Tucking an arm behind his head, Zhe Yan leaned back against the grassy knoll with a long stalk sticking out the corner of his mouth. With his other arm, he reached towards the sky, splaying his fingers open against the backdrop of stars. The crisp, cold air atop the mountain made for a stunning clear view of the starlit night and a part of Zhe Yan felt a little envious of the Dragon.
But never would he consider moving away from his Peach Grove. No, Zhe Yan loved his home. Besides, he could always perch himself upon a high enough branch to stargaze from there whenever he wanted to. And nothing stopped him from skylarking on occasion in his true form, to soar up into the air and touch the sky himself. For that was something a phoenix and a dragon had in common, was it not, being drawn to the currents of the sky? Both could fly with wind and with flame as both were creatures of light.
How was Bai Qian feeling right now? Zhe Yan knew she was exhausted given her short temper this afternoon but he’d also noted her slight pallor and the way the chill affected her more than it should have on their way up the Mountain. Waking up at dawn was simply not a fox thing to do. And the fight had taken whatever energy she’d had in reserve. No, that’s not right. Calling it a fight would have given some credit to the White Goddess who’d never got to do more than extend a sword. Zhe Yan chuckled. The fool got what she deserved.
Hopefully the Dragon was making sure Bai Qian kept warm. Zhe Yan had immediately sensed when Mo Yuan used his essence to increase his body temperature, for what other reason than for Qian Qian? She never noticed… another sign to Zhe Yan that his usually sensory-astute friend was feeling out of sorts.
Yes, phoenixes and dragons were alike in many respects yet different as well. As bright and as brilliant a fire Zhe Yan knew his essence was, the Dragon’s was just as much so, and more, if Zhe Yan were honest. The Dragon was a hunter after all, a fighter, whose powers could protect against and vanquish evil… and could kill.
And therein lay the difference. Zhe Yan could protect, heal, and defend. But extinguish a life? Zhe Yan was a lover not a fighter.
He paid no heed to the cold himself. Zhe Yan had his own way of dealing with it. The young Kunlun apprentice who’d brought him dinner earlier had stared openmouthed and wide-eyed at the blue and orange flame-engulfed Phoenix who’d simply smiled at him and told the boy not to bother coming back for the dishes. Zhe Yan would take care of it himself.
He did find himself wishing he’d brought a jug or two of his peach wine just to warm his belly from the inside a little though. He’d almost summoned a couple with his magic but changed his mind. Using magic on food or drink invariably affected its taste. Next time...
After finishing his meal, Zhe Yan had amused himself for a while creating shapes out of the condensation of his breath. First, a stunningly good-looking phoenix who majestically soared upwards with sparkling wings and long, curly tail feathers that sizzled and smoked. Then he created a nine-tailed fox that dashed upwards with fluffy tails billowing behind her, only to be followed by a dragon who spiralled after her with claws extended and jaws opened wide in a silent roar.
Both arms tucked back behind his head now, Zhe Yan gazed up at the stars. Each one its own sun casting light upon worlds beyond, light Zhe Yan had sworn long ago he would have Bai Qian see one day. Qian Qian… his best friend.
His only friend.
Zhe Yan was much older than Bai Qian –much, much older. Of course, he never admitted his true age to anyone. Why, when he looked so fabulous for his years? Ha!
And as the Phoenix continued to gaze into the vault of night, he recalled the first time he met Bai Qian.
The Phoenix god of the Peach Tree Grove had always enjoyed a cordial relationship with the Fox Den, neighbours as they were. The Fox King and his wife would take strolls through the Grove occasionally and stop by to chat with him. The Fox King always inquired after Zhe Yan’s peaches and wine-making, and Zhe Yan always asked after the Lady’s health and any new musical instruments the Fox King may have been making. Never was there talk of realm statecraft. That was something they shared, a profound dislike for politics.
During the later part of Queen Ying Yue’s pregnancy, the couple took more frequent walks through the Grove, the Queen saying with a smile that it was one of the few things that brought some relief to her aching back. They were being followed by a renowned midwife from Donghai, a midwife in the service of royal families for millennia. Zhe Yan knew how anxious and excited they were to be expecting their first child.
Zhe Yan had been away the day Queen Ying Yue had gone into labour and died giving birth. And a part of him always wondered if there were anything he could have done to save her had he been there. He’d only learned some time afterwards that the baby girl had been born blind. He’d tried to visit the Fox King to offer his condolences but a devastated Bai Zhi had refused any and all visitors at that time, basically keeping to himself and raising his daughter alone for those first few years.
So Zhe Yan had been very surprised years later when one day the reclusive Fox King paid him a visit out of the blue. He’d come to ask Zhe Yan if the Phoenix minded if his daughter were to play in a certain section of his grove, that closest to the Den. The Fox King knew Zhe Yan’s forest would be a safe haven for the child to play in. He wished for Bai Qian to learn how to navigate the outdoors on her own using her tails. Would the Phoenix mind? ‘Not at all,’ Zhe Yan had said happily. And though he knew it kind of defeated the purpose, Zhe Yan couldn’t help but clear away the less obvious rocks or slightly exposed tree roots from that part of the Grove that night. Until the girl better learned to be able to use her tails to avoid obstacles, he’d justified to himself.
He knew the Fox King’s daughter went to play in his grove every day after that. Zhe Yan would laugh when he found peach pits scattered here, there, and everywhere. The child did love to eat the peaches! And the fact she was climbing the trees to reach them impressed him much. Or was she using her tails to knock them down? Curious though Zhe Yan was, he kept away, not wishing to startle the child by happening upon her unawares.
Of course, it ended up being Qian Qian who’d startled him first instead.
Zhe Yan would always remember the day the little girl showed up inside his home, sneaking up silently upon him from behind while he was concentrating on writing some notes in a medical text he’d been working on.
“Hello,” a young voice spoke just behind him.
Paper, brush, and ink went flying from his hands as he bolted up from his seat and spun around.
A young girl stood there barefoot with peach tree leaves and blossom petals stuck to her dirt-smudged blue dress and her crooked braids… ah, so she did climb the trees… Tilting her head with a deep look of concentration on her face, she crossed her arms over her chest. “That sounded like it’s going to be a BIG mess to clean.” She shook her head in dismay while her small white tails billowed behind her. The girl’s pretty chestnut-coloured eyes gleamed from the candlelight from his wall sconces… gleamed but not focused.
Back then, Bai Qian hadn’t worn a silk band to cover her eyes. That had come later.
The little fox princess, oblivious to the near heart attack she’d given the Phoenix, asked him very politely if he please wouldn’t mind putting back the rocks and the roots she suspected he’d taken away from where she played, or else she couldn’t practice moving about like her father wanted her to. So thunderstruck Zhe Yan had been, he’d actually sniffed the air in case his feathers had been singed. The fact the girl had been able to tell he’d done what he did… No! Nevermind that! The fact she had safely navigated through the Grove and found with apparent ease his home in the heart of it had Zhe Yan bursting out laughing from the irony!
Bai Qian had blinked. “I like the sound of your laughter, Master Zhe Yan. It tickles my ears and makes me feel happy. Migu laughs with me sometimes. But Father rarely does.” With that they both fell quiet for some moments, but then, as if coming to a decision on the spot, Bai Qian had straightened her shoulders and said with an air of utmost seriousness, “Migu told me you always wear lots and lots of colours so I would like to ask for your help, if you please, Master Zhe Yan.”
Zhe Yan had regarded the precocious child with a serious air as well. And in a quiet tone told her, “It might depend on the colour, Princess Bai. Some people don’t like my choice of colours, nor appreciate the ones that I do.”
The little fox girl had stood there silently processing what he’d said, then proceeded to tell Zhe Yan that he was being silly to think that. All colours could be found in a rainbow, no? And her father had told her that rainbows were very beautiful and were what made the sky happy again after it cried with rain. Then she laughed and told Zhe Yan he had to call her Qian Qian if they were going to be best friends, which she decided they should be right now, since she wanted him to teach her all about clothing and colours.
And they’d been best friends ever since.
Bai Qian, who’d always accepted him as he was, who’d never judged him or mocked his eccentricities, or criticized his taste in colours, or personal preferences… Who always laughed along with him and always smiled at his jokes, who once she was old enough shared his love of peach wine and never, ever told him how lonely she was, though he knew it. It was something they both shared after all.
He would always be her best friend and loved her dearly in his own way, but there was a certain… affection… he could never give her.
It broke his heart to know his best friend truly believed herself undesirable given her eyes. As Zhe Yan watched Qian Qian grow from an inquisitive, intelligent, pretty girl to an inquisitive, intelligent, breathtakingly beautiful woman, he couldn’t understand what was wrong with the men of this realm!
Zhe Yan’s expression hardened as he recalled the White Goddess’ words to Bai Qian… damaged… pathetic… liability. But it was true that over the years, even though she was of age and of royal status, no invitation to any court nor any male suitor ever came to the Fox Den. Zhe Yan hated them all. He wished he could take every one of them and slap some sense into them so they could see that they were the blind ones, not her.
He hated the name “Blind Fox”.
Bai Qian didn’t let it bother her but it bothered Zhe Yan, a lot, each and every time he heard it. But the way Bai Qian had handled the confrontation today was much better than anything he could ever have done. Zhe Yan would have probably challenged the woman to a drinking contest. He was no fighter. Bai Qian was. As was the God of War, of course.
The way the Dragon had spoken down to the White Goddess, using her derogatory words to Bai Qian against her! The Dragon’s ruse had been brilliant but more importantly showed that, even if it was a ruse, Mo Yuan considered Bai Qian a believable choice to be worthy of a god’s attention such as his. The Phoenix had been watching closely how Mo Yuan treated Bai Qian since the beginning. Mo Yuan had only ever looked upon Bai Qian with respect or even a smile–yes, Zhe Yan had caught those too. Never once had the Dragon looked upon her with pity or revulsion.
Perhaps Zhe Yan was so accustomed to the way outsiders “saw” Bai Qian that he’d jumped to the wrong conclusion when suspicious of Mo Yuan giving them permission to stay on Kunlun so Zhe Yan could study the flower.
Taking his eyes off the stars, Zhe Yan glanced down to his left.
The moon orchid cast a halo upon the grass surrounding it; for all intents and purposes –and all Bai Qian needed to know– simply a flower that glowed silver.
In all the years Zhe Yan had been trying to find a cure for Bai Qian’s blindness, what had stymied him the most had been not knowing the exact circumstances of Bai Qian’s birth. Zhe Yan had initially wanted to investigate any possible genetic component involved, not that he’d ever heard or read of blindness in a fox before. But the only thing Qian Qian knew and confided in him once, after so many jugs of wine drunk together one summer night, was that her mother had sacrificed herself so that she may live; that was all her father had told her.
Zhe Yan had then tried, only the once, to broach the subject with the Fox King. Never again. It was the one and only time he’d seen Bai Zhi angry at him, shutting him down completely by coldly stating that Bai Qian’s mother had died in childbirth and perhaps it best if the Phoenix minded his own damn business in that regard.
But Zhe Yan, being Zhe Yan, would not let it go. He sensed that there was something more and was determined to find out what. And while Bai Qian knew Zhe Yan had questions about the cause of her blindness, what she didn’t know was to what extent Zhe Yan had gone to seek answers to them.
Adamant to know about the circumstances of Bai Qian’s birth, Zhe Yan had sought the only other being who’d been there. But finding the midwife who’d delivered Bai Qian had proven quite the challenge. For he’d discovered that the midwife of Donghai had left the East Sea Kingdom long ago and no one knew where she’d gone. It had taken a random encounter with a family of storks for him to learn of a young midwife who lived with her family — and elderly mother– in a cottage near the Coral Cove off the coast of the Southern Sea.
Zhe Yan smiled as he recalled the reception he’d received when he came to the door of an unassuming cottage tucked away on a beach. Who must have been the midwife’s granddaughter, a little girl younger than Bai Qian had been when he’d first met her, opened the door. Zhe Yan had politely introduced himself to the child as the Feathery Phoenix God of Sweet Peaches and would her grandmother happen to be home, please? The giggling girl had asked him to wait a moment.
“Well, don’t just stand there like a crane,” came a sharp voice a few moments later from within the cottage. “Enter. You’re letting in a draft.”
An amused Zhe Yan had entered the quaint cottage whose walls were adorned with coral and sea glass. The furnishings were simple and well kept.
In a far corner of the main room sat a wizened old woman in a rocking chair in the shape of a seahorse. She wore bright periwinkle-coloured robes. The tiny woman’s hair was white, held back by a scarf adorned with seashells. But despite the sagging skin and spots of age upon her face, the sea green eyes fixated on Zhe Yan were sharp and clear, the intelligence behind them evident.
“Ning, please fetch some tea for my guest.”
“Well, take a seat, god of sweet peaches.” The woman gave an amused chortle as she gestured with her chin to the chair opposite her. “My name is Qiaolian. And what may yours be?” Zhe Yan took an immediate liking to this woman as he sat down. Direct she was. Maybe today he would finally get the answers he’d sought for so long. He told her who he was and where he was from.
“I’ve heard of the Peach Tree Grove,” Qiaolian said. “It abuts Qing Qiu, does it not?”
Zhe Yan nodded as he accepted a steaming cup of tea from her young granddaughter with a smile.
“Ning, could you please go to the beach and collect some red seaweed for me, little sea snail? I’m running out.”
With a shy smile of parting at the Phoenix, the girl left.
Qiaolian sat back in her chair. Her body shook slightly with the tremors of age.
“How fares the Fox King’s daughter?” she asked.
Yes, direct, and to the point.
“Bai Qian fares well, madam, other than her blindness despite the normal appearance of her eyes. She is my best friend and I have been trying to find some way to treat her condition which I…” Zhe Yan’s voice trailed off.
“Which you don’t believe is congenital.”
Zhe Yan slowly nodded.
Qiaolian’s brow furrowed as her mouth turned grim. “By the will of Fate was I able to assist in the births of thousands of babies during my day. Not all who are born nor all who deliver live, Phoenix, and that is the will of Fate as well; one every midwife must abide with and move on from. However, the Fox King and his doomed wife… that birth has haunted me every day since.”
Sea green eyes grew shrewd.
“It could not have been easy to find me. I retired from midwifery after that very day. And I made a point of moving my home and changing my name too. Yet I knew someday someone would seek me out about the Fox King’s daughter. What I had no way of knowing was whether that person would mean me harm or not for what I know. How better could Fate have reassured me then by sending none other than a phoenix.”
“Qian, did he name her?” Qiaolian started rocking back in her chair. “If it’s the character I assume then it was a good choice. ‘Lightness’ would serve her well. She is your best friend, you say? Then she is lucky to have a phoenix by her side.”
Qiaolian drew in a long, deep breath, then continued without preamble. She knew what Zhe Yan wished to know.
“The amniotic fluid was pitch black and most foul, yet when I swept the baby with my magic everything seemed perfectly sound… except for her sightless eyes. How could a baby have lived in such a womb thus filled?” Qiaolian rubbed her forehead and sighed. “I will tell you what I believe, Phoenix Zhe Yan. I believe that the fluid had been meant to kill the mother, had she not taken her own life so swiftly by stabbing herself in the heart with the King’s dagger.”
A stunned Zhe Yan blinked, Oh Qian Qian…
Bai Zhi had never told his daughter that, of this Zhe Yan was certain. Bai Qian didn’t know her mother had stabbed herself in the heart with a dagger. It explained a lot.
“The females of my house have always practised midwifery. My mother taught me as her mother had taught her. I have taught my daughter who is at a birthing in the North Channel right now. There are stories passed down, Phoenix Zhe Yan, of women so desperate to conceive they turn to certain… arts… to get pregnant. Do you understand of what I speak?”
“Yes,” a suddenly chilled Zhe Yan whispered. Black arts.
“As I said, I believe the fluid was poisoned in a way that would have killed Queen Ying Yue once the baby was born,” the old midwife went on. “I often wonder what would have happened had I tried to purge the womb as I’d proposed when I realized the mother would die.”
The black spell would have prevented it, thought Zhe Yan.
Qiaolian’s eyes locked onto Zhe Yan as if reading his mind. “No, I don’t believe I would have been able to do it either. The baby had been meant to live, the mother not. As to why the child was made blind…”
“You believe it was intentional,” Zhe Yan said.
“Mmm,” Qiaolian murmured. “I can’t be sure. But the way Queen Ying Yue had looked at me, pleaded with me with her eyes. What could I possibly say to the devastated Fox King afterwards? Your wife paid the ultimate price for her deal with the darkness and your child is tainted by such?”
“You removed all traces of the amniotic fluid at the time?” Zhe Yan kept his voice neutral. If he could get hold of some trace of it, even after all these years, he could discover much.
“The moment the Queen died, whatever power was in the fluid vanished. And my magic that had been thwarted from the start finally worked unimpeded. I cleansed the mother, the bedding, and the infant of all traces of the foul liquid.”
Qiaolian grew quiet as she rocked in her chair. “She’d begged me with her eyes… Queen Ying Yue knew that I knew what she’d done. Our greatest tenet, Phoenix Zhe Yan, is that all new life is sacred. But we also hold that a mother’s wishes be honoured as well. As her silent plea to me was made upon her deathbed, I had no choice but to keep the Fox Queen’s secret for her. I have struggled with it all my life since.”
“Then why tell me all now?” Zhe Yan asked.
“There are no coincidences. Fate sent you here so that I may tell you what you need to know. Why else send a phoenix to my humble door?”
“I’m going to find out what was done and why, and I will help Bai Qian,” Zhe Yan said.
“Then you best be most wary, Phoenix. It takes a most dark and powerful magic to have done what was done. And as powerful as you are too, your magic is of the light and life. The evil taint was left by one your opposite, in darkness and death.”
“Bai Qian is a kind and loving being! She is a fighter who doesn’t let her blindness stop her from living her life. Her soul is untainted. I would vouch my own in that respect,” Zhe Yan insisted.
“You love her,” Qiaolian said quietly.
“She is my best friend.”
“Consider then that what you seek, Phoenix Zhe Yan, is likely not a cure for her blindness but a defence against the forces of black magic that caused it. Which for Bai Qian may be one and the same.”
“I confess I am not well-versed in the black arts,” Zhe Yan replied.
The old woman waved Zhe Yan’s hand off when she struggled to rise from her chair. Hobbling forward, she went to a small wooden dresser and pulled open a drawer from which she withdrew a thin book. “You may find something of use to you in here.”
Qiaolian set the book upon a table. Flipping through the pages, she stopped on a certain page.
Zhe Yan rose and walked over to her side.
On the page Qiaolian marked with her finger was an image of a flower. An orchid of some kind? Lines were sketched radiating out from it. A light? Some kind of magical force? Above the orchid were drawn the four main phases of the moon. Written in ancient verse below the flower was Silver Moon Orchid. An orchid indeed.
“The light of which could serve to illuminate the darkness,” Qiaolian translated aloud.
“Silver is a lunar metal, a reflector of light,” she explained. “It cleanses as it removes negative energy and purifies as well. It’s best wielded by the hands of those with a deep emotional nature or those who already manipulate the magic of light.”
“A means to combat black magic?” Zhe Yan quickly surmised from the description. Qiaolian didn’t answer at first.
“Perhaps,” she admitted finally. “My great grandmother, the first of our line, was a sea witch who never practised the black arts yet knew of them. She chose the path of life instead, bestowing upon her descendants the knowledge and the magic to help birth light into the world. She never said precisely what the orchid could do. She only told me as a child that it was a flower sown by moonbeams and carried by dragons.”
“Rather cryptic, she was.”
Qiaolian gave a wry chuckle. “Maddeningly so at times. But looking back upon it now from the very pinnacle of youth I’m at now –for I am older now than she was at the time– I realize she feared we would seek out the flower and thus seek out death.”
“And where, pray tell, may I find this silver moon orchid?” Zhe Yan asked.
Qiaolian had shrugged. “The First Immortal’s garden.”
“The First Immortal’s garden?!”
“That’s what my great grandmother had said. That it was actually a flower created by Heavenly Mother to serve as a light in the darkness for her infant son. When she perished in the Great Collapse, Heavenly Father had had all her flowers planted on Kunlun Mountain for his son.”
The God of War Mo Yuan…
“Bai Qian was born blind yet her eyes appear fine, you say. The question to ask now, Phoenix Zhe Yan, is whether her vision is darkened from an absence of light from within, or from without.”
“Rather cryptic you are, as well,” Zhe Yan had observed.
Zhe Yan stroked a petal of the silver moon orchid beside him now. Yes, he had lied to Bai Qian and Mo Yuan about how and where he’d found the information about the flower, and lied about what it was purported to do. He’d borrowed some of Qiaolian’s great-grandmother’s references to spin his tale about finding the flower in a children’s story. Zhe Yan liked children’s stories. They always had happy endings, didn’t they?
The orchid’s silvery glow spiked then lessened when Zhe Yan’s fingers lightly brushed its petals. Its silvery shimmer sank into his fingertips as he absorbed its light into himself. He only did it for a few minutes before pulling his hand back. It had to be done gradually so as not to arouse suspicion. And as it had just been a full moon before they’d come, Zhe Yan would take a little each night as he could, knowing the glow would increase as the cycle progressed.
With a snap of his fingers, a silver spark burst forth from their tips.
The dark of blindness… or the dark of magic… two sides of the same coin?
Engulfing himself in blue and orange flame once more, Zhe Yan curled onto his side and closed his eyes to sleep.
巧莲 (Qiaolian) skillful always
宁 (Ning) tranquility
⇛ Next part: 15(第十五章) Bai Qian’s Song
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