Grandmother Lu woke him early the next day. Very early. The sun wasn’t even really up yet, just the barest suggestion of light on the horizon, but Sen didn’t really mind. He had been given shelter for a night. That was more fortune than most of his ilk enjoyed. He simply bowed to Grandmother Lu and took his leave. There were places where he might find food if he was quick enough. Not the kind of food that would stay good until night, but something that might keep his stomach from aching until he thought it would drive him mad. So, Sen ventured forth. It was early enough that none of the noble brats would hassle him. They didn’t rise this early. He might run afoul of a shopkeeper or half-wild dog, though. Both things had happened before and he had the scars to prove it.

Still, some risks were worth the payoff. You simply could not survive without food. He knew that there were other ways. There were hunters who ventured outside of the town into the largely untamed wilderness beyond the walls. There were animals there that you could hunt or capture in clever snares. Sen knew this, but it meant little to him. He had no bow, no spear, and no snares. Even if he had those things, he didn’t know how to use them. Staying in the town was dangerous. It would become more dangerous for him in time. He was old enough now that one of the gangs would press him into service if he wasn’t very careful. That was a life almost sure to see him dead, eventually. Yet, leaving would mean truly courting death.

In town, he risked the wrath of noble children, the town guard, and gangs. Beyond those walls, he risked the ire of spirit animals that even the unearthly cultivators feared. If those heaven-defying figures of legend tread with care in the wilds, what hope did he have of surviving? One day, if he became desperate enough, he might make the journey beyond the walls, but it would be a day of true desperation indeed. For now, he would simply take his steps with care, and keep a sharp eye out. For the next hour or two, though, he largely had the town to himself.

He took full advantage of that fact, making his way to the Song Wu Dumpling shop. He lucked out and found a few dumplings that the rats and other vermin hadn’t found in the trash. He wondered sometimes what they would taste like fresh. Most days he was simply grateful if there was something to eat at all. After he’d eaten something, he went to the central market. There were shadowed corners where he could hide all day, free from the sight of the guard and his own enemies. Although, when he was honest with himself, he was getting a little too big for them. Another year, maybe less, and he’d have to find a new way to stay out of sight.

For now, though, he could watch as people opened their shops and set up stands. He could see the mayor’s mansion from his secluded little perch. He was willing to bet nobody there was ever hungry. Even the servants probably ate like nobles there. Not that he could ever dream of even being a servant in such a place. Not without a family name to open doors for him. A part of him that he kept buried deep most of the time seethed at the unfairness of it all. He knew that he should accept his fate, accept the lot that life had handed to him, but it burned all the same. He didn’t dream of riches or of glory.

Those things were fantasies without depth or true meaning to him. He simply dreamed of honest work, a safe home, and maybe, one day, a family. Yet, even those modest dreams were out of his reach. No one would hire him. Most people would barely look at him. All he could do was hide in the shadows and watch as other people lived the kinds of lives that he wished he could have. The morning passed slowly. Sen watched for opportunities. He also watched for threats. For some reason, there were more guards around than usual. He also noticed more of the noble brats hanging around the market than usual. Was there some kind of festival happening soon? Sen wasn’t sure. He measured time in hours, days, and seasons. Anything in between was lost on him. He knew that there were holidays and festivals but not when or why. Mostly, he didn’t care. They didn’t mean anything to him. Except, he admitted, when they set off the fireworks. That was something everyone got to enjoy, even him.

It wasn’t until the afternoon that things changed. Sen almost felt the change, like a current that swept through the marketplace. The change was defined by a single word. Cultivator. There was a cultivator in town. Sen didn’t believe it, at first. Why would there be a cultivator in Orchard’s Reach? Even Sen knew that they were a small place in an unimportant province. Yet, for all of that, he was curious. He’d never seen a cultivator before. Were they really ten feet tall? Did they really have lightning for eyes? A part of him wanted to go and find the cultivator, but good sense prevailed. If he went wandering around and looking for them, his tormentors would have a far easier time finding him. No, far safer to stay quiet, stay hidden.


It turned out that Sen’s caution proved the wiser course, for the cultivator came to him. At first, Sen just thought he was another man. He was taller than most people with gray eyes and gray hair to match, but it wasn’t his appearance that really gave him away. His robes were finer than most people’s. Yet, they were not so much finer that anyone would consider him more than a noble. No, it was something that Sen couldn’t name, couldn’t see, but he could feel it. So could everyone else. The man strode through the market in a bubble that no one invaded. The crowds parted around the man. Sen shuddered at the invisible pressure that radiated from the man. He’d felt pressure like that, well not exactly like that, but similar enough. He’d learned how to hide from it. So, he did.

Then, the cultivator stopped dead in his tracks. His eyes swept across the marketplace. It looked to Sen like the man meant to bore a hole through the world with his gaze. Sen shuddered as the man fixed on his hiding spot and then took a step in his direction. Cold sweat ran down Sen’s back, but then a miracle occurred. At any other time, Sen would have considered the arrival of the mayor and the other local nobles as a dark sign. Today, it was reprieve given human form. The mayor strode up and bowed deeply.

“The mayor of Orchard’s Reach bids the mighty cultivator welcome.”

The rest of the nobles bowed as well and murmured their welcomes. The cultivator looked, at least to Sen’s eyes, like the whole spectacle annoyed him. The cultivator gave one last look at where Sen was hiding, then turned his attention to the nobles. He bowed to them.

“Cultivator Feng greets the mayor.”