MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Empress Yui wrestles with her broken zither. She’d rather deal with the tiger again. Or the demons. Or her uncle. Anything short of going north, anything short of war. But a snapped string? One cannot reason with a snapped string, nor can one chop it in half and be rid of the problem.
When she stops to think on it—chopping things in half is part of why she’s alone with the stupid instrument to begin with. Did she not say she’d stop dueling? What was she thinking, accepting Rayama-tun’s challenge? He is only a boy.
And now he will be the boy who dueled One-Stroke Shizuka, the boy whose sword she cut in half before he managed to draw it. That story will haunt him for the rest of his life.
The Phoenix Empress, Daughter of Heaven, the Light of Hokkaro, Celestial Flame—no, she is alone, let her wear her own name—O-Shizuka pinches her scarred nose. When was the last day she behaved the way an Empress should?
Shizuka—can she truly be Shizuka, for an hour?—twists the silk between her first two fingers and threads it through the offending peg. Honestly. The nerve! Sitting in her rooms, taking up her valuable space. Taunting her. She can hear her father’s voice now: Shizuka, it will only be an hour, won’t you play me something?
But O-Itsuki, Imperial Poet, brother to the Emperor, heard music wherever he heard words. Scholars say that the Hokkaran language itself was not really born until O-Itsuki began to write in it. What use did he have for his daughter’s haphazard playing?
Shizuka, your mother is so tired and upset; surely your music will lift her spirits and calm her!
But it was never the music that cheered her mother. It was merely seeing Shizuka play. The sight of her daughter doing something other than swinging a sword. O-Shizuru did little else with her time, given her position as Imperial Executioner. Wherever she went, the Crows followed in her footsteps. Already thirty-six by the time she gave birth to her only child, O-Shizuru wore her world-weariness like a crown.
And who could blame her, with the things she had done?
Ah—but Shizuka hadn’t understood, back then, why her mother was always so exhausted. Why she bickered with the Emperor whenever she saw him. Why it was so important to her that her daughter was more than a duelist, more than a fighter, more like her father, and less like …
The Empress frowns. She runs the string along the length of the zither, toward the other peg. Thanks to her modest height, it takes a bit of doing. She manages. She always does.
Perhaps she will be a musician yet. She will play the music Handa wrote for View from Rolling Hills, she thinks.
The melody is simple enough that she’s memorized it already, soothing enough that she can lose herself in its gentle rise and fall.
Funny how you can hate a poem until the day you relate to it. Then it becomes your favorite.
She strikes the first notes—and that is when the footfalls meet her ears.
Footfalls meet her ears, and her frown only grows deeper.
No visitors, she said. No treating with courtiers, no inane trade meetings, no audiences with the public, nothing. Just her and the zither for an hour. One hour! Was that so difficult to understand?
She shakes her head. Beneath her breath she mutters an apology to her father.
One of the newer pages scurries to the threshold. He’s wearing black and silver robes emblazoned with Dao Doan Province’s seal. Is this Jiro-tul’s latest son? He has so many, she can’t keep track anymore. Eventually she’s going to have to make an effort to remember the servants’ names.
The new boy prostrates himself. He offers her a package wrapped in dark cloth and tied together with twine. It’s so bulky the boy’s hands quiver just holding it.
Some idiot suitor’s latest gift. Only one thing makes a person foolhardy enough to contradict the Empress’s will, and that is infatuation. Not love. Love has the decency to send up a note, not whatever this was.
“You may speak,” she says.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” he says, “this package was, we think, addressed to you—”
“You think?” She crooks a brow. “Rise.”
The boy rises to his knees. She beckons him closer, and he scrambles forward, dropping the package in the process. It’s a book. It must be. That sort of heavy thwack can come only from a book.
“Doan-tun,” she says, “you are not in trouble, but tell me: Why are you bringing me something you can’t be certain is mine?”
He’s close enough now that she can see the wisps of black hair clinging to his upper lip. Good. From a distance, it looked like he’d taken a punch to the face.
“Your Imperial Majesty, Most Serene Empress Phoenix—”
“‘Your Imperial Majesty’ suffices in private conversation.”
He swallows. “Your Imperial Majesty,” he says, “the handwriting is, if you will forgive my bluntness, atrocious. When I received it, I had a great deal of difficulty deciphering it.”
O-Shizuka turns toward the zither as the boy speaks. For not the first time in recent years, she considers trimming her nails. But she likes the look of them, likes the glittering dust left behind by the crushed gems she dipped them in each morning. “Continue.”
As he speaks she runs her fingertips along the strings of her zither. If she closes her eyes she can still hear View from Rolling Hills.
“I sought out the aid of the elder servants,” he says. “One of them pointed out that this is in the horse script.”
O-Shizuka stops mid-motion.
No one writes to her in Qorin. No Hokkaran courtiers bother learning it. Horselords are beneath them, and thus there is no reason to learn their tongue. It’s the same reason only Xianese lords learn to read and write that language, the same reason Jeon is a cipher more than a tongue, the same reason one only ever reads of Doanese Kings in faded, musty scrolls.
The saying goes that to survive is Qorin—but the same can be said of the Hokkaran Empire, scavenging parts from the nations it swallows up, swearing that these borrowed clothes have been Imperial Finery all along. How did that drivel go? Hokkaro is a mother to unruly young nations, ever watchful, ever present. Shizuka always hated it.
So the letter cannot be from a Hokkaran, for what Hokkaran would deign to debase themselves in such a way? Burqila’s calligraphy is serviceable, if not perfect; the servants would have no trouble with anything she sent. Which leaves only one Qorin who might write to her in the rough horse-tongue.
It’s been eight years, she thinks, eight years since …
“I asked one of your older handmaidens, Keiko-lao, and she said your old friend Oshiro-sun couldn’t write Hokkaran at all, so I thought—”
Sun. There are thirty-two different honorifics in Hokkaran—eight sets of four. Each set is used only in specific circumstances. Using the wrong one is akin to walking up to someone and spitting into their mouth.
So why was it that, to this day, Shefali remained Oshiro-sun? The boy should know better. Sun is for outsiders, and Shefali was …
“Give it to me,” O-Shizuka snaps.
He offers it to her again, and when she takes it, her hands brush against his. That fleeting contact with the Empress is more than any other boy his age could dream of.
Naturally, he will tell all the others about it the moment he has a chance. His stories will be a bit more salacious, as he is a young man, and she is the Virgin Empress, and they are alone together save the guards standing outside.
O-Shizuka’s hands tremble as she reaches for the paper attached to the package. Yes, she who is known as the Lady of Ink, the finest calligrapher in the Empire: her hands tremble like an old woman’s.
The Hokkaran calligraphy is closer to a pig’s muddy footprints than to anything legible, but the bold Qorin characters are unmistakable.
For O-Shizuka of Hokkaro, from Barsalyya Shefali Alshar.
Nothing could make her smile like this, not even hearing the Sister’s secret song itself.
“Doan-tun,” she says, her voice little more than a whisper. “Cancel all my appointments for the next two days.”
“What?” he says. “Your Imperial Majesty, the Merchant Prince of Sur-Shar arrives tomorrow!”
“And he can make himself quite comfortable in whichever brothel he chooses until I am prepared to speak to him,” O-Shizuka says. “Unless my uncle has finally done me the favor of dying, I am not to be bothered. You are dismissed.”
“But, Your Imperial Majesty—”
“Dismissed,” repeats Shizuka, this time sharp as the nails of her right hand. The boy leaves.
And she is alone.
Alone as she has been for eight years. Alone with her crown, her zither, her paper, her ink, her Imperial bed.
But as she unwraps the package and uncovers the book underneath, she can hear Shefali’s voice in her mind. She can smell her: horses and sweat, milk and leather. And there, pressed between the first two pages—
Two pine needles.
When her eyes first land on the Qorin characters in the book, O-Shizuka’s heart begins to sing.
Copyright © 2017 by K Arsenault Rivera