Arms crossed over his chest, Zhe Yan leaned against the doorframe of Bai Qian’s guest chamber, taking in the empty bed’s folded blanket with a lopsided smile. Bai Qian hadn’t slept there.
In fact, she’d never returned to Kunlun during the night. He’d already known this since the phoenix feather he’d given her would have revealed to him otherwise. But Zhe Yan had come to her chamber at dawn nonetheless, figuring it best to keep up appearances should any of Kunlun’s apprentices take notice. As for Mo Yuan’s disciples, Zhe Yan was sure the men were already aware.
Need he be wondering if the Dragon returned to Kunlun last night? Zhe Yan’s smile grew.
The light seeping through closed shutters drew Zhe Yan’s attention to the window. With a wave of his hand, the shutters swung open. The early morning sun crested the horizon in the sky beyond. The last vestiges of night faded as the lining of the clouds changed from starlit silver to daylight white.
Zhe Yan’s smile faded as well.
Raising his hand to his face, the Phoenix pulsed his magic through fluttering fingers. Silvery filaments of light appeared between them and a wave of nausea struck. Swallowing hard, Zhe Yan dropped his hand and inhaled a slow, deep breath. His stomach settled after a moment.
He could feel the orchid’s silver light blending; merging with his own phoenix essence but to what end he had yet to tell. Ever since he’d returned from the Southern Sea and had begun his experiment here on Kunlun, something was making him restless… impatient. A vague sense of urgency had taken root within him as the nights passed.
Last night, Zhe Yan decided to test something. What would happen if he absorbed more of the silver moon orchid’s light in one go? He’d been cautious up till now to only absorb small quantities of the light. But doing so only made for a pretty silver spark when he snapped his fingers. Zhe Yan had yet to discover any significant magical properties or medicinal ones. If the orchid’s light were something he would have to apply directly to Bai Qian, at the very least he needed to know the possible effects of varying degrees of it.
So rather than just brushing the petals with his fingertips as usual, Zhe Yan had cupped the flower gently in his hands and drawn its light into himself for several long minutes. When he released his hold, he noted no change in the intensity of the orchid’s glow.
‘She only told me as a child that it was a flower sown by moonbeams and carried by dragons…’ Zhe Yan pondered the former midwife’s words about her great grandmother. Indeed, the sea witch’s book never revealed exactly what the orchid’s light did, other than suggest it could serve against black magic.
Why had Heavenly Mother created the orchid? To light her son’s way, the story had gone. What did that mean? Was it literal? To simply provide a source of illumination? Was it figurative? A gesture of a mother’s loving guidance?
Or was it foreshadow?
Had Heavenly Mother foreseen some event in the future where Mo Yuan would specifically need the orchid’s silver light?
The Phoenix shook his head. It was too late for conjecture now.
At some point he would have to tell Bai Qian of what he’d been doing. But when? How? How could he possibly tell her that her mother may have only become pregnant with her with the help of black magic? That Queen Ying Yue had taken her own life with a dagger to the heart so that Bai Qian may live? How to explain that her blindness may be a result of whatever dark spell had been used on Ying Yue? Or that the blindness was the intent of the spell all along…
Orange and cobalt blue flames swirled within the Phoenix’s irises as his rare anger arose. That they were traced with silver was unbeknownst to him.
No, he would continue to study the effects of absorbing the silver light into his own body for as long as he could. Experimenting upon himself was his only way to test it for now. And until he became convinced there could be no ill effects upon Bai Qian, he would keep things to himself. The nausea just now could have simply been from his —ahem– slight overindulgence of excellent dumplings he’d been brought for dinner last night.
Zhe Yan’s gaze fell back upon the bed. A crease of worry formed on his brow.
Nothing would have gone wrong last night… would it? No. For this Zhe Yan would bet all his tail feathers that his gut instinct had been right.
He’d been so excited to get Mo Yuan and Bai Qian alone yesterday, having sensed a connection between the two from the very beginning. That powerful dragon essence permeating the air blending so perfectly with the subtle essence of Bai Qian’s fox spirit –Zhe Yan couldn’t believe they hadn’t been aware of it themselves! How would they ever have managed without him?!
But what he’d told Mo Yuan about the tiger and how Bai Qian had worn a silk band since troubled him. Zhe Yan’s feather may be able to tell where Bai Qian was, but it couldn’t tell him how she was feeling.
Hmph, seriously though, Qian Qian. You could have had the Dragon send me word that you weren’t returning to Kunlun this night.
A now thoughtful Zhe Yan pursed his lips.
He really shouldn’t.
He knew better than that.
The Dragon would surely bring Bai Qian back here.
He really, really, reeeeaaaallllyyyy shouldn’t.
Oh, who am I kidding?
Straightening his back, Zhe Yan plunked his hands on his hips and glared at the bed. “Yes, that’s right, Qian Qian,” he scolded the bed sharply. “Do you know just how worried I was when I discovered you hadn’t come back last night? I nearly twisted a wing off swooping back to the Fox Den like a pigeon to check up on you! After all, something might have happened! Worrying an old bird like me like that! Tsk-tsk!”
And in a burst of laughter and mist, the Phoenix vanished. The silvery sparkles that lingered behind a moment longer dissipated in the breeze from the open window.
If he could hear the Phoenix puttering about the common area, of course Bai Qian could too. Zhe Yan knew full well where they both were and was stalling to give them time. So why have come here at all?
Mo Yuan chuckled under his breath. Need he wonder?
Bai Qian couldn’t believe it. Really, Zhe Yan?! First the embarrassment of having made Mo Yuan spend the night in the dark, and now this?! Ignoring her best friend’s presence, she lowered her hands from her face.
“I should head back to Kunlun, Qian Qian.” Mo Yuan slipped his hands behind her neck to fan her hair lightly over her shoulders. Her reddened cheeks lightened to a soft blush. “Students may be heading home for holidays, but there are still matters to which only the grand master dragon must attend.” He used little Jia’s official title for him, earning a breath of laughter from Bai Qian. “Besides,” Mo Yuan whispered as he kissed the tip of her nose once more, “I do not wish to overstay my welcome.”
Searching her face, it did not escape his notice how the natural hue of Bai Qian’s eyes was richer and more captivating in the morning light.
“I’ll expect you on Kunlun at the usual hour.” Mo Yuan lifted his chin to give her forehead a light brush of his beard. “Gu Gu’s dragon looks forward to seeing her very soon.”
Bai Qian placed her palm on his cheek and nodded with a smile, whereupon Mo Yuan cloud-jumped away, taking his clothes and boots with him she sensed with a giggle. It wouldn’t do for him to show up stark naked on Kunlun, she imagined…
…or wished that she could.
It had been a very long time since she’d thought about what it would be like to be able to see someone with her eyes. Bai Qian knew the general shapes and curves of a human body by what she was familiar with through touch. If she were to take a regular ink brush, she could draw a jagged outline of a head, body, limbs, hands, and feet.
But last night was the first time Bai Qian had ever touched a man’s body… that way.
Was Mo Yuan a beautiful man? No, that wasn’t right. Physically attractive men were considered handsome.
But his voice was beautiful.
Oh, that was the only way she could describe it. She’d always been attracted to Mo Yuan’s manner of speaking, something she had just realized. His tone and his accent carried his words as if lyrics… almost like a song. All of Mo Yuan’s sounds were a kind of music to her, weren’t they. The measured steps of his footfalls, the rhythms of his breath, the rich cadence of his laughter, the deep timbres of his growls…
She needn’t possess eyesight to know of those.
And this last night, she’d discovered more of Mo Yuan’s scent, taste and touch as well.
The sunlight she basked in whenever in his presence? She knew now that his hair held a hint of the wind and his skin a spice of fire. The feel of his hard planes and muscles combined with the heat of his body as he taught her of passion and tenderness… Bai Qian blushed. His embrace when he kissed her made her feel cared for and safe.
But above all else…
…Bai Qian liked the way his hand fit with hers.
Drawing her knees to her chest, she lowered her hand to trail over the blanket where Mo Yuan’s body heat lingered. You are a very beautiful man, Mo Yuan.
The sound of an impatient Phoenix loudly clearing his throat made her sigh and shake her head. When Zhe Yan had his mind set on something, there was no changing it. He had to have sensed that Mo Yuan left but she knew her friend would persist until she came out to see him.
She swung her legs over the edge of her bed and stepped into her wool slippers without feeling the chill of them as she normally would. Running her palms along her arms and over her bare stomach, she could feel her skin radiating a warmth that was not hers. A faint smile played upon her lips. Truly one need not fear the cold when cuddling with a dragon.
Nonetheless, she put on her thick dressing gown, then walked over to her washbasin to splash water on her face. Touching the mirror above the basin as she always did, Bai Qian wondered if her reflection were any different than before. Force of habit had her reaching for a familiar drawer of her dresser –only for her hand to pause before it as she remembered both her silk bands were now … misplaced… by Mo Yuan. Grabbing her hairbrush instead, she gave her hair a few quick strokes before putting the brush down next to her guqin. She’d never gotten the chance to show her guqin to Mo Yuan.
Next time…? She felt herself blush.
When Mo Yuan had cloud-jumped away, the Dragon had purposely let his essence flare throughout the Den; his way of letting Zhe Yan know he’d left. Hey! That’s my move, show off! Zhe Yan had thought, but it did relieve his worries a little. Who would have ever believed the God of War had a sense of whimsy?
“Finally!” Zhe Yan exclaimed when he heard Bai Qian enter the common area. He spun around to face her, and all previous thoughts of teasing and scolding her fled. Zhe Yan couldn’t speak. The lump in his throat wouldn’t allow it.
For before him, for a moment, stood once again that fearless, spirited little girl who’d snuck up on him that day long ago back at his cottage; the child with the wide inquisitive eyes who asked to be best friends so he could teach her about colours. And now stood a beautiful woman with a glowing rosy complexion and the faint trace of a shy smile upon her lips. Her unveiled, open eyes warmly reflected the morning light.
Tell me you did end up burning it, Dragon.
In the ensuing silence, Bai Qian tilted her head. “Zhe Yan?”
It took several seconds before she realized what was the sound she heard. Concerned, Bai Qian rushed forward to where she knew Zhe Yan stood, only to find herself being pulled into a fierce hug.
“Zhe Yan, why are you crying?”
“Because I love being able to see my friend again after so long,” he answered with emotion.
Bai Qian was confused but hugged him back as she felt his tears wetting her shoulder. “But Zhe Yan, it’s only been a night since you saw me last.”
Zhe Yan gave a tearful chuckle. Ah, Qian Qian… You can be so clueless sometimes.
“You picked quite the day not to show up,” the Wild Boar snuffled in amusement as he set up his pots of mud on his table.
“I wasn’t feeling well yesterday so I decided to sleep instead,” the Wolf replied.
In the end, he decided that telling the truth in this regard was to his advantage. The Mushroom Fairy had simply said she hoped he felt better today when he’d been to see her earlier. Like the Boar, she had started saying something about how of all days to have missed, but then she’d been interrupted as she so often was. A pair of chittering squirrels had started arguing over whose nuts would get put out for sale first. Squirrels being such high strung critters, their argument had quickly escalated to fisticuffs and bushy tail whacking.
Idiotic woodland creatures… the Wolf had thought as he’d turned to go.
He’d ignored the chatter around him as he always did when he made his way to his stall. But the amused smiles of the Boar and the Deer were something the Wolf could not ignore when he arrived. “What?” he’d asked in his typical gruff fashion, which is when the Boar said what he had.
“Yes! Yes!” the Deer bleated now, shaking loose rose petals from her bunches which she munched upon. “You missed seeing the Dragon who came right to your stall!”
The Wolf froze.
Was this a prank? The insufferably cheerful inhabitants of this land sometimes liked to tease and play tricks on each other. The Wolf wanted to snap the Deer’s neck.
“Very funny,” he grumbled.
The Boar squealed with laughter. “Oh, but we’re not joking! Have you not heard what everyone is saying this morning? They’re all wondering if Gu Gu will be coming by again with her dragon… the War God Mo Yuan!”
Metal fish tongs and platter went crashing to the ground.
“Uh, are you sure you’re feeling ok today?” the Deer questioned. She eyed the now shaking wolf with concern. “I can go fetch Fenfang if you need help.”
The Wolf cleared his throat. “Sorry, no. I’m fine.” He bent down to pick up what he’d dropped, struggling to maintain control when all he wanted right now was to howl and run.
“They… they came to my stall?” He avoided making eye contact with either neighbouring vendor.
“I think they wanted fish for a dinner,” the Boar answered. “When they saw you weren’t here they just continued on their way.”
Mo Yuan had come to Qing Qiu.
Mo Yuan had come to the Mushroom Market.
Mo Yuan had been to his stall.
Panic threatened. But if the Wolf bolted now, where could he go? Where could Diao Wu not find him and kill him for lying about nothing to report out of the ordinary yesterday?
The Wolf ignored the Boar and the Deer as the two began gossiping excitedly about something else. He was clenching his hands so tightly, his nails pierced his palms as his mind raced. Why had the Dragon come? Think, think… They had come to pick up fish for dinner. Alright. Why assume there had to be more reason than that? It’s not that they’d come to see the Wolf specifically. He was just the fishmonger of the Mushroom Market. The Dragon of Kunlun happened to be Bai Qian’s guest this time, was all.
The Boar and the Deer were laughing now about some antics the rabbit children had been up to yesterday.
No, he had to hang on. The Wolf knew whatever plans Diao Wu had for Bai Qian were soon coming into play. All he had to do was remain calm and act like it was any other day at Market.
The Wolf’s gaze grew shrewd. He hadn’t survived against the odds this long for nothing.
Come nightfall, he would have something definitive to report to Diao Wu… that Mo Yuan had come to Qing Qiu with Bai Qian. Whether it had been today or yesterday was a difference in truth that would continue to serve saving his hide. Besides, the Wolf suspected this news would accelerate the Shaman’s plans. The faster Diao Wu did whatever he intended to Bai Qian, the faster the Wolf could leave this wretched place once and for all.
Plucking the yu inward with his right thumb, he continued the note with a firm upward glide of his index finger onto the fifth string. Only when the harmonic vibration had played out did Mo Yuan open his eyes.
He’d played a number of songs just now, ending with Bai Qian’s. Had Queen Ying Yue given this song a name, he wondered? No matter… to Mo Yuan it would forever be Bai Qian’s Song.
He never did get to see the guqin the Fox King had made for her from the same peachwood as his. Next time…
Mo Yuan smiled.
Bai Qian’s mortified reaction when she realized the Den had been in the dark the whole time was one he would never forget. He didn’t regret for one moment not having lit the candles for himself. To have shared passion with her without the use of his sight had been his way of rising to her level rather than making her descend to his. Using mostly his sense of touch to guide him had made the experience all the more intense and special.
He was grateful to have recalled learning about how sensitive fox tails were. That the loss of one could be fatal meant they were integrally connected to a fox’s nervous system. The flood of pheromones her body had released as he’d pleasured her by massaging their base had nearly been his complete undoing, the dragon within dangerously close to being unleashed.
Discovering, exploring, another person in such an exquisitely intimate way was one he could never have imagined. Bai Qian had felt even more beautiful to his touch than to his eyes, if that were even possible.
Mo Yuan could still feel Bai Qian’s body against him. The warmth of her sweet lips continued to linger upon his. His fingers flexed over the dragon silk strings of his guqin as he savoured the memory of Bai Qian’s taste, touch, and of course her peach blossom scent.
Bai Qian had an effect upon him which he struggled to understand. There was definitely an attraction and desire. There was no denying it after their night spent in passion. He’d meant what he said about no longer being in the darkness about her. Mo Yuan felt both lightened and enlightened in Bai Qian’s presence. He was at a loss how else to explain it.
Could it… could it be what they called “love” at first sight?
It could never be such for Bai Qian though, could it. Mo Yuan wondered what she perceived in him then. What was it about him that she could not see but saw nonetheless to have wanted to be with him this past night?
Love at first sight was not something Mo Yuan had ever believed in. Yet there was certainly something about Bai Qian that had attracted him from the very beginning. Her physical beauty was indisputable but wasn’t what had captured his attention. No, it was the demonstrable aspects of her resilience that had; the way she carried herself with confidence, without fear. How she didn’t let an inconvenience such as being blind stop her from living. And of course, there was her intelligence, her wit, her mannerisms, the way she laughed, the way she blushed, her love for her friends and her people. Bai Qian knew love and embodied it as well.
Qian Qian… May I join with you again? he’d asked her. And wished to ask her again.
Mo Yuan looked towards his chamber door. There was naught but silence beyond. The temple was quiet given how many of the students had gone home for harvest festivities. The thought of dropping in on Bai Qian in Qing Qiu was tempting. No. He wanted to allow things to settle there after the stir caused by his visit yesterday.
Putting away his guqin, Mo Yuan proceeded to go through and approve all the new schedules for the upcoming session. What few pieces of correspondence Die Feng had left for him were quickly dealt with…except for one scroll… another missive from Tianjun. Mo Yuan stared coldly at it. The Skylord demanded an update on news from Mo Yuan’s Fourth Disciple.
Zhong Yi. Why have I not heard from you since you sent me that note? What danger to you do I risk if I attempt to contact you now? Or did sending the note alread– Mo Yuan’s expression darkened. He would not finish that thought. Zhong Yi had known the risks when he volunteered himself for the mission. His Fourth Disciple had been the one to approach Mo Yuan with the idea in the first place. Both of them knew success hinged on having no contact unless in dire circumstances. Had those circumstances come to pass?
I have waited long enough.
He decided he would attempt to reach out to his Fourth Disciple through meditative channels tomorrow.
Mo Yuan glanced up at the sky through his window.
Daylight had begun to ebb, as it was wont to do so early this time of year. Bai Qian and Zhe Yan would be arriving soon. Mo Yuan needed to get himself ready.
He’d already spoken to Die Feng about what to say.
yu (羽), the fifth string of the guqin
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