Fanfiction: Ink in Water - Chapter 19 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 19. If we met as strangers, would you recognize me?

written by Bunny
consulting: LalaLoop, LigayaCroft
editing: kakashi

The midday sun whitened the capital city of Chang’an to a bright haze. The air rippled from heat. But that didn’t stop the masses from pouring out of their homes. Normally, the streets would be deserted at this time of day, but today, they were packed with a slowly moving throng of people. All along either side of the road, droves of vendors had set up shop, little stalls that lay flush against the cobbled pathway. Tirelessly, their owners called out to passing shoppers in an attempt to sell their products. But as their voices competed with one other, the sound of them blurred into one cloud of noise that couldn’t be distinguished apart.

Above them, a few women with fans covering half their faces giggled as they leaned over the wood-carved balconies of their houses. A man and his child performing acrobatic tricks looked up when they shouted out, “Do another round!”

The man bowed and started to tap on the large cowhide drum attached to the front of his chest again. As the beat played, his child, clad in a bright red set of clothes with bells strung to the edges of his sleeves, hopped up onto a ball and balanced himself. A set of hoops had been flung into the air at the same time, which the child started juggling with no effort. On the opposite street corner, a band of musicians played their flutes in rhythm with the percussion—one could hardly tell if they were one act or two. And when the father and child duo finished their minute-long performance, the women clapped and threw copper coins at both parties.

From where she sat, tucked away in a seat at one of the food stands along the road, Bai Qian savored the view. She had ordered a plate of roast chicken and a jug of wine. But the wine was down to its very last drop, and the chicken had yet to come.

The food stand was connected to the butcher’s stand. At the moment, compared to his neighbors who weren’t getting much business, the butcher had attracted a sizable crowd. Glancing over to where he stood, she watched him work. He was a large and stout man, who held his knife like an executioner's ax. When he swung it down on his chopping block, he severed a screaming chicken’s head from its neck in one precise cut. The women who were gathered around his booth bargained in loud voices. Demand seemed to surpass supply. And as he carried out one bird’s beheading after the next, Bai Qian wondered which one would finally be hers.

Time was stretching thin.

Intentionally, she had been wasting it.

She had come to the Mortal Realm with a purpose, but for the entire morning since she’d arrived, she had done nothing more than loiter around in the marketplace.

Thumbing the piece of paper folded up in her palm, Bai Qian thought back to what the Star Lord Si Ming had told her. She had met with him in the Nine Heavens prior to this, and got enough information on Yehua’s whereabouts to make this a quick trip, so why was she hesitating?

“You’ll find him in the city of Chang’an. The Crown Prince’s mortal incarnation goes by the name of Liu Zhao Ge. He is the eldest son of the Liu Clan, a prominent family of scholars who serves the mortal Emperor. By now, he should be well in his fifties… I wouldn’t be surprised to find him with a family of his own. Also, High Goddess, you should be aware that his recent injuries should manifest in this form as well.”

“That being?”

“He no longer has his left arm.”

The reminder had dug into her like a sharp thorn.

It had taken up to this point for Bai Qian to realize, she had yet to piece the puzzle together. Why had Yehua allowed himself to get hurt to that extent? Why had he voluntarily battled the Four Beasts at Mount Yingzhou? Why had he obtained the Divine Fungal Grass for her Master’s revival? Why did he take the risk?

He couldn’t have figured out they were brothers at the time—so what motive had he had to do such a thing?

For her?

She didn’t want to think about that possibility. Her head might just explode.

Recently, the very matter of their relationship had morphed itself into a giant roadblock in her mind. Something she had to deftly maneuver around. For what reason? Why was she so reluctant to think about it? Wasn’t it her who had arbitrarily decided at one point to embrace this marriage arrangement? After the months they had spent together, she had felt that with Yehua, there was enough mutual respect, friendship, and affection for this to be more than just a political engagement. But why was it so hard these days to imagine a future together? To even consider the possibility of love?

Thinking back to what her mother and Fourth Brother had always harped on over the years: she had a strange personality, she was too aloof, she was pigheaded when it came to matters of the heart. Bai Qian had always fought against them, but at times like these, their claims became undeniable to her.

Forget it. Picking up the wine jug on the table, she tried to empty whatever was left of it into her mouth. Just find him, and go on your way. You can think about it later all you want.

Standing up, she threw down a few silver coins on the table and was about to make a gesture to the waiter. But the moment Bai Qian turned her head and took a step, BAM—her vision went out. Something had ran into her hard. So hard the air was punched out of her in a painful swoosh and her body buckled backwards.

“THIEF!”

She felt her back and then her head hit the hot stone ground. And something heavy pinning her down.

“CATCH HIM! HE’S A THIEF!” From a distance, somebody was screaming at the top of their lungs.

What was on top of her? A person? Her skull was rattling, and these useless eyes were suddenly only seeing static. All she could sense were limbs untangling from her own. And then, there was a hand. Directly on her chest. Squeezing her flesh. The hell?! Was she actually being molested by some mortal in broad daylight?

“S-Sorry!” The hand flew off.

Sorry, your mother! Bai Qian was fuming with anger. She felt the weight of the body above struggle to shift. This scoundrel… She was about to curse whoever this person was to seven lifetimes of misery—and for a split second, she even considered using magic to end his life right then and there, when finally, she saw the face above her.

Her tongue that was ready to lash out like a whip, turned to stone.

“WHERE IS HE?! WHERE’S THAT THIEF?!” The shouting in the background spiked in volume.

Bai Qian was frozen—staring at that face that had crumbled all her previous thoughts to dust—wondering if it was a product of her imagination.

She couldn’t blink.

Yehua?

“THAT’S HIM! OVER THERE! GET HIM!”

The person staring down at her spun his head around to look behind his shoulders in the direction of the yelling voices. With jerky, anxious movements, he propelled himself off of her and climbed to his feet in an instant. Bai Qian was about to stop him, but wasn’t fast enough. That nimble body had already sprinted away and disappeared into the crowd.

“DON’T LET HIM GET AWAY!” The group giving chase finally appeared before her. She could only get a brief look at them as they dashed past. Three stocky males, faces blackened with rage, whipping their heads around.

The so-called thief they’re chasing after, was it that person?

Still sitting on the ground, Bai Qian gawked as their shadows also vanished into the crowd, going in the same direction as their target. She had to shake her head a few times to snap herself out of shock.

What exactly had she just seen?

That person… The one who had just collided into her like a meteor and disappeared like a ghost, he had Yehua’s face—Moyuan’s face—their face! But he was only a boy. On the cusp of adolescence. If she had to guess, sixteen or seventeen at the most. Yehua’s incarnation was supposed to be a grown man in his midlife by now.

But if it wasn’t him… who else could it be? Who else would exist here with that face?

Bringing her hand up to rub the back of her head, Bai Qian could feel the goose egg forming at the spot where her scalp had met the ground earlier. Did I hit my head too hard? She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.

No.

She couldn’t have imagined it. No way… That striking resemblance—she couldn’t have imagined that either! Maybe Si Ming had given her the wrong information. Maybe something had erred.

She needed to find out.

Immediately, Bai Qian rose to her feet and concealed herself with magic as she launched into the air. To hell with the consequences, this was no time to waste running around on her feet. Using her divine sense, she tried to probe for that person with the traces of his essence that still lingered on her. When she found him, it was at a cross-section in a more sequestered part of town, about five streets over from where they had been.

Descending to the spot where his energy was most palpable, she arrived at a narrow alleyway, hidden from the main road.

In front of her, the three stocky men she had seen in pursuit earlier, now stood with their backs hunched over, staring down ruthlessly at a youth who had been forced into a corner of the wall. Still using her concealment spell, Bai Qian approached them, until she got close enough to take a good look. The youth was definitely the one from before who had ran into her. And his face—she had not imagined it.

Bai Qian studied him a while longer, noticing the things she had missed before. He was thin. So thin he looked like he hadn’t had a good meal in months. His clothes were tattered and dirty, face lined with dirt on the edges. But his countenance, and the way his dark eyes shined, it was all so familiar to her—features that were not of this world.

“Rotten scamp! You thought you could run from us!?” One of the men spat.

Roughly, he reached for the youth’s shoulders, slamming him hard against the wall. Bai Qian thought she heard a cracking sound, and the youth’s face contorted in pain. But willfully, he made no sound. He didn’t seem to want to fight back, or couldn’t fight back. He simply gritted his teeth and stared back at the men with a look of stubborn contempt.

“You must be tired of living to steal from me.” Another one of the three grabbed the youth by the collar of his shirt and struck the side of his face with the back of his hand. “You little shit!” More curse words flew through the cracks of his crooked front teeth.

The others egged him on. “Boss, you better give him a good beating. Teach him a lesson! Stupid brat!”

Another blow was delivered, this time, knocking the youth down on his side. Only then did Bai Qian notice the money pouch he was clutching in his hands. So he has stolen from them… It took her a minute of staring at those hands before an even more riveting realization struck her like thunder.

Two hands…

The youth had both his arms. All four limbs!

Again, it did not add up. Was this really not the Crown Prince?!

The man who had been robbed continued to give the boy a few more slaps and punches. Blood was now dripping from the corners of his mouth and the open crack in his lower lip. His left eye looked swollen from the punches, and he was starting to sway like he might pass out. When he finally did, the man threw his body down like a sack of potatoes and snatched the money pouch out of those slackened hands.

Bai Qian was still staring at the youth’s face in befuddlement. Unable to reconcile in her mind what she was looking at—who she was looking at. It was too bizarre. Could it be that this person was actually just a mortal who bore a striking resemblance to the two sons of Father Immortal?

Was that even a possibility?

Or… what if Mother Immortal actually had triplets… instead of twins?!

Bai Qian wanted to slap herself. Are you stupid? What kind of crazy idea was that?

So she went back to the previous. She had heard of stories of mortals who had been crafted in mirror image of each other—whether by chance or by the whim of some Star Lord. But for a mortal to look identical to a god?

Well, that was unheard of. But was it out of the question?

“Boss, what should we do with him?” One of the men asked, his foot kicking the youth’s limp body on the ground.

The one considered their leader was still checking through the contents of his money pouch. When he was done, he glanced up and said flatly, “Get rid of him. Dirt like that doesn’t need to keep living.”

The other two snickered before nodding their heads in agreement. One of them yanked the youth up by the hair, instantly bringing him back to consciousness. He let out a groan and tried to fight back, which only provoked the man to yank him up harder.

“Actually boss,” the other one said, grasping onto the boy’s chin to wrench his head up. “This brat’s got a pretty good face...” After a pause, he took his other hand to snap off a few buttons on the youth’s shirt collar, flaying it open, as he added, “and look at this skin, it’s like a piece of jade!”

“Yeah, so?”

“Why don’t we sell him?”

“To whom? Who’d wanna buy a stinky brat?”

“A pretty boy like him would sell for a lot on the slave market!”

“Wait, what about that… Black Jade… Society… or whatever it’s called?” The third one chimed in.

“Black Jade what?”

Bai Qian’s ears perked up as well.

“You haven’t heard of it, Boss? That’s that new sect in town that’s been taking in members left and right. Old Man Yi told me the other day that all the traffickers have been dealing all their slaves to them these days. Who knows what shady stuff they’re up to, but if we get some gold for this vermin, who cares, right?”

Their leader considered the idea for a moment. Then his eyes flashed with a menacing speck of light as he walked over to the youth.

“That’s right.” Leaning down, he took his hand to caress the boy’s swollen cheek, examining it with feigned tenderness, before giving him another slap. “I guess you better thank your mother for giving you this sissy face, ‘cause it’s saving your life, scamp! Though it’s hard to say you’re gonna like living any more than death wherever you end up…” He smirked. “But don’t worry, this way you’ll be able to atone for your sins as a thief by making this Uncle some money!”

With that conclusion, the three broke out laughing like a horde of hyenas.

Now that the youth could see what was in store for him, he finally seemed to want to escape with all his might. Struggling against the man who had him in his grasp, he hollered, “Release me!”

The sound of his voice—one that she was far too acquainted with—managed to snap Bai Qian out of her daze. Seeing that his outburst was about to earn him another savage beating from the trio, she knew it was time for her to act. No matter his identity, she couldn’t just stand by and watch a kid be abused by these crooks.

Positioning herself beside the boy who was now crouched down bracing himself for his beating, she summoned her Jade Purity Fan in her hand and opened it up. Gesturing it forward, she casted a gust of energy that slivered out from the edges of the fan. The small ripple was not enough to kill, but enough to send the three other mortals backwards, their backs smashing into the brick wall on the opposing side of the alleyway.

“What—What the hell was that?!” The men groaned as they groveled on the ground in pain. Not seeing anyone around but the four of them, one of them shouted out, “Brat, was that you?!”

The leader of the pack knocked him over the back of the head. “Idiot! You think a worthless kid can do that to us?”

“I-I don’t know, Boss. M-Maybe he knows some mystic art or something!”

“Mystic art, my ass! Get the hell up!” The so-called Boss gave his subordinate a good kick, commanding him and the other one to grab the youth who was now trying to crawl up onto his feet to get away.

As the two ran forward, Bai Qian once again waved her fan, flinging them back harder this time. The force at which they struck the brick wall had caused it to crumble apart at the site of impact. And when the leader saw what had happened to them, his eyes looked like they were going to drop out. He then snapped his head back to look at the youth. “You… piece of trash! You dare pull this kinda stunt?! You’re really sick of living, aren’t you?!”

Lunging forward, he went to grab for the boy himself.

Bai Qian frowned. Still not giving up? This type of person was really too despicable. With a flick of her hand, the leader’s body levitated straight up into the air about twenty feet off the ground, where she held him still for a minute. By then, his face had paled as he started to squirm around with visible fear.

“Boss!” His cronies yelled out. “What’s happening? C-Could it be a ghost?!”

Finally, Bai Qian released him, letting him fall face-first to the ground.

“G-Ghost… It’s definitely a ghost!” The other two were shaking at this point as they hobbled over to their leader to flip him over. His face was a bloody mess, but he was evidently still alive. As he started coughing up his teeth, he slurred, “Let’s go! Get-Get me outta of here!” Petrified, the others propped him up on his feet and all stumbled about as they fled.

As soon as they were out of sight, Bai Qian removed her concealment spell and revealed herself. She turned to look at the youth, who was still sitting pressed up against the wall. She wasn’t sure if he had noticed her. His eyes were glazed over with a blank look, staring at the dirt ground as he wiped the blood from his mouth.

“You…” Bai Qian approached. When she stood directly in front of him, she squatted down. “Are you alright?”

The youth lifted his eyes. A slight glimmer of recognition flashed in them. He must have recalled that she was the one he had ran into on the street. As he stared at her, he hugged his knees to his chest. “Are… are you the ghost?”

Bai Qian had to chuckle. “I guess, something like that.”

The boy showed no reaction; neither fright nor interest. His eyes started to dull back to its blank state, as though not wanting to engage with her. Realizing that he was likely a bit shaken up and hurting from his injuries, Bai Qian decided it would be better to take a more nurturing approach. Pulling a handkerchief out from her sleeve, she rolled it up into a ball and reached out to dab the wound on his cheek.

The youth flinched away from her.

Looking at him, a knot formed in her chest. He simply felt too familiar. And even though he shared the same face as both brothers, Bai Qian was starting to notice now how much more his aura reminded her of her Master, than anyone else. The notion was baffling. Clearly, this wasn’t him. There was a much better chance that he was Yehua’s mortal incarnation, but even that seemed impossible now given the circumstances.

“It’s alright…” Bai Qian paused a moment, before reaching her hand out again. “I won’t hurt you. Tell me, where do you live? I’ll send you home.”

The youth didn’t respond. But this time, he did stay still, allowing her to clean his face.

“Don’t tell me you don’t have a home,” she remarked, gently dabbing the cut on his lip before moving down to his chin. “Where are your parents?”

Parents…

That’s it!

Bai Qian couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it. Could this be Yehua’s mortal offspring? That would explain the resemblance. Given his age and Zhao Ge’s predicted age, the idea was pretty plausible… Even Si Ming had mentioned that Zhao Ge likely had a family of his own by now.

Enlivened by what she thought to be a brilliant theory, Bai Qian grabbed the boy’s shoulders. “Are you by chance… a member of the Liu Family? Is your father’s name Liu Zhao Ge?!”

The youth pulled back stiffly and knocked her hands away. “I don’t have a father.” He glared.

This bratty teenager… Bai Qian suddenly had the urge to knock him over the head, but tried her best to respond to him with a gentle smile. He had to be Zhao Ge’s son. It was the option that made the most sense. But if that was the case, why would he deny it? Did something bad happen? Why was he estranged from his family? Maybe he got thrown out of the house for simply being a brat… But the image of Yehua being a heartless father was not very convincing.

Whatever the scenario, she knew the youth had to be lying to her. It was going to take a little more probing.

“Say…” she lowered her face down to meet his downcast eyes. “Are you hungry?”

Meekly, he bobbed his head.

“Come on.” She put her hand out in front of him, and signaled him to take it. “Let’s go. I’ll find you some food.”

The youth stared at her palm for while with a look of apprehension. He brought his arm to wrap around his rumbling stomach while he deliberated. Finally, he met her eyes again and nodded. But instead of taking her hand, he simply stood up and brushed himself off.

Bai Qian’s mouth twitched as she closed her palm and retracted her empty hand awkwardly.

Hmph… Not charming at all. No wonder they call you a stinky brat! Should at least be nice to people who offer to buy you food...

Being the magnanimous person that she was, Bai Qian decided to overlook his bad attitude and brought the youth to a decent restaurant in town. As they sat in front of a table filled to the brim with so much food you couldn’t even spot the tablecloth underneath it, his manner began to soften a bit. He ogled the items before him and swallowed a few mouthfuls of saliva, before turning to her with a skeptical look.

“What are you waiting for? Aren’t you hungry?” She picked up the set of chopsticks on the table and handed them to him. “Eat. It’s all yours.”

Pouring some of the wine she had ordered for herself into a cup, she began to sip on it.

With her nudging, the youth finally helped himself to the food. At first, he only picked up a few items from the plates in front of him and ate them slowly, but this speed gradually picked up. Soon, he was shoveling food into his mouth. Quietly watching him, Bai Qian was aware that this kid was probably worried he wasn’t going to have another chance to eat like this in years. And it was like watching a squirrel stock up for the winter. Her heart was being pinched by the sight.

He ate and ate. Until finally, his gaunt stomach looked like it was actually starting to protrude. Setting his chopsticks down, he tried to suppress a burp. The boy had managed to clear off most of the table, save for a few half-finished dishes, which he now stared at. As though at any moment he would pick his chopsticks back up and finish them off.

A moment later he turned to her. With a sincere expression, he said, “Thank you… Auntie.”

Bai Qian smiled back.

Then, she felt an itch in her ear.

Auntie?

The hell? She was a little offended. Do I really look like an Auntie? Sure, he was a teenager, but her appearance was still that of a young maiden. Not a day over thirty!

“Just Big Sis is fine.” She tried to swallow her pride. Extending her hand out, she stroked his head. “Did you have enough to eat? If not, Big Sis will get you more.”

The boy shook his head. Gratitude still beaming in his eyes, he finally cracked a slight smile. “No, it’s enough. Thank you, Big Sis.”

Suddenly, looking at him then, Bai Qian started to feel a very strange emotion.

His familiar face aside, she was starting to find he was really quite adorable. So much so that she wanted to give him a big hug right then and there. And for a fleeting minute, for whatever reason, she had let her mind wander elsewhere… And it had gone straight to pondering if perhaps a certain God of War might have looked like this in his youth.

“Ah.” Bai Qian tried to shake away the thought by changing the subject. “What’s your name?”

Seeing that her cup of wine was empty, the boy quickly picked up the jug on the table and filled it. He then politely handed it to her. “My name is Shu Long (束龙).”

“Shu Long” Bai Qian repeated, accepting his offer with a smile. Now he was behaving like a good kid. “That’s an interesting name…” Conveniently, Bai Qian felt it was probably a good time to start looping the conversation back to his parentage again. “Which one of your family members named you?”

The youth didn’t answer her, instead he grabbed his stomach and scrunched his face.

“What’s the matter?” she asked.

“Big Sis, I think I ate too much. My stomach hurts. I… I gotta go use the restroom.”

“Alright, go then.”

“Wait for me, Big Sis. I’ll be right back.”

Bai Qian nodded. She had to hold in a laugh. If he ate that much and didn’t get a stomach ache, that’d be a miracle. Once he had disappeared around the corner, she shook her head and picked up her wine. While he was away, she needed to come up with a plan. She was sure he was Yehua’s mortal offspring, and just needed to confirm it somehow. The best way would be to just take him straight to Zhao Ge’s residence. She had the address Si Ming had given her. And she was planning to go there to check things out anyway. Maybe this was fate. If they were a pair of estranged father and son, she could help mend their relationship.

As she mulled over the subject, her mind felt more at ease. Then, she realized, she had been sitting there waiting for the kid to come back for a while. It had to have been over an incense stick’s worth of time. Why wasn’t he back yet? He couldn’t have that bad of a stomach ache…

How long was he planning to sit on the toilet for? Bai Qian craned her neck around to look toward the direction he had gone in.

She scanned around the restaurant.

No sign of him.

By now, one of the waiters was approaching with a look of annoyance. “Miss, are you finished with your meal? May I clear the table?” he asked, and before she had a chance to answer, he had already started stacking the plates.

“Ah, just a moment… I’m still waiting for my friend.” She gestured to the empty seat beside her. “He’s just using the restroom.”

“Oh, that young man that was with you?”

“Yes.” Bai Qian nodded.

“He left.”

“EH?!” Her hand slammed on the table. “Are you sure?!”

The waiter looked at her indifferently. “Yep, walked out the door a while ago.”

No way. That stinky brat! He had actually left her. Bai Qian’s blood was boiling. After she had saved his life. After she had fed him all that food and treated him with kindness. The nerve of him…

Not sparing another second, she immediately got up and spun toward the door.

“Ah-ah! Stop right there, Miss! Aren’t you forgetting something?” The waiter barked after her.

When Bai Qian turned around and saw the demanding look in his eyes, she realized she had forgotten to pay. Giving him a look of apology, she began to dig in her sleeve for her money pouch. After digging for a while, she started to sweat. Where is it? She checked her chest pocket. Nothing there either. It couldn’t be…

Wait. She checked her sleeve again, and then her other sleeve—nearly tearing her clothes apart. Not only was her money pouch missing, the Jade Purity Fan was gone too!

“BRAT!”

That thief! All composure fled. Bai Qian was about to puke out blood. It didn’t matter if he was the Crown Prince’s kid, or the Crown Prince himself at this point. If I catch that little scoundrel, I am absolutely going to beat him senseless!

“Well?” The waiter was now holding his palm out and tapping his foot at her. It had to be clear to him what had happened, but of course he wasn’t going to let her off the hook. From across the restaurant, another man came to join him. Looking at the way he was dressed and the vicious look on his face, Bai Qian figured he had to be the owner.

“What’s the matter over here?” he asked.

“She hasn’t paid, Sir.”

“Why?” He eyed her up and down with a lewd expression. “You don’t have any money, Miss?” He twirled a corner of his mustache with one finger as he came closer to her. “Maybe you can pay by some other method then…”

Bai Qian rolled her eyes in disgust. She was just beginning to feel guilty for not being able to give payment for all this food, but now all the remorse had been washed away. She had no time to deal with the likes of these people. Before another peep came out of either one them, she waved her sleeve over their faces and conjured a quick forgetting spell. Just enough to confuse them. When she finished, the two men simply stood scratching their heads, wondering why they were huddled there in the first place.

Bai Qian walked out of the restaurant and tried to use her energy to search for her fan. That should also lead her to Shu Long. But it was absurd! How was it that this kid was actually able to steal her Jade Purity Fan in the first place? Normally, if someone else were to even touch it in her presence, the fan would automatically fight back and attach itself to her.

It was a known fact: that fan only responded to her. And one other person—its creator.

Not some stinky brat!