"Ever since the day we left Liangzhou City, as long as I’ve gotten one thing wrong, then I’ll get the whole series wrong."
Editor(s): juurensha, namio
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The nine-story tower was silent, as the painters had all left the Mogao Caves. It was the end of the year, and they had all gotten onto caravans, heading towards Hexi, where the borders were, to return home to celebrate the new year.
In the evening, Li Jinglong was still the first one to wake up. Hongjun was still sleeping very soundly, unconsciously hugging Li Jinglong. Outside, footsteps sounded, and Mo Rigen hurried in, making a gesture at Li Jinglong. Li Jinglong squinted, and, understanding that there was an urgent matter, rose quietly.
“How is he?” Mo Rigen asked in a small voice.
“When he wakes, I’ll talk with him some more,” Li Jinglong replied. “What’s going on?”
“The ghost king’s leaving,” Mo Rigen replied.
Li Jinglong swiftly walked out of the nine-story tower. The ghost king and his personal guards were waiting outside the door, and now they bid him farewell.
“There are still matters I have yet to consult you on, if I could trouble you to stay a few more days,” Li Jinglong said hurriedly.
But the ghost king seemed to already have guessed at what Li Jinglong wanted to ask, and he replied, “I do not know what that phoenix in Yaojin Palace has planned, but I imagine that the Heart Lamp being in your body is no coincidence.”
Li Jinglong: “!!!”
The ghost king pressed one hand on Li Jinglong’s shoulder, saying, “Xie Yu is not yet dead, and I have not yet avenged Liu Fei, but whether or not Mara will be reborn is unknown.”
Li Jinglong seemed to sense a thread of hope, and he asked, “That devil seed in Hongjun’s body, it can be suppressed?”
The ghost king shrugged and replied, “This question is one I cannot answer for you.”
Li Jinglong fell thoughtfully silent for a moment. The ghost king continued, “Humans and yao will have to take their separate routes in the end, and with my status, I have no way to provide you with much help. But you and I can have a temporary exchange.”
Raising his gaze, Li Jinglong looked at the ghost king, who replied, “This time, the corpse ghosts that fell in battle brought about suffering in the human realm, and though it can be said that they were controlled by the White Deer’s heart devil, Liu Fei and I are unable to escape the blame.”
Li Jinglong replied, “The blame lies with Xie Yu, not on you two.”
“But when you return to the humans’ imperial court, how will you explain?” the ghost king said. “Will the commanders of the borders, charged with protecting the human realm, simply ignore two hundred thousand corpse ghosts asleep in Yadan?”
Li Jinglong thought for a moment, before replying, “Liu Fei has already died, he has already atoned for his crimes.”
The ghost king nodded, and Li Jinglong continued. “As for Yadan, I have my ways. I can promise that there will be no humans coming to disturb your sleep. His Majesty once promised that he would grant me a fiefdom, and I will choose Yadan. I’ll ask Hongjun’s uncle to remain as the commander of Yumen Pass, so naturally, no humans will come again.”
“With that,” the ghost king said, “you should keep this.”
The ghost king handed Li Jinglong a rusted piece of metal armor and said, “As for this feud with Xie Yu, I will support you with all my might. Aside from this, you can also request for the assistance of my entire army once, to help you fight a battle.”
Li Jinglong took the armor and hurried to cup his fist and thank him. The ghost king didn’t say any more, instead mounting his horse and leaving, vanishing with his personal guards into the sunset.
Li Jinglong went back into the nine-story tower. Everyone had woken on their own, and now they each yawned.
Sweeping his gaze over the assembled people, he said, “The group’s actually all assembled now, just like this.”
Even he himself was a little taken aback. Qiu Yongsi leaned lazily against the couch he was on, saying, “It’s the new year, and here I am, rushing over to help you brothers fight, you think it was easy for me?”
Li Jinglong remembered that today was already the close of the year, and he said, “Alright, let’s not worry over other matters for now. Let’s start cooking and celebrate the new year!”
A-Tai began to chuckle and said, “Last time I celebrated your new year was five years ago. Is there wine?”
Li Jinglong had long since made the arrangements, and now he began to dole out duties for each of them. Right then, Lu Xu arrived, and everyone turned to look at him.
Lu Xu looked at Li Jinglong apprehensively. Mo Rigen patted the space by his side, gesturing for him to sit down there.
“He’s fine,” Lu Xu replied, because he knew, upon seeing Li Jinglong, that he wanted to ask about Hongjun. “If you have anything to say, you’d best ask him directly, it’s better than asking me.”
With that, Li Jinglong nodded and said, “I’m going to go slaughter a chicken. Wake Hongjun up later, let him sleep a little more.”
For a time, the members of the Exorcism Department busied themselves. A-Tai went to go find Ashina Qiong and some flour, preparing to make a meal for New Year’s Eve so that they could have some food on their plates and fill themselves up. Mo Rigen sat with Lu Xu in the yard, peeling chestnuts, preparing to make chicken stewed with chestnuts. Li Jinglong went to kill a chicken, while Qiu Yongsi and the carp yao were in charge of gathering up some bowls and chopsticks.
“Ay, how come a group of us big strong men ran to this desolate place to celebrate the new year,” Qiu Yongsi said to the carp yao, torn between laughter and tears. “I really can’t figure it out.”
The carp yao replied, “That’s right, there isn’t even a fish.”
With this reminder, Qiu Yongsi thought of something, and he asked, “That’s right! Then what should we do for ‘may every year be plentiful’?”
The carp yao: “...”
Mo Rigen and Lu Xu sat across from each other, neither of them uttering a single word. Mo Rigen’s grip was strong, and as soon as his fingers squeezed a chestnut, its shell cracked. He then tossed it to Lu Xu, who peeled it easily.
“Lu Xu,” Mo Rigen said, “you’re still angry at me?”
In the mural, only upon hearing Hongjun talk about it did Mo Rigen realize that the reason Lu Xu was following him the entire way was actually to beg him to come here to save himself. And the Grey Wolf, at one point in time, had also become the last hope of Lu Xu trapped in the mural.
“I made a wish before,” Lu Xu said, nonchalantly. “While they weren’t paying attention, I went to Amitabha’s pure land to make the wish.”
“What did you wish for?” Mo Rigen lifted his gaze to watch him.
“What I wished for, was that whoever came to rescue me, I would go with him for the rest of my life.” Lu Xu lowered his head, looking at the white chestnut in his hand, before casually tossing them into the basket.
Mo Rigen: “...”
Lu Xu lifted his gaze, watching him without saying anything.
“At that time, I didn’t know,” Mo Rigen said.
“Now you know,” Lu Xu replied.
Mo Rigen said quietly, “Lu Xu, the purpose of my life was to find you.”
Lu Xu said, “I don’t give a shit about whatever purpose, either way, in the end you didn’t come.”
Mo Rigen replied, “Putting it like that is unfair! I didn’t know it was you!”
“Then how did Hongjun know?” Lu Xu shot back.
Mo Rigen squeezed the chestnuts so hard they made cracking noises as he frowned. “This is unfair!”
Lu Xu continued, “You only came to find me because I was the reincarnation of the White Deer, isn’t that right? Whether I’m the White Deer, or someone else was, it’s all the same to you.”
Mo Rigen said, “It’s not the same, that’s not the same, Lu Xu!”
He stared at Lu Xu, feeling as if he was stuffed full of words that he wanted to say, but without knowing why, when the words got to his mouth, he couldn’t give voice to them.
Mo Rigen: “I thought that the White Deer was a pretty girl.”
“I’m not pretty, nor am I a girl,” Lu Xu replied.
Mo Rigen said, “I imagined that perhaps she didn’t know that she was the White Deer, and after I came, I would love her well and protect her…”
Lu Xu raised an eyebrow, indicating for Mo Rigen to hurry up and open the chestnut in his hand, he had already been waiting for half a day now. Mo Rigen could only toss him the chestnut, before continuing, “... But on this journey, everything happened so fast that I couldn’t think it through clearly. I never imagined the possibility that us two would… both be men, and I never imagined that you were the White Deer.”
“What exactly do you want to say?” Lu Xu asked.
“Us two, we’re destined to be together!” Mo Rigen finally eked out that sentence.
“How come I didn’t know that?” Lu Xu asked, looking askance at him. “Who wants to be fated to be with you!”
Mo Rigen said, “Otherwise, why would you go to Yulin to find me?”
“Back then my brain was confused!” Lu Xu said. “Now I’m clear-headed, alright?”
Mo Rigen finally couldn’t bear it any longer either. “What do you mean? I also put my life on the line to come save you, and you can’t, just because the one who brought you out in the end was Hongjun, you…”
“Yo, you two are peeling so many chestnuts, how many dishes are you making?” Ashina Qiong’s hands were covered with flour as he studied that entire wooden bucket full of chestnuts in front of the two of them.
“Shut up!” Lu Xu and Mo Rigen said as one, before Lu Xu rose and left.
Hongjun was in the middle of sleeping when he was woken by the sound of a chicken struggling mightily outside, right before it was about to meet its death. Li Jinglong had never killed a chicken before, and now he held down that chicken, slicing its neck open to let the blood out. But he hadn’t sliced the right spot, instead causing that chicken to screech wildly, slapping its wings, its head hanging half-off as it ran around, dripping blood everywhere.
Irritated, Hongjun roared, “Can you be a little quieter?!”
He opened his eyes, blearily walking to the railings, only to see Li Jinglong one story lower chasing that chicken around. Instantly, he sent a throwing knife flying that way, and with a “gu”, the chicken toppled over on the ground, and peace was finally restored to the world.
Both of Li Jinglong’s hands were covered in blood, and he immediately raised his head. “Hongjun!”
Hongjun vanished on the third story, and Li Jinglong raced up, but Hongjun went down to the second floor to pick up that chicken, so Li Jinglong followed him down again. Their gazes met for a moment, and Li Jinglong felt a little ill at ease.
“What do you want?” Hongjun frowned.
“It’s the new year,” Li Jinglong replied.
Hongjun nodded at that, but didn’t make a sound. Li Jinglong boiled some water, and in one of the side courtyards of the nine-story tower, he began to pluck the feathers from the chicken.
Li Jinglong’s right hand, from start to end, shook a little, as if he had been injured by that bite of Xie Yu’s last night, but his wound was in his meridians. Hongjun debated it again and again, but in the end didn’t ask the question he had.
He couldn’t resist observing Li Jinglong. These days, Li Jinglong seemed to sense that Hongjun was keeping him at a distance, and now, Li Jinglong had become a little cautious, as if he was afraid that whatever he said would make Hongjun angry.
His eye socket still sported that bruise from Hongjun’s punch, and Hongjun suddenly felt somewhat apologetic in his heart.
“Still angry at me?” Li Jinglong asked, ducking his head and plucking the feathers.
When Hongjun heard this, he suddenly felt his heart ache a little.
Li Jinglong continued, “It’s me that’s useless. Do you still feel unwell?”
He raised his head to look at Hongjun, and Hongjun responded, “I’m feeling better now, why are you so worried about me? It’d be better to worry over yourself instead.”
Li Jinglong turned the chicken over, continuing to pluck its feathers. “I can’t even care about you?”
Hongjun replied, “I can take care of myself.”
Li Jinglong suddenly said, “I’m afraid that you’re feeling unwell, but you won’t say anything to me. Even if it’s Mo Rigen, Tegla, or in a bit, if I’ve guessed correctly, Qiu Yongsi, you will have more to say to them than now.” And saying this, he raised his head to look at Hongjun again, saying, “Even if it’s Lu Xu, you’re willing to talk to him. I don’t understand, did I do something wrong?”
Hongjun watched Li Jinglong numbly. In that movement, he had an urge to tell him. But even if he said it, what use would that be? Li Jinglong had already forgotten the past, and after knowing, would he feel guilty? What should he say?
“Actually, Lu Xu and I met each other a very long time ago,” Hongjun replied.
“He told me,” Li Jinglong said mildly. “That’s pretty good.” And saying this, he flipped the chicken to the other side. Both of them watched that chicken being plucked of its feathers in Li Jinglong’s hands.
“Since you woke up that time,” Li Jinglong said, “you’ve been angry at me, because I was hiding things from you, isn’t that right?”
“That’s not it,” Hongjun replied.
Li Jinglong pointed at his own bruised eye and turned his head, saying, “I’ll let you punch me again here? Gege only wants you not to be afraid, not for you to feel that you’re causing trouble for everyone.”
“That’s really not it,” Hongjun insisted.
Li Jinglong asked earnestly, “Then what exactly is the reason?”
Hongjun stopped speaking again, and Li Jinglong kept plucking the chicken’s feathers as he lowered his eyes, saying, “Hongjun, do you think I’m smart?”
“Very smart,” Hongjun repiled. “You are the smartest person that I’ve seen.”
“But I cannot guess why you’re angry at me.” Li Jinglong raised his eyes, looking towards Hongjun, that gaze filled with confusion that caused heartache to the beholder.
“I’m not angry at you,” Hongjun replied.
“You are,” Li Jinglong said. “Ever since you woke, you’ve become different. I confess, I am useless. Ever since the day we left Liangzhou City, as long as I’ve gotten one thing wrong, then I’ll get the whole series wrong. I wish time could go backwards and return to that night, I shouldn’t have gone out then.”
Hongjun was silently thoughtful for a moment, before he said, “I’m going to leave.”
“Where to?” Li Jinglong asked in response.
Hongjun replied, “To go home.”
Li Jinglong: “I promised you before that I’d go with you to Yaojin Palace.”
Hongjun wanted to turn him down; he really had no way to let go of that scene that he had seen in his dreams. But he also couldn’t say those words, so he could only maintain his silence.
“Yo,” Ashina Qiong said, looking down from the second floor. “Surnamed Li, how long do you need to pluck this chicken’s feathers for? It’s plucked even cleaner than your guys’ Imperial Consort’s face.”
Li Jinglong: “...”
Hongjun stood up and walked away. At that, Li Jinglong wanted nothing more than to go pick a fight with Ashina Qiong.
Qiu Yongsi and the carp yao sat side by side in front of a frozen river. A hole had been chiseled away in the ice, and they each held a fishing rod, trying to catch fish from that ice hole.
The carp yao asked, “Why is it that I, a fish, also has to come fish?”
Qiu Yongsi replied, “If not, then what? If we don’t have fish for dinner on New Year’s Eve, that’s basically drawing bad luck to us. We can’t just boil you, can we?”
The carp yao could only shut up.
That night, Li Jinglong set the table. They were afraid of offending the Buddhas if they feasted in the Mogao Caves, so they moved to the furthest spot, where the painters usually gathered, to start their New Year’s Eve feast.
“How is he?” Mo Rigen asked Li Jinglong as he went forth as an extra pair of hands, helping him to move the table up. Li Jinglong’s right hand still trembled a little.
“He’s still angry,” Li Jinglong said. “I can’t get the reason out of him, how about you?”
Mo Rigen replied, “I haven’t even figured it out myself.”
As they were speaking, Lu Xu entered and glanced at the two of them, who immediately stopped.
When Hongjun smelled the food, he had already eaten nothing for a whole day and night, and he was so hungry that his heart was almost pressed against his back. What devil seed, what nightmares, what yao, what devils, he tossed it all to the back of his head, and he hurriedly sat down. At that, Qiu Yongsi laughed loudly and climbed onto Hongjun’s shoulders, and Hongjun let out a loud shout, holding him down and trying to beat him up.
“You’ve missed me so much!” Qiu Yongsi laughed.
Hongjun said, “You’ve also managed to make it!”
Qiu Yongsi patted Hongjun’s back, warmly hugging him, saying, “Thankfully I’ve come in time.” He then scooted so that his mouth was against Hongjun’s ear, and he quietly said a sentence.
“Don’t be afraid. No matter what happens, everyone will be with you.”
He raised his head to look at Qiu Yongsi, who gave him a warm, slight smile, before he turned and sat down in front of another table. A-Tai and Ashina Qiong also came in, and A-Tai sent Hongjun an ambiguous glance, which had Hongjun chuckling.
Everyone was treading delicately and did not bring up anything to do with the devil seed. Lu Xu sat right next to Hongjun, and Li Jinglong said, “Today, we’ve cooked quite a few dishes and there’s no way to split them, so let’s push the tables together, and everyone take what they need ba.”
“Where’s Zhao Zilong?” Hongjun asked.
“Here,” the carp yao replied from the plate on the table.
The carp yao laid on the plate and waved its tail. There were even some green onions, ginger, and garlic laid over it, and all that was lacking was steaming it until it was cooked.
“May every year be plentiful, I had to do something for this celebration.”
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.