Skybright cradled the woven basket to her side. She had left under the pretense of going into town to buy a new silk handkerchief and pears for Zhen Ni. In truth, she had her mistress’s bed sheet, hoping to wash it at the creek.
She and Zhen Ni had shared their morning meal of rice porridge and pickles in silence. When they spoke after, it was in hushed tones. She had fetched a medicinal tea to ease her mistress’s cramps, and told everyone in the household that Zhen Ni was suffering from a headache and needed quiet and rest.
The forest towered, seemed to lean forward in greeting. Soon, she was lost in its depths, making her way down a familiar yet barely marked path to the creek. It felt good to be outside the manor, today of all days. When she had asked, Zhen Ni had described the cramps feeling as if someone squeezed her womb in a tight fist, bringing waves of aching pain like she’d never experienced. Skybright remembered the heat she had suffered the night before in her fevered dreams, as if her lower half were fracturing then melding together again.
She placed the basket on a rock and shook out the sheet, picking up the chunk of square soap. Skybright sang as she worked, enjoying the feel of sunlight on her bare neck, where her hair had been wound into two tight buns low against her nape. She scrubbed the stain out and wondered how Zhen Ni was faring right now without her, wondered when she, too, would begin her own monthly letting. A lucid image of a serpentine coil flashed in her mind—a forked tongue darting—and she winced. Skybright scoured the sheet harder, until it was spotless, her arms sore from the task.
“It’s a nice morning for song,” a soft voice said behind her—a male voice—and Skybright leaped to her feet, turning to thrust the lathered soap in front of her like a weapon.
The young man smiled. “You’re quick.” He carried a wooden staff that was taller than he was, long enough that he could whack her in the head without taking a step.
She grimaced at her soap. “You frightened me.”
“I apologize.” He inclined his head.
He wasn’t more than seventeen years, dressed in a tan sleeveless tunic that revealed wiry arms. His slender eyes were near black in color. Skybright took a small step forward. He lifted his chin, as if in challenge, and she saw the angry red mark covering his neck, like a hand had seized him by the throat, burning an imprint into his flesh.
“You’re … him,” she said.
“And you are her. The girl spying in the tree.” He laughed, and it was warm and unguarded.
“I wasn’t—” She stuttered. “I was—”
“Chasing after a lost cat?” he offered.
She smiled despite herself. Skybright had never spoken to a boy so near her own age before, other than to haggle over the price of vegetables at the market.
“I’m Kai Sen.” He half bowed, gripping his staff with both hands so it was parallel to the ground.
“Skybright.” She nodded shyly.
He pointed at her washing. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. Do you mind if I rest here a few moments?”
Skybright returned to wringing the sheet, and he sat near her by the creek’s bank. Feeling self-conscious, she was relieved that he was gazing at the water. The thick trees surrounding them made it seem as if they were the only people for several leagues. He closed his eyes and tilted his face toward the sky, seeming content. She submerged the sheet, splashing the water just to make some noise.
“So truthfully, were you spying?” Kai Sen asked, breaking the silence.
She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “My mistress talked me into it. She’s always full of wild notions.”
“Was it worth the climb?”
“I saw you.” She wrung the sheet, then realized her simple statement could be construed another way. She wasn’t normally so coy, but he truly was the most interesting thing she had seen during her tree-climbing escapade. Mortified, she considered putting the wet sheet over her head.
His dark brows lifted, then he laughed again. She liked his laugh—so full and unrestrained.
“I hope it was an easy climb then.” He grinned at her, his fingers searching for stones near the water’s edge. His hands were broad, darkened by the sun. She shook the sheet out, draped it over a rock, and sat down beside him, the staff resting across his lap a buffer between them.
“Why do you not look like the others?” she asked.
He cast a pebble into the water, and it bounced once before sinking. “You don’t mince words.”
How was she supposed to talk to a boy? Differently somehow? She hadn’t an inkling. All Skybright knew was that his nearness unsettled her in a way that she wasn’t able to explain. “My mistress says I’m too forthright.”
He flicked a glance at her, and she remembered how he had studied her from that great distance in the immense temple square, as if he could see within her. “There’s an openness in your face, yes.” The corners of his mouth quirked upwards as he pitched another stone into the creek. “I don’t look like the others because I’m not truly a monk.”
“Ah.” She furrowed her brows, but he didn’t look at her.
“I study and train at the monastery as a monk would. But officially, the abbot won’t allow me to take my vow because of this.” He lifted his chin. The birthmark was a deep red, like nothing she had ever seen, making the parts of his throat that were flesh-colored appear exposed and vulnerable.
“It’s only a birthmark,” she said.
His smile was rueful. “My parents gave me to the monastery when I was six years because of this birthmark. They were superstitious people from a rural village and believed I was dragged by the throat into this life by the hell lord himself.”
It seemed a cruel fate, to have had parents then to lose them because of something so superficial. For the briefest moment, she wondered about her own parents, where she had come from. “But what does the abbot think?”
“I don’t know.” His head dropped, and some of his hair escaped the twine and fell across his brow. “The abbot took me in, raised me for eleven years. I’ve never asked what he truly thought.”
They sat in silence for some time, listening to the rustle of the forest, the soft stir and hum of hidden birds and creatures. She found a stone and tried to bounce it off the water, but it plopped and sank. Kai Sen’s rock followed, skipping three times before vanishing below the surface.
“And you? You’re a tree-climbing handmaid spy?”
Skybright burst into laughter, sending a bird from a nearby tree spiraling into the clear sky. She’d never laughed like that with anyone except Zhen Ni. “Something like that.”
“To be truthful, I haven’t been able to stop wondering about you. Every time I meditated, I saw an image of you perched high in that cypress tree gaping down at us.” He chuckled. “It was the most unexpected and absurd thing I’d ever seen.”
“I wasn’t gaping,” she said, indignant.
“Oh, you were gaping. Fortunate thing, too, otherwise I would have thought some goddess or nymph had descended upon—”
“There you are! I wondered where you disappeared to.” A lanky boy the same age as Kai Sen ran up to them. “You’ll get me in trouble if we don’t head back now!” The boy’s head was shaved, and he was dressed in slate blue, like all the monks she had seen the other day.
Kai Sen stood, rolling the tall staff easily from one palm to the other. “I forgot the time, talking here with Skybright.”
She scrambled to her feet, embarrassed, and the new boy gawked at her as if he’d never seen a girl before. She picked up the sheet and shook it as a distraction, enjoying the crisp snapping sound.
“Close your mouth, Han,” Kai Sen prodded him in the chest with his staff.
Han clamped his mouth shut, then grinned boyishly. “Kai has the heart of a wandering monk,” he told Skybright. “I’m always herding him back to the monastery. First time I’ve found him with a girl, though.”
Skybright suppressed a smile as she folded the sheet.
“Brother, let’s go.” Kai Sen clasped the taller boy by the shoulder. “Before you embarrass me even more.” He turned and gave her a nod. “Maybe we’ll meet again? I’ll look for you in the trees?”
She laughed, shaking her head. “I don’t think I’ll do that again.”
“That’s a pity,” Kai Sen replied, and Han tugged him by the tunic edge to go. He grinned and waved once, before disappearing into the thicket.
Skybright had taken so long that she’d missed the midday meal. Surprised not to find Zhen Ni in her quarters, she wandered through the manor until she saw everyone gathered in the main hall. The two paneled doors had been folded open, letting in the summer breeze and light. Lilies in bright yellow and orange adorned each table, scenting the air with their strong musk. The red five-sided lanterns were already lit overhead. Lady Yuan sat with Zhen Ni beside her, chatting to another woman and girl across from them.
Someone had dressed Zhen Ni in a pale pink tunic and skirt. As with all her mistress’s clothes, they were intricately beaded, befitting the family’s status and wealth as successful merchants. Skybright noticed, with annoyance, that the jewels pinned in Zhen Ni’s hair didn’t match her outfit. It must have been her stand in, Rose’s, mistake.
“There you are, Skybright,” Lady Yuan exclaimed.
The guests half-turned to glance at her. Skybright bowed her head, but not before sneaking a long look. The girl was petite, with large eyes set beneath delicate eyebrows, and a round nose over a rosebud mouth. She was not dressed as resplendently as Zhen Ni, her outfit not even rivaling Skybright’s own. Her family obviously didn’t enjoy the same stature as the Yuans.
“Lady Fei and her daughter Lan have just arrived after a long journey. Oriole is fetching us some tea. Could you go to the kitchen and ask for the custard buns and nut cakes Cook made this morning?”
Skybright retreated, and hurried toward the kitchen, weaving past the fragrant honeysuckle and quiet pavilions in the courtyards. When she arrived, she helped Cook arrange the freshly made treats on a lacquered tray inlaid with pearl, before tucking a lotus from the pond among the desserts. It would please Zhen Ni. Her trip back was at a brisk, yet careful pace.
When Skybright set the beautiful display of desserts in front of the women, Zhen Ni caught her eye and smiled, having seen the blushing pink lotus. “It matches my dress perfectly,” she said.
“Thank you, Skybright,” Lady Yuan said. “You may go now.”
But Zhen Ni grabbed Skybright’s sleeve. “Do let her stay, Mama.” She flashed her most winning smile. “Skybright should get to know Lan as well.”
“Of course.” Lady Yuan indicated the carved stool in the corner. “Join us.” She passed the desserts on cerulean plates to the guests. “Zhen Ni and Skybright are almost sisters. The goddess left Skybright at our doorstep right before Zhen Ni was born, like a gift for our youngest daughter.”
“Mama, don’t speak of Skybright as if she were a pet Chow!”
Skybright managed to smother her smile, but Lan laughed, a surprisingly rich sound coming from such a small frame, and clapped a hand over her mouth like she had surprised herself.
Lady Yuan took a long sip of tea, her bejeweled fingers holding the porcelain cup just so, before setting it down with artful grace. “It’s my fault,” she said to Lady Fei, flashing a smile at Zhen Ni. “I’ve spoiled her, even Master Yuan says so—and then he does the same!” Master Yuan was a merchant and away traveling many months out of the year, but whenever he returned, his carriage was always piled high with heaps of gifts for Zhen Ni.
“You’re truly fortunate to have four children, and three already wed.” Lady Fei nibbled on a nut cake. Lan had inherited her mother’s small, full mouth. “We’re still searching for a suitable match for our Lan.”
Skybright and Zhen Ni pointedly avoided each other’s gaze. As the women discussed betrothal gifts and the best dates to wed for their daughters, Skybright’s mind wandered back to thoughts of the stream. Of the warmth of sunlight against her skin, and Kai Sen’s laughter. Of the way he had studied her with those dark brown eyes.
The next few days passed quickly as Lan settled into her new quarters, near Zhen Ni’s. She had not come accompanied by her own handmaid, so Lady Yuan assigned a girl of fourteen years called Pearl to help her. And all the while, Skybright and Zhen Ni were on edge, frightened that their secret would be discovered somehow. Skybright went to her mistress even earlier each morning, soon after the rooster’s crow. Zhen Ni was more pale than usual, and they took great care to add color to her cheeks before she greeted anyone.
Lan’s arrival proved to be a good distraction. Zhen Ni and Lan spent their mornings gossiping and embroidering before taking a midday meal, then scattering into the gardens to sip chilled honeyed tea. Lan was better at embroidering than Zhen Ni, but Skybright’s mistress proved to be the best with composing lyrics and playing the lute. Skybright couldn’t do either very well, but had the prettiest singing voice, and was often asked to accompany Zhen Ni as she plucked at the lute strings. Rose and Pearl stayed near, fanning their mistresses, as the summer days were becoming unbearably hot.
Skybright retired exhausted in the evenings, not having given further thought to her feverish dreams from the previous week. But tonight, a familiar tingling below her waist woke her. Terrified, she reared up and grabbed at her legs. They were still there, still the same. She gave a loud sigh of relief, but even before the full exhale, her flesh began to undulate and change beneath her fingers. Bones, ligaments, and joints warped and crackled, melted away, striking with that unbearable heat.
Smooth scales rippled over her human flesh, like dragonfly wings fluttering their way from her feet to cover her abdomen. She swept both hands across her torso, the clothes having evaporated from her, and gasped. Her snake tongue darted out, oppressing her voice, and she could taste the air with it; the whiff of smoke from the snuffed lantern, the bitterness of the gardenia musk Zhen Ni had rubbed into her wrists in the morning, all tinged by the scent of her own sweat and fear.
She fell out of bed, her long serpent body slapping the ground with a loud thwack. Crawling with her hands, she pulled herself up by the window ledge and lit the lantern. She saw the thick coil that began at her waist, just as the last time—but this was no nightmare. Skybright pinched the flesh of her upper arms, her cheeks, then where her hip should be, and the end of her tail flipped, like it had a mind of its own.
“No,” she tried to say. But all that came out was a guttural rasp.
How could this be real?
To her horror, a rooster began to crow. Skybright scrambled on her hands and slid the door aside, hefting her long serpent body, which was at least four times the length of her legs, behind her. She shut the door, fighting panic. She must leave the manor. No one could see her like this—a monstrosity. What if she never changed back?
She crawled awkwardly, using her arms but beginning to push herself a little with her muscular coils. Fumbling too long with the key Zhen Ni had stolen for their escapades, Skybright thrust her way through a narrow side door used by servants and into a dark alley. She had enough wits about her to tie the string the key dangled from around her wrist. More than one rooster was now crying at the morning light in greeting, and some neighborhood dogs responded to the cacophony. In desperation, she tried to quicken her pace as she slithered toward the forest, propelling herself more and more with her serpent length. Her lungs felt as if they would burst from exertion and terror, and a sense of overwhelming grief. She sobbed, but what came out was a long hiss. The mutt that had been barking ferociously behind the neighbor’s wall quieted with a yip, then whimpered.
She had never liked that mean mutt.
The jagged line of trees was a familiar and welcome sight, and Skybright snaked toward it, unused to her lower vantage point. Her serpentine body met the ground where her hips used to be, although she found she could rise higher on her coil if she wanted to. Swallowed by darkness, she made her way between the trees, tasting the earthy tang of the forest on her tongue. The ground vibrated with life, telling her how many nocturnal creatures were still scampering to their nests, even as others were just rising for the day. No humans were nearby.
Skybright navigated with only her coils now. Each powerful thrust propelled her forward, and her speed increased as she pushed her way deeper and deeper, going further than she had ever strolled before with Zhen Ni in their explorations. It wasn’t until morning sunshine glimmered through the thick branches of the trees that she collapsed beneath one, exhausted, unable to shed the tears that weighed heavy against her heart. Why was this happening to her? Curling herself up, her serpent length wound in tight circles, the sight turning her stomach. She shut her eyes so she could no longer see it.
Skybright woke from the feel of a hand pressed against her upper arm, warm and reassuring. Groggy, she opened her eyes and squinted. Kai Sen’s concerned face filled her vision, and she bolted to a sitting position, clutching a tan tunic to herself. It was long sleeved, thank the goddess, and she tucked herself as small as she could beneath it.
He sat down across from her, allowing some distance, folding those lean arms over his knees. The tall staff he had carried before rested beside him. His chest was bare, as he had given her his tunic. “Are you all right?” he asked.
She blinked, feeling woozy. “What time is it?” Her voice sounded thick in her own ears, odd.
“A few gongs before the midday meal yet.” The gongs set the schedule at the monastery, and could often be heard as far as their manor, if she paused to listen for them.
Skybright thrust her face against her knees, which were pulled tight to her chest. Kai Sen’s tunic smelled faintly of camphor wood. The wind stirred, lifting a corner of the cloth, and she clutched her legs harder, acutely aware of her nakedness beneath. Although Skybright was glad to see Kai Sen, she wished he hadn’t discovered her, like some wild animal, naked and disoriented in the forest.
“What happened?” he asked in a quiet voice.
How could she explain this away? It was impossible. Zhen Ni would be hysterical with worry. She had never disappeared like that before. The entire staff would be out searching for her. Skybright took a deep breath that shuddered into a silent sob.
“I can’t say.” She raised her eyes and swallowed the sour taste in her mouth. “I must have wandered in my sleep.”
“I’ve sent Han back for a robe. He … didn’t see you.” Kai Sen’s gaze held steady, and she was grateful for it. “When I found you, I thought you were injured or—” he cleared his throat. “Has this happened before?”
“No,” she lied, hating the way her scalp tingled from it.
“We’re leagues from town.” He lowered his chin. “I’m only glad that I was the one to find you.”
His concern warmed her, even as she shivered beneath the thin fabric of his tunic.
“I wish I had more to offer.” He smiled, and Skybright realized with shock that she wanted to flick her tongue out, to taste the scent of him.
In that moment, someone shouted from beyond the trees, and Kai Sen leaped to his feet. “It’s Han.” He ran, faster than Skybright had seen anyone run, and disappeared among the thickets.
Skybright suddenly remembered the stories of serpent demons, always women, who would shape shift after luring victims with their beautiful faces. Zhen Ni’s sister, Min, had spoken of them. Skybright recalled how Min had widened her eyes and said in a hushed voice, “She acts the helpless maiden, but when she has you alone in the dark of night, that’s when she attacks!” Min had leaped at them, baring her teeth and hissing. “The beautiful woman changes into a giant serpent.” Min threw her arms out wide to emphasize her length. “She’ll sink her long fangs into your flesh to poison you, then swallow you whole. And the worst part? You’ll still be alive when she does it!” Min gnashed her teeth and smacked her lips. Skybright and Zhen Ni had clutched each other during the tale, squealing and giggling.
Was this what she was—a monster of folklore? How could it be possible? She tightened her arms around her knees.
Kai Sen returned with a wheat-colored monk’s robe. “It was the best Han could find,” he said apologetically. “Here.” He stuck his hand out and turned his face away to show he wasn’t looking.
But Skybright took the opportunity to do just that. His chest and torso were as muscular and lithe as his arms. She marveled at how different his body appeared compared to hers, all hard lines and angles. He was as tan as she was pale, letting her know that he often went shirtless in the sun. Kai Sen’s stance exposed his throat to her, and that strange birthmark, which seemed to have deepened to the color of plum wine this morning. Skybright resisted the urge to press her hand over it, to see if it was indeed in the exact shape of a palm. She reached for the robe instead and wrapped it around herself, tying it securely at the waist. The sleeves were too long, and the hem dragged against the ground, but she was relieved to feel the soft cotton against her skin.
“Thank you, truly. To you and Han both.”
He turned to assess her, unable to keep from grinning. “I’ve never seen a monk’s robe on someone so—” He stopped mid-sentence, and appeared flustered for the first time since they’d met. “Never on a girl before.” His smile turned lop-sided, and she wondered what he had been about to say.
“I should return to my mistress.” Skybright drew the robe tighter around herself. “She must be so worried.”
Kai Sen nodded. “Let me walk you back—”
“No, you’ve done more than enough, I couldn’t ask—”
“It would ease my own mind, Skybright. Please.”
Taking note of the unfamiliar surroundings, she said, “Then I would be grateful for your company.”
Kai Sen drew his own tunic on and tied the sash, smiling. “I promised Han I would return as soon as I took you back.”
He led the way through the trees with dexterity, knowing exactly which way to go. She followed, feeling the soft earth and pebbles beneath her bare feet. What must he think of her? The strange girl who climbed trees and wandered naked in the forest at night. Her ears burned at the thought, and she was glad he didn’t see. Some time later, he slowed and glanced her way. “You are certain you’re all right?” He paused. “Your mistress … she treats you well?”
Humiliated, she colored even more. “They’re so kind to me. Zhen Ni treats me like her own sister.”
“Good. I’m glad,” he said. “It’s just, I don’t often find beautiful girls sleeping naked in the forest.”
Her mouth dropped, then she burst into laughter when she saw the teasing slant of his gaze.
“Not that I’m complaining,” Kai Sen went on. “But the last time I was caught undressed in the forest, it was because Han had stolen my clothes from the river bank and I had to return to the monastery plastered in cypress leaves. They were prickly. And didn’t do the job well.” He cleared his throat and grinned at her.
She laughed harder. “Han didn’t!”
“Han did. Don’t worry, I got him back.” Kai Sen laughed with her, and it eased Skybright’s heart. His laughter made everything feel normal and right again. She reached overhead to grab a sprig of cypress, sweeping her palm across the needle-like leaves, trying to picture Kai Sen returning to the monastery covered in them, and chuckled again.
They strolled beneath the cool shadow of the majestic forest, and Skybright remembered how the earth vibrated and hummed with life the previous night, when it seemed she could detect every small movement and animal near her within leagues, smell and taste them on her tongue.
“Do you practice forms with the staff?” she asked.
“I do. We’re taught to use an array of weapons, but I’m most comfortable with the staff.” He spun it from one hand to the other, without thought, by reflex. He wielded it as if it were an extension of him.
“But I thought monks were against violence?”
“Fair point. The techniques and forms help strengthen us not only physically, but mentally and spiritually. And we’ve been known to take to arms and go to war to defend our kingdom in the past. Then, there are always the demons.” He said the last part with a mischievous wink, but she felt both arms prickling. “We must always be prepared.”
“Demons?” she whispered.
“From the ancient texts. The ones that roam the underworld, the ones that roam our own world.”
“Do they exist?” She shivered despite herself. Kai Sen noticed and drew closer, but she wasn’t shivering for the reasons he thought.
“I’ve not seen the like myself. But the abbot believes what the books say.”
They were now by the creek where they had met the first time, not too far from the Yuan manor. “You’ve read these books?” Skybright tried to keep her voice even.
“We study them, yes. Why?”
“I need to—” She rubbed at her throbbing temples in frustration. “Could you research something for me?”
He peered at her, his handsome face curious. “If I can. On what?”
“The serpent demon.”
Kai Sen’s eyebrows lifted.
“Do you know anything about them?” she asked.
“Not beyond the usual old wives’ tales of warning.”
They heard the distant gong from the monastery and Kai Sen whipped toward the sound, his stance as taut as a tiger about to leap. “Han’s going to kill me.”
“I can find my way back. I know where I am.”
“It’s my fault. I took my time on purpose.” He grinned. “I’ll see what I can find. When can I meet you again?”
“Back here, in three days’ time? In the morning.”
“I’ll look for you, Skybright.” Kai Sen jogged back in the direction of the still reverberating gong. “Keep safe until then.”
She waved, sorry to see him go. Skybright wasn’t certain that she could keep safe. She wasn’t certain about anything any longer.