Wei Ying exhaled hotly against the cusp of his palms and shivered.
The snow had raged for days without letting up, and the cold did nothing on the itchy scabs of dog bites on his arms and the hunger squeezing his stomach. Wei Ying hunched into himself further. This would pass, though whether it was the snowstorm or the pain of his wounds or the hunger, he couldn’t say.
Carefully, he broke half of the molded baozi and then broke the half again into two; this way, the baozi would last him another three days. Hopefully, the remaining pieces wouldn’t be spoiled by then.
He was thirsty after a single bite that it took him to eat. Nothing filling, as usual, but it would be enough for now and something that sleep could improve through the night. The upside of having a snowstorm was the lack of nocturnal predators also hunting for food, therefore less to worry about whether he’d wake up mauled on the sidewalk. Curling himself into a ball in order to preserve what little body heat that he could, he prepared for sleep. He tended to sleep easier these days, tired and worn out as he was even without moving about much.
Wei Ying must have fallen asleep immediately that night and was quickly lulled into a dream because the next thing he knew, he could make out a vague shape of someone approaching him.
White. White as the storm of snow. Long white hair and robes billowed in the harsh wind. A ghost, Wei Ying thought immediately. He had heard of tales of a white ghost around the town, one that would eat unruly children who strayed out of their beds late at night. He used to believe that the white ghost had yet to find him, though now that he was found, oddly enough, he was not afraid.
Not when a pale hand reached for him, tender atop his head. Blearily, Wei Ying stared at the face and couldn’t seem to focus on anything else aside from the sudden warmth coursing from his head to toe. If the White Ghost would eat him, he wouldn’t mind as long as he got to be this warm forever.
“Sleep, little one,” came from a voice that was seemingly carried by the wind. “I’ll bring you home.”
Home. Wei Ying would love to go home.
Wei Ying woke on an actual bed and with a man hovering over him by the bedside.
“You’re awake,” said the stranger with a tentative smile. He made no move to come closer, looking unsure the longer Wei Ying stared at him, the silence spanning between them. “I brought food.”
Wei Ying did not shy away from the tray laid before him. He took a bite out of the bread and drank deeply from the cup of tea. He almost choked if not for the man’s sudden alarm, gently patting his back and encouraging him to eat slowly. He reached for the soup before Wei Ying could, taking a spoonful and blowing before feeding it to him. Wei Ying obediently opened his mouth, delighted at the right temperature of the soup.
By the third spoonful, the man sheepishly brought down the spoon, murmured an apology, and asked him if he’d rather eat by himself. Wei Ying did not mind one bit, did not understand what the apology was for, and boldly requested to be helped with the soup. Something shifted on the man’s expression, his previous smile turning soft and sure when he assisted Wei Ying with the food, occasionally pausing to let him drink the tea or take a bite of the bread first.
“I’d get you more, but maybe later, once your stomach settles,” the man said. “It’ll hurt if you suddenly eat too much.”
Wei Ying remembered the baozi he kept under his robes, though upon touching his clothes he discovered that they were no longer the dirty ones he had slept in for as long as he could recall. The one he was wearing felt nice and soft and clean, something new and in the color of light blue with long sleeves that hid the bite marks on his forearms. He checked on his scabbing wounds and stared at them in wonder seeing as they were almost gone.
“A good friend of mine is a healer. He came by last week to take a look at you,” the man told him. “And Lao Wen made sure to apply medicine on them every day.”
Wei Ying did not know this Lao Wen—and what did he say? “Last week?” he asked, voice hoarse from sore throat. Wordlessly, the man handed him a cup of lukewarm water.
“What do you remember?”
“Snow,” Wei Ying answered. “Lots of it.” He frowned to himself, mind clicking on a significant memory. “The White Ghost came for me last night.”
The man blinked, a hint of amusement in his raised brows. “White Ghost?”
Wei Ying nodded eagerly. “It must be him because of his white hair. He also wears white. They say he eats unruly children who don’t return home in time.”
That earned him a snort, a grin lighting up the man’s face. He had a pleasant face, Wei Ying realized. “Ah, Lao Wen doesn’t eat unruly children, I assure you, not when he can be unruly as a child himself,” he said with a shake of his head. “He brought you here roughly three weeks ago. From what I understand, it was a long journey back from where he picked you up to here, and you had a fever during the trip.” He glanced at Wei Ying’s thin wrists peeking from his sleeves. “Ten days later, he arrived home with you.”
Oh. So this was the home the White Ghost was pertaining to. Wei Ying’s eyes darted around the room. It wasn’t cold here despite the snow he could see still falling outside the window that painted a night sky, and there was food.
“You’re in the Four Seasons Manor,” the man said as if reading Wei Ying’s mind. “Forgive my manners, my name is Zhou Zishu. Later, you’ll meet Lao Wen. What do I call you?”
“Wei Ying. My name is Wei Ying.” Wei Ying liked Zhou Zishu already for the sole reason that he did not ask where his parents were; he honestly had no idea. “Can I live here?”
“Of course,” Zhou Zishu said without hesitation, though his palm hovered uncertainly over Wei Ying’s head as if silently asking for permission. Wei Ying beamed up at him, inching closer to his side that had Zhou Zishu smiling. “This can be your home, Wei Ying, if you want.”
“I do!” It wasn’t as if Wei Ying had anywhere else to go, and it must have shown in his face judging from the flicker of Zhou Zishu’s expression. “I will help around, I promise!”
Zhou Zishu tsked amusedly. “Don’t make that promise when you haven’t seen the entire place yet.” He stood. “It’s better if you go back to rest, but I won’t stop you if you want to stretch your legs.”
Wei Ying felt the length of time he spent lying down on the bed through shaky knees, and Zhou Zishu was instantly there to carry him instead in his arms. Wei Ying automatically circled his neck, hooking his chin on Zhou Zishu’s shoulder.
“Right. You can stretch your legs later. I’ll carry you for now. Is that alright?” Zhou Zishu asked him. “If you fell asleep, then I’ll bring you back here.”
Wei Ying gave him an affirmative, liking the sound of that. Zhou Zishu swaddled him with a thick blue robe that was twice Wei Ying’s size before bringing him outdoors where the breeze swept the last dredges of snow. A firm hand stroked Wei Ying’s back comfortingly as they took a sedate trip around the manor. Zhou Zishu explained to him which was which, whose room was whose, pointing at specific locations. Later, he would let Wei Ying pick out his own room.
Wei Ying could not pinpoint what hour it was in the evening. It was quiet enough that he’d think only Zhou Zishu originally lived there; he did mention that he had some disciples and that if Wei Ying wanted he could join them once he recovered.
“But I already recovered,” he protested. “I can join them tomorrow.” He looking forward to meeting other children that he couldn’t wait to play and train with them.
“Not yet, brat. Give it another three days at least.”
Wei Ying pouted. “A-niang said my golden core is strong so I heal quick.”
“Golden core?” Zhou Zishu paused, thoughtful. “Your parents are cultivators?”
Wei Ying nodded. “They left for a night-hunt. They never came back.”
A frown creased Zhou Zishu’s forehead before a sigh escaped him. “I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure they were good people.”
His parents were never called ‘good’ by anyone who took one glance at Wei Ying, who was a homeless boy anyone would take pity in and promptly forgot once they crossed over to the next street.
“Do you want to be a cultivator like them someday?” Zhou Zishu asked.
“Maybe,” Wei Ying muttered. “I don’t know. Are you also a cultivator?”
“No. The Four Seasons Sect is not a cultivation sect. Not that kind of cultivation, at least. Though I can teach you its foundations: martial arts and the way of the sword, and help you develop your own body and spirit in order to prepare both for cultivation.” Zhou Zishu peered at him. “How about that?”
If Wei Ying couldn’t learn cultivation here, then that meant he would have to eventually leave and learn somewhere. Wei Ying did not want to, not so soon. His hold tightened, though Zhou Zishu hardly minded.
“Don’t overthink. You’re young, it won’t happen for years,” Zhou Zishu reminded him. “I’m a strict teacher, Wei Ying. I won’t deem you ready unless I say so.”
“Okay,” Wei Ying whispered elatedly. He would be a good student… or not if it meant staying here longer.
“And there’s also Lao Wen. He also teaches here.”
Wei Ying blinked at Zhou Zishu. “The White Ghost?”
“White Ghost doesn’t sound bad as far as titles go.”
There was a new voice from behind. The same white robes and the same flowing white hair from Wei Ying’s dreamlike memory. Like a floating ghost, he was quiet when he approached them, and Wei Ying stared at how the faint moonlight was caught at the White Ghost’s head.
The White Ghost pursed his lips at Zhou Zishu. “Isn’t it past bedtime for sightseeing?” At Wei Ying, he smiled fondly. “How are you, little one?”
“I’m good!” Wei Ying said, perhaps with a cheer that the White Ghost did not expect. “A-Shu toured me around the manor.”
“A-Shu?” Delightfully, he addressed Zhou Zishu, “I see you already endeared yourself to the child you thought I kidnapped.”
“You—Do you even know his name before you picked him up?” Zhou Zishu demanded. He sighed exasperatedly at the shrug he received in return and the conspiratorial smirk the White Ghost shared with Wei Ying. “This is Wei Ying, Lao Wen. Wei Ying, that man you called the White Ghost is Wen Kexing, but he’s known as Lao Wen.”
“Wei Ying,” the White Ghost—Wen Kexing—Lao Wen—tested his name. “You have a good name, little one.” Delicately, he tucked a stray lock of Wei Ying’s hair behind his ear. “You can call me Lao Wen.”
“But you don’t look old,” Wei Ying pointed out. “Can I call you A-Xing?”
Wen Kexing’s laugh rang like a chime in the silence of the evening. “This little one is not shy at all.” He grinned. “I think we’ll get along really well.”
“He has a name,” Zhou Zishu interrupted. “And don’t encourage him to be troublesome!” he reprimanded. “He’s going to be a promising student of mine.”
“Aiyah, A-Xu, can’t he be both? Besides, he’ll be my student too, and I’ll teach him the ways of a proper gentry.” Wen Kexing winked at Wei Ying. “Would you like that, little one?”
Wei Ying believed he would. His father had mentioned studying before, though his mother would rather he play instead, so he never had the chance to actually sit down and learn, either alone with his father as his tutor or with other children.
He wondered for a moment whether this was also a dream. The last time he closed his eyes to sleep, he was alone outside the cold, freezing and starving and with no one to call; then he woke up somewhere warm and big and comfortable with two nice people, and more he’d meet tomorrow.
A part of him thought he might have been truly eaten by the White Ghost that night, though if he was, it would not be A-Shu carrying him but his quiet father who preferred smiling that private smile of his than speaking, and the one with the nice-looking face and draped in all white would not be A-Xing but his mother from his vague memories of her.
Maybe someday he’d see clearer faces of his parents, but not anytime soon when he had just committed A-Shu and A-Xing’s faces to memory and when Wei Ying started to picture himself growing familiar with them instead.
Wei Ying grinned excitedly at what tomorrow would bring. “I’d like that.”