As he ran, Sen felt the burn deep in his legs and in his lungs. He could hear the shouts of the noble boys behind him, close, always too close, and tried to run even faster. Sometimes, he could get away. He hoped that today would be one of those days. He clutched the precious burden in his arms as tight as he dared. Not too tightly, or he might damage it, but tight enough not to drop it. His long hair whipped into his eyes for a moment, obscuring his vision. He prayed that no one would step in front of him. Another moment and the wind carried that offending hair out of his eyes. He dodged around a corner, put on a last burst of speed, and cut down a particularly dark passageway between a noodle shop and a merchant’s shop.

It wouldn’t have worked during the full light of day, but it might be dark enough with dusk settling over the town. He crouched behind a pile of trash and ignored the baleful look that a rat gave him. He tried to still his breathing and slow his heart, sure that everyone could hear that thunderous pounding clear from the street. The moments passed with agonizing slowness. He could hear the people on the street, talking, bartering, or simply making their way home after the day’s work. Those lucky, respectable people who could get work. People who could buy their food instead of stealing it to avoid starving. People who proudly bore a family name.

The shouting of the other boys drew near. He heard them out there, confused by his sudden disappearance. They searched up and down the street for a seeming eternity, one even took a few steps down the passage before the others called him back. Sen didn’t trust it. Didn’t trust them. They’d tricked him before. Tricked him, and then beat him senseless for offending his betters. Offending my betters, he thought with a burst of rage. I offend them by existing. So, he remained crouched in that dark passage, fending off the ever more aggressive rats that could smell what he had clutched in his hand. He waited there in the growing darkness for more than an hour before he finally, cautiously, made his way out. He peeked around the corners, searching the street for his tormentors, but they had apparently given up on him.

He wouldn’t pretend that he didn’t take some slim satisfaction in foiling their instruction of their inferior. Although, it meant that he would need to remain even more vigilant in the days to come. Those vicious, noble bastards had a long memory for perceived slights. He might not get away next time. This time, though, this time he had gotten away. He trudged away from the meager protection of the passageway and headed to the closest thing he had to a home. His legs ached terribly from the desperate, panicked flight, but at least his lungs didn’t hurt anymore. He’d learned to take his blessings, few though they were, where he could find them. Still, it was a long walk back. He sighed, said a quiet prayer to whatever gods took pity on children and thieves, and set out.


Full night had settled over the town of Orchard’s Reach by the time Sen arrived. He could even see the moon rising over the mountain that cast its long shadow over the population, day in and day out, year after year. Sen wasn’t given to deep thoughts, usually reserving his mental energy for survival, but he paused there for a moment. The moon was full and hung there, like a great luminous fruit that had blossomed from the rocky soil of the mountain. Something twinged in him then, as he gazed at that vast, distant orb that some thought was a goddess. He yearned, just for a moment, to hang there in the sky as the moon did, to cast a light over all, a lesser light than the sun, but perhaps a kinder one as well.

Then, he shook himself. Foolish thoughts. He’d never leave this place. Never assume a different station. Oh, there were stories of mighty cultivators who rose to greatness from humble beginnings, but those were just stories. Those things didn’t happen to real people. Real people lived the life that fate had cast for them, some prospering, and all too many worn away by too much need and not enough coin.


He reached out and knocked on the door. Then, he waited. There was no point in being impatient. He watched the moon in the relative silence. He listened as the night insects made their own strange music. He used to count the seconds and minutes, but he’d grown at least a little wise in his short years. She would arrive when she arrived. After a minute, or ten, the door cracked open. A dark, piercing eye glared out at him.

“What do you want, boy?”

Sen didn’t say anything, simply uncovered his hard-won treasure. She understood what he was offering. She opened the door enough for him to scurry inside before she closed the door firmly behind him. Grandmother Lu gave him a suspicious look, but she didn’t ask any questions. He handed her the loaf of bread. She took the food with care. Sen knew that her hands hurt her more days than they didn’t. She gestured with her head, and he joined her at the table. She carefully cut part of the loaf into slices with a knife that looked as old and worn as Grandmother Lu herself. She took two slices and handed him two. She conjured a small orange from somewhere. She regarded the fruit for a long moment before handing it to him.

“Peel this,” she ordered.

He took great care in peeling the orange as he didn’t wish to damage the precious flesh inside. He handed it back to the old woman. She took equal care in dividing the fruit into its individual segments before carefully pushing half to him. They ate slowly. Grandmother Lu had been of a different station, once, Sen was sure of that. He wasn’t sure if tragedy or dishonor had left her in her current circumstances, but she clung to a few ideals. Eating should be done with at least a little dignity. Sen wasn’t sure if he felt the same way about it, but he respected her wishes.

After they ate, Sen collapsed onto a small pad that just happened to always be empty when he came by. He didn’t sleep there every night. In fact, he almost never visited Grandmother Lu unless he had some morsel to share, but on those few, terrible, icy nights when he had shown up empty-handed, she’d simply gestured to the little pad without comment. Sen had no family, no blood, but he did have Grandmother Lu. That one, tiny comfort was enough that he drifted off to sleep and did not dream.