Chen Jiajian was the youngest of three children. His eldest brother was a doctor, and his older sister was also a doctor. So of course his parents looked at him like a gambler might look at the third rolling wheel on a slot machine when the first two show the same bunch of cherries. Chen Jiajian enjoyed reading and learning, so he did his best to meet their expectations, even getting into a low-to-middle-ranked medical school. He attended diligently for a few weeks, and then a few months, and then a year.
A year and a day into his work, Chen Jiajian woke up and just…laid in bed. The sun rose, and the time for his first meeting with the rest of his cohort passed by. Instead of going to his lectures, he sat in his apartment and stared into space. He never went back to class, letting weeks and then the entire quarter slide into the past. Then with the lack of self-consciousness that only a baby of the family can lay claim to, he announced to his parents that he was dropping out.
Well, no one was content with that except Chen Jiajian. He withdrew from public life, such as it was, and then mostly from his family life. He spent all his time alone, on the computer, and within a few weeks had begun to spend his spare time writing fiction. He showed no interest in bettering himself. After one year had passed, he was given up to be a family disappointment.
From then on, Chen Jiajian made his living like many in the growing tech sector: he did ‘online work’, which was all he ever told his parents to avoid hearing the word ‘disappointment’ said to his face (not that it stopped them when they were in a mood to tell him what they thought about the choices he’d made). Eventually, when his future was brought up at all, it was in the hope that he would marry well so that they would at least have some grandchildren to show for it.
Fat chance of that, he thought to himself.
This attitude was one born of pure pragmatism. In his line of ‘online work’, he had a vanishing chance of meeting potential marriage partners. Why?
Well, for one, girls don’t read harem novels!
Chen Jiajian’s ‘online work’ was writing webnovels. Within two years, he had over 50 webnovels of varying lengths under his belt: the words fought to get out of his hands. Many of them were successful—not successful enough for drama or manhua adaptations, but they each provided a trickle of gold into his coffers. Altogether, he made a comfortable sum peddling fantastic stories of strong, masculine men dazzling legendary beauties with their wit and swordsmanship. Sprinkling in just enough sexual tension to keep his readers hooked, he deftly wove tales of romance across time and class, despite having never felt such deep love for any girl himself. When it came to girls, he was content to trust chance rather than show initiative.
The increasing availability of high-speed internet meant he could work from anywhere, so he was quite happy to move far from home and live in a small apartment by himself. He had even found his apartment near an e-sports stable. Lots of similarly-minded young men around meant his odd hours and strange habits were never questioned. Like everyone else around him, he kept to himself and lived in relative peace and quiet.
Until he died, that is.
Chen Jiajian was walking home from the market along a busy road. He wasn’t a particularly agile man, so he kept his distance from the traffic and was attentive to road conditions. Better safe than sorry.
That is how he saw from a long way off, in the middle of the traffic lanes, a small kitten, fur quivering with each truck and car that passed over it.
Chen Jiajian’s heart sank. He’d always been partial to cats, and seeing one dead in the road prompted him to whisper a wish for better things in its next life.
Then, after a car passed by, just as he drew even with it, he saw the kitten move. It dashed toward the middle of the street, but not far enough to get clear of the traffic. A large truck hurtled toward it, the broad tire lined up directly with its small, soft body.
Chen was in the street before he realized what he was doing. The little furball was in his hands and then it wasn’t, thrown clear of the truck just before pain exploded along the entire length of his body. He heard the truck skid to a stop in the distance, just before his own body stopped rolling brokenly over the pavement. But after a moment, the truck started up again and sped away.
He tried moving each of his arms and legs, with no luck. Pain shot through him at the mere thought, and then even more terrifyingly, all of the pain seemed less, and then less still, until he couldn’t feel anything at all. In front of his eyes, he could see blood spreading across the pavement. Then to his great surprise, the kitten he’d saved bounded up to the side of the road, joined by a distinguished-looking yellow cat with a very small mianguan on its head. Threads of jade beads in five colors—black, white, green, red, and purple—hung off the edge of the coronet, motionless. A stray thought drifted through Chen Jiajian’s mind, like a mote of dust in sunlight.
It must be very hard for a cat not to paw at strings of jade beads.
As Chen Jiajian’s vision failed, the distinguished cat sat up on its hind legs and bowed to him. It then gestured to the small kitten next to it. “Human man, tonight you have saved the life of my only son. I am indebted to you and would have directed my court to serve your whims for the rest of your life, if only it would not be so short. In recognition of your sacrifice, I will grant you one of my nine lives to give you a cat’s chance at utmost happiness.”
Chen Jiajian’s dimming mind stumbled over the words. Wait, what do you mean, grant me a life?
Then everything went dark.
Chen Jiajian woke with the shock of being plunged into ice-cold water. His chest spasmed, and the air in his lungs bubbled out between his lips. The need for oxygen burned in his chest, and he kicked his legs, chasing the bubbles to the surface.
But no sooner had he sucked in a breath than he felt something pulling him back down underneath the surface of the river. He ducked his head, looking to see what it was that caught him, but saw only a cloud of black fabric and a small flash of red on the river bottom. When he tried to swim forward, his arms were leaden and even seemed to push him back. But at last, he was able to get to the side of the river, into a small pool just outside the river’s strongest flow. He crawled into the mud on his hands and knees, and then collapsed on the pebbled riverbank, too tired to go further.
He came back to consciousness slowly. First, the sound of a river’s flow, and the distant roar of falling water pressed into his ears. Then the pain of dozens of rocks digging into his back, but even this wasn’t enough to get him moving.
I was lying on a road before. This isn’t so different.
Then it dawned on him that it was quite a bit different from the numbness after the truck hit him: he could not only feel every rock, but soreness in his body, the way his hair had dried in clumps, stiff mud on his face, and the river still lapping at his heels. Experimentally, he tried to give a small kick.
There was a small splash behind him, and a few drops of cold water landed on the backs of his legs. Relief spread through him.
That’s already doing better than before. Guess I should try getting up.
His arms were weak, but he was able to roll over and look up at the sky. It was a little cloudy, neither warm nor cold, and the branches of trees moved lazily in a small breeze. He heard the songs of birds and the frequent chirping of frogs and insects, but he couldn’t hear any airplanes or cars. No sound of industry at all.
Figures I would end up in the middle of nowhere.
Chen Jiajian raised his hand to rub his face, and a long sleeve trailed over his chest. His hands were soft and thin, with long, almost spidery fingers, but his nails were packed with dirt and split in several places, bloodied in others.
What kind of hands are these? It doesn’t leave much hope for the face!
He smoothed his hands over his face, feeling the shape of his cheeks, nose, and brow. Not deformed at all, thankfully. His fingers slid along his jaw, tested the character of his chin. Maybe that cat-emperor knew what he was doing!
At last Chen Jiajian had the strength to sit up, but as he did so, it seemed like all the muscles in his chest and stomach were sore. Worse than sore, it was like he’d been set upon by ten men and beaten black and blue.
He got to his knees, and found himself fettered by water-logged black robes that tangled around his legs. Pulling them up carefully like a lady with heavy skirts, he got to his feet. With a wince, he noted that he was not wearing shoes. He hobbled up the shoreline until he was walking on a carpet of soft moss. Following the rolling hill towards the cliff further up the river didn’t bring him within view of any buildings. He could see a little further in each direction, but there were still no signs of civilization.
Did I get reincarnated into the middle of nowhere?
The mud on his face and arms began to crust over, and rather than continue to walk around aimlessly while looking like a salamander that had crawled out of some dirty, slimy hole, Chen Jiajian decided that the best course of action was to clean himself.
A bit of searching at the side of the river found a slightly more secluded part of the pool, bound on several sides by rocks. Feeling a little more protected, he stood on a rock that was just below the water’s surface and started to figure out how to take all this stuff off. He was dressed in some kind of robe with trousers and a long sleeveless jacket, cinched in with a broad fabric belt at the waist. The whole ensemble was black or dark gray, trimmed in rich green-blue, reminding him of the iridescent black feathers of a rooster. His hair was up in a tight topknot, the whole of it wound around a pin on the top of his head. Even after a dip in the river, it still seemed like it was holding up pretty well.
The next thing he discovered was that the pain he’d felt earlier was not due to the process of reincarnation. Pulling back the long sleeves, he found long, deep scratches crossing the skin of both forearms. Or perhaps they were knife wounds? The bottom of his stomach fluttered uneasily. The rest of his body was covered in bruises. They ran all over his chest and stomach in the shapes of blows from both fists and long weapons. It completely ruined his appreciation of this new body that was an upgrade in every other way.
Chen Jiajian slipped out of his clothing, dipping it in the pool and shaking it around to try to clean it up. He laid out all the clothes to dry on the rocks and then got to the task of washing his body.
Cupping water in his hands, he held it as still as possible to see what kind of face he had and his heart sank a little bit. Well, it wasn’t bad, but this certainly wasn’t his face. The stranger that stared back at him from the water-mirror appeared to be in his mid-twenties, with a somber, distinguished look, especially for a man so young. He had a beauty mark near the corner of his left eye. Not bad but not great, either. Experimentally, he tried to smile.
The man in the reflection gave him a winning smile that almost stopped his heart. The uplifting, winsome face of a man who dies a noble death protecting the hero!
But I definitely don’t want to die. Dying would mean that I would go back…To what? A corpse? Certain death? A shiver shook his shoulders.
Now clean, he decided to poke around in the river a little more and see if he could find that red thing he saw when he was struggling in the water.
Ought to be a lot easier without robes getting in the way, right?
He waded out until he thought he was at the right spot and then dunked his head underwater. Sure enough, a flash of red waited at the bottom. Taking a deep breath, he dove and felt around the sandy river bottom until his fingers caught on something smooth and soft. At the surface, he found it was a red silk bag. He pried open the drawstring and looked inside. Several sticks of bamboo and two sticks of green stone, along with a little dirt. Nothing too valuable, but he couldn’t afford to let any potential clues slip away.
The warm rocks baked his clothing dry in less than an hour, just as a thick layer of clouds began to roll over the landscape. It took him the better part of twenty minutes to figure out how to put it all back on. Once he’d done that, he took the sack of slips and decided to walk upstream, simply because it was the easier way to go.
Near the top of the hill, the land to his right climbed even higher and towered above the river as it cut deeply into the stone landscape. The sound he’d thought was one waterfall was actually a set of three, which began further up the river, the largest and steepest of which was the one closest to him. There was a sturdy wooden bridge over the narrow chasm that opened up beyond the waterfall, lashed together with rope and large wooden pegs.
If there’s a bridge, there must be a road.
Not more than thirty meters from two scholartrees with broad branches that gave heavy shade, he spotted the road. It was little more than a horse trail. Certainly not something big enough to move cars or even any large wagons over. It must be a back road which saw little use.
Back to being reincarnated in the middle of nowhere.
Closer by, there was a small statue in a natural stone alcove; Chen Jiajian paid his respects and couldn’t help but notice a cleared set of paths and footholds next to it, winding up to the top of the promontory.
Well, I can take a hint.
It was easy enough to get to the top of the cliff. At the very top was a pair of black boots with slightly upturned toes, just in his reach. The socks were gone, but the boots themselves fit him like they were made for him. An electric feeling ran down his spine as the custom fit all but confirmed that this body was not only not his, but its previous owner had not left it for long. Chen Jiajian stood up and walked around in them, enjoying the warmth and security of good boots.
From this vantage point, he could easily see for several kilometers in any direction. The ‘road’ was clearer from up here, and it disappeared into the forest heading southwest. Looking northeast, from whence it came, the road was instantly engulfed by overgrowth, and its bearing couldn’t be determined at all. In the north and western distance, rising high over the landscape, he could see shadows lain down at the horizon, mountains that were far, far away. A ribbon of silver water wound through the land to the east; the lively river next to him likely joined it as the land leveled out far away to the south and southeast.
At various points in the distance, he could see blue-white clouds of smoke rising from the forest, evidence that he wasn’t alone in this world after all. And lastly, at the base of the two scholartrees at the bottom of this rocky cliff, he spied a pile of things hidden in the shadow between the tree trunks. He started to climb down from his perch, only to freeze as he heard the sound of a horse moving at a gallop from the northeast.
The horse and rider burst out of the day-gloom of the forest. Chen Jiajian watched from his hiding place behind a rock. The rider was a man, dressed in green robes that seemed similar to his, and he wore his hair in a long ponytail. Without stopping, horse and rider thundered across the bridge, keeping the same breakneck pace for as long as Chen Jiajian could hear them.
A messenger, probably?
He sat back on his heels and counted up what he knew. Based on the lack of tall buildings and roads, the presence of horse messengers with robes like the ones he was wearing, and the overwhelming lack of airplane, train, and other noise, he was definitely in a pre-modern world, which meant no cellphones, no computers, and no internet.
But the only thing I know how to do is have a frivolous internet existence! Do people in this kind of world even need harem novels?
It was a grim proposition. With a gloomy countenance, he picked his way back down the cliffside and went to inspect the pile of things at the two scholartrees. As he approached, he noticed that the pile of things was placed so as not to be seen easily from the road, but easily seen from the shrine. Probably to keep them safe from the most opportunistic bandits.
The things were someone’s belongings, and given how the boots had been carefully set aside at the top of the cliff, it seemed likely that they were related to the person whose body and boots he now wore.
There was a bedroll, a knapsack of some kind and an ornately carved wooden case with an iron handle that locked it shut while it was being carried. Giving it a trial lift, Chen Jiajian groaned: it had to be over ten kilos. No wonder the body was in good condition, lugging something like this around. Setting it aside, he was about to open the top of the knapsack when he saw the hilt of a sword sticking out of the bedroll.
He reached into the bedroll, grabbed the handle, and pulled the whole thing out. It was a medium-sized jian, with a pommel of highly polished silver and an ebony wood handle. The scabbard was black with details picked out in silver; a tassel with a black jade bead and a silver ornament dangled from the pommel, and the distinct smell of incense cedar wafted to his nose. There was no sign of rust or other mistreatment. But try as he might, he could not get the sword to slip free of the scabbard; it was stuck fast. Chen Jiajian frowned, reprimanding the sword’s departed owner.
You should know how to take care of your sword better.
That the problem might not be one of maintenance didn’t occur to him; he had no experience with swords. Deciding to leave the stuck sword for a professional (or at least someone who wasn’t him), he turned his attention to the knapsack. After he pulled the flap back and opened it properly, he found that the first thing on top was a thick jade weight in the shape of a ring, engraved on the top and bottom. A slender stick of ebony rested underneath: put together, it made an ebony spindle with a jade weight to help it spin, all on top of a woven cord belt.
The outside edge of the weight had five short cords of varying lengths and colors hanging from it like fringe around the rim of a lampshade. The cords were silk, and had knots as follows: black with five knots, green with three, and white, blue, and red, all with one knot.
Directly underneath this item was a folded letter on thin paper. Chen Jiajian unfolded it and revealed sharp calligraphy from a practiced hand.
To whoever finds this: My name is Lian Chanjian, courtesy name Zhidiao, of the Xideng Wa sect. In order to leave notice for my family, I have written this last letter before going on to the far shore.