The dog stared up at Shen Yuan and he stared down at it.
In hindsight, Shen Yuan probably should have started with a dog and worked his way up to children. Maybe even a dog would prove to be too much of a challenge; he had never kept a dog before. Sure, he had petted the service dogs that had been to visit him in the hospital and one of his maternal aunts had kept a dog, which he had played with a couple of times when he’d gone to visit her as a child, but his total animal husbandry experience was inadequate to get him hired as a dog washer.
Maybe he should have started with a cat, or a mouse, or something else that was basically self-sufficient. But, when Shen Yuan had seen the two orphan boys begging on that street corner, he just couldn’t stop thinking about them. The image of the two, the younger softly crying his eyes out as he sat next to his blank-faced big brother, dogged him as he acquainted himself with the small town and its market.
Sure, he had given them some money, but it hadn’t felt like enough. The longer his shopping trip had gone on the more guilty he had felt, the more he thought about what he could really do for the two, and the more he thought about what he should do. In the end, it was also what he wanted to do. Therefore, after he had finished shopping through the sparse market in the hunger-pang thin town, he hadn’t been able to make himself go home. So, Shen Yuan went back and started talking to the kids.
Several hours later, after the kids’ story had fallen apart in the face of Shen Yuan’s continued questioning and the boys had revealed themselves to be slaves, which absolutely broke Shen Yuan’s heart, he had announced that the two boys could come home with him if they wanted. And that they could stay for as long as they liked. And that they would be kept safe, and fed, and clothed. And that he would teach them cultivation and their letters and numbers.
Shen Yuan would have promised them just about anything to get them to let him protect them. It wasn’t just that having been completely alone in a strange world for a week had made him severely lonely. More than that, it was the compulsion to help these two rake-thin boys out of the horrifying situation they were trapped in that made him dive headlong into the effort to bring them home with him.
Happily, the boys, Shen Jiu and Yue Qi, had accepted his offer. It felt right. Daunting, but right. And the System didn’t threaten to kill him, so it must have been okay. Shen Yuan had been seized by a moment of doubt as he made the offer to take the two in (Could he -really- raise them properly?), but it passed, because they needed him. Looking down at the two small faces as he stood to lead them to their new home and having no resistance to their level of pitiful meng, he knew he had made the right decision, even if he didn’t know what he was doing.
Shen Yuan had no experience with that kind of situation. Just like the rest of the country, he had mourned the five little boys who had suffocated in a trash bin in Bijie a few years ago. However, street children existed in the papers and not beyond that. Oh, he knew they were real, but only in a nebulous way. He had never personally seen child beggars before. And anyway, orphans were the government’s problem. At least, they had been, before he had transmigrated into this miserable book, which had actually already wrapped up before he even arrived.
Thanks for that, System~! Shen Yuan was super enthused to have been dropped into the post-apocalyptic shit-show that was the aftermath of Proud Immortal Demon Way~! All the poverty and famine due to people being unable to tend their fields because of universal demon plague in the wake of the two worlds being merged made his life so interesting~! He was so glad that there was nothing he could do to prevent or repair the calamity that gripped his new home~! It was fantastic~! He was having a great time~!
After he’d settled the two boys in, the younger of whom proved to be surly and was immediately inclined to test boundaries, it had only been a single day before he’d acquired even more children.
The slavers who owned Shen Jiu and Yue Qi had obtained a number of other children over the years and Shen Yuan wasn’t about to let the slavers keep them. The two boys explained that all of the children worked as professional beggars for the gang of slavers until they were sold again or died. All the other children that the slavers had when they were passing through Shen Yuan’s nearest town were girls and two of them were toddlers.
Families who were already living on the margins would get desperate to offload hungry mouths and get some much-needed income to tide them over until things improved. Thus, they turned to slavers to take their girls, who couldn’t carry on their family name and would leave the family once married anyhow, off their hands. The kids had explained that it was always the girls who were sold first when hard times hit, either in marriage or to slavers, but that it was more luck than anything else that the current crop of children that the slavers had were girls. After all, it had been years since the worlds merged, so the child market was flooded.
Shen Yuan sighed and pushed the tension out of his forehead with two fingers. There was no time to brood now. He needed to let it go and focus on the pertinent questions at hand. Firstly, what did one feed a dog? Meat and bones presumably. Would it eat vegetables? Dogs ate shit, didn’t they? So, surely it would eat vegetables, right? Would it be okay to feed it like a person? Where could he get a dog bed? What toys were appropriate for a puppy? Was it a male or a female dog?
He reached out and rubbed the scruff of the eager little thing that had taken to following him today. He was only supposed to be buying clothes and toys for his new wards, who were safely ensconced behind the barrier which protected his property, but he couldn’t leave this sweet, widdle, goofy poof-ball behind. He was weak against cute things, OK?! He was keeping this little bun!
He regretted touching the puppy immediately, as his hand became greasy with the filth of its fur, but he steeled himself and patted its head a couple times more, so it wouldn’t know he found its state of cleanliness to be distasteful. It wasn’t its fault it had never been given a bath, and he didn’t want it to feel rejected.
“We’ll get you a bath as soon as we get home. You’ll like being clean, just you wait and see,” Shen Yuan promised. In response to the attention, the puppy yipped and danced around his feet before it bit playfully at his fingers.
Ugh! Direct hit! Right through the heart! This level of adorability was a savage weapon! Shen Yuan couldn’t survive this cuteness overload! Puppies were truly the whitest of white lotuses.
“With great power comes great responsibility. You must always use your powers for good, little bun,” Shen Yuan advised the little black dog earnestly, as he hefted the dog and his packages and stood to move on.
But seriously, did they even make dog beds in xianxia China? Even if they did, with the famine and all, it would probably be a difficult find.
The invisible barrier around his mountain rippled and gleamed like a soap bubble, becoming temporarily translucent throughout, as Shen Yuan walked through it carrying the puppy and his many purchases homeward. Shen Yuan considered the barrier his most valuable possession, if not his coolest one. After he reached the other side of it, he looked back to admire it briefly.
The System, after it had informed him that it had accidentally, but irreversibly, dropped him at the wrong point in space-time, had explained that he was being given a strongly warded property as compensation for the Company’s mistake. It had said that no one could enter his mountain unless Shen Yuan invited them. Shen Yuan didn’t know if this applied to the scarily-OP protagonist, but he doubted it. Thankfully, Shen Yuan was a nobody, an existence created by the System purely to give it someplace to wash its hands of him, so the odds of Luo Binghe knocking on his door were slim.
Instead of worrying about something that would likely never happen, Shen Yuan decided immediately to try his hand at tilling his land. Carved into the loess plateau were many fallow terraced fields, all growing a whole lot of nothing, which Shen Yuan was totally ready to do something about. Shen Yuan had played farming simulators before, so he knew the score. When you can, increase your number of fields! Besides, he had never gardened before and was psyched to try it.
Shen Yuan had enjoyed farming for all of an hour and had turned a few dozen square feet of soil with the hoe he found in one of the houses, before he decided that “Toiling Farmers,” a children’s poem about farmers watering their crops with their own sweat, didn’t quite convey how unpleasant farming was. He had promptly tossed the hoe aside and gone to dig through his cultivation manuals for guidance on using his qi to enhance the strength of his blows, resolving that his gifted body’s cultivation should do more for him than keep his face wrinkle free.
Currently, his tilling skill was a work in progress. Sometimes he used too much qi and made a giant hole in the ground and sometimes he used too little and wore himself out, but, he thought, as he had looked out across the bare grounds, he would have plenty of time and space to practice.
Watering was another issue entirely. There was a spring at the back of his property gushing out from the rock face of the rest of the mountain that lay outside of his property’s barrier, so he didn’t have to worry about needing to leave the mountain to get water, at least. However, hauling water in buckets and barrels from that stream was boring work. He’d want to put in some ditches to run water to his fields sooner rather than later.
For now, he would have to haul water manually to get the dog its much needed bath.
“Welcome back, Shifu!”
“Qi, mind this dog. This teacher is going to fetch water to give it a bath,” Shen Yuan said to the boy who had come out to greet him.
The house Shen Yuan was using was one of four cliffside yaodong built into the naturally stepped slope of the mountain. When he had first left his magical sphere of protection to seek out other people, the local inhabitants informed him that there had been a small community of thirty or so inhabitants dwelling in those four cave houses whom had all been massacred by demons when the two worlds were merged. It was an unremarkable story these days.
The yaodong he had claimed for his primary use was the largest of them, seemingly formed by uniting five adjacent individual yaodong into one. It had a fine and flourishing courtyard, high ceilings, and multiple rooms including a bedroom with a kang bed-stove, a kitchen, a living/dining room, a bathroom with a huge timber bath, and a library of cultivation manuals that the System had supplied. It wasn’t fancy by modern standards, but it was an airy palace compared to the houses on either side of it. The system had obvious made improvements to it. It was no Guyaju, but it was pretty cool. Owning his own home made Shen Yuan feel like such an adult! It was also the only dwelling without bloodstains on the floor. Thank you, System.
It was a beautiful vista. Down below his hillside home and terraced farmland and outside of his wards ran a wide brown river. In every direction could be seen rolling hills covered in brush and low trees. Even the earth itself was colorful, with yellow, red, and white layers revealing themselves where rain burnished the land. It gleamed in the morning.
“What kind of spiritual animal is it?” Asked Shen Jiu. Shen Yuan was quite pleased that Shen Jiu had come up to him of his own volition. Shen Jiu normally avoided Shen Yuan like a leper.
“It’s just a dog,” Shen Yuan said, smiling in what he hoped was an encouraging way.
“What? Isn’t Shifu supposed to be a cultivator?”
“Shifu is a cultivator.”
“Then why did Shifu pick up this little snack?”
“Woah there, brat. I’m your teacher. Give me some face,” Shen Yuan thought.
“Because he looks like a tiny bear. He’s so fluffy and black. He’s adorable. See?” Shen Yuan held the puppy up for Shen Jiu to inspect its tiny puppy face. Shen Jiu glanced at the dog, then he looked back to Shen Yuan narrowed his eyes and gave Shen Yuan the most judgmental grimace that he had ever been subjected to. It was such a strong look, the acid of it stung Shen Yuan’s eyes.
“Go run a lap around the barrier, Jiu,” Shen Yuan said. Turning back to the dog, Shen Yuan spoke sweetly, “Don’t mind Jiu, Tongzhi. He’s in his rebellious phase.” Shen Jiu rolled his eyes.
As it happened, the dog would have many names in time. “Tongzhi,” for when Shen Yuan was feeling satirical, “You Dog,” for when he was pissed at it, “Doubi,” for when it was clowning around, and fifteen variations on, “Sweety,” for all occasions.
“You were supposed to be getting groceries and someone to look after the girls, not a dog.”
“Funny, I thought I told you to start running,” Shen Yuan said. Shen Jiu waved Shen Yuan off, but started jogging off.
Man, he really did have to go back into town to hire a nanny today. Things were just too hectic here for Shen Yuan to handle everything alone. A pity, since he had been hoping to take a nap this afternoon. Shen Yuan sighed and went to fetch the water for the dog’s bath.
A year later Shen Yuan felt like his life had once again been properly ordered. A nice lady by the name of Zhao had been hired to look after the kids and had brought along a few of her own, plus a husband. Looking after that many kids was still a full-time job for Shen Yuan, but at least he wasn’t running himself ragged anymore. Today, he had gone to do the shopping to get a bit of time to himself and he was glad he had.
Man, but the people around here were geniuses! In Maigu Ridge, which was only about a day’s journey from Shen Yuan’s nearest town for traders, the local people had discovered a kind of rock which, when milled, could be used rid dogs of fleas, keep bugs out of grain stores, and was even a passable tooth paste! Shen Yuan would never have thought to check for any of that, partly because he didn’t want to go one step closer to Luo Binghe than he already was and partly because... Rocks were boring. Geology wasn’t his area and he had zero interest in learning more. Nevertheless, he appreciated that someone somewhere was taking the time to make his life easier. Ancient xianxia people were truly resourceful. Good on you, neighbors!
“I’m sorry I ever considered you backwards and ignorant, ancestors,” Shen Yuan prayed in his heart as he haggled ferociously with a trader for the powder, who was insisting that, when added to tea, it could cure impotence. Shen Yuan was insulted at the insinuation and bargained harder.
Suddenly, a pregnant woman ran by, knocking into Shen Yuan and stumbling around a corner. And then, he heard it.
The System’s ping of doom.
After the incident of the fleeing pregnant woman, the two chickens, the three thugs, and an incongruous strawberry was concluded, Shen Yuan escorted the damsel in distress back to his home. As Shen Yuan and the finely dressed woman, who gave her name as Wu Hou, walked in silence, Shen Yuan stared at the translucent screen hanging before his eyes.
“Take in the runaway princess. Accept the mission?” The System asked. It gave no further details. Knowing that turning down the mission would mean turning out the woman at his side, Shen Yuan steeled his nerves and selected “Yes.”
When Shen Yuan arrived, the nanny, Zhao Jieyu, put down the kitten she had been petting and went over to greet him and their guest. Then, spying Shen Jiu entertaining some of the younger girls, Shen Yuan called the boy over.
“Another pair of strays, eh?” Shen Jiu asked looking at Wu Hou’s distended abdomen.
“Well, he’s growing up to be quite the green lotus,” Shen Yuan thought.
“Just take Wu Hou-Furen to the kang in the nearest spare house, bundle her up, and start the fire to make things comfortable for her. We’ll talk later. Zhao-Furen, could I trouble you to get some tea and snacks for our guest?”
“Certainly. But, if she’s going to be staying long, we’ll need to buy more chickens or we won’t have enough eggs.”
“I’ll put it on the list and go back in a couple days when I get more time.”
“Is she going to deliver the baby here?”
“I’m not sure.”
“She probably should, Master Shen. She’s too far along to be traveling.” Zhao Jieyu continued softly, “Her clothes are very fine. Is she a run-away?”
Translation: Is this the young bride of some dangerous noble, maybe even Luo Freaking Binghe, who will come and make trouble for us to reclaim her?
“… I don’t know,” Shen Yuan answered at last.
Zhao Jieyu gave Shen Yuan the kind of judgmental look that made him think that she must have been taking lessons from Shen Jiu.
“Sorry,” Shen Yuan apologized lamely.
Zhao Jieyu surveyed the children and animals playing on the hill without fear of illness, demons, violence, slavery, or hunger before she gave Shen Yuan her permission.
“Don’t fuck it up,” she said.
Shen Yuan nodded. He better not.
“Hire a couple more girls to help out. The washing is going to become a problem and that little lady looks like she’s never done a day’s work in her life. She’ll learn, but we’re overdue to add some competent workers anyway,” Zhao Jieyu said imperiously.
“Alright,” Shen Yuan agreed easily. Things would be easier if the work could be shared out a bit more.
“Shifu!” Shen Jiu shouted, running back to Shen Yuan and Zhao Jieyu. “Stop spacing out and show me how to do that thing with the leaves! You’re always spending time doing everything except teaching me! If you want to me keep calling you shifu, then you need to start acting like it!”
“Tsk!” Shen Yuan said. “Say ‘please’ or you can just go without learning any cultivation techniques ever again!”
“Please,” Shen Jiu said grumpily.
“Well done,” Shen Yuan said, patting Shen Jiu on the head. Shen Jiu bore this treatment stoically, but Shen Yuan could see a faint blush on the boy’s cheeks. This done, the two met up with Yue Qi and Shen Yuan gave the boys a lesson on turning leaves into knives. As the lesson ended without anybody losing an eye, Shen Yuan called it a win.