Two months passed by in a blur as Bai Qian fell into a busy routine. Her days were devoted to training. Mo Yuan spent at least a couple of hours most mornings working with her on meditation. She had learned to channel her magic to her heart center and focus it there while meditating in order to cultivate greater strength. Though she had struggled with the technique at first, now she could sense her power slowly increasing. Bai Qian had even started to revisit her memory of the night of her family’s murder in recent days but the emotional calm she needed to approach it in an objective way remained elusive.
After meditation, the rest of Bai Qian’s days were devoted to combat training with Meixiu, learning the basic steps of wielding a combat fan. It was a weapon Bai Qian never would have imagined being so effective and she now had one of her own thanks to Mo Yuan and Meixiu.
As a gift, Meixiu had given Bai Qian one of the renowned fans of the Eagles, an eagle feather from her own spirit beast incorporated into the frame. Mo Yuan had magically paired it with a Kunlun sword forged using the divine energy of the mountain. The fan had a handle made from bamboo with jade inlay and Ye Hua had painted an image of Kunlun Mountain with windswept peach blossoms to decorate it. He had been pleased when she had asked him to add a fierce black dragon to the design. Bai Qian still hadn’t seen the sword Mo Yuan had added because she wasn’t powerful enough to transform the fan yet. It was a goal she continued to strive for.
While Bai Qian was busy with her combat training, Ye Hua, Zhe Yan, and Mo Yuan when he didn’t stay on Kunlun to teach classes continued to try multiple different avenues of inquiry to track down information on the traitor. It was difficult to come by. Zhe Yan and his father had found the artisan who still possessed the needed skills to create jars powerful enough to contain phoenix fire. His source of the fire was a distant relative of the royal family, much to King Zhao Hui’s fury. The person who had purchased the jar of fire had been a man, his face cloaked from view with a grey woolen hood. The artisan had thought nothing of the man’s hidden appearance because the sale of phoenix fire was forbidden; the few customers who approached him to buy it all concealed their identities with disguises.
The bears had been more willing to talk with Ye Hua and Mo Yuan after Meixiu had reassured the clan elders that the clan itself was not under suspicion. Despite their newfound willingness to discuss things, the bears had so far been unable to provide any useful information. Nobody had been acting strangely leading up to the fire at the warehouse and nobody had reported any unusual behavior afterwards. So far, Ye Hua and Mo Yuan knew little more than they had before and Ye Hua had started following various leads in the Heavens with the same results.
Bai Qian could sense Ye Hua’s growing frustration with this lack of progress. He had confided in her how much it worried him that the traitor had managed to cover his tracks so well. He wanted to confront Weisheng directly. She suspected that the delicate political maneuvering such a step would require would only deter Ye Hua for so long if he didn’t start finding some answers elsewhere.
Was today the day Ye Hua would finally learn something useful? How long would it be before the traitor or Weisheng made another move against her?
“Bai Qian! Pay attention.”
She looked up in response to Meixiu’s scolding tone to find a wooden practice sword swinging toward her neck. Lifting her hand, Bai Qian shifted her arm and brought the fan up to deflect the strike. Wood tapped against the side of her neck firmly before she could complete the defensive position. The hit stung her skin and Bai Qian’s face reddened when Meixiu frowned, sighing with exasperation.
Meixiu lowered the sword but didn’t say anything at first. Bai Qian didn’t need to be told her inattention had cost her the precious seconds she needed to defend herself from a potentially fatal blow. Her mistake was all the more frustrating because she had successfully blocked that particular strike several times in a row the day before.
“If this had been an actual battle with real weapons you would be dead,” Meixiu said after a few minutes of silence.
“I know,” Bai Qian responded. She folded her fan and brushed her fingers against the bracelet Ye Hua had given her. She found comfort in its presence because it reminded her he was always there. “And I know every sparring session should be treated as if it were a true fight.”
“Yes.” Meixiu paused. “And this is the third or fourth time I’ve caught you off guard. So what keeps distracting you today? It’s not like you, Qian Qian.”
Bai Qian plopped down to the ground with a huff, waiting for Meixiu to join her before answering. “It’s just… I keep wondering what happens next.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m talking about Weisheng and the traitor,” Bai Qian clarified. “We still have no idea who the traitor is and no evidence to prove Weisheng’s story about what happened in the Heavens is false. It feels like we’re getting nowhere. We’re standing still but I know the traitor isn’t. And neither is Weisheng. How long will it take for them to plan something new?”
“We’re not standing still,” Meixiu responded, offering Bai Qian an encouraging smile. “Look how much you’ve learned since we first started your training. You’re becoming stronger and more agile every day. You’re in a much better place to defend yourself now than you were. And you’re only to get better and more powerful from here.”
“I guess that’s true,” Bai Qian said, giving Meixiu’s words careful consideration.
“And our enemies may not be standing still but they don’t have the same free rein they did before. Mo Yuan and Ye Hua are looking for them which means Weisheng and the traitor have to tread more cautiously in everything they do. It may not have stopped them but I’m sure it’s slowed them down. We’ll catch up to them and when we do, we’ll be in a better position to face them.”
Bai Qian considered Meixiu’s words before responding, wishing she had the same unwavering confidence as the Eagle Princess. Bai Qian couldn’t disagree with her though. No matter what happened in the future, she would be stronger than she had been before, both physically and mentally. But would it be enough?
“I would feel better if we at least knew who has been helping Weisheng. It’s difficult and frustrating to face an unknown enemy.” She paused. “Ever since Mo Yuan taught me the meditation technique I’ve been trying every evening to remember more about the traitor from that night but so far it’s not working. My emotions still get the better of me even when Ye Hua holds my hand to help keep me grounded. I think I have the key to discovering his identity somewhere in my memories but it remains just out of my reach.”
“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Meixiu said, giving Bai Qian an understanding smile. There was sympathy in her normally piercing gaze. “It can take years to uncover missing details from the past and traumatic memories are the most difficult to sort through. Either the information will come to you one day or it won’t.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“We’ll find another way. You’re not alone in this, Qian Qian. Always remember that.”
Bai Qian nodded.
“Do you need a longer break or are you ready to continue your training?”
“I’m ready to keep going,” Bai Qian answered, standing.
“Good. Let’s run through that blocking technique again. And this time, pay attention. After that, we’ll practice some combinations.”
Preparing her basic defensive stance, Bai Qian lifted her fan, tensing as she watched Meixiu’s approach. This time she lifted her fan and successfully blocked the wooden sword swinging towards her and managed to throw off Meixiu’s stance at the same time.
“Very good,” Meixiu said proudly. “Let’s do it again.”
They repeated the exercise several times, Meixiu changing the timing and direction of her approach each time to keep Bai Qian on her toes. She was still able to block the strike every time. Then she practiced several combinations of moves, trying to put them together in different combinations the way Meixiu had taught her so she didn’t become too accustomed to performing the battle maneuvers in a set order.
“Your foot placement is good and your posture is spot on this time,” Meixiu said, studying Bai Qian’s movements closely. “But you’re taking too long to think about each move as you transition. You can’t pause to think about your next motion. Just as you should always be studying your opponent for tells on what their next action will be, your opponent will be studying you in turn. Remember that every pause you make is giving your opponent time to determine what you will do next. Don’t give them that opportunity. Your opponent should be struggling to react to what you do as you do it instead of anticipating it. Continue practicing until every step you take and every sweep of your weapon becomes second nature.”
A rush of powerful magic filled the air before Bai Qian could respond. She looked over as Ye Hua, Mo Yuan, and Zhe Yan appeared beyond the bounds of the practice field. The frustration on Ye Hua’s face told Bai Qian all she needed to know about whether the trio had learned anything useful. But his expression changed when his eyes met hers, giving her the warm smile he reserved especially for her. A pleasant tingle ran through her and she smiled back.
“The boys have perfect timing,” Meixiu said, interrupting the moment. “I think a demonstration would be very helpful.”
“A demonstration?” Bai Qian asked, breaking eye contact with Ye Hua to glance at the woman next to her.
“Yes. You haven’t had a chance to watch a sparring session between others since we started training. There is a lot you can learn from observation. Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
“Okay.” Bai Qian watched as Meixiu jogged over to where the three men were standing on the other side of the small field, giving Mo Yuan a brief hug and kiss on the cheek. Bai Qian grinned when Meixiu pulled away before Mo Yuan could return her embrace. She began talking, gesturing towards the practice area as she did. Bai Qian’s keen sense of hearing allowed her to catch a word here or there but the windy day distorted the sound too much for her to understand the whole conversation. So she watched with curiosity as Mo Yuan and Ye Hua nodded in response to Meixiu while Zhe Yan shook his head.
Meixiu, Ye Hua, and Zhe Yan headed toward Bai Qian while Mo Yuan took a spot in the middle of the field, summoning a steel practice sword from Kunlun’s armory. He swung it deftly several times as if learning the weight and feel of it.
“I’m going to spar with Mo Yuan,” Meixiu said once she had reached Bai Qian’s side. “This is a great way for you to observe how I change my techniques when facing an opponent larger and stronger than I am. The key thing to watch is my speed. I’m going to pause in between each movement at first. See if you can catch the change in Mo Yuan’s response as I speed up the transitions between my moves.” Bai Qian nodded. “Also pay attention to how critical it is to be aware of your surroundings at all times. In combat you are rarely facing one enemy.”
Ye Hua and Zhe Yan joined Bai Qian as Meixiu left to take her place facing Mo Yuan. Several Kunlun disciples were taking seats around the field to watch.
“If you decide to let him win, Meixiu, be sure you make him work for it first,” Ye Hua called after her, loudly enough for Mo Yuan and everybody else to hear.
Meixiu laughed before glancing back. “Don’t worry,” she called back. “I always make him work for it.”
Turning his attention to Bai Qian, Ye Hua wrapped his arms around her and hugged her tightly. Bai Qian hugged him back in return, meeting his lips with hers in a sweet kiss. “I missed you today,” he whispered when he stepped back.
Warmth filled her as his gaze met hers. “I missed you too.” Bai Qian forgot all about her surroundings and the others around her as she became lost in Ye Hua’s affectionate dark eyes.
Bai Qian jumped, turning to look at Meixiu with chagrin on her face.
“Pay attention. If you don’t, I’ll have to stick Zhe Yan in between you and Ye Hua.”
“Leave me out of it,” Zhe Yan called. He grinned at Bai Qian as he approached.
“Sorry,” Bai Qian told Meixiu before laughing. “I’m paying attention now.”
Standing close to Ye Hua, who had summoned a sword of his own, Bai Qian glanced at the weapon in his hand curiously. Before she could ask him about it, Meixiu and Mo Yuan bowed to each other and the sparring session began. With Meixiu’s advice in mind, she studied each move Meixiu made and how Mo Yuan reacted.
True to her earlier words, Meixiu paused for a brief moment in between every technique she used. Each time she swept the edge of her sharp fan toward him, Mo Yuan’s sword was in the perfect position to block her. And he was always ready with a counter strike before she could move out of his sword’s reach. Meixiu managed to block his hits but she was clearly on the defensive the entire time even when attempting offensive maneuvers. Mo Yuan was studying her body language and anticipating the placement of her weapon before it happened.
But then everything changed. Meixiu’s deft movements became quick and graceful, flowing from one to the next. She leapt over Mo Yuan’s sword as he swung it and ducked behind him, forcing him to whirl around to defend himself. Meixiu almost struck him but he just managed to get his sword in position to block her. She leapt back out of his reach with a flip as he countered her move; the motion was so quick Bai Qian almost missed it. This fight was no longer so one-sided.
It was fascinating to watch the two spar as they moved as if performing a perfectly coordinated dance, first one on the offense and then the other. Mo Yuan was fast, his sword moving in a blur, but Meixiu was much faster. She was light on her feet and skilled in the air, jumping higher without magic than Bai Qian had ever thought possible. She moved into Mo Yuan’s range to attack him and then moved out of it just as quickly to avoid his sword.
Bai Qian had become so absorbed in the beautiful sight before her that she didn’t realize Ye Hua had left her side until she spotted him moving into a position behind Mo Yuan. He had his sword in hand. Bai Qian’s eyes widened. Was he…? Meixiu’s words echoed in her mind. In combat you are rarely facing one enemy. She looked back at Mo Yuan; he gave no indications that he even knew Ye Hua was there.
Ye Hua entered the field swinging. Bai Qian tensed as Mo Yuan blocked Meixiu’s fan, his eyes flashed gold and he pushed her back a step before swiveling around so his sword could meet Ye Hua’s. For a few minutes Ye Hua and Meixiu worked as a team and the fight was two against one.
Already Bai Qian could spot some of the differences between Meixiu’s approach to the fight and Ye Hua’s but it became even more apparent when Meixiu exited the field, leaving Ye Hua and Mo Yuan to battle it out. Matching Mo Yuan in both strength and size, Ye Hua tried to overtake his brother’s fighting space and overpower him instead of weaving in and out of his reach to wear him down and surprise him like Meixiu. The fight was intense but Ye Hua and Mo Yuan seemed to be enjoying the exercise and Bai Qian realized that a sparring session like this must be nothing new to the twins.
“Are you going to join in?” she asked Zhe Yan and he shook his head with a chuckle. “I could but I prefer not to. I enjoy medicine and drinking much more than swordplay. Besides, those two will sometimes spar for hours. They’ll keep going long after they’ve worn themselves out.”
Meixiu’s face was still flushed from exertion when she joined Bai Qian and Zhe Yan to watch the twins spar from the sidelines.
“That was impressive,” Bai Qian told her friend and teacher. “I had no idea anybody could move so quickly.”
“Did you see the difference it made?”
Bai Qian nodded. “Yes. I don’t know that I could ever fight like that myself.”
“One day you will. It takes time and a lot of hard work. And that’s why it’s important to continually practice flowing from one thing to the next. And it’s important to learn how to maneuver in and out of an opponent’s personal space. You’re small like me so trying to overpower a man Mo Yuan’s or Ye Hua’s size isn’t the best strategy. It’s best to keep them moving and wear them down until they’re tired or you can catch them with their guard down.”
“Did you see how Mo Yuan responded when Ye Hua joined the fight?” Meixiu continued.
“His dragon helped him, right?” Bai Qian asked, remembering the flash of gold she had spotted in Mo Yuan’s eyes.
“Very good,” Meixiu said. “You were paying attention. Yes. His dragon helped him just as my eagle helps me. Allow your fox to always monitor your surroundings no matter what you are doing but especially when fighting someone. And listen to her when she tells you something. Our spirit animals are an important asset.”
Meixiu grinned. “That’s enough learning today. Let’s watch Mo Yuan win this fight.”
Bai Qian scoffed. “Mo Yuan? Clearly, Ye Hua has the upper hand right now.”
Both women started laughing when Zhe Yan rolled his eyes with an aggravated sigh to tease them.
In the end, the fight was declared a draw when a messenger from the Heavens arrived and interrupted them.
“We should do this more often, Da Ge,” Ye Hua said with a wide smile as the messenger crossed the field to hand him a scroll. He took it and opened it, his face growing serious as he read the message written there. He spoke quietly with Mo Yuan before handing the scroll to his brother to read and walking over to Bai Qian.
Bai Qian’s stomach clenched, wondering if he had received bad news. “What did it say?”
“It’s from one of the bear elders. A bear was found dead and the clan thinks it may have something to do with the traitor and the fire at the storage building.”
“You should go,” Bai Qian told him, pushing away the disappointment she felt at not being able to spend the evening with him. Maybe this was the break they had been waiting for.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” Ye Hua told her, kissing her softly.
“Be careful,” she said, kissing him on the cheek in turn. He nodded before disappearing with Zhe Yan and Mo Yuan to cloud jump to the bear clan village.
⇛ Next part: Ch 47: An Unexpected Proposal
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