Fanfiction: Moyuan and Bai Qian, Book 2 - Chapter 12, Part 6 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 12 - Detour

Part 6

written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi
consulting by Bunny

Yehua inhaled a lungful of the night air from his bedroom’s window.



Kill Luoji. Take back what was rightfully his. Sit on the Dragon Throne again. Kill Luoji. Take back what was rightfully his. Sit on the Dragon Throne again. He had been chanting these things in his head like a mantra. But where would he begin? Where were his once loyal soldiers, his generals that had sworn to fight alongside him until death?

Darkness blanketed his heart again as he opened a crumpled piece of paper that he had read many times over, even though on it there was one single character - ‘close’ - clearly in Jiayun’s handwriting, but with purposeful distortion of the strokes. But what was Jiayun close to? Finding his parents? Discovering another secret of Luoji?

Thud.

Yehua turned away from the window and looked to the source of the sound. The large book A-li had been holding had just fallen out of his hands. The boy was fast asleep. Smiling and shaking his head, he quietly walked over and pulled the blanket up to A-li’s chin.

“Nmmm...anemo… nmone...” the boy mumbled.

Trying to hold back his chuckling, Yehua bent over. “What?”

“Nemo…”

“Sleep,” he whispered and gently patted his son’s arm.

In blind rage that night, he had said to Bai Qian that she was not the boy’s mother; and it was true - she was not. But he had wanted her to be, had expected her to be without knowing it. He had acted as though it was her responsibility to feel what mothers felt towards their children.

What a joke. Had he been a better parent than anyone at all?

Giving away all his cultivation to revive the God of War, throwing himself into the Bell of Donghuang, had he ever considered what would become of A-li if he had died? Had he ever lived for A-li at all? What right had he to criticize anyone when he himself had wanted to sacrifice everything he’d had just to prove how much he could love her, had chased after an illusion of what used to be like a madman, and been ready to leave his own son behind?

Now, at least he and A-li were together. Now, at least he had realized what he should be living for. Yehua glanced down at his son’s peaceful face. But what should he - the heir to the Celestial Throne - be doing? What was he supposed to protect his people from?

If only there was a bit of news. If only -- he could talk to his brother.

But perhaps...

Yehua opened his palm and looked at the piece of paper again.

Perhaps there was something he could do.

Quietly he stood up and left the room.

He himself had checked for hidden messages on the letter but found none. Though that did not necessarily mean there were none. Jiayun might have avoided using the usual method to conceal the rest of the letter out of fear it might fall into Luoji’s hands. And if so, Yehua thought, then the Princess of Xunzhua and her scholars had a much better chance at deciphering it than him.


***


During his time here, Yehua had somewhat become familiar with the geography of Xunzhua’s royal palace. Finding the princess’ study was not much of a problem anymore. During his many strolls around to explore this place, the heart of the kingdom he had never associated with anything other than weapons, he had noticed that Bai Qian liked to do the same - running up to the Messenger Tower then to the library, researching what she had just learned, admiring the architecture, asking questions about every unfamiliar thing she came across - perhaps she, just like him, was amazed with the efficiency by which Xunzhua was governed and could not wait to learn what she could before leaving.

“Well?” a female voice reached Yehua’s ears when he had reached the last set of stairs that led to the princess’ study.

“She’s not eating,” a man’s reply floated out from the same room.

“Still?”

“Yes.”

“What are we going to do? Is something wrong with the food? Can you make something else?”
“That’s all we do, making new food. But that’s not the problem, she never eats unless she’s done working. And look at these dishes! There’s nothing wrong with them at all. This herbed fish, let me tell you how long it took me --”

“Yes, I know you all work hard in the kitchen, Head Chef, but have you ever considered -- maybe -- trying recipes you haven’t tried before? Like foreign food —”

“The problem is not with the food,” the man sounded more disgruntled now. “It’s getting her out of that study.”

Yehua stepped inside what looked to be a sitting room.

“You’re right. She’s been staying up too late lately, some days she doesn’t even sleep. The king will…” the woman’s sentence was cut off by the Head Chef, who alerted the rest of the maids and guards around of Yehua’s presence.

“Celestial Crown Prince,” they bowed to him. Those words pricked his ears - out of respect they had said it, but it was respect he knew he had done nothing to deserve.

“I would like a word with the princess,” he told them. “Is she here?”

“Yes, allow me a moment to inform her, Crown Prince.” One of the men hurried through the study’s open door.

Yehua glanced back at the candle-lit table full of food behind him - there were at least twenty dishes, some of which he had familiarized himself with during his time here, some he hadn’t seen before. Getting this princess to detach herself from her work and eat her meals on time was always a challenge, he had been told.

“Crown Prince,” the Xunzhua man had returned. He bowed again and motioned for Yehua to enter.

It was a rather large room for a study with one entire wall which faced the sky made of glass, lit not only by candles but also other sources of light Yehua could not identify - candles alone could not have brought a room this large into this level of brightness. Marble shelves lined the remaining walls, book and tiny models of weapons and suits of armour occupying every shelf.

The princess herself was standing arms folded near the biggest desk in the center, in front of a piece of parchment that floated in midair at her eye level. She seemed to be making notes or adjustments to some kind of diagram, looking a bit tired - Yehua noticed - though undoubtedly determined not to stop working any time soon.

The second she became aware of his presence in the room, the princess lightly touched one end of the parchment. It rolled itself shut and landed on her desk.

“Celestial Crown Prince!” she exclaimed, pushing her hair back. “You were looking for me?”

“Yes,” said Yehua, striding over and unfurled Jiayun’s message. “I received this letter from Jiayun, one of my generals that went back to look for my parents in the Nine Heavens.”

“Oh, I remember him.” The princess frowned at the single character on the message.

“I suspect there is some hidden message on it,” Yehua said. “Though I couldn’t find any, not with the spells I know how to do. I wonder if you have other means to perform a more thorough check.”

“Did one of our pigeons from the Messenger Tower deliver this?” she asked.

“No, it was one of ours. But your guards in the Messenger Tower are acquainted with it now.”

“I see, let me try.”

With the message in her hand, the princess cast several spells at it, none of which worked. While Yehua instantly felt a bit let down, she only looked more intrigued. Must be an inventor thing - he concluded with a chuckle - to see failure as a way towards more options instead of a dead end.

“What is it?” she blinked, moving her hand through her hair, obviously thinking he was laughing at her.

“Nothing,” Yehua cleared his throat. “So -- what do we do with it now?”

“Well --” she strode towards one of her smaller desks, on top of which was a silver instrument that resembled a large inkstone. With a flick of her hand, a layer of shimmering light sprang from thin air, forming a spherical shape right above the instrument.

“This will take a while.” Cautiously she sent the piece of paper into the sphere. “I can’t promise it’ll reveal any hidden messages, but it should at least be able to tell me whether there is any.”

“Thank you,” Yehua nodded. Then, just when she was about to walk back to her work, he spoke, faster than his mind could argue against it. “Princess, you haven’t had dinner, have you?”

She thought for a few seconds, massaging her neck and blinking repeatedly. “No, I must have forgotten. I think they told me dinner was served a while ago.”

“Maybe you need a break?” he suggested.

“Maybe,” the princess laughed. “Are you in a hurry back? Join me for dinner if you like -- oh, I’m sorry...” she shook her head. “It’s long past dinner time, you must have eaten.”

“Dinner, yes,” he chuckled. “But not supper.”

She laughed louder this time and sighed hopelessly as they both started towards the sitting room outside. “I’m not very good with eating on time.”

“Princess?” the guards and maids stared as though they had just seen her for the first time.

The Head Chef began with hopeful eyes, “Princess, are you done with --”

“Not yet, but I’m taking a break,” she inhaled deeply as they reached the table. “Oh God, I didn’t realize how hungry I was.”

“Yes, Princess, please eat!” the maid said. “We have just heated the food again.”

“Thank you. The Celestial Crown Prince will join me,” Zhuowei smiled. “You may leave.”

And leave they did, all looking as if they were going to hold a banquet in the kitchen later tonight.

“What were you working on, Princess, before I interrupted?” he asked.

“A new design for my brother’s battle gauntlets,” she took a deep breath and flexed her arms. “I’m very close to increasing their speed of assembling by one half a second.”

“One half a second?” Yehua cocked his head.

“Yes. I’m going to continue to work on them a little more after eating.”

So many sleepless nights just to achieve this miniscule improvement? He wanted to ask her if it was worth the amount of effort she had put in, but thought the better of it.

“Perhaps you should rest after dinner? It is rather late now.”

“No, I’m fine,” she shrugged. “I’d rather finish what I can today.”

Yehua chuckled. “Just one half a second, it can certainly wait until tomorrow morning.”

Immediately, he knew he had said something wrong. The warm look in her eyes was instantly replaced by a distant glare and she turned away from him, gazing at the night sky outside the window instead.

“No, it can’t wait,” she said icily. “And one half a second is more important than you think.”

“I don’t -- think…”

Yehua could not be certain whether he should leave her alone or ask how he had offended her, perhaps the former…

“Princess,” but he had never been one to ignore that voice in his head, the one that was telling him now that he did not want to walk away. “I simply meant that whatever you are working on, surely it can’t be more important than your own health.”

Her expression softened but she said nothing still. Turning to the dinner table, she started to scan over the dishes. Was this a silent request for him to leave?

“Which one of these would you like to try first, Crown Prince?” she asked him.

He took a few steps towards her. “Princess, what have I said?”

“Nothing,” she shook her head, such honesty in her eyes. “I understand why you think such a small fraction of time isn’t important. I just meant that in my field of study, one second means a lot.”

That is not all.

It might not be the right thing to do, nor the most sensible, but he stepped closer and rested a hand on her wrist. “How?”

She didn’t pull back but instead faced him, now no longer denying that something was wrong. “I don’t want to bother you with it, Crown Prince. I’m sure a long, unhappy story is the last thing you want to hear right now.”

“Not if it’s your story.”

The princess sighed, smiling slightly at the same time, then looked at him for a long while, as though asking herself if she should trust this person she had just met not two months ago. But at last she began.

“You know our father passed away a hundred years ago, don’t you?”

“Yes, I know,” Yehua replied, taking his hand off of her. “I was told that he was injured during a hunting trip and couldn’t be saved in time.”

“Right,” she nodded, a most bitter smile curving her lips. “That’s all we wanted people of the eight realms to know. Tell me, which rumor about my father’s death do people like to believe in the most?”

A bit taken aback by the question, Yehua had to take a while to think and make sure he would not accidentally utter something to render offense. “I -- I often heard that he ventured too deep into a forest and was attacked by wild beasts.”

“A believable story, but quite ridiculous,” she scoffed. “My father was the king of all beasts, no wild beasts could have touched him. That is, it did happen during a hunting trip, but if he hadn’t been so weakened already, he wouldn't have died.”

“Weakened?”

“Have you ever met my father, Crown Prince?”

“Once or twice, I remember seeing him at the last gathering in the Nine Heavens a hundred years ago.”

“What do you remember about his appearance?”

“He...” Yehua thought for a second. When he recalled the vague image of the late King of Xunzhua’s face, however, he hesitated to answer, afraid it might sound like an insult again. But then, there was nothing else Yehua could remember. He knew that there must be portraits of the late king’s around here, but he had not been to those parts of the palace. “He -- wore a silver eyepatch.”

“That’s right,” said the princess, not looking in the least offended. “The reason for that, and everything unfortunate that happened to my father, begins with the Demon War. The Demon Queen.”

“The Demon Queen?”

“I wasn’t born yet at the time, but Mother and our Elder told me about it. When the Demon War was about to take place, their queen summoned potential allies, including us, to her court, to ask for our allegiance.”

“I have learnt of this too,” said Yehua. “I couldn’t help but think that this was rather an arrogant thing to do - summoning other leaders instead of seeking them out at their clans to ask for help.”

“Well, she was too confident to think that any of us would dare oppose her. And it was true, the Demon forces were enormous in numbers and terrifying in strength, we were such a small kingdom back then. We still are, but at the time, our shield magic wasn't as developed as it is now and our army was very modest in size. Still, our reputation in weapon making was enough to make the Demon Queen want my father on her side.”

“My father and his most trusted lieutenant, who is now an Elder in our court, attended this gathering. Our council, though, already agreed beforehand that Xunzhua would have nothing to do with this war. We only answered to the call as an act of courtesy.”

“I see,” Yehua nodded, eager to listen on.

“Afterwards, the Demon Queen asked Father to stay behind for more discussions, quite determined to persuade him. But he was adamant too. He even advised her against the war. According to the Elder that accompanied my father, the argument became violent and the Demon Queen — she ran out of patience, she…”

As the Princess took a brief pause, Yehua could already guess how the rest of this ‘discussion’ had gone. With what he had been told about this Demon Queen’s temperament, it could not have ended without injuries.

“She attacked your father?” he asked.

Zhuowei looked up at him with an expression of great helplessness - of someone who would always force herself to imagine what she had not seen in order to understand, to feel what should be felt. She nodded.

“I don’t know what my father said to her exactly, but she was in a rage, I guess no one had dared tell her she was wrong before. So… she slashed him across the face…”

Her voice broke. “The Elder said he didn’t know if she intended to blind my father or not, but that’s what happened. Not only did she gash his skin, her Demon Fire burned one half of his face, including his right eye.”

“Couldn’t he have gotten out of the way?” Yehua voiced his confusion. “The warriors of your tribe are known for great speed. Even if the Demon Queen was stronger, wasn’t your father faster?”

“He could have gotten out of the way, but he didn’t,” Zhuowei admitted and with a bitter yet proud smile she went on. “You see how my brother is always a little too hot-tempered and impatient?”

“Well --” Yehua forced a chuckle. “Yes, a little.”

“He got that from my father, who was — a lot more impatient. Instead of escaping, which would have been a more reasonable thing to do, I suppose, he summoned his weapon to block the attack, wanting to fight back. But his gauntlets,” she breathed out. “They assembled too late. If they were just a half a second faster, he would have been able to shield himself more efficiently and counter her magic.”

Yehua fell into complete silence. She needn’t explain anymore, he had understood the rest. Most weapons in the eight realms took two seconds or more to materialize completely and be ready to perform magic by the wielder’s command. Even his own sword was not much quicker than than. And in combat, those precious seconds could mean life or death for the warrior.

“And -- the Demon Queen let your father go afterwards?” he asked.

Zhuowei nodded. “To her, we weren’t much of a threat, not with the size of her armies.”

Knowing that this account had yet to finish, Yehua said nothing else and waited for the princess to go on.

“My brother was only two hundred years old then,” she said. “He sneaked into the room where the physicians were healing my father. He… saw… well -- like I said, I wasn’t born yet, so I can’t imagine what my brother caught sight of, but it must have been -- really terrible -- brutal -- because the Elder said that he threw up and was sick for many days afterwards.”

How gruesome must it have been for a 200-year-old to have such a reaction? Growing up alongside his grandfather, around the same age, Yehua himself had been subjected to countless frightening ordeals - wounded soldiers, Celestial horses being executed for failing their masters on the battlefield - in order to familiarize himself with warfare, with the people he would soon be the ruler of, and the unbreakable rules the Celestial Tribe, but he did not remember becoming sick because of anything he had seen.

“After my mother passed away,” she continued, “because of the Demon Magic he was hit with that we weren’t able to fully remove from his body, my father’s health kept declining.”

“I don’t understand,” Yehua frowned. “How? How could the Demon Queen’s magic have that effect on him?”

“We don’t know that, either. It was something that spread and seized his immortal essence, we couldn’t identify or remove it. Not to mention that it took a long while for us to discover this. As for why - the Demon Queen had been practicing forbidden magic for Heaven knows how long before that meeting; and now we know that she’d been building Dark Objects with Luoji. Maybe she couldn’t even control the kind of magic that came out of her at that time.”

Yehua silently agreed.

“Whatever it was,” Zhuowei continued. “We weren’t able to rid my father of it. The effect wasn’t obvious at first, but his strength, his stealth, his speed -- they left him little by little. And even though my brother and I were still children, because of the positions we held, in the court and in our family, we were told to always keep in mind his condition. To tell you the truth, I didn’t care much for that warning - my father always possessed such vitality outwardly that made us believe nothing could defeat him.

“Until that day a hundred years ago, that hunting trip, he ventured out too far and was ambushed by Demon Assassins. Our guards did what they could but he… he took another blow to the chest --”

The princess’ hand tightened by her side, temper flared in those eyes of hers but her face remained composed. Before Yehua could tell her she did not have to go on, she did.

“They… they meant to kill him -- attacked with all they got. The imperial guards managed to capture them all, but my father… None of our physicians could heal him fast enough.”

“What master did those Demon Assassins work for?” Yehua asked.

“They took their own lives before we could interrogate them,” she said. “On the same day, another group of them attempted to kill my brother as well, in a different part of the city, but they failed.

“After ascending the throne, my brother poured most of our resources into developing a stronger protective shield and reforming the borders’ forces. And he --” she laughed. “He complains about how I study too much, but he also works and trains like there’s no tomorrow.”

Because sometimes there really isn’t. Yehua sighed. It hadn’t crossed his mind when he’d gone to sleep the night before that gathering that he would lose everything tomorrow, hadn’t crossed his mind that that afternoon was the last time he and his grandfather could play chess together. He had even planned to visit his mother right after the meeting.

“So -- you see,” the princess smiled, but it was the saddest smile he had ever seen. “One half a second can make an enormous difference. Even one tenth would have.”

There was no argument Yehua could make this time.

“That’s why I spend more time here than anywhere else in the palace,” she went on. “I have to do what I can, make the strongest, fastest weapons for my brother, so that what happened to our father won’t happen to him.”

She looked briefly away and laughed again. “But that’s not to say that my habit of skipping meals and only eating when completely famished doesn’t have to do with my own obsession with books and inventing, because it does. And I know my brother is right, I do read too much.”

As the princess fell quiet and moved her gaze to the glittering stars again, Yehua too was wordless. He didn’t believe he had ever wanted so much to say the right thing like now, or had ever felt such a need to. Hide what you really think. Control. Be a man of no vulnerability - his grandfather’s words that he had grown up with still echoed in his head - that was how he had lived. The severity he had imposed upon himself to prove to the world he could be their protector had taken away his ability to empathize with another soul, had made him believe that such a thing was unnecessary and led him to mistake after mistake. If, as a child, he had simply looked at Sujin like the friend she’d tried to be to him, if he had listened to his uncle before starting a war with the Mermaid Clan. If he had asked… her… what she had wanted…

It was the past. A past he could not rewrite.

He could only bring along the valuable lessons it had taught him as he went on. And he must go on.

Bai Qian had sat next to him at Qingqiu lake that night and done for him what he would not forget - telling him what he’d needed to hear to value himself again, to find again the confidence he had so thoroughly lost - what he’d never had to do before for anyone, what he was now wanting to do for this princess in front of him.

But what word of consolation could he say that she had not heard already? What could a wonderfully accomplished woman like her need from him - a fallen prince with no home to go to?

“Princess.”

She turned back at him.

“We would not have been able to rescue my son from Luoji that day without your brother and Nalan’s help. And amidst the fallen tribes, including mine, Xunzhua still stands, so I think,” he reached over and tucked a strand of her hair that had gotten out of the bun back behind her hair tie. “I think things would have been drastically different if you didn’t read as much as you do.”

A streak of pink graced her cheek as she smiled at him. Her eyes - they were not only amber, but countless different shades of gold.

“Zhuowei!” A voice boomed from the other side of the room. The princess jolted and they both turned towards the door. The figure of a displeased King of Xunzhua was storming in their direction. “For the last time, I need you to --” he stopped, squinting at the table full of food -- “eat dinner.”

The king gestured at the dishes suspiciously. “You are eating?”

“Yes,” Zhuowei sat down at the nearest chair to her and picked up a biscuit, blinking innocently at her puzzled brother as though she had always eaten on time. “Right before you came in and startled me with your shouting.”

“I tried asking you nicely to eat your meals on time many times, it didn’t work,” turning to Yehua, he gave a curt greeting nod. “Crown Prince.”

“King of Xunzhua.”

“Would you like to eat something too?” the princess asked her brother.

“All right,” he shrugged then sank down on the seat next to her, helping himself to some of the appetizers. “Are you still having no luck with the device we found at Kunlun?”

“To make it short - no,” said Zhuowei. “But I think I’m close to identifying the kind of enchantments cast on it, once I do, what to do with it should be easier to figure out. I’m thinking about moving it to our sky island.”

“Why?” asked Yehua as he took his own seat and poured himself a goblet of wine.

“For precaution. We already know that it might contain energies that are too powerful. If those energies are going to be triggered to be released, it’s better to let it do so in the Void than here, I can’t guarantee the shield capacity of our Invention Room can contain it.”

“I see.”

“Still, I don’t think we’re at that point yet. Right now, this thing is just --” she grunted. “Frustratingly unresponsive. ”

The King of Xunzhua suddenly sprang up and left the conversation, moving towards the window and looking as if they had been bothering him.

“And -- how would you know if it’s time to move the device?” Yehua went on to ask.

“I have it inside an enchantment all the time, even while I’m working on it,” the princess replied, tasting the soup she had gotten and not paying much attention to her brother. “If the device emits any foreign energies, the enchantment will replicate itself to strengthen its effect, I or whichever scholar in charge will get a momentarily report of what is going on inside the enchantment and decide what to do.”

“How?” Yehua frowned.

“Enchanted quill,” she shrugged. “Connected to the magic that surrounds the device. It starts scribbling down things the second there’s any abnormal activities.”

“What type of things?”

“Temperature around the object,” she listed. “How much longer the protective enchantment can hold, steps to be taken to ensure safety in the area.”

It was impressive beyond his expectations - all these details about a subject he had never cared to understand before. Yet Yehua thought he could listen to her talk for many more hours about how every single thing in her Invention Room worked. If something similar happened in the Celestial Palace, it would take possibly half a day for the news to reach his Head Scholar if he wasn’t there.

He had ruled the eight realms alongside his grandfather all this time yet still did not know as much as he should about them. While they depended on antiquated systems for protection, had been keen on giving important positions to members of the royal families, and too hesitant to adapt foreign spell inventions, Xunzhua had always been ahead, embracing both ancient magics and recent changes and was moving forward everyday.

He had much to learn, from the very people he hadn’t thought could be better than his own tribe, and the desire to learn in him was never more fierce even though the Celestial Palace was never further from his reach than now.

“And Brother,” the princess suddenly said. “Don’t forget, I will need you here at noon tomorrow to show you my new models of your gauntlets, they aren’t completely done yet but I need you to look at the designs, and some other things too.”

There was no reply.

Brother?”

“What?”

“Did you not hear what I said?”

“Yes. New weapon designs,” the king answered, making it quite clear through his tone that his interest was elsewhere.

“What’s on your mind?” Zhuowei’s brows knitted.

Yehua had not expected him to reply with someone who wasn’t their family in the room, but he did.

“We received word from the Ghost Princess early this morning. She is back safely at her tribe.”

While Zhuowei waited for more to be said, Yehua believed he had understood why this was not being conveyed as good news.

“Shouldn’t that Queen of Qingqiu also be back here already?” the king turned around at them.

“I guess so, yes,” his sister frowned. “Did she tell you that she would make another stop anywhere before coming back here, Celestial Crown Prince?”

“No,” Yehua admitted. He had convinced himself to stop worrying too much about Bai Qian. Recent incidents had made him realize that she was just as capable of taking care of herself as he was, perhaps even more than he was. However, it was true that if the Ghost Princess had arrived home then she too should have been here by now.

“The Queen of Qingqiu is very responsible,” Zhuowei said. “She knows we’re waiting, she wouldn’t stray off the plan without telling us.”

“Yes, that’s what worries me,” the King responded. “If she’s not getting in touch, it won’t be because she’s forgotten to.”

“It’s only been a day, Brother. Maybe she’ll arrive tomorrow. Or maybe we’ll get word from Qingqiu.”

“I hope so,” he replied curtly.

“Why didn’t you make her and the Ghost Princess take someone with them?” Zhuowei asked.

“I didn’t think it was that necessary. One trip to Penglai, one trip back, what could possibly happen?”

“You came back to the hall after all the guests had left the gathering to talk to her, I thought you’d at least gotten her to bring one of our guards along.”

Instead of an answer, they heard a frustrated sigh from the king. The princess’ eyes narrowed as her lips stretched into a wide grin that her brother, having his back to them, could not see. She glanced over at Yehua, as though expecting him to share his opinion on whatever it was that she thought he had understood from her smile.

“The Queen of Qingqiu can duel really well,” she said. “You said that the last time you were at the Spinner’s lair, she helped you fight those Demons.”

“Because Nalan and I were just in time to get rid of that Spinner first. I’m not sure what would have happened if I hadn’t come.”

“I might have a way to get in touch with her,” Yehua said. The siblings both stared at him, as though asking why he hadn’t spoken up sooner.

Might,” he emphasized, lifting his arms and reaching into his sleeve pocket to retrieve the copper mirror.

“I know that!” exclaimed Zhuowei before he had to introduce the item. “It’s one of those mirrors for cross-realm communication. The Queen of Qingqiu has the other one?”

“Yes,” Yehua smiled.

“Communication mirrors?” the king repeated.

“They’re extremely rare,” the princess told them, as though reciting from a textbook. “I think there are only two or three known pairs in all the realms. Now, some of these were created with ancient magic - because of which they are harder to analyze or enhance. The other kind are made by highly advanced magic, but magic that isn’t recorded in any texts in the eight realms. No one’s ever met the creators of these mirrors. Over the years, immortals have been trying to study the process of producing them but haven’t had much luck, they’re near impossible to make.” She turned to Yehua again with burning excitement in her eyes. “What type of mirror is yours?”

“I’m not sure,” Yehua said truthfully. “My Master gave me a pair when I was a child but I never asked how they were made. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to work well, the other one too. Sometimes I can hear Bai Qian through this mirror but most of the time it fails to carry my voice through.”

“Hear?” the princess’ forehead scrunched. “Don’t you mean ‘see’ her?”

“No,” Yehua affirmed. “Hear.”

“So what do you do?” asked the king. “Talk into it?”

“Yes, and you should be able to hear the other person.”

“Hmm,” Zhuowei glanced at her brother, both eyeing at the mirror as though it was going to explode any second. “I haven’t heard of mirrors that work like this before. Logically if it’s a mirror then you should be able to see the person on the other end.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” Yehua said. He too found this difficult to understand.

“You’ve carried this with you the whole time?” asked the king.

“I have. I’m quite sure there’s no Dark Magic inside it.”

“You shouldn’t have used it all this while, Crown Prince, if you’re not sure how it functions,” the princess said. “Has it ever caused you any trouble?”

Instantly, the image of her - lying helplessly on the ground amidst a rainstorm and calling for him, only to be found by the wrong person - flashed in his memory, as fresh and piercing as the cut of the Mermaid’s knife into his chest.

“Yes,” he forced his voice into neutrality. “Once or twice.”

“See? I will guess it isn’t an ancient mirror, then. Maybe one of the later inventions...”

“But I assume that neither type work here, would they,” Yehua asked, “with Xunzhua’s shield magic being too potent?”

“That’s right,” said the princess proudly. “No one here has had a mirror like this before, but if my calculation is correct, its magic should be suppressed unless you take it to one of our locations where the shield magic is less intense.”

Yehua nodded. “I was hoping that you could fix it and perhaps allow its magic to function, then we might be able to get in touch with the Queen of Qingqiu.”

“I can try,” the princess took the mirror in her hand right away. “Afterwards, we can make a trip to the border and try to -- er -- talk through it, I suppose. If you will allow that, Brother?”

“Do it,” said the king simply and turned towards the window again. “If we can’t get through to her then for any reason, we can leave the mirror with my troops there and they’ll inform us whenever she responds.”

The earlier mischievous grin lit up the princess’ face again and she looked to be on the verge of a giggling fit. “I didn’t know you could be so thoughtful too, Brother.”

Her brother laughed, briefly glancing back. “You’re saying I wasn’t thoughtful when you went missing?”

“But I’m family. Also, the Queen of Qingqiu isn’t missing -- yet.”

“Well, she’s a friend,” he replied. “Almost the same as family.”

I certainly hope so. Yehua brought the goblet of wine to his lips, now thoroughly understanding the princess’ grin. Though he remained detached in his expression. Else, this king would be in for an excruciating disappointment.

Some steady footsteps outside the room interrupted them and following a quick announcement, a guard entered the room.

“My King,” he bowed, presenting to them a cylindrical package. “Princess, this just came for you from the borders.”

“For me?” asked Zhuowei.

“Yes,” replied the soldier as he brought the item closer.

“Who is it from?”

“The man refused to identify himself, but he said that the princess would know what to do once she received it.”

What?” the king’s face darkened.

“We have performed the usual spells to detect Dark Magic, My King, it is completely safe.”

Zhuowei pushed her plate away and motioned for the guard to set the item down in front of her. Then, with swift yet cautious movements of someone who were used to handle artifacts and fragile objects, she tugged the secure strings and flipped the package open. Inside lay only a pale and indeed, harmless, wooden scroll.

Chapter 12, Part 7