As the Princess of the Ghost Tribe, there was nothing Qiao Xin feared. Since a young age, her curriculum and training regimen had been more extensive than that of a normal immortal child of the realm. Just because she was a royal did not mean she was not punished for her failures. Her guardians saw to that, the lot of them. From putting her in charge of High Generals to Crimson Royal Guards, the Queen of the Ghost Tribe did not let her training slack in the least. Qiao Xin lost count of the number of times she had been locked up and had to find a way to escape her punishment. It became a game, a habit. Then it became her life.
If she were not a royal, would life have been easier?
Qiao Xin knew she had been caught in the act, and the repercussions would not be light. The threads binding her were made from thousand year old silkworms of the Fox Realm. Hundreds of fibers wrapped around her body like a cocoon all thanks to the 4th King of the Fox Realm. There was no escape. Qiao Xin had to admit defeat, even if it was only momentary.
Now caught between two powerful men, Qiao Xin could only stand in silence as they negotiated terms. Listening to the men exchange words of politeness while she struggled was infuriating enough, but they added insult to the injury by ignoring her existence entirely. Her hostile glare elicited no reaction. General Zhao, who was worse than a silent monk of the realm, was livid when he arrived at the doorstep of Bai Zhen’s Fox Den. The General’s dark aura was never hidden; no doubt the High God Bai Zhen noticed, but he did not even raise a brow at the fact. General Zhao never liked to bow to other kinds, especially the relaxed King of the Fox Tribe. They were total opposites in every regard.
Bai Zhen, the 4th King, was a beautiful man, she had to admit. His beauty was known throughout the realms. It was said, only his sister, the Crown Princess of the Celestial Clan could compete with his ethereal aura. What made Foxes fascinating was their hold on vast regions of immortal land that continued to expand to this day. Unlike other tribes who sought power through other means, Foxes were one of the rare few who could gather followers without using threats or violence. Admired and envied by all, they did not interfere with other realms’ politics or disputes.
In contrast, General Zhao exuded the masculinity of a man who had gone through hell and earth to become who he was. Don’t get her wrong, the General was attractive in a rough sort of way. Even women from other realms were known to gulp when they first met him. He was admired by many, and in his early days, the Queen had him train her Crimson Royal Guards, consisting of the best female warriors. Countless warriors had tried to catch his attention, but he looked at no other than Xiu Yin, the daughter of late General Kai, who died protecting her own sister during an attack on Ziming Palace. Stories of his devotion to the lost love that never had the chance to spark was known amongst the warriors till this day. Whispered among his admirers, it only enhanced his attractiveness to those who hoped for the young General to look in their direction one day.
Speaking of direction, General Zhao finally glanced at her. He must have caught her disgruntled glare. His disapproving eyes spoke plainly: he did not like to run such errands. And she was his errand. Turning to Bai Zhen, the General bowed, “Thank you for your hospitality. I hope our Princess did not cause any further trouble the last few days.”
“General, the Ghost Princess was a delightful guest, but due to her habits, my people had to keep her secure while I was away. I hope you understand,” King Bai Zhen gave them a graceful smile, as though they were talking about their next tea date. Was there nothing that could rattle this High God, she wondered. He was not at all distressed by her appearance within his kingdom, even offering to bring her peach wine while she was confined in his trap.
With a snap of his fingers, the Fox King released the silk threads. As they evaporated, feeling rushed back into her limbs. Instinctively, Qiao Xin tried to cloud jump, then realized too late, the General had cast another binding spell on her ankles. She stared at him accusingly. The General didn’t even blink. Curse these men! Qiao Xin would have sworn at them loudly if only the muting spell wasn’t still in effect.
“I can’t help but notice it took you quite some time to inform us of her whereabouts,” the General didn’t hide his displeasure.
The Fox King laughed, “I have experience in the area of disciplining young pups. If they don’t suffer a few days, they will never learn.”
Despite the hostility in his voice, the General’s mouth curved into a slight smile. “I couldn’t agree more. We wouldn’t mind if you extended your hospitality for a few more days, if the occasion arises again.”
Unbelievable. She glared at their casual banter. She would make them rue the day they treated her this way. It didn’t take long, thankfully, the two soon concluded their formal exchanges so they could depart. The General was never a fan of other Immortals, even when they were Fox.
They left the Fox Realm soon after, and arrived at Ziming Palace in the center of the Ghost Realm by nightfall. The brooding General did not release his seal on her ankles until they arrived at the entrance. The Palace, her home, was a place where she felt safe, but there were times she felt more like a prisoner. What was it about this place that took one’s strength away? Or was it one’s dreams? Had she always wanted to run?
Freedom...oh how the word sounded foreign to her ears.
Qiao Xin was not allowed to leave the Ghost Realm without a guardian keeping a tab on her whereabouts, even when she was no longer a child in the cradle. As the Princess of the Ghost Tribe, she rarely saw the world outside unless she could escape the eyes of the Crimson Royal Guards. She knew the Queen’s intention and ways of keeping her in check were to ensure her safety. But Qiao Xin was no fool. She was tired of the half truths from those who raised her.
For one thing, who would dare touch the Princess of the Ghost Tribe without igniting a war with one of the most powerful rulers of the time? The Queen’s ruthlessness with her enemies before and during her reign was well known. From Four Horse Dismemberments, Roasting Pillars, to the Roar of the Iron Lion; there was no method of torture or execution the Ice Queen shied away from. Traitors, enemies, and threats to the Tribe were not taken lightly, and punished publicly, while the Queen remained composed as the sentence was carried out, ignoring the cries and pleas of the prisoners.
Rarely did she show mercy.
But besides the obvious deception over concerns for her safety, Qiao Xin knew over the years of whispered stories and hidden truths that a part of her childhood was missing. Memories forgotten. She couldn’t dismiss them because they were pieces that called out to her. They were the lure that continued to make her seek answers for things that couldn’t be explained. But the Queen made sure no one would speak with her of her missing past.
As Qiao Xin entered the courtroom, two great Generals proceeded to excuse themselves from the Queen’s presence. General Hu Wan gave her a reassuring smile while General Yang Jie shook his head in disapproval. She was not surprised by their reaction, nor were they by her presence. Both did not pause as they passed her on each side, but the older General Hu Wan did drop a hint of what was to come.
“Tread carefully, the Queen had a trying several days,” General Hu Wan warned as he passed.
The Queen of the Ghost Tribe sat on her throne, polishing her favorite crossbow. The weapon, Whistling Night Raven, she called it -- was given by a prestigious musical weapon maker of the immortal lands, and though the Queen had not disclosed the name of the maker, the powers of the Whistling Night Raven were not to be taken lightly. Once the fiery blue arrows were released from the crossbow, the air moved through the hollow tubes creating a resonance of whistling sound that could bring enemies to their knees -- right before the arrows were embedded in their flesh that caught fire from the signature blue flame.
But it was not the powers of the weapon that made others fear the Ice Queen of the Ghost Tribe. No...it was something else entirely, that friends and foes alike had felt. It was not what she had that brought fear amongst others, but it was what she lacked, had lost, was forever out of her reach.
She had ruled for almost 30,000 years, struggled to remain on top within her own realm. Qiao Xin had grown up watching the Queen sit on the throne; there was no doubt she was born for the role. Her pearl white braids hung over her shoulders like woven silks. They were stunning, glowing against the backdrop of the dark green palace and her red embroidered dress, with tiny stitches of white jasmine lining the sleeves and collars. The Queen of the Ghost Tribe rarely smiled, though her calm yet vibrant aura often stopped others in their tracks with its presence. With her scarlet rose lips, dark raven eyes, and snow youthful skin, no one would have guessed she was near 175,000 years of immortal age -- if not for the snow white hair that only appeared after battle, yet the transformation served to enhance her unearthly aura.
Since everyone had left, Qiao Xin strode towards the throne with even steps, and stood before the Queen. She gave her best cheerful smile, and kneeling on the floor, Qiao Xin wrapped her arms around her aunt’s waist, something she had been doing since she was a child. Not many had witnessed the scene; it was their bonding, their secret familiarity they didn’t often show to others.
“Qiao’er, what punishment would you like this time?” her Gugu asked, then placed the Crossbow on the side table. Qiao Xin immediately grabbed her arm, clasping her hand with a light squeeze.
“Gugu! Qiao’er missed you! They held me for days, I thought I’ll never see you again,” she exclaimed, but the Queen was not falling for the act.
“Sweet words of nectar won’t do you any good, my child. Especially since I had to trouble General Zhao to pick you up this time, and you know how he abhors the idea of associating with outsiders,” Gugu narrowed her eyes questioningly. “What did you try to steal this time?”
“I wasn’t stealing anything! I was just going to borrow it, he wouldn’t have noticed it was missing. I heard that King Bai Zhen is rarely home,” Qiao Xin deflected. “Everyone knows he spends all his time at High God Zhe Yan’s Peach Blossom Orchards anyway.”
“So you thought you would break into the Fox Den, and seek out the treasure troves of King Bai Zhen?” Gugu laughed, a twinkle of soft warmth shone in her eyes as her hands brushed the loose hair away from Qiao Xin’s face -- a habit she’d had since the time Qiao Xin was a child.
“According to my calculations, he wouldn’t have been back for another hundred years. I didn’t know he would set up a trap for intruders within his Fox Den, considering the Fox clan hardly have guards around.”
“Guards or not, it was not yours to take. And you tactfully avoided my question. What was it you wished to steal?”
“Nothing of significance, and it was to borrow not steal. Stealing implies I wouldn’t bring it back.” Qiao Xin argued.
“Qiao Er…” Gugu’s tone become stern.
“It was the famous Luminescent Blue Pearl of the North Sea!” she answered hurriedly. “I heard if one were to gaze upon it, they will remain youthful for years to come.”
Her Gugu gave her a heavy sigh, her head shaking at the response. “Xiu Tao!”
Xiu Tao, the head of the Crimson Royal Guards, personal attendant of the Queen, appeared at the entrance.
“Yes, Your Highness,” Xiu Tao bowed.
“Take the Princess to the Beast Harvest Field.”
“Gu Gu!” Qiao Xin stood up in shock. “I already told you the truth!”
“Nonetheless, you were caught, had days to escape, but you couldn’t,” Gugu countered with ease. Give it to Gugu to find other reasons to punish her.
“Gugu! Those Foxes already locked me up in that cocoon for ten days! It was made of thread from thousand year silkworms! Even High Immortals can’t escape easily,” Qiao Xin argued, losing her composure.
Gugu reached towards her newly made arrows, examining the sharp steel blades as she continued, “Your skills need more polishing if a small trap from the Fox King could catch you so easily. However, I’ll give you a choice of punishment. Do you want to collect Zhen Bird’s feathers or Huan Cat’s fur for the harvest?”
“Neither punishment is a great choice! And I won’t come back in one piece going after either of those beasts!”
“That’s unfortunate...because if you don’t chose, you have to do both,” the Queen smiled, though the mirth did not reach her eyes. “Since we both know you were not totally honest with your answer.”
It took all she could not to react to her aunt’s bait. Qiao Xin did not argue back, because there was no use, she knew. General Hu Wan was right, her aunt did not like to be played with at such a time, her white hair was the clue. He did warn her. What had happened while she was gone? She would have to find out soon.
“Now, what will it be?” came the voice Qiao Xin knew so well. Her punishment would come even if she disclosed the truth.
Better to lay low until she got a chance to escape.
“Huan Cat’s fur,” Qiao Xin answered in defeat, though there was a hint in her voice of the retaliation that was to come. Her Gugu’s eyebrow arched at the answer, but she didn’t probe further.
Smart child, Yan Zhi mused, when Qiao Xin quickly made the choice, and left with Xiu Tao, her attendant, for the Harvest Field. It was late spring, beasts with magical properties were shedding valuable feathers, fur, and scales during this time. They were exceedingly sought after, bringing much wealth to her people. Not many realms were beast tamers, unlike the Ghost Realm, who had taken to training beasts since the dawn of time. The cunning child knew Huan Cat’s fur was indeed a much safer choice considering Zhen feathers were poisonous to the touch, requiring careful body covering during the harvest. Huan Cats may have claws, but Qiao Xin was quick with her feet when it came to avoiding attacks. A skill she still retained from her childhood, though her memories were gone. Or so they had thought.
For the last hundred years, Qiao Xin had been more reckless than usual. She had always been a wild child with a habit of taking things without asking, out of curiosity she often explained. From breaking into homes of Celestials to Demons’ Dens, to the four Sea Palaces, and even the Peach Blossoms Orchards of the High God Zhe Yan, she had no fear of repercussion. True, not many would bring her harm, and Yan Zhi made sure she compensated them well for their troubles when Qiao Xin decided to be “lost” in their realm. But lately, Qiao Xin had been more focused, the items she wanted to “borrow” seemed like not just little trinkets or toys like in the past.
“My Queen,” General Hu Wan bowed after she had sent the messenger for him. The elder General had always had a carefree persona on the outside, but he could never hide his true character under the mask of indifference. She could always depend on him; like a Minister, he was her closest confidant since the beginning of her reign. A wise ruler had to choose the right people to stand by their side.
“Find out the list of treasures the 4th Fox King has stored within his Den,” Yan Zhi instructed as she secured her weapons in their leather straps.
“At your service, your Majesty,” Hu Wan turned to leave.
“Another thing,” Yan Zhi called out. She reached down to grab the handful of bamboo scrolls lying on the table and threw them at his feet. “Burn these on your way out.”
The puzzled General bent to pick up the scrolls. Scanning them quickly, he turned around with a distressed expression. “But Your Majesty. These are candidates--”
“I told you before, I don’t want any candidates!” Yan Zhi hissed from above, causing the General to quickly kowtow before her, his forehead against the floor, his body quivering with anxiety.
“Your Majesty, please reconsider. We almost lost you five days ago within the Green Canyon of the South. It took us over two days to find you. Even Qian Li Ma, your familiar, sustained serious injuries protecting you. We don’t know if he’ll ever wake up again. Also, this was not the first time we entered dangerous territory where your life was in danger.”
“General Hu Wan, maybe you did not hear me clearly the first time,” Yan Zhi snapped her fingers, the scrolls in his hand burst into blue flames, causing the general to drop them; blue fire known to be more painful than regular fire, and harder to put out without assistance from magic. “I have no desire for a partner, and you have no need to worry about my impending demise if it ever arrives,” her tone was so chilled it could have frozen the room, making Hu Wan flinch in response. “Now leave.”
Though the General was not a man who would give up easily, he was well aware of the temper of his Queen. He soon left to complete his mission without further fuss. Yan Zhi knew it would only be a matter of time before he brought the subject up again. There may be truth to what he said, and a wise ruler had to listen to her subjects, but she was in no mood to fight with him today. What happened five days ago at Green Canyon of the South was vague, she had to admit. Yan Zhi couldn’t remember what happened after she fell into the canyon.
The locals had grown concerned about the Qiong Qi beast that made its home by the Green Canyon of the South. The beast was out of control, causing deaths of livestock unfortunate enough to venture there. Yan Zhi and her familiar, Qian Li Ma, decided to join General Zhao and his men on the mission to tame the beast. But the beast was more powerful than they had anticipated. During the battle, while she attempted to shield her soldiers from its fiery blast, the beast knocked her off Qian Li Ma, dropping her to the bottom of the Canyon.
What happened after was flashes of short conflicted memories in her mind. Her familiar had protected her when Qiong Qi arrived at the canyon’s depths, sustaining major injuries. She tried to help him, her mind roared desperately, but she couldn’t move even when she tried. Within the foggy haze, there was bright light before Yan Zhi lost her consciousness completely. By the time her people found her inside the canyon, days had passed. What was more astonishing was that her injuries healed at rapid speed after she returned. After that Yan Zhi needed time to sort out the mystery of the event, but first, she had to see to Qian Li Ma. Her familiar for 20,000 years had not awoken in days and it was her fault he was hurt. With that thought, Yan Zhi gathered her gear, and headed straight to the Valley of the Moths.