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At long last, I will finish what I’ve started… er, ended. Started the end to. One of those descriptions is correct.
[Volume 1: The Peng Journeys a Million Li]
Cheng Qian was ten reckoned years of age. His height was lagging behind, not quite caught up to his age.
As the sun neared the middle of the sky, he carried firewood from the courtyard’s gate into the central room. Since he kind of couldn’t pick up and move the entire stack of wood in one go, he made two round trips before he could wipe warm sweat off himself, then engross himself in cooking and fire stoking with peace of mind.
A guest had been in their home these past few days. His father was busy entertaining him, so all of the vegetable washing, food cooking, fire lighting, wood chopping, and so on fell squarely upon Cheng Qian’s head. The busyness turned him into a short-legged spinning top, able to conjure up a burst of worn-ragged wind anytime, anyplace.
On account of being too short, even though he could carry oven range, it was still a bit inconvenient for him to work the giant wok. After finding a small stool in the corner of the central room, he stepped up on it.
The stool’s legs were all of different lengths and stuck out at different angles. He had started learning how to cook while standing on it at six years old—after uncountable instances where he’d nearly pitched headfirst into the pot and turned into human soup, he’d learned how to make peace with this uneven stepping thing and maintain an unsteady balance with it.
On this day, while he was standing on the little stool and adding liquid to the giant pot, his eldest brother returned.
The Cheng family’s eldest was already fifteen, a grown young man. Sweaty all over, he wordlessly walked into the room, looked all about, then lifted his little brother off the stool with one hand. He pushed him non-roughly behind him, mumbling out, “I’m here. You can go play.”
Cheng Qian wouldn’t actually go out and play without a care, of course. He obediently greeted his brother, after which he quietly crouched nearby to stoke the bellows.
Cheng ‘Dalang’ — the Eldest Son — looked down at him. He said nothing, but there was a slightly complicated look in his eyes.
There were three Cheng sons. Cheng Qian was second in line. Up until the night before the guest arrived, he was still being called Cheng ‘Erlang’ — the Second Son.
Cheng Dalang knew that he was probably at the end of being called the ‘Second’ part. That handy nickname would be undergoing cosmetic changes and then embarking on a long journey to a foreign land, just like his second little brother himself.
The guest that had arrived ereyesterday was a Daoist with a name that didn’t bring good omens. He unabashedly called himself ‘Zhenren Muchun’—Paragon of the Wooden Father-Tree—but based on his appearance alone, this ‘zhenren’ probably didn’t have any real skills. All that could be seen on him was a sparse goat-beard, a pair of half-closed triangular eyes, and a pair of thin, undernourished feet jutting out from beneath his floaty robes. Instead of giving off any sort of immortal aura, he resembled a boastful and swindling fortune-teller.
The Zhenren had been passing by this place during his travels and came up to request a bowl of water to drink, where he’d suddenly caught sight of Cheng Erlang.
The latter had just returned from outside at the time. At the entrance of the village was an aged fledgling student who had failed the imperial exams several times and was also taking in students to teach characters to. His know-how was pretty scant, and he only accepted tuition payments in a very nasty way; he disdained the peasants’ dried meats and produce indiscriminately and would solely accept silver guys with square holes inside. On top of that, the amount was never accurate, and every single time he squandered it all, he would extend his hand to his students once more.
On account of his behavior, he was genuinely unfit to be preaching and teaching from the sacred texts. There was nothing to be done, however. It wasn’t easy for country kids to receive schooling—in a ten-li radius around here, there was not single other teacher that could teach reading.
Given the Cheng’s circumstances, the family definitely didn’t have any spare money to send their sons off to study anything, but all that hard to pronounce gobbledygook seemed to have some sort of innate, bizarre attraction to Cheng Qian. He couldn’t go over there in broad daylight, so he frequently listened in.
As the old scholar had the belief that his every fleck of spit was the product of his life’s blood, he refused to allow people to listen to him for free. Oftentimes, he would go out to vigilantly go on patrol in the middle of his lectures.
Cheng Erlang would need to transform himself into a monkey and hide away in the big pagoda tree at the scholar’s entrance. Every time he listened in, he would do so until his forehead eked warm sweat due to his hard efforts of ‘self-cultivation’ for ‘world peace.’
He’d had a sweaty head in exactly that manner that other night. Under urging from his father, he’d fetched the guest some water, only for the weird newcomer to not take it. The other had reached out a hand that was as thin as a winter branch—he hadn’t felt out his skeletal structure or used any sort of weird technique, instead gently raising Erlang’s face up to meet eyes with this tiny child, who’d been expending all of his effort to imitate a pedantic scholar’s air.
Whatever clues the Zhenren had been able to get out of that one glance was unclear, but after he’d finished looking, he’d inexplicably nodded his head. “I can tell that this boy has excellent aptitude,” he’d told the Cheng family, putting on a show of seriousness. “Someday, he might soar through the skies and dive into abysses, perhaps possessing great luck. He is not a fish that should remain in a tiny pond.”
When the Zhenren had said this, Dalang had also been present. He served as a shopkeeper’s apprentice outside and had met a few people that traveled all over, so he believed himself to be a little bit learned—he had never heard of anyone being able to determine aptitude level just by looks.
Right as he’d been thinking to contemptuously refute this conman and before he had even opened his mouth to speak, he’d noticed that his father was actually listening to this drivel.
In a burst of horror, he’d understood what was coming.
Their family had never been rich. A year back, his little brother’s birth had been very difficult for their mother, and she’d been too weak to get out of bed since. As such, the family had lost a capable, strong laborer and gained a drug jar that needed to take medicine all day long. Never had they been rich, and for now, they were even more stretched taut.
This year hadn’t been great. Not a drop of rain had come for several months, and it was looking like a great famine of no crop gain was next. Supporting all three brothers… would likely not happen.
Cheng Dalang had known what his parents were thinking. He’d been an apprentice for half a year already, and once another half-year passed, he would be able to bring money home. It was the family’s hope for the future. Their youngest was still in his infancy and their parents couldn’t part with him, naturally, so that left only the middle son as something purely superfluous that was useless to keep around. If he could be distributed to a passing Daoist and be brought away to cultivate to immortality, that was a good place for him to go.
If he could cultivate, the long grass growing on the old Cheng gravesite would meet with great fortune. If he couldn’t, that didn’t matter; by letting him go off with someone else, then whether he wandered jianghu or played a conman, as long as he could eat and grow to adulthood, it was a way out.
Zhenren Muchun and the short-sighted Cheng patriarch went back and forth, and then the ’sale’ was very quickly settled, with the Zhenren leaving a silver fragment behind. One hand passed over money, and another hand passed over a human; Cheng Erlang’s name was just Cheng Qian from now on. Come this afternoon, he would be cutting off his ties to the mortal world and following his Master out on the road.
Cheng Dalang had a few years over his second brother. When together, they typically didn’t have anything to say, nor were they very close, but his little brother had been sensible since he was little. He never cried, made a fuss, nor stirred up trouble; he took his older brother’s hand-me-down clothes, let his infant brother and ailing mother eat and drink their fill first, and only took the lead when it came to work, never complaining.
Cheng Dalang didn’t say as much, but on the inside, he cherished this little brother of his.
There was nothing he could do, though. Their family was poor and couldn’t afford to keep him. It wasn’t time for him to take over the household as the eldest, either. Whether a matter was major or minor, nothing of what he said mattered.
Even with that, they still shared flesh and blood. Could they really just sell him off with one conversation?
The more Cheng Dalang thought about it, the more upset he was. He had a mind to go whack a dent into that old conman’s forehead, but following some thought, he didn’t. Honestly, if he really had that sort of courage, he wouldn’t have needed to follow another as a serving apprentice—robbing people would be a lot more lucrative, wouldn’t it?
His parents’ scheme and his older brother’s mental knot were not things Cheng Qian was wholly ignorant to.
He couldn’t be called intellectually precocious, and was unable to compete against those child prodigies that wrote poems at seven or became Prime Ministers at thirteen. He just had an average degree of intelligence.
His father woke up early and retired late. His older brother worked through the nights. His mother cared for his two other brothers, not him. For this reason, even though no one beat or verbally abused him in the family, no one cared too much about him, either. All of that, he knew well. He was tactful by nature, too, doing all he could to not be noisy and unpleasant; the most beyond-the-pale thing he’d ever done was climbing the old scholar’s tree to listen to hallowed texts that made no sense.
Hard-working and conscientious, he viewed himself as a little waiter, little worker, and little servant… but not a son.
He didn’t really know how it felt to be a son.
Children were supposed to be blabbermouths that jumped up down and all around, but because Cheng Qian wasn’t a ‘son’, he didn’t have the privilege to be talkative and unruly. If he had something on his mind, he would keep it in and never spit it out.
This had gone on for a long time. His words couldn’t be scattered around outside of him, so they had to point their tips inwards—his tiny chest had many little holes poked through it.
He whose chest was as holey as a rain-battered beach knew that his parents had sold him, yet he was a bit oddly calm at heart. It was like he had expected this day long ago.
Before his departure, that sickly mother of his got out of bed in an unexpected move, then called him shakily over to her. With red-rimmed eyes, she passed him a small bundle that contained a few washed clothes and a batch of baked bing.
It went without saying that these clothes were still ones his older brother had worn, and the bing had been made by his father the night before,
As he was still meat that had fallen out of her, when she looked at him, his mother couldn’t help but fish around in her sleeve. Cheng Qian watched her tremble as she took out a string of copper coins, and those banged-up, dark-colored coins slightly plucked Cheng Qian’s cold heartstrings. He resembled a frostbitten little animal, moving his nose through a world of snow and finally catching a whiff of his mother’s scent.
However, his father also saw the string of money. The man coughed heavily nearby, leaving his mother no choice but to take it back, tears in her eyes.
And so, that motherly smell was as false as a reflected moon. It faltered, and — without allowing Cheng Qian to smell it vividly — vanished like smoke once more.
His scentless mother took his hand and led him into the room. After not even two steps, she began to pant and heave.
Exhausted, she found a wide stool to sit down upon, then pointed at a small oil lantern hanging on the wall. “Do you know what that is, Erlang?” she asked weakly.
Cheng Qian raised his head indifferently. “The Immortal’s Ever-Lit Lantern.”
The unassuming little lantern was a Cheng family heirloom. Stories claimed that it was his paternal great-grandmother’s dowry. It was a palm-sized piece with no wick, nor need for oil; its simple ebony base had a few inscriptions carved into it to make it emit light on its own. It had illuminated that one-square-chi area for a long, long time.
He’d never been able to wrap his head around this, however. What was the use of hanging this junk up here, beside attracting bugs outside in the summer?
Still, since it was an immortal’s artifact, it didn’t need to have any practical use. As long as it could be shown off a little to the neighbors on their occasional visits, then in the eyes of country bumpkins, it was a precious treasure that could be handed down through generations.
These so-called ‘immortal artifacts’ were things that’d had inscriptions carved on them by ‘immortals’, which mortal folk couldn’t imitate. There were many different types of artifacts that had a variety of uses: lanterns that didn’t need their oil replenished, paper that didn’t burn, beds that were warm in winter and cool in summer, and so on… it didn’t stop at one.
A traveling storyteller had once come to the village entrance. He’d said that with in the bustling big cities, the homes had been built with ‘immortal bricks’, which reflected the sun like glazed roof tiles and made them shine as bright as an imperial palace. There were also layers of inscriptions written by high-level immortals on the outside of food bowls rich families used, which could expel every poison and drive off every illness. Even one piece of a broken bowl’s porcelain went for four taels of gold, yet were still highly sought after.
An ‘immortal’ was ‘someone that cultivates to perfection’, also known as a Daoist or a Zhenren — the former was normally a self-appellation that seemed a little more modest to the ear.
Supposedly, they took qi into their bodies and connected to the Heavens and the Earth as an entry point. When their cultivation base deepened, they could practice inedia, ascend to the Heavens, enter the Earth, or attain eternal youth, passing tribulations to become immortals… All kinds of legends had spread far and wide, but no one had ver seen those many-eyed, many-nosed, ‘real’ immortals before. It was all simply fantastical to hear.
The immortals’ whereabouts were unclear, so good artifacts were even more invaluable and hard to come by, all the nobles scrabbling like ducks for them.
Mother Cheng leaned over, looking at Cheng Qian in earnest. “When you come home from your studies, can you make your mom an Ever-Lit Lantern, as well?” she asked warmly, almost fawningly.
He didn’t answer, merely looking up at her. In his mind, he thought coldly, What a pretty dream. You’re sending me off today—from now on, whether I’m successful in my studies or not, whether I’m dead or alive, or whether I’m a hog or a dog, I will never come back here to look at you again.
Mother Cheng was suddenly stunned. She realized that this child was not like his parents, but a bit like her older brother from her natal family.
That brother was now a patch of green grass sprouting from her family’s ancestral gravesite. From childhood onwards, he’d never seemed like a peasant, having features that looked like they’d come from a painting. Their parents had lost all of their assets providing for his studies, and he’d strived hard, too, passing the exam and becoming a County Honorate at age eleven. Everyone had said a literary star had fallen to her family.
But that star likely hadn’t wanted to remain in the human world for too long. Before he could become a Provincial Honorate, he’d passed of illness.
She’d been very young when her brother died, so some of her memories were already fuzzy. Now, she suddenly remembered that when he’d lived, he was just like this — regardless of whether he was overflowing with joy or burning with rage on the inside, he would just give this same sort of nonchalant look, so aloof as to be motionless. It had made one feel wary, unable to get close to him in any close.
She automatically released Cheng Qian’s hand. At the same time, he imperceptibly took a half-step back.
Like so — meekly, and without a word said — this scene of parting between a mother and her child was pinched off to an abrupt end.
Cheng Qian believed that what he’d done really didn’t stem from resentment. Resentment would be unreasonable; his parents had given him the boons of birth and upbringing, although they gave up on that boon partway through and didn’t want him after half-bringing him up. So, at the very most, their contributions and failures counterbalanced each other.
He bowed his head to look at his toes, thinking to himself that his parents not caring about him didn’t matter. Being sold to a Daoist with triangular eyes… also didn’t matter.
The translator says: it does matter a little, actually. just a little.
this is the only chapter that will be fully posted on the website; the rest will have landing pages that lead to the main google doc. anti-piracy measures, you feel me?