Chapter 42: Golden Firefly Maple Forest (Part One)
Qianqi offered to clean the fish since he was very good at it. He had stayed in Dongyao all his life and his favorite pastime was swimming in the lake surrounding the Dongyao Palace. Dragons loved water and he felt so free and relaxed when he was in the water that he forgot all the worries he had. He always thought that if his mother was still alive, her embrace would be as soft and gentle as water.
When he got tired, he’d catch fish and grill it with the Merpeople kids on the bank. He had learnt to joke and have fun during the process.
Merpeople had a low ranking in the spirit world. They fared better in Dongyao, but the parents always warned their kids to be cautious with their behavior and words. Most of them would become slaves, servants, singers, or dancers. They were sold as commodities and thus were always wary of strangers.
At the beginning, the Merpeople kids refused to talk to him. When Qianqi was around, they watched him from afar; when he tried to get close, they’d flee immediately. Later, he brought them snacks and toys from the palace and gradually became their friend. The parents were happy to see their children play with the Ember Dragon King’s son; they hoped their children could enter the Dongyao Palace and work for him after they grew up. The Ember Dragon King was benign and his son looked nice and kind, unlike those aristocrats who liked to torture them or treat them as pets. Unlike other species of spirits, Merpeople had a lifespan as short as a human’s and their beauty lasted for only a couple dozens of years.
When they were old and no longer beautiful, their masters would lose interest in them and send them to do the most menial work; soon new Merpeople would replace them as pets. Qianqi had been horrified when he realized that Merpeople ate raw meat. When he handed them grilled fish, they had been reluctant. But after tasting it, they began to love it. They were simple-minded and had simple emotions; they seemed to never despair or feel sorrow, which was maybe a trait they had developed to protect themselves, so they could face and accept their fates more easily.
But they could laugh; it wasn’t a forced laugh to please others but a sincere laugh full of gratitude and admiration. On land, they were the most humble and faithful species but once in water, they’d act quite demonic and used to lure other species of the opposite gender into the water and kill them. Among the Merpeople kids, Yuchan, the girl who had danced for Ouyang Xiaoleng when they visited Dongyao, stood out from the others. She had been friendly with Qianqi since they were children because she never regarded herself inferior because of her low birth; she’d cry and laugh and never disguise her emotions in front of him, which made him dote on her like an older brother.
After cleaning the fish, Qianqi helped Xia Qiu sharpen slim sticks and skewer the fish. He got some salt and other seasonings from Ouyang Hongye and began to grill the fish proficiently with Xia Qiu’s assistance. Ouyang Xiaoleng had no interest in this work and sat on the ground nearby, still savoring the excitement he had had when they played water; it was a joy he had never experienced before.
With the pleasant crackling sounds of firewood, the fragrance of grilled fish permeated the air very soon. Smelling it, Fenghuo stood up from ground and went up to the stove, staring at the steaming fish over the fire.
“Cats love food, especially fish.” Ouyang Hongye teased as Fenghuo disappeared from his side in a flash.
“I can’t go without meat. We ate so poorly since the journey began; I’ve lost much weight,” Fenghuo stroked his belly as he complained.
“Yeah. I can’t go without wine each day, still I’m fed up with our tasteless meals lately,” Wangyue mumbled his agreement as he, too, walked up.
Xia Qiu handed a skewer of grilled fish to Fenghuo, saying, “Here you are, Lord Fenghuo!”
Fenghuo took it and bit into the fish without a word, almost scalding his tongue.
Wangyue said, “You’re not a cat, but a wolf.”
“Stop the nonsense! This is delicious! Thanks, Miss Xia Qiu! And you, little monkey! You don’t call Hongye and Wangyue lords, so please don’t call me lord either. I feel old when you call me that. Just call me Fenghuo as everyone does!” Fenghuo said between big bites of the fish.
“My name is not Little Monkey! When did you give me this nickname?!” Qianqi yelled at him in a huff.
Wangyue took a skewer of grilled fish from Xia Qiu and turned around to call out to Ouyang Hongye and Ouyang Xiaoleng, “Hey! Are you waiting for an invitation? Come on!”
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