The Eternal Lamp
AS USUAL, the market was bustling and crowded on a hot summer day. Chickens clucked, pigs snorted, and citizens of Great Ming screamed over one another at the top of their lungs, deep in heated bargaining battles. Naturally, Lu Delong was no exception.
“Fifteen wen for a bundle of sorry-looking water spinach? You must be joking!” Delong complained as he examined the bunch of tasty greens with a disgusted look. The shop owner was likely from a village outside the city, since Delong had never seen her in the markets before. “This is outrageous!” he accused, staring straight into the woman’s eyes. “You operate a blackhearted business here, madam—I daresay this bundle is only worth three wen.”
The tall, muscular woman’s face turned a bright shade of red. “What in the world are you talking about?” She had a strong accent and was probably one of the refugees who had moved south to escape the drought up north. “Look at how green these plants are, how beautiful and flawless the leaves are—these vegetables are planted in the richest soil in these lands and are fed quality water. Fifteen wen is actually a bargain!” Her gaze swept up and down Delong, and her lips thinned. “I don’t know how a beggar like you grew this big, but if you can’t afford the price, go away! Don’t go off slandering my shop’s vegetables!”
Delong took a step back and glared at her. “Excuse me, madam. How rude of you to assume things from my attire! I am more educated than you think, thank you very much for the discrimination.” He leaned closer and continued, “Have you heard of the story of the Orange Seller before?”
“What Orange Seller?” the woman growled, but she was unable to hide the curiosity in her eyes. Delong snickered inwardly, pleased to find this woman a typical gossip-lover with nothing better to do with her time.
“There once was this Orange Seller who was good at storing oranges so they did not spoil. The oranges were beautiful, with a golden color and jade texture. In the markets, they sold at ten times the price of average oranges, but people still fought to buy them because they believed the fruits to be of exquisite taste. However, when they brought the oranges home to eat, they realized the oranges were all rotten and dried inside. The moral of this story? Never trust appearances,” Delong finished.
“But I’m not selling oranges!” the woman argued, exasperated. She pointed at the spinaches. “You can cut these apart and they’re obviously not dried up and rotten!”
“How do I know you’re not selling poisonous vegetables?” Delong inquired. “They’re so green, I find it very suspicious! If someone dies in this village and they bought vegetables from you, we know who to blame, don’t we? So I’m being nice already to actually offer to buy your vegetables at all. Three wen for one bundle, and I’ll buy two. What say you?”
By now the shop owner was pale. “Fine, fine—but promise you won’t tell anyone else the story you just told me?”
Delong grinned wide. “Deal.” He then proceeded to buy a few more vegetables at a great bargain, and with a basketful of beautiful, delicious vegetables, he hummed on the way back to his house. What a way to start his day—he only had fifteen copper coins in his purse, and he had bought five times his money’s worth.
He eventually arrived at the least organized section of the prefecture, where walled residences of not-so-great condition were squished closely together. Like all commoners with little money and no extended family to care for, Delong lived in a sishui guitang with a tiny courtyard cramped by one main building and two secondary buildings. He pushed open the creaky gates, stepped into the courtyard, and paused. He glanced at the building to his left, where the kitchen was, before he turned to stare ahead. It didn’t take long for him to figure out what to expect, so he continued whistling and walked into the main building.
“I see you haven’t changed much, Delong,” said the lady at his table, who had already helped herself to a cup of alcohol. Unlike the other guest who sat humbly beside her, Yaqin easily garnered attention. Her robes were made of orange silks lined with beige-colored fur, scantly covering her lithe body and leaving her pale breasts and thighs exposed. Her reddish dark hair was arranged in a complex knot secured by an intricate golden hairpin, and fox fangs dangled from her ears. Any average man would be taken by her stunning beauty and sensual allure, but her charms had little effect on Delong.
Yaqin glanced around the room, her gaze sweeping past the shelves that somewhat divided the place to contain a living room and sleeping quarters, his uncomfortable bed, his study table, and the broom next to it. “Still, your house depresses me,” she sighed. “Only cheap alcohol and less than a catty of rice left? The rest of your belongings are merely old tattered books! You even have a building stuffed full of useless pieces of paper! What in the world have you been doing for the past few months?”
“Nothing,” Delong admitted with a shrug. “Hey, it is not easy finding work,” he said in his defense when Yaqin shook her head with disapproval. “It’s not as though people run into paranormal problems all the time! Even if they do, they’re probably just going to ask for help from prestigious Daoist sects that deal with those problems instead of a freelancer like me. My sole income is from being Old Li’s assistant….” His voice became smaller when Yaqin gave him a pointed look.
“Well, of course I have you and Zhaoyang to thank,” he added hastily while he nodded at the thick-browed man sitting on the chair beside Yaqin. “Old Li always talks fondly of you two, and he takes care of me because he knows we’re good friends. Still, I’m not that bad myself—I helped him greatly with evaluating the goods people like you sell him to give the prices a competitive edge. I have to say, those history books I’ve read paid off!”
“Evaluating antiques, are you?” Yaqin said, unimpressed. “Listen to yourself. All the skills your master taught you, the art you’ve learned at Cloud Fortress Sect—wasted.” She got to her feet and crossed her arms, examining Delong with narrowed amber eyes. “Old Li isn’t going to be around forever, Delong. You know how short human lives are! Do you really plan to spend the rest of your life cooped up in this pathetic shed?”
Delong shrugged. “Hey, it is not nice to call my house a shed! And what is wrong with being an antique seller? You need someone to sell your spoils, don’t you? Old Li already told me that he wants to hand the shop to me, since he has no sons,” he finished proudly.
“That’s—” Yaqin stomped her fur-lined boot, her hands balled into small fists. “Argh! I have never heard of a half-yao selling antiques! You should be out there training to become an immortal xian, causing problems for humans, or exploring the world—not selling antiques, wasting time and money on useless books, and being satisfied with some measly grocery bargain!”
“Now, now, Yaqin, calm down,” chuckled He Zhaoyang as he raised a hand and patted her thigh. Unlike Delong, who chose to tie half his coarse brown hair up only to keep it out of his face, Zhaoyang had his black hair combed into a neat, tight bun, which accentuated his sharp jawbone. Like all who were in his profession, however, his skin was on the pale side. “There are benefits to knowledge, and not every shifter has to lead extraordinary lives, never mind training to become celestial beings, hmm? You know how few mortals, human or yao, can actually succeed in transcending mortality. Besides, we actually could use Delong’s help in our next case.”
Smelling money, Delong straightened his back. “How can I help you two?”
A warm smile spread across Zhaoyang’s face. “Yaqin and I have been invited to participate in what will perhaps be the biggest operation in history, and we need someone who we can trust to come with us and watch our backs.”
“Wait—what?” Delong’s great smile faltered. He wasn’t too comfortable with doing what the couple before him did for a living, even though he was perfectly fine with selling what they brought back. “Well, if you ask, of course I’ll help, but I hope I won’t drag you two down…,” he said carefully. “I have never fought in that sort of… environment. I don’t know what to expect.”
“You’ll be fine,” Yaqin said, waving her hand in dismissal of Delong’s protest. “You’re not exactly human, either.”
“I’m still half-human,” Delong argued. “Unlike you, fox lady! There is nothing wrong with me wanting to live an ordinary life as a human!”
Yaqin merely yawned. “Spare me the cliché. How many times have you used your otherworldly abilities to get your way? How many times have you used your powers during… say, sex? Don’t tell me you don’t use them to boost your stamina.”
“Wh—How can you be so direct and say such things without a shred of embarrassment?” Delong said with disbelief, feeling a little hot now.
Shrugging, Yaqin smirked like the fox she was. “Why should I be embarrassed?” she inquired, looking up at Delong as she poked the center of his chest. “Still, I hit the target, didn’t I?” Her smile widened when Delong felt the heat spread from his cheeks to his neck. “Despite how harmless and upright your face tends to fool people into thinking you are, with your thick eyebrows, large eyes and all… I knew someone who got kicked out of Cloud Fortress Sect for breaking the celibacy rule would use his powers during sex. But still. Stop using your human lineage as an excuse.” She lifted her hand and placed it on her human husband’s shoulder. “Zhaoyang here leads a far more interesting and extraordinary life than you do!”
As though taking her cue, Zhaoyang added, “Anyway, Delong, I’m asking you to come with us also because I caught wind that, ten years ago, your master was investigating our destination. This may have something to do with her disappearance.”
“Are you serious?” Delong’s eyes widened. “Why would my master investigate tombs? It definitely does not seem like a mission from Cloud Fortress Sect, since defiling the dead is not exactly the best way to become immortal. Even though my master already became a xian and isn’t stuck-up like the rest of the daoshi out there, I can still hardly imagine her barging into some noble’s tomb without good reason.”
“Perhaps,” Zhaoyang said in a lowered voice. “But this tomb she was investigating isn’t by any means an ordinary tomb.” He licked his lip. “This tomb… belonged to a god.”
“You’re planning to rob the tomb of a god?”