Gu Shen had only just stepped into a new tavern when someone tugged the back of his shirt. Looking back, he saw the child who had run away earlier holding on to his clothes, following him.
“What is it?” Gu Shen suspected the boy had latched on to him.
The child’s lapels slipped off his shoulders, and he hurriedly pulled it up. Gu Shen could not see it, but there was a little ghost hanging on the child’s chest. The child had to carry his younger brother.
“I, I…” The child stammered. “I’m looking for mother!”
The ghost kids sang in unison. “Looking for mother! Looking for mother!”
“I’m looking for my mother too.” Gu Shen folded his arms and put on a fierce look.
The child’s eyes brightened, and he stood on tiptoe to hold on tightly to Gu Shen. “We, we are all looking for mother!”
Gu Shen said, “Your mother is not my mother. Everyone should look for their own mother.”
The child exclaimed with joy. “They are all mother!”
Gu Shen felt that this child was not only inarticulate but also a little dull in the head. He slowed down and asked, “What’s your name?”
“Fanshu.”1 The child replied, “My mother likes to eat it.”
“A child with a lowly name is easy to raise.”2 Gu Shen rubbed the child’s head. “Go play by yourself. I’ll still have to hurry after resting my feet.”
Fanshu nodded vigorously, and his younger brothers imitated him. He took a step forward and followed Gu Shen into the tavern. The last tavern was run by a monkey spirit, while this was by a pig spirit. The innkeeper was too fat to fit behind the counter and could only squat outside to grunt as he licked a plate.
When Innkeeper Zhu3 saw Mouse Fanshu and the little kids, he quickly waved his plate at them to drive them away. “Shoo, shoo, shoo! Go find food elsewhere!” He hastily wiped his mouth with his sleeve and glanced at Gu Shen with his small eyes. He smiled. “Gentleman, this way!”
One by one, the younger brothers jumped to the ground and made their way under the table to Gu Shen, staying by his legs. Gu Shen was unaware. Fanshu was about to go over to Gu Shen when Innkeeper Zhu lifted him up. He did not dare to struggle and simply let his hands hang before his chest as he shrank back.
“I can tell at a glance what you’re plotting! You want to sneak in for a bite, don’t you? No way! I encountered a fresh one only after hundreds of years. He can fetch a good price if he’s butchered on the spot. Scram aside and play with the mud!” Innkeeper Zhu twitched his big nose as he sniffed snuff and threw Fanshu onto the ground before kicking him. “Take that bunch of little ghosts and scram! Otherwise, I’ll cook you guys to serve the patrons tonight!”
Fanshu tumbled onto the ground and hissed at Innkeeper Zhu. Then, giving him a flying kick on his meaty thigh, he turned around and leaped into the hall. Grunting and shifting while holding his big belly in his hands, Innkeeper Zhu cursed, “Stinky mouse has grown some freaking guts!”
Fanshu knocked over the waiter and crashed into the female spirit coming down the stairs. Then, stepping on her back, he stumbled towards Gu Shen. The female spirit cried out as she was trampled, the back of her waist as flat as paper. It took a while for it to revert to its original state.
“Good grief!” The female spirit shrieked. “See how I’ll bite…”
Gu Shen held his blade and snorted coldly. Feeling wronged, the female spirit blinked and clutched her waist as she stood up, saying, “Oh my, it hurts like hell.”
Gu Shen picked Fanshu up and asked, “Why are you still following me?”
“Let’s look for mother together.” Fanshu hugged Gu Shen’s hand in delight.
The ghost kids swarmed around Gu Shen and hugged his hands too as they said, “Look for mother together!”
Gu Shen felt his arms getting weighed down; this boy had become heavier in an instant. Suspecting it was just his imagination, he said to Fanshu, “That won’t do! Your mother is not my mother. How can we find her together?”
Fanshu was puzzled. “Aren’t they all mother?”
Gu Shen paused. He noticed that the boy did not understand that “mothers” were all different. He truly believed that everyone’s “mother” was the same person. He was really a silly kid. Gu Shen could not wash his hands off him, neither could he rebuked him. For a moment, he was in a bind.
“Where do you live? When did you get lost?”
Hauling the little ghosts along, Fanshu followed Gu Shen into the room. He was not as tall as the table, and his skinny and dirty shoulders peeked through the tattered clothes on his body. He flushed with joy and replied in a loud voice. “At, at the bottom of the slope! I don’t remember when. In a flash, mother was gone.” Then, afraid Gu Shen did not understand, he added, “Mother said she went to look for the immortal.”
Gu Shen moved the stool for Fanshu to sit on. Fanshu felt restless and wanted to swing his tail. But he did not dare to be impetuous before the immortal, so he could only endure it. His younger brothers were all crowding behind him and staring at Gu Shen with their heads sticking out. Gu Shen took out a pack of beef from his bosom and told Fanshu to eat it. Fanshu held on to the meat and sniffed it for a while before burying his head in it to gnaw on it. The little ghosts watched quietly as they leaned beside Fanshu.
“There are slopes everywhere in the world.” Gu Shen said, “How are you going to search for it?”
“Not searching for house.” Fanshu said with bulging cheeks. “Searching for mother!”
“Did your mother only leave behind those words?”
Fanshu nodded and said. “Mother also didn’t allow us to go out as there are people trying to catch us outside.” He wiped his mouth “But we were too hungry. Mother, mother never came back.”
Gu Shen radiated authority as he said, “How preposterous! They still dare to kidnap children in broad daylight? Do you remember them? When I find them, I’ll bundle them up and deliver them to the prefectural yamen!”
“They want to catch us to sell for money.” The ghost kids butted in noisily. “Sell us for money!”
“But the sale didn’t go through.” Another one sucked his finger as he racked his brains to form a sentence. “They were afraid of, of getting caught by the prefectural yamen, so, so…”
Fanshu said, “The yamen did not catch them.” He scratched his head as if he could not comprehend it. “The yamen said they, they are good and innocent citizens.”
“Bullshit.” Gu Shen suppressed his anger. “Which yamen handles matters so shoddily?! Since you said ‘we’, you must have brothers and sisters, right?”
Fanshu replied without hesitation. “We are all looking for mother. We are brothers.”
Gu Shen asked again, “Then, where are they now?”
Fanshu looked around curiously and said, “Right, right here.”
Gu Shen fell silent. He let out a sigh and stroked the back of Fanshu’s head.
“Never mind.” Gu Shen said, “You can come with me.”
Innkeeper Zhu was gasping as he stroked his belly and focused on flicking the abacus. He murmured, “Crispy ears, fifty gold. Uh, the recent customers are rich, so it’s fine if I raise the price a little. Look at those spirited eyes, there’s no need to fry them. Just dig them out and display with cauliflowers. Seeing that it’s a happy event, one eyeball, three hundred gold. He’s not young, but he looks valiant. There shouldn’t be any fat on him; it’s all muscles. There’s not much to weigh. Let’s just price them per dish. One dish…”
A string of gold pearls suddenly tumbled over the account book. Innkeeper Zhu’s smile widened as the pearls rained down, and he bent even lower. He clasped the gold pearls fondly and said in an amiable and gentle tone. “Gentleman, this way, this way!”
Innkeeper Zhu looked up at the patron, and a short, shrill squeal erupted from his throat. His chest was pounding. With two hands clasping his cheeks, he said with even more gentleness, “I’ve never, never seen you before.”
Cang Ji leaned against the counter and smiled. “I’m new here. This place sure is big.”
Innkeeper Zhu pushed aside the abacus bashfully. “Big, it’s especially big! Gentleman, you…” He did not dare to look straight at Cang Ji. “You are so good-looking. Who do you take after? Why are you so handsome?”
Cang Ji said, “After myself.”
Innkeeper Zhu tried to squeeze out from behind the counter, but his waist was stuck. He panicked and tried to pull himself out, wanting to take Cang Ji upstairs personally. Cang Ji indicated that he was not in a hurry and flung the gold pearls as he asked. “I heard you earlier. Is there any catch tonight?”
“Yes! There is.” Innkeeper Zhu was so stuck his face flushed red. He wiped his sweat away and said, “There’s a human! There’s enough of him to set up a banquet. If you’re interested, I’ll reserve a seat for you!”
“Thanks.” Cang Ji threw another handful of gold pearls, “But I want two seats.”
With the folding fan on his shoulder, Jing Lin swaggered out from behind Cang Ji. His expression was indifferent as he looked askance at Innkeeper Zhu. Innkeeper Zhu’s hairs stood on end. Jing Lin’s stare made his blood curdle. He withdrew the hands that were pawing Cang Ji and wiped them on his own body.
“That can be easily arranged.” Innkeeper Zhu’s face was pale. “Gentlemen, this way upstairs.”
While both of them ascended the stairs, Innkeeper Zhu was still trapped downstairs; he had broken out in a cold sweat. The waiter tried to pull him out, but he fell flat on his butt and sat on the ground. He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his sweat with trembling hand, then waved his hand at the waiter.
“Go! Go quickly!” Innkeeper Zhu said, “Tell them to hide well. I’m worried those two do not have any good intentions.”
Cang Ji stuck close behind Jing Lin as they went upstairs. He asked offhandedly, “Why did you scare him?”
Jing Lin took a step up. “Hmm?”
“I still have questions.” Cang Ji’s long legs took two steps up.
“He’s hiding something.” Jing Lin said, “That’s why he’s afraid.”
“It’s not unusual for him to have something to hide.” Cang Ji said, “What’s unusual is that there are ghosts everywhere in this place. Earlier, I noticed that the street market in this city is just as strict as those in human cities. Now, that’s strange.”
Humans were particular about the various grades, classes, ranks, and so on. The street market buildings were divided systematically and no one could overstep their authority unless in special circumstances. But demons did not have that many rules and regulations, so it was only natural for the Mingyue Pavillion to be next to a thatched hut. Who gives a damn about who’s noble or lowly? It was when people stand on too much ceremony that Cang Ji felt strange instead.
“The city is a human city.” Jing Lin closed the door. “Yet it’s the demons that live there.”
Then, where had the entire city of humans gone?
Cang Ji moved his foot away and wondered, “Buried?”
Jing Lin pondered over it. “Whether they have been buried or eaten, it’s still an entire city of souls. The North Demarcation Division should have noticed, let alone the Underworld. Even if the Demarcation Division was not aware, the deity-in-charge of this place would have sent in an official report. Human-eating demons are dealt with according to the law. Once the Ninth Heaven Realm realizes this, none of the demon in this city will survive.”
“No wonder.” Cang Ji relaxed and leaned back into the chair. “We were watched as soon as we entered the city. They don’t want to eat us, but silence us.”
“Gu Shen won’t be here for no reason.” Jing Lin said, “There must be an explanation somewhere.”
“Compared to Gu Shen.” Cang Ji lifted his sleeve and stared at the spot that Innkeeper Zhu had touched earlier. “How dare he leave a brand on me?”
Jing Lin slid two fingers across his skin and caught a glimpse of Cang Ji’s scales. He tilted his head as his fingertips traced Cang Ji’s scales.
“You.” Jing Lin’s eyebrows were slightly furrowed. But he did not voice out his thoughts.
The brocade carp’s scales were a little dark. It was no longer the original eye-catching color of golden red. The longer Cang Ji cultivated, the more Jing Lin did not find them to feel like fish scales on the occasions he touched them. That tough and firm feel brought him back to the past; it felt as if he had touched them before.
Cang Ji caught hold of his fingers. His eyes twinkled. “What are you thinking of, staring at me like that?”
“Thinking of making stew.” Jing Lin withdrew his hand.
Instead, Cang Ji stretched his legs out and said wickedly, “Yuanyang Hotpot.4 Take a dip with me?”
“Sure.” Jing Lin sized him up and said, “Remove the scales and into the pot you go. Do I do it or do you want to do it yourself?”
Cang Ji pulled his sleeve down and chided him playfully. “You’re so bad!”
- 番薯 Fanshu; literally means sweet potato
- 贱名好养 (A child with) a lowly name is easy to raise (in a rough environment). In farming villages in the old days, the commoners would give their child a lowly name (after food, animals, etc) so that they would be easier to raise in such a rough environment.
- 朱掌柜 Innkeeper Zhu; Zhu (朱) is a family surname, but it also has the same pronunciation as the Chinese word for ‘pig’ (猪).
鸳鸯锅 Yuanyang Hotpot, or (a pair of) Mandarin Ducks hotpot. It’s a hot pot with a divider containing spicy soup on one side and mild soup on the other. Mandarin ducks are also regarded as mates for life and are a symbol of love and conjugal bliss in Chinese culture.