Fu Lan swept the ground, while Qi Yin grabbed a lamp talisman and searched every step of the 999-level mountain stairs. He didn’t miss any cracks in the stone bricks or tangles of vines and grass. Finally, he found the lilac ring at the bottom of the stairs. It was as big as a fingernail and gleaming gold. Qi Yin wiped it clean, held it in his palm, and suddenly realized that he hadn’t thought of Lan Xian’er since Fu Lan had made a pass at him. He felt that he was very frivolous, as he clearly liked her but hadn’t been thinking of her.
Qi Yin muttered to himself, feeling guilty, and carefully put the lilac ring into his purse.
Early the next morning, Qi Yin dressed himself up in a presentable manner, even arranging every strand of hair neatly. He waited deliberately on the mountain path. When Lan Xian’er walked towards him, she was still wearing a simple floral shirt with a plain cloth skirt and carrying the fragrance of orchids. Standing next to her, Qi Yin felt light and airy all over his body.
“Sang Ruo said that my lilac ring is with you,” Lan Xian’er said.
“Oh, right,” Qi Yin fumbled through his purse and awkwardly handed over the lilac ring, clumsily placing it into her palm with both hands.
“Thank you.” Lan Xian’er smiled.
Her smile was shallow and light, facing the morning sun, as if it was transparent. Qi Yin was stunned, blushed, and muttered that it was unnecessary, walking slowly beside her on the mountain path. The stone path twisted and turned, with tangled weeds planted on both sides. Qi Yin looked back at the two sets of footprints side by side and felt that it was somewhat unreal.
“Is that the sect’s forbidden area over there?” Lan Xian’er pointed to the opposite mountain range.
“Um,” Qi Yin said, “that place cannot be visited because there are many powerful demons inside.”
Lan Xian’er stuck out her tongue and said, “Demons must be very scary, right? I heard they all look ugly, and love to eat people. They are all bad. Fortunately, we have you sword immortals to kill them all, so that we can live a good life.”
Qi Yin was stunned and thought of Fu Lan, the lazy cat, and the big white wolf who grew mushrooms under the cliff. He scratched his head and said, “You can’t say that.”
Lan Xian’er was taken aback and turned her head to look at him. “Oh?”
“Monsters are actually similar to people. Some are smart and some are stupid, some are treacherous and some…” Fu Lan’s silly appearance came to his mind again, and Qi Yin laughed. “Some are just not very clever. Some monsters don’t eat people, just like some people are vegetarians and don’t eat meat. As for whether they are beautiful or ugly, in their eyes, we may not look good either.” He smiled at Lan Xian’er. “If you were a pig, you would definitely prefer to be with pigs as cute and chubby as you.”
Lan Xian’er looked at him for a while. She turned her head and snorted, “You’re the pig.”
Qi Yin’s face turned red, realizing that he had said something wrong. He quickly said, “That’s not what I meant. I mean, even if you were a pig, you would still be the most beautiful pig.”
Lan Xian’er: “…”
Qi Yin covered his face, wishing he could cut off his tongue. What was he saying?
“You say they’re not bad, but you still imprison them here.” Lan Xian’er kicked the stone under her feet.
“There is no other way. They eat people, so we can’t just let them eat people, right?” Qi Yin said.
Lan Xian’er did not speak again, and the two walked silently forward. Qi Yin felt a bit uneasy. He was really bad at talking and didn’t know how to make a girl laugh. But there was no one at home to ask for advice, the fat cat only knew how to eat, and Dai Ge was even more clueless. After walking for a while, Qi Yin pondered how to start a conversation with her. “The fat lady at the herb store said she doesn’t know you. Are you new here?”
“Are you with your parents?”
Lan Xian’er shook her head. “My father won the top scholar title and married a rich girl, so he didn’t want me and my mother.”
Qi Yin was stunned. He wanted to comfort Lan Xian’er, but couldn’t come up with any good words. He became so nervous that he was sweating profusely and finally said, “If you need anything in the future, you can come up to the mountain to find us for help.”
“My mother killed my father in a fit of anger and was thrown into prison.” Lan Xian’er looked up at him. “She’s been locked up for many years, maybe she’s already dead.”
As she spoke, her expression was calm, as if these bitter memories were weightless. Lan Xian’er lowered her head again and bounced ahead of Qi Yin, picking wildflowers by the roadside and putting them in her hair.
Qi Yin didn’t say anything else and silently followed behind her, the faint fragrance of orchids wafting in the air, lingering around his clothes.
“Hey, Senior Brother Yun Yin.” Lan Xian’er suddenly turned around and walked backward. “Do you like me?”
Her words sounded like thunder in Qi Yin’s ears. Blood rushed to his face, and he stared at her, unable to say a word.
Seeing his reaction, Lan Xian’er covered her mouth and giggled, then asked again, “If I were a demon, would you still like me?”
Qi Yin actually knew how to answer. Girls liked to ask questions like, “If I became ugly, would you still like me? If I gained weight, would you still like me?” They wanted to hear something like, “Even if you were ugly to the point of being terrifying, or fat enough to crush ten elephants, I would still love you as before.” But the problem was that Qi Yin didn’t like demons. He liked mortal women who were pretty, gentle, and good at weaving and cooking. Qi Yin struggled for a while, but he couldn’t lie. He finally said in a dejected tone, “No…”
Lan Xian’er said, “I knew it.”
“But it’s similar to the way I don’t like men,” Qi Yin said awkwardly. “I can be friends with demons, I can be brothers with men, but I won’t marry them.”
Lan Xian’er tilted her head and looked at him for a while, then suddenly laughed, stood on tiptoe, and patted his head. “Senior Brother Yun Yin, you’re a good person. When I asked others the same question before, they all said they would be willing to stay with me even if I eat people without even spitting out their bones.”
Qi Yin was stunned by her actions. Lan Xian’er took a few steps back, standing with her hands behind her back under the sunlight. Something changed silently, and the girl’s shallow smile seemed to become brighter under the sun.
Lan Xian’er tilted her head and smiled. “Thank you for helping me find my lilac ring. It’s very important to me.”
“It was nothing,” Qi Yin said shyly.
“Yun Zhi gave it to me, and I really like it. I couldn’t believe I lost it yesterday and was so worried. Luckily you found it for me,” Lan Xian’er said, flipping her hair and smiling at him.
Qi Yin’s mind couldn’t quite grasp what she meant. Yun Zhi? What did she mean?
“Look, Yun Zhi is here to pick me up.” Lan Xian’er pointed to the distance.
As soon as she spoke, a cold flash of sword glare appeared. Yun Zhi sat on the sword with a smile, touching Lan Xian’er’s head. She hopped onto the sword and put her basket on her lap, waving to Qi Yin. “Senior Brother Yun Yin, thank you for liking me, but I don’t like suntanned guys.”
Qi Yin was left standing there, dumbfounded. The two of them disappeared down the mountain path. Qi Yin felt like he was back in Wu Tang Town at dusk, seeing Feng Xian in the arms of the old medicine store owner, something in his heart quietly breaking apart. He slumped his shoulders and walked down the road, kicking stones aimlessly like a stray dog.
So it was all just a game to her. Lan Xian’er was really mean. Was it really fun for her to toy with him, thinking he was more entertaining than others because he was silly-looking? But he couldn’t blame her. He had been the one to get himself involved. She didn’t force him to go retrieve the lilac ring, nor did she ask him to like her.
As he reached the end of the road and lifted his head, he realized he had unknowingly walked back to the tile-roofed house. Fu Lan sat under the eaves, weaving a bamboo basket. The sunlight shone on his fair face, his facial contours soft and hazy in the light. The black cat lay at his feet, basking in the sun with its eyes closed.
Qi Yin lowered his head with a despondent expression and moved a stool to sit beside Fu Lan. A bitter taste rose in his throat, and Qi Yin recalled the first time he cooked at Yao family’s house when he was twelve years old. He was only slightly taller than the stove, and the ladle was as long as his arm. He finally managed to cook a plate of food and carefully brought it to the table. His aunt took a piece of meat with her chopsticks, chewed it twice, and spit it out, saying, “What is this terrible food? Are you trying to poison me?”
He wanted to say that he had done his best, and when he was stirring the pan, he accidentally burned his hand, causing several large blisters that hurt. But he didn’t say anything and lowered his head, rubbing his foot on the ground in silence. It doesn’t matter, he told himself. It doesn’t matter.
He said the same thing to himself now. It doesn’t matter.
No one likes him. It doesn’t matter.
Fu Lan was fully focused on weaving a small bamboo basket, which gradually took shape in his hands. Qi Yin drooped his head and asked, “Dai Ge, you also know how to weave baskets?”
Fu Lan nodded. “A Fu taught me.”
Qi Yin was silent for a while and asked, “Dai Ge, do you really like my mother?”
“Yes,” Fu Lan said. “I really like her.”
Qi Yin opened his mouth, wanting to ask why his mother died. He turned his head and looked at this peaceful man weaving a basket with his head down. The bamboo strips intertwined between his pale fingers, and his face showed no emotions. His eyes were clear and calm, like a vast expanse of smoke and water.
Qi Yin held a grass stem and asked, “Dai Ge, did my mother provoke any enemies when she lived with you? Or did the demon have any relatives seeking revenge?”
Fu Lan shook his head in confusion.
The black cat yawned and said, “After Zhang Luo Huai died, Wu Jian was very peaceful. Why are you suddenly asking?”
“Nothing, just asking.” Qi Yin suddenly didn’t want to ask anything. He patted Fu Lan’s shoulder and said, “Ge, if you can’t find a wife, we might as well live together. It’s not bad to be single, and we don’t have to marry someone.”
Fu Lan was stunned for a moment and nodded vigorously. “Okay.”