Embers Ad Infinitum

Chapter 31: Once Upon A Time

Chapter 31: Once Upon A Time

“Alright.” Tian Erhe turned around and teased Shang Jianyao. “Do you now know how difficult it is to maintain order in a settlement like this?”

Jiang Baimian did not want to continue agitating Shang Jianyao, so she interrupted and asked, “Mayor, I didn’t see that many children when we came in. Were they working with the adults?”

Tian Erhe turned his body and pointed at the three buildings. “They were having lessons over there. They are only dismissed when the adults come back.”

“Lessons?” Jiang Baimian’s eyebrows twitched slightly. “You guys still maintain a classroom education system?”

Excluding the large factions, this was very rare in Ashlands settlements. At the very least, none of the settlements Jiang Baimian had previously visited had such a system. For people who found it difficult to even survive, organizing a classroom education system was completely unnecessary. It was a waste of both energy and resources. Manual labor was a very important resource. A teacher out of the labor force and a child who did not help out at home or in the fields were considered a form of luxury in many settlements.

In those places, only parents and elders could occasionally teach their children in their daily lives, helping them obtain general knowledge. They learned how to farm, gather, cook, clean, shoot, hunt, and take care of infants.

Tian Erhe smiled and said, “Outsiders are always surprised whenever they learn of this. Indeed, it won’t be easy for us to maintain a school with what we have. Everyone tries their best to be thrifty. We tighten our belts to prevent us from losing this tradition.”

He subconsciously looked up at the dark, rainy evening sky and said with mixed emotions, “The first person to suggest giving children formal education was an uncle named Shen Liuxin. He said: No matter how difficult it is, we still have to make the children literate. They have to read books and learn the most basic knowledge. Only in this way can they, their descendants, and the future residents of Moat Town remember who they are, where they came from, what species they belong to, and what kind of culture and history they once had. Only by always remembering these things can they persist in a terrible environment, this ‘darkness’ where hope eludes us.

“Back then, although I agreed with Uncle Shen’s suggestion, I didn’t think too much about it. Every time items and instruction manuals were brought back from the city ruins, I didn’t know a portion of the words on them. Even if I did, I often failed to understand them when piecing them together. I couldn’t effectively use the items, so how could we let that continue?

“This kind of thinking was really simple. It was only in recent years that I gradually understood Uncle Shen’s words.” At this point, Tian Erhe stood up and pointed at the three buildings. “Do you know where this used to be?”

Bai Chen, Jiang Baimian, Shang Jianyao, and Long Yuehong shook their heads in unison.

“This is the school of the former Moat Town. That’s the basketball court, that’s the flag-raising square, that’s the teachers’ dormitory, that’s the student dormitory, that’s the computing lab, that’s the library, and that’s the science building. That’s the teaching building...” Tian Erhe introduced them one by one, and his face reflected the glow of the small charcoal fire.

Jiang Baimian, Shang Jianyao, and the others listened attentively. They were also watching attentively. Even the buildings and venues could barely be made out in the evening darkness with just their silhouettes.

Tian Erhe retracted his hand, turned around, and repeated what he originally said. “This used to be a school.”

His expression was serious and solemn. Without waiting for Jiang Baimian and the others to respond, he sat down again and laughed self-deprecatingly. “On this matter, many townsfolk don’t understand. It’s not that they aren’t willing to maintain such a small school, but they feel that it should only be provided to the original residents. As for the wilderness nomads that we later took in, providing them with food is already out of great kindness. Why waste resources?

“They believe that the land should be divided among the original residents, especially the town guards’ core members. The subsequent wilderness nomads are only eligible for renting the land, and they need to turn in a certain portion of the harvests they receive. They also believe that the nomads who came later shouldn’t be allowed to join the town guard or hold relatively better weapons.”

At this point, Tian Erhe shook his head. “Heh, I’m still able to suppress such demands while alive. Nobody really dares to object because of the prestige I enjoy. They will, at most, complain in private. When I die, I really don’t know what will happen to Moat Town. Enough, enough of this old man’s ramblings. Let’s eat. Let’s eat.”

It wasn’t Jiang Baimian and Bai Chen’s place to voice their opinions on Moat Town’s internal affairs. They could only maintain the attitude of guests. They ate the pot of braised beef, matching it with compressed biscuits, energy bars, and mixed-grain buns that Tian Erhe had gotten someone to deliver.

Shang Jianyao was in no rush to join them. He continued to pick up pieces of beef from his bowl and fed them to the young lady beside him.

The young lady was also very sensible. After she finished eating, she didn’t ask for any more and seriously bowed. “Thank you!”

After thanking him, she carried the rest of her junk and skipped back to the area that had many buildings built in a haphazard manner. The land beneath them were originally basketball courts that were laid out side by side.

“That’s a bow that’s very up to standards,” Shang Jianyao praised her from behind.

“This was specially taught by the teachers.” Tian Erhe appeared a little pleased with himself.

Shang Jianyao still didn’t eat the braised beef. He quietly ate the yellow mixed-grain bun with water.

Jiang Baimian did not persuade him. As she ate, she asked Tian Erhe about his experiences after the Old World was destroyed.

Most of his experiences were mundane. After all, Moat Town had a terrain advantage and suffered relatively few trials. However, Jiang Baimian and the others still listened with relish, making Tian Erhe recount his experiences with increasing excitement. He even talked about the process of him and his wife developing feelings for each other during a hunt.

When everyone was almost done eating, Shang Jianyao began to eat the rest of the braised beef. He dipped the mixed-grain bun in the gravy.

“I haven’t been this happy in a long time.” Tian Erhe rubbed his stomach and looked at the cigarette ashes on the ground. “I have to return to my room. There are still some things in town that await my decision.”

Jiang Baimian suddenly thought of something and quickly said, “Mayor, I have another question.”

“What is it?” Tian Erhe tightened his army-green coat.

Jiang Baimian recalled some information and said, “Have you ever seen such a person? Male. Black hair, golden eyes, about 1.8 meters tall. He’s very handsome, probably more handsome than him.” She tilted her head to gesture that the reference target was Shang Jianyao before continuing. “He likes to wear trench coats, gloves, and neatly combs his hair. He also likes to wear boots.”

Tian Erhe thought for a moment. “There are very few outsiders in Moat Town. It’s been a long time since I left town. I have no impression of the person you’re talking about. Doggy, go ask the people who have recently gone out to hunt and see if they have seen such a person. Then, come back and tell Bai and the others.”

“Alright, Mayor.” Upon seeing an opportunity to perform, the town guard named Dog ran off quickly.

After watching Tian Erhe—who was wearing a military-green coat and a furry hat—leave the wooden shed and enter the area where all the buildings were randomly built, Bai Chen looked around and confirmed the town guards’ positions.

She then sat down and muttered to herself, “Why did the mayor tell us about Moat Town’s internal conflict?”

Jiang Baimian looked at the fire and smiled. “He obviously hopes that the large faction behind us can take in Moat Town. Why else do you think he invited us here as guests? Even if he trusts you sufficiently, there’s no need to go this far. He could use other means to express his concern and kindness.”

She turned her head to look at the confused Long Yuehong and Shang Jianyao—who was thinking about something—and continued speaking. “I can tell that the internal conflict in Moat Town has vexed Mayor Tian for a long time. He’s worried that Moat Town will go down a path of destruction after he dies until it eventually collapses.

“Amidst his worries, he has encountered a wilderness nomad that he knows and can trust. Clearly, this nomad has sided with a nontrivial faction and seems to be doing well. If it were the two of you, wouldn’t you be a little tempted? Wouldn’t you like to build a relationship with them so that Moat Town can come under the large faction that doesn’t have any ill intentions towards wilderness nomads?

“With such protection and a large faction’s coordination and planning, Moat Town’s tiny conflict really isn’t a big deal.”

Long Yuehong finally understood. “Is that so... Team Leader, will the company accept them?”

This was also what Bai Chen wanted to ask. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have deliberately muttered to herself.

Feeling Bai Chen’s gaze, Jiang Baimian cast her gaze at the stove in front of her again. She smiled and said, “When we return to the company, I’ll report it as per normal. Whether the company accepts them or not will depend on the board of directors. In this regard, the entire Security Department and the Strategy Committee merely have the right to give suggestions.

“However, I’ll definitely hide the exact location of Moat Town. I’ll only say that I encountered their hunting team in the wilderness.”

Bai Chen heaved a sigh of relief and whispered, “That’s good. That’s good.”

Long Yuehong was clearly confused. “Why will you be hiding the exact location of Moat Town?” She is going to report to the company, nobody else. Why the secrecy?

Jiang Baimian glanced at him with a smile. She didn’t answer or explain. She only said, “Look, Shang Jianyao didn’t even ask.”

Shang Jianyao looked at his team leader when he heard his name. “Ah, what were you talking about?”

Jiang Baimian forced a smile onto her face. “I said that you look good.”

“It’s alright.” Shang Jianyao was rather modest.

The scene immediately quietened down. Before long, the town guard named Dog ran back and came to Jiang Baimian’s side. “Someone has seen the person you described. He went north of Yuelu Station. He is a very strange man. Back then, everyone in the hunting team found him very charming. They couldn’t help but want to curry favor with him and get close to him. However, he was very cold and deliberately distanced himself from them before disappearing into the wilderness.”

“That’s a little strange...” Jiang Baimian muttered to herself as if she had thought of something after hearing that. She then looked up and said with a bright smile, “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome!” Dog replied excitedly.

With Jiang Baimian not asking any more questions, the town guard had no choice but to leave the wooden shed.

Shang Jianyao looked outside and saw that the sky had already turned dark. Dark clouds gathered, and Moat Town was blanketed by the darkness.

The sound of the fuel generators buzzed. In the three buildings, many rooms emitted light. On the town’s perimeter walls, light bulbs were lit one after another, helping the guards illuminate the area outside. In the area filled with houses and buildings, a small number of candles, flames, and light flickered before quickly extinguishing. The entire compound almost sank into the darkness of the night.

The heavy storm that had been brewing for a long time finally began to unleash its load in the dark.

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