PROLOGUE

I

In the small town of Yanhui, far out in the frontier, was a place called “Generals' Slope”. Although its name sounded mighty, in reality, it was only a slightly large pile of dirt, one could already look past its top if they stretched their neck out.


The Generals' Slope had not always been there from the start. It was said that fourteen years ago, after Great Liang's Black Iron Camp’s three major factions — the indomitable Iron Calvary — finished the Northern Expedition and silenced the Eighteen Barbarian Man's tribes and they were on their way back to the capital, they took the path through Yanhui Town.


It was here that they had put down their already ruined armor, piling it up into a small mound, and after many years of weathering under rain and wind, sand and dust, it had turned into the Generals' Slope.

  

The Generals' Slope was a deserted place. Nothing could ever grow on this piece of land, not even wild grass or weeds. Couples could not fool around either, as there was no cover. It simply laid there, no one could think of any good use for it. The elderly all said that this was due to the Black Iron Camp’s deadly aura being too strong. As time passed by, those with nothing to do used this as their basis, from which they started to weave out many ghostly and demonic tales about the frontier. Over time, no one went there anymore.

  

At dusk one day, there were two young children, about ten years old, running to the Generals' Slope.


The two together—one who was tall and skinny, the other short and fat—resembled a running pair of bowl and chopsticks.

  

The tall one was dressed in the style of a girl; one had to look carefully to tell that they were actually a boy. His childhood name was Cao Niangzi. Because a fortune teller once said that he was a female born into the wrong fetus, fearing that God would call him back to be reborn, his family was worried that he would not live long and raised him as a daughter ever since.


The chubby one was the youngest son of Butcher Ge, and his childhood name was Ge Pang Xiao. His appearance resembled his name; his whole body was faintly glazed with a layer of rich oil, which made him seem wealthy.

  

The two of them went towards the Generals' Slope to look around, but due to the rumors of the place being haunted, they did not dare to approach too closely.

  

Ge Pang Xiao held a 'Qian Li Yan' with a copper shell, and stretched his neck to look in the direction of the Generals' Slope. He whispered: “Say... the sun is setting, but he still has not come down, my big brother is really... What is it called? Hang the neck, ward off the wheat!"


Cao Niangzi: "It is called 'Hang the neck, prick the thigh' don't talk nonsense, give me the Qian Li Yan."

*T/N: Ge Pang Xiao wrongly remembered the idiom Cao Niangzi said, 悬梁刺股 which means to grind away with one’s study

  

This fake girl often put on fake dramatics, though unfortunately, the direction was a bit of a problem - he did not resemble the girls of high nobility, but was more like a shrew, one that especially loved to wave a pair of chicken claws to scratch people.


As soon as he reached out, Ge Pang Xiao's flesh already felt a dull ache, he hurriedly handed over the Qian Li Yan with both hands, warning repeatedly: "Be careful with it, if it breaks, my father will pound me into pie filling."

  

The so-called "Qian Li Yan*" was a small round tube made of copper, with a carving of "five bats" around it. The inside was a clear, transparent liuli glass. Once worn on the eye, one could tell whether a rabbit was male or female from ten miles away.

*lit. thousand-mile eye, a steampunk monocular


Ge Pang Xiao's Qian Li Yan was more exquisite than the regular ones - it was left behind by his grandfather, who was once a scout.

  

Cao Niangzi held the new toy in his hand for a long time before raising it to look at the stars: "It’s really clear."


Ge Pang Xiao followed his line of sight and pointed out: "I know that one, it is the evening star, also called 'Chang Geng', sharing the same name with my big brother. Teacher Shen taught us this, I still remember."

  

Cao Niangzi pursed his lips: "Who is your big brother? Does he pay attention to you? Always clinging and chasing after him, forcing him to be your big brother, have you no shame...hey, wait, can you see if that is him?"

  

Ge Pang Xiao looked in the direction of his finger - it really was.


A young boy with his head down, holding a sword in his hand, was walking slowly down the Generals' Slope. Ge Pang Xiao immediately seemed to toss his fear of being haunted into the sky, rushing out like a landmine: "Brother, brother!"

  

Running too fast, he tripped on something at the foot of the slope, rolling all the way to the young boy's feet.


Covered in dirt, Ge Pang Xiao raised his face and looked up. Before climbing up, he giggled dumbly, saying with a grin combined with a grimace, "Hehe, big brother, I have been waiting for you all day."

  

The boy named Chang Geng silently shrank back the leg that almost stepped on Ge Pang Xiao.


 Every time Chang Geng saw Ge Pang Xiao, he always felt that it was quite magical. He thought that Butcher Ge who had killed a thousand pigs might have been blessed with extraordinarily keen eyes, thus, for so many years, he managed not to mistake his son as a pig and accidentally butcher him. However, Chang Geng’s character was mature, and his mouth was very good, so no matter what he thought inside, he would not say hurtful words out loud to people.

  

  Chang Geng reached out to help Ge Pang Xiao up, then brushed off the dirt on his body, appearing like a big brother: "What are you running for, be careful or else you'll break a bone. Did you need me for something?"

  

  Ge Pang Xiao: "Big brother Chang Geng, your father and the others will come back tomorrow, we don't have to go to class, will you come with us to grab the Yan rations? We can definitely beat those little Li monkeys!"

  

  Xu Baihu was Chang Geng's father, though, their relationship was not by blood.


  When he was two or three years old, Chang Geng came to this place with his widowed mother, Xiu Niang, to search for her relatives. Unexpectedly, those relatives had already moved far away.


  Coincidentally, Xu Baihu’s original wife in Yanhui Town passed away early, and he had no children. He fell in love with Xiu Niang, and thus married her as his second wife.

  

  Xu Baihu took people out of the gate to collect the yearly tribute of the Barbarians, and he was due to return within these next few days.

  

  The frontier town was poor and full of hardships, and the children did not have many snacks or food either. Every time the soldiers returned from tribute collecting, they would bring along some cheese and dried meat from the Man people, and scatter it along the roadside. And every time, the little urchins always gathered together to fight for it: this was called "grabbing the Yan rations."


  Since it was called "grab", a group of young children would inevitably get into a scuffle. As long as the fight was not so bad, the adults would not care, and so the children would form into gangs and fight with all seriousness.

  

  In this kind of thing, for whichever side could get Chang Geng to join their gang, it was equivalent to being invincible.


  Chang Geng had been meticulously practicing martial arts since he was small. There were plenty of military households at the frontier, thus there was no shortage of children who practiced martial arts. But these things took hard work, and a majority of the children only learned a few moves, mediocre and half-hearted. Only Chang Geng, from when he first began learning, had always brought his sword to the Generals' Slope and practiced on his own every day, working hard for years without a break. His perseverance was incredible.

  

  To this day, Chang Geng was still not quite fourteen years old, but he was already able to carry a thirty-kilogram sword with one hand. Although Chang Geng knew the difference between right and wrong, and never participated in fighting with the little urchins, every one of those children were inexplicably afraid of him.

  

  Chang Geng listened, but did not take the words to heart. He smiled and said: "How old am I already, what am I grabbing those snacks for?"

  

  Ge Pang Xiao persistently said, "I already requested it from Teacher Shen, and he even nodded. For the next few days, we can have a break."


  Chang Geng put his hands behind his back and walked slowly, his sword occasionally knocking against his calf. He did not pay attention to Ge Pang Xiao’s childish words.

  

  Whether he read books or not, practiced his sword or not, did not depend on if the teacher allowed them to have a break.

  

  Ge Pang Xiao: "Moreover, Teacher Shen said that he wants to change the medicine for Uncle Shiliu. In the next few days, he may have to travel far out to buy herbs, he won't be at home. Either way, you have no place to go, just come with us, how much fun could there be, practicing swordplay all the time?"

  

  This sentence finally went to Chang Geng's heart. He paused for a moment, then asked: "Did Shiliu not just come back from Changyang, how is he already sick?"


  Ge Pang Xiao: "Ah...it seems so, but when is he ever not sick?"

  

  "Then I'll go and take a look." Chang Geng waved his hand at the two little tails, "Hurry home, it's already dark, if you're late for dinner, your father will punish you."


  Ge Pang Xiao: "Hey, big brother, that..."

  

  Chang Geng was not interested in listening to "this" and "that" forever. Boys this age would become different each year they grew, and there was already a vast gap between them in both height and ways of thinking. For Chang Geng, joining and hanging around with children like Ge Pang Xiao had become something so far behind him.


Using his height advantage and long legs, in the blink of an eye, he was already long gone.

  

  The little chubby child wasted this visit, unable to invite the other boy for support. He sighed in disappointment and looked back at Cao Niangzi: "You should've said something!"

  

  Cao Niangzi's face was red, his eyes were dazed. The arrogant and bossy appearance he'd displayed to Ge Pang Xiao before had long since disappeared, and he hugged his arms around his chest like a young girl: "My big brother Chang Geng, even his walking posture is more beautiful than others."

  

  Ge Pang Xiao: "..."


  He swore to never bring this stock of embarrassment outside again.



  The "Teacher Shen" and "Uncle Shiliu" Ge Pang Xiao mentioned were a pair of brothers, and had a long history with Chang Geng.

  

  Two years ago, when Chang Geng was still young, he slipped out of the city gate alone to play, accidentally lost his way, and was almost taken away by the wolves.


  Fortunately, the Shen brothers had been passing by.

  

  Teacher Shen drove away the hungry wolves with powder and saved his puny life. The two brothers later decided to live in the town of Yanhui. Xu Baihu portioned off an empty yard from his home for them to stay on. Grateful that they had saved his son, he did not accept rent money.

  

  The name of the elder brother was Shen Yi. He was a student who tried repeatedly but wasn't able to pass his examinations. Although he was not very old, his determination had dulled. Instead, he was content with living as a hermit in a place where even birds didn’t bother to shit. The neighbors politely called him Teacher Shen.


 In addition to being a hermit, Teacher Shen also served as a doctor, a poem writer, a teacher, and a mechanic.


He was very versatile; he could heal injuries, help a horse give birth, and even ran a private school at home during the day, teaching a group of children how to read. After sending the students away, at night, he would roll up his sleeves to repair steam machines, steel armor, and various types of iron puppets, earning some daily expenses for the household. Who knew that hiding away could be this busy?

  

  Teacher Shen knew how to make money and take care of his family, even his skills in the kitchen could be comparable to an expert - he was very handy. Thus, his younger brother had nothing else to do but be responsible for being a deadbeat.


Teacher Shen’s brother was called Shen Shiliu. It seemed that he was in poor health from a young age; the family was afraid that they wouldn't be able to raise him, so they did not give him a real name. He was born on the 16th of January, thus they called him Shiliu.

  

  All day, Shen Shiliu did not study or work, did not pick up a fallen oil bottle, and no one had ever seen him carry a water bucket, either. If it wasn't loitering around on the street, then it was getting drunk. He was an example of the phrase ‘no skills and no intellect*’ - he had absolutely no good points.


*不学无术 : someone who has no skills in theory or practice - basically someone who is incompetent, or ignorant.


  Except for a beautiful appearance.


  And his appearance truly was beautiful. The oldest man in the town personally identified it and said that in the ninety years he'd lived, he had never seen such a beautiful man.

  

  It was a pity that no matter how beautiful he was, he was useless. When he was a child, he suffered from a serious illness. A fever broke his body, which caused his eyes to be unable to see past two feet in front of him. Standing ten steps away, he couldn’t tell if someone was a man or a woman. He was also half-deaf, Everything needed to be shouted into his ears, so every time one walked past the Shen household's gate, they could hear the gentle Teacher Shen barking at him like a mad dog through the wall.

  

  All in all, Shen Shiliu was a sickly blind-deaf.

  

  With his conditions, he should have been a little white face raised in wealth, but unfortunately, in this town, besides the poor ghosts, there were only destitute gods. Even if an immortal descended from heaven, they still could not afford to feed him.


 According to the local customs, when a good deed was too great to repay, people would acknowledge each other as family. The children and grandchildren of the person could do this if they had any, and if they didn’t, they would acknowledge the other person themselves.


  The Shen brothers had given Chang Geng a blessing by rescuing him from the mouths of the wolves, saving his life. It was only natural that he acknowledged one of the two as his yifu.


  Teacher Shen read so many books that it broke his brain; he insisted that this was unreasonable and he did not dare to accept it. Instead, his brother Shiliu was overjoyed, calling Chang Geng a "son" on the spot.

  

  In this way, that hooligan Shen Shiliu gained a great bargain - if this idle and sickly demon who only loitered fell into abject poverty, then Chang Geng would have to take care of him for the rest of his life.




   

  Chang Geng walked through his courtyard, to the side gate, and turned at the corner to Teacher Shen's place.

  

  There were only two single men in the Shen household, there was not even one hen. Naturally, there was no need to be too overly courteous, he had always come and gone as he pleased in this way, without the need to knock.


  As soon as he entered the yard, a scent of medicine and a string of melodies from a xun as thin as silk rushed towards him.

  

  Teacher Shen was boiling the medicine with a frown in the courtyard. He was a scholar-like youth, wearing an old long gown; even though he was not old, a frown was always on his face, giving off an impression that made people feel the struggles of the common world.

  

  The sound of the xun came from the house, but the slender figure of the man blowing it was cast on the paper window by the dim light. Obviously, his skill was not very good, and one couldn’t tell what song it was. There were occasionally one or two notes that didn’t make any proper sound, the whole piece seemed desolate, dyed with a strange feeling of exhaustion.

  

  To say it was music might be a little far-fetched; Chang Geng leaned his ear in to "enjoy" it a bit, and he concluded that if he were to give a compliment, he could only say that the other’s funeral tune was quite good.

  

  Shen Yi heard the footsteps and smiled towards Chang Geng, then shouted in the direction of the house: "Ancestor, cease your mouth a little, I'm about to urinate from listening to you already, Chang Geng is here!"

  

  The person inside turned a deaf ear, but with his ears’ capabilities, perhaps he really could not hear it.

  

  Chang Geng listened and felt that the person blowing the xun was full of energy, and did not seem to be ill, so he was momentarily relieved from half of his worries: "I heard Ge Pang Xiao say that Teacher changed Shiliu's medicine, what happened to him?"

  

  Teacher Shen watched the condition of the medicine, speaking with irritation, "Nothing happened, just that the season is changing. With each season, there's a new medicine, this sickly demon is so delicate and very difficult to serve. Ah yes, you came at just the right time, no one knows where he managed to get a new toy, he'd said that he will send it to you early tomorrow morning, hurry and go see."


  Holding a well-brewed bowl of medicine, Chang Geng entered his young yifu's chamber.

  The room only had a single dimly-lit oil lamp, and its glow was the size of a bean - similar to that of a firefly.

  Shen Shiliu was sitting by the window. Most of his face was hidden in the shadow of the lamp, only a portion of it was visible, and he appeared to have fallen asleep. He did not wear a hair-crown, so his hair was scattered all over. He had two small beauty marks the color of cinnabar, one resting under the corner of his eye and the other on his earlobe. Both looked as if a needle had created them.

  The meager source of light in the room was all taken in by this pair of beauty marks, making them almost too blinding.

  Watching him under the light, Shen Shiliu's charm seemed to have multiplied three times more than usual.

  Anyone would appreciate beauty, even if they were already accustomed to it. Chang Geng's breathing still couldn't help but stagnate; he blinked quickly as if to clear that dazzling blood-red spot from his eyesight.

  He cleared his throat and raised his voice: "Shiliu, take the medicine."

  The teenager was undergoing a voice-changing period. It was a little challenging for him to talk to this half-deaf. Fortunately, this time Shen Shiliu heard him, and the sound of the xun* that had the ability to urge people to urinate stopped.

*type of musical instrument with egg shape with holes on it

  Shen Shiliu narrowed his eyes, barely able to recognize Chang Geng, who was standing in the doorway: "Where are your manners, who did you just call?"

  In reality, he was only seven to eight years older than Chang Geng and was not yet married. He was fully aware of his good-for-nothing nature and had prepared to live this life alone, unable to get himself a wife. But suddenly, he ended up with a son whom he did not have to raise himself, and he wanted nothing more than to hold firmly onto the boy. Whenever he had an opportunity to, he would enjoy flaunting his role as a 'father'.

  Chang Geng ignored Shiliu and carefully placed the medicine bowl in front of him: "Drink while it's still hot; it's no longer early, hurry and lie down after you finish drinking."

  Shen Shiliu put aside the xun and picked up the medicine bowl: "How ungrateful, was it not a good life being my son? I have wasted so much effort in treating you so well."

  He drank the medicine without difficulty, downing it in one go, unmistakably used to it. He then drank two mouthfuls of the plain water that Chang Geng handed him for rinsing and waved his hand: "There was a market in Changyang today, I brought home something exciting for you. Come here."

  Shen Shiliu bent over to search around the desk, and due to his eyesight, the tip of his nose appeared as if it was grazing its surface. Chang Geng had no choice but to respond: "What are you looking for? Let me look for you."

  After a moment, he couldn't help but complain: "I have already grown up, have you got nothing else to do but keep on bringing me children's playthings?"


   If you have so much free time on your hands, why not just stop causing me trouble and let me study more useful things - Chang Geng rolled this thought in his head, but as the words were about to come out, they felt a little hurtful, so he did not speak them.


  All year round, Xu Baihu seldom stayed home. He was a good and honest man who was very kind to Chang Geng, although he did not often communicate with his stepchild. Thinking about it, Chang Geng had spent these most crucial years of his life with this improper yifu.


  Shen Shiliu was a loiterer; spending his days wasting time was one thing, but he always had to drag Chang Geng along with him! If it wasn't to go to a market gathering, then it was to go horse riding.


   On one occasion, he even found a 'puppy' for Chang Geng to raise, causing Teacher Shen to turn green from fright. This blind man could not differentiate between a wolf and a dog, and ended up bringing a small wolf cub back home instead.


  From a young boy who was growing into an adult, how much willpower did he need so that Shen Shiliu's bad habits would not ruin him?


  Chang Geng truly felt frightened as he thought about it.


  By nature, he was not the type that loved to play around; everything he did had his own plans, which he would strictly follow. He did not like to be bothered by others; the constant disturbance from Shen Shiliu was exceedingly irritating.


  But his irritability did not usually last long, for Shen Shiliu truly loved him as a son, and was not taking advantage of him despite how his words may sound.


  The year Chang Geng was infected with a severe illness and physicians had said that he was in danger, Xu Baihu was not at home as per usual. His young yifu was the one who took him home back then and watched over him endlessly for three days and three nights.


  Every time he went out, no matter how near or far, no matter what his business may have been, Shen Shiliu would surely present Chang Geng with some small toys or snacks. Chang Geng didn't love these things, but he couldn't help but love the fact that Shiliu kept him in his thoughts at any time and any place.


  In short, every day that Chang Geng saw Shiliu, his irascibility would be extremely strong, but the moment he didn't see the man, he would always feel concerned.


  Chang Geng sometimes thought to himself: although Shen Shiliu was not a martial man, nor was he scholarly, nor was he someone who could at least work himself to the bone; there was no guarantee that later down the road, no one would be fooled by his good looks.


  In the future, when his yifu eventually got married, and had children of his own; would he still remember this adopted son?


  When he thought about this subject, an indescribable feeling stirred up inside of him. He found a square box on Shiliu's table, briefly shook away the train of thoughts in his head, he gave the box to Shen Shiliu and said in a not so enthusiastic voice: "This?"


  Shen Shiliu: "It's for you. Open it."


  Maybe it was a slingshot, perhaps a package of cheese. Nevertheless, it couldn't be anything of worth - Chang Geng opened the box without any expectation and scolded: "You have to learn to save money even if we have some to spare. Moreover, I am..."


  The next moment, he saw the item in the box and suddenly shut his mouth, his eyes widening.


  There was an iron wristband inside!


  In actuality, this so-called 'iron wrist buckle' was part of the lightweight armors used in the military. It was very convenient as it was only a circle that wrapped around the wrist; therefore, it was often taken from the rest of the armor to be used separately.

  The iron wristband was about four inches wide and could contain three to four small knives inside. The blades were made with unique craftsmanship, were as thin as a cicada's wings, and could also be referred to as Xiu Zhong Si*.


*lit. "a thread hidden inside a sleeve."


  It was said that the best Xiu Zhong Si, when fired from the iron wristband, in the blink of an eye, could split a single hair within a distance of a few feet, into two.


  Chang Geng was surprised: "This... Where did you get it?"


  Shen Shiliu: "Shh - don't let Shen Yi hear, this is not a plaything, he will start nagging again if he sees - do you know how to use it?"


  Teacher Shen himself was watering the flowers in the courtyard. His hearing wasn't impaired; he could clearly make out the conversation inside the house. He did not know what to do with this half-deaf person who used himself to measure others.


  Chang Geng had followed Shen Yi to learn how to disassemble iron armors. He skillfully put on the iron wrist buckle; and only then did he discover a unique feature of this object.


  Xiu Zhong Si were not easy to make, and there were very few floating around. Most of the iron wristbands on the market were old and used goods from the army. The sizes were, of course, also for adult men. The one brought back by Shen Shiliu was a size smaller, a perfect fit for a young teen.


  Chang Geng was stunned; Shen Shiliu knew what he wanted to ask and slowly said: "I heard from the merchant that this is a defective good. There is nothing wrong with it, just that the size is a little small. Still, nobody wanted to purchase it. Eventually, he sold it to me for a cheap price. I couldn't use it for anything; you can play around with it. Just be careful, don't hurt anyone."


  Chang Geng seldom let his delight show: "Thank you..."


  Shen Shiliu: "Thank who?"


  Chang Geng called with joy: "Yifu!"


   "Submitting to whoever feeds you*, bastard!" Shen Shiliu laughed and put his arm around Chang Geng's shoulders, sending him to the gate. "Go home, don't stay out too late on the month of Forsaken Spirits."


*有奶就是娘: Chinese idiom, lit. "The person who feeds me with milk is my mother."


  As Chang Geng listened and thought about Shiliu's words, he realized the date - it was July 15th.


  He walked back to his home through the side door. As he entered the doorway, he suddenly felt that the tune Shiliu was blowing on the xun was a bit familiar. Although it was entirely off tune, it truly resembled the melody of "Song Xi," a song that was used as a burial cry among the people.


  Is it appropriate? Chang Geng silently thought.


  Shen Shiliu saw Chang Geng off, then bowed his head to search around for quite a while. He eventually found the outline of the gate, and carefully made his way over to close it.


  Teacher Shen, who was waiting in the courtyard, offered him a helping hand with a blank expression and led him back into their place.


  Teacher Shen: "Iron wristband made from the best kind of iron, the three blades inside were created by Master Qiu Tian Lin himself. After the Master had passed away, they stopped producing and selling it... defective goods?"

  Shiliu did not answer.


  Teacher Shen: "All right already, don't play coy with me - do you really want to raise him as your own son?"


  "Of course, I do, I like this child, he's righteous and benevolent," Shiliu finally said, "That person probably also has this idea in mind. If I can take him in as my heir and pass him my name, those people will be relieved. He could also live a much better life."


  Teacher Shen was silent for a while, then whispered, "You have to make him not resent you first - are you not worried at all?"


  Shen Shiliu smiled, lifting the hem of his robe and pushing open the door to his room.


  He said with a shameless face: "There are loads of people who resent me already."




  That night, lights floated on the river; souls returned home.


  Chang Geng was stirred awake before dawn arrived, his body in a fervorous state, a thin layer of sweat on his back, his loincloth wet.


  Every adolescent would experience such fright and confusion at least once - even if there was already someone to teach them about it in advance.


  But Chang Geng did not panic, nor was he confused. He was nonchalant. He sat in bed for a moment, then proceeded to get up and wash up casually. There was a hint of almost undetectable disgust lingering on his face.


  He went out to fetch a bucket of cold water, scrubbed his still-growing body from head to toe, took out the neatly folded clothes from beside his pillows, drank the tea that had been left there overnight, and started the day's study session as usual.


  Chang Geng did not know what other people's dreams were like.


  But he himself didn't actually have any spring dream*. He had only dreamt of a snowstorm that could freeze people to death.


*春梦 chūn mèng ; lit. "spring dream"; erotic dream/wet dream


  The wind of that day was raging, ruthlessly passing by, the blood from his wounds had already condensed into ice slag before it could flow out, the roar of the wolves was both far and near. He could no longer smell the rusty scent of blood, every breath brought in more pain, and the bittersweet scent cut deep into one's bones. Chang Geng's limbs were stiff, and his lungs were burning. He thought that this snow would swallow him whole.


  But no.


  When Chang Geng woke up again, he found that someone had wrapped their coat around him and carried him away.


  He remembered that the man was dressed in white robes, and a scent of bitter medicine lingered on his body. When he saw that Chang Geng was awake, he did not say a word; he just took out a wine jug and gave him a sip.


  Chang Geng didn't know what kind of wine it was; and he never had the chance to taste it again. He only remembered that even the Shao Dao-zi wine that was sold outside of town wasn't this strong. It was like fire rolling down his throat - burning all the blood in his body with just one sip.


  That person was Shiliu.


  It was immensely vivid. The sensation from the dream of Shiliu's hands carrying him still lingered on his body. Chang Geng still could not comprehend, wasn't that person a sickly man? In such frightening ice and snow, how could there be such steady and powerful hands?


  Chang Geng looked down at the iron buckle wrapped around his wrist. He did not know what kind of material it was made of. Even after pressing against his body for a night, it did not warm up even the slightest. With the coolness of the iron, Chang Geng quietly waited for his heart and boiling blood to cool down, sneered, and mocked the ridiculous thought of 'seeing your yifu in a spring dream,' then went to light up the lamp and start his reading as usual...


  Suddenly, there was a rumbling sound in the distance; the ground and the small quarters were shaking and vibrating. It was only a moment later that he remembered after counting the days - it should be about time that the 'Giant Kite' of the Northern Patrol unit returned.


  The 'Giant Kite' was a large ship with a length of more than 5,000 feet. The vessel had two wings and was composed of thousands of 'flaming fins.' When the Giant Kite would take off, all the 'flaming fins' would sprout out white steam together, creating dreamy imagery, every 'flaming fin' burned Ziliujin* the size of a bowl inside, flashing a faint purple-red gleam in the vast expanse of smoke, resembling the light from thousands of households.


*Ziliujin-紫流金: a type of oil that powers every steampunk gadget in this universe, ranging from gears in the military to household objects and more, very crucial and immensely important, you'll see this term coming up a lot throughout the book. Kite of 'Giant Kite' refers to the bird.


  Since fourteen years ago, the Northern Barbarian's bowed down and paid their tribute. Every year, on the 15th of the first month, there would be dozens of Giant Kites setting off from the border areas. They each would take an established route, their might displayed for thousands of miles. They could also observe each and every move of the barbarians.


  In addition to deterrence and inspections, the Giant Kite was also responsible for sending the tributes of the various northern tribes back to the capital, which were mainly Ziliujin.


  This Giant Kite was loaded with nearly a million pounds of Ziliujin; its returning footsteps were slightly heavier than when it took off. You could hear the angry blowing noise of the 'flaming fins' from within twenty to thirty miles.


  The Northern Patrol unit set off in the first month of the year and returned in the seventh month after departing.