Ye Hua awoke feeling refreshed and energized early the next morning. He had stayed on Kunlun Mountain well into the night to help Mo Yuan finish off the wine but, to his surprise, he suffered no lingering aftereffects from the strong alcohol. He wasn’t sure if it was because King Zhao Hui had magically altered the wine to mitigate some of the more unpleasant effects or if it was because he felt so much lighter inside after talking over his frustrations with his brother. Either way, Ye Hua felt much better than he had expected. He felt optimistic.
Hungry but ready to get on with his day, Ye Hua devoured his breakfast in minutes. He ignored the curious stares of the servants clearing his dishes and laying out fresh robes for him to put on, dismissing them with a quick nod of thanks. He disliked having people always around, helping him get ready every morning anyway. There would be rumors and speculation about the change in his routine but he didn’t care.
Once Ye Hua was finally alone in his bedchamber, he opened his wardrobe and pushed his heavy everyday black robes and the formal robes his mother had given him over the years off to the side. There, hidden away in the back, were the robes he’d always worn when he visited the Mortal Realm with Zhe Yan and Mo Yuan in the past.
The three of them had spent many days among the mortals before they had ascended from immortals to gods, taking advantage of the altered flow of time and the anonymity that could only be found outside of the Immortal Realms. They had been free to have fun and had gotten into more than their fair share of trouble as most young men tended to do. But there had also been opportunities for them to lend aid to the fragile mortals whenever they could do so without revealing their powers and they had learned about some of the difficulties the mortals faced that the immortals never had to deal with. Ye Hua suspected that was why Heavenly Father had allowed him and Mo Yuan to go to the Mortal lands so often.
Ye Hua pulled out a simple cobalt blue robe with tan accents; it used to be his favorite. He knew it was superstition but he had always felt things were more likely to go his way while wearing it. The fabric was wrinkled and covered in dust from disuse and the sleeves were a little worn in places but, otherwise, it was still in reasonably good shape.
He shook out the robe, eyes watering and nose itching when a cloud of particles puffed into the air around him. With a wave of his hand, Ye Hua eliminated the remainder of the dust from the fabric using his cultivation. He then magically freshened the musty robe and removed the wrinkles before pulling it on. As he tied the sash around his waist, Ye Hua scrutinized his reflection in the mirror. Did he look less intimidating dressed this way? Did he look approachable? He thought he did but there was only one way to find out whether it would make a difference in his search for Bai Qian.
To finish his transformation into his past self, Ye Hua spent several minutes searching his room for his old wooden hair pins. He couldn’t remember the last time he had worn them and he frowned when he couldn’t find them anywhere. So he found the next best thing hidden among the ornate gold and silver hair pieces he used while in the Heavens, a pair of plain silver hair pins. He told himself they would have to do for now as he pulled all of his long hair up into a topknot and secured it with the polished pins. A smile of satisfaction appeared on his face as he assessed his reflection one more time in the mirror. He no longer looked like the Crown Prince of the Heavens. He simply looked like Ye Hua.
Ye Hua left his bedchamber, a new lightness in his step, and headed for his study. He ignored the shocked expressions on the faces of his servants when they glimpsed his new appearance as he strode by. His focus was centered solely on the day ahead of him. He just needed to go over a few points of business with Jia Yun and then he could jump to the peach tree forest. He couldn’t wait to get on with his search for Bai Qian today. The black dragon inside Ye Hua growled his eager agreement.
The air shimmered for a second right before Heavenly Father appeared from seemingly out of nowhere once Ye Hua had passed by him. He smiled as he watched Ye Hua walk along the stone path leading to his study, pleased to see him looking more relaxed. His youngest son even had a new lively bounce in his step this morning. It was good to see the positive change taking place within him and helped Heavenly Father worry a little less about him.
Heavenly Father turned to head back to his palace but stopped when movement from the corner of his eye attracted his notice. His smile faded as he watched a familiar man following Ye Hua from a distance. He was clad in dark leather armor, a sword strapped to his side, his footsteps making very little noise despite wearing heavy black boots. He only caught a quick look at the man’s long brown beard and did not have the chance to see which family seal was imprinted on the head piece securing the man’s topknot in place but Heavenly Father still recognized his imposing, muscular frame.
Why was one of his generals trailing Ye Hua? Or did he have business with one of the other residents of Xiwu Palace?
Keeping a discreet distance between them, Heavenly Father followed behind him. A thoughtful frown settled on his face when the general stopped outside Ye Hua’s study and just stood there next to the closed doors. His eyes narrowed when the man glanced around and then leaned in a little closer. Was he trying to eavesdrop on Ye Hua? Heavenly Father could feel the lack of a privacy barrier around Ye Hua’s study so he knew anything his son was saying could be easily overheard. But it also meant nothing important was being discussed inside the room.
Heavenly Father cleared his throat as he approached the other man, shrewdly watching his every move for signs of deceit.
“General Jinjing. Do you have business with the Crown Prince I’m unaware of?”
The man turned, a small look of surprise flashed in his dark eyes before he pulled a mask of calm detachment over his features. All his generals were trained very well in the art of concealing their thoughts and emotions. Heavenly Father felt it an important skill for all of his high-ranking military and civilian officers to possess but he did not appreciate having the practice used against him in such a blatant way.
“Your Highness.” General Jinjing bowed low with a respectful salute. His voice was deep and gruff, the kind of voice that even young, hotheaded soldiers would listen to. “How may I be of service today?”
Heavenly Father did not immediately answer. Instead, he allowed an uncomfortable silence to overtake them, watching Jinjing and waiting for him to show a crack in the facade of cool indifference he was presenting. Heavenly Father didn’t have to wait long before the other man’s nervous discomfort started to show with a slight shift of his left foot and a clenched fist. The signs were barely perceptible and yet they told Heavenly Father he had gotten his point across. Only then did he respond.
“Are you avoiding my question, General?” He kept his voice even, not allowing any inflection to give away his thoughts.
“No, Your Highness,” Jinjing answered quickly. He glanced toward the closed door next to him before turning back to face Heavenly Father. “I need to discuss some security concerns I have for our shipbuilding efforts in the South Sea with the Crown Prince.”
Heavenly Father’s face remained impassive as he considered Jinjing’s explanation. He had not heard about any security problems at any of their shipping ports or shipyards but it was a perfectly legitimate topic for the general to discuss with Ye Hua. So why did Jinjing’s words not ring true to him?
“Ye Hua is in the middle of something very important right now and should not be disturbed, General Jinjing. Come by my study this afternoon and you can discuss your concerns with me.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” He bowed and Heavenly Father dismissed him with a polite nod but Jinjing did not immediately turn away.
“Was there something else you wanted, General?”
“Yes, Your Highness. If I may.”
“I couldn’t help but notice the Crown Prince has been spending most of his time away from the Heavens these last several weeks. I had assumed he was busy with something important and you have just confirmed it.”
Heavenly Father’s eyes narrowed and he frowned again as he listened. He didn’t miss the careful way Jinjing seemed to be choosing his words and his measured tone of voice.
“I had thought maybe the Crown Prince could use some help completing whatever project has been keeping him so occupied. I would like to offer my assistance to him. Perhaps there is something I can do to support his efforts.”
There was nothing outwardly wrong with Jinjing’s suggestion but Heavenly Father was troubled by it all the same. There was something odd about this situation; he just wasn’t sure what it was.
“There is no need. Ye Hua is doing a personal favor for me and has the matter under control. That will be all, Jinjing.” Heavenly Father’s voice held power and authority this time in order to make it clear the topic was no longer up for discussion. He didn’t miss the spark of interest in Jinjing’s eyes when he mentioned it was a personal favor but the general blanked his expression almost immediately after it appeared. Heavenly Father couldn’t be completely sure it meant anything more than mere curiosity.
“Forgive me, Your Highness, if I overstepped by making my offer.” He saluted and bowed one last time, politely waiting until Heavenly Father had dismissed him again before finally walking away.
Heavenly Father remained in his spot next to Ye Hua’s study door to make sure Jinjing was going to leave and not double back around. He relaxed when he felt Jinjing step off the grounds of Xiwu Palace and onto a public walkway within the Heavens.
He wondered if he had gotten a truthful explanation from General Jinjing. He was newly promoted to his position and had been highly recommended for it by General Yingpei, the man he had replaced. Though he had served in the Celestial military for many thousands of years, Heavenly Father didn’t know Jinjing all that well yet, making it difficult for him to accurately gauge his sincerity.
Jinjing had breached protocol by broaching the subject of Ye Hua’s personal business outside the Heavens without being asked to do so. But he had been described to Heavenly Father as a driven and ambitious man. Perhaps he was simply overeager to gain favor with Ye Hua and had meant no real harm. Heavenly Father preferred to withhold judgement of those who had served him loyally when he didn’t know all the facts but he wouldn’t ignore the possibility that something might be wrong. He intended to keep a close eye on Jinjing. If it seemed the general was no more than an overzealous soldier taking advantage of his new promotion, maybe an extended assignment away from the Heavens would help straighten him out.
Heavenly Father faded out of sight but did not leave his spot when he heard Ye Hua open the doors of his study. He watched Ye Hua hurry by him and cross the courtyard before jumping away from the Heavens, a look of eager anticipation on his face.
“Spying on one of our sons again, I see.”
The soft, melodious voice behind him made Heavenly Father smile before he forced a displeased expression on his face, one that wouldn’t fool his wife for a second.
“I never spy. That would be unethical.” He turned to face her, his frown disappearing when his eyes landed on her gentle features. “I just like to check on them every once in a while without them knowing about it.”
He saw the disbelief in her eyes as she shook her head at him, one fine eyebrow lifting ever so slightly. It always did when she thought he was full of nonsense. “Hmm…I’ll have to ask the boys for their opinion the next time we sit down for a meal together.”
Heavenly Father grinned at her, knowing she was only teasing him. He gazed at her as she walked over to him on soft footsteps, her long silky black hair hanging loose down her back and shoulders except for a small strand on each side. Those locks of hair had been pulled away from her face with sapphire and silver combs. She was wearing a flowing dress that matched the shade of the sky on a cloudless summer day. He had never seen his wife dressed in that particular dress before and he appreciated the way the design made her look more graceful and delicate than usual.
Heavenly Mother was slender and petite; both her sons and her husband towered over her. And their dragons made her own inner dragon look dainty in comparison. Heavenly Father knew many found it hard to believe she had been able to conceive and safely birth powerful twin dragons into the world but that was only because most failed to recognize the immense power and iron-willed determination wrapped up inside her tiny frame. One dragon was a huge drain on the mother’s body during pregnancy and twins were unheard of. But Heavenly Mother had fought with the strength of a thousand dragons to carry Mo Yuan and Ye Hua almost to full term, refusing to lose either one of her sons during her grueling and difficult pregnancy. The unmatched feat had taken its toll on her body; despite their many attempts for more children over the years his wife had never been able to successfully conceive again.
Instead of letting the sorrow from her failure to become pregnant a second time overwhelm her, Heavenly Mother had instead focused all her attention on being the best mother she could be to Mo Yuan and Ye Hua. She had showered them with her tender love and affection, fiercely protecting them when needed but also encouraging them to stand up for themselves. She had always helped her husband strictly enforce the rules of the family but had also been the one to soothe their sons’ injuries and hurt feelings. She had taught Mo Yuan how to develop and refine his musical talent and had urged Heavenly Father to take time to share his artistic side with Ye Hua to help their son develop his talent for art. She shared her love of nature and life with everybody around her.
Her loving care had bonded their small family tightly together and had helped soften the edges of the wild and powerful dragons contained within their sons. She had helped teach all three of them that caring for each other and the people around them was a strength and not a weakness, that being a wise and powerful leader never meant one should remain callous and unmoved by the small everyday troubles of the people.
When his wife reached his side, Heavenly Father took her hand with a soft smile he reserved for her alone. Now that she was close, he could see the few strands of white within her black hair and the faint lines that had started appearing at the corners of her eyes. The changes leant her always exquisite features a mature beauty that had not been there when she was younger. They did not diminish his desire for her in any way; they only enhanced it. He would never grow tired of having her support and wise counsel by his side during the day and her gentle love mixed with fiery passion wrapped around him at night.
Heavenly Father would love everything about his wife for all eternity, long after they had both faded into the nothingness together.
He lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to the back of it before pulling her close to his side. “If you bring the subject of my spying up with Ye Hua and Mo Yuan, you will have to confess to spying on them yourself, you know? You’re here for the same reason I am.”
She laughed, the sound light and cheerful. “Maybe. But mothers can get away with checking up on their adult children more easily than fathers can.” She stood on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek before resting her head against his arm. “The boys will be more annoyed with you if they find out.” He grunted his reluctant agreement, the irritated sound making her laugh again.
“Ye Hua looked happy just now, didn’t he?” she murmured quietly. “I’m relieved to see it. He’s been far too serious all the time since accepting the seal of the Crown Prince. I’ve been worried about him. He never takes time to do any of the things he used to love doing.”
Heavenly Father squeezed her hand gently and kissed the top of her head, enjoying the fragrance of lotus blossoms in her hair. “I was starting to worry about him myself. Getting him away from the Heavens has been beneficial. He needed something different to concentrate on for a little while and it also gives him the chance to spend time with Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan. I don’t want Ye Hua to resent his future role in the Heavens. It’s not healthy for him and it’s not good for the people either. Even if nothing comes from his search, the time he took to conduct it has been well worth it.”
“Maybe he will start painting more often again. If he can just find some of his old creative spirit, I think it would help,” Heavenly Mother responded.
They were quiet for a few peaceful minutes before her soft voice interrupted the silence, her mind clearly on another topic that must have been troubling her.
“Do you think Ye Hua will find Bai Qian? Do you think she’s really still alive?”
Heavenly Father sighed as he considered her questions. She had never shared her thoughts on the matter before and he wondered if she would voice them now.
“I honestly don’t know. I always hope Bai Zhi’s daughter is still out there, that maybe Qing Qiu can be restored and be under fox rule once again. My biggest regret will always be my failure to protect Bai Zhi’s family and Qing Qiu in their hour of need. I would like the chance to make amends in some way.”
“I think Bai Qian is alive and I think Ye Hua will find her.”
“You do?” The absolute certainty in his wife’s voice surprised Heavenly Father. He had always assumed she remained quiet about her opinion of Bai Qian’s death because she didn’t want to dash his hopes of one day finding the Fox Princess and returning Qing Qiu to her in order to honor the sacrifice her family had made for the dragons.
“I do,” she said firmly, no hesitation in her tone. “I’ve always believed that poor girl is alive out there somewhere, afraid and living all alone with no family to look out for her. She will need all the love and affection she can get when she is finally found and I intend to make sure she receives it.”
Heavenly Father smiled at her determined words, kissing the top of her head once again. There was nobody better than his kind-hearted wife to nurture Bai Qian back into the world if she were to be found.
The white fox stared at the dragon from her hiding place in the underbrush, wondering why he had suddenly changed his appearance so drastically. She couldn’t find a single spot of black anywhere on him and his face was open and carefree. He didn’t look like himself at all. What did it mean? Was it all part of a new ploy to help him with his hunt? He no longer looked intimidating and displeased with his surroundings; he appeared accessible, even friendly at times. It was a strange tactic for such a large predator to use while hunting even if it did eventually prove to be effective.
She crept closer to him.
The dragon’s abrupt change had thrown the fox off balance when she had caught up with him this morning. She had initially been unable to see his face. So, for a few seconds, she had worried someone new was prowling around her forest until she had breathed in his familiar scent; the lightning and rain permeating the air reassured her he was definitely her dragon. And the muffled rhythm of his footsteps walking across the forest floor matched her dragon’s footsteps as well. It was definitely her dragon. He just didn’t look right today; it heightened her curiosity even more. What was the dragon looking for?
Maybe she could help him find it. And then, maybe he wouldn’t disappear from her forest completely once he found it. Maybe they could be friends.
With that thought in mind, the fox finally made her decision. Today was the time to try and approach him.
The fox’s heart started pounding, adrenaline flooding through her as she snuck out of her hiding spot, remaining in a crouched position close to the ground. She knew she was taking a huge risk revealing herself to the dragon this way and she remained alert to every move he made. Despite having experienced the thrill of chasing prey many times, the fox knew if the dragon turned aggressive towards her she would have no choice but to run from him. She wasn’t strong enough to face him in a confrontation but she thought she would probably be able to evade him as long as she managed to get a good head start. It was a risk she was willing to take.
Her muscles were tense, poised for flight as she cautiously moved out into the open.
She stared at his back intently from her spot, feeling excited and very vulnerable all at the same time. The fox knew he would be able to sense her presence behind him at any moment. She took a deep breath and waited, anxious for him to turn around.
Ye Hua was starting to feel a bit ridiculous, walking around the peach tree forest while struggling to maintain a friendly expression on his face. It had been easy enough at first when he had still been excited by the idea of wearing one of his old robes for a change and giving Mo Yuan’s suggestion a try. But most of the anticipation and excitement had worn off by now. He had been smiling at nothing more than trees and wildlife for several hours. His dragon was certainly entertained by it. If the black dragon had been capable of laughing, Ye Hua was certain the forest would be echoing with the sound.
He grumbled under his breath when he felt another wave of amusement inside coming from his dragon. Ye Hua was beginning to feel a little suspicious about his brother’s advice. Just wait until he saw Mo Yuan again. If this friendly scheme didn’t work, he was going to find a way to get even with his brother for making the suggestion.
Ye Hua ignored his dragon. He wasn’t ready to give up for the day despite feeling foolish.
Forcing a partial smile back onto his face, Ye Hua tried pretending he was walking through a village in the Mortal Realm. He imagined there were shopkeepers all around him, haggling with customers over the prices of their wares. There might even be some lovely women calling out to him in an attempt to grab his attention. Past memories of innocent flirting with mortal beauties brought a more genuine smile to Ye Hua’s lips. Maybe he should take an hour or two one evening to visit the Mortal Realm again while he had some free time. He bet he could even coax Mo Yuan and Zhe Yan into joining him.
The black dragon growled his protest at the idea. They should concentrate on nothing other than finding their white fox.
Ye Hua sighed, the smile fading from his expression. Finding Bai Qian was still his priority but he couldn’t deny that a small break from the constant failure would be a welcome change. It might even rejuvenate his spirit for the search for Bai Qian. The black dragon refused to acknowledge the thought. Ye Hua could always force his dragon to go along with it. He was the one with ultimate control in the end but he always felt more peaceful inside when his dragon wasn’t actively opposed to whatever it was he was doing. Disagreement between them had rarely been a problem up until he had started his search for Bai Qian.
He was debating whether to press the argument with his inner beast when Ye Hua felt the sensitive skin on the nape of his neck prickle. The tingling sensation chased away all thoughts of heading to the Mortal Realm. He could sense the unseen eyes watching him once again. He stopped, all his attention focusing in on his immediate surroundings. Should he turn around and look?
All his attempts to catch the person watching him had been failures so far and Ye Hua didn’t think it was very likely he would find anybody there this time either. So he decided he wasn’t going to turn around. He would keep walking and ignore the feeling of eyes on him. He hoped that if it was Bai Qian she would get closer to him if he didn’t turn and look for her.
The black dragon insisted they needed to see if she was there.
Before Ye Hua realized it had even happened, his inner beast shoved forward inside him. The dragon didn’t attempt to force his way out enough to shift but he did wrestle control away from Ye Hua for a moment. It was enough time for him to turn them around and look back the way they had just walked.
The dragon’s eyes locked onto a white fox sitting quietly on the trail.
Ye Hua gasped with shock when he spotted her, hardly daring to believe what his dragon’s eyes were showing him. He could feel his dragon struggling to contain a roar of victory, excited he had found his white fox but also worried he might scare her if he wasn’t careful. Ye Hua pushed the black dragon down, regaining control so he could see her for himself with his human eyes. He didn’t move a muscle, scarcely breathing, as he gazed down at her with wonder.
Dark brown eyes the shade of burnt umber stared back at him. He could see curiosity mixed with wariness as his eyes met hers for the first time. Her black nose twitched slightly as she scented the air and her pointed ears remained turned in his direction even when Ye Hua heard the rustle of leaves stirring behind her with the forest breeze. Her hair was the pristine white of freshly fallen snow and looked soft and velvety to the touch. Her tails were long and fluffy. He tried to count all nine of them but the angle wasn’t right for him to see all of them. Her build was even smaller than he had expected it to be. She looked fragile.
Ye Hua was relieved to find no fear in her eyes and his dragon couldn’t sense any terror emanating from her. Her expression told him she would be cautious around him but she didn’t seem to be scared. He took a tentative step in her direction, watching for any change in her demeanor. He would stop approaching at the first sign of unease in her posture.
He stopped when he had cut the distance between them in half, not wanting to push for more too soon. She looked wild and enchanting sitting there against a background of blossoming peach trees. Hers was a beauty unmatched by other creatures in the world.
A beautiful fox.
Ye Hua’s thought was echoed by his dragon as the beast moved forward again for a closer look at his white fox.
She tilted her head slightly, more curiosity sparking in her eyes as she watched him. Ye Hua smiled at her. He reached a hand out in her direction without thought, wondering if she would allow him to get closer to her. She leaned closer to his hand but stopped short of stepping toward him. Ye Hua’s smile widened further when her eyes looked up to meet his and words escaped from him before he realized he intended to speak.
⇛ Next part: Ch 10: Know Your Enemy
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