Home > The Dragon's Promise(5)

The Dragon's Promise(5)
Author: Elizabeth Lim

  I staggered, and cupped my palms around the Wraith’s pearl. “Then what about this—”

  I never got to finish my threat. The walls behind me began to sing, and a surge of water whipped across the black crystal window I’d noticed earlier, creating a whirlpool.

  Out of it swooped a second dragon. All I caught was flashes of red scales and a pair of round gilded eyes. Then there came a hard yank at my neck, and I jerked forward.

  “If you won’t give us the pearl we want, we’ll take this one for now.” The scarlet dragon held up the necklace Seryu had warned me to keep on at all times—the chip of his heart that would allow me to breathe in Ai’long.

  My hands flew to my throat as my lungs convulsed. Water was everywhere and rushed into my mouth, filled my lungs. My heart whisked in my ears, beating in alarm as the weight of the seas came roaring. There was so much, I couldn’t even choke. I was drowning.

  “This is my daughter, the Lady of the Easterly Seas,” Nazayun said, as if now were the time for introductions. “Since you will not give me the pearl, I leave her in charge of its retrieval.”

  Nazayun’s daughter observed me drowning. “I’ve a theory,” she purred, “that the human soul is made up of countless little strings that tether it to life.” She pinched her nails at my heart, and I gasped in pain as she extracted a long silver-gold thread I’d never seen before: a strand of my soul.

  “Beautiful, isn’t it? So fragile, yet so vital.” She twisted the strand around her nail. “If I cut enough, and leave, say, one last string dangling, the pearl will break its bond with you in search of someone who isn’t on the brink of death.” She tried to snip the strand with her nail, but it glowed bright and recoiled back inside me.

  Displeasure tautened her whiskers. “A tricky state to achieve, especially with such a stubborn soul as yours—but we have time to experiment.”

  I had no time. My world was fast constricting, and I called out to the Wraith’s pearl.

  Save me, I pleaded. Save me, or you’ll never find where you belong. You’ll never go home.

  The pearl began to beat. Once. Twice. Then faster, a racing counterpoint to my dying pulse, and a burst of light poured out of the broken halves.

  “A fighter,” murmured the scarlet dragon as she swam forward, obstructing my view of the pearl. She touched my forehead with a cold palm.

  “Never play games with a dragon,” she whispered. “You cannot win.”

  And before the last of my breath left me, the world washed away to nothing.

 

 

“Your Highness,” cried my tutor. “Wake up, Shiori’anma! Please, wake up.”

   I didn’t budge. Every day my tutor faced the same task, and I almost felt sorry for her. But what did I care for her waxing on and on about Kiata’s poetry, art, and lore? It wasn’t as if my brothers would invite me to their meetings if I could recite verses from the Songs of Sorrow or charm the court with my knowledge about vermilion paint versus ocher.

   “Asleep like the numb moon,” moaned my tutor. “Again.”

   I hated the saying. I’d been forced to learn the story behind it. Something about Imurinya, the lady of the moon, and her husband, the hunter, and a kiss needed to wake her.

   I wasn’t a romantic, and no kiss would wake me—unless it was from a tarantula, not a boy. The only things that worked were the smell of freshly griddled sweet rice cakes and a well-calculated throw of my brother Reiji’s wooden dice.

   The funny thing was, Reiji hadn’t thrown dice at me in years. Yet something small and hard pelted the back of my head. Repeatedly.

 

  My eyes burst open, and I yelled, “Will you stop that?”

  Well, that was what I’d meant to say. The words came out garbled, and my chest ached as if someone had squeezed all the life out of me and then reluctantly funneled it back in.

  An unwelcome reminder that I was still in the dragon realm—and a captive in Nazayun’s palace, at that. It was too dark to see my surroundings clearly, but it wasn’t the rib cage room anymore.

  Kelp shackles clinched my body from the neck down, restraining me to a slab of black crystal like I’d seen earlier. With all my strength, I jerked, trying to set myself free. The shackles tightened, and punishing jabs of pain raced up my muscles. I bit down hard on my lip until they passed.

  When I could breathe again—and I didn’t know how I was breathing without Seryu’s necklace—I deflated.

  Demons of Tambu, how was I going to get out of this? I leaned my head back, banging the wall in despair.

  Watch where you hit your head! Paper wings rustled in my hair, and Kiki crawled down to my ear. There are other ways to tell me you’re awake, Shiori.

  “Kiki!” I was thrilled to see her. “What happened? Where am—”

  You’ve been sleeping, she reported. You’re lucky, you know. The Dragon King’s daughter has come back several times to hack at your soul, but she couldn’t even snip a strand. Nazayun’s furious about it. He told her to wake you up. A gulp. He said he’d do it.

  “When was this?”

  Who can tell time in this place? Kiki shrugged. I was spying. I couldn’t ask what day it was. She thinks the pearl protected you. Her inky eyes bulged. Did it?

  “Maybe. That must be why I still have it. Why I’m still alive.”

  That was some comfort, but not much.

  Kiki peered at the pearl as it wobbled to life. It was asleep, you know, same as you—until now. It’s almost like it has a mind, like it’s living.

  “It’s a dragon’s heart,” I said. “It is alive, in a way.”

  For a dragon’s heart, it isn’t very clever, said Kiki. It should find its own way home instead of making us do all the work.

  Silently, I agreed. The Wraith’s pearl floated above my head, hovering near. I couldn’t decide whether I was angry or relieved to see it. What was becoming clear was that I couldn’t always count on it to come to my aid.

  Look what you did, Kiki scolded the pearl. She sat on it, lounging in the crack between its edges with her wings spanned out. I could be back in Kiata, lolling on silk pillows and chasing fireflies. But look where we are! Shiori’s stuck in this horrible dragon dungeon—and you, you’re no closer to finding your owner.

  The pearl let out a flare, illuminating our surroundings: a narrow cell that seemed to go on forever. But that was only an illusion. In reality, there were thousands of mirror shards bobbing along the walls, and their reflections made the room seem endless.

  I shivered. “What is this place?”

  Kiki shrugged again. I’ve searched a hundred times for a way out, but the mirrors—Shiori, they’re alive! They kept watching me. And there’s this eerie ghost—

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