Chapter 2: Opening

Chen Pingan got up at the crack of dawn.
The thin sheets could not hold heat well.
Chen Pingan had also developed a habit of getting up early during his pottery apprenticeship.
He opened the door, entering the front yard.
After taking a deep breath, he stretched his waist and stepped into the soft soil of the yard.
He turned his head and saw a thin figure, bent over, carrying a bucket in both hands.
She used her shoulders to open the gate into her front yard.
It was Song Jixin’s maid.
She should have just returned from the Iron Well in Apricot Street.

Chen Pingan looked away and walked across the street.
He headed towards the east part of the town.
Muddyrun was located in the west part of the town.
At the easternmost gate, there was a person responsible for the entry and exit of merchants and the night watch.
That person would usually collect and manage letters.
These letters were to family, written by people who were out of town.
Chen Pingan would send these letters to the people in the town.
He would get a copper coin for every letter he sent out.
This was how he made money.

Using Song Jixin’s words, he was poor, born in poverty, unable to find his place. 

Song Jixin often used words Chen Pingan often did not understand.
He used phrases and concepts found in books.
For instance, two days ago, Chen Pingan had trouble understanding when Song Jixin told him about the “the chill of spring, freezing youth.” Song Jixin said the chill of spring was brutal.
Just when you thought winter was coming to an end and the cold would drift away, this chill of spring would turn around and bite back, crashing down on you.
Many people would be sent to death’s door with the coming of spring.

Although he did not quite understand Song Jixin, Chen Pingan had experienced this supposed “chill of spring” firsthand.
Every year, after suffering through the bitter winter, he would be suddenly bit by the cold that came with the coming of spring.

The town had no walls.
In this town, petty thieves were a rare sight, let alone wandering bandits.
This so-called town gate was, in reality, just a row of staggered fences and a fence gate.
This shoddy entrance was what visitors first saw when they entered the town.

When Chen Pingan walked past Apricot Street, he saw many women and children gathered around the Iron Well.
They drew water from the well.

After arriving at the next street, Chen Pingan heard a familiar voice from not far away.
There was a school in the town here.
It opened up due to the collective efforts of the great families in the town.
The teacher was not from this town.
Chen Pingan used to go to a nearby window, sit, and secretly listen to the lessons taught here.
Despite teaching with austerity, the teacher did not reprimand or stop curious children like Chen Pingan from listening.
When Chen Pingan took up his pottery apprenticeship, he stopped going to the school.

Chen Pingan continued to walk forward and passed a stone archway.
The archway was built upon twelve stone pillars, and the locals liked to call it the Crab Archway.
Song Jixin and Liu Xianyang had differing opinions on what the archway should be called.
Song Jixin swore that, according to an old book called the Record of Places, this archway should be called the Scholar’s Monument.
He said it was a gift bestowed by the emperor.
It was given in order to commemorate an official’s political achievements and military exploits.
Liu Xianyang, a peasant like Chen Pingan, said that it should be called Crab Archway.
The town had been calling it that way for centuries.
Why bother changing the name to some scholar official nonsense? Was the official really that important?

Chen Pingan circled the archway.
The sides of the archway were inscribed with phrases.
The handwriting seemed ancient, different for each phrase.
The phrases were “One’s values beget action – Confucianism,” “Nature’s language, speak not – Taoism,” “Look within one’s self – Buddhism,” and “A sword rages, clashes.”

According to Song Jixian, the other phrases inscribed on the archway had been messed with.
Chen Pingan was ignorant regarding this topic.
Of course, even if he was curious about this sort of stuff, it would be in vain.
He couldn’t even comprehend the stuff in the Record of Places, that book Song Jixin kept talking about.

Soon, he came across a lush locust tree.
Under the tree was a tree trunk.
After some carving and the placing of a couple of slabs, the tree trunk would become a simple bench.
Every summer, the townsfolk would enjoy the shade here.

The children in the wealthy families, happy and full, would form groups, frolicking under the shade of the trees.

Chen Pingan was used to this trip, his breathing steady.
He ran to the fence town gate and stopped at the door of an isolated muddy-yellow house, which was nearby.

The number of people who came to the town was few.
After all, the town’s imperial pottery was now in the past.
Newcomers were a rare sight. 

Yao had once gotten drunk and told his apprentices Chen Pingan and Liu Xianyang that the imperial pottery they made was used by His Majesty, the emperor, and the empress.
He told them that, no matter how rich or influential one was, if they dared to touch their pottery, they would be executed.
That day, Yao was unusually spirited.

Chen Pingan looked over the fence and saw a crowd of people waiting outside the town gate.
There were around seven people, all strangers. 

Whether it be to fire up pottery or to do farm work, the locals rarely used the east town gate.
The reason was simple: the path leading out of the east gate had no kilns or fields.

This group of strangers and Chen Pingan faced each other.
Only a wooden fence separated them.

He felt a little envious of them, wearing his self-made straw sandals.
Those people wore thick clothes; they were snug in the cold.

The people outside the gate seemed to be divided into groups.
They looked at the thin boy on the other side of the gate.
The majority of them looked on with apathy.
Occasionally, one or two people would direct their gaze past the boy and into the town.

Chen Pingan found this situation a bit weird. Don’t these people know that the imperial court placed a ban on the kilns here? What are they trying to do?

A slender young man walked out of the crowd alone, an odd hat on top of his head, a jade pendant hanging from his waist.
Impatient, he went to push the town gate open.
Just when his fingers were about to touch the gate, he suddenly stopped and slowly withdrew his hand.
He put both hands behind his back and smiled at Chen Pingan who was on the other side of the gate, not saying a word, just smiling.

From the corner of his eye, Chen Pingan noticed the people behind the young man displayed a mix of emotions at this.
Some showed disappointment, some showed amusement, some frowned, while others smirked.

Suddenly, a middle-aged man with ruffled hair opened the door and stepped out of the muddy-yellow house.
He was the person in charge of guarding the gate.
“Little fucker, money is everything to you, huh? You came here so early! Can’t wait to die, ah? Can’t wait to see your dead fucking parents, brat?”

Chen Pingan rolled his eyes.
He paid no mind to these foul words.
He grew up in the countryside.
If he got fired up from this kind of stuff, he might as well throw himself off a cliff.
It would save him the trouble of having to live such a sensitive life.
Also, this middle-aged bachelor was considered the laughingstock of the town, often teased by feisty women.
He was rowdy and a punching bag.
In addition, he liked to brag about his “accomplishments” to little kids. 

It would go something along the lines of this: “Heh, did you know I beat the shit out of five big guys at the town gate today? I paved the streets in their blood.
It was a total slaughterfest!”

He grumbled to Chen Pingan, “We’ll talk about this later.”

No one in the town took this man seriously.

However, to outsiders, this man was the gatekeeper.
He held absolute control over their entry into the town.

As he walked towards the fence gate, the man scratched his crotch. 

His back turned to Chen Pingan, he opened the gate and began collecting small embroidered bags from those who came.
He placed them in his sleeve and then let them pass.

Chen Pingan got out of these people’s way and watched.
The eight people were divided into five groups.
There were two children behind the young man with the jade pendant hanging from his waist, a boy and a girl.
The boy wore a festive red robe.
The girl had a fair face and a dainty build.
They looked to be around seven to eight years old.

The boy was half a head shorter than Chen Pingan.
When the boy walked past him, he mouthed something to Chen Pingan.
The boy put special emphasis on his mouth movement, making it clear that what he mouthed wasn’t very nice.

The middle-aged woman, who held the boy’s hand, coughed dryly.
The boy reigned himself in.

The girl behind the woman and boy was led by an old muscular man with a head of pale gray hair.
She turned her head to Chen Pingan and began mumbling to the old man.
She pointed at the boy in front of her.

Chen Pingan could not understand a thing the girl said, but he guessed that she was complaining about him. 

The old man looked at Chen Pingan.
Just one of his glances caused Chen Pingan to take a step back subconsciously, like a mouse coming face to face with a cat.

After seeing this, the girl who was chirping like a hummingbird to the old man seemed to have lost interest in fanning the flames.
She turned her head and no longer looked at Chen Pingan.
It seemed to Chen Pingan that she did not deign to look at him longer.

Although Chen Pingan was just a country bumpkin, he still had an understanding of how these types of people thought.

The group of people went off in the distance.
The gatekeeper smiled and asked, “Do you want to know what they said?”

Chen Pingan nodded, “Yes.”

With a grin on his face, the gatekeeper said, “They were complimenting your appearance.”

The corners of Chen Pingan’s mouth twitched. Do you think I’m dumb?

 As if reading Chen Pingan’s mind, the man grew happier, his smile widening.
“If I thought you were dumb, would I’ve let you deliver letters?”

Chen Pingan did not retort, fearing that if riled up this fellow, his copper coins would fly out the window.

The man turned his head, looking in the direction those people went.
He rubbed his messy beard and murmured, “That woman just now, her legs could choke someone to death.”

Chen Pingan paused before asking, curious, “That miss practiced martial arts?”

The man looked at Chen Pingan in amazement.
He looked down at the boy and said in a solemn tone, “Brat, you’re really dumb.”

Chen Pingan was befuddled.
He had no clue what was going on.

The man told Chen Pingan to wait here.
He took big steps to the house.
When he came back, he had a stack of ten or so envelopes in his hand.
He handed them to Chen Pingan.
“Do you believe dumb people have dumb luck?”

Chen Pingan took the letter with one hand and stretched out his other hand, his palm facing upwards.
“We agreed every letter is worth one copper.
You owe me ten copper.”

The man, fuming, slammed the five copper coins he had prepared in advance into Chen Pingan’s outstretched hand.
Then, he flicked his wrist flamboyantly and said with flair, ”Now it’s only five.
I’ll pay the rest later.”

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