Fanfiction: The Moon Mirror (Pojing & Bai Qian Alternative Ending) - Chapter 5 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

 

Chapter 5

written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi   
consulting by Bunny

*This chapter takes place after the events of chapter 14 part 8 of the original story, following Moyuan and Luoji’s chess game in the Nine Heavens.

MOYUAN PLACED A HAND ON Bai Qian’s forehead -- it was burning. She was drifting in and out of a restless sleep. Migu, the Qingqiu spirit was standing at a corner, quiet yet fully alert.

Never in his life had he seen Bai Qian this ill, not even after she’d been tortured in Yaoguang’s dungeon. Luoji might have spared her life but he certainly found joy in damaging her.

It had been a few hours since Moyuan had arrived at Xunzhua, and he would have to leave soon. If she was still not awake by then…

“Not Pojing,” she suddenly murmured, stirring under her blanket. “Not Pojing too.”

And suddenly she leapt up. “No!”

Moyuan caught her by the shoulders and pushed her back down. Bai Qian was staring at him with panicking eyes, tears streaming down her face instantly.

“Shifu… Shifu?”

“Yes,” he nodded.

“Shifu, you’re not dead,” she sobbed, seizing his arms.

“No, I am not. Seventeenth, are you...”

“Please be careful… please don’t be dead… I can’t watch you die again, Shifu.”

He clasped her face in an effort to calm her down. “No one is going to die, what are you talking about?”

“Luoji is going to kill you,” she choked on her own tears. “He’s going to kill Pojing, and it’s my fault.”

Moyuan turned to the Tree Spirit, who seemed to be panicking himself. “Get a physician, Migu.”

Migu dashed out of the room in half a heartbeat.

“Shifu, he was going to kill me too…”

“You are safe,” Moyuan said, wrapping her in his arms. “Luoji isn’t here.”

“He made me see it again -- all of it. You and Ninth Senior… and Zheyan…”

“It’s all right,” he said. “You are at Xunzhua now.”

“It’s my fault…”

“None of this is your fault,” he clutched her closer.

“I’ll stay with you,” she said breathlessly, staring up at him with red eyes, her face as white as a sheet. “I’ll make sure you don’t get killed. It doesn’t matter who I am to you… nothing matters, I’ve always been with you. It should be enough, it should be…”

The next minute, a Xunzhua physician rushed into the room along with Migu.

“She is not herself,” the man explained right away as he strode towards Bai Qian. “I had to use a strong spell to extract the venom from her system. These fevers and hallucinations are a side effect. Let me put her back under.”

“No, I don’t want to! It’s cold..,” she protested, obviously still having no idea where she was. “It’s terrible!”

But the physician gently struck her back with a spell. She went still, forehead still wrinkled as Moyuan put her back on the pillow.

“It will continue for another day or two, High God,” said the physician calmly. “It can get worse, but nothing we cannot handle. Our attendants will make sure the Queen of Qingqiu gets all the attention she needs.”

“Thank you,” said Moyuan.

He stood up from the bed, silently letting out a breath of relief as the Xunzhua man saw himself out.

“Is the Celestial Crown Prince well?” Moyuan asked the Tree Spirit.

“He is, High God. A few days ago he came back here with awful bites from some sea creature, but he is fine now.”

“Good.”

“Do you have to leave now, High God?”

“Yes, I’m afraid I do.”

“Is there anything you would like me to tell Gu-gu when she wakes?”

Moyuan fell silent for a brief moment. Whatever he had to say to her, he could not have it delivered by a third person.

“Tell Bai Qian to keep her friends close.”

The Tree Spirit dipped his head, seemingly confused, but he went on nonetheless. “I will leave you now, High God.”

When Migu’s footsteps faded, Moyuan slowly walked back to Bai Qian’s bed and sat down by her side. Her hands were slightly trembling as she clutched the bed sheet tight. Another dream of the Arctic Prison? He placed his hands on her until she was still again.

If he could throw away duties and plans and sit here until she was conscious, he would. If he could take her back to Kunlun, seal the mountain and tell her again and again that she was safe with him, he would.

But what then? Would that bridge the gap between them? Would that -- or anything either of them could do, could convince themselves to believe -- bring them closer?

She would give up the whole world to be with him, and he would protect her with his life.

They had always been willing to give each other that much. Once, that had been enough.



***


BAI QIAN’S EYES FLUNG OPEN, an intense ache pounding inside her head and nausea travelling to her throat. On top of that, she was terribly cold despite all the sweat that covered her neck and face. A tear ran down her cheek for no reason.

It had been days. When would this end? This sickness she had gotten from the ice of the Arctic Land, it was worse than the worst fever she’d ever had in her life.

She had kept up with their work, had forced herself to smile everyone time concerning questions were directed at her; but she knew -- with guilt -- that her smiles and nods and false optimism had not eased her friends’ worry.

Bai Qian dragged herself out of bed and walked over to her desk, slumping down at the chair. Her hand slightly quivered as she adjusted the mirror in front of her. Pale, thin, liveless -- her stomach twisted at her own reflection.

What had happened to her? Was it the Arctic Prison, the horror in the maze?

She shot up and flung open the door to the balcony. Fresh air rushed into her lungs. It was only a few hours after dinner, the entire palace was still brightly lit, servants rushing here and there, sentries swapping places.

Where to go? She looked desperately to the sky. What to do to shake away these doubts of hers that were growing larger and larger everyday?

Pojing had been foolish. There was absolutely no need to risk his life in the Nine Heavens. Moyuan would have made sure she was all right, he always would.

Yet Bai Qian realized that she had been ready to be foolish along with Pojing, had wanted to throw everything away to protect him from Luoji. She cursed at herself, cursed at her inability to differentiate reality from a performance.

Why? Because the power in the bracelet had made her reckless and Luoji had made her desperate? Because Pojing was her friend, and they all needed him to be alive for this war?

Or was it because despite her caution, despite all effort to convince herself it was impossible to feel anything for the King of Xunzhua, she had failed to keep him away, after all?


***


YEHUA ROLLED UP THE MAP ON HIS DESK and blew out the last candles.

A-li had fallen sound asleep after throwing a full tantrum about having to sleep too early. Even his normally well-behaved son had reached his limits, Yehua sighed as he brushed A-li’s hair from his forehead. This unfamiliar place, the absence of friends, all this ominous talk of war -- they had gradually affected the boy.

Yehua placed a large pillow at the edge of the bed and quietly left his room.

A-li was not the only one in a bad mood lately. Despite Bai Qian’s calm front and punctuality in their daily tasks, he knew she was not well. What exactly went on in her mind, Yehua wasn’t certain, but he shared her concern about the God of War. Perhaps it was because he’d never had to be in this position before -- having to fear for someone’s safety daily while receiving little to no news of the person. It was pure frustration.

“Careful, Princess,” Yehua said loudly as he saw the Princess of Xunzhua approaching from a corner, her face stuck in a book.

But it was too late.

“Oh!” she banged her knee on a decorative stand, the flower vase atop it sliding off and shattering against the ground.

“Are you all right?” he strode over.

“Yes,” the princess sighed, smiling sheepishly. “It’s a really interesting book.”

“I reckon.” Yehua smiled back. “What brings you to the guest corridor?”

“Ah! I’m going to the city. I thought I’d ask the Queen of Qingqiu if she’d want to come along, she’s been a little miserable lately.”

Yehua nodded, gesturing forward. “I was about to see what she’s doing myself.”

“I hope she is not sleeping yet.”

“It’s still quite early.”

“You are welcome to join us too,” the princess offered. “Nalan is coming along.”

He wanted to. “Thank you, but -- er -- I still have a few things to take care of.”

Doing anything other than working and entertaining A-li at this time felt like a crime to him.

Yehua frowned when they reached Bai Qian’s room. The door was slightly open but there was no light from the inside.

He knocked twice. There was no answer.

“Queen of Qingqiu?” Zhuowei stepped closer.

“Bai Qian.”

They exchanged an uncomfortable look. The princess tilted her head and peered into the crack between the door and the wall.

“She might be out on the balcony, the doors on that side are open too.”

Unease rose inside him and without hesitation, Yehua pushed open the main door.

“Qianqian.”

The room was empty, the bedsheets and quilts unkempt, window curtains flapping as winds swept by. Zhuowei ran out the balcony and stared up at the roof.

The copper mirror?

Yehua strode over to Bai Qian’s desk. The magic mirror that she had always carried with her was there, a little note lying underneath it. He quickly snatched up the piece of paper, hearing a small clunk as his sleeve swept over the desk and looking down to see a plain bracelet with a wooden pendant on the ground.

Impatient, he ignored it and flicked open the note.

Gone out. Will not get lost.


Was this supposed to make him not worry?

“What is that?” Zhuowei came to his side.

“She’s gone out.” Yehua held up the note.

“Oh. At night? Did she say -- where?”

“No.”

An uncomfortable silence enveloped them. It looked unlikely that Bai Qian had brought someone along, not when something as essential as the copper mirror was left behind on purpose.

“We should tell my brother,” Zhuowei said.

“Wait,” Yehua caught the princess’ arm as she was just about to walk away. “I don’t think that’s the best idea.”

“Why not?” she blinked. “He will know what to do. Oh -- maybe she’s with my brother.”

“I doubt it. Not after what happened at dinner.” [*]

“It’s because of what happened at dinner that they might be together. They’re getting married, aren’t they? They shouldn’t let a little quarrel stand in the way.”

Yehua chuckled. “They are not getting married.”

“Well, not right away,” Zhuowei tapped her forefinger to her chin. “But my brother did ask Bai Qian to be his queen, I suppose it’s only a matter of time considering how much she loves Xunzhua. It’s only right that they resolve their differences.”

I beg your pardon?” Yehua thought lightning had just hit him on the head. “When did this happen?”

“A while ago. How could you not know? It was your idea to have them announce their engagement to the whole world in the Nine Heavens.”

“My idea was to put on an act to give Luoji what he wanted to see,” Yehua corrected, still unsure of what he’d just heard. “I knew Bai Qian would want to draw attention away from the God of War’s plan so I advised your brother to go along with her. I did not know --”

Yehua paused. He could not say that he hadn’t anticipated this. After all, the eight realms were in chaos and any sensible leader would want to form a long-term alliance with Qingqiu.

“And Bai Qian never told you?”

“She is not the sort of person who shares such things.”

“Well, for someone who didn’t know,” Zhuowei nodded at him approvingly. “Your plan was quite impressive. Let’s go see my brother.”

She took the note from his hand and darted out of the room.

Princess.”

Zhuowei moved so fast across the palace that Yehua could barely keep up with her.

“Princess,” he finally managed to get her attention as she slowed down on the last flight of stairs that led to the king’s study.

“Yes?”

Yehua held up a hand and lowered his voice. “I do not think we should bother the king with this?”

“But someone should know,” she responded, looking surprised. “The Queen of Qingqiu is still ill, the physician said she needs rest, and she's been quite sad lately. It isn’t a good idea to let her go out alone.”

“I know. Perhaps --” Yehua took a deep breath, contemplating. “Perhaps if you could lend me a guard, I can go look for her myself.”

Zhuowei was silent for a minute, then her thick brows slightly furrowed.

“Why are you always so eager to accompany the Queen of Qingqiu?”

Her cheeks blushed pink as soon as the question left her lips.

Yehua found himself temporarily wordless. He’d had to learn to do many things he would normally have the privilege to avoid as the Crown Prince of the Nine Heavens: explaining himself was one of those things, striving for someone’s good opinion was too.

“She and I are very good friends.” Yehua cleared his throat and gestured forward. “Speak with your brother. No one knows the way around Xunzhua better than him.”

The princess averted her eyes for a second. “If you have a better idea…”

“No, I don’t. You should let your brother know.”

“I’m not trying to pressure you to stay here if you are that concerned…”

“There is no pressure. Please, I insist.”

After some puzzling silence, the princess slowly led them on, occasionally glancing at him.


...


The King of Xunzhua and his attendant seemed to be having a rather depressing conversation when they were shown into the study. Even as Yehua and the princess approached the front, they went on with their discussion as though time was running out for something.

“Is something wrong?” Zhuowei asked.

Her brother acknowledged them both with a nod and replied, “Reluctant tribe leaders, Demon spies, Zhongyin trying to kill anyone who comes near him -- it’ll be news when something is right these days.”

“Princess,” Nalan bowed. “Celestial Crown Prince.”

“And what are you doing here, Zhuowei?” asked the king. “I thought you were about to visit the city. I gave Nalan my permission.”

“I was, but… You have to go look for the Queen of Qingqiu.”

“What do you mean look for her?”

“It seems she has gone somewhere on her own.”

The king looked to be at loss for words and his expression froze momentarily.

“On her own?” he repeated. “How do you know this?”

“She left a note, and the mirror too, that mirror she normally uses to reach Prince Yehua, she left it behind on purpose.”

There was another long silence. The king exchanged an unreadable look with his lieutenant, who shook his head quietly and made no comment.

“And what would you like me to do?” he asked.

“I just said it,” Zhuowei shrugged. “You should go find her.”

“Going out this late, leaving the device of communication behind -- it sounds to me that she doesn’t want to be found.”

“But…”

“I’m busy at the moment,” he said flatly. “And it isn’t within our right to dictate where our guests go in their own time. As long as she submits to the palace’s entry security when she returns, let her be.”

“Let her be?” Zhuowei’s large eyes widened. “But the Queen of Qingqiu is not supposed to be out alone, no one who’s just gotten out of the Arctic Prison should.”

“A fact I’m sure she’s well aware of and decided to disregard.”

“Well, you have to send out guards to look for her then,” Zhuowei emphasized. “It’s dangerous to wander around at night if you look different and don’t know the place well.”

“I don’t have to send my guards anywhere,” came the curt response. “If she is clever enough to defy a physician’s advice and run out of the shield, she’s clever enough to find her way back.”

“Well, Princess,” Nalan stepped up and offered. “I can certainly help --”

“You are to take the princess to the city as she wishes,” the king cut him off with a raised voice. “If she releases you from your duty and you are desperate for more work, come and see me. You are not paid to be the Queen of Qingqiu’s bodyguard.”

Nalan fell into helpless silence.

“What if she does something reckless?” the princess went on.

Her brother briefly glanced up. “Then we will know she isn’t the kind of ally we need.”

Zhuowei’s mouth dropped open.

“Now if you’ll excuse me,” he went back to his stack of documents on the desk. “I have a lot to read through before our meeting tomorrow.”

Zhuowei was not pleased on their way out.

“I don’t understand my brother sometimes,” she huffed, stomping down the stairs. “You would think that he would show a little concern. Who rushed to the Nine Heavens to bring the Qing of Qingqiu back here? Who skipped meals and stayed up all those nights to take care of her? Now when she might be in danger, he’s going to let her be? He has no logic.”

Yehua chuckled before he could stop himself. The princess turned to him with a puzzled expression.

“Nothing,” he quickly said. “I -- er -- agree with you, that is all.”

“Hmm,” Zhuowei looked away, contemplating. “What do you think we should do, Nalan?”

“I am not so sure, Princess,” the spymaster said cautiously. “I cannot engage, of course, the king’s order was clear. And, if I may, the Queen of Qingqiu does seem to be very capable. Perhaps we have overthought the matter?”

“I hope so,” the princess rolled her eyes. “We have no idea where she went, anyway. What a waste of my time, you tell my brother that I will let him take care of his own problems from now on.”

“You have been saying that for ages, Princess,” Nalan smiled helplessly. “And so has the king. But from my experience, that statement is rarely acted upon.”

Yehua said nothing as he saw Zhuowei off with Nalan, confused and bewildered still about the amount of things that had escaped his knowledge. Although, he was quite certain they didn’t have to worry about Bai Qian’s safety anymore.



***


BAI QIAN FIXED HER HOOD AND CLOAK, making sure she did not stand out too much. Walking out in the open among the company of royalty was one thing, it was another to be alone in an unfamiliar street with a face that belonged to another part of the world.

In the center of the city, however, most people were friendly. Vendors introduced her to their goods, she bought anything that looked pleasing. People drank and chatted, families walked by, street performers deeply absorbed in their work. No one looked twice at the gloomy girl who wandered on the side, deep in thought, taking no part in the merry activities around.

It was what she needed, anyway -- a little time alone where no one cared how she was feeling, where she didn’t have to pretend to look well and composed.

Bai Qian ate the food and drank the last of the beverage she had purchased. The aimless walk soon took her away from the noise and the crowdedness. Soon, Bai Qian found herself treading among trees and bushes. She knew this path, it led to the waterfall.

The forest smelled different at night, and there were so many fireflies that she didn’t even need to use a spell for light.

Would it make a difference if she could see Moyuan now? Would being in his company drag her out of these endless doubts?

There was a time when he had been her answer to everything. Whatever she’d needed, he would have.

The trees soon thinned and the ground became a lot softer beneath her feet. She had crossed into the edge of the desert. The sky was clearer from here and the wind much stronger, the bright moon replacing the fireflies’ flickering light. With a brief glance back, Bai QIan decided to walk on.

She needed to see Moyuan. Desperately. But all the same she was afraid that this time, she would have to look beyond him for an answer.

Bai Qian squeezed her eyes shut, exhaling. That was it. She had believed with all her heart that they were meant to be together, that there was nothing she would want more than seeing her Shifu well and happy at Kunlun, that if he was there, she had no reason to be anywhere else. She had sneered at the idea of needing more, scoffed at anyone who questioned her choice. But had she ever fully understood this choice?

This childish dream, this comfort and security you offer -- I can hang on to them no longer.

...

All of a sudden her hood was yanked backward off her head. Bai Qian leapt up and spun around, her eyes wide with shock.

How had she not heard them coming?

A dozen wild beasts had been behind her this whole time, their paws whisper soft on the sand, their eyes glowing a sinister yellow in the dark.

One of them laughed, it was the most hideous laugh she had ever heard.

Then, advancing on her, they slowly transformed. Their wild fur became thick, shaggy hair, their four limbs turning into arms and legs. Fifteen or so men in ragged clothes were spreading into a circle around her. They were as quiet as they had been in beast form, and the savagery in their eyes was unchanged.

Scavengers, Bai Qian silently summoned her fan. Outlaws living on the outskirts of the oasis -- she had heard about them from Nalan. And right now they were goggling her as if she was dinner.

“What is a nine-tailed fox doing here?” One of them sniffed, he seemed to be their leader.

How could they know? “I am no such thing.”

“Lies,” he hissed. “We can smell you from a mile away. Little pampered princesses from the Fox Tribe, they reek of flowers.”

What an insolent brute.

“Clean,” the same man sneered at her. “Pale. Delicate. What are you doing alone in our land?”

I’m not delicate. “This land belongs to the King of Xunzhua.”

The lot of them laughed hysterically as they tightened the circle.

“Do you see his sentries around? His power does not extend to the desert, this is where we rule. But does it matter, little doll? The King of Xunzhua is not here!”

He charged at her, snapping his jaws together. With a slash of her arm, Bai Qian knocked him backward a distance.

“What a difficult meal,” he sucked air through his teeth, huffing like a bull. “I hope you taste as good as you fight.”

Bai Qian breathed out. She could run. She could easily hop on her sword and fly away. But the part of her that was itching for a fight won over, she stood still as the rest of their pack attacked.

They came at her, howling and tearing as though she was the first prey they had caught in months.

Bai Qian dodged left and right, rapidly changing her weapon back and forth between its two forms. The old wound on her arm began to ache as she returned their blows fiercely. The cold in the Arctic Prison that had seeped deep into her skin and taken root in her guts resurfaced, draining her strength more quickly than she had expected.

These scavengers were vulnerable to magic strikes, but once her spells slowed and became less effective, the battle tipped in their favor. Five or six hungry beasts, she could handle. But more than a dozen? She was not going to come out of it unscathed.

It didn’t matter. What were a few new wounds anyway? Bai Qian fought on, earning slashes wherever her skin was exposed, her cloak getting torn and ultimately hauled off her shoulders. But she could see their confidence dwindle, as if they were starting to debate whether the meat on her was worth all this trouble after all.

Eventually, the leader of the pack knocked her off her feet with a swat of his arm. Momentarily on her back, Bai Qian saw his black, wild figure leaping toward her, his beast fangs bared.

Suddenly one of them yelled something in their native tongue. She had not been here for long but those words she recognized. The king. Several of them echoed the terror and hollered warnings to their leader.

Some object shot over Bai Qian’s head and hit the snarling man square on the stomach before he could reach her. Bai Qian scrambled up, her spine ringing with pain. A shadow landed in front of her and caught the scavenger’s neck.

The rest of them scattered in all directions, letting out a series of loud screams as though they were being slaughtered.

“Mercy, King of Xunzhua,” the man struggled against Pojing’s grip.

For a second, Bai Qian thought his life was going to end right there. But after a minute, Pojing threw him to the side, the man still breathing and clutching his bleeding abdomen.


...


Pojing wheeled around at her. With a disapproving shake of his head, he took a large stride over, reached out an arm and clasped her close. Her face was flat against his chest as he took off.

He was fast, but somehow Bai Qian could tell being in the air made him uncomfortable.

It wasn’t what she’d wanted -- meeting him here, being this close again, unable to pretend that what had happened in the Nine Heavens hadn’t affected them.

Voices surrounded them upon their landing. Bai QIan rubbed her eyes, recognizing the door to the Guest Hall.

“My King.”

Guards flocked to their side, bowing and exchanging confused looks.

“There was an incident in the desert,” Pojing said. “Fetch a physician for the Queen of Qingqiu.”

“No,” Bai Qian shook her head, she wasn’t going to see a physician because of a few scratches. “I’m all right.”

“Leave us then,” he said.

The guards returned to their posts, opening the door to the hall. Bai Qian followed Pojing inside. No matter her explanation, she knew what she had done didn’t look very sensible. To cap it all, she was tired, too tired to even pretend to care what others thought.

The hall was empty, Pojing’s voice echoed against the walls as he finally spoke to her.

“Are you out of your mind? Why didn’t you just fly away?”

I wanted to forget real life so I fought the first maniacs that challenged me. Not that she could tell him that.

“I told you how dangerous the desert is.”

Bai Qian sighed, briefly closing her eyes. “I know.”

“Why did you go out there alone after the physician has specifically said you need rest?”

She didn’t know what to say anymore. I’m sorry?

“What is the matter? Are you still worried about the God of War?”

“I can never stop worrying unless he is in front of me.”

“We’ve already sent a messenger to see your Sixteenth Senior.”

“I know that too.”

“Well, none of this explains why you had to leave the palace tonight, but I don’t believe the God of War would be in the Void in the first place if he couldn’t take care of himself, as I’m sure you already know. It’s no use sulking in worry about him.”

Bai Qian didn’t respond, avoiding his gaze as he went on.

“If there is something else I should know, I hope I hear about it before you make another trip out there and fall into the Demons’ hands.”

“Thank you,” she said. “For taking me back. But I…”

“Please spare us that.”

“What?” Bai Qian uttered, moving her eyes to Pojing at last.

“Your attempt at proving to the world you can manage composure in any situation. I don’t need to see it.”

Bai Qian was flabbergasted, immediately forgetting the fact that she was quite exhausted. She straightened her back even more and steeled her voice. “I’m sorry if you see my civility in a negative light, I don’t want to trouble other people with my personal worries.”

“You don’t want to trouble other people? Is that why you ran out of the shield and marched into a desert at night?”

“I left Yehua a note. And if you think I couldn’t have handled a couple of wild cats on my own, you’re wrong.”

“That – is not the point.” His eyes flashed. “This isn’t Qingqiu, and the Dark Immortal did not take over the Nine Heavens to give out peace treaties to the eight realms. If you go missing at this time, people don’t assume you are just taking a nap in some peach blossom forest somewhere.”

“But I did not go missing,” she protested.

“You were gone long enough to cause alarm, Queen of Qingqiu.”

“Well… I’m sorry, then. I was going to stay out all night.”

“Yes, stay out all night if you want. Drink, scream, dive down a lake, whatever it takes for you to think straight again, but for Primordials’ sake, bring someone with you next time for your protection.”

“Protection?” Bai Qian snapped. She had heard that word too many times from Moyuan to be sick of it now. “I’ve had enough of it. I ran out there to get away from protection.”

“What does that mean?”

Bai Qian pressed her lips together and simply stared back at him, cursing at herself for letting her emotions slip again.

Pojing waited for an answer, confusion persisting in his features. When she did not budge, he slightly shook his head, “This cannot go on.”

Bai Qian had nothing to say to that except that she had thought it herself. The nightmares, the doubts, the constant thinking -- they were taking a toll on her.

“If you won’t tell me what bothers you,” Pojing said. “Then tell me what you want done.”

She looked at him -- there were faint traces of the gashes he had earned in the maze on his hands and face.

“Nothing,” she said. “I want to be alone.”

“You have been alone. It is being alone that puts you in this state.”

Bai Qian hesitated, this was not the time or place she would like to express her gratitude, but she could not face him any longer without addressing the matter.

“You’ve done too much already. More, and I won’t ever be able to repay you.”

“Repay me?” His voice this time was like a glass of water in her face. He gave her a long look, his face hard as stone, and went on. “I need none of your sentiments, Queen of Qingqiu. If you’d like to discuss debts, we’ll set aside a time to do it. For now, tell me this --”

He advanced, his stare burned.

“Can we trust you?”

The brief silence between them was suffocating.

“We are preparing for war, and we cannot work together effectively if you disregard your own life! Perhaps you prefer to be of help in the Void? I certainly won’t stop you from going. In fact, as soon as the God of War gives us the location, I plan to send troops there if you’d like to join them.

“But if you stay here,” he continued. “We need your head to stay too.”

Bai Qian felt heat at the top of her head, her face blazed red, her stomach boiling in rage and she could barely breathe. The nerve of him -- to stand here and criticise her while she had always kept up impeccably with everything they did at Xunzhua. Not once had she ignored her duties or underperformed.

“I told you, I know what I’m doing,” she emphasized each word, stepping closer and staring back at him. “I don’t disregard my own life and I had everything under control with the scavengers before you came. Now, I will go back to sleep and attend the meeting tomorrow as planned. There’s no need to remind me of what’s at stake.”

“Good.” He muttered.

Bai Qian wheeled around and headed out. But at the doorstep, her anger spilled. She closed her eyes for a minute then decided she had quite a bit more to say.

She strode back to Pojing, lifting her chin and speaking clearly even though tears were welling in her eyes.

“No sentiments, of course. It’s war, it’s just efficiency that matters --”

Pojing bent forward in a jolt of a movement, one of his arms went across her waist and yanked her close. Whether he was too quick for anyone to react or she was too slow to decide on a reaction, Bai Qian wasn’t sure, but she froze and whatever she had just been saying slipped her mind.

And the moment their faces were close enough for her to see the fervency that swept across his eyes, he pressed his lips to hers, quick and fierce.

Bai Qian’s head spun and she gripped onto his robe as a vertigo seized her on the spot, her heart jumping into a violent pace, her whole being responding to him like that day in the maze when his power had flown into her from the bracelet.

But she was not wearing the bracelet.

Pojing clasped her tighter, his hand a firm grip on her nape and his kiss swiftly becoming more insistent.

Her panic surged at the realization of what was happening. Bai Qian wrenched herself away and her hand flew out on its own accord. It was only after it had been done did she realize she had slapped him. Much harder than she’d thought she was capable of. A thin red line appeared on his cheekbone.

“You…” she stammered. “You shouldn’t have…”

She wanted to say something harsher but couldn’t. Guilt and shame were strangling her throat. Pojing, however, was silent and quite unruffled save for a little gasp when the back of her palm had struck his face. As if he had prepared for this.

“My guards can escort you back to the guest corridor if you require their service,” he said evenly.

And without another word, he left the hall.

Bai Qian stood alone in the emptiness of it all, her head still spinning and her heart pounding like mad. What was wrong with him? What was wrong with her, for that matter? They were never supposed to think of each other this way. 

Chapter 6

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[*] Refer to chapter 15 part 1