The question, “Where to, my good dude?” opened up a whole can of worms as every member of the party began to speak, wondering if anyone knew where the golden apple was to get directions to, arguing about the quest’s true goal, whether the golden apple was truly the holy grail because I could’ve sworn it was a cup, or a mug or uhh—every member, that is, except Fabian who strolled over and leaned an elbow on her counter.
“You gave Jeff the rapier,” Uli observed, and also, “Now he has two swords.”
“Yea, I didn’t know he already had one. See—” Fabian pulled out the eye and at once the packet of incense on the nearest shelf popped and started to smoke. He hastened to continue: “Haha, eyeball, see, I saw Jeffers here in a shining future, waving a big ol’ shining stick and I thought it was the stick you so graciously, wonderfully, gave to me for the mirrors that I spent all afternoon setting up for—”
Uli looked up from smothering the tiny fire with a rag to glare at him.
“Anyway, what’s with the tofu, Ulz?” Fabian asked, and then promptly stuck his finger into it. “Oh gnarly, kinda feels like the swamp demon brains.”
“It’s from my first customer! There was a fish in it.” Sharp like a knife, Uli slapped his hand away from its trajectory of finger to his mouth. “Might have fish poop in it."
“Oh, was it a live fish? Where’s it now?” Fabian nodded with understanding as Uli tapped her temple. “Right, tofu medium and brain medium. Same texture."
Uli finger-gunned him. “Y’know, I’d been wondering about that! Makes sense!”
And while they’d been having their little catch up, it seemed that the party had come to a decision. When Sophyá nudged Jeff, he stumbled forward and blurted out, “We need directions to the golden apple!”
“Holy grail of legend, seed of discord, beholder of ultimate beauty?” asked Uli as she pulled out a thick ring folder and thumbed through a thick wad of ancient parchment she’d hole-punched and kept organiser with flimsy plastic dividers. To be quite honest, she was trying to buy time. She’d been slow to notice but there was a deep growling from somewhere within her shop, slowly increasing in volume with each passing second, dips and hitches beginning to quicken. And then there was a faint groan in the universe, as though it was a sofa that someone had just sunk down on, that Uli knew to be the Lóng, her dragon, uncoiling. Her head throbbed. Her ears itched. The humming, the groaning, the growling,
And then, clear as day,
Uli’s mind raced. She would know that voice anywhere; though she’d never heard it before, she’d spent years dreaming of it. She heard, she obeyed, she asked, “Does it have to be an apple?” Uli’s mind went a mile a minute, tires leaving scorch marks. Many people mistook what they wanted for what they needed and they paid dearly in turn for what they didn’t mean to buy, which never bode well for customer satisfaction but worked very well to her advantage. She asked slowly, as though in earnest deliberation, “How do you know it’s an apple?”
“What do you mean?” asked Jeff, furrow between his brows.
Uli leaned forward with a knowing smile. “Language does so complicate matters when we go gallivanting off based on old scripture and legend. Did you know? The Chinese word 請 translates to green in English, but can also refer to certain shades of blue and yellow. Fascinating how that works, eh?”
“What do you mean?” Sophyá repeated and coming from her, it sharpened to a frightful point. The steel in her gaze, Uli noted, is marvelous. Perhaps Fabe gave her rapier to the wrong party member.
“You are looking for a round, reddish fruit that glows golden with hidden power, do you not? I know of this legend of yours, but in ours, it isn’t an apple. It’s a peach. They could be one and the same.”
Gak’s lip curled with dissatisfaction but they did admit, “I have heard of such stories from our eastern brethren but because the beliefs and rituals that invoke us onto the material plane are different, we do not know much of each other’s existence.”
Uli beamed at him, her best customer service smile. "Ours are peaches of immortality, grown in the Goddess of Mercy’s garden. Imagine the rows and rows of fruit-laden trees! All ripe for picking! If they’re good enough for Sun Wukong, it’d be good enough for you.”
Gak swept his gaze over the various magical knick knacks around the room, then pinned her with a stare. “And you know where the peach is?”
“I have… this!” From the safe beneath the counter, Uli pulled out a small chest carved from rich mahogany and gently undos the silver clasps. From inside, she carefully plucked out from its silk cushion, a lighter in which there bobs a single coarse hair. The flame flared small at first, and then twitched, twisted, and burst into a long thin stream of fire towards the back of the shop. “The hair of Sun Wukong plucked before he stole his first peach holds all of his greed, all of his cravings. It’ll lead you towards the garden.”
The party oohed and ahhed appreciatively, except Gak who sniffed and prodded it with a delicate claw. “So… a magical dowsing rod,”
Jeff groaned. “It’s the closest lead we’ve got so far. Maybe—”
“Make up your mind already!!” cried Uli. She gestured with a huff to the slowly darkening shop. The sun is setting. “Well?!”
“Alright, alright!” Jeff took a deep breath. “We’ll take it!”
“Good! And your payment!” Uli jabbed a finger at Gak, who suffered it because Jeff shot him a warning look. “I shall take the first time you discovered the simple joys of fresh cut fruit, your first taste of pure bliss.”
And out came a great trout, writhing in the air between them. Its mouth gaped and gasped. As Uli wrestled it into her arms, the rainbow sheen of its scale sparkled with unearthly light. Struggling to keep hold of the trout, Uli nudged the lighter towards Jeff, who scooped it up with glee.
“This is just a loan, however. A hair from Sun Wukong is worth more than you know, so you have to return it! Pay me with a fish and a promise!”
“We will do our best to return it,” Jeff agreed easily.
“Best you do that! My great nai nai’s charmed it to ka-boom if it’s away from my blood for too long. It’ll burn you to grilled fish.” And now! The time to strike! “Hell, bring a peach back to me too!”
“Will do!” Jeff gave a cheerful thumbs up!, and when Uli, giggling as she fist-bumped his hand, offered her pinky with a casual flippancy, he hooked it with his own in a pinky promise.
Both Gak and Sophyá stiffened at once, but it was too late! The deal was done and sealed. Uli began politely hustling them towards the door, which the trout thrashing in her arms helped greatly with. Dodging its flailing tail, the party hurried to the exit.
“Fabian!” Uli called, and when the man in question turned, lazy smile, sharp-eyed, she grinned back. “Remember! That the peaches made a monster out of a monkey.”
Without missing a beat, Fabian called back, “And what are we humans but monkeys with a god complex?”
As the door swung shut behind them, Uli laughed, high and delighted. With a little whoop, she spun on her heel and rushed into the backroom, falling to her knees on the couch perched against the aquarium. Her dragon was coiled up again, but as her nose touched the glass, it let out a sigh that shuddered out from its long slender neck.
Pressure in her skull like the babel fish gnawing and gurgling and then,
Scrambling to stand on the couch, she held the trout up high above her head to let it slip into the water. It spasmed in the water, and then shuddered, and then swam in short jerky spurts towards the dragon, who opened its lazy eye, and then let out another breath, this time wordless and content. As though dismissed, the trout jerked as though escaping a trance and then zipped away to the other side of the aquarium.
“You liked that,” she cooed, pleased. “Today was such a wonderful day! And I’m sure there’s more to come.”