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Journey Across the Hidden Islands, Page 2

Sarah Beth Durst

  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.

  The curve of the silver 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.

  Very hard.

  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.

t the peak of the bridge, Seika slowed by a window. 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 isla
nds 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.