“Welcome to the Bluesmoke Isles, friend.” As soon as Jiang Chen landed, lawkeepers flew out to politely block the way. There was sharpness beneath their affable guise.
Their training and skill were evident. Though they were only great emperors, their spirit and morale was high. They were a well-trained and patriotic bunch; they wouldn’t exude such auras of vigor otherwise.
Jiang Chen smiled and nodded in acknowledgment, but said nothing in return.
“First time in Bluesmoke, friend?” a square-jawed officer inquired courteously.
“That’s right. I’ll be in your care during my stay,” the young man assented.
The officer nodded in turn. “The Bluesmoke Isles welcome cultivators from all over the world. We do have a few rules here, and you’ll find your journey to be quite pleasant should you follow them.”
Jiang Chen was quite satisfied with their attitude. “Don’t worry,” he replied affably. “I’m not here to cause trouble. Inform me of those rules and I’ll uphold them to the letter.”
The officer waved a hand, satisfied with Jiang Chen’s considerate manner. “Come this way. There’s a reception hall where the paperwork may be done. A token contribution of spirit stones is all that’s required for you to move about as you wish in Bluesmoke. We will give you a brochure about what’s off-limits.”
Jiang Chen followed to the hall in question. The paperwork was done at a very brisk pace with excellent customer service. The fee was truly only nominal. All of these things helped better his impression of these particular isles.
Xing Hui and Yong Fan’s families might have had a better home here in the Bluesmoke Isles. The thought flashed across Jiang Chen’s mind. It was only momentary and fleeting.
After receiving his visa and finishing all of the procedures, Jiang Chen was met by a tour guide of sorts.
“The Bluesmoke Isles has eighteen islands on our outskirts. Paperwork for entering and exiting is available at each of them. Your paperwork is valid for any of our other islands as well. You must remember one thing, though: read our rules and regulations carefully. We do not suffer our laws being broken.”
There were signs and guides everywhere. The Bluesmoke Isles was by and large, a welcoming place.
“I didn’t expect the Bluesmoke Isles to have such a strong spirit of service. I thought that Myriad Abyss Island would be as harsh as Winterdraw everywhere.” Jiang Chen had formed a terrible first impression of Myriad Abyss as a whole, by virtue of landing on Winterdraw as his first stop.
But the culture of the Bluesmoke Isles showed him that Winterdraw was hardly representative of everywhere else. Traveling past the outer islands put him into the interior. The larger continent wasn’t much smaller than the human domain, if at all.
According to the regulations set out in the brochure, airboat flight was strictly forbidden in the interior. Thus, Jiang Chen could only ride the Vermilion Bird in the lower part of the airspace.
After a period of travel, he saw a bustling valley up ahead. There were well spaced buildings scattered within.
He was wondering whether he should descend and check things out, potentially gather some information, when he was greeted by someone appearing from thin air.
“Friend,” the stranger approached Jiang Chen with a big grin, “welcome to the Bluesmoke Isles. You’re here to participate in the trade exhibition in Oriole Valley, aren’t you?”
“Trade… exhibition?” Jiang Chen blinked. He really wasn’t here to participate in something like that.
“Oh, are you just passing by?” The surprise appeared to be mutual. After a moment, the stranger offered an enthusiastic smile. “If you are, all the more reason for you to join the excitement! Oriole Valley’s trade exhibition has many treasures and valuable spirit herbs, plus many pieces of Bluesmoke Jade that our isles are famous for…”
Jiang Chen had little interest in a trade exhibition. Still, he didn’t refuse outright. “Why don’t I go and take a look, hmm?”
Descending to the mouth of the valley, he saw a mass of street stalls arrayed in rows. In the center of things was a large platform, apparently the place where the most important trades took place.
Oriole Valley was quite packed. People swarmed in the throng. As Jiang Chen strolled, a thin youth darted out of the crowd. His face was a bit dirty, like he hadn’t washed it in several days. In fact, he looked mildly beggarly.
“Friend, friend, excuse me. My greetings to you.” The young beggar seemed to enjoy adopting the pretenses of adult courtesy. He cupped his fist as maturely as he could towards Jiang Chen.
Jiang Chen smiled a little, returning the gesture. He didn’t take the youngster lightly simply because of disheveled appearance. He knew enough not to make enemies of those who were simply young and poor.
The youth was happy about the amiability shown to him. “Friend, let me introduce myself,” he said excitedly. “I am Hua Ming!”
“Hmm, hello.” Jiang Chen nodded. “Did you have something to talk to me about, Brother Hua Ming?”
The youth grasped the opportunity. “Brother, you see my clothes and how I carry myself. I look like I’m super familiar with this place, right? To be honest, I’ve been waiting here in Oriole Valley at the trade exhibition for someone who knows my value!”
“Why do you say that?” Jiang Chen asked with a faint smile.
“Let’s put it this way. If you’re here to trade and you hire me, I guarantee you’ll save at least twenty to thirty percent of the spirit stones you’ll spend. Anything you want to sell, I’ll help you mark it up by ten to twenty too!” Hua Ming delivered this with undisguised confidence and pride, highly recommending himself.
Jiang Chen looked into the eyes of the suddenly serious youth. “I’m only taking a look. I don’t know if I’ll participate.”
Hua Ming began to grow frantic after being refused. “Do you not trust me, friend?”
“It’s not that. I believe you have the skills you say you have. But really, I’m not here to trade. Do I look wealthy to you?”
Hua Ming nodded vehemently without thinking. “Yes, very much so! I think you’re richer than most here.” He didn’t say this loudly. In fact, he lowered his voice afterwards. “Law and order is very good in the Bluesmoke Isles. Not many will dare start trouble here. However, you should still be cautious. Better not to let others know that your pockets are lined.”
Jiang Chen found the youth’s discreet demeanor rather humorous. Why was a youngster pretending to be mature? It was a curious sight indeed. His God’s Eye revealed people’s hearts quite effectively. He knew that Hua Ming wasn’t speaking too maliciously and thus responded in kind.
“You say your name is Hua Ming? And you’re a savvy native of this place?” Jiang Chen inquired cheerfully.
Hua Ming puffed out his chest and raised his head. “You absolutely don’t need to doubt that. I was born here in these isles. In particular, I’m familiar with every inch of ground near Oriole Valley. I can tell you…”
As they spoke, an officer strode over. Hua Ming was a bit anxious upon seeing a keeper of the law. His eyes darted to and fro, and he shrunk his head in order to avoid attention.
“Hua Ming, you rascal, you’re trying to trick someone again! We already warned you not to take advantage of the trade exhibition. You hear??”
Hua Ming was a bit embarrassed at being rebuked. “What’re you talking about, my good officers?” he muttered with some protest. “I’ve always been an honest and upright citizen! I’ve never caused any trouble for anybody. You can’t slander me like that just because you know me!”
“Keep talking, buddy!” The officers didn’t seem interested in getting rid of him. Clearly, they were used to native boys like Hua Ming and allowed them to roam free as long as they did no evil.
Chuckling, the thick-skinned boy approached Jiang Chen after the officers left.
Jiang Chen looked back at the boy through a half-smile. “You’re showing so much interest because you want to make some money from me, yes?”
Something like that wasn’t supposed to be openly said. Jiang Chen’s bluntness turned Hua Ming’s smile somewhat awkward. There wasn’t a reasonable response to that. He wiped his hands on his somewhat shabby clothes.
“I can give you a chance. However, I need to test whether you’re capable of earning my coin.”
Jiang Chen’s words brightened Hua Ming’s eyes. “Alright, tell me about it.”
Because of the way he was dressed, Hua Ming’s usual attempts at soliciting someone to hire him had largely failed. Moreover, each failure had been met with a tongue-lashing or a storm of curses. When his luck was especially bad, he would be subject to a beating. Thus, Jiang Chen’s pleasantness represented a great opportunity.
“I want to learn more about the Bluesmoke Isles and the surrounding places. If you can tell me what I want to know, I’ll give you some spirit stones.”
“How many?” Hua Ming was more interested in the precise amount.
“How many do you want?” Jiang Chen seemed intentionally trying to rouse Hua Ming’s interest.
The boy felt an indescribable itch in his heart. He writhed around like a monkey, deliberating to himself. “Give me a hundred sky spirit stones,” he gritted his teeth, “and I’ll tell you everything I know!”
To Hua Ming, this was an incredible amount. He was ready to be haggled with.
But Jiang Chen was stunned by this quote in turn. Rather than too high, it was far too low. Had he misheard? What could a hundred sky spirit stones do in a place like this?
“Is that too many?” Hua Ming became anxious. “If you think so, you can name something a bit lower.”