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Meiling was standing on a stool, as Hu Li fixed Meiling’s mother’s dress around her. It fit well, for she and her mother had roughly the same build- though it had been a bit loose in the chest, and tight at the hips.

Things had been uncomfortably subdued, since the Xong Brothers had stayed with Jin. It had been fifteen days since her father returned without them, with private news about Gou Ren and Yun Ren. Yao Che, her father, Ten Ren and Hu Li had all been on edge. While the menfolk had gone off into the forest to try and “tap” the maple, she had got the unenviable task of keeping Hu Li occupied. So she was stuck as a dress-up doll, as Hu Li poked and prodded at her. Jewelry was given to her and discarded as swiftly as she finished putting it on.

Her hair was brushed so much she was worried that it might start to fall out. And she didn’t know how much more braiding and tending she could take. But she kept silent, as Hu Li worked. The normally jovial woman looked pale and ill, her face pinched with worry,

“No, no, how about this one--” Hu Li muttered as she braided Meilng’s hair into a style she knew was from Hu Li’s tribe. A little inappropriate for a wedding, but the style did look nice. The feathers were rather fetching.

‘Master is beautiful-gorgeous!’ Ri Zu squeaked happily.

“Thank you, Ri Zu.” Meiling responded, nodding to her able student, as Hu Li moved away to begin rummaging through a box.

Ri Zu was progressing well. Meiling hadn’t been joking when she said the rat was better than her little brother-- though when little Xian was upstaged by a rat, he started taking his own studies with a bit more seriousness. “Not this one either--” She turned around, and approached, her hands reaching for Meiling’s hair again.

“Hu Li.” Meiling whispered, catching the older woman’s hands. Her elder started, and looked away, embarrassed. Her hands shook a little.

“I’m sorry, Meimei--I--” Hu Li began, fidgeting slightly in her grip. She sighed, and took a deep breath.”....A mother worries.”

“It's all right.” She said. “But… I trust Jin. He won’t lead them astray. Besides, those idiots are probably hitting each other with sticks right now, or jumping into a freezing river.”

Hu Li snorted, some of the tension draining out of her shoulders.

“That does sound like my boys.” She mused, shaking her head. Hu Li pulled her into a hug. “Thank you, Meiling.”

Meiling rested her head on top of Hu Li’s, the stool making her, for the first time, taller than the vulpine woman.

“Now, let's get you out of that dress.” Hu Li decided, “I think we’ve mostly narrowed down the hairstyle and the jewelry-- we’ll wait for Meihua to make the final decisions.”

Meiling nodded, as she began stripping out of the dress her mother had used, with Hu Li’s help. It didn’t take long until they were seated at the table, having tea.

The front door opened up, admitting Xian, Che and Ten Ren. They al looked tired.

Hu Li perked up “how's the syrup comin’?” She asked.

Xian held up a single jar, the size of a large gourd. “This is all we got from the harvest. There's only one tree that we could find, and even with Jin warning us, it consumed more fuel than we thought to boil it down enough. I don’t think we’re going to be doing it too much.”

“Tasty though.” Che mused, “I can see why Jin was so excited.”

Ten Ren said nothing, merely sitting beside his wife.

Meiling perked up, wondering what the syrup tasted like-- when she was interrupted.

There was Qi approaching the village. One was Jin, she wouldn’t mistake the spicy smell of winter for anything.

There were two more, half hidden by Jin’s smell. They were achingly familiar, two scents that she had gotten so used to that she didn’t even know they were missing until they returned.

The smell of wood and loam. Like a forest, in the height of summer. A little bit like medicine. The nostalgic smell of Hong Yaowu.

“...Yun and Gou are back.” She whispered, and all heads at the table snapped to her. The syrup at the table was abandoned, as they rushed outside.

They did not have to wait long for Jin to appear, pulling his cart. But this time, instead of the Xong brothers riding--the were running alongside Jin, looking absolutely exhausted.

Hu Li captured her husband’s hand, her eyes open fully as she tried to see anything different about her sons.

The distance disappeared, and Jin waved in greeting.

“Hey, everybody!” he said cheerfully, “Wonderful day, isn’t it?”

“Like hell it is!” The brothers chorused, glaring at him.

“You made us run all the way from your place! I feel like my legs are gonna fall off, you bastard!” Gou Ren moaned, while his elder brother just slumped down, gasping for air.

Jin, ever cheerful, simply ignored their threats. “I’ve got presents!” He declared, hugging Meiling, and clasping Xian’s forearm in greeting. He reached into his cart and pulled out a jug the size of Meiling’s torso. “We got a lot more than we bargained for. Man, the trees were just going like crazy!”

Some of the tension drained, as Jin was talking about the amount of jugs he had managed to fill, and the fact that Gou Ren and Yun Ren looked exactly the same. Even acted the same.

“Now, you’ve got to try these-- I brought some eggs, but do you guys have any milk?”

Jin was a whirlwind of excitement, eager to show them all something. Meiling’s father showed him to the kitchen, while Che went to get him the milk he wanted.

Yun Ren sighed. “Hes been goin on about “pancakes” ever since we finished up the syrup.” He sounded irritated. “Refused to make any for us-- even though he gave some to the animals-- before he got to make some for Meimei.” He rolled his eyes, as they sat at the table, the sounds of cooking echoing through the house.

Both brothers looked absolutely fine, and their parents didn’t seem to know how to broach the subject. How does one ask their child if they were planning on becoming soldiers, or leaving forever?

Meiling decided to cut to the pont. “So, what are you two planning to do this year?” she asked.

The Xong brothers looked confused. “You know I’m gonna be at Jin’s this summer.” Gou Ren said, “He's teaching me how to grow rice.”

“I’m up with ma’s dad, in the north.” Yun Ren relayed, laying on his back and staging up at the ceiling.

“No joining a sect?” She asked again. The brothers looked at eachother, and chuckled.

“What, and meditate all day to defy heaven? Sounds like too much work.” Yun Ren said boredly, scratching his stomach. “Besides, have you heard what Jin did when he was a cultivator? It's bad enough doing my own laundry, let alone a hundred other people’s.”

Ten Ren laughed, and Hu Li let go of her husband’s hand.

“Well, its good to know you haven't changed.” Hu Li scolded, but her heart wasn’t in it. “...what does it feel like, being==?” She asked.

“...Like I’ve got a fire in my stomach. Everything is clearer. I can see better. Everything is just.. More.” Yun Ren said, looking at the palm of his hand.

“You're okay though?” Their father asked.

“...Yeah.” Gou Ren said. “I think we’ll be just fine.”

Jin came in at that moment, plates piled high with what looked like hundreds of layers of his “pancakes.” They were thin as a sheet of paper, and perfectly circular.

“Order up!” he shouted cheerily.

“We’re not going to be able to eat all that.” Meiling sighed.

“While they’re hot, while they’re hot!” He demanded, serving out layers to everybody. And then, he reached into his jar with a ladle, and poured a lot of the syrup onto the “pancakes.”

Meiling obligingly cut part of the “cake” off, and dunked it in the syrup. She did have a bit of a sweet tooth.

Stars exploded in front of her eyes.

When she looked up from her cleaned plate, she saw Jin staring at her with amusement.

“Did you even taste that?” Jin asked her.

She grabbed another stack of pancakes.

“..how many times a week can we have these?” She asked.

Jin laughed.

“Well, if you liked that, have I got something else to show you. Here, I’ll need some snow and some sticks. First, you boil the syrup a bit more, and then, you drop it on the snow. When it hardens up from the cold a bit, you use the stick to gather it all up…”

She listened fondly to him, a warm feeling blazing in her stomach.

////////

It was rather gratifying to see how much everybody liked the syrup. Especially Meiling. The little sounds of absolute enjoyment that she made, rocking back and forth happily? 10/10. The rest of the village loved the snow candy too, though we had to deal with a whole bunch of kids hitting maximum sugar rush. Without Chunky to wear them all out.

I had also tried some of the stuff Xian had made… but it didn’t taste as good. Maybe the tree was in a bad place, or they didn’t filter it as thoroughly as I had. Speaking from experience, sometimes the homemade syrup just didn’t turn out that great either.

It was good that I’d made the Xong brothers come back and meet their parents, too. Though I hadn’t phrased it that way, I had just said I had things to do in Verdant Hill, and they had come along. But I think they figured it out. Hu Li and Ten Ren had looked really worried at first.

Most people were getting ready for bed, but I had one last thing I wanted to do before going to bed, and that was to explore the forest a bit. I wanted to see if I could find the baby moose!

I was just pondering what direction to head out in, when I heard Ten Ren call my name. I turned to the man, who looked as calm as he ever did. Ten Ren seemed pretty unflappable. A pretty big contrast to the fiery youth Hu Li had told me about.

The man stood with me, at the entrance to the forest, and clasped his hands together in respect, bowing so low he was parallel to the ground.

“Thank you for taking care of my sons.” It was honest and earnest, full of gratitude. I had after all, done something that would put a normal family in my debt for generations.

I shrugged. “Friends help friends.” I said earnestly.

The man straightened up, and smiled. It was the same smile Gou Ren had-- so wide it looked like it hurt a little bit, with an undercurrent of mischievous, but good natured glee.

“I was going to say I was in your debt… but I don’t think you would accept that. So instead… do you need any help, my friend?”

“Do you know where the Thunderhoof might be?”

He seemed surprised, but he nodded. “I know where its tracks lead. Its quite close tonight.”

We set off into the forest. We were headed off in the direction that I had killed the wolf during my visit. Sure enough, the part where I thought I buried it ws disturbed, the grass underneath the snow eaten. We kept walking. At Ten Ren’s speed, it took about an hour. The forest did not have the silence of the winter. Tonight, it was above freezing, and the forest was making dripping sounds, as the snow truly began their melt. Ten Ren’s feet were silent, even as he padded through the weak, unstable snow. Mine were quite a bit louder.

He paused, and pointed through the trees. Sure enough--there was a moose. It was about deer-sized, with a small set of antlers. Well, small for a moose, they were already damn big. A handsome beast it was. As we watched, I noticed something. A small bit of electricity sparked between the prongs of its antlers.

It turned to regard us. Ten Ren tensed. I bowed my head slightly to the animal--no, it was probably a Spirit Beast now. It had a spark of intelligence in it’s eyes.

The moose regarded us for a moment more, and lowered its head.

I was satisfied.

We left it in peace.

///////

This was my last trip to Verdant Hill before I got married. Just to grab some last minute things,and pick up a few people. Things like our fully armed and operational bed. Nice cotton sheets, down duvet- mattress-- the works. It cost surprisingly less than other beds, because I didn’t like the feel of silk sheets

It would be left in Hong Yaowu on the way back. The bride was supposed to bring the bed with her, something I hadn't noticed last time, during Meihua’s wedding. It was kind of strange to me, but hey, I’m not going to disrespect anybody’s customs unless those customs involve ritually sacrificing people. In which case, I’m disrespecting the shit out of them.

The other part of the custom was the Dowry and the Bride Price, which did make me a bit uncomfortable. Just hearing bride price made alarm bells go off, but really, they were more like wedding presents than me actually buying Meiling. And I think Xian would have poisoned the first person to mention trading Meiling like a commodity.

In any case, I would be grabbing Tingfeng, Meihua, and Uncle Bao after I finished loading everything onto my cart, and running some errands.

“Grandmother!” I called, standing outside the worn down hut. Lan Fan, the goat, stared blankly at me and chewed her cud.

“Whatever it is, I don’t want to buy it--” The old woman grumbled as she exited her shack, shaking her broom threateningly. “Oh! You. Whats your name again boy?”

“Jin, Grandmother.”

“Hmph. What are you here for, boy?”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t find you at new years, but I wanted to give you a gift. You were right, I really did need a cat. This is from me.” I said with a smile at the grumpy old lady. I handed her a small jar of maple syrup. “It's not much, but it's pretty tasty.”

The old lady sniffed at the bottle.

“I hate sweet things.” She said bluntly. Well, not everybody can love syrup.

“And, well, this one is from the cat.”

I put the little wooden cat, the perfect likeness of Tigger, into her hand. The half blind old woman stared at the carving.

She started laughing. Or, well, more cackling.

After a minute of wheezing, she stopped, and stood up from where she was doubled over.

“You’re such a strange boy. Really, a cat carving this?” Her grin was just slightly too knowing for my tastes. Her good eye rolled around in it’s socket before settling on me. “Shoo, shoo boy! Trying to trick an old lady!” She swept her broom threateningly at me.

I went.

“Jin!” She called after me, when I was a ways away. I turned around. “Keep working hard, boy!”

“As always, granny!” I shouted back.

Next, was the Lord Magistrate’s office. The man wasn’t in, but his wife was surprisingly in his office. I hadn’t really gotten a good look at the woman during New Year’s, but she was rather pretty, in a dignified sort of way. Oddly, her hair already had streaks of grey running through it, but she didn’t look old.

I gave her the maple syrup, because the Lord Magistrate was out--apparently some of the villages did flood, and he was on tour, making sure the preparations were up to the standard he had set.

Nice lady, the Magistrate’s wife.

Finally, the exchange, and picking up the people I needed to get.

And then… I was on my way to Hong Yaowu again. Uncle Bao’s voice went surprisingly high when I started running.

We hit the town while it was still daylight, and I unloaded everything I could unload. On my way back home, I went through a checklist, of everything I needed and had. I had a feeling I was missing something.

A smile stole across my face, as I realised what I had forgotten.

Oh, Meimei’s face is going to be absolutely hilarious when she realises what I need to go back and get.

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A note from Casualfarmer

And So we approach the end of the first volume. Beware of Chicken will continue on though. A big thanks to all my Patreons for their support.


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