Chapter 6: Unexpected Visitor
Ye Hua landed on the green near the Fox Den, his eyes scanning the surroundings. He was looking for his missing fiancée, the woman who had left him once more without warning. As soon as he’d suspected Bai Qian of abandoning him once more to the pitying glances of the other immortals, he’d wanted to give chase but duty forbade a quick exit.
Ye Hua had had to stay for the festivities, partaking of the Easter Sea King’s hospitality overnight before making his excuses this morning. By then, Bai Qian was long gone, most likely having made her way back to Qing Qiu. So, he was here, his eyes searching in the crisp morning light as he made his way to the cave. The steadiness of his steps revealed nothing of the turmoil bubbling inside of him.
“Halt! Who goes there?” a voice called out from behind him.
Ye Hua stopped a small distance from the cave, turning to view a being in brown and green racing his way.
“This is Bai Qian, Qing Qiu’s Queen, fox den, our most venerated Gugu,” the man intoned gravely from a distance, his chest puffed out, even as his head was respectfully bowed. “No one can come near her cave without her permission.” The being looked up and did a double take on seeing who was standing there. “Oh, Crown Prince Ye Hua, how can I be of help?” the tone changed immediately, a hint of welcome now present.
Ye Hua gazed quietly at the man, and then stated, “I am here to see your Gugu. Go to her and ask her if she is willing to receive me.”
He bowed deeply once more. “Gugu didn’t tell me she was expecting you,” he said hesitantly.
“And you are?”
“Migu,” he responded, “The tree spirit that has served the Fox Clan since the beginning of my existence.”
“But I heard that Migu was supposed to be on vacation,” Ye Hua pointed out. “At least that was what we were told yesterday. If you’re the same Migu, you came back?”
“I couldn’t just leave,” Migu replied defensively. “Gugu abandoned her groom on their wedding day, but I couldn’t just abandon her.” He stiffened, a look of consternation appearing on his face when he realized he’d said those words in front of the abandoned groom in question.
Ye Hua’s face showed no emotions.
Relaxing slightly when he realized that the Crown Prince was not angry, Migu offered in an apologetic tone, “I didn’t want her to be alone, so I came back.”.
“Your Gugu forgot to tell you that I would be arriving.” Ye Hua continued after a small pause, “She probably didn’t think that I would arrive. Would you announce me?”
“Gugu is no longer here,” Migu answered, silently wondering why Ye Hua wouldn’t already know this.
“It seems that your Gugu isn’t ready to see me, Migu,” Ye Hua stated calmly. “You know that we must see each other.” He waited for Migu’s nod of understanding before continuing. “The more we get to know each other now, the easier it’ll be for her later on. So, tell me where she is.” Ye Hua wasn’t prone to confiding in complete strangers, especially since he had a hard enough time disclosing anything to those close to him, but he knew that if he backed off now, their wedding might never happen. For some reason, that thought caused an unexpected pang.
“You’re not angry at Gugu for leaving you behind?” Migu asked cautiously, his eyes intent on Ye Hua’s face.
“I wasn’t angry before, I’m not angry now,” Ye Hua replied wryly. “There is a precedent. The Heavenly Emperor was sent to stay with his future wife’s family when he was young. It gave them time to know each other before their marriage. It’s the same now, for the same purpose,” Ye Hua softly explained the rationale for his insistence. And if that logic was only a façade to hide the very real need that was driving him, then no one need know that but him.
It was more the expression on Ye Hua’s face than his words that convinced Migu to relax. There was no anger there. In fact, there was nothing at all. Impressed by the patience the Crown Prince was displaying, Migu came to a quick decision. He only hoped that Gugu wouldn’t be too angry.
“Gugu didn’t tell me to keep where she was going a secret,” Migu reasoned, silently wondering if Gugu had really thought about it at all; she tended to not think things through sometimes. He revered the High Goddess, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t aware of her shortcomings. “I think she’s at Mt Junji. If she’s not there yet, she will be soon.”
“What is she doing there?”
‘Gugu likes going to Mt Junji. She said she might go to some other places, but this is about the time she usually visits there, which is about every decade or so. I didn’t think she’d go this year, but . . . Gugu stays for a few months’ worth of mortal time.’
‘Why would she go there?’
. . . ‘Gugu has never said. Maybe she came across it when she was traveling with Fourth Brother? All I know is that she really likes the place.’
Ye Hua had no reason to doubt Migu’s words, but for some reason the tree spirit had seemed uncomfortable when giving his explanation. Had he been trying to hide something? Even if he was, it was Bai Qian’s secret to tell.
He looked across the landscape, searching intently, finally landing on the peak of Mt Junji, where, according to Migu, the Goddess would come. Striding towards the hut in the middle of the clearing, Ye Hua viewed the building. It was old, but the wooden structure was still standing strong and sturdy despite the evident wear and tear of years.
The mid-afternoon sun was shining down, the rays warming the air. A slight breeze gently ruffled the leaves of the trees standing around the clearing, their soft murmur the only noise in the silence. But it was only his presence that had silenced the wildlife. As Ye Hua stood unmoving, allowing himself the minutest of breaths, the trill of birds, and the call of small animals began to ring in the air. The forest was teeming with life, and he a mere intruder.
Moving closer to the hut, he raised a hand, his eyes closing as his magic reached out to assess. There was a spell protecting the structure; the magic was strong, but with the wave of his hand, he shut the spell down.
Going up the steps, he entered the building, his eyes moving over the shabby furniture to the broken crockery in the kitchen area. There was nothing much here, less than the bare necessities, the only truly protected area was around the bed itself, curtains providing the only true protection from the elements. But no, there was no dust. No debris. No evidence of animals having made this hut their home. The spell had protected the hut.
Bai Qian would come to stay here for months’ at a time? He tilted his head in consideration, realizing that this building might be a luxury to a woman who lived in a cave.
The hut was empty of her presence. Looking around, he realized that he couldn’t wait for her to come, where one day in the heavens could equal a year in this mortal realm. He decided that it would be a good time to leave and make his report to the Heavenly Emperor. Perhaps, in that time, she would have arrived.
Stepping out, Ye Hua threw a disinterested look around the clearing before heading towards a passing cloud. His brow wrinkling in confusion, he stopped and looked around more carefully. The clearing, the trees, and turning back to look at the hut, the building itself seemed so familiar. Why did it . . . ?
His brow cleared. He remembered a battle, about 300 years ago.
The Scarlet Flame Lion.
A quick fight and an even quicker end.
The pain of crimson flame licking at his skin, leaving a scar that only he knew of.
He’d killed the Scarlet Flame Lion here three centuries ago. He’d never had a reason to come back to Mt. Junji after that last battle, had never had a chance to investigate why a hut even existed in this remote location.
Beginning to move forward, on his way home, he paused mid-step as another memory niggled at him.
There had been a mortal here, a woman who had been hurt, as well. He remembered walking away from her, but his conscience had stopped him. Turning back, he’d seen her lying on the floor, having fainted from the pain. Forgetting his wounds for the moment, knowing that the pain from crimson fire could be many times worse for a mortal, he’d carefully taken care of her injuries, numbing her pain until it could be more bearable. When he was done, he’d quickly left.
The war with the Mermaid Clan had happened soon after. Su Jin’s idiocy during battle had caused him to be injured once more, and in the recovery after, he’d soon forgotten about Mt. Junji and its lone inhabitant. He had never had the chance to go back to check on her.
Raising his hand, he placed a near identical spell over the building, protecting it once more from the elements. He wanted everything to remain seemingly untouched, so that she would have no reason to believe that he had been here.
With one final glance around the empty clearing, Ye Hua caught a passing cloud and turned towards home.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“Ye Hua, what do you plan to do next?” The Heavenly Emperor’s voice was loud in the silence that had fallen between the two, startling the Crown Prince out of his reverie.
“I will return to the mortal realm throughout the day in hopes of encountering Qing Qiu’s Queen,” Ye Hua replied, striving for the calm that had come so easily before. He wondered if this disruption was a result of meeting her, of being affected by her. “I intend to make sure that there are no impediments in my pursuit of the Fox Goddess,” he spoke carefully, as if trying to remind himself of the purpose of his actions.
The two were sitting in the Heavenly Emperor’s palace, Ye Hua having arrived to apprise his grandfather of the situation thus far. He’d been granted immediate entry by the Heavenly Emperor upon reaching the palace doors. His grandfather had been anxious to find out what had happened after his hopes of a quick wedding were dashed.
The room was lit with candles, though the light was unnecessary even in the early evening hours. In the candlelight, Ye Hua had revealed his plan to spend more time with the Fox Goddess. He’d warned his grandfather that this mission would take him away from his other duties, and that his grandfather must be prepared to take back some of the responsibility he’d bestowed on Ye Hua.
The Heavenly Emperor nodded in approval, a gleam of pride in his eyes for the actions that Ye Hua had taken thus far. He knew he had been right in appointing Ye Hua his heir, because he was a man who would do what needed to be done to protect the Celestial Clan.
There was a hue and cry from outside the doors. The sounds of loud shouting and piercing cries could be heard within the room, breaking the silence that had fallen between the two once more.
“What is going on out there?” his grandfather cried out angrily, irritation showing in his eyes.
“Heavenly Emperor, Concubine Su Jin has been attacked in her own palace. She has sworn to prove her purity. Her maid is outside these doors begging for your intervention.”
The Heavenly Emperor stood up, his eyes flashing his fury. “Who would dare such a thing?”
“It was the Second Prince’s son, Yuan Zhen,” the maid replied in a quavering tone, her voice sinking as she mentioned the Second Prince. All the Heavens knew the Emperor was still angry with his son, still begrudged him the happiness he had found with his little snake.
The Heavenly Emperor strode out the doors, his steps quick as he raced towards his latest Concubine’s Palace. Su Jin’s maid raced ahead in an awkward gait, where she dared not turn her back on the Emperor but had to look behind to make sure she stumbled over nothing.
Ye Hua followed behind, if only to see whether he could alleviate the problems Su Jin had caused today. He followed until he could follow no more, stopping outside Su Jin’s doors and waiting for the Heavenly Emperor to call for him. He only hoped that his grandfather wouldn’t punish the young immortal too harshly before anyone had the chance to intervene.
“Ye Hua,” Third Uncle’s voice called from behind him.
Ye Hua turned to greet his uncle, seeing the man’s avid expression and the simultaneous worry in his eyes. “San Shu, what’s wrong? What happened?”
Lian Song gestured for Ye Hua to move away from the doors, moving towards a more secluded area. They were still within sight of the small palace, but no one near the doors would hear their conversation.
“Your Second Uncle came to visit this morning,” his third uncle said in a hushed tone.
Ye Hua raised an eyebrow, wondering what Second Uncle had been thinking. This was certainly not a good time for him to remind the Heavenly Emperor of what he had done. Grandfather was still angry at Second Uncle for betraying the family, and angrier still today at having the Celestial Clan embarrassed by the Fox Queen’s abandonment. His anger had grown exponentially as he realized that he could say nothing since his own son had done the same thing.
“He brought his son. Maybe he was hoping his son could smooth things over?” Third Uncle said contemplatively, “But the young boy was caught in Su Jin’s chambers. He reeks of alcohol, is still unconscious, and she is crying to the heavens that he has violated her and she must absolve herself of the sin by sacrificing her life. Second brother is in there right now begging for clemency.”
“We should go in, San Shu,” Ye Hua stated abruptly moving towards the building. His steps were hurried, but still too late to prevent the harm. The Heavenly Emperor had already sentenced the young boy to two lifetimes of horrible fate.
Yuan Zhen knelt before his grandfather, taking his father’s kicks and scolding, clearly scared out of his mind. He fell to the floor upon the sentencing, but the Heavenly Emperor had been unmoved to see his pitiful state. He finally had a reason and way to punish his second son once more for his transgressions.
Ye Hua saw the hidden glee in Su Jin’s face when he stepped into the room. Su Jin, his grandfather’s concubine. His aunt. And also the woman who had conspired to get closer to him for thousands of millennia. That was the shameful truth known only to him.
He didn’t know why she had done what she did today, but he had no doubt it had been a gambit to obtain something that she wanted. It didn’t matter a young child had been hurt in the process. Her twisted mind only sought to create trouble for others, and, even knowing that, his hands were tied.
He wasn’t the Heavenly Emperor, and, besides trying to influence some of his grandfather’s more outlandish edicts, there was nothing much he could do in his current status as the Crown Prince. At least not for anything pertaining to the members of the Celestial Clan outside of his own household. His face showed nothing of what was racing through his mind, his thoughts hidden behind an expressionless face.
“I’ll be leaving now,” he briefly told his grandfather, noting the irritation on Su Jin’s face before she schooled her features back into blankness. Maybe he had foiled the success of her plans? Mentally shrugging at that thought, he turned away, forgetting her as soon as he’d left the room.
Ye Hua strode towards the gates and back to the mortal realm, catching a passing cloud. It was time he went to find his errant fiancée.
“Feng Jiu has gone missing. Do you have any information on her whereabouts?”
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“If she’s back to doing something stupid . . .”
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“Just what were you thinking leaving the wedding like that? If you weren’t ready to be married, you should’ve let someone know.”
. . . . . . . . . . . .
“Why are you here, anyways? Don’t you have someplace else to be right now?
. . . . . . . . . . . .
And she’d left in a huff.
Bai Qian had reached second brother’s house at dawn, quietly going to sleep rather than dealing with even the servants that had already awakened at such an early hour. She needed the peace that sleep could bring her before she faced any more people.
Upon awakening, she’d found the day half gone; it was mid-afternoon and the sun had made more than half its way across the sky. Venturing out of her room, she’d seen Second Brother sitting at the table, sipping tea. Bai Qian sat across from him, and called for some food. As she ate, the two entered into a conversation that had grown increasingly uncomfortable over time.
There being only so much that she could take, Bai Qian had risen and bade her brother a quick goodbye. By the time she’d left Second Brother’s property, the sun had begun to sink, the sky turning a deep pink as it darkened towards twilight.
Grabbing a passing cloud, Bai Qian began to travel away from Second Brother’s kingdom. It was time that she go to Mt Junji. She’d promised herself to put the memories of that mortal back to sleep, but the place itself was still tugging at her. She hoped the time there would help to clear some of her confusion.
Sometime later, Bai Qian alighted from the cloud, her eyes doing one full sweep of the surroundings before she headed across the clearing. Night had fallen on the way, and she’d had a very long day. Her head was still aching from the overindulgence of two nights before, and the late night travel and the lack of rest hadn’t improved her condition.
The quiet chirps of crickets in the forest, and the soft murmur of creatures falling into slumber had become irritants in her current state. Annoyance at her Second Brother, confusion about the Crown Prince, indecision about her upcoming wedding made even thinking a chore. She only wanted to rest and forget it all.
Her eyes flickered to the hut, noting the spell still in place. Despite the gaps in the wooden slats, the elements had been kept at bay. Further deterioration had been prevented over the past decade.
Rubbing at her aching temples, she moved towards the steps and sat down for a moment. Tilting her head back, she looked at the stars in the sky, wondering why they felt closer down here then when she was in Qing Qiu. Her eyes flickered around the clearing once more, hearing the joyful laughter of a younger her, of Si Yin.
She remembered coming to this mountain as a disciple, spending time here with everyone, but most especially with Sixteenth. They had come here to get away from the demands of being Kunlun disciples, to laze around and sleep in the sun. It had been a small place to rest in before going down to play with the mortals. Their hard-won peace had been stolen when the other disciples had found their hiding place. Then, it had become a place of meditation, a place for cultivation. Being here reminded her of her Kunlun days, the grief welling up inside of her at those memories. Of happier times before war and reality had snuffed out the fire that Si Yin had carried around inside of her as she flitted from one adventure to another.
And then, after that fight with Qing Cang, she had come back here as that unnamed mortal. She had spent centuries here, leading an unremarkable life. Qing Cang had sealed her immortality, had sealed everything that made her Bai Qian, Qing Qiu’s Fox Queen. Her mind had always felt half asleep, as she had struggled to even complete the most simple of tasks.
And then, to find him, to love him. That had been the first memorable color in her drab life. It had been the first emotion that had touched her heart. And being here, she touched the wooden slats near here, her hands moving with the grain of the wood, brought back those memories of heady passion.
She had awakened as Bai Qian once more, but she’d lost the recklessness of youth, the headiness of innocent love. And being back on Mt Junji brought her closer to the woman she had been in each incarnation. Those memories brought grief, but she also missed the person she had been. And maybe that was why she was here today. Why she returned to Mt Junji every so often. Her weary soul strived to remember those moments, to remember that version of her. To be more alive than one could expect from an immortal goddess of 140,000 years.
Getting up, she walked into the structure, her eyes taking in the untouched condition of the furniture and items placed throughout the room.
After the past week of tension, of worry and stress that had prevented any other thoughts, she finally allowed herself to relax. In this place, she could be truly herself. Not Qing Qiu’s queen. Not the High Goddess. Not the realms’ venerated Gugu. She was only Bai Qian here.
Moving towards the bed, she slipped out of her outer robes, placing them in the closet with a gesture of her hand. Tumbling into the bed, she allowed her eyes to close. As darkness pulled at the edges of her eyes, her lashes coming to land against her cheeks, she wondered briefly at how warm the bed felt.
She thought nothing of it, at least not until she awakened the next morning to find herself in the arms of a sleeping Crown Prince.
Chapter 7: Playing the Pity Game
The warmth of the sun felt good on her back, making her feel lazier than usual in the early morning hours. She just wanted to lie here, basking in the warmth, even as time slowly ticked away. Honestly, she didn’t want to get up, didn’t want to start thinking about the issues that would have to be dealt with.
Time moved differently for immortals. She never felt it more than when she was here in the mortal realm. Where thousands of millennia were the norm for an average immortal life, centuries could go by in the blink of an eye. And a marriage that might be only a year or two away was terrifyingly close.
Bai Qian couldn’t explain to herself why it was so important that she break this marriage contract. Was it the fear of being connected to someone after spending most of her life alone? Was it the fear that the emotions she had felt during her mortal trial would bleed through into her relationship with him? Was it her fear that she would love, but he . . . would not? She couldn’t close herself off from him, and that was the biggest worry of all.
Closing her eyes, she forced her mind to shut down. She wouldn’t let him intrude on her time here in Mt. Junji. He’d already intruded enough! After moments of silent peace, she sighed in pleasure, relaxing her body. These times were the best, snuggled under a blanket, and cuddling with a warm body.
A warm body? Her eyes flew open in confusion. Whose warm body? Staring at the bare chest in front of her, she blinked. And then blinked again, but it did nothing to make the body disappear. Her fingers absentmindedly caressed it for a few moments, as her brain struggled to compute its presence in her bed. It was a male chest, the skin smooth and golden brown, laying inches away from the tip of her nose. The chest rose and fell in a hypnotizing rhythm, lulling her into a moment of security before she forcibly jerked herself out of it. The body had a familiar scent of sandalwood, and, she closed her eyes, ink.
Shooting up in bed, she glared down at Crown Prince Ye Hua, who was only now awakening at the violent movement of the bed. She saw something flash in his eyes, maybe confusion, before his face became a mask.
Where were the emotions, the shock or the contrition she expected to see? Why was he so calm right now, despite the fact that they were back in bed together. Again!
“You have to stop sleeping in my bed!” she shrieked at him, immediately crawling over his body to escape. The canopy shading the bed in darkness, the heavy blankets cocooning them in warmth, and his almost naked body next to hers on the bed, all created an intimacy that was too much to bear. It didn’t help that in her bid to make a quick escape, she had to brush against that naked, golden skin.
With a surprised, yet inelegant, grunt, Bai Qian landed on him, her face mashing into that naked chest. His delectable scent wrapped around her senses, drugging for a moment. It had to have been so, otherwise how could she explain laying there for longer than was necessary. Gasping slightly, her lips brushing against his hard muscles, she quickly sat up.
Her eyes widened when she realized that this position was no better. She was kneeling over his body, her legs placed astride his body, her hands pressed against his naked chest. With a panicked flare of magic, Bai Qian jumped from the bed and appeared across the room.
Huffing loudly, Bai Qian gestured for her robes and turned away from him to don them one by one. Her face was bright red, and she was breathing rapidly by the time she finished putting on her robes. She turned back to glare at him, and cried out, “Just what were you thinking when you slept next to me?!!” Her voice was sharp, nearly reaching screech level. Her face was bright red, her lips still tingling from the feel of his flesh.
Lord Ye Hua remained silent, carefully sitting up in bed and gesturing for his own robes. He began to put them on, one by one, his focus entirely on the task at hand.
Bai Qian averted her gaze to give him some privacy, but furiously tapped her foot on the floor as she waited for a response. The silence grew longer, the tension inside increasing by the second as she waited for him to react in some way.
“Goddess Bai Qian,” he murmured from behind her. He had left the bed and was now standing close behind her.
“Finally,” she muttered, whirling around to look at him questioningly.
“I came here to look for you,” he explained, his hands hanging at his sides. “Last evening when I came, it was the fifth trip that I had made in the course of one Celestial day. At that point, you still weren’t here, and I was weary. It has been a long day,” he admitted with some difficulty. “Hoping to catch a moment of rest, I laid down on the vacant bed. Sleep caught me by surprise.”
She narrowed her eyes at his explanation, opening her mouth to protest, but he forged on.
“And the bed was vacant when I laid down in it. You must have arrived after I’d fallen asleep.” He smiled slightly at the widening of her gaze. “So you see, it wasn’t I that slept beside you,” he asserted, seeming to take great pleasure in stating that fact. “You were the guilty one this time.”
Bai Qian gazed at him silently, and then suddenly blurted out, “That makes no sense. Even knowing that I wasn’t here, you were so tired that you fell asleep rather than going back to your palace?” she threw at him. “What motivated you?” she asked, striding towards him. She stepped into him, hoping to make him feel uncomfortable with how close she’d come. “Perhaps you wanted to find yourself sleeping next to me once more?” She was inches away from him now, but the discomfort she had hoped to see in his eyes wasn’t there. In fact, she probably felt more uncomfortable at this moment than he did at his proximity. Stepping back, she took a deep breath, composing herself and then glared at him.
And it was then that he actually flushed, looking away from her for a moment and clearing his throat. He changed the subject abruptly, “I’m not angry that you abandoned me once more. And that you did so in front of the entire Eastern Sea’s citizens and the guests that came for the festivities. But do you remember the promise that you made to me when we last met?”
“I…,” she began, not sure of what to say next in excuse.
“Are you done running?” he asked, interrupting her.
“For now,” Bai Qian bit out. “I don’t plan on going anywhere else but here. Knowing that, you can safely go back and take care of business in the Nine Heavens. I’ll be in touch if I need anything. Hmm?” Gazing at him expectantly, her shoulders fell in defeat when he remained silent. She turned away in a huff to go outside.
Sitting down on the stoop in front of the hut, Bai Qian furiously pondered on how she could push him away and halt this pursuit. “What can I do to get him to back off?” she whispered to herself, gazing unseeing at the clearing in front of her. “I have to do something before I’m tied to the young pup for the rest of my life.” And for an immortal, it could be a very long life indeed.
Getting up, she began to pace across the clearing. The early morning sun provided some warmth in the cool breeze. The quite rustle of the trees and the calling of the birds made no impression on her senses, as she strived to figure out a solution to this problem. She hadn’t expected to see him so soon. If she was honest about it, she hadn’t really thought about it all.
Even so, there had been a vague hope in the back of her mind that she’d have some sort of plan ready the next time they met. “I can’t cancel the wedding myself,” she muttered to herself, biting her lip. “Father and Zhe Yan tried this when Sang Ji broke the original engagement. It was the Heavenly Lord who was adamant the arrangement go through. I don’t want to create bad blood between us by refusing the marriage. The Heavenly Lord won’t have a leg to stand on if the Crown Prince ends the contract.”
A smile grew across her face, and she snapped her fingers in excitement. “The best way to turn him off is to be yourself, Bai Qian,” she breathed to herself. “Your mother has been so worried that no one would want to marry you because of your bad habits. Well, now is the perfect time to practice those.”
Nodding her head in determination, she pulled the material lying on the porch towards her with a touch of her magic. With a few economical movements, she had a hammock hanging between two sturdy trees at one end of the clearing. She’d discovered the trees here had weak branches after falling a number of times when those branches broke, so had made plans thereafter to enjoy the sun and trees while lying in the hammock. Moving towards it, she jumped up and laid in it. Placing her hand behind her head, she stared at the canopy of leaves above her head and sighed in contentment.
Where before she had intended to spend her time here exactly like this in order to relax, she would now be the lazy fox for his benefit. Who knew, maybe her shut in behavior would turn the dutiful and industrious Crown Prince off?
“Goddess Bai Qian,” his quiet voice called out to her. He came to stand beside her, moving so quietly that she wouldn’t have even known he was there if not for his speaking.
She opened one eye and gazed up at him. “Hmm?” she asked.
“What are you doing?” he asked bending over her reclining figure.
“Napping,” she said after a short pause, surprised that he couldn’t figure that out. What did one usually do lying on a hammock, basking in the sunlight and enjoying the early afternoon breeze?
“We . . . just woke up,” he finally said, the disbelief quite apparent in his voice. “You feel the need to rest right now?”
“Yes,” she murmured. She saw him gaze at her quietly, the look on his face bothering her for a moment before she let that worry go with an insouciant shrug. She pulled a jar of wine out of her sleeve and took a sip from it, making a face at the harsh taste before continuing to drink.
“You haven’t eaten breakfast, yet,” he pointed out.
She opened her eyes wide. “There’s no food,” she finally said. “I’ll gather some fruit from the forest to eat later if I get hungry. Until then, this will fill my stomach,” she asserted, patting the jar of wine she’d placed in her lap.
Closely her eyes to his silently disapproving figure, she tried to ignore him. Bai Qian felt Ye Hua standing next to her for a moment, and silently wondered what he meant to do next. When she could no longer stand the suspense, she slitted open her eyes in time to catch him cloud jump away.
Smiling gleefully at his abrupt departure, Bai Qian closed her eyes once more. ‘Was that enough to scare him away? It couldn’t have been that easy, could it?’ Before her glee took root, she heard light footsteps heralding his return.
Opening her eyes, she saw him striding towards the hut with a stack of scrolls. And behind him came two servants, carrying trays laden with food.
“Goddess Bai Qian,” he called out to her. Struggling to sit up, Bai Qian raised her chin in question, surprise apparent in her wide eyes. “I brought breakfast. Please join me.”
She shook her head in refusal, but the growls of her stomach were too hard to ignore.
“I also brought High God Zhe Yan’s aged wine,” he said, tantalizing her with the familiar jars on one of the servant’s trays. “I had a stash saved for a special occasion.”
It was that revelation that induced Bai Qian to jump out of the hammock and quickly hurry inside. “Is this a special occasion?” she asked pertly, coming to stand beside him.
“It’s the first time I’m having breakfast with you,” he explained quietly.
She tilted her head, gazing up at him, surprised at those words leaving his lips. Shaking her head, she tilted an eyebrow, silently questioning the young immortals standing behind him.
“These are my servants Jia Yun and Tian Shu,” he said, indicating the two young immortals with a tilt of his head. “Goddess Bai Qian, my fiancée,” he told his servants. “You can find me here for any business. Look for me only in case of emergencies.”
The two nodded and quickly exited the hut, their eyes lingering for a moment on the High Goddess who was to marry their Crown Prince.
Bai Qian barely noticed their exit, her eyes focused on the food spread out on the table. Seating herself, she grabbed at the wine, only to frown when he pulled it from her hands.
“Food first,” he insisted, pushing the plates towards her.
The two ate in quiet enjoyment, Ye Hua noting with quiet focus the dishes she touched and the dishes she ignored. Taking mental note of the items, he ate his meal and turned his attention to the scrolls he had brought back with him. Hours later, he called out to her once more to come and eat.
She had spent the entire morning in the hammock, reveling in the light breeze, lulled to periodic bouts of sleep by the soft rustle of the trees and the warmth of the sun as it gradually moved across the sky.
He had seen the enjoyment on her face, choosing to leave her alone and focusing on the task he’d set for himself for today. He’d never spent such a carefree day in his entire life.
“Where did the food come from?” she asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, as she sat down across from him. “I didn’t see your servants come back.”
“I made it,” he stated quietly, pushing the dishes closer to her.
Grabbing a pair of chopsticks, Bai Qian hesitantly took a morsel of meat and brought it to her mouth, her eyes widening in surprise at the delicious taste. Nodding in silent appreciation, she began to eat with gusto. The scents of the food had mingled with Ye Hua’s scent, drowning out the ink but not the unique scent that was his own. Every time she breathed, she became aware of how closely he sat to her, the small table the only thing between the two of them. Forcing her mind to the food, she focused on each individual bite. She hoped the focus on each and every bite would distract her from his presence.
The two ate in near silence, the soft clink of chopsticks against the plates the only sound in the room. “You knew how to cook?” she asked, finally placing her utensils down with a sigh of contentment.
“I know how to cook,” he responded.
“What do you mean?” she asked, an expression of confusion flitting across her features.
“I read some scrolls this morning and followed the recipes,” he explained, taking a final bite of the food before pushing his empty plate away. He smiled slightly upon seeing that all of the food was now gone; she had eaten everything placed in front of her.
Bai Qian raised an eyebrow at the revelation, impressed despite herself. The food was more than edible, in fact it had been very delicious. “Where did the ingredients come from?” she asked with curiosity. “We had nothing in the kitchen since I haven’t been back for a while.”
“I went hunting for the meat and vegetables,” he explained. He got up abruptly, beginning to clear the table.
Bai Qian sat there, contemplating the empty dishes in front of her and the man who had made the effort to cook for her. She sighed morosely, resting her chin on an open palm. Should she get up now and help him? Since he had cooked all of the food, she really should offer to wash the dishes. But she quickly quashed the thought of doing anything at all, knowing that she had neither the interest nor the energy to do these domestic chores. And indeed, he’d done what he wanted to do, she hadn’t asked it of him. Why should she feel the need to do anything?
Shaking her head, pushing all crazy thoughts of cooking or cleaning out of her head, she murmured a brusque thank you and got up to go back to her hammock. She was intent only on escape, not noticing the slight narrowing of his gaze.
Ye Hua’s hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. His hold remained firm, despite the instinctive move she made to jerk away.
Bai Qian’s eyes were glued to the contrast of his skin against hers. The warmth of his fingers, as they wrapped tightly around her wrist was like a brand. Pulling herself free, she massaged her wrist, hoping to erase the feel of his touch.
“I apologize,” he murmured, his eyes trained on the movement of her fingers. “I wanted to know if you cared to assist me.”
She wanted to immediately say no, but she could hear the hope in his voice. And most confusing of all? She was tempted to say yes for a brief moment. Bai Qian looked down at the dirty dishes and back up to him. “No.” The words were brief and abrupt. She quickly turned away before he could witness the flush on her cheeks. When outside, she comforted herself with the thought that it was better for everyone if she did nothing. The faster he realized that this was just how she was, the faster he’d decide to end the engagement.
“You don’t need to feel guilty.” If he became angry at her selfish behavior, he might just break off the engagement. Wouldn’t that be exactly what she wanted?
And if she could still feel the brand of his fingers around her wrist, no one need know that besides her. Irritably rubbing at the still pulsing skin, she jumped back into the hammock and closed her eyes. It was time to go back to lazing away the day under the warm sun.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Over the course of their week at Mt. Junji, Ye Hua took charge of preparing their meals. Despite her initial plans, Bai Qian ended up accompanying him on his hunts out of sheer boredom. It was one thing to laze around because she wanted to, and another to have to do so. When it became a chore, it became something that wasn’t fun at all.
Or that’s what she told herself. In the past, she’d been perfectly content to spend time lazing around in the sun and eating fruits for months on end before returning to the fox den. Why was it different now? She spent hours mulling over this matter before giving up.
The two worked in harmony; where he hunted the animals, his shooting skills quite up to par for the task, Bai Qian took charge of gathering the fruits and vegetables. She hadn’t gone into the kitchen yet, but she planned on cooking one day soon to scare him even further with her horrendous domestic skills.
“Crown Prince Ye Hua,” a male voice called out as the two were returning from their session one day. It was his servant, Jia Yun. He stood in the clearing, his head bowed. When he heard their footsteps, he straightened with an apologetic glance. “The Second Prince of the Western Sea has come to see you. He said it is regarding very important matters and hopes to speak with you immediately.”
Ye Hua knew that his servants had been well-trained, and Jia Yun knew when to come and when to stay away. Ye Hua turned his gaze to Bai Qian. “I’m sorry,” he stated, “But I will return as soon as possible.” Without waiting for a response, Ye Hua cloud jumped away.
Ye Hua returned to the Nine Heavens, his steps hurried as he entered Xiwu Palace. “We can only speak briefly,” he stated, hoping that the Prince would understand his short behavior.
The two had fought and bonded over the War with the Mermaid Clan three centuries ago. An initial misunderstanding based on the high immortal’s wrong assumption that he was Mo Yuan with a bow thrown in had transformed into a close and respectful friendship that had spanned centuries. “My fiancée is waiting,” Ye Hua explained giving Die Feng more than he would have given anyone else in the Nine Heavens, except for maybe San Shu.
Die Feng nodded, putting aside the cup of tea he had been served. He briefly mentioned the problem that had brought him here today, concluding with, “I just wanted to apprise you of the situation. The attacks against these immortals are growing bolder, the biggest of which was after the Eastern Sea King’s party; when the festivities wound down two days later, many of the guests were attacked on their way to their homes. There was enough confusion in the exodus that no one noticed the missing immortals initially. I fear that things will only grow worse if the matter is not investigated.”
Ye Hua nodded. “I will have Tian Shu look into the matter,” he stated, his eyes glancing at the burning flame of the candle. “Now, I apologize Die Feng, but I must leave. I will call for you if I have any news.”
Ye Hua rose and walked towards the door, his mind only on returning to Bai Qian. He had spent 15 minutes in the Nine Heavens, but he knew that days had already passed in the mortal realm.
He was worried that he’d return to find her gone, and that thought bothered him more than he had expected.
Bai Qian sighed in frustration, this close to cloud jumping out of the forest and up high enough so that she could find the clearing and the hut. She had been walking around in circles for hours looking for the path to return home. Despite all efforts, she’d failed to find it. If it wasn’t for her practice of trying to live as a mortal on Mt. Junji, she would have cloud jumped back to that damned hut.
Had it really been this bad when she was a mortal? Her mind reached back and discovered that yes, she really had been. She’d gotten lost every single time she’d gone out to pick herbs and plants to eat. On average, she’d spend 3 to 4 days out in the forest before stumbling onto her hut by sheer luck.
How had she survived for two centuries on this mountain?
Sighing heavily, she began to move once more, fighting the urge to break her vow. She didn’t want to use her immortal powers here. And it would be as if she had lost to herself if she did so.
The past few days had been peaceful without the Crown Prince. He’d left, telling her that he would come back soon, but day had turned into night, night into morning, and the first day had slipped into the second and then the third. And he hadn’t returned. She’d found herself waiting, and when she’d realized the similarity between her state now and those last days as that pathetic mortal, she’d snapped herself out of it.
She wouldn’t go back to those feelings, to that state of mind. She’d found things to do. She’d kept busy. She didn’t need his presence, but it was also safe to say that her days had also been boring. She didn’t want to admit it. She really didn’t, but she missed having him around. How was that possible? She’d only really known him for a day. Maybe two. How had he made such an indelible impression already? She blamed it on that mortal once more.
Realizing that the sun had gone behind the horizon, knowing that even if she cloud-jumped, she’d only end up getting herself further lost since she would not be able to see the hut in the dark. She decided to settle in for the night. Nestling down in the roots of a big tree, Bai Qian wrapped her robes closely around her body and fell asleep. Even as a goddess, she felt no compunction in finding rest where she could.
“Goddess! Goddess Bai Qian, where are you?”
‘Was that a voice calling out to her?’ she wondered muzzily, sitting up and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Who was calling her in the middle of the night? Struggling to stand, her body stiff from sleeping on the hard ground, she looked around warily. There was nothing, save that of the forest’s nightly song. Had someone even been here?
“Goddess!” a voice called out once more, the frustration ripe in his tone. It seemed that he may have been calling for a while without success.
Bai Qian’s eyebrows rose at the realization that the Crown Prince had returned. Was he actually looking for her? She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. She was the Gugu of the realms, and had been revered and respected for millennia. Thousands of millennia. Too much reverence had started to age her soul, forcing her into a cage of expected decorum that caused her to spend most of her time hiding away in Qing Qiu.
And now, this young pup was attempting to rescue her? Could she admit to him that she’d gotten lost? He’d figure it out, if he caught her here.
No, she desperately shook her head. She didn’t need rescuing not even from her own pathetic sense of direction. Whirling, she rushed off, away from his voice. “I don’t need your help,” she whispered to herself. “I can take care of myself.” She ignored the fact that she had gotten completely lost in the forest, and only morning would have brought her enough light to cheat and cloud jump her way to the Hut.
In her attempt to escape, Bai Qian tripped over a hidden root. She wouldn’t have seen it in the darkness, even if she had been paying attention. Falling towards the earth, she felt the breath leave her body as she landed against the ground and went flying. ‘Not again!’
Letting out a surprised screech, she raised her hands to use her powers, hoping to prevent any injury. Mt. Junji was called a mountain for a reason, and she was currently on the side that had both sheer cliffs and slippery slopes that could lead to injury for unwary immortals.
But there was no need. A figure suddenly wrapped her in his arms, holding her close and cocooning her from injury. She heard the muffled grunt, as he landed on the ground, the jerk as he grabbed onto something to stop their descent over the side of the mountain. And then the sudden weightlessness when he used his powers to push them towards further safety.
They landed on the forest ground, far away from the cliffs. She struggled to catch her breath, her body covered by the warmth of his. Moments passed, and he didn’t move. Feeling a warmth against the side of her robes, she reached down to touch, raising her hand to her dazed eyes. There was enough moonlight in the patch they’d landed in to see the blood on her fingers. She gasped slightly, worry clouding her brow.
Nudging at him, she used a bit of her magic to move him off her when she realized that he was too dazed to move just yet. Sitting up, she gazed at him carefully, taking in the wet sleeve over his arm, the blood having seeped through from whatever injury he had suffered. Knowing that it was too dark and too dirty to take care of anything out here, she got up and, with a gesture, used her magic to carry him.
“Where are you going?” he asked, gasping at the pain the movement caused.
“Back to the hut,” she said, swiftly moving towards where she assumed the hut was.
“The hut is in that direction,” Ye Hua murmured after a small pause, his fingers pointing in the opposite direction. His voice was hoarse from discomfort, but she could hear the amusement bleeding through.
“I know that,” she retorted. Bai Qian corrected her course, a small hint of a flush covering her cheeks.
“Stop,” he ordered, forcing her to let him go with the look in his eyes. Getting up, Ye Hua stood straight, struggling to catch his breath.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “You need to lie down.”
“I can walk back to the hut,” he stated stubbornly, his lips forming a thin line as he began to walk in the direction of the hut, his hand pressing against the wound on his other arm.
She knew that he had been injured. Then why did he insist on doing this? Shrugging her shoulders at his actions, she offered him her support, which he was only too glad to take.
The two trudged back to the hut, and, as soon as they entered the building, Bai Qian helped him lie down on the bed. She raced around looking for bandages. Even as she found the items and brought them back to the bed, she wondered at why her hands were trembling so much. Running back to finally sit down beside him, she placed her hands on the sleeve of his robes and tugged them down his shoulder, baring the bloodied skin beneath.
Her fingers hurriedly dabbed at the blood that welled up, the wound continuing to bleed despite the time it had taken them to get back to the hut. She didn’t yell at him for making his injury worse, but forced herself to continue dabbing at the wound until she could finally see the gash on his skin.
“What injured you?” she asked, raising a brow at the injury. “There are only tiny branches and leaves out there. What could have injured you so badly?”
He shrugged, staring down at his injured shoulder. His movement caused the wound to begin bleeding once more.
“Stop that,” she ordered, furiously dabbing at the blood once more. Unconsciously, her face had moved closer to his shoulder until there were only inches between her lips and his naked chest. Looking up, she froze, her eyes gazing into his. Why did he have such long lashes? They seemed such a waste on a man’s face. His eyes were a clear pool of darkness, that seemed to call to her.
They were so close that she could feel his breath against her lips. The rag fell away, until it was her fingers resting against his golden skin, against his warmth. Her fingers curled lightly, her nails digging into his bare skin. She didn’t know where the time had gone, seconds turning into minutes as she stared into his eyes. It was only when he grimaced slightly that she realized the awkwardness of the moment.
She quickly got up, putting some distance between them. Why was it so hot? Waving a hand in front of her face, she urged him, “Heal yourself.” Her face was still turned away from that bared skin. “All that bleeding can’t be good for you.” They were both immortals, and she knew that he could fix that wound quiet easily.
“I can’t,” he said after a small pause.
She turned around to glance at him questioningly.
“We’re in the mortal realm,” he gently reminded her. “Any use of magic can rebound on me or the people near me if my usage is deemed improper. It’s best to avoid it. It’s only a small wound.”
“But I just used magic,” she protested.
“It’s better not to make things worse,” Ye Hua stated implacably, that same look of stubbornness appearing on his face that she had become so used to seeing on his face.
Shaking her head, Bai Qian moved back towards the bed and sat down beside him. Putting some herbs on his wounds, she bound it with pieces of cloth. Cleaning up the mess she’d created on the bed, she brought him some fruit. “You need sustenance so you can heal,” she prodded when he only stared at the fruit. “I can’t cook,” she explained, just in case he needed a reminder. “It’s the best I can do.”
Nodding, he quickly grabbed a loquat, bringing it to his lips. His gazed remained on her as she puttered around the room haphazardly, cleaning the room and washing the rags that had been bloodied. His free hand rubbed absentmindedly at his chest, over his heart, wondering at the feeling that seemed to be burning inside. Was he thankful? Touched? She was taking care of him, and that was way more than he had expected from the High Goddess.
“Since you’re injured,” she said, clearing her throat, “you can take the bed. I’ll sleep at the table.” She’d tried to remain busy, feeling his eyes on her as the moments passed by, but she had run out of things to do.
“Alright,” he stated, without offering any arguments.
Her mouth opened and then closed without saying a word. Taking a deep breath, she murmured, “Okay,” before going to sit at the table. Laying her head down on the table, she rested her eyes. Moments later, she was asleep.
Ye Hua got up off of the bed and moved to the table, carefully sitting down across from her. His wound was minor, the initial bleeding the only serious thing about it. It had almost healed completely.
He gazed at her face, looking so peaceful in sleep. What were the worries that ate at her while she was awake, he wondered, so much so that she looked like an innocent child in comparison now. He reached out a hand to carefully brush her hair away, not wanting his view of her face encumbered.
He’d come back to the hut to find her gone. For a moment, he had been disappointed that she had left, but only for a moment. Seeing the things still here, her robes lying around, he’d been sure she was still here. He was sure the condition of the hut would have been much cleaner if she had left for good.
He’d began a search, only encountering the silent night. Minutes had ticked by, and he’d grown more worried. It was only when he began to call for her, that he’d gotten the result he’d wanted. Hearing the rustling of someone moving in the forest, without a second thought, he’d cloud jumped to her location just in time to see her tumbling head over heels towards a sheer drop off the side of the mountain.
He didn’t even know when he’d used his magic, saving her. He had gotten hurt in the process, he admitted, wincing slightly at the pull on his wound when he moved. He glanced down at the bandages that she’d carefully wrapped around his wound, sitting inches away from him.
“Make yourself weaker, throw yourself on her graces and she’ll pity you and it’ll turn into love.
San Shu’s words came to mind. A small smile grew on Ye Hua’s face, and then began to grow. The words were a quiet whisper in the silence of the night, filled with gratitude.
“You were right, San Shu.”
Chapter 8 – Si Yin?
Pain. All over my body.
That was my first thought.
It was the ache on my forehead. The blood on my fingers.
Had I fallen?
It was the stitch in my side. The fear lodged in my throat. The burn in my lungs, the harsh breath in my throat, the sandpaper quality of my tongue.
I was suffocating, but I couldn’t give into the darkness.
Was I running towards something? Away from it? All I knew at that moment was that I had been running for so long that time had lost all meaning. I only knew one thing, I had to keep on running.
Hearing the sound behind me, I remembered. I was being chased by yet another ferocious creature. I knew that if it caught me, it would eat me, crunch my bones and swallow my blood.
I would be no more.
Why had I thought this was a good idea? Why was I here when I could be in my small hut, eating my berries in relative safety? Nothing had come to bother me ever since I’d awakened after the battle with the Scarlet Flame lion.
I sobbed, even as I continued to run, as the noises grew louder behind me. It was getting closer, and HE hadn’t come.
Along with the fear, the fatigue, the realization had finally set in. He wouldn’t come today and save me.
No one would.
I was going to die because of my own stupidity. I firmed my lips in determination, even as I huffed along. My death would not come at the hands of that monster behind me. I would not be someone else’s food. I continued to run, pumping my arms, taking deep, gasping breaths. I hadn’t survived this long, suffering through the solitude and bone deep loneliness every single moment of my existence to lose my life to that creature.
“There you are. Got you!” a fearsome voice thundered triumphantly from behind me.
Looking back, I could almost see the whites of the creature’s eyes. It smiled, flashing its serrated teeth, his malevolent intent quite apparent. It lunged at me, and I changed direction, jumping out of its reach.
I ran, continuing to look over my shoulder, and that was my mistake. I forgot to look ahead, and so missed the fact that in two steps, there would be nothing beneath my feet.
Suddenly, I was in the air, having left the ground behind. I had no wings to fly. My terrified gaze looked down, below my feet. I saw the rocks, their sharp points reaching towards me. I would land on those unforgiving things, and my body would break.
My hands flashed out, flailing, hoping to grasp something to save myself from the agonizing death awaiting. My frantic gaze caught those of the creature standing at the edge. It growled in frustration. And I forgot the mortal danger I was in for a brief moment, allowing me the chance to smile tauntingly at it, exultant that it would not get my meat and bones today.
Turning my thoughts away from it and into myself, I despairingly cried out for the man who hadn’t come. Time, which had been rapidly rushing past, suddenly slowed down so that each second became a lifetime, and I lived through several lifetimes in those seconds.
It was his fault that I was here today.
I had pined for him, hoping that he would return. When he hadn’t, days turning into weeks, into months and then years, I had concocted this plan out of desperation. When I heard about the creature killing the folks here, I had traveled to this location, hoping that he would come to slay the ferocious being terrorizing the people of this mountain. Instead of spying him in battle, the creature had seen me. And, but for meeting that immortal, I would not have lost my life today.
But even as I fell to the rocks below, I knew that I could have no regrets. Better a life spent trying than continuing to merely survive in gray loneliness.
And I fell.
All thought was wiped away by the fear, and then the agonizing pain. Before sweet oblivion could be attained, I felt a surge of power move through me. Frightening power, strengthening me. Before I could react, before I could analyze, I was thrust into a blazing light where I had expected complete darkness.
As she’d crashed to those rocks below, she’d known she was never more alive in all of the 200 years of her mortal trial than at the moment of her death. When she’d died there, she’d awakened in Zhe Yan’s orchard, her body struggling to heal the damage her fall had caused.
Having become a High God through the agony both her heart and body had suffered, her body tried to use the new power to heal itself. But she didn’t have the learning or the mind to do it correctly.
Zhe Yan had swiftly taken over, using his millennia of experience to heal her body. While Zhe Yan hadn’t asked any questions at first, focusing on fixing her dire injuries, eventually they had come.
“You have to tell me what happened. Ever since you sealed away Qing Cang, your parents and brothers have been searching for you like madmen. The injuries all over your body . .. what exactly happened?” There was a pause. “What’s the matter? Did you do something shameful and are afraid I’ll tell Fourth Brother?” he asked smilingly, as if he had caught onto something he knew she wanted to hide.
Shameful? She had given up her life for a man. She’d pined for him. Ached for him. And for him, she’d become so blind that she’d sought out a monster in the hopes of seeing him once more. She’d died for her own stupidity. Despite all of her stratagems and hopes, he’d never come.
“I might have sealed away Qing Cang, but I did not gain any advantage. He sealed my memories and powers and left me on Mt. Junji. I underwent a trial.” Her words had been brief, not wanting to reveal any further details. Her trial was a truth that she would never tell anyone. Not her family. Not Zhe Yan. And definitely not that immortal if she ever came across him.
The trial was done. So, why did it hurt so much still?
“My mother often said, I am lucky in life. I was born an immortal. I was already an immortal without needing to cultivate. But there is nothing so convenient in this world.” She stopped, her mind frantically leafing through the vibrant memories of her desperate love.
She’d continued softly, contemplatively. “Without experiencing a heavenly trial, how can one ascend to high god? In the years that flew by, I merely experienced a heavenly trial. Since this trial has already passed, there are some things that don’t need to be dwelled upon.”
She’d steeled her heart, affirming to herself the decision to forget and move forward.
But first, she carefully stretched her muscles, testing the strength in her recently healed body. She needed to take care of something back in the mortal realm, and the power coursing through her body assured her that she could easily complete her task. Calling Kunlun’s Jade Purity Fan to her, she cloud jumped away, ignoring Zhe Yan’s exasperated calls from behind her.
Her family could wait the minute amount of time it would take to vanquish that monster.
“Qian Qian, pay attention!” a male voice growled breathlessly, pulling her back and away from the weapons that had come perilously close to her face. His other arm flashed out, the sword at the end of it slashing through the creature’s defenses and cutting off the hand that had come perilously close to scarring her. The creature roared and backed off.
“Are you alright?” he asked, gazing into her eyes with concern. When there was no answer, he took a deep breath and herded her away from the group of beings standing at the other end of the clearing. “Stay back. I’ll take care of this.” Patting her on the shoulder, he strode towards the creatures that had surrounded them. The creatures had lowered their heads, readying to charge them once more.
Bai Qian raised a silent eyebrow at his assurance, shaking her head at his need to protect everyone around him. They’d only spent three months together, but she already knew of his instinctive need to be the protector? It was time that he realized that not everyone needed to be saved.
She quietly moved up to stand next to him. She felt his gaze flicker to her before looking back at the beings challenging them.
Firming her lips, she shook her sleeve and called her fan to her. That was instinctual to her. But when Ye Hua stopped mid-move, his gaze focused on the fan in her hand, she quickly realized her error. Raising her arm, she transformed it into a sword.
He turned away, confusion writ across his face, before seemingly brushing it away to focus on the fight ahead of them.
She hoped that the upcoming battle would help him forget the fan. After all, it was an artifact she shouldn’t even have. Focusing her eyes on the creatures before them, she prepared herself for the attack.
Ye Hua and Bai Qian had been out for a morning walk, at Ye Hua’s insistence. Their journey was broken by intermittent bursts of conversation before silence would fall between them. They’d continued previous discussions on different types of wines, a favorite subject of hers, before moving onto poetry and weapons. Bai Qian had found it restful, not feeling the need to constantly engage the attention of the immortal striding beside her. And the silence hadn’t seemed to bother him any more than her.
The two of them had spent the past few months together, falling into an easy rhythm of domesticity that had surprised her. They’d gone back and forth between both the mortal and immortal realms, spending time together in leisure activities. Most days, after awakening in the morning, Ye Hua would prepare breakfast with Bai Qian’s reluctant assistance. The two would then spend the rest of the morning together, taking a walk, discussing favorite subjects, before returning to the hut. Ye Hua then did his work, and Bai Qian read her novels at the table near him. The afternoon came and with it, food preparation, continued reading, and then dinner before a nightly stroll and then bed. Most days, it was the same routine. But on other days, Ye Hua would pull the Goddess away for trips to the immortal realms.
Why was it that she didn’t find any of it boring? Even as she had spent a large part of her youth traveling with Fourth Brother, doing the same things that she did with Ye Hua now? Was it because she was with him?
She’d allowed her attention to wander, missing out when these creatures had appeared and what Ye Hua had done to incite their wrath. From the color of their skin, it was readily apparent they weren’t humans.
“Just who are they?” Bai Qian asked irritably, attacking the male rushing her away. She countered his weapon’s thrust with her sword, cutting the metal in half. Kicking him away, she countered the strokes of the next and then the next. The battle was easy, but partly so because they were mostly bypassing her to attack Ye Hua. “What do they have against you?” she called out to him, easing up to stand at his back.
Ye Hua was grimly silent, countering every move with his sword, fighting the men with focus. His actions were quick and economical, not wasting energy as he countered each thrust of the weapon, moving his body to protect her back, even as he sometimes left himself open to an attack.
Bai Qian shrugged her shoulders at his silence, her mind now solely intent on trouncing the few that had grown into a crowd. Finding herself momentarily distracted, she missed the slash of another’s long knife, at least not until she felt the slice of cold blade across the side of her waist, the fire traveling to the middle of her back before disappearing. She gasped, turning to attack the individual, but he was no longer there; Ye Hua had taken care of him, dispatching him mercilessly.
The two continued to fight, their assault now more deadly than before as they realized the creatures would not back off. They fought until there was a groaning heap of individuals on the floor around them.
Despite the viciousness of their attack, Bai Qian knew that Ye Hua had held back during the battle. He clearly had not wanted to hurt them fatally. Ye Hua quietly stared down at the fallen men before turning away, an unreadable expression on his face.
“Aren’t you going to call someone?” Bai Qian asked in surprise. “We’re just going to leave them like that?”
“Yes.” He gave the answer curtly.
“They dared to attack the Crown Prince,” she pointed out helpfully. “If they can do that to you, just think of what they could do against innocents.”
“Other people have nothing to fear. They would only attack me,” Ye Hua responded, continuing to walk.
Bai Qian followed him closely, wondering what was going through Ye Hua’s mind. She heard the groans behind her changing to cursing and vows of vengeance against the Crown Prince.
The two reached the hut, Ye Hua having been largely silent on their trek back. Bai Qian had intended to leave him in peace, but her curiosity finally got the better of her. “Why are you so sure? Just what was that about?” she demanded, tugging at the black sleeve of his robe as they entered the structure.
Ye Hua remained silent.
“Ye Hua?” she asked, stopping in the middle of the room, forcing him to stop, as well. “Why were they after you? Or why are you so sure they would only attack you?”
He gazed at her silently, a stubborn look appearing on his face.
“Why did you just let them go when they dared to attack the Celestial Clan’s Crown Prince?” she burst out, angered by his stubborn silence.
The more time they spent together, the more she’d begun to see Ye Hua was more than just the perfect Crown Prince. She hadn’t expected his mysteries to intrigue her so much. It had been a long time since she’d felt this curious. And now to see him like this? Refusing to tell her something so important?
He turned away in clear rejection, thunder on his brow. Striding out the open doors, he raced down the steps.
“Where are you going?” She darted after him, cloud jumping ahead of him to block his path. When he stopped and then tried to go around her, she moved to block him once more.
He swept out a hand to gently push her aside, but his hand landed against the wet slickness of blood at her side.
She reacted without intention, sucking in a pained breath at the fiery explosion of pain.
His eyes flickered down, darkness appearing in his eyes. Unlike him, she wore white, the scarlet of her blood stark against the purity of her robes, his touch having caused the wound to bleed profusely. “Goddess, let’s go inside. I have to attend to your wound.” The worry was clearly writ on his face, his body surging forward to grasp her arm and attempt to lead her towards the hut.
She turned her head away, hiding a sly smile. She knew that her injury was nothing serious, having suffered enough harm to her body to recognize the difference, but she could still use his concern to her advantage. Gracefully sinking to the ground, knowing that he wouldn’t know better, she gestured weakly for him to come closer.
“Goddess,” he murmured, immediately kneeling by her side. “I apologize. This is entirely my fault.”
“How can it be your fault?” she asked, trying to squeeze out a tear. Giving up after a few moments, she covered her eyes, hoping that he would just assume the tears were falling.
“Because . . . they would not have attacked so ferociously if I had not been here,” he said in a stricken tone. “In fact, they would not have attacked at all.”
“What do you mean?” she asked in a muffled voice, peeking at him through her fingers. She could see the wrinkles on his brow, the tightness of his lips. His normally stoic face was clouded with guilt, and when she glimpsed his eyes, she saw the remorse there.
“They are immortals from the Mermaid Clan,” he began haltingly, his hand coming towards her wound. Rather than touching it, though, it hovered there for a moment before dropping away, his shoulders slumping. His eyes fell away from hers, staring at the ground instead.
She raised an eyebrow at that action, wondering why he hadn’t touched her, failing to wonder why she was bothered about him not touching her.
“Three hundred years ago, the Celestial Clan quelled the Mermaid Clan’s uprising,” Ye Hua explained in a monotone. “They had begun to challenge the Heavenly Emperor’s Rule, challenging the other Sea Emperors in their own domains. The Celestial Clan worked with the Ghost Clan, and the Mermaid people were almost completely wiped out in battle. Very few escaped the Heavenly Emperor’s wrath,” he finished.
“It was a battle. People die during battle,” Bai Qian pointed out prosaically, wondering where she had been at the time; she hadn’t heard of any such war. Her eyes brightened when she figured it out; if it had been more than three hundred years ago, it would have been during her trial.
Ye Hua nodded brusquely, breaking contact with her questioning gaze. He seemed to find it difficult to continue, his eyes pointed to the far off distance. Taking a deep breath, he offered an explanation. “I was impatient. Through my own actions and the actions of another, diplomacy fell by the wayside. If only we had taken the chance to work with them, the battle’s conclusion might have been much different. Those deaths are on my hands. Those that survived have vowed to gain revenge against me, and have spent the past three centuries attacking me at every turn. Even more have died in that senseless quest.”
Bai Qian wondered at the guilt she could see writ across his features. Tugging at his sleeve, she sought his attention. When he didn’t turn quickly enough, she listed to the side, landing on her injury. She cried out in surprised pain, not having realized the blood loss was so bad that she was getting woozy from its affects.
He grabbed her arms, straightening her wilting form. Blanching at the growing stain, he seized her in his arms and cloud jumped to their hut, his aim to get her the help she needed before she suffered any more needlessly.
In the confines of the Hut, he placed her on the bed and used his magic to strip away her outer robes, and tore at the inner most robe to reveal the bloodied injury at her waist. Despite the fact that she was still mostly covered, she reached for the scarlet blanket on the side of the bed to cover herself. “What are you doing? Why would you remove my robes?!” she screeched at him, her heart pounding a crazy rhythm.
“They were in my way,” came the practical response. Gathering bandages and water, he came to her side and placed them on a side table. Sitting on the bed, he tugged at her blanket. “Let me.”
“I can do it,” she argued sullenly, keeping her hold on the blanket. Why was his proximity doing weird things to her body, she wondered silently to herself. ‘Control yourself,’ she silently murmured.
Gazing at her skeptically, Ye Hua pulled at the blanket until she was forced to let it go or risk tearing it. She’d had that blanket for three centuries; she wasn’t going to lose it now.
His hands were gentle as they cleaned the wound and then began to dress it with bandages.
She stiffened when she felt his fingers touch the naked skin at the side of her waist. Surprised that she could even feel his touch, since the crimson fire had seemed to take all sensation away in that region, she forced herself to relax and lie there as he dressed her wounds.
“What happened here?” he asked, his gaze intent on the unexpected scars near her wound. The Goddess had lead a secluded life, hiding away in Qing Qiu rather than mingling with the other immortals of the realms. So, when had she been so injured that she’d scarred herself like this?
“Crimson fire. About 300 years ago,” she explained absentmindedly, gazing down as his hands moved across her skin.
“From where?” he burst out, surprise ripe in his tone. That had not been an answer he’d been expecting.
“I was unlucky enough to come across the Scarlet Lion that used to wander around Mt Junji,” she responded without a second thought.
It was only when he glanced up sharply, his eyes drilling into her, that she realized what she’d let slip. What if he began to ask the questions she could see in his eyes? She reached out and grabbed at his arm.
He barely stiffened, but it was enough for her to realize that she’d just chanced upon the injury that he’d kept hidden under his black clothes. “Maybe that explains it,” she mused, pulling up his sleeve to glare down at the blood she could now see.
“Explains what?” he asked softly, watching her begin to clean the wound on his arm.
“Your propensity to wear black all the time. Is it to hide your blood?” she asked, shaking her head at his naiveté. “Hiding it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. And those that care about you deserve to know that you’re bleeding so that they have the chance to take care of your injuries.” She looked into his eyes as she made that proclamation. Shaking her head at his silence, she looked back down to finish cleaning his injury. “Why didn’t I notice that you were injured?” she wondered in a disgruntled tone, her mouth twisting at her own self-absorbed behavior.
Getting up carefully, she moved towards the corner of the room to grab a pot of herb paste. Turning back, she brought it over to him. “When I sometimes take in birds, I use this herbal medicine on them. They usually get better in 10 days,” she relayed to him. She began to carefully put the concoction on his arm. “Bear with it for a while,” she said softly, “I’ll be done soon.”
He stared at her hard at work for a moment, but spoke up when he could remain silent no longer. “This is a paste made from the yellowseed herb found only in the far east,” he noted out loud.
“Is it?” she murmured in a disinterested tone. “I just made use of what I found here.”
“It can remove rotting flesh,” he continued, contemplating the herbs on his arm as she carefully began to wrap a bandage around his injury. “It must be used with the juice of berries with a regenerative effect to be useful.”
She paused, her eyes going up to his in consternation before gazing down at the arm and what she’d done to it.
“By using this by itself, Qian Qian, aside from making my injuries worse,” he stated, almost apologetically, “there is no other benefit.”
Her eyes flashed up to meet his. She’d heard him call her that name before, in battle, but told herself that she must have imagined it. But now . . . here, why was he calling her by that silly name. What was that look in his eyes? What did he mean by it? His eyes told her nothing that she could figure out. Snorting, half embarrassed for herself and half for his gall, she loosened the bandages. Dipping a rag in the water bowl, she quickly wiped away the herbs. “No wonder,” she said morosely, having completely removed the herbs.
“No wonder?” he asked questioningly, watching her wrap the bandages around his arm once more, protecting the area from contamination.
“That most of the animals I took in have died,” she finished in a low voice before getting up to remove the dirtied bowl of water and rags lying around. Her foot slipped on the water that had fallen in Ye Hua’s haste to get to her injuries, and she fell back, landing into his arms. She felt her head knock against something hard, and she groaned in pain, and then groaned once more when his hand inadvertently landed against the wound at her waist.
He shifted his hold slightly, wrapping the arm carefully around her to hold her close. His scent enveloped her, drugging her senses for a brief moment. There was a moment of frozen silence, and she felt his warm breath against her temple.
She squirmed frantically to get away.
“Careful!” he uttered, donning a pained expression when she glanced at him over her shoulder. Only he knew that the professing of pain was more pretense than actuality.
Bai Qian moved once more, her embarrassment outweighing any consideration that she might have had for his injury. His pained groan caused her to freeze in worry. “Let me get up,” she snapped at him, face half red. “Then I won’t hurt you anymore.”
“Just stay here for a while,” he urged her. “It would be better for the both of us.”
It was only when he laughingly looked down, staring past her unhappy face that he saw his uninjured arm wrapped around her waist; his eyes widening by how closely the scars aligned.
“Why…?” he began uncertainly.
Her eyes followed his gaze, and she blanched. She wasn’t ready to mention her past; she didn’t think she would ever be ready. She pushed his arm away, rushing to stand up and pulling a robe towards her with the flick of her fingers. She quickly put it on, hoping that he hadn’t seen enough to make him really question it. Bending down, she picked up the fallen bowls and rags and raced across the room in near silence.
Ye Hua stared after her, wondering at her reaction. His gaze was morose as he followed her frantic movements. “If this was about the herbs, I had to say something,” he finally offered uncertainly. “You would have continued using them.”
She ignored him, quickly leaving the hut.
There was a lot that he did not know about Bai Qian. He knew nothing about her heavenly trial, per Mi Gu’s words she had had one. Just what had happened? No one in all the realms even knew that the Goddess Bai Qian had even left Qing Qiu. So, where would this heavenly trial have occurred?
There were so many secrets about this woman, and each new one that he discovered surprised him. He didn’t know what he had expected when he’d come to marry the Goddess, but he’d gotten far more than that. Getting up, he took off his outer bloodied robes, and walked towards the seating area with a view of the outside. He could see her walking in the clearing, her hand reaching for something in her sleeve. He saw her half-pull something out before putting it back in her sleeve.
His mind flashed back to the item she had pulled out during battle. That fan . . . was that also linked to her past?
“That fan you pulled out during the fight?” he called out, halting her frenzied movements. “It looked like the Kunlun Jade Purity Fan.”
“Why would I have such a fan?” she asked, glancing at him challengingly. “What fan?”
“You pulled a fan out of your sleeve,” he reminded her gently, wondering at the emotion that he saw flashing in her eyes. Why did it seem that this was one more thing that she was hiding from him? “It had Kunlun mountain on it,” he explained his reasoning.
“Just because it had Kunlun mountain,” she retorted from across the clearing, a flush appearing on her cheeks, “doesn’t mean it was the same fan. There are only a limited number of mountains out here, so artists don’t have a lot of variety to choose from.” Her explanation was given in a strong tone; she hoped that the confidence in her voice would hide the inanity of her statement.
“Can I see it?” he asked, after a small pause. The disbelief was patent on his face.
She made a show of looking for it, and then smiled at him. “I think I lost it. Now, would I lose the Kunlun fan?”
He nodded in acceptance, knowing that he had no other option but to accept her statement. There was something going on, and he got the feeling that what he had seen of the Goddess Bai Qian was only the tip of a very big iceberg.
Bai Qian had fallen asleep, the fight and blood loss having taken its toll on her. While she rested, Ye Hua sat at her side, gazing at her sleeping face. The fragility of her body belied the very real strength she had. She wouldn’t have become a Goddess if she didn’t have a very strong inner core.
Forcing himself to get up from the side of the bed, he went to the little table set in the corner. Lighting the candles, he began to do some much needed work. It was then that he chance upon the note that Jia Yun had left behind in their absence. He stated that Die Feng, the Second Prince of the Western Sea, was waiting for him and urged the Crown Prince to come at his earliest convenience.
Ye Hua left the hut with one final glance of reassurance at Bai Qian’s sleeping form.
After Ye Hua reached his palace, he greeted the other immortal and urged him to take a seat.
It was then that Tian Shu handed him a scroll, stating that the Ghost King’s servants were handing these out all over the realms. Ye Hua slowly opened the scroll, his gaze taking in the picture on there.
Tian Shu explained, his hands held out respectfully in front of him, “I have been investigating the Ghost Realm situation recently. I encountered many from the Ghost Realm, traveling to various regions in disguise in search of High Immortal Si Yin. They all carried this drawing. I heard this very drawing was drawn by the Ghost Lord himself. The rest are all copies.”
Ye Hua looked up in surprise, the disbelief still quite apparent in his eyes. He had not expected to encounter this truth upon his return to the Nine Heavens.
“There was word from Sixteenth Disciple just now that the Ghost Lord visited Kunlun Mountain today and said he had seen Si Yin,” Die Feng said angrily, “So that he went to check if Si Yin had returned to Kunlun Mountain. I have been searching for Si Yin for 70,000 years without any clues,” Die Feng stated sadly, “How could he have seen him? It is clearly another lie!”
“Die Feng,” Ye Hua said with difficulty, his eyes going back to gaze at the drawing of Si Yin. “Is the one in this drawing really Si Yin?” He swallowed with difficulty, his heart pounding furiously in his chest.
“Yes, this is Seventeenth Disciple.” The answer was swift and decisive once the other immortal had glanced at the picture.
“You just said Ghost Lord Li Jing had seen Si Yin?” Ye Hua prompted, hoping for some clue to how this had come about.
“Yes, that’s what Li Jing said to Sixteenth, Zi Lan,” Die Feng replied in the affirmative.
“Did he say where?”
“On the north bank of the Eastern Sea.”
“The north bank of the Eastern Sea?” The strength left Ye Hua’s body, as he continued to gaze down at the scroll. ‘So it is indeed the Eastern Sea. Kunlun Mountain’s seventeenth disciple, Si Yin and Mo Yuan’s body, have been missing for 70,000 years. This is the Celestial Tribe’s biggest unresolved case. I never imagined…. Qian Qian, you are Si Yin.”
Mo Yuan’s disappearance, along with that of Si Yin, had been the Celestial Clan’s biggest mystery. Ye Hua had spent millennia looking into where the master and the disciple had disappeared. And he’d never found out. Were these the answers that he’d sought for so long?
Die Feng asked respectfully, “Does Your Highness have a clue?”
Ye Hua quickly shook his head, deciding to keep the truth to himself for now. “No. But I have heard of the matters regarding Si Yin. Seeing this drawing has reminded me of the great war 70,000 years ago. You may all step out now.” He needed time to think about this.
‘Why did you take Mo Yuan’s body? Why did you disappear? You even avoided your fellow disciples. Qian Qian, if I were to ask you, would you tell me the truth?’
He continued to look at Si Yin’s pictures, desperately tracing those features that he had become used to seeing in the Goddess’s face. She had kept her history a secret from the world. No one had known the truth for 70,000 years. Would she ever tell him? Would he have the courage to ask?
His fingers curled around the scroll, crushing it, even as he sought to suppress the well of emotions rising inside of him.
And that fan. It truly was Mo Yuan’s artifact, which he had given to his prize pupil.
What would he do now? He needed to go back down. He needed to go to her. Without a moment’s hesitation, he cloud jumped back to Mt. Junji. Upon entering the hut, he saw that she was still sleeping under the red blanket.
Minutes had passed in the Nine Heavens, a relatively small amount of time, but it had been enough to shake his entire world. He knelt down by the bed, his eyes trained on her sleeping face. It was almost dawn, the night almost completely gone. In the faint light of a rising sun, he gazed at her face. When had it become so familiar? His fingers reached out and hovered over her cheek, tempted to touch. But no. His fingers curled into a fist, and he forced himself to pull back.
He had known of the mysterious disciple, Si Yin. A man who had been a favored disciple. Someone who had risked all for his loyalty to his Shifu.
Sinking down to the floor, sitting with his back to the bed, his head resting against her arm, he thought about her loyalty to Mo Yuan. His fingers clenched into fists as he admitted to himself that he wanted that loyalty for himself. It was only now, after having this time with her, that he realized how much more he wanted from this relationship.
They both deserved more.
He wasn’t stupid. He knew that Bai Qian was trying to get him to back out of the arrangement by being what she considered her worst self, but he wouldn’t for those reasons. Not just because of what he owed the Celestial Clan, what he owed his grandfather. It was because of what he had seen in her.
She was a woman who loved her family enough to stick by this arrangement. A woman who was unabashedly herself at all times, regardless of what the world thought of her.
She was a warrior who hadn’t hesitated to stand with him, back to back, as they fought the battle. And, in the aftermath, she had taken care of him, and allowed him to take care of her.
She was a person who returned favors. As she had done for her Shifu. She had been loyal to her Shifu, and had carried on that loyalty even when Mo Yuan was no longer in the world.
Turning his head to gaze at her, he allowed himself a simple touch. His hand reached out, and he cupped her cheek, lightly tracing the shape of her brow and the curve of her cheek. Tapping the end of her chin.
If he couldn’t get more from her than duty, then maybe it was better they not get married at all.
Chapter 9 – Merely
But would it be better? To go back to the life he’d been leading before? A life bereft of colors, emotions, adventure?
Ye Hua gazed unseeingly at the flames before him, barely noticing the warmth they cast on his body, his mind feverishly working to untangle his own state of mind.
Was he ready to give it up? The woman and the alliance? Was he ready to disappoint the Heavenly Emperor and insult the Fox Clan? Was he ready to give in to his fears? Was he ready to go back?
The features of his face tightened imperceptibly, hinting at the rising tension. His control was so strong that no hint of his emotions ever got through; at least it had been until she’d come into his life.
Since he’d met the Goddess, she’d caused him to be frustrated and amused, irritated and intrigued, uncertain and interested. She’d caused a maelstrom of emotions inside of him, the type of which he hadn’t felt since he’d been a young child, before he had learned how to control every part of himself. She’d made him realize that this alliance could be more than just an alliance, it could become a real relationship. She’d made him . . . yearn for more.
Time spent with her reminded him of his dreams, and the sense of completeness, of caring, of tenderness from another. Those dreams had come to him with increasing frequency over the past three centuries. Upon meeting the Goddess on their wedding day, for the first time he had felt those same emotions while awake.
It was as if he had known her before he’d ever met her. As if she was the one he had dreamt about. The rational part of him knew it wasn’t possible, but upon meeting her, it was as if he’d met that dream being.
He sighed deeply, rubbing a hand over his heart, trying to dampen the fire he felt burning inside. When had it become a fire? To add to his confusion, whether she was near or far, she had his complete attention. She made the fire inside of him burn even hotter, and that made him uncomfortable. It made him want to escape and to get closer until there was nothing between them.
He repeated the question. Was he ready to give up the Goddess? Was he ready to give up the chance to ever really feel anything again?
. . .
. . .
Regardless of the time she had spent as Si Yin, the past was the past. High God Mo Yuan was gone.
And Ye Hua was here.
Why should he care about a past that was long over before he even came into existence? Ye Hua had spent millennia working hard to be better at everything than anyone else. He had earned his right to be the Crown Prince. He was here today, engaged to the Goddess, because of who he was. And fear would not push him into running away, not fear of his emotions, nor fear of her past, nor fear of the legend he’d been compared to for his entire life.
He took a deep breath, counseling himself to be better. Silence had been his companion for too long, but if he wanted the Goddess to be his, he would have to speak up.
After spending time with her, learning her quirks and habits, her strengths and weaknesses, he knew that he wanted to keep her.
Who was to say that she wouldn’t want to keep him in return?
I stepped into the clearing, my eyes immediately going to the hut. It was the same building, sturdy, unbowing even after the millennia that had passed since its construction. Time had been kind, as I had not been. How long ago had I been here? Decades . . . maybe a century. Seeing the red flutter of a curtain at the window, I couldn’t help but step closer. Red had been that mortal’s favorite color.
After awakening in Zhe Yan’s peach blossom orchard, I’d raced back to the area to vanquish that monster. The mortal trial had ended so long ago; I hadn’t set foot on Mt. Junji since.
After taking care of matters here, I’d rushed back home, worry for shifu eating at me. It had taken me a while to really awaken, but once I truly had, I’d remembered shifu’s plight. Racing back home, I’d found shifu still in the same state. Only, he no longer needed my heart’s blood.
Settling into a quiet life once more in the fox den, I’d tried to forget. Forget the mortal. Forget the man. Forget my stupidity. Forget it all. I hadn’t truly succeeded.
Clenching my fingers into fists, steeling myself to the emotions that I knew would come, I strode towards the building and up the steps. Entering the dark doorway, my eyes moved over the furniture, the bedclothes, and the dishes. Despite the passage of time, there was no significant damage. The spell Sixteenth and I had cast on the hut still protected it from the elements, protecting the building itself from everything but old age.
We’d built the hut when we were young disciples, as a haven from our duties at Kunlun Mountain, not that our seniors had let us languish for long.
Beginning to walk around the small room itself, my ears began hearing the echoes of the past. I could hear the voices of our senior disciples as they scolded Sixteenth and me for wasting our time here rather than cultivating our essence. Sixteenth’s laughter as he pulled yet another prank on me.
I saw Si Yin. Laughing in the clearing. Resting in the Hut. Drinking wine while sitting under the shade of the trees. Lounging in a hammock until rousted by her seniors, who had come to get her before shifu found out about her skipping lessons once again.
I escaped the building, going back outside, taking deep gulps of air to fight the dizziness that had overcome me.
Those memories were soon chased away by her silent shadow. She walked around the clearing, looking a little lost. She talked to her birds and snakes, cradling their living bodies close. Sitting near an open window, she enjoyed the soft wind as it played through her hair. I saw how her fragile hands carefully tend to the broken wing of an injured animal.
I followed her as she walked towards the forest and began to forage for berries.
I saw the acute loneliness in her eyes, as she constantly searched the emptiness around her. I saw the joy in her eyes when she found yet another animal to care for. I saw her begin to fade away as she pined for that man.
When it became too much, when I just wanted her to go away, I saw her walking towards me. She met my eyes boldly, even as she took that final step and melted into me.
Instinctively stepping back, I put my hands up in rejection. I took a deep breath, forcing my body to stop trembling. Shaking my head, trying to shake lose all the thoughts in my head, I forced myself to repeat, “She wasn’t me. I wasn’t her.” Rationally, I knew that no remnant of her remained alive in my consciousness. I was Bai Qian, the only female High Goddess in all of the realms. Still, she was an anchor on my heart. I found it incredible that even now I was affected by her. I’d spent years pondering why, and couldn’t escape the conclusion that it was because of him.
Taking a deep breath for courage, I entered the hut once more. Sitting near an open window, I let myself enjoy the sunlight as it fell across my body. As bitter as it was to admit it, I had run from her shadow for decades. She was the reason I hadn’t come back to the place that had brought me so much peace after losing shifu.
Getting up, I moved towards the bed that still stood strong to one side of the room. While I was different from both Si Yin and that mortal, the things around me had remained the same. Her clothes, still lying there. The red blanket she used to love so much, the one that she had dreamt of sharing with that man, still lay on the bed. Unfading, like the memories of her.
Sitting down, I reached out a hand and caressed it, wondering at the tug I felt in my heart.
. . .. . . . . .
I’d stayed for a few days, letting the peace of Mt. Junji recharge me. It was something that I hadn’t felt in quite a while, when worries for shifu and my own shame pulled at me.
As I left, I turned back one more time and saw her ghost. Her eyes beseeched me silently for something that I wasn’t able to give. But no, there was something that I could do. “I’ll return. I promise. I can’t tell anyone about you. I won’t tell anyone about you, but you won’t be left alone. You won’t be forgotten.”
After her first visit, Bai Qian had promised herself that she would come back at least once every decade. She’d kept that promise, returning to Mt. Junji to rest and recharge. That time got her away from Qing Qiu and from her cave, so that she didn’t become a complete shut in like she’d been after the war. Her family hadn’t understood her need to go, nor had they understood the charm of this simple hut. But they had stopped asking the whys as she continued to make the pilgrimage to Mt. Junji.
Hearing the desperate chirps of an animal nearby, Bai Qian was pulled from her memories, dazed for a moment. Once she’d processed what she was hearing, she swiftly moved towards the source of the sounds. Finding a baby bird lying at the base of a tree, its tiny body huddling in the big roots and grass, she carefully picked it up and cradled its shivering body close to her warmth. Cloud jumping onto a sturdy branch of the tree, she tenderly placed the bird inside its nest. Its mother would be returning soon, and Bai Qian didn’t want the creature to worry.
“You have to be careful,” Bai Qian cautioned the bird, as it promptly rolled to the edge of the nest once more. Placing it back in the center of the nest, she lightly bopped it on the head. “Stay here.” It began to tweet, opening its little beak in demand for food.
Bai Qian absently patted at her clothes, knowing that she would have nothing edible for this baby to eat. Shaking her head as the cries grew louder, she looked around to see if she could find some sustenance. Before she could get too worried, there was a loud squawk and a large bird came directly at her head, trying to peck at her eyes.
Throwing up an arm to protect herself, Bai Qian cloud jumped to the ground. Glaring angrily up, she shouted out an indignant, “Hey!” Her only answer? A wet splatter near enough to her that if she hadn’t jumped back, it would have hit her right between the eyes. “You ungrateful wretch!” she yelped at the hovering bird, shaking her head at its ingratitude. “Serves me right for getting involved.” she muttered, turning to go, she ran smack dab into someone who was standing close behind her.
“What are you doing, Goddess?” It was his voice, amusement rife in his tone. His arms came up to wrap around her, holding her steady when she would have stumbled at the impact of their bodies.
“Nothing,” Bai Qian blurted out, peeking at him.
“It seemed like you were arguing with a bird,” he noted, a lightness in his voice that hadn’t been there before.
She reluctantly nodded her head.
“And it seemed to be winning.”
Bai Qian glared up at him, pushing him away to put some space between them. “A baby just fell from its nest, I was putting it back,” she retorted. “And then that ungrateful bird attacked me. I wasn’t doing it any harm!”
He raised a silent eyebrow.
“Hmph,” she finally said, pouting and turning away. A flush had appeared on her cheeks, embarrassment at having been caught talking to these birds. It was an old habit, one that the mortal had cultivated. She’d spent centuries caring for broken animals to assuage the loneliness, and Bai Qian had carried on those habits even after.
“You’re back,” she finally blurted out, when the silence between them grew too long. He had been gazing at her too gently for her comfort.
He nodded, a smile growing on his lips.
She blinked rapidly.
“. . . I’m back.”
Bai Qian waved a hand across her face, coughing as the smoke began to grow thicker. Glaring at the mess in front of her, as the flames curled up towards the ceiling, reaching for the wooden walls, she wondered how it was possible that she couldn’t even cook an egg.
When she’d awakened this morning, Ye Hua was already gone from his spot at the table in the corner of the room, where he had taken to sleeping after working long into the night.
Taking the opportunity of his disappearance, she’d come into the kitchen straightaway. Even as she’d rubbed the sleep from her eyes, she was pulling the items she would need from the shelves and cabinets. Her methods had been haphazard at best as she’d pulled both the food and utensils without an idea of what she would cook and what she could use to do it. Eventually settling on eggs, she’d begun the process. She’d quickly reached a point where the entire, she looked around, yep, the entire house now was burning down around her.
Muttering a curse, she wondered at her own confidence. She’s been so sure that if Ye Hua could so easily learn how to cook then she could do it too. It wasn’t about being a proper woman, not really. She had never cared about that, but she couldn’t stand looking bad in front of that pup. And if she had ruined breakfast, what better way to show him how hopeless she was, how hopeless their relationship would be?
But she hadn’t thought she would fail this badly. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. Even as she pulled her sleeves back and raised her hands to put everything back to the way it was, she heard a soft gasp behind her. Turning, she glared at the immortal that was the root cause of this state of affairs.
Stepping forward without comment, he raised his hands.
She mirrored his movements in disgruntlement, wondering why he felt the need to step in when she could handle it.
The two extinguished the flames and put the hut back to rights. Because the smoke was still thick in the air, making it difficult for even immortals to breathe, the two moved outside and into the clearing for some fresh air.
Ye Hua turned to glance back at the hut; no hint of the calamity that had befallen the building remained. He turned to look at her with his calm eyes and then sighed. “Qian Qian, just what did you do?”
Her eyes widened at the name that had fallen from his lips. That was not her name; he had never been so informal. She shivered slightly, getting goosebumps all over her body. “Don’t call me that!” she squeaked out. Flushing, she cleared her throat and said in a deeper voice, “Don’t call me that,” glaring at him in emphasis.
“What did you do?” he repeated, placing his hands on her shoulders and gently shaking her. He couldn’t help but smile at how she practically contorted herself to avoid his eyes.
“I was making eggs,” she explained brusquely, looking down and to the side. She irritably pushed a strand of hair off her face when the breeze picked up around them and then stared down at the stains on her sleeve.
“I was only away for ten minutes,” he protested, wondering at the damage he had witnessed.
She shrugged. So what if she’d practically burned down the hut? Hmph. Why should she care that she had embarrassed herself in front of the man that blasted mortal had loved so much? She didn’t.
His features tightened almost imperceptibly.
She caught the reaction, that hint of irritation before he locked it away. She smirked, happy that one thing had gone right today. “What? Are you angry that I can’t do this much?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, clearing his throat. It was his turn to avoid her interested gaze.
She moved quickly, running around him to plant herself in front of him. Crossing her arms across her chest, she raised her chin in challenge. “Your face. It clearly states you’re unhappy with me.”
He shook his head slightly. “I’m not.”
“You are,” she cried out in response. Reaching up, she traced the minute wrinkle present on his brow. “Here’s the proof. And a moment ago, you did this.” She grimaced with an exaggerated, unhappy frown.
He shook his head, a small smile slipping through despite his every effort. “I can’t hide anything, can I?” he asked. There was a flash of emotion in his eyes, a warmth that he hadn’t freely exhibited before.
She stepped back. What had changed? Where was the Crown Prince she had come to know? She didn’t trust that smile.
He controlled her movement with an expedient hold of her hand. “Qian Qian, promise me something,” he urged. “If cook you must, never cook without my supervision.” He gazed deeply into her eyes, moving closer when she refused to answer. His eyes focused on the lips that remained silent, how she bit at one. His finger came up to brush against her lips, urging their compliance.
She swallowed with difficulty, her lips falling open at his temerity.
For a moment, he felt the warmth of her breath against his fingertips, before she deliberately sealed her lips shut, refusing to answer that ridiculous request.
“I am irritated,” he explained, when she remained silent, “because you endangered yourself to try to irritate me.” He squeezed her shoulders now to emphasize his point. “Don’t try anymore. I will not break this engagement. So, promise me that if you decide to cook again, that I will be there to put out any fires.”
“I can put out my own fires.” She stepped back, bringing up her arms to break his hold. She huffed in annoyance when his hands refused to let go.
“Qian Qian,” he uttered. Nothing more.
“Fine. I won’t cook again.” What was the harm in giving the promise when she knew she wouldn’t cook again? He himself had just said that he wouldn’t break their engagement because of any such attempts. So, why bother?
He smiled at her, the appreciation on his face quite apparent.
Her heart lurched, a flush appearing on her cheeks. His smile, that big, grateful smile, changed his face entirely. Up until now, maybe only in the last month, he’d let a tiny smile escape, and that as if it was a precious treasure that must be kept secret; she’d never seen him smile like this. Her hands curled into fists, even as she fought the effects he seemed to have on her body. What was she thinking? Flushing, muttering a near silent curse, Bai Qian rapidly cloud jumped away to escape. She heard him shout something from behind her, but she didn’t dare stop.
She frowned darkly as she flew through the morning clouds, the mist cool against her burning cheeks. There was no point in staying at Mt. Junji now. His presence had ruined everything. She couldn’t find that same peace. It would be better if she just returned home.
The past few months with Ye Hua at Mt. Junji had been like a fantasy that she was fulfilling for the mortal she used to be. She’d felt that mortal rejoicing inside of her when Ye Hua cooked for her or walked with her. When he sought out her company, dragged her to other places, or cared for her in some small way. At times, she became weak, secretly reveling in the fulfillment of the dreams that the mortal had dreamt.
It really was time to go home to Qing Qiu. That mortal was taking over, if her thoughts were anything to go by, escaping the shadows on an increasing basis to take over when she spent too much time with Ye Hua. Besides, she stared at the stains on her sleeve again, she was tired of wearing the same five robes. Even if magic allowed her to clean her robes easily, and she had done so over the past three months, it was time to throw these rags away. She suddenly screeched, angered by the intrusion of the mortal once more. The High Goddess Bai Qian did not care about her wardrobe!
In her obsession with the immortal she had left behind today, and the mortal that she had left behind centuries ago, Bai Qian didn’t realize that she was flying into an incoming storm. Barely avoiding a lightning strike, Bai Qian saw the dark clouds now obscuring her view. The next few minutes were tense, as she attempted to avoid the lightning and wild gusts of wind that seemed intent to push her off course. By the time she safely reached the clear sky on the other side, Bai Qian was wet, bedraggled and hopelessly lost. Knowing that she wouldn’t find her way home from here, Bai Qian landed on the ground below, hoping to find clues to which way was home.
Luck was on her side; she found herself near a mortal town, her eyes taking in the drab little homes in front of her, the crooked streets, the livestock wandering around. As she moved through the town, the colors grew more vibrant, the lights brighter, until the town itself took on a certain charm of its own.
She had long since dried herself, wringing out the last drops of wetness the storm had unleashed on her. But her feet were tired, and she wanted to go home and rest. She’d even take the hut with the increasingly uncomfortable Crown Prince over being lost.
“I was going north when the storm came. I got turned around, but I couldn’t have been pushed too far. Then, it’s just a matter of finding out which way is home.” Scratching her head, she began to go over a small bridge, her eyes looking to the far distance.
In her distraction she failed to see the inebriated man walking her way until she bumped into him. She heard him gasp in surprise, before a hand come out and roughly grabbed her arm. Bai Qian pulled back, looking up at him coldly.
“Madam, you are truly a fine-looking woman. I very much admire you,” the young noble said to her admiringly, leering at her.
She backed up, wrinkling her nose at the alcoholic fumes coming her way. Putting up a hand, she waved it in front of her nose, hoping to dispel the strong scent. “You are too kind.” She moved to walk around him.
The noble stepped in her path once more, blocking her from further movement. He reached out a hand to try to touch her, the leer growing wider across his face.
She jerked her hand back and away, frowning at him. He was too young to be this perverted. Just what was he thinking touching women on the streets? Did he have no sense of preservation?
“Your hand is fair and delicate as well!” he stated obliviously, gazing at her flawless skin. He leaned closer to her and confided, “I have fallen in love with you at first sight.” He put out his hand to touch hers once more. “Would you–?”
Bai Qian sighed in exasperation, knowing that she would have to do something about this idiotic mortal. Otherwise, she might be here the entire night trying to evade his drunken advances.
A hand suddenly appeared between the two and blocked the mortal’s reach, before pushing the other man away.
Suddenly, Ye Hua was at her side, looking impeccable as ever, she was quick to note. He certainly hadn’t gotten caught up in that storm.
The sizzling glance he threw her way left her in no doubt that there was a fire burning inside of him. Now, whether that fire was for her or the mortal before them, only time would tell.
“That hurts!” the mortal yelped, cradling his arm close. He glared daggers at the man standing between him and his prize.
“You seem to be having a merry time taking liberties with my wife,” Ye Hua stated, ignoring the other man’s pain. He glanced at Bai Qian once more, his face now almost expressionless, but he couldn’t completely hide the anger that was burning inside of him. At least, not from her.
“You’re here,” she noted, silently urging him to be patient. Who knew the kind of damage unhappy immortals like them could do to this mortal plane?
When he only gazed at her quietly, she had to lower her head, thinking how she could stop the impending explosion she saw brewing in his eyes. Where was the perpetually cool-headed immortal she had come to know and . . .
“How dare you? Do you know who I am?” the mortal cried out, unable to see the danger. If he had been less drunk, less of a libertine, he may have taken heed, but he had spent a lifetime getting what he wanted. He couldn’t fathom a reality where he would fail.
Ye Hua raised a hand and casually flicked his fingers, making the mortal disappear. His gaze remained on the Goddess at all times.
“Where did you send him off to?” she asked, clearing her throat at his continued silence. His silence, his regard, his proximity to her all made her uncomfortable.
“I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. His eyes mutely demanded an answer.
Bai Qian laughed softly, the amusement making her forget the intensity of the moment. “Even if you hadn’t shown up, I was already thinking of doing that.”
“Why didn’t you try to avoid him when he was taking advantage of you?” Ye Hua demanded, a petulant tone entering his words.
“He merely touched me once or twice!” she protested plaintively, stepping back. Why did he have to be so angry about something so minor? It wasn’t her fault. Wasn’t he the one who urged no magic usage in the mortal plane, and now he was blaming her for thinking twice before using it?
Ye Hua’s lips firmed once more, and he abruptly pulled her into his embrace, his arms wrapping around her waist. It was the utter silence around them, where there had been a world full of noise that brought them out of the moment. The two looked around to find the townspeople staring at them askance.
Bai Qian stepped back, pulling out of his arms to put some distance between the two. She took a deep breath or two, hoping to stop the wild beating of her heart.
Ye Hua raised his arm and froze everything around them, not wanting the world to intrude on this moment. Qian Qian had to realize the intimacy inherent in a touch, and know that no one but Ye Hua could touch her.
As Bai Qian looked around, her eyes taking in the stillness that had fallen over everyone, Ye Hua reached out and pulled her into his embrace once more. This time the strength in his arms was readily apparent, his hold tighter, as he held her closer than ever before.
She gazed into his eyes, a gasp falling from her lips. “Ye Hua,” she breathed out, her eyes taking in the banked flames she saw. Where had this fire come from?
He leaned in closer, sharing her breath. Moments passed, and her eyelids began to press down, as if they were too heavy to bear the weight of his intoxicating presence. She felt her heart beating wildly once more, every inch of her aware of his warmth pressed closely against her body. The strength of the arm he had wrapped around her waist. The feel of his breath against her lips, burning them, making them feel swollen and aching for something more.
He leaned closer still until their lips were pressing against each other. They shared another breath, and her body melted into his. She felt a gentle nip against her lips, a soft urging for her to open her lips once more. She couldn’t. After a moment of hesitation, even as she began to silently push at him with her hands against his hardness, Ye Hua let her go and stepped back.
She gazed at him, wide-eyed, unable to get words past the lump in her throat. Even if she could have, what would she have said? What was there to say? Her lips fell open on a gasp, and she spent the next few moments trying to catch her breath.
“Qian Qian,” he stated hoarsely, “You were merely kissed once or twice.”
. . .
. . .
. . .
Chapter 10: Her
“Qian Qian . . . “
She froze, her mind struggling with patches of other memories, of being held . . .of yearning to kiss those lips. It hadn’t been a dream, had it? She rubbed at her forehead, as that moment of heady magic burned anew inside of her. Forcing her mind to retrace those flashes . . .back to moments of murmured sighs and near silent moans. In the darkness of the night, with only the moon to light their way, there had been heat and warmth. She had burned, even as she had sought to be closer to the fire. His arms had been strong around her waist, and she had nearly strangled him with the hold she had around his neck.
“Ye Hua. . . . Ye Hua, you . . .”
They had been close, so close.
Pulling back from the past, forcing herself to remain in the now, she gazed into his dark eyes. Bai Qian felt as if the air was frozen in her lungs. She couldn’t have looked away from his gaze even if she wanted to; she was lost. In all of her existence, she had never come across someone so brazen. Staring at him blankly, her mouth slightly open, she told her body to act, react, but her muscles refused to listen.
He gazed into her shocked eyes, waiting for something, anything. His arms were still wrapped around her waist, his face inches from hers, the two sharing breaths as the moments ticked by. Time, that had stopped for a moment, began to move once more. The world around them came to life, and he reached up and gently closed her mouth with a touch of his finger against her chin. His fingers remained, caressing her skin, stealing a touch he knew he had no right to. In that stolen moment, he closed his eyes and inhaled, taking the scent of her deep inside.
Bai Qian finally jerked back, pushing out of his arms and rubbing at her chin, trying to erase the sensations his touch had evoked. Glaring at him mutely, she blew out air from her lips, hoping to cool the heat in her cheeks. “Merely?’ she whispered, and then cleared her throat, hitting at her chest a time or two. “Merely?” she yelled this time and saw the townspeople were staring at them once more. While she’d been having her mini-crisis, Ye Hua had unfrozen the lot of them to stand around and gawk. She scurried away, silently berating herself for feeling embarrassed. He was the one who had acted hastily.
“You left all of your things behind,” he noted huskily from behind her, his voice sending a shiver down her back. “If you left now, you’d only have to return. Why not begin your journey tomorrow?”
She turned back, her eyes surreptitiously tracing his lips before darting up to meet his interested gaze. She could still feel the heat, her lips inflamed from the gentle impact of his. Her mind was reeling, and he could calmly talk about returning to Mt. Junji?
“Qian Qian,” he urged persuasively, “Let’s go home.”
“Qian Qian, let’s go somewhere today. The immortal realms have much to offer us.”
“Where would we go? Why would we go?”
“We’ve been on Mt. Junji for some time now. I’ve left many times to take care of business, but you, you haven’t left the mountain at all. I’m sure there are things that we can explore out there.”
. . .
“I don’t want to.”
“Qian Qian, please.”
. . .
Her head jerked back, seeking to clear it of all confusing thoughts. Remaining silent, she moved away from him, struggling to think through the storm his kiss had awakened.
“Or are you afraid, Goddess?” he called out tauntingly.
She whirled around, just in time to see a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips. Taking in that expression, she retorted mutinously, “I know what you’re doing.” When he said nothing, she continued curtly, “I’m not afraid of anything.” And yet, she began to walk towards Mt. Junji, feeling she had something to prove to this young pup.
He grabbed her arm, halting her progress, “Then why are you still running away?”
Bai Qian shot him a look of confusion, which was enough for him to deduce the truth. “Where is Mt. Junji, Goddess?” he asked the headstrong immortal in front of him, his hold strong around her wrist, his fingertips resting against her madly beating pulse.
She raised her free hand to point in the direction she was facing, surprised that she needed to tell him that.
Huffing in near silent laughter, he grasped her by the shoulders and turned her so that she was facing the other way. “Mt. Junji is that way.”
“Qian Qian, I apologize for last night. I did not know the drink would hit me so hard. High God Zhe Yan told me that it was a special wine. He assured me that it would not be overly strong . . . I think he played a prank on me. I hadn’t meant for any of it to happen.”
“I was the one who was drunk. Why are you apologizing?”
“Because . . . do you not remember the moments we shared, Goddess?”
. . .
“I remember nothing, Crown Prince Ye Hua. I was drunk.”
“But . . .”
“What does it matter? We need to return to Mt. Junji. We left so quickly at your insistence that I forgot to put the preservation spell on the structure. Who knows what condition it will be in now?”
. . .
“Qian Qian, don’t worry. I placed the spell. Nothing has happened. At least, nothing that you have to worry about.”
Later that night, Ye Hua sat down at the edge of the bed, his eyes trained on the sleeping features of the woman before him. She sighed softly, nestling her cheek against the hands curled up on the pillow, her fingers laced together, and sank into deeper slumber.
Bai Qian, the Fox Queen of Qing Qiu. High Goddess and venerable Gugu of the realms. She was Si Yin, Mo Yuan’s disciple. She was a warrior, had fought many battles before they had ever met, carried scars from those battles that he had yet to see. There were things about her that he still didn’t know, secrets that she was still keeping from him.
His fingers curled into fists as they rested on his thighs. In all of the time they had spent together, she had become so much more to him than just the woman the Heavenly Emperor had chosen for him. He was learning her secrets one by one, learning her, little by little. And the more he knew, the more he liked. She intrigued him, amused him and amazed him on a daily basis.
Over time, he had begun to care with his heart; she had become his Qian Qian. And the more he cared, the more he slipped into a dangerous territory where he sought ways to get her to smile and look at only him. And hadn’t that desire lead to his downfall many times in the time they had spent together? He’d gotten drunk, stolen moments with her that his mind still replayed in his mind on a nightly basis. Her refusal to acknowledge any of it irritated him far more than he cared to admit.
“High God Zhe Yan has created a special wine.”
“He does so every now and then.”
“Would you like to try it? I’ve arranged for him to allow us the sole use of his orchard, with some of that most special wine at the ready.”
“I’ve tasted a new vintage every year in the Peach Blossom Orchard. What would be different this time around?”
“I would be there with you.”
And that wasn’t even the extent of the mistakes he had made on that trip to Zhe Yan’s Orchard, a matter of the High God having too much fun at their expense.
He flushed, the embarrassment still strong over that mishap. Where he had wanted to impress her and think of ways to distract her from the monotony of their existence on Mt. Junji, the more he had stumbled due to his own ineptitude. It was only at this moment that he regretted never caring enough to learn the art of courtship. Having had a fiancée from the moment of his birth, he’d never thought he would need those skills.
Reaching out a hand, he carefully brushed aside the tendrils strewn across her face. Once done with its task, those fingers lingered against the softness of her skin, his lips tightening when he felt her nestling into the palm of his hand. His thumb secretively brushed against her rosy lips, traced the shadow of a brow, before he forced himself to pull away. He wanted nothing more than to lie next to her, gazing at her the entire night, but nothing would justify that intrusion. And she would make him sorry that he had done so again without her permission. Sighing quietly, he got up and moved across the room to sit down at his table and stare at the scrolls awaiting his review.
After encountering that lascivious mortal and the unplanned kiss, the two had returned to the hut. The sun had been high in the sky, a cool breeze brushing across the leaves, as they entered the clearing. Bai Qian had immediately gone to lie down in her hammock, claiming that she was tired from battling that big storm.
The rest of the morning was spent in silence, each in their own corner, doing their daily tasks. Ye Hua had soon picked up his bow and arrow to go hunt in the forest. Returning, he prepared their mid-day meal with the game he’d captured. It wasn’t long before he’d gone to the Goddess, insisting on her help.
After a brief moment of hesitation, Bai Qian had risen and entered the hut. She’d proved an able assistant, easily following the simple orders he’d given her. Heavenly scents had soon begun to waft from the pots on the stove, and only then had she spoken to him. Even then, she refused to meet his eyes.
“It’s time for me to go back to the Fox Den; I’m not running away, Ye Hua,” she shot warningly at him, daring him to say otherwise. “We’ve spent too much time here; there are tasks waiting back home that will need my attention. I’m surprised the Celestial Clan hasn’t demanded your return already.”
“As am I,” he responded, a smile playing across his lips for a brief moment before disappearing. Acknowledging the validity of her statement with a nod of his head, Ye Hua had turned back to the task at hand. It was only as they sat down to eat, continuing to remain silent, that Ye Hua allowed his thoughts free rein. On hearing of her impending departure, Ye Hua had felt a small pang in his heart, before he’d ruthlessly quashed that foreign emotion. It was only right that she go back. They couldn’t continue pretending to be mortals, living only for leisure while the world continued around them.
The day had continued in a familiar domestic pattern, and night had soon come. While Bai Qian read her novels on the bed, Ye Hua had sat at his table, reading his scrolls. It wasn’t long before the Goddess had fallen asleep. It was only deep into the night, when there was no chance that the Goddess was still awake, that Ye Hua had given into temptation and moved to her bedside to gaze at her. Minutes had ticked by, and soon an hour had passed before he could make himself return to his work.
With one final glance at a face that had become so familiar to him, more familiar than his own since he never looked in a mirror, he put his head down and began to review the scrolls. His mind was made up; he would return to the Nine Heavens. Bai Qian would go back to Qing Qiu. He knew the longer they stayed in this idyllic place, the longer their lives would be at a standstill. There would be no movement forward.
He wanted to move forward, with her by his side.
“Qian Qian, you were here? I was looking everywhere for you.”
. . .
“Goddess, are you alright?”
‘You’ve been asleep for six days.”
. . .
“I’m sorry for worrying you. That was not my intent.”
“I wasn’t worried. You didn’t drink that much. In fact, when I was a child, I drank twice the amount you did and slept for five days. I woke up . . . I was sure you would, too.”
. . .
“What have you been doing the entire time I was asleep?”
“Nothing. Just sitting here. Enjoying the breeze, the peach blossoms and Zhe Yan’s wine. The special wine you wanted us to taste.”
“You didn’t think to escape?”
“Hadn’t really thought of it. Besides, it kept me busy.”
“Tasting all of Zhe Yan’s wine. I didn’t stop at the special batch that made you fall asleep. He had a new batch he was hiding from me. I found it and finished it.”
. . .
“Zhe Yan’s begging for me to leave now. Oops.”
. . .
“Qian Qian! Be careful.”
“You’re drunk. How can you be drunk?”
“Ye Hua, I’m so cold. I need . . . let me . . .”
“Let’s get you inside.”
“Qian Qian, what are you doing?”
. . .
“Qian Qian . . .”
Ye Hua woke up, hearing the trill of birds outside the Hut, signaling that Mao, the Sun God had risen far before he had that day. The air was redolent with the scent of blooming flowers and pine needles. The sound of the wind blowing through the leaves was a soothing accompaniment to the sound of his own breaths. Maybe it was the fact that he had slept more deeply than he was used to, that he had slept without dreams, that it took him a moment to notice the weight in his arms. And another moment to realize the warmth against his shoulder was her head, the weight across his chest her arm as it reached across to hook onto his shoulder, that the heavenly scent of peach blossoms that he inhaled with every breath came from the tendrils of her hair that had fallen across his face.
He blinked rapidly, his eyes moving around the room to ensure that he was still in his corner and hadn’t wandered in his sleep back to the bed. The Goddess would be incensed if he had made the same mistake yet again. The ground was hard beneath him, the weight of the blanket over his body familiar. He was where he was supposed to be. This time, it truly was Bai Qian’s fault.
He looked down once more and then back up at the ceiling. He wasn’t dreaming. She was in his arms, snuggling against his side. He could feel every inch of her against him, her softness pressing against his hard body. The fire inside of him stirred, awakened, the flames growing hotter still due to the millennia they had been suppressed. They hadn’t had a reason to burn, not until she came into his life.
Settling back, forcing his body to relax, he let himself enjoy the moment. Allowed himself the chance to revel in the feel of her in his arms, relish the warmth of her body next to his as they lay in the cocoon of blankets in the cool morning air. Her arm lay heavy across the expanse of his chest, across the scar right in the center, so near his heart. Her every breath matched his, syncing into a rhythm that hypnotized him until he felt himself falling completely under her spell.
His hand reached over and gently caressed her cheek with the back of his fingers, a thumb brushing against her parted lips, feeling her breath moist against his skin. He lingered there, his mind drunk on the feel of her. Every other time they had awakened when she awoke, his mind struggling to understand how they had come to be in the same bed. Only now did he get the chance to enjoy the moment, to familiarize himself with the hollows and shapes of her body, to imprint her presence into himself. If he had anything to do about it, it wouldn’t be long before they were sleeping in each other’s arms on a nightly basis. She began to move, restless, and his hand dropped away, waiting for the explosion to come.
Bai Qian awakened, gazing up at him with a sleepy smile. For a moment, before all thought crowded in, there was blissful peace. There was a moment of belonging, of feeling rested as she had never felt before. But then the realization, as her mind fully awakened. She shot up to a sitting position, rigid, her eyes facing forward.
He stared at her back, and then slowly sat up. Reaching out a hand impulsively, he stopped before making actual contact, uncertain of whether he should touch her, to ask what was going on. But before he could decide, before he could speak, she was moving away from him, flying back across the room.
Getting up, he began to put on his robes in the oppressive silence. He wasn’t sure of what he should do; life hadn’t taught him to deal with these kinds of volatile situations. He did know that it wasn’t smart to point out who had been at fault this time around.
Bai Qian did the same, her back to him the entire time. She was only grateful that she’d gotten in the habit of sleeping in most of her robes, so at least there hadn’t been the added embarrassment of awakening in his arms while nearly naked. Biting her lip, she wondered frantically about how she had moved across the room and to his bed without once waking? When had it happened? When? She scoured her mind, and a wisp of a memory, of her, tugged at the loose threads of her memory. Bai Qian had dreamt of that nameless, silent shadow last night. The one who insisted on living her dreams through Bai Qian.
Lightly brushing her fingers through her hair, Bai Qian moved towards the window. Her eyes on the clearing outside, her thoughts turning inwards. She kept on intruding, even when Bai Qian wanted nothing more than to push him away. She kept on insisting of her right to live her dreams with him.
“I have heard of a place in the Southern Sea that has legendary wine.”
“Better than Zhe Yan’s? That isn’t possible, Ye Hua.”
“Just because it isn’t possible, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try it. Drinking new wine, savoring new flavors . . . isn’t that worth our time?”
She had dreamt of her playing house with him last night. She had dreamt of drinking mediocre wine with him, eating with him, of cooking with him. They had laughed, and then that laughter had turned into an intimacy that made her blush in her waking hours. Silently groaning, covering her face to hide from her shame, she mentally berated herself. She was the reason that Bai Qian had walked across the room and slept in his arms last night. It was all her. It had to be. High Goddess Bai Qian would never take such a bold step; did he think that she had done it on purpose? He knew better, right?
“Wake up, Goddess. We have a long trip ahead of us.”
“Let me sleep, Ye Hua!”
“Qian Qian, you are interested in plays, correct? The mortals put them on daily in the town below; I have also heard you talk about how you have watched plays with your Fourth Brother in your travels.”
“. . . Yes.”
“Well, the immortals in your brother’s realm have decided that they will put on a play tonight. Your Fourth Brother has invited us to attend and to stay overnight afterwards. I would like for us to go.”
. . .
“It will be good to see Fourth Brother.”
There were soft footsteps behind her, the movement of air. Her hands fell away. Stiffening, she waited for him to say something. Her fingers curled into fists as the silence continued, as her impatience grew. Whirling around, she ordered, “Say something!”
“Like you, I will also be leaving today, Goddess,” he uttered, breaking the heavy silence. “I have been away for too long from my duties.”
She wasn’t sure of what to say. She was surprised that he would ignore the situation they had found themselves in, surprised at the pang she felt at his revelation. The time they had spent here, the time they had spent traveling across the realms, all of it had created an intimacy between them that she had never expected to have with her fiancé. Time had passed so swiftly. She’d become too comfortable, too used to this reality. And the fact that she’d become this comfortable, made her feel uncomfortable, especially since that mortal seemed to have begun controlling her actions.
“There is an event that I cannot avoid,” he continued, unperturbed by her silence. “Third Uncle sent an urgent message.”
Tian Shu and Jia Yun had come on a regular basis to check in, to bring new work, but she had forgotten all of the responsibilities he had on his shoulders as the Crown Prince, and the future Heavenly Emperor. She had forgotten his reputation of being so dedicated, of being an upright and sober Crown Prince. He was returning to that . . .
“When can we see each other?” he asked after a pause.
She raised an eyebrow at that question. “We haven’t even parted yet.” Even if he was the Crown Prince, his behavior at moments like these surprised her. She shrugged her shoulders, and offered, “On our wedding day?”
“I refuse to wait that long,” he said softly, moving closer and leaning in, bringing his face breathtakingly close to hers. “I will come see you at your Fox Den soon,” he promised, before stepping back.
Nodding her head, she answered unthinkingly, “And I’ll be there.” Biting her lip, she raced out the doors.
Ye Hua made his way to the clearing, watching the Goddess place the preservation spell on the structure once more. She nodded her head at him, and turned to move towards home. He wanted to follow her to her fox den, to make sure that she got there safely. But duty called, and she was a Goddess; she could take care of herself. Albeit, one with a very poor sense of direction, he noted, as he watched her walk way. “Qian Qian!”
She turned to glance at him.
“Qing Qiu is in that direction,” he explained, pointing to the left. “Just go straight.”
“Gugu, you’re back!” Migu cried out, racing to her as she stood outside of the cave and bowed down. “I was waiting for you to come back.”
Bai Qian nodded indolently before making her way inside. She was back in her den, and she wanted nothing more than to rest in her bed for a good while before tackling anything else.
“Gugu, I didn’t get a chance to tell you, but Shao Xin was looking for you,” Migu stated, coming to stand in front of her. “She came by for many days, seeming to grow more and more desperate over time. Of course, I refused to tell her where you were.”
Bai Qian raised an eyebrow in question.
Migu shrugged. “She never told me what she wanted. Only that she needed to talk to you. She had the cloud-clearing fan in her hands.”
“I didn’t see her when I came in,” Bai Qian answered, moving towards the comfort of her room and her bed. Sitting down, she stared at the bowl of fruit next to her bed. For a moment, her eyes glazed over, even as the fruit blurred in front of her eyes. Sighing deeply, she lay back in the bed, wondering at what she was feeling right now. She couldn’t be missing him, could she? She vigorously shook her head to clear that thought right out. They had just parted!
“She finally gave up.” Migu’s voice pulled her back from her thoughts, making her realize that he was still standing there, nattering away about Shao Xin.
Shao Xin . . .
“What’s wrong? Were you bullied by those young immortals again?”
“They laugh at me for being a snake.”
“. . . This is called a cloud clearing fan. It was given to me by the Lord of Numinous Treasures. I’m giving it to you . . . It’s yours now.”
Shao Xin had left her life long ago; she didn’t deserve any more of her time than necessary. If she truly needed her help, she could return. Bai Qian would listen to any requests Shao Xin made, but wouldn’t seek her out. She owed her no more than that.
“Gugu, I didn’t know it then, not while she was here, but her oldest son was actually sentenced to a mortal trial.”
“What did he do?” Bai Qian asked with indifference.
Migu leaned in to relay, “He attempted to harass the Heavenly Emperor’s side consort.”
Bai Qian raised a silent brow and then shrugged her shoulders. “Migu, without me here to send you on errands these days, you’ve been living quite freely. Have you spent all of your time listening to gossip that doesn’t concern us? I’ve been gone for a long time. I must give you tasks to keep you busy.”
“But Gugu,” he said in confusion, “you came back yesterday.” He scratched at his head and repeated, “You came back. You told me to stay here.”
Bai Qian’s eyes widened at that statement. Getting up, she stared intently into Migu’s eyes, finally noticing the spell she hadn’t seen before. Flinging up her hands, she wove her own spell, breaking the enchantment that had entrapped Migu.
His eyes cleared and she saw panic grow in them. He dropped at her feet. “Gugu! You’re finally back! Something horrible happened. Xuan Nu took on your appearance and took away High God Mo Yuan’s body! I tried to stop her, but I failed.” His voice trembled as he spat out the confession, wringing his hands with both guilt and worry. He had failed his Gugu.
Bai Qian’s expression had iced over, her features firming into determination as she listened to Migu. Without a word, she called the Jade Purity Fan to her and cloud jumped away, ignoring Migu’s worried cries behind her. She would go to the Ghost Palace and get her shifu back, and, in the process, teach Xuan Nu a lesson.
Her flight was quick as she traveled to the Ghost Realm. She hadn’t been there for over 70,000 years, but hadn’t forgotten the way. It wasn’t often that one forgot the place they had been held captive. Landing in front of Grand Ziming Palace, her eyes carefully noted the lack of guards out front. She smirked, tapping a finger to her chin. It was almost as if Xuan Nu was inviting her inside.
Taking out her Jade Purity Fan, she held it at the ready, her eyes intent on any hint of movement. It was then that they came, a rush of enemies, their one purpose to harm her. Her arm struck out, using the Fan’s power to send them into dust flying and flames dying. Finishing the guards in the clearing, Bai Qian stepped inside the palace. She saw Xuan Nu standing at the dais, laughing at Bai Qian from behind her contingent of guards.
“Qian Qian, I trust you’ve been well since we last met 70,000 years ago. Yesterday, I took Mo Yuan’s body. I knew you’d come find me. I’ve been waiting here for you the whole time.” She crossed her arms across her chest, and smirked. “You’ve been preserving Mo Yuan’s body quite well. I’m really happy about it.” Pacing back and forth, but keeping the guards between them, Xuan Nu crowed, “My son will get High God Mo Yuan’s vitality.” She gestured with her hand, inviting Bai Qian to come closer. “Because of your contributions, I’ll have them kill you quickly.”
Bai Qian snorted, looking at the guards in front of her, standing at the ready and noted their numbers. She carefully calculated her mode of attack, and then willed the Jade Purity Fan into a sword. Allowing no emotions to bleed through and impair her judgment in this fight, she coolly uttered, “Xuan Nu, that depends on whether you have the ability to do so.” She launched her attack, waiting no longer, and fought until there stood only two guards between her and Xuan Nu.
The High Goddess advanced slowly, the murderous rage in her eyes causing Xuan Nu to feel a flicker of fear before the other woman ruthlessly tamped it down. “Seeing you covered in wounds really makes my heart ache for you.” The insincerity was blatant in her voice, as she stared at the blood seeping red across the blue of Bai Qian’s robes. “Who will you call upon to save you now? Today, I’ll take your life. Then, I’ll be the only one in the world with this face. Kill her for me!” she yelled at her guards, gesturing wildly.
Bai Qian glared at her before launching another attack at the final two guards. She quickly killed them with one decisive throw of the sword, which then continued on its way to its intended target, Xuan Nu.
The Ghost Queen saw the weapon coming her way, and, with the flick of her hand, she moved Mo Yuan’s body forward so that it became a shield. Knowing that the other immortal would be distracted by this stratagem, he threw her black magic at Bai Qian, crowing in silent victory when the harmful magic found its target.
Bai Qian gasped near silently, watching the sword get closer to her beloved shifu. She forced her body to act, calling her weapon back to her. She lost her breath once more when Xuan Nu’s magic hit her, struggling to breathe through the pain. She felt someone land behind her, the shade of black immediately revealing it to be Ye Hua. Why was he here?
Ye Hua moved Mo Yuan’s body out of the way, all the while scrutinizing her injured condition. “Qian Qian,” he stated softly, placing an arm around her shoulders.
Bai Qian looked at him in irritation. “If you came an hour earlier, I wouldn’t have been injured like this.” She paused for a moment. She had fought her own battles for millennia, then why did it matter that he be here?
He nodded his head at her justified irritation. “I’m sorry for coming late. Tell me who injured you.”
She laughed softly, even as a rivulet of blood trickled from her lips. “I’ve already killed everyone who injured me. That woman is the only one left.” Her eyes were cold in a face devoid of emotion, as she planned how she would punish Xuan Nu.
He gazed down at her face. He could feel the exhaustion in her body as he held her close. “Do you want to take care of it yourself or do you want me to help you?”
Bai Qian raised her chin defiantly, the contempt she felt for Xuan Nu now blazing in her eyes. “She humiliated my master, hurting him in her futile attempt to use his body for her child.” Raising her hand, she threw the Jade Purity Fan at Xuan Nu, the weapon following her intent to its true target, the black heart of the immortal standing in front of her. “I will finish her myself.”
The weapon was stopped by a another black clad figure, coming to stand in front of Xuan Nu, who then sent it back at its master. It was only as the Jade Purity Fan returned towards her that Bai Qian realized how tired she was, how sluggish her movements had become. She tried to catch the Fan, but she was a moment too late.
Ye Hua stepped in and grabbed it, preventing it from hitting her.
She gazed dazedly as Li Jing got it wrong once more. She could hear him calling Xuan Nu Si Yin. She looked up at Ye Hua who was quietly watching the scene in front of them. Ye Hua had had no doubts about who she was when he’d arrived, coming immediately to her side when he’d entered the palace.
Xuan Nu hadn’t remained silent, explaining that she was Xuan Nu and urging Li Jing to follow through with her plan to kill Bai Qian. “Your Majesty, if we just kill that wench Bai Qian, then I’ll be the only one in this world with this face. If you like it, you can stare at me all day.”
Bai Qian snorted softly, wondering at Xuan Nu’s daring. Would this wench ever grow out of her insecurity. She was tired of having to deal with her. “That woman took my master,” Bai Qian called out coldly.
“Your Majesty, our son will get better soon.” Xuan Nu was getting desperate, as if she realized that she was now surrounded by those who would not hear her words. “Really. Look. Look at Mo Yuan. We’ll turn him into an elixir. Your Majesty, you were jealous of Mo Yuan in the past, right? You don’t have to be jealous anymore.”
Bai Qian’s brow wrinkled in confusion. Why would Li Jing have been jealous of Mo Yuan? Because her shifu was a legend, and Li Jing was nothing compared to that? Shaking her head, she heard Xuan Nu say, “Our son will have Mo Yuan’s vitality soon.”
Stepping forward, Bai Qian challenged the other immortal. “Xuan Nu, let me tell you something. My master’s body is extremely precious. It has received blood from my heart for 70,000 years. I’m afraid your son won’t be able to handle that.”
Ye Hua spoke up, irritation ripe in his words, “Li Jing, let’s not talk about your past for the time being. I want to ask you how you plan on taking care of today’s matters. Do you want to do it privately or publicly?” His words were candid when he further explained what he meant by each punishment. His icy demeanor showed the Ghost King how serious Ye Hua was about retribution.
As Li Jing glared angrily at Xuan Nu, she dropped to her knees in front of him, begging for mercy, reminding him that she was only doing this for their son, of all she had done for him in the past. Turning her head, Xuan Nu shot daggers at the two standing at the doors of the palace. “Don’t think I don’t know that you wouldn’t dare to deploy troops. You don’t have that power! You’re just the Celestial Crown Prince. The Heavenly Emperor wouldn’t agree to deploy the troops for the sake of one woman.”
Ye Hua gazed at her quietly; only Bai Qian could feel the tightness in his arm as she held onto it. Only she could see the slight trembling of his frame as he battled the rage inside. She waited for him to speak, curious about what he would say.
“I’m not deploying troops for the sake of one woman,” he answered. “High God Mo Yuan is a highly-respected God of the Celestial Tribe. High Goddess Bai Qian is the future Heavenly Empress. Right now, these two people have suffered extraordinary humiliation at Grand Ziming Palace. Do you think the Celestial soldiers will just let this slide?”
Li Jing formally bowed his head, asking for mercy for his crazy bride.
“Qian Qian. Do you think we should show mercy?” Ye Hua mused out loud, turning to look at her questioningly.
Xuan Nu began to laugh at the way he stood slightly in front of Bai Qian, as if protecting her. Her features took on an avid glow, as she gleefully pointed out, “Celestial Crown Prince, so much for you treating that wench Bai Qian so well. You don’t know, do you? She and her master…”
There was a sudden movement, and then a spark as the Crown Prince threw his magic at her. She flew back, falling over and coughing out blood. Slowly, carefully getting up, the fear now quite visible in her eyes, she waited for whatever came next.
“Qian Qian said her face looks like yours… But I don’t see any similarities at all,” Ye Hua noted dispassionately.
He stood back, letting Bai Qian exact her revenge. She swiftly crossed the room to strip Xuan Nu’s visage of her own face, telling Xuan Nu that she was tired of seeing the other immortal with her face. Ignoring Xuan Nu’s screams of horror, Bai Qian turned back to walk into Ye Hua’s arms, leaning heavily against him. The battle had taken its toll, and she was barely holding onto her consciousness.
“Qian Qian, can you take care of yourself?” he asked, his voice gentle against her ears.
But even that was too much. She shakily shook her head, allowing her eyes to close, closing out the world. It was too hard to stay awake, and she knew that she could trust Ye Hua to get them home.
“If you can’t, just sleep for a bit.” Picking her up, and gesturing for Mo Yuan’s body, Ye Hua turned to go. With one final order, “Li Jing. You do as you see fit. Take care of it yourself, or the Celestial Clan will have their revenge,” Ye Hua left the Ghost Palace.
The need to get his Goddess back to her Fox Den and take care of her injuries was priority at the moment, but he would send someone to ensure that justice had been done this day. The Ghost Queen could no longer continue to wreak havoc in the realms. Not after what she had done to Qian Qian.