MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Within the Bronze Palace there is a war room, and within that room is a massive table. On that massive table is a painstaking replica of the Hokkaran Empire—the mountains rendered in gleaming porcelain, the forests represented by gathered twigs and grass. All the major roads are marked, with well-armed soldiers representing patrols; all the rivers flow in miniature down to the drains around the edges. That is the trouble with the map—while it leaves the Empire itself looking splendid beyond imagining, it does not include the Father’s Sea.
O-Shizuka, seasoned Empress and nascent god, remedied this problem with a simple wooden board she placed along the western side of the table, just over the drains. With her impossible calligraphy, she has labeled all the major port cities of the coast. Her wife, Barsalyya Shefali, says that it won’t be as accurate that way, since Shizuka hasn’t measured the distances with exactitude, but Shizuka continues all the same. She’s in no mood to summon a cartographer.
For boats she’s chosen to use the replica siege engines, which will be confusing down the line. Shefali’s told her that, as well, but Shizuka will insist that there aren’t enough model ships, and if she paints the siege engines gold, no one will make any mistakes. Thus there are two dozen catapults now gathered off the shore of Nishikomi, south of shards of broken clay. The Father’s Teeth, pulled from Grandfather Earth.
At least the horses are all right, Shefali tells herself, shaking her head. There are near a hundred of them over the Wall. She spends more time staring at their little manes than she does preparing for the meeting. There’s no need, as far as she is concerned; Shizuka will do most of the talking, and it isn’t as if Burqila Alshara would deny Naisuran’s daughter aid. Oh, she’ll be gruff, and blunt, and likely insult the whole table—but she will say yes.
It’s the meeting with Baozhai that Shefali’s worried about.
Baozha the Thorned Blossom Queen, who has overseen Xian-Lai through its recent growth; the woman who, before that, lent her army to Shizuka for the purposes of overthrowing the old Emperor; Kenshiro’s wife, Baoyi’s mother, Shefali’s sister-in-law. To trifle with her was to trifle with a hurricane.
There was, of course, also the fact that Shefali was dying—but in the face of Baozhai’s arrival that is hardly a concern at all.
“Perhaps my mother was right,” Shizuka says. “I should have been an artist.”
Shefali does not have the heart to tell her wife that her contribution to the war map is, at best, unsightly. Shizuka’s proud of it, and so it’s beautiful. That is how Shefali’s world has always worked.
“You can be,” says Shefali. “No rules against it.”
Shizuka blows air between her lips. “No rules, but no time, either,” she says. “I suppose my decrees will have to suffice. What a bore. Have you arranged the Qorin?”
Shefali did not realize she’d been given an assignment. She picks up the horses with ginger hands and moves them over to Fujino. Even that feels too rough. Whoever crafted these little creatures really did do a wonderful job; that one has such a healthy coat—
Shizuka covers her mouth with her sleeve, stifling a laugh. “I should have known you’d get distracted,” she says.
It is the happiest she has sounded in days. Happy enough, almost, to erase the memory of why they’ve come to the war room at all. A smile blossoms on Shefali’s face only to die away. They are here to plot an attack on the Traitor. The beginning of Shefali’s final journey, one way or another.
No rules, but no time.
There were now only weeks left, at best.
Well. If Shefali died a warrior’s death and made her wife laugh, three weeks would be plenty.
Shefali’s reverie ends as four servants arrive in lockstep. Two women in elaborate hairstyles, their bodices tightly fitted beneath gauzy silk jackets, launch into playing their flutes the moment they cross the threshold. The two men following them wear something closer to a deel and riding pants, and bow at perfect right angles on either side of the door. Xianese, then.
Baozhai has come.
“Announcing the arrival of Her Eternal Majesty, she who shields the nation, the Thorned-Blossom Queen!”
Ah. Not Baozhai at all. Shefali repeats the title under her breath. Names are important things, not to be misused. The Qorin have always known this, and it seems the Xianese do, too. It is only the Hokkarans who fell behind. Even if it is difficult to think of her sweet sister-in-law as such an imposing figure.
That notion is dispelled the moment the Queen walks into the war room. Gone were the soft greens and violets that their sister-in-law so often wears, replaced with verdant emerald and deepest black. Gone her Hokkaran-styled robes: now she wears a gown beneath an oversized coat, her sleeves so long they nearly touch the ground. The embroidery alone must’ve taken a small village’s worth of people years to finish. Sable lines her sleeves and collar, the lush black fur drawing attention to her exposed collarbones.
And that is only the dress! Her hair is piled higher than any Hokkaran woman would dare, tightly bound so that it juts out over the front of her head. In lieu of the hanging ornaments Shizuka often favored, Baozhai wore emerald pins in the shapes of various flowers. Where Shizuka has painted her skin white and her teeth black, Baozhai wears a face full of color. A green-violet flower is painted between her brows, her eyelids shimmering with the same. Even her lips bear a dot of green and violet at the center.
Baozhai always had a regal bearing—but that is comparing a pleasant stream to the raging rapids of the Rokhon. It is that river that stands before them now.
A woman who does not bow when she enters, only inclines her head; a woman who dares to meet the Empress’s eyes; a woman as imposing as she is beautiful.
Were it not for the smell of her, Shefali would swear that it wasn’t her sister-in-law at all.
But there she is—and to Shefali’s surprise, Shizuka is the one who bows first.
“Thorned-Blossom Queen,” she says. “We of the Empire thank you for hosting us.”
“And we of the South thank you for your invitation,” says Baozhai. She dismisses her servants with a wave of her hand; two golden talons gleam on her lowest fingers. “What will be the language of the discussion?”
At first Shefali thinks of it as a strange question—but it occurs to her after a beat that Baozhai speaks all three languages with varying degrees of fluency.
Shizuka and the others speak only two.
Shefali expects such barbs from courtiers; not from Baozhai.
“We suggest Hokkaran,” Shizuka says, “the common language for all who will be present today. We’ve prepared a seat for you, if you will?”
“We doubt there will be need,” says Baozhai. How it vexes Shefali to hear them both speak to each other in such a way—all this plural talk. The Kharsa speaks for all Qorin, and you do not hear her saying “we” this or “we” that.
But something in the air changes, just then: a note of salt and metal meets Shefali’s sensitive nose. Not from Shizuka—who for all her outward calm smells like a storm—but from Baozhai.
Copyright © 2019 by K Arsenault Rivera