Swish swish… Swish, swish…
Groaning at the sound of broom bristles sweeping the Den floor, Bai Qian yanked her blanket over her head. Her Royal Highness, the Immortal White Nine-Tailed Fox Queen Bai Qian of Qing Qiu, was not an early morning person.
It didn’t help that she’d been up during the night again. Sleep had proven elusive with all the churning thoughts about the previous day and the next in her head. So she’d ended up making two platters of sweet buns in the hours after midnight.
“Gu Gu,” the fastidiously sweeping Migu called from her chamber doorway. “Gu Gu, you need to get up if you’re going to be ready in time for your midday visit.”
Bai Qian flipped the blanket down off her head. Tendrils of her tousled hair clung to her face which she blew off with terse puffs of breath.
Slowly she opened her eyes and blinked.
A morning ritual ever since she’d been a child, Bai Qian believed that every new day should be greeted with open eyes, even if they happened to be shut on the inside.
When Bai Qian was very young and learning her colours from her father, she’d asked him, “What do my eyes resemble?” She still remembered the way his breath had been unsteady during a long moment of silence. “They resemble your mother’s,” was all the Fox King had murmured before walking away. Bai Qian never asked him the question again.
Zhe Yan had given her a more detailed answer of course when she’d asked her best friend years later. “Your eyes are a rich shade of brown, Qian Qian. Not like the brown of topsoil you always think of, more like… hmm, more like… the glossy shell of a chestnut! Yes, that’s right. A banli, slightly sweet on the inside with just the right crunch, just like you are! Hahaha!”
Bai Qian hadn’t been able to resist laughing at one of Zhe Yan’s typically colourful responses. But Zhe Yan, being Zhe Yan, hadn’t been able to resist launching into one of his “medical talks” right afterwards.
“Your pupils dilate reflexively, albeit a little slowly when stimulated by light —sunlight especially, did you know? Of course you did, I’ve told you this often enough. Don’t call me a parakeet for repeating things, peep! peep!” Zhe Yan chuckled. “You’ve very beautiful eyes, Qian Qian. And I will repeat, though I know you don’t want to hear it: You don’t need that silk band. Your eyes have never atrophied. They look perfectly healthy and fine. It’s why I think your blindness, the absence of your perception of light, can be cured somehow…” And he’d gone on and on at which point Bai Qian had tuned him out as was her habit whenever the Phoenix went off on one of his tangents.
“Guuuuu Guuuuu, this wonderful morning is quickly passing by,” Migu sing-songed from somewhere around the common area now.
“I’m getting up! I’m getting up! See how wonderful it is? I’m getting up!” Bai Qian flumped forward to sit upright, blinking some more then rubbing her eyelids as she swung her legs out of bed. The wool slippers she stepped into were cold.
I wonder if Lord Mo Yuan keeps wool slippers beside his bed.
Recalling the chill of the air atop Kunlun made her rub her hands together. The man’s a dragon. He probably sets himself on fire to keep warm during cold nights. Bai Qian chuckled softly at the silly thought. She couldn’t deny that Mo Yuan’s chamber hearth was a wonderful source of warmth though.
Why was she more nervous today than yesterday? Was it because her first impression of the God of War had not been what she’d expected?
While Bai Qian had been startled by the power that had swept through the hall as Mo Yuan had entered, in truth, it had been hearing him speak that had caught her completely off guard. She’d been prepared for the undertone of command; this was the God of War after all, a man who gave orders not to be questioned. But the deep, melodious resonance of his voice had left her in wonder. Would the Dragon’s roar, coming from within the man, sound the same?
The water in her washbasin was warm. Migu must have heated it while she still slept. She washed and dried her face. The skin on her hands stung a little from being chafed by the wind yesterday so she reached for the lotion by the basin and applied some to her skin.
Bai Qian had never been one to spend much time on her appearance. What use did she have for makeup or hair pieces or jewellery? Zhe Yan often told her she needed none of that. “You are very pretty as you are, Qian Qian.”
“What is pretty, Zhe Yan? What does it even mean?”
“It means you are pleasing to the eye, Qian Qian… those of men especially.”
“Then it is of no use to me, is it.”
Despite Bai Qian’s status and her age, no male suitor had ever come calling to the Fox Den nor requested permission from the Fox King to court her. Bai Qian knew very well why…
She shook her head. I have my people, my friends, my father… I don’t need anyone else. My life is full and rich. I’m far from being lone–
She had to get dressed. And given what she knew now of the temperature on Kunlun, she would choose something better suited for it.
Bai Qian’s fingers fluttered over the tops of the garments hanging on her clothing pole, revealing textures of crisp linen, slippery silk, fibrous wool, supple leather… The latter’s earthy mild, sweet smell brought to mind Kunlun’s First Disciple, Die Feng, who’d carried it with him when he’d greeted them at the gate. Mo Yuan had also borne the smell of leather yesterday, heightened by the scent of…
Her hand paused.
Bai Qian had no idea. The scent of…?
Since Bai Qian had never met a dragon before, she had no clue what that was. But how many weeks (months! years!!) of teasing would she be in for if she dared ask Zhe Yan the question. Would she even get a straight answer? She could only imagine all the possible ripe smelling responses Zhe Yan would give her.
And it certainly wasn’t a question she could bring up in polite conversation with the God of War himself. One did not simply go up to the Gold Dragon of Kunlun and say “Pardon me, but what do you smell like?”
Much of her nervousness vanished when she chuckled once more at her silly thoughts. No, the scent of a dragon is something I will have to learn on my own.
Bai Qian had always had a voracious appetite for knowledge, wanting to learn all she could about her surroundings and environment. It was why she always made a point of exploring the fine details of anything new she came across. But nothing new ever came or happened in Qing Qiu or the Peach Grove; she was intimately familiar with everything in both. The visits to Kunlun offered Bai Qian a rare chance to learn of new smells, sounds, tastes, and things to touch.
Her hand brushed the feather-lined winter cloak she’d been seeking at the far end of the pole.
All Bai Qian’s clothes were arranged on the pole by season. Beginning with spring, the clothes progressed to summer, then autumn, and finally winter. Each season held their assortment of fabrics which she easily distinguished by feel. The softness of feathers was something she loved, and that was definitely something she would never tell Zhe Yan, not unless she wanted to guarantee an eternity of teasing from him about it!
Today she would definitely wear pants and boots under a thick wool gown! She wouldn’t be able to feel the ground as well with boots but she would simply have to make do.
The only issue, of course, was what colours to choose.
Her father had taught her the colours by name but hadn’t been the one to teach her about their shades and hues, or which colours complemented each other and which clashed. It was Zhe Yan who’d taught Bai Qian all that as well as which colours suited her best; namely pinks, greens, and blues according to him. From the Phoenix, she’d learned that pastel shades looked nicest on her. Pastels were like colours that had been washed with clear water he’d explained to her.
Bai Qian slipped her fingers under the front collars of the winter wool gowns, to feel their colour button.
Colour buttons were something her father had devised. He’d come up with the idea of fashioning luminous pearl pieces he had leftover from crafting guqins into small flat buttons which he etched with different notches to indicate a primary colour. Bai Qian was able to read the colour of her articles of clothing by the buttons that were attached on the inside of collars, waistbands, or sleeves. And since mostly everything she had was in a light pastel, mixing and matching was not a problem.
Figuring the open sky reigned on Kunlun Mountain, Bai Qian chose a blue wool gown along with a pair of blue soft woolen pants.
The boots were easy to choose. She had but the single pair of soft brown leather.
Because Bai Qian went about barefoot at home in spring, summer, and early fall, her only footwear consisted of the boots and two pairs of shoes; one ordinary pair for walking in the village and Market, the other the soft-soled ones she’d worn yesterday for travel on unfamiliar terrain. Both pairs were black —which resembled wet ink. Black went with everything Zhe Yan had taught her.
Once dressed, Bai Qian ran her palm over the surface of the mirror above the washbasin, another morning ritual. A mirror was a useless item for her but the cool glass felt nice to the touch and, when she’d been young, Bai Qian used to imagine the mirror was sharing with her what it saw of her clothing, face, and hair when she touched it.
Her hair! She’d been about to forget!
Grabbing her brush from the top of her dresser, Bai Qian’s fingers skimmed the edge of the guqin her father had made for her years ago. She plucked the first string, the gong. It was perfectly in tune. All the strings were. She’d tuned them herself after all. Her father always asked her to do the final tuning of any new guqin he made. But the Fox King hadn’t received a commission in years and had stopped making new ones.
It would seem as time passed, the knowledge that the Fox King was a great craftsman of guqins passed as well.
Her father was away, travelling again, wanderlust being a powerful urge in foxes. Ever since Bai Qian had taken on the role of Queen, her father often left for longer and longer periods. Bai Qian knew it was to get away from the Fox Den where memories of her mother haunted him still. The Fox King’s spirit had been irrevocably torn from the loss of his beloved mate. Their physical bond may have been severed by death but never their eternal one.
The vibration of the guqin’s string continued to reverberate in the air.
Though Bai Qian had always gladly helped her father with tuning, she refused to play any songs herself because of what she’d discovered when trying to create her own composition once as a child after having learned how to play. A tune had softly started echoing in her mind as she’d been experimenting with different combinations of notes, a song she knew hadn’t come from her. When she mentioned such to her father, he’d asked her to hum it. And the wide-eyed Fox King had confirmed what Bai Qian had already known in her heart. The song was her mother’s, a tune Bai Qian somehow remembered from the womb, one Queen Ying Yue had played throughout her pregnancy because it made her happy.
Her fingers had turned to ice upon hearing that and she’d refused to try and play any songs on the guqin ever since. It hurt too much… a reminder that her life had cost her mother’s.
“GU GU!!” Gone was the sing-song voice as a now irate tree sprite sounded ready to splinter. “BREAKFAST!”
Bai Qian swiftly passed the brush through her hair before tossing it back onto the dresser and heading off to the kitchen.
Zhe Yan smiled when he saw Bai Qian’s attire. His friend had been cold yesterday he knew. He eyed her bare, chapped hands but knew better than to say anything.
“What? Do I have flour on my nose again? Migu made breakfast this morning, not me. Stop staring at my hands, Zhe Yan. I put lotion on them. You know I hate covering them with gloves or mittens.”
The Phoenix smiled, shaking his head. Even after all these years, it still amazed him how Bai Qian always knew when he was looking at her. She’d explained it was by the direction of his breathing and how it’s rhythm changed when he was focused. That… and how it was one of the rare times he stopped squawking, she teased.
“It certainly makes things easier that Lord Mo Yuan knows where the orchid is. Once he takes us to it, Zhe Yan, then what?”
Zhe Yan had to admit, he’d been pleasantly surprised when Mo Yuan had said he knew of the orchid and where to find it.
So why did the Phoenix feel uneasy now?
Had it to do with Mo Yuan himself? The silent exchange the men had shared hadn’t revealed much to Zhe Yan. The Gold Dragon had been impossible to read and Zhe Yan had been taken off guard by Mo Yuan’s offer to personally escort them himself. Any student, even a junior apprentice, would have sufficed. And both men knew it.
Why is the God of War taking a personal interest in this?
“I don’t know yet, Qian Qian. I’ll only be able to tell more once I look at the flower myself.”
Mo Yuan had barely looked at Zhe Yan yesterday. His loss, ha! Most of the Dragon’s attention had been directed towards Bai Qian. His best friend usually drew a certain kind of reaction when new people met her for the very first time. Should Zhe Yan have been surprised the Gold Dragon was no exception?
“Zhe Yan, um, when you cloud-jump us there today, could you not do so, uh, so exuberantly? I’d rather keep my breakfast in my stomach.”
Though Bai Qian was as able as any other immortal, one thing she couldn’t do was cloud-jump on her own. It certainly wasn’t for lack of magic but rather that in order to cloud-jump safely, one had to be able to see their landing spot. Since winds shifted and clouds moved, one could never rely solely on memory. If Bai Qian ever attempted to cloud-jump alone, she could easily end up in the middle of a lake or tumbling off a mountain cliff! This was another reason why Bai Qian rarely travelled beyond the borders of Qing Qiu and the Grove; anywhere she couldn’t get to on foot or on paws was impossible to cloud-jump to without a sighted escort.
“Qian Qian, I’m a phoenix. Exuberant flying is what I do! First you treat me like an albatross, now you want me to fly like one also?”
Bai Qian raised her hands in surrender. “Fine, fine, Zhe Yan, you win. But if my breakfast ends up decorating some of your tail feathers, I’m not responsible!”
The ancient wood of the massive gate doors had absorbed the comfortable warmth of the midday sun. Mo Yuan closed his eyes as he leaned back against one crossing his arms over his chest.
There was quite the temperature difference between the base of the mountain and the summit; the former sheltered by lower peaks and valley walls, the latter open to the sky and the winds…
Just as a dragon preferred it.
Short of living on a cloud, Kunlun’s summit was the closest Mo Yuan’s human form could get to the sky without taking flight as a dragon. Whether bathed in the light of day or the light of night (for it was never truly dark where there was always starlight), Mo Yuan couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than the top of Kunlun Mountain.
As he waited for the Phoenix and the Lady Bai to arrive, Mo Yuan reflected once more on his first impressions of the Queen of Qing Qiu. She was not what he’d been expecting. And nothing piqued Mo Yuan’s curiosity more than being presented with the rarity of the unexpected. He always wanted to know more about anything unfamiliar to him.
What’s it truly like to have no sense of light?
Even with his eyes closed, Mo Yuan could perceive the sunlight against his eyelids. Placing his palms over them just made him see black, but see he could nonetheless. What was it like to see… nothing?
Bai Qian’s use of her tails to guide her steps made complete sense to him, as well as using her sense of smell to pick detail of her surroundings, like identifying the kitchen from the corridor yesterday. But Mo Yuan doubted Bai Qian could detect all the scents that he did from that corridor.
Scent was the most powerful sensory ability of a dragon. It was one he’d learned long ago how to suppress in the background to avoid… distractions, as dragons hunted primarily by it. And suppress it he had yesterday, from the moment he’d entered the hall. The Phoenix’s perfume had been quite the aromatic wonder. But it had been Bai Qian’s scent that had captured Mo Yuan’s attention. It had taken but a moment for him to recognize it. He knew it from the westerly winds that blew through Qing Qiu from the neighbouring Peach Grove when he’d been there for his guqin.
Bai Qian’s scent was that of peach blossoms.
Mo Yuan’s eyes blinked open.
Regardless how well Bai Qian managed using her tails and her nose, it was her hearing that had truly impressed him. How had she known Chang Shan had a bandaged leg?
Closing his eyes again, Mo Yuan tilted his head.
He could hear birds chirping in the surrounding valleys. They were not as active midday as they were in the morning. Some he could identify by their call… Would Bai Qian know them all distinctly? Would it shock him if she could?
There was the buzzing of an insect nearby, and Mo Yuan found himself wondering if it was a bee or a wasp or simply a fly. Would she easily know this as well?
For Mo Yuan though, a most immediate and distinguishable sound was that of the breeze through the valley below. Dragons were instinctively attuned to any currents around them, be they of sea or sky, and Mo Yuan had always had an affinity for those of the wind over the water.
Bai Qian’s listening feat had indeed piqued his curiosity. For why else would Mo Yuan have gone straight to the kitchen this morning after reviewing the schedules for the day. Several of Mo Yuan’s men were already gathered at the tables there talking and laughing as Chang Shan prepared the morning meal.
For several minutes, Mo Yuan simply made a point of standing silently at the kitchen entrance, concentrating on the sound of Chang Shan walking. Yes, knowing to listen for it he could make out, barely, the uneven rhythm of the man’s slight limp but Mo Yuan couldn’t detect any distinct sound that revealed Chang Shan had a bandage under his pant leg.
Interesting… Advanced weapons training sometimes involved using a blindfold to learn to listen for motion but never to the level of Bai Qian’s ability. Mo Yuan wanted to ask her how she did it. How could she sound out such detail? But was that a question he could ask? “Pardon me, my Lady, but what do my pants sound like right now?” A grunt of laughter escaped from Mo Yuan before he opened his eyes, his expression hardening.
He mustn’t lose sight of his true goal which was to discover what connection “the Blind Fox” had to the demons or namely, Qing Cang.
The advanced flare of a fiery energy made the corner of Mo Yuan’s mouth curl up. The Phoenix certainly loved to make an entrance. Straightening himself up with shoulders squared, Mo Yuan watched the sparkling mist appear before him whereupon two figures emerged.
“Well, if it isn’t the Grandmaster himself waiting to greet us, Qian Qian!” a chipper-sounding Zhe Yan declared, studying Mo Yuan with a look of mirth.
Mo Yuan cloud-jumped them directly to the northern side of the mountain. A man who always moved with resolve, never hesitant, Bai Qian thought again from her observation of the way he walked yesterday.
But once upon the main pathway of the garden there, Mo Yuan did stop.
“Forgive me, Lady Bai, but there are many species of rare and fragile flowers and plants growing along the sides of the pathway. I’m afraid I must ask if you–”
“–could tuck in my tails?” Bai Qian finished his question with a smile. It was amusing to her to hear the Grandmaster of Kunlun clearing his throat uncomfortably.
“Yes, of course,” she continued, smiling still. “I understand. It’s not a problem.” Her tails vanished. Zhe Yan extended his elbow to her which she placed her hand upon. “Please, Grandmaster, lead the way.”
As they made their way along the path, Mo Yuan tried to determine what his next step should be.
This is going too quickly. I need to be able to talk to her somehow. Create a pretense of some sort to delay things? How?
But it turned out he needn’t have concerned himself as fate ended up interceding on his behalf.
Despite being the middle of the afternoon and full daylight, off the path up ahead came a faint silver glow, one which Zhe Yan immediately spotted.
“Ah! The silver moon orchids are there, yes?” the Phoenix asked excitedly.
“Just the one, yes.” Mo Yuan replied.
“Just the one?!” Zhe Yan exclaimed. “Uh, wait here then, Qian Qian. I want to get a good look first from a clear vantage point before I approach it then.” Taking back his elbow, Zhe Yan rushed forward up the path.
Bai Qian and Mo Yuan stood alone for the first time.
“Lord Zhe Yan is a most… outgoing being,” Mo Yuan said politely.
“You mean he’s easily excited?” Bai Qian laughed. “Yes, he is.”
When Bai Qian laughed, Mo Yuan noticed, her cheeks dimpled which created ripples in the silk band across her face.
“What is that delightful fragrance coming from where Zhe Yan just dashed to?” The silk band bobbed lightly upon the delicate bridge of her nose as she sniffed. “It smells of–“
“–of snowflakes? Spiced ones?” Mo Yuan finished for her this time.
And now it was Mo Yuan who laughed at the startled expression on Bai Qian’s lower face as her mouth formed a small o of surprise. “Well, uh, yes.” She hesitated at first. “Actually, that’s a really great way to describe it!” When she laughed along with him, Mo Yuan thought of music for some reason.
“Why does Zhe Yan get to have all the fun?” she seemed to ask herself. Before Mo Yuan could say anything in reply, Bai Qian dashed forward .
Drawn by the marvelous fragrance of the orchid, Bai Qian rushed ahead on the garden path, eager to be able to scent the unique perfume closer.
“Watch out!” called Mo Yuan, but too late.
Since she hadn’t her tails out, Bai Qian never felt the gnarled length of tree root in her way. Her foot hooked under it and she pitched forward, her ankle twisting with a sharp snap. Crying out in pain, she braced for the impact of the ground…
A powerful, muscled arm broke her fall as it whipcord about her waist, a large hand slipping under the side of her head just in time to hold it back from striking the ground.
Mo Yuan must have dove forward to catch her.
But that barely registered as Bai Qian’s attention was caught by the most incredible bristly soft texture she’d ever felt. Mo Yuan’s chin? It had brushed her forehead as he caught her.
“Bai Qian! Are you alright?!”
He called her without title, by her name alone.
Mo Yuan’s slightly racing heart thumped against her shoulder as he held her up, crouched on one knee.
What happened next, Bai Qian would never be able to explain why she did what she did.
Raising her hand to where she knew Mo Yuan’s face was, she felt him tense, his breath catching as her fingers landed on his lips. Quickly trailing them down to his chin, she broke into a smile despite the shooting pain radiating up her leg as she fluttered her fingertips lightly over what had to be… a beard.
Bai Qian had never felt a beard before! Her father and Zhe Yan were both clean-shaven, and they were the only men she’d ever hugged.
The exhales of heated breath against her knuckles were what snapped her out of her reverie finally. Bai Qian gasped. Her overpowering curiosity and need to explore the unfamiliar had gotten the better of her once again.
What am I doing?! Qian, have you lost your mind?! She was for all intents and purposes stroking the face of the mighty Dragon God of War in the middle of his flower garden!
Mortified, she dropped her hand.
Only to have it seized by his.
板栗 (banli) Chinese chestnut
古琴 (guqin) the Chinese seven-stringed zither
宮 (gong) first string tuned on guqin
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