Authors: Axie Oh
“How dare you raise steel against our goddess!” the young priestess hisses.
Before Shin can respond, a voice answers, deep and sonorous. “And why shouldn't he, to protect what matters most?”
e powerful voice comes from the elder priestess, though her demeanor has changed. When before her eyes were cloudy and dazed, now they shine with an uncanny lightâamber with specks of gold.
“You see it, then,” Shin says, his eyes not on the priestess, but on the white fox. “
e Red String of Fate.”
“It shines bright.” It's the priestess again who answers.
e fox is speaking
“What do you mean by the Red String of Fate?” Kirin studies
the air between Shin and me, which to him must appear empty. “It can't beâ¦”
e fox moves forward to brush the top of her head beneath the ribbon, a low rumble humming at the back of her throat. “I've seen a fate like this before. Many years ago. It is a very dangerous type of fate, one which cannot be severed by any blade.”
ere must be another way it can be broken,” Kirin says.
e only way to end a fate such as this is if one bearer should die.”
ere's a short pause, then Namgi asks, “So, if Mina dies, then the Red String of Fate will disappear?”
e fox shakes her head, an eerily human movement. “
ere is a chance that should one die, so will the other.”
Namgi frowns. “But you just said that if one of them should die, the fated connection would be severed.”
“If they both die, then there is no fate.”
“Agh!” Namgi tugs at his hair. “
is is why one should never consult a demon, or a goddess for that matter.
ey never give a straight answer.”
“It's the same as with the Sea God,” Kirin says, ignoring Namgi. “Instead, it is Shin's life that is in danger.”
“Yes, but for an important difference.”
When the goddess doesn't immediately continue, Kirin prompts, “And what difference is that?”
“As you can see, or
, the fate is invisible, as it isn't with the Sea God. Although every Sea God's bride that arrives in this realm has a Red String of Fate, the Sea God is not fated to all of
them. After all, that is not the true purpose of the Red String of Fate.”
I have a suspicion that the goddess takes pleasure in withholding information until the right question is asked.
en what is the purpose of the Red String of Fate?” Namgi says through gritted teeth.
e fox tilts her head to the side, amber eyes glinting. “It ties soul mates to each other.”
“SoulÂ â¦ mates,” Kirin says slowly.
“Yes. It ties one soul to another, two halves of a whole.”
For some reason I'm surprised to hear this explanation from the goddess, though this is how humans tell the myth, when the destinies of two people collide in life-altering ways. It explains the undeniable connection between loversâlike Cheong and Joon, who loved each other from the beginning.
“It's not possible,” Shin says, and his words jog a memory. He said something similar when the Red String of Fate first formed between us.
My grandmother always said only the words I believe in are the ones that can hurt me. And yet, Kirin stares at me in disbelief, and even Namgi looks skeptical. As for Shin, he rubs his fingers against his wrist, as if the ribbon pains him.
I won't say the qualities he lacks that would make it impossible for me to love him, either: a caring heart, looking at me not as a burden or a weakness, but as a strength.
“I didn't ask to be fated to you,” I say. “I don't want your life to be in danger because of me. I didn't know what would
happen when I released my soul from the cageâI just wanted it back.”
“Mina, you don't understand.”
en tell me. What is it I don't understand?”
“We can't be soul matesâ¦,” Shin says. His dark eyes lift, holding mine. “Because I don't have a soul.”
How can Shin not have
e question plagues me all the way to Lotus House. Upon our arrival, I'm whisked away by a group of maidservants to a large bathing chamber where I'm unceremoniously stripped down, doused with hot water, and scrubbed until my skin is raw and red. Too exhausted to protest, I relax as the women trim and buff my nails and smooth rich oils along my arms and legs.
e only time I speak is when I catch sight of one of the maidservants leaving the chamber with my battered dress. “My knife!” I exclaim.
e maidservant returns and places it on a low shelf within reach.
ey call me “Lady Mina” and “Shin's bride,” guiding me from the salt baths across the warm, heady chamber to dip my toes into the cool stream that runs through the north side.
eir chatter is filled with excitement and wonder, their words pattering around me like summer rain.
“She's so young to be a bride, barely sixteen!”
“How romantic, don't you think?
at Lord Shin should fall for her in one night.”
“What do you think captivated him so?”
“Her bright face!”
“Her nimble body.”
“Her thick hair. It really is lovely.” A warm set of hands massages my scalp, while another slips perfumed fingers through my hair, the scents of lavender and hibiscus washing over me. Finally I'm left alone to soak in the central bath of the chamber, steam curling up around me in pleasant, lazy swirls.
My thoughts drift to just an hour earlier. What did Shin mean when he said he didn't have a soul? He spoke as if stating an undeniable truth. And neither Kirin nor Namgi contradicted him. But I was taught that everything has a soul, from the emperor to the lowliest of humans, from the birds to the rocks in the stream.
I lift my arm, and water spills from my hand, as does the Red String of Fate, slipping across the chamber to disappear through the far wall. I wonder where Shin is now. He received a missive and left on another boat with Kirin, while Namgi took me back to the house. Slowly, the Red String of Fate begins to shift across the room in a diagonal motion. He must be on the move.
e maidservants have returned.
ey help me out of the water, placing a warm cup of barley tea into my hands to sip while one sweeps a turtle shell comb through my hair. I'm then garbed in a light summer dress with a pale blue skirt and white jacket, the sleeves embroidered with pink flowers. It even has a pocket for my knife. Afterward, we leave the main building of Lotus House and walk across the same open field I traveled with Shin and Namgi earlier.
Dawn streaks pink across the horizon. I've been awake for the whole night. I'm half asleep by the time the maidservants lead me to a room with a soft pallet of silk blankets. I lay my head down on the beaded pillow. Within seconds, I'm asleep.
My grandmother once told me the story of when the storms first began.
A long time ago, our people were ruled by a benevolent emperor blessed by the gods. Loved by them. By the Sea God, most of all.
e world was prosperous then.
It was said that the emperor and the Sea God had a brotherly bond that was unbreakable, that one could not exist without the other.
en one day, a conqueror came to our kingdom, and although our brave emperor fought him, he was defeated, his murdered body tossed from the cliffs into the sea.
It was the loss of the emperor that threw the Sea God into his vengeful wrath. And the usurper, triumphant after having slain the emperor and his family, learned what it was to rule a land cursed by gods.
Ironically, it was the conqueror who first sacrificed a bride to the Sea God, and in so doing, saved our people.
For five years, a terrible drought had ravaged the lands; the rivers and streams dried up.
e bones of fish lay shattered in the barren riverbanks.
e usurper consulted a priestess, who told him that only “a love equal to or greater than the love the Sea God bore
for the emperor” could appease the god's wrath.
e conqueror, who had taken up residence in the slain emperor's palace, had one child, a daughter. She was said to be the most beautiful girl in the kingdom, with pomegranate-red lips and dark-moon eyes. But more than that, it was said that she was the only person the conqueror truly loved.
She became the Sea God's first bride.
For three seasons following her sacrifice, the sea was calm, and the land was safe. Until the summer months once again arrived.
is time, rain fell from the sky in sheets of icy water, flooding the rivers and fields. People drowned in their beds, children whisked away from them by fierce winds.
Another sacrifice was prepared. Another girl was thrown into the sea.
And so it continued. Year after year.
It became known. It became myth.
Nothing appeased the Sea God's wrath except the life of someone beloved.
I wake to light sweeping across my eyes and the sound of my grandmother's voice echoing from my dreams. I recognize the room I'm in as the one from the night before, where the thieves attempted to steal my soul.
ough someone must have come while we were gone to tidy up.
e wooden floor is polished to a gleam, and the few pieces of furniture are upright and pushed to the side.
e only evidence of the fight is the hole in the window
from the crossbow bolt, through which birds can now be heard singing to one another across the pond.
ere's a soft knock, and the door slides open. Two maidservants enter, one carrying a tray of covered dishes, the other tools for grooming, a comb and a ribbon.
e first maidservant places the tray before me and proceeds to take the lids off each mouthwatering dish. Savory soup. Grilled yellow corvina on a bed of lush greens. Chestnut rice.
e last dish is a steamed egg puffing up from the stone pot like a cloud. As with the dumplings the night before, I devour the meal.
e maidservants encourage me as I eat, pointing to the properties of certain dishes and asking if there are any particular foods I'd like to eat for future meals. Afterward, the second maidservant moves to sit behind me, brushing my hair and gathering it in sections for a braid.
“Could you tell me what this pavilion is used for?” I look out the window to where the pond sits serene and tranquil, but for the splash of a duck. “What is it called?”
“You are in the Lotus Pavilion, my lady,” the first servant responds, a girl with rosy cheeks and a kind smile. “
ese are Lord Shin's personal quarters.”
I blink several times. “His personal quarters? As inâ¦”
“Where he sleeps, where he spends most of his time when he's not out in the city.”
I look around, remembering my impression when I first entered the room last night. I thought it a storage room. It's empty but for a worn cabinet, the low shelf by the window, and the paper screen.
e second maidservant finishes with my braid and rises to her feet. Together, the maidservants fold the pallet of blankets into a neat bundle and place it against the wall.
ank you,” I tell them.
e first maidservant lifts the tray of now empty dishes. “It's an honor to serve you, my lady.”
ey bow and leave the room.
I wait a few minutes before moving to the cabinet and opening the doors. I know I'm prying, but Shin should have known when he put me in his room that I would look through his belongings. Inside are shelves stacked with robes of dark colors, as well as pants and belts. I rummage around but find nothing of interest. Closing the cabinet, I turn to survey the room.
ere's nothing here to indicate regular use, no scrolls, paintings, or board games. I move to the low shelf and reach beneath to see if there's anything hidden there.
“I can't tell if your family would be proud or horrified.”
I twist around to find Nari leaning against the door.
“I'm sure they would be proud you've gotten your voice back,” she says, “but somehow I can't imagine they'd be pleased about your engagement.”
Last Nari saw me, I was on my way to get back my soul from Shin. Now I'm to marry him. She must be wondering what happened during the time we were apart. I could tell her the truth, but I don't want to endanger her. Even I can admit there are perilous politics astir among the gods and houses.
“Have you seen Shin? I need to speak with him. It's urgent.”
Nari raises a brow but allows the change in subject. “He went with Lord Kirin to Tiger House.”
Shin must suspect Lord Tiger is behind the attempted theft of my soul. “When will he return?”
“Not until tonight.”
But that will be too late, a whole day wasted. Now that I have my soul back, I need to return to the Sea God.
e dream reminded meâthe answers I seek lie with him.
“Nari, I can't explain it, but there's somewhere I need to go. Will you help me?”
“I'm sorry, Mina,” she says, her expression apologetic, “but I have orders. You're free to go anywhere you'd like, as long as it's within the grounds of Lotus House.”
I stare at her in shock. Shin lied to me! He promised me that he wouldn't keep me from my task.
“Minaâ” she begins.
I sweep past her out the door.
She follows me down the stairs. “You don't understand. It's for your own safety. You're human. Your body is weaker in this world.”
Turning, I grab her hands. “Nari, you have to help me get to the Sea God's palace.”
e Sea Godâ” Her eyes widen, but then she slowly shakes her head. “I can't disobey a direct order from Lord Shin. He is the master of this house. I am sworn to him.”
“Say I escaped! You helped me last night.”
“Ah, Nari,” a low voice drawls from the shadows beneath the stairs. “Is that why you wanted to play cards with me?” Namgi steps away from the wall he was leaning against. “And here I thought we were finally getting along.”
I move in front of Nari, but though his words are for her, his eyes are on me.
“Breaking oaths, sneaking into places where you don't belong,” he says. “You ask a lot of your friends.”
I hesitate, then say, “I'd ask the same of my foes.”
He raises a brow at the echo of yesterday's words.
Are you a friend or are you a foe?
ere will be no escaping,” Namgi says. “I'll take you myself.”