But Xiao Zhen shortly forgot to worry about whether Scholar Chang had resumed his previous diligence - because a few days later, Yi Ling developed chills, and then became ill with fever.
"I'm sure it's nothing, Xiao Zhen, don't worry," Aunt Lu said to her, but Xiao Zhen could see how worried her eyes were. When the fever continued to rise, slowly, they sent for a healer on the evening of the second day. When Xiao Zhen saw the expression on her Aunt's face when she came out of Yi Ling's room, she didn't wait to hear what the healer had said - she knew.
Xiao Zhen ran out of the room, out of the house. She ran and ran along the roads and alleyways until she felt she couldn't run anymore. Finally, she stopped, bent over panting, hand against the wall. After she'd managed to catch her breath, she looked up to see where she was; the red pillars of the Temple of Nine Radiances rose up before her. Xiao Zhen stared at the statue smiling sightlessly down at her, its benevolent gaze planting the seed of a desperate idea in her mind.
A week and a day later, Xiao Zhen gently withdrew her hand from her cousin's limp, fevered one. Yi Ling was still coherent, but she tired easily, and after a few minutes of conversation she'd drifted off. Xiao Zhen slipped out of the room and went to find her Aunt.
"Aunt Lu," she said, squaring her shoulders. "I wanted to tell you that I'm going to go and find a cure for Yi Ling, so I'll be away for a while."
Her aunt smiled at her wanly, setting aside her embroidery. "I'm glad you want to help, but your uncle and I have the best healers we can find coming to treat her," she said, although her attempt to sound reassuring felt flat.
Xiao Zhen knelt by her aunt's chair. "Aunt," she said. "I couldn't do this for my family, because I was the only one who didn't get sick and I had to stay and nurse them," she said. "But you and Uncle will take better care of Yi Ling than I ever could, and I know I'm not as learned or wise as the healers you're paying, so I'm not going to do her any good staying here."
Her aunt's brow furrowed. "Xiao Zhen, what are you planning on doing?"
Xiao Zhen raised her chin. "I'm going to travel to Mount Kunlun to the garden of the Queen Mother of the West, and I'm going to get a Peach of Immortality and bring it back for Yi Ling," she said defiantly.
Aunt Lu's jaw dropped a little, and then she recovered. "Xiao Zhen, you - "
"I am," Xiao Zhen snapped. "Why do we make sacrifices and build temples and offer prayers and burn incense to her - to any of the gods if they can't help us?" she said, her voice cracking. "There's nothing I can do for Yi Ling here, and I won't let what happened to my family happen to her."
Aunt Lu looked at her for a long moment. "Are you truly determined to do this, Ah Zhen?" Xiao Zhen swallowed and nodded firmly. Aunt Lu sighed. "Then let me give you some cash and clothes to take with you," she said.
An hour or so later, Xiao Zhen was kneeling in the kitchen of her uncle's tea house, stowing some food in the knapsack her aunt had given her; Aunt Lu had supplied the other necessities, but as far as edibles went the tea house had more appropriate supplies than the kitchen at her uncle's house. Xiao Zhen slung the bag over her shoulder and pushed her way out into the main dining room towards the exit.
"Miss! Xiao Zhen - " Scholar Yuan came up to her, then blinked in confusion. "Oh, excuse me," he said. "Are you traveling somewhere right now?"
Xiao Zhen nodded. "My cousin - " she swallowed. "My cousin is sick," she said. "I'm going to try and get something that can cure her."
"Wait, where are you going? What are you trying to get?"
Xiao Zhen bit her lip, but she wasn't very good at lying when she hadn't had time to plan on what she was going to say. "I'm going to Mount Kunlun. I'm going to get her a peach," she said. Surprise, then understanding, then worry crossed Scholar Yuan's face; Xiao Zhen looked down at her feet braced herself for mockery - how else would any sensible person react when they found out she planned to travel to the home of a goddess to get a fruit meant for gods and emperors? She was as hopeless as the Jing Wei Bird, trying to fill up the ocean by dropping sticks and stones into it.
"But how are you going to get there? Do you know the way?" Xiao Zhen looked up, surprised.
"No - thank you, I'll make sure to stop by the bookseller's to get a map," she said. "Sorry, I should be going," she said, trying to excuse herself.
"Surely you don't mean to travel by youself," Scholar Yuan said.
"Of course - who would go with me?" Xiao Zhen said, confused. Scholar Yuan looked like he was struggling with himself mightily.
"Aiya, I can't let a young girl like yourself go alone," he said. "So I guess I'll have to go with you, then."
Xiao Zhen blinked. "Um, sir - "
"I promise I'm trustworthy!" he said. "I even know the way, I'll be much more useful than if you only take a map."
"But - "
"Have I ever done anything to make you mistrust me?" he asked.
"No, but - "
"But what?" he asked irritably.
"But your studies, sir - if you travel with me, you'll miss your classes at the Academy, you won't be able to study for your exams." Xiao Zhen pointed out.
"Oh." Scholar Yuan looked taken aback. Then he waved dismissively. "It's no problem, I'm sure I'll be able to catch up once I get back," he said cockily.
Xiao Zhen squinted at him. "Does that include your ability to compose poetry?" she asked, hiding a grin.
"Aiya, am I going to have to endure insults from you the entire journey?"
But whatever Scholar Yuan's other faults, he did turn out to be a capable and confident guide. The road leading out of the city was well-maintained, and the terrain flat and easy to traverse, so for the first few days they managed to travel a good distance. It was a lovely, flourishing countryside; they passed by field upon field of healthy crops, and it wasn't difficult to find intermittent meadows with soft grass to set up camp. But then over the next few days after that, Xiao Zhen noticed the landscape becoming drier with each passing li, the vegetation looking more and more withered every step they took.
"Is this region usually so dry?" Xiao Zhen asked, grass crackling underfoot. She took a step forward and almost tripped over something; a large stone, perhaps. But when she looked down, she saw a curious cobblestone pattern; she bent down and picked it up, and realized what she'd tripped over was a tortoise, head and limbs withdrawn into its shell. The animal poked its head out weakly, and Xiao Zhen could see that it looked unusually lethargic, even for an animal that was so slow normally.
"No," Scholar Yuan said, his expression troubled. "No, it's not. There must be a drought, but - " he hesitated. "There's something not right about this." He pulled out the map and studied it for a few moments. "Xiao Zhen, let's head towards the river that runs through this province; the route isn't as direct, but it will be safer and easier."
Xiao Zhen bit her lip; it was true that they were already running low on water, and they couldn't keep traveling like this if the entire region was afflicted with drought. "Very well." She tucked the tortoise carefully under her arm. "I guess our little friend can come along too, he'll be glad to see water again too."
Fortunately, the land alongside the river was still verdant, although only narrow strips lining the banks looked completely healthy. Xiao Zhen set the tortoise down in the grass next to a puddle, where it gratefully began to lap up the water.
"We should set up camp, it's getting late," Scholar Yuan said, already putting his knapsack down; it had taken them more than half a day to reach the river, and it was rapidly approaching dusk. Xiao Zhen sighed, but started helping him.
The next morning, Xiao Zhen woke with a start to find a little boy grinning down at her.
"Hi!" he said, grinning.
Xiao Zhen blinked; the child didn't seem to be a threat. "Hello," she said.
"Where are you from? You aren't from around here, are you going somewhere? Where are you going? Why are you going there? Do you want to play? There's lots of stuff to do on the river, it's fun, you should come play with me!" the little boy said excitedly.
"I - "
"Who's he? Is he your husband? Why isn't he awake yet? It's already late and there's so much fun stuff we could be doing!" The little boy bounded over and poked Scholar Yuan none-too-gently in the shoulder. The man came awake with a yelp, flailing around haphazardly; the boy fell over laughing, pointing at Scholar Yuan's haplessness. Scholar Yuan finally straightened himself out, glaring at the child.
"Who is this? What's going on?" he demanded.
"I don't know, a friend seems to have found us," Xiao Zhen said, grinning a little. The boy's irrepressible spirits reminded her a lot of her little brother; she pushed away the stab of grief. "What's your name, little friend?"
"I'm Jiang Di, but you can call me Ah Di," the boy said. "Who are you?"
After Xiao Zhen introduced herself and Scholar Yuan and explained the mission, the boy's face lit up. "But I can help you!" he said. "I know this entire river, I can travel with you and show you everything!" he said, skipping eagerly ahead.
"I think we're smart enough to know how to follow a river!" Scholar Yuan yelled at him, disgruntled. "Shouldn't he be with his family? Why aren't his parents handling the rascal, anyways?"
But when pressed with these questions, the boy refused to answer clearly. "Oh, my family lives along the river, we'll see them," he said vaguely. "Come on, there's a tree up ahead that's great for climbing, I'll race you to the top!"
He was peculiar, this laughing, gleeful boy; he did appear to know the river intimately, giving them advice on food and shelter, and he was certainly a cheerful traveling companion - until Scholar Yuan suggested constructing a fishing pole to try catching some carp for dinner.
"No!" Ah Di said, springing up, his face pale with horror. "Are you crazy?"
Scholar Yuan blinked at him. "No? But I do like to eat fish," he said, puzzled.
"Well, you can't," the boy snapped. "They're my friends too, don't be silly, you can't eat them," and with that, he stormed off in a sulk.
"Hm," Scholar Yuan said, looking after Ah Di's retreating form.
That night, the three of them were sitting around the campfire, the flame providing a warm golden glow against the silken dusk.
"Oh, look!" Scholar Yuan said, pointing up in the sky. "A shooting star, can you see it?"
"Where?" Ah Di said, clambering over to Scholar Yuan and looking up.
"Ha! Got you!" Scholar Yuan said, pouncing on the boy and forcing his boy's chin upward. "I knew there was something strange - Xiao Zhen, do you see it?" he said triumphantly, ignoring the boy's protests and struggles.
"Scholar Yuan, what are you doing? Let Ah Di go!" Xiao Zhen said, hurrying over.
"No, look right there and then I'll let him go," Scholar Yuan said, and when Xiao Zhen bent over she could, indeed, see something strange - something that looked like a gleaming pearl about the size of an orange seed embedded in the fleshy part of the boy's throat, beneath the bony part of his chin.
"Hao le, hao le," Xiao Zhen said hastily. "You can let him go now, I see it. But why are you so excited about it, Scholar Yuan?"
Scholar Yuan released Ah Di, looking surprised. The boy shot away, looking deeply resentful as he rubbed at his throat. "Don't you see? You know the story - every major river always has some sort of waterfall or natural dam called the Dragon Gate, and if a river carp manages to leap up over the Dragon Gate, it becomes transformed into a dragon king and takes over ruling that particular river and ensuring its health and that of the surrounding area. Well, the reason why this entire region has been suffering drought is because there's no dragon king to make it rain and end it; the previous dragon king for this river probably got promoted or something, or - maybe executed, although I hadn't heard about a dragon king execution," Scholar Yuan said, musing.
"Jiang Bei got promoted," Ah Di said sulkily. "Which is stupid, he's going to have even less fun in the Ministry of Thunder than he did as dragon king."
"Wait, what does this have to do with Ah Di?" Scholar Yuan raised his eyebrows at Xiao Zhen.
"Do you remember that dragons have luminous pearls embedded under their chins? Ah Di's is small because he's so young, but he's meant to be the next dragon king of this river. Such fish who are marked have special powers, including the ability to change into human form," he said. "Now, Ah Di here should have jumped the Dragon Gate long ago, I don't know why he hasn't yet," Scholar Yuan said pointedly.
"I don't want to! I won't be able to play at all and I'll have to work all the time and write reports and get ordered around all the time by the Jade Emperor," Ah Di said, scowling.
"But - "
"No! I'm not going to stick around and listen to you scold me," he said, slinking off and diving into the inky river directly.
"Ah Di," Xiao Zhen cried out, but Scholar Yuan put out a hand.
"He'll be fine, he's a fish, remember? He'll be back in the morning, don't worry."
Sure enough, the boy popped up the moment Xiao Zhen started cooking breakfast, as cheerful as ever. But after they'd finished eating, Xiao Zhen beckoned to him.
"Ah Di, come here," she said, holding out her hand. "Let's go for a walk."
Ah Di came along willingly enough, although he started becoming restless as Xiao Zhen led them further and further away from the river.
"Where are we going?" he asked her finally, fidgeting.
"Here," she said. "I wanted to show you what happens when there's drought for a long time," she said, gesturing at the arid land before them. "I know the banks of the river are still healthy, but you can see what happens if there's no rain. It's autumn right now, it's supposed to be the middle of harvest, but you can see everything's dried up. Drought is terrible, Ah Di - when I lived in the countryside and worked on my family's farm, what we feared most was drought. No water means no life, you understand?" She looked down at Ah Di, who was staring silently at the fallow fields before him, yellow dust covering them in a low cloud. "Maybe it won't be fun to be dragon king, but don't you want to change this? You can change it, if you become what you're supposed to."
The boy grimaced. "But I don't waaant to," he whined. After a moment he brightened. "Besides, this means that everybody and everything comes to the river," he said. "You and Scholar Yuan wouldn't ever have come to visit me if you didn't have to," he said, looking up at her artlessly. "Now let's go back!"
"Ah Di - " but it was too late, the boy had scampered off.
Scholar Yuan looked at Xiao Zhen's expression when she returned to camp. "Didn't manage to convince him, hm?" he asked. "Well, I have another idea; if I remember correctly, there's a large town a few li from here, we need to stock up again on supplies again anyways."
But the town that they came across wasn't large at all; most of the buildings looked to be deserted, and when the three of them walked into the nearby market there were only a few lone stalls open.
"Ma'am, this town used be much busier, didn't it?" Scholar Yuan asked one of the vendors after they'd made their purchases.
"Yes, but after the drought started, people began moving away, and now only a few of us are still staying. There's still some traffic down the river, but even that is much less than it used to be," the woman said, shaking her head.
"Have you all tried prayers and sacrifices to the rain gods?"
"We've tried everything," the woman said. "But nothing's worked, the rain never comes."
"Hm..." Scholar Yuan hums meaningfully, Ah Di squirming more than ever. "Would you be able to direct us to the main temple here?"
"Where are we going? To the temple? Why are we going there?" Xiao Zhen asked, tightening her grip of Ah Di's hand as the two of them followed behind Scholar Yuan.
"One of the common methods to try and summon the rain gods is to paint murals or pictures of them and to offer sacrifices to their images, in hopes that they will be appeased and send rain," Scholar Yuan said, striding into the temple. "And one of the gods that they would have tried to appease would most likely be a neighboring dragon king, so - " he made a please sound and gestured before him; sure enough, the few shafts of dust-saturated sunlight showed dimly a mural of ferocious, cobalt-tinted dragons twining around each other. Scholar Yuan began fishing around in the pockets of his robes, and after a moment withdrew an ink stick with a noise of triumph.
"Wait, what are you doing?" Xiao Zhen asked. "And are those the ink sticks that are supposed to go to Scholar Chang?" she added suspiciously.
"Er - well, he hadn't used up his first one very much yet!" Scholar Yuan said, looking guilty as he rubbed the stick against the rough ground and spit on the black powder. "And - well, have you ever noticed that whenever people paint dragons, they never finish the entire picture? The eyes are always left unpainted; it's said that painting the eyes in will summon the dragon, and the dragon itself will burst from the wall."
"Um, but - " Xiao Zhen said hesitantly. "You want to summon a dragon in here - " but it was too late, Scholar Yuan was just finishing the last stroke. With a burst of noise and rubble, a long sinuous form exploded forth, raining dirt down on all of them.
"Aw, why'd you have to go and summon him?" Ah Di demanded petulantly. "Ying Luo was never any fun, he never wanted to go out and play or anything!"
"Because I thought getting another dragon king to talk to you might knock some sense into you!" Scholar Yuan retorted.
"Quite right," the dragon boomed, shaking its great mane out and bringing its horned face intimidatingly close to the trio. "And you shouldn't call me Ying Luo anymore; that might have been appropriate when we were children, but now you should address me as Ying wang, since I've already leaped the Dragon Gate and ascended to my rightful position," he said, preening.
Ah Di snorted contemptuously. "Wang ba dan, is more like it," he muttered.
The dragon king roared dangerously, and Scholar Yuan hastily put in an interceding arm. "Ying jiang wang, why don't you tell Ah Di about what you do as a dragon king," he prompted.
"Well, I'm responsible for the well-being of the Liangsheng river," he said, self-importantly. "I have to keep track of how much rain falls on it each day, and make sure that the same amount of water flows out at the end. I have to account for each and every drop, because if any water goes missing, there could be very serious consequences," he said, dropping his voice to indicate his seriousness.
Ah Di raised his eyebrows, unimpressed. "Hm. And I guess you have to write reports and balance accounts and do all sorts of paperwork, right?"
The dragon puffed itself up. "Of course! It's the most important part of my job! Other than reporting to the Jade Emperor himself on the state of my river!"
Ah Di yawned exaggeratedly. "And I'm sure you have to get all dressed up in stiff robes and jewelry and lots of stupid clothes and everything for that - aiya, 那麼無聊!" Ah Di scowled at the dragon king. "Well, I heard that all the other gods that serve the Jade Emperor think that all the dragon kings are rude and uncultured, since they smell like fish all the time," he said nastily.
The dragon recoiled with a gasp. "I do not smell like fish!" he said, affronted.
"Yes you do, see?" Ah Di's arm flashed forward and he withdrew a shining fish scale in his hand, apparently from the dragon's neatly combed beard. "Missed this one when you were grooming," he said wickedly.
The dragon drew himself up, dignity obviously wounded. "I'm not going to spend another moment wasting my time here, I have much more important things to do," he said stiffly. "You, Jiang Di, are impossible! You aren't fit to become a dragon king!" And with that, he smashed through the nearest wall and streamed fluidly out into the sky.
Xiao Zhen sighed. "Ah Di, was that really necessary?" she asked; she had caught the boy's sleight of hand in making the fish scale appear from his sleeve.
"Aw, he deserves it, he was always an arrogant snob anyways," Ah Di said, already turning away to hop down the steps of the temple. "I don't know why they all get so sensitive about smelling fishy once they become dragons - we are fish! We started as fish! We'll always be fish!" he yelled, his voice fading in the distance.
Xiao Zhen looked over at Scholar Yuan. "Are you really sure you want to take the Imperial Examinations? I thought they were for people who are, you know, wise."
Over the next few days, Xiao Zhen and Scholar Yuan alternately tried to cajole, coax, berate Ah Di into agreeing to jump the Dragon Gate, but the boy simply disappeared every time either of them brought the subject up.
"We're approaching the end of the river," Scholar Yuan said to Xiao Zhen one evening as they set up camp. "The river ends in the Dragon Gate waterfall, which falls into Juhua lake. After that, we'll be leaving this region entirely. If we don't managed to convince Ah Di by then..."
"Don't worry," Xiao Zhen murmured. "I have an idea."
By mid-afternoon the next day, the three of them reached the waterfall; it was breathtaking, crystalline spray exploding upwards from the rocks beneath the pounding cascade of water that descended over a sheer cliff. The lake spread out before them like a sheet of glass, as calm and honest as a clear mirror. For a few moments, the trio stood there in silence, taking in the beauty of the scenery.
Finally, Ah Di sighed quietly. "So I guess you two have to go now," he said sadly.
Xiao Zhen made a noise of agreement. "Yes, and I'm glad that I'll finally be able to leave this horrible area," she said. "It's been absolutely terrible having to travel here, such a blighted and cursed land."
Scholar Yuan looked at her in confusion, but it was nothing compared to Ah Di's horrified reaction. "You don't mean that!" he cried. "I have the best river anywhere, the most beautiful!"
"Hm, I guess the river is all right, maybe," Xiao Zhen said dubiously. "But I can see why it was the Will of Heaven to give a little boy like you responsibility for this region, they knew you wouldn't be able to take care of it so they gave you the dreariest and unhealthiest piece of land they could."
"No it's not! It's not, the entire province is beautiful, it's my home!" Ah Di protested, tears standing out in his eyes.
Xiao Zhen made a contemptuous noise. "Silly child, have you not seen how dry and dusty all the land is? How dead it is? Nothing and nobody wants to live there anymore, and rightfully so."
"That's just because there hasn't been rain in a while, and I - I'll make sure that everywhere gets rain, I will! I'll take the best care anybody could imagine, you just wait and see, it'll be the healthiest land in all of China!"
"Well, you can only do that as dragon king," Xiao Zhen pointed out. "You know, you've told us again and again that you haven't leaped the Dragon Gate because you don't want to, but you know what? I think it's because you can't, and you're too ashamed and afraid to admit it," she said, looking down at the boy.
"That's a lie! You watch - I'm going to jump over it right now and then I'm going to bring rain again, you'll see!" Ah Di said, and then the boy was off like a flash, a running dive over the side of the cliff into the water, his slight form transforming in the mist into that of a enormous, shimmering scarlet carp.
"That was cruel," Scholar Yuan said, looking over at Xiao Zhen. "But effective."
Xiao Zhen smiled wryly, looking down into the mist of the waterfall; he should be all right, the impossible rascal. "It's a technique I used on my little brother," she said. "The only way to get him to do anything was to tell him he couldn't do it, and then he'd get so mad that he'd do anything to prove me wrong." She swallowed past the lump in her throat. "Look, there he is!" she said, pointing.
And there was Ah Di, a great, surging bolt of scarlet leaping upwards with inspired fury. Once, twice, three times - but each time falling short, each time falling back down.
"I don't know whether he'll be able to make it," Scholar Yuan said, worriedly. And then, as if to prove Scholar Yuan specifically wrong - Ah Di burst forth once again, high enough that he soared over Xiao Zhen and Scholar Yuan in a majestic arc - and the moment he cleared the threshold of the fall, his great scarlet body transformed into the characteristic sinuous turquoise banner across the sky, as beautiful and terrifying as anything in Heaven or below it.
And then, in the next instant, a torrential and drenching rain began to fall, streamers of water crashing down from the sky with great enthusiasm.
"Really?" Scholar Yuan yelled upwards. He turned toward Xiao Zhen, thoroughly disgruntled. "Why in Heaven's name couldn't you have waited until we were on the other side of the lake to talk to him?!"