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Beyond the prow of the sturdy tol'vir sailing vessel, the blue sea stretched endlessly. The afternoon sun blazed a trail on the water's surface, sparkling like a gem. Li Li leaned into the wind, the salty smell reminding her of warm days on the beaches of Shen-zin Su. Chen sat against the stern, one paw resting lightly on the tiller. Since leaving Uldum, they had charted a course southeast.
Li Li turned to her uncle. "Aren't you excited?" she called. "Finally, we're really on our way! Even the pearl's cooperating. I've checked it three times, and it always shows me sailing." She laughed and punched one fist in the air. "Next stop: Pandaria!"
Neither of them wanted to ruin the good mood, so they both ignored that the pearl had yet to show them how to penetrate the mists hiding their people's fabled homeland. It was best to cross that bridge when they came to it.
As darkness fell, Li Li took the first watch. The night was crystal clear, the stars white pinpricks against the velveteen sky. Azeroth's twin moons shone ghostly bright, floating above the eastern horizon. Li Li curled her legs under her and pulled a blanket around her shoulders to stave off the chilly ocean air. Her eyelids began to droop as she was lulled by the boat's steady rocking and the sound of water against the hull. She decided there was no point fighting exhaustion, and closed her eyes to sleep.
The sudden impact of being thrown onto her face woke her violently. Stunned, Li Li lay where she had fallen, her limbs askew.
Chen shook her. "Li Li, get up!"
The boat heaved again, and he stumbled to his knees.
"There's a storm coming," Chen said. "We should reef the sail. I've already secured our things." In the darkness, Li Li couldn't make out his expression, but anxiety tinged his voice. Though well built, the Ramkahen craft was small and would be at the mercy of bad weather on the open sea.
Once more, the boat rocked wildly. The swells had grown large enough to be dangerous. Li Li grimaced and sat up. To the southwest she could see where approaching clouds blotted out the stars, occasional flashes of lightning streaking to the ocean's surface.
"Okay," she told Chen. "Let's go."
The storm rolled in on a stiff, howling wind, driving cold sheets of rain before it. Swollen waves churned around the pandaren, threatening to swallow their boat. Chen and Li Li worked tirelessly to guide the tol'vir craft along troughs parallel to the swells, sailing a treacherous obstacle course.
A lightning bolt tore through the sky, exploding into the water alongside the vessel and missing the mast by sheer providence. The crash of thunder was like cannon fire. Li Li shuddered. That was too close.
The boat jolted up. Li Li and Chen had misjudged their course and hit the side of a wave. The craft tipped, forced up into a steep angle like a cart banking on a turn. Chen grabbed the nearest rope, hanging on for his life as his feet slipped on the slick wooden deck. Behind him, he heard Li Li cry out. His heart leapt into his throat.
"Li Li!" he roared, scrambling to steady himself. She too was clinging desperately to a line, and Chen prayed it wouldn't tear out of her paws. He couldn't let go of his own rope until the boat was righted. The wave rolled on endlessly, the little tol'vir craft teetering dangerously close to capsizing.
At last the slope of the swell passed, and the vessel began to steady. As the starboard side leaned back toward level, Chen regained his footing and turned to help his niece. Li Li reached toward him, but the boat jerked, slamming her against the gunwale. Chen screamed her name and stretched his arm out as far as he could.
It was too late, and there was nothing he could do. Her eyes fluttered; her grip on consciousness wavered, and the rope slipped through Li Li's limp fingers as she tumbled into the water.
"Li Li!" Chen cried a third time, but the waves crashed between his niece and the boat, and when the swell receded, Chen could no longer see her.
On Shen-zin Su, the sky showed no trace of bad weather. The sun had sunk beneath the horizon, the last vestiges of light slowly fading to indigo. In the center of the island, just outside the Great Library, Chon Po stood clutching two sheets of paper.
That library was his daughter's favorite place. Crammed among the stacks of books and letters, Li Li had read for hours, devouring every bit of information she could find. This pastime had made her a dreamer and put grandiose ideas into her head, but it had also given her passion and drive.
"Don't worry, Po." Mei placed her paw upon his forearm, an encouraging smile on her face. "Just send them along."
Chen's and Li Li's latest letters had arrived the day before, sailing in on a current of magic, an old pandaren trick whose origins had long since faded from memory. Chon Po had stayed up the entire night, penning his replies.
Taking a deep breath, Po nodded. With great care, he folded the papers into the shape of a bird—a great albatross, he decided—to carry the messages across the ocean. When he finished, he held the figure up and blew on it gently, scattering across it a pinch of the same enchanted powder Li Li always had with her. In a burst of color, the paper bird flexed its wings and took to the air. It was hard to let it go.
Chon Po watched until all sign of the bird was lost against the clear sky, hoping that the letters would safely reach his daughter and brother.