The deck of the Sea Dragon lurched under Kang’s feet. He fell against his master’s horse and just barely managed to stay upright. Outside the cabin doors he could hear the sounds of splintering wood and the shouts of men. The book pulsed beneath his tunic, reminding him of the promise he had made to princess Xi Shi.
The book urged him onto the back of the little black horse. The enemy is near. We must leave now.
The disembodied voice that spoke in his mind reminded him of the princess, but it lacked her gentle and comforting tone.
Kang situated himself in the saddle and grabbed the reins. “I don’t think he wants to go out there.” He prodded the horse’s sides with his heels, but only got a snort for his troubles.
Hold on tight to the reins.
“Why?” He just managed to wrap one end of the reins around his left hand before the book released a wave of energy that passed through him and down into the frightened beast.
The horse reared in the small space, brushing Kang’s unkempt hair across one of the rafters before kicking the cabin doors outward. It burst out onto the deck and stopped next to the princess.
Kang offered Xi Shi a nervous smile. “Don’t worry, Princess, I’ll guard the book with my life.” He dug his heels into the horse’s sides and this time it leapt into action.
The pounding of hooves on the pitching and swaying deck reverberated through the young boy’s small frame. The thick leather reins dug into his hands, but he didn’t dare let go. He felt the upward thrust as the horse leapt into the air as though it was second nature. Blood thrummed hot in his ears, muffling out the screams and chaos around him. Then in an instant horse and rider cleared the ship’s railing and plummeted toward the water below.
The force of the impact threw him off the horse and into the murky water of the bay. He flailed instinctively for the book as the reins slipped from his hands. One of the horse’s legs kicked him in the shoulder pushing him deeper below the surface. Kang pressed one hand over the book beneath his tunic and struggled to swim upward.
Again the book sent a wave of energy throughout his body. A strength that was not his own powered him upward until he broke free from the water and caught hold of the reins once more. He swam at the horse’s side until the determined beast found solid footing and trudged upward with the incoming tide. Kang looped one end of the reins around his left hand and hoisted his right leg over the saddle just as the horse broke free from the water and took its first steps onto the soft sand of the beach.
He looked back at the Sea Dragon. One of the enemy’s ships had rammed her, its protruding bow buckling the wooden railing on the starboard side. A throng of men jumped down onto the deck with weapons in hand. Sheng-Li hurled a torch at the broad sail of the attacker’s ship. A thin line of flame raced up toward the mast.
“There are so many of them.” He caught sight of the princess. She was surrounded by the enemy, yet she didn’t back down. One by one she dispatched them until her delicate robes were soaked in their blood. “I have to go back and help her.”
That is not your path. The princess has chosen you to continue on. We ride now lest her efforts be in vain.
He took one last look at the scene raging out across the water, let out a troubled breath, and then nudged the horse toward a line of trees beyond the shoreline.
The horse moved through the underbrush as though it had a destination in mind. Where had Master Sheng-Li found such a horse? It looked nothing like those in his village. It was the color of starless night with a frame as light as the moist air that brushed passed Kang’s face, glistening his golden skin with tiny droplets of water. Kang’s mind raced along with the thrumming hoofbeats kicking up soft soil behind them.
Thrum-a-thrum, thrum-a-thrum, thrum-a-thrum, a fragment of memory. The Master had been on this very horse the day he’d rescued Kang from the relentless slaughter of the Imperial army. His own horrified screams filled Kang’s ears.
Thrum-a-thrum, thrum-a-thrum, thrum-a-thrum, the horse leapt over a fallen Duku branch, its mottled gray and orange bark reminding him of blood running through the cobbled streets. So much blood. Some of it his own, his parents, his brothers and sisters…friends…strangers.
Thrum-thrum, thrum-a-thrum, thrum-a-thrum, leaves from the Duku tree slapped at his face, stinging briefly, then cooled by the moist air. His vision blurred…Sheng-Li charged the soldier holding Kang by the scruff of the neck. The soldier screamed out in agony, and for a brief moment his severed hand still clung to Kang’s neck, misting the soldier’s terrified face with his own blood. Sheng-Li ran the man down with his horse, a horse with a pelt of obsidian and eyes like a mother’s, dark, afraid, kind and knowing.
Thrum-a-thrum, thrum-a-thrum, the horse slowed its pace by a third as the brush grew denser. The rising and lowering reminding Kang of being on the deck of the Sea Dragon. A ship that had been his home ever since Sheng-Li snatched him from certain death. A ship that Kang believed to be imbued with the old magic, a magic his grandfather had revealed to him in stories and fables and bits of wisdom offered on their way to the market.
Thrum-a-thrum, thrum-a-thrum, the Master had been hard, but kind. He taught Kang the ways of the sea, what it was to work for the benefit of himself and of the crew. “Every man must earn his keep, even the man who is a boy, for there is no time to be a boy now.”
Thrum-a-thrum, the pace slowed once more. The sounds of the sea had gone, replaced by birds and insects flitting beneath the canopy that casts the light from the morning sun into splotchy patches like flotsam and jetsam.
The book pulsed beneath his tunic. The horse stopped in a small clearing, the sky visible directly above them. A series of pulses emanated from the book, raising the hair on the nape of Kang’s neck.
“What is it?”
The Sixth. Another pulse.
“Who?” Kang wiped the sweat from his brow, and looked behind them.
Princess Xi Shi, the Sixth. The binder, the alpha and omega.
“Is she coming to join us?”
“How do you know?”
Our connection has been severed. She returns to the aether to seek another vessel.
“I don’t understand.”
She is dead, the voice that was the Princess’s, yet was not, intoned.
Warm tears welled up and trickled down his cheeks. He had only known her for a short time, but he felt as though he had known her a lifetime. Perhaps the time inside the Eye of Jupiter had been a lifetime. He could picture her there now, floating beneath the cherry blossom tree, holding his hands in hers, repeating the strange words and phrases, pushing them into his being. How long had they been there? Where had they been? It was all too much for him to fathom. “What do we do now? Will the bad men follow us?”
The horse stood its ground, stomping and pawing in slow motion. It appeared ready to bolt, yet something held it in place.
“We should run.” Kang repositioned his grip on the reins.
Calculating. Another pulse of energy ran through Kang and pushed upward until he felt a weight leave his shoulders. Our position is too distant.
The Sixth had hoped you could deliver me to a place of power where I would be safe until the next gathering.
“Then we should go there.”
No. Now that the Sixth is gone, our enemies are in pursuit. We have not put enough distance between us and them. There is a very low probability we will make it to our destination.
The odds are not in our favor.
“Then we should just run.” He dug his heels into the horse’s sides, but it didn’t budge.
To run without a destination often leads to folly.
Kang could feel and hear his heart in his chest. He could taste the fear rising in his throat. He dug his heels harder into the horse, but still it didn’t move. “We need to go now.”
Level heads prevail. Calm yourself, young Kang.
A reassuring warmth traveled from his spine up to the base of his neck. The words echoed through his mind…level heads prevail…hadn’t the Master said something like that? Yes, he was sure of it…and the Master was always right. He had never let Kang down. Never in all his years.
That’s it. Calm yourself. Level heads prevail. A way will present itself.
The next phrases the book uttered were both foreign and familiar. They were words and pictures projected into his mind, things he had no knowledge of until his attunement, and even now they were largely unknown. He knew only the part of the island that jutted above the surface of the sea. He knew only the surface of the sea, not of its depths or wonders within.
Still he understood the book’s intent, even though he knew nothing of the magic words that emanated from it like a litany.
Position alpha relay beacon omega…awaiting…alpha relay…north from southeast…relay bearing nearest of seven. A click and a gentle whir. Negative…distance unsurmountable…nearest south of range to northeast…awaiting. Another click followed by a more deliberate movement of air. Affirmative…relay message to fifth of seven. Distress…triangulate position to fifth…direct to the Cassiopeia…intercept…distress.
Kang felt as though he had been awakened from a deep sleep.
Ride on, young master.
Kang nudged the horse forward. This time it obeyed, and they once again galloped through the underbrush and the Duku trees, drowning out the sounds of nature with a thrum-a-thrum, thrum-a-thrum, thrum-a-thrum.