Elizabeth Lim’s Six Crimson Cranes was one of last year’s most memorable YA fantasies, a loose retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Wild Swans” that effortlessly incorporates East Asian legends and folklore to create a world that feels entirely its own.
In sequel The Dragon’s Promise, Shiori’s quest to fulfill her stepmother’s last wish to return the broken pearl she left behind to its rightful owner continues, a mission that will take her from the depths of the Dragon King’s palace beneath the ocean to the forbidden magical island of Lapzur—yes, the same one that plays such a pivotal role in Lim’s Blood of Stars series.
And with the help of a dragon prince, a talking paper bird, and the quiet boy who refuses to give up on their future together, Shiori will ultimately have to decide not just the kind of princess she wants to become, but the sort of world she wants to live in. Is it one where magic is free to all again? Or where girls like her could find themselves sacrificed in the name of a war they never asked for?
Here’s how the publisher describes the story.
Princess Shiori made a deathbed promise to return the dragon’s pearl to its rightful owner, but keeping that promise is more dangerous than she ever imagined.
She must journey to the kingdom of dragons, navigate political intrigue among humans and dragons alike, fend off thieves who covet the pearl for themselves and will go to any lengths to get it, all while cultivating the appearance of a perfect princess to dissuade those who would see her burned at the stake for the magic that runs in her blood.
The pearl itself is no ordinary cargo; it thrums with malevolent power, jumping to Shiori’s aid one minute, and betraying her the next—threatening to shatter her family and sever the thread of fate that binds her to her true love, Takkan. It will take every ounce of strength Shiori can muster to defend the life and the love she’s fought so hard to win.
The Dragon’s Promise hits shelves on August 30, 2022, from Knopf Books for Young Readers. But we’re thrilled to be able to offer an exclusive excerpt from the story, which takes readers into the realm of the dragons themselves.
The walls enclosing King Nazayun’s palace were impossibly high. They stretched taller than I could see, all the way to the violet lights marking the fringes of the realm, their sharp finials like needles prodding at the ocean’s veins.
An audience of sea creatures had gathered outside the palace. Whales larger than my father’s warships, mottled sea turtles that blended into the sand and rocks, dolphins, squid, and, when I looked closer, even crabs and seahorses. Scattered among them were dragons, a few with humans mounted on their backs. All lowered their heads in deference as Seryu passed, but their gazes were fixed on me.
“Don’t hold my horns here,” growled Seryu. “They’re a measure of status in Ai’long, and I’m a dragon prince, not a bull.
I let go as if I’d touched fire. “Sorry.”
It quickly became clear what he meant. Other dragons’ horns curved downward, like a ram’s, often with ridges or fluted edges, and in colors varying from gray to ivory to black. Seryu’s were silver and smooth, but most notably they were branched—like a stag’s antlers. A natural crown.
“Is there usually a crowd like this to greet you?”
“No.” Seryu’s voice became tight. “They’re here for you.”
That made me sit up sharply. “For me?”
“They’re wagering on whether Grandfather will throw you to the sharks or turn you to stone.”
I couldn’t tell whether he was being serious or sarcastic. Maybe both.
“Aren’t there any other alternatives?” I asked.
“None that you’d find more pleasant. I told you, humans aren’t welcome here.”
“But I see so many.”
Seryu’s long back stiffened, and his scales turned dull. “Look again.”
I furrowed my brow, but curious now, I turned again.
At first, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Yes, the humans riding the dragons were bedecked in the riches of the sea, in jackets and gowns that gleamed like an abalon
e shell beaded with the petals of ocean lilies. But other than that, they looked the same as me.At least until my eyes sharpened, and I looked beyond their faces. Saw the gills sparkling on their necks, the fish scales dappling their arms. Some even had wings tucked neatly against their shoulder blades and fins adorning their wrists and ankles. When they caught me staring, they puckered their lips and offered me twisted smiles.
“So,” I said nervously, “I really am like a pig.”
“That’s what you said when we first met—that inviting me to Ai’long would be like bringing a pig to meet your family. I thought you were joking.”
“I never expected to bring you here, Shiori,” he said, his voice so low I almost didn’t hear. We were nearly at the gates. “I want you to know that.”
It sounded like an apology, but for what, I didn’t understand. I never got a chance to ask. A deafening chorus of conch shells blared—then, out of nowhere, an invisible current wrenched me off Seryu’s back and swept me into the palace.
It happened with the swiftness of a sword stroke. I didn’t realize I’d been torn away until it was too late.
“Shiori!” Seryu was barreling toward the gates, trying to force his way inside before they closed. “Grandfather, no!”
That was the last I saw of him before I was washed away, speeding down a chute of water so fast it made our previous journey feel sluggish. By the time the chute spat me out at my destination, I was sure I had fainted—at least for a few seconds.
I landed in the largest room I’d ever beheld. It was vast and wide, its pillars going on as far as my eyes could see, and except for one window of what looked like cascading black crystal, everything, from the walls to the ceilings, was the color of bone. Or snow, if one was a cheerier-minded sort of person.
I kicked my feet against the ocean floor and propelled myself up.
Did we get eaten by a whale? Kiki whispered from inside my sleeve.
If we weren’t in such a dire situation, I might have laughed. The chamber did resemble a whale’s rib cage. Marble pillars lined the walls, evenly spaced and rising three times the height of the ceremony hall in my father’s palace. Their ends arced impossibly into an open roof, like a cage of bones.
Out of precaution, I drew my knife. The spaces between the pillars were wide enough to slip through, and the palace gates gleamed in the near distance. Was Seryu still there, looking for me?
I held my knife tight. I wasn’t about to wait here and find out.
I dove between two of the pillars and had made it as far as one breath out of the chamber when long, wriggling tendrils of kelp sprouted from the pillars and wrapped around my limbs.
Kiki bolted out of my sleeve. Shiori!
I hacked at the kelp. The stalks were thinner than the seaweed I boiled in my soups. But looks could be deceiving. This kelp was strong as iron—and alive, sprouting three new fronds for every one that was cut. They lashed Kiki away and spiraled around my wrists, jerking the knife from my grip and pinning me against a pillar.
Next came the sharks.
I hadn’t believed Seryu when he mentioned them earlier, but here they were. Each was ten times my size, with rows of briar-sharp teeth and blue-black eyes that expressed no compunction in turning me into a snack.
“Seryu!” I shouted. “Seryu!”
“He will be joining us shortly.”
The Dragon King’s tail curved around the pillars, and gooseflesh rose on my skin.
“My grandson has told me much about you since we last met, Shiori’anma,” he said. “Your gods have given you an unusual amount of attention: the adopted daughter of the Nameless Queen, the bloodsake of Kiata . . . and now the bearer of the Wraith’s pearl.”
The Wraith? My ears perked. It was the first time I had heard that name.
Long, crooked bolts of silver pierced the shadows—Nazayun’s horns. “Show it to me.”
The kelp loosened its grip around my wrists just enough for me to open my satchel. I reached inside, my fingers brushing over the broken pearl and then the starstroke net.
My fingers itched to dispatch the net over the Dragon King. Starstroke, after all, was a dragon’s only weakness. The only thing powerful enough to separate one from its heart. And demons take me, I’d sacrificed enough to make the net.
The sharks would have torn me to ribbons had I dared, but luckily the pearl didn’t give me a chance. Once I opened the satchel, it made a low and chiding hum and breezed out into the open.
I was beginning to suspect that it was alive in some strange way. Back home in my father’s palace, whenever I left it in my room, I would find it later floating in the air beside me—as if watching. Waiting.
“The pearl takes fate and twists it to its own purpose,” Raikama had said.
After what it had done to my brothers, I wouldn’t be fool enough to assume that its purpose included keeping me alive. Which was why I watched, holding my breath, as the pearl rose level with Nazayun’s pallid gaze.
Displeasure showed in the bend of the dragon’s brow. “It has tethered itself to you.”
“For now,” I replied. “I made a vow to my stepmother that I would return the pearl to its rightful owner.”
He snarled, “You made a vow to Seryu that you would give it to me.”
“That I would bring it to you,” I corrected. “Not give. The pearl isn’t yours.”
“A dragon pearl belongs to Ai’long.” Nazayun towered over me, gouging his claws into the ground. “I am Ai’long.”
“Why do you want it?” I asked. “I’ve seen what a true dragon pearl looks like. It’s pure and awe-inspiring, nothing like this one. This one is—”
“As you say,” I replied. “So why do you want it?”
“Unenlightened human, you truly know nothing!” the Dragon King bellowed. “The Wraith’s pearl is a broken thing. It craves destruction as much as it abhors it. On its own, it cannot find balance, so it relied on someone like your stepmother to moderate its power. But the Nameless Queen is dead, and the pearl is too broken to take a new host. Soon it will cleave completely. When that happens, it will release a force greater than anything you can imagine. Great enough to devastate your beloved Kiata.”
For once I believed him. “Unless it’s returned to the Wraith.”
“That is not an option,” Nazayun said. “It must be destroyed, and when it is, so too will the Wraith perish. Denounce your bond and give the pearl to me.”
I hesitated. The pearl floated above my palm, its broken halves parting ever so slightly along one edge. It looked deceptively fragile, like the petals of a lotus blossom. Yet I could feel what terrible power lay within.
Could Raikama have made a mistake in asking me to return it to the Wraith? Or was this one of Nazayun’s tricks?
Only for a moment, my conscience twisted with indecision. Then I closed my fists, and the pearl flew to my side. I trust Raikama.
“The pearl belongs to the dragon with the strength to make it whole once more,” I said. “That dragon is not you.”
Fury ignited the Dragon King’s white eyes. “So be it.”
Behind him, the sharks sped in my direction, jaws snapping. Visions of a gruesome end flashed in their glassy eyes. Me, filleted into a hundred bloody chunks that turned the water red. Kiki screamed in my ear, No, Shiori!
Kelp tightened around my waist and ankles, holding me immobile.
Luckily, I’d been anticipating such a moment.
And Nazayun had walked straight into my trap.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.