“Hello! You must be Azhdaha!”
On their next meeting three days later, Morax brought a lady who was more beautiful than any of the servants. Her voice was older than her look, but it was very soothing and had enough accentuation to attract Azhdaha’s full attention. The color of her hair that went down her thin waist resembled the dust surrounding the hill. Her smile was something that no one had ever shown him before; it was wide, gentle, and overwhelming for making him feel like the most important figure around when he clearly wasn’t.
“I’m Guizhong. Nice to meet you,” the lady introduced herself, and Azhdaha immediately stood up to signify his regard. He hadn’t forgotten what was told to him a few days before. Even if Guizhong wasn’t the person who had gone out to rescue him, she was still someone who held the same authority as Morax. Disrespecting her should be the same as doing it to Morax.
“Nice to meet you,” Azhdaha replied. Since Morax had said that everyone was busy, Azhdaha didn’t expect Guizhong to visit him very soon. He thought it would take her at least one more week.
“I heard that you want to learn how to read and write,” Guizhong said. “It’s difficult to do both if you’re a big dragon because how can you hold a book and quill? So, without wasting more time, will you let us help you change to your human form?”
“All right! Let’s begin!” Before Azhdaha could respond or even process the proposition, Guizhong beckoned to the servants. Only then did he realize that many of them carried a wooden board of several clothes each. Morax, who stood among them, also walked toward Guizhong.
Azhdaha was confused and slightly terrified when Guizhong ordered the servants to surround him with black fabrics. The humans’ hands could only reach his chest, so what was the purpose of covering the lower part of his body? Could it be a necessity to the ritual of awakening his human form? If Morax could give him sight without touching, then why would this need to happen? Nevertheless, he didn’t dare to question the divinities’ decisions because they should always know better than him.
“Close your eyes,” Morax ordered, and Azhdaha trusted him, like always. Right afterward, his entire body became ticklish. It was hard to describe the sensation because he hadn’t experienced much in this life, but his body trembled, and he could feel himself shrinking as the ground began to hurt his skin. He was aware that he was changing.
“Wow, you’re very handsome!” Guizhong excitedly said. “Azhdaha, you may open your eyes now.”
So Azhdaha did. The first difference he noticed was Guizhong looking down at him instead of the other way around. Her pretty smile never left her face as she hugged the clothes that the servants previously held. Morax was gone, and he could no longer see the people who hid behind the black wall. He raised his hands, almost wanting to scream when finding two arms that were way bigger than Guizhong’s. He got ashamed when he saw his bare folded legs, realizing that he didn’t wear a thing and Guizhong could see everything.
“It’s fine, Azhdaha. Don’t be embarrassed,” Guizhong kindly shushed him, holding one of his arms in an attempt to calm him down. “Trust me, all right?”
He was petrified and could only nod. The next thing he knew, Guizhong handed him the clothes that were apparently meant for him from the beginning. After following yet another instinct to wear the attire, he felt a little lightheaded when Guizhong tied his robe, combed his long hair with her skinny fingers, and even kneeled to assist him with his flat shoes. Being born from nothing, he had never had a parental figure, so he wasn’t sure if it was acceptable for him to be this elated.
“I think you’ll look better with shorter hair. I’ll ask someone to cut it when we’re in the town. You might need some time to get used to standing on your two feet. Can you try to walk?” she continued after bringing her hands down to grip his wrists. It was his first time being held by anyone, but he didn’t hate it at all. The closeness also made him realize two more things about her; the fresh apple scent and how her skin was the fairest among everyone he had met so far.
“I suppose I’m fine,” he said after stepping forward a few times, closing the distance between them. “Are you bringing me back to Guili Plains?”
“We should have brought you there earlier, but we hadn’t had the right accommodation for you. He’ll be embarrassed if you say this to him, but…” She lowered her voice. “…Morax actually spent days preparing a house for you. It’s on the outskirts with a massive front yard, so you can switch to your dragon form anytime you like without scaring anyone.”
Azhdaha didn’t know the trick to change back to his original body, but undoubtedly, Morax would teach him later. What was more noteworthy was Guizhong’s testimony about Morax’s effort. Wasn’t it quite funny? Morax could have told him his plan back in the mountains instead of making a lonely dragon wait indeterminately. If Guizhong’s kindness was visible because of how vocal and affectionate she was, then Morax must be impossible to read by even his closest aides because of his reticence.
“Is Morax a shy person?” Azhdaha asked.
“Hmm… I don’t think he’s shy. It’s more like he isn’t good at expressing himself, and he doesn’t really mind if people misunderstand him,” Guizhong explained.
“I see.” Azhdaha didn’t know what else to say.
When there was nothing more to discuss between them, Guizhong told everyone to put the shield down and ran back to Morax, who had been waiting on the edge of the cliff like the first day when Azhdaha had just arrived on this place. The two rulers chatted for a while, displaying Guizhong’s delightfulness that contrasted with Morax’s placidness. Once Azhdaha revealed himself among the servants, Guizhong pointed toward him and used her other hand to repeatedly tug at Morax’s arm as if saying, “Look at him”.
“He looks terrific, doesn’t he?” Guizhong gushed before grinning toward Azhdaha. “We’ll pass by a pooled water, so you can see it yourself.”
Morax was silent, but his gaze lingered longer than usual and somehow gave a sense that he was judging Azhdaha’s new appearance. Still without uttering a word, he turned around and walked down the hills with half of the servants. If Azhdaha hadn’t been enlightened about Morax’s difficulty to put his emotions into words, he would have thought that Guizhong was lying about his good looks. For now, Azhdaha could only believe that Morax saw him the same way—if not better—than the goddess.
At the foot of the mountain, there was a shallow lake with a long wooden bridge they must cross. Following Guizhong’s advice, Azhdaha went to check himself on the water. He hadn’t encountered enough humans to determine what was ugly and not, but he did look nice. His face was slightly wider than Morax. Both of their jaws were sharp, but Morax’s was rounder, and his was squarer. His eyebrows and lips were thicker. It might not be right to compare what he had to Morax, but he didn’t have a better example of how beauty should look.
Guizhong was standing by Azhdaha’s side on their way to Guili Plains as Morax was a few steps ahead of them. Of course, Azhdaha hoped Morax would be the one closest to him. They hadn’t been with each other for days. He wanted to hear more stories about what was happening out there, but he thought it was okay as long as Morax didn’t disappear from his sight. Guizhong wasn’t a bad narrator with her enjoyment of describing the things that Azhdaha would soon find in Guili Plains.
Buildings with bamboo lanterns hanging on their roofs, rivers that flew across paddy fields, children who hugged their gods’ without feeling afraid—Guizhong’s details about the city quickly came true once they walked through the unguarded gate. By only seeing, Azhdaha could tell that Morax seemed a little uncomfortable when those kids touched him, but his silence must be the reason they didn’t stop doing it. Guizhong, on the other hand, gently patted their heads and told them to be careful before they ran elsewhere.
Azhdaha’s house was surrounded by walls and situated in the forest on the northern side of the city, a place that Guizhong claimed to be secluded from human interaction. He didn’t know how a house should be, but Guizhong listed all the rooms for him; the bedroom and bathroom that he might rarely use if he preferred to stay outside as a dragon, the kitchen where the servants could teach him to make fruit salad, and the living room where he could welcome his guests.
“Haha. The yard is twice the size of the house itself. It’s impressive that you managed to finish this in under a week,” Guizhong pointed out when they gathered outside, enjoying the pleasant spring breeze that moved the tree leaves covering almost a quarter of the grassy area.
“I need to go now. I have work to do.” Instead of responding to Guizhong, Morax stared at Azhdaha. “You don’t need to guard the mountains today. Pick one or two servants to show you around the city. I’ll see you again tonight, so make sure that you’re at home.”
“Morax, hold on,” Azhdaha said when Morax was about to walk away. “I’m incredibly indebted to you. Thank you. Really.”
“This is nothing—”
“No, Morax. I only asked you to let me out. I would be fine sleeping in the mountains and feed myself with the stuff that I could find outside, but you gave me all of these. How could you say that this is nothing?”
“This is nothing because you’re one of us now,” was the only thing that Morax said before he left the house with Guizhong. Azhdaha would spend the next hour mulling over what Morax actually meant, but he couldn’t play around when people were waiting for him. He picked two female servants who had peeled the most fruits for him just because the three of them had spent the most time together.
Being introduced to vendors and laborers marked Azhdaha’s first time not having Morax in his mind. He didn’t wonder what Morax might be doing when the blacksmiths got ecstatic after hearing that he was the Dragon King from the mountains. They asked him to assess their cor lapis chunks, and he somehow could tell which pieces were loaded with the expensive crystals only by touching and looking. If people kept appreciating his skills, he couldn’t imagine what life would be without his sight.
Just as said, Morax visited his house that night, and he talked a little too much about his long day; from the antique shops he entered, the sweet desserts he tried, and even his experience counting copper coins that were used to exchange goods. The servants said that Morax had given them a heavy pouch that was enough to buy the entire street market, which was another thing that Azhdaha couldn’t stop thanking Morax for. Even though he wanted Morax to be by his side, he wasn’t too worried when he knew that Morax cared about him.
“You only smile when there are just the two of us. Why is that?” Azhdaha asked, noting how Morax couldn’t stop beaming with joy after he finished each story. Once in a while, Morax even laughed at things that he thought weren’t funny at all.
“Is that so? I don’t even notice it.” Morax put down the cup of tea that one of the servants had made for him on the wooden table between them. “I must be having fun around you.”
Azhdaha was stunned by Morax’s reason, and the strangeness that he felt days before came again. His chest tightened, and he wasn’t sure if he liked it or not. He wanted to place his hand there, just to make sure it wasn’t his bone that was throbbing. Both Guizhong and Morax taught him more about communication and relation, but the latter was the one he wanted to spend more time with. They were equally wise and benevolent, yet Azhdaha knew that he adored Morax more.
“If you had saved some other mountain dragon instead of me, would you have treated them the same way?” Azhdaha asked. His frankness might not sit well with Morax or anyone, but he was relieved when the first thing he got was another smile.
“What’s the purpose of asking that? Fate brought us together. Why are you worrying about something that doesn’t exist?” Morax didn’t sound upset at all. He always had the correct answer, so it could be why Azhdaha liked him the most.
The night ended well with Morax’s promise to see Azhdaha again. The next day, the servants said that a renowned teacher would tutor Azhdaha soon. In the evening, an old guy with long white hair knocked on his door and began the study right away. What shocked him was the fact that he needed to learn two languages at the same time. One was what the people in Guili Plains used and he understood. Then, there was Teyvatian, the universal language that he had to master if he wanted to speak with foreigners and survive in this world.
In a week, Azhdaha could memorize twenty-six Teyvatian letters. In a month, he could do the same to twenty local characters that were slightly harder to comprehend. Every time Morax came over, he would ask Azhdaha to sit beside him as he held a book and went over Azhdaha’s lesson for at least thirty minutes before they spoke about the things that occurred when they were apart. In two months, Azhdaha could perfectly write and read simple phrases in both languages—things such as greetings, praises, and apologies.
“It only took you less than six months to be familiar with more than a hundred characters. You’re a genius. Is it because you’re the Dragon King?” Morax asked after Azhdaha proved that he wasn’t kidding around with his wishes. It was another night of them being alone in Azhdaha’s living room and the collection of poems that Morax had more romantic contents than usual.
Azhdaha glanced down to Morax’s fingers that were resting on the pages. “I just want to relate more to you and everyone else, but especially you.”
“That’s very nice of you to say. I, too, am grateful to have you as a friend. I wouldn’t change a thing about how we met,” Morax stated. It was his first time ever calling Azhdaha his “friend” instead of his “ally”, so Azhdaha’s face heated up. His hair had been cut shoulder-length, and he didn’t wear any thick clothing. Could it be summer’s fault?
After Morax left, Azhdaha read the rest of the book while sitting on his bed. My oath to you is eternal. My devotion is unconditional. He stroked the words of one poem that wrung his heart more than the others. Give me your hand to hold. Love me until I’m old. He stopped when he reached one of his early learned characters. Love. He had heard many conceptions about it from the youngsters in the city, but he never thought that he would wonder if it was also what he felt toward Morax.
“Heaven and earth shall not separate us,” he whispered the last line of the poem on the next page before closing the book and keeping it on the nightstand. Love, he thought. If he does love Morax, will Morax love him back? Is it okay to dream of having the people’s king for himself?
Protecting the mountains for Morax, learning more about arts and literature to impress Morax, looking forward to the new dawn because Morax would be there for him—he let his feelings grew quietly yet wildly. In a year, he attempted to compose a poem that Morax might remember for the rest of their lives. Would it be too much to compare those amber eyes to the sun? Unfortunately, all the papers were crumpled and thrown away because he couldn’t find the right phrases to describe how meaningful Morax was to him.