Chapter 1: Spring Bloom

The critters stirred with the coming of spring.
The dragon awoke from its winter slumber, heralding the onset of spring rain.

Dusk fell.
In a remote street called Muddyrun, there existed a frail boy.
He was alone in a house, poking away at various critters.
He held a candle in one hand and a branch in the other.
The candle’s light illuminated the wooden bed, as the branch drove away centipedes, snakes, and other pests.
While the boy did this, he muttered an old saying that had been passed down from his town’s forefathers: spring blooms, insects bite, shine the candle’s light, till they’re no longer in sight.

The boy’s name was Chen Pingan.
Both his parents had passed away.
The pottery in the small town he was in was held in great esteem.
The town had directed the firing of imperial pottery since the beginning of the dynasty.
Imperial officials were stationed here regularly, overseeing the firing process.
Alone and hapless, the boy decided to involve himself in pottery and took an apprenticeship with a temperamental pottery master.
In the beginning, he did only menial chores.
After several years of hard work, he managed to touch the surface of the world of pottery. 

However, things took a turn for the worse.
An amulet produced by an imperial kiln went missing in the town.
As a result, in the span of a single night, the government ordered the shut down of dozens of kilns in the town, putting an end to the town’s potters.

Chen Pingan put down the broken branch, blew out the candle, and walked out of the house, stepping into his yard.
He sat on the steps, raised his head, and stared at the starry night.

The boy still had vivid memories of his master, the master who did not recognize him as a full-fledged apprentice.
On late autumn mornings, his master would be found sitting on a bamboo chair, facing the direction of the kiln, his eyes shut.

There were few people as stubborn and inflexible as his master, Yao.

For generations, the craftsmen of this small town only knew one thing: pottery.
With the kilns gone, these people needed to find another way to make a living.
They also could not sell the pottery they had stored to the common people since that would infringe on the imperial rules. 

At the age of fourteen, Chen Pingan was kicked out and forced to return to Muddyrun.
He lived out his days in a dilapidated house, poverty-stricken.
He had no idea how to proceed.
The little money he saved up could barely fill his stomach.
He wandered the streets like a broken soul, unable to find a way to make money. 

A few days ago, he heard that an old blacksmith from out of town by the name of Ruan had stopped by Qilong street, which was only a few blocks away.
The blacksmith had announced he would be taking several apprentices.
Although the apprenticeship offered no working salary, food would be provided.
Chen Pingan ran over to try his luck.
However, much to Chen Pingan’s surprise, the blacksmith took only one glance at him before turning him down.
At the time, Chen Pingan was left wondering whether being a blacksmith had more to do with one’s appearance than one’s strength.

Although Chen Pingan looked weak and frail, his strength was not to be underestimated.
His body was a result of many years of firing pottery.
In addition, Chen Pingan had followed Yao, traversing the town’s surrounding mountains and rivers.
He traveled everywhere during these years, worked to the bone, tasting the earth as he went.
He would do whatever dirty work assigned to him with the utmost diligence.
Unfortunately, Yao, from beginning to end, disliked Chen Pingan.
He loathed the boy’s lack of intelligence and insight.
He thought the boy had rocks in his head and that he was far inferior to his eldest apprentice, Liu Xianyang.
Yao’s bias for his eldest apprentice was not without reason.
Liu Xianyang was simply more talented.
Liu Xianyang’s half a year of work was equal to Chen Pingan’s three years of work.

Although he would most likely never use this skill ever again, Chen Pingan still shut his eyes and began to imagine himself molding clay and spinning the potter’s wheel.
He would continue to practice his pottery skills.

Around every fifteen minutes, he would take a short break and shake his wrists.
This cycle would repeat.
Once he exhausted every last bit of energy within him, Chen Pingan got up and took a stroll, stretching out his legs.
No one had ever taught Chen Pingan these things.
He had to go in blind, figuring out things as he went.

The silence of the night was broken.
Chen Pingan heard mocking laughter and his footsteps halted.
He saw someone similar to his age couching atop a wall.
He had a smirk on his face.

This person was Chen Pingan’s neighbor.
He was allegedly the illegitimate child of the imperial official who once oversaw the pottery.
Afraid of being reprimanded and impeached, the official left the child behind when he was recalled back to the capital.
The child was left in the care of the succeeding official, who had a close friendship with the child’s father. 

However, after the amulet incident, the town lost the right to produce imperial pottery.
The official, who was responsible for overseeing the imperial pottery, could not even protect himself, let alone others.
He had no time to protect his colleague’s illegitimate child.
After entrusting some money to the child, he rushed back to the capital.

The child, who had been abandoned, passed his days in leisure.
His maid beside him, he wandered around the town.
He was idle year-round, money never a worry for him.

The walls dividing the houses in Muddyrun were low.
The neighbor boy could see the whole yard even without standing on his tippy-toes, but he preferred to crouch atop a wall when talking to Chen Pingan.

The boy’s name was Song Jixin, and the maid who stuck to him was called Zhi Gui.
The girl stood on the other side of the wall timidly, her eyes almond-shaped. 

A voice came from the entrance of the yard.
“Are you selling that maid?”

Song Jixin turned his head to the voice, startled.
A young boy dressed in elegant clothing entered his eyes.
The boy stood outside the yard.
Song Jixin had never seen him before.

Beside the boy was a tall old man.
The old man had a pale face.
He looked at the boy and girl pair, a gentle smile on his face.

The old man glanced at Chen Pingan before focusing on Song Jixin and the maid.
The smile on his face deepened.

Song Jixin squinted at the young man.
“Okay, how much?”

The young man smiled.
“Name your price.”

The girl’s eyes widened.
She felt this whole situation was bizarre.
She looked like a deer caught in headlights.

Song Jixin furrowed his brow and stretched out ten fingers.
“Ten thousand silver!”

The boy’s face remained the same.
He nodded.
“Deal.”

Seeing as the boy did not seem to be joking, Song Jixin said hurriedly, “I meant gold!”

The boy’s lips curled up into a smile.
“I was just messing with you.”

Song Jixin’s face fell.
The fancily dressed boy no longer paid attention to Song Jixin and shifted his gaze to Chen Pingan.
“I owe you one.
Thanks to you, I was able to buy that carp.
It truly is a good carp.
It made me want to thank you in person.
I got Grandpa Wu to take me to you.”

He threw an embroidered bag to Chen Pingan and beamed.
“My thanks, we’re even now.”

Just as Chen Pingan was about to speak, the boy turned around and left.

Chen Pingan titled his head, thinking.

During the day, he had come across a middle-aged man walking down a street with a fish basket.
The man had caught a palm-sized golden carp.
It jumped wildly in the bamboo basket.
In a festive mood, Chen Pingan took one glance at it and wanted to buy it.
He offered to buy it for ten copper.
The middle-aged man had originally planned to make this thing of beauty his meal, but, seeing that he could make some money off of it, he sat on the ground and began bargaining.
He would only sell it for thirty copper.
Chen Pingan was strapped for cash but he really wanted the golden carp.
He began to bargain with the middle-aged man, wanting to cut the price down to fifteen copper.
He would even be fine with twenty copper.
Just when the middle-aged man showed signs of giving in, that fancily dressed boy and tall old man showed up.
In one fell swoop, they bought the carp and fish basket for fifty copper.
Chen Pingan could only watch as they walked away, unable to do a thing.

Song Jixin glared at the grandfather and grandson pair as they faded away in the distance.
Then, he jumped off the wall and exclaimed, as if remembering something.
He said to Chen Pingan, “Do you still remember that four-legged snake in the Spring Festival?”

Chen Pingan nodded.
It was still fresh in his mind.

According to the town’s tradition, if there was a snake in one’s house, it was an auspicious sign.
The owner should not drive it out or kill it.
During the Spring Festival, Song Jixin was laying at his doorstep, basking in the sun.
Then, a little critter, commonly called a four-legged snake, bolted into his house.
Song Jixin grabbed it and threw it into the yard.
To his surprise, the four-legged snake, which was sent barreling to the ground, was persistent.
It would come again and again.
In a fit of rage, Song Jixin, who never really believed in that superstitious stuff, threw the snake into Chen Pingan’s yard. 

The next day, Song Jixin was greeted with a nasty surprise.
He saw the four-legged snake curled up under his bed.

The girl tugged on Song Jixin’s sleeve, just as Song Jixin was about to continue.
Song Jixin and the girl were in tune with each other’s thoughts.
Song Jixin swallowed the words he was about to say.

He was going to say that the hideous four-legged snake had a strange bulge on its forehead.
It resembled a horn.

Song Jixin instead said, “Zhi Gui and I will probably be leaving here next month.”

Chen Pingan sighed.
“Have a safe trip.”

Song Jixin said jokingly, “There are some things that I won’t take with me when I leave.
You better not go wild and steal everything while I’m away.”

Chen Pingan shook his head.

Song Jixin burst out laughing and pointed at Chen Pingan with a playful smile.
“You’re such a scaredy-cat.
What’s this? Once poor, always poor? You’ll end up no better in your next life.”

Chen Pingan remained silent.

Chen Pingan went back to his house, shut the door, and lay on the wooden bed.
Uncomfortable.
He closed his eyes and murmured, “Stay safe, Ping’an, stay safe, Ping’an, live on, Ping’an, live on, Ping’an…”

TL Disclaimer: I only translate chaps for this when I have a screw loose or high so expect zero commitment and come in with zero expectations.
I highly encourage anyone to pick up/snipe/poach/release the chaps they have stored for this novel.
Hope a committed tl tries to pick up and finish this (scarily long and honestly untranslatable) novel.

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