The Warships Gather
The seas roiled with anger.
Foreign ships, with their jagged bows and ferocious-looking cannons, had anchored en mass close to Zhou Shan.
Facing them was the imperial fleet. An uneasy tension thickened the air. The cannons were pointed at the imperial fleet.
The clouds churned as the dragons swam through the sky. They dove into the river like waterspouts. For the trio, it was a moment of joy.
The Nian had gone into hiding. It would emerge again.
But for now, they celebrated.
And indeed people celebrated. The earth tremors were gone. The rivers were suddenly running clear. Villagers took out their treasured Spring Festival sweetmeats, kept out of harm's way. Women brought out nian gao and made dishes out of them.
Fried Shanghainese Nian Gao (Rice Cakes)
- Two chicken breasts (diced)
- 1 teaspoon of cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon of soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon of sesame seed oil
The rice cakes and other ingredients
- 1 cup of Shanghainese rice cakes (Go to an Asian grocer. They often come in packets)
- Bok choy (chopped)
- 5-6 shitake mushrooms (sliced)
- 3 spring onions or scallions
- Garlic (diced)
- 1 tablespoon of cooking oil
- 1 tablespoon of Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon of light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt
- Sugar (depending on taste - a pinch of it should suffice)
- White pepper (depending on taste - a pinch or two)
- Chilli peppers (optional)
- Sliced young ginger (optional)
- Marinate the diced chicken breasts with the cornstarch, soy sauce and oil in a separate bowl.
- Rinse the rice cakes and drain. (You can also soak them in water for about 15 minutes).
- Chop the bok choy and the spring onions.
- Heat the wok or frying pan on high. Add the cooking oil and toss in the garlic. Stir the garlic until they are aromatic and golden-brown, before adding the chicken.
- Add in the spring onions, bok choy and mushrooms. Stir-fry on high heat. Drizzle in the wine.
- Add the rice cakes and stir-fry on high heat for 1 minute, making sure all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Cover for 1 minute. Remove the cover and add the sea salt, sugar and white pepper. Make sure the rice cakes are cooked. They should be chewy. Chilli peppers and sliced young ginger are optional.
The three dragons danced in the sky. For a moment, they were joyous and carefree. The youngest and littlest of the three was still unsure of her power, but she flew besides her older sister dragons, eyes shining with pride.
When they reached the palace, the roof tops of the buildings gleaming in the light of dusk, Xiao Xiao suffered a pang of disappointment. Was this going to end? Had they defeated the Nian finally? It had gone into hiding and she was sure that it would be back.
The moment their clawed feet touched the ground, the three transformed to their human selves. Xiao Xin was hopping up and down with excitement. It was all an adventure for her.
They were next to the small palace gate that led into the courtyards proper. Xiao Xiao could hear the guards talking as they changed shift. Her heart was sad that Ming Zhu might be leaving again.
"The Nian is not gone yet," Ming Zhu said. "It will be back. Soon. But return your sister to your mother. She must be so worried about both of you." There was reluctance in her voice too.
"Stay for a while," Xiao Xiao pleaded.
Ming Zhu's long green sleeves rustled as she nodded slowly.
Xiao Xiao led Xiao Xin back into the courtyards whereupon they were greeted with shock and surprise by guards. They were quickly brought back to the main chambers in the midst of shouting and cheering. Mother flew out of her chamber, clad in her armour as if she was about to leave to search for them. Tears streaming down her face, she embraced her daughters. She didn't question how they came back. Instead, she ushered them into the private chambers, fussing over them and ordering the maid servants to bring food and drink. She had the bathing tubs filled with hot water. Xiao Xiao was suddenly grateful for a warm bath. Her body hurt.
Dressed in clean and comfortable gowns, they sat down for a well-deserved meal. Xiao Xiao and Xiao Xin quickly finished their rice. They were so famished! The maid servants had brought dishes of steamed buns and fried vegetables, and bowls of hot soup thick with shredded crab and egg.
Mother didn't ask questions. She watched them, her eyes wet with happy tears. She was simply glad that her daughters were back safe and unharmed.
The two fleets remained where they were, each waiting for the right time, for the right mistake just to justify firing their cannons.
The sailors manned their positions, staring out at sea. A steady wind had picked up, producing choppy waves. Warships rocked even though they were sturdy enough not to capsize.
A dark shape moved underwater. It was big enough to cause more waves. This time the sailors from both fleets yelled warnings.
The Nian rose from the depths, its lambent eyes bright like terrible moons. It seemed to grow bigger, as if it fed from the fear and anger of the people.