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To the outsiders, small mountain cities all shared some common qualities such as being quiet, idyllic and free of all disreputable things. The truth was, they were the same as any other place. People there were also busy with their lives, no freer and having it no easier than others elsewhere.

Nowadays, one had to be rich to live a carefree life. Those who were poor and carefree were good-for-nothings.

Gu Yu was neither rich nor a good-for-nothing; he was merely a hard-working laborer. Currently, he was carrying the load on his shoulders while walking down the mountain along another trail. After reaching the foot of the mountain, he walked for several minutes and arrived at a dirt road.



If the mountain gate was considered the front, this road would be at the side of the mountain; it was known only by the locals. Each morning, the peddlers would rush to this spot by tricycles, take their stuff up the mountain on their shoulders and return here in the evening.

There was a single house by the dirt road, which belonged to an old widower. His job was to keep an eye on the vehicles of the peddlers… if those tricycles could be counted as vehicles, that is.

"Clank!"

Gu Yu was a bit late today. Pushing open the gate of the yard, he noticed that his lousy tricycle was the only one left. He strained his neck and shouted, "Uncle! Uncle!"

Gu Yu called out twice but got no reply, so he clung to the window and peeked into the room. The old man was reclining on a couch, his shrivelled lips opening and closing half-consciously. One couldn’t tell if he was awake or asleep.

He made no further noise but piled his stuff onto the tricycle. He then picked two tender corn cobs and several eggs, gently leaving them in the central room, and left the courtyard.

The dirt road was quite hard to ride on as the numerous bumps and hollows were making the tricycle bounce up and down.

After a short ride, Gu Yu arrived at a primitive-looking residential area. Most of the dwellings here were bungalows and tile-roofed houses; scattered among them was a handful of two-story houses. The houses were interlinked by lanes and alleys, which wound about like a labyrinth.

Far to the east of this area, though, the skyline was filled with tower-like blocks, which belonged to the downtown of Bai Town.

With the urban expansion in the recent years, many small villages had gone through reconstruction works and were now in an awkward state of being neither rural not urban enough to belong to either group. The farmlands were gone and villages were no longer "villages" but "residential districts".

This place used to be called "Phoenix Fair" in the past few decades, but had become known as "Phoenix Residential District" now. It was located in the westernmost part of Bai Town, one with broken houses and impoverished residents. The authorities obviously would want to keep up the appearances, hence the basic municipal constructions, such as running water, digital television, broadband services and other public facilities were still intact.

However, neither the young nor the old could figure out what good would it do to set up fitness climbers, rowing machines and similar devices in the village. Why would anyone turn and twist on some crappy iron wheels?

"Oh, Xiao Yu is back. I’m making dumplings today, I’ll give you some later."

"Thank you, auntie. I was just thinking about it yesterday. Your cabbage dumplings are my favourite."

"Haha, you’re such a sweet talker. Go home and have some rest now."

"Thanks. You take care as well."

After exchanging some pleasantries with a chubby middle-aged woman, Gu Yu stopped at a small courtyard. Inside the courtyard were three old tile-roofed houses. The central one was the main room as well as the kitchen, having an east wing and a west wing on either side. A road paved with brick rubbles lay in the middle across the yard with a few rows of scallions planted on its both sides. A toilet and a storage room each took up a corner of the yard. Some firewood and corn cobs were lined along the foot of the walls.

There was no need to lock this place up, so he didn’t need keys. After parking the tricycle, he entered the room. It would be an idle night for him. There were enough tea eggs for tomorrow and the corn cobs would be cooked freshly on the mountain, requiring no prior preparation.

He cleaned himself casually and started to work on his account book.

With the weather getting warmer, tourism was showing signs of an upturn and Phoenix Mountain had been seeing an obvious increase in the number of tourists. Gu Yu’s business had been doing well recently with a daily net profit of about 80 yuan, which would round up to a monthly income of over 2000 yuan. With the peak season coming soon, he was looking at a potential monthly profit of 4000 to 5000 yuan.

Gu Yu was elated with the result of his calculations. He was just putting the account book away when he heard someone calling outside. "Brother, my mum has sent me to give you some dumplings!"

The door curtain was lifted up and in came a young girl with big eyes. She was wearing simple yet tidy clothes and had a round face. A bowl of dumplings were held in her hands, still steaming hot.

"Come, let me take that!"

He intercepted the bowl at once, setting it on the folding table. "Have you finished dinner already? That was fast."

"They are still eating. I’m done."

"On diet again?"

"Uh huh. Look at my face," she squeezed her chubby face.

"Well, how many times have I told you…"

Gu Yu sat at the edge of the brick bed and lectured her, "You look adorable. Don’t follow those chiseled faces in your class blindly. Do you know what a healthy pretty girl shoud look like?"

Gee!

The young girl twitched her mouth, obviously not taking his words seriously. However, she then sat down across the table with a beseeching look, her big eyes blinking in a pitiful way.

"Go ahead and play!" He could not help but yield.

"Whee! Thank you, older brother!"

The girl scuttled away and ran near the television, where a table was set with an old-fashioned laptop sitting on it. She fiddled with it expertly and, before long, the sound of incoming messages from various software started to jump out one after another.

"..."

Gu Yu shook his head, picked up a dumpling and swallowed it in one bite.

The young girl was called Fang Qing, and was the 15-year-old daughter of the chubby auntie with her high school entrance examination coming soon. She was a lively girl and enjoyed having all sorts of fun, especially surfing on the internet. The living standards of her family unfortunately meant they couldn’t afford a computer though, so she would oft sneak out and come here to use his laptop.

The laptop was a gift from Gu Yu’s grandfather; he bought it when Gu Yu got into university.

The cabbage-and-pork dumplings filled an entire king-sized bowl, but it was nothing in front of the enormous appetite of a young man. Gu Yu ate them all up effortlessly while she was playing. About 40 minutes passed when she turned around to have a look. She stood up in the most reluctant manner. "Brother, I should be heading back."

"Ok. Thank auntie for me."

The young girl took the bowl and Gu Yu stood up to see her off. When they reached the central room, Gu Yu suddenly said, "Oh, just a second."

He then fetched his keys and opened the door to the west wing. Fang Qing watched with a curious look as he entered the only room with a lock. As long as she could remember, that room had been kept locked—no one knew what he was stashing inside it.

Before long, Gu Yu came out with an incense case in his hand. "Mosquitoes are coming out these days. This is for you."

"Ah, my mum was talking about this. I almost forgot!"

Fang Qing knew how amazing this stuff was. Light up one each night and the house became mosquito-free. It did not even produce any smoke!

Gu Yu walked her to the front gate and returned to the house. After cleaning up the dinner table, he turned on the television and sat in front of the laptop.

"The silk as beautiful as the glory of dawn was made by weaving maids after enduring hard labor for days and nights up to the point of blinding themselves. Those luxurious and magnificent bearskins were the result of humble hunters lying in bitter cold snow and waiting for several days in a row before they could catch an animal. As for the priceless mermaid tears…"

A dialogue came out of the television, greatly annoying Gu Yu. He complained, "There’s nothing except for Ji Guanlin." He turned to glance at the screen and added, "And those goddamn drawn-on flat brows!" [1]

He couldn’t be bothered to watch. Returning to the laptop, he clicked the mouse several times, logged in, and clicked again.

The website opened slowly, revealing a community site for incense-makers. The small site was established by a group of incense lovers and mainly used by themselves. Gu Yu was a lurker. He was seldom active on the site but was acknowledged as a guru among the users. Watching his online buddies fighting over some formula or mixture ratio was one of the few hobbies of Gu Yu.

He logged into the forum and happened to see a new post. He clicked it. It read:

"Ahrrrrrrrrrr! Never take it for granted that the sealed incense bottles are good enough to stop the insects! I’ve only bought these first-class roses two days ago and they are already in tatters. I can’t decide if I should just throw them away or keep them. Ahrrrrr! My heart is bleeding!"

The photo of what was left of the roses was posted below. The poster’s ID was "Great Strength Makes Wonders", which belonged to an active user who also happened to be a cute girl.

Gu Yu had nothing else to do at the moment, so he casually typed a few lines in reply. "Flowers and herbs are easily infested with insects. You can add some deoxidant in the bottle and put some Lingling incense around the bottle."

When he checked back later, the girl had replied his post with lightspeed. "Ah! I can’t believe my eyes! Guru Deep Cloud had noticed me!!!" [2]

Right. Gu Yu’s ID was called "The Cloud is so Deep That He is not a Virgin". Not very appropriate.

"Ha…"

Gu Yu smiled, but did not respond again. The next second, a sound reminded him that he had an incoming message, which read, "The Wake-up Incense from last time is used up. I’ll order another one. From: Xiaozhai."

The message was from an old acquaintance on the forum; the two of them had chatted a few times. A while ago, she mentioned that she was feeling dizzy and lacked spirit. Gu Yu asked for her address and sent her a box of Wake-up Incense.

He meant to give it for free, but she unexpectedly returned his favor with some gift money. He was in need of some extra cash at that time and accepted the money without any pretentiousness. They had befriended each other but knew little about one another. Gu Yu only knew that her name was Jiang Xiaozhai.

To Gu Yu, her name sounded like a reflective poem from Du Mu. "The water nearby looks as if it is connected to the distant Xijiang River, whose rumbling sound could almost be heard from here. The shadows of the pine trees surrounding this little house were almost level with the clouds. I wish someone could teach me to play the flute, so that I could ride on the spring breeze and play with the bright moon."

"Ok, I’ll let you know before I send it."

Gu Yu replied to the message right away. She did not write him back, but a few minutes later, Gu Yu’s cellphone reminded him that he had received a 200-yuan red packet.

"..."

He pursed his lips. She was quite an efficient girl.

Judging by appearances, making money off incense seemed easy. However, that was not the case. Making incense by hand involved numerous cumbersome procedures and was very time-consuming. The cellaring stage alone would take up several days, hence the marketing strategy of FMCG was not applicable to him.

Therefore he could not run an online business, but work on individual orders only. He would accept one order at a time from a market that could not get any "nicher".

[1] ED/N: It may seem confusing, so let me clear it up: Ji Guanlin is some TV dude’s name. Or maybe a program’s.

[2] ED/N: Senpai noticed me!

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