The Grey Wolf was closing his stall for the night. The packet of steamed fish he’d wrapped for Bai Qian still lay on a crate beside him. Neither she nor Migu had passed by this day.
At the sound of laughter, he glanced up. The two rabbit children who made the Market their own playground were coming down the lane. Each carried a basket of mushrooms. They were often recruited by the Mushroom Fairy to help her bring any unsold mushrooms back to her house.
Paying them no mind, the Grey Wolf continued putting away his stall items.
“Delun,” the little sweet one, Jia, asked her brother just as they were passing in front of his stall. “Does that mean Gu Gu will be falling in love and cuddling with a dragon soon?” The Wolf’s ears perked as he watched them from the corner of his eye while still going about his business.
The boy started laughing so hard that some of the mushrooms in his basket spilled out. Stopping in the middle of the lane, both children crouched to scoop them up.
“You silly bunny, Jia!” Delun kept laughing. “Everybody knows dragons are dangerous and angry all the time. Dragons don’t cuddle! They don’t have feelings like love. They just blow things up with water or fire!” For dramatic effect he splayed his fingers wide and made an explosive poof noise with his mouth.
The little one scowled at her brother.
“That makes no sense! Why can’t Gu Gu love a dragon and he love her back?” Jia argued. “If dragons don’t love and cuddle, how can there ever be more dragons?” She paused to scratch her nose. “Poor Gu Gu must be lonely with no one to play with at the Den. It would be fun, no, Delun? She and her dragon could play and cuddle and she would never get cold because he would keep her warm with his fire. Then they could have lots of baby dragons and foxes! Mother says babies come when parents love each other very much and cuddle. With our ten brothers and sisters, we have the biggest family in all of Qing Qiu! It’s never lonely for us!”
The boy had stopped laughing by this point. Round cheeks red, he eyed his sister with an awkward grimace. “Uh, I know you feel sorry for Gu Gu, Jia. But she has all of us Woodland spirits and the people of Qing Qiu to play with her. How can she be lonely?”
Having gathered all the stray mushrooms, the children stood up, both starting at the Wolf who was now leaning over his stall looking straight at them. The Wolf gave them a toothy grin. Delun smiled and nodded politely then resumed walking. But little Jia stood there stock still and stared at him. The Wolf could see the reflection of his grizzled brows in her wide eyes. With a nervous blink, the girl clutched her basket tighter and sprinted off after her brother.
“Stop being silly, Jia,” the Wolf heard the boy say just before they reached the end of the lane. “He’s just a harmless old wolf. He’s not a dragon. There’s nothing dangerous about him.” The children disappeared round the corner.
“Sold all your fish for today?”
“Fenfang,” the Wolf greeted the Mushroom Fairy as she came down the lane now with baskets tucked under each arm. “Fenfang, have you seen Gu Gu today?”
The Mushroom Fairy smiled. “I was just telling Jia and Delun that Gu Gu is visiting outside of Qing Qiu today. When one of my fairies delivered her mushroom order and the market accounts to the Fox Den, Migu said Gu Gu and Zhe Yan were gone to Kunlun Mountain.”
“Kunlun Mountain?! Where the great war dragon resides?! High God Mo Yuan?!”
“Mm,” a less-than-starstruck sounding Fenfang replied, her attention now fixed on something further ahead. Turning to look, the Wolf spied a couple of her market helpers struggling to take down a stall awning further down the lane. “Hold on! I’m coming!” the Mushroom Fairy called out to them.
“If you’ve steamed fish for Gu Gu,” Fenfang said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to drop it off directly to Migu at the Den.” She smiled a hasty goodbye and hurried off.
The Grey Wolf picked up the packet of fish, his clawed, hairy thumb stroking it thoughtfully. She’s gone to Kunlun Mountain…
He will want this reported to him right away.
Bai Qian couldn’t recall the last time she’d been so out of sorts. Then again, she’d never dined with anyone outside of Qing Qiu before, never mind dined alone with a dra –a man– who wasn’t her father, Migu, or Zhe Yan.
So when Mo Yuan had offered wine, her first thought had been, oh, thank Fate! Some liquid courage would serve quite well!
There was just something about Mo Yuan’s presence that set her on edge. That intermittent note of false charm in his voice kept confusing her, and to be honest, was getting on her nerves.
But there’d been some moments when Bai Qian had not heard it. For example when Mo Yuan had told her there’d been no harm done after Zhe Yan had made his smoky-smelling exit; the accompanying flash of heat telling her Zhe Yan had engulfed himself in flame. Show off! Mo Yuan’s tone had held no falseness at that moment, only genuine mirth.
But the charm was back and Bai Qian had had enough. Under normal circumstances, she would simply have spoken her mind but these were far from normal circumstances! She was about to dine with the God of War and Grandmaster of Kunlun. As Queen of Qing Qiu, she had to maintain a certain decorum. She would have to be tactful about putting a stop to it. But how?
She was momentarily distracted by the bouquet of the Kunlun wine. The rich waft of it she caught when Mo Yuan opened the bottle smelled almost as good as that of Zhe Yan’s peach wine.
And that’s when an idea, a plan of action, began to form.
Whenever she and Zhe Yan drank a few jugs together, her best friend would often joke they should organize realm-wide drinking contests, pitting her against others. The Phoenix claimed they could make a fortune from unsuspecting competitors expecting her to have the ways of a lady and drink like one. Hmph, she drank like herself, like Bai Qian.
Is Mo Yuan talking to me that way because he thinks me some lady in need of being charmed? Well, the God of War will learn right now that ‘this’ lady does things a little differently!
Zhe Yan’s not the only one who can show off to prove a point!
Raising the filled glass Mo Yuan handed her, Bai Qian threw her head back and drank all the wine in one go. Then for good measure, she smacked her lips, lightly of course... like a lady. She resisted the urge to snicker as she plunked her glass down on the table.
There! That should shock the mighty dragon enough to make him stop. She so wished Zhe Yan were there to tell her exactly what kind of expression Mo Yuan must have on his face but no doubt her friend would be too busy laughing his feathers off. Bai Qian smiled in amusement at the thought.
Mo Yuan was staring at her, she could tell, by the breathy “silence” that ensued; one swiftly broken by a series of guzzling swallows from him. Bai Qian straightened in her seat when Mo Yuan then smacked his lips, loud, and plunked what had to be his empty glass on the table just as she had hers.
Did he copy me on purpose?! Bai Qian was stunned. So much for that plan of action!
Patience had never been Bai Qian’s strong suit. And spending an entire evening that was barely moving along, second-guessing everything Mo Yuan said, was not something she was going to put up with. It was best when things were out in the open. She’d learned all too well long ago that things kept hidden were what could bruise, burn, or cut you.
Leaning forward on her elbows, Bai Qian rested her chin on clasped hands. “Lord Mo Yuan.” She willed the annoyance out of her words. “Is there anything in particular you wish to ask me or say? Your, how shall I put it, odd tone of voice with me sometimes seems to suggest there is.” And if it’s about my touching your beard earlier, I apologize about that! I sometimes forget myself when I “see” something new with my hands.
Mo Yuan’s measured intake of breath was interrupted by a sharp rapping on the chamber door.
Chang Shan’s signature knock; efficient, no-nonsense, and quick to the point.
‘Did the fish cook themselves?’ was absurdly Mo Yuan’s first thought at how fast dinner had arrived. Not a moment too soon as it turned out.
Mo Yuan settled his chair back upright.
The heavy door swung open and Chang Shan walked in with some of his helpers, laden with trays of food.
Mo Yuan had to wonder at the wide grin that broke across Bai Qian’s face when a platter of grilled chicken was placed near her. There was rice, steaming bowls of fish soup, a noodle dish, cooked lotus root, cucumbers, green beans… and three bottles of wine. Taking note of only the two of them at the table, Chang Shan went to take back two of the bottles but Mo Yuan shook his head no at his Second, who left the bottles as they were.
“Chang Shan, Master Zhe Yan is in the northern garden now. Please have someone bring him a dinner he may eat there.”
The Second Disciple and his helpers bowed their respects and left just as swiftly and efficiently as they’d come. Everything was about efficiency when it came to Chang Shan.
Sheng mi zhu cheng shu fan… the rice is cooked, Mo Yuan thought, looking down at the food in the second bout of awkward silence that befell them. The Grandmaster of Kunlun found himself struggling hard not to burst out laughing at that moment.
Odd tone of voice? Is that your way of describing my obviously bungled attempt at charm, Bai Qian? She’d caught him out completely, so used Mo Yuan was to every Celestial goddess he’d ever met fawning over him and his every word.
But not so the Fox Goddess of Qing Qiu.
How cleanly and quickly he’d been disarmed without even a battle! The graceful and delicate-looking Queen of Qing Qiu with her silk blade, having taken the true measure of him and cutting him down to size.
What an extraordinary woman. Mo Yuan had never met such a frank and unpretentious immortal female such as her before.
For a fleeting moment, Mo Yuan considered telling her the truth. But he couldn’t. Not with all that was at stake with the demon attacks and his Fourth. He simply didn’t know Bai Qian well enough yet to take the risk. He swore to himself though that if he could determine she had no secret agenda, he would tell her all.
His Second’s impeccable timing had spared Mo Yuan from answering Bai Qian’s question straightaway, stalling for him. Bai Qian, whose mouth remained curled up at one corner, was obviously thinking the same.
And that’s when it dawned on him, that which was to be his advantage over her.
Everything Mo Yuan had witnessed so far revealed Bai Qian never kept her facial expressions in check. Any and all her emotions were freely displayed. She wouldn’t know to do it. The realization struck swift and true. Expressions to her are only what she can hear or touch. What did someone blind from birth know of hiding the look on one’s face so as not to be read? Even if Bai Qian’s eyes were covered, her face was an open book. How fortunate Mo Yuan was an avid reader.
And now he would have to be quick.
“Forgive me, Lady Bai, if I’ve given offence. I confess I am not accustomed to dining with a Queen such as yourself. I have been awkward with my manner of speech and I apologize. I had wished to make you feel at ease and it would seem I have done quite the opposite.”
It was the right thing to say to her. Mo Yuan was rewarded with a blush and a shy smile. Stroking his beard he leaned forward once again. “Shall we start dinner?”
Bai Qian’s face grew warm at the handsome and sincere-sounding apology. As relief washed over her, she couldn’t help but feel somewhat embarrassed by her previous conclusions. Of course! Why hadn’t I considered he may be feeling just as out of sorts as I was? It’s all Zhe Yan’s fault for putting us in this situation! I’m sure the God of War had slightly more important things to do today than entertain a clumsy fox who groped his beard and sprained her ankle! I really need to not be so suspicious.
“Please help yourself, Lady Bai. I’m sure you’ll find Chang Shan’s cooking to be quite exceptional.”
“The food smells delicious, Lord Mo Yuan. I’m especially intrigued by the aromatic spice mix he used on the chicken. However, I’m afraid I must trouble you with a small request first.” She placed her hands on the edge of the table directly in front of her and slid them, palm downwards, very slowly and carefully forward until her fingertips came in contact with a bowl.
“What dish is this please?” she asked.
“It’s your bowl of rice,” Mo Yuan answered with a hint of contrition. Had the Grandmaster surmised the reason why she asked?
Straightening her shoulders, Bai Qian wrapped her hands around the bowl.
“Would you please tell me what and where each dish is placed in relation to my rice bowl?” Bai Qian now asked. “The smell of the food is wonderful but with all the dishes so closely together on the table, I cannot precisely tell where each one is. So unless the Grandmaster wishes to watch me knock over bowls and stab at thin air with my chopsticks…” her words trailed off in a rueful chuckle.
“Yes, of course,” Mo Yuan replied. “From your perspective, the grilled chicken is above and to the right of your rice bowl. Your soup is to the left. The vegetables are mixed together on the same plate in the middle of the table directly in front of your rice. Your chopsticks and spoon are beside your right elbow. And you already know where your wine glass is.” Both chuckled at that.
“May I reposition anything for you?” Mo Yuan asked her.
“No, no, that’s fine. Thank you. However… umm…” Bai Qian bit down on her lower lip.
“Yes?” Mo Yuan prodded
“Umm… has the chicken been grilled as a whole?”
“Yes, it has.”
“Yes, well, unless you would also enjoy watching my rendition of a fox chomping down on a chicken carcass, I’m afraid I must trouble you to…” Bai Qian drew a deep breath, rephrasing her words. “Lord Mo Yuan, would you kindly cut up some of the chicken into pieces for me?”
“Of course, it’s no trouble at all.” She heard him pull a platter towards him then the clicking of chopsticks as he must have pulled pieces off the chicken. “Shall I place them on your rice?”
“May I pour you another glass of wine, Lady Bai?”
“I would love some more wine, thank you.”
With a light pulse of magic, Mo Yuan set the hearth fire to burn a little warmer. They had just finished their meal… and the last of the wine.
By the gods, the woman could handle her drink! They’d polished off all the bottles together. She would give his Eleventh a run for his money if they ever engaged in a drinking contest. Luckily, Bai Qian never suspected that Mo Yuan could use his dragon essence to burn off the effects of alcohol as he drank it.
The more he discovered about Bai Qian, the more he wanted to know. If he were being truly honest with himself, Mo Yuan had enjoyed his evening with her. Bai Qian piqued his curiosity again and again and he found himself looking forward to what she would surprise him with next.
Had it not been for the silk band reminding him, Mo Yuan could have well-nigh forgotten Bai Qian was blind.
He recalled the relief plain as day that had appeared on her face when he’d torn off slices of the chicken to pull apart and place on her rice earlier. Had she thought he would get upset by her asking him to do this?
In fact, Mo Yuan had been the one relieved to be able to do this for her, having been left feeling foolish at his thoughtlessness, not having had the presence of mind to foresee she would need to be told where the dishes were placed.
While they’d eaten, she’d shared how as a child she had practised with her father to feel for food morsels through the end of chopsticks. To Mo Yuan, she used her chopsticks just as any sighted person did. In fact, Bai Qian’s table manners were much finer than many of the prudish and prim deities he’d been forced to dine with in the past.
There did come an interesting moment when Bai Qian started on the fish soup. He watched as she sipped it, her tongue clicking gently against the roof of her mouth, sampling it thoroughly.
“Is the soup to your liking?”
“Hmm,” she replied, a little distracted. “I like how Chang Shan uses onion in it. Oh, but I’m sorry! You see, I love to cook and fish soup is one of my favourite dishes to make. I’ve never had occasion to try someone else’s recipe.”
A queen who cooked for herself?
And here came Mo Yuan’s curiosity again. “So whose soup recipe would you say is better? Yours or Chang Shan’s?”
Bai Qian’s bright laughter lit up the room. “Oh dear, if I answer truthfully I may end up offending my host.”
“How fares your father the Fox King?” he’d asked politely.
“Father is travelling throughout the realm,” she’d answered. “He likes to wander here and there. In the last missive he sent me he wrote that he was somewhere on the Southern Continent. Father loves sunny climes the best.”
Missive? How do you read them if you cannot see the words? Mo Yuan refrained from asking this question for now. He wanted to start asking her about affairs in Qing Qiu but her sudden yawn and rubbing of her eyes through her band gave him pause. It was late.
And she would be back tomorrow…
“Perhaps we should call it a night, Lady Bai.”
She sighed. “It’s been so strange hearing that all the time I’ve been here.”
“Lady Bai. No one calls me that.”
“Oh?” Mo Yuan was surprised. “How do your subjects address you in Qing Qiu? Majesty? Highness?”
He immediately knew he’d said something wrong given her frown. “Subjects?” she repeated with a sour expression. “The people of Qing Qiu are not my subjects.”
Mo Yuan was confused. “But you were given queenship of Qing Qiu by your father, the Fox King Bai Zhi. If those who reside there under your rule are not your subjects, who are they then?”
“My family,” Bai Qian said softly.
“I see.” Mo Yuan was at a little loss for words. “Then may I ask how they call you?”
“They call me Gu Gu.”
Smiling widely now, Bai Qian propped her chin on her hand. “I guess that doesn’t work for you, does it?”
Mo Yuan chuckled as he shook his head no, and reminded himself for the umpteenth time she couldn’t see him doing it. “Not really,” he answered with a smile of his own.
“Then won’t you please call me just Bai Qian? I really have no patience or use being burdened with a multitude of fancy titles,” she told him with her refreshing frankness.
“Well, in that case, Just Bai Qian, since you may be a guest here for a month, feel free to drop the multitude of fancy titles I’m burdened with as well. Simply Mo Yuan will suffice.”
Bai Qian’s tails which had been still the entire evening now billowed in her lap as she laughed. “Very well, Simply Mo Yuan,” she said, matching his humour with her own. “Thank you for dinner. And yes, I wouldn’t say no to calling it a night.” Her tails spread out about her legs as she rose from her chair. It appeared her ankle no longer pained her.
“Could someone please show me to my chamber? I’ll be heading back to Qing Qiu first thing in the morning when Zhe Yan is done with his flower watching for the night. I need to go over some matters there during the day. Of course, we will return for tomorrow evening as arranged.”
Mo Yuan went to stand beside her. “Allow me to show you. It’s not far at all.”
And as he’d seen the Phoenix do, Mo Yuan bent his arm out to her, making sure his elbow lightly touched the side of her sleeve so she’d feel it. With just a slight hesitation, Bai Qian gently placed her hand on his arm and together they exited through the door he opened with another light pulse of his magic.
Spider webs shimmered silver wherever starlight filtered through the dark branches overhead. The damp air of the night was cloying with its earthy smell.
“You did right to inform me. We will take no action for now but you must try and find out the reason for her visit there, and quickly. Once you do, report to me again.”
“Yes, my master.” Shifting into his beast form, the Grey Wolf loped off into the night.
The demon shaman Diao Wu pulled his cloak tighter around his neck as he watched the wolf disappear into Qing Qiu’s forest.
生米煮成熟饭 (shēng mǐ zhǔ chéng shú fàn) The rice is cooked –meaning what’s done is done.
⇛ Next part: 9(第九章) Of Shadow and Light
⇚ Previous part: 7(第七章) By the Hearth Fire