Even though Xi Wei made such a promise, Zeno did not feel optimistic about things. Although the snow had stopped falling, the weather remained as bad as ever. The cold wind whistled through the alley, and both children shivered uncontrollably.
They had no food.
Xi Wei was very calm. His everyday life was constantly in a precarious state of balance, and yet he had managed to survive thus far.
Street rats naturally had their own way of life.
He held Zeno firmly as he quietly slipped back into the trashcan. Although the smell was unpleasant, it still provided some shelter from the cold, penetrating wind.
Zeno also quieted completely. He examined the protagonist’s face; even though he was so young, he gave off a strong air of indifference. As he observed, he found that he felt a bit complicated in his heart.
In the novel, even though the protagonist suffered a great deal, the focus was on his older self: the gratitude and grudges, love, and loss. The arduous childhood that formed him was relegated to a one-line tidbit, so Zeno did not realize that the next ‘door’ was about to open.
After a short span of time, a crude voice rang out from a nearby doorway, “Obviously you knocked over the grill yourself, who would know that you are the master and I am only an apprentice, bah.”
The tone of the voice’s owner was rough, cursing out others without room for reprisal. Zeno perked his ears; although the speech was coarse, the pitch belied a younger age, and the impetuous words and air of discontent indicated a youth. It seemed that the young baker’s master knocked over the grill, and that resulted in several loaves of bread falling to the ground.
The bread that had stayed fairly clean was taken by the apprentice to eat, and the rest was considered too dirty so it was brought out of the bakery to be discarded.
Zeno was a working-class, pseudo-bourgeoisie who used to sit in front of a computer in his clean apartment only hours ago. He could not, of course, think of the dirty bread as anything more than food for animals. Due to this, he did not understand why Xi Wei shifted ever so subtly when he realized what was going on.
The apprentice grabbed his nose as he approached the trashcan—it was clear he did not want to be anywhere near that smell. Because he would not get close enough to the trashcan to lift the lid, and did not want to allow even more of the foul odour to escape, he simply threw the bread lazily, leaving it where it fell on the ground next to the trashcan.
The three small loaves ended up scattered around the trashcan, and froze quickly due to the cold
The aroma of fresh bread quickly dissipated as the bread cooled, and Xi Wei swiftly reached out and grabbed the bread and pulled it into the trashcan. He gripped it tightly, as if to prevent it from being taken away.
Rumbling sounds came once again from Xi Wei’s stomach, although this time Zeno could also feel his belly churning slightly; apparently he was also hungry.
Children cannot help but be hungry, and now that he has experienced true hunger, Zeno finds that it tastes too depressing. Now that he found himself ready to cry with hunger, he begged in his mind to return to his happy life—he would never complain again!
Enhanced by their acute hunger, the aroma of the cold bread became clear and the slightest trace wafted into the boys’ noses. Without realizing it, both of them had started to salivate, and they swallowed the excess saliva subconsciously.
Xi Wei carefully crouched down and took up the part of the bread covered in dust and snow, and bit into the fluffy white and began chewing slowly.
The bread was fresh and fragrant; Xi Wei has not eaten such food for a long time, and desperately wanted to eat his fill. However, looking at the small bundle in his arms, he chose to bear with his hunger a bit longer. He kept the softened bread in his mouth and held Zeno’s head with one hand. He lowered his own head slowly until it was flush with the baby’s mouth. The little baby had no teeth and could not eat his own bread. He did not have access to high-grade rice paste or milk, and Xi Wei could only feed him in this clumsy manner.
Zeno, eyes wide open, stared.
Because he was dying of hunger, he felt only a cold but soft object brushing against his almost frozen lips. When it moved into his mouth, pure instinct led him to swallow before he even realized what kind of situation he was in.
Xi Wei was feeding him, but the cold eyes did not have the slightest emotional fluctuation. Zeno was incredibly touched by his gentleness, and shocked by his gesture.
After experiencing such a thing, even their little trashcan felt cozy. After he’d eaten enough, Zeno turned his head to show that he was full. It turns out that he had eaten a full half of the bread.
Glancing over, Zeno caught sight of a barely perceptible frown on Xi Wei’s face, and his heart began to thump forcefully.
Protagonist, please do not mind how much I ate, I was just too hungry! I am definitely not a rice bucket 1, look how sincere my eyes are!
As a certified addict of the novel, Zeno understood very well the protagonist’s obsession with food; “Curse” was very clear on this matter. Xi Wei had two events that could incur his wrath: the first was betrayal, and the second was having his food snatched away. Despite knowing that, this one had just consumed 50% of his goods.
I’m getting tossed!
Ignorant of Zeno’s tempestuous state of mind, Xi Wei was completely perplexed by his own behaviour. As an experienced beggar, it would have been inconceivable to give even a mouthful of food to another. However, he did so today without a second of hesitation.
This feeling he had currently was very strange, the impact this baby seemed to have had on him was huge, and completely out of the ordinary.
Xi Wei was always vigilant, and a sense of crisis was beginning to well up within his heart. Despite the words he just spoke to the baby, he was considering reneging on his statement. After all, there was no blood relation to bind them.
In fact, even if there was a blood relationship, betrayal between even supposed loved ones in Ye Sa City happened every day—it was not unexpected.
When Xi Wei thought so mercilessly, he suddenly recalled the image of the tearful eyes of the young mother, and the ring on his middle finger seemed to grow warmer at the same time.
He supposed that if things got bad for them, he could always sell the baby to human traffickers.
Xi Wei reluctantly used this thought to justify keeping the child in his care; he could consider the child an emergency food reserve (t/n: to sell, not to eat!). Until he was unable to care for him, he would raise him with that in mind.
Having resolved his concerns, Xi Wei continued eating the soil encrusted piece of bread until every crumb was gone, treating that last loaf like a treasure—he carefully tucked it within Zeno’s swaddling cloths.
Despite everything, Zeno actually had quite good luck. The chances of finding good food in such bad weather were usually extremely low.
Zeno watched Xi Wei swallow the dirty bread pieces with some mixed feelings. Although he was also an orphan and grew up in an orphanage, it was not a bad place. On the contrary, the director was kind and cared well for the children. The director was only limited by the conditions: there was barely enough food and clothing.
However, they would never give the children something like dirty food.
Growing up in such an environment, even if they were not wealthy in any way, Zeno knew he did not have to worry about being fed and clothed. Xi Wei lacked not only the assurance of food and shelter, but Zeno knew that in the future he would be surrounded by those who would plot to betray him. This thought caused his heart to ache.
This was the protagonist he had cheered for over the last two years. He did not really know what this person has been through up until now, but seeing him consume that dirty bread without batting an eye, Zeno secretly determined to help him. If at all possible, his goal was to prevent whatever painful experiences he could—this protagonist deserved a sunny future.
Since they were finished eating, they really needed to leave the shelter of the trashcan. Despite the cold, when the city came alive, the trashcan would be used as usual. There was a risk someone might try to take the high quality swaddling cloths wrapped around that little baby, and if he ended up freezing to death because of this then half of Xi Wei’s bread would have gone to waste.
Due to his cautious nature, Xi Wei lowered his head and discreetly pushed the trashcan’s lid open, wrapped his arms tightly around the Zeno, and climbed out. With a hunched over posture, he walked along the edge of the alley as quickly as possible.
At this point, it was about nine in the morning. The streets were not lively and passing pedestrians hurried by with their heads down, showing that they did not wish to invite trouble. The whole city lacked vitality, and gave off a sense of withering decay.
However, it seemed that Xi Wei was used to it. Since his birth, Ye Sa City had always given this impression. The citizens were either carrying sin or fear on their shoulders. The dark alleyways became a breeding ground for evil, and the bleak streets harboured the whispers of conspiracies and plots.
Here and there, people were killed every hour, while someone experienced violence every minute.
Your experience in this city was determined by your luck.
Zeno was once again wrapped tightly, and his eyes could only see darkness, so he now had the leisure to explore and organize his memories of the “Curse” novel.
Unfortunately, this ended up being an exercise in futility, because the novel contained very little from the protagonist’s childhood. The only details included were those explaining how he acquired the ring from the baby’s mother. Right after this, the story jumped ahead five years to when Xi Wei was sixteen years old. Hardly a word was written about those five years.
In other words, this five-year period was a blank space, and Zeno would not be able to use his familiarity with the novel to help Xi Wei change his future.
Zeno once again cursed the author of “Curse” a thousand times. How could they be so lazy, outright just skipping over five years without a word? What ‘Five years later’, what was he supposed to do now?
In his current situation, never mind changing Xi Wei’s fate—it was not certain whether he could actually survive the next five years.
How was he supposed to do anything?
Although it caused him to lose face to admit it, Zeno could only rely on an 11-year-old child in order to stay alive. Who knew that despite being so young, he would know to feed him mouth-to-mouth; he would just have to tolerate this indignity.
Xi Wei was eleven years old, but because of perpetual malnutrition and sleep deprivation limiting his growth, his small frame made him look like an eight or nine year old.
The novel, “Curse”, did not follow the usual route of similar stories. Many generic protagonists would start off in wealthy, respected families, what they need was provided, and most of their conflicts came from other such youths. Xi Wei’s identity was very simple and his origins were humble. His father was a thief who had been guilty of a crime and escaped to Ye Sa City after being hunted by the Empire. His mother was a prostitute who worked in a Ye Sa City brothel.
When Xi Wei was seven years old, his father offended an infamous gang leader and was stabbed to death in the ensuing chaos. After a year, his mother had a conflict with a client in the brothel and was strangled. Just like that, Xi Wei became orphan.
Xi Wei’s parents did not own a home, but rented a place instead. When they were gone, Xi Wei was left homeless.
- Rice bucket: since all a rice bucket does is hold rice, it is basically useless. It can also mean a big eater. Pick your fave. Or both. ↩