Home > The Dragon's Promise(3)

The Dragon's Promise(3)
Author: Elizabeth Lim

  “Only give it to the dragon with the strength to make it whole once more,” Raikama had made me swear before she died.

  As if it could read my thoughts, the pearl inside my satchel began to pulse. I could practically see it in my mind—spinning and scheming, trying to find a way out. It was only the size of a peach, barely larger than my palm, but at its peak brilliance, it glowed like a bead of sunlight. But now that Raikama was gone, its light was muted, the fracture in its center seeming to widen more every time I looked at it.

  That crack would not heal until the pearl was reunited with its true owner. I had a feeling the grief I buried inside me was the same, deepening the hollow in my heart until my promise to Raikama was kept.

  “A promise is not a kiss in the wind, to be thrown about without care,” I murmured to myself. “It is a piece of yourself that is given away and will not return until your pledge is fulfilled.”

  They were my stepmother’s words from long ago. Words I used to hate because they needled me with guilt, even as I ignored them. Never would I have guessed that I would draw upon them for comfort.

  The pearl trembled, responding to my unease, and I lifted the satchel onto my lap so Seryu wouldn’t notice. Too many times I had broken my word—to Raikama more than anyone. Not this time.

  I will see you made whole again, I vowed to the pearl silently. I will take you home.

  No matter the cost.

 

 

The walls enclosing King Nazayun’s palace were impossibly high. They stretched taller than I could see, all the way to the violet lights marking the fringes of the realm, their sharp finials like needles prodding at the ocean’s veins.

  An audience of sea creatures had gathered outside the palace. Whales larger than my father’s warships, mottled sea turtles that blended into the sand and rocks, dolphins, squid, and, when I looked closer, even crabs and seahorses. Scattered among them were dragons, a few with humans mounted on their backs. All lowered their heads in deference as Seryu passed, but their gazes were fixed on me.

  “Don’t hold my horns here,” growled Seryu. “They’re a measure of status in Ai’long, and I’m a dragon prince, not a bull.”

  I let go as if I’d touched fire. “Sorry.”

  It quickly became clear what he meant. Other dragons’ horns curved downward, like a ram’s, often with ridges or fluted edges, and in colors varying from gray to ivory to black. Seryu’s were silver and smooth, but most notably they were branched—like a stag’s antlers. A natural crown.

  “Is there usually a crowd like this to greet you?”

  “No.” Seryu’s voice became tight. “They’re here for you.”

  That made me sit up sharply. “For me?”

  “They’re wagering on whether Grandfather will throw you to the sharks or turn you to stone.”

  I couldn’t tell whether he was being serious or sarcastic. Maybe both.

  “Aren’t there any other alternatives?” I asked.

  “None that you’d find more pleasant. I told you, humans aren’t welcome here.”

  “But I see so many.”

  Seryu’s long back stiffened, and his scales turned dull. “Look again.”

  I furrowed my brow, but curious now, I turned again.

  At first, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Yes, the humans riding the dragons were bedecked in the riches of the sea, in jackets and gowns that gleamed like an abalone shell beaded with the petals of ocean lilies. But other than that, they looked the same as me.

  At least until my eyes sharpened, and I looked beyond their faces. Saw the gills sparkling on their necks, the fish scales dappling their arms. Some even had wings tucked neatly against their shoulder blades and fins adorning their wrists and ankles. When they caught me staring, they puckered their lips and offered me twisted smiles.

  “So,” I said nervously, “I really am like a pig.”

  “What?”

  “That’s what you said when we first met—that inviting me to Ai’long would be like bringing a pig to meet your family. I thought you were joking.”

  “I never expected to bring you here, Shiori,” he said, his voice so low I almost didn’t hear. We were nearly at the gates. “I want you to know that.”

  It sounded like an apology, but for what, I didn’t understand. I never got a chance to ask. A deafening chorus of conch shells blared—then, out of nowhere, an invisible current wrenched me off Seryu’s back and swept me into the palace.

  It happened with the swiftness of a sword stroke. I didn’t realize I’d been torn away until it was too late.

  “Shiori!” Seryu was barreling toward the gates, trying to force his way inside before they closed. “Grandfather, no!”

  That was the last I saw of him before I was washed away, speeding down a chute of water so fast it made our previous journey feel sluggish. By the time the chute spat me out at my destination, I was sure I had fainted—at least for a few seconds.

  I landed in the largest room I’d ever beheld. It was vast and wide, its pillars going on as far as my eyes could see, and except for one window of what looked like cascading black crystal, everything, from the walls to the ceilings, was the color of bone. Or snow, if one was a cheerier-minded sort of person.

  I kicked my feet against the ocean floor and propelled myself up.

  Did we get eaten by a whale? Kiki whispered from inside my sleeve.

  If we weren’t in such a dire situation, I might have laughed. The chamber did resemble a whale’s rib cage. Marble pillars lined the walls, evenly spaced and rising three times the height of the ceremony hall in my father’s palace. Their ends arced impossibly into an open roof, like a cage of bones.

  Out of precaution, I drew my knife. The spaces between the pillars were wide enough to slip through, and the palace gates gleamed in the near distance. Was Seryu still there, looking for me?

  I held my knife tight. I wasn’t about to wait here and find out.

  I dove between two of the pillars and had made it as far as one breath out of the chamber when long, wriggling tendrils of kelp sprouted from the pillars and wrapped around my limbs.

  Kiki bolted out of my sleeve. Shiori!

  I hacked at the kelp. The stalks were thinner than the seaweed I boiled in my soups. But looks could be deceiving. This kelp was strong as iron—and alive, sprouting three new fronds for every one that was cut. They lashed Kiki away and spiraled around my wrists, jerking the knife from my grip and pinning me against a pillar.

  Next came the sharks.

  I hadn’t believed Seryu when he mentioned them earlier, but here they were. Each was ten times my size, with rows of briar-sharp teeth and blue-black eyes that expressed no compunction in turning me into a snack.

  “Seryu!” I shouted. “Seryu!”

  “He will be joining us shortly.”

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