Foxglove and Snakeroot
Liwa’s fight or flight response usually spurred her to fight, which worked perfectly fine for just about any situation. But she froze instead. Her mind conjured up the image of a python about to strike, laying in wait behind her. But this time, there was an injured snake coiled up before her eyes, white scales glistening scarlet with fresh blood.
And Liwa stood frozen, completely and utterly helpless in that moment.
She barely registered as Mrs. Huang hurried over to them. She was saying something urgently that Liwa could not hear over the ringing in her ears as she knelt down to where Kai had slumped against the wall. The receptionist lifted a hand, twirling her fingers delicately in a manner that seemed dimly familiar to Liwa, and materialized a translucent, glowing thread from thin air.
With one hand, Mrs. Huang applied further pressure over top of Kai’s wound, holding him steady as he gave a weak cough. While she did, she continued to weave celestial thread into a long gauze bandage with her other hand. It was only when she was done dressing Kai’s wound and it had stopped bleeding, that Liwa realized she had just stood there the whole time for who knew how long without lending a hand.
She sank to her knees, nauseous.
“Are you not feeling well?” Mrs. Huang asked, addressing her for the first time. “It must have been your first time seeing so much blood. If you’re feeling light-headed, there’s a room in the back that you can rest in.”
“Is Kai going to be okay?” Liwa rasped, and her throat felt very dry.
“I’m fine, don’t worry,” he called out weakly, like he didn’t nearly bleed to death all over the glossy laminate floor of the lab. He was still slouched against the wall, the wound in his stomach secured by generously wrapped gauze under his unbuttoned shirt. He looked pale and drawn, and not at all fine.
“You’re going to need to get stitches for that,” the receptionist told him in a sharp tone. “You are lucky your organs are in abnormal areas so that none of your vitals were punctured, but a stab wound could be deadly. Lihua, are you well enough to take him to the hospital?”
In contrast to Kai, of course she was completely fine, only a little shaken up. She nodded, getting to her feet to reach out to where he sat by the wall.
“Do you need me to carry you?” she asked, holding out a hand.
Kai’s eyebrow twitched as he turned his head away like he was embarrassed.
Liwa waited for after she’d taken him to the nearest hospital and after the doctors had treated and stitched up the wound to ask what had happened to him. Of all days that she could’ve chosen to drop by the lab, it was the day that he suddenly got stabbed out of nowhere. The incident consolidated the fact that there were people after him, people that weren’t afraid to use deadly force.
She paced back and forth in the lobby while Kai was getting stitches, thinking back to the assailants from before. If only she had managed to catch one for questioning, to discover who they were working for. But she had let them get away, because she didn't think they were a threat.
When someone tapped lightly on her shoulder, she whirled around defensively, instantly on guard. Relief flooded in her veins when she saw that it was just Kai, looking a little battered and tired, but much better than before. He had bled out quite a bit, but because Mrs. Huang had acted quickly with her weaver’s powers, he had not lost too much blood.
“They only had to suture the wound,” Kai told her, as she sat him down on a bench and handed him a bar of dark chocolate from the gift shop. “Oh, thank you. Blood transfusions are a nightmare. Not only must we worry about antigens for blood type, the nature of our past lives also play a factor. Reptilian blood is always in low supply so I try to donate when I can, to express gratitude for all the blood transfusions I received as a child.”
Liwa didn’t know what to say to that. She remembered him saying something about being sick when he was younger, and it suddenly hit her why he knew his way around the hospital and greeted the staff so comfortably. Looking around the lobby, she was also starting to realize why nothing seemed to faze him, that he could even smile in this situation.
“Do you need help with that?” she asked, settling down beside him.
Kai was opening the wrapper of the chocolate bar with his teeth, and she noted he didn’t possess sharp fangs at all. His teeth were blunt, like an ordinary human’s. Which led to the question of why he was trying to tear the wrapper with them in vain instead of his hands.
He glanced at her, his mouth twitching into the slightest of frowns. “Ah. I’ve got it. But thank you.”
Liwa hesitated for a brief moment, then decided to get right down to business. “You got stabbed. Was it one of those three from last time?”
She thought not, and he confirmed it with a muffled grunt of assent behind a mouthful of crinkling wrapper.
“Is someone after you?” she asked instead. She was getting better at reading his microexpressions, but if he was hiding something she probably still wouldn’t be able to tell. “Tell me what you know so I can help you.”
“Miss Liwa. Did you know that a lot of people do not like snakes?”
“You—you can’t be serious,” she spluttered. “This is a serious crime. I can forgive the three thugs for jumping you, but you could’ve died from today. If it’s because of discrimination, then we’ve got to report this to the authorities right away.”
Kai gazed unseeingly into the hospital lobby. “I suppose you are right. But I’ve been thinking lately about all of those I’ve wronged in my past life. It’s not just you, there are others as well. In pharmacy, we study the efficacy of medicine to keep the grudges of our past lives at bay so we can go about our days without worry. But there are some who cannot forget, and out of those there are some who cannot forgive. The stronger your connection to the constellations, the less effective antihistamines are. To the point that it’s not just an allergy, but a part of your life. A part of who you are as a person.”
What he was saying made a lot of sense. Past life legends were a vital, interconnected part of society. And she’d felt it herself once, the rage and vengeance of the red fox that flowed through the blood in her veins as she lunged at a snake that had once betrayed her. Before recently, she had always lived a very ordinary life at the bottom of the hierarchy, forgetting that people like Lan or even Yuna had a duty and a link to a past life that held together the very fabric of the world.
“You don’t really talk about fighting against fate anymore,” Liwa noted.
“Hmm, I don’t talk about a lot of things,” he said.
“Hold on,” she interjected, furrowing her brow at him. “Are you by any chance seeking out the people who have grudges against you?”
Kai’s soft smile was unreadable, as always. “Does it seem like I’m doing that?”
He’d sought her out. She wasn’t entirely sure if that was actually the case because meeting him had been a coincidence, but he’d made it clear that he knew exactly who she was. He’d provoked the fox spirit’s anger even when he surely understood the consequences. Did he place that much faith in her that she would retract her claws before it was too late?
She didn’t understand him.
“Yeah, you seem like you’d do that,” she said, sighing. “I’d like to think I know you a little better now, and that you mean no harm. But still, some things are better left untouched. Not everyone is as understanding as I am.”
“I already told you when we first met, Miss Liwa,” he replied. “I’m curious as to how far I can go to push against fate. And I would not say your character is particularly understanding, but you are a bit too trusting.”
“Me, trusting? Ha, you really don’t have a lot of friends, do you?”