59. River Mine (I)
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A motley caravan snaked its way across the land. It followed a distinct path westward at a steady pace. At the front was a mounted squad of warriors wearing armor and carrying gleaming weapons. Behind them were rows of ordinary people on foot. Each carried various sacks or bundles of tools. Bringing up the rear were several wagons pulled by teams of oxen.

All around them lay the endless Jade Plains. It was a vast grassland occasionally interrupted by wide river valleys. There were no trees anywhere to be seen, only grass, some small shrubs, and more grass.

The most common beast that resided here was the jade bison. It was a hulking, muscular type of oxen with a furry, greenish hide. They traveled in great herds of hundreds or even thousands. They grew taller than a person and three times as wide, feeding on the endless seas of grass. They were fast and powerful but were only the second strongest beast of the plains.

The strongest and most feared was the great wolf. Although they were smaller at only half a person's height, they were just as powerful as the bison and much smarter. They hunted in packs of ten or more and hunted bison and humans alike.

Among this caravan was Gray, strolling along near the middle. He was heading to the River Mine, a separate jade mine owned directly by the Jade Hill Lord and managed by his company, the Jade Hill Mining Company. It was the only other operating mine under the town’s protection and the safest option aside from heading alone into the dangerous plains.

He wasn't really interested in working for someone else, especially the lord, but both Anand and Alisha had assured him that independent mining companies were welcome at the River Mine provided they follow a few rules. They had to mine in the general area as directed by the foreman and they had to pay an extra tax on the jade and spiritual stones they produced.

He liked the father and daughter pair so he accepted their suggestion. They hadn't given him any reason not to trust their words so far. In fact, he already viewed them in the same light as Old Li, his shopkeeper in the King's Mountains. They were not quite friends but more than simple acquaintances.

“Halt” A shout came from ahead.

This was followed by a rumbling earthquake as a pack of jade bison was chased away by several mounted guards. Once the beasts were safely out of the way, the caravan resumed their journey.

Gray looked at the fleeing beasts forlornly. All that delicious bison meat was running away. He wished the guards could have at least hunted one for dinner. While he was still dreaming of a juicy bison steak, a voice came from beside him

“Young man… don’t think about it.”

Gray turned to see a short, skinny man with balding hair and a wrinkled, sunburnt face.

The man laughed, a deep mirthful laugh, “I could see it in your eyes. Jade bison are tough to bring down. If things go wrong, the pack could rampage and destroy the caravan. It’s safer to just chase them away.”

“Meh, I could probably take one down.” Gray boasted.

“Heh! You’re a brave one. Are you stronger than the lord’s guards? They don’t even dare it unless they are prepared. Perhaps only the head guards and the captains can slay one by themselves. If we had someone like Captain Harsh Patel, sure. He could slay tens of them easily.”

“You know Harsh?” Gray asked.

“Of course, we all know him… but we would never call him anything besides Captain!”

Several people around them nodded, seemingly offended by Gray’s casual reference.

“Young man, how do you know him?” The man asked cautiously.

“It’s nothing special. I am just staying at his cousin’s place, Anand Patel?” Gray replied.

“Oh, the elder Patel!”

“Wow!”

“My name is Krish,” The man said and extended his hand, “I’m merely a common miner from town. The Patel family is great and noble. It is an honor to meet their house guest.”

Gray felt nothing but friendliness from Krish so he shook the man’s hand, “My name is Gray!”

Krish then introduced Gray to the others around them. They included Kabir, Kifat, and Kirit. They were a family of four and all three were sons of Krish. Kirit was the youngest and a couple of years younger than Gray. It was his first time mining so all of them decided to head out together to help him learn the family trade.

Krish was a veteran of the Jade Hill Mining Company. The caravan as a whole mostly comprised of people who came back to town to rest before heading back out again. There were some newcomers like Gray. They came from towns to the south or the east in search of work because, despite the hardships, mining still paid considerably better than other professions.

After introductions, they continued marching along the dusty road as an informal group.

Krish spoke about his family and how they had no last name and were thus commoners. Only great families recognized by the lord were awarded family names that could be passed down from generation to generation. Krish’s grandfather had come to Jade Hill Town from a nameless village many years ago to seek better fortunes. While that did not happen, he managed to survive and lay down roots. Many other commoner families had similar stories, all drawn to this area due to the jade mines. On the other hand, the great families were the original inhabitants of the land and the first to gain wealth when jade was discovered.

The day eventually turned to night and the caravan stopped to rest. The River Mine was still one more day of travel away so there was no rush. The company lived up to Alisha’s boasts and provided free bread from horse-drawn carts.

“Gray, do you want to eat with us?” It was Kabir, the eldest son, who spoke.

Gray shrugged and followed him to a small campfire where the others were.

“Come!” Krish said, making a spot for Gray.

Everyone sat down and started filling their hungry stomachs from the weary trek.

Gray was pleasantly surprised by the family dynamic of Krish and his three sons. They were noisy, crass, and easygoing. They didn’t hesitate to regurgitate their life stories or speak of highly personal matters. Krish complained about his wife. His eldest complained about his own wife. The middle son complained about his girlfriend. The youngest complained about his lack of one. All of them complained about the quality of food and the lack of money.

Gray couldn’t help but enjoy their company. They came from simple backgrounds and so did he. They all understood the struggle to fill an empty stomach, the never-ending fight for survival. It was the common ground they shared. They felt comfortable sharing their lives because their lives were simple.

As a result of their genuine nature, Gray let his guard down unconsciously. He didn’t know why but he told them about his life in the King’s Mountains and days of starvation. He described his desire to be strong and about fighting ferocious earth bears. They were surprised by his age but believed him due to his impressive stature. Krish didn’t laugh or make jokes and instead encouraged him.

“So Gray, any plans to start a family soon?” Krish asked between mouthfuls of bread, “You’re old enough. I’ve already tried to set up Kirit with a girl but he’s still too shy. His mother spoils him.”

“Dad!” Kirit complained, his face becoming a bit red.

“Dad, little bro didn’t like the one you brought because he already likes someone else,” Kifat, the middle son, said with a laugh.

“Oh, you didn’t tell your old man this. Come clean or I will beat your ass!”

“…” Kirit became sullen which only caused more laughs.

Krish turned to Gray with a sly smile, “I know of many families with young ladies that are coming of age. Do you want me to introduce you? With your cultivation, you’ll be quite an attractive prospect for all of them!”

Gray choked some dry bread and painfully cleared this throat. “I’m fine, thanks. Like I’ve already said, I have someone in mind.”

“Your mysterious princess?”

“Who is she?”

“Is she your imaginary friend?”

Kabir, the eldest who was mostly silent, suddenly thought of something and poked Gray, “You couldn’t be thinking of the Patel young miss, right? Alisha Patel?”

Kifat burst into laughter, “That is too funny, a toad wishing to eat swan meat! Hahaha!”

The elder Krish smiled wryly, “Gray, ignore them, but a word of advice. Forget about Alisha Patel, it’s a waste of time for you. Her future is as bright as the sun. She is beyond us commoners.”

Gray was confused by his words, “What do you mean?”

“It’s like this. Several years ago, she became quite famous across the entire region. She managed to enter cultivation at the age of nine or ten, breaking all of the records. The rumor was that she traveled south, joined one of the four great cultivation sects, and even got engaged. Nobody knows exactly why she returned but she is still the most talented shining star in the history of Jade Hill Town. There is not a single young man here who is suitable for her! Only genius disciples of the great sects are suitable!”

“Huh…” Gray grunted.

The age at which one entered cultivation was an important judge of innate talent and future progress. Xueling had emphasized this several times as if to highlight her own talent. The younger one was, the fewer impurities they had in their body. The younger they were, the more pliant they were towards the growth of their spiritual gates and spiritual veins. For Alisha, entering cultivation at nine or ten wasn’t up to standards for a legendary place like the Fortune Sect but it was more than good enough for ordinary cultivation sects.

It wasn't surprising that Alisha was able to join one of the great sects but it was surprising that she got engaged. If even common townsfolk heard about it, then it was probably true. He wondered why she had never mentioned this to him. Her private matters had nothing to do with him but he couldn't help but feel a little disappointed.

---

The completed Book 1 with 105 chapters is available for download in Ebook and pdf format on my Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/kigreenwriting

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