Six years old, maybe - although that was a guess. Dirty black hair and black eyes, nothing special. He barely wore rags and stumbled to the ground when Xie Yi stopped holding him.
Through his rags, you could see the gruesome scars all over his body and the huge brand mark that covered half his back.
Xie Yi squatted down and leaned on one arm before he ruffled the dirty hair. “Little street rat, do you have a name?”
The child looked dully up at him.
Xie Yi chuckled a bit.
Okay, as expected, he wouldn’t give himself away. There had been a single flicker of absolute hatred in the child’s eyes, but now it was hidden again, a face of harmless idiocy.
The people in the black market had money. They hadn’t lived on a street before and they didn’t know how high the survival skills of even a child could rise.
They knew how to act pitiful, how to act scared, how to act lifeless. A slave that was too awake would be punished, so it was better to act dumb. However, the slave traders often did not realize that if they took in a street rat, the rat wouldn’t even be that bothered.
In the first place, street rats only wanted to live. Whether that was on the street or in a cage, many of them did not care. At least as slaves they got food once in a while.
The future was not something to worry about. As long as they were safe for the moment, being a slave was not the worst idea.
“You remind me of myself, so I’ll keep you”, Xie Yi said bluntly. “You can be a playmate for Su Liang later, and a brother for the little girl. Un, that sounds good. If they grow up with a street rat, they will learn all kinds of useful stuff.”
Xie Yi picked the little actor up again and carried him out of the black market. The guards in the room upstairs threw him a weird look but he only smiled.
Once outside, Xie Yi stopped again. Now then, he had bought the boy on a whim, but how could he take him out of the city?
Maybe if he bought him clothes and washed him up… Hmmm.
Half an hour later, the mask-store owner stared down at a dirty little thing sitting on his table. “What is this.”
“A boy.” Xie Yi smiled brightly. “Can you sell me clothes for him and some water to wash him up?”
The man opened his mouth, then shut it again. He licked his lips. “You do know that this is a not normal store, right?”
“Yes.” - But I don’t care.
“Little Ancestor, are you planning on causing me trouble? What do I have to do to get rid off you?”
“Well, I need children’s clothes and water. The next time I’m in the city, I’ll pay you back tenfold for the favour, right now it’s just inconvenient.”
The old man wished that he didn’t have alarm bells ringing in his head or he would have thrown that brat out. Sadly, decades of work with dubious people had granted him enough experience to understand that offending this harmless looking youth was a bad idea.
“Water and clothes, is it”, he said with crunching teeth.
The clothes the child got were the old man’s grandson’s. Even a bucket of water wasn’t enough to get him clean, but at least he looked more human now.
“I think if I carry you out of the city, it shouldn’t look too suspicious now”, Xie Yi mumbled to himself. This time, he carried the child normally on one arm. Unsteady, the brat instinctively held onto his shoulder.
“Thanks for the help, Uncle! I’ll come back soon.”
Leaving the grumpy - but actually weirdly amicable - store owner behind, Xie Yi hurriedly marched out of the city.
The little slave acted dead until hours later into the night, when he was sitting next to a campfire at a little stream of water. Xie Yi had handed him some rabbit meat and was watching him closely.
The child’s eyes had shaken when Xie Yi had taken off his mask and thrown it away, revealing his young face, and then again when he had taken out his coloured lenses.
“Do I look like a demon?”, Xie Yi asked simply, gnawing on a bone. “It was quite an issue when I lived on the streets. You can imagine that it’s hard to go begging when you look like this.”
The child didn't respond, but his eyes flickered uncertainly. He began to nibble on the meat.
“I’ve thought of something nice. My master would like the idea, too.” Xie Yi’s eyes softened. “I’ve taken you in now, and I’ll raise you up to be strong. Later, I’ll find another street rat to take in and raise him with you. Then, when you’re an adult, I’ll be expecting you to do the same.”
This time, the child looked at him directly. His dark eyes were wide.
“I’ll help you leave the street, and you’ll do the same for two children later. If I find out you didn’t, I’ll come and beat you up.” Xie Yi laughed.
This life, he could be said to have been taken in by Shi Yue.
He knew the feeling of debt that he himself felt towards those that had helped him live. In his last life, and in this one. It might not be bad to use this.
The children could repay that original debt by helping the Virtuous Sect out in any way and listening to himself and Shi Yue.
Whether it worked or not, it was a nice idea, he thought.
“So? Are you willing to tell me your name?”
“Don’t have one”, the child said in a scratchy voice and finally his facade fell away. His face was cold and emotionless, his eyes not empty of life but frozen over like a river in winter - there was a strong current beneath the surface.
“Choose one, then. Something that you like”, Xie Yi offered. He liked the boy’s eyes a lot - they were strong.
Hey, could this be called his first disciple?
“Qiang Ren”, the child said decisively.
“Strong and resilient, eh? I like that! Alright, Ah Ren, let’s set down some simple rules: Do what I tell you or I’ll throw you down a cliff.”
Xie Yi’s smile was scary, but Qiang Ren only looked at him stupidly.
“That’s all. No need for formalities or anything like that, I only want you to be obedient. That said, you can question what I order you to do if you find it weird.” Xie Yi shrugged. In the first place, they were both street rats…
And the formalities of sects still did not suit him.
“O-Okay”, Qiang Ren mumbled and continued to nibble on his food.
“My name is Xie Yi. Let’s get along.” Holding out his hand with a smile, every bit of darkness appeared to have vanished from his face, making the previous threat feel like an illusion.
Qiang Ren carefully took the much larger hand and gave it a small shake before hurriedly pulling it back and continuing to eat.
Xie Yi could completely understand the child’s thought process: Because he was a weak child, a slave and a street rat, there was zero advantage to treating him kindly. That meant that if someone was being nice to him, it was genuine.
Well, Xie Yi had learned the hard way that this wasn’t completely true, but the boy wouldn’t have learned that yet.
Qiang Ren might have been suspicious if Xie Yi had given him scraps like some richer kids did just to tease him, but Xie Yi was openly sharing his own meal.
In the end, he was a child. He would keep his guard up, but he had nothing to lose and was too weak to protect himself anyway.
He might as well be at this guy’s mercy.
Xie Yi took Qiang Ren as a practice partner for when he finally freed Xiao Zai and would be taking care of her. Both were traumatized, in a way, but Qiang Ren was a bit sturdier.
There were a couple of things he immediately noticed. First, giving a child that had just come off the street meat to eat was not the best idea.
Also, children fainted pretty easily.
And you had to be much more careful in carrying them than he thought, especially if they weren’t feeling well.
Qiang Ren and Xie Yi both tactfully acknowledged that they wouldn’t talk about last night. The boy was hanging limply in Xie Yi’s arms, carried like a little princess, and tried to chew the apple in his hand as slowly as possible.
“Maybe only eat half now and the other after a break”, Xie Yi awkwardly suggested.
“I know you’re hungry”, he responded to the aggrieved glance. Sadly, he didn’t know how much Qiang Ren could eat before his malnourished body would go haywire again. It was better to start slowly.
“Maybe it will be nice for you to know that the place I’m bringing you to has an excellent cook. Who also has a better idea on how to raise a child.”
Qiang Ren lowered his head and tightened the hand he had sneakily clutched on a piece of Xie Yi’s clothes. The man who had started carrying him hours ago was maybe not the best caretaker, but he was very warm.