Authors: Axie Oh
Namgi and I leave on
foot through the main gate, where the night before I'd seen party guests arriving.
e guards on duty nod at him as we pass, only sparing me a cursory glance. I can tell Shin's location by the Red String of Fate. Right now it stretches behind me, indicating Shin is somewhere to the south. If I can stay north of him, he won't discover that I've left the grounds of Lotus House, at least for a little while.
ough it's early in the morning, the city is already bustling with activity, spirits purchasing fresh produce and flowers from makeshift markets set up on either side of the street. Even the canal is crowded with vendors on boats, their cargo on display as they shout out to the people on the shore. I watch as a young woman throws a tin coin into the hull of a boat with one hand, only to catch a wrapped fish with the other, pitched to her by the vendor.
“What would you like to do first?” Namgi asks, walking with his hands on the back of his head. “Shopping? Sightseeing?
ere's a wonderful teahouse in the market district that serves a variety of wine-spirits.”
“Take me to the Sea God's palace.”
I can see its winged rooftop in the distance, beneath the shadow of a great white cloud.
e gate to the palace won't be open, you know. Not until a year from now, with the arrival of the next Sea God's bride.”
present an obstacle, but I can't lose this opportunity. “I'll deal with that problem when I get there.”
Namgi shrugs, gesturing for me to follow him. We set off down the street. As we walk, I study Namgi out of the corner of my eye. Like yesterday, he wears form-fitting black robes and a dagger at his waist, his hair swept back with a jade clip. People call out to him as we pass, most friendly-like, though I notice some spirits shy away at his approach. It reminds me of the party the night before, when the guests scattered in fear as the snake-men entered the pavilion.
“Like what you see?” Namgi says, having caught me staring at him.
“Last night, in the main courtyardâ¦” I watch as the teasing smile slips off his face. “
at man you spoke to was your brother?” Even without Ryugi
him brother, the striking resemblance was too much to ignore. Both menâall of them, actuallyâwere tall and wiry and shared the same sharp features.
“Two of them were my brothers,” Namgi says after a beat of silence. “Hongi, the one in back, is more like an inbred cousin.”
I shiver, remembering the events that preceded their arrival, the awful sound of long, sinuous bodies winging through the air. “Are you not a spirit, then?”
“Not a spirit, thank the gods,” he says. “Not that I don't
appreciate spirits.” He flashes a grin at a group of youths approaching us on the city street.
e following eruption of giggles is admittedly impressive.
“I am not a spirit, nor am I a demon or a god.” He pauses dramatically. “I am an Imugi. A beast of myth.”
I look skeptically at his curly head and mischievous grin.
He laughs. “
is is just my human form.
is form takes a lot less energy to move, believe me. In my soul form, I am a powerful water snake. Like a dragon, but without its magic.
e Imugi are a warring breed. We're born in war, and we die in war. We worship no gods, believing that we ourselves can become gods, either through living one thousand years or by fighting in one thousand battles. Only then can we be elevated from snakes to dragons.
“Of course”âNamgi grins sheepishlyâ“there is one shortcut to godhood, as there always is with long endeavors.
e pearl of a dragon can transform an Imugi from a snake into a dragon, if he were to wish upon it. I'd heard rumors that hinted that Lord Shin had such a pearl in his possession. Being the hotheaded fool that I was, I tried to steal it. Suffice to say, I failed. It was definitely not in his room. I mean, you've seen it, there'sâ”
“Nothing there,” I finish. Nothing but a cabinet, a paper screen, and a shelf.
“Exactly. It's as if he doesn't have any possessions. You should see
room. It's filled with all manner of things I've collected over the years.”
“Mine as well. My grandmother is always nagging at me to
put away my things. She says, âMina, how are you going to handle a household of your own one day if you can't even keep your room in order?' Of course, whenever I do determine to clean it, it's only to find that she's already folded my clothes and swept the floors. She tells me to be responsible, and yet she can't help but treat me like a child. She will always see me as her youngest grandchild, the only girl in her bloodline after having only sons and grandsons. She says I'm her favorite, even though, as a grandmother, she really shouldn't have any favorites. She says I remind her of
grandmother, whom she misses every day.”
“You are close to your grandmother.”
I bite my lip, suddenly overcome with emotion.
“What of your parents?”
ey passed away when I was a child. My father at sea. My mother in childbirth.”
“So it was your grandmother who raised you.”
“My grandmother and grandfather, before he passed. And my eldest brother and his wife.”
“I haven't seen my mother for years,” Namgi says. “Not since I pledged my life to serving Shin. Most Imugi find a master to serve, to fulfill their one thousand battles, since we're not exactly a patient breed. To this end, most of my kind serve gods of death or goddesses of war. I had planned to serve the Goddess of Moon and Memory, alongside my brothers. But something had always felt wrong to me, to serve a master just to fight in meaningless battles. Stealing the pearl was my form of rebellion. When Shin caught me, he should have killed me, but
instead he offered me a role in his guard. He saved me, and for that, I owe him a life debt. And my mortal life is, more or less, one thousand years.”
I look at him, slightly awed. “So how old
Namgi flashes me his now familiar grin. “Nineteen.”
ough we've been walking steadily, the Sea God's palace remains in the distance, at times appearing even farther away. Namgi leads me down one street, then another, until we reach a road that runs alongside a canal, the main feature a teahouse with low decks that stretch over the water. It's a lovely sight.
I've seen it before. We passed this building on the journey to Fox House last night, which means we've gone too farâwe're now west of the Sea God's palace, when before we were to the east.
Namgi turns slowly to meet my gaze, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “Please don't be upset, Mina. As I said, the doors to the palace are barred. No one has ever gotten inside. It's enchanted. Maybe if you wait, Shin will take you himself. If anyone can breach the palace walls, it'll be him.”
Namgi sighs in relief. “You won't regret your decision.
ere's so much for you to see in the city other than the Sea God's palace.” He ducks beneath an archway into an alley lined with cramped market stalls, spirits scrambling over one another to haggle prices on a variety of itemsâslippers, celadon bottles of ginseng, and ink and scrolls. He stops to ogle a horse pin with silver eyes, saying with a chuckle, “Looks like Kirin.”
I smile pleasantly.
I need to lose him, but how? I'm not fool enough to believe I can escape through the crowd. He'd find me within moments. He knows the area better, and the city's inhabitants are more likely to help him than a stranger. One stall sells umbrellas in silk, paper, and cloth. Another shop consists entirely of a wall of masks.
ere are masks painted like foxes and birds of prey. Some have slits for eyes, others holes for mouths.
ere are white bridal masks with red dots painted on their cheeks, grandfathers with feather eyebrows and grooves for wrinkles, and a grandmother with smiling eyes.
I'm staring at the last, when it winks at me.
Mask holds a finger to her lips, then moves her finger away, pointing. Dai darts through the throng toward us.
“Mina.” Namgi appears beside me. “What are you doing?”
I quickly pick up the nearest maskâdepicting a magpie, ironicallyâand place it over my face. “What do you think?”
rough the eyeholes, I watch Namgi grimace. “It's hideous.”
I glance sideways. Dai's almost upon us. “I want it. Will you buy it for me?”
He sighs. “If you insist.” He pulls from his pocket a long string of coins, turning to the shopkeeper. “How much?”
Dai arrives, sweeping in between us. In the blink of an eye, he grabs Namgi's money rope and the mask from my hand, placing it over his own face.
en he's gone, disappearing into the crowded market.
e little thief!” Namgi runs off in pursuit.
Mask appears beside me. She grabs my hand and hauls me through a gap between stalls.
I stumble to face her, looking around to see she's brought me into a narrow alley.
“You came right on time,” I say, breathless. “I was wondering how I'd lose Namgi.”
She nods, her grandmother mask smiling its rosy-cheeked smile. “I know the way to the Sea God's palace. Let me show you.”
“What about Dai?” I look back to the busy street. “Namgi will be furious when he realizes he's been tricked.”
“Who says he'll be caught?” Mask says. “Put your faith in Dai, Mina. He might not be very bright, but he's fast!”
Mask turns, leading me down the alley. On her back, Miki is fast asleep, her little fists tucked against her cheek. Mask hunches down and places her hands more firmly beneath Miki's bottom, adjusting her hold so that the little girl is secure. She then hurries from street to alley, across bridges and gardens. Pedestrians jump out of her path to make way for a “grandmother” with a baby.
Not for the first time I wonder what she must look like beneath her grandmother mask. Walking with her back to me, I can see the hemp strings of the mask woven through the dark strands of her hair. If someone were to look out of their window down into the alley, they might mistake us for sisters.
Soon we reach the large boulevard that leads to the Sea God's palace. We hurry forward, climbing up the steps.
e gate is open!” I shout. Namgi had said it would be closed, but there's a crack between the great doors, just big enough for a person to slip through.
I'm almost at the door when I realize Mask and Miki are no
longer with me. I look back to see Mask at the top of the stairs. Miki, now awake, peers owlishly from over the older girl's shoulder.
“Go on,” Mask says. “You're almost there.”
I step back from the doorway.
“Mina?” She tilts her head.
I rush toward her and grab her in a fierce embrace. “I don't know why you're helping me,” I say, “but I'm thankful for it.” Miki coos, and I widen my arms, snuggling into her downy hair.
Perhaps I should be wary of someone who hides her face behind a mask, but I feel her kindness and concern for me in every word she speaks, in her gentle hands that reach up to pat my back.
“I have my reasons,” she says, rather mysteriously. “Now go.”
She pushes me through the gate and into the Sea God's palace.
The Sea God's hall is
e throne, where he was sleeping the night before, is vacant. Somehow I'm not surprised, though I wish it were a simple matter of finding the Sea God and forcing him awake to break the curse.
e noon sun has reached its apex in the sky, pounding heat against my neck. I have a sinking premonition that he isn't hereâin this hall, or in the many courtyards.
e Red String of Fate tugs at my hand. I look down, noticing a subtle shift in its direction. Before, it had angled to the left as I moved across the city and Shin remained in place, but now it's a straight line, andÂ â¦ it's rippling.
e color of the ribbon shifts from pale pink to deep red, like a wave cresting toward me.
Shin is coming.
Namgi must have sent a missive, alerting him to my escape. Or he sensed the change in my direction. He'll be here soon, to take me back to Lotus House, where I'll have no hope of discovering the truth about the Sea God.
I search the hall.
ere must be some hint as to where an errant god might have disappeared to. Yet there are no doors in
the walls, and when I reach for the windows, my fingers barely brush the closed shutters.
ere's only the dais and the throne, and behind bothâthe great mural of the dragon chasing a pearl across the sky.
e dragon in the mural is not true to life, perhaps a fourth the size of the real one. And yet the depiction is mesmerizing, each scale painted a different shade of the sea, from deep indigo to jade green to viridian blue. I draw closer to the mural, reach out a hand, and press it to one of those smooth, glittering scales.
e wall gives beneath my hand, revealing a hidden door.
I step through it into a garden.
Birdsong lilts through sun-dappled trees. A stream nearby gurgles merrily. I look for signs of the Sea God, but the garden appears abandoned.
I follow a worn path overgrown with weeds and grass, passing crumbled rock walls and moss-covered statues.
Speckled sunlight winks through the trees. At one point, I glimpse a meadow in the distance, with a broad swath of flattened grass, as if a large creature had recently been taking a sunny nap.
I've walked a fair distance when I come upon a pavilion, built beside a small pond. Its design is similar to the temple of the fox goddess, with a winged rooftop and four pillars at each corner.
e wooden steps creak as I make my way up them; inside, the floorboards are rough with sand and dirt. I place my hand on a pillar, warm from the sun, and look back the way I came.
e Red String of Fate is now pale pink. I wonder if Shin has arrived at the palace, only to find the doors barred.
I close my eyes. It's quiet. Peaceful.
e silence in the Sea God's hall felt empty, but here the silence feels expectant, like a held breath.
Out of the stillness comes the peal of a chime.
I feel the blood drain from my body. I turn toward the sound. Behind the pavilion is a pond filled with small white objects. It takes me a moment to realize what they are.
Paper boats. Hundreds of them, overlapping one another in the water.
I step off the platform and walk to the pond's edge. My toes sink into the warm, silk-smooth mud.
ere's a boat caught in the reeds. I lean down and pick it up.
e paper is rough against my fingertips, the bottom soggy and dripping.
Slowly, I unfold the boat. My fingers brush against the first character scrawled across the surface, written in black ink. Darkness rises up, consuming me.
When I open my eyes, the world is covered in white. At first I think it's snow.
e fine residue coats the leaves on the trees, even the bark of their branches. But it's not cold. And there's smoke in the air, dulling the brightness of the sun.
It was noon when I entered the garden, but now it appears to be dusk. Did I faint beside the pond?
A flake of white drifts downward, and I lift my palm to catch it. From this close, I can see that it isn't white at all, but gray with flecks of black.
Ash everywhere, falling from the sky.
ere's a muffled cough behind me. I turn to see a young woman kneeling by a stream, though this stream doesn't appear like any that I saw in the garden, its waters muddy and brackish.
“Please,” the girl says, “I beg of you. Save my child.” Her trembling hands spread across a bump beneath her rough dress. Tears stream down the girl's face, which, even from this distance, is frighteningly gaunt.
A small fire crackles beside her. I watch as she takes a short stick from the pile, blowing out the flame at its tip. She then pulls a paper scroll from beneath her short jacket, spreading the paper on her lap. With the blackened coal from the fire, she writes shaking words onto its mottled surface. When she's finished, she folds the sides of the paper, creasing each line carefully until it takes the shape of a boat. Raising it to her lips, she kisses the boat gently with parched lips and places it upon the water.
e paper boat gathers a layer of ash as it drifts downstream, disappearing around a bend.
e girl lets out another heartbreaking cough. She stands, her movements shaky and weak.
Quickly, I rush over, reaching out my hands to steady her. “Wait! Let me help you.”
She passes right through me, as if I were made of air. I turn around. As she walks away, her body slowly begins to fade.
It's as if the memory she and I exist in can only hold this one moment as she knelt beside the water's edge. For that's where I must beâinside her memory.
at moment in time when she
poured all her soul and hope into a paper boat. A wish for the gods.
e air grows thick with ashes.
ey fall from the sky, choking me. I can't breathe. I'm drowning in ashes.
ey bury me, weighing me down, until I'm blind and cold and aching.
“Mina!” a voice calls to me from out of the darkness.
In my mind, I see them all. I see my grandmother performing ancestral rites to honor first her son and daughter-in-law, then her husband. I see my sister-in-law, weeping beside the grave of her child. And lastly, I see this girl, a stranger to me, but just as familiar as the rest, for in her grief I recognize my own.
Why must everything we love be taken from us? Why can't we hold what we love forever in our hands, safe and warm and whole?
“Mina!” the voice persists. “It's not real. You need to wake up.”
A pressure on my forehead, a burning warmth, and thenâlight.
I open my eyes, gasping in the fresh, lotus-scented air. I look up, not to clouds of gray and darkness, but to Shin, sweat plastered to his brow as if he'd run a great distance.
“Breathe, Mina. You'll be all right.”
We're in the garden.
e bright colors of the trees and the sky are almost blinding after the white and gray of the memory.
“What is this place?”
e Sea God's garden.
is pond is called the Pond of Paper Boats.”
“All of those boats,” I whisper. “
ey're prayers that were never answered.”
Shin nods slowly.
“Why? Why have they have been abandoned?”
ey're just prayers, Mina.”
I sit up. “
ey're the precious wishes of humans!”
Shin hesitates, then says coldly, “I don't care about the wishes of humans.”
I stare at him, a tight feeling in my chest. His eyes are blank of expression, as if they hold no light at all. I'm the first to turn away.
“You left the house though I forbade it,” he says. “Didn't you hear what the fox goddess said? My life is tied to yours. If you die, so shall I. You may not care for my life, but you should at least have a care for your own.
ere are many things in this realm that could kill a weak human like yourself.”
at might be true, but there are many things in
realm that could kill me, too. Drought. Famine.” My eyes travel to the paper boat, where I dropped it on the grass. “A broken heart.”
ere is nothing you can do.”
Shin is right. Like he said, I'm but a weak human. How could I hope to help that girl? Even if I could find her, I have nothing to give her, nothing to offer but my own tears, and she's had enough of those to last a hundred lifetimes. She'd been at the end of her hope; all she had left was this one last prayerÂ â¦
One last wish to the gods.
I scramble to my feet. “
something I can do.
at we can do. If you'll help me.” Hurriedly, I grab the paper boat off the grass, turning to Shin. “I'll go back with you willingly, and I won't leave the grounds of Lotus House for the whole
month, not without your permission, but first we must grant her wish.”
“Minaâ¦” Shin looks skeptical.
is boat was meant for the gods, yet it never reached them. We just have to deliver the boat to whomever it was intended for.”
Shin nods slowly, seeming to come to a decision. “What sort of wish was it? It should have been written on the paper.” His eyes drop to the boat. It's half-unfolded.
e inked characters are smudged from the water, rendering them illegible. I curse in frustration.
“It doesn't matter,” Shin says, his calm, level voice surprisingly reassuring. “When you picked up the boat, you visited the moment the wish was made. Can you describe what you saw?”
“I saw a young woman.”
Her bare knees in the muddy bank. Tears slipping down her face as she kissed the paper boat.
“She was with child.”
Shin's lips thin, a darkness shadowing his face.
“What is it? What's wrong?”
He shakes his head. “We go to Moon House. To the Goddess of Women and Children.”