The beauty of the melody coloured the air, its individual notes like the wings of butterflies; fluttering, gliding, stopping, delicately combining upon the breeze.
Mo Yuan watched with quiet intensity as Bai Qian’s fingertips drfited along the silk strings made of his dragon hair, playing a composition strangely in rhythm and beat to his pulse.
“Your song is most exquisite,” Mo Yuan told her when the last note faded. “Just as you are.”
He leaned over to press a gentle kiss on her cheek, smiling at the light flush of pink he caused. Mo Yuan found he enjoyed making Bai Qian blush this way. He liked it very much. Her cheeks took on the shades of tender peach blossoms, like those whose petals were lightly adorning her hair.
They sat together at a low wooden dais beside a pond where wild lotus flowers bloomed. Upon the dais lay the new peachwood guqin the Fox King had made for Mo Yuan which Bai Qian just played.
She began to play the same song once again.
Bai Qian glided her fingers upon the guqin with the same concentration and finesse one did when testing the sharpness of a sword blade, with deliberate precision yet extreme delicacy; a touch to test a razor’s edge. Mo Yuan half expected to see the instrument quiver in response, as he did watching her.
Bai Qian would be the perfect model to teach any aspiring musician the way to master an instrument.
Music was something Mo Yuan had once considered teaching in the temple school; lessons with the guqin, the lute, the pipa. As instruments of cultivation, they could be used to guide the flow of one’s qi through the body.
But an important component of that teaching would have to be that of tuning the instruments to one’s internal scale. The art of tuning to a pitch that resonated with one’s inner essence.
The Fox King had once told him it was Bai Qian who tuned all his newly made guqins. But she could tune much more than that, Mo Yuan discovered.
In his time with her, Bai Qian had tuned his essence to resonate to hers.
“Zhe Yan mentioned the guqin your father made for you. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to see it when we made love that first time in the Fox Den.”
The silk band across Bai Qian’s eyes crinkled as she smiled.
“Why did you kiss me at first?” she asked.
“Because you take my breath away, Qian Qian. You have from the very first moment I laid eyes on you. It was only fair I take some back, no?”
A few more free floating petals from the peach blossoms overhead landed softly in her hair.
“It’s true my father made me a guqin, from the same piece of peach tree wood as yours.”
Her shy smile and light blush, the petals in her hair… Mo Yuan leaned over further this time to untie the band around her head. His breath caught at the way her eyes drew in the sunlight, her brightly focused gaze meeting his…
“Qian Qian, may I ask you about your mother’s music?”
Bai Qian’s fingers slid on two consecutive strings to produce a harmonic of sound in one continuous chain. She then used the palm of her right hand to cover the vibrating strings. It made a slapping sound like the ripping of silk.
“I had the honour of meeting her once,” Mo Yuan reminisced as he drank in the details of Bai Qian’s warm chestnut eyes . “It was at a performance given at the Celestial Palace. An exceptional musician your mother was, masterful. Her select repertoire of pieces was most nuanced and compelling. Queen Ying Yue was so composed and regal of bearing when she played, yet in the presence of your father she exuded nothing but warmth and kindness. I recall the laughter they shared as they held hands, mingling with the crowd afterwards. The Fox King and his queen were in love, their bond apparent to all.”
Bai Qian gave him a wistful smile. “My father once told me that my eyes resembled those of my mother’s.”
Mo Yuan had been told by his nurses and the palace stewards that he looked like his mother from whom he’d inherited his love of music. He never knew for sure, as his father kept no images of her.
“A little, yes,” he said in reply to Bai Qian’s question. “But your eyes are uniquely your own in the way they capture the sunlight around you.”
Bai Qian sighed softly.
“I always knew had it not been for me, my father would have joined my mother in death. The mating bond between foxes is that powerful. But his love for me kept him living, teaching me what he could, raising me as best he knew how. My father loves me, though I know he remains forever restless without my mother. He only allowed himself to succumb to his wanderlust once he felt I could take care of myself.”
“That he entrusted you with the kingdom meant he felt you could take care of more than just yourself, Qian Qian. He made you Queen. The Fox King may have never involved himself in Realm politics but he was no fool, making the leadership decision he did. I commend him for staying out of the political machinations of the Heavens.”
Speaking about Bai Qian’s father with her had Mo Yuan reflecting further. Had his father loved him, or had the First Immortal simply raised him out of a sense of duty towards his mother?
Was the reason his father became so angry and upset when Mo Yuan sneaked off to play his guqin, not only because he shirked his studies but because of how much Mo Yuan resembled his mother at those times? Was that something too painful for his father to bear?
Regardless, the cultured First Immortal could have learned something from the wild Fox King. Bai Zhi had chosen to care for Bai Qian as best he could because he loved her as his child.
Was that why Mo Yuan still felt resentment? Because his father had only seen his deceased mother whenever he looked upon Mo Yuan and not the son who was part of him as well?
The past was like a haunting refrain, was it not, that played over and over in one’s mind. The only way to silence it was to introduce a new melody.
Mo Yuan started when Bai Qian’s fingertips lightly tickled his beard. He’d been so absorbed in his memories that he hadn’t noticed she’d stopped playing to reach over to touch him.
He gently clasped her wrist and raised her fingertips to his lips. They were warm from playing the strings.
“What did you wish to know about my mother’s music?” Bai Qian asked softly.
He explained to her his ideas about teaching music at Kunlun and how he wished to teach about the link between tuning and qi.
It was well-known within musical circles that Queen Ying Yue had a unique way of tuning her guqin. Did Bai Qian know her mother’s method? And if yes, would she show him so that he may learn?
“I do know it.” Bai Qian met his eager gaze. “Father taught her method to me. I can show you how my mother tuned her guqin. It makes me happy that you would teach it to your students.”
Bai Qian shifted closer. Her peach blossom scent wafted over Mo Yuan as she nestled to his side.
“My mother considered the five inner strings the five elements. The outer two strings represented the dualities of Yin and Yang. All seven strings together formed a balanced scale.”
She nudged Mo Yuan’s guqin closer to him.
“The first of the seven strings represents Yin, the female, the night… earthly, dark, and cold.” Bai Qian plucked the string. “But hearing the string’s tone is only half the task. You need to feel for the proper vibration as well.”
She extended her hand to him. “May I?”
Mo Yuan offered his hand which she gently placed palm open over her throat and began to hum.
“Do you feel it, Mo Yuan?”
He did. The tone Bai Qian hummed vibrated through his fingers. And it wasn’t just one note but an entire song. A familiar one, Bai Qian’s song; the one he’d played nearly an entire night in his chamber, the one she’d hummed in her sleep…
…in her sleep…
Mo Yuan’s eyes snapped opened.
In Bai Qian’s darkened chamber, they lay where they had fallen asleep. Mo Yuan held her still, one arm across her waist, the other curled beneath her with his hand cupped under her neck. This was how Mo Yuan had felt before he heard that which had shaped and given sound to his dream.
Bai Qian was humming her mother’s song in her sleep.
Mo Yuan lit a wall candle and lifted his head to see her face.
Bai Qian’s open eyes were staring sightlessly at the ceiling.
Something was wrong.
She didn’t respond. She only kept humming her mother’s song over and over.
With a wave of his magic, all the candles flared to life in her chambers. Bai Qian’s face was devoid of all emotion, her expression blank. Mo Yuan’s arms closed around her. Her skin was cold. Increasing his body temperature had no effect.
“Qian Qian? Can you hear me?” No reaction.
This was it.
And now it was Mo Yuan who grew cold. This was it. This was Qing Cang’s next move. They had Bai Qian ensorcelled somehow, no need for them to be anywhere nearby. Somehow they had a link already.
… the song…
Bai Qian stiffly tried to rise out from his embrace and for a moment, Mo Yuan resisted letting her go. But he knew that he must. If ever there was going to be a chance of finding Qing Cang and putting an end to his reign of terror, it was now.
Qian Qian... With fear in the pit of his stomach and rage in his heart, Mo Yuan released his hold.
Bai Qian rose from the bed, her motions slow and languid as if she were underwater, humming all the while.
It broke something in Mo Yuan to see such a strong woman being manipulated like a puppet on a string… a string Mo Yuan would like nothing more than to slash and use to strangle the demon at the other end. It must be the shaman exercising some black spell that had been placed upon Bai Qian sometime in the past.
Mo Yuan cloaked himself and suppressed his essence, slipping off the bed right behind Bai Qian to stalk her every step. He hovered his hands barely above her arms, ready to grab her. At least they were both still dressed from the day before.
He lit every single beeswax candle and every torch throughout the Fox Den in one go but Bai Qian remained utterly oblivious to anything going on about her as she hummed and walked along.
Where was she going?
She stopped once they reached the main area of the Den. Mo Yuan sidled right up next to her when she took a seat at the stone table and with a flicker of her magic summoned a blank parchment and a brush.
Her humming abruptly cut off mid-note.
What was happening? Why the brush and parchment? But Mo Yuan had his answer quickly enough.
“I, Queen Bai Qian of Qing Qiu…” Bai Qian paused as the brush began to ink the words she dictated in a monotone voice. This must be a magically crafted tool she used for writing, which allowed her to overcome the limitations of her blindness, similar in use to the reading crystal he’d seen her employ to read Migu’s note.
Her voice was devoid of any life or warmth and Mo Yuan shuddered as the severed head of Zhong Yi flashed in his mind. The difference this time was that it was a living Bai Qian speaking, being controlled as to what to say. Should he be thankful she’d not been rendered a lifeless channel as his 4th disciple had, though Mo Yuan’s disgust at how she was being controlled was no less.
He watched the inked characters take shape, listening to Bai Qian continue with ever growing alarm.
“…have failed in my duty to protect my people. To preserve the honour of my father and of Qing Qiu, I will wash away the shame of my existence in a sea of repentance. A stone of guilt for every life lost will I carry as my eternal burden.”
Weighing herself down with rocks to drown herself… maintaining a preservation of filial piety as it would involve the least damage to her body.
It was a suicide note.
A violent gust of wind driven by Mo Yuan’s wrath blasted through the Den. He would boil away any sea with lightning before letting her do this.
But this could not be.
If Qing Cang and Diao Wu wished her dead, they’d had ample opportunities before this. It had to be a ruse. This note was meant as a diversion, to keep her people and the Celestials from immediately suspecting that she was being used as a pawn in the demons’ diabolical game.
Enchanted in such a way as to know when she was finished dictating, the brush signed off with her name, 白淺 , white lightness, purity of colour…
There was nothing pure about any of this.
The brush dropped, splattering droplets of ink… like blood… across the parchment.
Mo Yuan only stepped back the barest fraction necessary to allow Bai Qian to stand up, his body nearly engulfing hers so close he was, all instincts fired, ready to react in less than an instant.
Bai Qian resumed humming her song. Her body swayed slightly as fox magic began to charge the air around her. She was drawing upon a large amount of her essence which started to mist around her. She was going to cloud-jump somewhere… and somewhere quite distant given the power she was gathering.
There was no time to signal for aid from Kunlun. Die Feng would send his usual missive at dawn but how long after not receiving a reply would he come to investigate? His First was under strict orders to keep Mo Yuan’s presence here a secret.
Mo Yuan was on his own. Where were Qing Cang and his shaman making Bai Qian go? He already knew though, didn’t he. The only place it could be… wherever they’d been hiding all this time.
Mo Yuan’s hands balled into fists.
If he stopped her, they would know.
If he followed her cloud trail, they would know.
Even cloaked and with his essence suppressed, traveling at the speed he would need in order to stay close, it would be impossible to hide all traces of the energy he would have to expend.
He had to jump with her.
But how? How to remain undetected?
Gold eyes flashed as it came to Mo Yuan. Could he still do it?
The mist around Bai Qian began to shimmer. There was no more time to deliberate. What choice did he have? They were taking his fox goddess.
So Mo Yuan did something he hadn’t since he was a boy. When trying to sneak out of his studies, he would sometimes shift into his dragon but shrinking his form so small to be no bigger than a grass snake, whereupon he could slip through openings in the Celestial Palace walls to make his escape.
The rush of displaced air as Mo Yuan shifted and shrank caused Bai Qian’s hair to stream upwards, and the tiny gold dragon who coiled in the air shimmied up the back of her neck to entwine in the underside of her hair. Bai Qian never flinched. She was completely senseless of him.
Pressed to the nape of her neck, Mo Yuan could feel how her song vibrated throughout her body. Her heartbeat never altered, its beats steady and strong. Could he gain some reassurance from that?
Qian Qian, I’m with you, he sent his thought to her. The tingling of her cloud-jumping mist brushed over his scales and together they vanished from the Fox Den.
The total absence of any natural light was the first telltale sign.
They were underground.
Mo Yuan sensed no one else nearby but that did not mean they were alone. Others could be cloaked as he was. He risked moving ever so slightly through her hair to bring his head round her ear and take a look.
A smoky haze hung in the eerie shadows of the passage where Bai Qian stood. Dank, stale air currents haunted the grim place like deadened whispers from a grave.
The walls were chiseled of rock, with fissures weeping slimy residue and dark stains of mold spreading across large swathes. There was a single flaming torch set in a rusted holder further down where the passage wormed its way into a bend.
Mo Yuan found himself breathing shallow, Bai Qian’s peach blossom scent being overwhelmed by the pungently odoured atmosphere. There were no fresh mountain breezes or open sky here. They were deep in the bowels of pitted earth. And ancient demon energy permeated the very rock around them.
The tiny gold dragon froze when Bai Qian’s humming was suddenly accompanied by the same notes being played from a distance. A flute… Someone was playing Bai Qian’s song on a flute at the same time as she hummed it.
It was Bai Qian who hummed along with the flute, one Mo Yuan surmised she’d been hearing in her mind since they’d gone to sleep.
The notes of the flute were getting louder. Whoever was playing was getting closer.
Of all the battles he’d faced, of all the life and death decisions he’d taken as God of War, none seared Mo Yuan’s soul the way it was being seared now. With every fiber of his being, he wished to cling to Bai Qian, to defend her from the oncoming evil, to destroy whomever dared to do this to her.
It thus took all the willpower he had for Mo Yuan to hurl himself off her body to slip inside a crevice of rock. For he knew if he remained upon her, even cloaked and with his essence suppressed, the very nature of his dragon spirit would glow like a beacon in this demonic infested darkness. The aura of the rock would screen him. He had no choice. He could not afford to be discovered yet, not before he could assess the situation and target the two he knew he must… Diao Wu and Qing Cang.
From the deep recesses of the crevice, Mo Yuan spied someone rounding the far bend; a thin, white robed figure who held a bone flute to his lips
Diao Wu… It had to be. Mo Yuan had never laid eyes on Qing Cang’s shaman before. But the foul stench of black magic emanating from the man was sickening. It was the same stench that had surrounded Zhong Yi’s head.
The Shaman played the last notes of the song. They sounded strange to Mo Yuan. Their timbre was different on a flute than on a guqin, lessened, as if a poor substitute.
“Forgive me, Bai Qian.” Diao Wu stopped before her. The demon sounded amused rather than apologetic. “I am sorry for the poor quality of my performance. Unlike your mother, I am no master musician of the guqin. I could never learn to play stringed instruments with my fumbling fingers.”
Diao Wu grinned as he fluttered them now before her blank face, green flames flickering from their tips as he studied the reaction of Bai Qian’s pupils. Whatever he saw appeared to satisfy him. “Fortunately for me, as long as the song is in order, a flute will suffice.”
A dark red mist appeared behind Diao Wu. Mo Yuan’s heart seized at the sight of Qing Cang taking form.
Diao Wu smiled at the arrival of his Overlord but kept his back to him, his gaze fixed on Bai Qian’s face. “Isn’t she lovely?” He ran his hand down the side of Bai Qian’s head. The gold dragon flinched when the rock at the back of the crevice cracked where his tail just pierced it. “My finest spell,” Diao Wu crooned.
Qing Cang seemed unimpressed. “Where are her tails?” he muttered tersely. “This won’t work without them.” Diao Wu raised his hand and snapped his fingers. Bai Qian’s fox tails emerged, billowing behind her.
The Demon Emperor sneered as he approached Bai Qian himself, his heavy-lidded gaze slowly travelling the length of her body. He then peered into her eyes. “Are you sure you can make them work just like that? She was born blind.” Diao Wu whipped his hands over Bai Qian’s eyes, the green flames shooting out of his palms entering her irises. And Mo Yuan, who’d been about to explode out of the rock, held back as he witnessed a miracle… Bai Qian’s pupils dilated… then focused.
Qing Cang gave a gruff nod, watching as Bai Qian’s eyes now followed Diao Wu’s finger that he crossed slowly in front of her face from side to side.
“Let’s get on with it then,” the Demon Emperor uttered impatiently.
NOOOOO! Mo Yuan sprang out from the crevice too late. The trio’s shadows having dissolved a split second before in a burst of red mist.
qì 氣, life force
⇛ Next part: 35(第三十五章) The Warrior
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