Four destinies collide in a unique fantasy world of war and wonders, where empire is won with enchanted steel and magical animal companions fight alongside their masters in battle. Paul Krueger’s Steel Crow Saga is available September 24th from Del Rey—read the first two chapters below!
Tala lost her family to the empress’s army and has spent her life avenging them in battle. But the empress’s crimes don’t haunt her half as much as the crimes Tala has committed against the laws of magic… and against her own flesh and blood.
Jimuro has inherited the ashes of an empire. Now that the revolution has brought down his kingdom, he must depend on Tala to bring him home safe. But it was his army who murdered her family. Now Tala will be his redemption—or his downfall.
Xiulan is an eccentric, pipe-smoking detective who can solve any mystery—but the biggest mystery of all is her true identity. She’s a princess in disguise, and she plans to secure her throne by presenting her father with the ultimate prize: the world’s most wanted prince.
Lee is a small-time criminal who lives by only one law: Leave them before they leave you. But when Princess Xiulan asks her to be her partner in crime—and offers her a magical animal companion as a reward—she can’t say no, and she soon finds she doesn’t want to leave the princess behind.
This band of rogues and royals should all be enemies, but they unite for a common purpose: to defeat an unstoppable killer who defies the laws of magic. In this battle, they will forge unexpected bonds of friendship and love that will change their lives—and begin to change the world.
This wasn’t Lee Yeon-Ji’s first time in a jail cell, but unless the executioner changed their mind, it was looking to be her last.
The kingdom of Shang had never expected much from women like Lee, and she’d never expected a whole lot from Shang, either. All she’d ever wanted was enough room to slip about, pulling the small jobs and scams that had always kept her stomach and her pockets… well, not full, but at least more than empty. That’d been easy enough to manage during the Tomodanese occupation, and she figured it should have been even easier now that the Shang kingdom was rebuilding itself. For the most part, she’d even been right.
She just hadn’t accounted for the depths to which some people would stoop to be a prick.
She didn’t bother getting to her feet as two officers appeared beyond the bars of her cell. They were a tall woman and a short man, in scarlet guard uniforms of fine Shang wool. The tall guard rattled the cell’s bars with her baton. “On your—”
“—feet?” Lee said, with a quirk of her eyebrow. It was thin and long and sharp, like the rest of her face, like the rest of her everything. “That was what you were going to say, right? Figured I’d save you some breath, considering you Shang are about to save me a lot of mine.”
“Mouth off all you want,” said the short guard. “See what kind of mercy that gets you.”
“Oh, come on,” Lee pouted. “Could you convict and execute a face like this?”
The tall guard sneered. “Get on your feet, or I’ll summon my shade and leave it in there with you. You’re just a dogfucker. I wouldn’t even get in trouble.”
There was a time when the slur dogfucker would have hurt Lee’s feelings. But for any of the thousands of Jeongsonese living in Shang, that particular slur lost its impact by their third birthday. And Lee was a good eighteen years removed from her third birthday; she barely even registered the term now.
So in the face of the woman’s threat, Lee just shrugged. “Fuck it. Go ahead. If your shade’s a dog, I’d probably find a way to enjoy myself.” The thought of actually fucking a dog made her skin crawl. But if these puffed-up Shang were dead set on seeing her as nothing more than a dogfucker, why not play the role to the hilt on her way off the stage?
The woman was unamused by Lee’s performance. “You don’t want me to do that, girl. She bites.” She held up a hand, which was missing its last two fingers.
Lee considered pointing out it was extremely unlikely that the shade had done that, since shades were supposed to contain part of their human partner’s soul, and vice versa. But rather than annoy this guard who’d just as soon do the executioner’s job for them, she sighed and stood at last. “Lead the way, Officers,” she said, and let them take her on one last walk through the Kennel.
The prison hadn’t always been called the Kennel. Under Tomodanese control, it had been called Fort Asanuma, after the daito who’d once ruled Jungshao. And before that, in the days of the first Shang kingdom, it had been called the Temple of Justice. Even now, with Tomoda defeated and Shang ascendant once more, it had just been renamed Jungshao Prison. But the locals on both sides of the bars called it the Kennel, and who was Lee to argue with custom?
Besides, in her book there were worse things to be compared to than a dog.
The Kennel’s corridors were open air, the cellblocks forming separate buildings within a larger courtyard. This meant her cell got sunlight most days, but today there were only thick gray clouds and a thin, steady drizzle. The rain collected between the slate tiles underfoot, and they sloshed faintly with each step Lee took toward her impending death.
Some of her fellow inmates sat in their cells and stared at their feet as she passed, slouching like beaten circus animals. Others shouted things at her: Obscenities. Jeers about the gibbet that awaited her. Variations on the same four slurs she’d been hearing her whole life. She found it easy to ignore them all. Her stay in the Kennel had been so brief that if she were a man, she wouldn’t have even had the time to grow decent stubble.
Right by the front gates of the prison stood a gibbet. On one end of it was a high gallows and a trapdoor; on the other, a polished wooden block whose surface was slick with rain. This was the custom in Shang: that condemned citizens would be allowed to take ownership of their death by choosing how they got to make their exit. Lee just wished Shang custom included options like “drowning yourself in soju” or “death by a thousand naked women.”
A few prison guards were there to oversee the execution. A white-robed executioner stood atop the gibbet, leaning on a huge, heavy saber. And waiting at the foot of the stairs was the strikingly handsome Magistrate How, arguably the most powerful man in the newly liberated province of Jungshao. He hadn’t been the first enemy Lee had made in her life, but apparently he was going to be the last.
Lee smiled mirthlessly to herself. He’d come to see her off personally. How thoughtful of him.
A squat woman fell into step next to her: Warden Qu. She looked oddly at home in the rain, but perhaps it only seemed that way because of her toadlike appearance. “What will it be, Lee?” she said. “The rope or the blade?”
“Don’t suppose you’d let me order off the menu?” Lee said. She kept her tone even, but her traitor heart started to race as she eyed her two choices. It’d been easy to remain cool and detached before now, hiding behind smirks, snark, and silence. But you couldn’t exactly smile your way out from under the shadow of a gibbet.
“You’re hardly the first guest to make that comment.” The warden sighed. She always referred to the inmates as guests, as if they were all friends bunking together at a roadside inn. “Have you made your choice?”
Lee did the math. Escape was impossible. If she made a break for it, they’d either shoot her or sic their shades on her. And it wasn’t like she had one of her own to summon; her native Jeongson was a vassal state of Shang, and only Shang-born citizens were allowed to know the secrets of shadepacting. Not that the steelhounds had been better, the bastards. Some of the Jeongsonese had actually welcomed Tomoda when they’d first arrived on Shang’s shores, eager to see their oppressors given a taste of their own medicine. But as far as overlords went, the Tomodanese had been more of a lateral move than an upgrade.
She sighed, as if choosing the manner of her death were little more than an annoying household chore. “Sword,” she said. “Any chance he can warm it up before he swings it? My neck’s cold.”
The warden rolled her eyes, then waddled over to the gibbet to let the executioner know. Lee prepared to follow her up the stairs, but the magistrate held up a hand. “A moment,” he said in the bouncy tones typical of Shang’s public servants.
“You mind, Magistrate?” Lee said. No point in observing pleasantries now. “I’m kind of in the middle of something.”
“I just wanted to remind you,” said Magistrate How, “that everyone has their betters, and this is what happens when you test them. There’s a natural order to things, and Heaven forbids that it be upset.”
Lee shrugged. “I’ll lodge a complaint when I get there. Get right to the heart of the matter.”
Magistrate How, born pale enough, went even paler.
“What?” said Lee. “Can’t stomach a friendly chat in the rain?”
All the color had drained from the magistrate’s face. Lee could practically see the veins and capillaries in his cheeks. “How dare you!” he shrieked, then slapped her across the face. He didn’t have a lot of strength in him, but he had a lot of rings on his fingers, and they stung fiercely when they connected with her cheekbones.
The warden came running. “Magistrate How!” she said. .“What—?”
“Don’t mind him,” Lee said. “The man’s just venting his spleen. I’ll have me that sword now.”
Magistrate How scoffed. “As if I’d ever allow you a clean death,” he said, his imperious tones back in full force. “Warden, executioner, you shall hang her!”
The warden shook her head. “Apologies, Magistrate,” she said. “The law’s clear: We must honor her choice of the sword.”
“I am the law,” the magistrate said, rounding on her. “I have been appointed by His Most August Personage the Crane Emperor himself. If I say I want her hanged, I will have her hanged.” Seeing him carry on, it surprised Lee how much the right kind of sneer could unmake even the handsomest face.
Warden Qu shot an apologetic look Lee’s way, then cupped a hand to her mouth. “Bring the rope!”
As the executioner fitted Lee for the noose, the warden read aloud the final rites. There was a promise in there to clean her bones and return them to whatever kin she had left in Danggae, but Lee figured they’d just as soon heave her into a ditch. That was just as well, honestly; the way she and her family had left things, there was a good chance that, on receiving her bones, they would’ve done the exact same thing.
She sighed. She’d never appreciated how useful the sigh was as a communication tool, and now she was trying to savor the last few she had left in her.
“Do you have any final words?” Warden Qu said.
Lee mulled it over a moment. At last, she settled on what she wanted to say, and opened her mouth to speak. “I—”
“Would anyone mind terribly if I speak for the incipient deceased?” called a new voice. As one, every head turned to see its owner striding up cheerfully through the rain. She was a small woman, wearing a high-collared white coat that was a bit short in the tail but overlong in the sleeves. Her trousers billowed like skirts. Her white trilby hat sloped low onto her forehead, covering her left eye. In fact, nothing she wore appeared to fit her right, except for her shiny new boots. These individual aspects of her appearance were all off-kilter, but somehow they blended into a whole that Lee found surprisingly appealing.
The warden started. “I don’t know how you got in here, madam,” she said, signaling to the guards. “But you have no business staying.”
“In point of fact, this shiny badge here says I have business wherever I so please,” the newcomer said. Her hand plunged into the depths of her coat, and from it she withdrew… well, a shiny badge, in the distinctive shape of a bronze pentagon.
“I don’t care what your badge says!” said Magistrate How. “I am the law here, not some upjumped lapdog of the Snow-Feather Throne, or—”
Lee cracked a genuine smile of recognition, if not disbelief. “An inspector of the Li-Quan.”
The Li-Quan. Shang’s highest police, who directly enforced the will of the Crane Emperor. There weren’t that many Li-Quan these days, since Shang was only just getting back on its feet in the wake of the Peony Revolution, but the few that still existed were able to operate with complete unilateral authority.
Warden Qu pressed her fists knuckle-to-knuckle, then offered them forward with a bow. “Apologies. An agent of the Snow-Feather Throne will of course have our full cooperation.”
“I’ve the fullest confidence of that,” said the newcomer cheerfully. “And to you, Lee Yeon-Ji, I apologize for stealing the spotlight during your big moment. I promise, we’ll return to the matter of your death shortly. But first, I would like to tell everyone here a story.
“Once upon a time,” she began, “there was a young woman named Lee Yeon-Ji. Say,” she added in mock surprise, “that sounds an awful lot like your name!”
The magistrate seethed. His cheeks were burning so red, it was a wonder the rain didn’t steam off his face. “Can we please move it along… Inspector?”
“I’m afraid not,” the inspector said gravely, before brightening up and plowing on with her story. “Now, thanks to the marginalized position of the Jeongsonese people in the fabric of Shang society, Lee Yeon-Ji didn’t grow up with many opportunities. She had to do what she could to survive. That meant a little graft and petty thievery, but never anything that drastically disturbed the Crane Emperor’s peace. So on one such endeavor, she opted to go into business with a Shang man named Zheng Lok. Is that right?”
Lee had no idea what to expect of this oddball, but every second she was talking was a moment Lee wasn’t hanging from a gibbet. “He went by Lefty when I knew him.”
The newcomer brightened. “Lefty. How folksy. I love it. Now, when their business was concluded, Lefty did something very stupid: He attempted to abscond with Lee’s half of their ill-gotten gains—a sum of six hundred yuan, if I’m not mistaken.”
Lee nodded to let her know that she was not.
“He was quite astute in the way he went about it,” said the inspector. “He took great care to leave no trail or word of where he’d gone, and arranged his departure to happen in such a way that Lee wouldn’t even notice what had happened until he was already long gone. But that didn’t change the fact that what Lefty had done was very, very stupid indeed.
“You see, it didn’t matter that Lefty had only left behind the barest of clues that he’d ever been in Lee’s life at all. Because Lee took the tiniest shreds of evidence, and from them was able to unerringly track Lefty here to Jungshao. But there was a problem: When she arrived in town, she discovered that her erstwhile comrade Lefty had run afoul of some of the local toughs, who it turned out were involved in a rather lucrative ring of illegal organ-selling and had been looking to… expand their inventory.”
“But the magistrate oversaw this case personally,” Warden Qu said. The man himself looked deeply uncomfortable where he stood. “The evidence presented a clear case for Lee Yeon-Ji’s guilt in this despicable criminal enterprise.”
“Yes, well, that’s our infallible justice system for you,” said the inspector airily. “It finds the guilty party each time, and sentences them justly. Why, you could say the only way our justice system would ever fail someone would be if one of our own magistrates were to commit a crime, pin it on a convenient innocent, and then handle the case personally to ensure things went his way. But,” she added as her smile suddenly gained an edge, “that wouldn’t be possible, would it?”
She took a step up onto the scaffold, toward the magistrate. He yelped a little and visibly shrank from her. “If something like that were to happen,” the inspector said with theatrical thoughtfulness, “it would almost certainly attract the attention of… well, of the Li-Quan, I suppose. Don’t you agree, Magist—oh look, he’s running.”
Magistrate How had leapt off the scaffolding and immediately taken off at a clumsy dash. “Open the gate!” he shrieked to the attending guards. He didn’t seem terribly athletic to begin with, but his ceremonial robes were laden down with rainwater, and that definitely wasn’t helping him. “Open the gate and get me away from this corrupt, raving, clearly insane—”
The guards milled around in confusion. The warden sputtered like a cheap Dahali motorbike. Even the executioner seemed to be at a loss for what to do next. Only two people were calm: Lee and the inspector.
Lee nodded to his retreating figure. “Looks like he’s getting away.”
The inspector’s smile was as lopsided as her hat. “I would dispute your observation.” She brought her fingers to her mouth and whistled. It was high and piercing, and Lee marveled such a loud noise could come from someone so small. She frowned. What was this woman thinking—that the magistrate would just turn around at the noise and come back like a dog?
But just before the magistrate could make it to the gate, the tiles in front of his feet exploded up from the ground. The warden gave a high-pitched squeal as a spray of dirt and water blew him off his feet. And into sight scurried a rat-shade the size of a large dog, or even a small pony. Its fur looked to be bright white, though at the moment it was matted with brown mud. In the gloom, one eye glinted pink, like a chunk of tourmaline set in its skull. In the other, a plain white eye bore a black pactmark: a square divided into quarters, like a windowpane.
But of course, the real eye-catchers were its large yellow teeth.
“Bring him here, Kou!” the inspector said as calmly as if she were directing laborers hanging a painting. In reply, the rat-shade lunged straight for the screaming magistrate, clamped its jaws around his leg, and scurried back toward the gibbet.
Lee noted that the rat-shade was not particularly delicate about how it dragged the magistrate across the courtyard’s stony floor.
“This is an insult!” the magistrate howled. He pointed a narrow finger at the inspector. “I challenge you to gui juedou for my freedom!”
The woman grinned. Lee got the impression she’d been hoping he’d say that. And for a moment, Lee thought she was about to witness an impromptu honor duel.
But then the inspector said, “The rite of gui juedou is forfeit when an agent of the Li-Quan gets involved. But challenge me anyway, and be twice humiliated in the doing. Now do me the courtesy of being quiet, or I shall have Kou ensure your silence myself.”
The magistrate shut up.
“Warden Qu,” the inspector said, reaching into her coat again. She pulled out a thick envelope and tossed it to the warden. But the throw was clumsy, and the envelope landed in a puddle well short of the warden. The inspector kept her voice smooth and even, but Lee didn’t miss the color that crept up to her eartips. “In here, you’ll find irrefutable proof that Magistrate How is an organ smuggler and salesman. That should be enough to free Madam Lee.”
Qu picked up the envelope, blinking numbly at it. “In a sense, yes,” she said faintly. “But there’s due process to go through, and a magistrate would need to sign off on it. I could dial up the neighboring magistrate, but it would take at least two days to get release papers to them, and another two days for those papers to return with their signature.”
Lee thought about it for a moment, then said, “You don’t need their signature to release me,” she said. She eyed the inspector carefully, wondering if she had the right measure of the woman. Then she rolled the dice and continued: “You see, I’m an agent of the Li-Quan.”
It took half a second for the inspector’s surprise to bleed into a mischievous smile.
The warden already looked flustered enough. Now she seemed all but beside herself. “What?” she said, her head snapping up to her prisoner. “No, you’re not! You’re… you’re…”
“Jeongsonese?” said the inspector. “Very observant of you, Warden. Who better to travel around Shang, conducting, ah, business for the throne, than someone the world will go out of its way to overlook?”
Lee didn’t smile, but it was a very near thing.
“The fact is, Lee Yeon-Ji is one of the Li-Quan’s finest agents both in spite of and because of her heritage, and the one I’m proud to call my partner. I had her embedded here for a long-term sting operation meant to entrap our illustrious former magistrate over there.” The inspector gestured toward How, who was screaming and squirming ineffectually as he tried to escape the rat-shade waiting patiently for a command.
Warden Qu’s mouth worked up and down furiously. “I—but this—if this is true, why didn’t you say anything?”
“And break my cover?” Lee said. “No. I couldn’t. Not until I had How right where we wanted him.”
Qu looked both furious and horrified. “You were about to be hanged.”
“And did I ever look rattled to you?” said Lee.
“Of course she didn’t,” the inspector said pleasantly. “Because she knew her partner was about to ride in and close this case for good. Now, if you’d be so kind as to send some of your guards to collect my partner’s personal effects, we’ll be on our way…”
Lee shook her head. “Not just yet.”
The warden and the inspector both turned to look at her: Qu with exasperation, the newcomer with amusement.
Lee pointed down at Magistrate How, crushed as he was under the weight of a giant rat. “That bastard owes me six hundred yuan.”
“You’re quite fun,” the inspector said once they were alone. Specifically, they were in the back of a car that had been waiting for them outside the gates of the Kennel, with a glass partition between them and the driver. “Quick on your feet, too.” She reached into the folds of her coat and produced a large wooden pipe, which she sparked with a slender silver lighter. She leaned back in her seat, sighing smoke. “Your file didn’t do you justice.”
Lee supposed she was flattered to learn she had a file at all. She sprawled out, luxuriating in her old clothes: a fitted black dress with half sleeves and a surprising number of pockets, and tall, chapped black boots that began where her hem ended. After a few days in ill-fitting prison robes, it was nice to be in something practical again. “I’m just curious,” she said. “I like to do things and see what happens.”
The lighter flame danced in the inspector’s one visible eye. “Like a cat pushing a glass off a table.”
“I guess. More of a dog person, myself,” said Lee. “So, what can I do for you… Princess?”
To her credit, the inspector didn’t react, save to snuff out her lighter. “I fear you have the wrong idea of me, Lee. The Li-Quan serves the royal family. We’re not part of it.”
“The Li-Quan on the whole’s not,” Lee said, “but you are.”
“You saw my shade mere moments ago,” the inspector said. “Members of the royal family exclusively pact with white cranes, a class of creature to which Kou could hardly claim kinship.”
“I saw him. He was white enough. Every cop I ever met goes out of their way to look respectable. You look like your mother’s clothes trunk ate you and shat you back out. But you’re not a fashion victim, because you’ve still got boots that’re good for walking and running. To me, that all means you don’t mind your authority being questionable, because you’ve got something other than just your badge to fall back on if you really need.”
“Like my badge?”
“Give me an afternoon, an awl, and an old tin can, and I’d come up with a badge,” Lee said. “Whatever you’re leaning on, it’s something you can’t forget in your other coat.”
The inspector chuckled. “That theory has an awful lot of guesswork.”
“If it leads me to the right place,” said Lee, “does it really matter?”
“I suppose not.” She removed her hat, allowing her hair to fall freely around her face. Lee was struck by how young this girl was. She herself was barely twenty-one years old, and this girl was perhaps two years behind her. “You have the honor of addressing…” She sighed and rolled her right eye, as a stray bang had fallen to cover her left. “… Shang Xiulan, Twenty-Eighth Princess, the…” She sighed again, and shuddered. “…Lady of Moonlight.”
Now it was Lee’s turn not to react. “Twenty-Eighth Princess” meant she was twenty-eighth in line for the throne, and likely the daughter of one of the less favored Crane Wives. But a lesser princess was still a princess. She guessed a bow was probably in order, so she inclined her head. “Your Majesty,” she said. She didn’t remember if that was the proper form of address for royals. She’d never really encountered one in the wild before.
“Oh, enough with that,” said Xiulan with an irritated wave. “Do you have any idea how hard it would be for me to operate if everyone was bowing and scraping after me everywhere I went? Just call me Xiulan.”
“I guess I should,” Lee said. She held up a fifty-yuan note to the light, mostly to give her restless hands something to do. “Seeing how we’re partners.”
Xiulan laughed. “That was a fun little bit of theater, wasn’t it? The look on her face…”
“Yeah, I hope all the stress gives her an ulcer or something,” said Lee. “But that does bring me back to my first question: What does a fancy-pants Daughter of the Crane who can’t throw want with a gutter dog like me?”
“I have many ambitions and goals,” said Xiulan, bristling slightly. “Throwing things has never been essential to their accomplishment. Simply put: I need to find somebody. Specifically, Iron Prince Jimuro of the former Tomodanese Empire, son of the late Steel Lord Yoshiko and heir to the throne.”
Lee raised an eyebrow. “He’s still locked up in Sanbu, isn’t he? Case closed. Who do I bill?”
“He was. He’s due to be moved back to Tomoda, so he can ascend the throne at Hagane and negotiate a future on behalf of his beleaguered and defeated people.” Xiulan cocked her head curiously. “How does that make you feel?”
Lee shrugged. “I’ve got no love for the Tomodanese, but I doubt it’ll improve my lot in life much whether his ass polishes the throne or not.”
“I, too, harbor some animosity for the Tomodanese,” said Xiulan. “But let me then ask: How do you feel about the House of
Lee’s expression darkened. She eyed her new companion carefully.
Xiulan seemed to understand. “You have my word as a princess that you can speak freely without fear of reprisal or repercussion.”
“You don’t survive a life like mine if you haven’t got a fear of repercussions,” Lee said. “But fine, since you asked nicely: You’re a bunch of inbred fucks who’ve beaten down my country so badly it’ll never be able to stand on its own again, and kicked my people so much that even if you gave us our country back, we wouldn’t know what to do with it anymore. Going from you, to the Tomodanese, and then back to you… it’s like we’re that pipe of yours, getting passed around. You light us on fire, and then you suck everything valuable out of us. Doesn’t matter whose lips and lungs are doing the sucking.” She thought a moment, then added: “… Your Majesty.”
“Well,” she said after a second, “I suppose that wasn’t…” She swallowed. “… unwarranted.” She took another pull from her pipe. “My father is an old man whose health was sapped by the long war for our freedom. All his eligible successors are quite young. Whomever he chooses as First Princess or Prince would be the chief architect of a reborn Shang. Every one of his children knows this, and they’re all vying to be repositioned in first.”
“I see,” Lee said. “So you think you should be number one, do you? And you want me to help you find Iron Prince Jimuro before he gets to Hagane and ascends?”
Xiulan didn’t even shrug the accusation off, and Lee found herself charmed by how unabashed the other woman was. “I would be an excellent ruler. Why do you think I joined a law enforcement agency instead of sitting in a palace all day and having plum cakes gently lowered into my mouth?”
“Probably ’cause you’re dead stupid,” Lee said. By the time she realized what a daft thing that was to say to a princess, it was already too late.
Xiulan’s demeanor remained pleasant, but now a thin layer of frost had formed over it. “Careful, Lee Yeon-Ji,” she said, her gaze fixed as she took a long pull from her pipe. “I enjoy you, but proceed with caution.”
Lee had mouthed off to magistrates, wardens, and crime bosses aplenty. She’d figured royalty was just like the rest, except they had fancy chairs. But this princess had made her hair stand on end in a way no one else ever had. She shut her trap.
After a moment’s silence, Xiulan continued: “A Sanbuna fleet set sail from Lisan City last week, and its flagship was widely reported to be carrying Iron Prince Jimuro aboard. My sister, Second Princess Ruomei, has hired a fleet of her own to meet it on its way and ensure Jimuro never makes it home. Her success would undoubtedly ensure her ascension to the throne, which would be…” She pulled a face. “I wouldn’t care for such an eventuality, and you wouldn’t, either.”
It sounded to Lee like Xiulan had come to the wrong place, and she was about to point that out. But then she caught the princess’s wording: “widely reported to be carrying.” “You don’t think he’s there.”
Just like that, the frost melted. “I think General Erega is far too cunning to play such a delicate matter so broadly,” Xiulan said excitedly. She looked like she’d been dying to have someone to talk about this with. “I think all our attention is being carefully diverted elsewhere so the prince can be moved secretly and safely.”
Lee frowned. “Why bother with all that?”
“As admirable a figure as the Typhoon General is, her newborn republic is built on quicksand,” Xiulan said. “It lacks the long, proud history that makes the Shang dynasty strong. The Li-Quan’s informants within the republic tell me all her advisers and underlings are constantly undercutting one another and leaking information to the Sanbuna press. If a foreign power didn’t step up to eliminate the Iron Prince, it’s likely one of those untrustworthy subordinates might take matters into their own hands. Hence: a covert operation with minimal logistical support… but minimal oversight.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of an operation,” Lee sniffed. “More like a big, fat gamble.”
“To be fair, I too am, ah, playing the odds here,” Xiulan said delicately. “The Li-Quan’s information has its limits. But what data points we do possess, I’ve studied quite closely. I’ve applied similar scrutiny to General Erega, for that matter. My conclusion: One does not overthrow an entire empire by pursuing the first, most obvious course of action when the eyes of the world are upon you.”
Lee frowned a little. That wasn’t the most encouraging thing to hear. “I’m guessing you don’t want your sister to find him first,” she said. “So why not just let General Erega do her thing? She gets the prince to Tomoda, he takes the throne, and your sister doesn’t look any better for it.”
“I will not put the future of Shang in the hands of the Republic of Sanbu,” said Xiulan. “Shang should determine Shang’s future, and Shang alone. It’s my wish to find and capture Iron Prince Jimuro personally, and present him to my father as a diplomatic puppet. And when he allows me to ascend to the rank of First Princess as my reward, I will be free to, among other things, begin paying restitution to Jeongson and its people.”
Lee’s eyebrows rose. She’d never been much of a nationalist—
a rather natural side effect of never having a nation to call her own. But assuming this wasn’t just some birdshit the Shang were shoveling, a lot of opportunities had just opened up.
Still, life had taught her many times over that desperation was never the way to get what you wanted.
“So, what’s all this got to do with me, then?” Lee said. “You want me to find him for you? Finding Lefty was one thing, but I knew Lefty. This Iron Prince, I know about as well as I know you.”
Xiulan didn’t seem daunted by this. “Prior to all this business, you and your confederate Lefty were responsible for the ransacking of Daito Arishima’s estate in the province of Guakong, were you not?”
Lee folded her arms over her chest. “Prove it.”
“Rest assured that I could if I truly needed to, or I wouldn’t have gone to the effort of seeking you out.” She puffed again on her pipe. “A fact of which you may not be aware is that the late Steel Lord took great pains to conceal the appearances of her children, as they were both serving in the Tomodanese military. Photographs of the Iron Prince and Princess were strictly forbidden, save for ones the Li-Quan knows to have been gifted to close friends of the Mountain Throne…”
“Like Daito Arishima,” Lee finished, catching on.
“Most Tomodanese highborns were good about destroying sensitive documents in anticipation of their capture. But the Li-Quan has located enough files that can be traced back to the Arishima household to conclude that he didn’t have time to properly dispose of them.”
“Right, got it,” Lee said. “You don’t know what the guy looks like, and you’re looking for the photograph of him I found. That about cover it?”
“You’re pleasingly shrewd, Lee Yeon-Ji.”
For a second, Lee sized up her options. There was definitely a way to string this slumming princess along. But even as Lee started to form that plan, she hesitated. The earnest hunger on the princess’s face was exactly what she looked for in a potential mark. But this woman had also saved her life. And she’d talked about helping out Lee’s people, which was more than Lee had ever heard from any other Shang she’d met.
And honestly, that earnestness was its own kind of charming.
“I lost the photo,” she said. “Hard to keep ahold of things, with the way I live.” Xiulan’s entire body slumped with disappointment. “But that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten what the Iron Prince looks like.” The princess perked back up. “If you’re looking to go after him, I can help.”
Just like that, Xiulan was practically bouncing in her seat again. “Truly excellent news!” she said, before her enthusiasm dimmed a degree. “But I imagine your help, without which I cannot proceed on my mission, will come at a steep cost, yes?”
“A cost ain’t steep if it’s worth what you get back,” said Lee. “Now, that bit you said about helping the Jeongsonese people… that’s nice and all, but it’s a long-term investment. I’ve never had the luxury of a guaranteed long term, though. I help you do this thing, and what do I get out of it?”
The light in Xiulan’s eye changed. Her pipe drooped in her mouth.
“Disappointed, are you?” said Lee. “Hoping I’d be civic-minded and come along on this trip just for the virtue of the cause? You said you read my file, so let me ask: Did it ever say in there that virtue was what kept my stomach full? That patriotism ever kept my head out of the rain?”
Xiulan’s shoulders slumped. Lee felt a twinge of sympathy for her, then immediately tamped it down. Easy, Lee, she thought. Don’t go soft just because she’s got good cheekbones.
She didn’t need Lee’s sympathy. She was a princess. She already had everything.
“Name it,” Xiulan said after a moment. “What is the price for your help? To the best of my ability, I’ll provide it.”
Lee didn’t have to think about it, but for appearances’ sake she pretended to for a few moments before answering.
“I want a fat government salary,” she said eventually. “Maybe a nice new dress, the blacker the better.”
Xiulan raised an eyebrow, amused. “Is that all?”
Lee shook her head, then leaned forward hungrily. “And I want me a shade.”
The Marlin carved a wake across the ocean like chalk on a slate. The wooden ship bore no sails or engine, or even oars. Instead, just beneath the surface of the waves swam a massive shark-shade, pulling the ship by the thick cables spilling over the Marlin’s fore. Every so often, the creature would drift closer to the surface and its human-sized dorsal fin would stab up at the twilight sky before slipping back below the blue.
The Marlin was as sturdy a vessel as any in the Sanbuna fleet, though Sergeant Tala had more than a few misgivings about the constant creaking of its floorboards. Unlike the steel ships of Tomoda or the ironclads of Shang and Dahal, the Marlin was made in the traditional Sanbuna way: entirely of wood. The ship was a majestic sight, the kind that would have inspired Tala’s seafaring ancestors to song and verse. But the wood construction wasn’t just about piety for the history of the Sanbu Islands. It was a necessary precaution, given the ship’s cargo.
So all Tala could do was grip the wooden railing of the Marlin as she glowered at the horizon, and at the shades-forsaken isle that lay somewhere beyond it.
Tala commanded the 13-52-2: the Second Platoon, Fifty-Second Company, Thirteenth Regiment of the army of the newly liberated Republic of Sanbu, though at the moment she and her platoon were technically marines. She was a woman of twenty hard-earned years, taller than most of the women under her command and shorter than most of the men. The neat dark-green uniform she wore had become standard issue only in the last two years of the war; before, the Army of the Republic had been a piecemeal rebel militia whose “uniform” had been “as much green shit as you can find.”
Though she sometimes missed the old emerald motley she’d worn as a jungle-runner, she’d appreciated that when the time had come to take the fight to Tomoda itself, she’d landed on its beaches dressed as a real soldier. But despite the decisive victory the Garden Revolution’s forces had won against the steelhounds on their own blighted turf, and the snazzy uniform Tala had gotten out of the whole ordeal, the sergeant had left the island of Tomoda with zero desire to ever return.
Her seaward scowl deepened.
No griping, soldier, she chided herself. You volunteered.
She turned her attention back to the deck. A few of her marines were helping the Marlin’s crew struggle to re-secure a huge, heavy bamboo crate. The crate held the one car that they hadn’t had room for in the hold, so it’d been stuck topside for the whole voyage. Normally, they could’ve chained it in place, but the no-metal rule meant they’d had to make do with thick rope.
But that only accounted for four of her command. The majority of them stood in a circle, clearing a makeshift arena where Private Minip’s shade sparred with Private Kapona.
Kapona was a tall woman with a brawler’s swagger and a blacksmith’s build. She’d stripped to her waist for this fight, and the dying sunlight glistened across her bare back. Her opponent, a monkey-shade, pranced around her. Pacting had gifted it with human size, a pair of long whiplike tails, and, on the white fur of its inner thigh, a pactmark—a yellow six-pointed star. When you saw that, it was easy to figure why Private Minip had named him Sunny.
Kapona swung a fist, but Sunny easily dodged it. His tails threshed the air excitedly as he darted this way and that. All Kapona’s punches went wild, and Sunny let out a taunting whoop.
“Hoy, Kapona,” Private Minip called. “He says he’s thrown shits that fight better than you.”
Laughter rose from the onlookers. In the privacy of the sidelines, Tala allowed herself a small smile. As their sergeant, she preferred to play the aloof superior whenever possible. But she had to be fair: For Minip, that’d been a pretty good joke.
Kapona’s hands curled into fists, but her mouth curled into a smile. “You tell him that he’s the one getting thrown next.”
Minip rolled his eyes. “Tanga. He can hear you. He’s not—”
Kapona gave up a growl and charged, an unstoppable mass of muscle and momentum. She didn’t have a shade of her own, but Tala had always assumed that if Kapona ever found the right animal to pact with, it would be a bull.
Once again, Sunny easily leapt out of the way. But this time, instead of turning around to press the attack, Kapona just kept going. Her squadmates threw themselves clear as she plowed straight into Minip, tackling him to the deck.
Safe from the eyes of her platoon, Tala chuckled softly to herself.
Kapona emerged from the tussle with Minip in a headlock. “Call it!” she said. “Call it!”
Minip’s round face turned red as he struggled futilely against Kapona. Then he groaned and extended a hand toward Sunny. The shade burst into a cloud of yellow energy, which sucked itself back into Minip’s body. Grinning, Kapona let him go, then hauled him to his feet. “You almost had me that time.” She patted him on the head.
“You cheated,” Minip said sourly.
A shrug rolled through her huge shoulders. “I won. Hoy, Sarge!” she called to Tala. “Pretty good, eh?”
Tala wiped her smile away before she looked up to respond. “Your footwork’s still shit, Private.”
The onlookers laughed. Once again, Kapona met the dig with a wide grin. “You should take a step into the ring, sir. Show us pups how it’s done.”
“Yeah,” said Private Radnan, a man with a wiry build and a sleepy face. He never lost those half-lidded eyes or that easy smile, even when Tala had seen him carving up oncoming steelhounds with his utility knife. “Take a turn, Sarge. You can fight my shade.”
“No, mine,” offered up Private Ompaco. It was a tired joke; her shade was a large stingray who, like the other aquatic shades, had no place on deck.
“Sarge has better things to do.” A broad, handsome man in a navy officer’s uniform emerged from the lower decks. His green coat hung lazily open, rippling in the breeze. He was Captain Maki, known to friend and foe alike as the Hammerhead. It was a nickname well earned: both for his ferocity at sea, and because his shade, Tivron, was a gigantic hammerhead shark whose teeth could puncture a steel hull. “It’s her turn down below.”
In disciplined unison, the entire 13-52-2 turned toward him and bowed in salute. As a fellow officer, Tala only had to give him a shallow bow. And because he was Maki and she was Tala, she only ever had to do it when there were others watching.
“Guess you’ll have to get along without me,” Tala called to her troops as she stepped past them. “Try not to light everything on fire while I’m gone.” And then her feet deposited her right in front of Maki, to whom she bowed again. “Sir.”
Maki rolled his tawny eyes. “Am I ever gonna get you to stop calling me that?”
“Not likely, sir,” she said, then smiled a tiny bit. Unless she was by herself, for Tala smiling was mostly something other people did. But Maki and Maki alone had a way of making her behave more like other people. “How is he today?”
“In as fine a fucking mood as ever,” he replied. He fiddled with the pommel of his officer’s machete, like he always did when he was irritated. He indicated for her to follow him down belowdecks. “The closer he gets to home, the bigger a prick he becomes. He’s lucky the voyage was so short. Another day or two, and I’d have popped him on the jaw, right between the bars.”
“That’s a pretty picture you’re painting, sir.”
“Idiot should know better,” Maki grumbled as the two of them descended the wooden steps. “Talking back to a captain on his own ship… the princeling’s got a death wish. And if my orders didn’t hold me back, I’d grant it.”
“You’d have to beat me to it,” Tala said darkly. “We’re too honest for our own good. Why else would the general sucker us into a mission like this one?” That wasn’t strictly true, or even kind of true; it had taken General Erega virtually no effort to convince Tala to volunteer.
“Yeah.” Maki sighed as they reached the second deck: the galley, the mess, and the cramped bunks that accommodated both the 13-52-2 and Maki’s own crew. He’d invited Tala to share his cabin, but that was a door she didn’t want to reopen, in every sense. “Well, at least she put us together on one last job, neh?”
“Neh,” Tala grunted. Certainly, she couldn’t think of any other person she trusted to sail her safely into Tomodanese waters.
His smile faded. Captain Maki was the kind of man who spent his smiles like they were coin and the world was a card table, so when he got serious, she knew to listen up.
“Tala,” he said, “what’re you going to do after the war’s over?”
Tala eyed a few nearby crewmen and gave him a small shake of her head.
Maki waved it aside. “You think I don’t know all the spots on my own ship where I can’t be overheard?”
Tala’s mouth twisted. Of course she hadn’t thought that. She had, however, been thinking about this conversation. Specifically, about how it was one she didn’t ever want to have.
“Haven’t figured that out just yet,” she said after a moment. She hoped her vagueness would end the conversation, but instead it just sparked a light behind Maki’s warm brown eyes.
“I get it,” he said. “Spend enough time in uniform, and eventually you can’t even imagine wearing anything else. Why d’you think I signed up for this mission, same as you?”
Not “same as,” Tala thought with a tiny pang of guilt as she listened on. Because of.
“But once this mission’s done with, that’s it for us. You and me, we’ll both be decommissioned. And that means we’ll both be free to figure out what comes next. What I’m trying to say is, what do you say to making that a group project?”
Inside, she reeled. Somewhere in another life, there was a Tala who had been waiting the whole war for him to ask that question. But that Tala wasn’t her, couldn’t be her.
So she blinked at him and deadpanned, “You’re supposed to get down on one knee when you propose, sir.”
Maki laughed. “I know better. All I’m saying is, it’s always been one thing or another between us—”
“I seem to remember a whole war,” Tala continued to deadpan, while a spike of panic ran through the back of her head.
“—but this time next week, there’ll be nothing left but you and me. So why not make a go of it, neh?” He reached for her, though he waited for her tacit permission before he put a hand on her shoulder. And of course, her heart chose that exact moment to flutter.
She wanted to say yes. Shades take her, did she want to say yes.
But with Tala, as long as she lived, there would always be a “but.”
“Now’s not the time to be thinking about this,” Tala said. “Not when we still have a job to do.”
Maki had the grace to look only gently crestfallen, but Tala saw his fingers toying with his machete’s pommel again. “You’re right, of course.” He sighed. “Mind on your duty. That’s why the general picked you for this.” His fingers picked up the pace. “I’m going to go… check some of the maps in my cabin.”
“Yeah,” Tala said. “I know the way.”
Maki flashed her a wobbly grin before he turned and left her. Tala watched him go, hating herself. Since she was a marine sergeant and Maki a navy captain, they’d crossed paths a few times in the war. And every time they did, it kicked up a lot of inconvenient questions in her head. She would’ve been lying to say she hadn’t entertained the thought a time or two. But anytime she felt tempted, she thought back to the faces of those she’d lost to Tomoda’s bullets and bombs. Her ina, who made the neighborhood’s best adobo. Her ama, who always sang while he cleaned the house. And Dimangan.
Always, always him.
That was all it took to remind herself that as long as she lived, her family would always have to come first.
She pointed a finger at the floor next to her. “Beaky.”
Purple energy erupted from her fingertip and a moment later coalesced into a fully formed shade. Hers had once been a crow, but he was larger than an eagle now, with a proud crest of black feathers atop his head. Their shadepact had painted three interlocking purple rings across his black breast feathers, a mirror of the pactmark emblazoned over Tala’s own sternum.
He cocked his head to the side, and she felt his annoyance like it was a chill behind a closed door. As with most shades, Beaky didn’t communicate in words, but it was easy enough to suss out his meaning: What now?
“Come on,” she said. “We’re going to go see your favorite person.”
His annoyance intensified, but nonetheless Beaky followed her down the next flight of stairs, hopping just behind her the whole way.
The lowest deck was stacked high with wooden crates lashed to the floor to prevent them from sliding. But the real precious cargo was at the very back, sitting on his cot in a cell specially made of wood, like the ship itself, so he couldn’t work his country’s sorcery on its metal bars.
He was short, and possibly as young as she. His skin was fair, his hair long and black and pulled into a tight round topknot revealing a severe widow’s peak. His thin face was adorned with a scraggly mustache and goatee, neither of which suited him well at all. He wore round spectacles and a nondescript blue yukata. Such was the only splendor left for Iron Prince Jimuro, heir to the Mountain Throne of Tomoda.
Until she and her squad went and crowned the bastard, anyway.
“Sergeant,” the prince said in flawless Sanbuna. It always grated on Tala how easily he turned her native tongue against her. Her grasp of Tomodanese was nowhere near as firm. “So nice of you to join me. I was just on the verge of getting bored, and we can’t have that, now can we?”
Tala regarded him with cold eyes and said nothing. She couldn’t trust herself to. The Tomodanese people worshipped this sneering brat as a living god. Extinguishing his holy bloodline would have been a shot in the heart those monsters never could have recovered from, and no one was more deserving of the right to deliver that blow than the people of Sanbu. General Erega was a military genius, the head of their new republic, and a personal hero of Tala’s, but it was only out of respect for the woman that Tala had volunteered for this mission, and only out of respect for her orders that the Iron Prince still drew breath.
Her fist clenched tight as her jaw. We should have delivered you home in pieces.
She took up her usual position in front of his cell and stood at rigid attention. For the next four hours, this would be her job. Technically, as an officer she could have been exempt from this duty and pawned it off onto one of her marines. But when the general had pulled the 13-52-2 aside to offer them a chance to volunteer for this mission, it’d been Tala who had said yes, leaving her squad no real choice but to go with her. With that knowledge lying heavily across her shoulders, Tala had been determined to put herself through everything her troops went through… including time down in the brig.
Next to her, Beaky fell in line, his feathers bristling and wings twitching. His irritation was separate from Tala’s own, but feeling his had a way of stoking hers, which stoked his in turn. Beaky liked to be in places where he could stretch his wings. This cramped, dark hold was no place for a bird like him.
“Ah, so it’s to be the silent treatment today, then,” the Iron Prince continued. “Well, perhaps I can just chalk today up as a loss.” She heard him moving around in his cell, though she couldn’t see what he was doing. “After all, once we land, we’ll still have a three-day drive down to Hagane. Plenty of time for opportunities to catch you when you’re feeling more talkative.”
Tala fixed her gaze straight ahead, counting the number of bamboo planks it took to form the side of a crate.
“You know, I’ve been asking the captain about you. Every other soldier always brings some fresh digs at my appearance, or long speeches about why we lost, or a list of relatives they want me to un-kill. But you’re the only one who’s barely said anything to me.”
Tala cursed as his words made her lose count. She started over again: Two, three, four…
“Forgive me for being self-absorbed, but I find that odd. I mean, here I am: the demonspawn of Tomoda, locked in a cell where you can say whatever you like to me without consequences. Whatever grudges you’re dragging behind you, now would be the ideal time to unload them on me. You could really let me have it. And yet, shift after shift, watch after watch… you don’t.”
Tala gritted her teeth. Her shift was four hours. Why couldn’t she have gotten a watch where he just slept the whole time?
“Captain Maki tells me you fought like a demon in the rebellion, but it was in ravaging my homeland where you really distinguished yourself.” A rhythmic thunk-thunk-thunk told her he was dragging his fingers across his cell’s bars. “You stormed the beaches at Katagawa, watered the trees at Dokoshima with Tomodanese blood, and put the torch to Hagane’s beautiful spires? The people of Tomoda will be having nightmares about you for a generation. You and your slave.”
A shudder of rage went through Tala’s entire body at that last word. It was a common enough slur among the Tomodanese, but it always landed extra hard when lashed across Tala’s back.
Her body language had betrayed her, because the prince said, “You object to the term, then? Apologies. What term would you prefer to describe a creature whose will has been overwritten by yours?”
Her grip tightened on her rifle, but by now she had enough self-control to say nothing. Beaky’s feathers ruffled, and he loosed a low, annoyed croak.
“That bird was a crow, wasn’t it?” the prince said. “Or was he a raven? I can never tell the difference. But they’re both remarkably intelligent birds, did you know that? Their minds and emotions are supposed to be nearly as complex as a human’s. I’m sure your bird could’ve outwitted most of the hangers-on in my mother’s court. How many years have you spent smothering its will, hm? How long have you been turning its wings and beak and claws against those who were fighting for its freedom?”
A burning spike of rage drove itself through the back of Tala’s head. With deliberate, dangerous slowness, she turned around. Beaky croaked, then hopped over to a nearby crate and perched himself atop it. “You monsters never fought for any freedom but your own,” she spat. “And the fact that we’re giving you yours is a gift you don’t deserve.”
A sly, easy smile sauntered onto the Iron Prince’s face when he saw he’d finally provoked a reaction from her. “You look downright homicidal. Though I suppose that’s all part of the job, eh, Sarge?”
She took a step forward. “You don’t get to call me that.”
That sly smile stretched wider. “You hated me and my people enough to drag yourself from one battlefield to another, each one its own kind of hell. You survived them all, and I’ve no doubt you and your slave personally ensured that countless countrymen of mine didn’t. Who did you lose? Who did you watch throw themselves into the teeth of this war you started to defend so vile a practice? An old comrade from your jungle-running days? A handsome lover from the tiny village you want to return to and rebuild someday? A sad little orphan who—”
“Everyone,” Tala snarled with such ferocity that the prince staggered back a step. “My mother. My father. My… my brother.” Their faces flitted before her eyes again, though none lingered so long as Dimangan’s. It was his old face. The one she wanted to remember.
“Everyone I’ve ever cared about,” she went on. “None of them had ever raised so much as a fist against Tomoda, and you killed them anyway. You want to call us savages? We were doing what we needed to do to survive you.”
For a second, the prince seemed taken aback by her fury. But then he smirked again. “So you lost your family,” he said, singsong. “I couldn’t possibly know what that’s like.”
Tala felt her face twist into something ugly. How dare he compare himself to her? His losses to hers?
The prince seemed determined to try anyway. “Do you know what your people did to my sister when she landed on Lisan to rescue me from my captivity?” he said. “Or what the Shang would’ve done to my father, if he hadn’t taken his own life when they surrounded him? And my mother, may she reign ten thousand years? Divine vessel of the spirits, beating heart of our people? The report I was given said she’d been in the imperial garden, overseeing the safe evacuation of the palace staff, when a pack of slaves tore her to shreds, then lapped her blood off the floor.” He pressed himself up against the bars. “But please, tell me how horrible and trying this war’s been on—ah!”
Beaky surged forward in a puff of feathers. His beak snapped shut just where the prince’s finger had been a moment before. Sputtering, the prince staggered back and fell onto his cot. “Restrain that thing at once!”
Tala leaned on her rifle. “According to the only person in the republic who doesn’t want you dead, you’re needed alive so you can ascend to your throne and negotiate in the peace talks, Your Brilliance,” she said. “I’ve seen a woman clear out a redoubt full of steelhounds with one leg, no shade, and an empty gun. If she can do that, you can run a country with nine fingers.”
His jaw worked up and down furiously, but nothing resembling coherent language came out—just choked, angry noises. It stoked something viciously satisfying in the back of Tala’s head.
She turned back around. “Get some sleep, Your Brilliance. We’ll make landfall by—”
The entire ship shuddered. She leaned heavier on her rifle to stop herself from falling, then frowned up at the upper deck. “What the hell was—?”
The ship shuddered again, as if it’d run aground. This impact was far worse; Tala only just managed to stay on her feet.
“What is it?” the prince said, glancing around as if he’d see the source of their troubles lurking just behind a crate. “We’ve been found out. They’re finally coming for me. Who is it? Dahal? Shang? Traitors in your own ranks?”
“Shut it,” Tala snapped, and to her surprise the prince complied. Still, that was where her mind had leapt, too. A grand fleet had left Lisan City, purportedly escorting Prince Jimuro home. General Erega was on the same ship, but she’d been confident that her presence alone wouldn’t be enough to forestall any assassination attempts. So she’d sent the prince on a small, fast ship sailing to the far north of Tomoda, to travel south overland and arrive just in time for the peace summit to begin. No one was supposed to know this ship even existed.
A familiar, uncomfortable feeling stirred in the back of Tala’s head. She shook it off. Now wasn’t the time to get bogged down in the past.
“If there’s an attack,” the Iron Prince said, “I need to get out of this cell.” All his former haughtiness was gone. “The whole point of this voyage is to return me home safely. I can’t do that if I’m locked in a tiny room aboard a sinking ship.”
But they weren’t sinking, Tala noted. They’d taken no torpedo fire, and she couldn’t smell burning timber. In fact, besides those initial two impacts, she hadn’t detected any signs that something was amiss.
“Wait here,” she said, then made for the staircase.
“Wait!” the prince called after her. “You can’t just leave me!”
Tala kept walking.
“I could die in here!”
Tala kept walking.
“I recognize that probably sounds enticing, but I must insist—!”
She broke into a run.
At the top of the stairs, she saw crew hurrying toward her. In their midst, Maki rattled off orders, his fingers brown blurs as they drummed on his machete hilt.
She hailed him from the landing. “Sir! Report.”
“Don’t know anything yet,” the captain said. “One of my boys had his shade do a flyby within the hour, and he didn’t report any ships. No way anyone could sneak up on us in open water. How’s his nibs?”
“Same as before.”
Maki smirked ruefully. “I’ve—”
A shout came from above. Something heavy hitting the deck, perhaps a shade.
And then: gunshots. Lots of them.
Her eyes and Maki’s met.
“Get back down there,” he hissed. In a smooth, practiced motion, he drew his machete from its sheath. “We have to keep that ungrateful royal shit safe, or we went to all this trouble for nothing.”
As he surged topside, Tala lingered for a long moment on the stairwell. If her troops were going into battle, she should be there to lead them.
Reluctantly, she hurled herself back down the stairs, leaping them five at a time.
“We’re under attack!” the prince shouted as soon as he saw her.
Beaky cawed in annoyance.
“Save it,” she said to her shade. “The bastard’s right.”
“Do you know who it is?” the prince said.
Tala didn’t answer him, but she frowned and worked the bolt on her rifle, so a round chambered itself. Until Dahal had begun funding Sanbu’s jungle-runners, ammunition had been precious and expensive. The rebels had survived on superior marksmanship, and Tala had worked hard to make sure she was a good enough shot that every single bullet she spent would end a Tomodanese life. Anything unfriendly that walked through the door would get one right between the eyes.
But the next person to enter the hold didn’t come through the door.
A shadow covered the open loading hatch—and then a green-uniformed figure careened through, screaming as loud as his lungs would let him until he was cut short by a hard landing and the snap of bones. It was Private Radnan, bloodied and mangled, his normally sleepy face contorted with pain and terror.
“Private!” She rushed to his side and took a knee. His limbs were bent at the wrong angles, and blood poured out of too many wounds for her to patch. Private Radnan, as fierce a fighter as the 13-52-2 had ever known, was not long for this world. “Report,” she said quietly. If she knew who’d done this to him, at least she could make sure his death wasn’t in vain.
The fall had taken the wind out of him, but he managed to rasp out: “Shades.”
“Shades?” the prince shouted from his cell. “Did he say, ‘Shades’?”
“Shut it!” Tala snarled. But even her hatred for the Iron Prince’s voice couldn’t bring any fire to her chilled blood. Only two countries used shadepacting. One was Shang, a fellow victim of Tomoda’s greed that had risen up alongside the Sanbu Islands. And the other was… well.
Gingerly, she cradled Private Radnan’s head. “Stay with me,” she said, stroking his bloody cheek. “Who sent the shades? Was it Shang? Or have we been betrayed?”
Radnan squeezed his eyes shut against whatever pain he was feeling. But he shook his head in an unmistakable no.
“What do you mean, ‘no’?” Tala said, fighting to keep calm. “Who’s attacking us, Shang or Sanbu?”
Again, Radnan shook his head.
She gritted her teeth. The question was no good when his head wasn’t straight. She shifted tactics. “How many hostiles?” she said. A person could only have a single shade. Counting the number of shades on the side of a battle was a good way to get an estimate of enemy strength.
Radnan’s ruined fingers flexed themselves to flash the number ten, and then again: twenty.
And then again: thirty.
Tala’s eyes went wide. “Shades take me,” she muttered. Beaky cawed in alarm.
“What?” the prince chimed in. “What is it?”
Tala ignored him. “Okay, good, Private,” she said. She could feel him slipping away. She had to work fast here. “So, thirty enemy shades. At least that many soldiers then, too?”
But Radnan shook his head again, horrified.
“What?” Tala said. “More?” The Marlin’s deck wasn’t that large. There was no way it could hold that many enemy combatants and their shades.
Yet again, Radnan shook his head. Slowly, looking at his own hand like it horrified him, he held up a single finger. And with the meager breath he had left, he forced a single word between his lips:
Tala’s skin prickled. She recoiled from her own dying marine. “What did you just—?”
The prince banged on his cell bars. “What does that mean? What does that finger gesture signify to you people? Sergeant, my life could be in danger. As Iron Prince of Tomoda, I hereby order you to answer me, right this instant!”
Tala didn’t look at him. She reserved her gaze for the dying man before her. “It means ‘one,’.” she said quietly as a chill ran through her. “He’s saying all these shades are coming from one person.”
Excerpted from Steel Crow Saga, copyright © 2019 by Paul Krueger.