With conflicted thoughts and her emotions a maelstrom of confusion, Bai Qian couldn’t say how long she spent sitting in the middle of the dirt path, the tips of her tails twitching as she studied the characters of her name written on the paper scroll before her. She wasn’t sure whether she should open it or not. She believed her decision might change things permanently.
The white fox urged Bai Qian to look, pleaded with her to accept the gift from the dragon. Her fox had been both pleased and very excited to see the painting was for them and that excitement continued to well up inside Bai Qian, filling her with a torrent of emotions that had become unfamiliar over the years. How long had it been since she and her fox had last received a gift of any kind?
A lifetime ago.
Bai Qian was tempted; she really was even though it went against her better judgement. The bright yellow ribbon and its neat bow beckoned her closer. A happy color, she thought. She had always considered yellow to be a bright and joyful color when she was a girl. It evoked warm feelings within her now despite her wish to remain unmoved by Ye Hua with all his past attempts to find her and seemingly lure her out of her haven.
And she couldn’t deny she was curious to see the finished painting in its entirety; the edges of the paper she had glimpsed earlier only gave her small intriguing hints of the full image. Now that she had rediscovered that old curiosity from long ago, it refused to leave her. This was her chance to finally see something Ye Hua had painted, her chance to make up for one of the missed opportunities from her visit to the Heavens. For once she had gotten over her annoyance, she had always been a little disappointed she had not been able to see what the rude dragon prince had been painting.
Would it hurt to look now?
Ye Hua wasn’t returning to her forest this evening; Bai Qian was almost certain of it. He had known she was watching him the whole time and he had not made any attempt to catch her or even look at her. Why set a trap for her now when he had ample opportunity to catch her earlier in the day if he had wanted to? And why should he spend all afternoon working on the painting if it were no more than bait? Any rolled up scroll would capture her attention.
She suspected his gift was a gesture of goodwill, an attempt to show her he meant no harm. He had gone out of his way to not only leave her in peace today despite knowing she was near but had also taken the time to make his gift for her personal. Nobody had ever painted something for her before.
She couldn’t forget he had also brought beautiful music to her forest. Not his own tone-deaf version of music, thankfully. But he had asked his brother to play for her and the sound of the different melodies filling the air had touched her. That, in itself, was a wonderful gift from him Bai Qian never would have expected.
He had also brought an old family friend back to her, someone important to her brother that she had almost forgotten entirely during her determined quest to hide from her past. Just the idea that she still had a possible friend out there gave her a small measure of hope.
After recent events, Bai Qian believed that Ye Hua had no intention of harming her, that the thought behind his gifts was sincere. But, in many ways, that knowledge made Bai Qian’s decision about how to proceed much more difficult for she also couldn’t ignore the possible negative consequences of her decision.
Ye Hua was not the dragon in the Den the night of her family’s muder; she had come to that conclusion even before realizing he was one of the Celestial princes. Despite his often stern expression and tendency to wear black, Bai Qian could now admit her earlier panic and fear of him had stemmed from her own imagination and not from any threatening moves on his part. She sensed no malice or ill-intent in him.
But that didn’t mean the other dragon was not around, still looking for her. People in the realm must pay close attention to the Celestial royal family. As a prince, Ye Hua’s comings and goings were likely noticed by many. Could his visits to her forest be drawing unwanted attention to her hiding place? She had to consider that possibility.
And the fact Ye Hua could obviously feel her presence even when she was shifted into her fox made her uneasy. He shouldn’t be able to sense her at all and yet, somehow, he could. Only her family should be able to do so. A nine-tailed fox’s best defense was the ability to blend in with their surroundings, to hide their cultivation from the detection of others outside of family. Without that, Bai Qian felt more vulnerable, like she had lost one of her best strategies for staying hidden from others. She didn’t understand how Ye Hua knew she was there but the realization he did worried her. What if it meant others could begin sensing her too?
Bai Qian wasn’t sure if these were risks she was willing to take.
So despite her own curiosity and her fox’s excitement, Bai Qian hesitated to accept the gift.
Glancing around her, Bai Qian found the lengthening afternoon shadows of the peach tree forest had long since faded into the dark of night. A gentle breeze ruffled her fur, the air still carrying the lingering scents of rain and lightning with it when it brushed against her. His thunderstorm scent was becoming all too familiar to her, as if it were becoming a part of the forest now.
Her ears twitched, adjusting position to better listen to the night sounds of her forest. She could hear crickets singing for their mates and the rustle of leaves above her as a tree shrew scurried from limb to limb. An owl announced its hunt off in the distance with a screeching cry. All the usual noises surrounded her. So why did her forest seem quieter than it should now that Ye Hua had left?
Peach blossoms littered the floor and danced in the gentle air currents; she could see fireflies flickering their lights all around her. She was no more alone than she had been in the last several millennia. Why did her forest feel emptier than it used to, even lonelier than it had been?
Ye Hua isn’t here.
The answer formed unbidden in Bai Qian’s mind, making her uneasy with its implications. She scrambled back from the scroll, tripping over her own paws in her haste to put some distance between herself and the painting. Now that she was alone with only the woodland creatures, the energy of her forest should feel safe and familiar to her. Instead, it just felt different because Ye Hua had left. What was happening?
My fox and I have grown accustomed to his presence…
No! Bai Qian couldn’t let that happen. She was safer alone, had always been safer when alone and hidden. She couldn’t let him insert himself into her life any more than he already had. She was content living her quiet life in the peach trees, had managed to find a semblance of peace here without her family. He was ruining everything she had worked to achieve; he was upsetting the balance of her life.
Worried thoughts whirring through her mind, Bai Qian backed further away from the scroll, her tails now jerking with agitation. If she left the painting sitting there, untouched and ignored, maybe Ye Hua would finally take a hint. Maybe he would finally understand she wasn’t interested in whatever it was he wanted from her and then he would stay away from her and her forest once and for all. That was what she wanted.
Her fox protested forcefully inside Bai Qian, insisting the dragon belonged with them in the forest; he was a friend. She wanted to see the painting, wanted to bring it back with them to their den. She was tired of being alone all the time.
Refusing to even entertain the idea, Bai Qian first argued with her fox and then pleaded with her to understand the chances they would take by accepting Ye Hua’s gift and welcoming him into their forest. She was only trying to keep them both safe.
When her fox gave up and seemed to retreat into a sullen silence, Bai Qian attempted to leave the area but, much to her consternation, she found herself unable to turn her back on the unwanted scroll. The bright yellow ribbon with its hidden picture continued to beckon her closer. Why couldn’t she walk away?
Taking advantage of Bai Qian’s hesitation, the fox surged forward and took control away from Bai Qian. It took a few moments for Bai Qian to wrestle control back and her fox had enough time to get them back over to the scroll. She shoved her muzzle down to the sheet of rolled up paper and nuzzled it with her black nose, filling both their senses with the scent of thunderstorms and paint, before lifting it off the ground by the ribbon. She shook her head, jostling the scroll around, loosening the bow where the painting now dangled from her sharp teeth.
Stop, Bai Qian scolded her fox. You’re going to ruin it if you aren’t careful.
The fox dropped the scroll and yipped with excitement and encouragement.
Staring at the now partially untied ribbon before her, Bai Qian sighed with an irritated twitch of her tails. There were teeth marks indented into the yellow silk. So much for her plan to leave the gift looking untouched and ignored. Even if she smoothed out the ribbon with her cultivation and tied it back into a bow, Ye Hua would be able to feel her magic there. He would still know she had handled the paper.
There was really no reason not to look at his painting now, was there? She could always just leave it there afterwards to send the message she wanted to Ye Hua.
Her final decision made for her in an unexpected way, Bai Qian glanced around before shifting into her human form and picking up the scroll, trying not to acknowledge her eager curiosity. Kneeling in the soft earth, she never noticed the way the rich soil stained the faded fabric of her worn dress or the way the night air now caressed her human skin, her long dark hair swaying slightly in the breeze. All her attention focused on the yellow ribbon still wrapped around the fine textured paper in her hand.
Scarcely daring to breathe, Bai Qian finished removing the ribbon tied around the painting with trembling fingers. Not wanting to see the pretty yellow silk smudged with dirt, Bai Qian wrapped the ribbon around her slender wrist and secured it there with her magic before slowly opening the scroll to gaze at the painting illuminated by soft moonlight. Unable to help herself, she lit a small light with her cultivation in order to see the picture even better.
Her eyes widening with awe as they took in all the colorful details of the painted image, Bai Qian gasped with surprised delight when she saw the painting was that of her fox sitting in the peach tree forest, peach blossom petals swirling in the air around her. How did Ye Hua make everything look so realistic? Every detail she noted was accurate, from the rough texture of the bark on the trees to the subtle variation in the pink hues of the different peach blossoms right down to the small glint of cautious curiosity in her fox’s eyes.
Bai Qian’s fox jumped inside her with happiness, excited to be the subject of the dragon’s painting, while they both lost themselves in appreciation of the lovely image he had given them. She recognized the moment he had captured on paper and found herself even more amazed that he had been able to paint it so well when he had only seen her fox for no more than a few minutes before Bai Qian realized he could see her and ran from him. He may not possess a single smidge of musical talent but Ye Hua truly was an extraordinary artist. She had never seen a painting so lifelike before.
A small smile spread across Bai Qian’s face as she studied the image of her fox more closely. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen her reflection in the water or a mirror while shifted into her fox. Was this truly how she looked now? Her fox closely resembled that of her mother except for the small tufts on the tips of her ears; those unruly tufts matched those of her father’s fox. And her oldest brother’s.
A few bittersweet tears slid down her cheeks as Bai Qian was reminded that she carried parts of her family’s memory with her all the time. They would always be with her in spirit even if they had been cruelly ripped away from her and out of the physical world altogether. They lived on in her. She must never forget that.
Unable to tear her glistening eyes away from the painting, Bai Qian ran the tips of her fingers across the dried paint lightly, tracing Ye Hua’s deft brushstrokes. It was only then she noticed he had signed his name to the painting in the lower right hand corner. And it looked like he had given the painting a title. She traced the bold lines forming the characters of his name first then the other two characters written above them.
Warmth bloomed inside Bai Qian’s chest as she read those two words over and over. Beauty was what Ye Hua saw when he looked at her fox. She realized this painting embodied how she must appear when seen through his eyes. She had never thought of herself or her fox as being beautiful before. It stunned her to learn that Ye Hua did.
Admitting to herself she no longer had any intentions of leaving the painting on the ground here, Bai Qian extinguished her small light and carefully rolled up the paper, ensuring she didn’t wrinkle it. Rubbing the soft fabric of the yellow silk ribbon between her fingers, she decided to leave it tied around her wrist for reasons she couldn’t explain and didn’t fully understand. She then placed the painting in the hidden pocket of her dress for safekeeping. She would take it back to her den to add it to her small collection of precious things. Her fox yipped with delight at the decision.
Feeling an unusual sense of daring, Bai Qian did not shift back to her fox before following the path that would take her back to her den. Instead, she stood on human legs and walked through the dappled moonlight of the forest, enjoying the cool sensation of moist earth and soft peach blossom petals under her bare feet. The hem of her ill-fitting dress brushed against the forest floor with every calm step she took.
A cluster of fireflies swirled around Bai Qian before she had even made it halfway to her home, their friendly glow drawing her attention. Her steps slowed to a stop as she watched them hovering around her, a happy smile on her face, before she followed their graceful movements as they flew off into the night. Her eyes lingered on them as they glimmered in the dark distance, imagining they were trying to coax her off her chosen path. She knew very well what lay in that direction.
Did she dare visit one of Ye Hua’s traps tonight?
Bai Qian didn’t need her fox’s excited enthusiasm for the idea to make her decision. Her feet seemed to have a mind of their own as they stepped off her current trail and veered off in a slightly different direction before she even realized it, taking her towards a patch of Ye Hua’s cultivation. There was no harm in it. She didn’t think he even knew she had been near any of his traps. He hadn’t checked them in recent days and never showed up when she investigated one; she thought he may have even forgotten all about setting them.
The areas of lingering dragon cultivation had become irresistible lures to Bai Qian and there was no hesitation in her steps as she approached one, noticing there was now a distinct thunderstorm scent surrounding it. She had never detected Ye Hua’s scent near any of the traps before. Had he been near this trap today to check it?
It didn’t matter if he had. Bai Qian still wanted to feel the warm sensation of his energy caressing along her skin.
Kneeling in the soft dirt, Bai Qian reached out and placed her palm against the invisible power, savoring the pleasant warmth that brushed against her hand and around her fingers. Bai Qian’s fox moved forward to enjoy the sensation along with her. The powerful warmth never ceased to calm Bai Qian and her fox. Did she dare try to feel his power more completely? Bai Qian pulled her hand away to consider the bold move.
With her fox’s encouragement, Bai Qian summoned forth her own cultivation and concentrated on manipulating it to her will, focusing it around her hand. It took her a few minutes to get her power positioned correctly and to stabilize it. But once she had it, Bai Qian lowered her hand back towards Ye Hua’s trap, curious to see if his cultivation would feel more intense to her now.
Gasping with surprise, Bai Qian’s eyes closed as Ye Hua’s cultivation gently grasped onto hers, seeming to welcome her and her fox as it slid up her arm before completely surrounding her. His energy swirled around her, wrapping her up in a protective cocoon that sent a myriad of different sensations pouring through her. First, there was the familiar soothing warmth his cultivation always provided. But then, it felt much different for a moment. Bai Qian’s eyes opened as a pleasant shiver that had nothing to do with the cold teased her senses, sending a strange and delightful heat coursing through her until it settled low in her belly. Her skin prickled and her muscles trembled as she wondered what the intriguing sensation was. It was unlike anything she had felt before. It confused her and yet she didn’t want it to stop.
Then, Ye Hua’s energy relaxed around Bai Qian, soothing her again as it settled comfortably around her. Peaceful calm encompassed her entire being and Bai Qian found herself unwilling to move away from Ye Hua’s cultivation and the calming sensations it provided her. Why did she suddenly feel protected from any threat? She clung to that feeling of safety as she settled into a seated position. She didn’t move for a long time after that, remaining motionless in the moonlight, wrapped up in a protective layer of warm contentment.
⇛ Next part: Ch 18: A Reflection of the Soul
⇚ Previous part: Ch 16: A Gift Given