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The Trouble with Radishes: a Treatise on the Acquisition of Siblings by Young Master Lan Xiaohui (Age 5)

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When Lan Yu is five years old, he decides that he hates goodbyes more than anything else in the world. 

“I hate them,” he grumbles, sticking his cold nose into A-Die’s ear and watching with tear-filled eyes as his older brother flies off over the Caiyi river. “A-Niang, Xiao-Yu doesn’t want Yuan-gege to go! He should just stay at home with me.”

His A-Die only laughs at him, and covers Xiao-Yu’s petulant face with kisses until his lips turn up in a smile. 

“A-Yuan has to go do his duty as a cultivator, sweetheart. He’ll be home soon enough,” Diedie says. “You can go with him when you’re a little older.”

Xiao-Yu holds up ten chubby fingers. “How many fingers do I have to wait?”

“Eight fingers,” Papa tells him, patting the top of Xiao-Yu’s head. “You will begin guided night-hunts when you are thirteen, and group hunts without immediate supervision at fifteen.”

Thirteen! Xiao-Yu wants to cry. He’s already been alive for five years, and eight years are far too many to wait! It’s not fair! 

As a result, he sulks all the way home, sitting mutinously in A-Die’s arms like a fat, angry cat that had nobody to love it. 

“I don't like being left behind,” he pleads, when his parents try to put him down on the front porch. “A-Die, Papa, stay with Xiao-Yu.”

“We are not going anywhere, or leaving you behind,” Papa assures him, as A-Die holds him close under his warm red robes. “Xiaohui, Wei Ying was only tired from carrying you up the mountain. Come here so that I can carry you instead.”

Xiao-Yu spends the rest of the evening clinging to his Papa’s hand, and wondering what this strange feeling in his chest is. He’s never liked it when Yuan-gege goes away night-hunting, because even little children like Xiao-Yu know that ghosts and ghouls and demons are dangerous, and that people who go away to hunt them don’t always come back, but this feels different somehow. 

“A-Niang will know,” he says aloud, climbing up onto the kitchen table to help Papa chop wild mushrooms for A-Niang’s favorite egg-flower soup. “Papa, can I have a knife? I want to help make soup.”

“Not yet,” Papa smiles. “The mushrooms are tough, and you could hurt your fingers. Will you go bring me some bowls instead?”

A-Yu nods and toddles off to fetch the bowls, bringing them to his father one by one, and then he clambers back onto the table and pokes Papa on the cheek. 

 “What is it, A-Bao?”

“Did you get sad when Bobo left you alone?” he asks, watching as his father slices the mushrooms into slivers and pours the bits into one of the wooden bowls. “Yuan-gege left Xiao-Yu behind to go night-hunting, and now…”

“A-Yu,” Papa says gravely, lifting Xiao-Yu down to sit on his knee. “Your xiongzhang has not left you behind, no more than you leave us behind when you go to your daily lessons. He will miss you while he is away, and he will soon be back; but even so, knowing that will not stop us from missing him, and it will still be difficult to wait until he returns. It is only natural to be sad at such a time, my son.”

Xiao-Yu bursts into tears. 

“But Xiao-Yu is lonely,” he sobs, rubbing his face against Papa’s shoulder. “Papa, bring Yuan-gege back!”

At that, A-Die comes running into the kitchen, frightened half out of his wits by the sound of Xiao-Yu’s crying; and then he takes A-Yu into his arms, trembling as if his sudden grief had been shared between them. He wraps Xiao-Yu up in one of Papa’s clean robes, white and soft and scented with sandalwood incense powder, and then he holds him in his lap like a baby while Papa feeds them dinner. 

“I don’t feel better,” he says miserably, when his bowl of savory soup is finally empty. “I’m lonely, and hugging A-Niang only helps a little!”

His parents are more worried than ever after that declaration—quite naturally so, in Xiao-Yu’s opinion—so Papa cancels his evening qin lesson and bundles him straight into bed with A-Niang, piling so many warm blankets and quilts over their bodies that Xiao-Yu can scarcely move. After that, he jumps in beside them and wraps his arm around A-Die’s waist, trapping Xiao-Yu snugly between them, and refuses to move a muscle until A-Yu starts drifting off to sleep. 

“Did A-Yuan ever feel like this, when he was little?” A-Die whispers, stroking the back of A-Yu’s little head. “I guess he must have, since you two were alone back then.”

Xiao-Yu snuggles closer to him, like a drowsy kitten unwilling to stop being petted, and waits for the answer with one eye half-open. His parents rarely talk about the before time in front of him (that is, the time when his A-Niang was gone, and didn’t come back until Yuan-gege was almost grown up) so Xiao-Yu always makes sure to listen when they do; his friend Minghui once told him that mothers and fathers say interesting things when their children are out of earshot, and A-Yu’s Papa and A-Die have led a more interesting life than most. 

“He did not,” Papa whispers back. “I rarely left his side, and Xiongzhang was with him when I could not be. And besides, he had Jingyi. Jingyi was like a younger brother to him during those first few years.”

“Aiyah, that’s right! Look at you and Xichen-ge, and me and Shijie and Jiang Cheng. No one can be lonely with a brother, especially not a little one.”

A-Yu can almost hear Papa’s brow wrinkling. “Why not a big one?”

Silence. “Wei Ying?”

“The big ones leave you behind, sometimes,” A-Niang murmurs. “And that’s the worst feeling in the world.”

Papa pulls A-Niang close to his chest, nearly squashing Xiao-Yu flat in the process, and kisses the tears off A-Niang’s eyelashes to help him stop crying. 

But for once, Xiao-Yu doesn’t mind being squashed at all, because now he knows what he needs. 

After all, he’s not a baby anymore. He can write, and paint a little, and Papa says his figuring is almost second to none; and what’s more, Xiao-Yu even knows how to sew and pick vegetables and knead dough for dumpling wrappers, and help A-Niang make soft rice noodles to eat in his favorite chicken soup.

Xiao-Yu could be a perfect big brother, if someone gave him a little one. 

Hm.

Now, that’s certainly something to think about. 

*    *    *

By the next morning, Xiao-Yu’s path forward is as clear as daylight. He needs a companion his own age, or very close to it, which is why he feels lonely even with Yuan-gege and his parents close by; and since his best friend Lan Minghui knows almost everything, Xiao-Yu will have to ask him how one goes about acquiring baby brothers.

“I want to know how A-Niangs and Papas make babies,” he announces, after A-Die sends him off for his classes at the Lan sect nursery the next day. “A-Hui, tell A-Yu.”

Lan Minghui nods wisely, stroking his little round chin in thought as if there were a beard there, and directs Xiao-Yu to the empty patch of grass by his side. 

“Babies are made at night,” he says mysteriously. “Your A-Die ties one end of his mo’e around his wrist at haishi and the other around your A-Niang’s, and if they don’t move until morning, a baby comes the next year.”

Xiao-Yu blinks. 

“But where does it come from?” 

A-Hui has a little brother of his own, so he ought to know. “A-Hui?”

“I don’t know much about that part,” A-Hui sighs. “Only A-Niangs are supposed to know how to do it, so we’d better not ask.”

But the process sounds simple enough, so Xiao-Yu tries it out that night. He waits until his parents have fallen asleep on either side of him, with their hands joined across his knees, and then he wriggles out from under Papa’s arm and reaches for the looped forehead ribbon on A-Die’s dressing table. 

“Papa first,” he says to himself, hardly daring to breathe as he ties one end of the mo’e around Papa’s wrist. The knot is nice and snug, and close enough to his skin that the ribbon won’t come loose, so Xiao-Yu picks up the other end and ties it around A-Niang’s elbow. And then, just in case, he lies back down between them and grips the middle of the ribbon with his small pink hands. 

“The baby will be A-Niang and Papa’s baby, but it has to be my little brother,” he declares, in a tiny whisper that makes A-Die’s eyes roll back and forth under their lids. “A-Die, Papa, be good and don’t move! We need a baby didi next year, so you have to stay very still.”

He pulls the quilt up and closes his eyes, hoping beyond hope that something might change in the morning. But when Xiao-Yu wakes up at si hour, the ribbon is back in place around Papa’s head, and there doesn’t seem to be any baby brother in sight. 

A-Hui did say it would take a year, he remembers. But how is he supposed to know if it worked?

“You have to keep an eye on your A-Niang,” A-Hui says sagely, when A-Yu goes back to the nursery to ask about it. “If it worked, your fuqin won’t let your A-Niang pick you up, or eat anything he doesn’t like. Before my didi was born, my Papa did all the cooking because Mother likes his food best.”

A-Yu keeps a close eye on his A-Die after that, hardly daring to look away in case he misses something important, but nothing happens. Papa’s always been careful about what A-Niang eats, and he doesn’t let A-Niang do much hard work outside their vegetable field because of his missing golden core. 

Foiled, again! If there was going to be a baby, how could Xiao-Yu even tell the difference this way?!

“Why are you looking at me that way, sweetheart?” A-Die laughs, when Papa brings A-Yu to the sect library to help serve his tea and snacks while he works. “Do I have ink on my chin again?”

“No, I want you to carry me! Papa, give Xiao-Yu to A-Niang.”

Papa nods and takes a step closer to A-Die, holding Xiao-Yu out at arm’s length so that A-Die can hold him instead, but that wasn’t what Xiao-Yu wanted at all. “Papa!”

“Hm? Didn’t you want to go to your A-Niang, Xiaohui?”

“You’re not supposed to let him hold me,” he says severely. “Xiao-Yu is too heavy, and A-Niang might get hurt! I was just testing you!”

But A-Niang takes Xiao-Yu into his arms anyway, promising that he could hold ten Xiao-Yus and never get tired, and Papa takes the chance to remind them both that A-Niang carried Yuan-gege up the mountain on his back last week. 

“A-Die, put me down!” he wails, suddenly so disappointed that he feels like crying. “Please?”

Much bewildered, A-Die does; whereupon Xiao-Yu proceeds to run out of the library, toddling straight back to the nursery courtyard to find Lan Minghui and inform him that their plans had come to nothing. 

“Well, there’s another way you can get a didi,” A-Hui says, as Papa’s feet come thundering up the path behind him. “If you plant something precious in a radish patch, you can harvest a baby right away. It’s how Xinhua-jun got your big brother.”

Xiao-Yu wonders how precious his baby seed should be to help his little brother grow well. He can’t bury any of his parents’ things, since this venture is supposed to be a secret, and the same goes for Yuan-gege’s belongings: so Xiao-Yu decides to plant his beloved stuffed bee, and digs a comfortable hole for him in the radish patch the next time A-Die takes him along to help tend to his new peach trees. 

“What are you doing over there, baobao?” A-Die calls, wiping his sweaty face with one of Papa’s white handkerchiefs. “The radishes won’t be ready until autumn, remember? Come help me pick pears instead.”

So A-Yu bounds over to help him pick yellow pears, running back and forth between the baskets and the pear trees for nearly an hour while A-Die climbs up to strip the high branches bare of fruit. He drops the pears into Xiao-Yu’s waiting hands, throwing them gently to make sure he can catch them without bruising the tender skins, and then A-Die jumps down and peels two pears for A-Yu to eat. 

A-Yu is still hungry after the second pear, so A-Die peels him a third one, and then a fourth; and by the time they stop eating, the sun begins to set, and Papa comes out with Yuan-gege to bring them back inside. 

Yuan-gege made his favorite lotus milk pudding for dinner, and Papa made the hot beef soup that A-Die always buys in Caiyi, so Xiao-Yu drinks his fill and goes to bed before he remembers—with such a sick, heart-wrenching ache in his heart—that he left Bee-shidi all alone in the radish patch, cold and alone with nobody to talk to him, and forgot that he was there. 

Xiao-Yu’s lip quivers, and an enormous tear splashes down his cheek. He has to go and get Bee-shidi right now, before he gets scared in the dark and cries for Xiao-Yu like Xiao-Yu is crying for him, or thinks that Xiao-Yu abandoned him, or—

“A-Niang!” he sobs, shaking A-Die until he jerks awake in a tangle of flailing arms and legs. “A-Niang, wake up! We have to bring Bee-shidi back!”

“What?” A-Die rubs his eyes. “Bee-shidi? Isn’t Bee-shidi in his own bed, A-Yu?”

“He’s not!” A-Yu wails. “I buried him in the radish patch, ‘cause A-Hui told me to, but Bee-shidi’s all alone and A-Niang, I want him back!” 

Papa is already up and dressing, drawing on a long coat and a pair of sturdy boots before rushing out into the night with Bichen under his arm. A-Die runs after him, holding Xiao-Yu’s hand to keep him from tripping on the dusty path, and before long all three of them are standing in front of the patch of freshly-turned earth where Xiao-Yu planted poor Bee-shidi.

“He’s in there,” A-Yu sniffles. “Papa, my Bee-shidi...”

“Don’t cry, A-Bao. Papa is here, and A-Niang is here, and I will get Bee-shidi out for you by the time you count to ten. Can you do that for me, Xiaohui?”

Xiao-Yu nods shakily, pressing his face into A-Niang’s gown; and when he looks up again, Papa is holding a very muddy Bee-shidi by the tips of his white knitted wings. 

“Give!” A-Yu weeps, with his little arms outstretched in supplication. “Bee-shidi, don’t cry, Xiao-Yu didn’t mean to leave!”

But Bee-shidi is so muddy that Papa gives him a bath first, soaking him in a basin of hot soapy water to rinse the earth and mud away, and Xiao-Yu hugs his legs and sobs until his poor bee is back in his arms. Bee-shidi’s yellow stripes are much duller now, since the mud stained all his pretty yarn, and Xiao-Yu bursts into tears all over again at the sight of his poor dirty face. 

“Papa, wash more,” he pleads. “He’s not all better yet.”

“The mud has discolored the yarn, that is all. He is clean,” Papa says gently, “Tomorrow, I will wash him with vinegar to make him yellow again. But for now, Xiaohui, I think it is time you told me and your A-Die what is going on.”

“Xiao-Yu can’t tell.”

“Baobao, please. You’re worrying us,” begs A-Niang. “You’ve been acting strange for days. You love your Bee-shidi so much, so why—”

“A-Hui said I had to plant something precious to grow a baby brother, like A-Niang did with Yuan-gege,” Xiao-Yu says, his lips trembling like tiny baby leaves until A-Niang makes a hurt noise in his chest and hugs him even tighter. “I already tried tying Papa’s ribbon on your hand, but it didn’t work! And A-Niang already grew Yuan-gege in a radish patch, so I thought I could grow a baby brother too—but then I forgot Bee-shidi in the radish patch, and he was all alone!”

At that, A-Die squeezes him tighter than ever, and Papa strokes the top of A-Yu’s head so tenderly that he almost starts crying all over again. He puts a pair of soft socks on Xiao-Yu’s feet, and wraps a warm blanket around his shoulders; and then he goes to fetch a dish of baked sweets and feeds them to A-Yu by hand. 

As the sweets disappear, one by one, Papa tells Xiao-Yu that Yuan-gege didn’t grow in a radish patch at all. Their family only says so to tease him, because A-Die used to plant baby Yuan-gege in the ground to keep him still while he and Ning-shushu worked. 

Before that, Yuan-gege had a mother and father of his own, and they died so long ago that he doesn’t remember them. But then A-Die died too, and left him behind, and Papa found Yuan-gege so sick with hunger and thirst that he almost died before Papa could make him well again.

“Children are not made by planting seeds in a radish patch, or by exchanging ribbons with one’s beloved,” Papa explains at last, while Xiao-Yu cuddles deeper into A-Die’s arms and nibbles on a square of peanut cake. “Only a mother and a father can make children, and your A-Niang and I are both men. We cannot give you a didi unless we happen to find one, and there is no telling when that might happen.”

Xiao-Yu’s heart nearly falls to pieces inside him. 

“So I really can’t have a baby brother?” he whispers, hugging his soapy-smelling bee. “Not ever?”

“You might, someday,” A-Die says softly. “But it’s out of our hands just now, Xiao-Yu. I’m sorry.”

At that, Xiao-Yu buries his head in the blankets, his tiny shoulders shaking with sobs, and cries until all the sweets are gone.

“A-Niang can’t try to make a didi?” he pleads. “A-Niang can make anything!”

“No, sweetheart. A-Yuan had his own mother, and you had your mama, remember? If they’d had the chance to live and be well, and take care of you, then…”

Diedie probably meant to say that if not for Mama going away, and Yuan-gege’s A-Niang dying after the war, he and Papa would never have had any children at all. But in the end, he doesn’t say it, and Xiao-Yu is glad that he didn’t.

However, A-Yu has learned something from his misadventures: namely, that he’s been looking for a little brother in the wrong place. Xiao-Yu’s own mother might be gone, but Papa and A-Die said that she was still keeping watch over him, which means that he should have asked her for a baby instead of them!

After all, Xiao-Yu knows his mother never left him. How else could A-Die have found Xiao-Yu, if she hadn’t led him to the brothel where A-Yu was born? Xiao-Yu was supposed to go to an orphanage after Mother died, and the nurses there would have been good to him, and fed him, and tended him when he was sick. But Mother brought him to A-Die instead, and gave Xiao-Yu two kind fathers and the best gege in the world. 

And if Yuan-gege’s first parents hadn’t stayed behind to keep him safe, how would Papa have known to go to the Burial Mounds in time to save Yuan-gege’s life? 

He wouldn’t have, that’s what! And then there would have been no Yuan-gege, and maybe no Papa or A-Die either. 

“I know what to do now,” he whispers to himself, after Papa and A-Die drift off to sleep. “Wait just a little longer, A-Di! Gege will get you soon.”

*    *    *

It takes almost a month for Xiao-Yu to put his plan into action, because Papa and A-Niang keep him so close that he can barely sneak five paces away before being caught and brought back again. 

Whenever Papa goes to work in the study, A-Yu sits on his desk and practices his calligraphy; and if he complains about his fingers getting tired, A-Die sends him to the Hanshi to play with his cousin Jueying. When A-Die goes down to Caiyi to run errands, A-Yu goes along with him; and after they get back home, Yuan-gege takes him to visit the rabbits and holds his hand all the way there.

It does feel a little less lonely, but that doesn’t mean that Xiao-Yu wants to be fussed over like a baby. He’s five years old, not two! 

Even so, he can’t stop his family from wanting to fuss over him; so his chance doesn’t come until the weather starts to turn, signaling the arrival of the month his parents spend night-hunting together. 

They hunt by turns from winter through summer, with one staying back to look after Xiao-Yu while the other wanders abroad. But the coming of autumn stirs A-Die’s blood, and makes him feel wild and young and free like he was when Papa first met him; and so, when the trees begin to change from green to gold, A-Die and Papa pack up their things and fly off into the wilderness like a pair of courting dragons. 

“Be good while we’re gone,” A-Die says anxiously, hugging Xiao-Yu and Yuan-gege so tightly that their heads knock together. “Listen to Shufu and Xichen-ge, and don’t let Yu’er stuff himself with sweets when they’re not looking. We made all your meals beforehand, so there should be plenty of food left over for you both.”

“I’ll cook for him when our Jingshi food runs out,” Yuan-gege laughs, before Shugong can start lecturing Papa about the dangers of spoiling little boys with rich food. “Father, take Xian-ge away, or he’ll never want to leave us!”

Papa nods and lifts A-Die into his arms, kissing him soundly in front of the whole family before sweeping him skyward on Bichen. Xiao-Yu shouts his goodbyes until his parents are out of sight, hopping up and down in the grass like a baby bird out of its nest, and then he jumps into Yuan-gege’s arms and climbs up onto his shoulders.

“What are you doing up there?” his brother teases. “Do you want me to take you somewhere, didi?”

“Mm!” Xiao-Yu says firmly. “Yuan-gege, can I go to the ancestral hall? I want to see my A-Niang.”

Yuan-gege’s eyes go soft. “Then ge will take you right away. Do you want me to walk there, or bring you up with my qinggong?”

“Qingqong, qinggong!” Xiao-Yu begs. “A-Yu wants to fly.”

Great-uncle shouts after them, worried that Yuan-gege might drop him if he uses qinggong to fly up the mountain; but A-Yu holds on tight, and so does Yuan-gege, and they make it to the ancestral hall in less than two minutes. 

“Yuan-gege, stay here,” Xiao-Yu entreats, pointing to the little worn stoop by the door. “I have to talk to my Niang by myself.”

His brother nods, settling down to meditate on the doorstep, and Xiao-Yu toddles in to look for the place where Papa set up his mother and grandmother’s tablets. The ancestral hall is mostly full of Lan memorial plaques, since outer disciples are only commemorated here if they passed away without family to remember them; and Xiao-Yu’s Niang is tucked in a quiet little corner by herself, far away from the rest of the tablets so that Xiao-Yu doesn’t have to kneel in the middle of the chamber when he visits her. 

“Mama, it’s me!” he beams, after he kneels down in front of the plaque and gives Niang and his waipo two lotus-seed cakes as offerings. “Are you happy where you are? Xiao-Yu is very happy, except that you’re not here, so Mama should have everything she wants, too!”

Niang never talks back; the dead never do unless you happen to be Diedie, and then they never stop talking. But A-Yu is sure that his mother can hear him, even if she can’t answer, so he tells her about everything that happened in the family since the last time he came to visit; and then, right before he leaves, he asks her for a little brother. 

“He doesn’t need to be very big,” he says earnestly. “Just mouse-sized is good, too. Xiao-Yu will help him grow up strong anyway.”

For a moment, it seems as if Xiao-Yu could hear her laughing—glad and bright and sweet like a bell, but rough, too, because Niang’s voice was rough from her weakened lungs. But then the soft laughter dies away, and Xiao-Yu is all alone save for the strange prickling feeling in his eyelids. 

“Mama, Xiao-Yu misses you very much,” Xiao-Yu whispers, pressing the corner of the tablet to his lips. “But I’ll be back to see you soon, so don’t be lonely! Popo will stay right here with you, like my Diedie stays with me.”

After that, he eats one of the extra cakes in his sleeve and runs back to Yuan-gege, who seems to have spent the last twenty minutes reciting the Ethics sutra to a couple of curious rabbits. 

“What did you and Yang-ayi talk about?” he asks, ushering the rabbits off his lap and into the nearest flower bed. “Did you give her some of the lotus cakes Xian-gege made?”

Xiao-Yu nods, suddenly not quite willing to speak, and clutches a fold of his brother’s coat between his chubby fists. 

Yuan-gege crouches down to give him a tight hug. “Ge is here,” he says gently. “Xiao-Yu can cry, if he needs to.”

And then, hand in hand, the two of them walk back home. 

*    *    *

After Papa’s trip away from Gusu with A-Die, the next eight weeks of autumn pass by quickly. The whole sect takes part in the fall harvest, helping A-Die harvest vegetables and preserve them for the winter ahead, and even Xiao-Yu has his own small tasks—like saving the seeds from melons and pumpkins, and cutting the feathery tops off fresh carrots with the talisman knife Diedie made for him—to tend to in the kitchens and fields. It takes nearly a month to strip the fields bare, and another ten days to store the produce safely and make winter pickles out of them; and by the time the work of the harvest is over, the first snow is so very close that Xiao-Yu can almost smell it in the air. 

“Why does Papa have to go away now?” he wonders, when he wakes up on the first day of winter to find his fuqin packing a qiankun bag with heavy fur coats and white travelling robes. “It’s too cold! Papa should stay to help Xiao-Yu keep A-Niang warm.”

Papa nods glumly. “Mn,” he agrees. “Xiaohui, you must remember to be mindful of your speech, for nothing can be taken back once said. Your Jiang-jiujiu was supposed to attend this conference as mediator, but he gravely insulted the master of Anping Rong ten years ago, and he has been banned from the Rong sect’s borders ever since. Rong-zongzhu will not deal with your uncle at all, and your Yu-shushu lacks the standing to attend on his behalf, I will have to journey to the Rong clan’s residence instead.”

“Lan Zhan is right. Always speak kindly, unless there is no other choice, and never, never offend a woman with your words,” A-Die lectures, while Xiao-Yu makes a comfortable nest in his lap and crawls into it with Bee-shidi. “If Rong-zongzhu was a man, she could have challenged Jiang Cheng to a duel when he insulted her, and aired her grievances no matter what the outcome of the duel was. But since she’s a woman, all she could do was pretend not to be angry. She couldn’t even scold him, since even seeming offended would have hurt her pride as a maiden—so she just said that she and Jiang Cheng could no longer be reconciled, and announced that he was not welcome in her lands as long as she was the mistress of them.”

Xiao-Yu is too comfortable to poke his head out from under the blankets, so he holds Bee-shidi up to speak on his behalf. “What did Jiujiu say?” Bee-shidi demands, flapping his fluffy white wings. “Was it really so bad that Rong-zongzhu can’t forgive him?”

Diedie coughs. “Well, the last Rong-zongzhu sent Rong Yan to Jiang Cheng as a marriage candidate when she was a girl, and he insulted her without being provoked. So when Rong Yan succeeded her father, the first thing she did was ban Jiang Cheng from Anping.”

A-Yu puzzles over the matter for a while before deciding to forget about it. A-Die’s lap is too warm and soft to worry about grown-up things, so he snuggles closer and takes a nap with Bee-shidi until Papa is ready to leave.

“Be safe, A-Yu,” Papa murmurs, leaning down to kiss A-Die before kissing Xiao-Yu on the nose. “Eat well and listen to your A-Niang, and make sure to practice your qin with Sizhui until I return home.”

He kisses A-Die a second time, and then a third, and then again and again until someone calls his name outside. 

“Go, sweetheart,” A-Die urges. “The sooner you go, the sooner you’ll come back to us.”

So Papa goes, fading into the fog like a streak of white paint on porcelain, and A-Die sighs after him like a love-stricken maiden before bundling Xiao-Yu back into the house. 

“Let’s go back to bed,” he says, locking the door behind them. “Heavens, it’s too cold to be up. Will you stay with me, Yu-bao?”

Xiao-Yu nods. “Another nap!” he cries, crawling under the covers. “And then qin practice?”

“En, as soon as Sizhui finishes teaching his juniors. Now shut your eyes and go to sleep, so you’ll be able to study well in the afternoon.”

A-Yu rolls his eyes and goes to sleep as bidden, eager to work on his music lessons as fast as he can; and in the afternoon, Yuan-gege teaches him three new finger techniques for the guqin, and lets him pluck at an old spiritual pipa for a while before reviewing the scores Shugong taught him last week. 

“You’re already teaching him the placation score?” A-Die asks, ducking into the music room with a shawl tied around his head to keep out the wind. “Well done, Yu’er! Most disciples don’t study that piece before the core-formation stage.”

Yuan-gege laughs and turns to the next page of his book. “A-Yu’s been keeping up with his studies well,” he says, pointing to the next two notes. “Yu’er, why don’t you show A-Die how to—ah?”

“Xiao-Yu will finish the lesson later,” Xiao-Yu promises, running over to A-Die on his two short legs before holding up his arms to be carried. “I want to go out with A-Die now.”

“You’re going out, Xian-gege? In this weather?”

“I need more hundred-year herbs for my talismans. They’ll be wasted if I don’t finish them by tonight,” A-Die sighs. “We can’t stop for dinner at the Hunan eating house this time, Xiao-Yu. Are you sure you want to come with me?”

“Mm, I want to!”

At last, A-Die agrees to let him go, and all three of them set out together. Yuan-gege insisted on accompanying A-Die down to Caiyi too, so that he and Xiao-Yu could travel there by sword instead of going on foot and freezing half to death on the way. 

“I wanted A-Die to hold me,” Xiao-Yu sighs, as Yuan-gege’s Liuxin carries them down towards the river. “Can I come out now?”

“I am holding you,” his father scolds. “Now stay still and don’t wiggle, or you might fall.”

He pouts and tries to squirm into a more comfortable position. Diedie put him in his qiankun sleeve to shield him from the wind, instead of on his back or in his arms, so Xiao-Yu is sitting in a small warm tent filled with his favorite books instead of watching the mountain flowing away beneath his feet.

 A-Die lets him climb out after they get to Caiyi, where Sizhui rushes into the Mianyang apothecary to fetch the required hundred-year herbs before the shops close for the night. The sun sets early now, painting the Cloud Recesses in crimson and gold for all of twenty minutes each day before plunging it into blackness, and the streets of Caiyi are pitch-dark by the time A-Die finishes paying for his herbs and walks out of the apothecary. 

“Can you make it back home on Liuxin, A-Yuan?” he cries, catching A-Yu’s warm hat by the strings to stop it from blowing away. “We made it down all right, but the wind—”

Yuan-gege unsheathes his sword and lets it hang level with his knees, testing the stability of its flight path with a spark of spiritual power. Liuxin is a slender blade, fit for flying long distance even for wielders without well-developed golden cores; but it never does well in high winds, and anyone who tried mounting Liuxin now would almost certainly fall after encountering even a single strong gust. 

“I don’t think so,” Yuan-gege says regretfully. “We’ll have to go on foot.”

There are no carriages to take them up the river at this hour, and A-Die didn’t bring any transportation talismans with him, so he and A-Yu and Yuan-gege have no choice but to walk. Side by side, they trudge along the road until they reach the town’s main bridge, where they finally cross the groaning river and set their course for the Cloud Recesses. 

“A-Yu, come here,” Diedie entreats. “You’re too small to walk in this wind by yourself.”

Xiao-Yu nods and hops back into his father’s robes, hanging on to the soft sleeve for dear life as it flaps back and forth in the wind. Every few minutes, an icy draft blows through A-Die’s clothes and straight into Xiao-Yu’s face, chilling him almost to the bone as Diedie and Yuan-gege struggle on towards the great staircase that leads up to the gates. 

“Tian’na, what a fool I am! We shouldn’t have brought A-Yu,” he hears Diedie lament, followed by a glow of welcome warmth as A-Die brings the qiankun sleeve closer to his chest. “Yu’er, are you listening to me? Cup your hands around your mouth to keep your chest warm, and don’t breathe when the wind hits you!”

Upon hearing that, Xiao-Yu hardly dares to breathe at all, puffing his cheeks out like a fish and exhaling into his own cozy shirt until A-Die finally stumbles onto the bottom-most stair with a cry of relief. 

“We’re here,” he gasps. “The wind ward starts ten steps up, Yu’er, so you can get down in a minute.”

Suddenly, A-Die lurches to the right, clutching wildly at a nearby branch to keep himself from falling. Yuan-gege drags him upright again, turning to shout at whoever—or perhaps whatever— tried to knock him off the path; but no one answers, and when Xiao-Yu pokes his head out of the sleeve, all he sees is a hulking shadow pausing on the path for a moment before melting into the mist like a ghost. 

“A-Yuan, don’t go after him. He must have been a petitioner,” A-Die calls, as A-Yu wriggles free from his robe and climbs down onto the steps. “I didn’t know Xichen-ge was taking audiences today.”

Yuan-gege stops in his tracks. 

“He wasn’t. Shugong said that this month’s audiences would all be in Caiyi,” he frowns. “And whoever that man was, he wasn’t a cultivator. I couldn’t sense a jindan, even a weak one.”

Diedie and Yuan-ge exchange worried glances over Xiao-Yu’s head, as if silently debating whether they ought to bring the strange man back and find out what he was doing here. But then they look back down at Xiao-Yu, shivering against A-Die’s legs like a chicken left out in the rain, and rush up the stairs on Liuxin without another word. 

They make it less than halfway up the mountain before Yuan-gege skids to a halt, looking around the hill with wide, wild eyes as A-Die tries not to list into a nearby stalk of bamboo. For his part, Xiao-Yu makes a valiant attempt to hang on to Yuan-gege, and manages to cling to him for less than two seconds before tumbling down to the ground. 

“A-Yuan!” Diedie yelps, turning Xiao-Yu the right way up again. “What’s the matter now?”

“There’s somebody here. Just off the path, less than twelve yards away,” Yuan-ge breathes. “But I can’t see anyone.”

“Alive? It’s not a fierce corpse?”

“No, I can feel a heartbeat.”

At that, Diedie pulls out a light talisman and holds it out over the path, turning from side to side to get a better look between the trees. 

“It’s too fast,” he murmurs, “and far too weak.”

He looks down, parting the tangles of ivy on the ground, and stops at the sight of a pair of shallow footprints in the soil near his boots. 

“Oh, no,” he whispers, before charging headlong into the woods with the talismans flying ahead of him. “Oh, no, no—”

“A-Die!” Yuan-gege shouts, grabbing Xiao-Yu and leaping after him. “Xian-gege, what’s wrong?”

In answer, A-Die falls to his knees and throws himself forward, reaching for something hidden in the underbrush, and drags a dirty, mewling bundle out into the light. 

The bundle yawns and looks back up at him, clearly angry at having been woken from its sound sleep, and puts a tiny thumb in its mouth before bursting into tears.

“A baby,” Yuan-gege wheezes, so slack-jawed with shock that someone could probably have fit a whole apple in between his teeth. “A-Die, that man we passed on the stairs—do you think he left her here?”

A-Die nods, worried almost out of his wits, and stumbles back to the path with the baby stuffed down the front of his robes.

“Hurry, hurry,” A-Die gasps, touching the baby's neck to feel its pulse. “This little one needs a healer, now.”

Yuan-gege picks Xiao-Yu up and pulls A-Die back onto Liuxin, and then the four of them fly up towards the gate as if they were one with the wind itself. 

And for some reason—though Xiao-Yu cannot quite tell why—he finds himself pressing close to A-Niang, and reaching out to stroke the baby’s fluffy hair until it decides to stop crying. 

“You’re safe now,” he soothes, as the baby moves its small round head and tries to nibble at his fingers. “Don’t worry, didi! Xiao-Yu is here.”

*    *    *

Contrary to Xiao-Yu’s expectations, the baby didi they found in the bushes turns out to be a baby girl instead. 

Bofu dresses her in a set of Ying-meimei’s old clothes, and helps A-Die feed her warm milk from a bottle, and teaches him how to wash her tiny body and change her smallclothes after she finishes eating. After that, a pair of lady healers from the infirmary come to the Jingshi to check on her, and announce that she seems to be in perfect health save for her chilled hands and feet.

“Are you keeping her, Xinhua-jun?” one of them asks, while the baby howls like a beleaguered wolf cub in the cradle of Diedie’s arms—because Huang-daifu needed a drop of the baby’s blood to make certain that she wasn't sickening for something, and the prick of the needle frightened Lan-bao so badly that she hasn’t stopped crying since. “You don’t have to raise her if you don’t want to. The children’s ward has more nurses than babies at present, so this little one would be well looked after there.”

Xiao-Yu stamps his small feet in protest. “No!” he shouts, wrapping himself around his father’s legs. “She can’t leave! Lan-bao is staying with Xiao-Yu!”

A-Die blinks. “Lan-bao?”

“Mn,” Xiao-Yu says firmly. “Meimei doesn’t have a name, so she’s just Lan-bao for now. But she’s still mine, so Huang-daifu can’t take her!”

“You should ask your A-Niang before saying things like that,” Jingyi-ge advises, his voice muffled by a stolen mouthful of A-Yu’s favorite dumplings. “Babies are hard work, and Hanguang-jun isn’t here to help Senior Wei decide, so—”

“Hush, Jingyi. I’ve made up my mind,” A-Die interrupts. “Huang-daifu, there’s no need to trouble the nurses. Zewu-jun brought me all of Jueying’s old things, and he and Shufu will be here to help me, so Lan-bao will stay with us.”

And so, just like that, Xiao-Yu has a tiny meimei of his own. 

She moves into the Jingshi on the very first night, sleeping in the big bed between Diedie and Xiao-Yu, and he wakes up whenever Diedie does to help him make Lan-bao’s bottles. Xiao-Yu can’t do very much, since he’s only little himself; but he can pat his sister’s hungry stomach to calm her down while A-Die fetches her milk, and brush her baby-soft hair while she eats, and put her tiny socks back on whenever they drop off her feet.

When he and Lan-bao lie down again, A-Die curls up around them with Lan-bao’s head tucked into his chest and his hand on Xiao-Yu’s back, and sleeps so fitfully that the baby opens her eyes and tries to bite him.

“Lan-bao wants A-Niang to nap, too,” A-Yu yawns. “A-Niang, sleep. Xiao-Yu is here.”

“And I’m here, too,” Yuan-gege laughs, from the other side of the bed. “Don’t worry, Xian-gege. If A-Lan wakes up again, I’ll look after her.”

So A-Die does, relaxing into the sheets like a child at rest, after which Lan-bao cuddles up against him and refuses to move even a finger till sunrise.

When the morning comes, it feels as if A-Lan has always been here, somehow.

Xiao-Yu wakes up at chenshi with his sister’s tiny face squashed against his, and wonders if she knows how long her brothers waited to meet her. 

*    *    *

Papa comes home two weeks later, long after the rest of the Cloud Recesses hears about its new young mistress and starts paying homage to A-Lan as she deserves. When he arrives, Xiao-Yu decides that the conference in Anping must have gone well, because Papa’s steps are as lithe and light as a deer’s, and his eyes are as clear as a star-filled lake at the thought of seeing A-Die again—but when A-Die steps out onto the porch, dressed in one of Papa’s soft white robes with Lan-bao making sleepy noises in his arms, Papa goes to his knees in the dust and weeps as if the sight of them had broken his heart.

“She is beautiful,” he sobs, when A-Die puts Lan-bao in his lap and shows him how to hold her fluffy head without hurting her. “And already so bright, so strong—a daughter, Wei Ying, we have a daughter—”

“A very good daughter,” A-Die laughs, kissing the bridge of Papa’s nose before turning back to Xiao-Yu. “What do you think, baobei? Do you still want a didi of your own, or will this little dumpling do?”

Xiao-Yu nods, his heart so full that he can hardly speak, and clings to his beloved Yuan-gege with tears prickling at his eyelashes. 

“I don’t want a little brother,” he says thickly. “I only want A-Lan.”

And then, to Yuan-gege:

“But Ge isn’t allowed to leave me either!” Xiao-Yu complains. “Don’t night-hunt so much anymore! Lan-bao’s just a baby, so if you go away again, how will she know you’re coming back?”

Yuan-gege leans down and squeezes him.

“All right,” he smiles, nuzzling Xiao-Yu’s round cheeks until he squeals. “Xiongzhang will stay right by your side, Xiao-Yu. I promise.”

A snowflake lands on the tip of his nose, and Xiao-Yu tries to squirm down Yuan-gege’s coat in an attempt to keep himself dry. 

Another snowflake falls, and another. 

But somehow, the world seems warmer and sweeter than ever before.