Ninety-nine Snow Mountains Stand
Premise Tags: Mythical Creatures, Immortals,
Friendship, Ancient China,
Bickering Couple, Promise. Time Skip.
Content Warnings: n/a.
He was the axe at my side
in which my arm trusted.
He was the sword in my belt,
and the shield in front of me.
He was my festive robe,
and the whole of my delight. 1Gilgamesh’s Lament for Enkidu
Thousands of li they've trekked, and it felt like thousands more was ahead. The sun, a half-serviceable timekeeper, had long since adored the hide-and-seek behind mountains too much to be of much use. Canopies of trees had long lost their distinctive shapes, and the branches above might as well be one spreading, blanketing organism of its own, the differences between trees be damned. Interspersed between these heavy woods were rivers, mountains upon which nothing grew, cliff-faces glimmering with fortunes untold.
Along these wilderness, Bai Mingyuan and Ao Wei walked.
This late spring, they were heading off to Kunlun Mountains to pick the peaches of immortality. Yes, just the two of them: just the fifth prince Ao Wei and the Grand Preceptor Bai Mingyuan, no entourages, no horses, no officials. Okay, the bit about the horses was half a lie. They did set off with those, but had long since tied them up in the stables of an outskirts guard post once the terrain grew too treacherous for these gentle creatures.
“This is the road you took when you came to the Western Desolation?” Ao Wei asked, skeptical. As they walked by a flowing river with all its treacherous waters, he glanced at Bai Mingyuan, as though assessing the likelihood of this story.
Bai Mingyuan pouted in indignation. “Of course I can make it. I am absolutely not spoiled. It’s just you who spoil me.”
"At least you know who spoils you," Ao Wei said in approval. Bai Mingyuan shoved him with his shoulder.
Bai Ze was born in Kunlun Mountains, and had descended into what small civilizations existed after towns and cities had been built. In those days before history was recorded, those settlements had been made up of the earliest humans, yaos and divine beasts. The Yellow Dragon led as king. His brothers, the Black Dragon, Red Dragon, White Dragon and Azure Dragon expanded their territory further in all four directions. By the time Bai Mingyuan finally joined society, the four dragons' expansion was completed; now that they ruled the four cardinal directions, it was the duty of the nine dragon sons to guard these newly-drawn borders. Taotie, proper name Ao Wei and the fifth oldest, was sent west.
Kunlun Mountains were to the west; as such, when Bai Mingyuan made his way to the capital city, he'd met Ao Wei as the latter guarded the border. Despite the relative proximity, Ao Wei himself had never trekked all the way to Kunlun Mountains—this was his first time. Now he understood why his lord father would simply fly there as a dragon. It was a tedious journey.
"How long did it take you?" Ao Wei asked.
"Huh? Quite a while. Half a year? I don't remember, it's been centuries."
"Would've been shorter if you'd been in your original form, wouldn't it?"
Bai Mingyuan rubbed his chin. "Maybe not. I didn't know where to go back then so I stopped a lot. Even if I were a bigger creature with far wider strides, it wouldn’t help given I was constantly asking for directions."
Unlike many yaos who saw human figure as the pinnacle of their power and control, divine beasts had pride in their original forms. The human body was a convenience of size. Bai Ze was, despite his soft, friendly human form, an intimidating figure: with the head of a tiger, twin dragon horns and a scaled beast body, its pure white coloration only made it seem more otherworldly. In its golden eyes was wisdom of time and further beyond, while a pearl sat on its forehead as though its third eye. Though often sheathed, Bai Ze had claws that shredded with easy finality.
It was easy to forget that, sometimes. He was easygoing on most days, and had a dimpled smile that evoked exasperated fondness. But Bai Ze knew about all creatures and could rattle off how to handle them, with a book of his knowledge circulating around the masses to keep away creatures that might harm them. The book also covered herbal medicine, how to make soap, all these mundane, daily life matters. He handled court matters in Yellow Dragon’s stead, and the Imperial Honor Guards was under his jurisdiction. Whenever the small coalition of humans ran into problems, the one they’d write a letter to would be him. And of course, if pushed, he would indeed draw blood. Bai Ze was not unlike the qilin. He would fight to protect the people he was destined to guard.
Perhaps that had been the reason he and Ao Wei got along so well. Taotie too was a fearsome figure guarding city walls. A massive beast with piercing, terrifying eyes, his great brown-red body was covered in bronze plates. Horns curled on the sides of his head, often glinting with the bloodlust of a swordpoint. Such was Taotie: in his ferocity was reflected a sacred love borne of his ability to protect.
Two divine beasts whose fates were to be guardians—when they were destined to walk down the same path, who wouldn’t cherish a like-minded friend?
"And now you know where we are?" Ao Wei said, skeptical.
Bai Mingyuan pouted. "Why do you doubt me so much ah. I know where I'm headed now, and I've been asking the animals around here. Didn't you hear?"
Asking what asking. The two of them had been tasked to go to Kunlun Mountains’ Gardens so that they may serve the peaches of immortality during the yearly rituals, and yet instead of hurrying along Bai Mingyuan kept stopping to smell the flowers. Sure, there were times when it seemed like he was communicating with the occasional fish and beast, but no outsiders could ever tell. It simply looked as though he was staring at a fish and opened his mouth to make a short bark.
Ao Wei rolled his eyes. "I don't speak random animal languages."
"You speak mine, though," Bai Mingyuan joked. Ao Wei, once again, rolled his eyes.
"Your language is wine, and the syntax is characterized by distracted, excessive length, full of words that hold meanings individually but lose coherence when strung together."
"Pangu cleaved the earth and heavens apart, Taotie cuts nine rivers into the fragmented lands of my heart," Bai Mingyuan lamented. "And now watering their ragged flow are my tears."
"With that kind of water source, not even the most rigorous of water management systems can help you," Ao Wei said snidely. "Dams and blockages made of rammed earth, if your heart is the soil, would be the softest thing caving in at the sight of a single tear."
“The image of pear blossom bathed in the rain, wouldn’t you also grow soft, Ah-Wei?”
Ao Wei snorted. “I’d like to see any so-called beauties who have the guts to cry in front of me.”
Ah, he couldn’t help it: "Hey, I don't count as a beauty?"
Ao Wei stopped in his tracks. Confused and a bit apprehensive, Bai Mingyuan did, too, turning to him with questions in his eyes. Was he annoyed? Then a hand grabbed his chin; Ao Wei's hand was covered in thick calluses, and Bai Mingyuan could sense how the rough surface was scratching the sensitive skin of his jaw. Then it was Ao Wei's face that came incredibly close—his eyes were assessing, his lips slightly pursed.
"Wouldn't call this a beauty," the verdict came, "but would indeed look extremely pitiful if bathed in rain. I would compare it more to a drenched cat."
There was a moment of silence as Bai Mingyuan grappled for words. As if realizing that he’d made the other flounder, Ao Wei finally let go of his chin, taking a step back with raised eyebrows. The nerve of this man, grabbing people and then acting as though he’d done nothing. Princely title had gone to his head! But Bai Mingyuan calmed down, and as he calmed down, words returned to him.
"A cat! I, my pride as a divine beast… I shall never recover, I have been slighted beyond slights…" He peered at Ao Wei. "Am I at least a cute one?"
"Meows a lot, runs about around people's feet, absolutely tiny, entirely white and all too easy to get dirty, but cute enough to keep," Ao Wei said. "Are you fishing around for compliments?"
"I was, but I think now I'll settle for running around in your residence. After all, you did mention beauties don't dare cry in your presence. As such, logically, I am a step ahead in front of them," Bai Mingyuan said proudly. After a beat, he laughed. "Okay, we dallied enough. It'll rain soon, let's find shelter for the night."
“And whose fault is that, pray tell?”
They found shelter underneath one of the many giant Yao trees, abundant in this Huaijiang Mountains. Rain felt like a distant thought here; the downpour had been stopped high, high above by the thick canopies, and what trickled down sounded more like the pouring of tea. In any case, Bai Mingyuan had set up a ward as well. They were dry, and the most comfortable they could be in the wilderness.
Another 400 or so li southwest, then they ought to arrive. At their brisk pace, regardless of what Ao Wei had said about them loitering, it'd take four or five days to get to the foot of Kunlun. Climbing it would take another week, though. A good, solid pace, Bai Mingyuan felt. Although he had been the one ensuring the imperial palace ran smoothly for years and years now, he was a bit sad half of their journey was coming to a close. All too soon, he would be swamped with work. All too soon, Ao Wei was probably going to depart for the western borders once more…
A finger poked his cheek. “What are you thinking about, now?”
A fire had been started, food had been eaten, and drinks had been poured. They were settled for the night. Leaning side by side against the tree trunk, Bai Mingyuan let his head rest on Ao Wei’s shoulder, hands playing with the embroidered hems of his turquoise robe. They were patterned like the markings on a ding bearing the taotie image. This, of course, had been one of those robes sent to him by Ao Wei. Bai Mingyuan often only wore white. Sometimes, one of the dragons would tease him by saying this colorful robe looked like a summer coat.
“When we get back, let’s let the court run itself for a while,” Bai Mingyuan sighed. “I want to go to the western borders with you.”
Ao Wei flicked his nose. “What are you going with me for? There’s nothing to see in the Western Desolation. You’ve already seen all there is to see ages ago.”
Pursing his lips, Bai Mingyuan let the matter go.
Sensing his melancholy, Ao Wei tugged him over until his head rested against firm chest. Good thing he was not wearing his usual armor— Bai Mingyuan would've gone head first onto a bronze chestpiece, maybe bump against it with his jade hairpin for good measure. Speaking of that hairpin… Yet another gift from Ao Wei, Ao Wei pulled it from his hair so it stopped getting in the way. Once done, he made Bai Mingyuan climb over his thigh until Bai Mingyuan was sitting between his legs, leaning on his chest. With a sigh Bai Mingyuan relaxed, pulling Ao Wei's arms until they were loosely curled around him, and closed his eyes.
The rise and fall of Ao Wei’s chest as he breathed was comforting to Bai Mingyuan, but the feeling of him relaxing in the presence of comfort and security loosened up Ao Wei’s tight muscles, too. As the rain fell, drip drop drip drop, he too was lulled to sleep, closing his eyes with the tiniest of smiles.
What blessing, to not need dreams for glimpses of happiness. It truly would be the dream— days when reality was so sweet, wishes would come up wanting.
Pangu had separated yin from yang to create the world and pushed up the heavens to keep them apart, but primordial chaos was not a force that could be extinguished. Like a flooding river, all that could be done about it was containment and mitigation. In that border beyond civilization, Ao Wei protected the small kingdom and fought off manifestation of that chaos. It was there that they had met, and Bai Mingyuan would later return with Ao Wei's forces back to the capital.
Centuries later, the White Dragon would jokingly comment, "Say, Mingyuan. If you'd instead tried to go to the capital through the route further northward and met Bi'an instead, at the northern gate, would you now be bosom friends with him rather than Taotie?"
"Fifth Uncle jests," Bai Mingyuan said, placating the fuming Ao Wei by patting him on both shoulders. "Everyone is brothers here, and while Ao Han is great and— Ah-Wei, where are you going ah! Fifth Uncle, come on, now he's sulking. Ah-Wei! Come back here you big pot of vinegar!"
White Dragon's youthful laughter reverberated throughout the halls that day, drawing the attention of Azure Dragon and Bixi— it was a busy day for Bai Mingyuan, that afternoon. It turned out that uncles always loved teasing their uptight nephews, and elder brothers loved bullying their younger brothers. Under that multi-pronged attack, Ao Wei that day ended up escaping to Bai Mingyuan's residence… and ate almost half a sheep.
Bolts of brocade, treasures of bronze, truly none of it could shine a light in the overwhelming value of bushels of grain. Ao Wei ate a lot…
Of course, he would feed Ao Wei what he wished. After all, Ao Wei also directed some of his imperial rewards to the Bai Residence, as if to ensure the household suffered no shortages. Embroidered robes, too, perfectly tailored in Bai Mingyuan's size, hairpieces and crowns in jade and bronze alike. When he had the time, he'd brew in big jars wine that Bai Mingyuan liked; he'd bury it under the plum trees before he left for the borders once more. Upon his return, those jars would be unearthed, and they'd enjoy it as they watched the red blossoms bloom among white snow.
...Perhaps there was merit in how everyone teased the two of them.
Sometimes, he got asked, You're so close to Ao Wei, if you're afraid of piercing through the paper window, why don't you just peek into the future?
And Bai Mingyuan would laugh. The first thing was, there was no paper window to pierce; he and Ao Wei, he felt, were already as honest as they could be. They were close, closer than most. Enviably close. But that was a testament to how comfortable they were with each other, Bai Mingyuan thought. It wasn't necessarily because of anything else.
The second thing was, Bai Mingyuan knew better than to peek into the future of something so good. There was a part in him already yearning for this banquet to never end— glory and the country would ebb and flow, but he'd hoped that his friendship with Ao Wei would see through time. And such a wish already made the idea of relying on foresight dangerous. If Bai Mingyuan just looked at the future once, as he could easily do, his present would be forever spoiled. Without even a single event, he would've lost the magic.
He was committing to the present. This moment was a gift he would hold dearly in his heart.
Mo Kun, that old, blunt blockhead Kun fish, had always said though Bai Ze could see into the future, Ao Wei had always been his blindspot.
South of Huaijiang Mountains lied Kunlun Mountains, and so south they went. These mountains were abundant with a power hard to encapsulate; the closer they get, the more fantastical everything felt. Small wonder Bai Ze had been born here, Ao Wei mused. Though the nine sons of the dragon were divine beasts too, they'd been born after their father the Yellow Dragon had gathered and made a society out of creatures. Meanwhile, who knew what ancient time it was when Bai Ze was born? In this land where the sun arrived to set, it seemed such a trivial matter to ponder. He understood now why though his lord father flew here, he would still make the trip on foot up the mountain.
The foot of Kunlun Mountains was lush with both life and power. Bai Mingyuan stopped every now and then, chatting with the local life, but now his tone had shifted from a questioning one to something more casual, as though neighbors catching up after a long absence. After every other conversation, he'd turn to Ao Wei, saying, "Turns out, very little has changed in the centuries I've been away. I don't know how to feel about that."
"Where did you live, anyway?" Ao Wei asked.
Bai Mingyuan blinked, as though he wasn't expecting the question. After a moment of thinking, he said, "It's a cave not too far from the garden. Say, we can stop by and stay the night there, I think. It really is just a cave, though."
Ao Wei's lips thinned. "So back then you only had who, Lu Wu for company?"
The god Lu Wu, the lion with the nine tails, was the warden of this mountain and managed the Garden here. A busy individual, that one; not only did he manage the gardens, he also administered the nine regions of heaven as well as the cycle of the four seasons here in Kunlun Mountains. Ao Wei had only heard of him. He never went down the mountains, and even if he did, he had scant reason to go to the city.
Bai Mingyuan chuckled. "No… The birds and beasts were there too, and the palace above wasn't there yet. Back then, everything was almost wilderness. The garden was simply a vast expanse of pink rain throughout the year, year after year. The peaches now heralded as the peaches of immortality were just good ol’ fruits we ate when we were hungry… It’s really a sight, Ah-Wei, you really should see it. Oh, right. Old Lu wasn’t here yet at that point.”
“You were alone?”
“There were others, I did just say ah,” Bai Mingyuan said, waving his hand. “They just don’t live as long as I do.”
He’d outlived them, generation after generation. With his wisdom, he understood that such was the way of the world; with his tenderness, he felt the sorrow of parting anyway. He simply wished them a life well lived.
Ao Wei glanced at him. After a while, he said, “The Dragon clan is concentrated in the city, and so are the Qilin. You can start counting the days less.”
Bai Mingyuan laughed. “Of course. I have you for however long, now?"
Ah, Ah-Wei being all concerned was truly cute. In such a roundabout way saying that now that Bai Mingyuan had gone to where other divine beasts like him lived, he wouldn't need to worry as much about the lifespans of those around him— his Ah-Wei really was the cutest.
They stopped by the cave within which he was born and spent the night there. There wasn't much to show, it truly was just a big cave, empty sans the fragments of long-absent life already decayed. Ao Wei had nothing to say to it. When morning broke, they climbed the heights once more, and after days of such trek a palace high up the mountains came into view.
Up here, the air was thin but full of power. Beasts and birds had grown to be a scarce sight the higher they climbed, but in turn the trees seemed to have taken over. Sand-pear trees with their yellow blossoms and brilliant red fruits, the sunflower-like Pin that eased their fatigue when eaten— Bai Mingyuan made it a point to stop and let Ao Wei eat these two delicacies. Frankly speaking, all the cooking and eating might’ve added an entire day onto their trek, but it was worth it.
Grinning, Bai Mingyuan reached forward and wiped the juice of the Sand-pear fruit off Ao Wei’s chin. “How was it? Worth being called one of the finest delicacies?”
Ao Wei swatted his hand away half-heartedly, saying, “Tastes like plums. At best, it just doesn’t have the pits.”
“At least now you won’t drown,” Bai Mingyuan laughed. “Eating this fruit will protect you from floods. Here, let’s bring back some of the Pin plants, at least. It won’t grow back home, but we can have it be turned into far more lavish dishes than pancakes. Just eating it in pancakes, I think we’ll turn half of this peak bald before you’re full ah.”
“I’m not that gluttonous.”
“You really are,” he said, voice grave. “It’s okay, though. You’re perfect as you are.”
Ao Wei turned his face to try and bite Bai Mingyuan’s lingering fingers, but missed. Bai Mingyuan used the moment to poke at his lips before moving back with a grin, getting back onto his feet. "Let's go, let's go."
They carried on to the last stretch, and arrived at the palace of the garden, residence of Lu Wu. Built of jade, precious stones and the most mystical of trees, the palace was magnificent and gaudy, exuding a divine air that could only be at home in this mountain. Ao Wei hesitated at the front doors, but Bai Mingyuan held his hand and pulled him along. As they entered, two birds standing by the doors flew upright, and made a long cry.
"They're announcing our presence," Bai Mingyuan explained. "Old Lu is often outside, so his servant birds are the ones who go and find him."
As if to prove his point, distant birds' cries followed, growing more and more faint until they disappeared. The birds that were by the gates made a short call, and Bai Mingyuan nodded, replying to them in their own language.
"What did you say?" Ao Wei asked, eyebrows raised.
"We'll just head to the courtyard," Bai Mingyuan said. “Since they already knew why we’re here, we should just go to the garden gates.” He noticed Ao Wei’s skeptical look. “It’s fine. We’re not here to steal after all.”
The winding corridors of this palace were kept in the shade by lush vegetation, brilliant greens contrasting milky white and ancient browns. Some smaller plants would be in proud blooms, too, adding splashes of red and orange and violet, all a feast for the eyes. Ao Wei's eyes traced the outlines of the foliage against the blue sky as they walked, led by the hand by Bai Mingyuan.
A stone wall came into view after they rounded a corner, standing a head or so taller than the two of them. Further to the right, at the center of it, was the entrance gate. Right by it, a lion that towered over the wall.
"It's been a while, Mingyuan." His voice was a deep rumble that seemed to reverberate through the earth below. "Didn't get lost, did you?"
"Everyone has so little faith in me," Bai Mingyuan lamented. "I was just taking my time. I have to show Ah-Wei around! It's not every day I get to take him all the way here, after all."
"Sure," Lu Wu said mildly. Bai Mingyuan turned to Ao Wei, as if to point this injustice out to a witness.
Ao Wei rolled his eyes. “We’re here to pick some peaches of immortality.” That was, let’s not waste too much time.
Faced with mild ribbing from one side and indifference from the other, Bai Mingyuan resigned himself to the unfairness of the world and focused back to the reason they were here. Huffing with amusement, Lu Wu lifted a paw and drew a sigil with his claw. The white character hovered in front of the plain, unassuming wooden gates for a moment before they opened with a creak, stirring up a wind that smelled of flowers as they moved.
“I’ll let you two take what you need. Once you’re done, feel free to wait inside.” With that message, Lu Wu gave them a nod and went back to his duties.
Bai Mingyuan’s face bloomed with a grin.
“Ah-Wei, look. Isn’t it magical?”
Pink as far as the eyes could see, indeed— as the breeze picked up myriad petals off the peach trees, Ao Wei could taste spring on his tongue. The vast, pale blue sky, the flowers falling up like birds in flight, the sweet smell of ripe fruit; despite all the fantastical creatures and sights that Ao Wei had seen on his way here, this was the only one that made him feel he’d stepped into another world.
Accompanying it, Bai Mingyuan’s bright smile.
“Isn’t it beautiful? Much of what you see is sand, blood and battle. I really wanted to show you an idyllic paradise.”
“An idyllic paradise, we’d be out of a job,” Ao Wei said faintly. His attention was still too fixated on the sight before him. Bai Mingyuan’s white hair seemed to take on a faint hue of the petals that landed on them, and his dimpled smile seemed especially sweet.
That reply earned him a laugh. “How so? I think you can just become a wine brewer. Yours is the best, methinks. Every time I am gifted with a jar made by anyone else, I find myself missing yours. Look: the fruit, the flowers, you have options!” Bai Mingyuan then sighed. “It's such a shame that they only care about the peaches of immortality, and nobody is making wine out of these fallen flowers. Peach blossom wine from the trees of immortality… Is that not a hefty title!"
With a huff, Ao Wei swatted him. “In the eyes of this Grand Preceptor, this prince is but a winemaker.”
“It’s not that,” Bai Mingyuan laughed. With a tilt of his head, he started walking deeper into the gardens, leading him along to the line of trees. “This subject appreciates all of the Fifth Prince ah, when has he not? Anything Ah-Wei makes is special. Anything Ah-Wei does is spec—"
"All right, shut that mouth of yours before you write an entire song and ritual praising me, and accidentally get shamans sent to my home, seeking me out." Looking to the side, Ao Wei flicked his forehead. "They listen to you so much. I daresay too much. When has one reliable, serious thing come out of this greasy-sweet mouth of yours?"
Bai Mingyuan snickered. "Hey, I have some standards. If I'm writing a song for you, it has to have at least some lines about you dressed in flowers."
The Wu Mountain goddess had a song written out for her by the shamans, and it had been as sultry and yearning as the lady herself. Much of these songs honoring the gods had been rather… spring-like, with the shamans lamenting about how these gods, though they’d spent the night together, must once more go. These songs were rife with imagery, of course, and were just as noisy performed— Ao Wei rarely spent his time at the capital, but when he did, he spent most of these rituals drunk. For a reason.
He narrowed his eyes.
"And laments about how the lord has once more gone to the west on that black mare of his, leaving the singer to cry out after the setting sun their grievances in a song— Ouch! You pinched me!"
“For bad behavior,” Ao Wei bit back.
“You pinched me! I’ve been hurt!”
Dramatically stumbling to the side, Bai Mingyuan’s back hit the tree trunk, shaking the branches and loosening the fragile blooms. His jade hairpin made an almost painful-sounding thunk against the wood, triggering Ao Wei to reach forward and cushion his head, but he was met with a flash of mischievous expression instead. The pitiful, doe-eyed look came a second too late.
Narrowing his eyes even more, Ao Wei leaned down and… bit Bai Mingyuan’s right cheek.
Bai Mingyuan’s eyes were wide open in shock, but a light dusting of red had swept onto his skin, more colorful than the falling peach blossoms that blanketed the scene. Now that Ao Wei had let go, it was just his lips right by his face, his breath grazing his ear. They were close enough Bai Mingyuan couldn’t help but feel a phantom touch. He couldn't tell if he imagined it.
"Behave, and I won't eat you." Ao Wei's low, hoarse voice on his ear was all he could hear. It did not sound like a threat.
"I've heard from Queen Mother of the West who heard from Old Xuan's assistant that you guys are bad at judging places to court, but I wasn't expecting to walk in on it," a voice said from the side. Ao Wei almost jolted away but managed to rein in his instincts, moving away at a more sedate, calm pace. As if to prove that everything was normal, he pinched Bai Mingyuan's other cheek, too. Now both of them were sore.
The glib half was silent, the other must pick up the slack. "Queen Mother of the West liked to spend her time with Wu Mountain goddess, I daresay her definition of courting is skewed."
"That doesn't make you sound better in the way you were imagining it to, Old Fifth," Lu Wu said. "If anything, it implicates you more. Wu Mountain’s Yao Ji is a fertility goddess, if her influence on Queen Mother of the West is that she now thinks you two old beasts are courting? Might as well tie the knot. Of all people, she’d know best how those sorts of things go ba."
Bai Mingyuan, "......" He's not wrong. Ah-Wei, you're kind of bad at this. This is why between you and me, I'm the one in the imperial palace running morning court and talking to all those scholars and officials.
"What did you come over for?" Ao Wei said instead, sidestepping the entire matter. If Lu Wu was in a human form, perhaps he would've rolled his eyes. As it was, a lion did not have an easy time doing so.
"I thought you kids were having problems picking the fruits. Little did I know, you were picking a different sort of fruit. Well, I'll go back then. Do try to restrain yourselves."
“Fret not fret not,” Bai Mingyuan said lightly, waving at him. “It might’ve been centuries since I last roamed these grounds, but I shouldn’t get too lost.”
“Oh, it wasn’t getting lost that I was worried about,” Lu Wu muttered as he walked away. A flush briefly visited the two’s faces, but they were gone like the breeze. It was a common enough teasing that all in all, wasn’t as blatant as some of the others they’d gotten. That bird the Vermilion Bird truly had a mouth on her.
Now sobered up, though, the two of them went to honestly pick fruits. It wasn’t hard; everything here seemed eternally fresh, as though they were immortalized in their prime. Large peaches dusted pink, plump in their hands— had it been someone with less self-restraint than Ao Wei, given his nature as a beast that ate, these would’ve gone into his stomach.
Bai Mingyuan seemed to have noticed. With a laugh, he took the peaches from Ao Wei’s hand and traded it with the Sand-pear fruits. A far lesser replacement, but somewhat enough to satiate.
“We’ll get to eat it when we get back,” he promised. “Ah-Wei is really the best.”
“It’s a waste to pick up flowers from here,” Ao Wei said instead, distracting himself from thoughts of the peaches. Bai Mingyuan was putting away the fruits into a bag to keep them all fresh on the way back; upon hearing the words, he looked up and tilted his head. “How about this. When we go back, you go plant a peach tree. I’ll be off for the borders again, but when I return, it ought to have bore fruit. I’ll make you wine out of the flowers of your own tree.”
Bai Mingyuan’s eyes widened, and for a second, the gold of his eyes seemed to shine with even more brilliance than the sun. “That sounds so much better. How are you so smart, Ah-Wei? Let’s drink it when you come back once more.”
The western border drew the boundary between civilization and the often-unstable Western Desolation; it was a dangerous station, and Ao Wei often would spend years and years there without coming back. The dates of departure always seemed unforgivingly certain, and yet the date of return never seemed to be a clear promise— it could be five years til then, or over a decade.
“Think over your promises before you say them, lest I come back in twenty years’ time.”
"No rush," Bai Mingyuan said. "I'll wait very patiently for it. We have the rest of time, don't we?"
Ao Wei huffed in amusement. “I’m not waiting for you forever.” At the fading of Bai Mingyuan’s smile, he amended, “There’s already little for me to do at the capital. Are you going to make me stick around bored?”
“Of course not. I’ll…” Bai Mingyuan looked up at the sky. His gaze seemed as distant as the future itself. “I’ll plant it as soon as we get back. If you don’t brew me my wine by the time the first tree withers, I’ll plant another. And another. I’ll make you an entire peach blossom spring, just you wait. Unless you want me to fill the entire capital with peach trees as a reminder of your promise, you’d better give me what I want.”
A moment of silence. The sky was painfully blue, the world a vivid, shifting panorama of transient flowers. Between the earth, the heavens, and the birdsong, the two of them stared at each other. Then, Ao Wei smiled. His hand reached out to pinch Bai Mingyuan's cheek.
“Well… Over that threat alone, you have my word.”
The blank, greyed out sky was devoid of heavenly guardians; without the moon and the stars, a one-note sorrow seemed to have rendered the heavens blind to the ongoings on earth, as though this red dust might as well scatter into nothingness as it continued to be trampled underfoot.
Underneath black boots, the tired earth made no sound of protest.
A lonely night, a godless stream. On this rarely-used road leading only to deeper desolation among the mountains, even horses were too hesitant to whinny. The guards exchanged a look with the stagecoach, but none of them dared breathe too loudly. The master they escorted was decisive in one word, ruthless in another, a peerless military commander, to use court parlance; not one to be defied…
For reasons none of them could fathom, he had stopped this small entourage and stepped out of the carriage. walking off into the side of the road. The assistant following at the far back contemplated the possibilities, lamented that he'd forgotten to bring with him the Classics of Mountains, had not prepared jade, for perhaps an offering— yet, before his regrets could meet its natural end, the man returned to their view.
He climbed back into the carriage. As the last of his robes disappeared inside, the door closed; as the door closed, the clouds above parted.
"It was nothing," the man said. "I thought I sensed something. Onwards."
Some of his subordinates glanced at each other, but the wizened coachman had already spurred the horses. It was better to leave speculations to the rooms behind this commander’s back; rumors had it, this man was simultaneously famous for his harsh cold disposition, and yet he appeared to yearn for the sweet winds of a gentle hometown. Whenever he was presented with a good hairpiece, they said, he would keep it zealously, though he was never seen wearing them. Tailors had whispered about brocades sent to them to be made into robes of a size not his. Those in court whispered that perhaps this fierce commander was a cut-sleeve with a lover hidden away, or perhaps kept deep in some brothel, but the military men dispelled those guesses. Having gone to battle with him, they claimed, their good commander indulged only in food. Boys, men, shy flowers from both the homeland and across the borders, any that tried to climb his bed were all met with fury. Now, some truly believed what he sought was love, not pleasure. Some thought he pined for a long-lost white moonlight.
But those matters… they were for another time.
As the sound of hooves on the ground and the creaking of wheels faded, not too far from the road, under a tree, a figure stirred. The light of the moon’s reflection on the water cast a gentle outline on him; dressed in white and crowned with white, he appeared to be moonlight taken form, Chang’e’s translucent veil she’d left on earth.
Desolate, the man looked up to the slight glimmer of dim moon above. His hazy eyes betrayed his drunkenness. Further weakened by sleep, his slumped body was dwarfed by the massive, withering tree he sat under. Devoid of leaves, the branches high above looked like bone-thin fingers of desperate hands reaching for the skies, begging and praying.
"I wonder… Ah. He hadn't made me the wine he promised. Ah-Wei, those trees have long since rotted. How will you now…?"
Millennia were not kind to anyone: not trees, not flowers, and not the gentle look in golden eyes nor promises made on sweet whims. An entire island had been planted with those peach trees; decades after decades Bai Mingyuan had planted them, and a legend of a source of eternal spring had been born. The scent of nectar had become sickeningly sweet. Those petals, initially cherished, were now like grass crushed underfoot.
Who would wait eternity?
Breathlessly he laughed, “What… What kind of wine is salty, even… Who brewed this...”
With one last tired chuckle, Bai Mingyuan closed his eyes.
If you show patience, I'll rid you of this virtue.
If you fall asleep, I'll rub the sleep from your eyes.
If you become a mountain, I'll melt you in fire.
And if you become an ocean, I'll drink all your water.2by Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī