Despite having stayed up late, Bai Qian woke very early the next morning, staring up at the shadowed ceiling as she listened to Ye Hua’s steady breathing while he slept next to her. The euphoric mood from the night before had waned overnight and become muted like the soft rain that remained after a raging thunderstorm. She was happy to be betrothed to Ye Hua but her joy was tempered by a myriad of serious thoughts about her upcoming visit to Qing Qiu and the decisions that would need to be made about how to find the traitor. With all the uncertainty hanging over it, she wondered what the new day would bring with it.
“How long have you been awake?” Ye Hua’s quiet voice, still rough from sleep, startled Bai Qian. She hadn’t noticed he was no longer sleeping. How long had she been lost in her thoughts?
“A while,” she murmured, turning her head on the pillow to look at him. He was watching her with worried eyes.
“Is everything okay?”
She nodded, smiling. “Yes. I’m excited about our betrothal.” Her smile faded. “But I’m not sure what to expect today.”
“It will be okay,” Ye Hua told her, kissing her forehead. “Going to Qing Qiu may be difficult at first but in the end, it will all work out. Just as we will beat Weisheng and discover who the traitor is. I’ll make sure of it. I promise.”
“I know.” Bai Qian knew he meant every word just as she also knew there were people and events in this world that Ye Hua had no control over. She thought her mother would have told her his promise was heartfelt and sincere and that was what mattered more than whether it was fulfilled or not when the time came.
“Why don’t you try to get some more rest,” Ye Hua suggested. “I’ll wake you when it’s time to leave Kunlun.”
“What about the meeting with your father and brother?”
“I can tell you what Mo Yuan, Father, and I decide to do if you’d prefer to stay here.”
“No,” Bai Qian responded, getting up out of bed. “I would like to be there.”
“Okay,” Ye Hua agreed, getting up to join her as she dressed.
Bai Qian chose to wear her grey dress. She pulled her hair back into a loose bun and secured it at the nape of her neck with two silver hairpins. She then studied Ye Hua as he changed into a pair of black pants and a dark blue tunic, shamelessly admiring his lean muscular physique to distract her mind away from its troubled thoughts for a few blissful moments. Before leaving the room, they both agreed that today was probably not the best day to announce their betrothal to Ye Hua’s family; they would wait for a more appropriate time. The news would remain a special secret held just between them for now.
Holding Ye Hua’s hand tightly as they walked down the corridor leading to Mo Yuan’s study, Bai Qian glanced around her with curiosity. She had never been in this part of the temple before and she admired some of the paintings that were hanging on the walls to find a sense of calm before turning her attention back to the question at hand.
What were they going to do to find the traitor and get the evidence needed to prove that Weisheng had been lying this whole time about why he had approached her in the Heavens? Was there a way to look at the situation from a different angle? Her father used to always encourage Bai Qian and her brothers to take a step back and try to look at a problem in a completely new way if they were ever struggling to find a solution. The beginnings of an idea took hold. Maybe I shouldn’t be the only one looking back to the past for answers about the traitor.
Mo Yuan was already deep in conversation with his parents when Ye Hua and Bai Qian entered the room. The sight of Heavenly Mother surprised Bai Qian for Ye Hua had not mentioned her name the night before when he had mentioned the meeting to her. She glanced at Ye Hua and saw he was pleased to see his mother had decided to join them, a sentiment likely shared by his brother. Bai Qian knew both Ye Hua and Mo Yuan respected their mother’s opinion on important matters.
Ye Hua and Bai Qain bowed a respectful greeting to Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother before joining them at the table.
“Zhe Yan thinks he’s finally made a breakthrough with the mushrooms from the Demon Realm,” Mo Yuan explained once Bai Qian and Ye Hua were settled. “So he will meet us at Qing Qiu later. Meixiu will meet us later as well. She’s visiting with her grandfather this morning to find out if he’s heard any rumors about the vulture in the last few weeks. I was just explaining to Father and Mother what we found while investigating the bear’s body.”
“Not much,” Ye Hua grumbled before nodding at his brother to continue.
Bai Qian listened as Mo Yuan finished his explanation, providing more details than Ye Hua had last night.
“We need to find a way to flush the traitor out,” Ye Hua said once Mo Yuan had grown quiet. “I’ve asked Jia Yun to keep an ear out for anything suspicious. He’s good at keeping a low profile. But we need to focus more of our attention in the Heavens. We might be able to find him if we have a team of guards searching for him.”
“He will likely go to ground as soon as he catches on to what is happening,” Mo Yuan countered. “He’s obviously skilled at hiding his activities from others and there’s a good chance he will leave the Heavens altogether. Then we lose our opportunity to use him against Weisheng. The quieter we are about this the better.”
“I can give the guards orders to conduct their search in a stealthy manner so they are less likely to be noticed.”
“How many guards do you trust enough to …”
While Ye Hua and Mo Yuan debated the pros and cons of Ye Hua’s plan, Bai Qian wondered if she should mention her idea. She looked at Heavenly Father and found him watching her as if he knew she had some thoughts to share. His expression was urging her to share her idea and she followed his silent advice.
“What about looking back to the past?” she said, interrupting the twins’ debate.
Both Ye Hua and Mo Yuan stopped talking at her suggestion. Heavenly Father looked pleased with her idea. Had he had the same one himself?
“What?” Ye Hua asked.
“Father used to always tell my brothers and me that a problem can be approached in more than one way. We’ve been focusing on the present but this isn’t the first time the traitor has acted. So what about looking back to the time when my family was murdered.” Her voice softened at the mention of her family. “Maybe there’s a way to create a list of possible traitors based on what happened back then.”
Nobody said anything for several minutes as everybody considered her suggestion.
“That just might work,” Mo Yuan said, finally breaking the silence. “I can’t believe we didn’t think of this sooner. Who was in a position to help the demons without being noticed?”
“To get to that answer,” Ye Hua responded, “we should ask how the attack on Qing Qiu was able to happen in the first place. Why didn’t we know it was happening? Weren’t we monitoring the demons’ activities closely by that time?”
“Yes,” Heavenly Father said, joining in the conversation for the first time. Bai Qian was getting the impression he now left a lot of the decision making to his sons when possible. “The military had set up a group of soldiers in charge of surveillance of the demons once we had discovered where they did most of their planning. They were being spied upon often. It altered the course of the war heavily in our favor.”
“So how did we miss their plan to attack Qing Qiu?” Ye Hua asked.
“In the days after the attack, two celestial soldiers were discovered dead near the ruins of the old demon palace,” Mo Yuan answered. “I remember reading about it when I studied the Demon War. The soldiers were part of the surveillance team. It was assumed at the time their presence was discovered by an unfortunate chance and the demons had killed them before they could return to the Heavens and reveal the demons’ plan to attack Bai Zhi and Qing Qiu.” Mo Yuan looked to his father for confirmation.
“That is what happened,” Heavenly Father agreed with remorse in his eyes as he looked at Bai Qian. Anger replaced the regret as he looked away. “Or so I always thought. Had I known otherwise…” His hand clenched into a tight fist.
She remained silent, trying to concentrate on the discussion at hand and not on the events of the night she found her family massacred in the Fox Den. She moved closer to Ye Hua’s side and his hand covered hers.
“Yes. Maybe it wasn’t an unfortunate chance at all,” Mo Yuan said, sudden fury apparent in his hard tone, his expression matching his father’s. “Somebody could have been helping the demons all along and tipped them off to the fact they were being spied upon. Then he could have revealed where the soldiers doing the spying would likely be. After such information, it would have been easy for the demons to locate and kill the two soldiers to hide their plan.”
“Or maybe it was never about helping the demons at all,” Ye Hua added. “Maybe it was always about the traitor helping himself. There are no other times that we know of when the surveillance was discovered by the demons. Wouldn’t there be other examples if he were helping them? And Qian Qian has always said he snuck into the Den after the demons had already left to search for something. It could have been somebody who discovered the attack was going to happen but never told anybody to take advantage of the situation. He could have killed the two soldiers himself.”
“I’m sure he was searching for something,” Bai Qian added, lending support to Ye Hua’s account of what she had witnessed that night. “I’ve thought about what he might have been looking for over and over in recent weeks and I can’t think of anything. But I was just a girl so Father may have possessed something important I never knew about.”
“It’s okay,” Ye Hua reassured her. “I think there’s another way to discover who it was. Whether he was ultimately helping the demons or helping himself doesn’t matter. Either way he had to be somebody who knew all the crucial details of the surveillance program. That must narrow down the list of possible people.”
“It does,” Heavenly Father said. “The program was kept confidential. Only those directly involved with it knew much about what was going on. I made sure of that.” He paused. “A list was drawn up of the soldiers involved in the program after the war was over so they could be commemorated for their role in aiding the war effort.” A pulse of dragon magic swept through the room and a scroll appeared in Heavenly Father’s hand. He handed it to Mo Yuan who unrolled the paper and read over the list of names.
“The program was led by General Jinjing,” Mo Yuan observed. “Only he was a captain at the time. We need to find out how many of the men listed here are still alive and in the Heavens. That will narrow down the suspects further.”
“General Jinjing,” Heavenly Father said in a low voice, suspicion creeping across his face.
“What is it, Father?” Mo Yuan asked, handing the paper to Ye Hua.
“I caught Jinjing loitering around outside Ye Hua’s study in Xiwu Palace not long after Ye Hua had started searching for Bai Qian. I found it a little suspicious but could never pinpoint why. He had a reasonable explanation for being there and I had no reason not to trust him so I let it go. I should have pressed him for more information.”
Ye Hua frowned. “Jinjing approached me one day asking if I needed help with anything. I believe it was outside the Celestial Palace on the day I told Father I had seen Hu Mei… Bai Qian’s fox. Yes…I’m sure of it. It was the same day.”
At the sound of her name, the white fox listened more closely, joining Bai Qian whose attention was already focused on the discussion.
“I didn’t think much about it at the time but…” Ye Hua continued, his voice trailing off.
“But that puts him near the palace when you first revealed there was proof Bai Qian was still alive,” Mo Yuan finished for him, narrowing his eyes. “That’s very convenient, isn’t it?”
“It could be a coincidence,” Heavenly Father pointed out though he didn’t sound like he believed it. It was likely a reminder to everybody not to jump to a conclusion without the evidence to back it up.
“You know how I feel about those,” Mo Yuan said.
“We need to talk to him, Da Ge,” Ye Hua said, fury building in his eyes.
“Yes, but Father is correct that we have no definitive proof,” Mo Yuan responded. “We can’t single him out to accuse him of treason based on what we have.”
“So talk to everybody on the list,” Heavenly Mother said. She had remained silent this whole time but Bai Qian had no doubt she had been just as engaged with the conversation as the participants. “And be sure to also talk to some soldiers that aren’t on the list so you can approach him without revealing you suspect him. That will give you the chance to assess other suspects if it’s not Jinjing.”
“That’s a good idea, Mother,” Ye Hua agreed. “We can send an order asking to speak individually to the soldiers on a list that includes Jinjing and the soldiers from the surveillance program along with others to decrease the chance we put Jinjing on guard.”
Ye Hua turned to Mo Yuan. “Da Ge? What do you think? They’re soldiers so the orders should come from you.”
“I think it’s a sound plan. It’s the best lead we’ve had so far. I’ll get started on the missives right away so I can send them before we leave for Qing Qiu.”
The order from Mo Yuan was waiting for Jinjing when he returned to his room midmorning.
He had been awake early that day to help train the military recruits. All the generals participated in the training of new soldiers, taking turns teaching them how to succeed in the military and what was expected of them along with basic combat. Jijing would be in charge of them for the next few months. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time; he didn’t need the distraction when he was trying to solidify his plans to ensure Bai Qian was captured and that Weisheng’s rebellion succeeded. Things were beginning to fall into place and he needed as much time for planning as he could get.
With that in mind, he had assigned the trainees skills they could practice on their own that morning so he could update Weisheng. The updates only revealed what little he felt he needed to share to avoid raising Weisheng’s suspicions. The Demon King still believed he was running things and it suited Jinjing’s needs to have him continue to believe that was true. So Jinjing was sending him updates whenever he could sneak the missives out of the Heavens. He had discovered a place that allowed him to magically send the letters without alerting the guards. As long as he didn’t use it too often, he could avoid attracting attention to himself.
Jinjing was feeling confident that morning when he entered his quarters. The missive had been sent successfully and he had taken some time to continue his research into fox magic. The one problem he still hadn’t solved was how to get to Bai Qian while she remained on Kunlun Mountain. He intended to work on that question today until it was time to return to the trainee soldiers.
He didn’t notice the letter sitting there until he had changed out of his training gear and taken a seat at his desk. The paper was folded neatly and was sealed with the royal dragon symbol pressed into red wax. His name was written on it. He stared at it with building trepidation.
Sweat broke out across his brow and panic sent his heart dropping into the pit of his stomach when he recognized Mo Yuan’s handwriting.
Jinjing reached for the paper with shaking hands, feeling weak with dread. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. There are a million reasons Mo Yuan could be contacting me. He tried to convince himself that was true as he broke the seal and opened the missive.
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