Prologue: Tell Me a Story
“I want you to tell me before I die.”
The old woman’s eyes were bright with fever, but her grip was strong as she held the immortal’s hand. Tenzin gently uncurled the fingers from around her palm before she dipped the cloth back in the scented water, the aroma of eucalyptus suffusing the room in her sire’s house where Nima lay.
“There’s time,” she said softly.
“No. There isn’t.”
“You’re being dramatic.” Tenzin brushed the white hair from Nima’s forehead, remembering when the hair had been shining black and the forehead smooth. Nima had always been proud of her fair skin. Had teased Tenzin that following her into the darkness had kept her young. It wasn’t true, of course. Nima had been her human companion for over seventy years. She’d sheltered Tenzin and protected her during the sunlight hours, even though the immortal no longer needed to sleep. It was Nima who had dealt with the humans. Nima who had fed her rare thirst. “Always so dramatic,” Tenzin said again, stretching out next to the old woman on the bed, pressing Nima’s forehead against her cool cheek. It burned.
Her body fought to live even as her life drifted away. Nima was dying. Tenzin knew it. She’d known this day would come. It always came. But for the first time in a thousand years, the loss angered her.
Nima whispered, “I’m sor—”
“Don’t apologize again. We’re past that now.”
“Please tell me.”
“Why?” Her heart ached. Of all the stories that Tenzin could tell her, the fantastical tales she could spin, why did her friend ask this of her? Tenzin could tell her about the rise of the pyramids and how the moonlight shone off the snow that topped the Holy Mountain. She’d watched the Great Wall being built and hovered silently over a stage in Vienna as Mozart played. “Let me tell you a beautiful story.”
“I don’t want that. I want your story.”
Tenzin tried not to sigh in frustration. “Why do you ask this of me?”
“Why do you hold it back?”
Tenzin’s brow furrowed. “I am no longer that girl.”
“I know you’re not.”
“It was thousands of years ago. I barely remember her.”
“Don’t lie to me now,” Nima said, her voice stronger. “Not now.”
They waited in silence as the soft voices of her father’s servants passed in the hall.
“Why do you want this burden?” Tenzin whispered. “It is not a good story.”
“I want it because it is not a good story.”
“Human, why do you search for meaning in pain? There is no meaning in pain. It is. You endure it. That is all.”
“I am dying, Tenzin. Give this to me. Let me know you as you were.” Nima’s voice fell soft as she leaned her head on Tenzin’s shoulder. “Give me this burden, and I will take it from you. Not all of it. But some. Give it to me, and I will take it with me when I go. Then, there will be just a little less darkness for you.”
“I am darkness.”
“You were.” Nima took a deep, rattling breath. “But I see light for you now. Give this to me, so there is a little more.”
There was no light for her—she knew that—because Tenzin loved the darkness. But that, she would never tell Nima. Let the woman believe there was some kind of happiness for her to come. If that would ease her pain, Tenzin would give her that.
“Are you sure you want my story?” she asked.
“Then I will tell you. But you must promise to stay awake, my Nima, so the nightmares do not come until I am finished. And when they do come, I will wake you, so you will see that nothing is real. Do you understand?”
“Tell me. And tell me the truth.”
Tenzin thought for a moment, then said, “I will tell you, and you will decide if it is the truth.”
Nima took another deep breath and said, “Tell me a story.”
She stared into the rafters of her sire’s house on Penglai, and a dragon stared back at her, surrounded by clouds and holding a pearl in his mouth. His gold eyes glistened in the low lamplight and, as she stared…
Tenzin heard the sound of cold wind as it swept over Northern plains.
The sound of the night breeze shaking the trees.
The low bleating of goats and a child’s laugh.
“A long time ago, there was a girl…”
Chapter One: The Girl
The girl didn’t rush to the goat pens. Despite the chill in the spring wind and the late hour, she walked slowly, rhythmically patting the baby tied to her hip. She sang a low song for the fussy child, patting his back as she followed the path toward the pens where the mother goats were meant to drop their kids. The raiders had been there that day, but some of the goats would be left. They always left some. Then they rode away on their stout ponies, fat and feasting on the village’s food.
Seasons would pass. The herd would grow. The caves would fill with storage jars again.
Then the raiders returned.
As long as the girl could remember, it had been like this.
The last time they’d come, she couldn’t even find the energy to hide what little she owned. She had been alone and sick, the only survivor of the fever that killed her man and her daughter. It had been spring that year, too. The raiders had come and taken the dried meat the girl’s mother had brought and hung from the thatch roof in her small hut. They didn’t pay her any attention. She was still too weak to notice. Thin and sallow, she’d lain on a pallet near the fire, the skins her man had given as a wedding gift were piled over her emaciated frame. The raiders took some of the skins, the meat, and a string of shells the girl had collected from the riverbed. Then, they left.