Mei Shu stepped into the bright expanse of his workroom. Sunlight streamed through the glass ceiling, casting a warm glow on high white stone tables that dominated the space. Dried greenery, roots, and flowers hung from all wall surfaces, strung in an organized fashion. Lavender, mint, and a hundred other herbs immediately overpowered the nose. But Mei Shu was oblivious to it.
He shifted the burden off his shoulder and dropped the full basket onto the work surface. He had been moving through his day completely unaware of the beauty and hardship of his surroundings. He hadn’t even noticed the tear in his usually immaculate blue robe.
Mei Shu was normally caught up in his solitary life, focusing only on his chores and experiments. His tiny bungalow housed himself only. It was comfortable, serviceable, and didn't require a host of servants to run it. The one servant that took care of cleaning and replenishing his food stores traveled from a nearby farm, flitting in and out like a ghost. It was an arrangement Mei Shu preferred.
With a flick of the wrist, a gold disc appeared, fitting neatly in his palm. A jade green talon graced the center and glowed as he ran an index finger over it. Using an upward motion, Mei Shu drew a sparkling gold essence from the disk. He snapped his fingers and two glistening figures appeared in front of him.
The petite female wore a rueful smile on her small face. Her hair was pulled back and up loosely, with tendrils teasing her sun golden cheeks. Her small eyes were slits of darkness, and her pale pink robes were a bit disheveled, compared to the grey-robed figure sitting beside her at the white stone table.
Her chiding tone rang out as she conjured up a large bottle of wine and summoned cups from the corner of his workroom. This projected illusion tore at Mei Shu’s heart, and his psyche filled in the missing pieces with his true memories of that day with her.
Pan An had trekked to his small home in the late afternoon hours, and Mei Shu had been startled by her sudden appearance. She had laughed at him as always. Even in their academy days, Pan An had taken great delight in teasing him. She may have been the highest ranking Arbitrator in the Imperial Eagle clan, cool and collected in her duties, but when amongst her dearest, her demeanor completely changed to a lighthearted, playful young woman.
“Xiao Shu, I’ve heard that you just finished sowing an entire harvest worth of dong gui for the clan stores. It must have been very taxing work.” She sympathized as she poured a wealth of wine into the pale blue porcelain wine cup.
“But very fulfilling. I love cultivating herbs, and what better way than contributing to the wellbeing of our people. This is not work to me.” Mei Shu breezily replied, making light of the topic.
They both knew it was a huge undertaking, managing workers and gauging the perfect time to plant. Working with herbs was not only a passion for him, but the avenue he chose to contribute to his clan that very few of his people could. Mei Shu enjoyed his duties as a healer. It was his birthright. His family legacy. But his affinity for herbal cultivation and elixirs outshone, yet highlighted his value as a physician.
Pan An’s eyes brightened as Mei Shu swallowed a large gulp of wine. “Why don’t you take a break from all of this? You have plenty of workers to watch over the fields for you, so there won’t be much for you to do till close to harvest time.”
Taking another quaff of wine, Mei Shu vaguely acknowledged he should slow down. He wasn’t a very good drinker. His alcohol tolerance was mediocre at best, and usually, he had no interest in it. But it had been some time since one of his close friends from the academy had come to visit him. And he couldn’t seem to stop himself. And yet, he knew Pan An was setting him up for something.
“That is true, but there is always something that needs to be attended to. My personal crops have not suffered but I still need to do maintenance. And there are always new elixirs to brew and poultices to mix.”
At Pan An’s compressed lips and rolling eyes, even Mei Shu agreed it sounded like monotonous drudgery. He sighed.
“And during all this brewing and mixing, when have you found time for pleasurable pursuits?” At his attempt to talk, she cut him off, “No, no! I’m not talking about pursuits of the mind. But what of the imagination? Why don’t you take a trip? Perhaps to another realm?”
Pan An eyed Mei Shu’s empty wine cup and leisurely filled it. “Have you ever been to the grasslands?”
Hmm...Pan An was getting close to her agenda. Mei Shu sipped from the cup cautiously now.
“Yes! I have visited the grasslands of Ganzhou. It is magnificent there. Nothing but green rolling grasses with huge black lakes, and it sits below the grey mountain of Qilian. And the people were...” His eyes lit up as he suddenly remembered another beautiful feature of the great green terrain. “There was a sweet young horseman I met there.”
Mei Shu’s wine consumption grew. He set the cup down with a little too much force and a sly devilish expression seized his fine features. “So inexperienced, but so eager to learn.” He finished off with guttural force. His smile turned predatory and full of lust.
He leaned in close and in a low voice, confided, “his inner thigh was so sensitive, just blowing a breath along it, would make him hard.” He nudged her arm in an old familiar way and smiled wickedly.
Pan An blushed and laughed and seeing her chance, she slammed her palm down on the table. “That’s right! You need to find yourself a man. You’ve been holding up here in your quaint little cottage for thousands of years now. Just minding your plants and experimenting,” she ended in derision. “When was the last time you flirted with someone? You need to get out!”
His foggy brain was suddenly zooming. He had to stop the direction of this conversation. Taking the defensive position, a devilish glint appeared in Mei Shu’s eyes as he surveyed his friend. “And how do you know I haven’t left my quaint little cottage? How do you know I haven’t investigated the delicious offerings of another realm. Or even in the mortal world for that matter?” His refined lips crooked in a smirk.
His sardonic tone momentarily stopped Pan An from continuing, and Mei Shu could tell she was trying to figure out if he was bluffing. And then she changed tactics. Pan An visually relaxed and took her time reaching for the wine bottle in front of her.
“Tasting and holding close are two different things, Xiao Shu. You’ve had lovers, but never anyone special. You certainly haven’t found anyone within our own clan in all these years.” Her voice took on a concerned tone, almost as if she realized what she was saying wasn’t just to cajole him, but was truly how her dear friend had been living. Untouched by love. Untouched by the comfort of a true mate.
Mei Shu’s deep eyes grew limpid, and his features lost all its previous mirth. He physically shifted away from her. “Don’t delude yourself that you know the tales of all my paramours, Pan An. Not all of my love affairs have been so lighthearted.” He ended coldly.
He had a pained look as he poured another cup of wine and threw it back in one gulp.
Pan An easily saw through his attempt to make her retreat, her heart going out to her old friend. Her eyes softened as she gazed at him and then her small hand was clutching his. “I have a case in the Gahai Grasslands of the Luxu Mountain Range.”
“I have no interest in traveling. And there is yet much to do in my own herb reserves.” He cut her off.
Her thumb rubbed the flesh between his thumb and forefinger reassuringly. “I have need of your skills as a physician. Shouldn’t that take precedence over your gardening?” She gently mocked.
Mei Shu scoffed, “And why would you need me? You have multiple healers at your disposal.”
Pan An’s eyes narrowed in thought. “There’s something completely off about this case. I’m suspecting it’s quite more nefarious than the usual murder. If I am to negotiate a peace between these families, I will of course do a full investigation.”
“Of course…” Mei Shu drawled.
She gave him a look of reproach, “And in doing so, I don’t want to take a chance on the safety of any of our group. Hence, why I need you.”
“Why me? And don’t give me that nonsense,” his voice slurred slightly, changing to a high and feminine lilt.
“Mei Shu, I need someone I can trust without reservation.’’ He clutched his heart dramatically. The wine had clearly thrown all his reserve to the winds by this time.
She rolled her eyes and smirked at him, shaking her head in exasperation. Suddenly she was looking deep into his eyes, becoming serious. “That’s exactly why I need you.”
Mei Shu snapped his fingers, the figures dissolved in a rain of sparkles, and he gently pushed the gold essence back into the disk. Its glow dissipating immediately, he fanned his fingers and the disc disappeared.
He had refused her, of course. Mei Shu had ignored her attempts on all fronts to cajole him into joining her legation. He had refused to go outside his comfortable little world. It had been such a small request, but he wasn’t ready to venture out into other realms once again. He wasn’t ready to involve himself in the tribulations of others. He wasn’t ready to feel again.
And now Pan An had been found unconscious in her bathing pool. Her suspicions had undoubtedly been well founded. Her legation had been in danger. And although she had enlisted a well-trained healer, the magical poison that held his comrade in its clutches was beyond the healer’s abilities. A blood fire slug had been found swimming in the water near her. Mei Shu’s eyes squeezed shut and his heart constricted as he thought about the agony Pan An must have endured from the creatures attack.
He had no choice but to go to her.