Foxglove and Snakeroot
He called it making amends.
“Amends? You do realize that you say some pretty unnecessary things, right?” Liwa said dubiously. “If our first meeting is anything to go by, I can see why people get angry enough to stab you. Not saying they’re in the right, but you need to watch your words.”
She wasn’t sure if seeking out dangerous people that might or might not want him dead was the right way to make amends, but nothing she said could change his mind. When she asked where he was finding these people anyway, since the legend of the snake and the jade curse did not mention anyone other than herself, the moon rabbit, and the White Tiger, he did not answer.
“In that case, let me help you,” she insisted. “You never tell us anything, and fine—I’ll respect that. But I can’t let you do this alone.”
Kai smiled, his gaze bland. “I have always been alone.”
“Well, not anymore. And if Yuna and Jin were here, they’d say the same thing.”
“I do not want to involve them,” he said sharply. “Please do not say anything to either of them.”
“Believe me, I wouldn’t have even offered my own help if we weren’t on break,” Liwa said, a slight teasing note slipping into her voice. “We’re all busy enough as it is. But sure. This will be between us, and I’ll be your bodyguard and mediator in case things go south. What do you think?”
Instead of saying yes, he only said, “Don’t pick an unnecessary fight.”
“Hey! I’m not going to do that, who do you think I am? I’m just helping you out to make sure you don’t get stabbed again.”
“That was a mistake,” he said pensively. “It will not happen again.”
“Geez you’re optimistic,” Liwa said. “I can’t believe you would never have said anything if I hadn’t happened to come across you getting hurt. I thought we were friends.”
“I suppose we are,” he said. “But friends do not tell each other everything. Perhaps if we were lovers, it would be different. But as a friend, this much is enough.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?!” she choked, suddenly feeling self-conscious. Sometimes he said the most unexpected things. She’d forgotten because he’d toned it down lately, but this white snake was a menace to society.
He gazed down fondly at the chocolate in his hands that she had given him. “I’m simply saying it’s not just me keeping secrets from you, Miss Liwa. But I digress. If you are truly prepared to help me, then there is a person I would like you to allow me to meet…”
Lan had not even replied to the messages from several days ago that invited her to take a trip downtown with them to celebrate the end of the semester. Liwa still texted her again anyway, letting her know that she’d be dropping by their house shortly before she and Kai set off for the eastern mountains. Neither of them had a car so they took the bus, transferring several times and getting lost once before arriving just outside their destination.
The Azure Dragon estate was somewhat of a tourist’s attraction, with several of the outer buildings and courts open to the public as the shrine to the blue dragon god. Rain fell heavily from the sky as soon as they breached the perimeters of the estate and Liwa pulled an umbrella out of her bag because she was prepared this time.
Kai just stared at her for a long while, standing several paces away as droplets of rainwater clung to his silvery hair. She raised the umbrella higher, beckoning for him to come under it before the rain soaked him to the skin. In this chilly weather, that was like asking to get sick.
He hesitated, then ducked under her umbrella. “Do you know the meaning of the umbrella in the Legend of the White Snake?”
“Oh, that? It’s why Bai Suzhen fell in love with Xu Xian, isn’t it?” Liwa said, making a face. “Kind of a dumb reason to fall in love, if you ask me.”
Kai didn’t respond to that, and he just closed his eyes and looked away.
Last time when Liwa was here with Jin and Yuna, the car had cut through the fog as Jin drove along the narrow, winding path to the heart of the estate. Now on foot, Liwa could barely see her own hands in front of her face. Each step she took felt as if she were walking on clouds, and not in a good way. The rain continued to pour from grey skies, and Liwa could feel the socks in her shoes growing cold and damp. It didn’t help that the biting December winds were chilly, seeping through her thick jacket and into her bones. She nudged closer to Kai, hoping to draw some warmth from his body heat because he didn’t seem bothered by the weather at all, but to no avail. She’d forgotten that snakes were cold-blooded.
Hopefully the building was just up ahead. She knew that all she had to do was keep going east, and they’d reach the residential area of the estate like last time. But the thick haze seemed to only grow denser as they walked. The rain runoff flooded the paved road, and the water level started reaching dangerously close to spilling into Liwa’s shoes before she stopped in her tracks.
“This is getting kind of weird,” she said, shivering. The cold water soaking through to her feet was extremely unpleasant and her toes were going numb. It wasn’t cold enough for it to snow yet, but maybe eternal snowfall would be preferable to this. Liwa was pretty sure they’d walked far enough that the main building was somewhere around here unless they’d overshot, but all she could see was fog and rain. Even her hands were beginning to feel cold and clammy against the metal handle of the umbrella.
Without a word, Kai held his arm out for the umbrella, and she handed it off to him gratefully. She raised her stiff hands to her face and gently blew on them to warm them up. They stung a little, which didn’t bode well.
“Should we go back?” Liwa asked, glancing around anxiously as she pressed her icy fingers to her cold cheeks. “It might be better to wait until this fog lifts a bit.”
“The Azure Dragon is home,” Kai said with a sense of finality. “I must seek an audience with him while I am here.”
As Liwa peered into the gloom, she was reminded of when Lan mentioned something about how people who were unwelcome would find themselves wandering the fog forever. She would never want to get on the bad side of an auspicious beast, she thought with a shudder. If she and Lan hadn’t set aside their differences at nine years old and became friends, maybe her life would have had a very different outcome.
“Oh, there’s someone coming.”
That was what Kai said, but Liwa couldn’t see anything through the curtain of rain and fog even when she squinted. Moments later, she finally glimpsed something glowing dully in the distance. As it drew closer, she realized it was the shape of a lamplight and it illuminated the indistinct forms of two figures beneath a wide umbrella.
“Finally,” Liwa said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Lan sent someone to come save us.”
It was Lan’s voice! Liwa’s heart swelled in her chest as she reached out blindly into the rain for her friend.
“Lan! We’re over here! About time you came to fetch us, I was about to die of hypothermia!”
Lan emerged from the fog, her hands clenched around the handle of an umbrella of her own, although she didn’t look as if she’d braved a storm herself. Her hair was styled, framing her face to curl delicately at her shoulders, and her clothes were impeccably dry. Liwa’s face broke into a wide smile, even though she was a tiny bit envious of this convenient power of the Azure Dragon. Liwa had only stepped out of the umbrella for a moment and she already knew her windswept hair probably looked like a wet bird’s nest made of orange fox fur.
“Liwa!” Lan said urgently, and her eyes flashed like blue lightning in the midst of a storm. She stretched out her free hand. “Get away from that man!”
Liwa’s eyebrows furrowed, suddenly confused. “What man? This is—”
“Didn’t I tell you?” Lan called out, and the panic in her voice was unmistakable. “Never turn your back on a snake! Get away from him now!”