Fanfiction: Moyuan and Bai Qian, Book 2 - Chapter 13, Part 3 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 13 - A Debt Repaid

Part 3

written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi
consulting by Bunny

“You’re sure about this?” was the first thing Pojing said after having heard Bai Qian’s account of Luoji’s devices and the Demon Queen’s Feather.

“If you’re asking whether the God of War is really helping us,” Bai Qian responded. “Then yes, I’m sure. If you’re asking if I am certain this plan is going to work, that depends on many factors.”

Pojing rose from his chair, facing the balcony of her room. “This sounds like an elaborate plan that should have been revealed to us a lot sooner.”

“Maybe he and Zheyan did intend to let us in on the plan,” Bai Qian walked over to him. “But what happened in the Nine Heavens was unexpected, they had to take this step to secure the Feather. I’m sure it was the last resort.”

“You said Luoji believes the God of War did all of this for the Demon Queen.”

“Luoji believes he’s broken the eight realms’ pillar of virtue, yes.” She thought for a second. “The thing is, Luoji likes to think that he and the God of War aren’t so different, and he finds immense pleasure in proving that theory.”

“Are we too optimistic to assume that Luoji isn’t taking precautions?”

“Of course he is,” Bai Qian said sharply. “He doesn’t stop amassing magical powers, he’s gathering allies to his court. So far the universe has been on his side, but what he doesn’t understand is -- more powers doesn’t guarantee victory. He made that mistake by giving the Demon Queen’s Feather away the second he discovered it wouldn’t help him in the way he wanted it to. He’s too arrogant to consider that someone else might be able to make use of what he overlooked, and that’s our advantage.”

Pojing sighed. “Then Zhuowei has more on her shoulders than I thought. We completely depend on her and Master Gejing to disarm the jade hairpin and to make a weapon out of that Demon Feather.”

“That’s why the God of War agreed to be her mentor,” Bai Qian explained. “He taught her what he knew about the Feather at the time - all the concepts regarding Balance. She isn’t clueless.”

A heavy silence blanketed them.

“How many of the leaders in the gathering have given us their answer?” she asked.

“Penglai says they will help in any way they can,” said Pojing. “Lord Puhua’s son seems to be on our side - his father managed to help him escape the Lightning Tower after the Nine Heavens fell, he’s quite efficient with the powers he acquired while studying under his father’s mentorship, but his lightning rod has been confiscated and he conveyed to me after that gathering that he was doing his best to retrieve it; without it, he’s no better than a mere soldier on the battlefield. The Crystal Palace is under intense watch, their forces aren’t enough to resist Luoji; but Crown Prince Diefeng has selected a number of trusted lieutenants and raised his own troops, they will come to the Celestial Crown Prince’s aid when the time comes. The other tribes -- I haven’t heard from.”

“That’s nowhere close to enough,” Bai Qian exhaled.

“People are either too afraid or awed by Luoji to make any decisions now.”

If the Demon Queen could do something… Bai Qian thought. If she could command Zhongyin and their loyal troops to lend a hand… But that would mean making a public appearance for her and civil war for the Demon Tribe; and once the news reached Luoji, who knew what he would do in response and what sort of new torture, new game he would come up with for Moyuan.

“Sorry about the other day,” said Pojing, rather stiffly.

Bai Qian too believed she had something to apologize for. “I didn’t know about your father. I’m sor --”

“No, you didn’t,” he interrupted and turned to look at her. “And of course you weren’t in the wrong to want to trust the God of War, given how long you’ve trusted him. I wouldn’t have done any differently.”

She frowned. “So why did it take almost two days for you to decide to talk?”

“Not everyone can process the aftermath of an argument as quickly as you, Queen of Qingqiu. I know you weren’t entirely wrong, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t drive me insane.”

“Refusing to communicate with your allies in a time like this is highly unkingly,” she joked.

“Not if that ally suddenly announces her association with a potential enemy,” he scoffed. “You should thank me for not throwing you out of here yet.”

Bai Qian couldn’t deny that she was rather glad to have the scoundrel version of him back. “As if I don’t have my own home to go back to. I decided to stay even after your juvenile behavior because Yehua needs me here, and because I didn’t want anyone else to pick up the consequences of my mistake.”

“Well.” That smug expression appeared on his face. “Because you admit you made a mistake, I will let your ungrateful attitude pass.”

Bai Qian said nothing, not even that she appreciated the humor in his voice.

“Have you had dinner?” A more serious question this time.

“No,” she replied. “I was going to after I finished my reading.”

“It’s still early,” he glanced briefly upward. “If you’re willing to part with your book for a while, we can dine out.”

“Out?” The idea was appealing enough. She’d never seen this city at night. “But I -- I really don’t want to bother anyone at this hour.”

“What do you mean? Who are we going to bother?”

“Your guards. Don’t you need them if you’re to leave the palace?”

“Not really.”

“But if you’re going into the city, it might be dangerous. There could be people looking to -- er -- assassinate…”

His amused laughter cut her off. “Good to know you’re worried about me, Queen of Qingqiu, but no, I go out alone all the time. And it’s not like I’ve announced publicly that I’d be taking you to dinner tonight, I’m sure there’s no ambush out there.”

Pojing swiftly took off his elegantly embroidered outer robe that, Bai Qian guessed, would give away the fact that he wasn’t a regular civilian if he was to show up in the city wearing it.

“We can cloud-jump there,” he suggested, leaving the robe on the chair he’d sat on while talking to her.

Bai Qian placed her book back on her desk. “I thought your palace was warded against cloud-jumping.”

“That’s true,” he said simply and held out his hand. “But being the king -- or with the king, in your case -- makes you an exception to a lot of rules.”

As soon as their hands clasped, Pojing took off with unbelievable speed. Cold air bit at Bai Qian’s face, rushing into her nose, and her hair was a mess when they finally landed at the end of a rather crowded street where everyone seemed to be deeply engaged in their chosen activities and no one paid attention to new arrivals, which were more than just the two of them.

“Of course, even I am not allowed to abuse this privilege,” Pojing went on casually, as though they hadn’t been zooming through the air for the last several minutes. “And cloud-jumping inside the palace’s perimeter has been made impossible, which is why I had to break down your door.”

“Why did you have to go so fast?” she complained, fixing her hair and swallowing down all the clouds she’d inhaled on the way. “You weren’t this fast when you travelled with me to the Crafters’ Forest.”

“Ahh,” he considered. “That was a long trip, cloud-jumping too fast would wear you out and then you’d have to walk longer distances to recover, so I deliberately went slower than usual.”

Well, Bai Qian thought to herself, maybe cloud-jumping with Moyuan wasn’t so bad after all.

Before either of them could say anything else, the full view of the city completely claimed her attention. A different place, different clothing, different building structures, different… magic. She walked alongside the King of Xunzhua, admiring the heart of his kingdom. Shops of all kinds lined two sides of the street, selling tea, musical instruments, beautifully made carpets, enchanted... toys? Bai Qian squinted as a child walked out of a small shop with his parents, a tiny model of a warhorse galloping just above his open palm; he occasionally glanced at his friend’s warrior figurine which was doing small somersaults in midair. Had she ever seen children in the Nine Heavens play with things like these? Definitely not A-li, his toys were more like things to be admired and dusted than played with. Celestials weren’t the best when it came to children’s preferences.

And the bookshops…

Even though she was quite successful in remaining calm outwardly, inside Bai Qian was squealing in delight at the collections of pens, ink, bookmarks - there was even one bookmark that looked like Xuanyuan Sword - and all kinds of enchanted accessories in the bookshop they visited.

“Maybe I should have cloud-jumped directly to a restaurant,” Pojing leaned down as he said to her, chuckling

“Sorry,” Bai Qian put back the ebony pen she’d been examining, aware that her fascination with the merchandise was rather obvious, after all. “I should take A-li here some time, he’d love these things, he might want to read and write more just so he can use one of these pens.”

Before Bai Qian could take in enough of the city, they had arrived at the place where Pojing told her he, his sister and Nalan frequently escaped to when they didn’t have to work - a moderate sized restaurant shaped like a ring.

Friendly custodians greeted them at the doorstep. A large water fountain occupied the roofless center. There were cushions instead of chairs, light music produced by string instruments gracing the atmosphere. While some customers carried out their dinners at the tables, the others gathered in groups around the fountain, casually sipping their wine, holding conversations in considerately soft tones.

Bai Qian settled down once they had picked a table and tried to sit straight but simple couldn’t. These cushions seemed to be designed more for slouching than sitting. She tensed and cast a look around, but everyone else was too absorbed in their dinner and conversations to care about other people’s postures.

“It isn’t a meeting in the Nine Heavens,” Pojing brought her attention back to their own table. “Be casual if you want to blend in.”

“Well, I’m...” she cleared her throat and straightened her back. “I’m not trying to blend in.”

Pojing gave her a smile of both curiosity and admiration. “Pick what you want,” he slid a brass plate on which a list of dishes was engraved toward her.

Bai Qian took one look at the too complicated list and decided the food wasn’t that important, she’d rather take the time to admire this unique view of the restaurant and the people inside it. “I’m not familiar with these foods, you pick for me.”

“You want me to choose?” he picked up the plate.

She nodded.

“Whatever I choose, you’re going to eat?”

“Sure,” she chuckled. “Why, you don’t plan to make me eat insect cakes or anything, do you?”

He began to scan the list. “This is why my Queen of Qingqiu is the best one of them all.”

“What does that mean?”

“You’re a bookworm,” he said casually and Bai Qian’s brows constricted in response. “You think twice before saying something and ten times before making a decision. Yet you’re letting me pick out your dinner from a list of food you have no idea about. It seems I get the exciting version of you.”

Give me that,” she hissed and snatched the plate from his hand.

He laughed. “Zhuowei usually gets the third one down on that list.”

In the end, reading everything twice didn’t help her to know more about any of the dishes, so Bai Qian went with the recommended one. It turned out to be a kind of fried rice with red sauce on top. It looked simple enough with no toppings she couldn’t recognize.

“How did you become a High Goddess?” Pojing asked as he began to taste his food.

“I don’t know,” Bai Qian said truthfully. “Maybe it’s my contribution to the realms’ safety by sealing the Ghost Lord. Maybe it’s the mortal trial, I’m not sure.”

“You took a mortal trial?”

Bai Qian nodded. “But don’t call me a High Goddess, I’ve never felt like one anyway.” Seeing that he was about to ask something else, she decided to steer the conversation away from her mortal experience. “Have you ever taken a mortal trial?”

“No.”

“Do you intend to?”

Again, “No.”

“Why?”

He took a sip of wine. “Mortal trials are for the idle.”

What?” Bai Qian stared, smiling curiously.

“Only someone who has nothing to do would want to travel to a different world and live out a life that’s been arranged in advance by someone else. When you think about it, it’s sort of a game for those who are bored.”

She spread the sauce and tried a spoonful of the rice, bracing herself for the worst possibility. But it turned out to be rather delicious. “But you gain cultivation through those trials.”

“If you pass. But who made the rules about passing and failing these mortal trials? The Celestials. And if you ask me, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

“How?” she grabbed her drink.

“They seem to think that the more tragic a mortal life is, the quicker someone dies from those sufferings, the holier it makes them. If having a hard life and dying from it means you deserve cultivation, then why don’t the Celestials take a walk around and bestow some cultivation on the people from the clans that frequently get invaded by uncontained Demons forces because they have no proper protection? Families separated, starvation, children being abducted and made slaves. Plenty of suffering for them to consider.”

Bai Qian took a minute to absorb that rather passionate response. It wasn’t something she could argue against - Haode had failed to maintain the systems Lord Donghua had built, Yehua couldn't fix his grandfather’s mistakes fast enough. “But these mortal trials are about choices too,” she said. “You make the choice that reflects your maturity and understanding of the world and you pass the trial.”

“Hmm,” Pojing thought for a moment. “For example?”

Bai Qian took a deep breath, drawing from her memories what she had learnt about the premise of trials. “If someone you trust mistreats you,” she took a brief pause. “Betrays you. Instead of letting grief and hatred consume your heart, you respond with forgiveness and either give them another chance or remove yourself from their life in peace.”

“So… be a doormat and you’ll ascend?”

“No!” Bai Qian clicked her tongue, laughing. Now… How would she explain this concept to someone who wasn’t familiar at all with the teaching of Taoism? “It’s about -- about experiencing the inevitable pain, realizing that harboring hatred because of that pain would lead you into a circle of hatred, and choosing to step out of that circle is the wise choice.”

“All right,” his head moved up and down. “But what if the pain is too much it kills you before you can realize all of that? Then do you pass or do you fail the trial?”

Bai Qian opened her mouth to reply but realized she hadn’t really thought that deeply about it.

“And what if --” Pojing continued. “For example, you catch a fatal fever while trying to learn your lesson --”

“Oh --” She shook her head. “That is too particular! But I’m sure the Star Lords arrange these trials so that no immortals would have to face any other life-threatening forces during the real tests.”

“Then, in the end, the Star Lords are the ones who decide which is the real challenge and which choice facilitates your ascension, aren’t they?”

“Yes…”

“Why do they get to make these decisions when they are just beings who make mistakes like all of us?”

“If - once back from the test - the immortal’s actions don’t reflect what he’s learnt, the cultivation he earned could be taken away.”

“That’s why I said this is a game for the bored,” Pojing concluded. “They take their supposedly tragic trials, they come back here and usually make the same mistakes they made as mortals. I’m sure there are well prepared trials arranged by the better Star Lords, but I don’t like the idea of being told by them that this and that are the lessons I should learn.”

“So you’re never going to take a trial?”

“No. Dealing with the ones the universe throws at you randomly is enough. Furthermore, we devote our time to advancing magic to serve those in need and gain cultivation that way.”

“I see.” Good deeds also gathered cultivation, even if it was an option that took more time. “That’s not bad, either.”

“You said you took a mortal trial,” Pojing said. “What did you take away from it? Did you -- er -- learn anything?

As always, her stomach twisted, guilt surging at the mention of her trial; even though until now she still didn’t know what to think about what had happened. “Er —” she averted her eyes. “Some… snakes like to eat cooked meat…”

“They do?”

Bai Qian drank from her goblet and shrugged.

“Whatever you say, Queen of Qingqiu. But you see? This is why trials are a joke. Survive and prosper, that’s the only trial I take seriously. And let’s face it, if the Celestials actually learned from their trials, their court wouldn’t have fallen.”

“Don’t be obnoxious about it,” Bai Qian retorted. “Yehua did what he could, but he’s only one person.”

Pojing leaned back on his cushion, swirling the goblet in his hand. “I admire the way you defend him every time. In the meeting at the Nine Heavens, during our latest gathering.”

“We’re friends,” Bai Qian said. “I don’t like it when people disregard his effort.”

“You and I are friends.”

She scoffed. “Well, stop trying to get on my nerves all the time and I’ll treat you nicely too.”

“Actually, I’m not sure I want that. Other people can have all the softness they get from you, I’ll take the side of you that isn’t afraid to admit you want to slam a door in my face.”

“You just can’t survive for two minutes without picking a fight, can you?”

“If you’d rather I didn’t,” he shrugged. “I will stop.”

“Why stop,” Bai Qian scooped a bit of the last of the rice into her spoon. “I need the practice so I’d know how to deal with the real pricks out there if I encounter them.”

“Good to know you don’t think --” Pojing’s sentence came to an abrupt stop and he squinted. “What’s the kid doing here?”

“Kid?” Bai Qian placed down her spoon and turned in the direction he gestured at.

A-li?

The boy was peering down at the water fountain. After a few seconds, he took out a copper coin from his pouch and threw it into the water. Yehua couldn’t be far, then, Bai Qian thought and slid her eyes to the vicinity; instantly she found the Crown Prince standing a few tables away, speaking to a waiter. Next to him…

“And what is my sister doing out here?” Pojing uttered in astonishment.

Zhuowei was clasping some books in one arm, the other gesturing around as she spoke to Yehua.

Pojing shot up. Bai Qian too sprang from her cushion, grabbing his arm on instinct because she had quite a feeling he wasn’t about to walk over and give Yehua a warm welcome. “Hang on! What are you doing?”

“I want to know what she’s doing out here without a guard. At this hour.”

“At this hour?” Bai Qian repeated with amused astonishment, trying to keep her voice down. “Erm -- We’re out, it’s not even past A-li’s bedtime yet. And you didn’t bring a guard, either.”

“We don’t need a guard because you’re with me. My sister -- she knows she’s not supposed to go anywhere without proper protection.”

“But Yehua’s here,” Bai Qian pointed out in a hush tone.

“Yes, I forgot he’s got the best track record in protecting what’s important,” Pojing said sarcastically, rolling his eyes. “As a matter of fact, why is he even here with --”

A low growl replaced the rest of his sentence. Bai Qian looked up at the utterly displeased face and immediately understood what thoughts were going through his mind. Before she could process the idea herself, Pojing drew in a sharp breath and looked ready to strangle someone.

He attempted a step forward but Bai Qian kept a firm grip on his arm. “What… what are you going to do now?”

“I’m going to have a talk with your once future husband, that’s what.”

“Oh -- calm down,” she retorted. It was a good thing that everyone else was too busy eating and socializing to bother about them. “Is anyone who comes within ten feet of your sister an instant criminal?”

“Yes, if it’s a Celestial.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Bai Qian grimaced. “And -- and why does Yehua get the blame? Maybe going out was your sister’s idea since he doesn’t know his way around this city.”

“I don’t care whose idea it is, I’d like to know why she is here with him of all people.”

“Him of all people? Er — What’s wrong with Yehua?”

“You tell me. You’re the one who broke off your engagement with him.”

“What are you suggesting, that he’s trying to charm your sister?”

“He’d better not be or I’m going to commit murder today.”

“Could you just…” Bai Qian inhaled deeply and contemplated her next words as to ease his rising irritation. “I’m sure Yehua has no heart for anything of the sort. Also, who doesn’t like Zhuowei once they get to know her? Yanzhi and I like her. Is spending time in her company a crime? I don’t think this is anything close to what you have in mind.”

Pojing’s glare gradually lessened, though he still looked quite prepared to unsheath his claws and let Yehua be the first to have a taste of them.

“Can you just go with me to meet A-li now?” she suggested.

“You go, I’ll talk to my sister --”

“No,” Bai Qian said, not wanting him to start interrogating Yehua without her. “Let’s go meet A-li first.”

“Remind me when we get back to ask you why you’re giving me orders,” he glanced down at her hand on his arm. “And fine, let’s meet A-li if that’s what you want.”

Scowling, she let go and strode ahead of him to the water fountain.

“A-li!”

The boy gasped, jumping towards her. “Qi -- ah --” he lowered his voice. “Father said I’m not supposed to use real names out here.” His curious glare shot up at Pojing. “You’re here too! I’m sorry I can’t call you -- the -- what you are --”

“That’s all right, kid,” Pojing chuckled.

Bai Qian stooped down. “Are you having fun? Have you had dinner yet?”

His head bobbed.

“Did you get any of the candies from the street stalls?”

“Yes!”

Voices of greeting sounded and Bai Qian stood up.

“I can’t believe you’re here too!” Zhuowei exclaimed.

“And I can’t believe you’re out here without a guard,” said Pojing sternly.

“It’s just for a few hours, Brother,” the princess gripped her brother’s arm and responded in a sweetest, softest voice that was, no doubt, meant to alleviate his disapproval. “And the Cro -- he’s here with me.”

“Yes, now that you mention it --”

“And my little warrior is here too,” Zhuowei stooped down and pinched A-li’s cheeks. “You’re going to protect me, aren’t you?”

A-li grinned, nodding excitedly.

“You see?” Zhuowei looked at her brother again. “I don’t need a guard.”

Pojing, clearly still dissatisfied, threw a questioning look at Yehua. The latter responded with a greeting gesture, though not yet offering any explanation.

Around them, people suddenly started to move around. Most of them switched to the tables closer to the center, some left their seats and stepped toward the water fountain. A group of musicians positioned themselves near an archway at the far corner.

“What’s going on?” Bai Qian asked.

“They’re preparing for dancing.” Pojing told her.

“Oh! Already?” Zhuowei’s face lit up. “Are you two going to dance?”

Bai Qian gulped. “Er -- What…”

“D-dance?” Yehua, for once, displayed his uneasiness at the surprising prospect.

“Yes,” Zhuowei nodded encouragingly.

“I would rather not,” said Yehua at the time Bai Qian stated, “No.”

They both along with A-li retreated a step from the siblings.

“It’s tremendous fun,” the princess placed her hands over her chest.

“Not if… not if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Bai Qian said.

“My sister can show you how if they play something easy,” Pojing offered with a shrug.

“Yes, I can,” Zhuowei chimed in.

“No,” Bai Qian shook her head in horror. Learning to dance in front of all these people? She’d rather take on Luoji.

“What about you?” the princess said to Yehua with an inviting smile.

“Thank you, but no,” said the Crown Prince. Bai Qian always knew that to Yehua, walking out in public with his collar open was already an offense, let alone dancing.

“I thought only girls danced,” voiced A-li all of a sudden and the boy’s oblivious statement earned Yehua another quiet, scathing look from Pojing. But the former met his stare unflinchingly.

The king patted A-li’s head. “No, kid. Anyone can dance here if they want to.”

“Do you dance?” A-li asked him.

But Zhuowei exclaimed before her brother could say anything, “Oh, this is my favorite song. And never mind, it isn’t so easy. Do you mind if I --” she gestured toward the center.

“No,” Bai Qian said. “Not at all.”

The princess handed her books to Yehua, who took them with a tug of his lips as she strode towards the crowd and, in less than one minute, found herself an amiable looking partner. Pojing, however, remained on the side with them.

The music slowly began - foreign to the ears yet pleasing sounds that were not produced by the instruments Bai Qian was used to. The men bowed as the women started to circle them with small, graceful movements. Then, all of a sudden the melody picked up an urgent pace. Along with her partner, the princess started to move swiftly, expertly. Every turn, spin, every flick of her arm spoke loudly that she was no beginner. Her dress floated like that of a flower fairy. A forest in spring - that was what this dance looked like. The other women didn’t surprise Bai Qian too much, but Zhuowei? She’d thought this princess only spent time making weapons.

For the entire song, Bai Qian couldn’t do anything but gape. Yehua too had a similar reaction.

“I’m glad we stood out,” Bai Qian shook her head, still gaping.

“So am I,” Yehua responded.

“That does look easy, Father,” A-li said, looking up. “Maybe I can learn it with Wunian [1] when she visits again.”

“You think so?” Yehua chuckled, lowering himself to talk to A-li some more.

Bai Qian glanced at the crossed arms Pojing. “Why aren’t you dancing?”

“I don’t like it as much as my sister,” he answered.

“You mean you’re not as good as her?”

His eyes glinted as he leaned down and said to her. “If you dare step out there, Queen of Qingqiu, I’ll be happy to prove you wrong.”

“No, thank you,” Bai Qian said. “I don’t need to go out there to know I’d make a fool of myself within the first ten seconds.”

The music ended. The dancers bowed to each other, some walked away to rejoin their party, some others remained in the center as another song began.

Zhuowei dashed back to them, pink in the face.

“Impressive,” Bai Qian remarked with admiration. “And I thought you only liked books.”

“Thank you,” the princess responded. “I haven’t had this much fun in forever. I'm starving now.”

“Oh, me too!” A-li agreed happily.

A waiter stopped before them with a dip of his head, presenting his tray. “Pear water?”

Zhuowei took one full glass right away and drained one third of it. Bai Qian reached for two and gave one to A-li. Pojing and Yehua - both seemed to be pursuing some intense thinking about this unexpected meeting - didn’t bother to get any for themselves.

“Have you had dinner yet?” Zhuowei asked. “Would you like to join us?”

“Us?” Poijng’s eyes narrowed.

“The Cr --” she pointed at Yehua and A-li, blinking innocently. “The three of us. We haven’t eaten. But, oh -- I’m sorry! Of course you don’t want to be bothered. Have a good --”

“Hang on --” Pojing spoke quickly. “Now, listen to me…”

“I know, I know,” she rolled her head lazily. “Be back before midnight.”

“Actually, no, be back before the kid’s bedtime.”

Bai Qian almost spewed out the gulp of pear water she had yet to swallow. Suppressed laughter leaked out of her but she quickly composed herself as Pojing’s slit-narrowed eyes slid to her.

“We will be back by that time,” said Yehua politely - both an agreement and a promise of safety for the two people he was with.

“Yes, we will,” Zhuowei gave her brother a mock obedient look as she herded A-li toward a table. “Enjoy your night.”

Bai Qian caught Yehua’s eyes before he followed his son away. A brief curious look that mirrored what she was feeling - she hadn’t seen him allow himself to engage in any activity that didn’t have to do with the Dark Immortal or their military plans for a long time, even before the Nine Heavens had been taken. What he was curious about, she wasn’t so sure.


***


“If it weren’t because my sister was enjoying herself...,” Pojing stated grudgingly, letting go of Bai Qian when they’d made it back to her balcony. “I still don’t get why he was there with her. But I hope, for his sake, that it is as you said - they are just friends.”

Bai Qian rolled her eyes and faced him. “Let’s assume for a second that Yehua did admire the princess as more than a friend, what’s wrong with that?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Pojing repeated in astonishment. “I can give you a list. But let’s start with the fundamentals - what does he have to offer her?”

Really? Bai Qian grimaced. When Yehua has lost everything due to someone else’s fault? She opened her mouth and was about to chastise Pojing thoroughly for that insensitive statement but he went on.

“And no, I’m not referring to the fact that he lost his home in one night, I’m talking about their unjust system that holds the women of their court in low regard, even if you’re the Celestial Queen. And in case you haven’t noticed, Skylords and Celestial princes indulge themselves in their harems.”

“Oh --” Bai Qian interrupted impatiently. “Yehua was going to eliminate the harem. His mother was mistreated, he understands more than you know. He was about to propose new laws to prevent severe punishments upon celestial maids and guards.”

“Yes, he was ‘about to do’ a lot of things,” Pojing scoffed. “But I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Bai Qian shook her head. “Don’t worry, I think having you as a brother-in-law is a scary enough prospect to make any suitor think twice before they do so much as ask your sister to dance.”

This extracted a laugh from Pojing. He rested his hands on the balcony’s edge and remained silent for a while afterward. Bai Qian knew the subject of Yehua’s unexpected appearance in the restaurant had been dropped. But before she could thank Pojing for showing her to the city, he spoke.

“Do you like Xunzhua?”

“Yes,” she said without having to think. Liking it was an understatement. Pojing’s curious silence told her he knew she had more to say, so she went on. “You know -- I used to not care that much about improving the Qingqiu I inherited. I thought it was already… good. And it is, I’ll make sure to always keep it a safe and peaceful place for my people. But now that I’ve seen this,” the twinkling city below filled her with hope. “Seen all the possibilities, I can’t wait to see more, to do the same for Qingqiu. Safe and peaceful doesn’t have to mean static. I want --”

She took in a deep, excited breath.

Pojing rested his forearms on the railing. “What do you want?”

“I want my own version of your Messenger Tower,” Bai Qian smiled as she began with the list she knew would only get longer. “I want a library that faces sunrise, with books that can restack themselves on the right shelves, enchanted pens to take notes with. I want scholars to help me build a more potent shield and -- many other things.”

“A library that faces sunrise,” he repeated, and - as if sharing her mind - said, “Such a sight would always remind you to look to the future.”

“Yes, exactly.” She smiled.

A future that would be more than just dealing with occasionally arising troubles in her too peaceful kingdom, a future with no asking herself what she should do with her life.

“Do you know why I took you out there tonight?” he asked suddenly.

“To -- apologize?” Bai Qian joked.

“Yes,” he chuckled. “But more importantly, I wanted you to see for yourself why I couldn’t be calm at the sight of the Demon Queen even if she’s powerless. This --” he motioned with his hand at the sparkling city. “What my father left behind, what Zhuowei and I devote our every day to building - is what I’m obligated to protect. I will not show leniency to whoever poses a threat to anything, anyone inside my shield.”

It was not only an explanation, but also a statement to set things straight between them about the matter of the Demon Queen now that it had come to his attention.

“I understand,” Bai Qian said. “I’ll get thrown out of here if another mortal who turns out to be a former friend of the Dark Immortal shows up at your gate and claims to know me.”

“Not necessarily,” he responded. “Because you count as one of the people inside the shield. But I certainly won’t hesitate to let you know whenever I believe you make a mistake.”

“Neither will I if you make a mistake yourself.”

“I’ve never doubted that,” he smirked. “As a matter of fact, I believe even the God of War gets his fair share of criticism from you.”

Bai Qian’s heart stumbled a beat at the sound of his name. “Well -- recently.”

“Recently?” Poing chortled. “I was there when you cut all ties with him on Kunlun Mountain so I’m quite sure that’s always been the case.”

Laughter burst past her lips before Bai Qian could contain herself. That wasn’t wrong at all. Even as a disciple of Kunlun, she hadn’t exactly spared Moyuan from her constant questions. Several times, she’d even done it just to prove that she could.

“Of course,” Pojing said. “If you ever decide to do something similar to me, I will request that you don’t do it in front of an audience.”

“You know,” she said curiously. “Most leaders I’ve met wouldn’t say they welcome outright censure even behind closed doors. You’re not bad at all as a king, these people are lucky to have you.”

“Goodness,” his brows raised, the seriousness in his expression gone. “I’m going to need that in writing.”

“If anyone asks, I’ll deny I ever said that.”

“Yes, I expect you would.”

A brief silence.

“It’s a shame you’ll have to leave once all this is over,” Pojing said. “There are many places here to see besides this city.”

Over? A shadow settled over her head. “You’re thinking too far ahead,” she said with a grim smile. “We don’t know when this will be over.”

“You’re right, you’ve had a bad influence on me, Queen of Qingqiu, you and your habit of thinking all the time.”

Bai Qian forced a smile and glued her eyes to the dark sky again. How could she not think all the time? ‘Worried’ was no longer the word to describe what she felt every time she thought about Luoji’s devices and what he planned to do to the realms to bring his mortal mother back. With the hairpin in Zhuowei’s study, Xunzhua’s shield was the only thing standing between Luoji and their doom, at least until Moyuan and the other two people could shut down the devices in the Void and incapacitate Luoji before war broke out.

“I was joking,” Pojing said.

“I know.”

“You’re concerned about the people in the Void,” he went on. It wasn’t really a question.

“Yes,” Bai Qian admitted. “I can’t stop imagining the worst if Luoji finds them.” That was only half of what troubled her, but the other half -- she’d rather keep to herself.

A hand came upon her shoulder - not gentle, but an iron clasp with unyielding strength that was meant to tell her that even if Luoji was the most powerful immortal in the eight realms, they were not defenseless.

Good. Because gentleness would only cause her tears to fall.

Chapter 13, Part 4
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[1] Lijing’s daughter in this story