Authors: Axie Oh
We emerge from the alley
onto a wide boulevard. Immediately I'm overwhelmed. I've never been outside my small village, where at most twenty or thirty villagers will gather on market daysâperhaps as many as fifty during a festival. Here in the Sea God's city there are hundreds,
of people dressed in vibrant jewel-tone colors, as if the city were a great reef and the people its coral.
Magnificent buildings with tiered roofs line the streets, stacked up almost on top of one another, as far as the eye can see. Shining lanterns hang from the buildings' many eaves, illuminating the shadows of figures moving behind papered windows. Gigantic, ghostly carp drift serenely over the rooftops, while luminous golden fish dart in and around the lanterns.
A door slides open up the street, spilling light and laughter. A young woman expertly balancing a tea tray above her head disappears into the crowd.
ere's a whistle and crack of sound. I look up. A firework
explodes, illuminating the night and scattering a school of minnows.
“Watch where you're going!”
Mask pulls me back in time to avoid being trampled by a young boy pushing a cart of anemone.
“You watch where
going!” Dai shouts back, raising a fist. “She's a Sea God's bride, you know.”
“Sure she is,” the boy throws over his shoulder. “And I'm the Sea God!”
is earns a smattering of snickers from those within hearing distance.
e cobblestoned streets are paved in mosaics of sea creatures. We follow a chain of blue and gray dolphins down one street to an avenue of red crabs, and finally to a great central square depicting a large jade turtle.
e square is filled with people. Groups of girls crouch in circles tossing and catching stones. Old men sit at low tables arguing loudly over board games.
ey all must be spirits, yet they appear as Miki and Dai doâhealthy,
Mask turns from the square, leading us down a cramped side street lined with food carts.
We pass carts stacked high with rice cakes and others with salted fish strung up by their tails. More carts are spread with roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes dipped in sugar. Dai dodges out of the way of an oncoming cart, pressing his back against another packed with dumplings in bamboo steamers. As he steps away, Miki reaches out and grabs a dumpling off the cart.
“Ay, Miki!” Dai yelps. “Leave the thieving to the thieves!”
Reaching into his pocket, he produces a short rope strung with metal coins of tin and copper. He unknots a small tin coin and flicks it to the cart's owner, who catches it neatly from the air. “We'll take four, please!”
He accepts the dumplings and presents one to each of us in turn. Curious, I watch Mask out of the corner of my eye to see if she'll remove her mask to eat, but she hands hers to Miki.
e little girl devours the dumpling in an impressive three mouthfuls.
Delicious steam escapes from my own dumpling. I follow Miki's example and practically inhale it.
e combination of the soft, fluffy outside and the salty leek and pork inside is exquisite. After we've licked our fingers clean, Miki and I band together to fling beseeching looks at Dai. He sighs loudly, unstringing another coin from his money rope.
I take my time with the second dumpling, savoring each delectable bite.
e food cart alley opens up onto another bustling street, at the end of which lies a grand-looking bridge situated over a smooth-flowing river. Lanterns float lazily on its current in red, green, and white.
ere are boats moored to the riverbank, while others travel downstream, oared by ferrymen in feathered hats.
e bridge must be a major crossing point. It's overflowing with people, carts, mules, and even an ox, a garland of flowers strung between its horns. Children around Dai's age climb on top of the railings, making their way across the thin beams. Mask's hand shoots out, grabbing Dai's shoulder before he can join them.
Halfway across the bridge, the rumble of drums beats the air. A procession moves slowly through the packed crowd. Along with everyone else, we're pushed to the edge to make room.
A group of soldiers passes by, armed with spears.
ey surround four bearers carrying a large, ornately decorated box. Two bearers on either side lift the box on poles balanced across their broad shoulders.
I've heard of carrying-boxes like these, common in the capital, used to transport noblewomen across short distances.
e palanquin's thick walls shield its occupant from prying eyes.
Excited whispers follow the procession. I lean forward, curious to know who sits inside the gilded box.
I turn to see Mask following the movement of the palanquin. She nods, indicating the guards' black-and-red uniforms. “
ose are the colors of his house.”
I tug on her sleeve, and then pat my lips to draw her gaze.
“A death god.”
My eyes dart to the golden box.
e person inside is the bride of a death god.
“She must be very beautiful. What is she the goddess of?”
“A goddess, did you say? She's no more a goddess than you or me. Just a girl. A former Sea God's bride.”
A Sea God's bride.
I whip my head in the direction of the procession.
A warm, sun-colored hand sweeps the drapes of the box
aside, and I catch a glimpse of a round, sweet face before a guard blocks my view.
A year ago, the Sea God's bride had been a girl from the next village over. Year after year, the brides arrive from all over with caravans that stretch for miles and miles. Sometimes they come from small towns, sometimes from large cities, some even from the capital itself. But Hyeri arrived in the night, with just a sack of belongings slung over her shoulder, her hair in a simple braid down her back.
She'd stayed with our chief elder and his family for three nights before there was a knock at my family's door. She needed someone to help prepare her for her wedding ceremony.
It was strange, sitting in a room with a girl I'd never met before, helping her dress in the colors of a brideâbright colors signifying love, happiness, and fertilityâwhen, come morning, she would be drowning, and the dress would do nothing but pull her beneath the waves.
“You could run.”
e words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.
Hyeri turned to me, her lips painted pink with the crushed petals of azaleas. Her eyes were darkened with coal from the smoldered hearth. “Where would I run to?”
“Don't you have someone who would look after you? Family to protect you?”
Hyeri shook her head slowly. “Just my sister, and she's been gone these past five years.”
“Gone?” I leaned forward, encouraged, thinking Hyeri could go wherever her sister had gone. To the capital, maybe. To somewhere safe. “Gone where?”
Hyeri turned away.
e open window of the room looked out toward the rice fields and, beyond them, the sea. In the darkness, you couldn't see it, but you could hear itâthe tireless wind blowing the warm air across the room. You could feel itâthe salt on your skin, pooling in a thick layer. Like ashes.
Hyeri's voice was quiet. “I was always better at swimming. Much better than my sister, who feared the water. Tomorrow, when they throw me into the sea, I'm just going to swim. I'm going to swim and swim until I can't any longer.”
“But your sisterâ”
“Five years now.
ey say every bride of the Sea God is the same. But they're wrong. Why can't they see?”
Her voice turned urgent then. She grabbed my wrists and pulled me closer, her eyes fever bright. “Some brides are chosen, but then there are those who
to be brides.”
Dropping my wrists, she closed her eyes. “
ey wonder why someone would choose to give up her own life.
ey could never understand.”
ey?” I asked. “
She nodded. “
ere are the girls who choose to be brides because they want to bring wealth to their family, since the bridal price paid by the village is steep.
ere are the girls who choose to be brides because they want the glory of being one of those beautiful few, tragically sacrificed.
ere are even the girls who
truly believe that all of this is real, and that they won't drown, but will be saved by the Sea God.”
Hyeri opened her eyes, her gaze finding the window and the night beyond. “
en there are the girls like my sister, who want to be the Sea God's bride because it hurts too much to be themselves.”
I moved closer to Hyeri then, taking her cold hands in my own.
“All this makeup will wash away in the water,” Hyeri said, choking back a laugh. “And until then, I'll look like I have ink for tears.”
“I'll wipe it off.” I reached for a cloth, dipped it into a bowl of water, and dabbed it beneath her eyes.
“You're a kind girl, Mina. I may seem confident, but I'm very afraid. I want to live. Is there any way a person can die, yet still live?”
At the time, I didn't have an answer for her. It was the night, and she would soon leave to be sacrificed in the morning. And for a year, I couldn't understand why she'd
to be a Sea God's bride.
Not until that moment when I stood at the prow of the boat, my anger like a storm in my soul, and jumped into the sea.
“You cry too much.” Dai looks up at me, hands cupped beneath my chin to catch the tears slipping down my face.
I say, laughing. A beaming happiness floats within me, that Hyeri should be here now, alive and well. I point to the slowly moving procession.
“Tell me more. Tell me anything.”
“You want to know about Shiki's bride?”
I nod emphatically.
“I don't know much about her.” He pauses. “Shiki, on the other handâ¦”
I smile at him encouragingly.
“He's a coldhearted bastard!”
“Watch your language,” Mask chides. “Shiki isn't so bad. Just a little on the serious side. And even if he were a
bad, rumors hint that the death god adores his new bride.
e wedding was a grand celebration.”
I widen my eyes, making exaggerated movements between her and the moving caravan.
“What was it like?”
“I wasn't invited!” Mask says. “Only the most important people in the city were invited.
e lords of Tiger House and Crane House.
e Great Spirit. Every lesser god with a shrine to his name.” Mask scratches her wooden cheek. “Now that I think about it, lots of people were invited.”
“Just not us!” Dai shouts.
e Sea God, of course, but seeing as he hasn't left his palace in a hundred years, that was a waste of an invitation! Oh, and Lord Shin, I suppose.
ough I doubt he made an appearance. All things considered.”
ey had a huge fight,” Dai explains to me. “Do you know what the fight was about?” he asks, turning to Mask.
“What fights that matter are always about.”
“Food?” Dai suggests.
I think of the local warlords who fight over the land back home.
Mask's expression remains benign, and yet I sense hostility emanating from her. “Who raised you both? Did they teach you nothing?
is what drove them apart, and love is what will bring them togetherâif they're not too stubborn to forgive each other!”
“Shin was in love with Hyeri, too?” Dai asks.
Mask throws her hands up in the air, clearly frustrated. Pivoting, she walks into the crowd that has dispersed around Hyeri's retreating caravan. We hurry to catch up.
What did Shin and Shiki fight over, if not their love of Hyeri? What hurt have they caused one another that must be forgiven? Having met Shin, I don't find it difficult to believe he's involved in a feudâwith a god, no less.
e dark-eyed boy was so infuriatingâhe stole my voice! He might not realize it, or care, but he's in a feud with
We reach the other end of the bridge. “
ere it is!” Dai shouts. “Lotus House!”
A massive stone wall takes up an entire block of street.
e tops of great trees line the perimeter, obscuring what lies on the other side.
e only entrance is a wide gate manned by guards dressed in black. At the moment, they're allowing individuals through one by one, matching names to an official-looking scroll.
I swallow thickly, faced with the impossibility of my task. Not only do I have to lie my way past those walls
without a voice
, but then somehow locate a small bird and figure out how to restore it to its original form.
I've been fortunate to meet Mask, Dai, and Miki, but soon
they will leave, and I'll be on my own once moreâwith only a knife and my grandmother's stories.
Mask places a warm hand on my shoulder. “I thought you were brave! No need to look so fearful. You are a Sea God's bride, are you not? You have a purpose, and you won't give up until you've seen it carried through to the end, or at least tried your very hardest. Or have you already tried your hardest?”
I shake my head.
“Good!” She steers me away from the gate, rounding a corner to where Dai waits outside a small side door facing a much less-traveled back road. He unstraps his knapsack, giving Miki a kiss before handing her over to Mask. “Leave it to me,” he says.