Suddenly, I found my arm being twisted painfully behind my back.
Haunting cat-like orbs of piercing green stared at me hostilely. “Leave it to that vixen to bring a human into our presence,” she spat. “The leaders will deal with you.”
I had no choice but to follow her or risk my arm being ripped from my body. Inside the kitchen, all eyes had suddenly directed themselves to me.
“Let her go, Isis!” Julia’s clear demand held no sign of fragility, and a quick glance in her direction told me that Julia was ready to do battle with anyone to keep me safe. Only her pale face betrayed her fear for the impending confrontation we would have to face.
“You should have known better than to bring her here,” the ferocious Isis shrilled. “I saw you dressing her up in the restroom. The Elite will have to know about this.”
I felt myself being dragged away and saw Julia run after us.
The dining room was filled with wild laughter and incessant chatter. But as the cat lady dragged me to the stage, throwing off my wig in the process, curious eyes began to filter their attention upon us until the noise slowly eased to a drawn-out hum.
I heard choirs of yaojing gasping, “Human!” in unison, as I stood there, feeling fear seep through my skin. My hands were clammy, and my entire body, cold.
Isis raised her voice to the crowd. “Leaders and fellow yaojing, as you can see, I have caught a human, brought into our presence by the traitorous Julia, who has exposed our world to this girl. In my opinion, we cannot let either of them leave tonight without the proper consequences, but I leave her fate in our respectful leaders’ hands.”
She let go of her tight hold, but still stood right beside me, just to make sure I wouldn’t try to escape. As if I could, with these thousand yaojing blocking my path to the nearest exit.
Isis’s little speech had caused quite a stir, as all the yaojing started to discuss the situation. Julia was right below the stage, not really doing anything but standing around and waiting. I wondered how she could be so calm when I felt like crying.
A gorgeous woman, dressed in a golden off-the-shoulder gown, sparkling with sequins, rose from the balcony and made her way down the stairs to walk towards the stage where I stood. Her wave-like undulations as she walked reminded me of a slithering serpent.
When she got closer, I noticed that her eyes were the most brilliant green I had ever seen. Greener than any field or forest after a storm.
“Lady Eden,” I heard Isis greet, as she curtsied.
“I will take it from here Isis,” Eden said. “Go take a seat.”
Isis did as she was commanded, but not before snarling and glowering at both Julia and me once again. Then Eden turned to me.
“What is your name, girl?”
“And is what Isis said true? Did Julia bring you here?”
“Leader,” Julia interrupted. “Caren is a good girl, so please—”
“I did not ask you!” Eden hissed, silencing Julia. She turned back to me and smiled silkily. “Now Caren, answer the question.”
“I—I came by myself.”
“Why? What relationship do you have to Julia?”
I stuttered, unsure of what to say. I couldn’t tell the truth, that I had come to warn Julia of Scyther’s plots. Only the leaders knew of Julia’s nine tasks, and that could not be revealed to the common yaojing. “I came be—because I thought this was a nice restaurant to eat at for dinner.”
Lame excuse, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
A shout came from the crowd. It was Scyther. “Lies! That girl is lying. Mother, I know everything there is to know about that girl and her relationship to Julia.”
Mother? I looked from Scyther to Eden and suddenly noted the similarities in their features. Eden could have passed as Scyther’s sister, but since yaojing didn’t age past a certain point, it made sense that she was his mother.
Eden glanced curiously towards her son. “Why did you not speak up sooner? Come here and explain yourself, Son.”
Scyther gave me a hideous smirk as he walked to the stage to stand next to his mother. “Ladies and gentleman,” he said, waving his hand in my direction. “May I introduce you to Lady Julia’s future daughter-in-law, Miss Caren Chang.”
Outraged gasps and murmurs fluttered throughout the restaurant.
“Order, order!” Eden cried. She frowned at her son. “Scyther, you’re going to have to explain yourself further. Tell us everything you know, from the beginning.”
“I have been checking in on Julia’s son, Khit, every now and then,” Scyther said. “Just to make sure he’s doing well in the human world.”
I rolled my eyes at that lie.
“And recently, I saw that this girl has been spending a lot of time with him,” he continued. “She and Khit are in a relationship. He’s following the path of his mother.”
Now no one was even trying to be quiet. I knew Julia’s history was known throughout the yaojing world, except the part about her nine tasks, so I’d thought that because most of the yaojing at the reunion still seemed to like her, they had also accepted her love for her human husband and humans in general.
I was very, very wrong about that.
Suddenly, half the audience was screaming at Julia.
“Like mother, like son,” someone shouted angrily.
“Bad blood runs in the family!”
“We only accepted you back into the yaojing world because it was the Elite’s command. But apparently that’s made your whole family think you can receive special treatment.”
Eden grabbed the microphone. “Enough!” she yelled into it. The speakers squeaked, unable to tolerate the sudden, shrill volume. Everybody covered their ears until the high-pitched squeak disappeared.
She had the face of a wrathful goddess, intent on administering order upon the chaos her subjects had caused. It made me want to run away before she struck me down dead. Not even one yaojing in the restaurant dared to speak now, intimidated by their leader. I knew for sure now that Eden must be like the queen of the leaders.
“It was the leaders’ decision to restore Julia’s place in the yaojing world because we thought it was best,” Eden said. “And any one of you who is not pleased with that decision goes against your leaders. Do you understand?”
A chorus of agreements echoed throughout the room.
“As for this human girl and Julia’s son, it is a different matter,” she continued. “She obviously knows too much, which could be dangerous for the yaojing world. However, the leaders must discuss her fate before anything is decided. Give the Elite fifteen minutes to make a decision, but before then, do not harm the girl. Understood?”
Again, disgruntled yes’s were heard.
Eden stepped down from the stage to confront Julia. “You, come with me.”
Julia cast one more backwards glance in my direction, and then reluctantly followed Eden.
I was left on the stage, facing a thousand pairs of gawking eyes.
Then from the corner of my eye, I saw Scyther, who still hadn’t left the stage, striding in my direction. I winced, thinking he was about to break his mother’s orders by killing me before a decision was made.
But instead, he grabbed the microphone.
“Here’s something that the leaders don’t want you to know,” he started blabbing. “They told us that Julia completely turned away from her love for humans and cast herself away from her human husband. But the truth is that the Elite subjected Julia to nine tasks to win nine tails, and when she succeeds, she’ll be allowed to return to her human husband and son. I think we, the average yaojing, have a right to complain about our leaders’ judgment if we disagree, and…”
The microphone was ripped out of his hands. A furious Eden slapped her son across the face. “Just because you are my son does not give you the power to disrespect your leaders.”
But Scyther had done enough to get the crowd stirred once again. The secret of Julia’s task was out, and the yaojing wanted more answers. There was no choice but for Eden to explain the situation.
“I assure you that Julia’s situation will not endanger any of us,” Eden said. “The leaders—”
“She’s a traitor!” someone interrupted. “She shouldn’t be allowed to live! Why give her that choice?”
I blinked quickly, as the air suddenly grew thick and dark. Then in an instant, I found myself standing next to a group of six newcomers, all with the same kind of awe-inspiring stage presence Eden had. A quick glance at the empty front seats on the balcony told me that these were the other leaders.
Three men and three women, plus Eden, made seven leaders in all. Khit had told me before that each leader within the Elite was one of the seven different animals that made up the yaojing: fox, snake, cat, pig, wolf, rat, and falcon. I thought I could distinguish which was which, as all of them exhibited characteristics of their individual animals. The fox, cat, and pig were females, and the wolf, rat, and falcon were males.
They all turned to Eden, whispering to each other. All seven of them nodded once in accordance and then the wolf addressed the audience.
“Let me ask you one question: would you ever try to help a human?”
A unanimous “no” resounded through the room.
I even heard some yaojing shout, “I’d prefer death!”
“Well then,” the wolf continued. “The tasks we assigned Julia were far from ordinary. They involved helping humans.
“From our view point, we believed this was the worst punishment for a yaojing, but Julia completed eight of the tasks with an opposite view of the situation. She actually liked helping the humans, and she believed it was an honor rather than a disgrace.”
“Outrageous!” some of the yaojing murmured. They looked horrified.
The wolf nodded, in full agreement with them. “We believed Julia would tire of humans, but in the 26 years since we assigned her first task, she has never once backed down. So we, the leaders, must keep to our promise to let her live among the humans if she completes her last task. However, in my personal opinion, a yaojing who would denigrate herself that much deserves to live with those weak, pathetic mortals. Do you not agree?”
This time, the yaojing responded in the affirmative. It seemed the wolf had won over the public opinion.
But Scyther, still standing next to his mother, would not let the issue die. “What if she exposes our world to the humans?”
This stirred up some dissent once again.
The wolf, however, was not deterred. “I assure you that Julia will not expose us, not if she wants to keep her loved ones out of harm. We have a hold on her—her human husband, and now, this girl.”
Great. That brought all attention back on me.
“You mean, we’re going to let her live?” Scyther asked, sounding disappointed.
“For now, yes,” Eden said, taking over leadership once again. “We still have use for her. You all remember that Julia has one last task. The leaders have struggled for weeks, trying to decide on the perfect task, something more difficult than the other eight. And we have finally decided on one.”
She looked down to the yaojing sitting at the closest table to the stage. “Isis, Sidian, go tell Julia’s son to come here. Scyther says that he’s near.”
“No!” This cry came from both Julia and me, but Isis and Sidian had already de-materialized into the air.
Eden glanced sharply at the two of us. “What’s the problem?”
Julia responded shakily. “Leader, you told me at the beginning of my nine tasks that if I ever came into contact with either my husband or my son, it would break our deal, and I could never return to them.”
“I’m allowed to change my mind,” Eden responded impatiently. “In fact, from now on, you are allowed contact with your son until you complete your ninth task, but you still cannot contact your husband.”
She turned once again to her son. “Are you completely sure this girl is the mate of the halfling?”
“I saw it myself,” Scyther said. “The girl spent the night at Khit’s apartment, and she was only dressed in—”
Before I had the chance to disintegrate into an embarrassed heap of dust at Scyther’s mention of my scantily dressed body, a splintering crash jerked my head toward the front entrance of the restaurant.
My heart leapt as my eyes focused on the beautiful, furious face of a war god.
Khit strode into the restaurant holding the two beaten-up bodies of Isis and Sidian, one in each hand. His eyes jumped to me immediately.
“Caren, you idiot!” he roared. “Do you know how torn I was this past half hour?”
I winced. He must have figured out immediately that I had come to the restaurant to try to warn his mother, and he’d probably been waiting outside that door the whole time, debating on what to do—either save me and risk seeing his mother, or just wait helplessly outside not knowing what was happening. Horrible decision to make, and I didn’t blame him for being angry.
But in my defense, I hadn’t intended to stay this long. It wasn’t as if I had wanted to get caught.
Khit tossed Isis and Sidian to the ground. They scrambled to their feet, positioning themselves for battle once again.
“That’s enough,” Eden said. “He’s already here, so you two can sit back down. Your services are no longer required.”
As we watched Isis and Sidian scamper cautiously away from Khit, I saw that Julia’s gaze was locked upon her son. Tears were helplessly trickling down her cheeks. Khit had seen his mother too, and his expression had turned slightly vulnerable, like a lost puppy who had just found his owner.
But there was no time for any emotional mother-son reunion. Eden, oblivious to anyone’s feelings, had already continued her speech, eager to give Julia new orders.
“Well, young halfling,” she said, her tone disapproving. “You have a stubborn streak in you. Next time, you’ll come quietly at my command instead of breaking down the door.” Then her voice changed, conveying pure delight. “But I am impressed with your strength. You, a mere half-blood, took down two of my best body guards.”
Khit only nodded in reply and politely said, “Thank you, my lady.”
His teeth were gritted, as though saying those four words had been harder than beating up those two yaojing, and I knew if he hadn’t been so concerned for my safety, he wouldn’t have said them.
Eden sighed regretfully. “I would offer you again to become my personal body guard, but since I already know you will decline, let’s move on to the reason I’ve asked you to come, shall we?”
She nodded in the wolf’s direction. “Lang, you tell them about the task.”
Lang, the wolf, stepped forward, and all attention turned to him. “The task is simply this: Julia will have the freedom to be reunited with her son for one year. On this day, next year, she will bring both her son and the human girl to the Yaojing Headquarters, where she will then fulfill her ninth and final task.”
His gaze focused on Julia. “You must make sure to bring both your son and the human girl and not try to trick us. The final task involves both of them.”
“But what is the task?” Julia asked.
“That,” Lang smirked, “will be the leaders’ secret until the day you come to Headquarters. Just enjoy this year, and spend time with your son. It’s the leaders’ gift to you.”
I was in shock, and judging by the gaping jaws of Julia, Khit, and the entire yaojing audience, so was everyone else. We had all been expecting the task to be something like leaping through fires and poisoned darts to save a human.
Eden and the rest of the leaders exchanged amused glances. “Don’t be so surprised, dear Julia,” Eden tittered lightly. “You deserve a little vacation after 26 years of hard labor.”
“Oh,” she added. “Just to make life a little more interesting for you, make sure your son and the human girl get married before you come to Headquarters.”
“What?” Khit, Julia, and I exclaimed in unison.
“I’m just moving along the inevitable,” Eden said. “After all, the two young ones are in love, aren’t they? They should be pleased that the Elite has given them permission to marry.”
She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Or would you rather I command the human girl to be put to death? She does know too much about the yaojing. Yes, that might be a better decision.”
She was bluffing, since I knew she needed me to be involved in the final task, but Khit wasn’t taking any chances.
“No!” he burst out. “I’ll see to it that we are married before the day of the final task.” As an afterthought, he spat out, “Lady Eden.”
He was definitely being polite only for my sake. The look of hatred in his eyes could not be veiled.
But Eden didn’t care, as long as her words were being obeyed. “That takes care of business then.” Her chirpiness reassured me that this debacle was coming to an end…at least for today. “Let’s finish the reunion back at my house and leave Julia and her son in peace. After all, they have a lifetime of things to say to each other.”
Nobody in the audience moved, probably too stunned to have heard her clearly.
Eden glared at them. “Now. Get going.”
One by one, they disappeared into the air, until only the leaders were left.
“Remember Julia,” Eden said one last time. “Next year. Don’t be late.”
She snapped her fingers, and the seven leaders were gone.