CHAPTER 1: VALUE
Songjing City’s walls cast a large shadow outside the gates. For centuries, these walls had defended the city from enemy invasions and beast tides. Although their robust military and well-placed fortresses had rendered these walls useless, their symbolism remained. The kingdom would never fall so long as they stood strong.
To Cha Ming, it was a godsend, but for a different reason than fortification. His furred and feathered companions now spoke in hushed whispers. They couldn’t help but occasionally glance at the large structure and quiet down whenever they got too loud.
“Why are you so afraid of walls?” Cha Ming asked as they waited for Wang Jun to return.
“We do not speak their names aloud,” Huxian whispered. “They are only mentioned in bedtime stories to scare newborn cubs. Every beast inherits memories of these atrocities. We remember millions of corpses and rivers of blood. Hordes of beasts collapsing under a flood of arrows as they pawed helplessly against unbreachable structures.” Huxian shook his head mournfully. “We are fully aware that we have the strength to break them, but when we attempt to do so, we can’t help but be paralyzed with fear. We are helpless against them.”
Cha Ming looked up at the gate thoughtfully. “Will you be all right?
“We’ll stomach it,” Huxian said. “It’s not so bad in smaller courtyards and buildings. It only gets out of hand with the more massive structures.” He eyed the gatehouse cautiously.
Cha Ming scratched the tiny fox’s ears to alleviate his worries. They spotted a blond-haired figure walking out of the city gates.
“They are so well behaved compared to the journey over,” Wang Jun said cheerfully as he approached them. He handed Cha Ming three golden collars covered in black runes. “They shouldn’t feel like anything more than regular collars,” Wang Jun said. “They are purely cosmetic, with functions that falsely identify the wearer as a tamed beast.”
Huxian walked up and stuck his head inside the first collar, which shrunk until the runes turned crimson. “Any change?” Cha Ming asked.
“Nope,” Huxian replied. “And it comes with a built-in portable meat locker. Come on, guys, put these on so we can get out of this atrocious shadow.”
His companions followed with uncharacteristic haste. They led the way toward the gates, making Cha Ming wonder if they knew even what tamed beasts were.
“The collars can grow up to a width of fifty feet if required,” Wang Jun said as they walked. “Any bigger, and they’ll fall off. The cost was outrageous since they had to mimic core treasures.”
“Add it to my tab,” Cha Ming said. “I’ll find a way to earn money quickly.”
“Ah, what’s money between us?” Wang Jun said. “Besides, you don’t need to worry about finding odd jobs. I already have a list of formations I need you to build. Soon, I’ll be the one owing you money.”
The registration process went smoothly. The guards collected a qi imprint and registered the beast’s abilities—the ones they chose to reveal, at least—before sending them on their way. Cha Ming would be liable for any damages they caused in the city. His heart cringed in anticipation of a gigantic bill.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had a decent meal,” Wang Jun said as he led them to the center of the city. “Let’s make our first stop the Dragon’s Claws. It’s the best restaurant with private rooms in the city.”
The oppressive heat baked the four road-weary travelers as they passed unfamiliar buildings. There were similarities between Songjing and Quicksilver—the Jade Bamboo Auction House kept its plain decoration and bamboo garden while the commodity exchange maintained its massive stone construction. The Blacksmith Association and the Alchemists Association shared a common look with their Quicksilver counterparts, though unlike Quicksilver, the stores here were unusually cluttered with high- and low-leveled cultivators alike.
There was no Geomancer Guild. The Spirit Doctor Association was also very different than Cha Ming remembered from his short stay in Quicksilver. A small group of commoners were lined up to receive treatment along with the cultivators. The building was also far less opulent than Quicksilver’s.
“There’s no Talisman Artist Guild?” Cha Ming asked.
“There is, but they aren’t located in Central Square,” Wang Jun replied. “They are too small, and their members are lacking. Plus they don’t have any qualified instructors, which greatly limits their potential. I’ve always wondered what the Talisman Artist Guild’s top brass is thinking by allowing it to exist.”
After passing a few more buildings, they entered a large marble building where they were greeted by a gust of cool air.
“A legitimate use of refrigeration runes,” Cha Ming commented. “The heat out there is unbearable.”
“Air cooling is a must in this city,” Wang Jun said. “The weather here makes me wonder whether the royal family descended from dragons.”
“The royalty is naturally descended from dragons,” a soft voice said. The speaker was a pale, skinny man in black robes with a cheerful demeanor. He accompanied a well-dressed man wearing black armor and a black-and-gold cape. Dozens of figures in red-and-gold cloaks were also present.
Both Zhou Li’s and the black-and-gold-caped man’s souls were excessively strong; they repelled the light probing from Cha Ming’s resplendent soul, something only possible if they were core-formation cultivators.
“The royal family’s crest is that of a five-clawed dragon,” Zhou Li continued. “The national history books teach that the Song Dynasty’s first emperor, Song Di, could partially transform his body and manifest claws and scales.”
Wang Jun stepped up and bowed at the man beside Zhou Li. Cha Ming followed his lead.
“Crown Prince,” Wang Jun said. “It is always a pleasure meeting you. How fares His Majesty? And has your favorite dog, Zhou Li, been behaving?” He had completely ignored Zhou Li's presence and chosen to address the more important person in the room.
The crown prince’s face twitched. “Unfortunately, my royal father’s condition worsens with each passing day. As his health declines, I find myself increasingly busy. I imagine it’s only a matter of time until I’m no longer allowed to leave the palace.”
“I wish His Majesty all the best,” Wang Jun replied. “Both for the kingdom and your quality of life.”
“My freedom and quality of life come secondary,” the crown prince said. “Both the kingdom and I would be overjoyed if my father’s condition improved.” He then glanced at Cha Ming and gave him a short nod. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance, Master Du. Your reputation as the youngest mid-grade formation master on the continent precedes you.”
Cha Ming bowed to the prince with clasped hands. “This one’s talents are not worth mentioning. I can only affect a few people, while your own work impacts the lives of everyone in the Song Kingdom.”
“If I become half the man my father has been, the kingdom will be in good hands,” the crown prince said. “Now if you will excuse me, we must head back to attend an important council meeting.”
As his group moved to leave, Zhou Li walked up to Huxian. The black-and-white fox bared his teeth and held his ears back, the universal sign of displeasure among animals.
“Be a good dog and eat this,” Zhou Li said as he suddenly tossed a small string of gristly meat.” Before Cha Ming could warn him, Huxian ate it on reflex. Zhou Li smirked. “I might be a dog, but at least I behave myself in front of my master. This one just does whatever he wants.”
Cha Ming glared at Zhou Li’s retreating figure and walked up to Huxian; he looked at him worriedly for any abnormal signs.
You can’t just eat anything he gives you, Cha Ming said. What if it’s poison?
Relax, Huxian sent back. I can eat anything under the sun. What’s a little poison to a Godbeast like me? Even the Geomantic Boa couldn’t poison me if it tried.
Cha Ming sighed in relief. “It should be fine,” he said to Wang Jun, who nodded and led them to a private room.
A short while later, Huxian and Silverwing were fighting over large pieces of meat while Lei Jiang ate seeds and magical herbs. Cha Ming ate his vegetables while Wang Jun ate a bit of everything. Cha Ming let out a satisfied burp at the end of the meal. It had been weeks since he’d last eaten, and while eating was optional at this point, it had psychological benefits to a cultivator who had once required three meals a day.
Following their meal, Wang Jun had the restaurant staff bring a tea set and three large bowls. He poured three small pouches of red powder inside each bowl before the waitstaff poured buckets of hot water inside them.
“These small pouches contain an herbal blend that demon beasts appreciate in the same way humans appreciate tea,” Wang Jun explained. “I call it Demon Soothing Tea.” True to its name, Huxian and his two friends mellowed down considerably as they lapped it up.
“Just this peace and quiet is worth it,” Cha Ming said with a sigh. “Please order some for me in bulk once you get a chance.”
“Not a problem,” Wang Jun said. “You might not know this, but formation masters are a hot commodity in large cities. It’s a rare occupation, and unlike talismans, formations have prolonged effects that can affect an entire clan’s prosperity.”
“Regrettably, I only studied offensive formations in Quicksilver,” Cha Ming said. “Permanent formations aren’t my forte.”
“That’s easy to resolve,” Wang Jun said. “A few days ago, I had Elder Bai procure some single-use formation scrolls and mid-grade formation flags.”
Cha Ming nodded. “That would be the cheapest way of obtaining the techniques. With any luck, I’ll find duplicates when I return to Quicksilver.”
“I’ll give them to you back at the auction house,” Wang Jun said. “For now, I have a promise to fulfill.” He placed six small jade boxes on the table. “The immortal jade must be sealed like medicinal ingredients. Otherwise the energy contained within them will dissipate with time.”
Cha Ming let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you. I need these ingredients to cultivate my body.”
“Then you have an extremely overbearing body-cultivation art,” Wang Jun said. “Even demon beasts wouldn’t need such expensive natural treasures to break through to core formation.”
“Except for dragons,” Huxian said between sips of Demon Soothing Tea. “Those guys could eat a kingdom out of house and home.”
One hour later, they entered the Jade Bamboo Auction House. Dozens of staff members were busy selling weapons to hurried customers while clerks were running around with thick stacks of paper. “I noticed the alchemists and blacksmiths associations were very busy,” Cha Ming said. “Much busier than Quicksilver.”
“It’s because of the political unrest,” Wang Jun explained. “Everything is now thirty percent more expensive than it was a week prior. It won’t be long before there aren’t any weapons or pills to buy. The blacksmiths and alchemists don’t even bother with custom jobs anymore since it’s so profitable to pump out large quantities of generic wares.”
“Would it be the same for talismans?” Cha Ming asked, the wheels in his mind turning.
“Now you’re starting to think like a businessman,” Wang Jun said. “But that can wait until you’ve laid down enough formations for me.”
For some reason, a twinge of irritation crossed Cha Ming’s usually calm mind.
They walked through a few doors that led to a veritable war room. Maps were laid out everywhere and peppered with colored figurines. There were maps of the Song Kingdom, maps of the individual cities that composed it, and several maps of Songjing City. Some displayed economic influence and others market share or political influence. Each map had three colors—green, red, and blue.
“We are the green faction, and the crown prince’s faction is blue,” Wang Jun explained. “The red faction, which is rapidly dwindling, are loyalists or those who haven’t yet chosen a side.”
A door opened softly, and Elder Bai walked in with an armful of golden scrolls.
Wang Jun frowned. “Elder Bai, you could have put them in a storage ring or something.”
The older man shrugged as he placed them on the table. “Money is tight, and I’ve sold our extra storage rings. You said it yourself that cash is king in these turbulent times.”
“Fair enough,” Wang Jun said, seating himself at the large wooden desk beside a fireplace. It was the same desk as in Green Leaf City, and the same fireplace. Elder Bai sat down and poured tea for three. Then, glancing at the three nervous beasts, he let out a sharp whistle. A small white cat dashed into the room.
“You called?” the small cat asked. It was an early-purification demon beast.
“Can you take these three friends to the gardens?” Elder Bai asked kindly while scratching his ears. “The war room is no place for them.”
The cat’s ears perked up when it saw Huxian and his two friends. “This way, esteemed sovereigns,” it said, cheerfully guiding them out a door to the side.
Cha Ming let out a sigh of relief. “I didn’t know what to do with them,” he said. “A city isn’t exactly the best place for a beast.”
“The gardens have been beastproofed,” Elder Bai said. He then gestured to the pile of scrolls. “As instructed by the young master, I’ve purchased a standard mid-grade energy-gathering formation package as well as a few defensive formations.”
Cha Ming picked up one of the golden scrolls and inspected the writing on the carefully inscribed runic seal. It was a Mid-Grade Flame-Gathering Formation. He thumbed through the other scrolls and found that all five elements as well as wind and lightning were included. There was also a scroll for light- and shadow-gathering formations.
“A full set of energy-gathering scrolls costs about the same as five scrolls,” Wang Jun said. “It made sense to buy the bundle, even though you can’t set up light and shadow formations. I plan on selling them.”
“No need,” Cha Ming said. “I’ve recently discovered a way to make light-based and shadow-based formations. I am new at them, but it shouldn’t be an issue given enough time.”
Wang Jun grinned. “Then I’ll add them to the list. Elder Bai, why don’t you give us the rundown?”
“The capital is in turmoil, and so are the major cities,” Elder Bai began. “The price of food has shot up by fifty percent, weapons by thirty percent, and pills by thirty-five percent. This is due to the shortage of these resources and the increased use of spirit stones as cultivation resources. Everyone is using every means possible to increase their strength during these turbulent times.
“Meanwhile, real-estate prices are at their lowest in fifty years. Many smaller noble families are looking to liquidate their assets, as they are reluctant to involve themselves in the struggle for power.”
Wang Jun nodded. “This is only the beginning. It might seem like a good idea to dump our inventory of weapons, but the time is not yet ripe. Wait one week to begin trickling the weapons into the market. Sell to allied forces when considering equal offers. I don’t want you selling all of them, however. Leave me ten percent to play with. And for heaven’s sake, don’t give in to the temptation and buy real estate. The prices have yet to hit rock bottom, mark my words.”
Elder Bai bowed. “I’ll get right on it.” He then left the war room to give out multiple orders.
“Being the boss is that easy?” Cha Ming said.
“You’ve only seen the results of thousands of calculations based on tens of thousands of pages of information,” Wang Jun said. “Being the boss is very troublesome and very risky. I’m afraid I won’t be getting much sleep now that I’m back in the city.”
“Neither will I,” Cha Ming said while standing up to leave. “There are far too many formations to learn. Which should I prioritize?”
“Prioritize the Mid-Grade Flame-Gathering Formation,” Wang Jun said. “There are five noble families whose descendants cultivate fire qi and body refining in the city. They don’t like the Zhou family or the crown prince very much but are still sitting on the fence.”
“I’ll get right to it,” Cha Ming said before heading to the residential quarters. As he walked, he couldn’t help but feel annoyed at his recent orders.
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