Foxglove and Snakeroot
Yuna’s lip curled, and her eyes seemed to cloud over. “You know better than anyone else not to bring that up around me.”
“I had no choice,” Liwa said. “You kept avoiding me when I asked you for help to decipher my dream before class this morning. Then you yelled at JIn twice today, even though I don’t think he did anything wrong.”
Yuna shifted in her seat and uncrossed her legs. With a snap of her fingers, the loose ends of her braided hair was neatly secured by a length of celestia thread. She grabbed the textbook hanging in midair and placed it neatly aside.
“I’ve been in a bad mood because of things at home,” she said curtly. “Let’s go to sleep. I’ll take the couch. You can have the bed.”
The lights were off before Liwa could even blink. Only a thin, glowing thread like spider silk remained in her field of vision for only a moment, before it too vanished into the darkness.
“Get some sleep,” came Yuna's muffled voice from somewhere in the direction of the sofa. “Let’s argue tomorrow, okay?”
Just as Qin promised, Lan was back at the Azure Dragon Estate early the next morning. When Liwa, Yuna, and Jin heard the sound of a suitcase being hauled up the front door steps and the click of a key fitting into a lock, they rushed to the entrance hall. When the door opened, Lan was greeted with the three of them tumbling out of the doorway and almost knocking her right over.
“What are you three doing here?” she asked, her blue eyes wide and full of surprise. She looked frazzled and exhausted in navy dress pants and a rumpled matching jacket, with an upturned collar on the white blouse underneath. Yuna fussed over her, fixing her shirt collar and smoothing out her bangs and Lan laughed lightly in response.
“It's so early. What time did you arrive?” she asked as they helped her bring the suitcase inside.
“Yesterday," Yuna said promptly.
Lan looked a little taken aback. “I see. I must’ve worried you with my long absence. I was attending a conference as the representative of the Azure Dragon bloodline. Did my brother treat you hospitably?”
“He tried to hit on Yuna,” Liwa chipped in.
“He has your face, but a razor-sharp tongue,” Yuna added disdainfully.
Lan’s gentle laughter was like birdsong. “I will give him an earful. So what brings the three of you all the way out here?”
Both Liwa and Jin turned to Yuna expectantly.
“I wanted to bring you the notes I’d taken for you in your absence,” she explained, fidgeting with the hem of her shirt. “You weren’t responding to any of my texts, so I was a little worried. There was no other way to reach you other than to set foot in the Azure Dragon’s realm, so we came.”
“Indeed, I noticed a disturbance in the middle of the presentation of the Vermillion Bird’s representative,” Lan said softly, and her gaze seemed wistful. “I was surprised, but only for a fleeting moment. A dragon’s lair is not easily penetrable, and those with evil intentions would find themselves wandering the fog for eternity.”
“You say the scariest things sometimes, Lan…”
“As long as I share half of the position of the head of the Azure Dragon family,” she said, “you will always be welcome at our home. So you need not worry.”
“Oh right,” Liwa said, because it suddenly clicked that Qin was the one who shared the other half of that title. “Why was it you that attended the conference, and not the two of you together?”
“My brother and I…” Lan hesitated, then continued. “We divided our duties between us, agreed upon during the succession ceremony. Traditionally, only the strongest inherits the name of the dragon god. But his powers and memories are split equally between us. While Qin is the storm and claws, I am the eye and the scales. The seven mansions of the east sky are under our divine protection, as long as rain falls ceaselessly to nurture the lands.”
If Jin were here, he’d have started clapping, probably. But it seemed that he’d wandered off somewhere else into the house. Lan had not changed much outwardly, but it seemed like the past week of her absence had been thousands of years. Her speech seemed reminiscent of her grandfather’s, and the look in her eye was the serene gaze of the Azure Dragon god.
Liwa felt her heart sink in her chest. These kinds of experiences were something a lowly fox spirit like herself would never understand. While the Azure Dragon was an exalted member of the Four Auspicious Beasts, Liwa's family had to painstakingly pass down the mundane tales of red foxes of each generation. Her grandmother—the legend of the fox and the pebble. Her mother—the tale of the fox that crossed the magpie river. And her own—the story of the fox and the snake.
Her family didn’t even have a star of their own to draw strength from, in contrast to the Azure Dragon bloodline with seven astrological mansions and thousands of stars at their command. Gazing upon Lan's slight figure and shoulder-length hair the colour of seafoam, Liwa realized her childhood friend had changed so much in just the span of a week. What she felt then was a twinge of jealousy, of a paltry feeling of inferiority that crept into her veins and poisoned her heart.
She had no powers, and her memories were drip-fed to her at the whims of that stubborn red fox of her past life. She wasn’t smart and resourceful like Yuna, nor likeable and friendly like Jin. Even her childhood friend who was once just a fragment of the dragon god, now spoke of the world far beyond where a fox could ever reach.
"Hey, are you okay? You look a little pale."
Lan's words shook her out of her reverie. She nodded, unable to bring herself to voice her frustrations, wondering briefly if this was similar to what Yuna had been going through last night. She supposed some things were better left unsaid.
"She passed out yesterday," Yuna was saying. "Nearly gave us a heart attack! Why, we thought it was a heart attack. But it turned out it was just an allergic reaction."
“An asterism-attributed illness?” Lan asked. “Some remnants of one’s past life can act as an allergen, yes.”
“Asterism-attributed?” Liwa repeated. “I don’t even have a star though.”
Lan smiled. “Some stars have faded, but the remnants of their corpses shine brightly. Many stars in the sky are already dead, but they still light the night for us.”
“Oh geez, thanks,” Liwa muttered, remembering that even though the person who stood before her was the vessel of the Azure Dragon, she was still her friend. “I’ve got a corpse star, no wonder I’ve got no powers.”
“I had thought your dreams always heralded relevant warnings from your past life,” Lan remarked. “It’s been that way since we were kids, no?”
“Right,” she said. “Premonitions. I thought so too, but the doctor says that means I’ve got nothing.”
“I don’t agree,” Lan said sharply. “Do not take your past life’s memories too lightly.”
“That’s what I thought too,” said Liwa, with a meaningful glance at Yuna. “But someone kept being difficult…”
Yuna was fiddling with her hair, avoiding their gazes. They knew her well enough that this meant she was uncomfortable, trying to avoid the conversation, or both.
“If my dream has something to do with you that you want to hide,” Liwa said. “I get it. I won’t pry further. But this is my premonition. Even Lan agrees it’s probably important.”
“Where’s Jin?” Lan said suddenly, looking around the entrance hall for the first time. Liwa knew he’d slipped away sometime between their conversation, maybe to use the washroom, but he wasn’t back yet.
“Maybe he got lost?” Liwa offered.
“It seems like he’s wandered off the premises…” said Lan, and her voice was troubled. “I can’t sense his presence.”
“Maybe he fell asleep…?” Liwa said, but Yuna was already running, the end of her long, dark brown braid disappearing around the corner. “Where are you going? Yuna!”
As she prepared to sprint after her friend, cold hands clasped around her wrist, startling her. She whipped her head around to see that Lan had grabbed her. Her eyes were very blue, and very cold, like an arctic sea.
“I’m sorry, Liwa,” she said, “but this was the only way I could get you alone for a moment.”
A chill trickled down Liwa’s spine. “What did you do to Jin?”
“Nothing,” she said earnestly. “Qin promised he wouldn’t hurt him. I need to speak with you alone.”
“Alright.” Liwa tried to compose herself. What she was feeling was something between betrayal and anger, but surely Lan had a good reason for doing something uncharacteristic like this. Whether it was the Azure Dragon or her best friend, she should at least hear her out before doing anything rash. “Speak, then.”
“I don’t think it’s an ocean in your dream, Liwa,” Lan said, her voice quiet. She had let go of Liwa’s wrist. “It has to be a lake. The silver lake of the white serpent. Whatever you do, you must not go to him.”