Fanfiction: Ink in Water - Chapter 14 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 14. The cat who swallowed the canary

written by Bunny
consulting/editing: Le, LalaLoop, LigayaCroft, kakashi

Bai Qian curled deeper into the heat surrounding her, not wanting to wake. The arms that held her had not let up. Sun beamed across her eyelids, but she fought to ignore it. Maybe if she pretended it wasn’t day, they could stay like this for a little longer. All warm and snuggled up. There was nothing to attend to anyway, same as any day. They had enough meat and fur to last a while. No point in going out into the cold. No point in separating. Smiling, she nudged her face into his chest. It was a learned movement. All too familiar.

Except for one thing.

Today, his hands were moving up and down her body tickling her in a most unusual way.

“Shifu…” She mumbled and stirred, but he didn’t stop.

Something wasn’t quite right.

“You know, it’s not like I’m not enjoying this. But you really shouldn’t call out to that guy while you’re holding onto me.”

This voice… Why does Shifu sound so much like…
Bai Qian’s eyes shot open.

A second later, she bolted upright so fast her head spun. Heart pounding. Back throbbing. Everything in her view was not what she was expecting. No ice cave. Only tangled bed covers. On a gold encrusted bed. Not wrapped in fur. But wearing undergarments.

Her hands scrambled for a sheet to pull over herself, as she turned to look at the body next to her.

She blinked.

Then blinked again.

After blinking several more times, she clamped her eyelids together and prayed.

Namo Amitabha Buddha [1], let this be an illusion… It’s definitely an illusion… Make it disappear! Make it go away!

When she opened her eyes again, the so-called illusion had not disappeared. All it did was yawn and stretch its arms instead.

“Furball, why are you looking at me like that? Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?!” Bai Qian was yelling so loud, she thought her voice might shatter.

“Simmer down… Don’t just start screaming for no reason!”

“No reas—” She wanted to strangle him. “GET OUT!!!”

It took a grunt and a kick to send him flying off the bed.

“Aiyooo~ How can you be like this?” Xiao Yu landed flat on his bottom. “I was the one who had good intentions to come check on you… who knew you were going to pull me straight into bed?”

“ME?! P-Pulled you…”

“What? It’s true! You kept whining ‘Shifu… Shifu… I’m so cold…’ and then you put your paws all over me… What was I supposed to do?”

“GO TO HELL!” She threw a pillow at his face.

“Alright, alright…” Xiao Yu slowly picked himself off of the ground. “Don’t get too angry, you might open up your injury and Yuan-Yuan will be mad at me.”

Bai Qian really wanted to scratch that smirk right off of his face, but what little fighting energy she had had, was already spent. So she continued to glare at him as he tried to sit back down on the edge of the bed beside her.

Her head began to throb. Where am I? Why is Green Eyes here?

Her eyes moved to the surrounding space. The amount of gold in the room hit her like a slap in the face, making it obvious. There was only one place in all of the realms that had this much gold—Fenyi Palace. Her eyes continued to dart around, examining every knob and rivet as she wondered how exactly she had ended up back here. It felt like there was a lapse in her memory. The last thing she recalled was being holed up in that ice cave with Moyuan.

A sharp pain rose in the back of her skull. And like water bursting through a dam, a flood of shoddily suppressed memories returned to her—the Shen Demon—its demise—Chen Rong and Li Heng—the gruesome images—all flashed like hundreds of shifting mirrors in her mind.

Bai Qian fought down the rising nausea in her stomach and gripped the bedpost to steady herself.

“Oi, Furball… You don’t feel good?”

She shook her head, strangling a gulp in her throat—suddenly dripping sweat and clammy all over.

That’s right… I killed it. I killed the Shen Demon.

The sound of dribbling water next to her made Bai Qian turn her head to see Xiao Yu wringing out a washcloth in the basin over to the side of them.

“Here.” He handed it to her.

She took it and pressed it to her face. The warmth and moisture instantly soothed her, but it did nothing to staunch the feeling that came swiftly after it.

“My Shifu…” Her voice trembled and pushed through the cloth. “Where is he?”

“Yuan-Yuan? He’s likely in his chamber. He was here earlier, treating the wound on your back. Did you not sense him?”

Bai Qian shook her head. She was relieved to know that nothing had happened to him, but all the while, knowing he was close by was also making her heartbeat erratic. And the thought of him placing the dressings on her back made her even more flustered. She was thankful for the towel still covering her face.

“Both of you were in pretty bad shape when I found you on Mount Qinyao…” Xiao Yu said. “Who knew one Shen Demon would do so much damage.”

She lowered the towel down to her lap. “Is he injured?”

The image of him impaling himself with that ice spear was still fresh in her mind.

“He’s got some injuries here and there, but he’s fine… Healthy as an ox!” Smiling at her, Xiao Yu grabbed ahold of her wrist and started to pull her up off the bed. “Come, I’ll take you to him now. I’m sure you’re anxious to see him.”

“N-NO!” Bai Qian yanked her hand back from Xiao Yu so fiercely that she almost fell backwards.

Sitting back down, her fingers dug into the edge of the bed frame, holding it as though she’d rather die than leave it. “I-I’m still tired…”

I’m not ready.

“Oh?” Xiao Yu raised an eyebrow. “I suppose you could use some more rest… You did most of the work after all. I gotta say I’m impressed with you, Furball. I never imagined you’d be the one to exterminate the Shen Demon yourself.” Xiao Yu patted her head. “But really, what was Yuan-Yuan doing the whole time? Sitting on his...”

His words trailed off as Bai Qian stared down at her lap where the warm towel was still wound in her hand. Her fingers twisted it up further. “Green Eyes, you said that you had found Shifu and I on Mount Qinyao… Does that mean that we were both gone for a while?”

“Nope, it wasn’t long at all. The two of you left early in the morning that day, and when I found you, it was just before noon.”

“On the same day?” Her brow furrowed in confusion.

“Yes.” Xiao Yu sat back down. “You see, time doesn’t actually pass when you’re stuck in a demonic illusion. No matter how much time you think you’ve spent in one, it will be no time at all once you return to the real world.”

No time at all?

“How long did you think you were gone for?”

“I-I don’t know…” Her head shook. “I… couldn’t tell.”

Xiao Yu slowly nodded and pulled out his jade flute to twirl in his fingers.

“Shifu... he was with me.”

“Yes, I figured that was who you saw.” He slid the flute under her chin, lifting her face up to meet his.

“W-What do you mean?”

“You were stuck in the Shen Demon’s illusion of desire…” A smirk crept on his face as he leaned into her. “If it wasn’t him you saw, then why would you come out of it calling for him incessantly? Asking him not to leave you?”

Bai Qian felt her cheeks burn with shame. Had she been talking in her sleep? Who else could have heard her say these things?!

“Yuan-Yuan, ah…” Xiao Yu stared up at the ceiling and shook his head. “Look at what you’ve done...”

“D-Don’t… Don’t misunderstand!”

“Oh? What am I misunderstanding?” Tucking his flute back into his arms, his index finger came and tapped on her forehead. “Listen to me, Furball… Whether you’ve acknowledged it or not, I will only tell you this once. I understand the appeal—Your Shifu has always had this effect on women. But realistically, he’s just not somebody for you to have that kind of notion about. And I’m not talking about the fact that he’s your Master, although that’s an entirely separate issue altogether.”

Xiao Yu’s words were like a bucket of ice water dumped over her head. Bai Qian couldn’t utter a word back. He knows…

“Oh, what do I know?” he snorted, ruffling up her hair with his hand. “Do whatever you want… it’s your life!”

A knock on the door made her jump.

The sound of footsteps trickled in, followed by a flock of palace maids dressed in yellow. Dropping to their knees in front of the bed, one of them announced, “Nú bì [2] is here to inform you that the King requests your company for dinner. It will be served shortly. All of us are here to attend to you.”

Dinner? “What time is it?” Bai Qian asked.

“Time to eat!” Xiao Yu jumped up onto his feet. “Shé Yong is holding a big feast in honor of your hard work. I’m sure you’re hungry!”

“My lord… Would you like Nú bì to prepare a bath?” one of the maids asked Bai Qian.

“B-Bath?!”

“Just run the water for him, he can tend to himself. The rest of you don’t need to be here,” Xiao Yu instructed.

“But—” The maid tried to speak up but she was quickly hushed. Xiao Yu pressed his finger to her lips and pulled her up into his arms. “Leave him… He doesn’t like anyone touching him. Me on the other hand, you can touch all you like…”

The room full of maids started giggling, their cheeks ripening red.

Xiao Yu wrapped his one arm around that yellow-clad waist and his other arm around another yellow-clad shoulder and started to escort the entire blushing herd out of the room. “Why don’t I let all of you help me bathe instead?”

Disgusting.

“Get cleaned up, Furball! I’ll see you out there!” he shouted. When he got to the door, he turned back to say, “And try not to think too much, it won’t do you any good.”

With Xiao Yu gone, she could finally hear the sound of her own thoughts. It took a few minutes for the maids to carry a large wooden tub into the room and fill it with hot water before retreating. Bai Qian sat on the bed and stared at that steaming bath for a long time before approaching it. Such a simple thing like a bath had become so foreign at this point.

The water felt nice. She ran her fingers through it a few times before removing her clothes and stepping in. All the little scratches and cuts on her body stung from the heat, but it didn’t take long for the pain to dull away. The sweet scented steam created a perfect capsule of warmth around her as she settled in.

How many times did she dream of a hot bath while lying frosted up in that cave? Now she could take as many baths as she wanted.

Bai Qian smiled to herself.

That’s right. She didn’t have to feel cold. Didn’t have to wake up everyday under that dome of ice. Eat another stick of bear meat. Or wear another fur cape.

Didn’t have to hear only his voice. Or see only his face.

This was good.

She was relieved.

Bai Qian wiped her eyes with her hands. The steam must have stung them. Why were they blurring up so much?

She reached over for the bar of soap and began to lather herself up. It was strange; this bar of soap kept slipping out of her hands and sinking down into the water. Each time she picked it back up, it would slip out again. She couldn’t tell if it was her hands or the soap that didn’t want to cooperate. After enough tries, her patience had gotten the best of her. Her foot struck the inside of the tub in frustration. The sharp pain shot through her leg and made her cry out.

Might as well.

Cry out.

It was impossible to try and hold any more of it in.

She placed a hand over her mouth to muffle the sound. Eyes staring at the soap bubbles that glistened on the mirror surface of the water, watching as her tears created dimples in her own misshapen reflection. It all seemed to hit at once.

***

The setting sun draped its waning light in the hallway like a warm blanket. Bai Qian closed the chamber door behind her as she slowly stepped into it. The latch echoed loudly as it clicked into place. There was no one around. Everyone must already be gathered in the dining hall. It had taken her a while to pull herself out of that bath. To pull herself together.

Despite the gnawing hunger in the pit of her stomach, she had no appetite. No desire to step into a room full of people. And even less of a desire to be the last one to enter.

Dragging her feet, she walked to the nearby window—the carved lacquered panel extended high to the ceiling—showcasing a detailed pattern of coiling serpents. Between the cracks, the kingdom outside looked just as vibrant as she remembered. Perhaps even more so today. The streets were adorned with colorful attire, as though gearing up for some sort of festivity.

Her gaze soon moved from the busy scenery to the barren mountain ranges in the horizon. The sun had started to dip its feet in them. She kept her eyes there for a while to take in the sight before closing them. Her favorite part was watching the crimson orange colors flit around beneath her sealed eyelids. At least, whether it was an illusion or reality, the colors of the sunsets were always the same.

When a bell-like voice drifted by, Bai Qian finally opened her eyes.

“Moyuan, how are your injuries?”

Footsteps. Two pairs.

Bai Qian turned to look in their direction. Down at the end of the hall. Under the arching doorway. In the blue glow of the beaded lanterns. Their figures emerged.

Her heart stopped. The blood running in her arteries stagnated in place the moment she saw him. Unable to blink, her eyes swept over that tall figure. The familiar back, those broad shoulders, his hair in a top knot, not a wrinkle in his robe—he looked just as he did the first time they came to this palace. Immaculate.

He wasn’t facing her. He was looking at the woman beside him, Princess Ying Yue.

“If you need, I can ask Father to supply you some of our clan’s sacred medicinal venom. We serpents are known for our poisons, but I think our medicines are just as impressive.” She placed a hand over his arm as she spoke; lips curved up to a smile.

Don’t.

The hand on that arm was the only thing Bai Qian could focus on.

Don’t touch him.

“Little Brother?” a deep voice crept up behind her.

Bai Qian flinched and let out a yelp.

Moyuan’s head began to swivel in her direction and her immediate response was to look away from him.

“I’ve finally found you!” The moment she turned around, two mammoth hands swiftly took up her two tiny ones. “I thought I would never get to see you again, you came back!”

Why the hell is this Horse still here?!
“M-M-Ma Zhiwen…” She tried to wriggled her hands out from his grasp, but his fingers were made of steel. And he was looking at her with those crazy eyes again.

“After what happened between us the other day in that courtyard… I haven’t been able to forget… I haven’t been able to stop thinking about you…” He tightened his grip.

“Oh… that’s unfortunate…” She mumbled, still trying to pry him off.

She could sense the two people approaching from the other end of the hall, and it made her heart feel close to bursting. Moyuan’s powers were in full vigour, and even with this much distance between them, she could feel it edging against her like a blade.

Bai Qian wanted to run. Disappear. Melt into the floor. Anything. The current situation could not get any worse. Until a hand came out of nowhere and chopped down on Ma Zhiwen’s wrists.

He howled in pain as his fingers sprang away from her hands.

“What do you think you’re doing touching my things?”

Xiao Yu pulled Bai Qian over to him and wrapped his arms affectionately around her as he cooed, “Aiya... How long of a bath did you decide to take, darling? Dinner’s about to be served… Good thing I came back here to check on you, otherwise this brute would have swallowed you right up!”

“YOU—” Ma Zhiwen looked at Xiao Yu like he was about to foam at the mouth, then turned his eyes over to Bai Qian; his finger furiously wagging at the green-eyed face that was currently pressed to her cheek. “This… this… effeminate bastard is the one you’re in love with?!”

I did say that, didn’t I? She gulped.

“Little Brother, I can’t stand by and watch you throw your life away with this lowlife!”

“Who’s a lowlife?!” Xiao Yu barked.

“I just saw you taking a bath with—”

“Yes, yes, I took a bath with eight maids… Our love is very forgiving… Right, Furball?” Xiao Yu tilted Bai Qian’s chin up with his index finger.

If I just knock myself out right now, it would all be over. She really wanted to go ahead and ram her head into that stone pillar over there.

“What’s going on over here?” Princess Ying Yue’s sweet voice rang over their shoulders.

More footsteps.

Cold air was accumulating in the room. The person responsible for it was undoubtedly watching every bit of this ridiculous play unfold. She had not dared to look his way. And now, the sound of him clearing his throat carried all the way around that hallway.

Trapping her.

“Ah! Yuan-Yuan! You’re here too?!” With his arms still locked around her, Xiao Yu turned both of their bodies around in one seamless motion—forcing her to confront that chilling presence head-on.

Bai Qian felt like all the breath had been knocked out of her the moment their eyes met.

“Seventeenth.”

Come on, say something back.

This is your Master.

You have to at least greet him!


She couldn’t have spoken. Could hardly breathe.

Silence filled every inch of space between them like a solid wall. There was no plausible explanation for it. But Bai Qian already knew this would be the case. That she would forget how to act—how to exist around this person.

Xiao Yu’s foot began to tap impatiently. “Furball, you look a little green… are you hungry? I’m hungry!”

“Right, we should all head to the dining hall. The food will be served shortly. I’m sure my father is wondering where we all are,” Princess Ying Yue said as she stepped forward, placing herself in front of Moyuan. Bai Qian thought she caught a sliver resentment in those eyes when they flashed briefly in her direction just now.

Xiao Yu didn’t spare another moment before winding his hand around Bai Qian’s arm and dragging her along with him. “Ok, good talk everybody~”

She went limp like a rag doll. Didn’t fight it at all. Because in truth, she had never been more thankful. She wouldn’t have lasted another second standing there. Her legs could barely keep their balance now. Like they had been petrified.

***

The grand dining hall in Fenyi Palace was of enormous length. Currently, it was filled to the brim with bodies, smells, and voices. In the center of it, an immense table carved from what looked like a solid block of gold, stretched from one end to the other. There were upwards of thirty or so seats lining the rim of it, and right now, five chairs were left unfilled.

At one end, the Serpent King, Shé Yong, sat at the head of the table.

When Xiao Yu and Bai Qian entered the room, he looked up mid-conversation and greeted them.

Throwing his hand to one side of the table, he introduced to them his harem, consisting of one queen and nine concubines. The extravagantly dressed women were a sight to behold. Bai Qian was a bit shocked to find that a few of them looked even younger than her. The Queen and a few smiled politely, while the rest giggled as their eyes swept over Xiao Yu.

On the other side of the table, a dozen more seats were occupied by the King’s children. Ten girls and one boy. Bai Qian saw that the seat closest to the King and opposite the Queen was empty, and realized that it must be reserved for Princess Ying Yue, the eldest.

A few officials took up the seats in the middle with one vacant seat amongst them, while the other end of the table was left with three empty seats. Bai Qian sat down opposite Xiao Yu on one of them, and stared at that big empty chair wrapped in beautiful silk brocade beside her and felt her head spin. This kind of arrangement left her no choice but to be right next to him.

She was in the midst of contemplating whether or not anyone would notice if she just disappeared under the table, when like a wave, all the bodies in the room stood up.

“High God Moyuan!” The King left his seat to rush over to her Master, who had just entered the room with Princess Ying Yue and Ma Zhiwen trailing behind him.

The same elaborate greeting was given to him just as she had witnessed the first time around. After exchanging a few pleasantries, Moyuan was ushered to his seat. All the eyes in the room seemed to follow him. Princess Ying Yue looked a bit disheartened as she watched him walk away from her, before taking up her seat opposite end of the table. Ma Zhiwen was the only one staring at Bai Qian as he sat down at the empty seat amongst the officials.

The sound of those chair legs scraping on the granite floor beside her as the maid pulled it back, ran a shiver down her spine. There was no escaping. Bai Qian forced her eyes to look over.

Moyuan sat down in the chair.

He looked to Xiao Yu first and exchanged a few words she couldn’t catch, before finally turning over to her, looking completely indifferent. He didn’t say anything, as though simply waiting for her greet him first.

“Shifu…” The word had to be pushed out, it kept clinging onto her tongue.

“Seventeenth, how are you feeling?” he asked, in the same quiet voice he always took with her.

“I’m… all right.”

But it really wasn’t the same.

“Shifu, I heard… you were injured.”

Nothing about it was the same. They were talking. It was a perfectly normal conversation. But like two polite strangers who were speaking to each other for the first time, everything felt forced. How can a person look so familiar and yet so different, all at the same time? Not a flicker of light could be found in those bottomless black depths that seemed to look right past her.

“I’m fine. It isn’t anything serious.”

Her eyes narrowed in on his left arm. There were no strained movements. No indication of pain. No sign of an injury.

“Seventeenth, I’m sorry I couldn’t come for you in time.” His eyes shifted away. “The injury on your back… I will make sure to treat it. You did very well on this mission, all on your own. I’m proud of you.”

All on my own.

“KYAAAA!” A piercing squeal broke out from the other end of the room.

All heads turned to look at the commotion. Two little Princesses had gotten out of their seats and were now chasing a black cat around the table.

“Leave Little Black alone, you big bully! He didn’t eat your stupid bird!!!” one of them shouted.

“SHUT UP! I saw him swallow up my precious canary this morning myself! You stay out of this!” The other’s hands finally caught Little Black, and held its small body up in the air. “I’m definitely gonna skin this ugly thing today!”

“Father!!! Stop her!” The littlest Princess ran to her father and started tugging on his sleeve, her eyes tearing up.

“SILENCE!” The King slammed his fist on the table, ceasing all movements. The cat quickly escaped as the little Princess’ grip fell slack. “I will SKIN the both of you right now if you continue to humiliate me like this! Do you not see that we have honored guests?!”

At the sound of their father’s threats, the two little plump faces turned beet red. It didn’t take long for them to swell with tears and for the blubbering outburst of cries to distract all attention from the cat who had now snuck its way over to the other end of the table.

“Aha!” Xiao Yu snatched it up and brought it into his lap. “Little Black ah, Little Black… Shame on you…”

“Meow~” The cat began to roll onto its back, asking for its belly to be rubbed.

“Don’t look so innocent now! You’re the cat that swallowed the canary, and now you want to pretend otherwise?” He gave it few pets, before turning his eyes to Moyuan. “Say, Yuan-Yuan, who does that remind you of?”

Her Master did not respond. He reached for his cup of wine from the table and took a big sip.

“WINE! SERVE MORE WINE!” The King’s shrill voice rang out from the other end of the table, prompting a group of palace maids to swarm into the hall, their arms carrying jugs of wine and platters of food. One by one, the plates were placed down until no surface of the tabletop was left uncovered.

Bai Qian stared at the steaming mounds in front of her, some of them were her favorite dishes, but had no desire to even touch one bite of it.

A maid soon came by to fill her cup with wine. And as soon as the pouring stream let up, Bai Qian took the cup and downed its contents in one gulp.

She felt a bit better.

The maid quickly returned and refilled her empty cup. Again, Bai Qian drained it in a blink of an eye. Everyone had started eating, but the bowl of rice in front of her remained full and untouched.

By the time her cup had to be refilled for the fifth time in the matter of a few minutes, the same maid was trying to hide an obvious look of disgust. But Bai Qian didn’t care. She quickly reached for the cup with the intention of drinking it down just the same.

Until a hand snapped around her wrist, pressing it back onto the table.

Moyuan didn’t say a word.

Didn’t look at her.

“Aiya, Furball! Don’t just drink and not eat! Since when are you not hungry?!” Xiao Yu quickly leaned over the table and grabbed her bowl of rice, filling it with a various meats and vegetables from the plates on the table before returning it in front of her. “Here, eat up! Then you can drink some more!”

After a few more seconds, the hand on her wrist finally unwound. Bai Qian’s fingers trembled, still gripping the wine cup. She tenaciously brought it up to her lips and sipped it down regardless.

Refusing to look at him.

“Tch… this little brat!” Xiao Yu spat from across the table. “Yuan-Yuan, you’re too lenient, look at what you’ve done! Look how spoiled he is!”

When the maid walked by again, Bai Qian placed her cup at the edge of the table for her, indicating that she wanted more. She was perfectly aware of her bad behavior, but all her discretion had gone out the window—the wine was the only thing keeping her sane at this point. Two drops of it came pouring into her cup, then ceased. The maid had scurried away so fast Bai Qian didn’t know what had happened, until she noticed the threatening aura that was radiating from the person sitting beside her.

“You’ve had enough.” His voice was like a low rumble.

“High God Moyuan, forgive me for speaking out,” said one of the court officials sitting beside Bai Qian. “Why are you not letting your disciple enjoy himself? He deserves to… The entire Kingdom is grateful to the both of you for exterminating the Shen Demon. It’s a cause for celebration!”

“That’s right, that’s right! Preceptor Xiu is right!” The King started waving his wine cup in the air and raised his voice to address the room. “It is a cause for celebration! Why don’t we all have a toast to High God Moyuan for defeating the Shen Demon!”

“Shé Yong, that’s incorrect.” Cups were held high, ready to clink, when they all paused. Moyuan looked up to the other end of the table before glancing over at Bai Qian. “You should thank my Seventeenth disciple instead.”

“Oh, and why is that?”

“Because he killed the Shen Demon, of course!” Xiao Yu chimed in. “Where are you getting your news these days, Shé Yong?”

“H-High God Moyuan, it really wasn’t you?!” the King stammered. “But the Shen Demon is extremely powerful… As long as there is any sort of worldly desire in a person’s heart, it could take complete control over that person. Your disciple is so young… he has already reached that level of cultivation?!”

“You just answered your own question!” Xiao Yu sighed and rolled his eyes. “Because he’s so young, this little thing doesn’t have any worldly desires in the first place. Especially not the kind that the Shen Demon aims for. Wouldn’t it make more sense for him not to get entrapped in its illusion?”

A wave of nodding heads and whispers rose and fell.

“That would make sense,” one official spoke up. “But how do you know for sure? Why don’t we just ask the little immortal himself? Did you find yourself stuck in an illusion? What did you see?”

Then others joined. “Yeah! Tell us! What did you see? How did you kill that Demon?!”

Suddenly, all the eyes in the room were on Bai Qian. She stared at the table while her cheeks burnt up. They were stupid if they thought she would tell them what she saw. But their probing looks did not let up and the longer it went on, the more it felt like her heart would soon explode and paint the room red.

“Immortal Xiao Yu,” Preceptor Xiu beside her spoke again, breaking the silence. Bai Qian was so thankful, she wanted to kiss the man. “By what you’ve just said, isn’t that asserting that someone like High God Moyuan has too many worldly desires in his heart?”

“What—is he not allowed to have any?” Xiao Yu snapped back. “You think he’s been celibate all his life?!”

Moyuan slammed his cup on the table and glared at Xiao Yu. The latter sat back in his seat like a scolded child and pressed his lips tightly together. The room sank into an awkward silence, with the exception of a few hushed voices on the opposite end. Bai Qian’s fox ears easily picked up on the things they were saying even if no one else could.

“Back then… didn’t High God Moyuan have intentions for our Princess Ying Yue? Do you think she was the one he saw in the Shen Demon’s illusion…?”

“No, it can’t be her… I heard the only woman he has ever loved was the Demon Ancestor, Shao Wan.”

“Isn’t she dead?”

“He can still dream about the dead, can’t he?”

“Our Princess is one of the prettiest living immortals, you’re saying she can’t compare to the dead Demon Ancestor?”

“When it comes to beauty, no one has ever been able to compare! But the God of War isn’t somebody that shallow… You can’t base it off of that…”

Princess Ying Yue’s wine cup tipped over on the table and made a loud clanking noise. The sour expression on her face was impossible to miss even from across the room—the face of a jealous woman.

And what about her? What kind of face was she making? How different was she from this Princess? If Bai Qian had to be honest with herself, then weren’t they both two people who envied the same dead person?

What if all these whispers spoke of the truth?

It was a possibility she had foolishly overlooked.

That Moyuan may have been trapped in his own illusion all along. Just as she was. Living side by side with the image of the woman he longed for, convincing himself it was the real thing, refusing to leave—just as she had—with the image of him.

All on her own.

How laughable.

Her chair scooted back loudly as she stood up. Sick to her stomach. Dizzy. Suffocated. The room was spinning.

She needed air. Needed to get out.

“Seventeenth,” his eyes shot up at her. “What’s the matter?”

She stepped one foot in front of the other, although the ground felt like it was being pulled out from underneath her. It was a wonder she hadn’t toppled over. It was a wonder she even made it across the room. She could hear voices, but couldn’t hear the words.

The thing about desire,

Her hands reached for the door knob and pulled.

Is that one drop is all it ever takes.

The hallway she had been in before looked as though it had tripled in length. Sunlight replaced by candlelight. Her feet took off. The flames shook and pulled as she sped past them. One hallway. And then another.

Like one drop of ink.

Until there were no more hallways.

In a pool of water.

Until there was just the sky. A flash of fireworks lit up like a distant storm. And the cool night air. Hitting her hot cheeks like fire. Waking her.

No matter how many more new gallons of water you add to that pool—clear water that has already been tainted, will always be tainted.

_______________

End Notes:

[1] Namo Amitabha Buddha - A buddhist mantra, literally meaning “homage to the Amitabha Buddha”. Often used in meditation and prayer to clear the mind.

[2] Nú bì (奴婢) - How a maid or servant refers to themselves.