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81 Coming too Early

    On the night of the 30th day of the 12th month, the rain finally came to a stop after going on nonstop for nearly an entire month.

    It was said that the moment the rain stopped, the people came pouring out from their houses to dance in the streets, thanking the gods that there was no longer any rain, and that the new year was going to be dry enough to burn the fireworks to drive the fabled creature away.

    The rain stopping was a good sign, you see, it meant that the old heavens still cared about them enough to give them a dry new year, a new start that was free from anything impure.

    Yet Xue'er did not see things as such. In recent days of reading the art of divination, she had calculated what would occur after the sudden pause in the rain.

    But now was not the time to worry about such things.

    Xue'er put on a red flowing robe with a circle of small flowers that were embroidered around the pleated skirt. She neatly fixed her hair into two identical buns on each side of her head and secured them with red ribbons tied into perfect bows. She could have gone outside like this, but she knew that Huo momo would not approve. So she opened the wooden chest and took out the dark green cloak, draping it over her shoulders, smoothing out the wrinkles with her dainty hands. For the last thing, she tied the string of silver bells near her waist, stroking it gently to produce the clear, melodic sound.

    She did not look at herself in the mirror, for she did not care that much on her appearance. Everything was the same in her eyes.

    For the first time in a while, she walked outside without getting raindrops on her body. The air had a distinct smell of earth after a long rain.

    She was greeted by the scene of the people in their festive clothing. It was no different from a sea of red. There were people pasting new couplets on their front door, and others coating their doorstep with a fresh coat of vermilion paint, there was so much of it that Xue'er could smell the mercury that was emanating from it.

    How superstitious people were, she wondered, that they were willing to put their health at risk just to drive some unknown spirits away. She believed that she would never understand anyone completely. It was all tradition, after all, even her dress was made with thousands of cochineal insects, thousands of little spirits crushed to death to dye a single garment. She was not in the position to judge anyone.

    The embroidery shop had been boarded up for the new years, just like the many stores down the road that had been boarded up. Everyone knew it was best to buy everything beforehand because the shop owners had their own families to celebrate the new year's eve dinner with.

    Xue'er walked in on the fragrant smell of strong spices being melded together. She had promised to come after Huo momo had invited her for the new year's eve dinner. This was going to be her first time celebrating this festival.

    She could see Huo momo in the kitchen that was located outside, as a side room that led into the back yard. The wooden frame that had made up the wall had become moldy after being in the rain and then the dryness, but it did not look too bad.

    There was a barrel of gluttonous rice flour that was kept perfectly dry from the elements. And Huo momo was kneading the dough furiously, she was dressed in a white apron over her dark red robes, on the counter was a dish that held a mixture of minced meat and vegetables.

    Xue'er gently knocked on the door, but there was no reply or so much as an acknowledgment.

    So, she stepped into the slightly heated room, where the steam was rising up. As Huo momo reached for the water, there was no more, and she turned around to get some more, she spotted Xue'er standing there like a little porcelain doll, dressed in red.

    "Xue'er, you're here! Huo momo said in an excited voice, as she scooped some water from the giant clay pot and poured it into a bowl. "You came early." She thought that she had invited Xue'er here at five in the afternoon, but it was not even ten yet, she was a whole seven hours early.

    "I had nothing to do." Xue'er said quietly.

    "Surely you must have some friends your age, why would you want to spend time with an old woman like me?" Huo momo said as she continued to work.

    "Why can't I spend it here? There are not many people I know." Xue'er said as she watched the old woman get back to work. There was a barely discernible smile on her lips.

    "I am not ready." Huo momo was feeling slightly overwhelmed by the food she had to cook, and the only guest that had shown up way too early.

    "I can wait." Xue'er began to make herself feel at home in this kitchen that she never entered before, "Do you need help?" She added on, hoping for something to do.

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    "No need." The old woman stopped her kneading and turned to steer Xue'er out of the small kitchen, "Take a walk outside, and see how people are celebrating. But remember, come back at three" she said in a warm voice before heading back inside.

    This left Xue'er baffled, as she had no other plans.

    Where was she to go?

    She decided to wander around for a while.

    The streets were filled with the laughter of children as they begged their parents to buy them small miniature lanterns to play with. There were a few street vendors that were selling sticks of candied hawthorn to children, but Xue'er decided to stay away from them for the time being.

    She wandered down the largest streets where all the shops were closed. The streets were surprisingly clean and free from a speck of dead leaves. She continued to walk.

    Stopping at the police bureau, she could see that the wood had a fresh new layer of vermillion paint. Seemingly the only color that existed, because this was the only color that was being used throughout the entire town.

    She could hear the laughter and small giggles, and Xiao Ya was definitely inside. After she heard the girl's discernable voice, her eyes lowered as she turned around to walk away.
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