Chapter 42.5

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written by Chimera with inserts from Miniorchid

Die Feng was going down the front steps of the Hall when Shimu, Ghost Princess Yan Zhi, and Princess Li Ying approached. Li Ying was hobbling, one arm around Yan Zhi's shoulder and a handkerchief pressed to her bloody forehead.

"What happened?" Die Feng asked, running down the remaining steps.

"We were training," said Li Ying, cheerfully. "It's just a scratch."

"She fell off the cliffs," said Yan Zhi, "Li Ying and the Ancestor were a bit...enthusiastic."

"This will be a good reminder to keep practicing footwork," said Shimu. "Take her to her room for now and get that gash healed."

"Don't worry, I'll be okay. Go check on Qiao Er," Li Ying assured Yan Zhi as Die Feng helped her transfer to his shoulder.

Shimu followed them to Li Ying's room suggesting all sorts of remedies, half of which Die Feng had never heard before and half he would be afraid to try. At the door, she whispered something in Li Ying's ear and laughed before leaving with cheery promises of new training plans. Die Feng led Li Ying inside and helped her onto the bed. Pulling down the hand that still pressed the blood soaked handkerchief to her forehead, he bent to examine the wound.

"You're awfully quiet," said Li Ying as he gently tilted her face towards the light.

The cut was deep but at least she had stopped bleeding. Next, he reached for her leg.

"It's my ankle," she explained. "It's only twisted."

Die Feng paused and decided he could breathe. If that was the extent of her injuries then she would be all right. His heart had been in his mouth since the moment he had seen her supported by the Ghost Princess. Now, words spilled out in a rush. "Princess, do you think you're invincible? How can you not be more careful when sparring with one of the most powerful deities in all the realms?"

"It's barely a flesh wound," she said looking puzzled by his reaction.

"Falling from those cliffs, you're lucky-"

"Die Feng," she grinned. "Are you worried about me?"

He ignored her question. "Once I heal you we-"

The smile left her face. "There's no need to heal me with magic."

"What, why not?"

"Oh you Celestials..." she muttered. "Wounds can heal on their own, you know."

"But-"

A knock interrupted him and 5th walked in, carrying a washbowl and bandages. Charm on full display, with a hand over his heart he said, "Princess? I was devastated to hear of your injury."

Before either of them could respond, 5th moved to the bed in one stride and kneeled. "Please, let me be of assistance," he said gallantly, dipping the cloth in water.

Already irritated at the interruption, remembering his 5th junior's reputation with the opposite sex, Die Feng nearly growled. "Thank you for the supplies 5th, you may leave."

5th took one look at his expression and straightened. "Of course, senior," he said smoothly and bowed to Li Ying. "Please rest, Princess. You being in poor health would leave Kunlun dreary indeed."

Die Feng watched impatiently as Li Ying thanked him. The moment the door closed behind 5th, he continued. "What are you talking about? Of course you have to-"

"I don't want to be healed by magic."

"Taking unnecessary risks-"

He was interrupted by another knock and 11th and 8th entered, bearing medicine and, of all things, a pipa.

"Princess! We heard you were injured!"

"Would music make you feel better?"

Much as Die Feng cared for his juniors, in that moment he wanted to throttle the whole lot of them.

Li Ying smiled. "How sweet! I must thank you for the medicine, and music always makes me feel better. But later perhaps? I fear my head will not cooperate at the moment."

His two juniors hovered over her, worrying, until Die Feng reminded them that she needed rest. They quickly departed, beseeching the Princess to let them know if they could relieve her discomfort in any way.

As the door closed behind them, Die Feng said testily, "Are you friends with everyone at Kunlun?"

She quirked an eyebrow, "Are you jealous?"

He stopped, astounded. "Why would I be jealous?"

"Why are you being so petty then?"

"Princess, you are hurt and they are delaying treatment!"

"You sound like my brother. He hates seeing me hurt so people are too afraid to train with me."

That made him frown. "But you're a good fighter. You've obviously trained."

"I have been cultivating in secret. He, um, doesn't know that."

Something about what she said made Die Feng uneasy. Didn't letting her train and cultivate make more sense if her safety was the concern? "Is that why you conceal your aura?"

Li Ying began to nod then stopped, wincing.

"We can talk about this later. You must let me-"

"No," she said. "We can make sure it doesn't scar but let it heal on its own. It's not as if it's a major injury. Stop fretting."

Die Feng wanted to argue but her face looked set.

"Die Feng, you must know that injuries during sparring are common. It'll heal in two days. Let the pain take its course."

She was right, he was overreacting. He'd seen juniors injured during sparring countless times. He had been injured during sparring countless times. Where was this irrational fear coming from? He took a deep breath. "All right. But why?"

Her expression lost its certainty. "I'm not sure how to explain. Pain is real. Honest. We immortals experience it so rarely that the moments we do are...interesting. It's exhilarating to be reminded that we too can bleed. Unlike mortals, our lives remain unchanging, unaffected by time. Time is precious to mortals. They feel things keenly, more so because of their mortality. Like fireflies, they burn with all their might, flitting about while their short lives run out. It makes me wonder if we're even alive."

He processed this as he moved to sit beside her and reached for the washbowl. "Let me clean the wound."

The water trickled through his fingers as he squeezed the cloth and applied it to her face. A charged silence grew between them as he wiped the dried dark blood. Aware of her curious gaze, his eyes kept locking with hers. With their close proximity he could feel every intake of breath. He was being as gentle as possible but the cleaning had to hurt. However, beyond a quickly suppressed whimper, she barely made a sound. What was it about her that enjoyed the pain of mortals?

Die Feng felt this strange impulse to draw her close and soothe her with his lips until the pain faded. After bandaging her head as best as he could, he lifted her injured leg onto his thigh. Now avoiding her searching eyes, slowly, he removed one layer, then the second, and the third until he held her ankle. He had never felt the delicate arch of a woman's foot before. Taking one deep breath, he drew away her sock, trying to avoid causing her anymore pain. Pain he felt himself, when he saw the blood. Her ankle was most definitely not "only twisted."

When he glanced up, he noticed her cheeks were rose red. Was she blushing? That was ridiculous; he hadn't seen her blush once since they met. It must be his imagination. But he couldn't shake off the image of her eyes turning away from him. It was subtle, yet there. He was seeing a side of her he never expected.

"Die Feng...?"

"Huh?"

"Are you going to tend to my wound?"

"Yes! Forgive me." He grabbed the wet cloth and dabbed at the blood so quickly that it made her yelp. "I'm sorry! I'll be gentle!"

She gave him a furtive glance and burst into laughter. "You, my Prince, can neither cook nor are accustomed to treating wounds," she said between giggles.

"Of course I know about wounds. I've been in many battles," he said with a scowl.

She placed her finger on his lips, her gaze seductive with a hint of mischief. "Admit it," she said. "Your servants or 2nd disciple tended to them. You never had to lift a finger."

Pulling back, she continued laughing, and he could only smile ruefully in admission, his eyes cast downward.

"Thank you," he heard her say. He looked up. "Thank you for making an exception for me."

"No need to thank me," he replied. "And there are ways of knowing. That we are alive."

"There are," she conceded.

Die Feng recalled her lips against his. "And we can feel just as keenly."

"True," she said. "But we often forget. I once traded my youth for old age with a grandmother for one mortal year. Her despair and joy at life running out...It gives one a new perspective, experiencing mortality."

Not many immortals in Die Feng's experience would value mortals that much. The general attitude was to view them as interesting but inferior. Some immortals that were more callous than others might even consider them playthings. Though interfering in mortal lives was forbidden, there were those who disregarded the rules. He had heard stories – Si Yin's suffering at the hands of Celestials during her mortal trial was proof enough. Living as a mortal was supposed to be either a punishment or a trial one endured to ascend. And here was this woman seeking out mortal life for fun. He couldn't help asking, "How did you become so fascinated with mortals?"

Something in her expression changed. She looked away, and said in a tense voice, "I-I have a lot of free time on my hands and nowhere else to go. My brother doesn't have to worry because mortals can't hurt me."

Why did he get the sense that there was more to it? It sounded like a rehearsed answer. He had noticed that though she often mentioned the constraints laid by her brother, she never spoke about her home.

"Die Feng," she said before he could speak. "Are you done bandaging?"

"Yes Princess," he replied. "If you won't let me heal you, you need to rest."

"Let me rest then. I feel tired."

Surprised that she agreed so easily, Die Feng sent her energy to prevent scarring and left a copper mirror on the bedside table, telling her to call for him if she needed anything. He had never known the Princess to be tired.

***

After Die Feng left, Li Ying turned into her true form and curled up. Her head throbbed as the litany of thoughts and memories washed over her. When Die Feng had looked at her as if she was an enigma he couldn't solve, and asked how she became interested in mortals, what was she supposed to do? Start at the beginning?

When I was young, my brother brought two mortals to the palace to keep as pets. I didn't really understand the concept of mortality back then.

Ge-ge soon lost interest but I could never stop poking and prodding. The others at the palace clearly showed their disdain for the mortals and I didn't understand why. I liked them and their curse was liking me back. We became friends.

We became friends but I never knew the gap between my strength and their fragility until the day I accidentally broke them. That's what Cheng Yin ge-ge said when he found me crying. "Oh no, you've broken your toys. There there." And he laughed and patted my shoulder.

Break? Was that what it was called when one minute you were playing and the next they were on the ground and you were shaking them asking why they won't wake up?

I cried for days but all my magic couldn't heal them.

What had happened? Why were they different and why did it haunt me so when everyone else acted as if the mortals had been playthings? I had to know.

Cheng Yin ge-ge promised to bring me more of them. But he soon forgot, and I knew better than to trouble my busy brother. So I ventured out to find them.

My first time in the mortal realm, an artist saw me and asked if I was a fairy. I asked him would he come with me if I was. He would not leave his wife, he replied, so I left. Yet, in a frenzied state, he made painting after painting, upset that his brush could not capture my beauty the way he remembered it. He perfected every stroke, every strand, every shade until he looked up and saw that his hair was grey, his skin wrinkled and his wife long passed.

I went to mortals again and again and I understood life and time were precious to those who had so little of it.

I understood that they should never be brought back to the palace, for they will always get hurt by us. They are fragile but they are not playthings.

I learnt life was precious the day I killed my only friends. I never forgot that lesson in mortality.

What was all this explanation for? I broke them and they died and that was it. Why sugar-coat it?

I couldn't tell Die Feng though. I couldn't confess my shame and see the horror reflected in his eyes.

With her headache worsening, Li Ying drifted off to sleep.

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