“Come on now, Xian’er, stay still for me, okay?” Meiling asked her little brother, as she tied the red sash around his waist. He was fidgeting, like all little boys did at his age, eager to go out and play.
“Everybody else is outside already, Meimei!” he grumbled, upset that he had to get dressed up more than any of his friends.
“Yes, they are. They aren’t going to be the next leader of Hong Yaowu, however. There is a time for play, little brother, and there is a time for duty.”
He pouted, but accepted her judgement.
“Besides, if you went out earlier, you’d be falling asleep tonight. Didn’t you say you’d be able to see the sun with the rest of us this year?”
Xian flushed at her words. He had nearly made it last year, after boasting for months that he would be able to stay up all night with the rest of the adults. And then he ended up passed out on her shoulder. It was cute, but her arms were sore by the end of it, after carrying him on her back for hours.
He was starting to get heavy. She used to be able to lift him up without any strain at all. How time changed things.
“I’ll make it this year.” he muttered stubbornly, refusing to look at her. “And next year dad is teaching me the Sun Dance.” That part was said with a fair amount of pride.
She smiled at him.
“And then, you get to dance all night. You’re right, maybe I should let you out to play. You need to build up your endurance.”
He went silent, as he realised the implications. Finally, she could work uninterrupted. She just had this last piece, and then he would be done. He obligingly lifted up his feet for her, and she helped him get on his hide boots, tightening the laces so they wouldn’t come off.
She finished tying the knot, and stood up to examine her handiwork. His warm robe, and jacket looked like the colours of the dawn, reds and oranges symbolising the fires that would burn through the Longest Night. “Well, there's the little headman. So handsome.” she teased, and pressed a sloppy kiss to his cheek.
“Meimei!” He yowled, disgusted by the spit on his cheek. He glared at her, and leaned forwards, as if going for some retaliation. She leaned back, dodging. Instead, he leapt from the stool he was on, and raced out of her grasp, turning around once to stick his tongue out at her.
“Stupid head!” he called, rubbing his arm against his face to get the worst of her attack off.
She, as the mature older sister, stuck her tongue out straight back. He giggled, and fled from the house. She smiled fondly at his exit. He really had grown up so fast. Ten years of difference between them, and sometimes, she felt like she was already a mother.
She sighed, and went to check up on her father. He was in his office, stripped down to his waist, and deep in meditation. In front of him, a candle burned. He always looked troubled when he was meditating, his brow scrunched up, and his face in a slight frown.
But he needed this. He had a long, long night ahead of him, and this was even more taxing than the Dragon Dance.
His eyes opened as she entered, but his breathing remained the same.
“Daughter.” he greeted, as some of the worry lines disappeared from his face.
“Just wanted to see if you needed anything, father.” She whispered, unwilling to disturb the quiet of the room.
He shook his head. “I need nothing else.” He demurred, “Nothing but some more time to collect myself.”
She nodded her head at her father’s request, and exited the room.
She had to get ready too.
Her own robes were dark red, with a few highlights of lighter orange, to be hidden by a dark shawl, with white fur around the collar. Now, it was time to start helping out. Most of the preparations were done, but everybody always appreciated another hand in the kitchens.
She exited her house, and went out into the cold air.
The village was bedecked in colour. Like the Mid-Autumn festival, red paper lanterns hung from the houses, and red cloths were strung between the roofs.
The smell of cooking and food permeated the villages, the scent of glutinous rice balls and soup.
It was a good smell, with fond memories. She had always loved sitting in her mother’s lap, and watching the sun rise.
The others in the kitchen greeted her as she approached, tossing her an apron so that she could start working as well.
The day was short, and there was lots of work to do.
They heard it before they saw it. The steady ching ching ching of bells. The puffing of animals. The sky was overcast and grey. The snowfall and the mist limited visibility.
The children heard it. They turned from their games, and towards the noise. Curious, and excited. The adults watching stood, having a good idea of who was visiting them. Only one man came from that direction.
Deep, joyous laughter sounded out.
From the mist, something emerged.
It started as a silhouette. A strange, puffing beast, with tusks and antlers upon his head. Another, her nose painted red.
Together, they pulled a magnificent sleigh. It was bedecked with pine branches and the wood was lacquered in shining scarlet, silver and gold stars running down its side. A man stood upon it, his arms crossed, and one of his legs placed up on the front of the sled.
He wore a bright red robe and a fur-lined jacket, mostly similar to what the rest of the village was wearing. The only thing strange about it was the pointed and fur-lined hat, with a pom-pom on the end.
He was with a rooster, who also had a hat, the beast perched primly on his shoulder, and a cat, who lay on the front of the sleigh with a ball held in its mouth. It was an amusing sight.
“Jin!” The children cried happily, and he laughed again.
“Hahahahahaha! Hey, everybody!” He shouted, as the sleigh came to a stop. He slung the massive sack over his shoulder, and picked up a jar, before hopping off the sleigh.
“Good tidings on the solstice!”
“Good tidings on the solstice!” The children echoed back.
The children crowded around, as he began his march to the center of the town. They eyed his over-large sack with excitement, or began scratching the boar that they all remembered, who had pulled them around the fields for hours. He huffed happily at the attention, shoving his nose into faces, and sniffing happily.
Jin greeted the rest of the adults, some simply nodding in his direction, while others clasped his arm in a more informal greeting.
Meiling poked her head out from the kitchen, and rolled her eyes at the sight of the advancing man. Jin came to a stop just outside her own house, and sat down on one of the chairs.
“Now,” he began, “I have one question to ask you all. Have you been good children this year? Have you listened to your parents?”
The children nodded eagerly. Jin stroked his chin consideringly. “Oh? Will your parents say the same?” He asked, and several of the eager children suddenly became worried.
Several parents laughed, and some shook their heads, amused.
“Now then, let's see what I have in my sack….” He made a great show of rummaging around in it.
“I believe I have something here for Zi Qi…” The little girl’s eyes widened, as she was handed a smaller sack, and eagerly opened it. She gasped at the small toy and cookies. She grabbed her necklace, and held it up beside the small stuffed butterfly. “It matches what dad made for me!” she cheered.
It only spurred on the growing excitement.
Each child got a small sack, two cookies and a toy. The cookies were devoured, and they ran off to play, with Chun Ke in tow, leaving Jin in his chair, and watching them fondly. Jin smiled at Meiling, as she approached.
“...Not too disruptive, I hope?” He asked her quietly, and she shook her head.
“Joy helps bring back the sun. Joy, colour, fire. Little sparks that the sun can see, even when its so deep in its slumber.” she said simply.
Meiling didn’t resist as an arm hooked around her waist, pulling her into Jin’s lap.
“What possessed you to put horns on Chun Ke though?”
“It was funny.” He said honestly. She rolled her eyes, shook her head in bemusement.
“You are so strange.” She told him fondly.
Jin grinned, and reached into his bag again, bringing out a large cookie, and a small stuffed cat.
She raised an eyebrow at the cookie. It was well done, though she thought her smile didn’t get quite that wide. “Me? Am I supposed to eat myself? It seems a bit morbid.”
Jin shrugged. “I could always eat you up, if you want.” he mused, leering at her. She rolled her eyes and took a bite of the cookie.
Her eyes widened. “This is really good.”
“I’ve got enough so that everybody should be able to have some, not just the kids.” Several of the parents crowded around, as he opened his bag wider, and handed out a jar. Noises of appreciation sounded out, as his gifts were devoured. Somebody handed him a honey candy, and he popped it in his mouth.
The sleigh moved past at a sedate rate, crowded with children as they cheered on mighty Chun Ke, to the sound of jingling bells.
“We’ll come back, every year.” Jin said to her. “Or whenever you want to. Doesn’t have to be a special occasion. Family is important.
“I swear, it had antlers this big--” Yun Ren said, stretching out his arms as wide as he could make them. His movements caused the knitted snake he was using like a scarf to bounce around.
“Sure, it did.” His brother harrumphed, as he stuffed another cookie into his mouth. “And I’m the Magistrate.” He had complained mightily about how he wasn’t a child… but he hadn’t taken his hand off the stuffed dog.
Ah, the ones that got away stories. They were always good, but I was actually kind of sure Yun Ren was telling the truth this time. It was xianxia land. Maybe it was a magic deer?
“Yun Ren lies as naturally as he breathes,” Meimei heckled him, and his face flushed. She was currently wearing my Santa hat, and had the kitted cat stuffed in the front of her shirt.
It was cute. I’d have to make her a hat too.
“I’m not lying! I swear, it was out past the creek-”
It was steadily darkening, and we had been served dinner. I’ll admit, the glutinous rice balls weren’t my favourite, but they were traditional. I looked back through Jin Rou’s memories, and smirked. He hadn’t liked them much either.
There were a lot of snacks and sweets, which agreed with my tastebuds a lot better. The village version of gingerbread was super spicy, and delicious. Honestly, I thought it was nearly a match for my own family recipe. It was like getting punched in the face with pepper and ginger. There was also Honey candy, and dried fruits rounded things out. The kids had eventually gotten bored of riding around on the sleigh, and had found another source of fun.
Namely throwing pieces of food over Washy’s jar, and watching him leap up to snap them out of the sky. The little glutton was in heaven, eagerly popping his head out of the water to slap his fins on the edge, demanding more food. Even some adults had joined in, trying to get the little bits of nuts past the all consuming void.
Chunky was being used as a back rest, and Peppa was nearby, simply watching over the children. Big D was on Meiling’s roof, Rizzo on his back, as he examined the town.
Tigger was playing with her new toy out in the forest. My guys had gotten their gifts a bit early. Tigger’s was a reinforced hacky sack. I’d probably need to do a lot of maintenance on it, because qi reinforcement only lasted so long. It was something that could take her hits for a while, and she had been extremely pleased with the present. Big D got a new perch that had been installed on the top of the house. Chunky had gotten a new hockey stick, Peppa a selection of dried fruits and nuts, which she had enjoyed immensely, Rizzo had gotten a new bag, and Washy a new basin for him to sit in at dinner. The rest had their gifts back home. Tigger was the only one that refused to put hers down.
There was an angry splash, and a person started shouting with fear. Somebody had gotten smart, and tried to use a rock instead of a piece of food.
Washy had taken exception to this.
One of the older boys was yelping and howling as he ran away from an irate fish. Washy’s bounces were impressively high, and he could move fast enough to keep up with the guy trying to lose him.
I was going to intervene, but… the rest of the village found it funny, so I let it go.
It was pretty damn funny.
I turned back to my family, and continued listening to Yun Ren’s story about the buck that had escaped him.
Finally, I asked what had been on my mind for the entire time I had been here.
“Yun Ren, why is your skin tinted blue?”
He flinched, and then scowled at his brother and Meimei. They both looked entirely too innocent.
“Some people don’t know how to take a joke.” he said flatly.