Ch 30: The Heart of the Story

Bai Qian felt safe and cozy leaning up against Ye Hua, her tails wrapped around her as she listened to him read the strange new story. His deep voice with its soothing cadences blended well with the background of steady rain and distant thunder outside and Bai Qian would slip into blissful contentment as he read. But then he would stop and she would lose the feeling.

Tilting her head with amusement, Bai Qian listened as Ye Hua explained yet again how the dragon in the story was nothing like real dragons before she gently pawed his arm to keep reading. Ye Hua was indeed a wonderful storyteller…when he wasn’t interrupting himself every few minutes. At the rate he was going, they were never going to get to the good part. 

The story was an interesting one, unlike any other Bai Qian had heard before, and she wanted to find out how it ended even if it was painfully obvious that whoever had written it didn’t know a single accurate thing about dragons. Maybe the author called the terrible creature in her story a dragon because of a misunderstanding. Or maybe she didn’t know what to call it and had chosen to call it a dragon because she couldn’t think of anything better. Either way, Bai Qian understood the creature described in the story was not really a dragon but was something else entirely. So why did Ye Hua keep pausing to tell her that?

Settling more comfortably against Ye Hua when he finally read several sentences without stopping, Bai Qian’s interest was piqued even more when the villagers tried to strike a deal with the creature continually haunting them and destroying their lives. Was it possible to reason with such a vicious and greedy beast? According to the author it was but the deal came with a horrible price. Now things were really getting interesting.

Bai Qian jumped when the book abruptly snapped closed. Ye Hua was glaring at the book like it was a hated enemy, his expression a blend of annoyance and disgust. “That’s it. No honorable dragon would ever ask people to offer a young woman for sacrifice like that. This story is all wrong.” Bai Qian missed the rest of what he said when she shifted into her human form, surprising herself with how easily she made the decision so she could tell Ye Hua she wanted to hear the rest of the story.  

He was too focused on how much he disliked the crazy tale to even notice that she had changed forms right next to him and Bai Qian hid an affectionate smile as she watched him discreetly. There was still so much she didn’t know about Ye Hua but she learned something new every day. The calm inside the cabin while the storm raged on outside had created an atmosphere of peaceful intimacy around her and Ye Hua all morning; the intimate setting had revealed a whole new side to the man sitting next to her, one Bai Qian liked very much.

Longing to deepen the connection between them, Bai Qian placed her hand on Ye Hua’s arm. It was the first time she had touched another person while in human form since running into the peach tree forest to hide as a young girl; she marveled at the warmth radiating through the sleeve of his robe and the way the simple gesture made her feel even closer to him. It was very different from touching him when she was a fox. 

Wanting to cherish the moment, Bai Qain moved her fingers to Ye Hua’s wrist so she could experience the sensation of his bare skin against hers. So far, he hadn’t moved and Bai Qian wondered what he was thinking. But she didn’t quite have the courage yet to ask him such a personal question when she finally spoke to him.

“Please keep reading, Ye Hua,” Bai Qian said. She really did want to hear the end of the story. “I want to find out what happens next.” 

Ye Hua didn’t move or speak; he seemed frozen in place while staring at her hand on his wrist. 

“Ye Hua?” she questioned, pulling her hand back. 

He moved quickly then, catching her by surprise; and his hand carefully grasped hers, cradling it between both of his. Her hand was engulfed by Ye Hua’s larger ones, the strength within them evident though his touch was light and gentle. It reminded Bai Qian of the comforting way he had held her paw before leaving her with his mother the day before…until he stroked his thumb along the back of her hand. Then it became something very different.

The unexpected caress sent a strange yet pleasant shiver through Bai Qian; she wasn’t sure how to respond. When he stopped, a part of her wanted to ask Ye Hua to do it again. But he still hadn’t looked up which confused her. Just like the last time she had shifted into her human form, he wasn’t acting like his usual self and she didn’t understand why. 

“Ye Hua?”

His head snapped up when she spoke his name and Bai Qian’s eyes met his when Ye Hua released her hand. The warm intensity was back in his gaze and Bai Qian’s middle fluttered as she clasped her hands tightly in her lap, suddenly a little unsure of herself. Why wasn’t he saying anything? He was silently staring at her face like he had that night in the ancient peach grove when they were in the heart of the forest. Yet his expression conveyed something she couldn’t identify. What was it?

The intriguing sensation of Ye Hua’s thumb brushing along her hand still lingered on Bai Qian’s skin and she broke eye contact to look down at her lap. Maybe shifting into her human form had been a mistake? No…even with the current awkwardness, she was glad she had done it. Ye Hua’s hands covered hers and gave them a gentle squeeze as if he sensed her uncertainty, reassuring her in the process.

“Qian Qian,” Ye Hua murmured and Bai Qian met his eyes once more.

Feeling a little shy, Bai Qian offered him a tentative smile and Ye Hua’s gaze dropped to her lips. “I, um, …” He cleared his throat, his eyes flicking back to hers, and attempted to continue. “I… what did you just say? You keep surprising me and I lose my…” He stopped suddenly and grinned.

Her smile became more sure as he stumbled over his words. Ye Hua was just as uncertain and tongue tied around her as she felt around him! Maybe he doesn’t know exactly what to say to me either. It was an unexpected revelation and it made Bai Qian feel less nervous. And while there were still things about his expression she didn’t understand, she understood a little better why he hadn’t spoken to her that night in the peach grove. She should have given him more time to adjust to her human form instead of assuming the worst and running off.

“Will you keep reading?” she asked him.

“Reading?” Ye Hua echoed, giving her a blank, confused look. “Oh, right. The book. I forgot about it.” 

Bai Qian nodded, laughing a little as he glared at the book before picking it back up. Ye Hua seemed to have regained some of his earlier composure. “You really want me to finish it?”

“I want to find out what happens,” she answered, her amusement evident when she noticed the disgusted expression return to his face when he opened the leather cover. “I’ve never heard a story like it before. And I like listening to the sound of your voice as you read.” 

“You do?” There was surprise in Ye Hua’s voice.

“Yes,” Bai Qian responded shyly, a faint blush appearing on her face. “It’s deep and very soothing.” Ye Hua’s whole expression changed from disgust to a pleased smile. 

As he searched for the place where he had stopped reading, Bai Qian waited patiently, excitement surging through her. She was so happy she didn’t even worry about whether her wide smile was giving all her thoughts away; it didn’t matter. I’m finally talking to Ye Hua! Yes, their conversation so far had been short and a little awkward. It was nothing like the first conversation she had envisioned having with him. But Bai Qian still thought it a perfect one. She would always remember this exact moment and she wondered if Ye Hua would do the same. 

Locating the place where he had left off, Ye Hua looked like he wanted to say something important to her. Bai Qian waited. “What is it?” she asked him when he remained silent.

“I want…”

Ye Hua shook his head. “Nevermind, Qian Qian.” He cleared his throat and turned back to the book. 

Bai Qian opened her mouth to encourage him to finish whatever he had been about to say but then he started reading. She decided it was better not to interrupt him. 

“In the beginning, most of the villagers spoke out against the dragon’s cruel demand with strong disdain. But as the days passed the terrible beast continued to rain fire down on the villagers from the skies, destroying their homes and killing their livestock without mercy. The sentiments of the peasants began to shift. 

“If they continued on as they were, soon there would be nobody left alive. Was it not better to sacrifice one life to save the lives of many? An ever increasing number of the peasants began to ask this question until the village leaders thought there was no choice but to give in to the dragon. The deal was struck. And that very evening the names of all the village maidens were placed into a clay jug. At midnight the unlucky woman whose name had been drawn was dragged to a giant boulder near Dragon’s Peak and left there, bound to the massive rock and her violent fate.”

Silence fell over the cabin and Ye Hua sighed. “Are you sure you really want to hear this story, Qian Qian? It’s so… unrealistic and depressing.” Bai Qian was almost certain those weren’t the words he really wanted to use. 

“I’m sure I could find you a better story than this one,” he continued when she didn’t immediately answer him.

“I’m sure,” Bai Qian responded, placing her hand on one of his after hesitating only a moment. She thought he might be worried about upsetting her so she sought to reforge the closeness she had felt earlier. Would that reassure him she was okay? “I remember from when I was a little girl that most stories have a happy ending. I believe this one will too. It always seemed that the happiest endings came right after the saddest moments and I want to find out if that’s still true.”     

He gave her a soft smile, one that warmed Bai Qian’s heart. “Okay. Let’s find out.”

“That first sacrifice was the beginning of a dark, murky period in the history of the valley and its surrounding lands. Though the attacks on the village stopped, what had once been a place filled with laughter and light became a place of despair and distrust as more young women were sacrificed to appease the dragon. Only a few years passed before the villagers decided they needed to look beyond the women of their village for victims to sacrifice. After all, they reasoned to themselves, their presence had distracted the dragon away from the houses and livestock of other nearby towns. Why should they be the only ones having to pay the dragon’s terrible price to maintain peace? 

“When the occupants of these towns refused to agree to submit their daughters’ names for consideration, the peasants from the village began kidnapping maidens they encountered along the roads to offer to the dragon.”

Engrossed in the story, Bai Qian shifted closer to Ye Hua and rested her head against his sturdy shoulder, wrapping her arms around one of his in the semblance of an embrace. He stopped reading, sucking in a sharp breath when she leaned her body against his side, and his lips brushed her hair as he turned his head towards her and inhaled deeply. 

“Qian Qian,” Ye Hua whispered, his voice hoarser than it had been just seconds before. His soft breath tickled Bai Qian as his lips caressed strands of her hair. Warmth engulfed Bai Qian and she suddenly became very aware that she was pressing her body into his. She wasn’t sure what was happening but it felt wonderful to be so close to him while in her human form. Bai Qian held her breath and trembled slightly with nervous excitement, her stomach jumping with a sudden whirlwind of crazy butterflies when Ye Hua’s lips moved against her head once again. And then one more time. He wasn’t whispering anything to her now. Did he just kiss me? 

The movement had been too gentle for Bai Qian to know for sure. She hoped he would do it again. Instead, much to Bai Qian’s disappointment, Ye Hua lifted his face away and drew in a deep breath. It sounded unsteady as he repeated the action two more times. Some of that strange heated tension that had been building and weaving around the two of them dissipated; she couldn’t decide if its absence was a good thing or a bad one. 

“I should keep reading,” Ye Hua murmured. He paused, “Shouldn’t I?”

His voice helped break the rest of the powerful spell he had wrapped around Bai Qian. I almost forgot all about the story! What was it about Ye Hua that made him such an overwhelming distraction? Torn between her curiosity to find out how the story was going to end and her desire to further explore the unfamiliar and potent feelings Ye Hua kindled within her, Bai Qian hesitated before answering him. She finally nodded a response, her cheek rubbing against his shoulder.

Ye Hua turned his attention back to the book. 

“A pall of melancholy and dread descended over the land for many decades as once a year, every year, some young innocent woman disappeared in the dead of night. None of them were ever seen or heard from again. Everyone suspected the maidens had been taken as a sacrifice to the dragon but there was never any evidence to prove it. The people in the valley were soon cut off by the neighboring towns and forced to live in isolation. Madness descended upon them all. But despite all the safeguards put in place, a young woman disappeared four or five weeks before the night of the annual sacrifice every year without fail.

“Events would have continued on in this way indefinitely if the villagers had not made a crucial misstep in their chosen sacrifice one year. For in their effort to collect the one hundredth maiden to be offered to the dragon, they happened upon the youngest daughter of a renowned noble family riding along the roads entirely by chance. To avoid attracting notice, this noblewoman was dressed in an old and worn dress and traveled with only one companion by her side– a brave and strong knight who had loved her since they were both children. The villagers ambushed the two of them as they rode their horses near the valley, knocking the knight unconscious and snatching the maiden from her saddle. They bound her with rope and gagged her and then hurried her off into the night.”

Bia Qian perked up at this turn in the tale. This was the heart of the story, the place where the brave knight would try to rescue the woman he loved. Would he succeed? She couldn’t wait to find out what was going to happen next. She snuggled even closer to Ye Hua, her attention fixed on the sound of his voice as he read.   

“The knight regained consciousness with the rising of the sun and discovered that his lady was missing. He immediately guessed what had happened. He only had a few weeks to rescue his love because the night of the annual sacrifice to the dragon was fast approaching. He would not see her killed by such a vicious creature like a dragon. With that thought in mind, the knight pushed his horse to great speed in order to reach the king’s palace as quickly as possible. It was rumored the king had in his employ a man who could slay a dragon with one strike. It was said this particular knight had not only slain several dragons in his life but he had also stolen a golden dragon egg from under the nose of its watchful mother. An egg taken from its mother will never hatch into a baby dragon and they were considered rare and valuable.”

Ye Hua stopped and sighed. It was a very resigned sound. Bai Qian grinned when his shoulder moved against her cheek where she rested her head. She knew what he was about to say.

“Qian Qian,” he started with another big sigh, “dragons…”

“… don’t lay eggs,” she finished for him, lifting her head from his shoulder. Their eyes met and they both burst out laughing at the same time. A dragon laying eggs was such a preposterous idea. Their laughter filled the cabin and it took them both several minutes to settle down.

“Exactly,” Ye Hua explained after one last chuckle. “We don’t lay eggs.”

That sent Bai Qian into another fit of giggles as she imagined a baby version of Ye Hua hatching from an egg.  

“This creature needs wings to fly and it lays eggs,” Bai Qian said after she had managed to catch her breath. Her stomach ached from laughing so much. When was the last time she had experienced that sensation? She wanted many more moments like this one with Ye Hua. Joy filled her at the idea.

“I think this story is actually about some strange kind of giant predatory bird,” she continued, smiling at Ye Hua. “I’m not sure why the author decided to call it a dragon. She’s clearly never seen a dragon before. Not even a drawing of one.” 

“A giant bird?” Ye Hua mused. “Yes. I like that much better. It makes a lot more sense. Let’s find out if the knight can kill the giant bird and rescue his lady.” He patted his shoulder with a handsome grin, encouraging Bai Qian to lean against him again. She did so eagerly, finding her comfortable spot on his shoulder without delay.

Listening with rapt attention, Bai Qian was pleased that Ye Hua chose to follow her suggestion, substituting the words “giant bird” for “dragon” while reading the rest of the story. Now that there were no more pauses in the narrative, Bai Qian was caught up in Ye Hua’s deep voice and became fully immersed in the story. She imagined the knight training with the dragon slayer for days and then riding to his love’s rescue at the last minute, fighting off the giant bird that was determined to rip her away from him and then slaying the creature with a special iron spear, as Ye Hua read the exciting scenes out loud. She relaxed once the bird had been killed.

Once the giant bird was dead, the citizens of the surrounding towns rose up against the peasants in the village and all the families who had lost their daughters to the bird demanded justice for the kidnappings. But Bai Qian was most interested in the reunion and wedding of the knight and his love which were the final scenes of the story. She held her breath when the hero kissed his lady. Bai Qian thought of the details from her dream about Ye Hua, hoping she would finally find out at least a part of the answer to the mystery of what came after a man kissed a woman. But the story ended there and the answer remained elusive, to her disappointment.     

She frowned, lost in thought, as Ye Hua snapped the book closed.

“What’s wrong, Qian Qian?” he asked, noticing her expression. “Did you not like the end?”

“No, I did like it.” She smiled at him, pushing the mystery away from her mind. “I’m glad it had a happy ending. Thank you for reading it to me. I enjoyed it very much. It’s been so long since I’ve heard a new story.”

Ye Hua handed the book to her and Bai Qian took it from him with surprise. “I don’t …”

“The book is for you,” Ye Hua explained. “Zhe Yan wanted you to have it.”

Bai Qian couldn’t hide her delight at the book in her hands, running her fingers along its smooth leather cover with wonder. A book! They were less common than scrolls and she couldn’t wait to add this one to her small collection of reading material. The tale it contained was more exciting than anything else she owned. Bai Qian was looking forward to practicing her reading with it. She would always remember this day and the sound of Ye Hua’s voice while reading it. The memories wrapped up with the book were another special gift he had given her. There was one thing about it that needed to be changed however, she thought with amusement.

Opening the book and carefully turning the pages as if they were delicate and might rip easily, Bai Qian found the first mention of Dragon’s Peak. She touched the brush strokes forming the character for dragon with thoughtful consideration. Was there a way to change the dried ink? 

“Is it possible to change the word?” she asked Ye Hua.

“You mean..?”

She nodded at him with a grin. “The story shouldn’t be about a dragon. I want to erase every mention of a dragon and make it all about a giant bird.”

Ye Hua laughed and Bai Qian was happy he seemed to like the idea. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to change it since it was written with mortal ink. I can show you how if you would like.”

Bai Qian watched with fascinated interest as Ye Hua placed his long fingers over the area where the word ‘dragon’ was written. With a pulse of his magic, the brushstrokes of the word morphed into those of ‘giant bird’ instead. The appearance of the two words no longer matched the handwriting of the rest on the page. They matched Ye Hua’s handwriting instead. She remembered what it looked like from the painting he had given her.

“Can I try?” Bai Qian asked eagerly.

Ye Hua nodded. “I’ll help guide you for the first one. Place your fingers over the word.”

Finding the next place where ‘dragon’ was written, Bai Qian placed her fingers over it. Warmth swept through her when Ye Hua placed his hand over hers, covering it completely; it was difficult for Bai Qian to catch a proper breath with his fingers caressing hers. 

“Can you feel the particles of ink?” he asked. “They’ll be clinging to the fibers of the paper.”

“No,” Bai Qian whispered. All she could feel was Ye Hua’s touch and the riot of exciting sensations he elicited within her midsection. Her heart started racing and she didn’t dare move when she felt some of Ye Hua’s magic wrapping around his fingers and then hers. 

“Close your eyes, Qian Qian,” he murmured, “and concentrate. Follow my cultivation with your own.”

“Okay,” she said, her voice still no louder than a whisper. She closed her eyes and called forth some of her cultivation, her body trembling ever so slightly when her magic touched his. She was reminded of that special night weeks ago though the intensity was nowhere near what it had been the night their cultivations had connected. Did he know about that night? Had he felt her touch? She didn’t know the answer; he had never mentioned it to her.

“Do you feel the ink now?”

Did his voice sound less steady than it had before? Bai Qian struggled to concentrate as she wondered if Ye Hua was feeling the same inner turbulence and heightened tension she was. She felt caught up in some sort of beautiful enchantment spell. 

“Concentrate, Qian Qian.”

After another minute of distraction, Bai Qian finally took a deep breath and regained some of her composure, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand. Pushing back all thoughts of the way Ye Hua made her feel, Bai Qian searched for the ink his cultivation was guiding hers to. There. She felt it.

“I feel it,” she said, her sense of accomplishment pushing away the last remnants of her confused distraction. “I feel the ink!”

“Good,” Ye Hua answered. “Now all you have to do is guide the particles along the paper fibers into their new positions. Picture the characters in your mind.”

Ye Hua pulled his hand away and Bai Qian almost protested the unexpected loss of his touch but she held the words back at the last second. She wanted to see if she could change the word by following his instructions; it was a skill she had never tried before. She remembered the two characters he had just formed with the ink and pictured them, using her cultivation to move the ink particles as she did. It took her a few tries but, after a minute or two, the ink began to move and she was able to guide it along the lines she could see in her head.

“You did it,” Ye Hua said proudly.

Bai Qian looked down, moving her still trembling fingers away from the page. There, in her own unpracticed handwriting, were the words ‘giant bird’. She smiled happily at Ye Hua. “I did it. I actually did it. Now I can change all of them.” 

“I fully support that decision,” Ye Hua quipped with a wink in her direction. 

Laughing, Bai Qian closed the book, deciding to change the rest of the words later when she was alone. Setting the book aside, Bai Qian thought she might like to keep it here in the cabin instead of her den.       

“I need to thank Zhe Yan when I see him,” she said, turning her attention back to Ye Hua. “Do you know when he’ll be back for a visit? I would like to talk to him.”

“I will let him know. He has a new project he’s working on and that often keeps him occupied for weeks but he wants to see you again. He will set everything aside when I tell him.”

“Thank you.” Silence descended over the cabin but Bai Qian didn’t find it awkward like she had feared she would. Spending time with Ye Hua felt right to her and the quiet was a comfortable one. She leaned against him as she gazed out the door and he wrapped an arm around her shoulder to hold her closer. Bai Qian smiled softly, feeling affection and comfort in the gesture.

The earlier torrent of rain had now become a steady one and there were only a few soft rumbles of distant thunder again. The storm was moving away from them.

“I used to never like storms when I was a little girl,” Bai Qian murmured. Ye Hua didn’t comment but she knew he was listening to her; she could feel his attention on her. “I always knew I wouldn’t be able to wander the woods and explore when it was storming outside. That was once my favorite thing to do. I would be so disappointed when I saw dark clouds moving in or smelled the scent of rain on the air.” She didn’t mention that it was her mother who wouldn’t allow her to play outside during a thunderstorm. One day she would share memories of her family with Ye Hua but she wasn’t ready to speak about them right now. 

“And now?” Ye Hua asked when she didn’t say anything more.

A fond smile crossed Bai Qian’s lips. “I don’t mind them at all now. There’s something comforting about them…” because they remind me of you. She blushed at the thought, grateful Ye Hua couldn’t see her face right then. It was true but she didn’t think she could properly explain it to him. Not yet.

They remained quiet, simply basking in each other’s company, while the steady rain died down into a drizzle before stopping altogether. The last of the dark clouds lifted and the sun came out, bathing the clearing outside with rays of bright light. 

Her fox had been quiet over the last day, content to allow Bai Qian time with Ye Hua. But now, Bai Qian’s fox was feeling pent up from all the quiet time inside. She wanted to go explore the forest with her dragon and see if the storm had wrought any changes to it. Bai Qian was torn between wanting to give in to her fox and longing to stay here next to Ye Hua. 

The forest had a special, unmatched beauty after it had been washed by the rain. The moist soil often had a richer, earthier scent that blended well with the fragrance of the peach blossoms. The leaves would look more vibrant, their verdant green gaining intensity as the trees and plants absorbed the nurturing water. The birds would be singing their joy when they found their favorite bathing spots replenished with fresh, clear water. She hated to miss it.

Ye Hua stood, surprising Bai Qian with his sudden movement. He held a hand out to her. 

“Would you like to go for a walk with me, Qian Qian?” he asked.

Bai Qian smiled shyly at Ye Hua and reached for his hand. Could he sense her fox spirit’s restlessness and her own desire to admire the forest? How did he do that? He watched her intently as she placed her hand in his. His fingers grasped hers and he helped her up from the floor but he did not let go once she was standing next to him. Instead, he intertwined his fingers with hers to hold her hand more fully with his. 

“Will you show me all of your favorite places in the forest?” His deep voice and intense gaze brought a shiver to Bai Qian’s skin. He caressed her hand with his thumb like he had earlier and Bai Qian felt the pleasant tingle his touch left behind once again. “I would like to see the forest the way you see it, Qian Qian. Will you share it with me?”

⇛ Next part: Ch 31: A Smile for a Dragon

⇚ Previous part: Ch 29: Back Home

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