Authors: Axie Oh
Confidently, he approaches the door and raps loudly against the wooden frame.
I rush to follow, coming up behind him just as the door cracks open. A girl around my age peers out at us, with a wide, frowning mouth; sharp, intelligent eyes; and long brown hair pinned up in a messy bun. Flyaway hairs curl around a familiar, heart-shaped face.
When I was growing up,
there was a girl in my village whom I admired above all others, in part because I was so afraid of her. A friend of Joon's, she was two years older than me and bright as the day, with a reckless heart. Joon had a gentle nature, and because he was big for his age, he would often get teased by the other children.
It was Nari who would stick up for him. When she intervened in the bullies' attacks, they would listen. When she condemned their cruel words, they would beg her forgiveness. To have Nari's good opinion was to have the sun's light upon you. Or I imagined that's what it must have felt like; she never paid much attention to me. Last I'd seen her was a year ago when she'd jumped into the storm-flooded river to retrieve the boats that had torn away from the dock.
e river surged, taking the boatsâand Nariâaway with it to the sea. I never thought I'd see her again. Yet here she is before me, smiling and in tears.
“Mina, it can't be.” Pulling me across the threshold, she enfolds me in a strong embrace, smelling like wildflowers and
the sturdy reeds that grow beside the river. “If you're here, that meansÂ â¦ that means you're dead!”
Ah, of course she would think that.
e only way to enter the Spirit Realm is by dying or being spirited away by the dragon. And she, like everyone in my village, had always known Shim Cheong was meant to be this year's bride.
“I'm alive. It's just thatâ”
I sigh. She can't hear me.
“And Joon! Your poor brother. To lose you and Cheong in the same night. He must be devastated. Tell me, how did it happen? Did you drown during the storm? Was it a raiding party from the north?”
“You've got it all wrong!” a loud, indignant voice interrupts. “She's not dead! She's a Sea God's bride.”
Releasing me, Nari turns to where Dai stands outside the door. He's alone; Mask and Miki have disappeared.
“Who's the boy, Mina?” Nari asks with a frown. “Has he been bothering you? Say the word and I'll get rid of him.” She reaches for a long pole with a curved blade leaning up against the wall. I hadn't noticed before, but she's wearing the same black robes and armored vest as the guards outside the main gate.
“I'm Mina's friend,” Dai shouts. “Unlike you, accusing her of being dead when she's clearly a Sea God's bride.”
Nari's eyes widen. “A bride? ButÂ â¦ what year is it? One hundred years since the emperor disappeared.
ey were going to sacrifice Shim Cheong, if I remember correctly. And brides are always eighteen. You must be sixteen now, the same age I was when I died. Mina, why aren't you saying anything?”
“I can't speak.”
“She can't speak,” Dai says. “Her voice was stolen and transformed into a bird!”
I would think this of all explanations would be hard to believe.
“Ah,” Nari says. “
at makes sense. Last year there was a huge upset after Lord Shin cut Hyeri's Red String of Fate and her soul turned into a minnow. Her lover, the death god Shiki, demanded its return. When Lord Shin refused, they had a great battle, right here in this very house.”
Dai tilts his head to the side. “Who won?”
“It's not certain.
ose who witnessed the fight believe Lord Shin had the advantage, and would have won, had Hyeri not intervened at the last minute.”
Which means Shin
. I feel a smug satisfaction at this bit of knowledge.
“One final question remains.” Dai leans forward conspiratorially. “Would you ever go against the wishes of your lord?”
“Of course not.” Nari grips her pole firmly. “I am a loyal servant of Lotus House.”
Dai grabs my arm. “Let's go, Mina.”
“Wait!” Nari reaches out, catching my sleeve. “If you truly are the Sea God's bride, then that means you've come here to retrieve your soul.” She frowns, her brows furrowed in thought. “I remember you, Mina. I remember the way you used to follow Joon and me around, onto the beaches and down the forest paths. I have to admit, I found you bothersome. I never was one for patience. I always wanted to race ahead.”
She pauses, her dark eyes thoughtful. “Not like Joon. I used to wonder to myself,
Is this what it's like to have a younger sibling?
wouldn't know, being an only child myself. Because Joon, knowing you followed, always walked a little slower.”
I feel a tightness in my chest.
“He loved you, Mina. And I loved him as a true friend. I have a new life here, one that I plan on keeping for as long as I can, but I
help youâfor you and for your brother. You can trust me.”
is time, she holds out her hand, and I take it. Dai grins from where he watches the exchange by the doorway. “What was the plan to get her inside?” Nari asks him now.
“I thought she could pose as a servant.”
Nari steps back to get a closer look at me, then nods, satisfied. “
at should work.”
“Wonderful! I leave her in your capable hands.” Dai pushes me through the doorway. “I wish you luck, Mina!”
He takes off down the street, calling over his shoulder, “When we meet again, I look forward to hearing your voice!”
I lean my head out the door and wave until he's disappeared around the corner. Stepping back inside, I look about to see that we're standing in a small cobblestoned courtyard. An open gate to the right reveals a pathway leading deeper into the house's grounds. In the middle of the courtyard is a cherry tree with white and pink blossoms. From its elegant branches dangle paper charms, a few swaying, others spinning slowly in the light wind.
is is the servants' courtyard,” Nari says, coming up beside me after closing the door. “We should go unnoticed here for a time.” She gestures for me to sit upon a stone carved in the likeness of a turtle.
en she walks over to the tree, grabs a shallow tin bucket, and places it near my feet. I peer inside to see the
bucket is filled with rainwater. “Wash up and I'll find you some slippers.”
Immediately I comply, sinking my feet in the warm water and scrubbing off the dirt and soot from the streets. Nari returns, handing me an apronâI tie it around my waistâas well as a white piece of cloth.
is I secure around my nose and mouth to conceal my face.
“Illness is rare in the Spirit Realm,” she explains, “but anyone might wish to hide their face after a night of heavy drinking.” Last, Nari hands me a pair of sturdy slippers. After I slide them on, she looks me over. I must make a passable servant, because she nods, turning and gesturing for me to follow her out the eastern gate.
From the servants' courtyard, we step onto a wide dirt path. On either side are large cookhouses, the savory scents of soy sauce and rice wine wafting through the windows. A door to the left slides open, and we press our backs to the nearest wall, watching as servants dressed in light blue uniforms emerge, each carrying a tray of covered dishes. We count our breaths as they pass, then quietly slip down a grassy road lined with large earthenware pots, emerging close to the outer wall.
“It's called a house,” Nari explains as we climb a small hill scattered with flowering pear trees, “but it's actually a large residence encompassing several buildings with gardens, fields, and lakes in between them. If we get separated, you're to look for a pavilion northeast of where we are now. It sits atop a small pond and can only be accessed by boat, or a bridge on the south side.
at should be where they're keeping your soul.
e area isn't
crowded, and should be even less so tonight, with most of the activity centered around the main pavilion.”
As we crest the hill that overlooks the grounds of Lotus House, I stop to catch my breath.
A magnificent lake lies below, spanning almost the full length of the grounds. Lotus flowers bloom across the dark water to the center of the lake, where a shining pavilion sits upon a small island. Tonight, it appears to be the gathering place for a celebration. Figures dressed in bright colors move among the great stone columns, and sounds of music and laughter drift from the upper-floor balconies.
ere are two bridges leading to the pavilion. On the western bridge, I spot at least four covered palanquins carried on the shoulders of liveried bearers, while the torches on the eastern bridge are unlit.
I wonder why they've come tonight. I remember how earlier the guards at the gate were only allowing through select individuals.
ey're here to act as witnesses,” Nari says, following my gaze. “Every year all the great houses of the realm gather to ensure the tie between the Sea God and his bride is broken. While the Sea God remains asleep, there are some in the city who'd take control for themselves.” She nods toward two of the larger processions entering through the gate, one arrayed entirely in red and gold, the other in silver and blue. “
e lords of Tiger House and Crane House, to name the leaders of two of the more ambitious houses. By severing the tie that would make the Sea God mortal through his connection with you, Lord Shin keeps the Sea
God invulnerable to attack, and the great lords under control, at least for another year.”
She turns from the lake. “Enough lingering. Come, Mina. We're close.”
telling the truth, back in the Sea God's hall. He severed the Red String of Fate to protect the Sea God from those who might seek to replace the god in power. In anyone else, such a show of loyalty would be considered honorable. My chest tightens with an unwelcome sensation at the thought of the dark-eyed lord.
Turning from the lake, I climb down the opposite side of the hill, where Nari has already disappeared into a copse of trees. I find her crouched down behind a low bush, peering over the edge at a clearing.
e pond is just on the other side of this building.” She nods toward a large open-wall pagoda, spilling light onto the wet grass. I can see the shapes of people inside, seated around low tables. From the sounds of laughter and porcelain cups clinking together, they must be drinking.
I look past the pagoda to the trees; somewhere beyond them lies the pond, the pavilion, and my voice.
“We have the advantage of darkness,” Nari says. “You go first.
ey'll take little notice of a servant. Are you ready?”
I check the back of my mask to make sure it's secure around my mouth, then step onto the path. We might be in full view of the pagoda, but it's dark out, and the people inside are more interested in their entertainment. A musician taps a rhythmic
beat on a drum as a clown in a bridal maskâa mask painted white with bright red circles on its cheeksâtumbles in and around the tables, as if caught in the swell of a great wave.
I hurry past the pagoda toward the shadows of the forest on the other side.
e trees loom up before me, a dense thicket with a small path trailing into darkness. My steps falter at the sight of it, but then I take a deep breath, grabbing my skirt to run.
I recognize the voice. An image flashes through my mind from only a few hours earlier. Curly hair. A crooked smile.
Are you a bride or are you a bird?
I bring my fingers to
my face to ensure the mask covers my nose and mouth and gauge the distance between myself and the tree line. Namgi's footsteps crunch as he approaches; a pebble skitters ahead of him, tapping the heel of my slipper.
“We've gone through all the wine-spirits,” he says, his low, rough voice slurred. Clearly he thinks I'm a servant. “A pitcher or two more shouldâ”
His cheerful tone falters. “Why are you going that way?
ere is nothing for you over there.”
I can't respondâI have no voice! And even if I did, what would I say? I bow slightly, casting my eyes to the ground. His shadow is almost upon mine. Inwardly, I curse.
“Lord Namgi!” Nari calls out in a loud, confident voice. “Let the girl alone. She has her own tasks to complete without the burden of completing yours.”
ere's a short pause as I neither move nor breathe.
en Namgi chuckles, his voice receding as he turns to Nari. “Your barbed tongue never disappoints.”
“You can go, girl,” Nari says in that same assured manner. “Never mind his lordship's drunken ramblings.”
I seize the opening Nari provided and walk away with purpose.
“Am I drunk?” I can hear Namgi's voice as I slip between the trees. “I can never tell.
e world looks the same to me drunk as it does sober.”
“Let's test this theory,” Nari quips. “Shall we wager on a game of cards?”
Leaving the pagoda behind, I travel deeper into the forest, the heady triumph of my escape dimming the farther I walk, the path before me dark and winding. Unlike at the servants' quarters or the pavilion beside the lake, the trees here are numerous; their thick canopies block out the moonlight. An eerie silence hangs over the forest, and I'm tempted to turn back, if only to hear the sounds of voices again.
When I was a child, I lost my way in the great forest that lies beyond our village. I had been following Joon and Nari when, glimpsing a fox, I wandered off the path. I roamed for hours, finally taking shelter in the roots of a large camphor tree. I sat, curled up with my knees to my chest, and sobbed heartily, afraid I would be lost in the forest foreverâor worse, eaten by a demon.
I don't remember how I eventually got out of the forest, whether I was found or whether I discovered a way out myself. I must have been five or six years old, and yet the memory is hidden from me, veiled in mist, as if my mind were protecting me from some greater hurt. All I remember is the fear.
A light appears out of the darkness, winking through the
trees. With relief, I follow it until I reach the edge of the forest.
e pavilion is just as Nari described it, on an island at the center of a pond, accessible only by a narrow wooden bridge.
e winking light comes from a lantern held by a single figure making his slow way across the bridge. Immediately I recognize the bearer of the lantern.
e Goddess of Fortune laughs at me tonight.
I step behind a tree as Kirin draws near. I almost startle when a second figure appears to melt from the darkness to join himâa woman, dressed in the same armor as Nari.
She bows. “My lord.”
Kirin acknowledges her with an elegant dip of his head. “Have you any news to report?”
e guests have all been searched. Nothing of note was discovered but for a few body weapons among the priestesses of Fox House, which we allowed them to keep per Lord Shin's orders. Most of the guests grumbled but submitted themselves to be searched.
e lords of Tiger House and Crane House, however, provedÂ â¦ difficult.
ey protested loudly and accused Lotus House of dishonoring its guests.”
At this, Kirin growls, “Such insolence should not be allowed. Lord Shin is too forgiving.”
When the guard doesn't respond in kind, Kirin demands, “What is it? You look as if you wish to speak.”
She hesitates, then says, “
ere have been rumors circulating among the guests that the Sea God's power is waning, and so is Lord Shin's. Less than a year ago, he was defeated by Shiki, their friendship broken irreparably. Without such a staunch and powerful ally, many believe Lord Shin's role as guardian of this
city is at an end. And the Sea God, without Lord Shin to protect himâ¦”
e guard's voice fades as she and Kirin move away from the tree. Keeping low to the ground, I follow, curious to hear more of their conversation. When I catch up, however, it's only to find Kirin voicing his dismissal.
“Tell the others to keep their eyes open. I wouldn't put it past Crane or Tiger to stir up trouble tonight.”
She bows, stepping backward. “Yes, my lord.” She leaves just as she arrived, appearing to blend into the darkness. Soon she's a blur of movement at the corner of my eye.
Alone now, Kirin sighs, turning his gaze toward the pond. A lone heron sweeps over the water, the tip of its wing brushing the surface. “Protecting the Sea God is too much a burden to bear, even for you, Shin.”
I step back and a branch snaps beneath my foot. Immediately Kirin's head turns, and I duck, wincing at my clumsiness.
rough a gap in the foliage, I watch as Kirin peers into the forest. For a moment his eyes seem almost to glow a bright, burning silver, and then a squirrel leaps from the underbrush, skittering up the trunk of a tree. When I look back, Kirin's eyes are brown once more.
Slowly he moves down the same path the guard took, toward the lake. When he's safely out of sight, I step out from the trees and make my way across the bridge.
at unwelcome feeling from earlier steals back into my heart, that perhaps I misjudged Shin. I don't yet have a complete understanding of the troubles of this realm, but they remind me of home, where because of a weak and spineless ruler, warlords
squabble over land and shed blood because of petty grievances. It must be the same here. In the Sea God's absence, the inhabitants of this realm, sensing a weakness, would try to upset the balance of power in their favor.
en there's Shin, who alone strives to hold back the tide. Like the people in my village. Like myself.
I shake my head, willing away the direction of my thoughts. Regardless if I feel sympathy for him, I have my own challenges, beginning with taking back my soul.
e pavilion is shrouded in darkness. If Nari hadn't been so certain the magpie was being held here, I might have searched in a place more heavily guarded, not one that appears abandoned. I pull open the door, and the moonlight behind me floods across dark wood. On either side of a narrow hall are rooms, the shadows of clouds moving across the thick paper walls.
Just as I'm closing the door behind me, another slides open down the hall. I throw myself into a corner, hunkering in the shadows. Two figures dressed in black slip across the corridor. I only glimpse them for a momentâone thickset, a sword at his waist, the other skinny, weasel-like, carrying a large crossbow strung across his shoulderâbefore they disappear through the opposite door.
Ironic, that they should steal from Shin, who stole from
. In all the stories, magpies warn of thieves.
To my right, stairs lead upward. I climb them quickly, careful not to make a sound. At the top is another narrow hall, this one shorter than the one below. Only a single door is set in the wall.
Inside, a sound stirs, like restless wings.
e magpie! I slide open the door, step inside, and shut it behind me.
Eagerly I sweep my gaze over the room, only for my heart to sink.
e magpie isn't here.
e source of the noise is a cool breeze rustling against the paper of the window.
e room is sparsely furnished. A low shelf sits beneath the window opposite the door. Against the wall to the right is a worn cabinet, and to the left, the only other object in the room is a folding paper screen.
e magpie must be in one of the rooms below. But how to avoid the thieves?
I reach for my knife, gripping the handle.
ere's a noise in the hall outside. Footsteps approaching. I rush to the screen and slip behind it, crouching low just as the door slides open.