Magistrate Wu looked at Nikola with a calculating look.
“Why, my little peach. That’s a wonderful idea. Tell me, trader Nikola, when is it ok to raise taxes?”
Nikola gave it a thought. For such a poor village where there were so many living off charity there was only one answer.
“For this village it is not a good idea. Lowering the taxes would be better so the people get a little room to breathe. If this village was more prosperous and there was a project, like better paved streets or maybe houses for the poor, then maybe bigger taxes could be excused. But as things stand now it is not advisable.”
Magistrate Wu clapped his hands.
“You make an essay on the topic and include all the projects you have done up until now and I’ll forward it to the capital. We can’t have some corrupt magistrate tax our jade deposit to death.” He said and Nikola sighed. Of course, he would care about his personal gain above everything else.
Nikola didn’t want to be a magistrate, what was the point? If he ever needed to raise taxes he would be hated in the village. But there was no way he was going to be picked. He was a foreigner, after all. He left the palace with much and more going through his mind. When he entered the cart, he pulled a list of paper and a pen and some ink from his robe and begun to make the outline for his essay.
By the time they made it home he had some good points and had even written the opening paragraph. He paid the driver and received a list with things he would need to get him for his new shop. Wood he could get from the forest, but the rope for the nets he would need to order. Su Niu, his main caravanner, was still in the capital. Making a deal for all of his blades which had caught the eye of a famous general who wanted to add them all to his collection. Nikola was going to write him a letter and have him bring rope on his way back in addition to the silk and cotton bundles he was going to get for Tao Jiao.
When he entered the house there was something delicious in the air. Nikola’s mouth watered. He made a beeline for the kitchen to see Penemue and Wei Caihong hunched over a pot. Magic was cracking in the air and Nikola lost all hope that whatever was in the pot was food.
“What are you making?” He asked and Wei Caihong turned to him with a bright smile on his face.
“A luck bringing potion. Penemue is teaching me how to brew it. She also explained to me why sometimes the potion has to be stirred in a certain way.”
Nikola nodded. So, Penemue was resorting to bribes now. At least they weren’t tugging at each other’s hair or something.
“What are you going to teach me?” Asked Wei Caihong exited. Nikola blinked, then remembered that he had made Wei Caihong his apprentice but hadn’t had time to teach him anything yet. He thought about something to go with a luck potion. Something that wasn’t long lasting. Then it hit him.
“How about how to make snow fall? The autumn is almost bleeding into winter. No one will bat an eye if it snows today.”
Wei Caihong scrunched up his nose at him.
“A parlor trick? How useful is snow, anyway?”
“You can make the winter milder with snow. And you can create an avalanche. Not to mention you can take the kids out to play with it.”
“Maybe teach him how to prevent snow for now.” Said Penemue, without turning to look at them. “We are leaving tomorrow, after all.”
“But if rain can’t be stopped…” Said Wei Caihong in confusion and Nikola nodded.
“It is a simple matter of sending the clouds somewhere else. It takes a lot of magic. You can also prevent snow by raising the temperature of the air, but anything to do with fire is beyond you. You being a vampire and all.”
Wei Caihong shook his head. What use was weather manipulation? No, he had something better in mind.
“Teach me how to grow things from the earth. Plants, I mean. There is a small patch of soil by the brewery that is in desperate need of a tree or a bush.”
The brewery was visited frequently by outsiders. Bjorn had begun to make mead and was selling the stuff by the barrel. The locals got drunk easily by it and so Bjorn was trying to lower the alcohol in the mead. So far, his main taster, grandpa Cao, could drink two bottles before he got tipsy. Bjorn called his new creation mead for children, which the locals didn’t take the wrong way, fortunately.
“Maybe not there. No one will bat an eye if a new tree is seen in the forest. We can take Ryota with us. He misses the open space.”
Wei Caihong nodded but Penemue coughed.
“Take Nathaniel as well and Wei Zhaohui. Make it a picknick. While you get the children, I’ll get some sandwiches ready. And some milk with honey.” Nikola sighed. He had rarely thought Pallas magic and Penemue didn’t know any botany spells. Pallas as a farmer was a strange concept. But perhaps that life would fit Nathaniel.
“Ok, we’ll take the Han siblings too. I don’t want them to be excluded. Won’t you come?” Penemue moved aside and pointed at the pot.
“You very well know this takes a day to brew. And then an hour to get distilled. We can have many picknicks in the future, but I need this potion.”
“Why?” Nikola couldn’t help the suspicion in his voice. What was Penemue planning?
“I carry three Nephilim. Have you ever seen a woman survive their birth?” Nikola gulped. But Penemue was an angel, an immortal! Surely, she wouldn’t…
“I will drink all of the potion and it will last me for nine months. It has never been done before, this potion being so hard to brew and none of my brothers caring about their wives enough to try. But I have hope.” She then turned back to the pot and put some mushrooms inside.
“I saw that you will become pregnant with Wei Caihong’s child. You won’t die.” Penemue sighed and turned around to stare in his eyes. Nikola peeked into her future and he saw only mist. But, why?
“You changed it. There is a reason why even when I knew I would hurt you I still did what I did. Once you change the future of someone it becomes locked for you. You will never be able to peek inside my future ever again. And while I can see my sons, I can’t see myself with them. And that scares me, my Emerald.”
Nikola went to comfort her then but she moved out of his arms.
“I won’t let you die.” He promised. Master Wang had said that there was a chance for his potential mother to survive. Nikola had to trust in that.
“I won’t let myself die. And you will see your sons. Now go and have a picknick.”
He didn’t want to leave her and even Wei Caihong shifted restlessly at his side. But she needed to concentrate on the potion. He left to gather the children and then heard from the doorway as Penemue reassured Wei Caihong that there were no ingredients left to be added and that now the potion only needed to be stirred.
Soon they were out and heading towards the beach. Ryota was gripping Nathaniel’s arm and he was taking in the sights. At one point a butterfly had the bad idea of landing on his nose and the kitsune snatched it with his free hand and ate it. He got a scolding from Wei Caihong but he was grinning all the way to the beach.
Their target were the caves. One in particular was very deep and unexplored. There was a grotto in it. Master Wang had slept there. When they entered Ryota took Han Fengfan from Han Shanyuan and begun to walk on an animal trail with her, trying to find a water source.
Nikola bend down and touched the soil. It wasn’t the most fertile. There were a few dead trees in the cave and it was overgrown with weeds. It seemed that he was going to teach Wei Caihong one more thing.
“There is a ritual which can make any soil fertile.” He said and Nathaniel moved behind Wei Caihong to listen in. Nikola couldn’t stay mad at kids so he winked at him and the child stepped out from Wei Caihong’s shadow. “It’s very hard and requires a sacrifice. Fortunately, even a worm will do for a small patch of land. Why don’t you two go find some bugs we can crush while I take Wei Zhaohui to show him how to rearrange stone?”
Wei Zhaohui perked up at that and ran towards Nikola who patted his shoulder.
“Why can’t you teach me that as well, my Emerald?” Wei Caihong had his arms crossed in front of his chest. Nikola looked at the ceiling of the grotto.
“It requires warming the stone, sorry.”
“So, we’ll be making holes in the ceiling?” Asked Wei Zhaohui excitedly. Nikola nodded and the boy grinned.
“Right now, you have enough magic for just one try.” He said and the boy’s spirit dampened. “But magic is like a muscle. You need to use it more for you to grow it. Now come, son.”
The two of them left and Wei Caihong took Nathaniel’s hand in his.
“Let us go find some maggots.” He said, going to a stump. Surely there were some in there.
The day passed and they all managed to get what they wanted. Ryota found a small spring and he used his outer robe as a blanket and he laid on top of it with Han Fengfan in his arms telling her of the places he has been to as she gurgled and smiled up at him. Wei Caihong and Nathaniel found plenty of bugs and soon a good chunk of the grotto had better soil. That coupled with the light that now streamed from holes in the ceiling, uneven ones so no one would ask where they have come from, the new plants Wei Caihong grew from seeds he had brought looked healthy and were heavy with fruit. There were carrots and cabbages in neat patches and Wei Caihong planned to make this grotto the new home for the Ghost Liars which were going to be displaced by Madam Wu.
Only Han Shanyuan was left to his own devices. He tried to not feel bad but as he watched them all busy themselves, he sat and observed. Master Nikola so far had only showed him how to make daggers. Han Shanyuan knew he won’t be receiving any lessons on the road. So, he decided to work on his calligraphy as he waited for everyone to pack and leave. He wrote in the dirt all day. When the rest came to get him, he had written an entire poem. Wei Zhaohui had picked a flower from the ground and had given it to him.
“You are very bad at pretending.” He had said and then he had run towards the cave’s exit. Han Shanyuan clutched the flower to himself. So, what if he couldn’t do magic? He was still cared for. Ryota handed him his sister but not before kissing her forehead which started Han Shanyuan on a charade about how improper that was. Ryota had simply grumbled that they were mated for life but Han Shanyuan had still forbidden him any more kisses with Han Fengfan until they were both of age.
Nikola had chuckled throughout the whole way. They had stopped by the cave with the kraken. So, little of it remained and yet granny Nuo Nuying was busy carving the rest up to put into her steamed buns.
“Granny, we are leaving tomorrow for the competition.” Said Nikola and the granny turned around and pointed at him.
“Did you write your essay for the state exam?” She asked as if there would be hell if Nikola hadn’t. Nikola had indeed done that and he had given it to Wei Zhaohui to proofread. The child had cleaned his mistakes and Nikola had recopied it on clean paper.
“I did. But how do you know about this, granny?”
“The servants in the magistrate’s palace like to talk. They are so happy you will get the support from the Wu family. A magistrate that spends his time in his shop with the people. You better get the job, young man. We can’t afford another raise in our taxes. Now off with you and don’t forget to turn in your essay.”
With a last wave of his hand Nikola and his family were off towards the village. On his way they met the village courier making the rounds. Nikola gave him his essay and a silver coin and told him to carry it to the magistrate’s palace. The man congratulated Nikola on trying for the job. Did everyone know?
Once in the house there was a big dinner waiting for them. And Penemue was sipping from a small cup.
“Why does it have to be this bitter?” She complained. The children were eyeing the cup, the most delicious smell they have ever smelt came from it. Nathaniel neared his mother but she brought the cup closer to herself.
“You don’t need a luck potion, son. You were born under a lucky star.” She said and Nathaniel pouted. They had dinner and Azazel said that Bjorn and he weren’t going to be traveling with them.
“I have many commissions still, and Bjorn can’t make enough mead as it is.” Said the blonde. “And I don’t want to give birth on the road.” He added as an afterthought. Nikola looked at Wei Caihong and Penemue. The trip won’t be longer than two months, that is if Han Shanyuan made it to the finals.
“I tried telling him that there is no danger of that.” Said Bjorn as he placed an arm around his soulmate. “But he doesn’t want to risk it. Sorry, grandpa.”
“And someone has to look after the construction.” Said Azazel as he looked at his sister and Penemue gave him her luck potion cup.
“There is just one gulp.” She warned. Azazel drank it all in one go and then made a face.
“You know full well I need luck to brew myself a batch. This would hold me over for a day. Bjorn, you’ll help too, won’t you precious?”
“Of course, my candied cherry.” Said Bjorn. Then they all heard a knocking on the door and Nikola got up with a sigh to see who it was. When he got to the front gate, he saw a bunch of Ghost Liars.
“We are not concerned.”
“Our home is secure.”
“We don’t care where Pa went.”
They spewed their lies at him and Nikola sighed as he translated them in his mind.
“Ok, listen up. I know that you need to abandon your burrows but there is a cave with a grotto that has fruits and cabbages and carrots in it that can serve as your new home. No one will hunt you there. Does any of you have a map or paper with you?”
“No.” Said a rabbit as it handed him a map. Nikola marked the cave on the map and handed it over. They looked like they wanted to ask him something else but they couldn’t ask it since they would need to word it as a lie. Nikola went back inside and went to Nathaniel.
“Your friends want to see you before they go to their new home.” He said and the boy jumped up and ran to the gate. He was greeted by the rabbits who were lying that they didn’t miss him and that they wouldn’t either. It warmed Nikola’s heart to see someone care for Nathaniel. As Pallas he had had followers, but not friends. It seems that he had changed.