40(第四十章) When Calls the Heart

Threads of consciousness wove through her dreams.

Dreams of soothing coolness… at the tip of her tails, cool cloths on her face, a cool breeze across her eyelids. And dreams of comforting warmth… the honey smell of her beeswax candles, a gentle hand lifting her head as broth entered her mouth that she swallowed.

Sunlight upon her.

There was a vague sense of time passing.

A voice.

Voices?

“Why isn’t she waking up? You said she was on the mend.” 

Father? No, he was away on his journeys.

“I said her body and her brain were slowly healing.” 

Zhe Yan!

Bai Qian so wanted to hug her best friend then swat him for scaring her so badly but like grasping at trickles of water through her fingers, she felt disconnected from herself, from her body. A warm languor lay upon her like a heavy blanket, keeping her tucked in.

Zhe Yan’s voice faded in and out now.

“…curse… with her all her life… take time. But… day passes, you’ve sensed… becoming more aware… may even hear us now… important to keep talking to her…”

_____

Her father’s calm voice read aloud. 

Did she fall asleep over a book with the reading crystal in her hand? 

There was the light flap of a page being turned. No. Bai Qian remembered now. Her father was there. She’d heard him speaking to Zhe Yan earlier,  or was it long ago?

Bai Zhi was reading a poem. It was one she liked to have read to her before bedtime when she was a toddler. She’d forgotten about it… the poem about a flower… one sown by moonbeams and carried by dragons.

Lulled to sleep, she forgot about it once again.

_____

Swish, swish, swish

A crunch of twigs, the rustle of leaves. Migu sweeping the floor of the remnants of dreams dusting her mind. Bai Qian could almost imagine what motes looked like, floating in her head.

_____

The sweet notes of a song were being played on a guqin in the warm afternoon sun.

A warm caress of a hand on her cheek. A bristly kiss on her brow.

The scent of a dragon, present, then gone.

Bai Qian so wanted the sunlit melody to return. She felt a lingering sense of loneliness without it.

Mo Yuan.

_____

A book closed with a soft press and a soft sigh.

“He is in love with you, Qian Qian,” her father said. “But the God of War, daughter? Not that I ever believed you couldn’t protect yourself but I would not be truthful if I didn’t say that as your father, there is a certain comfort in knowing that if you chose him…” There came another soft sigh. “To say I was stunned when a dragon, the Dragon, found me in the caverns beneath the Ice Seas would be an understatement. What a magnificent hunter to have tracked me so! None would dare provoke the ire of the most powerful predator spirit in our world by threatening you in any way.”

She felt her father’s hand gently squeeze hers.

“Zhe Yan and Mo Yuan have told me everything. The beast Qing Cang and his ghoul shaman… I wish I could have killed them myself for what they did to you, to my Ying Yue, to our people. Forgive me, Qian Qian, for not knowing, for not being there.”

There is nothing to forgive, Father.

_____

Another beautiful song on the guqin. A new composition. Another warm caress on the cheek.

“Please wake up. Please come back to me.”

_____

A hopping weight landed beside her bringing with it the smell of sweet grass and wood chips. A soft, twitching nudge against her cheek was followed by a pair of warm, velvety lengths that flopped onto her shoulder.

 Jia.

The little rabbit shifted to her human form. 

“Gu Gu! Master Zhe Yan says you can hear even if you’re all sleepyhead. The Fox King said I could come visit.”

Jia snuffled loudly.

“Gu Gu, you need to wake up. You’re missing all the fun! All of the grand dragon master Mo Yuan’s men take turns coming here to help fix the Mushroom Market. They’re all really, really nice. The Fox King says they’re all very compentenent. Delun and I watched the Giant today plant new poles into the ground –with just his hands!!” Jia’s voice was filled with awe. Then she giggled. “I also saw him talking and smiling later with Fenfang. Gu Gu, I think he likes her. Shhh, it’s a secret.”

Bai Qian could feel the little girl’s fingers take a section of her hair and begin braiding it. 

“Some of the older girls follow one of the men around whenever he comes. He’s the man who found me in the forest. They think he’s soooo handsome but I still like Gu Gu’s dragon best.” Jia started on another braid. “Mother told me yesterday that a pretty face might warm a smile, but it’s only when, umm, when calls the heart…?” Another loud snuffle. “Yes! That’s what it was. It’s only when calls the heart that a soul can find warmth, Mother said.”

Scritch, scritch

Little fingers scratching a little head. 

“I don’t understand what that means, Gu Gu, but Mother and Father started looking at each other all mushy and Delun dragged me out of the Rabbit Hole to leave them alone. Is it like the peach blossom heart inside the pearl dragon we got for a hopistailty gift?”

A peach blossom heart for a dragon? So that was the secret special touch. Jia didn’t realize she’d revealed it. 

Her little friend continued on excitedly.

Delun says he wants to go study at the mountain school…”

_____

Zhe Yan’s perfume.

Then brisk air on her eyes as her eyelids were gently opened, revealing nothing… revealing everything.

“I still maintain you can hear us, Qian Qian,” Zhe Yan said. “Are you listening, now?” A slow inhale of breath. “Let’s not do that ever again, shall we? Facing demons, dead or alive? I know you don’t know all that happened yet. For now, suffice to say I’d rather just be happy as a lark with my research and my wine and my best friend visiting me in the Peach Grove when she isn’t busy cuddling with her dragon –that’s what the little bunny said to me the other day. Ha! Children are always refreshingly frank, aren’t they?”

Zhe Yan’s laughter trailed off. He remained quiet for a long while before speaking again. “I won’t lie, Qian Qian. I was scared. For you mostly, and maybe a little for me. Not for the Dragon, of course,” Zhe Yan huffed. “If he couldn’t take on Qing Cang –good riddance to that putrid vulture– then he doesn’t deserve you.”

Bai Qian felt her pillow being fluffed.

“I have no memory of what happened after I…” Zhe Yan’s voice faltered but he quickly rallied with his natural cheerfulness. “The next thing I knew I felt my wings open wide and a rush of fire sent me soaring upwards. Never would I have imagined I could do that, from the ashes of my…” He fell silent a moment then broke out laughing. “Ashes! They cling to everything, Qian Qian! What a nightmare cleaning it off one’s feathers!”

A quick exhale of breath now. 

“Qian Qian, the Dragon said that you may have seen me in my phoenix form. Is that true? Wake up sooner, ok? I want to know what that was like, and hear from you how fabulous I must have looked. I think the Dragon wants to know if you saw him too but he’ll never admit it.”

Her wrist was clasped between his fingers as Zhe Yan read her pulse.

“You know, Qian Qian. Mo Yuan’s been here spending time with you as often as he can. If anything, you need to wake up sooner to protect him from your father. I think Bai Zhi is the first and only being in all Four Seas and Eight Lands to make the Dragon God of War nervous. And I don’t blame him. The rare displays of the wild Fox King’s temper are the stuff of legend. I mean, where else could his daughter have inherited it from? Ha!”

Bai Qian’s inward smile stayed when dreamful sleep overtook her once again.

_____

The sun was back, along with another beautiful melody on the guqin. An expressive piece that spoke of many things. But it was to Mo Yuan’s words that Bai Qian wished to listen.

“My men have all been volunteering in shifts to help rebuild that which was destroyed here by the demons. How blessed you are, Qian Qian, to have such a people as the woodland spirits of Qing Qiu. They have been nothing but welcoming to me and my disciples. I have had the privilege of becoming acquainted with many here. Jia has taken it upon herself to be my guide and personally introduce me to everyone –as ‘Gu Gu’s dragon’.” Mo Yuan laughed softly.

“Your people are so kind and friendly. They miss you terribly, you know. Perhaps even as much as I do.”

There came the warm press of his head against hers, and a gradual slowing of his breathing as he fell asleep beside her. She recalled now that it was not the first time. 

Bai Qian listened to the comforting beat of Mo Yuan’s heart as she fell back asleep as well.

_____

Migu was bemoaning having nothing to do for her.

“I already swept the snow off the front steps twice.”

Trees liked to be kept busy, cleaning things, freshening the air. He snuck her spoonfuls of honey. “What Zhe Yan doesn’t know, won’t hurt me,” Migu said in a conspiratorial whisper.

“Gu Gu, the Beekeeper told me to tell you she has a new batch of candles. They’re scented with very special peach blossoms… shaken loose by a thunderstorm.”

_____

A rough clearing of a throat.

“Why so uncomfortable, First Senior?” Zi Lan teased.

“As if you would be any more comfortable in a lady’s bedchamber, Sixteenth Brother?” Da Bao countered.

“Hmph, is it because the Lady is sleeping in her bed?” the 16th Disciple asked, earning him an even louder clearing of the throat from Die Feng.

“Men…” came the exasperated reply of Fenfang whose hand Bai Qian felt patting hers. 

“Gu Gu, don’t worry about a thing. The rebuilding and repairs are well in hand. I am overseeing the work at the Market along with the Fox King and Grandmaster Mo Yuan. It should only be another few weeks until everything is done. But we’re all anxious for you to wake up and lend a tail or two. I also want to discuss an idea I had about putting in some new stalls and expanding the storage alley.”

“Wake soon, Lady,” Zi Lan chimed in. “Second Brother just can’t get the knack of recreating your jianbing recipe. My brothers and Shifu all need you to come make us some more.”

“Ow!”

“You’re lucky it’s me and not Shifu!” Die Feng hissed.

The bed vibrated from the Giant’s deep laughter.

_____

“Truly?” Zhe Yan asked.

“Hmm,” her father spoke. “The Dragon told me that the orchid whose light you absorbed never regained its glow. As per its supposed lifecycle, it withered and died at the next full moon. The new flower that sprouted from its roots has no glow either. You can ask him about it when he returns from the Demon Lands.”

The bedside weighed down a little as her father sat on its edge beside her.

“Whatever the silver light was, it served its purpose it would seem,” Bai Zhi concluded.

“…sown by moonbeams and carried by dragons,” Zhe Yan murmured.

“What did you just say?”

“It’s what the sea witch ancestor of the midwife of Donghai said to her to describe the orchid,” Zhe Yan replied.

“It’s also a line from a poem I would read to Qian Qian when she was little to help her not be afraid to go to sleep.” The Fox King’s voice was tinged with wonder.

“A poem?” Zhe Yan sounded confused. “What poem?”

Rest easy, my child,

For even in darkness a flower may bloom.

One sown by moonbeams and carried by dragons.

Let its light shine in your heart and guide true.

For love is its power

that will blossom within you.

Bai Zhi paused to let the words he recited sink in.

“Who wrote that poem?” Zhe Yan asked dumbfounded.

“I’ve no idea. It is in a collection from my library that I have had forever. One that has been in the Fox Clan since time immemorial.”

Both men fell silent for a while.

“The ancient text in the midwife of Donghai’s possession spoke of Heavenly Mother having created the silver moon orchid,” Zhe Yan said quietly. “I think… I think Heavenly Mother foresaw it being needed to combat the black magic we faced. I believe the carried by dragons refers solely to Mo Yuan. The silver orchid did follow the lunar cycle so it–“

“The orchid was not the only flower sown by the moon,” Bai Zhi interrupted.

Zhe Yan’s robes swished as he must have spun on his heels. “What do you mean?”

“Qian Qian.”

“What about Qian Qian? She isn’t a flow–” Zhe Yan’s words came full stop, like when one is struck by some startling truth.

“She is like a flower to a dragon, no?” her father said. “Her scent, that is. To a dragon, Qian Qian would be like a flower… a living, breathing peach blossom.”

Bai Qian, who’d been listening intently, felt her father stroke her arm.

“And then there was my Ying Yue.”

“Ying Yue?” Zhe Yan gasped. “Of course…the characters of her name.”

“Ying Yue, 映月, a reflection of the moon,” Bai Zhi said with a touch of sadness. “Qian Qian was the flower sown by moonbeams and carried by dragons. And as a phoenix, you were the light to guide their way.”

“Or Qian Qian is the light Heavenly Mother foresaw that would illuminate Mo Yuan’s way through the darkness of his life.” Zhe Yan sounded annoyed.

“What’s with that face, Zhe Yan?”

“Any way you interpret any of it,” the Phoenix grumbled, “my role was incidental? I was just some messenger pigeon? That warrior dragon had better take care of his flower from now on!”

“But what would a warrior know of flowers?” Bai Qian whispered in a voice hoarse from disuse, blinking her unseeing eyes as was her habit when she awoke.

“Qian Qian!!” Her father and Zhe Yan both cried out at once. 

Her father’s arms wrapped around her, joined a moment after by a laughing Zhe Yan’s embracing them both.

_____

Over the next few days, she slowly worked her way back onto her feet, ate to Migu, her father, and even Zhe Yan’s satisfaction, then once she could stretch and fan out her tails, was able to walk about the Den unaided. 

Through it all, Zhe Yan recounted the story of everything that had come to pass. He filled in the parts that Bai Qian had missed. It was quite the tale, a story of a lifetime. 

Bai Qian found herself wondering though. Had parts somehow been written by Heavenly Mother or had it been written solely by Fate?

As to how the story ended, were there chapters that remained to be read?

An off-key whistling heralded the arrival of Zhe Yan who’d accompanied her father to the Market earlier. The weather had turned warm and what scant snow they’d received in Qing Qiu had melted. The Fox King had gone to the Market today to help with the digging of a new well now that the ground was bare again.

From the creaky thumping against his leg and the pungent smell of cabbage, Zhe Yan had returned with a basket of winter vegetables.

“You’re going to need to recover your stamina, Qian Qian, before venturing out to familiarize yourself with the new layout of the Market.” Zhe Yan placed the basket on the table and she reached into it. Sure enough, cabbage, carrots, a few onions

“I had to remove the scar tissue from your tails slowly which is why the fur is growing back a little funny for now.” Zhe Yan took a seat. 

Bai Qian lightly raked her fingers through the lush fur of one of her tails, its thickness abruptly ending just before the tip covered in a thin fine down. She sucked in a quick breath as she did this. There was no pain but the tip was quite sensitive to the touch.

“Hmm, they’re going to be overly sensitive for a while,” Zhe Yan said, gauging her reaction. “Therefore, as your wonderfully sweet peach physician, I am now prescribing lots of leisurely strolls outside in the snow so they can brush against a cool, fluffy, soft surface as you walk –nothing rough.”

Bai Qian frowned. Hadn’t the snow all melted?

“All those well-built, sweaty, bare-chested disciples at the Market today helping to dig the well informed me there was a fresh snowfall on Kunlun. Mmm, strolls in the fresh mountain air under an open sky, perhaps in the company of someone whom I was also informed was expected to return today and very likely doesn’t know yet that you are up and about. What do you say, Qian Qian? Shall we go invade the Dragon’s lair?”

_____

An exhausted Mo Yuan leaned on his elbows, finishing off the only cup of hot tea he’d had in almost a week. 

The wretched living conditions they’d discovered in the Demon Lands when the Celestial forces had gone in were appalling. Qing Cang had plundered  his lands’ resources to develop his military regime, leaving none of it for the welfare of the common demon population.

Having gone over what pressing orders of business there were that had been left on his desk, Mo Yuan prepared to freshen up before making his way to visit the Fox Den. 

How was Bai Qian? 

Mo Yuan was beyond eager to see her. He hoped when she wakened–please, Qian Qian, wake up soon–that she wouldn’t be upset  he’d been playing her guqin while he was there. It was her father who’d given him permission. 

On occasion, when Bai Zhi stepped out of the Den while he was there, Mo Yuan allowed himself the luxury of placing his head next to Bai Qian’s on her pillow and closing his eyes. There was just something about being with her while she slept that was so restful for him.  But he was anxious to see her smile again.

Zhe Yan kept reassuring him and her father that she would wake when her mind was ready. 

Though blind she would remain.

Mo Yuan’s hand froze when he reached to drain his cup.

An essence pulsed at the gate of Kunlun, purposely announcing one’s arrival. And it was not the colourful beacon of a certain phoenix this time but an essence that called to Mo Yuan’s heart, enveloping it in its warm light and softly fragranced scent of peach blossoms.

Sheets of parchment flew and scattered in the tremendous gust created by a growling God of War who vanished in a burst of cloud-jumping mist.

⇛ Next part: 41(第四十一章) The Hush of Falling Snow

⇚ Previous part: 39(第三十九章) A Thousand Exploding Suns

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