Chapter 24 can be read below the cut.
“Do you have any sort of ulterior motive here, or are you actually just happy that we brought you back to your house?” Lisel asked.
“I am very grateful that you brought me back here,” said Nüwa. “It would have taken me forever to get back here on my own as a snake.”
Hirúka raised a hand, garnering a confused look from Lisel. “Yes, Hirúka?” said Nüwa.
“Why were you a snake in the first place?” Hirúka asked. “Did someone put a spell on you?”
Nüwa shook her head. “No, I put that spell on myself. I was to remain a rat snake until I crossed the threshold to my home.”
“Why would you do that to yourself?” Kiyaska asked.
“You’re Zarya Tel, aren’t you?” said Nüwa. Kiyaska nodded. “I doubt you know too much about Meitsung history. I’ll explain from the beginning.”
Nüwa leaned forward, lacing her fingers together. “Around eighty years ago, the Heavenly Emperors decided that they wanted to become Immortals. Now, no Heavenly Emperor had ever been allowed to pursue this. They decided to consult us anyway, and we refused them.”
Lisel set down her teacup. “Because they’d exploit it, like they’re currently doing.”
Nüwa nodded. “Of course. People who seek or hold power do not have the right temperament or mindset to handle the privileges and responsibilities of immortality. The Heavenly Emperors didn’t like what we told them, so they hunted us down and killed us. They took the books and knowledge from our libraries and used that to make themselves into Immortals.”
Hirúka scratched his chin, looking confused. “I thought that becoming an Immortal was more of a mental thing. That you actually had to gain enlightenment, not use spells.”
“It would be nice if that was the case, but it unfortunately is not,” said Nüwa. “Enlightenment isn’t a requirement for becoming an Immortal. It’s an unrelated spiritual matter. As far as I know, I’m the only Immortal left. Some people have tried to become Immortals over the years, but I doubt they’ve been able to rediscover or recreate the spells we used.”
“Why did you go into hiding? Why a rat snake in particular?” Lisel asked.
“You are oddly fixated on the snake part of this,” said Nüwa.
“I’ve never encountered anything like this. Who the fuck just picks up a snake off the side of the road and keeps it in his pocket or for weeks and doesn’t tell his commander!?,” said Lisel. She looked at Sirilrhis to see that he was frowning. “Seriously, what were you thinking?”
Sirilrhis brought his teacup up to hide the lower part of his face. “I was thinking that the snake was really cute and I wanted to keep it around for a bit.” He saw Lisel’s expression, and said indignantly, “I’m serious.”
“He really is,” said Nüwa. “You should have heard some of the inane things he said to me.”
Sirilrhis covered his face with his hand. “Stop. Please stop talking.”
“So what are you going to do now?” Lisel asked as she looked back at Nüwa. “Surely you’ve spent some time thinking about that?”
Nüwa put her chin in her hands and sighed, looking down at the table. “Of course I have. I’ve had many, many years to do that,” she said.
Lisel raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you haven’t thought of anything.”
“I’ve gone through a great many plans,” said Nüwa. “All their strengths and their weaknesses, and how to carry them out. I thought by now I’d have decided on something, but I have not.”
“I’ve heard Sirilrhis talk about how long it takes him to make decisions, and dragons don’t live nearly as long as Immortals,” said Lisel. “I guess caring about getting things done in a timely fashion doesn’t matter very much when you can live forever.”
“Can you come with us?” Kiyaska asked.
Nüwa looked mildly interested. “Join you?” she asked.
Lisel leaned over the table, looking from Nüwa to Kiyaska. “Kiyaska, you can’t go around asking people to join us. That’s my decision to make, not yours.”
“But it’s just a question,” said Kiyaska. She didn’t seem to understand at all why Lisel was annoyed. “I’m not making any decisions. And wouldn’t it make things a lot easier anyway? Immortals can do basically whatever they want, right?”
Hirúka sat up straight. “I think Kiyaska’s right,” he said.
“Excuse me?” said Lisel.
“Nüwa, we’re headed to the Imperial Palace. The Heavenly Emperors killed some people who were precious to you, right?” said Hirúka.
Nüwa looked startled. “Yes, they did. My husband, as well as many of my friends and fellow Immortals.”
“Your husband?” Hirúka exclaimed. “Oh, that’s really similar to Sirilrhis! He’s only with us because he wants to avenge his dead wife and kids, and the person responsible is that the Imperial Palace.”
“Hirúka. Shut your mouth,” said Sirilrhis. “That isn’t your story to tell.”
“I’m sorry. I thought it would help,” said Hirúka. He did look legitimately sorry. Sirilrhis leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, still looking annoyed.
“I must admit that the thought of getting revenge hasn’t crossed my mind,” said Nüwa.
Lisel was surprised. “Really? You’ve had eighty years to sort out your feelings about this. Eighty fucking years! You’re really asking me to believe that you never thought about it even once!?”
Nüwa didn’t react. Lisel sighed. “That’s not important right now. You’ve lived in this area for a long time, right? I’m sure you know this part of Símaqágu Province and the neighboring parts of Shihun Province like the back of your hand.”
Nüwa nodded. “I do.”
“How much of our mission have you overheard?” Lisel asked.
“All of it,” said Nüwa. “I was in Sirilrhis’s pocket this whole time.”
Lisel rubbed her chin. “That makes things easier. Our current path leads us through an extremely dangerous area…so I’ve heard. I never got a clear answer on what this ‘danger’ is, but I’d like to avoid it as much as possible. I’m hoping you’ll be able to safely lead us through the border region. I can’t make you do this, of course. I’m just putting the suggestion out there,” she said.
Nüwa clasped her hands together under her chin. “I suppose that will be your reward for bringing me back here,” she said.
“There was a reward?” said Lisel, mildly perturbed. “What are you talking about?”
“No, no, I exaggerated a little,” said Nüwa. “I am not obligated to give you anything because you helped me. But I’d be forgetting my manners if I didn’t.”
“Manners were never my strong suit,” Lisel muttered under her breath. “Are you going to be our guide?”
Nüwa nodded. “I’ll join you for the rest of your journey.”
“What?” said Lisel. Everyone else looked just as shocked as she did. “You just got back home and now you want to leave?”
Nüwa made an ambiguous gesture with her hands. “I’ve been away for eighty years. A few more months will not make any sort of difference.” She leaned forward, her elbows on the table. “And if you’ve somehow managed to forget this information, you need an Immortal to read that spell of yours – the one that’s written in a long-dead language that no living person knows how to pronounce.”
Lisel glanced at Sirilrhis. “I was going to bring that up, but Nüwa said it before I got a chance,” he said.
“Are you absolutely sure you want to come with us?” Lisel asked. “I need an affirmative answer.”
Nüwa nodded. “Yes. I shall accompany you on the rest of your journey, and I will read your spell for you. After that is done, I will return here to my home.”
Lisel reached across the table. Nüwa looked momentarily confused, then took Lisel’s hand and squeezed it. “I look forward to working and fighting alongside you, Nüwa,” said Lisel.
Nüwa smiled. “Likewise.”
Lisel let go of Nüwa’s hand and leaned back in her chair. “Now that this is settled, I think we should-”
“Rest,” Nüwa cut in.
“Surely you know we’re behind schedule?” said Lisel.
“One day won’t matter, Lisel,” said Nüwa.
Sirilrhis wandered through the library in the late afternoon. He could tell that a large amount of books had been removed, though more shelves were full than otherwise. A lot of books were stacked haphazardly all over the place. At least half of them were written in languages he either couldn’t read or hadn’t heard of.
He took a book off the shelf and wiped the dust off the cover with his sleeve. It revealed a title in yet another unfamiliar language and script. The bindings were tattered and some of the pages had crumbled. This book must have been ancient.
Nüwa cleared her throat, and Sirilrhis jumped. “Nüwa!” he exclaimed. “I was…”
Sirilrhis looked down at the book on his hands, then set it back on the shelf. He probably did it a little too hard, as it puffed up a bit of dust. “I was looking through your library,” he said.
Nüwa smiled. “So stereotypical. You don’t need to act so nervous. I won’t hurt you.”
Sirilrhis rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve never met an Immortal before. I’m not entirely sure how to act,” he said.
Nüwa touched his upper arm. “Just treat me like any other person.” She dropped her gaze to his right forearm. “Now what do we have here?”
Sirilrhis immediately pulled his arm out of her view and covered it with his other hand. “It-you’ve heard all of my and Lisel’s conversations,” he said. “You know what this spell is.”
Nüwa grabbed his wrist and pulled him forward so that he was actually facing her, then pulled his sleeve up so that the entire spell was visible. “Goodness, that’s complex,” she said. “Who wrote this?”
Sirilrhis shrugged, letting Nüwa keep hold of his wrist. “No idea. Lisel doesn’t either, but apparently they don’t know anyone who’s capable of removing it. Can you believe that? It’s ridi…cu…lous…”
He trailed off as Nüwa put her other hand on his arm. When she moved her hand away, the spell was gone. She let go of him after that. Sirilrhis held his arm up to look at it, utterly bewildered.
“Just like that, it’s gone. I didn’t even feel anything,” he said. Sirilrhis curled his fingers and hunched slightly, his pupils narrowing to slits for a moment. Then he relaxed and his shoulders slumped. “I suppose it would be unwise to change to my dragon form in your library. I wouldn’t want to cause a mess with your books.”
Sirilrhis stretched upward, his fingertips brushing the ceiling. He looked back down at Nüwa. “Do you have any bigger rooms?” he asked.
The room they ended up in used to be a bedroom. There was some furniture pushed up against the wall, but other than that, the room was mostly empty. The windows in this room were continuous like those in the hall, but they went from the floor to the ceiling.
“What are you waiting for?” Nüwa asked. “Are you still nervous?”
Sirilrhis rubbed his wrists. “I wasn’t before, but I am now.” He stretched again and shut his eyes, then let out a breath. When he opened his eyes again, he was in his dragon form, looking down at Nüwa. “This is a lot better,” he said as he looked around.
Sirilrhis settled down and crossed his arms in front of him like a cat. Nüwa reached up to touch his face. “You may be surprised to hear this, but I haven’t actually interacted with many dragons,” she said.
“You haven’t?” said Sirilrhis. “You didn’t seek out any dragons when you were traveling and learning? I’ve heard plenty of elders talk about meeting Immortals.”
Nüwa dropped her hand back down to her side and sat down cross-legged. “That was definitely something I should have done,” she said, not looking at Sirilrhis. “But my interests were all so insular. If I didn’t have to stray from them, I didn’t. It was not a particularly wise decision.”
“But you’re older than me!” exclaimed Sirilrhis. “A lot older than me!”
Nüwa giggled and hid her face. “I think my age may be part of the problem.” She flopped onto her back, her hands clasped on her lap and her ankles crossed. “I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. A minor problem comes up, but it isn’t an immediate pressing concern, so you put it off. And then, no matter how big of a problem it becomes, you keep ignoring it.”
“Mm,” said Sirilrhis.
“And eventually the category containing these minor problems grows and grows until it contains more things, and you’re only concentrating on a few arbitrary things that you’ve deemed to be important,” Nüwa continued.
Sirilrhis lifted his head to look at her. “I can’t say that I’ve ever let my problems pile up that badly.”
Nüwa sighed. “That’s a good sign.” She turned her head to the side to look at Sirilrhis. “But you do understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”
Sirilrhis nodded, and Nüwa went back to looking at the ceiling. “I put off doing so many things because I assumed that as an Immortal, I would always be able to accomplish them later. So many countries to visit and languages to learn and things to do with my husband. But I never did any of them.”
Nüwa sat up. “I won’t be doing that any longer. That’s why I’m coming with you.”
Sirilrhis switched back to his human form and propped himself up on one elbow. “I’m not sure you needed to tell me all of that,” he said. “I guess that’s what happens when you have the chance to talk to someone closer to your own age?”
Nüwa started laughing. “You’re a lot closer in age to the three of them than you are to me.”
“Just how old are you, anyway?” Sirilrhis asked.
Nüwa tried in vain to suppress her giggles, reveling in Sirilrhis’s bewildered expression. “I was born before the foundation of the Empire.”
“But that makes you-” Sirilrhis started.
Lisel opened the door and immediately started talking. “Are you two done in here-” She looked down to see the two of them lying on the floor. “What the hell are you even doing?”
“We’re sitting on the floor. It’s very nice. You should join us,” said Nüwa.
Lisel shook her head. “Can I talk to you for a little bit, Nüwa? It’s about the route we’ll be taking to the border.”
Nüwa got to her feet and brushed herself off. “Of course, Lisel.”