Note: We’re going to start to use yifu instead of adoptive father for the next chapters. Will be editing the previous one as well.
The Xu Family owned a few bits of land, Xu Baihu was also a military man. Life in the local areas was not bad at all. With some small family fortune they owned, they kept an old servant in the house to do some cooking and cleaning.
Only when dawn has broken that the Xu family’s old maid slowly finished making breakfast. She came to knock on the door of Chang Geng’s study room: “Young master, Madam inquired whether or not you’ll have your meal at her chamber.”
Chang Geng was currently concentrating on practicing calligraphy from existing samples, the motion of his hand stopped momentarily upon hearing the maid’s call. He answered with a rehearsed: “No, Mother prefers peace and quiet, I will not bother her, would you mind passing my regards to her?”
The old maid was not surprised by his reply. The daily back and forth between the mother and the child was as routine, nothing new.
It was indeed quite strange. Logically, Xu Baihu was only but a stepfather; the ones with an actual biological connection were Chang Geng and Xiu Niang. But it was only when Xu Baihu stayed at home that this pair of mother and child would feast on the same table, exchange greetings, show filial piety, and pretend to be harmonious. As soon as the man of the family would leave, they were even more strange than strangers, and regard no attention to one another. They lived in the same house, yet Chang Geng didn’t even use the main gate; every day, he’d run to their next-door-neighbor using the side entrance, the mother and son may not be able to see each other even if many months would pass.
Even before, when Chang Geng was infected with a serious illness that could cost him his life, Xiu Niang merely glanced at him with indifference, not a single concern about whether or not he was dead or alive.
In the end, it was Shiliu who took him away and cared for him.
The old maid has always suspected that Chang Geng was not Xiu Niang’s biological child. However, their appearances were similar to one another, they unmistakably must have a blood-related relationship.
Moreover, a vulnerable and fragile woman who strayed away from her home country like Xiu Niang, who did not even have the strength to defend herself…if it is not her biological son, why would she still hold on to this child?
It was truly incomprehensible.
After a while, the old maid brought over a food container and said to Chang Geng: “Master will probably return today. Madam had asked Young Master to come home early.”
Chang Geng understood what she meant: when Xu Baihu returned, they would have to put on the display of harmonious mother and son. He nodded and said, “I know.”
His gaze fell on the food container. Suddenly, Chang Geng noticed a long strand of hair on its handle, and the hand that he had stretched out immediately flinched back.
The old maid’s hair was already white. This black and silky strand of long hair would unquestionably not be hers. Xu Baihu hasn’t come back yet. In this household, counting the servant, there were three people in total. If it is not the old maid’s then, without a doubt, it must be Xiu Niang’s.
Chang Geng had a strange kind of cleanliness – a son who despised his own mother.
He could eat the leftover rice in the bowl of his yifu with no problem when staying at their next-door neighbor place, but as soon as he returned home, as long as Xiu Niang had laid her hand something, he would never touch it.
The old maid was aware of this strange quirk of his. She carefully removed the hair and said with a smile: “Madam just accidentally let it fall on the surface of the box, no one has yet touched the breakfast inside, please rest assured.”
Chang Geng politely smiled at her: “Don’t mind it, by chance I also have some topics to ask of Teacher Shen today. I will have my breakfast over at yifu’s place.”
In the end, he did not accept the food container. He proceeded to gather all the notes and papers on the table, putting them under his arm, then grabbed the heavy sword hanging on the back door and left.
Teacher Shen was pulling up his sleeves and working in the yard to oil several pieces of steel armors that have been dismantled.
Steel armors were sent over by the officers and soldiers of the City’s defensive force. The officers of Yanhui Town also had their own “Mechanics division” who specialized in maintaining military steel armors. However, the amount of armors that required maintenance were too abundant, and when in a rush, they would also look for Mechanics from the common folks to share their loads with.
”Chang Bei Shi (1)- Mechanics” are those who repair steel armor and machines. They deal with ‘Iron Fellas’ all day, resembling the work of a craftsman. However, in the eyes of ordinary people, Mechanics and those who cut one’s hairs or fine one’s nail were almost the same. It was a job that belonged to the ‘lower class’. While it could put food on the table, it was not considered a grand profession.
Teacher Shen was a scholarly man; no one understood why he had this unusual hobby. Not only did he like to mess around with them in his free time, but he also frequently used this skill to earn some money, demeaning his educated and refined image quite a bit.
But Shen Shiliu – who entered the adolescent’s dream by accident, was idly stretching his two long legs. He was sitting on the doorstep, leaning against the door frame as if there was not a single bone in his body, an empty medicine bowl next to him – which he did not even bother to clean after he finished drinking.
Shiliu stretched his lower back, reached out and weakly waved his hand at Chang Geng: “My son, go fetch me my wine bottle.”
Teacher Shen, whose hands were full of machine oil and sweat trickling, said to Chang Geng: “Don’t mind him, have you eaten yet?”
Chang Geng: “I haven’t.”
Teacher Shen turned his head and snarled at Shiliu: “Just got up in the morning and already lying around waiting to get fed! Why can’t you help out a bit? Go clean some rice and cook a few bowls of porridge!”
Shen Shiliu tilted his head, deaf ‘just enough’, slowly asked: “Ah? What?”
”Let me,” Chang Geng was already used to this scenario, “What kind of rice?”
This time Lord Shiliu had heard clearly, raising his long eyebrows, said to Teacher Shen: “Stop ordering children around, why can’t you do it yourself?”
The usually polite and gentle Teacher Shen got provoked by this bastard of a brother every day, anger apparent on his face: ” Didn’t we say we will take turns? Not being able to hear is one thing, why is it that you never keep to your words?”
Shen Shiliu busted out his old usual trick, again he‘could not hear’, then asked, “What is he barking about?”
Chang Geng: “…”
Truly it was quite convenient to be a deaf man.
”He said that…” Chang Geng bowed his head and was struck by the playfulness in Shiliu’s gaze, the dream of the night before flashed back right in front of his eyes. He suddenly found that he was not so unaffected.
Chang Geng’s throat suddenly became a bit dry, he tried to steady his mind and said with an expressionless face: “Please sit still, don’t play tricks so early in the morning.”
Shen Shiliu has not had the chance to get some drinks this morning. With only small bits of his conscience not soaked into liquor yet, he smiled and grabbed Chang Geng’s hand, borrowing some strength to stand up, patting the boy’s head intimately then stumbling into the kitchen.
He was really ready to be put to work- Lord Shiliu doing chores was an incredibly rare occurrence that has not been seen in a hundred years, almost comparable to the blossoming of iron trees.(2)
Chang Geng hurriedly stepped after him, only to see his yifu carelessly grabbing a few handfuls of rice, throwing them all into the pot, pouring in water, splattering droplets all over. Next, he ‘lowered himself’ sticking two fingers inside to mix and stir around for a brief moment, then took them out, shaking the remaining water off of them and announced: “I’m done washing my half. Shen Yi, come and take turns.”
Teacher Shen: “…”
Shen Shiliu then grabbed the wine bottle on the tabletop, tilting his head back to take a sip, his movements completely precise, like moving clouds and flowing water.
… Sometimes Chang Geng suspected that even his blindness was only an act.
Teacher Shen truly admitted defeat. No longer pointlessly arguing with him, he washed his hands with saponins, rushed into the kitchen, reheated their breakfast, and started to clean up the mess left behind by Shiliu.
Chang Geng took out the notes he wrote earlier this morning and showed them to Shen Yi. After Shen Yi had finished making his comments on them, Chang Geng puts them into the stove to help keep the fire.
”Your handwriting improved quite a lot. A lot of effort was put in recently, was it not?” said Teacher Shen. “I see that you are imitating the writing of <Chang Ting(3)-tie> by The Marquis of Order(4)– Gu Yun?”
Chang Geng: “Yes.”
Shiliu who was idling on the side, upon hearing this, immediately turned his head. A strange expression flashed on his face.
Teacher Shen did not look up: “The Marquis of Order took over the army at the age of fifteen, his first battle has ended in glorious victory.
“He became the commander at age seventeen and went on the Western Expedition campaign under the Emperor’s order. While passing through the outskirt of Xiliang City, he saw the historical remnants of the people from ancient times. He felt moved that the remains of former dynasties are still there, yet hundreds of years have already passed. With emotions rising up, he wrote down <Chang Ting- fu>
” Writing it is one thing, but those sugar-coating bunch had to secretly make a copy of it and engraved it on a stone tablet –
“Thinking about it, Gu Yun was taught by the renowned scholar of the present time – Mo Sen, his words have a lot for one to learn from, just that when writing <Chang Ting- fu> he was still young, with youthful ambitions, unaware of the vastness of heaven and earth, his experience was yet up to par… If you want to practice calligraphy, there are plenty of old ancients Notes for you to learn from, why must you choose the Note of someone from our present time?”
Chang Geng rolled up the papers that had been filled up with his practiced calligraphy and stuffed them into the stove without hesitation:
“I heard people say, Black Eagles, Black Armors, Black Calvaries – the three major factions of The Black Iron Camp – in the hands of the Previous Marquis, had silenced the Eighteen Barbarian tribes. Later he passed it on to the Young Marquis, he had made the Western Regions bowed their heads. It’s not that I liked his words. I just wanted to know, the hands that commanded the three black iron camps: what does his handwriting look like?”
Teacher Shen unconsciously stirred around the pot with a spoon, his eyes seemed to have drifted to somewhere far away. After a while, he slowly said:
“The Marquis of Order’s surname is Gu, first name Yun, called Gu Zi Xi, is the only son of the First Princess and the previous Marquis, his parents passed away in his early childhood. He was pitied by the Emperor, got taken in and was raised in the palace. Even gave him royal status.
“He should be living a wealthy life idling around, yet he has to run out to the Western Region to eat sand. Heroic or not heroic, I do not know, I am just afraid that he might not be quite alright in the head.”
Teacher Shen was dressed in a white blouse, the collar of his robe was stained with machine oil, an old apron hung on his neck – there were no women in this household, this pair of brothers living together, neither is more proper than the other. No one knew if that apron has ever been washed before as one can no longer see its original color; wearing it was just so indecent.
Only that face was well defined.
The bridge of his nose was high, when not laughing or talking, his profile seemed awe-inspiring and almost stoic. His eyelids trembled slightly, and suddenly blurted out:
“Since the Old Marquis passed away, Black Iron Camp’s grand achievements had sent fear and suspicions to the one up above, plus lowlife sugar-coating subjects rampaging the royal court -..”
Shiliu who had not said a word until now suddenly interrupted him: “Shen Yi.”
The two people on the side of the stove looked at him at the same time, Shiliu was staring at a small cobweb on the doorframe.
Shiliu’s face did not show any sign of alcohol, the more he drank the whiter his face becomes, the slightest bits of emotions were all absorbed into his eyes that you could no longer see them clearly.
He spoke in a low voice: “Don’t talk nonsense.”
The brothers of the Shen family usually did not care about manners. The younger brother would disrespect his elder, and the older brother would cater to the younger’s every whims. They argued loudly from morning to night everyday, yet the bonds between them were very good.
Chang Geng had never heard Shiliu spoke in such a serious and stiff manner before.
He was sensitive by nature; he frowned deeply for he did not fully comprehend this situation.
Shen Yi’s jaw tightened a bit. Realizing that Chang Geng was observing him, he involuntarily took back his emotions, and smiled: “I went a bit too far – but words of insulting the imperial court are merely idle conversations to have after dinner are they not? I was only casually making some comments .”
Chang Geng could sense the awkward atmosphere, he smartly switched the subject and asked: “During the ten years from the Northern Expedition to the Western Campaign, who is in charged of the Black Iron Camp?”
”No one was in charge,” Shen Yi replied. “After the Northern Expedition, the Black Iron Camp was initially quiet: some left, some had passed away, some of the older veterans in the army were left feeling very disheartened.
“After more than a decade, the soldiers from that year have been changed to the newer generation, equipments and gears that have not been replaced for many years, have all been rusted and broken.
“Up until a few years ago, the Western Region rebelled, the imperial court had no other solution but to allowed the Marquis of Order to take on this mission during trying times, and start the Black Iron Camp anew,
“To say that Marshall Gu took command of Black Iron Camp, it is better to say that he has once again trained a group of elite powerhouses in the Western Region. If you have the opportunity, it is better for you to learn his current style of writing.”
Chang Geng was startled: “Teacher Shen have seen the writing of the Marquis from his later years? “
Shen Yi laughed: “Although rare, occasionally there are one or two pages going around in the market, all claiming to be authentic and genuine, whether they are the real deal or not, I do not know. “
He said while flowing off the white steam, placing their meals on the table. Knowing his manners, Chang Geng stepped over to help. As he was carrying the bowl of porridge, he passed by Shiliu. The man reached out and grabbed his shoulder.
Chang Geng grew faster than an average teenager, his stature is already bigger than his peers. Even though still lacking some flesh and bone, he was already catching up with his young yifu in height, so just by tilting his head up a bit, he could already look directly into Shiliu’s eyes.
Shiliu actually had a pair of signature peach blossom eyes(5), only when his gazes were scattered that one will notice this, because as soon as they become focused, his pupils seem to have a pair of black endless abyss, hidden deep in dark clouds where one could not see the bottom.
Chang Geng’s heart jumped, he lowered his voice and deliberately used the pronoun he normally did not use: “Yifu, what is it?”
Shiliu said casually: “Children should have fun, don’t go all day thinking about trying to be a hero, has there ever existed a hero that had a good ending? All you need is food on the table and a roof over your head, a worry-free life is the best kind of life to live, a little bit short on the budget or a bit too much downtime aren’t nothing to worry about.”
Shen Shiliu playing dumb was a usual everyday occurrence, he rarely ever spoke of anything sensible, but the moment he did, it was to immediately splash cold water on Chang Geng.
Shiliu was but a sickly blind-deaf, as a matter of course, he did not have any plans or ambitions in life, nor did he have any determination. But how could any young person listen to these demotivational words?
Chang Geng was a little uncomfortable inside, he felt as if he was being looked down upon. He thought with irritation: “Spending each day loitering around like you then who will be there to support this family in the future? Who will clothe you and feed you? It truly is easier said than done!”
Avoiding the hand of Shiliu, he replied just for the sake of it: “Don’t move. Be mindful not to burn yourself with the hot porridge.”
(1) 长臂师: literally means Long Arm Master, a term that Priest made up to call mechanics in this universe
(2) 铁树开花/tiě shù kāi huā/; lit. the iron tree blooms; a highly improbable or extremely rare occurrence
(3) poem written by Gu Yun, Chang Ting means ‘a place where one can stop and rest’; what it probably means here is that he wrote this while he was resting at certain places
(4) 安定侯，Āndìng Hóu, Gu Yun’s title
(5) flirtatious eyes