The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach—but failed to notice a lurking darkness festering within the people. Now, their border walls begin to crumble, and villages fall to demons swarming out of the forests.
Away on the silver steppes, the remaining tribes of nomadic Qorin retreat and protect their own, having bartered a treaty with the empire, exchanging inheritance through the dynasties. It is up to two young warriors, raised together across borders since their prophesied birth, to save the world from the encroaching demons.
This is the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O Shizuka, and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil.
The start of a new fantasy series, K Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter is an adventure for the ages—available October 3rd from Tor Books. Read chapter 4 below, and check out a new illustration from cover artist Jaime Jones. Missed any of the exciting chapters so far? Get caught up here!
When in Dreams I Go to You
Home, for me, means two things. The first is you. Above all, you are my white felt ger, you are my bright red door, and you are my warm fire. But if I cannot have you, then I will have silver—the silver of the steppes’ swaying grass, the silver of winter, the silver clouds coloring Grandmother Sky.
In Fujino, you see, everything is green. One look outside your window will tell you why. Your Imperial Forest is so deep a green that it reminds me of the Father’s ocean—and it is only one of many. Your province is covered in too many to name. Your father once called Fujino the land of sun and pine.
He also called it the land of rolling hills.
I hate hills, Shizuka. Did you know? You cannot build a ger on a hill; everything will slide right off your furniture. You cannot camp at the bottom of a hill; the rain can get in and extinguish your fire. You cannot wrestle on a hill without your cousin tumbling down and cracking her head on a rock, as I learned when Otgar tossed me off one when we were ten.
But I admit there is more to it than my own opinion. The sanvaartains tell us that you can find true peace only when Sky and Earth are mirrors of each other. That is when you encounter eternity. Standing at the base of the Rokhon, with Gurkhan Khalsar behind you—is there anything more infinite than that? That is, I think, my favorite spot in the whole world.
And to think, I never got to show it to you.
Well. As far as hills go, and green, Oshiro is a far sight better than Fujino. Oshiro exists on the gentlest slope in the Empire. What few trees mark the landscape are bright white, or warm brown. The people are the same. In Fujino, it’s my appearance that makes people stare: my hay-colored hair, my bowed legs, my skin so dark and cheeks so wide. In Oshiro, I see those features staring back at me on Hokkaran faces—a guard with flecks of green in his eyes, babies born with blue marks on their bottoms and cheeks meant for nibbling. Oshiro is not home, no, for it will always remind me of my father—but I love it when it reminds me of my mother.
And there is the Wall. You cannot discuss Oshiro without discussing the wreckage. The Wall of Stone was built three hundred years ago, at the height of Qorin culture, when Brave Arslandaar led us as Kharsaq. One of your ancestors decided the only way to keep us from raiding Oshiro and the border villages was to build a wall.
But, you see, he did not build the Wall simply to keep us out. He thought that such a feat of engineering would amaze us. He thought we would gaze upon it and weep; he thought we would cast aside our weapons and our horses, and join the superior Hokkaran Empire.
But what he did not know was this: Qorin engineers exist. Qorin stonemasons, Qorin builders. Wherever we go, we welcome additions to the clan, should they prove stout enough to survive the winter. Those newcomers might not be Qorin—but their children are. And so the trade is passed down the family line.
This comes in handy when we encounter other travelers—we can offer services instead of just goods. More than once, we’ve stopped near a Surian town and helped construct a house or two; more than once, we’ve offered medical assistance to the desert nomads; more than once, we’ve been contacted by Xianese scholars for our thoughts on astronomic conundrums.
That is why the remains of the Wall make me smile. The wreckage reminds me of what a woman can do when she becomes an arrow in flight—reminds me that we are so much more than what the Hokkarans think us to be. And if you stand in the right spot— the white palace at your back and the hole in the Wall right in front of you—then you are almost eternal.
Do you remember, Shizuka, the feast that awaited us beyond that wall? Your parents huddled beneath a white felt roof, surrounded by carpets and tapestries. Shizuru pinched her nose with one hand. With the other, she held a skin full of kumaq. My uncles challenged her to drink all of it in one go. She did, of course. Your mother was never one to refuse a drink, or a dare.
If she stepped out of the ger to vomit, hours later, no one pointed it out. No one would dare.
Your father drank more than she did, of course. Two and a half skins of kumaq for him, and he did not have to hold his nose. But he did not draw attention to it. Only the red on his cheeks gave him away; the Imperial Poet could never allow himself to slur his words. Not that he did much speaking. Your father knew more Qorin than his wife did, but I can’t remember hearing him speak it. Our language reminded him of the war, I think; of the early days of his brother’s reign. But he would never say such a thing out loud. It had been many, many years since O-Itsuki spoke of the Qorin war.
All the highest-ranking members of the Burqila clan attended. That night I saw generals dance around the fire. I saw men and women the Hokkarans paint as bloodthirsty barbarians tell bawdy jokes. I ate, and ate, and ate, and I did it with my fingers instead of fumbling with chopsticks, and there was no rice to fall between my fingers, no fishbones to stab me in the tongue. There was soup, and pickled sheep’s head, and my cousins sat around the fire throwing anklebones.
You watched me.
In between hugs from my clanmates, I caught sight of you. Flickering flames painted your amber eyes orange.
And as Otgar whispered in my ear, as my mother kept a keen eye on her drunk siblings, I watched you.
Among the dark-skinned, light-haired Qorin, you sat—pale and inky-haired. I remember you—or do I remember only the disguise all that kumaq draped around you? For I thought to myself that you were so pale and so still, you must be a masked actress. At any moment, your face would fall clean off to reveal your true nature, if only I kept watching. But you stared into the flames and squeezed your hands until your knuckles went white, and if the director called for you to shed your mask, you did not hear him.
A man on the Wall of Stone spots riders coming. Wasting no time, he hefts his hammer and strikes his great iron bell. He did not think to cover his ears, and so for hours afterwards, they ring. At night when he lies down to sleep, he hears it, feels it in his bones. He cannot escape the sound.
So it was that when I looked at you, my chest rang with your discomfort.
I reached out and touched your shoulder.
You sniffed. “It is strange,” you said, “to feel the way you do in Fujino.”
At least here no one looked at you as if you were going to murder them on a moment’s notice. The first time someone gave me that look in Fujino, I was ten.
But I knew what it was like, and I did my best to comfort you. “Otgar is my best friend,” I said. You stiffened. “Besides you,”
I added. This was why I did not like talking. I meant to imply that you two should talk. If I liked both of you, then you were bound to like each other.
At the mention of her name, Otgar slid over to us. “Besides Barsatoq?” she said. “You wound me, Needlenose. Too much time in one place. Your mind is getting stagnant.”
I chuckled, but you did not think it was funny. “Shefali’s been staying with my family,” you said. “We’ve the finest tutors in all Hokkaro.”
I was afraid Otgar would roll her eyes at this. Instead, she laughed in a good-natured way. “Yes, Barsatoq, of that I am sure!” she said. “But we are Qorin: traveling is in our blood. You learn nothing staying in one place. Only by struggling against the earth do you learn anything of worth.”
“Is that how you learned your languages?” you said.
“It is,” Otgar said. “Burqila traveled the spice road to Sur-Shar. On the way, we met a Surian merchant, with no stores save those he meant to sell. Burqila allowed him to come with us on the condition she received a portion of the money from whatever he sold. Except he spoke no Qorin.”
“So you learned Surian,” you said. “To translate for him.” “No, my mother slept with him,” said Otgar. “And he left some
of his books behind when he left, so I cracked them open. I had to learn, you see, so I could translate for Burqila.” Otgar corrected, waving her finger. “The Kharsa is always the highest priority.”
Except that my mother never formally accepted the title of Kharsa, as part of the terms of her marriage. No one paid that any heed here. She was a Kharsa in all but name.
You said nothing to this. For all your talent with Hokkaran, you spoke not a word of Qorin. Oh, you could write it. My mother wanted our alphabet to be simple enough for a child to learn. You knew it and you knew which symbols corresponded to which sounds. But the words themselves, the grammar?
No. That you could not do.
So you sat and you shifted. I imagine you were about to say something cutting when my mother raised her hand in the air, and the ger fell silent. Otgar rushed to her side.
I sidled up closer to you. My mother was giving me that viper look again. Her serpents coiled about my heart and squeezed. She would not throw a celebration like this if she meant to tear into me in front of the clan, would she?
My mother’s fingers made shapes too fast for me to keep up with them. Before my stay with you, I knew a great many of her gestures, but now I found I could no longer keep up. It’s a strange feeling, being unable to understand your own mother.
“Burqila Alshara Nadyyasar welcomes you all,” Otgar said. “Both those of her clan and of Naisuran Shizuru’s.”
I’d heard your mother’s Qorin name before, but it’d been some time. The sound of it startled me. Nai, for “eight”; Suran for “trials.” Eight Trial Shizuru, for the eight days of hardship she and Alshara endured past the Wall of Flowers. Looking at her rosy, drunk face now, it was hard to imagine her cutting down one of the Traitor’s Generals. But, then again—legend has it she learned the name of the General by charming one of his underlings. And your mother has always been a very charming drunk.
I tried to picture it—my mother and yours huddled together in a damp prison cell, an unspeakable monstrosity dangling rotten food just out of their grasp. Your mother calling him closer, and closer, beckoning with her husky voice—
My mother grabbing the thing’s arm and slamming it against the bars.
One day we shall hear that story in full, Shizuka. I have heard tell that my brother wrote of it from a few of the nobles here—would that I could find a copy, and have it read to me. Sky knows my mother refused to elaborate on what had happened. So much of it is left to our imaginations, Shizuka, and imaginations are the worst kinds of liars.
But even so—it was hard to imagine you and I killed a tiger. “She hopes you will enjoy the kumaq to its fullest extent, and advises that anyone caught vomiting in her ger will be punished,” Otgar continued, “as she hates the smell.”
All eyes fell on your mother. The laughter that left her, unbridled and boisterous, was more Qorin than Hokkaran.
“Don’t give me that look, Alshara!” she said. “I out-drank Kikomura-zul, I can keep this down!”
I am not certain if your mother knew the gravity of referring to my mother by her birth name. As a Hokkaran man might only call his wife, daughter, and mother by their personal names, so a Qorin would never think of addressing anyone but his immediate family by their child name. An adult name was earned. An adult name told you everything you needed to know about a person. My mother, for instance, is the Destroyer—for what she did to the Wall of Stone.
And yet Shizuru called her the same thing my grandmother called her. The same thing I might call her, if I wanted to catch a backhand. You will not tell my mother I’ve been using her personal name this whole time, will you?
The Burqila chiefs stared at your mother. Some cleared their throats. None said a word against her. Such was our mothers’ friendship—anyone who spoke up against Shizuru spoke up against Alshara.
My mother shook her head. She made four more gestures, then pointed to the red door, a wry smile on her harsh face.
“Burqila says that you are welcome to vomit outside, Naisuran, as she knows you will,” Otgar said in Hokkaran.
Your mother guffawed, slapped her knee. Itsuki covered his mouth. I had to remind myself that this was the Queen of Crows and the Imperial Poet laughing like children. I had to remind myself that your parents were far older than mine. And you were their only daughter.
Was it lonely, Shizuka, growing up without a sibling? Kenshiro was not always with me—and by then, he had already left for Xian-Lai—but I had more cousins than I knew what to do with. I’ve heard you mention yours only once or twice. If only we did not live so far apart! I know my family is loud, and I know they stay up too late, and I know how fond you are of time alone—but I wish I could have kept you company. I wish we had spent more hours together than apart.
Was that why you were so sour? Because I was leaving?
My mother continued her gesturing. Now her movements were slow and deliberate. As she “spoke,” she made eye contact with everyone in the room.
At that moment I wished I were a horse, so I might run away faster.
“But before the festivities can continue, there is one thing Burqila would like to say,” said Otgar. “You have by now all heard the story of Shefali and the tiger. It is her opinion that such a deed entitles Shefali to a proper, adult name.”
My breath caught. Next to me, you sat dumbfounded; it occurred to me Otgar was speaking in Qorin and you could not understand her.
Mother beckoned me closer. I stood, reaching for the bundle of cloth behind me, and walked to her.
“From this day forth,” said Otgar.
My mother reached for a strand of my hair. With callused fingers she braided it, then hid it behind my ear.
“You are Barsalai.”
Barsalai—“Tiger-Striped.” Silently I moved my mouth to form the word. My name. Barsalai. Truth be told, I was afraid I’d be Needlenose as an adult. This new name settled on my shoulders like a well-worn cloak.
Ah, that was right. My project.
I presented my mother with the bundle of cloth. Slowly, deliberately, she unfolded it. Within was a deel lined with tiger fur. I will not lie and say it was of exquisite make; embroidery has never been my strong suit. But it was warm, and made of sturdy cloth, and the colors were pleasing to the eye. If it was plain, the tiger fur made up for it.
My mother’s lips widened into a smile. I saw a rare sight that night: wrinkles around her mouth and eyes. She covered my head with her hand and kissed my cheek.
The ger erupted into cheers. Uncle Ganzorig spilled his kumaq onto the fire; it exploded upward. Suddenly I was afloat in a sea of people clapping me on the shoulder or pinching my cheeks or sniffing me. More than one of my cousins dragged me closer to the fire. In the frantic steps of Qorin dances we lost ourselves. Your parents did their best imitation of us. I’m embarrassed to say that O-Itsuki managed a perfect impression despite going through the whole thing without a word. At one point, your mother almost fell into the campfire, only for your father to swoop her away at the last moment. O-Shizuru laughed and kissed him.
But their joy did not extend to you.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been upset with you, Shizuka. That night, acid filled my throat; that night, a foul anger clouded an otherwise wonderful celebration. Every time I saw you, the taste in my mouth grew more bitter. And I was not the only one to notice.
“Your friend,” Otgar whispered to me, “is she always like this?” I shook my head.
“I don’t know why we ever let you stay with the Hokkarans,” Otgar said. “No sense for a good party!”
She was a far better dancer than I was. Four more years of experience did that. I struggled to keep up with her steps, and hoped all the kumaq in my belly wouldn’t topple me over into the fire.
Whenever I took a false step, Otgar caught me. If I fell, it was mostly her responsibility, but I like to think she didn’t want me to hurt myself.
During one such false step, I fell backwards and landed on my bottom. A chorus of laughs followed. My relatives teased me for having more kumaq than I could handle. Otgar helped me up, just as a gust of wind flickered the fire. Hardened warriors spat on the ground. Superstition. Winds were not meant to enter the ger, for they brought with them the foul spirits that haunted the steppes at night.
I spat on the ground, too.
But I also saw the tail of your dress as you left through the red door. My chest burned, my stomach churned; the speech I wanted to give you formed in my mind. I got to my feet, told Otgar I’d return soon, and followed you out.
Outside, spring winds cut through my Hokkaran clothing. I wished I’d brought my deel. I’d be warm in my deel, and I could’ve smuggled some kumaq out. But no, I wore the clothing you bought me. Earlier this morning, it made me feel braver.
Now I just felt cold.
Wordlessly I followed you. At some time, you’d stop. At some time, the cold would get to you, or the faint smell of horse manure, or one of the animals would startle you.
But no. You kept walking. And by the time you stopped, I’d been following you for what felt like an hour.
“You have a party to attend, do you not?” you sneered.
A puff of vapor left my nostrils. The tips of my ears fast turned red. I scowled at you and dug in my heels.
You hid your hands within your sleeves. The Moon cast her silver light onto you, and lent an unearthly air to your complexion.
In that moment, I saw some traces of the woman you’d become: I saw your sharp lips painted red as your sword; I saw your cheeks pink as petals; I saw the brown-gold of your cutting eyes.
And I saw the eight-year-old girl shaking in the freezing cold. Despite the fire of anger in me, I could not just stand there and watch you freeze. I walked up to you and wrapped an arm around you.
“You’re leaving in the morning, aren’t you?”
I nodded. Another puff of vapor left my lips and spiraled into the air between us. You looked out at the pure white gers alight from within, looked out at the horses and the dogs and the guards. “I will see you again,” you said. “I know I will. But until that time, you will keep yourself safe. I know there are no tigers on the steppes; do not go chasing anything large and fanged and terrible. You aren’t allowed to get hurt until I see you again. You just aren’t.”
You leaned your head on my shoulder as you spoke.
I tried very hard to hold on to my anger, but it was like holding water. Only my fingers were still wet.
“Celebrate,” I said.
You scoffed. “Celebrate your leaving?” You shook your head. “No. I will not celebrate that.”
Ahh, there it was again, a bit more water in my palms. “My name. Barsalai.”
You paused. You took my hand and hid it in your flower-scented sleeves. I was struck by how small your wrists were.
“Then I will not celebrate your going, Barsalai, but we will celebrate in the halls of Fujino when you return. And I will call you Shefali, and you will call me Shizuka, even when we are adults.” And I said nothing, lest my voice ruin the beauty of the moment. Because we were together beneath the great silver moon, together on the steppes, and I did not know when I would next be near you.
* * *
“Write to me,” you said.
Over the next three years, I wrote to you whenever I had the chance. I did not have the chance often. Paper was too delicate to last long traveling with us; Qorin favored oral messages when possible. But every now and again, we would meet with a merchant on his way to Sur-Shar, and I would buy as much paper as I could, and have Otgar write you.
When our travels took us to the great mountain Gurkhan Khalsar, I secretly cut a few mountain flowers and sent them to you. That night I prayed to Grandfather Earth to forgive me for what I’d done, but I cannot say I truly regretted it.
You, who had an entire Imperial Garden delivered from Fujino to Oshiro simply so I could see—certainly you deserved something sacred in return.
I did not tell you in that letter what Gurkhan Khalsar means to us.
You see, it is the highest point on the steppes. In front of it runs the river Rokhon, which flows from the harsh tundra of the North all the way down to the Golden Sands. As such, at the peak of Gurkhan Khalsar you are closest to Grandmother Sky, and at its base you are very near the waters given to us by Grandfather Earth. On Gurkhan Khalsar alone do you find this perfect union. So it is that Kharsas and Kharsaqs climb the mountain once a year to meditate. Only there, at the peak, will they hear the whispers of the future.
So the story goes.
And while my mother was busy meditating, I chose to pluck a livid flower from the earth and tuck it away within my deel. I did this knowing some of my ancestors are buried on this mountain. I did this knowing my mother would’ve slain anyone who dared to alter Gurkhan Khalsar in any way.
I did it because I thought you deserved it.
I hope the flower arrived intact. In your return letter, you wrote that it was still fragrant when it arrived. What did you think when you held it in your hands—this sacred object? If I had stolen a prayer tag from a temple and sent it to you, it would’ve been less sacrilegious. When you pressed it to your nose, what did you smell? For my people believe the soul of a person is in their scent, in their hair. On the mountain, there are dozens of banners made from the mane of Kharsaqs, Kharsas, and their horses. The wind whips through them and carries their souls forever across the great plains. One day I will take you to the mountain and you shall see them, all lined up, all swaying like dancers, and you will think of the flower I gave you when we were children.
Winter Loneliness in a Mountain Village
I wrote to you of the things I saw, the places I’d traveled. There weren’t many. At least, not many different ones. The steppes enthrall me, Shizuka, and they always have—but there are only so many times I can write about endless silver grass before it gets boring.
I wrote about it anyway. Anything I could think of—how Otgar’s new bows were coming along, a long rant about where a saddle should sit on a horse’s back, my Uncle Ganzorig’s latest stew recipe—went into those letters. Otgar hated transcribing them. She must have gotten used to it, though, since we did it every day for two years straight.
Seven hundred and twenty letters. When I was writing them, they all felt like one long conversation. Your replies always found us within a reasonable span—my mother enlisted four messengers dedicated only to our correspondence—until we reached the northern forests.
The Qorin there almost looked like Hokkarans, their skin was so pale—but their hair was lighter than mine was, and they still greeted us with kumaq and old war songs.
The chief of the northern tribes was, at the time, a man named Surenqalan. Old and graying, with as many scars as a dappled mare has spots, he greeted us from horseback. Only three pale braids circled his head, tied from the hair at the base of his crown. Across the flat of his bald head was a nasty streak of scarred flesh.
We shared his fire that first night, and stayed in his ger for the customary meal. On the first night of my mother’s visits, she does not discuss business. Instead, Surenqalan spoke to us of his daughters and his sons, of marriages and funerals. I listened though I knew none of the people being discussed. Otgar translated for my mother, and gave me summaries of the people. I had distant cousins here, too, thanks to my absurd number of aunts.
But the reason I remember this night so well—the reason I can still picture old Surenqalan poking at the fire, the reason I can feel the tip of my nose go numb when I think about that night, is what happened after we left to our own ger.
I saw something out of the corner of my eye, dashing between the gers. Tall, slender, cloaked in black and red; it moved as quickly as a shadow flickering between trees.
Wolves sometimes attack us, but they would not do so this far north. And they would not get so close to the camps, when they know we’d shoot them on sight. Nor could I say the figure looked Qorin—it did not wear a deel, or any winter clothing at all.
I froze in place. My mother turned toward me, one hand on the hilt of her scimitar. She wrinkled her nose and bared her teeth. I pointed where I’d seen the figure, and my mother made a few more gestures.
“Search the area,” Otgar said.
The riders scrambled off. I watched them go, opening and closing my fists. I had the sinking feeling they were not going to find anything. What if this, like the glimmer near the dying, was something only I could see?
I strung my bow and pulled an arrow from my quiver. “Shefali,” Otgar said, “what are you doing?”
I started walking between the gers. That thing was somewhere around here, lurking near my people, and I would not allow it to continue stalking us.
“Has it occured to you,” Otgar said, “that you are ten years old?” I continued. No use arguing; I did not have the time. Black and red, black and red . . . there! I saw it—her—clearly now, a living darkness against the pure white ger. I drew back my bow and aimed.
“What are you firing at?” Otgar asked.
I was right; she couldn’t see the dark thing! More reason to let fly!
Except . . . well, there were people in that ger, and if my arrow pierced through its walls, they might be hurt.
A moment’s hesitation doomed me.
Because the figure noticed that I’d noticed her.
It is difficult to say that a shadow smiled. If you imagine a silhouette in darkest ink against finest paper, that was the figure I saw. No features, no light, nothing to indicate she had any expression at all. Yet I knew she was looking at me, and my bones rattled with her amusement.
Ice ran through my veins.
Who was Steel-Eye? For I’d earned my name already. TigerStriped, I was, with my mother’s viper-green eyes.
And yet in my chest I felt a rightness. That, more than the voice itself, terrified me.
I wanted to run. I wanted, more than anything, to run.
But I was Barsalai Shefali now, an adult of the Burqila clan. And the Burqila clan did not become dominant by running from their enemies.
So I thought at this thing clearly and loudly: Whatever you are, you are not welcome in my lands.
“They are not your lands yet, Steel-Eye,” she said. “And you are still a child. You cannot stop me.”
I can, I thought.
Again, I raised my bow. Otgar squeezed my forearm, her face wrought with concern. “Shefali,” she said, “there is nothing there. You’re staring at a blank patch of the ger.”
Laughter, if you could call it that. The sound of a lump of coal shattering.
“See how they doubt you? So they will for years and years. It would be much easier if you joined us now,” it said.
Its words triggered a roiling anger within me. I no longer cared if anyone was hurt; I fired. The shadow peeled away from the ger. Arrow met felt. That sound of breaking coal rang through the air. The figure slipped inside, I took a step forward—
Otgar blocked my path.
“Shefali,” she said in a level voice, “listen to me. Whatever you saw, don’t let it affect you like this. You are going to be Kharsa one day. You cannot let the shadows rule you.”
By then my mother returned with her empty-handed riders. She saw the arrow sticking out from the ger—saw it was mine—and frowned. When she sharply gestured that I should apologize to the inhabitants, I was not surprised.
I looked from her to Otgar. My cousin was fourteen then. In a few more years, she’d be ready to marry. She was not a pretty girl, but she was smart as a whip. Someone would be coming to stay with her soon—some boy working off his bride-price.
And she was looking at me like I was a child who ran off from camp and nearly got eaten by wolves.
I lowered my bow and shrank about three sizes. I knew what I saw.
And I knew it had a name, the same way I knew your name from the moment I could speak.
Shao. Her name was Shao.
My mother forced me to apologize, and I did that as curtly as I could. A small family lived inside that ger. A man, his wife, his grandmother. Very small. No doubt the man’s brothers died off before my mother came to power, during the wars. So many of us died to the blackblood that we were trying to make up for it. Each family was encouraged to have as many children as they could, and then sanvaartains got involved. Did you know, Shizuka, that many of the Qorin children you see these days are fatherless? Given the proper rituals, sanvaartains can induce pregnancy—but still, I saw no children here.
Otgar did her best to calm me. She told me the story of Tumenbayar again—the Kharsa who used the moon as her bow, with hair of shining silver and skin like rich clay.
* * *
That night I listened to another of Otgar’s stories and pretended to take an interest in it. Tumenbayar saddled her golden mare and rode to the north. Friendly winds told her of a clan in danger there. When she arrived, she found demons rampaging through the camp, scooping up horses and snapping into them like jerky. Dozens of them, the largest horde anyone had ever seen up to that point—and this Ages ago, when demons did not roam the countryside as they do now. An entire clan could not hope to defeat this many.
But Tumenbayar and her golden mare were worth twenty clans together. So she strung her crescent-moon bow and fired her windcutter arrows. As she fired at the beasts, she rode in a circle around them, faster and faster each time. The demons caught on to this and threw people at her, threw horses at her, threw anything they could to try to slow her down.
Tumenbayar reached into her thousand-pocket saddlebags. She pulled out her skin of mare’s milk, and with the tip of her arrow, she slit it open. Milk dripped along her path. Tumenbayar, raised by a cadre of sanvaartain, spoke holy words as she rode.
Demons charged at her, but could not pass the barrier of the milk. Tumenbayar rode just outside their grasp. In an hour’s time, no more, she felled all the demons. When they were dead, she herself set fire to their bodies, so that their foul blood could not corrupt Grandfather Earth. She did this wearing the deel given to her by Grandmother Sky herself, which protected her from all manner of harm.
It was a good story. Not the best Tumenbayar story, but good. Enough to get my mind off things, if it were any other night, or any other thing I’d seen. Otgar did her best to lend the tale more weight. One day, you shall hear her Tumenbayar voice, and you will laugh loud and long.
Tumenbayar is something like your ancestor Shiori to us. I’ve heard a thousand stories about her, and despite my better judgment, I believe every one. For who is to say whether or not Tumenbayar really did fire arrows of wind, or if the ridge of mountains north of the Rokhon really are her horse’s footprints? These things are legends. In their own way, all legends are true.
You must be laughing now. I’m certain you’ve heard a few legends about us. Those are true, as well, but true in a different way. I’ve begun to think of the Barsalai my clan whispers about as a different person. Did you know, Shizuka; I’ve heard children telling Tumenbayar stories, but with me instead of her?
Excerpted from The Tiger’s Daughter, copyright © 2017 by K Arsenault Rivera.