Ch 32: Choices

“Captain Jinjing! Captain Jinjing!”

The door behind him slammed open and Jinjing turned with a furious frown. “What is it?” he barked at the panicked soldier who came running into the room, stumbling clumsily in his haste.

With his natural talents for stealth and secrecy and his uncanny ability to uncover carefully concealed truths, Jinjing had risen through the ranks of the branch of the Celestial military in charge of spying and other covert operations quicker than most. But the title of captain wasn’t good enough, not if he was ever going to prove his father’s words wrong. Jinjing wasn’t going to settle for anything less than the rank of a top general and he was always plotting new ways to reach that goal. 

This soldier was interrupting that plotting.

“Well. What is it?” Jinjing demanded when the soldier remained silent, struggling to catch his breath. 

“The Demon King…he… he… intends to… to march on Qing Qiu,” the soldier stuttered. He paused to take a deep breath, his voice steadier when he continued. “The demons are going to attack King Bai Zhi and the Fox Den tonight. They plan to assassinate King Bai Zhi.”

Jinjing narrowed his eyes with suspicion at the news. “Are you sure?” Attacking Qing Qiu was a bold move even for one as audacious as the Demon King. It would be sure to ignite the wrath of both Heavenly Father and King Zhao Hui as they would have no doubts about who had carried out the strike. If Bai Zhi died, their demand for justice for their fallen ally would be fierce and quick. 

“Yes, Captain,” the soldier answered. “A large group of demon soldiers have gathered at the abandoned palace on the edge of demon lands. I immediately went to investigate and overheard their plans.”

“Very good, soldier.” Jinjing’s mind raced with thoughts of glory and recognition. This was valuable intelligence and it was all thanks to his covert surveillance plan that the military now had this information. 

Even though his commanding officer had been skeptical, Jinjing had known watching the abandoned demon palace would pay off. It may be a rotting ruin but it was a perfect gathering place especially because it was so readily dismissed. The life of a Celestial ally would now be saved because Jinjing had included it in his surveillance grid. There was sure to be a promotion for him after this. 

“Go back to your post and stay out of sight,” Jinjing ordered the soldier. “If anything changes, let me know. Otherwise, hold your location and wait for backup.”

“Yes, sir.” The soldier saluted Jinjing and disappeared. 

His heavy leather boots beat a steady staccato rhythm as Jinjing hurried down the marble corridor of the military palace to share the intelligence with his commanding officer. He could imagine the praise and accolades that would be heaped upon him with every step he took. This was the day he had been waiting for! But then the imagined awards faded and Jinjing could hear his father’s displeased voice instead–

‘You’ll never make it to the top by sneaking around and eavesdropping on people. You have to make sure you stand out in all ways. Every officer in the military is playing the same game you are to get to the top. The higher your rank, the more difficult it becomes to advance.’ 

The beat of his footsteps echoed a few seconds after Jinjing had stopped. He looked around him to ensure he was alone, a habit ingrained in him after years of subterfuge. Was his father correct? Was this really the way to get what he wanted? 

The intelligence about the demon attack on Qing Qiu would no doubt make its way up the chain of command and Jijing’s commanding officers would receive a lot of the credit along the way. That was how things worked in the military. Unless he could take the information directly to one of the generals himself…

Jinjing frowned. He liked the idea but there was no way to do so unless he happened upon a general by chance. Their location at any given time was not common knowledge for their protection and that of the military plans they were ultimately in charge of. 

The last vestiges of Jinjing’s excitement drained away to be replaced by disappointment. He would have no choice but to pass the information along and hope he got the credit he deserved. He continued on his way down the corridor, his pace slow and unenthusiastic, until a new idea suddenly occurred to him. 

He stopped short, his mind turning towards deceit, a place it was more familiar with. This was not the opportunity Jinjing had been waiting for but there may be a way to turn the situation into a different sort of opportunity. It had long been rumored that Bai Zhi possessed a dagger of silver and jade, which would make it more an ornamental weapon than anything else were it not also imbued with the magic to strengthen one’s power and skills four-fold. 

Imagine the awe-inspiring accomplishments he could achieve with the dagger in his possession!    

His frown vanished as a cold and calculating light entered Jinjing’s eyes. Bai Zhi and his people were not going to join the battle. Bai Zhi’s contribution to the war had already been completed. His loss now would have no impact. 

There was so much Jinjing could do with such an artifact; great feats that would help him stand out amongst his peers. If he could get his hands on it then he would have a better chance of gaining more notice from his superiors. They would have to promote him then. 

Jinjing had a knack for determining whether information was false and he had every reason to believe the rumors of the dagger’s existence and whereabouts were true. The demons would have no use for it because it had no effect on dark magic. It would be his for the taking.

Only one question remained. How could he allow the demon attack on Qing Qiu to proceed without having his surveillance plan look like a complete failure? There was only one way. Dead soldiers couldn’t pass on any information even if they had been in the right place to discover it. He would need to eliminate the soldier who had brought him the news regardless. What were a few more deaths?

His decision made, Jinjing cloud-jumped to the border of demon lands. There were two soldiers posted within a few miles of the abandoned palace that would need to be taken care of. They would not be replaced by fresh soldiers until next week. There was no concern their bodies would be discovered anytime soon. 

Concealing his cultivation and presence behind a barrier, Jinjing snuck up on one soldier and broke his neck with a sharp twist before jumping to the location of the other, slicing his throat with a knife from behind. Neither soldier uttered a sound. 

Then, Jinjing moved to the post near the abandoned palace, locating the soldier he had spoken with only an hour earlier.  He was following Jinjing’s order and had all his attention trained on the group of demons he had been spying on. He would never know what hit him. 

Summoning a plain, nondescript arrow to his hand, Jinjing thrust it into the side of the man’s neck with enough force to cut off his cry of pain. Only a gurgling sound escaped. A second arrow appeared in Jinjing’s hand and he jabbed this one into the man’s chest, puncturing a lung. He stood over the fallen soldier, silently watching the life leave him.

Satisfied the soldiers’ deaths could never be traced back to him, Jinjing snuck his way into Qing Qiu, grateful Bai Zhi had declined to accept Heavenly Father’s offer to assign Celestial soldiers there to help guard the Fox Realm. It had been a foolish decision that Jinjing would now take advantage of. 

Settling into a hidden spot in the forest just out of sight of the Fox Den, Jinjing waited. In his current location, he wouldn’t be caught if Celestial soldiers happened to show up before the Demon King’s plan could be completed. And he would use his senses to determine when the demons had come and gone. Then, when all was clear, he would make his move. This was going to be a glorious night… 

Staring out the window of his private quarters, General Jinjing studied the empty walkway before him with a thoughtful frown. Though the light of night was a bit softer than the light of day in the Heavens, it was the quiet stillness outside that indicated it was the early morning hour just before dawn. He couldn’t sleep. Once again, he found himself playing a dangerous game of treachery, one he had less of an appetite for now that he was older.

The massacre of Bai Zhi and his family along with its aftermath weighed on Jinjing’s mind. He had never found the dagger and had come to believe it didn’t exist. How could he have been so wrong? That was one of the few times he had misinterpreted the accuracy of information he had overheard. And with Bai Qian still alive there was a witness who could place him in the Fox Den right after the murders. 

Nothing that night had turned out as he had planned. He had made the wrong decision back then. Was he making the wrong decision now? Did Bai Qian even remember anything? Perhaps he would’ve been smarter to remain silent and watchful to see how things played out with Bai Qian before deciding anything.

No. The events he had set in motion couldn’t be stopped now even if he was having second thoughts. Weisheng knew about Bai Qian and was determined to get to her. Jinjing had been the one to tell him about her having been found and he was the one who had helped Weisheng get the forbidden dragon talon sword. There was no going back after those deeds; his path could no longer be changed. All he could do now was assist Weisheng in his revenge. To do otherwise would be the same as voluntarily giving up everything he had worked for. And that was one thing Jinjing would never do.  

He turned back to his desk and the scroll opened on its surface, taking a seat once again. He ignored his sore muscles from having been in this same position for hours. Jinjing had been up most of the night plotting and still wore the clothes he had been wearing yesterday. Most of his scheme to distract the twins was in place. 

Weisheng would spend several hours at the Celebration, mingling with other guests well within sight of both Ye Hua and Mo Yuan. When they saw the Demon King was up to nothing more than socializing, they would likely relax their guard. That was when Jinjing’s plan would start.

He read back over the notes written on the open scroll, searching for any obvious holes in his plan. 

The northern trade warehouses were located near hostile lands so the Deputy Trade Minister was always on site when the Trade Minister was away, which he would be during the Celebration of the Sacred Rites. This provided Jinjing the perfect opportunity he needed.

Jinjing knew the Deputy Trade Minister well and the man was an incompetent fool who depended on the Trade Minister always covering for his mistakes. When the Bear spirit Jinjing had recently hired set fire to the warehouse with a jar of phoenix fire Jinjing would provide, the Deputy Trade Minister would try to handle it himself, allowing what should have been minor damage to get out of hand. He would then have no choice but to alert the Trade Minister who would immediately tell Ye Hua after assessing the extent of the destruction. 

Being the master negotiator that he was, the Crown Prince was in charge of trade policies for the Heavens which included the security of its network of warehouses. And Ye Hua never shirked his responsibilities. If Jinjing were lucky, Ye Hua would want to see the damage for himself, trusting Mo Yuan to keep a watchful eye on Weisheng in his absence. But, even if Ye Hua didn’t leave the Celebration, he would be distracted long enough to allow Weisheng to slip away to go to the peach tree forest… if Jinjing could find a way to divert Mo Yuan’s attention too. 

Was it possible Mo Yuan would be with Ye Hua when news of the warehouse fire reached him? That would make Jinjing’s job much easier but he thought it unlikely. The twins would know that it would be easier to monitor Weisheng’s whereabouts if they were watching from two different vantage points. Chances were good that Mo Yuan wouldn’t hear about the fire until later. Jinjing would need to have another plan in place to distract him. 

Distracting Mo Yuan was a greater challenge. It was a task that worried Jinjing to no end. The War God was more suspicious by nature than his brother and he had a sixth sense when it came to detecting deceit. While both Mo Yuan and Ye Hua made Jinjing nervous at times, he actively avoided crossing paths with Mo Yuan. Now, Jinjing needed to find somebody willing to take that risk by sneaking onto Kunlun Mountain territory long enough for one of the disciples to decide to alert Mo Yuan in the Heavens about an intruder. And the longer this person could evade capture the better. 

Hiring somebody to vandalize the warehouse had been no easy task. Jinjing had found the Bear in a rundown tavern and approached him while disguised. Jinjing had been forced to offer the Bear a large sum of money to convince him to go along with the plan and then disappear so neither Ye Hua or Heavenly Father could track him down. Though if they did, Jinjing was confident the Bear couldn’t identify him as the one who had hired him. 

Finding somebody willing to trespass on Kunlun Mountain was a whole different matter. The mountain was sacred Celestial land and Mo Yuan guarded it well. Jinjing needed to ramp up his efforts to locate somebody because his time was growing short. The Celebration was less than two weeks away. He was running out of time.

Resolved to continue his search later in the day, Jinjing wrote a hasty message to Weisheng, sharing his plan with the Demon King. They needed to be on the same page because timing was going to be critical if Weisheng wanted to find and capture Bai Qian without Ye Hua knowing for sure who had taken her. Weisheng needed to understand there would only be a limited amount of time available to look for Bai Qian. 

And Jinjing needed Weisheng to promise not to bring the dragon talon sword with him to the Heavens. Heavenly Father or either of the twins would be able to sense its presence right away and all would be lost for both him and Weisheng. Sweat broke out across Jinjing’s brow at the thought of the possible consequences. Everything must go according to plan. He would make sure of it.


A soft breeze caressed Bai Qian’s fur. Still lost in the beautiful dream of her and Ye Hua, she didn’t immediately stir. When it brushed against her fur a second time, she snuggled in closer to the warm man sleeping next to her, clinging to the dream as best she could. When it happened a third time she blinked open groggy eyes, her gaze finding Ye Hua’s features relaxed in sleep. He had turned toward her sometime in the night. 

His soft breath tickling her fur brought the events of yesterday back to Bai Qian with a clarity that made her tremble. Ye Hua’s breath had caressed her skin right before he had kissed her. Would he kiss her again today? Or maybe she should be the one to kiss him instead. How would he react if she did?

Studying Ye Hua’s face and thinking back over the wondrous feelings when hugging him, Bai Qian had the urge to shift. They had not discussed sleeping arrangements last night and Bai Qian had remained a fox when they returned to the cabin to go to bed. Ye Hua had given no indication he disagreed with her decision when he had patted the mattress to ask her to join him. 

She had been relieved to avoid such an awkward conversation and situation the night before. She wasn’t ready to sleep next to him in human form. But now Bai Qian wondered what it would feel like to lie next to Ye Hua in bed as a woman. Would it feel differently from lying next to him as a fox? It wasn’t the proper thing to do; she should wait until she was out of the cabin before shifting. But Bai Qian didn’t move, her curiosity piqued. It would be okay if it was only for a minute, right?

Bai Qian’s fox was awake earlier than normal and she encouraged Bai Qian to shift with a happy thought, helping Bai Qian make up her mind.     

Gathering her courage and her cultivation, Bai Qian shifted, ignoring the nervous fluttering in her stomach as best she could. Ye Hua stirred next to her and turned onto his back. Bai Qian froze, her heart racing as she held her breath. Had she woken him? She waited for a tense minute, scarcely daring to breathe as she imagined Ye Hua’s stunned reaction to her bold move. But he said nothing and seemed to fall back into a deep sleep.

Bai Qian relaxed, releasing a pent up breath. His eyes were still closed. Taking care not to jostle him, she inched her body closer to his until she was pressed up against his side. Then, before fully realizing she even intended to do it, Bai Qian reached her arm across Ye Hua’s chest to hold him. Warm contentment flooded through her when she rested her cheek against his shoulder followed by occasional hot eddies of that other stronger emotion he kindled. 

She smiled. Resting against Ye Hua in the form of a woman was very different than resting against him as a fox. It may not be the proper thing to do but lying next to Ye Hua this way felt perfect to Bai Qian. This wonderful feeling must be a part of the reason why couples slept together. 

What other new and exciting experiences would her day with Ye Hua bring? What else would she learn about the intriguing man next to her? She had barely scratched the surface of who he was as a person and she looked forward to finding out more about him. Bai Qian wanted to know everything about him. 

Several minutes passed and Bai Qian didn’t move from her spot. Several more flew by before she began to try and convince herself to get out of bed. If she wasn’t careful, Ye Hua was going to wake up and catch her in human form. What would he say? Part of her wanted to find out but a part of her feared it would be a very awkward situation. She didn’t want there to be any awkwardness between them. Not today. 

With that worry in mind, Bai Qian finally decided it was better to leave the cabin before Ye Hua awoke. Raising up on an elbow, Bai Qian pressed a soft shy kiss to his cheek before shifting back into fox form. She stood and crept off the bed, crossing the room on silent paws. When she reached the door, she glanced back at his sleeping form once more before stepping outside to head to the lake.   


Ye Hua’s eyes opened as soon as he heard the door close. He touched his cheek with a small smile, still able to feel the affectionate brush of her lips against his skin and the slight weight of her arm on his chest. He could still taste the unique flavor of her lips and tongue from their kisses yesterday. The curves of her body fit against him perfectly. How much better would her slender form mold to his without the blanket and clothing between them? 

That was a tempting and dangerous place for his thoughts to linger.   

He had struggled against asking her to stay with him in bed again this morning but that would have been a reckless decision with her heady scent overwhelming his senses, reminding him of how much he desired her. And Ye Hua had worried he would make her uncomfortable; that was the last thing he ever wanted Bai Qian to feel when near him. So he had feigned sleep. 

Was this morning the start of a new routine for him and Bai Qian? Ye Hua’s smile widened at the thought. If it was, he would wait to reveal he always awoke when she did so she would feel comfortable enough to continue her explorations for that is how Bai Qian’s actions had felt to him. He was amazed by how attuned with her he was now.

Bai Qian was sitting by the lake; Ye Hua could sense her near the water. She often seemed to gravitate there when she left him in the mornings. He wondered if the place held special meaning for her. Would she mind if he joined her?

Needing to be close to Bai Qian again, Ye Hua hastily pulled on a rust-colored robe and pulled his hair up. A scroll bearing his name appeared at his feet just as he opened the door to leave. He picked it up and scanned the message inside written in his mother’s graceful handwriting. She was having some dresses made for Bai Qian and would be sending them along in the next day or two unless Ye Hua had any objections. 

Ye Hua grinned. He couldn’t wait to give them to Bai Qian, imagining how excited she would be to receive the gift. He scribbled a quick note of thanks to his mother and sent the scroll back to her before seeking Bai Qian’s company. Would she be in human form? His eyes sought her out eagerly as he approached the lake to find out.

She was. Ye Hua paused to gaze upon her when he found her seated on a large rock, her legs submerged in the clear water, a cascade of untamed wavy raven hair falling around her shoulders. As if sensing him, Bai Qian turned and greeted him with a warm smile of welcome. She was stunning. Ye Hua would never tire of the exhilaration he experienced every time he looked upon her; an exhilaration that brought a sense of awe along with it. He was the luckiest man in the world to receive the priceless gift of Bai Qian’s affection and trust.

“May I join you?” Ye Hua asked, stepping closer to her. 

“Please do,” she responded, moving the skirt of her dress over so he could take a seat next to her. 

Using a wave of his magic, Ye Hua removed his shoes and socks and lifted the cuffs of his linen pants so he could dip his feet into the cool water when he sat next to her. She inched her way over until her shoulder and thigh were pressed against his; her feminine fox and peach blossom scent wrapped around Ye Hua, teasing and enticing him. 

Heat ignited within Ye Hua but he pushed it back, choosing to focus on the sight of her dainty bare feet submerged next to his larger ones. Neither of them said anything for a time, simply enjoying the pleasure of each other’s company along with the sound of gently lapping water and the chorus of birds off in the distance.

“I love everything about this forest,” Bai Qian murmured after breathing a soft sigh. She leaned her cheek against Ye Hua’s shoulder. “But sometimes I wish to see other places and I wonder if I will ever have that chance.” 

“You will,” Ye Hua told her reassuringly. “I’ll take you wherever you want to go, Qian Qian. It doesn’t matter how many places you want to see. We’ll visit them together.”

She lifted her head from his shoulder without saying anything. Ye Hua turned to find Bai Qian studying him with a serious and thoughtful expression. She appeared ready to ask him something important but was hesitating to voice the words. Her sudden reluctance to talk to him bothered Ye Hua. Bai Qian had been so open and candid with him yesterday and Ye Hua had felt closer to her because of it; he wanted her to always feel welcome to express her thoughts with him no matter what they were.

“What is it?” Ye Hua asked when she continued to watch him silently, that questioning look still in her gaze. “You can ask me anything.”

“Do you… When are you…?” Bai Qian’s voice trailed off. Her expression grew frustrated and her brow furrowed with a frown. Ye Hua reached for her hand and laced his fingers with hers, offering support and comfort but remaining quiet as she gathered her thoughts. He was relieved to see her frown fade with his touch. 

“Do you ever miss living in the Heavens, Ye Hua? Are there important things awaiting your return?”

Her question caught him off guard. He wasn’t sure exactly what he had been expecting her to ask but that wasn’t it. Now it was his turn to hesitate as her questions reminded him that she still had no idea about his current status and title. Was this the time to tell her? Would it change anything between them? Ye Hua sighed, looking back out over the water. He didn’t release his hold on her hand as he answered.

“I don’t miss the Heavens,” he told her. “Not really.”

“You don’t like living there?” she asked, concern evident in her voice.

“I used to,” he explained, turning back to face her, his eyes meeting her gentle ones. “The Heavens are beautiful and there are many wonderful sights to see and visit. It was a wonderful place to grow up and I have many fond memories from when I was a boy. There were always peaceful spots to paint and open areas to practice swordplay and places to investigate. As long as Mo Yuan and I followed certain rules, our parents allowed us free reign to explore when we weren’t studying. With a few exceptions, I know every nook and cranny there is to discover in the Heavens. It’s a special place but my life there has become stifling in recent years.”

“What changed?”

“I was named Crown Prince,” Ye Hua said, blurting out the answer before he could change his mind. Bai Qian gasped, her eyes widening in shock. He didn’t stop, wanting her to hear all of it. The Crown Prince was who he was and he couldn’t change that. If he wanted a future with Bai Qian, she needed to know everything.  

“My life changed drastically after that. Suddenly my private business was no longer my own. Everything I do is scrutinized and picked apart. People are vying for my attention all the time because they think they can gain something by knowing me. I don’t mind the extra work that comes along with my title. I like negotiating trade deals and managing the day to day business that goes along with them. But I do mind the loss of privacy and lack of genuine friendships. I’ve dealt with these things to a certain extent my whole life because of who my family is but it’s gotten exponentially worse.”

Ye Hua sighed again, wondering if Bai Qian thought worse of him after hearing him complain. It felt good to get these worries off his chest but he didn’t want her to think he was ungrateful for the privileges he had in his life. “It’s not all bad though. I will one day have the chance to protect my people and those of our allies in my father’s name. And to help them thrive and lead fulfilling lives. That is an honor I look forward to accepting. The rest of it I will learn to navigate and get around given enough time.”

“You’re the Crown Prince,” Bai Qian whispered. 

Focusing his attention on her, Ye Hua saw a myriad of emotions on her face, none of them easy to decipher. He tensed. His biggest concern now was that Bai Qian saw him differently, that she no longer felt comfortable being with him. 

“Yes,” Ye Hua said. He tensed, waiting for her response but none came. Was everything between him and Bai Qian about to change? An awkward silence fell around them. 

“What are you thinking, Qian Qian?” Ye Hua asked in a quiet voice when her silence became too much to bear.   

Bai Qian’s eyes met his and Ye Hua saw sudden humor there which confused him. “Qian Qian?”

She gave him a genuine smile and the tension surrounding them evaporated. Ye Hua relaxed, no longer fearing his whole world might come crashing down around him at any second. 

“I kicked the future Emperor of the Heavens in the shin.” 

Once again, she caught Ye Hua off guard. Memories of their first meeting as children rushed through his mind, bringing a new fondness with them. Bai Qian remembered him. He returned her smile. “Yes, you did,” he responded. “My leg was bruised and sore for a week after that.” They both started laughing; the sound of her laughter was more beautiful than ever to Ye Hua given his earlier fears.  

“I’m sorry,” Bai Qian said when she had managed to catch her breath.

“Don’t be,” Ye Hua told her, his eyes locking with hers. “I deserved it.” He caressed the side of her face, marvelling at the softness of her skin under his fingers. She leaned into his touch.

“Yes, you did,” she whispered, echoing his words back to him before she pressed her lips against his. “But I still shouldn’t have done it.” Bai Qian kissed him again, her lips lingering on his awkwardly a little longer the second time before she pulled away with a faint blush. She had trouble meeting his eyes.

Her kisses were sweet and arousing to Ye Hua. He wanted nothing more than to continue where she had left off but thought it important to continue their conversation. If she had any reservations at all after learning he would one day inherit Heavenly Father’s throne, it was better to discuss it now. He had to be sure.

“Qian Qian.” Ye Hua waited until she faced him again before continuing. “It really doesn’t bother you to learn that I’m the Crown Prince?” 

“It surprised me but it doesn’t bother me,” she responded. Her expression grew solemn. “It means you can’t live here in the forest forever.” 

Ye Hua nodded. “Yes. I will have to return to the Heavens eventually.” He wanted to tell her how much he hoped she would accompany him when he moved back into his palace but it was too soon to be making declarations of that nature. “But I’m not leaving anytime soon, Qian Qian,” he hurried to add as reassurance. “When that time comes we’ll figure something out.”

Bai Qian looked like she wanted to say something else but she remained quiet, looking out over the water and into the peach trees beyond. He wondered what she was thinking but did not question her this time. He hated that she looked pensive as she studied the landscape before them. 

“Would you like some breakfast?” Ye Hua asked her, searching for a way to change the melancholy mood.

She nodded, a soft smile brightening the expression on her face. “May I help you cook?”     

Standing, Ye Hua dried his feet with a flick of his hand and stepped into his socks and boots before reaching down to help Bai Qian up. He was excited to share his love of cooking with her. “I’d love to have your help.”

⇛ Next part: Ch 33: The Ties of Friendship

⇚ Previous part: Ch 31: A Smile for a Dragon

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