Bai Zhen especially loved this time of day. As the last rays of sun slowly dipped toward the horizon, vibrant colors, illuminated from the high mountains in the West, invoked a sense of peace and harmony which made one pause for a while to appreciate such beauty. This tranquility, coupled with the heavy sweet peach fragrance in the air and a slight hint of sea salt from the neighboring East Sea, made the perfect moment to share a drink.
Today was no different.
Bai Zhen sat across High God Zhe Yan. Like the never-ending season of Peach Blossom Valley, their everlasting custom remained unchanged. For a few incense sticks, they have been enjoying the peach wines by the small pond near the guest hut within the thick forest of Peach Blossom trees.
As the wine cup hovered near his lips, the calm atmosphere was suddenly disrupted by a pair of large scissor blades which landed sharply at the center of the wooden table. Unfazed by the attack, the two High Gods exchanged amused looks. They returned to savor their drinks, barely acknowledging the presence of an unruly immortal barging into their quiet evening.
“I’ve been here for days!” Qiao Xin, the treasured Princess of the Ghost Tribe, shouted at her nonchalant hosts. “When are you going to let me leave?!”
Seeing the Ghost Princess covered in dirt and leaves, Bai Zhen had to hide his smile to avoid increasing her fury. She looked more like an ordinary servant than any royal at the moment. Even Bai Qian in her younger years had never been reduced to this state. The fault was theirs to blame since they had spoiled her so.
“It depends,” Zhe Yan replied dryly. With a mocking glance and raised eyebrow, he added, “Have you completed all your chores?”
“You can’t possibly expect me to trim ten miles of peach trees and bury all your mountains of wine bottles without magic!” she answered in utmost disbelief, her hands turning white from clenching too hard.
“My Child,” Zhe Yan chuckled, obviously enjoying the extra fury from the fair Princess whenever he reminded her of her status, “I’ve never used magic to tend to my garden. And neither should you.”
“High God Zhe Yan…,” she sighed. After closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, she tried to continue calmly but firmly, “Unlike you... I don’t have the luxury of time to trim peach trees for the next decade.” Of course, it wasn’t long before she lost her patience… again. “Are you planning to keep me here forever?!”
“Only mortals have a restriction on time,” Zhe Yan proceeded to explain. “Immortals like us on the other hand…”
“Give me something more daring as my punishment! I’d bring anything for you,” she bargained. “My home has all kind of remedies and elixirs, including hard-to-find ingredients owned by the High God Rou Tzu himself--”
“I doubt the High God Rou Tzu would appreciate you breaking into his domain,” Bai Zhen cut her off and gave the Princess a bemused smile. “His punishment will no doubt be worse than mine. The former King of Poisons was known to destroy a whole clan without much effort. Tales of the Blood Moon Locust destruction of the Leaf Tribe are still being told today.”
“You can’t scare me. Elder Rou Tzu would never hurt me.”
“Nonetheless, you do not have the right to demand the type of punishment imposed by your elders, considering you have broken into my valley for who-knows-how-many-times by now. Imagine how the law and order would succumb if that was the norm.” Hearing no retort, Zhe Yan returned his attention to their drinks, which has now been joined by a complete set of supper served by stoic Bi Fang. “I would not let you go until you have completed your punishment. For however long it takes.”
“High God Zhe Yan, please let me off this time,” Qiao Xin continued to beg, albeit in a quieter voice. A pair pouted lips also appeared, showing a youthfulness she often hid.
With her tenacity and spunkiness, Bai Zhen had almost forgotten how young the Princess actually was. She was merely a little more than 30,700 years, empowered by cultivations from her saviors. Strong and clever, Qiao Xin would’ve been a great candidate as the successor of the leadership of the Ghost Tribe. It surprised them all why she was never chosen to be one.
“You can always send her back to her Aunt,” Bai Zhen suggested slyly, earning a glare from the Princess.
“No!” her head shook vehemently, kneeling next to them. “Anything but that!”
“Are you sure?” Bai Zhen teased.
“Noooo… But I don’t have much choice, do I?” Qiao Xin stood up and did an informal curtsy. “I’d leave you to your meals.”
“The Princess is indeed her mother’s child,” Zhe Yan commented after the she left. “Her pretty little head must be already scheming her next move.”
“Even when she doesn’t have her eyes, she has her wit,” Bai Zhen added. “Without a doubt, she has her intelligence.” And they both nodded, remembering the past of a woman forgotten by many...
“On a more serious note, how much longer do you want me to keep her here?”
“Until my debt is paid,” Fox King answered quietly.
Zhe Yan’s brows arched in confusion, “I was not aware you’re indebted to the Ghost Queen.”
“Hmmm… It depends who you meant.”
When the words fell into place, Zhe Yan’s demeanor sombered. “Her mother?”
“When Xuan Nu was young, her only goal was to be married to the man she loved,” Bai Zhen began to fully reminisce, not a trace of laughter remained on his face. “To live a simple life, that was her dream. She neither thrived for power nor status. Otherwise, she would have married the Leader of the Black Bear Clan as her family had arranged.”
“You can’t blame yourself,” Zhe Yan grasped his partner’s hand, a gesture only done in private.
Lost in his thoughts, Bai Zhen first felt the slight squeeze of reassurance. He smiled as Zhe Yan’s words began to flow like a balm to his soul, battling the negative emotions that started to rebuild and re-drown him in guilt. “Her destiny was changed once she was under my care. Xuan Nu was never meant to be the main source of destruction of countless armies. Those innocent souls were lost because she had stolen the Tactical Manual from the High God Mo Yuan. Instead of watching over her, I pawned her off to Bai Qian, another charge I could not handle. If I’d never sent Xuan Nu to Kunlun...”
“Qiao Xin wouldn’t have existed…,” Zhe Yan interjected meaningfully.
“True. She was the child who was never meant to live, let alone exist.” Though shaking his head, his smile returned with a short laugh. “When Qiao Xin arrived on my doorstep for the first time, I knew she was my second chance to make amends.”
“She’s been under the protection of the Ghost Tribe. What more can you do?”
“They can’t protect her when she keeps running. Qiao Xin wants answers.”
“Ha! All this time, you do intend to give her the Zhuī Mèng Zhě1.”
“Of course not! At least not for the time being. A child like her should not use the artifact without guidance. It’s a powerful but dangerous tool. It can restore but also change memories. Worst, it can cloud one’s interpretation of one’s past. Besides,” Bai Zhen looked at Zhe Yan knowingly, “...I lent the dreamcatcher earlier today.”
“In the meantime, you want her to reside here against her will?” Zhe Yan asked.
“It’s livelier with her around. Don’t you agree?” Bai Zhen remarked teasingly. “Reminds us of the old days.”
“Bai Qian was right,” Zhe Yan rolled his eyes, “We do have too much time on our hands.”
Who knew it would become so nostalgic to be back the place that once held his spirit.
His previous residence, his second home. Kunlun Mountain, a place like no other.
Standing before a private study, the man absorbed the familiar smell of a small library full of scrolls which had been stacked neatly on the shelves. The half-burnt candles illuminated the windowless cave. Though the place had become only a distant memory from a vague life, his recollections were surprisingly slightly more vivid than expected upon his arrival.
Being the sole heir to the largest, most well-known and most respected merchant family of the Celestial Realm has it’s benefits. The Master of Kunlun, the High God Mo Yuan, had allowed his fourth disciple to have his own quarters, one which was designed for his personal use. Shang Ling did not know why this was the first place he chose to visit when there were better places to stretch his legs. Nonetheless, it felt good to walk here again.
As he leisurely strolled among the piles of scrolls, a tiny object caught his attention. A dark miniature abacus with red beads laid on the bottom shelf. Oddly, it was not the ideal size for a grown man to possess.
Slowly, his hand reached for the abacus. But with only a hair’s breadth away, a voice broke the silence of the night ---
“I know this place.”
Shang Ling immediately turned around. Shock would be an understatement under the circumstances.
The girl from before.
“Where is this place?” she asked as she spun around the room. Her wide eyes absorbed the details with familiarity while her hand lightly caressed the dragon-designed inkstone.
How did she get in here?
“My library,” Shang Ling answered, still unable to comprehend her presence.
“Where is your library?” she turned to face him.
“Kunlun!” her eyes sparkled with excitement. “It’s one of the few places I can’t…”
“Why can’t I remove you?” Shang Ling blurted. He tried to use the spell but it didn’t work. She’s not just a figment of his imagination.
“Wh-What do you mean?” she asked innocently before deflecting, “You’re not answering my question.”
“This is Dream Realm. My memories, my dream. I should be able to control it...”
“Then stranger,” the girl smiled and finished with a shrug, “perhaps you want me to be in your dream.”
His brow furrowed even more. “Perhaps?” he echoed, then froze at the self realization. Once the spark ignited, his fury exploded.“You touched the artifact while I was in this realm! Do you have any idea how dangerous it is to enter someone’s dream?! One mistake could have you --or worse, both of us -- trapped for eternity!”
“Don’t be silly, I’ve been in dream realms---”
Shang Ling immediately pulled themselves out of the Dream Realm before she could finish her sentence.
Inside one of the guest houses of High God Zhe Yan, his eyes snapped open to a set of dark pools which were studying him intently. The intruder covered half of his body. She had undoubtedly tried to snatch the artifact from his hand but was pulled into the dream realm as a result.
The girl lifted her head and shamelessly inched much closer. Before he could push her off, he felt her hands on his half-clothed chest. Her fingers traced his exposed skin -- softly and delicately like a brush over a precious canvas. With his breath caught and his entire being transfixed by her wide eyes, he was lost, unsure of what action he should take. With each brush of intimate touch, his heart beated faster, louder. Her gaze... highly analytical. Did she want to read all of his thoughts, dissect every detail? He soon realized that this seduction was more of curiosity than romance.
“Are you done groping?”
“Oh…,” her eyes grew larger, if that was even possible. The girl blanched when she realized they’re no longer in the Dream Realm. Clearly mortified by her behavior, her petite body scrambled off of his, nearly tripping from the tangled sheets and limbs. Luckily, she caught the edge of the bed in time. “I’m sorry!” She squealed and disappeared from the room.
Shang Ling barely rose in a sitting position when the frantic girl returned.
“Why are you back?!” he barked. “This is my room! A man’s room!”
“Can… can we negotiate?” she asked cautiously, moving closer despite the danger he might pose to her.
“No,” Shang Ling answered irritably while he readjusted the sheets around his waist, cursing himself for reacting that way to a clumsy could’ve-been-assassin.
“You didn’t even ask what I want to bargain!” she scowled.
“The Zhuī Mèng Zhě belongs to the High God Bai Zhen. I won’t allow you to have it,” Shang Ling replied coldly. Indifference is an excellent way to settle one’s nerves.
“I am not asking to possess it,” the girl retorted defensively.
Shang Ling remained stoic. “Leave. It’s the dead of the night,” his expression darkened, his tone harsher. “Unless you want to join my bed again…,” he added with a scandalous undertone, praying she would have a thread of propriety, if not common sense.
“Let me enter your dreams,” she begged, “as a sidekick, partner, whatever you prefer.”