Fanfiction: Moyuan and Bai Qian, Book 2 - Chapter 20 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)


Chapter 20 - Past Year, On This Day, At These Gates [*]

written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi   
consulting by Bunny

“The small library, Migu. Yanhua Cave, Migu. The Treasury, Migu. The Common Court, also Migu!”

Bai Qian was sitting under the pavilion at the side of Qingqiu Lake, flipping over the jumble of records from Qingqiu’s so-called ‘departments’ which had been run by the same few people for the last several millennia.

Well -- we are understaffed, that much I’m sure of.

But as she was interrupted by yet another grunt, Bai Qian placed down her documents and sighed at the sight of her restless niece.

“Why can’t we attend the coronation ceremony, Gu-gu, why?” the little fox was pacing back and forth.

“For the nine-hundredth time, Fengjiu,” Bai Qian’s eyes rolled. “As a reigning queen, it isn’t appropriate for me to attend a prince’s coronation. It’s not how it’s done!”

It wasn’t that she wanted it to be so, Bai Qian thought grudgingly. This Celestial Coronation was bound to be the most magnificent event the eight realms had ever seen; but due to these silly little rules, she could only wish Yehua luck from afar.

Fengjiu stooped and looked up at her with hopeful eyes.

“But the lightning trial, Gu-gu, the lightning trial! That’s the best part of the entire thing, even better than the celebration in the evening. If you put on a disguise and go, I can come along. Please?”

The nerve of this little fox...

At this time, Migu strode in. The tree spirit looked particularly proud of himself to be appointed Qingqiu’s representative for this event.

“I’m leaving now, Gu-gu,” he puffed his chest, grinning from ear to ear.

“That’s not fair.” Fengjiu shot him a look of pure envy then whipped back. “Gu-gu, why don’t you let me be the envoy? It’s not a difficult task, you just sit and applaud when the ceremony is done.”

Bai Qian shook her head. “Your father specifically asked me to keep you away from the Nine Heavens. He is still angry about you running away from home and working in secret with Lord Donghua the whole time.”

“But I didn’t die,” the little fox shook Bai Qian’s arm. “My father always thinks I’m a little girl, but Gu-gu, you know I’m not like that anymore! I even left Lord Donghua in the Void to go back and help you. He could’ve died then but I put that aside, see?”

Bai Qian was half-convinced, she knew for a fact that following Donghua around like a pet had long been erased from Fengjiu’s list. Still, she wasn’t too keen on breaking her promise to her Second Brother.

“Well…” she grimaced.

“Oh, please, Gu-gu!” Fengjiu whined. “I promise I’ll ignore Lord Donghua –”

“Erm… I never said you’d have to ignore him –”

“Well, he lied to me that everything would be all right before trying to deactivate that evil device in the Void, nothing was all right, he almost died. So... I think I will ignore him for a while. Also, I promise I won’t talk to Si-ming and Chengyu too much until the ceremony is over, I won’t disgrace Qingqiu’s name. I’ll even go as Migu’s attendant to draw less attention to myself if you want me to --”

“Oh, gods, no, Princess,” Migu protested. “I would never dare –”

“Fine!” Bai Qian held up a hand, giving up at last. “Fine, you can go, Fengjiu. You two figure it out among yourself who will be whom’s attendant, just don’t fight when you get to the Nine Heavens.”

Fengjiu shrieked in happiness and twirled. “Meet me at the gate, Mi-gu. I won’t be long,” she said and flew in the cave’s direction. “See you at the celebration, Gu-gu!”

“Go,” Bai Qian gave the reluctant tree spirit permission.

A few minutes after Migu had gone, something whooshed passed her head. Fengjiu was flying to the gate so fast that she was practically a coral blur.

Bai Qian picked up the document on the top of her stack, attempting to get back to work, but put it down almost instantly, sighing again, registering the fact that her rebellious self was indeed wanting to put on a disguise and go with them, and perhaps drag her Sixteenth Senior along too.

Alone, she took a few leisure steps toward the lake. The last of the snowdrops were glittered with morning dew, trembling slightly as a morning breeze swept by; a little frog dived into the water with a plop; small ripples formed here and there.

Three months, Bai Qian closed her eyes and inhaled a lungful.

It had been three months since the day the Golden Force had healed Moyuan.

Since then she had tried her best to carry out her responsibilities and learn what she could from her Second Brother. But as eager as she had always been for these changes, for this new life, Bai Qian couldn’t keep the yearning away, couldn’t keep it from growing with every day that passed.

The more reassurance they got from the Celestial physicians and Lord Donghua, the more restless she became. Maybe it would have been better if they didn’t give her any clue at all on when Moyuan would wake.

The sky suddenly darkened. Bai Qian quickly ran back under the pavilion as rain started to pour down heavily. In the distance, the first thunder cracked. The ceremony had begun.

Now she was starting to regret not breaking the rule and joining Fengjiu. It looked like the people up there were going to have the best time of their lives.

Not if you’re Yehua, though, she contemplated.

Bai Qian recalled that day on the battlefield, when he had made that promise to the Princess of Xunzhua, had transformed to protect the Glass Tower, and when she had found him bloody with a half-burnt face on the ground.

A proud smile broke on her face.

You should have seen the way he fought for today, Shifu. Bai Qian moved her gaze to the outline of a mountain top over the hills.


***


Forty.

Forty-one
.

One after another, blazes came crashing down on his back. But Yehua was standing his ground.

Foreign envoys, High Lords and Ladies – the eight realms were watching, not missing a moment and surely prepared to spread the worst about him should he display any sign of weakness today. This was the final test before he could stand in front of them as the Skylord: the Eighty-one Blazes and Nine Bolts.

His ears felt as though they would soon go deaf, his vision no longer registering anything that was more than ten feet away. The multiple layers of robes he had on were starting to tear, the open wounds on his back stung, but he had managed to keep the blood from becoming visible. His healing power had not failed him yet.

Eighty.

Eighty-one.


The pain stopped.

But no sooner could he take a full breath than the first of the Holy Bolts struck.

He saw Puhua swinging the lightning rod nearby, directing the power of the sky to create the most ferocious thunders, and doing so – as the law required – with as little mercy as possible.

A test of power. But to Yehua, it was also the retribution he’d been wanting to face before starting anew.

For the war that had destroyed the Mer Clan.

For the eyes of the innocent mortal woman.

For his mistakes after mistakes that had plunged his kingdom into darkness.

And it ended.

Yehua blinked. Half a minute passed and he was beginning to see clearly again, although his arms and shoulders were numb. The dark clouds cleared, gradually letting the sky island be encompassed by light again.

The ruthless pain lingered on Yehua’s back, but from the stunned silence of the crowd below, he knew he had completed the trial. And he himself felt as though he had just emerged from the darkest depth of water and was now seeing the sky for the first time.

“Your Majesty,” said Lord Donghua, who had overseen the ceremony from the beginning.

On his other side, Puhua quickly bowed.

“Proceed,” said Yehua.

Lord Donghua motioned for the two armed guards in charge of the Dragon Crown and Robe to come forward.

Before the holy statue of the Ancient Dragon -- the first emperor who had united various Celestial clans of the early days – was where they all had gathered to be witnesses of Yehua’s formal ascension. Being of immense size with most of its body surrounded by thick clouds, the dragon’s claws were the only thing visible to those standing on this island.

The sight of those stone claws sent chills spiralling down Yehua’s unhealed back as he stepped closer to them. It was as if the spirits of the men who had once been in his position were watching him, as if the echoes of their voices were circling in the air, telling him of their deepest fear, of the burden he was about to take on.

But he was ready.

Yehua swept his robe aside, knelt and bowed to the stone dragon, the ancestor from whom his power to rule was derived. In his peripheral vision, he could see Lord Donghua lifting the Dragon robe. It was then slowly placed around Yehua’s shoulders and the weight of the crown descended upon his head shortly afterwards. He closed his eyes for a brief second and rose again.

“Heavenly Emperor,” said Lord Donghua.

Yehua turned around to face the crowd below. His own court, foreign ambassadors and envoys – absolute silence befell them all.

“People of the eight realms,” he spoke. “Let us, on this day, remember every drop of blood shed, every shield and sword shattered, and every man who has sacrificed for hope to rise in the time of darkness.

“The dark has left its mark in this world. But let us, together, restore peace in the honor of the fallen.”

The silence persisted for another minute.

“Long live the Heavenly Emperor!” His court spoke in unison as they knelt.

Then the rest of the island followed suit. Applause erupted.

There was doubt, reluctance, disapproval, and even hatred in that crowd; but above all, cheer and hope prevailed. And perhaps, Yehua reflected, it was enough for now that faith had been put in him to preserve that hope.


***


The Celestial dancers were leaping across the air, doing the most graceful moves and to the most pleasing of music. Food was being served consistently and people were mostly pleasant toward one another around Bai Qian. They moved occasionally and quietly to greet each other as the performance went on in the centre of the courtyard.

This banquet was the last celebration of the day and it seemed the Celestial Court had spared no expense in showing the eight realms they had gotten back on track.

Fengjiu had told Bai Qian that people had gasped and stared when they had seen the Dragon Robe Yehua was wearing, which was all black with minimal golden embroidery -- a choice entirely the opposite of what tradition demanded. They were still staring now as he sat on the high platform. And truth be told, Bai Qian couldn’t help staring a bit herself.

People could accuse Yehua of many things, but never unoriginality, she laughed quietly.

But the longer Bai Qian sat in the cheerful atmosphere, the lonelier she felt.

Well, perhaps not lonely, she watched as Fengjiu happily conversed with Chengyu, as Yanzhi gathered admiration from mostly everyone she spoke to, as maids and attendants rushed in and out, making sure no one had to ask for anything twice.

Just a bit empty. She sighed.

Bai Qian poured herself some tea, picked up a round biscuit that smelled like mango from her plate and took a bite, casting a look around. Many people here had also been to the gathering at Xunzhua, some at the Nine Heavens when Luoji had thrown her into the maze. And…

She peered at the opposite side. Someone looked as disinterested in the banquet as she had been a second ago.

Having been too absorbed in her own thoughts, she hadn’t seen Pojing come in at all.

But he looked like he had been sitting there for a while. His eyes were fixed on something in the far distance and he was slowly consuming his drink. Bai Qian suddenly remembered that Pojing almost always looked like that at gatherings. The jokes and laughter were reserved for the people he knew. In truth, the kings and queens present seemed to maintain a conscious distance from him. Whoever greeted him did so in a manner far from casual; some looked like they were trying to accomplish a deal with Xunzhua and Bai Qian could smell their anxiety all the way from her seat every time Pojing looked directly into their faces. Perhaps now that many of them had seen him on the battlefield with their own eyes, they’d decided it was best not to get on Xunzhua’s bad side, after all?

She chuckled at her friend’s grumpy expression every time he was interrupted, then quietly stood and was about to cross to the other side for a conversation when suddenly something exploded like firecrackers in the sky.

There was a second of bewilderment and fear where everyone seemed to get ready to pull out their weapons. Bai Qian looked to the platform – no guard was jumping out to protect their emperor.

The next moment, sizzling rays of magic were shot into the white clouds. They crackled, dispersed, and formed multiple rings of gold. A great, fire dragon came out of nowhere, roaring, sweeping low, then soared upward and flew through those rings as they exploded into thousands of tiny golden specks.

Bai Qian found herself smiling broadly along with all the guests. So this was Yehua’s idea of an impressive conclusion to the banquet.



***


With a dismissive gesture at the announcement of the banquet’s end, Yehua stepped down from his platform and exited along with his attendants. One by one, the guests stood from their seats, bowing to one another, saying their farewells, and leaving the courtyard. Changshan also walked off to carry out his duty as the acting Master of Kunlun, greeting the guests he had not and – as he would put it, Bai Qian snorted – ‘spreading our school impeccable reputation’.

“Aren’t you glad we came, Gu-gu?” Fengjiu beamed, then turned to Yanzhi. “Yesterday, she said she would stay home -- Oh, Chengyu!”

Fengjiu spun around and grabbed the fairy’s arm. “I rarely get to come here, let’s go find Si-ming, the three of us haven’t talked for a long time.”

Chengyu fixed her hair. “Will you tell me all about your adventures in the Void, Princess? You and Si-ming had all the fun I didn’t…”

“Of course I will!” Fengjiu dragged Chengyu along as she zoomed out of sight.

“She is very much like my sister,” Pojing’s voice raised. “At least when she’s not reading. Does your niece like books too?”

Bai Qian turned around, grinning. “Not as much as your sister, but she does spare an appropriate amount of her time for reading.”

“King of Xunzhua,” Yanzhi smiled.

“Ghost Queen, I believe?” Pojing dipped his head, still holding his goblet.

“Yes, whether I like it or not.”

“I suppose we all have to learn to like some of the things we initially tried to avoid?” It was Yehua. He was, for some reason, back in the courtyard.

Bai Qian blinked. “Why are you still here, Ye -- I mean, Heavenly Emperor?”

Yehua frowned a little. Truth be told, those words felt strange to her too, it might take a while before she became used to them. When Yanzhi clasped her hands together for a bow, Yehua quickly caught her arm.

“Please, don’t.” He looked at them all for a long second. “We are friends.”

Now Bai Qian understood why Yehua was back here. Though, she didn’t know whether she should say something or continue to wait for him to speak first. Luckily, Pojing never hesitated to take care of that problem for them.

“Go ahead, I assume this is something that’s long overdue.”

Yanzhi shook her head and chuckled. Perhaps it would be a long time before they would have the chance to stand together and talk as friends again.

“Thank you,” said Yehua after a minute.

“Best of luck,” Bai Qian responded, grinning. “With the eight realms still healing and the Demon Queen back in her position, I’d say you need all the luck there is.”

“I like that flame dragon earlier,” Yanzhi said simply. And Yehua nodded with a smile in response.

The dragon, the bold changes, and the promise of deviation from the previous Celestial court.

“Well,” Pojing took a step forward. “Endless court schemes, unsophisticated flattery, daily death-threats, and dull reports await you, so I agree with the Queen of Qingqiu: best of luck.”

Bai Qian laughed. Yanzhi was also unable to help herself. Yehua remained composed but his smile was apparent.

“Thank you,” he said again.

And with that, he turned and left, rejoining his nervous-looking guards who were probably relieved that the event was over.

“Until next time,” said Yanzhi. “The Ghost Realm is a fair distance away, I have to leave now.”

As Bai Qian watched her friend walk away, accompanied by the Kirin boy, a fleeting sadness swept over her. She would have to get used to it -- losing the freedom they’d had before the war.

“How is that new fan?” Pojing said suddenly.

“Oh,” Bai Qian looked at him, a bit uneasy to be asked about Ironfeather. “I – er – I gave it back.”

“Gave it back?” His brow raised. “To the Eldest?”

She nodded, the bewilderment in his voice made her regret her decision a little. It was, after all, a great fan…

“This is surprising,” he said. “Why? Wasn’t that the weapon you’ve always wanted?”

“It still is,” she admitted. “But… I believed it was right to give it back.”

Then she told him why, what she had felt while using the fan, how it had responded to her orders, what she thought of the Eldest’s test for her in the labyrinth of the Crafters’ forest, and how she was enthralled by that item still.

Pojing took a sip of his wine. “As someone with an interest in weapons, I can’t say I would’ve done what you did. But you know what is best, the fan responded to you, after all.”

Bai Qian nodded, then changed the subject. “Were you late? I didn’t see you when I got here.”

“I was detained by work at the last minute.”

There must still be endless reconstructions to be done at Xunzhua -- the border shields, the Glass Tower.

“Hard to believe, isn’t it,” Pojing said, glancing around. “How different this place looked the last time we were here.”

“Frankly,” Bai Qian replied. “I even find it hard to believe we’re still alive.”

“Says the one who stabbed the Dark Immortal through the heart. Is this modesty or a reminder that I’m the only one who hasn’t given you a pat on the back?”

Bai Qian rolled her eyes. “Well, no, we all know better than to expect compliments from Xunzhua.”

There was a small laugh, but Pojing didn’t retort. He looked in the direction of the Dragon Hall and it was a while before he spoke again.

“The first time I met you here, I formed an extremely poor opinion of you. I didn’t think you could last a day in a war.”

“Yes,” Bai Qian chuckled. “I’m sure everyone knew. You were quite verbal about it.”

“Needless to say, that was a miserable mistake, I’ve never been proven wrong so many times over since then. Not that you ever care to prove me wrong, of course.”

“No, I did,” she admitted, being sincere this time. “Ever since you – er – accused me of not knowing the regulations of Celestial gatherings, I made it a mission never to give you a chance to say I am wrong. If I ever looked like I didn’t care, then I must have been putting on an act.”

“Is that so?”

“Quite.”

“The last person in the world whose judgement you should be afraid of is me, Queen of Qingqiu.”

She remained quiet as he went on.

“But if my opinion is something you value, then here’s one: it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you are caught making a mistake or doing something reckless once in a while, even if it’s on purpose. For instance,” he leaned a bit down, his voice sprinkled with mischief. “That iron fan was brilliant; and if you liked it that much, you should have kept it despite what your conscience said.”

Bai Qian burst out in laughter, surprised that he, of all people, was urging her to rebel.

“I don’t think Yehua will ever hear this advice from you, will he?”

“Of course not,” Pojing said. “He isn’t allowed to make mistakes.”

A sudden gust of wind rushed across the courtyard, urging the last of the guests to leave.

“Well,” there was a sudden change in his tone. “You likely won’t be hearing more uncalled-for criticism from me anytime soon. Anything you would like to say before I leave?”

Bai Qian glanced at the distant floating islands. She remembered the blind Kirin, the maze, all the mud and how she had barely escaped death’s jaw.

“I was glad you came,” she said. “To the Nine Heavens that day, I mean.”

Pojing nodded, taking unusually long to reply, but he did in the end. “I was glad I found you.”

He bent down and picked up the wine jar from her table, poured some of the content into Bai Qian’s empty cup and handed it to her.

She thought for a bit before saying, “To the future of the eight realms?”

Pojing raised his own goblet.

“And the library that faces sunrise.”

They both drank in silence, taking a brief while to admire the never-setting sun, a view only seen in the Nine Heavens. But today, it was different, as if the sun itself was also aware that it was no longer shining down on the same palace.

Pojing quietly placed down his goblet and with a nod to Bai Qian, he started away.

Bai Qian watched as the King of Xunzhua joined his lieutenant in the distance and the both of them headed for the main gate. Until their figures were swallowed by the currents of clouds beyond the central island, she was still gazing in their direction.

This war had brought a great many things upon them all. The horror and grief were still trapped inside her, where they would likely stay for a long time to come. But -- Bai Qian looked at the wooden pendant on her bracelet that still retained a bit of amber shade – despite it all, the war had, no doubt, also thrown people who could not be more different onto the same path, people who had ended up being friends and learning more from one another than they’d thought possible, and would likely never stop looking out for each other.

A year ago, she had been fortunate enough to encounter such a person.
______________________________________________

[*] From the poem “The Writings on the Wall of a Southern Homestead at the Capital” (题都城南庄) by Cui Hu (崔护).