Foxglove and Snakeroot
As Liwa ran, her cheeks and eyes burned from the cold winter air while her lips were so warm it felt like they were thawing out her entire face. Forcing herself to forget that she had just done something irreversibly stupid and impulsive, she slowed to a walk as the crowd got denser. She actually recognized a few stragglers as faces she’d seen around on campus before. It seemed like a lot of other students had the same idea as them, to end the winter break and year with a bang.
Perhaps, she thought wryly, Lan and her brother were just here to chill too. But that was too much of a coincidence. They had duties to take care of as the co-heads of the Azure Dragon household. If the spirit of the guardian of the east had completely made the Lan they knew disappear, how would coming here be fair to them at all?
Liwa scanned the throng of people for a familiar, seafoam blue. She did catch sight of an occasional member of the Azure Dragon family and her gaze lingered for a moment longer on azure hair and an unfamiliar back. She also ran into some professors from university, such as Professor Liu with his icy smile as he told her he was so sure he’d see her in remedial class next year.
She was so grateful she passed calculus.
Then she looped back to where Jin and Yuna were sitting, ducking behind some passersby to avoid being seen. She didn’t want to explain anything to them until she had apprehended Qin first. Liwa had a hunch that it was important to get to him before he could do anything, and her hunches had always turned out right.
And at long last, she caught a glimpse of teal-blue, the familiar short stature that disappeared behind the fringe of the crowd. In that split-second she could not tell which twin it was, but she darted into the crowd to follow.
It looked like they had disappeared down the alley away from the festivities, and Liwa clicked her tongue in annoyance. Typical. Both twins had the irritating habit of isolating people to talk to them. But two could play at that game.
Liwa stepped into the narrow lane between the buildings. She felt mild apprehension, but she was ready for anything the Azure Dragon twins would throw her way. She’d beaten up so many people who were stronger than her or could draw powers from the constellations in her lifetime. If it came to that, she wouldn’t hesitate to fight Qin or Lan or both, depending on the circumstances.
Those were the thoughts that circulated her mind when Qin emerged from the shadows before her like an eldritch horror, only he wasn’t particularly intimidating because he was shorter and slighter than she was. Still, Liwa remembered Lan’s unnaturally strong grip and remained on guard. And also that if he intended to hurt her, he might’ve brought backup to overwhelm her with numbers.
“An alleyway, huh?” she said, halting just a few paces away where Qin seemingly stood alone. “If you’re going to kill me here, you’d best be prepared to have half your men wiped out. I’m not going down without a fight.”
“Ah, I’m not here for a fight,” Qin replied icily. “A pity you’re such a brute. But I cannot bring myself to refuse my sister’s final request.”
“Final?! What did you do to Lan?”
“Not only do you lack manners, you also lack a brain,” he said, gazing at her in undisguised contempt. “Were you not aware that Lan has inherited the will and spirit of the Azure Dragon god? Or must I be the one to break the news, as if we haven’t done enough for you already.”
“I’m well aware of that,” Liwa replied through gritted teeth. She really couldn’t get used to it, a face that looked so much like Lan’s paired with those derisive words. It was worse than the Azure Dragon’s empty gaze through Lan’s eyes.
“Good.” Qin stepped forward out of the shadows, and the glint in his eye was chilling. “Then you’re not as stupid as you look.”
“Why do you get to retain your nasty personality?” Liwa snapped. “While Lan no longer remembers us, why are you waltzing around as if you haven’t changed at all?”
For the first time, his composure faltered. He looked about to punch her, but she was ready for it. Instead, his shoulders drooped in the achingly familiar way that Lan used when she gave up on something.
“You’re right,” he whispered as he sagged to the ground. “Why was it me? We were supposed to inherit the Azure Dragon’s spirit together. Both of us.”
Qin glared up at her with his stormy anger. “Do I seem like a god to you?”
“Oh wow, you’re right,” Liwa said blandly. “Your nasty attitude should’ve given it away.”
“You—!” he snarled, and he seemed so much like a wounded animal. “If the Azure Dragon did not care for you, I would’ve had you executed for your insolence.”
“So you did call me out to fight,” she said.
“You twist my words to your liking.” He’d straightened up, glaring at her resentfully. Liwa hadn’t had a real argument with Lan in a long time, and he was a mirror of those old memories. His eyes were a raging tide, the cold depths of the stormy seas.
Not that she would receive a response from the red fox spirit but she asked herself silently anyway, if the warning in her dream was about Lan’s twin. Shrewd and calculating, it was hard to tell what Qin was thinking. He’d been the one who had manipulated Kai to attack her. He was the storm and the claws, the one who did Lan’s—or perhaps the Azure Dragon’s—dirty work.
“You sent those people to hurt Kai, didn’t you?” Liwa said suddenly, balling up her fists. “If you knew the truth of each past life, you would’ve known he’d seek out those the white snake had hurt. I found it odd that his apologies would result in getting stabbed. And you were ready for us when we came to the Azure Dragon estate too.”
“What would you do if I said I was behind all that?” Qin asked mockingly. “Have you truly lost your mind? You would defend the wretched white snake?”
Liwa stepped toward him, her eyes blazing. “I’ll slaughter you myself.”
“You would give up your heart again for such a foolish reason?”
“What is this, a lover’s quarrel?” she sneered. “Kai is actively trying to rewrite his fate! Taking advantage of that is low.”
“Not all of us have that luxury!” Qin shouted, his shoulders shaking in fury. “You would never understand.”
“Then tell it to me so I do!” Liwa shot back. “Lan left without saying a word to any of us except Yuna, what was I supposed to think? Why are all of you obsessed with keeping secrets and deciding everything by yourself?”
“You could have listened to my sister when she told you to stay away from the white serpent! But instead, you desecrate her final wishes.”
Liwa thought about the way Lan had practically changed overnight after she’d been withdrawn from school. Her childhood friend had never cared about the hierarchy, and she had always been the one who insisted on taking past life dreams with a grain of salt.
“Were they truly Lan’s wishes,” she asked coldly, “or was that just the Azure Dragon’s eternal, unchanging will imposed on her?”
“You think I don’t know my own sister?” Qin spat.
Liwa resisted the urge to grab him by the collar to shake him so that he’d see sense. “You think I don’t know my own best friend?”
His scowl was downright nasty. “Sly as a fox, through and through. When fate comes calling, I will not lend you my aid.”
“Who needs your help anyway?” she retorted. “I’m warning you—leave my friends alone, or you will pay. I won’t go easy on you just because you’re Lan’s brother.”
As she turned on her heel to walk away, Qin called out, “You are only alive because of the Azure Dragon! In the first life, it gave you its heart after the white snake stole what was yours. Just you wait and see—when the powers of the constellations are blocked by tonight’s firework show, then you will understand why the Jade Rabbit has always…”
Liwa didn’t wait to listen to the rest because she had already stepped out of the alley and broke into a run.