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The Dragon's Promise(4)
Author: Elizabeth Lim

  The Dragon King’s tail curved around the pillars, and gooseflesh rose on my skin.

  “My grandson has told me much about you since we last met, Shiori’anma,” he said. “Your gods have given you an unusual amount of attention: the adopted daughter of the Nameless Queen, the bloodsake of Kiata…and now the bearer of the Wraith’s pearl.”

  The Wraith? My ears perked. It was the first time I had heard that name.

  Long, crooked bolts of silver pierced the shadows—Nazayun’s horns. “Show it to me.”

  The kelp loosened its grip around my wrists just enough for me to open my satchel. I reached inside, my fingers brushing over the broken pearl and then the starstroke net.

  My fingers itched to dispatch the net over the Dragon King. Starstroke, after all, was a dragon’s only weakness. The only thing powerful enough to separate one from its heart. And demons take me, I’d sacrificed enough to make the net.

  The sharks would have torn me to ribbons had I dared, but luckily the pearl didn’t give me a chance. Once I opened the satchel, it made a low and chiding hum and breezed out into the open.

  I was beginning to suspect that it was alive in some strange way. Back home in my father’s palace, whenever I left it in my room, I would find it later floating in the air beside me—as if watching. Waiting.

  “The pearl takes fate and twists it to its own purpose,” Raikama had said.

  After what it had done to my brothers, I wouldn’t be fool enough to assume that its purpose included keeping me alive. Which was why I watched, holding my breath, as the pearl rose level with Nazayun’s pallid gaze.

  Displeasure showed in the bend of the dragon’s brow. “It has tethered itself to you.”

  “For now,” I replied. “I made a vow to my stepmother that I would return the pearl to its rightful owner.”

  He snarled, “You made a vow to Seryu that you would give it to me.”

  “That I would bring it to you,” I corrected. “Not give. The pearl isn’t yours.”

  “A dragon pearl belongs to Ai’long.” Nazayun towered over me, gouging his claws into the ground. “I am Ai’long.”

  “Why do you want it?” I asked. “I’ve seen what a true dragon pearl looks like. It’s pure and awe-inspiring, nothing like this one. This one is—”

  “An abomination.”

  “As you say,” I replied. “So why do you want it?”

  “Unenlightened human, you truly know nothing!” the Dragon King bellowed. “The Wraith’s pearl is a broken thing. It craves destruction as much as it abhors it. On its own, it cannot find balance, so it relied on someone like your stepmother to moderate its power. But the Nameless Queen is dead, and the pearl is too broken to take a new host. Soon it will cleave completely. When that happens, it will release a force greater than anything you can imagine. Great enough to devastate your beloved Kiata.”

  For once I believed him. “Unless it’s returned to the Wraith.”

  “That is not an option,” Nazayun said. “It must be destroyed, and when it is, so too will the Wraith perish. Denounce your bond and give the pearl to me.”

  I hesitated. The pearl floated above my palm, its broken halves parting ever so slightly along one edge. It looked deceptively fragile, like the petals of a lotus blossom. Yet I could feel what terrible power lay within.

  Could Raikama have made a mistake in asking me to return it to the Wraith? Or was this one of Nazayun’s tricks?

  Only for a moment, my conscience twisted with indecision. Then I closed my fists, and the pearl flew to my side. I trust Raikama.

  “The pearl belongs to the dragon with the strength to make it whole once more,” I said. “That dragon is not you.”

  Fury ignited the Dragon King’s white eyes. “So be it.”

  Behind him, the sharks sped in my direction, jaws snapping. Visions of a gruesome end flashed in their glassy eyes. Me, filleted into a hundred bloody chunks that turned the water red. Kiki screamed in my ear, No, Shiori!

  Kelp tightened around my waist and ankles, holding me immobile. Luckily, I’d been anticipating such a moment.

  Never go to battle without knowing your opponent, my brother Benkai liked to say. Before I left for Ai’long, he’d imparted as much military wisdom as he could: He who can surprise his enemy is always at an advantage.

  Here came my surprise: I slammed my hip against the pearl, striking it into the closest pillar. Its halves split from its base, opening like a clamshell, and a dazzling light poured forth.

  The kelp recoiled. It loosened its grip on my limbs just long enough for me to whip out the starstroke net.

  I threw it high and shouted, “Kiki!”

  My paper bird darted out from her hiding place and caught the other side of the net. Together, we flung it over the Dragon King’s enormous chest, pulling it taut against his scales.

  I’d used the net only once before, to free Raikama of the burden she carried. I’d never actually used it against a real dragon.

  Its magic worked instantaneously, latching on to Nazayun’s scales and dulling their brilliant sapphire luster. He howled, and his head snapped back as the net dug into his chest, outlining the shape of his precious heart.

  It was at least three times the size of the Wraith’s, silvery white and perfectly round, like a swollen moon. All I had to do was take it, and I would have complete power over him.

  “Let go of me,” I commanded the kelp, and it loosened its grip on my ankles. The sharks too withheld their charge.

  I retrieved my knife and stabbed it into Nazayun’s scales to hold the net down. The Dragon King roared in pain, but I felt no contrition. Splinters could hurt, after all.

  “Where will I find the Wraith?” I demanded.

  A laugh bubbled from Nazayun’s throat.

  “Answer, or—”

  “Or what?” Nazayun eyed the Wraith’s pearl, which hovered over him like a harbinger of doom. “Or what, Shiori’anma?”

  Something was off. The Dragon King’s heart throbbed in his chest, a sign the starstroke had to be hurting him. So why was he smiling? Why was he laughing?

  “You should have given me the pearl when I offered you the chance,” said the Dragon King as he twitched in discomfort under the net. “Your crime of weaving such a net cannot go unpunished. Three hundred years you would have slept, long enough for all you know and love to turn to dust. Then I would have returned you to Kiata, as promised. Unfortunately, you chose poorly. For that you shall never see your homeland again.”

  The knife I’d jabbed between Nazayun’s scales suddenly dissolved into the water, and he ripped the starstroke off his chest. It crackled between his claws, singeing his skin before he flung it into a web of kelp, far out of my reach.

  “Did you think it would be so easy to take out my heart?” He laughed as his wounds healed before my eyes. “I am a god of dragons. Not even starstroke can harm me.”

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