The racing steps came to an abrupt halt before her.
“G-g-good morning, Shilao!”
“Good morning, Ping Yan.”
The winded senior apprentice must be late for his first class of the day again, Bai Qian mused.
“You best run faster and hope Sixteenth Brother hasn’t taken roll call yet.”
“Yes, Shilao,” groaned the young man whose racing steps resumed even faster as they receded into the distance.
Of course Zi Lan would notice the boy was late. The elixir cauldron was going to get another good week of scrubbing, no doubt.
Bai Qian pressed her hand against the small of her back. Normally she would be teaching her class on orientation at this hour but her protruding belly made her back ache too much and she’d had to stop for now.
Zhe Yan figured it was only another week or two before the baby would come. After three years, Bai Qian was more than ready to give birth and thereafter be able to shift to her fox again. Both hers and the baby’s bodies were “locked” in human form until she delivered. She couldn’t even let out her tails!
She was headed towards the temple’s western entrance in order to take its path to the mountain lake. Its cool waters were one of the few places where she could find some relief for her swollen body.
Bai Qian paused to yawn deeply into her hand.
For a few weeks now she’d been unable to sleep through the night. Perhaps this was Fate’s way of preparing her for all the midnight feedings her father teased her about? What she did know was the growing restlessness she felt told her more than anything that the baby was coming soon.
Yes, a nice nap in the sun sitting in the lake water was just what she needed. At the same time she could wet her hair to rinse out the last of the flour dust she knew must still be clinging to it from her baking last night.
Ugh, last night.
When she hadn’t been able to sleep, Bai Qian decided to go prepare sweet buns for Jia who would be coming for a visit in a few days. Her brother Delun was a student at Kunlun temple going on four years.
Bai Qian groaned, recalling the rare instance she hadn’t heard Mo Yuan come into the kitchen shortly after her.
Her centre of balance off, she’d accidentally bumped into some trays with a loud clatter, and the unexpected touch of his hand on her shoulder from behind had startled her so much that she’d dropped the bowl she was holding, sending its contents of flour flying everywhere.
Ignoring what had to be a dusty mess, Mo Yuan proceeded to do what he always did when he caught her cooking at night during this time of her pregnancy. He scolded her gently, then sat down to drink the tea she had already prepared, knowing he would come find her. Afterwards, he carried her back in his arms to their chamber and to their bed.
A gentle summer breeze greeted Bai Qian when she reached the western entrance. With slow, steady steps, she started along the path.
What else could she do? It was a lifelong habit of hers when she couldn’t sleep to go and cook something. And with her pregnant belly, Mo Yuan was no longer able to keep her tucked under his side. He tried different ways of draping an arm across her middle and a leg over her thigh but Bai Qian was always able to wiggle her way out.
She started laughing to herself as she lifted her face to the sky. Why did Mo Yuan bother when he knew very well where she’d go in the night?
Bai Qian knew why.
It was a game he liked to play with her.
Letting her have her fun “sneaking away”, Mo Yuan was in fact setting her up so he could track her down.
Her Dragon liked to hunt.
Yet every time he caught her, Mo Yuan would always sit patiently by and pace the drinking of his cup of tea to finish at exactly the same time Bai Qian was done with whatever she was making, knowing cooking during the night was something peaceful she enjoyed.
Beware the heightened instincts and protectiveness of dragons when their mates are pregnant, Zhe Yan had warned her.
It was the truth. Mo Yuan was always aware of her presence and her movements while she was pregnant with his child. He always found her, no matter the time of day, and no matter where she went.
And it wasn’t just in the nights to the kitchen.
Poor Da Bao…
Bai Qian chuckled, rounding the next bend of the path remembering what happened with the Giant just yesterday.
To try and walk off some of the stiffness in her legs and get some fresh air, Bai Qian had accompanied the 11th Disciple on his early morning rounds filling his bird feeders. The wild birds avoided her, being a fox, but they adored Da Bao enough to still land on him or ride in his pockets even when she was with him.
Bai Qian was careful to walk slowly but it had only taken a small bump in the path that normally never caused her a problem to make her stumble. And the moment the Giant’s hand caught her arm to steady her, Mo Yuan’s powerful dragon essence blasted over them.
Bai Qian would have loved to have described to her the expression that must have been on Mo Yuan’s face given the snarl that emerged from him, followed in a heartbeat by a profuse apology from an embarrassed sounding Shifu to his 11th.
Da Bao’s hand had slowly, very slowly, released her arm; the Giant knowing better than to make any sudden movements or quick gestures at that moment with her.
The awkward silence that ensued was ruptured by the rumbling laughter of an earthquake.
“It’s quite alright, Shifu!” Da Bao guffawed. “There’s no need to apologize. I do understand. Though I also do wonder what you would have done to me had I let the Lady fall.”
Bai Qian preferred not to imagine that scenario.
Having waddled her way to the lake, Bai Qian stripped down to her slip before easing herself into the water. The quiet and secluded spot of shore she’d come to was a favourite of hers. The boulders along its beachline formed a natural seating ledge that was warmed by the sun most of the day.
It was with a sigh of pleasure that she leaned her sore back against the warmed rock as she sat waist deep in the water. Closing her eyes at the lapping of cool water against her swollen belly, she quickly fell asleep.
Without creating a single ripple, the golden head of the Dragon broke through the surface of the water just in front of a sleeping Bai Qian. For many long minutes he remained perfectly still, watching her. Then shifting to his human form, Mo Yuan waded the rest of the way to join her.
He nestled himself as gently as he could alongside Bai Qian so as not to wake her. With all her restlessness at night, Mo Yuan had begun to consider setting up their bed in the kitchen since that was where she always headed when she couldn’t sleep.
But that would spoil her fun.
While no one complained about all the extra treats and jianbing they found made for them the next day, Mo Yuan knew the students and the disciples missed Bai Qian teaching her orientation class. Zi Lan kept lamenting her absence in his self-defense class where she would assist him by demonstrating her techniques.
But tomorrow was tomorrow and today was today.
A true warrior took their rest when and where they could, he’d told Bai Qian once. Since his bunk mate had been keeping him from sleeping his nights along with her, and wasn’t snoring at the moment –not that she ever did, he just liked to tease her– Mo Yuan figured he best follow the prerogative he espoused.
Closing his eyes beside Bai Qian in the water and sun, Mo Yuan allowed himself to fall asleep with his wife.
A sharp hitch of breath woke Mo Yuan from a deep sleep.
Bai Qian, obviously awake and knowing he was there by how she sought out his hand, placed it on her belly. Mo Yuan felt a strong, squeezing contraction crest under his palm.
All instinct fired.
“I’m glad I woke to find you here, Mo Yuan.” Bai Qian’s voice was calm but strained at the same time. “I don’t think I’d have made my way back to the temple on my own. I think–” she hissed through her teeth as another contraction struck. “I think the sun, the water, and their father’s essence combined so close made our little one eager to arrive a few days sooner than expected.”
Water sprayed in all directions as Mo Yuan scooped Bai Qian into his arms only to jump them directly back to their chambers where he lay her gently upon their bed.
The Dragon’s roar shook the very foundations of the temple and echoed through every part of the Mountain.
“Get the Phoenix! NOW!”
“Congratulations, my Lord, my Lady, on the birth of your daughter.”
Having pronounced the customary words, Zhe Yan placed the swaddled newborn into her smiling father’s arms while he finished tending to a happily sighing Bai Qian.
Mo Yuan’s honey amber eyes took on a soft golden glow as he gazed lovingly upon his infant daughter’s face.
He stroked her tiny cheek with his finger. It was like the softest of petals. His smile warmed at his daughter’s dark eyes focusing upon his fingertip. They would be Bai Qian’s chestnut colour, Mo Yuan knew.
The infant’s face turned to his hand as her mouth sought that which he could not give.
Kneeling beside Bai Qian, Mo Yuan placed the baby in the crook of her arm and kissed his wife gently upon her sweat-sheened brow.
“Her heartbeat sounds so lovely, Mo Yuan,” an exhausted Bai Qian said as she put the baby to her breast. With a soft mewling cry, the baby latched on and began to suckle.
Bai Qian’s hand lightly traced her daughter’s forehead.
“How does she look?”
“Breathtakingly beautiful, just like her mother.”
Zhe Yan laughed softly. “I knew a tree of the Peach Grove would flourish here.”
“Would you like to be the first to whom we reveal her name, Zhe Yan?” Bai Qian asked.
She heard her friend sniff back a tear.
“I would be honoured.” Zhe Yan’s voice was heavy with emotion.
“Li Qin,” Mo Yuan said.
“Ahh, it’s perfect.”
Zhe Yan’s robes brushed against Bai Qian’s arm as he must have leaned down closely to the baby’s face. “Welcome to the world, Li Qin.”
“Mo Yuan, Father’s steps are pacing outside the door… along with all of the Disciples'”
“Allow me,” Zhe Yan replied.
The Phoenix crossed the floor towards the doorway.
“With the exception of Bai Zhi,” he said, “Any and all other visitations are to be kept short and only at one time of the day, mind. Everyone in this chamber needs to rest solidly for at least three days. Dragons included.”
Her father cried tears of joy when he was handed his granddaughter to hold.
“She’s so beautiful, Qian Qian, Mo Yuan. So beautiful. Thank you both for having given an old Fox a new lease on life.”
Mo Yuan’s disciples all oohed and aahed, gushing over the new addition to their family before respectfully withdrawing to allow their Shifu and Shilao to rest with the baby.
Zhe Yan was the last to leave.
“Rest well little family,” the Phoenix said. “I’ll be back to check on you all in the morning. I think I’ll sleep in the northern garden tonight. I find I miss the skyview.”
Later in the evening while Bai Qian nursed again, Mo Yuan played a new composition on his guqin.
The song he played evoked the calming quietude of flowing waters, a gentle tide whose rise was of hope and joy and promise.
And when the final note had been played, Mo Yuan climbed into bed to join a sleeping Bai Qian and their daughter.
As the baby suckled upon her breast in the night, Bai Qian marvelled at how Mo Yuan’s heart beat in time with Li Qin’s.
The warmth of his body enveloping both her and their daughter had Bai Qian wondering if she would be able now to release her fox tails after giving birth. It was with a most contented release of breath that she felt them behind her after so long. Bai Qian let her tails billow in the air for several minutes before she lay them across Mo Yuan, Li Qin, and herself.
Reaching out her hand to where Mo Yuan’s sleeping breaths emerged, she touched her fingertips to his chin to lightly brush his beard…
…and felt him smile in his sleep.
In a week’s time she would go to Qing Qiu to introduce Li Qin to the woodland spirits. When there, Bai Qian planned to retrieve her guqin, the one her father had made her so long ago.
For with the love of her Dragon and now the birth of her daughter, Bai Qian had tuned enough of her life, her dreams, her hopes, and her heart.
She was finally ready to play her own songs.
麗琴 Li Qin (a beautiful stringed instrument)
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