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He says his familial name is Niu.
And his personal name is Hisashi.
He has dimples, like the boy that I knew.
We stand before the Great Gate of Complete Centrality and Perfect Uprightness at the entrance to Pearl Famous Academy of Skate and Sword. I know we should stop obstructing the stream of other students with their belongings as they leave the campus for the New Year’s month, but my skates feel as if they’re frozen into the pearl beneath them.
The twin seahorses that form the Great Gate rise behind me, touching snout to snout. This boy Hisashi and his twin sister, Doi, stand before me, both looking like the boy that I befriended last year.
But the truth is, that boy doesn’t exist. Instead, it was Doi—all of it. For an entire school year, she impersonated Hisashi and posed as both twins while her brother was in Shin rescuing hostages from the Empress Dowager.
When at last I get enough air in my lungs to speak, I say to this boy, this new, familiar Hisashi, “I am called familial name Chen, personal name—”
In a single glide, Doi is beside me. “This is my friend Chen Peasprout,” she says, facing her brother. She’s standing close enough that her sleeve brushes mine.
Hisashi’s face lights up like a lantern. The dimples appear again on his cheeks and press little aching mirrors of themselves into my heart.
“You’re Chen Peasprout?” he says. “My sister has told me so much about you. The Empress Dowager got your letter orb.”
He bows to me. I bow back.
He straightens, and suddenly, his arms are around me in an embrace. “Thank you for your assistance in the mission,” he says, his chin tucked behind my shoulder. “Thank you for your courage.”
His voice, his warmth, even his scent, like plains sweetgrass, are all so familiar. I embrace him back and never want to let him go. I know I’m being foolish, but when Doi revealed that she had been pretending to be Hisashi, I thought the boy who captured my heart was gone forever. Here he is, the same. Or is he?
“Wah!” Hisashi says. “You give the best hugs! And you smell pretty, too.”
Doi skates in a rustle behind me, and Hisashi and I disentangle. She looks like a dog that has been kicked but won’t unclamp its teeth from a pant leg.
Doi faces Hisashi and says, “And this is Chen Cricket. He’s also my friend.” She has one arm wrapped firmly around Cricket’s shoulder.
“I like your friends, Wing Girl.” He must call her that because they are dragon and phoenix twins, boy and girl. I can’t tell how Doi feels about the nickname.
“Where’s Father?” Hisashi asks. “They said at the New Deitsu Pearlworks Company compound that he’s on campus.”
“Yes, he’s overseeing preparations for the maintenance of Pearl Famous Academy. Why do you want to see him?” asks Doi.
“I have something really important to share with him!” Hisashi pats the great round container on a sledge behind him.
Doi looks around at the bustle of students skating by us to line up at the rail-gondolas exiting the campus. She whispers, “Is the hostage Zan Aki inside?”
Heavenly August Personage of Jade! We got the New Deitsu skater back before the Empress Dowager bound his feet and—
“No,” says Hisashi. “Poor boy’s still in Shin.”
Doi hisses, “The plan was for you to trap the Empress Dowager in it and then demand release of Father’s hostage in exchange.”
“Please, just trust me. I need to get to Father without anyone else seeing. Father’s going to be very pleased.” He halts and adds gently, “With both of us.”
Doi’s face shows no pain at the mention of the Chairman. The last time she saw her father, he promised to end her wu liu studies and then struck her so hard, he sent her sliding across the room. I reach my hand to hers. She weaves her fingers into mine, then closes them so our hands form one fist.
“It’s all right,” she whispers to me. “I have you.”
Hisashi looks from Doi to me, then back. “What did I miss?”
A boom sounds from the northeastern corner of campus. All of us and the other students lining up to leave the campus turn to look.
“What was that?” asks Hisashi.
Cricket says, “The team from New Deitsu Pearlworks Company is starting their architectural repair and maintenance work for Red Cloud Feasting on School.”
“Red what?” asks Hisashi.
Cricket replies, “Red Cloud Feasting on School. That’s what the booms are announcing. It’s when the entire campus is submerged for—”
I jump in and say, “No, you’re telling it to him all wrong. It’s when the entire campus is flooded during the New Year’s month. The senseis said that little phosphorescent red krill in the water crawl all over the campus and eat off all the pollution left by the students.”
“But that’s not the real reason, Peasprout,” says Cricket.
“Of course not,” I say. “The real reason is that they need to give the campus a thorough soak so the pearl won’t shrink, and they can keep it expanded with just targeted watering throughout the year. And they don’t want the students seeing it.”
“Oh. You know about that,” says Hisashi. “You have very informed friends, Wing Girl.”
I smile at his words. Doi frowns at my smile.
Hisashi says, “We need to move this conversation somewhere else. I can’t let anyone see me before I speak to Father.” We skate toward the front of the Hall of Six Excellences, with Hisashi pulling the pavilion along on a tether while scanning behind him.
“I’ll take you to your father,” I say. “I know the fastest path between any two points on the campus.” He’ll get to see how capable I am, how helpful, how kindhearted, how I am more knowledgeable than anyone about every—
“I’ll go by myself,” says Hisashi. “I don’t want to involve you. This is a … delicate matter.”
“You’ll never be able to get this pavilion there by yourself,” I say.
“It’s got blades under it,” he says. He motions in the air as if pushing a toy cart back and forth. “And, anyway, it’s not the pavilion itself that actually mat—”
“No, no, no, you don’t understand,” I say. “Because you don’t know about the ropes.”
“Because of Bite the Sea Cucumber,” says Cricket.
“Because of Bite the Sea Cucumber,” I repeat loudly. Why does Cricket have to hoard all the attention? “They empty all the furnishings and equipment and artworks out of the structures and put them all on wooden planks so they’ll float when the campus is flooded. And they tie all the planks together so they don’t drift out to sea. You’ll never get that pavilion over the ropes without my help.”
Maybe now he’ll understand how much he needs my help. When he sees how I’m the most capable, the most informed, the most—
“Why do they call it Bite the Sea Cucumber?” he asks.
“Ah,” I say as I struggle to think of an answer, since I have no idea, “just because.”
Cricket says, “Because a sea cucumber empties itself of its internal organs as soon as something attacks—”
I say, “That’s what I was going to tell you before I was interrupted. Anyway, you’re going to need my help in getting this sledge over all the ropes. We can perform two-footed iron grasshopper leaps down around the pavilion to jump it over each rope. My rope-jumping skills are legendary. I was champion of rope jumping for all of Shui Shan Province three times by the age of six.”
“How did I ever manage without you, Chen Peasprout?”
His words warm my heart and my Chi surges. Then I see Doi’s face. She looks like she just skated through a pile of monkey droppings.
“What?” I ask her.
“Nothing,” she says. “I’ve just never heard you giggle.”
“I wasn’t giggling.”
Make me drink sand to death.
Another boom resounds, and we turn toward its source on the northeastern corner of the campus.
Cricket says, “Peasprout, you’d be able to jump the pavilion over the ropes better if you had some help.”
Doi adds softly, “If you wanted help.”
The image flashes in my mind of Hisashi smiling in gratitude as I alone help him get the pavilion across campus. I shove it out of my thoughts and say, “Of course I want your help. Both of you. I need you there.”
Was that the right thing to say?
I say to Doi, “That doesn’t mean I don’t want you there. Just because I—”
She gives me one of her rare smiles.
“I understand you, Peasprout,” she says.
“Thank you. You’re better at this than I am.”
“Better at what?” she asks.
How should I answer that? Understanding? Being a friend?
“Everything,” I say.
Hisashi asks, “How are we going to get this thing across the whole campus without being seen? I can’t let anyone learn that I’m back before I talk to Father.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Please just trust me.”
I reply, “Most of the students here never notice anything unless it involves them.”
“What about the senseis?” asks Doi.
I say, “We’ll just say we forgot something back at the dormitories.”
“The senseis know I spent the last year pretending to be both Hisashi and myself,” Doi says with a firm shake of her head. “As soon as they see us together, they’ll know he’s back and that something important is inside the pavilion.”
“That’s a problem,” says Hisashi. “Father needs to be the first one to learn about this.”
“Wait!” I say, holding my palm up. “Something’s coming to me.” I skate back and forth around the pavilion. Doi is on one side, with her short-cropped hair, the high collar of the gakuran jacket, and the sweeping cloak of the academy robe. Hisashi is on the other side, identical except he’s wearing pants instead of the pleated skirt that Doi is—
“I have an idea,” I say. I reach into my sack of belongings, pull out my extra skirt, and thrust it at Hisashi. “Change into this. If any senseis see you, they’ll think you’re Doi.”
“But they’ll still know as soon as they see the two of us together,” says Doi.
“So make sure they never see the two of you together. Stay on the opposite side of the pavilion from each other so that one of you is hidden at all times from any sensei we meet.”
“Hah!” says Hisashi. “Keep this friend, Wing Girl. She’s good under pressure. All right. Time for a fashion show.” He slips off the pants and tucks them into the kit strapped on the side of the pavilion while standing there in his undergarments. He steps into the skirt with no embarrassment.
He stops and looks toward the southeastern corner of the Hall of Six Excellences. I turn and catch sight of someone ducking out of view.
“Someone’s watching us!” I say. “It’s Suki!”
Doi asks, “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I saw her elbow.”
Cricket says, “But, Peasprout, that doesn’t make any—”
“Suki spent all year trying to destroy Doi and me. You think she’s going to see us sneaking around and not shriek like a monkey on fire being chopped to pieces?”
Hisashi asks, “So we don’t like this Suki?”
“No!” scream Doi and I.
“If she finds out, she’ll squeal to the senseis immediately,” I say, taking Hisashi’s hand. “We have to get out of here! Now!”
Copyright © 2019 by Henry Lien