Fighting Demons by S.L. Huang
Published 9/22/2015 | 7,079 Words
Xiao Hong travels to her mother’s homeland in pursuit of Rosa in the sequel to Hunting Monsters
My seventeenth birthday, the day I became a woman in the eyes of the law, my mother sat down at the small table in our cottage and said, “It is time.”
It has been two years since Rosa fled the west, walking out on Xiao Hong and Mei, breaking their family. Now that the King’s men no longer hunt the grundwirgen killer, Xiao Hong’s mother makes the hard decision to return to her homeland to find Rosa and make their family whole again. Xiao Hong, still angry and hurt by her Auntie Rosa’s secrets and lies, must decide whether or not she will join her mother’s quest.
Xu Meng Jiao grew up knowing his mother was a demon, and that he must save her.
Meng Jiao has lived in the shadow of his parents for his entire life. The child of a human father and snake demon mother, he has vowed to become the best possible student, scholar, and son he can be–in the hopes of saving his mother from her imprisonment.
Two paths collide in Fighting Demons, as Xiao Hong and Meng Jiao come to terms with their parents, their families, and find their place in the world.
Xu Meng Jiao grew up knowing his mother was a demon, and that he must save her.
From the time he first toddled at Baba’s knee, staring up at his father’s thin, drawn face and ink-stained hands, Meng Jiao was raised to know that his mother was imprisoned in the Thunder Peak Pagoda, and that he was to rescue her. The expectation had always filled him with pride. He would rescue her from her captivity, reunite their family, and bring her to a life of honor and goodness.
He clung to this destiny all through his education, while his schoolmates whispered behind their hands as he scored better than they did on every exam—it’s his demon blood, his snake blood, at night his eyes burn like coals and he breathes in the instructors’ thoughts. Meng Jiao pretended not to hear them and held his chin high, though he did wonder, privately, what it meant to be the son of a snake demon. No matter what his classmates said, his eyes were perfectly ordinary, as were his nose and tongue and skin, and he’d always felt quite solidly human, which he was given to understand was a bit different from the woman who had borne him. He wondered, too, if he was immortal as she was, but he did not know how he might discover such a thing, other than by dying.
Meng Jiao didn’t honestly know if his blood might be what made him smarter or work harder, or pushed him to study night after night until he was at the top of his class. But he liked to think that it was not his blood, but his own will—for only through the son’s accomplishments would the gods be mollified enough to consider the liberation of his mother.
His father had told him so.
The day he turned twenty, Meng Jiao’s name appeared atop the imperial lists as one of the finest scholars in the land. It was time.
That morning, he woke and washed himself. He tied his tunic neatly, and, with reverence, prepared his offerings to bring to the gods. He knew, everyone knew, where his mother was held: just past the city, below the pagoda on the shore of the West Lake, imprisoned by a fierce monk who strove to keep her from poisoning humanity with her demonic nature. Meng Jiao would go to the pagoda and petition for his mother’s freedom, and the gods would be so impressed by his scholarliness and his devotion to his family that they would graciously reunite mother and son.
His father had told him so.
His father saw him off, eyes shining with pride as Meng Jiao shouldered his pack and began the long hike to the city. The heat pressed down on him, humidity filling his lungs, but he breathed it in deep, as if the warmth would fill him up until he soared into the sky. He had striven for success not only to make his family proud, but to reach a level at which the gods themselves would bargain with him—how many other sons could claim the same?
The hours passed swiftly as Meng Jiao continued his steady walk toward the city and the large lake gleaming on the horizon, a giant pearl at the foot of the pagoda that had towered in his thoughts since childhood.
He did not reach it, because there was an army in the way.
Xu Xian watched his son stride away under the morning sun.
His mother will forgive me, he told himself. She forgives how I doubted. How I was afraid, when I discovered her secret.
He did not allow himself to feel the guilt clawing beneath. Xu Xian had believed the words of that monk, for a time. He had believed Fa Hai. He had turned against his wife, and he would never be free of the shame of that memory.
She had granted him forgiveness already, when they had found each other again. But the time they had needed to smooth over those wounds had been snatched away.
She will see how I have raised our son, he thought, with aching pride. His virtue will save her, and she will return, and all will be right again.
Their bond had survived so much: his faithlessness, his capture, even his death. It would survive this.
Xu Xian forced himself to be certain.
My seventeenth birthday, the day I became a woman in the eyes of the law, my mother sat down at the small table in our cottage and said, “It is time.”
“Time?” My pulse quickened. My mother was such an unsentimental woman; for her to make such a pronouncement, on my birthday—what did it mean?
“The King’s Men do not watch us anymore. It is time for…” Her voice hitched, and she dropped her eyes away.
My unformed hopes for some affectionate gesture collapsed into ash. Only one subject would strangle my mother’s words this way.
Since Auntie Rosa had left us so many months ago, her red-cloaked figure disappearing into self-exile to escape the King’s Justice for her crimes, my mother had not mentioned her name once. Not to grieve with me, not to console me, not to unburden herself of the pain she must feel at the betrayal of the woman she had loved.
I had thought Auntie Rosa’s leaving might have leaned us into each other, forced the closeness with my mother I had always missed, but instead we had only fallen further apart. Strangers, without Auntie Rosa’s easy humor and broad laughter to bridge us.
“She’s gone, Mama,” I reminded her. “She’s gone.” Auntie Rosa was gone, and my mother still could not let go of her in favor of the daughter who remained.
My mother stared at her hands. “You must hate her.”
For not saving my mother sooner. For needing to run. For being a murderer.
For destroying our family.
“I don’t know,” I said.
My mother flinched.
“What did you wish to say?” I asked.
“It is time,” my mother repeated. “I must… I must find her.”
I thought at first she must be speaking fancifully. But as the moment stretched and her words jumbled nonsensically in my head, it struck me that she was serious. “How?” I sputtered. “Where would you even begin?”
“I have a suspicion,” my mother answered. “She had to have fled the kingdom, as far from the reach of our king as she could. And I think I may know…” She trailed off for a moment. “Your auntie, she enjoys balance. I think I know where it would amuse her to go.” Her lips twisted at the corner, as if she were trying to find humor in something terrifying. “I will tell people I’m returning home. They will believe it. They will not know we follow her.”
My mother had been born in a land far to the east. I had never entertained the thought of traveling there—it was so distant, so foreign, so detached from our lives. Why would my auntie have run to my mother’s birthplace?
That land was so long behind my mother herself that I doubted she remembered more than the briefest snippets of scent and image. But her features stamped her as foreign to the people here no matter how long she had lived among them, and no one would question her desire to return “home,” nor hear how her mouth formed the word as if it had no meaning behind it. She was right: the King’s Men would not know she sought Auntie Rosa.
That we sought Auntie Rosa. She had said “we.”
“You want me to come,” I said. “You want us to go on a quest to seek Auntie Rosa together.”
My mother bowed her head. “You are a woman now. Your choices belong to you.”
So this was why she had waited for today. Not out of affection, but practicality.
“And if I don’t want to go?” I said.
Her quick intake of breath, as if something had pained her, was so quiet I almost missed it. “Then this place is yours, and I shall go alone.”
There was no “if”: I didn’t want to go. The notion was so absurd—quests were usually undertaken by young men coming of age, not grown women with silver-streaked hair joined by their resentful teenage daughters.
But what would I do here, alone?
“I’ll come,” I said. Shaped syllables, neutral and indifferent.
My mother finally turned to look at me, and her face was filled with a soft relief I had never seen in her. “I—that is good.” She reached out and touched my sleeve, lightly. “Xiao Hong. I named you for her, you know—Red, like she was called when she was young. She loved you so very much.” She dropped her eyes again. “Loves.”
Auntie Rosa had been gone for the better part of two years, and still we could not close the distance between us without her shadow filling it.
In the West they are called grundwirgen: those people who roam in animal form. Sometimes they are cursed to it, sometimes they are witches who transform by choice. Sometimes they are born beasts, but with the quick wit and language of a human. Grundwirgen are uncommon in the West, even more so than other flavors of magic.
Killing a grundwirgen is murder, the same as killing a man. This has not stopped everyone.
Hating and fearing the grundwirgen is not done, among people who claim to know better. This also has not stopped everyone.
The East has no umbrella term like “grundwirgen” among its dialects. Western scholars are maddened by this in translating; Eastern scholars think it the only logical way. Why create a term that lacks precision? Are you truly saying a pair of lovers turned to butterflies by grief are the same as a crane who guards the heavens, or a white snake demon imprisoned in a pagoda by a fixated monk?
Magic is simply a fact of life. Attempting to cram any area of magic into uncomplicated, defined categories is an exercise in foolishness.
“Perhaps it is that we have so many more ‘grundwirgen,’” say the scholars of the East, implying an ugly insult against some of the embedded prejudices in their Western brethren. A sly insult, not outright labeling the Westerners as barbarians who are slowly, methodically purging themselves of sorcery.
And if someone were to bring up the monk Fa Hai to these Eastern scholars, and his hateful crusade to stamp out one particular grundwirgen? If someone were to detail this monk’s relentless pursuit of a white snake demon, how he tore at her as if he were a rabid animal, again and again, determined to rent her family asunder?
Well, those Eastern scholars might say, that is merely one isolated case.
Meng Jiao had climbed toward one destiny his entire life, and in a single moment, it had been taken from him.
The army belonged to Xiao Qing.
Xiao Qing, whom he’d only heard of in stories. Xiao Qing, who had been his mother’s devoted friend and maidservant for more centuries than he could fathom. Xiao Qing, a snake demon like his mother, a sorcerer like his mother, a woman who could flatten a city with a scornful glance—like his mother.
Xiao Qing received him very cordially. Lovingly, even, when a serpent from among her troops finally led him through the ranks of fantastic soldiers and water creatures camped in a vast sprawling horde of power on the lake shore, and admitted him to her presence.
“I am your mother’s sister,” she said. Friend, servant, sister of the heart; the words she used meant them all.
“Yes, Auntie, I know.” The honorific came automatically to his lips. Meng Jiao’s father had told him little of Xiao Qing, but the whispers of others had been generous: they spoke of the green snake demon who had disappeared twenty years ago, disappeared to build up her strength and return, once she had amassed the magic needed to rescue her white snake sister. To Meng Jiao she had always felt like legend, too far distant to mean anything to his life or his quest.
Now he looked around at her army, and all his success on the imperial lists felt like childish nothing.
“I was at your birth,” Xiao Qing said, “but after that I could not help you. Once your mother was taken I needed a brief time—to study deeper sorceries, to gather my power to come for her. I hope your father has treated you well.”
Her words were so odd. Perhaps this was her way of expressing regret for being absent from his life—for a snake demon hundreds of years old like her, twenty years must be but a moment. And of course Meng Jiao’s father had raised him well—how could he not? A father’s love was infinite.
Or perhaps this was Xiao Qing’s way of reproaching him for not honoring his mother sufficiently. For not fulfilling his destiny sooner and saving her.
“I came to free my mother today,” Meng Jiao tried to explain. “I am at the top of the imperial lists. I brought offerings for the gods.” He opened his pack and showed her the incense and oranges, the choice dried meat and plump ripe melons, the spices and oils and wine.
He could not read Xiao Qing’s expression, but the reverential offerings he had spent and slaved to prepare somehow seemed no more than feeble scraps.
Xiao Qing dismissed him. One of her soldiers brought him to a tent and told him it was his, as the son of Lady Bai.
He sat in the tent and didn’t know what to do. After a time, he ate the oranges.
Only a week ago he wouldn’t have dreamt of doing such a thing. But now… Xiao Qing had brought an army and centuries of magic to storm the pagoda and break Meng Jiao’s mother free.
He, her son, had brought melons.
He ate those, too.
As emerald viper or human woman, Xiao Qing knew to be patient. To be temperate and modest. Her Jie Jie—her white sister-snake, her beloved mistress—had trained her thus.
Meditation before action. Reaching out to people with kindness, instead of bowing them to her will. At some point, Xiao Qing had looked up from gifting poor families treatments in their medicine store, looked over at her sister and Jie Jie’s beloved husband Xu Xian, and felt complete.
She had thought herself changed then.
That was before the monk Fa Hai had come. Before he’d killed Xu Xian, and she had sat trembling with grief, gripping her sister’s hand over Xu Xian’s cooling body.
Before Jie Jie had torn apart the heavens to bring her husband back to life, and before Xu Xian had awakened from death only to desert Jie Jie for the crime of being inhuman.
Xiao Qing had sworn she would kill him for what he’d done to her sister. She had meant it.
But when they heard Fa Hai had taken him, Jie Jie had drawn herself up with a hardness in her eye, a hardness forged from love that was greater and more terrible than Xiao Qing had ever thought love could be. Not soft, not kind, not patient. Jie Jie had called an army with one word, and the earth had trembled as she and Xiao Qing had lifted a swirling vortex of floodwaters toward the monastery where Xu Xian was being held.
After, Xiao Qing had drawn her sword, still ready to plunge it through Xu Xian’s neck. But Jie Jie loved him, and had forgiven him his faintheartedness. So Xiao Qing had, too.
And all would have been well if Fa Hai had not returned again.
Now Xiao Qing was here, with an army, with her own love that was neither kind nor soft. She would burn the pagoda to the ground, and Jie Jie would rise from it as white and pure as light.
My mother’s homeland was not what I had expected.
In so many ways it was the same as our country: people rushing about pursuing their lives, though with much more magic thrown carelessly about than I was used to. And many more grundwirgen, those of animal shapes but human minds—so many that my mother and I hesitated to hunt for our food for fear of murdering an intelligent beast or transformed human. But as the days went by the strangeness of the place chafed at me, so loud and fast, with weather that crumpled my clothes with dust and sweat, and oddly spiced food, and everyone around me a distant stranger across a vast schism of language.
My mother did not have a much smoother experience. Her words halted and stuttered after so many years, and I caught the jeers and impatient scoffs in people’s features if not their speech. And somehow my mother’s posture and movement marked her so clearly as foreign here even before she opened her mouth, as easily as her features had marked her as foreign back home.
In the eyes of the world, she was a person without a land.
No matter how her words stumbled, however, my mother’s aim with a rifle was firm and straight, and commanded respect. So it was that she found employment in the vast army of a snake general, a woman of dizzying witchcraft who somehow spoke directly into our minds about how, in exchange for my mother serving her to storm a temple and rescue her friend—friend, sister, lover, mistress; the meanings overlapped and conflated in our heads—she would use her magic to help us in our quest.
My mother had refused to let me carry a rifle alongside her. I traveled with the army, but I would not be fighting. I made no objection—I felt so lost here, and I did not know if we did right saying we would help a grundwirgen general who led an army of serpents and dragons and all sorts of other nameless creatures, some of which moved with unimaginable strength. I did not know if we were on the right side of anything, if the woman we sought to break from imprisonment deserved to be walled away or deserved to be free, if her friendship with the strange witch-snake-general-woman was one of deep and touching fealty or one of twisted destruction.
And I still did not know if I truly wanted to find my auntie.
The army moved eastward day by day, up the river, back toward the sea. And one day, as the sun rose over an enormous lake, a young man stopped outside my tent, his eyes catching on me in startlement.
I was used to that look. My face set me apart here even more than my lack of words did.
“Hello,” the young man said. “My name is Xu Meng Jiao. Do you understand me?”
His words swung and pitched, a singing accent, but perfectly intelligible. As I barely managed to string together three words in his language after being here many weeks, I was stunned by his fluency in mine. A lump rose in my throat and I swallowed it back. It had been so long since I had spoken to anyone but my mother. “Yes. Oh—oh, yes, I understand you. Please. Please, come and talk to me.”
Meng Jiao had studied several languages in preparation for his exams, and he was pleased to have an opportunity to practice this one with the foreign girl. He tried to mimic the way her words bent and chopped, the way her mouth opened so wide and left the words sitting on her tongue or in the back of her throat. For days now he had sat in his tent among the army, with nothing to do as Xiao Qing waited on the shores of the lake and prepared for the assault on the pagoda, and this was the first time he had ceased to feel utterly useless.
Meng Jiao learned the girl was here with her mother, and that her mother was serving Xiao Qing in return for her promised help in the search for the girl’s other parent. Meng Jiao felt a sense of kinship with her. Both of them were swept up in familial duty, neither with a clear path to performing it.
The girl was more open than he was, as if she needed to spill all her words into his ears at once. She told him of her unhappiness in this country, of how lonely she felt. “My mother has said I do not have to follow her.” She stared out over the lake from where they walked together on the shore. “I should leave. Go home. Or find a new home somewhere, seek my own fortune.”
“But your parents… are your parents,” Meng Jiao said, puzzled. He did not understand how one could give up the bond with one’s parents simply by choosing to do so.
“My mother doesn’t even talk to me.” The girl reached down to pick up a stone and hurled it hard into the silver surface of the lake. “She never has. She said she would leave me if I didn’t come.”
Meng Jiao again did not understand. “Why would you not come?”
The girl stared at him. “Because it’s my life. Because Auntie Rosa killed people. Because she betrayed us, and left us, and I don’t know if I even want to forgive her.”
“My mother killed people as well,” Meng Jiao said.
The girl’s eyes widened.
“Long ago, when she was fighting to rescue my father, many innocent people died in her attack,” Meng Jiao explained. He had also been told, but did not say, that his mother had taken no great pains to avoid such casualties. The gods might forgive such crimes, done on behalf of her husband, but in his heart Meng Jiao did not feel as certain as he would have liked. “The blood she spilled is a burden I bear, as her son,” he said instead. “But whatever our families have done, that does not change our obligations to them.”
The girl crossed her arms, sullen. “It sounds like your mother doesn’t even need you. And how do you know my auntie wasn’t like the monk who imprisoned her? For years Auntie Rosa killed grundwirgen like Lady Bai and General Xiao Qing, if she thought they were criminal—she murdered them in their animal forms. How do you know she wouldn’t have killed your mother, too, if she’d had the chance? How can you tell me I should forgive her?”
Meng Jiao sighed. “Horses and cows do not cross,” he said. She frowned at him, and he searched his memory for the idiom in her language. “You speak of apples and oranges. Your question is flawed: our parents’ pasts do not matter in our attachment to them. You can help your auntie find righteousness again without disrespecting her.”
“You don’t make sense,” the girl said.
“Our way makes as much sense as yours,” Meng Jiao said. More sense, truthfully—but he had been raised to act with tact. “It is only different.”
Meng Jiao might have spoken my language, but he was as alien as everyone else in this land.
How could staying loyal to one’s family override even murder, no matter what?
How could Meng Jiao’s love for a mother he’d never met be so unquestioned?
He was insane. His culture was insane. It made me want to find my own way even more, the realization that I did not want to be like him.
I would break from my mother and her mad quest, I decided. I would go back west, to the land I knew, to the people who spoke my language, where, even if my face gave away my foreign blood, I was at least less of a stranger than in this terrible place where they worshipped mothers who were murderers.
The girl—she had said her name like Siahon, and it had taken Meng Jiao many minutes of conversation and a casual mention from her that she had been named in his tongue to realize she meant Xiao Hong, red in name as Xiao Qing was green-blue-black—the girl had made Meng Jiao uncomfortable.
He had felt so serene in his pronouncements, as they talked. There was no “why” to the bond with one’s parents, no “why” to that love—and there did not need to be. Meng Jiao had studied maths and philosophy, and he knew the concept of first principles, even if Xiao Hong did not. Without first principles there was no way to deduce rightness in anything, and Meng Jiao did not have to justify his own first principles to her.
Furthermore, without some set of first principles shared by a society, the community could not flourish. The society Xiao Hong came from might continue functioning with a different set of postulates, but that did not mean it would be one Meng Jiao would prefer to live in.
So he spoke proper words about his mother, and he swore, again, to do his duty by her—the only question now being how to fulfill it, considering he lacked an army.
Perhaps the gods meant for him to have the more important, mindful part, the saving of his mother’s righteousness rather than her physical being. Even if Xiao Qing was the one who broke his mother from the pagoda, perhaps only her son would be able to bring her to a better path.
But Xiao Hong had said something during their conversation, offhand and casual. Something that afterward would not stop burrowing at his brain, refusing to be ignored.
It sounds like your mother doesn’t even need you.
Meng Jiao had seen the might of Xiao Qing. It had not occurred to him before now what it meant that his mother—his mother, Lady Bai Su Zhen—was the more powerful of the two.
His mother was not even human. She might not have any desire at all to live by the first principles Meng Jiao held so close to his heart.
Then you must lead her to them. You must teach her how to find her humanity, how to do right by the gods, he reminded himself.
Except that his mother had battled several of the gods already, and won their respect before Meng Jiao was even born. She had fought them savagely for a potion that would bring his father back to life, and they had given it to her. Could it be that she had already proven her worth in their sight?
How could he save his mother, if she did not require saving?
And if he couldn’t save her… who was he?
Who was Lady Bai? A demon, a sorceress, a powerful grundwirgen witch. A wife, a mother, a snake-turned-woman who sought only to do good.
A woman now trapped by a man beneath a tower.
Mei had felt a tugging of kinship with her, that moment the green snake general Xiao Qing had touched their minds and laid out the terms of her help. Something had welled up, some long-ago poison she’d thought had scarred over hard and toughened enough that it would stay buried forever. When the snake woman spoke of her friend unjustly held captive, Mei felt the thrum of truth in the words because it echoed in the dark spaces of her own heart.
Nonsense, she tried to tell herself, even after agreeing to march with the company. It’s not the same.
It wasn’t the same. The sorceress they sought to free had such strength that the beasts in the army talked of her in hushed tones, even the scaled and clawed ones as tall as oak trees. They spoke of Lady Bai’s prior battles with the monk who held her. They whispered in awe of the magics she’d used in defeating him, over and over.
Not like me, some long-ago voice of doubt reminded Mei. I never fought. I only left.
Rosa had fought all her battles for her, even the one she’d never wanted, the one she’d suspected but always feared to confirm. Now that she knew, she was lost as to how to mourn a death she was not even sure deserved mourning—and whether her grief should be for his soul or for Rosa’s.
Find her, she told herself again. Find Rosa, and everything else can follow. Mei could not fix this alone, this broken shell that had been her family, not with Rosa gone and Xiao Hong drifting and angry and Mei herself lost as to how to make anything right.
She wasn’t strong enough. She had never been strong enough.
“Lady Bai would do anything to save her family,” said those in the army, reverently. “She would raze the world out of love for her husband. We must rally to her now and bring her back to them.”
And Mei thought,
No, we’re not the same. Lady Bai might be held in a tower by a man, but Lady Bai was not like her. Lady Bai did not have her fears, her doubts… her weakness.
Lady Bai was more like Rosa.
The camp was empty in the humid night, as the army completed their preparations and amassed on the shore of the lake for a dawn attack on the pagoda.
I had intended only a quick farewell, but I found Meng Jiao in his tent, fully dressed, stacking the rest of his things, and certainty surged that he’d had the same thought I had.
“You’re leaving.” I couldn’t hide my spike of surprised joy at the notion. “I am, too, as soon as the army returns and I can inform my mother. We should go together.”
He paused in his movements and inclined his head to me formally. “Xiao Hong. I have decided to approach the pagoda in advance of Xiao Qing. I shall be the one to free my mother. The gods will see it is well done.”
Well done? More likely he would be killed! “That’s ridiculous,” I said. “Our parents are ruining our lives. Come with me back to my country. We can find our own way.”
He straightened and turned to face me. “Why would I do that?”
“Why do you want to free your mother?” I had not meant for my temper to shorten, but his unwavering devotion spat on my own more complicated feelings… then judged me and found me wanting. “I don’t get it. I don’t. You call her a demon, you say she’s killed people, you’ve never met her, and yet you—”
“If you do not understand, I cannot explain,” Meng Jiao said stiffly. “In your country, you say other things are more important than the love a child and parent have for each other. You run and grasp for those things, and you say it makes you happy. Go back and do that. I shall not stop you.”
“This isn’t about love,” I insisted. “You don’t love her. You can’t—you don’t know her! And this isn’t about her anyway. This is about you.”
His spine went ramrod straight, his eyes creasing in fury.
Something in me needed to prove myself in the right, to insist to my heart that I was not a terrible daughter for wanting my own life. “If this were truly about your mother, you would let General Green Snake take her army in there and get her, and then you’d wait and meet her. Instead, you’re going to go in and fail, and maybe die, and when she finally is rescued you won’t be here anymore. You can’t make a difference; you just want to pretend you can!”
The blue moonlight illuminated Meng Jiao’s face, but I could no longer read his expression. It was a moment before he spoke. “And yet you,” he said, “would desert the family who have raised you since birth, and discard their love like it is worthless. Perhaps the reason your mother does not know how to speak to you is that you are a bad child.”
A lump slammed into my throat, so hard I thought it would choke me.
Our way makes as much sense as yours, Meng Jiao had said. It is only different.
My mother had come from this culture, too, many years ago. Perhaps she could no more understand my anger at Auntie Rosa than Meng Jiao could.
What if, in her eyes, it was I who was breaking us apart?
Meng Jiao had studied the arts of rhetoric and debate, and he knew how to strike back like the viper of his parentage, to land the words where they would take his opponent down.
But Xiao Hong was not so trained, and even so, as he shot back at her, he knew her words had done the same to him.
I love my mother, he insisted to himself.
But what did that mean?
Xiao Hong was right. His intentions here… they were not pure. He meant not to rescue his mother, but to bring glory to himself.
To prove himself a man. A worthy son. Show that he was not only the top scholar in the land, but the most ethical, that he would put family above all, until he should be revered in legend for his sacrifices.
Find a name of his own, outside his mother’s storied deeds and his father’s expectations.
His eyes blurred, and he was ashamed. And then the shame deepened, because even after recognizing the selfishness of his desire, the yearning for it still remained.
He did not hear Xiao Hong leave.
I went back to our tent, and sat. I didn’t pack my things.
In the morning, the army attacked. I could hear it from the camp, the massive trumpeting of the sea creatures as they rose up out of the lake, the roar of the serpents. The pagoda did not look very large from the encampment, but its magic must have been potent indeed, for the screams and fire we witnessed were of a mighty battle.
For the first time, I considered the possibility that my mother might not return. This place had seemed so strange, so unreal, that I had not considered the danger she now braved.
The danger she braved, to get the help of the green snake general in finding my auntie. The danger she braved, for love, just as the green snake general did in finding her white snake friend.
The danger Meng Jiao had been willing to face, for the mere idea of such loyalty.
Was I so cold a person that I did not stand by them? Was I so ungrateful a daughter that I would desert my parents for… for what?
I thought back to Meng Jiao’s words, and the world tilted and shifted. The pronouncements I’d called stupid, insane—if I tried to understand them, where did they take me? He’d spoken of our parents’ crimes as being separate from our love for them—I did not know if he was right, but that did not mean he was wholly wrong.
What if I could stay furious at Auntie Rosa… and love her still?
The sky above the pagoda lit up in a thousand colors as the battle raged.
Perhaps I could be a person of more than one heart, just as I was a daughter of more than one land.
In her captivity, Bai Su Zhen sat quietly in thought, alone.
Such meditation was not new to her, nor arduous. She had spent centuries immersed in study, after all—training her mind, seeking to grow in wisdom. Striving for nothing more than to be judicious in her power.
Twenty years was but a blink in time.
Or so it had been, before she’d had a husband she loved and a newborn son, an infant stolen from her arms as Fa Hai trapped her in darkness. She had tried to channel her grief and anger, to center herself, but in the early days here she had often failed. She had screamed, and wept, and railed in turn. She had imagined her son growing tall and strong without ever knowing his mother’s face, years she would never see.
But then she had forced herself to calm. She forced herself instead to imagine Xu Xian raising their son to be dutiful and kind. If only that had come to pass, she could be content.
She sat in quiet thought, closed her eyes, and waited.
The day the pagoda shook with the thunder of giants, and the sorcery of her prison choked and pulsed, fighting but already lost, Bai Su Zhen opened her eyes.
Her sister had come.
Meng Jiao’s father arrived at the camp as the army was returning triumphant from the pagoda. “Did you save her, my son?” he asked, beaming in expectant pride.
“No, Father,” Meng Jiao said.
His father’s brows furrowed into a deep vee, his mouth twisting down in sour disgrace. For the first time, Meng Jiao had failed him.
Meng Jiao did not know how to explain. A sick queasiness seeped into him, the heartsick suspicion that a gulf had opened between them. Or perhaps the gulf had always been there, and Meng Jiao had only been blind to it.
He turned his face away and prepared to meet his mother.
Lady Bai Su Zhen swept in amidst so much raw magical power that Meng Jiao stumbled back from it. She was so tall she dwarfed the men, so imperious it hurt to look at her. Her face was ageless and the white of her robes blinding.
After greeting Meng Jiao’s father, she turned to her son, and all he saw was a terrifying stranger.
“You are my son,” Lady Bai said.
“Yes, Mother,” Meng Jiao answered.
“Have you been a good son to your father?” she asked.
The polite response was a humble deflection—not enough to compare to my father’s love for me, not enough to be worthy of you, Mother. But it stuck in Meng Jiao’s throat.
“Xu Meng Jiao,” his father chastised. “Answer your mother.”
I thought so, he wanted to say. But I am no longer sure I understand what that means.
My mother returned with the last of the troops, late enough for me to begin feeling anxious, to pace the area in front of our tent searching every face for her features. She finally hiked out of the scales and tails and armor, her skin and clothes streaked with dirt and her long braid of black and silver coming undone, but her stride was as sure and strong as the rifle in her hands.
“Mama!” I leapt to run to her. Before I could rethink it, I threw my arms around her as I hadn’t since I was a young girl.
My mother let out a breath of surprise and then embraced me back. “Child! Are you all right?”
Was I all right? “Mama, I’m sorry,” I said. I was too old to cry now, but my face began tingling anyway, tears starting in my eyes and nose. “I’m so sorry.”
For not being a very good daughter. For confusing anger with hate, complication with distance. For not realizing sooner, that I didn’t have to agree with my mother or Auntie Rosa for them still to be worth more than the world to me.
“I’m so angry at her,” I whispered against my mother’s shoulder. “So angry, still.”
“As am I,” murmured my mother.
I pulled back. “You are?”
She bowed her head. “Yes.”
“I suppose… we’ll have to find her to yell at her,” I said.
A slight smile touched my mother’s face. “Yes. That was my thought.”
Meng Jiao went to say farewell.
Xiao Hong smiled at him. “Thank you for talking to me,” she said. “What you said—you were right. Thank you.”
Meng Jiao had never felt less certain of being right in his life. But he told her it was nothing and wished her luck on their journey. “I hope you find your auntie,” he said.
“I hope you enjoy spending time with your mother,” she answered.
Meng Jiao did not respond, his emotions churning.
Xiao Hong cocked her head. “You could come with us. Have some space for yourself, allow your mother and father to have some time. We could use someone to translate.”
Guilt washed through Meng Jiao as the idea tempted him. To run away, rather than figure out this new and complicated life, a life where being a loving son was no longer as simple as doing well on his exams and fulfilling a shining destiny. Where he had to build new, alien relationships with a father he had disappointed and a mother who hadn’t needed to be saved.
“I want them to know me.” It took all his courage to say the words aloud, and he wasn’t even speaking them to the people who mattered yet.
“You mean your parents?” Xiao Hong asked.
“I love them.” The words rang with a different meaning from the one he had always lived by. A more difficult one. And yet they felt truer than they ever had before. “I love them. I need to figure out what that means.”
“Good luck,” Xiao Hong said, understanding in her voice.
Meng Jiao nodded. His new quest felt a thousand times harder than freeing his mother ever had.
He forced himself to turn toward his parents’ tent.
We hiked away from the battle-damaged pagoda and the slowly flooding lake, out toward the shore of the ocean. My mother and I, rifles slung on our backs, armed with cryptic counsel and ensorcelled items my mother had gained from General Xiao Qing as payment.
“I wish Meng Jiao had come with us,” I said. “Do you think he really did want to stay?”
“Such things are complicated,” my mother answered after a moment. “‘Want’ can have many meanings.”
“Yes,” I said. “I know what you mean.” As I said it, I realized I did.
My mother and I hiked north and east, into the morning sun, seeking someone we would shout at or forgive… or neither, or both.
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