Chapter 1: The Frontier
“All in all, Shen Sixteen was a sickly deaf-blind.”
The countryside village of Yanhui had a “General Hill”; the name sounds all mighty and spectacular, but it’s really just a tiny little dirt pile, and someone with a slightly longer neck could see right over the top of it.
General Hill hadn’t always been there. It was said that fourteen years ago, the Great Liang Dynasty’s three Blackmetal Battalions went on their great expedition north, wiping out the eighteen barbaric Man tribes. They passed Yanhui victoriously en route back to the capital city, and dumped their trashed armour here, which piled up into a small mound, and after years of sand, wind, and rain, became what is now General Hill.
General Hill was a complete wasteland – nothing planted there ever grows, and not even weed graces this place with their presence; there’s not even anything for cover if a couple wanted to secretly have some fun. It just lay there in the middle of the place, and nobody knew exactly what to do with it. The older generation said that the reason behind its desolation was because the Blackmetal Battalions were too strongly shrouded in the stenches of death and violence. Time passed; eventually certain good-for-nothing street ruffians who had way too much spare time on their hands used this as the basis to conjure up a series of countryside ghost stories, and over time fewer and fewer people even visit the area.
But this evening, two little kids of around ten years old snuck over to the bottom of the slope.
Of these two kids, one was tall and skinny, the other short and fat. When put together, they bore striking resemblance to a running pair of bowl and chopsticks.
The skinny one was dressed in female attire, and only upon closer inspection could one tell that this was actually a little boy. In fact, his very name was Cao Niang Zi, because the fortune-teller said he had the lifeline of a girl, but was born into the wrong body, and the gods above would probably tell him to go away and find another body to get reborn in. His family worried that he wouldn’t live long, so they’d just brought him up as a daughter.
The fat one was name Ge Pang Xiao, and he was son of the local butcher. He certainly lived up to his name; his entire body seemed to be covered in a glistening sheen of oily wealth.
The two of them stuck their heads out, but due to the fear left over from those ghost stories, neither dared approach.
Ge Pang Xiao held a leather-bound “Thousand-Mile Eye” in his fat little hands, stretching his neck out as far as possible in the direction of General Hill and muttering, “Say, the sun’s about to go down, and he’s still not back, big bro is seriously… um, what’s it called —— hanging yourself to avoid wheat!”
Cao Niang Zi: “That’s called hanging your hair up and putting spikes under your bum to avoid falling asleep while studying. Now stop spewing nonsense and give the me the Eye.”
This fake little girl sometimes took the role a bit too seriously, but unfortunately the direction he was going in was a tad bit worrying – he wasn’t behaving like a lady, but rather some sort of roughish tomboy, especially with his chicken-like claws waving around trying to pinch everyone.
As soon as he reached out his hand, the thick fat pasted on Ge Pang Xiao’s body started itching with pain reflexively. He quickly passed over the Eye with a quick reminder of “be careful with that; if you break it, my dad’s gonna turn me into mince pie!”
This so-called “Thousand-Mile Eye” was a small copper tube with the Five Bats carved around the rim. Layers of transparent glass were stuck on the inside, and when put to one’s eye, one could clearly see the sex of a rabbit some ten miles away.
The one Ge Pang Xiao had was especially intricate, as it was passed down from his grandfather, who had been a scout.
Cao Niang Zi clutched it excitedly in his hands for a while, then held it up to stars. “It’s so clear.”
Ge Pang Xiao followed his gaze. “Oh, I know, that one’s called Hesperus, also known as ‘Chang Geng’. Same name as big bro! Mister Shen’s taught us before, I remember.”
Can Niang Zi’s mouth twitched. “Who’s your big bro? Does he even talk to you? Look at you, chasing after him all the time insisting he be your ‘big bro’, do you even know what shame is… Hey, hang on, is that him?”
Ge Pang Xiao looked in the way he’s pointing, and – it really was.
A teenage boy was coming down slowly from General Hill with a sword in hand. Immediately, Ge Pang Xiao forgot all about his fear of whatever ghosts were involved in the stories, and shot out like a bullet: “Big bro, big bro!”
He went perhaps a bit too fast, and somehow managed to trip himself at the foot of the hill. He fell, flailing, and rolled to a stop right at the boy’s feet.
Ge Pang Xiao looked up with his face covered in dirt. Before he even bothered getting up he first let out a big fat grin, and through his exposed teeth he said, “Hehe, big bro, I’ve been waiting here all day for you.”
The teenager, Chang Geng, silently retracted the foot that was about to step on the kid.
Every time he saw Ge Pang Xiao, he would always get the genuine impression that the butcher Ge, who must have killed thousands of pigs, probably had those kind of super talented eyes that could see everything. After all these years, it was an absolute miracle that he still hadn’t butchered his son by mistake. But no matter what he thought in his head, Chang Geng, with his ahead-of-his-age mature personality, would never say something like this out loud.
Chang Geng helped Ge Pang Xiao to his feet with quite the demeanour of an actual big brother, then dusted the kid off. “Be careful, what are you running for? What’s the matter?”
Ge Pang Xiao: “Big bro Chang Geng! Your dad’s coming back soon, so let’s not go to class, come with us to fight for the yan snacks! We’d totally smash those little monkeys for sure!”
Chang Geng’s dad was mayor Xu – not his real dad.
When he was around two or three years old, his widowed mother miss Xiu brought him here to seek the help of relatives, only to find that said relatives had long since moved away. Xu, who’d conveniently lost his spouse and who has no children, then decided to marry miss Xiu.
Mayor Xu had went off with some men to collect the Man tribes’ yearly tribute, and should be back in a day or two.
The countryside village was poor, and the children didn’t really have much to eat. So every time the soldiers came back from their yearly patrols they would always bring along with them some cheese and dried meat from the Man tribes. They would throw it off the road along the way, and the children would all fight mightily over it. This tradition became known as the “yan snack fight”.
As it was a “fight”, the bunch of goofy kids would no doubt throw in some serious punches, but as long as nothing was broken, the adults let them have their fun. And so, kids started ganging up, and soon it started looking like some serious business.
For this kind of thing, whoever could get Chang Geng on their side would be absolutely unbeatable.
Chang Geng had studied the martial arts from a very young age – villages near the frontier generally had many soldiers and military families, and while there were a vast many kids who also learned quite a few moves, the majority found it too difficult, so most just learned some loose basics and stopped there. Only Chang Geng, from the very start, would come to practice here alone on top of General Hill every day, with astonishing persistence and willpower over the years.
Now, nominally aged fourteen, Chang Geng could already carry a thirty-kilo heavy sword in one hand. Even though he knows his strength and never participates in the smaller kids’ fights and wrestles, the little brats were still oddly afraid of him.
Chang Geng didn’t take the boy seriously, and laughed, “I’m not a kid anymore, why should I be picking snacks?”
Ge Pang Xiao wasn’t giving up. “I’d already told Mister Shen, and he’d agreed too, so we can have a break these days.”
Chang Geng walked slowly with his hands behind his back and the heavy sword knocking against his leg, not listening to Ge Pang Xiao’s childish words.
Whether he studies or not, whether he practices sword fighting or not, it was his business alone and had nothing to do with whether Mister Shen let them off.
Ge Pang Xiao: “Also, Mister Shen said he’s be switching up the medicine for Uncle Sixteen, so he might be going far away to get herbs and won’t be home. You don’t have anywhere to go either, so why not just come with us? What’s so fun about heaving around a big sword?”
Now this, Chang Geng actually listened to. He paused. “Didn’t Sixteen just come back from Changyang, how come he’s fallen ill again?”
Ge Pang Xiao: “Ah… I don’t know, I mean, he’s never actually been not sick…”
“I’m going to go take a look at him,” Chang Geng waved the two little stalkers off. “Go on home. It’s getting late, and if you miss dinner your father’s going to beat you up again.”
Ge Pang Xiao: “ehh, big bro, um… that….”
Chang Geng didn’t have any interest in his endless ramble of “this” and “that”. Every passing year counts for boys at this age, and not only height but also maturity were very different for different ages; Chang Geng was already unfit to hang around with kids like Ge Pang Xiao.
He masterfully utilised his advantage in height and long legs, and soon had already gone far.
The little fatty came all the way here for nothing, having been pathetically unable to invite the older boy, and he let out a disappointed sigh. Turning around, he glared at Cao Niang Zi. “Can’t you say something!”
Cao Niang Zi was beet red in the face, eyes hazy, and the aggressiveness directed at Ge Pang Xiao just minutes ago was utterly gone. Clutching his chest like a girl going through intense puberty, he sighed, “Ahh, even the way my big bro Chang Geng walks is more attractive than other people.”
Ge Pang Xiao: “……”
Can’t even bring this brat out anymore.
The “Mister Shen” that Ge Pang Xiao was referring to and “Uncle Sixteen” were brothers, and actually had quite some relations and history with Chang Geng.
Two years ago, when Chang Geng was still small, he’d snuck out of the city gates alone to play. Unluckily enough, he’d gotten lost and almost got killed by a wolf pack, and it was only lucky for him that the brothers Shen had passed by.
Miser Shen used some sort of medicinal powder to scare away the wolves, saving his tiny little life. After that, the two brothers settled down in Yanhui, and mayor Xu rented them a spare yard for free as thanks for saving his son.
The elder brother was named Shen Yi, and was a failed scholar. But though he was still young, he’d already given up on all goals and dreams, instead settling for being something of a hermit in this trashy place, and the villagers all politely called him “Mister Shen”.
Apart from being a hermit, Mister Shen also had the role of doctor, calligrapher, the village teacher, “Long-Arm Master”, and many other jobs. He could do all sorts of things from caring for the injured, to being midwife for a horse in labour. During the daytime, he schooled a bunch of children at home, then as soon as the evening came he shooed the kids away. That was the time when he rolled up his sleeves and started tinkering on all sorts of things – steam engines, armour, practice dummies. With all these things to do, he was probably the busiest hermit to ever exist.
Mister Shen did practically everything, from earning money to caring for the family, and even cooking he was good at. And so, without anything left to do, his brother could only become a professional spendthrift —— Mister Shen’s brother was named “Shen Sixteen”. Apparently he’d always been a sickly kid, and because his family thought he wouldn’t live that long, they didn’t bother giving him a name. He was born on the sixteenth day after the new year, so they just conveniently named him “Sixteen”.
Shen Sixteen did absolutely nothing all day long; he didn’t study, didn’t read, didn’t do work. If a oil bottle toppled over he wouldn’t even reach out a hand to right it, and he’d probably never hauled a single water bucket in his life. All he did was wander around and drink; in fact, he was so useless there was not a single good thing about him.
Other than his good looks.
And those were good looks. This was even confirmed by the oldest man in town, who said that even after living for almost ninety years, he’d never seen a man so neat.
But unfortunately it didn’t matter how attractive he was – Shen Sixteen fell severely ill once when he was small, and it burned him up. Now he could barely see two feet and couldn’t tell if someone ten steps away was a man or a woman. He’s also quite deaf; in fact, if one wanted to tell him something the only method of communication would be yelling. Every time someone passed the Shen’s yard, they could hear through the thick wall the gentlemanly Mister Shen roaring at him like some mad dog.
All in all, Shen Sixteen was a sickly deaf-blind.
With his conditions and relations, he should have been able to live very comfortably. But in this pathetic little village, the only kind of people other than the poor was the even poorer. Even if some goddess of beauty descended to this place, nobody would be able to take her in.
According to local tradition, when you were greatly indebted to someone and there was no way of paying them back, you would formally acknowledge that person’s descendants (if he/she had any) or that person him or herself as your family.
The Shen brothers had saved Chang Geng from under the wolves’ mouths, and this was enough for Chang Geng to nominally acknowledge one of the two as his father.
Mister Shen studied so hard he broke his brain, and he insisted that it wasn’t right and wouldn’t accept Chang Geng as his son. But his dear old brother didn’t care; Sixteen went ahead and called Chang Geng “son” right on the spot.
And it was like this that the bastard Sixteen caught a big fish effortlessly – even if this piece of waste kept up with being a piece of waste and did absolutely nothing for the rest of his life, Chang Geng would still have to care for him until he died.
Chang Geng went past his own yard, turned a corner, and arrived at the Shen’s.
The Shen family had two singles in total with not even a female chicken present, so naturally there no need to avoid anything in case of rumours. And so whenever Chang Geng came he just went straight in, not even bothering to knock.
The moment he stepped foot into the yard, the distinct smell of medicine and a wispy xun tune hit him.
Mister Shen was stewing medicine in the yard with his eyebrows pulled into a frown – he was a scholarly looking young man and had on a worn robe. He wasn’t old by any means, but the constant frown on his face gave him an air of weathered coolness.
The sound of xun came from inside the house, its player’s elegant silhouette cast on the window from a dim light. The performer was clearly rather lacking in skill, and no matter how hard one tried it was impossible to tell the tune. Occasionally one or two stubborn notes would refuse to get played, which caused the melody to float and waver up and down, and it brought out a desolate feeling of weariness.
To label something like this “music” would be pushing it. Chang Geng listened for a while, and eventually decided that if he had to say something positive about this, it would be that this would make for some excellent funeral accompaniment.
Shen Yi heard his footsteps and looked up to smile at him. Then, turning back, he belted out, “dear lord, please spare our lives, you’re going to get us potty-trained with that sound in no time! Chang Geng’s here!”
The one with the xun had no reaction. With his hearing abilities, it was more than likely that he actually didn’t catch a single damn thing.
Mister Shen turned back with an expression similar to that of having eaten a turd.
By the sounds of it, the one playing had tons of energy and was nowhere near to falling ill, and Chang Geng’s squeezed-up heart loosened halfway. “I heard from Ge Pang Xiao that you were going to change Sixteen’s medicine. What happened?”
Mister Shen stared at the colour of the boiling medicine soup, looking annoyed. “It’s nothing, just change of season. There’s different medicine used for each season, because he’s just that sick and delicate… Oh, you came right on time. He’s gotten hold of a little something from I don’t even know where, and was going to give it to you first thing tomorrow – but since you’re here now, go take a look.”
Pang Xiao: 胖小 literally: fat & small
Niang Zi: 娘子 literally: lady / woman