Jiang Chen's first order of business after returning to Veluriyam was an urgent visit to Plumscore Retreat. Seeing his daughter couldn't come a second too soon.
Dan Fei's mood upon her return was poles apart from when she'd left. Confusion and helplessness had been replaced by contentment and gratification. All the worries gnawing at her had been swept away.
That Emperor Peafowl's adopted daughter and the young lord were old friends from Myriad Domain flabbergasted the mountain's residents. They sighed at fate's bizarre twists and turns. Sacred Peafowl Mountain, it seemed, shared an inextricable bond with Myriad Domain.
The young lord came from Myriad Domain. So did Miss Dan'er. The two of them had even had a daughter together.
Even the young lord's followers were taken aback, to say nothing of everyone else.
Eastern Gouyu had been in a jubilant mood lately, thanks to her niece Eastern Zhiruo's arrival. But she felt disquieted when she learned that Emperor Peafowl's adopted daughter and the Dan Fei she'd met in Skylaurel were one and the same.
She and Dan Fei had had their bickerings in the past. Their relationship wasn't an irreconcilable one, but she couldn't deny a slight lingering resentment.
Goyou had long since let go of the hopes she once held about Jiang Chen because she'd come to realize the chasm between herself and Huang'er. She'd understood how distant a dream it had been, and had instead immersed herself in her role as an attendant in the young lord residence.
Of course, Jiang Chen's place in her heart was as unshakable as ever. He was her faith. She wouldn't refuse any request from him.
"Auntie, is there something making you unhappy?" Eastern Zhiruo had lived a secluded life in Eastern Kingdom and had almost no dealings with the outside world. Her character was as pure as a twelve year old's. She could sense Gouyu's mood, but didn't know the reason behind it.
Gouyu steadied herself, squeezed out a smile, and carressed her niece's lovely face. "I'm fine. Zhiruo, do you remember? I used to force you to practice martial arts every day to improve your health. In the end, I almost hurt you. Do you hate me for that?"
"Auntie, why would I hate you?" Bafflement was plain on Zhiruo's face. "You did that for my sake."
Gouyu's guilt and affection deepened when she saw her niece was as kind-hearted as she used to be.
"Zhiruo, I was selfish in leaving you behind. I can only imagine how dull it must have been living by yourself in the depths of the palace." Like a blank page, her niece was as innocent as she had been ten years ago.
"Auntie, it was a little boring sometimes. I missed you very much, and father, and older brother Jiang Chen. You three are the only ones who were good to me in the entire world." Zhiruo became a little glum when she thought of her deceased father. "Sometimes, I'd talk to the flowers and the trees, pretending they were you, or father, or older brother Jiang Chen."
Gouyu's heart ached for her niece. How lonely it must have been to only have flowers and trees as companions for ten years. Zhiruo seemed to enjoy untold fortunes as a princess, but she'd lived the life of a prisoner.
Plumscore Retreat was as tranquil and beautiful as ever, a haven separate from the outside world. Rather than vulgar, mundane gaudiness, the year-long snow gave it an otherworldly charm.
"Brother Chen, did you meet Nian'er when you came here before?" Standing at the entrance, Dan Fei looked at the mouth of the valley, urgent expectation sparkling in her graceful eyes.
"I came once to call on Plumscore Monarch. Nian'er has a mount she calls Whitey, a very ferocious snow eagle. But it's very obedient after she tamed it." Everything still felt like a dream to Jiang Chen. The little girl pretty as a flower who'd somehow felt so familiar to him, a child he'd felt drawn to despite himself, was his own daughter!
Chirp! Chirp! Chirp chirp!
Sharp cries suddenly pierced through the tranquil sky, to Jiang Chen's and Dan Fei's delight.
"She's here!" Both of them exchanged a glance full of excitement.
With a flap of great wings, a flash of white shot down into the valley like a bolt of lightning, sweeping raging gusts of wind in its wake. It landed not far away in front of Jiang Chen and Dan Fei.
A face as exquisite as a porcelain doll's, skin so delicate that a mere breeze would leave marks, and eyes brimming with life. Nian'er was still as lovely as Jiang Chen remembered her, but she'd gained a few inches in the years he hadn't seen her.
"Nian'er!" Dan Fei could no longer repress her own emotions. The guilt and longing she'd felt for so many years suddenly surged in her chest.
At the call, Nian'er turned her vibrant eyes their way. Plumscore Monarch had told her to go alone to the mouth of the valley after returning. Some people were waiting there for her.
She'd been trying to guess who it was. Her eyes shone with the fresh innocence unique to her age. Her pure gaze landed on Dan Fei. She froze at first glance, her memories seeming to tell her something. The bone-deep bond between blood kin made her eyes redden. "Mommy?"
Dan Fei's feelings gushed out of her like a flood through a broken dike. She ran forward and held her daughter tightly in her arms.
"Nian'er, it's mother, it's mother. I missed you so much…" Maternal love, accumulated for all these years, gushed out of her.
Nian'er shed big tears of happiness as she sobbed like a wronged child. "Mommy, Nian'er misses you everyday. Boohoohoo…"
She was a ten-year-old child finally seeing her mother after a long parting. Her emotions erupted as she basked in the sudden warmth of the beloved mother she'd missed day and night.
Mother and daughter embraced each other for a long time. Dan Fei finally cupped Nian'er's cheeks with her gentle hands, carefully scrutinizing her daughter, engraving every line of the child's face into her mind. "Nian'er, do you blame me for being heartless?"
Nian'er shook her head. "Nian'er knows you did it for my own good."
Dan Fei's eyes reddened again. She hugged her daughter with a promise. "Nian'er, mother will never leave you again. Never!"
Nian'er froze. "Mommy, are you taking me away?"
"Yes. But I'm not the only one taking you away. Look, see who else is there?" Dan Fei pointed at Jiang Chen.
"Young lord Zhen?" The little girl immediately recognized him. She'd met him once when she was around six.
He'd left a deep impression on her. She knew he was the most powerful big brother on Sacred Peafowl Mountain, the most outstanding genius. He'd always been her idol.
Jiang Chen approached them with an involuntary smile.
Dan Fei was solemn. "Nian'er, let mother formally introduce him to you. He's not called young lord Zhen. His real name is Jiang Chen, and he's also your father."
Nian'er blinked, a pout on her small lips. "Mother, are you with young lord Zhen? I only think of young lord Zhen as a big brother, not…"
Dan Fei grew anxious when she realized her daughter's misunderstanding. The little girl thought her mother and Jiang Chen were in an affair, that Jiang Chen was going to be her stepfather!
"Nian'er, listen to me. He's your daddy. He's the one your mother's been searching all along."
Nian'er was stumped for words. That beautiful, pure pair of eyes stared at Jiang Chen. "Daddy? Young lord Zhen, are you really Nian'er's daddy?"
Jiang Chen heaved a soft sigh. There was nothing he wanted more than to cuddle and cherish her.
"Nian'er, I'm your daddy. Only, neither I nor your mother knew we were both on Sacred Peafowl Mountain. I never knew before I had such a beautiful and adorable daughter. Tell daddy, do you want me to be your father?"
Nian'er tilted her head to the side and nodded after some consideration. "I do."
Jiang Chen beamed with joy. "Great! Nian'er, come with daddy. We won't be coming back to Plumscore Retreat in the future. We'll live in the young lord residence instead. Do you want that?"
"Is mommy coming with us?" the little girl asked in earnest.
"We're a family. Of course we should be together. Let's go," Jiang Chen promised with a nod.
Nian'er cheered immediately. She ran to give Dan Fei a loud kiss on the cheek, then ran to plant a loud smack on Jiang Chen's forehead.
She held her mother's hand in her left and her father's hand in her right, happily jumping in the snow. "Whitey, Whitey, did you hear? Nian'er has a mother and a father now!"
Parents would always be the most important figures in a child's life. Nian'er had always been a good girl during her stay at Plumscore Retreat, but it was the nature of a young child to miss her parents.
Now that her father and her mother were taking her away and never leaving her again, she longed to share her excitement with the whole world.
Whitey chirped, maybe out of jealousy, or perhaps out of happiness for her.
Jiang Chen brought them back to the young lord residence. Gouyu had a firm grasp on her emotions by now and had buried her melancholy deep in her heart, ready to welcome the young mistress.
Dan Fei's expression flickered when she saw Gouyu from afar. All her past memories resurfaced. However, now ten years more mature, she was no longer as belligerent as her younger self used to be.
Instead, she wrapped her arms around Goyou and gave her a sincere hug. "Elder sister Gouyu, to think we never met face to face even though we were so close here on Sacred Peafowl Mountain! You've grown even more beautiful."
She showered Goyou with cordial affection. She was well aware their past quarrels had been nothing more than the naughtiness of youth. Both of them were grown women now. She naturally wouldn't hold a grudge over trivial squabbles.