Authors: Axie Oh
A figure enters the room,
holding a candle.
e light of the flame casts his silhouette onto the paper screen.
e intruder's shadow matches neither of the men I saw below. It's oddly shapedâa strange protrusion erupts from its back.
Suddenly, the shadow lengthens, the unmistakable stretch of wings unfurling, like those of a heavenly being. Or a demon. I press my back against the wall.
en a sound breaks the silence. A magpie's gentle warble.
Soundlessly he moves across the room, sliding the birdcage from his shoulder and placing it on the low shelf. How the Goddess of Fortune plays tricks with me tonight! First Namgi, then Kirin, and now Shin.
And the magpie. So close, I feel an echoing thump in my chest with every beat of its wings.
Shin's shadow moves back across the room. He's leaving without the magpie! My heart races with impending triumph.
But then he stops, as if he noticed something. I rack my brain for what might have caught his attention. I didn't touch any of the furniture after entering the room. Did my footprints leave marks upon the floor?
Lifting the candle, he blows out the flame.
e scents of smoke and plum blossoms fill the balmy air.
My heart beats rapidly in my chest.
e silence stretches interminably. When I can't bear it any longer, I peer around the screen. He's gone.
e room is as empty as before.
No, there's one difference:
e birdcage now sits on the low shelf.
e magpie shuffles its wings, excited by my presence.
is isn't the time to hesitate. Quickly I bound across the room, reaching for the cage.
“I thought I sensed a thief.”
I twist around. Shin leans against the frame of the doorway. His dark hair, slightly damp, is swept back from his face. He must have come from the bathhouse. He's changed from when I last saw him, wearing black silk robes, the collar edged with lotus flowers embroidered in silver thread. His sword is strapped to his waist.
“I'm impressed,” he says, watching me through half-lidded eyes. “You are blessed with luck to have made it this far.”
“Funny, I feel like luck has escaped me all night.”
He frowns. “I can't see your lips from here. I don't know what you're saying.”
“Just because you can't hear the words doesn't mean they're not being said.”
He straightens and steps past the threshold. “I don't think a bride has ever given me as much trouble as you have.”
“What about Hyeri? From what I hear, you lost a match to her intended. Did it hurt your pride, to be thwarted by a human?”
His eyes narrow. “You're still speaking.”
“It's your own fault that you can't hear me. Anyhow, it's better this way. If you knew what I was saying, you would not be pleased.”
He approaches from across the room, stepping into the moonlight before me. I feel a tick of annoyance, reminded again of the differences in our height. My eyes are level with the intricate threadwork of lotus flowers on his collar. We stand so close, I can see the pulse beating steadily in his neck. I can smell the fresh scent of his robes, a blend of lavender, mint, and sandalwood.
“Speak your offenses,” he says, “now that I can see you clearly.”
He's so close to me, I feel my cheeks releasing a telltale blush. I grit my teeth and lift my chin.
“You are the real thief here.”
ere's a pause as he puzzles out the words from my lips.
en he says, speaking so softly I have to strain to hear him, “I should have known that you wouldn't give up so easily.” His eyes flit over my shoulder to the birdcage.
I know what happens next. I'll be thrown out of Lotus House, as I was at the palace, all chances of retrieving my soul lost. Stepping forward, I draw his gaze back to me.
“Let me help you,”
I can admit now that I had misjudged him at our first meeting. His actions, while misguided, were in service to the Sea God. If I can somehow convince him that my actions are also in service to the god, he could be an ally to meâa strong one, if the vastness of his house and the loyalty of his people are any indication.
His eyes move from my lips to my eyes. “
ere is nothing you can do that can help me.”
I take a breath.
“You were right about sensing thieves.”
I watch him watch my lips, his frown deepening as he sees what I have to say.
“I saw two enter one of the rooms below. One is large, bearlike.
e other is short, butÂ â¦ more dangerous, I think. Perhaps they want to hurt you for something you stole from them. Just like I want to hurt you for what you've stolen from me.
” I can't help adding this last bit.
“Why should I trust what you have to say?”
Outside in the hall, there's a creak.
“Because I want your help in return.”
His eyes leave my lips to hold my gaze.
Soft, almost silent footsteps draw near, belonging to many more people than the two I'd seen below.
It's my turn to read his lips.
, he mouths, nodding toward the paper screen. I move back into my previous position, crouching low.
e door crashes open.
Feet pound against the floor as opponents rush through, circling the room. I scramble back as the screen moves, pushed
from the other side. My knees knock against the paper. A heavy silence descends over the room, thick with tension.
en there's the slow glide of steel as Shin draws his sword. A shout goes up, and the gang of thieves surges forward.
e whole room erupts into chaos. Steel clashes against steel. Low grunts and cries of pain fill the air. I grip my knife, unsure whether to remain hidden or join the fight. I can't differentiate Shin's voice from the rest, if he's wounded, if he needs my help. Something large topples over, banging against the floorâthe cabinet. A spray of blood splatters across the paper screen, like ink on canvas.
e magpie lets out a cry of distress. Standing, I step from behind the screen.
e floor is littered with the bodies of a dozen or so men. Only two intruders remain standing.
ey face off with Shin, including the bearlike man from earlier.
“Lord Shin!” he calls out, one hand pressing down a wound at his shoulder. “You serve a weak and thankless master. Lend your strength to our lord and you will be rewarded.”
Shin stands by the window, his sword at his side. Even after so unequal a fight, he appears composed, his back straight and face expressionless.
en I notice the blood trickling down his wrist. He's hurt. “And whom,” he says, his voice low, “do you serve?”
e bear looks to answer, but his comrade hisses, “Don't be fooled! He would have us reveal our master, only to kill us immediately after. Keep to the task we were given.
e bird is our prize.”
I frown. Why are they after my soul?
Shin's eyes flicker to where I stand, though neither of the men takes notice. With a roar, the bearlike man charges forward. Shin bends backward, and the sword skims above his throat. Moving with impossible speed, he grabs the shoulder of the other thief, stabbing him through the stomach; he slumps to the floor.
e bear man, clearly stunned, drops his sword and rushes toward the door.
As he passes the threshold, moonlight glints off something in the far corner, cloaked in shadows.
e weasel-like man with the crossbow. In the chaos, I'd forgotten about him.
He nocks a bolt, aiming its silver tip at Shin's chest.
I don't hesitate. I sprint across the room. Everything happens in a moment. I collide with Shin.
e bolt from the crossbow whizzes over our heads, splintering the window.
warted, the weasel-like thief flees the room. As Shin and I fall together, we knock against the low shelf.
e birdcage wobbles at the lip of the edge, then drops.
Time seems to stand still as it falls, fracturing upon impact with the floor and releasing the bird.
e magpie flaps its red-tipped wings, letting out a shrill, piercing sound, before bursting in an explosion of light.
I flinch at its radiance.
e darkness after the light is blinding, and the silence after the bird's call is deafening.
Until I hear it.
My breath. Heavy and rasping.
Until I see it.
Spread between my hand and Shin's is a bright red ribbon.
e Red String of Fate.
Our eyes meet.
“Oh no,” I say.
My voice comes out as clear as a chime.
Neither Shin nor I move
as we stare at the Red String of Fate suspended between us. Shin's the first to react. He reaches for his sword, plunging it downward. It passes
the string and lodges in the wooden floorboards. His gaze meets mine, a troubled look in his eyes. I try next, taking my knife and slicing in an upward motion.
e Red String of Fate remains intact, almost cheerfully soâa bright, shimmering bond of light.
“How could this have happened?” Shin says, but his words are more to himself than to me.
I scramble to my feet, stepping onto the wooden splinters of the birdcage. “You said the magpie was my soulÂ â¦ Perhaps, when returning to me, it got tangled up with yours.” It's the only explanation I can think of.
Shin shakes his head. “It's not possible.”
I hold out my hand to where he still sits on the floor.
He raises a brow, his expression skeptical. “What are you doing?”
“Maybe if our hands touch, the Red String of Fate will come full circle and disappear. Our souls will return to us.”
He frowns. “
at soundsÂ â¦ unlikely.”
I tap my foot. “We should try everything we can. When I reached out to the Sea God, for a moment it
at is, unless you're afraid?”
As I intended, his expression changes, and I smile, feeling a bit smug. But then, as he moves to take my hand, I have a sudden thoughtâlike I was with the Sea God, could I be drawn into his memories? Could he be drawn into mine?
A paper boat ripped in half. My sister-in-law in tears. My grandmother screaming my name as I ran and ran and ranÂ â¦
He takes my hand in his strong grip. His skin is dry and warm.
Nothing happens. I see now the foolishness of my plan. Blushing, I move to extricate myself, but he doesn't let go. I frown. “What are youâ”
He yanks me forward, and I nearly fall to the floor. He moves quickly, shifting over me to catch my head with his other hand. For a moment I blink up at the ceiling, stunned.
en slowly he interlocks our fingers, increasing the pressure of his palm against my own.
e Red String of Fate flares, as if we hold a burning star between us. I look up to see the light of the string, and my own startled face, reflected in his dark eyes.
“Well,” he drawls deliberately, “has your soul returned to you?”
And though I know he's mocking me, my heart still stutters in my chest. He releases my hand just as Namgi dashes into the room, sword drawn.
“Shin!” he shouts. “I heard a commotionâ¦” He trails off, his eyes alighting on Shin and me on the floor. He lowers his sword. “
is is unexpected.”
Shin ignores him, rising to his feet.
e Red String of Fate lengthens as he moves across the room, crouching to inspect one of the fallen thieves. “
eir uniforms don't bear insignia.”
“Who would dare attack Lotus House?” Namgi says loudly. “Tell me, and I will go and hunt them down, tear them limb from limb. Destroy their homes, their sons, their goats, if they have themâ”
I interrupt his tirade. “Where were you a few minutes ago? Not drinking to excess, I hope.”
“Ah.” Namgi points at me. “You've got your voice back.”
Suddenly, Shin looks up from where he's been crouching. “Namgi, do you not see it?”
Namgi cocks his head to the side. “See what?”
e ribbon floats in the airâred and glittering. Unmistakable.
I turn to Shin. “What does it mean that he cannot see it?”
Shin grimaces. “Nothing good.”
Behind us there's a crackle and a pop of sound.
e bodies of the thieves begin to fade, smoke swirling off them. After a few minutes, all that's left are piles of empty clothing and discarded weapons. Even the blood on the paper screen has vanished.
“Where did they go?” I ask.
ey've returned to the River of Souls,” Shin says. “
eir second life has ended.”
eir last life,” Namgi adds. “No more coming back for them.”
I shudder. I'm not unfamiliar with death, but seeing it never gets easier.
Shin wrenches his sword from the floor and sheathes it. “We'd better hurry to the main pavilion. It's almost midnight.”
He looks toward the broken window, where the night seems to pulse. I notice a new scent in the air, like sulfur.
“What about her?” Namgi says, throwing a glance in my direction.
“She comes with us.”
is earns an eyebrow raise from Namgi, but he doesn't question Shin.
We leave the pavilion. Outside, the once balmy summer night is now hot and dry.
Trailing Shin, Namgi sweeps back his wide sleeves to reveal wiry arms tattooed with intricate markings. “What are you going to do about the soul?” he asks, glancing at me. “Everyone will expect some evidence that you've taken it.”
“I'll think of something,” Shin says, then proceeds to lengthen his stride.
Instead of the forest, we follow the path Kirin traveled earlier over a green field. I look up, expecting to see stars, but the sky is filled with dark, ominous clouds. A fire must be burning somewhere, because I can smell the smoke.
Namgi slows to a walk beside me. His hand is on the hilt of his sword, his eyes on the sky. He wears a grim, worried expression.
“What you said earlier,” I say. “What did you mean by my soul being used as evidence?”
“Ah, it's part of the yearly ritual. Why all these opportunistic
spirits are in our house, drinking all our good liquor.
ey've come to bear witness that the Red String of Fate has been cut, ensuring some semblance of peace, at least until next year.
e evidence is the soul of the brideâyour soul.
ough now that it's gone, I don't know what we'll do.” Namgi scratches his chin with his knife, appearing unconcerned.
“How long has this ritual been going on for?” I ask.
“No one knows for sure. But if you're the one hundredth bride, it stands to reason for as long as that.
ings get a bit hazy in the Sea God's realm, where spirits and gods can live indefinitely. One day is much like the next. One century, too, for that matter.
protected the Sea God. He's the head of Lotus House, and his duty is to serve him. Nothing drives Shin like his sense of duty.”
If he protects the Sea God, then should he not help the brides in breaking the curse? But I swallow my question for now.
Shin leads us across the unlit eastern bridge I saw earlier with Nari, toward the pavilion on the lake.
e bright interior is filled with people reclining on silk cushions as they pick from tables laden with fruit and colorful rice cakes. I spot what must be the lords of Tiger and Crane Houses, judging by the miniature courts they've set up on either side of the pavilion.
e music stops at our arrival. Kirin approaches, his light, enigmatic eyes sweeping over me before settling on Shin.
ey're here,” he says.
At first I think he means the lords of Tiger and Crane Houses,
but then I notice that every person in the pavilion has their gaze trained on the sky over the lake.
A storm appears to be rolling in, bringing with it that sul-furic stench from before, but now it's more pronounced. Inside the pavilion, guests lift silken cloths to their mouths.
e heat grows unbearable, dry and thick. A scalding wind sweeps low across the ground, and the Red String of Fate whips to the side. Above, the sky begins to writhe, swelling and pulsating as if a great heart beats within the darkness.
At first, I can't discern what I see, but then I start to make out shapes in the tumult. Snakelike creatures, as large as dragons, but without horns or limbs.
ey blend with the sky in colors of deep red, indigo, and black.
“Imugi,” Kirin growls.
My grandmother's stories never spoke of creatures such as these, as large as rivers, and so many in number they appear to swallow the night.
I feel a pressure on my shoulder. “Stay here,” Shin says, pushing me lightly toward Kirin. “Namgi, with me.” As Shin turns away, Kirin frowns, though his eyes never land on the bright ribbon. Like Namgi, he can't see it.
Together Shin and Namgi move to the opening of the pavilion that faces the well-lit western bridge, the crowd stepping back to give them space.
One by one, the creatures in the sky descend into the lake outside the pavilion. As they plunge downward, gusts of wind from their bodies blow out the lanterns on the bridge, leaving only
the pavilion in light.
ere's a resounding boom, and water from the lake splashes onto the smooth wooden floorboards. Several guests scream, hushed quickly by their neighbors. In the ensuing silence, all eyes turn to where the end of the bridge meets the pavilion. In my imagination, I conjure up the gruesome face of a snakelike dragon stretching its neck through the opening, eyes burning like fire.
e blackness undulates.
ose standing nearest scatter in fear. I hold my breath.
A man steps off the bridge, followed closely by two others.
ey have tall, wiry bodies, dark hair, and black eyes, though something about their appearances seems familiar.
ey enter the pavilion, moving swiftly and silently through the crowd. Behind them, the lake is empty. No sign of the snake creatures. And yet, as I watch these men prowl nearer, I have the distinct impression that the great beasts haven't vanished.
ey walk among us.
e first of them reaches Shin, giving a short, succinct bow. “Lord Shin.”
“We've come to bear witness for the Goddess of Moon and Memory. Where is the soul of the Sea God's bride?”
Shin hesitates for a brief moment, then speaks, his voice carrying across the pavilion. “I don't have it.”
Murmurings break out in the crowd. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the tall lord of Crane House lean over to whisper something into the stout lord of Tiger's ear.
Ryugi frowns. “I don't believe you. You've never shown up
without it.” His hooded gaze sweeps the assembled people. “You must have the bride. Where is she?”
Shin's eyes flit briefly to the Red String of Fate. By now it's clear the string is invisible to everyone but us. “I don't have to explain myself to you.”
Ryugi steps forward with a growl. “What is this? Do you defy the goddess?”
I try to remember if I know anything about the Goddess of Moon and Memory, but though I'm familiar with most of the gods and goddesses of the realm, I have no knowledge of her.
She must be a powerful goddess, to command such a force of creatures.
When Shin doesn't immediately respond, Ryugi grows visibly frustrated, his nostrils flaring. His eyes appear to glow with a haze of red. “
e goddess will have an answer, Lord Shin.”
“She's no goddess of mine,” Shin says coldly.
Immediately the two men standing behind Ryugi bare their teeth and reach for their swords. Namgi mirrors their actions, slipping a dagger from his belt, a wild, gleeful expression on his face.
Kirin's calm voice interjects from beside me. “No need for bloodshed.
e Sea God's bride is here.” He pushes me, and I stumble forward.
A brief silence follows as everyone in the courtyard stares.
en Ryugi snarls at Kirin, “You dare to mock us, Silver One? If she is a bride, then I need new eyes.”
His comment draws nervous laughter from the crowd.
“If you doubt my words,” Kirin says, “bring her to your goddess. She will see the girl is human and whole of soul.”
A low baritone voice interrupts, Lord Tiger speaking from where he stands. “And what would keep the goddess from killing the girl and taking power for herself?”
“If she is the bride, then where is the Red String of Fate?”
is question comes from Lord Crane, who watches me carefully with sharp, intelligent eyes.
rough a series of strange occurrences, the bride's tie to the Sea God has been broken
her soul returned to her,” Namgi says. “
e strangest of those occurrences being a failed theft in this very house not but half an hour ago. Who is responsible for sending the thieves has yet to be determined, but if you have suggestions for who might have betrayed us, my lords, I am all ears.”
is threat has its intended effect. Both Lord Crane and Lord Tiger step back, appearing unwilling to argue further.
“Lord Shin is a loyal servant,” Kirin continues as if he hadn't been interrupted. “He would not let you take her if she truly was bound to the Sea God.”
Ryugi growls. “We'll take the girl, but if we find out you've been lying to us, the wrath of the goddess will be upon you all.” Ryugi nods in my direction, and one of his henchmen approaches.
I reach for my great-great-grandmother's knife. Somehow I know that going with them would be worse than having my soul stolen. A powerful goddess, yet I have no knowledge of her. My grandmother often said that the most dangerous of gods are the ones who are forgotten.
Shin steps in front of the henchman before he can reach me. “Kirin, no matter his good intent, does not speak for me.”
Kirin bows his head and steps back, all deference, though I notice the clenching of his jaw.
Ryugi has clearly grown impatient with these proceedings, narrowing his eyes. “If her soul truly has returned to her, then you will not protest our taking the Sea God's bride.”