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I commit this venture to the imperium of Shin!
I commit this venture to the radiant Empress Dowager!
I commit this venture to … well, perhaps I can come back later to complete the eighty-eight honorific hailings. At this moment, it’s hard to think of anything except that today I, Chen Peasprout, sail into the city of Pearl.
The city that looks as if it were made of milky porcelain.
The city that looks as if it were poured, not built.
The city that is always busy with racing, jumping skaters, from the smooth white boulevards to the sweeping white roofs.
I, Chen Peasprout, a girl from the village of Serenity Cliff in Shui Shan Province, of the shining empire of Shin, sail today into this city of legend. As the ship heaves toward Aroma Bay, the city of Pearl appears to rise before us out of the sea like the stage of an opera, all creamy sweeps of roofline and slender pagodas.
Today, I begin my studies at Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword, where I, a girl of just fourteen years, shall become a legend of wu liu, the beautiful and deadly art of martial skating! I shall finish this year with first ranking and win the lead in the Drift Season Pageant! The Empress Dowager would be disgraced if I achieved anything less, for I am the first student from Shin to attend the finest academy under heaven devoted to the only form of kung fu that is performed on bladed skates! A form that was invented by a Shinian, the legendary Little Pi Bao Gu! A form that I—
“Peasprout, what are you doing?” My little brother, Cricket, tugs at the sleeve of my academy robe.
I unclench my fist and uncross my arm from my chest.
“Nothing,” I say. “What is it?”
“I’m going to get last ranking at the academy. I know it.” Cricket twists in his skates like he always does when he’s nervous.
“Let go; you’re creasing my sleeve,” I say.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” He pets the cuff of my silk academy robe as if it were a wounded animal.
In the fables we grew up hearing, princes who flew on dragons to their palaces on the moon wore silk. This is what every student at the academy wears. To Cricket, the academy must be as unreal as a palace on the moon. My little Cricket, with his chin buried in his breast, his hands wringing each other, and his big elbows sticking out, is nothing like me. But he will be. I’ll see to that.
“Cricket, it doesn’t matter how much older or bigger anyone is than you. The Empress Dowager of Shin, the greatest empire under heaven, selected us as her emissaries in the goodwill exchange of wu liu skaters! No one else at the academy can say that.”
“The Empress Dowager only included me because Pearl sent two siblings to Shin,” Cricket says. “Do you think the Pearlians will take us hostage?”
Ten thousand years of stomach gas. You stamp on one of Cricket’s fears and two more spring up. He tries to take a deep breath but chokes on his saliva.
“Cricket. You have no need to be afraid of this place. None of those little brats at the academy has journeyed three thousand li. None of them has sacrificed what you sacrificed to study wu liu.”
I can’t let him hear my voice shake. If I cry, he cries. I must collect my emotions. Ever since our parents disappeared, Cricket has been my responsibility. I might be an orphan now, but I’m not going to let him be one, too. “All those spoiled Pearlian students will reincarnate as fleas, and you’ll reincarnate as a hero. Their names will be forgotten. Your name will be long-lived.”
Cricket’s eyes widen and he nods like he’s reminded of some great destiny. “I will reincarnate as a hero. My name will be long-lived.”
As we sail deeper into Aroma Bay, the dazzle of the sun’s reflection off the creamy architecture becomes painful. Cricket and I put on our smoked spectacles bought specially for our arrival. Two weeks’ worth of rice is a lot for a pair of lenses, but it’s hard to see anything in the city without protection for the eyes.
The ship docks at a jetty made of white filigree. Cricket and I shoulder our pouches, and I make sure the reed basket of soaps that we brought as gifts for our teachers is secure. We skate down the disembarking rail with the other passengers.
Everything here is made out of this substance that they call “the pearl.” Even though the whole city is ribboned with waterfalls and fed with canals, the pearl itself is dry and never melts. As I skate, my blades bite into it, but the pearl smooths itself behind me. The sensation is delicious. We have nothing like this back home. In Shin, we have to skate on rinks made of ice preserved in caves until it’s ridged and yellowed like bad toenails, and even then it’s gone by the fourth month of the year at the latest. The inventor of wu liu might have come from Shin, but our country hasn’t advanced conditions for wu liu training in two hundred years.
The wu liu skaters here in Pearl can train all year long. That means that the other first-year students at the academy could have had a total of several years more training than I have had.
So what? I was a Peony-Level Brightstar. Before that, I was wu liu champion for all of Shui Shan Province five times before the age of ten. And the Empress Dowager chose me for this goodwill exchange because Pearl sent the mayor’s sons, Zan Kenji and Zan Aki, the lead skaters of the New Deitsu Opera Company. Who cares if the other students train year-round? They probably spend the extra time on purely ornamental moves, like bowing and hand flourishes. I can do hand flourishes just fine. My hand flourishes are legendary.
“It’s like pools of poured tofu!” says Cricket. He crouches to touch the pearl. He pops his finger into his mouth.
He pulls his finger out of his mouth and says, “It’s salty. Maybe the pearl comes from the sea.”
“We’re not here to study architecture or work for the pearlworks company, so it doesn’t matter. Come on, we have to find our way to the rail-gondola towers.” The academy scroll says that the gondolas are the easiest way over the sea to the string of islets on which the academy sits, but we have to board them before they stop running at sunset. The sun looks like it’s only an hour from setting.
We have to arrive on time. We can’t disgrace the Empress Dowager.
Cricket and I are blocking the main path of the boardwalk, so we skate off to the side and huddle next to a series of pungent vats that must belong to some sort of stinky vinegar-tofu factory.
I notice two boys in official-looking uniforms watching us. Cricket digs his nails into the back of my sleeve and says, “Don’t talk to them.”
“Cricket, how do you think we’re ever going to succeed if we’re afraid even to talk to the people here?”
The boys skate over to us. They’re not much older than I am, but they wear uniforms that remind me of the ones that government officials wore back in Shui Shan Province. The logograms on the boys’ sashes are too small to read while they’re moving around. I bow and say, “Hail, brothers.”
“Brothers?” they say together, then laugh.
What is there to laugh at?
“Shinian, neh?” says one, a compact, square-shaped boy. How does he know we’re from Shin? I speak perfect Pearlian. It must be Cricket’s accent. I’ve told him ten thousand times that no one curls their tongue when speaking Pearlian. Make me drink sand to death!
“You’ve come to study wu liu?” the square-shaped boy asks. “Which school?”
“Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword.”
The boys look at us as if for the first time. I know this look on their faces. It’s envy. Well, they should be envious. The square-shaped boy reaches inside his coat and brings out a small clay tablet and a stylus.
“Name,” he says to me.
“I am called familial name Chen, personal name Peasprout,” I answer. “My little brother is called familial name Chen, personal name Cricket.”
“Peasprout, neh,” he says. “Kawai.” Is he mocking me, or does he really think that my name is cute? And why is he using an Edaian word like kawai? The empire of Shin is no longer at war with the empire of Eda, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to just forget the war.
“Please,” I say. “We have to get to the rail-gondola towers before the sun sets.”
“You’re not going anywhere until we approve your papers.”
I hand him our scrolls confirming acceptance into the academy. “No good,” he says, handing them back to me. “No seal.”
“What seal? Nobody told us we needed to get a seal.”
“No seal, no admittance farther into the city.”
“Where do we get a seal?”
“If you’re Shinian, you have to get the seal from the office of the Minister of Culture for your province.”
“Where might that be?” I ask, trying to keep my voice even. We’re going to miss the last gondola. The academy will turn us away and say that Shinians are too ignorant to tell time.
The boy squints at the setting sun. “If you start swimming now, you might get back in time to see the rest of your class graduate.”
This can’t be. The Empress Dowager would’ve provided us any necessary documents. I knew that Pearlians would be unfair to us. Two hundred years later and they still blame us for the damage caused to their city by the Great Leap of Shin.
“Peasprout, look at their sashes!” Cricket whispers.
The writing on their sashes is so small, but Cricket always did have eyes like an owl. I pick out the words: Number-One Best Quality Auspicious Golden Dragon Discount Wu Liu Academy and Noodle House.
My heart fills with a thousand throbbing fists.
These boys are only students as well, not officials. They’ve been making us stand here like fools while the sun sets over the gondolas. I want to teach them a lesson, but I know we should just skate away.
“How many Shinian feng shui masters are needed to take care of a tree blocking the front door of a house?” says the square-shaped boy to the slighter boy in a loud voice meant for us. “Eighty-one. One to yell at the tree and eighty to push the house.”
I whip into a combat stance. “Show some respect! I am the emissary of the Empress Dowager!”
“Meaning you’re her spy? What’s in the basket—bombs?”
The boy grabs for the basket. I push Cricket far from the combat radius. We didn’t bring these gifts across three thousand li just to have some harbor scamp steal them. I enter into the single-toe butterfly spinning leap, ending with a diagonal toe kick that connects with the boy’s forearm. The force of my kick sends his hand slapping against his own shoulder.
The pearl here is so smooth, so responsive. I stand with my skates biting deep into the surface, my palms crossed in blade position, ready for more combat. I toss the basket of soaps to Cricket. He plucks it from the air and skates far away to keep it safe.
The boys circle out to either side of me and then charge. I launch into a defensive move, the iron parasol spin. I dive onto my fingertips and split my legs above me, my skates rotating in a deadly circle that spins faster and faster. The boys scrape backward from my flashing blades, but they’ve built up too much momentum and now they’re sliding toward me. When they’re about to meet the steel, I pull in my skates, channel the gathered Chi energy of my spin, and use my knees to knock them back.
The boys land on the edge of the vat of stinky tofu. They spiral their arms and peddle their feet wildly to keep from falling into the stew. I leap up, balance my skates on the edge of the vat between them, and grab the fronts of their robes in my fists.
On the horizon, the bottom edge of the sun is nearly touching the water.
“Where are the rail-gondolas to the academy?”
The boys answer only with sneers.
“I’m going to ask each of you where the rail-gondolas are. And you’d better say the same thing, or you’re both going into that vat. Now, whisper it in my ear.”
I bend my ear to the slimmer boy. “You first.”
He says, “It’s to the east, just past the dolphin embassy’s water court.”
I bend my ear to the square-shaped boy. He spits out, “Your ancestors leaked out of rancid turtle eggs, Shinian pig!”
I release the boys, straighten my robe, and perform a double-jump double-knee tornado kick. I send them both flying into the vat of stinky tofu.
Text copyright © 2018 by Henry Lien
Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Afu Chan
Map copyright © 2018 by Elisabeth Alba