Ye Hua couldn’t concentrate.
Upon his return to the Heavens, Ye Hua had hurried to the palace, eager to speak with his parents, only to find they were both occupied elsewhere for the evening. Knowing his plan was not urgent enough to interrupt them, Ye Hua debated whether he wanted to stay there and wait for them.
The black dragon urged Ye Hua to return to the peach tree forest so Bai Qian and her fox would not be alone, reminding Ye Hua that Bai Qian had seemed happier today with their visit. But Ye Hua didn’t want to risk alarming her by appearing in her forest again so quickly. What if that ruined the meaning behind his gift in some way? He didn’t want her to think his painting was another sort of trap. In the end, he had decided to go to his study and try to catch up on any business he had fallen behind on. He would speak with his parents in the morning.
Now, Ye Hua was seated at his desk, trying to make his way through the scrolls waiting for his reply. None of them were pressing; all urgent matters were being handled by his father and other officials right now. But there were still a good number that needed Ye Hua’s attention, something he was finding difficult to give them.
His thoughts were too preoccupied with Bai Qian for him to focus.
Would she accept his gift? Would it help her understand that he would never harm her? Had listening to Mo Yuan’s music today brought her some happiness? Did she have a safe shelter to sleep in? Was she able to find enough to eat? Did she suffer from nightmares of the past? Did fear or loneliness keep her awake at night?
The many questions circled over and over inside Ye Hua’s head, evading his every attempt to silence them for longer than a few seconds.
And it didn’t help that his dragon continued to remain restless, grumbling incessantly about the decision to leave his fox alone after finally reaching out to her successfully. Didn’t Ye Hua realize she needed them?
Sighing, Ye Hua set aside yet another unanswered scroll, not remembering half of what he had just read, a problem that had been plaguing him all evening. Yes, he knew Bai Qian needed help. Was that not what he had been trying to provide her all along? That was what all his recent planning was about.
The black dragon grumbled again, insisting Ye Hua didn’t understand him. She didn’t need just anybody’s help. The white fox needed their help, needed him and Ye Hua. And they needed her. She belonged with them and they belonged with her.
Rubbing his tired eyes, Ye Hua groaned with annoyance when he caught the meaning behind his dragon’s thoughts. Why couldn’t his dragon let it go? Why did the beast continue to persist with this idea that they were somehow connected with Bai Qian and her fox?
Refusing to acknowledge the sensation of truthfulness that filled him when he lingered on the unwanted idea, Ye Hua reminded himself and his dragon they knew next to nothing about Bai Qian. They had never even really met her; his argument with her in the past didn’t count as an introduction and didn’t bode well for how well he would get along with her in the future.
He would help Bai Qian return to her life as best he could. Ye Hua had been sincere when he made his promise to her family to take care of her and he intended to see that promise through. But when she no longer needed his help, he would move on with his life and allow her to live hers. That was what he wanted.
Opening his eyes, Ye Hua stared at the lit candles on his desk. With the perpetual light of the Heavens, he didn’t need to burn them at night but he usually found the small flames with their smoky scent helped his focus. They weren’t doing their job tonight. A sudden memory of the pleasant warmth he felt caress his chest every time Bai Qian touched one of his snares surfaced as he gazed at the candles. What was wrong with him?
His dragon’s strange obsession with Bai Qian was really starting to get to him. Ye Hua had noticed this before but its influence over him seemed to be growing. Maybe his decision to temporarily move into Zhe Yan’s cabin in the peach tree forest wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Ignoring his dragon’s grumbling protest, Ye Hua forced himself to reach for the next scroll on the pile. If he could just make himself answer at least one of them, maybe he could turn his full attention back to the others. Ye Hua’s stomach sank when he opened the scroll and read the words written there in a feminine hand.
Huiling! He had become so preoccupied with his search for Bai Qian he had forgotten all about his agreement with Huiling. She was still waiting on his final decision about their engagement. How long had her letter been sitting here, ignored like all the other scrolls in the pile on his desk? Guilt filled him when he realized he hadn’t spared her a second thought in the last two months. He owed her an explanation and a decision.
Summoning a blank scroll, Ye Hua reached for the brush in its inkwell on the corner of his desk but hesitated over what to write. What was his decision? Did he want to go through with the practical marriage of convenience he had planned with Huiling?
Running through the list of reasons he had considered when discussing the idea with Huiling in the first place, Ye Hua still thought it made the most logical sense for his future. There would be benefits for both him and Huiling if he honored their initial agreement and made the engagement final. He didn’t care about love. He wanted a friend and ally he could trust standing at his side when he inherited his father’s rule. That was most important to him and he thought Huiling could provide that. He could think of no reason not to go through with it.
The unbidden image of a dainty white nine-tailed fox, gazing up at him with hope in her cautious brown eyes, appeared in Ye Hua’s mind, stopping his hand before he could even manage to write the characters of Huiling’s name.
Why did the thought of Bai Qian make him hesitate? He had made his decision and intended to stick to it. His engagement to Huiling would have no impact on his promise to help Bai Qian.
Frowning at himself, Ye Hua pushed thoughts of Bai Qian aside, a feat that was much more difficult than it should have been considering he was writing a letter to the woman he was going to marry. A sick, unsettled feeling took hold of him as he finished writing Huiling’s name.
The black dragon’s grumbles turned into angry menacing growls as Ye Hua continued writing. In the past, the powerful beast had always been indifferent at best to Huiling and other women around Ye Hua, but that was no longer the case. Now, Ye Hua’s dragon had a very definite negative opinion about Ye Hua’s choice of wife. And he had no qualms about sharing that opinion.
Ye Hua ignored his dragon’s furious protests and his own uneasy feeling that continued to build inside him with every word he wrote. He was determined to finish the letter.
With a fierce snarl, the black dragon shot forward and wrestled control away from Ye Hua, staying Ye Hua’s hand before he could finish signing his name to the letter. Once signed, the scroll would make the engagement official if it was ever seen by prying eyes outside of his family.
Ye Hua struggled against his dragon, ordering him to stay back with a growl of his own once he finally regained control. To his dismay, he found a long, wide smear of black ink streaked across his words when he looked back down at the scroll. His dragon had managed to completely ruin the letter! He would have to start over now.
Ignoring his dragon’s continued growls of anger, Ye Hua summoned another blank scroll to his hand and dipped the brush tip back in the inkwell. He didn’t even finish the first brushstroke of Huiling’s name before he was interrupted again, not by the black dragon this time but by the warm pleasant tingle of invisible fingers trailing along the skin of his chest.
Ye Hua’s grip on the brush in his hand loosened when Bai Qian caressed his cultivation again, slipping from his fingers as he forgot all about the letter he had been writing. All his attention centered on the feel of Bai Qian’s soft touch instead. When her touch disappeared for the shortest instant, Ye Hua longed to have it back again.
And then he felt her touch again with a new intensity that took his breath away, felt the purity of her beautiful essence fill every part of him.
The timbre of the black dragon’s growls deepened to soft, crooning rumbles as he wrapped his and Ye Hua’s cultivation around that of Bai Qian and her fox, intertwining their individual essences in a way Ye Hua had never experienced before. He had never known such a connection even existed and Ye Hua’s eyes slid closed when he felt their combined cultivations engulf both him and Bai Qian. Even though they were worlds apart he could feel his dragon mold it around both of them.
His heart speeding up when his senses were filled with the essence of Bai Qian, Ye Hua knew this incredible warmth was the way it would feel to hold her human body close to his. He imagined his arms wrapping around her to pull her onto his lap in what he intended to be a soothing embrace, imagined the press of her back against his chest. He thought he could smell the captivating wild scent of fox he had so recently discovered intermingling with the fragrance of peaches in the air surrounding him.
The heat of desire sparked to life inside Ye Hua as he scented her, flaring brightly as its flames spread. He imagined himself holding Bai Qian more tightly and felt a passionate heat shiver through her sweet essence in response, enflaming him even further, before he felt a rush of uncertain confusion mingling with intrigued curiosity running within her.
Her curiosity enchanted him but her uncertainty and confusion brought Ye Hua’s wayward erotic imaginings to a firm halt. Bai Qian didn’t understand his desire or her own. How could she? Having lived alone since she was a child, she had never had the opportunity to experience the first stirrings of desire for a man like many young women her age. She knew nothing about the heat of passion and that wasn’t what Bai Qian needed from him right now, was not why she continued to seek out a connection to his essence. She was searching for something else from him and Ye Hua was determined to give her what he suspected she was looking for, maybe without realizing it herself: the feeling of comfort, a safe bond with another she could rely on.
Taking a couple of deep breaths to calm his pounding heart, Ye Hua worked to tame his heated cultivation, settling it into a relaxed embrace around her, an embrace meant to soothe away her loneliness. For now that he had calmed himself down, her confusion had fled and he could feel the lonely sadness infusing her very being, weighing her down. Even with her flicker of desire and her lingering curiosity, Ye Hua could still sense the sadness within her, the loneliness lurking under everything.
Ye Hua’s realization that this oppressive weight of isolation must be a constant presence inside Bai Qian made his heart ache with pain for her. He couldn’t begin to imagine the heavy toll it must be taking from her. He focused on serene thoughts, trying to share with her the meditative peace he experienced when lost in the creation of a painting.
It worked. Ye Hua could feel her troubled cultivation respond to the changes in his, could feel her loneliness fading away while calm relief began to trickle in.
Wanting to help Ye Hua comfort their sad, lonely fox, the black dragon’s crooning rumbles became even more intense as he reassured his fox he would always keep her safe by sending waves of protective magic through their linked cultivation. He would never let anything or anybody harm her. He was finally getting his chance to tell her he would protect her from all threats, even those threats that came from deep within herself.
A soft smile spread over Ye Hua’s expression when he felt the combination of his and his dragon’s reassuring thoughts and their efforts to calm her finally coax Bai Qian into a relaxed peacefulness. For this one crucial moment, Ye Hua and the black dragon had managed to take care of Bai Qian, had chased most of her loneliness away.
Ye Hua and his dragon continued to comfort Bai Qian for as long as she needed, both of them clinging to the fragile connection they had established with her for as long as she remained linked with them. She didn’t move away from his snare for a long time.
Disappointed when Bai Qian eventually broke their connection, Ye Hua opened his eyes to find the forgotten letter waiting for him. He picked up his discarded brush, feeling no more hesitation. He no longer felt that sick uneasiness in his gut and his dragon remained blissfully quiet as Ye Hua finished writing his answer to Huiling. While he couldn’t say he completely understood all that had occurred during his connection with Bai Qian or what it ultimately meant, he now understood with absolute clarity there was only one correct decision for whether or not he should finalize his marriage agreement with Huiling. She would be disappointed but he expected she would understand.
Unable to sleep long after his dragon had fallen into a light slumber, Ye Hua decided to take a midnight walk around the Heavens instead of staring up at the ceiling of his bedchamber in a futile attempt to slow his thoughts. Returning the greetings from the overnight guards he passed, his steps led him toward the Blessed Water Gardens and the secluded sitting area where he had been painting the day Bai Qian had tripped and bumped into him.
His eyes finding the spot where he had been sitting that day, Ye Hua strode over to it with a small smile. He had not been planning to come here this night when he left his room, but he wasn’t surprised this was where he had ended up. Bai Qian had been in his thoughts since early yesterday morning when he visited her family’s memorial. And now every detail of his recent connection with her had been playing over and over through his mind, imprinting the wondrous moment in his memory so it would never fade.
What did it mean? Something of significance had occurred between Bai Qian and him. He knew that much.
Taking a seat and gazing at the lotus blossoms before him, Ye Hua hoped visiting this spot would help him bring some order to his confusion over Bai Qian but, instead, it brought the past back to him.
Remembering very well the pain of Bai Qian’s foot colliding with his shin, Ye Hua grimaced with a shake of his head before smiling as he thought about what had prompted her show of aggression. What in all the Heavens had possessed him to yank on her braid like that? It had been childishly mean of him and he had known better than to do such a thing.
His parents had been angry and had lectured him and Mo Yuan about the proper way to treat a guest no matter what they had done. Ye Hua grinned when he recalled how annoyed his brother had been after realizing he was being blamed for the argument with Bai Qian as well. Had Mo Yuan ever gotten him back for that? He couldn’t remember and he certainly wasn’t going to ask his brother about it now, not if Mo Yuan had forgotten about it. He already owed his twin a few favors as it was.
His thoughts turning right back to Bai Qian, Ye Hua did not immediately hear the hushed footsteps of someone approaching him.
“Would you mind having some company?”
“Mother.” Ye Hua turned at the sound of her melodic voice, standing to greet her with a welcoming smile. “Of course not. Please sit.” He gestured to the spot next to him, sitting back in his place only once she had settled onto the soft grass.
Neither of them spoke for a few minutes as they gazed out over the tranquil water of the small lotus pond in a comfortable silence. A soft growl from his mother’s dragon broke the quiet and the black dragon echoed it with a sleepy growl of his own in return. Ye Hua relaxed further when he heard the sound, remembering the way that same gentle rumble would soothe him and Mo Yuan when they were young.
“What are you doing here?” Ye Hua asked a minute later, realizing his mother was waiting for him to start the conversation if he wanted to talk. “It’s after midnight.”
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“You knew I was here, didn’t you?” Ye Hua was not at all surprised to see her nod in response to his question. “How do you always seem to know these things? Da Ge and I used to think you had spies planted all over the Heavens to keep track of us when we were kids.”
Heavenly Mother laughed. “Mo Yuan’s theory, I take it? That sounds like something he would come up with.”
“Um-hmm,” Ye Hua answered with a smile. “He had me convinced we were always being watched by somebody. Sometimes we’d even scout out good hiding places to try to find who it was.”
“And did you ever find the spies?” Heavenly Mother asked with amusement.
“No,” Ye Hua chuckled. “We eventually realized there were no spies. You just knew where we were and what we were up to. I think Da Ge was a little disappointed to discover his theory was all wrong.”
“Only your brother would be disappointed his mother didn’t have spies for him to track down,” Heavenly Mother responded with a shake of her head, affection warming her tone.
“That’s very true. Da Ge and I had fun trying to find them, though. While still remaining perplexed you always knew what we were doing.”
“Sometimes I knew what you and Mo Yuan were up to but not always. Believe me, the two of you surprised your father and me more than a few times,” Heavenly Mother said before she grew more serious. “Parents just know their children, Ye Hua. And they do have a bit of a sixth sense when it comes to matters involving them.”
“You sensed I couldn’t sleep tonight.”
“Yes.” Heavenly Mother patted Ye Hua’s hand where it rested between them on the grass in a small gesture of comfort and maternal affection. “Just as I’ve sensed the recent unrest in the black dragon and the disunity that has developed between the two of you.”
“My dragon’s mood has been very volatile lately and I don’t understand why,” Ye Hua told his mother, wondering if she could give him some of the answers that continued to elude him. How much should he tell her? “He’s never reacted this way to anything before.”
“Yes,” Ye Hua answered, his voice thoughtful as he contemplated the many changes he had felt in his dragon since starting the search for Bai Qian. “Or anyone…” Ye Hua turned to find his mother watching him with knowing concern. He realized his mother knew all his uncertainty had started with Bai Qian. “Mother, I don’t…” He trailed off, unsure how to voice his thought. She waited for him to continue but Ye Hua didn’t say anything further.
“Your dragon feels at peace tonight,” Heavenly Mother observed, still trying to find a way to coax Ye Hua into the conversation she knew he wanted to have.
“He’s content, happy, for the first time in a while,” Ye Hua agreed. The connection he had made with Bai Qian and her fox had had a profound effect on his dragon’s mood. “He’s… more like himself. It’s a nice change after the irritated way he’s been reacting to everything I do.”
“Is Bai Qian the reason your dragon has been different lately?” his mother gently prodded, her tone telling Ye Hua these were questions he could choose not to answer. “And the reason he went into retreat and became silent?”
Ye Hua didn’t immediately respond, surprised by her last question. Even after her revelation that she sensed things about him and Mo Yuan, he was still startled to learn his mother had known about his dragon’s retreat. He had tried to keep it from her so she wouldn’t worry about him. He should have known better; his mother always watched over her family closely. Ye Hua thought he had fooled her when, in truth, she had stayed away, pretending not to know anything about it, because she realized he hadn’t been ready to talk about it then.
He was ready now. And here she was, providing him the opportunity to share his thoughts and worries if he wished.
“Yes,” Ye Hua finally answered with a heavy sigh. He paused to gather his thoughts, staring out over the lotus blossoms so he didn’t have to meet her eyes when he started speaking. For some reason, he found it easier to tell his mother about Bai Qian and his dragon when he wasn’t looking directly at her. “Everything about Bai Qian, no matter how small, affects my dragon in some way. He’s…attached to her.”
“Attached to her?”
Ye Hua frowned with a shake of his head, disliking that explanation already. “No. Attached isn’t the right word. It doesn’t go deep enough. It’s much stronger than that. It’s as if… I’m not sure how to describe it.” There was frustration in Ye Hua’s tone now. It’s as if he loves Bai Qian. Ye Hua shied away from the thought as soon as it surfaced.
“It’s as if your dragon understands things about Bai Qian you don’t understand yet?” Heavenly Mother asked with patient encouragement. “Things that feel right and you don’t understand why?”
Ye Hua nodded and felt some of his frustration fade when his mother seemed to understand what he was trying to say. He broke off some blades of grass and started folding them into small squares as the words finally started to pour out of him.
“From the very beginning, my dragon has been convinced we are supposed to be protecting Bai Qian all the time. He feels this constant need to find her, to try and keep her close, to reassure her we will keep her safe. He never stops insisting how important it is. When Bai Qian ran from my dragon and me the day I saw her, she was terrified of us. I could feel the fear coming off of her in waves. She…”
Ye Hua’s voice faltered, a lump suddenly forming in his throat, as he remembered her terror that day in light of the things he had learned earlier while the bond had connected her to him. Loneliness was her constant companion and yet she was too scared to let anyone get close to her. It was a bleak and painful existence, one he wanted to help her change.
Clearing his throat, Ye Hua continued. “She was so desperate to get away from us, she injured herself while running. When my dragon scented her blood and realized how badly we had scared her, he was distraught that his attempt to get near her to show her he would protect her had caused her harm even if it hadn’t been intentional. He was devastated by the whole thing, by the knowledge that we had hurt Bai Qian, and became despondent afterwards and refused to respond to me or anybody else.”
Silence descended once again and Ye Hua struggled with his own lingering guilt over his split second decision to chase after Bai Qian that day. The feel of his mother’s hand rubbing his shoulder in understanding and silent support brought him back to the conversation. He noticed the pile of shredded grass he had created and stopped himself from tearing up another blade. His mother’s hand fell away when he sighed and his back straightened.
“It’s not just the constant urge to keep her safe though. I understand that part better than I do the rest of it. My dragon yearns to be near Bai Qian all the time; he never wants to leave her alone in the forest. He wants to take care of her, provide her comfort and spend time with her. We’ve only ever seen her the one time and yet my dragon still finds happiness just being in her company, just in the knowledge she is close by. And he senses her presence now, Mother, senses her even when he should not be able to.”
Ye Hua paused, reaching to tear another blade of grass anyway without even realizing he did so in a rare show of uncertainty. “He insists Bai Qian belongs to us and that we belong to her.” Ye Hua turned towards his mother, meeting her eyes for the first time since he had started talking. “And I’m starting to feel those same things too, my thoughts are starting to echo his. It makes no sense. How can I feel such things about a woman I don’t know and have never even met? I know nothing about her. Other than my argument with Bai Qian when we were children, I’ve never spoken a single word to her. It’s crazy of me to allow my dragon to influence my thoughts like this, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” Heavenly Mother reassured him with a soft smile. “Those who always disregard and choose to go against what their animal spirits tell them are doomed to live a life in constant conflict with themselves.”
“But I …” Ye Hua didn’t finish the thought, still confused even though his mother seemed to think everything he had shared was perfectly normal.
“It is something we all must learn,” she continued when Ye Hua fell silent. “I always try to remember the first time your father faced a rebellion within the realm. It was started by a disgruntled clan lord leading one of the northern tribes. Your father said nothing about it to me. He just started spending a lot of his time locked away in his study. When we did spend time together, it would be for a short time only and he would be very closed off and distracted. I feared he no longer cared about our marriage or he was angry with me for some reason. I even wondered if he had taken a mistress without telling me.”
Startled, Ye Hua gave his mother an incredulous look. He had never seen anything but love and affection between his parents. Even their rare arguments lasted only a short time.
Heavenly Mother smiled when she saw Ye Hua’s surprise. “Your father and I were young once too, Ye Hua. We went through the same struggles every young couple does. This was before we had learned how very important it is to always talk openly with one another.”
“May I ask what happened?”
“At first, I was very hurt by it. Then, I became angry with him thinking he was upset with me when I had done nothing. I had asked him what was wrong but he would never tell me because he didn’t want to worry me. My dragon insisted he needed our support and he would tell me what was going on given some time. She told me I needed to be patient. But I refused to listen to her and started to avoid your father. Which hurt him in turn and did make him angry with me. We pretty much stopped talking to one another for a time.”
“Why didn’t either of you say anything about how you were really feeling?”
“You know how stubborn your father and I can be when we both think we’re right about something.”
Ye Hua nodded with a small smile.
“And one of the most difficult things to do is to open yourself up and allow yourself to be vulnerable to another. And that was what was needed. My dragon encouraged me to seek him out and talk to him, to tell him I was hurting; she was very annoyed with me when I refused and even tried to take control away from me to bring me to him. Finally, one night after I had fallen asleep in bed, I awoke in the morning on the summit of Kunlun Mountain next to your father, who was just as confused as I was by the whole thing. It turns out, his dragon had been trying to convince him to talk to me the same way mine had been trying to convince me. Our dragons had brought us back together as we slept when we were both too stubborn to approach one another while awake.
“We spent the day in seclusion on the mountain, talking to one another and our relationship was much stronger after that. Our dragons always knew the whole thing was a misunderstanding and we would be happier once we talked it through. Plus, they longed to be together once again themselves. Your father and I have always paid more attention to our dragons since then.”
Heavenly Mother took Ye Hua’s hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze in reassurance before releasing it.
“You see, Ye Hua, it’s perfectly natural to listen to what the black dragon is telling you. You should always do so. Our animal spirits sometimes understand things before we do because they follow their instincts only and don’t allow doubts to cloud their thoughts the way our human side tends to do; they don’t use logic to talk themselves out of something they believe to be true nor do they allow uncertainty to chase the belief away. They’re not always right, of course, because sometimes our instincts can be wrong but they should never just be disregarded out of hand.”
“That makes sense,” Ye Hua said, allowing the awe he was feeling at the revelations his mother had shared with him to show in his voice.
“The most important thing to remember is that your dragon spirit is a reflection of your soul, Ye Hua. He will never feel anything that you don’t feel somewhere deep inside yourself. Even if you don’t realize it yet or if you refuse to acknowledge it like your father and I once did. Your dragon’s spur of the moment urge to go on a hunt when you’re sitting in a meeting… that urge stems from your own boredom and disinterest in the topic being discussed. That is his way of reflecting your own wish to get out of there and do something else.”
“You know about those times?” Ye Hua asked.
“Yes,” she answered with a smile. “We all feel it sometimes. Even your father feels it occasionally when he’s sitting through a particularly boring ceremony in the throne room. Don’t tell him I told you that. Not that he would ever admit to it even if you did.”
“I won’t,” Ye Hua promised with a laugh.
“If your dragon insists Bai Qian is important to him, it means she is important to you in some way. I can’t tell you exactly why it is your dragon feels so strongly about Bai Qian right now. Is it a passing affection driven by her difficult circumstances and your desire to help her that will ultimately fade with time? Or is it an indication of something deeper? That is something only you and your dragon can determine. And you should do so together.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Ye Hua murmured softly as he started to see the black dragon’s actions from a whole new wondrous perspective. “I see everything more clearly now.”
“Remember you can always talk to me about anything that is on your mind, Ye Hua. It doesn’t matter what it is. I’ve reminded Mo Yuan the same thing a few times since he moved out of the Heavens. You are always here for me to talk to but I still should have reminded you of it too.
“Da Ge really still seeks your advice? He always seems to have his life figured out now. He never seems to waver about making any decision.”
“You’d be surprised. That’s not always the case,” she responded with a small smile to reassure him he was not alone in trying to figure life out but revealing no more than that. “He approaches his decisions differently than you. He always has. But that doesn’t mean he always knows the correct one either.”
Not wanting to try and invade his brother’s privacy, Ye Hua changed the topic. “I’ve decided to move into Zhe Yan’s cabin in the peach tree forest for a time. That’s what I wanted to talk to you and Father about earlier.”
“You think it will help Bai Qian decide to come out of hiding?”
“Yes,” Ye Hua answered, no longer doubting the idea for his dragon had been insisting they needed to stay in the peach tree forest this whole time. “She’s very lonely. I would like to show her that she doesn’t have to be alone… that there are people out there she can trust. I also want to try and remind her how it feels to have a friend she can rely on. And I want to bring some happiness into her life if I can; she needs it so much. Da Ge played his guqin for her this morning and I think she felt better, less alone, while listening to the music. I would like to give her more things to enjoy.”
“I think it’s a lovely idea, Ye Hua,” his mother told him, her expression growing serious. “I know you want to help encourage her to come out of hiding as quickly as you can because you worry about her. Just keep in mind that she’s been alone for a long time. She will need time to adjust. It may be overwhelming for her at first.”
“I will be patient. The last thing I want to do is upset her in some way,” Ye Hua responded.
“Good. That’s all I ask. I will leave you to your thoughts now. You should try and get some sleep.” She kissed his cheek and stood, gesturing for him to stay seated when he made a move to stand with her.
“Wait, Mother. I need a recipe.”
“A recipe?” she repeated with curiosity. “What kind of recipe?”
“A recipe for something simple, a comforting meal. I bet Bai Qian hasn’t eaten a home cooked meal in a long time. I would like to make something for her but all the recipes at the palace are for fancy, formal meals. That’s not what I want.”
His mother gave him a warm look of understanding. Then a rolled up scroll appeared in her hand. “Here,” she said, offering the scroll to Ye Hua. “Your father and I often make this together when we are spending time with each other away from the Heavens. It’s simple but delicious.”
Ye Hua took the scroll gratefully. “Thank you.”
“You may keep it for as long as you need,” she responded with a knowing smile. “I’ll share your plans with your father. Have a good night.”
“You too, Mother.”
Ye Hua settled back in his seat after watching his mother walk away. He gazed back over the lotus blossoms, thinking back over all his mother had shared with him before circling back around to his dragon’s feelings for Bai Qian which he now understood were beginning to become his own.
No…they had been a reflection of his own feelings all along.
His mother’s crucial questions echoed in his mind now. Was the black dragon’s affection for Bai Qian a fleeting thing that would eventually fade? Was the affection he was just starting to recognize he had for her destined to disappear with time?
A forgotten detail from his argument with Bai Qian surfaced, providing him the answer he sought. His dragon had not been indifferent to Bai Qian back then as Ye Hua had first thought. The whole reason he had given in and apologized to her first was because his dragon had demanded he do so, had been angry at Ye Hua for upsetting the little Fox Princess. It was so clear to him now. Even then, the black dragon had wanted to look after her. His dragon had felt this way about Bai Qian from the first moment he had seen her.
These feelings are not fleeting. It’s as if my dragon loves Bai Qian and always has.
Ye Hua did not shy away from the thought this time; he embraced it instead and it brought a new understanding to his heart and mind, to his soul. He and Mo Yuan had once laughed over a conversation between a group of young girls they had overheard. The girls had been discussing the idea that every person had another person out there they were destined to love and spend their life with; a person who was the other half of one’s soul, a soulmate.
Never had he believed in such a thing until right this moment. Now, it felt like the most important truth he had ever learned. This was what his dragon had been trying to tell him all along. He just hadn’t bothered to listen.
Remembering his dragon’s earlier actions, Ye Hua frowned when he realized just how close he had been to finalizing a marriage agreement with Huiling. He owed his dragon a great debt of gratitude for stopping him from making the biggest mistake of his life. Never did he think he would be grateful he shared his soul with the spirit of such a headstrong dragon but now he was eternally thankful for it.
Ye Hua stood with a long yawn, a relaxed drowsiness falling over him now that his thoughts were calm. He disappeared from sight as he jumped to his bedchamber to get some sleep.
Jinjing waited a few minutes after Ye Hua vanished before removing the concealment barrier he had used to hide his presence from the Crown Prince and Heavenly Mother. Luck had been on his side when Jinjing had crossed paths with Heavenly Mother upon his return to the Heavens after spending a week at a brothel in the Mortal Realm. He was glad his curiosity about the reason for her late night stroll had led him to follow her. He had learned two important things from amongst all the sentimental rubbish he had been forced to listen to.
He now had the final confirmation he needed that Bai Qian was indeed the unnamed “her” Ye Hua had been referring to when he told his father he had found her. But he had always known he was correct about that. It was Weisheng, really, who had wanted the identity of the unnamed woman double-checked before they made any definite plans. It was the other piece of news Jinjing had learned that was truly crucial.
The Crown Prince was going to be a formidable obstacle to go through in order to get anywhere near Bai Qian. Jinjing had no doubt after what he had overheard that Ye Hua would give his very life to protect the troublesome little fox. Killing a powerful Dragon God like the Crown Prince was no easy feat and carried deadly consequences if it could be accomplished.
Jinjing hurried toward his quarters, his departure as silent as his approach had been. There was much Jinjing needed to share with Weisheng for he and the Demon King were going to have to find a way around Ye Hua if they wanted the Fox Princess taken care of once and for all.
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