Fanfiction: The Moon Mirror (Pojing & Bai Qian Alternative Ending) - Chapter 12 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)


Chapter 12

written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi
consulting by Bunny


When Yehua was done explaining, a deafening silence encased the King of Xunzhua’s study.

Pojing stared at them both from behind his desk for several minutes as though he thought they were mad. Nalan had a similar reaction of disbelief. As overwhelmed as Bai Qian was with the possibility of Moyuan returning to them, she understood one thing: what they asked of Xunzhua went beyond the line of alliance.

No leader in his right mind would give up a weapon that powerful, even if it was to save someone’s life. But she hoped -- hoped with desperation that Pojing would understand too: Yehua had no malicious intentions. He wanted nothing except for his brother to be saved.

Please.

They were so close already. Moyuan’s chance was so close within grasp. The longer they waited, the less viable that chance became. They could not fail now, they could not come home empty-handed. She didn’t even want to consider that possibility even if she herself had warned Yehua about it before.

Was there something else that could be said? Bai Qian thought and thought, searching her brain to see if there was anything she could do to help their case. But she finally gave up and admitted that Yehua had made that request most reasonably and genuinely. The rest of it was up to the man they needed this favor from.

Bai Qian’s throat suddenly tightened as the King of Xunzhua’s gaze darted to her. He was displeased, he was angry, he might even despise her. But what choice did she have?

“King of Xunzhua,” Yehua broke the silence. “I realize our request isn’t a usual one. Therefore, aside from my utmost gratitude -- I will add that the Celestial Court is willing to trade. Land, information, control of the Four Seas, anything Xunzhua requires can be considered.”

Pojing did not answer, instead, he slowly turned to Bai Qian. With an even voice, he asked, “What about you, Queen of Qingqiu? Are you, too, willing to trade anything for the God of War’s life?”

Those simple words suffocated her. She knew that any answer from her would be a wrong one. Regardless, there was only one answer she could give.

“Yes.”

Pojing’s face was impassive; a small, joyless smile played on his lips. He lifted his goblet and took a small sip from it. Bai Qian saw it then -- a sudden gloom made it past the indifferent royal mask he was wearing. His kingdom was safe and recovering from the tragedy, his defences were being reconstructed with more strength than ever, his sister happy and unhurt, yet he looked strangely burdened.

He was healing, Bai Qian realized. He was trying, at least -- trying to move past the war and what had happened between them. But her presence was a dagger that ripped open a stitched wound.

“King of Xunzhua,” she began cautiously. “I have said the last time we met that Qingqiu considers you a friend --”

Pojing took in a sharp breath and placed his goblet down with a loud clank that made Bai Qian stop cold. He flicked his hand, a piece of parchment appeared on his desk. Next, he picked up a pen from its rest, dipped its tip deep into an open jar of black and began to write something.

Once done, he pressed the jewel on his ring onto the paper and looked back up.

“Nalan.”

“My King,” the young captain responded.

“You will accompany the Heavenly Emperor and the Queen of Qingqiu to the Glass Tower and inform the princess of this matter.”

Nalan seemed to understand immediately what was going on without having to look at the content of that paper, and disagreement was apparent on his face.

“My King, this is…”

Pojing shot up from his seat, strode towards them and handed the parchment to Yehua.

“This item is currently under the princess’ authority. This order from me should halt the tests being performed on the substance to preserve its current state, but the rest depends on you. If you can convince the princess to give up her research, the item is yours.”

Bai Qian almost stopped breathing. What did this mean? He had agreed to let them have the substance? He’d agreed? Her brain was suddenly unable to keep up with it all.

“Thank you,” she heard Yehua’s reply. “King of Xunzhua.”

“If this magic you spoke of can be carried out,” Pojing continued. “It will happen on Zhuowei’s terms, not yours. Your devotion to your brother is admirable, but this rare energy remains a dangerous and undocumented force no being in the eight realms can contain yet. We will not let it out of our sight until l we are sure it isn’t functioning against us.”

“I understand.”

Before Bai Qian could say anything, Pojing’s robe swept by her and he was out of the room the next second. Nalan looked terribly conflicted. He glanced from her to Yehua, then quickly dashed after his king.

There was some talking outside the room. Nalan was doing his best for the decision to be reversed, Bai Qian understood that much. She couldn’t say she blamed him, but that didn’t matter.

Shifu can return.

“Great gods and deities…” she breathed out. Just two days ago, they had been soaring through clouds, with hundreds and thousands of questions in their minds, uncertain, bewildered, without a plan. And now...

“Will Zhuowei understand?” she said to Yehua, voice trembling despite her best effort to remain calm.

“The King of Xunzhua is right,” he replied. “Zhuowei has been studying this substance, she has always been passionate about developing new defences for her people, and of course she wants to learn to contain magic that nearly destroyed Xunzhua’s shields. She needs to hear this from me to understand. But this,” he held up the parchment that had been rolled up tightly in his hand. “This is already an immense help. I can convince her. I will.”

Nalan reappeared at the doorstep. He bowed to them both, his face betraying no emotions this time.

“I beg your pardon, Heavenly Emperor, Queen of Qingqiu. Please come with me.”

Yehua wasted no time. He urged Bai Qian to come along, then, without looking back to see whether she was following, left the room with Nalan.

Bai Qian remained rooted where she stood until their footsteps faded.

Pojing had let them have the item.

She sank down on the steps of the dais and buried her face in her hands. Now she felt the tiredness from the journey, now she felt the pressure from all the prying eyes at the banquet. Everything came crashing down on her at once now that their mission had been accomplished.

And Moyuan… he might open his eyes again, speak her name again, and stand at the top of Kunlun mountain again. It was all too much, she didn’t know what to think.

Pojing lets us have the item.

Bai Qian could not help but wonder why. What exactly had prompted this generosity from him. A king’s honor? Gratitude towards the God of War? Their alliance and friendship?

No, she had seen the look in his eyes as he left this room. A political bond they might have, but it was clear he wanted nothing else to do with her. The thought filled her with devastation. The King of Xunzhua who could always laugh in the face of trouble, who would appear to take her to safety whenever she was inches away from death’s jaw, who would not hesitate to point out her mistakes. His judgements were blunt, his prejudices unnecessarily harsh, his temper quicker than a spring storm, and his hands rarely gentle.

But he had -- for one reason or another -- always been there with her since the day they’d first met, through hell and back. And somehow she could no longer imagine a world without him.

I cannot have him hate me. If he does, then it should be for the right reason.

But what could she do now? Would he believe her if she told him now that she’d always planned to see him and have that honest conversation she owed him before the matter of the Dragon Energy had come up?

She wouldn’t even believe herself, not when again and again her actions had spoken otherwise.

Bai Qian pulled herself up. Even so, she was at Xunzhua now. And this time, she did not intend to run away without honesty laid on the table.

***

Inside the main hall, the banquet was still going on with the same crowdedness as before. It seemed more food and drinks had been served, more dances and magic performances had been carried out and the guests were more than satisfied with how their evening was being spent. Both the king and princess of Xunzhua, however, were nowhere to be seen. Zhuowei had gone to the Glass Tower to see Yehua, no doubt. And Pojing… After several minutes of looking around the hall, enduring countless questions and comments from the guests, Bai Qian decided that it was time to look elsewhere since none of the guards in this area had the slightest idea where their king had gone.

She exited the splendour of the hall and started along the corridor that led out of this wing. As she rounded a corner, Bai Qian saw a large group of people, mostly princesses, gathered near the bottom of a staircase, obviously surrounding someone. They seemed to be having an eager conversation with whomever it was at the centre.

Could that be him?

Bai Qian approached the group with cautious steps. It would be stranger than a flying fish if the King of Xunzhua would let himself be surrounded by chatters, giggles, handkerchieves and all kinds of fragrances like this.

“That is all that I can tell you for now, Your Highnesses,” a familiar voice raised among them. “Please excuse me.”

“Nalan?” Bai Qian murmured to herself.

Sure enough, the young captain emerged from among the flowing gowns and glittering jewels. Bai Qian’s heart lifted at the sight of someone who might know where to find Pojing.

“Queen of Qingqiu?” he said in surprise and started towards her, plucking out the silk handkerchiefs that were stuck on his belt and between the buttons of his robe, flushing a little.

“I didn’t know you hold such charms among noble ladies too, Nalan,”

“Oh -- no, they…” he smiled nervously, gesturing for her to walk with him away from the noise and down the corridor. “They mostly want to know where the king is.”

“I see.” Bai Qian stopped once they had reached an empty lounging area. She turned and faced him, wasting no time with preambles. “Nalan, where is the king?”

“I beg your pardon, Queen of Qingqiu?” he frowned, placing the stack of handkerchiefs down on one of the corner stands.

“Your king,” Bai Qian repeated. “I need to speak with him, and he isn’t in the main hall. I figure you must know where he went, you always do.”

Nalan did not answer. He went strangely quiet for a long minute, his slight embarrassment from a moment ago gone and replaced by a guarded expression.

“Nalan?”

“Forgive me, Queen of Qingqiu, but have you not just spoken with the king?”

“This is something different.”

“I am sorry,” he said, respectfully but cautiously. “I don’t know where His Majesty has gone.”

“You don’t?”

“All he told me was that he did not wish to be disturbed.”

“I see. Is he… busy?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know that, either, Queen of Qingqiu.”

Bai Qian let out a painful sigh. If even Nalan didn’t know, then she had no hope of seeing him again tonight. She looked back at the young captain, was he angry with her too? He’d said he was glad to see her at the banquet. Perhaps he’d expected her presence to be a comfort, not another source of pain for his king.

During her time at Xunzhua, Bai Qian had seen how close Nalan was to the royal siblings. She’d even learned from Zhuowei that Nalan had grown up with them, they had worked, trained and protected Xunzhua together as brothers. It was no surprise that Nalan felt the indignance Zhuowei would feel to lose a powerful source of power they could have developed into something the world had never seen, as well as the frustration and anger his king had had because of her.

“Nalan,” Bai Qian began again, with as much sincerity as she could muster. “I need to explain something to the king. I would have spoken to him before asking him for the golden item but we were under time pressure.”

“Perhaps I can convey a message back to the king for you, Queen of Qingqiu?”

“I have to tell him this myself.”

“The king was quite troubled when he left. Please understand, I have no wish to add to that trouble by disobeying him.”

“I know --” she said earnestly, emphasizing every word. “And I’m sorry for putting you in this position. But this is important. I can’t leave without seeing him.”

Nalan took another long minute, understanding manifesting on his face as he did, though his hesitance still dominated.

“I see,” he said, eyes moving from the ceiling to the ground to every corner of the area they were standing in, obviously struggling with himself. Until -- Bai Qian guessed -- there were no more places to look, did he turn back with a sigh. “I truly don’t know where the king is, Queen of Qingqiu. That's the truth. I am allowed to be involved in most of his schedule, but there are limits even for me.”

Bai Qian’s heart sank. It was clear -- Nalan wasn’t lying to her. But if even Pojing’s closest lieutenant did not know where he was, then who would?

“The king cares about you, Queen of Qingqiu,” Nalan said suddenly. Bai Qian’s eyes darted to his face as he continued. “Even if he’s very efficient in making us all believe otherwise.”

Bai Qian went still. In the minute that followed, neither of them said anything.

It was one thing to make speculations on her own, but entirely another to hear them confirmed by someone who knew for certain.

“I don’t know where His Majesty is,” Nalan went on. “But there is a place he might be.”

***

You will need to dress much warmer, Nalan had said after giving her directions. He had even ordered one of the servants to bring her a fur-lined thick cloak and watched her put it on before letting her leave.

Bai Qian had thought then that he’d only been overly-concerned due to her unfamiliarity with Xunzhua’s climate. Only when Bai Qian landed at the destination -- a mountaintop with nothing but snow and rocks in sight -- did she understand that his warning was crucially necessary.

‘Cold’ was an understatement. Howling winds nearly knocked her off her feet at the landing, their frostiness like blades cutting through layers of her clothes and across her skin. Even with her immortal magic, Bai Qian struggled to stand straight against the sweeping winds. She could barely breathe as every gulp of air she took was like ice straight to her lungs.

It was so ridiculously frigid that Bai Qian nearly thought Nalan was playing a joke on her, perhaps testing her endurance before giving her a real location. She trudged ahead, praying that she could reach the safehouse Nalan had talked about before all her limbs froze off.

“What could he be doing…” she grunted. “In a place like this?”

Light! She gasped. The tiny outline of a building appeared in the distance, lights pouring out from all its windows. She began to run, as fast as she could against the strong swaying winds.

CRASH.

She hit something, a force threw her tumbling back, a shield around the building making itself visible, flickering gold.

Bai Qian stood back, assessing the place with a long look. How was she to enter? There had to be some sort of code -- a spell, a signal, perhaps a specific area where the shield wasn’t shut that only people who were familiar with it knew about. Nalan didn't mention any of that. Was she supposed to knock? Strike at the shield to get attention?

Bai Qian grimaced as the temperature started to become unbearable. Her nose hurt from breathing, her ears and hands were all throbbing.

Gasp, all her senses suddenly picked up on something her eyes could not yet see.

A deep growl then sounded behind Bai Qian, sending even more chill spiraling up and down her spine like a caress of dark magic. It was not loud, but enough for her to jump out of her skin and turn on her heel in terror.

A glaring pair of amber eyes pinned her to the spot, tawny fur and black rosettes, graceful yet deadly against the white snow. Bai Qian froze for a second, all kinds of warnings going off in her head like hundreds of bells ringing at once.

But it did not take her longer than that one second to realize who it was; and the next thing she knew, she was sprinting across the snow towards the beast. She ignored the fiery eyes and the baring fangs, throwing her arms around his neck and burying her face into his fur with her eyes squeezed shut.

“Pojing.”

The radiating warmth from his body to hers was instant. His head slightly turned this way and that, indicating his confusion. But Bai Qian didn’t much care to explain herself right now, she held on with all the strength her freezing arms had left. It was Pojing.

He shook his head, letting out a few soft growls that perhaps were meant to communicate something.

She felt his paw brush across her back once, and she felt the shifting when it happened. The leopard’s warm fur against her face vanished, and when she opened her eyes again the King of Xunzhua’s face was inches from hers, her arms still fastened around his neck.

The snowfall was becoming heavier around them, and the winds stronger. Bai Qian slowly removed her arms and straightened herself.

“I don’t remember inviting you here, either, Queen of Qingqiu,” his coarse voice raised amidst the loud winds.

“You didn’t,” she shivered.

A deep crease appeared between his brows. He shook his head and motioned towards the building.

“Unless you’re here for sightseeing around this mountain, I suggest we go inside.”

***

The structure was a lot bigger than it appeared from the other side of the shield, although it was simply decorated and bore no resemblance to the inside of Xunzhua’s palace. Having expected advanced equipment and all kinds of strange artefacts, Bai Qian was quite surprised to see there was not much here but books. Books and papers -- notes, diagrams, maps.

As Pojing led her into a well-lit room with a crackling fire by the wall and even more books than the sitting area they walked past, Bai Qian felt the throbbing pain on her fingers more intensely. She quickly removed her gloves and gasped at the state of her hands.

“This is terrible!” she exclaimed in a whisper.

All of her fingertips had turned purple because of the cold. This was not the first time she’d gotten this kind of injury. During her years at Kunlun, there were days when she and Zilan had travelled to places where they’d thought the low temperature would not affect them and would spend hours in the snow. Their hands, feet and ears would always end up looking like this with a stinging pain where their skin looked bruised.

Bai Qian took off her cloak and was about to go to the fire when Pojing turned around and walked towards her. He had been doing something by that fire since they’d entered the room.

Arriving in front of her, he said evenly, “Hold out your hands.”

Bai Qian briefly frowned but did as told. At the sight of the bracelet around her wrist, he paused for a second, then moved on to take both of her hands into his. Warmth began to pour into her skin, stopping the spread of the stinging pain. When he let go, her fingertips were no longer purple.

He gestured behind her, “There are hot drinks on my desk if you need one.”

With that, he strode away and towards the fire again. There he stood leaning against a wooden stand, arms folded and with his back to her.

How do I begin with this? Bai Qian flexed her fingers, walking over to the decanter and pouring herself a goblet just so she could have something to do, sweeping her eyes over the stacks of scrolls and opened maps on the desk. The winds outside were becoming louder and louder.

Next, she sat down on a chair just beside his desk and began to sip that liquid, drop by drop. It tasted like berries and spices mixed together.

“Who told you of this place?” Pojing’s voice raised abruptly.

“Erm…” Bai Qian cleared her throat, lowering her goblet.

“Was it Nalan?”

“Yes, but please don’t make things difficult for him. I’m the one who insisted.”

Pojing said nothing else and Bai Qian once again found herself staring at his back.

“Where are we?” she asked curiously. “What is the function of this building?”

“Nothing. It’s the location that matters. This is where I used to come to train. I occasionally still do, as a matter of fact, in winter especially.”

“It feels like the coldest place of your kingdom.”

“It is. That’s why I train here.”

She looked around, slightly tapping her heels together. “Why are there so many books here?”

“I also come here to do personal research whenever I need to.”

“About weapons?”

“Everything.”

“And I thought Zhuowei was the bookish one with a secret reading corner.”

He laughed then -- a small sound that put a smile on her face. But it became awfully quiet afterwards. When Pojing turned to face her, there was no trace of that laugh. Instead, he looked as if he had made a mistake.

“Let’s not continue with this conversation,” he said.

“Why?”

He took a long minute before responding. “Because it isn’t in either of our best interest to get used to each other again.”

Bai Qian did not take her eyes off of him. Pojing had never been one to beat about the bush, she knew that, yet his bluntness stung her still.

“Are you here to thank me?” He said. “Well, gratitude acknowledged. You should head back before it gets colder. My guards can be summoned here to accompany you back if you’d like.”

“I’m not here to thank you,” she blurted out. “That is… of course I am grateful. Thank you. But there’s something else.”

Slowly he made his way towards a chair opposite of her and settled down. “There is?”

Bai Qian took a deep breath and placed her goblet down. “I need to speak with you -- about the God of War.”

“Of course.” The bitterness in his voice was so thick it made her wince.

“It isn’t what you think.”

“It isn’t?” he leaned back, fingers interlaced on his knee, giving her an extensive look. “You have never missed an opportunity to let the world know how priceless and irreplaceable the God of War was to you. If, for some reason, you believe that I haven’t gotten that message. I will save you the trouble now: I have.”

Anger flared in his eyes despite his outward composure. Anger, at least -- Bai Qian thought -- was better than indifference. The silence stretched on for several agonizing minutes. Despite Pojing’s clear displeasure, he was sitting still now, waiting.

“The God of War was my mentor,” she began. “I owe my life to him. Everything that I am today is because of him. There’s nothing I can do that will ever be enough to repay that debt. All of that is true.”

She looked away for a moment, gazing out the window in a far corner, the protective shield around the house flickered more frequently now that the howling winds had begun to turn into something bigger.

“But that’s where it ends,” she said. The truth she had been so hesitant to admit.

Pojing’s eyes were fixed on her still, his brows drawn tight.

“I used to have this dream,” she went on, voice adamant against the onset of a storm. “Becoming the God of War’s companion, protecting the eight realms and sharing eternity with him. I was his disciple. It was him who made me my armor, who taught me what I needed to know to survive the world. For a long time... he was my faith. And I chased after that dream like a child running after the moon.”

She took another deep breath. One painful truth after another. Because after tonight, she might not have the courage to speak of any of it again.

“I mistook that obsessiveness for something else. I wanted to explain all this to him -- as I am doing now. But until the day he died, I still hadn’t given him that courtesy.”

Pojing sat straighter, there was a sudden faint warmth in his voice. “So you condemned yourself to an eternity of being the guardian of his memory?”

“Yes, because then at least I’d have a clear conscience,” she swallowed a sob. “What would people think of me if they knew how I trampled on his patience and simply left… to be happy somewhere else. What would you -- think of me?”

Pojing looked as if he wanted to respond to that, but decided against it.

“The Golden Energy,” she went on. “Lord Donghua’s plan -- it all came to us only a few days ago. It wasn’t the possibility of my mentor returning that made me come here. I was planning to, I just needed more time to think about what I should say. To you.”

The long silence returned. Bai Qian breathed out, the lump in her throat gradually disappeared as she uttered the last of her explanation.

“I don’t know if any of this makes a difference anymore but it needed to be said,” she tucked a piece of hair back behind her ear, standing up. “I’ll be leaving now.”

“There’s a storm outside.”

“I can cloud-jump to a safer location near your city.” Taking a few hasty steps, she faltered, turning back. “I know what you gave up today. I won’t forget.”

“Surely that wasn’t all you came here to say,” he said.

“It’s all that’s important.”

“You and I may have different definitions of ‘important’. What else is there?”

That was true -- she had only told him half of what she wanted him to know. But the other half… No, she needed to think, to sort out the jumble of thoughts in her head before making another person listen to them.

“I don’t want to give you anything less than a straight answer,” she said. “And I need more time for that.”

“Does this determination to prove to the world you can do no wrong exhaust you?”

She stared at him, unsure whether it was a serious question or just one of his jokes. But the uncomfortable taste of tears began to slowly rise to her throat. It did exhaust her -- all this thinking and making sure everything that came out of her mouth must be right. For once, she wanted to spill her thoughts, her incohesive, unprepared, improper thoughts, and let people think what they chose to think.

But what would that lead to? She might have lost Pojing’s affection, she wasn’t about to lose his respect too.

“I just need you to understand that I’m not here because I need something else from you,” she said. “Or that I’m looking to gain sympathy so you’ll help us convince Zhuowei.”

“You would have to be a very good liar to be able to do that,” he said squarely.

“Other than that, you don’t have to worry about me.”

Bai Qian wheeled around. She needed to get out of here fast before something slipped out, something whose consequences she hadn’t prepared for.

“Queen of Qingqiu.”

She stopped in her tracks, sighed and slowly turned back, meeting his eyes after a minute.

“You asked me why I was angry when I found you in the desert that night,” he began abruptly, a significant change in his tone.

Bai Qian’s eyes widened. She said nothing and waited, hardly breathing.

Pojing took a long pause before continuing. “Well, I think I’ve made it clear on multiple occasions that your mentor aggravated me a great deal.”

“What does…” she bit down on her lips, confused. “What does that have to do with me and the desert?”

“What angered me the most was your uncanny tendency to throw yourself in danger for him. Or… because of him.”

Heat flared underneath Bai Qian’s face as the memory came rushing back. She had done something stupid and unlike herself that day, indeed.

“When you told me that you were unreliable,” he went on, unsmiling, his voice mingling with the thunderous echoes of the storm outside. “I knew there was more. I knew it had to do with him, everything does. Even if you were doubtful, you still devoted your every waking moment to him. That power, that influence he had over you, it drove me mad.

“The gods know I wanted to tear him apart when I watched you scream his name every night after our return from the Nine Heavens.”

His jaws clenched, the look in his eyes burning. Bai Qian recalled now the little weapon test he and Moyuan had conducted in front of everyone before their meeting. He had hidden that anger with yet another joke in response to her question at the time.

With another long look that went to the back of her mind, Pojing went on.

“And then the God of War was dead, and I knew you would shut everyone out once again. After all, he died so we all could live.”

He let out a soft laugh. Dark and bitter.

“I wanted to stop you from leaving Xunzhua. I thought, for a moment, that if I tried, I could make you see that your future is worth more than you believe it is, and perhaps even make you forget him.

“But I saw the fight you were having with yourself, with the world. All the time, you can’t stop keeping up an image of perfection. And once you decide that you’ve made a mistake, you won’t stop reminding yourself of it. Your stubbornness can be quite a curse sometimes, Queen of Qingqiu.

“I wanted to tell you then to give up that fight, and let me fight the rest of it for you. But I knew very well the kind of response I would get should those words be spoken.”

In the extensive silence that followed, their gazes burrowed into each other. The blizzard outside raged on. Bai Qian could hear the winds changing directions, ravaging the area, crashing into the protective shield every time.

“It wasn’t just because of my guilt,” she swallowed. “I believed then that it was the best decision for us both.”

“I should have known,” Pojing said simply. “It’s not like you haven’t done it before.”

He suddenly rose from his chair, unfolding his arms. With a few large strides he was in front of her.

“What a damnable fool I was for letting you choose for me.”

He looked at her for another moment, many emotions flashing in his eyes that she could not keep up with. Then, in one sweeping movement, he clasped her to his chest, the smell of rain and leather rushing into her nose, his entire being encasing her like a shield.

It was not gentle -- his embrace. It never had been. As if this fierceness was the only comfort he could offer, as if he wanted to suffocate her fears, chase away her nightmares and heal shut whatever wounds she had. But Bai Qian’s body succumbed to his tightening arms without protest. Her eyes pulled themselves close and she muffled a sob against his chest.

Perhaps… perhaps she could never give up trying to prove to the world that she would always choose right. The choice was hers, so were the exhaustion and fear that came with it. But it was an overwhelming comfort to her that he understood.

Bai Qian slightly pulled away and lifted her face up at him, wanting to ask a question, to make a remark, to say something in response. But his burning gaze made her speechless. Until now, the idea that the King of Xunzhua could care about her as more than a friend -- and she about him -- was frankly still unimaginable to her, no matter how many times she went over the things he had said, even now when they stood face to face, even though everything had been clear the moment she’d dived towards him outside the shield.

What comes next?

The way he was looking at her, the way his hands lingered on either side of her neck -- she knew with clarity what was about to happen, she knew it as well as the horizon knew dawn. Her eyes went shut as she felt a kiss on her temple, his stubble scratching against her skin; his lips then moved to hers and there it was again -- the force of a stampede down a gorge that threatened to crush everything in its path.

And something in her responded to that force with a fervor she had not thought she was capable of.

She clutched onto his lapel and pushed closer to him, letting herself be swept up in this vehemence as the world around her crumbled, as he became the only thing that mattered, the only thing her mind could process.

One of his hands was buried deep in her hair, the other firmly around her back, every touch from him was like a confession. She tasted every bit of anger, of joy, of desire he had harbored for she was not even certain how long. Enveloped by this unyielding, unfathomable power, she felt as if they both could tear apart the world, and put it together again.

The knowledge unfolding was quite bewildering -- how much they wanted each other. How much she had held back before.

Pojing.

Blood thrummed within her veins. His name whirled in her head like a tornado.

A hateful scoundrel at the gathering in the Nine Heavens. The king who would see his own body sprawled on the battlefield before abandoning his men.

They briefly broke off, the silence between them trembled.

“Lie about anything,” he said in a whisper, his mouth hovering above her lips. “But you can’t lie to me about what you truly want.”

With that he started kissing her again, more and more forceful. Bai Qian knew he did not mean tonight or this reunion. It was a future that was worth having, the future they had discussed and dismissed due to one reason after another.

Her leg suddenly hit something -- a desk -- and there was the faintest sound of wood scraping against the ground. She ignored the impact. Her hand found the fabric of his belt and she gave it a tug forward. Pojing suddenly rumbled with laughter, letting go and gazing down at her, hands resting on either side of her on the desk’s wooden edge.

“Who would have thought,” he murmured in that maddening tone that never failed to rile her up. “A well-born lady of Qingqiu.”

But faster than she could react, his hands came to her waist and he lifted her onto his desk. Her periwinkle dress ruffled as he leaned into her, his arm supporting her back still. Bai Qian felt her face blushing crimson, the thought of having to explain her decision to others after today flashed through her head for a second but vanished the next.

Their lips fastened together, his insistent hand clasping her arm one second, travelling down her hip the next, exploring her with a passionate urgency. Bai Qian slipped her hand into his hair, feeling blood surge against her skin at his every touch.

Suddenly she faltered. Her fingers slightly recoiled.

A scar, running down his neck and disappearing into his collar -- a mark so long and deep that the feel of it sent shivers down her back.

Realizing what had caused her to pause, Pojing stopped, his shoulders tensed. But he pressed her closer, their foreheads resting against each other.

Her senses came to terms with something she had not realized all this time. A feeling. Something the darkness of the past war had left in him, a scar that went deeper than any external injury. Despite his confident front, despite the strength he showed, she saw now that the terror of that night had not spared him.

Those hands he held her with, the hands of a restless warrior who had wielded his weapon for too long, too ferociously, he did not know how to let go.

What had happened on the killing field during those last hours when she’d cloud-jumped away with Luoji, what the survivors had had to do to survive -- she did not want to imagine.

“You never told me about your injuries,” she uttered. “How many more scars did they give you?”

“No more than I was willing to take,” he said, eyes glinting.

She nodded, acknowledging the faint humor in his voice with a sudden ache. He needed time to leave the shadow of the war behind completely. And in all honesty, so did she.

They embraced each other close, becoming one trembling heart. The storm outside was unleashing its fury, one so violent that it seemed to be plunging through the shield every once in a while. But that, along with everything else, ceased to matter as they came together again, every fear and doubt drowned, every last restraint nonexistent.

Chapter 13