“Hey, brat. Where did you learn to shovel like that?” The voice startled him. Jin Rou paused in his work, and turned, wiping his sweaty face on his sleeve. There was an old vagabond sitting on the stone steps where he was working. He wore a threadbare tunic, and had a ragged straw hat that was hanging down his back.
The boy frowned at the old man, and his relaxed posture. His face was creased, and he seemed lethargic, but his eyes had a small spark of interest. The boy considered him, and saw no harm in answering.
“I watched the older guys, but they were too tall. So I figured things out myself,” he said simply, and turned back to shoveling. He twisted his hips to heave the load over his shoulder. It was easier on his back. The other street-cleaners were often amazed that he managed to finish his assignments so fast. But all he had to do was be efficient. His father had always said to find a way to do things better.
The boy grimaced, and continued shoveling. The old man watched him for a while, until the boy left, grabbing his waste-cart, and heaving it up. It was almost too much to handle, but he was good at judging the weight.
“Why do you struggle so hard, boy?” the old man asked.
Rou paused at the question. He turned to glare at the old man.
“To live,” he stated simply. The old man raised a brow, and shook his head.
He put the old man out of his mind, and continued on his day. He worked until the sun set, counted his earnings carefully, ate as much as he could, and then saved a bit so he could afford to take a day off. Food was more important than a roof right now, with the heat of summer sleeping in the streets wasn’t too awful. As long as you knew which street corners a boy could sleep on.
And so it continued. The week of work. His day off. The day he scrimped and saved for. Rou bathed thoroughly, washing the stinking of waste off his body, and travelled to his destination.
There, he met another man, a student that was aiming to be a scribe. The price was steep, but the one day a week was cheaper than an actual school. He had to work. He couldn’t afford to learn full time.
Reading is important, his father had said. Better jobs come to those who can read.
So the older boy put him through the courtly characters. He was overly fond of cuffing Rou for any mistake he made, but Rou was learning. A cheap price, and some strikes from the foppish boy were nothing compared to the time he accidentally crossed the gang. He hadn’t been able to walk right for weeks, and the hunger pangs had been…difficult.
Rou worked diligently. He practiced on the slate. He noticed an old man, glancing at him from the corner of his eye. He looked a bit familiar, but once more, Rou put him out of his mind, and redoubled his efforts.
The next day the waste collectors didn’t want him. That was unfortunate, but Rou was just a boy. They wanted the stronger men. So he went to the next job, asking for work.
Then the next one. Then the next one. Nobody would take him.
Until an old man who looked very familiar, offered him some food to sweep the street in front of his old house.
Rou was surprised he even had one.
It was a good job. He practised his brush strokes of the characters as he swept, the old man having gone inside. It was a balancing act between getting the job done in time, and squeezing in some practise.
“Do you know the character for sword, boy?” the old man asked. Rou nearly jumped out of his skin at the voice, as the old man was right behind him, looking down at the sweep marks.
But he didn’t seem mad. In fact, he seemed to approve.
“I don’t,” Rou said, shaking his head.
The old man took the broom from him. It swirled, almost hypnotically along the ground, leaving a single character.
The old man smirked, as Rou took back the broom. His body twisted, trying to ape the old man’s movements.
The character for sword rested beside the first. It wasn’t a perfect replica, but it was passable.
The old man grinned, and pulled the broom back.
“This one is cultivate,” he decreed.
The broom spun, and Rou watched intently.
Rou spent the rest of the day sweeping characters into the ground.
And for the first time since his parents died, he smiled.
The old man even bought him dinner. His stomach grumbled.
“If I had not offered you a job, where would you have gone next, Boy?” the old man asked.
Rou shrugged. “The night soil collectors and corpse disposal start recruiting at night. Either that or the rat catchers.”
The old man raised an eyebrow. “All that, to learn a few letters, and get some food in your belly,” he mused.
“It doesn’t matter if it's dirty, or disgusting. I’m going to get out of this place.” Rou turned his hungry gaze to the old man.
The old man smiled.
“You can sleep here tonight,” the old man decided.
Rou grinned. “Thanks, Gramps,” he said.
The old man’s jaw dropped. He seemed utterly confused by the term of endearment, before letting out a great belly laugh.
The boy and the old man became companions. The drunken lout would laze around while Rou worked, occasionally offering comments on what to do, or quizzing him on the characters he taught him.
He was better than Rou’s previous teacher, at least. He didn’t cuff him as much.
He still did get a smack when he called him an old bastard though, or threw dung at his head.
The old man tolerated it for some reason. He’d act mad, but other than a few light smacks, he let it go.
It was kind of fun.
They prowled the city together. Gramps occasionally bought him food, or made him do weird breathing exercises.
They slept in the same tiny shack together. When it was cold, Rou would shove his feet into Gramps’s side. The old man never complained about that.
It was almost like having a family again.
Rou ran through the streets, terror in his heart. The flesh traders were out and in force, scooping up the refuse of the city, and had their sights set on him.
Three were hot on his tail.
Rou ran for all he was worth, but the day’s work had taken its toll. He was just a boy, and the grown man was faster. Much faster.
Desperation burned in his breast, as the man closed. Jin Rou searched for something, anything to aid him.
He found nothing but a broom.
With strength borne of desperation, he lunged for it. His hands fixed around the handle, and he swung it with all his might.
Something snapped inside of him.
The broom moved far faster than it should have, clubbing into the man’s skull and shattering his nose.
The man fell, and didn’t get back up. Rou fell to one knee, panting.
The other two didn’t pause, lunging for him. Rou’s legs shook. His eyes blurred.
But he stood up anyway.
Both of the flesh traders hit the ground, their necks bent at awkward angles.
Gramps stared at him, his gaze full of pride.
“The streets aren’t safe this late, brat,” the old man decreed.
“No shit,” Rou said, as he collapsed. Gramps caught him before he hit the ground, laughing all the while.
Jin Rou didn’t need to work anymore. Gramps said that cultivation was much more important. There was a kind of hunger in his eyes that Rou strived to meet. He cultivated as hard as he could to achieve power like in the stories.
To make the old man proud.
“Rou, you’re not done yet?!” the old bastard demanded. “This should be simple!”
Rou’s eye twitched. That night, he replaced the old turd’s wine with horse piss.
Gramps almost seemed impressed, even as he hung him upside down from a tree.
But all things come to an end.
Rou watched anxiously, as the old man packed. His eyes were cold and hard, like he had never seen them.
“Go to the Cloudy Sword Sect,” he commanded. “I have things to attend to.”
And then Jin Rou was alone again.