The Pearl Ch. 07byThistlethorn©
Edited by PennLady
This is a copyrighted work of fiction. All rights reserved.
Sebastian, wake up please.
If there's a more disorienting way to be woken up than by somebody speaking directly into your head, I don't want to know what it is. I raised my head and shook it, trying to drive the cob webs from my mind.
"Huh, what?" I asked.
The movement and sound woke up Dakota. She looked up at me, blinking away sleep.
"What?" She was as drowsy as I was.
"Um, it's Chang, I think," I replied, pointing my claw to my head while trying to focus my thoughts. "Give me a second."
I closed my eyes and concentrated on Chang through the indistinct sense I had of him in my mind.
Yes, very good. Could you please ask Dakota if she would be so gracious as to allow me in her home?
Yeah, sure. "Dakota, Chang wants to know if you mind if he comes over."
"Yeah, that's fine." She was awake and getting out from under the blanket.
It's cool, I let him know.
"I'll grab a shower while he's on his way." She climbed out of my coiled body and headed out of the room.
"Uh, Dakota, I don't think it's going to take that long for him to get here."
"It won't," he said from behind me.
I swiveled my head around to find Chang standing by the closed picture window.
"Hey, Chang," I said. Chang's here, I let Dakota know. I heard her shout, "Thanks."
He gave me the biggest shit-eating grin I think I've ever seen. "Good morning. Looks like you had quite a night."
"Uh, yeah," I stammered. "I...I_um, I_did." Having nothing further to add, I repeated; "Yeah."
"I see." He looked me over before asking, "Do you enjoy cramming yourself into a space that doesn't fit you?"
I looked around myself. "It's not that bad, but no, this isn't entirely comfortable. But after last night...I mean...damn, but I can't seem to focus on anything else."
He chuckled at my predicament before heading over to me.
"I believe I can assist." He placed his hand on the top of my head. "Please concentrate on your human form."
I did. The next thing I knew, I was again in human form standing in the living room. Chang looked down at the carpet.
"That was you, I assume?"
I looked down. Upon closer inspection, the damage looked even worse. The furrows went into the floor boards themselves and bits of the carpet were strewn everywhere.
"Yeah, it was." I was embarrassed. "And I'm not sure what I can do to fix it." I looked back up at Chang and gestured to myself. "You could do this at any time?"
"All I did was assist in the shift. Normally, I don't believe in doing for others what they can do for themselves. But, considering the circumstances, I don't object to helping."
I dropped myself down on the couch. "Well, thanks. I didn't think I was ever going to be able to shift again. How do you guys manage it?"
Chang sat down on the love seat. "Well, first you should be aware that most dragons do not take favorites until well after their first hundred years. You're just out of your first two weeks."
Something he said caught my attention. "Favorite," I repeated. "That dragon; Qiang, I think?"
"Yeah, he said something about my pretty little favorite. What's that mean?"
"There are many things that need to be explained," Chang said. "And I intend to explain it to you both. Would you like breakfast?"
"Yeah, actually, that would be good."
"What do you think of the Dragon's Garden?" Chang was nonchalant.
"Are you kidding?" I was chalant, or whatever the opposite of nonchalant is. "No, no, no, no. That's Qiang's place."
"Which his elder indicated you should go to whenever you like," he reminded me.
"Well, yeah. But isn't the next day a little, I don't know, salt-in-the-wound-ish?"
"You're going to have to deal with him at some point."
"I think I would rather go the rest of my life without seeing him."
"Given the potential life-spans we're speaking of here, that could be a very long time."
"Ugh," I groaned. I leaned back in my chair, rubbing my hand over my eyes before running it through my hair.
"I appreciate your concern." He smile and his voice was soothing. "But it has been arranged, and you shouldn't be worried."
"What's been arranged?" Dakota came into the room while drying her hair. She was dressed in a light sweater and jeans.
Chang rose and bowed to her. Dakota bowed in return then sat down beside me, laying her hand on my leg. Chang returned to his seat.
"I was telling Sebastian that brunch has been arranged at the Dragon's Garden and if neither of you had previous plans, I would like to treat you to the meal while explaining the possible ramifications of your situation."
Dakota looked uncertain. "That's very kind of you. I don't have previous plans, and would like very much to ask some questions. But won't the other dragon be somewhat put off?"
Chang smiled at Dakota. "As I was explaining to Sebastian, it has been arranged. A private place where we may speak freely is a necessity."
"Well, we can talk here," Dakota offered.
"You are very gracious, but I feel we have leaned too heavily on your generosity and good nature." Chang looked to the floor. "I would very much like to arrange for this meal. At the very least."
"Well, if you're sure it will be OK," Dakota said.
"You have my word." Chang nodded.
"It's good with me, then. Sebastian?" She turned her blue-green eyes to me.
"Who am I to blow against the wind?" I sighed in resignation. "I'm guessing this is going to be one more thing Qiang will hold against me."
"Going to the restaurant or your choice of favorite?" Chang asked.
"As for the restaurant, it's no longer his say. As to favorites, I can only hope even he isn't so crass as to compare them." He stood. "Dakota, do you mind taking us in your vehicle?"
"Not at all. Let me run a comb through my hair and I'll be ready." She rose and left the room.
"What do you mean, compare?" I asked, a little confused. Which seemed to be my standard setting these days.
"The eldest daughter of the family that works his restaurant is his favorite," he explained.
"Like his lover? Are you kidding?"
"I couldn't attest to his feelings for her, but yes, they're together."
Dakota came back into the room, slipped on her shoes, grabbed her keys and we were out the door. Looking around her neighborhood, I noticed it was quiet and unassuming. Not the 'burbs, but not urban either. Kind of working class, on the whole, with not much stirring on a Sunday morning.
Chang was seriously tripping on the car. He walked around it with a bemused look on his face, ran his hand along the side and tapped the glass. He was straight up taken with it. As we got in, I had to ask.
"Haven't you ever ridden in a car? I'm pretty sure they have them in China."
"Of course they do," he said, as he looked around the interior. "But I can't say I've had day-to-day interaction with humans for quite some time. I've missed a great deal."
I could detect sadness in his voice. I remembered what he'd said the night before about humans being fascinating. As Dakota pulled out of the driveway, I asked him what had happened.
He settled into the back seat and looked out the window, lost in thought. After a few moments he said, "Belief in dragons hasn't been what might be called mainstream in China for a while. Oh, there are still those that believe, certainly, and may they be blessed and increase. But I fear they are becoming fewer and fewer. It would be easy, I suppose, to blame it all on the revolution. But that would be disingenuous. Despite their many commendable qualities, humans can be terribly fickle with their belief." He paused before adding, "Present company excluded, of course." He nodded to Dakota.
"Well, OK." I tried to think of a way of asking my next question without sounding snarky, or argumentative. "But it's not like you don't exist. Obviously." I paused. "I mean, Dakota believes because she saw. I believe because of what happened to me. I can honestly say if I hadn't been turned into a dragon, I wouldn't believe."
Chang nodded. "I'm aware of that. And I believe that would be a mutual loss. For both of you and the dragons."
"That's cool of you to say, thanks. But I guess my point would be, if you want people to believe, why don't you show them?" I asked as respectfully as I could.
Chang once again smiled, but there was such melancholy to it that it was heartbreaking. "You are far too young to understand this, but I will try to explain anyway. It has to do with the will of heaven, free will, and faith. You see, everybody has the right to decide for themselves what to believe, what to have faith in. In the past, there was more interaction. And some of that was because the people believed and sought us out. But as they pulled back, so did we. I suppose some grew past it. Why this came to pass, I cannot say. There are times when even I don't necessarily agree with the will of heaven, but I must keep it."
"But 'grew past it'? This isn't growing out of believing in Santa Clause Dragons are real." I paused as a thought struck me. "Unless of course Santa actually exists, at which point I'm going to really feel silly."
This time both Chang and Dakota chuckled. "To my knowledge, Santa Clause does not exist," Chang confirmed. "As for the rest...." He hesitated. "It is as it has been decreed. I'm afraid I have no better answer for you. When people doubt, we let them doubt. Some things must be sought to be found or seen. It is up to the individual to decide to seek, doubt, or disbelieve entirely."
I had nothing further to add, and felt bad for Chang. There was a somberness in the car that wouldn't let up.
"What about Jack Skellington?" Dakota spoke up. "Jack Skellington totally has to exist."
Chang was caught off guard. "Who is Jack Skellington?"
So, for the rest of the car ride, Dakota explained "The Nightmare Before Christmas" to Chang. He understood most of the references, and wanted to see the movie. We were going to get him hooked on pop culture. That was so cool.
We arrived at the restaurant. By Dakota's dashboard clock it was 10:30. I wasn't sure what time the place opened, but couldn't imagine it would be much before 11:00. Per the hours on the door, that's when they opened. Since Chang pulled open the door I gathered they were expecting us. I was mortified at the idea that they opened early just for us. Even if Qiang had been an ass, this seemed to me to be kind of petty in return. I stole a glance over to Dakota, who also looked concerned. Only Chang didn't appear to have a problem. He politely greeted the wait staff, and went where they lead. I did my best to follow his lead and hide my discomfort.
We were taken to the back, where there was a private banquet room. The two back walls were hardwood with decorative wall hangings suspended on them. Some had what I assumed to be Chinese writing, but most were illustrations, many featuring dragons. The two walls facing the dining room section of the restaurant were frosted glass. There was a long table against the back wall with two large and gorgeous dragon statues situated in such a way that they appeared to be standing guard at either end of the table. Both had their bodies curled around themselves, one was leaping upwards; the other was more facing downwards, as if landing. They were brightly colored cloisonné.
The table itself was draped with a beautiful red silk cloth embroidered with gold. It was positively laden with food and had flower arrangements set amongst the plates. Some of it I could recognize, like dumplings, egg rolls, dim sum, fried won-ton, and ribs. There were also several rice dishes, sweet and sour with different kinds of meat, egg foo young, and fried rice, as well as noodle dishes, such as lo-mein, and several soups. Those were just the foods I recognized. There were more that I couldn't, but all of it smelled great.
We were shown to a table with pitchers of both soda and water, and pots of tea. The place settings included chop sticks and silverware. The host turned to us.
"If there is anything else that is required, please let us know. We will be placing additional items on the buffet very shortly, so please partake of that also." He gave a small bow that Chang returned, and Dakota and I followed suit. He left, and closed the doors behind him.
Chang went to the food table and made himself a plate. Dakota looked at me, I just shrugged, planning once again to follow suit. I smiled at Dakota, and gestured for her to go ahead of me. Working towards that sensitivity award.
Once we filled our plates we took our seats at the table; Dakota and I facing each other, Chang at the head. While drinks were poured into the glasses Chang remarked on my discomfort, which I though I'd been hiding pretty well.
"You are uncomfortable." He deftly used his chopsticks to take a bite of his food. "Why?"
I fidgeted a bit before answering. "I guess this is kinda conspicuous. Regardless of what I may think of Qiang, I don't want to yank the guy's chain. I get that this was arranged, and I'm guessing he's got to be aware of it. But I don't want to come off as the asshole he seems to think I am." Have you ever realized how bad something you said sounds the second after you say it? I have that all the time. I did a face-palm over my eyes and leaned my head back. "Not that I'm saying you're an asshole for arranging this, or even thinking it until I heard myself say it."
Chang laughed. "Are you sure English is your first language?" he asked, gently teasing.
I looked over to him. "Yes, it is. But making sense in English continually eludes me."
"I can attest to that." Dakota smiled at me. I stuck my tongue out.
"I'm sure you can," Chang agreed, taking another bite. "Which brings me to why we are here. The situation you find yourselves in was, to be honest, not unanticipated by me. The swiftness of it, however, took me by surprise."
I began eating as he talked. I considered using the chopsticks, but decided to admit I couldn't by using the silverware. I dropped my fork when I heard what he had to say. "You knew this was coming?"
Chang shrugged. "'Knew' is not the correct word. No one knows the future," he explained, then clarified. "Certain sign posts were in place indicating a possible future. When I examined your pearl, and consequently you, I realized Dakota was very important to you." He turned his attention to Dakota. "And when I met you, Dakota, I realized there was a distinct possibility of you two coming together. Hoped it, rather, as a friend on unknown paths can be invaluable. As I'm sure you're both aware." He paused as he took another bite of food. Dakota and I hung on his words.
"But, it has been my experience that hearts take time to discover what they're feeling. While it was clear you were friends, I was thinking it would take several months or a year to really determine how far this might go. Not a week." He gave us a droll smile. Actually, the smile looked a lot like the one the other elder, Zongxian, gave me.
"The other elder figured it out too, didn't he? That's what that smile meant," I said.
Chang nodded. "He did, as did Qiang. He actually used the term favorite, as you pointed out. But that's not terribly surprising. I have also found that the people in the situation are usually the last to discover it."
"Favorite." I swallowed the bite I had taken. "What, exactly, does that mean?"
"That is the term used by dragons for a human lover. It wasn't entirely applicable, until last night. But the events of the day precipitated that."
Dakota jumped in at this point, setting down her fork. "What exactly did happen? Or how?"
Chang took a long sip of his tea before speaking. "As is obvious, a pearl is a vital, but separable, part of a dragon. It is not very commonly done because it is vulnerable outside the dragon. In this most particular situation it was a desperate but well-played gambit. One Qiang never considered. However, the pearl is normally kept within the dragon, brought out under only certain circumstances. Impending battle isn't one of them. The pearl sought refuge. And as you are trusted implicitly by Sebastian, it took refuge within you." He paused again, thinking over his words as he twisted the tea cup in his hands. "It is considered a complement, though I would understand finding that a bit intrusive."
"Yeah." She kept her eyes on the tablecloth as she digested his words. "That's one word for it. But to be honest, it's not entirely the correct word."
Chang regarded her with something that struck me as optimistic curiosity. "If I may be so bold, what would be more correct?"
Dakota gathered her thoughts while pushing the food around on her plate. "It was a shock, certainly, but after that faded, it was...well...." She trailed off and it was her turn to fidget in her chair. I remembered what she had said the night before, and realized she might feel a little put on the spot to explain some of it to Chang. "Really not bad. Kind of nice, actually."
Chang's smile indicated he understood her position. "Good," he said. "I'm glad you weren't further troubled."
"I do have a question." She looked up and met his eyes.
"Please." He gestured for her to continue.
"I still feel a faint echo of Sebastian's pearl in me. What does that mean?"
Chang looked to me. "You also?" he asked, though I suspected he already knew the answer. I nodded. He poured another cup of tea before continuing.
"Not surprising. Encasement in flesh gives the illusion of self-containment. But it is only that, an illusion. We leave parts of ourselves, and our influences, in everything we touch. Normally, it only becomes noticeable with time and passing encounters leave little impact. But sometimes, due to the nature of the contact, the impact of even passing encounters can be much more obvious," he took another sip of his tea. "Such is the case here. When the pearl was removed from you, Dakota, it took a piece of you with it and left a piece of Sebastian behind. When Sebastian took his pearl back in, the piece of you entered with it." He paused, letting us absorb what he'd just said. "Now, this bond is quite weak. Left untended, it will fade and in time be as if it were never there. But if it is nurtured, it will strengthen over time."
Dakota fell silent and both Chang and I waited to see what else she might say. She appeared to be gathering her courage. "What happens now?" she asked.
Chang was surprised by her question. "Whatever you two chose. Two weeks is a little soon to be taking a favorite, but it is not unheard of when the dragon had been human. Some of those that had been chosen to be dragons already had lovers or spouses. These things are to be allowed for. You may continue on the way you are. However, sometimes the passions of the night can feel unseemly by the light of day. That is perfectly legitimate, also. However you two chose to proceed should be acceptable." He looked archly at me, my reluctance of the night before clearly not forgotten. "As long as no one is intentionally hurt."
I briefly considered arguing that I never intended to hurt Dakota, but decided the point would be academic at best. Chang was right. I had wussed out that night and I had hurt her. I promised myself then and there I would be as honest as I could with Dakota.
Chang pardoned himself and rose to fill another plate. I took this lull to do the same. Dakota was still working on her first plate. I was secretly, and maybe a little shallowly, pleased Dakota wasn't using chopsticks. At least there was something she couldn't do. OK, it wasn't very nice of me, but I couldn't help myself. Once returning to the table, Chang opened the floor to any other questions we might have. I blurted out my question before thinking. Yeah, like I haven't done that before.