Foxglove and Snakeroot
At the Azure Dragon Estate, Lan convinced Liwa to stay for a few more days or as long as she needed to recuperate from getting sick from running around in the rain. Now that her fever had gone down, a sore throat and cough settled into her windpipe like sand. It had been a long time since she’d last fallen ill. Every hacking cough felt as if her lungs were caving in and her heart was falling out.
Idiots don’t catch colds, Lan had joked once. It wasn’t as if Lan’s grades had been any better in high school and university anyway! Among all of her friends, the only smart person was the diligent and studious Yuna.
No, he’d tried to attack her in the fog-shrouded rain when he claimed he wanted Liwa to take him to see Lan. What could he have possibly wanted from a visit to the Azure Dragon? He said to make amends, but he had never given the specific nature of what he was repenting for.
“Of course he’d say something like that,” Lan reasoned. “How else to get you to lower your guard? You’re prickly, and don’t just trust anybody. But you always put yourself out there for people in need—it was the perfect setup.”
All the times Kai was in danger, Liwa had rushed in to help him, so she could say nothing against those words. And it was suspicious that she happened to be there every time he got himself into trouble. It was rather a risky setup and he had planned it masterfully. So of course she had fallen for it, hook, line, and sinker. And now that she’d thought about it, who was the one that had suggested she start taking allergy medicine to suppress her uncontrollable, blazing rage against the white snake? It had made her complacent. As it rid her of the palpitations in her heart, it had softened her defenses and made her weak.
Lan didn’t think Kai’s father was in on his schemes. An asterism-attributed illness was still an allergy, and that was common knowledge in the medical field. Taking antihistamines would suppress her heart pain and the fox’s wrath of course, but if she stayed away from Kai from now on the source of her allergic reactions would never affect her again. That was what Lan said, and Liwa would have to remember to explain things to Yuna and Jin before the trip downtown.
So why did it hurt to think that, like parting with one of the best memories of her life?
As Liwa rested at the manor, she had the opportunity to experience the day-to-day operations and the lifestyles of the members of the Azure Dragon family and staff. She was free to wander through the estate, and it felt like its own miniature village sprawling through the mountains. Behind the main building where the main branch of the family resided, there were additional residential areas, various facilities, and even an open-air market. She’d never been anywhere outside of the manor before and she felt like an excitable tourist snapping photos of the breathtaking mountainside view.
Once she had mostly recovered, she shadowed Lan when she could while the latter performed her Azure Dragon duties. From sending off rain to parts of the countryside affected by drought with her powers or signing for the dispatch of supplies to help out with folks that were struggling to get by, Lan’s work seemed exhausting. On top of that, she oversaw the entire area from the East Sea to the Azure Mountains, quietly observing those who were born and those who passed and everyone in between; an omnipresent god watching over her people.
It made Liwa wonder what her twin was doing when Lan was shouldering so much.
“While Qin is the storm and claws, I am the eye and the scales,” she told Liwa serenely, which was just a repeat of that unfamiliar idiom from before. She continued, “I am the light and he is the shadow, the protector that works in tandem with the bringer of justice.”
Whatever that meant.
The more the line blurred between the Azure Dragon god and her best friend, the less she saw of the Lan she knew in the familiar figure that stood before her. People changed over time, Liwa understood that. She couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but there was something about Lan’s expression that made her uncomfortable. But she couldn’t bring herself to say a single thing.
Maybe it was in the way she smiled vacantly, and there was no longer the spirited mischief and bright grin that Liwa had grown up with. Maybe it was in the way she gazed wistfully into the east as if she’d lived for thousands of years and would continue to exist for thousands more. Maybe it was because Liwa mentioned something from their elementary school days and Lan just stared blankly back like an empty shell of her former friend.
Liwa felt like she was starting to overstay her welcome, so she decided to head back to town. Lan drove her to the bus stop, and the ride there was quiet.
“Oh, one more thing before I go. Jin, Yuna and I are taking a trip downtown for the new year,” Liwa said as she stepped out of the car. “I’m sure you’re really busy with your work, but if you want to chill and catch up…well, I’ve already texted you the details if you’ve been checking your phone. It would be lovely if you could make it.”
“It would be lovely if I could make it too,” Lan said softly, and her hands were still gripping the steering wheel. “By the time I see you next, it may already be—well, I’ll see if I can free up my schedule. Thank you for inviting me. And take care.”
The distance in her words made Lan seem like an ocean away.
Liwa trusted Lan more than anything, but she still wanted to hear an explanation from Kai himself. She wanted to hear his excuses, his lies, and believe that the brief months of friendship between them had meant something. She wished Lan was the one that was making a big mistake.
But the hopes fluttering in her heart were dashed when she returned to the pharmacy building and Kai’s father was the only one in the lab. Mengjiao’s eyes widened when he saw her, then his expression seemed to twist. He scrambled to his feet, and came running toward her. The slowly-dawning fear in his eyes made Liwa’s throat close up.
“Kai…isn’t here?” she asked.
“No…it can’t be,” Mengjiao said, crumpling to the floor. The way his voice broke was painful. “My son. Not my son…he’s all I have left.”
That couldn’t be. After Liwa had woken up at the estate, she never managed to ask Lan of Kai’s whereabouts. Granted, she was sensitive to the subject after what had happened in the fog on the mountain, but now Liwa wasn’t even sure if he’d made it out safely. Would Lan have really been cold-hearted enough to let him die there?
Before her stood a father worried about his child’s safety. Liwa couldn’t bring herself to say anything and only knelt down to place a comforting hand on his shoulder. Repeating Lan’s suspicions of Kai in that moment would be a despicable thing to do.
When Mengjiao calmed down, Liwa started to explain that they had gone to see the current head of the Azure Dragon family and got caught up in something unexpected. They’d gotten separated afterwards, she told him, and she’d been resting for a few days at the estate to recover from a fever. Her words were vague and hesitant, not wanting to bring Kai’s father any unnecessary worry. But he seemed to understand, bowing his head in a resigned and defeated manner.
“The Azure Dragon,” he breathed. “I see. Kai has always wished to make peace with the guardian of the east. But after all this time, it might be too late.”