'Oh, how excessive and wasteful! Reckless man!'
'Which wanderer carries things like these?'
'And what's that palm-sized thing?'
Meng Fuyao picked up the gown-like object, a big question mark evident in her eyes.
"It's Yuan Bao's robe," Yuan Zhaoxu explained kindly.
Meng Fuyao turned her head sluggishly, catching sight of Lord Yuan Bao squatting not far away, happily waiting for his owner to dress him.
"He... carries this around?"
"He has a lot of meat and is strong. Plus, he likes crystals."
"Why didn't he wear it previously?"
"It's cold now, and he wants to keep his belly warm."
There was nothing more to say. Like owner, like pet – it was something she just had to get used to.
The bottles were small and their content limited, and hence only sufficient for one fish. The meat had started to sizzle, its natural grease and fragrance filling the air, instantly hooking her appetite. Unable to hold it any longer, she took a deep whiff and rubbed her empty belly.
That being said, Meng Fuyao knew how precious that fish was, such that she went on to pick another one, effortfully trying to avoid looking at it.
Yet, a richly scented and roasted fish appeared before her eyes the next moment.
She looked up to see the man smiling at her, his long brows arched. His deep-set eyes, high nose, and slightly curled lips were so tear-jerkingly exquisite that it was ridiculous. His beauty was like that of an unripe maple leaf – he had a perfect amount of luxury amid his delicateness, just as there was a perfect amount of yellow amid the reddening leaf. There was no way one wouldn't feel intoxicated just by looking at him.
Meng Fuyao calmed her heart. 'Stop beating so fast, it's embarrassing.'
Yuan Zhaoxu maintained his smile, his eyes tranquil. Meng Fuyao cleared her throat and proceeded to roast more fish, all while attempting to hypnotize herself. 'Look at him, an extravagant fellow unlike me, roaming in destitute and tasting nothing but salt. All this salt is killing my taste bud."
Being emotional often led to aberrations in behavior. Meng Fuyao grabbed a roasted fish and started gobbling it up with no regard for table etiquette. As she munched loudly on her food Lord Yuan Bao started gracefully on his fruit, shifting his bum away, in total contempt, from her. He wanted as much distance as possible from that unrefined barbarian.
Meng Fuyao devoured it all within seconds and tossed the bones aside. She then started stroking her bloated tummy and mumbling to herself.
"A handsome man bestowing upon me a freshly roasted fish... how do I return..."
"Return what?" the handsome man questioned smilingly. It was additional proof that his ears were sharp.
Meng Fuyao picked up the scattered fishbones, blinking. "Bones."
"Oh," Yuan Zhaoxu responded, face unchanged. He took the bones over, observing them from his palm. "Oh, great teeth and jaw work over here. Accurate and forceful. There's not much left."
At that, he retrieved a handkerchief, placed it down and spread it open, and got ready to store the bones.
Meng Fuyao's face was beet red. There were still teeth marks and saliva on those bones. She had merely made a joke, not expecting him to take it seriously. The way he did things would always be a step ahead of her. She could guess the beginning but never the outcome.
She hurriedly grabbed the bones and tossed them behind, before clapping her hands. "Next time, I'll do a prettier job, sign it and let you keep it. Keep it for, say, 30 to 50 years, and you can even sell it as a limited edition item and get rich."
Yuan Zhaoxu laughed while keeping his handkerchief and taking a few bites on another fish. "How have you been, Fuyao?" he asked abruptly.
"Great," she answered, turning around and smiling.
"Nothing happened?" he rephrased, not returning the gaze but instead focusing on roasting another piece of fish.
"No," she replied curtly, with no signs of guilt.
"Then... do you need my help with anything?" he asked, placing a ready fish before her.
"No need," she assured, blinking innocently but quickly adding, "Why would I need help from you? You've already helped me a lot, and I'm feeling really embarrassed already."
Yuan Zhaoxu smiled without answering, his pale face appearing slightly reddish from the flames. His thick lashes cast two arched shadows onto his cheeks as he meticulously deboned the fish before passing it to Meng Fuyao. Meng Fuyao received it, taking the chance to observe his expression, or rather, the lack thereof.
She chewed on the meat, not tasting any flavor this time. While there was nothing abnormal about Yuan Zhaoxu's behavior, he appeared a little unhappy to her.
She seemed to have figured something from his tone but did not want to form the habit of relying on another whenever in trouble. She was going to travel across the nations and beyond. Her future was full of dangers and unpredictability. Thus, she must only depend on herself. There was no reason to hope that someone else would pave the way for her, and she must learn to solve problems when faced with enemies or stormy weathers. She had to advance alone, relying on her own abilities.
That was why the Old Taoist Priest had kicked her out into the world in the first place – it was the only way for her to hone her Nine Cleaving Heavens. She could only polish her skills and eventually reach the top through experiencing real battles and life and death situations.
'Let me deal with it on my own then, starting from Guo Pingrong.'
Furthermore, if Yuan Zhaoxu were to know of what happened the night before, and that she wasn't going to sit by and do nothing in spite of it, there was no way he would agree with her foolish plan. Meng Fuyao cast a side glance at him. 'But will his ego be hurt?'
Her glances were so frequent and obvious that it annoyed Lord Yuan Bao, who sprinted forward and made a back handspring, back tuck, and 540-degree flip in mid-air consecutively.
Distracted by the fish she was consuming and the glances she was sneaking, Meng Fuyao suddenly felt bedazzled by the flashes before her eyes. As the white fur ball spun about, she felt lightheaded, subconsciously swallowing her saliva.
She felt a sharp pain in her throat following after. She had choked on a fish bone.
"Ah!" She yelped, jumping up. Picking up a bone she chased after that tiny but evil monster. 'I'll jab you, I'll jab you!'
Lord Yuan Bao fled like the wind but was quickly grabbed by a pair of hands. Meng Fuyao turned to Yuan Zhaoxu, whose smile quickly enveloped her like a gust of air. "Aren't you afraid that the bone will get lodged deeper?"
He engaged a bit of energy, just enough to sit her down. Then, he got closer to her and lifted her chin. "Open up."
Meg Fuyao, who had fallen in a daze, opened her mouth, only to realize how silly she must look. 'Is he going to take it out for me? Is...is...isn't... this too ambiguous?'
Before she could complete her thoughts her vision blackened. A faint fragrance took over as a certain someone had leaned in, so close that the shadow of his thick, long lashes was printed on to her face. He had a half-smiling expression on his face, his addictive, wine-like scent radiating outward. Meng Fuyao sat, stiff as a rock, looking on as the beautiful silhouette before her magnified.
As the distance between their lips had closed in, to the point where their cheeks were about a centimeter from touching, Meng Fuyao had forcefully swallowed her saliva from extreme nervousness.
Just like that, she had successfully gotten rid of the lodged bone.
Almost instantly the handsome face that was almost touching hers returned to its original position, allowing the light to reach her eyes once more. The alluring scent had faded, but she was still in a daze. Yuan Zhaoxu moved back to the fire, unhurriedly fanning it. "Why are you still in a daze? Feeling disappointed?"
There was no way Meng Fuyao would've admitted to it. She straightened her neck and sprung from the ground, pointing accusingly. "You scared me! You were trying to steal my first kiss."
As if teasingly delaying for time, Yuan Zhaoxu slowly placed another fish above the fire before turning to the red-faced girl.
"What am I going to do, then? You've already stolen mine."
"Ah?" Meng Fuyao opened her eyes wider than ever. 'No, no, no, when did I do that? Wouldn't I have known if I did? Are you lying to me? Look at this fellow, he doesn't seem to be lying... no way, no way...'
Yuan Zhaoxu was no longer interested in pursuing this topic. Instead, he focused on removing the bones of the fish he was working on. Only when he was certain that it was safe for a certain clumsy girl's consumption did he offer, "Open up."
Still yet to calibrate her emotions and process what was going on, she did as told.
Before she realized her mouth had already started savoring a piece of soft, crispy-skinned fish.
Upon seeing the blessed look on her face, he added, amid the fluttering of his robe, "Since there's no need for me to get involved in your big affair, at least allow me to assist with something small like this?"
Meng Fuyao hid atop a wall outside the general's residence, her face full of frustration.
Reason number one: Someone appeared and disappeared whenever he wanted. Why else would he leave immediately upon feeding her a mouthful of fish that day? Even Lord Yuan Bao had intentionally peed before her eyes, expressing complete disdain.
Reason number two: Qiao Ling had been married for three days now, and she meant to butt out of it, thinking that Guo Pingrong might perhaps treat her differently. Who was she to care, anyway? Moreover, Guo Pingrong was already suspicious and vigilant. Making any risky move would be no different from digging her own grave. She wasn't that foolish. Yet, as fate had it, she found out from the grocery ladies out on the streets that the general's new wife was in a tragic plight.
Upon hearing the news, she had retreated to a corner, drawing sad circles for half a day. Finally, she let out a decisive sigh, proceeding to make the necessary preparations. That was how she had landed back at the Guo Residence. It wasn't midnight yet, as she made her way onto the roof of the inner hall.
The wind howled incessantly, hinting at the arrival of a snowfall, but there she was, baring herself amid the overpowering cold with neither a heater nor wine to keep her company. Some time later, snow specks started flitting across the sky as the heavy wind attacked from all directions, quickly coating her eyelashes with a layer of fresh, white snow.