Her fox’s excited joy at having a name to call her own was contagious. It lessened some of the dismayed embarrassment Bai Qian felt upon learning of the events of the previous night.
It had taken some coaxing but Bai Qian had managed to get most of the story out of her mischievous animal spirit once the fox was awake. At first, the fox had been reluctant to share any of her memories from when she returned to the cabin, knowing Bai Qian would not have approved of her decision. And she refused to reveal the reason why she had ventured out of their den, worried knowledge of the intruder might send Bai Qian back into hiding. The fox simply insisted it had been very important to be near the black dragon at the time while purposely sharing vague, indistinct bits and pieces of her trek through the night shadows of the forest.
Not missing the way her fox shared the details more clearly once she reached the point in the story where Ye Hua noticed her, Bai Qian watched the events unfold in her mind with a mix of surprise and embarrassment. She cringed, cheeks burning, when she realized that not only did Ye Hua know her fox had slept in bed with him but her fox had basically begged him to sleep in the cabin with her when he planned to sleep outside as was proper.
She may not have paid much attention to the few etiquette lessons her mother had attempted to teach her but Bai Qian did remember some of the strict rules about acceptable behavior between men and women from overhearing conversations between her parents and oldest brothers. Those conversations had been far more interesting than her dull formal lessons even if she didn’t fully understand all that was being discussed.
Bai Qian blushed again as she remembered waking up next to Ye Hua in light of the knowledge he had tried to sleep outside. At least she could take some comfort in the fact Ye Hua knew it was her fox doing these things and not Bai Qian herself.
As much as Bai Qian wanted to scold her fox for what she had done, she couldn’t bring herself to say much about it. For her fox continued to think about the moment Ye Hua had given her a name, using the title of his painting, and to remind Bai Qian that he understood the best way to scratch her ears without having to be told. These memories brought happiness to her fox; Bai Qian could feel bouts of joy bursting through her animal spirit. It brought a smile to her face despite everything because it had been too long since her fox had last been this excited about anything.
The fox had always craved the friendship of others and she had now found someone she trusted who could make the long years of loneliness go away. Bai Qian shared these same thoughts with her fox and they both longed to have Ye Hua’s company again. Which was the reason Bai Qian didn’t argue, despite her shock at waking up in bed with Ye Hua that morning, when her fox expressed her desire to visit Ye Hua and the black dragon again already.
Bai Qian remained unsure about meeting Ye Hua face to face, especially when she could still feel the lingering heat of embarrassment reddening her cheeks. She suspected her blush would return in full force once she saw him again. Bai Qian still wanted to try and talk to him though so she agreed to return to the cabin when her fox requested, thinking it was late enough in the morning now for Ye Hua to be awake.
With these thoughts in mind, she chose the best looking peaches for Ye Hua from the lot she had picked before sending the remainder to her den to eat later. After murmuring a quiet word of thanks to the ancient trees in the grove around her, Bai Qian stepped onto the path that would take her back to the cabin, shifting into her fox as she headed in that direction.
The closer she came to her destination, the quicker her heart beat due to the presence of both nerves and anticipation. Running along the trail, Bai Qian reached the edge of the clearing in no time, her fox urging her on every step of the way.
Her idea of approaching Ye Hua in human form vanished from her mind when she arrived at the cabin to find Ye Hua was not alone. She could hear the low murmur of masculine voices coming from behind the cabin even if she couldn’t quite understand what they were saying. Her location was all wrong to catch their words clearly even with her sensitive ears. She recognized the timbre of Ye Hua’s deep voice right away but she was unsure of who the other belonged to though it sounded familiar.
Despite knowing better than to eavesdrop, Bai Qian’s curiosity was piqued. Who was the visitor? What were he and Ye Hua talking about? Knowing Ye Hua would never bring anyone dangerous into her forest, she decided to try and move closer to them. Would Ye Hua be angry with her for doing so? Her instincts told her he would not be and she decided to listen to them.
Keeping her ears perked in their direction, Bai Qian crept along the edge of the clearing, remaining hidden in the tree line as she did, until she reached a spot where she could see Ye Hua and the other man talking and could hear them better. It’s Zhe Yan! She had not been expecting him to visit the forest again so soon.
Her fox echoing her own happiness at seeing Zhe Yan again, Bai Qian thought now would be the perfect time to come out of her hiding spot. She could finally meet Ye Hua in her human form and she could take the time to greet her brother’s old friend properly. And after last night and this morning, maybe things won’t feel as awkward with Ye Hua if Zhe Yan is there. This was a perfect opportunity.
Taking a step forward, Bai Qian gathered her cultivation in preparation for shifting into her human form.
What if Zhe Yan wants to talk about Si Ge?
The possibility crashed into Bai Qian, her steps faltering until she came to an abrupt halt. Her stomach dropped at the thought of hearing her beloved brother’s name spoken aloud after not hearing it anywhere but in her memories for so long. While her family was often in her thoughts, the idea of discussing the past with another made Bai Qian feel sick and queasy inside and caused her chest to ache with pain. She tried to force herself to keep going forward when her fox encouraged her to, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. I’m not ready to talk about it.
A part of Bai Qian was ashamed at her cowardice given this opportunity to see an old friend again. Hadn’t she wanted to walk up to Zhe Yan and talk to him when she had seen him before? And she didn’t know for sure he would even want to talk about her family. But if he did? I can’t talk about them right now.
Feeling a mix of sorrow and guilt at the direction of her thoughts and her decision not to speak with Zhe Yan, Bai Qian remained frozen in place, still hidden from Zhe Yan and Ye Hua’s sight by the forest though she suspected Ye Hua likely knew she was close by based on her prior interactions with him. Ye Hua must know Zhe Yan was close with my family. Does he think it wrong of me to continue to hide from Zhe Yan?
Continuing to watch from the tree line, Bai Qian noticed that Ye Hua looked worried as he listened to whatever Zhe Yan had been telling him and wondered about the reason for his troubled expression. Feeling uneasy now, she tried to focus on the conversation between the two and to determine what was being discussed and why Ye Hua seemed so bothered by it.
Despite his dragon having sensed her the minute Bai Qian arrived, Ye Hua couldn’t allow himself to be distracted away from his friend. Not yet. Zhe Yan intended to go to the Demon Realm to explore the ice caves and he planned to go alone. Ye Hua didn’t think that was a good idea, not when Zhe Yan had a tendency to become fully absorbed in whatever it was he was studying, and Ye Hua had no qualms about sharing his opinion.
“You shouldn’t go alone,“ Ye Hua responded after Zhe Yan had finished explaining his plans. “You need somebody to guard your back while you’re there.” He ignored his friend’s annoyed expression at this advice.
Zhe Yan sighed. “Why did I know you were going to say that?”
“Because it’s not safe,” Ye Hua answered. “I don’t care if he seemed to welcome the idea. Weisheng can’t be trusted. You know that as well as I do.”
“What’s he going to do?” Zhe Yan countered, his voice exasperated. “He knows your father and mine would retaliate if something happened to me and he’s in no position to effectively defend himself or his lands. He would be a fool to try anything. Besides… I can take care of myself.”
“I know you can, Zhe Yan.” Ye Hua hastened to reply, wanting to help his friend without starting an argument. “I’m not doubting your ability to defend against attack. But accidents happen and if Weisheng has an opportunity to catch you off guard and make something look like an accident, he will.”
Zhe Yan sighed, the sound exaggerated to let Ye Hua know he was only giving in to stop the discussion. “Fine. I’ll take some of my father’s guards with me.”
Frowning thoughtfully, Ye Hua shook his head in disagreement. Why did he still have a bad feeling about Zhe Yan going to the Demon Realm? A few phoenix guards should be plenty of protection for his friend but it didn’t feel like enough to Ye Hua. Maybe he could arrange…
“Now what’s wrong?” Zhe Yan asked, interrupting Ye Hua mid thought.
“If you wait a few days, I can go with you,” Ye Hua told Zhe Yan, still making plans in his mind so he could look after his friend without leaving Bai Qian alone, something he was reluctant to do now that she was becoming accustomed to his presence. He would do everything he could to ensure loneliness never had the chance to return to her. She had lived with it for too long now.
“Weisheng is expecting me to be there later today,” Zhe Yan pointed out dryly.
“Send him a message telling him you need to postpone,” Ye Hua encouraged his friend, thinking the idea a good one regardless as it would throw any of Weisheng’s possible plans awry. “You can blame it on me. I don’t care. He’s obligated to allow you to explore those caves because of the treaty so he can’t deny you access just because you need to choose a later date.”
“Please just humor me if nothing else,” Ye Hua continued when Zhe Yan remained quiet. “I would ask the same thing of Mo Yuan if he were the one going. And I wouldn’t go by myself. I would want either you or Mo Yuan with me. My gut tells me Weisheng can’t be trusted.”
“Alright,” Zhe Yan agreed with a second exaggerated sigh. “If it’s that important to you, I’ll wait a few more days.”
“Thank you, Zhe Yan.”
“It’s not because I think you’re right, mind you,” Zhe Yan grumbled before he grinned. “I’ve just known you and Mo Yuan long enough to realize it’s pointless to argue with a stubborn dragon when their mind is set on something. That’s all.”
“Da Ge is worse than I am.”
“True,” Zhe Yan agreed with a chuckle. “But you have your moments, Ye Hua.”
“Do you mind if I plant some flowers around the cabin?” Ye Hua asked, bringing about an abrupt change in the subject before his friend could start listing the “moments” he was referring to.
“For Bai Qian?” Zhe Yan kept his voice soft.
“Yes. I thought she might enjoy seeing them.” Ye Hua did not say anything more than that. He could still feel Bai Qian nearby and her decision to stay hidden told Ye Hua she wasn’t ready to reveal her presence to Zhe Yan and he would respect her wishes on the matter. Zhe Yan knew she was still alive and doing alright considering the circumstances which would have to be enough for now.
“It’s a great idea,” Zhe Yan answered, speaking at a normal volume again. “Flowers will really brighten the place up. You’ve already done wonders with the interior of the cabin.”
“I want to bring some plants from Mother’s garden,” Ye Hua explained, grateful his friend seemed to understand and didn’t ask him any further questions about Bai Qian. “I’m curious to see if they will grow well here despite being adapted to life in the Heavens. The atmosphere of the forest seems to possess enough natural magic to sustain them.”
“It does,” Zhe Yan mused, looking around at the peach trees surrounding them. “I’ve been experimenting with your peach wine idea.” An earthen jug appeared in his hand. “Since it was your idea, you get to be the first to try the finished product.”
Ye Hua reached for the container of wine with a smile when Zhe Yan handed it to him. “That was quick. I didn’t expect you to have it ready so soon. I’m impressed.”
Zhe Yan shrugged the praise off. “Father let me borrow some of his magic wine barrels.”
Pulling the cork stopper out, Ye Hua took a drink straight from the jug. The cloying taste of fermented peaches tingled on his tongue and he grimaced at the unpleasant flavor before he could stop himself. “It’s way too sweet, Zhe Yan.”
“Too sweet?!” Zhe Yan snatched the wine jug from Ye Hua’s hand with an irritated frown. “It’s supposed to be sweet, Ye Hua. What did you expect peach wine to taste like? Peach juice is sweet!” Ye Hua watched with amusement as Zhe Yan took a long drink of the wine himself before making a disgusted face at the flavor. “Ugh. You’re right. That tastes terrible.”
“Maybe peaches just aren’t meant to be used to make wine,” Ye Hua mused. Now that Zhe Yan had committed to keeping the peach tree forest, Ye Hua didn’t feel the same urgency he had before to convince Zhe Yan to create a vintage of peach wine.
“Any fruit juice can be turned into wine,” Zhe Yan responded grumpily before looking at the jug in his hand with a frown. “It’s just a matter of finding the perfect ingredients to complement the sweet flavor of the peaches.” He walked over to the closest peach tree and gathered a handful of peach blossoms. “Maybe adding some peach blossom petals? And some spices?”
Watching as Zhe Yan considered the trees around him while muttering to himself, Ye Hua was surprised that his friend now seemed determined to produce peach wine when he had been reluctant to accept the idea just a few months ago. Ye Hua wasn’t certain Zhe Yan even remembered he was there as he became caught up in studying the forest, likely formulating some complicated recipe in his mind. His friend’s tendency to become lost in thought like this was precisely the reason why Ye Hua had insisted on going along with Zhe Yan when he explored the ice caves in the Demon Realm.
“I have an idea I need to test,” Zhe Yan declared suddenly. “I’ll see you later, Ye Hua.”
“Bye, Zhe Yan,” Ye Hua responded with an amused shake of his head, speaking to the empty space where his friend had been standing just seconds ago.
While his dragon’s attention had been solely focused on the small fox hiding in the underbrush all along, Ye Hua now turned all of his attention to Bai Qian too, wondering if she would decide to spend the day with him again. Knowing she wouldn’t approach him if he stood there looking for her, he turned to the cabin and pretended to study the worn facade. There were places that had rotted and needed to be repaired on the outside but Ye Hua found it difficult to concentrate on those spots while he was waiting to see if Bai Qian would come out of hiding.
He didn’t have to wait long. After just a few minutes, the black dragon stirred with a hushed rumble and Ye Hua could sense her coming closer to him on silent paws. He hadn’t realized how tense he had been until he felt himself relax when she reached his side or as close to his side as Bai Qian would allow herself to get.
“Good morning, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua greeted her calmly, fighting his instinct to turn and gaze at her. He reminded himself not to slip up and say anything about Hu Mei sleeping inside the cabin the previous night, wanting to avoid upsetting Bai Qian with the news. He said nothing more for several minutes, simply staring at the outside of the cabin to give her time to settle. Then, Ye Hua turned to her, his eyes landing on the beautiful white fox sitting there quietly, her fluffy tails fanned out behind her on the ground.
Taking a step or two closer to her, Ye Hua stopped before he reached the point where he was in her personal space, remembering the distance she had been careful to maintain between them the previous day. Everything about her demeanor told him that while Hu Mei was likely awake, it was Bai Qian sitting next to him. And while the black dragon was extra vigilant, always watching for threats within his fox’s forest, the dragon’s absolute silence while doing so also confirmed it was Bai Qian.
“Would you like some breakfast?”
Dark brown eyes met his before she shook her head in response to his question. Ye Hua frowned with concern. He thought her expression seemed sad this morning; it troubled him to see it. He knew Bai Qian was always cautious but she seemed even more subdued now than she had yesterday. Something wasn’t right.
Keeping his movements slow, Ye Hua sat down on the ground and leaned his back against the wall of the cabin. He didn’t say anything for a few minutes, catching her glancing over to where Zhe Yan had been standing earlier. He thought he might understand what had caused her melancholy mood, realizing his father and Mo Yuan might have been wrong after all when they suggested Zhe Yan should be the one to make contact with Bai Qian.
“I guess it’s difficult to see someone from the past, isn’t it?” Ye Hua asked her quietly, broaching the subject of her family in a roundabout way to avoid upsetting her further. “It stirs up unwanted memories?”
“That’s why you didn’t want Zhe Yan to see you,” he added when she remained motionless, her gaze avoiding his now.
It pained Ye Hua’s heart to see Bai Qian’s ears droop and her muzzle lower when she nodded at him, now looking like she felt remorse or maybe even guilt over her decision. He waited until she lifted her head up to look at him again before continuing to speak, offering her a soft smile, doing his best to comfort her without reaching out to hold her close like he wanted.
“Zhe Yan will understand that you needed more time,” he murmured to reassure her. “He’s one of the kindest people I know. And one of the most understanding. You don’t have to worry about him becoming upset with you, Qian Qian. Not after everything that has happened. He would want you to wait until you’re ready to see him.”
Ye Hua was relieved to see some of the sadness leave Bai Qian’s eyes as she listened to his words.
Ye Hua understood her. Bai Qian didn’t know how he could read her so well but he could and his gentle understanding along with his words soothed her distress. Just being near him made her feel more peaceful; his presence alone subdued a lot of her earlier turmoil. This effect he had on her made no sense to Bai Qian but she suspected it was a big part of the reason her fox always wanted to be near him. It made the very idea of Ye Hua one day leaving the forest never to return impossible for Bai Qian to consider. She and her fox would miss him too much.
As silence descended over them for several minutes, Ye Hua’s gaze refused to release hers. Bai Qian watched with fascination and that strange nervous anticipation he made her feel as his expression changed, his eyes growing ever more intent while he watched her. He no longer appeared concerned but Bai Qian couldn’t identify just what it was that had replaced the worry on his face. All she knew was that the pleasant warmth and the erratic group of fluttering butterflies had returned to her stomach once again, only this time the urge to run from him did not accompany them.
Ignoring the sudden desire to shyly hide her face from Ye Hua, Bai Qian found herself feeling compelled to shift into her human form even though she knew very well his intense gaze would make her cheeks redden in an embarrassing blush. Still… she wanted to talk to him, wanted to meet him face to face. She wanted to give her gift to him in person.
Gathering her courage and preparing her cultivation to shift out of her fox form, Bai Qian jumped with surprise when Ye Hua cleared his throat and looked away, finally breaking eye contact with her. As suddenly as it had developed, the tense moment between them vanished. Bai Qian felt both relieved and disappointed when the potent spell surrounding them was broken.
Now the silence in the air felt awkward and Bai Qian squirmed in place, wanting to escape from it.
“Will you take a walk with me, Qian Qian?” Ye Hua asked, interrupting her thoughts before she could bolt away from the cabin. Could he sense her discomfort?
Watching as Ye Hua stood, Bai Qian followed him with her eyes, the tips of her tails twitching with indecision, when he started to walk in the direction of the main path leading through the forest. He turned to her, his expression questioning.
“I have an idea I would like to share with you,” he told her.
Bai Qian hesitated even though her fox jumped with excited eagerness to find out what Ye Hua wanted to share with them. She tilted her head in curiosity and suspicion as she watched him, thinking back to the day he had pretended to be gravely injured. An idea? What kind of idea? He sure seemed to have some strange ones.
“Will you walk with me, Qian Qian, so I can show you?” he repeated when she remained unmoving, smiling at her expression.
The sudden urge to laugh overcame Bai Qian and she nodded at his question before standing to follow him. She didn’t think she could have stayed here, watching him walk away, even if she had wanted to. Which she didn’t. This should be interesting. With that thought in mind and unexpected joy in her heart, Bai Qian trotted over to Ye Hua’s side, curious to find out what his new idea entailed.
Glowering at the paper in his hand, Weisheng sat at the desk in his study, reading the words written there with an irritated frown. After he had so graciously agreed to let Zhe Yan visit his realm, the Phoenix Prince now wanted to delay his study of the ice caves for a few days. But he had seemed so eager to visit just days before. And Weisheng had arranged things so carefully for today’s visit too, hoping to give the appearance of full cooperation without giving any demon secrets away. Heavenly Father was always checking to ensure the treaty was upheld, after all.
His eyes lingered on the excuse Zhe Yan had given, hatred turning Weisheng’s expression into a bitter sneer as he read a certain name over and over again. Crown Prince Ye Hua… He knows it was me in the forest last night.
Cursing with frustration, Weisheng crumpled the paper up in an angry fist. Impossible! There’s no possible way he can know it was me. He was certain he had left no trace behind. Unless Ye Hua had spotted him, which Weisheng was sure he had not, there was no way Ye Hua could know for sure it had been Weisheng in the peach tree forest. Zhe Yan’s request for a delay had to be a coincidence.
But what if it’s not?
Weisheng was troubled by the change in plans because he couldn’t say with absolute certainty whether or not Ye Hua knew about his trespassing. With Ye Hua living in the forest for the time being, there was no way for Jinjing to keep track of the Crown Prince like he had been able to before.
I need to find that sword soon. Since Zhe Yan was no longer coming to study the ice caves as planned, Weisheng could take the day to get started on his search for the rumored weapon immediately.
Reining in his fury, Weisheng grabbed a piece of paper and yanked his brush out of its well of ink in order to send a curt reply back to the Phoenix Prince, his mind already contemplating all he could accomplish during the next few days if he planned everything well. His father had left Weisheng detailed information of all he had learned before his death. A pleased grin replaced his earlier sneer. Perhaps this change in plans was fortuitous, for Weisheng thought he now knew the best place to start his search.
⇛ Next part: Ch 24: The Breath of the Forest
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