Authors: Axie Oh
“She is not the Sea God's bride,” Shin says.
Ryugi growls. “Playing games, Lord Shin? I'm running out of patience. If you won't give me the bride, then I'llâ”
A stunned silence follows this statement. Kirin looks up, shocked. Behind Shin, Namgi grins from ear to ear.
Ryugi blinks. “Lord Shin, I don't understand.”
“Tell your goddess that I have taken a bride. If she wishes to meet Lady Mina, she may visit, or wait until the wedding. As it is, my bride stays with me, where she is safest. She is human, after all.”
“Wedding?” I whisper.
Shin's cautious gaze meets mine. “At the end of the month,” he says. He attempts to communicate something with his eyes. At first I don't understand.
en I remember the words I spoke to him earlier, before the thieves appeared to steal my soul.
Let me help you.
Perhaps this is his way of telling me that he accepts.
Ryugi scowls. “You've lost your head.”
“I believe,” Namgi says, “it is his heart he might have lost.”
If Namgi means to distract Ryugi, his plan is successful; Ryugi turns to Namgi with almost gleeful malice. “Ay, little brother. You
were quick to draw your sword earlier. So eager to take blood from your blood.”
Brother? I look between Namgi and Ryugi and his men. When they entered the pavilion, something about them seemed familiar. Now, as Ryugi stands face-to-face with Namgi, the resemblance is clearâcoal-black hair and eyes glittering with menace.
Although perhaps, Namgi not so much. His eyes shine bright with mischief. “Ah,” he sighs. “How I've not missed you.”
“Our mother asks for you. You should visit her and pay your respects.”
“Mother would rip off my head, if she were to see me.”
Ryugi slides his gaze over to Kirin. “I see you still fight alongside the Silver One. Tell me, does he weep in his dreams, knowing each and every one of his kind has been murdered by ours?”
is question is met with a heavy, weighted silence. I take a peek at Kirin, but his face is expressionless, giving nothing of his thoughts away.
Namgi shrugs. “I wouldn't know. I don't sleep with him.”
Ryugi growls before turning back to Shin. “We will deliver this”âhe sneers, voice dripping with contemptâ“news to the goddess.”
He signals to his companions, and they follow him from the pavilion out onto the bridge.
ey disappear into the darkness.
ere's the powerful sound of wind buffeting against the ground, and the sky fills with the heavy thunder of great beasts.
e murmurs of the crowd don't pick up until the sounds fade into the distance.
I turn to Shin. “A month, you said.”
e significance of the timeframe is not lost on me. If what he said in the Sea God's hall is true, then after spending thirty days in the Spirit Realm I will become a spirit, too.
“A month for you to figure out how to save the Sea God,” he replies, “and a month for me to figure out how to be rid of you.”
“Lord Shin.” Kirin approaches from behind us. “I offer you my congratulations, though I'll admit, I find it surprising.”
“Diplomatic as always,” Namgi says. “Just ask him to explain himself.”
Kirin looks more affronted than when Ryugi said the Imugi had killed all of his people. “I would never presume to demand an explanation.”
“Are the priestesses from Fox House still in attendance?” Shin asks, either not hearing or choosing to ignore the bickering of his companions.
ey are,” Kirin says. “
ough now that they've witnessed the events of the night, I'm sure they'll be departing soon.”
“Inform them we'll be joining their convoy,” Shin orders. “I wish to consult with their mistress.”
Kirin appears to want to inquire further but restrains himself. Bowing, he leaves to carry out Shin's orders.
Namgi, who was watching Kirin with a bemused expression on his face, glances around before lowering his voice. “Is it wise for
of us to travel to Fox House?”
“Fox House is the oldest of the houses, their mistress the wisest,” Shin replies. “She will have the knowledge I seek.”
“Yes. But is it safe to bring
there?” Namgi clarifies.
Namgi's question finally seems to impress upon him, because Shin glances at me, an inscrutable look passing over his features.
“Why not?” I ask, suspicious now. Shin might have agreed to help me, but I don't yet trust him. “What's wrong with Fox House?”
“You're a human,” Namgi says, rather unhelpfully.
Namgi's grin could light a candle. “
e head of Fox House is a demon.”
Two boats depart from Lotus
House, one carrying Shin, Namgi, and myself, the other Kirin and three fierce-looking women, garbed in the red-and-white robes of priestesses.
Already the news of what happened at Lotus House seems to have spread throughout the city. We pass by boats traveling in the opposite direction. Upon catching sight of Shin, their occupants ask if the rumors are true, if he truly is to marry a human girl. And a Sea God's bride, no less!
Shin ignores them, closing his eyes as he leans against the prow of the boat. Instead, it's Namgi who answers by lifting one oar. “Lotus House has a lady at last!” he shouts. A cheer goes up.
No one pays me any attention, likely mistaking me for a servant.
“Are the people of the city always so interested in the affairs of the houses?” I ask, watching Namgi struggle to navigate a tight bend in the canal.
He only answers after finally managing to regain our course. “For spirits, when days often seem to blend together, any small
change riles them up.
at's why the arrival of the Sea God's bride is such a momentous occasion, an excuse as good as any for a celebration.”
Earlier, when I walked through the city with Mask, Dai, and Miki, it seemed like the city was in a festive mood, what with all the people out on the streets, the many lanterns, food, and fireworks. Even in Lotus House it was a party.
Not like at home. Is this why the gods have abandoned us? Do they not care about the hardships of the human world because the Spirit Realm suffers no consequences?
And what of the spirits themselves, don't they remember what it was like to be human? Don't they worry for those they've left behind? Or do their memories, as Namgi implied, grow distant and hazy with time spent here in the Spirit Realm?
Outside a grand teahouse built over the canal, a crowd gathers, jostling one another to get a glimpse of our boat. I can't be sure, but I think I see a boy with thick hair slip through the crowd, an infant strapped to his back.
“It's true that the affairs of certain houses interest the spirits more than others,” Namgi continues blithely. “In the Sea God's city, there are eight great houses, all of which serve the Sea God. Shin is the head of the most powerful house, the one that all the others look to for guidance and order. While houses like Spirit House protect the interests of spirits, and Tiger and Crane, soldiers and scholars, respectively, Lotus House protects the interests of the gods.”
“And the gods protect humans,” I say.
I know I've caught Shin's attention when he slowly sits up, watching me closely.
e boat dips in the water, and I grip the seat, bracing my feet on the wooden boards.
Perhaps I shouldn't anger him. Our allianceâif I can even call it thatâis tentative at best. But the sounds of merrymaking now grate upon my ears, raucous laughter and out-of-tune singing, and cutting through it all a loud and clear soundâthe peal of a chime.
e boat rocks, bringing our bodies closer.
“Do you deny it, then,” I ask, “that gods are meant to protect humans?”
“I do deny it.” Shin's voice is low, his words as merciless and cruel as they were in the Sea God's hall. “Humans are fickle, violent creatures. Because they fear their own deaths, they are driven to war, scouring from the earth in seconds that which takes years to grow.”
“Only because death shadows them closely,” I retort. “Can you blame them, when death has no patience, slipping into their homes and stealing the breath from their children?”
“I can blame them,” he says, “just as you blame the gods for the follies of humans.”
“But it's supposed to be a circle, isn't it?
e gods protect the humans, and the humans pray to and honor the gods.”
at's just like a human to think the world revolves around you, to think the rivers are for you, the sky, the
is for you. You are just one of many parts of the world, and in my opinion, the one that blights them all.”
Namgi's eyes dart between us. A few yards away, Kirin watches from his boat, drawn by our raised voices.
Slowly I look up, holding Shin's gaze. “So you do protect the gods,” I say. “From humans.”
e rest of the boat ride is spent in silence, both of us leaning away from the other on the small bench.
e canal flows into a larger body of water, and we leave the luminous buildings of the city behind us, traveling into darkness. Ahead, a bright light flares up in Kirin's boat. Namgi follows suit, firing a torch that he hands to Shin.
Soon, I can't see anything beyond the light of the torches.
e darkness thickens. When I grip the edge of the boat, I find the wood dewed with mist.
en suddenly, I feel a great presence all around me, as if the air is weighted. Out of the darkness looms something huge, monstrous, as large as the dragon. Hundreds, thousands of them. I grip my knife and glance at Shin and Namgi, yet neither of them appears concerned.
en I look closer.
e great objects areÂ â¦
Â â¦ trees.
ey loom out of the water, seeming to rise up endlessly into the sky.
e boat drifts too close to one, and Namgi kicks off the trunk, diverting our movement.
ere's a subtle vibration in the air, as if the trees are humming. We arrive at the edge of a great forest, much larger than
the one within Lotus House, deeper and darker.
e boat slows, skimming over pebbles. Before it comes to a stop, Shin's already up, vaulting over the side.
e mistress of Fox House lives
?” I ask, staring into the dark forest. I can't make out a path through the dense thicket of trees. It's as if no one has lived here for a thousand years. No human, at least.
“Yes,” Namgi says. He offers a hand to help me disembark. “A suitable habitat for a fox demon, don't you think?”
I land in the shallow water and soak the hem of my skirt. Shin has joined with Kirin and the priestesses, and together they enter the forest. “You implied that it wouldn't be wise to bring me to Fox House because their leader mightÂ â¦ eat me.” I shudder. “But in my grandmother's stories, fox demons are evil spirits that prey solely upon men.”
is fox demon isn't so particular. Shall we?” Namgi grabs the torch from the boat, gesturing for me to follow.
As we approach the forest, it's as if the sounds around us pick up in volume, the reedy murmur of the insects, the humming of the trees.
en we step into the forest, and the sounds stop. I pause on the threshold, unable to go farther. My stomach sinks, that familiar fear taking hold. Namgi seems to share none of my misgivings. Already the light of his torch has grown smaller with distance. I rush ahead, almost crashing into him where he's stopped to investigate some disturbance in the forest.
“Whatâwhat's wrong?” I cry. “Why did you stop?”
He glances at me with a frown. “Looks like something big came through here.” He points to the trail, where a great branch has fallen onto the path and broken in two. Beside the branch is an impression in the ground, a large animal print. “I haven't been in this forest for a long time.
ey say the beasts, left undisturbed, can grow to enormous sizes. Tigers and snakes. Wolves and bears.” Namgi raises the torch, squinting at my face. “Are you all right? You look pale.”
“I'm fine,” I say, perhaps too quickly.
He shrugs and moves on, walking at an even faster pace than before.
“Wait, slow down.” I trip over a root, catching myself on a tree branch.
I watch the light of Namgi's torch move farther and farther away.
I try to make a run toward the light but instead end up sprawled on the ground.
Namgi returns to investigate. “Are you sure you're all right?” he asks again.
“I can't see. I need more light. Better yet, give me the torch.”
“I don't know.” Namgi scratches his cheek. “It seems unwise to give fire to a clumsy person in a forest.”
“It's a straight path.”
“I'm afraid of forests,” I blurt out, shame washing over me. How weak and human I must appear to him. When Namgi doesn't respond, I brush by him, trudging forward.
I've only walked a few paces when he slips his arm into mine.
“I'm afraid of a lot of things,” he says, “but not the darkness. I can see in the dark, you know.
at must be why. Really, I don't need this torch, but you do, so I'll hold it for you. Sometimes I can be thoughtless. And I like to tease. But you can depend upon me.”
He prattles on, and I concentrate on the sound of his voice.
e path ends in a small clearing where Shin, Kirin, and the priestesses wait for us.
“We don't have time to waste,” Kirin says.
Shin's eyes glide from Namgi to me, then he hands Kirin his torch. “Go on ahead and light the path.”
Kirin immediately obeys, accompanied by the Fox House priestesses. We leave the clearing, advancing even deeper into the forest. With Kirin in front and Namgi bringing up the rear, I now notice details I hadn't beforeâthere are scuffs in the dirt, the path worn from use.
After a few minutes, Shin breaks the silence. “I thought you were fearless.” He holds back a stray branch for me to duck under, the leaves brushing over my hair.
I glance at him to see if he's mocking me, but his gaze is questioning.
“Have you no fears, then?” I ask.
“If I did,” he says, letting the branch fall behind me, “I would not share them with you.”
I scoff. “Because fears are weaknesses?”
“I have no weaknesses.”
“Just the Sea God.” I watch him carefully for a reaction, but he gives nothing away. “Is he your only fear, too?”
Shin's eyes meet mine, a crease forming between his brows. Yet I don't sense any anger from him. He's trying to determine something about me, as I am about him.
“We're almost there,” he says.
A light gleams at the end of the path. We must have walked a fair distance, yet I hadn't noticed. As with Namgi, our conversation distracted me from my fear of the forest. He turns from me, stepping ahead on the path.
“Was I right to believe what you said earlier,” I ask, “that you were promising me the month?” He looks back. I lift up my arm, the Red String of Fate glistening brightly between us. “Even should our tie be broken, you won't stop me from completing my task?”
“I can give you that, at least.”
“Even though I'm one of the humans you so despise.”
For a moment, he says nothing, then hesitantly, “I don'tÂ â¦ despise humans. All spirits were once humans, after all, and they comprise most of the realmâ¦”
He shakes his head. “You claim the gods should love and care for humans. I disagree. I don't think love can be bought or earned or even prayed for. It must be freely given.”
For once, I don't jump to argue with him, mulling over his words. “I can respect a belief such as that,” I say finally.
“And I can respect your determination to save your people,” he says. “You won't accomplish such a feat, but I can respect that you'll try.”
I scowl. “Mine was a genuine compliment.”
Shin laughs, the sound so unexpected that for a moment, he looks less like the lord of a great house and more like a boy from my village.
e trees begin to thin around us, spaced farther apart. Moonlight slips through the canopy, and Kirin and Namgi extinguish their torches. A glimmer of mist coats the forest floor. Figures robed in red and white move gracefully among the trees.
Our party approaches a small temple; its walls stand open to the forest. A few short steps lead up to an elegant wooden platform where two women wait.
e younger woman glides forward to greet the priestesses who traveled with us from Lotus House. She then turns to Shin, bowing. “We've been expecting you, Lord Shin.”
Kirin frowns. “Your sentries notified you of our coming?”
“Our goddess knows all.”
is time, it is the older woman who speaks. From her white dress and feathered hat, it's clear she must hold an honored position among the women. She turns her airy gaze out to the forest. “Look, here she comes now.”
At first, all I see is the deep green of the woods, speckled with small pockets of moonlight.
en movement disturbs the peace.
rough the forest comes a white fox, its long, elegant tail split in two. Nimbly, it leaps over a small stream and up the steps of the temple, approaching on padded feet.
e fox's glittering gaze is riveted on me. She's so lovelyâher
eyes amber flecked with pure gold. Her fur is mostly white, with silver around her pointed ears and the tufts of her split tail.
Suddenly the fox lunges forward, her sharp teeth bared.
“No!” the younger priestess screams. At first I think she's warning of the demon, but then I realize she's reaching out toward Shin. He's drawn his sword, the sharp blade angled against the fox's neck.
e fox's eyes slide toward him, fiercely intelligent, then it ducks beneath the blade, dodging between us to bite down on the Red String of Fate.
e fox gnashes down, wringing and shaking it to the point that if it were a regular ribbon, it would have shredded to pieces. Abruptly the fox pulls back, sitting on its haunches and licking its paw.
e Red String of Fate shimmers brightly, undamaged.