Bai Qian’s eyelids fluttered again.
She lay on her stomach with her chin propped on her hands, kicking up her feet behind her. Zhe Yan sat crosslegged, scratching his knees. Neither was bothered by the chill of the ground.
The jugs of peach wine they’d drunk were tipped over in the grass between them.
Bai Qian’s eyes weren’t used to being exposed to the outdoor air and were sensitive to the breeze, Zhe Yan noted. Tomorrow he would prepare some drops she could use until she became accustomed to the feel of the wind again.
They’d spent most of the day by the lake in his peach tree woods. Even in daylight, the glow of the luminous pearls beneath the surface could be seen as a shimmer on the lake. It had been some time since they’d lazed away the hours here, talking happily about nothing and everything under the peach blossoms.
That had always been one of the strongest ties of their friendship. They could sense what the other was feeling yet respect what they wished to keep to themselves. Since Bai Qian did not bring up Mo Yuan and the night she’d spent with the Dragon, Zhe Yan didn’t either. It was still too new, too raw for her, Zhe Yan could tell. But seeing as Bai Qian was all smiles —and her eyes were open to the world again– Zhe Yan was content. There was no need to pry… yet.
The corner of the Phoenix’s mouth quirked as he gazed happily at his friend’s face.
“You don’t have to keep staring at me like that, Zhe Yan. You know I can always tell. There’s that funny wheeze from your nostrils every time.”
The Phoenix pinched the sides of his nose and honked like a goose whereupon Bai Qian made a show of rolling her eyes. Zhe Yan rocked back on his bottom with a belly laugh.
Migu came by just then. The tree sprite’s curiosity had finally gotten the better of him and he’d gone to check up on Bai Qian at the Fox Den. Finding no one there, the next logical place to look was the Peach Grove.
“Migu, my lad! Have some wine!” Zhe Yan picked up the last jug that still sloshed a little when jiggled and offered it to the tree sprite. Migu jumped back shaking his brambled head. “The last time I had peach wine, I woke up with my leaves all curled up.”
Bai Qian chortled then smiled towards Migu whose jaw dropped. He stared in awe at her open eyes which crinkled at the corners with laughter. Twigged eyebrows arched high turned to Zhe Yan who, as quietly as possible, put his finger over his lips to indicate Migu not say a word. The stunned tree sprite clamped his mouth shut. Only for his lips to curl up this time.
The afternoon passed amidst more laughter and easy conversation. At one point after Migu had left, Bai Qian stretched out her hand to correctly state the sun was going to set soon and they’d best get ready to head back to Kunlun.
The hint of eagerness in her voice was not lost on the Phoenix.
Zhe Yan raised his hand to the sun, then shook his head. Whatever it was that Bai Qian felt from it was a mystery to him. The way she’d always been so attuned to the sun by the touch of it on her skin had always impressed him.
At the Fox Den, Bai Qian went to pack a fresh set of clothes in her bag. She also wanted to get her boots and a thicker cloak to wear.
This will be a moment of truth, Zhe Yan thought as he waited outside her chamber. Will she or won’t she?
“Ok, I’m ready to leave.” A blinking Bai Qian emerged from her chamber. The Phoenix barely managed to hold back his tears this time at the absence of a band tied around her head.
Whatever the tiger boy had done in one night to make her hide away her eyes, the Dragon had undone in one night as well.
Die Feng greeted them at Kunlun’s gate, his stern expression becoming one of curious wonderment as he stared at Bai Qian’s face. Zhe Yan suspected this kind of reaction was about to be repeated numerous times. How many wheezing nostrils are you going to face this evening, Qian Qian? The Phoenix cocked his head with a smile at Die Feng who immediately reddened and dropped his gaze. Zhe Yan chuckled inwardly but then grew serious.
Where was the Dragon? At the very least, Zhe Yan would have expected Mo Yuan to have been here to greet them upon their arrival today. And no doubt by the slight droop of her shoulders, a disappointed Bai Qian had as well.
“Shifu extends his apologies,” Die Feng said now with regret. “A missive from Tianjun called him away from Kunlun.”
“Oh? Nothing urgent I hope,” Zhe Yan replied, trying to gauge Bai Qian’s reaction. “The duties and responsibilities of a God of War are unremitting indeed.”
Die Feng nodded.
“Would you rather just stay in Qing Qiu tonight, Qian Qian? There’s still about a quarter hour before sunset. I can take you back quickly. You have my feather if I need to–“
“No!” Die Feng interjected. “Uh, please. Shifu deeply regretted that he couldn’t be here to greet you upon your arrival. He asked me to extend an invitation to dine with his disciples on his behalf this evening, Lady Bai. He would be most disappointed if you were not here when he returned, which could be at any time. Won’t you please join my brothers and I for dinner in the main hall?” Die Feng looked at Zhe Yan. “The invitation extends to you both, of course, Master Zhe Yan. Unless you need to go to the northern garden.”
Bai Qian’s tails flicked behind her.
“Eleventh, uh, Da Bao, was hoping to have the chance to talk to you about different bird calls and songs since you hear so many in Qing Qiu,” Die Feng persisted. “And Zi Lan keeps going on and on, and on, about defensive techniques he’d like to discuss with you.”
“Zhe Yan.” Bai Qian started fussing with the collar of her cloak. “I could sit with you in the garden instead and keep you company. I do feel guilty that you sit there alone all night.”
Damn! It occurred to Zhe Yan now that had it not been for Mo Yuan occupying her time, Bai Qian would have likely insisted on staying with him from the very first night. It had only been because of the Dragon that she hadn’t. The Phoenix could not allow her to know of his experiment just yet. Tonight he planned to draw an even larger amount of the silver light inside himself. What to say?!
“Qian Qian, I, um, may have fibbed a little.”
It was almost comical how both Die Feng and Bai Qian frowned in unison. Had he not known how annoyed Bai Qian was about to become with him, Zhe Yan would have laughed. “I, um, don’t really stay awake all night long,” the Phoenix said sheepishly, attempting to make his nostrils wheeze on purpose… without success. Bai Qian’s frown grew deeper.
“Um, yes, the truth is just being next to the orchid is enough for me to sense any fluctuations, even when… ahem… sleeping.”
“What?!!” Bai Qian’s tails snapped up behind her. With impressive accuracy, she jabbed her finger straight onto the center of Zhe Yan’s chest. “All these nights you had me feeling guilty that you were sitting there by yourself in the cold when in fact you’ve been snoozing restfully?”
Die Feng cleared his throat to cover his amusement, jumping back to protect his chest when an irate Bai Qian rounded on him. “First Disciple Die Feng,” she pronounced. “I accept your gracious invitation to dine with Kunlun’s disciples this evening.”
Rallying himself, Die Feng snapped to attention. “Your Highness,” he responded with formality. “It is to be our pleasure. If you would accompany me, please? Shifu let Chang Shan know that you enjoyed my Second Brother’s winter spice broth the other night so we will be having some along with the meal.”
Bai Qian took a determined step forward, then stopped, her tails stopping mid-motion as well. A long moment passed. No one moved nor said a word until with a deep sigh, Bai Qian turned back towards Zhe Yan. “I’ll… I’ll still come keep you company, Zhe Yan,” she said quietly, “if you want me to.”
The Phoenix gave his temperamental friend a gentle smile. Even as a little girl, Bai Qian could never remain angry with him for long. “I know you would, Qian Qian. But really, it’s alright. Go teach that brash whippersnapper a thing or two about defensive manoeuvres and show the Giant some of the bird whistles you mimic so well. I’m fine. Sleeping on a mountain or in my cottage alone, it’s all the same to me.”
Fox tails extended towards him to feel for his arms, guiding Bai Qian to his hand which she clasped in hers and gave a squeeze to. Zhe Yan quietly cloud-jumped away.
Spreading out her tails in front and to the sides of her now, Bai Qian turned to head up the mountain path. “I would prefer to walk to the temple, if that’s alright,” she said to Die Feng who rushed forward to keep up with her as she led the way.
Vendors were putting away their wares for the day and closing up their stalls. The crackle of the lit torches illuminating the alleyways underscored that of the shuffle of baskets and tables being cleared. At this time of year, the Mushroom Market closed the hour after sunset. Shoppers left earlier to return to their homes once darkness fell. The last stragglers were being hustled along by Fenfang’s sprites now. The Mushroom Fairy ran a tight schedule. Closing time was closing time.
The Grey Wolf extinguished the cooking fire of his stove, taking his time to clean and put away his implements and platters so as not to appear rushed. The Boar and the Deer had already left.
The rabbit children raced past. Did those two have nowhere else to be than the Market everyday? Why did it never bother Fenfang, he thought as his eyes followed the little Jia who tried to keep up with her brother. The nervous and wary light in her eyes when she stopped to look back at him made the Wolf salivate as he met her stare. The tender child dashed away.
Fenfang had come by in the afternoon to check up on him. He assured her he was feeling fine. “I doubt Gu Gu will be coming at this hour,” she said to him. “Many are disappointed not to see her with the Dragon today.” The Wolf had grunted and shrugged, hoping he feigned his disinterest well enough. The Mushroom Fairy had seemed amused. “Don’t worry, Xingyun. I’m sure Gu Gu will still be interested in coming by for your fish.”
At his cave, the Wolf paced back and forth. It was still several hours before he was to meet the Shaman but waiting here was too stifling. He’d rather wait out his restlessness in the forest. The Wolf decided to make his way to the rendezvous point early. If it weren’t for Diao Wu’s eating curse upon him, he could hunt for wild shrews or birds in the woods beforehand.
The rabbit girl’s look of fear flashed through his mind. His stomach rumbled. Enough! With a bark of frustration, the Wolf shoved another flopping fish into his mouth and tried not to gag as he choked it down his gullet before leaving.
Running through the night helped. The Wolf grew even more eager to report to Diao Wu that which could finally set him free from this infernal hell of peaceful woodland spirits.
And as the Wolf wove his way through a thick copse of trees, the gold eyes of the dragon tracking him followed closely behind.
⇛ Next part: 28(第二十八章) The Coming Storm
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