Foxglove and Snakeroot
Liwa only hesitated for a moment. From behind Lan, a second figure lunged out of the darkness in a streak of blue and grey. Liwa dodged out of the way instinctively, turning her head around just in time to see Lan—no, it was Qin—tackling Kai to the ground. The impact made a large splash, drenching both of them in muddy rainwater. The umbrella slipped from Kai’s grip as he fell and it landed in the water beside him.
Lan grabbed Liwa’s hand with surprising strength to pull her out of the way and under the cover of her own umbrella. She put a comforting arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, and it was only then that Liwa realized that she was shivering so violently that her teeth were chattering.
“Are you okay? Did he hurt you?” Lan’s tone was anxious, and her arm around Liwa was warm as she hugged her tightly. “You’re fine now. We’re here.”
The warmth made Liwa feel a little dizzy. Even though she had been joking about hypothermia earlier, her limbs were actually starting to numb and her consciousness was fading.
“Hey Lan,” she said, blearily. “What…did Kai do just now?”
“Shh, everything is okay now,” Lan murmured, running her fingers through Liwa’s rain-soaked hair. “White snakes are treacherous beasts that can summon and control floods. But Qin and I have everything under control now. You have nothing to worry about anymore.”
Liwa’s eyes were growing unfocused as she continued to tremble uncontrollably, and she fought to remain alert, leaning heavily against Lan. She could see the blurry form of Kai struggling to get to his feet, half-submerged in the rainwater as Qin pinned him down.
“Stop struggling,” Qin was saying, his voice sharp and cold. “It will be worse for you if you do.”
“I believe this is a misunderstanding…”
Liwa’s vision refocused momentarily for her to see Kai clutching at his abdomen with his teeth gritted and Qin standing over him. She called out in a small voice, “Wait, no! He’s injured!”
Neither of the Azure Dragon twins seemed to hear her.
“Hmm, I see how it is,” Liwa heard Kai say, and he sounded so shaky and out of breath that her heart clenched. What could he have tried to do in that moment that Liwa’s back was turned? But it was getting hard to think, and her vision swam dangerously. That was when the cold and exhaustion overtook her, and everything went dark.
When Liwa came to, she was tucked comfortably in a luxurious fleecy blanket and lying in an unfamiliar bed. She kicked off the blanket because it was too warm and peered around. The room reminded her instantly of the guest room at Lan’s house, and that led her to remember that she was likely still at the Azure Dragon estate. Her throat felt all scratchy and swollen, like she was getting sick. Liwa shifted, rolling over onto her side and ugh, that felt awful. The soft pillow under her head was cool against her burning cheek. Her stomach lurched. She rolled over to the other side and promptly threw up all over the floor.
Every muscle in her body ached, and she uttered a long and drawn-out groan under her breath. An attendant of the Azure Dragon family ran into the room with a damp washcloth, skidded to a halt with his blue eyes wide and round at the mess she had made, and ran back out the door. Liwa had never been so insulted in her life. But she was too exhausted to do anything about it.
He returned moments later with a bucket and some rags in his arms to clean out the stained carpet, not before gingerly placing a cool, damp towel over her forehead. He also picked up the blanket she’d tossed to the ground, shook it out, and laid it over her lightly. Irritation turned to gratitude, and she drifted off into a restless sleep.
Liwa slept fitfully, without dreaming. When she woke up again, she was blanket-less and fever-free…and curled up like a shrimp because it was chilly now that her fever had gone down. She dragged herself out of bed and to her feet, noting the glass of water at the bedside table. She gulped it down gratefully, then wandered out of the room with the empty glass cup to put it away in the kitchen—if she remembered where that was.
The hallway was not particularly distinguishable from any of the others in the Azure Dragon manor, so Liwa poked her head into the next doorway to see if she could recognize anything.
“Ah, you’re awake.”
Lan was standing at the end of the hall, all smiles and carrying a stack of books and folders in her arms. Liwa ran up to her and flung her arms around her shoulders, and the sharp corners of the books awkwardly dug into her waist. When Liwa stepped back, Lan held out a hand for the glass, then balanced it precariously atop the books in her arms.
“I know you’ve just recovered,” Lan was saying. “But what in the heavens were you doing with the white serpent? You could’ve gotten yourself killed, or worse!”
Liwa rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly. “I was going to tell you one of these days—no scratch that, I would’ve probably kept it from you if he didn’t insist on coming by to see you. Did you not see my messages?”
Her eyes seemed to narrow, the calm before a cloudless storm. “He...insisted on coming to see me? You speak of the serpent as if…”
“We’re friends,” Liwa blurted out. “Kai really isn’t a threat at all.”
“Do you even hear yourself?” Lan’s voice was shaking. Her grip tightened on the stack of books in her arms. “You can’t ever trust snakes! What if we hadn’t come in time? The white serpent meant to devour you.”
“He said he wouldn’t,” she replied stubbornly, feeling a cold chill trickle down to the base of her spine. The Kai she knew wasn’t capable of something like that. But the Kai she knew was also a mysterious and enigmatic individual.
“Then why did you lose your way in the fog?” Lan asked. “The cloud-rimmed peaks of the Azure Mountains only turn away those with evil intentions. The snake meant to call on the floods to incapacitate you among the mist, then strike while your back was turned! You would’ve been able to regain your bearings if only you had escaped the coils of his trap and left him behind.”
“Leave him behind?” Liwa echoed. “I couldn’t do that. We came here together to find you.”
Lan dropped her books and folders on the floor with a loud clatter. The glass shattered at her feet into a thousand fragments.
“Cease this foolish talk!” she cried. “Has the white serpent bewitched your heart? In his lifetime he has killed and maimed and flooded the world, drowning many innocents with his wicked powers. He is a creature that reeks of the vile stench of evil. I cannot in good faith allow you to associate yourself with him.”
The way she spoke, her words desperate and wrought with emotion, Liwa could not doubt her. In spite of that, in the brief few months she’d spent around Kai, she had never once felt that way about him after their initial dispute. She was conflicted on what to think, what to feel, who to believe.
She trusted Lan. She always did. And yet…
“You’re talking as if he’s still the white snake of our past lives,” Liwa said quietly. She helped Lan gather all the books scattered on the floor so that she didn’t have to look at her friend. “But in this life, he has yet to do any of those things you mentioned.”
“He is biding his time because he is after your heart.”
“I’m stronger than he is,” Liwa insisted, clenching her fists. “He will never be able to tear my heart out of my chest, you should know that better than anyone else. I would tear him apart before he could lay a finger on me.”
“Hu Liwa, I don’t want to lose you again,” Lan whispered, and her voice was very small. “Please listen to me just this once.”
Liwa didn’t want to doubt her best friend and the grief-stricken, pleading glint in her azure eyes. As one of the four guardian beasts of the cardinal directions, Lan had inherited countless more memories and wisdom and a far greater understanding of the world. Surely her judgement was true and her fear was not unfounded. But a part of Liwa still wondered if it was Lan talking, or if it were the Azure Dragon speaking through her.