“KUNLUN?!!” Qing Cang’s explosive bellow reverberated off the damp rock surrounding them. “She’s never travelled anywhere before and now the first place she goes to is the worm’s lair?!”
The Demon Emperor and his Shaman had been making their way down a narrow torchlit passage leading to the inner tunnels when Diao Wu had broken the news.
“The wolf will find out the reason, my Lord Emperor. He knows well the price of failure.”
“This plan has been too long in the making, Diao Wu! I can’t have Mo Yuan finding out! He would kill her on the spot if he knew what we’d done and then all these years preparing would have been for nothing!”
Arriving at a veil of shadow that blocked the path forward, a nonplussed Diao Wu pulled a bone flute from his robe and commenced playing the brief notes of a spell key. It was the same flute the slave musician played for Qing Cang when the Demon Emperor wished to enthrall his unsuspecting playthings.
The veil lifted, and a stench of decay assailed them from the sanctum doorway revealed before them. Strange waves of energy radiated out from the pitch black interior beyond.
Neither man dared step closer.
Closing his eyes, Diao Wu raised his hands.
“Mm, it’s nearly complete. With one more attack we will have sufficient numbers.”
Qing Cang drew a deep breath, oblivious to the stench. As usual, given his volatile nature, the Demon Emperor’s quick rage was quick to dissipate, especially when something else grabbed his attention. Diao Wu knew by the way the Emperor stood there staring off into the darkness that he was plotting something. “We will hold off another attack until your wolf reports,” Qing Cang said. “Given what’s happened, I may have a different choice as to where the next attack will take place.”
Diao Wu raised the flute to his lips once more and played the key spell notes in reverse order. Both the stench and the energy waves cut off when the veil dropped back into place.
“And what of the prisoner? I’d have thought you’d have killed Mo Yuan’s man by now.” A terse Diao Wu slipped the flute back into his robe.
Qing Cang chuckled, knowing full well what Diao Wu was on about. “I find I am enjoying spending time getting to know him better, Diao Wu. Why? What’s the matter? Is my Shaman jealous perhaps?”
His expression darkening, an angry Diao Wu turned away to head back up the tunnel. The Emperor’s hand on his shoulder held him back.
“There are still a few hours of night left, Diao Wu. Why don’t you come with me back to my chamber now?”
Despite wanting to put on a show of reluctance, a relieved Diao Wu smiled.
And the Demon Emperor smiled too. For though his dark wizard held power over the formidable dark energies of black magic, it was Qing Cang who held power over the Shaman’s lust and hunger for brutal passion.
His father’s voice roared from behind the locked door, from down the marble passageway, from outside the mist-laden throne hall…
…from beyond the realm of Nothingness.
Mo Yuan hunched lower in the corner of the archival vault where he’d hidden this time, clutching his mother’s guqin close to his chest. He was supposed to have been at the Hall of Studies, reciting the Thirty-Eight Stratagems of Warfare to his tutor.
But Mo Yuan had wanted to practice the new song he had composed in his head during the night instead.
This was not the first time he had skipped out on a lesson. He’d been doing so more and more of late. His tutor must have had enough and finally told his father. As a child, Mo Yuan had always been obedient, always followed his father’s rulings and orders without question, always did what was expected of him. After all, Mo Yuan was destined to become the God of War of the Immortal Realm, as per his father’s decree.
The God of War.
An accomplished musician from a very young age, all the adolescent Mo Yuan wanted was to play music and enjoy the peacefulness of the Heavens. He found no enjoyment nor enlightenment in lesson after lesson after lesson of military strategy, politics, sword fighting… Not like he did when he played the guqin.
The seven strings on his mother’s guqin screeched in discordance as Mo Yuan jolted when the vault door blew outward. His father’s rage was palpable as the Heavenly Father stormed towards Mo Yuan, who trembled not in fear, but in defiant anger. When the Supreme Celestial reached down to wrench the guqin from his son’s grasp, the young dragon cried out in shock, desperate to hold on to it with all his might. There was a gut wrenching crack as the frame splintered and the fragile instrument fell to the ground in a crush of torn strings and broken pieces of wood.
Mo Yuan woke with a start. His hands ached, clenching his blanket in a death grip, trying to hold on to a guqin that was destroyed long ago.
It was almost dawn, well past Mo Yuan’s usual time to rise. Releasing his grip with a slight grimace, he sat up. The few flickering stars still to be seen from his window were beginning to vanish in the first rays of sunlight.
The blanket slid off his bare body as he swung his legs over the bedside to slip his feet into the wool slippers on the floor. They were cold as they always were but Mo Yuan preferred them that way. The chill against his heated skin helped wake him. With a glance from him, the banked fire of the hearth flared back to life. The glow of the flames cast ripples of shadow and light on his body as he stood. And his attention was drawn once more to the guqin on the wall.
Its peach wood frame took on a warm glow from the fire now that the dust was gone from it; the dragon hair strings luminous from within and without.
When Mo Yuan had returned from escorting Bai Qian to her chamber last night, he’d taken it down from the wall. Placing it upon his lap, he’d used a light sweep of magic to remove the dust that had accumulated over several years. But all Mo Yuan had ended up doing was staring at the strings. No music came from within him. It hadn’t since that fateful day when his mother’s guqin had been destroyed. Years before, when Mo Yuan had commissioned the Fox King to make this one, he’d hoped it would allow him to find the notes that once played in his soul again. But it hadn’t.
Not yet… had come a distant echo of hope in his heart. With a deep sigh, he’d hung it back up on the wall.
Mo Yuan headed for his washbasin.
Like the chilled slippers, the icy water helped chase away any clinging remnants of sleep, and nightmare.
Because of his late start, Die Feng, who would sense he was awake now, would be arriving at any moment with the daily training schedules to review and whatever correspondence required his attention.
He chose a thick black wool robe from the assortment of similar ones on his clothes bar and slipped it on. Gathering his hair, Mo Yuan twisted it into a half top-knot on his head, then retrieved his thick fur cloak he’d tossed over a chair and put it over his shoulders. His black leather boots could wait until he got dressed for the day.
If you don’t mind, Mo Yuan, I’ll be heading back to Qing Qiu first thing in the morning with Zhe Yan. There are matters I must attend to during the day back home.
Bai Qian had said this last night as they’d parted company at the door of the chamber that had been prepared for her.
It hadn’t escaped Mo Yuan’s notice how quickly she had withdrawn her hand from his arm once they’d gotten there, nor how she’d stepped away to stand in the chamber doorway. He described as clearly as he could where all the furniture was positioned. Bai Qian had thanked him saying she would be fine, her tails already billowing around her and sweeping the floor as she told him her intentions for the next morning, then bade him goodnight, closing the door behind her once she stepped inside.
Mo Yuan settled down at his desk and summoned his pot of tea from the kitchen. Chang Shan always prepared it the night before with a small spell that kept the tea hot and fresh. This was fine with Mo Yuan even though he maintained that tea, or food for that matter, didn’t quite taste the same when touched upon by magic.
He never wished to disturb anyone for something trivial as a pot of tea so early in the mornings. Mo Yuan would be getting some freshly brewed from the kitchen later anyway once everyone was up and about their duties.
There came a distinct knock upon his door. Die Feng had arrived.
With the schedules, Die Feng carried but a single scroll today; one whose purple silk ribbon bore the Imperial Celestial Seal. Mo Yuan had been delaying meeting with Heaven’s ruler and it would seem the latter had reached the end of his patience. Unless he wanted an angry Tianjun stomping about his mountain, Mo Yuan would have to make his way to the Celestial Palace later today.
“Shifu,” Die Feng said. “I passed the Phoenix on my way here. He said there’d been nothing out of the ordinary about the orchid last night. I allowed him free rein as you ordered. I offered to show him to his chamber but he claimed to be on his way to the Fox Goddess’ chamber, which he said he knew where to find.”
Yes, the blossom he gave Bai Qian last night.
“Shall I have Chang Shan prepare some extra places at breakfast?”
Mo Yuan opened the imperial scroll, already knowing what it would contain. “No need. Queen Bai Qian and the Phoenix are heading back to Qing Qiu straightaway and will only return for nightfall.”
“I’ll join you and the men in the dining hall for breakfast shortly, Die Feng. Then I’ll need you to cover for me for my afternoon lectures as I’ll be going to the Ninth Sky.”
A sleepy Zhe Yan had still managed to crack a smile when he’d happened upon Die Feng carrying documents and a scroll, walking purposely in the opposite direction. Pausing to stretch his arms high over his head and crink his neck from side to side, Zhe Yan had grinned at the loud cracking from his joints. The First Disciple had just stood there with his stern expression.
“Goodness, does First mean first up in the mornings too?” Zhe Yan had said with a chuckle, trying a different approach to get the man to smile.
It hadn’t worked. “I am always up at this time. I take it nothing special happened with your observation of the silver moon orchid last night?”
Giving up, Zhe Yan had dropped his arms. “No. Nothing. It does cast a lovely silver light, but otherwise there was nothing else. I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with me, with us I mean, again tonight.”
Die Feng had given him a curt nod. “May I show you to your chamber then?”
“No, I’m heading to Qian Qian’s first.” Zhe Yan had raised his hand when Die Feng made to follow. “No need to show me the way to hers either, thanks. I know where to find it.”
But there was no answer now to his knocking. Zhe Yan could sense his blossom and Bai Qian inside.
“Qian Qian,” Zhe Yan hissed at the closed door. Still nothing. With a sigh, he opened the door slowly, very slowly, stretching his chin forward to peek round the edge, just in case…
“Why am I not surprised?” Zhe Yan muttered to himself. He crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned on the door frame.
In the middle of the bed therein lay a blanket with a large lump underneath it. A few white furry tips of fox tail poked out from one edge. He shouldn’t have been surprised given the chill in the air that Bai Qian had chosen to sleep in her fox form, no doubt burrowing under the blanket for added warmth.
And Zhe Yan, being Zhe Yan, just couldn’t resist now.
Entering the room, he leaned over the bed and clasped the end of a tail, giving it a tug.
A soft growl emerged from under the blanket but otherwise nothing else. “Qian Qian.” Zhe Yan was growing impatient. “I’m hungry and I’m tired. Get up already!” Still nothing.
“Alright. It’s not like I didn’t try nicely.” And with that he grabbed the edge of the blanket and yanked it off.
At the loss of the blanket, the white nine-tailed fox laying curled in a ball growled again, slipping her muzzle further under a foreleg. Her eyes opened.
If Bai Qian’s human eyes appeared for all intents and purposes normal, so did they in her fox form. The vertically slit pupils narrowed slowly in the dawn light of the chamber.
“Soooooo…” Zhe Yan drawled nonchalantly. “How was dinner with Mo Yuan?”
This time he was ready and leapt back enough to avoid the tail that whipped out towards him.
“You did that on purpose!” a now human Bai Qian railed at him, staring in his general direction. Zhe Yan’s grin faltered a little. It was rare moments such as this where her blindness was evident and disconcerting to him. For even if she knew where he stood, her open eyes never fixed upon his.
He quickly rallied his thoughts.
“Huh? Who? Me? Really, Qian Qian?” Zhe Yan said with the upmost innocence. He broke into a grin again. “You’re a royal immortal, Queen Bai Qian of Qing Qiu. Are you telling me, Lady Bai Qian, that you can’t handle a diplomatic dinner with an esteemed Realm God in order to seek out new …relations? All in the name of diplomacy, of course.”
Muttering very unladylike words under her breath, Bai Qian reached over to the side table for her silk band. She always removed it before bed. As annoyed as she was with her best friend at the moment, she couldn’t help but chuckle at the loud rumble that now came from his stomach.
“Ha ha, Qian Qian, laugh at the poor starving Phoenix. I’m hungry and I’m tired. I’m not some owl who can perch all night hooting at the stars. Let’s scrounge some breakfast for ourselves from the kitchen and then–“
“We’re leaving to go home right now, Zhe Yan,” Bai Qian said firmly.
The Phoenix blinked.
“I already told Mo Yuan”–Mo Yuan?!– “that I would, we would, be leaving the moment you got back.”
“But Qian Qian, what’s the rush? Surely you will, we will, come across as rude if we just go without politely taking our leave.” If Zhe Yan were grinning any wider his ears would fall off. He was quite enjoying watching how out of sorts his friend was. Bai Qian so evidently wanted to get away from here as fast as she could. Hmm, not a bad idea on my part after all, was it. Dinner with a dragon got you a little worked up, Qian Qian?
The sparks that began to coalesce in the fur of her tails made him keep that last thought to himself.
“Fine, fine,” he laughed in mock surrender. “If you’ve already spoken to Mo Yuan about it, then let’s go home. You’re making us breakfast at the Den though!”
Bai Qian scoffed goodnaturedly and nodded. “Fine, fine,” she repeated using Zhe Yan’s words.
With a wave of his hand, Zhe Yan cloud-jumped them away.
The Phoenix left right after Bai Qian prepared both him and Migu a delicious breakfast of baozi stuffed with cabbage, carrots, scallions, and some of the mushrooms that had been delivered by one of Fenfang’s fairies the previous day.
“Sorry to eat and run, Qian Qian! Ha! I’ll be back here to pick you up an hour before sunset.”
As usual Zhe Yan picked the moment when came time to clear the dishes and clean up to take his leave. But Bai Qian knew her friend was tired by the way he kept yawning throughout the meal. It wasn’t just to get out of helping to clean this time but because he truly wanted to head back to his place and sleep. Bai Qian felt guilty all over again knowing he was doing this just for her.
Migu shook his head at Zhe Yan’s well-timed departure. “Gu Gu,” her tree sprite said as he started to clear the table with her. “Did you really have dinner alone with the God of War? Wow.”
“Migu, did Fenfang’s helper bring over the market accounts yesterday too?” Bai Qian asked, ignoring his question.
“Yes, Gu Gu. I left them on your desk.”
Finishing up, Bai Qian wiped her wet hands on a towel. “I’ll be in my study going over the accounts then.”
A confused Migu watched Bai Qian leave. All during breakfast, Zhe Yan had kept grinning, albeit sleepily, every time Bai Qian refused to answer any of their questions about the dinner. She would only say that the chicken was grilled to perfection, which had made the Phoenix laugh most heartily.
Migu frowned. He’d completely forgotten to tell Bai Qian that the Grey Wolf had come by in the evening with fish for her. The tree sprite had told the wolf she would likely be back late because she’d gone to Kunlun Mountain. The wolf had reacted with surprise but then made a joke about how he hoped that didn’t mean Qing Qiu was about to go to war. Migu had laughingly reassured him of course not, that Zhe Yan had wanted her to accompany him there to look for some special flower.
It’s not important, Migu thought. Besides, the wolf will just give her more fish the next time we go to market.
Bai Qian had the account book open before her. But her thoughts were elsewhere as she sat there with her chin propped up in her hand.
Yes, leaving as they had this morning could be construed as rude but she honestly didn’t think she could have handled another meal so soon with… him.
She’d allowed herself to relax a little more than she should have last evening. Ugh… ‘Simply’ Mo Yuan? Bai Qian groaned as she sank her face into her hand. Then she snapped her head back up angrily. Get back to business and stop letting your thoughts distract you, Qian!
Taking up the crystal again, she slowly ran it up and down the page. The words and numbers written there whispered up to her in her father’s voice.
The reading crystal was something her father had created for her. The Fox King had spent night after night for many months, reading aloud every single word and number from the pages of all the books in his library while passing the crystal over them at the same time. The crystal had absorbed every one. When she passed over any written text now, it would read it aloud to her in her father’s voice.
Hearing her father’s voice made her miss him even more. Bai Qian wondered what her father would say if he knew she’d been to Kunlun Mountain and had dinner with the Grandmaster, and that it was very possible she would be spending a month’s worth of nights there.
Yawning now much as Zhe Yan had, Bai Qian closed the account book and tucked away the reading crystal. She could go over the rest later.
It had taken her a long time to fall asleep in a strange bed last night, despite having switched forms and creating a pocket of warmth for herself under the blanket. She decided she would nap for a while in her own bed to try and catch up on lost sleep.
Curling up under her own blanket, Bai Qian clasped her arms around a pillow and within moments was fast asleep.
包子 (baozi) steamed buns
(Tianjun) heaven ruler
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