A hush descended over the hall as one by one the tables fell silent –all except where the youngest apprentices sat. What did young boys care about the sight of a beautiful goddess flanked by two of Kunlun’s generals in full battle attire? They were there to fill their stomachs, not their eyes.
For the older students and senior apprentices, a Phoenix, and a certain Dragon, however, it was a whole different story.
With his colossal twin iron maces braced upon either shoulder, Kunlun’s Eleventh Disciple wore his sleeveless, heavy dark brown jerkin which stretched tight across his broad chest. The fierce Mountain Tribe symbols etched into his skin from shoulder to elbow were on full display on Da Bao’s massive biceps. The Giant always struck both awe and fear in the students when he dressed this way during formal training sessions. Only Shifu could defeat their Eleventh Brother armed with his maces in full battle, they knew.
The Sixteenth Disciple’s attire was of a different order of battle style; a deep blue silk tunic slit open hip high over supple black leather pants. With hair slicked back in the braided tail manner of his Horse Clan, Zi Lan’s wiry, taut body was displayed just as clearly as the lethal rope dart slung diagonally across his chest and wound about his waist, its razor sharp prism tucked behind his back.
And then there was the Lady.
The Fox Goddess was dressed in a formal, yet simple gown of the lightest shade of teal. Her glossy hair fanned out behind her shoulders to cascade down the length of her back. But the most amazing thing of all was her face, now clear for all to see given she wore no band. Her eyes remained hidden behind closed lids yet all present beheld her fine cheekbones, rosy complexion aglow with a soft smile, soft lashes and eyebrows. The vision of beauty she presented left many dumbstruck.
A misty-eyed Zhe Yan sniffed away a tear. My dear friend, it’s so nice to see your face in the open again. I missed it.
Mo Yuan’s eyes had immediately locked on to Bai Qian the moment she’d entered the dining hall. Why had she sent forth waves of her essence beforehand? To alert the Phoenix of her approach? No, it had been meant for me, Mo Yuan realized. Somehow he knew Bai Qian had done it so as not to catch him unawares again. Little did she know her scent that had preceded her did that much more potently.
He’d been watching the entry ever since he’d sat down. The Phoenix had thought Bai Qian asleep in her chamber, but Mo Yuan had known otherwise.
Though he hadn’t followed her physically when she’d dashed out of the kitchens, he had followed her with his magic. Her meandering course had brought her to the southeast part of the temple. Only when he’d sensed Da Bao approach Bai Qian from the outdoors, then Zi Lan arrive shortly thereafter, had Mo Yuan stopped keeping tabs on her whereabouts. He no longer had to worry she would become lost given the two disciples’ presence.
Of course, the God of War hadn’t failed to notice how both disciples were dressed as they escorted her here. Both Da Bao and Zi Lan had classes to teach shortly but neither had ever come armed for breakfast. The subtle message wasn’t lost on Mo Yuan. A Queen’s honour guard should always be prepared for battle.
What happened to make matters such?
There’d been an awkward moment back in his study earlier when Mo Yuan had glanced up at his First who stood before his desk looking at him with concern. A silent Mo Yuan had obviously been lost in his thoughts for longer than he’d realized. “Shifu, is everything alright?” Die Feng asked in earnest. “Forgive me, I do not wish to cause offence but did anything happen to upset the Fox Goddess?”
Mo Yuan tossed the schedule he’d been blindly holding for the last few minutes onto the desk. Leaning back, he crossed his arms over his chest and stared off into the distance again.
Did anything happen?
The feel of Bai Qian’s cheek nuzzling his neck keeping his skin tingling afterwards…
The song she had hummed as she’d slept playing over and over in his mind even after having played it on his guqin…
When she’d crept past his door in the night, like a mischievous youth he’d decided it would be interesting to “play dragon” as Bai Qian had so aptly described it only to…
Mo Yuan drew a deep breath.
What was it about Bai Qian that affected him so?
And then in the kitchens…
What had happened? Nothing.
When had Mo Yuan ever enjoyed moments of carefree laughter like that with anyone? No one had ever jokingly teased him as Bai Qian had, none would have dared to be so relaxed in his presence as she’d been. How delightful her expressions as she’d struggled not to laugh at his inept cooking skills! Though truth be told, he did purposely fumble things more than he would normally have, just to be able to continue enjoying her reactions. None had ever dared to be comfortable that way in Mo Yuan’s presence, the God of War of the Immortal Realm, the Golden Dragon, the First Immortal’s son, none had ever treated him as… just a person, a man.
To Bai Qian, he truly was simply Mo Yuan, wasn’t he.
And when he’d reacted without conscious thought to catch her face and wipe off the flour, disarming her of that silk blade that cut her off from him being able to see her entirely… the heat from her body combined with her scent had made him…
For the first time in his adult life, Mo Yuan had succumbed entirely to instinct, not once but twice in the same night. Again, what was it about Bai Qian that affected him in such a way? Mo Yuan needed to be careful and cautious, and not let himself get carried away again lest he do something that would scare her. Though given the way she’d bolted from the kitchens, he may already be too late in that respect.
No. Mo Yuan knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that Bai Qian held no fear of him. Of this he was certain. Could it be because she couldn’t see his eyes just as he couldn’t see hers? No, it was more than that.
Even when he’d pinned her to the ground, he’d sensed no fear. For fear was the single most tangible and provoking of emotions to be sensed by a dragon on the hunt. Bai Qian had been flustered, embarrassed, shy, apprehensive maybe, but not fearful. She truly was a unique and exceptional being, just Bai Qian.
What would have happened had Chang Shan not interrupted?
Mo Yuan drew in another deep breath and uncrossed his arms. A most patient Die Feng remained quietly waiting.
Despite the absence of fear, Bai Qian’s shocked reaction may well present a problem for him now with his intended plan. Mo Yuan wanted to go to Qing Qiu with Bai Qian in order to investigate her surroundings and the people around her. But he wasn’t sure how to proceed given what had passed between them. For something definitely had happened. The question was whether he’d been affected more than she had.
Where seconds before was a hall full of voices, was now mostly breathing and shuffling. Maybe this was a mistake. But it was too late. She would just have to pretend all was fine and normal until she could leave with Zhe Yan and go back home where she planned to hide under her bed in the Fox Den for the rest of the day!
That feeling of sunlight was pressing against her again. Mo Yuan is staring at me, Bai Qian realized, recognizing the sensation now for what it was. Did he know she could feel him doing it? Somehow she didn’t believe he did and that it was unintentional on his part. And though it was something she normally never cared much about, Bai Qian couldn’t help but wonder how she looked in her gown at the moment.
Rummaging through her travel bag back at her chamber, Bai Qian had been most surprised to discover Migu had packed this gown. She hadn’t checked what Migu had packed the day before, having only opened the bag to put in the gift Jia had insisted she bring.
The gown was one of the fancier ones she owned; the teal one by the pearl colour button she felt inside its collar —teal which resembled the sea waves at port. Why had her tree sprite done that?
And why hadn’t Zhe Yan shown up yet? According to Mo Yuan’s disciples, it was well past sunrise. I came back here purposely so he could take us home right away. But now it would appear she would have to follow through on the excuse she’d given the disciples to clean up and change her dress.
Removing her flour rumpled dress, Bai Qian washed her face and her arms at the basin whose waters she warmed with magic. Then donning the teal gown, she simply brushed out her hair and let it fall loosely before stepping out to rejoin the disciples who were waiting for her.
Zi Lan, unsurprisingly, was the first to comment.
“Did your band fall off somewhere, Lady? I thought you’d come out with it on. I was right yesterday, wasn’t I, when I said it must fall off sometimes. You know, your Highness, as good a defensive fighter as you are, that band could be used against you if an opponent grabs at it as a handhold and locks your head in place so you can’t counterstrike. Why bother with it?”
Zi Lan ignored the tsk uttered by Da Bao.
“Never give an opponent an advantage over you,” Zi Lan continued, warming to his favourite topic of self-defence. “For that matter, Lady, seeing your eyes closed could serve as an advantage by taking an opponent off guard. They might assume you’re defenceless and lower their guard, not kno–”
“Not knowing I use other senses to see?” Bai Qian interjected with a faint smile.
“Yes! Exactly!” Zi Lan nodded emphatically though only Da Bao could see. “Lady Bai, if I may, I would love to be able to talk to you about that. There are undoubtedly things I could learn and teach from your methods to my juniors in my self-defence classes. A good teacher is one who is always willing to learn, Shifu often says.”
“Lady,” Da Bao said with an apologetic tone. “Please forgive my much younger Brother. Zi Lan is of the Horse Clan.” Ah, Bai Qian thought, that would explain the way he speaks so bluntly! Horses were known for their temperamental natures and for being quite forceful with their opinions. No wonder! Not a big brat but a big pony!
“The Lady does look very nice without her band, however,” Da Bao calmly declared. Bai Qian froze, never expecting to hear that kind of remark from someone who’d been so bashful the previous day.
“Lady.” Zi Lan’s voice was a little disgruntled. “Please forgive my quite older Brother. Da Bao is of the Mountain Tribe where everyone looks so fearsome and formidable that anyone pretty they see is a distraction.” Mountain Tribe? That’s why the Eleventh Disciple’s footsteps are so heavy and his voice so deep! Wait… Did Zi Lan just say I was pretty?!
Sonorous chuckles reverberated along the passageway. They came from Da Bao. Zi Lan had fallen strangely silent. What’s going on? Bai Qian wondered.
Zi Lan’s face had gone red as he realized what he’d just said. And Da Bao’s wide grin and laughter directed at him made the Sixteenth Disciple feel all the more self-conscious about it. Lady Bai didn’t say anything. Could he hope she hadn’t caught the gist of what he’d just said? The Sixteenth Disciple swallowed hard. “We should be on our way to breakfast or else there’ll be nothing left to eat!”
Zi Lan gave a slight grunt when Da Bao’s beefy hand clamped down on his shoulder. “Sixteenth, the Lady Fox is not one of our pupils.” Zi Lan’s eyes watered a little at the squeezing pressure being applied. Da Bao was not one with words when actions could speak for themselves.
“Did I say something wrong?” he winced. “I meant no offence, Lady Bai.”
Both disciples stared at her. “I beg your pardon?” Zi Lan said.
“Please, I wish the two of you would call me Bai Qian. All this ‘Lady’ and ‘Highness’ stuff doesn’t sit right with me.”
Da Bao and Zi Lan exchanged glances. “Uh, Shifu may not like that,” Zi Lan remarked. Da Bao grunted in agreement.
“Why not? I’m the one asking you to,” Bai Qian said with a touch of pique. “What does it matter to that Dragon how you address me?”
‘That Dragon’ a stunned Zi Lan mouthed silently to Da Bao who once more shrugged quietly back in response.
Bai Qian started walking, startling both Disciples again who quickly took up their positions on either side of her. She didn’t need them to guide her from this point. She knew the way to the kitchens, and thus the adjoining dining hall, from here after last night.
The trio walked in companionable silence for several minutes before Da Bao spoke up. “Zi Lan, we have our weapons classes to teach shortly.”
“Yes, which is why I want to get to the dining hall quickly to have time to eat something!”
Da Bao grew thoughtful. “You know, Sixteenth, if we changed into our full gear now, we would have more time to eat.”
Zi Lan threw his Brother a look. Full gear?! Did Da Bao mean what he thought he meant?
Without breaking his stride, the Giant smiled as his coat and his clothing underneath transformed in a wave of magic to become his battle garb. Raising his beefy hands to his shoulders, his twin iron maces materialized in his grasp. And with a jerk of his head towards Bai Qian, then at Zi Lan, the Giant indicated to his Sixteenth Brother that he should do the same.
A fully armed escort? We’ll certainly be making an entrance, won’t we, which Zi Lan suddenly realized was the point. And now it was his turn to smile as his robes vanished to reveal his fighting attire. With a wave of his hand his weapons appeared as well. And just for good measure, Zi Lan passed his hand over his head to fix his hair in the proper Horse tradition of a warrior.
Bai Qian hadn’t been paying attention to what the Disciples were doing. For they’d just turned the same corner where she’d pounced upon Mo Yuan the night before and now Bai Qian began to get nervous. I should make sure this time that nothing happens unexpectedly. Taking a page from Zhe Yan’s book, she purposely sent out waves of her magic so no one would be caught unawares. Again.
The sun shone particularly bright ahead and Bai Qian knew Mo Yuan was there. She nonetheless managed to maintain a calm and smiling composure.
Mo Yuan watched as Zi Lan leaned to the side when she whispered something to him. His Sixteenth looked straight at him for a moment, then nodded and held out his elbow to Bai Qian who took it while he led her on a winding path between the tables with Da Bao taking the rear. Bai Qian’s honour guard led her directly to the table where Mo Yuan sat, approaching from Zhe Yan’s side.
“Good morning, Qian Qian! Take a seat beside me on the bench just before your knees,” Zhe Yan said so she’d know what kind of seating there was. Bai Qian put her hands out to touch the edge of the bench, then sat sideways and delicately swung her skirted legs over to settle herself beside her friend.
Once Bai Qian was seated, the two Disciples split up. Da Bao took the maces off his shoulders and set them on the floor with their handles against the table which made it shake. The Giant proceeded to take a seat on Mo Yuan’s left, Die Feng already being seated on Mo Yuan’s right. Zi Lan seated himself on Bai Qian’s right to face Da Bao, keeping his rope dart about him as it didn’t impede his movements.
Zhe Yan reached for a fresh cup to pour Bai Qian some tea but was beaten to it by Mo Yuan who had still to look at anyone other than Bai Qian. The Dragon poured tea into the cup which he placed on the table directly in front of Bai Qian’s folded hands.
“Your tea is directly in front of your hands, Qian Qian,” Mo Yuan said.
“Thank you, Grandmaster,” Bai Qian answered politely. Mo Yuan’s brows furrowed.
Why was she calling him by his title with such formality? Hearing it that way from her made him feel like he’d been demoted somehow. Was that it? Was she distancing herself because of what happened last night? Now it was Mo Yuan’s temper that was piqued. He wasn’t about to take this Grandmaster calling lying down.
When she slid her hands forward for the cup, her fingers met Mo Yuan’s who’d purposely kept them there. Bai Qian jolted a little before pressing her lips tightly together and lifting one hand in a way to grasp the cup around its rim and pull it towards her, at which point Mo Yuan opened his fingers to release it to her.
Best…Breakfast…Everrrrr! Zhe Yan thought excitedly. The last time he’d witnessed and felt such undercurrent of emotion was that one time at a Peach Festival long ago when the Lord of Numinous Treasures had imbibed a little too much and accidentally released some exotic elixir of truth into the peach punch.
“Qian Qian,” Zhe Yan began. There was no way he was going to comment about her not wearing her band. He wasn’t going to call attention to it though he was dying to know what had made her decide to forego it in the presence of others. Even he rarely got to see her without it except when bursting in on her late at night for a midnight snack. And on the subject of late night snacks… “Qian Qian, these jianbing I heard you prepared together with High God Mo Yuan are a big hit this morning. Every man here is drooling something fierce at the moment! Isn’t that right, Grandmaster?” he emphasized, taking his cue from Bai Qian.
“Oh!” Slightly flustered, Bai Qian gave a little laugh. “I can’t take credit for preparing them. I had to leave after…” She covered her hesitation by gulping down a mouthful of tea. “I, uh, we… only mixed up the batter. It’s no doubt the Grandmaster’s Second Disciple, Chang Shan, who cooked them.”
“Yes, you left rather abruptly, Qian Qian,” Mo Yuan said to her. He sat back casually sipping his tea, staring at her from over the rim of his cup. “It’s a shame we didn’t get to finish what we’d started.”
Die Feng started coughing. Then fell forward onto his forearms with a resounding thump when Da Bao reached behind Mo Yuan’s back to smack his Senior Brother squarely between the shoulder blades in response. Zi Lan took advantage of his two senior brothers’ distraction to whip out his chopsticks and go for one of the third to last remaining jianbing. But before he could even blink, it disappeared from the platter. Glancing up, he saw Mo Yuan settling it onto a plate which he laid before Bai Qian. Both Da Bao and a recovered Die Feng threw Zi Lan smug grins.
“That’s what I meant, of course, Grandmaster,” Bai Qian said. “It was Chang Shan who finished things for us.” Mo Yuan nudged the plate gently forward so it would touch Bai Qian’s hands curled around her tea cup. She stiffened but let go of her cup to bring the plate to herself.
“I know how hungry you must be, Qian Qian, given how loudly your stomach rumbled last night when we were alone.”
A now twinkling-eyed Zhe Yan was about to coo like a dove. Then the first part of what Mo Yuan said hit him.
“What?! Qian Qian! You haven’t eaten since yesterday’s breakfast?!”
“Don’t you start, Zhe Yan.”
“Qian Qian, for someone who’s such a good cook, you eat like a bird!”
The next thing Bai Qian heard was the thumping of her plate as several fruits, sticky buns, and tea eggs were dumped onto it from various sources. “Eat, Qian Qian,” Zhe Yan ordered, telling her what was on her plate and in what position. She would have complained on any other day, but she was hungry. Taking a tea egg, she bit into it with relish.
“Actually birds eat quite a lot given their size,” Da Bao said, again most comfortable with his favourite topic. Zi Lan rolled his eyes, which Die Feng took advantage of to grab the second to last jianbing. Caught off-guard in this manner, the Sixteenth Disciple threw his Senior a dirty look. There was but one jianbing left. Both Sixteenth and Eleventh Disciples locked eyes with each other. They slowly broke into smiles.
“Zhe Yan, I take it there was nothing out of the ordinary about the silver moon orchid last night?” Bai Qian asked, already on her second tea egg and taking bites of a sticky bun at the same time. Zhe Yan reached over and grabbed a fresh plum from a bowl and placed it under her palm. She smiled as she raised it to her mouth and took a bite of it as well.
“No, the orchid looked lovely as always with its silver glow but otherwise that was it. Mind you, Qian Qian, it’s only been two nights.”
Mo Yuan was helping himself to some tea eggs as well. “Indeed, the new lunar cycle has only begun. There are still weeks to go. Yet much can happen in a short time.”
“Shifu,” Da Bao spoke without breaking eye contact with Zi Lan. “That was a very beautiful song you played on your guqin last night.”
“Hmm, yes, Shifu!” Zi Lan chimed in, determined not to look away. “It was nice to hear you play again after so long.”
Mo Yuan played his guqin last night? When? Bai Qian was surprised. It must have been after he’d carried her to bed. Bai Qian had meant to ask him about the peachwood guqin her father had made for him and why she’d smelled dust with it. I wonder what made him play it.
“It was the Lady’s father who made your guqin, wasn’t it, Shifu?” Die Feng asked.
“Yes. Not many know of the Fox King’s skill. Does your father still make guqins, Qian Qian?” Mo Yuan asked her.
But before she could answer, Zhe Yan did. “He hasn’t made any new ones in years. I do believe the last ones he made were yours and Qian Qian’s.” Mo Yuan must have given Zhe Yan a look because the Phoenix’s voice held a touch of amusement now. “Oh, didn’t you know, Grandmaster? Bai Zhi made Qian Qian a most beautiful guqin from the same piece of peachwood he’d used to make yours.”
“He’d mentioned to me that he was considering it at the time,” Mo Yuan replied as he calmly took hold of the jianbing platter and tipped the last one onto Bai Qian’s plate. A dejected Zi Lan’s shoulders slumped as he grudgingly reached for a bowl of zhan now. Da Bao nodded slowly as he took some buns instead and plopped them into his mouth three at a time.
“If you aren’t too busy, Grandmaster, why not accompany us back to Qing Qiu and come see Bai Qian’s guqin?” Zhe Yan said brightly to Mo Yuan. “Perhaps you and Qian Qian could play together there.”
Bai Qian’s hands balled up. Zhe Yan, no!!! The Phoenix totally ignored Bai Qian’s foot that had come down hard upon his under the table. “What about it, Qian Qian? I’m sure as impressive as the Grandmaster’s instrument is, you could show him how impressive yours is too, no?”
“There is a special fairy market in Qing Qiu, is there not?” Zi Lan asked. “One of my cousins married into the Bear Clan and goes there sometimes to purchase honey.”
“Yes, yes, the Mushroom Market,” a very happy Phoenix said. “Qian Qian knows the honey stall very well. She loves beeswax candles and her tree sprite is smitten with the beekeeper there. Ha!”
Die Feng spoke up. “Shifu, many of the tribes and clans have started their autumnal harvest festivals. A lot of students will be heading home in the next few days to celebrate with their families. Chang Shan and I can easily oversee the temple activities. Besides, Second Brother’s leg is much better and he wants to get back to training. He could assist me with any of the advanced sword lessons in your absence.”
“Shifu, Zi Lan and I could take over your lectures,” Da Bao offered.
Mo Yuan smiled inwardly. It would seem Fate was on his side once more. He couldn’t have set it up any more perfectly, thanks to the Phoenix and his Disciples.
“It’s true that when I was in Qing Qiu last, I hadn’t the chance to visit properly.”
“Then it’s decided!” Zhe Yan declared. “Please be our guest today and allow us to return some of your hospitality. Bai Qian would be happy to prepare a dinner in your honour at the Fox Den, wouldn’t you, Qian Qian?”
“I would need to change my attire first,” Mo Yuan replied without waiting for Bai Qian to answer. “Why don’t I meet you at the main hall in ten minutes? This way, Qian Qian can get her bag from her chamber.”
“Perfect,” Zhe Yan concluded.
Bai Qian sat there fuming. What’s going on? Why was everyone so intent on Mo Yuan coming to Qing Qiu? She’d reached the end of her patience and despite her best effort, her temper flared.
“Grandmaster, before we leave, I would like to have my silk band back,” Bai Qian blurted out irritably.
“Your silk band?” Mo Yuan had it in his pocket. “I’m sorry, Qian Qian, but I believe I may have misplaced it.”
Bai Qian drew in a sharp breath. Misplaced it?! Why don’t I believe you one bit, you infuriating Dragon?! Then a thought occurred which made her break out into the sweetest of smiles instead.
Mo Yuan was instantly on his guard at Bai Qian’s change of expression.
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” Bai Qian said loud and clear. “That does remind me though, Mo Yuan. You left your blanket on my bed last night. I wouldn’t want you to misplace that either.”
It wasn’t so much a hush that descended upon the hall now but a dead silence that came crashing down like a stone curtain. Obviously the entire hall had been listening in on this last part.
“And I do believe it’s time to go if we’re going to be entertaining today, Phoenix of the Peach Grove,” Bai Qian said cheerfully, yanking Zhe Yan’s arm and just about unseating him.
Zhe Yan laughed heartily as he rose to follow Bai Qian who was already winding her way between the tables, having memorized the way.
Mo Yuan’s expression as he watched Bai Qian and Zhe Yan leave the dining hall had many a student wondering what their Shifu was thinking. As he rose from the table, Mo Yuan glanced at his Disciples. Da Bao, Zi Lan, and even Die Feng, all sat smiling innocently up at him. Squaring his shoulders, Mo Yuan’s gaze swept across the dining hall at all the smiling faces quickly looking down.
The God of War clasped his hands behind his back and proceeded out the dining hall.
饘 (zhān) thick congee/porridge
⇛ Next part: 21(第二十一章) Gu Gu’s Dragon
⇚ Previous part: 19(第十九章) A Queen’s Honour Guard