Weisheng stared out over the mountainous terrain of his land from a private balcony of the Demon Palace, his cold green eyes filled with a calculating light as he reveled in the biting chill filling the air. This would always be his home but he wanted more than this frozen landscape and mountain fortress. He wanted control of all the realms, including the Heavens. And he intended to see it happen. Where his father had failed, Weisheng would triumph. He would claim it all in his father’s name while basking in the power he would wield over the world.
Now that he had reminded Jinjing there was no choice but to help him, Weisheng no longer needed to worry about how his failure to grab Bai Qian might one day cost him everything. Jinjing would find Bai Qian and capture her as quickly as he could because it was in his best interests to do so. He really had no other viable options.
With Jinjing’s help, soon Bai Qian would be in Weisheng’s hands. He smiled. It was time to start raising the idea of a rebellion against the Heavens once again.
In the past when Weisheng had reached out to the leaders of the Ghosts, Mermen, and other dark clans to see if they wanted to renew their old alliances, he had been met with resistance. None of them had been interested in taking up arms against the Heavens after what had happened at the end of the last war. They had all sworn fealty to Heavenly Father and the consequences for breaking that pledge were severe. They wouldn’t walk away from it without good reason. Weisheng had had no assurances to offer them that the outcome would be different at the time. But the situation had changed.
Gossip had been spreading so the dark clan leaders must all know Weisheng had made a bold move in the Heavens by now. And he had done so without the alliances of old supporting him. Their interests would be piqued and Weisheng could assuage some of it. He would not reveal any details but he could assure them that a plan was in place and that he now had an ally working on the inside for him. He would not ask for any commitment from them but he could go ahead and plant a seed of the idea within them. Let it grow as they watched and waited.
Weisheng turned and entered his palace, following a shadowed corridor that led to his study. Once seated at his desk, he placed several pieces of paper before him. He would write each clan leader in turn, explaining some of his ideas and reassuring them he wanted nothing more than for them to reconsider an alliance.
Every letter Weisheng wrote was sealed with wax imprinted with the mountain symbol of the Demons. Instead of using magic, he would send each one via secret messenger. Such a formal delivery without the use of magic would help convey his sincere intentions.
He turned his attention to the heart and sword kept secret in the wall safe when his task was done. Weisheng grinned as he studied the two things that would one day give him great power and control of the realms.
Evidence of the vulture’s passage on Kunlun Mountain was faint but it was still there. The black dragon, with Ye Hua’s help, followed the trail intently. His long, sinuous form snaked through the forest towards the boundary of Mo Yuan’s land like a powerful shadow hunting his prey. Subtle imperfections among the trees and along the ground guided him… broken twigs, missing leaves, freshly exposed soil, and disturbed places in the leaf litter that covered the forest floor. Every once in a while he could detect a lingering trace of the vulture’s carrion scent.
Ye Hua hadn’t intended on allowing the black dragon to take control for the hunt but he was now satisfied that he had given in when his dragon insisted. The black dragon had spotted things that Ye Hua wasn’t sure he would have been able to. And while the dragon often helped Ye Hua when he was in human form, the dragon’s senses were most acute when in his natural form.
The vulture’s stench filled the dragon’s nose. The beast growled a threat deep in his throat when the smell led him up towards the tops of the trees. The scent was stronger here and Ye Hua thought he could detect vague remnants of vulture magic lingering in the area. That wasn’t good news. Ye Hua thought it likely the vulture had shifted here.
The black dragon insisted they keep looking. When he was unable to find any further trace of the vulture’s presence in the forest, he took to the sky and circled over the trees. Still nothing. The dragon snorted his frustration but Ye Hua wasn’t surprised. Scents didn’t stay in place very long in open air; the wind currents tended to carry them away. It was the same for magic. They had likely found all they were going to.
Ye Hua and his dragon had been able to trace the vulture’s path further than Zhe Yan but it still wasn’t enough to be very helpful. He hoped Meixiu and Zhe Yan were having better luck.
Disappointed with the outcome of the hunt, Ye Hua landed on a cloud and shifted. He turned and studied the peak of Kunlun Mountain for a few minutes. He would love to hurry back there to see Bai Qian but he didn’t want to interrupt her lesson with Mo Yuan too soon. Instead, he summoned Bai Qian’s rainbow dress, as he liked to call it. He had snuck it out of her room at the Fox Den after she pointed it out to him and explained its significance. He wanted to surprise her with a new dress just like it that would fit her. Now was the perfect moment to have the seamstress get started on it. He tucked it into his robe before jumping to the Heavens.
The pathways through the Heavens were quieter than normal, the atmosphere more subdued. The guards Ye Hua passed on his way to Xiwu Palace seemed on edge as they studied everybody walking by with suspicion. They all knew there was a traitor out there somewhere.
“Your Highness.” Jia Yun greeted Ye Hua with a deep bow when he entered Xiwu Palace. “How is Lady Bai Qian?”
“She’s safe,” Ye Hua responded. He didn’t say anything more. He trusted Jia Yun to keep Bai Qian’s location a secret but he didn’t want to reveal her whereabouts out loud in case anyone was eavesdropping. Jia Yun would understand why he remained reticent with the information.
“I’m relieved to hear that,” Jia Yun said. “I’ve been trying to discourage gossip among the servants whenever I can but it’s difficult to quell it completely.”
“I appreciate your efforts, Jia Yun.” Ye Hua headed towards his study, Jia Yun following him at a respectful distance.
“Given what’s happened, I didn’t want to risk drawing attention to the cabin in the peach tree forest. So I’ve placed your recent correspondence on the desk in your study for you to review when you have time, Your Highness. Anything labeled as being urgent has been given to Heavenly Father. Is there anything I can get you?”
“Will you ask the royal seamstress to meet me in my study, Jia Yun.”
“Right away, sir,” Jia Yun responded with a bow.
Ye Hua sat at his desk, intending to look over the pile of scrolls. But his mind wandered, alternating between wondering how Bai Qian was doing and thinking of other ways to hunt down the traitor. Maybe he should approach the problem from a different angle?
A knock interrupted Ye Hua’s thoughts. “Enter.”
A tall, willowy woman entered Ye Hua’s study, bringing a wave of the strong vanilla fragrance she liked to douse herself with along with her. She always claimed it was the most fashionable of perfumes and covered the linen scents of her trade well enough.
She curtsied and Ye Hua fought back a sigh. He didn’t care for the seamstress but she was the best there was when it came to creating wonderful garments with a needle and thread. Her skill was renowned throughout the realms.
“Your Highness. It is an honor. How may I be of assistance?”
“You recently made a collection of dresses for my mother to give away as a gift, did you not?”
“Yes, your Highness.” Curious interest crossed the woman’s face. “Were those dresses for Lady Bai Qian?”
Ye Hua didn’t answer her probing question. “Do you remember the measurements you used to make those dresses?”
“Of course, my lord. I always keep information like that in my records.”
“Good.” Ye Hua reached into the pocket of his robe and pulled out Bai Qian’s old patchwork dress. “Because I need a replica of this dress made using those same measurements. Can you do that for me? The colors and fabrics must match perfectly. It’s very important.”
The seamstress took the dress from Ye Hua and studied it for a moment. She looked up. “But, my lord, there’s something wrong with this dress.”
Ye Hua’s eyes narrowed and he frowned with irritation, feeling indignant on behalf of Bai Qian and her favorite dress. “There’s nothing wrong with the dress.”
“But the hem is uneven. And not all the colors go well together.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the dress,” Ye Hua repeated, his frown deepening. The seamstress took a step back when she noticed his unhappy expression. “The dress is supposed to look that way. It’s a beautiful dress and it’s perfect the way that it is. If you can’t reproduce it then I will find someone who can.”
“That won’t be necessary, my lord,” the seamstress responded quickly. “I can make a new dress that looks just like this one. I’m sure it will look lovely when worn by your lady. I didn’t realize she had such… unique taste.”
“My lady has exquisite taste,” Ye Hua said, correcting her. “And she will look enchanting while wearing it.”
“Yes, my lord. I meant no offense.” She curtsied again, lowering further down in apology. “This dress will be a priority and I will make sure to have it ready quickly.”
“See that you do,” Ye Hua told her. “That is all.”
After the seamstress left the room, Ye Hua answered the most important messages of those that had been waiting on him but set aside the rest to take care of later. He wanted to check in on Bai Qian to see how her first day of training was going but there was something else he needed to take care of first. He wanted to give Bai Qian an object containing the same alert spell he had set up in the peach tree forest for her. It would give her an easy and quick way to reach out to him for help no matter where she was. The idea had occurred to him earlier in the day and he couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it sooner. Now he just had to decide which object would best carry the spell.
He found the perfect thing when he was looking through the wardrobe in his sleeping quarters. There was a small box of jewelry tucked into a drawer. He had forgotten all about it until he stumbled across it. His mother had given him and Mo Yuan each a silver box containing a couple of special pieces from her collection for them to give to their future wives as gifts.
Ye Hua opened the lid and looked over the elegant jewelry, choosing a silver and jade bracelet to carry the spell for Bai Qian. It was a fine bracelet but simple enough for her to wear for all occasions. Taking care, he weaved the spell throughout the silver chain and jade stones, binding it tightly. He returned the bracelet to the box and then tucked it into a pocket of his robe before leaving the room.
Pleased with his idea and eager to give Bai Qian’s gift to her, Ye Hua gave a few instructions to Jai Yun to carry out in his absence before jumping back to the temple on Kunlun Mountain. He had stayed away long enough.
The two guards stationed at the northern entrance to the archives saluted Jinjing as he passed by them and entered the building. The scents of ink and paper welcomed him and Jinjing couldn’t keep a confident smile off his face as he thought of his successful ventures to the Demon Realm and the apothecary. The shortsighted Demon King had been put back in his place and Jinjing was now the one calling the shots whether Weisheng realized it or not. And the apothecary’s spell, which provided Jinjing the perfect escape should it be needed, was hidden away in his room, no one the wiser to its existence. His fortunes had changed.
Overall, it had been a very productive day so far. As well as a lucky one. If Jinjing had waited just a day longer before making his move he would have lost the perfect opportunity to sneak away from and then back to the Heavens.
Word was going around through the soldiers’ ranks that starting today the soldiers on guard duty would no longer be following a regular schedule for shift changes. Every day the guards would be following a different, randomly selected schedule. Only the soldiers assigned to guard duty would know each day’s schedule for their assigned location.
Jinjing would not have easy access to the information and it would make sneaking to and from the Heavens in the future a riskier proposition. His smile faded. It was a complicated schedule but also a clever one and it demonstrated how determined the royal family was to protect Bai Qian. The order had no doubt come from Mo Yuan with Heavenly Father’s approval. There were likely to be other security measures put in place in the coming days. They were upping the stakes and Jinjing would need to find ways around it.
Pushing that worry aside to focus on the task in front of him, Jinjing walked through the stacks of shelves in the large room. There were tens of thousands of scrolls and books contained within the archives. This was the largest collection of recorded history, religion, lore, culture, and tradition found anywhere in the realms. Information that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world could be found here in the archives or in the nearby library which contained books and scrolls on literature, music, art, math, science, medicine, martial arts, and battle strategy. The greatest challenge was knowing where to look in the vast collection to find the information needed.
He glanced around to ensure nobody was watching him before turning toward the bookcases dedicated to the lore and traditions of various peoples of the world. It took him a few minutes to find the scrolls and books containing information about nine-tailed foxes. He grabbed two books and hurried away to a section of the archives he was more familiar with… the collection of historical accounts from wars of the past.
He would be under suspicion if anybody caught him looking through records about the nine-tailed foxes so he needed a believable cover for his research. Books on war should do the trick. Jinjing was a general after all. No one would question his studying old war records.
Jinjing chose two books about the most recent demon war at random before finding an unoccupied desk to sit at. If he was going to help carry out Weisheng’s plan to use the magic in Bai Zhi’s heart to fuel a rebellion and overthrow Heavenly Father’s rule, he needed to learn as much as he could about the properties of fox magic.
It took him several tries to find a book containing the information he was looking for. Jinjing would painstakingly go through each book before switching it out for another while trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. Again, luck was on his side. There had been few visitors to the archives so far and those there were had been too focused on their own business to bother paying even the slightest bit of attention to Jinjing.
Finally, Jinjing found a thin, nondescript book that talked about fox magic. Much of the lore was about the powerful magic contained in each of their nine tails. Maybe Bai Qian would have more than one use, Jinjing mused to himself as he continued reading.
Towards the end of the book, Jinjing read a legend about the reputed magic in a nine-tailed fox’s heart. Preservation magic? That was fascinating. But was it true? It would explain why Bai Zhi’s heart had remained in excellent condition for all these years. Jinjing would look for confirmation from another source but he had no reason not to believe it. The big questions now were how he could use preservation magic to further his and Weisheng’s plans and whether such magic could be used in other ways. Maybe Jinjing could use it to find a position of power without having to serve the Demon King after all.
This new information gave him a lot to consider for his plans for the future.
Her first lesson had been a success.
Once Mo Yuan had found a way to help her concentrate more effectively, Bai Qian had made good progress on learning the basics of meditation. She couldn’t be happier. Mo Yuan had seemed pleased with her results and he had ended the session by encouraging her to practice whenever she had the chance so she would be better prepared for their next lesson. It was a challenge but one she enjoyed undertaking, especially when she considered how many ways meditation could help her moving forward. She couldn’t wait to start her combat training with Meixiu and she was optimistic about her life in general.
After having sat in one place most of the day, Bai Qian was now stretching her legs with a walk around the temple grounds. She paused her walk to study the thick sand covering the ground in the sparring ring. Would she one day be able to face an opponent as an equal in a friendly match here? She grinned. Maybe she could even challenge Ye Hua though she suspected he would always hold back no matter what she may tell him. Her dragon was very protective of her.
When she reached a ridge that provided a panoramic view of the vast wild lands surrounding Kunlun Mountain, Bai Qian stopped and savored the inspiring sight. She had never seen anything like it, having never spent time on a mountain before.
She sensed Ye Hua’s arrival just before two strong arms wrapped around her from behind. Bai Qian’s fox yipped a soft greeting. “It’s a beautiful sight, isn’t it?” Ye Hua asked, resting his chin gently on her shoulder. Bai Qian leaned back against him. She nodded wordlessly, smiling when he kissed the side of her neck. Neither spoke for a long time. They just stood together, enjoying the view before them.
Finally, Bai Qian turned to face him. “I’m happy you’re back. I missed you today,” she told him, her voice soft.
“I missed you too,” Ye Hua responded. “Very much so. How did your training go?”
Bai Qian smiled brightly. “It went well for the most part. In the beginning, I had a lot of trouble concentrating.”
Ye Hua laughed. “Most people do. Da Ge is an anomaly in that respect. It will get easier with practice. Even I can meditate when necessary and I’m sure Mo Yuan shared my past struggles with it.”
“He did but only to explain a different way to focus my mind better. Meditating became easier after that. He said I made good progress.”
“He’s an excellent teacher,” Ye Hua told her and Bai Qian could hear the admiration he held for his brother in his voice. “And he doesn’t hand out compliments lightly so you should be proud of your accomplishments today.”
“I’m looking forward to learning more.”
“I have something for you,” Ye Hua said, pulling out a silver box from the pocket of his robe. He handed it to her.
Bai Qian took the box, admiring the intricate flowers engraved on the lid as she opened it. She gasped, her eyes widening when she saw the priceless pieces of jewelry nestled in the white silk lining of the box. There were silver earrings with vivid sapphires. And a gold necklace with diamonds and white jade stones.
“They’re beautiful, Ye Hua,” Bai Qian told him, “but they’re too much. I don’t…”
“They’re from my mother. They’re pieces from her collection and she would want you to accept them,” Ye Hua told her, refusing to take the box back when she tried to return it to him. “She gave Mo Yuan and me a portion of her jewelry to give to our wives. When I found the jewelry box today, I wanted to go ahead and give it to you.” Ye Hua took out a silver and jade bracelet before closing the lid. He handed the bracelet to her. “This bracelet is the most important. I placed the same spell on it that I placed all over the peach tree forest. It’s the spell you can use to let me know if you need me for anything. Will you wear it?”
Bai Qian nodded and slipped the bracelet around her slender wrist. She admired the fine craftsmanship, remembering some of the jewelry her mother used to wear. She had never owned anything like it before. It was elegant and she was proud to wear it because of its connection to Ye Hua and his family.
“Try it out, “ Ye Hua encouraged her after she had safely tucked the silver box into the magic pocket of her dress.
She hesitated, remembering the pain the spell inflicted on him. “But it hurts your arm.”
“It’s okay,” Ye Hua told her. “It only stings a little… just enough to get my attention no matter what I’m doing. Go ahead. I want to make sure it works.”
She placed her hand over the bracelet and pulsed her magic through it, looking at Ye Hua as she did so.
He smiled. “It works. Good. Use the bracelet anytime you need to get in touch with me, Qian Qian. Just like in the forest. It doesn’t matter what the reason is.”
“I will. Thank you, Ye Hua.” Bai Qian grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze. “The gift means a lot to me.” She pressed an affectionate kiss to his cheek. “How did your day go?”
Ye Hua’s smile faded and his eyes darkened. She could sense his frustration and the black dragon’s fury and knew their hunt had not gone well even before Ye Hua answered her.
“It’s a dead end, I’m afraid. Unless the vulture is a fool and pops up on his own somewhere to announce himself, there’s no way to track him down. And I doubt that’s going to happen. Maybe Zhe Yan and his father had better luck. Or Meixiu. Have you heard anything from them?”
“No, not yet. They had not yet returned when I was at the temple before my walk. Mo Yuan mentioned something about discussing everything as soon as everybody was back.”
“He will let us know when Zhe Yan and Meixiu return then.” He sighed. “I guess there’s nothing to do but wait right now. I keep thinking there must be some other way to track the traitor down. A better way.”
Bai Qian rubbed the back of his hand with her thumb as she held it more tightly. Ye Hua had hid his emotions well earlier when he had first arrived but now she could sense his disquiet as he stood next to her silently. She wished there was something more she could do for him and was at a loss for ways to help until she remembered her discussion with Mo Yuan about Ye Hua’s painting and the meditative effect it had for him.
“Will you paint the view for me?” she asked out of the blue, breaking the extended silence between them.
Ye Hua looked at her surprise. “You want me to paint right now?”
“Yes,” she told him, warming to the idea. “As you said, it’s a beautiful landscape. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And it will help me remember this moment and my first day of training here on Kunlun Mountain. That’s worth remembering, right?”
“It is,” Ye Hua agreed, summoning paper, paint, and a desk. He arranged everything to his liking before taking a seat. Bai Qian sat next to him on his left so she didn’t hinder the movement of his right arm. She watched as he broadly outlined the distant mountains and trees with quick and efficient brush strokes. The picture was coming to life right before her eyes as he continued working.
“I lied when we were children,” she said, finally daring to interrupt his concentration. Ye Hua felt calmer to her now and she was pleased her idea had worked to help settle him.
“What do you mean?” he asked, pausing to glance her way.
She smiled at him, love and affection overwhelming her when their eyes met. “I lied that day in the Heavens when we were children. I told you I tripped because I was distracted by the lotus flowers and didn’t pay attention to what I was doing because of it… but that wasn’t true.”
“Are you making a confession?” Ye Hua asked, an interested glint in his eyes.
She nodded and laughed. “Yes. I was hurrying over to you because I wanted to see what you were painting. I was so curious. And I intended to ask if you would let me watch you because I had never seen anybody paint before. But, in my haste…”
“…you forgot to hold up the hem of your favorite dress,” Ye Hua finished for her with a grin.
Bai Qian laughed again, only it was more of a giggle this time. “Yes. I was so upset that I ruined your painting. And I was disappointed I never got to see it.” Her expression grew serious. “So I couldn’t walk away that day in the forest when you were painting. It was after Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan had left. I finally recognized who you were that day.”
“Because you saw me with Mo Yuan?”
“Yes,” she agreed. “That’s when I realized you were one of the dragon princes I had met as a girl. It surprised me to find out the rude boy I had once argued with was the vexing dragon invading my forest. But then it made a strange kind of sense.”
“Vexing dragon?” Ye Hua asked, a humorous arch to his brow. “Vexing dragon? That’s what you called me?”
“All the time,” she answered, laughing at his expression of feigned indignation. “But you weren’t quite so vexing after that day. And there you were, painting once again. And once again I really wanted to watch. I couldn’t help myself even though I thought it was better to walk away. So I snuck behind you, fascinated by what I could see and frustrated when your shoulder and back blocked most of my view.”
“I knew you were there,” Ye Hua told her. “I could sense you behind me. I can’t tell you how difficult it was for me to sit there and pretend I didn’t know you were there. I wanted to turn around and see you so badly. I wanted just one more glimpse of the beautiful white fox hiding in the forest.” He ran his fingers down her cheek in a light caress that Bai Qian leaned into, wanting more. “But I didn’t want to scare you again.”
“That was the day everything changed for me, Ye Hua. You gave my fox and me that wonderful painting and I knew when I couldn’t leave it behind that my feelings had changed somehow.” She kissed him, her lips lingering on his for a few sweet seconds before she pulled away. She breathed in his comforting thunderstorm scent and smiled. “That was the moment I started falling in love with you.”
“So it was my art that grabbed your notice and not my irresistible charm?” Ye Hua teased, wrapping his arm around her shoulders.
Bai Qian leaned into his side and rested her head against him, enjoying their closeness. “What irresistible charm?” she teased him back before growing serious. “It was your thoughtful gift, your patience with me, and the warm comfort of your cultivation when we connected. I could feel that you cared about me even if I didn’t understand how that could be.”
“I loved you, Qian Qian, even then,” Ye Hua responded. “You’ve been in my heart from the moment I first found the memorial outside the Fox Den. Before I had even started searching for you.”
“How can that be?” Bai Qian lifted her head from Ye Hua’s shoulder to meet his eyes.
“I don’t know, honestly. But when I saw the memorial, I knew you were the one who had created it even if I had no proof. I just knew. Seeing the memorial you had so painstakingly cared for along with your old garden that had fallen into neglect touched something inside me. And it changed me. I wanted to protect you and make you happy. I didn’t understand what it meant at first but my dragon did.”
The black dragon growled faintly before Ye Hua continued. “I told myself I was determined to find you because it was the right thing to do but it was always much more personal than that.”
“Ye Hua.” Her voice was soft and shook with emotion.
He pressed his lips against hers and hugged her close. Bai Qian returned his kiss with equal passion, wanting to tug him back to her when he pulled away. “I’ve been yours since the day I first set foot in the peach tree forest,” he whispered before kissing her again.
They sat in silence together as the afternoon waned, Bai Qian leaning against Ye Hua as he finished the painting for her. Her eyes never left his skilled hands as he deftly stroked the paint onto the paper. She loved that she had finally gotten the opportunity to share in something that was so important to him.
“We should head back to the temple,” Ye Hua said when the shadows started to lengthen as dusk washed over the mountain. “I’m sure it’s almost time to eat supper.”
Bai Qian nodded and stood with him. “I want to begin fixing up Qing Qiu,” she said, surprising both herself and Ye Hua with this unexpected announcement. “I know I need to be careful until we find the traitor and proof of Weisheng’s deception. And I know that living on Kunlun Mountain is for my protection. But being cautious doesn’t mean I have to keep putting my life on hold entirely. It’s time to bring Qing Qiu back to life. Will you help me?”
“Yes,” Ye Hua responded, taking her hand with one of his. “Of course I will help you. And I will help protect Qing Qiu from here on out.”
⇛ Next part: Ch 46: A Sparring Match
⇚ Previous part: Ch 44: A Mindful Breath