The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea (14 page)

BOOK: The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea
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18

Kirin and Namgi are waiting
for us on the dock when we arrive back at Lotus House. “A missive came for you when you were away,” Kirin says, handing over a scroll. “From Crane House.”

Shin unwinds the string, opening the scroll to reveal a short message written in elegant, sweeping calligraphy. “Lord Yu claims he has news of Lord Bom's treachery,” he informs us. “He says to come at once.”

I turn to Namgi. “On my first night in the Spirit Realm, you said Crane House was home to scholars.”


Th
at's right.” Namgi nods. “Crane House is home to the greatest scholars who've ever lived.”


Th
en…”
Th
is time I address Shin. “Can I come with you? I would speak to a scholar, or Lord Yu himself, about the Sea God. Perhaps someone has knowledge of his past.”

Shin looks hesitant, so Namgi says, “With Kirin, you, and myself, Mina will be safe.”

Shin nods reluctantly, and I hurry off to the pavilion to change my dress—still smelling faintly of pondweed—into a more decorative one, with a light blue jacket and pink skirt. I keep my great-great-grandmother's knife around my neck and my lotus-carved pebble tucked inside a silk bag tied to my waist.

Together, Shin, Namgi, Kirin, and I make our way toward Crane House, which lies northeast of the palace.
Th
e setting sun gilds the buildings in a hazy golden glow. Spirits with long poles flit in and out of buildings, lighting candles in their lanterns.

Immediately Shin and Kirin fall into deep discussion, presumably over the plans to expose Lord Tiger.

Th
e air reverberates with a low humming sound, as if there's a great waterfall nearby.

“What was the Sea God like?” Namgi asks from where he walks beside me.

I think of the expression on the Sea God's face as he looked at the pond. “He wasn't at all what I expected. He was … melancholy, as if he'd lost something and forgotten what it was.”

Namgi kicks a loose stone. “And the dragon was with him? I'd give anything to see the dragon again.”

Th
e longing in his voice is palpable. His profile is stark in the shadows cast by the lanterns. I remember what he told me before—that his kind, the Imugi, fight in endless battles so that one day they might become dragons.

“What are the differences between an Imugi and a dragon?” I ask.


Th
ere are only a few differences, but they are great. While
Imugi are creatures of salt and fire, a dragon is a being of wind and water. While an Imugi's magic burns bright and fast like a shooting star, a dragon's power is like a river—slow and steady, but limitless. It's rumored a dragon's pearl can grant any wish. Dragons are also three times the size of an Imugi, and universally benevolent and good. Not like Imugi. Imugi are evil.”

“But, Namgi,” I say slowly, “
you're
an Imugi.”

Namgi cackles. “Yes, I am!” A school of approaching carp darts away in panic.

Ahead of us, Kirin looks over his shoulder, his silvery eyes landing on Namgi, caught by his laughter.

“Perhaps the biggest difference,” Namgi says, “is that dragons are solitary creatures while Imugi only exist in groups. Like wolves, we live and die alongside our brothers, and we're rarely alone. I'm the only rogue that I know of. Most Imugi can't survive without a pack.”

Namgi must catch my expression, because he reaches out to pat me lightly on the shoulder. “Don't worry, Mina. I have Shin and Kirin.
Th
ey're all the brothers I need.”

I glance at Kirin to see if he's heard these last words, but he's turned away again.

We arrive at Crane House, a great black-and-white fortress several stories high, with a curved rooftop shaped like the wings of a crane. A servant dressed in similar colors shows us to an elegant room with beautifully sanded floors of deep oak. On either side of a long table are shelves lined with scrolls stacked in neat piles and stitched books bound with thread.

A library.
Th
ere must be hundreds, thousands of stories here—histories, myths, poetry, and songs.
Th
e memories of spirits and gods might be hazy, but not the memories of books. Stories are eternal. Perhaps in one of these scrolls is the story of the Sea God, of what happened a hundred years ago to make him succumb to an endless sleep.

In the garden, the Sea God said he'll never be forgiven. But what must he be forgiven for? If he feels guilt over abandoning his people, then why doesn't he just return to us?

Th
e excitement of seeing all these books diminishes at the overwhelming prospect of searching through each one for a clue to the Sea God's past. Even if I had a year, it would be impossible.

Th
e servant, who left to inform Lord Crane of our arrival, returns. “My lord will receive you now.”

Kirin steps forward, but Shin shakes his head.

“Stay with Mina,” he orders. “Namgi will join me in meeting with Lord Crane.”

Kirin's lips thin slightly, but he only bows.

Shin turns to me, his eyes softening. “After Lord Crane and I finish our discussion, I'll call for you, and we'll speak with him. Together.”


Th
ank you, my lord,” I say, then bow, as it seems appropriate.

Shin and Namgi follow the servant out of the room. I stand and make my way toward the closest shelf, trailing my fingers across the paper scrolls, alternatively smooth and rough in places.

Kirin is clearly annoyed about being left to watch over me,
speaking not a word. I'm not so thrilled myself. Unlike Namgi, who's all warmth and bluster, Kirin is as cold as the silver in his eyes.

But his blood was warm. I remember the way it oozed from his hand, pooling over my wound until the pain was gone entirely.

“I never thanked you properly for healing my hand,” I say, shifting my body so that I face him. “
Th
ank you. It was truly appreciated.”

“I didn't do it for you.”

I sigh, glad the women in my family have a thicker skin than most. In any case, Kirin's words are far less painful than the burn from the goddess's fire.

“Are you a god?” I ask, thinking of the magic in his blood. “Or a beast of myth?”

“I am not a god.”

Which means he's a beast of myth. But not a sea snake.
Th
e night I first arrived, when the goddess's servants appeared, Namgi's brothers had called Kirin the Silver One, saying the Imugi had butchered the last of his kind.

I have enough sense of self-preservation not to bring
that
up.

“It's strange to think Namgi is of a kind with those other sea snakes, who all seemed very cruel and awful. Namgi has only ever been friendly to me.” I pause, adding with a grin, “And perhaps a bit mischievous.”

Kirin shakes his head. “Never trust an Imugi.”

I stare at him. “I trust Namgi.”


Th
en you're a fool.”

I scowl, hurt for Namgi, who not a half hour earlier had spoken so affectionately about Kirin. “I trust Namgi far more than I
trust you,” I retort. “He's forthright and sincere. He told me how he met Shin, and why he serves him. While you've told me nothing of yourself.”

I hesitate, wondering if I've gone too far with my impulsive words. Kirin truly does appear upset—the first sign of real emotion I've seen from him.

“Because I'm unlikable, you think I'm disloyal,” he says, his voice icy. “Yet I've served Shin far longer than Namgi has. I've never known a time when I haven't stood by his side. He's my leader, but more than that, he's my friend. I trust him with my life.”

Kirin pauses, then his gaze turns to me with a look of middling horror. “I can't believe you exasperated me into actually defending myself against your ridiculous claims.”

I sidle forward, turning to flash him a wide grin. “It makes it easier to talk to you, knowing you're a little human.”

I know I've said something wrong when the reluctant smile on his lips disappears.

“I am
not
human,” he says coldly.

For the next half hour, neither of us says a word. I move farther into the rows of shelves, which extend deeper than I first thought. It truly would be impossible to go through each scroll and book, even if the method of categorization were clear. As I walk, I realize the room is much larger than the outside view of Crane House suggested, which was taller rather than wider. It's both similar and opposite to Moon House, where the room the goddess resided in was tiny compared to how her home appeared from the outside.

I continue to explore the library, turning corners when I meet
them, until, at the end of a particularly long row of bookshelves, I reach a door. I'm surprised only because I thought the library was confined to a single room.
Th
e door is slightly ajar. I peek through to find a short set of stairs leading downward.

I know I should go back. If Shin returns and finds me missing, he will not be pleased. And yet, this is Crane House, home of scholars—what harm could there be in such a place?

I slip past the door, tread lightly down the stairs, and enter a narrow corridor dimly lit by lanterns with low-burning candles. On either side are rooms purposed for reading and writing and other scholarly pursuits, scattered with paper scrolls, ink, and brushes.

At the end of the hall is a private study, larger than the rest. Scrolls of poetry hang on the walls alongside paintings of nature. A single writing table is positioned at the back of the room before a paper screen.

It's a beautiful screen, four times the length of the one in Shin's room and twice its height. Each of its panels shows the life stages of a crane, from newborn hatchling to the last panel, which shows the crane in flight, the only splash of color the bright red of its crowned head.

“Forgive me. I wasn't prepared for visitors, or I might have tidied up a bit.”

I turn to face a tall, elderly scholar standing in the doorway.

“Lord Yu,” I say, recognizing him from that first night at Lotus House. I bow low. “Excuse my intrusion. I was waiting in the room above and came upon the stairs—”

“Did I appear offended?” Lord Yu says. “Come, please sit.” He nods, indicating the small table before the paper screen. Moving
to a side cabinet, he produces a tray with a bottle and two porcelain cups. “Do you enjoy the taste of wine-spirits?”

“I've never had the opportunity to find out,” I say, taking the seat opposite him.

He lifts the bottle and pours some of the golden liquid into a cup. Accepting the cup with two hands, I turn my face away to drink it entirely, as I've seen my brothers do.
Th
e liquor tastes bitter in my mouth.

“Now,” Lord Crane says. “Tell me the questions you have.”

I must look surprised, because he adds, “You must have questions you seek answers to, a young girl with a homeland in peril, a Sea God's bride with a mystery to unravel.”


Th
en you must guess my question before I ask it.”

“Nevertheless, you must ask for me to answer.”

“How do I lift the curse upon the Sea God?”

“You didn't have to come to me for the answer to that question.
Th
e answer is in the myth:
Only a true bride of the Sea God can bring an end to his insatiable wrath.
Th
e bride who shares a Red String of Fate with the Sea God has the power to break the curse.”

“I don't understand,” I say, frustrated. “Every bride arrives with a Red String of Fate.”

Lord Yu refills both cups, then pushes mine toward me. He doesn't speak until I've emptied it of the golden liquid. “All brides share a Red String of Fate with the Sea God, but that is only a spell to protect them. Otherwise Lord Shin would not be able to cut the fate, as he does every year. After all, a true fate cannot be broken with the edge of a blade.”

I nod slowly; the fox goddess said as much.

Lord Yu continues. “
Th
e bride who loves him, the one he loves in return—only she has the power to turn myth into truth. Should this fate form, it will be invisible to all but the Sea God and his bride.”

Instinctively, my eyes dart to the Red String of Fate tying me to Shin.
An invisible fate.
Lord Crane doesn't seem to notice the direction of my gaze, pouring a third cup.


Th
en it's hopeless,” I say. “Until the fated bride is thrown into the sea, the Sea God will not wake.”

More girls will be sacrificed. More lives will be lost to the storms.

“Not so hopeless as it seems,” he replies. “It is possible to
form
such a fate. After all, attachment, or what the poet-scholars call love, is also a choice. Two people can choose each other out of necessity. Or duty. In this way, even a Red String of Fate can be unmade, if one party should form a stronger connection with another.”

A month for you to figure out how to save the Sea God and a month for me to figure out how to be rid of you.
Th
is is the answer Shin has been searching for.

Lord Crane pushes the cup toward me. Is this my third or fourth cup? When I move to pick it up, I'm struck by a brief spell of light-headedness.

“You have your answer on how to break the curse. Form a Red String of Fate with the Sea God.
Th
at is, if you haven't already with someone else.”

I look up, alerted to a change in Lord Crane's voice. He was speaking in a rhythmic cadence, almost hypnotizing in its quality, like that of a storyteller's. But now there's something false about his voice, a spark of avarice.

His eyes linger on my hand. “I heard a curious rumor that Shin, like the death god Shiki before him, found himself bound by an unexpected fate.”

BOOK: The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea
12.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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