The province of Wula, Xidu 1 .
Xidu was the provincial capital with a political and economic significance no less than Shengtian's, only less populated.
Right now, in an office in the provincial BIMAUP, a member of staff was enjoying his moment of mental sneaking-off, playing a game on his phone when his computer pinged suddenly and a page popped up on the screen.
His fingers twitched, bringing instant death to his game character, but that was the last thing he cared about at the moment. He moved closer, his nose almost touching the screen, and read the contents.
He saw a blurry picture of a bird first. It was a tiny thing about 10 cm in height and had a round face and big eyes. At first glance, one might mistake it for an owl. The bird was covered in bright patterns of a dark-red hue. A pattern crossed each of its shoulders, coming together on its back in a V-shape.
Below the picture was a brief description: found under the Harmonious Rooster & Phoenix of the Great Canyon. Personal experience told me that it was probably a mallet bird, but mallet birds migrate in the winter, so this one is likely an unusual creature.
Information provider: Green River Water. Contact: 139xxxxxxxx.
"Changbai Mountain again. That's the third one so far. Sigh, it used to be an honor guarding a famous mountain, but now, it's nothing but trouble…"
Muttering, he swiftly saved and sent the information while picking up the phone and dialed a number. "Hello, is the research team still on the mountain… The last one has not been verified yet? Good, they can do this one together on the way. It's just over there in the Great Canyon…"
He hung up after a few words, then printed the information and put it into a large envelope. The data storage and security technologies BIMAUP used were top of the line, but just to make provision against emergencies, they still kept a soft copy as well as a hard one.
Only after that did he run the background program of the app and send a system message to the provider.
In Songjiang River Town 300 km away, a young man was waiting with his phone in his hand. As soon as the clear beep rang out, he tapped open the app. There was indeed a system message waiting for him.
"The lead you provided has been received. Please be patient while we verify the information in the next ten days. We might contact you during this time. Please have your phone ready."
"Haha, that 30 points are mine!"
Waving his fist in excitement, he called out, "Little Sis, I'm going home for a bit. You keep an eye on things around here!"
"Sure!" a girl replied loud and clear.
With that, the fellow ran out of the door, hopped onto his shabby pickup truck, turned it noisily on, and dashed out.
The guy was none other than Green River Water, whose real name was Shui Yao. Despite his Mary-Sue-ish name 2 , the guy was a rough-looking stalwart who was big, burly, and strong.
He ran a small local hostel, targeting specifically the artsy youths, providing them with accomodation. He was a rather resourceful man and was able to get his customers unconventional programs such as riding in the snowfield, motorcycle-riding, hot-spring trips, and even hunting, which made him a name around Songjiang River.
Meanwhile, in the Shui Family in Changqing Village, Gu Yu and the others were chatting happily with Shui Rong.
"Here in Changbai Mountains, the ginseng diggers are called mountain shepherds and the groups they form are called Ginseng Bands. The team leaders are known as band chiefs."
Xiaozhai was apparently much relaxed by now as she teased, "The dear old man here has been a band chief for the past forty years or so and nothing wrong has happened under his leadership. Why, I haven't been here for years and you're still not deposed?"
"I'm just a useless old man. The band chief means nothing these days."
Shui Rong was in his seventies, swarthy, and all hale and hearty. He drew a couple of times from his long-stemmed tobacco pipe and chuckled. "They're not getting rid of me, though. There are fewer and fewer mountain shepherds these days. The young ones have all run off to the cities. I'm the last generation of what I do."
"No, you're not. I bet you don't watch TV very often, do you? Only the masters living a reclusive life in the mountains talk that way. You never hear it from the silly young ones. You must be very good at what you do. So, tell us about it, what do you mean by shepherding a mountain?"
Xiaojin—smart yet a little ruffian—was a natural in telling people exactly what they wanted to hear.
Long Qiu also joined in. "Grandpa Shui, I've never heard about these things. Tell us about it, please."
With the two girls singing their praises, the old man was more than happy to oblige. He laughed. "Well, I'll tell you what I know."
"The rules of mountain-shepherding were set up in the early Qing Dynasty, such as the number of people going into the mountains must be odd—three, five, seven, nine, eleven, etc. Ginsengs are spiritual things and we believe in going in in odd numbers and coming out in even ones. So, an odd number plus a ginseng makes it even, which is the most lucky thing.
"There are a lot of taboos before going in and the most important one is no sexual intercourse. Ginsengs are spiritual plants. Sex will bring a filthy energy that offends ginsengs. They will run away before we get to them.
"The first thing after going in is to build a small temple with three tiles to pay respect to the mountain god. The one in charge of the Changbai Mountains is Lord Sun, Sun Liang. All ginseng bands have a search-and-poke rod... oh, let me show you…"
With that, he rose to his feet, went to the back room, and came back with a wooden stick, which he explained. "This rod is 1.7 m long. You hold it by the thicker end. There are carved marks on the rod, which is a reminder of how many ginsengs this rod has found. We use this rod in the mountains to search for ginsengs and you can either hold it or put it on the ground up straight, but never toss it down carelessly. The rod is a spiritual thing.
"I might not have spent many years in school, but I know enough to follow the rules. We take from the mountains as well as preserve them. The little ones like the 'double clips' (ginseng plants with two branches) and 'baby hand' (ginseng plants with one branch) have to be circled out and preserved. It'll be the most indecent thing to dig them up… it's such a pity. Nowadays you can't even find a 'lampstand' (three-branches plant) up there. Everything is artificially bred and I haven't been in the mountains for years…"
The two girls enjoyed the story greatly, especially Long Qiu who, as someone from a Miao village, knew very little of the northeastern culture filled with local characteristics. The description brought a million ideas to her head and all she wished for now was to have spring come soon so that she could go in and enjoy herself in the mountains when the ginseng season came.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai exchanged a look, both embarrassed. They had been vigorously collecting wild ginsengs, which could well have wrecked Changbai Mountains.
"Ahem! Dear old man, I've brought you this knowing you love your liquors." Xiaozhai cleared her throat and took out a jar of liquor from her bag and reminded him, "Please, please make sure you only drink a little at a time. It's not that I'm stingy, but this liquor is very strong."
"You worry too much, kiddo. I've tasted all the strong liquor there is, why should this one be any different?" Shui Rong thought little of that warning. He unplugged the jar and sniffed, then complimented, "Hm, that's some good liquor! It's been years since I last smelt anything this pure."
His throat itched at the smell. Lifting up the jar, he downed a mouthful right away. Xiaozhai could only watch helplessly on the side and prepared herself for CPR the next moment. As expected, the old man choked on the liquor first, then gasped for air.
His wrinkled face flushed and sweat covered his forehead. The old man was taken over by an unnatural exhilaration.
Xiaozhai flicked her fingers, sending a streak of gentle energy into him, helping him to readjust his breathing. The old man then gradually calmed down.
"Phew… the Jiang girl meant what she said." The old man was finally had a taste of fear. Patting the jar, he had yet to recover from the fright. He was as happy as he was sorry. "Well, this will see me through for half a year."
Just then, someone called out from the yard, "Grandpa, what are you doing there all by yourself? Are you peeking at my computer?"
With this very "inappropriate" greeting, Shui Yao strode into the room. Seeing all the strangers, he winced at first, then his eyes fell on Xiaozhai and he asked in surprise, "Sister Jiang, is that you?"
Gu Yu almost choked on his spit.
Xiaozhai also found that address 3 extremely weird. She greeted back, "Hi, Old Shui. Long time no see."
"Why, you're a rare guest!"
Shui Yao squeezed to her side like a tumbling bear and said loudly, "Ever since you came back last time and beat the sh*t out of me, I have been working hard to have my muscles well-toned. Shall we find a time and exchange some blows again… Hey, whom else do we have here?"
"My boyfriend and my two sisters." Xiaozhai fought back the impulse to throw the fellow out of the room and introduced Shui Yao, "Well, this is…"
"I'm her brother from another mother and another father!"
Shui Yao answered before Xiaozhai could. A quick roll of his eyes and he turned his attention on Gu Yu. Laughing, he exclaimed, "Younger Brother-in-law! Gosh, never thought I'd live to see you around! How nice!"
Gu Yu nearly choked again. He had always been the older brother-in-law, but had just been made the "younger" one today. He stood up to shake hands with Shui Yao, and as soon as their hands touched, Gu Yu felt the guy was squeezing hard on purpose, so he just smiled back.
Seeing Gu Yu was tall and slender, Shui Yao felt it a good idea to feel the fellow out and squeezed with his full strength. Damn it! This skinny fellow had a hell of an iron grip!
"Hahaha! Nice! Sister Jiang's got herself a great guy!" Shui Yao was not at least embarrassed by his little failed "test" and went on asking, "Has uncle come back with you? Are you staying here for Chinese New Year?"
"No, we'll only be here for a couple of days."
"Well, that's a pity. I'm busy these days as well; if not for that, I'd definitely show you a good time." Shui Yao sounded quite sorry.
"Another time. By the way, I heard you're running a hostel. How's the business?" Xiaozhai asked.
"It's doing well! Really well! They just keep coming, all smelly youngsters who would explode if they go one day without poking something. Only yesterday, two of the tenants—complete strangers—went out for half the night together. And the noise they made after they got back, man…"
One of the natural endowment of Northeastern folks: chitchat!
Give them a heated kang, a plate of boiled green soybeans, and a bottle of " Dropping Donkeys 4 ", and they would talk until you forgot what you mom's name was.
Shui Yao was a perfect demonstration of such talent. He prattled and tattled, on and on and on. The flowing slangs made Long Qiu's eyes go blank.
Luckily, they were saved by the phone. The fellow's face turned nervous and he ran furtively out of the door, where he still felt not safe enough and trotted all the way out until he reach the wall of the yard. It was apparently something super-mysterious.
And Gu Yu felt utterly awkward, for they could hear every single word.
"Yes, it's me. I provided the information… I'm telling you, that bird is definitely an oddball. They were never seen around here in the winter before, but just decided to show up this year… Yes, that last one was by me as well. Absolutely, I've been waiting for you… E-experience? Do you know who my grandpa is? He's the chief of the Changbai Ginseng Band. I've learned everything from him, which is A LOT!"
The four inside snickered as they listened on, exchanging looks. With a slight nod from the brother and sister, the husky and the samoyed pricked their ears instantly: it was time to make trouble again.
Before long, Shui Yao came back inside. He then put together a large bag in a hurry and left promptly in his shabby pickup truck.
Xiaozhai and the others stayed a little while longer and said their goodbyes as well. They walked out and returned the same way they came, walking along the crunchy, snowy street.
All of a sudden, Gu Yu burst into laughter in a silly sort of way.
"What's got into you?" Xiaozhai eyed him contemptuously.
"Nothing, just thought I should hang out with that fellow some more." Holding his girlfriend by the shoulder, he chuckled. "As the saying goes, even the superheroes are afraid of their old neighbors. It's time for me to dig up all your dark history."TL/N: meaning "capital of happiness", an ancient name of Changchun, the provincial capital of Jilin Province TL/N: "shui" means "water" and "Shui Yao" sounds like "swaying water", which is somewhat feminine TL/N: "Sister Jiang" is a very commonly known title of a Chinese revolutionary martyr. Basically, anyone in China who has had some form of primary school education knows about her. TL/N: the brand of a Chinese liquor that has an alcohol content of over 65%.