“Now, this is how one sets the fire for the morning! And then, we must commence our guard duty! Our charges need much protection, and our presence soothes them!”
‘Yes, Senior Sister!’ Yin nodded seriously as Tigu lectured, the cat inordinately proud at how sincerely Yin was calling her by her won title. She also still had his feather tucked behind her ear. It was both annoying and flattering how proud she was of the feat. Annoying, on account of her being insufferably smug, and flattering that she thought so highly of him that a single feather was considered a great milestone. ‘Then, after that we can fight?’
Tigu nodded. “Once we have completed our duties, we shall spar! If you wish to be part of Fa Ram, you must be strong in your own way!”
The rabbit nodded again rapidly. ‘And… what about food? Are we truly to eat whenever we are hungry?’
The girl cocked her head to the side. “Why would you not be?” she asked, confused.
After all, neither she nor Bi De himself had ever truly known what it was like to go hungry, as both Yin and Miantiao had spoken of. Yin nodded happily, the novelty still fresh.
“Now, we must go to Mistress. She was distracted by the snake yesterday, but you too need to be in good health!”
Tigu marched off, and Yin followed behind.
Bi De’s eyes found Miantiao, the snake deep in conversation with his Great Master about glass. Despite having just met, the two seemed to understand each other quite well, and the snake was a wellspring of knowledge. Miantiao’s eyes were a bit livelier than normal, as he pointed to a part on the drawing with his tail.
There was the brief patter of rain, and a flash of a giant body, before a fish sailed through the window and into his tub. He slapped the sides of it happily, as Disciple Xiulan appeared, upon floating blades, her face at peace, the last of whatever plagued her fading into nothingness.
Even she had pledged her support, saying that she would scour her Sect’s library for him, to see if she could glean any information that would aid his quest.
It was humbling, how much things had changed in his absence.
Bi De had seen how much Fa Ram had changed in merely his first year, and yet… he had presumed that when he returned, he would find things much as they had been.
That was not the case. Of course, his fellow disciples had grown in his absence. Of course, things had changed.
Their strength had all grown in leaps and bounds. While before, neither Tigu nor Disciple Xiulan nor both together could ruffle his feathers, now he was unsure if he could duel both of them at the same time and come out unharmed.
He was still not entirely sure what to think of Tigu changing her form to become human, or Wa Shi becoming a dragon. Chow Ji’s twisted form still flashed in his mind for a brief instant whenever he saw Tigu, yet instead of a vicious, bloodthirsty creature, changing her form had relaxed the cat considerably.
He never thought he would see the day when Tigu and Sister Ri Zu willingly travelled together. Nor the day when Tigu willingly allowed him to sit upon her shoulder. She even seemed eager and excited to show him around.
He took in a breath, and sighed with contentment.
How he had missed this.
‘Brother Bi De,’ a tiny voice called, but it was louder, and more confident than normal. He turned to the rat, in her little green robe. She was as fetching as ever.
‘Sister Hong Ri Zu,’ he called back, emphasising her surname. It suited her. Ri Zu blushed.
‘Have you thought of your decision yet?’ she asked him, as she set the food down
‘It was an act of extreme generosity for The Great Master to offer his own name to me,’ he said quietly. ‘And yet… another calls to me. Fa. After the land we live upon, blessed Fa Ram. Fa Bi De.’
‘A good name,’ Ri Zu praised, as she sat beside him. There was no twitchiness to be found. No sudden pressing up against his body. Instead, a quiet confidence.
It looked good on her. And yet, there was one thing he had to ask.
‘When I set out again, with our Great Master. This time… Will you join me?’ he asked her. Like he had asked the first time. The first time, she had refused, citing her own weakness, but perhaps, she too had grown enough? Was confident enough in herself? He had missed her dearly.
The rat’s eyes widened with shock. She took a breath, as if to say yes, and then clearly stopped herself.
She raised herself up, and, to Bi De’s surprise, she shook her head.
‘Ri Zu has sworn to go to the tournament with Xiulan, Gou Ren, and Tigu. Ri Zu will keep this promise.’ Her resolve was firm. She was going to travel out of Fa Ram, and with the others to a place that could well be full of danger.
‘This time, Ri Zu will tell you a tale of her adventures!’
Resolve. Resolve, like when she challenged Chow Ji. Some of the shock, and pain at the rejection faded. She too wished to better herself. To see more of the world, and while he was away, she had strived to do just that.
The rooster closed his eyes, and smiled.
He tucked his wing around his companion, who squeaked with embarrassment.
‘I look forward to hearing every word, Sister Ri Zu,’ he said earnestly.
I stared out, over the fields, and up to the hills in the distance.
The predawn light was warming my skin, and just starting to cast a golden glow over the entire landscape.
I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the smell of the earth. Of ripe rice, of fruits nearly ready to eat, of the vegetables in the garden.
The smell of the beginning of the harvest.
The first time the harvest had begun… I was alone. Well, Big D was there, but I hadn’t yet noticed that he was more than he appeared to be.
There was a small part that was appealing about the idea. A single man against the world. Building his life alone, a true pioneer in every way.
It was a hard life, but I still looked back on that time fondly.
Or maybe I was just being a bit dramatic, and nostalgic?
It had been work. Hard, backbreaking work, and a bit lonely.
Until some friends came.
I looked to either side of me.
Meimei stretched her arms above her head, letting out a cute little sound. The small bump that was her stomach strained the fabric slightly, the life growing within getting bigger by the day.
Gou Ren yawned, as he washed his hands in the river.
Just missing number three. Yun Ren’s grin formed in my head.
That had been the real start. The moment when I realized somebody in this world actually, genuinely cared.
For the first time since I came here, I finally felt like I wasn’t alone. The moment when building the house had gone from distraction, to something I was serious about. When the thoughts of asking a cute girl to marry me became more than idle fantasy.
It was probably the moment that this place truly became “home”.
It had only been a year ago, and yet it already felt like a lifetime.
I turned around.
Big D stood on a rock, basking in the sun. His feathers sparkled in the light, glittering and iridescent. Rizzo was talking with Peppa about ledgers and storage rooms. Washy, in his dragon form, was sharing an early carrot he had pilfered from the garden with Chunky. The boar chuffed happily, as Washy started mentioning honey glazes, and baking them with spices, his fishy eyes gleaming with excitement.
Tigu was leaning over Xiulan’s back and pushing against it, nattering about something as the older woman attempted to meditate. The exasperation mixed with fondness, until she flipped Tigu over her shoulder and shoved the cat’s head into her lap, stopping her from jostling so much.
Babe the ox was the only one who was getting actual meditation done, beside his plow under a tree, his eyes closed in contentment. A few days of working on the road, and then back immediately for more cutting.
The sheep were already hard at work cropping the grass, while the calves and cows were clustered near Babe, lowing softly.
Finally, were our two newcomers. The Rabbit, Yin, was sat up on her haunches beside Big D, her nose twitching and ears flicking excitedly, while Noodle the snake was silent, simply watching the rising sun with his one good eye.
He turned to me… and nodded his head.
I took another breath, and let it out slowly.
“Heh. Looks like we’re collecting the entire zodiac,” I muttered. Meimei’s eyes glanced around, and alighted with realization. She let out a little laugh.
“It seems we’re only missing two,” she mused.
Gou Ren scratched his chin, looking at everybody. ”Eh? We’re missing the horse, the goat, the dog, the monk…ey...” He trailed off as he saw Meimei’s lips twitch, and he sighed.
“...only if Yun Ren is the dog,” he grunted, as Meimei giggled. “We also have two snakes.” He levelled a look at the laughing woman.
“Tigu’er is our tiger. Do the sheep count? Then we only need the horse,” I said, my own lips forming into a smile. “And I don’t think riding me counts, Meimei.” I cut her off as her mouth opened, her eyebrows already waggling.
I shook my head, and picked up my sickle. I tested its sharpness.
I glanced at the bags we had prepared, the preparations for storage.
I took another breath, and glanced back up. At family and friends.
“Everybody ready?” I asked.
A rooster crowed. A rabbit thumped her foot against the ground. Gou Ren cheered. A Dragon roared, eager for the first dish after the harvest.
Qi Blades formed. “This Rou Tigu shall harvest the most! I shall surpass all others!”
Xiulan’s eyes narrowed at that. Yin bounced eagerly.
Several knives and another sickle floated into the air.
And so we began.