The raucous chirping of birds woke Zhe Yan.
Stretching out his arms over his head, the yawning Phoenix smiled at the bright morning sun just over the horizon. He extinguished the flames around his body. He’d slept refreshingly well… and past dawn. With a good scratch to the back of his head, he stood and shook out his robes.
He would venture to the temple’s dining hall for breakfast this morning. After the dinner he’d been brought last night, Zhe Yan had established that Mo Yuan’s Second Disciple was almost as good a cook as Bai Qian –and that was saying something! The Phoenix wanted a lazy, leisurely breakfast here today. He worried if he went straight to Bai Qian, she would want to leave then and there as she had yesterday.
Let her get her tails in a knot. Zhe Yan wanted to take his time this morning and enjoy a good meal without being rushed. Then again, how would Bai Qian know? Asleep at this time as she always was, if he didn’t go wake her she’d be none the wiser until the deed was done!
As he walked along garden paths, Zhe Yan discovered the source of all the chirping. A mixed cluster of wild birds was perched on, and fluttering about, a bird feeder stand not far off. Zhe Yan whistled one of the birds over; a bright green-feathered sparrow.
“Oh? One of the Kunlun disciples leaves seeds for you daily when the weather gets cold?” Zhe Yan acknowledged what the sparrow told him. “Hmph, lucky you then. I have to go scrounging for my food where I can find it. Ha!” Zhe Yan laughed, clutching his belly, but the sparrow had already flown back to join the others.
Sparrows had no sense of humour.
“Well, this is one bird who won’t be satisfied with just a bellyful of seeds.”
Zhe Yan continued on his way to the temple, merrily whistling off tune to himself.
A frowning Die Feng’s dark fur cloak flapped behind him as he made his way briskly towards the kitchens. The day’s schedules were clutched in his gloved hand. Kunlun’s First Disciple had never been one for unexpected changes in routines.
He’d just come from Mo Yuan’s chambers, his knock at the door having gone unanswered. Using his magic, Die Feng sensed that the High God was actually somewhere in the vicinity of the kitchens. Perhaps Shifu had wanted a fresh pot of tea for once? Highly unusual…
“Chang Shan, have you seen Shi–” Die Feng came to an abrupt halt beside his wide-eyed Second Brother who was standing stock still in the kitchen doorway.
“Shifu, forgive my intrusion,” Chang Shan gulped, ignoring the arrival of his senior brother beside him. That gold spark he’d just seen in Mo Yuan’s eyes… It was the first time since Chang Shan had come to Kunlun that he’d ever heard Mo Yuan snarl like that! In all the years the Second Disciple had trained under the God of War, he’d yet to see the golden dragon unleashed; though he always sensed Mo Yuan’s primordial spirit, they all did, given how powerful it was. “Shifu, I… I came to start the breakfast preparations and saw the candles lit and heard…”
“Ex-excuse me.” A crimson-cheeked Bai Qian rushed to the entryway. Both Chang Shan and Die Feng sprang aside as she dashed out between them, wisps of flour dust trailing in her wake.
A silent Mo Yuan watched Bai Qian flee. He wouldn’t follow after her… not this time. He didn’t dare. For at that moment, the Dragon couldn’t guarantee what would happen when he’d catch her. The strange fire burning in his veins needed to cool down first.
Bai Qian’s silk band was stretched taut in his tightly fisted hand.
“Shifu.” The Second Disciple bowed crisply.
“You’ll find several batches of jianbing batter prepared,” Mo Yuan said in a calm, detached voice, “a thank you gesture on behalf of the Lady. Please be sure to let the students know this when you serve them. I will return shortly. Die Feng, with me.” Mo Yuan was already out the kitchen, his First falling silently into step beside him.
She had no idea where she was going, just that it was away…
…away from the heat of the kitchen, away from the heat of the sun, away from that Dragon and his crushed eggshells and lumpy batter and… and… away from his soft touches.
Bai Qian shuddered.
She may not have felt dizzy when she’d “taken a tumble” in that passageway earlier, but she felt dizzy now from the rush of confused feelings overwhelming her. Her heart was pounding so hard in her chest it was hard to take a deep breath. Luckily she didn’t need to be able to concentrate to bring out her tails. The inherent habit of a lifetime was so ingrained as to require no thought on her part at all. Her nine fox tails spread out before and beside her as she trailed her hand along rough stone walls, more to steady herself this time than to guide her.
Around corners, through more passageways, on and on Bai Qian went until her frazzled nerves slowly calmed and her thoughts unscrambled.
He’d been calling me Qian Qian nearly the whole time. Why hadn’t she remarked it before?
What happened? At first it had been fun preparing the jianbing with Mo Yuan. It turned out the revered Grandmaster of Kunlun and God of War of the Immortal Realm was easy to be with and easy to talk to. Simply Mo Yuan and his laughter had made her feel a certain giddiness inside. She’d especially enjoyed teasing him as they’d tried at first to pick out the cracked bits of eggshell from the flour in the bowls. But even she had to concede that the Dragon couldn’t mix and stir a batter. Goodness, how could batter clump that way?
Then Mo Yuan had touched her face.
His hands… so gentle in their caress, for caress her they had, hadn’t they? Why had he done that? No one had ever touched her like that. No man had ever tou–
And then there had been the rhythm of his heartbeat. Even without her sensitive fox hearing, Bai Qian would have had to have been deaf not to hear it. His hands, the beat of Mo Yuan’s heart, the way he’d softly blown across her lashes then gently wiped her eyelids; his deepening breaths approaching her face, the waves of heat coming off his body as he…
Bai Qian gave her head a firm shake.
If only she could cloud-jump back to the Den right now on her own! But if she did end up not killing herself, Zhe Yan would. Zhe Yan… Should she try and get to the northern garden to find him? Was it sunrise yet? Bai Qian realized she had no clue what time it was nor where she was in the temple. There were no familiar scents or sounds here, except a distant chirping of birds. The wall and the floor had gotten colder though. Was she nearing an exit to the outside?
She stopped to swipe at the stray locks of hair that stuck to the sides of her face and her brow. My band! Mo Yuan has it.
Summoning it if he held it still in his hands would mean touching him with her magic. And if she did summon it to her, would Mo Yuan let it go or would he follow it? She had another band made from the soft Yellow Springs silk she preferred back at the Den. But if she summoned that one it would alert Migu and make him worry.
Bai Qian clenched her fists and stomped forward now. I need to figure out where I am in this labyrinth of a drafty temple and get back to my chamber. She came to a halt again. Or I can just sit here and wait for Zhe Yan to find me with the peach blossom he gave me? She checked that she still had it magically tucked away on her person.
There was a sudden gust of fresh cold air on her left. A way outside the temple. Bai Qian considered seeking out the northern garden. The chilly wind was a stark reminder, however, that she’d left her cloak behind. Did she really want to venture outside without it?
The chirping of birds grew clear and loud to then burst into the passage. Bai Qian could discern an unusually heavy, yet steady footfall underlying it –a footfall she recognized. Mo Yuan’s Eleventh Disciple. What was his name again? Da Bao.
The footsteps stopped but the noisy chirping continued, along with much rapid fluttering. Bird wings? Are there birds here in the temple?
If earthquakes could talk, they would sound like the Eleventh Disciple. She hadn’t picked up on it yesterday given how the disciple had mumbled but a few scant words. “Lady, are you alright?” There was still shyness in the way the man spoke but he seemed much more confident addressing her today. Because you look like a mess, Qian.
It occurred to her that she must be quite the sight; hair in disarray, sleeves rolled up past elbows with flour and batter spattered on her hands and forearms, likely her gown too. Did there remain any flour on her face or had Mo Yu–
Bai Qian cleared her throat.
What had no doubt shocked the disciple was her uncovered eyelids. Too late now. If she tried covering them it would only call more attention to them. She would just have to act unconcerned and be sure not to open her eyes by mistake. Straightening her shoulders, Bai Qian rubbed her hands then wiped her forearms awkwardly down the sides of her gown.
“Yes, Eleventh Disciple. I’m alright. I was, uh,” Oh just say it, Qian. It’s not like you were committing a crime. “I was in the kitchens. I thought I would prepare something for breakfast for everyone as a thank you to your Second Brother for the meals he’s prepared for me and Zhe Yan. I just stepped out for a little fresh air is all.”
Da Bao tilted his head to the side. The four rowdy chickadees jostling for space on his shoulder launched themselves off with the movement. Stepped out? The southeast passage they were in was quite a ways from the kitchens.
Normally his first response would be to blush and stammer in front of such a beautiful woman, but looking at her now the giant man couldn’t help but think of a fallen nestling. When he trekked through the wooded areas of the mountain, Da Bao sometimes happened upon baby birds that had tumbled out of their nests. The disciple would always gently pick them up and place them back.
“Pardon me, Eleventh Disciple.”
It was strange to see the Lady Fox with her eyes closed like that. Da Bao had only ever seen her wearing her band. She had a very pretty face. And now he did feel himself blush as he quickly dropped his gaze.
“Why do I hear birds around you?” she finished her question. Da Bao looked back at her.
The birds on Kunlun knew Da Bao very well. When filling the feeders he’d made by hand, there were always birds that followed him. They would mostly perch on his shoulders or cling to his arms and back as he made his rounds. The birds had learned they had nothing to fear of the giant man who always carried treats of dried fruit in his pockets for them if they kept him company during his walk.
The Lady could hear, but not see, the birds around him of course. Maybe that’s why she wasn’t teasing him as his Brothers would have at the pair of doves, the trio of robins, the several tree swifts, larks, nuthatches, or the tiny wren that sat on his head.
“Lady, I feed the wild birds here during the cold months. Some like to accompany me as I fill the feeders with seeds.” Da Bao smiled. Nothing put him more at ease than discussing his favourite topic.
“There must be many birds in the forests of Qing Qiu and the Peach Tree Grove?” he asked, impressing himself by not even stuttering once.
“Oh yes!” Bai Qian said, glad that the disciple didn’t remark upon her appearance. “I love listening to their calls and songs. I don’t know exactly how many species there are. Zhe Yan would know for sure.” She smiled in his direction.
“Have you ever held one?” Da Bao asked suddenly.
“Held one?! No, I’ve never held a wild bird. Wild birds generally shy away from foxes. They fly over my head or dive at it sometimes.” She chuckled. “That’s when I know I’ve gotten too close to a nest in a branch above.”
Da Bao reached into one of his baggy pockets, gently scooping out another tiny wren that had been helping itself to the dried apple bits he had there. The bird was quite tame with Da Bao, being one of the fallen nestlings he’d rescued in the past and had watched over.
“If you cup your hands, Lady, I will introduce you to one.”
Bai Qian gave her palms a quick wipe on her skirts then did as the Eleventh Disciple asked.
The tiny wren’s talons prickled her palm a little. The delicate fragility of its soft, feathered body, the edges of its wings and tail tickling her fingers, its racing heartbeat, the warmth of its body. Bai Qian was reminded of–
A collective swoosh of wings responded to the Sixteenth Disciple’s voice shouting from behind. The wren in her hand flew away as well. “Meng Bao! Haven’t you fed the birds enough? What are you doing hanging around here? If we arrive too late, First Brother will be sure to polish off any jianbi–” The Sixteenth Disciple’s footsteps stopped. “Oh! Lady Bai. Uh, good morning. What are you doing here?”
What AM I doing here?
I haven’t slept well in several days and haven’t eaten since yesterday. My nerves are shot.
I… I overreacted. Yes, I ran out of the kitchens. Of course, I did. I needed to go clean myself up quickly before joining them all for breakfast. Zhe Yan would like that, being able to stay and have breakfast at Kunlun.
We never finished working out the details of our deal, Grandmaster. The Queen of Qing Qiu will make you an offer impossible for Kunlun to refuse. How about none of it ever happened?
Yes. If I act as if nothing happened then nothing had. Why do I need to act for that matter? Nothing did happen, Qian. Yes, that’s exactly what I’ll do.
And from now on, the Queen of Qing Qiu will no longer dine nor sit down alone with the Grandmaster of Kunlun in his private chambers.
At the long stretch of silence from Bai Qian, Zi Lan pointed to his eyes with a perplexed glance at his Eleventh Brother, a gesture Da Bao understood to be questioning why the fox goddess was not wearing her band. The Giant shrugged silently in response.
“I need to clean up and change my gown before breakfast.”
Both disciples started at Bai Qian’s abrupt declaration. Zi Lan, who was always quicker on the uptake, opened his mouth to respond but for once it was Da Bao who spoke first.
“Allow us to accompany you then, Lady,” the Eleventh Brother said, causing Zi Lan’s open mouth to gape even wider and his eyebrows just about rise off his forehead. “We can certainly stop at your guest chamber on the way,” the Giant finished.
With a nod of acknowledgement, Bai Qian tucked in her tails as both Kunlun generals positioned themselves to either side of her and led the way.
The dining hall was in full, happy breakfast pandemonium.
The hall hadn’t been difficult for Zhe Yan to find. He’d merely followed the streams of hungry students he’d begun to encounter once back in the temple.
Goodness, look at all the platters of jianbing! At every table were students digging in and helping themselves to heaping stacks of it.
Zhe Yan took a seat where some of Mo Yuan’s other senior disciples invited him to join them as they were finishing their breakfasts. After polite introductions, they had poured him fresh tea and then bid him good day as they left to teach their respective lectures and classes. Students of all ranks were coming and going as some ate before classes and some just after, depending on their schedules.
“Hmm,” a happy and hungry Phoenix helped himself to a jianbing and took a bite.
Zhe Yan’s head popped up. No, it can’t be.
Brow furrowed in concentration, he alternated between chewing slowly and chewing rapidly, then washed down the mouthful with a large sip of tea to do it again. After the second round, he paused, certain of his conclusion.
Though Zhe Yan had likened Chang Shan’s cooking skills to Bai Qian’s, this went beyond any semblance. He was perfectly familiar with the taste of this jianbing recipe. It was exactly Bai Qian’s.
“Did you hear Shifu playing his guqin last night?”
Some boys over at the next table were talking in furtive whispers. “Of course, the whole temple did.” Hmph, I didn’t hear any guqin playing last night. But then Zhe Yan was no night owl.
Casually peeking from the corner of his eye, the Phoenix recognized the two boys that had been hiding behind the pillar and eavesdropping on him and Bai Qian their first afternoon there. So as far as Zhe Yan was concerned, that meant he should feel free to eavesdrop on them. Turnabout is fair play after all boys, isn’t it?
“It was really beautiful, the song Shifu played.” The smaller of the two boys took a jianbing from the platter before them. “I’d never heard it before.” The taller boy nodded as he chewed. “I wonder what made Shifu play last night. The older brothers say that Shifu hasn’t played his guqin in a very long time.”
Conversation wasn’t getting in the way of the boys eating. Both were already helping themselves to more jianbing. Ah, the appetite of youth…
“It was the Lady Fox who prepared the jianbing for us, Second Brother said,” the taller boy spoke between mouthfuls. “Uh huh,” his smaller companion replied. “And Shifu helped her make them.” He stuffed another rich morsel in his mouth.
Zhe Yan put down his chopsticks and straightened up. Neither Mo Yuan nor Bai Qian were in the dining hall at the moment. Oh ho! Did I miss something interesting earlier?
“Ping Yan was on torch lighting duty last night,” the smaller boy continued. Zhe Yan glanced at the boys again. The taller one laughed. “Did he fall asleep in a corner again? Sixth Brother had him scrubbing out the elixir cauldron for 2 days straight the last time he caught him napping.” The smaller boy grinned. “Well, I think he must have indeed been sleeping again and dreaming this time. He told me before he rushed off to his first class that he saw Shifu carrying the sleeping Lady in his arms in the passageway leading to her guest chamber last night.”
All heads whipped around when the teapot Zhe Yan had just reached for fell to the table. Luckily it was made of metal. The now blank-faced Phoenix sat there blinking for several seconds.
“Oh, uh… Oops! So sorry, lads! Slippery fingers!” And he wiggled them in the air. Conversations throughout the hall resumed but Zhe Yan no longer heard anything.
A familiar wave of energy flowed through the room. Looking to the entry, Zhe Yan watched as the God of War and his First Disciple entered to a chorus of ‘good morning Shifu, good morning Senior’. It wasn’t lost on the Phoenix at all how the Dragon’s intense gaze swept the entire hall with a faint trace of a frown. Looking for someone in particular, Mo Yuan?
Zhe Yan waved his hand in the air cheerfully. “I’m right over here!” A brief glint of amusement flashed in the First Disciple’s eyes as the corner of Mo Yuan’s mouth quirked upwards. Both men came over to join him.
“Good morning to you,” Zhe Yan said as they sat across from him. The two boys seated near him had fallen silent.
“Is Bai Qian not with you?” Mo Yuan asked without preamble.
“Qian Qian? Unless I go yank her from bed, she’ll sleep through the morning I’m sure.” Zhe Yan snatched another jianbing from the platter just before Die Feng’s chopsticks got to it. The First Disciple’s lips pursed slightly before he helped himself to the next one.
Both Phoenix and Dragon’s heads snapped up. Zhe Yan frowned. Why was Bai Qian purposely pulsing out waves of her essence? That was something she’d never done before but had obviously learned from him.
Then Zhe Yan’s jaw dropped and he started blinking all over again when his gaze fell upon Bai Qian who appeared in the hall entryway.
Oh my, Qian Qian. Look at you…
⇛ Next part: 20(第二十章) A Breakfast to Remember
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