“Congratulations.” Qi Yin smiled at him. “Which family is the bride from? I’ll come and drink some wedding wine at your place!”
“Surname Qi,” the man said.
“How coincidental, we have the same surname.” Qi Yin patted his bottom and stood up. “Are you two childhood sweethearts? Where did you meet her?”
The man nodded. “In Wu Jiang.”
It was too coincidental. Qi Yin had also lived in Wu Jiang with his mother before. His aunt had told him that his mother had been chased by some unknown monster and had to move around different places. Later, when they ran out of money, they came to live with his aunt. He still remembered his aunt’s teasing smile when she talked about it. She covered her mouth and said, “I don’t know what luck your mother had. She always attracted unsavory things. Look at me, I’ve lived to this age, and I haven’t even seen any immortal masters, let alone strange beasts.”
“What’s her name? I’ve lived here for a long time and know many people. Maybe I can help you find her,” Qi Yin said.
“Ah?” Qi Yin didn’t understand.
“Quan Nu,” the man said again. “My bride’s name is Quan Nu.”
Dog slave? Qi Yin was speechless. This girl’s name was really unusual.
“What does she look like? Does she have any characteristics?” Qi Yin asked. “Does she have a mole on her face, or any special preferences?”
The man thought carefully and said, “Very cute and likes to suck my fingers.”
“…Did she suck them in public?” Qi Yin asked warily.
The man nodded.
Qi Yin didn’t say anything. The man didn’t speak either, maybe he didn’t know what to say. The two of them stared at each other in silence, and fell into a long silence.
This was a terrible man. Qi Yin thought.
“There aren’t many families with the surname Qi here. There are two families in the West Gate and three in the East Gate. You can ask around, maybe you can find her.” Qi Yin scratched his head and said. “Although I don’t know whether to say it or not, I’ll still say it… Don’t tell anyone what you just said about Quan Nu. It’s not good for her reputation.”
The man was stunned for a moment, seemingly not understanding what was wrong.
Qi Yin asked him to wait for a moment, went inside, and came out with an old umbrella. As he handed it to the man, he smiled and said, “I hope you can bring the bride home safely.”
When Qi Yin smiled, he looked very cute, revealing a set of white teeth and exuding a youthful vigor.
The man looked at him for a moment, lowered his head to take the umbrella, and softly said, “Thank you.”
The black cat jumped onto the stone lion (1) and onto his shoulder. The two of them walked into the drizzling rain, their figure slowly dissipating like a hazy ink mark between the white walls and black tiles at the end of the alley. Qi Yin remembered the black eyes of the man, reflecting the rain and water of Wu Tang Town.
Really, appearances can be deceiving. Although he looked honest, he was actually a beast. Qi Yin shook his head.
“Tsk, that man has no money. I acted cute for so long and he didn’t even give me a little something to eat.” The black cat was annoyed and itching to bite. “I’m hungry, Fu Lan!”
Fu Lan lowered his head and took out his purse, pouring out three copper coins into his palm. “No more money.”
“You are even poorer than him!”
Fu Lan ignored it, looked up at the distance, and saw a tall tower standing at the end of his sight, the tallest Buddhist pagoda in Wu Tang Town. He put away the green bamboo oil paper umbrella and looked at it for a while before disappearing in an instant. People on the street were busy with pushing away the awnings. No one noticed that a man had suddenly disappeared. In the next moment, a blot gradually expanded on the top of the tower, revealing the appearance of a young man. Fu Lan hovered on the top of the tower, opened his umbrella again, and clear raindrops fell along the edge of the umbrella, falling towards the distant and small houses and buildings below.
He opened his right hand, and numerous light blue small fish flew out of his palm and merged into the rain. The fish wagged their tails in the wind, and he saw through the eyes of the small fish that the shops on Dong Men Street were opening one by one. The manure carts were ringing bells to collect the sewage from door to door, the farmers were carrying baskets into town to sell vegetables, and a few young children were running around in the rain. There was also the boy he had seen earlier, who was happily putting a box onto his bed, and there was a locked cage under the bed, with a crack extending through the stone egg inside.
“How is it?” The black cat asked, “Did you find the puppy?”
He lowered his eyelids and silently shook his head.
“It seems that he’s not in this town either.” The black cat scratched his nose.
Fu Lan fell silent for a moment. He looked down at his palm and thought of the child. The child was both his little bride and his little brother. He liked it when the child called him “Gege (2).” It sounded crisp and pleasant.
When he lifted his head, he accidentally saw the house where the boy had just come from. Fu Lan said, “There was a demon in that house just now.”
“It’s none of our business,” the black cat said. “We’re demons too, you fool. Demons are our own kind. Let’s find a place to rest and set off for the next town to find the puppy tonight. He’s already 18 this year, 20 in Chinese lunar years. A mortal must marry by the age of 20, so we must find him as soon as possible.”
Fu Lan put away his umbrella, leaned back, and his black hair scattered in the wind and rain, as if he was about to fall off a tall tower. However, at the moment he fell, the black figure flashed, like ink rapidly dissipating, and disappeared in the blink of an eye.
When Qi Yin went back home, the guest had already left. He was probably only here to deliver some message. He lay on the bed counting his small savings, including the silver notes given by his grandmother, totaling ten taels of silver, enough for him to rent a small tiled house outside and marry Feng Xian. He was not in a hurry, anyway. He was still young. It didn’t matter if he waited a few more years. He was happy, and even this dilapidated attic looked much more pleasing to the eye. The rain gradually stopped.
He listened intently to the sound outside, and then realized that it was quiet in the house, which was unusual. His aunt had a loud voice, and quiet moments in the house were rare. Today, he didn’t know what was wrong with her; she unexpectedly became quiet.
After a while, Qi Yin got up and dressed to go out to buy groceries. When he was about to leave, his aunt leaned against the door frame and looked at him with a strange look in her eyes. He felt uneasy and hurriedly carried the basket and ran out of the alley. When he got to the alley opening, he realized that he had forgotten his purse and quickly went back to get it. The house was very quiet; only the main room had voices. Qi Yin’s footsteps unconsciously lightened.
The main room was closed with the door and window shut. The daylight shone on the diamond-shaped window, casting a few vague silhouettes. Qi Yin counted them and realized that, other than himself and Xiao Yuan, everyone from the Yao family was inside.
By some strange impulse, he crouched under the window and listened carefully to the voices inside.
“You tell me, where did this child get his lucky break from? His father, who disappeared for eighteen years, actually sent a message to him to go to the immortal mountain to cultivate, and he will send someone to pick him up tomorrow!” It was his aunt’s voice, with a very high pitch, almost shaking the sky.
Qi Yin was shocked and almost exclaimed, quickly covering his mouth.
“I said it wrong, I said it wrong. His father was already killed during the demon-slaying, and it was Wu Fang Immortal Mountain that asked him to go.” Uncle sighed and said, “The poor child, his father passed away before he could even see him.”
“It’s all the same!” Auntie was so angry that her teeth itched. “My Xiao Shan is so talented, why hasn’t anyone come to take him? He was beaten to the punch by this stupid boy!”
Just as his spirits were lifted, they fell again, and Qi Yin stood still.
Qi Yin couldn’t explain what he was feeling. It was like sadness, but not quite that. “Father” was still a stranger to him. Hearing that a stranger had died, he didn’t have any extra feelings besides saying “oh”. It was just that a connection that was barely there suddenly broke, like a very thin kite string that one wouldn’t feel while it was there, but when it was broken, he suddenly felt empty, as if something was missing, and the wind was blowing through.
Was he killed while slaying demons? Qi Yin looked down at his toes. But he died a hero.
“Mother, I also want to go to the immortal mountain,” Yao Xiao Shan said.
“Ah, I also want you to go, but they clearly said that they only came to pick up Qi Yin.” Auntie sighed again and said, “Mother, what do you think?”
The room fell silent for a while. Qi Yin heard Grandmother counting her Buddhist beads, one by one, slowly.
Finally, Grandmother spoke, “This child Qi Yin looks kind-hearted, but his heart is very hard. He didn’t shed a single tear when his mother died, standing there like nothing happened. When he was a child, he might not have known better, but when he was eight, he killed a chicken for the first time and didn’t even blink. When the family was poor in the early days, he was a burden on us. We wanted to throw him away, but who knew he would be sent back by someone. We raised him for so many years, but he still hasn’t achieved anything. He can’t pass the imperial examination, nor can he earn any money. We originally wanted to give him some silver to let him marry and start a family, to leave and live his own life, but who knew he would have such a fate.”
The old lady paused and said again, “But it’s not good for you to treat him like this. If he becomes an immortal, he might just forget about us and all we’ve done for him.”
“That’s right!” Auntie exclaimed, “Look at my Xiao Shan. He became a scholar at the age of twenty. Why doesn’t he have this kind of luck?”
Qi Yin’s heart grew colder.
“Forget it. I’ll give him some silver to let him marry. That’s already more than fair to him,” Grandmother said. “Here’s the plan. Yu Niang, put some medicine in his food tonight, and let him sleep until tomorrow. You secretly take his eighteen pieces of glass beads tonight, then lock the door and the window. When the immortal comes tomorrow, you say that Xiao Shan is Qi Yin. Xiao Shan is my real grandson. Only when Xiao Shan goes to the immortal mountain can we have good days. Also, that Xiao Yuan is not a good person to keep at home. Sell her off as soon as possible; out of sight, out of mind.”
“This has nothing to do with Xiao Yuan…” Uncle shrank back timidly and spoke up.
“Shut up!” Auntie happily interrupted, “Our mother has a plan, and that’s how it’s going to be!”
Qi Yin stopped listening to what they said after that. He left the room, carrying a basket and kicking stones as he walked along the shimmering cobblestone path. The water’s reflections created a blurry image of him.
It turned out that the old lady was not unfriendly to people; she simply didn’t like him. When he was a child, he didn’t get lost; it was the old lady who wanted to abandon him. Why else would she insist on going to the market two miles away? It wasn’t because the vegetables were better there; it was because she didn’t want him to find his way back. Her gaze towards him was not indifferent; it was cold.
Well, he wasn’t their grandson, so why should they treat him well?
In fact, whether he went to the immortal mountain or not didn’t matter to him. He was way past the age of being fascinated by tales of swordsmen slaying demons and monsters. The common people’s lives suited him just fine, and the idea of becoming a celestial being or immortal was far beyond his reach. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like, nor did he feel any envy or anticipation towards it.
As for his father, they had never even met. His father never once thought of him while he was alive, so why should he go and mourn him now, wearing mourning clothes and carrying funeral offerings?
He looked up, and the sunlight passing over the wall shone on his face, making his eyes slightly sore. What he wanted was very simple: a grandmother who would give him money to get married, and a virtuous wife. That would be enough. Now that his grandmother was gone, he kicked a stone beside his foot, and it rolled and tumbled to the steps of the medicine shop across the street, where he saw Feng Xian standing behind the counter weighing medicinal herbs.
Oh well, he still had his future wife. He finally found the strength to smile again.
He didn’t want to go home, so he wandered around until the sun was setting. The egg-yolk-colored sunlight crawled over the wall, and the shadow of a Chinese hackberry tree was projected onto it, lonely and weak.
Unconsciously, he walked across the street to the opposite side of the medicine shop. With a glance, he saw a familiar figure in black standing next to the bulletin board. A black cat crouched beside him, and a wanted poster was pasted on it. The man was standing there quietly, his face expressionless, neither sad nor happy. From Qi Yin’s perspective, his black silhouette was like an ink bamboo, standing still in the evening sun.
Qi Yin walked over and greeted the man.
The man turned his head and glanced at him, nodding slightly in response. This person didn’t seem to like to talk, quiet like an ancient mirror.
The wanted notice depicted the large head of a pig demon named Fu Lan, with long hair all over, big copper bell-like eyes, and two long fangs protruding from under his nose. The notice had been posted for a long time and had been soaked through by the rain, causing the ink on Fu Lan’s mouth to bleed, resembling a mouthful of blood.
Several years ago, there was a power struggle among demons, which greatly damaged their vitality. They retreated to a remote area in southern Sichuan and the area was peaceful for a while. However, a demon named Fu Lan emerged from this group, and last year, he swept away the Nine Domains and killed the previous demon king. Because of him, the demons stopped fighting and recognized him as their leader, creating great momentum. Fu Lan was ambitious and often troubled the human world. Not long ago, news spread that a village near the border with southern Sichuan was massacred.
He had a cunning advisor by his side named Yu Sang, who played an important role in Fu Lan’s success in conquering the Nine Domains. Demons looked like that, strange and grotesque.
“Fu Lan, stop! Today, I, a sword immortal, will act on behalf of justice and cut off your pig head!” A group of children ran past them, and the two looked over. One of the children was holding a dog and the others were pointing wooden swords at him.
“Humph, I’m not afraid of you! My advisor Yu Sang will protect me!” The child patted his dog and shouted, “Advisor, let’s go!”
The dog barked loudly at the other children, and everyone dispersed.
The black cat: “…”
Qi Yin smiled and said, “Kids like to play this kind of game. I also played Fu Lan when I was a kid.”
But he was forced to do so by his classmates and ended up getting beaten up by the “sword immortals” in the end.
The man didn’t say anything.
“Have you found your wife?” Qi Yin asked.
He shook his head silently.
Qi Yin understood. This kind of pre-arranged marriage was not reliable, as most of them would fall apart. Because once the status of the man and woman was unequal, one side would definitely want to break off the engagement. This guy was alone with a cat and dressed in plain hemp clothes, not like a wealthy man. The woman probably moved to avoid him.
Although he was a beast, he was also a pitiful person. Qi Yin felt a sense of sympathy.
“Don’t be sad. I think a man’s wife doesn’t need to come from a high-class family. Being virtuous and kind is enough.” Qi Yin pointed to the girl in the pharmacy and said, “See that girl over there? Her name is Feng Xian. Her grandparents are farmers, and she has two younger brothers and a sister. Her family is poor, but she’s a good person – very gentle and kind to everyone. I plan to go to her house on an auspicious day and propose, and I’ve already prepared a dowry.” Qi Yin patted the man’s shoulder to show comfort.
Fu Lan glanced in the direction of the medicine shop and said, “Oh, is that the woman who kissed someone else?”
Qi Yin was taken aback, lifted his head, and saw Feng Xian dodging her employer’s lips and turning her head to laugh. It was only then that he noticed Feng Xian’s change of dress. Her hair was done up in a woman’s style, with a high bun, and the jade hairpin she used to wear was replaced with a golden hairpin, which dangled and swayed beside her ear.
It felt as if something was collapsing silently in his heart, and Qi Yin stood still.
Fu Lan remembered this morning when Qi Yin congratulated him and hesitated whether to say something. He was not good at talking and had only made a little progress after learning from the black cat for a long time.
“Congratulations,” Fu Lan finally said. “I’ll come over to have some wine on your wedding day.”
1. Stone Lion – a lion sculpture that is used for various purposes, including as architectural decorations, as guardians of tombs or temples, and as symbols of power and strength.
2. Gege – big brother