Frowning from his place at his desk, Weisheng considered Jinjing’s latest news before responding to the general.
Jinjing had arrived outside the Demon Palace only minutes ago, demanding to speak with Weisheng about something urgent. Unplanned visits annoyed the Demon King but he had not denied Jinjing entrance into his study, not when the general was clearly worried about something. Weisheng had never seen his Celestial spy so agitated. This was not a good time for Jinjing to lose his composure; the celebration would begin in a few hours.
“You’re certain Ye Hua is bringing Bai Qian to the Heavens with him today?”
“Yes, I’m certain.” Jinjing glared. “Even had I not overheard her name mentioned by the Captain of the Guard, I would know it was her. The Crown Prince is bringing an important guest, a “she” who is important enough to require guard locations be discreetly rearranged but is not attending the celebration itself. It has to be Bai Qian.”
“You cannot capture her today like planned,” Jinjing added when Weisheng remained silent.
Anger flared inside Weisheng and he took a deep breath to control his temper though his frown grew darker. The Demon King didn’t like being told what he could and couldn’t do. The only reason he tolerated it now was because of how useful Jinjing had proven to be thus far. One day that might change and Weisheng would be ready to act if and when it did. But right now, he needed to encourage Jinjing to stay on board with their plan.
Standing, Weisheng crossed the room, forcing a more pleasant expression onto his face.
“This could work to our advantage, you know,” Weisheng said when he reached Jinjing’s side. “Now I won’t have to search an entire forest to find the Fox Princess. If you can discover the new location of the guards, we will know where Bai Qian is. Then I can find a way to divert the guards’ attention long enough to take her.”
Jinjing laughed but there was no humor in the sound. “It’s not going to be that easy. Even the quieter areas of the Heavens usually have some people lingering around. The chance of somebody being nearby to witness you grabbing her is too great. The Crown Prince will then have no problem making the case to justify an attack against you.”
Weisheng’s frown returned. “I still want to try. If there are people around, I’ll walk away without approaching her.”
“Your biggest advantage right now is that Ye Hua has no idea you know Bai Qian is alive,” Jinjing pointed out. “You risk losing that by making such a careless move. If the Crown Prince finds out you came anywhere near her, he will become suspicious of your intentions. He’s already concerned about a possible threat as it is. Why do you think all these changes to the guards are being made at the last possible minute? Ye Hua is no fool. He knows it is difficult to plan an effective attack in such a short amount of time. If he learns you were near Bai Qian, he will know his concerns were justified and he will make it impossible to get close to her.”
“How will he know?” Weisheng countered in an irritated tone. “Bai Qian has never met me. She has no idea who I am even if she spots me. And the rest of the realm thinks she’s dead. Visitors to the Heavens will think nothing of one guest walking by another guest… which is all they will see if anybody is near when I find her.”
Jinjing said nothing. Weisheng’s anger increased as he stared at the dragon. The candles illuminating the room flickered wildly when their demon fire responded to Weisheng’s rage by burning hotter and brighter. The Demon King wanted to lash out at the other man and punish him for trying to stop his plan to capture Bai Qian. They were so close. How could Jinjing back out now? Weisheng scowled. He couldn’t; Weisheng wouldn’t allow it.
“All you need to worry about is finding out where the guards have been relocated and making sure the twins are distracted long enough for me to leave the palace unnoticed. I will take care of the rest.”
“It’s not a good idea,” Jinjing responded stubbornly, his expression leaving no doubt the contempt he was feeling. “Your impatience could cost us everything. A different, better opportunity will present itself.”
“I’m not asking,” Weisheng bit out through gritted teeth, refusing to let go of the opportunity he had right now.
“But,” Jinjing started in protest only to be cut off by Weisheng’s furious growl.
The Demon King took a threatening step toward Jinjing, a menacing glare on his face. “Bai Qian’s not the only one who can tell Heavenly Father you were in the Fox Den the night Bai Zhi died, Jinjing.”
Tense silence descended as Weisheng waited for his words to sink in. He smiled when Jinjing’s shoulders slumped in capitulation. “Good. I thought you would see things my way. Find out where Bai Qian will be staying while she’s in the Heavens. And make sure the twins are distracted as planned.”
Nodding his head curtly, Jinjing disappeared. A fervent anticipation gleamed in Weisheng’s green eyes.
Her fox jumping with excitement at the prospect of leaving the forest, Bai Qian smiled nervously as she studied her reflection in the mirror Ye Hua had summoned for her. Her smile faded as she assessed her hair critically. She wasn’t used to pulling her hair back; it was something her mother had always done for her as a girl and there had been no reason to do so while she had been living in the peach tree forest on her own. Nor had she had any hair pins to use if she had wanted to.
Now, Bai Qian had her long waves pulled back to form a simple bun which she had pinned in place with a pair of pins Ye Hua’s mother had given her. They were made of silver and adorned with small flowers carved from white jade and turquoise. They perfectly matched the flowing dress of turquoise silk Bai Qian had chosen to wear.
I’m meeting the rest of Ye Hua’s family today. I want to look my best. She pulled a few wispy strands of hair loose at both temples, allowing them to frame her face. There. That’s better. Bai Qian liked the way the change softened her overall appearance. She wasn’t accustomed to wearing formal dresses and felt a little strange wearing one now though she loved the elegant style and rich color of the silk. Ye Hua’s mother has excellent taste in clothes.
Before she could turn away, Ye Hua’s reflection wandered onto the mirror, capturing Bai Qian’s attention and holding it. He wore black pants and nothing more. Her gaze lingered along strands of thick black hair and the tan skin of his bare back and shoulders, admiring the movement of his lean muscles as he lifted one heavy black robe before changing his mind and exchanging it for another. The mere sight of him getting dressed fascinated Bai Qian and she wondered why he had decided not to use magic to do so.
She had the sudden urge to run her fingers along the contours of his strong shoulders, to explore his bare chest and back. Imagining herself walking over to touch him stirred arousing warm tingles low in Bai Qian’s belly and between her legs, the same ones she always felt when Ye Hua held her body against his when they were kissing. How much stronger would the sensation be if he held her without any clothing in the way?
Bai Qian blushed bright red and yanked her eyes away, only for them to wander back to Ye Hua’s reflection. She was disappointed to find he had pulled on one of the robes he had been considering.
As if sensing her interest in him, Ye Hua turned to face her back, his eyes meeting hers in the mirror as he moved closer. She wondered if he could read her thoughts in her gaze and blushed again when his hands cupped her shoulders. Their warmth penetrated through the silk fabric of her dress and her breathing became unsteady when the pads of his thumbs rubbed her in gentle circles.
“You look stunning in this dress, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua murmured, smoldering heat in his eyes when he smiled at her. His nose nuzzled the nape and side of her neck, his breath caressing her as he pressed soft kisses against her sensitive skin.
Ye Hua’s captivating scent surrounded Bai Qian and she trembled a little more with every brush of his lips. The arousing tingles became more intense and Bai Qian had the strange and sudden urge to rub her thighs together. It was difficult for her to resist leaning her body back against Ye Hua’s. His warmth tempted her like she suspected nothing else could.
“As much as I love your hair when it’s down,” Ye Hua whispered in between kisses, “there are useful reasons to pin it up.” Bai Qian was captivated by the hoarse raspiness in his voice. The sound washed over her in a titillating wave and she tilted her head to give him easier access to her neck.
After several more kisses, Ye Hua finally lifted his head and stepped back. His eyes met hers in the mirror again but he remained silent, breathing in a few unsteady breaths. Bai Qian couldn’t look away from him. Was he experiencing the same riot of arousing sensations she was? And the same disappointment that they couldn’t continue exploring?
“It’s almost time for us to go. Zhe Yan will be here any minute.”
Nodding, Bai Qian turned to watch Ye Hua as he used his magic to pull half of his long hair up into an ornate hair piece, one that matched the formal black robes he wore. The only thing missing from his Crown Prince persona was the stern, unapproachable expression he could slip effortlessly onto his face like a well-worn mask.
Then Ye Hua the man would disappear and the Crown Prince would appear in his place; it would happen the second he stepped foot in the Heavens. Was the black dragon different when in the Heavens too? Bai Qian’s fox whined at the possibility her dragon might be still and silent when they left the forest.
“Are you certain you don’t want to stay in my palace while I’m gone?” Ye Hua asked, interrupting Bai Qian’s thoughts. “Nobody will notice you’re there.”
“I’m sure,” Bai Qian answered with what she hoped was a reassuring smile. She was a bit nervous about the possibility of others seeing her but she didn’t want to hide away the whole time she was in the Heavens either. “I would like to see the lotus flowers again.”
“Okay,” Ye Hua said with a pensive nod. “Most people understand the Blessed Water Gardens are there for meditation purposes or quiet contemplation. The ponds nearest the palace will have more visitors during the celebration. But if you stay in the secluded areas of the gardens there will be less people around and they will leave you to your thoughts. There will be a guard nearby. Alert him if you need anything. I can be there in a few seconds if he signals me. I won’t be gone more than a few hours.”
Bai Qian listened patiently even though they had been over this before. Ye Hua seemed to like to plan things very thoroughly and she found comfort in his thoroughness. Her father used to always tell her that if something was important and worth doing then care should be taken to do it to the best of your ability. All of Ye Hua’s meticulous planning told Bai Qian that keeping her safe and unnoticed was important to him and she appreciated that.
“I will be alright, Ye Hua,” Bai Qian told him. “I’ve had practice avoiding notice.”
“I know but I can’t help worrying about you,” Ye Hua responded with a small smile. Bai Qian returned it, reaching for his hand.
“We’ll jump directly to the lotus ponds,” Ye Hua continued, his smile fading. “There will be less attention directed your way if nobody sees me walking you there. Otherwise, people may try to approach you out of curiosity. Everybody is nosy in the Heavens.”
Ye Hua’s explanation filled Bai Qian with sadness as she remembered the conversation they had had the other day about his life in the Heavens and why he tried to keep his distance from others. It turned out she wasn’t the only one who had been hiding for protection. While she had been hiding in the forest, Ye Hua had been busy hiding his true self behind a facade of stern indifference.
The man she knew was very different from the Crown Prince that others knew. She counted herself fortunate to be included with his friends and family as someone Ye Hua trusted enough to reveal his true self to.
Bai Qian squeezed the strong hand she clutched in her own. They had more in common than she ever would have expected. Maybe Ye Hua needed her by his side just as much as she needed him.
I will never hide from you again, Ye Hua. I will stay with you and I promise you will never need to hide anything from me. No matter the circumstances, when you’re with me you can always be free to just be yourself.
Desiring to seal her pivotal vow with a kiss, Bai Qian lifted Ye Hua’s hand and pressed her lips to it with a faint blush. Ye Hua gave her a curious look but she just smiled softly at him. One day she would explain the significance of this moment to him.
“Zhe Yan’s here,” Ye Hua told her. “Are you ready to go?” Bai Qian nodded.
“Ye Hua! Qian Qian!” Zhe Yan called excitedly, meeting them at the door when they stepped outside the cabin. He was dressed in pale blue robes and held a small cup in each hand. “Here,” he said, handing one cup to her and the other to Ye Hua. “You have to try this before we leave.”
Bai Qian looked at the cup with interest, the scent of peaches mixed with a variety of spices filling the air. Underlying it all was the distinct undertone of alcohol.
“Is this wine?” she asked curiously, remembering how much her family had enjoyed drinking the various wines King Zhao Hui had often brought them as gifts. Her father had never allowed her to have more than a sip or two because of her age. She couldn’t recall how it had tasted. Would she like it?
“Ye Hua challenged me to make some peach wine,” Zhe Yan explained. “This is my second attempt.”
“It wasn’t a challenge,” Ye Hua corrected with a grin. “It was merely a suggestion.”
“Don’t listen to him, Qian Qian. It was clearly a challenge even if he didn’t label it as such.” He frowned. “Well, are either of you going to try it?”
Lifting the cup to her lips, Bai Qian took a tentative sip. The alcohol tingled along her tongue, the strong flavor of spice blended with peaches taking her by surprise. At first she couldn’t decide whether she liked it or not but a second larger sip helped her make up her mind. It tasted good, reminding her of a spiced peach dessert her mother had once prepared. Only the wine also created a pleasant warmth in her stomach as she finished her portion.
“It’s too spicy,” Ye Hua said, handing his cup back to Zhe Yan.
Bai Qian hid a smile at the disbelief in Zhe Yan’s voice. He appeared crestfallen for a second before his expression became disgruntled.
“You’re the one who told me the other was too sweet and I needed to make it spicier,” Zhe Yan pointed out to Ye Hua dryly.
“The wine before was too sweet. You agreed with me, Zhe Yan. Remember?”
Zhe Yan humphed before sighing. “Okay, fine. You’re right. The other was too sweet. But there’s nothing wrong with the wine now. I tasted it myself.”
“I like it,” Bai Qian agreed, handing her cup to Zhe Yan. Both cups disappeared with a pulse of phoenix magic.
“Ha! Qian Qian likes it,” Zhe Yan said smugly. “At least one of you has good taste. And I bet Mo Yuan will like it too.”
Ye Hua laughed. “He probably will. Da Ge has always enjoyed spiced wines. So save some of this for Qian Qian and Mo Yuan. I would like to try some of this new wine mixed with what you made earlier. I think a blend of the two would be perfect.”
“You know, that’s not a bad idea,” Zhe Yan mused. “I will have to try combining the two. Maybe a third of one and two thirds…” He stopped and turned his attention back to Bai Qian and Ye Hua, who looked amused by his friend. “It’s time for us to go, isn’t it?”
Nervous anxiety skittered through Bai Qian. It was time to leave her forest. Reminding herself this visit to the Heavens was an important first step for the future, she looked down to assess her appearance one last time. She had remembered to put shoes on. Had she tied the sash correctly? Should she have tried to tie a more intricate bow?
“You look lovely in that dress, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua told her reassuringly, taking her hand in his.
“You really do,” Zhe Yan agreed with a smile.
Bai Qian blushed. “Thank you. I’m a little nervous.”
“Don’t be,” Ye Hua responded, pulling her closer to his side. “Everything will be okay. Would you like to stay here for a few more minutes?”
She shook her head, preparing herself for the jump into the clouds. Bai Qian had been practicing her cloud-jumping with Ye Hua but he would be taking them both to the Heavens since she didn’t know the exact location. Closing her eyes when his dragon magic surrounded her, Bai Qian opened them a moment later to see nothing but clouds and blue sky. The peach tree forest was far below her now.
Bai Qian closed her eyes again for the second part of the journey. Excited anticipation replaced her nervousness as Ye Hua’s magic wrapped around her again. When she next opened her eyes, she would be someplace new for the first time in fifty thousand years.
The formal gathering room of the Celestial Palace was crowded with dignitaries and a variety of royal and noble families from all corners of the realm. Many of the High Gods and Goddesses were there. Family members representing important allies from outside the realm mixed in among the throng. The lively strains of a duo of flutists playing a happy tune accompanied the hushed roar of many conversations going on at once. The savory scent of supper still wafted into the room from the dining area next door. Dessert would be offered soon, which meant the celebration was half over.
As far as Ye Hua was concerned, it couldn’t end soon enough. He disliked these formal gatherings at the best of times but now that Bai Qian was waiting on him, the mostly pretentious crowd was more stifling than ever. It didn’t help that both Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan were positioned elsewhere in the room to help him keep a watchful eye on Weisheng’s whereabouts. This meant Ye Hua couldn’t talk with either of them when the political discussions and gossip became too boring.
Sensing her intentions, Ye Hua stepped out of reach when the young noblewoman standing next to him tried to casually place her hand on his arm in a possessive gesture. She frowned, unhappy with his obvious move to avoid her touch. Good. Now she understood he wasn’t interested in what she had been trying to offer him off and on throughout the evening.
While he may be required to engage in polite conversation with her so he didn’t seem rude, Ye Hua didn’t want any woman other than Bai Qian touching him in such a familiar way. Ye Hua was relieved when the woman finally walked away, likely determined to find and stalk some other unsuspecting target.
The black dragon rumbled a growl of discontent for what must have been the thousandth time, voicing his upset that Bai Qian and Hu Mei were not safely settled in Xiwu Palace, his private territory of the Heavens, while waiting for him and Ye Hua to return. They needed to be with Bai Qian and Hu Mei to protect them if they weren’t in the palace. Sighing, Ye Hua reminded his dragon that Bai Qian had wanted to see the lotus ponds again. Guards were stationed to protect her so she would be safe in the Blessed Water Gardens.
Ye Hua’s reminder didn’t appease the black dragon and it was difficult for Ye Hua to keep arguing the point. He would much rather be with Bai Qian himself. He could show her some of his favorite places around the Heavens until it was time for them to meet up with his family. There were many humorous tales he still needed to share with her. He smiled when he imagined the sound of her laugh and the joy it never failed to give him.
Then they could find a secluded hideaway and he could resume his sensual exploration from earlier in the day, learning more of the subtle but intoxicating ways Bai Qian’s scent changed when his kisses aroused her. Maybe he could even start to show her more of the desire she kindled inside him with the lightest touch. Ye Hua would tell her a little bit about how much her curious explorations in the mornings and the way she cuddled her body against his were driving him wild with need. She ignited his instinct to deepen their bond in the most primal way possible.
Was it possible for him to leave the festivities early to join her without his absence being noticed?
He looked around the large room, his shoulders slumping in disappointment and renewed dislike for his title in the Heavens. He was the Crown Prince; there were too many people watching him. He would never be able to sneak away. Ye Hua ensured Weisheng was still in the same spot he had been earlier, talking to a group of wealthy, well-connected merchants, before his thoughts wandered back to wondering what Bai Qian was doing and how soon he could be near her again.
“Your Highness! Your Highness!” The frantic whispers reached him first. Ye Hua groaned inwardly when he caught sight of the Trade Minister hurrying towards him, a panicked expression on his face. Whatever this was about, Ye Hua wasn’t going to like hearing it.
“There’s been an attack on the northern warehouse, Crown Prince,” the Deputy Minister continued when he reached Ye Hua’s side. He bowed hastily, stopping his explanation for a moment to catch his breath. “Some of the goods have been damaged.”
Frowning at this unwelcome news, Ye Hua checked once again to make sure Weisheng hadn’t moved before glancing Mo Yuan’s way to make sure his brother was still keeping an eye on the Demon King as had been planned earlier.
Once he was reassured that Mo Yuan was indeed keeping watch and would alert him to any unusual moves Weisheng might make, Ye Hua turned his full attention to the frantic man standing before him.
“Tell me what’s happened at the warehouse,” Ye Hua ordered, keeping his voice neutral despite the annoyance flowing through him. “Start from the beginning.”
Weisheng grinned when the Trade Minister rushed through the crowd to reach Ye Hua, watching the scene out of the corner of his eye to avoid attracting unwanted notice. If only he could hear what Ye Hua and the Trade Minister were discussing.
Jinjing’s plan was playing out very nicely. Weisheng had sensed Ye Hua’s and Mo Yuan’s undivided attention on him often when the celebration had started; even King Zhao Hui’s son had been watching Weisheng’s every move. But as time had passed and Weisheng had done nothing more than chat with the people around him, the three had eventually relaxed their guard and lessened their vigilance. Their focus on him was diminishing just as Jinjing had predicted.
Now, even though victory was right around the corner, Weisheng needed to remain patient and wait just a little bit longer. It would be a disastrous mistake to sneak away before one of Mo Yuan’s disciples appeared. Right this second, if Jinjing had timed things as well as he claimed, a trespasser should be sneaking onto the War God’s mountain, setting off alarms throughout Kunlun.
Poised to leave at any moment, Weisheng located Zhe Yan to make sure he was still deep in conversation with the man he had been talking with for the last hour. Weisheng recognized the signs of mutual interest between the phoenix and the other man. Zhe Yan wasn’t likely to notice Weisheng leaving the room. He turned back to Mo Yuan.
Adrenaline spiked through Weisheng when a boy dressed in the familiar ivory uniform of Kunlun ran over to Mo Yuan. As soon as the War God turned to his disciple who was gesturing wildly, Weisheng excused himself from the conversation he had been using as cover and exited the room, walking at a steady pace toward the doors to the Celestial Palace, where two demon guards broke away from the group Weisheng had brought along and joined him. They fell into step behind their king.
The pace of his steps increased a bit as Weisheng made his way toward the Blessed Water Gardens, the place Jinjing had told him he would likely find Bai Qian. He had no idea how long it would be until one of the twins checked on his whereabouts again so he needed to hurry. But Weisheng didn’t want to draw too much attention to himself either by running through the Heavens.
With that thought in mind, Weisheng slowed his steps to a casual stroll once he reached the entrance to the lotus gardens. There were guests mingling around the largest ponds. He made a point of stopping to greet those he had a passing acquaintance with, sharing a few words with them before moving on at a somewhat leisurely pace. His two guards kept pace with him while maintaining a discrete distance from the Demon King.
Taking care now would help Weisheng’s narrative if he was caught or ever questioned about his actions in the future. He could claim he had simply taken a stroll through the Blessed Water Gardens to visit with other guests and had stumbled upon Bai Qian, not knowing who she was. His eyes narrowed as he hoped for a successful ending to the day. There were more people standing about than he had expected though, making it more difficult for him to get his hands on Bai Qian. If he could even find her.
Weisheng’s hopes grew as the crowd thinned out the further he went. When he had a chance to do so unobserved, he created a barrier around himself to cloak his presence. His guards would do the same.
Moving quietly, Weisheng stopped when his gaze found a young woman dressed in a flowing turquoise dress. His face grew serious and a deadly light glinted in Weisheng’s eyes as he watched the lovely woman walk along the path. She moved with an unmatched gracefulness and her beauty was seductive, enchanting even, as nine-tailed foxes had often been rumored to be. He reached out with his cultivation, just a little, to assess the woman further. Her magic was of the light but it carried an unfamiliar aura to it, an aura Weisheng was willing to bet hadn’t been felt by others in or near the Celestial Realm since the destruction of Qing Qiu fifty thousand years ago.
Bai Qian. The beautiful woman had to be the long lost Fox Princess. Weisheng had finally found her.
⇛ Next part: Ch 35: What Lies Hidden
⇚ Previous part: Ch 33: The Ties of Friendship