Because of the flourishing of incense market in the recent years, various incense materials had been suffering from excessive consumption. Fragrant rosewood (Dalbergia odorifera) as young as twenty years of age was already hard to come by, let alone old underwater agarwood.
It was with great effort that Li Yang obtained a wide variety of raw materials for the exhibition, such as agarwood, arborvitae, padauk, redwood etc. One of the reasons they were here was to make up for the lack of top quality wood.
The display of the materials was considered a private event that wasn’t open to public. Those invited were mostly relatives, friends and potential customers. Many small business owners were into incense-collecting nowadays. They might not be able to afford the most expensive ones, but splashing a few hundreds of thousands would not be something they would think twice about.
Hence, the crowd was not overly big—just a little over one hundred people, at most.
When Jiang Xiaozhai led Panpan onto the fourth floor, they were stopped at the entrance. Xiaozhai waved a card at the guard who then let her in right away. Not all cards were equal—the luxurious golden card she was holding was a proof of being a friend of Li Yang.
The two girls walked in and found themselves inside a big hall. Timbers were piled here and there, divided into categories. Besides the timbers, there were also operating platforms on which the materials could be opened at the scene. Next to the hall was a tea room, where the guests could rest and talk in private.
Li Yang saw her coming in but did not greet her right away. He walked to the front of the room and gestured with his hands to attract everyone’s attention instead. "Everyone, please be quiet for a moment. First of all, I’d like to express my gratitude to all of you for coming here to attend this exhibition. In return, I have racked my brain preparing for this event.
Among you, there are experts on incense, those who know little about it and those who want to be admitted into this circle. It doesn’t matter which type you belong to, for there is only one rule in material-cutting—there’s no turning back once the knife makes its way through. You are having a lucky day if the material is excellent, but please don’t be upset if you end up getting an empty one. Everyone here is a powerful and influential figure in one field or another and it’s not worthwhile to take these playthings too seriously. All right, I will stop speaking here. Have a nice time."
After that, he approached Xiaozhai with a smile, "Miss Jiang, I almost thought you were not coming."
"Oh, I was held up back there. This is Xiao Pan, a good friend of mine."
Li Yang shook hands with Panpan and went on, "Which incense is Miss Jiang interested in? I could talk you through some of the things here."
"Um, I don’t really know much about incense. We’ll look around ourselves."
"No problem. Feel free to walk around. Do let me know if you need anything."
He still had that amiable look and did not insist on tagging along but left them right after speaking those words. Panpan found it strange and asked, "Why, aren’t you an expert in these things?"
"I might be an expert, but he doesn’t need to know that," Jiang Xiaozhai answered casually.
"Humph!" Panpan pursed her lips and added, "What if he decided to follow us around?"
"You’ll be my escape plan, of course."
Xiaozhai stretched out her arm and pressed Panpan to her chest with a laughter. "I’ll say you’re having your period and need an emergency evacuation."
The two girls giggled all their way to the red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus) corner, where timbers of different length and diameter were neatly displayed. Some had a jet-black outer layer, while the trunks of others remained a taupe color.
Most guests were circling around the agarwood and only a handful of people were in this corner, amongst them a bald middle-aged man—the sole customer. However, by the look of it, his knowledge on incense was very limited as he had a rather baffled look on his face.
Panpan had no idea about incense whatsoever, so she just watched Xiaozhai approach the pile of timbers and walk around it. It took her a while before she picked up a meter-long piece. She gave it a good knock and gently stroked the outer bark, then asked, "May I have it sliced open?"
"You may after purchasing it," replied the staff.
"In that case, forget it."
She did not linger and left the corner right away. Panpan chased after her and asked, "How was it? How was it?"
"That one’s pretty good," she pointed back.
"By your standard, good enough to trade for quite a few visits to the sautéed crab in hot and spicy sauce restaurant."
"Why didn’t you buy it, then? You don’t have enough money on you? Take mine," Panpan urged her.
"That piece was over 10 kg at least. At 250 yuan a kilo, that’s over ten thousand yuan in total and half a kilo of the material can make one string of beads at most. The beads sell at one thousand per string, which is next to nothing after subtracting the processing cost. Plus, I don’t even like the sandalwood."
"Tsk! You’re as self-willed as ever!"
Panpan was speechless and could do nothing but nod. Feeling she wasn’t tall enough to express that clearly, she also hopped up to help emphasize her feelings.
They weren’t trying to lower their voice and had let the bald man hear their every word. He hesitated for a few seconds and pointed at the piece, "This one. I’ll take this one!"
The staff quickly measured and weighed the material while the bald man paid with his card and took the wood to the work platform right away, where an old master waited for customers. It just so happened that he was the first customer to have an incense material cut open today. Seeing this, the others swarmed near to watch, talking all at once.
"They say that nine out of ten pieces of sandalwood are hollow. This one does not look promising at all. I say it’s a bad one."
"Hard to say. Maybe it will have fish-scale patterns full of golden stars!" 
"Ha! If he were that lucky, he might as well try it in the stock market."
The crowd buzzed on, but it did not affect the old master’s work at all. He scrutinized the wood and sliced off a thin layer with a blade first. When the reddish interior was revealed, he then splashed it with a special "revitalizing water", which immediately made the patterns on the surface apparent.
The crowd exclaimed in amazement. The material had a pure base color with flame-shaped patterns. What was more, eighty percent of it was also covered in golden stars!
The so-called golden stars were mineral precipitations in fibers of tree trunks, which would form star-like solid crystals with a golden luster. The value of a material would differ greatly depending on whether it had golden stars or not. Now that it was opened, someone called out immediately, "Old Zhang, let me have it. How much did you pay? I’ll double that!"
"Do you think I’m an idiot or what?!"
The bald man wiped his sweat away and turned around to retort. He seemed very nervous—not because of the money, though. It was simply his first time doing this and he found it incredibly exciting. He urged on, "Master, don’t stop!"
The old master darted a look at him and set up the lathe. With a jarring cutting sound, a section of the material was cut off, revealing the cross-section. The crowd hurried near to take a look.
Ouch! It was a pity. The golden stars only covered a thin section and could not be found further in. There were even black veins in the wood.
The bald man felt very unlucky now. He forced out his words, "Master, go on!"
The third cut was even worse, which gave him a hollow in the wood, taking up at least half of the cross-section. The next two cuts were the same. The sixth cut was better, as the color of the oil was mellow… about a dozen cuts were made in total in the end, one third of which were hollow ones.
That actually was a pretty good outcome. They meant it when they said nine of ten sandalwood pieces were hollow. The old master consoled him, "Not bad. You’ll have a dozen strings of beads out of these. Your money was well spent."
"Ah, such bad luck!" The bald man would not stop sighing.
It wouldn’t take too long to make the material into beads and he decided to have it processed right away. His first incense-betting had made his heart all aflutter with feverish excitement. After calming himself down, the fellow suddenly realized, ‘Damn, that young girl really knows her stuff!‘
In that instant, he decided to ride on her coattails and searched around in a hurry, then scuttled off in Xiaozhai’s direction.
"Wei Wei, how does this one look?"
Meanwhile, in the agarwood section on the other side of the hall, He Tian was pointing at an old underwater agarwood.
Zeng Yuewei frowned slightly and ignored his overly-familiar form of address. She took a closer look at the material, which was a bulky one, laid on the stand like a piece of broken tree trunk. It was covered by a brown-and-black outer bark. The black part was the oil and the brown was created when incense wood fell into marsh and chemical reactions occurred, forming a new pattern.
The agarwood materials all came in as a whole, without any exposed cross-sections. One could only judge the quality of the interior through the outer bark, oil color and the position of the center of gravity.
Her knowledge on incense was sketchy at most, but she would not admit to that here and said hesitantly, "I believe it is a piece of underwater material from Kalimantan. The oil looks plump and the condition seems excellent as well."
"Miss Zeng is indeed true to her name!"
She had barely finished her sentence when Li Yang appeared by her side with his compliment. "This material was indeed from Kalimantan and I bought it for 700,000 yuan. It will be the highlight of today. I wonder who will have the guts..."
He Tian glanced around and mocked him, "You expect that from these hillbillies? I’ll be the one saving your ass if no one else wants to pay for it. Otherwise, it’ll be such a shame for you."
"Don’t be so mean. It’s our friendship you’re talking about. Shame on me, shame on you."
"F**k! Your thick face is the only thing you have that I was never able to match since childhood. You’re… what are you looking at?" He Tian was babbling on, but his friend was already slipping away, scanning the hall with his eyes.
He followed those eyes and saw two girls wandering around not far from them. One was tall and slim, while the other was short and chubby. He Tian saw through him immediately. "What now? A new one?"
"Not exactly. I don’t really know her yet," replied Li Yang.
"Then hurry up. How much effort do you want to put in?"
Zeng Yuewei also noticed that fresh-looking girl. She knew very well that she was Li Yang’s prey. Judging by the influence and background he had, the girl was doomed.
She felt she could relate to her because of the situation she herself was in as she suddenly felt sad and powerless. She made an excuse to stay away. "You guys go on, I need to go to the restroom."
After she left, Li Yang asked with a laughter, "Stop mocking me. How are you two getting along?"
"If it were not for her old grandmother, I’d already have her in my bed by now! Women like her are much better than those random girls out there, though. So interesting to handle!" He Tian snorted and went on, "Where is that woman from?"
"An employee of Tianbao."
"What are you waiting for, then? I’m telling you, all women like money. The only difference is that some pretend they don’t and some don’t pretend. Why, don’t tell me you’re in it for real?"
"True, women like money, but it all lies in the approach you use. The thing you lack most is subtlety…"
Li Yang took his eyes off Xiaozhai and beckoned at a staff nearby. He whispered some instructions and the staff went away to make preparations. Hearing his arrangement, He Tian made a disdainful look but could not be bothered to argue with his friend.
The betting went on for over an hour. At first, everyone was cautious, but with excellent materials being cut open one after another, the atmosphere began to heat up.
Two work platforms were operating without stop, cutting timbers with jarring sounds. There were exclamations and swearing mixed with the noise as well. Betting was in people’s nature. It did not matter what they were betting on. As long as it involved the pleasant sensation of unpredictability, sooner or later one would become addicted.
Xiaozhai and Panpan were two exceptions in that excited crowd. They had been wandering around absent-mindedly… well, followed by an insignificant bald man.
He had been following the girls for what seemed like eternity and did not see them make any move at all. Just as he was about to give up, they finally stopped in the fragrant rosewood area.
Xiaozhai browsed the pile. She lifted up a big one first and put it down after taking a look. She then found a smaller one and seemed satisfied with it. She went straight to the staff, "Weigh this for me, please."
The staff measured and weighed it for her immediately. "This is a spongy rosewood material from Qiongzhou. The length is 53 cm, as for diameter, it’s 10 cm at the thicker end and 4 cm at the thinner end. It weighs 3.5 kg."
She bought it right away. It wasn’t that expensive, just over four thousand yuan.
All incense toys went from being purely articles for collection to become an investment, then a speculation and finally a hype, until the bubble burst eventually. The year before last was when the price of the fragrant rosewood was at its peak, at 9,000 yuan a kilo. It then plunged last year. The buyer would not even consider a price of 900 per kilo. The price had recovered a little bit this year, back to over 1,200 a kilo.
The fragrant rosewood of Qiongzhou consisted mainly of the glossy rosewood and the spongy rosewood. The spongy type was mostly found in the southeast, containing less oil but having prettier patterns, while the glossy type grew in the west, having a higher density and containing more oil.
To put it simply, one had better-looking patterns and the other had better texture. Which was better? It all depended on one’s preference.
Xiaozhai had been strolling around as if she was in a food market and was now making a purchase without any hesitation. Both Panpan and the bald man were taken by surprise and Panpan even tried to talk her out of it. "Are you sure of this? Don’t rush it. That’s half your monthly salary…"
"I know what I’m doing. Let’s go!"
She pulled Panpan into her arms and glanced back intentionally, which made the bald man rather awkward.
As the two girls walked towards the working platform, a buxom woman got there first with a microphone and announced, "Everyone, please be quiet. In return for your participation and enthusiasm, Mr. Li has decided ad hoc to add a lucky draw to today’s event. We’ll provide a number plate for each guest here and let Mr. Li make the draw. Except for the most valuable item here, which is this 700,000-yuan underwater agarwood from Kalimantan, the winner can pick any incense material in this exhibition and take it away for free!"
 TL/N: Fish-scale and golden star are two types of rare patterns that appear on red sandalwood.