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

Chapter 6 - The Realm of Trials

Part 2

written by LalaLoop
consulting by Bunny
editing by kakashi


“Shifu,” said Bai Qian as she watched the water inside the cast-iron kettle simmer on top of a warmer, while leaning against the kitchen counter and closing the scroll she had been reading. “What tea brew do you like best?”

Moyuan looked up briefly from the wooden tea leaf container he had just opened. “Why do you ask?”

“Well,” she folded her arm. “Foxes who are trained to become spies are experts in the art of Impersonation. Xuannu of the Ghost Realm did it once and everything went chaotic. Since there are Foxes in Luoji’s army of dark immortals, there’s no doubt they will try this magic at some point. I think I should know your preferences in case I need to verify that you’re really you in the future.”

“Ahh,” he nodded, chuckling. “Just the most basic tea brewed with water of the proper temperature. However, I should say that if an expert decides to impersonate someone, they would make sure to study that individual's every little preference. Perhaps you should think of something more subtle than tea flavors?”

“Oh,” she nodded and started to gather more ideas as she watched Moyuan add dried herbs little by little into the kettle. He closed the lid, waited for a few seconds then reopened it. Seemingly having found something unsatisfactory, he shut the lid again, then lifted it after another two seconds. He then went on to add the second kind of herb into the mixture. Water of the proper temperature, Bai Qian snorted, this man was where her Senior Changshan had gotten that high and mighty attitude concerning tea from.

Suddenly a great question came to her. “How about this - which one of my Seniors is your favorite?”

“I do not have a favorite,” said Moyuan instantly, just as she had expected.

“Everyone has a favorite,” Bai Qian chortled. “ Even if you think you don’t, your mind always subconsciously picks one for you.”

“I see. And how do you know this?”

“I grew up with four siblings. My parents always say they don’t have a favorite but we know they do. There’s --” she paused, gathering her memories. “There’s always one of us who gets away with everything more easily, whose jokes are more appreciated even if they aren’t funny, who receives a tiny bit more attention whenever they get sick.”

“Interesting,” Moyuan gave her a curious smile. “Why don’t you have a guess then.”

Bai Qian turned her gaze toward the ceiling and began to go over possible choices. Her First Senior - Moyuan’s pride. Changshan - the disciple he trusted most. Ninth… Fourth… Seventh… After some thinking, she decided to go with the one she as well as all her Seniors had suspected to be the favorite.

“Sixteenth Senior?”

Moyuan did not respond right away. Though his hand took a brief pause from stirring the tea, his eyes leaving the simmering liquid for a moment.

“I have no comment on this,” he told her after several seconds.

Bai Qian gasped.

“Goodness!” her jaw dropped, eyes unblinkingly huge. This to her was something more worth noting down than Luoji’s whole history. She leaned further toward him, peering into those eyes to make sure she had not been mistaken. “You -- you do have a favorite,” she said triumphantly.

“Now --” Moyuan held up a hand.

“You’re not an ice block!”

“All right --”

“It is Sixteenth Senior!”

“That’s enough --”

“It really is him. I mean -- I’ve always had my suspicions and --” Bai Qian started to imagine each one of her Seniors’ faces should they hear about this and laughed to herself -- “we kind of already decided among ourselves that it’s Senior Zilan after my Seniors said I was disqualified for hiding my real identity from them, but hearing it from you is -- absolutely shocking!”

“Disqualified?”

“Well, yes,” said Bai Qian. “My Seniors can be really brutal sometimes. But, oh —” her hands flew to the sides of the head. “I can’t imagine what they would say if they ever hear that we’ve been right all along about Sixteenth Senior.”

Moyuan shook his head and with a helpless smile he did not seem able to suppress, he gestured behind her. “Would you fetch that tray for me, please.”

Still giggling, Bai Qian flicked her wrist, the wooden tea tray on the table on the other side of the house flew into her grip instantly. However, what she earned from him this time was a sigh and a stern look.

“Seventeenth.”

“It’s just a simple summoning spell, Shifu. The shield around this house is strong, the spell wouldn’t have been detected by Celestial officials.”

“It is not about the Celestial laws. Do you not know the most important rule when you stay in the mortal realm?”

“When met with danger, save myself first?” She put on a grin.

With another hopeless sigh, Moyuan went back to the tea. Though Bai Qian could have sworn there was also another smile.

“I’m glad you have your priorities straight,” he said. “But if you fall ill or have disruption of powers because of misuse of magic, you may not be able to go to the Lantern Festival tonight.”

At this, Bai Qian let out a small gasp. Of course she would not want to miss the festival. She had asked Moyuan if he would want to attend this event early this morning and to her surprise, Moyuan agreed almost instantly. Bai Qian, having prepared a long speech to persuade him considering Moyuan had never shown interest in festivities of any kind, was astonished to the point that she nearly forgot how to speak.

Now that he had reminded her, Bai Qian slightly regretted using a spell. She would not want to go to the festival with a fever or achy limbs as a result of casting magic in the mortal realm. She instinctively pressed the back of her hand against her neck and then her forehead, making sure there was nothing unusual about her temperature. This kind of thing had happened to her before on some of her trips with her Seniors and it was not pleasant at all.

“Although,” Moyuan continued. “I think you have a good grasp on the summoning spell.”

“Really?” her face lit up.

“Yes, it was a strong one you just casted. The summoning spell is one of the most useful spells, simple but necessary, you can never practice too much.”

Bai Qian nodded in agreement and opened her scroll again while waiting for that tea that was taking forever to finish. Scanning over the neatly written text about the basics of spell casting, she was reminded so much of her first years at Kunlun. She too had owned a scroll like this, only the content was slightly different due to it being an improved version of this ancient-looking one.

As she moved on to the next slat, some scribbles at the top caught her eyes. Bai Qian brought the scroll closer to her face, squinting.

A spell to separate dissolved crystals from water?” she exclaimed, looking up at Moyuan. “That can’t have worked, can it? Zheyan told me that even for someone who’s mastered all the spells used in potion brewing, that’s almost always impossible.”

“He is right,” replied Moyuan. “That was only my first attempt at inventing spells. There was nothing to write on at the time so I noted it down on that scroll. But as it wasn’t successful, I did not record it.”

“Did the spell cause anything to happen at all?”

“I believe the liquid I tried this spell on was splashed onto Zheyan’s clothes.”

“Oh,” she bursted into laughter. “So Zheyan knows about this?”

“My close friends were there. We were about 1,000 years old then. It was a good laugh.”

“Hmm,” Bai Qian’s head went up and down as she turned back to the text to look for more notes, finding the idea of something Moyuan did being laughed at quite strange.

At this time, a loud chirping noise sounded above her head. Bai Qian looked up - it seemed the little sprite had returned from its berry hunting trip beyond the garden. It was now hovering about an arm’s length away from her with an armful of red fruits.

“What are those?” she asked, jerking her head at its arms.

The sprite did not give any response, but instead threw one of the fruits at her.

“Hey...”

Before she could tell it to stop, another red berry came flying at her. And the next thing she knew, the little sprite zoomed down and snatched the scroll from her hands. Greatly irritated, Bai Qian reached for the scroll. But the sprite zapped back, twirling in satisfaction.

Even though Yanzhi had told her before that sprites were capable of lifting heavy objects, Bai Qian could not help but be amazed at how this little thing could carry a wooden scroll that was almost five times its own weight.

Moyuan shifted from his spot and took a few steps toward them.

“It’s fine, Shifu” said Bai Qian firmly. “Let me handle this.”

If this little imp wanted to stay with her, Bai Qian exhaled, it would have to learn obedience and at least some manners. Bai Qian decided she would not stand this kind of behaviour any longer. If she could not get it to listen to her today, she might as well bring it back to Yanzhi so that she could figure out what to do with it.

“Little sprite,” she glared into those large, bubbly eyes and extended her arm. “Give it back.”

It blinked, arms clutching the scroll. Its brows went up in confusion because she had never used this tone with it before.

Bai Qian breathed in and spoke louder, with much less warmth in her voice.

“I said. Give. That. Back.”

The room was in complete silence and the only noise to be heard was the vibration of the sprite’s beating wings.

“Give it back,” she repeated. “Now.”

With a sniffle, the sprite slowly fluttered its wings toward her and dropped the scroll into her open palm. Bai Qian enclosed her fingers and gave it one last cold stare. A small sound was issued from its mouth as it turned around, flying out the window with unusually slow speed and its head downward.

“Yanzhi said sprites can be mischievous but once you put your foot down, they’ll take the hint,” she said to Moyuan when the sprite’s figure had become a little dot in the distance. “They’re very afraid of being cast off by someone they recognize as their master.”


---


The sun was making its way down to the horizon when they left the safehouse. In the distance, Bai Qian could see figures of citizens who resided on neighboring hills who were also setting out toward the city. Some were on horseback; some travelled in groups. Bai Qian was glad that she remained fever-free and was not experiencing any headache or fatigue because of the spell she’d casted earlier, too glad she did not mind at all when Moyuan informed her he would like to pay someone a short visit before heading to the festival.

“But who is he, Shifu?” asked Bai Qian as they reached the city’s gate. “What does he do in this realm?”

“He was one of my Juniors in school when my father was Master of Kunlun. I believe about twenty or so immortal years ago, he ran a small school in another town. Now, he owns a bookhouse in this city.”

“A -- bookhouse?” Bai Qian repeated. It was strange to her that someone who used to study at Kunlun would settle with such a modest occupation. The most modest Kunlun’s disciple from Father Immortal’s time she had ever known was Zheyan, and even he was a renowned physician and owned a Peach Blossom Garden that was ten miles long.

“Gejing (阁静) has always been much less ambitious than the rest of us. He prefers a troubleless life where he can read, brew tea, indulge in mortal activities, and not be bothered by other immortals.”

“Gejing?”

“His name, yes. Although I doubt he goes by that name in the mortal realm.”

They were now crossing the bridge that connected the two parts of this city. Along the main road, vendors were putting up their stalls and displaying their merchandises, preparing for a festive evening.

“But -- we’re going to bother him now,” she commented, giggling.

“It is necessary,” Moyuan chuckled.

“What is his branch of study, Shifu?”

“He’s mastered a variety of subjects but mainly, Gejing is fluent in the study of different kinds of immortal energies.”

The little shop they arrived at was at the end of a clean, quiet street.

The door made a little jingling sound as Moyuan pushed it open. The smell of newly made paper and ink filled Bai Qian’s nose, immediately reminding her of Kunlun. The shop was a cozy place with a moderate number of books and scrolls for sale. Several brushes and inkstones of different sizes were displayed on wooden shelves and by the counter. A man about her age with a stern face and furrowed brows was scribbling way at the front; he had not looked up once ever since they’d entered.

While Bai Qian took a moment to view around, Moyuan proceeded to the front counter and inquired after the owner of the shop.

“He is unavailable at the moment,” was the answer Moyuan received. Although, even Bai Qian could tell that this was something this custodian would say to anyone who asked to see the owner. After some patient explaining, Moyuan managed to convince the man they were not here for trading, investigation, or to ask any unreasonable favors, and that they were indeed acquainted with Master Gejing. With still a skeptical face, the custodian asked them to wait and quietly exited through the back door.

“I don’t think he’s an immortal, is he,” said Bai Qian.

“No,” replied Moyuan. “Gejing does not take on apprentices.”

“Why was he so suspicious? It’s not that uncommon to want to see the owner of a shop you visit.”

“I suppose Gejing must have set up these rules to avoid unwanted visitors. He is a busy man and does not always have time to entertain.”

It did not take long for the custodian to return. This time, he greeted them in a friendlier manner and beckoned them to follow him to the back of the shop.

The room they were showed to was considerably spacious and comfortable looking with simple furniture, a few bookshelves lining up against the walls, and some candle holders. The only other decorative item was a large flower pot in a corner, from which sprouted a short, thin plant with leaves hanging to the side.

Bai Qian kept quiet as she observed around. Even though she had always known that Father Immortal could not have had only three disciples beside his own son, it felt strange to her still that she was meeting someone who had used to study at Kunlun with Moyuan and probably had also spent his childhood there.

“Bless my soul,” exclaimed a loud, blissful voice. Bai Qian jolted and turned to the door. In walked a man who looked a few thousand years younger than Zheyan, with a medium stature and dressed in simple light blue. With a round, kind face, and a bright smile on his lips, this man seemed to be someone who was thoroughly enjoying the comforts of his retirement from stressful immortal affairs, someone who had not seen that many wars and tragedies. Or… thought Bai Qian, perhaps that was simply part of his disguise in this realm.

“I apologize for intruding, Gejing,” Moyuan began. Though before he could finish, the other man had interrupted with an energetic wave of dismissal.

“Nonsense, I am always glad to see you, Senior -- no --” he stopped himself when he had reached them and put a fist over his mouth. “I think I will settle with ‘High God’ considering that is how most people address you.”

“Whatever most convenient for you,” replied Moyuan. “I, of course, prefer nothing more than ‘Senior’, like the old times.”

“Did my assistant cause you any inconvenience? I did tell him to ask questions before giving anyone information of my availability.”

“No inconvenience. And I don’t blame you at all for taking precautions, Gejing, given the current climate.”

The man named Gejing’s eyes flew to Bai Qian. He tilted his head and put on a friendly smile, or what he believed to be one. His brows curved in a manner of uncertainty.

“And who is this?”

She took a step forward and said politely, “Bai Qian of Qingqiu.”.

“Qingqiu,” he gasped, dropping the skeptical look and giving her a quick scan from head to foot. “My pleasure. I’ve had the honor of meeting the Fox Emperor and Empress once a long time ago. If my source of information is correct, you were High God Moyuan’s seventeenth disciple, yes? Before you became the Queen of Qingqiu.”

Bai Qian nodded.

“Must have been hard for you to leave Kunlun, I daresay. I had the best time there as a disciple.”

“So did I,” she smiled in agreement.

“No doubt it was difficult for High God Moyuan too, considering he only had a handful of disciples.”

“Well --”

Without waiting for her to finish, Master Gejing responded with a laugh. “We teachers know best about the passing of life, do we not, Master of Kunlun? Students come and go. It is part of our job to say farewell to the young people when the time comes as many of you have duties to your clans. Sit,” he gestured at the low tables enthusiastically, “please sit. What kind of drink would you like, Bai Qian of Qingqiu?”

“Er --” caught by surprised, Bai Qian stammered for a good few seconds. She was not under the impression that she could pick the kind of drink to be served here, as if in a restaurant.

“Don’t stand on ceremony,” he pressed on. “Tea? Rice wine, Yellow wine, hawthorn fruit wine? I daresay I have a good collection here.”

Quite impressed and overwhelmed by the unexpected hospitality as well as the number of choices, Bai Qian took a second to ponder them. “Hawthorn fruit wine?” she said.

“Yes, and not the diluted kind, mind you. These jars I bought directly from the winery - authentic and quite tasteful. Never underestimate these mortals’ abilities.”

“I’d like to try one of those,” she decided, smiling politely.

“That is very strong wine, Seventeenth,” came Moyuan’s voice.

Master Gejing made a peculiar movement with his brows. Bai Qian felt as if something was stuck in her throat; the tips of her ears burned while the man shook his head and laughed.

“Once a teacher, always a teacher, it seems. You never fail to look out for your disciples, High God. Although, you are not wrong, this wine is not something you drink by the jar. How about this?” he clasped his hands together and turned back to her, “I will bring you the wine and some tea in case the hawthorn fruit doesn’t suit your taste or is -- you know --,” he directed a glance at Moyuan and sucked air through the corner of his teeth, feigning a look of caution -- “‘too strong’.”

“That’s very kind of you,” smiled Bai Qian.

“Very good. And --” Gejing squinted at Moyuan, “just tea, I assume?”

The latter nodded,” thank you.”

“Very well then,” Gejing shuffled his robe and with wide strides, hurried toward the door. “I will be back in a second.”

As soon as the man disappeared from sight, Bai Qian twisted around at Moyuan, her cheeks warm, brows knit together.

“Shifu,” she mumbled, narrowing her eyes at him accusingly.

Clearing his throat and with a somewhat apologetic glance at her, Moyuan slowly stepped away from Bai Qian and toward a low table.

“But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the wine,” he said when he had settled down.

Bai Qian let out a small huff and took the table next to him, looking around at the room.

“He’s a lot more friendly I imagined,” she said. “This Master Gejing.”

“Isn’t he,” replied Moyuan.

“But he also seems really -- trustworthy.”

“You are right,” he said. “Gejing is one of the people I would trust with important matters.”
“As much as you trust Zheyan and Lord Donghua?”

He chuckled. “If we are speaking among my friends, no, I don’t think there’s anyone I trust as I do Zheyan and Donghua, even if Zheyan can be --”

“Overbearing?” Bai Qian giggled.

“At -- times,” he corrected her.

“Well, Master Gejing is kind of like Zheyan, isn’t he,” she commented. “The way he enjoys his retirement.”

“He seems so, yes.” There was a strange silence that followed this remark. Bai Qian noticed a fleeting look of ambivalence on Moyuan’s face as he spoke. “Have you ever considered it?”

“To retire from affairs of the immortal realms and live like Zheyan?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” she pondered for a second, unsure whether there was more to this question than just a wish to understand her preference. Though the honest answer came out of her quicker than she’d expected. “No. I — can’t say that I have.”

Moyuan nodded, averting his eyes. “I didn’t expect you would. Although, all things considered, I don’t believe it is a bad idea, if not to say it is very tempting at times.”

Slightly shocked yet intrigued by this statement, Bai Qian turned to face him.

“I’m surprised you of all people would say that, Shifu.”

“I of all people?”

“You don’t -- hate what you do,” she stated, shrugging. “I don’t think you’ll ever be happy, Shifu, unless you have something, someone, to protect. And -- isn’t it a fact that you find great enjoyment in writing battle plans and formations?”

“I suppose no matter how much you take pleasure in something, there’s bound to be instances where it becomes a bother,” he said with a smile, though his voice became rather bitter and a crease started to form between his brows that made her heart constrict. “But on a whole, you are right.”

It was only within minutes that Master Gejing returned, followed by the man they had met at the front earlier with a large tray in his hands. While Gejing settled into the host’s seat, he proceeded to place the corresponding drinks in front of each of them.

Bai Qian eyed the cup in front of her that contained a berry red liquid. It looked to be no more than two spoonfuls of wine. She picked up the little cup, brought it close to her face and inhaled. The smell indicated a strong liquor indeed. From the corner of her eyes, she could tell Master Gejing was suspending his own drinking to wait for her feedback. With extreme cautiousness, she took a tiny sip, swallowed, and was immediately glad that she had not taken any more than that. The concentrated bitterness on her tongue was quite aggressive. The berry aroma shot straight up her nasal passage. Some lingered at the back of her throat. Bai Qian had tasted many types of berry wine before, but this particular one was too strong it gave her no time to adjust to the flavor and almost caused her to choke.

“It’s -- er -- not bad at all,” she said, unable to decide whether she really liked this wine.

“Ahh, you see, High God?” Gejing grinned. “She has good taste.”

Taking advantage of the man’s diversion of attention afterward. Bai Qian quickly grabbed the other cup and gulped down the tea.

“So what brings you here, High God?” asked Gejing as he took sips of his own wine. “How can I be of service?”

“As a matter of fact,” said Moyuan. “I have come to urge you to relocate.”

At this, Gejing set down his cup and closed his eyes in a disgruntled manner. It looked to Bai Qian that this was not the first time he had heard this request.

“Is this about the Dark One?” he grunted. “All those rumors that I’ve heard.”

“Yes. And they are not just rumors.”

“Now,” Gejing held up a hand. “I know you are a High God and my Senior and such, but you can’t order me around when it comes to this kind of thing. No, I like this city. All the fun and excitement; and I’ve barely spent any time here.”

“Have you not spent the last few mortal years here? This is a serious matter, Gejing. Luoji is back. You know the cruelty he’s capable of once he makes a target out of someone. You cannot keep residing in the most conspicuous place of the mortal realm.”

“And why not? This is the realm of no magic. It would make it harder for them to find me.”

“It is also a realm that most gods and goddesses retire to or take refuge in when they don’t want to be found. This has become a commonly known fact.”

“But...”

“Has Donghua been to see you?”

”Some time ago, yes,” said the man with a light scoff. Bai Qian’s brows convulsed in a struggle to comprehend how someone could display this kind of attitude regarding Donghua.

“And what did he say?” continued Moyuan.

“The same thing you just did. And I do not appreciate it. I do not appreciate it at all.”

“Donghua is right. Luoji is becoming stronger everyday, his supporters are not afraid to declare their loyalty to him anymore.”

“How do you know this?” Gejing said weakly. Though Bai Qian was sure he was only asking this question to further defend his refusing to leave the city.

“We’ve been to mortal cities where his supporters were spotted,” said Bai Qian, deciding it was about time she voiced her opinion on this. “People are saying unexplained accidents are happening at an increasing rate - kidnaps, attacks on mortal princes’ residents and such. Wherever Luoji’s people are, they’re not exactly being shy about carrying out their Master’s work. Also, they’re doing this to look for immortals in this realm.”

“But they haven’t managed to capture anyone important, have they,” he said airily.

“They have,” said Bai Qian. Both Moyuan and Master’s Gejing’s eyes fell upon her. “Not over an immortal month ago, the Princess of Xunzhua was taken captive by Luoji’s people.”

“Xunzhua?” a shadow of fright spreaded across the younger man’s face.

“Yes, the tribe with reputable weapon inventions and the best shield magic in the eight realms; and their Princess is one of the inventors of those shields. If she could be abducted from her home, I don’t think it’s that hard for them to find you in the mortal realm unless you make a point to stay hidden, Master Gejing, which you are not.”

“Are you sure that’s not just a rumor?” he put on a deep frown. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my encounters with Luoji’s followers, it is that they like to scare people out of their wits to lower morale all around.”

“No, it’s not a rumor,” Bai Qian looked straight at him. “I know because I was there. One of my Seniors and I met with these dark immortals, that’s how we know about the Princess.”

Master Gejing buried his face in his palms and issued a long, frustrated sigh.

“She is right,” said Moyuan. “Take the necessary measures for your safety, Gejing. Your name is associated with Kunlun, your considerable intellect will appeal to Luoji’s people. If I am right, they have attempted to recruit you last time, have they not?”

“Well, I did have several nasty encounters with them back then,” Gejing admitted reluctantly.

“Luoji seeks to expand his powers. He will not stop gathering people to his side and exploiting their intellect for his benefits, and to those who resist to share their usefulness,” Moyuan paused as Gejing suddenly sat up straight. His eyes now bore a contrasting sentiment to the gaiety Bai Qian had seen a few minutes ago, as if he’d only just grasped the seriousness of the situation.

“Alright,” said Gejing at last, rather begrudgingly. “Alright. But you are not making me leave tomorrow. I still have some business to settle with my mortal acquaintances.”

“Of course not,” Moyuan replied. “My advice is that you do not linger. You can leave whenever it is most convenient.”

“Advice,” the other man’s eyes turned up at the ceiling as he murmured. “More like an order. And right before the Lantern Festival too.”

“I think you can still go to the Lantern Festival tonight, Master Gejing,” said Bai Qian, finding his eagerness to attend a mortal activity quite unusual, but at the same time not that difficult to relate to.

“That I will,” he declared, regaining some spirit in his voice. “It’s the Lantern Festival in the capital city, it doesn’t get any better than that. Also, I have made a promise to participate in some festivities at the local school. It’s for the children.”

“Brilliant,” she nodded in admiration.


---


By the time they walked out of Master Gejing’s bookhouse, the atmosphere had taken on a different spirit. Even from the quiet corner of the street where the bookhouse stood, Bai Qian could tell the festival had started.

Bidding them a quick good-night, Master Gejing rushed to where the local school was as he did not want to be even one minute late. Some children, accompanied by their guardians, were jotting ahead of them, toward brightly lit area.

As they approached the main street, Bai Qian’s steps quickened. Knowing that it was only a mortal yearly festival, which would happen again the next immortal day, did not stop Bai Qian from being ridden with excitement. Moyuan, though, was still walking at normal speed, which, unlike other times, was making her impatient. He looked as if this part of the street was no different from where people were gathering.

“Come on!” A group of children rushed passed them. One of them yelled, “I don’t want the boring looking lanterns!”

Bai Qian glanced down at Moyuan’s hand that was slightly dangling at his side, and for a second considered pulling him along.

“Let’s hurry, shall we,” he said suddenly, giving her shoulder a gentle touch and lengthened his strides, motioning for her to follow. As if she had been the slow one, thought Bai Qian with a roll of her eyes.

Soon, the cobblestoned road guided them back to the heart of the city where hundreds of lanterns covered the sky and lined the wide bridge that led to the other side of town. They were surrounded by excited faces and happy chatter. The smell of mantou, dumplings, all kinds of sweets and roasted goods filled the whole street. Stall next to stall of countless of merchandises from food, toys, to jewelry stood on either side of the walkway. People made their way up and down, purchasing their desired items.

Children were sitting in groups on both sides of the bridge, each with a little lantern in their hands. Some were still in the process of tying wooden sticks together to make their own lanterns. Some others were swapping snacks and toys they probably had won from the riddle stall, which was not too far away from where Bai Qian stood. A few paper made lotus with lit candles in the center glittered the canal below. She knew that in just another hour or so, that waterway would be full of floating lanterns.

Nearest to one end of the bridge was a large stand where people flocked to the most, which was no surprise. The owner of this stand seemed to have the largest and most unique collection of lanterns of many shapes and sizes for sale - sparrow, peony, sailboat, turtle, tiger. There was even an orange one in the shape of a fox’ face, the sight of which made Bai Qian shake her head and giggle thinking about her niece. Several children were jumping up and down, tugging at their parents’ sleeves, and pointing at the animal shapes they wanted, desperate to get their hands on them before someone else could.

Occasionally, someone would shout ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the distance, followed by a round of applause, indicating a lantern riddle had been solved.

Overwhelmed with so many activities before her eyes and the dazzling lights from all directions, Bai Qian was taken by surprise when a hand gasped hers and held it tightly, guiding her away from the center of the road.
“We wouldn’t want to hit someone,” said Moyuan as he let go.

True enough, a mere second later, a group of little boys raced past them, laughing and shouting something about ‘reaching the destination’.

“Oh!” she ducked under a vendor who was carrying a tray full of steamed buns who appeared out of nowhere and glided to Moyuan, grasping his arm for balance.

“Beg your pardon!” the man shouted.

Bai Qian shook her head and let go as they continued their walk. Though she was not in the least bothered by the crowdedness. “When was the last time you’ve been to a mortal festival, Shifu?” she asked.

“Certainly before the Ghost --” he took a brief pause. “Before the last calamity.”

“I’ve been to some mortal gatherings in the last few months, but never a Lantern Festival at a capital city. This is impressive,” she lifted her head to admire the strings of brightly lit lanterns that had been hung to surround the area.

“I agree,” said Moyuan. “It is.”

Something in his voice made her head turn. Bai Qian found herself staring into those eyes for a moment, looking for some contradiction to his words - indeed, she had never heard Moyuan compliment a social gathering before - but there was none.

He smiled at her.

How long the moment lasted, Bai Qian could not tell. She only knew that what was before her eyes now was a sort of truth, an anchor, truer than anything she had known or would ever come to know about him.

Suddenly, as if thinking he had been distracting her from the festival itself, Moyuan dropped his gaze and turned toward the line of stalls along the walkway.

“Would you like to try any of these?” he asked

Bai Qian cast a look at the cart he had gestured at - it contained several types of sweets. Some she was certain Changshan and Fengjiu - the two most creative cooks she had met - would take great interest in. Cubes of mung bean cakes, cakes topped with almonds and chestnuts, baked pastries shaped like half-moons, snow-skin cakes. And since the majority of consumers today were children, everything here seemed to be made into extra tiny pieces for their convenience.

“Hmm,” Bai Qian scanned over the selection, “I think I’ll get one of each if that’s possible.”

“That is everyone’s choice today!” grinned the seller and he started to scoop up the sweets and place them squarely on a large piece of oil - paper. And it was a good thing that everything was tiny for they would not have fitted in one piece of paper otherwise.

“Thank you,” said Bai Qian to the seller as Moyuan handed him some mortal realm’s coins.

At this time, a few people had begun to take their places along the canal and send their lanterns floating off . Bai Qian also spotted Xiaocheng - the friendly waiter from the teahouse they had been to - on the other side of the bridge, herding a group of children who were still in school robes across the crowd. On his face was the widest grin yet and he was looking as if not even the falling of the sky could ruin this festival.

She and Moyuan took a few strides down to the other stalls. Right next to the food stand was a cart of paper fans. Next, there were Tanghulu[1], rattle drums, and stick puppets. Bai Qian wished there was a magic sack big enough that could hold everything she was wanting to buy for A-li and Wunian[2]. After having reminded herself that Yanzhi’s niece had probably been to more Lantern Festivals than she had and was more familiar with mortal realm toys, and that A-li could always come to a festival any immortal day, she decided to purchase just a little wooden spinning-top with a tiny white dragon painted on one side, and another one with jasmine flower patterns for the two children.

“The lavender one, please,” said Bai Qian to a lantern seller, pointing at the last lotus lantern that was light purple in color. Having arrived at the lantern stall relatively late, they did not have many choices. When inquired by the seller if he also wanted one, Moyuan politely declined in a tone he always used whenever someone asked if he’d want sweetener in his tea. With a quiet grunt, Bai Qian made the decision for him and got another lantern that could be in a shade of yellow, though as they were surrounded by candlelight, it looked very much white.

“This is a Lantern Festival,” she whispered to Moyuan when they had stepped away from the stall. “I think you’re missing the point. Also, you’re going to give away our identities if you keep being so --” she suppressed a laugh -- “godly.”

“Does all this experience come from your trips to this realm with Zilan?” he asked and accepted the lantern from her with a smile.

“Yes,” she replied proudly, then took Moyuan by the wrist and drew him toward the canal. “Let’s see whose lantern could reach those first,” said Bai Qian as she sank to the ground, pointing at the water lanterns that were flocked together in the distance.

“No cheating by im-mortal means then,” he chuckled, brushed aside his robe and got down on one knee beside her. “We are just going to see which one the wind and water favor.”

“Agreed,” she said excitedly and threw the lavender flower into the waterway. Moyuan did the same right after her.

“Quickly, give it to me,” a child’s voice sounded above Bai Qian’s head; and not one second later…

Splash!

A large lantern in the shape of a wolf’s head landed right behind her’s. A boy stooped down next to Bai Qian. He reached down, dipped his hand in the water and swayed it, pushing the wolf forward so that it would catch up with the other lanterns. A few lanterns that had just been dropped were caused to change their directions. Caught in the wave, the lavender flower was now floating ahead of the wolf, making its way to join the group of sparkling lanterns in the middle of the canal while the white lotus drifted to the side and began to take another route.

“Yes!” the boy made a punching gesture in the air, watching his wolf lantern in triumph.

“Thank you!” Bai Qian laughed and patted him on the head. “You just helped my lantern win.”

“Er -- really?” he squinted for a brief second, then accepted her thanks without any more questions. “All right, then.”

Bai Qian turned up at Moyuan and gestured at the lavender flower.

“I’m not sure that counts,” he stated in response.

“It doesn’t matter,” she beamed. “I’m ahead of you.”

Standing up, they kept watching as the lanterns floated along the waterway and new ones joined in from both sides of the bridge, some with written messages on the oil-paper. Wishes, Bai Qian remembered - that was what this ritual meant to mortals. Wishes for wellness and bliss. Perhaps she too should have made a wish before sending her own lantern off? Indeed Bai Qian had been too busy submerging herself in the delight of the evening, in the contentment of having him next to her, to remember such a thing.

———————-

[1] Tanghulu (糖葫芦) - a traditional Chinese skewered fruit-based snack coated with sugar
[2] Wunian (无念) - Lijing’s daughter’s name in this story

Chapter 6, Part 3