Bai Qian moved closer to Ye Hua when she saw a woman drop to the ground before him in a formal bow. The woman stood when Ye Hua spoke to put her at ease. Bai Qian stepped to his side, his mother and Meixiu remaining a few paces behind them. A name hovered on the very edge of Bai Qian’s memory just out of reach as she studied the woman’s wonderstruck face.
I know her, Bai Qian realized with surprise. What was her name?
“Princess Bai Qian,” the woman spoke, joyful tears filling her eyes. “It’s really you. The rumors are true. You’re alive.”
Bai Qian nodded, unsure what to say.
“You’re alive,” the woman repeated in a softer voice.
“Yes. I…” Bai Qian trailed off.
“People in my village started telling stories about you recently… saying you had been spotted in the Heavens and the Demon King approached you. That you are under the protection of the Crown Prince.” The woman glanced at Ye Hua quickly, his watchful expression and close proximity to Bai Qian hinting at the relationship between the two, before turning back to Bai Qian. “I wasn’t sure what to believe when I first heard the rumors but I see now it’s all true.” She smiled. “I’m glad. And I’m relieved you’re safe after what happened with the Demon King.”
“I know you probably don’t remember me,” the woman continued, not giving Ye Hua or Bai Qian a chance to respond. “I’m…”
“… Xiaoli,” Bai Qian said, pleased that she finally remembered the woman’s name and how she knew her. “You’re the blacksmith’s daughter. We used to play together sometimes as children.”
“Yes,” Xiaoli said, her smile growing brighter. “You remember me. It’s been so long and we’ve both grown up.”
“I recognize you but I didn’t remember how I knew you at first,” Bai Qian admitted. She turned to Meixiu and Heavenly Mother. “This is Heavenly Mother and this is Meixiu, the Princess of the Eagles.”
“Heavenly Mother,” Xiaoli said with a reverent whisper, bowing deeply to the Dragon Goddess before bowing to Meixiu as well. “Princess Meixiu. It’s a true honor to meet you both.”
“I didn’t think there was anyone still alive from Qing Qiu,” Bai Qian said once the introductions were finished and the group walked back into the remains of the village. Her voice was solemn. “I hoped there was but I… I didn’t see how anyone could have survived the attack. How did you get away? Did the rest of your family get away too? Do you know if there are any other survivors out there? Or how I can find them?”
Xiaoli’s smile faded. “My brother, Yong, and I are the only members of my immediate family still alive. Yong and I were staying with our aunt who lives outside of Qing Qiu when the attack happened. We rushed home when word reached us but there was nothing left. Our home was destroyed along with the rest of the village. My parents and baby sister were all killed.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Bai Qian whispered, placing a comforting hand on her friend’s shoulder.
“Yong and I were raised by our aunt. My brother and his wife just had a baby. Otherwise, he would be here too. I can’t wait to tell him I saw you.”
“Do you know of any other survivors?” It was Heavenly Mother who asked the question this time. “After the war, Heavenly Father sent out a group of soldiers to look for survivors and offer them aid. They never found anybody. Nor did anybody come forward seeking help.”
“They likely wanted to stay in hiding,” Xiaoli replied. “There are a few others. Elder Guangli and his wife, Biyu, are still alive. They were spending time in the Mortal Realm when the attack happened. They now live near my aunt. Elder Guangli believes he’s spotted one or two other people who used to live here in Baihu Village but we were never able to confirm it. I haven’t spoken with anybody else.” She looked at Bai Qian, hope in her expression. “Now that you’ve returned, I believe more survivors will return.”
“That is my hope,” Bai Qian responded. “Though I know it will take time.” She caught a glimpse of the concerned expression in Ye Hua’s eyes and guessed what he was thinking. Turning back to Xiaoli, she said, “I’m not trying to keep my return to Qing Qiu a secret necessarily but I’m not yet ready to officially announce it either. Until we know what the Demon King is planning and who else may be helping him, I have to be careful. And you need to be careful too.”
Bai Qian chose her words carefully, wanting to warn Xiaoli to look out for herself without giving too much away. Recent events searching for the traitor in the Heavens had reminded her how careful she needed to be when deciding who she could and couldn’t trust. Xiaoli was indeed an old friend but Bai Qian didn’t know her very well anymore. Too much time had passed.
“I understand, my lady,” Xiaoli said. “I won’t tell anybody that I’ve seen you here.”
“I’m not saying you can’t tell anybody,” Bai Qian clarified. “It’s alright to tell Elder Guangli, Biyu, and your brother. I know people will hear about it and we will deal with it when word gets out. But I would appreciate your discretion with who you tell for the time being.”
Xiaoli nodded her agreement.
“Is anybody else here with you, Xiaoli?” Meixiu asked, giving the woman a small smile to help put her at ease.
“No. I’m here alone today. Ever since I heard the rumors about Princess Bai Qian, I’ve been coming here to clean up whenever I have a spare moment.” She paused and pointed toward a small pile of intact items on the ground. “I haven’t found much. Most everything was destroyed. Sometimes Elder Guangli and Biyu come along with me to help. It was their idea in the first place. Is that why all of you are here today?”
“Yes,” Bai Qian answered. “Qing Qiu is an important part of my family’s legacy. I want to restore it back to its former splendor in honor of their memory and that of the villagers who once lived here. Qing Qiu will always be my original home and I want it to be a home for countless others in the future. It will be a safe place of refuge for those in need of one.”
“That’s a great idea,” Xiaoli said excitedly. “Come with me. I’ll show you what I’ve done so far.”
They worked well into the afternoon, Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan joining them in the effort to clean up the village after Heavenly Father and Mother returned to the Heavens. The piles of intact items were growing larger and they had removed nearly all of the ash and rotting debris left behind by the fires from one quadrant of the village. Bai Qian’s restoration plan seemed to finally be taking shape. There was still a long way to go but they had accomplished a lot.
“Do you detect any deceit in Xiaoli, Da Ge?” Ye Hua asked his brother quietly when they stopped for a quick break. Ye Hua was hot and tired but he felt good. The three women were cleaning up around the remnants of a house several paces away, laughing about something Meixiu had said as they did so. The black dragon was content with the woman being near Bai Qian and Hu Mei but Ye Hua still wanted to know his brother’s opinion. Zhe Yan moved closer to hear the answer as well.
“No, I don’t,” Mo Yuan responded, frowning slightly. “Do you?”
“No,” Ye Hua answered. “I just wanted to be sure.” He glanced at Zhe Yan. “Did you know Xiaoli?” There was more curiosity in his voice now than suspicion.
“She looks vaguely familiar to me,” Zhe Yan said. “So I must have seen her when I was here as a boy. But I don’t know her.”
Satisfied that Zhe Yan recognized her and Mo Yuan also thought she was trustworthy, Ye Hua let the last of his concerns go. He turned back to the task at hand, wanting to finish cleaning up this area of the village before it was time for them to return to Kunlun Mountain.
Ye Hua next stopped when a dark cloud passed in front of the late afternoon sun, casting a sudden shadow over the land. Foreboding shivered through him, giving him pause. Where was this sensation coming from? It lingered after the cloud had moved away and he could once again feel the gentle warmth from the sun. That sense of unease still clung to him.
He looked around at his surroundings, studying them closely. Bai Qian, Meixiu, and Xiaoli were still working on the final clean up in their area. Nothing had changed that he could see. So why did he feel as if something big had just happened?
A soldier appeared next to Mo Yuan, handing over a small folded piece of paper with a salute and bow. Ye Hua watched his brother’s face as he read the message. There was no change in his expression but Ye Hua could tell it was bad news. He sensed the change in his brother’s mood. Zhe Yan moved closer to read the message when Mo Yuan handed it to him. No doubt Mo Yuan and his father had filled Zhe Yan in on the discovery of Jinjing as the traitor while they had been working near the lake.
Ye Hua walked over and took the message when Zhe Yan was finished.
The message was simple yet it sent a wave of frustration flowing through Ye Hua. General Jinjing was absent from the new recruits’ training session this afternoon. He is not in his quarters.
“Did you assign a guard to watch his room?” Ye Hua asked Mo Yuan, destroying the paper with a flare of his magic.
“Yes. I didn’t tell him why but I ordered him to watch Jinjng’s movements closely. He is a soldier I know I can trust and he should have been in position before Jinjing received my missive this morning.”
“He couldn’t have cloud-jumped from his room without being detected. So how did he remain unseen and disappear like that?”
“I don’t know,” Mo Yuan responded. “But we need to find out where he went.”
“And I should go tell my father what’s going on,” Zhe Yan added. “Maybe he can help in some way.”
After leaving Bai Qian and Meixiu safely on Kunlun Mountain, Ye Hua and Mo Yuan went to the Heavens to investigate Jinjing’s quarters. Mo Yuan had strengthened the barrier guarding Kunlun Temple and its grounds before they left. He had also assigned watch duty to his senior disciples. They were to be on the lookout for anything unusual until he and Ye Hua returned. If they spotted anything out of the ordinary, they were instructed to alert Meixiu immediately and then get word to Mo Yuan right away.
The guard who had been assigned to monitor Jinjing met Mo Yuan and Ye Hua at the entrance to Jinjing’s room. While Mo Yuan questioned the soldier about what had happened, Ye Hua approached the wooden door and opened it. He looked closely at the spacious interior as he stepped inside. He had never been inside Jinjing’s quarters before so he didn’t know if anything was out of place. Nothing stood out to him.
The room was tidy and sparsely furnished. A bed sat next to one side wall and it was neatly made, not a wrinkle in sight. A brief glance in the wardrobe revealed various military uniforms and a few civilian clothes. A longbow and leather quiver filled with arrows were propped in a corner but Ye Hua did not see Jinjing’s sword or any other weapons. He crossed to the desk and picked up a stack of papers, looking up when Mo Yuan entered the room.
“Do you have any theories on how Jinjing left without being noticed, Da Ge?” Ye Hua asked, detecting the subtle signs of frustration in his brother’s seemingly calm expression. “Did the soldier see anything at all?”
“No to both questions.” Mo Yuan sighed. “Jinjing managed a clean break and I don’t know how. As much as I want to figure it out, it’s more important now to determine where he disappeared to. Have you found anything?”
“I found these papers but I don’t know if…” Ye Hua trailed away as he flipped through the pieces of papers he was holding to a hastily scrawled list of defenses. They were all a part of the defensive system Mo Yuan had in place to protect Kunlun Mountain and its temple. Fury shot through Ye Hua as he realized what he was reading. The black dragon growled a low rumble.
“What is it?” Mo Yuan asked, one brow arching as he questioned Ye Hua.
“He knows Qian Qian’s on Kunlun,” Ye Hua bit out angrily. “Look.”
Ye Hua started pacing the length of the room after handing the paper to his brother. Mo Yuan remained silent, reading the list while Ye Hua stalked back and forth like a caged and restless beast. Fury continued to course through him but fear for Bai Qian’s safety now accompanied it. How did this happen? Where was Jinjing getting his information? What if he ended up getting to her?
“How does he always know where she is?!” Ye Hua growled furiously, his eyes turning black with the power of his dragon rising within him. The black dragon urged Ye Hua to hunt Jinjing down and destroy him. He was a threat to Qian Qian and Hu Mei.
Mo Yuan’s eyes glinted gold as his golden dragon responded to his brother. But Mo Yuan otherwise remained calm and silently watched Ye Hua stalk the room for several minutes before speaking.
“Anger leads to mistakes, Ye Hua,” Mo Yuan said quietly, aware his twin would still hear him.
Ye Hua snarled at his brother, irritated by his reasonable tone and wanting to lash out at him. But he didn’t because Mo Yuan was right and he knew it. And his brother’s level-headed response and controlled emotion helped quiet some of the turbulence of his own. Ye Hua forced himself to stop pacing and he drew in a deep breath. Then another. The black dragon rumbled in protest, once again insisting they hunt but Ye Hua pushed him back. Soon. Now was not the right time for it.
“What would you have me do?” Ye Hua asked, clenching a fist to keep his fury in check. His fear for Bai Qian’s safety was growing stronger. “He’s always one step ahead of us. Always.”
“Though it was not our intent, we just forced him to leave in a hurry,” Mo Yuan reminded Ye Hua. “All of the resources he has built up here in the Heavens are no longer available to him.” He paused and lifted up the list he had been reading. “He has listed the defenses on Kunlun that everybody is aware of but there are two critical ones he does not have written here and can’t know about. I’m the only one who knows about them.”
“You’re sure he couldn’t have found out about them?” Ye Hua asked, relieved to hear this. Leave it to Mo Yuan to have extra precautions in place even when living in the best protected area of the realm.
Mo Yuan nodded. “I’ve never told anybody what they are.”
“And he’s not as strong as either one of us,” Ye Hua said, beginning to see the whole picture with clarity again now that he had calmed down. “Even if he were to know all the defenses on Kunlun it doesn’t mean he can get around them.”
“Right,” Mo Yuan agreed. “While Bai Qian is on Kunlun she is safe. We will need to be extra cautious when she is in Qing Qiu or the peach tree forest. She will be more vulnerable there.”
“I’ll stay right next to her every second she’s away from Kunlun,” Ye Hua said. “I’ll protect her. But I don’t want to ask Qian Qian to stay away from Qing Qiu…not if I can avoid it. It’s not fair to her. She’s been waiting fifty thousand years to go back home.”
“Did you see how happy she was today?” Ye Hua added quietly. “How can I take that away from her?”
“Nor should you need to,” Mo Yuan reassured him. “Jinjing can’t get past you and the black dragon. Not unless he brings a contingent of men with him to back him up. And if he does, Meixiu and I can be there with reinforcements quickly. Besides, where is he going to find trained men outside of the Heavens?”
“Weisheng.” Ye Hua growled the name with disgust. “I think it’s time for me to start putting some pressure on him, Da Ge. I’ll tread carefully so I won’t do anything that would break the treaty between his people and the Heavens but I’m tired of doing nothing when it comes to that treacherous Demon. It would be foolish of me not to go ahead and confront him now that Jinjing is missing.”
“What do you have in mind?” Mo Yuan asked, not disagreeing like he had in the past when Ye Hua had brought this up. Ye Hua wasn’t sure if this change was because his brother now agreed with him or because he understood that dissuading Ye Hua from this path was no longer possible.
“Nothing serious… yet. I’m simply going to insist he sit down and speak with me. I can get the information out of him if only the two of us are present. If he truly has nothing to hide like he claims, why would he refuse to meet with me. If he does refuse, that is further evidence that he means harm and I can use that in my favor for making a case against him.”
“If he agrees, you should have Father there with you as a witness,” Mo Yuan advised. “Otherwise, it becomes your word against Weisheng’s once you leave the room. That means Weisheng will want one person with him as well. Let him have it. Very few will doubt Father’s word over a demon’s. Even the dark tribes will think twice before accusing Father of not being truthful.”
“I need to start speaking with the leaders of the dark tribes as well,” Ye Hua added. “Maybe they know something. Or they’ve heard rumors of something we haven’t. It would also serve to remind them whose side they are supposed to be on if the situation deteriorates.”
“I will focus on Jinjing,” Mo Yuan said. “He’s skilled at hiding his tracks but it’s difficult for a person to disappear completely. There must be a way to find him.”
“Thank you, Da Ge. For everything.” Ye Hua hoped his brother understood the depth of his gratitude. He had been on the verge of losing it earlier and Mo Yuan had stopped that from happening.
Mo Yuan’s response was a slight nod to show he understood. He turned and looked around the room. “Let’s see what else we can find before heading back to Kunlun.”
They found nothing new after a more thorough search of Jinjing’s room. Ye Hua erected a barrier around it when they left so nobody could barge in and destroy possible evidence. Maybe as they gained more information, something they had dismissed this evening as nothing would become more useful.
Upon returning to Kunlun, Ye Hua bid a good night to both Mo Yuan and Meixiu as they retired to Mo Yuan’s quarters before he hurried to the room he shared with Bai Qian.
He had trouble finding sleep that night. He held Bai Qian in a tight protective embrace as she slept. His gaze remained fixed on the ceiling, listening to her slow and steady breathing. She had never felt more fragile to him and he pulled her closer, careful not to wake her. He would do whatever it took to keep her safe.
The deep shadows of night were already draped over Qing Qiu when Jinjing appeared on a cloud above the land. The stump of his missing finger had been cleaned and was now bandaged properly. The pain was dulled nicely by the potion the Demon Healer had provided him.
A soft light sparkling out of the darkness caught his eye when he looked toward the ground. He grinned, pleased with the sight. There was no mistaking the glow of the luminescent pearls lighting the waters of Qing Qiu’s lake for anything other than what they were. There was nothing that looked even remotely similar. He laughed as he realized this solved his last and most difficult problem. It was impossible to snatch Bai Qian off of Kunlun Mountain. As long as she remained there she was untouchable. But now he no longer had to worry about that. Heavenly Father’s magic was no longer hiding the pearls and that could only mean one thing.
“The little fox has finally returned to Qing Qiu,” he said, triumph in his voice as he spoke to the night. “I’ll be seeing you soon, little fox. You can count on it.” His smile faded. “We have so much to talk about.”
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