Fanfiction: The Moon Mirror (Pojing & Bai Qian Alternative Ending) - Chapter 14 (END) (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)



Chapter 14 (END)

written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi
consulting by Bunny


IT WAS BARELY DAWN WHEN THEY reached the palace, the pitch-black sky made it impossible to tell what time it was, although it seemed the entire palace was still deep in sleep.

Touching the ground, the King of Xunzhua cast a thorough look around the vicinity. Some of his riders could be spotted among dark clouds performing their duty despite the continuous thunder. The palace ground was littered with little flames moving back and forth, flickering lights – more than usual – in the direction of the Glass Tower. No doubt their discussion about his order to hand over the item to the Celestials had not ceased.

He would have hell to deal with in a few hours when the entire council received this news. There would be questions, lectures in disguise with long preambles, and perhaps even outright protest.

The prospect of having to sit through all of that made him grunt aloud. Having the word ‘murderer’ being hurled at him by angry widows and parents every time he made a public appearance was quite enough to remind him of the damage the kingdom had sustained already, the last thing he needed now was disagreement in his court and more reminders.

“What’s the matter?” Bai Qian’s small voice said suddenly and he looked down.

“Nothing,” he gripped her hand tighter. “Let’s go inside.”

She walked by his side along the corridor to his study without saying anything. Her gaze was fixed to the front and although her features did not give away much, Pojing knew what caused this grim silence.

“It would take several hours to days to complete the process of transference of such an item,” he said. And she turned to him, eyes filled with newfound worry.

“Days?”

“It isn’t simple to remove the protective enchantments.”

“You’re right. I suppose I’m just…”

“Anxious?”

Following an uncomfortable silence, she let loose a long breath. “It is my mentor’s life, after all.”

That look on her face – that tenderness in her eyes which the God of War had all to himself, shared with no one – it spoke volumes of what they had been through and how much they had given each other. Despite the understanding between Bai Qian and himself now, there was enough selfishness in Pojing to hate that look with fierce passion.

She blinked at him – her oblivion like a challenge to every constraint he was exerting on himself.

“My King,” the guards at his study’s entrance greeted him, then one of them went on. “The Princess and a guest are waiting for you in the antechamber. We have cautioned them of the inconvenience of the hour, but Her Highness insisted it was urgent.”

“Of course.”

They proceeded into the room. Zhuowei must have worked through the night, he thought, otherwise the business couldn’t have concluded so quickly. Glancing at the unusually thick stack of documents on his desk, he also knew what awaited him after Bai Qian and the Celestial left here.

“Let’s hear how it went at the Glass Tower, shall we –”

“Wait,” Bai Qian said as he was about to give the order to let his sister in.

“What is it?”

She hesitated. “Will the court make things difficult for you?”

“They’ll certainly have questions, but there won’t be anything I can’t handle.”

“I see.”

Her face was full of doubts still, but she nodded. He turned towards the door again when suddenly there were arms around him.

By gods, something was wrong with his senses today for he hadn’t seen this coming at all.

“Thank you,” Bai Qian mumbled into his chest, her arms tightened.

Pure deviousness – he scoffed. Just when he needed her to leave quickly while he could still maintain his kingly grace about it, this fox went and did the exact opposite. He placed his hand on either side of her waist, unable to stop himself from teasing her.

“Don’t be so quick to think I’m a noble, giving god. I never let myself settle for the poorer end of a bargain.”

She withdrew, grimacing. “Can you ever accept gratitude like a normal person?”

Pojing laughed at the sight of her flushed cheeks and pulled her closer. “I’m perfectly serious. You bared your heart and used ‘friendship’ to appeal to me yesterday to ask for the item, and now you act as if I’m helping your mentor out of pure goodness. You obviously need to be reminded of how calculating people can be.”

“I didn’t bare my heart, I simply put forward what I thought you deserved: honesty. Not that you let me finish what I wanted to say.”

Strange – a well-constrained queen and a warrior she might be, yet her eyes retained an innocence of someone who had not yet seen much of the world. Was it perhaps due to the long years she’d spent inside Qingqiu?

That thought made him want to spoil her, to give her everything she could possibly want, even if she was – granted – already a little spoiled.

He lifted her chin. “No thanks, not between us.”

The door suddenly slid open. Bai Qian swiftly stepped to the side and collected herself in an instant as a guard entered the room. The man hastily found a spot on the floor to stare at and kept to the door.

“I beg your pardon, My King, erm… Her Highness, the princess –”

“Send them in,” Pojing said, moving over to settle behind his desk.

Zhuowei’s voice could be heard even before she stepped foot inside.

“Very nice of you to give me work on the night of my banquet, brother. I had to leave in the middle of a dance and haven’t had a proper meal since. Where have you been all this --”

The princess stopped short upon seeing Bai Qian, her eyes narrowed. The Celestial emperor followed her closely behind – a bit too close, in fact.

“Princess,” Bai Qian said.

“Have you… been with my brother all this time, Queen of Qingqiu?”

“The king and I have come to an understanding, and I’ve been waiting for your decision regarding the Celestial item.”

Zhuowei frowned, obviously still riddled with questions. But she quickly came to Pojing’s desk and presented to him a rolled-up document.

“The Heavenly Emperor and I have also come to an understanding. We need your final confirmation, brother, to move the item from the Glass Tower.”

Opening the first document, Pojing exchanged a quick look with his sister. We have trouble, her grim face said. In one fleeting moment, he felt like an utter fool. Giving up a powerful source of protection for his kingdom and aiding the return of a man who wielded swaying influence over the woman he loved.

But that was rather the point. He loved her.

Pojing laid the back of the ring on his thumb against the parchment, the symbol of Xunzhua appeared on the page, imprinted, marking his decision.

Zhuowei took up the document and handed it to the Celestial Emperor, who then went ahead with his brief speech of gratitude Pojing simply did not have the heart to listen to. At the last “Thank you, King of Xunzhua”, he nodded.

“I believe some of our scholars have been selected to oversee the procedure, Heavenly Emperor. Please be sure you heed their advice and take care not to let your home island be blasted to pieces. The princess’ research has proved that this Celestial substance is very much capable of that.”

“Of course.”

Bai Qian looked resolved to keep quiet. After another minute, with a last gesture of farewell, she and the emperor exited.

Pojing leaned back on his chair then closed his eyes and exhaled. Just as he’d expected, Zhuowei’s voice boomed next to his ear.

“Brother!”

“Yes.”

‘Have you talked to the Queen of Qingqiu?”

“About what?”

“This is no time for jokes, brother! A few members of the council had to be summoned for the removal of the item and I’ll tell you – they’re not very happy with you for giving away something that valuable! I suspect the rest of them will have the same sentiment toward this.”

“Didn’t I give you full control over the matter? You also agreed, didn’t you?’

“I agreed because I understand. The court members? Not so much.”

“I will deal with them.”

“Have you talked to the Queen of Qingqiu? What ‘understanding’ did she mean? I hope you’ve at least secured an alliance with them to make up for this. It’ll take nothing less to appease the court. Oh gods, what were you thinking… what was I thinking! To let something like that slip through our fingers…”

Pojing opened his eyes and sat up straight, amused by this frantic display from his sister despite the problems ahead.

“Since when did you become so easily scared, little sister? The Zhuowei I knew wouldn’t be fussing over what the council would do to me. She’d simply be jumping up and down in joy because she’s about to have a sister-in-law who shares her interest in books.”

“Sister-in-law? Then – she’s ours? For certain?”

“Yes. But don’t say it like she’s a prize I’ve just won.”

Zhuowei’s face lit up like a beacon. She grabbed his arm, “Has it been made official? Did she give you her word? Is there any chance she might give her hand to someone else?”

“There’s no chance of that.”

“Oh, thank the Primordials,” Zhuowei breathed out. “Still, you’ll have to come up with answers for the court today. They won’t leave you alone. They might even start thinking you’re that king the mortals sing about – you know, the one who would lay his land and life at his lady’s feet.”

“I beg your… That is nothing like me.”

“If the Queen of Qingqiu hadn’t given you her hand, would you still have let her have that item?”

“Hmm,” he scowled.

Zhuowei’s concern wasn’t misplaced at all. How far would he have gone to help Bai Qian?

“Understand this, Zhuowei,” he said. “The God of War sacrificed himself to help us, the eight realms’ respect for him has multiplied. Now, the new Skylord may be reasonable enough to recognize our right to possess the item, but we can’t say the same about the rest of his court. If we don’t help them, someone in that Celestial council might just convince him to take advantage of their natural claim on the item due to its origin and wage war on us,” he briefly paused to let his sister process this. “We have the weapons, but they have the numbers, and I simply can’t risk another assault on our people at this time.”

“This is more complicated than I’d thought,” she sighed.

“Another way to look at the matter is: the God of War’s heroic deed deserves to be repaid. So, as indifferent as I am to his problems, this is the right thing to do.”

“Well… I know that, I’ve always admired him and of course I want him alive and well. It’s just… we’ve lost our chance with that item’s magic, and I just wanted to know whether you’ve considered it carefully.”

“Zhuowei,” Pojing stood up from his desk. “What you and I have worked for, what… father and mother have spent all their lives building – I won’t give it away easily. Of course I’ve considered it carefully. I hope we’ll never arrive at a situation where I have to choose between Bai Qian and our people. But if we do, I am the King of Xunzhua first before anything else.”

There it was, the promise all kings – worthy of their people’s loyalty – made, and would die keeping.

Zhuowei took a deep breath, folding her hand and was deep in silence for a long minute, then she suddenly looked back up at him, mischief returning to her eyes. “Well, that’s cold. I should warn the Queen of Qingqiu about you.”

“All right,” he rolled his eyes and pointed at the door. “Get out and prepare to hold court.”

Zhuowei laughed all her way out. Shaking his head, Pojing flung open the doors to the balcony and found himself laughing too.

The snowfall was still heavy and the sun was still buried somewhere among those ominous clouds, but the city below seemed to have awakened and be ready for a new day – the city they’d all fought to protect. The memories were fresh and the wounds unhealed. How sure they had been before the battle that the shields would never come down…

Take care never to love anything as much as you love this kingdom. Having nearly lost everything in the war, his father’s words now haunted his every day, reminding him that the work to be done would never cease, making every moment of pleasure he had for himself feel like a mistake, a gamble.

And Bai Qian – until she became part of Xunzhua, she was the biggest gamble of all, for he had found that he would give everything including his life to her as willingly as he would to his people.

Damnation. As much as he was up for new challenges, that was one he didn’t hope to meet any time soon.

***

IT WAS NEAR DINNER TIME WHEN BAI QIAN’S SECOND BROTHER decided that they should rest. She put down her pen, flexed her arms and looked proudly at the stack of documents they had finished reading.

“So many mad proposals in there,” she commented. “I’m starting to think Migu left those in the stacks on purpose just to see our reaction when we read them.”

“It’s possible,” Bai Yi nodded, scoffing.

“Well then, Migu!” she yelled in the direction of the entrance of her study. “This isn’t funny! I told you to filter the unnecessary ones out.”

“There, Gu-gu,” the tree spirit dashed into the room with a tray of tea, biscuits, and a huge grin on his face. “I just thought some of them might make you laugh. You’ve been so tense since High God Moyuan was brought back to Kunlun.”

Bai Qian picked up a biscuit. It was true.,She had been deep in worry these last few months. Even though Lord Donghua and Yehua’s army of physicians had assured them that Moyuan’s life force had been restored, she couldn’t chase away the unease every time she visited Kunlun and saw his still figure lying in the meditation chamber, his pulse so faint it could cease any moment.

Then, there were also other things on her mind.

She glanced at the bracelet on her wrist. Happy as she was to be given another chance to save Moyuan, she frequently thought about the trouble she might have left the King of Xunzhua with when she and Yehua had left with that Celestial item. But then, what could she – a foreigner – have done to appease Xunzhua’s court even if she had stayed?

Her thoughts strayed to the night of the banquet.

“See, you’re smiling, Gu-gu,” Migu’s voice pulled her back to the study room of Qingqiu’s cave. “My plan is working. You won’t punish me, will you?”

Bai Qian laughed, taking a few more biscuits. “No, you have no time for punishment, we need you for too many things.”

“Speaking of which,” Bai Yi said. “I’ll be heading to the market now. Petitions.”

“It’s in another hour, Second Brother. You still have time to rest. I’ll come with you this time.”

“The sooner we start, the more petitions we can listen to.”

That’s Second Brother, Bai Qian sighed, standing up and straightening herself. No breaks, no entertainment…

But as soon as Bai Qian and her brother reached the cave entrance, an approaching figure made them both stop in mild shock.

“Father!” Bai Qian exclaimed.

Closer strode the Fox Emperor, his long staff in hand, looking stern yet somewhat amused.

“Father,” Bai Yi bowed.

“Father,” Bai Qian grinned, although she couldn’t help feeling a bit nervous. Was he here to check on her progress with Qingqiu? “What brings you here?”

The Fox Emperor gave them both a deep scowl. “I’m here, Xiaowu, because exotic animals are raiding my backyard.”

“Animals? I… I don’t understand.”

Her father gestured inside the cave with a huge eye roll and the three of them walked back in. As Migu brought in more tea, the emperor began.

“How is everything here?”

“Well, father,” Bai Yi said. “The people are still recovering from our losses and it took me a while to earn the respect they reserved for Fourth Brother, but their trust in our family hasn’t wavered.”

“And the Nine Heavens? How often do we correspond with them?”

“More often than before, but not so often that it disturbs Qingqiu’s peace.”

“Good. Just a reminder to you two that Qingqiu has survived for so long because of our choice to remain a neutral force. Whatever changes you plan to make, whoever you plan to form a relationship with, be sure to know the limits.”

“Yes, father.”

“Where’s Fengjiu?”

“Off somewhere with her friends, I gather,” Bai Yi sighed.

“She’s still a child, let her be for a while longer.”

“You and mother are most indulgent when it comes to Fengjiu, father. But I’m afraid if we don’t rein her in once in a while, she'll forget who she is and the responsibility that awaits her.”

“You’ve underestimated Fengjiu, brother,” Bai Qian said. “She’s been quite serious about her studies even before the war.”

“Ah, you,” the Fox Emperor pointed at her with his staff. “Apparently, one of your suitors doesn’t think regular gifts would be enough to impress. We now have to deal with carnivorous pets, too. Eagles, war kirins, wild phoenixes – who in their council thought this was a good idea, I wonder.”

“Erm…” Bai Qian exchanged a look with her brother, unsure what to make of this report.

“Xunzhua, it seems,” her father continued. “Sounds quite serious in their letter of proposal of a marriage alliance between our kingdoms. And that envoy’s pompous tone – as if they’ve got your agreement already.”

Bai Qian felt heat creeping up her neck. Betrothal gifts from Xunzhua? Of course, she and Pojing had talked about it, but they’d never settled on a time to begin the process. Was she really to be married to that man? The thought extracted a silent giggle from her.

Meanwhile, the Fox Emperor continued with his annoyed rant.

“What kind of arrogant rascal sends those things to other people’s houses? And as part of a marriage proposal, too.”

“Hmm, what audacity, indeed,” Bai Yi frowned.

“So, how would you like me to deal with this one, Xiaowu?”

“Huh?” Bai Qian jolted. “Oh no, father, I would like… The King of Xunzhua and I fought together during the last battle. He’s…”

“What?”

There were several ways she would like to describe Pojing, though none of them was very suitable for tea.

“He’s an honorable man,” she said.

The Fox Emperor’s eyebrows raised high, he looked at her as though she had just spoken in a foreign language.

“Is that so?”

Bai Yi chortled behind his teacup. “Quite a generous compliment coming from our Xiaowu, isn’t it?”

“It’s true!” Bai Qian insisted.

“Well, I’m not sure about ‘honorable’,” her father said. “But insolent and conceited, that’s clear as day! Flaunting his wealth in the most offensive and destructive manner; it is as if he’s trying to buy our approval.”

Pojing, what have you done?


“Oh, I’m sure someone at Xunzhua just made a mistake. Please, father, would you grant the envoy an audience?”

The emperor subsided into a long, contemplating silence. His grand gestures were now replaced with unreadable looks.

“Hmm, Xunzhua constantly looks to expand and develop new weapons, are you aware of this?”

“Yes. But what kingdom isn’t, father?”

“They are a little more ambitious than the rest of us, is what I mean. I didn’t think such a life would appeal to you since not too long ago, you were quite adamant about remaining with Moyuan.”

“Would you… would you have wanted a life at Kunlun for me instead, father?”

“Your mother and I could never quite agree on what to think of it. We only went along because we thought it was what you wanted. After all, you wanted little else for 70,000 thousand years.”

Bai Qian said nothing for her father wasn’t wrong. A large part of her life had been devoted to waiting for Moyuan, imagining a future with him, dreaming that she could once again indulge herself in a past they’d long left behind.

“So, this King of Xunzhua,” her father continued. “About your age, am I right?”

“Yes, father.”

“A capable fighter, I hope?”

She nodded.

“Here’s what we will do,” he declared. “First of all, I will have that envoy from Xunzhua pack up and go home. They will figure out the right kind of gift and attitude to bring to the Eastern Forest next time. When there are no more beaks and talons and hoofbeats in my backyard, then we will consider an audience. Fair?”

Bai Qian nodded again, smiling nervously.

“The poor boy,” commented Bai Yi as he looked on the verge of laughing. “I’m not sure what’s the worse prospect for your suitors, Xiaowu – being rejected or being granted an audience at the Eastern Forest.”

“Why, what do you mean? What do you plan to do with him, father?”

“No more than what your mother wanted me to do to Moyuan, I promise.”

“This king does seem to be in need of a lesson, Xiaowu,” her brother chimed in.

“Gu-gu!”

Fengjiu’s voice rang from outside the cave before Bai Qian had the chance to worry about her parents’ plan. The little fox bolted through the entrance, face glowing.

“Gu-gu! I just met Donghua, he said…”

At three pairs of eyes staring at her and her father’s raised brows, Fengjiu stopped short, nearly toppling over. She gave each of them a quick glance and curtsied.

“I mean… Gu-gu, father, grandfather, I just met Lord Donghua, and… er… I have news from Kunlun.”


***


Bai Qian was thankful that the moment she and Fengjiu arrived at Kunlun’s gate, Donghua was already there. She rushed in his direction with her questions ready, but then caught a glimpse of someone standing next to him. They seemed to be talking pleasantly.

“Is that…” Fengjiu said. “Is that the Demon Queen?”

Bai Qian squinted, it was indeed.

“What is she doing here?” Fengjiu said before Bai Qian could. Then, not wasting another moment, the little fox darted forward and quickly positioned herself beside Donghua with a nervous look on her face mixed with a little disapproval.

Donghua himself did not look surprised by Fengjiu’s sudden appearance; instead, he swiftly introduced her to their conversation, as if she’d been standing there all along.

“Lord Donghua,” Bai Qian said once she had gotten to them. “I was told that High God Moyuan is conscious.”

“Yes.”

“Thank you,” she said, acknowledging the Demon Queen with a quick dip of her head, then strode on. But Donghua quickly raised his arm in front of her before she could make it past the gate.

“One anxious visitor at a time, High Goddess. The Heavenly Emperor is still up there, give them some time.”

Bai Qian stared at him for a second in bemusement, then realized that he was right. Moyuan had just awakened, he must be exhausted still. This was not about her – she needed to stop making everything about her. In fact… Did Moyuan even want to see her?

A light, amused laugh from the Demon Queen interrupted her thought. Bai Qian looked over to see she was eyeing Fengjiu with interest.

“There’s no need to protect him from me, little princess. Donghua is not my kind of man.”

Fengjiu flushed, standing a little closer to Donghua as she met the Demon Queen’s eyes.

“Of course not,” said Donghua in what Bai Qian believed was a jesting tone. Although, his hand quietly came to grasp Fengjiu’s as it was clear the little fox was frightened in the Demon Queen’s presence despite her defiant look. “As I recall, you prefer – brown hair?”

“Oh, you mean…” Bai Qian believed she knew who was being alluded to. But before she could say the name, the Demon Queen raised a graceful finger towards her in a warning gesture.

The woman then turned to Donghua and said with a silky voice. “You start talking about that scram again and I’ll cut out your tongue.”

Fengjiu winced in disbelief while Donghua simply chuckled, “My my, it seems he’s the only thing your trials couldn’t make you forget. Is it that bad between you two? According to Moyuan…”

“Moyuan knows nothing. And I’ll thank you two not to discuss my private affairs behind my back. Honestly, have you that much spare time at your hands?”

“That reminds me,” Bai Qian said quickly at the mention of Moyuan. “What brings you here, Demon Queen? Aren’t you… well, still recovering?”

“It turned out,” Shaowan threw her sleek black hair back. “Donghua needed my help.”

“Moyuan was quite weak when he opened his eyes,” said Donghua. “A… stimulant was needed to awaken his immortal powers, especially his healing powers. And it is as I’ve speculated, a little of Shaowan’s magic worked wonders. As we’ve all seen what the union of their energies could do during the battle.”

“Oh,” Bai Qian nodded, feeling a terrible coldness sweeping her inside as the memory of the moment Moyuan’s light left his eyes invaded her head. “Then I’m – grateful for you, Demon Queen. I hope my Seniors received you well.”

The woman burst into light laughter and briefly lifted Bai Qian’s chin. “What an anxious little thing. Why such a miserable face? Are you not happy that your Shifu is back?”

Little?

“I am happy. I’m just… worried about his condition.”

“Ah, you shouldn’t, then. He will be up and back to making life all about rules again in no time. You’ll be wishing he hasn’t recovered so soon.”

Bai Qian suddenly spotted two jets of silver above their heads, whooshing away from the mountain. It must be Yehua and his attendant.

“Well,” the Demon Queen turned to Donghua. “I must be off. The air around here doesn’t agree with me. Tell Moyuan no thanks necessary.”

“Good health,” he responded.

As the Demon Queen took off in a swirl of charcoal smoke, Bai Qian began to make her way up the mountain.


***


It was a lie, of course. Even though she did worry about Moyuan, it was the prospect of standing face-to-face with him that frightened her the most. When Bai Qian had heard the news from Fengjiu, she’d dropped everything and run out of Qingqiu’s cave before her brother and father could even comment on the matter. There’d been nothing in her head at that moment except Moyuan. But now, she was starting to wonder whether this was a good idea at all.

What was she to say to him?

All she wanted to know was whether he was well. And if he was, what then?

Reaching the last few steps of the stairs, Bai Qian seriously considered going back home and waiting for him to ask for her instead. She was no longer the Bai Qian that had waited for him to open his eyes from a 70,000-year sleep – at least to him… she wasn’t. And he, he was no longer the Shifu who would always open his arms to her.

“Seventeenth!” Changshan’s cheery voice pulled Bai Qian out of her dream-like state.

She stared at him, wide-eyed. Well, there was no going back now. Moyuan was sitting just beside the lotus pond, and he’d seen her.

“I… erm…” she flushed. Changshan’s spirit was ever high.

“You can see him, Seventeenth. Just don’t talk about anything depressing. Don’t mention the Heavenly Emperor’s… er…” Changshan motioned to the side of her face, and Bai Qian understood. Don’t talk about how much Yehua had been hurt during the battle.

“Don’t say anything about High God Zheyan, and, er – let’s see –”

“It’s all right, Changshan.”

They both jumped at that chuckle. Moyuan had arrived behind his anxious Second Disciple.

“This is not the first time I’ve recovered from a battle, you don’t have to worry so.”

“Shifu, you were dead!” Changshan grimaced. “And you’ve barely been back. I can’t let anything interfere with your healing process! Outside of Kunlun, I don’t have a say in what you do, but here –”

He faltered, a bit of color blooming in his cheeks as Moyuan raised his brow in slight amusement.

“I mean –” Changshan cleared his throat and continued in a calmer tone. “Yes, I’m worried. But of course, you know your health best, Shifu.”

With that, he bowed and quickly disappeared down the stairs.

Bai Qian, on the other hand, still found it hard to speak at all. Moyuan was here, moving, talking, he was alive. When her spell had struck him in the Glass Tower, she hadn’t thought they would live to see this day.

“Don’t you look at me like that, too,” he said gently with a smile. “I’m not that fragile.”

She dropped her head briefly. “I’m sorry, I’m still a bit shocked that you’ve actually come back to us.”

“You look well.”

Moyuan held out a hand towards her. For a moment, Bai Qian froze, unsure what to do. There was a time when she would dive towards him no matter the circumstances, no matter where they were.

“Shifu, I don’t --”

“Join me,” he gestured towards the edge of the cliff where Kunlun’s great hall looked out to. “The sun is about to set.”

Bai Qian understood now, she walked to his side and together they headed in the direction of the sinking sun. The peace of the evening settled in her heart, yet a dull pain -- brought about by that same peace -- lingered.

“What you and Yehua did,” Moyuan said once they had reached the end of their walk, his voice like a distant echo of the past. “I’m eternally grateful for.”

“We owe you more, Shifu.”

Moyuan took his gaze off the distance and gave her a long look. Bai Qian saw then that he too wished they could be as before, that he could simply embrace her and let her cry her heart out on his shoulder.

“You have something to tell me?”

It wasn’t much of a question.

“Plenty,” Bai Qian admitted. “The problem is I’m not sure if I’m being self-centered again.”

“Self-centered? How?”

“I waited -- and waited for you to come back so I could explain everything. But I’ve never considered whether you need this explanation I’ve been so desperate to give. In fact, I think I should have asked whether you even wanted to see me.”

His hand slowly came to the side of her face, a gentle gesture to let her know he was neither angry nor eager to hear anything. He was only glad, glad that she was here, safe and well.

“We might have made choices in the past that we now regret, I might have been disappointed and angry, but never so angry that your presence is unwelcome. Never.”

“Then, I’m sorry, first of all –” she uttered, nearly letting a sob escape from her throat.

“For what?”

“For… for never being clear. For dragging you along in my fantasy. I thought about what you said the last time we were here – just because you’re used to getting hurt that nothing can hurt you anymore doesn’t excuse the mistake I made.”

“We both made a mistake.”

Bai Qian fell silent then. What mistake could he have possibly made besides indulging her more than he should have?

“You asked me whether it matters if you leave or stay. It does. But what I want is something that you have long moved on from. Or you wanted to but couldn’t because my promise to come back from the Nothingness was a chain around your ankles.”

He waited for a minute as if to see whether she had anything to say in response. She didn’t.

“I was able to return last time because of you,” he went on. “However the eight realms would like to interpret that.”

She let out a small laugh, glancing down for a second before meeting his eyes again. Rumors about them concerning the Ghost War had spread far and wide, indeed, each one more creative than the next.

“The day I awakened in Yanhua Cave, I was the same man that was swallowed by the Bell of Donghua 70,000 years ago, but you weren’t the Seventeenth that I left at Ruoshui River any longer. I wished that you were, and perhaps in wishing so I might have said and done things that made you reluctant to leave behind that past. And if you remember, Seventeenth, I was never clear, either.”

Like an instinct, Bai Qian tried to contradict him, but she found she couldn’t.

“I acted and led you on under the assumption that there was already some sort of promise between us. There wasn’t.”

“Shifu –”

“It’s a mistake I shouldn’t have allowed myself to make.”

In all her life, Bai Qian had never known the God of War to be at loss for words, but he stood in front of her now with uncertainty hovering above his brows, as if he was searching for the right thing to say, as if no words could ever express with accuracy his thoughts, his features consumed by guilt.

Hot tears streamed down her cheeks.

“I can’t stop seeing a traitor every time I look in the mirror.”

“And by treating yourself so you’ve made me a traitor to my oaths as your mentor.”

“I’m sor…”

“No,” he placed a hand on her shoulder, his grip gentle but firm. “Stop saying that. You have nothing to be sorry for.”

“Then… Shifu, I hope you would say the same thing about yourself.”

He let go, looking more hesitant than when he’d decided to offer himself up as a component to make a weapon. But finally, he said, “I will try.”

Bai Qian took her eyes away from him and turned to the purple-dyed horizon, where the sun was now but a speck of light.

“When you were gone, after the Ghost War, there wasn’t a single day when I didn’t think of this -- this, accompanying you at sunset, by the lotus pond, with – perhaps – your zither. But it’s not quite as it used to be, is it, Shifu.”

“That isn’t a bad thing.”

For an unimaginably long time, he had been a destination she’d had her eyes fixed on and her heart had refused to be anything other than Siyin. The realization that she would have to move on had enveloped her in the dark, bereft her of any sense of self, until she was forced to question everything she’d thought she had wanted.

Now that she knew the answers to those questions, that bitterness was in her throat still.

She was ready, never more ready to embrace her new life, yet a bit of the old dream still clung to her, like a remnant of a fire that’d used to be so fierce and demanding that now it wouldn’t stop reminding her how she’d turned her back on it.

“You likely won’t see me for a long time,” Moyuan said. “Healing meditation.”

Bai Qian nodded. She expected his meditation would last a few years at least.

“Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?”

Of course there was. The words came to her tongue but she bit them back. She needed to tell him about Pojing, but did he need to listen to it now?

Moyuan chuckled at her expression. “Go on. I asked the question, I will be responsible for what I may hear. Furthermore, I will have to shut myself in a cave for heavens know how long, if there’s anything important regarding you, I’d like to hear it now.”

He knew already, Bai Qian thought. He’d never looked upon Pojing with friendly eyes. He was never more than indifferent with all people, but with Pojing – it was either avoidance or outright violence.

After another minute, she uttered, “Xunzhua.”

Moyuan nodded slightly. “Yes?”

“The King of Xunzhua made me an offer, and I accepted it.”

“What kind of offer is it?”

“An alliance through marriage.”

“I understand that Qingqiu is not in a position where a marriage alliance with another kingdom is required.”

‘No… no, it isn’t.”

“I see.”

Bai Qian kept silent then, waiting anxiously for what might come, not even daring to blink. But the response from him was no more than a smile.

“Xunzhua?”

“Yes.”

“That is halfway across the universe,” he pointed out, as if the distance was the important thing here.

“Yes.”

“But that doesn’t matter, of course, if you’re sure. So, are you?”

“Xunzhua is where I see my future. I’ve lived among its people – fought to the death with them. And I can’t wait to know more, to learn more about them. As for Pojing,” she took a deep breath. “I couldn't ask for a better man. Xunzhua couldn’t ask for a better king.”

“I see.” Moyuan’s eyes were intently on here for a long minute. “Well, any man who can extract such a compliment from you certainly has my respect.”

He dropped his gaze and cast a long look around.

“I wish I was more prepared.”

“You don’t have to do anything for me, Shifu.”

“This news warrants a proper gift from Kunlun, which there will be. At the moment, however, I’m afraid I have nothing to give you except for something that already belongs to you.”

He reached into his chest pocket and drew out a familiar thing, a few last rays of sunlight bouncing off its jade surface.

“My Kunlun pendant,” Bai Qian whispered and took the item instantly. It was warm still. It would be a long time before she could forget the devastating day when she’d been forced to give it back to him. The feel of it in her hand now took her straight back to the day she had first seen Kunlun, had first met her seniors… first met him.

Their vows had not been voided. They would never be.

Bai Qian looked back up at him, no longer fighting the tears that were pooling in her eyes and eventually running down her cheeks. Once she had been in this same position, had been full of doubts. Those doubts had faded in his presence that had always shone like a beacon in her life.

She would soon leave. This time, there was not a single doubt about it.

“Shifu,” she said, and he nodded back with a smile.

There was not much else she could say; and she understood – there wasn’t much else he wanted to hear.

Turning around, Bai Qian began to make her way toward the stairs. Those dark eyes, that lonely figure would always be in her heart, tucked away in a safe corner where Kunlun was.

***

It was a considerable distance from Kunlun to Qingqiu, but Bai Qian decided to walk. She took her time, took in every bit of the peaceful night; and that in turn took almost half a day for her to reach home.

It was morning again when she arrived at Qingqiu’s entrance, Bai Qian slowed down, regained that ‘queenly’ posture her mother would be proud of and nodded at the people walking in and out to start their day, the smell of freshly baked bread from their baskets filled the air. Undoubtedly her Second Brother was waiting for her to begin their day too. The more work they got done, the more work there was. But perhaps a little break by the lake wouldn’t hurt anyone, Bai Qian thought as she headed towards Qingqiu’s lake.

But there was already someone at the pavilion where she’d hoped to be by herself for a bit. Not Fengjiu or Migu – Bai Qian frowned, squinting to make out the figure. Another few steps she stopped with a small gasp.

“Pojing?”

What is he doing here?

Not that it mattered, Bai Qian quickened her steps; then, before she knew it, she was running. Faster and faster across the grass. Her tears from earlier had not ceased but she smiled as her heart went aflame with joy, eager to grasp his outreaching hand, the morning wind carrying her along a new path.