“If you keep yawning like that your face is going to get sucked into your mouth.” Zhe Yan’s eyes scrunched shut with an “Eeeeuuuaaahhhhhh” as he broke into a yawn himself. “Don’t you know yawning is contagious?” he said, clacking his tongue.
Bai Qian snorted. She crossed her arms over her chest and pinched her sides in order to keep herself alert. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d had occasion to rise at dawn like she had today. Her afternoon nap had done little to help. The urge to curl up in a ball right then and there at the gates of Kunlun and sleep was tempting.
“What?!” she snapped at Zhe Yan’s breathing at her.
The Phoenix chuckled knowingly at his sleepy friend’s grumpy temper. “Just wondering… Are you planning on falling again today?”
“Ah ah ah,” Zhe Yan said, wagging a finger she couldn’t see as one of her tails threatened. “Behave yourself, Qian Qian. We’re at the gate of Kunlun Mountain. A little decorum is called for here after all.”
Bai Qian gritted her teeth. “I tripped on a stupid vine which you said you saw yourself, Zhe Yan!”
She snorted once more. Zhe Yan had riled her up on purpose to rouse her from her sleepiness. It worked.
They stood waiting for someone to arrive to grant them entry. Unless granted permission, the powerful protective barrier spell about the Mountain prevented outsiders from cloud-jumping straight onto it.
Will it be Mo Yuan greeting us here again?
Bai Qian frowned. Just because Mo Yuan had been the one to greet them at the gate yesterday did not by any means suggest he’d be the one to do so again today.
“I’m no rooster, Qian Qian.” Zhe Yan sent another pulse of his energy up the mountain to let them know they were there. “But I can get up at dawn when I have to without becoming rabid. You however? Ha!”
“Then why’d you come to my guest chamber at that time if you hadn’t expected me to be awake?!” Bai Qian demanded.
Zhe Yan cleared his throat, leaving Bai Qian confused. “Well? Wh–“
“Why did you insist on leaving at that time then, Qian Qian?” Zhe Yan turned her question around. “I don’t recall seeing the dragon shooing you away.”
There was an expectant pause, as if Zhe Yan were waiting for some kind of answer. When he didn’t get one, he sighed and went on. “Somehow I doubt it was Mo Yuan who made you think we had to leave at that hour or… Hmm, maybe it was because of Mo Yuan that you felt you had to leave at that hour?”
Refusing to rise to his teasing, Bai Qian took a few steps closer to the gate to listen if anyone was approaching. The light travel bag Migu had packed for her bumped lightly against her hip. The “hospitality” gift she carried in it poking her through the side.
Bai Qian hadn’t told Zhe Yan yet she’d purchased something to present to their host. I know. I’ll get Zhe Yan to gift a couple of jugs of his peach wine next time so as to make things even.
Zhe Yan rarely shared his wine with anyone outside of Qing Qiu. He liked to boast, mostly to her, that his fermentation process was the best kept secret in the entire realm and he wished to keep it as such.
“How is your ankle by the way?” the master of fermented secrets asked from behind her. “Not that I dare cast any aspersions upon the most excellent capabilities of your physician, of course.”
“Of course.” Bai Qian mimicked Zhe Yan’s tone. “My ankle is totally back to normal, thanks. I walked through the Mushroom Market this afternoon without any issue.”
Of the physical kind that is…
It had only taken a few minutes upon hers and Migu’s arrival for Bai Qian to realize that everyone at the Mushroom Market knew she’d gone to Kunlun Mountain the day before. “Did you enjoy your visit, Gu Gu?… How was the mountain air, Gu Gu?… Did you meet the God of War, Gu Gu?” Luckily, none seemed aware that she’d been there all night.
There wasn’t anything Bai Qian needed to buy. She really did go just to get some fresh air to clear her brain fog, hoping the hustle and bustle of the Market would revive her. Knowing this, Migu had quickly excused himself saying he needed to pick up some honey for his larder. Bai Qian had smiled, knowing full well that her tree sprite had a cupboard full of honey jars already.
After taking the opportunity to briefly discuss the market accounts with Fenfang, Bai Qian had continued to stroll leisurely down the lanes. There was still time before Zhe Yan would come fetch her.
She wandered into the alley behind the main area. This was where the vendors stored their extra produce bins and baskets. As there were no stalls, it was generally quiet with no one there. The silence triggered her sleepiness however, and Bai Qian broke into a huge yawn.
Bai Qian started with a gasp. The rush of pressure in her ears from her yawn had suppressed her hearing so she hadn’t heard anyone come up behind. But even if the gruff voice hadn’t been enough to tell from, the musky smell of fur mixed with smoke, along with the scent of steamed fish, would have sufficed for her to know it was the Grey Wolf. His breaths were choppy. Had he run here?
“Gu Gu, I heard you were at market. I’ve been looking everywhere! Would you like me to prepare some extra fish to bring home with you? I would be happy to in case… in case you were going to be gone for an extended stay on Kunlun?”
This was the first time the Wolf had ever sought her out this way. Normally he just gave her fish when she passed by his stall. Bai Qian was surprised. If she hadn’t known better, she’d start to believe Zhe Yan’s teasing that the Grey Wolf was besotted with her. “There’s no need,” she laughed. “I’ve no plans to be away for any extended time.”
The Wolf grunted. “Oh? So will you be going bac–“
“GU GU!!!!!” interrupted a joyful cry from a ways behind her.
There was an awkward pause before the Wolf mumbled a hasty, “Have a good day, Gu Gu. I must return to my customers.” The whiff of smoky fur disappeared in a tingling of cloud-jumping mist.
Within seconds a familiar pair of small arms wrapped around the back of Bai Qian’s legs.
“Hello Jia.” She reached behind to pat a soft little head of hair. “Did you have a nice birthday?” she asked, turning around very carefully within the child’s embrace.
“Um-hmm, I played lots and lots and lots with my brothers and sisters! Everybody gave me presents and hugs! Even Delun!!”
The side of Jia’s head slid over and past Bai Qian’s hip as the child presumably took a peek behind her.
“Gu Gu, didn’t you bring your dragon back with you today?”
“Uh, Jia… Grandmaster Mo Yuan is not my dragon,” Bai Qian forced herself to laugh. “He is a very, very, VERY important god who lives on Kunlun Mountain. He wouldn’t come to a little place like our Mushroom Market.”
“Why not?” countered the voice of innocence. The little arms dropped from Bai Qian’s legs. “Don’t dragons have to buy things sometimes too? Where does he do his shopping?”
And now Bai Qian did genuinely laugh, imagining for a moment the deep, melodious voice of Mo Yuan haggling the price of beeswax candles or inquiring whether the loquats were ripe or not.
“I’ll tell you what, Jia,” a still laughing Bai Qian replied before thinking, “I’ll be sure to ask him when I see him tonight.”
“Yay, Gu Gu! Are you going to cuddle?”
Bai Qian’s laughter choked off in a mini coughing fit.
Oblivious to Bai Qian’s shock, Jia continued. “If you’re staying overnight you have to bring a present, Gu Gu,” the little rabbit said with utmost seriousness. “Mother always says to bring a hospy gift… a hospitly gift… a hosp–”
“A hospitality gift?” Bai Qian managed to squeak out.
“YES! A hopistalipy gift whenever I sleep over at a friend’s.”
Jia’s tiny hand had clasped Bai Qian’s. “Come on, Gu Gu!”
“Where are we going, Jia?” Bai Qian had asked as she’d been pulled forward.
“Don’t worry, Gu Gu! I’m going to help you get a hostalpipity gift for your dragon!”
Both pairs of footsteps approaching from behind her and Zhe Yan now were neither Mo Yuan’s, Die Feng’s, nor Chang Shan’s.
One set was heavy, slow, shuffling; as if the person walked with hesitant reluctance. The other pair held Bai Qian’s attention more. Closer they were, and closing in quickly. These footsteps were the opposite of the other, light of foot and swift. Was the person in a rush?
Wait. Are we being sneaked up upon? Bai Qian grabbed Zhe Yan’s arm and spun him around with her. The rushing footsteps came to an abrupt halt with a punctuated “hmph”.
“Well, good afternoon to you! Are we playing hide and seek now?” Zhe Yan said to whomever it was.
“You heard me coming,” a man’s reedy voice directed at Bai Qian. “But what if there’d been noise or you’d been distracted? Would you still have heard me then, hmm?” The man’s voice turned away. “What did I tell you Da Bao? Not good, not good. Not prudent at all.”
“What if I’d been an attacker?” was directed back at her again.
Bai Qian’s silk band scrunched upon the bridge of her nose as she scowled. Who was this rude brat? Surely not one of Mo Yuan’s men!!
“I am Zi Lan, Grandmaster Mo Yuan’s Sixteenth Disciple and with me is my Eleventh Brother, Da Bao,” the brat said as if reading her mind. At least he was conscientious enough to identify his companion. “Shifu asked me to escort you from the gate today since he couldn’t be here and I asked Da Bao to come along.”
The brat passed them and hastened through the gate without a word. The Eleventh Brother mumbled a faint “please follow us” as he lumbered past in an awkward rush, his footsteps speaking louder than he did.
“Huh,” Zhe Yan huffed under his breath. “Well, ok then, shall we?” His elbow gently bumped up against Bai Qian’s arm.
What did he mean ‘not good, not prudent’? An attacker?! Is he suggesting I’m helpless somehow? If Bai Qian hadn’t been grumpy and irritable enough before, she certainly was now. Ignoring Zhe Yan’s proffered elbow, she dropped her tails to sweep the ground before her as she went to catch up with Zi Lan the Sixteenth Brat.
But she halted with a jolt when a loud and imperious “STOP!” shouted out from behind them all.
“Uh oh,” Bai Qian heard the Eleventh Disciple say, followed by the brat hissing under his breath.
There was now the shuffling and murmuring of a group of people approaching the gate. Who were they?
“Well, well, the more the merrier, yes? It would seem there’ll be quite the gathering on Kunlun this evening,” Zhe Yan said cheerfully.
“And who, may I ask, are you?” replied a woman’s voice in a tone that could have frozen fire.
“Zi Lan,” The Eleventh Disciple’s terse whisper held none of the hesitancy from before. “Remain here with our guests. I will go and see if Shifu is back yet. If not, I will bring Die Feng.” And the Eleventh’s presence vanished as he must have cloud-jumped directly to the temple.”
Zhe Yan stepped forward towards the group. “I am the Phoenix of the Ten Mile Peach Tree Grove, Zhe Yan. And my lovely companion here is Bai Qian, the Nine-tailed Fox Goddess of Qing Qiu, and her royal highness, the Queen as well.”
Why was Zhe Yan talking that way? Why did he introduce her in that manner? Bai Qian knew her friend well enough to know something was up. Who was the ice woman who had addressed them?
“Lovely?” came the sniffed response amid a flurry of repeated whispers of “It’s the Blind Fox.”
“What is your business here with Mo Yuan?” the woman demanded.
“OUR business here,” Bai Qian interrupted Zhe Yan, taking a step forward to where the woman’s voice was, “is none of YOUR business.”
Shocked gasps erupted from within the group.
“Uh, Qian Qian,” Zhe Yan murmured.
The fur on Bai Qian’s tails began to stand on end from the magical charge in the air coming from the vicinity of the woman.
“Do you have any idea who I am… Blind Fox?” The woman’s voice dripped with disgust at those last two words. “I am the WHITE GODDESS!”
Mo Yuan had just gotten back from the Ninth Sky and was making his way across the main temple hall when the very foundation shook from the booming footfalls of his Eleventh running towards him.
“Da Bao! What is it?!”
“Shifu!!! I’ve been searching for you or First Brother everywhere! You must go to the gate quickly! It’s the White Goddess! She is there now… with the Lady Fox!!”
The purple-cheeked, heaving Giant didn’t even have time to blink before Mo Yuan vanished in a burst of mist.
⇛ Next part: 12(第十二章) The Drape of a Tail
⇚ Previous part: 10(第十章) Brothers in Arms