Yu Yin notices Ching's magic as soon as she touches me, but she doesn't dispel it like she did before. Her gaze casts over my form like a ghost brushing by, before her eyes slide to her left. Fei Yi's eyes stare straight at her back, and the smile from earlier is frozen on his face.
"This servant apologizes and won't be able to aid you, Guest Chao," she tells me. Her confession unnerves me; she and the old woman have been helping me bear my weight on my legs long enough since I've arrived to this place. Still, she doesn't elaborate. Instead, Yu Yin turns her face down, and busies herself with straightening the waist of my tunic before she withdraws.
It's clear that it's meant to tell me that Fei Yi's my only choice.
As I look back at him, Fei Yi's only reaction is to smile wider. Even with four feet and legs, he seems to almost slither across the floor as effortlessly as a snake with none. His cold four arms wrap around my waist--two on either side-- like an actual snake winding itself around its prey to squeeze to death. Automatically, my hand falls to the lump under my robes where Ching is--hiding along my collarbone, shivering.
My elbow automatically braces out as Fei Yi brings us outside to where the Beast has been waiting.
He stands alone. Surrounded by not gold and the open splendor, or the intimidating human figures of transformed spirit servants, the air around him feels less regal and distant. It's still night too, and the fog rolling around is malicious and everpresent. He glances at me in Fei Yi's embrace, eyes practically glowing in this darkness, and from his nose erupts two tendrils of smoke.
I tense automatically, mindful of his fury and the lashing of his anger.
"Ching," the Beast commands, to my surprise. His voice is low and almost beckoning, the very opposite picture of his posture.
"Yes, Master?" Ching answers with a small wriggle. It's using a little more effort than necessary to move around until I realize that my hand's still covering it. When I lift my palm, Ching pokes its head out almost uncertainly from my collar.
"Let me see you."
Before I can stop it, Ching has fully wriggled and popped out of my collar. It hops onto the cobblestone path, each leap taking it closer to the Beast. Fei Yi holds me tight--not enough to hurt me--but enough to keep me from moving forward and being jerked back when I move instinctively.
The Beast is huge and looming. Ching, on the other hand, could almost be missed if you weren't careful. Just one thrash of his tail and Ching would be badly hurt, perhaps even killed.
"I am once again," the Beast says to Ching, "indebted to your magic."
"For what?" Ching blinks up at him, and I'm blinking too. Ching follows the Beast's gaze to me, where Fei Yi holds me up--at once, I snap my eyes down, uneasy to my feet. "Oh! His legs! Well, it's okay, Master! This servant is really good with fixing the insides! It's a pleasure to serve the Master of the realm!"
Ching's embarrassed but pleased response is met with an unexpected action. The Beast's forelegs bend. His great long neck lowers as he bows his head down, eyes set down on the ground.
The mighty Beast has bowed to a frog.
"Oh...!" Ching says, and then, hops closer until it's right in front of the Beast. A twitch from the Beast's head, and Ching would be flung away. "Oh, Master! Please don't bow to someone like me! This servant is only meant to serve!" So saying, a small webbed hand touches the Beast's snout hesitantly and then draws back.
Ching repeats a bow from its end. All of its eyes closes shut as it does so.
The Beast's bow only takes a few moments before he straightens, similarly telling Ching to stand up straight. "You are dismissed."
Ching bows again, and casting a quick multi-eyed glance to me, hops off onto the path. I watch him go with dread lingering in my heart.
"You, snake spirit," the Beast says. My head whips back around to where he's now baring his teeth in some rough parody of a smile. His pupils have turned into slits and from his mouth puffs the heat of fire, making my body tense. "You are dismissed."
Fei Yi's arms don't move at first; they linger around my body in their strength, before they loosen in the subtlest form of rebellion. It doesn't seem like Fei Yi is happy about the instructions at all; glancing over my shoulder, I watch his eyes narrow, even as he turns the most brilliant false smile to the Master of this realm.
"This servant takes his leave." Fei Yi takes a low bow, hands slipping together in front of him in a salute. And, eyes sliding to me, he retreats still facing us, before he parts into the fog of the night.
I've been left alone with the Beast many a time with the dining hall, but it was always in a controlled location. I stare at him, solemn, but my palm sweaty. My hackles raised. Nervous.
"I am glad to see you well." Before me, the Beast lowers his long neck, sliding his yellow eyes closed. "Permit me to give you a ride, Guest Chao. There is a place I must take you."