Pi Pa observed the Master. Ever since they had returned with the letter from Hong Yaowu, he had been a flurry of activity, painting things red, “knitting” small caricatures of animals, and mixing some kind of dough.
Today, though, there was an absolutely wonderful smell permeating the house. It was spicy and tantalizing, and it came from what the Master called an oven. Oh, she could just eat what was causing that smell all up!
These things intrigued her. The dough smelled absolutely divine.
She wondered what the occasion was.
Bi De thought he knew what was happening, but had said that he needed more time to confirm his thoughts. She had left him to his musings. The arrogant cock who had gotten her dear hurt was no more, and so she would treat him as a gentleman, and a gentleman was allowed time to properly convey themselves.
Indeed, she was quite pleased with his transformation and repentance. He was almost enjoyable to be around now, instead of a morose boor.
Tigu didn’t know either, but acted like she did. Really, that girl fooled no one. She was the most rattled by the Master’s revelation and story, but was so enamoured with him that she would likely never leave. The poor girl was smitten.
Dear Chun Ke had been happy. He just loved life, and this place let him live as he pleased. He got the training he wanted, the food he wanted, and the play he wanted, and so was content. A simple, happy soul, her dear, even after the horrors visited upon him.
As for herself, she didn’t mind much either way. It was a lady’s duty to take care of the household, however large that household was. Her dear lived here, and the Master lived here, so she would remain.
Even if she would occasionally have to perform some unladylike actions. The most recent interlopers had been disgusting. So disgusting, she was still getting belly aches a week after they had been dealt with, which had only started to subside after the Master had granted her some stomach medicine.
But now, she was curious. And the Master seemed to sense their curiosity, and had bid them gather in the main room. Even Wa Shi, the glutton, was collected. The slimy thing had the gall to call them similar. Nay, he was a nasty little bottom feeder, messy and gross, a beggar who wanted to get fat.
She was a lady. Her bites were precisely as big as they were meant to be, and her appetite within all reasonable realms.
Everyone knew that.
The Master paused in his work as they all entered, Wa Shi dangling from her mouth. She placed him gently against the floor.
He made a rather sharp report because of his body shape, and began to whine piteously.
She laid him down a second time, for good measure, just so that he could properly know he was at their destination.
She ignored his blabbering, and sat primly before the Master.
The Master looked greatly amused by the arrival of Wa Shi.
“I’m guessing you want to know what's going on?” The Master asked. She nodded with great dignity.
He put down his needles, and picked up Wa Shi. The slanderous glutton was put into his jar, and the Master sat once more.
“Well, I’ll first ask you a question. Have you noticed the nights getting longer?”
Bi De’s eyes lit up, and the rooster nodded. She supposed they had been. The days had been much longer when she was a piglet, hadn’t they?
“Well soon, it will be the longest night of the year. After then, the nights will start becoming shorter, the days longer, until the snow starts to melt, and spring returns to us.”
Ah, was this what Bi De meant as a cycle? He stood tall and vindicated, nodding his head. How interesting, they would have to have a discussion over tea about these cycles later.
“On that night, there is a celebration. It is a time to be with family and friends, as we stay together during the Longest Night. I would also like to ask for your cooperation. There is something that I would like to do. It reminds me of my home, and it shouldn’t be disrespectful to the festival that they already have. Where I am from, we give gifts to one another, as a reaffirmation of friendship, and our bonds. Particularly to children. I wish to give these to the children of Hong Yaowu, because I received gifts when I was a child. Something fun, on the deepest night of the year. I will need all of your help---”
He paused, and looked at Wa Shi. “Well, almost all your help.”
The glutton slapped his fins upon the edge of the jar, looking upset.
The Master sighed. “This would not be fun for you, you’d be in the jar all night.”
The glutton considered, and slapped his fins again.
“Well, if you think you can handle it, then you may come. No one should be left out of the proceedings.”
They all nodded their heads. This seemed reasonable. Tigu, however, looked angry. Likely angry that the children got presents, and not her.
“Of course, I have gifts for all of you as well.” The Master said, and Tigu’s foul mood vanished as if it had never been. Dear Chun Ke chuffed with excitement.
Even she was quite excited. Oh my, she was not expecting such things!
“You have to wait until the longest night, though, which is what is normally called the solstice.”
Her curiosity was satisfied, but she could tell that Tigu would be scouring the house later, trying to find her own present. Wa Shi looked similarly excited, bubbling happily.
The Master sniffed the air, and considered, before getting up and going to the oven.
He removed the sheet of metal with his bare hands, and placed it upon the table. The smell magnified, and drool nearly escaped her lips. No, she was a lady, and ladies didn’t drool!
No matter how much she wanted to gobble them all up.
The glutton was not so refined. His beady eyes locked onto the dough.
The master turned around, to place another sheet into the oven, when he struck. His body coiled, and he launched himself from the jar towards the Master’s food.
He was caught from the air without the Master even looking.
“Naughty boys and girls, however, get nothing.” He said sternly, and the glutton slumped in his hand, pathetically begging and grovelling for the Master’s mercy.
“You will be on your best behaviour, or you will not be coming.”
His judgement was swift, and brutal. Wa Shi nodded frantically.
The Master smiled at them all.
“You can help me decorate some of the cookies. We’ll save one for Ri Zu to do, when she gets back.”
Indeed, when the “cookies” were cooled, the Master ground some sugar until it was but powder, mixing it with water, and the juice of a lemon.
The Master bought out a crystal. “Now, lets see how this thing works.” He muttered. After a few moments, as the Master concentrated, the crystal began floating in the air
He nodded in satisfaction, and then took the icing, spread it over the cookies. He arraigned before them a selection of dried fruits, nuts, and larger lumps of sugar. In front of all of them, were crude representations of themselves. Even the Master had two in the shape of men.
Pi Pa daintily took each ingredient in her mouth, and made a passable rendition of herself. Dear Chun Ke was distressed. He lacked the fine control to properly decorate the cookie, but the Master aided him, as the Master was wont to do. He let him pick out the nuts he wanted, and placed them, much to his enjoyment.
Tigu, of course, swiftly reconstructed herself in near perfection, her claws cutting and dicing to the proper size. She puffed with pride when the Master praised her skill, looking smugly down at them.
Bi De was humble. His rooster took on few decorations, only enough to add some colour.
Wa Shi, the glutton, had actually managed to restrain himself, and gotten the Master to help him as well. Though his carp looked more like an obese dragon, and was covered with as many nuts as would fit.
The master acted as Bi De did. His creations were humble, but understandable. One of himself, one of his lady.
The master took the crystal out of the air, and studied it intently. He focused again, and an image came to life, projecting itself onto the wall.
It was an image of them, as they had been.
“I’m glad this worked.” the Master mused, “A record. Our first solstice together, may many more follow.”
She stared raptly at the vision. Ah! Her Dear was even more handsome from this angle!
“Now, lets see how they taste-- And Wa Shi is already done.” The Master was amused by the crunching noises coming from the fish.
She daintily placed it in her mouth.
Indeed, it was delicious.
“Zang Li.” a voice called, and he opened his eyes. “The Patriarch has lifted some of your restrictions, in light of your progress. You may leave the inner courtyard, but you are still confined to be within 50 Li of the mountain.”
Zang Li’s head bowed in acknowledgement. Inside, Lu Ban was content. Truly, he was a dragon. Even confined and suppressed, he had risen another stage, enough for the Shrouded Mountain to finally begin to put resources into him.
The first few months had been hell. His “father” had slapped him across the face thirty times for the disgrace he brought to the Shrouded Mountain, and the Patriarch had been so incensed that he had confined him to the inner courtyard, in ripped and tattered robes, so that he could be shamed properly by the other disciples. They knew not what he did, but they laughed anyway.
The joke was on them. Lu Ban had endured far worse than the stuck up disciples could spew at him, and those that tried violence were swiftly suppressed by his superior combat skill.
It was enough that the shame of being defeated in the Azure Hills of all places was beginning to be thought of by the elders as a fluke powerful cultivator, instead of him having lost to a weakling.
Slowly, the Elders stopped sneering, and his “father” had, in private, apologised for striking him so many times.That it was just bad luck that he was caught by some powerful wanderer.
So now, he rose. He would continue to rise. He would take everything that the world owed to him.
When the restrictions ended, he would be powerful. When the restrictions ended, he would have the might of the Shrouded Mountain.
He rose from where he was seated, having finished his cultivation for today.
He stared up at the sky, and a true smile overcame his lips.
The Longest Night was upon them. How he loved the darkness it cast the world in.