Chapter 69

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written by MiniOrchid
edited by kakashi

Breathe...just breathe... A few more steps and she'd be back in her chambers and all would be well. Just a few minor halls to pass... Cautiously but purposefully, she walked through Ziming Palace, greeted by her warriors, ignoring the exhaustion, ignoring the pain that ran through her. She regretted coming back before her body had had time to heal. It was a terrible miscalculation; she had really thought her ride back would be sufficient for her body to recover. But there was no time to regret her decision now, she had to keep moving. Just a few more steps...


But bad luck would have it that General Yang was waiting for her and approached as soon as he saw her.

He greeted her with a bow. "Your Highness, may I seek your audience in private."

Yan Zhi wished she could decline, but the look on his face was determined. She would have to prevail for a short time longer. With a wave of her hand, the warriors who were present were dismissed. She took a controlled deep breath before addressing the General: "General Yang, what is so urgent you have to seek me out at this time?" Yan Zhi's voice was even and she maintained her posture. Barely.

His brows furrowed. "Your Highness, I am aware that the young princess is fond of her savior, and I do not wish to interfere with your affairs. However, I don't believe having a Celestial remaining here is acceptable at this time."

"He has given his intel, has he not?"

"That is true. He has provided everything we wanted, all the more reason there is no further need for his assistance." The General, forever suspicious of the other tribes, was a true loyalist, but remained conservative in his way of thinking, especially when it came to Celestials. She couldn't fault him: their people had endured so much at their hands.

"General Yang, there is more...," but her words were cut off by no other than her Phantom, who spun her around and pulled her into his arms.

"You're finally back! I've done as you instructed. Everything is prepared."

"Zi Lan...," before Yan Zhi could find her wits to react to his actions, he had seized her lips. His ravenous kiss made her heart thunder, but it also absorbed her physical pain, as heated desire replaced the aches, allowing her muscles to shudder and relax within his embrace. With no will or strength to resist, her knees soon grew weak, but he held her steady in his arms.

He lifted his mouth slightly, his hot breath against hers: "Yan Zhi...put your arms around me," he whispered softly. Flushed colors rose to her cheeks. Her mind was in a daze, she did what he asked, wrapping her arms around his neck. He lifted her up and strode away from General Yang, with measured, long steps. She realized too late what he had coerced her to do.

"How dare you interrupted us!" General Yang roared, rushing in front of them to block their path.

"Good evening, General Yang," Zi Lan said cheerfully, and gave his most charming smile, which must antagonize the General even more. "I must apologize for not noticing you there." His attention returned to her, his eyes dancing with bemusement.

"Damn you..." the General snarled, his body tensed.

Unfazed, Zi Lan looked back at the General. "Please excuse us," he said, his voice full of feigned remorse, "I've already prepared a bath for Her Highness, she is in dire need of rest after a long day."

"Celestial," General Yang growled. He looked like he was ready to rip Zi Lan's throat out.

Despite the obvious hostility, Zi Lan remained calm and composed as though they were talking about the weather. "I fear the water might cool before she has the chance to enjoy it - Her Highness deserves her pleasure," he responded to the fuming man, then turned his gaze back to her.

"Don't you agree, my Queen?" he asked in a husky tone, with the expression of a man who was ready to devour her on the spot. She was forced to turn her eyes away, or else she feared she would completely succumb to the temptation and make a fool of herself. In her weakened state, her mind no longer worked properly.

Voice controlled, her expression blank, Yan Zhi turned her head towards the disapproving man: "General, we shall speak tomorrow, since the matter is not urgent," she ordered coldly.

"Yes, of course, Your Highness," the General reluctantly bowed, retreating to the side to clear their path, but not before sending dagger glares towards the man who held her.

Without further trouble, Zi Lan strolled past the brooding General with a smirk. Yan Zhi wanted to scowl at him again for pulling such a stunt, but she found she couldn't, because she felt cosy and relaxed in his arms, as he headed straight to her quarters. It had been so long she'd been held like this, she realized. How easy it was to let him enter her world, as he played the hero and saved her yet again.

"Leave us," Zi Lan ordered the maids who were busy preparing the bath behind the screen. He settled her on the chaise next to the dark wooden bathtub and promptly undressed her training gear until he reached her undergarments.

His expression was no longer teasing as it had been moments ago, a cloud of darkness now covered his eyes. "Remove the rest and get into tub while it's warm. I'll grab the potions," he instructed grimly.

As Yan Zhi settled into the warm bath, Zi Lan went to grab the medicine. He had procured it a few days before, after his short return to the Celestial Realm, where he had gathered new intel. Returning to her side briefly, he poured the potion into the tub. It immediately changed to white misty smoke as the water heated and the healing could begin. He always was one step ahead of her, which made her wonder what his next plan was. Although he was an unpredictable man, his actions had always served a purpose. She failed to fully comprehend what was truly on his mind. One moment he would be the charming rogue, the next he'd be back to being her dark phantom.

"You shouldn't have aggravated him so much. The warriors will be agitated...they'll bring you trouble," she told him with her eyes closed, while she absorbed the soothing fragrance of the potion. Zi Lan remained on the other side of the screen, waiting by the bed.

"If I didn't, you would have collapsed," he answered brusquely with no sign of regret. "I will deal with them if there is a need," he added with confidence.

"Have you considered what I said this morning?" she asked, opening her eyes, turning her head to the screen.

"I have, and my answer has not changed."

"Why?" She asked in puzzlement. Could it be his stubborn pride?

"I don't need your protection, and that's my final answer on the matter," he declared, his tone leaving no room for argument. As she debated if she should push the issue further, she heard him give a heavy sigh before changing the topic. "What happened today? Did they not give you your elixir?"

"They did, but the residual effects were harder to handle this time," she answered cautiously, knowing about his wrath when it came to her well-being. He had been patient; more patient than she could ask for. She feared he would snap any moment, the longer he stayed.

Surprisingly, though, he remained calm. "Tell me what happened, have they changed their tactics?"

Yan Zhi explained that she had almost reached her target this time, that she had managed to arrive at the red gate of their residence. But the sound of flute music through the gate had been very difficult to handle. The sonic waves hit her senses and pressure points, enough to throw her back. She tried to drown out the music, but she was unfamiliar with the techniques to do so. The only recourse had been to fall back before she would receive further damage.

"So you did make it to the gate?" His short laugh was heard behind the screen. His enthusiasm at her accomplishment made her smile. "But musical weapons...those were not used for millennia."

"I'm surprised too, the ancient arts are lost, only a few High Gods used to possess such knowledge." Yan Zhi paused, then smiled when she realized something. "The elders are full of surprises, but every setback comes with a silver lining. Since they have to use musical weapons as their last resort, they gave away their technique in the process. Still, to break it might take some time."

"Where there is a will, there is a way," Zi Lan said encouragingly. "I'll research their weakness on my next outing. As you know, 8th Senior is an expert in music, he may be able to give further insights."

Yan Zhi left the bath soon after they finished discussing martial techniques. Dressed in a red and white silk robe, she turned the corner with Zi Lan approaching at the same time. He led her to the bed, sat down with her settled on his lap, his arms wrapped around her in a gentle embrace.

She felt his warm hand caress her cold cheek. "You're as white as sheet," he frowned, his eyes concerned, as he soothed her with his touch. "You need more nourishment, or you won't last. Especially now that you are so close."

"I'm alright," she tried to reassure him.

But Zi Lan didn't listen. His eyes soft yet fierce, he grabbed a dagger from the bed. With a quick move, he slit his wrist.

"Zi Lan, what are you doing!" she cried in shock. She grasped his bleeding wrist, as he causally set the short dagger down.

"The potion you soaked in requires another ingredient." He raised his wounded wrist to her mouth. "Now drink," he commanded.

Yan Zhi shook her head, defiantly. Blood was a common ingredient for healing, but he didn't have much to spare himself since his injury. When she did not do what he had commanded, he lifted his open wound to his mouth instead. Upon realizing his intention, she tried to escape, but his other hand firmly held the back of her neck. Unable to retreat, she whimpered helplessly as he captured her lips, forcing the hot liquid into her mouth. She struggled against his hold, but he wouldn't allow her to escape, his grip was tight. She should've known not to try and fight with him when he was so set in his ways. Giving in, she drank the iron rich nourishment he provided until he released the hold on her neck, leaving her breathless.

Zi Lan regarded her with a worried expression. "My people's blood may not be as strong as the one from other clans, but it has its special uses," he explained.

"Your people? What do you mean by uses?" she asked in confusion.

Ignoring her questions, she saw the fleeting sign of guarded withdrawal, before he held up his wrist to her again. "Drink more," he urged.

Pushing his arm away. "Zi Lan, it's enough."

But she felt his hand slide behind her neck once again, pulling her towards him. "I see...so you prefer the other method." His expression now was heated with sensual desire. "I'm happy to oblige."

Her eyes widened. "No...that's not what I meant," she protested, but he had already taken another mouthful of the essence of his life force, and crushed his mouth to hers, savagely this time. With no strength to push him away, she could only hold onto his collar as she savored the nourishing elixir he gave without a thought.

She whimpered when he broke away, the smirk never left his face. "I didn't know you've been craving for this. Shall I continue?" Her face turned scarlet at his suggestion. The man was as ruthless as he was depraved and continued to push her over the edge of sanity. She angrily grabbed his wrist and clamped down on his wound with her mouth. His face contorted, but he didn't make a sound.

"Now you wound me, in more way than one." His taunt never ceased as he leaned closer, eyes sparkling with devilry. "Was my kiss that distasteful?" he asked. She glared back at him, her anger unconsciously causing her to take more of his blood, and he smiled broadly at her response.

"We can practice after you're done...until my Queen is satisfied," he continued to tease. "That's what you wanted, right? Your offer this morning." Infuriated by his provocation, she bit down hard on his flesh.

He let out grunt and pulled his arm away, staring at the festering wound with the additional teeth mark on his wrist. "You're going to leave a scar," he accused her with mockingly narrowed eyes.

"Good, because you deserved it!" She said between gritted teeth.

Instead of a denial, a wicked smile spread across his face. He leaned closer, their noses almost touching. Despite her rage, she found herself blushing. "Yan Zhi, I would be happy to receive more scars from you."

This man...

"Where do you want to bite next?" he baited, eyes teasing yet challenging, sending heated waves of tingling sensation through every nerve of her body.

She would take it back, he was not honorable, noble or righteous. He was still foremost the infuriating rogue who continued to plague her.

"Get out!" she ground out.

"You're sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure," she answered stubbornly, ignoring her hammering heart.

With a hearty laugh, he swept her body around and laid her on the bed. With gentle care, he tucked her in, while she pointedly turned her back on him.

"Sleep well, my Queen."

And with those last words, he was gone.

Yan Zhi tussled in bed, unable to sleep; she listened to the rustling leaves outside her chamber. Her consciousness kept her awake, as the back of her mind reached a startling conclusion. She sat up, staring into the darkness. Those were the same words. This night was a repetition of what had happened many times before. The pattern was always the same, but with different scripts and methods. Zi Lan would taunt, tease and torment her until she would kick him out. Had he planned it all along? But why?

*****

Never had Shang Ling, the 4th Disciple of Kunlun, ventured to the Ghost Realm before. Somewhat feeling nervous, he had made his presence known and was immediately granted an audience with the Ghost Princess. This was not normally the type of mission he would go on, but given the circumstances, he was best option available for its completion. Although the lotus root may be cut, its fibers remain intact. Despite cutting ties with the Celestial Realm, Yan Zhi had allowed him an audience - because, as expected, her Kunlun ties were not as easily severed.

As 4th entered the throne room of Ziming Palace, he immediately noticed that the Ghost Princess was no longer dressed in mortal garb. She was now wearing a midnight black dress with red stripes of feathers lining the skirt. Ghost Realm fashion had always been dark, overcast with shadows, but her pale luminous skin brightened the room. Her dark eyes that once only held sorrows were animated with vigorous energy. Though cold at first glance, her gaze was fierce, with an underlining fire, truly captivating to behold.

The future Queen of the Ghost Realm sat at her throne, flanked by her Generals, one on each side. The one on the left, the elder, had a heavy feast before him. He was grinning and paid no attention to him. The one on the right was a bit more reserved and stared at him with narrowed distrustful eyes. 4th quickly came to the conclusion that it was best to seek and consult with Zi Lan before broaching the subject of his visit. He was on unknown territory, with little knowledge of Ghost Realm culture and its people, so it was best to be very careful.

They had just completed their introductions when an anxious female warrior rushed in: "Your Highness, you have to come quickly, General Zhao is battling with 16th Disciple!"

The Ghost Princess and Shang Ling immediately and quickly headed to the arena. With them was the enthusiastic General Hu who couldn't stop chattering about the prospect of watching two great martial artists of the realms sparring, which only made Shang Ling's anxiety rise further.

Once arrived, the Princess was about to call off the fight, but the General halted her: "Your Highness, we can't!"

The Ghost Princess immediately relented and returned her attention back to the battle.

4th looked at her questioningly: "We have to stop this, his powers are suppressed here!" Looking down, he saw that Zi Lan held his own just fine despite that hindrance as they continued to spar without weapons. But the obvious hostility could not be ignored.

"Zi Lan wanted to stay here, he has to prove himself. That's the way of the Ghost Tribe," she explained.

"What if he gets injured again, or killed!" 4th scowled.

General Hu laughed: "And risk the chilling wrath of our future Queen? They won't kill him, they're only testing his strength."

"Test?" He raised an inquiring brow at the man.

General Hu turned to him. "You may not know this, but the Ghost Clan is protective of their kinswoman. Our people won't let just anyone stay by our Queen's side. Zi Lan knows about this."

Shang Ling cursed under his breath. Zi Lan's greatest advantage over his opponents had always been his speed. But this was the Ghost Realm, he couldn't last in battle forever, with a Ghost General no less.

General Hu turned to the the Princess. "Your Highness, about my suggestion, it's still not too late..."

"I told you it's not an option he would take," she said curtly as she continued to watched the fight. Both opponents managed to get a few hits in.

"Why?" he frowned. "He would be protected."

"What are you talking about?" Shang Ling asked, taking his gaze away from the fight, intrigued by their conversation.

He could tell General Hu tried to suppress a grin. "4th Disciple, Shang Ling, I merely suggested your junior should take up the position of Prince Consort for our soon to be Queen."

"Prince Consort?" 4th echoed in bewilderment. "Zi Lan?"

"He has already declined...twice." Ghost Princess clarified.

"He did?" Both men looked at Zi Lan in astonishment, but then another surprise came: he had managed to out-maneuver the General, who retreated from the attack. The General, though grinning, couldn't hide his strong killing intent now.

"That's unfortunate, because General Zhao has just picked up his sword. He's serious by his posture." This time, General Hu didn't even hide his smile, as he rubbed his chin in anticipation. The Princess on the other hand lost her composure.

"General Hu, do something, anything!" she ordered, her eyes no longer cold, but anxious.

The General shook his head. "I'm afraid only 4th Disciple can do that."

They both looked at General Hu with a puzzled expression.

"Commander Shang, do you see the warrior over there, the one wearing the silver hydrangea hair pin?" The General pointed across the arena.

4th nodded skeptically.

"Go talk to her."

"What? Why? How would that help Zi Lan?" he asked with a scowl.

"Trust me, if you don't want your junior to lose an arm or leg today, you should do what I suggested. Just like our Princess, she is known to like Celestial men. Keep her talking until they cease fighting."

****

The battle ended with Zi Lan as the victor, which surprised everyone. General Zhao did not have a chance to use his cultivation, but it was possible he had not planned to, since a well-known warrior like him would not use unfair means in a fight. But it was obvious the General had become increasingly distracted between the rounds of martial arts, which amazed everyone.

Shang Ling took the opportunity during the ensuing confusion to approach Zi Lan and pull him away from the crowd. They found a secluded seating area near the pond with purple water lilies of the Ghost Realm. As they settled down, servants brought refreshments, but quickly left. 4th was surprised by the formal hospitality, but kept it to himself.

"You're not tending to your injuries? You're going to make the Princess worried," 4th commented with the sternness of a Senior as he helped himself to some wine.

Ignoring the obvious jibe, Zi Lan returned a half smile that did not reach his eyes. "It was just a brawl, Senior. It takes more than that for me to be injured."

Shang Ling took a sip of the rose fragranced wine. Interesting, he observed. This was the famous three rose fragrance that was hard to find in the Celestial Realms. The flora here was indeed unique and abundant. There was a lot to learn about this realm, he concluded.

"I heard you turned down the position of Prince Consort," 4th stated with grin that quickly turned into a smirk.

"There was no need for it," Zi Lan answered evenly.

Shang Ling looked up from his wine cup, his eyes narrowed. "The Warriors will continue to challenge you if your position is not clear." Even to this day, 4th could never understand Zi Lan's insistence on taking the more difficult route. Stubbornness certainly ran through his veins.

"A great way to improve my martial arts, you know I rarely use my cultivation, and they fight differently from our people." He shrugged, obviously wanting to change the subject of the conversation.

"Zi Lan, you understood what I am referring to, why didn't you take the position? You're here for her, fight for her, and protect her. An official title will be beneficial in your situation," he questioned directly, abandoning pretense.

"Considering I'm here of my own accord, I won't take her protection. And most importantly, I won't use that position to sway her people," he answered sharply. He grabbed the bottle of wine, and drank directly from it. Zi Lan lifted a brow as he regard him. "And pray tell, why are you here today?" he asked.

"Can't a shifu be concerned for his student? And my audacious junior?" 4th asked with a smile.

Zi Lan laughed and rolled his eyes at the answer. "Senior....you're not here just to visit Qiao Er and I. What are Shifu's instructions?"

"You never seem to have any patience at all," 4th sighed before he continued. "The Ghost Princess, as you know, won't receive audience from the Celestial Clan. Star Lord Si Ming has asked for assistance on the matter from Kunlun. There are no indications which side the Ghost Clan will eventually support. Considering she owes a debt..."

"If she owes any debt, it would be to me. But since I did it with my own free will, there is no debt to repay."

"I knew you would say that, but we need the alliance with the Ghost Clan. You must be aware of Senior's disastrous wedding? The Bride was murdered, and our senior was implicated, due to his relationship with the Demon Princess. The Eastern King has evidence of their relationship. The alliance of the Water Kingdoms is as good as broken."

Zi Lan's head shook, his expression dark. "Marriage doesn't seem to agree with the men at Kunlun. First Shifu, now our Senior, we may all share the same destiny," he said bitterly. Upon a short reflection, his eyes changed to heavy concern. "How is Senior Die Feng?"

"When it rains, it pours. Senior is preparing for battle as we speak. At least, he has 3rd and 10th to assist him, but the numbers don't lie. The Eastern King's army has always been larger. If we don't act swiftly, we will lose the war before it has even begun." Shang Ling sighed heavily, putting down his wine. "If the Ghost Clan is reluctant to pick sides, we at least need their assistant on another matter. They are impartial. They have an excellent spy network. We kindly ask them to look for evidence that it was the Yellow Demon King that had Princess Miao Qing murdered."

It seemed Zi Lan knew exactly what they were suspecting and why. "I can relay the message to Yan Zhi; but it will be her decision to make," Zi Lan said.

Pouring himself another glass of the rose scented wine, Shang Ling shook his head with a chuckle. "Junior, your loyalty is astounding. It is a shame you did not take the position of Prince Consort. If you're afraid of such a title, I'm sure our 17th can give advice in the matter. She's after all a Crown Princess!"

Zi Lan was about to say more, but they were interrupted by a most pleasant surprise.

"Shifu, you're here!" Qiao Er rushed towards them, with her party of attendants, including a small Qilin, right behind her.

Little Dove had changed more than he could have imagined. Dressed in red silk and black lace, with a jasmine hair pin and red feathers on her head, she looked like a miniature version of the Ghost Princess - aside from the two small horns on her forehead. Shang Ling could only suspect how much the atmosphere at Ziming Palace benefited from her presence, just as her presence had influenced the atmosphere at Kunlun. Completely absorbed by her chattering, the two men patiently listened to her recounting everything that seemed of relevance to her.

"Shifu, come with me, look at the beasts I've been tallying," she said as she pulled him up.

"Beasts?" 4th asked, until his eyes widened with understanding. "Of course, your clan are beasts breeders."

"They have so many in this realm! Qiao Er has been studying and recording them between her many lessons," Zi Lan said proudly. "Qiao Er, only take Shifu to the breeding grounds. Untamed beasts are still off limits."

"Yes, En Cong," Qiao Er timidly answered.

Shang Ling regarded his junior with renewed respect. Fatherhood agreed with him, Zi Lan was not fighting for just his Kunlun family anymore. Shang Ling could not blame him for his wavering loyalty. Indeed, Si Yin would be the best person to persuade Zi Lan to what was best for him; they were, after all, partners in crime. And maybe, Si Yin would also be able to push Zi Lan towards taking up the issue of the alliance with the Ghost Princess...

"Where are these beasts? Shifu will like to see them," he told the child. Full of excitement, Little Dove led him away from the purple water lily pond, the hoard of attendants following them.

On second thought, there was another ally, Shang Ling pondered as he was dragged along by the child. As a famous mortal Military General once said: "Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat."

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