“Aside from the birds and the beasts, even the flowers and trees are alive here. Have you ever seen them?”
Bei Shi took Chang An through the small courtyard and went to the forest behind it, where a strange plant was growing. Its branches were no different from ordinary trees, but from a distance, it looked as if water was dripping from its barks. When they arrived, Chang An noticed that there were transparent veins on the trunk, circulating very fast and not stopping for even a moment, flashing away in a blur.
“Look.” Bei Shi took wide strides and deliberately didn’t wait for Chang An. The child had to run after him, saying, “There was a big flower that ate me.”
Bei Shi paused in his steps. With a raised eyebrow, he looked back at Chang An who lacked neither an arm nor a leg. He wondered, “And how did it spit you out?”
Chang An puffed out his chest very proudly and answered, “I stabbed a hole through it.”
“……” Bei Shi was amused by his small appearance. He ruffled the kid’s head until it was like a bird’s nest and laughed, “Oh, you little wolf pup—Now show me what you can do.”
He took out a small saber, which was only as long as Chang An’s two palms put together. Then he swung it backhanded towards a branch, from bottom to top, at an angle nearly perpendicular to the ground. Soon after, there was a soft sound, and that section of the branch was cut off by him. Bei Shi reached out to catch it. A refreshing aroma emerged from inside that small twig, and there really was water inside it.
“This tree is called Qiongjiang Tree because there is jade nectar1 琼浆 (qiongjiang) – A slurry made from beautiful jade. Often refers to good wine. In Chinese myths and legends, drinking jade nectar is said to make one an immortal inside it. The cut branches are dried in the sun, and the flesh inside the bark’s inner layers can be cooked and eaten. It’s very delicious, but the outer layer is exceptionally hard. It’s insect-proof and moth-proof, and can even ward off fire, making it a good material for building houses.” Bei Shi brought the branch close to Chang An’s nose and asked, “Would you like a taste?”
Chang An was not shy at all in taking a whiff of the aroma. It was tantalizing, making him want to try it right away. Who knew that, when his mouth had not yet touched the branch, Bei Shi drew it away like teasing a puppy, and drank it all by himself.
Chang An: “…”
Bei Shi let out a comfortable “ha.” When he looked down, he saw the little wolf pup looking at him with hatred in his eyes. Amused, he laughed out loud and said, “If you want to drink it, get it yourself. When you’ve cut enough branches, we’ll build you a shack. Until then, you can sleep on top of my roof.”
Chang An gnashed his teeth at him. Then he took the small saber and slashed hard at the branch without thinking. However, with a bang, the blade actually broke, not leaving even a single mark on the wood.
Chang An was stunned for a moment. But then he drew out that same unceasing “either you or I die” vigor with which he had chopped at that man-eating flower. Slashing several times at the Qiongjiang tree, he was soon out of breath.
Bei Shi looked at him with interest.
Although Bei Shi had secluded himself for many years, he still knew what kind of temperament such kids at that age would have. Whatever they were doing, and whether they were succeeding or failing, they would subconsciously look back at the adult next to them, sometimes asking for praise and sometimes begrudgingly asking for help.
But Chang An was different. His entire mind was focused on that tree before him which he couldn’t even cut down, completely forgetting that there was someone around him.
Bei Shi suddenly reached out and pinched the back of the small saber.
“The branches of the Qionjiang tree are harder than the steel of a forged blade,” Bei Shi explained. “No matter how skilled you are, it’s impossible to break a stone with eggs. However, its branches can be cut off. Do you know why?”
Chang An gave him a puzzled look.
Bei Shi said in a flat tone, “Because everything in the world, no matter how powerful it is from the moment of its birth, will have its own inherent weaknesses. All living things affect one another, so they cannot be in disorder. God will not create something that heaven and earth cannot tolerate. This is why the saber has only one edge. However, there is no stronghold it cannot overcome—so long as you can find the other party’s weakness.”
“Watch carefully.” As Bei Shi said so, he squeezed Chang An’s small hand from behind. Chang An could feel the unstoppable force coming from the man’s hand as he guided him in swinging out the blade.
The change in the feel of his hand immediately made him understand that the branch had been cut through.
But as Bei Shi’s movements slowed down, the saber in his hand was no longer able to pierce an inch upward. It got stuck between the cut branches, and the sap with its peculiar fragrance trickled down to the ground.
Then Bei Shi said, “The vein lines on the Qiongjiang tree is its weakness. Only when you strike in that moment when those vein lines move can you cut down its branch. But you only have a split second to do it. If your saber is not fast enough, failing to cut the whole branch before the vein lines move again, then the saber will get stuck inside. Understand?”
Chang An listened, but his face was still full of confusion. He asked, “Everything has a weakness. Do sabers also have a weakness?”
Bei Shi let go of his hand with a smile, wiped the dirty dust off the child’s face, and said, “The saber is just like you, little pup. It’s full of weak spots, and it will break with the slightest bend of a hand. But so what? Where the saber points, people will still tremble.”
Chang An asked some more, “And why is that?”
“You won’t understand.” Bei Shi fell silent for a moment. He felt he couldn’t explain it all clearly, so he stopped talking.
The man was a moody person. As he spoke, the smile on his face suddenly disappeared. He tapped the back of Chang An’s head and said in a slightly cold voice, “Before you can train with your own saber, you have to chop wood first. Until you can chop enough branches to build a wooden house and move inside it, you’re not allowed to walk out of my yard or out of this grove. Otherwise, your life and death will be in your own hands. Understand?”
After saying this, he turned around and went back to his own little cabin, no longer caring about Chang An.
With Chang An’s eyesight, it didn’t take long for his eyes to go hazy as he stared at those fast-changing lines on the tree.
Bei Shi only told him that he should wield the saber fast. He didn’t tell him that the speed of the saber also depended on one’s “power.” With Chang An’s soft and thin wrists, even if he was endowed with extraordinary talent and could keep up with the changes in the veins of the Qiongjiang tree, it would still be impossible to wield the saber fast enough.
Actually, Bei Shi still didn’t really want to teach him. He intended to use this method to let the little guy give up from the difficulty. Learning the saber was easy to say, but he was a sub-beast. He wasn’t born with the power to control such lethal weapons.
Some things were always limited by talent and cannot be forced. Even if Chang An really practiced, ten or twenty years later, those thick blades would sooner or later crush his wrists and cause irreparable injuries to his bones. He already looked like he wouldn’t be able to live long, so who was he contending against?
To Bei Shi, the child wasn’t here to seek a way to survive. He was here to court death.
Too bad he was born a wolf pup that forgot to grow fangs and claws. How far could he go?
The afternoon passed, and the Qiongjiang tree still stood unmoving as it should be. It was as if water had been running through its surface, for not a single scratch could be seen on it. Chang An’s palms had long worn out, and his arms had swelled up completely. His chin and chest were also stained with the blood dripping from his nose, yet he just wiped it off casually, not caring at all.
Chang An couldn’t even feel anything anymore. The saber in his hand was sprang back by the hard bark. He staggered and just sat on the ground.
Chang An couldn’t breathe. His chest felt like it was clogged with cotton, and his temples were throbbing so hard, making his vision fuzzy. His dry throat was overflowing with a shallow, fishy taste, and he felt like he couldn’t lift a finger.
He sat on the ground and looked up at the indestructible Qiongjiang tree before him.
This was how the roughly seven-year-old Chang An met the first seemingly invincible enemy in his life—a tree.
He felt some kind of unfathomable despair.
Bei Shi quietly stood behind Chang An and poured a cup of water for him.
This kid had not given up all afternoon, completely exceeding his expectations. Nevertheless, it seemed that he would give up soon.
A glance down a road with no end in sight could frighten even a strong-minded adult, so how much more a small thing with mental insufficiency? He’ll just leave him for ten days to a half month, fatten him up a little on behalf of him being a descendant of an old friend, then send him down the mountain.
Bei Shi shook his head and squatted beside Chang An, watching him gulp down the water. He picked up the little saber and flipped it in his hand. He asked earnestly, “Little pup, why must you learn the saber? Didn’t the person who took care of you ever tell you that a sub-beast like you is better off learning a trade if you want to live well?”
These words pierced Chang An where it hurt. He glared at Bei Shi and didn’t say a word.
Bei Shi flicked his head in a not gentle way at all. “I asked you a question, little pup. Those who are stronger than you should be respected.”
“Zhe Yan wanted me to be a carpenter.” Chang An’s voice had turned hoarse, and even the child’s characteristic frankness could not be heard.
“Isn’t it fine being a carpenter?” Bei Shi asked, baffled. “Why did you run away?”
“I didn’t run.” Chang An tilted his head to avoid the paws that liked to make trouble on his head, and he said frankly “The carpenter’s wife poisoned Zhe Yan, so I burned their whole family to death. Then there was no more place where I could learn how to be a carpenter.”
Bei Shi: “……”
The man gaped at him for a long time before he stammered and asked, “What… What did you say? You burned their whole family to death?”
“En!” Chang An admitted it without hesitation, not at all feeling guilty about being a murderer
Bei Shi frowned, his expression stern and cold as he said, “Even if you have to take revenge, aren’t there still the clan Chief and the Elders who have to judge? How could you just kill someone? Besides, killing someone is not as easy as nodding your head to the ground2 杀人不过头点地 – a metaphor for people not having to do things excessively, so as to avoid harming those who are innocent.. Even if it’s a blood feud, there’s no reason to wipe out someone’s entire family. Boy, you’re only a kid yet you’re already so vicious. How will you be when you grow up?”
Chang An righteously said, “The carpenter spoke ill of Zhe Yan behind his back, did bad things to Zhe Yan, and his wife poisoned Zhe Yan to death. Shouldn’t I take revenge? What are clan Chiefs and Elders? Why should they be in charge?
In response to such a damned, unreasonable child, Bei Shi wanted to raise his hand and slap him. But in fear that he would end up killing him if his hand got too heavy, he unnaturally put his hand back down. Scowling and staring down at him, he said, “Bullshit! When a clan lives together, there are naturally rules. Won’t the clan Chief and Elders give you justice?”
Chang An jumped up from the ground, completely forgetting Bei Shi’s previous instruction of “respect those who are stronger than you,” and shouted, “Zhe Yan can’t live anymore. Shouldn’t the person who killed him deserve to die?”
It had been years since anyone had dared to jump to his face and go on an outrage. Bei Shi couldn’t help being stunned, looking at the small, gaping thing in front of him.
Chang An’s lips were a bit blue. The whole afternoon seemed to have overworked him, yet he didn’t lose his momentum at all. He pointed to Bei Shi’s nose and said, “Zhe Yan told me to repay grace with grace, and hate with hate. If I get justice, will my hate disappear? How could you be so lazy? What’s the point in giving me justice? It wasn’t me who was poisoned to death, so why give me that thing?”
Bei Shi suspected that this little wolf pup didn’t even understand what this thing called “justice” was.
He may not even know how to write.
Chang An snatched up the small saber, shouted, and lunged at the Qiongjiang tree again. He slashed at it as if it were some great enemy. Bei Shi thought he might even want to break the bark with his teeth.
After pondering for a while, Bei Shi suddenly laughed out loud and asked, “Grace for grace, and hate for hate… You little pup have some interesting ideas. So tell me, why did you look for me to learn the saber instead of looking for someone to exact vengeance for you?”
“If I don’t learn the saber, I’ll have to listen to others and do everything they say. How will I repay others with my own grace and hate?”
Bei Shi didn’t expect to hear such a phrase from Chang An’s mouth, and he almost had a whole new level of respect for the cub.
In this vast continent, was trade not important? Nature was important, but why honor the beastmen who could transform? Wasn’t it because they were strong, had the power to fight, and could better survive in this northern part of the continent where the weak were easy prey to the strong?
Whoever was powerful was the master. The weak had no right to rule over themselves. This was actually the only rule between heaven and earth.
It was fair, yet cruel.
Humans can turn into beasts… Humans can turn into beasts..
Bei Shi laughed to himself. Wasn’t it the same thing?