Ch 29: Back Home

The sound of voices greeted Ye Hua as he drew nearer to the cabin. One was the unmistakable cadence of his mother’s gentle voice; the other was softer and a bit hesitant when speaking certain words. That second voice was enchanting music to Ye Hua’s ears and it tugged on his soul, beckoning him closer but he did not move. He remained out of sight instead, knowing his mother’s cultivation would mask his presence. Ye Hua was relieved to know Bai Qian had felt comfortable enough to shift and speak with his mother and he didn’t want to interrupt their time together too soon. 

And, if he were being honest, he also longed to see Bai Qian’s natural, untamed beauty once again. Just for a moment; he promised himself he would only allow himself a quick glimpse of her before making his arrival known. His mother would likely sense his presence in just a minute or two anyway and would let Bai Qian know.  

From his hidden vantage point in the trees, Ye Hua watched as his mother and Bai Qian entered the clearing that surrounded the cabin. As they had before, all coherent thoughts fled Ye Hua’s mind for a moment when he gazed upon Bai Qian’s beautiful face framed by waves of long ebony hair. Only this time a smile brightened the expression in her eyes and enhanced her delicate features, the sight of which held Ye Hua captive. She laughed softly at something his mother said and the joyous sound filled him with happiness. 

He smiled. This was what Ye Hua wished to give Bai Qian more than anything else–a lifetime filled with mostly smiles and laughter. And, when she was ready, endless days and nights of love and desire. He never forgot the heat that had started to build between him and Bai Qian the night their cultivations had been linked. Just as he never forgot the discovery of how deep her pain and loneliness went and the desperate way she had clung to his thoughts of protective warmth when she sensed them through the connection that night. Both had made a profound impact on him and drove his determination to give her everything she needed and so much more. 

Ye Hua suspected that one day he would give every part of himself to Bai Qian without hesitation.

Wrapped up in thoughts of a possible future with the special woman who held his undivided attention, it was only when Bai Qian tripped as she walked across the clearing with his mother that Ye Hua came back to the present. With an aggravated frown, she gathered the skirt of her dress to pull the hem up a little. Ye Hua’s smile faded as he studied her worn and threadbare white dress. 

The garment was much too big for Bai Qian and there was brown thread visible where she had attempted to patch holes in the bodice and skirt. The hem was ragged and a little stained from where it dragged against the ground. Was this her only dress? He hadn’t paid much attention to what she had been wearing the night she shifted for him but he remembered she had been wearing white and had tripped over her hem when she ran away from him. It must be her only dress. 

Ye Hua suspected she must have found it while scavenging. Ye Hua’s heart ached with sadness for her when he realized her ill-fitting, discarded dress was one more example of all she had missed out on through the years. Unlike other young women her age, Bai Qian was too busy struggling to survive on her own to worry about whether she was wearing the latest popular fashion. 

Ye Hua wanted to give her some new dresses but he wondered if he would risk making her feel self conscious about her appearance by doing so. Maybe it would be better if they came from his mother instead? He wasn’t sure which would be best but he intended to make sure Bai Qian would soon no longer have to worry about tripping over her hem all the time. 

“He did?” Bai Qian laughed, amused curiosity in her voice. 

Ye Hua finally turned his attention to the conversation happening near him.

“Yes,” his mother responded with a smile before laughing herself. “There was a period of time when Ye Hua was always blaming his dragon for one thing or another.”

His face flushing slightly, Ye Hua sighed with embarrassed irritation. Did his mother really have to share that with Bai Qian? It was bad enough Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan continued to tease him about it to this day. What other embarrassing things had his mother told her?

“Every time I caught him doing something he shouldn’t, it was really the black dragon’s fault. Never his.” His mother paused. “I think it started as a way for him to convince Mo Yuan to go along with whatever plan he had thought up but it soon became his favorite excuse to try to avoid getting in trouble.”

“Did it work?”

“Not very often. His father and I usually knew when he was telling the truth about it and when he wasn’t.”

“I should ask him about it,” Bai Qian mused with a small giggle. 

Ye Hua’s heart skipped a beat and his annoyance vanished; Bai Qian was planning to talk to him again. He hoped he would have a chance to speak with her soon.

“You should,” his mother replied. “That will be sure to get a reaction from him.”

Bai Qian’s smile faded a little. “It’s getting late and Ye Hua will probably be back soon. I want…” Ye Hua held his breath as he waited for her to continue but his heart sank when he heard her next words. “I should leave now.” Bai Qian turned to face Heavenly Mother. “Thank you for spending the day with me. I had a very nice time and I feel like I’ve learned a great deal from you.” 

“I really enjoyed meeting you, Qian Qian, and I hope to see you again very soon.”

“I would like that.” There was a little shyness in Bai Qian’s voice when she responded, bowing respectfully to Heavenly Mother. Bai Qian shifted into her fox form before disappearing into the forest. 

He wanted to call after Bai Qian and ask her to stay but Ye Hua remained motionless instead, staring at the place where she had run into the peach trees. Maybe she didn’t want his mother to know she was basically living with him in the small cabin? It wasn’t the proper thing to do after all. His mother wouldn’t care but there was no way for Bai Qian to know that yet. Even though he understood, disappointment still welled up inside him and the black dragon voiced his own with a sad growl. 

His mother glanced at him with a knowing smile when Ye Hua stepped out from his hiding place and walked over to her side. “Is everything okay with Qian Qian?” He hadn’t meant to ask but Ye Hua couldn’t stop himself before the words left his mouth. His guess for why Bai Qian had left could be all wrong. What if it was something else that made her leave? His mother’s smile became reassuring as if she knew what he was thinking. How did she do that? 

“She’s fine,” his mother said, her soft tone reassuring him further. “I’m sure she has a lot to think about and needs some time to herself. But you don’t need to worry. I expect she will be back home with you again in no time.”

Tension he hadn’t been aware of left him and Ye Hua relaxed his posture even if his mother’s last statement meant she suspected that Bai Qian was indeed living with him in the cabin. His mother wouldn’t reveal the truth to anybody.

“I like her. She’s a very special young woman, Ye Hua.”

“Yes, she is,” Ye Hua replied, his attention returning to the place where Bai Qian had last been. “I didn’t realize how special until I started spending time with her. She amazes me sometimes.”

Heavenly Mother nodded, her features becoming pensive as she studied the peach trees before turning back to Ye Hua. “I sensed that the trees love and trust Bai Qian. I believe the ancient magic of the forest has been helping her. But it still took a tremendous amount of courage and determination on her part to survive even when she must have been weighed down by overwhelming grief and fear.”

“And loneliness,” Ye Hua added in a hushed voice when his mother paused.

“Yes…and loneliness. And, yet, she still managed to survive and hang on to a part of herself in the process. That’s incredible. There’s a lot of strength in her, Ye Hua. And kindness. She exudes so much light and life like a long dormant flower that is finally getting its chance to bloom. I sense a great deal of potential in her and she’s eager to learn. With some guidance and a little encouragement in the beginning, I believe she will one day be a wondrous force to behold. I believe she will thrive in whatever life she chooses for herself.” 

“I intend to stay by her side and I will always support her.”    

“I’m glad you found her both for your sake and hers,” his mother said, giving Ye Hua’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze. Silence fell over them for a few minutes before Heavenly Mother changed the subject. “Did Zhe Yan find what he was looking for in the demon caves?”

“He did but it took some trickery on our part to get some useful samples. You know how disingenuous Weisheng can be when he wants to.” Ye Hua frowned, remembering his annoyance with the demon king earlier in the day. He outlined everything that had happened in the Demon Realm to his mother who would pass the information along to his father. “I think Weisheng is planning something. He really pushed the limits of my patience today,” Ye Hua added with an angry shake of his head as he finished sharing the story with his mother. 

“I will let your father know,” Heavenly Mother told him. “I’m relieved both you and Zhe Yan are back home safely. I couldn’t help but worry about both of you.”

“I know not to trust Weisheng, Mother. I am always prepared for the possibility of treachery when I see him.”

“You’ve always been smart and careful, Ye Hua. I know that but I will always worry about you. Just like I will always worry about Mo Yuan when he’s in a dangerous situation too. Mothers worry about their children.” She grinned. “Your father does too even if he is never willing to admit to it.” 

Ye Hua laughed as he imagined his stern father wringing his hands with concern. 

“I should be going,” his mother continued. “But there is something I feel I should say to you even if it’s likely not necessary.”

“What is it?” Ye Hua asked with curiosity.

“When it comes to Bai Qian, patience is key. She is a young woman who has no experience when it comes to feeling attraction to a man or anything else along those lines. She may not understand what it is she is feeling or how to respond to it. Always remember all of the desires and emotions you’ve experienced before are brand new for her. So take things slowly with her.”

“Mother. I would never push her.” Ye Hua’s face heated as he responded with embarrassed indignation. This particular topic was one of the last things he wanted to discuss with his mother.

“I know.” She faced Ye Hua with suddenly sad eyes. “But she has no family to look after her so I’m telling you this for her parents who aren’t here to say these things on her behalf.”

It was a sobering reminder of Bai Qian’s tragic and lonely circumstances and it erased most of Ye Hua’s annoyance at his mother’s lecture. Had they still been alive, would Bai Qian’s father and all four of her brothers have dragged him off for a “drink” somewhere where they would take turns reminding him of how precious Bai Qian’s well-being and happiness were to the entire family? Her father may have been a pacifist but Ye Hua was positive there would likely have been some threats of dire consequences should he ever hurt her involved in the “discussion”. 

While a part of him was relieved not to have to go through such an intimidating ordeal, another part of Ye Hua was saddened by it. It was one more example of a common family tradition Bai Qian would never experience. He needed to visit her family shrine again soon and reassure her family he intended to treat Bai Qian with respect. Maybe he would wait until a time he could bring her along with him.

“I will take care with Qian Qian and treat her well,” Ye Hua said to reassure his mother and maybe Bai Qian’s family too if their souls were still near and watching over her.

His mother gave him a pleased smile as she stood on the tips of her toes to pull his cheek down for a kiss. “I’m happy to hear it. I will see you and Bai Qian again soon, right?” 

“Yes,” Ye Hua answered with a chuckle. “Bye, Mother.”

Walking over to his painting table after his mother left, Ye Hua summoned his paints, brushes, and some blank paper, hoping that losing himself in a painting would help take his mind off of the sudden quiet of the clearing. The cabin and forest were lonely without Bai Qian. He had missed her all day and he wished she had stayed to spend time with him this evening. He wanted to go look for her but refrained from doing so, giving her the privacy and quiet time she seemed to want by staying away.

I expect she will be back home with you again in no time.’ 

Ye Hua found comfort in his mother’s words. She had spent the day talking with Bai Qian and her statement reassured Ye Hua that Bai Qian felt the cabin here in the forest was their home just as he did. He was happy to learn Bai Qian felt so comfortable around him now and it brought a small smile to his face as he outlined the interior of the vast demon cave for Zhe Yan. He intended to recreate much of what he had discovered for his friend on paper though his mind often wandered back to all his mother had told him. 

It was difficult but Ye Hua tried not to linger too much on the significant revelation his mother had shared by lecturing him on the importance of remaining patient. The idea that Bai Qian was even now attracted to him sparked the heat of passion to life inside him though he attempted to stop all wayward thoughts of his desire for her. Now was not the moment for such feelings though he knew they would likely smolder in wait for the appropriate time to flare back up. 

His words to his mother had been true; he would never push Bai Qian for more than she was ready to give. But it was also impossible for him to ignore thoughts about what the future might hold for him and Bai Qian; he wanted to experience everything with her and looked forward to exploring the bond developing between them further.

With great difficulty and a lot of determination, Ye Hua finally moved his attention away from imagining such tempting possibilities and back to the task at hand. He was never going to finish the cave paintings at this rate.

It was only when he was finishing the final painting for Zhe Yan that Ye Hua started to worry that neither Hu Mei nor Bai Qian was going to return for the night. He disliked the idea of sleeping without them by his side and his dragon stirred with concern. Where was Hu Mei? Had something happened today that made Bai Qian forbid her from sleeping in the cabin? No. His mother had said Bai Qian would likely return to his side soon and there were few people more perceptive than his mother. Hu Mei would come. She was probably on her way now.

And sure enough, Ye Hua didn’t have to wait too much longer until he and his dragon sensed the approach of their lovely fox. Storing his paintings away in a safe place, Ye Hua released a pent up breath he didn’t know he had been holding when he saw the white nine-tailed fox enter the clearing. His dragon crooned a soft growling greeting to her, one filled with love and warm comfort, though he did not push Ye Hua to shift. Ye Hua understood why as he watched what he had at first thought was Hu Mei trot over to him. The expression in her eyes was different this evening, more human; it was Bai Qian only pretending to be Hu Mei. 

Bai Qian was the one who decided to return to his side this night.

He wanted to laugh with joy and welcome her with open arms but he kept himself in check. There was an important reason Bai Qian wanted it to seem like it was Hu Mei coming to sleep in the cabin as usual and Ye Hua understood why and respected her decision. He also feared if he reacted any differently and Bai Qian realized he knew the truth she might take off on him. So he crouched down and gave her a warm welcoming smile, pretending he noticed nothing unusual.

“Hu Mei.” He hesitated for a moment before reaching out to pet her. He usually tried to take care with such actions when dealing with Bai Qian as opposed to her fox spirit. But if he wanted the pretense to continue he couldn’t act any differently. Surprising him, Bai Qian leaned into his touch when he scratched behind her ears with his fingers and arched her back when he ran his palm along it, moving closer to him. 

“Are you hungry?” he asked her after a few minutes, unsure what else to say. This change in their routine had certainly thrown him off balance no matter how much he pretended everything was normal.

Shaking her head, Bai Qian trotted over to the cabin door and sat next to it. She looked back at him, tilting her head expectantly as if asking if he was ready to go to bed. It was a very Hu Mei thing to do and, once again, Ye Hua found himself unsure how to react now that the gesture was coming from Bai Qian herself. 

This was a more confident side of Bai Qian that he usually only associated with her spirit animal. Yet, Hu Mei was a reflection of Bai Qian’s soul so Bai Qian possessed those same traits herself. Or she had at one time before everything was ripped away from her. Maybe she was starting to recover the parts of herself that had been lost long ago? He wondered if this sudden change had something to do with what she had discussed with his mother.       

His dragon grumbled when Ye Hua just stood there staring at Bai Qian with surprise; the beast prodded him to walk forward toward the door with irritation. They shouldn’t keep their fox waiting; she was tired and ready for bed.

Regaining his equilibrium with his dragon’s help, Ye Hua strode over to the door and opened it. Bai Qian preceded him inside, jumping up onto the bed and making her way over to the folded quilt. She curled up into the fox-sized impression that Hu Mei had formed without circling in the spot first, another clue it was indeed Bai Qian making the decisions for her and her fox. 

Changing into his nightclothes with a wave of his magic, Ye Hua settled onto the mattress. He extinguished the candle burning in the corner with a thought and the room plunged into darkness. He waited, staring up at the shadowed ceiling, holding his breath to see what Bai Qian would do next. Would she join him? 

He could feel her eyes on him as she hesitated, a bit of her usual cautious nature finally revealing itself. He closed his eyes and continued to wait for her to make a decision. Finally, she did, standing up and slowly padding across the mattress to his side. There she found her place next to him and curled up, nuzzling her body against his for warmth.

Ye Hua couldn’t keep the fond smile off his face when he felt the light tickle of fox fur brushing against his skin. Bai Qian pressed her nose into his arm and inhaled deeply. Did she find comfort and familiarity in his scent the same way he did hers? He remained still and quiet for a long time until he sensed her relax into sleep. Only then did he speak.

“Goodnight, Qian Qian,” he murmured to her. “Goodnight, Hu Mei.” The black dragon rumbled a soft goodnight of his own.


The dream slowly faded this time instead of being forced away from her and Bai Qian remembered a few details from it. She had been lying on the soft grass next to Ye Hua, gazing up at the clouds in a summer sky; until he had kissed her… first her cheek and then several brushes of his lips against her own. Her stomach fluttered with warmth as she remembered the first and second kisses being soft and sweet but the next had been less so. They had been gaining intensity and she wondered what would have happened next if she had not awakened. It was a question she didn’t have the answer to.

The man sleeping next to her had the answer. All she had to do was find the courage to ask him.

Thunder rumbled off in the distance. The forest was quieter than normal and there was a chill in the air this morning. Bai Qian snuggled closer against Ye Hua’s side for both warmth and comfort, testing the air for the smell of rain to see if the storm was headed in their direction. Ye Hua’s scent teased her senses instead and she realized with amusement that it wasn’t easy to discern the direction of an actual thunderstorm when his scent filled the air, confusing things. 

She would need to learn to differentiate his scent from that of natural thunderstorms because Ye Hua was likely a permanent part of her life now. Heavenly Mother had told her that, not in so many words but in a roundabout way, something Bai Qian suspected the ancient dragon goddess was very skilled at doing.    

Bai Qian had spent a good portion of the prior afternoon and evening alone, pondering all Heavenly Mother had taught her. Despite all of her valuable guidance, Bai Qian always circled back around to two important sentences. ‘Ye Hua has a great deal of patience for the people he cares about, Qian Qian. And, for you especially, his patience will be limitless.’ 

She couldn’t get these two statements and all they implied out of her thoughts. This was the answer to why Ye Hua continued to stay in the peach tree forest with her despite being a prince of the Heavens– he cared about her. And after thinking it through for a long time, Bai Qian had finally understood that Heavenly Mother had not meant that Ye Hua cared about her as simply a friend. His feelings were about something much stronger than friendship, something more similar to the way couples felt about each other. Bai Qian wished she knew more about what that meant.

One thing Bai Qian knew for sure was that Heavenly Mother’s advice had removed a great deal of the immense pressure she felt to try and figure out the perfect way to talk to Ye Hua as quickly as possible. Though Ye Hua’s mother had advised Bai Qian to take her time and not push herself, that Ye Hua would wait for her to find her voice, the dragon goddess’s words had led Bai Qian to the opposite decision. It no longer mattered whether her voice was strong enough or whether she knew exactly what to say to Ye Hua. He would understand and be patient with her if she stumbled over her words. She wanted to talk to him even if it wasn’t a perfect conversation.

This newfound knowledge had freed something inside Bai Qian and had given her the courage to finally be the one to seek out Ye Hua and the black dragon last night instead of letting her fox spirit be the one to do so. Her decision made, Bai Qian’s steps had been eager and filled with haste while traveling through the forest. She had missed Ye Hua a great deal while he had been away even if she had enjoyed spending time with his mother. She had been anxious to see him again, especially since she had gained a better understanding of why he had moved into the cabin. 

Falling asleep while snuggled against Ye Hua last night had been a wonderful and comforting experience, one Bai Qian hoped to repeat again and again. And she would find a way to speak to him today. As soon as a natural opportunity presented itself, Bai Qian intended to follow through with her new plan. 

Ye Hua stirred next to her, shifting on the mattress. Bai Qian’s middle fluttered with more of that curious and excited nervousness when he turned on his side to face her. She glanced at his face, both relieved and disappointed to find his eyes still closed in sleep. He would likely wake soon. Should she stay? Was she ready to be in bed with him when he awoke in the morning? 

No, she wasn’t…not yet. That was a big step.

Preparing to sneak out of the cabin as she always did in the early morning, Bai Qian stood, keeping her tails as still as possible to avoid waking him. 

“Don’t go. Please stay with me this morning, Qian Qian.”

Ye Hua’s drowsy voice was deeper than normal and a little gruff from sleep. The hoarse sound of it washed over Bai Qian where she stood frozen to the spot and the nervous fluttering in her stomach grew to a turbulent clamor of anxious anticipation. He had called her by name; that must mean he knew she had been the one to fall asleep next to him last night instead of her fox. That changed things this morning, didn’t it? Did she dare give in to the temptation and stay here in bed with him?


Waiting to see what Bai Qian’s decision would be, Ye Hua spoke no more, silently urging her to stay with him. After barely seeing her all day yesterday, he didn’t want to be away from her for even a second today. Her new confidence the evening before made him feel more comfortable asking her not to leave him. Now he hoped it hadn’t been a mistake.

After what felt like an eternity to Ye Hua but was likely no more than a few minutes, Bai Qian turned to face him, her uncertain eyes searching for and meeting his in the dim morning light. He kept his gaze calm and steady on hers and it had the desired effect. He watched with elation in his heart as her expression relaxed and she finally curled up next to him again with a contented sigh. He caressed her silky ears with his fingers, smiling when she snuggled closer to him.

“Good morning, Qian Qian,” he murmured to her before pulling his hand away from her soft fur. Her response was a quiet yip and Ye Hua’s smile widened when he heard it. Though he stared out the window, Ye Hua’s attention remained focused on the small fox resting in her place against him, simply enjoying her presence. This was the perfect way to start his day.

The faint electric charge of a lightning strike tingled along his skin right before Ye Hua detected the distant clap of thunder that accompanied it. The changing pressure of the atmosphere and the building charge sparking in the air told Ye Hua the thunderstorm was headed this way. Soon it would be churning in the sky above the peach tree forest. He could detour the incoming storm off its current path with his cultivation if he wished but he didn’t. Ye Hua enjoyed the idea of spending a cozy day inside the cabin with Bai Qian.  

He lost track of how long he lay there together with Bai Qian in peaceful companionship. It didn’t matter to him. Ye Hua was happy to do it all day long if that’s what she wanted. He started to believe it was until she lifted her head sometime around midmorning and looked at him, meeting his eyes once again. There was a shy hesitation in her gaze now and Ye Hua wondered what it meant. 

He expected her to look away from him as he felt a little of that heated tension sparking to life between them but she didn’t, not even when the tension flared a little hotter. There was definitely something different about her this morning just as there had been something bolder in her countenance last night. He wished he knew what she was thinking. 

Ignoring the potent effect her gaze had on him suddenly became a very difficult task to accomplish so Ye Hua sat up, forcing himself to look away for a minute until he regained some of his composure. A dainty paw nudged his bare arm and he turned back to Bai Qian. She was looking at him with a questioning gaze in her eyes; there was concern in her expression. He remembered his mother’s lecture and realized she had been right–Bai Qian didn’t yet understand what Ye Hua knew was developing between them. He smiled to reassure her everything was okay. 

“Would you like some breakfast?” Ye Hua groaned in embarrassment to himself when he remembered asking her if she was hungry the night before. Did she think he was obsessed with food? Did that have to be his chosen subject of conversation every time he didn’t know what else to say?

Giving no indication she noticed anything amiss, Bai Qian nodded at him and Ye Hua sighed with relief until he remembered he had absolutely nothing to prepare for breakfast. His smile faded only to return with a mischievous glee as he had an idea about how to fix that problem. 

Standing, Ye Hua changed into fresh robes with a wave of his cultivation. He then summoned some breakfast dishes from the Celestial Palace, pleased to see bowls of thick congee, plates of hearty dumplings, and a salad of mixed fruit appear on the table. It had been ages since he had last filched food from the kitchens and he wondered how long it would take the head chef to notice some stuff was missing.

The thunder had been growing increasingly louder and the storm moved over the cabin just as Bai Qian jumped up into a chair to join him for breakfast. Ye Hua opened the door with a flick of his hand as the rain started coming down in earnest, placing a barrier over the entrance to the cabin that would allow fresh air in but keep the water out. He enjoyed storms and he was happy to see Bai Qian seemed to have no objections to leaving the door open while it rained and thundered outside. 

Bai Qian made quick work of her portion of the meal and Ye Hua was pleased that she liked the food even if he hadn’t cooked it for her himself. He entertained Bai Qian with stories of how he and Mo Yuan used to sneak dessert to their rooms before supper when they were children while they ate. He only remembered the book Zhe Yan had given him as he cleaned up after breakfast. Today would be the perfect day to sit inside with Bai Qian and read. 

“Zhe Yan bought a book he thought you might like when he was last in the Mortal Realm. Would you like to hear the story this morning?”

She nodded happily and Ye Hua didn’t miss the glint of eager anticipation in Bai Qian’s expression when he summoned the leather bound book to his hand. She followed him to the door when he took a seat right next to it, leaning against the doorframe to read by the dim light from the stormy sky. She settled against him, wrapping her tails around her for warmth and propping her head against his arm to listen as he read. Pleasant warmth encompassed Ye Hua with the knowledge that Bai Qian chose to remain as close to him as possible. 

He opened the book and his eyes landed on a black and white image of a great winged beast with an ugly, stocky frame swooping over a mountain range. Though it had a few features similar to a dragon like the horns atop its head and the talons on its feet, Ye Hua had never seen such an odd creature before and it piqued his curiosity. This should be interesting as Zhe Yan had said.

“The peasant village was tucked away in the valley, mostly hidden from view except from those men brave enough to climb to the top of Dragon’s Peak…”

Ye Hua stopped to make sure he had read the name correctly. He had. He glanced at Bai Qian and she was watching him expectantly, seeming to silently urge him to keep going. Why did he suddenly have a bad feeling about this? He cleared his throat and started again.

“The peasant village was tucked away in the valley, mostly hidden from view except from those men brave enough to climb to the top of Dragon’s Peak, which was named after the angry, terrifying beast that had once roamed the mountain range. The dragon lived in a deep cave atop that highest peak for a long age, jealously guarding his hoard of gold and precious gems that he had stolen from those foolish enough to wander into his territory.” What? Ye Hua frowned, pausing to make sure that was really what the text said. It did. 

Ye Hua had only read two sentences and yet he already thought absurd was a big understatement. He imagined Zhe Yan must have been laughing gleefully to himself as he handed the book over. Ye Hua turned to see how Bai Qian was taking the beginning of the story. Much to his exasperation, she looked interested.

“Dragons are much too honorable to steal from others, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua explained, compelled to set the record straight. He had no idea how much Bai Qian knew about dragons and he didn’t want her to get the wrong impression. “We certainly don’t hoard gold and gems like that. And while I admit we can be intimidating sometimes when we want to be, I don’t think calling dragons terrifying beasts is really appropriate.” She nudged his arm with her paw, looking amused. “You want me to keep going?” She nodded eagerly and Ye Hua sighed.

“The dragon’s…  reign of torture and terror?… lasted for hundreds of years until suddenly all sightings of the beast stopped. Brave knights were able to ride through the dragon’s territory without being preyed upon from the air. The local peasants rejoiced in celebration as the creature seemed to have disappeared, making the old roads leading around the mountains safe to travel once again.” Ye Hua stopped, looking up. 

“That’s all wrong, Qian Qian. Dragons actually guard the people living near them and help keep them and their land safe. We bring water either via rain or changing the courses of rivers to help nourish the crops and put out fires. We protect innocent people. We don’t prey on them.” Bai Qian just listened to him explain before nudging his arm with her paw again. He sighed again and turned the page.

“After the years of peace turned into decades, settlers ventured into the valley and built small dwellings there, taking advantage of the lush grass that was perfect for grazing and the rich earth that was perfect for planting. Soon, a proper village was formed and the people lived in peace and prosperity for a long time until a day came when two boys dared a third to climb up Dragon’s Peak. The boy was desperate to prove his mettle so he accepted the dare and climbed all the way to the top. He was so pleased with his accomplishment that he decided to take things a step further and entered the cave entrance waiting at the top. He woke the dragon asleep in his lair, igniting his rage.

“The great beast sought revenge for the disruption of his long slumber, thinking the boy a thief sneaking into the cave to steal what the dragon considered to be his precious treasure. He took flight, his great leathery wings blocking out all the light from the sun, casting dark shadows upon the terrified villagers.” Ye Hua scoffed. “Dragons don’t need wings to fly. That’s just ridiculous. We’re not birds! Who wrote this rubbish?” 

Bai Qian nudged his arm to remind him to keep reading. Ye Hua looked at her and found a still very amused fox staring back at him. Why did he suspect she would have been laughing if she had been in her human form? “You really want me to keep going? This whole thing is clearly nonsense.” She nodded and he sighed once more.

“The dragon breathed out flames of dragon breath, the hottest substance in the world, scorching everything in his path. He destroyed houses and pastures with his wrathful flames.” Ye Hua stopped again. “We may be able to create fire, Qian Qian, but we never use our magic to destroy things recklessly like that.” 

Again, Bai Qian nudged his arm with her paw to prod him into continuing. Ye Hua frowned, torn between wanting to incinerate the book but also wanting to make Bai Qian happy. At least she seemed to be enjoying the story. 

“For years upon years, the dragon continued to attack the village, stealing sheep, cattle, and horses to eat and taking anything of value away from the people. They tried to fight back but there were no trained knights among them. And their pitchforks and shovels were no match for the vicious beast. To add to their sorrow, he would often destroy many more or their dwellings with his fire every time they offered too much resistance. Many of the peasants had nowhere else to go and they grew desperate with the passing years of destruction. Finally, the villagers tried to strike a deal with the dragon but the only offering he would accept was a vile one. The village needed to send a young maiden to him every year in return for him leaving them alone to live in peace.”

Ye Hua snapped the book closed abruptly. “That’s it. No honorable dragon would ever ask people to offer a young woman for sacrifice like that. This story is all wrong. Whoever wrote this had no idea what they were writing about.” 

He was so focused on his annoyance, Ye Hua missed the pulse of fox magic right next to him. But then a small, feminine hand with slender fingers landed on his arm, the touch gentle and soothing. He gasped, barely daring to breathe any further as he looked down at her hand with wonder and amazement. All his indignant irritation evaporated in an instant and all rational thought fled from his mind.

“Please keep reading, Ye Hua,” Bai Qian said softly. “I want to find out what happens next.”

⇛ Next part: Ch 30: The Heart of the Story

⇚ Previous part: Ch 28: In Silence

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