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The Dragon's Promise
Author: Elizabeth Lim

 

 

   To my po po, for the love, the stories, and the fish soup

 

 

   I’ve always loathed writing letters. My tutors used to say they showcase one’s intellect and thoughtfulness—and calligraphy, too. But my handwriting has always looked more like a goose’s than a princess’s. No one cherishes receiving a letter from a goose. Even a royal one.

   I know that’s no excuse for why I never wrote you, Takkan. If I could change the past, I’d have replied to every one of your letters. I’ve finally read them, and I can’t tell you what a comfort it’s been to laugh over your stories, and imagine that we grew up together. I wish I’d asked you your name that day we first met—when we were children at the Summer Festival and I lost your kite.

   I’ve been thinking about that kite lately, and how it must be flying and flying with nowhere to go, nowhere to land. Sometimes I dream that it’s me. That I have no end to my string. That I don’t belong anywhere anymore.

   I wonder if that’s how my stepmother felt. It hurts that I’ll never get to ask her.

   By the time you find this, I’ll be in the dragon realm. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. It could be days, it could be weeks or months. I hope it won’t be years.

   If I miss winter, think of me when the snow falls, and whenever you eat radishes.

        Your favorite soup cook,

    Shiori

 

 

The bottom of the Taijin Sea tasted of salt, slime, and disappointment. But for a few faint beams of mysterious light, it was darker than the deepest chasm. Hardly the magnificent watery realm dragons were said to call home.

  I sat up on Seryu’s back as he slowed, his long whiskers vibrating toward one beam in particular. Maybe I’d imagined it, but the beam shone brighter than the rest—almost violet.

  “You ready?” Seryu asked.

  Ready for what? I thought, but I nodded.

  With a flip of his tail, he dove through the violet beam—and everything changed.

  The water turned azure, and puffs of coppery mist hissed from beds of sand and crystal. And light! There was light everywhere, radiating from an unseen sun.

  My heart began to race with anticipation, and I clung to Seryu’s horns as he accelerated down, swimming so fast that I almost let go of my breath.

  We’re almost there, Kiki, I thought excitedly in our shared, unspoken language, but she didn’t respond. A peek into my sleeve told me why: my poor paper bird had fainted.

  I didn’t blame her. We were moving at dizzying speeds, and my head pounded like a storm when I tried to see straight. But I couldn’t afford to faint. I didn’t even dare close my eyes.

  I wanted to see everything.

  At last we arrived at a labyrinth of bright coral reefs, fathoms below the mortal sea. Seagrass swayed in an unseen current, dunes of white sand and gold-veined rocks dotted the grounds, and canopies of braided seaflowers formed the roofs of underwater villas.

  So this was Ai’long, home of the dragons.

  It was a world few mortals would ever glimpse. At a glance, it didn’t seem so different from land. In place of trees were pillars of coral, some slender and some thick, most with spiraling branches adorned with bracelets of moss. Even the way the fish glided, their tapered fins spread out like wings, reminded me of birds soaring across the sky.

  And yet…it was like nothing I’d ever seen. The movement of the water, constantly tossing and turning, was revealed by flashes of color and flurries of fish. The way the seagrass tickled the fish that swept by, as if they could speak to one another.

  Seryu smirked as I drank in the view. “I told you you’d be dazzled.”

  He was right, of course. I was dazzled. Then again, Ai’long was meant to astound mortal eyes such as mine. That was its danger, after all. Its trap.

  A place so beautiful that even time held its breath.

  Every hour you spend here is a day lost at home—if not more, I reminded myself sharply. That time would add up quickly, and I’d been away from my father and brothers so long I didn’t want to waste a single minute.

  Let’s go. I signaled with a kick to the dragon’s long serpentine side.

  “I’m not a horse, you know.” Seryu’s green eyebrows arched as he twisted to view me. “Why so quiet, Shiori? You’re not holding your breath, are you?”

  When I didn’t reply, he tossed me off his back, and his claw shot out and pinched my nose.

  Out escaped a jet of bubbles—the air I’d been preciously hoarding. But great gods, I could breathe! Or at least it felt like I was breathing. The water tasted sweet instead of salty—intoxicating, like a heady plum wine when I inhaled too deeply, but maybe that was because my head was still spinning.

  “So long as you’re wearing a piece of my pearl, you can breathe underwater,” Seryu explained, reminding me of the glowing fragment I wore around my neck. “It might not be inside your heart anymore, so we can’t share thoughts…but you do know you can talk, right?”

  “Of course I know,” I lied.

  Covering up my relief, I touched the tiny pearl. Even this deep in the sea, it shone like a bead of moonlight.

  “You might want to keep it hidden,” said Seryu. “People could get the wrong idea.”

  “I thought it was just to help me breathe. Why would they—”

  “It’s too complicated to explain,” the dragon mumbled with a grunt. “I forgot how many questions you ask. Maybe I should have let you keep holding your breath.”

  My brows knit into a frown. “You’re in a sour mood.”

  “Humans aren’t exactly welcome in Ai’long,” said Seryu thinly. “I’m thinking of the infinite ways your visit can go wrong.”

  I didn’t believe him. He had been in a mood all day, starting with when he’d come for me onshore. He’d barely greeted my brothers, had ignored Takkan entirely….

  I tried to coax him out of it by teasing, “Will I have no fun stories to share when I go home? Here I was, telling everyone that the prince of dragons himself was going to give me a grand tour of his kingdom.”

  “The shorter your visit is, the better.” Seryu’s red eyes flicked to my satchel, which hung off my shoulder. “You’re here to deliver something to my grandfather, not frolic about.”

  So much for cheering him up. Now I was in a sour mood too.

  I pried my satchel open—just a pinch. That something I was supposed to deliver was a dark and broken dragon pearl. Raikama had left it to me before she died, and its power was so strong I could feel it fighting against my satchel’s enchantment, which kept it safely confined and concealed. No surprise that Seryu’s grandfather wanted it.

  It wasn’t the only thing inside the bag, though. I’d also brought my starstroke net—for some protection against the Dragon King—and the sketchbook Takkan had given me when we said goodbye.

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