578. Spin-Off – Ling Maomao, Ji Xiaocong, Birthday (I)
Ji Yanlai, when giving Ji Xiaocong the permission to stay in the capital city, had made it very clear that Ji Xiaocong must return to the island to continue his cultivation three months later.
Ji Xiaocong, not daring raise any objections, had had no choice but to agree.
“Brother Maomao, my fifteenth birthday is in a month, and it’ll be another two years before I turn seventeen. I won’t be able to come back here to visit you again until after my rite of passage.”
Ji Xiaocong sounded very downcast. He did not want to return to the island. “My uncle is an old bachelor. He never feels the need for love life, which is why he can’t understand me and keeps trying to have me stay on that island.”
Ling Maomao tenderly looked at him. There was ardor in the depths of his eyes, but it was well concealed. “Clan Leader’s doing this because he looks out for your best interests.”
Then he added, “Your fifteenth birthday should be a grand occasion as well. Do you want to invite some guests over to celebrate it with you?”
Ji Xiaocong smiled, “If you think I should do that, I’ll do it.”
Ling Maomao, looking at his limpid, smiling eyes, adjusted his breathing before saying, “You may invite those you feel close to and celebrate your birthday by having an uproarious party in the Ling Mansion.”
“All right. I’ll do whatever you say,” said Ji Xiaocong.
Looking at him, Ling Maomao added, “Can I go to the island to attend your rite of passage when you turn seventeen? Are there any taboos?”
Ji Xiaocong’s eyes were sparkling for beaming, the scarlet mole in the middle of his forehead conspicuous and attractive. “There’s no taboo. You may come. I want you to come.”
Ling Maomao was secretly relieved. “I promise I’ll be there.”
In order to make sure Ji Xiaocong had fun on his fifteenth birthday, Ling Maomao specially called over his good friend and asked him how to make a fun party.
Yuwen Yi had just had his sixteenth birthday and was only one year Ji Xiaocong’s senior, but unlike Ji Xiaocong who had been on an island all the year around, Yuwen Yi, as the eldest son of Yuwen Feng the Marquess Huaiwen, had grown into a poised youngster with a good sense of propriety, though only sixteen years old. Also, like other young members of the Yuwen family, he was very tall for his age – almost as tall as Ling Maomao, actually. Yuwen Yi was gregarious and had a lot of friends in the capital city. He had attended countless banquets of every description. Unlike Ling Maomao who always preferred to keep a low profile, he did know about a lot of things.
“How to make a party fun and lively depends on who the invitees are. Are they friends about your age, or relatives, or young nobles, or children of ordinary officials, or commoners? Different arrangements are supposed to be made according to their identities,” said Yuwen Yi with the air of an expert.
Ling Maomao said, “Cong doesn’t have any other friends in this city, so we plan to invite mainly the elders we feel close to.”
“That’s simple. Elders value the proprieties. All you have to do is make sure everything’s done with due ceremonial. Where are you holding the party?” Yuwen Yi asked him.
“Right at home,” replied Ling Maomao.
“That’d make it even easier. Just have somewhere with enough room cleaned and a banquet prepared according to the etiquette. If the guests are into opera, you may hire a troupe, which would make the party more uproarious,” said Yuwen Yi.
Ling Maomao said, “I’m worried it’d be a little tedious, and Cong might not like it.”
After all, the Ling family entertained the imperial couple on a regular basis and had long since become used to the various kinds of banquets and different levels of formality. If there was anything that might lend an air of novelty to the party, it would be a theatrical troupe. Operas would make the atmosphere lively, and Cong, who liked uproarious occasions, should be struck with them.
Yuwen Yi said, “Well, there’s nothing we could do about that. Under no circumstances should you get anything showy to a party attended by elders, because it’ll make them think you’re frivolous.”
Ling Maomao’s eyebrows contracted slightly. “Apart from a troupe, is there anything else?”
Seeing the frown on his brow, Yuwen Yi gave it some thought and said, “It’s unnecessary to add anything else to the banquet, because the elders wouldn’t like it. If you do that, they’d be displeased, which would make the party less pleasant. But after the banquet, you may hold a card party or something like that in your garden, during which there will be a lot of things you could do.”
It occurred to Ling Maomao that he would no doubt have to invite Yuwen Qi and the others, and Ling Xuxu was also at home. It was a pretty good idea to organize some interesting activities after the banquet.
“Sounds like a plan. Help me work out the details.”
Yuwen Yi raised his eyebrows and leaned closer. “Brother Mao, I’m more than willing to help you, but first you have to tell me what kind of effect you want.”
Ling Maomao looked at him. “Effect?”
Yuwen Yi leaned over and whispered something in his ear.
Ling Maomao’s countenance changed slightly and with that he looked seriously at Yuwen Yi. “Stop that nonsense. The two princes and the princess would be present as well, along with my little brother. They’re all family. Besides, my relations with Cong are not what you think they are.”
Ji Xiaocong was still young – he had not had his fifteenth birthday yet. There were some emotions that Ling Maomao had been subduing all along, and he had no intention to show them to anybody else prematurely.
But it surprised Ling Maomao that Yuwen Yi, who had alarmingly discerning eyes, had perceived it already after seeing Ji Xiaocong merely a couple of times.
Ling Maomao was now somewhat regretful about having called Yuwen Yi over.
Yuwen Yi blinked his eyes. “Okay, okay, take it easy. Your secret is safe with me. You know what kind of person I am, don’t you? I’m a veritable tomb where other people’s secrets are concerned. Brother Mao, you didn’t use to be so serious. Ever since you returned from the border and started learning kung fu from your master, you’ve been getting more and more solemn. You’re as solemn as your grandfather now.”
Ling Maomao could not be bothered to make a reply to these flippant remarks. Yuwen Yi had no choice but to steer the conversation back to a sensible topic.
When the two of them were discussing details of the plan, Ji Xiaocong, as chance would have it, arrived to see Ling Maomao. “Brother Maomao.”
Yuwen Yi stopped speaking and winked at Ling Maomao. “Your Cong has come.”
Ling Maomao gave him a dirty look and warned him to guard his tongue in front of Ji Xiaocong.
Ji Xiaocong walked inside and was momentarily surprised to see Yuwen Yi before he said with an inclination of the head, “Childe Yuwen.”
Yuwen Yi greeted him as well. Having sensed that Ji Xiaocong probably had something to say to Ling Maomao, he rose to his feet, preparing to take his leave. “It just occurred to me that there’s something else I have to attend to. I need to go back. I’ll see you guys in a few days.”
Ling Maomao saw him out.
A couple of days later, Yuwen Yi came again as expected, bringing with him a lot of interesting gadgets which could help people while away the time, such as Chinese ring puzzles.
“I know you don’t like those fancy stuff. All these things help pass the time and are suitable for all ages. There are also some festive lanterns. I specially ordered them for you after I returned home the other day. All of them were signature lanterns on the last Lantern Festival. You may have a couple of them hung in the room on that day. They’ll look beautiful and add to the fun.”
Ling Maomao checked them out one by one and found all of them satisfying. “Thanks.”
“You’re totally welcome.” Yuwen Yi helped himself to a seat and then took a sip of tea.
“But to be honest, Brother Mao, Childe Ji has been in this city for quite some time now, and I hardly saw you bring him to a banquet or something like that. He’s not even inviting any friends to this birthday party of his, only some elders, the two princes, the princess and your little brother. Are you not worried that he might feel lonely?” Yuwen Yi suddenly asked.
Ling Maomao, who knew what he meant, said, “Cong’s identity is special.”
Seeing that he showed no inclination to continue speaking, Yuwen Yi said incredulously, “That’s it?”
Ling Maomao replied, “I can’t tell you.”
Yuwen Yi jumped to his feet indignantly. “You’re killing me with such suspense!”
However, Ling Maomao seemed not to be swayed. Yuwen Yi could not help shaking his head. “You’re unbelievable. All right, since you don’t want to tell me, I won’t push you. Anyway, I just asked about it out of goodwill, nothing else. Now that you guys are okay with it, it’s fine by me.”
“Thanks,” said Ling Maomao.
Yuwen Yi rolled his eyes upwards. “Come on. If you keep acting like this, I’m afraid your Cong might get bored of you some day. He strikes me as the kind of person who likes uproarious occasions. What could he possibly find in common with a guy as solemn as you?”
Ling Maomao was silent for a brief moment before asking, “Am I really that boring?”
Yuwen Yi looked at him. “Of course you are. Every time we’re at a banquet, all youngsters from noble families except for me and the couple of others are afraid of you, because you barely speak.”
Ling Maomao lapsed into a thoughtful silence. Was he really that uninteresting?
“You guys are the only friends I need.”
Yuwen Yi smiled. “If you say so. Everybody has their own individuality, and I’m in no position to ask you to change yours. We all know what kind of person you’re, and that’s enough for us. Of course, the most important part is that it won’t diminish your Cong’s fondness for you.”
When Yuwen Yi had left, Ling Maomao began to contemplate whether he had really been getting too serious for others’ liking.
He felt that he was not serious, that he was just a little taciturn. Why did he strike so many others as serious?
“Brother Maomao,” called Ji Xiaocong cheerfully, scampering up to him. “What were you thinking about? Just now I called you but you didn’t hear me.”
“Cong, do I strike you as taciturn and boring?” Ling Maomao, having given it some thought, chose to put it explicitly.
He did not care whether the others found him unpleasantly serious, but if Cong did, he would try to change himself.
Ji Xiaocong was momentarily astonished. “Why would you wonder about something like that? I don’t think you boring or taciturn. When I’m with you, I can understand what you mean without you telling me about it. What does it matter if you’re a conversationalist or not? Besides, I’m much more talkative than you, and if you are talkative as well, I won’t be able to dominate our conversations, and I’ll lose my listener.”
Ling Maomao gazed deep into his eyes. “I’ll always be listening when you’re speaking.”
Ji Xiaocong’s face immediately creased into a beam, his eyes as sparkling as stars. “I know, which is why I don’t find you uninteresting. I can never get bored as long as I’m with you. By the way, earlier this day I paid a visit to the big white egg. It kept rolling around in the chamber. I think it’s in a pretty good mood. We may go and see it together in a couple of days.”
“All right,” said Ling Maomao.
After he parted from Ling Maomao, smile faded from Ji Xiaocong’s face and the look in his eyes gradually turned cold.
Why did Brother Maomao suddenly think himself taciturn and boring? Was it because someone had said something to him?
It took only a few moments’ inquiry to find out who had visited Ling Maomao earlier this day.
“Yuwen Yi,” muttered Ji Xiaocong, a little crease appearing between his eyes. “Brother Maomao sees him as a friend. If I do anything to him, Brother Maomao is guaranteed to be mad at me. But he needs to be stopped from talking nonsense.”
For two days Yuwen Yi had been feeling itchy and uncomfortable all over, and he kept scratching.
Sometimes he even felt something crawling on his skin, but when he took off his clothes to find it, there was nothing there. What with this, he was in constant unease.
Having scratched for two days, he was no longer in the mood for going out to have fun. Fretful, he sent for a physician, who, at the sight of the large patch of red spots on his back, exclaimed in alarm, “Childe Yi, you were bitten by some kind of worm.”
Yuwen Yi was taken aback. “What kind of worm? In the past two days I kept having this feeling that something’s biting me, but I couldn’t find it, no matter how hard I tried.”
The physician examined him, told him what the worm was called and then said, “This kind of worms burrow into your clothes and leave their hair there. Their hair’s too fine to be seen by our eyes, but if your skin comes into contact with it, you’ll feel itchy and keep scratching. Given your symptoms, I think this is the cause. What you’ve worn in the past two days should be ditched, and all clothes should be fumigated with a bug repellent before you put them on. And then there’s this ointment. Apply it to your back after bath on a daily basis and you won’t feel itchy again. Oh, there are red spots on your arm as well. It seems there’s some hair in these clothes as well. I suggest you burn them all.”
Yuwen Yi hastened to have the clothes he had worn in the past two days disposed of and the remainder fumigated. Then he applied the ointment to his back, which gave his skin a cool sensation and relieved the itch, making him feel much better.
“This is so weird. Recently I’ve never been to any particular places. How did those worms get into my clothes?”
When Yuwen Yi paid another visit to the Ling Mansion, Ling Maomao was surprised to smell the strong scent of medication from his clothes. “What is that smell?”
Then he noticed that Yuwen Yi did not look very well and asked, “Are you sick?”
Yuwen Yi said, “Alas. Don’t get me started.”
After hearing his recount, Ling Maomao was speechless. “Where have you been?”
Yuwen Yi’s eyes widened innocently. “I have no idea either. I’ve been a real homebody lately, doing nothing but help you plan the party. I didn’t go anywhere else.”
Ling Maomao shook his head. “How are you feeling now?”
“Much better. I’m not scratching any more,” replied Yuwen Yi. If the itch had not been relieved, he would not have been able to come out, because he would be scratching constantly since the moment he left home, which was undignified, and he would be too irascible to even sit.
“You need to be more careful. Do not let some worms mess up your life,” said Ling Maomao.
Yuwen Yi said with a long sigh, “The problem is I don’t even know where I got those worms on me.”
When leaving the residence, Yuwen Yi chanced upon Ji Xiaocong, whom he greeted with a smile. “Childe Ji.”
“Childe Yuwen.” Ji Xiaocong, who from a long way off smelled the scent of medication he was giving off, was fully aware of what it was about.
Yuwen Yi exchanged usual pleasantries with Ji Xiaocong for a few moments and then quickly left.
Ji Xiaocong turned on his heel to watch his retreating figure. The look in his eyes flickered momentarily.
Yuwen Yi had only walked a little distance when he felt a chill creep down his spine, swiveled around and was baffled as he saw that Ji Xiaocong had gone far away and there was nobody else around.
What the hell was going on? Why had creepy things kept happening to him in the past few days?
Yuwen Yi’s itch disappeared completely after he returned from the Ling Mansion. He heaved a long sigh of relief. These worms which had come out of nowhere had almost rendered him mentally drained.