Chapter 15 – Reflection
written by LalaLoop
edited by Kakashi
consulting by Bunny
Bai Qian woke up wondering why she was not dead yet, pain cascading from her right arm to the rest of her body. There was not an inch of her that didn’t hurt. Immediately she gripped the sheet beneath her hand tightly and took a deep breath through her nose. Breathing hurt too.
“Is she awake?” a small voice asked. “Qianqian, are you awake?”
There was more than one person here.
“Is the poison still hurting you?”
“Venom, A-li –” Bai Qian began, but realized with dread that her voice had gone hoarse. “Not poison. I was bitten…”
“Oh, Gu-gu, you’re all right!” shouted the tree spirit. His voice, though not that loud, was like a hammer banging on her head.
“Where’s your father, Little Prince?”
“He told me this morning he was visiting the children.”
“Go get him, he’d like to know Gu-gu is awake.”
Pattering footsteps vibrated against the floor as A-li ran out of sight.
With Migu’s help, Bai Qian dragged herself up to a sitting position, her eyes taking in the thick bandages around her arms and the stitches all over her hands.
“Careful, Gu-gu,” Migu grimaced. “The physician specifically said you cannot leave your room until he has taken your pulse and given you the appropriate medicine.”
Bai Qian remembered herself screaming, out of both pain and fear. At one point, it had felt as if someone had plunged thousands of needles into her body, then yanking them out and leaving her to bleed. She remembered voices, and hands — both gentle and forceful.
“Migu,” she said. “Has he been here?”
The tree spirit nodded. “Yes, Gu-gu, every day.”
Bai Qian frowned — that couldn’t be right.
“Oh –” Migu said quickly. “You mean High God Moyuan?”
“He was here,” the tree spirit’s head bobbed, his voice lowered. “Four days ago. He came to see you while the physician was still trying to heal you, but then you fell asleep right away and he had to leave.”
Four days? What had happened when she’d been asleep?
“Gu-gu…” Migu nervously tapped on her shoulders. “Erm… are you all right, Gu-gu? You’re trembling, maybe you should…”
“My head hurts,” Bai Qian confessed.
“You slept too much, Gu-gu. The physician said it would happen… Ah!”
Bai Qian followed Migu’s eyes to the door. Yehua had appeared at the threshold and was lingering there with a relieved smile. Half wanting to go back to sleep, yet desperate to talk to someone right away, she nodded, letting him enter.
“Would you let the physician know she is awake?” Yehua said to Migu on his way in and the tree spirit dashed out of the room at once.
“Yehua,” she began, ignoring the throbbing pain in her throat. “Luoji knows…”
He sat down at her bedside. “My brother told us during his brief visit.”
“It’s my fault,” her voice broke.
“It’s no one’s fault you were caught in their game of chess,” his voice was as comforting as always.
And he was right. Deep down, she knew Yehua spoke sense, but the agonizing guilt was blazing up unstoppably inside her. They’d never had much time to begin with, how long did they have now?
“High God Moyuan said he has everything under control,” Yehua said. “What we’re doing now — raising troops and making allies — it shouldn’t change. There’s nothing else we can do but prepare ourselves.”
“He always says he has it under control. But Luoji –” the hair on the back of her neck rose at that name. “Luoji has endless tricks up his sleeves and he’s stronger, Yehua, you have no idea how strong he is…”
“I know, Qianqian.”
“Did the God of War tell you how far he’s gotten with the devices in the Void?”
“Not yet, he had to leave right away. Qianqian, listen to me –” Yehua’s voice became sterned. “As far as I know, Luoji will not do my brother any fatal harm, he is obsessed with challenging the God of War, and that’s what protects him. He got out of the Nine Heavens unscathed, didn’t he?”
“If Luoji gets a whisper of what he’s doing in the Void, he won’t be unscathed next time. And if Luoji could see through such a well-crafted act that cost Zheyan’s life –” she swallowed down tears — “who’s to say he won’t figure this one out too?”
The chokehold of fear tightened its grip on her — she could lose Moyuan again.
“I know, Qianqian,” Yehua said softly. “He’s my brother.”
Pain raked through her injured arm again and Bai Qian grunted, breathing out in frustration. “Why can’t I move…”
“Three days in the Arctic Prison, venom infection –” Yehua shook his head. “You need a lot of rest. Don’t worry about the God of War for a few days so you can heal properly.”
How could she not worry? His demise in the last war haunted her every dream, along with the blue fire, the golden fire, the destruction of the Crystal Palace, the Kirin’s eye sockets…
A memory crashed in suddenly and Bai Qian spoke before she could think. “Where is Pojing?”
“In a meeting with his Council,” said Yehua.
He was all right, then. She remembered what had happened in the labyrinth, remembered that she now owed him more than she could repay.
So many unanswered questions, Yehua walked along the corridor toward the dining room, unable to take his mind off the wooden box with golden patterns they had retrieved from the Demon cave, or those creatures and their odd behaviors, and that mirror — all the mysteries had been gnawing at his mind ever since he’d returned to Xunzhua. No doubt he could not get any answers here.
When Yehua stepped into the grand dining room, his string of thoughts were interrupted and he almost gasped out loud.
“Qianqian,” he said.
Bai Qian’s head turned back. Colors had returned to her face but it was a mask of courtesy that she wore. She smiled at him and went back to staring at the front.
It had been days since they’d returned from the Nine Heavens, and each day without news of Moyuan was another day of torture for her. Helpful, on time for training, and always ready to listen to reports and take part in discussions, yet the usual enthusiasm and optimism seemed drained from her, only the drive to work was left. When they gathered here for dinner everyday, she would retreat to her room to read and write letters and then bury herself in the library some more, as though not wanting to waste a minute of her life not working.
Bai Qian’s presence in the dining room today seemed much welcome by Zhuowei. The King of Xunzhua, however, did not look pleased. As a matter of fact, Yehua had difficulty understanding what emotion he was trying to express.
“I’m glad you are here,” said Yehua as he took his seat. He was — explicitly glad, considering how many meals she had missed. She, someone who would criticize others for neglecting their health for any reason.
Bai Qian smiled again but said nothing. Yehua took that as a hint for him not to question or comment on her presence here any further. Having known her for years, he understood that caring words were never the solution with her. Silence and distance were the things she appreciated in a time like this.
Dinner was, as usual, excellently done, despite the lack of his preferred utensils. Absorbed in the discussion about the Demons’ support for Luoji, it took Yehua a while to realize that he and the princess were the only ones who were talking.
Bai Qian barely touched her food. She seemed to be listening to their talks but made no effort to join in. The entire time, her brows tightly knit together and her mind, he knew for certain, was up in the Void. Occasionally, she would reach toward the wine goblet, but retreated her hand instantly, as though remembering that one shouldn’t consume wine on an empty stomach yet still unwilling to eat.
“Is something wrong with our food?” said the King of Xunzhua suddenly.
Bai Qian looked towards him. With a feeble voice on the verge of cracking, she said, “No.”
“If you are hellbent on starving yourself, why come here instead of sulking in your room?”
Zhuowei’s mouth hung open. Yehua himself was at a loss for words as the king continued.
“You don’t care about yourself, that’s fine, but you’re not helping anyone by subjecting us to a full display of it.”
Bai Qian turned a little more to meet the king’s stare, the rims of her eyes reddened instantly and her lips quivered a little; but it seemed she was determined not to cry. Her tendency to hurl things around when angry, Yehua only knew too well. It would not be outside of his expectation if she threw her goblet of wine at the king’s face the next minute.
Although, just when Yehua believed she was about to do so, Bai Qian looked back at her plate, picked up her spoon, and began to eat. It was at times like these that Yehua wondered whether she would one day surpass his brother in the art of concealing one’s emotions.
The silence in which she consumed the food seemingly put up a wall between them, and he saw only the Queen of Qingqiu, not the Bai Qian with a stack of books in her arms walking out of Taichen Palace’s library that he knew.
“Did Yanzhi say when she’ll be back here for another meeting?” Bai Qian asked, scooping more of each dish into her plate.
“Erm…” Zhuowei looked at the ceiling. “Her last letter said another week. The training of her troops is keeping her occupied at the Ghost Realm. Her court, the same as anywhere, had a hard time understanding why they should get involved at all.”
“I had a reply from my Fourth Brother yesterday,” Bai Qian drank the soup spoon by spoon, sounding as though she was reciting from a boring book. “He informs me my Second Brother is raising a troop of his own. He hasn’t found too many who are willing, but a few is better than nothing.”
“Yes,” Zhuowei nodded, glancing at her brother.
“Did you tell her about the mirror we saw in the Demon Cave, Yehua?” asked Bai Qian.
“Oh, yes!” the princess’ face lit up. “Goodness, I wish I could have been there. I would have dissected that thing… Well,” she rolled her eyes, chuckling. “Not literally, of course. But I certainly would have run some tests on it!”
“It isn’t impossible,” Bai Qian shrugged, now moving on to the dessert with the same indifferent attitude. “Once the eight realms are peaceful again, you can take a trip there. I’m curious about it too.”
Yehua said nothing, half expecting the King of Xunzhua to express his disapproval of a conversation that had steered his sister’s interest toward the Demon Realm, but he gave no such response.
“Did you see the children today, Celestial Crown Prince?” asked Zhuowei.
Yehua nodded. “Yes, I brought them some new books.”
“What children?” Bai Qian looked curious for the first time this evening.
“The children whose parents were killed during the battle at the Crystal Palace,” Yehua explained. “Many of them have no other relatives and will likely have to remain here from now on. Their home is lost.”
Bai Qian nodded, curious or not, she obviously had no intention of pursuing the subject. When she had tasted almost every dish on the table and there was nothing left on her bowl or plate but a few parsley leaves, she lay her utensils down quietly, drained the rest of her wine and stood up.
“I’ll see you tomorrow for sword practice,” she said to no one in particular and headed for the door.
Once her footsteps faded, Yehua directed a look at the King of Xunzhua, who didn’t seem pleased with himself.
“What?” he responded to the look of perhaps not only Yehua, but his sister too.
“That was uncalled for,” Yehua spoke his mind.
“She likes to torture herself everyday with worry about the God of War, doesn’t she?” The reply was sword-sharp. “Well, at least now she has the energy to do it.”
The king forcefully set down his utensils and pushed back his chair to stand up, his own food untouched.
Zhuowei sighed. “Brother…”
“I’m not hungry,” he said curtly and left the room.
“My brother doesn’t always express himself right,” Zhuowei stressed.
“Clearly,” Yehua agreed in a low voice.
Perhaps it was necessary, Yehua silently admitted, the provocation. Not that he would ever attempt such a thing with Bai Qian, but perhaps it had done her more good than harm this time. She must be angry at this moment, there was no doubt of it, furious even. But anger was better than the state she’d been in the last few days.
“Speaking of that Demon Cave, Princess,” Yehua changed the subject. “I might need to trouble you with a few questions.”
Bai Qian guessed she must have screamed her head off in her sleep because her throat felt as though it hadn’t known water for years. Once again, she had dreamed about Moyuan dying the most gruesome death, lying at Luoji’s feet. Someone had tried to calm her down, poured their immortal energy into her — maybe the physician had been here.
Distant chirping of morning birds sounded near, but it was still dark. Curled up with her back against the wall, she saw a giant pillow positioned at the edge of her bed, on the other side of the canopy. Were they afraid she would roll in her sleep and fall to the ground? Bai Qian felt heat rising to her face.
Gods… had she been such a nuisance to others these last few days? She heaved herself up and let loose a long breath.
Then, the pillow moved and she nearly screamed.
It was a person — she crawled to the edge. “What is…”
“HEY!” she shoved at him, utterly bewildered.
“By the Primordial Ones… what now?”
He grunted and swung his legs to the ground, sitting up, flicking his arm. The room was illuminated instantly and he looked back at her.
“What — are you doing here?” Bai Qian hissed. “In my room! Well, it isn’t my room but… I’m staying here!”
“As usual,” he stretched his arms and shuffled his robe. “I am touched by the immensity of your gratitude.”
A soft knock on the door and a woman’s voice raised from the other side.
“Queen of Qingqiu — Queen of Qingqiu, are you all right?”
“Erm…” Bai Qian swatted the curtains aside and rose on her knees. “I’m fine!”
“May I be of service?”
“No!” She shot a look at Pojing’s loose robe that was unbuttoned down to his chest and the way he leaned against the wall as though he was enjoying her astonishment. “I mean… no, thank you.”
“Very well, if you are sure.”
It took a minute for the guard’s footsteps to fade.
“You think they don’t know I’m in here?” asked Pojing with a raise of his brow.
“Forget about them,” she gritted her teeth. “I want to know why you’re in here.”
He massaged his wrist and rolled his eyes. “The servants heard you screaming so they fetched the physician, the news reached Nalan and he thought he should let me know you sounded like you were dying again.”
“But why are you… here?”
“Do you really think I particularly enjoy being dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and getting a front-row seat to your screaming and twisting, Queen of Qingqiu? Someone needed to be here and make sure you wouldn’t roll off your bed.”
“An enchanted barrier would have done the job.”
“Enchanted barrier?” he repeated dully and scoffed. “What kind of future husband would I be if I dealt with your terror in such an unloving manner?”
Bai Qian opened her mouth to argue but a sudden pain shot through her skull and she grunted. “Why do I still get headaches? It’s not like I lack sleep or food…”
“Possibly from overeating.”
He got up and walked leisurely to the corner table, then came back with a goblet full of water and handed it to her.
“My wonderful sense of humor aside,” he said, sitting back down. “I don’t need to remind you that the Arctic cold has done great damage to your immortal essence, what you lack is proper rest, and you need to get some soon before these nightmares of yours become a permanent pattern.”
It was a fact she couldn’t argue with. Bai Qian gulped down the water.
“The God of War’s task is to destroy the devices in the Void,” he continued, sounding as though forcing himself to be serious. “Our task is to prepare for war. He trusts us to defend ourselves, and you have no choice but to trust him not to die out there, Queen of Qingqiu.”
Bai Qian grabbed her ribbon, twirled her hair into a high bun and secured it tightly. It was a silly notion, but the absence of hair hanging about her face and eyes made her see a little clearer, feel a little brighter. The last few days had been as hopeless to her as the dark of the Arctic Prison, as if her reason had been locked up somewhere she couldn’t reach.
She knew who Moyuan was. Perhaps it was time she made herself remember what he was capable of instead of dwelling on the terror of Luoji’s power.
“Are you listening to me?” asked Pojing.
“Yes,” she replied, suddenly finding again the anchor she had briefly lost. “But I can’t rest now, of course. I just woke up. And I don’t want to close my eyes now, the same nightmare might be waiting for me.”
“I have made a few hundred citizens of the sea feel safe and supported within our shield,” he said, fierceness behind his voice. “But all of that means nothing if someone inside my walls is troubled to this extent.”
It wasn’t the shield’s fault, or his, or anyone else’s but hers. Bai Qian drank some more water and hid behind the goblet for several seconds, then decided not to let herself dwell on the matter of her worry any longer.
“Have I finally managed to hurt your enormous pride?” she joked.
He huffed a laugh and jerked his chin at her. “Seems like you are not so troubled, after all.”
“How are those injuries?” she asked him, moving her gaze to the healing cuts on his face.
A brief silence before he said, “I’ve been worse.”
Thank you — maybe that was the appropriate thing to say. But the expression was no longer enough. It might have been a plan, Luoji might not have made it possible for her to receive help. But Pojing had helped, had come to her like an answer when her powers and wits had surrendered. He had watched her back like the best of friends would. What then, should be said to convey the depth of her gratitude?
“Did you enjoy it as much as I did?” his voice cutting into her thoughts.
Bai Qian frowned. “En–joy what?”
“You know,” he rested an arm on his knee. “That was quite a performance. If the Celestial Crown Prince hadn’t discussed the plan with me ahead of time, I would have thought you’d fallen for me somehow.”
She rolled her eyes. “Should I even thank you if it was such fun to you?”
“Yes, you should. Those hounds were vicious.”
“You shouldn’t have… er…” she cleared her throat, wishing there was more water in the goblet. “Shouldn’t have taken the risk. Luoji wouldn’t have cared if you died, he wouldn’t have let me receive any real help.”
“Yes,” his eyes averted and he leaned back. “Sometimes I don’t think things through that well.”
Bai Qian shrugged. “Well — neither do I.”
“No,” Pojing shook his head and gave her a long, thorough look. “You always think things through. That’s how we’re different, isn’t it.”
There was another knock on the door before Bai Qian could reply, alerting her to the fact that the sun was almost up. It was the same woman’s voice that spoke, though her tone bore some urgency this time.
“Nalan would like a word if he could come in, Queen of Qingqiu.”
“Come in,” Pojing said.
Bai Qian grabbed the canopy she was sitting behind and drove it close as the Xunzhua spymaster strode in. He bowed, looking as bright and energetic as though he’d had breakfast, trained, and ran five times around the palace.
“Keep it brief,” said Pojing. “I’m not in the mood for a full report on anything.”
“Yes,” Nalan replied. “We have a visitor.”
Pojing didn’t sound too pleased. “It is the crack of dawn, tell whoever it is to leave a message.”
“But… but it’s the God of War, My King.”
“Well then, tell the God of War to leave a message.”
Nalan stammered a response, looking back and forth between them.
“We will be out, Nalan,” said Bai Qian at last, many emotions sweeping through her at once, so fast she couldn’t even decide what to do next.