Chapter 186 - Affairs
Another one of the irritating women bows low, her legs and arms all held at precisely calculated angles. “Sage Ket, unmarried Second Sister will have her fifteenth name day tomorrow. It would honour our house greatly if you could attend during the banquet.” The dressed up stick of a woman rises, looking at Ket’s chin instead of looking him in the eyes. “What answer should I give my mistress?”
Ket wants to scream. He is so sick and tired of all this bullshit. He internally roars in frustration, letting a mental process take care of his facial muscles as he rages inside his mind. Anger coursing through his veins, he gives up, deciding that he needs to go through the motions once more. In order to handle this latest political development, he sends the qi saturating his brain moving into an intricate pattern.
He had agreed with Tess that they would recultivate. Tess had found his externally clicking calculator core annoying, and Ket had despaired at the airheaded bimbo-ness Tess’ skincore was causing. They both had started over, Tess taking on a cultivation base that could shift an immense amount, while Ket decided to go with a modified version of a braincore. Instead of letting a core take care of most cultivation related business, he had taken the proverbial haft into his own hands, manually creating many aspects of his power base.
Now Ket has a literal braincore. His entire brain is his repository of qi, using his whole mass of grey matter as a core instead of merely the base of his brain. This has a few up- and downsides, but Ket is pretty sure he will keep this form of cultivation for many years, and probably centuries, to come.
Turning his entire brain into a core - a system he has been calling a full braincore - allows him less raw thinking capacity and time dilation in general. Ket thinks this is more than offset by the positives. He feels a lot more healthy on a mental level, he is a lot more flexible, and Tess can’t physically throw him around anymore. He’s not saying that the last reason is the main one why he created this system, but it very well might be.
His feeling of improved mental health can be attributed to the fact that his subconscious is no longer a mere task manager. He also no longer feels the need to calculate absolutely everything and every single aspect of his life. Ket had scoured Database for mental issues a long time ago, finding the spectrum of complex neurobehavioral conditions called autism. That day had been a good day, as he had experienced an immense amount of relief and support from the fact that he now could name what made him feel so disconnected from the world his entire youth. Of the various ticks, abilities, and especially inabilities described in the small section on Database, a lot struck true.
He had compensated for his inability to intuitively grasp social situation through sheer number crunching, forming models from previously observed behaviours. The obsessive way Ket had seen patterns in the most mundane of things had been remedied by mathematically analysing those patterns. His sheer inability to smoothly converse was helped through massive productive conversation trees, often pre-made.
But Ket had seen that this had not been healthy behaviour. Somehow or another, he had somehow caught the eye of a certain black-haired beauty that likes differences. Maybe that was what had attracted her to him, the contrast between the glib-tongued and sly self and his own socially retarded self. The relationship had taught Ket an immense scala of lessons, and he is still using the condensed data from those experiences every day.
Having made massive amounts of progress, Ket had built these lessons into his full braincore’s subconscious. Instead of thinking of how close to stand to someone, how long to maintain eye contact, and other subtle social faux pas, he now lets his lower mind handle that stuff.
That is, he could let his subconscious handle that stuff until the fucking cancerous asswipe calling himself Teach teleported him to this cold and forsaken hell.
One more downside to his new core is that the so-called combat mode - swirling qi through one's brain to think faster, thus slowing time - is a lot harder to maintain. Randomly rotating power through his mind is a factor less effective. Instead, Ket guides the flow of power hanging like drops of water in his brain across each fold and crease of grey matter. He guides the streams of liquid qi through the bridge connecting both halves, flowing it through the near-infinite weave of synapses, neurons, and axons. The fact that his power feels different does make this easier than it would have been previously. Instead of the clear water that used to be his pool of power in his previous qi condensing braincore stage, it now feels like a much finer form of energy. Gone is the slight viscosity and surface tension. Instead of clumping up and forming spheres, his current pool of liquid qi acts more like a zero viscosity superfluid, letting it seep across his brain rather than flow and bounce against the inside of his skull.
And so the infuriating woman bowing in front of Ket stands still, frozen in time, a perfect expression of muted subservience on her face.
Ket takes stock. From the various sigils and symbols presented on the woman's jewellery, Ket notes that the servant hails from one of the prominent houses. Their names are not to be spoken in public, so Ket has started using nicknames to differentiate all the main families, sub-branches and associated guilds that form the nest of vipers he is currently presiding over. This servant is from what he calls the BoneCarver clan, one of the larger houses whose main responsibility is, obviously, the carving of bone. The myriad of white adornments, buttons and ornamentations she is decked out with is proof enough of that.
Sighing internally, Ket continues going through the motions. The servant invited him to celebrate the second heiress’ birthday. One day early means that the birthday itself will probably be an open affair, with food and drink provided for the common masses. Fifteen is seen as an auspicious number, so that explains why it’s not an ordinary celebration, which would be a closed party in their estate.
She only invited him for the banquet, though - a small slight, likely punishment for choosing to attend their rival’s social gathering yesterday. The maid also asked him what answer she should give her mistress instead of the usual ‘how late might we expect your noble presence’. This means refusal is a possibility. Ket goes through the list of events happening tonight and immediately sees why.
A major house friendly to the BoneCarvers, Ket calls them the MudGatherers, is having a small exposition tonight. They will likely present their new lineup of designer pots, urns, and other stoneware crockery. This is a rather prestigious event, and Ket will likely be invited by a maid later today. The Bonecarver woman is rather early in delivering her invitation.
The fact that she is early means that the BoneCarvers are giving him a large amount of face and honour. The maid’s pose is equally worshipful. There are only a few traces of lowered subservience in her stance, and a lot of hints of veneration. At the very least, Ket is relieved that there is not a single trace of expecting hoping for acceptance. One of the more subtle lessons he had learned is that a marriage proposal is not something to handle without care. Ket will have to tiptoe around the prominent FishCatching family for quite a few weeks more before they are likely to forgive him the slight of shunning their third daughters’ hand without a second glance.
So, what to do? Ket has been in this horrible town for a little less than a month now, and he has gathered enough data to understand how to play this stupid game. Then Ket’s attention falls on a single broach the woman is wearing. He understands the meaning of the other ones. One is a single tooth, a simple mark of identification. Another is a single carved fish, hinting that there is a bit of FishCatcher blood in her veins. Around her necklace is a single leaf, letting Ket know she is married to one of Explorer blood. The clasp woven into her shoelaces throws Ket for a loop, though. It has an image of a single drop of water above what seems to be an expanding ring of oval ripples.
Ket spends the next subjective hour pondering the meaning of this single broach.
Ket really would like not to do this, but unfortunately, he knows by now that spending some time on something seemingly inconsequential like this will save him a lot of time later.
As he trawls through his memories, analysing every single person he has seen during his stay in this place, he can't help but think back to when he suddenly arrived here. One moment, he was taking a walk with Tess. The next, he was standing beside an ice-covered stone wall. He had immediately felt cold. It wasn’t just freezing out, he also was wearing very little, and his hand had been warmly held not seconds before. Ket wandered around a bit, confused as to what was going on when the shield generated by the suddenly appeared crystal hanging above the town lit up.
A large herd of rather beautiful beasts had broken loose from their cages outside of town. The first thing the beasts had done when coming into contact with qi was take revenge on their captors. Ket hadn’t been able to do a lot for the animal handlers, who had been eaten without much ado. He had been able to fend off the tide clawing at the shield, immediately gaining him a lot of attention.
The few mana cannons on the walls had been largely ineffective against the empowered beasts, and Ket concluded that this area must have been hit with a bit of Teach’s qi enriched intestines a couple days back at least. The crystal hanging above the town's centre was already taking care of all the loose qi inside the residences, thus curing all the sick people who had been suffering from rampaging qi. Ket handled the defence with contemptuous ease, his combat prowess enough to cow the ornamentally bred mutants without effort.
And so Ket had been awarded the honorary yet useless title of Sage. He had talked to the masses for a bit, telling them the basics of cultivation and what was happening to the outside world. The common folk had flocked to his speech, drinking in his words with eager abandon. The town’s high society had swarmed him that evening, every single house, guild, branch family and subgroup that wielded any influence whatsoever hankering for his attention.
Ket must have spent subjective years here already, so overwhelmed was he with having to think about social circumstances and unspoken rules of etiquette. He had made blunder after blunder at first, leaving him wondering why the stately grandmother or burly young man of that and that family suddenly stormed out, outrage on their faces. In hindsight, it had been all too obvious the inane comment about this or that demanded some form or response, and his unrelated answer had been a slap in the parties face.
The town itself is rather nice, though. Walled by thick stone, the large town is set up in a circular fashion. Diverse styles of architecture are used in the ornate buildings, the outer districts slowly becoming less fancy and more utilitarian. Each family expresses their style and main area of profession, even their main philosophies, through architecture. Large tiered towers stand across the road from finely ornate castles. Thickly planted gardens are placed next to shining examples of minimalism.
But a well developed high society requires a large population of working people. A deep-rooted feudal society is currently keeping everyone in line still, but the higher tiers are scrambling to find ways to keep control of the common man, who are growing in strength day by day. Initially, the well-trained guards employed by the families had an edge, but this advantage is lessening with each breath of qi the town’s people take in.
Ket hates the fact that this is the case. He fully remembers his own days as a street rat baggage carrier, and despite all the sabotage attempts of his so-called political allies, he keeps helping the ordinary people all he can. He has been paying rather well for a myriad of construction jobs. The powers that be might be in control of the main flow of gold and silver, but this does little to dissuade Ket from spending the hoard he has been gathering inside his spatial ring.
The crystal above the town is even now sucking up all the energy from enclosed spaces, allowing everyone a qi-free area to practice qi control in. This is not needed at the moment, but as the ambient qi levels rise, Ket knows that those energy poor spaces are going to be sought after. People staying inside Tree’s qi rich atmosphere for long stretches of time had been slowing down in terms of cultivation speed the longer they stayed down there. Even a brief stint on the Moon’s qi sucking surface was usually enough to clear the obstructing ambient qi. Teach’s way of doing this is as profound as it is stupid to Ket. He understands that Teach is transferring this power to Tree through the crystals, but the way it is done is so simple, it’s wasteful.
Ket knows that there should be a better way to accomplish this, but hasn’t found it so far. All the social mapping and cross-referencing he has needed to do over the past few weeks have left him with little energy to do anything else. Especially since the people he initially insulted have started working against him.
The layout of the town is already circular. It occurred to him rather quickly that he could use the roads as formations. All he would need to do is to change several buildings, making artificial miniature leylines in order to guide the mana and qi flow to central positions. The council leading the city had gifted him an opulent set of rooms in the town’s central building, a castle housing the town’s rulers, of simple design. The first thing Ket did was to inscribe formations all over his bedroom. He suspects that there isn’t a single place for thousands of kilometres more secure than where he sleeps at night. It’s probably also the most qi rich environment, as several of his formations have already been installed, guiding power into that single room from over half the town.
But the last few tasks he needs done are being obstructed by a myriad of problems, varying from outright sabotage to subtler means like briberies or purposefully wrong deliveries. The only two ways forward Ket has seen so far is either doing it himself or making things right with the upper echelons.
Because just as much as he has been learning about this weirdly cultured and advanced city, they have been struggling with how to deal with this immensely powerful person that has suddenly appeared. His control of metal - of which there is very little in the village - was enough to instantly repel the savage outbreak of the town’s well-bred stables. None can match Ket in martial mastery, so the showboating farces called duels stopped being issued after a single week.
And suddenly Ket realises where he has seen the droplet symbol. He has seen this ornament a few times, always worn by women, and always worn on the lower body. But those occurrences have been rather rare, and he has found several cases where the women wore it for just a few days.
Ket keeps rolling this single unknown around in his mind. The expected presentation of new crockery has a higher level of prestige than a pre-birthday party of some second girl turning fifteen, but the maid in front of him is rather early, giving him a bit of face. This single symbol might as well be the crucial tiebreaker that Ket needs.
He thinks about asking the woman a question, but he knows that lowering his standing like that would bring a lot of shame. And then there is the matter of the northside construction to consider. The work he issued in the outer rings of the city is progressing slowly but surely, but all tasks issued by him in the north are being halted in their tracks. Somehow, even the work orders he issued anonymously are sabotaged constantly. Yesterday, four construction workers got injured as a wooden beam suddenly snapped unexpectedly. Even the tasks he issued through a proxy are coming across this problem.
And both the BoneCarvers and MudGatherers are in fierce opposition to the clan ruling that area, so shunning them both publicly might cause these problems to cease.
Ket is developing another headache again by the time he has a sudden burst of clarity. The amount of powder on the BoneCarver’s face is thicker than usual. The bags under her eyes might be well covered but the puffiness of her eyes is less easy to hide. Her chest area is a fraction of a per cent larger than when Ket saw her last, and she is showing several micro expressions that subtly indicate pain or discomfort.
Then Ket has had enough. He stands up and steps down from the uncomfortable throne he has been gifted, taking the hand of the bowing maid. “Please tell your mistress that I will not be joining in any social affairs this week. Also, compliment her for her thoughtfulness. She sends a maid suffering from a recurring symptom just when I myself am not feeling too well.” Smiling down at the startled woman, he guides her to the door leading to the hallway. “This is bark tea. Please add one scoop to a cup of hot water. It will ease your pain.”
Closing the door himself after depositing the stunned and flabbergasted maid in the hallway, Ket walks to his bedroom. He sits on his bed, closing his eyes and breathing in deep as he rubs his face.
The absurdity that a noble would send a maid that’s currently on her period in order to insult him was the final straw. Instead of pondering how to worm his way back into everyone’s good graces, which is in hindsight a rather impossible task, he decides to think about how to get shit done.
Resolutely refusing to think about whether or not this is Teach’s influence, Ket decides that maybe a bit of chaos isn’t so bad now and then.
Meanwhile, in the hallway standing outside his room, the maid sent as a veiled insult and test calms her beating heart, hoping her furiously blushing face will not be visible under her makeup. She suppresses any thought of the immensely dashing and enigmatic young man as she returns home.
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