The blacksmith at the Wu's ironware shop, who made weapons, didn't have a hefty workload. After all, weapons sales weren't exactly booming in this wretched ghost-town. Each blacksmith only had a fixed amount of work every month. As long as you could just produce ten passable weapons to hand in at the end of the month, then that was enough so the boss wouldn't give you any bother during the rest of the time. To Junior Leopard, this was quite a relaxing pace. He could not only have this work more or less finished in half a month, but the weapons that he made in this time would be of the highest quality too.
As for his free time, he had it all to himself, so there was plenty of time for him to practice his martial arts.
For the last six months, however, his thoughts had been mainly focused on understanding Tai Chi Quan and purifying the Ignis Internal Qi. After all, his body was still too young and couldn't handle anything more strenuous—after this year was up he would still only be nine years old, and he didn't want to do any damage to his body through training too hard.
Ah, if only I could do as they do in those books and legends, and just dip into some herbal bath and be fixed up right away!
For the last half a year, apart from practicing his martial arts, the thing he had been doing most was going on a book buying frenzy. He was not short of money here, and books were not expensive either.
His purpose of buying books was simple: to understand this strange and mysterious world as much as possible.
The old proverb puts it well, "A scholar goes not out, and yet knows all under heaven."
Based on what?
Based on books. On the knowledge gained from books.
Qingyang Market was a small place, and few people were literate. And so, there were even fewer people selling books, a trade which was a guaranteed loss.
His only opportunities to buy books were on the 1st and 15th of each month when there was a fair held in Qingyang market attracting people from villages from miles around. This time was the only chance he had to purchase some books.
Although the books were few, it was still enough for him to gain some concrete understanding of the world around him.
"Oh, isn't it Junior Leopard! Back again to buy some more books, are you?"
The 15th had arrived again. Market day! Every street of Qingyang Market, without exception, was flanked on either side with traveling merchants setting up market stalls. Needless to say, this was also a time for the Qingyang local authorities and the Black Dragon Triad to line their own pockets.
"Ah, Brother Zhang, so it's you on duty today!" Seeing this burly fellow grinning as he came to greet him, Junior Leopard smiled back. This was Zhang Yong, a minor leader of the Black Dragon Triad. Almost every month at this time, he appeared on this same street collecting his protection money, just as naturally as the local government collecting their taxes. Since Junior Leopard had also been running about these streets on this day every month for half a year now, he had, of course, made Zhang Yong's acquaintance.
Zhang Yong also knew that, although Junior Leopard was young, he was a disciple of the Wu clan with great prospects ahead of him; and in all of Qingyang market, only the local government wielded an influence more fearsome to provoke than that of the Wu clan. He would, therefore, dare not cause any offense. Upon encountering him on the street he simply nodded his head and made a greeting, this was enough to count as friendly relations.
After taking leave of Zhang Yong, Junior Leopard continued onwards. Walking along the street, he heard the shout of a familiar voice hawking their wares, and he couldn't stop the hint of a warm smile from flashing across his face. It was the voice of Wang Tianlei, who had brought a group of hunters to the market. Since the spoils of their hunting had been increasing, each family still had plenty left over; even after they had together sold some of their game in bulk to a trading firm. The hunters would then go to the market to sell their personal surplus, under Wang Tianlei's leadership, of course. But this was not the same as a large firm's trading, they each sell their own individually, and they merely gathered together to help avoid arriving at any misfortune. After they had sold all their goods, these lads would then take the chance to have a look around the market themselves and perhaps get a sentimental gift for their women back home; this was, after all, only human nature.
Junior Leopard's elder brother was amongst them. During these last six months, Junior Leopard made sure his wages were taken back home to help subsidize the household expenses. He did so by finding his brother at this market and passing them on to him.
"So much? Little Shiba, will there be enough left for yourself?!"
Junior Leopard's elder brother looked at the purse that Junior Leopard had passed to him. He thought for a second, and then a shocked look spread across his face; from the weight of this, it must be equal to almost half a year's wages of his!
"I have plenty left for myself—I had a lot of luck this month. I made a few weapons more than usual, and so the prize I took was greater too... " Junior Leopard said nonchalantly.
"Ho-ho, so now Little Shiba is a pillar of the family!" The hunters standing by them were doing good business so they were in a light-hearted mood. Upon hearing the two brothers' conversation, they began to joke around.
"That's right, Junior Leopard, out of our entire village it's you with the finest prospects! Never mind working here as a blacksmith, how about I do a little match-making for you… my uncle has a young lass about your age, a radiant and vivacious little thing. How about it, eh?!"
"Never mind your uncle's family. There's a young niece of my family who is not bad at all too… !"
After some time, everyone had said their bit, and Junior Leopard was flushed red with embarrassment.
"There, there!" Laughter rippled through the crowd, and then Wang Tianlei said, "You are all fully grown men, but here you are now, still teasing this young lad
"Elder brother Zhou, we're just having a joke, but what we say is true… Junior Leopard is indeed young, but he can still be betrothed… !"
"Yeah, that's right… !"
The crowd chimed in with their agreement.
"OK, OK, elder brothers, brother-in-law, everyone, I won't disturb your business!" With a look of resignation, Junior Leopard cupped his hands to bid farewell to this group of fellows.
"Little Shiba, do you have any free time lately?!" Seeing that Junior Leopard wanted to leave, Spikey promptly opened his mouth to ask him this question. With him being away for half a year, Junior Leopard's family had rather missed him. He knew that an apprentice had to follow an apprentice's rule, and it was common for them to find that they were unable to return home. As New Year's was approaching, Spikey wanted to know if Junior Leopard still had to serve in the armory. Although Junior Leopard had now broken free from his apprenticeship and had a lot of free time, it was still however quite troublesome for him to leave the armory behind.
"Oh, now let me see… perhaps next month I'll have time? I'll ask for leave when the time arrives, it shouldn't be a problem!" Junior Leopard said, then hurried away.
He had been reborn into this world and had a new identity and new parents, but in the end, it was still the memories of his previous life which occupied the dominant place in his thoughts. Although he held deep feelings towards his new family and new parents, he did not want to go back there and play the role of a child again.
He walked down the road, around the corner, coasted along the well-trodden path, and finally arrived on a street corner where a middle-aged man was setting up an old bookstall. For the past half a year, Junior Leopard had basically bought all of his books from here.
Just as he was approaching the bookstall, Junior Leopard heard the voice of someone cursing. "You damned wastrel, how dare you rob my stall!? Don't you realize who it is you have crossed!"
"Huh… ?!" Junior Leopard's eyebrows jumped up in surprise. Without needing to look, he recognized the voice of the middle-aged man.
"This… this place… this place isn't run by your family! If you can set up a stall then why can't I set mine up?!" A weak voice called out, and a man of thin stature picked himself up off the ground. Junior Leopard could see more clearly now; it was a youth of about 20 years old, who looked delicate yet handsome — although his face was smeared with a layer of dust, and had on it a large bruise presumably from where he had just fallen. His robes, which originally would have been a pure white, were also now stained a grayish color. In his hands, he was holding something bundled in blue cloth, and it seemed like inside the bundle was a book. Based on this scene, it appeared that this boy must have wanted to set up a stall to sell books.
But, he did not know that, although this was a bustling market with all the stalls appearing to be chaotic and disorderly, they, in fact, each had a boss to answer to—each and every stall had to give payment to the Black Dragon Triad. This payment was divided into two parts—one was protection money to the Triad, and the other was taxation for the local government, which the Triad collected on their behalf. Wang Tianlei and the others were also not exempt; these were the rules of Qingyang Market and were well-established through common practice.
It was obvious that the younger man had not understood these rules, and had just taken a few books to directly sell at a stall. All things considered, it would have been stranger if he hadn't been beaten.
Just behind him stood the very same Zhang Yong of the Black Dragon Triad who Junior Leopard had bumped into on his way here. Zhang Yong's expression had darkened, and upon hearing the younger man speak these words, he exploded. "You accursed thing! If I don't run this place, then I suppose you think that you run it? Let me tell you, this place most certainly is run by me, the Black Dragon Triad runs this place! And you little scoundrel, you dare talk back to me?!" As he spoke, he moved forward, raising a foot to kick the boy.