Fanfiction: Moyuan and Bai Qian, Book 2 - Chapter 6, Part 1 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 6 - The Realm of Trials

Part 1

written by LalaLoop
consulting by Bunny
editing by kakashi


The mortal teahouse they were sitting in seemed to be the sort that existed to serve scholars and officials across the city, and therefore was a lot more quiet than the ones Bai Qian had been to during the past few weeks. Walking in here with Moyuan, she had seen students in groups of five or seven, dressed in plain colored robes, discussing their newly learned lessons in quiet tone. A few people standing at their table, making elegant ink strokes on paper, occasionally pausing to take sips of their tea or wine. Something that sounded like a riddle contest was being held in a corner. A father teaching his young son how to read the words on a painting on the wall.

On the second floor, each table occupied a space that was easily as large as a whole room. Bai Qian had chosen a table on the second story near the balcony, which allowed her the pleasure of observing the capital city’s activities in the morning.

“Your tea,” said the waiter, placing down a tray with a smoking pot and cups in front of them. “Miss,” he set her cup down gently. “And... “

It was silent for a moment. Bai Qian turned to the waiter just in time to see his jaw drop, eyes dead set on Moyuan and looking as though he was about to faint. It was a young man with a friendly face and, like everyone else in this place, he was very properly dressed.

Da-shu!”[1] he cried, successful in getting both her and Moyuan’s attention.

“Da-shu, It’s me,” he pressed on, looking overwhelmed. “It’s… You -- you bought me a scroll and a brush!”

Moyuan’s brows slightly came together. Though another brief surveying look at the waiter’s hopeful face and it seemed he remembered something.

“Xiaocheng?”

“Yes!” the young man lit up with happiness. “I can’t believe it’s been more than ten years. Sir, you -- you haven’t changed at all!”

“I am glad you remember me,” said Moyuan. ”And I see you are no longer the boy in the bookhouse ten years ago.” Turning to Bai Qian, he continued, “this is Xiaocheng. I met him when he was seven.”

The waiter politely dipped his head, Bai Qian nodded back, still feeling like she was missing something. Why was this man talking to Moyuan as if he was some kind of savior? But she patiently listened as they continued.

“Sir, where have you been all this time?” said Xiaocheng. “Do you live here now?”

“I do not. I am here on business. I will return to my hometown shortly afterward.”

“I see. And -- er -- are you still teaching? Are you still Headmaster of that school in that far away village you told me about?”

“Your memory is impressive. Yes, I still work there.”

An embarrassed smile broke across Xiaocheng’s face. “I remember what you told me. Everything. I haven’t stolen a single scroll since that day.”

“That is very good to hear,” Moyuan chuckled.

“Why would you steal a scroll?” Bai Qian asked, unable to keep up with them.

“Oh,” the young man turned to her. “How — how should I address you?”

“My surname is Bai,” she replied.

“Miss Bai. Are you...” he stumbled, seemingly in need of more information as to who she was. “What is your…”

Bai Qian took a sip of her tea, glanced at Moyuan who looked like he was about to say something, and smirked to herself, “I run the school with him.”

Xiaocheng opened his mouth and took in a gulp of air, looking as though he was wanting to shout out more questions, but could not form them quick enough.

“Is… that it!” he exclaimed at last, and bowed again. From the corner of her eyes, Bai Qian caught sight of Moyuan bringing his tea cup to his lips, head shaking a fraction to each side hopelessly. “My respect to you.” Xiaocheng continued. “Well,” he cleared his throat, looking uneasy but eager still, “the truth is, when I was seven, I wanted a new scroll to write on but I didn’t have enough coins so — so I tried to steal one from the local bookhouse. Da-shu,” he turned to Moyuan, “he stopped me - thankfully, because the punishment for theft in this city is severe - and he gave me some coins to get that scroll I wanted and a new brush.”

There was a look on Xiaocheng’s face that made Bai Qian believe he had also received a lecture from Moyuan before the coins. She nodded. “I see. Are you still studying?”

“Yes,” his head bobbed eagerly. “In fact, I’m going to take the Imperial Examination this year.”

“Is that so?” Bai Qian smiled.

“We wish you the best of luck, Xiaocheng,” said Moyuan.

“Thank you, Da-shu. And now that you’re here,” he looked back and forth between them. “I hope you won’t miss the Lantern Festival.”

“Lantern Festival?” said Bai Qian excitedly. “Is it that time of year already?”

“Well… yes, Miss,” he gave her a curious look.

Realizing that she might have just slipped out something no one who lived in the mortal realm would say, Bai Qian quickly corrected herself, “I -- er -- I’ve been too busy I forgot about it.”

“Oh, of course, of course, it happens to us all. Yes, the Lantern Festival is only two days away. I shall leave you to your tea. If you need anything else, please let me know.”

Standing up, Xiaocheng bowed deeply to them both and walked away, though still looking as though he wished he could talk to them more.

“Does he know your name, Shifu?” asked Bai Qian when he had left.

“I do not believe so,” smiled Moyuan.

Bai Qian shook her head, chuckling at the young man who was too happy that he’d forgotten to ask such an important thing.

With the overjoyed waiter gone, they went back to the conversation that had barely started. The last few weeks in the mortal realm had been so busy that they hadn’t found a chance to talk about anything at all in depth. They had visited many towns and spoken to both mortals and immortals who had been charged with guarding over a certain location about the incidents that they suspected were caused by dark magic, collecting information about where Luoji’s supporters had been and how active they were in spreading the news among each other.

Bai Qian found herself quite glad now that they could finally have a discussion about the individual that was the reason of this chaos to begin with. Though the first pierce of information from Moyuan had her gape at him in astonishment.

“A very important thing you should know about Luoji,” he said, “is that he is a Celestial. Or perhaps I should say, he is a Celestial by blood.”

“What exactly does that mean, Shifu?”

“Luoji was the son of a Celestial prince and a mortal woman. Yuan’er was the name his mother gave him when he was born.”

“So he was not always named Luoji,” Bai Qian frowned.

“No, that is the name he gave himself years later, before he attended his first school. Now, the union of the Celestial prince and the woman from the mortal realm was not tolerated by the Celestial family. You could guess their reaction when their son’s affair with this woman was made known. Unable to deny his relation to them and somehow touched by their son’s devotion to the child, they kept him in the Nine Heavens, but away from his mother, of course. With many princes and princesses and their children in the Nine Heavens, the royal family had no reason to want a child that was not born from an approved marriage.”

Bai Qian grimaced - knowing that this sort of prejudice existed did not stop her from feeling repulsed every time it was mentioned. For many people, the suffering in the Nine Heavens was no trial; there was no second chance to live again.

“Did the Celestials mistreat him?”

“They mistreated his mother, that much I know. And they certainly neglected him. During one of his brief visits to the Nine Heavens for education purposes, Lord Donghua caught glimpses of the boy. He was usually with a maid. Well groomed, proper, but strangely quiet. I suppose Luoji too did spend a good many years of his life putting up with unjust treatment from the royal family. After all, he has mortal blood in his veins and, in their eyes, is an unworthy being.”

Bai Qian scoffed loudly and shook her head.

“You are quite right,” said Moyuan, he picked up the tea pot and filled his cup once again, then did the same for her. “During Lord Donghua’s time, there were many improvements in the Nine Heavens concerning the treatment of mortals and other clans. But even Lord Donghua could not change what has been ingrained. Luoji grew up with a disgraced father and a mother who was condemned wherever she went. The mortal woman died of illness when Luoji was about 400 years old. Not too long afterward, his father was taken hostage and killed in a war. Without any more reasons to tolerate Luoji in the Nine Heavens, they sent him to the mortal realm to live in a small cottage with a maid as his guardian.”

“They should have sent him away with his mother the day he was born if they were going to do it in the end anyway,” said Bai Qian, unable to believe she was feeling a sort of sympathy for this immortal. But there it was. “At least then she would have been free to take care of him and everything would have been different.”

“I can’t disagree,” replied Moyuan. “Perhaps by the time his mother died, Luoji had been scarred and incurably misguided. In the mortal realm, unsatisfied with his situation, he left his guardian and went to seek apprenticeship. Penglai[2] was the first school he went to in his youth.”

“Penglai?” Bai Qian repeated, eyes wide. Now it was somewhat clear to her how this immortal had been able to achieve the powers he possessed - a strong foundation. Although not an institution built on top of a mountain with Divine energy and with a prestigious history like Kunlun, Penglai was among the best schools of Taoism and magic to which admittance, as far as she knew, was equally competitive as at Kunlun.

Moyuan nodded to her question.

“And — he never came to Kunlun?”

“No. As you know, Kunlun has always been closely associated with the Nine Heavens. We are not always friendly, but there’s certainly cooperation. As young as Luoji was, he was aware of this. I believe that above all, he wanted to stay away from anyone or any place that had too much to do with the royal family.”

“If he’s gone to school, that means he’s had guidance and friends. Penglai is a prestigious school of Taoism too, how could they not have any good influence on him? How could he still turn out like that?”

“He had guidance, yes. Friends? I’m not so sure. And I do not believe Luoji ever considered what he received at Penglai to be ‘guidance’, it was more or less necessary information to help him with his ultimate goal. Most of his classmates would describe him as hardworking, yet secretive with an unusually strong sense of self-importance. That being said, he took care never to commit any wrong during his school years. Always the proper and filial disciple he was expected to be.”

“You’ve spoken to Penglai’s disciples, Shifu?”

“After the first Demon war, we sought out as many people who used to know Luoji as we could. The old Master of Penglai had passed away by then but fortunately, Luoji’s Seniors were able to provide us with some information. Luoji ascended to Immortal rank at the age of 19,000, after which he left Penglai and began his long journey to gain power. He took on several occupations, offered his employment in exchange for mentorship from different immortals.”

“But why did he leave Penglai?” asked Bai Qian. “I would have thought that he’d want to stick around for more knowledge and skills considering the kind of education Penglai offers its disciples.”

“Ahh, but you must understand, someone like Luoji is always eager to move forward. At one point, even the education at Penglai was too slow for him. He could not wait until the old Masters thought he was ready for more, would not let his own ignorance in the true study of Immortality stop him from acquiring more magical powers.”

“Did Father Immortal know about Luoji?” she asked. “Did he know Luoji went to Penglai?”

“My father knew about him, yes,” Moyuan nodded. “And he was glad to learn that the old Master of Penglai had taken him in. Though the Luoji he met at the Nine Heavens and later at Penglai once or twice was a child who posed no threat. A child in need of a home - that was all he or anyone could say about Luoji at the time if they had not spent time with him.”

“Did they know what his intention was when he decided to leave Penglai? Did they have any idea what he could be capable of?”

“I learned that some of the disciples thought they were well rid of him. They found Luoji’s tendency to isolate himself to be off putting despite his excellence in many subjects and good manners for the most part.”

“They had good instinct then.”

“Indeed, even at a young age, I believe Luoji had harbored a desire to be notorious, to be superior, no matter how well he masked it. The thirst for domination along with his lack of understanding in many fields of magic except the ones he considered useful led him onto a path of forbidden curses and dangerous practices, anything that, according to him, would make him ‘better’.The Luoji we came to know during the Demon war was someone who had mastered different branches of magical studies and possessed ultimate combat skills. However, his invincibility did not come without price. The excessive use of dark magic altered his essence, making it appear to be almost Demonic. But it is something even worse than Demonic energy, it is a form of imbalance. Strong, even undefeatable Luoji might be in combat, but it takes a tremendous amount of effort to remain that way for someone like him.”

“So -- that’s why it’s problematic to say whether he’s a Celestial or not now.”

“Precisely. Not that it matters - it’s about how we identify ourselves. Do you understand this, Seventeenth?”

Bai Qian nodded, “he let others’ judgement define him.”

“Yes, much more than he should, which has always been Luoji’s trouble. He despises Celestials, yet just like his former family, he sets too much store by blood and lineage. And I doubt he considers himself associated with the mortal world, a realm too ‘lowly’ in his opinion. What he wants more than anything is recognition that he is superior. Hence, all the measures he has taken to satisfy his desire to be different.”

“I see,” said Bai Qian. “Even someone with that much power can have — insecurity. That’s what’s driven him - he needs assurance.”

Moyuan nodded. “One of the things that drive him. But keep in mind that this little issue with insecurity does not stop Luoji from being rather skillful in persuading others to join his cause. He knows how to find and exploit the weakness of people around him, either by magic or simply with his own judgement. By the dawn of the first Demon war, Luoji had assembled a powerful army of followers. Among them - Celestials, Demons, Foxes, Ghosts, and Immortals from many other clans. His spies were and and still are everywhere.”

“Celestials?”

“It isn’t that difficult to find Celestials who are displeased with the Nine Heavens. As Lord Donghua has mentioned, we managed to imprison a great number of them. Though some of the most dangerous ones escaped. They scattered to the eight realms and are always ready to answer his summon.”

“If Luoji’s supporters are so diverse in skill and intellect,” said Bai Qian in a low whisper, “then -- technically there’s no barrier he can’t cross. Each clan in the eight realms has its own secrets in magic and battle formation. Luoji’s people only need to take the right person and force the information out of them…”

“Technically, yes,” Moyuan replied. “But fortunately, the people who guard those informations on our side are usually well chosen.”

Bai Qian took a deep breath while Moyuan subsided into silence, indicating their ominous conversation about this Dark Immortal had ended. She looked down the balcony - a pair of children that looked like brother and sister were buying mantou[3] from a man on the other side of the street. Next to them, a group of older boys were unloading sacks of fruits and vegetables from their wagons. Further down, a seller of lanterns was dusting the colorful items hanging on his cart, occasionally turning around to answer questions from pedestrians. Peaceful and oblivious people who went about their day without an idea what was happening in the immortal realms. Bai Qian found herself so very jealous of them at the moment.


---


The sun was at its highest when they left the teahouse, though the spring air remained cool. The sky was clear with only a few streaks of white clouds drifting about.

“Are we going to one of Kunlun’s safehouses, Shifu?” asked Bai Qian.

“Yes,” said a Moyuan, eyes on his Kunlun pendant.

They had arrived at what looked like a shallow hill at the outskirts of the city. There were no more sounds of busy citizens rushing from one place to another or cartwheels on stony ground. It was quiet with only the occasional rustling of soft breezes through the grass below their feet. From where they were Bai Qian could spot several dwellings in the distance. The patch of green they were moving across, however, was quite empty.

“Although this is not one of the houses you and your Seniors would usually stay in on your trips to the mortal realm,” he continued. “It is a safehouse only a few know of.”

They kept on walking.

”Not a regular safehouse?” she said. “Does it require something other than a Kunlun pendant to enter this place?”

“It does,” Moyuan nodded and gestured at the group of tall trees they were approaching. “You need a particular spell to be let through the shield. I believe we are here.”

A narrow walkway appeared as they got closer to the trees, leading to the center of the copse, which, as Bai Qian had guessed, was another blank patch of green grass. As soon as the path ended, Moyuan held out the pendant he had been holding. Following what seemed to be a nonverbal incantation, a misty layer of shield erupted in front of them.

Bai Qian squinted, waiting for the mist to subside - in the center now stood a shape of a multiple-room abode with thatched roof, encircled by wooden fences and little tree shrubs. At the front was a small pavilion-like structure, underneath which were a stone table and stools.

“I will teach you this spell later,” Moyuan said quietly. “Let us go in.”

She felt his hand gently grasping hers as he guided her through the mist. Then, just as swiftly, he let go.

There was a little tweak. The little sprite, who had pretended to be immobile since morning, merrily removed itself from the real hair ornament Bai Qian was wearing and zoomed away from them, starting to examine the shrubs, possibly looking for berries.

The place was indeed large, Bai Qian took note as she and Moyuan entered the house, larger than any of the safehouses she had been to with her Seniors. There was more than just basic furniture and equipments. There was even a bookshelf in a corner and a weiqi board laying on a table. They went on to open all the windows. Specks of dust were flying about, glittering within rays of sunlight that were pouring into the room.

“Has any of my Seniors ever been here, Shifu?” asked Bai Qian. “You said only some people know of this place.”

“Your Second Senior comes here once in a while if he is on business for Kunlun, but not without my permission, of course. Zheyan and Lord Donghua also know of this house.”

Zheyan and Lord Donghua? Bai Qian fell quiet for a second. She knew there was one more person who had been as close to Moyuan as Zheyan and Donghua.

“Is there —” her voice came out unexpectedly low, “is there anyone else who knew… knows?”

“No,” he said. “No one else.”

Bai Qian nodded - she wasn’t certain how it would make a difference if the Demon Queen had known. Though the fact that there was someone who had warranted so much care and fondness from Moyuan had her curious still even if nothing about this woman could make a difference now.

“This house is large compared to the others,” she said after a while, lifting her head at the ceiling. “Back then, whenever my Seniors and I stayed at a safehouse, we’d usually have to play a game to decide who would get the bed --”

He responded with a soft laugh. “What kind of game?”

“Riddles,” she shrugged, grinning. “The fastest one to answer would be the winner.”

Bai Qian abruptly took her eyes off the ceiling and looked around.

During the past few weeks, they had mostly stayed at inns within the cities they had visited. She had gotten into the habit of just walking to a counter to talk to an innkeeper with Moyuan about lodging after a long day and having a custodian show her to her own room afterward, which had made her forget for a second that this was a house with no such service and that she should probably start exploring. Moving away from her spot, she took a few steps to where she had noticed a curtain of beads, behind which were the shape of a bed and some furniture. Though before she could ask any question, Moyuan directed her attention to the bookcase at the corner.

“Those are books on basic spells, some on Immortality study, I believe,” he said, gesturing at the wall, “that zither should still work if you would ever like to practice while we are here. The bedroom is that way;” he turned to where the bead curtain was. “A bit of dusting and it should be ready for you.”

For her? Bai Qian glanced around the house again. The only other thing she could see that was suitable for sleeping was a wooden structure near the door that sort of looked like a bed but was too narrow to pass for one.

“But…” she began slowly.

“It’s all right,” he smiled at her reluctance. “Zheyan, Lord Donghua, and I went to several safehouses during our school trips too. We also played games for the sleeping spot; and I did not always win.”

Bai Qian’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, though she could not stop herself from smiling back at him. She had nearly forgotten that a High God like him probably did not even bother about sleeping that much, nearly forgotten that she had seen Zheyan napping on a tree branch many times.

“We may need to get some food, Shifu, just in case,” she changed the subject, gesturing at the kitchen, and walked over to the nearest window to get a view of the place from inside.

“Do you plan to cook for us?” asked Moyuan with a smile full of suspicion.

“Of course not,” Bai Qian shook her head, chuckling, “I don’t hate you.”

His chuckle filled the room. For a moment, it was as if she had seen that smile that brightened his face in the painting of the meadow again.

“That is certainly an improvement,” he said. “But does this mean you expect me to cook if it’s ever needed?”

“If you know something, then it’s your responsibility to put the knowledge to good use,” Bai Qian said, trying her best to copy the solemness Moyuan would usually wear in class. “That was in one of your lectures.”

“Ahh, that is correct,” a smiled danced across his lips. “I believe you know how to clean dishes?”

“What?” she gawked at him, mouth ajar.

“I am no Changshan but I can absolutely try making food if it’s necessary, if you clean the dishes afterward.”

“That’s not fair!” she said in disbelief.

Moyuan tilted his head to look at her. “It isn’t? It is a rather small price to pay if you want to, as you’ve put it, run my school, wouldn’t you say?”

Bai Qian’s eyes rolled to the back of her head. Pragmatic, calculating, she mentally commented. Moyuan responded to the look on her face with yet another chuckle.

Well… Bai Qian giggled to herself and turned back to continue looking out the window, if her guess was correct, that chuckle certainly sounded like he would do the dishes too.

She heard his footsteps approaching. A few seconds later he was behind her at the window, hands resting beside hers on the wooden sill.

Was it too selfish of her to want to stay in this worriless world longer with him before they had to go back and busy themselves with endless battle plans and defense strategies? Bai Qian thought as she gazed upon the carpet of green in the distance.

Sliding her foot an inch backward, she closed the distance between them. Her back met with the warmth of his chest. Warmth that made the most frightening prospect of the future seem null.

Despite Luoji and his schemes for the days to come, despite a war that was lurking around the corner, the idea of a mortal Lantern Festival seemed rather incredible.

Chapter 6, Part 2

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[1] Da-shu (大叔): a polite form of address for a man who is about one’s father’s age
[2] Penglai (蓬莱): an island of immortals in Chinese mythology
[2] Mantou (馒头): Chinese steamed buns