Home > The Dragon's Promise(13)

The Dragon's Promise(13)
Author: Elizabeth Lim

  “Dragons too,” I said darkly.

  As I said it, Nahma pinned a last strand of opals into my hair. “Many from Ai’long styled themselves as human suitors to enter the contest. Even our king himself considered it. Back then, we did not know she possessed the Wraith’s pearl.”

  “What happened?” I asked. Raikama’s life before coming to Kiata was a mystery to me, and I was desperate to hear more.

  “I am not a well of the past, put here to slake your thirst,” she said, not unkindly. “I tell you of your stepmother’s history because she was different from the others—as you are. And as I was.” A pause. “I give you the warning I wish I’d had.”

  “Warning?” I echoed.

  Lady Nahma drew back her hair, revealing the gills along her neck and cheekbones. She rolled up her sleeves, showing me the fins glistening on the underside of her arms, and as she splayed her fingers, I could see their iridescent webbing. Lastly, she lifted her skirt. In place of human legs was a fishtail, violet like summer bellflowers.

  I couldn’t hide my awe—and horror. “You’re a…a…”

  “A sea maid,” she said, as if it were the most natural thing. “Our realm is not far from Ai’long. You likely saw a few on your way into the palace.”

  I was still staring. With her fins and tail, she could never go back to land, even if she wanted to. “Is that what will happen to me?”

  “Every companion’s experience is different,” she replied dispassionately. “Many become sea maids, while others retain a more human physique. It’s hard to predict. But the changes will be permanent—a small price to pay for eternal life.”

  I wasn’t convinced she believed her own words.

  Letting her hair fall back in place, Nahma rolled down her sleeves and summoned forth the mirror. I’d forgotten about it. “Now for the last part of the preparations: the final farewells.”

  The mirror started to sing again, vibrating like a moon lute being strummed. I ventured a step closer, and the glass rippled.

  “This mirror…,” I began, staring. The glass was looking more and more like a pool of water. “It feels…Kiatan.”

  “I’m not surprised it speaks to you,” allowed Nahma. “The mirror of truth was forged from the Seven Tears of Emuri’en.”

  I drew back, letting Nahma’s words sink in.

  Emuri’en was Kiata’s goddess of love and fate, who oversaw the destinies of mortals, using strands of her hair. Each strand she cut and dyed red—the color of strength and blood—and upon her instruction, her thousand cranes flew to earth to tie mortals’ fates together. But her fondness for humans was so great that she overspent her power and lost her godhood. Cast away from heaven, she wept, and her tears scattered across Kiata, leaving seven magical ponds that offered a glimpse at the threads of destiny.

  The Seven Tears of Emuri’en.

  When I was younger, I’d always dismissed it as a legend. But thanks to Raikama, I learned that the Tears of Emuri’en were real.

  Consulting its waters was how she’d known early on that I was Kiata’s bloodsake, and that I was in danger.

  I spoke through the lump forming in my throat. “Will I…will I be able to speak with my family?”

  Nahma gave me a pitying look. “No, even with the aid of magic as ancient as the mirror’s, the dragon and human realms cannot overlap.”

  “But you said it was a farewell—”

  “The final farewell is a time to reflect on the life you leave behind.” She spoke over me and gestured at the mirror. “Inquire of the past or present, and it will show you what you are meant to see. No more, no less.”

  Inquire of the past or present? The lump in my throat dissolved. If the mirror held such power, I could ask it about the Wraith’s pearl! Perhaps I could even find a way out of the Dragon King’s tortuous palace.

  I smothered my excitement, drawing a sour line with my lips so Nahma couldn’t possibly know what I was thinking. Yet her face suddenly darkened, and she saw fit to warn me, very quietly: “Be careful what you seek. Lady Solzaya observes from the other side, and any questions about the Wraith will be a waste of your time. The mirror cannot touch the realm in which he lives.”

  I frowned. “How did you know—”

  “Your time begins now,” Nahma said, and she stepped through the wall, disappearing without another word.

  Kiki flitted out of my sleeve. This isn’t really the last time we see home, is it?

  Nahma’s tea floated by, and I cupped it in my hands.

  “I won’t let it be,” I replied. “Maybe I can enchant away the elixir during the ceremony.”

  It’s worth a try.

  With all my might, I focused on the tea, commanding its contents to steam out of the cup in little misty tendrils.

  But the tea only spurted, narrowly avoiding my face and splattering against the mirror.

  “Strands of Emuri’en!” I cursed, hurrying to wipe it.

  At my touch, the glass flickered and warbled, its low hum turning into a birdsong I had heard every spring and summer of my life.

  Kitebirds.

  They crooned, too clearly for me to have imagined it. I blinked, inching closer to the mirror. The glass had stopped flickering. Now it panned across a hazy expanse, as if searching for what it wanted to show me.

  Chrysanthemums. Little buds and blossoms on the cherry and plum trees. The petals hailed down over a round latticed window whose elaborate geometric designs I had seen plenty of times but could not remember where—

  The mirror pushed through the window. And there were my six brothers.

  They were so close, so vivid, I could see the threads on their silk hats, the tea stains on Wandei’s collar, and the wax shining in Yotan’s hair—cut to the latest fashion, as suited him. I wanted to reach out and touch them, to call their names. But my brothers were gathered around a bed, and once I saw whom they were watching, all I could do was hold my breath.

  Father.

  Spring had come, and as Raikama had promised, the spell of slumber she had cast over Gindara had lifted. The city was awakening, and my father with it.

  “Look!” Yotan whispered, pointing. “He’s waking.”

  Dawn slipped through the latticed window, imbuing the emperor with splendid patterns of light. He blinked, his eyes slowly fluttering open.

  Joy and homesickness tugged at my heart, pulling my emotions in opposite directions. How I wished I could be there to see Father. To be there with my brothers when he awoke.

  I bit my cheek, trying to hold myself strong. Trying not to fixate on the months I’d lost while in Ai’long. At least my family was well. My father, my brothers…

  “What of Takkan?” I whispered to the mirror.

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