The familiar scent of lotus flowers greeted Ye Hua when he appeared in a quiet and secluded nook located in the middle of the Blessed Water Gardens. The spot had an area of soft grass with a raised bed of yellow flowers and was hidden from view when walking along any of the main pathways leading between the large ponds of calm, fragrant water. Few citizens of the Heavens knew of its location and the many visitors who would come to the Heavens to meditate and find inner peace among the lotus flowers rarely stumbled upon it. It had been one of his favorite places to paint when he was a boy.
There had been one visitor who had managed to find the small nook with ease he remembered as his eyes were drawn to the place he had always preferred to sit while painting. Bai Qian.
Ye Hua only remembered bits and pieces of his one other encounter with Bai Qian before today. It had happened so long ago. He had been working on a painting of red and pink lotus flowers to give to his mother when the Fox Princess had interrupted him, spilling paint all over the paper and ruining the painting. The one detail that did stick out in his mind was how fiercely she had stood up for herself against him and Mo Yuan. She had seemed ready to do battle with both of them if she needed to. Her bold and fearless attitude in the past made a striking contrast to the terrified white fox that had run from him in the peach tree forest today.
But then, her life had taken a traumatic and tragic turn since that day here in the lotus gardens. Was it possible to unearth that same girl hiding somewhere within the frightened woman? Was she still there? It was a question Ye Hua wanted to explore and find the answer to. If he could only figure out a way to reassure her he meant her no harm so she would no longer run from him.
He started walking toward his father’s palace, his feet following the winding path without him even having to think about where he was going. He knew the shortcut from the lotus gardens to the Celestial Palace very well. Ye Hua forgot all about keeping a stern frown and glare on his face as he hurried through the Heavens, oblivious to the respectful greetings from those around him. He didn’t notice the way many of the people he passed stopped to gawk when they caught sight of him, the Crown Prince wearing cobalt blue mortal realm robes and an open, thoughtful expression.
Did he still have the ruined lotus flower painting? Ye Hua thought he might; he wasn’t the most organized member of his family. He remembered receiving a new wooden chest to store his paintings in around that same time. As he’d been eager to fill the chest, he may have thrown the painting in there instead of discarding it, intending to practice correcting the mistake with his magic before forgetting all about it. If he did still have it, he wondered if he could use it as a way to reach out to Bai Qian.
Approaching the polished stone stairway leading up to the entrance of the Celestial Palace, a new question occurred to Ye Hua and he stopped just short of reaching the stairs. Had his dragon felt an attachment to Bai Qian back when they had met as children? Ye Hua struggled to play his argument with Bai Qian that day in his mind, trying to remember more details. He frowned. He could recall nothing about his dragon reacting to Bai Qian then. The black dragon would not have seen her as a threat so he would have likely ignored her, but something about that answer felt wrong to Ye Hua.
He prodded his dragon for an answer to the question, wondering how much the beast remembered about that day. The black dragon ignored him. Ye Hua tried again to nudge a response from his dragon, receiving the equivalent of a cold shoulder when the beast moved away from him and retreated further inside. Ye Hua’s frown deepened. He could barely feel the black dragon’s presence inside him now; it threw all his senses off balance and caused a strange and lonely emptiness to settle within him. He had never experienced a day with his dragon so subdued before.
“Is everything okay, Your Highness?”
The gruff voice addressing him startled Ye Hua’s awareness back to his present surroundings, reminding him he had been on his way to speak with his father. How long had he been standing there doing nothing more than stare as his thoughts were focused inward?
Ye Hua kept his expression neutral as he turned his attention to the obtrusive figure of the man standing next to him. A smirk partially hidden by a thick, coarse beard and moustache along with cunning eyes met Ye Hua’s gaze as he responded to the man respectfully saluting him.
“Everything is fine, General Jinjing.”
Ye Hua’s eyes looked over the general’s shoulder to find several people had stopped to watch him with curiosity. Narrowing his gaze into a subtle glare, Ye Hua watched them jump and hasten along their way. Amusement briefly swept aside any embarrassment he may have felt at having been caught with his mind wandering. Even without his severe black robes, Ye Hua had the ability to intimidate people into minding their own business and staying out of his.
“May I be of some assistance, Crown Prince?”
Waiting until all the gawkers were gone, Ye Hua finally turned his attention back to General Jinjing.
“I have no need for your help, General. I’m here to speak with my father.” Ye Hua made sure his tone was firm to discourage further interest from the other man. “That will be all.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
Ye Hua swept passed General Jinjing without acknowledging the man’s polite bow. He hurried up the steps. Anybody watching Ye Hua’s fast progress would have been reminded of the way he and Mo Yuan always raced up the stairs when they were boys, eager to see who could climb them the quickest.
Nodding his head briefly at the guards stationed on either side of the doorway when they greeted him, Ye Hua hastened across the empty throne room and down the hall to Heavenly Father’s private study. He hoped his father was working there alone so he could go ahead and reveal to his father that he’d found Bai Qian There were no guards positioned near the closed door, a good sign his father was alone.
The study door swung open before Ye Hua’s fist could make contact with the wood to knock. Ye Hua stepped across the threshold, closing the door behind him. Dressed in dignified robes of scarlet and gold, Heavenly Father was indeed alone, seated at his desk under the dragon carving gracing the wall.
“Father.” Ye Hua addressed his father with a polite tone and respectful bow.
“Come join me, Ye Hua. I was just about to drink some tea.” Heavenly Father’s expression was welcoming as he beckoned his son over to sit with him.
Ye Hua climbed the small dais and took a seat across from his father without saying anything about Bai Qian yet. He wanted to make sure they would not be interrupted before sharing the news with his father. He found himself looking out the window overlooking his mother’s private gardens as he considered the best way to describe what had happened over the last couple of months, this being the first time he had anything of importance to share with his father concerning the search. There had been no reason to speak with him about it before now. Several minutes of comfortable silence passed before Heavenly Father’s calm voice broke the quiet in the room.
“Are you alright, Ye Hua?”
Turning his attention away from the peaceful day outside, Ye Hua noticed his father had been studying him closely while his attention had been directed elsewhere. He realized Heavenly Father’s own dragon must be able to sense only silence coming from the black dragon and was concerned about him. Ye Hua wasn’t sure what to say.
He considered telling his father all about the black dragon’s possessive attitude when thinking about the white fox and his unusually strong attachment to her since beginning the search. He wanted an explanation and he expected his father could provide one but he hesitated to say anything. A strong bond of trust existed between Ye Hua and his dragon. The black dragon had retreated too far inside Ye Hua to be aware of what was currently happening, and Ye Hua didn’t want to break the trust between them by speaking about such personal things without the black dragon’s knowledge.
In the end, Ye Hua chose not reveal his dragon’s turmoil and simply reassured his father there was no need for him to worry.
The arrival of a palace maid with a steaming pot of green tea prevented Heavenly Father from pursuing the topic any further if he had wanted to. Ye Hua waited until the maid had summoned a second cup, poured tea for them both, and was leaving the room before speaking.
“I found her, Father.”
The sound of the door closing behind the maid prompted Ye Hua to erect a privacy barrier around his father’s study when Heavenly Father made no move to do so himself so they could continue their discussion without interruption. He waited for a response, surprised when his father did not immediately say anything. The cup of hot tea in Heavenly Father’s hand shook the tiniest bit, spilling some of the burning liquid onto his fingers, before he placed it back on the surface of the desk without taking a sip. Ye Hua frowned with worry as he noticed the rare slip in his father’s calm composure.
“What did you just say?” Heavenly Father’s voice was hardly more than a whisper but Ye Hua heard him clearly.
“Bai Qian is still alive, Father. I saw her this morning.”
Heavenly Father’s tense posture eased away and he released a pent-up breath as if a heavy weight had suddenly been lifted from his shoulders. He lowered his gaze to look down at the wooden surface before him, no longer able to meet Ye Hua’s eyes. Ye Hua grew more worried when his father remained silent, simply staring down at the desk. He could see his father’s hand trembling once again where it rested next to his forgotten cup. He had never seen his father so overcome with emotion that he needed to struggle to rein it in. He had no idea how to react to the vulnerable display before him. His father was always in complete control of himself.
Ye Hua reached across the space between them to place his hand on his father’s shoulder, feeling awkward with the gesture but wanting to provide some comfort if he could. Afterall, his father had always been a steadfast source of support for both him and Mo Yuan when it had been needed. He could feel a slight tremor coming from the strong shoulder beneath his palm.
“Are you alright, Father?” Ye Hua asked, his voice filled with concern like his father’s had been when he’d asked him the same question.
Taking a deep breath to compose himself, Heavenly Father shrugged off Ye Hua’s hand. Ye Hua kept it hovering over his father’s shoulder with indecision a moment longer before he finally pulled it back. He watched his father closely. Should he go find his mother? She would know exactly what to do for this situation.
“I’m fine, Ye Hua.”
Ye Hua remained unconvinced until his father finally looked up and met his gaze. Heavenly Father’s face was as calm and controlled as ever but Ye Hua thought he could see the slight sheen of unshed tears in his father’s eyes, something else he had never seen before. He finally understood how desperately Heavenly Father had wanted Bai Qian to still be alive.
“That is wonderful news.” Heavenly Father’s voice was strong and sure and Ye Hua could see his hand was steady now as he watched his father lift the cup of tea to take a sip. “I had almost given up hope of ever finding Bai Qian. How is she? She’s been all alone and I worry that…”
Ye Hua waited as his father’s voice trailed off but Heavenly Father did not finish the thought, a new sadness now apparent in his expression. Ye Hua realized his father suspected the answer to his own question. So much of his father’s focus had been spent on finding Bai Qian that he had not given as much thought to what would happen afterwards if she were to be found. The answer would have been simple if she had been located soon after the murder of her family. She would have been raised in the Heavens alongside Ye Hua and Mo Yuan until she was old enough to move back to Qing Qiu on her own. Now that fifty thousand years had passed, the situation with Bai Qian had become a lot more complicated.
“Physically, she appeared unharmed.” Ye Hua finally answered his father’s question, revealing much by what he left unsaid.
Heavenly Father nodded thoughtfully in response. “We need to bring her here to the Heavens. She can move into one of the smaller guest rooms in a remote area of the palace. I won’t announce her presence to anyone. That way she can have some privacy while she adapts to life outside the forest. Your mother can help her get settled. When Bai Qian’s ready, there is much I need to discuss with her but I know she will need time to adjust.”
“I’m afraid it’s not going to be that easy, Father,” Ye Hua explained, realizing his father hadn’t understood the full magnitude of the situation. How could he when he had not seen and felt what Ye Hua had? “She’s terrified of me and won’t let me get anywhere near her. I’m not sure if she will let anyone get near her.”
Ye Hua hurried to explain everything he had experienced in the peach tree forest to his father. A look of grave concern settled on his father’s face as he listened and Ye Hua hoped he would have a suggestion for how to coax Bai Qian to come out of hiding.
Wrapped within a concealment spell to mask his presence, Jinjing stood right outside the door to the maids’ quarters, intently listening to the gossip taking place within the room. The young women were busy speculating over the identity of the mysterious “her” the handsome Crown Prince had discovered and what the revelation might mean. A wide variety of different candidates were being tossed around as the women were largely convinced a royal engagement would soon be announced. The idea was met with mournful sighs of longing and envy from many.
It never ceased to astound Jinjing how so many royal families forgot to guard their words when their servants were in the room with them. While Heavenly Father was much better than most at protecting his family’s secrets, Jinjing had found the servants’ living quarters were still some of the best places to gather information within the Heavens. One only needed to know how to pick out the bits of truth from all the assumptions.
Jinjing continued listening for several minutes, hoping the maid had overheard more than the one sentence she had already revealed from when she had been serving Heavenly Father and the Crown Prince tea. Much to his disappointment, the conversation deteriorated into giggling debate about the Crown Prince’s prowess and stamina in the bedchamber along with wild conjecture on the size of certain crucial parts of his body.
He moved away from the doorway with a frown and irritated shake of his head to walk back to his private rooms near the Celestial Palace. It was clear he would learn nothing more.
Still, he felt uneasy by the little he had heard. While the maids were convinced the Crown Prince had chosen his future wife and empress, Jinjing worried Ye Hua had discovered Bai Qian’s whereabouts instead. For he had always known with absolute certainty that the Fox Princess still lived and the possibility she might one day be found had been a fear hanging over his head for fifty thousand years. She was the one person who could place him in the Fox Den the night of the Bai family massacre which would ruin everything he had worked for.
If only the Phoenix King’s soldiers hadn’t arrived at the Fox Den so quickly that night. The terror in the air along with the sight of the fluffy tip of one of her white fox tails not quite hidden from view had given her away. He had only needed a few more minutes to help her join the rest of her family in death. It would have been the best outcome for everybody but he had never gotten the chance to see it through.
He remembered waiting anxiously after the war, convinced the search parties sent out to find Bai Qian would be successful in locating her. But they had all failed and Jinjing had relaxed as he realized Bai Qian had truly run away from her life and was choosing to stay away. Her choice had suited his purposes perfectly. As long as she stayed in hiding, Jinjing had no reason to try and silence her. He had never been a violent man beyond what his military career demanded. Even then, his talents had often been utilized for gathering knowledge about the enemy more than for actual combat.
Luckily, Jinjing had made a vast network of friends over the years. One of those friends happened to be part of King Zhao Hui’s personal guard. He had shared the rumored sighting of a white nine-tailed fox in the peach tree forest with Jinjing over a shared jug of wine. Instantly, Jinjing had gone on high alert as the possibility of his past coming back to haunt him became more likely. It was no secret Heavenly Father had long wanted to find Bai Qian and Jinjing knew it was no coincidence Ye Hua had been tasked with doing a personal favor for his father so soon after the rumor had surfaced.
And now it seemed the Crown Prince had succeeded where so many others had failed. He had found Princess Bai Qian after all these years.
Jinjing lowered the concealment spell around him only once he had stepped through the threshold to his bedchamber. He lifted a privacy barrier around the room and turned to his desk, planning his next move. He needed to be cautious. He could risk revealing everything himself by acting before he had more information so he would bide his time to see how things developed even though the idea of remaining idle grated on his nerves. But he had no idea if Bai Qian remembered the events of that night clearly. It had been dark inside the Fox Den and she had been terrified. If she didn’t remember, he had nothing to worry about.
If she did…well, he should take a few precautions just in case. He knew of one other person who may be interested in finding out whether Bai Qian would actually return to immortal society or not, a person more than capable of taking care of the problem should Bai Qian start to reveal more about that night than she should. He would never even have to get his hands dirty if he played his cards just right.
Jinjing had never met Weisheng nor communicated with him. Would he be receptive to the information if Jinjing sent the news of Bai Qian’s possible whereabouts his way? Would he even care? Weisheng’s father had sought to destroy the entire Bai family and all of Qing Qiu in retaliation for their alliance with the Heavens. Did Weisheng harbor the desire to finish his father’s blood-soaked quest for revenge? There was only one way to find out.
Jinjing grabbed a blank scroll and took a seat at his desk to write a secret missive to the Demon King.
⇛ Next part: Ch 12: Making Plans
⇚ Previous part: Ch 10: Know Your Enemy