Chapter 81

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written by kakashi
edited by Panda


"I am quite vexed with you, Da-Ge, and I am not going to apologize for saying so," Ye Hua exclaimed and indeed, the slightly raised voice and his quick steps back and forth in front of Mo Yuan's bed were betraying his agitation, "I never believed you would do something like this without telling me!"

Mo Yuan sighed inwardly. He had expected a tongue-lashing from his brother, but he really was not used to being scolded and he definitely did not like it, even in such a moderate form. His breathing was almost back to normal at this point, but his lungs still hurt with every inhale and the shoulder wound was throbbing with a dull, constant pain. A reminder that he had failed - also because of his rather undignified departure and because he was unsuccessful in fully understanding the game they were playing, now more than ever. He had given her a spectacle, but she had not seemed happy about it. Had he misjudged? Just when he had had that despicable wolf crushed and bleeding in front of him, Shao Wan had interfered again. It made him absolutely furious to think about it. One last strike and all would have ended!

"Why did you have to sneak in there so recklessly!" Ye Hua exclaimed.

"I was trying to give her a spectacle and draw out Cheng Yin." Mo Yuan sat up, stifling a groan, and took a steaming goblet from the low table next to his bed. "I wasn't being reckless at all, I planned it in detail."

"Then why didn't you tell me about your plans?"

"Would you have let me go?"

Ye Hua said nothing in reply but glared at him, though looking more helpless than angry. He probably knew that given the choice between his anger and a strategic move that was opportune, Mo Yuan would always choose to anger him.

"Be assured, I have no further plans I wish to keep from you," Mo Yuan declared. "I will..." he pulled a face at the goblet in front of his face. "What horrible concoction is this?"

"It's from the Xì Mǎ Yú shaman." Ye Hua's face showed sympathy, since even just the smell was rather off-putting. "She left some powder and instructions how to prepare it."

Yesterday, after that mysterious child had dumped Mo Yuan in front of his tent, no physician had been readily available, since they were all tending to people with more serious wounds. Tian Gu had been among the people rushing to his side when he had appeared so unexpectedly. A quick thinker, she had fetched her tribe's oldest Shaman, a nameless woman who always travelled with them, famous in the Horse Tribe for curing 'even the dead'.

Since he had felt rather dizzy and still was very short of breath, Mo Yuan had lacked resolve to protest against the treatment. The old looking woman had not spoken at all, but had prodded his body, had looked deeply into his eyes and had finally patted his cheek, like one would pat the cheek of a child. She had then whispered to Tian Gu in the horse tribe language.

"Shifu, she says your energies are unbalanced," the Horse Princess shyly conveyed. "She will brew you a special medicine to balance you again."

"Yes. Please thank her," Mo Yuan had replied, hoping to be alone soon. He needed time to think.

The old woman wasn't done though and continued to whisper. "She says...she says to come see her about the 100-year curse," Tian Gu translated with a slight frown.

"Excuse me?"

"Shifu, it's a curse our Shamans perform on people who do no longer want to ..."

He interrupted her. "Yes. Why?"

Tian Gu blushed the reddest of reds and bowed deeply. "Please don't be angry, Shifu. She doesn't know about your customs or your rank at all, she always just speaks her mind. She says winning a war when being in a state of high emotions, is impossible or will lead to failure. You can only win without them."

Mo Yuan had dismissed everyone afterwards, feeling very tired and now also irritated. But Tian Gu had lingered. He always tried to be kind to his disciples, so he quenched his anger and made sure his voice was kind when he addressed her again.

"Yes, Eighteenth?"

"Shifu, please forgive me for asking, but is my horse in good health?"

She was of course referring to the horse she had given him for his Demon outing, a favorite of hers by the name of Liúmáng (流氓). "I am sure it is," he had said. "It's with the Purple Queen in the Demon camp. I have learned a lot about Demon customs in recent days and I can assure you, they do not eat horses."

Teasing her was much too easy, Mo Yuan thought, remembering her wide-eyed shock at the thought of someone eating horses as he swallowed the last drops of the horridly bitter medicine.

"The Demons are sitting entirely still, Da-Ge," Ye Hua continued the conversation, now looking thoughtful. "I have doubled the guards and strengthened the shields. I hope it is enough."

"Have they made her Overlord at least?"

"We do not know, Da-Ge. They have set very strong wards around their location, they're impenetrable."

"Like ours?"

Ye Hua pressed his lips together, looking grim. It was a mystery how that invisible creature who had taken his hand had managed to penetrate their protective wards so easily, wards that should keep anything non-Celestial out. He had a thought to who it could have been, but the clearer his head got, the more ridiculous his conclusion seemed. And yet...

"So we wait for them to make their next move, Da-Ge?" Ye Hua asked with a frown.

"No," Mo Yuan said slowly. "I have a much better idea. And I've already prepared everything to go through with it."

***

Something was not quite right. Shao Wan felt a prickling creep up her spine, an almost-but-not-quite shiver, as if invisible eyes were on her, watching her every move, as if something dark out there was waiting for an opportune moment to do her harm. Only, when she probed the darkness with her powers, she came up empty.

"Fong Hung?" she had asked into the silence of her tent in the thick of night more than once, but her mount was not around and had not been for several days. It worried her, even though she knew she should just let him roam.

All was quiet over at the Celestial camp and had been so for days. Attempts to penetrate the Celestial shields for a visual had been futile. She had erected her own shields, making sure he was at least going to be just as blind as her. What was he up to? She had been rather disappointed by his sudden disappearance, but she had been momentarily too busy venting her anger at Cheng Yin to pay attention to him.

With a sigh, she swung her legs out of bed. Sleep did not seem to come tonight. In fact, sleep had not come easily ever since their battle. Playing against someone as strategic as Mo Yuan was a challenge that kept her mind occupied constantly. She had gotten him to start the game, and now, stopping it was impossible. It was a game with unknown rules, rules that emerged and changed during the game itself. A game with three players, which demanded utmost flexibility, a very sharp mind and iron resolve. But how she could win this game, this she still had to find out.

Shao Wan grabbed a coat, threw it over her nightgown and stepped outside into the ice-cold air. It hurt her lungs, momentarily, until they adjusted reluctantly to the onslaught of frost. There were fires burning all over the camp, but the night was so dark, even those sources of light seemed only like specks in the all engulfing blackness.

"Just attack already," she whispered to whoever was out there, torturing her with the suspense.

Lei appeared from the dark and bowed. "Is there anything you need, Ancestor?" he asked. Her guards were wearing thick fur coats over their armor and fur hats instead of helmets, but they still cursed the weather when they thought she didn't hear them and loudly stamped their feet outside the tent to keep the blood flowing, thus often waking her from her restless slumber.

"How is Yue doing?"

"He is camping right outside our perimeter."

"Isn't he freezing?"

Lei shrugged, but clearly, her guards were very concerned for their brother. Whenever his name came up, they looked guilty and discomforted, even when they tried to appear unmoved. Shao Wan heaved a sigh. The soft part of her sometimes thought about bringing him back, about letting him stay with her again, in an official capacity. The other, rational part, knew that he was too much of a liability and deserved to be taught a lesson.

"Are you not too cold, Ancestor?" Lei asked, glancing at her attire.

Yes, it was cold. Very cold. She was always cold here, there was nothing like the kind of misery one experienced in an army tent during the winter. Also, the food didn't agree with her at all. She had a stomache ache that did not disappear even when she drank buckets of herbal tea, put warm compresses onto her midsection, or massaged the relevant acupressure points on her hands and arms.

"Would you care for a bath?" Lei asked politely.

That thought was very tempting. "Yes," she said after a brief moment of reflection, "thank you. I will help heat the water." It was a brazen luxury, but she would allow herself to indulge in it tonight again, simply because she needed to relax. It would help her sleep and she needed her strength.

She stepped into her tent again and observed quietly as her guards carried in the large wooden bathtub and started to bring in water in smaller buckets from the half-frozen stream. She suppressed a shiver. It would take them a while to fill the tub. She sat down cross-legged at the side table near a coal brazier and prepared the ink.

She had found it helped her state of mind if she wrote. That her stories mostly were about Mr. Mo came very natural to her - Mo Yuan was always on her mind and how else to get rid of the seething anger she felt towards him and his haughtiness? The way he had simply appeared amidst a Demon army of this size! As if he were talking a leisurely afternoon stroll in some peach grove. To get back at him, she made Mr. Mo have a very hard life. Every bit of his arrogance was met with immediate, harsh consequences. She loved how pitiful he was. She made him cry and beg and grovel. Then, she gave him joy ... before crushing him again, more brutally than before.

She had already written several scrolls by now and was trying out some names for a series title. Mr. Mo's Many Misfortunes? Miserable Mr. Mo? Mr. Mo Needs More?

"What do you think is the better title," she asked Taiyang, who was breathing heavily when he came in with two buckets of water, "Miserable Mr. Mo? Or: Mr. Mo Needs More."

"I fail to understand, Ancestor," her guard said with a puzzled frown, after pouring the water into her bathtub. "Who is miserable?"

"Just Mr. Mo. He's a general. He is... once this war is over, I will read guys you from my books."

"Thank you, Ancestor," Taiyang bowed. "It will be an honor."

Shao Wan sighed after he left. So little enthusiasm. She was quite sure these boys would not be able to appreciate her writing at all. She remembered Mo Yuan's disciples and how shocked - and yet intrigued! - they had been to hear her write about their Shifu like this. It made her envision the moment Mo Yuan would find out about her books. She snickered. He would get so angry! And she would laugh at him and his misguided Celestial propriety until his head turned red from fury.

With renewed energy, she picked up a brush, swashed it in the ink, and began to write:

Often, we hear about the Three Obediences and Four Virtues (三从四德) every woman should have. Those are fine, of course, but be sure to listen to your Fifty Desires too. Once one or all fifty assail you, move swiftly in securing the object of your desire. I have heard experienced women speak of the "art of seduction". The point, so they claimed, was to "subtly entice". I say: If subtlety is a trait you possess, be subtle. If you are not, be not. The point is to move at an opportune moment, using your strength. Just like a strategist, move when the chance for victory seems high. Many men are shy - yes, they like to pretend to be strong, but very often, they are not. Flatter them, if you have to, but do not waste your time with waiting. If they do not move, move on your own. All of this I tested successfully on Mr. Mo, the mighty general. One time, I sat in...

"The tub is full, Ancestor," Shan said.

"Thank you," she replied and got up to heat the water with her magic. "You are dismissed."

She was just taking off her nightgown, impatiently anticipating the warmth that was going to engulf her soon, when the commotion outside started. Hurried steps drew nearer.

"Stop!" her guards shouted. There were sounds of bodies being hit, grunting and cursing and then, Lin asked from outside: "Ancestor, are you decent?"

Of course she was. Sadly eying her seductively steaming bath, she had already put on clothes, her boots and a heavy coat again and now even grabbed her helmet.

"Coming," she said.

It was Yue. Goddamn Yue, lying on the ground, looking dirty and haggard and thoroughly miserable, his arms held behind him by Taiyang, who was pressing a knee into the small of his back. "Ancestor. Ancestor!" he shouted, his voice hoarse and breaking, "please hear me out!"

Shao Wan lifted her hand to stop the commotion and nodded. "We have been infiltrated!" Yue said with urgency, "I saw the Purple Queen with some soldiers! They are pretending to be part of our army!"

Oh, how clever. Shao Wan could not helped but be impressed. She did not doubt Yue's words for one second, the boy had a lot to lose if he lied but a lot to gain if he didn't. Plus...it was very sneaky. Sneakier than she had thought the dull Celestial would be, but she had challenged him to change his ways and obviously, he had accepted the challenge.

Shao Wan gave the order to quietly surround the area where Yue had seen Yi Mei Niang. The Purple Queen and her twelve men, taken by complete surprise when her forces attacked, put up a valiant fight, but Shao Wan had wanted to make no mistakes and had sent fifty men altogether, and had even gone to that part of the camp herself to oversee the operation.

Soon, the Purple Queen and her men lay bound at her feet. There was Celestial magic around them, itself well masked, making everyone who looked their way see regular Demon forces. In fact, the spell made one want to turn one's eyes away in boredom, so ordinary did they look. And in an army of this size, two handful of demons could go unnoticed forever anyway.

"Yi Mei Niang," Shao Wan said, dispelling Mo Yuan's magic with a disgusted snort, "how far you have fallen. You reek of Celestials."

"We deserted!" Yi Mei Niang lied, "we were just too afraid to make our presence known."

Shao Wan held up the copper mirrors they had found in their possession. "And you keep communicating with the Celestials to fool them into thinking you are still on their side?"

Yi Mei Niang shut her mouth and glowered at her. She looked rather haggard and not half as glamorous as she usually did. Shao Wan turned the mirror in her hands. "How do these work?" She tapped her finger against it - and it lit up in an eerie green. She turned it around once again, but there was no image showing, it remained black on both sides. "Hello?" Shao Wan said. "Are you there, Celestial Bastard?"

But of course he wasn't - or if he was, he decided to remain quiet. Hoping he was fuming in anger about the failure of his plan somewhere, she put the mirror away into her sleeve pocket and gently nudged the Purple Queen with the tip of her boot.

"Will you tell me about his plans or do I need to take more extreme measures?"

"I will not speak!"

"I doubt that," Shao said amiably, "I know how to administer pain well. And if I am not entirely wrong about you, I doubt you are particularly good at resisting it."

Yi Mai Niang turned rather pale at that. Shao Wan had her brought to her tent and leisurely picked up a knife from the table once the Purple Queen was positioned between Lin and Shan, her hands held firmly behind her back. She made a point to play around with the knife in front of Purple, and it did not take long to make her look terrified.

"Would you really hurt me?" Yi Mei Niang whispered, "are we not business partners?"

"After you betray me like this? Fighting for the Celestials is one thing, but to go behind my back this way? I doubt I can ever trust you again."

"Ancestor, please..." Yi Mei Niang squealed, when Shao Wan stepped closer.

"Just tell me what his plans are. I will keep you prisoner. It will be cold in that tent, but you will live. Relatively pain free."

Yi Mei Niang still seemed to struggle against some misplaced sense of duty. Fine, if she really had to hurt her, she would hurt her where it was the least painful. Forearm, outer arm, shoulder, calf ... she eyed the Purple Queen's shapely body, trying to decide which part she would need the least and finally lifted the knife to cut her arm.

"I will tell you!" Yi Mei Niang cried.

"I'm listening," Shao Wan replied, staying close, the knife still raised.

"He placed us near you to spy on you and to wait for further orders."

"Which are?"

"We haven't received any yet!"

"Is he planning to come back?"

Yi Mei Niang shook her head, though she did not seem certain. "I don't know what goes on in his head, he is...he doesn't tell anyone. He left his horse with us."

"That one very fine horse?"

The Purple Queen nodded. "It's from the Horse Tribe, a special breed. These people sleep with their horses as pillows, I think they like these animals better than people."

Shao Wan knew almost nothing about the Horse Tribe, only that they were living somewhere at the border of the Celestial territory and could as well have been part of the Ghost Tribe, had they only chosen to be. She also knew that Mo Yuan would never have taken such a valuable horse with him if he had no further plans with it. Plans that she had now thwarted.

"Good," she said, feeling very satisfied. He would soon realize his mole had been caught and captured. He would be so furious. Possible that he would still try to come back, but that was rather unlikely now and if he did, she would squash him.

"Dismissed," she said and turned her back on Purple, who was led out of the tent, looking deject. She had given orders to put her in her in a prisoner tent alone and not with her men, out of courtesy for the woman she liked quite a lot - she would soon cheer up. She would even send alcohol to her. The valuable horse Shao Wan had brought to her tent and ordered her men to tether it securely at the back. If Mo Yuan wanted it back, he was welcome to come get it. Now, there was only one more thing to deal with, before she could finally rest.

"Bring him in," she commanded and sat down on the big chair at the table with a straight back.

Yue looked pitiful. He was shaking, from the cold or from fear - or possibly both. He threw himself to the floor and pressed his forehead against the furs as soon as Lei and Taiyang let go off his arms. "Have mercy on me, Ancestor," he begged with a muffled voice.

Shao Wan sighed deeply. Mercy...it was only for the victorious to give. Before she had not won this war, she had little reason to be merciful to anyone, including herself. But Yue was so pitiful, she felt a pang of guilt, an impulse to protect him and during that moment of weakness, she said: "You can stay. Be a guard again."

So few words, yet they made everyone happy, including the horse outside, which snickered briefly, sounding content - until that rational part of her threw a fit inside her head at her softness. But what was done was done. She told Yue to get a good night's sleep in the guards tent and dismissed everyone with an impatient wave of her hand, bone-tired, yet still on edge.

The water in the tub had gone ice-cold again, but it did not take her long to heat it up once more. Her armor in the corner suddenly sparkled brightly when she used her powers, but it stopped even before she was done, so she paid it no further heed. She made the water hotter than usual, because a few more moments of heat later seemed so tempting, shed her clothes for the second time this evening and stepped into the water.

It was so blissful.

The heat started to seep into her body and she sat down, even though the water was so hot it burned her skin. Her feather didn't like water; it liked it so little, it detached itself from her every time she took a bath, like now, hovering just outside and above the tub on her silver chain until the moment she would come out. Shao Wan slid further down, extending her legs, feeling how the heat melted away the tension in her body, and she slid down even further until she was fully submerged in the tub and the heat engulfed and soothed her from all sides. She stayed submerged for as long as she could hold her breath.

When she surfaced some moments later, everything was wrong.

Somebody not belonging here was inside her tent. Shao Wan sprang up, summoning a weapon, but it did not appear in her hand - the energy around her was constricting, like a cage, and she could not see because of the steam that filled the entire tent. The water in which she was still standing threatened to pull her down as it glued her feet to the bottom of the tub. She resisted the strange spell, but it was strong - it felt like water and earth forces had combined to contain and immobilize her.

She screamed in fury, but the spell slammed her voice back into her throat.

She sensed that three people moved towards her. One was a woman with shaggy brown hair, wielding earth magic that flowed into her from the horse outside. It was what pulled and held Shao Wan's feet down. That woman reached forward and grabbed Shao Wan's feather, a triumphant smile lighting up her eerie blue eyes. The second was...her heart missed a beat, but she realized at the same time it was the Crown Prince, his dragon power commanding the water. It was not possible that these two people would be able to contain her, Shao Wan thought, just as HE stepped forward and her heart missed a beat again. His familiar dragon power combined with his brother's, two water dragons weaving a tight net of water magic around her fire. Together, they were much stronger than her.

The woman gave Mo Yuan the feather and he wrapped it in Celestial magic, a blue, glowing orb. Shao Wan tried to move, but she could not. She resisted the magic more, she pulled at the invisible fetters until one ripped, her right hand suddenly free and moving, towards the Celestial Bastard, because she cared nothing about the other two, only him. Seeing her attack, he threw the blue orb towards his brother. It multiplied before her eyes. Each of the intruders were now holding two, no three, fours orbs and each one of them felt exactly the same - she had no idea which one truly contained the feather.

Mo Yuan had put a lot of energy into this spell, and he was barely able to dodge her strike. Or maybe he had not deemed it necessary. He turned aside, but her fingernails cut through the skin at his neck, leaving three bloody gashes on his skin. And the Bastard smiled.

"Go," he said calmly to his companions as his eyes locked onto hers and they disappeared, just like that, even though cloud jumping in and out of the demon encampment was - or rather should be - an impossibility. She heard the woman speak in a foreign language outside and the horse responded in its own. The woman and the horse became one and disappeared from her awareness. The Celestial twin had probably made himself invisible too and was walking away unseen, through an army of demons who had been fooled, thoroughly fooled.

She screamed again in fury and this time, the sound came out and finally alarmed her useless guards. Only: they could not come in, because Mo Yuan would not let them. She still could not move much more than one hand, though she felt the magic around her weaken, and she knew if he used his powers against her, she was as good as dead.

But he did not seem to have come to hurt her.

"How did you know about the feather!" she hissed at him. If humiliating her was his goal, he had succeeded.

"I've been observing you for a while, Demon Queen," he said smugly, his eyes full of satisfaction, "and I did expect you to lower your guard once you discovered Yi Mei Niang. I also expected you to keep that horse close. I seem to know you very well."

He put the blue orbs inside his sleeve pocket and inclined his head. "And because I do, I will leave now. Farewell."

And the bastard cloud jumped away. How? There had to be a traitor. Somebody had weakened the wards.

As soon as he was gone, the magic around her collapsed and so did she, splashing water everywhere. How utterly embarrassing... Nobody could know about this. She covered her face with her hands in shame just as her guards rushed in, chattering loudly.

"Ancestor, what happened!" they yelled when they found the tent empty, with not a sign of a fight. "Why was there a shield? We could not enter!"

"Just a bad dream," Shao Wan lied, "I fell asleep in the tub. I put up a shield since I did not want to be disturbed."

Lei handed her a towel and a dressing gown and they respectfully turned their backs as she stepped out of the tub.

"Leave me alone," she told them gruffly when she had tied the robe tightly and sat down on her bed. She felt like throttling someone, that someone being a handsome Celestial with scruff on his face who had one-upped her inside her own command tent.

"Damn him," she exclaimed.

... and jumped up in fright when Fong Hung appeared right in front of her. "Ance-tor!" he yelled, his face lighting up with a huge smile, "you hungry?"

As she stilled her hammering heart, he conjured up a mountain of food. Fruits, meat, sweets, pastry, everything sticking together and making a mess on her valuable furs.

"Where have you been!" she exclaimed.

"Eyeing Cheng Yin," he said happily, "I saw a lot. I will tell you!" He started eating greedily. "So hungry. Fong Hung is growing!"

"Growing hair too," she said, pointing at the crown of thin hair on his head. So it seemed he had finally found Cheng Yin's hiding place? Maybe this wasn't such a bad day after all.

"You not hungry?" her Mount asked and offered her a piece of cooked meat.

"No," she said.

"You have bad mood?" he asked, looking at her closely.

"Mo Yuan took my feather," she explained and felt like crying in frustration all of a sudden.

"Feather?" Fong Hung said. "Ah. Now he took it. Clever man."

"I have been stupid and arrogant," Shao Wan said, "he really played me. Fong Hung, how can I win now? I don't even have my feather anymore!"

"Is easy," Fong Hung said, smacking his lips, "you have to go get it back. Then, you will win this war."

Shao Wan took him from the floor and sat him on her knees, where he continued to happily and sloppily eat until nothing was left. Afterwards, he burped and fell asleep, his head nestled against her shoulder. Well, she thought, he may be just a child, but his advice was sound. She just had to go and get it back.

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