Ginseng(参) is a homophone for body(身) in Chinese.
A night in March is long. It wasn’t yet light when the crow of the rooster woke Shen Li with a start. She sensed the faint sound of footsteps and opened her eyes, only to discover that she was covered by a piece of cloth. She panicked; she must have been captured in the Demon Emperor’s Bag of Cosmos!
After a frenzied fit of fighting, her head was finally free. She took a gulp of the outside air. The Demon Emperor wasn’t here, neither were the pursuing soldiers. She still was laying under the grapevines, still a naked chicken.
The air was hazy and dew-laden.
There were muffled noises out front. Shen Li proceeded cautiously towards the front yard.
The courtyard gate was ajar; outside was bustling with activity. Shen Li peeked through the crack: two wagons were parked in the torchlit alley. The plain girl from yesterday stood beside her mother while her father and brothers were loading the wagon along with Xing Yun. After everything was loaded on, everyone but the mother and daughter got onto the wagons.
“Xing Yun. Your parents passed away early, and I’m ashamed we couldn’t help much as your neighbors. I’m afraid we won’t be seeing each other again, so please, take good care of yourself.”
“Don’t worry ma’am, I will,” he smiled back. The matron was very emotional. She sighed and covered her face and got back on the bus, leaving only the girl and Xing Yun facing each other.
The girl bowed her head wordlessly. Her eyes shone wetly in the flickering torchlight.
“There will be other loves in the south.” Xing Yun looked out the alley. He abruptly whispered, “I am not a good man.” The faint words were heavy. Shen Li jerked up to look at him. In the soft light, there was a poignant beauty to his profile. His eyes were placid. He wasn’t heartless, simply indifferent.
Shen Li gazed at him dazedly. She suddenly thought, that perhaps this man was much more complicated than she’d thought.
The girl heard his words. Her eyes reddened, twin tears dashing down. She bowed deeply in farewell. “Take care, Brother Xing Yun.”
There was no returning once she left. They would never cross paths again.
Shen Li sighed out as Xing Yun watched the wagons rattle into the distance.
Couldn’t the rattling wheels mask her escape?
Shen Li’s eyes gleamed. She looked left and right. There was no one here but Xing Yun, who was watching his former neighbors depart. Shen Li squeezed through the ajar door, and made madly for the alleyway entrance.
]She came out onto the street, where peddles were setting up for the morning. Shen Li looked behind her, but Xing Yun hadn’t followed. She heaved a sigh of relief. This Xing Yun was too strange: he could understand her, but he wasn’t at all afraid of her. She was heavily injured right now and had to hide from the forces of the Demon Realm; she didn’t have time to deal with him.
Hold on… Heavily injured? Shen Li opened her wings in bewilderment. How’d she have the strength to rush out madly like that?
She thought back carefully. It’d been like this yesterday morning when she woke up too. Her strength was recovering extremely quickly.
Was it something Xing Yun did? Or was it in the food? Shen Li remembered those abnormally delicious steamed buns and that amazingly aromatic bowl of rice and veggies yesterday. She swallowed her drool painfully.
“What’s with this weird chicken!” A boorish voice rang behind her. “Did you come here to be my dinner?”
She swiveled her head and saw a burly man bearing down on her. Like Shen Li’d allow caught the same way again; she whipped around and pecked the outstretched hand.
The man screeched in pain. “Chicken! I’ll snap your neck!” he threatened.
Shen Li bolted. She darted under a stall table, the man hot on her heels. He crashed into the stall, triggering a quarrel with the stallkeeper, and Shen Li took off though the network of stalls. A plank of wood blocked her way; she skidded to a halt. Then she was yanked up by the neck. “Knock it off already, I’ve got your chicken.” Another peddler was hauling Shen Li back.
Shen Li sucked in a breath and scratched at the man with her talons, leaving three bloody gashes on the back of his hand. “Argh! What a savage chicken!” Hurt, he let go. Shen Li dropped down. She didn’t have the breath to curse him. She scrambled away, making like an arrow down a narrow alleyway. When she was sure no one was chasing, she stopped and toppled down, panting.
Mortal chickens have it so hard…
As she was thinking this, the gate behind her opened with a creak. A bucket of silty water leftover from washing veggies was upended all over her.
“What’s with the racket today?” a woman said. Plop plop. The slimy vegetable leaves slid down Shen Li’s head and onto the ground. She was stunned. Seething, she slowly pivoted to face the young woman.
What was this crap on her…
Her eyes met the woman’s. Then their difference in height immediately reminded Shen Li of her current status and of the near-catastrophe yesterday. Shoot, she thought just as the woman grabbed her by her wings. “Whose chicken is this? It’s all plucked and yet still running about.”
Shen Li kicked out desperately as a man came out from the house. “it’s not the neighbor’s chicken, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of work to do today, so let’s have chicken stew tonight.”
Damn your stew! Shen Li was furious. She railed against the heavens, Can you NOT think of eating every time you see a chicken?! Chickens are also living things; you should treat them with more respect and consideration!
The man straightened his clothes and prepared to go out. The woman accompanied him to the door. He turned around and patted her head. “Much obliged, my dear.”
The woman blushed. Her grip loosened. Shen Li took this opening to bite her. She yelped in surprise. Shen Li broke free, dropping down to the ground and bolting out of the alley, leaving the couple to continue their PDA.
She reached the city limits by noon. Along the way, Shen Li had encountered over a dozen hopefuls with chicken-dinner on their minds. She was beat. Tired and starving, she plunked her butt down on the grassy river bank and dunked her head in the water to drink a few mouthfuls. Then she gazed at the swollen gray sky. There looked to be a spring shower incoming.
“This is your harassment, right?” Shen Li addressed the sky bleakly.
Thunder rumbled. The rain pattered down. Shen Li rose with effort to find shelter from the rain.
She turned her head, and there he was, a man in blue and white robes, standing on top of the river bank and carrying a basket on his back. Their eyes locked. Shen Li was moved for a moment.
It was as though in the depths of hell, she had found a single, sunny yellow little daylily.
Even if that man was far from a little daylily, even if the scene of a man and a chicken staring soulfully at each other was far from fairytale-like.
Xing Yun gazed at the bedraggled Shen Li through the increasingly hazy veil of rain for a long time. Then he suddenly looked away, smirking.
He…he’s definitely laughing at me!
“Bird-brain.” Xing Yun mouthed. He took out and opened an oil-paper umbrella from the basket on his back, then walked towards Shen Li slowly, step by step.
Shen Li was too tired in both body and mind to flee. Although she didn’t know what sort of person Xing Yun was, but right now the worst possible thing that could happen to her was being stewed. At the very least, she could have a last supper if she went with Xing Yun.
Under the unfurled oil-paper umbrella was dry. “Cluckity cluck, I thought you were running away for good. But you were waiting here for me to bring you home, huh.” Shen Li hung her head, ignoring him. Without minding the filth, Xing Yun picked her up and placed her in the basket on his back. “You’re quite something. In barely half a day you’ve already managed to get into such a sorry state. That’s a feat in and of itself.”
“Bawk!” Mind your own business and keep walking! Shen Li fumed, “Bawk!” You’re so full of it.
Xing Yun suppressed a smile and stopped speaking.
The paper umbrella totally protected them from the rain; not a single drop fell on Shen Li’s bald skin.
After an exhausting half a day, Shen Li was quickly lulled to sleep by the swaying of the basket. But it wasn’t long before she was awakened by a chill. Half-conscious, she shuddered and reached out to bite.
“What a fearless drumstick.” Xing Yun moved back a little. He was holding a ladle.
Shen Li shook the water from her bare wings. She eyed at him warily. “What are you doing?”
“What else can I do?” Xing Yun laughed, “You’re as dirty as freshly dug roots. I’m going to wash you all together, unless you prefer another dunk in the pond?”
Shen Li looked around. She was in a large wooden basin with a bushel of wild ginseng. Shen Li scratched them; they looked no different from lumps of dirt. Xing Yun grabbed her claws with a free hand. “Careful, they sell for less damaged,” he said.
“You were…selling ginseng?”
“What else could I sell?” Xing Yun held her leg, scrubbing them with a loofah until it was clean. The he switched to the other leg. He paused as if he’d thought of something, and grinned at Shen Li. “What did you think I was selling?”
The too-pretty face leaned closer, making Shen Li’s heart skip a beat. The Azure Sky King flushed at Xing Yun’s teasing smile and bellowed furiously, “Insolence!” She pecked Xing Yun’s nose. Unprepared, Xing Yun staggered backwards, holding his nose. He didn’t raise his head again.
Shen Li was still resentful, but Xing Yun hung his head, motionless. She began to worry that she’d pecked too hard. What if he really was hurt? And—what if he took revenge on her right now—Shen Li was silent.
While she was at loss, Xing Yun’s shoulders began shaking. Shen Li looked at him in bewilderment until she heard his laughter. Shen Li was flabbergasted. Did her beak contain a neurotoxin? Was he crazy now?
Xing Yun lowered his hand from his swollen red nose and walked over fearlessly. He patted her head. “That was great.” He wasn’t the least bit angry and picked up the loofah and continued washing wild ginseng.
Shen Li sank back down into the wooden basin. She couldn’t make head or tails of him…
“Bird-brain.” Shen Li raised her head at his voice, only for sopping wet wad of mud to slap her in the face. The sludge slid down, blocking her tiny nostrils. She hastily opened her beak to breath, but the mud ran into her mouth as well. Shen coughed and thrashed in the basin.
Xing Yun continued to calmly wash wild ginseng.
He…he’s just a brat! A petty-minded, snot-nosed brat!
Shen Li decided to stay with Xing Yun for the time being. Reason being: a) her strength was recovering very quickly here. In two to three days, she was no longer encumbered by the wound Mo Fang had left.
And b) she didn’t want to become chicken stew.
What worried Shen Li was that she didn’t know when her magical energy would recover, and when she could return to human form, which meant that she didn’t know when she could leave this place, and when the pursuers from the Demon Realm find her.
Thankfully, time passed faster in the Celestial Realm, so she had plenty of time.
“Time to eat,” Xing Yun called from the inside the house. Shen Li skipped to the dinner table and sat down.
Shen Li was sure Xing Yun’s food was what was behind her recovery speed, so she licked up every crumb every day. Except… “Why is steamed bread again?” Shen Li eyed the plate disgruntledly. She rapped the rim with her talons.
You’d get fed up with the same thing every day, no matter how delicious it was. And most importantly, she wanted meat and wine!
“Is it not good?”
“It’s good, but I want to eat meat.”
Shen Li was at an impasse at these two words. She looked up at Xing Yun, who was also chewing steamed bread, and examined him up carefully. “We can’t even have meat occasionally? You might not look rich, but you can’t be all that poor either, can you?”
Xing Yun smiled nonchalantly. “I’m very poor. It’s because I’m too charitable.”
Although it was immodest, it was the truth.
Shen Li looked out at the ginseng sun-drying in the yard. “What about the wild ginseng? You should earn quite a sum for those,” she said.
“I exchange it for medicine from the pharmacist,” he said mildly, as if unconcerned about his own health.
Shen Li was thrown. She stuttered, at a loss and finally dropped her head and continued eating her steamed bread.
At night, when she was sure that Xing Yun was asleep, Shen Li sat in the courtyard and absorbed the moonlight to circulate her inner energy. Then she pushed with her claws towards a white stone in front of her. The stone would briefly glow like gold; then the radiance would fade, and it would just be an ordinary rock.
Shen Li sighed. As expected, it was still no good. She lacked the power to use even the most basic spell, the golden touch.
She sat beside the rock a little dejectedly. This was the first time she’d ever felt so useless.
Shen Li looked at the dark house. The night breeze carried over the fragrance of medicine. Shen Li beat her wings and stood again. She gazed at the moon intently.
She owed Xing Yun a debt of gratitude. She knew that one should repay their debts. But while Shen Li was a king, hers was a military position. She knew how to kill her enemies, not how to cure the sick. If she couldn’t cure his illness, then she would provide for the rest of his life.
Shen Li took a deep breath and channeled the moonlight through her body. Leaning down, she touched the white stone with her beak. Rays of light splintered out as Shen Li opened her eyes. The rock blazed with golden light, but once again, it faded to nothing. Furious, she kicked the stone ferociously, “You useless thing!” before grabbing her foot and squawking, “It hurts.” while hopping around. Shen Li glowered at the white stone. “Damn rock!”
In the end, she came back to the rock and continued attempting the golden touch.
Completely focused on the rock, Shen Li was oblivious to the amused eyes watching her from doorway of the dark house.
After her nth failure, the man in blue robes turned and went back inside.
Xing Yun rummaged around in the cupboards and found a dozen coppers. He weighed it in his hand for a while. “I should go buy some meat tomorrow.”