Fanfiction: Ink in Water - Chapter 22 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 22. Time does not wait for people to fall in love

written by Bunny & Kakashi
edited by Kakashi
consulting by LalaLoop

Things seem to be going well.

Bai Qian turned her head from side to side as she beamed at the strikingly similar looking father-son pair to the left and to the right of her.

They’re really getting along.

It was undoubtedly a little quiet. They weren’t exactly talking. But neither one seemed like the talkative type anyway.

Surely, it won’t be long till they let their bygones be bygones!

It was very early in the morning, scarcely dawn, so early, the birds in the trees were still trying to wake each other up with their fluting calls. Having slept for only two or three hours the night before, Bai Qian would hardly be in such a chipper mood on any other occasion, except that she was certain she was fulfilling a very good deed at the moment.

Will Yehua remember this trial? We immortals normally do... Her eyes twinkled brilliantly. He won’t be able to say I never did anything for him.

The issue that had been weighing on her mind lately was how she was going to repay him for obtaining that Fungal Grass for Moyuan. Although the thing she was doing now - reuniting him with his mortal son - was not comparable to the sacrifice he had made for her, it should still count as something, right? And unless two people were husband and wife, they really shouldn’t let the debts stack up too much.

What an opportunity this was.

The longer Bai Qian walked between these two people, the more she enjoyed it. One looked a little bit too old to be Yehua, the other looked too young to be Shifu, but combined, one too old, one too young, they were... just right. It was a good thing she had believed in their connection despite their insistence they were not related.

“You look happy,” Shu Long said with a gloomy glance at her face.

“Yes,” she smiled at him. Was she not allowed to be? What was the matter with him?

“My friends have been kidnapped!”

Oh, right. That.

“I know you’re worried,” she smiled wider, in much too good a mood to be swayed from it by something so trifle, “but we’re going to fix that!”

“... are we not, Magistrate?” she added, addressing the man to her left.

He didn’t answer her but just scowled some more. Though the silent, broody type, Zhao Ge was an extremely capable magistrate, everybody said so and besides, he was Yehua’s mortal form. She might not know the future Heavenly Emperor that well, but if he was even a little bit like his twin brother, he was sure to be good at everything – a Celestial prodigy of the finest kind.

Earlier today, Zhao Ge had entered the prison to question her and Shu Long, seeing as how both of them had been caught doing suspicious things near his residence. But as it turned out, they were the least of his problems. Apparently, there was a cult, by the name of… Black… Juniper… something or another trying to assassinate him. On top of that, she had learned that they were potentially dark-magic practitioners. The kind of news that would make its way straight up to Jiuchongtian and into the ears of the Heavenly Emperor if it were true. And if that were to happen, then the very next person who would have to hear about it would the one who was still recovering from his illness, the God of War.

In the end, being the filial disciple that she was, Bai Qian knew there was only one thing to do. Investigate. How could it be considered meddling if it was absolutely necessary?

“Focus on your task,” Zhao Ge gave a gruff reminder. “You were brought along for one reason, make sure you do your job correctly.”

Bai Qian turned and gave a face as soon as he looked away. This Magistrate, why was he all business and no fun? At least Yehua could be a little fun at times. She had to admit, however, he was good at his job. His style of interrogation was very clever. In his prison, he had her squirming even though she was innocent. Why did he refuse to believe that she had just wanted to speak to him about his son?

*Last night*

“Him? My son?” Zhao Ge exclaimed with a snort, looking the boy up and down in the dim candlelight of that jailhouse with an expression like Bai Qian was trying to sell him a rat for a war horse.

“I thought I told you, I have no father,” the brat spat back, glaring at the Magistrate like he couldn’t imagine anything worse than having this man as a relative.

Watching the scene, Bai Qian’s eyebrows were curled tightly. How did it turn out so different from the way she had envisioned it? This needed some more expert work, she understood. Father and son were too estranged. They probably had said some very hurtful things to each other in the past and could not easily forgive each other.

“Just apologize,” she suggested to Shu Long, jerking her head in Zhao Ge’s direction repeatedly in a very encouraging way. “You’ll have to do it anyway, so you might as well get it over with.”

“Why? I have done nothing wrong!” the brat exploded, angrily stomping his foot mid sentence the way a child would. At least, that helped her get rid of the lingering confusion her earlier dream and his audacious proposal had brought on.

Bai Qian ah, Bai Qian… she thought amused. A boy this young makes moony eyes at you and you actually get weak knees? You even dared to imagine Shifu...

“Breaking and entering on official property is nothing to you? You may be a child but a crime is still a crime!” Zhao Ge snapped at the boy. “And you–” he turned to her “–if you do not stop with this son-business, I will lock you up on account of spreading false rumors about–”

“Master! Master!”

Lucky for her, the Magistrate’s threat was cut short when several guards came dashing in carrying a little girl. Bai Qian immediately recognized her as one of the little ones from the abandoned temple Shu Long had been living at. Dripping snot from her nose, the child was wailing for her Da-Ge at the top of her lungs. When she spotted the boy, she broke free from the guard’s hold and ran to the front of his jail cell, grabbing onto whatever she could grab of him between the bars.

“A-Yan, why are you here?” Shu Long tried to ask the sobbing child. From what Bai Qian could make of her incoherent babble, it sounded like some people had come to the temple and taken all of the other children away.

“What did you say?” Shu Long’s face went white as a ghost.

“It’s true! Everybody’s... gone... those brutal men came and… uhuuu... uwaaaaa!” The little girl’s cries reached a pitch that made Bai Qian’s ears ring, and she continued to cry as she got up and sprinted over to the Magistrate. “Mister, are you the one in charge here? You have to let my Ge-Ge out! You have to save my friends!”

At a loss for words, Zhao Ge only sighed as he bent down to calm the child.

“It must be the Cult!” Another voice emerged. “They strike again!” It was the Old Beggar in the other prison cell.

Upon noticing the man, the Magistrate turned to the guard beside him and whispered, “Why is this one still here?”

“We couldn’t get him to leave, Master.”

“Saaaaaaave them! Why aren’t you saving them?!” Seeing that he was distracted, A-Yan then began beating on the Magistrate’s chest with her small hands.

Above the incredible ruckus that was the angry child in his arms and an old man in the background sputtering on and on about a cult, Zhao Ge calmly looked at Bai Qian like he was asking her “will you help me solve this mess?” and without thinking, while captivated by those dark, solemn eyes, she nodded back eagerly. But instead of his stern face transforming due to gratefulness, he frowned at her and shook his head instead.

What now? Did he not see her sincerity? Insufferable!

You will take me there,” he ordered Shu Long, his tone not inviting any backtalk. “It’s an important lead. I will bring an end to this Cult.”

“I’m not going anywhere without her!” Shu Long demanded, putting his hand through the bar and groping around blindly as if he wanted Bai Qian to grab it.

“So you can dupe me and run away together?” Zhao Ge said, “I know you street brats. Much too smart for your own good.”

“I am not a street brat!” Bai Qian bristled. How rude! Were his eyes stuck on backwards? How could he not see she was a refined lady?

“What are you then?”

Bai Qian had to swallow her pride. She absolutely needed to come along with him and check out this Cult. With all seriousness, she replied, “I am… very useful.”


“I have… special skills.”

“Do you want to tell me about them?” Zhao Ge turned to her with a frosty smile. “Learned them in an assassins’ school perchance?”

“Don’t speak to her that way! She is my betrothed!” Shu Long said, “I promised to protect her! If you so much as speak ill of her, I will–”

“My patience is running out!” Zhao Ge bellowed. “Stop this stupid charade at once!”

“Well… he did propose earlier,” the Old Beggar further down chuckled, “though she hasn’t formally agreed yet.”

“He’s a child!” the Magistrate seemed to have completely lost his fuse as he pointed a finger at Shu Long. Was he really that defensive of his son’s chastity?

“Pah! Age is but a number, and time does not wait for people to fall in love!” The Old Beggar was having a good laugh. “Or could it be that you’ve been eyeing her for yourself, Magistrate? She sure is a beauty... As though a goddess herself has descended from the Heavens.”

Seemingly forfeiting from the exchange, Zhao Ge shook his head from side to side like he could not believe he had to waste his time with such characters.

Bai Qian was momentarily distracted by what she thought was a wink the Old Man had given her just now, but quickly resumed her argument. “Listen, I can track people really well!” she claimed. “Once I’m at the scene, I will be able to tell you which way the criminals went.”

“Is that so?” Zhao Ge said in a low voice and had stepped even closer to the bars. “Now why would you have such a skill?”

Bai Qian’s silly heart was beating rapidly under his scrutiny. Not a god, just a mortal, she had to tell herself, he doesn’t know who you are, his eyes cannot see your powers. Could she be certain though? He looked at her with an intensity that made her doubt everything she knew about mortal trials. If something went wrong with his trial because of her… would she not be punished? Maybe she shouldn’t have come here after all.

All Shifu’s fault, Bai Qian scoffed. He should have said: “No, Seventeenth, it’s not a good idea to check on mortal Yehua. Stay here at Kunlun and only worry about me.” Or... maybe not that. But he had certainly known this would lead to complications, he always knew these things.

“I seem to remember you...” Zhao Ge slowly said, “have we met before?”

“Yes,” Bai Qian heard herself say and immediately wanted to rip her own stupid tongue out.

Instead, a memory appeared in her mind’s eye...

Standing in the middle of a coral garden, eyes blurred from the light of the luminous night pearls of the Western Sea… for a brief, heartstopping moment, Bai Qian thinks the man before her is her Shifu, but he is not. No, she is looking at the Crown Prince. His bearing is regal and he is clad entirely in black. Strangely, his mouth is hanging ajar like he has just seen a ghost. Bai Qian thinks his behavior is very odd, but then, his eyes begin to shine with a joy that is captivating. She almost smiles at him, but they have not yet been introduced and she is resolved to mind her manners here.

“Su Su,” he whispers so lovingly, it makes a shudder race down her spine. He is next to her within an instant and raises up his hand to touch her face.

“How dare you!” she exclaims in shock and slaps his hand away.

The light in his eyes goes out, it is like the world turns a little darker. "I am mistaken,'' he says solemnly, "she would not speak so harshly." He turns to leave, and looking at the defeated slump his shoulders, she feels a strange regret.

She cannot forget this young man who is meant to be her husband as she sits in the garden, enchanted by the similarity of his face and bewildered the difference in his demeanor. Has her Shifu ever been like that at all? So eager... so unafraid to make a fool of himself?

She ponders this so thoroughly, she doesn’t become aware of his presence right away. The Crown Prince has come back! And is staring at her.

Blushing, she gets up.

"I did not know that you are High Goddess Bai Qian of Qing Qiu", he says, stepping up to her. He sounds breathless, a bit nervous. She is at a loss how to deal with him. Does he know no boundaries?

“You should call me Auntie”, she says haughtily, “and greet me properly as an elder.”

“You are going to be my wife but you want me to call you aunt? Qian Qian, what kind of reasoning is this?"

“Qian Qian…”

Like they had known each other a lifetime before, he swept in and claimed his spot by her side. And she had done little to stop him. With that face, he had thoroughly confused her by the time they had parted.

But all that was before her Shifu had returned. That… it had changed everything. And the Crown Prince seemed to be aware.

“Do I even have a place in your heart?”

She had never gotten around to answering him. Why do you even want a place in my heart? She had meant to ask after he had given her that bruising kiss in the grand hall before handing over the Soul Gathering Lamp like it was the last thing she’d ever get from him. It was a marriage arrangement, was it not? Who was talking about anything else? Why had he cried?

*Present time*

“Watch your step,” Zhao Ge said and caught her arm when she slipped on a piece of rotten fruit.

“Th… thank you,” Bai Qian stammered and swallowed compulsively. It was dangerous to run around without paying attention to one’s feet. Even more dangerous to lose oneself in memories of first meetings and kisses.

Bet on the other one to make sure she would not stay lost for too long. Watching the exchange with narrowed eyes, Shu Long pulled at her sleeve.

“What is it, Shu Long?” she asked and threw an embarrassed half-smile in Zhao Ge’s direction, but he wasn’t paying her any more attention.

“Big Sis, you should walk on this side. It’s… safer.” With a tug, the brat maneuvered her over and placed himself in between her and Zhao Ge.

Bai Qian glanced at Zhao Ge again and caught the bemused expression on his face before it was snuffed out by arrogance. How condescending.

“Big Sis.”

“What is it now?”

When she looked at him this time, Shu Long’s eyes were sparkling like sunlight on Lake Qing Qiu as he handed her a wrapped rice ball he had taken out from his knapsack. “Here. We’ve been walking all morning, you should eat something.”

Staring at that haggard little face and that small smile of his instantly made her thoughts go elsewhere again.

Shifu... Bai Qian felt her heart contract painfully.

“You two. Hurry along! We’re stopping here for lunch.” Zhao Ge’s voice came from a distance away. Bai Qian blinked her eyes and looked around. He was now standing yards ahead of them on the other side of the busy street in front of a tea house. On cue, her stomach began to growl. She looked down at Shu Long’s offering, then took it and stuffed it back in his sack. Grabbing his hand, she towed him along. “Come. This is our chance to milk your father of his generosity. When somebody offers to buy us food, we never say no.”

When they finally entered the tea house, Bai Qian was surprised to find that the Magistrate and his men had yet to be seated. You would think that he of all people would get the best service in town. “What’s the hold up?” she asked one of Zhao Ge’s guards.

“We’re told there are some very important guests here,” the guard jerked his chin outward, prompting her to look at the space before them. The two-storied tea house was filled top to bottom with patrons who, interestingly enough, were all wearing the same outfit. Pure white robes. And they were all sitting there in silence, sipping tea, with perfect posture, occupying all the tables. For a second, Bai Qian wasn’t quite sure if she was staring at a bunch of mortals or gods. Who are these people?

“Disciples of the Burning Wind Mountain Sect.”


“They’re immortal cultivators,” said Shu Long, who had come up from behind her. “You’re not from here, Big Sis, so you must not know. The Sect has been around for centuries.”

Immortal cultivators... Bai Qian had certainly heard of stories about mortals ascending to fairy status - it was very common knowledge. Every year, on the fifth of May at Qing Yun Hall in the Nine Heavens, Donghua Dijun would be the one to award them with their new titles and record their names in the Lianxin Mirror [1]. But this was the first time she had seen a Sect of this kind. Her eyes once again ran over each one of the white-clothed individuals.

“Back then, they were much more discreet than this – the disciples of the Sect would always keep to themselves in the confines of their mountain, but as of late…” Shu Long paused.

“You’re right, kid,” one of guards beside them chimed in, “I’ve been seeing these White Robes walking around everywhere these days, and anywhere they go, they get the Royal treatment.”

“Why is that?” Bai Qian asked.

“Because of the Emperor,” the guard’s voice now changed to a whisper. “They say that recently he’s really taken an interest in Taoism, to the point of obsession. More alarming is the fact that he’s been favoring this Sect’s leader over his most loyal subjects. The court officials have been disgruntled about it. But with that kind of backing, nobody dares to mess with these guys!”

“I’m sorry, my Lord! Please forgive this lowly servant!” Looking over to where Zhao Ge was standing, Bai Qian could see the tea house’s owner and his staff were still profusely bowing their heads and apologizing. “We simply cannot offer you any seating today, every table has been taken. We’re so sorry!”

“What do you mean every table has been taken? Ask them to leave!” shouted one of the guards standing beside Zhao Ge who seemed to have quite the temper.

“I’m sorry, Sir, but our hands are tied… these guests are…”

“Do you know who you’re turning away?! This is the town’s Magistrate, not some random... customer… off the… street...” The guard’s fit of rage soon slowed to a quiet whisper as he noticed the threatening look from his superior.

“That’s enough,” Zhao Ge ordered. “We will go elsewhere.”

As he headed toward the door, the Magistrate caught eyes with Bai Qian and motioned for her to follow him. Once they were outside, his men were instructed to go pick out some items from the various food stands nearby for them to eat on the go. Meanwhile, he turned to her and said, “You, which direction are those criminals headed in? Surely you’ve had enough time to use your ‘special skills’ by now.”

“Haaa?” What did she look like to him? A bloodhound?

Sure, she had told the Magistrate she would “track” down his criminals for him. But he seemed so confident, leading them around all morning, she thought he had found a lead. How was she supposed to figure out where those kidnappers had gone on the fly like this? Think, Bai Qian, think!

Got it! An idea flashed in her mind. She instantly thought of someone who could help. But she needed to be alone in order to talk to him. How did one demand privacy in a situation like this? There was only one way.

“Ah... ha ha… about that... of course I know where they’re headed,” Bai Qian informed, “but first! I… uh… have to use the restroom!”

With that statement, Bai Qian ran straight to the alley across the street. Not caring that she had left behind a group of wide-eyed men wondering what on earth a dignified woman was doing going to the restroom in an alleyway.

“TUGONG [2]! Come out!” She slammed her heel onto the ground.

When nothing appeared, she channelled just a slight bit of power and kicked the ground again. “Old man, you dare to not come out and see me?”

A ripple soon shook the dirt beneath her feet.

“Who?! Which idiot is stomping and yelling and disturbing my sleep?” Tugong, the old Earth Deity of the Capital City, her old pal, was still rubbing crust from his eyes as he appeared before her. It had been ages since she’d visited the mortal realm, specifically his turf. The last time, she was still a Kunlun disciple. Tugong was the local Earth Deity then too, but his hair wasn’t nearly as gray then as it was now.

“Si… Si-Si-Siyin? It’s really you?” He looked like he was about to fall backwards from shock.

“Old man, did you miss me?” She had certainly missed him.

“How many centuries has it been?” he gave her a hard slap on the shoulder, “You’re only now paying this old man a visit? Also, why are you dressed like this? You must be playing a prank on your Kunlun brothers again, you little rascal, you never change!”

“What little rascal?! Tch… Since you used to help me out so much back then, this High Goddess will let you call me Auntie now,” Bai Qian smirked. “Listen, I need a favor from you again.”

“Auntie?” Tugong squinted his eyes and leaned in so close to her she could smell the stale wine from his breath. “High Goddess? You mean… you’ve... decided to become a cross-dresser?”


Bai Qian suddenly recalled the many reasons why she had always had the urge to beat him up. “Are you going to help me or not? You want me to pin you down and pull your beard hairs out like last time?”

The Old Deity’s whole body recoiled from the reminder.

“I need you to help me locate some people. A group of kids living in an abandoned temple nearby were recently abducted. Do you know anything about this?”

His face instantly registered awareness. “Of course I know.” Tugong stroked his long beard and began to pace in front of her. “Those poor children… I was very distraught to see it happen, but as you know, there was nothing I could do about it.”

“What happened to them?”

“Abducted, as you said.”

“I know, but who took them? Where did they go? I need an exact location.”

His pacing halted. Eyes squinting at her again. “Why do you want to know?”

“That doesn’t concern you. Hurry up and give me an address.”

“Ohhh no. No, no, no.” His hand waved back and forth to dismiss her request. “You... how many times have we been through this? You think I don’t know you? You can’t keep meddling with the mortals! I was sure your Master was going to lock you up for good after that last catastrophe!”

“You really don’t want to tell me?”

Tugong quickly gathered up his beard and held it away from her. His head shook fervently.

“Well then. How do you think the Celestials will react when I tell them that their trusted little Earth Deity has been looting wine and treasures from the mortal Emperor’s Palace while spying on his concubines all these centuries? I hear there’s a nice prison in the Northern Wasteland for immortals who…”

“Alright! Alright! Don’t you have anything better to do than torture this old man? Always using the same threat...” Begrudgingly, the old deity dipped into his sleeves and brought out a silk cloth. A wave of his hand and a few lines were imprinted onto the material, which he handed over to her. “Here. If you get lost, it’s not my fault.”

“What is this? Is this even a map?” Bai Qian had never seen a worse looking drawing in her life.

“Just head East out of town, then take the back road that leads you to a bamboo forest. Go through that, then you’ll end up on another road that takes you towards the base of a mountain. Look around for a cave entrance. The children were brought there. But be careful, it’s guarded.”

“Thanks.” Bai Qian flashed him a satisfied grin. “Tugong, you better take care of yourself. Don’t let that head of yours turn all white until the next time I see you.”

“Yeah, yeah. Hopefully that won’t be for another 70,000 years.”

“Big Sis!” Shu Long’s voice rang around the corner. “Are you alright? Are you... still… going to the bathroom?”

Taking it as his cue to leave, the figure in front of her vanished in a puff of smoke. When Bai Qian made it to the head of the alleyway, the brat was standing there waiting for her. Across the street, the Magistrate and his crew were still standing around waiting as well. With the new information she had, they were soon on the road and headed out of town.

Thinking back to what Tugong had said, Bai Qian couldn’t deny she felt uneasy.

You can’t keep meddling...

And now that person’s voice was bouncing around in her head.

Do you deem yourself fit to decide their fate?

But her intuition was telling her that this matter needed her involvement. Unfortunately for Bai Qian, her intuition was not something she could ever learn to ignore.

Chapter 23


End Notes:

[1] As detailed in the Pillow Book: book 1
[2] Tugong (土公 "Lord of the Soil") or Tudigong (土地公 "Lord of the Soil and the Ground"): a guardian or patron deity of a region of land and the human communities who inhabit it according to Chinese Mythology.