Unable to concentrate, Bai Qian sighed, setting aside the scroll she had been trying to read aloud. She enjoyed the simple children’s tale written on the worn paper but many of the words were fading with age. Her limited magic could only preserve the ink for so long and it was particularly difficult for her to make out the characters this morning. But that wasn’t the real reason she couldn’t stay focused on her reading.
“Ye Hua’s leaving for the day,” she said softly, looking down at her bare feet where they dipped into the clear water. Her fox, unusually subdued, whined at the thought. “I know,” Bai Qian agreed.
While Bai Qian and her fox wanted to meet Heavenly Mother, neither of them was looking forward to a day without Ye Hua and the black dragon. Not when they were accustomed to spending the day together. They had all settled into a familiar routine in the last week, starting from the day Ye Hua had built the first of the flower beds.
Always waking to find herself in bed with Ye Hua, Bai Qian would remain curled up next to him in the quiet early morning hours, enjoying the simple comfort of his presence at the start of her day while often trying to remember her dream from the night before. She continued to dream about Ye Hua without ever recalling any of the details. Then, she would sneak out of the cabin and eat breakfast by the lake before practicing speaking out loud. Her voice was stronger than it had been in the beginning.
Once Ye Hua was awake, Bai Qian would spend the day with him while he worked on various things around the cabin, helping in any way she could while remaining in her fox form. Sometimes, she would accompany him when he explored parts of the forest, showing him the best ways to get to various locations. He always shared stories from his childhood with her on these walks and Bai Qian treasured those glimpses into the background of the man next to her.
In the evenings Ye Hua would often paint a picture for her, describing places he had visited while creating an image of them to show her. Bai Qian loved watching him paint. He brought interesting places to life on paper and she had no trouble imagining herself visiting these places along with Ye Hua. There were so many things she longed to ask him about and her curiosity helped drive her motivation to practice talking. She was ready to have a conversation with Ye Hua.
The end of the day belonged to the white fox and the black dragon. Not quite ready to abandon all thoughts of propriety, Bai Qian would go through the pretense of returning to her den for the night, knowing her fox would return to the cabin as soon as she fell asleep. More often than not, the black dragon would be the one to greet the fox when she arrived and the two would spend time together hunting or exploring the forest before settling down to rest snuggled up against one another. Though there were a few things her fox was reluctant to share, Bai Qian learned about their time together through her animal spirit’s memories, amazed and intrigued by the wondrous feelings her fox seemed to share with the black dragon.
Bai Qian cherished her days with Ye Hua and the black dragon as did her fox.
Today would be different. Different wasn’t necessarily a bad thing but it did bring a lot of unknowns into Bai Qian’s world. She worried about those unknowns and how they might change her routine with Ye Hua.
“Ye Hua will be back,” Bai Qian reminded herself, following her goal of trying to speak out loud as often as she could. She swirled her feet in the water. A dragonfly flew away when she disturbed the surface of the lake and Bai Qian watched it flit through the air before disappearing into the shadows cast by the trees. “He said he would.” Her fox yipped, happy to hear the reminder.
Bai Qian believed Ye Hua would return; she believed he spoke the truth. But she still worried about how today might change future days. Would today remind Ye Hua of the life he had waiting on him in the Heavens? Would he remember important tasks he may have set aside to live in the forest? Would he see old friends and wish to return to his role of a prince of the Heavens? Was she running out of chances to sit and talk with him, to laugh along with him in her human form? These were the unknowns that really concerned Bai Qian. Anxiety gripped her before she pushed it away.
“Ye Hua will tell me when he decides to leave the forest for good. I know he will.” Her throat suddenly feeling tight with the thought, Bai Qian took a drink of water. Her fox whined. “I know. But it’s going to be okay.”
Is there a way to convince him to stay forever? Not all the time, she amended quickly when the question popped into her mind. He will have to go back to the Heavens. But maybe he could continue to visit me. Bai Qian watched the surface of the water become still again as she sat there motionless, considering the idea. She didn’t want to go back to being alone all the time. I need to talk to Ye Hua soon.
The cabin door closed and Bai Qian stood, drying her feet with a wave of magic. Would Ye Hua leave without saying goodbye? Not wanting to find out, Bai Qian shifted and trotted towards the clearing, pausing when she felt a new source of potent energy mix in with Ye Hua’s magic and that of the forest. Ye Hua’s mother! Curious despite her misgivings, Bai Qian hurried to find a vantage point where she could see Heavenly Mother without revealing her presence right away. She needed a minute to gather her confidence.
Spotting Ye Hua first, Bai Qian was taken aback by his appearance. The friendly, laid back man she had come to know had all but disappeared to be replaced by an imposing figure in formal black robes. Only half of his hair was pulled up into a knot; it was held in place with an intricate silver and black ornament instead of the simple wooden pins she was used to seeing. The rest of his long hair hung down his back. His expression was serious, closed off and almost unreadable.
Ye Hua’s change in appearance reminded Bai Qian of the first day she had ever crossed paths with him and the terror that had overtaken her upon seeing him. She had nearly forgotten how intimidating he could be. He seemed almost a stranger as she watched him now–a fearsome Dragon God stalking through her forest once more, bringing dark terrifying things with him. She swallowed hard, uneasy in Ye Hua’s presence for the first time in weeks, and took a step back.
Then Ye Hua smiled, his face relaxing into a friendly expression, and the worry vanished from Bai Qian’s mind. He was still the man she loved being near. He’s still my Ye Hua. Her fox barked in agreement.
Bai Qian’s eyes widened. My Ye Hua? Where did that idea come from?! Don’t be ridiculous, she scolded herself. He’s not my anything. Her fox whined, insisting that wasn’t true. He’s not, Bai Qian argued back. He’s not my… well, he’s my friend, I guess. But that didn’t feel right, didn’t feel strong enough a word to describe her relationship with Ye Hua. The fox growled in annoyance. Okay, you’re right. He’s my… he’s my… he’s my Ye Hua. Bai Qian was right back where she had started and her tails twitched in confusion. It felt appropriate though she had no right to say such a thing. Her fox yipped, satisfied with this answer, and Bai Qian sighed. Why did she always sense she was missing something important when thinking about Ye Hua?
“Mother. I’m glad you’re here.” The warm affection in Ye Hua’s deep voice distracted Bai Qian and she directed her attention back to him as a beautiful, petite woman stepped into the clearing and walked to his side.
Fascinated by Heavenly Mother’s composed bearing and graceful movements, Bai Qian studied her. Ye Hua’s mother had long dark brown hair with some strands of white mixed in; she wore it pulled back, secured with an ivory ribbon. A gentle smile graced her kind face as she greeted her son. Her flowing dress was a pale sky blue decorated with tiny white flowers embroidered along the hem and the cuffs of the sleeves. Bai Qian admired its simple yet elegant design, longing to have a similar dress to call her own.
Heavenly Mother’s scent was that of the lifegiving rains of spring, reminding Bai Qian of the gentle showers that coaxed life back into the world after a long brutal winter. Did that mean Ye Hua’s father carried the charged scent of lightning and its echoing thunder? He must. She wished she could remember for sure from her long ago visit to the Heavens. She liked to think that Heavenly Father’s scent complemented that of his wife’s, the two combining into the unique thunderstorm scents of their twin sons. Maybe one day Bai Qian would have the chance to meet Heavenly Father again and confirm it.
Ye Hua towered over his mother; she barely reached his shoulder. Bai Qian watched as Heavenly Mother stood up on tiptoes and Ye Hua leaned down so his mother could reach his cheek to kiss it. This surprised Bai Qian. Given Ye Hua’s and Mo Yuan’s tall frames, she had assumed Heavenly Mother’s build would be somewhat similar to theirs. Instead, she was dainty, appearing slight enough that only a brisk gust of wind would send her flying. How had someone so delicate given birth to and raised Ye Hua and Mo Yuan at the same time? There was underlying strength in Heavenly Mother that explained it. When Bai Qian looked closer, she sensed the vast amount of ancient power contained within her small form.
Finally ready to confront this day of change, Bai Qian crept out from hiding, revealing her presence to Heavenly Mother. She suspected Ye Hua had known she was there the whole time. Silence greeted Bai Qian at first and she sat, her tails fanning out behind her. She wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do next.
“Qian Qian,” Ye Hua said, breaking the quiet to introduce them. Bai Qian was surprised he kept the introduction casual without adding titles of any kind. “This is my mother. Mother, this is Bai Qian.”
A bright, warm smile broke across Heavenly Mother’s face, her eyes growing misty before she regained some of her calm composure. “Bai Qian. I’m so happy to finally meet you.”
Remembering her manners, Bai Qian bowed her respect to the Mother of the Heavens as best she could while in her fox form, wondering if she looked as awkward as she felt.
“It’s time for me to go, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua said, walking toward her before crouching down next to her. Bai Qian’s eyes met his, finding concern evident in his gaze. “I’m sorry I have to leave so soon after Mother arrived. Do you need anything before I go?” Bai Qian shook her head as the tightness returned to her throat. She didn’t want Ye Hua to leave.
“There are soldiers posted around the edge of the forest. They’re Mother’s personal guards and you can trust them. They won’t step foot in the forest unless Mother calls for them but they will help if summoned. Do you remember where all the alert signals are?” Bai Qian nodded. “Use one to reach me if you need anything. I will feel it and I will return as quickly as possible. You will be safe here with Mother.” A teasing glint entered Ye Hua’s eyes and Bai Qian wondered at it. He leaned towards her and lowered his voice as if sharing a secret. “Don’t let Mother’s appearance fool you. She can be downright mean when she wants to be.”
“I can hear you, Ye Hua,” Heavenly Mother said with a light laugh, the happy melodic sound dispelling much of Bai Qian’s lingering worry.
Ye Hua grinned and Bai Qian realized he had said that to help break the ice between her and his mother. His expression grew serious once again and he held a hand out to her. Bai Qian placed her paw on his palm, surprised when he covered it with his other hand, gently cradling her paw for a minute. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. I promise.”
Nodding, Bai Qian’s eyes didn’t leave Ye Hua when he stood and walked back over to his mother. She couldn’t catch what he said but she watched Heavenly Mother pat his shoulder. “We’ll be fine. Don’t worry. You and Zhe Yan will be careful, won’t you?”
Silence fell once again after Ye Hua’s form vanished from sight. Bai Qian’s gaze lingered on where he had just been standing before she turned to find Heavenly Mother watching her with a soft knowing smile. Before the silence could become uncomfortable, Heavenly Mother summoned a piece of paper to her hands. She knelt and spread the paper out on the ground before her, using her magic to keep it in place as she studied it.
“Ye Hua asked me here to work, you know.” There was unmistakable amusement in Heavenly Mother’s voice.
Curious, Bai Qian trotted over, recognizing Ye Hua’s painting of the flower bed as soon as she saw it.
“He designed a lovely garden, didn’t he?” Bai Qian nodded, admiring the lifelike image once again. “Only these won’t grow well in this environment.” Heavenly Mother pointed to a cluster of orange flowers that Bai Qian wasn’t familiar with. “What do you think about using chrysanthemums instead? I have some hardy ones growing in my gardens at home.”
Surprised that Heavenly Mother wanted her opinion, Bai Qian didn’t immediately answer. She considered the question carefully, trying to remember what little she may have once known about chrysanthemums before responding. She finally nodded her head, agreeing that the bright vivid flowers would blend in well with the other flowers in the garden. As to whether they would grow well here, she would have to defer to Heavenly Mother’s judgement. She couldn’t remember much about what amount of care they needed.
Bai Qian followed Heavenly Mother, who had summoned a protective apron to wear over her dress, to the first of the two flower beds. She watched as Ye Hua’s mother dug a small hole in the rich soil with her bare fingers before summoning a plant, its roots cradled in a ball of dirt, to her hand. She then gently loosened the root ball before placing it in the waiting hole and covering it with soil. As she worked, she briefly explained what she was doing to Bai Qian.
Heavenly Mother repeated the steps until a cluster of flowers was planted. Only then did she use magic, burying her fingers in the earth. “This is why I rarely wear gloves,” she explained to Bai Qian. “I can better guide the roots if I handle the plants without them beforehand. Would you like me to show you, Bai Qian?”
Grateful for this opportunity to do something she had once loved and enjoyed, Bai Qian hesitated with indecision only a few moments before shifting into her human form. Ye Hua’s mother had a gentle kindness about her that touched Bai Qian and called to something inside her. Bai Qian sensed Heavenly Mother was the type of person who cared greatly for those around her; she wouldn’t judge Bai Qian’s awkward manner of speaking or her worn, threadbare dress. Bai Qian wanted to get to know her better.
“Yes,” she answered shyly, her voice soft. “I would like to help. Please call me Qian Qian.”
Heavenly Mother smiled, the expression warm and welcoming, and Bai Qian joined her right at the edge of the flower bed. A burlap sack appeared between them with the next group of plants placed on top of it. Together, Bai Qian and Heavenly Mother transplanted the cluster of flowers, following Ye Hua’s design from the painting.
When they were done, Bai Qian pushed her fingers into the soil so she could feel the way Heavenly Mother’s cultivation helped guide the roots more firmly into the ground, giving them a small dose of healing magic as she did. Bai Qian was amazed by the simple technique, never having guessed that healing magic could be used in this way. It made sense though given the shock plants experienced when transplanted. She remembered reading about it once a long time ago when planting her small garden in Qing Qiu.
The two worked in companionable silence, filling in both of the flower beds. With every group of flowers, Heavenly Mother taught Bai Qian how to guide the roots without damaging them until eventually Bai Qian was able to perform the magic several times without help.
“Very good,” Heavenly Mother said. “You’re a natural at this.”
Bai Qian smiled at the praise, proud of herself for learning the technique. It had been so long since she had last studied any kind of new spells. It felt good to finally learn something different. “Thank y…” Bai Qian’s voice faltered and she cleared her throat to try again. “Thank you for showing me the spell. I used to love planting flowers when I was a girl. They’re so beautiful.”
“It was my pleasure. I don’t often have a chance to share my passion for gardening with others.” Heavenly Mother assessed the gardens one last time. “I wonder how long it will take Ye Hua to realize I tweaked his flower choice without asking,” she commented with a small laugh.
“I won’t tell him,” Bai Qian answered with a small smile. “It will be our secret.”
“You will have to let me know how he reacts once he notices,” Heavenly Mother responded, amusement in her tone. She cleaned the dirt from her hands with a wave of her cultivation; then she did the same for Bai Qian. The maternal gesture reminded Bai Qian of her own mother who would often do the same and it made her feel much closer to Ye Hua’s mother.
“Would you walk with me through the forest, Qian Qian? I promised Ye Hua I would look at the peach trees while I was here.”
“Yes,” she answered, unable to keep the interest out of her voice. Bai Qian lifted the hem of her dress so she wouldn’t trip as she strode next to Heavenly Mother, marveling at how laid back the ancient dragon goddess was and how easy she was to talk to. She was very different from how Bai Qian had imagined her when Ye Hua had first asked if his mother could visit.
“There’s a great deal of natural magic here in the forest. It’s very peaceful.” Heavenly Mother looked around her, the expression on her face thoughtful. “And beautiful.”
“Do you know who planted these peach trees, Heavenly Mother? I remember hearing about the forest being old when I was a little girl. Nobody knew how the trees had gotten here.”
Heavenly Mother stopped and closed her eyes. Bai Qian waited silently, wondering what details the dragon goddess may be able to sense within the forest’s currents of energy. When Heavenly Mother opened her eyes, Bai Qian thought she saw glimmers of bright, vivid blue swirling in the woman’s irises. They faded before she could be sure.
“I can’t say for sure but I don’t think anyone planted the original trees.”
“I don’t understand.” Bai Qian pictured the grove of ancient trees she liked to visit. How could they exist if nobody planted them?
They started walking again as Heavenly Mother explained. “There were places, like Kunlun Mountain, where magic welled up out of the earth on its own during the first days of creation. I believe the heart of this forest is one of those places. The original trees were created and grew from that pool of magic. Whoever began to care for them after that time helped them increase in strength and then the rest of the trees spread from their seeds. Probably with the help of their caretaker.”
“Wow,” Bai Qian whispered, stopping to gaze up at the blossom-laden branches stretching out above her. “I never would have guessed the forest was that old.” Had the forest been cared for by one of her ancestors? She studied the trees around her, seeing the forest in a whole new light now.
Bai Qian hurried over to Heavenly Mother’s side when she noticed her looking at a branch of one of the trees with a small frown. Bai Qian understood what had caused the worry in her expression when she moved closer; the branch was almost bare with just a few browning leaves. When she looked, she spotted several other unhealthy branches on other trees. How had she never noticed that before?
“What’s wrong with them? Are they dying?” What would she do if the forest was fading?
Shaking her head, Heavenly Mother gave Bai Qian a reassuring smile. “No. I don’t sense anything seriously wrong within the trees. But, unaided, the magic of the forest can only do so much. They will become healthier with someone looking after them again. If you would like, I can teach you how to care for the trees.”
Accepting the offer with enthusiasm, Bai Qian enjoyed the knowledge Ye Hua’s mother shared with her. With her guidance, Bai Qian learned the best ways to prune away the unhealthy branches with snips of her cultivation so the trees could focus their energy and resources into the healthier ones instead. Heavenly Mother assured her the extensive pruning would improve the appearance and strength of the trees instead of harming them, encouraging Bai Qian to continue pruning various sections of the forest as she had time.
“The practice will not only improve the health and beauty of the trees, it will also help you cultivate more magic yourself,” she added when Bai Qian expressed interest in the idea.
Cultivate more magic. The idea struck a chord within Bai Qian. If she possessed stronger magic, she would be better able to defend herself if she ever encountered any intruders. She liked the thought and her fox agreed with a happy bark. It would also give her something to talk to Ye Hua about once she was ready to try speaking to him again. And then maybe Ye Hua would want to continue visiting the forest even after he decided it was time to return to his life in the Heavens.
“Will I notice a difference right away?” Bai Qian wondered out loud, her tone hopeful as she pruned tree branches alongside Heavenly Mother. She wasn’t only talking about the trees now but she wouldn’t admit that to Ye Hua’s mother.
Ye Hua’s mother didn’t answer immediately, pausing instead to study Bai Qian with a thoughtful expression on her face. Before Bai Qian could become uncomfortable from the scrutiny, Heavenly Mother turned her attention back to the tree she was trimming with a kind smile.
“These trees have been on their own for a long time now, Qian Qian,” she finally answered, her tone more serious than it had been all day.
Understanding this was important, Bai Qian listened closely. Why did she have the feeling Heavenly Mother was also no longer talking only about the trees? Did Ye Hua’s mother somehow sense the new direction of her thoughts? For some reason, this idea didn’t bother Bai Qian like she would have expected it to. Perhaps it was because Heavenly Mother had such a kind and caring way about her; peace and tranquility seemed to surround her.
“The fact that they are doing as well as they are, that they still have so much beauty within them, is a real testament to their underlying strength and resiliency. I’m amazed and pleased to see it. Given enough love and care, they will blossom into their full potential. Then they will be a magnificent sight to behold. But it will take time. It would be a mistake and even harmful to push them before they are ready. It’s best to give them the time they need.”
Now Bai Qian was almost certain Heavenly Mother was talking about more than the trees. And her mention of time raised one of Bai Qian’s biggest worries. The day had been so pleasant she had almost forgotten about it but now it was back with a vengeance. Maybe Heavenly Mother was somebody who would understand, somebody she could talk to about it. Did she dare bring it up?
“What if it takes too long?” she blurted out, surprising herself. Now that she had started, she decided to forge ahead. “What if somebody were to get tired of waiting?”
“You’re not talking about the trees, are you?” Heavenly Mother spoke slowly as if choosing her words carefully.
“No,” Bai Qian answered, her voice little more than a whisper this time. “I’m not.”
“Would you like to tell me about it? Maybe I can help.”
“Yes.” Even though Bai Qian barely knew Ye Hua’s mother, she trusted her to keep what she said confidential. Bai Qian couldn’t explain where her certainty came from but she decided to follow her instincts.
“I think important discussions are best when accompanied with tea,” Heavenly Mother said with an encouraging smile. “I will summon some for us.”
Bai Qian nodded, watching as a tray and tea set appeared along with two cushions for them to sit upon. Amazed that the Mother of the Heavens appeared quite content to sit and drink tea right here in the middle of the forest, Bai Qian joined her, whispering a soft word of thanks when Heavenly Mother poured a cup of jasmine green tea and handed it to her. Bai Qian breathed in the fragrant scent before taking a tentative sip. It had been too long since she had last drank tea. The taste was pleasant and the warmth soothing for her throat.
Relieved Heavenly Mother said nothing to push her into speaking, Bai Qian sipped from her cup while gathering her thoughts. The silence between them remained comfortable, peaceful even.
“I tried to talk to Ye Hua,” Bai Qian started, “but it didn’t go very well. He makes me very nervous sometimes. Not in a bad way…” Bai Qian blushed as she tried to decide how to describe it while thinking this may not have been the best place to begin her explanation. “I didn’t know what to say to him and I couldn’t find my voice. It’s been so long since I’ve talked to anyone and it felt strange and unfamiliar to me.”
“That’s to be expected, Qian Qian. You’re doing just fine now.”
‘I’ve been practicing since then because I want to talk to him. And I think he’s waiting for me to talk to him.”
“And you worry he may get tired of waiting for you,” Heavenly Mother added when Bai Qian paused.
“Yes,“ she responded, thankful that Ye Hua’s mother seemed to understand. “But that’s not the only thing I think he’s waiting on. I get the impression he’s seeking something more from me, something important that I don’t understand. I fear he will tire of waiting for me to figure it out and he will leave. He’s my…” He’s my Ye Hua. Her thought from earlier appeared in her mind and didn’t want to go away. What’s wrong with me? I can’t say that to his mother!
Bai Qian shook her head. She was making a complete mess of this. There was nothing she could do about it now but continue as best she could. “No, not a friend exactly. Something similar but different. I enjoy spending time with him. The forest is lonely without him now and I don’t want him to leave before I have the chance to explain this to him. I know he has a life beyond the forest and I don’t. I fear he may one day leave and never return if I don’t start talking to him. But I don’t yet know all that I want to say to him.”
Heavenly Mother smiled at her when Bai Qian sighed in frustration, her expression comforting. It helped settle some of Bai Qian’s nervousness. “These are things you should discuss with Ye Hua when you are ready. But not before. Take your time to find your voice first, Qian Qian. That is important and I’m sure Ye Hua understands this. My son can be impatient at times, it’s true, but it’s only because he wants positive things to happen right away.”
She paused, waiting until Bai Qian’s eyes met hers before continuing. There was nothing but gentle understanding in Heavenly Mother’s gaze and it calmed Bai Qian to see it. “Ye Hua has a great deal of patience for the people he cares about, Qian Qian. He always has. And, for you especially, his patience will be limitless. So take the time that you need. Ye Hua will be waiting for you.”
“You really think he will?” Bai Qian questioned, uncertainty and hope in her voice.
Ye Hua’s mother nodded. “I know he will.”
⇛ Next part: Ch 28: In Silence
⇚ Previous part: Ch 26: One Step at a Time