She had been magnificent.
Mo Yuan thought of an ancient adage he would do well to remember when it came to the Queen of Qing Qiu. Never assume.
Flawless in her execution of an aerial vault over Yao Guang, Bai Qian had effectively put herself out of direct harm’s way while she seized the advantage over an opponent taken off guard and off balance with a perfect disarming maneuver.
Had Da Bao found him but a few moments later, Mo Yuan would have missed it all. Then what would have remained to be seen? Just an upside down White Goddess rotating slowly like a tassel in the breeze, bloomers notwithstanding.
Mo Yuan had felt only a trace of magic from Bai Qian when she’d launched herself into the air. Otherwise, all her fighting had been done strictly with her body –and her fox tails. Her greatest weapon? Or were they her greatest vulnerability? He recalled some reference that the loss of even a single tail could prove fatal for a fox.
Fox magic. The stuff of realm legend, even for him. Ancient texts only vaguely alluded to its hidden aspects both mysterious and mystical. If Bai Qian had used but a light touch of it today, what was the full extent of her magic?
How powerful a being was Bai Qian?
Did it bother her to be referred to as the Blind Fox? From what he was beginning to know of Bai Qian, Mo Yuan thought not. His expression darkened. What about pathetic? Liability? Damaged?
Given what she just did to you, Yao Guang, you are the blind one if you didn’t see that Bai Qian is none of those.
Bai Qian had done him a great favour by playing along with his ruse. Yao Guang would no longer be troubling him. The arrogant, vain White Goddess wouldn’t dare breathe a word of what happened, nor her servants lest they face her full wrath. The last thing that woman would want to have known throughout the realm was how the “Blind Fox” had taken her down without even having broken into a sweat.
I owe you… Qian Qian.
Bai Qian’s fox tail on his shoulder was a soft, warm weight that bounced and swished in rhythm with his walking, touching the side of his neck with every step. Because she leaned against him, Mo Yuan had adjusted his gait so that she may comfortably match his stride. Bai Qian’s head was so close to his that her peach blossom scent was all he could smell at the moment.
Mo Yuan had yet to tell her they were well beyond the line of sight of the gates by now. Given the temper the Phoenix alluded to earlier, he didn’t wish to risk causing her offence by suddenly dropping his elbow and pulling away. So he remained quiet.
Besides, Bai Qian had been clutching his elbow tighter and leaning into him a little more the last few minutes. Feeling her shiver, Mo Yuan gently increased his body temperature to keep her as warm as he could without being obvious.
Add the fact she was ignoring the Phoenix… Mo Yuan decided it best to continue in this manner until Bai Qian withdrew herself.
“Qian Qian? Hellooo?? Are you not listening to me?”
Zhe Yan sighed.
“I do believe I’m talking to myself, Sixteenth Disciple Zi Lan.”
Why is Mo Yuan continuing to hold me?
Now that her nerves had settled and she could think clearly again, Bai Qian began to wonder, Are we not yet out of sight of the gate?
They’d been walking the way they were up the mountain path for long enough, no? The wailing and shocked voices from the White Goddess and her group had faded a while ago.
But then Bai Qian was aware that being out of earshot was not the same as being out of sight; that what a sighted person could see with their eyes sometimes extended much further than what their ears could hear. She had to assume that Mo Yuan continued to hold her because they were still visible from below and his hands would let go once they were in the clear.
Mo Yuan’s hands… Were they always this warm no matter the temperature? Was that part and parcel of being a dragon? Through the softer skin of the tops of her hands Bai Qian discerned once more the rough calluses of a practiced swordsman as well as those faint upon the pads of his fingers that marked Mo Yuan as a player of the guqin as well.
As the air grew chillier the higher they went, the heat of Mo Yuan’s body seeping through her cloak warmed her considerably, reminding her of the comfort of his hearth fire. And though by no means soft to lean upon, Mo Yuan’s muscled arm and broad shoulder were comfortable in their own way as well.
The loud, exaggerated harrumph of Zhe Yan clearing his throat finally drew her attention to her friend.
“What?!” Bai Qian snapped, continuing to lean on Mo Yuan. “Did you want me to wrap all my tails around him now?!”
“Why hello, Qian Qian!” Zhe Yan’s voice was cheery. If there was one thing Zhe Yan hated, it was being ignored.
“Qian Qian, I’ve been trying to ask, what in peach pits do you have packed in this bag of yours? Something hard keeps poking me and I’m thinking something may have broken when you dropped it. I should take a loo– Hey!!”
Pfffft!!! Zhe Yan sputtered and tossed his head at the onslaught of fox tail tips in his face, tail tips which quickly swept downwards in search of his hands.
Zi Lan, who’d nimbly jumped to the side to avoid the furry tentacles, watched in fascination as the fox tails swished across the Phoenix til one fell upon, then snatched, the bag straight out of the god’s grasp.
A look of extreme amusement appeared on the Phoenix’s face as he lightly clapped and rubbed his now empty hands together.
“Hmm, seems a little chillier today than yesterday, don’t you find?” Zhe Yan said to no one in particular.
Bai Qian stood clutching the bag to her chest. She knew very well that the hospitality gift Jia had chosen on her behalf could not have broken. Luminous pearl was tougher than that! But the last thing she wanted, after all that had happened today, was for Zhe Yan to pull it out here on the path and make a big fuss about it.
Then it hit her. Oh no, what have I done?! In her haste, and her temper, Bai Qian had shoved herself off of Mo Yuan without warning to be able to seize her bag before Zhe Yan opened it.
“I’m so sorry, Mo Yuan!” a mortified Bai Qian exclaimed. “Did I just ruin everything? Did the White Goddess see me push off of you?”
Mo Yuan sported an amused expression of his own as he straightened his sleeve and collar that were slightly askew.
“It’s fine. None other than us saw anything. No harm done,” he reassured her.
“Actually, we’ve been beyond view of the gate for a while now,” Zi Lan remarked offhandedly.
“Indeed, indeed, for quite a while now, Qian Qian. Goodness, I thought you already knew,” Zhe Yan said brightly.
Spreading all her tails over the ground before her, Bai Qian slung her bag across her shoulder and hurried ahead to hide her embarrassment and confusion.
Why hadn’t Mo Yuan said anything then? Maybe he worried he’d insult her by dropping his hand and disengaging himself abruptly? No need, she would have understood entirely.
The adrenaline rush she’d been riding since earlier gone, Bai Qian’s fatigue returned, only worse. With a soft groan, she rubbed her eyelids through her silk band only to feel it loose on her face. She certainly hadn’t tied it expecting to be facing a sword today!
Mo Yuan had no idea how lucky he’d been that it hadn’t fallen off like it had back in his garden. Had that White Goddess gotten the whole view of Bai Qian’s face, his little ruse would never have worked.
With a swift motion that was second nature, Bai Qian tightened the ends as she continued walking ahead of the others.
“Why do you wear a cloth bound across your eyes, Lady Bai?” Zi Lan asked, moving up alongside her. “Does it not fall off sometimes from sudden movements of your head?” Kunlun’s Sixteenth Disciple was direct, she’d give him that.
“It’s lucky for your Master that it hadn’t fallen off this time,” Bai Qian answered. “Or else his ruse would never hav–“
“That ruse of yours was absolutely brilliant, Mo Yuan!” Zhe Yan interrupted, cutting her words short.
“That stuck up swan never saw any of it coming! Ha! She’ll be flying away with her tail feathers between her legs, knowing she can’t hold a candle against the likes of Qian Qian!”
But Zi Lan persisted. “I don’t understand, Lady Bai. Why was it lucky your cloth hadn’t fallen off?” His question earned him a long, drawn out sigh from the Phoenix.
“It’s lucky for your Master,” she began again, stifling a yawn, “because otherwise the White Goddess would never have believed for a second that any man would have a “personal interest” in a woman the likes of me.”
And as if she’d said nothing more than remarked upon the weather, Bai Qian continued to walk.
Mo Yuan frowned at Bai Qian’s back.
Why wouldn’t a man have a personal interest in a woman ‘the likes of you’, Bai Qian?
Because of her blindness…
Did she believe the sight of her eyes unbearable to others? Mo Yuan had been correct then the first day when he’d surmised she didn’t need the cloth to protect her eyes. No. It was to block others from seeing hers. Her silk band served as a barrier of both the physical, and emotional, kind.
Mo Yuan was about to step forward and say something when the Phoenix caught his eye, shaking his head most emphatically. Don’t. The underlying message was clear to Mo Yuan, the sadness on Zhe Yan’s face speaking volumes.
Mo Yuan’s frown deepened but he did as the Phoenix wanted and didn’t say a word. Zi Lan fell silent as well.
It was thus a very quiet walk up the remainder of the mountain path until they reached the temple at the summit.
“The sun is almost set,” Zhe Yan said to Mo Yuan when they arrived at the steps of the temple entrance. “I best head directly to the garden, if you don’t mind.”
Mo Yuan nodded. “Yes, of course. I’ll have someone bring a dinner to you again.”
“I am much obliged. Uh, Qian Qian?”
Bai Qian had her arms crossed over her chest for warmth. “Hmm?”
“Sleep well. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” The Phoenix then left in an unusually faint whisper of cloud-jumping mist.
“You’re cold,” Mo Yuan said to Bai Qian.
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Just tired.” She rubbed her hands up and down her arms a little.
“Zi Lan, go to the kitchens and ask Chang Shan to bring some of his winter-spiced broth to my chamber for the Lady Bai, as well as a fresh pot of hot tea for me.”
“Yes, Shifu.” Turning to leave, Zi Lan paused then spun back round.
“Lady Bai, I… I owe you an apology. Your fighting technique today was most ingenious and effective. I had judged your capabilities based on assumption rather than fact. You are by no means defenseless and I’m sorry for my hasty conclusions. You cannot see me do it, but I hope you will accept my bow of respect nonetheless.”
And with arms stretched forward and hands clasped, Zi Lan bowed low to her.
For the first time that day, Mo Yuan saw a smile appear on Bai Qian’s face.
He looked proudly on at his young Sixteenth Disciple as the latter headed off briskly towards the kitchens now. Zi Lan may have been the hot head of the Brothers, but as fast as he was in his reactions, he was just as fast to recognize when he was wrong and address his mistakes.
Sitting across from Bai Qian once again at the table they dined upon last night, Mo Yuan sipped his tea and watched her complexion gradually return to normal while she drank the broth.
Chang Shan’s winter-spiced broth was known for warming one’s bones with but a few sips.
“I do hope what the Phoenix said before wasn’t true… That something in your bag was broken?”
Mo Yuan had brought it up to make polite conversation, but seeing her bite down on her lower lip and her cheeks redden, it seemed he’d hit upon something significant. His curiosity surged to the fore.
“Promise you won’t laugh?” Bai Qian asked.
Mo Yuan leaned forward on his elbows. Oh, now he was really, really curious.
“I believe that would be High God Zhe Yan’s role, no?”
Bai Qian laughed as he’d meant her to. “You know, Simply Mo Yuan, if you’d like to have a little fun at his expense for once, may I propose you address him directly as Zhe Yan? He would probably moult on the spot from the shock of it.”
“I’ll take that under serious consideration,” Mo Yuan said with a smile on his face and in his voice.
“So, what is it I’m not supposed to laugh at? I confess you’ve piqued my curiosity, Bai Qian.”
With obvious trepidation and a small sigh, Bai Qian reached down for her bag beside her. Bringing it to her lap, she pulled open its drawstring and reached inside.
“I have a little friend back in Qing Qiu,” Bai Qian began hesitantly, “who chided me for not having…”
Bai Qian cleared her throat, fingers fidgeting with the bag’s drawstring.
“Mo Yuan, would you…” Her words trailed off once more. “Ugh.”
Taking a deep inhale, Bai Qian breathily rushed, “In order to thank you for your kind hospitality, offering to put Zhe Yan and myself up… putting up with Zhe Yan frankly… for maybe a month’s time, would you accept a small token of appreciation? It’s a hospitality gift on behalf of myself and Qing Qiu.” Bai Qian withdrew an object from her bag and placed it on the table between them.
Mo Yuan stared at the…hospitality gift… before him.
“It was carved by one of the artisans of the Mushroom Market. It’s made from luminous pearl found in Qing Qiu’s lake waters.”
A small golden dragon no bigger than his fist sat in the centre of the table. Its tail that served as a base was coiled in such an impossible way that it nearly had Mo Yuan wincing in sympathetic phantom pain. The dragon’s head was two sizes too large for its body and its claws too small to scratch a flea but what captured and held Mo Yuan’s attention and marvel was the heart? lodged in the dragon’s chest. It was a pink crystal shaped in a peach blossom.
“It was Jia who instructed Lu Tang what to carve. She had me sit on a stool and placed her hands tightly over my ears so she could whisper to Lu-tang without my hearing. Jia said they added a “special touch” but that it was a secret. Lu-tang promised me there was nothing untoward however.”
Despite the dragon’s misshapen form, the luminous pearl it was made of shone a rich gold in Mo Yuan’s fire lit chamber. The pink crystal of its peach blossom heart caught the light as radiantly as any beautiful rare gem would.
Bai Qian gave a nervous laugh. “Uh, please don’t be offended, Mo Yuan. To be honest, no dragon has ever been to Qing Qiu. But Jia and Lu Tang did assure me the pearl was truly golden in colour!”
She had equated his silence with disapproval. Nonetheless, Mo Yuan took another moment to compose himself before he spoke.
“Bai Qian, this is the first time I have ever been honoured with such a unique and… heartfelt… hospitality gift. This is no small token of appreciation at all. It is with great pleasure that I accept it, and if I may, keep it among my collection of realm art?”
“Really? Oh, Jia will be thrilled.” A visibly relieved Bai Qian dropped back in her seat and rubbed at her eyelids again. Mo Yuan noticed the silk band loosening but made no comment. If she’s so tired she can’t feel it herself, I’m not going to call attention to it and embarrass her.
“Please tell your young friend, Jia, that I especially like the special touch added.”
“You’re not going to tell me what it is either, are you?” Bai Qian stifled a yawn behind her hand.
“If she didn’t, then neither will I.”
“Fine, fine… you… and Jia can… keep… your secret.” Bai Qian’s voice grew softer as her words slurred a little. She rubbed at her eyelids once again.
Rising from the table, Mo Yuan picked up the dragon and held it in his hand. He was aware of the unique properties of luminous pearl. The glow emitted had a dampening effect. He’d learned this from Bai Qian’s father when he’d had his guqin commissioned. The Fox King had told him he preferred using luminous pearl to make a guqin’s harmonic markers because of how it buffered vibration, adding a richer sounding tone to any note being played.
Making his way to a wide shelf near his desk, Mo Yuan glanced at the assortment of art pieces bestowed upon him over the ages; priceless treasures of gold, jade, and gem. With a wave of his hand, he cleared a large space right in the middle and forefront of the display, whereupon he placed the little dragon. It was awkwardly carved and looked more like the toy of a child, but it was the most wondrous gift Mo Yuan had ever received.
“Bai Qian,” he said, turning towards her. “Perhaps someday I might…”
There was no point in finishing what he’d been about to say.
Her head resting on her hand upon the table, Bai Qian was fast asleep with the hearth fire casting a warm glow across her face, brows, and eyelids. Her silk band had fallen off, no doubt from the side of her head having rubbed against her hand. Glancing down at the floor, Mo Yuan saw it crumpled by her chair.
With light steps, he made his way to Bai Qian’s side.
Crouching down, Mo Yuan picked up her band and rubbed its silken surface between his thumb and forefinger as he quietly gazed at Bai Qian’s sleeping face. Carefully folding the cloth, he gently tucked its edge under her hand where her cheek rested.
That the side of his finger lightly brushed against her eyelashes as he drew his hand away was purely accidental.
⇛ Next part: 14(第十四章) The Love of a Phoenix
⇚ Previous part: 12(第十二章) The Drape of a Tail