The two siblings took off immediately after they got out of bed and didn’t even have time to eat breakfast. They arrived quite early. Other than them, there was only the first batch of individual tourists, who scattered around as they climbed up the mountain.
Zeng Shufei took Li Meng with him and the two were cuddling and snuggling all the way, which was half out of habit and half on purpose. Zeng Yuewei was a regular gym-goer and did not find mountain climbing too difficult. Witnessing their intimate act, on the other hand, annoyed her and made her very grumpy.
In the absence of any elder, the two no longer bothered to keep up the appearances. They either ignored or taunted each other. Li Meng was left in a rather awkward position. She had to constantly mediate between the siblings, worrying that they might start a row.
When the three of them reached the resting area halfway up the mountain, quite a few vendors had already set up their stalls there with all their gear out. They took a brief rest and resumed their journey half an hour later.
The weather was quite pleasant that day. The gentle breeze and mild sunlight brought a hint of coolness to the air. As they climbed higher, the view around them changed along with the altitude. Row upon row of verdant trees grew lean and slender along the slope; the deep valley was void of all mundane noise. Looking up the mountain, they found clouds and mist linger around the mountaintop.
Such a view would bring peace to even the most fickle person. It was Zeng Yuewei’s first trip here and she gasped in admiration, "I’d have never thought that Phoenix Mountain would have such an artistic atmosphere."
"Bear that in mind, coz you’ll be crying in a minute. I hope your legs won’t give up on you when we get to the Old Bull’s Back." Her younger brother commented indifferently.
She couldn’t be bothered to react and turned to Li Meng. "Xiao Meng, is that guy really a peddler?"
"That’s right. He was selling stuff up there yesterday. I also met a little squirrel there. It was super adorable."
"If he was that good at making incense, why would he be a mere peddler on a mountain?" She still couldn’t bring herself to believe it.
"Maybe, maybe different people have different ambitions," Li Meng answered casually, her mind still on that little squirrel.
Zeng Shufei retorted in a scornful tone. "Incense-making does not bring bread to your table. Traditional craftsmanship is declining. To help it with media campaigns, marketing and networking all requires funding. Apart from those supported by world cultural heritage or government projects, the rest all live in poverty."
"Well, then there are only two explanations for that," Zeng Yuewei darted a look at him and ridiculed, "Either the guy is a fool, or the local authorities are more stupid than him."
Zeng Shufei snorted, but did not contradict her, for the answer was too apparent. Had the relative departments been clever enough, they would notice this skilled master and take him seriously. Together with the tourist resources, formally promoting the incense-making craftsmanship would benefit both sides.
Even if this guy did not have any inheritance worth mentioning, they could easily make up some stories. Promotion, speculation and provocation—such process had worked for numerous folk arts with questionable origins.
The siblings concluded the topic according to their own logic and resumed their cold war. After walking for another while, they finally arrived at the staircase leading to their objective. Li Meng called out cheerfully, "It’s right up there. Let’s go!"
"Xiao Meng, if you really like it that much, why don’t you get a hamster when we go home?" Zeng Shufei had seen right through her.
"Hamsters are nothing like squirrels! All they do is eating!"
"That squirrel did nothing but eat as well!"
"You just don’t get it!"
The young couple squabbled as the three of them climbed up the stairs. The slope was rather steep and it took some real effort going up. The sky felt closer and clearer the higher they climbed. White clouds floated casually above them, pure and gleaming.
It took them quite some time to reach the top of the staircase.
After climbing those stairs two days in a row, Zeng Shufei was drained of his strength. While he was panting, his elder sister looked around and asked anxiously, "Where is he?"
"Just over there, to the right…"
He stopped right in the middle of the sentence and could not make another sound. The clearing, the benches, the bushy old tree—everything was the same as yesterday, except for the stall owner.
"That’s… that’s impossible!"
Zeng Shufei spluttered and walked around the clearing, searching for the man. He was astonished and irritated, while his sister was adding fuel to the fire by pressing on incessantly. "Well, do you know his name?"
"Do you know where he comes from?"
"Then I suppose you don’t have his phone number either?"
Zeng Yuewei pointed at him. "How can you be so stupid? You just come for this guy without knowing a single thing about him?"
"That’s enough! Aren’t vendors like him staying in the same spot everyday? How was I supposed to know that he wouldn’t be here today?" Zeng Shufei yelled back.
"What are we gonna do now? Where can we find him?"
"Why on earth should I know?"
Things got quite intense for a while. Li Meng looked at the two in turn and tried to mediate. "Don’t worry, maybe he’s just not here yet. Let’s wait here."
With that, she forced her boyfriend to sit down.
Zeng Yuewei paused and sat down on a bench as well. She was agitated herself, but also secretly pleased to see her brother make a scene.
There was nothing they could do now but wait.
As time passed, more tourists arrived at the clearing. Those who came for the first time would not find any difference, but the regular climbers would mumble to themselves, "Well, I think there used to be a stall here?"
"You’re right. The tea eggs were really good. I was going to buy some today."
"Maybe he quit. Ah, he was quite a nice young fellow."
Several groups of tourists passed by the clearing and the place finally quieted down. Apart from a sanitation worker who showed up to change the black garbage bag, not a second soul came up after that.
After quite a while, Zeng Shufei took out his cell phone to check the time and lost his temper. "It’s nearly noon now. He should have been here a long time ago!"
"Maybe he just can’t be bothered to come up today. Well, we’ve climbed all those stairs for nothing!"
Zeng Yuewei did not want to spend another minute here. She stood up and said, "I’m going down. Keep waiting here if you want to."
Li Meng felt her stomach crying in starvation and looked at her boyfriend anxiously. Zeng Shufei struggled for a little while and finally said helplessly. "Fine, let’s go."
The three of them then returned in low spirits.
When they reached the Old Bull’s Back, he was disappointed again, for his elder sister did not even blink and passed the ridge without any hesitation. Li Meng, on the other hand, was so frightened that he had to drag her all the way through.
Today included, the siblings had been held up in Bai Town for three days. They each had their own projects in the company and could not be away for too long. They were planning to close the deal today, but the guy had unknowingly evaded them completely.
With much going on in their heads, the two looked sullen and did not hold any conversation on their way down. They reached the big square at the mountain entrance, which was packed with boisterous tourists, past noontime.
Zeng Yuewei was about to leave when she glanced around casually and saw a sanitation worker in orange coveralls cleaning up garbage, looking somewhat familiar. An idea suddenly came to her and she turned to the worker as a last resort. She called out, "Uncle!"
"Huh?" The old man was startled.
"I was just wondering, how long have you been working here?"
"Five, five years," The old man looked confused as he gave his reply.
"Well, are you familiar with the vendors on this mountain, then?"
"Yes, yes." He nodded.
Hearing this, Zeng Shufei ran towards them, dragging Li Meng behind him. His sister asked again, "In that case, do you know the young man selling stuff by the Old Bull’s Back?"
"The Old Bull’s Back…"
The old man turned thing in his head and recalled, "Oh, you mean Xiao Yu! He is such a nice person, always talking with me. I don’t even have to clean his spot as he would clean the place himself. Sometimes he would give me things to eat and drink. Why, are you looking for him?"
"Exactly. We need to talk to him, but he was not there today. Do you know where he could be now?" Zeng Shufei asked.
"Where? Well, I can’t say for sure, but…"
The old man squinted with a smile and said in a husky voice, "He’s definitely on this mountain!"