Wearing a solemn expression and a slate-grey robe to match his serious thoughts, Ye Hua approached the small shrine outside the Fox Den with quiet footsteps. He noticed the oppressive heaviness in the air Zhe Yan had pointed out to him this time when he had not felt it previously. It weighed him down. The sight of the deserted Fox Den seemed even more tragic now that he knew Bai Qian was still alive and living a lonely existence in the forest.
Why did he feel so compelled to come here this morning? He should be meeting Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan in the peach tree forest right now but something had pulled him toward Qing Qiu instead.
Kneeling a respectfully before the memorial, Ye Hua studied the portrait of the Bai family and the jade token bearing the image of a nine-tailed fox next to it. He imagined Bai Qian taking special care as she placed the image of her family in its safe spot, tears trailing down her cheeks as she honored her family’s memory with love and grief in her heart.
Had Bai Qian ventured into the Fox Den to collect the jade token and candle? Ye Hua frowned at the thought. She should not have had to enter her family’s den all alone after what had happened there. Somebody should have been with her, providing her solace and support.
We should have been with her and the fox, protecting them.
The black dragon’s thought surfaced inside Ye Hua’s mind and he found himself agreeing with his dragon silently. The next time Bai Qian visited this place, Ye Hua would make sure she didn’t do so alone even if it meant he had to watch over her from a distance so as not to frighten her. He would be there with her.
How often did she come here?
Eyes moving to the pile of peach blossoms, Ye Hua realized Bai Qian had not been back to the Fox Den since that day he had discovered the shrine. The peach blossoms were dried out and faded, no trace of their fragrance lingering in the air. It appeared she had not replenished them yet. Because of him? Had his presence in her forest frightened her so much she no longer felt safe venturing out to visit her family’s memorial?
The possibility he had inadvertently cut Bai Qian off from this last connection with her family didn’t sit well with Ye Hua. Scaring her to that extent had never been his intention; it made his quest to find a way to reach out to her feel more important than ever.
With sudden clarity, Ye Hua now understood why he was here. If the souls of her family remained in Qing Qiu, unable to rest in peace, and they very well may after dying in such a violent way, they must be very worried about Bai Qian’s safety and future happiness. He had promised his father and Zhe Yan he would help Bai Qian but he had not given those same reassurances to the ones who loved her most, her family.
Summoning a jade dragon figurine to his hand, an honored gift reserved for only the closest friends and allies of the Heavens, Ye Hua turned his full attention to the Bai family portrait. Before speaking, Ye Hua spent several minutes in meditative silence, reflecting on all the good Bai Zhi and his family had brought to the Immortal Realms before their untimely deaths.
“Try not to worry about Bai Qian,” he said aloud, breaking the quiet of the hushed morning as he spoke mostly to Bai Zhi’s image and that of his wife in the portrait. Bai Qian’s parents would be the ones most concerned about her. “I will help her find her way out of the forest and into her place in this world… a safe place where she can be happy. I…”
Ye Hua hesitated but his dragon prodded him to continue, insisting that Ye Hua speak the words he was thinking aloud. “I… We will take care of her, my dragon and I.” The black dragon growled his agreement inside Ye Hua, pleased to be included in the promise to his fox’s family. The vow felt right to Ye Hua even if he didn’t quite know exactly what it might mean.
Taking care not to disturb the memorial in any way, Ye Hua placed the jade dragon close to the small, sheltered nook Bai Qian had chosen to protect her family’s memory. His gift to both honor the Bai family and show the sincerity behind his words was visible but he did not want to make it a part of the shrine itself without asking Bai Qian first. Its place outside of the nook would have to do for the time being.
Offering a silent prayer for the deceased Fox God and his family, Ye Hua lowered himself into a bow, his forehead close to the ground. He stayed in that position for several minutes out of respect before lifting back up and standing. The air around him felt lighter now, the atmosphere of Qing Qiu more peaceful. Was it just his imagination? Ye Hua couldn’t say for sure but he chose to take the positive change as a sign his message had been well received.
Walking away from the Fox Den without looking back, Ye Hua faded out of view and disappeared to meet up with his brother and Zhe Yan.
“Over here, Ye Hua!”
The sound of Zhe Yan’s cheerful voice greeted Ye Hua when he arrived at the small clearing and its deserted cabin in the peach tree forest, their agreed upon meeting place. Not seeing any immediate sign of his friend or his brother, Ye Hua followed the sound to find Zhe Yan and Mo Yuan studying some trees behind the cabin. They turned at his approach, Zhe Yan’s flowing amber robe a sharp contrast to Mo Yuan’s more subdued cerulean.
“I was just telling Mo Yuan the peaches from different trees in the forest have subtle variations in flavor. Isn’t that incredible? Both of you should try some of them. You’ll never taste a sweeter peach. They will be perfect for making an assortment of wines. When your mother has some time, I would like for her to assess the health of the trees. Do you think she would mind?”
“You know Mother loves caring for plants,” Ye Hua answered as he joined his brother and Zhe Yan near the forest edge. He could tell Zhe Yan was nervous about the possibility of finally reaching out to Bai Qian by the way he was so focused on the peaches. “She won’t mind. I will ask her the next time I see her.”
“You’re late,” Mo Yuan pointed out dryly, catching Ye Hua’s attention before Zhe Yan could respond.
“I know, Da Ge.” Ye Hua offered his brother a rueful smile in apology. “Sorry. I had to take care of something I had forgotten to do. It was important.”
Mo Yuan lifted an eyebrow in question at the vague excuse, scrutinizing his brother. “Something you forgot?”
“It was nothing really,” Ye Hua responded, waving it off as unimportant, seemingly contradicting himself without realizing it.
Ye Hua’s dismissive tone only made Mo Yuan study his twin closer. Ye Hua may keep his surroundings more cluttered and disorganized than Mo Yuan preferred but Ye Hua kept careful track of all his responsibilities. He never forgot to do things.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that, Da Ge?”
“No reason,” Mo Yuan answered, deciding to let the topic go for now. He gestured around the clearing, taking in their surroundings, his guqin in its leather case appearing in his other hand. Heavenly Mother had passed the instrument down to him when he had been a young boy. “Is this where you would like for me to play?”
“It’s the most central location in the forest,” Zhe Yan said, joining the conversation again. “It’s the best place to play so the music can reach many different areas. We don’t know where in the forest Bai Qian is right this minute.”
Ye Hua shook his head. “No. We’re too out in the open here. If Bai Qian wants to come closer to listen, she needs some good places to hide. Otherwise, she will keep her distance from us.” He looked around, deciding the best place would be down one of the paths leading away from the cabin instead. “This way.”
Walking toward one of the smaller pathways through the forest, Ye Hua assessed his dragon’s reaction carefully as Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan followed him. Not trusting his dragon’s volatile mood when it came to Bai Qian, Ye Hua wanted to make sure the black dragon was comfortable with his friend and brother being near while in Bai Qian’s forest. So far, the black dragon had not voiced any complaints to the plan.
The black dragon was quiet inside him but Ye Hua could feel his dragon’s attention to what was going on around him increase with every step, becoming more alert as they drew closer to where they had seen Bai Qian. The black dragon’s protective and possessive instincts were flowing freely through both him and Ye Hua by the time they reached the shaded spot Ye Hua had decided would be best.
“I think here is best,” he explained, summoning three cushions for them to use, as Zhe Yan and Mo Yuan stopped next to him. “We’re still near the center of the forest but there’s good cover for Bai Qian. And this is close to where I saw her that day.”
Settling on his cushion near Zhe Yan, Ye Hua used his cultivation to tweak the pressure in the atmosphere of the forest, stirring up a gentle wind to help better carry the sound from Mo Yuan’s instrument through the trees. He watched as Mo Yuan summoned a small table to place his guqin on, wincing when he heard the off key chord Mo Yuan played with a pluck of the silk strings, a clear indicator his brother hadn’t played the instrument in recent years. He used to always keep his guqin tuned.
“You’ve really lost your touch, Mo Yuan,” Zhe Yan teased when Mo Yuan made an adjustment but the chord was still off key when he played it. “You used to play much better than that.”
Ye Hua laughed at his brother’s expression. “The goal is to play something nice for Bai Qian, Da Ge, not to chase her away.”
Ignoring them both, Mo Yuan frowned at the instrument before him as he concentrated on making small changes to the tightness of the silk strings, plucking each one to test the pitch and tonality after every adjustment. Soon, the aura of the forest resonated with the deep, rich tone of the guqin when Mo Yuan finished tuning it. He plucked the strings, playing the opening chords of a bawdy drinking song the three of them used to sing together before facing Ye Hua and Zhe Yan with a pleased grin, daring either of them to say anything further about the sound of his rusty playing.
“You were saying?” Mo Yuan asked with a lifted brow, playing more notes of the naughty tune to make his point.
“Ah…that’s a great song,” Zhe Yan said with a chuckle, a fond smile on his face now. “But probably not appropriate to play in this setting.”
“Not that Bai Qian would know the words to it,” he added with a shake of his head before his expression sobered. “You should play something softer for her instead, Mo Yuan.”
“Play Mother’s lullaby, Da Ge,” Ye Hua urged in a quiet voice, feeling his dragon tense when he seemed to suddenly sense Bai Qian nearby, convincing himself he might even be able to detect the subtle scent of fox mixed in with the sweet peach fragrance of the forest. Ye Hua couldn’t explain how he knew it but he felt she was in distress and needed to be comforted. He was sure of it. A more soothing song than the beautiful one their mother had composed and played to calm him and Mo Yuan as infants didn’t exist; Ye Hua could think of nothing better to play for Bai Qian right then.
“That’s a great idea,” Zhe Yan responded as Mo Yuan nodded his agreement.
Positioning his hands to play the first note, Mo Yuan didn’t miss the abrupt change that had come over his brother. He watched as Ye Hua inhaled to scent the air, his eyes growing darker as the black dragon moved forward to better guard the area. As he plucked the strings of the ancient instrument before him, Mo Yuan could feel the black dragon’s increased vigilance. There was a protective aura surrounding Ye Hua that had not been there earlier, an aura that was coming from both Ye Hua and his dragon. Was Ye Hua even aware of it?
Bai Qian must be near.
Missing the next note with the realization, Mo Yuan covered the mistake well and continued to play, scenting the air himself and sampling the atmosphere for changes. He sensed nothing other than the peach tree forest and the cultivation of his friend and that of his brother. His dragon sensed nothing. And Zhe Yan gave no sign he noticed anything different. How did Ye Hua and the black dragon know Bai Qian was there? Mo Yuan suspected they were attuned to her in some way. What did it mean?
Reaching the key change which led to a more complicated portion of the soothing song, Mo Yuan turned his full attention to the movement of his hands and fingers along the silk strings, allowing the spirit of the familiar lullaby to fill and calm him as he played.
Dismayed to find there were now two Dragon Gods in her forest, Bai Qian crouched behind a large rock she found nestled between the trunks of two trees. She tucked her tails close to her body, ensuring she was completely hidden from view, as she watched the three men walk along the pathway near her hiding spot. Three of them! She had not expected this at all when she had set out this morning to observe Ye… the vexing man further.
She had felt the change in her forest when Ye Hua and Zhe Yan had arrived. Why hadn’t she detected the third man earlier? Was he concealing his magic and scent with a barrier? What was Ye… the vexing man up to this time? Hadn’t he learned his lesson yesterday with that ridiculous charade of his? He didn’t seem to know when to quit.
Always curious about Ye Hua and what he was doing, the white fox urged Bai Qian to find out. Bai Qian didn’t disagree with her fox this time, feeling more annoyed than anything else with the vexing man’s new scheme, whatever it was.
On silent paws, she crept a little closer to the men when they stopped, finding a dense bush to hide behind, testing the magic of the forest as she did. The dragon essence disrupting the energy of her forest definitely felt stronger than normal this morning so the new dragon wasn’t concealing his cultivation. But Bai Qian couldn’t find a distinction between the new dragon’s power and that of Ye Hua. Confused, Bai Qian studied the men. How could that be? There were always differences in an individual’s cultivation compared to others, even among siblings.
Lifting her muzzle slightly, her nose twitching, Bai Qian sampled the scents of the forest. She ignored the sweet scent of the peach blossoms and the fiery scent of phoenix, focusing all her attention on the thunderstorm scent of dragon. Was there a difference between the two? There should be.
Closing her eyes, Bai Qian felt her fox move forward inside her to help detect any small scent changes. There was a difference in the thunderstorm scent of dragon this morning, she realized. It was more balanced. She hadn’t realized Ye Hua’s… the vexing man’s scent carried more lightning than rain until now. The difference was very subtle. The dragons’ scents were almost the same but the new dragon’s scent carried more rain than lightning. When together, the smell of lightning and rain were the same.
A discordant sound jarred Bai Qian out of her thoughts, her eyes opening to find the three men seated in the middle of the pathway. Her sensitive ears flattened when the unpleasant noise repeated itself. Now what? Why did the vexing man seem so determined to disrupt the peace of her forest all of the time?
Turning to move further away from the men to escape the grating noise, the sound of teasing and masculine laughter reached Bai Qian’s ears, changing her mind. She crept closer when the laughter and conversation continued, drawn to the happy sound despite her irritation and misgivings; it reminded her of time spent with friends and family long ago. She was relieved to hear the sounds coming from the string instrument in front of the new dragon were becoming less unpleasant as well.
Finally noticing the similarities in the appearance of Ye Hua and the new man as she moved to her new hiding spot, Bai Qian’s eyes widened in surprise as she looked back and forth between their faces. She had guessed they were siblings earlier based on their scents and strange matching cultivations but she hadn’t expected them to look so alike. If the facial hair of the one were removed, they would look identical.
Twins. The word formed in her mind and Bai Qian’s eyes narrowed with sudden recognition, huffing her annoyance softly as the tips of her tails twitched. The rude Dragon Princes. She couldn’t believe it. What were they doing here? They were supposed to be in the Heavens.
Turning her eyes in Ye Hua’s direction, Bai Qian glared at him. Which one was he?
Bai Qian now understood why the name Ye Hua sounded so familiar to her. No wonder the vexing man prowled around her forest, acting like it belonged to him. He probably thought it did! And that explained why he irritated her so much now that her fear of him had lessened. Was he the one who…?
A familiar cheerful tune played through the forest, interrupting Bai Qian’s silent tirade against Ye Hua. She turned her attention back to the other dragon who was now wearing a pleased grin. Bai Qian couldn’t remember the other twin’s name but she recognized the song he was playing, the instrument now tuned properly, thank goodness. She was sure it was the one her two oldest brothers used to hum, always refusing to share the words with her and Si Ge.
The tune brought back fond memories and Bai Qian settled in, tucking her paws underneath her, hoping the three men would sing the song so she could finally learn the words. The mystery would be solved. Si Ge would be so happy….
Whining softly in her throat, Bai Qian’s ears drooped with despair and she felt tears well up in her eyes as she remembered her brother would never know the words. Never. And she would never again hear the sound of her brothers humming the song while they shared a jug of wine between them, refusing to voice the words when she was around because they always knew when she was spying on them. Never again.
How could she have forgotten their deaths for even a brief second like that? And, yet, Bai Qian had. For one small moment, she thought she could just run home and share the secret of the song with her Si Ge. That she could sing it out loud in front of her oldest brothers, showing them that despite their best efforts she had learned the words anyway.
The word brought such finality with it and it carried fear along behind it. Bai Qian suddenly found it difficult to breathe, her heart racing as she struggled to bring air into her lungs. She was closed in here, cornered. She needed to get away. But she couldn’t run. They would see her. What would the dragons do to her if they caught her?
Ignoring her fox’s attempts to reach her and calm her, Bai Qian started to vanish into herself, wanting to escape the horrible thoughts assailing her.
A gentle melody resonated through the forest, reaching Bai Qian and halting her retreat into nothingness. The haunting music washed over her and soothed the panic away, leading Bai Qian back to the present and away from the terrible memories of the past. Then the calm notes coaxed pleasant memories out into the open instead, evoking the love she used to feel when her mother held her tightly after a bad nightmare, the warmth of her father healing her scraped knee after a fall. Finally, all memories fled her mind and quiet peace settled inside her.
Turning her eyes to Ye Hua again as the music faded, Bai Qian found herself thinking of the warm sensation of calm his cultivation gave her as she touched it. That soothing sensation reminded Bai Qian of the feel of the song she had just heard, that and so much more she was unable to describe properly.
Then a happy, fast tune filled the area, reminiscent of the playful songs she used to listen to when attending the festivals in Baihu Village with her family. The memories were with Bai Qian again but she no longer felt the same panic encroaching on her as she had before. Instead she felt the urge to dance, something she hadn’t experienced in a long time. Somehow, the soothing song had chased the panic away and left her feeling content and happy.
The white fox jumped with excitement at the feeling, joy filling her as she listened to the music. Bai Qian also enjoyed hearing the music, tapping her tails in time with the beat of each melody as one song led into the next and then the next. The happy moment continued for quite a while until the pleasant music was disrupted when Ye Hua decided to loudly sing the words at the end of one of the songs, a folk song Bai Qian had sung with the villagers of Baihu many times.
Flattening her ears once again, Bai Qian winced with amusement, nodding her silent agreement when she heard Zhe Yan speak up. Ye Hua… the vexing man was completely tone deaf.
“Stop, Ye Hua!” Zhe Yan protested again with a laugh. “You’re ruining the lovely sound of Mo Yuan’s music.”
“Hey! I don’t sound that bad.”
“Yes, you do,” both Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan responded in unison, Zhe Yan laughing when Ye Hua growled at both of them.
Bai Qian, once again, nodded her agreement, baring her sharp teeth in a smile, albeit an awkward one while in her fox form. The vexing man should never sing.
The teasing insults and arguing between them continued, reminding Bai Qian of what it felt like to be surrounded by close friends and family. She missed that feeling. Her fox longed to join in on the fun for real, and while Bai Qian resisted the idea of leaving her safe spot, she felt that same longing her fox now often felt when Ye Hua was near more strongly herself. She was forced to admit there was something tempting about watching Zhe Yan and the rude Dragon Princes have fun like this. How would they respond if she revealed her presence to them, if she just stood up and took a seat in between Zhe Yan and Ye Hua?
She would never do such a thing; she shouldn’t ever do something like that. Bai Qian knew this, but she couldn’t help but wonder what their reactions would be if she made such a bold move. Her eyes moved to Ye Hua’s face, watching as a sneaky expression appeared there. What would Ye Hua… what would the vexing man do if she just sat right next to him? Her head tilted with curiosity. And why did he suddenly look like he was up to something?
“Where did you find that thing?” Mo Yuan muttered with shocked irritation at the sudden and unwelcome sight of his old bamboo flute in Ye Hua’s hand. “I thought I threw that away.”
“Mother rescued it,” Ye Hua responded with an amused grin. He tried to hand it over to Mo Yuan but his brother staunchly refused to accept it. “I thought you knew.”
“Come on, Da Ge,” he urged, trying to pass it to Mo Yuan again who glared at him.
“You know I dislike playing the flute,” Mo Yuan pointed out, still making no move to reach for it.
“But you play it so well, Da Ge. Mother always said you had a real talent for it.”
“It’s true, Mo Yuan,” Zhe Yan added. “Even Father often remarked when we were young that you should play the flute more often.”
“…” He glared at Zhe Yan.
“What if Bai Qian really likes the sound of the flute, Da Ge? You agreed to help…”
“Fine. Give it here,” Mo Yuan said with a long suffering sigh as he summoned it out of Ye Hua’s hand. “I’ll play one song. One.” He lifted the hated instrument to his mouth and soon the forest was filled with the high-pitched sound of the flute, a sharp contrast to the low, soothing tones of his guqin.
After allowing Ye Hua and Zhe Yan to somehow talk him into playing several more songs, Mo Yuan finally called an end to the music session. He needed to get back to Kunlun Mountain and his disciples. And he still needed to come up with a proper response to the letter he had received. So much depended on the correspondence continuing; he could feel his goal within reach now.
Waving farewell to Zhe Yan who wanted to spend the afternoon studying, Mo Yuan did not allow Ye Hua to take the flute back when his brother reached for it. He wouldn’t hesitate to incinerate the instrument if he didn’t think it would upset his mother if she ever found out about it. Instead, he would hang on to it, keeping it in a spot where his brother would not be able to find it.
“Do you think Bai Qian heard the music?” he questioned Ye Hua, wondering if his brother would admit to sensing Bai Qian’s presence.
“I think so, Da Ge,” Ye Hua responded absentmindedly, his demeanor much more serious than it had been just seconds earlier.
Watching Ye Hua as he packed his guqin into its case for safekeeping, Mo Yuan wondered what his brother was thinking as he saw a frown appear on Ye Hua’s face.
“I… I’m not sure where to go from here, Da Ge.” Ye Hua sighed. “I don’t have any other ideas. There’s only so much I can do without being able to speak with her or even see her. It’s frustrating not to be able to do more.”
Mo Yuan decided to leave his table where it was, summoning a blank piece of paper to it. Ye Hua would never admit it but Mo Yuan knew painting was his brother’s version of meditation, something he thought Ye Hua could use right now. Mo Yuan gestured to the paper, the blank sheet now waiting for his brother to use it to bring an image to life as only Ye Hua or their father could.
“Stay here, Ye Hua. Lose yourself in a painting for a few hours.”
“Da Ge?” Ye Hua couldn’t keep the surprise out of his tone.
Mo Yuan reached out to give his brother’s shoulder an encouraging squeeze. “It will help make the answer clear, Ye Hua. Trust me. Lose yourself in a painting.” If Bai Qian’s still near, let her see that side of yourself, he added silently.
“Thank you, Da Ge.”
“Anything for my little brother,” Mo Yuan responded with a grin as he disappeared from sight to return to Kunlun Mountain.
⇛ Next part: Ch 16: A Gift Given
⇚ Previous part: Ch 14: The Good Intentions of a Friend