“Did you see either of them at all this morning?” Zi Lan asked. The Sixteenth Disciple lunged in front of Da Bao to snatch the last jianbing from a platter.
Chewing his food slowly, Kunlun’s Eleventh Disciple Da Bao extended his tree trunk-like arms out sideways to stretch out his back.
“Hey! You’ve eaten four already!” Zi Lan dodged a massive bicep as he quickly stuffed the savoury crepe into his mouth.
Da Bao, whose nickname among his brothers was Meng Bao, was a giant of the Mountain Tribes. A hulking, barrel-chested man with a quiet demeanour, he was Kunlun’s expert of the iron maces, the only one of Mo Yuan’s generals who could wield two of the mighty weapons at the same time. “The Giant” taught the techniques of the mace to those few advanced students capable of handling one. He also taught meditation classes to juniors; classes where never a stray whisper was heard, the students in awe of the fierce Giant and his facial tribal tattoos. But despite Da Bao’s formidable appearance, his Brothers all knew the man to have a heart just as giant as his body. The Eleventh Disciple was the one who made early morning rounds daily through the surrounding forest to fill the birdfeeders, feeders he’d made by hand, ensuring the tiny creatures had enough food during the colder seasons.
It was a perfect case of contrast in balance when it came to Da Bao and Zi Lan. For as mammoth and musclebound as Da Bao was, Zi Lan was the complete opposite.
Mo Yuan’s Sixteenth Disciple was a slim, wiry figure. Agile and incredibly fast, Zi Lan was Kunlun’s expert of the rope dart –a weapon of speed and precise hand-eye coordination. He also taught the White Stallion fighting style, one originating from his own Horse Clan.
When fighting side by side, the pair of Brothers were well-nigh impossible to beat.
“Chang Shan!” Zi Lan called out at the same time his stomach did with a loud rumble. “Are there any jianbing left?!” A round of muttering answered him from the kitchen, his Second Brother going on about the virtues of patience and holding one’s horses or something and that it would take a few more minutes.
Da Bao continued to chew slowly.
“Both of Shifu’s guests left already.” Die Feng seated himself across the table. The Senior Brother had heard Zi Lan’s initial question when he’d first entered the dining hall. “They’ll be back for tonight.”
Pouring himself a cup of tea, Die Feng frowned at the empty jianbing platter. He grabbed a bowl of thick zhao instead.
“It just seems so odd.” Zi Lan turned his own tea cup in his hands, drumming his fingertips along its sides. “Why would Shifu invite the Blind Fo–, uh, the Queen of Qing Qiu and the Phoenix of the Peach Grove to stay overnight for a month?”
His eyes grew wide. Leaning close, he elbowed Da Bao in the Giant’s ample gut. “Eleventh Brother, it just occurred to me… I wonder what the White Goddess would say if she knew the Nine-Tailed Fox Queen was going to be staying here every night.”
Da Bao stopped chewing. “The Lady Fox is very pretty.” When the Giant spoke, the table vibrated a little from the deep bass of his voice. “I caught a glimpse of her yesterday when they were walking past the training yards.” His cheeks flushed red and he started chewing faster. The Eleventh Brother was very shy and uncomfortable around women.
Zi Lan choked on a mouthful of tea.
“P-p-retty?! I heard she wears a cloth bound over her eyes! How pretty can she be?” Unimpressed, Zi Lan huffed. “You mark my words, Meng Bao. Women bring nothing but trouble.”
The Giant ignored him.
“Any news of Zhong Yi, First Brother?” Zi Lan changed the topic abruptly. Quick of body, his thoughts often leapt ahead as well.
Die Feng’s expression darkened and he shook his head no. The three men fell silent. Their Fourth Brother had been gone for months now. And while their Shifu hadn’t divulged any details of Zhong Yi’s mission, they knew very well that the expert of languages and disguises could only have been sent to one place.
The wave of “Good morning, Shifu” behind them heralded the arrival of Mo Yuan to the dining hall. Students of all levels who were there early for breakfast greeted the Grandmaster politely as he strode past them.
“Good morning, Shifu,” the three Brothers said in succession when Mo Yuan reached their table.
The Grandmaster sat beside Die Feng. Frowning a little at the empty jianbing platter, he helped himself to some tea eggs and noodles instead, and a cup of hot tea, of course.
“Shifu.” Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, Zi Lan leaned forward on his elbows. “Is it true the Bli–, is it true the Lady of Qing Qiu is truly blind?”
“Yes, she is.” Mo Yuan levelled his gaze at his quick-tempered general. “What of it?”
“I find it strange that a royal immortal travels without any guard. Surely someone of her status, and given her condition, would require protection, no?”
It was a fair question, one that had crossed Mo Yuan’s mind too. The Phoenix was a powerful god but not a trained warrior. He’d planned to ask her this evening but now had a different idea.
“You can ask her that yourself, Sixteen.”
“Huh?” Zi Lan gulped his last swallow of his tea.
“I’m heading to the Ninth Sky later to meet with Tianjun,” Mo Yuan said. “Die Feng will be covering my afternoon lectures on internal alchemy. I saw on today’s schedules that you have no training sessions after midday, Zi Lan. So I would ask that you be the one to greet and escort our guests from the gate when they arrive.”
It took a swift kick under the table from Die Feng for Zi Lan to snap out of his sudden shock.
“Yes, Shifu! I’ll be there.”
Out of breath, the handmaiden dropped to her knees before a regally dressed woman whose back remained turned to her.
“Mistress!” the handmaiden panted, her robes and hair askance from having raced down numerous pathways. “I just overheard. Grandmaster Mo Yuan is coming to meet with Tianjun today!”
The White Goddess whirled about. “Today?! When?”
“This afternoon, Mistress. Tianjun made the announcement in the throne hall just now.”
A calculating smile crossed Yao Guang’s lips. “We head back to the throne hall now!” she ordered her retinue.
“But Mistress, we just came from there.”
The servant girl who’d spoken reeled backwards. Her cheek was stinging red from the sharp slap she’d received.
“And we’re heading back again,” the White Goddess smiled sweetly at her.
An honour guard awaited Mo Yuan upon his arrival at the Eastern Sky Gate.
I should have known.
Mo Yuan would have preferred to dispense with any formalities. A quiet entrance, a deferential exit –this was not some official visit after all. But of course the pretentious Tianjun would want to make sure every deity in the Ninth Sky knew that the God of War was coming to see him personally.
Mo Yuan’s thoughts turned unbidden to the Phoenix.
Now there was a god who could best Tianjun when it came to flamboyant displays. Imagining the possibilities with a faint smile, Mo Yuan made his way in the company of the guards leading him to the Celestial Palace.
As was his habit whenever he came to the Ninth Sky, Mo Yuan wore his formal robe of cerulean blue. His hair cinched in a topknot held by a hairpiece of burnished gold, he looked very much the revered Grandmaster of Kunlun and less the warrior.
Heads turned and torsos bowed deeply as Mo Yuan walked along the pathways with his gilded escort, making their grandiose way into the inner courtyards towards the throne hall.
These pathways were the same ones he’d walked in his youth, the difference now being the ornate gold, jade, and jeweled decorations along the railings –attesting to the current Heaven Ruler’s love of rich finery. That had been one of the few things Mo Yuan had seen eye-to-eye on with his father. Both had preferred things simple and elegant without ostentation.
And again Mo Yuan’s thoughts turned unbidden. He somehow knew he would never be met with such pomp and circumstance should, when, he visited Qing Qiu.
“And what of your fourth disciple, any word from him?”
Mo Yuan stood with his hands clasped behind his back, watching Tianjun pace the width of his private study. The privacy barrier the latter had erected kept the breeze out and Mo Yuan couldn’t decide which was more stifling, the lack of air current or Tianjun’s ramblings.
He’d already decided before coming here that he wouldn’t divulge anything about Zhong Yi’s last communication.
“My scouts have no leads on Qing Cang’s whereabouts either!” Tianjun railed without waiting for an answer. “We need that scourge’s head on a spit, Mo Yuan!”
“As able as your scouts may be, Tianjun,” Mo Yuan said, “the answer lies in capturing some of Qing Cang’s soldiers alive.”
“Why haven’t you or any of those elite warriors of yours been able to capture some in battle so far?” Tianjun questioned… again.
Mo Yuan kept his calm, barely. “No fighter can stop one from killing themselves by means of the black arts. You know as well as I that there is more than just fighting going on in these attacks.”
“Mmm,” Tianjun seemed distracted in his own thoughts. “The mention of black arts didn’t loosen any demon tongues either.”
Mo Yuan frowned. He knew that Tianjun had had ordinary citizens of the demon realm brought in for interrogation. A waste of time and effort, as none of the common demonfolk would know anything. What their Demon Overlord and his shaman were up to would hardly be common knowledge. If anything, Tianjun’s interrogations were increasing demon hostility towards all Celestials. When Qing Cang was stopped and this conflict resolved, they would need to broker a peace with these people.
“Qing Cang’s shaman is behind how they are able to hide their presence entirely from us. Of this, I’m sure. It would seem Diao Wu has greatly increased his powers somehow.”
Heaven’s ruler huffed with impatience.
“Can you not send a message to your Fourth, Mo Yuan, demanding an update?”
The man knew perfectly well that any forced communication of the sort would risk exposing his disciple.
“I will not chance the life of my general unless given no choice. We will give Zhong Yi a little more time.” Mo Yuan replied with an emphasis on the first word of his sentence.
“But what better time, Mo Yuan?” an oblivious Tianjun countered. “It’s been most quiet since the Chang Sea attack.”
“Yes. And it is always quietest before the storm.”
Tianjun grunted as he sat heavily in his chair. “I have a dinner prepared in honour of your visit today since you so rarely come.”
Mo Yuan’s smile did not reach his eyes. “I’m afraid I have a prior engagement and must humbly decline.”
“I will of course keep you informed of any developments.” Mo Yuan finished, taking his leave with a quick bow of clasped hands leaving a sputtering Tianjun to glare at his back as he exited the suffocating study. The ruler of the Heaven’s privacy barrier proved no obstruction at all to Mo Yuan who simply passed through it.
Mo Yuan couldn’t care less that he’d just flaunted all proper rules of decorum. Tianjun’s missive this morning had insisted on a meeting. There’d been no mention of a dinner. That Mo Yuan didn’t want to spend a single minute longer than he had to in the Celestial Palace was his business.
Just as it was his business how he chose to investigate the meaning of his Fourth Disciple’s note.
With growing impatience, Yao Guang sat at the banquet she’d managed to invite herself and her attendants to.
The guest of honour, or even Tianjun, had yet to make an appearance. Perhaps High God Mo Yuan had been called to a battle, some were beginning to say.
Gossip swirled faster than the wind currents in the Celestial Palace.
Once again, it was her handmaiden who brought her the news. “Mistress,” she whispered in her ear. “I heard from one of the guards that Lord Mo Yuan returned directly to Kunlun after his meeting with Tianjun.”
What remained of the White Goddess’ patience finally snapped. Enough! She’d been trying for months now to find some way to meet up with Mo Yuan privately. But every missive she’d sent to Kunlun was answered with polite regrets from Mo Yuan’s First Disciple.
It was time for more drastic measures.
“We will leave now,” she told the handmaiden. “But only to freshen up before presenting ourselves directly at the gate of Kunlun before sunset.”
Bai Qian woke to the sounds of Migu puttering about her chamber. Instead of the swish of a broom this time, it was the sound of his rummaging through her clothing. She groaned and pulled the blanket over her head.
“You were humming that tune in your sleep, Gu Gu,” a cheerful Migu told her. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard you do that.”
Humming? Why wasn’t she surprised.
The nap she’d hoped would refresh her seemed to have done the complete opposite. She felt like she had wool stuffed in her head. Rising so early that morning had totally discombobulated her. And it was whenever Bai Qian slept fitfully, which was rare since sleeping was something all foxes excelled at, that she sometimes hummed in her sleep. When Zhe Yan had learned of it long ago, her best friend had joked it was a shame she didn’t talk in her sleep instead. Now that would be something worth listening to!
But what neither Migu nor even Zhe Yan knew was that the tune Bai Qian hummed was her mother’s song, the one Queen Ying Yue had played on her guqin while pregnant with her. Only Bai Qian’s father knew, as he’d been the one to tell her, having heard her hum it in her sleep as a young child.
“What time is it now, Migu?” Bai Qian asked from under her blanket.
“It’s early afternoon. I’m packing some things for you to take to Kunlun. I thought it’d be easier for you to have some of your personal items with you rather than have to summon anything.”
Migu could be quite the mother hen, just like Zhe Yan.
Ugh, I need to clear these cobwebs from my head.
The tree sprite’s twigs crackled as he yelped with a start when Bai Qian bolted out of her bed. “Migu, there’s still time before I head back to Kunlun. Let’s go to the Mushroom Market. I need some fresh air. Air that won’t freeze my tails off!”
大宝 (Da Bao) big treasure
萌宝 (Meng Bao) cute baby
忠義 (Zhong Yi) loyal to all
煎饼 (jianbing) traditional Chinese savoury breakfast crepe
饘 (zhan) thick congee/porridge
⇛ Next part: 11(第十一章) A Goddess at the Gate
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