A few days later, a booth was set up in front of the White Crane Publishing House.
“I’m not sure why we couldn’t do this at the Du Manor, or even at the Juxian Inn,” said Yatou, checking the spirit weapons and placing them carefully on the expensive rented racks and small but elaborate tentage they’d set up.
“Valley Lord Di said it would be good publicity for our sect to do this openly in public,” said Gouzi, arranging the setup and making the booth look as expensive as he could.
“All right, I’m done checking them all. They’re clean,” said Yatou. “Maybe you should go get your third eye opened before the year ends.”
“I need to pass the spirit-casting test first to receive it,” sighed Gouzi.
“It’s not that hard,” said Yatou. “I think you’ll do fine.”
“Thanks, Shijie*, maybe I’ll go for it,” said Gouzi.
*Shijie = senior sister
“Gouzi, how’s the setup going?” asked a young man, braids in the side of his hair swept into a ponytail. The young man was dressed in the standard black of the Border Mountains Sect, decorated with some silver and jade to give him a more formal look.
Before Gouzi could react, Yatou had gone up to the young man and greeted him, a curious look on her face. This young man looked like one of them but did not sport any of the peaks’ colours.
“I’m Crystal Peak’s disciple, Yatou. You are…?” she asked.
“Greetings to big sister Yatou. I’m Mie’er, an undercover disciple sent to work here,” said Di Mie, smiling and acting cute.
“I see,” said Yatou.
No, you’re not ‘seeing’ anything! thought Gouzi.
“All right, I’ll be going now. Gouzi, little brother Mie’er, take care of yourself,” said Yatou, giving them a smile.
Gouzi could only stare wide-eyed as Di Mie waved goodbye to Yatou.
“Look smart. It’s time to open shop,” said Di Mie, dropping his cute act and putting his game face on.
“There’s a five-silver administration fee to cover our costs. We would really appreciate a tip if you can afford it,” said Di Mie, smiling at the various cultivators here to claim the lost weapons of themselves or on behalf of their clan.
“Honoured cultivators, please sign here with your name and clan once you have confirmed the weapon you wish to claim,” said Gouzi, making sure to use the decorum and manners suited towards noble elites he learnt from Elegance Peak classes.
The first cultivator was a mercenary, quietly claiming his sword and setting down ten silvers on the table.
“Ten silvers! Thank you for your generosity, cultivator Zhang!” called out Di Mie. “It’s really hard for us, you know. Five silvers hardly cover our costs, so thank you for your ten silvers!”
“Hah, ten silvers? What a cheapskate,” sneered the cultivator behind him.
‘Cultivator Zhang’ looked ashamed of himself and quickly set down another ten silvers before shuffling off.
“A sect of commoners sure works hard for pocket change,” scoffed another cultivator claiming his stolen sword. He signed for his sword, took out a purse and dropped it on the table.
Gouzi knew what to do now, quickly pouring out the contents of the purse in front of everyone.
“Fifty silvers from this generous cultivator Zhou here!” announced Gouzi, smiling brightly. “Thank you, thank you! It really shows how big-hearted you are! This junior disciple shall make sure your contribution be clearly written down and conveyed to all!”
Di Mie nodded at Gouzi approvingly.
“All that pomp and only fifty silvers? Are you really from an affluent clan?” laughed someone in the queue.
“I’d like to see you do better,” said the red-faced cultivator who was criticised.
“Esteemed cultivator sirs, we also accept bank notes!” added Di Mie. Gouzi picked up on it and followed Di Mie’s lead, smiling and helping to goad these customers’ generosity.
With all the bickering, these thin-skinned cultivators began to try and one-up each other with their purses.
The banker takes all and Gouzi and Di Mie smiled as they easily recouped the Di Mie’s capital and earned some extra for the Border Mountains Sect’s coffers.
Di Mie sighed as they had a slight lull in business, with the next batch of ‘customers’ seemingly arguing with each other and going off to get more funds.
“Senior, what’s wrong?” asked Gouzi. It was rare to see Di Mie sigh like this.
“I wish my Shizun could see me working hard,” grumbled Di Mie, folding his arms and leaning against a pillar. “I thought maybe my grown-up form was making him uncomfortable so I’ve been letting him see this youthful, dashing me, but he’s still so reserved…”
“Um, are you referring to Senior Xie?” said Gouzi.
“Who else would I be talking about?” said Di Mie, picking at his nails while keeping an eye on the bickering crowd of customers. As if hitting upon an idea, he pulled out a pocket mirror from his pouch and turned around, discreetly casting a communication spell.
Gouzi blinked in surprise. Communication spells were expensive, requiring precise enchanting and high-grade spirit stones. He’d never seen it used for such a frivolous purpose. He respectfully averted his gaze, not wanting to pry.
“No need to be so uptight,” chuckled Di Mie. “Just look if you’re curious.”
Gouzi nodded and sidled over, giving in to his curiosity.
“Young master,” came Heigou’s deep voice from the mirror. “If it’s regarding the report from the scouts—”
“Where’s he?” interrupted Di Mie.
“I’ll pass the mirror to him,” chuckled Heigou.
Xie Li’s eyes turned away when Heigou passed him the mirror. He peeked a glance at it and seeing the familiar face in the mirror instead of his own reflection, he relaxed.
“Shizun~” came a familiar voice as well.
“What is it, Mie’er?” said Xie Li, his hand coming up in view and doing little flaps.
“Missed me?” grinned Di Mie. “Are you alone—wait. This isn’t your room. Where are you?”
“Hu Xun’s room?”
“Jianshi and Jianjin are with me.”
“Huh? Oh, right. I did say you can be near him if they’re with you, but…”
“I’ll leave if it displeases you.”
“No, no,” said Di Mie, the grip on the mirror tightened and shook a little. “This disciple doesn’t dare reprimand you.”
“If that’s the case, I’ll stay and discuss the matter of the Jiutian sword with him—”
“Please hand this mirror over to Hu Xun,” smiled Di Mie, a corner of his lips twitching.
“I’ll, um, get back to work,” said Gouzi, not wanting to know where the conversation led.
Di Mie ignored him, ducking under the generous booth table to continue his call.
“What is it, Brother Di?” said Rong Zhong, as he appeared in the mirror. He laughed nervously and fanned himself when amber eyes glared daggers at him.
“Stop seducing my Shizun and get out of the room, you damn playboy.”
“Brother Di, I’m not seducing—argh. You know my playboy reputation is faked, right?” said Rong Zhong.
“What’s a ‘playboy’?” came Xie Li’s voice from behind Rong Zhong.
“Shizun, it’s nothing,” said Di Mie.
Xie Li sighed and took the mirror from Rong Zhong, then walked out of the room, leaving everyone behind.
“Are you not feeling well?” asked Xie Li.
“I’m hale and hearty~”
“Your nose scrunching up. You are either unhappy or uncomfortable,” said Xie Li.
“Fine, I admit I’m unhappy that you’re having fun with Hu Xun while I’m working hard on the streets all by my lonely self.”
“If you don’t want to work, then don’t. If you’re lonely, then go play with your friends,” said Xie Li, matter-of-factly.
“I’ll have no money for food and clothes if I don’t work,” pouted Di Mie.
“You know how to hunt and forage for food,” said Xie Li. “As for clothes, ask Lingfeng or Sister Ye to give you.”
“I want to eat good food and wear fine clothes,” challenged Di Mie. “They can’t give me that.”
Xie Li’s gaze fluttered downwards as he thought about it for a moment, then answered.
“Then sell Ashfire. Hu Xun said it’s worth a lot at an auction.”
“That damned Hu Xun said unnecessary things…” muttered Di Mie.
The long tablecloth parted and Gouzi’s face appeared.
“Senior,” he whispered. “We have a situation.”
“Tsk. Looks like work’s not gonna go smoothly today,” said Di Mie.
“Go,” said Xie Li. “I’ll take care of your people here for you.”
“That’s their job—forget it. I’ll talk to you later,” said Di Mie, swiftly tucking the mirror away.
A group of Rong Clan disciples swaggered and came to a halt outside the White Crane Publishing House. People and cultivators alike quickly gave them a wide berth and whispered among themselves.
“Greetings, sir cultivators from the Rong Clan,” said Gouzi, as politely as he could. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
The Rong Clan disciple looked him up and down and seeing no sign of a sigil of nobility on him, scoffed, “Don’t speak to me. Border Mountains Sect peasants have no place among cultivators.”
“Sir cultivators, these are lost and stolen swords that we intend to return to their owners,” said Gouzi, perplexed as they began taking the swords from the booth.
“It’s their fault for losing their swords,” said another Rong Clan disciple. “If they want their swords back, they can go to the Phoenix Manor and take it up with our clan head.”
“There’s a five-silvers administration fee for each sword you claim,” said Di Mie, strolling in to take over from Gouzi. “Also, please fill in the form as a receipt of your collection.”
“I don’t need to listen to you Border Mountains peasants—”
He was interrupted by a loud clap in front of his face. Di Mie, in his raven-haired teenage form, clapped his hands together and a blast of spirit aura energy that came from his palms sent the Rong Clan disciples reeling back a few steps.
“Y—you dare pick a fight with the Rong Clan?” stuttered the disciple, drawing his sword as he trembled, startled by the blast.
“Of course not, sir,” smiled Di Mie. “There was a mosquito in front of you, so I thought to kill it before it bit you.”
“Nonsense! You’re making things up!”
“I assure you, sir, that it was a very fierce mosquito,” said Gouzi with a straight face, backing Di Mie up.
“Oh dear, the mosquito just landed on your face…” said Di Mie, taking a step forward. The Rong Clan disciples hastily backed off.
“What’s going on?” said a woman on a horse approaching them. “What’s taking so long?”
“Mistress Rong!” greeted the Rong Clan disciples.
Rong Ci, daughter of the Rong Clan, was accompanied by the elite guards of the Rong Clan. She was dressed in the gold and red of her clan.
Enchantments were sewn into her robe with shimmering spirit thread and a bejewelled sword hung on her hip. A luxurious fur cape around her shoulders was embroidered in gold thread, keeping her warm and comfortable in the winter.
She was wearing what could easily be the entire fortune of any other clan.
“If you can’t do this simple task, what’s the point of keeping you?” said Rong Ci. Her voice was sweet but her gaze was condescending.
“Take your stupid administration fee,” hissed the Rong Clan senior, red-faced as he slammed a bag of silver on the table. He and his men quickly took the swords and hastened off to the Phoenix Manor.
“Hey. You lot,” said a guard leading Rong Ci’s convoy, addressing the cultivators around the booth claiming their swords. “We’re gathering men to hunt some demons. Come and fight if you want fame and money. If you don’t have a sword, we’ll lend you one. Go to the Juxian Inn to sign up.”
The mercenaries went up to Rong Ci’s horse, thanking her profusely and headed over to the inn.
Rong Ci dusted off her sleeves, wrinkled her nose and huffed.
“They’re so dirty,” she said, turning her horse around. “Come. We’re going to settle some old scores on the west street.”
“Gouzi, take care of things here,” grinned Di Mie, following right behind Rong Ci’s convey.
“Where—” Gouzi stopped himself and shook his head, then simply saluted. “Yes, sir.”
“Hey, Old Niu, are you sure this is the right way?” asked Auntie Ma, using a bamboo stick as a walking staff.
“This is the end of the path, so we should be in the right place,” said Old Niu, tapping a finger on a map and passing it over for Auntie Ma to look at.
“There should be a small shrine—ah, could that hut be it?” said Auntie Ma. “It looks pretty run-down.”
“Calling it ‘run-down’ is being kind. This looks more like a haunted hut…” said Old Niu, avoiding stepping on the bits of half-burnt paper offerings so as not to offend any lost spirits.
“It’s a little dusty and there are ashes scattered all over the floor,” said Auntie Ma. “But the offerings on the altar look fresh. It couldn’t have been more than a few days since someone came here. There’s a tablet here—heavens! The offerings are for a ‘Lord Divine Retribution’.”
“This ‘battle’ mentioned here probably refers to the Calamity and the ‘prophecies’ might be the ‘curses’ the Lord Divine Retribution laid upon the major clans,” said Old Niu, stroking his non-beard thoughtfully.
“As it says, ‘the gates are closed; spirits dispersed’,” said Auntie Ma. “No matter what kind of person he was, may his soul find rest and move on.”
“Indeed,” sighed Old Niu. “Most tales painted the Hermit Moon Peak Lord as a villain through and through, but from what stories I’ve collected, it’s not that simple. Just look at the terrible things many people did to survive during those tough times. Blaming one man as the source of all disaster is just lazy story-telling.”
“It seems like you’re hoping to write your own version of the tale,” chuckled Auntie Ma.
“Maybe,” grinned Old Niu. “This old man still has what it takes to be a travelling bard!”
“This place feels a little disconcerting,” said Auntie Ma. “I hope someone picks us up soon.”
“Auntie Ma, Uncle Niu!” called out a cheery voice as a familiar face popped into the rundown shrine.
“Ah, isn’t this young sir Jianjin!” called out Old Niu. “I’m glad someone we know is here to get us.”
“No need to be formal with me; I’m young enough to be your son,” chirped Jianjin.
“All right then, good child,” chuckled Old Niu. “We won’t stand on formalities.”
“Come, Jianjin, it’s not much, but this is for you,” said Auntie Ma as she dug out a parcel from her bundle and gave it to him.
Jianjin eagerly took it, unwrapping it to reveal a handful of biscuits. He popped one into his mouth, crumbs spewing out as he exclaimed: “These almond biscuits melt in my mouth!”
“I’m glad you like them,” chuckled Auntie Ma.
“Man, it’s going to be hard to leave half for my bro…” said Jianjin, stuffing two more into his mouth. He cupped his cheek to express how tasty the biscuits were.
“You can eat it all. I’ll make another batch for your brother later,” said Auntie Ma.
“Don’t you go back on your word!” chirped Jianjin, popping in one more biscuit before tucking the rest in his sleeve.
A breeze picked up and the scattered half-burnt joss papers on the floor rustled.
“Let’s go before it gets dark,” said Jianjin. “It’s good you came on foot. We’ve been on high alert ever since the Rong Clan put up mass bounties on demon hunting.”
“We hear people on the streets everywhere complaining about how Rong Clan disciples are asking for ‘donations’ from the businesses,” said Auntie Ma.
“Why would they need to do that? I thought the clan’s filthy rich,” said Jianjin.
“Only the people at the top of the clan are rich,” said Old Niu. “Their clan’s disciples are getting greedy and out of hand now that the clan’s second son and steward are gone.”
“Uncle Niu is so well-informed!” said Jianjin.
“Heh, don’t underestimate the abilities of a former disciple of Cloudrest Peak,” said Old Niu, rubbing his chin.
They made their way through the guard house and saw Heigou briefing the guards on their patrol.
“Jianjin, you’re back,” said Heigou. “This must be Mister Niu and Madam Ma.”
“Ah, just call me Auntie Ma,” said Auntie Ma reflexively as she looked at the tall dog-headed man in awe. “And you are…?”
“Guard captain Heigou is in charge of the security here,” said Jianjin.
“Call me Old Niu. Pleased to meet you, captain,” greeted Old Niu.
“There’s no need to be formal,” said Heigou. “Any friends of the young master and Mister Xie are friends of mine. If there’s anything you need, just let me know.”
“Oh, I have so many questions to ask,” said Old Niu, not holding back. “Um, I’m somewhat of a storyteller and would love to collect some stories about the demon clans.”
“Certainly,” chuckled Heigou. “I’ll visit you when I’m free.”
“That would be wonderful,” said Old Niu, his eyes sparkling.
“You’re such a child sometimes,” chuckled Auntie Ma.
“I’ll bring them to the manor, captain,” said Jianjin to Heigou.
“All right, I’ll leave this to you and go on my patrol,” said Heigou.
Jianjin saluted and beckoned Old Niu and Auntie Ma to follow him into the main street.
“Is Ah-Li at the manor?” asked Auntie Ma.
“Senior Xie should be working at the Cat’s Paw restaurant at this time,” said Jianjin.
“Last we saw Xie Li at Juxian Inn, he looked very sick. Has he recovered enough to work?” asked Old Niu.
“Aiyo, he should be resting. Someone other than me will be sure to overwork him,” said Auntie Ma, frowning. “Bring us to this restaurant. I need to check on him.”
They made their way to the Cat’s Paw restaurant and saw Xie Li’s head cradled in his arms atop the tea table, fast asleep. He had one arm outstretched over the table still holding onto a measuring spoon.
Jinbei, the cat-faced owner of the restaurant, tip-toed up to him and carefully replaced the spoon in his hand with a sprig of plum blossom. The cat-faced demon then set a vase of flowers on the table.
Jinbei looked at the customers at the tables.
One of them pointed at the vase and gestured for him to move it. He shifted it to the other end of the table, giving them an unobstructed view.
“What is going on?” whispered Auntie Ma, not daring to disturb the quiet.
“Ah, customers,” said Jinbei, coming up to them and rubbing his hands.
“Hi, boss Jinbei,” said Jianjin, keeping his voice soft. “These two are senior Xie’s friends coming to see him.”
“I see,” said Jinbei. “Mister Xie’s sleeping now, so why not wait until his shift’s over? It’s about an hour more. I can get you a table.”
Auntie Ma frowned when she saw Xie Li being gawked at in his sleep.
“Ah-Li is shy and doesn’t like to sleep in front of other people,” said Auntie Ma, turning to glare at Jinbei. “I don’t think he agreed to this.”
“Uhh, it’s within his shift, so…” said Jinbei.
“The last few times this happened, Captain Heigou would take him upstairs or back to the manor, but the captain’s finishing his shift late,” said Jianjin, digging Jinbei’s grave. “I’m here to actually escort senior Xie back if he’s sleeping.”
“Fine, fine, just take him,” muttered Jinbei, pouting.
Jianjin went up to Xie Li and shook his arm. “Senior Xie, let’s go back.”
It took a while, but Xie Li eventually stirred, his eyes heavy. He felt something in his hand and seeing something unfamiliar, quickly let go of it. He narrowed his eyes slightly as he looked around the room. There were more people than he was comfortable with, and he started drawing away.
“Senior Xie, I’m Jianjin. This is the Cat Paw’s restaurant,” reported Jianjin.
Xie Li slowly stood up and straightened his clothes. His movement was impeccable and fluid, but he looked cold and distant. He looked more like a painting than a real person.
Old Niu blinked and felt a chill down his back for a moment.
“Ah-Li, you shouldn’t be working while you’re still sick. Come, let’s leave,” said Auntie Ma.
“…Auntie Ma?” said Xie Li, blinking.
“Yes, it’s your Auntie Ma,” smiled Auntie Ma.
Xie Li stared at them for a while.
“Just give him a moment. I think he’s not fully awake yet,” whispered Jianjin to Auntie Ma.
“Yes, Auntie Ma knows this,” she whispered back.
After a while, Xie Li seemed a bit more like his slightly dopier self and gave them a well-practised smile.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you here, Auntie Ma,” said Xie Li. He looked around at the restaurant and then at Jinbei.
“Uh, your shift’s ended, so feel free to clock off,” said Jinbei, drawing an envelope from his sleeve.
Jianjin took the envelope, poured out the coins from it and counted.
“It’s the correct amount,” said Jianjin. “I thank you on behalf of my senior Xie, boss Jinbei.”
“It’s the least I could do,” smiled Jinbei, rubbing his paws together. “Please don’t tell the young master about this.”
“That’s up to senior Xie, not me,” said Jianjin, handing the envelope of coins to Xie Li.
“Ah, Sir Dream-Wandering Immortal, do you have to go so soon?” called out a customer at the tables.
“If boss Jinbei here displeased you, let us know and we’ll beat him up!”
“Hey, you lot,” scolded Jinbei.
Xie Li looked at the customers, then at Jianjin, who seemed to know what to do after watching his Di Shibo.
“Just tell them you’re busy and need to go,” he suggested.
“Mn,” said Xie Li. He turned to the customers and said, “I am busy and I need to go.”
The customers waved and called after him as he left the restaurant without looking back.
“Please come back soon!”
“Or allow us to visit you at the manor?”
“We’ll bring gifts!”
“They’re demons, but they’re pretty lively,” said Auntie Ma, surprised. “It almost feels like being back at my inn.”