Authors: Axie Oh
But she was born too early. If she'd been born in the autumn, she would have lived. But as everyone knows, all children born during the storms never survive past the first breath.
Sung was heartbroken.
In a rage I've never felt before or since, I took the charm to the cliffs outside our village and pitched it over the edge. I watched as it fell and shattered upon the rocks. Last I saw the chime, it was in pieces as they were swept away into the sea.
All around me the chimes in the shop begin to jingleâsomehow swaying in the windless airâuntil the shop is a clamor of cacophonous sounds.
Wind chimes ringing without wind mean there are spirits about.
I exit the shop, the sound of the chimes dampened to my ears. If there are spirits here, and they're invisible, watching, what do they see when they look at me?
I walk fast.
e night is long, and the ribbon is a weight against my hand. Beyond the gate is one grand courtyard after another. I look at none of them. After the fifth, I'm running.
I step through a final gate, climb the stone steps, and enter the throne room of the Sea God, stopping only then to catch my breath.
Moonlight filters through breaks in the raftered ceiling, slanting broken light across a great hall.
e twilight gloom of the
fog is muted here, but still the eerie silence remains. No servants rush out to greet me. No guards move to block my path.
e Red String of Fate ripples. Slowly it begins to shift from a bright, sparkling crimson to a deep bloodred. It leads me to the end of the hall, where a massive mural of the dragon chasing a pearl across the sky frames a throne on a dais.
Slumped over the throne, his face shadowed by a magnificent crown, is the Sea God. He's dressed in beautiful blue robes, stitched silver dragons climbing up the fabric. Around his left hand is the end of my ribbon.
I wait for the spark of recognition in my soul.
According to myth, the Red String of Fate ties a person to her destiny. Some even believe that it ties you to the one person your heart desires most.
Is the Sea God tied somehow to my destiny? Does my heart desire him most?
ere's a sharp pain in my chest, but it's not love.
It's darker, hotter, and infinitely stronger.
I take a step. And then another. My hand that holds the ribbon goes to my chest and comes away with the knife.
What would the world be like without the Sea God? Would we still suffer the storms that rise out of nothing to wreck our boats and drown our fields? Would we still suffer the loss of our loved ones to famine and sickness, because the lesser gods can't
hear our prayers, fearful as they are of the Sea God's wrath?
“What would happen, if I were to kill you now?”
As the words echo in the vast hall, I realize these are the first words I've spoken aloud since arriving in the Sea God's realm.
And they're words of hate. My anger swells up like an unstoppable wave. “I would kill you now and sever the ties of our fate.”
My words are reckless. Who am I to defy a god? But there's a terrible ache inside me that needs to knowâ
“Why do you curse us? Why do you look away when we cry and scream for your help? Why have you abandoned us?” I choke on these last words.
e figure on the throne doesn't answer.
e magnificent crown he wears leans so far forward over his face that it shadows his eyes.
I take the last few steps to the dais. Reaching out, I remove the crown from the Sea God's head. It slips from my fingers to land with a thud against the silk carpet.
I lift my eyes to look upon the face of the god of all gods.
e Sea God isÂ â¦
A boy. No older than myself.
His skin is smooth, unmarred. His hair flops against his forehead, curling around slender ears, one pierced through with a golden thorn. His eyelashes are noticeably long in the way they fall across his cheeks, dusky and misted. I watch as his mouth parts, letting out a soft sigh of breath.
He'sÂ â¦ asleep.
My hand tightens around the handle of my knife. I don't know what I expected, but it's not
, a boy who appears soÂ â¦ human, he could be a neighbor or a friend. I watch as a tear slips
down his face, catching on his lip before falling over his chin and sliding down his neck.
“Why are you crying?” I growl. “Do you think your tears will break my will?”
it breaking. I am not like Joon, who has a gentle heart. I can be stubborn and cruel. I can be bitter and resentful. I want to be all of those things now, because they keep me brave.
ey keep me
. And don't I deserve to be angry, after all that he's done to my village, to my family?
But the expression on the Sea God's face matches Shim Cheong's on the boat.
ere's such loneliness there and a deep, unbearable sadness.
A traitorous thought slips into my mind, and I wonderÂ â¦
Is it you that makes the world cry, or the world that makes you cry?
My legs give out beneath me, and I sink to the floor.
So much has happened in a night, from discovering Joon was missing to chasing him in the rain to jumping into the sea. By now Joon will have returned with Cheong to the village and told our family what I've done. I know my sister-in-law will weep, and my heart aches knowing that I've caused her further grief. My eldest brother will want to scour the sea in search of me, unable to accept that he can no longer protect me. As for my grandmother, she'll have faith that I've entered the Spirit Realm, that I'm on my way to meet the Sea God at this very moment.
“And what would the Sea God's bride do, once she's found him?” I stood with my grandmother in the small seaside temple. It was the first night of the storms, and the rain pattered on the clay tiles of the rooftop.
“She would show him her heart.”
I frowned. “And how would she do that?”
“If you were to show the Sea God your heart, what would it look like?”
My eyes caught on the odd assortment of items left on the shrine, offerings from the children of the villageâa seashell, a wind flower, a curiously shaped stone.
Reaching forward, I picked up the tail feather of a magpie.
“Brides don't often travel with gifts for the Sea God,” my grandmother chided. “Use your voice.”
“But I have nothing to say!
End the storms. Protect my family. Watch over us all.
He has done none of these things.” Tears pricked the corners of my eyes.
My grandmother patted the rush mat, and I sank to my knees beside her. Gently, she took my hands in her own. “You remind me so much of myself when I was your age. After much loss, grief and disappointment were rooted deep in my heart. It was my own grandmother who took me to this very same shrine. She was a lot like you, incredibly fierce and devoted to those she loved.”
It was not the first time my grandmother likened me to hers, and I instinctively reached for my knife, comforted by its weight against my chest.
“It was she who taught me the song that I'll pass on to you now.”
In the Sea God's hall, I rise to my feet.
e melody my grandmother used to sing to me, I sing it for the Sea God now.
Beneath the sea, the dragon sleeps
What is he dreaming of?
Beneath the sea, the dragon sleeps
When will he wake?
On a dragon's pearl,
your wish will leap.
On a dragon's pearl,
your wish will leap.
e echo of my voice fills the hall. Tears slip down my cheeks, and I brush them away with the back of my fist.
e myths of my people say only a true bride of the Sea God can bring an end to his insatiable wrath. I may not be the chosen bride, but is it too much to hope that a girl like meâa girl with nothing but herself to giveâcould be the Sea God's true bride?
I catch a subtle shift out of the corner of my eye.
e Sea God's fingers twitch, the barest tremble of movement.
I reach out my hand toward his.
e Red String of Fate, as if sensing the immensity of the moment, pulls taut, and I wonder, hope like the fluttering of a bird's wings, if my life's about to change.
A voice like steel cuts through the silence. “
Three masked figures stand below
the dais, positioned in a half circle like the arc of a crescent moon.
e space of the hall is cavernous, and yet I'd heard no sign of their approach. Clouds pass overhead, sealing off the light from the rafters and sweeping a curtain of darkness over the hall. It eludes two of the figures, those positioned nearest the throne, enveloping the third standing apart from the others.
e last glimpse I have of him before he's consumed by darkness is the curve of a pale cheek.
e figure on the right flips a dagger into the air and catches it. “A magpie lost in a storm? Or is she another bride for the Sea God?” His low voice is muffled beneath the cloth mask. “Are you a bride or are you a bird?”
I lick my lips, tasting salt. “Are you a friend or are you a foe?”
“If I'm a friendâ¦?”
en I'm a bride.”
“If I'm a foeâ¦?”
“Perhaps I'm a foe who'd like to be a friend.” He tilts his head,
and a dark curl falls across his eyes. “And perhaps you're a bird who'd like to be a bride.”
It's close enough to the truth that I wince.
e elders of my village have a saying:
A magpie may dream it's a crane, but never will it be one.
“I see,” the figure on the left murmurs, black-clad like the first, with hair that reaches past his shoulders. His eyesâan odd, light brownâmove from my half-unraveled braid to my rough cotton dress. “You were never meant to be the Sea God's bride.”
Unlike the curly-haired youth, this young man holds no weapons, onlyâcuriouslyâa wooden birdcage, slung over his shoulder by a rope. “
e elders of your village select the bride a year before the ritual. She is always extraordinary, in either skill or beauty.”
“Preferably both,” the boy with the dagger interjects.
“It is not an honor bestowed upon the common, the weak, or the rash. So tell me, No One's Bride, who chose
If the curly-haired youth wields a blade for a weapon, the cold-eyed stranger brandishes words. For all my many blessingsâa loving family, courage, and healthâI have neither beauty nor talent.
I can imagine how upon Joon and Cheong's return, the elders must have raged in disbelief and cursed my willfulness. But they weren't there, on the boat.
ey didn't feel the sharp spray of water, the heart-stopping fear when a loved one is in danger. I may be rash. Common, perhaps. But I am not weak.
“I chose myself.”
e third figure at the back shifts his feet. Wary of him, I
notice the subtle movement. Strangely, so do my two interrogators, though they face me with their backs to him.
ey tilt their heads inward, waitingÂ â¦ for a signal? He doesn't speak, and they ease back into position.
e first boy crosses his arms, tucking the dagger against the side of his chest. “Don't you think it romantic, Kirin? A young, ordinary magpie hopes to save her kind from a terrible dragon, and so she agrees to marry him. In time, she discovers that he's caught in a powerful enchantment, the root of his destructive nature.
e brave, clever magpie finds a way to break the curse, and in turn, falls in love with the dragon, and he with her. Peace is restored to the sky, land, and sea. A grand tale if ever I've heard one. I'll call it â
e Dragon and the Magpie.'”
“No, Namgi,” the cool-eyed strangerâKirinâdrawls, “I don't think it's romantic.”
Namgi responds to Kirin with an insult, and Kirin follows with his own rude rejoinder.
is must be a routine of theirs, because their exchange grows quite colorful.
I ignore them, concentrating instead on the story the first boy just told. My grandmother always says to pay attention to stories, for there are often truths hidden within.
“Is it a curse, then?” Namgi and Kirin cease their quarrel, returning their attention to me. “
e Sea God hasn't abandoned his people. He's under a curse.”
I have no control over how others might measure my worth, but stories and myths I'm familiar with. Stories and myths are my blood and breath.
And for this one I can already see a pattern forming, like a
melody woven through myth.
e dragon appears to deliver the Sea God's brides safely to this realm.
e world is covered in mist, but the Red String of Fate guides them to the palace.
Yet, why have none of the brides succeeded in their task? It's almost as if the melody was cut short, as if, when they finally arrived to finish the story, an enemy arose to stop them.
e Sea God cries out. I gasp as an unfamiliar feeling grips my heart, like a knot cinching tight.
e Red String of Fate heats in my hand. Behind me, a floorboard creaks. I twist around.
Namgi and Kirin have moved.
ey still hold the same positions, Namgi with his arms crossed over his chest, Kirin motionless with the birdcage, but they're closer by three steps.
I've been so concerned about defending who
am, a stranger in a strange world, but who are
? What sorts of men wear masks?
ose who wish to remain unremembered.
“It's time,” Kirin says to Namgi.
Uncrossing his arms, Namgi brings the dagger to his side. “Sorry, Magpie. You shouldn't put so much faith in stories.”
I still hold my knife. I take the defensive stance my grandmother taught me, blade angled against the threat. “Stay back.”
ere's another sharp twist, and I grit my teeth through the pain. I can't think clearly. Did they
all the brides before me? My hand trembles. In a pinch, I might be clever with a knife, but I'm no warrior. Two against one, three including the figure still in shadows.
Kirin turns his face away, dismissing me. “You should have never come, No One's Bride.”
Why is this happening? Is the Sea GodÂ â¦ rejecting me? Because I am not Shim Cheong. Because I am not the Sea God's bride. All of this began with her. Joon risked his life because he couldn't accept losing her, and I risked mine because I couldn't accept losing him. And Shim CheongÂ â¦ what couldn't she accept?
I can see her clearly as she stood on the boat, confronting her fate in the form of the dragon, rising up out of the sea. A fate she never asked for. A fate she refused.
On the throne, the boy-god thrashes from side to side. He's still asleep, his eyes squeezed shut.
e Red String of Fate lashes out, searing me.
With a desperate leap, I reach for the Sea God. At the same time, there's a shout behind me. I ignore it, grabbing the Sea God's hand and gripping tight.
e Red String of Fate disappears between our clasped palms, and then I'm abruptly pulled forward into a blinding light.
I'm met with a flurry of images, moving too quickly to make sense ofâa cliff by the sea; a golden city burning in a valley; crimson robes on the ground, darkened with blood; and a colossal shadow.
I look up.
e dragon descends from above, clutching a pearl in one giant talon, as if holding the moon.
en I'm torn from the images, my hand ripped from the Sea God's.
e third assassin grips my wrist, and it's as if I'm still in the Sea God's dreams, because I can almost believe I see the dragon reflected in his dark eyes.
en he releases me, stepping back. I struggle to hold on to the images in the dreamâor were they memories?
e cliffs are
familiar; they stretch all along the coast.
e city must be the capital, though all the messengers who come through our village bring only news of the conqueror's triumphs, not of war or destruction. As for the robes, the Sea God's are silver and blue.
ose images.” I shake my head, trying to concentrate. “It felt like I was seeing them through the Sea God's eyes.”
I'm surprised when the assassin responds. “
ey're from his nightmare. Every year he has the same one.”
en there truly is a connection to the Sea God's bride.
e power to lift the curse lies within her.”
“You wanted to kill him, not so long ago.”
I glance sharply at the assassin. He and the others must have been in the hall when I arrived, if they saw me raise my knife. Why didn't they stop me? I don't think they mean to harm the Sea God, otherwise they would have attacked him, vulnerable as he is in his sleep.
Like Namgi and Kirin, the third assassin is dressed in thin cotton robes, a blue so dark it appears black. Even with the mask, his youth is undeniableâsmooth skin, a strong, lean body. He can't be much older than seventeen.
“Am I not allowed to be angry?” I say curtly. “My people have suffered much because of the Sea God's abandonment. Because of his neglect, the other gods have turned away from us.”
I think of my grandmother, calling me to the shrine to pray. I think of the wind chime I made for my niece, dashed upon the rocks. And then another memory calls from deep within me, of a dark forest and a winding path.
I shake my head, willing away the images. “But that was
before I came here, where nothing is as I expected. Nor is
what I expected.” On the throne, the Sea God sleeps, peaceful after the tumult only moments before. He is not the cruel and spiteful deity I envisioned, but a boy-god, asleep and crying in his dreams.
I didn't run to the beach to become the Sea God's bride but to save my brother. But I am here now, and if there's a chance I can save not only him, but everyone, then I have to try.
And maybe, when this is all over, I can go home. To my village. To my family. My heart yearns at the thought.
“If it is a curse that plagues him, then I will find a way to break it.”
e Sea God lets out a gentle sigh. Between us, the Red String of Fate flutters, and a feeling like hope steals into my heart.
“You're just like all the other brides,” the dark-eyed boy says softly. I turn to find that he's stepped back, his eyes downcast. “Humans tell myths to explain what they cannot understand.”
He lifts his gaze, and his eyes are like the deepest part of the sea, cold and unknowable. I realize,
His eyes do more to hide his thoughts than his mask does to hide his face.
“But I can explain it to you,” he continues. “Your people suffer not because of any great will of the gods, but because of their own violent acts.
ey wage the wars that burn the forests and fields.
ey spill the blood that pollutes the rivers and streams. To blame the gods is to blame the land itself. Look upon your reflection to find your enemy.”
His words ring out across the hall with a bone-chilling truth.
I feel as if I'm back in the sea, the icy water pulling me deeper and deeper.
“You will fail, like all the brides before you,” he says.
No dragon to save me. No hope to hold on to, the world above winking out like a star.
“It is inevitable.” He looks away. “It is your fate.”
e feeling of drowning ceases.
is fate was never mine to begin with. I claimed it for myself when I jumped into the sea. But even before then, I wasn't the one who changed the pattern of the story. It was Shim Cheong, who denied her fate when she wouldn't let go of Joon. At least, isn't that why she turned from the dragon? I brush away the thought. I might not understand Shim Cheong's motives, but I do know my own.
“You're right,” I say.
e boy's eyes flit back, narrowing as I speak. “I
like the other brides. I know what it is to love someone you would do anything to protect. Who are you to say what my fate isâif I am to fail, or if I am to succeed? My fate is not yours to decide. My fate belongs to
e boy watches me, a slight crease in his brow.
Namgi whistles low. “Never thought I'd see the great Lord Shin of Lotus House speechless before a Sea God's bride.”
A nobleman. Somehow I'm not surprised.
ough undoubtedly the youngest of the three, Kirin and Namgi seem to defer to him in all things.
“Lord Shin,” Kirin saysâlow, urgently. “
e fog lifts.” His eyes are raised skyward, where moonlight breaches the rafters, bathing the hall in light.
Shin steps back. “Keep your fate, Sea God's Bride. It has
nothing to do with me.” He reaches to his side and pulls a sword from its scabbard.
e metallic glide is deafening in the silent hall.
“My name is Mina.”
“I am not Sea God's Bride or No One's Bride or Magpie,” I say. “I have a name. Chosen by my grandmother to give me cleverness and strength. I know who I am, and I know what I must do.” I raise my great-great-grandmother's knife. “And I will not let you take my life.”
Reaching up, Shin tugs at his mask.
e cloth slips, pooling around his neck. “Mina,” he says, and my traitorous heart skips a beat. “
e Sea God's bride.”
I swallow thickly. His voice without the mask is clear and warm. He has beautiful featuresâa straight nose and soft lips. With his sea-dark eyes, he's breathtaking.
“I won't take your life.”