Spring Festival Fires
For a week, the fires burned, stoked by the blustery winds. The palace sent help to put out the fires.
Meanwhile, they celebrated Spring Festival with visits and parties. Gifts were exchanged, delicacies enjoyed and casual banter went to and fro. Xiao Xiao only smiled and bowed politely during the festivities. She pretended to be happy while she felt strange and detached inside. Why celebrate when the villages burned? Joy when people suffered, their possessions gone?
Mother was told not to visit Ye Ye and Nai Nai as the roads were dangerous due to the fires and looting. "I can protect myself," she said curtly. "I have my guards." She had trained women bodyguards who doubled as her ladies-in-waiting. They were good with the pole and the jian.
Xiao Xiao watched her father visibly deflate. "I will give you extra guards, a regiment of bannermen."
"I am visiting my parents, not invading a country," Mother replied acidly.
So they set off on the second day of the Spring Festival with the bodyguards in toll. When Ye Ye saw them, he exclaimed "Aiyah, I will have to cook more!" and went back straight into the kitchen. Nai Nai doted on Xiao Xin and lavished her with gifts she made herself: hand sewn dolls. She gave Xiao Xiao a hand sewn winter top. Mother had given her the fabrics last year.
Nai Nai and Ye Ye were common folk. Farmers with their own patch of vegetables and livestock. They didn't care for the opulence of the imperial court. Mother had sent them money which they had refused. However, Ye Ye's shed looked better now with thicker stone walls and their house appeared more well-maintained than last time Xiao Xiao saw it.
Mid-day meal was simple. Even the sedan chair carriers, bannermen and the ladies-in-waiting had something to eat.
With so many people, Ye Ye had tossed together his go-to soup: a clear broth with fish and prawns he had caught from the nearby pond. He threw in a plenty of chopped shallots for taste.
The main dish was a big carp he also caught himself. Steamed, it still smelled earthy like the water it swam in. Xiao Xiao ate, grateful. Her heart swelled full. It was not often she visited her grandparents.
She was surprised that Xiao Xin behaved herself and acted graciously. The little girl sat with Nai Nai, quietly accepting her grandmother's compliments. Were the words she'd said during the reunion banquet simply just imagination? Xiao Xiao mused.
They received their red packets after wishing Ye Ye and Nai Nai. Mother knelt for a while, her eyes shining with tears. It would be another year before she could see them again.
Simple Seafood Broth
Serves two to four
- 1/2 cup of large peeled prawns.
- 1/2 cup of cleaned white fish slices.
- 2/3 cup of chopped shallots or spring onions.
- A teaspoon of sea salt.
- Cooking oil (a teaspoon).
- Six bowls of water.
- Fry the chopped shallots in a pot until they are fragrant before adding the white fish slices and prawns. When they appear cooked (prawns turning red, fish slices hardening), add in the water.
- Boil on high heat for 15 minutes or so.
- Add the salt for taste.
Serve hot with jasmine rice!
Xiao Xiao dreamed of dragon scales. They gleamed like silver carp scales, like glistening half-moons.
In the dream, the scales were on her arms and legs. She swam in bright green water, as if she was indeed underwater with the light streaming from above.
A serpentine shape joined her. It was a dragon, a young one, with brighter scales and long whiskers. It was Ming Zhu.
They danced together.
When are you coming back? Xiao Xiao asked. I missed you.
Soon, Ming Zhu said. Soon. The world will need us soon.
The dragon began to fade away, the scales scattering away in an iridescent stream. They reminded Xiao Xiao of petals during cherry blossom season.
She woke up with the spring sun on her face. She could hear the maid servants chatting excitedly about the Lantern Festival held on the fifteenth day of the Spring Festival celebrations. This was where they could admire gorgeous lanterns and the full moon.
Xiao Xiao shivered, terrified she might see dragon scales on her bed.
Ming Zhu was coming back.
The Nian shimmered with scales too. As it moved across the land, disaster struck. Fires erupted. Flooding drowned riverside villages. The sounds of firecrackers and gong-banging didn't frighten it. It grew stronger and more vicious as the days went by.
Ming Zhu moved, with urgency in her limbs. Things were falling apart.
The seas roiled. They had felt the shock too.
Time was running out.
The little girl must be protected!
Thank you for reading this part of Pearl of the Palace by Joyce Chng!
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