579. Spin-Off – Ling Maomao, Ji Xiaocong, Birthday (II)
Ji Xiaocong’s birthday finally arrived. Ling Zhang and Yuwen Tong, as a token of their affection for the juniors, both attended this birthday banquet, bringing their adopted children with them. Together, they enjoyed some opera performances.
At night, after the banquet, Ling Maomao led the invitees to the garden to sit and rest.
In the garden, they found that the whole place was adorned with beautiful, festive lanterns. In a roomy pavilion was placed a table on which reposed snack, cards and some other doodads. The pavilion had windows in all its four walls, all of which were now open, and so was the door facing the pond. They could clearly see the lanterns in the garden from inside the pavilion.
“Wow, it’s beautiful,” exclaimed Yuwen Yue.
The others also found it enjoyable.
Ling Xuxu had specially asked for leave and left school early, but it was not until this moment that he discovered these lanterns. “When did you have them hang these lanterns, Big Brother?”
“In the afternoon,” said Ling Maomao before he shifted his gaze to Ji Xiaocong. “Do you like it?”
Ji Xiaocong nodded and smiled a happy smile. “Yeah. Thank you, Brother Maomao.”
His smile was as bright as a blooming flower and more beautiful than all the festive lanterns out there. Ling Maomao was unable to wrench his eyes from it.
None of the others, except for Yuwen Lin, noticed this. It was a few moments before he averted his eyes, muttering inwardly, ‘No wonder these two have been spending so much time together. It turns out they’re in a relationship. Alas. What is love exactly? Why is everybody so obsessed with it? Daddy and Father spend every day together, but it still doesn’t seem to be enough for them, and they on occasions perform public displays of affection in the presence of us. Some day I should just find myself a presentable girl and get married. I don’t want to end up like Daddy or Father. That kind of behavior’s so annoying.’
… Yuwen Lin could only think about these ideas. He would never have the guts to disclose any of them to Ling Zhang or Yuwen Tong.
Seeing that Ling Maomao was staring unblinkingly at him, Ji Xiaocong could not help smiling more broadly, further mesmerizing Ling Maomao standing opposite him. It was a long moment before the noise of fireworks jogged Ling Maomao back to his senses.
“Brother Maomao, when did you prepare these fireworks? I didn’t notice any of it,” said Ji Xiaocong. This indeed came as a surprise to him.
Ling Maomao said, “Yesterday. I still remember that ten years ago, when my cousin married His Majesty, the two of us scampered and scurried all around the palace and got all sweaty. Afterward, when the fireworks started, we badgered my cousin to let us go there and set off some fireworks ourselves. Unable to dissuade us, my cousin had some men bring us out to play. For fear that we might get our eyes hurt by the flying shreds of fireworks, the guards always whisked us off immediately after lighting a fuse.”
Ji Xiaocong also recalled it. How could he not remember it? At that time they had been in the old capital city. That stay of his in that city had been the happiest experience he had ever had.
“And after that we kept pestering His Highness to allow us to stay in the palace for some days. At that time, he and His Majesty had just got married and wanted to spend as much time alone with each other as possible, so we were kind of the third wheel. There were several occasions when His Majesty cast us accusing glances, which told me that he was eager to chuck us out of the palace.”
On hearing this, Ling Maomao dissolved into chuckle.
At that time he had been a young boy who could be a pain in the neck when being naughty, but now, come to think of it, it struck him that the main reason was that his cousin had doted on him. He had always been clinging to his cousin during his childhood, and his cousin had hardly turned down any of his requests.
“Wow. It surprises me you guys used to be so naughty as well, Uncle Mao,” said Yuwen Yue.
The others also switched their gaze to the two of them, their eyes full of curiosity. Ling Xuxu, in particular, found it unbelievable that his serious big brother used to be just as naughty as he was, the expression in his eyes unmistakably suggesting that he wanted to hear more stories about it.
“Can I tell them more, Brother Maomao?” asked Ji Xiaocong.
Ling Maomao looked at him. “How much do you still remember?”
Ji Xiaocong smiled, “I remember everything.”
Ling Maomao was somewhat amazed.
“Like His Majesty, I was gifted with an extraordinarily retentive memory as well,” explained Ji Xiaocong.
Ji Xiaocong recounted many things that had happened in the past. Back then, when he had come to the capital city with his uncle and first met Ling Maomao, Ling Maomao had been a young boy, but when taking his hands, Ling Maomao had emanated such an air as though he had grown up instantly. At that time, Ji Xiaocong had almost spent every day with Ling Maomao.
“There was a time when His Highness lived in the Ling Mansion, and Brother Maomao and I shared a bed with him, making it so crowded he ended up all sweaty every time. In the morning, when we woke up, he would, smiling, hit our foreheads with his knuckle and say that we were like two stoves, a big one and a small one.”
Ling Maomao had a somewhat distant look in his eyes. He had not bargained on Ji Xiaocong having vivid memories of such details.
“At that time Brother Maomao’s mother was also at home, and she would make us a lot of goodies. Brother Maomao and I were offered special snacks every day. Sometimes we ate too many of them and were unable to eat our meals, and then there would be less snacks the next day. Those snacks were really delicious. I liked them very much. Every time when I finished mine and seemed not to have my fill, Brother Maomao would secretly give me the remainder of his helping. I, having little self-restraint, would accept it and later find myself unable to eat my meal again. On one occasion, when the grown-ups found out that I ate too many snacks, Brother Maomao was given a talking-to, and after that he no longer dared slip me that many snacks. He only dared give me a small portion at a time, and every time he did that, he would say, ‘Cong, we must not eat too much or else we won’t be able to eat our meals and then the grown-ups will slap our hands. Be good.'”
“Wow! I can’t believe Uncle Mao used to say things like that to coax people when he was a young boy!” yelled Yuwen Yue.
Ling Maomao’s face was somewhat flushed. It had never occurred to him that Ji Xiaocong had recollection of even this matter.
Ji Xiaocong lifted his eyebrows at him. “I remember a lot of other things.”
Ling Maomao gave a little cough. “You don’t really have to tell them everything.”
“He has to! We want to hear everything!” Yuwen Yue’s voice was the loudest.
Ji Xiaocong burst into laughter and most willingly granted Yuwen Yue’s wish, Ling Maomao next to them resignedly tossing them disapproving glances.
After talking for a long while, they began to play cards. Yuwen Yue, as always, was the one with the most unbridled enthusiasm at the card table. While Ling Zhang was not around, she stood with her foot on a chair, her hand on her hip. “Hurry up, Lin! What’s taking you so long? Your cards won’t change no matter how long you stare at them!”
Yuwen Lin rolled his eyes at her. “Mind your manners, will you? If Daddy sees you like this, you’re guaranteed to regret it.”
At the mention of her daddy, Yuwen Yue subconsciously swiveled her head around to look back. Seeing that Ling Zhang was not in sight, she was instantly emboldened. “Stop trying to scare me. I don’t scare easily. Just do it already!”
Finding her mien unsightly, Yuwen Qi sitting opposite her clapped his hands to his face.
Ling Maomao, the eldest of them all, reached out a hand and hit her on the forehead with his knuckle. “Settle down.”
Yuwen Yue found his poker face somewhat intimidating and obediently sat herself on the chair, but before long she lapsed back into her old ways.
Ji Xiaocong was sitting right opposite Ling Maomao. Every time Yuwen Yue shouted in a manly fashion, he dissolved into laughter, seeming to appreciate her individuality very much. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep a lookout for His Highness. If he approaches, I’ll give you a heads-up immediately.”
“You’re the best, Uncle Cong!” Yuwen Yue leaned over the table and gave Ji Xiaocong a high five.
There were not enough seats at the table for all of them, so Ling Xuxu was sitting behind Yuwen Yue on her right, acting as her adviser. Seeing that she was about to play the wrong card, he hastily cautioned, “Wait!”
“I’ve had enough of waiting. This is it!” Yuwen Yue was very impatient.
Ling Xuxu withdrew his hand, covered his face with it and wailed, “Oh, my princess, do you really know how to play cards?!”
Yuwen Yue was having a good time. “It’s all about the fun. Wait a moment! Lin, why did you play that card? This one doesn’t count. Take it back! I’ll play another card!”
Yuwen Lin said calmly, “You can’t just take it back.”
“Says who?!” Yuwen Yue bawled.
Ji Xiaocong sitting opposite Ling Maomao burst into laughter again.
Ling Maomao appeared rather resigned every time he saw Ji Xiaocong’s eyes watering for laughing. Why had he not discovered sooner that Crescent and Cong clicked in this regard? The former was hilarious, while the latter seemed to find everything about her amusing.
On the night of Ji Xiaocong’s fifteenth birthday, the youngsters stayed up very late. It was not until Ling Zhang, agitated beyond endurance, sent someone to remind them about the time that they put an end to the party.
“I expect more of you.” Ling Zhang began to lecture his daughter again.
Yuwen Tong next to him smiled an unsympathetic smile.
After another half a month, the time came for Ji Xiaocong to set off to return to the island. Ling Maomao, reluctant to let him leave, went to see him off.
Originally Ji Yin had wanted to see Ji Xiaocong off in person, but as Ling Maomao was doing it, he dropped the idea.
Guards of the Pavilion, along with those of the Ling Mansion, following in the wake of their young masters, escorted them from the capital city all the way to Haizhou. Outside Pingtao City were berthed some ships of the Pavilion, which would take Ji Xiaocong safely back to the island.
Before embarkation, smile faded from Ji Xiaocong’s face and he looked earnestly at Ling Maomao. “Brother Maomao, promise me you’ll come to attend my rite of passage when I turn seventeen.”
“I promise,” said Ling Maomao with an inclination of the head. He would be there, no matter how many difficulties he had to overcome. He wanted to bare witness to the moment when Ji Xiaocong changed into adult clothing.
“You must not forget me.”
“Don’t pay too much heed to that Yuwen Yi guy.”
“Um … Um? … You don’t like him?”
Ling Maomao was surprised.
“It’s not that I dislike him. He strikes me as an interfering busybody.”
Bemused, Ling Maomao made an attempt to explain, “Yuwen Yi has a bold and uninhibited character. If he said something you find offensive, don’t overthink it. I’ll fix him.”
“I’ll never overthink any of his words. It’s you who might do that.”
It struck Ling Maomao that there was some kind of misunderstanding between them, but Ji Xiaocong was supposed to embark soon, and he did not want Ji Xiaocong to be bothered by this matter after his return, so he said, “Rest assured, I won’t give too much heed to him, and there’s no way he can convince me.”
It was only then that Ji Xiaocong looked satisfied, and he once again cautioned Ling Maomao not to forget to pay a visit to the island to attend his rite of passage when he turned seventeen.
Ling Maomao gave him his word and then watched as Ji Xiaocong embarked.
When the ship set sail, Ji Xiaocong showed up on the deck and waved Ling Maomao goodbye.
Ling Maomao, watching him receding into the distance, took in a large gulp of air and waved back.
It would be two years before their next meeting. The ship had not gone far, but he had started missing Ji Xiaocong already. Two years struck him as too long.
Two years later, on the same pier, a tall and upright young man boarded a ship. Gazing determinedly in the direction of someplace in the sea, he stroked the gift in his traveling bag.