Fanfiction: The Moon Mirror (Pojing & Bai Qian Alternative Ending) - Chapter 10 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

 

Chapter 10

written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi
consulting by Bunny

KILL HIM.

Rip his jaws apart.


The fires burned on, the screaming of both men and beasts alike entrapped him in its horror. The air he breathed in was a mix of sweat and blood. Yet the slaughter still had not ceased.

Kill. Kill your way out.

He sprang up and struck, pulling in air in a massive gasp.

But there was no one there, only silence and absolute darkness. His eyes adjusted to the dark the next second as he took in the familiarity of his own room, his pulse drumming against his temples.

Gauntlet?

He raised his right arm and stared at the five sharp metal claws. He had summoned his weapon in his sleep.

All the candles went alight with a flick of his hand. This room -- it felt like a cage at the moment.

Ignoring the throbbing pain in his head due to last night’s wine and the aching of his muscles from excessive training lately, Pojing strode towards the door and sprung it open to step out the balcony. Dawn was near, even though it was still dark out. Snow had formed a blanket upon the world. Winter’s merciless cold assaulted his face, but he was used to it.

He observed the guards stationed below for a minute then somersaulted into the air. Quick and quiet, he transformed, leaping from roof to roof then landing just outside of the back gate, and began to head into the wild at full speed.

Freedom -- it was what his true form offered. Absolute freedom.

Reaching the top of a steep -- almost vertical -- cliff, he halted and cast a long look down, catching his breath and shaking snow off his fur. The first sun rays were escaping through thick layers of grey clouds and quickly descending upon the land.

There was a sudden movement at a lower level of the cliff where snow had not covered it entirely. He stilled, watching with all his senses as a large horned creature stepped into view, making its way along the cliff’s side towards a small tree protruding from a crack between the rocks. Oblivious, loud, careless -- they never learned.

His eyes fixed on the enormous, circular horns, the four legs that indicated considerable speed, and finally, the bare neck and back. With a great burst of power, he charged downward, driven by a fierce, uncontrollable hunger, a hunger not for the beast itself, but the thrill of the kill.

Run, he urged. But the creature was still taking one step after another, slowly, leisurely. And it was too late when it finally detected movement above its head. Terror prompted a series of gurgling sounds from its throat and it sprinted down the slope.

Not fast enough. It was not even a challenge.

Catching up in less than three seconds, he pounced, and with a bite on the creature’s neck he wrestled it to the ground. Those stately horns were large and possibly strong enough to penetrate hardwood, but in a fight like this, they were more a hindrance than an advantage.

Screeching and with blood pouring from its throat, the creature thrashed, fighting him with the desperation of a soul who knew death was near, its hooves grating against the hard rock of the cliff’s bottom. He clenched his teeth and tore deeper into its flesh, finally breaking the creature. Splashes of red blood darkened the ground, tainting the nearby snow.

He let go and stepped back, snarling at his kill, feeling none of the usual satisfaction when he carried out a successful hunt. What was the matter with him? Hunting had always been a source of joy to him and an integral part of Xunzhua he’d always been proud of.

Now, it felt as if he was controlled by a certain darkness -- that which he had somehow acquired during his last duel with Sufeng -- it was still there, somewhere inside him and always ready to lash out.

Sufeng had been stronger, much stronger and more brutal than him. To kill such a man, he’d had no choice but to become just as ruthless. He’d found Sufeng’s tell, a weakness, and taken advantage of it to end the man’s life. But still, brutality which he’d never thought he’d be capable of had been needed, and he’d exerted it. And now, like some dark magic, that desire to kill, to shred everything apart, refused to leave him, refused to let him forget that monster he had released in order to win, to destroy not only Sufeng, but every man that had stood in his way afterwards.

And above all…

He transformed back, standing tall above the dead creature, taking in the icy air in ragged breaths.

With all this strength he possessed, why could he not forget a woman who had chosen her mentor’s memory over him?


***


Activities had begun to fill the palace when Pojing returned from the cliff. People bowed to him as he passed by, some looked as if they had something to say; yet his determination not to stop for any reason seemed to be clearly perceived, for no attempt was made to detain him. He headed straight for his study and was about to order a new robe to be brought to him when he realized that Nalan was waiting inside.

“My King,” Nalan greeted him with that cautious, worried look he had grown accustomed to in the last few months.

“If you have no urgent business, prepare to leave for the training ground,” he said right away,

“So soon, My King? It is hardly dawn, and you trained past midnight yesterday. Perhaps you would like some breakfast and a quick look at today’s reports first?”

“I’ve had breakfast,” he proceeded towards his desk and picked up a proposal he’d been reading last night but hadn’t finished.

“Are you sure another training session now is necessary, My King? You trained past midnight for the last several months.”

“It’s necessary.”

Nalan fell unusually quiet, still not budging from where he stood.

“What is it?” Pojing looked up from his document.

“If I may have permission to speak as not your subordinate, but someone whose judgement you trust --”

“Don’t you do that every day with or without my permission? What is it?”

Nalan did not respond right away but instead started to cast long looks around the room. By gods, these unnecessary waits bothered him. As if one had all the time in the world to mince words and engage properness in every conversation.

“Another minute, Nalan, and I will send you back to your room so you can write about it to me instead.”

“I am sworn to be loyal to the Crown,” Nalan began swiftly. “And useful in any way I can, of course. But I cannot -- perform my duties if in doing so I contribute to a disservice to you.”

“How is you doing your job a disservice?”

“I am always available to accompany you to the training ground or to order the next batch of wine to your study because you need to stay up all night to finish your work, My King. But as far as I can see, more physical activities might -- will exhaust you, drinking isn’t a substitute for proper rest, and the work you strain yourself to finish in one day can be spread out over several with the same result.”

Nalan took in a long breath at the end of his speech and looked like he was bracing himself for punishment.

It would be wise to fear punishment, Pojing narrowed his eyes on his lieutenant. Criticizing my methods, giving me advice on how to go about my daily life.

But a part of him knew with bitter anger that Nalan was right. He had no method. Plunging into work like a madman, gulping down anything that could help him stay up for longer, and pretending to be in excellent shape in front of his court the next day was not a method. Yet those were the only things he was capable of doing at the moment. He needed to keep himself busy, he needed to drop onto his bed every night exhausted so that all that was left was falling asleep, so that there would be no thinking about the darkness. Or about her.

“What is with this awful silence?” Zhuowei’s voice raised like a silver bell at the door.

Nalan turned, stepped to the side and bowed to the princess, who glanced between the two men in the room.

“Is something wrong, Brother? What did Nalan do? You look like you’re about to throw him behind bars.”

“You’re not wrong,” Pojing said, tossing the papers in his hand back on the desk and sinking into his chair. “I’m considering it.”

His sister dashed inside, giving Nalan an encouraging smile -- as if she knew what had been said between them -- and moved on to present him with a document she’d been holding all this time.

“I need your written approval on something, Brother.”

He took the document, and upon reading its content could not help but frown.

“Why?”

“Why?” Zhuowei leaned against the table. “I have worked very hard these past few months, I need some entertainment this winter. So do you, quite frankly. Also, think of this as a diplomatic opportunity for Xunzhua, to connect with the eight realms through something other than war and weapon trading. It’s been a long time since we last had an event like that.”

Pojing signed and placed the piece of paper aside. Zhuowei had been stuck in the Glass Tower recently, working day and night to repair the damage caused by Luoji’s invasion, that much was true.

“As long as you don’t invite the whole eight realms to the palace,” he said, picking up a pen and beginning to construct an order to the treasury.

“Of course not,” his sister laughed. “Just the people I can stand to be around.”

Taking the signed note from him, Zhuowei’s face lit up even more. She zoomed towards the exit, patting Nalan’s shoulder on the way.

Well, at least nothing dampens her spirit.

“You may go,” he told Nalan.

“Am I to prepare for a training session still, My King?”

“Yes.”

Nalan's expression did not change much, but he could sense the disapproval. And that concern was more frustrating to see than anything else. By Primordials, what were they so afraid of? That he would collapse during an important dinner or accidentally chop his own arm while trying out new weapons?

“I know my limits,” he said to his lieutenant. “And I am far from reaching them.”


***


“THAT IS WHAT IT’S LIKE UNDER my Second Brother’s mentorship, Shifu,” Bai Qian said, concluding her story for today. “He’s more difficult than Senior Diefeng and not easy to trick at all. There is no chance of escaping while he is giving a lecture, and he gives endless lectures.”

She chuckled. After a pause that seemed indefinite, she walked closer to the sarcophagus positioned in the centre of a large island within the Sea of Innocence and gently placed the white blossoms she had collected from Zheyan’s forest this morning on top of it. Then she waited for another while, as she did every time she visited here. A habit she still could not let go of. Even though she wasn’t so sure what she was waiting for, particularly.

Perhaps a strong wind rushing by, a bolt of thunder, a sudden downpour, some early snow. Something to let her know that these stories she told, these flowers she brought were acknowledged, even if only from the Nothingness.

Still, the world was quiet. Nothing ever moved at the Sea of Innocence, even the guards were so still they looked as if they had been turned to stone and rooted to the ground.

“I’ll visit you another day,” she said, smiling lightly and turning around to head home.


***


Arriving at the Fox Cave, Bai Qian was quite surprised that Fengjiu was not already at the gate to wait for her. After days of endless work, work that was both to compensate for the absence of Bai Zhen and to meet her Second Brother’s expectations, they had finally found some spare time. Having planned to meet Yanzhi at the Peach Blossom Forest and make a trip to the mortal realm afterwards, Bai Qian had expected her niece to already be up and brimming with excitement at this hour.

“Fengjiu,” Bai Qian called out as she entered the cave. Still sleeping?

She was partly right. The little fox was not yet out of her room or had not even changed out of her night garments, but she was by no means sleeping. Curled up and hugging her knees tight in a corner of her bed, Fengjiu appeared to be trembling all over.

“Fengjiu?” Bai Qian raced to her niece. “Nightmare again?”

Fengjiu nodded, breathing in short gasps. “I hardly slept last night… I thought I was getting better, Gu-gu. But I keep having dreams... the battlefield...”

“It’ll get better,” Bai Qian assured, brushing Fengjiu’s hair off her shoulders and forehead.

“When I said I wanted to fight,” she sobbed, sweeping the back of her hand across her cheek. “I didn’t think I would have to… to kill so many --”

“I know. I’m glad you were brought inside the tower before it got worse. I’m glad you didn’t stay until the last hours.”

“It was either them or me… I had to kill…”

“It’ll pass,” Bai Qian wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “It will.”

“You don’t have nightmares anymore, Gu-gu?”

“I still do,” she said, her entire body tensed, the fears she had been trying to keep at bay gripped her stomach to remind her of its existence. “Even now, I still often dream of my Ninth Senior.”

“Will it really go away, Gu-gu?”

Bai Qian nodded, smiling. “Once you are used to the safety inside Qingqiu again, these dreams will leave you alone.”

“Gu-gu!” It was Migu. The Tree Spirit bounced into the room with a tray in his hands, face wrinkled in concern. “You’re here too. Here, the princess’ medicine. I followed the exact instructions Lord Donghua gave for this concoction, let’s see if it helps.”

“Urghh,” Fengjiu pushed her blanket aside, her earlier terrified expression lifted. Bai Qian wasn’t sure whether she was annoyed at the medicine or the mention of Lord Donghua.

“He has survived many wars,” Bai Qian shrugged, taking the goblet from Migu’s tray and handing it to Fengjiu. “If he says this potion works, it’s worth a try.”

“Have you been corresponding with Lord Donghua behind my back, Migu?” asked Fengjiu begrudgingly.

“Of course not, Princess. Si-ming visited once by Lord Donghua’s order and gave me the instructions for the potion, he said that Lord Donghua thought you might be having constant nightmares that couldn’t be resolved by regular ginger soup. Oh, Gu-gu --” Migu reached into the sack at his side and pulled out a stack of small scrolls and documents.

“These came for you earlier this morning, Gu-gu. The usual inquiries, I reckon.”

“Thank you,” said Bai Qian, taking the stack and beginning to go over them as she waited for Fengjiu to finish the medicine.

Report, report -- she flipped through them. Inquiry, a requested book at Taichen Palace’s LIbrary was available for use for the next three days, invitation, more invitations.

Invi…

Her heart almost stopped when a name on a small scroll hit her eyes. Xunzhua.

Bai Qian quickly pulled it open. The content was brief and couldn’t be any simpler yet she stared at it without any idea what to do.

“What is that, Gu-gu?” asked Fengjiu.

“An invitation. A winter banquet at Xunzhua.”

“Winter banquet?” Mi-gu jumped over, both he and Fengjiu peering into the open scroll, faces bright with sudden thrill.

“Ohhh --” Fengjiu rubbed her hands together. “Will we go, Gu-gu? Will we? I didn’t get to stay at Xunzhua for long last time. They have so many delicious foods and --”

“Finish your medicine and get ready,” Bai Qian grunted. “We don’t want to keep Yanzhi waiting.”

Before Fengjiu and Mi-gu could bombard her with more questions, Bai Qian dashed out of the cave and started toward the lake.

Alone, she opened the scroll again. Did Pojing decide who got invited to events like this at Xunzhua or was he too busy that these things were always handled by his attendants? Either way, he must know she would not come, not too soon after what had been said between them.

Half a year -- it had been that long since they’d last met. And she had been trying, trying and failing not to regret her decision.


***


As usual, Fengjiu’s spirit significantly lifted as soon as she was outdoor. Whatever potion she had tried today seemed to help too. At least the little fox wasn’t there when Fourth Brother… Bai Qian squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head. She mustn’t think of these things now, or she would see them again in her own dreams tonight.

“Ghost Princess!” Fengjiu waved at an approaching figure in a dark red robe when they landed at the Peach Blossom Forest.

Bai Qian couldn’t help smiling as her friend strode over to greet them. “You can finally afford to be away from your duties.”

“Finally, a day of rest,” said Yanzhi, looking a bit thinner than the last time they’d met at the Nine Heavens but quite energetic, like a fighter who had acquired some new skills and was eager to test them all out. “I’m glad you got in touch. Let’s celebrate the brief freedom we coincidently have today.”

Despite the natural circle of seasons that the rest of the eight realms were subjected to, Zheyan’s Peach Blossom trees were almost always in full bloom. A complete disconnection from the outside world. It was a comfort to know that they would always have this place to seek refuge at.

Bai Qian dug up a few jars of wine from the backyard -- made with Zheyan’s recipe but not by him. But they would have to do.

“Do your elders make things difficult for you?” Bai Qian asked her friend as the three of them settled down at the stone table near the cottage, where Fengjiu had laid out all the sweets she had made beforehand.

“With every opportunity they can find,” said Yanzhi, pouring the contents of the jars into marble cups, laughing. “They have little trust in me, thinking my recruits are insubstantial and my days in the mortal realm are a disgrace. Some of them won’t let me forget how ‘stupid’ I was for helping my eldest brother escape from prison all those years ago. But don’t worry, I’ve shown them I’m not easily bullied.”

“Your elders sound terrible,” Fengjiu remarked, rocking right and left on her chair as she tasted what must be a delicious biscuit.

“Many of them are, but some are not. And it gives me comfort to know that not everyone at my court wants me to fail.”

Bai Qian exchanged a look with her niece, both realizing once again how fortunate they were compared to Yanzhi and Yehua . Fengjiu’s father might be a tough mentor, but with him, they never had to worry about being backstabbed or exploited.

“We should have several days in the mortal realm with one incense stick’s time, don’t you think.” Bai Qian picked a biscuit for herself.

“Yes!” Fengjiu grinned. “If we leave at the right time, we may catch some festivals too.”

“Two incense sticks, if we must,” Yanzhi took a deep breath. “I need the break, let’s leave as soon as we can. Although, before we do, there is something in particular I need to speak with you about, Bai Qian.”

“What is it?”

Bai Qian blinked, Yanzhi’s eyes were suddenly fixed on her for a few seconds before she pulled from her sleeve pocket a little scroll.

“I got one of these yesterday.”

Fengjiu gasped excitedly, “Oh, an invitation to Xunzhua’s Winter Banquet!”

“Yes. Qingqiu must have gotten one too, do you plan to attend?”

Bai Qian shifted uncomfortably on her chair -- this was not the conversation she would like to have today.

“No,” she said firmly. “Fengjiu and Migu can go if they like, but I won’t.”

“One of my elders gave me some interesting advice today,” Yanzhi said with deliberate slowness. “He thinks I should select one of the best looking and most accomplished ladies of my court to send to Xunzhua on this occasion, preferably one of my cousins.”

“For what?” Bai Qian frowned.

“Rumors are going around in every clan that the King of Xunzhua is looking for a bride.”

Bai Qian’s breath was caught in her throat for a second.

“Is he?”

“Yes, I’ve heard it too,” the little fox looked a bit guilty, looking down and swirling her cup. “Erm… affairs of the eight realms don’t get talked about a lot inside Qingqiu, but I’ve picked that up here and there. I didn’t think it was important enough to tell you, Gugu.”

After a minute of being stared at like someone who was about to give an important speech, Bai Qian said, “You’re right, it isn’t.”

Yanzhi placed her cup down, dropping completely the jest in her voice. “I’m not sure why there is such a rumour. Didn’t he ask you to marry him?”

“Yes, and I didn’t accept the offer.”

“I got the impression that you wanted to.”

“Well…” Bai Qian looked away to avoid her friend’s glaring eyes. “What did I do to give you that impression?”

“I didn’t come all the way from the Ghost Realm to watch a performance of The Queen’s Cold Grace, Bai Qian. If this is entirely your choice, fine. But if you’re holding back and walking away from a life you’ve always wanted so much then it had better be for a good reason --”

“Oh — what are you talking about?”

“I saw how desperate the king was when he thought you’d been killed in the battle; and you -- you can act indifferent all you want but I know you care. Did you ever realize how much you talked about him in your letters to me when you were at Xunzhua?”

“I told you about the places he showed me to and how impressed I am with the systems they run!”

“And you sounded like you wanted to be a part of that, like you have found someone with the same purpose, the same dreams to share your life with.”

“I should stop writing you letters,” Bai Qian muttered, downing her entire cup and reaching for one of the jars.

But Yanzhi did not give up. “Why are you and that king suddenly strangers now?”

“We aren’t strangers. He and I addressed the matter in a -- a peaceful manner and we agreed it was for the best.”

“Really?”

“Yes, can’t you see he’s being a good friend to me even now?”

Fengjiu’s forehead scrunched. “How, Gu-gu?”

“People try to kill the King of Xunzhua daily, Fengjiu, now more than ever because they have seen what potential his kingdom holds. Any woman who’s engaged to him will surely be hunted for the rest of her life. The last time at the Nine Heavens, we carried out an act that had his attention, I was put in danger because of that exposure. Now these rumours from Xunzhua take the target off my back, shouldn’t I thank him for that?”

“That…” Fengjiu nibbled on a piece of dried peach. “Actually sounds reasonable.”

“I know,” Yanzhi rolled her eyes. “Your aunt and her Sixteenth Senior can be irritatingly reasonable when they want to avoid further conversation.” Turning to Bai Qian, she went on, “He could also be looking to marry for real, don’t you think?”

“It’s possible.”

“These people are strange,” Fengjiu’s expression turned pensive. “And so fast to move on.”

“Xunzhua is always his priority. If his marriage is what’s needed to maintain a balance within the kingdom, he won’t object to it.”

“Do you object to it?” Yanzhi threw the question at her.

It seemed there was no escaping the truth today, not with the way these two were interrogating her. But a part of Bai Qian was actually glad, glad that they cared enough to make her talk, make her share the weight of this thing that was like a boulder on her chest all this time.

“I’ll survive,” she said.

“Oh, I know you can bear losing him,” Yanzhi said. “But can you bear being misunderstood by him for the rest of your life?”

“There’s no misunderstanding, not between us.”

“Well,” Yanzhi thought for a while, sipping her wine. “What reason did you give him when you left?

“I told him I didn’t deserve what he was willing to offer, which is the truth.”

“That is not true, Gu-gu,” Fengjiu protested. “You slay dark immortals and vanquish evil bells, if you don’t deserve to be the Queen of Xunzhua then who does?”

“One dark immortal, one bell, Fengjiu. And this isn’t about my achievements.”

“Did you at least tell him the whole truth?” Yanzhi pressed on.

The whole truth? That he was more than a friend, more than an ally, that it had terrified her to watch him march into battle from the Glass Tower knowing that their plan had failed and he might not come back?

“No.”

Yanzhi sat back, folding her arms and exchanging looks with Fengjiu, who shook her head as if the two of them had solved an arithmetic problem Bai Qian was too slow to understand.

“What would be the use of getting more sentimental than necessary?” Bai Qian stressed. “I was aiming for a peaceful farewell, not torture for us both.”

Sentimental?” Fengjiu exclaimed disapprovingly.

“You told the man who asked you to marry him that you fed another man your heartblood for 70,000 years, Bai Qian,” Yanzhi emphasized. “If he could survive that story, I think he could survive hearing how much you care. Even if you would leave him for the collective good afterwards -- or however you put it.”

Next to Yanzhi, Fengjiu nodded in earnest agreement.

“If you left with only a polite refusal, however, who knows what conclusion he might draw.”

“I doubt that he has enough interest in the matter or time to look for layers in my refusal,” Bai Qian said. “Let alone overthinking them. Besides, it doesn’t matter now, I’m not going to seek him out to talk more about this just when he’s moving on just fine.”

“You assume that he’s fine.”

“He has his sister, his court, his people’s love, he should be fine.”

“You have similar things here, are you fine?”

Bai Qian signed, exasperated. But she could not deny it, she was not fine. She had not been fine since she’d left Xunzhua’s palace. Pojing’s last question haunted her every waking moment. At times, it felt like a battle, a fight she was losing.

“What would you have me do, Yanzhi? Go up to him and say something like -- ‘before you carry on with your nuptials, I thought you should know that I think about you quite frequently these days’?”

“Nothing of the sort.” Yanzhi held up the scroll. “Take the invitation you received, attend this banquet, indulge yourself, and perhaps if you see the King of Xunzhua there, you will get the chance to rethink your decision without the weight of guilt on your back.”

“She’s right, Gu-gu.”

Bai Qian narrowed her eyes at Yanzhi and Fengjiu, it sounded suspiciously like they had rehearsed this conversation. But how could she make them understand? That guilt would never be off her back. She would see it manifest in every inch of Kunlun, would feel it with every step she took.

“No,” Bai Qian shook her head. “I ended this when I left Xunzhua. I can’t go back there and confuse everyone again while I don’t even know what to think.”

“You not knowing what to think is exactly why I think you should see him,” Yanzhi shrugged. “But it’s your choice.”

Fengjiu cleared her throat, speaking in her lowest voice, as if she was afraid to wake an infant up from his sleep. “Are you hesitating because of High God Moyuan still, Gu-gu?”

“No!”

“I hope not,” Yanzhi said, her expression suddenly different, as if she had been wanting to address this yet afraid to say something wrong. “He wouldn’t have wanted to be a nuisance to you.”

The words hit Bai Qian like a crack of thunder on her head. She quietly set her cup down and stood up, starting towards the pond. Fengjiu made an attempt to follow but Yanzhi gently pushed the little fox back into her chair. Grateful to be left alone, Bai Qian kept walking along the bank.

Do not let me stand between you and what you want.

Was that what she was doing? Letting him stand in the way still? Or worse, using him as an excuse to avoid what should be confronted?

The last few months had been restless for both her and Fengjiu with her Second Brother’s overseeing their management of Qingqiu. Overall, Bai Qian believed they were doing a satisfiable job -- more buildings were being constructed, more classes opened, more trading with other clans, more people hired to manage different departments. Yes, they even had departments now.

Every night she would go to bed, tired in a good way, knowing with delight that there would be more work waiting for her in the morning, that she was doing something useful. It was only when she closed her eyes that she realized she couldn’t sleep. The memory of the battle -- skewered bodies, deformed beasts, the stench of blood -- would come crashing back into her head. She would gasp and tremble as Fengjiu had done this morning. Once she had pushed away those images, her mind would go wandering back to the desert on the outskirts of Xunzhua’s city, the waterfall, the library bathed in moonlight. Then she would think of him -- bright eyes glittering with laughter, unshaken and bold even in the face of death.

The thought of him kept her marching on, bearing her responsibilities from dawn till dusk. But the stronger she felt, the more work she accomplished, the more unbearable his absence became. And the next day she would seek out more work, more books to fill the void, fill all the spare time she could otherwise use to bury herself in regret.

But she knew she couldn’t keep doing this forever. At one point -- in another few months, years, decades -- there must be a way to think of him without this wretchedness ravaging her inside. Was there?

Chapter 11