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Steam from the teapot filled the air with the clean scent of mint, reminding Chon Po of the times when Shen-zin Su swam into higher latitudes and the days grew short and cold. To fight the chill, Xiu Li used to boil water for tea, the two pandaren cradling the ceramic cups in their paws and trading anecdotes as they wrapped themselves in cloaks for warmth. Now it was not Xiu Li who poured the tea, but her mother, Mei.
"You've been so tired, Po," she commented.
Chon Po picked up his teacup, then put it down again. Mei sat at the table in the same place Li Li had the evening he had lost his temper at both her and Chen. The following night, Li Li had snuck off with the pearl. He'd received only vague letters from her since. He missed his daughter terribly.
"I'm worried about Li Li," he said. "And Chen."
Mei sipped her tea. The graying fur around the sides of her face matched the silver hair she had combed back and plaited into a braid. When she looked at Chon Po, his stomach clenched for just a moment. Her eyes were Xiu Li's. They were also Li Li's.
"To be worried for your family is natural," Mei said.
"What did I do wrong?" Chon Po blurted out. Mei raised her eyebrows at him, then drank more of her tea.
"You'll have to elaborate," she said.
"I've failed. My family is splintered, and only my son remains with me. My daughter despises me." Anger and frustration bubbled below the surface of his voice. Mei shook her head.
"Li Li doesn't despise you, Po," she said. "You are not asking the right question."
"What question should I be asking, then?"
"You should be asking yourself whether you believe the death of the body is a greater tragedy than the death of the spirit."
Chon Po blinked. "What?"
Mei set down her teacup and folded her paws.
"When Xiu Li died, you lost a wife. I lost a daughter. I know what you fear, because I have experienced it."
Chon Po's heart leaped into his throat. Mei continued.
"My daughter loved the fishing boats. She loved the sea; she loved the way the work oscillated between leisure, careful patience, and excitement. And, yes, she loved the risk, too."
Mei's eyes drifted from Chon Po's. They seemed to look beyond him, some memory playing out in her mind.
"I used to watch the way her face lit up when she tended to her boat. Each day as she guided it from the shore, out into open sea, it made her spirit sing."
Mei's gaze refocused.
"Would you have taken that from her, just to keep her longer?"
Chon Po stared at his teacup and saucer.
"Strongbo followed Li Li at my behest and was killed for it…"
"Did either Li Li or Chen tell you what Bo said before he died, Po?"
He looked up at Mei again, caught off guard, suddenly nervous.
"No," he answered.
"The last sentiment Bo expressed was gratitude at having shared Li Li's travels with her. He said that he had been enlightened. That if he had to do it all over, he would have done the exact same thing. He had no regrets."
Chon Po struggled with this idea for a moment.
"Is that true?"
"Both Li Li and Chen told me this. I do not believe they were lying. They were heartbroken over Bo."
Mei reached over and put one gnarled paw on Chon Po's.
"Po, you cannot bend Li Li to your will. You know this. She's defied you twice already. Li Li is what she is—a fighter, every bit as much as you. The wanderlust is part of who we are, and our home on Shen-zin Su is a testament to that. But she'll never stop being your daughter. Even if she never comes home, Li Li isn't lost to you."
"I just want her to be safe," Chon Po said, closing his eyes.
"She will find her own safety," Mei answered. "And her own happiness."