Authors: Axie Oh
On Kirin's orders, I'm confined
to the room for the rest of the day, though I'm allowed visitors. Mask and Dai visit with Miki in the morning, and in the afternoon, Namgi and Nari, separately. But not Shin.
e possibilities as to why are endless, plaguing me all day and distracting me from my well-wishers. Does he feel guilt for his harsh words the night of the storm? Is he angry with me for fleeing when I knew the assassin was still out there? I not only put myself in danger, but him as wellÂ â¦
ere's a light tap on the door. I sit up as it slides open, and Cheong steps into the room. I blink in surprise.
She's changed out of her ceremonial wedding gown from last I saw her, now wearing a simple dress of blue and white. Her black hair is braided and coiled behind her head, like that of a married woman.
“Mina!” She glides across the room, settling gracefully beside my pallet. “I wanted to come sooner, but I wasn't allowed inside. How are you? Are you all right?”
“I'm fine,” I say, suddenly overcome with shyness. Even
though we grew up in the same village, I never truly spoke to Cheong. She was older and intimidating in her beauty. Really,
spoke to her except for Joon.
People told stories about her and praised her devotion to her father, whom the villagers called Shim the Blind. Some even envied her; I know I've been guilty of that. But not one of us paused to ask her how she felt. Until now, it never occurred to me how lonely her life must have been.
Cheong puts to the side a cloth-wrapped package she's brought with her, gazing around the room at the paintings on the walls, the stitched notebooks and the scrolls stacked in neat piles on the desk. She moves her hands to her lap, smoothing down each pleat of her dress, a gesture my sister-in-law, Soojin, often made when she was nervous.
rough the window, the sky outside is bright and clear.
“Forgive me, Mina,” Cheong says. “Will you let me talk a little bit?
ere are some things I'd like to say to you.”
“Yes, of course,” I quickly reassure her.
She nods, hesitating a moment more before finally speaking. “In my life, there are two women I respect the most. One is your grandmother. She is the strongest person I've ever met. She defended Joon and me when others berated us for choosing love over duty. I was chosen to be the Sea God's bride, but she taught me that my life was my own, and no one else's. She made me believe that I could have a life beyond the one that was expected of me, a lifeÂ â¦ that I
Cheong stops fiddling with her skirt to take my hand. “
e other woman I respect most in the world is you. When you took
my place, I was filled with so many emotions. Relief. Gratitude. Guilt. And yet, that moment when you jumped onto the prow of the boat, I was filled with an emotion I'd never felt before: hope. You make me believe in wonders.”
I don't know what to say, feeling both overwhelmed and incredibly honored.
“I've never had a sister,” she says softly. “I'm so glad that I have you now.”
“And I, you,” I whisper, swallowing thickly.
She reaches for the package she set aside and gracefully unties the silk knot of the ribbon.
e cloth folds back to reveal a dress with a skirt the color of peach blossoms and a yellow jacket embroidered with small pink flowers.
I gasp. “It's beautiful.”
“Do you like it? It's a gift. From Lady Hyeri. She was going to bring it over herself, but I asked if I could be the bearer, and have a moment alone with you. May I?”
I nod, and she takes my arm to help me stand. Careful of my shoulder, she wraps the peach blossom skirt around my body, tying the string secure at my chest. She then holds the yellow jacket up for me, and I slide my arms into the sleeves. She moves behind me, and I feel the gentle tug of a comb as she sections out my hair and braids it in a long plait, securing it with a pink ribbon. Finally she turns me to face her. Taking the two ribbons at the front of my dress, she makes a knot, looping one ribbon and slipping the other through the hole. She adjusts the length until it falls elegantly across the front of my dress. Finished, she steps back to admire her work.
“It's a lovely dress, Cheong,” I say. “But what is the occasion?”
ere's to be a festival in the city tonight, to celebrate the ending of the storms.”
I remember Dai at my bedside.
e storms have stopped.
ere's a feeling in the air, as if they've stopped forever.
Could it be true? But what has changed?
e last I saw the Sea God, he was in despair.
Cheong lifts her gaze, her eyes bright. “You must go. After all, there are rumors in the city.
ey say the Sea God's storms stopped because of you.”
Walking with Namgi and Nari
in the city later, I'm struck by the change in the atmosphere.
e city is always brimming with warmth and light, but tonight, it's as if the people have released their joy onto the streets. Acrobats jump and leap to the beat of barrel drums. Food cart sellers hand out sweet rice cakes and silk candy.
e aftermath of the storm is visible in the broken rafters and missing beams, though cleaned and patched up in the last few days. I jump back as two young girls run by carrying a large barrel. One opens the lid to release hundreds of golden carp with bells tied to their fins. As the fish dart away, a chorus of chimes peals throughout the city.
Even delighted as I am by the sights and sounds, I can't help feeling a little wistful. After Cheong left, I eagerly awaited Shin's arrival, but as the sun sank behind the mountains, I lost hope that he would come. Not to let Cheong's gift go to waste, I asked Nari and Namgi to take me into the city.
“Mina,” Nari says, arching a brow, “I believe you have an admirer.”
I lookâperhaps too eagerlyâover my shoulder. A small group of boys, around Dai's age, gathers beneath the awning of a teashop.
ey throw furtive glances in our direction. One boy is pushed forward from the others. In his hands he holds a paper boat. “Lady,” he says, shyly approaching, “will you grant me a wish?”
“I'm not a goddess,” I tell him, though I gentle my words with a smile.
He brushes the hair back from his face, revealing mischievous eyes. “Please, lady. Only you can make my wish come true.”
I lift a brow, curious now. I take the boat and open it as Namgi leans over my shoulder to read the words the boy has scrawled across the paper. Namgi's guffaw of laughter startles a passing school of fish that breaks around us like shooting stars.
In the tumult, I motion the boy closer, leaning down to give him a kiss on the cheek.
He cups his hands reverently to his face; then, turning, he shouts to his friends, “Look! I got a kiss from the Sea God's bride!”
e boys whoop and holler. One by one, they press their lips to the boy's cheek, as if to share my kiss between them.
Looking around, I notice that many people are staring at us, at
. One small girl even lifts her hand to point.
“Does this have anything to do with what Cheong said?” I ask Nari. “
at there are rumors in the city that say the storms have stopped because of me?”
Nari nods. “
e night of the storm, many of the city's people saw you rush up the steps and through the gate of the Sea God's palace. Less than an hour after you emerged, the winds and rain
died down and a rainbow appeared.” Even Nari, who's always calm and collected, has a hint of wonder in her voice. “Never has a rainbow appeared after a storm.
ere are rumors that it was also seen in the world above, a bridge between worlds.
e people are taking it as a sign that the storms have ended for good and that the myth has finally come true.”
I try to make sense of her words. “And what of the Sea God?”
Namgi shakes his head. “
e gate to the palace is closed. No one has seen him.”
Was it a coincidence that the storm stopped after I left the palace? An hour later was around the time I was attacked by the assassin and the Red String of Fate was cut. Lord Crane said I would know if I were the Sea God's bride, as a Red String of Fate would form between the Sea God and myself. But just as it was when I woke, my hand is empty.
Cheers up ahead distract me from my thoughts. A crowd is gathered beneath a great tree. It grows out from the middle of the street, bright lanterns winking between the leaves of its massive canopy. From the largest branch of the tree dangles a swing. It's built of two ropes with a plank of wood for a seat. A girl around my age stands on the seat, bending her knees to bring the swing up into the air.
e crowd gasps, clapping and whistling as the girl swings higher and higher.
Namgi, Nari, and I join the others, lending our voices to the shouts and cheers.
Back and forth, the girl rises as her momentum grows. Soon, she's reached a height where she's almost horizontal with the ground.
As she swings back down, she takes one hand off the rope and waves to the crowd. I cheer the loudest as the girl slows the swing, jumping off with a flourish and bow.
Afterward, the girl approaches. “Would you like to give it a try?”
“I don't knowâ¦”
“Don't worry. If you fall, one of your guards will catch you.”
I look over my shoulder to see Namgi flirting with a boy in the crowd. But Nari, standing close by, nods in encouragement.
e girl drags me to the swing and helps me stand on the wooden plank. I curl my fists on each rope.
“Ready?” the girl asks.
“Should my knees be shaking?”
“Probably not. Here we go!” She runs, lifting me up, and I tighten my grip on the ropes.
“Bend your legs!” she shouts, letting go. “Move your body with the swing!”
I take several quick breaths, inhaling and exhaling. I've never been on a swing before, but I
played games at festivals, and this one is like all the restâif you only trust yourself, it can be fun.
As the girl instructs, I bend my knees and move my body to the rhythm of the swing. Back and forth.
e higher I rise, the more of the city I can see over the crowd. Children run down the many streets, trailing fish-shaped kites with golden streamers. Groups of individuals gather to play street games; others sit around storyteller stalls, listening raptly to the tales being unraveled. Strands of my braid come loose and flutter about my face. I close my eyes and feel the wind.
When I've finally exhausted the strength in my arms and legs, I slow the swing, bracing my body until it comes to a stop.
e crowd cheers as I hop off the plank and help the next girl up.
As I move away, I'm caught by a sudden awareness. My heart catches in my chest. I turn toward the tree. Beneath its sweeping branches Shin waits. He's dressed simply in dark blue robes, his hair falling across his brow. He looks like a young man out to enjoy himself at a festival rather than the lord of a great house.
At my approach, he steps forward to meet me.
I take in the dark circles beneath his eyes, his lips red against the pallor of his skin. “You look awfulâwhen was the last time you slept?” At the same time, he says, “You look beautiful.”
He scowls. “Is that all you have to say to me?”
“I can say more. Where have you been all day? Why didn't you come to see me when I woke? Are you angry with me?”
Shin looks as if he'll respond, then seems to change his mind, glancing around us. We've attracted an audience. He looks meaningfully toward the canal, and I follow him to the edge, where he pays a boatman to lend us his small rowboat. Careful not to catch my dress, I take Shin's hand. His grip is steady, only letting go when I've settled onto the bench.
Shin drags the oars through the water in an easy, fluid motion until we've reached the middle of the canal. Pulling in the oars, he lets the boat drift.
ere are only a few other vessels out on the water, but they're closer to the shore. It's as if we're alone on the river. I listen to the croon of the water and the creak of the wood. A dozen floating lanterns surround us, glowing brightly.
“You asked where I've been all day,” Shin says. “I was at the
Sea God's palace. I wanted to determine the truth for myself.
e doors of the gate were barred. When I tried to climb over the wall, a force prevented me from entering. Whether the storms have ended”âhis eyes move to the shore, where spirits gather to place paper lanterns on the waterâ“you can see for yourself that many believe so. We'll have to wait until next year to be certain.”
I dip my hand in the water, letting droplets slip through my fingers like pearls. “What happens now?” I'm careful to keep my voice steady. “
e Red String of Fate is broken. In a week's time, I'll have spent a month in the Spirit Realm.”
e implication of my words is clear; in one week, I'll become a spirit. I straighten, pressing my hands into my lap. “My main concern is Shim Cheong. Is there a way for her to return to the human realm?”
Shin watches me, though it's difficult to make out his expression. “What about you? Do you wish to return?”
My breath catches. “Can I?”
e second question you asked was why I didn't come to you after you woke.
e reason is because I had gone to Spirit House, to consult your ancestors.”
“My ancestors?” I ask, not understanding. “What do you mean?”
“You can speak to your family members who've passed before you, at least those who've climbed from the river to remain in the Spirit Realm. Many spirits still receive ancestral rites from their children and grandchildren. If you were a spirit yourself, you would instinctively know this.”
I've always wondered if the gifts of food and other offerings we leave beside the graves of our loved ones ever reach the Spirit Realm. I smile in wonder at the thought.
“Ancestors are invested in their descendants, and are often wise after many years of living in the Spirit Realm. I thought I could ask them for help. But as they're not my ancestors, I wasn't allowed to speak with them. On another day, I'll take you to them.”
I'm struck with a rush of emotions, relief that my ancestors might know a way to return Shim Cheong to the world above, that
might even return. And uncertainty, because I have so little time left.
“And what of my last question?” I ask softly. “Are you angry with me? Because of what happened with the assassin?”
“No,” he answers. “
at wasn't your fault.”
He lifts his hand to his chest, an unconscious movement. He did the same outside Moon House, when he first told me he was a god that had lost everything he was once sworn to protect.
e truth is, I
angry. Earlier, not then.
e story you told the Sea God, about the woodcutter and the heavenly maiden. In the end she returned home, to the place where she longed to be.”
He takes a deep breath. “I know that all you ever wanted was to save your family.
at's why you jumped into the sea.
at's been the reason behind every decision you've made, however reckless, however brave.”
His eyes find mine. “I
angry, but not at you. I was angry at the fate I'd been given. Because I realized that in order for you to have what you want, I'd have to lose the only thing I've ever wanted.”
I can hardly breathe; my heart is in my throat.
Shin slips his hand into his robes at his chest and pulls out
a silk purse. He unknots the drawstring, and the pebble carved with the lotus flower tumbles out.
“I'll return you home, Mina. I promise. But it might take longer than a week.” He curls his hand around the pebble. “In order to remain a human, you'd have to tie your life to an immortal. I may not be the god of a river, a mountain, or a lake, but I am a god, and I would tie my life to yours, if you'll have me.”
I'm overwhelmed with emotion. We no longer share a Red String of Fate, but he's willing to do this, for me.
ere's a sizzling burst of a sound, followed by a scream.
A dark cloud spreads over the city, and I look up to find a hundred shadows creeping over the moon.
e Imugi are here.