"Beware of the blade in velvet," Mother read the letter. She frowned, her painted eyebrows arching.
It was a cold blustery early winter's day. The letter had turned up, mysteriously; placed on the main rosewood table, the envelope looked nondescript. Even the handwriting was tight, not giving away the gender of the person who wrote it.
Xiao Xin looked at Mother with her huge eyes. Xiao Xiao stared at the letter as if it were a snake caught in the courtyard.
"I hate the politics in the palace," Mother sighed, placing the letter back onto the table. "Every lady hates each other. Friends are hard to find."
"But you have the Empress of the East as an ally," Xiao Xiao said carefully. And you are the first wang fei, beloved of the emperor, she added silently.
"Yes," Mother nodded. "My only friend in this whole unpleasant situation."
The maids showed up in time to place their soups on the table. Xiao Xiao's mouth salivated at the smell of the hot tonic.
It was the first mouthful that told Xiao Xiao something was wrong with the soup. When it coursed down the throat, Xiao Xiao heard Ming Zhu yelling in her mind: "NO!"
She flung the porcelain spoon away. Mother stood up, offended at the behavior. "Don't be rude," she said sternly, before realizing something was not right. "Xiao Xiao, my daughter!"
Sharp cramps pierced Xiao Xiao's middle. Ming Zhu roared. In Xiao Xiao's mind, the silver dragon princess reared up, claws flashing.
The rest of the days were spent in a delirious blur. Faces swam in and out. Voices were loud, and then muffled as if they were wrapped in thick blankets. Her father's voice. Mother's voice. Some of the words sounded angry. Xiao Xiao's stomach burned and her entire body shook as the toxins coursed through her body.
By the end of the week, the antidote managed to remove most of the toxins, leaving her weak in bed. Xiao Xin howled to see her sister so sick and refused to part with her, even with the nannies coaxing her with maltose candy and toys.
In Xiao Xiao's mind, Ming Zhu embraced her and lent her energy to bolster her strength. She too used her powers to seek out the toxins. Xiao Xiao's dreams were filled with the silver dragon princess filling her with light and chasing the toxins out. The toxins floated in the dreams in the form of glistening black pearls, which Ming Zhu converted back to balls of golden energy. She gently eased them through Xiao Xiao's body, chasing out the rest of the poison.
Her fever broke. Xiao Xiao slept, floating in a dream of a kelp forest of gold and green.