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Tang Fan couldn’t recall how long it had been since he had properly enjoyed a full New Year’s.
After his parents died and sister married away, the degree of importance he attached to this day was less than it had been before. As a lone official in the capital, his holidays got increasingly lonelier by the year. He was also accustomed to staying alone in his room, being at leisure as he read book while warming himself by the fire.
Despite his habits, when Ah-Dong cheerfully attended to pasting spring couplets up and serving fruit, those long-unseen recollections, once hidden deep within the depths of his memories, were rummaged out.
She was young, but she was still a lady of the family, more skillful with decorations and more mindful when remembering things. She alone took care of things inside and outside of the house. Grown men like Tang Fan and Sui Zhou wouldn’t think to also hang a couple of red lanterns under the veranda in addition to the couplets, thus adding to the joyful atmosphere.
At the approach of the year’s end, Shuntian Prefecture had fewer and fewer things to do, but the Northern Bastion Office was getting busier and busier. Every day, Sui Zhou left early and returned late, while Tang Fan could come home a bit earlier to lend a hand. However, he wasn’t housework material in the least, and couldn’t even call upon himself to wipe things down with a rag. Ah-Dong straight-up pushed him outside in disgust. “Don’t add to my chores, big brother! Go write some couplets, and don’t forget to cut out some red characters, write a couple fortune-bringing phrases on them, then paste one in each room.”
“I’ve already written and posted those all up. My big sister isn’t even as much of a nag as you!” he said with a grin. Simply leaning against a pillar, he watched her rush all about, and his heart warmed. “I can help you with boiling water? Or wiping down the pillars? You can’t reach high enough to clean them, so won’t I have to do it anyways?”
In the middle of wiping down a chair, she rolled her eyes in annoyance at him. “If you could not take forever to wipe things down and also not lose track of where you throw your rags, I would thank the Heavens and the Earth!”
He was cheerful, not angry. “Won’t I just find them later? Speaking of, Ah-Dong, why do I get the sense that you’ve been a lot more diligent these days? You aren’t even eating so vigorously anymore. Were you thinking to save food for me?”
She stuck out her tongue. “It’s not that. Brother Sui gave me a scolding that one day.”
“What did he say?” he asked, startled. “How come I had no idea?”
“It wasn’t anything.” She giggled. “He just said that you work hard in the bureau, so I shouldn’t concentrate on having fun while ignoring you.”
He hadn’t expected that Sui Zhou would remember that incident. Obviously, it was because he had gotten ill from sitting in the blowing wind that the other had remembered, then gone to talk to Ah-Dong in private.
Tang Fan knew that Ah-Dong hadn’t actually been forgetting to cook for him because she was playing around, but because he had been so busy all that time that he would go home, then straight to sleep. She would cook, but he would have eaten elsewhere, meaning he wouldn’t need to when he returned, and that the food would just go to waste. After several instances of this, she hadn’t been sure on whether he would come home to eat on any given day, so she stopped cooking. Now that those irregular days had passed, everything had resumed normalcy.
He was a little guilty now, feeling that he had made little Ah-Dong into a scapegoat. “I’ll find some day to explain that to him.”
“There’s no need!” Ah-Dong still looked to be smiling. “I know that since he’s speaking to me, he’s treating me like a little sister. If I was irrelevant to him, he wouldn’t even bother to talk to me. I’m young, but I know who’s good to me, like Madam Li, Sister Ah-Chun, and all the rest from before. I care about everyone that’s good to me!”
“Who’s bad to you, then?” he teased.
She shook her head. “I forgot! I was sold to the Li’s as a slave, and the people selling me weren’t nice, but I don’t remember what they look like anymore. Didn’t you tell me before, big brother? You have to recall kindness, not hatred, so that you can be happy on the daily!”
“Right!” He laughed. “Ah, it’s really gratifying to be a big brother, since you remember every word I say. Judging from how careless you are, I had thought that you would only think to eat all day long.”
She rolled her eyes again. “Eating is the very most important thing, and everything else is secondary. You taught me that, too.”
“When did I ever teach you that?” He choked, side-eying her. “Isn’t that just… incompetence?”
“Yep. You sure are incompetent!”
“Okay, then. You’re getting more and more unruly,” he said, looking monstrous.
Them bickering was normal, so she wasn’t scared of him at all. Upon hearing that, she made a silly face, then continued to clean the chairs.
Nonetheless, in the middle of this period of bustling frenzy, the New Year unwittingly arrived. It began on the first day of the first month; officials’ vacations started from that very day and went until the fifth, for a total of five days.
(Someone’s about to ask: Dear God, such a short vacation for the year’s end? No, no.)
Starting from the eleventh of January, there would also come a ten-day Lantern Festival vacation, the biggest holiday of the year.
If there had been a nationwide disaster previously, the Festival would have gotten cancelled. The Emperor’s pretext would have been very dignified: ‘The citizens below us are destitute and wandering, so how could all of us have the mind to celebrate?’ Then, not only would the vacation be cancelled, but the lantern market would get cancelled, too.
Thankfully, the year had passed tranquilly. There had been some calamities, but they had ended up gradually subsiding instead of getting prolonged into the new year. No one’s holiday needed to be called off.
The biggest event right now was the Northern border. It was heard that when Wang Zhi’s group had just departed the capital, they happened to run into a bunch of Tartars plundering the Datong area. The government army had rushed to combat the front lines, their situation unclear to this day.
Though the vacation only really started on New Year’s Day, the bureau had pretty much been closed up since the day before the Eve. They still needed to work that day as per usual, but the bureau was nearly half-empty. Those able to request leave had all requested it and left, leaving the few that couldn’t behind. They meandered around the bureau doing not a thing, and before the shichen to even came, they closed its doors.
It wasn’t yet dark, and few were on the streets since everyone was rushing back for Eve’s dinner, making it an unknowable amount of times bleaker than it normally was. However, this stillness was unlike the typical cheerless desolation from after nightfall, as the rich aroma of food was drifting out of every home alongside the intermittent laughter of children, sounding much livelier than usual. There were even sporadic bangs of firecrackers in the distance.
Without any being aware of it, another early spring had come.
Citizens worked year-round, hustling and bustling, for none other than the purpose of being able to reunite with their entire family, peacefully sitting down for Eve’s dinner. If they could have a couple more dishes of fish and meat on the table, too, it would be the biggest feast of the year.
Inside this three-courtyard residence situated in the city’s north, Tang Fan now had Ah-Dong. He didn’t need to spend this New Year’s alone.
In spite of Sui Zhou having moved out, his parents still loomed above him, so he had to return to them for a reunion dinner. He had invited Tang Fan and Ah-Dong to come eat with him, but the former had declined, saying that this would be the first New Year’s Ah-Dong and he would be spending together. Their sibling pair ought to have a good time.
Since he had said as much, Sui Zhou wouldn’t force him. He went to the Sui’s by himself, while the other two stayed behind.
Tang Fan’s initial acknowledgement of her as a sister had stemmed from her plea; he hadn’t had the heart to watch her get passed around other families, a little girl senselessly sent to be a slave yet again. He had thusly destroyed her contract of self-sale, restored her freedom, and recognized her as a sister, allowing her to have some future support.
Had her personality been bad, or if she hadn’t gotten along with him, he would have returned the contract to her and/or have helped her find a family to settle in at best, never placing her at his side. This was simply their good fate.
Ever since her addition, he pretty much never had to sully his hands for anything, even Eve’s dinner. Because he had tried to help with cutting vegetables only to chop them uglily, he got kicked out of the kitchen by the wee girl, who mocked him for being pampered. He had no choice but to awkwardly stand to the side and fetch tableware. Judge Tang, who could speak frankly to the Western Depot’s Director without backing down, was now getting ordered around by a little girl, but his heart was warm and delighted about it.
By the time the sky had gone completely dark, the square table was fully arranged with food.
Since Sui Zhou wasn’t coming back and it was only the two of them, the amount of dishes was finite, being nothing more than four mains, one thing of congee, and one thing of dessert.
Due to the Tang siblings both being epicureans, Ah-Dong’s culinary skills had made a lot of progress under Mister Tang’s influential pickiness, and she was beginning to master utilizing all sorts of tricks during cooking. Therefore, the four mains, two meat and two vegetarian, were much more meticulous than a normal commoner’s.
One of the meat dishes was pearls made from chicken breast, which could be dipped in sesame paste and eaten. It was the most delectable, and sweetest.
There was also that honey-roasted leg of lamb that Tang Fan had hungered after for a long time. Ah-Dong had learned the way to make it from Sui Zhou, fiddling with it until it was exact. She herself stated that her heat management was inferior to his, but Tang Fan had never eaten his version, only Ah-Dong’s, so he had nothing but praise.
One of the vegetarian ones was mock goose: tofu skins stuffed with boiled yams, glutinous rice, bamboo shoots, shiitake, and other such things, then wrapped, after which the whole thing would get pan-fried. Once cooked well, it would be taken out, sliced into chunks, and arranged into an overlapping stack pattern on the plate.
Overlapping them was a simple task — Ah-Dong had been too busy to do it, so she had passed it to Tang Fan. Other folks would neatly overlap three, place them tidily, then be done with it, but Sir Tang just had to be creative in wanting to arrange them in the character for ‘year’. (年) The end result was that his craftsmanship was poor, the arrangement was messy, Ah-Dong berated him, and the dish became the most chaotic-looking one for the dinner.
The other vegetarian dish was chow mein, but it hadn’t been stir-fried like the average person would have done, instead getting fried with chicken stock, then supplied with bamboo shoots and mushrooms. When those three flavors permeated the noodles, the dish was greatly changed.
The staple dish was chicken-stock congee boiled with ham. A whole chicken had been bought; the breast meat had been used to make the pearls, while the rest of it had been put to boil into a broth for a full two shichen. Though it was all liquid, no meat, it was essentially full-on chicken stock. The white and soft congee slightly smelled of it throughout, fragments of ground ham vaguely seen within it. In the mouth, it was fresh and sweet, its aftertaste savory.
There was an additional fruit dessert for the after-meal; candied tangerines that Ah-Dong had made ahead of time.
For a two-person setup, it was exceptionally sumptuous. Viewing this table of delicacies, Tang Fan sighed. “I haven’t eaten a full Eve’s dinner in many years.”
“How many?” Ah-Dong asked curiously.
He thought about it. “Seven or eight years, at least. My parents died when I was thirteen, I became a County Honorate at fourteen, my elder sister married away at fifteen. After that, I left home to travel, went and took the imperial exams, became a Palace Honorate, then a capital official. That’s around eight years. As I recall, the last time I went to see my sister, my nephew was still stumbling over his words, so he ought to be starting his studies now. Who knows if he even remembers me.”
“Doesn’t that make me an aunt, then?” she asked, excited.
He pfft’ed in laughter. “Sure, sure. My sister had him after three years of marriage, so he’s five. He’s only three years younger than you, yet is a generation below you; he probably won’t much like that when he grows up.”
She was happy for a minute, then got a bit worried shortly after. “I have a bad family background, though. Will making him call me ‘Aunt’ disgrace him?”
“You’re so young. Do you even know what disgrace is? Don’t just use words all willy-nilly!” He patted her on the head. “Now that your surname is Tang, you’re part of our family. I’ll add your name to our family record when I have the time to return to Jiangnan for ancestral worship. Someone’s nobility doesn’t lie in their background, but rather depends on their personality; the founding Emperor of this Dynasty had come from a poor Buddhist household, no higher than you are, and he didn’t feel himself inferior because of that. Does the realm not kneel and worship him, every citizen looking up to him? You may be female, but don’t take on those rotten defects of self-injury and self-pity.”
She nodded, half-understanding. “Big brother, you teach me how to read, but I’m dumb and can’t learn a thing. Won’t I lose the Tang’s face? Is big sister really great at studying?”
“She is. When she was studying in the inner chambers, she was one talented woman. However, I’m not making you learn to read because I want you to be like her, reciting poetry and painting, but to have you understand the principles of human integrity. That doesn’t demand very deep knowledge. Once you’re able to comprehend fantasies and vernacular stories, you can be considered graduated.”
It had to be said that Mister Tang’s tutelage of his little sister really stood out from the crowd. Everyone else used the works of distinguished sages as teaching materials, being of the Four Books for Women’s class at the very worst. He, on the other hand, used fiction stories as objects of reference, unworried about the girl learning from bad examples.
“The principle lesson of casting away evil and looking towards goodness is pretty much everywhere,” he continued. “Sage’s works having them doesn’t mean that common works won’t have them. I’ll pick out a couple of them later that are fun to read, and once you’re able to go through them once plus explain them, I won’t have to stare at you while you study anymore.”
“Okay! If I still have time then, can I learn martial arts from Brother Sui?” she asked happily.
He was shocked. “You want to learn that?”
She nodded. “I’ve been a little stronger than others ever since I was little. He said that I have a good foundation, so I’d be suitable for the arts. He also said that I’m at a good molding age, where it’ll be too late if I wait a few more years. When I learn them and go climb trees for scholar leaves to make those noodles from now on, you won’t be able to fight over them with me!”
Others claimed that when finished learning martial arts, those with high aspirations would inevitably report to the imperial family, place as a martial Prime Scorer, then kill enemies on the battlefield from then on. Even if Ah-Dong was female, her being in shape, having self-protection, and still being a foodie were not three incompatible qualities.
Tang Fan was, surprisingly, happy to hear this. “Alright, then. We’ll plant a couple fruit trees in the yard, and I’ll leave everything to you when it’s time to harvest.”
“How about we plant pear and jujube ones? A lot of desserts can be made with those. I can make snow pear-stewed rice and jujube-paste cakes! Auntie Zhang from next door taught me how!” She started drooling.
“Sounds good!” he beamed.
They spoke in high spirits. Indeed, those who were not family would not step through a family’s door.
As they talked and laughed, the siblings finished their dinner, then cleaned up the dishes, about to start the custom of staying up until the new year. Normal people would sleep earlier in the night, but there was one exception of the whole family keeping watch on the Eve, a tradition passed down from ancient times that had never been altered to the current day.
Still, the night was endlessly long. Children could set off fireworks, but adults had to think up a bunch of tricks to whittle away their time.
Right now, it was just them two at home. Tang Fan was unwilling to pass the whole night reading storybooks, so he found a couple games for them to play.
Games like qi would’ve been fine if Ah-Dong hadn’t been too young to understand any of them, merely getting her first glimpse into their doorways. The disparity in power between them was really too great, making it unfun to play, so he found a vase and some bamboo sticks for the two to play pitch-pot with. They made a bet on who could get the most in; five turns for one round, winner two out of three. The loser would have to stand at the door and bark like a puppy three times.
Tang Fan’s childish heart having not yet died, he played with enthusiasm. However, after one round, he noticed that something was amiss. “How is your accuracy so good? An intrinsic knack?”
“What’s an ‘intrin snack’? I’ve never eaten one of those.”
“…Hehe, I think your daily reading dosage needs to be a little heavier. What I meant is: were you born being accurate at pitch-pot, or something?”
“No. After I bugged Brother Sui about teaching me martial arts, he gave me a small bow, then made me shoot at tree leaves every day. He said that once I could hit them, I would barely be meeting standards.”
“Have you shot any?”
“I did, but it would only be one or two times out of ten tries. They were all blind luck,” she said, embarrassed.
“…I’m starting to think that suggesting to play this with you was a mistake.”
She blinked. “Are you going back on your bet, big brother?”
“I’m not, but can we have a discussion to null the stakes?” he weakly asked.
Ah-Dong was typically muddled-seeming, yet quite devious at critical junctures. “No way. You said before that people need to keep to their words, and that a promise is worth a thousand gold!”
He angrily bopped her on the head. “I’ve never, ever seen you be lively while studying, but now you’re spouting allusions? The rounds aren’t over yet, so it’s hard to say who’ll win and who’ll lose!”
He was pumped up for a victory. However, physical talent was an innate gift, and Mister Tang couldn’t get strong with effort even if he had the will to, making his death throes useless. On the very next turn, he still lost. Two out of three; he rule he had set himself was now causing him suffering.
Ah-Dong just laughed evilly. “You put the bet, you accept the loss!”
Tang Fan didn’t want a little girl to have a low opinion of him, of course. He believed that since it was Eve’s night, no one would be out on the street anyways. What was wrong with opening up the gate and making a couple sounds? Anyone that heard it would just think it was someone else’s puppy barking. “Of course I’ll accept it,” he said calmly. “Your big brother is as good as his word. When have I ever reneged? You’ll have to watch my excellent moral character and learn!”
His conduct of a former king peddling melons made her make a weird face. The girl followed after his steps for the purpose of watching him make a fool out of himself.
Upon opening the courtyard door, two red lanterns were hung above the entrance that cast off some more swaying light, which made things look more joyous. Hardening his heart, Mister Tang shouted out: “Woof! Woof! Woof!”
Before the final bark was made, someone suddenly appeared before his eyes, nearly scaring him to death.
Upon closer inspection, he discovered that it was Sui Zhou.
Tang Fan: “…”
Sui Zhou: “…”
Sir Tang immediately felt like he had thrown his face all the way to his grandmother’s house. He, as the villain, was the first to complain. “Why are you here? I didn’t even hear your footsteps!”
“I never make noise when I walk,” Sui Zhou answered in exasperation. “Why are you standing out here and barking like a dog?”
With Ah-Dong’s snigger coming behind him, Tang Fan’s face turned red. “He lost a bet!”
Sui Zhou nodded with an oh. “What were you playing?”
“Pitch-pot,” Tang Fan blurted, abruptly coming back to his senses. “Why are you back this early? You’re not staying there to keep watch all night?”
“No,” the other said as they walked in together.
He didn’t explain much, but with how smart Tang Fan was, he knew that he must have met with something exhausting at the home, for him to simply come back after he was finished eating. Thus, he asked no more, only smiling. “You’ve come back at just the right time! Playing board and cards is fun with three people. I can’t play if it’s just Ah-Dong, because it would be too easy to win.”
She pulled a sly face at him. “Sure. That’s why you chose the very difficult pitch-pot, which you still lost!”
“Damn girl!” He put on a malevolent expression in response, raising a hand to fake that he was going to hit her.
The little lady immediately giggled and bounded far away. “We’re going to keep watch at night, so I’ll go and boil tea for you two!”
Watching them squabble, a slight smile involuntarily showed up on Sui Zhou’s face. He thought to himself that it was good to come back; without saying a thing, he could simply watch and feel happy.
If Tang Fan could claim to feel that the first New Year’s he had celebrated since the breakage of his family was enjoyable, so could Sui Zhou, as could Ah-Dong.
All three of them had different experiences in life, yet they were able to come together by fated chance.
It was said that ten years of cultivated karma in the previous life would let people share the same boat. To be able to live under the same roof? That was at least fifty years.
The three played games. With the addition of Sui Zhou, things swiftly became a little more interesting, influenced into a relaxed pastime. Tang Fan didn’t insist upon exerting all of his power to make a full-frontal assault, either; everyone won and lost against each other, chatting and laughing, time passing without them knowing it.
As midnight approached, the sounds of firecrackers both near and far became increasingly frequent. Setting those off was not only to greet the new, but to do away with the old. Many people hence lit a cluster of them up prior to midnight in addition to those lit afterwards, demonstrating the out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new newness of the world.
Their own group had also bought firecrackers, naturally. Sui Zhou went out to light them, while Ah-Dong brought and placed them in the courtyard after him. The slight clamor of fireworks livened up the alleyway, bang-bang-bangs popping off in the ears, and the entire little yard was fittingly illuminated for a split second via the dazzling light. Ah-Dong clapped her hands, yelling and laughing. There was a prosperous ambience, despite there only being three of them,
With everything set off, Ah-Dong ran to the kitchen to get the dumplings.
They had been wrapped up long ago, and there was no special distinction between which were mincepork with cabbage, or which were three-veggie stuffed. The white, tender dumplings bobbed in the boiling water, but once they were fished up and put onto a plate, Sui Zhou went dumb with one look at them.
He could see that there were finely-crafted, nice-looking, top-notch dumplings, and also funkily-wrapped, low-quality ones. As soon as the bad ones had been boiled, some of their skins broke open to expose their fillings, which was now a real ghastly sight.
The thick-skinned Mister Tang just grinned. “Ha! Looks like that filling wanted to see who was going to eat it, and came running out!”
Sui Zhou and Ah-Dong looked at him at the exact same time. Though they did not speak, their thought was: You really have no shame!
Tang Fan acted like he didn’t see that, reaching out to pick one up, dip it in vinegar, eat it, then not neglect to praise himself. “They’re really good, which shows that the craftsmanship of the one that wrapped them was really good. Eat, you two! Watch what I do! Come, come!”
This degree of thick-skinnedness could be stated as having reached a new level. The other two, having nothing to say, could only duck their heads to eat.
A short time later, Ah-Dong cried out in shock, then spit a copper coin out of her mouth.
“You’ve eaten yourself to fortune!” Tang Fan said with a smile. “You’ll have great luck in the coming year!”
Extraordinarily pleased, Ah-Dong happily wiped the coin clean, then put it on the table.
Not long after, Sui Zhou also got one. Tang Fan and Ah-Dong said their congratulations, as per standard.
Not long after again, Tang Fan got one, too.
This repeated several times.
At the end of it, Ah-Dong was no longer happy. “Big brother, how many coins did you actually put in these?” she sulked.
Thirty dumplings had been put on the plate. Excluding those inferior products that had started out broken, the three had altogether found thirteen coins. Putting those in dumplings had been for the sake of seeking well-wishes, but now, they were showing up nearly every time to press painfully against their teeth.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou were more careful, but that was it. Ah-Dong nearly had a mouth full of broken teeth, howling in anguish again and again. Upon seeing her like this, the conscienceless Mister Tang laughed in schadenfreude. “I never got to bite on copper coins as a kid, yeah? I put some more in this time so that I wouldn’t miss out. Who’s the one making you bite so hard when you eat?”
She wasn’t to be outdone, and they started fighting again. By the time Sui Zhou had cleaned up the tableware and turned back around, the little lady was finally a bit tired. She rubbed her eyes, but her face had a full contentment that it never did before.
“Big brother, do you think that we can spend every year like this from now on?” She pulled through with sitting beside Tang Fan, doggedly waiting for midnight’s arrival.
“What do you say to that, Guangchuan?” Tang Fan asked Sui Zhou, who had just walked in, as he rubbed her head.
“Sure,” was all Centarch Sui answered with, brief, yet powerful.
The translator says: You fools! You’ve probably just jinxed it!!!
Tang Fan brings up a good point, though. Just because something is easier to access in terms of writing doesn’t mean it’s inferior in morals to books lauded as ‘timeless classics’. There are a lot of classic English books I’ve personally read that avid readers have listed as super good, only for them to be the most boring, outdated, pedantic pieces of shit I’ve ever laid my eyes on. Books can be good and powerful without being labelled so by people obsessed with things from decades or centuries ago.
 Original pun is: ‘natural talent’ is 天赋异禀/tiānfùyìbǐng. She mistakes the bing for 饼 — same pronunciation, but it means ‘bread’. I’m pretty proud of my replacement pun, hohoho.