Ziming Palace, Ghost Realm
“Given her age, the Queen is more youthful than I expected.”
Bai Wei’s eyes alerted at the comment, spoken by the larger than average built man across the Banquet Hall of the Ziming Palace. With sharp eyes and dark blue hair, the man was no doubt Lu Xiao, Prince of Midnight Blue Panther Clan. Her Majesty had only taken her leave a short time ago, and these guests had already started their discussion.
“Did you expect her to have a head full of gray hair?” asked the suitor on the Prince’s left, wearing the distinctive yellow robe with white stripes; a standard color among the Deer Clan.
“Of course not! Even the Celestial Queen has not aged much. But I did expect a more seasoned Lady,” the Panther Prince explained. “Her Majesty seems to have retained her ethereal youth. Exotic… Even among her kind!”
“Her mother is not known, given the Late King's prolific life. I wonder where her rare blood comes from,” spoke Liu Xie, the future heir of the Brown Bear Clan.
“You’re already talking about her bloodline?” chuckled another. “Do you expect the Queen to choose you?”
“Why not?” Liu Xie smirked. “She probably lusts for any man coming to her doorstep. Or else, she wouldn’t have so many delivered.”
“Have you not heard? She’s been living like a nun. By choice,” the Panther Prince shook his head with a short laugh. “She might lean the other way, given her choice of guards.”
“That is only a rumor. I doubt a beauty like her will keep her legs closed all these years,” Liu Xie rolled his eyes. “Her late father and brothers collected many beauties among the realms. I doubt his daughter and their sister was far behind. But, as a Queen, she must have kept them under wraps, given her gender.”
“You are wrong, my friend,” the 3rd in line of the Deer Clan, Lu Kai interjected. “She once had a Celestial lover, a personal sex slave as they put it. She has never hidden that fact. There was an outrageous rumor that she married him in secret before his demise. The weak man that he was.”
“Ha! Whoever came up with that sordid gossip must not have known the people of Ghost Tribe well,” the Heir of the Bear Clan remarked. “They have always been an unfaithful lot.”
“Either way, she will most likely choose me,” said Lu Kai.
“How are you so confident?” Bai Wei couldn’t help but casually ask, finally including himself in the conversation. Both partially annoyed and bemused at his current situation. Keeping a low profile was much less effort than he anticipated, especially when these suitors were alpha males. Infighting turned out to be a great way to remain unnoticed.
“Because, unlike most other suitors here, including yourself, the Queen has a peculiar taste,” the suitor from the Deer Clan stated with confidence. “And I happen to qualify for what she likes.”
“Just because you’re a Celestial, it doesn’t mean you’re ahead,” the Panther Prince sneered, then added, “Even the one from Kunlun has not turned her head.”
“Those Kunlun lots! Wasn’t her former lover also a disciple there? I guess brothers do share...”
Suddenly a blast of magic cut off the words of the foul-mouthed braggart. Liu Xie from the Bear Clan who was attacked with such a force, he fell back spitting blood. All the guests rose to their feet and stared at the attacker. A collective rumbling of gasps and murmurs spread when they realized who it was. Like the deceased Celestial lover of Her Majesty, this man was also once a Disciple of the High God Mo Yuan.
One of the guests did not take the hint, and wanted to show his powers. Maybe it was pure stupidity, or short-sightedness. The fool thought that he could strike from behind, but the 8th disciple was one step ahead. His body arched to his left, avoiding the sharp blade. Lou Jun grabbed the opponent’s wrist, pulling his body forward, before flipping and slamming the attacker to the ground. The fallen man groaned in agony echoed through the hall.
Lou Jun, the 8th disciple, casually stood up, and dusted his white robes as if the mere touch of the man was offensive to him. “Anyone else?” Lou Jun voiced calmly, without even a hint of exhaustion.
The provoking tone was too much for the blood-thirsty males who had been pumped up since their arrival. With the combination of alcohol and testosterone, whether it was their fight or not, the challenge was enticing. Everyone immediately surrounded the former 8th Disciple of Kunlun, Lou Jun, who did not show a hint of reservation. A Kunlun Commander through and through, may it be a hundred or several thousand opponents. They did not bow down to sheer numbers, nor the status of their opponents.
Cursing under his breath, Bai Wei cloud-jumped next to Lou Jun, who immediately struck him with a blow that was easily blocked. Bai Wei managed to block his punches and locked arms in a tight grip. Bai Wei then gave him the most casual smile, unlike the hostile men surrounding them. Taken by surprise, Lou Jun momentarily paused. “I am not your opponent,” Bai Wei assured him. “However, I want to advise you not to make a scene. You don’t want to be disqualified so early...”
“Does it matter?” Lou Jun cut off his words with a deathly glare, which Bai Wei had never seen before. “This is the Ghost Tribe, the land of no rules.”
After a short silence, Bai Wei released his hold and stepped back with a chuckle. “You do have a point,” he agreed turning to face the hostile crowd of suitors. Though his expression was all smiles, his threatening aura vibrated for the first time today, leaving behind the passive persona he had shown since his arrival. The guests felt a strange cold breeze within the grand hall, leaving no doubt that they were dealing with a powerful opponent within their midst.
His hand rose, forming a glowing magical ball of bright white energy. “Then allow me,” Bai Wei offered before he sent the magic ball straight at the Panther’s Prince, who had lost his patience and was attacking from above. The hapless Prince was hit in the chest, flying backwards across the Grand Hall. The belligerent crowd gathered around the two men. One by one, they conjured their weapons in their hands.
“Do I know you?” Lou Jun asked with disbelief in his voice. Naturally, he had not expected anyone to have his back within this unruly land. It spoke more to his fearlessness and his solitude, and nothing else.
“I do not believe that we have met, but let us dispatch these scums who could only speak filth of Her Majesty, before we share a bottle of wine?” Bai Wei suggested meaningfully as he extended his arm. Conjuring a sword in his hand, Bai Wei struck a protective battle stance in front of the 8th Disciple.
“Then allow me to treat you,” Lou Jun offered a return smile for the first time since his arrival. The 8th disciple turned around, facing the other half of the opponents.
“Of course! I am breaking all kinds of rules today because of you,” Bai Wei remarked before facing the imposing crowd. Tonight was an excellent night to fight, as any.
Human nature is a particular thing. They say one thing and do another. Lou Jun could never understand how one moment he was defended by a stranger he had never met; then an instant later, he was wounded by the same person. Although, the wound was not severe. He, after all, had endured much worst. Usually, Lou Jun would have been more cautious, but this took place after they had a few drinks. Well, that would be an understatement. They might have cleaned out one of the wine cellars after the Banquet brawl.
His attacker was none other than his so-called and unlikely new friend who had arrived from the Fox Tribe, the smaller clan of the hidden North of the Fox Realm. A distant relative of Si Yin’s, his 17th Junior, also the High Goddess Bai Qian, the current Celestial Queen! Considering that 17th Junior would never befriend those who wished him harm, Lou Jun’s guard was down for the night.
Who would have thought it, a short time earlier, when Bai Wei was ready to depart to his quarters after taking the last chug of his wine. The Fox had stopped short by the door. Near the entrance, Bai Wei turned around with a smile that was neither joyful nor sad but clouded by reluctant indecision. His mysterious gaze captured Lou Jun’s full attention. A tactic well played, because, within mere seconds, Bai Wei drew a dagger under the palm of his hand.
“You’ll thank me later.”
Lou Jun felt the fresh cut on his shoulder before he could react. Lou Jun looked up, but by now, Bai Wei had disappeared without a trace. Before Lou Jun could rise to gave chase, another figure was already at the door. “Yan Zhi!” Her name escaped his lips.
Not believing his own eyes, he blinked a few times to be sure. No longer in her royal black garb, Yan Zhi, Her Majesty, was dressed in simple robes of purple with green feather linings. Her hair fell loosely around her left shoulder, with only a few simple silver hairpins to hold her braids. She was always lovely in her natural surrounding.
“I heard that you got yourself into a fight at the banquet after I left,” she chastised, though Yan Zhi couldn’t hide her worry behind her scowl. Her eyes always gave away her vulnerability. A weakness of hers that had drawn his attention from the beginning. Still, though she was worried, Yan Zhi remained at the doorway. “Are you hurt?”
“No, I’m not,” Lou Jun head shook. If he approached, would she run?
“Your shoulder is cover in blood,” Yan Zhi frowned.
Lou Jun glanced at his shoulder with a dumbfounded expression. At that moment, Lou Jun could not decide whether he should kill or reward Bai Wei for his underhanded tactic. That bastard!
“It’s just a scratch. You don’t have to...”
“You are hurt!” Yan Zhi hurried straight to his side. Her eyes anxiously assessed his wound. “When did you become so hot-headed? You know that I don’t care what people said about me!”
“They deserve it,” Lou Jun stood up stubbornly, ignoring the wound on his shoulders. “And you don’t deserve to be smeared.”
Yan Zhi let out a frustrating sigh, and with a shake of her head, she pushed him down. “Sit down,” Yan Zhi ordered.
“Yan Zhi…,” he tried to resist.
“I told you to sit down!”
“Still the same authoritative tone?” Lou Jun spoke more to himself because Yan Zhi had already left, no doubt to retrieve bandages. Though Yan Zhi might ignore him for days, she couldn't stay away.
Lou Jun always knew that he had fallen for her 30,000 years ago. Yan Zhi was different then, and so was he. Both had gone through hell and back after the Demon War. That day, he came to deliver the Whistling Night Raven, commissioned by his late Junior, Zi Lan, for the Queen of the Ghost Tribe.
There are times that we see the same object once or twice, yet the heart will not skip. Either the time was not right, or one's soul was not there. But once in a blue moon, when the time was just right, the lighting from the sky above showed through scattered clouds, or the vibrant candlelight flickered at the moment that one turned. The object, the image, the person, glowed before one’s eyes. Once that moment arrived when one’s heart was captured -- there would be no going back.
How unfortunate for him, that the object that stole his being was Zi Lan's lover. The one who Lou Jun couldn’t approach, the one who he couldn't touch. Fate must have decided that day, in which another Kunlun Disciple would have to endure another love trial and an unrequited one at that.
From that day on, their arrangement had always been her commission of his weapon designs. He tried to keep his distance, but their paths continued to cross. It was professional at first, but the friendship grew as time passed. When unrest arose between the Realms, they spent many late nights solving the cases requested by the Celestial King. Who would have predicted that one incident would grow to hundreds over the years that they had known each other?
Lou Jun was still reminiscing their past when Yan Zhi had returned with her maids, who carried an abundance of dressing wounds and medicine. After Yan Zhi dismissed them, she told him to undress. “The last time you tended to me, was over one hundred years ago,” Lou Jun couldn’t help but point out, as he pulled the side of his robe, layer by layer until he had exposed the fresh wound. Yan Zhi settled beside him.
“I don’t remember,” Yan Zhi replied curtly, as she began to cleanse his cut with a soaked towel. Apparently, still angry, she avoided his gaze. Yan Zhi dabbed the yellow powder over his cut to disinfect the wound. Lou Jun bit his inner cheeks so he would not make a sound. The pain was more excruciating than he thought. Did Bai Wei put something on the blade?
“I realized that night when you dressed my wound just like you did today,” Lou Jun continued, despite her cold shoulder, as she reached for the dressing fabric on the table, “that I couldn’t play the part that you wished for me to act any longer.”
Her hand paused momentarily at his words. She’s listening. Lou Jun couldn’t help but smile. Yan Zhi gave him a glare of disapproval, yet it could not hold back his grin, because she had looked at him finally. So close and so near, he wanted to succumb to his yearnings, but before he could lean forward, she had turned away from his gaze once more and proceeded to dress his wound.
After a short silence, Yan Zhi finally spoke. “You should leave Ghost Realm. It’s not safe for you since you managed to declare war on the first night,” she advised.
With the last tie of the dressing knot secure, she started to rise, but Lou Jun's hand reached to grab her arm. “I won’t go anywhere. I won’t leave you ever again." Seeing no response, Lou Jun tried again. "Yan Zhi, look at me. I promise that I will remain by your side for all eternity if you allow me.”
At that moment, her eyes closed momentarily. Her head shook, though a smile appeared, it never reached her eyes. “He had also promised me that once,” she whispered.
For most of his existence, Lou Jun was not one who usually succumbed to jealousy. He had never felt the need to possess anything, nor an attachment to others. A feeling so foreign, he didn’t even know how it felt -- until the emotion rose, like an unkept fire that started to spread. May it be intoxication or the adrenaline, which had not dissipated since the brawl from earlier tonight -- his rage had surface without warning.
“I don’t care what Zi Lan promised you!" Lou Jun exploded, as he grabbed both of her arms and turned her to face him. "He’s gone, and I’m here,” he emphasized. “Answer me honestly, do you feel the same? Or you wouldn’t have avoided me if you were indifferent.”
“Lou Jun…," her voice had turned calm and commanding, a habit of hers when she began to shut down. "you’re still intoxicated---”
Lou Jun immediately seized her lips before she finished. She gasped in surprise, then her struggle began. Yan Zhi tried to hit him, bite him, but he wouldn't let her go, because the physical pain from her attack was nothing compared to her detachment. Ignoring the stabbing ache on his shoulder, which most likely had opened by now, he pulled her closer. Just as quick as her initial attack, her struggle suddenly ceased. He felt her soften against him. Not letting the opportunity slide, he claimed her mouth with possessive urgency, taking in the warm velvet of her skin, the sweet delight of her lips.
How he wished that they could continue forever, but once Lou Jun felt the slight pressure of resistance, he broke their kiss. When his mind finally reached clarity, Yan Zhi was gazing deeply into his eyes. That was when Lou Jun realized that it was he who was the helpless captive.
His anguished gaze flickered over Yan Zhi's face. “Tell me you don’t feel anything. Tell me you have no place for me in your heart. We both know you could never lie. Yan Zhi, can you tell me you don’t have slightest feelings for me?”
“I-I...I don’t know,” she stammered, yet she didn't look away, her face flushed, her eyes uncertain. She’s wavering. His hope started to rise.
“So there is a chance?” Lou Jun asked.
“You...you should rest,” Yan Zhi started untangling herself from his hold, but he held firm.
“So I could stay?” he asked, which sounded more like a plea.
Her lashes lowered, followed by a slight nod.
Lou Jun only realized then, that he had held his breath. Not because he would have given up a chance for her hand if she had said no. But to him, her consent was more than the breath itself. Lou Jun, the fool that he was, broke into a smile of relief, right before the world started to turn, and darkness took hold.