How much would you give to win the world?
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Shelley Parker-Chan’s He Who Drowned the World, the sequel and series conclusion to She Who Became the Sun, the accomplished, poetic debut of war and destiny, sweeping across an epic alternate China. He Who Drowned the World is out from Tor Books on August 22.
Zhu Yuanzhang, the Radiant King, is riding high after her victory that tore southern China from its Mongol masters. Now she burns with a new desire: to seize the throne and crown herself emperor.
But Zhu isn’t the only one with imperial ambitions. Her neighbor in the south, the courtesan Madam Zhang, wants the throne for her husband—and she’s strong enough to wipe Zhu off the map. To stay in the game, Zhu will have to gamble everything on a risky alliance with an old enemy: the talented but unstable eunuch general Ouyang, who has already sacrificed everything for a chance at revenge on his father’s killer, the Great Khan.
Unbeknownst to the southerners, a new contender is even closer to the throne. The scorned scholar Wang Baoxiang has maneuvered his way into the capital, and his lethal court games threaten to bring the empire to its knees. For Baoxiang also desires revenge: to become the most degenerate Great Khan in history—and in so doing, make a mockery of every value his Mongol warrior family loved more than him.
All the contenders are determined to do whatever it takes to win. But when desire is the size of the world, the price could be too much for even the most ruthless heart to bear…
A king and queen strolling through their palace grounds proceeded without impediment, since everyone in their way stepped aside and bowed, but the sheer profusion of construction workers in every direction made Zhu think of herself as a boat cutting through a weed-clogged pond. As they passed yet another building shrouded in bamboo scaffolding, she said admiringly, “I wasn’t even away that long. You’ve been busy.”
Her wife, Ma Xiuying, delivered a look of deep indignation. “Of course I’ve been busy. When you said you wanted a new palace to reflect your status, did you think it would build itself?”
It wasn’t even just the palace that was under construction. When Zhu had returned to the city, she’d seen the rising foundations of Yingtian’s new walls, and ridden down sunbaked avenues lined with seedling trees that wouldn’t give shade for decades yet. The sunshine sawdust smell and the breeze flowing unchecked through the construction sites; the uncluttered sky that seemed bigger and bluer than anywhere else Zhu had lived: the possibility contained in all that newness thrilled her to her bones.
Ma added, “Whereas it sounds like you rode all the way to the border just to posture.” The enormous volume of her embroidered silk dress barely slowed her stride. Since she was of Semu nomad stock and her feet were as big as a peasant’s, she moved several times faster than the aristocratic Nanren women who could be seen tottering about Yingtian under parasols.
Zhu hustled to keep up. “Better to posture than to take them on. Which is something Madam Zhang knew as well as I did. She wanted me to surrender.”
“Which would make sense for both of you. So of course you refused.”
But as long as there existed something greater in the world than what Zhu had, she knew she would desire it. She could have as readily given up that desire as she could have stopped breathing. “It makes sense according to that particular situation. So what I need to do is change the situation.”
“Oh, is that all. Perhaps you can double your army just by wishing it.”
Zhu twinkled at her. “Maybe I can! But I’m going to need your help.”
Ma stopped and shot her a look. “My help.”
“Why does that seem so surprising? You’re a very capable woman.” Zhu indicated the hammering, shouting chaos on all sides. She switched to one of the languages she’d learned in the monastery (but never practiced) and said very badly, “You can speak Uyghur, can’t you?”
Ma went blank in surprise. Then she laughed and replied in the same language, “Better than you, apparently.”
Uyghur wasn’t a world away from Mongolian, which put Zhu in mind of the eunuch general Ouyang and his flat, alien accent when he spoke Han’er. She had always found that accent rather ugly. But she could have listened to Ma’s Uyghur all day: there was something purely delightful about finding a new facet of someone she already knew so well.
“It’s been so many years. I thought I might have forgotten.” Ma switched back to Han’er. She had a nostalgic look. “When I was growing up in Dadu, when my father was a general of the Yuan’s central army, we spoke our own Kipchak language at home. But we’d use Mongolian with the Mongols, and Uyghur with other Semu people. Once you know one of those three, the others come easily. But Han’er is completely different. I barely knew a word when my father brought us to Anfeng and gave me to the Guos.”
Her father, who had betrayed the Yuan and joined the Red Turban rebellion in Anfeng, only to be betrayed in turn by his rebel compatriots and left to die on General Ouyang’s sword. Zhu felt a pang at the thought of the life Ma had lived before they met. Everything she had suffered. She found she couldn’t muster up much regret for the deaths of Ma’s father, or the two Guos: Old Guo and his son Little Guo, Ma’s unfortunate fiancé. “None of them saw your talents.”
She realized she’d been too callous when a flash of pain crossed Ma’s face. She knew Ma still grieved them. Not for who they’d been to her, or how they had treated her, but simply as human beings. Even after a full year of marriage, Zhu still found Ma’s compassion mysterious. When they were together she sometimes thought she might understand—might even feel it, as if it were being transmitted by the vibration of Ma’s tender heart against her own—but as soon as they were apart, it faded like a dream.
She changed the subject. She’d spent the greater part of her life trying to escape her past, and unpleasantly sticky feelings such as grief and nostalgia still filled her with the vague urge to run. “Can you find me a dozen or so other Semu people who speak Uyghur?” she said. “Women too, if you can find them. And while you’re at it: a couple of camels.”
To her satisfaction, the request jolted Ma out of her grief. She gave Zhu an incredulous glare.
“Who doesn’t need the occasional camel? I’m sure you have some sort of ancestral facility with them,” Zhu said cheerfully. “I’ll also need as many rolls of silk as you can get.”
“Maybe you have an ancestral facility with the turtle who laid you as an egg!” Ma exclaimed. “Fine: Semu people, camels, silk. The sun and moon and all the magpies flying over the River of Heaven. When are you leaving?”
“As soon as possible. It’s a long march. I’ll need to ask Xu Da to start mobilizing the forces immediately. But you’ve got one thing wrong.” A group of palace maids fluttered past, saw the Radiant King and his consort approaching, and flung themselves into reverences. Zhu flicked her fingers benevolently to bid them rise. “It’s: Are we leaving soon.”
Ma frowned in confusion.
“Am I as much a fool as the Guos, to overlook the talented woman in my own house?” Zhu felt a frisson of excitement at her own audacity. “We’ll do it together.”
The image of a beautiful, jade-cold face rose in her mind, and set all her senses tingling in that eerie recognition of someone else who was neither one thing nor the other. Her stump sang in remembered pain.
“Zhu Yuanzhang,” Ma said, low, mindful of passersby who might hear her addressing the Radiant King so informally. “What are you planning?”
Zhu smiled at her. “I need an army on top of the one I already have. So we’re going to Bianliang to get one.”
After a long pause, Ma said, “The eunuch general—”
“—I’m not going to walk into the tiger’s cave. Believe it or not, I’ve learned some lessons from the past.” Zhu laughed. “This is a battle-free mission. But we have to move fast. Imagine you’re him: you’ve just spent a lifetime biding your time and pretending loyalty to the ones who murdered your family. But now they’re dead, and you’re finally in a position to get your revenge on the person who’s responsible for everything you suffered: the Great Khan. You’d be desperate to get moving, wouldn’t you?
“The only reason General Ouyang hasn’t left Bianliang already is because the Great Khan summers in Shangdu and doesn’t return to Dadu until mid-autumn. But the very instant he hears the Great Khan is back, he’ll be on the march. So we have to get to Bianliang before that happens.”
Ma said with deep suspicion, “No fighting. Are you going to make him an offer like Madam Zhang made to you?”
“Not exactly. But it’ll be fun, I promise.”
Before Ma could reply, there was a roar and a dust cloud rose into the sky where an old building had been an instant ago.
“Buddha preserve us, it looks worse than before,” Ma cried, as bricks rained down on a plaza that had already sprouted the skeletons of several new constructions. “Are you sure we couldn’t have just kept everything?”
The air was full of brick dust and yellow dust and the familiar dark pickle smell of fire-powder. For an instant Zhu saw a vision of future Yingtian through that dusty curtain: a gleaming metropolis of such brash, tasteless, shocking newness that it stood as radical dismissal of everything that had come before.
Her stamp upon the world, made new.
She felt wild with speed: as if she was running as fast as she could towards that tawny horizon. “Have faith, Yingzi. It’s going to be magnificent.”
Excerpted from He Who Drowned the World, copyright © 2023 by Shelley Parker-Chan.