Nikola stared at Ariel. It couldn’t be helped. He had to tell her; it was her mother’s last wish.
“Ariel, would you like to come inside for some tea? I have something to tell you.” Ariel pointed at herself and her mother-in-law stepped before her.
“You may have loose morals but she is a well-to-do lady! I will chaperone you two!” Nikola sighed. Madam Wu was in the known about what Ariel was but she didn’t know about Nikola himself. And he couldn’t let the woman find out.
“Madam Wu, it’s just tea. I’ll tell you what, I have a second storage room. Would you like to inspect the wares there? I’ll sell you whatever you like at half price.” Greed shone into Madam Wu’s eyes. The second storage room was a closet, in truth. He had filled it with the most expensive looking things he had. No one would bat an eye if the magistrate’s wife bought them all.
“Now, wait a second, Nikola of Troy. We have a wedding to plan and…” The magistrate tried to protest but then his wife stomped on his foot and marched in the direction of the shop. She tried to open the door but it was locked. She turned around and smiled so sweetly that Nikola knew he would have nightmares tonight.
“Good trader Nikola, I must inspect this second storage room. For your own good, young man. You might have gotten your hands on something illegal. Now open the door and show me the room.”
Nikola removed the key from around his neck and let the woman in. She eyed the shop as if she expected to see something new that he had hidden previously. When she didn’t, she looked back at Nikola and he led her to the storage closet. He opened it for her and she clapped her hands over her mouth.
“My precious!” She screamed in a high pitch voice and took out a jade necklace and stared at it lovingly.
“Madam Wu, would you approve of me speaking with Ariel?” Asked Nikola and he only received a hand wave in return. The magistrate was soon by his wife’s side and trying to remind her he wasn’t made out of money. But she only chanted my precious over and over again. Nikola went to Ariel who was watching her mother-in-law in bewilderment.
“She forgot my honor soon enough.” Said the mermaid as she looked down to her feet sadly. “How do I ever make her love me?”
“Give her shiny things.” Said Nikola with the most serious voice he could muster. It must be the truth too. He offered his hand to Ariel and when she took it, they entered the house with Wu Zian and Wei Caihong following.
“Wei Caihong, do you mind taking Wu Zian and checking on Chen Zhaohui? He still needs to meet granny today.”
Wei Caihong nodded and soon Ariel and Nikola were alone in the room. Nikola sat down and waited until Ariel did the same. Queen Lydia hadn’t wanted for Ariel to know that she was a ghost. But there was no way to fulfil her wish otherwise.
“Ariel, your mother couldn’t pass over after she died. She contacted me.” Ariel looked saddened at that. She reached out and took a hold of his hand. And just like that Nikola knew he couldn’t tell her the full truth. “I retrieved her wedding ring and performed a proper burial for her. She passed on but not before she told me to tell you that she loves you and that she wishes you an eternity of happiness. And so that she would never be disturbed again I destroyed the ring.” The lie tasted foul on his tongue. The bird, which was now a quite normal bird again, chirped happily from it’s perch on his shoulder. Another proof that Queen Lydia was gone. For if she was still around the bird would be pecking at him.
Ariel gave his hand a squeeze before releasing it. “I heard many bad things about you. And when I saved you, you were preparing to poison the waters of the oceans and kill off all the mermaids. To tell you the truth even when you gave me legs without asking anything in return, I thought only bad things about you.” As you well should. Thought Nikola to himself. Ariel then smiled at him and his stomach twisted into a knot. “But you are not so bad, Emerald Emperor. You helped my mother and delivered her last words. For that I would be eternally grateful. Tell me what you want in return and if it’s in my power to give it to you I will.
“I want you to step down from your position as crown princess and give it to Ursula.” Said Nikola, not willing to beat around the bush. Ariel looked down at the table and then she nodded.
“Someone has to rule or the merfolk will spiral out of control.” She said finally. “And aunt Ursula is old and wise. You have something to ask of her for this boon, don’t you?”
“Yes. I need her to collect phoenix ashes from Atlantis.” Nikola watched as Ariel got hopeful then.
“For Wei Caihong? Then can you spare some for Wu Zian too?” Nikola didn’t know if Wu Zian could survive eating the ashes. They burned you from the inside out. It hurt like hell and Nikola knew for a fact that the ashes were more commonly used in poisons rather than to make someone immortal. “I won’t ask for much. And I will owe you.” Nikola didn’t want to bind Ariel into servitude. But he also knew that there would be precious little of the ashes to go around. The phoenix must have gone into hibernation when the island sunk. But maybe he could make Wu Zian more durable? Prepare him for the ashes with some rituals? Surely there were more bandits around whom he could use for his rituals.
“You won’t owe me a thing. But Wu Zian must be prepared. Protective spells on his insides so that he would withstand the inferno that is going to appear in his stomach. Maybe something to make him sleep for some time so he won’t be in pain even if the spell fails. But, Ariel, there is a high chance he might die from the ashes. I nearly did and I had Penemue’s soul to protect me.”
“We must take this chance!” Said Ariel. “I can’t be left without him! I can’t let him grow old!”
“Why not? Won’t you still love me, Ariel?” Asked Wu Zian from the door. He was holding onto Chen Zhaohui’s hand and looking from Ariel to Nikola. “Don’t I have a say in this, my love? You’d throw my life away just like that? On the slim chance that we may be together forever?”
“It’s not a slim chance!” Said Ariel and she pointed at Nikola. “He ate phoenix ashes and he survived. You will be prepared!”
“I’ll die, Ariel!” Chen Zhaohui placed both of his hands over his ears at the raised voices and that was his parent’s cue to get him out of the room and to the shop where granny Nuo Nuying was waiting for him.
“What a big boy you are!” Said the granny as she patted his hair. “What do you do all day, little lotus?”
“I practice my calligraphy.” Said the boy proudly. The grandmother chuckled at him.
“You do that. It is good that young people like you now have a teacher who can teach them. Now, tell me, would you like to come knit dough with me?”
Chen Zhaohui nodded enthusiastically and then he turned to his parents for permission. “I can go, can’t I?” It was getting late and Chen Zhaohui had school tomorrow but it would be good for him to do something today that didn’t require too much thinking of him.
“Granny, can you please return him for dinner?” Asked Nikola and granny Nuo Nuying raised her finger at him in warning.
“What do you mean return? You two are coming with me too! We have to make just as many steamed buns as today. Lots of bellies to fill!”
They all helped Nuo Nuying to pick up her stall and then got into the cart. It was a tight fit so Nikola sat in Wei Caihong’s lap with Chen Zhaohui right next to them. They spend the reminder of the day making steamed buns and when Chen Zhaohui begun yawning, they went home. Azazel and Bjorn were still in the forge so there was no food ready in the kitchen. Nikola went there and checked the pantry. In the part which he kept constantly frozen there was a duck. After he rummaged a little in the other pantries, he finds some oranges, peppers and of course rice. He placed the dug in a pot to boil and then went about frying the peppers and rice with some eggs, leaving the oranges for dessert. Once he was done, he called Wei Caihong to set the table while he went to get Azazel and Bjorn.
He found them near the construction site, still working on the brewery even after all the workers had left. Azazel was on a ladder working on the roof while Bjorn was handing him things.
“Ok, you two. It’s dinner time. We have boiled duck with rice and peppers.”
“Rice again? Can’t we have cabbage or squash for a change. Or better yet corn and potatoes with some tomato sauce?” Said Azazel as he got off the roof.
“Can’t be helped. It seems that something happened in the last hundred years and the two continents that exported them have either disappeared under the waves or have performed a mass forgetfulness ritual.”
“They never truly bowed to you, grandpa.” Said Bjorn as he entered the house. “And their shamans picked on magic fast.”
“True, that.” Said Nikola as he entered the house himself. They all sat around the table and then Nikola stood up abruptly. There were pearls on his cushion. He picked one up and inspected it. This was a mermaid tear. He placed all the pearls to the side and tried not to think about Ariel. He was sure that she would do as he asked her and reinstall Ursula, but he had a feeling that he wouldn’t be able to help her. She would have to watch her beloved grow old and die. He looked at Wei Caihong and silently thanked Azazel for not having to go through the same. Azazel stopped eating to nod at him and Nikola remembered that angels thought all thanks to them a prayer and thus could hear them.
After the dinner they washed Chen Zhaohui and tucked him in with another song, this one about a songbird who found her love and made a nest with it. They had a pleasant night afterwards and, in the morning, they rushed to get ready. Once Nikola was back in the shop, he saw the magistrate and his wife inside. The storage closet was empty and there was a sack in the feet of the magistrate’s wife.
“We came back today to pick up our purchases. You can’t back down from giving them to us for a half price now!” Nikola nodded at the woman. With the money that he was going to get from this sack he could help with the building of the orphanage.
“I wasn’t even thinking of it, Madam Wu. One thousand gold coins and you can carry this sack home.” The magistrate sputtered at the price but his wife nudged him and he lowered his head.
“You will have them. Oh, I do hope we can sell some of them to the caravans come spring.” He muttered the last part to himself but Nikola heard him. He had the full intention of selling everything the caravan could buy when it arrived. And if Wei Caihong’s contacts were to be believed then the caravanners already showed great interest in his jade ornaments and his blades. The magistrate bends down and picked up the sack and the husband and wife exited, one happy and the other regretting ever being married.
With this done Nikola took a broom and begun to sweep the shop. Soon granny Nuo Nuying arrived with her cart and he went outside to help her set up her stall. Crowds gathered for the steamed buns but a lot of people were waiting in line for the shop to open too. Nikola left the stand when everything was in order and he opened the shop. He noticed that today people were crowding around the blades. He wondered why and then he got his answer.
“Did you hear? Master Wang says his saber sings like a songbird and can even cut stone.”
“Without it’s blade chipping away?”
“Why would he try to cut stone with such jewel?”
“Trader Nikola made it himself, did he not?”
“Bah, his uncle’s blades are way better.”
“Yes, and he also asks for an arm and a leg for them, that Basil. If trader Nikola’s blades are good enough for Master Wang then they are good enough for me!”
Nikola tried not to listen in but he felt pride bubble inside of him. Even if it was only because of the price someone was choosing his work over Azazel’s. That had never happened before. Even Penemue had taken convincing to part with his former blade and take the rune engraved one from Nikola. A thin sword was placed on the counter and Nikola looked at the hopeful young man on the other side. The blade had a dragon head pommel, in the image of an actual dragon that had lived side by side with the phoenix of Atlantis before Azazel had killed it. The steal was smoky black and Nikola stared at the fine runes engraved over the blade. He who fights will do so with lady luck’s blessings.
“Gege, how much is this?” Nikola pulled out the inventory scroll that granny Nuo Nuying had made him and looked for the description of the sword. He finally found a smokey spirit sword: 100 gold coins. He pointed the description and price to the man and watched him as his face fell.
“Gege, do you have something cheaper?” He asked hopefully and Nikola, with the scroll in hand, went to the weapon’s rack. The cheapest thing on the list costed seven gold coins and seventy-seven silver. It was a sword that had no enchantment on it. He showed it to the man and told him the price.
“I’ll take it!” Exclaimed the man happily and then he shifted on his feet. “Gege, can you engrave something in the sword? Like, may the one who wields this always prosper? Nikola took out another scroll which had all the services he could do in it, from how much him wrapping a purchase as a gift would cost to deliveries. Sword engraving was listed for five silver coins. This seemed to be fair for the man because he took out all the money he needed for the purchase and he left the sword on the counter so Nikola could engrave it for him and he could pick it later. Nikola planned to do so once granny sold all her steamed buns. Now that he thought about it, she was feeding a good portion of the village with them. Maybe it was time that she made something extra? Steamed vegetables to go with them? Some seaweed to add flavor?
His next customer approached, although he wasn’t holding anything. “I’m looking to become a merchant.” Said the middle-aged man. “To lead my own caravan as soon as possible. Can I buy some of your wares on credit? I have horses and a wagon and I even have a guard hired for the trip.” Nikola’s eyes shone! He had been looking for an excuse to make more things. He was running out of space to hold all his blades. Not that he had much time to make them, seeing as Azazel monopolized the forge, but he still stole some hours before dawn for that purpose. It was not like he really needed to sleep. His immortality covered even that.
“Do you have a list of everything you want to buy?” He asked the merchant who looked like he was being given a gift.
“All the weapons on the rack.” Said the merchant boldly and the people around him groaned. They had wanted to buy some for themselves too. “And your paper figurines.” So, he was picking the second most expensive item and the least expensive one. Nikola pulled out a scroll and begun to write down a contract.
“If you run off with my wares then your family’s holdings will become mine.” Said Nikola. He knew he was being a bit ruthless but if he didn’t do this now people would become “caravanners” only to rob him in the future. “And you will pay me the prices in this scroll.” He said as he lifted granny Nuo Nuying’s price scroll high. “Plus, 20 percent.”
“10.” Said the merchant and then he gripped his hair. “Gege, I’m just starting up. And I’ll be carting your goods straight to the capital. Maybe even the emperor will see them and will start to send you commissions. And you will get far more from them, seeing as the emperor takes care of the material cost too.”
Nikola considered it and then he scratched out the 20 and replaced it with a 10. “Fine. I will give you two months to get there and get back. Now, start listing all that your family owns in case I need a collateral.” As it turns out man had a couple of rice paddies, some livestock and a house. It could cover for the paper figurines and the cheaper weapons but Nikola would still be at a loss if the man didn’t return. Time to get a little bit more insurance. “Do you have a starting capital?” He asked and the man paled.
“Gege, I will need to eat for those two months and I already spend so much…” So, no. Nikola sighed and took out a heavy pouch from behind the counter.
“You will work exclusively with me and you will bring me the materials I need on your trip back home.” He handed the pouch to the starstruck future merchant. He would need to make him wear a good luck charm and something for charisma. He had just the thing. He took out a golden pendant and handed it over too. It had Nordic runes over it. It wasn’t made by him but by the fallen angel Loki himself. Everyone who wore it became as silver-tongued as him.
“This is a family heirloom dating back to the golden age of Atlantis. It will see you to the capital and back safely. You are to return it to me once you come back.” The merchant looked ready to start jumping with joy as he placed the pendant around his neck. Nikola himself had kept it for when he needed to make deals, but in the course of the years, he had gotten very good at getting what he wanted. And since he didn’t plan on contacting anything stronger than your average ghost anytime soon, he could part with the trinket.
After the man, Su Niu, signed the contract and received a list of things Nikola needed him to buy he called out and people begun to come inside the shop and to take the weapons off the rack and the paper figurines off the shelves. They were putting them in a covered wagon and Nikola and all the customers exited the shop to see the wagon off.
“Be safe, you hear?” Said Nikola to Su Niu as the man climbed into the wagon. Many of the customers were saying the same thing and Su Nui was waving at them all. A warrior appeared next to the wagon and he climbed on. Nikola leaned on the wagon and quickly placed a protection spell on one of the boards. It burned into the wood but no one seemed to notice. The horses neighed and the merchant was off whistling to himself. A woman approached Nikola and tugged at his sleeve.
“Gege, can I become your caravanner too? Just to the nearest town, for now. If you could sell me some of your cheapest jewelry on credit you won’t be disappointed.” Nikola looked quickly into the woman’s future and saw that she would live in a bigger house than his. But still in the village. Which she wouldn’t be able to do if she took off with his wares. He smiled kindly at her and led her back into the shop.
“My best pieces were taken by Madam Wu just this morning. So cheap jewelry is all I have anyway. Take your pick.” The woman begun to empty the jewelry display case in a bag and when she was done, she demanded a copy of the price scroll with only the jewelry section included. Nikola copied everything down for her quickly and she was soon off.
“Anyone else want to become a caravanner?” He asked half-jokingly but then the people got a thoughtful look. Nikola felt dread pool inside his stomach. Just what was he going to be selling after today?
As it turns out after even his storage room was ransacked, nothing. He went outside to help sell the steamed buns and to tell people their fortune. He had to turn down some of the requests from the people. Some because they were lying to him and wanted to rob him. Others because they knew next to nothing about how to be a merchant. And finally, he had run out of wares and many potential caravanners had gone home dejected. A woman approached him. It was grandpa Cao’s granddaughter with whom he lived.
“Nikola of Troy, you made a lot of profit today, didn’t you?” She said and Nikola turned to her. He was about to tell her he didn’t have any more goods to sell when she looked at him pleadingly. “I’m a skilled seamstress and you have fabrics left over from trader Hua’s days. Or did you sell them too?” They were all cotton so no one had wanted them. He had thought that he would need to go ask the seamstress of the village to take them off his hands but now it seems that he wouldn’t have to.
“No, it’s the only thing I have left in the store. Apart from paper for more figurines. I take it you want to start your own business?”
“I do.” The woman looked relieved she didn’t have to beg. “I can prove it to you! I have my materials with me and my measuring tools too. I can make you a brand-new robe in your shop. You can close the door to make sure no one is helping me and that my skills are my own.” Well, it wasn’t like he was going to have her sew on the street now. He went back inside with her in toll and let her take his measurements and then he took out different fabrics. She picked green, for his eyes, and then begun to work. When he exited the shop, he was bombarded with questions.
“Nikola of Troy, can you help me start my own business too? I make the best roasted duck in the entire village and…”
“Don’t listen to her! Who is going to buy it in a poor village like this? But just between you and me there is a brand-new rice paddy for sale…”
“Greenhouses! We need greenhouses and you are the only one rich enough to build them!” Nikola recognized the woman from his classes. He could help start a thousand businesses and there would still be poor in the village. But greenhouses needed many hands to operate. If he put a clause in the contract with the new owners that they had to pay a fair wage to their workers then granny Nuo Nuying would have far less mouths to feed.
“I’ll be building greenhouses and then sell them to prospective farmers” He heard groans from the crowd and even the man who had suggested the idea looked crestfallen. “Rent them, then?” Tried Nikola and the mood lifted immediately but people were still shuffling their feet. Then granny Nuo Nuying took out her ladle from her pot and begun to shower everyone in steamed bun water.
“Shame on you all! Do you know how many workers would be needed? Even for a rent it is still a deal!” The people begun muttering their agreements after they saw how Nikola wasn’t going to just gift them the greenhouses. With this done Nikola picked the more trustworthy of his students, for he wasn’t about to trust a greenhouse into the hands of someone who didn’t even come to his classes, and made them a contract right at the spot. In total he was now obliged to build twenty greenhouses. He was going to build them big. But he had a small problem. He didn’t have land.
“Who wants to sell me their land?” He asked and people begun to mutter. “It’s for the greenhouses?” He heard someone say shameless underneath their breath. What did these people expect? That he would build greenhouses in the ocean…wait! That was a wonderful idea! He still remembered floating cities and cities on lakes. With Azazel’s help he could make platforms just outside of the reach of the magistrate. And he would be able to employ people during the construction. Or better yet, why doesn’t he simply reclaim the coastal caves and build bridges towards them? Then he wouldn’t need to worry about sharks.
“Fine, I will build them on merfolk land.” He said and people begun to shake in their boots.
“Merfolk land? You mean the caves?”
“You’ll have to hire warriors to protect the greenhouses, Gege!”
“Master Wang? Where is master Wang? I need to sign up for his classes.”
The younger men begun to chat excitedly about defending the greenhouses from mermaids. Nikola planned to ward off the caves so that no mermaid could swim inside. All these boys would be doing the entire day was fishing…wait! Why hadn’t he ever seen anyone fish around here before? Come to think of it the markets barely had any fish in them. “This must sound like a stupid question but…how come you people aren’t all fishermen?” People begun to mutter angrily and to spit on the ground. Nikola waited until their tempers have cooled and repeated his question.
“We heard you, Gege. It’s all because of these blasted mermaids! They hunt in our waters and eat anyone stupid enough to go out with a boat! We used to be a rich village just twenty years ago.” And what could have happened twenty years ago, Nikola wondered.
“I can speak with Wei Caihong to put a protection spell around the shores of the village…”
“Oh, what use would that be, Niki?” Said granny Nuo Nuying next to him. He could see that she was tearing up. “Some foolhardy fisherman would cross the spell’s range without knowing and get eaten. My husband was lost to the ocean twenty years ago. When that kraken appeared and pushed the mermaids here. May they all rot away.”
“A kraken…” This was bad. They were creatures of the depths, same as leviathans. What could have pushed one here? And if there was a kraken here then how did ships come to the village? He voiced his question and a man fell down to the ground as he wailed.
“Ships? They don’t come anymore. And the merfolk tore down our harbor. And you want us to work the soil in the caves? Gege, you are sending us all to die there.”
Nikola gulped. He had never battled a kraken before. His best bet was to poison the water near it and…no, he would poison too big of an area and once it vaporizes the villagers would have acid rain to add to their woos. No, he would need to boil the thing alive while dodging it’s tentacles. He would need to make a spear which would make a barrier around him. But for that he needed to make him acquiring the spear believable.
“Good people, does the temple have any holy relics I can smelt down? In Troy I have made more than one weapon which has slain beasts. A sword of mine fell a minotaur with a single cut.” Which was because a minotaur was extremely allergic to silver. His champion had still ended up gored by the thing’s horns in the end.
“What is that?” Asked a young boy and Nikola placed his hand over his head as if they were horns. “A beast with the head of a bull and the body of a man but with the legs of a bull again. It could live forever unless it was killed.”
“Yes, but is it as big as a kraken?” Asked the boy who looked like he didn’t believe that such a thing even existed.
“Well, no, but…”
“Krakens don’t have a weakness to silver.” Continued the boy and Nikola’s eyebrow twitched.
“Who are you, young man?” He asked and the boy noisily blew his nose into a napkin.
“The priest’s son. Father won’t let you have any of his relics.”
Nikola hid his face into his hands and groaned. Of course not. “Will he at least bless any sword I make? Krakens are unholy in nature.” A lie. “And weak to the faith of a true believer.” He was pulling these out of his ass, wasn’t he? The boy seemed to think the same because he snorted.
“You’d best hope that the next village over has such a priest, because dad cares more about sake than his work.” Then the boy hopped away and agreeing mutterings were heard from all those around him. Nikola needed an alibi for his sword or spear or lance, darn it!
“I believe anything you forge will be good enough even without a blessing.” Master Wang stepped from the crowd and leveled Nikola with a look. In the light of day this man seemed familiar. But how? “You forge me a weapon and I will bring down the kraken.” He then kneeled in one fell swoop. Not to kowtow but to merely kneel and then he looked Nikola in the eyes. Master Wang had golden eyes and suddenly Nikola knew who was before him.