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. A
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?