Cheng Qian, at the age of ten, was small and grew slowly, unable to keep up with his age.

As the sun neared its zenith, he carried a bundle of firewood from the courtyard to the house. The bundle was a bit heavy, requiring him to make two trips back and forth, leaving him sweaty and focused on starting a fire and cooking.

These days, there were guests at home, and his father was busy entertaining them. The tasks of washing vegetables, cooking, starting the fire, and chopping firewood all fell on Cheng Qian’s shoulders, making him as busy as a spinning top, constantly rushing around.

Due to his short stature, although Cheng Qian could reach the stove, handling the large pot was still a bit inconvenient. He found a small stool in the corner of the house and stood on it.

The legs of the stool were uneven in length, going in and out. Since the age of six, Cheng Qian had learned how to cook while standing on the stool, mastering the art of maintaining balance with these uneven footrests, which swayed with the wind and rain.

On this day, as he was adding water to the large pot while standing on the stool, his elder brother returned.

Cheng’s eldest brother was fifteen years old, a grown lad. He entered the house silently, smelling of sweat. With one hand, he lifted his younger brother off the stool, not too gently, and pushed him on the back, saying with a muffled voice, “I’ll take over, you go play.”

Of course, Cheng Qian didn’t actually go out to play carelessly. He obediently called his elder brother and then squatted silently on the side, panting as he operated the bellows.

Cheng Dalang glanced at him, not saying anything, but his gaze carried a hint of complexity.

In the Cheng family, there were three sons. Cheng Qian was the second. Until the previous night, before the arrival of the guest, he was still called “Second Young Master Cheng.”

The eldest son knew that the title “Second Young Master” had likely come to an end. This convenient nickname, along with his second brother, was going to undergo a complete transformation and journey to a distant place.

The guest who arrived the previous afternoon was a Taoist priest, unknown by name, but shamelessly calling himself “Master Muchun.” However, judging from his appearance alone, this so-called master probably didn’t possess any real skills. He had sparse goat-like facial hair, half-closed triangular eyes, and beneath his floating robe were a pair of scrawny feet. There was no sign of any celestial aura or Daoist charm. Instead, he seemed like a swindling fortune-teller.

The master happened to be passing by this area during his travels and came to ask for a bowl of water. Unexpectedly, he encountered Second Young Master Cheng.

At that time, Second Young Master Cheng had just returned from outside. There was a scholar at the village entrance who had been unsuccessful in the imperial examinations for a long time, teaching students and providing education. Although the scholar’s knowledge was lacking, he refused to accept poor-quality agricultural products as payment and only accepted real silver and gold, with an unpredictable amount. After every expenditure, he would extend his hand to the students.

With his character, he was truly unworthy of being a teacher who imparts knowledge and teaches the classics. However, there was no other choice. It was not easy for children in the countryside to receive an education, and within a radius of dozens of miles, there was no second teacher who could teach books.

Considering the Cheng family’s financial situation, they certainly didn’t have spare money to send their sons to study. However, those pretentious scholars inexplicably had a certain strange attraction to Second Young Master Cheng. He couldn’t openly go there, so he often went to eavesdrop.

The scholar considered every drop of his saliva to be the result of his hard work and didn’t want people to listen for free. He would often become vigilant and come out to inspect.

Second Young Master Cheng had no choice but to transform into a monkey, hiding and sneaking around the large scholar’s front yard under a big locust tree. Every time he eavesdropped, he would be drenched in a cold sweat from hearing phrases like “cultivate oneself, harmonize the family, and bring peace to the world.”

Last night, with sweat pouring down his forehead, Second Young Master Cheng, driven by his father, brought a bowl of water to the guest. However, the eccentric guest didn’t accept it. Instead, he reached out with a withered hand, neither feeling his bones nor using any extraordinary skills. He gently caressed Second Young Master Cheng’s face and locked eyes with the child, who was imitating the “bookish and pretentious” air.

Only the master knew what he discovered from that glance. Regardless, after seeing it, he nodded as if it was significant and solemnly spoke to the Cheng family, “I see great potential in this child. In the future, he may rise to the heavens and delve into the depths, perhaps experiencing great fortunes. He is no ordinary person.”

While the master spoke, Cheng Dalang was also present. Cheng Dalang followed the shopkeeper’s apprentice outside and had seen many people coming and going. He considered himself somewhat knowledgeable, but he had never heard of judging someone’s potential from a single glance.

Just as Cheng Dalang was about to refute the swindler’s words with disdain, he noticed that his father had already taken in those absurd remarks, and suddenly he understood what was going on.

The Cheng family was not wealthy to begin with. Earlier this year, his mother gave birth to his younger brother, who was born in a difficult situation. As a result, his mother had been weak and bedridden ever since. With one less strong laborer in the house and an additional medicine-consuming “medicine jar,” their already tight finances became even more strained.

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This year’s harvest was bad. It hadn’t rained for months, and it seemed like a devastating famine was imminent. The three brothers…they might not be able to sustain themselves.

The eldest brother knew what their parents were thinking. He had been an apprentice for a year and a half, and in another year and a half, he would be able to bring back some money for the family. He was the hope of the Cheng family’s future. As for the youngest brother, still in his infancy, the parents naturally couldn’t bear to part with him. That left only the middle child, Second Young Master, who was completely surplus. There was no use keeping him around. If they could send him off with a passing Taoist to cultivate immortality, it would be a suitable destination.

Whether he succeeded or not, if he became a success, it would bring great fortune to the Cheng family’s graves. If he failed, he could join someone else or wander the world, even if it meant being a swindler. As long as he had food to eat and grew up, it would be considered a way out.

With the exchange between Master Muchun and the shortsighted head of the Cheng family, the “transaction” was quickly settled. The master left behind a piece of silver, and they handed over Second Young Master Cheng, now renamed Cheng Qian. On this afternoon, he would sever his worldly ties and set off with his master.

The eldest brother was a few years older than him, and they didn’t have much to say to each other on a regular basis. They weren’t particularly close, but the younger brother had always been well-behaved, never crying or causing trouble. He would wear his older brother’s hand-me-down clothes, and when it came to food and drink, he would give way to the youngest brother and their sick mother. Only when it came to work would he take the lead without complaint.

The eldest brother didn’t say anything, but he cared for his younger brother.

However, there was nothing he could do. The family was poor and couldn’t support them. Moreover, he hadn’t reached the age to establish his own household. No matter how big or small the matter, he wouldn’t count.

No matter what, they were still kin. Could he really sell him off like that?

The more he thought about it, the more uncomfortable he felt. He even thought of using a large iron ladle to leave a dent in that swindler’s head. But after weighing the pros and cons, he didn’t dare to do it. After all, if he had that kind of courage, he wouldn’t need to become an apprentice and work in someone else’s shop. Robbing houses would bring even more abundant wealth, wouldn’t it?

Cheng Qian wasn’t completely ignorant of his parents’ plans and his eldest brother’s struggles. He couldn’t be considered exceptionally bright, not on par with those child prodigies who composed poems at the age of seven or became officials at thirteen. But he had an average level of insight.

His father woke up early and worked until late, his elder brother worked tirelessly day and night, and his mother cared more for his elder brother and youngest brother. Cheng Qian knew all too well that although no one scolded or mistreated him, no one paid much attention to him either. He understood this well and tried not to be annoying or bothersome. The most daring thing he had ever done was climb the big tree in front of the scholar’s house and listen to nonsensical classics.

He was diligent and conscientious, considering himself a little apprentice, a little laborer, a little servant—just not a son.

Cheng Qian didn’t quite know what it felt like to be a son.

Children should be talkative and lively, but since Cheng Qian wasn’t a son, he naturally didn’t have the privilege of being talkative or mischievous. If he had something on his mind, he kept it to himself. Over time, the words couldn’t scatter outward, so they turned inward, creating many pockmarks and craters in his small heart.

With his understanding, Cheng Qian knew that his parents were selling him off. He felt a strange calmness, as if he had anticipated this day long ago.

Before leaving, Cheng Qian’s ailing mother, who rarely got out of bed, called him over. Shaking and trembling, she handed him a small package, containing a few changes of clothes and a dozen flatbreads. The clothes were, of course, the ones his elder brother couldn’t wear anymore. The bread was made by his father the previous afternoon and through the night.

After all, he was their own flesh and blood. His mother looked at him and couldn’t help reaching into her sleeve, where she fumbled around. Cheng Qian saw her tremblingly pull out a copper coin, worn and discolored. Suddenly, that pockmarked and dull-colored coin lightly plucked at Cheng Qian’s indifferent heartstrings. He was like a freezing little beast, twitching his nose in the icy world, catching a whiff of his mother’s scent.

But his father noticed the coin too. He coughed heavily beside them, and his mother reluctantly put the coin back into her sleeve, eyes filled with tears.

So, his mother’s scent was like a mirage. It swayed for a moment, but Cheng Qian couldn’t catch a clear whiff of it before it dissipated again.

“Er Lang, come here,” his tasteless mother took Cheng Qian’s hand and led him to the inner room. After walking just a couple of steps, she panted heavily.

Exhausted, she found a wide plank to sit on and weakly pointed at the small oil lamp hanging from the ceiling. With no energy left, she asked, “Er Lang, do you know what that is?”

Cheng Qian raised his head indifferently and glanced at it. “An immortal eternal lamp.”

This unremarkable little lamp was the Cheng family’s heirloom. It was said to be his grandmother’s dowry—a palm-sized lamp without a wick or oil. Carved on the simple black wooden base were several talismanic inscriptions, and it would emit light on its own, illuminating the one-square-foot area for a long time.

However, Cheng Qian couldn’t figure out why this useless thing was hanging there, other than attracting insects in the summer.

However, since it was an immortal tool, it didn’t need to serve any practical purpose. It could be shown off occasionally when visiting neighbors, becoming a cherished heirloom for the rural villagers.

The so-called “immortal tool” was something that had been inscribed with talismans by an “immortal.” Ordinary folks couldn’t imitate it. There were various types of immortal tools, serving different purposes such as lamps that didn’t need oil, papers that were fireproof, and beds that were cool in summer and warm in winter, among others.

There was a storyteller who once came to the village and claimed that in prosperous cities, there were houses built with “immortal bricks,” reflecting the sunlight like glazed palace roofs, exuding a magnificent splendor. The rice bowls used by wealthy families were inscribed with high-level talismans by immortals, capable of warding off a hundred poisons and curing a hundred ailments. Even a single broken piece of such a bowl would cost four taels of gold, yet they were still highly sought after.

“Immortals” referred to “cultivators,” also known as “Daoists” or “real people.” The former term was usually self-proclaimed, sounding a bit more modest.

It was said that they cultivated the breath, connected with heaven and earth as their entry point, and as their cultivation deepened, they could enter a state of fasting without eating, traverse the heavens and the earth, and even achieve immortality and transcend the tribulations. These legends spread far and wide, but no one had ever seen a real immortal with multiple noses and eyes. They were simply considered mysterious.

The immortals were elusive, and valuable immortal tools were even more rare. The high-ranking officials and the wealthy coveted them.

Mrs. Cheng, bending down, looked at Cheng Qian earnestly, her voice warm as she asked, “When you return after completing your studies, can you make a perpetual lamp for your mother?”

Cheng Qian didn’t answer. He simply lifted his eyelids and glanced at her, thinking coldly in his heart, “Dream on. Today, you send me out the door, and whether I succeed or fail in my studies, whether I live or die, whether I become a pig or a dog, I will never look at you again.”

Mrs. Cheng suddenly froze. She realized that this child was different from his parents and had a bit of resemblance to her older brother.

Her older brother was like a wisp of smoke rising from their ancestral grave. From a young age, he didn’t resemble a peasant child, having a handsome appearance. His parents had exhausted their resources to support his education, and he had lived up to their expectations, passing the scholar’s exam at the age of eleven. People said their family had gained a literary star.

However, the literary star probably didn’t want to stay in the mortal world for long. Before he had the chance to pass the next-level exam, he fell ill and passed away.

When her older brother died, Mrs. Cheng was still young, and her memories were now somewhat fuzzy. But now, she suddenly remembered that even when he was alive, he was like this. No matter if he was delighted or filled with rage, he would only give a casual glance, maintaining an aloof demeanor that made people both wary and unable to get close to him.

Mrs. Cheng involuntarily released Cheng Qian’s hand, and at the same time, Cheng Qian discreetly took a step back.

That’s how it was. Cheng Qian meekly, without saying a word, abruptly put an end to the separation of mother and son.

Cheng Qian believed that his actions weren’t driven by resentment. Resentment was unreasonable—his parents had given him the gift of life and raised him. Even if their kindness faltered halfway and they no longer wanted to raise him, at most it would be a balancing of debts.

He lowered his head and looked at the tips of his feet, silently telling himself that his parents didn’t care about him. That was fine. Selling him to a Daoist with triangular eyes was also fine.