After three days of traveling north, they came across many refugees on the road. There were too many people in this world, and Great Jing was as crowded as a steaming pot about to explode. Despite the severe punishment of the Secret Sect, which exiled many prisoners to the snowy wasteland or sent them to mine spirit stones every year, there were still many homeless people wandering the streets. Even though Su Ru Hui wanted to help them, he had to be on guard against thieves and bandits. Along the way, there were ragged beggars lurking and watching the carriages on the straight road. Su Ru Hui was never without the flintlock pistol hidden in his sleeve.
While Su Ru Hui stopped to rest in various towns and cities, he learned that the news of Sang Chi Yu’s rebellion had already spread. The Secret Sect posted notices to capture Sang Chi Yu, and he had overtaken Su Ru Hui’s position as a class A wanted criminal. The wanted notice depicted Sang Chi Yu’s cold and indifferent face. The Secret Sect had superb painting skills and depicted him in a very lifelike way. Su Ru Hui halted his horse, recalling that guy’s expressionless face and how he didn’t eat or drink. He sighed inwardly.
Sang Chi Yu wasn’t like that when he was a child, at least when he was being treated by Su Ru Hui’s master.
Su Ru Hui remembered when Dan Tai Jing left Shu Luo Mountain. Su Ru Hui had volunteered to take on the task of delivering food to the cave every day, and he also taught Sang Chi Yu how to break the maze array. If Sang Chi Yu felt bored, he would come find him. They sneaked out to play without anyone noticing, and later, Su Ru Hui’s courage grew. He, Jiang Xue Ya, and Zhou Xiao Su secretly took Sang Chi Yu down the mountain.
These group of children had a small courtyard called “Pear Blossom Courtyard.” Jiang Xue Ya and Zhou Xiao Su lived in the main house, and Su Ru Hui lived in the east wing. The west wing was originally a pile of clutter, but Su Ru Hui and his friends cleared it out to create a sleeping area. Su Ru Hui contributed his bed, a velvet carpet, and a lion-shaped pillow that his father gave him for his birthday. Jiang Xue Ya and Zhou Xiao Su respectively contributed bedding, blankets, and wooden screens. Sang Chi Yu lived there.
Ming Ruo Wu opened a private school at a temple, where children within a few miles could attend without restriction. Half of the children from Zhi Luo Town at the foot of the mountain came to study here, including Su Ru Hui, Jiang Xue Ya, and Zhou Xiao Su. Su Ru Hui went to Ming Ruo Wu’s school during the day and played with Sang Chi Yu in the house at night. They hid for nearly half a month, and no one knew that there was an extra ten-year-old child in their courtyard. Many years later, Su Ru Hui remembered this and thought that Ming Ruo Wu had known all along that they were hiding Sang Chi Yu but chose to turn a blind eye.
Later, Su Ru Hui measured Sang Chi Yu’s feet with his hands and noted down his shoe size. He had a friendly little girl in Zhi Luo Town make a pair of shoes for Sang Chi Yu to make it easier for him to walk. Sang Chi Yu cherished those shoes. Su Ru Hui did not know that they were his first pair of shoes.
Sang Chi Yu polished his shoes clean every day and refused to step on them when the soles got dirty from mud. Jiang Xue Ya always ordered Su Ru Hui to carry him on his back when he didn’t want to walk. Su Ru Hui was frustrated because he had asked someone to make shoes for Sang Chi Yu so that he could walk by himself. However, despite being the leader of the gang, Su Ru Hui was actually the lowest in status, and his protests were always ignored.
On the surface, Su Ru Hui was the leader of the gang, but in reality, Jiang Xue Ya was in charge of the gang’s internal affairs. Therefore, the daily activities of the gang were mostly games played by girls, such as jumping rope, braiding flower ropes, and cross-dressing. Sang Chi Yu was beautiful, and Jiang Xue Ya and Zhou Xiao Su enjoyed dressing him up in various outfits every day.
Su Ru Hui was a mischievous person and would intentionally cause trouble. When Jiang Xue Ya asked him to help Sang Chi Yu comb his hair, he would make it messy. When Jiang Xue Ya carefully picked out pretty flowers to put in Sang Chi Yu’s hair, Su Ru Hui would replace them with ugly pomegranate flowers. When Jiang Xue Ya dressed Sang Chi Yu in a colorful skirt, Su Ru Hui secretly put a small praying mantis on it, scaring Zhou Xiao Su into screaming. Su Ru Hui laughed heartily, but then was beaten up by Jiang Xue Ya.
Once, the master told Jiang Xue Ya to take a medicinal bath, and Zhou Xiao Su accompanied her. Su Ru Hui had a day off from the classes, so only he and Sang Chi Yu were left in the Pear Blossom Courtyard. Su Ru Hui slept until the sun was high, bored and idle, and went to the west wing to find Sang Chi Yu. Pushing open the door, he saw Sang Chi Yu sitting by the drawer, a small figure in a white dress, looking like a lonely little mushroom.
Su Ru Hui approached to take a closer look and saw that he was putting the flowers that Jiang Xue Ya and Zhou Xiao Su had picked for him, one by one, into a small drawer, including the big red pomegranate flower that Su Ru Hui had picked. All the flowers had withered, their petals turning black and smelling foul. Su Ru Hui thought Sang Chi Yu had thrown them away long ago, but he had kept them.
“Why did you keep them when they’re all dead?” Su Ru Hui squatted beside him and said listlessly, “Come on, I’ll pick some new ones for you.”
Sang Chi Yu shook his head and said, “I want to keep them.”
A blue-green mantis crawled from behind Sang Chi Yu and onto his shoulder, startling Su Ru Hui. Upon closer inspection, he realized it was the mantis he had placed on Sang Chi Yu’s skirt a few days ago as a prank.
“Why is it still here!?” Su Ru Hui exclaimed.
Sang Chi Yu cupped it in his palm and said, “You gave it to me.”
Su Ru Hui wanted to say it wasn’t a gift, but something he had brought out to scare him. As he turned his head, he met Sang Chi Yu’s large, black eyes, which clearly reflected Su Ru Hui’s small figure. Su Ru Hui inexplicably swallowed his words.
“I remember now, I did give it to you,” Su Ru Hui said.
Glancing at the flowers in the drawer, Sang Chi Yu couldn’t bear to throw away any of them because they were gifts from his friends. Su Ru Hui, who was usually carefree, felt guilty for the first time. Yu’er was too easy to fool; he would believe anything and cherish anything given to him.
If others were to see such a well-behaved child, they would surely feel pity and develop a touching love story. Unfortunately, Sang Chi Yu met Su Ru Hui, who was never a good person. While others loved and cherished precious things, he would purposely destroy them. At this moment, Su Ru Hui suddenly thought of the pile of stinky socks in his room. He quickly forgot about any guilt he had felt.
He raised his eyebrows and asked, “Chi Yu, are you my younger brother?”
Sang Chi Yu nodded.
“Younger brothers must help elder brothers wash their stinky socks. You haven’t helped me wash them yet.”
Sang Chi Yu hesitated for a moment and then said, “I’ll help you wash them.”
“You promised, don’t go back on your word.” Su Ru Hui was ecstatic.
Sang Chi Yu nodded and said, “I won’t go back on my word.”
Su Ru Hui led Sang Chi Yu into his small room and pulled out all of the stinky socks from his cabinet. Su Ru Hui’s room was a mess, with an Eight Pole Boxing Scripture, Mysterious Grip Scripture, and Broken Cloud Blade Scripture scattered on the ground. Sang Chi Yu picked them up and saw that they were filled with simple drawings of people made by Su Ru Hui.
While sorting out the socks, Su Ru Hui said, “These are all exercises that my master gave me. He said that I must practice physical skills and learn the star array in the future to make a living.” Su Ru Hui hated practicing, spending his days either carrying sandbags and climbing mountains or waving a wooden sword at a wooden man. After a day of training, he would be panting and exhausted like a dog. He especially disliked the star arrays. The Wind-Stealing Star Array in the Mysterious Grip Scripture had countless variations, and even a basic array had several hundred different forms. He couldn’t even remember the directions. He didn’t want to learn it. In the future, he could become a cook. There were so many things in the world that he could do. Why couldn’t he find work? Su Ru Hui rolled his eyes and said, “It’s so boring. There’s nothing to see. Let’s go wash the socks!”
Su Ru Hui handed him a wooden basin, and Sang Chi Yu sincerely carried the basin to the river, rolled up his sleeves, and scrubbed Su Ru Hui’s socks with a grunt while Su Ru Hui fooled around. There were too many socks. Sang Chi Yu worked hard until past afternoon, but he still hadn’t finished washing them. Su Ru Hui still had a conscience, so he picked a large lotus leaf and sat next to him, shielding him from the setting sun.
“Yu’er,” Su Ru Hui instructed him, “don’t tell Jiang Xue Ya and Zhou Xiao Su. If they ask, just say that I took you out to pick flowers.”
“Why can’t I tell them?” Sang Chi Yu asked in confusion.
“Never mind why. You are my little brother and I am your big brother. You have to listen to me,” Su Ru Hui cajoled. “You can pretend to listen to Jiang Xue Ya on the surface, but you should actually listen to me.”
Although Sang Chi Yu didn’t understand why, he still nodded.
“Remember, we are in this together. Jiang Xue Ya and Zhou Xiao Su are outsiders.” Su Ru Hui grinned. “Come on, call me Ru Hui Gege (1).”
“Ru Hui Gege,” Sang Chi Yu obediently said.
Su Ru Hui happily said, “Jiang Xue Ya needs to soak in the medicinal bath for three days. While she’s not around, I’ll teach you how to massage my back and legs tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Sang Chi Yu shouted again, “Ru Hui Gege.”
The terrain was elevated and the air became drier and colder. Frost began to form on Su Ru Hui’s eyelashes. He initially wore only a single layer of clothes, but later changed into a padded jacket. A felt hat covered his head and a scarf covered his face, with only his eyes exposed.
Great Jing had forty-eight prefectures. After leaving the bustling Yun Zhou, the world became vast and expansive. Rugged rocks were everywhere, and the bare land resembled the stiff veins and bones of an old man. In the distance, snow-capped mountains rose up, surrounded by clouds and mist. Their serene and contemplative appearance looked like a compassionate Buddha overlooking the world. The mountains came closer, and snow particles mixed with the wind. In the hazy world, Su Ru Hui’s solitary lamp in front of the carriage was like a twinkling star, slowly heading towards the direction of the mountains.
In the early morning, the puppet carriage entered a border city at the foot of Kun Lun. The city gate had checkpoints and martial law; all entry and exit had to be checked. Many people had already gathered here, mostly those who came to join the army.
The border city was the capital of Great Jing, with Kun Lun situated here. The towering mountain range guarded the frontier of Great Jing, isolating the snowy wilderness outside. The Frontline Guards was a military unit that specialised in exploring mines deep in the snow. Refugees and escaped prisoners lived in the wilderness, and wild beasts burrowed underground like animals. When they were recruited by the Black Street to become part of the evil army, they became enemies of the Frontline Guards. The Black Street was always coveting the Secret Sect’s spirit stone resources, and because they were deep in the snow and constantly faced the Black Street’s invasion, this unit had the highest mortality rate among the Secret Sect’s military.
Most of the people who were excluded from aristocratic families or commoners who wanted to gain fame and fortune were sent here. Jiang Xue Ya and Sang Chi Yu had both been in the Frontline Guards before. Sang Chi Yu was forced to undergo training by his master, and Jiang Xue Ya was driven to the Frontline Guards due to persecution from her family.
With so many people coming, most of them had the idea of hitting it big in the city. The Secret Sect monopolized spirit stones and controlled the world. Once they were a member of the Secret Sect, one could rise to a high position and control others’ lives and deaths, no longer being trampled upon like ants in the dust. Of course, that was true as long as they did not make mistakes like Sang Chi Yu.
Su Ru Hui drove to the conscription office in the Yamen (2). The mansions here were all official buildings, with red gates and white walls. Crows perched on the trees in front of the doors. A military officer of the Secret Sect had set up tables and chairs on both sides and placed two signs that read “ordinary people” and “spiritual power users”. The officer behind the table shivered and yelled in a breathless voice, “Those who have spiritual powers come to this side, and those without power go to the other side. Report your name and village, line up in formation! Move quickly or I will take your heads. It’s freezing cold out here!”
The queue of spiritual power users was very small. The aristocracy monopolized the bloodline of spiritual power users, and it was extremely rare for ordinary people to awaken their power. Although the probability was low, it was still possible to find some. After waiting for a whole morning, only three people came. They waited for a while longer but no one else came, so the officer on the other side who was registering spiritual power users closed the register and left to drink.
Su Ru Hui joined the queue of ordinary people, surrounded by tall and strong men like iron towers. He was already considered tall, but he looked like a white rabbit compared to them. The crowd was bustling, and Su Ru Hui’s system had taken the initiative to mark every person’s head with their identity. Most of them were “ordinary people”, and there were also some from the Paradise Pavillion marked as “rascals” or “thugs”. Those marked as “monks” were probably from the Great Compassion Temple. There was also someone in black clothes with the label “mysterious youth” on his head, which was quite unusual.
Su Ru Hui withdrew his gaze and touched the hand warmer in his sleeve. Some people were staring at him, more than one person. He had been low-key all the way and had not revealed his identity, but it seemed that there were people who knew he was Jiang Que Xie and had followed him from Yun Zhou.
1. Gege – older brother. It’s a term of endearment, doesn’t necessarily have to be related by blood
2. Yamen – a term used in ancient China to refer to a government office or administrative building where officials carried out their duties. Yamen served as the central hub for government officials, who managed local affairs, including taxation, law enforcement, and civil disputes.