Bai Qian clasped Ye Hua’s hand tightly as she watched Heavenly Father and Mother kneel before her family’s memorial. They had left Kunlun Mountain to come to Qing Qiu shortly after the meeting that had revealed the possible identity of the traitor. The late morning sun was shining brightly in a clear, blue sky. The warm currents of air carried the scents of pine and wood from the forest and the sound of birds chittering in the background. She knew it was a whimsical idea but she thought the land seemed happy to have visitors and was welcoming them.
When they had arrived near the Fox Den, Bai Qian had asked if she could have a moment to greet her parents at their memorial and the rest of the group had followed her, wanting to pay their respects. Ye Hua’s father, in particular, had seemed grateful for the chance to address her father.
“I’m sorry, my old friend,” Heavenly Father murmured. “I did not know there was a traitor in the Heavens. I promise he will be brought to justice to answer for his crimes. I will avenge the massacre of you, your family, and the people of Qing Qiu.”
There was a moment of extended silence in which Bai Qian sensed the Dragon God was saying more without speaking out loud. Then Heavenly Mother spoke.
“You would be proud of Qian Qian. She is a strong and courageous woman.”
Bai Qian blushed and looked at the ground.
“She will be a just and powerful Queen one day and she will have our full support as she leads Qing Qiu back to greatness,” Heavenly Mother continued. Heavenly Father nodded his agreement. They bowed towards the portrait of the Bai family before standing and allowing Mo Yuan and Meixiu to pay their respects.
Zhe Yan approached the memorial last. He had been all smiles when he had shared his recent breakthroughs with the group; he was likely just a few steps away from formulating a full antidote to the Demons’ lethal poison. And he was on the verge of creating the “perfect peach wine” that even Ye Hua “who is always way too picky” would enjoy. But now, his face was somber as he knelt before her family’s memorial. He said nothing, simply gazing at the portrait for a long time. Then his finger lightly brushed her brother’s face in the painting before he stood and plastered on a bright smile.
It was a sobering reminder to Bai Qian that she was not the only one who had lost much when her family was murdered. Zhe Yan had always been a close friend of her brother’s and Bai Qian wanted to continue the strong friendship with him and his family. One day, when everything was settled, she would ask Zhe Yan to sit and share a drink with her in Bai Zhen’s honor. They could tell their favorite stories about her brother and maybe that would help them both with the grief. She smiled at Zhe Yan and he returned it with a genuine one of his own.
“Where should we start, Qian Qian?” Meixiu asked. “The land here is beautiful even if it has been without care for thousands of years. I can’t wait to see how it will look once it’s been restored to its past appearance.”
Bai Qian considered the question, feeling excited and a bit apprehensive about the important undertaking ahead of her. There was much that needed to be done and it felt overwhelming. Where should she start? It was still too soon for her to face the prospect of cleaning up the Fox Den. The village? There was so much destruction in the village. Would she be able to repair all the damage or did it make more sense to start over new? She wasn’t sure which approach was better. When she thought about the Qing Qiu of her childhood, what did she miss the most?
“The lake,” she said, surprising herself with the answer. “I miss the luminescent pearls lighting up the waters of the lake. That’s where I would like to start.” She paused, looking at Heavenly Father, guessing it had been his doing that extinguished the light of the pearls. “Only I don’t know how to make the pearls shine again.”
“It’s very easy,” Heavenly Father responded. “All it will take is a bit of fox magic.”
“Fox magic? There’s no specific spell needed?”
He shook his head. “Nothing specific. I created an extinguishing spell that would reverse with fox magic and only fox magic. Go ahead and try it.”
Bai Qian agreed with an uncertain smile. She squeezed Ye Hua’s hand lightly before releasing it and walked by herself toward the dark, still waters of Qing Qiu’s lake, remembering its beauty when the pearls hiding within its depths glowed with a radiant light. How was her power supposed to compete with that of Heavenly Father? It didn’t seem possible yet he wouldn’t tell her it would work unless it was true.
Childhood memories engulfed Bai Qian as she stepped to the edge of the shoreline, memories of games she had played with her brothers while swimming and the times her father caught fish for their supper running through her mind. Her fox yipped as she remembered the time she too had caught a fish only to lose it on the way back to the shore. Waterside picnics while listening to her father share his best tales… her mother softly scolding him for distracting Bai Qian away from her food with his many stories… Zhen Zhen’s anger when she had pushed him off the dock into the lake, almost ruining his favorite tunic.
Her legs felt suddenly weak as she kneeled on the edge and gazed out over the once familiar water, listening to the soothing sound of gentle waves lapping against the shore. In this moment, the distant past felt very near and yet farther away than ever. Her fingers trembling, Bai Qian reached out and touched the cool water, sensing the ancient dragon magic dampening the glow of the luminescent pearls. She imagined their light igniting back to life as she pulsed her magic into the lake.
She could feel the change in the energies of the water immediately. Heavenly Father’s power retreated from hers and steadily dissipated. As if a fire had been kindled within its depths, the lake sparkled and glowed once again with a gentle light. Standing and taking a step back, Bai Qian smiled as her apprehension faded. It would be hard work but Qing Qiu could be brought back to its former splendor. The pearls were shining; that was all the evidence she needed.
“I have many fond memories of this lake,” Zhe Yan said, surprising Bai Qian who had been too caught up in the sight before her to notice Zhe Yan was now standing beside her.
“Me, too,” she murmured.
“I’d always hoped to see the lake shining again,” Heavenly Father said as he walked over to stand on Bai Qian’s other side. “I’m pleased to see it.”
“Were you planning to one day remove the spell from the lake even if I had never been found?” she asked quietly. “Or if you found evidence of my death?”
Heavenly Father didn’t answer immediately, carefully considering her question as if he had never seriously entertained the possibility of her death. Had he been that certain she was still alive?
“I don’t think I would have,” he finally answered. “My intention was to ensure the land was always protected but I would have continued allowing it to go back to its natural, uninhabited state which is best accomplished by keeping the pearls hidden so they always remain where they belong.”
Bai Qian nodded before turning to face the ancient Dragon God. “Thank you for protecting Qing Qiu.”
“I was honored to be able to do so,” he answered, giving her a smile that reminded her of Ye Hua’s when he had accomplished something important. “Just as I am honored to have this opportunity to give the land back to you.”
“Wow,” Meixiu said as she and Mo Yuan joined them on the shoreline. “I’ve heard stories about the pearls of Qing Qiu but I never imagined they looked like this. Their light shining from beneath the water is a stunning sight. The stories don’t do them justice.”
“My family spent a lot of time by the lake,” Bai Qian said, feeling proud to share her homeland with the people she now thought of as family. “We would eat meals in the pavilion over there.” She pointed to the wooden structure that was rotting away. “Our friends from the village would sometimes join us.” She turned back to the lake. “I don’t think I appreciated just how unique and beautiful the pearls were when I was a girl. Or how special Qing Qiu was,” she added softly, experiencing a momentary pang of guilt and loss. How many times had she raced by the lake and away from Qing Qiu without paying any notice to her surroundings, taking for granted they would always be there when she wanted? Her fox howled mournfully inside her at this question, acknowledging the answer along with Bai Qian.
Too many times to count.
“It’s a natural part of life to better appreciate that which we have lost and gone without,” Heavenly Mother said, wrapping a comforting arm around Bai Qian’s shoulders. “We all learn that with time and there’s no shame in it. It’s a difficult lesson that can never be wholly avoided. And we all fight that much harder to protect the people and places that we love because of it.”
Heavenly Mother’s words descended over the group and they grew silent as they gazed out over the peaceful water. There was wisdom and reassurance in her words and Bai Qian suspected they all felt it to an extent. Heavenly Mother’s arm dropped from Bai Qian’s shoulders and she stepped closer to her husband as Ye Hua’s arm replaced his mother’s. He pulled her close to him.
“The pearls of the lake are beautiful,” he murmured to her. “I’m proud of you, Qian Qian. I admire your resolve to rebuild Qing Qiu so it doesn’t become lost to time.”
Bai Qian leaned into Ye Hua’s side, finding safety and solace in his devotion and strength along with the determination to protect him and her new family in return.
“Now that the lake is shining again,” Zhe Yan said, “It needs a place where people can sit and enjoy it again. I’d like to rebuild the pavilion, if that’s okay with you Qian Qian. I remember how it used to look. And I can work on repairing the dock too.”
“That’s a great idea,” Bai Qian said with a smile. “Thank you.”
“I’ll help you, Zhe Yan,” Mo Yuan added. He hugged Meixiu and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before following Zhe Yan to the ruins of the pavilion. The two men removed their outer robes to reveal simple pants and tunics, Mo Yuan in blue and Zhe Yan in tan, that were meant for working outside.
“I think I’ll join them,” Heavenly Father said with a chuckle. “It’s been too long since I’ve worked outside to build something with my own two hands and little magic.” His regal formal robes were replaced with tan working clothes similar to Zhe Yan’s; his elaborate hair piece disappeared and was replaced with jade hair pins.
Though Bai Qian thought he now looked less like the ancient Dragon God of the Heavens and more like a common laborer, she noticed his powerful aura still remained in place, revealing his identity.
“How do I look?” he asked Heavenly Mother with a wink.
She grinned at him, both amusement and love apparent in her eyes as she admired her husband. “You haven’t worn anything like that in thousands of years. You look quite handsome in it. Make sure you wear that tonight when we’re alone.”
“Mother!” Ye Hua and Mo Yuan said in unison, sounding embarrassed, before Mo Yuan added, “Please stop.”
“Please,” Ye Hua echoed his brother’s sentiment. Bai Qian stifled a giggle at their reaction to their parents’ open flirting.
“It’s been a while since we’ve embarrassed our boys like that,” Heavenly Father stated, looking pleased with himself and the situation as he shared a look of understanding with his wife. “We should do it more often.”
“Yes,” Heavenly Mother agreed, blowing a kiss at him. Ye Hua groaned. “I’ll see you later,” she added as Heavenly Father turned to join Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan who appeared to be teasing his friend about his parents’ conversation based on the glare Mo Yuan gave him. Zhe Yan just laughed at his expression.
“Thanks for helping,” Zhe Yan said to Heavenly Father.
The trio started to collect and place any wood that was still usable into a pile. They would discard the rest and chop new wood to replace it.
“Let’s go see the village,” Meixiu suggested after a few minutes of watching.
“It’s this way,” Bai Qian said, pointing to a broken stone path leading away from the lake and Fox Den. “What’s left of it, anyway. Most of the structures burned down when the Demons set them on fire.” She hesitated, anger snuffing out her momentary amusement as she remembered first discovering the extent of the destruction when she had once gotten up the courage to go into the village during one of her rare visits to Qing Qiu.
“Are you okay?” Ye Hua asked her softly.
“Yes,” she murmured, still lost in the unwanted memory before she straightened and spoke with more conviction. “Yes. I am now that we are setting things right.”
“Will you walk with me, Qian Qian?” Meixiu asked. “You promised to share some of your favorite memories with me.”
Bai Qian nodded, turned to Ye Hua with a small smile. “Do you mind if I walk with Meixiu?”
“Not at all.” He kissed her. “I’ll be right behind you.”
“Okay. It’s not far.”
Ye Hua’s gaze followed her as she joined Meixiu and started down the path, grinning when he heard Bai Qian laugh at something Meixiu whispered to her. He walked with his mother several steps behind the two women who were now deep in conversation.
“Meixiu is good for Bai Qian,” Heavenly Mother said.
“She is,” Ye Hua agreed. “Not only is she a loyal friend and sister to Qian Qian, Meixiu has also helped her discover the best ways to refine and utilize her strength. And to overcome some of her weaknesses. Mo Yuan made a wise choice when he decided Meixiu should help with Qian Qian’s training.”
Ye Hua glanced at his mother. “You will continue to work with her as well, won’t you Mother? She really took your advice about helping the flowers and peach trees to heart. Your magic nourishes life and I think Qian Qian could excel at it herself with some training.”
“Yes. There are many things I would like to teach her that will help her as Queen of Qing Qiu and the future Empress of the Heavens. But, right now, the defensive skills Meixiu is teaching her are most important.”
“They are important but I hope she never has a need to use them,” Ye Hua responded. “I’m glad she’s learning how to defend against an attack and protect herself. I am… but I don’t intend to let anyone who means her harm anywhere near her. Ever.”
“You can’t be everywhere all at once at all times,” his mother reminded him. “That’s impossible and you know it.”
“You don’t understand how difficult that is to think about. The need to always be there to protect her is a part of my very being now.” He paused, a chill running through him at the thought of Bai Qian coming to harm in any way. Losing her was his greatest fear. “I… I would give my life to keep her safe, Mother,” he added quietly, feeling compelled to voice a truth she wouldn’t want to hear.
“I know you would,” his mother said, her voice soft and sad. “I’ve known that since our discussion that night in the Heavens and I do understand. It makes me so proud of the honorable man you’ve grown into but it also frightens me.”
Ye Hua did not finish his thought as he caught his first look at what remained of the village. There wasn’t much left beyond decaying wood and piles of ash. There were signs of ruin everywhere he looked. It was so complete that it was difficult to even guess the layout of the buildings when they had still been standing. The forest was beginning to reclaim the land; there were pine saplings sprouting up from amidst the rubble and the air no longer carried the scents of civilization. But neither did it carry the scent of fire and death any longer.
Bai Qian and Meixiu had gotten further ahead of him and his mother and were now standing in what had likely been the heart of the village. Ye Hua watched her from a distance, trying to gauge her reaction to the ruins. He could sense the change in her mood as she gazed at the landscape around her and began to move in her direction, thinking to provide her what comfort he could.
The wind shifted, carrying new scents with it. The black dragon growled, both a warning and a threat. This place was not as deserted as it appeared to be. There were others here and there was no way to know whether they were friends or foes. They needed to get to Bai Qian and Hu Mei immediately.
Ye Hua, eyes black with the presence of his dragon, didn’t need to be told twice. He was at Bai Qian’s side in a split second, keeping her close to him as he searched their surroundings for the trespassers. His mother followed a second later without a word, instinctively offering her protection to Bai Qian as she would any of her family. Meixiu had her fan in hand and ready to use if needed. Bai Qian summoned hers to her hand as well.
The black dragon growled again, the threatening rumble filling the air, when the approach of light footsteps through the nearby forest reached them.
The footsteps stopped. Ye Hua tensed, his sheathed sword appearing in his hand.
“Stay here,” he whispered to Bai Qian, knowing Meixiu and his mother would protect her while he investigated.
All senses alert, Ye Hua moved toward the forest with tense steps, ready to draw his sword from its sheath at a second’s notice. At first, he didn’t see anybody. But he knew the person who had been walking towards them was still there. He tensed when he heard movement again.
A person stepped out of the shadows created by the trees. It was a woman, wearing an old, faded yellow dress, her auburn hair plaited in a braid that ran down her back. Her eyes widened with fear as she first met his eyes and then glimpsed the dragon insignia painted on his sword’s sheath, the symbol announcing who he was.
“Crown Prince Ye Hua,” she gasped before dropping to her knees and bowing before him. She looked up but did not meet his eyes this time. “Please forgive me. I did not realize who you were, not until I saw the dragon on your sword.”
Ye Hua relaxed. “There’s no need to ask for forgiveness. You may stand.”
Bai Qian, Meixiu, and his mother approached from behind Ye Hua and he watched the woman’s reaction carefully. Her eyes held awe as Bai Qian stepped next to him and faced the woman.
“Princess Bai Qian,” the young woman cried, recognition and tears of happiness in her eyes. “It’s really you. The rumors are true. You’re alive.”
⇚ Previous part: Ch 49: A Transformation
⇛ Next part: CH 51: One Step Ahead
Can’t wait for the next chapter! So excited 🤗!