Penglai Island, China
“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 filling 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 rest. 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.
She 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 by 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, my 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 Nima.
“I will tell you. But you must promise to stay awake, my Nima, so the nightmares do not come until I am finished. Then, when they do come, I will wake you, and you will see that nothing is real. Do you understand?”
“Tell me, Tenzin. Tell me the truth.”
She 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, Tenzin.”
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 lamp light and, as she stared, Tenzin heard the sound of 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,” she started, “there was a girl…”