Once they were the heirs to a prophecy that predicted two women would save an empire.
Now Shefali is dying—and her wife is unaware of the coming tragedy. Shizuka is too busy trying to reunite a fractured empire and right the wrongs of her ancestors.
As the Imperial Army gathers against a demonic invasion, Shizuka must do all she can with an empire on the brink of civil war.
K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Phoenix Empress, sequel to The Tiger’s Daughter, is available October 9th from Tor Books.
There are people who have never heard Barsalai Shefali speak. There are people who do not know the joy of a violet-gold sky, people who have never bitten into a ripe mango and felt its juice run down their chin, people who have never heard Tanaka Kyosuke’s Petals Landing on a Maiden’s Hair. Some things in life are so pure, so pleasurable, that once you’ve experienced them, all imitators fade away.
So it is with Shefali. Each word from her lips is precious poetry, each sentence a hidden hymn for Shizuka’s ears alone.
“We were girls when we spoke our vows,” says Shefali. “We have seen things, you and I. Done things. Some of them awful. Some of them are best left to fade into the clouds of memory. But, Shizuka, every day we were apart, I longed for you. Every day of those eight years, I dreamed of our life together. But dreams are the same as clouds, aren’t they?”
She kisses Shizuka’s nose.
“You say we are gods. I know you are right, and one day far from now, I will tell you how. You say heroes do not grow old. But for the next few months—let us not be heroes, then. Let us be normal women, in a normal marriage, content to be together. Let us live in the clouds. When the time to go north comes, we shall be glad we tasted the sky.”
Is this how her mother felt, listening to her father? Is this how Minami Shiori felt, is this how Tumenbayar felt? How could any of the Hundred Heroes claim to know the love blooming in her heart?
“Shefali,” Shizuka whispers. “Come here.”
Words fail to capture it, how she craves this closeness, how she needs this reassurance, how Shefali’s touch reminds her that she is real and they are real and they are here, together, in this moment.
The two of them take this night and stretch it over their heads, and make a tent, and when the morning comes, they will be safe.
The sky outside is already beginning to change color: violet-gold, to announce the dawn. Shizuka kisses the crook of Shefali’s neck.
So heavy is her duty that she feels it even now, nuzzled against her wife as the first rays of morning beg for her attention. Who melted down the Phoenix Crown, who poured that molten gold into Shizuka’s veins?
She wishes to carve it all out. She wishes to see it driven out of her, this Imperial stain.
All Shizuka wants is to relax into her wife’s arms—but her mind won’t let her.
And nor will her servants. Just as Shefali begins to ask her what brought on this attack, they hear the shuffling of their arrival. Shizuka glances toward the massive clock on one wall. Baozhai presented it to her two years ago as a birthday gift; the note attached mentioned that a busy woman like the Empress might have trouble keeping track of the time. It was a good-natured joke, of course, since Shizuka had been late to the past three monthly advisory meetings in a row—but no one can doubt the extravagance of such a thing. In all the Empire, there are precious few of its like. But Queen Lai Baozhai was no longer an Imperial subject, and so she had paid no mind to such constrictions.
The large hand points to the Grandfather beating a sword into shape atop an anvil. Shizuka tries not to wonder about him as a man, or even a god, tries to think of him only as a symbol. Second Bell, then—though the small hand tells her it is nearly Third.
Time enough to tell a story before the real world comes for her.
“Shefali,” Shizuka says. Shefali’s eyes flick over to her: the green and the steel. It has been so long since she last saw the steel that she forgets, at times, the character written upon it. Peony. A flower for bravery, a flower for daring; the flower of kings.
Shizuka traces her thumb just beneath the steel eye. When Minami Shiori forged the rays of the sun into three swords—had she expected they’d end up in a place like this? Shizuka can think of no place more fitting; her wife’s gaze is more precious to her than all the light of the world.
“If… We have some time, if you’d like to hear it. The story,” Shizuka says.
“If you are willing to tell it,” Shefali says.
Will that light still shine on her once the story is done? It will do Shizuka no good to wonder.
She can only hope, and begin.
And In Your Wake
Inconsolable. If I had to choose a word, I think, that would be it. Mind you, I do not think it comes close to describing what I felt.
My uncle exiled you on the seventeenth of Nanatsu. That date, like the ninth, is carved into the walls of my heart. On the seventeenth of Nanatsu, the doors of the Bronze Palace slammed shut between us. My uncle commandeered the Xianese guard to escort you to the border; he did not want to sully the hands of his men with touching you.
If my uncle had commanded his stolen guards to hold me down that day, if he cut into me like a deer, if he cracked apart my ribs and bit into my heart in front of me—I would have been in less pain. If ever a poet captures that sort of agony on paper, I hope they are wise enough to burn it.
You know what it was like, my love. I hate to dwell on this particular pain when there is so much you do not already know. Suffice it to say that in the face of my world collapsing around me, I resolved to live on in the ruins.
I stopped brushing my hair, so that it would retain some of your touch. You left behind a pair of pants I wore for seven days straight, although I not once left my rooms in the Bronze Palace. I hardly even left the bed—in the mornings, I would wake expecting to see your face, and when I didn’t, my weeping began. I fell asleep each night holding on to one of your unfinished bows. Anything to feel closer to you, Shefali, anything to convince myself that you would be gone only a month.
Within the four walls of my room, I wept until my eyes went crane-feather red. I bit my lips until they bled; I sobbed until my throat split like bamboo beneath a mallet.
Yet I was not alone in my suffering, no matter how much I wished to be. Baozhai and your brother were not on speaking terms given what he’d done, but they’d come to an agreement regarding me. Every Bell they were awake, one or the other would come to ask if I wanted company. I did not. Especially not the company of a man who’d sold me out to my uncle.
That sort of sadness is a strange thing, isn’t it? So heavy and so immense that it crawls out from your mind and lies down at your side. Like a lover, it caresses your throat, your heart, your stomach. Everywhere it touches is alight with agony. You want to run, but if you do—well, who would hold you then?
And so I lay there in my bed and I clutched my pillow to my chest just to get the scent of you.
When I woke on the twentieth, Baozhai sat next to me with a tray.
Had she been there all night? Xianese chairs weren’t comfortable; her back had to have been aching.
I swallowed and called out her name.
Baozhai snapped to attention.
“Lady,” she said. “Eight pardons for intruding. You have not eaten.”
Though she spoke half in a haze, her manners were impeccable. I wondered if she had sprung fully formed from her mother’s womb.
My head throbbed and my lips were dry. But I did not want to eat. Eating meant… the last time I’d eaten was with you. And if I ate now, I could no longer say that. Besides, what was the use in eating? To keep myself alive? What did it matter, when I did not have you to share my days?
Whatever sharp retort I had came out in a garbled whine.
Baozhai took that as an invitation. She set the tray on my lap and poured me a cup of now-cool tea.
“I understand you may not feel hungry,” she said, “but I promise you that you are. If you have trouble holding your chopsticks, I shall be happy to help. But I am not leaving this room until you eat. You are not your wife, Lady, you need to eat.”
She said “your wife.”
Hearing someone else say it brought me some relief. No, you were not here with me—but we were married.
You were so handsome, Shefali, reciting your vows. Have I ever told you that? The candles flickering, your skin so warm and golden, my hands in yours. You were so happy. You smiled so much, your eyes wrinkled.
The memory of your face soothed me. The memory of your touch, your voice.
Baozhai leaned over me. When she frowned, spidery lines ruined the confident strokes of her face. She took the bowl into her lap. With the chopsticks, she heaped a ball of rice onto a flat wooden spoon.
“Your uncle is Emperor; you will rule after him, and into eternity, if the Lady of Flowers is kind,” she said. To hear her now, one would never assume she’d just woken up. “But this is the Bronze Palace. So long as I live, it is mine, and I rule it. Imperial blood or not—I will not let you starve. Not in my house.” A beat. She touched her fingertips to the teapot and sighed. “Even if I did serve you cold tea. Eight pardons, once more.”
I reached for the cup. My hands shook, which terrified me—I have never been a woman who trembles. I held fast to the cup of tea and allowed my focus to drift for a moment.
Have you ever noticed, Shefali, that I never drink anything cold? Even in the midst of the steppes, on the coldest of nights, steam rose from my cup. The reason for it is as simple as it is difficult to explain: there is some sort of fire in my veins. Just as you have never been bothered by the dark, I have never truly been bothered by the cold. It started when I was five or six, I think, after our first meeting. For weeks, I used to set everything boiling with a touch, and I found that I could stick my fingers in the liquid without getting burned.
Of course, I immediately used this unchecked power for evil. By the third time I evaporated my mother’s prized Smiling Fox rice wine, I’d learned to control it out of necessity. O-Shizuru was not a kind woman when it came to destruction of her property.
You may be remembering all those times I asked to share a bed-roll with you on the steppes—all the times I complained that I was near freezing and would surely die without your company. I’ll tell you now that I was faking it. I wanted so badly to be close to you—but I couldn’t think of a better way to ask. And so I said I was dying of chill, when in fact I was almost unbearably hot.
I am sorry you had to find out this way.
And so it took only a moment for a curl of smoke to rise from the teacup Baozhai had brought me.
Lai Baozhai has been all her life a diplomat. Hokkarans often speak of maintaining our faces—making certain we look neutral even in times of great duress. Baozhai excels at this, except she does not look neutral. “Vaguely amused” is a finer term for it, as if you have told her a joke that she has heard before but enjoys nonetheless.
When she saw the smoke, her mask slipped. Astonishment overcame her amusement. Her lips parted.
But do not forget what I have said—she has spent a whole lifetime at this. Her astonishment was as a cloud passing over the sun; when she gathered herself, she seemed all the brighter.
“Lady, was I not clear enough? This is my palace. Though the flowers turn to face you, and the light clings to you like a cloak, make no mistake: this realm is mine. Drinking tea does not count as eating, and you will eat.”
Precious few people spoke to me in such a way. It was surprising, but it should not have been. If not for the reprehensible actions of my great-grandfather Yoshinaga, Baozhai would be Queen in her own right. Though my ancestors tried to deny her the crown, she’d forged one herself, from the love of her people and pride in her own nation, from the ink she’d spilled at the White Leaf Academy. There could be no doubt who was the more regal between the two of us. How foolish of me that I had not seen it until then.
I inclined my head as I would have to the lords of Shiratori or Fuyutsuki, if I’d cared about etiquette when it came to those two. “As you say, then.”
She held the spoon in front of my face. I took a bite, then reached for it myself. To my horror, my hands shook too much to get a good grip. The spoon fell to the bed, scattering grains of rice everywhere. Another coil of misery around my throat. I could not even feed myself. I, Jewel of the Empire.
“I’ll get a new set of sheets,” said Baozhai. “Keep eating.”
She held up another portion, and another. It was clear from her bearing, she’d brook no arguments on my part. The more I ate, the more my stomach protested. And yet—I did feel better. I had to admit that. It was the smallest bit better, but it was something.
By the time we got halfway through the bowl, I was too full to continue. Baozhai kept trying to feed me anyway. Only when I mustered up the strength to speak did she stop.
“If I have one more bite,” I said, “I will be running for my chamber pot.”
Baozhai narrowed her eyes. “Are you certain?”
“I am always certain,” I said. But you know already that I am not. The trick to decisiveness is to make your choice before the fear starts setting in. Luckily for me, I am always afraid, and so I have very little time to make my choices. Once I’ve voiced them, once I’ve committed—there can be no room for doubt.
If I falter, you see, if I allow myself to fall—it is not just me that crumbles. In many ways, I do not exist. Only Princess Yui did, only Empress Yui does. From the day two pine needles fell on my unsuspecting brow, I have been the hope of a nation. Peacock Princess, Daughter of Crows, Four-Petal Princess, I have been all these and more.
But I can only be Minami Shizuka with you.
“My husband wishes to speak with you,” said Baozhai. The words came from her as if yanked out by a string.
“Why should I listen to him?” I asked, for there must have been good reason. Baozhai was as frustrated with him as I was.
“Because he has two good Qorin horses his mother gave to him, and he wants to meet your wife before she leaves,” said Baozhai. “The captain in charge of escorting Barsalyya is an older man with a bad hip. No doubt he will call for stops along the way. Kenshiro is convinced this will allow him to catch up to them. He means to set out as soon as he has spoken to you.”
The beats of my heart rumbled through my body, as if I lay on the skin of a massive drum. Could he really catch up to you, though so much time had passed? What had taken him so long to say so? Kenshiro may have been Qorin, too, but he did not have your way with horses. Surely he’d ride them both to death at best. Surely he would not be able to reach you. And yet…
I would be able to send you one final letter.
I would cut through all eight of the Fallen Gods, one by one, for the privilege of speaking to you one more time. I would have used their blood for ink and their bones for brushes, Shefali.
To my blasphemous heart, speaking to your brother was hardly a price at all.
“Send him in,” I said.
“Are you certain? If you would rather prepare a letter and give it to me, I’d pass it on for you.”
“If he means for this to be his apology, then I want to see his face when he delivers it,” I said. “I want to hear it from his mouth.”
After a moment of consideration, Baozhai nodded. “Then I shall fetch him.”
I watched her, in her day-old gown, walk to the door and leave. For a brief span I sat alone in the room. So much of it seemed preposterous now. The sheets I’d flung and the furniture I’d knocked over, the spilled ink and the faint smell of my own filth. Up above the door, the altar I kept for my parents; in three days I had not changed the rice. What would they think, if they saw me in such a state?
The memory of my mother in her final days came to me. She’d cried out for my father until her last moments.
Perhaps she would have understood.
But she would have insisted I do some cleaning, at the very least. My mother was always particular about her surroundings. Living in the Jade Palace, there are only so many things one can change without drawing the Emperor’s ire—but my mother changed everything she could. The mats she replaced with those her family had made. All the art—portraits of my ancestors and all the gods alike—she replaced with portraits of Minami Shiori. A few of them were nature paintings for my father’s sake. An antique set of robes belonging to Empress Yumiko embroidered with painstakingly small leaves was sent back to the Imperial archivist in favor of displaying a saddle Burqila Alshara had given her.
“You’ve got to keep control of your space, you hear me?” she’d said to me. “Even if you can’t control anything else. I’ve slept in a stable more than once, but you can be sure I chose to do it.”
Well. I had no saddle to display, and there were no paintings of my forefathers here staring me down. And this was, as Baozhai had reminded me, not my palace. Still—if I asked nicely, perhaps Baozhai could be convinced to let me do a little decorating. So few of the things in this room were mine. The teapot, my robes, a screen with Minami Shiori and the fox woman painted upon it. As I looked around me, a beam of light fell upon my mother’s remaining two swords.
An idea came to me. Baozhai spoke of writing a letter to you, but what would I say? If these were the last words you and I shared, though I dreaded that thought—what would I say?
Letters are only paper. They may tear or fall apart or burn or eighty other things. Words can live forever, if we give them voice. Like leaves on a breeze, they float from one mouth to the next. And though you are not the type to share them aloud, Shefali, you do hoard them as a frog-god hoards his brains. Words are your lifeblood, poetry your breath.
If only I had my father’s talents.
And so, if words failed me, then I must make a grand gesture.
A gift. But what to give you? All my favorite things, you’ve given me. The flower you plucked from Gurkhan Khalsar, which I keep between the pages of my father’s poetry. A wooden phoenix sitting on the Dragon Throne—you carved that for me when we were teenagers. The quiver you lent me once and I failed to return. My robes, my combs, my brushes—none of it mattered to you. None of it spoke of us.
But those swords spoke of me, and if I tried—perhaps I could make them speak of you.
Just as the idea—the foolish idea—solidified in my mind, Baozhai returned with Kenshiro in tow. As a criminal awaiting his sentence so did Kenshiro stand, with his head bowed and his eyes focused on the ground. The first thing I noticed about him was that he was in a deel and riding pants. I don’t think you approved of that deel. Xianese silk in Spring’s Promise Green, embroidered with winged horses and cherry petals. Cherry petals, Shefali.
The second thing I noticed? You will think it foolish, but it had been days since I actually looked at him, you must understand. Kenshiro looks more like your father than you do, with the exception of his broad cheeks. He always looks like he is smiling, even when he isn’t. You, on the other hand, always look as if someone has told you something you disapprove of but cannot find a polite response to. His eyes are a duskier shade, and his hair closer to brown than blond.
But he looked like you.
The resemblance struck me like a blow to the back of the head. Pain exploded behind my eyes. What if the only way I saw your face from now on was in your brother’s? My lip started to tremble; I covered my face with my hand.
Thankfully, he spared me the pain of having to look on him for very long. The moment he crossed the threshold, he sank first to his knees and then touched his forehead to the ground.
“If you cast me from your sight until the stars fell from the sky, that would be more than I deserve,” he said. “A thousand apologies are not enough.”
I am no Qorin, and yet the mention of stars falling from the sky prickled me all the same. Your family often spoke of the stars, of the heroes they represented. Surely Kenshiro could not wish for them to be forgotten? But, then again, perhaps his love of poetry was getting the better of his good sense. Baozhai—who kneeled next to him as if we were at court and not simply in my room—wore a face of perfect serenity, in spite her earlier frustrations.
I’d asked to hear his regrets in person, but at that moment I wished I hadn’t. How was it that he made things worse with an apology? But there was no time to dwell on this if his plan had any hope of working.
“Are you certain you can catch up to Shefali?” I asked him. I did not want to suffer through his pantomime any more. “You are here because you are family to me, however repugnant your recent actions. If you fail, know that I will not hesitate to cast you from my mind.”
I did not want to have to shun your brother. But if he failed in this regard, if he gave me false hope of speaking to you one last time—I could not imagine what wrath would overtake me.
He hesitated before answering, which told me he knew how impossible it seemed. “Yes,” he said. “If I should fail, then I will return in white with my death poem already composed.”
Baozhai flinched. I did not blame her. There had not been a ritual suicide in decades; Kenshiro was being maudlin now.
“Let me be the judge of your punishment, should you fail,” I said tersely. “And do not assume you will fail to begin with. A duel is won before the first stroke.”
In return he granted me only silence. I could almost hear him reaching for something to say, within his mind, and so I did him the mercy of continuing.
“With that said, my dueling days are behind me,” I said. I gestured to my scarred face, though only Baozhai could see. “I shall write her a letter, yes. But I shall have something else, too.”
I took the short sword. It never felt right in my hand, anyway. Like a serpent aching to pounce. “Take this to your blacksmith. Have her forge an eye from it. Send that along with the letter.”
“A steel eye?” said Baozhai. “I have… I have never heard of such a thing. And from your mother’s sword, Lady?”
“I’ve no use for it,” I said. “Lest I lose my other ear.”
“You didn’t lose the ear completely,” said Baozhai, who meant well.
“I lost the ear,” I said. When Baozhai had washed the wound, I felt what little remained: a nub two fingers wide. My hand went to it anyway. To have that dog wound me in such way, to have him scar me, made me sick. I’d wear this mark for the rest of my life. What would people think of me when they saw it?
Baozhai pressed her lips together. She must fix things, you see. That is the core of her being, the same way the core of mine is arrogance and anxiety, the same way yours is stubbornness and caring.
“I will take the sword to the blacksmith myself,” she said. I gave it to her—my mother’s short sword—and I went back to bed.
Kenshiro hadn’t left. What was he waiting for? Did he expect me to thank him for his service? When all of this was his fault—how
could I do such a thing?
No, he must have been waiting for the letter.
I began setting up my calligrapher’s tools: smooth paper, an ink-stone more expensive than some jewelry, my brush, a bowl of water. After grinding my ink and laying the paper out before me, I began the work.
It was then that your brother looked up at me. Often, in happier times, he would watch me write. His own calligraphy is… lacking. Like many other scholars, he employs the White Leaf style, noted for being easy to read. Unfortunately, it is about as appealing as a plum crushed in the mud. I think he hoped to learn how to improve upon it by watching me.
I wished that he would not watch, but it would divert my attention if I told him so.
“Your father bought me my first good brush,” he said, as if he did not know how much concentration proper writing required.
My father’s generosity did not surprise me. Few who knew him spoke ill of him.
“With Yuichi for a father, he said, I would doubtless be writing out Oshiro’s penal codes as practice within a year. I was eight. He was right.”
I wanted to reply—but it would’ve interfered with my breathing. Scholars go on and on about the proper way to hold a brush, or the proper amount of tension to have in your wrist. I tell you the secret is in your breathing. The secret is being decisive and holding your breath.
But I did allow myself a small smile in spite of my anger. My father gave me this set, too.
“He was a good man, Shizuka-lun,” said Kenshiro.
I almost didn’t hear him. I kept thinking of what I was writing— how you’d react when you read it. Thinking of the characters. Qorin letters are simple, yes, but don’t you find they all look the same? With so many simple strokes and nothing to differentiate them, I worry about spelling—particularly when I was using Qorin letters for Hokkaran. You and I had worked out a system, but it wasn’t a perfect one.
In truth, though I’ve learned a little of the language in your absence, I worry about my spelling even to this day.
But at that moment, spelling did not matter. Even my calligraphy did not matter. As long as you could read it.
And yet… what if?
I could ask Kenshiro to read it over—to my shame, your family are the only people I know who can read Qorin—but to do so would have invited him in. There was no need for him to know what I’d told you. No need for him to be involved beyond as a messenger.
Only when I finished—when I signed my name at the bottom— did I look back at Kenshiro.
“You haven’t earned the right to call me lun again,” I said. “And speaking of my father won’t improve my opinion of you; delivering this letter might.”
He slunk away, defeated, leaving me to my memories of you. I tried to imagine what you would look like with a steel eye. Desperate to have some image of your face, I tried to paint you with my brushes: your wide face, your kind eyes, your mouth meant for mine. None of it seemed right. What a fool I was, to try to capture you in paper—and yet the idea of forgetting what you looked like terrified me. I shut my eyes and tried to imagine you on your gray: your broad shoulders slumped in resignation, your white hair frizzy in the humidity.
Excerpted from The Phoenix Empress, copyright © 2018 by K. Arsenault Rivera