Zhi Ging scowled up at the glass dragon blocking her way. Since when does the Lead Glassmith lock his office door? Why is he making it so difficult to break in?
The glass door had been designed to look like a coiling dragon, and its body curled from ceiling to floor in a protective circle, its head snarling out at her from the center.
Zhi Ging flicked its snout in frustration, and a hollow chime echoed across the Glassmiths’ workshop. The dragon’s long whiskers jangled together, and she flung her arms around them to muffle the sound. Curled glass pressed uncomfortably against her sleeves, but Zhi Ging couldn’t risk moving until the noise stopped. The last thing she needed was a curious Glassmith catching her before she had a chance to find the letter.
The predawn haze was doing little to help, filtering down the corridor like a spotlight on her break-in attempt. She groaned and ran a hand along the dragon’s overlapping scales. Any one of them could be the switch needed to unlock the door.
Fei Chui, the village Zhi Ging had grown up in, was set to announce its new Silhouette at noon, but she couldn’t wait until then. Not when she knew Iridill would be watching, ready to pounce if her name wasn’t called. Visions of the Lead Glassmith’s sneering daughter flashed across Zhi Ging’s mind, and she shuddered. No, she wouldn’t give Iridill the satisfaction. If she found out now that she hadn’t been chosen, she could at least hide her disappointment later.
Zhi Ging frowned and shut her eyes, head pressed against the glass in concentration. The dragon’s carved face was ice-cold beneath her forehead, and she grimaced. Training as a Silhouette was her only chance to escape Fei Chui. If someone else was picked, the Lead Glassmith would force her to spend the rest of her life trapped inside glass much colder than this. Now that Aapau was gone, no one would stop him from sending her into the post pipe, her chances of drowning creeping up with each minute she spent squeezed inside that narrow, water-filled space.
Zhi Ging straightened up and winced when she opened her eyes. A large smudge had appeared on the dragon’s polished glass, marking the exact spot where her forehead had rested on its surface. So much for a stealth break in!
The Lead Glassmith might not care about her, but he would definitely notice if there was anything different about his precious door. She tugged her sleeve over her palm, ready to wipe the smudge away, and froze. If pressing my forehead against the glass left a mark
, maybe . . .
Zhi Ging took a deep, steadying breath and exhaled gently over the dragon’s glass face. Her eyes darted between the soft pale clouds that bloomed across its surface. There!
Faint fingerprints had appeared on one of the dragon’s spiraling whiskers, revealing how the Lead Glassmith entered his office each morning.
“And you thought you could keep me out.” She beamed, pulling the whisker down. The dragon jolted to life, and scales chimed against one another as it uncoiled around the doorframe. The faint clicks of whirling glass cogs rippled along the length of the dragon, and its long body stretched tight against the corridor wall.
Zhi Ging slipped inside. There was a faint rumble behind her, and the dragon curled back into its protective circle, plunging the office into an eerie gloom.
Centuries earlier, another Lead Glassmith had stumbled across a shed dragon skin and draped it around the ceiling beams. Over time, the scales had dried and faded to a milky opal until you could almost mistake them for fused shards of glass. But no glass would make a Glassmith’s hair blaze with crackling white light. Only dragon scales could do that.
For Zhi Ging though, there wasn’t even a hint of static along her braid. She puffed out her cheeks and tried to squash down the all-too-familiar pang of frustration. Why was she the only person in Fei Chui whose hair didn’t glow near dragons or dragon scales?
The muffled sound of footsteps bustling past the door jolted her back to her mission. Zhi Ging hurried across the sand-covered floor, wincing in pain when her foot hit the Lead Glassmith’s desk. Letters fluttered to the ground, and she scrambled after them, peering closely at each one before tossing it aside. Every faint sound on the other side of the door added to the nerves already bubbling in her stomach.
She yelped in excitement when she finally spotted an ornate envelope flecked with gold. Heart pounding, Zhi Ging pulled a glass hairpin out from the top of her braid. Her shoulders hunched in concentration while she eased the slim edge under the seal, tensed for the sound of wax snapping in half. Time slowed as the glass pushed forward, and there was a faint pop when the seal came loose in a single piece. Zhi Ging hugged the hairpin tight between her hands before sliding it back into her braid. It might not have been what Aapau intended when she’d gifted it, but Zhi Ging couldn’t help feeling her old guardian would have been proud.
Despite the darkness, the letter seemed to glow, a narrow triangle of white shimmering up from the opened envelope. She wiped her hand against her loose green trousers, suddenly worried her fingers would mark the spotless paper. Whoever was picked as Silhouette would spend the next year training in Hok Woh, the Cyo B’Ahon’s hidden realm, learning the skills needed to become immortal. If she passed her Silhouette year, not even the Lead Glassmith could force her back to Fei Chui and into the post pipe. Zhi Ging’s eyes skimmed across the handwriting, both dreading and desperate to reach the chosen name.
The letter fell from her hands.
Behind her, the glass door chimed again and the room filled with a soft pearly light. The Lead Glassmith stepped inside, followed closely by a second man, but Zhi Ging barely noticed them. Her eyes were glued to the letter that now lay on the ground.
In the newly lit room, the name on the paper was impossible to miss. Nothing existed apart from that name. The person chosen as Silhouette, promised a chance at immortality, blazed up from the white page: Iridill Chapter 2
“Miss Yeung! What do you think you’re doing?” The Lead Glassmith snatched the letter from the floor, brushing specks of sand from its surface.
Zhi Ging glanced past him in a daze and spotted Reishi, the Silhouette Scout, looking at her with concern. He was in the same official yellow robes he’d worn a week earlier on the day of her exam, and the long-necked crane embroidered across his chest seemed to stare accusingly at her. Zhi Ging looked away, still unused to seeing him look so formal. She had to force herself to remember that he was the same Reishi who had, on multiple visits, knocked entire bowls of congee over himself in his enthusiasm to tell Aapau about his latest discovery. He looks much less intimidating when his knees are poking out through Aapau’s spare robe.
“Well, explain yourself. You better have a very good reason to be standing in my office,” the Lead Glassmith snapped. “The upper levels of the jade mountain are sacred and reserved for Glassmiths. Aapau may have raised you but that doesn’t mean you have the same privileges as the village healer.”
“I know, I only wanted to find out if I’d—” Zhi Ging’s eyes flickered toward the letter, and she bit her tongue.
The Lead Glassmith followed her gaze and snorted.
“I should have guessed.” He lowered his voice to a snide whisper. “Honestly, just because Aapau was old friends with Reishi, did you really think you
would be chosen as Fei Chui’s Silhouette?”
Angry tears threatened to blur Zhi Ging’s vision, but she held his gaze.
“Why not? I studied as hard as Iridill, she—”
“Is everything all right?” Reishi strode forward, frowning as he stepped between Zhi Ging and the Lead Glassmith. The two silk pouches that hung from his belt swished from side to side as he moved, the rustling sound reminding Zhi Ging of a bird’s wings in flight.
The Lead Glassmith sprang back and ran a distracted hand through his wispy beard, sending sparks flying between his fingers. Not for the first time, Zhi Ging couldn’t help but imagine a glowing dandelion attacking the lower half of his face.
“Absolutely fine. I do apologize for this unexpected
interruption to our search. I assure you your jade stone will—”
“Please,” Zhi Ging blurted out. She looked desperately at Reishi. “I want—I need
to be picked as Silhouette so much more than Iridill. More than anyone in Fei Chui. Now that the Lead Glassmith’s sent Aapau away for her Final Year, they’re going to get rid of me too. He said I can’t stay in her house by myself, but none of the Glassmiths will take me on as an apprentice, not when my hair doesn’t glow. Aapau made him promise I’d be all right after she left, but he lied! They’re going to send me into the post pipe, even though the last two post pipe scrubbers drowned in their first month.”
Copyright © 2024 by Siobhan McDermott. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.