only use the best materials."
That was too obvious a lie. None of the merchants or smiths I'd talked to called these metals with those names. And I talked to a lot of them. "Strange names, for black iron and silver iron," I said. "But if you really don't want to tell me, then consider this a sign of good faith." I willed all of my tungsten and platinum to a corner of the room. "I trust you also have a storage tool?"
Tang San picked his jaw up off the floor. "I won't say no to this good fortune," he said.
I shrugged. "Tungsten and platinum are too difficult to work without the right tools anyway." It's been a long time since I'd ever said anything in English.
"What did you call them?" he said, blinking hard.
"Tungsten and platinum, you mean?"
He scrunched up his face at what I said. "Tang-si-ten?"
"Think nothing of it," I said. "Now, let's talk business."
Tang San agreed in behalf of Shi San that he'd refine the iron I provided for half his initial quote and it'd take two months to refine and temper all of it. I agreed and paid half my bill up front with my last purple jade tablet, and get back fifty gold for change. Our sect naturally had its own deep pockets, but five thousand all in all was already a lot to give to a kid—even if I were the heir of the clan.
With our business done, I then went back to wandering and decided to try my hand with the students in the academy. I went wherever I pleased—since I had Yu Xiaogang's letter of introduction, a nice favor I got off my… friend. Somehow. Weird guy, but smart. I watched the students all silently cultivating by the courtyard under the sun, and some still doing spars at a small distance away from the main buildings. What I noticed though, was that there were distinct groups—those with clean clothes, and those with ratty ones. Nobles' kids, or at least as close to them were those with the pristine white robes.
I neared one of them and bowed. "Hello there senior," I said. The boy was a good three or so inches taller than me, and maybe older by just as many years.
"Hello," he said. The rest of his buddies joined in to have a gander. "What does junior want?" He had a haughty air about him.
"I was hoping to exchange pointers with you," I said. After that fight with Tang San and Xiao Wu yesterday, I felt I needed a confidence boost, and what better way than to let off some steam on these normies.
The boy smirked. This was too easy. "Such a bold junior," he said. "But good, very good." He spread his arms as his posse formed a half-circle around us. "I'll start of lenient," he said.
I pursed my lips. "Shouldn't we introduce ourselves first at least?"
"Then I'll start," he said, "I am Xiao Chen Yu, wolf spirit, thirteenth rank battle spirit master." A single white ring rose up from his feet as his arms got covered in moss colored fur.
Ah, the beauty of screwing with normies. "Oh," I said, scratching my head. "Junior regrets asking senior now."
He laughed with his chest out and hands akimbo then said, "It's alright junior, no one will laugh at you here."
"What's this happening over here?" said a sweet voice from afar.
Me and the rest of the people around me all looked to my seven o'clock, and there I saw Xiao Wu with her own little band of misfits. She had a bunch of the ratty looking students following close behind her. Our eyes met, and she smiled in a way that made me feel sorry for these idiots behind me.
"Greetings to our Xiao Wu Jie," said Xiao Chen Yu with a bow. His posse echoed his greetings and bowed after him. "This junior here asked for some pointers, so I humored him and am awaiting he show his spirit."
Xiao Wu looked at me again, her smile twitching, and nodded a bit. "Maybe he'll also want to exchange some with me later," she said.
I bowed as well and said, "I would be honored, Xiao Wu Jie. Now if I may return to our bout?"
"Carry on," she said.
"Thank you," I said, and released my Crown from my left hand and put it on. "I am" —what's a good pseudonym?— "Jet Li, Amber Crown spirit, twentieth rank control spirit master."
Xiao Chen Yu and his posse laughed with transparent disdain, oozing with mockery and pointing and whooping in my direction. When he looked at Xiao Wu and saw her smiling though—he stopped. "Junior," he said, "lying to your seniors is rude, don't you think."
I smiled back at him. "I'm not lying," I said.
"You don't even have a ring," he said, stifling his laughter.
I shined my nails against my robe. "I don't think I'd need it," I said. All these boss types just hate getting dissed in front of their lackeys, this world and the one I came from both.
"Looks like senior really needs to teach you a lesson," he said with a sigh. Xiao Chen Yu then stepped forward and his white ring glowed, filling his furred hands with more moss colored light.
I bathed in the sensation of my Crown, my visual acuity rising with the concentration of spirit power flowing into my mind.
"Prepare yourself," he said, and charged, claws and arms in front of him.
I took a stance—then it hit me: Tang San also took a stance! No one here had ever done so before—granted I'd been locked away in my sect all this time. But the few times I'd seen other spirit masters fight, none did.
When he neared me, he lashed out with both arms—like a fucking clown. It was pretty damn stupid looking, but the smile he had on was too sad to look at.
I side stepped just before he made contact—and his nearer arm gave chase, claws stretched as far as they went. I then pelted his inner elbow with a quick jab to the crook.
My strike connected knuckles first and he jolted from the hit.
"A lucky strike?" I said.
He growled and lunged again, and I stepped into his attack instead and headbutted him—dispelling my Crown before we connected.
I stepped away from him and remanifested my spirit. "Maybe next time you could try a different approach," I said.
"Junior is too cheek," he said, and still he lunged again.
I met his charge head on, his two arms lashing out, and I punched towards his face after dodging his two blows, his arms twitched and crashed to close, but I put up my elbow and his forearm hit the point of my bones.
Xiao Chen Yu then retreated from his thwarted attack, but not before taking a swipe at me as he jumped back.
Without a proper base to strike from, his attack was much weaker. I ducked into the swipe and kicked hard with a knee to his gut, but he blocked my strike by bending his arm down—it was a good attempt, but he used the outside of his forearm instead of the line of bone. He winced at the contact.
I pointed at my own forearm and said, "Never block with the soft part where the muscle cradles the bones." I then traced the line of the non-moving ulna and tapped the point nearest to the elbow. "This is the most solid part of your arm, use this to hit instead."
Xiao Chen Yu huffed and spat, then lunged at me again—so to practice what I preach, I filled my arm with spirit power and did a downward elbow strike against his leading arm—and his strike bounced back as mine thundered down andthrew off his arm's trajectory.
After the hit, he clutched at his elbow and scrambled back, eyes filled with confusion. "What did you do just now?" he said, wincing.
"Like I said," I pointed at the part of my elbow. "This is the hardest part of your arm."
Xiao Wu then walked over. "Such a vicious junior," she said. "Bullying the weak like that."
"What did you say, Xiao Wu Jie?" said the boy clutching his arm. I… know I should feel guilty at doing something like that.
"He was telling the truth," she said, then her gaze turned sharp. "Why don't you show them your ring?"
I raised my hands in defeat, and willed my ring visible—as gasps came from the people watching.
"What is that?!" said Xiao Chen Yu, panic coloring his grey eyes. "Why is your ring half-purple and half-yellow?"
I scratched my head. "It's a shame that Iron Spider Wasp" —pupa— "hadn't reached the thousand-year level yet."
All eyes there glazed over and mouths hung open.
"H-how old is junior anyway?" asked Xiao Chen Yu.
"I'll be turning five in a month," I said.
After that, I exchanged pointers with a few more, but not in the same way I did with Xiao Chen Yu. I taught the ones who wanted to learn how to do basic stances, like a horse riding stance for training or a simple combat stance for sparring. I also tried to show them some walking and skipping techniques when in a stance for movement, but admittedly, I only knew Taekwondo since it was the only art I had actual training in. It felt good. And it helped wash away the bad taste from earlier. Xiao Wu left half-way though, it was understandable.
Like that the day ended and I retired to our hotel to find grandpa Shan quietly sipping tea in the room.
"Hello grandpa," I said, "feeling better now?"
"Somehow," he said. "The tea has helped somewhat, and so had the wine." He gestured to an already finished bottle.
"Not a very good example to set," I said, walking over to him to rub his back. "You sure you feel alright?"
He nodded. "Eventually, yes." He sighed. "Though it does make me wonder where little Hao is now, and what this message of his means."
I sat in front of him by the window sill. "How much did you tell Tang San anyway?"
"Enough," he said. "Enough for him to know of the pain his mother and father endured at the hands of Spirit Hall, and the lament of his sect at their loss."
Crinkling my nose and hoping against hope, I asked, "And what of uncle Hao's disowning?"
"I told him that as well," grandpa Shan said. "He deserved to know."
"And what did he say?"
Empty eyes stared out of the window and he said, "That we should then understand why he has come to hate both Spirit Hall and the sect."
It was… difficult, to see grandpa Shan so, deflated like this. "He has a right to be angry," I said, and waited a moment before continuing. "Have we sent word back to the sect yet of Tang San?"
He shook his head. "No," he said. "But I did send word you're alright now. I… don't know what to do with little San."
I fiddled with the ring on my left hand. "At the very least, we can make his life easier somehow. He'll be needing his next ring soon, maybe we can stay to help? And besides, I'll need to put off getting mine for another year anyway."
Grandpa Shan looked up. "That," he said, nodding. "That we can do."
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