The Elders walked into the temple the next morning when the first rays of sunlight were just touching the horizon. Elder Bi was the one in the lead and there was a faint smile on his lips when he saw the young man kneeling in front of the altar with the egg held in his arms. “It’s time to go and bring them back to the phoenix clan.”
Zhu Hong glanced over his shoulder and then looked back at the egg in his arms. He had already calmed down after having a night to think about this. The guards hadn’t noticed anything, neither had the other adults or the Elders. Most likely, the phoenixes wouldn’t either. In any case, he had never heard that there was some kind of test to make sure that the connection was a genuine one. Also, why would there be something like this? Who would dare to tell such a bald-faced lie? In the history of both their races, he was probably the first to even think about it.
Zhu Hong got to his feet, took a last glance at the altar, and then turned around, following the Elders outside. He didn’t say anything and just held the egg close to his chest, protecting it from the cold morning breeze and the sight of others. Hiding it away like this forever sure sounded tempting right now.
The group walked to the end of the valley, and then one after the other took on their dragon form before rising up into the sky.
Zhu Hong was the last one who was still left on the ground. He looked at the egg, carefully held it in one hand, and then changed his form as well. He made sure to keep his claws opened and glanced at the egg while rising up into the sky as well.
While the phoenix eggs were sturdy, the claws of the dragons were one of the few things hard enough to actually damage them. Thus, this way from the dragon valley to the forest of the phoenixes was actually the most dangerous part of the ceremony. If his claws damaged the shell, it might very well be that the phoenix inside wouldn’t be able to hatch. Then, who knew if his partner would ever return? Even if they did, there might be things wrong with them.
The Elders also looked at the egg in his claws, trying to see if he was holding it carefully enough. When they couldn’t see anything wrong with Zhu Hong’s way of dealing with things, Elder Bi once again took the lead and the group flew over to the forest where the phoenixes lived when they weren’t currently at the side of their spouses.
The forest came into view soon enough. From up above, it looked like a sea of green that was undulating in the wind. When they got closer, the whooshing of the leaves could be heard from down below, once again reminiscent of the sea.
Zhu Hong looked around, trying to see where they were supposed to land. An unmarried dragon had no business coming to this place until they delivered their partner’s egg so he had never come here before.
Before he could figure anything out, the branches below opened up and three majestic phoenixes rose into the air, their colorful feathers glinting in the morning sun. These were likely Elders of the phoenix clan that had come to welcome them.
The dragons slowed down and greeted them, and finally, everybody slowly descended to the ground and once again took on their other form.
Elder Bi inclined his head toward the phoenix in the lead once again. “Thank you for having us. We have brought over the young one that has chosen his partner yesterday.” He motioned toward Zhu Hong and waved for him to step forward and introduce himself.
Zhu Hong did as the Elder had insinuated and bowed to the three phoenixes. “Greetings, Elders. This one is named Zhu Hong.”
The three Elders nodded and then glanced at the egg that he was carefully cradling in his arms. Seeing how careful he was with it, their expressions softened quite a bit. The one in the front even gifted him a smile. “Welcome. You must certainly be excited about this new stretch of your life.”
Zhu Hong gave a faint smile in return and rubbed the top of the egg as he had done the day before, using the already familiar surface to calm himself down. “From what I understand, I will have to wait for them to hatch first.” So, before he actually started a new stretch of life, it would still be quite some time. A year or so wouldn’t be unexpected.
The Elder nodded. “Yes, but it won’t be taking that long. In any case, let’s go in to make it formal.” He turned around and then led them toward the house that had been erected around the biggest tree in the vicinity.
Zhu Hong glanced around. Before today, his interest in the phoenix clan had been low so he hadn’t really inquired about this place but now, things were different. He had already chosen his egg so it was only a question of time until it would hatch and they would be wedded. For the time being, his future spouse would stay here. As a good husband, he should show some more interest in how their life would be until they returned to his side.
Upon entering the house, the first thing he noticed was something that looked like a shelf on the other side. Several bright eggs were lying on that shelf, slightly leaned against the trunk of the tree in the middle of the house. Zhu Hong stared at them, trying to figure out what the deal with them was. Most likely, these should be the eggs that still had to hatch?
There weren’t many. Maybe just half a dozen. Each of them had quite a lot of space and they were all lying in a nest made of brightly-colored phoenix feathers, some moss from the forest, and some other plants that Zhu Hong couldn’t recognize. In short, everything had been done to make sure that these eggs would fit in nicely. If his spouse’s egg was placed in such a nest, it should be quite comfortable.
Having made sure of that, Zhu Hong finally retracted his gaze and then noticed the person that was sitting on the ground in front of that shelf. It was a female phoenix that actually showed a few lines on her face, that were of the same bright blue color as her hair. She should be another one of the Elders of the phoenix clan.
The three Elders in front bowed to the woman and then stepped to the side. “Grandelder, we’ve brought the delegation of the dragon clan over. One of the young ones has chosen an egg again. His name is Zhu Hong.”
The woman nodded and then motioned for Zhu Hong to step forward. “Welcome to the forest of the phoenix clan, Zhu Hong. I am Lan Jing, the Grandelder of the phoenixes. I’m glad to hear that somebody was able to match with one of our eggs again. Give them here.” She reached out, waiting for Zhu Hong to place the egg in her hands.
Zhu Hong looked at her and then turned to look at the egg, feeling a bit reluctant. Right now, he had the egg in his hands. But if he didn’t … he couldn’t help but worry that something unexpected might happen. He did not have a genuine connection with this egg so if she placed it together with even just one other that looked similar to it, he wasn’t quite sure if he would be able to recognize it again. Then … wouldn’t his lie become apparent?
The Grandelder laughed and the three phoenix Elders at the side also chuckled.
The one that had already greeted him before walked over and patted Zhu Hong on the back. “There’s no need to be like that, Zhu Hong. You’ll be getting them back. They just need to hatch first. If you keep holding them like that, it won’t happen. Won’t that just mean that you’ll get to meet them later?”
Zhu Hong lowered his head, giving the impression that he was embarrassed. Then, he walked over and knelt down in front of the Grandelder, finally handing the egg to her. He still seemed a little reluctant but at the very least, he was finally willing to let go of the egg.
The Grandelder took the egg, and then patted his hand before she got up from her seat and turned to the shelf behind her. She looked at the compartments that were still empty save for the prepared nests only to slowly furrow her brows.
When she didn’t move, the other three Elders stepped forward, looking at her with a hint of fear in their eyes. “Grandelder, what is the matter? The egg … is something wrong with it?”
Zhu Hong immediately leaped to his feet when he heard that, unable to believe it. He had checked the egg over after he pulled it out of the crevice. And then he had held it for the whole night after presenting it to the statue of the dragon god. He was sure that there hadn’t been any cracks or any other indication that something was wrong with it. Could it be he had been careless with his claws after all? But he Elders hadn’t warned him!
Lan Jing didn’t answer at first. She looked at the egg again and her brows furrowed. “This egg …”
Zhu Hong’s heart jumped, his expression panicked. “What’s the matter with it?”
The Grandelder turned around, feeling a little apologetic. Clearly, this young man had been quite worried from the beginning. Now, she actually made him worry even more. “Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with the egg itself. It’s just … I’m not quite sure whose egg it is.” She turned back around, taking yet another look at the compartments.
Whether it was the dragon or the phoenix clan, their numbers weren’t that big. The dragons numbered a couple of hundred people, just enough to fill up one valley while the phoenixes inhabited only this forest. It wasn’t wrong to say that among the people of her clan, she knew each and every single one of them. And she should also know each and every egg that was brought to the mountain of the dragons and placed there for the young dragons to finally choose from. After all, when they had been chosen, the dragons would return the eggs to their clan and she was the one to put the eggs into the corresponding compartment at the mother tree.
Usually, just seeing the egg was enough to determine which one it was. Even if that wasn’t enough, there was still another layer of security: The compartments had been signed with the names of the parents and the name that had been given to the child. So just checking for that should give her a clue. But right now, she really didn’t know where to place this egg.
The other three Elders also looked distraught. If they didn’t know who the child was, then what should they do? It wouldn’t even have a name!
Lan Jing hesitated for a moment longer before she turned back to Zhu Hong. “Where exactly did you find them?”
Zhu Hong tensed up, afraid that the more she would ask, the more likely she would discover that something was up with him finding this egg. Still not answering would be even more suspicious so he could only go ahead. “On the north side of the mountain. Well … it was a little hidden.”
“Hidden? Like how?”
Zhu Hong nervously rubbed his hands. It had to be obvious that he had a guilty conscience, right? “Well, I’m not quite sure if it was placed there deliberately but when I found it, it was stuck in a crevice. I was thinking that maybe it had been blown in there by the wind. I originally didn’t even see it when I made my first-round around the mountain.” He had already told the dragons as much yesterday and nobody had insinuated that it was strange so he really hoped that this wouldn’t be a problem now that he mentioned it to the phoenixes.
The Grandelder indeed just nodded slowly. “So it was like this. Well, in that case, maybe the egg had been lying in there for quite some time.”
Zhu Hong almost heaved a sigh of relief when that was the only conclusion she came up with. He hurriedly nodded and even provided her with more information. “I think that you might be right. When I originally saw it, I thought the egg was gray but after pulling it out, it turned out that there was a layer of dust on it. Most likely, not even the wind and rain could touch it in there.”
Lan Jing faintly furrowed her brows. “It’s quite lucky you were still able to find them then. Well, at least that tells us that it really has been some time. I’ll go and take a look at some of the older compartments.”
She pushed past the other three Elders and went around the tree, looking at the compartments on the other side. Most of them were filled with the shards of eggs that had long hatched. There were only half a dozen compartments with untouched nests. Two of them had been covered with cloths, signifying eggs had come to harm in some way and hadn’t been able to hatch.
While Grandelder Lan Jing went to check the few compartments that were still completely empty save for the nests, Zhu Hong on the other side turned to the other three Elders. “Elders, please excuse me if I am rude but may I ask what this means? What will happen to the egg if there is no compartment for it?” Inwardly, he couldn’t help but wonder if maybe this was a stroke of luck. He had brought back an egg he wasn’t connected to and now, something like this happened. If their relationship wouldn’t be viable because of that, he definitely wouldn’t need to worry. The question was just what would happen to the phoenix inside?
Well, he didn’t need to worry. His hopes were immediately shattered.
The female Elder of the group patted his shoulder, giving him an encouraging smile. “There’s no need to be agitated. Things like this are rare but they do happen on occasion. If there really is no compartment for the egg, we would just open up a new one. After that, we’ll have to gather some materials to make a nest and then the egg can be put there. The worst part about it is that the name the young one was originally given will be lost. Grandelder Lan Jing will issue a new one but it isn’t the same as being given one by their parents. But other than that, the egg will be alright and can hatch normally.”
Zhu Hong nodded even though he wasn’t sure if this was something that should calm him down or not. For a normal dragon, this probably would’ve been grounds for hope but for him, he didn’t really know what to do with that information. A stranger outcome probably would’ve been better for him to make sure he could keep the secret.
On the other side, Grandelder Lan Jing finally nodded when she arrived in front of the last compartment. Her lips curved into a beautiful smile and she gently placed the egg inside the nest. Looking at it for a moment and rubbing over the names that had been engraved below, she finally turned and came back to the other side.
Looking at Zhu Hong who looked utterly nervous, she smiled even brighter. Clearly, this young dragon’s feelings had to be quite deep. Good. Very good. Especially after realizing just which egg this was, she was glad that the little phoenix would come into the house of a dragon that cared so much about them. Feeling quite a bit of goodwill, she immediately explained to Zhu Hong. “No need to worry any further. I found it. This egg is actually quite old. It has been lying on the mountain for many years without being found. Their name is Zhen Zhu.”
“Zhen Zhu.” Zhu Hong nodded slowly, committing the memory to name. “Then … how long will it take?”
Grandelder Lan Jing chuckled, feeling that the young dragon in front of her was really quite impatient. But, well, most of them were when they brought the eggs of their future spouse here. “The young phoenixes already grow inside the egg while they are on the mountain. The only reason they come here is because they need to absorb the memories of our clan from the mother tree. Considering the time, Zhen Zhu should already be grown up by now. I would say that a week will be enough for them to hatch.”
Zhu Hong’s eyes widened and he looked in the direction the Grandelder had just come from. One week? That … “There is still so much to prepare.”
More often than not, it would take several years for the young phoenixes to grow and hatch from their eggs so that the dragons had more than enough time to prepare their houses for the day their spouse would move in with them. Now though, there was only one week. How would he be able to do everything in just seven days? After all, there was a lot to do. His household was only organized for one person. And not to mention the things they would use in their daily life, he still had to prepare his spouse’s clothes! Since he would only find out Zhen Zhu’s gender the day they hatched and were brought over, he could only prepare a few sets of everything. How could that be done in just a week?!
Elder Bi was also a bit worried but he still stepped forward and patted Zhu Hong’s shoulder. “You don’t worry. We’ve managed to prepare for the arrival of a lot of younglings from the phoenix clan. We will be able to do the same for your spouse. Anyway, it is not like you are alone.”
Zhu Hong nodded but he was still a bit worried. He felt like rushing home and starting immediately. Even if he couldn’t prepare everything sufficiently, just having half was already good!
Lan Jing could see from his face what was going through his head. She motioned toward the door, not intending to keep them any longer. “A week is indeed not much time. You should go and hurry. Prepare whatever you can. I’m sure that Zhen Zhu will be understanding after they hatch.”
Zhu Hong bowed, and then bid his farewell, hastily leaving the house.
The Elders stayed behind to say a few more words but then followed him outside, finding him already pacing up and down in front of the door.
Elder Bi went over and patted his shoulder again, finally motioning up again at the sky. “It’s alright. I know you’re worried. Everyone would be in this situation. But we have done this quite often. As long as all of us help out, it should be possible to do.”
Zhu Hong nodded, and the dragons rose into the air, changing their form and rushing back toward their valley. Now, not much time was left. They had to use every single second that they had.