“Migu, we mustn’t forget new candles for the common area. Some of the old ones are down to stubs.”
It was the kind of perfect sunny autumn afternoon which drew everybody outdoors to bask in the last warm days of the season. The Mushroom Market of Qing Qiu was bustling with activity. Cheerful conversation and children’s laughter intermingled with the voices of the vendors peddling their wares.
“Good day, Gu Gu… How are you, Gu Gu… It’s nice to see you, Gu Gu…” The fox goddess’ nine white tails bobbed lightly as she nodded and smiled at all the warm greetings she received.
“Gu Gu” –her tree sprite’s twigged hair crackled a little as he scratched his head– “should I pick up some fresh beeswax candles from the Beekeeper then?” Migu knew Bai Qian had a preference for beeswax candles since they burned with little smoke. Their honey and floral nectar scents were among her favourites.
Qing Qiu’s queen nodded.
The Beekeeper was still several stalls over from where they were but Bai Qian could nonetheless hear the two villagers haggling with the Keeper over the price of a jar of fresh honey.
The Mushroom Fairy who ran the market called out from a nearby stall, “Gu Gu, I should have your order for the huagu mushrooms by tomorrow. Shall I have one of my fairies deliver it to the Den as soon as it’s ready?”
“Yes, that would be fine,” Bai Qian stopped to answer. “Thank you.”
“Oh, and Gu Gu, I also have the accounts ready for last month’s market transactions, I’ll have my fairy deliver those to you at the same time.”
Bai Qian turned her head towards the alley leading further into the market. She chuckled at the whiff of air that made her nose crinkle. “The Grey Wolf is steaming more fish.”
“Yes,” Fenfang laughed. “That old dog does love his river catch. Here Gu Gu, why don’t you take these xianggu mushrooms with you right now. They’ll go well with the fish you’ll undoubtedly be gifted the moment you pass his stall.”
Bai Qian took hold of the small bag, laughing as well. “Thank you. Lucky thing I love to make fish soup. Hmm, maybe I can get Zhe Yan to take some of the fish this time? Although the last time I tried he accused me of treating him like an albatross.” Bai Qian placed the bag of mushrooms inside her basket. “And yes, please have your fairy bring me those accounts tomorrow as well.” She nodded her goodbye to Fenfang as she followed after Migu.
Qing Qiu being a richly arable land, ripe fruits and vegetables abounded at the market. Baskets were being filled to the brim today as the people stocked up their larders before the end of the harvest season. With her people well-fed, whatever surplus they had from year to year they traded and bartered with neighbouring lands for items they could not produce for themselves; items such as oils, jade, metal instruments…
The errant thought made the fox goddess’ expression harden as she wove her way through the crowd to get to the Beekeeper’s stall. There’d been another demon attack in recent months. News always travelled slowly to Qing Qiu. The cawing Crow Spirit who flew between the forest realms was the one to have informed her of it.
The attack had supposedly happened near the Chang Sea. The Crow had told Bai Qian how a battalion of Celestial guard led by the God of War Mo Yuan had put it down as they had the previous ones before. She wondered what the Demon Emperor was trying to accomplish with these attacks. That the supposedly great Gold Dragon had been unable to stop him so far did not bode well.
Qing Qiu was a quiet, out of the way land, uninvolved in realm politics and owing allegiance to no one. Bai Qian knew very well that the Celestial Ninth Sky considered them nothing more than a backwater hardly worth their notice. This meant being blessed with peace in more ways than one. However, at the same time, it made them hardly worth notice in terms of protection as well. But Bai Qian knew if she made any kind of formal petition for such, the Heavenly Ruler would immediately demand tribute and allegiance from the Queen of Qing Qiu. This she would not allow, even if they weren’t rivals.
No. Between her powers and Zhe Yan’s, Qing Qiu and the neighbouring Ten Mile Peach Tree Grove were very well protected.
“Jia!” the Rabbit Mother’s eldest son Delun shouted at his little sister from a closing distance behind. “Stop running so fast and watch where you’re going! You’ll trip and fall!”
“Oh no! Watch out, Gu Gu!”
Bai Qian stumbled forward when something suddenly collided with the back of her legs. Spinning around, she was met by a pair of tiny arms that wrapped tightly around her knees.
“Gu Gu!” Little Jia’s voice was bright with excitement. “Gu Gu! See my new dress! Mother made it for my birthday! Do you like the colour?”
A hush fell over the immediate area. “Jia…” Delun hissed as he sidled up to his sister a little bit out of breath.
Bai Qian reached out to stroke the little rabbit girl’s soft tousled hair. The tiny arms released her legs as she went to kneel before the child. “What does your dress’ colour remind you of, Jia?” she asked the girl gently.
“It’s like the sky today, Gu Gu!”
Ah… so that would mean…
“Then it’s a beautiful blue.” Bai Qian felt the child nodding vigorously under the palm of her hand. “Delun is right, though,” she told Jia calmly. “You shouldn’t run through the market so fast. What if you fell and made your dress all crooked?”
The little girl sniffled loudly, no doubt with a twitching nose. “Allllright, Gu Gu. I won’t run anymore.”
Bai Qian couldn’t help but smile at such a loud sniffle coming from such a small being. But her smile faltered when tiny hands pressed on her cheeks as she went to rise.
“Gu Gu, wait! It’s your pretty ribbon that’s crooked.”
Jia’s fingers touched Bai Qian’s temples. “Jia, no!” Delun cried.
Bai Qian quickly covered the girl’s hands with her own, stopping their movement. There was absolute silence around them. Bai Qian’s smile returned. “Thank you, Jia. Is it straight now?” she asked as she purposely manoeuvred the child’s hands under hers.
“Yes, Gu Gu! It’s perfect! I like the white colour! It can be a cloud on my blue sky dress!” Bai Qian continued to hold the child’s hands as she stood back up. “Happy Birthday, Jia,” she said.
“Bye-bye, Gu Gu!” Jia replied. Bai Qian heard the children dash off down a side alley. So much for not running…
Voices slowly returned, first at a murmur then quickly back to the happy jumbled cacophony of volume they were at before. Migu, whom Bai Qian had been aware had been standing right behind her the whole time, handed her back the basket she’d dropped when she stumbled.
“Is it truly straight, Migu?” Bai Qian asked in a whisper.
“Yes, Gu Gu. It looks just fine.”
Bai Qian ran her fingertips lightly over the silk band that covered her blind eyes.
“You know, Migu… If you weren’t so smitten by her, you could have haggled the price down for those candles from the Beekeeper a little more,” she teased her tree sprite with a wide grin.
“Ugh, Gu Gu. I swear you hear everything…”
“I swear, Qian Qian! You must want me to sprout webbed feet and start squawking at puddles!”
With an exaggerated huff, Zhe Yan took the packet of steamed fish she’d brought over and tossed it onto a stack of books on his table.
“Zhe Yan, how would squawking at puddles be any different from your everyday squawking at your books, your notes, your wine jugs, me?”
“Oh, ha ha,” he replied dryly as he reached for one of the aforementioned jugs and tossed it to her.
Bai Qian’s hand was already open and raised, easily catching the jug she felt, smelled, and heard heading her way… felt from the slight displacement of air just ahead of the flying jug, smelled from the peach wine scented waft, and of course above all, heard from the distinct weighted swishing of Zhe Yan’s sleeve as his arm had swung towards her.
Uncorking the jug, she took a swig.
“You can’t just leave the fish on top of your table, Zhe Yan. Though I always do think there’s something fishy about your library.”
Bai Qian made her way to the lounging chair Zhe Yan kept in one corner of the room. She never had need of her tails to guide her whenever she visited. Zhe Yan always kept all his furniture and things in the exact same position so Bai Qian would always be comfortable and at ease walking around his place. Zhe Yan’s cottage was like her second home.
Stretching her legs out as she sat, Bai Qian swirled the contents of the jug as she listened to Zhe Yan puttering about. The rustle of rice paper, the soft thumping of book covers, the wet sliding of an ink brush on bamboo scroll, these would forever be the sounds she’d associate with her best friend.
“Huh… squawking… phoenixes shrill. Fishy?… pfft…” he muttered under his breath.
Bai Qian grinned behind her jug’s spout.
“But you didn’t just come here to dump some of that infatuated Grey Wolf’s love tokens on me,” Zhe Yan now said as he opened a wine jug for himself.
The cork he undoubtedly tossed haphazardly over his shoulder bounced off the wall behind him. From his rustle of robes he had leaned up against the edge of his study table. What had to be stacked books at his back slipping down with a thud behind him confirming so.
As eccentric as her friend could be, Zhe Yan was a most formidable god; powerful and bright both in terms of intelligence and his magic which she’d never seen of course but could always feel radiating from him.
Bai Qian sighed.
“If you weren’t already a master of medicine, Zhe Yan. You’d have made an excellent fortuneteller with your uncanny ability to read minds.” Bai Qian took another swig of the wine.
“There was another demon attack a few months ago,” she told the phoenix. “This time near the Chang Sea.”
“Hmm,” she murmured around the spout of her jug.
“Now there’s a bird for squawking! The Crow is the realm’s worst gossip, Qian Qian. Don’t believe everything that busybody says.”
“But Zhe Yan… the Chang Sea is not that far off from here.”
She heard Zhe Yan gulp back several mouthfuls of wine.
“Qian Qian, I would like to see a demon even try to set one slimy toe in Qing Qiu or my peach grove. Between you and I such a creature would stand no chance. Besides, what possible interest would the Demon Emperor Qing Cang have in our boring lands?”
Though Bai Qian knew he was teasing, Zhe Yan’s words did make her feel a little less apprehensive.
“I’m glad you came today.” Zhe Yan started rummaging through stuff on his table. “There’s something I found I want to discuss with you abo–“
“Oh no, Zhe Yan. Not another “cure” again.” Bai Qian groaned.
Over the many years, Zhe Yan had made it a personal mission to seek out any and all knowledge about causes of blindness and what possible treatments may exist. Bai Qian shuddered a little thinking about all the times she’d been subjected to weird poultices glopped onto her eyelids or strange liquids applied in icy droplets onto her eyes themselves. Nothing ever worked. She never truly believed anything would as she had been born blind. But her dear best friend was relentless in his pursuit and she just couldn’t bring herself to tell him it was a lost cause.
“This time it’s different, Qian Qian. You know I recently went to the Great Library of the Ninth Sky.“ Bai Qian nodded. “Well, while I was there they were cleaning out one of the ancient archives to make room for added stacks. Turns out there were a few ancient tomes forgotten about in one of the vaults. I asked to review them before they were stored away.”
Bai Qian heard the crinkle of paper as Zhe Yan flapped some sheets at her. “What I found, I immediately copied. There was a reference to the First Immortal’s Garden.”
The First Immortal’s Garden? A legend older than time itself, the supposed garden of the First Immortal was said to be the birthplace of every kind of magical plant and flower that existed today. Many variations of this origin story could be found in children’s tales and legends.
“Zhe Yan…” Bai Qian sighed.
“Hear me out, Bai Qian.” Whenever Zhe Yan called her Bai Qian it was because he was very adamant about what he wanted to say. “The reference I found spoke of a particular flower, a silver moon orchid, that had properties that could make one see perfectly in the dark. Yes, yes, I know,” Zhe Yan pressed on, seeing Bai Qian about to open her mouth and knowing very well what she was going to say. “The description could mean many things, but it’s a most promising one. I would of course need to study this flower to see if I could use it somehow in one of my treatment spells.”
Bai Qian sighed again. “Even if this moon orchid exists, Zhe Yan, and even if it could purportedly do what the book said, the Four Seas and Eight Lands are far and wide. Where would you even begin to search for it?”
Her words were met with a thoughtful silence. Bai Qian raised her head in surprise.
“The book revealed where the flower could be found?”
She could hear the wide smile behind her friend’s voice.
“Indeed it did,” Zhe Yan exclaimed. “On Kunlun Mountain.”
姑姑 (Gu Gu) aunt
香菇 (Xianggu) fragrant mushroom
花菇 (Huagu) flower mushroom
芬芳 (Fenfang) fragrant
嘉 (Jia) beautiful
德伦 (Delun) virtuous order
⇛ Next part: 2(第二章) The Heartwood of Kunlun
⇚ Previous part: (序幕) Prologue