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I stopped when I smelled the magic. It was strong magic. Old magic. And it carried a faint scent of the sea. And yet I was a thousand kilometers away from the nearest body of salt water.
Halting in the middle of the road, I tried to follow the scent. It came from the top of a nearby hill, where a little village sat like a tray of dirty, overturned cups that someone had left to gather dust. But the magic I smelled was too powerful for a small, sleepy place like that.
Well, when trouble isn't drawn to me, I seem to be drawn to it. Leaning on my staff, I stepped off the main road onto the side path that wound through the rice fields.
One of the farmers looked up from his weeding. He stared at my bare, callused feet and then at my dirty, ragged blouse and finally at my old woman's wrinkled face. Almost immediately he made a sign against evil. I suppose he didn't want me infecting him with my poverty. "We don't allow beggars in Amity," he snapped.
Despite all the centuries I have spent disguised as a human, it never fails to amaze me how hard and flinty human hearts always are -- though humans have such short lives that I suppose they have to eat and grasp as much as they can. "I'm not a beggar," I corrected him proudly. "I always earn my food."
"That's what they all say." He picked up a clod of dirt as if to throw it at me. "And then they steal whatever they can lay their hands on."
"Times are hard." I chose my words with care. "I didn't always look and dress like this." With as much dignity as I could, I tried to hobble on past him.
I was mistaken, though, if I thought I could shame him into leaving mealone. His clod of dirt hit me right in the middle of my back. "We don't want your kind here," he insisted.
I straightened slowly. My kind indeed. I daresay he'd be singing a far different tune if he knew I wasn't a human at all. I felt like turning around to teach that stupid farmer some manners when I suddenly caught another whiff of magic. It smelled not only of salt water but of stagnant salt water.
Even more curious now, I decided that I could always deal with the farmer later on. It was more important to investigate this odd bit of magic. So I forced myself to slouch once again like an old woman and trudged on past the rice fields and through the orchards of trees that clustered on the slopes of the hill until I reached the village gates.
The guard there wasn't any friendlier than the farmer below. "Keep out, old woman." He pointed his spear at me.
I squinted at him because he looked very much like the farmer who had thrown the clod of dirt at me. I always have a hard time telling humans apartthey have almost no features at all: such tiny eyes and such little snouts. And this one had the same brown hair and blue eyes as the farmer. "I'm willing to work," I told him.
"The times are so bad we barely manage to take care of our own." He jabbed at me halfheartedly with his spear. "You'd be better off trying your luck at some other village."
"But people always say the same thing at every place I go," I said-which was the truth. "And Ive come such a long way and my belly aches so. " I rubbed my stomach for emphasis. "Haven't you ever known what it is to be hungry?"
The guard looked away from me and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. "Yes, I have." He raised his spear. "All right. You can try your luck; but I can tell you right now that you won't find anything."
I forced myself to smile and bow my head gratefully. (Of all the things I have had to learn how to do among humans, I think bowing my head has been the hardest -- especially when the favor done for me is no favor at all.)
But once I was through the gates, I stopped almost immediately. There, sitting within the yard of an inn, was a wooden sedan chair, and squatting around the chair were four creatures who looked like men. And on the left side of the inn's doorway was a guard in a padded cotton coat. He held a huge cutlass in his hand. And all of them-the chair, the porters and the guard-reeked of the magic that had created them.
But who was their creator? This far inland, I could only think of one creature whose magic would smell like a stagnant sea, and that would be Civet, the great enemy of my clan.
Thief was too small a word for the size of her theft. Killer was too kind a word for the suffering she had brought to my clan. She was a wicked, cruel creature who seemed to delight in hurting others. She had come in the dead of night and stolen the entire sea of my clan, encapsulating it into an object the size of a pebble.
Of course, I had been away at the time, but the tales had spread throughout the land. So I had heard how she hadretreated inside the Weeping Mountain. My clan pursued her as soon as it had recovered from its surprise; but they found that she had filled the mountain with all sorts of traps, soldiers and monsters. Very few who entered ever returned. Without the sea to shelter them, the survivors of my clan had been exposed to the cold and the terrible winds; and since they now had no way of getting food, they had been forced to abandon our ancient home and become wanderers and beggars within the other kingdoms.
Occasionally, in the following years, I had heard some tragic tale of one who had tired of that homeless life and tried to enter the Weeping Mountain to take our revenge and perhaps restore our home. But as yet no one had ever succeeded.
I could not understand what errand could draw Civet from her mountain; but it was an opportunity not to be missed. My luck had been so universally bad for all these centuries that at first it was hard to believe it was finally beginning to turn.
My heart began to pound and my pulse began to race. If I could just capture her and the pebble, I could end the long years of wandering for both myself and my clan. We could hold our heads proudly once again. And my clan would have to thank me for it all. They would probably be making up plays and songs for ten generations about my deeds.
My fingers arched involuntarily like claws. I would have liked nothing more than to change myself and charge inside; but the inn was too tiny for my true shape. And sneaking in there while I was disguised smacked of her kind of tactics. No, I would meet her out in the open in my true form.
But I had spent so much time that the guard began to look at me suspiciously. There was no sense making trouble until it was time. Quickly I showed him the palm of one hand and looked at him as if pleading for some cash. He chopped at the air disgustedly. I made a point of tottering on.Dragon of the Lost Sea. Copyright © by Laurence Yep. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.