Foxglove and Snakeroot
“Lord Dragon, I beseech you. I wish to find the white snake. I wish to become human.”
“If you insist,” the Azure Dragon god said, “then heed my warning. A snake will always come back to bite you, so do not turn your back on him.”
The white lab coat marked the new arrival as another pharmacy student. His slit pupils were evidently reptilian, and his irises were a pale yellow. His hair was silvery-white and unkempt, long enough to tie a small ponytail at the base of his neck. He had delicate features and an unsettling smile.
Liwa could sense danger coming off of him in waves, knowing instinctively that he was the very source of her baseless terror and the ache in her heart. This was the reincarnation of the white snake in her fox’s legend, the very one Lan had warned her to stay away from. And what he had just said…had she heard correctly?
“Who are you?” she demanded, forcing her words out through gritted teeth. She was trembling uncontrollably, and she bared her teeth at him, her sharp canines flashing viciously to remind herself that she was not afraid of him.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “Xu Kai, from the pharmacy department. And you?”
“Hu Liwa. Economics.”
“Hmm,” he said thoughtfully, without saying anything else. Perhaps she had imagined it, that final line from an insignificant fox’s legend that no one outside of her family and friend group knew. She hadn’t even gotten around to transcribing a written copy for Mengjiao yet. Surely she had just been imagining what she’d heard, she thought, as her heart continued to throb. And as she glared at Kai in irritation and her heart pounded like a metronome in its ribcage, suddenly it occurred to her that perhaps for the first time in her twenty years of this lifetime, she was falling in love.
“Preposterous!” she said aloud. Her past life must be interfering, making her unable to distinguish between personal feelings and the lingering sentiments of the red fox.
That was when Kai smiled enigmatically, a humourless and empty expression that chilled her to the very bone. “What’s so preposterous about the snake stealing the fox’s heart?”
“You!” Liwa hissed. Her eyes flashed dangerously, vulpine yellow and like a feral animal. So she’d heard correctly the first time. Not caring that there were other students in the vicinity, she raised her voice slightly so she could hear herself over the sound of her own heartbeat. “I think you’re misunderstanding something. Who is stealing who’s heart? You’re not even that good-looking.”
Kai’s smile darkened. “I’m flattered. But you’re getting ahead of yourself, Miss Hu Lihua. I simply meant that centuries ago, before the redwood forests were felled, a white snake ripped out the fox’s beating heart.”
Nothing in her life could’ve prepared her for the shock she received in that moment, and it must’ve been evident on her face. In a flash, she grabbed a fistful of his collar and slammed him painfully against the laboratory doors. The pain in her chest was making it hard to think, but one thing was clear—it was this snake’s fault.
“Don’t worry, I’m not capable of doing something like that,” he said with a choked laugh, wincing a little from the impact. The challenging glint in his reptilian eyes as he held her gaze unwaveringly made her heart stutter. Liwa clenched her fist tighter on his collar, wanting nothing more than to dig her claws into his throat.
“If I silence you here and now,” she snarled, “then you won’t be capable of doing something like that ever again.”
The voice came from behind, but Liwa knew better than to turn her back on a snake. It wasn’t until she felt someone grab her by the waist and forcefully pull her off of Kai before she came back to her senses. The receptionist had caught wind of their altercation and had rushed over to see what was going on. And just in time, because Liwa was inches from tearing out Kai’s throat.
After giving Liwa an allergy pill, the receptionist also gave her a stern lecture as she apologized profusely. She couldn’t believe she’d completely lost her temper like that, even if the things Kai said had provoked her. Now with her immune system safely under control, all she felt was shame. Just as the receptionist was telling her that if this happened again the misconduct would be recorded on her university transcript, Kai stepped in.
“Miss Lihua was just fooling around, Mrs. Huang,” he said lightly. “It was never serious. I’d appreciate it if you could let us off the hook.”
“Well,” the receptionist said, her voice reluctant, “if you’re saying so, then I’ll trust your judgement.”
“Many thanks,” Kai said, throwing a meaningful glance at Liwa. “Besides, what’s a fight between friends?”
“It’s Liwa. And we aren’t friends.”
“Hmm, I bailed you out. The least I deserve is a thanks.”
Outside of the pharmacy building and out of earshot of Mrs. Huang and the other students from the lab, Kai had dropped the respectful act. He fell into step beside Liwa even though nothing about her demeanour was welcoming him to walk beside her. She walked faster, but his strides were longer so he matched her pace leisurely. She had no interest in trying to threaten him to leave her alone (and it was reassuring that it was the fox spirit’s heightened emotions and not purely her own violent impulses that led to the incident from earlier) but she was loath to be in his presence for a moment longer.
“Thank you,” Liwa said curtly, “and goodbye.”
Liwa spun around to face him, stopping in her tracks so he was forced to stop walking too. Lan was right. The white snake spirit really was nothing but trouble.
“Okay, talk,” she said. “What do you want?”
“First of all I do not want your heart,” he said conversationally.
“That should be a given,” Liwa said, bristling.
He nodded reasonably. “I’m just curious as to how far we can go to push against fate. We’re natural enemies, that much is obvious. But the life we have now is our own. We’re not bound to a constellation the way most folk legends are. We have nothing to our name except a story that might not even be fully true. We answer to no one but ourselves.”
“You sound like a philosophy student,” she replied. “And to be honest, I have my hands full dealing with class and life and all that. If you need me to help test out your weird theory, I’m going to have to decline.”
“Hmm, you’re not curious to hear the other side of the story?” Kai asked, folding his arms over his chest. “Surely you didn’t think your cute little fable was the whole truth.”
When Lan had warned her against seeking out the silver lake of her dreams, she had brushed it off because there couldn’t have been anything she would want from him the way she was now. But now, facing the white snake, she thought about how she had never considered there being more to the legend of the red fox. The other side of the story, huh…?
“What is the legend of the white snake, then?” she asked.
Kai’s lip curled upward into a vapid smile. “Well, will you go against fate with me?”
Liwa’s phone suddenly pinged, and she dug into her pocket for it and swiped across the screen with her thumb. Yuna had texted back.
“Actually,” she said, “come with me to meet someone. I need to ascertain every word out of your mouth is true before I make up my mind, for insurance.”