The Shen family didn’t pay attention to the saying “Silent about food, quiet about sleep.” While eating, Mr. Shen gave Changgeng a lecture on “The Great Learning.” He lost track of the main point and started talking about how to maintain steel armor in winter. Being an eclectic person, he spoke about whatever came to mind. Once, for some reason, he enthusiastically talked to Changgeng about preventing and treating horse diseases. Even Sixteen, the deaf one, couldn’t stand it and forced him to stop.

After eating and talking, Mr. Shen tidied up the dishes and said to Changgeng, “Today, I need to take care of these heavy armors. They are not well-maintained, and some of the joints are rusted. I might have to go out in the afternoon to gather some herbs. Ge Pangxiao and the others have all taken the day off. What are you planning to do?”

Changgeng replied, “Then I’ll go to the General’s Slope to practice…”

Before he could say the word “sword,” he turned around and saw that Shen Sixteen had already hung his iron sword on the wall and declared, “Son, let’s go. Ju Yuan might be coming to the city, and we’ll join in the fun.”

Changgeng weakly said, “Adoptive father, I was just talking to Mr. Shen…”

“What?” interrupted Sixteen. “Speak louder.”

Here we go again.

Ju Yuan came and went, the same every year. Changgeng couldn’t think of anything new or exciting, but before he could protest, Sixteen grabbed him without hesitation, half dragging him outside.

It was still summer, and the heat hadn’t subsided. The clothes they wore were thin, and Sixteen pressed his whole body against Changgeng’s back. The scent of medicine in his arms suddenly enveloped Changgeng, just like in his dream.

Changgeng felt inexplicably uncomfortable. He discreetly lowered his head to avoid his little adoptive father, covered his nose, turned his head, and pretended to sneeze.

Sixteen teased with a smile, “Someone’s missing you. Is it that round-faced girl from the Wang family?”

Changgeng couldn’t help but show a displeased expression and bluntly said, “Is it appropriate for the adoptive father to make such jokes with his junior?”

Sixteen didn’t take it to heart and jokingly replied, “Inappropriate? Oh, I’ve never been a father before, so I don’t know my boundaries. I’ll pay attention next time.”

Anyone who took Sixteen seriously would surely make him explode with anger.

Changgeng shook off the ruffian’s hand attempting to put it on his shoulder and walked ahead.

Mr. Shen called out from behind, “Sixteen, come back early and chop the firewood!”

Sixteen slipped away and shamelessly replied, “Can’t hear you, see you later!”

Changgeng was pushed along by him, asking, “When exactly did you become deaf?”

But Sixteen just smiled without saying a word, looking mysterious.

At that moment, they happened to pass by the front gate of Changgeng’s house, and the door suddenly creaked open.

A woman in a plain long dress walked out. When Changgeng saw her, a mix of helplessness and annoyance instantly froze on his face.

It was as if he had been doused with a bucket of cold water from head to toe. His eyes, which had been filled with anger just a moment ago, suddenly became empty, and even his fiery spirit quietly dissipated.

The woman was Xiuniang, Changgeng’s nominal mother.

She was not young anymore, but her beauty was undiminished. Standing in the morning light, she looked like a serene and graceful beauty from a painting.

Such a woman should not have been relegated to a small household in a border town.

Xiuniang nodded and bowed, respectfully greeting Sixteen, saying, “Master Sixteen.”

Sixteen, who only acted like a rogue when dealing with Mr. Shen, instantly transformed into a gentleman when faced with a woman. He slightly turned his body, avoiding direct eye contact with Xiuniang, and politely greeted her, “Madam Xu, I’m taking Changgeng out to relax.”

“Don’t trouble yourself,” Xiuniang smiled without showing her teeth, then turned to Changgeng and softly said, “If you go out today, remember to bring back a box of rouge for me.”

Her voice was as soft as a mosquito’s buzz, so light that even a breath could blow it away. But before Changgeng could respond, the deaf one, Shen, had already accepted, “Yes, Madam. Don’t worry.”

Changgeng…

He finally figured out a rule about his adoptive father’s deafness. He couldn’t hear anything Shen Yi said, but when it came to others, he selectively chose what to hear. Even if it was just a buzzing sound from a female mosquito, he could hear every word clearly.

Not only was he lazy, but he was also a lecher!

The phrase “Gold and jade on the outside, decayed and worthless within” seemed tailor-made for him.

When Ju Yuan returned, there were children waiting to scavenge for leftovers and villagers from nearby villages who came to watch the excitement. As the crowd grew, some quick-minded individuals started selling food, gradually forming a sizable market in the area known as “Yanzi Market” by the locals.

Sixteen never cared about pleasing people—he couldn’t even if he wanted to.

He seemed completely oblivious to Changgeng’s gloomy mood and enthusiastically wandered around Yanzi, showing interest in everything he saw.

Changgeng, burdened with a heavy case, had to stick close to him, making sure he didn’t get separated in the crowd.

Times were tough in recent years. The common people were poor, and most of the goods in the market were small produce from the farmers. The food was mediocre, the drinks were tasteless, and life was boring.

They said the difficult times were due to the wars, with heavier taxes each year. But in the past, even during wars, there would be a period of recovery and rest after each battle. However, in recent years, people seemed to never catch a breath.

In just twenty years, first there was the northern expedition, then the western campaign. As a great nation, the Heavenly Empire had envoys coming from all directions. But strangely, the common people grew increasingly impoverished. It was truly puzzling.

Changgeng was bored to death, feeling like yawning. He hoped Shen Sixteen, this country bumpkin who was curious about everything, would quickly have his fill of fun and let him go back. He would rather assist Mr. Shen.

Sixteen bought a bag of roasted salted beans, black as pitch, and ate them while walking, pinching them in his hand. Suddenly, he reached out and accurately stuffed a bean into Changgeng’s mouth.

Caught off guard, Changgeng accidentally licked his fingers and, in a panic, bit down on the soft flesh in his own mouth, drawing blood. He glared angrily at Sixteen, the troublemaker.

“Flowers bloom on important days, and youth won’t last forever,” said Sixteen without looking back. He picked up another bean, held it up toward the direction of the sun, and his hands were truly beautiful—long and fair like those of a nobleman’s son. They should have been holding scrolls or playing chess, completely out of place with the blackened roasted beans.

Sixteen said with an air of wisdom, “When you grow up, you’ll understand. A person’s youth is as small as these beans, and in the blink of an eye, it’s gone. You can never go back, and then you’ll realize how much time you’ve wasted.”

Changgeng…

He couldn’t fathom how Sixteen had the audacity to talk about wasting time.

At that moment, the people near the city gate suddenly erupted into cheers.

Even though he was partially blind, Changgeng could see the “Juyuan” approaching in the distance.

Countless fire wings soared into the sky, and all the white vapors simultaneously erupted into a thousand layers, descending like cotton fibers.

Then, the silhouette of a huge ship gradually emerged from the vast expanse of smoke and waves. Eight large dragons were vividly coiled on the bow, their eyes filled with disdain as they sailed through the clouds.

Sixteen was momentarily stunned, then suddenly tilted his ear. It seemed as though a flash of red light appeared on the mole on his earlobe. He furrowed his brow and muttered softly, “Why is the ship so light this year?”

But the surrounding area was filled with the deafening roar of the Juyuan and the clamor of the crowd, and his sigh-like whisper quickly disappeared. Even Changgeng, who was right beside him, didn’t hear it.

Children began holding their small bamboo baskets, jostling and fighting for positions, waiting to catch the falling food.

A group of soldiers lined up on the city wall and the messenger stood behind a three-zhang tall “Bronze Roar.”

The “Bronze Roar” looked like a fallen trumpet, lying horizontally on the city wall. It had developed a ring of verdigris on the outer surface, forming an artistic pattern, as if it were carved.

The messenger took a deep breath, aimed at one end of the Bronze Roar, and began his long cry. The sound emerged from the massive “Bronze Roar,” amplified several times, resounding like a tolling bell.

“Geese return, Open—Dark—River—”

Two rows of soldiers gripped the huge wooden wheel handles on the city gate tower, simultaneously shouting. They all bared their upper bodies, revealing their muscles, and exerted their strength together. The tall wooden wheels “creaked” and turned, causing the road below the gate tower to split in two. Countless interlocking gears began to move, and the stone bricks on both sides split apart, moving in opposite directions.

The earth split open, revealing a deep underground river that ran through the entire Yanhui town.

The messenger blew a low, long note, which resonated from the Bronze Roar and wandered lowly, piercing through everything.

The Juyuan replied with a long call, and then countless fire wings exerted force. The steam from the surrounding clouds and mountains surged madly—the ship was preparing to land.

The first batch of “geese food” descended like scattered flowers, and the children below went crazy, reaching out to grab them.

Unfortunately, the section where the geese food was scattered was not long. Soon, the Juyuan sank into the Dark River, gently coming to a stop on the water, appearing before everyone’s eyes.

The ship had a stern and solemn presence, with a cold metallic sheen exuding an indescribable aura of battle. The sound emanating from the ship was mysteriously mournful, reverberating continuously. The entire Yanhui town resonated with the “woowoos” sound, as if the spirits of countless fallen warriors from a thousand years ago had awakened and joined in the song.

The Juyuan slowly sailed into the city along the Dark River, and the sound of water roared. The messenger gave another long cry.

“Extinguish—the—lights—”

The fire wings on the Juyuan extinguished, and a faint burnt smell of firecrackers filled the air. The Juyuan glided along the water, and the dragons on its body seemed to be frozen in a totem from another time, emanating a wicked divinity.

Amidst the bustling crowd, Changgeng watched as the Juyuan approached, gradually getting closer. Despite claiming he didn’t want to come, he had indeed seen the Juyuan return many times, yet he couldn’t help but be amazed by the enormity of the creature when facing it directly.

If the Juyuan on the Northern Expedition was already like this, what kind of splendor would the country’s mighty Xuantie Three Camps possess?

Trapped in the remote and narrow corner of Yanhui town, the young Changgeng could hardly imagine.

As the Juyuan approached, the residual warmth from the extinguished fire wings rushed towards him. Changgeng instinctively reached out to grab someone next to him and cautioned, “The Juyuan is coming. There are too many people here. Let’s move back a bit.”

No one responded, and when he turned around, he realized that his troublesome foster father had disappeared without a trace.