There was an unmistakable mood of excitement in the air during breakfast on Kunlun Mountain that morning. Mo Yuan had asked Master Yingjie, his and Ye Hua’s favorite sword instructor when they were young, to pay a visit to his disciples and share some of his knowledge. The ancient god was almost as old as Heavenly Father and was renowned throughout the realms for his unmatched skill with a blade. Mo Yuan had just made the announcement and he could hear his disciples discussing the upcoming visit in enthusiastic voices as they shared their morning meal together.
While he was looking forward to sparring with Master Yingjie again after so many years, Mo Yuan joined in on the elation of the day for a much different reason. His recent patience and persistence when corresponding with Lord Bohai, the Eagle Lord of the south, had finally earned him a positive response to one of the two important requests he had asked of the wizened leader of the eagle clan. He now had permission to formally court the Eagle Lord’s eldest granddaughter, Meixiu. Mo Yuan had been visiting the Southern Eagle Clan all along, stealing brief moments of private time with Meixiu on those visits whenever he could. Now he would be able to go and spend time with her without needing an alternative excuse for his visits.
He had met Meixiu by chance on a trip through the southern marshes to visit the family of a potential Kunlun disciple. She had been traveling through the family’s small village. The long waves of her thick chestnut hair and the beauty of her honey toned skin had caught his notice first; then her lovely jasmine scent and the piercing gaze of her tawny eyes had held it. But it was the warrior spirit he sensed within her that kept Mo Yuan captivated and had his dragon longing to join Meixiu’s graceful golden eagle in flight, to soar through the clouds with her.
Lord Bohai’s clan was unusual in that both men and women trained in the traditional combat style of their people, an intriguing style that utilized a fan that could transform into a jian sword. The eagles were small in stature and extraordinarily swift; their combat skills focused on quick, sudden movements as opposed to those that relied on strength. They used their speed to great advantage.
Meixiu excelled in battle; Mo Yuan had seen this demonstrated on his subsequent visits to eagle territory to spend time with her. Watching her agile motions with both fan and sword had enthralled Mo Yuan and he had wanted to spar with her, to match her skills with some of his own. Instead he had studied her fighting style as much as he was allowed to. He could move very fast when needed but his speed couldn’t come anywhere close to hers. Mo Yuan wanted to learn as many of the forms as he could for he thought it would be helpful for any disciples he may have that did not share his own size and strength. He had also never seen a fan used as a weapon before and the opportunity to learn the forms and skill set for a brand new weapon, especially one that could easily be concealed and carried anywhere at any time, was a compelling one for him.
That had been Mo Yuan’s second request of the Eagle Lord; he wanted the chance to train with Meixiu and the other warriors of the clan to learn some of the basic skills they utilized in order to pass the knowledge on to any of his disciples that may benefit from them. The Eagle Lord had been intrigued by the idea but had still not given his permission for it.
Mo Yuan had taken the chance to introduce himself in person to Lord Bohai during one of his more recent visits with Meixiu. He had gotten along well with the other man when they talked and thought Meixiu’s grandfather liked him. Otherwise he never would have given Mo Yuan permission to court his granddaughter, a skilled and valued warrior of the clan. As long as he didn’t receive an outright denial, Mo Yuan suspected with a little more patient prodding he could convince the Eagle Lord to grant his second request. But even if he never did so, Mo Yuan still considered the older man’s approval of his relationship with Meixiu to be a decisive victory, the victory that mattered most to him.
A fond smile crossed Mo Yuan’s lips when he imagined how happy Meixiu would be when he shared the good news with her; he knew she had worried her grandfather would continue to insist she marry one of the eagle warriors from the clan instead. And Mo Yuan needed to let his family know. His mother knew he had met a woman who had captured his attention but she did not know any details beyond that for Mo Yuan had been hesitant to reveal too much about his Eagle Princess too soon. He hadn’t wanted to risk getting his hopes up only to have them dashed at the last second.
Looking up from his breakfast when he felt Ye Hua’s presence in the temple, Mo Yuan’s fond smile transformed into an amused one as he watched his twin appear at the doorway and then make his way across the room. This was an earlier visit than normal for Ye Hua; he must want something again. A long list of possibilities ran through Mo Yuan’s mind.
The excited voices of Mo Yuan’s disciples faded into silence before they stood as one to greet Ye Hua with respectful bows. Ye Hua lingered to speak with the small group of young men for a few minutes before heading Mo Yuan’s way.
“Da Ge,” Ye Hua said with a sheepish grin as he approached. “It’s been a while.”
Mo Yuan laughed at his brother’s expression. “It has. It seems like it was only yesterday I was playing a drinking song for you and Zhe Yan.” He gestured for Ye Hua to join him. “Would you like some breakfast?”
“I’ve already eaten,” Ye Hua answered, sitting across the table from Mo Yuan. “Your disciples are really looking forward to meeting Master Yingjie. How did you convince him to pay a visit to Kunlun? I haven’t spoken to him or even seen him in years, not since he retreated from the public eye.”
“Father knew how to get in touch with him. It wasn’t difficult to convince him. I think a part of him missed having students to teach because he agreed right away. You should join us when he’s here if you’re free. I know he would like to see you again.”
“That’s a good idea,” Ye Hua said with a nod. “Your disciples will learn a lot from him. We sure did.” Ye Hua cleared his throat. “I need a favor, Da Ge.”
“Of course you do.” Mo Yuan shook his head with a smirk. “I knew that had to be why my little brother was here so early in the morning. What do you want this time? I can’t leave Kunlun today like I did yesterday.”
“It’s nothing big this time.” Ye Hua spoke quickly. “I promise. I just need to borrow your bow.”
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Mo Yuan responded with amusement, unable to resist the opportunity to tease his brother. “Our bows are exactly the same. Using mine will not improve your aim.”
Mo Yuan chuckled when Ye Hua’s immdiate answer was an annoyed glare. “There’s nothing wrong with my aim, Da Ge. I hit the target perfectly most of the time. And come very close to hitting it the rest of the time.” Ye Hua sighed as if realizing his defensive answer had just given Mo Yuan the response he had been looking for. “That’s not why I want to borrow it. The string on my bow is broken and I don’t want to take the time to restring it properly. I have a lot to do today and want to get to the forest to hunt as soon as possible.”
Studying his brother, Mo Yuan could not conceal his surprise. To hunt? There was no large game worth hunting in the peach tree forest. What about Bai Qian? The Fox Princess had been consuming all of Ye Hua’s attention in recent weeks. And Mo Yuan knew he was not mistaken in his realization yesterday that Ye Hua and his black dragon were attuned to Bai Qian’s presence even when nobody else knew she was there. So Mo Yuan found it strange that Ye Hua didn’t want to return to his mission of coaxing Bai Qian out of hiding right away; there was a bond he didn’t fully understand developing between his brother and the lost Fox Princess.
“I doubt Bai Qian has had anything to eat other than squirrel, rabbit, and peaches in millenia,” Ye Hua continued. Mo Yuan nodded thoughtfully as he listened. Now Ye Hua’s request made more sense. “I’ve walked almost every inch of the peach tree forest and I’ve seen no evidence of any wildlife larger than that. And I’m not certain she could bring down large game even if there were. I’m planning to make some venison stew for her.”
“Stew?” Mo Yuan questioned, surprised once again by this news as he had assumed Ye Hua would cook the meat on a spit over an open fire. This was a new revelation about his brother; there had been so many as of late. “Since when do you know how to cook stew? Or anything at all.”
Ye Hua shrugged. “Cooking is a new hobby I’ve picked up. Sometimes my mind is too distracted to focus on painting. I find cooking settles my mind in a similar way.” He paused for a moment as if gathering his thoughts. “I thought Bai Qian might appreciate having something different to eat. In fact, I think Bai Qian would like to have some company so I’m moving into Zhe Yan’s cabin in the forest for a time. I just finished speaking with him about it.”
“Zhe Yan’s cabin?” Mo Yuan found himself studying his brother all over again, one brow raised in question. “You’re sure that’s a good idea?”
“Yes.” Ye Hua nodded without hesitation. “That way Bai Qian can get used to having someone around again.”
“Or become annoyed by your constant presence in her forest,” Mo Yuan responded drily.
Ye Hua laughed. “Or that.” Then his expression grew serious. “She’s lonely, Da Ge. I know she is… I can feel it. Annoyance is better than perpetual loneliness, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is.” Mo Yuan frowned as he watched Ye Hua for a moment. He couldn’t help but worry about his brother’s words, about his involvement with Bai Qian in general. Every time Ye Hua mentioned the Fox Princess now, he seemed more and more attached to her, more sure he understood her thoughts and feelings. And yet there was no way to know if Bai Qian would ever come out of hiding. Mo Yuan didn’t want to see his brother hurt at the end of all of this and he feared that was the eventual outcome. He sighed, feeling compelled to try to talk some sense into his brother if he could.
“You know, Ye Hua,” he said, carefully gauging Ye Hua’s response to his words as he spoke. “Have you ever considered that maybe Zhe Yan is the better person to reach out to Bai Qian? I’m sure she must remember him from when she was a girl and would feel better about approaching him. You’ve found her as Father asked you to. Maybe it’s time to hand things off to Zhe Yan.”
Mo Yuan tensed when Ye Hua didn’t respond at first, wondering if his prodding question had upset his brother. But Ye Hua’s tone was calm when he finally answered.
“I have considered it… when Father made the same suggestion not too long ago.” Ye Hua looked up to meet Mo Yuan’s eyes, a solemn expression in his gaze. “I can’t walk away from Bai Qian, Da Ge. I don’t think I ever could. I know Zhe Yan would do everything he could to help her but it has to be me. My dragon tells me I… we have to be the one to reach her and her fox. I didn’t understand why for a long time but I see it clearly now. Bai Qian and I share something special between us. There’s a fated bond existing between us, pulling us together. There always has been.”
“Do you think Bai Qian feels this bond too? That she’s still there and hasn’t become lost inside her fox spirit after all these years? I only ask because…”
“…because you’re worried about me,” Ye Hua finished for him and Mo Yuan nodded, grateful his brother understood why he was asking these things. He continued to watch Ye Hua closely but sensed no doubt or hesitation coming from his brother which helped reassure him. He could see Ye Hua’s thoughts focus inward for a moment as if remembering something important before he continued.
“I know Bai Qian is still there with her fox spirit. I’ve felt her presence and made a powerful connection with her last night, one that was accomplished by my dragon even though she was miles away from me. It shocked me but also told me so much about her. She’s definitely there, Da Ge. Alone and uncertain about many things but she’s there. You don’t have to worry about me, not when it comes to my feelings for Bai Qian.”
Mo Yuan nodded, accepting his brother’s words. “I won’t question you about it again.” He summoned his longbow to his hand and placed it on the table before Ye Hua. “And I will help you in any way I can.”
“Are you sure you don’t need me to do the hunting for you?” Mo Yuan added, teasing Ye Hua again to lighten the serious mood. “I hit the target every time, you know.”
“I can hit a deer just fine,” Ye Hua grumbled but his amused expression told Mo Yuan he understood what Mo Yuan intended with his offer. “There is another way you can help me though.”
“Well… What is it?” he questioned when Ye Hua didn’t immediately continue.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any dessert recipes laying around, would you? I need something simple to make for Bai Qian, something that has fruit other than peaches in it.”
Mo Yuan laughed, caught off guard by that request. “Why would I have dessert recipes? I teach meditation, martial arts, and war theory. I’m hoping to find a disciple who knows how to cook so palace chefs don’t have to come here to prepare meals anymore.”
An image of Meixiu appeared in his head. She liked to cook and may have a recipe she could share. And it gave him a legitimate excuse to see her for a moment to tell her the happy news about her grandfather’s answer. “Wait here,” he ordered Ye Hua, his tone abrupt. “I’ll be back shortly.”
Mo Yuan disappeared before Ye Hua even had a chance to answer.
In the end, Ye Hua never used the bow he had borrowed from Mo Yuan. For once Ye Hua had scented the large buck’s trail through the trees and had begun stalking him, his dragon had stirred and insisted they kill the deer for his fox in the primal way. Ye Hua had not disagreed, shifting into his dragon form; it had been a long time since he and his dragon had last gone on a real hunt because bow hunting was seen as being more polite and civilized.
After the black dragon found and swiftly killed the deer, Ye Hua found there was something uniquely satisfying about catching food for Bai Qian without the aid of weapons, something his dragon had known from the very beginning. Hunting for her in the old way helped better fulfill a part of the immensely powerful instinct to take care of her that Ye Hua now recognized and allowed himself to feel.
He had then cleaned and dressed the animal with his magic, keeping several choice cuts of venison for Bai Qian before wrapping and sending the remainder of the meat along with the bow to Mo Yuan and his disciples on Kunlun to thank his brother.
Even though he was getting a later start to his day than he had intended, Ye Hua didn’t immediately go to Zhe Yan’s cabin upon returning to the peach tree forest. Instead, he went to the spot where he had left the painting for Bai Qian to see if she had accepted his gift yesterday, smiling softly to himself when he found nothing but dirt and peach blossom petals where he had placed the scroll.
Bai Qian had kept the painting he had given her.
Stepping closer to the area, Ye Hua crouched down to study the faint paw prints Bai Qian had left behind in the rich soil, his irises darkening as his dragon moved forward to see his fox’s prints for himself. Ye Hua’s heart skipped a beat and a pleased growl rumbled from his dragon when they both spotted the small feminine footprints intermingling with the paw prints before leading away into the forest. Bai Qian hadn’t just accepted his gift; she must have shifted into her human form to look at the painting right away.
Ye Hua had suspected she was there all along but here was the definitive proof that Bai Qian the woman had not become lost within her fox spirit.
The discovery Bai Qian had been standing in her human form right here in this very spot was a momentous one for Ye Hua. It told him she feared him less and was growing more comfortable with his presence. It revealed he was making progress and encouraged him to keep trying to bridge the wide gap still separating Bai Qian from him and the rest of the outside world. He felt closer to her than ever.
Optimistic about the chances of his new plan succeeding, Ye Hua stood with one last glance at Bai Qian’s footprints before hurrying down the path to Zhe Yan’s cabin.
Taking his first good look at the interior, Ye Hua grimaced when he saw the ramshackle state of the things inside as he stood in the doorway. The place was even more run down than he had thought. He had planned to clean the place up some before starting the stew even though the venison would taste best when allowed to slowly simmer for several hours. But unless he did the cleaning and made the repairs using his magic, it was going to take awhile for the cabin to be inhabitable. Bai Qian’s meal wouldn’t be ready in time for supper because he was already running behind. But using his cultivation went against his plans today for he intended to do things without magic as much as possible to attract Bai Qian’s interest.
Turning away from the cabin door, Ye Hua decided to cook the stew outside, altering his plan to not use magic for just as long as it took to get the stew started to avoid further delay. Looking around the clearing carefully, he spotted what looked like a circle of stones hidden underneath dried leaves and dead peach blossoms. He cleared the area with a wave of his cultivation, satisfied to find there was indeed a fire pit under all the leaf litter. It didn’t take him long to find some wood and dried twigs for kindling. With a spark of magic, he soon had a fire going; the crackling sound of burning wood filled the clearing.
Summoning a cauldron and its iron support rack from the palace kitchens and a table from his family’s private gardens, Ye Hua filled the cauldron with some clear water from the small lake near Zhe Yan’s cabin. He set the large pot over the fire to heat the water.
He had brought three sacks of supplies with him and they appeared on the surface of the table as Ye Hua sat down. He moved the sack with apples, cinnamon, and a tiny jar of butter off to one side, grinning as he tucked the jasmine-scented paper Mo Yuan had given him next to it. The paper had a recipe for baked apples written on it.
That dessert recipe was the reason he was running late today. His thoughts wandered back to earlier in the day as Ye Hua began cutting the venison into bite sized pieces, remembering his surprise when his twin had returned to Kunlun Mountain with the recipe in hand and the subtle fragrance of jasmine clinging to him. Mo Yuan didn’t typically smell like jasmine. Ye Hua had not been able to let that little detail go after pointing it out and had worked hard to pry the reason for it out of his reticent brother.
Ye Hua’s grin widened as he browned the chunks of venison with a wave of fire from his hands before dumping them into the cauldron of heated water.
Mo Yuan had met a warrioress in one of the southern eagle clans, one he was very serious about. Ye Hua had been shocked to learn his brother had been spending time with Princess Meixiu for almost a year and intended to formally court her. Though Mo Yuan had not said a whole lot about his feelings for her, Ye Hua had been able to tell just by the expression in his brother’s eyes that Meixiu made his brother very happy.
Grabbing some potatoes, Ye Hua summoned a new knife to his hand to chop the potatoes and assorted vegetables for the stew, adding them to the cauldron as he had them ready. The scent of venison was beginning to permeate the air. Ye Hua shifted the air currents within the forest to better carry the scent through the peach trees.
He was excited for his brother; Ye Hua thought it great news to hear Mo Yuan had found someone he wanted to share his life with. Meixiu sounded like she would be more than capable of being mistress of Kunlun Mountain. He looked forward to meeting her.
The black dragon stirred and suppressed a pleased growl, interrupting Ye Hua’s thoughts to tell him their fox was approaching.
Ye Hua felt the familiar presence drawing near a few seconds later. A soft smile replaced his grin as Bai Qian came closer to the edge of the clearing. He could feel her watching him from among the trees so he went out of his way not to react outwardly to her presence while inside the instinct to have her next to him, to protect and care for her strengthened further. Every wondrous feeling he had experienced while connected to her the night before came back to him in an exhilarating rush of emotions.
Would today be the day she finally stopped hiding from him?
Knowing the answer depended on his actions, Ye Hua maintained a calm expression on his face as he added the last of the vegetables to the cauldron. He then sprinkled a mixture of spices to the stew, adding a few extra pinches of black pepper for added flavor. He stirred the simmering contents of the pot a few times, estimating in his head how long it would need to simmer in order for the vegetables to become more tender and for the stew to thicken. He should still have time to make good headway on cleaning the interior of the cabin.
As he turned to walk to the cabin, Ye Hua caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Turning his head in that direction the slightest little bit, he glanced over and caught the brief outline of a white fox crouching down in the leaves. Bai Qian had crept out into the open.
Pleased excitement rushed through Ye Hua and a hushed rumble of happiness escaped from his dragon but Ye Hua did not alter his steps. As it had the day before when he had been painting, the urge to turn and look at Bai Qian was powerful, the urge an almost overwhelming one. It would be difficult for Ye Hua to explain just how desperately he and his dragon wanted to lay eyes on her again. But, worried he would scare her away if he looked, he did not allow himself to give into the urge and his dragon understood and did not argue with him.
Instead, Ye Hua continued to face the cabin as he reached the doorway and stepped inside. All his other senses were still attuned to Bai Qian as he looked over the chaotic mess awaiting him.
Behind him, the small white fox lifted her head and then relaxed her cautious crouched position, muzzle twitching as she scented the air around her. Her curious brown eyes never left the doorway Ye Hua had just walked through.
Meixiu: beautiful grace
Bohai: sea waves
Yingjie: brave and heroic
⇛ Next part: Ch 20: A Meal for Two
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