Authors: Axie Oh
I look up to find Shin watching me.
“Can Iâ¦?” he asks.
Crouching beside me, he takes my hand and slowly unwraps the bandage. I wince as he peels it away.
e skin beneath is raw and bleeding in patches.
He stares at my hand, a crease forming between his brows. “Why did you put your hand in the fire? You already knew it was too late to answer the wish. It was just paper.”
“I know, butâ¦” I hesitate, trying to explain to him something that even I don't quite understand. “In that moment, doing nothing hurt more than putting my hand in the fire.”
ere's a sharp rap on the door.
Kirin strides in, bowing low. His keen eyes glance at Shin's hand, still holding my own. “You called for me?”
“Mina's been hurt.”
“Ah, I see.”
I frown at the two of them, the unspoken words thick in the air. Why had Shin asked for Kirin and not a physician?
As Shin releases my hand, Kirin reaches inside his robes and pulls out a small silver dagger. With a quick motion, he makes a deep cut across his palm. Blood the color of starlight oozes from the wound.
I only have a moment to gape before he grabs my wrist, placing his now bloodied hand over my burned one.
His silver blood seeps into my wounds, and soon the blistering pain of the burns subsides and is replaced with a cooling sensation. A minute or two passes before he lifts his hand from mine, revealing the skin underneathâunblemished and smooth. “It will be sore for several days,” Kirin says, “but then it should pass.”
I turn my hand in the candlelight.
e only evidence of the wound is in the redness at the edges of the palm. “Kirin.” I look up. “
I blink at the empty space where he was standing. He's already through the door, sliding it closed behind him.
“You should rest,” Shin says, nodding to indicate the blankets. “You must be exhausted.”
He moves through the room to extinguish the many candles. At the far wall, he lifts the paper screen, carrying it over and placing it carefully atop the blankets.
I realize we're meant to sleep beside one another, with the screen between us. I'm too exhausted to protest. My hand still aches, and to my great horror, hot tears begin to slip down my
cheeks. I hurry to the edge of the pallet, pulling the blankets over my shoulder.
On his side of the screen, Shin blows out the candle, and the solid shadow of him disappears from view.
I roll to my back, listening to Shin's movementsâthe soft rustle of clothing as he undresses, the breath of a sigh as he settles onto the blankets. Earlier, he went to Tiger House to question their lord on the attempted theft of my soul. Even resenting the Sea God, he tries his hardest to protect him.
e Red String of Fate glistens in the air, leaping from my hand across the blankets and through the paper screen.
In the dark and quiet, the events of the day rush back to me. Not just the terrible encounter with the goddess, but the moment in the garden, when I witnessed the last wish of a girl at the end of her hope. All those unanswered prayers, floating stagnant and forgotten. My thoughts wander to my own prayers, the ones I made every year at the paper boat festival, but also the ones I whispered into the darkness, when I thought no one was listening.
No, that's not true. I thought
was listening. Because even in moments of despair, I believed the gods were watching over us. We were never alone because we were beloved by them.
Or so I thought. Or so I believed.
e image of the girl, trembling on the bank of the stream, is imprinted in my mind. To think, in the moment of her greatest sorrow, she was truly alone.
I almost wish my soul were a bird again, then it could fly away from here, and no oneâno gods, not even meâwould be able
to feel what I feel now. Stranded in another world, by my own choice, with no hope of saving the ones I love.
Hours pass before I finally fall into a restless sleep filled with dreams of the dragon and a voice calling me from a distance, begging me to save him.
In the morning, Shin is
e paper screen is folded and pushed up against the wall. I rub my eyes, sore from crying myself to sleep. I sit up gingerly, careful not to put pressure on my hand. Something in the corner catches my eye. On the low shelf below the window is a small object. I blink, leaning forward.
It's the paper boat.
I stumble to the shelf.
e boat's edges are charred from the fire, but otherwise it's whole.
Leaning against the side of the boat is a pink-and-white flower, plucked from the lake. A lotus in bloom, the petals open to reveal its star-colored center. Shin must have gone back to retrieve the boat in the night, after I'd fallen asleep.
I bring the boat and the flower to my chest. A strange feeling burns inside me. My eyes follow the ribbon as it winds its way out the window, pale red against the morning sunlight.
Although Kirin dispelled most of the pain, my hand takes a couple of days to fully recover. After that first night, Shin doesn't return to the room. I learn from Nari that a courier arrived the morning after our visit to Moon House, and Shin left with Namgi and Kirin in pursuit of the thieves. Two men that fit the thieves' descriptionâone bearlike, the other weasel-likeâwere seen leaving the city.
ough the days are long, I keep busy. Betrothal gifts arrive from all the prominent housesâtea sets, celadon vases, mother-of-pearl jewelry boxes, wall scrolls with paintings of landscapes and poems, and a huge chest of embroidered silk blankets. It makes me wonder what will happen to these items once the truth of our betrothal is revealed.
e same servants from my first morning at Lotus House attend me, sisters who have served Shin for many years, though you wouldn't be able to tell from their youthful appearances. I help them with chores around the house. We scrub blankets in water pulled from the lake, then hang them out to dry in the south fields, like great clouds billowing in the wind.
ough no one forbids me from leaving the grounds, I remain behind the walls of Lotus House. I spend the days collecting acorns and drying flowers to hang them upside down in Shin's room, livening up the empty space.
e younger maidservant and I even attempt to draw a landscape on the paper screen.
After I get underfoot one too many times, the older sister finally orders me outside. I wander to the main pavilion, meandering down to the water's edge. I find a small rowboat, push it
into the lake, and climb over the side. Lying on my back, I gaze up into the sky. It's a clear day, with only a few fish, and what looks like a humpback whale in the distance.
I close my eyes, drifting off.
Suddenly there's a sharp yelp, and the boat jerks to a stop. “Hey, watch it!”
I scramble to my knees and peer over the side.
Dai floats on his back in the water with Miki balanced on his stomach, looking very much like an otter that's caught a Miki-shaped fish.
“Dai!” I shout. “What are you doing? Get out of the waterâit's dangerous.”
“I'm swimming,” Dai says matter-of-factly, as if he isn't floating in the middle of a lake with an infant balanced on his stomach.
A voice comes from behind me. “Don't worry, Mina. Dai won't let Miki come to harm.”
I turn to find Mask sitting across from me in the boat, her grandmother mask rosy-cheeked and smiling. She's completely dry.
I gape at her. “Are you a goddess?”
“I'm a spirit. I told you that the first time we met.”
I look around at the clear, open sky. “Spirits can fly?”
“Some spirits. Not me, though. I'm a lesser spirit, remember?”
“It's a nice day out.” Mask tips her face up. Her painted red cheeks seem to grow larger beneath the sun. I can see the long, slender line of her neck.
ere's an old fishing rod at the bottom of the boat. She leans over, picks it up, and drops a line into the water.
ere's no hook,” I say, “or bait.”
“Oh, I don't want to catch anything,” she says confusingly.
e boat has been drifting, but now, as if caught by a small breeze, it begins to glide across the lake.
“I've been watching for you in the marketplace,” Mask says, “but you haven't left the house.”
“Kirin said I wasn't to use my hand.
“Mm.” A noncommittal noise. Her face remains showing its pleasant expression, but there's a hint of reproach in that “mm.”
“I've been helping the maidservants with the cleaning,” I say, somewhat defensively. “
ey're spirits, like yourself. We're brightening up Shin'sâthe room I've been staying in. It's very bare, you see. I've been bringing in flowers from the gardens.
e younger maidservant found some pots of ink, and we painted a landscape on the paper screen. Mountains and some trees.”
Mask tilts her head to the side, musing, “For a girl whose hand was burned, you've been using it quite a lot.”
I blush deeply. “Yes, well, it doesn't hurt so much today.”
Mask nods lightly.
I look away, my eyes catching movement in the water. Where are Miki and Dai? We're not moving very fast, but it would be difficult for Dai to keep up with the boat, balancing an infant on his stomach.
I peer over the side to see Dai has grabbed hold of the fishing line. He and Miki are being tugged along.
“When you first arrived, you were determined to save the Sea God.”
I grimace, hunching my shoulders. “I was. I am. I justâI wonder if it's even possible.”
She gives another vague “mm,” which, for some inexplicable reason, makes me want to pour my soul out to her.
“We visited the Goddess of Women and Children,” I blurt out. “I brought her the wish of a young woman who was with child.
e goddess saw the girl, saw how she suffered, and didn't
. She laughed.
e girl was crying, her child was dying, and the goddess was
. She has no love, no sympathy for humans.” I shake my head. “It's hopeless. My task is hopeless. And it made me realizeÂ â¦ maybe I'm not the Sea God's true bride. Maybe I'm not the one who can save him.”
When Mask doesn't say anything, I add quietly, “Why is it all up to me?”
e myth says only a bride of the Sea God can save him. If that's not my fate, then what is?”
I wait for Mask to say something wise, but then she shrugs. “Tell me this, Mina. If there was no myth of the Sea God's bride, what would you do? Would you give up? What if someone told you your fate was to sit around all day and eat dumplings?”
at sounds like a wonderful fate!” Dai says from somewhere over the side of the boat.
Mask leans forward. “What if someone told you your fate was to climb up the highest waterfall and jump off? Or to hurt the person you love most in the world? Or worse, to hurt the person who loves
most in the world? Fate is a tricky thing. It's not for you, or me, or even the gods, to question what it
isÂ â¦ or is not.” She takes my hand, and though she can't see the Red String of Fate, her thumb brushes along the ribbon. Slowly, she lifts her face and looks across the lake. I follow the direction of her gaze.
Shin waits for me on the shore.
“Don't chase fate, Mina. Let fate chase you.”
I turn back to see Mask has disappeared. I peer over the edge of the boat. Dai and Miki are nowhere to be seen.
e boat slowly changes direction and heads toward the shore.
Shin wades between the shallow reeds, grabbing the boat by the nose and dragging it from the water. I hop out as it reaches the shore, patting down the skirt of my dress.
Turning, I meet Shin's gaze.
e Red String of Fate flutters in the air between us.
I study him to see if I notice any godlike qualities. I think of the gods I've met so far. He's taller than the Sea God. He's less frightening than the fox goddess. And he's honorable, unlike the Goddess of Women and Children. Every action he's taken has been to protect either his house or the city, even the stealing of my soul.
A tall, not very frightening, honorable god without a soul. How did my fate get entangled with his?
“Did you find what you were looking for?” I ask.
“Not quite. We lost the thieves' trail in the mountains east of
the city.” He studies me just as carefully. “You didn't attempt to leave the house.”
“I promised I wouldn't.” I promised I wouldn't leave the grounds of Lotus House if we granted the girl her wish. Even though her wish was never fulfilled, he still kept his end of the bargain.
“I didn't find the thieves, but I found this.” He pulls a strip of cloth from his jacket.
Taking it from him, I smooth my fingers over a red, gold, and black stitching of a tiger depicted in a powerful leap with its claws extended.
I hand it back, lifting my gaze to his. “Tiger House.”
Shin nods grimly. “When I visited Lord Bom last week, he denied having sent the thieves. Lord Bom was a great military tactician in his lifetime, and leaving behind such an obvious token seems either careless orÂ â¦ deliberate. Regardless, I can't ignore it.”
“You said no one has ever attempted to steal the soul of a bride before. Why do you think they are now?”
e only reason I can think of is they mean to harm the Sea God through you, not knowing you're no longer tied to him. I couldn't risk the chance they might succeed. It's why I gave the order for you to remain at the houseâshould there be an attack, my guards would be better suited to defend you.”
I know that he only takes precautions for the Sea God's sake first, and now himself. But still, I have a fleeting, reckless thought:
What if he should wish to protect me for no one's sake but my own?
“Of course,” he says slowly, his brow furrowing, “it's possible
the night they came to steal your soul, their intention was to restore the Red String of Fateâ¦”
“And by doing so, kill me and the Sea God in turn?” I crinkle my nose. “I'd rather go without such help. My soul is safely where it belongs, inside of me.”
When Shin turns away, I wince at my careless words. After all, he has claimed that he has no soul.
But when he glances back, his expression isn't pained but thoughtful. “Walk with me?”
We head around the bridge toward the far side of the lake, where most of the house activity is located. Servants unload baskets of rice and vegetables from boats tied to the docks. I look for Mask and Dai on the lake, but they're nowhere in sight.
ough Shin and I walk in silence, it's a companionable sort. I feel more myself than I have all weekâbecause of my talk with Mask, but also because Shin is here.
e Red String of Fate, though a friendly glimmer at the corner of my eye, was also a constant reminder of his absence. Something about him makes me feel braver, like I can be the person he believes me to be.
I don't realize I'm staring at the Red String of Fate until I look up to find Shin's eyes upon it as well, then he lifts his gaze.
“Kirin was frustrated with me while we were in the mountains. We were supposed to be tracking the thieves, but I was distracted. Every now and then the Red String of Fate would ripple or glimmer, and I thought to myself,
What is she doing? Probably up to all kinds of mischief.
He shakes his head with a half-smile. “I was surprised when I returned only to discover you hadn't left the house at all.”
My first instinct is to deny his words, the feeling of embarrassment acute, but I surprise myself by speaking truthfully. “After the encounter with the Goddess of Women and Children, I felt discouraged. My faith was badly wounded. It was hard for me to accept that a goddess wouldn't care about a prayer that was given with so much love.”
An echo of that awful feeling returns, and I bring my hand to my neck. When I look up, I find Shin watching me, and I feel suddenly vulnerable.
I drop my hand. “Well, I
glad you're back,” I say, throwing a bit of levity into my voice. “At least with you around, there's more for my heart to do than mope.” Shin goes still. I realize, belatedly, how this might sound. “
at is, I don't have time to stew on melancholy thoughts. I'm too busy trying to get the best of you. It's easier to be brave when you're boiling mad.”
He raises a brow. “Only you could change your mind from a compliment to an insult halfway through.”
We step onto the docks and walk across the thick boards until we reach the very end, where a boat is moored to a post. I recognize it as the one we took to Fox House. As Shin leans down to untie the rope, I feel a strange pain in my chest. “Where are you going? You just returned.”
And maybe it's the raw feelings from earlier, but I don't want him to leave. And the realization of this makes me feel confused and upset. My cheeks grow hot, and I'm glad that he's occupied with the boat.
“Outside Moon House,” Shin says, the boat rocking gently beneath him, “you claimed that I hated the Sea God.
is, I don't. Resent him, yes. Pity and doubt him, every day. But never hate him. I don't know if I believe he'sÂ â¦ cursed, or that the curse isn't one he inflicted upon himself. But maybe my own feelings have gotten in the way of seeing things clearly.”
He turns back, holding his hand out to me. “For years, Lotus House has protected the Sea God by severing the tie that makes him mortal through his connection with a human bride, and for a time, blocking a wound from bleeding out. But a wound, not tended properly,
reopen; it must be healed.”