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The so-called "plaything circle" had a fairly long history that could be traced back to the ancient times. Dozens of small articles, including gourds, walnuts, purple clay wares, folding fans, brush pots, jade wares etc., all had a significant amount of fans.

Incense-collecting was an activity that gained popularity in the past several years. There were few experts in this field and their skill was difficult to improve; adding to the fact that the items were relatively expensive, there usually had been a fixed number of fans. Among them were two types of collectors.

One group preferred hand strings. They would visit a producing area and purchase raw materials on their own, picking out crude spices that could be either genuine or fake, much in the same way as jade-betting. Judgement and luck were the only things they counted on.



The other group leaned towards incense. They would find incense sticks, pellets and powders of the highest quality and burn them with brass censers in quiet rooms. They would enjoy the scent by either drinking tea alone or gathering a few friend to enjoy it together.

However, either group of collectors had little to do with incense-making itself, for making incense meant work and skills of the craftsman, while incense-collecting was a lifestyle.

Agarwood was an extremely rare incense and had a great medicinal value as well. That being said, it wasn’t until the modern times that speculators started to market it fervently, making it sound like a precious material of heaven and earth. [1]

According to people in this circle, agarwood was categorized into seven types: beaten-down, underwater, under soil, termite-eaten, living body, blank wood, and Kynam.

Among those, blank wood was the cheapest and Kynam was the rarest to come by. As for underwater agarwood, there were two explanations of its origin. One referred to the raw material falling down into swamps and sinking into the mud, which was then biologically decomposed and dug out of the swamp. The other explanation claimed "underwater" meant that the raw material had a high density and could sink underwater.

Either way, it was a relatively precious type that was more easily available compared to others.

The string of beads Zeng Yuewei presented was in great condition and worth at least several hundred thousand yuan. Zeng Guoxiang had always been a strict father and was rarely indulgent with his children. Such an incredible amount of money could almost bankrupt her.

However, it was exactly because of that that her gift had surprised those at the table, making them immediately think highly of her.

She was secretly very pleased with herself as well. Hearing her grandmother’s inquiry, she smiled and said, "That’s right. Xiao Fei, what gift did you get for granny? Let us have a look."

"Um…"

Before Zeng Shufei even took out the sachets, Li Meng was already panic-stricken. She was from a well-off but simple family, which did not have all those complicated relations. However, she was a smart girl and could see both the overt measures and covert tricks exchanged around the table.

She did not have the slightest idea about incense and only saw the sachets as fraudulent crap. Worrying for her boyfriend, she was overwhelmed by anxiety.

"I took Xiao Meng to climb the mountain today and came by this Fresh Petal Incense. The smell was quite special, so I bought it for granny," with that being said, Zeng Shufei took out a small box and handed it over.

"Well?"

The old lady took it over and found a dark-blue sachet inside. It was crudely made and the fabric was not even made of silk but a piece of shabby cloth. She found it rather curious and thus opened the box and lowered her head to smell it.

With just one sniff, she felt a sweet, refreshing sensation which filled her heart. In that instant, she felt the people and room surrounding her fade away and the only thing she could sense was the carefree and elegant fragrance.

What was more amazing was that, within that lightheartedness, there was also a slight high-hearted pride.

The savoring of incense consisted of three stages, which were the appraisal of ingredients, smell and inner meaning, also known as implication. From identifying the ingredients to enjoying the smell, then to understanding the inner meaning of the incense, each stage was a level higher compared to the previous one. The first two were tangible and could be described explicitly, but the last one would depend on one’s state of mind alone, which was often subtle and ineffable.

The incense grandmother was holding indeed possessed inner meaning reminiscent of such qualities. The name "Fresh Petal" reminded one of a sage within the mountains, one who spared no attention for the worldly affairs, casting aside all mundane concerns and living alone.

"..."

Holding the sachet in her hand, Granny Zeng remained silent. After quite some time, she looked up slightly and put away the sachet in silence.

The crowd did not know what was going on and exchanged glances in confusion. Zeng Yuewei had a complicated look on her face while Zeng Shufei tried hard to keep calm as he was clenching his sweaty palms tightly.

Finally, Zeng Guoxiang popped out the question. "Mum, what is it? Is there something wrong with the incense?"

"Oh, not at all." Grandmother waved him off and turned to her grandson. "Xiao Fei, where did you say you got these?"

"On, on Phoenix Mountain."

"You mean, Phoenix Mountain here in Bai Town?"

"Ah, that’s right!"

"How much is this?"

Zheng Shufei paused and said awkwardly, "They were sixty yuan a sachet and I bought three of them."

"Xiao Fei, you have such a nerve bringing a gift of mere 60 yuan. Grandmother would not blame you if you came here empty-handed. You didn’t have to make do with such crap!"

Zeng Yuewei understood the situation perfectly well and did not make a sound. However, one of the aunts at the table who was on her side could not hold her provocative tongue.

To everyone’s surprise, the old lady scolded right back at her. "Shut your mouth!" She then asked Zeng Shufei again, "Where are the other two, Xiao Fei?"

"Here, here they are!"

He immediately handed over the other two sachets and confessed, "I opened one of them, trying to figure out the ingredients."

"You did? Which one?"

Hearing that, Granny Zeng unsealed the sachet at once to pour the powder onto her palm for a closer look. She said a little while later, "What do you think the ingredients are?"

"Um, I could only recognize jasmin. As for the rest, I have no idea."

"Besides jasmin, it probably also contains croton roots. As for the rest…" She shook her head and sighed, "I have no idea, either. This incense is different from anything I’ve seen before. That’s so strange."

The statement surprised all those present, for the old lady was pretty perceptive when it came to incense and had made quite some accomplishments in only a few years, making a name for herself within the incense-collecting circle in the province.

If she deemed it strange, then there had to be something distinctive about it.

Noticing the apprehensive looks in the room and the somewhat intense atmosphere, she smiled and said, "Don’t worry, I’m not angry. I am just being emotional. Aside from the ingredients, the incense-making technique alone…"

She picked up a pinch of the incense powder and loosened her fingers. The powder then streamed down her fingertips like fine sand. There was a special softness to its texture.

Grandmother leaned back and sighed involuntarily. "I would never have guessed there was such an expert in a small place like Bai Town!"

He did it!

Seeing grandmother’s reaction, Zeng Shufei waved his fists vigorously under the table. The risk was worth it! Trying hard to conceal the satisfaction, he glanced over at his elder sister, whose face was drained of all color and had to force a smile despite her indignation.

‘Haha!’

That scene had made him even more satisfied. He decided to strike while the iron was hot. "Granny, if you are interested in that guy, shall I go to Phoenix Mountain tomorrow again and bring him to see you?"

"That’s great! Oh, I’d never think of that if you hadn’t mentioned it."

The old lady was incredibly excited because of the idea and added, "Go up there first thing in the morning. Tell him that I’m too old and weak to come to him, or I would definitely visit him myself. By the way, be polite. Don’t act like a spoiled kid!"

"Don’t worry. You’ve recognized him as an expert, of course I’ll be polite," Zeng Shufei knew when to behave himself.

‘Damn it!’

Zeng Yuewei showered her younger brother with murderous looks. However, on a second thought, she immediately added, "Granny, let me go with Xiao Fei tomorrow. I want to meet that expert as well."

"..."

The old lady gave her a glance and agreed. "Ok, you two can go together."

‘Damn it!’

Now it was Zeng Shufei’s turn to glare at his rival. Originally ,he was the only one who could recognize that owner; now that his elder sister was on the team, who knew what trouble she would cause?

However, the Queen Herself had spoken and he could do nothing but follow her orders.

The family dinner was richly supplied with schemes and tricks, each with its losses and gains. Luckily, by the end of the dinner, grandmother asked casually, "Guoxiang, what’s Xiao Fei doing in the company now?"

"He’s mainly in charge of the strategy department and has come up with some good ideas. He’s doing pretty well."

"Well, if he has the ability, you should not be too harsh as a father. Give him some encouragement when needed."

"Absolutely."

While the old lady might have retired from her post, the stock was still held tight in her hands. There was also a whole bunch of senior employees loyal to her in the company. Zeng Guoxiang was a CEO at most and had to turn to his mother for decision on major affairs.

The siblings had bothered him for quite some time and it seemed that, for now, the old lady was leaning towards her grandson. He was more than happy to give him an opportunity.

"Crack!"

It was late into the night. In the hotel bathroom, Zeng Yuewei was taking her makeup off with the makeup remover. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. In the end, she smashed the bottle onto the floor. The one-thousand-yuan bottle shattered all over the place.

That was not enough to stave off her anger. She kicked around violently and did not stop for quite some time.

She couldn’t help it. It was a crushing defeat!

She had put such painstaking effort into obtaining the beads and had everything planned out so well. Who’d have thought that that guy chose not play by the book?

The hell with that Fresh Petal Incense crap? What could be so amazing about it?

Zeng Yuewei was never into incense and she only got into the circle to please the old lady. She knew very well that grandmother had agreed to let her ride along to save her dignity, as well as to keep her younger brother in check.

Nonetheless, her younger brother still gained the advantage first.

"Clank!"

She kicked away another piece of broken bottle with irritation and thought angrily to herself: let's see what sort of lousy expert this guy is!

***

What was happening in another room was a totally different story, though.

Clothes were thrown everywhere and the bed was all tumbled, with two naked bodies lying in each other's arms on top of it. Even during the drowsy moment after lovemaking, Zeng Shufei could not hide his excitement. Holding his girlfriend in his left arm and a cigarette in his right hand, he was puffing out one smoke ring after another.

Li Meng watched him in resignation and tried to remind him, "Xiao Fei, it's too early to be optimistic now. You can't say for sure that you’ll be the manager."

"It's the closest thing to a done deal."

He extinguished the cigarette and said with a laughter, "You’ve seen granny's attitude. The moment we bring the guy to her, the deal’s sealed."

"What are you gonna do when you find him? Win him over to your side?"

"It's too early for that. After they meet, if granny really appreciates this guy, then I’ll make my move. By then, it’ll depend on what my sister and I can offer him."

Zeng Shufei got excited again and pressed himself against her. As he kissed her, he said, "This idea could actually work. I need to get along well with him first."

[1] ED/N: Modern times as in late Qing Dynasty (2nd half of 19th century) and times before establishment of PRC (possibly excluding WW2)

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