Bai Qian made her way quietly between the peach trees. The cool feel of the grass beneath her paws a contrast to the warm caress of sunlight upon her fur. The pair of tails she stretched ahead of her swept the ground while she kept her other seven loosely fanned out beside and above her.
Her nose twitched as she tested the breeze; the long, delicate strands along her muzzle always vibrating to the shifting refrain of the air. An occasional bee buzzing by or bird fluttering overhead would sometimes add their notes, but it was mostly the whispered movements of the wind that played along her whiskers.
She nimbly hopped over exposed roots and skirted around shrubs. Bounding onto, then leaping off, the large rocks in her way gave her a quick thrill of soaring into the sky.
But the loud rumble from her stomach brought her back to earth.
All the fresh air and playful exploring so far today had made her quite hungry. Pausing a moment, she shook herself out and shifted into her human form. Barefoot in a pastel yellow dress with tails now behind her, Bai Qian started walking back the way she’d come towards home. But having already committed to memory all the low-lying obstacles along this way, she decided to give her tails a rest and tucked them in.
Raising her arms at just a slight angle, she made her way along, taking note of each time the warmth vanished from the top of her head and the back of her hands, only to return after a moment; indicating she’d passed through a shadow cast by branches or perhaps a moving cloud above.
Bai Qian loved the sunlight. Though she’d never seen it, she could feel its touch upon her eyes nonetheless when she opened them to it. The sensation had always made her wonder if this was what it felt like to have an image fill one’s sight.
From her lessons, she knew that sunlight was what stirred the atmosphere, moving the air to create the winds and drive the currents.
Maybe that was why midday strolls were always her favourite. The scents and flavours stirred by the sun in the air were at their strongest at this high point of the day. For sunlight changed the scent of everything around Bai Qian… the aromatic, the fragrant, the earthy, the floral… all became much, much deeper and enhanced under it.
And the sounds it brought forth enchanted her as well.
Sunlight was what made her beloved peach blossoms rustle open. It was what launched the dawn chorus of the birds, the mild hiss of the dew evaporating, the distant clamouring of the merchants and vendors setting up at the Market, the fluttering of butterflies, the clatter of pots and dishes as Migu or her father made breakfast, the chittering of the squirrels… on and on it went.
Sunlight was what made the air sing to Bai Qian’s ears, filling it with the music of life.
Bold and gentle, intense yet soft; it conducted its symphony upon the living world from dawn til dusk.
When she was little, her father had told her that sunset was when the sun yawned then stretched out its rays before going to bed. ‘And sunrise?’ she’d asked him. Well, sunrise was like her. ‘Me?!’ –‘Yes,’ her father had replied with a rare burst of laughter, ‘like a mischievous little fox reluctant to wake but once she does, her fuzzy head pops up from beneath the edge of her night blanket then flings it off, hair and tails radiating in all directions and there’s no stopping her as she blazes through the day!’
With a drowsy smile, Bai Qian burrowed deeper under her blanket. The sunlight streaming across her now was certainly making the heat of its presence felt. The way it flavoured the air around her, she was well-nigh basking in it! She must have really slept in late this time. The intensity was like that of midday.
Rolling over, she tried to ignore it and go back to sleep by curling her knees up to her middle and wrapping her tails more snugly around her. I don’t want to get out of bed yet. I–
Bai Qian came fully awake in a rush. The blanket upon her slipped from her shoulders as she sat bolt upright.
Where am I? No longer in Mo Yuan’s chamber she realized. Her hands ran along the soft mattress beneath her. She recognized its texture and dimensions from the night before. I am back in the guest chamber. But how did I get here?
She remembered being seated at the table in Mo Yuan’s chamber, finishing her broth. She’d given him the little pearl dragon which he asked if he could place in his collection of realm art… then something about keeping Jia’s secret… then an exhausted blur of sound… then, nothing.
But none of that was what truly preoccupied her at the moment. It was the scent that engulfed her now, blanketing her, soaked as it was into her very clothes, hair, and skin that held Bai Qian in wonder.
A heady aroma, a creamy musk. Evoking hot summer afternoons and crisp, cool dawns and sultry dusks. Burning both hot and cold, radiating off sand and snow. It was the one to flavour the wind, to ripen the peaches. The one that led her through the pathways of the trees by its caress on her skin. That elusive scent of a dragon, her dream had finally revealed.
Mo Yuan’s scent was that of sunlight to her.
Bold and gentle, intense yet soft… Yes, that was what Mo Yuan was.
She was still wearing her cloak and her boots. Ugh, I must have fallen asleep at Mo Yuan’s table. Her father, Migu, but especially Zhe Yan, teased her often enough about how she could fall asleep anywhere and sleep through anything.
How did she get here though? Had Zhe Yan come and gotten her? She somehow suspected it hadn’t been her best friend; not by the blanket that her fingers now gently ran along, the bodily scent of its owner infused in every fibre. And thus my dream.
Bai Qian touched the bridge of her nose with her fingertips. Her silk band was off and the skin there was a little sensitive, as if it had rubbed against something rough, or bristly, like a beard.
She knew now.
Mo Yuan carried me here…
…in his blanket.
Bai Qian bit back a groan, feeling her cheeks redden. Why hadn’t Mo Yuan shaken her awake instead? Goodness knows Zhe Yan did it often enough, delighting in her grumpy reactions!
If Mo Yuan hadn’t wanted to wake her, why not have just left her at the table instead? And then what, Qian? He’d sit across from you to watch and listen to you snore? Or worse, go to sleep in his bed for the night? No, he wouldn’t have done that. Bai Qian was certain given what she’d come to know of him.
What time was it? Was it still night?
The candles in the guest chamber had been put out. The smoky wax smell created by extinguished wicks was a most familiar one to her. Bai Qian tilted her head to listen. All was still and silent in the immediate vicinity of the chamber; no faint echoes of voices or footsteps anywhere. And since Zhe Yan had yet to make an appearance, she had to surmise it was still night. She should just go back to sleep. Any embarrassing apologies to deal with could wait til morning.
But her stomach protested with a loud rumble, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten a meal since the morning of the previous day, Chang Shan’s broth notwithstanding.
Bai Qian sighed. There was no falling back to sleep anyway. She was too wide awake with a now tingling nose, a hungry stomach, and the scent of a dragon upon her.
Where’s my silk band?
She felt for the bed table and found her travel bag. Mo Yuan must have brought it along. Tucked beneath was her silk band which meant he’d seen her eyelids uncovered once again. Bai Qian slowly opened her eyes. The air stung a little with its chill so she closed them again.
If she’d been home at the Fox Den, she would have headed to the kitchen and prepared something to eat. Bai Qian’s stomach went from a rumble to a growl. Hmm, what about the kitchens here? Surely there had to be a larder where she could find something to eat, just something small to tie her over until morning.
Smoothing out her hair with her hands, Bai Qian grabbed her silk band and tied it on. Though she could hope not to encounter anyone there or along the way, she’d rather not take the chance.
It was only when she went to rise from the bed that she realized she still had Mo Yuan’s blanket on her. With a fiery rush of heat in her face now, she flung the blanket off and sprang out of bed.
Bai Qian oriented herself towards the door, at least, where it had been yesterday. Unless someone had carried that off somewhere else too while she slept? Luckily, it remained to be found 10 paces away from the foot of the bed as it had been before.
Out in the corridor, Bai Qian hesitated.
She should have paid better attention that first day when Mo Yuan had led her and Zhe Yan from the reception hall to his chamber. But why would she have considered memorizing every detail along the way? Never did she imagine she’d be spending her nights here!
The only direction Bai Qian knew with some certainty was the way from Mo Yuan’s chamber to her guest one, given he had escorted her here after their dinner together.
If she headed to Mo Yuan’s chamber now, she figured she could backtrack her way from there to the reception hall. Then she could seek out that hint of spice she’d caught that first day and follow her nose to the kitchens.
Steeling her resolve with a deep breath, Bai Qian started down the passage.
Retracing her steps was a mental exercise Bai Qian hadn’t practised in a long time, there being no need to do so back home anymore where every place was already mapped by detail of touch, scent, and sound in her mind.
She debated going back to bed once more… with Mo Yuan’s blanket. But hunger won out. Besides, if Bai Qian were being totally honest with herself, she was a little excited about doing this. An opportunity to explore a new place all by herself? Not since her childhood had she had this kind of adventure.
With tails sweeping before and beside her, she let the fingers of her hand trail along the wall. The crackling sound of the torches overhead and the absence of anyone in the passageways further assured Bai Qian that it was indeed still nighttime.
She realized she had a problem though.
Her boots tapped against the stone floor of the empty passageway. She tried tiptoeing but it made no difference. Her steps could still be heard loud and clear. How was she going to pass by Mo Yuan’s chamber without him hearing footsteps outside his door in the night? She considered going barefoot for a moment but the stone was cold and she didn’t fancy chilled feet.
Bai Qian’s shadow against the wall shrank down and lengthened sideways.
Her two furry white fox ears flicked back and forth while Bai Qian used her whiskers and nose to test the air.
Yes, this was the best way she had to sneak past Mo Yuan’s door as clandestinely as possible without him becoming aware. Once in the clear, she would transform back as the last thing she wanted was to call undue attention to herself in her true form should there be anyone about haunting the corridors at this hour.
Like a ghost, the white fox spirited her way down the passage.
Honey-amber eyes glistened in the light of the banked fire still aglow.
Mo Yuan lay on his back with his arms crossed behind his head. He had played his guqin till late into the night, yet sleep eluded him. Bai Qian’s song continued to play in his mind while the side of his neck tingled where the remembered touch of a soft face remained.
Mo Yuan doubted Bai Qian would be leaving at dawn as she had the day before. Come morning, he hoped to catch her before she did leave with the Phoenix to ask if she knew any other unique songs of her mother’s and if she would be willing to share them with him.
But that gave him pause.
How to explain how he’d come to know of the one song in the first place? After I carried you to bed, Qian Qian, I sat beside you as you slept and listened to you hum it. Did Bai Qian know she hummed in her sleep? Was it a habit of hers? The only one who could perhaps tell him was Zhe Yan and at that Mo Yuan chuckled in spite of himself. He could only imagine the colourful commentary he suspected both he and Bai Qian would be subjected to if he asked the Phoenix this question.
The last thing Mo Yuan wanted was to cause Bai Qian more embarrassment. He knew she would realize who had been the one to carry her back to her room. Perhaps better not to mention the humming. Then how could I–
Mo Yuan’s irises flashed gold.
A delicate scent of fresh peach blossoms had drifted in from beneath his chamber door. Bai Qian.
Awake now, are you? What was it that finally roused you, Qian Qian? Though I confess I’m more curious to know why you are at my chamber door in the dead of night.
With panther-like agility, the God of War silently slipped off his bed. Lean, sinewy muscles tensed as he stood motionless facing his door.
He sensed nothing amiss. Why is she here? Mo Yuan’s piercing gaze slowly gave way to a look of mirth. She couldn’t be coming to return his blanket to him by any chance, could she? Given Bai Qian’s exceptional ability so far to surprise him at any and all times, she may very well be. What will her expression look like when she hands it back, he wondered.
Mo Yuan raised his hand to summon a robe then stopped. Why bother? There’d be no difference to her. It wasn’t like she could see him naked anyway. That faint stirring from earlier in the evening returned. Then he frowned.
Bai Qian’s scent was drifting away now.
She had continued past his door, and rather hurriedly too, judging by the speed at which her scent was receding. Where is she going then?
Had Mo Yuan not been completely focused on the goings on outside of his door, he might not have heard the distinct rumble which had him breaking into a smile.
Mo Yuan knew what had woken Bai Qian and where she was likely heading.
Come to think of it, he was feeling rather hungry himself. Playing Bai Qian’s song had completely distracted him from getting something to eat as he’d planned before bed. But why had she felt the need to sneak past his door? Because she didn’t want to disturb you, obviously.
…or she didn’t want to face him.
Mo Yuan’s smile broadened.
Would she find her way to the kitchens though? Again, from what he’d come to know of Bai Qian, he had every confidence that she would. But… what if she did become lost? No harm would befall her in the temple but nonetheless, the Grandmaster of Kunlun would be most remiss in his duty as host, if he allowed for a guest to have to fend for themselves. Mo Yuan would not stand for being accused of neglecting a guest’s comfort and safety.
If he were going to be walking the passageways however, he best summon one of his wool tunics rather than just a robe. No, wait. She’ll hear the rustle of it as I walk. Of course, Mo Yuan could simply use his magic to cloak his presence but that wouldn’t be as… interesting. What to wear then to be as silent as possible?
No clothing at all would circumvent the problem but a naked Grandmaster following a beautiful goddess through the halls might be perceived the wrong way. What cloth was quietest then? Mo Yuan, hurry up. She’ll get to the kitchens before you even get out the door at this rate! Swiftly, he summoned upon himself but a pair of black silk pants, enough for modesty’s sake should he encounter someone in the halls. As an afterthought, he bound his hair in a top knot with another brush of his magic.
Materializing to the other side of his chamber door, Mo Yuan’s irises flashed gold once again at the unexpected sight he beheld. For disappearing around the far corner of the adjacent passageway was a gracefully stunning white nine-tailed fox .
Bai Qian had surprised him once again.
With soundless footfalls, Mo Yuan followed.
There was no one about at this near hour of the Ox. Even Die Feng was sleeping at this time of night. Mo Yuan easily kept the white fox in his sights as she padded along some distance ahead of him.
Delicately tufted ears flicked backwards and she paused, bringing Mo Yuan to an abrupt standstill. He’d been careful up to now to match his footfalls to hers, knowing Bai Qian would likely hear them otherwise even if they were virtually silent. He’d also been manipulating the currents of air, drawing those around her in his direction to keep her peach blossom scent surrounding him… just in case he lost sight of her.
When her tails all lowered and she turned her head towards him, his breathing, which he’d been keeping shallow and light, froze. Mo Yuan’s eyes grew wide and he suppressed a gasp at the sight of a pair of warm chestnut-coloured fox eyes blinking and looking straight on him —but not at him.
Fine whiskers like threads of spun glass billowed along with her tails as she raised her muzzle and swept it gently from side to side. After a moment, she gave a light sniff then turned her head back forward and continued on.
Mo Yuan waited for a count of 10 before continuing as well, wondering what had almost given him away.
Bai Qian swiped the side of her muzzle with a foreleg. The movement of air along her whiskers was giving her the oddest of impressions. Don’t be silly, Qian. It can’t be. But had she not known better, she could have sworn the sun was rising behind her driving the wind.
I’m overreacting. I’m in a vast temple carved into the summit of a mountain. The drafts of the drafts have drafts here!
She must be far enough past Mo Yuan’s chamber by now. Shifting her form back, Bai Qian trailed her hand along the wall again, tilting her head to listen for the telltale breeze she recalled from that first afternoon that had whistled as it blew about the pillars in the open hall. But it turned out she didn’t have to. After only a few steps, a familiar hint of spice drifted past her and Bai Qian gave a triumphant smile.
With a spring in her step, she made her way forwards.
Mo Yuan’s smile matched Bai Qian’s as he observed her reaction to the air current he’d redirected towards her from the kitchen passageway. But his smile faltered when he saw the silk band back across her eyes. He regretted now having brought it back with her to the guest chamber.
It had been with a slight air of disappointment that he’d watched her shift. Bai Qian’s fox form was most alluring and exquisite… but then so was her human one.
What am I thinking? His thoughts the last hour were surprising him, just like her. It took the distracted Mo Yuan a moment to realize that Bai Qian was no longer in his sights.
Rushing to catch up, Mo Yuan rounded the next corner fast, only to be grabbed at from behind.
“I knew it!! I–” Bai Qian’s words cut off in a spin of motion and before she could even gasp, she was pinned onto her back to the floor with her wrists locked above her head in a grip of iron…
…and the heat of the sun bearing down upon her face.
*The hour of the Ox: 1 AM-3 AM
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