Chang An thought of how he didn’t even see anything and that Hua Yi was just making a big fuss over it.
After the two of them carried the dying mermaid back to the cave, the whole tribe, men and women, young and old, all came and gathered together. Not one even stayed to take care of the cooking. They all surrounded the unconscious mermaid, pointing fingers at it and getting excited over it.
Shan Xi: “What does he use to breathe underwater?”
Ka Zuo: “Don’t they wear clothes? Isn’t it cold to soak under the water all day long?”
Lu Quan: “Eh? Why doesn’t he have scales?”
The kid Luda was even more curious, forgetting to train with his blade. After peeking over for a long time, he furtively tugged on Chang An’s clothes and asked, “Do you think he’s a man or a woman? Do they make distinctions between men and women?”
This question was so stupid that Chang An didn’t even want to answer it. Because of this, he thought he was actually more knowledgeable compared to Luda. At the very least, he could tell apart a young man and a big girl.
Suo Laimu, however, still looked like a lofty person, not at all joining in the excitement. He was outside the crowd and picking through the seafood that Chang An and Hua Yi brought back.
Before he got started, he erected a stick and paid homage to the Sea God. Afterwards, he said, “Legend has it that the mermaids in the East Sea are born extremely beautiful. When they cry, the tears that fall from their eyes will turn into the pearls of the sea floor. When they open their mouths to sing, even the fiercest fish would stop hunting for prey. All living creatures will be drawn to their song and linger in place.”
Chang An asked, “Really?”
Amidst what he was doing, Suo Laimu looked up at him and said, “Of course, it’s not true—Pearls are spat out of clams with grinning mouths. Open your mouth and sing a song; see if the wolf won’t bite you when it hears it—Hey Hua Yi, take care of this foolish boy of yours. He’ll believe in whatever others say. What we’ll we do if he gets kidnapped in the future because someone promised him candy?”
Hua Yi asked unhurriedly, “Shengun, you looking for a beating?”
Suo Laimu tsk-ed. Then his eyes flashed, catching sight of a small pile of odd-looking shells that had the size of a toddler’s palm and were fan-shaped. The shells were colorful and beautiful. As he held them in his hand, halos of different colors glimmered.
In the forest, the more colorful something was, the more poisonous it would be. When Hua Yi saw Suo Laimu looking at those shells over and over again, he asked uneasily, “What? Not edible?”
The expression on Suo Laimu’s face, however, was a bit strange. He looked like he wanted to laugh but was trying to hold it back. Hence, it was somewhat indecent—But then again, his expression had always been indecent, so the others weren’t really surprised.
Suo Laimu threw the shell back into the shell pile, shook his head, and said, “No, it can be considered a good thing… You’ve seen it before. The Wuse Powder1五色 (wǔ sè)- multi-colored is ground from the shells of this stuff. The meat is actually okay, and there’s no problem using it to cook in soup. However, young, vigorous people should eat a few bites less.”
Chang An asked, “What’s the Wuse Powder?”
Suo Laimu looked at him kindly and said, “That’s an excellent thing to eat. It would make you walk on clouds like an immortal2飘飘欲仙 – to feel like you’re in paradise.”
Chang An didn’t know what it meant to “walk on clouds like an immortal,” but just when he wanted to get to the heart of the matter, Hua Yi suddenly tapped him on the shoulder and pointed behind him. “Hey, hey, that crybaby son of Luo Tong has been anxiously looking at you for a long time now. As soon as I see him, I get two rounds of headaches. Hurry and see if he wants to suck milk or cry for his ‘Die3爹 (diē) – ancient way of calling one’s father. Instead of “father,” I will now use the pinyin”
Chang An had to get up and walk towards Qingliang, but when Qingliang saw him coming, he was like a mouse having seen a cat. His face immediately turned ghastly pale, and he ran away.
When Chang An turned back again, he had already forgotten about it.
In the evening, it snowed again. The people sealed the entrance of the cave with hide, but the cave was still quite cold. However, for the people who’d been running from volcanoes and earthquakes, sitting here safely with a big pot of hot fish soup was already like a divine day.
Chang An sparred with Luda using a fake sword made from wood—Basically, he never moved from where he was sitting as he slashed at Luda with his fake sword.
Hua Yi held a large bowl of fish soup. After deliberately scooping for a long time, he finally scooped out half a bowl of that “special” shell meat. Harboring malicious intentions, he served it to Chang An, saying, “Chang An, stop training la. Take a break and come eat something.”
Suo Laimu whispered in contempt, “You are so shameless.”
Hua Yi laughed a hehe and said, “It will be fine. Just bear with it and let me be.”
Suo Laimu whispered even more quietly, “What are you doing? Isn’t that your brother? Why have you changed?”
Hua Yi lowered his eyes. “Anyway, the person has to be mine. What other love is what it is.”
Suo Laimu was used to teasing him, and he really couldn’t stand seeing him smug, so he sneered and said, “You think so beautifully. Although he’s a sub-beast, he is capable and good-looking. Naturally, there’s no lack of people liking him. How can you do it so cheaply…”
He was unable to finish his words when Hua Yi shot him a glance.
Hua Yi still had a smile on his face, but his eyes were like cold iron scraping on the ice and snow. Suo Laimu suddenly had the illusion that he had accidentally encroached on the territory of some big beast.
… Just a few thoughtless jokes, yet he’d already lost his patience.
Chang An put down his wooden sword, gave Luda a few casual pointers, then unsuspectingly came over and took that bowl of soup.
When Hua Yi saw Suo Laimu opening his mouth to speak, he immediately blocked his mouth and easily dragged away this sub-beast whose whole body didn’t even have two liang of flesh. “You haven’t paid respects to the God of Food today. As the envoy of the gods, you are so disrespectful. Beware his Laorenjia4老人家 – a respectful way of calling the elderly taking offense and choking you to death.”
Suo Laimu struggled, but to no avail. Seething with anger at his powerlessness, he thought to himself that he would pay a personal visit to the “God of Cheapness” and ask him to quickly take away this runaway disciple of his.
After Hua Yi sorted out Suo Laimu who intended to mess up his plans, he came back and saw that Chang An had finished his bowl of soup and was now scraping the meat off the bones, gnawing on the fish meat. A smile immediately bloomed like a flower on Hua Yi’s face. When A’Ye saw this, she quickly carried her own rice bowl and hid far away. She had seen with her own eyes back then that Hua Yi had the same smile on his face when he was stuffing little crabs into Suo Laimu’s hat while the latter was asleep.
In the evening, Chang An always felt that something was wrong, but for where it was wrong, he couldn’t tell. It felt like there was some kind of itch on his body. He scratched his back, but it didn’t seem to relieve it. In the end, he had no choice but to just hold his blade and fall asleep, feeling uncomfortable all over.
But on this night, he couldn’t sleep to the end. In the middle of the night, he was awoken by a confusing dream. With a jolt, he discovered that his lower body was wet and cold.
Chang An sat in the darkness for a moment, unable to tell what was going on, yet it was as if he vaguely knew something.
At first, he was a little confused. Then he felt ashamed and angry. Yet after a few moments, the expression on his face sank. The corners of his eyes and lips looked redder than usual for some reason, but they also showed a bit of unspoken sadness.
Chang An quietly got up, cleaned himself in a place where nobody else was around, then walked into the ice and snow outside.
It was really cold. The stars and the moon weren’t visible, and only when listening carefully could one hear the sea from the other side of the mountain, the sound of the waves adding more and more to that silence. The white air that Chang An exhaled quickly dissipated into the gloomy night sky, and suddenly, he couldn’t stop himself from feeling empty inside.
It was an emptiness no sword nor spear could fill, making him depressed out of thin air.
At this time, a shawl sewn with animal skin was put on his body. Hua Yi somehow also came out of the cave. He sat down beside him, took his shoulders and brought him into his arms. He patted him hard and asked, “What are you doing running into the ice and snow? Do you think your body’s too well and want to get sick?”
Chang An said nothing.
Hua Yi suddenly leaned in and sniffed him hard between his collarbones. Showing a sly smile of tacit understanding, he whispered in his ear, “I seemed to have smelled the scent of a ‘man.’ Why are you running out in the middle of a night… Ai, this is a good thing. In adulthood, this is what happens when a man grows up. Come, tell me, what did you dream of?”
Chang An still didn’t say anything.
Hua Yi affectionately bumped him with his shoulder, “What, you’re still embarrassed?”
That little blush on Chang An’s face was soon blown down by the cold wind. His pale face was like a mannequin made of ice and snow. His particularly neat eyebrows looked as if they had been trimmed with a small knife. And on his hair, not a single strand was astray. Somehow, that little roundness that used to belong to a child’s face had faded away, turning into a handsome young man. But from a certain point of view, it looked like there was a bit of unexplainable beauty mixed in with this youth’s handsomeness—that kind of still, fine beauty one could find in the drawings of master painters from the Southern Continent.
Hua Yi’s throat bobbed quietly. Looking at him, it was as if there was a ball of fire burning in his chest, making him restless.
Chang An suddenly sighed and reached out to wipe his face with his hand—a move he had learned from Suo Laimu. Suo Laimu was often overthinking, always looking like a tired man forcing himself to stay strong.
“I dreamt that A’Lan came over with very nice clothes and said that she made them for me,” Chang An said in a low voice. “She looked straight at me, but as soon as I saw her eyes, I remembered that she had been washed away by the flood. At that time, she also looked at me like that, and I always felt that she was going to cry, but…”
His words went quieter and quieter, making it hard to hear what he was saying. But Hua Yi felt as if he had been splashed with a basin of cold water. The evil fire in his heart was suddenly extinguished to the point where even the ashes could not be seen.
After a long time, Chang An whispered, “No one will make clothes for me anymore. If A’Lan…”
He wanted to say “If A’Lan didn’t die, then how nice it would be,” but when the words were on his lips, he couldn’t say them. Chang knew that when a person was gone, they were gone for good. No matter how one hated to part with them, they wouldn’t stay. His words sounded lukewarm and indifferent, just like usual. It was even to the point it sounded somewhat naive and heartless that so long as he had food and drink, he could do anything he wanted. Rarely would he set his heart on doing things, and yet… one could discern a note of youthful loneliness in his words.
Some things were fine when they were in your mind, but when spoken out, it would be like adding oil to the fire. Chang An sensed it, so he shut his mouth, not wanting to say anything. He rubbed his frozen hands in the cold wind and said to Hua Yi, “If there’s still some wine, I would’ve liked to have a drink, but… it’s cold, so I’m going back.”
Hua Yi obediently let go of his shoulders, then sat on the snow. His eyes followed Chang An as he turned around, and when he got back to the cave, only then did he lower his head. The expression on his face at that moment was very strange, as if he was forcibly suppressing something.