by Shirozubon Saruko (城図凡然る子)
Looking up at the dark cave-mouth of the place where she would die, all Li Hua could think was that it was actually sort of a relief.
The past weeks had been an endless ordeal: solemn banquets where everyone was miserable, being dressed and preened and polished by servants who were miserable, her brothers weeping and swearing vengeance, her father so insensible with grief that he was at last confined to his bed with tonics and elixir pills. None of that had been able to change it in the end, of course; and now that the palanquin was retreating down Crooked Claw Mountain back to the palace, leaving her alone to face what must come, the quiet was at least a burden lifted. Although it did little to stop her trembling, or keep the hot prick of water back from her eyes.
It was even quieter than she might have expected, in fact, only the sound of the wind reaching her as she huddled shuddering on the bare rock. No junior demons had come out to carry her off to their mistress, no clamor had risen inside the cave even at the procession’s heavy footsteps. That was peculiar, wasn’t it? Or was the waiting to be its own sort of torture?
But no sooner had she thought that than the very sound she had dreaded came to her on the wind: the sly, rhythmic slap of large dry feet on stone.
The legendary Zi Long emerged from her den like a snake or a lizard from a burrow: a sudden muscular expulsion, smooth as a liquid squeezed out. She did not move quickly precisely, but nonetheless seemed far too quick for her size, fluid and eerie. Her limbs were small, short vestiges, and most of her movement came from the flexing and weaving of her powerful sides. Her scales were not so much a true purple as an oily rainbow of reds and indigos and silvers and violets, which came together into purple like the way the clear sea shone green in the sun. Whiskers and tendrils swept back from her face like wild and uncombed hair, and above her bestial jaws and below her crest her nictitating eyes were intelligent, interested, almost human.
Even through her terror, Li Hua was distantly aware that Zi Long was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
She had half-expected Zi Long to simply charge at her and snap her up in those jaws at once, bringing an end to fear and light and life all in one heavy crunch. Instead, the dragon only came until her whole body had coiled outside, and then stopped. She glanced around, this way and that, and then her gaze settled on Li Hua, cowering almost at her foremost feet. Had Li Hua dared to stand on her toes and reach up her arm as high as it would go, her fingers would still not quite have brushed the underside of Zi Long’s long snout.
Is it that time again? Zi Long asked. Her mouth did not appear to move when she spoke, and Li Hua could not be certain, but she thought the voice she heard was less in her ears than in her mind. It was startlingly ordinary even so, if by no means common: a deep, dry, aristocratic woman’s voice, the voice of an empress or a queen mother. Li Hua summoned all her courage on a hard breath, and tried to still her shaking, to gather in the strength to at least die with the dignity and courtly grace she had been raised to.
“Yes, my Lady,” she said, and though her voice was not steady she was heartened to find it strong enough to carry over the wind, if nothing else. She pressed her hands together, mostly to stop them shaking, and bowed for a reason to look away. “His Majesty… offers Her Royal Highness Princess Li Hua, his only daughter, as you have commanded. In exchange for my life, he begs that you continue to spare my people, in your mercy.”
Zi Long stared down at her for a moment — and though Li Hua had never seen a dragon’s expressions before and had no way of knowing how to determine them, she thought Zi Long might have looked nonplussed.
Ah, she said, and that was all, for a moment. Then: You speak. The last one was not brave enough to speak.
She paused again after that, leaving Li Hua to only stare up at her and try to think how to respond to that, if at all. Before she could, though, Zi Long at last made some roll of herself that was almost like a shrug, a sound in Li Hua’s mind that was almost like a sigh. And then she began to turn herself about, a complex maneuvering of her long body on this outcropping, at the end of the mountain trail.
Well, come inside, then, she said, and began to pad into the tunnel again, its darkness consuming her body just as smoothly as it had disgorged it before. It’s too cold out and the wind is high.
And Li Hua, left blinking into the shadows that had swallowed the dragon’s whipping tail, was left with little choice but to follow.
She followed Zi Long’s retreating body down an endless dark stone throat, and then to light again: torchlight from a vast cavernous room that was both cave and palace hall at once, beyond massive and ornate gate-doors. There were vast banquet-tables and receiving areas, covered walks through subterranean gardens, and at intervals lay the frothed springwater pools that gave the cave its name… but they were all abandoned as well, Li Hua noticed. There was no one else, no sign of life, except for herself and Zi Long. On closer view, even the many splendid features of Zi Long’s home seemed to be falling into disrepair: the tables stained, the gardens overgrown, the roofs and railings decaying.
“I beg your pardon for my boldness and intrusion, my Lady,” Li Hua could not keep from saying as they came deeper inside, making Zi Long look curiously backward at her, “but where… is the rest of your court? Are they away on errands for you?”
I have no court, and no servants, Zi Long said, turning her head to the front again, but at least her voice didn’t sound angry or even irritated. It was difficult to identify what its tone was instead. Not for many, many years. I hope you won’t be too uncomfortable without.
But before Li Hua could even think of responding to that bizarre statement, Zi Long had stopped, at the start of a terraced path out through another cave-tunnel, and turned to face her. Li Hua? This is your name, is it not?
“Y…” Li Hua swallowed. “Yes.”
Are you hungry, Li Hua? Or would you perhaps like wine? I am given many gifts by the villages of your father’s kingdom.
Would it be rude to refuse? She had no idea, under the circumstances… but under the circumstances, what could it matter in the end? “No thank you,” she said after a moment’s pause, in a tiny, dry voice she had to swallow again to strengthen. “I am not hungry.”
Zi Long bobbed her resplendent head. Very well, she said. Then I shall show you to the place where you will stay. This way.
She turned down the path without another word, and slithered into the tunnel, with Li Hua yet again forced to trail behind in numb confusion. The tunnel soon opened out to a broader entranceway, where Zi Long stopped, and urged Li Hua to go past her and ahead. Even in the greater space Li Hua tried to inch by her along the wall, mindless of her finery snagging on the stone, to keep from touching the dragon’s vast and powerful body. She kept her eyes closed for much of the way, swallowing, and cringed when at the end she reached ahead for another stone to guide her and her hand brushed a massive clawed toe, feeling smooth, warm scales larger than her fingernails caress her skin. She drew her hand back quickly, but to her relief, Zi Long appeared not to have noticed.
And then she was past, and surprised to find herself in an opulent sitting room, a chamber with a screened bed just beyond. Both were filled with light, in contrast to the rest of the cave’s dim; it poured in from paper windows so high above that she couldn’t tell if it was daylight or false, and cast a golden glow over the furnishings that made them seem all the more beautiful. They also seemed to have been long in disuse, but better-kept than much of the rest.
Please make yourself comfortable, and sleep, Zi Long said, making her turn back from looking around in wonder. Should you need anything, ring the bell — she nodded to a tiny silver bell on the dressing-table — and I will come to you.
Li Hua started to say something — something starting with a what or a why or even a thank you, or any one of a dozen other bewildered muddles on her lips — but before she could, Zi Long had already doubled herself around like a ribbon dancing on a high wind, and retreated back down the tunnel. And she was left alone to stare after her captor, in a beautiful room in a mountain cave, miles from home and uncertain now even of her doom.
Zi Long’s name was spoken very rarely in the palace of the king, but it seemed to Li Hua that she had always known the way of things, even from infancy. The kingdom lay in the shadow of Crooked Claw Mountain, at the top of which was Seven White Pools Cave; and there lived Zi Long, the ancient fiend who had ruled over these lands since before humans had ever come here. In tribute for living in her domain, the vain Zi Long demanded a sacrifice from each king: a maiden daughter, given in her eighteenth year, for the she-dragon to devour and thereby preserve her own fabled beauty.
As a girl, though, Li Hua supposed she had always believed it was only a myth; she had never quite connected it in her mind to herself, the youngest child and only daughter of the king, at any rate, or to the way people in her father’s court either fawned and doted on her or looked at her with sorrow in their eyes. Only on her eighteenth birthday had she finally been told, in all directness and seriousness, of what was now to come, and understood the full meaning of it all. She had thrown herself on her bed and wept for the loneliness and unfairness of it, the swift end of what had been so short. And she had allowed herself, unblushing, to wish for Xiang there to hold and comfort her: Xiang, the handsome hero who was her father’s favorite of all his warriors, who blushed and turned his eyes down when she was present and whose lovely face she peeped at from behind her brothers’ shoulders at court. But Xiang had gone away to war some months before, serving at the front against the forces of the southern province, and not returned by the time she was to be sent to the dragon’s den, for good or ill. There had been no one to help her, or even soothe her in her fear.
She lay that night in her bed in Zi Long’s cave, staring at the high dark ceiling in the candle-light, unable to sleep for the gnawing in her stomach. Why did she need a place to stay, to sleep? Why had she been offered food and drink? The unwelcome image of a goose being fattened kept occurring to her mind when she thought of that last, and she shuddered and turned on her side as though to escape it.
But if she put that aside, it was puzzling, to say the least. She had never been told anything but that the dragon would eat her: not how or even when. Was it meant to be a torment? A last concession? Or was there more here than any of them knew?
She tucked into a ball, closed her eyes, and thought of Xiang, his strong arms around her and lips on hers; and in spite of the boldness of that and of the shimmer of scales through her mind’s eye, in that daydream, at last, she could sleep.
The next morning she woke up disoriented, the light from the ceiling shining full and bright in her eyes. It took some time to remember where she was, and for the dread to settle back into her stomach again. She rose and washed, even in such circumstances unwilling to remain in bed all day, and looked around the room that was apparently to be her prison, more than she had been able the evening before. There was a vast wardrobe on one side filled with fine clothing, some that would fit her and some that wouldn’t, and she selected robes of the former kind and dressed herself very clumsily, without maids and servants to help her. Then she sat at the dressing-table in the sitting room to try to arrange her hair and makeup, before she could bear the suspense no longer and ventured timidly out.
She had half-imagined being greeted with flashing claws and a savage grinning mouth, the dragon fully-rested having found her appetite; but in the tunnel and in the main palace, Zi Long was nowhere to be found. Li Hua was alone in the cavernous interconnected rooms, and the silence was heavy. With nothing better to do, she wandered for a time, poking her head in doorways and exploring, and half making sure that Zi Long really wasn’t just hiding around some corner. And then, at last, she had been everywhere in the palace’s public places, and returned to where she had started. At the very back of the hall was another pair of enormous and ornate doors, towering as high as her father’s entire palace at home; but they were closed firmly, and in spite of all her confusion and curiosity, she had no desire to pry that far inside.
Instead, she made her way to the gardens, and in the end pinned up the sleeves of her borrowed gown and knelt down in the soil to weed and tend them. She had always loved flowers and plants, and it made her heart ache to see even these strange underground ones run to seed. She had never done such serious gardening before, and was surprised by how quickly it wearied her and made her sweat — but she found that she welcomed it. The hard steady work distracted her mind, made her attend to the exertions of her body instead, and she soon lost track of the hours as they slid by.
She was so absorbed in her work, in fact, that at first she didn’t even notice the distant sounds in the silence, the heavy slaps that she had so dreaded the day before. When the huge doors at the back of the palace thundered open, with a noise like an earthquake, it startled her so badly that she jumped and yelped a little into her soiled hand, and then shot to her feet in her alarm, tangling in her unfamiliar robes so badly she almost fell back down again. And then Zi Long was sliding into the main palace in view, her short legs paddling at the ground as though swimming while her body pulled itself along; and after only a few seconds’ glance around, she spotted Li Hua, standing frozen in the gardens with her eyes and mouth open wide. Transfixed, Li Hua could do nothing but tremble as the dragon approached — not even wonder if it had come at last, if this would be the end.
But when Zi Long came to her in the garden, she only looked around for a moment, casting her shifting gaze from one end to the next — and then turned it back on Li Hua, keener than ever.
Impressive, she said, a gentle flick of her tail indicating the beds that Li Hua had already preened. Do you enjoy gardening, Li Hua?
“I’ve… never done it before, my Lady,” Li Hua said — the words stammering and tumbling out of her before she could think better of whether to say anything at all. “I’ve kept plants and arranged flowers, but — we have gardeners of our own, at home.” She gulped breath, tried to collect herself. “But I like plants very much. Is — is it all right?”
I could scarcely object, Zi Long said, and might have actually sounded amused. Do as you like, you are my guest. She paused a moment, and then asked, perhaps not as certainly: Would you mind if I watched you at work?
The thought seemed to send a cold drop down the back of Li Hua’s throat, but she shook her head without even pausing to question. “Of course not, my Lady. As you like.”
And then Zi Long only inclined her head, and curled herself up into the garden’s central courtyard, her neck curving around to rest her snout on the claw of her foremost leg. And Li Hua settled herself back into the flowerbeds, trying to turn her mind back to the work, to work the soil and the leaves through the trembling of her fingers and not dwell too much on the eyes that rested on her from behind… but oddly enough, she found that after not very long at all, it became easier and easier to be calm, and to forget.
When Zi Long offered her food and drink again, close to what must have been mid-day, Li Hua found that she could not summon another refusal. The long deprivation and physical work had left her famished to the point of faintness; and if she was not to be consumed immediately, for whatever reason, should she not at least take sustenance in the meantime?
Zi Long, for her part, greeted her acceptance with what seemed to be a measure of satisfaction, and perhaps even genuine pleasure. Undulating in on herself, she vanished for a time back into the unknown places beyond those vast doors she had emerged from, and returned with an ornate, multi-tiered basket held with prim daintiness between a few of the front teeth in her powerful jaws. In spite of the massive fangs the gesture revealed — each surely larger than Li Hua’s whole hand — there was somehow such a sweet absurdity to the sight, the enormous monster gripping that delicate basket with such care, that Li Hua actually found herself needing to conceal a small smile behind her sleeve.
Though the basket was so small to Zi Long, it was quite large to Li Hua, and she found it brimming with food of all kinds. The fare was plain but plentiful and more than enough to make her mouth water after so long: salt-dried chicken and pork and fish, buns and rice pastries, peaches and nuts and pears. There was even a small bottle of some pale liquid tucked in along one side, which she uncorked to sniff and found to be plum wine. Seated at one of the vast and empty banquet-tables, she set to devouring a thoroughly unladylike portion of what had been set before her without the slightest care, while Zi Long curled herself along a broad space of floor just beyond, still not intruding but remaining near.
I do hope nothing has become too stale, she said at one point, with very nearly the cadence of a matriarch worrying over the meal put before her visiting relations. I do try to discard the older things, but it has been some time since I was last paid tribute.
Again, Li Hua found the edges of a smile threatening at her lips (and how could she have imagined such a thing would be possible, less than a full day hence?), even as she worked to at least show the dignity and grace of swallowing her mouthful before replying. “On the contrary, everything is excellent, my Lady,” she said, and tried to also be polite about pouring some of the plum wine into a plain clay cup that had been tucked in beside it. She had drunk water from the pools themselves, clean and clear and fast-running as they were, but wine was a lovely luxury, and she saw no reason to forbear. “Thank you very much for your hospitality.” She sipped for a moment, considering. “But do the villagers truly come up so far only to leave you things you do not use? …What do you eat, my Lady, if I may be so bold as to ask?”
I am a creature of magic, and need eat nothing unless I choose to, Zi Long replied. Her tone was oddly matter-of-fact for the content of the statement, and perhaps again faintly amused. But the villagers offer what they have, and if it comforts them, I have never seen fit to refuse them. Their gifts were of greater use when I had junior demons at my court, and still are at such times as I have guests. As I do at present.
There were so many questions in all of that as to be quite overwhelming, and as she lowered the cup from her lips Li Hua found she had no idea where to begin asking them, or indeed if she should at all.
“I beg your forgiveness for my rudeness, my Lady,” she finally found herself able to say, slowly, staring down at the lacquered table-top rather than anywhere near Zi Long’s massive coil, “but… I confess I am somewhat puzzled. It was not my understanding that I was to be your guest.”
She was aware of Zi Long looking at her, out of the shadows: the torchlight glinting off her large, iridescing eyes, flickering as the transparent membrane darted in across them and then away. The silence seemed to go on for very long.
I know it was not, little Li Hua, Zi Long said, with a sound in Li Hua’s mind like a sigh. And I most regret keeping you in suspense for as long as I have been required to. Kindly finish your meal, and I shall explain. But for the time being, please only know the most important truth: you are in no danger from me.
Never mind that finishing her meal was suddenly a far taller order than might have been expected, in light of how Li Hua’s stomach seemed to have frozen solid, and her throat knotted tight around her breath..
What were you told of why you were to be given to me? Zi Long asked, when Li Hua had settled herself. The tone of the question, Li Hua thought even through her numb confusion, was not one of genuine curiosity; it was more akin to when her tutor in the palace would ask in her lessons, Now, how do we see the virtue of jian especially embodied in the second stanza?
When Li Hua had finished swallowing what little more she could of her noon meal, Zi Long had led her — to her surprise upon surprise — back through those massive doors the dragon had emerged from this morning. They had passed into a cavern of stone that Li Hua thought more massive and high-vaulted than the entire vast palace in which she had been raised, but whose contents were curiously unremarkable, especially compared to the crumbling but ornate spaces beyond. There were more pools gathered at the foot of one endless wall, slower than the famous seven in the main chamber and sending up shimmers of steam that marked them much hotter as well. Close enough to these to absorb their warmth was a huge upraised platform of stone, covered in a multitude of the largest silks and draperies and cushionings Li Hua had ever seen. Terraced stone steps led up to this formidable dragon-bed, and it was on one of these that Li Hua found herself seated, as there was nothing else to speak of in the way of furnishings in all these vast chambers. Another smaller cavern was carved out of the stone wall opposite the pools, and even in its shadows it could be seen that it held a truly breathtaking array of gifts, surely from the villages Zi Long had spoken of: more baskets and pots and carved chests, even small wagons with the poles that had been hitched to oxen or donkeys to bring them now jutting out uselessly at nothing. But that was all. The room might have been enormous, but mostly it was empty, and a thick quiet seemed to hang unwaveringly in the air. Although Li Hua knew it had been occupied for longer than humans had lived in these lands, all the same, it felt abandoned.
Now, she cast her mind back, desperately picking her words. “I was told… that it was every king’s duty to give a maiden daughter in her eighteenth year, my Lady. It was said that you would… devour this woman. Me.” She closed her eyes briefly. “In order to preserve your beauty.”
The sound Zi Long made in her mind at that — a scoffing cluck like one of Li Hua’s maids displeased with the state of her robes after a walk in the gardens — was surely the most emotion Li Hua had heard her betray, and brought her own eyes very wide open again. When will they ever tire of repeating such nonsense? Zi Long said, although it was plainly not a question for Li Hua, and all the better given the sharp point of annoyance on her unheard voice. My beauty. Peh. My beauty, inasmuch as I have such a thing, is a perception of the one who gazes upon me, not an inherent quality I possess — and they know only a human’s idea of beauty, for how would they know a demon’s or a dragon’s? What care I if a human should find me beautiful? I am myself, and be I beautiful or hideous or neither, it is all one to my mind. She sniffed audibly, even as Li Hua sat unable to keep from staring slack-mouthed at her, and then seemed to recover some measure of herself. But I beg your pardon. None of this disagreeable slander is your doing, after all; I apologize for my outburst. Tell me, rather, if you have been told of how this practice began.
“How it… began?” Li Hua took a moment to absorb that question, and then to review everything that had been said to her, by her sorrowing tutors and brothers and her father as he wept openly into his hands. She had of course been rather distracted at the time, but… “I don’t think anyone ever said how it began,” she finally admitted, honestly, her brows creasing together. “It always sounded as though it simply… was. The first king who moved his people into these lands sought to forestall your ire with the life of his daughter, I had imagined, and it has ever been so.” She hesitated, and then added, hastily, “Though I mean not to offend, my Lady.”
Zi Long seemed entirely disinterested in that apology, however, continuing as though she had not heard. Indeed. I am not surprised to hear it, but I can assure you that what you imagined is false. Humans have dwelt in these lands for a very long time, since long before there was a king or a kingdom to be ruled, and for the most part they and I paid one another very little mind. So long as they did not intrude on my holdings or molest my demons at their work, I had no reason to object to their presence, and they did not. Even in later years, there were many kings who did not send their daughters to me, before the first.
Li Hua was frowning deeply now, staring up at Zi Long’s strange and wild face, but Zi Long still did not appear to notice. Her tone was dry, patient, teacherly. The first princess to be given to me was many generations ago, all the same. She was the eldest child of a cruel, selfish, and tyrannical ruler, who lived in luxury with his nobility even as he crushed the common people under taxes and tributes, and subjected them to harsh punishments for the slightest infraction. The princess, who was called Guanyu — and here she hesitated a moment, as though to linger over the name, as though saying it brought her some emotion she struggled not to display — was possessed of a virtuous and compassionate spirit, however, and she objected to her father’s shameful rule. When he would not heed her attempts to persuade him to relent, she at last resorted to conspiring with the leaders of a secret uprising of commoners, to depose him from his throne and free the people from his yoke.
But the king discovered Guanyu’s plotting. Enraged, he sought to be rid of her and revenged upon her, but he did not dare execute her in public; Guanyu was deeply beloved of the people, and he knew that to do so would bring about the very revolution that he hoped to forestall. So instead, he claimed that I, the fearsome dragon set atop Crooked Claw Mountain, had made the demand of the king of his lands that you describe: a maiden daughter, to be consumed. This was in spite of the fact that I had made no such demand, and in fact knew almost nothing of him or of his kingdom, or of his people’s plight, for that matter. In his mind, the people would blame me and not him for the loss of the princess, and perhaps even sympathize with him as a father so bereaved. At the same time, he supposed that I was such a mindless and bestial monster that I would simply be glad for the gift of a delectable morsel, and remove for him all evidence of his crime.
“But you are no monster,” Li Hua said — musing over the thought very carefully herself, more than attempting to reassure Zi Long of as much. “I have found you to be of a most intelligent and refined character, my Lady.”
Why, thank you, Zi Long said, sounding surprised into it, and very much amused again. Her tone made Li Hua flush a bit, but at least she didn’t seem displeased; quite the contrary, in fact. As it so happens, Guanyu found me to be less dreadful than she expected, as well. When she was delivered to the cave, and my junior demons brought her before me, I asked her why she had been sent to me; and between what she had been told and my own ignorance, we were able to arrive at an understanding of her father’s treachery. Meanwhile, she was a most charming and admirable young woman who had done no injury to anyone, least of all to myself, and although my junior demons were given to baser desires and did not care for the decision, I was adamant that she come to no harm in my domain. Instead, she stayed with me for a time as my guest, and then I aided her secret return back into the kingdom, to gather her fellow conspirators and escape to what has become the southern province. They formed a settlement there, and from what I understand, they soon set to waging war upon her father’s forces, to try to bring his terrible reign to an end.
“We’re still at war with the southern province,” Li Hua said, through numb-feeling lips, in her stunned amazement at all of what she’d heard. “That’s… my father’s soldiers go off to fight there.”
Indeed. The battle has been passed down through generations, and no end lies in sight to this day. For as far as I or the people of the south know, the corruption of the kingdom has yet to be remedied. Zi Long paused again there, as though considering her words. You see, though I did not make the initial demand for a princess to be delivered to me, after Guanyu had departed I sent my junior demons to the royal court to respond to the delivery, at her request. On my behalf, they praised this sacrifice of the king’s, and insisted further that it be repeated in every generation to follow. This was in part to obscure the fact of Guanyu’s escape from her tyrant father — and in part to serve as a test, for the kings who would follow. If a future ruler learned of my demands but would not agree to sacrifice the helpless, would not do what he knew to be wrong simply because it was what had been done before… then I would know it when no daughter was given to me, and I would tell the armies of the south that one finally sat the throne with whom they might be able to treat for peace.
But such a king has never come. One by one, as constant as the daybreak, I have been sent a princess by each king in his turn. And as I have with you, I have offered these young women hospitality, and waited until their fears have eased enough that they might be able to listen and believe the truth, and then I have told it to them.
“Just as you now tell me,” Li Hua echoed, her voice dim, as though coming from far down the stone throat of Zi Long’s private cavern. “Because my father failed your test. And my brothers. And… everyone.”
Zi Long did not answer that for a long moment. I am sorry, Li Hua, she said at last, and her silent voice held a terrible and sincere kindness.
Li Hua shut her eyes briefly. Her hands were trembling a bit in the sleeves of her borrowed gown, and she clasped them together on her knees to press them tight. “And now?” she asked, when she could find it in herself to speak again. “Now what happens?”
That is your decision, Zi Long said. You may make it at your leisure.
“What of the other women? Those who came before me?” She could barely see Zi Long’s face in the periphery of her vision, with her gaze trained out on empty nothingness in the distance. “What did they do, when they learned the truth?”
Zi Long made her elegant, rolling version of a shrug. Some stayed with me a while, and some departed at once. All left in time. Most went to join the rebels to the south, and to adopt their cause and become one of them. A few, however, simply wished to leave entirely, choosing to journey to other lands and try their fortunes there. Whatever their choice, I aided them. I asked only that they not return to the kingdom where they had lived before, and in so doing give away the ruse that Guanyu asked of me. I would keep to my vow to her, for as long as I am able.
She did not ask the question again, but she did not need to; it still rang in Li Hua’s mind, seemed to fill her chest from within. What would she do? What would she choose? What could she?
“I think…” Li Hua began, and then found that her voice was trembling out from under her, and had to stop and gather her breath. “I think that I would like… to stay here for a time, if that’s all right. If it would not be too presumptuous to ask. I would like to think on my decision, and all I have learned, before — before I commit to my next course.”
Of course, Zi Long said — perhaps almost too quickly, and with too much genuine approval. My home is your home, for as long as you would have it so. All the things in the chambers you occupy are yours, to use as you see fit. She hesitated for a moment, as though uncertain that she should, and then added: You need not be concerned about presuming. I would be glad of the company.
And somehow, in her surprise at that, Li Hua was able to muster a wan smile.
She wandered from Zi Long’s cavern in a daze when the dragon delicately suggested she might wish to go and rest, and made her way in the same condition back to the rooms she had occupied the night before. She lay down on the bed, curled in on herself on her side and stared at the screen beside the bed, thinking of her terrible fear of the previous night and this morning and how both already seemed so strangely distant. And before she could think to stop herself she found that she had begun weeping, in great wracking and silent sobs.
They eased in time, and she dozed, and then woke later in the afternoon sore and sticky-eyed but feeling cleaner somehow, a touch renewed. She put herself back together as much as she could and began to investigate her living quarters again, now with an eye that saw them not as a temporary prison, but as a place where she might dwell in the long term.
As Zi Long had alluded, the rooms were quite impressively elaborate, now that she looked closely: decorated with ceramics and bronzes and jade well beyond simple furnishing, and apportioned with all manner of necessities and entertainments both. There was an impressive calligraphy set and a go board tucked away on a shelf, a beautiful pipa resting with its long neck in a stand beside. The dressing-table, as she had found this morning, was brimming with ornate combs and hairpins for styling, and with more types of powders and rouges than she honestly knew how to use. It was easy to see, now, that this had been the living space of generations of young women her age before her, although she couldn’t be sure how all the items had come to be here. Had some of Zi Long’s guests been able to bring things, perhaps to ensure their beauty was part of the tribute until the end? Were other items gifts from the villages that had brought Zi Long so much food, or things that her junior demons had once used? She tried to imagine a pair of smaller monsters squabbling over a go board, their fearsome visages turned merely playfully cross with one another, and had to smile again.
She did feel a bit better than she had, at least able to take her mind off what she had learned, but she was still restless, and ill at her ease. In time, she found herself returning to something her eyes had caught on before: a particularly large and thick brush that had been separated from the rest of the calligraphy things, apparently because it had been so much used that much of the horsehair had pulled and straggled from its tip. Without really letting herself think about what she was doing or why, she knelt down with it across her knees and gently worked the rest of the bristles loose to be discarded, and then went to clean it carefully with the basin and pitcher she had been provided. She cast an uncertain glance back at the open doorway before retreating with it back to the bed, but the concern wasn’t enough to stop her. It was always easy to hear Zi Long coming, after all, and moreover her host would surely not wish to intrude upon her when she had sought privacy. There was little that Zi Long seemed so concerned for, indeed, as making her feel comfortable and content where she was. So at last she gave in, and slipped out of her borrowed clothing and settled back into the bed, the smoothly lacquered wood column of the brush-handle clasped in her hand.
For the maiden she still was, she had fairly clear ideas about what a man and woman did in a bed together, gleaned from older married women at court and the friendly maids and servants who had taken pity on her, whose mother had died when she was still so young. She had, on occasion, seen fit to test the theory of those ideas with the practice of her own fingers, in the dark solitude of her rooms of the palace at night, striving not to admit to herself that she did so with Xiang’s handsome face held in her mind’s eye. These explorations had been increasingly successful with time, to the point that she had furtively sought out larger items than what her hands could supply with which to try. These had been left behind in her now-empty rooms at what was no longer her home; but the tapered back end of the brush-handle seemed like a suitable replacement. It was smooth, well-turned and varnished, and tapered, and of a sensible size.
Li Hua spread her thighs with it held in one hand, and used the other to flick a fingertip over her nipple, biting her lip as she brought it to hardness with a gentle fingernail’s graze. Before long she had to leave that off in her impatience, and move her hand between her legs to instead tease and trace around the contours of her lips, the wetness that bloomed and dewed from between them, the small spot at the high center that could scarcely be touched but thrummed all through her when it was. As bold as she had been the night before, she could abandon herself in these strange circumstances to being bolder still: imagining Xiang’s hands on her breasts, between her thighs, stirring the same slickness she felt herself. It was more than enough; almost too good to be borne.
And if these thoughts were disturbed from time to time, as she spread her lips gently with one hand and began to slide the the smooth wood deeper with the other, by more flashes of beautiful shifting scales and a whiskered face that no longer seemed so wild… well, what then? That secret, like so many others, was now hers to keep.
In time, of course, she emerged again from her rooms, and set about the slow, fumbling work of finding her place in these strange new circumstances. She ate meals that Zi Long provided from her stores of gifts, tended the ailing gardens by day, tried her best to sleep at night instead of being overcome with long and melancholy thoughts. Time began to blur slightly almost at once, with the future stretching out in a grey unknown nothingness before her, no plans and no imaginings for her life beyond its end that had not come.
Still early on, Zi Long offered the hot pools in her inner cavern as the site for a bath, and Li Hua was quite pleased to accept. Just like the many comforts of Li Hua’s own rooms, all manner of items for a young lady’s toilette turned out to be stored by the pools for these purposes, and though the water was slow-moving, it drained away readily enough to clear the dirt and bath bean froth Li Hua had left. Zi Long even slithered the bulk of her body into a coil in another larger pool, apparently just for the pleasure of the temperature, and kept Li Hua company while she soaked after washing, with the water up to her neck and the long dark curtain of her loose hair floating out on its surface.
When at last she rose to perform her final rinse and step out of the water, Li Hua got only as far as filling a jug with water and pouring it over herself, before she was distracted by the great slap of water as Zi Long slowly uncurled from her own pool. Would you prefer that I leave you to yourself to dry off? she asked with her customary politeness, but Li Hua only smiled and shook her head.
“I don’t mind. I enjoy your company.”
Hm. I am pleased to hear it, of course. Zi Long padded a bit closer among the pools, shedding water in a long trail on the stone floor that shone in the lantern-light. Her mouth was tucked back in an expression that Li Hua had come to understand was a sort of smile. All the same, some of my companions have remained concerned for their modesty in my presence. It is a curious thing to me. She moved in toward the lip of the pool where Li Hua stood, the water only covering her to just above her knees now, pressing her hair in the toweling Zi Long had provided her. In point of fact, I still find all of the workings of a human body rather mysterious. If you do not mind, might I look more closely?
Li Hua could not help a single swallow, although she hid it quickly behind her smile. With the toweling only held aloft in her hand now, she was suddenly acutely aware of the bare pale curves of herself, the slopes of her breasts and belly and the triangle of dark hair that disappeared between her thighs. She was not quite as rounded as was most prized for a woman of her status, but certainly not too thin, and she had heard that she had been thought pretty in her father’s court — although none of those observers had ever seen her in this state. She caught herself in a moment’s ridiculous nervousness as to whether Zi Long would agree.
“If you like, I don’t see why not,” she said, with a bit of an uncertain laugh. Zi Long looked pleased again, though, which was heartening. Her vast head moved close, closer than Li Hua had ever seen it, and at least she had the distraction of looking as well as being looked upon: her breath caught by the intricate layering of the smaller and more delicate scales on Zi Long’s face, the way the stiff wiriness of her whiskers was actually a leathery sort of scaling all its own, the shifting shape of her slit pupils as they widened and narrowed fractionally with light and focus. Her fanged snout was perilously close to the white swell of Li Hua’s belly, and though she no longer feared it precisely, feeling the cool flow of Zi Long’s breath puff against her from breasts to thighs had her trembling slightly at once, for a different reason. In her dizziness, she could spare only a moment’s wild hope that Zi Long couldn’t smell the hot wetness gathering fast at the fork of her legs.
So small, and soft, Zi Long mused, the tickle of her breath undisturbed by the words. Still, I think you are quite lovely, Li Hua.
Li Hua blushed brightly, in spite of herself, between the compliment and the knowledge of the state of her body both. “Th-thank you, my Lady,” she said, her voice more faint and wavering than she would have wished it. “I know you’ve said it does not concern you, but… I think you are as well.”
Seeing that dragon’s smile again from so close up was rather dizzying. I value it more from you than from another human, I must say, Zi Long said, cheerfully enough. And please, my dear Li Hua, do not feel required to be so formal. While you are a guest in my home, I would have you call me by my name.
“Zi Long, then,” Li Hua said, with only a little more strength in her voice, and her bravest attempt at a smile. She would have sworn that she could feel Zi Long’s pleasure in her mind even before the words themselves.
Just so. And then, before Li Hua could prepare herself, Zi Long had withdrawn her head once more, leaving a faint rush of air in its displacement as she pulled to her full height again. It was impossible to say whether relief or regret was what Li Hua felt in greater measure. But I have kept you long enough. Please, continue. It would not do for you to take a chill.
And as Li Hua collected her wits enough to finish drying and dressing herself, once fully out of the pools, she tried not to dwell on how much — more than at any other more sensible time in all of this — she felt that she had just escaped.
She lost track of the days and weeks quickly, amid how soft time seemed to have become. One seemed to fade into another, with no real separation between nor reason to mark their passing. The inside of the caverns seemed to become less chilly in time, as though perhaps the spring it had been when she had been brought here had begun to shade toward summer, although she had not been outside in all this time and could not be certain of it. Nothing changed inside the caves; only in those distant windows in her rooms was there any sense of day or night, or light beyond the lanterns and torches. No sound reached them that was not made by herself or Zi Long, or the passing of water through the rock.
So it was that when there did come a noise that was different — the distant shouting of a human voice, no less, from a throat that was not her own — her mind scarcely knew how to interpret it anymore, let alone how to respond.
For a moment Li Hua only stood frozen in the garden beds where she had been working, her hands and simple robe for the day streaked with dirt, all of her mind and body numb and still. Her head had cocked on one side slightly like an attentive dog’s, seeking the sound. She was not at all sure yet that it had not been entirely her imagination, that her mind was not inventing strange things after so long deep in the earth.
But then it came again: a raised furious voice calling words she could not make out, a pounding, a clash of metal on stone. It echoed down the halls of the caves, drifting to her from the one direction that she did not ordinarily go within them — which was back toward the cave-mouth, where she had entered on that first dreadful day. It was still early enough in the morning, as far as Li Hua knew, that Zi Long had yet to emerge from her cavern, and in that moment she had absolutely no idea what to do at all.
Then she found herself moving, as if in a dream, where some force beyond her will seemed to puppet her legs along. She stepped out of the gardens and made her way into the throat of the cave, toward the sound, its echo becoming louder and less indistinct the closer she drew. Quickly, in fact — as though it were moving toward her even as she moved toward it.
“Come out, monster! Cowardly beast! Face me for what you have done! If it’s the last act of my life, I’ll slit you from end to end and bathe in your blood!”
Heart beginning to pump in alarm by now, Li Hua rounded one last turning in the tunnel, to where distant daylight actually pricked and stung her eyes from the far end — and found that charging toward her, sword upraised, was a fearsome figure decked in complex armor of red and silver, shouting all its fury down the cavern’s throat. The warrior’s momentum carried him on for a second or two after she had appeared, and she shrank back against the stone wall by instinct, hand pressed against her chest as though it could protect her… and then the man had stopped altogether, his feet almost tangling in a useless clash as he pulled up short a few paces away.
“Your Majesty?” the warrior said, in a weak, stunned voice, after long heartbeats of mute staring. Li Hua stared back, and then the man reached up with dreamlike slowness and pulled up and off his high towering helmet, clearing its strangeness and shadows from his face. A young, smooth, exquisitely handsome face, disheveled strands falling loose from the hasty topknot of his hair around it. With wide, staring eyes, and more privately treasured than any other in her memory —
“Xiang?” Li Hua asked in answer, disbelieving, her voice little more than a tiny hitch of breath. Xiang’s eyes widened even further somehow, and he took a stuttering step forward, only to stop before her and then collapse to his knees with a heavy clank of metal, the helmet rolling carelessly from his hand.
“You’re alive,” he whispered. “They said… I had thought sure…”
Li Hua reached out a trembling hand, vaguely in his direction, not even sure to what purpose. When it neared his face, though, Xiang reached up wonderingly and took it in the extremes of gentleness into his own gauntleted fist, and dared so far as to bring its fingers to his lips, his eyes squeezing shut with emotion. Li Hua thought too late of the dirt ground into her hands just now — but she couldn’t really have brought herself to object, anyway.
“Xiang, is it really you?” she was able to ask after another moment to collect herself, and although her voice was still weak and breathy, there was at least a bit more sense in it. “How is it you’re here?”
“I came to avenge you, your Majesty,” Xiang said, lowering her hand to only hold it lightly in his own as he looked back up at her. He still looked a bit wide-eyed and dazed, come to that. “But…” He blinked, and sense seemed to reassert itself in him as well; he shook his head, and climbed quickly to his feet, reaching for her shoulders. “But you live, and we must waste no time. We have to run. I’ll protect you– “
“Xiang,” Li Hua began to interrupt, but he didn’t seem able to hear.
“Come, quickly, before the beast notices! If we can move far enough away by darkfall– “
“Xiang!” That finally made him look at her, frowning, and she tried to square her shoulders and seem as convincing as possible. “It’s all right. Zi Long isn’t–“
“Something’s coming!” Xiang hissed then, though, distracted away from her, cutting her off even as he pulled her tight to his chest and raised his sword again. Even in the absurdity of the situation, Li Hua could find a moment to blush with happiness at being held so close to him. It was dampened somewhat, however, as it dawned on her that now that he had said it, she could hear it too: the rhythmic slither and slap of feet on stone, the sound that she herself had long since ceased to mark with anything but welcome and pleasure.
Zi Long emerged into the cave behind them only a few seconds later, and now for an instant Li Hua could see her again as Xiang must see her: a vast, fearsome monster, strange and terrifying, taking up the whole round of the tunnel that led inside. She felt breath hiss in Xiang’s chest, and could only really marvel at his courage: that for her sake, he had come all the way up this mountain, into this cave, to face something of Zi Long’s size and strength alone.
Ah, here you are, Zi Long said with mild bemusement in Li Hua’s mind; and from the way that Xiang stiffened beside her, she could tell he heard it too. I had wondered what all the commotion could be. She paused a moment, taking in the scene, and then her interior voice was more politely baffled than ever. You… have a guest.
“Stay back, monster!” Xiang growled, lifting his sword again, even as Li Hua reached frantically for his arm to try to pull it down. “You will not harm my princess, should it cost me my life or more.”
Indeed I will not, Zi Long interrupted Li Hua this time, and now there was deep, weary amusement threaded into her confusion. Though I assure you, dear boy, it will cost you nothing, least of all your life. If you are to be Li Hua’s guest, might you not come within, so you can be offered hospitality without the inconvenience of a sword to interfere?
And between that and Li Hua’s own clinging hands, it was to Li Hua’s immense relief that she felt Xiang’s sword-arm beginning to sag, and the point of his weapon to lower. And if it was more out of sheer numb bewilderment than any conviction, at this particular moment… well, one had to be content with what one could, in such extremes as these.
“You shoud have listened to me,” Li Hua couldn’t keep from chiding Xiang when they were seated together at a banquet-table, when Zi Long and Li Hua both had told him Zi Long’s tale and Zi Long had declared that she would go and retrieve refreshments. “I was trying to tell you.”
To his credit, now that both his fury and the suspicious darting of his eyes had been at least mostly calmed, Xiang did have the grace to look cowed. “I am terribly sorry, your Majesty,” he said, inclining his head deeply to her, and looking up with a contrite gaze that melted her at once. “It is as you say. I should have heeded you when I saw you meant to explain.” Li Hua smiled at him, mollified, and he appeared to flush slightly with it before adding in a stumble, “I — certainly would have done so, were the circumstances not so strange. Surely your Majesty can understand.”
“I can,” Li Hua admitted, and was so bold as to touch his hand where it rested on the tabletop. “I thought the same as you did, when I arrived. I was so frightened. But Zi Long is not what we were told.” I think she’s very lonely, she almost finished that — but then closed her mouth against it. Much as she admired Xiang, that suspicion did not seem hers to share with him. At least not yet.
Xiang was staring down at the tabletop, meanwhile, his jaw tightening even as he looked at her hand atop his without really seeming to see it. “When I returned from the front, and they told me you had been taken to the dragon,” he began, and then seemed so overcome that he could not continue for a moment. He swallowed, the long column of his throat working. “Your Majesty, it… sent me mad. To think that your own people, your own family could ever do such a thing. I knew that it was always said to be your destiny, but… I had believed that somehow, when the time came, your father, your brothers, they would find some way to–“
Li Hua dropped her own gaze and then shut her eyes, her hand tensing on the back of Xiang’s. That cut rather too close to so many things she had been trying not to think about. She opened her eyes again, however, when she felt Xiang’s hand turn carefully over under hers, letting her touch rest against his palm instead so he could clasp it in his.
“I’m afraid I said terrible things to his Highness your father, before I left,” Xiang said, his tone quite rueful again in rather a different way. “He was overcome with grief, but he told me had no choice, and I… I should not have spoken so to a man so recently bereft, regardless. I’m sure that I am exiled at the least.” He breathed out a little laugh, sheepishly. “It shames me to have lost my temper so completely, but neither do I know how I should have restrained myself.”
“You chastised your king, on my behalf?” Li Hua couldn’t keep herself from probing, with eyes wide. “And then you came to face a dragon alone, to be revenged for me?” Though he did not turn to look at her directly, she thought Xiang’s face was as pink as her own felt, as he nodded.
“And I would do more, if need be, your Majesty,” Xiang said, softly, making her heart stutter in her chest. Li Hua’s hand tightened in his, and she tried to prepare herself to speak —
The padding of one of Zi Long’s great feet with pointed loudness nearby — nearer than it should have been able to come without either of their noticing, had they not been so distracted — nearly made her jump out of her skin. I beg your pardon for the interruption, Zi Long said as she snaked back into the outer caverns, and her voice was so supremely amused that Li Hua retrieved her hand hastily out of sheer flustration, as though Zi Long were a lady-in-waiting tasked with minding the princess’s virtue. Here is food and drink, should you desire either — Xiang, is it?
“It is, great Lady,” Xiang said, inclining his head, although he still seemed more than a little discomfited to be speaking to her so. Still, to his further credit, after a moment he added awkwardly, “Thank you… for your hospitality, as well, and for the kindness you have shown to her Majesty my princess. I apologize for how I conducted myself when first we met. You are — not what I expected, as I imagine you are aware.”
I am, and no harm done, Zi Long said, as graciously as ever, settling in on the far side of the table from where they sat. Thank you for your apology, all the same, Xiang. Though I am pleased to discover that Li Hua has a young man so committed to her well-being.
Li Hua couldn’t hold back a smile at that, although she turned it quickly down toward the table. Xiang stuttered briefly in his unloading of the latest basket Zi Long had brought, but that was all.
Will you return to the kingdom, now that you are assured of her safety? Zi Long went on to inquire, as though she hadn’t noticed. Or would you prefer to remain? I would be pleased to welcome you as another guest, if you would so choose.
Xiang cleared his throat, and Li Hua turned her gaze to his face again, a bit more anxiously than she would have cared to admit. “As I told her Majesty, my Lady, I believe the manner of my departure from the kingdom may have ensured I am no longer welcome there,” he said, with a touch of that rueful smile again on his pale, plush lips. “And even if I were…” He risked a glance at Li Hua, and then looked quickly away when he saw her gaze on him. “I would not leave her Majesty now, when fate has demanded that she live as an exile from her homeland. I would stay at her side, and defend her wherever she may go, if she would have it so.”
“Xiang,” Li Hua said in a breathless whisper, unable to help herself, and then pressed her hands to her mouth. It was too late, though, and he looked at her sidelong — and smiled at her, shyly and with such sincerity that the warmth of it felt like it would fill her up to bursting, and carry her away with it on the air.
Is that agreeable to you, Li Hua? Zi Long said, with a tone so unmistakably dry that it was clear she had no doubt of what the answer might be. In her present state, though, Li Hua could scarcely bring herself to mind.
“Of course,” she said, struggling to control her voice, and comport herself with any measure of dignity again. It was a process that required looking anywhere but at his face as she added, softly: “Thank you, Xiang. I will be most grateful to have you with me.”
Excellent. Then you are welcome, Xiang. Zi Long paused briefly, considering. I am afraid I have but one set of rooms prepared for human guests; much of my domain is in a most unfortunate state of disrepair, as you may have observed. Still, I believe Li Hua’s lodgings are spacious for such diminutive creatures as yourselves, and there is extra bedding stored within. I am certain that you will be able to arrange yourselves comfortably.
Li Hua also did not miss the archness of her tone as she said that, and strove for her dignity more than ever as she pretended not to have noticed at all. Really, whoever would have thought she’d ever be sitting in this vast forbidden cavern, with Xiang beside her, and both of them being gently teased by a dragon?
And if there was the faintest touch of melancholy to the way Zi Long excused herself after the meal and left the two of them to themselves, well… Li Hua didn’t think she was meant to have noticed it, and had no notion of how she could respond.
She excused herself briefly as well, to tidy up and change her clothing, and she and Xiang passed the afternoon walking and lingering in the cavern’s gardens, which were coming to look less ruined with every day of Li Hua’s work. They divided their time between aimless talk, of Zi Long and her history and her curious home — carefully avoiding the subject of the home they themselves had both left behind — and silences made awkward by the sweetest kind of discomfort. It seemed that any time that one of them looked directly at the other they found their gaze returned, and both looked blushingly away.
When night came, with her heart running a bit faster in her chest, Li Hua led Xiang back to the rooms that Zi Long had provided her, and did the best to show him their lay that she could when he seemed determined to remain barely inside the doorway and look at absolutely nothing. No sooner had she paused for breath than he broke in.
“Your Majesty, there’s — no need for you to trouble yourself. I couldn’t possibly–” He seemed to stammer for his next word at some length before pausing to gather himself, while she tried not to smile for fear he would take it wrongly. “…It was most gracious of both Zi Long and yourself to make the offer, but I assure you, the floor of the great cavern will suffice for me quite well.”
Li Hua blinked, and then frowned, turning fully to face him again. “Oh, please, Xiang, you mustn’t do that. It gets so cold out there at night. There’s more than enough room in here for you to be comfortable.”
“It isn’t a question of my comfort, your Majesty,” Xiang said, in a rather strained and urgent undertone. “It’s… you are my princess. I am — no one, a common soldier — I couldn’t presume to share your quarters.”
“It isn’t a presumption,” Li Hua said, smiling slightly, “because I’ve invited you. Indeed, I am asking you.” She took a few careful steps toward him, to where she could look up into his eyes. “You said that you would stay at my side, by your choice, and not leave me. I would be grateful for you to keep to every letter of that promise.”
That won Xiang’s looking directly at her again, his eyes widening — and then after a moment he broke into a small, sheepish laugh, ducking his head back down. “Your Majesty has cornered me already,” he said, making her laugh a bit as well. “It would… certainly be no hardship to stay at your side, if you wish it so. And I suppose there is no other’s propriety to fear offending, come to that.” Li Hua smiled acknowledgement, and he tilted his head, looking at her more closely. “You would prefer that I stay?”
“I would,” she said, with her smile growing at having to reassure him again. She stepped closer still, to where she could even dare to take his hand in both of hers — and wondered just how much bolder still she might be. “And… I would ask one other thing, if you would be willing.”
“Anything, your Majesty,” Xiang said, with only soft sincerity in his voice, his hand curled into hers. Li Hua took a breath, and then tilted her chin upward, closer.
“Would you kiss me?”
Xiang’s eyes went wider than ever, his face turned boyish by its surprise. He really was no older than she was; it was so easy to forget sometimes. His breath seemed to catch in his throat. He hesitated for a terrible moment, as though gathering himself to speak, or demur, or pull away entirely… and then all at once he only flushed, and leaned down to press his lips to hers with a swiftness that spoke of being overcome all at once, of an attempt at noble resistance that had sweetly, wonderfully failed.
His mouth was dry and soft on hers, only hovering where their lips brushed as though too shy to move. Li Hua took the risk on his behalf: tilting her head further, questing cautiously forward to firm and part her lips against his. Xiang made a faint sound in his throat, barely-heard, and then his hand touched the side of her cheek, her jaw, cradling her with his fingertips just resting on her hair and the shell of her ear. She shivered with it, and pressed closer to him, resting her hands on his breastplate and wishing for them closer to his skin.
They kissed lingeringly, slowly, a contact that with time came slightly open and was touched by sliding wetness, making both their breath come quicker between the explorations of their mouths. At last Xiang let the kiss end and only hovered close to her, his breathing still fast and forehead pressed to Li Hua’s, stroking her cheek.
“I’ve loved you since I was a child, a boy training with the palace guard,” he murmured, close to her, his other hand only now straying up shyly to rest at the side of her waist. “You were so lovely, and clever, and kind. You were set so high above all of us you could have been dull and spoiled, but you always saw the worth in every servant, every soldier, and did your best to serve us as we served you. You were my truest allegiance, never the king. I wanted to do every great feat possible in your sight — the only reward I ever wished was for you to look on me and smile.”
Li Hua was glad to be leaned against him; she wasn’t sure the surging, bounding lightness of her heart would have let her keep standing upright, otherwise. “Every day here, I’ve thought of you,” she confessed in kind, her eyes pressed closed: “from when I was so frightened at the first to when I woke this morning, not knowing what will come of me next or where I’ll go. The thought of being in your arms was my comfort in the hardest moments. I don’t know how my heart can bear to have it real.” Her breath hitched into her, a laugh or a sob. “If you’re all I’m to have of my life before… then it’s all I could have wished, even so.”
Xiang hesitated, and then both his arms slipped around her, pressing her close to him and tucking his cheek along her hair. “I’m here. I’m here, your Majesty. I will never let anything happen to you.”
She clung to him a moment, breathing and trembling, letting herself collect slowly back into some semblance of order. At last, she drew back, although only enough to smile at him shakily: still with her hands on his shoulders, and staying within the circle of his arms.
“Call me by my name, please,” she said softly, searching his gentle eyes. “I am no princess here, and you need not be a soldier. We can be just… ourselves.”
“Li Hua,” Xiang said, after a moment’s apparent struggle, and lifted one hand to touch her cheek again. His voice and his caress were both soft as the lightest brush of silk, and there was nothing to do but kiss him again. And again.
When they released this time, he gathered her close again, stroking her back between her shoulderblades. “So much has happened today,” he said, with a bit of a helpless chuckle, his head leaned against hers again. “And so much before that, that you’ve had to bear alone. Your — you should sleep, for now, and rest. I will guard you.”
Li Hua nodded, their hair brushing together; she found she was so tired she couldn’t be too reluctant, even if it meant not kissing any longer. “You should as well. What a long, hard journey you’ve made here — and to find out such strange things.” That won a little laugh from Xiang, and he drew back holding her shoulders, smiling at her kindly.
“Strange and wonderful.” He brushed his lips over hers just one last delicate time, shy again. “Allow me one moment to divest of my armor, so I don’t disturb your rest.”
She nodded, stepping away to let him work the fastenings — and then found herself stepping nearer again to help a few moments later, in spite of Xiang’s demurrals, when he struggled to remove all the fittings unaided. At the palace and in the field he would have had servants to help him don and shed his ceremonial armor, and would of course be clumsy at first without, just as she had been in dressing and grooming herself. But they would learn to do it alone. No, better yet — they would learn to do it together.
With the armor off, in only a plain robe, she was surprised to see how much smaller Xiang was than he had always seemed with its bulk: he was very slender, in fact, even in spite of how strong all the kingdom knew him to be. Li Hua found she liked it, just as she had always liked the fine bones of his face, his slim neck and thin long hands. Together they racked his armor carefully on a bench near the door, and then Li Hua let herself be guided to the bed, to loose her hair and lie down.
“Good night, Li Hua,” Xiang said, from a decorous distance from the bedside, once she had. He still tasted her name like something foreign on his tongue, and it still gave her a shiver of delight to hear it. Although already drowsy, she turned to look up at him, letting a touch of pleading into her eyes.
“Will you stay beside me? Here? Please.” His eyes definitely widened a bit again, and she blushed but pushed on. “I would… feel better, still in your arms.”
Xiang looked entirely flustered himself, and he hesitated for so long she almost lost hope… and then nodded, with what might have been a steadying breath. “Whatever you wish,” he said in a murmur — but she was relieved to see there was nothing of reluctance in the way he hurried to douse the lanterns, and then knelt in the dim shadows of moonlight from the windows to ease into the bed beside her.
Li Hua pressed close, and his exhale stirred her hair, as he curled an arm over her waist. The fabric of his robe was warm and smooth against her cheek. She closed her eyes, and was asleep before she had any idea it had begun to happen.
When daylight woke her, Li Hua found herself with her back pressed into a curl of human warmth, an arm tucked securely over her middle. She blinked into the early-morning glow of the rooms she now shared with Xiang, and let herself lie a moment in the rush of feeling that overtook her. It hadn’t been a dream, or only the workings of her fevered imagination tricking her at last. He was really here, he had really come to her. He would stay with her, and they would be together.
There remained only one scar to trouble her perfect happiness: the memory, seeming more significant on revisitation, of how much Zi Long had seemed to be hiding sadness, when she had left them alone together yesterday. Was she all right? Whatever was the matter, would she be willing to discuss it?
But there was nothing to be done about that just yet, whether she could do anything or not. Zi Long lingered late abed, a fact that Li Hua had long found rather charming, and would be sleeping for some time yet, possibly hours. In the meantime, Li Hua had a guest of her own to attend to, and that duty was one she anticipated with pleasure.
She rolled over in Xiang’s arms to find his eyes already cracked open and gazing at her, a drowsy smile on his lips. She answered it, and then raised up on her elbows at once to press a kiss to his mouth. He kissed back and drew her into his arms with a warm, lazy lingering that curled a tendril of heat down her belly, of much more interest to her than how they were both disheveled and their mouths a bit sour from sleep.
“Good morning,” Xiang said softly when she had left his mouth for a moment, and pushed back a fall of her loose hair to cup her cheek. “Did you sleep well?”
“The best I have in quite some time,” Li Hua admitted, laughing with her head ducked down before peering back up at him. “And you?”
Xiang hesitated long enough to be telling, but laughed sheepishly when she frowned at him. “Well, yes. Only…” He flushed, smiling and looking away from her. “Easily distracted from resting.”
Li Hua’s smile broadened at that, and she brushed his cheek with her fingers, only to have him turn his head and kiss them on apparent impulse. “I am sorry to have disturbed your sleep.”
“Not at all,” Xiang said, smiling back at her now. “I have no regrets.” He paused a moment, cradling her hand to his cheek, and then said in a softer tone, “You are so beautiful, Li Hua.”
Warmth spread in Li Hua’s cheeks and chest both, and there was nothing she could have done in answer but press herself back into his arms, and kiss him. Xiang clutched her close, and kissed her in answer with a mounting fervor that matched her own. Before long they were both short of breath and tangled, with her lying half on top of him, their tongues sliding together and Li Hua’s hair tumbling and pooling around them both.
When Li Hua at last pulled up above him again, Xiang’s color was high now with more than just shyness: his eyes were feverishly bright staring back into hers, his lips parted around his breath, his hands caressing the shapes of her back and waist and hips with increasing delicious familiarity. Li Hua took in the sight hungrily, relishing how he looked at her. And gathered her courage, both from that look on his face, and what he had said the night before: there was no one here to insist on propriety, or to judge anything they might do. It was only them.
“I want you,” she said: words tumbling from her lips, blind and blunt but beyond what she could care about now. “I want you to make love to me. I’ve waited so long. Do you…?”
“Yes,” Xiang breathed, and shut his eyes a moment to swallow and gather himself. “If you’re certain, if you wish it… yes, very much.” Li Hua’s heart thundered, her breathing somehow coming even faster — but he was taking her hand again, stilling it on his chest, and mustering himself to a weak smile. “But… there’s something I must explain. I don’t want to take you by surprise.”
Li Hua frowned at him, her mind still muddied from her excitement, and he took a deep breath. “Though I am a man, by some curious accident of my birth, the shape of my body is like a woman’s. It isn’t a secret, by any means, but I knew you would have no cause to know.” He paused to take another breath, though he went on before she could ask any questions or prod for more. “When I was old enough to explain to my parents what the matter was, they were quite pleased to learn that what they had taken for a daughter was in fact a son, and encouraged me in dressing appropriately and training with the palace guard. When I became a soldier, of course, I could hardly conceal my unusual form from my fellows, but though some were puzzled, most were practical men who cared for nothing about me but my skill with a blade. There were one or two who attempted to make mock of me, or force the issue of their doubts… but after I had bested them enough times in training, they were only too happy to agree that I must be a man after all.” His lips curled in a sour little smile. “Too many people think very poorly of women, I must say. It is a point of view I have never understood. So many of the women I’ve known have been far more worthy than I could ever be. …Present company very much included.”
That made Li Hua smile much more happily, of course, as he must have meant it to. Presently, however, Xiang only continued, “In any case, because my heart was so devoted to you, and you were set so high above me, I never thought the shape of my more… intimate parts would be a concern. But…” He looked away from her, and then turned his eyes to hers with a plain worry that melted her heart at once. “I only hope this won’t come as a disappointment to you. I know I’m not what you expected of me.”
“You’ve already shown me that plainly,” Li Hua said softly, stroking her palm and fingers lightly over his cheek. “You’re so much more than I could possibly have expected.” Xiang smiled a bit, dropping his eyes, and she pressed her hand a bit tighter to make him look up again. “Of course it isn’t a disappointment. No two men are shaped entirely alike, are they? Some are tall and some short, some thin and some fat… I don’t see why this should be any different. I want you as you are.”
Xiang cleared his throat, although he was flushed somewhat with pleasure by now. “I only mean to say, your Majesty,” he said, forgetting himself in his distraction, “I may not be able to — act as a lover to you in quite the way you may have expected.”
“Oh.” Li Hua considered that for a moment, and hesitated — and then, with a small smile as much impish as it was sheepish, pushed herself up off of Xiang at last to retrieve the brush-handle from where she had tucked it by the side of the bed, and pressed it into his hand as she returned to him. “Well, as it so happens… I’ve learned to act as a lover in that way to myself. And I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to by the same means.”
Xiang looked down at the handle, and then into her face… and then his cheeks flamed so abruptly red with realization that Li Hua couldn’t help stifling a giggle in her hands. “Oh! I… I see. Y-yes, I suppose that…” He struggled to collect himself, and then finally let out a helpless laugh, grinning abashedly up at her. “I should have known you would be far more resourceful than I.”
And Li Hua could only answer his grin, and then bend back down over him, bringing their lips back together at last.
Before long Xiang’s hand had taken a tentative hold of her outer robe, and Li Hua joined it with her own encouragingly, helping him slide away the fabric and wriggling her shoulders free. Xiang’s long hands stroked over her bare upper back, the shapes of her shoulderblades, and Li Hua shivered and arched with their touch. She knelt up over him so together they could unwrap her long skirt from around her, draw away her long loose underthings and the hezi that had wrapped over her breasts. She perched bare over his hips, hands on his chest, and Xiang stared up at her with a breathless, reverent wonder that brought heat racing all over her skin, as though it would burn her like a torch. He rested his hands, with trembling gentleness, on the pale planes of her spread thighs, and stroked them, and Li Hua shuddered and arched into his touch, her knees pushing further apart by instinct. His clothed warmth between her legs was a sweet tease as she rolled herself against it.
She touched the front of his own robe with a questioning look, and when he nodded to it, she lifted herself up to unwrap his sash with his help, and then pull the robe and the layer beneath it open and away from his arms. With his upper clothing stripped away, she found that he wore around his chest a garment like an old-fashioned woman’s xieyi, a panel tied in place at the shoulders and back, although it was made of plain sturdy cloth and fitted very tightly. With only its protection, she could indeed see that he had breasts like a woman’s — but he was so slim that they were quite small, and with even the mild pressure of his curious inner garment, his chest had appeared flat even under his middle clothes. He did not move to undo the ties, and when she glanced up at his expression she found him watching her a bit nervously, and thought it best to leave that item alone. The last thing she wished right now was for him to feel uncomfortable, and she could see how he might prefer to maintain some command of his shape.
Instead, smiling at him in encouragement, she eased her own weight down his thighs and tugged with her the trousers of his middle clothes, baring him gradually from the waist down. What did or did not wait between his legs was of far less interest to her right now than moving back up over his hips to settle herself against bare skin, and feeling him moan softly against her mouth when she kissed him. His hands slid with sweet gentle interest up from her waist to her breasts, and cupped them in his palms so feather-lightly she had to press them in tighter just to keep the touch from tickling.
The motion brushed the edge of his palm against one of her nipples, and she gasped and squeezed her thighs around him by reflex. Xiang looked up at her wide-eyed, and then he shifted both his hands (taking her cue in being a bit firmer with them) to lightly caress both her nipples with his thumbs. The bright spark of feeling flared all through Li Hua and pooled hot between her legs, and she whimpered and squirmed her hips shamelessly on his. Xiang’s breath was coming much faster now as he continued to tease them, hard as pebbles against the callused skin of his fingers, and Li Hua leaned on her trembling bracing arms on the bed, head hanging so her hair curtained them again, her soaking wetness slicking the warm bare skin of his lower belly between her thighs. She was on the verge of begging, sure she could bear no more without being touched there, when Xiang finally slid one of his long, beautiful hands down the round curve of her belly and under her. Li Hua lifted her hips at once as much as she could to allow him, gasping and then moaning, as his fingers slipped between their bodies and stroked deliberately along her lips.
She could scarcely open her eyes, but every time she did, Xiang was watching her closely, his face vulnerable and boyish in wonder. He kept his eyes on her as he caressed her at length, coaxing her hotter and softer and more open, his fingers soon coated thoroughly in her wetness. Once they had been, he eased them upward toward her front, and found her clitoris with a touch that was frictionlessly slick and infinitely gentle. Li Hua shuddered hard and moaned with no control of herself at all, straining on top of him and against his hand as he traced her shape, rubbed and circled her, drew along her lips again for more slickness before returning. His other fingertips, all the while, kept teasing at her breast, lightly rubbing her peaked nipple under and between them. She could scarcely keep herself upright, burning, as grateful for his caution as she was hungry for him to push past it.
Finally, Li Hua’s restraint broke. She fumbled out for the brush-handle that lay beside Xiang’s bare thigh now, half-covered by his discarded robe, and pushed it at his hand until he left off caressing her (as heartrending as that was) and took it. When she could open her eyes to stare into his, he was still looking back, with his color high and breath panting and uncertainty mingling with desire. Li Hua tried to reassure him with another smile, broken with her wrecked fast breath though it was, and pushed herself up on her knees.
“Please,” she murmured, and pulled at his hand, bringing it toward her. “Please, I want to feel you inside me.”
Xiang’s eyes widened and then his eyelids fluttered in spite of himself, and he swallowed so hard she could see it in his throat. But after a heartbeat he managed a tremulous smile back at her, and brought his other hand down from her breast to steady her hip with it. Then he spread his own thighs a bit to bring the handle down and between them with his grip below its smooth tapered end, pointing it up. He held it where he would his own member, if he had happened to be made with one, in wordless keeping with the way that she had asked, and somehow it excited Li Hua beyond all reason, into desperation. She rested one hand on the tight muscles of his stomach, the other between her legs to part herself, and sank herself slowly down onto the handle as his hand guided it, sliding into her flesh with a smooth, slippery ease.
Sensation flared all the way into her around the wood, her body letting its shape into her shape, and welcoming it with warm ripples of pleasure. She sighed shakingly, gasped with voice in her breath when it moved against her just so, and then gently halted the push of Xiang’s hand when it was as deep in her as it would comfortably go. Xiang’s hand was curled over the end of the handle now, she could feel, the better for leverage, and she rocked against it, guiding him in, letting it slip back out partway and then pushing it back in again to the same depth. More warm waves of pleasure stirred from the motion once, twice, and then in a rhythm as Xiang found it, making her bite her lip and pant with want. Soon she was letting go of the wood to let him control it himself, and her fingers instead moving to her clitoris again where the spread of her lips exposed it more than ever, rubbing it with wet fingertips just as he had while he worked the handle in and out of her. Soon Xiang’s hand was also letting go of her hip, and moving back to her breast to toy with her nipple again, and she welcomed it with a little delirious cry and a grind of her hips.
They moved together like that for a sweet, floating eternity: Li Hua’s hips cresting to meet Xiang’s presses of the handle, his hand caressing her, her hand caressing herself. The heat in her built up to a wild, all-consuming peak, where sweat rolled freely along the curves of her body and her voice broke out of her on every thrust, every fear or inhibition entirely lost in pleasure. Tension and sensation were soon building up sharply in the fork of her legs, radiating up all through her lower body, and she grasped after it eagerly with crescendoing hips and hand, chasing the sparks under her skin even as they set her all aflame.
And then they had caught, she had caught, the pleasure built to bursting. She gasped and hitched and shuddered, cried out in her full voice, and her climax broke over her like the peak of a fever, seizing every inch in heat. Her fingertips strove frantically against her clitoris, Xiang working the handle in her in perfect imitation of every motion she had encouraged, his fingers on her breast rounding out the devastating mixture of sensations. They all pushed her in concert through her peak, until at last it had blown through her and she collapsed, trembling and heaving her breaths, atop Xiang’s hips. Her hand had no sooner stilled and left herself than his had taken its lead and also stopped.
Li Hua stayed like that a moment, eyes closed, shoulders rising and falling with her panting. Then at last she could gather her strength to push her hips upward, and curl her hand around Xiang’s, guiding it in slowly easing the handle back out of her. The pulsing contractions of her inner muscles, still responding to her orgasm, helped to gently flush it away, and she helped him to follow them until the tip slid free. Then at last, without ceremony, she let herself tumble to the side and down onto the bed beside him, opening her eyes to gaze into his with gratitude and joy and love.
All of which he appeared to answer, staring back at her, strands of his own long hair sticking to his face and neck with sweat and his comely mouth parted around his breath. It did not escape her notice, though, how fast that breath still was, or the high flush still in his cheeks, and presently she pushed herself up on her elbow, back toward him, curious and eager.
“Is it all right if I touch you?” she asked softly, resting her hand high on his thigh so there could be no mistake of what she meant. Even that touch made his breath stutter, his hips shift seemingly against his will. “Does it trouble you?”
“It’s all right,” he whispered back, seeming capable of no more voice. His thighs spread apart a bit, one leg pressing warmly against her body. “Please, I… please.”
Li Hua couldn’t restrain her happiness at that permission, smiling broadly at him even as she moved her hand over and between his thighs. He gasped at once at her touch, and then his breath shuddered back out of him, his eyes closing. She found him just as slick as she had been, soaking her fingers as she pressed them to his lips, and it made her shiver hard with aftershocks of pleasure to think how she couldn’t be sure some of it was not her own wetness, mingled in.
She would have been glad to touch Xiang this way in any form, to draw that creased line of pleasure between his brows, but she had to admit to herself that it did make it easier for him to have a shape that was already so familiar. She caressed his lips, then pressed slick fingertips in a bunch to his clitoris, circling it slowly. Breath shuddered into and out of him, and he curled his arm tightly around her shoulders without ever even looking, drawing her in close. Li Hua rested her cheek against his covered chest and explored him, but it wasn’t long at all before the rubbing of her fingers had shifted from aimless interest to a determined rhythm, both firm and gentle.
Xiang was quiet, by contrast to how she had been: his breath was fast and hard, but interrupted only by the rare soft, deep sound in his throat. He held her, shivering under the smooth rhythm of her hand, and breathed, and finally pressed his face into her hair and buried his hot breath there, and that was all. But his pleasure was clear in every tremble, the sound of his breath, his increasing wetness and hardness under her fingers. She kept giving him more as he seemed to need it, working him faster, more firmly, shifting angles to stimulate him from the sides, and underneath.
Finally his breathing began to deepen, as shudders worked all through him, and his hips pumped against her hand a few fast hard times before his breath hitched up and stopped altogether. He strained, every line of him tense, the muscles in his arm around Li Hua tight and hard… and then his breath came all out of him again on a loud, half-voiced exhale, a heartfelt shaking groan as he went slicker and twitching under Li Hua’s fingers with his orgasm. She worked him through it, speeding her strokes, driving, until he shuddered out his last and then collapsed limp back to the bed, and she slowed and stopped before it could become too much to bear.
They lay tangled together a moment, catching their breath. Li Hua’s leg had half-hooked over Xiang’s, her hand lay loose and still between his legs, his arm clutched her tight to his chest and both their long hair joined in the same mussed and splayed dark pool. Li Hua felt thoroughly exhausted, sordidly messy, and happier than she had ever been. It was as she had said: nothing she had expected could ever have come close.
And if she wasn’t sure if Xiang felt the same way, she had only to open her eyes to meet his own, sleepy and wondering, where they gazed back at her. They were where all of certainty lay.
They managed to pull themselves into some semblance of cleanliness and order before the day was entirely gone, somehow, and emerged both sheepish and giddy to dine with Zi Long that afternoon. Li Hua hadn’t the slightest illusion that the great dragon had any doubt of what they had been up to, but to her relief there was no disapproval or even any of that same strange sorrow she had observed in Zi Long’s demeanor now. The worst they faced in her company was the occasional kind, sly teasing that made them both blush madly, and that was really not so terrible, after all.
Still, the thought of what she had noticed plagued Li Hua through the following days, of spending time with Zi Long and sleeping beside Xiang and doing many other things besides sleeping with Xiang as well. She finally found the chance to speak to Zi Long about it only late one afternoon thereafter, when Xiang had excused himself out toward the front of the cave to practice his sword forms, “so as not to disturb two refined ladies with such violence.” Personally, Li Hua felt that being disturbed was the last thing she would feel at the sight of him swinging his sword and shouting and breaking a sweat, with his strong arms flexing under his light robe, but given her desire for time alone with Zi Long, she didn’t object in the end.
Her tongue tied in knots as soon as she and Zi Long were sitting in the gardens together, though, and for a long while she only sipped her tea and let Zi Long chat with her about amiable things: the many hidden places of the caves she and Xiang had begun to explore, and all the legends of Xiang’s past military triumphs. At last they came to a pause, though, and Zi Long was again the one who broke it, with a curiously gentle look at Li Hua sidelong.
Have you decided yet where you will go, when you leave together? Zi Long said, the end of her tail flicking where it curled in around the ribbonlike fold of her body. Li Hua glanced up at her large regal head, surprised, and then smiled faintly down at her teacup.
“No, not yet. We haven’t really discussed it in detail.” She thought a moment, raising her eyes to the flowers and plants ahead. After all her work, the gardens were beginning to look almost like they must once have, in the height of their splendor. “I think for now, we’re both content to be here. Assuming you don’t mind, of course.”
Certainly not. Zi Long’s inner voice was careful, neutral. But when the summer ends, it will be more difficult to travel. The mountain passes become blocked with snow swiftly, and I would not see you place yourselves in harm’s way. Another hesitation followed. And I beg your pardon if I am being presumptuous, but… I had assumed, with the promise of companionship… you might be more eager to begin your journey.
“Oh.” Li Hua reflected on that, and then tilted her head up to look at Zi Long again, her eyes soft. “…Is that why you were so unhappy, when Xiang arrived? Because you thought we would leave soon now that he was here? I noticed, but I didn’t know at first what to say.”
Zi Long looked startled a moment — which was always a slightly alarming expression on her, the way her vast strange eyes widened — and then chuckled dryly in Li Hua’s mind, without much apparent feeling. Ah. Alas, you are always wise beyond your years, Li Hua. How petulant you must have thought me, to be sullen in the face of your joy. Li Hua opened her mouth to quickly disagree, but Zi Long continued before she could. Yes, I had thought you would wish to leave in his company — knowing that you would no longer be in exile from all of your people, and that not all of them were willing to give you up to be sacrificed. And it is a very fine thing that it is so. She paused a moment, considering. He is a most remarkable young man, your Xiang. In all the generations that the princesses of your kingdom have been sent to my home, never once before has a man dared come after, whether in hope of rescue or to avenge what was lost. I would say that I hope that you value what you have in him, but… to be honest, I have never had any doubt of it.
Li Hua blushed a bit, as surely she was meant to, although she would not let that distract her from the conversation. “He is remarkable, yes. Although you are as well, Zi Long. It surprises me that your guests did not wish to remain longer in your company.”
Such an agreeable girl you always are, Zi Long said with dry amusement, although Li Hua smiled at the genuine pleasure that showed through underneath. It did not surprise me, however. I am but one creature, strange to your kind at that, with little to offer but an overlarge home that for the stay of my last several guests has been untenanted, apart from themselves and me. It is little wonder that in time, they would desire to seek out the warmth and companionship of human society again. And Guanyu in particular felt called to return to the people who had supported her, and serve them.
“I see,” Li Hua said, but her voice was soft, and thoughtful. She let that linger only a moment before looking up at Zi Long, and daring a bit more. “…You loved her, didn’t you? Guanyu. All of the women, I think, but especially her.”
Zi Long looked back at her steadily, which was difficult to bear without quailing under her gaze, although Li Hua did her best. Finally, she sighed inside Li Hua’s mind, and inclined her great head. Yes. Very much. She was… also a most remarkable person, fired with a spirit of courage and compassion that I had not known existed in humans, and which touched me deeply. She took another considering moment, and then there was something in Li Hua’s head like a rueful chuckle. I have a notion to say that you are very like her, but when I think more carefully, I find it is untrue. I do not mean that unkindly. You have a most sweet and mild temper, my dear, and you are poised and gracious even at the most difficult of times, which I have always found most admirable. Guanyu, by contrast, was bold and assertive, reserving nothing of herself, and could be quite hot-headed; when first we met she looked into my eyes without fear, and challenged me to do my worst. She chuckled again. But there is something in you that is alike, all the same. Courage and compassion, perhaps, as I said — and the depth of my respect for you, as well.
Li Hua turned that all over in her mind for a moment — trying not to be too distracted by how profoundly flattering it was. Zi Long also appeared to be musing, and after they had both been quiet for a moment, she went on. But you are correct: I have found myself most fond of every young lady who has dwelt with me, much more so than I ever could have expected. It was what caused my junior demons to abandon me, as I continued to keep my promise to Guanyu. They became first impatient, and then furious, with what they perceived to be my weakness. It was not the way of our kind, they clamored to me, to house and feed and tend to mortals, and count them as friends, should they make the mistake of straying into our holdings. When I would not hear their complaints, they began to leave, first one by one, and then in droves. She sighed again, slightly. And at last, I found myself alone. Until the next short, bright time that a human woman would come to me, and share my home awhile.
“That sounds like a very difficult life,” Li Hua said softly, after honoring that with a moment’s silence. Zi Long said nothing for a time, and then turned her curious dragon’s smile on Li Hua, even if there might have been some effort in it.
I will not pretend otherwise, she said. But it is not without its joys. And as long as there is need for me to keep my promise, I would have it be no other way.
It was perhaps a few weeks later — she still lost track of the time so easily, even now that Xiang was here and so little of her time was spent alone — that Li Hua finally mustered herself to ask Xiang more about what had been said between her father and himself, before he’d left. They were reclining together on a blanket at the lip of one of the rushing pools, and the thunder of the water somehow made it easier to raise her voice, under its noisy cover.
“He told you he had no choice,” Li Hua said, looking up at Xiang’s face from within the circle of his arm, when she had brought up the matter. “Did he say why he felt that was?”
Xiang hesitated; it was plain that he was still not comfortable with this subject. “He said little about it,” he said after a moment, “though still more than he needed to say, to a lowly soldier of his armies. But I had always been fortunate enough to be held in your father’s confidence.” He paused again, gathering his thoughts. “He said… that the dragon demanded, and it was his duty to answer. If he did not, how much greater would the cost be, to all his people? And… in my anger, I said that then he should have fought her. He should have turned his armies to the mountain instead, and overcome the beast once and for all, rather than submit.
“I think that he was ashamed. But still he gave the excuse of the southern front, and how it would surely be overwhelmed if the forces there were diverted. I told him not to speak to me of the southern front, when I had just returned and he had never set foot there…” His voice faltered away, and he sighed, shame laying its unhappy touch upon his own features. “I was harsh, as I said — though I’m not certain I was wrong, all the same. Still, I suppose there was sense in what he said, if all had truly been as we believed with regard to Zi Long. But it was a cruel sense. It could have persuaded my mind, perhaps, but not my soul. It was easy for him, it seemed to me, to speak of your one life against many… but you are not a matter of mathematics, Li Hua. You are a wonderful, admirable woman of flesh and blood, and my love.” He sighed again, faintly. “I would have thought he, of all people, would have felt the same.”
Li Hua pressed herself close to him, her heart both aching and surging full; he pressed her close to him and tucked her under his chin, and she was glad to allow it, the thunder of his own heart in her ear against his chest. She closed her eyes, and tried to set all the swirling of her thoughts and feelings aside, for now, all the troubles that pulled at her mind. Right now, there was only Xiang, and he was enough to make the rest something that could be borne.
They bathed in Zi Long’s chambers, as the weeks went by, just as Li Hua had before Xiang had come. It was pleasant to spend the time together in the hot pools, with Zi Long alongside for company. Xiang was a bit discomfited at first, having to remove even the garment he wore across his chest and doing so in the dragon’s presence, but Li Hua politely avoided looking upon him in that state and Zi Long easily took her cue, and did the same. It was still clear enough in the water that Xiang’s body was not shaped as one might expect of a man, but if Zi Long noticed any oddity, she was of far too refined a character to mention it, as Li Hua had known she would be. It was even possible, Li Hua supposed, that human bodies were strange enough to the great dragon that she had no expectations to speak of, and did not notice anything out of the ordinary at all. It was a pleasant thought in its way: that here, at least, Xiang needed be concerned with no one’s preconceptions and could simply be as he was, as Li Hua had said some time ago.
In any case, that was how they found themselves some weeks later. It was no doubt the height of summer outside by then, but in the cave it was still cool enough to make the warm waters pleasant. As the two humans reclined in the pools, Zi Long was teasing them, as was still often her wont, about how they might have worked up the sweat that now needed to be washed away.
I must admit to a certain curiosity, to be quite honest, she added with good cheer, as they were laughing and collecting themselves both. It was a bit easier, with time and practice, to be more amused than embarrassed by her droll comments on the amount of time they spent in private. I do have some notion of how humans go about mating with one another, but I suspect that the finer details have been quite lost on me.
“That seems unfortunate,” Li Hua said, grinning as she pushed back her wet heavy hair from her face and over her shoulders. “I think the finer details are the best part.” She twisted to glance over at Xiang, where he reclined in the next, slightly hotter pool that he preferred — it had always seemed a bit counter to the goal of actual cleanliness to bathe in the same pool, even temptation aside — and giggled at his blush.
“What… would you care to know, my Lady?” he did manage, though, after recovering himself a moment. Zi Long had asked him more than once, with evidence of great patience, to call her by name, but Xiang had insisted that he could not possibly be so informal, which Li Hua was certain both she and the great dragon found equally charming and exasperating. “I should think the spirit of friendship would allow us to satisfy some of your curiosity, after all you’ve done for us.”
That is most generous. Zi Long appeared to contemplate for a moment, resting her snout on the stone. I confess, I am uncertain what to ask, however. I think I may know so little I am not even aware of my own ignorance.
“Well…” Xiang cleared his throat, doing his best to compose himself all over again. “If you would prefer it, and it would be… helpful, we could… demonstrate.”
Although neither of them spoke, Li Hua would think later that from what she had observed of Zi Long’s expressions, they both went through a similar process at that moment: beginning in scandalized delight that Xiang would finally dare to make a joke like that, and then looking at Xiang’s face, and gradually understanding — unthinkable though it was — that he was not joking at all. Then the silence stretched out, as neither of them said anything for rather a different reason. Li Hua became aware that at some point she had pressed her hand over her own mouth, below her wide eyes.
Xiang, who had been looking at neither of them, finally appeared to risk a glance around and went so immediately red it seemed he must be in danger of harming himself. “I don’t mean to be crass!” he protested at once, as though to an accusation neither of them had made. “I only mean…” He took a breath, trying yet again to recover himself, although it seemed a lost cause this time. “You are… already something more than a friend to both of us, I think, my Lady. I know that Li Hua loves you dearly, and in this arrangement — even in this moment — we share… certain intimacies to which I would invite no other. Only if Li Hua were comfortable with it, of course — and if you were comfortable with it — I do not think it would be so unreasonable, if it… would aid you in some way…” He lost his thread at last and gave up, in the face of their continued thunderstruck silence, and at least pressed a hand entirely over his flushed face. “…I should never have said anything. I’m so sorry. I beg your pardon.”
There is no need at all, dear boy, Zi Long said, so kindly that even as she was still stunned, it spread warmth into Li Hua’s chest. In fact, I confess I am quite deeply touched, for this is a far more generous offer than you had even yet made. She paused a moment, delicately — although not, Li Hua saw with increasing wonder and a speeding pulse, with any sign of impending refusal. I only wonder if it may be too generous. I would certainly not wish to discomfort either of you, or to impose myself where I have no place. My curiosity does me no harm, particularly not if its satisfaction would be at the cost of your privacy.
“It wouldn’t be an imposition,” Li Hua said softly — startling them both into looking at her. Her hand still hovered near her mouth, although she had moved it away at least enough to speak. She could feel the color high in her own cheeks now, twin to the thundering of her heart. “And I would not be uncomfortable.” She let a smile begin to turn her lips a bit, even if it was a bit wobbly. “I have found it… quite pleasant to satisfy your curiosity before, and I think I would find it so again, in this matter.”
She was aware that both Xiang and Zi Long were looking at her with an entirely new curiosity at that last, although each surely in different ways, and closed her eyes even as her blush deepened. Another silence lingered, and this time it was Xiang who broke it, clearing his throat again with increasing desperation.
“Of course, ah — none of this need be of consequence if you wouldn’t wish such a thing, my Lady. I’m certain that — neither of us would want you to feel pressured to accept.”
Thank you, Zi Long said, with a touch of humor again in her unheard voice. And thank you for your offer, truly. I know that this is quite beyond what humans would ordinarily be willing to share of themselves, even among themselves. She paused for a long moment, apparently deliberating, while Li Hua found herself holding her breath. If it would truly please you to make this gesture, and not come as a hardship… then I would be quite honored to be a part of it.
And there it was: they were in agreement. And the flush of mingled heat and nerves that Li Hua found coursing through her body shook her, all the way into every depth.
Her hands trembled as she and Xiang dried themselves off; her skin prickled with anticipation as they made their way to settle themselves — by mutual agreement — up in the vast colorful nest where Zi Long slept. For all that there was stone beneath, Li Hua found it much more plush and comfortable to lie down on her back there than she might have imagined: the layers of fabric and pillows were dense, embracing her from beneath. Zi Long lay down beside her, close but with some respectful distance in between, and Xiang sat beside her hip and then only hovered over her for a moment, red and flustered and seeming confounded as to what to do next. Li Hua reached out to take his hand, and smiled at him when he looked at her, with all the love in it she could pour out of her heart.
“Just kiss me,” she said, softly. “We don’t need to rush.”
Wordless warmth affirmed that last from Zi Long’s direction, and it made both of them smile, which seemed to help break Xiang’s paralysis. He bent down over her to brush his lips to hers, and then stretched himself out along the length of her body fully, so he could kiss her mouth more deeply and rest his hand over her bare hip. Li Hua shivered — she already felt sensitive all over, hungry, hot and wet between her legs — and kissed him back, sinking her fingers into the cool wet weight of his hair. The kiss softened and opened quickly, letting their tongues brush, their breath be shared. After a few moments of it, Li Hua cracked open her eyes, and looked to find Zi Long watching them with quiet, thoughtful interest. Just the sight of it made her skin ripple in gooseflesh, and she held Zi Long’s gaze a moment while moving her mouth more deliberately on Xiang’s, heat sparking from the meeting of their eyes.
Before long Xiang was running his warm long hand up her side and belly and chest, to cup and caress her breast, making her gasp into his mouth and arch under his half-weight when his thumb brushed her nipple. She squirmed, unable to help herself, and it seemed he likewise couldn’t resist lingering there, rubbing and rolling and lightly flicking the peaking tip until she had to break from his mouth to pant. “That feels so good,” she whispered, really to both of them at once, although it was Zi Long she looked at next with a tiny breathless smile. “Xiang knows so well how much I like to be touched there. It’s very sensitive — it always makes me want more.”
Xiang had already pressed his face to her shoulder, his skin there very warm against hers, although he didn’t stop. Zi Long made a thoughtful sound inside both their minds, and just now even the not-quite-sound of her voice made Li Hua’s body thrum under her skin. I have wondered if those features had a purpose, or if they were merely decorative. It seems that they are useful indeed.
Li Hua laughed with scarcely any breath in it, and nodded as she bit her lip with the tracings of Xiang’s fingers. He shifted his weight alongside her shortly afterward, to where he could take her other nipple gently into his mouth instead, and she thought he might be just as grateful to have an excuse not to look at either of them for the moment. His hand, meanwhile, continued to explore down her body, back over the curve of her belly, gently stirring through the dark hair between her legs until she spread them by helpless reflex. He only stroked his palm out along the pale, soft inner flesh of one thigh, though, drawing a protesting little whimper from between her pressed lips. It was impossible to say whether his hesitation was more teasing or more nerves, or both in equal measure.
Finally, though, he returned to her mouth, and pushed himself over on top of her as he did, holding his weight above her on his elbows. One of his knees fell between her legs, his thigh between both her own, and she cradled his head in her hands, clutching into his hair, and rolled her hips up against him as they tasted of each other’s mouths. The press of his skin into her heat and wetness, slicking his leg against her, was warm, wonderful, maddeningly not enough. Their bodies twisted and moved with one another, entwined, and not even for a second could she have stopped being aware of Zi Long’s eyes on them, even if she had wanted to try.
When they could find it in themselves to give up kissing, Xiang stared down at her for a few heartbeats with a hot, tender gaze, and then sat back over top of her, on his knees. He gathered his hair back into his hands absently as he went, coiling it into a rope behind his shoulders that would at least keep it out of the way for the moment. Then he was shifting down her, lowering his upper body between her thighs, pressing them wider with his shoulders and wrapping them under gentle, clasping arms. Li Hua’s breath hitched in her chest at the hot touch of his breath on her inner thighs and the wetness between them, and then his mouth was on her: pressing his lips to hers, the heat of his tongue beginning to trace the delicate folds of her around the edges and within. He moved there with such gentleness at first that she shook with its undirected intensity of feeling, letting out a little wordless cry. It took her long moments to collect her breath again, to gather herself enough to try to speak.
“There are,” she began to say aloud, even as her back arched in his hands, but her voice was so faltering and breaking that she had to stop and gulp air first. Her gaze turned toward Zi Long again, so hazy with lust it was almost blind. “There are many ways it can happen… anything that brings us both pleasure. He…” She had to stop again for a moment, shuddering, as the tip of Xiang’s tongue delved into her. “He uses his mouth like this, sometimes. It feels so good… It’s — warm, and wet — his tongue, and his lips, they’re soft — and being wet, and soft, is good, to make it gentler, it’s almost too sensitive to bear. Some places, when — when they’re touched.”
I see. Zi Long’s mental voice was soft, almost purring. And this brings him pleasure too?
The rush of Xiang’s breath on her, as he slightly withdrew for a second, had no actual sound on it to speak of, a hiss at most. It made Li Hua twitch and gasp again, and then laugh a little, shaky and soft. “That was a yes,” she said in half a fast whisper, and Zi Long’s chuckle in their minds made Xiang’s breath stutter again where his tongue worked on her folds.
Zi Long did not speak for another moment, all the same: the only sounds were Li Hua’s heavy breath and the soft wet sounds of Xiang’s tongue, beginning to tease over her clitoris. When her voice did come again, its quiet sounded now almost shy instead, and diffident. How ironic it seems, Zi Long said with a slowness like hesitation, after all this time and deception… to be wondering how a human woman would taste.
The words brought Li Hua’s eyes wide open at once, staring at nothing; they detonated inside her like a missile of fire, catastrophic and igniting everything. She cried out, unable to help herself, and her hips jumped in Xiang’s grasp and against his mouth so badly that she almost entirely dislodged him from his position. He caught her back to him with his mouth pressed to her, his breath shaking, and then turned his head away enough to rest his cheek against her inner thigh — in spite of her soft whine of protest.
“If you would care to learn, my Lady,” he said breathlessly and with his customary warm earnest kindness, giving voice to what she had never before suspected he knew, “I think Li Hua would like that very much.”
Li Hua trembled in his cradling arms, unable to contain all the tension and yearning and nerves overpowering her in any other way, and pressed her eyes closed as she swallowed. Finally, though, she was able to force them open again, and turn them back in Zi Long’s direction. They were still heat-hazed and lost, but they made contact this time, meeting Zi Long’s gaze and keeping it, seeing it, not turning away. Inviting, wordlessly, what she had no words to ask.
Li Hua? Zi Long said, and only that. Her interior voice was very quiet.
“Please,” Li Hua whispered, and stretched out her arm. It could not quite reach where Zi Long held her head, but she lowered it into reach, to where Li Hua could caress along the side of her snout. The scales were smoother than she might have expected, and softer, more like plush giving leather than anything else.
Zi Long pressed up on her frontmost legs, lifting and uncoiling her long in-folded body. She moved around the pair of them like a snake through water, her head weaving with the motions, ending up dwarfing Li Hua under her vast, looming size. Xiang pulled himself up and moved over to rest along Li Hua’s side again, and Zi Long moved closer to her from down below where her spread feet lay, and Li Hua’s breath moved in and out of her in great desperate gasps, her whole body seeming to rise and fall with it. Zi Long lowered herself on her forelegs again, her smooth leathery skin brushing against the bare flesh of Li Hua’s legs in a hundred different places as she settled in to lie back down. Her snout nuzzled against Li Hua’s hip, her thigh, making her gasp and shudder and cling to Xiang’s waist. He folded his arm around her and breathed hard and heavily into her hair, stroking her breast, watching everywhere they touched.
Then Zi Long opened her mouth, and delicately extended her tongue from it. As snakelike as she was, it was not like a snake’s so much as a lizard’s, or some other animal’s: a wider, softer flex of muscle, shaped in a rough triangle that came to a blunt point at the tip, and all of it a startling and lovely shade of deep blue. It was large against Li Hua’s body, even just the very tip was like a wash-rag where it lapped at her hip. Li Hua whimpered, her eyes fluttering, and stroked the tip of Zi Long’s nose, making a soft fond chuckle echo through her own mind. And then Zi Long’s head sank lower, her tongue sank lower, between Li Hua’s spread thighs.
When Zi Long’s tongue touched her, it was something entirely new — a wholly undiscovered land on the map of lovemaking that she and Xiang had been fumblingly sketching, having set out on their journey as virgins together. A broad flap of smooth wetness, only a bit thicker than heavy fabric, but so much more dexterous and slick and clinging. It rippled over her, all of her at once, covering her but also moving in little ripples and presses that brought every desperately sensitive, hot and tingling inch of skin into concert together, making both her body and voice cry out with want. She writhed against it, and could not accidentally dislodge it the way she might a human mouth: it was everywhere, sliding against her, a second skin on hers.
Xiang kissed her as Zi Long caressed her, and she answered it with everything she could give, open and clumsy and messily wet. She had to break away quickly with the sheer force of her breath, however, and threw her head back even as he pushed himself down her body again, to bring his mouth to her breast. He lapped at the nipple, and his hand slid between her thighs again. It slipped under the heavy folds of Zi Long’s busy tongue, quickly slick against Li Hua with both Zi Long’s and her own wetness. His fingers found Li Hua’s clitoris and began to flick and roll and rub it, one small point of focus in all that breadth of flexing, undulating touch.
She was overwhelmed: entirely aflame with pleasure, ready to burst from her skin with heat and urgency and wild want. It took almost no time at all — less time than she thought it ever had before in her life — for it to build up past and over its crest, into the point where her breath began to hitch and the muscles in her thighs and lower belly jump. She clutched her fingers in Xiang’s hair, reached blind with her other hand to brush one of the stiff wiry bristles that framed Zi Long’s face, and then she was able to think and do nothing else at all, just lost in the torrent. Then she was gulping another breath, and letting out a long loud cry, and her hips were bucking a few crescendoing times into everything caressing her until she climaxed, sobbing breath, stone-rigid and quivering. It wracked her, intense beyond measure, seeming to keep rolling through in endless waves until it was nearly impossible to bear any more. And then she collapsed loose and shuddering and panting, twitching and gasping every time Xiang or Zi Long teased her with one last gentle touch.
Then they were all still, and all laying like that, entwined together with Li Hua at their center. And even as delicious thoughts were blossoming in her mind of what might come next, what more they could show Zi Long, how again she could be in their midst, for the moment all Li Hua could do was close her eyes, still gasping for her breath, and smile.
“I know what I want to do,” Li Hua said. It was surprisingly difficult, even now, to push it from her lips, but she made herself summon the courage. She had hesitated long enough, and it needed to be said.
They were all still lying together in Zi Long’s vast bed, spent from all the exertions and pleasures they had found their way to exploring. Li Hua rested in the cradle of Xiang’s arm, sticky with sweat, and Zi Long’s large forefeet were tucked up against Li Hua’s side so her chin could rest propped on Li Hua’s belly, letting her hand lazily stroke its scales and tendrils. They tickled where they brushed her skin. When Li Hua spoke, both of the others looked at her with little more than the turn of their eyes, but it was enough. She didn’t particularly want to see either of their expressions just yet, before they knew what she was going to say.
“I want to go back to the palace,” she said, quietly. She barely dared pause before continuing, for fear of giving either of them time to interrupt. “I want to tell my family, and our people, the truth. I want them to see for themselves that Zi Long is no monster, and we have nothing to fear from her, and explain why things have been as they have been. Then I will ask my father to meet the leaders of the southern province at the treaty-table, and see that they are not our enemies; they only wish for us to change for the better, since generations out of mind.”
Li Hua fell silent a moment, thinking, but it seemed she needn’t have worried before. Neither Xiang nor Zi Long seemed to have anything to say to that.
“I understand why Guanyu asked of you what she did,” she said, turning her gaze down to meet Zi Long’s eyes. She found them, large and strange and belovedly familiar, looking back at her, with a troubled unease that was now not at all difficult for her to read. “I don’t even think she was wrong to do so, at the time. But it was a long time ago, and everything has changed.” She took a breath, rolling her head more firmly onto the pillow of Xiang’s upper arm. “The test she set may have been wise, once, but it is unfair now. The kings who are being tested misunderstand the stakes, and that affects their choices. What my father has always been told of this ritual, what he knows of it, is that if he did not sacrifice his daughter, the cost would be the safety of all of his people. That was the reason that he complied. He gave me up for their protection, trading my one life against all of theirs. I came willingly, myself, with the same understanding, for the same reasons. That isn’t the same as doing something because it’s how things have always been done, or out of unwillingness to change. In its way, it is in fact a noble action.”
“It was still a betrayal of you personally,” Xiang said, at last breaking his and Zi Long’s collective silence. His voice was low and measured. “He is your father. You needn’t forgive him even if he acted nobly on the whole.”
Li Hua nodded, swallowing. “…I know. I will have to see, in the end, if I can forgive him. But my forgiveness is not what matters.” Xiang squeezed her a bit closer to his side, and she nestled there gratefully, closing her eyes for a brief second. “Warriors like you, Xiang, are fighting and dying on the southern border, in an endless war that could be ended. And our kingdom has never realized the change that Guanyu and her fellows sought — not truly.” She paused a moment, and then looked at Zi Long, holding her gaze again. “And you, sweet Zi Long, have had to stay alone in this empty cavern, for centuries. I know why Guanyu asked this of you, but it was not right for it be asked. You are brave and kind enough to do it, but it is a cruel fate, all the same.”
She took another breath, and made one last push. “So I want to go back to the palace — and I want you both to come with me. We will all leave this place together, and no one will be left behind here again. That will give me proof of what I say of Zi Long, and the courage of both of your company, as I ask my father to change.”
And if he refuses? Zi Long asked, softly, as Xiang stroked idle fingers along disheveled strands of her hair. If he insists upon holding to the way things have been for so long, even knowing the truth?
Li Hua hardened her mouth, and did her best to do the same to her heart inside her. “Then we will go to the south,” she said, as steadily as she could. “And by adding the greatest warrior of my father’s armies and an actual dragon to their numbers, I think we can end the war one way or another.”
There seemed to be no response to that forthcoming, either. She did not think, though, that it was due to any disapproval: merely Xiang and Zi Long turning it over in their minds, and giving it the respectful space that it deserved.
“But I want to give him the chance, at least,” Li Hua went on, finally, with a little sigh of breath. “To know the truth, and perhaps break free of what he has been complicit in. As Zi Long did for me.” Her hand lingered along Zi Long’s vast brow, smoothing its scales under her fingers, and smiling a bit as warm pleasure touched her mind from outside. “The chance is all we can give. We will have to see what he makes of it.”
Another pause fell between them: thoughtful, tender, and quiet. At last Xiang ended it, with his voice still low and gentle. “I will follow you, Li Hua, as I said. Anywhere you wish to go.”
Li Hua craned her head to look up at him and smiled at him, with all the brightness of warmth in her heart. “And you, Zi Long?” she asked when she could turn her eyes away again, trying to be just as gentle, as careful, herself. “I know this is much more to ask of you. Will you come with us? Will you leave your home and your old duty behind, and perhaps serve it better under the eyes of the world of humans?”
Zi Long was silent for another long moment. Her large eyes were turned down, so veiled by her outer eyelids that they were almost closed, and she was very still.
I will, she said at last, and lifted her head into Li Hua’s hand, regal and powerful and with only love in her gaze. It is a noble thing you wish to do for your people — and a depth of care you show for me that I find myself quite unprepared for. Li Hua smiled up at her a bit tremblingly as she touched the side of Zi Long’s face, her eyes stinging, and Zi Long nuzzled at her hand. I am as Xiang in this: I would follow you anywhere. I would… perhaps not forget my promise, but transmute it to one that I make to you, with the one I promised to before so long gone from us. I will aid you. And I will do whatever needs be done to bring about what both you and Guanyu have asked.
“Thank you,” Li Hua whispered. “Thank you both.” She strugged with her voice a moment, and swallowed, and then said a bit more firmly, “But before that, I think… I may need another bath.”
And in their answering amusement, and the warmth of love in both of them that surrounded her, she found that she felt the evidence of something she had thought she’d lost: a home. One that, it seemed, would now follow her, to anywhere that she was compelled to go.