Chapter 1 – Who’s Been Sleeping in my Bed?
Bai Qian sat in Zhe Yan’s Peach Blossom Orchard, sitting at the other end of his 10 miles of peach blossoms. She usually didn’t come this far out, the distance from any structures for convenient sleeping off of alcoholic escapades made it an unfavorable choice. But today, she wanted to make sure that no one would find her easily, and everyone knew how lazy she was; no one would come this far to look.
She wanted to hide, but this was her second home. Her own home was currently overrun by those pesky Celestials, and this had become her only other option by default.
She snorted quietly, taking another swig of her wine. When had she become so homebound that her only two options were here or there?
She knew when. Since Kunlun. Since those events. She tilted her head to the side, admitting she’d spent the past 70,000 plus years in just these two places. Initially, it had been the need to stay near so that she could feed Shifu her heart’s blood. And she had never resented that duty because it had been her duty as a disciple. When she had come back from her trial after 200 years away, she had rushed to Shifu’s side, the fear riding her hard that he would be gone. Her relief had been immense on finding Shifu exactly the same and still here; the lack of her heart’s blood for those centuries had made no difference.
She no longer had to be near him, but even without that excuse, she hadn’t left Qing Qiu. The sad truth was that she didn’t want to leave her fox den, and that admission depressed her. She’d spent the past 300 years after her heavenly trial, or, as she called it, her mortal trial, hiding away. She’d spent more than 300 years hiding. Even as she waited for Qing Cang to awaken, she’d stayed. And when all of her excuses had been stripped away, she’d continued to stay.
When had she become such a coward? Was it when she became a goddess? Was she afraid to . .. she shook her head. She wasn’t going to think about that trial any longer. It was an event to be forgotten.
She continued to drink, staring blearily at the upended jugs lying in front of her. Just how much had she drunk today? No matter, she took another swig of the wine. She was here to deliberately drink herself into oblivion, wasn’t she? And the number definitely helped.
A cool breeze caused the leaves of the trees to rustle, the sound distracting her for a moment. The scent of blossoms filled the air, and she inhaled deeply, closing her eyes to the late afternoon sun. And in that darkness, her memories beat at her. She was largely a pragmatic person, not letting the past pull at her, but it seemed the years of her life were catching up with her today.
A part of her wanted to return to those young days when she had gone around with 4th Brother, as they wreaked havoc in the realms. Back to the days when they had to use Zhe Yan’s name to get out of trouble. Or even to Kunlun Mountain before the war, before the darkness had come.
But time had trudged on. The war had come, Shifu had sacrificed himself. They had lost 9th. She had gone through her own trial after fighting Qing Cang. She’d sealed him back in, but lost 200 years of her life. Today, as she sat here drinking jug after jug of wine, she felt every one of those 140,000 years. They weighed heavily on her soul. She was so tired. Too tired to do what had been planned.
She took another sip of the wine. Why was the alcohol bringing all of these inconvenient truths to mind? She’d never had that problem with drinking before. Ugh. All this thinking about her emotions was giving her a headache, especially when she spent most of the time ignoring these damned feelings. When had she become so self-aware? Another consequence of that horribly humiliating trial? That half-minded mortal version of her still rattled about in her head, intruding at the most inopportune of times.
Straightening her shoulders, she made a decision. Regardless of what her reasons were, even if it was nothing more than laziness, she had to get out more. She would get out into the world; it was better than stagnating in the same place. So that, even if things went as planned for her, she would have something more in her life than a life set out for her, bound by rules and regulations.
The wine that she had been downing herself in for the past few hours finally reached her head, and she began to tilt sideways. Leaning back against the tree once more, she decided that sitting at the other end of the ten miles of peach blossoms was enough for today. Tilting her head up, she stared at the weak rays of the setting sun peeking down through the branches. She needed to see the world, to see how it had changed, and maybe let it change her a little, as well.
She thought about the chaos that she had left behind in Qing Qiu. Today might not have been the best day to leave her fox den, but she wasn’t ready. Despite all of her talk about cleverly choosing her escape destination, the only reason her family wouldn’t look for her here was because they knew that she didn’t want to be found.
“What are you doing here?”
Bai Qian closed her eyes in frustration. Well, everyone except for him would have known better. “What are you doing here, Zhe Yan?” she muttered into her wine cup, refusing to meet his gaze. “Shouldn’t you be somewhere that’s not here?”
“I should be,” Zhe Yan said calmly, coming to stand over here. “Shouldn’t you also be there with me?”
She irritably shrugged her shoulders at him and then turned away.
“Bai Qian,” Zhe Yan stated sternly. “It’s your wedding day. The entire Celestial Clan is in Qing Qiu, not to mention the Heavenly Lord and the Crown Prince. Everyone is waiting for the bride to appear. How can you hide from them?” Zhe Yan demanded in an exasperated tone. “Are you seriously running away? I didn’t take for you to be a coward.”
Bai Qian gazed up at him balefully, and then asked again, “Why are you here? Shouldn’t you be at the wedding as one of the venerable guests? Everyone knows that you don’t get involved in the world’s affairs, but Bai Zhen’s old maid sister is getting married after 140,000 years,” she stated snidely, “and you just up and leave? Now, that’s just rude.”
“Well, it’s not like the bride stuck around for the ceremony,” Zhe Yan threw back, crossing his arms across his chest. “Why should I have to be there and socialize if you don’t have to? Why should I have to be bored out of my mind not once but twice, mind you?” Zhe Yan continued sardonically.
She quirked an eyebrow in silent inquiry.
“Well, you’re clearly not getting married today. The sun’s setting. The stars will soon be out. The auspicious time for the ceremony has been lost, just as the bride was lost today by her seemingly incompetent family. So, there’s going to be a second wedding day, right? And we’re going to have to all show up again. So, I thought it was okay to cut today’s participation short. And I don’t feel a bit guilty about it.”
Bai Qian shook her head, turning to stare blankly at the still waters of the pond in front of her. Without wanting, without meaning to, her eyes took in the red robes of her wedding dress. The soft whisper of the many layers covering her body rang in her ears as unwelcome intrusions. The weight of the ornate hair ornament in her hair gave her a headache. She had never been so dressed up in her life, and it had all gone to waste today because she’d run away from her duty. And that was the thought that irritated most of all.
These were all things that she couldn’t ignore anymore. Not the least of which because she could feel the weight of Zhe Yan’s expectant gaze on her. It seemed that the High God had decided to interfere today.
“Tell me,” she finally uttered, her words slurring slightly, “Why did I get stuck with the arranged marriage?” Her tone was morose, a glimpse of her hidden pain shining through. “Everyone says the fox tribe loves only once. Loves truly. We’re loyal to the end unless you betray us.” She carefully enunciated the next part. “We must be very careful when we marry, because we marry for eternity. So then,” she got up carefully and turned to look at him with eyes that revealed her turmoil, “Why do I have to get married for political reasons? Why don’t I deserve to find love just like all of my brothers did?”
Zhe Yan gazed at her for a moment, and then asked, “You’ve never looked for love, Xiao Wu.”
She took a deep breath for patience, wondering how she could make him understand. Just because she had never looked, didn’t meant that she had given up.
“Why have you never mentioned this before?” he asked. “The Celestial clan has been asking for this wedding to take place almost every decade in the past three centuries. The Heavenly Lord has wanted to fulfill his promise ever since Ye Hua became the Crown Prince. Your parents have put them off, but how long could they have done that? You’ve said nothing before.” He tilted his head to the side. “So, why have you said nothing before?”
“I thought I’d accepted it!” Bai Qian cried out, throwing her cup down. It shattered into shards at her feet, resembling the pieces of herself that she still seemed to be gathering after her trial. “They’re my parents. They made this decision. They must have thought it through carefully. But whatever their reason was, they gave their word. I thought I could do it. I would have to do it. It was their honor at stake, but getting married to a young pup? He’s 90,000 years younger than me! How can I go through with this marriage?”
He opened his mouth, then closed it. It was as if he had no words.
Picking up the skirt of her wedding robes, she slowly moved forward, trying to avoid the sharp bits of clay in her path to get to the next jug of wine.
Zhe Yan abruptly said, “I won’t tell them you’re here.”
“Don’t they already know where I am?” Bai Qian asked sharply, turning to stare at him from where she crouched in front of the wine. “Especially 4th brother. My family just has the decency to stay away.” She left the ‘unlike some people’ part unspoken, knowing that he understood her meaning.
“They do,” Zhe Yan said with a shrug, “They’re pretending with their best acting skills that they have no idea where you ran off to.” Zhe Yan stopped for a moment, and then came over to her so suddenly that he caused her to fall over in surprise. “How about at least meeting the Crown Prince?” he urged. “I’m sure you’ll feel differently if you just see him. He’ll surprise you, I’m sure.”
She shook her head, grabbing at the wine. “I can’t. I know that I have to get married,” she murmured, continuing to speak despite the fact that her speech was now consistently slurred, “but not today.”
“Fine,” he said. “We’ll deal with whatever happens today tomorrow.” He turned to leave, but then whirled back around. Raising an admonishing finger, he shook it at her with the warning, “I’m not going to say anything about the mountain of wine you’ve already drunk. I’m sure you’ve cleaned out my cellars, as well, but do not drink the wine buried under that tree.” He pointed to a tree a few feet away from them.
Bai Qian snorted softly. She was so drunk right now, would she even remember the damn tree? It was a peach blossom tree! Like all the other ones here! She waved her hands at him, motioning for him to go away.
“Remember, Bai Qian. Not that wine. I’m saving the jugs for a special occasion.”
“With 4th Brother?” she asked, her mind now focusing intently on the tree. How special would be the wine for a special occasion? She would remember that tree. If Zhe Yan said to stay away, she would have to have a taste. She silently waved him away, promising nothing.
After Zhe Yan left, Bai Qian took off the outer, more intricate and heavier, robes and cast them aside, leaving only the thinner robes to cover her body. Putting up her hands, she pulled off the hair ornament and cast it aside, allowing her hair to fall loosely down her back. It would be dark soon, and no one was here to see her, so what did it matter? Pulling up her sleeves, she carefully made her way to the tree and began to dig. She could’ve used magic, but was too drunk to figure out how to do so right at the moment.
She dug and dug, but there was nothing. For a brief moment, she wondered if Zhe Yan had been playing with her, knowing her nature. But no, she shook her head. Zhe Yan didn’t joke about wine.
Bai Qian got up and slowly walked back to where they had been standing and imagined Zhe Yan standing next to her. He had been pointing to the tree next to the one that she had just spent the past half hour digging under. Groaning softly, she trudged towards the right tree and began to dig, her motions swifter in her impatient attempts to get to the “special” wine.
“What special occasion is he talking about?” she muttered to herself, as she continued to dig. Smiling when her fingers touched the jugs, she pulled out two for her enjoyment. “Today were the nuptials of Qing Qiu’s only Queen and the Crown Prince of the Celestial Clan. What could be more special than that?”
Moving deeper into the woods, away from the clearing and the pond, she began her quest for the perfect tree. She stumbled over the roots of different trees, her blurry gaze finally finding a sturdy tree with branches big enough to hold her weight. Standing under the peach blossoms, she tried to jump up into the branches. She jumped once. Twice. But couldn’t get her magic to work. Clutching at her head, she wondered just how drunk was she. Pouting quietly, she nestled down into the roots of the tree. Titling her head back, she began to drink from the new jugs, the smell of the earth still strong on the containers.
As she drank, her mind began to circle around her abandoned nuptials. A pup. She was to marry a youngster who hadn’t been even alive for a large part of her life!
She’d never had any peach blossom experiences, never had the chance to truly love. Li Jing had been a mistake, a betrayal that she had never forgotten. After that experience, she had never been as free . . . as open with her heart. And because she had closed her heart, she never had the chance to love.
When this engagement had been arranged, no one had asked her opinion. Bai Qian had come back from her mortal trial to discover that she was now engaged to Crown Prince Ye Hua instead.
As she sat there, staring blankly in front of her, she felt the rush of air, as if something was buzzing across her face. Reaching up a hand, she swatted it away in irritation. “I’m the Goddess Bai Qian,” she muttered in frustration, “How dare you buzz around me?” Stating the words clearly, or as clearly as she could with the alcohol fairly sloshing about inside of her, she went back to drinking. She was nowhere near being done.
Heaving a deep sigh, her thoughts circled back to her wedding once more and her own emotional state. She had been dead inside for thousands of years; she’d even forgotten what emotions were. True, that sometimes memories of a younger her, a woman who felt so many emotions and passions, would come back. In her youth, she had laughed with joy. She had cried with abandon. The world had a been a safe place, and she was the treasured only girl child of the Bai’s. The favored disciple of Kunlun.
Memories of the time during her mortal trial circled in her head, when she had dealt with the truly depraved depths of love. It was very hard to experience those emotions when this heart, she thumped it, hadn’t felt anything for so long. She still felt those tugs inside, sometimes she even found herself looking back with nostalgia to those years.
Bai Qian shuddered at her maudlin behavior. She didn’t know who that version had been. That mortal version of her, without her powers or her history. Without the tragedy or the foundation of familial love. Without the betrayals. She had been so different. So open. So soft. Not even as a youngster, had she been like that. She had been so ready to love. Maybe that explained it. She had been so ready to love, stripped of all of her fears, and she’d opened her heart unthinkingly.
She sighed once more, but then began to fidget on the ground. It was so hot! She pulled a fan out of her sleeve, red to match her wedding garb, and waved it in front of her face, wondering when it had become so hot. She blew out air, her cheeks puffing out, hoping it would help.
Getting up, she tried to move around, hoping the nighttime breeze would help cool her down. But suddenly, it wasn’t the heat bothering her. It was too cold now. Her arms wrapped around her body, but that didn’t help. Her body shook, her eyes searching for her robes. But it was so dark, she could barely see anything. Reaching out with her hands, she felt cloth, and she pulled it to her. Her body plastered against a hard softness, and she wrapped herself in the warmth, moaning at the pleasure.
Closing her eyes, she exhaled softly in relief. Snuggling close, she buried her nose in warmth. Had she really achieved it? Would she reach that sweet oblivion of sleep and leave all of this confusion behind? Laying her head down, she allowed herself to relax, welcoming this chance to rest without worry, but her sleep was not as peaceful as expected.
Sounds of battle rang out around her. The screams of men and women as they ran away from the battle in their midst were louder than the clash of swords. The fighting was fierce, the sounds and roars of rage ringing in her ears.
Covering them to block out the horrifying noise, she moved back. Her heart pounded loudly in fear, sweat breaking out over her body. Dropping the basket in her arms, she began to run, her only thought to escape the battle behind her.
She saw the explosion. The fire bursting up and out, and engulfing the structures around them. The buildings were on fire. The heat from the flames beat at her skin. The fear was very real that the flames would come next. The screams of mortal pain were fierce, growing in crescendo. And that fearsome fire came towards her, ready to engulf her, as well. She closed her eyes, knowing that she would be its next victim.
She wasn’t ready for death!
And there was a gush of water, covering her, drowning her. She gasped, trying to breathe. It wouldn’t be the fire that killed her. The water was enough.
And that first breath of air was so shocking, when moments ago she had been drowning, that it awakened her from her deep sleep. Sitting up in bed, she clutched at her head. It was pounding. Clearly, she had succeeded in getting drunk.
“Now remind me, why did I want to be drunk again?” she muttered to herself. She shook her head, and took deep breaths, hoping that the cool morning air would brush away the cobwebs that had taken up residence in her head.
Cuddling close to his warmth, her arms strongly held on to him. Her hands slipped up and buried themselves under the fall of his hair, her cold fingers reveling in the warmth of his nape.
There were whispers. Of soft hardness.
A soft huff of air across her forehead. The small hint of sandalwood as she inhaled. Of ink.
The feeling of decadence, as she rubbed against his body.
She placed her face against his warm skin, the motion causing his lips to skate across her forehead. Across her eyes.
She had melded into his body, leaving no room for even a breath to separate them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Had it been real? She shook her head, and then groaned at the motion. After taking a moment to quell the nausea, she wondered if she had made a promise. And if she had, what had that promise been?
Who was the man in her dreams?
She felt the bed shake, breaking her out of her thoughts. Turning her head, she squeaked on seeing the figure of a man lying down beside her. Her hands came up to clap across her lips, silencing any further noises.
Scooting backwards, she desperately tried to put distance between herself and the stranger next to her. But the bed was small. She stopped when her head hit the wall. She silently groaned in pain, rubbing the spot that had hit the wall. This was not a good day to be hitting her head on anything.
Staring at the strange figure, his hair loose and covering his face entirely, she had to admit one good thing, she guessed. She was no longer thinking about anything else.
The one thought ringing in her head right now was, just what had she done last night?
Chapter 2 – Wife
It was daytime, but it seemed that Mao, the Sun God, was taking a day off. There was no sun out today, only dark and threatening clouds. Steady rain was falling from the skies, making the world dark and dreary. Wind blew in through the open slats of the window, dropping the temperature in the room to icy cold.
She sighed morosely. It seemed a fitting morning after to a wedding that hadn’t happened. Bai Qian dropped her face into her hands, rubbing at her aching eyes. “Just what did I do yesterday?” she whispered to herself, not wanting to wake the slumbering man beside her. She was not ready to deal with him on top of everything else.
Scooting back, distancing herself just a little from this current problem, she rested her head against the wall with her eyes closed. As far as she remembered, she had been drinking under the peach blossom trees. And now, she was in bed with a strange man with no recollection of how she had gotten here. She tilted her head to the side. That would normally lead one to think that too much wine was bad for you. After a moment of silent contemplation, she resolutely shook her head. No. She had been drinking almost her entire life. One mishap would not sour her on her much beloved wine, she decided resolutely.
Squaring her shoulders, she opened her eyes and carefully looked around. It was her bedroom in Zhe Yan’s hut. She hadn’t been wrong about that. The wind at her back from the open window, and the shadows in the corners of the room were all too familiar to her. She certainly hadn’t gone far in her drunken haze, but the fact that she didn’t remember getting here made her wonder if the stranger had helped her. But . . . how had he known where to bring her?
Her eyes flickered over him, noticing the imprint of her head on the pillow near him. She’d spent the entire night inches away from him and never suspected a thing. An unknown feeling awakened inside of her, but it was so new . . . so different, that she couldn’t identify it.
She froze as another thought occurred to her. What if, while she was unconscious and vulnerable, he had done more than help her to bed? What if they had done more than sleep together? She hesitantly looked under the blanket clutched to her chest, her mind going blank when she saw an undertunic different from the one she had worn yesterday.
How had she . . . that man . . . she raised a shaking hand to her hair, pushing it back from her face, furiously wondering what he had done to her. She began to breathe hard, fire welling up inside of her as her anger grew. Her hand reached for her Jade Purity Fan; it took her a moment to remember that she wasn’t wearing her own tunic. But even if she had been, she hadn’t thought to put her fan in the sleeve of her wedding dress; it was lying in her room at the fox den.
Closing her eyes, she hit at her head with an open palm, cringing at the inadvertent pain that action caused. With that pain though came a moment of logic, clearing away some of the feelings of enraged humiliation. There had to be an innocent answer; things like this didn’t happen to her.
She couldn’t have slept with him. She didn’t feel any differently. Fate could be a bitch. Everyone knew that. But it wouldn’t be such a bitch that if she finally lost her virginity after 140,000 years, she wouldn’t even remember the event itself? It was a good thing that she wasn’t as impetuous as she had been in her youth. “Blowing up and destroying Zhe Yan’s hut won’t solve anything,” she cautioned herself.
She squinted balefully at the man in her bed. It was his fault that she was sitting here having to wonder about things like this. Shaking her head, hoping to shake loose some of these worrisome thoughts, she turned her focus onto the wedding clothes lying on a chair by the door. Her hair ornament rested on the table next to her bed. Everything was there. Well, whoever he was, at least he was a conscientious pervert. She wouldn’t have to worry about finding any replacement items for her wedding.
There was a soft sound, a stirring from the figure lying on the bed, bringing her thoughts back to him. She stiffened, warily watching the man slowly turn on the bed, his arm shifting away from his face and down to his side, his other hand coming to lie on his chest. Her eyes widened in trepidation, but he settled back into sleep.
The shift had revealed a bit more of the mysterious figure as the blanket slipped a smidge lower. She gazed at the now naked shoulders, wondering if he was completely naked underneath. Pushing that thought aside, absently cooling her body temperature, she gazed carefully at the man, looking for anything that would help her to figure out just who he was.
His silky hair fell across his face, almost completely obscuring the features. The muscles under the golden skin of his bare shoulders shifted as he moved slightly on the bed once more, his fingers clenching into a fist that rested above his heart. She saw no marks. No scars. Nothing.
She slowly crawled over to him, curiosity pushing at her now. Carefully coming to a rest on her knees beside him, ensuring that he wouldn’t be disturbed, she slowly reached out a hand to brush aside the hair.
Her motion was arrested, her hand pausing at his scent. There was that hint of sandalwood again, familiar somehow, and ink, as if he spent copious amounts of time around it. She inhaled once more, confusion wrinkling her brow. Underneath both of those hints there was a deeper, more elusive scent. Closing her eyes, she tried to identify the different threads, wondering what it was about the scent that seemed so alluring to her, but she couldn’t place it.
Pushing those thoughts aside, she stealthily brushed aside his hair, freezing halfway through the task when he murmured sleepily. His face was turned towards her, revealing the slash of his eyebrows, his lashes fanning against his cheekbones. She could see the shape of his full lips, but nothing more.
She jumped slightly, her lips tightening as she recognized those partially uncovered features. They were almost like . . . she shook her head in denial, her heart beginning to beat frantically in her chest. Her fingers, which had remained frozen in midair, curled into a fist as she fought the surge of emotions.
She silently gasped, struggling to accept the truth staring her in the face. Reaching out suddenly, she grabbed at the hand lying across his chest and slowly raised it up, turning his wrist to the light. She exhaled deeply, all of the strength leaving her body. Without knowing, without trying, she’d finally found him.
And it was him.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I ran frantically through the narrow, dirty streets, my eyes searching for some place to hide, some way to be safe from the fighting that was going on overhead. My breaths moved harshly through my throat, a stitch in my side slowing me down. I could feel myself faltering, but I knew I needed to move. If I didn’t, I would be trampled.
People ran through the chaos around me, fire and smoke blinding them and me to the wounded lying in the streets; their screams were a cacophony of noise in my ears. Fear was thick in the air, the despair permeating every particle of our beings. My body was trembling, sweat running down my back, causing my clothes to stick to my body. Clenching my hands into fists, I continued to run.
The roar of the lion as it fought the dragon clanged inside my head until that was all I could hear. I feared that it would be the last thing I would hear. But while the ferocious roars of the lion had caught my attention, had caught everyone’s attention at first, it was the black dragon fighting silently overhead that froze me in my tracks. I raised my eyes to the sky, my heart in my throat as I saw the majestic beast fight the furious lion. The two struggled, and the dragon coiled its body around the lion, squeezing it tight.
The ground shook under my feet, and I fell to my knees. Why did I have to choose today to come down from my nice, safe mountain? And why had fate decided to stick me in the middle of a battle that threatened my very existence? Getting up, I began to run blindly, desperate to reach home, desperate to escape. But there was no escaping that day.
There was another roar from the lion, and flames burst into life a small distance in front of me. I stopped in my tracks, narrowly avoiding falling into those flames and to my death. My chest heaved, as I desperately tried to catch my breath.
The heat was immense, spreading voraciously towards the structures nearby. People’s screams grew louder around me, as they saw their lives burning down in front of them. It seemed that fear for their lives was nothing compared to losing all they had worked towards in this life.
There was a sudden shower of water, and I was drenched to the skin. The pressure from the downpour pushed me to my knees. As I knelt there, trying to get my bearings, I was too slow to move out from under the suddenly falling debris from a building that could not withstand the pressure of the water, either.
The world darkened in the space of a heartbeat, and I knew nothing more.
Moving slowly, I walked carefully to the entrance of my cave; it was the cave where I usually kept all of my animals unless they needed more care. If they did, I would bring them home with me.
I stopped for a minute, resting; it was my third break on this walk back home. My body still ached from the injuries that it had sustained after the battle between the lion and the dragon. Bruises and scratches covered my body from the debris, but it was the gash on my leg that had worried my savior, a kind woman named Yan Zhi.
Yan Zhi had joined the effort to clean up the village and take care of the injured after the catastrophe. She was a newcomer to town, but hadn’t hesitated to lend a helping hand. The other woman had taken care of me, asking for nothing in return. We’d barely spoken in those three days, mainly because Yan Zhi didn’t talk and I wasn’t used to talking. But while the woman’s care had been silent and abrupt, it had also been thorough. Looking back, I realized that it was the longest contact I had had with another human being in years.
I’d spent three days with Yan Zhi, three days away from my home and my animals. And that was why, before even going home to rest, I was going to my cave to check on the animals. I hoped that none of them had died; more of them seemed to die in my care than I cared to remember.
As I slowly moved through the forest, I heard a sudden crackle of dry leaves, as if someone had walked over them, and then a loud hiss coming from behind me. Freezing, hand to my throat, I wondered what it could be. The shadow of a menacing presence seemed to loom over me, and I was too afraid to turn around and face it.
It couldn’t be the lion. The entire village was talking about how the Dragon, or God as some of them were calling him, had killed the lion and saved the village days ago. But if the lion was dead, then who or what was this?
Turning around, I saw the open maw of a snake-like creature in front of me. It stood tall on its tail, rising high above me, its body easily twice the width of mine. It seemed to be four or five times my height, its body coiling behind it for some distance. Its fangs were large and long, the malevolent look in its eyes making me fear for my life.
My heart began to thump, sweat breaking out over my body. What was this? I had lived on Mount Junji for years, and had never seen any sign of trouble. But to see two monsters in the same week? My mind couldn’t comprehend the danger I was in, freezing instead, and I let my body take over.
Stepping back, moving towards the entrance of the cave, I leaned down to pick up a branch lying at my feet. I knew that my paltry defense might only delay things, but I wouldn’t give in so easily. Standing back up on my feet once more, the branch clutched tightly in my hands, I held it above my head. I met the eyes of the monster in front of me, raising my chin in silent challenge, daring it to attack.
It hissed loudly, launching itself at me.
Stumbling back, I came up hard against the warmth of another body. Arms wrapped around me, the hint of some inexplicable scent wrapping itself around me along with those arms, and I was pulled out of the way and thrust towards the mouth of the cave. Before confusion could even make its way past the ice of fear that had taken over my mind, the man had slipped around me to stand in front of the now attacking monster.
My eyes traced the figure of the man, taking in its all black appearance. I could only see his back, my eyes focusing on his long, flowing hair. Crazy thoughts ran through my head. How could he fight with all that hair flapping in the wind? What if it got tangled with his sword? The sword. It was as if it was a part of him.
I followed his movements closely as he fought the snake, pushing it back and further away from me. Suddenly, without warning, the snake lurched forward and grabbed onto the man’s arm. Without hesitation, he swung his sword at the monster’s eyes. The snake reared back, and the man leapt some distance away from it.
The monster slithered towards me once more, knowing that I was the weaker target. But the stranger was there once more, grabbing me and whirling me away from the snake. He held me in his arms for a beat, my back landing against his chest, my arms clutching at his as they wrapped around my waist. There was a small beat, infinitesimal, before he pushed me away to return to the fight. I stumbled, coming to stand against the cave entrance.
The battle was fierce. With a defiant hiss, the snake launched a final attack, and was struck by the lightening the man . . . who clearly was not just a man, had called down to his sword. The snake disappeared into dust flying and flames dying.
I was left staring at the back of the man who had saved me. Slowly moving forward, I stepped onto the grass, my eyes glued to the figure before me. He turned slightly, and I saw the shape of an ear, the outline of thin lips. I saw the flash of glowing skin, and the cut of his cheekbone. I caught a quick glimpse of the corner of an eye before he strode off.
“Wait!” I called out, but it made no difference. He’d walked away.
Staring down at my hands, at the blood that stained them, I saw proof that he had been injured. His arm, where I had clutched him, had been bleeding. And I hadn’t even had the chance to thank my savior for saving me that day.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This was crazy. How could he be here? Bai Qian stared at the evidence in her hands. His arm, that same arm, had a scar, as if it had been bitten. The skin there burned away by the toxic poison that a snake would have secreted.
Her fingers traced over the roughened skin absentmindedly before she came to her senses, and abruptly moved back, dropping his arm as if it was on fire. Leaning against the wall weakly, she used its support to remain upright.
It was the irony of fate. That bitch. She’d spent years avoiding love, avoiding entanglements of any kind. This trial had been her punishment for her arrogance in thinking that she could rule her own heart. Whatever force created these trials, and no one knew who or what it was, had decided that unrequited love, her own personal humiliation, would either be the reason for her ascendance into godhood or her perpetual hell.
Her unrequited . . . love had been the reason she was a goddess today. Her face reddened. And that was the hideous truth about her heavenly trial, a truth that she still hid from everyone even today.
On that day, this man had left without a second thought.
As for her, maybe it had been the adrenaline of almost being eaten, the feel of another human’s touch after years of isolation, the gratitude for being saved, she didn’t know, but her years of living peacefully on Mount Junji ended that day.
Gratitude was initially coupled with interest. Interest had grown into fascination, fascination into infatuation. Infatuation had grown into obsession, and that obsession had taken over her life. And during her trial, as she’d lived it, she had called that obsession love. Every day it was the same thing. She wondered about him. Who had he been? Where did he go? She lost sleep, even forgetting to eat. Over time, she grew weaker, her mind finding no surcease from her obsessive thoughts about him. As hard as it had been to swallow, she’d become another Feng Jiu, pining after a man beyond all reason.
Bai Qian folded her legs to her chest, wrapping her arms around them. It was hard to think, the memories pulling at the corners of her mouth, causing a frown to appear on her face. And the saddest thing? She’d fallen in “love” with a man whose face she couldn’t even recognize. As he’d fought the snake monster that day, she’d seen the dark slash of eyebrows across an expanse of golden skin. She’d seen the black of his clothes, as he’d flown from spot to spot. She’d felt the shape of his body, as he’d held her in his arms. She’d seen the flow of hair, but never his face.
After she had cooled down, all proclamations to the contrary, she knew she had nothing to go on. There was nothing she could do to pursue her revenge. At least she could finally see what he looked like. Reaching out a hand, not wanting to awaken the man too soon, she carefully brushed the hair away from his face.
He had a striking face. Deep, black slashes for eyebrows. A straight nose. Lips that seemed strictly straight, even in slumber. She saw the wrinkle on his brow, the slight grimace. Even in sleep, he seemed unsettled.
Her hand froze in midair, part way into the motion of pulling back. Shifu! She’d spent years looking at Shifu’s sleeping face, and this face was identical. She knew it couldn’t be Shifu; Shifu was back at the cave near her fox den. No matter how much she dreamed about it, she didn’t believe that Shifu had awakened and somehow made his way to her bed.
A slight movement brought her attention back to the man in her bed. This man seemed the same as her Shifu in repose, but there were differences. He didn’t have a beard, but even if he had . . . even if he had, she would not have thought him her Shifu after that first startled moment. She sat next to him, was gazing at him, but there was none of that reverence in her heart, as there always was for her teacher. In fact the feelings she had for this man were something entirely different. There was anger, and embarrassment, and other more confusing emotions that she did not want to delve into at all.
Who was he? Finally moving the hand that had been frozen in the air for so long, she pulled at the blanket, hoping to see some clues to his identity. She saw a deep scar on his chest . . . And she was jerked out of her musings.
Hearing a soft exhalation, she glanced up to meet his wide open eyes, gazing at her. They seemed more alert than they should have been.
No. ‘You really aren’t my Shifu, are you?’ she silently confirmed to herself. Shifu’s eyes weren’t as dark as this man’s eyes. They weren’t as calm as his eyes.
He suddenly spoke, breaking the silence between them.
“Good morning, Wife.”
Chapter 3 – Her Peach Blossom Scent
Crown Prince Ye Hua moved up the stairs, his steps slowly and steady. His eyes stared ahead as he walked towards the Heavenly Lord’s chambers. Although his face was expressionless, his mind was already focusing on the purpose of his upcoming meeting, wondering what his grandfather needed at this time.
Coming to a stop outside the doors, he waited for the attendants to announce his presence.
“Crown Prince Ye Hua is seeking an audience, Heavenly Lord,” the maid closest to the doors called out, bowing gracefully to the floor. All the other maids silently bowed along with her.
“Enter!” his grandfather called from inside, sounding more impatient than anything. Since that was the Heavenly Emperor’s usual state, it provided no clues as to what he might want of Ye Hua this time.
Ye Hua walked inside, waiting for the doors to close before turning to greet his grandfather and query about the reason for the summons.
His grandfather silently motioned for him to take a seat. “Ye Hua,” he began, but then stopped, going no further.
“Yes, Heavenly Lord,” Ye Hua prompted as the silence seemed to go on.
“I have called you here to talk to you about your upcoming nuptials.”
Ye Hua tilted his head in silent query, a momentary expression of surprise flitting across his face.
“As you know, I have finally convinced the Fox Clan to go forward with the wedding,” his grandfather stated. “They were hesitant to continue with the engagement after your second uncle ran off with that snake spirit,” he said on a growl, his anger still strong at his once beloved son’s betrayal. “I promised them that I would make it up to them and declared the engagement of Qing Qiu’s Bai Qian to the Crown Prince of the Celestial Clan. Ever since you were crowned the heir to this throne, I have been pushing for the wedding to move forward.”
Ye Hua nodded his head, wondering at the recitation of a history already well known to him. From birth, he had known the Fox Clan’s Bai Qian was engaged to the future Crown Prince. He had also known that she would most likely become his future bride, since his destiny had always been to be the Crown Prince of his clan. His grandfather’s expectations had made nothing else an option.
“Ye Hua,” his grandfather said ponderously, “I am charging you with the duty of keeping the Fox Clan happy. We need them; we need this alliance. The Foxes of Qing Qiu are very mercurial. They believe in love, and marry only for love.” His tone exhibited shocked disgust at such emotional reasons for marriage.
‘Then why did they agree to this arranged match,’ Ye Hua silently wondered to himself.
“Once a fox loves, you have her loyalty for life,” the Heavenly Emperor asserted. He leaned closer, motioning for his grandson to come closer to hear his next words. “Ye Hua. Make her fall in love with you, and we’ll have the fox clan in the palm of our hands.”
He turned at his name, his eyes meeting third uncle’s eyes. He raised a silent brow at the unexpected interruption.
“You’ve been sitting here for quite some time. Is something on your mind?” Lian Song’s manner was stiff, as if he was unsure of his welcome.
Ye Hua had spent his entire life avoiding being close to anyone. Harsh lessons learned in childhood, through separation from his mother, his choices taken away one after the other, he had closed himself off from any attachments, including from family. Third Uncle had always been a presence, but Ye Hua’s aloofness had prevented any closeness.
He had spent the past 50,000 years living a lonely life, working towards the day that he could gain power over his own life, earning the right to make his own decisions. But at this point today, he was completely lost. How could he do what the Heavenly Emperor wanted? He didn’t even know how to love, let alone getting someone to fall in love with him. That hadn’t been part of grueling training.
“Third Uncle,” he began carefully, looking up at the other man, a man who was renowned throughout the realms for his peach blossom experiences, “I do have something to ask.”
“Speak,” Lian Song invited eagerly, coming to sit across from his nephew. “You never speak much to me. Never have much to ask. I’m intrigued.”
“The Heavenly Emperor has ordered . . .” Ye Hua’s voice dropped off, as he found it difficult to relay the information. He turned his head away, finding it easier to speak when he wasn’t looking at the other man. “He has ordered me to have the Fox Queen fall in love with me.”
Lian Song choked on air, coughing desperately to clear his throat. “But she is no ordinary woman!” he protested.
Ye Hua silently nodded in agreement.
“She is the Fox King’s daughter and Qing Qiu’s Queen of the East. And could very well be the only High Goddess in the world one day.”
Ye Hua continued to nod, knowing that all of this was true. “The Heavenly Emperor’s orders are to create such a peach blossom experience that she will be caught for life, and we can then use that love to tie the Fox Clan to ours, thereby gaining control of their loyalty.” He paused, and then shook his head.
“What’s the problem with that?” Lian Song finally asked, confusion wrinkling his brow. He cleared his throat before continuing, “You find it surprising that the Heavenly Emperor can be so mercenary?”
Ye Hua quietly glanced at his third uncle.
Lian Song shook his head, an unknown emotion touching his heart at the barest hint of confusion he saw in his nephew’s eyes before it disappeared. “Okay, let’s not talk about that. You’re having trouble thinking of how to implement this directive?” he guessed again.
Ye Hua paused, and then reluctantly nodded, conceding defeat. He had no one else to turn to, and he was sure, on some level deep down, that he could trust his Third Uncle.
“Easy!” Lian Song crowed, smiling at his nephew. “Do what I tell you, and I guarantee that she will be in love with you in no time!”
Ye Hua leaned forward, even as a trace of skepticism crossed his face at his third uncle’s assertion.
“One,” Lian Song began, holding up a finger, “a woman will always love a hero. You can be her hero. Save her and she’ll be yours for life.”
“She’s the Gugu of the realms,” Ye Hua pointed out drily after a moment of silence. “A goddess. Revered by all. Why would I need to save her, when I’m sure she’s more than capable of saving herself?”
Lian Song shook his head at his nephew’s rational logic, conceding that he might have a point. He then brightened, holding up two fingers. “Then how about this second method? You’re a handsome man. I’ve heard the maids sigh over you many times over the years. Use that beauty. Just smile at her, and she’ll be charmed into loving you.”
“What?” Ye Hua burst out incredulously.
“Smile at her,” Lian Song repeated. “She’ll fall in love with your beauty, and you’ll have her in the palm of your hand.”
“I doubt the Goddess Bai Qian would be so shallow,” Ye Hua asserted. He sat back, folding his arms across his chest, and allowing his lip to curl in disgust. He gazed at his uncle, the disappointment apparent in his face.
Lian Song sighed in frustration. “Using your charms is beneath you,” his uncle said in exasperation. “Playing the hero won’t work. Then, there’s only one thing left that you can do.”
Ye Hua raised an eyebrow, fearing the next words out of his uncle’s mouth.
“How about getting her to pity you?” Lian Song asked, pointing his fan at Ye Hua’s face. “Wait!” he burst out, seeing the skeptical look. “Before you say anything, let me explain. Be injured in front of her and get her to save you. She’d have to take care of you. And in that time, closeness will grow, and from that, love. So, how about it? You’ll have accomplished your mission.” His voice was filled with pride, happy at finding such an easy solution for his nephew.
Ye Hua leaned forward, and grasped his third uncle by the shoulders. “Third Uncle.”
Lian Song nodded eagerly, “You like this one?”
“No,” Ye Hua said, shaking his head regretfully. “The Goddess Bai Qian is very different. She is no ordinary woman. I can’t use such stratagems to gain her attention. I think I’ll have to work on this problem by myself.”
“Wait!” Lian Song called out, as Ye Hua began to walk away. “What are you going to do to make Gugu fall in love with you? Let me in on the plan.”
“Well,” Ye Hua, turning to look at him, “I won’t be calling her Gugu for one. She might be revered by all the realms, but we are to be married.” He walked away.
“I expected nothing less of you, Ye Hua,” Lian Song murmured quietly, his eyes on his nephew’s retreating figure. The two had spoken more words today than they ever had before. He wondered if this was a harbinger of more changes to come. “I wish you luck.”
“Why have you brought me here, High God Zhe Yan?” Ye Hua asked, gazing at the peach blossoms flowering in the trees surrounding them in the Zhe Yan’s famous Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms Orchard. The scent of flowers was heavy in the air, the sound of birds and other forest creatures soft in the background. Sunlight still filtered through the leaves, even as the sun slowly made its way to its nightly slumber.
He inhaled deeply, hoping to calm the unrest that had risen inside of him when he’d learned of his bride’s escape. All of his plans had been for naught. The nights he had spent thinking about the task assigned to him had been wasted. Clenching his hands into fists, he gazed quietly at Zhe Yan, ensuring that his features showed none of his inner turmoil.
But then, he still didn’t understand why there was any turmoil at all. He had never doubted his ability to complete any task set before him, so why did this task cause him such worry?
Zhe Yan patted Ye Hua on the shoulder, and then turned to point a little ways down. “In a few moments, I’m going to go over there and talk to your bride.”
Ye Hua’s eyebrows rose at that revelation.
“She did come here. It’s her home away from home,” Zhe Yan confirmed. “You two are to be married, and she knows it. Her heart just hasn’t reconciled itself to the union the way her mind has. It was her heart that held sway today, leading to her jilting you at the altar.” Zhe Yan shrugged, smiling wryly. “I ask that you be patient. Bai Qian is the beloved daughter of the Fox Clan. She is a cherished child, has grown without much supervision. She does not know what it is to bow to logic and cold rationality. Not as you d–,” he stopped mid-word, sealing his lips.
Ye Hua nodded silently, his eyes striving to catch sight of his erstwhile bride. He gazed at the trees, the flowers in bloom, absently inhaling the scent of peach blossom in the air. And finally saw the figure standing so far away, all decked in red.
Zhe Yan gazed at the man standing near him, his eyes tracing the features so identical to the friend he had lost so long ago. They had all thought he was sleeping, hoping that he would awaken one day, but maybe it hadn’t been so. What if Crown Prince Ye Hua was Mo Yuan? It was a thought that had entered his mind many times now, in fact it was the first thought in his head every time he saw the Crown Prince. And what if their union was meant to be? If so, he would ensure that they would get married. “Leave her alone for now,” Zhe Yan cautioned.
“If you wanted me to leave her alone,” Ye Hua asked calmly, his hands held at his back, “why bring me here?” She sat near a stack of jugs. He watched her take a sip from one of them, her eyelids low over her eyes, giving her a sleepy look.
“I brought you here so that you could see that she hasn’t run far; even she knows that there’s no getting out of this marriage. Be patient and you’ll get what you want. What the Celestial Clan wants.” He shook out his sleeves and began to walk away. “I’m going to leave after talking to her. I suggest you do the same for now. It probably isn’t a good idea to confront her after she’s been drinking all day.” He smirked lightly. “Who knows what she’ll do to you?”
Ye Hua stood for a few minutes, his mind thinking over his options. He could leave. He could go home, and listen to his grandfather’s angry words. Or he could stay here and somehow work this to his advantage. It didn’t require much thought.
He saw Zhe Yan finally leaving, not noticing the glance the departing High God threw his way. He was too focused on the Goddess in red.
In the moments he had taken to glance at Zhe Yan, she had disappeared. Ye Hua began to move towards where he had last seen the Goddess Bai Qian. He didn’t know where she was, but he could hear soft huffing from behind another tree. Walking in a circle, his gaze landed on her back.
He saw her list slightly to the side as she dug in the roots of a tree, witnessing her pull out a new set of bottles in triumph. She cleaned the dirt, pulling at the vines that had wrapped themselves around them. Throwing fallen flowers over her shoulder, some of which landed at his feet, she carefully got up with the bottles clutched in her hands. She tried to cloud jump into the branches of the tree, but failed miserably.
He watched her snuggle into the roots of the tree instead, the disgruntled look on her face arousing a burst of amusement. Biting his lip to control the errant smile, he wondered at these emotions. Crossing over to directly stand in front of her, Ye Hua gazed down at the goddess who was to be his bride.
And why? Why did she seem so familiar? Taking a step back, distancing himself from her intoxicating influence, he sat down across from her. His gaze was focused on her as she happily sipped from yet another bottle of wine.
Over the past few centuries, he had begun to dream when he slept. Of a person who was always around. Of soft, gentle hands cradling him, a voice speaking to him. Flashes of that same voice crying out for someone to awaken. The rush of fear and worry for another. Always about that one same person. The presence of that being had been so strong in those dreams, that they began to feel like visions of a reality yet unknown to him. He had never been a fanciful person, nor prone to hallucinations. His mind had been the strongest thing about him, which made these dreams doubly troubling. He struggled nightly with those intrusive remnants, fighting the hold they seemed to gain on him one dream at a time.
And today, as he sat here gazing at her, that same feeling tugged at him. His dreams had been about a man, and she was quite clearly a woman. So how was it the same? He shook his head, clearing the doubts away for the time being.
He cautiously moved over, and waved his hand in front of her eyes. “Goddess Bai Qian,” he said softly, but there was no reaction. Or rather, as she swatted his hand away, there was a delayed reaction.
“I’m the Goddess Bai Qian. How dare you buzz around me. Leave me alone.”
He backed away, returning to his initial position. His other hand had come to unconsciously cradle the one she had touched with her warmth. It was the kind of warmth that touched the heart, or at least it seemed to be touching his heart.
He sat there staring at her, as the sun sank beyond the horizon, as day turned into night . . .
As she sat there, countless expressions flitting across her face. She was the goddess Bai Qian. Someone he was supposed to, because of her status, venerate. He was supposed to call her Gugu, just as the rest of the world did. He realized that would be too difficult. She was too human. It wasn’t veneration that she caused in his heart.
Inhaling deeply, he noted the strong scent of wine in the air. But beneath that, he inhaled once more, the scent of intoxicating peach blossoms mixed with something elusive. A scent that seemed so familiar. A deep warmth ignited inside of him, causing him to clench his fingers into fists.
Everything was too strange. The day had begun with a wedding that hadn’t happened, and it was now ending with him sitting across from the only female goddess in existence, watching her drink bottle after bottle of wine. And to top it off, his heart seemed no longer under his control.
When his second uncle had run off with the snake spirit, Ye Hua had accepted the engagement for the betterment of the Celestial Clan. As the Heavenly Emperor had planned this wedding, as he had himself gotten ready for his upcoming nuptials, he had never faltered. So, why was he faltering now?
The soft huff of a sound distracted him from his increasingly confused thoughts. Turning his attention back to the Bai Qian, his eyes widened on seeing her outermost robe go flying off to the left. He narrowed his eyes, gazing at her features carefully. Her face had become flushed, her lips glistening as she softly licked them before taking another swig from the bottle. Her hands shook, as she pushed the tendrils of hair that had fallen across her face back to their proper place.
She muttered to herself, and carefully set the bottle down. Ignoring it as it tilted over, causing all of the wine inside to spill, she got up and took off another robe and threw it towards him.
The scent of peach blossoms was ever stronger he realized, inhaling deeply as he pulled off the material that had landed across his face. Carefully setting it to the side, he watched her pull out a fan and begin to wave it at her face. She puffed her cheeks out slightly, and then sidled out of her third robe and threw that towards the right side. Her movements were jerky, and she pulled at the rest of her robes, tugging and muttering simultaneously.
Ye Hua’s eyes widened, realizing that she wasn’t stopping and only seemed to have, from the glimpses he caught, one more robe left before there would only be her undertunic. He was afraid that even then she wouldn’t stop. Getting up, he strode towards her, hoping to halt her from any further stripping. “Goddess Bai Qian,” he said firmly, stopping in front of her and putting out his hands to prevent any further disrobing.
But in those few moments, she had begun to shiver. She muttered at the cold air, turning one way, then the other, looking for something. There was a look of confusion on her face, her brow wrinkling in frustration as she continued to search.
When he reached for her, hoping to calm her, she grabbed at his robes instead, sighing in quick relief. “Goddess Bai Qian?” he asked, hoping for some response. When he got none, Ye Hua attempted to step back, but could not fight the hold she had on him without tearing his own robes.
“Bai Qian,” he began softly, his hands coming out to grasp hers, hoping to tug them away. He stiffened when she wrapped her arms around his waist, burying her nose at the base of his neck. The words fell away, as he struggled to get her body away from his. He wasn’t sure of where to put his hands, reaching for her waist and then pulling back. His hands came to rest at her shoulders, but the silky, thin material of her innermost robe was too slippery and he couldn’t gain any purchase on her body. He placed a desperate palm between his neck and her forehead, trying to push her away from that location.
She inhaled deeply and then exhaled, the breath of air causing him to stiffen even further as chills ran down his back from the foreign sensations of that moist warmth, from the softness in his arms.
“Bai Qian,” he repeated, his hand slipping away before he regained his senses and reached back to unwind her arms, but her hold was too strong. Her body was still shuddering, and he looked around, gesturing to the robes lying around them, gathering them to him with his magic.
Maybe if he wrapped them around her body, she would let him go. “Qian Qian,” he murmured, the name slipping past his unwary lips, as he tried to wrap the robes around her squirming body.
There was no answer. She snuggled more deeply into his body, as if trying to melt into him, so that there was no her separate from him. Her body then went limp.
Ye Hua caught her in his arms, cradling her close so that she would not fall. Her peach blossom scent, the warmth of her body, her curves pressing against him . . . too many sensations all at once. For a being like him, who had spent his entire life avoiding any physical contact, this was too much. His body shook, before he quelled that sign of weakness, and he picked her up in his arms. As he began to move towards Zhe Yan’s hut, his lips grazed across her forehead, her eyes, as she wrapped her arms around his neck suddenly. He shuddered once more at another new sensation, another new contact.
“Cold,” she murmured softly. “So cold.” She buried her nose at the base of his neck once more, and he felt the phantom touch of her lips there. He had to force himself to move after that initial shock. He would leave her in the hut and make his escape. He was sure that the Goddess Bai Qian wouldn’t appreciate having him witness her current state.
Minutes later, Ye Hua had traversed half the Peach Blossom Orchard and stood in front of Zhe Yan’s hut, the Goddess still passed out in his arms. He opened the door and began to look for the right room, accompanied only by her soft puffs of breaths against the base of his naked throat. His weakened heart jumped every time he felt the accidental brush of her lips against his skin there.
He finally found the right room, his eyes landing on the feminine things lying on one of the side tables. Cautiously moving into the room, he gestured, using his magic to place her belongings on available surfaces throughout the room. He gently placed her on the bed, kneeling next to the bed to gaze down at her face for far too long. He was caught, forgetting for a minute that he was here, watching the Goddess sleep rather than leaving her to her slumber. Tensing at his own absurd behavior, he made to rise from the floor.
“No!” she suddenly gasped, her hands reaching out to grasp at his robes once more.
Ye Hua sighed at the hold she now had on his robes once more. Why had he sat and waited? He should have made his escape once he’d laid her down. His fingers worked at her hands, but her hold was unbreakable. “Goddess Bai Qian,” he murmured admonishingly, as if hoping those words would cause her to let him go.
The Goddess pulled him down, and snuggled closer.
When he began to get up, she begged, “Don’t move!”
Ye Hua froze, but it was too late.
She heaved suddenly, and, in the next moment, Ye Hua felt the warm liquid of the wine as it made its way back up and on to the both of them. His lips tightened, and he sprang up, leaving her in the bed. Closing his eyes and heaving another sigh, he made a motion with his hands, removing both his soiled clothes and hers. He dressed her in an undertunic he saw lying on a chair across the room, and then covered Bai Qian with the blanket that had been folded on the bed.
Glancing around the room, he realized he had nothing to wear, but he was unwilling to put on his soiled tunics. Wrapping a sheet around his waist, he turned to glare at the Goddess who was still innocently sleeping on the bed. He stared at her sleepy face, wondering how someone could be so irritating and still look so beautiful?
He turned to go, but paused. Could he leave her here alone? High God Zhe Yan had left, and he would not come back tonight. So, then what? She had just thrown up, and he was unsure of the state of her body. He couldn’t leave her here alone; if something happened to the Goddess, it would be on his head.
Sitting down on the side of the bed, he stared at her sleeping face, her cheeks still flushed from the heat of the wine. Her fingers had curled under her cheek, her hair falling across her face. Reaching out tentatively, Ye Hua brushed the hair back from her face, wondering if this was a habit of hers. Did the Goddess drink to such a degree often enough that he would need to gain practice in taking care of her?
His fingers paused in mid-stroke. Just what kind of marriage was he imagining? Shaking his head at his outlandish thoughts, he made to get up. Maybe he could find another room to rest in for the night, where he could be close enough to keep an ear out for her.
Her hands reached out once more, grabbing at his arm. “Don’t leave.”
He stopped, not so much from the force of her hold but from the realization that her hands were extremely cold. She began to shiver, moaning slightly as she shifted under the blanket that now covered her body.
He wondered if she had forgotten she had the ability to regulate her body temperature. She tugged at him until he was lying beside her, burrowing close to his warmth. Her icy hands slipping across his body, one sneaking under his neck, while the other lay across his chest. Her forehead rested against his collar bone, warm breath wafting across his skin, causing goosebumps to rise across his body.
Ye Hua gazed at her closely, and then began to shift slowly, hoping to increase the distance between their bodies.
She tightened her hold. “Stay,” came the sleepy order.
It was as if she had enough awareness to realize that someone was near her, but did she know that it was him? “I can’t,” Ye Hua stated resolutely. “It would not be proper.”
“Who cares about propriety?” Bai Qian retorted, her eyes still closed, a pout crossing her features.
He looked at her closely. She was definitely not awake, he knew that much. Would she even remember any of this conversation tomorrow when she awakened? But he was here right now, and they would have to be married. The only thing that mattered now was getting her agreement so that she wouldn’t run away again. He felt a twinge, a pang of conscience, but he forced himself to say the next words. “Then marry me,” he whispered, “and it will be proper.”
There was no response. In the silence, she nuzzled closer to him.
Ye Hua attempted to move away, and she wrapped her arms more tightly around his body, wrapping him in her magic.
Ye Hua didn’t struggle, wondering what he was doing. “Promise,” he demanded resolutely, ignoring the inner voice that warmed him against these actions.
Ye Hua allowed his body to relax, and her hold loosened in direct response.
“Promise me that you’ll be my wife,” he prompted. Something was pushing at him, and he could not fight that alien urge any longer. Whether it was because of the Heavenly Lord’s command, or if it was related to his need to be a good Crown Prince, or an attempt to make both of the clans happy, but he needed to get her promise tonight as she held him in her arms.
He knew that she was Bai Qian of the fox clan, and she would keep her word.
“Promise that you’ll be my wife,” he said again, a note of entreaty entering his voice. His eyes widened, that entreaty surprising him more than anything else he had done tonight.
Chapter 4: Who He Was … Who He Is
A crumpled back, shoulders shaking as silent tears tracked down the profile of a face. That back turned towards him. Always turned away from him.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Stop! What are you doing?!”
The voice was desperate and so familiar.
Was he the one calling out? When had he ever felt such desperation? Even as a child, when he had been separated from his mother, there had been focus … determination, but never desperation.
Heart’s blood and tears mixing, until he wasn’t sure of where one ended and the other began.
Drip. Drip. Drip. Continuous, until the pain of that noise drove him to near madness. But before he could do anything, before he could reach out and touch, he awakened.
Dreams and reality seemingly melded into one, leaving him fighting the cobwebs left behind. He had awakened as he always did, swiftly and silently, but the clarity of mind that came upon awakening was missing. Ye Hua felt a touch, fingers moving across his chest, and there was a gentle tugging. A gust of air blew across his bare chest, and then a pause.
His eyes flew open, widening in surprise at seeing her face so close to his. Pressing his head back into the pillow, he gazed at the woman leaning over him, waiting for her to pull back.
It seemed that surprise had frozen her into place. Her eyes widened slowly, her mouth opening slightly, as if she was about to say something, but then nothing. No words. A flush darkened her cheeks, a frown wrinkling the spot between her brows, as she pursed her lips.
Ye Hua gazed at the Goddess inches away from him, her body so close that he could feel her warmth all along the length of his body. Qing Qiu’s Bai Qian. His wife to be. He felt her breath brush across his face, even as his heart beginning to pound in a surprisingly quick rhythm. For the first time in his life, he was feeling his heart react to a woman. His eyes compulsively traced the features of her face, wondering at the uncertainty growing inside of him.
“Good morning, wife,” he murmured quietly, seeing outraged surprise flash in her eyes before she quickly backed up, slamming against the wall. The back of her head hit the hard surface, and he heard her muttering “not again” as she scooted a bit forward and closer to him.
She rubbed irritably at the back of her head. Looking away from him, from the hand he had reached out instinctively, she gazed down. Her eyes caught sight of her undertunic, and a ferocious frown appeared on her face. She burst out in an accusatory tone, “You took off my clothes!” Pulling the blanket up to her neck, her eyes flickered around the room before coming back to settle on him.
“Yes,” he responded after a moment, noting how her fingers clutched at the blanket. “They were inconvenient.” The words made perfect sense to him.
“Inconvenient?” she gasped. “Just what did you intend to do that my clothes became inconvenient?” she demanded, thunder on her brow.
“Nothing untoward,” he protested, realizing the impression he had given. The blanket that had covered his chest till now fell to his waist, baring his upper torso to her embarrassed gaze.
Bai Qian’s eyes took in the scar across his chest, before she turned her head away. “Cover yourself.”
“I saw nothing,” Ye Hua continued, gesturing absentmindedly with one hand and bringing his robes to him. Pulling them on, after a slight grimace at their state, he left the bed and turned his back to tie the robe close. “In fact, you’ve seen more of me right now than I saw of you.”
Bai Qian, remembering she had her own powers, gestured for robes hanging in the closet across the room. She pulled them to her, donning them in quick succession. Seeing that he had turned his back to her, she made sure she was completely covered before speaking once more, “That still doesn’t explain why you took my clothes off.”
Ye Hua had turned to look at her as she began to speak. “You threw up,” he stated acerbically, a hint of sharpness entering his voice. “On yourself. And on me.”
“I never throw up,” she protested, skepticism apparent in her clear gaze. “I grew up drinking Zhe Yan’s special wines.” She folded her arms across her chest, a mulish frown marring her features. “There was a time when I drank so much as a child, I slept for 5 days straight.”
He raised a brow at her revelation.
“I said slept, not throw up!” she snapped at him, sensing the doubt in that raised brow.
“That just makes me extra lucky,” Ye Hua quipped drily. “I’m sorry. Do you want the proof?” He began to move forward.
She recoiled in horror. “What are you doing?”
She shook her head, not understanding.
“You’d have to smell the evidence,” he explained prosaically.
A frown of disgust covered her features.
“I thought so,” Ye Hua stated. “Nothing happened,” he assured her.
“You promise?” she asked doubtfully. A flush had gathered across her cheekbones, belying the calm her tone carried. She was clearly embarrassed and striving hard to hide it.
He nodded. “Just like you promised last night that you would be my wife.”
She reared back, balking at his assertion. “There is no way…”
Ye Hua advanced towards her, causing her to back up.
“What are you doing?” she barked at him.
His fingers coming to his robe, he slid parts of the material aside to show her the bruises and scratches she had left across his chest last night. “Do you need further proof of things that you wouldn’t usually do?” he asked quietly, seeing her eyes trace those marks.
The red grew darker across her cheeks. She narrowed her eyes, focusing on what seemed like teeth marks!
She was engaged to another. Her family had given their word. What had she been thinking?! “I made no promises. I couldn’t have made such promises. You have no right to call me wife,” she said shakily, disconcertment coloring her words.
“Your word, your honor means nothing?” he said, stopping the flood of words. “Last night, you promised to marry me. All but the ceremony is left between us. Last night . . .”
She winced at the words, “Will you stop saying last night, last night? We didn’t share vows, so why keep harping on it?”
“Last night, you made promises,” his voice was strong, drowning out her protests. “And that’s why I’m calling you wife this morning. I’ve found it . . .,” he said huskily, learning forward and closer to her, “Quite dangerous to drink so much that one loses all reason.”
Bai Qian gazed carefully at the features so close to her, seeing a glimmer of satisfaction in his eyes before all emotion disappeared behind an implacable black. “Who are you exactly? What promises?” She leaned closer to him, the stream of questions continuing. “What right do you have to call me a wife? What honor do you speak of when you forced someone drunk out of their mind to make promises of marriage?” The words were hard, the glint in her eyes even harder.
Ye Hua’s face tightened, and he stepped back from her, moving to stand half way across the room.
“Just who are you?” Bai Qian snapped at him, irritated by his silence. She would finally know the name of the man who had imprinted himself on her mind over the past three centuries. She would finally know who had tormented her dreams.
“I am your fiancé,” he stated.
She opened her mouth to protest, incensed that he would continue with this farce.
“The Celestial Clan’s Crown Prince Ye Hua,” he continued, a glint of satisfaction appearing in his eyes once more. It was there and gone so quickly, that she was left wondering whether she’d even seen it.
A cold wind blew in through the open windows, causing Bai Qian to shiver in the cloudy morning light. “Who?” she began uncertainly. The man from her mortal trial was Crown Prince Ye Hua? The man she had lived and died for was her fiancé? This young pup? She moved back in shock, hitting her head against the wall behind her once more.
And suddenly he was standing in front of her, standing too close, his hand coming up to cradle the back of her head, rubbing at the ache that had bloomed there.
She squeaked in anger and shock, her hands coming up to push him away with the force of her magic.
Ye Hua slammed against the opposite wall with a grunt, pausing there for a moment to catch his breath before he straightened up to stare at her.
“Presumptuous!” she yelled at him, incensed beyond belief. The anger wasn’t at his touch but at the thought of who that mysterious man had turned out to be. How could this even be true? Exactly what was the point of making telling herself to remember if she was going to fall into the trap without even taking a single step? “Get out!” Without waiting to see if he would listen, she turned and left the room, her anger too big to be contained in that small space any longer.
My body still ached from the injuries that I had suffered on the day the dragon and the Lion had fought in the town square. Yan Zhi had told me to be careful, as she’d cleaned the wound on my leg for the last time before I left her home.
“I didn’t take care of you for three whole days just for you to lose your life by being careless.” At my surprise at her finally speaking, she’d prosaically responded, “I had nothing important to say before, so I said nothing.”
Even while my injuries were slowly healing, my mind was still restless. The memories of the mysterious man plagued me, whether I was sleeping or awake. His warmth, the strength of his hold had left an imprint on my body. Despite how hard I tried to forget, he never left my mind.
Yan Zhi’s words of caution had made no impact. Who was he? Would I ever see him again? Those thoughts ate away at me until they began to take its toll. I had begun to lose sleep at night and forgot to eat during the day. All of this had already begun to affect my health.
As I walked to my hut, my mind still pondering the mystery of him, I heard the roar of a lion. I froze midstep, surprised.
Was it the Scarlet Flame Golden Lion?
I immediately shook my head. How could it be? Hadn’t the dragon defeated the lion? That’s what everyone was saying when I’d regained consciousness after the battle.
Shaking my head at my fanciful thoughts, I began to move faster. Even if the Scarlet Flame Golden Lion was dead, there was still something out there. Something that I could feel stalking me. I needed to be in my hut, behind locked doors, before I would feel completely safe.
Hearing a soft rustle behind me, I whirled around to look, but there was nothing there. Heart beating rapidly, my breath catching in my throat, I began to move faster, almost running towards the hut.
The noises became louder, heavier behind me, the ominous thuds mirroring the frantic beat of my heart. A roar from close behind, almost as if the creature was standing over my shoulder. I felt the quick rush of air, and something sailing over my head to land in front of me. I skidded to a stop, my breath catching in my throat, leaving me winded.
It was the Scarlet Flame Golden Lion.
I began to slowly retreat, my body trembling at the evil intent I saw in its eyes. Why wasn’t it dead? Why was it on Junji Mountain? Why was it standing in front of me?
A growl rumbled in its throat, its eyes trained on me as if I was a piece of meat. I could see it practically salivating as it began to stalk me.
I cried out, hopelessly praying for someone to come and save me. But who would be here? I was alone on Mount Junji, had been ever since I could remember. I could disappear forever and no one would know what had happened to me.
As I moved back, I saw the Lion smile before it readied its body to spring forward. I braced myself, expecting the next moments to be my last. It might have been futile, but I wasn’t ready to let go of this life so easily.
I turned, ready to make one last desperate attempt to escape, and slammed into something solid, the impact stealing the breath from my body. I gasped once more, coming up against something hard wrapped in black softness. I felt the force of a push, and found myself sprawling a few feet away from where I had been moments before.
Landing on all fours, I awkwardly turned around to see what had pushed me away. My mouth fell open at the scene in front of me. It was my mysterious hero, standing there, sword out and his eyes glaring at the Lion. Why . . . why was he here?
A squeak escaped my lips when he suddenly launched himself into the air, scrambling out of their way when the battle moved towards my direction.
I could hear the Lion roar. It must have been saying something that the man understood, because I saw him tilt his head, a cold anger spreading across his face. I heard his lips open, and his voice. Despite the danger I was in, and the fear coursing through my veins, I was fascinated by its soft melody.
“You think you could hide forever?” he called out, his body angling into a fighting stance, his sword pointing towards the lion.
He clearly wasn’t a mortal, I reaffirmed that realization now. He’d called lightening to his aid last time. And this time, the speed with which he moved, the height of his jumps, his ability to fight another otherworldly creature, only confirmed it.
I slowly stood up, seeing them move across the clearing, wincing as they neared my hut and relaxing when they moved away. While it was all well and good that he had come just in time, but if my hut burned down, where would I be?
The Lion suddenly roared in pain, startling me out of my morose thoughts. I saw the blood welling across its chest. He roared at the immortal, before lunging towards him. My . . . the immortal being moved out of the way, flying towards the trees and away from my hut.
I quietly cheered in relief. Maybe the fight would now move away from the clearing, and away from my home. But no. My eyes widened when the Lion swung its gaze towards me, causing a shiver to run all through my body from the undiminished malevolence there. It was going to attack, I knew it.
I began to back up, moving deeper into the forest, hoping to hide myself. It didn’t work; the Lion began to stalk me, its eyes tracking my progress. Slowly reaching down, I grabbed a stick, hoping that it would be enough to delay an attack.
The Lion began to glow, suddenly shooting fire in my direction. I gasped slightly, falling back, as I saw the fire coming towards me. I had heard that the Lion’s fire had burned the village’s buildings without ceasing, until the dragon had put everything out. Those that had suffered its affects had cried of the horrible pain it inflicted.
I knew that there was no escape. Even so, I attempted to scramble away. And suddenly I was airborne. Arms held me close to a warm body, as we flew through the air. I felt the brush of searing heat against the side of my waist, where his arm held me close, and a soft grunt escaped his lips. Whatever had hurt me, had also hurt him.
I saw the sky above, the sharpness of his jaw inches away from my lips, the ground beneath our feet as we softly landed. And then he was moving away. My vision blurred, the pain intense. I forced myself to stay awake, my eyes trained on the fighting duo some distance away from me.
Moments later, he was attacking the Lion once more. With a series of dazzling moves, the Lion was vanquished, a sword pushed through its heart.
There was only silence in that small clearing, save for the harsh breaths that left my mouth. I could feel my eyes begin to close, but I still fought it. Before I could call out to him, he surprised me by turning and suddenly appearing before me.
My eyes widened, my heart thumping even more loudly in my chest. I stepped back, afraid of what he might do. I might have spent days obsessing about this man, but the reality of him being this close was too much for my beleaguered mind to take.
He put out his hand and rested it against my waist.
It hurt! Crying out, I clutched at his arm, and his brow wrinkled for a moment, the corners of his lips tightening.
He’d been hurt too, where his arm had wrapped around my waist. I was clutching at that injury. I quickly let go. I tried to look into his eyes, hoping he would understand, but my eyes wouldn’t remain open.
He stepped back.
Without his support, I began to fall to my knees.
“You’ll have a scar,” he uttered, glancing over his shoulder as he turned away, “since it was crimson hellfire. But you’ll live.”
“But what about you?” I asked, my body now resting on the ground. I would eventually get up, when I could find the energy. I would.
There was no response. He was gone.
Bai Qian stared at the man who had followed her out of the room. She’d spent centuries wondering about this man, almost hiding away in her Fox Den out of the fear that she would meet him and not know. That he would know of her shame, and she would not.
She turned away, shaking her head at the irony of fate. The centuries that she had feared meeting him had been for naught. Their meeting had always been fated. Not only had she met him, she had spent the night with him. The biggest irony of all? She had been engaged to the man she had wholeheartedly loved during her mortal trial.
Moving towards the door, she opened it, needing the air, the scent of peach blossoms. Stepping outside, she took a deep breath for the crisp, clear air, hoping that it would clear her head. Her lips pulled down at the corners, a brief moment of grief flashing across her face before all feelings were suppressed. Her hand rubbed absently at the ache that was blossoming once more in her heart.
The depth of that mortal’s love for this man still scared her, because those were emotions she had never thought herself capable of feeling. She had drowned in those emotions and awakened as a goddess. Her mortal trial had changed her in ways that she hadn’t thought possible.
For so many years she had been alone and had thought nothing of it, but now . . . sometimes . . . her heart ached. She didn’t want to wonder what it ached for, but she knew. Despite the fact that there was this gap between her and that mortal, she remembered every bit of her 200 year existence. The mortal’s drowning passion had been exhilarating at times, all consuming at others, and at moments wondrous. A part of her still yearned to feel that kind of passion once more, ached to have the freedom to feel as she had as a child. But not for this man-child.
“Bai Qian,” he called out from behind her.
She whirled around, seeing him uncomfortably close. Stepping back, her heart beginning to beat rapidly, she swallowed, even as her mind began to work feverishly.
The Crown Prince. Ye Hua. He was an immortal, but still young. And he’d trapped her because of Zhe Yan’s wine. And she did consider it a trap. She would make sure not to partake around him, needing all of her wits.
A small smile appeared on her face, as an idea grew in her mind. She thought that she had been ready for this wedding. That she had accepted it, but no. She refused to marry the man that had brought her to her lowest. She would make him suffer. Make him retreat. “Fine,” she said through gritted teeth. “We’ll get married. I promise not to run away a second time.”
“We’ll get married,” he said agreeably.
“Today?” She asked heavily. ‘Say no. Say no. Say it!’
“No,” Ye Hua, his brow wrinkling in confusion. “The auspicious time has already been lost.”
She brightened at that explanation.
“But it will come again,” he said repressively, noting the glee on her face.
She quickly wiped it away, donning a serious expression.
“We’ll look into it.”
She turned to go, her mind already busy concocting schemes for a clear, guilt-free escape.
“Goddess Bai Qian,” he called from behind her.
She stopped, refusing to look at him.
“We’ll be married soon. That’s my promise to you.”
She turned to protest at his brazenness.
“It’s one I make as both the Crown Prince of the Celestial Clan and your fiancé.”
Chapter 5: Travels to the Eastern Sea
“Why are you following me?!” she asked in exasperation, turning to glare at the Crown Prince.
Bai Qian had believed that once their conversation was completed at the Peach Blossom Orchard Lord Ye Hua would leave. Having cleaned herself of all traces of last night, her wedding clothes conveniently stowed away, she’d grabbed a passing cloud back to Qing Qiu.
Her first hint that the Crown Prince was following her was when she’d glanced over her shoulder upon getting ready to land. He’d followed her down, so that any thoughts about him continuing on were quashed. “We’re almost back at my fox den, a small distance away from Qing Qiu’s market. I can get home safely. I’ve been doing it for thousands of years.” The sarcasm was heavy in her voice.
He raised an eyebrow at the acidity, but said nothing.
“How am I supposed to explain running off this morning, and then I come back with my groom in tow?” she asked in frustration, folding her arms across her chest.
“Explain to who?” he asked.
“My people! Qing Qiu’s people! They love to gossip, since they have nothing better to talk about than crops and prices. I’ve given them enough fodder for this week. I don’t want them to give any more reason to gossip,” she related petulantly. She waited expectantly, but he made no move to leave. “You need to go!” she instructed, frustrated at his continued obstinacy.
“We need to spend time together, to get to know each other, Goddess Bai Qian,” he explained his reason for staying.
“I’m not going to run away again, Lord Ye Hua!” she promised. “We can learn about each other after the wedding.” ‘After all,’ Bai Qian thought to herself, ‘why waste the time when there might not be a wedding at all?’
He tilted his head to the side. “Did you really think that was how things would work? I’d just go back to my life? You’d go back to yours? Only to meet again on our wedding day?”
“I’d hoped,” she muttered under her breath. Bai Qian reached for some much needed patience, forcing a smile on her face, “You’re not very trusting, are you?”
He gazed at her quietly, his eyes focusing on her face, as if trying to peek into her mind’s workings. “My trust has to be earned.” He paused for a moment and then continued on. “We haven’t known each other long enough for there to be trust.”
Bai Qian pursed her lips, unsure of what to say next. “Well,” she began, “We can’t spend time together right now. I will have to attend an event for the Fox Clan.”
“I’ll go with you,” he volunteered.
“You can’t!” she burst out, incensed.
“Because we aren’t close enough to go to events together!” She stared at him, wondering at having to explain such simple matters.
“You’re my fiancé,” he pointed out drily. “One would hope that if we’re ready to marry, we’re able to attend festivities together. So, Goddess, where are we going?”
Bai Qian opened her mouth and then closed it, unsure of how to respond. Shaking her head, and letting the argument drop for the moment, she muttered, “I’m going to the Eastern Sea for the King’s child’s. They helped my mother a long time ago, and it’s time to return the favor that Qing Qiu owes.”
He wrinkled his brow, but then forced himself back to calm, his features showing nothing now.
“What?” she asked.
He said nothing.
“What?!” she burst out, getting more agitated. She was Gugu of all the realms. The lower immortals saw her as this calm, graceful being, never realizing that the calm came from an indifferent laziness that pervaded everything she did. But around him, all of that disinterest . . . that calmness was deserting her.
“You were planning on going to the event when we were to be married yesterday?” he asked, his eyes boring into her. “Tell me Goddess, would I have been allowed to go along with you?”
She shook her head. “I’m going because we didn’t get married yesterday. Otherwise, no one would have been available. Qing Qiu would have looked for another chance.”
Ye Hua nodded, looking around, his eyes taking in the market some distance down the road, the dirt road leading to the market, and then back to her. “The Eastern Sea is in that direction,” he said, pointing to the East.
“I know,” Bai Qian blustered, “But I had to come back to get a stick. Migu, who has been with our family for a long time, is quite helpful in that regard. If I have a stick from his tree, I won’t get lost.” She turned to look down the road, and her eyes brightened on seeing one of the townspeople coming her way. This meant she wouldn’t have to enter the town, wouldn’t have to face everyone’s questioning glances. One was enough.
“Gugu! Greetings,” the woman called out, running over to stand in front of Bai Qian and bowing to her. Her eyes were bright with curiosity as they gazed at the man standing at her back before flickering back to look at Bai Qian questioningly. Speculation was rife in her eyes.
Bai Qian nodded her head, and then said, “Please get Migu for me.” Her words were abrupt, as barreled forward without wasting time with niceties. Even though no one had seen the Crown Prince in these parts, people would begin to suspect if she tarried too long.
“Migu left this morning for his trip,” the woman cried out, surprise clear on her face. “Remember? He’s had it planned for years, ever since the Fox Clan began planning your nuptials. He couldn’t cancel it last minute just because…” her voice trailed off, looking embarrassed at what had almost slipped out.
Bai Qian cleared her throat, resolutely keeping her gaze away from Ye Hua standing behind her. “That’s right. I forgot he had a trip planned. Well, be on your way,” she murmured, standing aside to the let her pass.
The woman left, but not without one final glance over her shoulder to the man standing at Bai Qian’s side.
Bai Qian turned to gaze off into the distance.
“What are you doing?” he asked after a few moments of silence.
“I’m calculating the course I must take to get to the Eastern Sea,” she murmured. She knew that one small misstep at the beginning of the journey would get her completely lost at the end, and she didn’t want to miss the festivities altogether. She froze when she felt his hands take her by the shoulders, only relaxing when she realized that he was changing the direction she was facing.
“This way.” He stood there, his hands remained clasping her shoulders, her back to him. The warmth of her skin, the fragility of her bones deceptively hiding the strength of her body, was intriguing. He found himself strangely reluctant to let go.
“Let’s go,” she finally muttered.
His hands dropped away hurriedly, only realizing after the fact that she hadn’t been asking him to let go. Stepping back, meeting her gaze when she turned around, he smiled and nodded his head. “Let’s go.”
It was only after catching a passing cloud, as the two were making their way to the Eastern Sea, he thought to wonder. Why hadn’t she immediately ordered him to let her go?
The air was heavy in the crowded room, the murmur of the crowd rivaling the sound of waves coming from outside the palace hall. She could feel their gazes resting heavily on her, as they murmured behind raised hands, and it irritated. Bai Qian did not enjoy being the center of attention, though nothing of her manner hinted of her displeasure.
The two had made good time; Bai Qian had felt no shame in letting Lord Ye Hua take the lead as they traveled to the Eastern Sea. They had landed well before the event, allowing Bai Qian time to rest. Her body was still recovering from the night before, and she’d reveled in the peaceful moments before joining the festivities. Even if she had had to share that rest with the silent man beside her.
She turned to gaze at him, unsurprised to see the blankness on his face. In the short amount of time that she’d spent with him, she’d realized one thing rather quickly. He let nothing bother him, not even the gazes of the crowd or their whispers.
The gossip of their wedding, or their non-wedding, had spread. She could see the malicious curiosity in the eyes of the crowd as it milled around the spacious hall. They wanted to know, and she knew pretty soon someone would gain the courage to approach them. Murmuring the excuse of needing a drink, she wandered off, hoping that the attention would stay on him rather than her.
Grabbing a cooling drink, she went to sit behind some conveniently placed plants. It was there, that she was finally allowed a moment of peace away from the prying eyes. And it was there that she really began to hear all of the whispers. The annoying murmurs had taken shape in the form of words that stung.
“Is that really Crown Prince Ye Hua?” an awed female asked.
“The Eastern King’s servants said that he came with servant and not his fiancé,” a second voice gleefully related.
Bai Qian wrinkled her brow in confusion. Servant? What servant? Wait! She raised her head to glare in the direction of the two immortals gossiping near her hiding place. Were they talking about her?! Servant?!
“Is it any wonder he came alone?” the second woman continued. “His fiancé ran off, leaving him jilted at the altar. He must have been so embarrassed!”
“You wouldn’t know it from looking at him,” a third voice joined the two immortals away from the crowd, a deep, male voice.
“What do you mean?” the second woman ask, rabid curiosity apparent in her voice.
“Haven’t you noticed? He never shows any emotions on that handsome face of his. You would think that he would have gone into hiding after facing such shame today, but he’s here instead.”
‘That male sounds entirely too interested in Lord Ye Hua’s looks,’ Bai Qian thought to herself, a brow raised at this unexpected situation.
“Well, I’m sure that he’s relieved that he doesn’t have to marry today. Anything to put off the marriage a little longer.” It that second immortal again, the catty one.
“If I were marrying someone 90,000 years older than me, I’d be glad the old woman of Qing Qiu ran off, too,” she said with a malicious laugh. “She’s practically robbing the cradle.”
‘Old woman?’ Bai Qian’s eyes widened, anger close to erupting. She paused before reacting, taking a deep breath to quell the irritation that had sprung up at their words. Wasn’t it good that no one knew who she was? It seemed that the Eastern Sea King had kept his promise of keeping quiet about her identity. The fewer people who knew she was the Goddess Bai Qian, the better. At least, it would keep the spotlight off of her.
“Goddess Bai Qian,” a voice called out from behind her. His tone was quiet, but loud enough for the immortals to hear from the other side of the plants.
Bai Qian stiffened, turning to glare at the man standing behind her.
There was a startled hush, and then the sound of footsteps hurrying away. The immortals were quick to leave, surely to spread the gossip that not only was the Crown Prince here, but his erstwhile fiancé had also accompanied. “You did that on purpose! Now everyone will know.”
“Know what?” he asked with interest, coming to sit beside her.
It was a small bench, and the two barely fit on it with comfort. His sleeve brushed against hers, and she jerked back, almost landing on the floor in her haste to put some distance between them. Her cheeks flushed when his hand came out to wrap around her wrist, pulling her away from danger and towards him. The blush only grew worse when she landed against him, her cheek coming to brush against his shoulder before she moved back once more.
Brushing at the hair that had fallen across her face, she glared at him, a frown unconsciously growing on her lips. “Did you have to be so loud with your greeting? Now everyone knows that I’m here. It was bad enough they were staring at us when it was just you attracting their attention.”
“What else could I have called you?” he asked, gazing at her, surprised at being scolded. This wouldn’t do. He began to think, an unexpected spark of mischief growing inside of him. “I could call you Qian Qian,” he threw at her, awaiting her reaction.
Her mouth dropped open in surprise.
“I think it’s a little too soon to call you that,” he said after a beat of silence, satisfaction growing at getting a rise out of her.
“How about never?” she sputtered, glaring at him until the smile had completely disappeared. “You could have called me anything. Just something anonymous!”
“You mean,” he paused, “Something like Qian Bai?”
She snorted, turning the sound into a cough when he gazed at her blandly. “You’re not very good at this, are you? Fourth brother and I would play these games when we were young, going undercover and causing mischief in the realms. No one would know who we were.” The joy of the memories was rich in her tone, as her mind reveled in the times they had spent traveling together before she’d gone to Kunlun Mountain.
“That’s just it,” he murmured quietly, his eyes focused on the dreamy look in her eyes.
“What?” she asked absentmindedly.
“I never had any siblings to play with, so never had the practice. All of this will be new to me,” he replied softly.
Harumphing softly, she got up and moved out from behind the plants. The entire assembly’s gazes turned to them, the scrutiny even more oppressive this time around. Hands went up and people began to whisper behind them as the Crown Prince followed her out from their nook. The appearance of a cozy tête-à-tête caused an even greater uproar.
Minutes turned into hours, the planned performances, drinking and toasting seemingly melding one into another until Bai Qian was bored out of her mind. He sat next to her quietly, his gaze intent on her every movement. She was bored. He could see it, but nothing in her mannerisms alerted the guests around them to her boredom.
He was used to people speaking of him, of women falling for his looks, of being the center of attention, so none of it bothered him. Bai Qian had spent millennia hiding in her fox den. The realms had forgotten what she looked like, and now that anonymity had been stolen away because of him. She was bothered by the gossip circulating around them, she didn’t like it, and maybe even him, one bit.
He was fascinated by her mood swings over the course of their one night and one day together. He’d seen a range of expressions on her beautiful face, and each and every one of those reactions had fascinated him. She was a Goddess, yes, but still a woman
When the Heavenly Lord had told ordered him to win the Fox Queen’s heart, Ye Hua had been tense with a first-time worry that he might fail. The worry had eaten away at his confidence. Now, he could see hope both for himself and for this marriage; what had begun as a duty was turning into something more.
Bai Qian suddenly straightened with an impatient huff. Murmuring an excuse to him, she got up and stealthily left the room; most eyes still followed her exit from the room.
Those same eyes swung back to him, and he could read the question in their glances. Was he being abandoned again?
Bai Qian was racing back home. She’d come to the Eastern Sea King’s party; she’d paid back the favor owed by her family. In fact, the Eastern Sea King’s festivities had become the talk of all the immortals once they realized that Gugu was attending. Despite the stares and the whispers, she had smiled and mingled. She had even pretended not to care, even if the attention had chafed.
When it had become too much, when even the wine wasn’t enough, Bai Qian had escaped. To add insult to injury, she’d encountered not one but two people from her past that she would rather not have seen on her way home.
“Gugu! Do you still blame me? I do not want anything . . . I have only sought your forgiveness. Why won’t you give me a chance? If you had married Sang Ji, you would not have been happy. Lord Ye Hua is a very good man. He is the future Heavenly Lord . . . if I lost Sang Ji, I would have nothing.”
Shao Xin, the snake spirit she had rescued. The one who had so unthinkingly betrayed her by running off with the second prince, her fiancé at the time. Bai Qian hadn’t minded when it happened.
“It seems you really don’t understand. Shao Xin, put yourself in my shoes. I truly am not a highly principled high god. You flatter me . . . You still don’t understand? Even though you did not intend it, you caused me to be ridiculed by the entire world.”
Initially, she had been happy that the marriage agreement had been broken between the clans. But then word had spread, and Bai Qian had been pitied. She had been ridiculed. There had been whispers. She hated nothing more than that.
She’d left that uncomfortable tableau, assuring Shao Xin of one wish to stand as a gift before their relationship would be terminated forever, only to encounter Li Jing having a romantic rendezvous in a dark cave when she blundered her way in the wrong direction.
“A-Yin! Where have you been all these years? Are you going to keep hiding from me? I was thinking of you all these years. I was wrong. It was all my fault, A-Yin. I know you blame me. I betrayed you back then.”
She could not understand why Li Jing had begged for another chance. They had been separated for millennia, and her emotions for him had long since disappeared.
She’d brushed off his entreaties, blithely reassuring him that there was nothing between them any longer; hadn’t been for a long, long time.
“There is no love, so naturally there is no blame. Generally speaking, I was sad for a time. Now I can’t even remember it. I no longer hold any resentment to for you. There is nothing worth mentioning.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“A-Yin, I regret it.”
“Li Jing, do not keep thinking of the past. Farewell.”
Her words had been short and abrupt before she’d raced out of the cave, hoping Li Jing’s love would distract him from giving chase. She hoped that this was the last she would see of him.
Stopping to catch her breath, she sat down beneath the shade of a tree, pulling out a fan to move the wind towards her face. The night was cool and she was almost home. She was sure of it this time.
In that moment of peace, as the breeze moved through the night, cooling her down and helping her to relax, Bai Qian’s mind flashed back to the man in her life. The one that was taking up too much space now. To Lord Ye Hua.
She had left him behind today. What had he thought when she hadn’t come back? She felt a twinge of remorse, but brushed it off, knowing that she really owed him nothing. He had followed her to the Eastern Sea, she hadn’t asked it of him.
The thoughts of Ye Hua brought back the memories of her mortal trial. When she saw Li Jing today, Bai Qian had only felt irritation. What she had believed to be love and passion, what she had believed to be certainty in her own future had been but pale imitations of the cauldron of emotion she’d drowned in while suffering through her mortal trial. There had been so much certainty that her emotions were true. Those emotions still had the ability to take her under if she let them.
Tilting her head back to look up at the night sky, she wondered if she would ever tell him about her mortal trial and the part that he had played in it.
I sat up, looking frantically around me, my heart beating rapidly. I was back in my hut? How was that possible? My brow wrinkled in confusion. The last memory I had was of the pain. And of him, his back, as he walked away. Darkness had fallen before my eyes, and there had been nothing more.
But I was here now. In my bed. And, I felt at my waist gingerly, with bandages on. Pulling up my shirt I saw them around my waist.
He had been the only one who was there.
He’d brought me inside? He’d placed bandages around my waist? I blushed.
But he was gone now. And I was alone all again.
Would she ever tell him?
No. She decisively shook her head. She could never disclose the humiliation she had suffered at his uninterested hands. She knew herself, knew that her pride would never recover.
Her weak, mortal heart had felt much more deeply than her immortal self ever had. She’d grown up in a big family, the cosseted, youngest child of loving parents and brothers. She’d never had doubt of her place in the world. Never felt loneliness. That mortal had been lonely on a bone-deep level. She hadn’t known anything about herself, hadn’t known her own name. He’d been something to hold on to, someone to love. Even if that love was based on nothing more concrete than that he’d saved her.
She had been a blank canvas, and imprinted on him. When he’d left that last time, she’d lost hope. She’d slowly faded away, losing awareness of the world around her, until she’d gone too far. And she’d died.
And since that mortal died, and her death had served its purpose, it was time for her to disappear forever. Once she removed Lord Ye Hua from her life, she would no longer have to remember her or the love she’d felt for him once upon a time.