"Okay, ma," I said, holding my hand out for the keys. "I'll be fine." We went through this every Qixi, though I had been piloting the boat by myself for the few centuries Ba had been gone. True, I had never ferried the Cowherd's family myself, like Ba did, but that should have reassured Ma. I never understood why she feared the Silver River more than the Jade Emperor, since it wasn't as though the river had been the one to punish Ba, but given the Jade Emperor's temperament and penchant for what I thought were unjust punishments, perhaps it was better that she blamed the river.
My mother tightened her fingers around the keyring, her brow furrowed. Then she shook her head quickly and smiled up at me, pressing the keys into my open palm.
"You know your old ma. Always such a worrier!" She smoothed my bangs to the side.
"Okay lah! Not your fault Ba messed stuff up." I rolled my eyes dramatically at her. "Fussy Jade Emperor. He knows these things happen all the time, why make a big deal of it for us?"
"Ai, you know Jade Emperor. He very concerned with what is proper. And not like your old ba was all in the right."
"Ba was just thinking of those kids—" I began. No point in going over the details again, not like anything had changed in the past hundred years or so. "Anyway, I can hear the birds already, going to run. Bye bye!"
I grabbed the keys and ran out the door, amazingly not tripping over the door sill in my haste. I yelled a quick "I'll be careful" over my shoulder in reply to whatever my mother was saying, glad to finally be running to the river I loved so and had not seen for a year.
The boat was moored to the dock, and everything looked just as I had left it, save the year-old crust of magpie droppings all over the cover. Ugh. You'd think celestial birds could avoid crapping all over the Heavenly Boatman's boat, even if the Heavenly Boatman himself were currently stuck somewhere under a mountain doing penance and only his somewhat-less-Heavenly wife and daughter were left to take care of it. Celestial courtesy, maybe. But then, Heaven has always been a bit short on courtesy that would actually make a difference.
Thankfully, once uncovered, everything seemed to be in working order, confirmed by the sputter of the engine as I turned the key. I suppose Ba had already accumulated a few marks in the Jade Emperor's books before he went about trying to drastically break the rules: I remember him waxing rhetoric about those wonderful new motorboats. He must have convinced the Jade Emperor to let him change over, especially since he had been advocating for a steam-powered riverboat for a few centuries with no success. I'm sure the concession hadn't pleased the Jade Emperor, though I for one was very grateful—I'd never liked rowing, though I won't say I never flaunted the shoulders that came with it.
The magpies were already gathering in the distance when I set sail, and by the time I reached the Weaver's dock, the Cowherd and their two children had just stepped onto shore. I bowed to them in greeting. One of the children bowed back. I couldn't tell which one it was: both of them were wearing their hair in a top knot. Despite having piloted the boat for a good few years already, I've never actually spoken to any of the family. Ba did, and that was probably what had prompted him to help them out in the first place. I don't blame him for anything he did, though I probably would not have done the same, seeing as how Ma always says my practical side comes from her. Then again, she's quick enough to attribute any traits of mine she dislikes to Ba, soft heart and all, and I have just enough to understand how he got himself into trouble.
As the bowing figure straightened up, I took another look. He or she wasn't a child any more, probably hadn't been for quite a while, given my general lack of attention toward the family. The bow down had been perfectly proper, but upon straightening, there was a hint of hastiness and a small quirk of eyebrow, not at all the gravity I would expect from someone on an important, once-a-year visit. I smiled a bit, then caught myself, turning back to my boat to check the knots. I wondered what it must be like, to be the children of the Cowherd and the Weaver, seeing your mother only once a year and never being able to leave the banks of the Silver River. The last, at least, I could sympathize with.
I made sure to stay a few meters behind as I followed them on the path to the Weaver's house, but even so, I thought I could pick out the one who had bowed. One of the two—the daughter, I thought, staring a bit too much at what possibly were the curve of breasts—was gesturing a little more, hands motioning in the air as she kept to a slightly more irregular pace than the other two.
My guess was confirmed as soon as I entered the Weaver's house, though the two were remarkably similar save for her curves. The daughter seemed to have forgotten about her impulsive greeting, but the son, on the other hand, looked at me as though he were trying to solve a rather difficult puzzle. I politely ignored his attentions as the Weaver, beautiful as always, detached herself from her six sisters to hand me the scroll for the Old Man of the Moon.
I've never quite understood why the Jade Emperor allowed this one duty to remain with my family after my father's fall from grace, but I suppose boats that can steer the Silver River must be few and far between.
I took my leave, accidentally catching the son's gaze as I surreptitiously eyed him. I had originally been attracted to the daughter's liveliness, but there was a quietness to the son that had made me think there was no insult meant by his glances at me, only a sort of measurement I couldn't decipher. But none of this was worth focusing on; I had the scroll, and it would be another year until I saw them again.
I used my preparations to take my mind off the twins, checking the engine and setting the course. The journey would take about two intervals, and there wasn't much steering involved, but I loved every second I had on board. I settled down, enjoying the hum of the motor and the smell of gasoline and river in the air, the gentle rocking as calming as always. I tucked the scroll safely into my shirt, ignoring the temptation to open the scroll case, the brocade covering and silk tassel far more refined than anything in my own home. My family didn't need any more trouble, and besides, the Weaver's matchmaking attempts for humans had no practical value for me.
Halfway through the Interval of Rabbit, I heard a quiet "Pardon me?" from behind me. I whipped around in surprise. There was no room to hide in the boat, and yet, another person had managed to sneak on without my knowledge.
It was the boy, the Weaver and the Cowherd's son. He was still in the ceremonial robes he had been wearing only an interval or two ago, though they looked a bit more mussed, the hem wet and muddy. I didn't envy him the task of trying to climb aboard in all those layers.
"What—?" I still couldn't fathom how I had overlooked his presence, but possibly his Heavenly heritage had some unknown advantages.
"Yes, I do apologize," he began, "and I realize this is a rather unfortunate way to ask you a favor..." He trailed off and looked at me expectantly.
"F-favor?!" I sputtered. "No, no favors! We've done quite enough for your parents, thank you very much, and I won't cross the Jade Emperor."
I thought he might wheedle and attempt persuasion after I so bluntly turned down his request. Instead, he merely shrugged, a wry smile on his lips.
"I was afraid of that," he said. "If it would be all right, could I ride with you at least? If I am dropped off shore here, I won't be able to find my way back, and my parents and He Yi will worry."
At least he hadn't tried to push. And really, what had he been thinking? I steered for a while more, steadfastly ignoring his presence, but the questions were like mosquito bites, and I yearned to scratch. Finally, I relented. After all, it was only a conversation, and I had properly refused his request already.
"So," I said. He turned, the same steady look in his eyes that I had seen back on shore. "Don't get your hopes up. I'm still not doing anything for you. But since we're here for a while, you might as well tell me what in Heaven you were up to."
"It's He Yi," he said, his brow furrowing. "He's quite unhappy, and when I saw him bow to you, I suppose... It was impulsive of me, really, but I can't stand seeing her so miserable."
"He Yi?" I asked. "Is that your sister?"
"Well. Yes, and no. He has chosen to be my brother more and more of late, though it's never a certainty."
I nodded; it wasn't the most common choice in Heaven, despite the merciful presence of Bodhisattva Guan Yin, but it wasn't an unfamiliar one either.
"And you? What's your story?" I asked. "Wait, first, what do I call you?"
"Oh, I beg pardon! I am called He Ping. And you?"
"Xin Qi, though most everyone calls me Xiao Qi." We bowed, then sat in silence. I had to nudge him with my elbow to get him to continue.
By the time we reached the home of the Old Man of the Moon, she—He Ping preferred being female most of the time—had filled in more of the details. Both twins had been unhappy for a while; as children, the restrictions on their family had not chafed as much, but He Yi's longing to see more of the world had increased with every year and every step he had taken over the magpie bridge. Neither twin had been enthusiastic over a future of weaving and embroidering or herding cows, but He Ping at least had managed to resign herself to the life.
"He Yi was thinking about a position in one of the smaller courts of Heaven," He Ping continued, and I could see how much her twin's dissatisfaction had torn at her, and I imagined it wouldn't have taken long to persuade her to action.
"Well, why now?" I asked. "Did something about my face today signal that it was finally the right time to interfere with my family again?" Perhaps I was still a little bitter; after all, I too would like the see the world, or just Ba once a year.
He Ping looked steadily at me, a chagrined expression on her face. "Fourth Auntie consulted the oracle bones, and Second Auntie's xiangqi partner is Guan Yu, who says that of late, the Jade Emperor has been in a relatively good mood due to large offerings for the past few years. Niang thought this year would be a good a chance as any, and Die agreed with her and her sisters. And, I suppose... I liked the way you smiled at He Yi.
"We all are terribly sorry about your father; Fourth Auntie said He Yi and I had been much too careless in deciding then, and of course it probably hadn't helped that both of us had gone out together."
"Wait, my father ferried you?! But... I thought... the Jade Emperor said..."
He Ping bit her lip. "I thought you had known..."
"Oh Ba," I sighed to myself. It had made sense that he had tried to help a lovelorn couple, but this seemed even truer to his character. Helping children who through no fault of their own were stuck with their parents' fates? He had probably taken one look at He Yi's anticipation and He Ping's quietly pleading eyes and sailed straight off into trouble.
"So oracle bones, that's wonderful," I said, shaking my head. I felt my distrust of higher powers was quite justified.
"Yes, that, and Niang thinks if we consult with the Old Man of the Moon first, our chances of angering the Heavens decreases. And of course," she paused, "... of course, I'm sure it helps that this time, Die and Niang know what our plans are."
I lowered my face into my hands and groaned. Of course Ba hadn't just helped two stowaways, he had also managed to do so with no plan whatsoever. I could just see his eyes light up in excitement as the twins divulged their ideas, and I missed him.
"All right, all right, I'll get you to the Old Man of the Moon. But then we're going straight back home."
He Ping nodded solemnly, but despite her outward calm, I could see the hope growing.
I didn't speak much for the rest of the trip, but He Ping grew increasingly animated as we drew closer and closer to the Old Man of the Moon. She didn't quite chatter, but every so often she would speak of my father. It was clear he had been incredibly kind to the young twins, and I tried not to let my resolve falter as I heard her sense of sorrow at his fate and her gratefulness to his actions in every word.
I was still conflicted by the time we reached the Old Man of the Moon, and I'm sure my inattention showed as I presented him with the scroll, then proceeded to spill my tea over my clothes as we sat down to chat. My mind and heart were still with He Ping, who was waiting in the boat to see if the Old Man of the Moon would be willing to speak with her, and my shaking hands made the tea cup lid rattle as I picked it up.
"Xiao Qi ah, something is on your mind perhaps?" asked the Old Man of the Moon.
"Er. Yes, uncle. I may, um. I may have a small favor to request?" I've always been nervous around the various dignitaries of Heaven, though at least the Old Man of the Moon was surely one of the less dignified entities. Except Monkey. Then again, I wasn't sure if Monkey was even in Heaven.
The Old Man of the Moon gave me a look. "Is it possibly in regards to the stowaway in your boat?"
I gulped and picked up a mwaji and took a bite just to have something to do.
"Aiyah, Xiao Qi, what has happened to your manners? You couldn't have invited her off for some of my wonderful silver needle tea and this delicious and wonderfully chewy and fragrant peanut-covered and sesame-filled mwaji?"
I promptly choked on the bite of mwaji in my mouth—why in Heaven had I stuffed something, and mwaji no less, in my mouth at this moment?—and sputtered, bits of peanut powder unbecomingly dusting everything in my vicinity.
Of course, He Ping had to walk in at that very moment, led by one of the Old Man of the Moon's people.
"Tea?" asked the Old Man of the Moon solicitously. I glared at him. My father had warned me of the Old Man of the Moon's streak of mischievousness, but I had been lucky enough to not experience it before now. Uninvolvement, I thought. I had been so good at not mixing myself with Heaven's assorted politics and people prior to this.
He Ping bowed and began to introduce herself, but the Old Man of the Moon cut her short, waving several sheets of paper covered in delicate calligraphy in her face.
"Your mother has told me all about you and your brother. Sit, sit. Have some tea. And perhaps a mwaji," he said as I continued to cough.
He Ping held her bow. "If Niang has informed you of my quest, good sir, may I hope that you have some advice for my humble self?"
"Goodness," said the Old Man of the Moon. "And I had thought everyone in your generation had forgotten their manners."
I squawked, but wisely held my tongue. He Ping merely stood, head modestly down, hands still raised in greeting. Only the light trembling in her sleeves gave away her nervousness.
"I've always thought the Jade Emperor had been a bit hasty... for both your families," and he looked my way. "I am merely an immortal, but I can write you a letter to bring to the Queen Mother of the West and Bodhisattva Guan Yin, both of whom can naysay the Jade Emperor and perhaps have the heart to do so. The journey will be long and full of perils, as they always are."
He Ping immediately pledged to do whatever it would take, and I spent several uncomfortable minutes with both of them staring at me, waiting for me to declare myself.
"I, ahem, did happen to mention that this journey will take you by the mountain your father is currently occupying? And that the letter speaks of both He Yi and your father?" the Old Man of the Moon said into the silence.
Thankfully, this time I had nothing in my mouth, so I could sit in dignity for as long as it took the two of them to realize I would not go any further than this.
Unfortunately, the lack of something to physically chew meant that my mind had no distraction as well, and as I sat, hopefully with great dignity and poise, I mentally chewed over the prospect of being able to see Ba again for the first time in a century or so. I could already see the approval in his face as I told him about not turning He Ping away, as well as the eagerness in Ma's expression when I could finally relate some news of Ba to her. And going on a journey would be different, if nothing else, and He Ping seemed to be good company.
In fact, any company that wasn't just me and Ma would be nice for a while.
"Wellll..." I began.
He Ping's face brightened, and the Old Man of the Moon smiled.
"I'm not saying things will work out! And I've got to get word back to Ma in case she worries. And the boat isn't really set up for a long journey, and you know, it's not like we have provisions or anything, and did you say 'full of perils'?"
The Old Man of the Moon merely beckoned to someone who had been standing around, probably waiting for exactly this moment. "I had full confidence in your decision," he said.
"Aiiiii..." I moaned, already beset with regrets.
He Ping smiled at me. "Shall we be off then?"
I muttered to myself and finished my tea, shoving another two mwaji in my mouth for good measure.
"Fine," I said, though it came out more as, "Fwaiihhhhhh," thanks to the mwaji.
And thus, with magical provisions in my boat and a quietly interesting companion in hand, I embarked on what would be the first of my adventures.