Ning Ning recognised his face, the others didn’t.
But they recognised the mask in his hand.
“How are you related to Li Shui Sheng?” The old village chief stared at the mask in his hand and asked.
“He’s my father,” the man in the doorway answered, “my name is Li Xuan.”
…Li Xuan? He doesn’t exist. Your name is clearly Pei Xuan!
Pei Xuan looked older than he used to. There were some white spots on his temple, his face looked worn out. He closed the door behind him, walked up to the old village chief’s side and handed the mask in his hand to the other.
The old village chief took the mask, flipped it over and looked at it for a long time. He finally nodded at everyone that was seated, he had acknowledged his identity, then he returned the mask to him and smiled, “Sit, sit.”
No! Village Chief, you cannot recognise people by their mask, look at his identification!
Pei Xuan cast his gaze around the long table. There was only a space left, to the right of the village chief.
He sat down on the seat and looked up, he was face to face with Ning Ning.
Under the candle lights, he looked at Ning Ning with a strange expression.
“She’s from the Ning family.” The village chief looked at Ning Ning before he turned and looked at Pei Xuan, sighing. “The Li family is here. It’s rare for everyone to be here, let’s discuss the matter of this year’s ancestor worship ceremony.”
“The one from the Li family,” one of them said, “how is your Nuo dance?”
Pei Xuan blandly glanced at him. “I don’t know how to do it.”
“You don’t know?” The other party immediately raised his voice, telling the people around him, “Did you hear that? He doesn’t know how, how is he going to perform if he doesn’t know how?”
“He can learn if he doesn’t know.” Someone was not buying it. He said glibly, “Li Shui Sheng did not show up in the past, so you stood in for him. Now that his son has come back, this is none of your concern anymore.”
“You think I’m doing this for personal gain? You’re wrong, I’m doing this for everyone!” The other party said in an exasperated manner, “Didn’t you hear him? He doesn know how! If you let him perform, he will ruin the ancestor worship ceremony!”
The two of them argued excitedly. In the end, a cane stomped the floor, the two of them looked towards the village chief at the same time.
“Stop arguing.” He slowly turned his head to look at Pei Xuan. “Li Xuan, you really don’t know how to dance at all?”
Pei Xuan shook his head.
“Then we’ll do this.” The village chief pondered for a moment before he cast his eyes towards the stand-in. Amidst the excited look of the other party the village chief slowly said, “Ah Tie, you’ll teach him.”
The smile on the other party’s face stiffened.
“I know that you’re thinking for everyone’s sake, but the rules cannot be changed.” The village chief emphasised on the word rule, his expressionless face looked like a statue standing guard in front of a tomb, eternally unchanging regardless of natural elements. “You should know the fate of those who change the rules right?”
At that moment. Ah Tie seemed to have remembered something, his face turned pale. He looked down and said, “Yes, I will teach him.”
The village chief then nodded with satisfaction, he reverted to his usual benignant look.
A weak voice suddenly rang out by his side, “…What about me?”
Everyone looked towards the voice, their vision gathered on Ning Ning.
Ning Ning looked to the left and right at them and said, “I don’t know how to do it either.”
What was strange was that no one offered to stand in for her, the village chief even consoled her amiably, “It’s fine, it’s fine. All your role requires from you is to sit through the entire process and watch, singing and dancing are matters of the others.”
Ning Ning took a look at him. Just sit and watch? If it was that easy, why did she have to be the one to do it? Was it really because of her Ning surname? Or maybe it was because of the rules of the village?
What they talked about afterwards basically had nothing to do with her: when would the stage be ready, would they invite outsiders to watch, the mask of one family was broken by their child, what should they do if they couldn’t fix it before the ancestor worship ceremony starts, etc. It was extremely dull for Ning Ning. Just as she had finally endured to the end of the meeting, hot food and wine were served.
The person serving them was actually Ning Yu Ren.
“Mama,” Ning Ning frantically stood up, “let me help you.”
“How would that do?” The village chief pulled her hand. “You are of the Ning family, not a servant.”
“My mom is also of the Ning family.” Ning Ning looked at him doubtfully.
The village chief actually started smiling. The others started smiling along with him. Those smiles seemed to have a profound meaning, it sent chills down a person’s spine.
The only one who didn’t smile was Pei Xuan, he looked at Ning Yu Ren as if he was thinking of something.
Ning Ning broke free of the village chief’s hand and went over to Ning Yu Ren’s side. She helped her portion out the food and wine, then poured a cup of wine for herself. She raised the cup and said, “Let me give a toast to all Uncles, Grandpas and Aunties.”
She drank it in one gulp. None of them dared to disrespect her. She didn’t know if it was because of her surname or if it was because of the rules of the village, everyone raised their wine cups.
“Cough, cough.” Ning Ning put down the wine cup and coughed twice.
She was a person who could drink, but that was after she had entered society, her current self was in her teenage body. Because of how Ning Yu Ren had doted on her, she had never touched a drop of alcohol, so she could not really adapt to it.
But this was good. Ning Ning leaned on Ning Yu Ren, saying meekly, “Mama, I’m a little dizzy…”
“I told you not to drink.” Ning Yu Ren complained, then she told the rest, “Excuse us, she is drunk, I’ll bring her back.”
Seeing that Ning Ning was so drunk that she was about to lie on the floor, the village chief frantically got up and said, “Don’t worry, don’t worry. I will get someone to pack up some hot food, you can bring it back, then I will get someone to drive you home.”
Just as he finished speaking, Pei Xuan picked up his car key on the table, got up and said, “I’ll do it.”
Ning Ning and Ning Yu Ren both froze.
“That’s for the best, that’s for the best.” The village chief, on the other hand, was very happy. He patted Pei Xuan’s back repeatedly. “That’s more like it. Li family is supposed to be close to Ning family.”
…Was this another rule of the village?
Outside of the village chief’s house, Pei Xuan opened the door to his car without saying a word. Cui Hong Mei stepped into the car first, as she didn’t succeed in flaunting her wealth, she was in a rage. “God knows how these people make their money, every one of them are stinking rich. It’s not normal, it’s not normal at all. Their source of money must be wrong…”
Ning Ning and Ning Yu Ren held each other up as they entered the car without saying a word.
Along the way, besides Cui Hong Mei, no one else had spoken a word, the car sent them all the way back home.
Once she had gotten out of the car and started to walk home, Ning Ning could not help but take a look behind.
The clouds were scattered and the moon was bright. Within the pale white moonlight, Ning Ning saw that Pei Xuan had not left, he was looking at her while sitting in the car.
…It was yet another indescribable and strange look.
That night, none of the three women could sleep well.
Cui Hong Mei chanted in her dreams, “Returning home in glory, returning home in glory…I won’t let you all look down on me.”
Ning Ning, on the other hand, quietly got off the bed. She walked up to the door, placed herself up on it and eavesdropped on the movements outside.
Ning Yu Ren was only wearing an unlined garment as she stood outside, the night was cold, her voice trembled as she held her phone and asked, “What are you up to again?”
“What Li Xuan! You are clearly Pei Xuan!”
“…Are you targeting Ning Ning?”
Ning Yu Ren seemed to be determined on the fact that Pei Xuan had appeared because he had some sort of scheme, but Pei Xuan flatly denied it. The two of them argued with no results, Ning Yu Ren was so angry that she hung up on him.
Ning Ning frantically walked away from the door. She raced back under the blanket, closed her eyes and started to pretend to sleep.
After a moment, there was some rustling noise beside her, Ning Yu Ren laid down on her side.
“…Ning Ning,” Ning Yu Ren’s voice quietly rang out by her ear, “I’ll get someone to send you home.”
Ning Ning opened her eyes. She turned her head to look at Ning Yu Ren.
“What about you?” Ning Ning asked, “You’re not going home?”
Ning Yu Ren held up her head with one hand, smiling as she lay beside Ning Ning, “Mama still has matters to attend to, I cannot go home for now.”
“You want your mother to stand in for you?” The village chief’s words suddenly flashed across her ears, she looked at Ning Yu Ren and asked, “Do you want to stand in for me?”
Ning Yu Ren was surprised. She gently caressed Ning Ning’s cheek. “Two people of the Ning family, we can’t both leave, one of us has to stay.”
“Then I’m not leaving either.” Ning Ning said, she thought: I regret leaving last time.
You might be smiling in front of me, but you are sad in places I cannot see.
In the summer of 2012, you suddenly strayed away from your normal behaviour. You became strict with me, you personally taught me how to cook, you said that if I knew how to cook, I would be able to survive anywhere. I laughed at the idea, I said that takeout existed in the world.
In the summer of 2012, you suddenly strayed away from your normal behaviour. You urged me not to be an actress, that the glamour of the stage was not necessarily better than being a normal person. I didn’t listen. At that time, I was full of youthful vigour, I could only see the glamour of the stage, I could not see and looked down on normalcy.
In the summer of 2012, you paid off another debt for grandmother. I argued with you, I said that the reason grandmother had ended up like this was due to you spoiling her. You became dejected, you didn’t retort at all.
In the summer of 2012, you suddenly fell sick. You got hospitalised, your hair started to fall off in bunches, you got skinnier by the day. I learned how to make the simplest egg fried rice, I gave up on acting for that year, I stopped fighting with Grandmother, but your condition didn’t get any better…
In the summer of 2012, what exactly did you experience in this village?
“I don’t want you to stand in for me.” Ning Ning hugged Ning Yu Ren tightly. It felt like as long as she hugged her tight enough, fate would not take Mama away from her arms, she thought: Even if you’re sitting in Life Theater right now, even if I’m the main character of that movie, I will not let you stand in for me.
The night passed.
The next day, the village chief brought people to the Ning house. The moment the door opened, he stared at Ning Ning’s face and said, “What, what happened to your face?”
“This child is not very obedient,” Ning Yu Ren said stiffly, “I gave her a beating.”
One side of her face was already swollen, she spoke inarticulately, “Even if you hit me till the other side of my face swells, I will not leave!”
Ning Yu Ren raised her hand. The village chief frantically rushed in between the two of them, “You can’t hit her! You can’t hit her! Ning Yu Ren, do you still not know the rules?!”
“Rules?” Ning Yu Ren let out a cold laughter, walking past them from the side. As she walked, she abruptly put her hands behind her back, looked back at them and said, “The rule says that if there were two members of the Ning family present, we would pick the better one to be the owner.”
“Owner?” Ning Ning was stunned.
“The village chief hasn’t told you yet? The name of the nuo dance of this village, is called ‘Life Opera House’.” Ning Yu Ren’s eyes gleamed. She stared at Ning Ning and said, “Between you and me, only one of us can wear the mask, only one of us can become the ‘god’ of this nuo dance–The Owner.”