A sleepy Migu had creaked with surprise when Bai Qian had offered him the entire pot of fish soup she’d prepared the night before. She listened with a faint smile as he shuffled off grumbling with the heavy pot in his hands. She’d volunteered to lighten it with magic so he could carry it home but the tree sprite had flatly refused, muttering something about how using magic on food made it taste funny afterwards.
It wasn’t long before Zhe Yan returned to get her. From the entryway of the Fox Den, he cloud-jumped them directly to the gate at the base of Kunlun Mountain where they stood waiting to be greeted and allowed through. Zhe Yan had made a point of pulsing his phoenix energy like a beacon so there’d be no doubt as to who had arrived. Bai Qian groaned at her best friend’s showy antics –she being one who hated to stand out. Then it occurred to her to ask Zhe Yan what he was wearing, which ended up making her groan even more.
He was wearing one of his best robes under his cloak, Zhe Yan chuckled, one just for special occasions. Bai Qian thought for a moment. That meant either the orange one, the colour she’d been taught as a child resembled the setting sun, or the purple one that was supposed to resemble the heart of an amethyst.
Bai Qian’s father had taught her colours by matching their names with things they resembled. Pink resembled the peach blossoms. Blue resembled the cloudless sunny sky. Brown resembled the soil just before the flowers bloomed…
Booted steps approached from the opposite side of the gate at a crisp pace. A man’s voice formally greeted them, introducing himself as First Disciple, Die Feng. When asked if they would please follow him, Bai Qian placed her hand on Zhe Yan’s elbow and fanned out her tails before and beside her.
The cloak Bai Qian wore was specially designed with a crisscrossing opening at the base of her back. Her tails could emerge discreetly from there whenever she needed them without having to poke out from beneath her skirt hem. Her entire wardrobe was designed in the same way.
Bai Qian used her tails as feelers when walking in an unfamiliar place, keeping four or five of them low to the ground and sweeping lightly ahead of her so as not to walk into anything. The other tails she would fan out only slightly past her shoulders so as not to bump into anything on either side of her.
Had the disciple been interrupted from some kind of physical activity? Training perhaps? The man’s breathing was laboured and he carried the scent of warm leather, perspiration, and metal upon him.
The Kunlun general’s long, heavy strides were in direct contrast to Bai Qian’s. The soft-soled shoes she’d purposely worn were what allowed her to tread lightly and feel the texture of surfaces she walked on when she couldn’t go barefoot. They helped guide her steps along with her tails.
After being led up a long winding pathway, the air changed when they entered what Zhe Yan told her was the temple. The ground beneath Bai Qian’s feet became stone flooring and Zhe Yan proceeded to describe for her under his breath the general layout of the place as they continued to follow the First Disciple.
“About 10 paces to your right is a corridor that looks to lead to a training yard in the distance. To the left of us are many study tables with stacks of parchment and scrolls on each. There’s a lovely view of a mountain lake from an open alcove to the…” On and on Zhe Yan went, describing what he was seeing while the disciple remained silent except for the rhythmic thumping of every measured step he took. A calculating man… an economy of motion when walking… This was a warrior who never lost his footing, Bai Qian thought.
“If you’ll please have a seat, I will have tea brought to you while you wait, which shouldn’t be long. The Grandmaster is aware of your arrival… of course.” The shift in direction of the man’s voice suggested to Bai Qian that this added remark had been directed squarely at Zhe Yan. The heels of the general’s boots rubbed smoothly against the stone floor as he must have pivoted, his steps then moving away to recede in the distance.
“Have you ever met him before, Zhe Yan? Have you ever met the God of War?” Bai Qian used one of her tails to feel out the chair beside her before sitting down. She then draped the rest over her lap for added warmth. I don’t think I could ever live here. Autumn temperatures had only started to be felt in Qing Qiu, but here on Kunlun it was a whole different matter. She shivered at the chill of the chair through her clothes. The mountain breeze blew freely through this part of the temple. Zhe Yan did say there was an open alcove before. I guess there must be several.
“I only met him once, at a Peach Festival in the Ninth Sky.” Zhe Yan sighed. “Let’s just say Mo Yuan didn’t strike me as the most social of people. To be honest, I never thought I’d receive a positive reply to my second request, let alone so quickly.”
“Your second request?” Bai Qian was surprised. Zhe Yan hadn’t mentioned that last night.
“Mmm, my first request had been denied which, while disappointing, was not unexpected. I’d only asked if I could visit the gardens, nothing else. That’s why I didn’t tell you what I’d done when I first talked to you about the flower. But you know me, Qian Qian, I’m not one to take no for an answer so I requested again. Only this time I revealed that it was specifically for you.”
“Father met him,” Bai Qian said, slipping her hands under her tails for a moment to warm them. “Did you know Lord Mo Yuan commissioned a guqin from my father years ago?”
“Yes, I know. Your father used the same wood from a peach tree of my grove to make Mo Yuan’s guqin as he did yours…” Zhe Yan’s voice trailed off but Bai Qian heard the unspoken ‘though you don’t play’ nonetheless.
She heard Zhe Yan shift in his seat, his breathing now directed away from her. No doubt the curious Phoenix had turned his head to take in more details of their surroundings.
“He didn’t strike you as the most social of people, Zhe Yan?” Bai Qian stated, addressing the Phoenix’s initial comment. “I somehow doubt it’s a kind and warm disposition that makes for a warrior god of the Immortal Realm.”
Someone approached their table from behind Zhe Yan, the smell of brewed tea wafting before them. Bai Qian tilted her head at the slight clattering of what she surmised to be the empty teacups on a tray. The person approaching had an unbalanced gait. Limping. Something sounded like it rubbed awkwardly against the fabric that moved with their steps. A bandage about a leg? Whoever it was must serve in the kitchen for they brought with them the delicious smells of seared meat, spring onions, ginger, and various other spices.
Cups were placed before her and Zhe Yan and tea was poured with a light splash. “Shifu should be on his way shortly,” the man’s voice said in a pleasant tone. “In the meantime, please enjoy some of our oolong tea. We cultivate the leaves from our very own gardens here on Kunlun. It’s a specialty brew.”
“Hmm,” Zhe Yan smacked his lips loudly, no doubt for her benefit. “Delicious!” Was the wide grin Bai Qian could hear Zhe Yan’s voice talking through meant to dazzle or tease the man who served them?
The man cleared his throat after a pause and Bai Qian smothered a smile. He must have bowed given the ruffle of his clothing, whereupon he retreated with his uneven footsteps.
Bai Qian curled her fingers around her cup, welcoming the heat of the tea that seeped into her cold hands. She was glad she’d worn a cloak as Zhe Yan had to come here, but covering her hands was not an option. She always kept them bare. Being able to feel with them was an integral part of her tactile sight; her hands just as much as her tails.
The mountain breeze in the open reception hall was making her cheeks cold too. Bai Qian’s silk ribbon didn’t offer much in the way of warmth for her face. Her eyelids felt the chill as well as the tips of her ears which, had she been in her fox form, would have been turned towards the back as she listened to two boys whispering about her from a short distance behind her.
They were off to the left, not too far away, their cracking adolescent voices were being obstructed. They were hiding behind something.
“Look… It’s the Blind Fox… Look at her tails,” they were whispering.
When Zhe Yan broke the companionable silence they’d been in to begin loudly explaining how the hall was designed with numerous pillars, Bai Qian smiled. It was his way of letting her know he was aware of the boys who didn’t seem to get the hint as they remained where they were.
Bai Qian hovered her hand over where she knew the teapot to be given the heat it released. The steam from its spout indicated to her where the handle opposite had to be. Grasping the handle, Bai Qian extended her other hand to Zhe Yan who gave her his empty cup which she refilled. Her friend had a bad habit of guzzling his tea. Zhe Yan’s fingers lightly brushed over hers as he took his cup back from her hand. Placing the pot back down where it had been, she made sure to turn the handle towards her this time.
“You know, Qian Qian, this tea reminds me of…”
Zhe Yan started prattling on about an idea he’d had to use some of the peach blossoms from the grove to make a unique tea of his own.
Mo Yuan stopped to observe the senior students wrap up their practice in the weapons courtyard. The leather of his gloves creaked against the cold railing he gripped as he leaned forward. The bottom flaps of his leather cloak flapped in a downwind which streamed the long loose ends of his halfbound hair over his shoulder.
Die Feng, Kunlun’s broadsword instructor, stood in the middle of the yard supervising the students’ routines. His First acknowledged Mo Yuan’s presence with but a brusque nod, never completely taking his eyes off the younger men wielding the wide bladed weapons.
The training courtyards of Kunlun were renowned in the Immortal Realm. Families vied to have their sons accepted to the school where they would learn not only the precepts of Taoism but the martial arts too; weapons training being a fundamental component of the curriculum as well as fighting technique involving animal and elemental movements. The development of internal and external power through meditation and exercise was incorporated in all classes.
All students began their weapons training with different lengthed staffs before moving on to spears. Once ready for swords, they would begin with the single bladed ones first, such as the broadsword whose class Die Feng taught.
The double-edged swords came later. And only once a student could demonstrate sensitivity, lightness, and speed with them could they begin training in earnest with the queen of weapons, the long sword, whose classes Mo Yuan taught directly.
Senior students who so desired could specialize afterwards in specific secondary weaponry such as the dagger, the chain whip, the meteor hammer… even the halberd, the Demon Emperor’s weapon of choice.
Mo Yuan gripped the railing tighter.
After all this time, they were still no closer to discovering the reason behind the random demon attacks upon Celestial territory. The attacks followed no discernible pattern with regards to time or location, only a consistent pattern of savage brutality and… confounding perplexity. For while the Celestial forces did suffer losses each time, the Demon forces were always completely wiped out. Not a single demon ever survived any of the battles, being killed every time –and not solely at the hands of Celestials.
Only Mo Yuan, his generals, and Heaven’s Ruler knew about this.
The God of War never believed for a single moment that it was due to the superior fighting capabilities of his men and the Celestial forces they led, though Heaven’s Ruler was happy to proclaim it so at councils.
Though the demon soldiers fought with all the ferocity and intent of taking as many Celestial lives as they could, in the end the demons would all die, on purpose. Mo Yuan had witnessed it innumerable times. A demon general he’d overpowered in the last attack near the Chang Sea had thrown himself upon Mo Yuan’s sword rather than surrender to him, the blade killing him instantly as it sliced through his black heart.
The Demon Emperor was never present at these battles, in hiding somewhere. Biding his time? For what? Mo Yuan knew there had to be something behind these senseless attacks… senseless to all but Qing Cang. His Fourth Disciple Zhong Yi must have discovered what it was but had been unable to fully convey it in his desperate message.
What is your endgame, Qing Cang? And how is the Blind Fox involved?
“Zhe Yan, about this lunar flower…”
“Silver moon orchid.”
“Yes, that. Isn’t this the wrong time of year to be looking for fl–” Bai Qian tensed.
The wave of energy that flowed through the hall instantly set her on edge, making her slide her tails off her lap and back behind her
It must be him. Mo Yuan.
“Mo Yuan just entered the hall,” Zhe Yan whispered. He began to describe to her what was going on but she was no longer listening.
Bai Qian had never met a dragon before. None lived within nor anywhere near Qing Qiu.
The fur on her tails stood on end at the power radiating from the man. He seemed to displace the air before him with a force she likened to a dragon in flight though astride on two legs.
Mo Yuan’s gait was steady, light, yet purposeful –a man who always walked with resolve, never shuffling or hesitant. So when he did pause for a moment, Bai Qian tilted her head in surprise. But a faint smile crossed her lips at the combined gasp of the two boys behind the pillar before she heard them scurry away. They’d been caught by the Grandmaster.
Though Mo Yuan’s strides were brisk, his breathing remained even, not a breath wasted. But as he drew closer Bai Qian heard him sharply inhale. He’s scenting the air. Why? She’d recognized the action, often doing the same herself as she relied on her sense of smell to add detail to her surroundings.
Could it be Zhe Yan’s perfume?
Another faint smile crossed her lips and Zhe Yan laughed, assuming she’d reacted to something he’d said.
Entering the hall, Mo Yuan paused a moment by a pillar, keeping his eyes looking ahead. The two junior apprentices that had been hiding behind it snapped to attention then rushed off to their chore duties.
The Phoenix’s gaze had fixed upon him the moment he’d entered the hall. Mo Yuan knew that Queen Bai Qian had sensed his arrival by the way her body had stiffened.
The Phoenix had not changed at all. High God Zhe Yan looked exactly the same as when Mo Yuan had met him at a Peach Festival long ago. It appeared the Phoenix’s propensity for chattering nonstop had not changed either, whispering away the whole time to his companion… the Blind Fox… the blind, white nine-tailed fox.
The Queen’s white fox tails were in full view, given her back was to him. He’d seen them move off her lap to extend behind her when he’d first come in. Bai Qian had been using her tails to blanket her lap he surmised. Mo Yuan remembered reading in a text somewhere that foxes did not tolerate the cold well.
As he got closer, he noted with interest the knotted ends of cloth that fluttered behind her head in the breeze along with tendrils of her hair.
“Ah, Grandmaster Mo Yuan, a pleasure to see you again.” Zhe Yan’s chair scraped against the stone floor as he rose. The Phoenix bowed politely to him, which he returned in kind, before turning his attention to the one who’d chosen to remain seated.
Reading emotion in the gaze of an enemy was a skill Mo Yuan excelled at, but the cloth over her eyes that came into view when Bai Qian turned her head to face him obstructed everything. Frustration and unease rose within him as he realized her body language was all he could rely on for now. Catching himself before he frowned, Mo Yuan experienced an almost visceral response to the band of white silk that cut across Bai Qian’s face… like a blade, he thought for some reason.
If eyes were the window to one’s soul, Bai Qian’s were effectively shuttered against him.
Her mouth seemed to be poised on the edge of a smile. Could she somehow tell that he was studying her?
“Lady Bai Qian, High God Zhe Yan, welcome to Kunlun Mountain. If you’ll come with me now, I will personally escort you to my study where we may discuss matters privately.”
As she stood up, Bai Qian’s fox tails divided and Mo Yuan watched how some went low to the ground before her, while the remaining fanned out slightly from her sides. She knew somehow when the Phoenix extended his elbow out to her and shook her head no, choosing instead to clasp her hands casually behind her back. With a shrug, Zhe Yan dropped his elbow and grinned at Mo Yuan to proceed.
So she uses her tails to help guide her, Mo Yuan thought as the two guests followed behind him, white fox tails sweeping gently across the floor. He’d thought maybe to slow his pace but it turned out to be unnecessary. Bai Qian had no difficulty at all matching his pace.
Mo Yuan listened as the Phoenix described the surroundings to Bai Qian in a low voice as they walked. “As you can no doubt hear, Qian Qian, we’re passing a training yard to the left. There are young ones practising with long staffs at the moment. There’s another corridor off to the right now. I can’t tell where it leads to.”
“It leads to–” Mo Yuan began.
“–the kitchens,” Bai Qian finished. Mo Yuan blinked in surprise then turned to face her.
“The man with the bandaged leg who served us tea earlier,” she explained. “The smell of food and spices upon him was the same as that coming from the corridor.”
She could tell Chang Shan had a bandaged leg? Impressive. “Yes, my Second Disciple Chang Shan. His leg is still bandaged from an injury he took during the last demon attack. It will be a little while longer before he can resume full training duty again.”
Bai Qian’s jaw clenched and her lips thinned at his mention of the demon attack. Mo Yuan kept his expression carefully neutral, at least for the Phoenix.
There were different levels of blindness, were there not? Given her astute observations, could it be Bai Qian wasn’t completely sightless? Was she able to see his face at all, Mo Yuan wondered now.
“You are very… observant, Lady Bai. I had believed you to be completely blind from birth.”
“Hardly her choice, was it.” All joviality had vanished from the Phoenix’s voice. It would seem Zhe Yan didn’t take kindly to Mo Yuan’s tone with her.
“It’s alright, Zhe Yan. Yes, Grandmaster. I was born completely blind. I’ve spent all my life relying on my other senses in order to see my surroundings and make observations.”
“I see,” Mo Yuan replied as they arrived at his study door.
The roaring fire in the hearth seemed most appreciated by Bai Qian who kept extending her hands towards the flames.
Mo Yuan had had them all sit by the fire, making sure to offer Bai Qian the chair closest to it. He’d watched as she’d used one of her tails to feel out the seat before settling down on it before draping all her tails over her lap as a blanket once again.
High God Zhe Yan had just finished explaining their reason for wanting to visit Kunlun.
“You wish to scour my mountain in search of some mystical flower that may or may not exist… because of something you read in an ancient tome?” Mo Yuan stared at Zhe Yan who sat beside Bai Qian.
“Kunlun Mountain’s gardens are sacred.” Mo Yuan’s tone was severe.
Bai Qian gave Zhe Yan’s sleeve a hard tug.
“Forgive our intrusion today then, Grandmaster,” she said. “Of course as God of War your focus must remain on military campaigns and battle. It was presumptuous of us to assume otherwise. After all, what would a warrior god know of flowers?”
Mo Yuan’s eyes narrowed on the silk band across her face.
“Grandmaster Mo Yuan.” Zhe Yan drew Mo Yuan’s attention back to him. “As the Lady Bai alludes to, it is truly not our intention to trouble a great and busy warrior such as yourself with trivial matters. I assure you we would not require an escort. I can search the grounds using my own cultivation. We have no intention of calling the God of War away from any of his prescribed duties.”
The crackling of the fire was the only sound to be heard as the Phoenix now met Mo Yuan’s fierce gaze head on with one of his own. Mo Yuan knew he was doing it on purpose. This silent communication of gazes was meant to be only between them. There was much to be read in Zhe Yan’s eyes. The Phoenix obviously cared a great deal for his friend.
Bai Qian was tugging at Zhe Yan’s sleeve even harder now but the Phoenix maintained his silent eye contact with Mo Yuan.
What would a warrior god know of flowers?
Mo Yuan had always been called to the battlefield. He’d never before been called to a garden.
Perhaps this presented a unique chance to discover all he could about Bai Qian of Qing Qiu, the Blind Fox.
Both his guests started when Mo Yuan suddenly stood, the Phoenix now eyeing him with a quizzical air.
Crossing his arms across his chest, Mo Yuan stared into the fire.”This warrior god would indeed happen to know of flowers, Lady Bai Qian. The silver moon orchid grows in a remote section of garden on the northern side of Kunlun. I will accompany you both there personally myself. Shall we say tomorrow, mid-day?”
⇛ Next part: 5(第五章) The Scent of a Dragon
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