Cang Ji and Jing Lin often visited Shan Yue. As the end of the year approached, it became increasingly inconvenient for her to move around. One day, they were exchanging small talk with her when they noticed her looking weak and weary. She seemed to be growing more and more listless.
“It has been eight months now.” Fu Li said to Zong Yin, “We mustn’t be negligent for even a single moment until she goes into labor and gives birth. She is pregnant with a jiao dragon. When the time comes, no matter what happens, you must stop all those unwelcome visitors. I’ve been talking to her frequently this one month. Zong Yin.”
Zong Yin shifted his gaze from the window to her.
Fu Li said, “Although I know nothing about the love of the human realm, I do know of mutual attraction. She trusts you wholeheartedly. You must never let her down.”
Zong Yin asked, “Are you confident about the delivery this time?”
Fu Li hesitated for a moment, then said, “… If no one comes to disturb, I’ll be able to put all my attention and focus on it.”
“Good.” Zong Yin brushed away the fragments of snow before him and said to Fu Li, “There is something I must say to you.”
Seeing his solemn expression, Fu Li said, “Go on.”
“If mother and child are safe, then I shall devote myself to doing good to express my gratitude to Providence. But if…” Zong Yin said, “Then I’m not blessed enough. Please preserve the life of my wife.”
Fu Li said, “We are not at that stage yet.”
Zong Yin looked back again. Jing Lin and Cang Ji were sitting side by side inside the house, while Shan Yue was reclining and listening to them with a smile.
He said, “I just want to seek a blessing for her.”
◈ ◈ ◈
As Cang Ji tasted the hot soup, Shan Yue said in a warm voice, “We have caused you both troubles lately. Not only did you help to build a yard for our house, you’ve also added a sleeper wall. It looks like I’m about to give birth soon. When the time comes, it’ll be in spring when the flowers are blooming. You must come for a celebratory drink.”
“Everyone has been keeping watch over him so that he can be safely born. Naturally, our affection for him is on a different level. Since Zong Yin addresses me as dage, then I’m this little fella’s uncle.”1 Cang Ji said, “Once he arrives, who would dare not show him due respect?”
Shan Yue smiled in response. But then she started furrowing her brows.
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Jing Lin observed the change in her expression and asked, “Do you want me to call Fu Li over?”
Shan Yue shook her head. Supporting her belly, she said, “The baby is just moving. There’s no need to call jiejie over.”
Jing Lin asked, “Does he move often?”
Shan Yue said with a smile, “Often. This’s a rough one.”
Jing Lin’s gaze was inquisitive as he looked at Shan Yue and asked again, “Is he turning over?”
Shan Yue shifted her body to move her legs into a more comfortable position before she replied, “Fist-boxing. Although I don’t know if the baby is a boy or a girl, this temperament really takes after his uncle.”2
Jing Lin nodded. Cang Ji looked at Jing Lin and knew from the way he looked that he actually did not understand, even if he seemed as if he did; he was simply curious deep down. Cang Ji smiled and said to Shan Yue, “The due date is near. Just relax. The swing by the gate has been strengthened with hemp rope, and its seat has been widened. In the future, the child can play on it with his mother. Although this courtyard isn’t big, it’s the home both of you husband and wife worked as one to create. I don’t see anything else that needs to be changed.”
“It’s more than enough as a dwelling.” Shan Yue’s dimples were faintly visible as she spoke. “Zong-ge doesn’t like to go where the crowds are. If he put up a high wall in the village, it would only invite criticism. When we moved here, we had already decided to stay here for the rest of our lives. A small courtyard has its own advantage. It’s just that Zong-ge will have to build another dwelling if Xiaoshan returns.”
“I always hear of this name. Where is he?”
“A few years ago, he served as an armed escort and followed the others to the capital, where he took a chef as a master to learn how to cook. He didn’t manage to make it back in time when I got married to Zong-ge. This time, he said in his letter that he would surely return home when I give birth.” Caressing her tummy, Shan Yue counted the days and said, “I counted the days. He should arrive a few days before the Spring Festival,3 just in time for everyone to get together and have a good time.”
“I rarely celebrate the Spring Festival.” Cang Ji looked at Jing Lin. “Our Jing Lin seldom celebrates it too. Come to think of it. This is the first time we are spending the end of the year together.”
Jing Lin affirmed his words and said hesitantly, “I always have trouble remembering the days in the past.”
“Isn’t that just perfect?” Fu Li stepped through the door and said, “It has been many years since I last celebrated a festival with Jiu-ge. I’ll send someone to deliver a message to A-Yi and tell him to come here. At least it’d prevent him from going out there to stir up trouble.”
“That’d be for the best.” Cang Ji said, “A-Yi and I get along well with one another. I was just thinking about him. We each had our reasons in the past for not meeting up, but now that we are coming together for a gathering this year, we might as well drink ourselves drunk.”
Except for Shan Yue, everyone else understood the implication of his words. The baby’s due date was estimated to be after the new year. So the gathering this year would not only be a once-in-a-blue-moon get-together, but also a repose before the crisis.
Zong Yin held Shan Yue’s hand and said, “I’ll head into town today to prepare the goods for the new year according to your wish. It’s not convenient for you to move around this year due to your pregnancy, so don’t think too much and just leave it all to me.”
“You can’t show yourself.” Fu Li said, “There are plenty of talents from the Demarcation Division hiding all over. It’s not worth it if you get unlucky and come across one of them. I’ll go with Cang Ji.”
On hearing that, Cang Ji stretched out his legs and said in a slack manner, “It has been so long, and you still haven’t changed the way you address me?”
Fu Li was still steaming with pent-up frustrations, but there was nothing she could do about him, so she merely pleaded, “Let’s go. We need to hurry back before dark.”
It was only then Cang Ji bumped his long leg lightly into Jing Lin’s leg and made use of his movement as he stood up to whisper to him, “I’ll be back soon.”
Jing Lin drew a simple talisman in his palm. Both men hooked their little fingers. Then, Cang Ji stepped out of the door with Fu Li.
The moment the door closed, Cang Ji reined in the expression on his face and said, “Add a water-evading talisman behind the courtyard. The gully in this mountain is narrow. If a master water manipulator were to come, it would be way too easy for him to flood this place.”
“It is as Jiu-sao said.” Fu Li said numbly. “Jiu-sao is truly thorough.”
“Now, that feels so comfortable to hear.” Cang Ji looked back and smiled. “What’s Huashang’s reply?”
“That little fox sent me a message telling me to ‘go play at the side’. She won’t come if I can’t give her a reason.” Fu Li did not say it outright, but she had expected it. Cang Ji was just a mere brocade carp. How would he have that kind of major prestige needed to summon Huashang over?
Cang Ji said, “Just send someone to tell her.”
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“Tell her what?”
“Tell her that her Master is inviting her to his wedding feast.” Cang Ji pushed open the courtyard door and gazed at the gray sky. “She will come.”
◈ ◈ ◈
All was calm in the second half of the month. There was no message from Dong Jun, but then there was no news of the Demarcation Division either. Jing Lin’s cultivation increased some. The dragon aura in his abdomen mutually echoed in harmony with Cang Ji, but there was still no change to Cang Ji’s original form.
One morning, a young man who had been braving the hardships of his hurried, arduous journey here lifted his wind hat and huffed into his hands as he prepared to knock on the door.
“Look who’s here!” On the other side, A-Yi patted away the snow as he turned his bright eyes to look askance at Shan Tian. “You’re really always turning up like a fucking bad penny!”
Shan Tian’s hand paused mid-action. He turned around and said, “It’s truly a small world when it comes to your enemies. Are you following me?”
A-Yi spat and said as he jerked his hand warmer,4 “Look at yourself in your own pee. You think you are some captivating beauty who can make me follow you? And I have to say, this place is so remote. What can you do here if not for following me?”
Shan Tian kept his hands in his sleeves and said, “My purpose for coming here is none of your business.”
“Then don’t get in my way.” A-Yi lifted his head. “We each go our own ways.”
But there was only this one courtyard within ten li,5 so it did not seem like either of them went to the wrong house. The atmosphere grew tense, with both men stuck at an impasse.
Shan Tian set his cloth-covered pole upright and said, “I’m looking for my Ah-Jie. What are you doing?”
“I’m looking for my Ah-Jie too.” A-Yi said. “It’s not like you are the only one in the entire world who has an elder sister.”
“My Ah-Jie’s name is Shan Yue.” Shan Tian folded his arms. “Pure and kind, she originally lived in Shanlian Village before moving here after her marriage. You’ve gotten the wrong place, haven’t you?”
“The hell I care what your Ah-Jie is called or where she lives.” A-Yi remained unconvinced. “Although my Ah-Jie is not very kind-hearted, she’s beautiful! Besides, this is our territory now that my Ah-Jie is here in this courtyard.”
A little fed-up, Shan Tian took a few steps forward and said, “Stay right there at the side. If you dare to stride through the threshold of this door, I’ll fight you.”
A-Yi sneered and hopped his way to the door before him. He not only stood on the threshold but even jumped on it with all his might and said, “I’m not only here. I’m even stepping on it! What can you do?”
Shan Tian backhandedly lifted his pole and prepared to strike. Just as both of them were facing off each other, the courtyard door opened with a “creak”.
A-Yi was in high spirits upon seeing the person. He very nearly pounced on her and yelled, “Ah! Jie!”
Fu Li shuddered and kicked him away with a foot, then reproached him. “Just how old are you? Can’t you behave yourself?! What has your tongue been soaking in? You are not even speaking clearly!”
A-Yi grabbed hold of the leg Fu Li used to kick him and said, “Why are you kicking me? I’ve been braving the elements, rushing for all of eight hundred li here! Didn’t you say you were going to have a baby? It doesn’t seem that way to me. Isn’t it better to return home and incubate for a few days? Why did you come to such a faraway place?!” With that, he said smugly to Shan Tian, “See this? This is my Ah Jie. This is my house!”
As Shan Tian took a few steps back doubtfully, the curtain inside the house lifted. Shan Yue stood at the door and smiled as she called out to him, “Xiaoshan! You’re home! Ah Jie has been waiting for you.”
Shan Tian smiled and strode across the door into the house, not forgetting to say to A-Yi, “Come on, let’s not do this. Hop in, my guest, and make yourself at home!”
◈ ◈ ◈
A-Yi stood by the door and watched as Shan Tian rested before Shan Yue and spoke affectionately to her. Then he turned to Fu Li and asked, “Why are you unhappy when you see me?”
Fu Li said, “Stand properly!”
A-Yi pouted and said, “We aren’t biological siblings, are we…”
“You still dare to grumble?” Fu Li gave him another kick. “I’ve explained it clearly in the letter. What exactly have you gleaned from skimming through it?”
“I was anxious to see you.” A-Yi said resentfully. “Isn’t this courtyard way too small? It’s even smaller than Jing Lin’s. How can you stay in it? Just turn over in the night, and you’ll roll your way out of the door.”
Fu Li moved to smack him again when she heard him shooting his mouth off.
Just at that time, someone came through the courtyard. Cang Ji drew the curtain and entered with Jing Lin. He exhaled cold air, then said to A-Yi with a smile, “Standing there posing as a clothes rack?”
“Dage!” A-Yi turned his eyes to him, then shifted his gaze back. He swept a glance around those present and asked, “What’s the occasion today? Why are all of you gathering here?”
“Spring Festival.” Jing Lin removed his fox fur coat and said casually, “You have grown this big. It’s time for you to talk about marriage. Didn’t they say that marriage will mellow a person?”
“But I know nothing of such.” A-Yi said, “Especially of the kind between both of you.”
“What’s there to be afraid of?” Cang Ji raised his hand and wrapped it around A-Yi’s shoulder. He said, “I’ve already taken a look at one for you.”
A-Yi looked ahead in fear and trepidation, where Shan Tian just happened to look over. He instantly flipped out and jumped three chi6 high into the air. “Bullshit! I won’t yield!”
Silence descended upon the house for a moment.
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Fu Li said, “… What nonsense are you spouting?!”
A-Yi’s blood had already run cold. The way he saw it, everyone in this house was harboring evil intentions, and he increasingly felt convinced that his Ah Jie was going to match-make him. He took to his heels, wanting to flee, but Cang Ji’s arm was like an iron grip, stopping him.
Panicking, A-Yi fell to his knees with a “thud” and hugged Fu Li’s thighs as he cried out sincerely, “Jie! I don’t want to be gay! My feathers aren’t even all grown out yet!”
- specifically 大伯 dabo, term used for father’s elder brother
- specifically 舅舅 jiujiu, a term used for mother’s brother
- Spring Festival, which celebrates the start of the new year from the first day of the first month in the lunar calendar.
暖手 a small portable hand warmer that looks like a little pot. Also known as tangpozi (汤婆子).
- 里 li, an ancient measure of length, 1 li = approx. 500m
- 尺 chi; a Chinese foot, i.e., one-third of a meter