Fanfiction: The Moon Mirror (Pojing & Bai Qian Alternative Ending) - Chapter 9 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)


Chapter 9

written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi
consulting by Bunny


I’m not dead.

Bai Qian’s eyes fluttered open. A white ceiling was above her and soft sheets underneath. She closed her eyes again, wondering if perhaps this was only a dream and that both she and the Dark Immortal had gone to the Nothingness.

But if it was a dream -- she forced her eyelids open -- it wouldn’t hurt this much. Bai Qian had been sick and injured before, but the fatigue she felt now was beyond words, as if she had been hollowed out, sucked clean of all her powers. Her every muscle, every bone shrieked in pain if she so much as tried to move a hand. And her right arm… A terrible pain shot from her right elbow down to every single one of her fingers. Fractured as a result of a rough landing -- she remembered, swallowing down the pain.

She turned her head to the right, where it felt brighter. Xunzhua, Bai Qian breathed in. This was her old room in the palace, and someone was standing by the window.

Xunzhua.

Was Pojing alive? Came her first coherent yet frantic thought. Instantly her breathing quickened and her chest was in a knot.

Was he alive? Or was the court out there mourning the death of their king and discussing the procedures of a transfer of power to his sister already? The thought hauled Bai Qian up into a sitting position. The earth swayed beneath her feet and blood rushed to her head.

“Seventeenth!”

Her Senior Zilan dashed over, looking worn out but unhurt. Bai Qian clutched her broken arm, hunching over.

“What are you doing springing up like that?” he scolded. “The physician said you are to stay in one place and not use any magic for a fortnight --”

“Senior, the King of Xunzhua...” only gasps came out of her.

“What?” Zilan squinted.

“The King of Xunzhua,” she spoke louder, the effort caused a stinging pain in her throat. “Where is he?”

The one second Zilan took to answer her was pure torture. “With his court, I suppose.”

“He is… he is working?”

“Yes,” said Zilan impatiently.

She wanted to see him, Bai Qian let almost slip out. But with the knowledge of Pojing being alive, the weight of everything else descended on her.

She remembered cloud-jumping away with Luoji amid the battle, when her friends were fighting with everything they had to detain the bloodthirsty army, when water and fire were clashing, laying waste to miles and miles of plains. She remembered Yehua’s burned face and feeble pulse.

“Is there anything… I should know?”

“Yanzhi is preparing to leave for the Ghost Tribe. The Celestial Crown Prince is conscious -- and unapproachable, if you ask me. The little prince and your niece are fine. And we’ve just heard from the Star Lord of Taichen Palace about the people in the Void. No bad news.”

“Is anyone else…”

But her Senior shook his head, picking up a goblet on the bedside stand and basically shoved it at her face. “Drink this and go back to sleep, Seventeenth. You can torture yourself with the list of names later.”

Bai Qian jerked back, caught the warm goblet with her hand and stared at Zilan. Did he know? Was he aware who had cast the spell that had ended the God of War’s life?

Bai Qian brought the liquid closer to her lips and took a sip, not caring much what it was for. She kept staring ahead and kept her tears from falling, wishing her Senior would go away so that she could curl up in a corner and die, so that she wouldn’t have to face the world, wouldn't feel the jab when he looked at her with concern. If only Luoji had been just a bit stronger and killed her too when her sword had pierced his heart.

“First and Second are here,” Zilan said in a low voice. “Fourth Senior too. They’re staying at the campsite near the Glass Tower. Many of the wounded are being treated there.”

“How…” Bai Qian swallowed. “How long have I been asleep?”

“Four days, and not enough, if you’re thinking about leaving your bed.”

“Senior,” she looked down, afraid to meet his eyes. “Where’s Shifu?”

There was a long, suffocating silence before Zilan said, “He’s with us. Our Seniors are watching over him.”

“I’m… I’m sorry…”

“For what?”

She shook her head and subsided into silence again. Zilan wouldn’t understand what she was sorry for even if she explained it.

“Before we cloud-jumped to the battlefield four days ago,” Zilan said with an exasperated sigh, the hurt in his eyes apparent. “He told me to prepare for the worst. He always said that during our missions, actually. But I mean… who cared what he said, right? He joked about death all the time I thought he was… just making jokes to lighten things up...”

They looked at each other for a second, then he went on, forcing a smile at her. “That’s not true, of course. I knew Shifu was serious. I just didn’t think… something like this would actually happen.”

Bai Qian looked away. She had absolutely no courage to speak another word.

“Here,” Zilan fumbled around her pillow and pulled out a thin object. “They found you and Luoji at the top of Mount Cangwu. There was an old man with a silver beard there, probably a passerby. He said this fan is yours.”

The sight of the weapon hit her as its blade would have. She grabbed the handle with a trembling hand.

“Go back to sleep,” Zilan said and promptly rose, heading for the door. He whirled around before exiting. “Sleep!”

As his footsteps faded, Bai Qian continued to sit there, clutching the fan so tightly her left hand hurt.

The price was high. She looked at the beautiful object, the Eldest of the Crafters had made sure that it would be. They had won a war, the weapon of her dream was lying in her grasp, deeming her worthy. But the price it extracted had been too high.


***


Travelling from the palace to the campsite near the Glass Tower, Bai Qian realized that they were nowhere close to being done with this chaos. For one thing, everyone she knew seemed to be buried in work: people exiting and entering the battlefield to look for survivors, meetings being held, deals being made, arguments raising from tent to tent.

Different from most clans in the eight realms, Qingqiu was a family more than a kingdom, the number of immortals sent here to help that night was not a big one. The list of casualties -- she had memorized. She had met every one of those men back at Qingqiu, one of them had had a vegetable stall in the market and used to deliver mushrooms to Migu’s kitchen.

She would have to speak with their families, be the graceful and understanding queen who could comfort children when they cried and tell the women who were left behind they would be taken care of. And she wanted to do that for them when they got home, the way her Fourth Brother had always done it with ease. Would she have the strength, though, when she could not even get herself out of the dark pit she was in now?

I will, she promised herself. If there was one thing she could still do for Moyuan, it was being a student worthy of Kunlun.

Following the guards’ instructions, Bai Qian found her Seniors’ tents. The one in the center was larger than most tents in the vicinity and not difficult to spot at all since -- for obvious reasons -- it was surrounded by Celestial guards. As she approached the entrance, fear gripped her like an invisible hand in the dark. She was afraid, dead afraid of having to see her Seniors again. They didn’t know. Perhaps they’d all accepted that the sacrifice had been Moyuan’s choice, as they had last time, and would find no reason to fault her.

But they didn’t know everything.

“Forgive me, Your Highness, but you are being unreasonable,” a voice raised, rather loudly, as Bai Qian got closer.

“There is nothing we can do! Do not force me to be uncivil.”

Was Moyuan not in this tent? Why were they so loud?

“I am trying to do my job, Your Highness. And you are making things difficult for me.”

“I beg your pardon, General. But just because the Celestial Crown Prince was acknowledged as Father Immortal’s son does not mean he has some kind of natural claim on the God of War in this case!”

As Bai Qian entered the tent, the aggressive conversation carried on.

“As I have explained, Western Sea Prince, the God of War belongs to the Celestial Tribe. We would have buried him at the Sea of Innocence last time had it not been for your Junior’s violation of Celestial laws and hiding his body away. What difference does it make now if we would like to take him back to the Nine Heavens?”

“The difference,” Diefeng fumed. “Is that the Celestial Court was not in disarray before, it is now. I mean no disrespect, General Tianshu, but the Nine Heavens -- the Crown Prince, for that matter! -- will face constant challenge and disagreement before order is restored, before the Dragon Crown is firmly on his head. And I refuse to let our Master be brought to a place where there is no established peace. And if the Crown Prince --”

“Please have care with your words, Sea Prince,” Tianshu’s face darkened. “The Celestial Court remains the highest court in the eight realms. With the late emperor gone, our Crown Prince is recognized by universal laws as the master of that court and, by that definition, your Lord.”

“I have no doubt about the Crown Prince’s status, but any matter of Kunlun is beyond the Celestial Court’s power. It has been that way since Father Immortal founded our school!”

“That --” Tianshu breathed out -- “is an unspoken law obeyed only out of respect for Father Immortal and High God Moyuan, it does not necessarily apply if Kunlun is under a different Master.” His eyes darted to Changshan. “I should hate to involve the Star Lords in this matter, Sea Prince, but it seems you will not listen to reason. Perhaps their knowledge of the law will convince you better than my words.”

“Is that a threat to use Celestial forces against me, General?”

“Gentlemen,” Bai Qian interrupted softly.

They all turned.

“Seventeenth!” Zilan sounded most displeased. “I told you to rest!”

Tianshu bowed in a disgruntled manner. “Queen of Qingqiu.”

She nodded, then acknowledged the rest of the men. “Seniors.”

They said nothing in response, in their quickly exchanged looks were the ghosts of many conversations before she had come. She went on in her lowest voice. “I believe the God of War would have appreciated peace and quiet, perhaps this tent is not the best place for an argument.”

“It was not supposed to be an argument, Queen of Qingqiu,” Tianshu sighed. “I am just here to pass on the Crown Prince’s order that the God of War is to travel with us back to the Nine Heavens. We will guard his body with our lives until we reach the Sea of Innocence, where he will have a proper funeral.”

Funeral

“I see,” she replied.

“Please understand, Queen of Qingqiu, I have no wish to cause trouble. But you must know how adamant the Crown Prince is about this, perhaps you could help me persuade your Seniors here so we can resolve this as quickly as possible.”

Bai Qian looked at each of them: all tired, shocked, bewildered, even Tianshu. She could see that their conversation would go nowhere, and might even lead to Yehua lashing out and pronouncing punishments left and right as a solution.

“I’m afraid that as the youngest student of Kunlun,” she began, “I have no say in this matter. But perhaps you can convey my message to the Crown Prince and beg his understanding.”

Tianshu’s expression tensed.

“The Crown Prince is the God of War’s only living relative,” Bai Qian said. “Of course he has the right to pay proper respect to his brother before a funeral. But Kunlun is High God Moyuan’s home, not the Nine Heavens, I don’t think it’s wrong to let him be brought there first. That’s what he would have liked. Afterwards, Lord Donghua can be consulted for a solution that satisfies both Kunlun and the Celestial Court.”

TIanshu looked conflicted, obviously not wanting to go back and tell his Crown Prince that he had failed in his mission. But he didn’t seem to want to continue with the argument earlier, either.

“Don’t anger the Crown Prince with a full report of our conversation here,” Bai Qian added. “Just ask him to consider my request on behalf of Kunlun.”

“Very well, Queen of Qingqiu,” the man bowed, sighing again. “I will relay your words to the Crown Prince.”

He then left the tent with a deep frown and an exasperated sigh clearly directed towards the other men.

Silence blanketed them for a long minute as Bai Qian found herself alone with her Seniors. She didn’t dare meet their eyes.

“What happened, Seventeenth?” Someone finally spoke. Her Fourth Senior.

“Not now, Fourth,” Diefeng said.

“She was there when Shifu died, I only wish to know --”

“He sacrificed himself for the Sword of Balance that brought down the Dark Immortal,” Changshan snapped. “We already know that.”

“Was there no other solution?”

“If there was, don’t you think he’d be alive?”

“Gods… don’t vent out on me, Second Senior. I’m Shifu’s disciple, too. I merely want to know how we have lost him to war again when he was only barely back. I don’t think I can settle for just ‘he sacrificed’.”

“You’re too loud again,” Diefeng said.

“You have been arguing with the Celestial General for nearly half an incense before Seventeenth came, Senior.”

Fourth Senior shuffled the front of his robe and stomped out.

In all her years at Kunlun, very rarely had Bai Qian seen any of them talk back to Diefeng or Changshan. Though, if Diefeng -- an exemplar of scholarly behavior, as Moyuan would say -- would raise his voice with a general, the rest of her Seniors wanting to fight, to argue was within expectation.

“What are you doing here, Seventeenth?” Zilan asked after a minute.

Bai Qian’s chest tightened. “I want to see Shifu before you take him back to Kunlun.”

Again, the silence was unbearable.

“Are you not coming with us?” Changshan asked, his voice almost unfamiliar.

“I have a few things to do here. But my niece and I will leave shortly after you.”

Diefeng swept out of the tent without a word, as if he could not wait to get away from her.

“He’s fine,” Zilan said.

The Senior who had hugged her and told her how concerned he was when they’d found each other at the Western Sea, even after she’d admitted to putting sleep potion into their food and taking Moyuan’s body.

No, he was not fine. None of them was.

“I’ve made some food if you’re hungry,” Changshan stated before following Diefeng out. “Gods know I could not swallow any more of that potato fish soup they serve here.”

With only herself and Zilan in the tent, they waited in silence until Changshan seemed to have gone far away. Sighing, Zilan gestured at an opening behind him which was, she realized now, protected by a shimmering layer of magic. He flicked his arm. The shield went down, and he too exited.


***


Bai Qian walked through the opening, resealing it as she took in the size of this back area. It was more like a hall than the back of a tent, empty and illuminated by a great number of candles.

And in the centre was him, lying peacefully on a stone platform.

She stood still for a long while, waiting. When it came to Moyuan, expecting miracles had become a mindset she could not yet let go of. Maybe, the child in her persisted, maybe if she waited long enough, he would give them one last miracle.

But minutes, then perhaps hours -- she was not sure -- flowed by, he was lying there still.

Bai Qian finally walked closer and knelt down beside the platform.

Someone had combed his dark hair back into its knot, had made sure there were no creases on his clothes and his arms neatly by his sides.

You thought you had made this easy for me.

She fought back the strangling in her throat, their last talk at Kunlun fresh in her mind like it had happened yesterday. He had always known what she would say, had always pointed out what she’d missed, always guided her from one road of possibilities to the next -- even if it would take her away from him -- as a mentor would.

The stubborn girl in her felt the need to cling on to his words, the words that painted the image of the ruthless, indifferent god he had spoken so well that night. What more perfect reason to justify why she would leave him after all that they had been through? Why would anyone in their right mind choose such a man after he had admitted she was worth no more than a blink of an eye compared to his eternal life?

But I was your disciple, she gazed at that calm face. One you taught quite well. Whatever truth in your words, I see the truth you were trying to hide.

And she knew, as a savage tide of guilt swept through her being, that it had always been about what she wanted. The Ghost Princess’ words echoed in her head, as loudly as a hammer on a wall.

Moyuan had been her world… because she had been oblivious to the real world. Being his companion, the idea of a future with him -- it had always been about her. For someone who prided herself in being rational and perceptive, she had certainly been a blinded fool to her own feelings. For someone who always sneered at others for being slow to communicate, she had certainly taken her time to attempt the most basic of communication. It had always been herself she was trying to satisfy, her own wishes that she was trying to fulfil.

Her heart had realized this long before the Ghost Princess, or the King of Xunzhua, or anyone had to point it out to her. If only she’d had the courage to accept it sooner.

And now he was dead.

Dead before she could give him the courtesy of an explanation, before she could address his doubts as he had addressed hers.

Solitude has never killed me, he had told her. Once she had thought it was a lie, spoken to drive her away. But perhaps a part of it was true. Perhaps the man who could be affected by solitude had long been buried. She had never believed that she could be the one to find that man again. But here and there, she had seen glimpses of him. And she knew with all her heart what she’d seen was true.

The God of War -- they would call him. The Celestial with supreme power, a stern face, a fearsome sword, and a boundless love for the world he protected. The Dragon God who had sacrificed himself in a war, who would be in ballads and books, whose heroic deeds would be carved into the pillars of the sky.

“Moyuan,” she said.

The name of not a god, but the man she knew to have existed underneath what eternity had forced him to become.


***


“Gu-gu!” Migu stared at her in shock as Bai Qian arrived at Fengjiu’s room, nearly dropping the tray in his hand. “Gu-gu, I thought the physician said you need to rest. Your arm!”

It was true, she needed to lie down desperately.

“Is Fengjiu all right?” she asked.

“Yes, Gu-gu, the princess is recovering quickly. I just brought her her medicine, she’s sleeping now. She’s been wanting to go back home, actually, but I don’t know when you’ll be strong enough to…”

“I’m fine,” Bai Qian said. “More than fine to do some simple cloud-jumps. If Fengjiu is ready, tell her we will leave tomorrow at dawn.”

“Are you… sure, Gu-gu? Didn’t you just wake up this morning?”

“Who just killed the Dark Immortal?”

“Erm --” Migu scratched his head. “You did?”

Bai Qian forced a chuckle. “Yes, if I could survive a madman who nearly burned down this city, I can survive a three-day trip even with a bad arm.”

“All right, Gu-gu,” the Tree Spirit grinned. “I’ll let the princess know when she wakes up. But… are you sure you won’t want to stay for another few days? I was told a lot of immortals from other tribes would like to meet you in person.”

“No,” Bai Qian said firmly. “There’s too much to do at home to linger.”

Only when Bai Qian got back to her room in the guest wing did she subside to her fatigue. Only… it wasn’t really fatigue, but a tide of uncontrollable emotions she had made a point to hide since she’d stepped out of her Seniors’ tent. She sank down on the bed and buried her face in her pillow.

I can’t leave.

Her entire body shook with each strangled sob as a new incomprehensible agony gripped her, pulling her under like a sudden storm in the open sea.

The night trod on, her tears could not stop. Knowing that the King of Xunzhua was alive and well was not enough, not anymore. There were things she needed to say, questions she needed to ask. But maybe that was the problem -- she had questions, he did not. And it was a bit too late now for those questions.

He would be fine, she told herself, feeling the pain more intensely as she realized this. Maybe he had wanted to establish some sort of relationship between them, between their kingdoms, had even wanted more than an alliance. But Pojing was not like her, he was always sure, always knew where his duties lay and would not need thousands of years to make a decision.

He would be fine.

Bai Qian hoisted herself up from bed with her unhurt arm, blinking through her veils of tears as the first morning bird’s song, faint and distant, reached her ears through the open window.

She would go to him now, say what allies said to each other, and leave him in peace. Her indecisiveness and tendency to come up with the most stupid assumptions would not be a problem to anyone anymore, starting with Pojing.

Bai Qian put herself together and walked to the door that led to the large balcony, willing calmness into her steps. She would need a lot of calmness to face him. What she had been able to do before -- being rational and contemplating her words in front of him -- she was not so sure she was still capable of now.

But no sooner had Bai Qian taken her second deep breath than a knock sounded from the other side of the room.

She gave no response, staring blankly at the sky that was gradually shedding its night coat. Her mind formed a feeble argument that it wasn’t Pojing standing out there while her speeding heart knew with clarity that it was.

Another knock, then the door slightly creaked. He was quiet, but she felt those eyes on her back. After another soundless minute, his hand was suddenly on her shoulder and he prompted her to turn around.

Bai Qian let out a small gasp at the scars crisscrossing on his face, his neck. There were white bandages around both of his wrists up to his thumbs and who knew what other injuries he might have gotten; the dark circles around his eyes looked almost like bruises.

“Is this the wrong time?” he asked.

“No, I was about to go see you myself, but I thought you might be asleep.”

“Sleep?” he chuckled. “Sleep has been non-existent for me the last few days.”

“Of course,” Bai Qian nodded. “You must have been busy. I still don’t know much about anything, I just woke up this morning.”

“I know.”

An odd sentiment flickered across his face, but he smiled -- the smile he would usually give her whenever she was red-eyed and her cheeks stained by tears for reasons he didn’t understand.

“Allow us the chance to celebrate the fact that we’re both alive and you have just stuck a sword through the Dark Immortal before you start thinking again, hmm?”

Bai Qian could not hold back a small laugh this time, although it came out more like another sob. No matter how prepared she thought she was, he could always take her by surprise. Pojing took a large step toward her, extending his arms as he clasped her close, as close as they could be with her broken arm and his multiple injuries in between.

“Have you been out?” he asked. And Bai Qian realized then that she was still wearing her travelling cloak.

“To the campsite.”

“Not too far out into the battlefield too, I hope.”

“No, I… I wanted to, but I didn’t think I could bear seeing all those people, dead and…”

He pulled a fraction away and lifted her chin with his hand, gentle in a way he had not been before, his voice serious. “Don’t. I know you like to challenge yourself but believe me, you do not want to see the killing field, seeing again what we have failed to prevent in daylight with no battle to occupy your mind. The men I’ve sent out there to look for survivors, they swore they had the stomach for it, but many come back here so sick and shaken they can barely keep their food down.”

Bai Qian nodded.

With a raised brow, Pojing went on, “It’s rare that you listen to me so easily.”

“Why should I argue if you’re right?” she responded, looking down for a moment.

An unnatural silence settled upon them then. The king who had said he would bear the weight of the sky for her -- if that had only been a joke, then he was doing a fine job now in making her believe that joke with his arms back around her like a shield and his eyes as unwavering as a promise.

“Are you leaving?” he asked suddenly, quietly.

That was all it took for her to collapse inside. Demon Fire, Qingcang’s bell, Arctic Prison, hell itself -- anything but having to leave him. Bai Qian had not known she was capable of such sentiments before today, but there they were, wrenching her guts.

Leave, the voice in her head ordered. Bai Qian lifted her head and detached from him.

“I’d like to speak with you first.”

“All right,” Pojing said, letting go, on his face a strange calmness. As if farewell was an eventuality he had prepared for too.

Would it make a difference now if she told him how she truly felt? It would be useless. And what right had she to ramble about her feelings again and burden someone else with them? The only thing she had a right to was a memory of him.

“You and your sister are always welcome at Qingqiu,” she began. “And Kunlun too. You have done the Nine Heavens and Qingqiu many favors, we can’t thank you enough.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” his reply was instant and his gaze was stripping her off any defence she’d thought she had.

“Your men --” Bai Qian said. “We’re grateful for them.”

He nodded.

“And…,” her voice slightly shook. “Thank you for not leaving me to fight alone in the Nine Heavens. I know you told me not to think too much of it, as it was only Yehua’s plan to --”

“I would have done what I did even if there was no plan.”

Bai Qian stood dumbfounded for a long second. Then, she decided to stay quiet and let him go on. Heavens knew she had interrupted him before enough times to overlook many things and jump to silly conclusions.

“You are always quite quick at making assumptions,” he went on, taking a small step back. “And I admit, most of the time, you are right. But not all the time. So before you make another assumption, let me make myself clear.”

She went even quieter, looking into those eyes she knew so well, trying in vain to silence her thumping heart.

“If you ever thought that to me our relationship was a ‘worthy investment’, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. From the first time I saw you in the Nine Heavens, my reason for associating with you was simple: we both had something to gain. Perhaps to many, especially your Celestial Crown Prince, I rushed to the Nine Heavens, risking my neck and offending the Dark Immortal, to save that investment.” His eyes wandered beyond her, to the last stars that were yielding to dawn. “I confess, I tried to convince myself of that too. But I eventually came to terms with the fact that I would have come for you even if you weren’t the daughter of the powerful Fox Emperor and the heiress to enormous prestige.”

“Why?”

“Because harm coming to you was not a possibility I could allow to happen.”

Bai Qian stared. His every word, no matter how evenly spoken, was sweeping through her like a storm. He can’t mean…

But what else could he mean? Gods… not now. All she wanted was to leave and never bother him again, but he was not making it easy.

“Of course I wouldn’t let you fight alone.” He looked back at her. “If promises between us are worth anything now -- I will always find you as long as you let me. Whatever it takes, I’ll find you and we’ll fight our way out of the trouble we got ourselves in.”

“I don’t deserve it, Pojing. Any of it.”

There was a flash of surprise on his face, then came some sort of understanding. “I had respect for the God of War,” he said. “And I know how important he was to you. By gods… you told me that yourself in great detail. But it’s unreasonable to hold yourself responsible for everything that happened to him --”

“No,” Bai Qian shook her head in contempt. “I hold myself responsible for thinking I was being a competent, selfless, noble saint, while it’s my own interest that I always place on top. And now it’s too late to give an explanation where it’s due.”

“What was it that required an explanation?”

I was a child, hanging on to the God of War like a sense of direction. I was going to leave him, yet I had no problem leading him on.

But she could not say that out loud. Shame was consuming her inside and she feared the second she opened her mouth to explain, she might just burst into flame.

Bai Qian shook her head.

“You can’t tell me?” he said.

“I am unreliable. Like I’ve told you before. Let that be enough reason for you not to give me any promises.”

“Is this punishment for yourself for whatever mistake it is that you made?”

“I wish there was some sort of real punishment I could take to put all this behind me, but there isn’t. The best I can do now is not repeat the same mistake.”

Pojing said nothing for a long while. His eyes shifted to the first golden streaks on the horizon, then back to her.

“So you will leave.”

“Yes.”

She needed to be out of his presence as quickly as possible. If they kept standing this way, sooner or later she would collapse, and he would know, and she would not have the guts to face him ever again for the rest of her life. But those eyes held her rooted to the spot.

A smile suddenly played on his lips, bitter and distant. “When I first saw you in that little meeting the Celestials held, Queen of Qingqiu, the first thought that came to me was: here’s another delicate princess from the Fox tribe who knew nothing beyond the safety of her cave. And perhaps you, in turn, deem me incapable of offering any woman a life that is more than a means to serve my kingdom.” He took a moment, gazing upon her with the unhurried grace of a king. “Obviously, my first impression was wrong. And a chance to prove you wrong was what I wanted, but I suppose there never was a right time to ask you for that.”

Slowly, he retreated towards the door, leaving her to take in the weight of his words with a whirling mind. At the threshold, he turned around and cast a long look at her.

“If this is to be the last time we meet -- I have no regrets. Can you say the same?’

Bai Qian made no answer, unable to think of one.

Long after her door had closed again, long after the King of Xunzhua had left her in silence, her heart was still racing like that of a child chasing after a toy that had plunged into a deep lake, knowing that by the time she got there, it would already be at the depth’s bottom.


***


“This is where I leave you, Queen of Qingqiu,” said the Xunzhua guard who had accompanied them out of the city. They had reached a location from where only another few miles of walking would lead them to a suitable place to cloud-jump.

Bai Qian nodded at him, “Tell Captain Nalan I am grateful. He did not need to send you to see us out.”

“I certainly will. I bid you and the princess farewell.”

The guard was out of there in a heartbeat as soon as he was dismissed.

Bai Qian took a deep breath, the morning mist cold on her face. She, Fengjiu, and Migu continued on foot. Soon… she glanced back briefly. Soon, Xunzhua would be Xunzhua again -- a place too far to travel to unless one had a really good reason.

“What a trip!” Migu remarked. “The first time I travelled to this part of the eight realms and I just had to run into a war.”

“Uhm…” Fengjiu nodded blankly.

“Don’t worry about Lord Donghua, Princess! I’m sure Si-ming has gotten him back to the Nine Heavens safely already.”

“He’ll live, I know it,” Fengjiu mumbled. “But he’ll be bedridden and coughing blood for a long time.”

“My guess is he will have to be out and about soon to help the Crown Prince.”

Migu and Fengjiu’s voices trailed off as they got ahead of Bai Qian. She let them, standing by herself for a long minute as she memorized the outline of the palace they were leaving behind, recalling the balconies, the corridors, the tower that opened to the sky.

A deep rumble suddenly raised from midair, making her jolt.

Bai Qian glanced around then at her two companions -- did they hear that too? Both Migu and Fengjiu had stopped in their tracks. Their muddled expressions indicated they had heard it.

Hmm… She turned back towards the far-away palace that was now surrounded by layers and layers of white mist.

Bai Qian didn’t cover her ears quick enough when that rumble exploded into a roar so terrifying it nearly knocked her off her feet. Louder than the cry of a charging army, it tore at her, making her heart jump to a wild pace.

“WHAT IS IT!” Fengjiu summoned her sword, voice shaking despite her volume.

“Are we being attacked?” The tree spirit hopped around desperately.

No, Bai Qian knew, but words didn’t come out of her mouth. She kept one hand around her throat, closing her eyes for a brief moment, her breathing becoming small gasps. Where there had been fear in her a moment ago, there was devastation.

Bai Qian strode towards Fengjiu and was about to explain when the latter lashed out.

“I thought this area was safe! Gu-gu, what was it? This is a strange land, we need to be diligent, we can’t stop for rest until we reach familiar territory.”

“I know we should have brought some guards along when they offered,” Migu grimaced.

“Sufeng!” Fengjiu shouted, glancing back and forth. “It’s that maniac, isn’t it? They told me he was dead! Or did he only fake it? Is he here?”

Bai Qian grasped her niece’s shoulder and prompted her in the right direction, urging her and Migu to move on, the remnants of that sound a moment ago still circling in the air, echoing in her head. The little fox was right about one thing, they needed to be home as soon as possible.

“Snow leopards don’t roar, Fengjiu,” Bai Qian said. “They chuffle.”

Chapter 10