Fanfiction: Ink in Water - Chapter 21 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 21. Day by day, the world feels more and more like a godless place

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

Year 312,990
(17,010 years before the Ghost War)


The sound of voices arguing in the Grand Hall of Kunlun was loud enough that Bai Qian could hear them even from her chamber near the back of the school. They were arguing about her.

Gripping the door handle, she shook it yet again, as she had been doing for the past hour, but it would not budge. Her First Senior had sealed it shut as soon as he had left her there. At this point, liquid frustration had managed its way up to the inner corners of her eyes. Her hand made a fist and drove itself pounding into the wooden door frame, only to earn a painful vibration that rattled back through her bones.

“Settle down in there, Seventeenth,” said an irritated voice right outside the door. “Haven’t you caused enough trouble?”

It was Zilan.

“Let me out, Sixteenth Senior!”

“Nope. Can’t,” he threw back. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Shifu is still out there negotiating with those Celestials trying to find a way to lessen your punishment. Be good for once!”

“But I didn’t do anything wrong!” she shouted through the cracks.

“You—”

“Senior, you were there as well, you saw what happened!”

“Of course, and I was the one who told you to not be rash about things, but you didn’t listen!”

Listen? Well… Bai Qian had never been particularly good at that.

Just one day ago, she had skipped yet another one of Moyuan’s lectures and left for an outing to the mortal realm with her Sixteenth Senior. The Mid-Autumn Festival was in full swing and the best opera troops were gathered in the Capital City performing renditions of a few popular plays. It was an event not to be missed, even for the gods. But skipping class wasn’t simply the reason for why she was currently being locked behind closed doors awaiting Celestial jurisdiction. Without a doubt, Bai Qian had done that enough times to know what the consequences were: a lecture from Diefeng, possibly no dinner from Changshan for a night, and a disapproving look or two from Moyuan. But this… this was the result of something slightly more dire.

“Senior, what do you suppose I should have done differently?!” she retorted. “You know I can’t turn a blind eye to that sort of thing—the man was a criminal! Why do we have godly powers if not to uphold justice when needed?”

“Oh, so now you wanna argue about justice.” The scoff on the other side of the door could not be missed. “Seventeenth, you’ve really done it this time. You know what the laws of our universe are, they exist to maintain balance throughout the realms. Immortals are not allowed to tamper with mortal lives. It doesn’t matter what that man did, you were in no position to stop him, let alone take his life for it!”

“But…” Bai Qian couldn’t quite find the words to argue with. The truth was, she didn’t mean to kill him. The fatal blow she had delivered had been out of instinct, not premeditated. And she knew the moment it occured that she’d be facing judgement for it; but nevertheless, she could not muster any real regret. She had witnessed the man robbing and assaulting a young woman in broad daylight—who knew what it would have led to had someone not stepped in? “Does that kind of swine really deserve to live?! I still don’t think I did anything wrong!”

Zilan gave no response.

There was nothing but silence now. “Sixteenth Senior?” Bai Qian pressed her ear to the door. Where did he go?

“Senior, are you still there? Just let me out already!” Her fists attacked the door again. “I have to go explain things to Shifu!” Finding her hands useless, she switched to using her foot to kick the door, and then eventually, her entire body. “Let me out of here! Let me ou—”

Just as her shoulder was about to smash against the door this time, it seemingly sprung open on its own, causing Bai Qian to fall forward. The moment she caught herself and looked up, there was a certain Master’s icy face peering down at her.

“Sh… Shifu...” Stuttering, she took about seven steps back and away from him.

In the vicinity, Zilan was standing with his eyes glued to the ground shaking his head, along with the rest of her Seniors, who were all behind Moyuan, staring at her askance.

“Come over here,” Moyuan finally said after a moment; his expression remained unchanged and devoid of any emotion.

Compulsively, her head shook.

“I won’t say it a second time,” he issued again.

The tone of his voice made the hairs stand up on all nine of Bai Qian’s nonexistent fox tails, but forward, she slowly crept.

“You wanted to explain something to me?”

“I… um…” Swallowing down her panic, she tried to crack a smile and took another step forward. Normally, it would inspire a glint of amusement from him, but today, her Master was unflinching in his forbidding demeanor. “About… about what happened, Shifu...”

He was also apparently not in the mood to give her any of his time. Before she could formulate another sentence, Moyuan, with a hardened face, had already turned his back to her.

Walking away rigidly, he ordered, “Changshan, once the Nine Heavens’ envoys finish their tea, make sure you escort them down the mountain. Diefeng, I need you to go down to the Vault and release the concealment spell on Hòuhuǐ (后悔) Cave.”

“Shifu, you mean the one located on the Eastern cliffs?” her First Senior clarified with a weary look.

The mention had made all of her other Seniors’ expressions change drastically as well.

“Shifu, is that… is that really necessary?” her Second Senior hesitated to ask. Quickly, he was hushed by her First Senior, who whispered just loud enough for her to hear, “Shifu has already done all that he can. This is better than what was originally planned. Didn’t you hear that the Nine Heavens wanted Seventeenth to be handed over to Lord Puhua for corporal punishment? He hasn’t even ascended yet, there’s no way he would have survived those lightning strikes.”

Bai Qian felt a chill run down her spine.

Moyuan gave their conversation no acknowledgement. “The rest of you stay here,” he finished. And with that, he took one glance back at Bai Qian. Without any words, he made it perfectly clear that he wanted her to follow him.

It was a long and tortuously silent walk, to the back courtyard of the school and then down the side of the mountain. Begrudgingly, she tried to match his pace, but Moyuan was harder to keep up with today than usual. When he led them along a downhill ridge that was rather narrow, Bai Qian took one look over the edge and felt her stomach drop in fear. What on earth was this roundabout route? She had never ventured this way.

“Seventeenth, do you know why you’re at fault?” His quiet, yet stern voice came to question her eventually.

“Not… really, Shifu,” Bai Qian replied, staring at the towering back in front of her.

Once they reached an open cliffside that had a clear view of the Eastern sky, Moyuan finally stopped walking and turned around—but so abruptly that she almost crashed into him. The sharpness of his gaze from above burrowed into her. Bai Qian found herself looking away immediately, but could still feel it.

“Let me ask you: do you deem yourself fit to decide a person’s fate?”

She really didn’t know what to say, but a few seconds of tense wordlessness finally gave way to her impudence.

“I know you think I’m wrong, Shifu, but that man deserved to die!” Bai Qian snapped. “Why must I be penalized for doing something just? You weren’t there! Do you even know what he tried to do, I was only—”

“It is simply not for you to judge.” Chillingly, he cut her off.

Bai Qian quieted. But whatever discontentment she no longer dared to express with her words, was replaced with a glare that she brazenly delivered his way.

Moyuan’s hand lifted, and with a wave, the wall of rock that they were standing in front of suddenly dissolved to reveal a hole. It was not big enough to be called a cave by any means… more like an indentation into the side of the mountain, about six feet in length and width, and completely barren, except for a few small puddles of water. Bai Qian stared into it, eyes widening, then moved her gaze back to the person beside her. This was that cave he had mentioned earlier, wasn’t it? It didn’t take her long to guess what was happening.

“S-Shifu… you... you want me in there?”

He nodded solemnly. “You will stay here and reflect on your actions.”

“For how long?!”

“Until you understand.”

“What does that mean, Shifu? What about food? Will I get to eat?”

“No.”

Bai Qian really wanted to cry. The thought of going without food—she would much rather be beaten down by Lord Puhua’s bolts and die already. How could her Master be so heartless?

Slowly, she moved backwards. It wasn’t too late to try and make a run for it, right? The only problem was, she seemed to have forgotten that they were standing on a cliffside. Directly behind her was nothing but air. When Bai Qian felt the pebbles and dirt skid beneath her feet, she was certain she was a goner, but right as she was about to topple backwards, something caught ahold of her by the waist.

Her body was lifted upward until it floated in the air. When she looked down, she saw the bands of Moyuan’s magic looped around her. In one fell swoop, they delivered her straight into the cave.

Bai Qian made a pitiful whimpering sound as Moyuan’s hold on her tightened and exaggerated it for sympathy. Swiftly, he withdrew his power, his face even showing a bit of remorse, but she did not study it for long. Ready to make an escape, Bai Qian sprang back up and tried to make a dash for it, not expecting that the wrath of the god before her would come more harshly this time, pushing her back down and onto her knees.

This time, it really did hurt, but she decided to bite her lip and not make a sound.

Slowly, Moyuan drew closer to the cave entrance and knelt down so that their faces were level, but stubborn were her eyes that refused to look at his.

“Didn’t I do the right thing, Shifu?” She wanted to swallow these words down, but couldn’t. “That man’s life would have ended eventually... Isn’t that always the case with them?”

Willfully, she wanted to argue her case. She wanted to ask why he was even mad at her, and wouldn’t he have done the same? The more Bai Qian thought about it, the more the feeling of grievance rose in her. The thing about mortals was—they were mortal. Perishable. And there were so many of them cycling through life, it was hard to see the weight of something so transient. Their lives were so short. And they were always running out of time. Sick one day, die the next. Only to be reborn again. All in the time it took for the gods to watch a play or hum a song. Why was it such a big deal that one left a little earlier?

“What do you think makes a mortal different from us?” Moyuan asked. His tone had softened, against her expectations.

“Death,” she replied, ducking her head lower to avoid his gaze.

The answer was so rudimentary it seemed.

“Their bodies crumble to dust at so little expense. Even with no harm done to them, after a set time, their souls simply leave and fly to the underworld, where they stand in line and wait for their bowl of soup from Meng Po [1] to forget everything that ever mattered to them. And then, the cycle starts again. They would spend their whole lives wanting, doing terrible things to get whatever they crave. Even though they can never really have anything—because everything they ever reach for always slips from their grasp.” She was speaking so fast, Bai Qian had to pause for a breath. “Shifu, I really don’t know why anyone had thought to create such insignificant and pitiful creatures!”

In blind rage, she had said something thoughtless. She had forgotten who had crafted mortals from dirt and clay, by her own hands.

“Is that what you think?” Moyuan’s eyes never strayed. “You pity them?” They did not show any anger, in spite of the reminder of his mother that had just been smeared by her words. “You assume yourself better because your years aren’t quite as numbered?”

“Shifu…” Bai Qian wanted to apologize. She scooted forward and tried to grab onto him, but Moyuan had already gotten up. His lips began moving, reciting an incantation of sorts, and in an instant, a thick barrier of glowing green light formed over the entrance of that cave, separating the space occupied by their bodies.

When darkness enveloped, Bai Qian extended a hand out in panic. She could have guessed what would have happened next, but she did it anyway. Immediately, the green light she touched shot back a sharp burst of pain, causing her to fall backwards.

“Shifu,” she begged, “I don’t wanna stay here... Please let me out! I know my mistake… I understand now...”

“Seventeenth.” Even though his figure could only be seen vaguely looking down at her from the other side, his voice rang through clearly. Gentle, but laced with a whisper of something that resembled pain. “Perhaps you should take this time to consider whether immortals like you and me can ever hold anything in our own hands at all.”

***

Year 400,300 (Present time)

“Pssst,” she heard.

Followed by the touch of something bouncing off the side of her face.

Little by little, Bai Qian’s eyelids lifted. She tried rubbing her eyes, but realized she could hardly move her hand. She had to shake her wrist to wake it. Apparently, she had slept with it as a pedestal for her chin for god knows how long, and now it was completely numb. Comfort and prison were not exactly two concepts that went hand in hand. Letting out a sigh, she moved her other set of digits up to massage the kink in her neck as she sat up. It must be because this tiny jail cell she had been thrown into was just as dark and just as damp that Bai Qian had dreamt of her last prison.

The incident had happened so long ago and yet the dream just now was so vivid, as though she could feel her Master’s presence right there beside her.

“Pssst. Hey! Are you awake?”

That’s weird... It was like she could still hear the sound of his voice. Was she still dreaming?

Again, something bounced off the side of her head.

She whirled to the left.

“Shu Long?!” Bai Qian felt her jaw was about to drop off. There he was, the younger and insufferable version of both her Master and her soon-to-be husband, sitting in a jail cell right beside hers. “What… what are you doing here?”

Did she not leave him face down in the dirt clear across town just hours ago?

“I…” He hesitated, then began, “You were asking for directions to the Liu Manor, and I remember you had mentioned something about a man named Zhao Ge before, so I figured you were probably looking for our county’s Magistrate.”

“So you followed me?”

The boy nodded. “It’s really strange… I don’t know why I clearly remember that we were in the middle of talking, but then suddenly I fell asleep!”

He really doesn’t remember me zapping him?

“So as soon as I woke up, I immediately came here to look for you,” he continued. “But who knew the moment I spotted you trying to climb over the Magistrate’s wall, I would trip over some trap ropes...” His eyes looked down sheepishly. “And then a bunch of men came yelling out ‘Assassin’, and I tried to fight them but...” He went on to tell her the rest.

Bai Qian started to rub her temple. What on earth was he thinking, and why is he so chatty all of a sudden?
Looking at the boy, she felt a little irked, for a multitude of reasons. His identity for one was still a giant mystery to her. And here he was telling her he had followed her straight to jail. But perhaps, she tried to persuade herself, strange as the entire situation was, it was a twist of luck. This crazy kid landing himself in Zhao Ge’s jailhouse had to be the most opportune way to reunite this probable father and son pair. Bai Qian found herself grinning at the prospect of her plans falling into place, before it hit her like a ton of bricks—she was doing it again… meddling in mortal affairs.

Wasn’t her subconscious trying to remind her not to repeat her past mistakes by letting her relive those memories in her sleep just now? And wasn’t it she who had been against visiting Yehua on his mortal trial for this very reason? Because she did not want to stick her nose in his business? How did she let herself get this far off course?

But…

Here they were. At this point, it was simply allowing father and son to meet. She wouldn’t have to do anything other than watch it all play out, right? It couldn’t really be considered interfering—could it?

“Big Sis... what’s the matter?”

Bai Qian had been spacing out. When she looked up, she saw Shu Long watching her with his head tilted in concern. But it was hard to tell what his intentions were.

“Hey kid,” she asked, curious to know, “why did you come after me anyway?”

“Eh?”

“I’m asking you what you’re planning on doing by stalking me.” Bai Qian’s eyes narrowed on the boy’s face that was lurking behind the bars separating them. “You can’t be thinking of robbing me again, right? I don’t have anything else for you to steal you know...”

“No! That’s not it! I wouldn’t!” Shu Long waved his hands anxiously, denying her claims.

“Well, what is it then?” She couldn’t figure out what this brat wanted from her… He kept fidgeting under her gaze. And why was it that his face kept getting redder? “Oy! Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Big Sis… You...”

First it was Auntie, then it was Big Sis, and then it was Deity, and now it’s back to Big Sis?

“I… I’ve decided,” he stuttered, looking increasingly nervous. “Confucius once said, a man must be upright and take responsibility for his actions… So... I will… I will...”

“Will what?” Did Confucius really say that, and since when does a thieving brat get to declare that he’s upright?

“I will take responsibility for you.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s… it’s because I’ve… touched you…” His hand made a gesture to his chest. He then awkwardly cleared his throat.

Bai Qian was at a loss for words. Bloody hell... This kid couldn’t be referring to when he fell down on her in the marketplace earlier that day, right?

“In… in any case… since it’s come to this…”

Because he had accidentally groped her, he’d concluded that he had to take responsibility? Why had he not been he this good-natured before? Also, wasn’t he the one who had asked to be her disciple? When had he decided he’d rather be her husband instead? Am I just being swindled again, or does the stinky brat have a hole in his brain?!

“Rest assured… I… definitely won’t mistreat you!”

Haah?

Bai Qian was even more bewildered.

Getting up from her seat, she made her way over to where he sat and squatted down. Assuming that the poor thing had grown up without a proper family, she couldn’t exactly blame him for having some gaps in his logic... Looking at his face which was growing ever more flushed, she suddenly got the urge to tease him a little.

Smirking, she reached her hand across the bars between them and gave his cheek a good pinch. “You know, squirt, you’re certainly not bad to look at… But you’re a little too young for me.”

“I know,” he tried to duck away from her hand with no success. “But I won’t be this way forever! Soon, I’ll be—”

“Slow down, you’re forgetting something, I’m an immortal, remember? So what’s going to happen to me if I stick with you and then you die?” She frowned and squeezed his cheek harder. “You’re not thinking of making me a widow for all of eternity, are you?”

“That... I can’t do anything about that,” his face suddenly took on a gloomy look. “But as long as I’m around, I will definitely not throw you aside!”

She listened to his words and couldn’t help but smile. When he wanted to be, the kid could be quite endearing. Moreover, Bai Qian couldn’t figure out if it was due to the dim light, or because her mind was still stuck in that dream she had just woken up from, but it was as though the more she looked at this person, the more it felt like she was having a conversation with a much younger version of Moyuan.

Shu Long’s eyes, which had been darting back and forth every which way this whole time, finally settled back on her. This time, they held hers with a kind of familiar intensity that left Bai Qian mystified. She couldn’t explain why her heart was contracting with these unusual pangs.

“When I’m old enough, I will definitely marry you,” he declared.

It wasn’t right. Why was her heart... pounding?

In response to his words? To this little brat? Reeling back her hand, Bai Qian stood up like a shoot and turned away from him. Shaking her head, she took her palms up and slapped them to her cheeks a few times.

Snap out of it!

It’s just a boy… Just a mortal boy… He may look similar, but he’s not…

He’s not your Shifu.


“HEY! Will you two quiet down over there? Don’t you people know that it’s the middle of the night?” a man’s raspy voice hollered out. “If you wanna be married, then marry already. I’ll even be your witness. Just let this old man get some sleep!”

“Who’s there?” Bai Qian whipped her head around. She then spotted a shadowy figure sitting up about two cells down and across from hers. “Who are you?” she asked.

“This is a jailhouse, girly. You’re not the only guest here,” he quipped.

His words prompted Bai Qian to take a good look around the prison. Were there others? It seemed the only cells occupied were the three of theirs.

“Guo Lao (果老), is that you?” Shu Long shouted out all of sudden. Bai Qian turned over to see he had gotten up and was standing there holding onto the bars at the front of his cell, squinting in the other’s direction. “It is you! You’re the old beggar who used to always sleep outside of our temple!”

After some rustling around, the other prisoner also got up and made his way closer to the edge of his cell. “Boy, it’s you?” he returned with some excitement.

Eh? They know each other?

By the light of the torches outside in the halls, she began to make out the features on this person. It was an old man. His face was caked with a splotchy layer of dirt and debris. A long beard, silver like snow, hung from his chin. His clothes were tattered with multiple layers tied together in knots. But he wore such a carefree look on his face, she was hard pressed to believe he had ever suffered a day in his life. He looked very pleased to see Shu Long.

“It’s been a while, dear boy. How’d you end up in this place?” he asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be taking care of those little ones?”

“I…”

“Oh, and what about that sweet little girl who’s always with you, she must be worried sick. What kind of trouble did you get yourself into?”

“Erm… well... I…”

Before Shu Long had a chance answer him, the old man had already switched his gaze over to Bai Qian. “It’s because of her, isn’t it?” he raised the cane in his hand to point her way. “Hey you, aren’t you a grown woman? He’s just a boy! You should have some shame, seducing a child like this...”

Bai Qian clenched her fists. Was she really supposed to endure this? “Listen, old man—”

“Big Sis,” Shu Long shot her a stern look like he wanted her to simmer down, which of course, had the opposite effect. What did he think he was, her husband already?

“Guo Lao, what are you doing here?” Quickly, he turned his attention back to the old beggar to dodge the scary look that had just appeared on her face. “You’re not the assassin they keep talking about, are you?”

The brat’s question was immediately met with a laugh on the other side. “You really think this old man has that kind of energy? What assassin, I just wanted a warmer place to sleep! So I pretended to steal some stuff off of their front gate last month and they’ve stuck me in here ever since. Haven’t had to leave. I even get fed three meals a day!”

And I’m the shameless one? Bai Qian stared at him in disgust, but couldn’t help but feel for the old man’s plight. How helpless does one have to be to seek refuge in a jail?

“But you say there’s been an assassination attempt?” the old man followed up with some seriousness this time.

Shu Long nodded his head.

“Well, this isn’t good. If that Zhao-what’s-his-name dies, that means I’ll have to find a new place to sleep.”

Bai Qian also found herself contemplating this matter. Is there really somebody trying to assassinate mortal Yehua? It seemed he had made an enemy in this life. “But.. who would be so bold as to go after a government official?” she muttered aloud.

“Someone who has a lot of backing,” said the old beggar absentmindedly. He was now settled into a cross-legged position on the ground, pulling out a wrapped-up half-eaten ball of rice from his chest pocket to take a bite.

“Guo Lao, you know something, don’t you?” Shu Long inquired.

“Heh?” The old man looked up as he chewed. “You mean you don’t know?” He took another bite and continued to talk. “It’s gotta be that Black-Jade-whatever cult, they’re notorious these days. Who doesn’t think of them when they hear of murder?”

Shu Long’s face dropped a few shades, it looked he knew exactly what was being referred to.

Bai Qian had thought the name sounded familiar. She recalled the three hooligans who were chasing Shu Long earlier. Didn’t they say something about selling him to a Black Jade Society?

“I tell you, lately, the crimes they’ve been linked to have been too atrocious. But they’ve kept themselves so well hidden from the authorities, nobody really knows squat about them… Word is, their members mostly practice the dark arts, so most of what they do becomes untraceable.”

“Dark arts…?”

“Yep.”

What exactly was he referring to? Demon magic? Or some other mystic power? How could mortals have access to that... “The Celestials—I mean the gods would never allow such a thing!” she blurted out.

“What do they care what the gods think? These people do not worship any gods... in fact, the opposite. You know that ramshackled temple you’ve been staying in, Boy?” He turned to Shu Long. “You can guess who was responsible for destroying it. In fact, all across town, temples and shrines keep getting knocked to the ground by them.”

Bai Qian’s brain felt like it was cramping up trying to process this information. “Why hasn’t anyone tried to stop them?”

“It’s not that easy, girly.” The old man inhaled the rest of the morsel in his hand and tossed the wrapper behind his shoulder. “Apparently, the cult has been gathering members like fly to honey. Their numbers are growing everyday.”

“Why... is that?”

“Many agree with their ideology.”

“To abandon faith?!”

“Indeed. They believe the gods have failed them.” The old man’s voice took on a tinge of melancholy. “And who can blame them… Day by day, the world feels more and more like a godless place.”

Bai Qian felt his words as though they were a weight hanging on her own shoulders.

“Anyway, some suspect that the cult even has ties to sectors of the royal family, giving them enough backing to do just about whatever they please. Many government officials have tried to crack down on their activities in the past, and they’ve all turned up missing or dead,” he sighed. “Our dear Magistrate here looks like he might be following in their footsteps.”

“What footsteps?” asked a deep voice that belonged to neither of the three people who had just been in conversation.

Bai Qian turned her head to the sound of clanking latches being unlocked and saw Zhao Ge’s figure on the other side of the barred gate.

______________________________

End Notes:

[1] Meng Po (孟婆) or "Old Lady Meng" - resides in Diyu (the underworld) where she has the task of ensuring that all souls entering the cycle of reincarnation do not remember their previous lives by drinking a bowl of her soup, brewed from the water of the River of Forgetfulness.