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Don’t fall, don’t fall, oh no, I’m going to fall . . . Crouching, Ji-Lin raised her sword over her head. She counted to thirty and then straightened to standing, without falling. Slowly, she lifted one foot to her knee. Her other bare foot was planted on the top of a pole, on the roof of the Temple of the Sun, at the top of a mountain. Sweat tickled the back of her neck, under her braid. She was supposed to be calm, like a bird on a breeze or a leaf in summer or some other very calm nature image she could never quite remember. But she felt too jittery, as if all her muscles were vibrating. If she passed this test, she’d be one step closer to being like the heroes of the tales she loved. She’d also be one step closer to her sister. Tomorrow was her and her twin’s twelfth birthday, and if she passed this test, then maybe, maybe she’d be allowed to spend the day with her. They could steal a lucky orange from the palace kitchen and climb the spires and watch the gondoliers steer through the canals . . . I’ll pass, Ji-Lin thought. No matter what I have to do. Twisting on the pole, Ji-Lin faced north, then east, toward the rising sun. Yellow light bathed the mountains, soaked the trees, and tinted the streams and waterfalls. In the sunlight, the water looked like liquid gold as it cascaded over the rocks and crashed into the mist that hid the valley below. Fire moths flew in and out of the mist, streaking it with glowing red-orange dust, and a pair of flying monkeys chased one another before disappearing into the soft whiteness. Calm, she told herself. Focused. Fierce. DO NOT FALL. When the attack came, it was fast. A shadow darkened the sky. At first, it was a speck like a bird, and then it rapidly grew larger and larger, until the silhouette of a winged lion blotted out Ji-Lin’s view of the rising sun. The lion hurtled down from the sky, his wings folded for speed. Sunlight caught his mane, creating a halo. Roaring, he stretched his claws toward her, and it didn’t matter that it was almost her birthday or how much she missed her sister. All that mattered was that the test had begun. Ji-Lin held the sword point out with both hands as she kicked the pole beneath her. The lion veered to avoid the tip of her sword as the pole broke and Ji-Lin dropped to the roof. She landed, kicked the pole up with her foot, and caught it in one hand. Yes! she thought, and then she hurled the pole at the lion’s belly without lowering her sword. He bashed the pole out of the air with his paw, then swiped at her, but she was already in motion. Go, go, go! Her bare feet were soundless on the clay tiles as she ran across the roof. The lion filled the air with thunderous roars to rattle her bones and make her afraid. But she’d heard too many roars during her lessons to be shaken. Balancing, she ran along the roof and then leaped onto the next building. A tile shifted under her feet as she landed. The winged lion dove for her again, and she scooped up the broken tile and threw it. Spinning in the air, it hit the lion’s face. He turned his head before it could strike his golden eye. Uh-oh, she thought. Too close! Ji-Lin ran again. He was right behind her. She imagined she felt his warm breath on her neck. She had to try something else. The goal was straightforward: she had to jump onto the lion’s back and ride him before he forced her off the roof to the ground. But how to do it? Be swift. Be bold. Be unexpected. How many times had she heard those words? Ji-Lin had come to the temple the day after her eleventh birthday, and at least twice a day the drummers would chant them as they beat out the rhythm of morning exercises; then the masters would repeat them during the ritual to welcome sunset. So a full year of hearing those words meant . . . It means think, she ordered herself. And run faster! Pivoting, she raced down the roof. She pushed harder with each stride until she was leaping. It wasn’t going to be enough. He was going to catch her! Time to be unexpected, she thought. As the lion dove for her, she threw her sword at him. It flashed as it spun through the air. The lion caught it, trapping the hilt between his front paws, at the same moment Ji-Lin reached the edge of the roof. She jumped off the roof as the lion fumbled the sword, hurling herself into the air, and she landed half on and half off the lion’s back. She hung on to his wing and, twisting her body, pulled herself upright. Burying her hands in his mane, she wrapped her legs around his broad chest. I did it! Surprised by her sudden leap, the lion dropped her sword. It fell, flashing in the dawn light, until it clattered in the courtyard below. There it lay, silver against the black stone, glistening like a dead snake between the obsidian sculptures. Roaring, he soared over the temple. Ji-Lin felt the wind batter her face. The wind roared in her ears as loudly as the lion himself. The lion aimed for a trio of green mountains. His wings pumped beneath her, and she felt his powerful back muscles strain. Sunlight pierced her eyes, and she squinted until the lion plunged into a cloud. Mist swirled around them, erasing any sense of up or down, sky or ground. She heard the cries of birds screaming warnings about the sudden appearance of a large cat in their sky. The winged lion twisted and swooped. They burst out of the cloud, high above the mountains. Below, between clouds, Ji-Lin could see her island, the imperial island of Shirro, the largest of the Hundred Islands of Himitsu, a green jewel in the midst of blue ocean. Beneath her, she felt a rumble as the winged lion, Alejan, spoke: “You are going to get in so much trouble. Granted, it was brilliant. But so much trouble! Never fear, though; I will defend you and tell them you are brave beyond brave, exactly like Master Shai when she defeated two” Ji-Lin interrupted him before he could wax on about his hero. As much as she loved that tale of Master Shai, this was not the time. “I played the game! You were the evil koji, and I tamed you.” He’d taken the role of a monster intent on throwing her from her perch, and he’d had instructions to not go easy on her. “Your sword, Ji-Lin. You threw it! It’s your claws, your teeth! You know how they feel about students who lose their weapons. I think you were clever and inventive and brave, but you know they like their rules.” He was right, of course. She might have succeeded in “taming” him, but they weren’t going to like the way she’d done it. She groaned. “They’ll make me clean the toilets, won’t they?” “For this crime, they’ll have you clean them with a toothbrush.” “Or no brush,” she said glumly. “Or your tongue.” Extending unbroken to the horizon, the sea glittered in the morning light. Close to shore, within the protective barrier that surrounded the islands, fishing ships with red sails drew lines through the waves. “I think that would kill me.” “I will mourn you,” Alejan said solemnly. “I expect loud wailing and tearing of clothes.” “But I don’t wear clothes.” “You could shed a lot.” His fur quivered beneath her: he was laughing. She leaned her cheek against his mane, feeling his laugh through her body. He smelled like fresh dirt, as if he’d been rolling around in a field . . . which he could have been. She wondered where he’d gone yesterday while she’d been stuck inside the classroom. To a farm? To the shore? To another island? She wished she were allowed to go with him, traveling the islands instead of staying behind to study. She could do it! She was ready! But the masters said no. Extended journeys were for older students. In a year, she’d be allowed to explore more, but only if she passed all her tests, which wouldn’t happen if she failed so badly they punished her, like they might after today’s performance. Certainly they aren’t going to reward me with a trip home. She thought of her sister and the lucky orange they should have been sharing tomorrow. I’m sorry, Seika. “Can we fly a little farther before we head back?” “If we do, can I have chicken for breakfast?” “You already had breakfast.” “I have a healthy appetite! I’m a growing lion. Someday I might grow as huge as Master Shai, who is said to be directly descended from the lion who flew Emperor Himitsu from Zemyla” “All right. You can have a second breakfast.” She scratched him behind his left ear, his favorite spot. He’d probably already helped himself to snacks. He liked to visit the harbor before dawn, when the night fishermen returned with their catches. To be fair, he didn’t smell like it this morningafter a trip to see the fishermen, his fur smelled like spices and rotted fish, but this morning he smelled like earth and olives. He must have rolled in an olive grove, she decided. “I’ll ask the cooks to put gravy on it.” “You are not only clever and brave, you are also wise and kind.” Through the mist below, between the spirals of fire moths, she saw the sparkle of the imperial city, which spanned the gap between the mountains. She used to live there, with Seika, until their father said it was time for them to train on their own: Seika to be the emperor’s heir and Ji-Lin to be her imperial guard. They’d be reunited whenifthey both trained hard and passed all their tests. Until then, Ji-Lin would only see her home from above: the graceful curves of the palace suspended over the water, the canals with their elegant black gondolas, and the spires of the libraries. The mist closed over the city and hid it from view. Soon the sun and the fire moths would burn the mist away, but for now, the city was shrouded in wisps of white, as if it were still asleep and hiding between white sheets. She wondered if Seika was awake or asleep. “I guess we should head back,” Ji-Lin said at last. “I have to get my sword.” “And my chicken,” Alejan reminded her. “Of course.” “And your toothbrush.” “Hah. Very funny.” Tilting to the right, Alejan soared toward the temple. Its white walls gleamed in the rising sun. His wings caught the wind, and he rose higher. Ji-Lin felt the sun warming the air. A sea hawk circled near them, watching the lion. The Temple of the Sun was perched on the peak of a mountain on the imperial island. It was set into the rocks, and its many buildings were connected by steep steps that led to courtyards. Alejan circled the training courtyard, an octagon of black stone. It was ringed by statues of their heroes, the first winged lions and riders to fight the koji, all carved from obsidian, with smooth faces and angled bodies. Ji-Lin’s sword still lay in the center of the courtyard where it had fallen. Several of the masters sat, wings folded, in a circle around it. Curious students perched in the olive trees and filled the verandas. As Alejan spiraled down, Ji-Lin felt her heart sink. Everyone was going to know about this. The most embarrassing moment of my life is about to happen, she thought, and I can’t do anything to stop it. Maybe she could die of shame right now and skip all the humiliation. Paws extended, Alejan landed. He sank onto the stone, cushioning the landing so he was as silent as the fall of an autumn leaf. Ji-Lin slid off his back, bent to one knee, and bowed her head. Out of the corners of her eyes, she saw herself reflected in the blank faces of the obsidian statues. No one spoke. She heard no sound except the breeze in a nearby flowering olive tree. Leaves whispered, and a few white blossoms fell. They swirled down onto the stones around her, and onto the sword. One of the masters could have composed a song about the moment: the white blossoms crying, the sky lightening with dawn’s kisses . . . or not. Ji-Lin had almost failed her composition class. She’d been saved by her punctuality. She just didn’t see the point in playing with words when there were races to be won, games to be played, and lions to be flown. She was training to be a hero, not a court lady. “Ji-Lin.” It was Master Vanya, the eldest of the masters. She was a stately lioness with silver wings and white fur tinged with gold around her muzzle. According to legend, she once defeated three koji on her own, a vicious trio that had eluded hunters for years. In another story, she saved an entire village from a lava flow by diverting it into the sea. Over her life, she’d trained many famous lions and riders, including Alejan’s beloved Master Shai. Alejan knew at least a dozen different tales about Master Vanya and her star student. A few were even true. Ji-Lin bowed lower. “Child, why did you throw your sword?” Her mouth felt dry, and her thoughts scattered. She latched on to the words that came with the memory of drumbeats: Be swift, be bold . . . “I wanted to be unexpected.” “Your sword is your life.” “Yes, Master.” “You would throw away your life to win?” There was no anger in her voice. Only curiosity. Ji-Lin raised her head to look into the tawny eyes of the lioness. Master Vanya had broken the circle of masters. She stood only a few feet from Ji-Lin, in front of Ji-Lin’s sword. “My choice was unexpected,” Ji-Lin said, trying to keep her voice calm and measured, as she’d been taught, “but his wasn’t.” “A foolish risk,” another master rumbled. Eyes locked on Master Vanya, Ji-Lin didn’t see which one spoke. “She is a child in body, heart, and mind. The emperor will be displeased.” Ji-Lin bowed her head again and wondered how many more classes would be added to her schedule after she failed today’s test. At this rate, she’d be eighteen before she was allowed to visit Seika. She told herself she would not cry, no matter what they said. “I won’t drop it ever again.” “She won,” Alejan said. “She caught me midair, exactly as she was supposed to. She was brave and clever, like Master Shai when she faced a sea koji” Ji-Lin shot him a look, and he stopped. He shouldn’t speak so freely to the masters. He was still in training too. “Perhaps. Or perhaps not.” It was Master Fen. He was in charge of teaching Ji-Lin and the other students how to read the sacred texts and how to memorize the maps of the islands. “Regardless, it is not enough to justify” “Explain, child,” Master Vanya interrupted. “What did you mean by ‘his wasn’t’?” Ji-Lin took a deep breath and reminded herself she had nothing to fear from the masters. Their disappointment wouldn’t kill her. In the end, they wanted the same thing she wanted: for her to be a hero, like in one of her and Alejan’s favorite tales. “I knew Alejan would catch it.” “A real koji” another master began. “But she was not fighting a real koji,” Master Vanya said. “She was fighting her partner pretending to be a koji, and she adjusted her strategy accordingly. Rise and take your sword, child. You have passed our test.” The lioness pivoted, shifted her weight, and leaped into the air. Her wings flapped once, and olive blossoms flew from the trees. They rained on the courtyard as the lioness flew above the temple. One by one, the other lions left. Ji-Lin still knelt on the stones. She felt as if she heard singing in her ears. She’d expected to be yelled at, lectured, or at least assigned more lessons or chores. She had not expected to pass! Slowly, she stood. She looked down at her sword. Tears teased the corners of her eyes. The curve of the silver blade looked like the crescent moon. Curled designs, shaped like waves, were carved into the steel, and the hilt was braided with ribbons of black leather. Ji-Lin wormed her bare toes under the hilt and kicked up. The sword flew into the air. She reached with one hand, and the hilt landed in her palm. She held it for a moment, studying the blade. Orange and gold flashed in her eyesthe sunrise reflected in the silvery steel. “I passed,” she said, tasting the words. She felt as if she had wings, and she wanted to stretch them out and fly. She’d really passed! “Tomorrow, you will fly to the city and join your sister.” Master Vanya spoke from the roof of the temple. Her voice was a rumble that washed over the courtyard. Her wings were extended, and she looked as regal as the twin statues that guarded the path to the temple. Ji-Lin wanted to cheer. Home! A real visit! A real birthday! But Master Vanya continued, “Your imperial father has called you to service. Your training is over. Congratulations, and do us proud.” She then rose into the air again and flew toward the triple mountains. If Ji-Lin had been flying, she would have crashed. The sword in her hand felt suddenly heavy. She lowered it until the tip touched the stones. She heard whispers around her from the students in the trees and on the verandas. “Alejan,” she said, and then her voice failed. How had that . . . What had just . . . She couldn’t have heard correctly. Master Vanya couldn’t have said she was doneshe hadn’t taken all the classes! She hadn’t passed all the tests! Students, especially not-so-obedient ones, weren’t supposed to be done early. That never happened. Traditions were always followed. Rules were never bent. Not by the emperor. Father never, ever broke a rule. He wouldn’t have thrown his sword. He would have hated that she’d thrown hers. Alejan was beside her. Nudging her hand with his head, he placed his mane under her fingers, which curled into his soft, thick fur. “Congratulations! Ji-Lin? You don’t look happy. Why don’t you look happy? I thought you wanted to see your sister.” She did want to see Seika. But for a birthday treat, not . . . This was too fast. She was supposed to endure many more trials before she was pronounced ready to be her sister’s guard. She hadn’t proved herself, not against any serious challenge. “Are you all right?” Alejan sounded anxious. Ji-Lin shook herself. Ready or not, she was going home! Tomorrow! One more night, and then she was going to see Seika, live in the palace, sleep in her own bed, eat her favorite foods . . . Sheathing her sword, she jumped on Alejan’s back. “Come on, let’s celebrate! Fly, Alejan!” “To breakfast!” he cried, and launched into the air. Squashing down her doubts and worries, she laughed as they flew into the wind. Below, the temple drums began to sound, and the flying monkeys played in the tops of the olive trees.