Authors: Axie Oh
We leave the palace through
the front gate, which has remained open despite Namgi's claim that it's closed for most of the year. If Shin finds this odd, he doesn't comment on it. I look for Mask and Miki among the market stalls outside the palace but catch no sign of them, though a few spirits glance in our direction, clearly surprised to find two individuals coming out of the palace.
is way, Mina,” Shin says, and I follow him down a side street, away from the crowds. As we walk, I refold the paper boat.
e characters of the wish might be smudged, but that shouldn't prevent the goddess from knowing the true heart of the wish, which often can't be expressed in words.
at's why, though we celebrate the paper boat festival once a year, any human can pray to the gods at any time, whether at a shrine or where they feel closest to the godsâstanding in a field while the wind blows, by the fire as it crackles brightly, on the cliffs by the sea.
is wish should have reached the goddess, regardless of the
paper boat, given as it was from the heart. But perhaps the gods and goddesses of the world aren't able to hear our prayers, the connection between the human world and the spirit world broken because of the Sea God's curse.
Traveling with Shin is a different experience from traveling with Namgi or the spirits. Perhaps because he doesn't want to be stopped or recognized, he takes mostly back alleys, cutting through private courtyards and bustling kitchens and even once climbing the stairs of a teahouse to jump from the balcony onto a lower roof. As he turns back to help me, I quickly jump down, landing a little inelegantly, but on my feet. He lifts one brow, and I shrug.
As we head down a narrow street, a thought occurs to me. “Does Moon House have anything to do with the Goddess of Moon and Memory?”
“No,” Shin says. “One has nothing to do with the other. Moon House is dedicated to women and children, just as Sun House is to men and the emperor.”
“Emperor? But there is no emperor. He was killed years ago.”
“Which is why Sun House remains empty.”
Shin moves on ahead, but I follow at a slower pace now. A hundred years ago, the emperor was murdered, and the storms began. But even a god, no matter his love for the emperor, wouldn't punish an entire people for the crime of one person. In the hall, when I touched the Sea God and looked into his memories, perhaps it was from that moment when the emperor
was killed. What happened on that cliff so long ago that left an emperor murdered, two worlds torn apart, and a kingdom cursed for a hundred years?
ere it is,” Shin says grimly, pointing across the way. “Moon House.”
I've been so caught up in my thoughts, I didn't realize we'd traveled to the outskirts of the city. Ahead of us stretches a long, shallow canal, debris floating across its muddied surface. Crumbled buildings with broken doors and shuttered windows border the dirt pathways on either side of the canal. After the babble and crush of the inner-city streets, the empty silence is unnerving, as is the lack of color.
e Red String of Fate is the only brightness against the dull gray buildings. Desolation hangs thickly in the air.
Even in a city of gods, there are places like this.
At the end of the canalâbeyond a shattered gate, its arch cracked in twoâis a large building, like a crescent moon on its side. At the center of the house is a door ripped from its hinges, leaving only a gaping, black hole.
A shiver runs down my neck. Reaching into the pocket of my dress, I grip the paper boat.
is would be easier if Moon House didn't appear so foreboding. Hundreds of windows look down on me like black, depthless eyes. I can't see beyond the threshold of the door.
e air grows colder as we draw near. A bitter breeze swirls out from the doorway and scrapes against my skin. I take a deep breath, stepping into darkness.
Warmth envelops me, and I blink, surprised. Considering the
size of Moon House, I thought it would be cavernous, drafty, and damp. But the room I've entered is small, with a low ceiling and closed walls. I don't see any doors leading deeper into the building. It's as if the entirety of Moon Houseâwhich, from the outside looked as if it were several stories high, with many floors and hallwaysâconsists of this one small room. Its only inhabitant is a woman.
She sits on a cushion behind a low table at the very back of the room. Beside her is a fire, crackling in its grate. It casts the woman in shadow. All I can see are the whites of her eyes and the curve of her red lips.
A loud clicking sound draws my gaze downward.
e woman has one hand lifted to the table.
e sound comes from her long, curved nails tapping against the surface.
I lower my head in a bow and wait for her to speak, staring at the uneven floors.
ey're scattered with dirt and splinters of wood.
e incessant clicking of her nails continues as they
tap, tap, tap
upon the table.
e paper boat feels heavy in my hands.
Finally the tapping ceases.
I look up.
e goddess's eyes are focused beyond my shoulder, a bitter smile creeping over her wide mouth.
“What do we have here?” she says, her voice oily smooth, as if she eats the hearts of clams day in and out. “Why, if it isn't Lord Shin. What have I done to deserve such an honor?”
e honor is ours,” Shin says evenly. “We've come to ask you for a favor.”
“Weâ¦?” Her eyes slide to me. “And who are
“My name is Mina,” I say, stepping forward. “I have a wish.”
e goddess blinks. “A wish?”
“It's not for me.” I lift up the paper boat. “I've come on behalf of another.”
She holds out one hand, heavy with jeweled rings. I begin to hand over the boat, but she clicks her tongue. “First, I require payment.”
I stare at her smooth white hand, palm up and steady in the air. I'm reminded of the girl's hands as she put the boat in the water.
e way they trembled.
e goddess, impatient, snaps her fingers, and I blink away the image. “I won't grant the wish unless I'm paid.”
My throat feels dry, and I have to swallow saliva to speak. “I have a knife. It belonged to my great-great-grandmother. It's all I have.”
e goddess scowls, and her fingers curl back into the shadows. “Worthless. I won't grant the wish unless I'm paid in gold.” She turns away from me, from the paper boat I still hold outstretched before her.
“I don't understand,” I whisper. “You're a goddess of mothers. Of
. With or without gold, you should want to answer her prayer.”
“Don't be foolish, girl. Nothing in this world is ever freely given.”
Tears spring unbidden to my eyes. “She was by the bank of a stream. She was crying. And all the hope that she had she poured
into a wish to
. She believed in you. What more could you want?”
e goddess doesn't even blink. She stares at me, as if
the one who should be pitied. As if I'm the one who doesn't understand.
Shin throws a string of gold coins onto the table. She snatches the coins up, and they disappear into the sleeve of her dress.
Reaching out, the goddess plucks the paper boat from my feeble grasp. I watch as her hands run along the paper, her nails scratching the charcoal ink.
She starts laughing, a terrible high-pitched sound. “Where did you get this boat, girl? Do you know how old this prayer is? Months old. Years old.
is girl is dead. Her child is dead. Her prayer was never answered.
is is just a memory, one forgotten a long time ago.” Lifting her hand in the air, she flings the paper boat into the fire.
“No!” I scream, lunging forward. My hand rips through the flames. A terrible sound comes from my throat, an agonized cry that has less to do with my burning hand and more to do with my breaking heart.
Shin grabs me from behind, pulling me back. He drags me from the room, the sound of the goddess's laughter ringing loudly in my ears.
Outside on the street he releases me, ripping a piece of cloth from his sleeve and forming a makeshift bandage. “We have to get you back to Lotus House,” he says.
“How could she? How could she not
? She's the goddess ofâof children!”
He reaches for my hand, but I back away. “Mina,” he says carefully, “we need to treat the wound or it will fester.”
with this world? What is wrong with the gods?” I can't stop shouting. Tears stream down my cheeks, and my heart beats wildly in my chest. Shin manages to catch my injured hand. With the torn cloth, he wraps the wound. I feel nothing, a strange numbness having overtaken my body.
ey love them,” I whisper. It sounds like an accusation.
Shin ties the knot, looking up. “
“My people. Everyone. My grandmother. Every day she goes to the shrine to pray, kneeling on the floor for hours, though her joints ache and her back hurts. My sister-in-law. Even when she lost her child, she never blamed the gods, though she walks in silence and cries when she thinks no one is watching.
e people of my village.
e storms may blow away their crops, but still they leave offerings to the gods of harvest. Because the world may be corrupt and broken, but as long as there are gods, there is hope.”
If I'd found pity in Shin's eyes, I might have turned away from him. Indifference would have been even worse. But there's something in his gaze that strikes through the numbness until I feel itâthe pain, the ache.
ere's compassion there. “Minaâ¦”
“I love them.” It sounds like a confession, and I realizeâhaltinglyâthat it is. Whenever I ran through the rice fields, the long-necked cranes billowing their great wings as if in greeting; whenever I climbed the cliffs, the breeze urging me onward; whenever I looked out to sea, the sunlight on the water like laughter, I felt love. I felt loved.
How could the gods abandon those who love them?
I don't realize I've spoken aloud until Shin releases my hand, looking out over the desolate canal. “
ere's nothing you can do.”
He's said these words before. In the garden, he said there was nothing I could do to help the girl. He said a similar sentiment when we first met, that I would fail like all the brides before.
He was right, in the end, but while it gained him nothing to be right, it costs me everything to be wrong.
“You're as much at fault as the rest of them.”
Shin laughs harshly. “You would compare me to a goddess who takes bribes for prayers, who laughs at the pain of others?”
“No. You're worse than her.” His shoulders tense, and I feel a pang of regret, but my pain makes me want to lash out. “You make false promises. You give me hope with one word and despair with the next.”
“I've given you a place in my home to keep you safe, servants to provide for your every need, my people to guard youâ”
“With orders to keep me from leaving.”
“Because there's already been a threat against your life!
ieves have never attempted to steal the soul of the Sea God's bride before. When I went to confront Lord Bom of Tiger House this morning, he'd fled the city. Until I discover who's behind the threats, you have to be patient. Give me time. It hasn't even been a day.”
“One day in the last month of my life.” I know I'm being dramatic, but I feel the rage and pain burning me up inside.
“What do you want from me, Mina?”
“I want nothing from you.” I curl my burned hand, wincing at the pain. “Only the Sea God can help me now.”
Shin narrows his eyes. “What does he have to do with this?”
“Because once the curse is liftedâ”
Shin scoffs, a cruel sound. “You don't get it, do you, Mina?”
“What don't I get?” I point back toward the gaping door of Moon House. “You didn't see her, the girl in the memory. She was suffering. She was crying. All she had left was her hope, and in the end, it wasn't enough. When will it be enough?”
Shin turns abruptly, his eyes a mixture of fury and despair. “It will never be enough! Don't you see, Mina?
ere is no curse upon the Sea God. He
to seclude himself because he couldn't face his own grief. He's the one who abandoned your people. Who abandoned all of us!”
Shin breaks his gaze away, trembling.
ere's a tic in his jaw, and a slight redness at the corners of his eyes.
“You hate the Sea God,” I whisper.
He closes his eyes. Unconsciously, he moves his hand to his chest. “
e Sea God.
e Goddess of Women and Children. All of us are unworthy. All of us deserve to be forgotten.”
Realization hits me. “You're a god.”
His answer is in the way his breathing turns ragged. His fingers, already pressed to his chest, dig into the cloth of his robes.
“Shin, what are you the god of?”
At first I think he won't answer, but then he shakes his head.
“Nothing anymore.” He speaks so softly I have to strain to hear him. “You have to believe in something to be the god of it.”
Night has fallen by the time we arrive back at Lotus House. Shin dismisses the servants who rush out to greet us, instead calling for Kirin. Together we head to the pavilion on the pond. In the upper room, someone has already spread out the blankets on the floor. I sink to my knees on the silk sheets, using my good hand to steady myself. I attempt to curl the fingers of my left hand and grimace at the sharp pain.