Excerpt from Journey Across the Hidden Islands
Don't fall, don't fall, oh no, I'm going to fall . . . Crouching, Ji-Lin raised her sword over her head. She counted to thirty and then straightened to standing, without falling. Slowly, she lifted one foot to her knee. Her other bare foot was planted on the top of a pole, on the roof of the Temple of the Sun, at the top of a mountain.
Sweat tickled the back of her neck, under her braid. She was supposed to be calm, like a bird on a breeze or a leaf in summer or some other very calm nature image she could never quite remember. But she felt too jittery, as if all her muscles were vibrating.
If she passed this test, she'd be one step closer to being like the heroes of the tales she loved.
She'd also be one step closer to her sister.
Tomorrow was her and her twin's twelfth birthday, and if she passed this test, then maybe, maybe she'd be allowed to spend the day with her. They could steal a lucky orange from the palace kitchen and climb the spires and watch the gondoliers steer through the canals . . .
I'll pass, Ji-Lin thought. No matter what I have to do.
Twisting on the pole, Ji-Lin faced north, then east, toward the rising sun. Yellow light bathed the mountains, soaked the trees, and tinted the streams and waterfalls. In the sunlight, the water looked like liquid gold as it cascaded over the rocks and crashed into the mist that hid the valley below. Fire moths flew in and out of the mist, streaking it with glowing red-orange dust, and a pair of flying monkeys chased one another before disappearing into the soft whiteness. Calm, she told herself. Focused. Fierce. DO NOT FALL.
When the attack came, it was fast. A shadow darkened the sky. At first, it was a speck like a bird, and then it rapidly grew larger and larger, until the silhouette of a winged lion blotted out Ji-Lin's view of the rising sun.
The lion hurtled down from the sky, his wings folded for speed. Sunlight caught his mane, creating a halo. Roaring, he stretched his claws toward her, and it didn't matter that it was almost her birthday or how much she missed her sister. All that mattered was that the test had begun.
Ji-Lin held the sword point out with both hands as she kicked the pole beneath her. The lion veered to avoid the tip of her sword as the pole broke and Ji-Lin dropped to the roof. She landed, kicked the pole up with her foot, and caught it in one hand. Yes! she thought, and then she hurled the pole at the lion's belly without lowering her sword.
He bashed the pole out of the air with his paw, then swiped at her, but she was already in motion. Go, go, go! Her bare feet were soundless on the clay tiles as she ran across the roof. The lion filled the air with thunderous roars to rattle her bones and make her afraid. But she'd heard too many roars during her lessons to be shaken.
Balancing, she ran along the roof and then leaped onto the next building. A tile shifted under her feet as she landed. The winged lion dove for her again, and she scooped up the broken tile and threw it. Spinning in the air, it hit the lion's face. He turned his head before it could strike his golden eye. Uh-oh, she thought. Too close! Ji-Lin ran again. He was right behind her. She imagined she felt his warm breath on her neck.
She had to try something else. The goal was straightforward: she had to jump onto the lion's back and ride him before he forced her off the roof to the ground. But how to do it?
Be swift. Be bold. Be unexpected.
How many times had she heard those words? Ji-Lin had come to the temple the day after her eleventh birthday, and at least twice a day the drummers would chant them as they beat out the rhythm of morning exercises, and then the masters would repeat them during the ritual to welcome sunset. So a full year of hearing those words meant . . . It means think, she ordered herself. And run faster!
Pivoting, she raced down the roof. She pushed harder with each stride until she was leaping. It wasn't going to be enough. He was going to catch her! Time to be unexpected, she thought. As the lion dove for her, she threw her sword at him. It flashed as it spun through the air.
The lion caught it, trapping the hilt between his front paws, at the same moment Ji-Lin reached the edge of the roof. She jumped off the roof as the lion fumbled the sword, hurling herself into the air, and she landed half on and half off the lion's back. She hung on to his wing and, twisting her body, pulled herself upright. Burying her hands in his mane, she wrapped her legs around his broad chest.
I did it!
Surprised by her sudden leap, the lion dropped her sword. It fell, flashing in the dawn light, until it clattered in the courtyard below. There it lay, silver against the black stone, glistening like a dead snake between the obsidian sculptures.
Roaring, he soared over the temple. Ji-Lin felt the wind batter her face. The wind roared in her ears as loudly as the lion himself. The lion aimed for a trio of green mountains. His wings pumped beneath her, and she felt his powerful back muscles strain. Sunlight pierced her eyes, and she squinted until the lion plunged into a cloud. Mist swirled around them, erasing any sense of up or down, sky or ground. She heard the cries of birds screaming warnings about the sudden appearance of a large cat in their sky. The winged lion twisted and swooped.
They burst out of the cloud, high above the mountains. Below, between clouds, Ji-Lin could see her island, the imperial island of Shirro, the largest of the Hundred Islands of Himitsu, a green jewel in the midst of blue ocean.
Beneath her, she felt a rumble as the winged lion, Alejan, spoke, "You are going to get in so much trouble. Granted, it was brilliant. But so much trouble! Never fear, though; I will defend you and tell them you are brave beyond brave, exactly like Master Shai when she defeated two--"
Ji-Lin interrupted him before he could wax on about his hero. As much as she loved that tale of Master Shai, this was not the time. "I played the game! You were the evil koji, and I tamed you." He'd taken the role of a monster intent on throwing her from her perch, and he'd had instructions to not go easy on her.
"Your sword, Ji-Lin. You threw it! It's your claws, your teeth! You know how they feel about students who lose their weapons. I think you were clever and inventive and brave, but you know they like their rules."
He was right, of course. She may have succeeded in "taming" him, but they weren't going to like the way she did it. She groaned. "They'll make me clean the toilets, won't they?"
"For this crime, they'll have you clean them with a toothbrush."
"Or no brush," she said glumly.
"Or your tongue."
Extending unbroken to the horizon, the sea glittered in the morning light. Close to shore, within the protective barrier that surrounded the islands, fishing ships with red sails drew lines through the waves. "I think that would kill me."
"I will mourn you," Alejan said solemnly.
"I expect loud wailing and tearing of clothes."
"But I don't wear clothes."
"You could shed a lot."
His fur quivered beneath her: he was laughing.
She leaned her cheek against his mane, feeling his laugh through her body. He smelled like fresh dirt, as if he'd been rolling around in a field . . . which he could have been. She wondered where he'd gone yesterday while she'd been stuck inside the classroom. To a farm? To the shore? To another island? She wished she were allowed to go with him, traveling the islands instead of staying behind to study. She could do it! She was ready! But the masters said no. Extended journeys were for older students. In a year, she'd be allowed to explore more, but only if she passed all her tests, which wouldn't happen if she failed so badly they punished her, like they might after today's performance. Certainly they aren't going to reward me with a trip home. She thought of her sister and the lucky orange they should have been sharing tomorrow. I'm sorry, Seika.
"Can we fly a little farther before we head back?"
"If we do, can I have chicken for breakfast?"
"You already had breakfast."
"I have a healthy appetite! I'm a growing lion. Someday I might grow as huge as Master Shai, who is said to be directly descended from the lion who flew Emperor Himitsu from Zemyla--"
"All right. You can have second breakfast." She scratched him behind his left ear, his favorite spot. He'd probably already helped himself to snacks. He liked to visit the harbor before dawn, when the night fishermen returned with their catches. To be fair, he didn't smell like it this morning -- after a trip to see the fishermen, his fur smelled like spices and rotted fish, but this morning he smelled like earth and olives. He must have rolled in an olive grove, she decided. "I'll ask the cooks to put gravy on it."
"You are not only clever and brave, you are also wise and kind."
Through the mist below, between the spirals of fire moths, she saw the sparkle of the imperial city, which spanned the gap between the mountains. She used to live there, with Seika, until their father said it was time for them to train on their own: Seika to be the emperor's heir and Ji-Lin to be her imperial guard. They'd be reunited when -- if -- they both trained hard and passed all their tests. Until then, Ji-Lin would only see her home from above: the graceful curves of the palace suspended over the water, the canals with their elegant black gondolas, and the spires of the libraries.
The mist closed over the city and hid it from view. Soon the sun and the fire moths would burn the mist away, but for now, the city was shrouded in wisps of white, as if it were still asleep and hiding between white sheets. She wondered if Seika was awake or asleep.
"I guess we should head back," Ji-Lin said at last. "I have to get my sword."
"And my chicken," Alejan reminded her.
"And your toothbrush."
"Hah. Very funny."
Tilting to the right, Alejan soared toward the temple. Its white walls gleamed in the rising sun. His wings caught the wind, and he rose higher. Ji-Lin felt the sun warming the air. A sea hawk circled near them, watching the lion.
The Temple of the Sun was perched on the peak of a mountain on the imperial island. It was set into the rocks, and its many buildings were connected by steep steps that led to courtyards. Alejan circled the training courtyard, an octagon of black stone. It was ringed by statues of their heroes, the first winged lions and riders to fight the koji, all carved from obsidian, with smooth faces and angled bodies. Ji-Lin's sword still lay in the center of the courtyard where it had fallen. Several of the masters sat, wings folded, in a circle around it. Curious students perched in the olive trees and filled the verandas. As Alejan spiraled down, Ji-Lin felt her heart sink. Everyone was going to know about this.
The most embarrassing moment of my life is about to happen, she thought, and I can't do anything to stop it. Maybe she could die of shame right now and skip all the humiliation.
Paws extended, Alejan landed. He sank onto the stone, cushioning the landing so he was as silent as the fall of an autumn leaf. Ji-Lin slid off his back, bent to one knee, and bowed her head. Out of the corners of her eyes, she saw herself reflected in the blank faces of the obsidian statues.
No one spoke.
She heard no sound except the breeze in a nearby flowering olive tree. Leaves whispered, and a few white blossoms fell. They swirled down onto the stones around her, and onto the sword. One of the masters could have composed a song about the moment: the white blossoms crying, the sky lightening with dawn's kisses . . . or not. Ji-Lin had almost failed her composition class. She'd been saved by her punctuality. She just didn't see the point in playing with words when there were races to be won, games to be played, and lions to be flown. She was training to be a hero, not a court lady.
It was Master Vanya, the eldest of the masters. She was a stately lioness with silver wings and white fur tinged with gold around her muzzle. According to legend, she once defeated three koji on her own, a vicious trio that had eluded hunters for years. In another story, she saved an entire village from a lava flow by diverting it into the sea. Over her life, she'd trained many famous lions and riders, including Alejan's beloved Master Shai. Alejan knew at least a dozen different tales about Master Vanya and her star student. A few were even true. Ji-Lin bowed lower.
"Child, why did you throw your sword?"
Her mouth felt dry, and her thoughts scattered. She latched onto the words that came with the memory of drumbeats: Be swift, be bold . . . "I wanted to be unexpected."
"Your sword is your life."
"You would throw away your life to win?"
There was no anger in her voice. Only curiosity. Ji-Lin raised her head to look into the tawny eyes of the lioness. Master Vanya had broken the circle of masters. She stood only a few feet from Ji-Lin, in front of Ji-Lin's sword.
"My choice was unexpected," Ji-Lin said, trying to keep her voice calm and measured, as she'd been taught, "but his wasn't."
"A foolish risk," another master rumbled. Eyes locked on Master Vanya, Ji-Lin didn't see which one spoke. "She is a child in body, heart, and mind. The emperor will be displeased."
Ji-Lin bowed her head again and wondered how many more classes would be added to her schedule after she failed today's test. At this rate, she'd be eighteen before she was allowed to visit Seika. She told herself she would not cry, no matter what they said. "I won't drop it ever again."
"She won," Alejan said. "She caught me midair, exactly as she was supposed to. She was brave and clever, like Master Shai when she faced a sea koji--" Ji-Lin shot him a look, and he stopped. He shouldn't speak so freely to the masters. He was still in training too.
"Perhaps. Or perhaps not." It was Master Fen. He was in charge of teaching Ji-Lin and the other students how to read the sacred texts and how to memorize the maps of the islands. "Regardless, it is not enough to justify--"
"Explain, child," Master Vanya interrupted. "What did you mean by 'his wasn't'?"
Ji-Lin took a deep breath and reminded herself she had nothing to fear from the masters. Their disappointment wouldn't kill her. In the end, they wanted the same thing she wanted: for her to be a hero, like in one of her and Alejan's favorite tales. "I knew Alejan would catch it."
"A real koji--" another master began.
"But she was not fighting a real koji," Master Vanya said. "She was fighting her partner pretending to be a koji, and she adjusted her strategy accordingly. Rise and take your sword, child. You have passed our test." The lioness pivoted, shifted her weight, and leapt into the air. Her wings flapped once, and olive blossoms flew from the trees. They rained on the courtyard as the lioness flew above the temple.
One by one, the other lions left.
Ji-Lin still knelt on the stones. She felt as if she heard singing in her ears. She'd expected to be yelled at, lectured, or at least assigned more lessons or chores. She had not expected to pass! Slowly, she stood. She looked down at her sword. Tears teased the corners of her eyes.
Silver, the curve of the blade looked like the crescent moon. Curled designs, shaped like waves, were carved into the steel, and the hilt was braided with ribbons of black leather. Ji-Lin wormed her bare toes under the hilt and kicked up. The sword flew into the air. She reached with one hand, and the hilt landed in her palm. She held it for a moment, studying the blade. Orange and gold flashed in her eyes -- the sunrise reflected in the silvery steel. "I passed," she said, tasting the words. She felt as if she had wings, and she wanted to stretch them out and fly. She'd really passed!
"Tomorrow, you will fly to the city and join your sister." Master Vanya spoke from the roof of the temple. Her voice was a rumble that washed over the courtyard. Her wings were extended, and she looked as regal as the twin statues that guarded the path to the temple.
Ji-Lin wanted to cheer. Home! A real visit! A real birthday!
But Master Vanya continued, "Your imperial father has called you to service. Your training is over. Congratulations, and do us proud." She then rose into the air again and flew toward the triple mountains.
If Ji-Lin had been flying, she would have crashed.
The sword in her hand felt suddenly heavy. She lowered it until the tip touched the stones. She heard whispers around her from the students in the trees and on the verandas. "Alejan," she said, and then her voice failed. How had that . . . What had just . . .
She couldn't have heard correctly. Master Vanya couldn't have said she was done -- she hadn't taken all the classes! She hadn't passed all the tests! Students, especially not-so-obedient ones, weren't supposed to be done early. That never happened. Traditions were always followed. Rules were never bent. Not by the emperor.
Father never, ever broke a rule. He wouldn't have thrown his sword. He would have hated that she'd thrown hers.
Alejan was beside her. Nudging her hand with his head, he placed his mane under her fingers, which curled into his soft, thick fur. "Congratulations! Ji-Lin? You don't look happy. Why don't you look happy? I thought you wanted to see your sister."
She did want to see Seika. But for a birthday treat, not . . . This was too fast. She was supposed to endure many more trials before she was pronounced ready to be her sister's guard. She hadn't proved herself, not against any serious challenge.
"Are you all right?" Alejan sounded anxious.
Ji-Lin shook herself. Ready or not, she was going home! Tomorrow! One more night, and then she was going to see Seika, live in the palace, sleep in her own bed, eat her favorite foods . . . Sheathing her sword, she jumped on Alejan's back. "Come on, let's celebrate! Fly, Alejan!"
"To breakfast!" he cried, and launched into the air.
Squashing down her doubts and worries, she laughed as they flew into the wind. Below, the temple drums began to sound, and the flying monkeys played in the tops of the olive trees.
Seika lifted the mask over her face. It took her three tries before she knotted the ribbons behind her head correctly. She stepped in front of the mirror. The mask was covered in snow-white owl feathers and boasted the spiraled horn of a mountain unicorn. (Or more accurately, a sheep -- it was illegal to hunt unicorns.) Drops of jewels were tied to silver threads that draped from the mask. She looked as if she'd been caught in a rainstorm of diamonds and sapphires.
Scowling at herself, she added another strand of crystals to the horn. It was the night before her twelfth birthday, and she was supposed to be ready by now. The Spring Ritual was already under way, and she was to join the dance as one of the seven unicorn maidens, the Heralds of Spring.
"You look ridiculous," she told her reflection. She imagined what her sister would say if she saw her in this costume. Mimicking Ji-Lin's voice, she said, "Look, it's a sheep that fell into a jewel mine. Baaa-baaa-baah."
"Your Highness?" A startled voice interrupted her baahs.
Seika felt her cheeks blush as red as a pomegranate. Trying to sound dignified, she called, "You may enter!" Belatedly, she realized the court lady was already inside. Catching a glimpse in the mirror, she corrected herself: six court ladies, all in identical unicorn costumes, all staring at her with identical expressions of horror. "Vocal exercises. Baa-baah."
"Of course, milady." The lady bowed with her hands clasped at her waist and then scurried over to Seika. As if her bow had released the others from their frozen state, they fluttered around her, oohing and aahing over her mask and her hair. They added more necklaces to her throat until she felt as if she'd choke, and they shoved more bracelets onto her arms and rings onto her fingers. She stood motionless in front of the mirror, as she was supposed to.
When they finished fluttering around her, she looked even less like herself and more like a living feathered jewel, some strange and dangerous creature that had come from the outside world through the barrier. She stared in the mirror at herself and at the court ladies, all of them dressed the same, awash in feathers and draped in jewels.
We're beautiful monsters, she thought.
She wondered what it would be like to see a real monster, and then she pushed the thought aside. That wasn't likely to happen. Thanks to the lions and riders, the koji had been hunted to near extinction on the islands. She needed to focus on tonight's ritual -- and then she had another tradition to complete. Years ago, she and her twin sister had promised each other they'd always share a lucky orange on their birthday. Seika didn't break her promises.
But this year that promise was going to be hard to keep.
I can do this.
When she and Ji-Lin were little, they used to sneak away from the Spring Ritual, hide in the balcony, and watch and whisper and giggle all night. She planned to do the same thing tonight . . . except that Ji-Lin was farther away than she used to be. But princesses were supposed to be bold and daring and fearless, weren't they? It's time to see if that's true, she thought.
Pretending she was braver than she felt, Seika swept out of the bedchamber with the ladies in a V behind her, like a flock of beautiful yet artificial birds. They murmured to one another, and Seika thought they sounded like birds as well. She wished at least one of them were her age. But they weren't supposed to be her friends. Which was part of why Seika wanted to see her sister so badly. Ji-Lin was not just her sister. She was her best -- and only -- friend.
Out in the halls, Seika saw that the palace had been decorated for the Spring Ritual. The marble statues wore masks, even the stodgiest of the old emperors and empresses. The only statues that had not been touched were the two winged lions that flanked the entrance to the Bridge of Promises. Carved out of Zemylan purple wood, the statues were incalculably precious because that tree didn't grow on the islands. Maybe they were too irreplaceable to be messed with. Or maybe the decorators were scared of annoying the real winged lions. She hoped the lions at Ji-Lin's temple weren't going to be angry with her when she showed up on their steps.
First things first, though: she had to successfully sneak out of the palace.
Easier said than done.
Made of black and white stone, the Bridge of Promises arched over a canal, connecting two wings of the palace. Windows let the night breeze whistle through. Stone winged statues guarded the spires. Seika and the court ladies glided over the bridge. Their slippered feet were soundless on the marble path. On the other side was the heart of the palace, with the Hall of Seasons and her father's celebration dais with its flower-strewn throne. She could hear the strains of music drifting over the water and knew the ritual had already begun.
At the peak of the bridge, Seika slowed by one of the windows. Cracks ran through the sill, from one of the recent tremors that had shaken the island. She touched the cracks, tracing their veinlike pattern. In a few days, they'd be filled in and painted so they wouldn't show.
The palace was only ever allowed to be beautiful.
Like a princess, with every flaw hidden.
Outside, the city sparkled with hundreds of lanterns hung on both sides of the canals. Their light glistened on the dark water. Boats slipped through the water, shadows that passed silently, and the waterfolk -- the merpeople who lived under the bridges -- were singing softly to summon fish for their dinners. Seika wished she could bring Ji-Lin home for their birthday. Ji-Lin hadn't seen this sight in an entire year, nor heard the song of the city's waterfolk. She must miss it. This was where Ji-Lin belonged, not at the top of a mountain, far away from her twin.
"Princess Seika?" one of the ladies asked.
Leaning on the windowsill, Seika looked out without replying. The palace sprawled on either side of her, its spires and turrets reaching high, as if they wanted to touch the mountains. Master Werr, her history tutor, said that two hundred years ago, when her ancestors fled from the mainland, these islands were empty wilderness: new islands, born from the sea, summoned by dragon magic. In the years that followed, safe within the protection of the dragon's magic barrier, her ancestors had carved this city into the rocks and suspended it between the mountains. The water that used to rush between the mountains had been tamed into hundreds of canals. Beyond the city, she knew, the water ran free, tumbling in waterfalls and spilling down mountainsides into the ocean.
She wanted to see it. Maybe someday she would. Maybe she and Ji-Lin could see it together, when they were done with their training, when they were ready to explore! Until then, every year, the palace felt smaller, the walls closer, and the sky wider.
Behind her, one of the ladies spoke. "One legend says that the Bridge of Promises was built to the specifications of Emperor Himitsu himself, in honor of his promise to the dragon. Another says it was built by the third emperor for his daughter, in honor of his promise that she would be his heir. The Empress Maiyi went on to build many of our greatest cities and temples."
It would be nice if the ladies didn't turn every moment into a lesson. I was being meditative and introspective. A tutor had once said those were good traits for royalty. "Which is true?" Seika asked obediently. Politeness and obedience were also good traits, and she knew what the court ladies wanted to hear.
"Both or neither. It is also said that when a promise is broken, the statues on the bridge cry, and it is their tears that fill the canals below -- and that is why the canals are salt water."
Ji-Lin would have pointed out that the canals were salt water because they connected to the sea -- she'd always been the one to dare argue and question -- but Seika just smiled at the court ladies and withdrew from the window. I'm the good girl, Seika thought, which is why Father will understand why I have to do this, right? I promised Ji-Lin. She crossed the rest of the bridge without another glance at the glittering city.
At her approach, guards threw open the doors, and in seconds, she stood at the top of a wide curved staircase, overlooking the Hall of Seasons. This hall was used four times a year, to mark the turning of the seasons. According to her favorite tutor, the quarterly rituals were supposed to comfort the islanders as they confronted the passage of time.
Ji-Lin had always called them ridiculous, but Seika thought they were beautiful.
Musicians, clad in purple to represent the flowers that bloomed on the mountainsides of Shirro in springtime, played the traditional music of spring with an array of five- and seven-stringed instruments. Their music swelled and fell like waves, punctuated by bells. Below, the court was performing the traditional dance. In sets of four, the lords and ladies looked like petals on a flower. The colors swirled as they danced, and all the masks glittered with jewels.
Across the hall, on a dais, on a throne of gold wreathed in white roses and orange blossoms, was her father. He was dressed as a winged lion, with a mane of gold threads around his face, his skin painted gold, and wings made of swan feathers on his back. He sat stiff and silent as he watched over his court.
After a moment, he lifted his face and looked directly at Seika.
And then his gaze swept on, without any hint of recognition.
She knew she shouldn't be disappointed -- she was in the same costume as the court ladies. In fact, the whole point of escaping now was that she was indistinguishable from the other unicorn maidens. Tonight, the palace guards wouldn't know her, and she'd be able to slip away during the ritual.
Seika swept down the stairs with the other unicorn maidens, and the dancers parted to allow them onto the floor. Instantly, they began the pattern of the dance. Each set was supposed to ensure verdant growth across the islands. Seika's feet knew the steps well, and she was free to watch around her as she swirled with the others, joining the blossoming flower patterns on the floor.
Her father did not look at her again.
As the music changed, she switched partners. Her slippered feet were light on the marble, and she spun and danced, until the music died midnote.
All the dancers froze like statues -- arms raised or lowered, legs stretched or bent, toes pointed or flexed. Seika was midspin when the music stopped. As she'd practiced, she smoothly dropped one foot to the floor to halt her spin and held herself as still as the rest, as the hourly ceremony known as the Procession of Time began.
Three men in black hooded robes emerged from a plain wooden door opposite the dais. Silent, they weaved through the dancers. Each man carried a black lacquer box decorated with pearls. Each wore his hood over his head, and a polished silver mask. When they reached the dais, they knelt as one before the emperor and held up the boxes.
The boxes sprang open, and jewel-colored birds flew out.
Seika tilted her head, just slightly, to watch them fly.
The birds spiraled to the ceiling and out the skylights into the star-speckled night. The boxes closed, and the time men filed back through the statuelike dancers. When the door closed behind them, the music started, and the dancers continued as if they'd never stopped. Seika continued her spin.
Seika danced and danced through the night, completing the patterns of the Spring Ritual and halting every hour for the Procession of Time. She counted the hours as they passed. As midnight approached, she felt her heart beat faster. Almost time, she thought. She spun closer and closer to the edge of the hall.
At midnight, the music died once more.
The dancers froze, and so did Seika, one foot in the air and one arm outstretched. She waited and watched and tried not to wobble.
The wooden door opened.
The silver-masked men marched toward the emperor, who still sat rigid on his throne. As one, they knelt and opened the boxes. Darkness fell as every lantern was shuttered and every window was shaded simultaneously by servants around the ballroom. A curtain was drawn across the ceiling to block any light from the stars. Rehearsed for a month, the midnight ritual happened in only an instant.
And in that instant, Seika slipped through the wooden door.
It was so quick, this moment she had planned for days, but she was quick too. She heard the music begin again and knew the lights had been relit and the curtain withdrawn, symbolizing the way midnight switched the world from growing night to growing day.
Suppressing the urge to giggle, she hurried through the narrow corridor. She was doing it! Really doing it! Ahead, she heard the flutter of wings and snippets of bird songs. The cage of jeweled birds was at the end of the hallway. Hundreds of songbirds flew around the cage, swirling like flowers blowing in the wind. Behind the birds was the entrance to the time men's chambers.
She'd chosen this escape route because it connected to the capital's old koji shelters. Every town and city on all the islands had a koji shelter: usually a collection of tunnels or caves, built for escape from the koji. They weren't used much nowadays, of course. But Seika had learned about them in her lessons, and she knew the tunnels were both accessible and safe. I doubt Master Werr ever expected those lessons to be so practical, she thought. She imagined sending a thank-you note to her history tutor and suppressed another laugh.
Seika found the entrance to the tunnels exactly where it was supposed to be: in the center of the time men's room, underneath a rug. Throwing back the rug, she pulled up a stone. It shifted easily. She pulled a string from a hidden pocket in her dress and tied it to the corner of the rug. As she lowered herself into the hole and replaced the cover, she tugged on the string. The rug unrolled again, hiding her escape.
Only seconds later, she heard the time men return to the room, murmuring to one another in soft voices and cooing at the birds.
I did it!
Now she just had to find the boat. She knew one was stored here -- she'd glimpsed the tip of it from her window during low tide. This tunnel should lead her right to it.
While the time men chattered above her, Seika crept down the ladder. It creaked, but she moved as silently as she could. Holding her skirts up so they wouldn't snag on anything, she silently hurried through the tunnel, which smelled like rotten cabbage. She counted her strides and tried not to breathe deeply.
At ten steps, she halted, and she felt along the wall. Around her, she heard the scurrying of rats. Yuck. She hoped they weren't nearby. Or hungry. "I don't taste good," she whispered into the darkness. At the sound of her voice, the rats skittered away. She was glad she'd never been afraid of the dark.
Soon she located a lantern -- all the koji shelters were stocked with lanterns and other supplies. If she kept going, she'd find abandoned rooms with cots and stores of old food and water, but that wasn't her destination. She lit the wick with a flint that lay next to it. Soft shuttered light spilled into the tunnel, and the oil smelled musky. With the lantern, she continued.
She felt a smile pulling at her face. She was doing it! Really, really doing it! Ji-Lin was going to be so surprised. And happy. I keep my promises.
She hurried. Up ahead, she saw it: the elegant curve of the black gondola.
She also saw a figure in the boat.
He had painted gold skin, a fake lion's mane, and swan-feather wings, and he was sitting calmly, legs crossed, hands on his knees, as if he'd been waiting for her for hours.
"Father?" Seika said, slowing.
The Emperor of Himitsu inclined his head. "Daughter. Care for a boat ride?"
But . . . But . . . She'd been so quick and so clever! How did he . . . How could he . . .
He signaled one of his guards, who stepped out of the shadows and into the gondola. He held a polelike paddle for steering. Seika glanced around and saw more of her father's guards blended in with the dark walls of the tunnel. Hitching up the hem of her skirt, she climbed into the boat. It rocked as she settled into a seat directly across from her father. She set the lantern between them.
She peeked up at him. He didn't look angry.
Standing on the back of the gondola, the guard rowed them out of the tunnel. Above, the night sky was dressed in stars. "If I may ask, how did you know?" She kept her hands in her lap, eyes respectfully down. She thought her voice sounded admirably calm and steady, considering she'd just been caught.
"Spies," he said bluntly. "I had you watched."
The gondola slid through the water. "Oh." She should have known. She was watched all the time, of course, but she'd thought that during the Spring Ritual she'd be lost in the crowd, indistinguishable from the other unicorn maidens.
"I am disappointed in you, Seika."
Ouch. His words felt like rocks dropped on her toes. She slumped in her seat. She'd thought he might be annoyed, but she hadn't thought he'd be disappointed. "I'm sorry, Father."
"Someday you will be empress, and all of Himitsu will look to you for guidance and inspiration. You will be responsible for the rituals that give our people's lives meaning, that elevate them from primitive animals to enlightened beings, that ensure safety for both the young and old."
With every word, she felt as if she were sinking lower and lower. She wished she could sink into the water and disappear. She shouldn't have left during a ritual. But it was the one time she'd thought there were no eyes on her. "I'm sorry," she repeated.
"I must be able to depend on you to respect our traditions. You must complete our rituals. They are important to our people and our way of life. Promise me you will never abandon one again."
His eyes bored into hers. "Promise me you will always do your duty. You will think of our people, and you will do what is needed."
"I will! I promise! I won't let you down again." She hadn't thought he'd be this upset. She'd only meant to spend the day with her sister. She was going to come right back. "I just . . . missed Ji-Lin." Her voice was so small that she wasn't sure he heard her.
When he replied, he did not give the answer she expected. "You'll see her tomorrow."
She straightened so fast that the gondola rocked from side to side, water sloshing against it. "Really?" Her voice squeaked. "Oh, Father, that's the most wonderful--"
He held up one bejeweled hand, stopping her. "Tomorrow, you will begin the Emperor's Journey. You will go alone, with your sister-guard and her lion, as in the tales of old. You will follow the path of our most beloved ancestor for five days to Kazan, the island of the Dragon's Shrine. You will speak with the dragon before the sun sets on Himit's Day, and you will keep our people safe, as generations have done before you."
She couldn't stop staring at him, even though she knew it was not proper manners. Her mouth was hanging open too, in a way that would have caused her etiquette tutor to tap her jaw with a fan. "But I . . . But that's . . . I don't . . . Truly?" The Emperor's Journey?
"Truly." He clasped her hands. His palms felt smooth, soft, and cool. "Fly straight and fast. Do not linger. Do not veer. Follow the path of Emperor Himitsu. Our people will ensure you have all your need as you travel -- food to eat, places to sleep, wisdom to share."
"But . . . I'm not ready!" She hadn't completed enough lessons, hadn't memorized enough of the rituals, hadn't ever ventured that far away from the palace or Father before.
"Remember what you have promised: you must do your duty. All of Himitsu depends on it."
Seika swallowed hard. "I will keep my promise." Ready or not, she had no choice. Please, please let me succeed!
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