Fanfiction: Ink in Water - Chapter 20 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 20. Mirrors are always made in pairs

written by kakashi & Bunny
edited by LalaLoop

It was the strangest thing. As if it was in no mood to be found by her, the Jade Purity Fan signaled its presence only erratically. Whenever Bai Qian was beginning to feel confident she was near her most valuable object and could finally retrieve it from that stinking, thieving brat, Shu Long, its presence disappeared like a candle that was snuffed out, leaving her lost and increasingly cranky in the slowly gathering darkness.


Yes, she was lost.

Bad with directions at the best of times, this dwelling’s twisting streets and countless alleys was no less complicated than a labyrinth created by the God of Mazes himself.

Once she found herself in a part of town that was elevated, affording her a good view of the spread of houses below, that filled her with some relief. If she had come from down there somewhere, and everybody knew that going back down was easy – she just had to be like a rolling ball, letting herself be guided by the downhill pull. Only, once she had walked down a short distance, the street suddenly curved up again on the other side with no other route to take. Making a left turn and then a right, after a while, she simply found herself on yet another hill, which looked exactly like the first.

Frustrated, Bai Qian kicked a stone that happened to be lying about and watched it wobble and roll downwards until it crashed against a wall. To be betrayed by the Kunlun Fan like this! It just went to another willingly and stayed there! What had she done wrong to deserve it? It couldn’t be because she had argued with Green Eyes, could it? Although, how could she not have? It was he who had arm-twisted her into this mess after all.

No, not only him.

Perhaps, it is a good idea, her Shifu had said. And here she was, miserable, lost, and alone because of it.

But why was she even upset? It was not unheard of that jealous spouses lived with their oblivious other half during the entire duration of a trial. As the future Crown Princess one could actually consider it her duty to check on her soon-to-be husband, especially since Yehua was taking longer than expected to return.

Recalling the entire conversation at Kunlun, Bai Qian cringed in mortification. Had she really asked her Shifu whether he wished for her to visit the Mortal Realm? No wonder he had seemed so annoyed. It was more than clear he had much more important things to do than help her understand why the thought of getting married made her want to run far, far away!

My Shifu will be my brother-in-law, Bai Qian marveled. Can I continue to call him Shifu then?
She tried to imagine a family dinner, but failed. She couldn’t even imagine the two brothers in the same room together. All her mind managed to conjure up were multiple Shifus, all looking at her with displeasure and coldness.

The detour of her thoughts had led her trotting down the street aimlessly without a plan, and when she finally looked up again, the scene had changed entirely. The street was suddenly much more narrow than she remembered. Although the moon stayed in the same exact spot in the sky, it looked undoubtedly, a little dimmer than before. Looking down the length of the road ahead, she couldn’t quite see where it ended. But her eyes did not miss the rows of debris and garbage that were piled up on either side. It was their odor that now rose and to assault every olfactory gland she possessed. Bai Qian had to bring a hand up to cover half her face.

What kind of shoddy neighborhood was this? Do people actually live here?

Where to now?

Bai Qian’s free hand migrated upward to scratch the side of her head. Then, it paused. She was surprised to notice a small child darting from the shadows ahead of her. The sight struck her as strange because the street was utterly deserted, there was no need to hide. “Ah, she must be playing hide and seek,” Bai Qian murmured upon a brief reflection, before quickening her steps to catch up with the little girl. She hadn’t met anybody in hours and small children sometimes knew the way, didn’t they?

But what was a child doing alone in these parts…?

“Little g…,” she called out, but just like a mouse running from a cat, the child looked over its shoulder, sped up, suddenly swerved to the left and was gone.

Frowning, Bai Qian approached the spot where she had last seen the child. There was a large pile of rubble and wood from where parts of a house had caved in, but no entrance. Just a decapitated stone head, poking its way out. Muscular, wrathful, mouth open… which god’s temple had been abandoned to this extent? Had the girl disappeared into this ruin? Bai Qian strained her senses to the utmost and indeed, she could hear movement inside, hushed voices, somebody’s muffled crying.

Throwing a concealment spell over herself, she flew up and over the wall. Perching upon the roof, she peered down at the dark courtyard below.

“Did somebody follow you?” Bai Qian spotted the little girl she had seen on the street being questioned by a slightly bigger girl. Both were dressed in nothing better than rags, their hair dirty and shaggy, their faces cut and weathered despite their tender age.

“No,” the first girl chirped, “he couldn’t have, he was too slow.”

“Shhhhhh,” a boy, who looked to be their companion, said from the shadows, “be very still, we have to make sure.”

They all held their breaths in unison, keeping their heads slightly cocked to check for the telltale sounds of an adult sneaking around outside the walls of their hideout. When not a peep was heard, they let out a huge sigh.

“Be more careful, dammit,” the boy scolded the tiny girl, “this is already the third time this month we are almost discovered!”

“But Da-Ge…,” the little girl whimpered.

“Quiet!” he barked at her. “Pull your head out of the clouds for once!”

Bai Qian flinched when a baby started wailing.

“Quiet down, the three of you! You’ve woken up Ping’er with your shouting!” came another voice from the shadows and forward stepped a third girl, maybe fourteen years of age. For a moment, Bai Qian thought she recognized her, she looked strangely familiar - but that was impossible, why should she know a beggar girl from a mortal world? She had slightly slitted, expressive eyes and quite remarkably, her skin was in much better condition than the other girls’, glowing in the darkness like a rare jade.

Jade Skin looked at the boy angrily as she rocked the crying bundle in her arms back and forth. “Do you know how long it took me to get him to sleep!?”

“Is he still fevered?” said the boy in a softer voice this time. He was limping heavily, his crippled right leg was dragging behind him in the dust, and there was an ugly knife scar running from his right eye down to the corner of his mouth.

“It is not getting any better,” said Jade Skin, her voice heavy with sadness. Bai Qian’s heart contracted in sympathy. These were children afterall... and yet their lives were evidently filled with so many burdens. Her eyes shot up at the sky with a look of contempt. It didn’t matter that they were simply doing their job, she wanted to curse those smug Star Lords and their crummy Scrolls of Fate.

“I’M BACK!” a triumphant voice suddenly rang out from the direction of the rubble wall. “Little Monkeys, come out here!”

“Da-Ge!” the children cried out at once and ran towards the newly arrived boy like a flock of baby birds gathering toward their mother.

The thief! Bai Qian thought triumphantly when she recognized Shu Long’s haggard and beat up face, I came to the right place after all!

“Here,” Shu Long said to the other children, “take these.”

He handed them bag after bag, which he must have dragged through the hole with him, so many Bai Qian wondered how he had managed to carry them all by himself.

“Da-Ge, you brought so much food!” one little girl shouted out, sniffing back tears of joy as she pulled out a slightly squashed mantou from one of the packages.

“I got lucky today,” he smiled at her. “Don’t eat too fast, Lin’er, you’ll get a stomach ache.”

“What happened to your face?” Jade Skin exclaimed in shock and stepped up to him to touch the wound on his swollen cheek.

“The getting lucky part took a while,” he replied and quickly took the baby from her arms. “I bought medicine for Ping’er. And for you too, Lian Lian. Let’s hope we can finally get rid of your cough.”

“Thank you, Da-Ge. Thank you so much. Please don’t put yourself in danger anymore, please.”

But Shu Long was no longer listening. He was making cooing noises at the baby now, tickling its nose. The little bundle quieted down almost immediately, holding on to one of his fingers with its pudgy fist. Everybody’s spirit seemed lifted. Shu Long had them light some torches and then helped distribute what he had brought amongst them, not taking anything for himself, but watching their glee with a faint smile on his haggard face, while giving a bottle of milk infused with medicine to the infant in his arm.

Is he the father of this baby? Bai Qian wondered, observing the scene in front of her, I suppose he’s old enough… that Jade Skin girl… could she be the mother? She does make moony eyes at him…

When all the kids had eaten and were curled up sleeping in various corners of the run down temple, Shu Long heaved a sigh and sat down heavily, leaning his head against a wooden pillar. He stretched his limbs and rolled his shoulders with a grimace. This kid... Bai Qian sighed along with him. He must still be in pain from the beating earlier, but did not want to discomfort the little ones. Witnessing the good that had come from what he had pillaged from her, she had long forgiven him.

Only, she was shaken out of these tender thoughts the moment her Jade Purity Fan made an appearance in his hands. How could she have forgotten? Her Fan!

“So much trouble for this... cheap looking, gaudy thing,” he grumbled, turning the fan a few times over, examining it from all sides. “Am I even gonna get any money for it at the pawn shop?” He tossed it up in the air before catching it again in his palm, letting his fingers run across the jade carvings on the side. “And this scrappy stone… probably isn’t even real. Should I give it to Yin’er... or throw it away?”

Cheap looking? Bai Qian’s entire aura darkened. Gaudy? Her Shifu would probably cry if he heard.

“Give it back to me this very instance, you STINKY BRAT!” Lifting her invisibility spell, her figure flashed before him. “You can’t even appreciate a treasure when you see it!”

The moment he looked up at her, Shu Long’s skin shifted to a shade so pale, it looked translucent in the light of the only torch that was still burning near him. Scrambling to his knees, he dropped the Fan and bowed as low as he could. What on earth was he muttering? Bai Qian stepped closer and realized it was a warding mantra, one used to guard against the evil influence of demons and ghouls.

From Auntie to Demon in one day! What a miscreant!

She stretched out her hand demandingly and finally, the Fan came to its senses and came flying forward, though slowly and reluctantly, as though it regretted having to return to its true owner. When it came into her hand, it vibrated strangely and then stopped completely, making her look at it with a troubled frown. Could it be broken? This old thing… when has it ever acted up like this? She would definitely need to give it to her Shifu the moment she returned to Kunlun to have him take a look at it.

“Please spare us, please!” The boy whimpered into the dirt; he was still hunched over bowing to her. “I did not know you’re a Demon, or I would never have stolen from you.”

“I am obviously not a Demon,” Bai Qian said, cocking her chin, “do you think Demons look as pleasing as me?”

He peered up at her cautiously. “A… Deity? Please, Deity, do not hurt the children, please!” Shu Long pushed himself up onto his knees and fell forward once more, kowtowing deeply. And again.

And again...

“Hey! Don’t do that,” Bai Qian pressed out. She stared at him and felt her face was heating up. “Stop it!”

It certainly wasn’t the first time she had received worship from a mortal, their kind were gods after all. But this instance was making her a bit discombobulated. It was the eyes on this boy – eyes so eerily like her Shifu’s…

“STOP!” she said more sharply as he kept on going, and he finally did as commanded, quivering in front of her like a leaf in the autumn wind. “I won’t hurt anyone,” she told him, making the sternest face she could muster. “But you… you cannot steal from just anybody! Actually, you shouldn’t be stealing at all! You…”

But what would these children do once winter arrived? What if Shu Long didn’t get lucky one day, worse even, got unlucky, like mortals were doomed to be? What if… if he is Yehua’s child, Bai Qian suddenly thought with some hope, I will just have to bring estranged father and son together and all will be well. Maybe Yehua can be persuaded to take in the other ones too and care for them? I will have to find him right away.

“Shu Long,” she addressed the boy, “do you know where the Liu Manor is?” Of course the boy knew where his family lived, but he had already denied having a father to her, so she had to get the information she needed some other way. Maybe Yehua had disowned him after he had gotten such a young girl pregnant? It was likely. She would have to be persuasive.

“Y… yes, Deity,” the boy stammered, “there isn’t anybody in this town who doesn’t.”

“Describe the way. Slowly.”

She had him repeat the information until she was certain she would be able to find it. Quite satisfied with herself, Bai Qian turned to leave with a nod. Her foot had barely lifted when a hand shot forward to grab her ankle.

She stopped and looked down. “What is it?”

Shu Long, whose fingers were now pinching the hem of her robe, moved the corners of his lips but did not answer.

“Speak. Is there something you need?”

“I…” Lowering his head, the boy’s face took on an expression of hope mixed with shame. “Kind Deity, please... take me as your disciple,” he begged.

What? She stared at the boy’s back and shuddered when he started kowtowing to her again.

“I said to stop this!” she exclaimed and impulsively threw a sleeping spell on him, not knowing how else to put an end to this enervating business. Shu Long sprawled into the dirt face down and stayed there immobile. It looked rather uncomfortable and Bai Qian was pondering whether to move him, when she heard a sound behind her.

Swiveling around, she caught sight of a pair of eyes. Two slits that glowed amongst the shadows. For a moment, she couldn’t quite tell who or what they belonged to. But once her vision adjusted, the small face housing them came into view. Jade Skin was sitting up from her makeshift bed in the one corner of the temple. Noticing Bai Qian’s presence, the little girl showed neither an expression of fear nor shock. Still as water, were those arresting snake-like eyes that even a god would be envious of, staring straight ahead. Eyes that were eerily familiar… and full of hate.

Bai Qian had seen them before.

A long time ago, it had been. But the memory was hard to erase.

She was about to approach the girl, when quickly, Jade Skin blinked a few times and settled back down in a lying position, pulling a tattered blanket over herself.

Had the little girl woken up and thought she was dreaming?

After staring at that still figure on the ground a moment longer, Bai Qian turned herself back around. Maybe I’m the one who’s dreaming… She shook her head. Clearly, the girl was a mere mortal, and yet... why was she suddenly reminded of that woman?


A few hours later, Bai Qian was peeking over a wall at the local magistrate’s residence.

But what could she see? Nothing. It had to be the hour of the pig by now and it was pitch-black with no moon in the sky. Not even a single lantern to light up the side street she had wandered into.

Not too long ago she had found the Liu Manor, as described by that kowtowing brat, but had had to learn from a sleepy-eyed and increasingly red-faced housekeeper that young master Zhao Ge was no longer living there, he had taken office as the local magistrate, didn’t everybody know this, and how dare she disturb them this late at night?

She hadn’t known, but she could have expected it.

Si Ming had told her mortal Yehua was well into his fifties by now, and it seemed he had found success early in age and left his parents home a while ago to go his own way. It was no surprise that his mortal self had embraced independence when an opportunity presented itself, since the Crown Prince of the Heavens had not been allowed to stray one inch from the path set out for him since the day he was born.

It was late and normally, this Zhao Ge business could have waited until the morning, but Bai Qian couldn’t quite shake an ominous feeling as she kept seeing Shu Long’s still face in the dirt in her mind’s eye. Better hasten this father-son reunion, she had decided. Be done and over with it and return to Kunlun, so she could apologize to her Shifu and ask him to fix her Jade Purity Fan. That was of utmost importance.

Alas, she had knocked for quite a long time at this mansion’s front gate, but nobody had been roused from sleep by her persistence, so she was kept waiting and fidgeting in her eagerness to kill two birds with one stone: Find mortal Yehua and save some lost, hungry souls.

But enough waiting. It was time to take matters into her own hands.

Stepping onto a short ledge, her head was finally above the wall. All she could see was a dark courtyard and an even darker house. Actually, it looked abandoned - not even a single light greeted her eyes. She was just about to start scaling the wall when a hand grabbed ahold of her ankle and a voice said: “I don’t think so.”


With a surprised yelp, she let go of the brick she had grabbed onto earlier to pull herself up, and instantly toppled backwards. Awkwardly, whoever had sneaked up on her tried to twist away, but it was too late to escape this calamity. They both fell to the ground. She on top of him.

“S...sorry,” Bai Qian said, rubbing her forehead that she had hit against his, trying to scramble up and make a quick disappearance.

“Hold it,” the man said and with a strong arm, he caught her by the waist and pulled her back. Not only that, he managed to swivel her around and pin her down with his weight quite brutally, moving his arm up and across her throat.

“Ouch,” she gurgled right before her air supply was cut off.

“You’re… a woman?” he exclaimed in surprise. The next moment, she could breathe freely again as he shifted his weight and rolled off her. Decidedly, too many strange men have come into very close contact with her today. Bai Qian huffed as she sat up to dust her clothes off.

“What of it,” she scoffed and squinted, yet unable to see his face.

“Do they use women to do their dirty work now?” the stranger asked coldly. “Or are you one of them.”

“One of… what are you saying?”

“I will have you put in prison tonight. You can plead your case in court tomorrow,” he said and pulled at her arm to get her to stand up.

“Not going anywhere!” she yelled, trying to kick him and shake his grip, but he held on with no fear nor mercy. “Who do you think you are, Mister? Sneaking around at night scaring innocent citizens...”

“I do wish to hear your definition of innocent. Did I not catch you trying to break into this house?” he asked.

“No!” she defended herself, “I was just trying to see the magistrate! I knocked for hours on the front gate, but his servants must be deaf!”

“Ah?” he sounded amused. He was starting to say something else when a commotion started not too far from them, shouts and feet running hither and thither.

“Master!” somebody shouted from inside the wall, “Master, where are you?”

“I am here!” the stranger beside her replied, lifting his head.

“We almost caught the assassin!” came the answer, now closer, “we are giving chase right now. He had gotten very close to the house, but then he tripped over one of the trap ropes!”

“Good work,” said the man who still held her arm tightly, “sound the alarm and rouse the others, quickly!”

“Yes, Master!”

What followed were the sound of feet running away and commands being shouted. Bai Qian had listened to the exchange with mounting annoyance. Assassin? Did this man really think she was an assassin?

“Can you let go now?” she asked and shook her arm for emphasis.

“Did you not hear?” he answered curtly and only gripped it harder, “there was an assassination attempt. Tonight is the worst night to be caught trying to scale over my walls.”

His walls?

“Are you… Zhao Ge, the Magistrate?” Bai Qian asked, moving her face closer to his once again for confirmation… but too close because she bumped her forehead against his again. With an annoyed “tsk”, he pushed her away from himself with his arm. His.. one…

“It is you!” she shouted out, “you only have one arm!” She pointed to it.

“What of it,” he frowned, echoing her earlier comment as he started pulling her towards the main street.

“I have a very important message for you!” she said, quite spellbound by the handsome and familiar face that now slowly appeared in the air above her own as it became touched by the light of the lanterns hanging overhead. Familiar, yet different. A man no longer young, with fine lines around his eyes, a touch of bitterness around the mouth, and grey hair taking over the black in his beard.

“A message?” he asked warily and turned his head to look at her for the first time.

The moment he beheld her face, Zhao Ge froze. His hand pinching the crook of her elbow fell a little slack. Bai Qian was too startled by his sudden lack of movement to do anything else other than stare back at him, equally wide-eyed. He doesn’t remember you, she recalled, he cannot.

“Have we…,” Zhao Ge began haltingly. Bai Qian held her breath. But “No,” he added, shaking his head vigorously, bringing life back to his body, “I must be mistaken.”

And he continued dragging her forward by her arm, no longer looking at her at all. His ruthless demeanor resumed as though the moment prior never occurred.

“Hey,” she complained, “Mister, listen to my message!”

“You have about five minutes to deliver it,” Zhao Ge said.


“That’s the time it takes to walk from here to the prison,” he said.

What? He was really going to… “NO!” she shouted, digging her heels into the ground, “Mister, stop!”

He did stop, but he looked very annoyed and not at all like he was going to let her go anytime soon.

“Look. It’s about your son,” she said breathlessly, waiting for the change in his demeanor. He should be happy to get word… right?

“Son?” Zhao Ge furrowed his brow. It was not the reaction she had expected, but it was quite astonishing how much he looked like her Shifu in his displeasure, the facial hair making them look even more alike.

“Yes,” she hastened to explain, “I know you must think it is a shame to have a child out of wedlock, but let me assure you, the Gods don’t frown upon it as much as you might think.”

“What… what are you implying?” he asked, dark eyes dancing with anger.

“He… I think you should allow him back into your house,” she declared, thinking those eyes very fine, “he is having such a hard time... and with all the other children he is taking care of—”

“I do not have a son,” mortal Yehua informed her icily, “my... wife... died childless and there has never been another. You have stolen enough of my time!”

He’s really been married... Bai Qian was momentarily speechless this time as she was dragged forward mercilessly again. The thought came with a strange feeling Bai Qian couldn’t quite place. Of course she was glad he had not been all alone during his trial. Obviously. She was even a little sad to know now that he had to experience the hardship of being a widower. But… why did she not like the thought of him marrying another woman, even if it was just during a mortal trial?

Caught up musing over her conflicting feelings, before she knew it, they had reached the prison next to his house without another word spoken between them.

“I think she is a bit muddle headed,” was what Zhao Ge informed the prison guard as he handed her over, “or else very well versed in deception. Lock her up in a free cell and I will hear her case tomorrow.”

Before he turned to leave, he looked at her wordlessly one last time. His eyes lingered on her face, as if he was trying once again to place her. There was a look of question there, an inner struggle that told her he would not sleep well that night. But her words had dried out - she had no comfort to offer him.

An uncomfortable feeling had taken root in her stomach.

A torturous question in her own mind.

If not this man’s son… who was Shu Long then?

Chapter 21