37 Master or Lover

If I could afford to wait, I would've postponed the back mountains and stayed at Bai Ye's side all morning, all day. But my supplies were low after days away from Mount Hua, and I usually avoided gathering everything I needed at the same time, just in case someone passing by might recognize the ingredients and infer the purpose of the mix. Unfortunately, that meant I had to pay more frequent visits to the glade.

My thoughts wandered as I picked my way through the lush greenery dressed in morning dew. It was a foggy day in the hills, the sun nothing more than a ring of halo behind the heavy mist. It reminded me of the day when I first led Bai Ye here, eager to show him my discovery on that same foggy morning four years ago.

"Master!" I remember myself exclaiming in excitement. "Guess what I found here?"

Bai Ye kelt at my side. I was already fourteen then, but still short and skinny, barely reaching his chest. He patted me on the head and smiled, "A baby bunny?"

"Master!" I pouted. I did like to feed fuzzy little animals back then, but that wasn't reason enough for him to keep treating me like a child. I grabbed the hand that was rubbing my head and pressed it to the ground. "Do you feel the flow of power here?" I asked. "There's something running beneath us."

Bai Ye almost stumbled at my sudden jerk, but his smile only widened. "You found an underground lake," he said after examining for a moment. "Its power feeds this meadow and creates the most potent herbs. Great work, Qing-er."

I grinned, and I dug my hands deeper into the dirt together with his, feeling the power circling our fingertips. He watched me quietly, proudly.

At fourteen, I hadn't realized how inappropriate and rude my actions were, and how lucky I was to have a master that didn't want to hurt my feelings for the sake of formalities. But four years later, I could almost feel through my memories the heat of his palm and the smoothness of his fingers. The same fingers that have now grazed over every part of my body and play mischief with my senses.

I looked up into the blurry disk of sunlight shrouded behind the haze. It might have been the loss of my parents that made me more attached to Bai Ye than most disciples to their masters. We had always been close, but at least back then, I had only admired him, and he had only watched me grow up under his caring, encouraging gaze. To think that we would eventually come to a day when I needed to revisit this glade to make potions that …

I felt myself burn again. When did all of this happen? What was he to me now, and what was I to him?

An unfamiliar voice from a distance startled me. "Did you hear about what happened to Chu Xi a couple of days ago?"

I swirled, though I couldn't see anyone through the heavy fog.

"I thought she was sent away to some village in the north," another voice replied.

I halted my steps. The mention of Chu Xi intrigued me. If I couldn't see the speakers, they most likely couldn't see me either, so I stood in place silently and listened, eager to hear the rest of the news.

"She was," the first voice replied. "And after only a few days, she fell off a cliff and broke a leg."

I couldn't believe my ears. Did justice find its way to her through fate?

"How did that happen? I thought the Gatekeeper would take precautions to keep her safe there," the second person said. The voice was that of a girl likely younger than me, and it sounded vaguely familiar, though I couldn't quite place it with the muffling of the fog.

"The Gatekeeper can't take care of everything for her all day. I heard this was her own doing though—she kicked a dog for growling at her, and the dog chased her all over the village until she ran up to a cliff."

I almost couldn't hold back a giggle. That totally sounded like something Chu Xi would do.

The first voice continued, "Of course, she claimed afterward that the dog was possessed and knew exactly how to force her off the cliff. She said it was a voodoo trick from Yun Qing-er to seek revenge. I wonder what the Gatekeeper thinks of it."

"I wouldn't believe it has anything to do with Senior Yun," the second person said. "She was with us almost all week, and I can tell she's a nice person with no ill intentions. Certainly nicer than Chu Xi. I wonder what grudges Chu Xi could hold against someone so good-natured."

I finally recognized the voice was Han Shu. It was surprisingly comforting to hear that she had taken such a liking to me during the trip.

The other person chuckled. "I wouldn't believe it either, but only because I know Yun Qing-er doesn't have enough power to enchant a dog. Unless there is someone near a master's level that's helping her, Chu Xi can only blame this on her bad luck."

They both laughed, and the chatter grew quieter as they walked farther away.

I stood frozen like a statue. Someone near a master's level …

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the whole incident didn't happen by chance. Chu Xi wasn't stupid, and even with her spiritual roots sealed, she still had basic martial skills. What was the likelihood that she would get chased by a common dog all over the village and happen to end up at the edge of a cliff? What was the likelihood that her ordeal was so similar to mine?

It must've been Bai Ye. He had told me before that he would make Chu Xi pay the price of hurting me, and he must've taken action after returning from East Village.

A mix of feelings stirred in me. I hadn't taken Bai Ye's words seriously when he promised me revenge, and I thought I would feel guilty for anything that happened to Chu Xi beyond the punishment she already received. Nonetheless, now that Bai Ye had done it, I felt no guilt, only satisfaction.

But I had never known Bai Ye as a vengeful person, and Chu Xi must've really stepped into the forbidden zone to earn such hatred from him. I remembered Bai Ye's tremble when I was on the brink of death, his careful embrace when he told me that he thought he might lose me …

I couldn't stop the next questions crossing my mind: when did his feelings for me change as well? And was he doing all of this for me as a master, or a lover?

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