Fanfiction: Moyuan and Bai Qian, Book 2 - Chapter 10, Part 3 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 10 - Devices and Trials

Part 3

written by LalaLoop
consulting by Bunny
editing by Kakashi

I have been asking the wrong question.

Bai Qian transformed her fan and continued practicing her strikes in the backyard of the mortal cottage.

We’ve all been asking the wrong question.

It was not about why he had done that to Zheyan, or to her, but why he had done it at all. She had been racking her brain to understand what she had seen at Zhuxian Terrace, but forgot to ask herself why she and Yanzhi could have been there to see it. They were not in the Nine Heavens by accident, or during an attempt to save innocent lives. They were there because Zheyan had taken them there. Why had Zheyan, knowing exactly how dangerous Luoji was, brought them to the Nine Heavens only to ask them to get themselves out if Luoji could not be stopped?

And in the face of grief and despair, she had never considered someone else that was as much involved in this as she, Moyuan, and Yanzhi were - Luoji.

Whatever they had seen, Luoji had seen. The malicious yet highly entertained face of the Dark Immortal swarmed across her mind. To Luoji, it was not a fight, nor a difficult goal to accomplish. It’d looked to be only a game, a play he had longed to watch.

Neither Zheyan nor Moyuan could have overpowered Luoji, that much was clear to her now, not even if they’d combined force. To assume that they could stop someone who’d taken over the Nine Heaven right under the Celestials’ noses was utterly foolish - but that… was what Zheyan had told her they would do.

They had not been there to try and stop Luoji at all, Bai Qian concluded with confidence, but to carry out the confrontation they’d known would have to take place. But was what happened during this confrontation also a plan? The feather, a good laugh, satisfaction - those were what Luoji had gained that night.

What had she gained from being there except hatred for Moyuan?

Bai Qian dropped her swordhand and took a breath, staring into the wild bamboo in the distance. Hatred for him… Was that supposed to happen? Was it what Zheyan had ensured would happen?

Before last night, she would have laughed at anyone who suggested the idea - there was no sense in it at all. But Moyuan’s stubborn response to her questions had made one thing clear - he did not mind being seen by the whole world as an outlaw, a Demon lover, he rather welcomed it.

But for what purpose? And why… why would Zheyan agree to hand over his power feather like that? Now… that was uncomprehending.

And did this mean that Zheyan…

No, she told herself firmly. The celestial eruption that night, the state of the Peach Blossoms garden, they all said the same thing - Zheyan was not here anymore. Even Bai Zhen had stopped denying this truth. She could not keep clinging to the hope that the Zheyan was still around here somewhere. Hope would only lead to disappointment and this disappointment she did not believe she could bear. Just because the Demon Queen was alive and walking in front of her did not mean it was possible for someone else.

Zheyan, she sighed and placed her hand on either side of her head, what exactly did you want to tell me?

And the Demon Queen’s presence among the eight realms... Bai Qian felt so hopeless everytime she came back to this question that she wanted to slam her head against a stone pillar. Why weren’t terrible things happening yet because of this woman’s resurrection? Or had these consequences been happening gradually and quietly? Had Moyuan somehow discovered a way to cheat Fate without using Dark Magic? He said he had helped her. How? How was any of this possible?

Someone was approaching, her ears picked up on some footsteps and Bai Qian turned around. Moyuan had stepped into the yard. Unsure as to how she should greet him given their last conversation and partly surprised to see him here this early, Bai Qian said nothing. She had come out here before dawn and had been training since, imagining Luoji’s face at the receiving end of her every strikes. She had lost track of time. It must have been a few hours.

“What fan are you using?” Moyuan asked, walking towards her with his hands behind his back and too gentle a smile on his lips.

Bai Qian held a silence for another long minute and did not take her eyes off of him. If he had made a point to keep this from her then it would be no use asking him about Zheyan again. Moyuan was many things but never a man who acted without thinking. For a while she had believed firmly that he’d gone mad because of this Demon Queen, but that assumption too was beginning to falter the more she observed him. For Moyuan, she knew it was never about his ability to relay information or express himself, but when and to whom.

“Seventeenth?” he said again, snapping Bai Qian out of her endless thoughts.

“Er… The Princess of Xunzhua made it for me,” she said. “Metal handle, silk leaf.”

He stepped closer to her. “May I take a look?”

Bai Qian held her weapon towards him. Gently he gripped the handle and flicked the fan open.

“Excellent balance,” he commented. “The Princess of Xunzhua is a rare talent, indeed.”

“What do you mean ‘balance’?” she asked curiously.

“Ahh, when you forge a weapon, the choice of material is extremely important. A weapon that is made with two or more compatible kinds of material exudes what we call Balance; it is able to generate magic more potently, able to sense what its wielder wants.”

“Is it the same kind of balance that your body gains from meditation?”

“Yes, for the most part,” he said. “Balance of soul, of weapon, of the whole universe, it is the same concept.”

“Hmm,” she pondered. “I wonder why I haven’t read about it before.”

“I’m sure you’ve come across it. But this is rather specific and tedious information that only appeals to those who study weaponry.”

“Can you -- tell me more?”

“Of course. More unique weapons require more attention to detail during the process of designing and forging; and weapons with magical cores, of course, are even more difficult to create Balance for. The creator’s skills are also crucial. A more gifted weapon creator can produce more balanced weapons with the same spells and procedure.”

Bai Qian’s heart dropped - that was why the Kunlun fan was such a unique weapon, something she would never find again. The only thing that came close to giving her the same powerful sensation upon contact was Ironfeather, but that too was far out of her reach.

“This is a good fan,” Moyuan repeated and handed it back to her with an understanding smile, then, Bai Qian noticed, flexed his left arm.

“Is it that cut on your arm again?” she said without thinking, and immediately regretted it. But it was too late, his eyes were already upon her face with quiet yet obvious suspicion.

“How do you know about the cut on my arm?” he asked.

“It was — er — a guess.”

He stepped closer and within the next second, seemed to have grasped a full understanding on the matter. “Was it you?” he said quietly.

“What?” Bai Qian knew it was no use denying that she had been in his study at Kunlun now. But maybe… if she could convince him it had been a dream...

“I see,” Moyuan said with a perplexed expression along with some concern, still looking at her helplessly. “Lingyu’s pendant?”

Change the subject
, Bai Qian urged herself frantically as she felt the heat on her face. She could not endure being questioned about that night. I must think of something fast.

“Where did you sleep last night?” was what came out of her mouth.

“What?” Moyuan looked at her, half bemused.

Flustered upon realizing where she had led the conversation, but Bai Qian continued with a straight face and what she hoped would pass for an expression of genuine concern. “There’s only one bed in the house, where did you sleep last night?”

“I didn’t,” he answered.

To Bai Qian’s relief, an outbreak of loud twittering interrupted them at that very moment.

“What is…” she turned to see the little sprite leaping and twirling in the air, motioned with its whole body for her to come inside.

“Is it Pojing?” she asked nervously. But judging by the wide grin on the sprite’s face, it certainly wasn’t anything bad. “Is he awake?”

The creature nodded with a proud expression, as though congratulating itself. Ecstatic beyond words Bai Qian bolted up the little steps and through the cottage door.


***


Inside the bedroom, she came to a screeching halt.

The Demon Queen was now also up and standing next to Pojing’s bed. The word Jie-jie almost slipped out of Bai Qian again and she almost asked this woman why she was up so early when she was still ill; but she thought better of it. The look they exchanged before the woman walked out of the room frustrated Bai Qian so much she wanted to pull out her own hair. She could not decide how she should look at this Demon Queen.

“You...” a faint voice reached her ears.

Bai Qian flew to the bedside, some footsteps right behind her.

“Pojing?”

He grunted and shifted on the bed as though just the sound of her calling hurt him.

“How are you feeling?” said Bai Qian, this time in a much lower voice, pressing her hand against his forehead.

“Like -- hell --”

“Well -- that’s how you look,” she could not help smiling.

“Your bedside manners are terrible --” he laughed, only to growl in discomfort right away. “Where are we?”

“Mortal realm.”

“Why is everything so blurry?” he shook his head. “I need to get up --”

She slipped a hand under his shoulders and lifted him upward. “You’ve slept for many days. The wounds here aren’t healed yet,” she pointed at the region of his abdomen where the claw marks were once he was in an upright position. “Try not to move too much.”

“Not -- move?” he repeated, as though thinking her warning was a joke.

“Yes, I’m serious. Also, leave your arm alone. I’ll get you whatever you need. Your job is to stay in bed and let your healing powers work or you won’t get better.”

Pojing breathed out and shook his head, then gave her a long look and a wide smile of relief.

“I honestly thought we…”

His amber eyes, though tired still, suddenly lit up in bewilderment.

“What?”

“What is going on…” Pojing stuttered. “Why is he...”

“I am only here to help,” Moyuan’s voice said and Bai Qian heard his footsteps approaching.

Quickly she stood up and let Moyuan take her seat at the bedside.

“Let me see if your healing powers are being hindered,” he said and took Pojing’s pulse. “Is your broken arm hurting?”

Pojing nodded. “As it… should… I suppose...” he said, now sounding like his voice was leaving him.

Bai Qian quickly cast a shield around the bedroom then strode over to the table in the corner and poured a good amount of water into one of the ceramic bowls.

“Can you drink?” she walked back to Pojing.

He made a raspy sound that Bai Qian took as yes. She wrapped an arm around his shoulders to ease him forward, her other hand raising the water to his lips, expecting him to start coughing any moment. Thankfully no such thing happened, he drained down the water rather quickly although his eyes were still full of suspicion.

“I will need to ask you a few questions, King of Xunzhua,” said Moyuan as Bai Qian stood up to put away the empty cup.

“But where’s that... woman I saw just now?” asked Pojing. “Who was she?”

“Don’t worry, she’s a mortal,” Bai Qian said. “I think she’s -- er -- outside.”

“The Queen of Qingqiu told me you spent three days in the Arctic Prison,” Moyuan continued. “Has any of the guards performed Dark Magic on you?”

“I -- wouldn’t know if they have,” Pojing shook his head.

“Naturally,” Moyuan said pensively. “Have you had dreams in which you were not yourself?”

“Not -- myself?”

“Seeing places you’ve never been to before, voices in your head giving you orders.”

“No... I don’t think I’d seen anything but pitch black until I woke up.”

“Do you feel anything unusual? Unfounded hatred towards your friend, for instance.” he gestured towards Bai Qian. “Or -- Sadistic? Suicidal?”

Pojing’s forehead scrunched and his eyes wandered to her for a second. “I don’t think so. Not -- right now.”

Moyuan nodded. “Only a trained immortal physician can tell for certain whether there are traces of demonic energy in your body or not. When you get back to Xunzhua, be sure to inform your physician of the incident. My Sixteenth Disciple and your sister have both been tortured with Dark Magic and it took them quite some time to fully recover.”

As soon as Moyuan finished, Pojing looked down at his unimpaired arm and, before anyone could stop him, pulled his fingers inward, clearly wanting to see his clawed gauntlet appear.

“Pojing!” Bai Qian dived forward and forced his hand down, stunned. “What did we just tell you!”

“I can’t summon my weapons…” he breathed out.

“Of course you can’t,” said Moyuan with a slight shake of his head.

“I’ve never been this powerless before… how...”

“The coldness inside the Arctic Prison has greatly impaired you,” Moyuan explained and even he sounded a bit impatient. “Your body is slowly recovering so do not be anxious.”

Pojing nodded, although he looked nothing but anxious, and said as he once again glanced from Bai Qian to Moyuan. “But I don’t understand… why… why are you here... High God?”

“I will explain later,” said Moyuan. “For now, I advise you to rest and not burden your mind with the immortal realm’s affairs for a few more days.”

The look on Pojing’s face told Bai Qian he was not going to do as advised at all, which she could not blame him for. If a man whom she’d just had a deadly fight with just some days ago told her to go to sleep and not burden her mind, she would likely do the opposite.

Swiftly Moyuan rose and left the room.

“He’s right, Pojing,” Bai Qian said, sitting back down. And Pojing’s stunned look was now directed at her.

“Rest?” he hissed. “Last time… at Kunlun…”

“I know,” Bai Qian interrupted. “I said I’ll explain everything later. But trust me, he’s been helping you. You really need to go back to sleep.”

“You’d better explain everything,” he growled as Bai Qian helped him lie back down. “Seeing that I have... no choice but to trust you...”

His reminder cast a shadow upon her already heavy heart. It was true that there was a risk in staying in the same house with the Demon Queen even if she had no powers, a risk in trusting Moyuan, and she had nothing but her own speculation to rely on. The values she had been taught since birth commanded her to hate and put up her guard against this Demon Queen, but the time she had spent with this woman told another story. Was her judgement right was the question.

As soon as Pojing’s breathing became steady, Bai Qian quietly left the bedroom and left the disgruntled sprite in charge with the promise of more berries in return.


***


When Bai Qian stepped back outside, Moyuan seemed to be finishing a conversation with the Demon Queen in the kitchen. It looked like he too was persuading his not so well friend to go back to sleep.

Without intention, Bai Qian lingered for a moment at the threshold. She half wanted to confront this Demon Queen again, in a less murderous manner than last time. Though at the same time, her focus was diverted by her noticing how this woman was almost as tall as Moyuan and had been looking him in the eyes all this time.

“Xiao -- ah, Bai Qian,” the Demon Queen suddenly turned and addressed her before Bai Qian could decide whether she should leave them alone or not. Now that her face was in full view, Bai Qian realized she did not look too pleased.

Reluctantly she stepped into the kitchen while Moyuan left it with a sigh and a shake of his head.

“Is something wrong?” Bai Qian asked.

“He was just being a busy body and telling me to go back to sleep,” said the woman, pouring herself some tea.

“Maybe you should,” Bai Qian walked over.

“I know you’d say that. Somehow you two are very alike in your obsession over telling other people what should be done.”

“No --” Bai Qian chuckled weakly. “I’m sure I don’t have it that bad.”

“Maybe not,” the woman laughed her graceful laugh. “But you’re on the way to becoming like him if you don’t relax a little. I coughed a few times and my throat hurts a bit, but I’m not going to pass out just by getting my own tea.”

Nodding and suppressing a laugh of agreement, Bai Qian commented no more on the subject. The woman stood still next to the counter and sipped her tea in silence, as though she knew there were more questions coming her way; but she looked neither uncomfortable nor annoyed.

In a quiet tone, Bai Qian began. “If you knew that we were immortals, why did you still invite us into your home? There’s no telling we wouldn’t bring harm to you.”

“Saving someone’s life is not a question of logic to me,” she answered. “In those cases I only think about what I can do, not what I should do. Also, I was quite sure you weren’t from the Dark Side. I lost my powers, not my perception.”

“Aren’t you afraid for your own safety?”

“A little,” she said with no pretenses. “I still am. You’re the one with magical powers, after all, and it seems you also think I’m the cause of something terrible besides the Demon War.”

“Then -- how can you be so sure I won’t try to harm you?”

“You just don’t look like you would. I might be wrong. I’ve been wrong before, unforgivably wrong,” a glint of pain shone briefly in her eyes. “But I guess that’s how you get better with your judgement.”

Bai Qian’s brows deeply furrowed. She did not know what to make of this statement; it sounded both impressive and foolish. Once again the books she’d read and the lectures she’d heard about the Demon War took turns to reappear in her head - how the Demon Queen was like an all consuming fire that burned everything on her path, how the Demon armies slaughtered their enemies without mercy. But none of those pages or lectures had prepared Bai Qian for this - facing with the alleged Demon Queen and seeing completely different things from what she had learnt.

“Hmm,” the woman’s tone suddenly changed. “This is not very good --”

Bai Qian peered closer to the wooden container she was holding.

“You forgot to get more salt yesterday,” she said.

“What?”

“Salt. We have only about two spoonfuls left. I reckon we’ll need more than that tonight if we’re going to make dinner.”

“Oh,” Bai Qian frowned. “How could I have forgotten that?”

“It’s not your fault. You didn’t know we’d have company,” she motioned with her head towards the door Moyuan had walked out.

“I can go get some.”

“Tell Moyuan to get it,” she shrugged. “He’s going to town to purchase some medicine.”

Taken aback by how this woman had just casually told her to go send the God of War on an errand, it took Bai Qian several seconds to begin carrying out that request.

Out of the kitchen she went, still deep in thought, and found Moyuan in a grey mortal robe in the front yard, untying the horse.

“Erm…” she cleared her throat. “You are going to town?”

“Yes,” he said, now fixing the saddle on the horse’s back.

“Well -- I think we’re going to have to make dinner and -- there’s not enough salt left, so if you’re going to town --”

“Why don’t you come with me?” he said, not looking at her.

“Come with you?” Bai Qian repeated, puzzled. Was that an invitation or a request? “Shouldn’t one of us stay here to look after the Demon Queen and Pojing? They’re both sick.”

“Shaowan isn’t as ill as I thought and I believe the King of Xunzhua is going to sleep for another few hours at least.”

The idea was irresistible. Heavens knew she longed for a few minutes with him without being interrupted for many reasons. Even if he refused to tell her of his plans, refused to give her any explanations, she still needed to speak with him. Her plan to get to the bottom of the matter concerning Zheyan and the Demon Queen had to start somewhere. The biggest reason, however, lay upon her chest like a giant boulder - she missed being in his company so much that even now, when nothing was clear, she yearned for it.

However, facing the thought of leaving Pojing in this cottage, Bai Qian suddenly recalled something else.

She strode over to Moyuan and lowered her voice. “Does the Demon Queen know Pojing is the King of Xunzhua yet?”

“I have not told her,” said Moyuan.

Bai Qian nodded to herself in relief. Her wanting to trust this Demon Queen was one thing, but Xunzhua did not look upon the Demon Tribe with more friendly eyes than the Celestials did. Without Pojing’s permission, she could not reveal his identity to this woman no matter how kind and trustworthy she seemed to be.


***



They took the same route Bai Qian had taken to town last time. The horse’s hooves clip-clopped against the ground, making the silence between them more difficult to bear than it was. Halfway across the woodland that stood between the Demon Queen’s cottage and the city, Bai Qian started to wonder why Moyuan had asked her to come along if there would be no talking involved.

Well, if he wasn’t going to talk, Bai Qian decided, then she would...

“When was the last time you saw Yehua, Seventeenth?” his voice put a stop to her momentum like a bucket of cold water.

“Erm -- at the Nine Heavens,” she said.

“What happened that day at the Nine Heavens?”

“He ruptured the protective shield so that we could escape.”

Moyuan did not ask her anything else. Another few steps, he let go of the horse’s reins and took up his left arm again.

“Is it hurting?” Bai Qian asked.

“A little,” he frowned.

“You should let me look at it,” she suggested. “I have some healing potion.”

In the same pavilion where she’d sought shelter from the rain yesterday, they settled onto the wooden bench. It was still quite early in the morning - the energetic singing of little birds here and there and the fresh fragrance of dew suggested that. She pulled out a vial of Zheyan’s potion from her small sack.

“I got a few of them before leaving Qingqiu,” she said in response to his curious look.

“Are there also books in that bag?” he asked, smiling his all-knowing smile.

“Yes,” Bai Qian looked at him suspiciously. “Are you -- laughing?”

“No,” he cleared his throat.

She placed his arm on her lap, folded his sleeve and unwrapped the mildly bloodstained bandages. The cut had become narrower, less deep, yet drops of blood were still seeping out.

“Why is it still bleeding after so many days?” she winced, dabbing the blood away with a clean cloth.

“The beast I met with had venomous talons,” he told her. “This kind of wound takes more time to heal.”

“Are you sure the venom isn’t still in your arm?” she tilted the little vial to release a few drops of potion onto the gash.

“I’m quite sure. Don’t worry.”

Don’t worry, Bai Qian imitated him in her head. Jumping into fire once every other day and telling the people who cared about him not to worry - what unrivalled insensitivity.

“Do you think something has happened to Senior Zilan?” she suddenly remembered.

“It is unlikely,” Moyuan said. “Zilan has always been exceptionally good at getting himself out of trouble. I doubt he is in any danger.”

“Yanzhi is worried sick about him. He hasn’t been in touch for a while. What could he be doing?” she vented her disapproval, drawing out some new bandages from her sack. “Why hasn’t he written to us, or at least let Yanzhi know he’s still alive?”

There was a silence.

“I see,” Moyuan said. “I will be sure to tell Zilan that should I see him again.”

Bai Qian shook her head. She’d always thought her Sixteenth Senior to be more considerate than this. He was someone who had decided to give up the life and education he could have had at Kunlun to accompany Yanzhi in the mortal realm, after all.

She glanced briefly up at Moyuan and scoffed. “How can one expect the lower beam of a roof to be straight if the upper one is aslant? [*]”

Bai Qian did not look up again, but she could feel his eyes narrowing above her and could almost see that line between his brows in her head. With great satisfaction she continued to wrap the bandage around his arm.

“That is true,” he said. “I have not taught my disciple well. Stealing a pendant and breaking into Kunlun is the behavior that’s proper. You -- are the straight roof beam --”

Bai Qian pressed her lips together, gripped the two ends of the bandage and pulled as hard as she could. His body jerked forward and she heard the sound of him responding to the sudden pain. She turned up at him just in time to see an expression of both helplessness and amusement on his face.

Shooting him a look of warning, she went back to fixing the edges of the bandage.

“Actually, I can’t call myself an exemplar of good behavior in this case, either, being your disciple and all,” she shrugged and continued absentmindedly, “well -- at least before my Kunlun pendant was confiscated.”

His silence this time was rather odd. When Bai Qian glanced up again, she was greeted with a completely detached and disinterested pair of eyes that were setting upon something in the distance.

“Thank you,” he said as soon as she finished and stood up rather abruptly.

“How did you get injured?” she asked.

“It’s no matter. It will heal.”

“I know. But what kind of creature attacked you?”

“I can’t tell you that,” he said, voice gentle but quite adamant.

Why?”

“It is -- complicated.”

“I think I can keep up.”

“This is not about whether you can keep up, Seventeenth,” he said shortly and began walking towards the horse. “I know you can.”

Having concluded to herself many times that Moyuan absolutely must have a reason underneath his maddening silence, yet Bai Qian was unable to control her anger in the face of his insistence to keep his lips sealed about the simplest things.

“Why do you keep doing this!” she strode after him. “If you're doing something to help me or Yehua then why can’t you tell me about it? It would save us all a lot of trouble.”

He said nothing.

“Why am I always the one who knows about these things last?” she raged on. “What do you take me for?”

A few steps ahead of her, Moyuan stopped walking, enabling her to quickly catch up.

“What do you take me for?” he wheeled around so abruptly that Bai Qian, standing too close to him, almost fell backwards.

Huh? “What...?”

“A painting you would throw aside the moment it becomes less than perfect?”

It took Bai Qian a good minute to wrap her head around what he had just said - her own words on Kunlun Mountain… As Moyuan looked down at her, she saw something in the depths of his eyes she could not identify. There was very little calmness and control left in them. It was as if she was looking at a stranger. Of all things, the things she had said in a rage was what he kept in mind?

“Can you answer my question?” he said.

“Are you going to hold what I said in anger against me?” she replied indignantly.

“Anger?” he stepped closer. “No, you saw through my doubts and used them against me so well that I find it hard to believe you only said those things out of anger.”

His voice retained some of that serenity he naturally possessed, yet underneath there was a vehemence struggling to break free from its chain. Bai Qian did not retreat; she felt an urge to remind him that out of anger or not, she had not said anything that day that he didn’t deserve. But at the same time, her curiosity was taking over. She wanted to know how exactly her words mattered to him. Having always assumed that Moyuan never failed to see through her even in his most agitated moments, that there was nothing he could not meditate away, his insistence on an explanation to something that should take him no effort to understand confused her to no end. So she remained silent as he went on.

“No matter what I do,” he said. “No matter if Luoji is alive and causing trouble or not, I can never be more than the Master of Kunlun, the person you bowed to as your Shifu in the grand hall 90,000 years ago. Is that right?”

“Why,” she stared back, deciding she would like to vex him. “What — part of that troubles you?”

“Seventeenth --” he placed his hands heavily upon her shoulders. “Are you really so oblivious or do you think that my patience towards you is something you can trample on as you please?”

Astonished, yet unfrightened, she lifted her head higher. “You have no right to ask me this question considering what you’ve done.”

His grasp only tightened, in a way that let her know it was not a joke anymore. But unlike any other previous time, she did not bother putting up a resistance. In fact, she wanted to be as close to him as possible to be sure what she was seeing was not an illusion - he looked almost as desperate as she had been all this time, desperate for an answer to something he could not solve with his own strategic mind.

For a moment Bai Qian thought about what she needed to know. What he could tell her but would not. Her head was urging her with all its strength to take advantage of the vulnerability before her eyes because it would not last for long. It was not everyday that the God of War could be driven out of his composure so easily. But he was not the enemy, the other half of her argued. She had come to that conclusion earlier. Whatever strength and wit she had should be used against Luoji, not Moyuan.

“Are you considering taking this opportunity to get your own questions answered?” he said with a slight tilt of his head.

Infuriated that even when vulnerable he was still able to read her like a book, Bai Qian bit down on her lip and threw that little amount of sympathy she had just gathered for him out of her head.

“Yes, I am,” she gave back.

“I admire your unfailing determination to pursue your goal. I’m afraid I do not have that strength. Not now.”

Bai Qian could not decide if that was a confession or pure mockery. She looked at him, then looked again. Everything about him now puzzled her. Maybe she had been too used to dealing with a nonchalant God of War to whom everything was as simple as a cup of tea that this side of him, as much as she had been longing to see it, baffled her.

“What was it that impelled you to remain at Kunlun with me?” he asked. And Bai Qian was stunned by the direct nature of this question even though she had long understood him to harbor this uncertainty.

For a second she considered telling him how she’d had to put up with his discretion and vagueness for so long that she had lost the ability to respond to a direct question; but she had an inkling that doing so would be the equivalence of poking the Kirin at the Arctic Prison in the eye. Her hesitance to reply resulted in more silence that Moyuan did not seem to appreciate.

“Was everything you told me true?” he asked again.

“I have a better question,” she said finally. “What difference does it make now?”

“To you, perhaps not that much of a difference. But I need to understand. Heavens know I have faced death enough times lately to begin to treasure my own life, and treasure every second I am granted here even if I have to look at your


less face.”

“What!” Bai Qian gasped. “I’m ruth --”

“So before we part ways this time, let us be clear on how I should interpret your words on Kunlun Mountain.”

“Did you just say that I’m ruthless?” Bai Qian fumed.

“Tell me,” he ignored her and went on with a facade of calmness, with well chosen words that still evidently failed to mask the emotion that was driving him. “Why did I, of all people, have the -- honor -- of your company at Kunlun?”

“‘Why’?”

“Was it a sense of obligation and your longing for a mentor that drove you to Kunlun, and not to the Crown Prince of the Nine Heavens, or to your friend from Xunzhua, or the excellent chess player whose skills you admire so much and could not wait to learn from?”

“Are you…” Bai Qian gaped at him, her jaw dropped. “If you’re going to fault me for playing a few chess games with Lord Donghua,” she said, feeling out of breath all of a sudden, “then let’s talk about how many hours you have spent with the Princess of Xunzhua, talking about the dullest subject in the world! And I never uttered a word of complaint. I never cared about what went on in your study during those hours!”

“Am I supposed to thank you for your generosity, or should I ask myself why you never cared?”

“You’re the one with a brilliant mind, Shifu. Do you really need my opinion on this?”

“What I need is your answer --”

“Well -- I don’t understand the question anymore. What does Lord Donghua have to do with it all?”

“Donghua is not the point.”

“Why did you mention him then!”

“We have strayed too far from what I wanted to discuss.”

Bewildered still and with anger about to spill out of her head, Bai Qian was surprised at herself for not kicking down all the trees around them yet. She even wanted to yell at the innocent little birds above them to shut their mouths.

“I can’t tell you how much I like to be in Yehua and Pojing’s company,” she pressed out. “Or how much I am fascinated by those chess lessons with Lord Donghua. But I can assure you, I haven’t turned into a Dark Magic pursuer for any of them like you did for the Demon Queen!”

“Why do you care so much that I break the rules for Shaowan? Are you simply disappointed in the mentor you thought you could look up to?”

Simply?” she said in disbelief. “You talk about my respect for you as if it was something worth less than a mortal coin --”

“Respect,” Moyuan said with apparent displeasure in his voice. “Of course.”

“Is something wrong with that?”

“No. I can never win against you if it’s about right and wrong.”

“Why do I bother to tell you about respect now?” she shook her head. “That and everything else I thought you cared about obviously don’t matter to you that much.”

“I think you know perfectly well what mattered to me this moment, Seventeenth,” he murmured.

Yes, she knew... But she was beyond caring about what he needed after all that he’d just said to her today, after all that secrecy and stubbornness from him that she’d had to endure.

“I’m glad she’s here,” Bai Qian said, tears beginning to well in her eyes.

“What?”

“I used to struggle to understand why you would risk so much for this woman. But now that I’ve seen her --” she scoffed. “Beautiful, elegant, clever. I can’t blame you.”

Moyuan’s gaze upon her was becoming as intense as burning coal that she was not sure how much longer she could keep staring back at him like this.

“I’m glad she is here to talk to you and make you smile like before,” she went on, making a point to speak with malice, but somehow failing. “That’s all I wanted and that’s what I’ve never been able to do...”

“That’s all you wanted --” he nodded and looked briefly away. “Is that the reason you chose to stay at Kunlun - you felt obligated to offer your companionship, and because above all, I never run short of what you need - explanation to anything you come across in a book, time and patience?”

“You took Zheyan’s feather!” she glared at him. “It doesn’t matter why I chose to stay with you at Kunlun, not anymore! Whatever reason it is, it’s in the past and it’s a trifle compared to what’s going on now.”

“If it is a trifle,” he said. “Then surely you can give me an answer. Or do you feel a need to prolong what you clearly know is a torment?”

”Yes, I do,” she wrenched herself free and threw his arms aside. “Don’t you?”

“Bai Qian --” her shoulders were taken his hands again the next second and their eyes were upon one another’s like two opponents at the beginning of the duel, his heart hammering against the skin of her arm. It was the fire in his eyes that subdued first. His voice was very much the same as hers now - on the verge of breaking despite its owner’s great effort to steady it. “Are you really not going to answer me?”

Bai Qian knew exactly what her answer was. But what could she tell him? That she felt as good as dead without him, that she could think better when he was around, that he had become much more than a mentor to her long ago, that there were times when she wanted to throw dignity and principle away and attach herself to him indefinitely?

No, she could not say any of these things, not today.

“I wanted to hurt you,” she murmured, hands clutching his robe. “As much as I could. You’re right, I knew of your doubts and I just had to make use of them to achieve what I set out to do.”

He gave a dry chuckle that contained many emotions at once; and Bai Qian could tell that the unstableness she was feeling was not only her own. She pushed against his shoulders and he responded by fastening his arms around her.

“And is this why you went back to Kunlun - to see for yourself if you were the victor?”

“If I knew my words could have so much power over you, Shifu --” a small sob escaped from her throat before Bai Qian could stop it. “I wouldn’t have wasted my time afterwards thinking about whether I’ve managed to hurt you, I would have devoted my head to something else instead --”

“I will tell you now that you succeeded much beyond your expectations,” he emphasized. “Does that satisfy you?”

She stared into his dark eyes. They were without riddles, without the obstinate pride she had seen too much of lately. It was the first time she could see him without seeing the venerable Taoist Master, or the wielder of Xuanyuan Sword, or a massive amount of philosophy and the principles she’d always associated him with. Facing him now she was at last certain that she mattered. On one hand, that notion made everything much more enigmatic and complicated than it already was; on another, all the emotions that were rushing up to her throat was like a storm she was powerless against. But her anger towards him had yet to dissipate, that much she could process.

Looking straight into his eyes, she said with great emphasis, “actually -- I still want to hurt you now --”

Bai Qian had barely finished her thought on how much she wanted him to suffer when his hands were suddenly on both sides of her face. The last thing she could see with clarity was a pair of furiously furrowed brows, and the next second his lips were upon hers, silencing the rest of her sentence. Caught in an ardency she was unprepared for, her anger faded, the strength she had exhibited all along crumbled. For an indefinite moment, she could do nothing except cling to him, surrendering to the strong hold upon her face, the joy of attaining something she had been longing for, and the fierce, all-enveloping thrill the insistence of his lips brought.

But suddenly, in the swaying darkness of her mind, a memory erupted - a memory of blue fire and the dark cliff of Zhuxian Terrace - reminding her of the line she had crossed. Sanity rushed back into her at once. She slid her hands in between them and with a strength she did not know she had, Bai Qian pushed against his chest and tore herself from his arms.

She did not look up again and instead turned away from him, not wanting him to see the look on her own face.

From somewhere above her, among the branches, a series of tiny musical sounds reached into her pounding heart, small yet powerful sounds; as if even the morning birds were condemning her for the brief moments she had allowed herself.

Chapter 10, Part 4

Note:
[*] 上梁不正下梁歪: (idiom) lit. If the upper beam of a roof is aslant, so are the lower ones; fig. the subordinates act according to the example their superior sets.