by green papaya
Young Do came to Hong with footsteps that shook the ground, a roar that echoed throughout the city, and fangs that dripped scarlet with blood. “Your final task is completed,” she said, rolling a bloody and dirt-covered object over to Hong with one of her large paws.
The object came to a stop at Hong’s feet. When she looked down at it, two glassy eyes stared back at her, uncomprehending. In death, head separated from the rest of his body, Bao was a pathetic sight to behold. His hair was tangled and his mouth parted in what must have been a final scream of pain. Shriveled and stripped of his magic. Powerless.
Hong looked up and met the eyes of the tiger that stood in front of her. They were the pure amber color of resin, and something of madness resided in them. “So this is your true form,” she said coolly. “I wondered how you were planning to defeat him.”
When Young Do spoke, her voice rumbled with a growl. “All my forms are true. This was the one I needed to kill the magician as you requested. Now I bring you his head as a wedding gift. You will accept it and come home with me as my bride.”
Hong held her head high even though her heart was beating hard against her ribs, a panicked bird trying to escape. “Is this all the wedding gift you bring? It’s rather small.”
It took Hong a moment to realize that the horrible noise coming from Young Do was laughter. “You are in no position to bargain, little witch. You made a pact with me: Complete your three tasks and you will be my bride. I have fulfilled my end of the bargain. Now it is your turn. Come.”
The tiger padded up to her. Hong held her breath, waiting for the tiger’s mouth to open and rip into her. What need did a tiger have for a bride, after all? It was only a story, a cruel way of saying that Young Do would have her life for the three tasks.
Of all the things Hong was expecting, it was not for Young Do to bend her knees and lower herself to the ground. “Sit astride me, little witch, and I will take you home.”
Hong hesitated, but Young Do’s eyes bored into her. In the end, she was right: Hong had made a pact and sealed it with blood. Whatever fate awaited her, she could not escape it, only meet it with dignity. She climbed onto Young Do’s back, flushing when she had to spread her legs wide to straddle her girth. She didn’t know where to put her hands, but settled for grabbing onto Young Do’s fur. It was long and dense and rougher than Hong had expected. She curled her fingers into it, holding on tightly as Young Do stood up.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” she asked, her voice more certain than she felt.
So with a leap and a bound, Young Do sprang off, taking Hong away from the city of her birth and into the unknown.
When Hong was fifteen, she had consulted with a seer. Magic she had aplenty, but prophecies were a gift given to only a few. She visited one of the seers who sat on the side of Sun Hue’s roads, waiting in the shade of buildings for people to seek their fortune.
The seer had tossed a handful of silver coins into a bowl of water and watched intently as they sank. Hong watched as well, trying to read some meaning into the ripples and the pattern of the coins as they settled at the bottom of the bowl. It was as nothing to her, however, so she had waited impatiently for the seer to speak.
At last the seer announced, “A tiger’s bride. That is the fate that awaits you.”
Hong blinked. “Perhaps you could clarify a little more. A tiger? Does that mean someone exceptionally powerful?”
There were no tigers in the city of Hong’s birth. Sun Hue was a city of brick and teak, paved roads and canals. The only wild creatures that lived there were the giant, iridescent snakes that dwelled in the canals, deep underwater. What power they possessed, nobody knew. They kept to themselves and only helped themselves.
“Tigers are exceptionally powerful,” the seer had said cryptically. “And you will need the help of this one to save the city you so love.”
Hong had pressed the seer for more. Would her magic grow stronger? What feats awaited her when she grew into her full power? For there must have been more in her destiny than to be a bride. But the seer had emptied the bowl of water into the dusty road and shooed her away to receive her next guest, and Hong had left in a fit of anger. She had vowed to ignore the prattling of street-side fortune tellers and make her own fate.
But the seer’s words followed Hong throughout the years. She studied and studied, ignoring her parents’ remonstrations that healing spells were good enough for a woman to run her household. She passed the rigorous magicians’ examinations that determined one’s worth, until her rank was second only to the sacred bone magicians who ruled the city.
No matter how much her magic grew or how much her name spread, however, it was not enough. Her parents lamented her lack of a husband; the people of Sun Hue sneered behind her back and asked why a woman was so greedy. They called her the Thorn Witch for her prickly and proud nature. Hong was discontent, for with every achievement she only thought of what more she could accomplish. How much would it take to stand at the apex of power and avert the fate that those silver coins had written for her?
When Hong was twenty, a magician named Bao came from the north. He demanded subjugation and brought in his wake plague and blight that lay waste to the lands around Sun Hue. For three years, Hong and the other magicians fought against him. But in spite of their combined magic, people continued to fall ill and crops continued to wither and die in the fields. Rice fields rotted and rivers ran dry; animals, wild and domesticated, starved and died to be hacked apart by the people for the scant meat that clung to their bones. The snakes fled the canals of the city, leaving them dry and gutted.
Hong drained her magic crafting weapons to fight Bao and and medicine to heal the city’s residents. Arrows fletched with eagles’ feathers to infuse them with accuracy; swords she spent hours murmuring over to gift them with the ability to cut deeply and permanently; beet juice to replenish blood loss and honey to heal cuts and sores.
When those supplies dwindled, Hong turned to cruder materials, pulling bricks from the foundation of the city itself to forge weapons that would borrow their weight and durability and mixing ground rocks with water to give to children in the hopes that they would imbibe some hardiness.
After three years, the city council agreed to meet with Bao and come to an agreement. Hong, whose rank afforded her a seat on the council even if it did not garner her respect, argued passionately against the decision. “Would you sell our city to a despot?” she demanded.
“Would you rather that everyone perished instead?” the head magician asked. “Foolish child. If we give him what he wants, we will at least survive. He may even let us keep our positions on the council and be his advisors.”
Hong spat on the ground in disgust. When they met with Bao in the fortress he had built for himself outside the city, he sat in his chair and appraised them all with his glittering black eyes. They named their conditions, ones which left Hong shaking with rage: the people to be left to Bao’s mercy, the magicians to keep their positions of power and influence.
“You will need those familiar with the people of Sun Hue and their ways. Who better to convey and carry out your will?” the head magician asked in a portentous voice.
“Such pride for those who could barely fend off one person with their combined powers,” Bao drawled. “No matter. I see the sense in your words and I accept them. But there is one more thing I want before I agree to these conditions.”
“Name it, and we shall consider.”
“The Thorn Witch. I want her hand in marriage. It will solidify my rule to have a wife from Sun Hue, don’t you think? Especially one as well known as her.”
The other magicians gasped. Hong sat still even though all the blood fled from her face and her head began to spin. The seer’s words came back to her: “Tigers are exceptionally powerful, and you will need the help of this one to save the city you so love.” Was Bao the tiger the seer had spoken of?
Bao leaned forward and took a lock of her hair in his hand. “Such a thing of beauty,” he said, rubbing her hair against his cheek. “But how exhausted you look. It will do you good to stop fighting and be my wife. I will give you all the clothes and jewels you want, and you will sit in luxury.”
Tiger or no tiger, he made Hong’s skin crawl. She batted his hand away and leapt up, glaring. “I will never marry you!” she spat out.
Bao smiled and turned to the other magicians. “She doesn’t know her place, does she? I will leave you to reason with her. Without her, there is no agreement.”
For days, the council pleaded with her. Pleading soon turned to anger, and then to commands.
“You will be married,” the head magician pronounced. “You have been spoiled and indulged long enough, and it is time that you were made a wife and learned your duties.” They locked her in her parents’ home and met with Bao themselves for the wedding preparations. Hong raged, but with the entire council’s magic sealing her inside her room, there was no escape.
Three days before the wedding, Young Do came to her. Hong first heard about her from the servants’ whispers: a stranger had come to the city gates, swathed in a traveler’s cloak and a wide-brimmed straw hat, and asked for food and water and a place to rest. The guards, shocked to see someone who had walked through the blighted land without harm, had granted her entry. She had eaten with the council of magicians, and when they mentioned that there would soon be a wedding, she had asked to see the bride.
“I will give her a wedding present, as thanks for the hospitality you have shown.”
So she came to Hong’s parents’ home and was shown into Hong’s room. A woman, after all, could do no harm. She came as a person, her thick black hair windswept and her teeth bared in a cocksure smile. All around her hung the heavy weight of magic. Hong eyed her with deep suspicion; her magic felt nothing like what Hong knew. She could not accurately judge its depth or breadth, so she kept her distance as they sat at a table with a teapot between them.
“Perhaps we can come to an agreement,” Young Do said, after draining her cup of tea. She looked directly into Hong’s eyes, her gaze insolent and scrutinizing. “I hear you are to be wedded, but you are far from the picture of a happy bride. Perhaps you are looking for an escape?”
Hong glanced around. Her parents were not above setting the servants to spy on her, and who was to say that Young Do was not a spy herself, sent from Bao to test Hong’s obedience?
“Ah, are you worried about listening ears?” Young Do snapped her fingers and fire licked up the walls, covering them like tapestries. “There. Now we can talk comfortably.”
Hong gasped. Although the fire was so close and burned so high, it only emitted a gentle heat. The walls remained intact, the silk hangings and scrolls that hung from them unmarred even as the fire licked over them.
Hong concentrated once more and tried to grasp the shape of Young Do’s magic. There was no logic to it, unlike Hong’s. Hong’s was a magic of symbolism and symmetry, like creating like. Turmeric to breed bitterness, cosmos blossoms to bring peace and order to a troubled mind, a knife to sever unwanted relationships. Young Do’s magic had none of that poetry; it seemed to spring from nowhere, just as she had.
“Who are you?” she demanded.
Young Do poured herself another cup of tea. “My name is Young Do, and I come from Kinryeo. Let us be frank, shall we? You have need of me, and I have need of you. Perhaps we can strike a deal.”
“You are offering me a chance to escape this marriage, but in order to do so you must defeat my husband-to-be. What makes you think you can do it? Sun Hue is a city of magicians. Our combined power has not been enough to destroy him.”
“It is not a simple question of might, although that is something I have. It is a question of the right approach.”
Hong scoffed. “That sounds like the empty promise of a braggart. My husband-to-be is a tiger, and tigers are exceptionally powerful. I will need more assurance that you can do what you say.”
Young Do threw her head back and laughed raucously. “A tiger, you say? How remarkable. And how do you know this? Has he told you himself?”
Hong flushed, her pride rankled. “I am prophesied to marry a tiger in order to save my city. Bao demands my hand in order to lift this siege on Sun Hue. I believe that is proof enough.”
Young Do slouched in her chair, mirth still crinkling the corners of her eyes. “But you don’t want to marry this tiger, do you? I wouldn’t. I imagine he’s a rather unpleasant individual, judging by the curses he’s laid on your land.”
“I would rather kill myself,” Hong said bitterly. “But he holds the fate of Sun Hue as hostage.”
“What if I offered you a way to save your city and yourself? What if I said that something greater than this city awaits you?”
The fire burned around them, formless and boundless. Hong could not assess how much power was contained within it, but she grasped onto the tendril of hope that it would be enough to burn away Bao and his curses.
“Show me you have the power to do this,” she whispered.
Once more, Young Do held her hand up. Once more, she snapped her fingers. The flames roared higher for a brief moment, and Hong gasped as she felt the seals on her room snap asunder. The work of Sun Hue’s most powerful magicians, undone with a simple gesture.
Shaken, she asked, “What is it you want from me in return?”
Young Do crossed her arms and regarded her, as casual as if she had not performed complex magic with a snap of her fingers. “I have a particular problem of my own, one which can only be solved if I take myself a bride. If you agree to this deal, I will bring you back to Kinryeo with me to be wed.”
Hong wanted to laugh hysterically. From one marriage bed to another. Was there no escape from the life which everyone wanted to proscribe to her? But then she remembered Bao’s glittering black eyes and the way he had caressed her hair. At least, she thought, she would not recoil from Young Do’s touch.
Holding her head up high, she said, “I agree to your terms, although I am no easy prize. First, there are three tasks you must complete.”
They sealed the bargain with blood and honey. Then Young Do walked out of the city gates with her traveler’s cloak and her wide-brimmed hat and set about her tasks.
First, she set fire to the land. Sun Hue became an unbearable oven as the land burned for miles around: tall, roaring tongues of fire that finally subsided into smoldering embers after days. It destroyed the rest of the straggling crops, but it also cleansed the land of the blight which Bao had laid on it, clearing the way for new crops to thrive.
Second, she found the snakes where they had hidden themselves and extracted a promise that they would return to the city once Bao was defeated. “They bring the water and the rain,” she told Hong. “That is something I cannot do, for it is not in the nature of my magic.”
Third, and last, she marched to Bao’s fortress and defeated him. Of this part, Hong knew little. She sat on the ramparts of the city walls, free to leave her room now that the seals had been broken, and waited for the outcome, her entire body tensed.
When Young Do returned with Bao’s head and laid it at Hong’s feet, Hong felt equal delight and despair. She was free of Bao, free of this city and its small-minded people. But she could not, it seemed, be free of her fate, for before her stood the true tiger. How foolish she had been not to realize it. Perhaps it was her struggle to avoid her fate which had brought her to this, for if she had not striven for such renown then Bao might not have noticed her. If he had not noticed her, she would have not needed Young Do’s help or agreed to her terms.
And perhaps she would be living a small life even now, married to a man whose only requirement of her was to bear his children and tend to his house. She had never wanted that life, so thus it was that all her magic, all her struggle for power, came to this: the feel of tiger’s fur between her fingers, the rush of wind against her face, and the smell of scorched earth fading into the distance.
A journey that should have taken weeks elapsed in days. Young Do’s strides covered huge distances: rice fields turned to desert, desert turned to mountain slope in a matter of hours. Young Do finally slowed when they reached the mountain, climbing up and up in steady steps. Hong clung to her and looked around, taking in the unfamiliar sights and sounds.
It was cool here. Mist crawled through the air early in the morning, and dewdrops clung to leaves and flower petals. Hong saw pine trees in their natural element for the first time. When Young Do stopped by a clear and sparkling stream to rest, Hong sat on the ground and sifted fresh pine needles through her fingers, holding them to her nose and breathing in deeply. They smelled sharper than the dried and packaged pine needles that she had used in Sun Hue. She chewed on one, its revitalizing properties so potent that the exhaustion of her journey sloughed off her with a shock.
She ran to the stream and gulped the cold water down greedily, suddenly thirsty and ravenous. Young Do lay by the river banks, fur glistening with river water. “Careful,” she said. “Your stomach will ache if you drink too much.”
Hong sat up, glaring at her, and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth. “I know that. I’m not a child.”
Young Do chuckled. “Then why are you being so petulant? Come. We only have a little further to go.”
Once more she bent her knees, and Hong clambered onto her, her blood singing with the pine needle’s evergreen energy. Young Do climbed surefootedly even as the mountain grew steeper. She pointed things out to Hong now and then, plants and animals that Hong had never seen before. “There are many things that would be suited to your magic,” she said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to discover their properties on your own, as it is not within my practice.”
“What is your practice?” Hong asked, remembering the way fire had bloomed across the land as Young Do stood outside the city gates with her arms outstretched. “I don’t understand it at all. What do you draw your power from?”
“Clarity. Focus. It is not something easy to explain to someone who practices magic as you do. But you will come to understand it one day.”
Hong studied the muscles that rippled underneath Young Do’s fur as she padded along the mountain path. Even peaceful and calm as she seemed now, animals still scurried out of her path and huddled in the shadows of trees until they had passed. Such fear Hong had never commanded, even at her height. “Will you teach it to me?”
Young Do’s voice was gentle, even if her answer was blunt: “No, little witch. It is not suited to you, and you would only be unhappy.”
Hong bristled. “I can do anything I set my mind to.”
“Did I say you couldn’t? I only said that this magic is unsuited to you and that it would make you unhappy. Better to practice your own.”
“For what purpose?” Hong demanded. “What am I to do here on this mountain, isolated and far away from everything and everyone I knew?”
Young Do stopped and craned her neck to look at Hong. Her eyes lacked the bloodlust that had been there when she brought Bao’s head, but there was still an unsettling instability in their gaze. “You will do what you have always done: weave your spells, craft your weapons, and help your people grow. I have need of your magic here.”
There was a certainty about her words that was familiar to Hong. What was it she had said about her practice? Clarity. Focus. “Are you a seer?” she asked. “Did you seek me out because you saw a vision?”
Young Do did not answer. They passed underneath two overarching branches, heavy with foliage that hung like a curtain. The leaves brushed against Hong’s face and she blinked. When she opened her eyes again, she gasped at the sight that met her: great stone walls, heavy with moss and lichen, that formed a rampart as formidable as the one which had guarded her city. Young Do walked up to a pair of heavy wooden doors set into the ramparts; with a nudge of her paw they swung inwards, and the two of them passed through.
Inside, all was organized chaos. People ran to and fro carrying baskets filled with food and cloth, and soldiers marched briskly on their rounds, their spears glinting in the sunlight. Some of them spotted Young Do and Hong immediately.
“Your Highness!” one of the soldiers called out, running up to them.
Hong looked around instinctively, searching for the person whom she was addressing, before making the realization and staring down at Young Do, eyes wide. There was no royalty in Hong’s city; there were only the magicians who ruled over everything, dispensing their wisdom and judgement in equal parts. But she knew what royalty meant, so she couldn’t hide the shock in her voice as she gasped, “You?”
“Don’t think so lowly of me,” Young Do said, kneeling so that Hong could scramble off her. “Did you think I was a beggar passing by, asking for your hand in marriage?”
“Well, with that cloak and hat, I couldn’t be sure.”
“I travel lightly. Besides, I don’t need ostentation to prove my worth.”
Hong wondered how often Young Do traveled. She remembered her earlier question about whether Young Do had sought her out, and how the tiger had remained silent. Before she could ask it again, the soldier had reached them and bowed deeply to Young Do.
“Welcome home, Your Highness. Did you have a safe journey?”
“Safe enough. And as you can see, I’ve brought someone with me.” The soldier turned to stare at Hong, and Hong stood up straighter, tossing her hair over her shoulder with a haughty flick of her wrist. It might have had a better effect if grass and pine needles hadn’t showered to the ground in the process. Hong swore that the curl of Young Do’s lips was a smile.
The tiger continued, “Yen, this is Hong, my new bride. She comes from the city of Sun Hue. Hong, this is Yen, my most trusted general.”
“Your bride?” Yen exclaimed, mouth falling open. “Really, my lord, this is too much. You disappear for weeks and return with a foreign bride from across the desert? You didn’t even send word. How were we supposed to prepare?”
“My, there’s no need for elaborate celebrations. I think the ceremony will be enough for tonight. Of course, if my bride wishes to have a feast held in her honor, we can plan one as well.” Young Do turned to Hong. “What do you think?”
Hong was thirsty, hungry, and dirty. Now that the pine needle’s effect had worn off, she was also tired. What was a little bit of magic when she had spent three years’ fighting without rest? And now she was here in a foreign country, disoriented by the swift journey and her new surroundings, being mocked by the person who had whisked her away from home without an explanation as to why.
She glared at Young Do and snapped, “I think I would like a bath and some food. And then I would like an explanation as to what purpose you had in bringing me here.”
“A suspicious bride,” Young Do said, lips curling in what Hong was now sure was a smile. “Yen, will you take her to the baths? Give her whatever she asks for and bring her to my room afterwards. Oh, and ask Da Bin to prepare food. Something fortifying would be best.”
Then she padded away, tail swishing and dust rising beneath her paws. People bowed as she passed them and she inclined her head in greeting, stopping every now and then to speak with someone.
Hong turned to Yen. “Well? Lead me to the baths.”
Yen led her past another set of walls as tall and thick as the first one. Behind the second wall lay a city as teeming as Sun Hue, with dirt-paved roads and wooden houses with straw roofs. Yen led her along a path that wound in a spiral up and up. People stared as they walked past, but Hong ignored them, turning to Yen instead to ask her questions.
“What is this place?”
“This is Dohoa, the spiral city.”
“And Young Do is the queen here?”
Yen frowned at the casual manner in which Hong addressed Young Do. “Prince Young Do is the ruler here. She watches over this mountain and protects it.”
Hong looked around her at the people who shared the path with them, the street vendors who called out as they hawked their food and wares. “Is this mountain all there is to Kinryeo?”
Yen started laughing, but smothered it when Hong glared at her. “No, my lady. This mountain is only a small part of Kinryeo. One could say that it is rather different here than in the rest of the country.”
After a long climb that left Hong winded, they reached the citadel at the top of the spiral. “I don’t see why she couldn’t have carried me the rest of the way here,” Hong grumbled as Yen led her to the baths.
“Prince Young Do isn’t some pack animal!” Yen said, offended.
“I’m not asking her to be a pack animal. I’m asking her to show some common courtesy!”
When they at last reached the baths, Hong leaned against the doorway to catch her breath. Then she straightened up to study her surroundings. In Sun Hue, Hong had bathed in bathtubs made of teak and inlaid with copper wire that formed the designs of flowers, animals, and characters for health and safety.
Here in Young Do’s palace, the bathtubs were made of stone, just like the walls that surrounded it. They were much more massive than the ones in Sun Hue, and when Hong placed a hand on the smooth stone she was surprised to find it warm. The floors, made of granite, were also warm when she took off her shoes in preparation for the bath.
“Is the entire palace heated like this?” she asked Yen, who averted her eyes as she began undressing.
“Yes, my…my lady. There is a chamber underneath the palace where an eternal fire burns. It is Prince Young Do’s responsibility to feed it so that we may all be warm.”
Hong had seen Young Do set fire to miles of fields, so it was not the sheer power that surprised her. It was the careful control of conducting the fire safely through floors and walls, keeping it gentle and tamed. At least if she were going to be wed, it was not going to be some weakling who could barely match her in skill and talent.
Hong let the rest of her clothes fall to the ground. Yen coughed and turned around, her ears burning red. “I’ll call the serving girls,” she muttered, hurrying off.
Hong watched her go with some amusement. In Sun Hue, especially during Bao’s siege, she had had to heal people of all genders. This had often meant undressing them to tend to wounds or bathing them when they were too weak to do so themselves. Naked bodies were a natural sight to her, nothing to be embarrassed of. Surely Yen, being a soldier, was used to living in close quarters with people and seeing them undress. Unless, of course, she thought it was improper to see her lord’s wife naked. Perhaps Hong should have asked her to leave before taking her clothes off?
“Honestly,” Hong sighed, sitting on the edge of the bathtub to await the serving girls. “I haven’t the faintest idea how to go about being a proper wife.”
When the serving girls arrived, they washed her body with soap that smelled of lavender before rinsing her off and helping her into the bathtub. Hong sank into the warm water with a groan of satisfaction. Her entire body ached.
“I’ll need pine needles,” she told one of the girls, leaning her head back against the edge of the bathtub and closing her eyes. “As many of them as you can bring.”
There was a moment of hesitation, and then a flurry of footsteps as the girl hurried out the door. When she came back, she carried a basket filled to the brim with fresh pine needles. “Here you are, my lady.”
“Thank you,” Hong said. She took the basket and emptied it into the water. The serving girls gasped but she ignored them, closing her eyes and concentrating.
After a few moments, she felt the essence of each object around her. Strength and sturdiness from the stone, change and fluidity from the water, freshness and youth from the pine needles. She breathed in deeply and grasped the pine needles’ essence, drawing it into her body. This time she did it slowly, letting the revitalizing power travel gradually through her body until it permeated every part of her and lifted the weariness from her shoulders.
When she opened her eyes, she felt more rested than she had been in years. The effects would wear off eventually, but with a few weeks of rest and bathing with the pine needles, she would be completely recovered. What a novelty it was to have fresh ones at her disposal. And who knew what other treasure lay hidden in the forest around Dohoa?
Hong stood up, hair heavy and dripping with water, and one of the serving girls exclaimed, “I’ve never seen magic like that! You look beautiful, my lady.”
Normally, Hong would have bristled at such a comment, but the girl’s face was full of wonder. Besides, she knew she must have looked haggard after the ordeal with Bao. With the pine needles’ essence, her hair would have regained its usual luster and her skin its smoothness. “Thank you,” she said, smiling. “Pine trees are evergreen, so they’re perfect for creating youthfulness and energy. We often use them in cosmetics in Sun Hue.”
The girls began asking her questions as they dried her and rubbed fragrant oils onto her skin. Hong was pleased by their curiosity; she had never taken students while in Sun Hue, too preoccupied with her own rise to worry about others’ progress. It was unfamiliar but pleasant to not worry about the ascent for once, to rest and be secure of her place.
After she had been dressed—a silk blouse, underskirt, and full skirt that reached down to the floor, a simple affair compared to the elaborate brocaded cloth of Sun Hue—the girls insisted on putting her hair up.
“It’s proper for married women,” the one who had asked Hong about her magic said. She had said her name was Hae Soo. She held out a tray full of ornaments and hair pins wrought in silver and gold and studded with precious stones. “See? Aren’t they pretty? We’ll decorate your hair with them. I think this one would suit you very well.” She held up a pin with a butterfly of filigree silver perched on its end.
“In Sun Hue, we wear our hair down whether we’re married or not,” Hong said firmly. “If Young Do wants me to do otherwise, she can tell me herself.” She touched the filigree butterfly and shared a little of her life’s essence with it. Wise magicians counseled against using that most precious of resources, but she couldn’t help showing off. It was worth it when the butterfly fluttered its wings and rose into the air, flying around the girls’ heads.
Hae Soo shrieked in delight. “You have to show me how to do that!” she exclaimed as Hong marched out of the baths. The other girls followed her like ducklings, and they clamored for Hong to tell them how she had done that.
“Tomorrow,” Hong promised them, then stopped, surprised at how naturally the word had come from her. Tomorrow she would be here, and the next day, and the next day, for this was her home now. Looking down at the girls clustered around her, she thought that she could begin to see what sort of pattern she could make of her life now.
Yen stood outside the doors to the baths, leaning against the wall. She snapped to attention when she saw Hong, taking her in with a startled expression. “My lady, you look…”
“There’s no need to flatter me. The girls have already done so thoroughly,” Hong said dryly. “Now, will you take me to my wife? I’m starving, and there are many questions I have to ask.”
“Strictly speaking,” Young Do said, lounging across the table from Hong, “you aren’t my wife yet. Not until we perform the wedding ceremony.”
She was in her human form once more. Her hair had been combed and tied back with a red ribbon and she wore robes of dark blue silk. Pillows scattered the floor where she reclined, eating a peach that she had plucked from the bowl set in front of them. More of a prince than she had looked sitting in Hong’s room in her traveler’s cloak, but still with the same insolence that made Hong grit her teeth.
“Pray tell, what is this ceremony and when will we be performing it?”
“Is that eagerness I hear? Earlier today you seemed much more reluctant. What has made you change your mind?”
Hong glared at Young Do over the rim of her teacup. “I’m no more eager than I was when we first struck this deal. I only want to know that you will do what you said you would, and not just disgrace me and throw me aside.”
“Oh, I have no intention of throwing you aside,” Young Do said. Her gaze raked her up and down and Hong flushed. She wanted to throw the teacup at her head but refrained. It would have been a waste of perfectly good tea. “The ceremony itself is simple. No need to dress it up with the silly decorations and rituals that everyone else insists on. Give me your cup.”
Reluctantly, Hong slid the cup across the table. Young Do sat up, taking the teapot in hand. Pouring it into the cup in a steady stream, she said, “Water is life, and thus I give you mine.” She handed an empty cup and the teapot to Hong. “Now you do the same.”
Hong poured the tea, willing her hands to be as steady as Young Do’s had been. “Water is life, and thus I give you mine.”
“And now we exchange cups and drink.”
When her cup was back in her hands, the steam wafting up gently with the scent of jasmine, Hong hesitated. “I still don’t know what you want of me,” she said quietly. “You have more magic than all the magicians combined in Sun Hue. Why did you come all the way across the desert just to find me? What purpose do I serve?”
Young Do was silent. For a moment, Hong was afraid that she would laugh and say that it was only a passing fancy. Perhaps killing Bao had been easier than swatting a fly for her, and she thought it an easy price for a pretty bride. Perhaps there was no purpose for her, after all, and being a kept ornament was the end of all her hunt for glory.
Then Young Do spoke, her voice uncharacteristically grave. “Who would not want the most powerful magician in Sun Hue for a bride?”
Hong’s head snapped up in shock and she stared at Young Do. “But I’m not—I haven’t even—”
“You asked me before if I am a seer. I am, though fire is a much harder medium to interpret than water. I saw that you had grown all you could in that city and that you yearned for more. I saw that here on this mountain, you could be all that you wished. And I saw that with your magic, you were the only person who could help me. So I sought you out and gave you my aid, and now I intend to have you for my bride.”
Hong’s hands trembled. Clutching her cup tightly, she said, “Tell me what help it is that you need from me.”
Young Do set her cup down on the table. “Very well then.” She pointed to her eye. “Look into this. What do you see?”
Hong studied carefully. At first, she was unable to discern anything. Young Do’s eyes were brown, darker in color than they had been when she was a tiger. There was much of insolence in them, but, now that Hong was searching, much of warmth as well. She searched harder, and eventually saw what Young Do wanted her to find: a sheen of magic lay over the eye she was pointing to, forming the pattern of a snake eating its own tail. As she watched, the snake seemed to eat more and more of itself and grow more and more engorged. Hong looked away with a shudder.
“Unpleasant, isn’t it?” Young Do said. “It was given to me by my predecessor when I was young and foolish. She was the one who taught me my magic. She said that I was too greedy for knowledge, too eager to outstrip her, so she gave me this curse to teach me a lesson.” Young Do smiled grimly. “Of course, she died not that long after and everything was left to me anyway.”
“What will it do to you?”
“Kill me, I suppose. It is of more import what it will do to my people and this mountain. You see, this snake is insatiable, just as my teacher said my greed was. Once it has eaten me, it will grow large enough to swallow Dohoa and the mountain around it. It may even grow large enough to swallow Kinryeo itself.”
Hong’s heart became a heavy stone. “And what am I to do about it?” she cried out. “How am I to solve a curse that not even you can? I don’t have as much power as you.”
“You do,” Young Do said calmly. “I have seen it in you, and I know that it will only grow as you live on this mountain. That is what I am offering to you as my wife. You will be no kept object here. You have the freedom to do as you please, to use whatever the mountain can offer in order to explore your magic. All I ask is that you use that power to help me save myself and my people.”
Hong stared down at her cup of tea and the incomprehensible patterns its ripples made. A tiger’s bride, the seer had said. That is the fate that awaits you. She had spent her life running away from the proclamation, afraid that a wife was no more than a prize to be cloistered away. But if a tiger was exceptionally powerful, then why not her wife as well? She would have this mountain and its abundant life for her own, and her power would serve a purpose.
Looking up, she met Young Do’s eyes and said, “I will be your wife and give you my life as you give me yours. But you must promise to always treat me as your equal.”
Young Do inclined her head in acknowledgement. “I swear that so long as we are married, you will be my equal in all matters and that I will never lie or conceal things from you. Do you swear in turn to keep my counsel and bring me no harm?”
“I swear,” Hong said. Then, with a deep breath, she drank from her cup.
The tea was liquid fire in her throat. Hong’s eyes watered and she coughed violently as the fire pooled low in her stomach, then bloomed and spread throughout her body. She clutched the table, panting, as the heat gradually subsided to a bearable level.
Fire danced along her nerves and in her blood, and when she was finally able to sit up again and focus on her surroundings, the essence of each object around her felt sharper than it ever had before. Taking a mint leaf from one of the plates on the table, she held it to the teapot. Drawing on the leaf’s cooling essence was as easy as unspooling thread; in a moment, the teapot was covered in a web of glistening frost, the water inside it frozen solid.
“That would have taken me a handful of leaves before,” she said, awed. “What have you done to me?”
“We have exchanged a little of each other’s magic to seal the union. My fire must have enhanced your magic,” Young Do said. Her voice was hoarse and her eyes a little dreamy. She held her palm up and a flame sprang into life. She stared deep into it. Despite the fire now running through her, Hong could no more interpret what the flickering ribbons meant than she could the seer’s bowl of water and coins.
Almost lazily, Young Do closed her hand and extinguished the flame. “I believe your magic has made it a little easier for me to read the fire. What poetry you have in you, my little witch. Come here.”
Standing on shaky legs, Hong obeyed. She crossed the room and knelt next to Young Do, who drew her down onto the pillows next to her. She stroked her face and said, “Now we are truly married. Do you regret your decision?”
At Young Do’s touch, the fire sang inside Hong. She thought that if she concentrated hard enough, she would be able to understand its essence and use it in her magic. What things she could do then! Meeting Young Do’s eyes, she said, “No, I don’t.”
“Good.” Young Do drew her closer and pressed her mouth against Hong’s.
Hong gasped, then moaned as Young Do began kissing her wet and open mouthed, the taste of peaches on her tongue. For all her skill in magic, Hong had never kissed another person. She had never wanted to. Of course, she had also never imagined that she could have kissed someone like Young Do. It was more than pleasant. She would rather have died than admit this to Young Do, however, so she tried to imitate her movements and hoped that Young Do wouldn’t notice her lack of skill.
It was to no avail, for Young Do pulled away laughing and said, “You’ve never kissed anyone before, have you?”
Hong blushed and hit her shoulder. “Don’t laugh at me! I just—I had no time, that’s all. There were more important things to do.”
“Don’t be so prideful. There’s no shame in having to learn something.” With swift movements, Young Do repositioned them so that Hong was lying on her back and Young Do was straddling her. “Will you bend your pride a little and allow me to show you? After all, we are wed now and it would be a shame not to partake in the joys of married life.”
Hong’s heart hammered in her chest. Perched on top of her like this, Young Do was reminiscent of her tiger self, tense and poised with power. Her eyes had lost their dreaminess and were intent and focused, but her touch was gentle as she caressed Hong’s face and neck. Whatever control she exercised over the fire that heated Dohoa, she would exercise in her dealings with Hong, so Hong closed her eyes and leaned into her touch. “Then show me,” she said.
Gentle she might have been, but Young Do was not timid. She kissed Hong again, this time biting her lower lip and sucking on it until Hong opened her mouth in a sigh of pleasure. When Young Do took the opportunity to slide her tongue inside, Hong gasped and tried to close her mouth instinctively. Young Do grasped her chin in hand and squeezed. “Why so shy, little witch?” she murmured. She pressed her tongue inside again and Hong whimpered as she probed with deep, decisive strokes.
Hong had only just begun to feel a pleasurable ache between her legs when Young Do drew away, so she clutched at her shoulders, an unrecognizable breathiness to her voice as she said, “Wait, don’t stop.”
“Oh, I’m not stopping,” Young Do said.
She trailed kisses along Hong’s jawline, then moved lower to her neck, then the hollow of her throat. She drew her tongue up the column of Hong’s throat and Hong shivered, moaning. If she were in her tiger form right now, she could kill me, Hong thought. All it would take was one snap of her teeth, or the swipe of one gigantic paw. But Young Do had given her life to Hong’s, and all her power she held at bay as she licked and sucked at Hong’s neck, giving her pleasure.
Hong blushed when Young Do undid the ties of her blouse and pushed it off her shoulders. For all that she had been amused at Yen’s embarrassment, she wasn’t used to anyone seeing her naked in such a situation. Young Do wasn’t undressing her for a practical purpose. She was undressing her as her wife, on their wedding night, because she intended to claim what anyone would of their bride. With a few tugs, Young Do unwound the cloth that bound Hong’s chest and Hong was left bared to the waist.
To Hong’s humiliation, her nipples were stiff. She threw an arm over her face, crying out as Young Do took one between thumb and forefinger and pinched. “Enjoying yourself, little witch?” she asked, chuckling. She rolled Hong’s nipple between her fingers, then flicked it.
“Don’t mock me,” Hong moaned, arching up as Young Do began playing with her breasts. Where Hong was inexperienced, Young Do had clearly done this many times before. She pinched and tugged at Hong’s nipples, patiently searching for what would make her cry out the loudest. When she found it—a certain way of rubbing her thumbs over Hong’s nipples—she did it steadily until Hong was writhing with pleasure, dampness growing between her legs.
“Sweet little thing,” Young Do said, eyes hungry as she watched Hong. “What a pretty sight you make panting underneath me like this.” She ground her hips down against Hong, making her cunt clench with sudden heat. “You’ll be good for me when I fuck you, won’t you? You’ll scream for me and tell me how good you feel.”
“Yes,” Hong moaned, too desperate to deny what she wanted. Her cunt was wet and her body tensed with desire; even though she had never done this before, she knew with certainty that only Young Do’s fingers inside her, blunt and heavy, could satisfy the ache that she felt. “Oh, Young Do, Young Do. Fuck me!”
“In time, sweetling.” Young Do lowered her head, and before Hong could ask what she was doing, she had taken one of Hong’s nipples into her mouth and started sucking. Hong shouted and bucked her hips up, trying fruitlessly to assuage the need to be filled up. The more Young Do sucked on her tits, moving from one to the other until both were wet and sore, the greater Hong’s desperation grew.
“Young Do,” she sobbed, burying her hands in Young Do’s hair as she laved a tongue over her nipple. “Please, please, please. I need you.”
Young Do finally pulled away. Her face was flushed and her eyes dilated, but she had not lost her insolence. She took her time studying Hong as she lay sprawled on the floor, eyes lingering on her breasts. “Say it again,” she ordered.
Hong squeezed her eyes shut, ashamed to repeat the words while Young Do was watching her so intently. But Young Do took her face in both hands and said, “Open your eyes and tell me again, my little witch. What do you need?” She began rubbing one of Hong’s nipples again, her touch firm and insistent.
Hong whimpered, overwhelmed, and opened her eyes. Young Do’s face blurred as tears sprang into them. “I need you,” she whispered.
Young Do growled with satisfaction. “Good. There’s no need to be ashamed of it.” She got off Hong and settled on the floor between her legs. Hong thought that she would undo her skirts, but instead she merely lifted them and said, “Spread your legs.”
Face burning even more, Hong did as she was told. Young Do tugged off her undergarments, smirking to see them soaked, before throwing them aside. Then she lowered her head underneath the skirts and pressed her mouth against Hong’s cunt. All the breath left Hong’s body for a moment. It returned in a rush and a voice that she was shocked to realize was her own wailed Young Do’s name as she began running her tongue over her slit.
Hong had never lain with anyone before, but she was not wholly ignorant. She had heard other women whispering about their encounters with men. From them she had learned more than she cared to know about men’s habits in bed.
But this—this was something that she had not heard about. It was almost obscene how close Young Do was to such an intimate part of her. She couldn’t see Young Do underneath her skirt, but she could hear the wet noises and her moans of pleasure as she spread Hong’s cunt open wider with her fingers and began probing deeper. Hong shuddered and clutched at the folds of her skirt, heat flicking down her legs.
“My sweet little witch,” Young Do murmured in between licking. “What a pretty cunt you have.” She swiped her tongue over Hong’s clit and Hong screamed. Someone surely must have heard her; perhaps the servants were even gathered outside the door, listening as their prince fucked her new bride senseless. But Hong didn’t care. Her head was swimming and there was only one thing on her mind.
“Not enough. Please, Young Do, I need you inside.” Wet as she was, pleasurable as she felt, she still wanted the weight of Young Do filling her up and claiming her. “Make me yours,” she gasped, and Young Do groaned and pushed her fingers inside her.
She emerged from underneath the skirt, her mouth slick with spit and cum, and started thrusting her fingers in a harsh and rapid rhythm. It was almost too much; Hong’s cunt ached as it stretched to accommodate the width of her fingers. Still she spread her legs wider, heedless of how wanton she looked with her skirts pooling around her waist and her bare legs in the air.
“Whose are you?” Young Do demanded, her voice harsh. It reminded Hong of how she had been as a tiger, hungry and barely contained.
In equal fear and arousal, Hong cried out, “I’m yours! Young Do, I’m yours!”
Young Do thrust her fingers in deep and curled them. Hong’s entire body shuddered and cum dripped down her thighs as she came. She ground down mindlessly on Young Do’s fingers, trying to bury them inside her and chase after the feeling of being stretched open. Only when the last of the tremors had left her body did she fall still.
Young Do withdrew her fingers and lay down beside her. “Now you are mine. Will you make me yours?” she asked, and loosened her robes before drawing Hong’s hand down between her legs.
Hong found her cunt already slick and loose. It was easy to slide her fingers inside and begin thrusting. “Young Do,” she gasped. “It’s so hot.”
Young Do’s eyes fell closed and her breathing became increasingly uneven. “Do you like it? We could do this every night, as often as you like.”
It was another pleasure altogether to fuck Young Do. She was responsive to the slightest of Hong’s touches, arching her back and crying out for more when Hong found the angle that she liked. It was not what Hong had expected. She had thought that Young Do would be prideful, would be insolent and mocking even on her back. Instead she called out for Hong without care, gasping and moaning so that Hong would know what she did to her. It made Hong heady with desire. Yes, every night—she would do this every night with Young Do.
When Young Do grabbed Hong’s hair and pushed her face down to her chest, Hong wasted no time sucking on her tits, moaning at the feel of soft skin against her face. “What a quick learner you are,” Young Do said breathlessly. “Keep doing that. Fuck me harder. Make me come, sweetling.”
Hong complied, and before long Young Do’s cunt was clenching around her fingers. Hong thrust her fingers in as deep as they would go and watched as Young Do fell apart, awed. She had done this; she had made a tiger helpless to her.
When Young Do fell limp, Hong drew her fingers out. She marveled at the sticky cum that coated her fingers, then leaned forward and licked it curiously. Young Do burst out laughing at the look on her face. “It’s bitter, isn’t it?”
Hong slapped her shoulder. “Stop laughing! It’s not that amusing.”
Young Do drew her down next to her and held her close. Kissing the top of her head, she said, “You take offense at the smallest things. I only laughed because I was fond of you, my little witch.”
“Fond,” Hong grumbled. “As if you would have had anything to do with me if it weren’t for your vision.”
Young Do frowned and tilted her chin up until their eyes met. The snake continued to eat itself, but her eyes were warm and concerned. “Know this. I sought you out because of the prophecy, but when I saw you for the first time, I would have taken you for my bride regardless.”
“Why? I was nothing but rude to you.”
“I liked that. I like your pride and your ambition. It takes much to rule this mountain, you know. Someone weak-willed would not be able to do it.”
Young Do’s words filled Hong with something like contentment. For the first time in years, she was not restless; she wanted to lie here with Young Do for a long time and bask in her warmth. Pressing herself closer to Young Do, she asked, “Would a tiger truly be willing to share her authority?”
“Of course. Every tiger needs a mate to share her burdens.”
“A wife,” Hong murmured, “to complement her powers.”
It was not, Hong thought, love. She did not quite understand her feelings for Young Do yet, nor could she fully believe the affection that Young Do claimed to have for her. All she had was the promise of a new world, vast and free, and a task greater than any she had ever undertaken. In time, perhaps, she would be able to make sense of her feelings, just as she would make sense of Young Do’s magic. And for now, that was enough.