Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues today with an excerpt from The Tiger’s Daughter, the first book in a new fantasy series about a pair of young women whose bond may be the only hope for a world embattled by demons – and the price they pay for their bravery.
The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach—but failed to notice a lurking darkness festering within the people. Now, their border walls begin to crumble, and villages fall to demons swarming out of the forests.
Away on the silver steppes, the remaining tribes of nomadic Qorin retreat and protect their own, having bartered a treaty with the empire, exchanging inheritance through the dynasties. It is up to two young warriors, raised together across borders since their prophesied birth, to save the world from the encroaching demons.
This is the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O Shizuka, and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil.
The Tiger’s Daughter will be available October 3rd. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Empress Yui wrestles with her broken zither. She’d rather deal with the tiger again. Or the demons. Or her uncle. Anything short of going north, anything short of war. But a snapped string? One cannot reason with a snapped string, nor can one chop it in half and be rid of the problem.
When she stops to think on it—chopping things in half is part of why she’s alone with the stupid instrument to begin with. Did she not say she’d stop dueling? What was she thinking, accepting Rayama-tun’s challenge? He is only a boy.
And now he will be the boy who dueled One-Stroke Shizuka, the boy whose sword she cut in half before he managed to draw it. That story will haunt him for the rest of his life.
The Phoenix Empress, Daughter of Heaven, the Light of Hokkaro, Celestial Flame—no, she is alone, let her wear her own name—O-Shizuka pinches her scarred nose. When was the last day she behaved the way an Empress should?
Shizuka—can she truly be Shizuka, for an hour?—twists the silk between her first two fingers and threads it through the offending peg. Honestly. The nerve! Sitting in her rooms, taking up her valuable space. Taunting her. She can hear her father’s voice now: Shizuka, it will only be an hour, won’t you play me something?
But O-Itsuki, Imperial Poet, brother to the Emperor, heard music wherever he heard words. Scholars say that the Hokkaran language itself was not really born until O-Itsuki began to write in it. What use did he have for his daughter’s haphazard playing? Shizuka, your mother is so tired and upset; surely your music will lift her spirits and calm her!
But it was never the music that cheered her mother. It was merely seeing Shizuka play. The sight of her daughter doing something other than swinging a sword. O-Shizuru did little else with her time, given her position as Imperial Executioner. Wherever she went, the Crows followed in her footsteps. Already thirty-six by the time she gave birth to her only child, O-Shizuru wore her world-weariness like a crown.
And who could blame her, with the things she had done?
Ah—but Shizuka hadn’t understood, back then, why her mother was always so exhausted. Why she bickered with the Emperor whenever she saw him. Why it was so important to her that her daughter was more than a duelist, more than a fighter, more like her father, and less like…
The Empress frowns. She runs the string along the length of the zither, toward the other peg. Thanks to her modest height, it takes a bit of doing. She manages. She always does.
Perhaps she will be a musician yet. She will play the music Handa wrote for View from Rolling Hills, she thinks.
The melody is simple enough that she’s memorized it already, soothing enough that she can lose herself in its gentle rise and fall.
Funny how you can hate a poem until the day you relate to it. Then it becomes your favorite.
She strikes the first notes—and that is when the footfalls meet her ears.
Footfalls meet her ears, and her frown only grows deeper.
No visitors, she said. No treating with courtiers, no inane trade meetings, no audiences with the public, nothing. Just her and the zither for an hour. One hour! Was that so difficult to understand?
She shakes her head. Beneath her breath she mutters an apology to her father.
One of the newer pages scurries to the threshold. He’s wearing black and silver robes emblazoned with Dao Doan Province’s seal. Is this Jiro-tul’s latest son? He has so many, she can’t keep track anymore. Eventually she’s going to have to make an effort to remember the servants’ names.
The new boy prostrates himself. He offers her a package wrapped in dark cloth and tied together with twine. It’s so bulky the boy’s hands quiver just holding it.
Some idiot suitor’s latest gift. Only one thing makes a person foolhardy enough to contradict the Empress’s will, and that is infatuation. Not love. Love has the decency to send up a note, not whatever this was.
“You may speak,” she says.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” he says, “this package was, we think, addressed to you—”
“You think?” She crooks a brow. “Rise.”
The boy rises to his knees. She beckons him closer, and he scrambles forward, dropping the package in the process. It’s a book. It must be. That sort of heavy thwack can come only from a book.
“Doan-tun,” she says, “you are not in trouble, but tell me: Why are you bringing me something you can’t be certain is mine?”
He’s close enough now that she can see the wisps of black hair clinging to his upper lip. Good. From a distance, it looked like he’d taken a punch to the face.
“Your Imperial Majesty, Most Serene Empress Phoenix—”
“ ‘Your Imperial Majesty’ suffices in private conversation.”
He swallows. “Your Imperial Majesty,” he says, “the handwriting is, if you will forgive my bluntness, atrocious. When I received it, I had a great deal of difficulty deciphering it.”
O-Shizuka turns toward the zither as the boy speaks. For not the first time in recent years, she considers trimming her nails. But she likes the look of them, likes the glittering dust left behind by the crushed gems she dipped them in each morning. “Continue.”
As he speaks she runs her fingertips along the strings of her zither. If she closes her eyes she can still hear View from Rolling Hills.
“I sought out the aid of the elder servants,” he says. “One of them pointed out that this is in the horse script.”
O-Shizuka stops mid-motion.
No one writes to her in Qorin. No Hokkaran courtiers bother learning it. Horselords are beneath them, and thus there is no reason to learn their tongue. It’s the same reason only Xianese lords learn to read and write that language, the same reason Jeon is a cipher more than a tongue, the same reason one only ever reads of Doanese Kings in faded, musty scrolls.
The saying goes that to survive is Qorin—but the same can be said of the Hokkaran Empire, scavenging parts from the nations it swallows up, swearing that these borrowed clothes have been Imperial Finery all along. How did that drivel go? Hokkaro is a mother to unruly young nations, ever watchful, ever present. Shizuka always hated it.
So the letter cannot be from a Hokkaran, for what Hokkaran would deign to debase themselves in such a way? Burqila’s calligraphy is serviceable, if not perfect; the servants would have no trouble with anything she sent. Which leaves only one Qorin who might write to her in the rough horse-tongue.
It’s been eight years, she thinks, eight years since…
“I asked one of your older handmaidens, Keiko-lao, and she said your old friend Oshiro-sun couldn’t write Hokkaran at all, so I thought—”
Sun. There are thirty-two different honorifics in Hokkaran— eight sets of four. Each set is used only in specific circumstances. Using the wrong one is akin to walking up to someone and spitting into their mouth.
So why was it that, to this day, Shefali remained Oshiro-sun? The boy should know better. Sun is for outsiders, and Shefali was…
“Give it to me,” O-Shizuka snaps.
He offers it to her again, and when she takes it, her hands brush against his. That fleeting contact with the Empress is more than any other boy his age could dream of.
Naturally, he will tell all the others about it the moment he has a chance. His stories will be a bit more salacious, as he is a young man, and she is the Virgin Empress, and they are alone together save the guards standing outside.
O-Shizuka’s hands tremble as she reaches for the paper attached to the package. Yes, she who is known as the Lady of Ink, the finest calligrapher in the Empire: her hands tremble like an old woman’s.
The Hokkaran calligraphy is closer to a pig’s muddy footprints than to anything legible, but the bold Qorin characters are unmistakable.
For O-Shizuka of Hokkaro, from Barsalyya Shefali Alshar.
Nothing could make her smile like this, not even hearing the Sister’s secret song itself.
“Doan-tun,” she says, her voice little more than a whisper. “Cancel all my appointments for the next two days.”
“What?” he says. “Your Imperial Majesty, the Merchant Prince of Sur-Shar arrives tomorrow!”
“And he can make himself quite comfortable in whichever brothel he chooses until I am prepared to speak to him,” O-Shizuka says. “Unless my uncle has finally done me the favor of dying, I am not to be bothered. You are dismissed.”
“But, Your Imperial Majesty—”
“Dismissed,” repeats Shizuka, this time sharp as the nails of her right hand. The boy leaves.
And she is alone.
Alone as she has been for eight years. Alone with her crown, her zither, her paper, her ink, her Imperial bed.
The Colors of Flowers
Shizuka, my Shizuka. If Grandmother Sky is good, then this finds you sitting on your throne, eating far too many sweets, and complaining about all the meetings you must attend.
My apologies for the awful calligraphy. I know you are shaking your head even as you read this, saying something about my brushstrokes not being decisive enough.
I have so many questions for you, and I’m certain you have just as many for me. Here in the East, I hear rumors of what you’ve been up to. Is it true you returned to Shiseiki Province and slew a Demon General? You must tell me the story. And do not brush off the details, Shizuka. I can almost hear your voice.
“It really was nothing.…”
The day will come when we share stories over kumaq and rice wine. I know it will. But until then, paper and ink are all we have. They are old friends of yours, and have kindly agreed to keep you company in my absence.
Do you remember the first time we met, Shizuka, or has that long faded from your memory? It is my favorite story in all the world to tell. Oh, you know it well. But let me tell it all the same. Let me have my comfort. Without you, I am in the dark. It has been so long, Shizuka, that I might mistake a candle for the sun. Our births—that is where I should start, though I doubt there exists a soul who has not heard about yours. Hokkarans rely on numbers and superstition more than they rely on sense, so when you popped out of your mother’s womb on the Eighth of Ji-Dao, the whole Empire boomed with joy. Your existence alone was cause for celebration. Your uncle, the Emperor, had let fourteen
years go by without producing an heir.
And there was the matter of your parents, as well. The most well-loved poet of his time and the national hero who slew a Demon General with nothing but her fabled sword and my mother’s assistance, those were your father and mother. When you were born, both were nearing forty.
I cannot imagine the elation the Empire felt after holding its breath for so long. Fourteen years without an heir, fourteen years spent tiptoeing on eggshells. All it would take was one errant arrow to bring your entire dynasty to its knees.
So you saved them. From the first moment of your life, Shizuka, you have been saving people. But you have never been subtle, never been modest, and so you chose the eighth of Ji-Dao to be born.
The eighth day of the eighth month, in the year dedicated to the Daughter—the eighth member of the Heavenly Family. Legend has it, you were born eight minutes into Last Bell, as well, though no one can really know for certain. I cannot say it would surprise me. You do not do anything halfway.
But there was another thing about your birth—something we shared.
The moment my mother put you in your mother’s hands, two pine needles fell on your forehead, right between your eyes.
One month later, on the first of Qurukai, I was born beneath the Eternal Sky. Like all Qorin, I was born with a patch of blue on my bottom; unlike the others, mine was so pale, it was nearly white. I was not screaming, and I did not cry until my mother slapped me. The sanvaartains present told her that this was a bad sign—that a baby who did not cry at birth would make up for it when she died in agony.
I can imagine you shaking your head. It’s true—Qorin portents are never pleasant.
But my mother scoffed, just as your mother scoffed, and presented me to the sanvaartain for blessings anyway. Just as the sanvaartain held the bowl of milk above my head, just as the first drops splashed onto my brow, she saw them.
Two pine needles stuck together between my eyes. There are no pine trees in that part of the steppes.
When my mother told yours about what had happened, our fates were decided. The pine needles were an omen—we would always be friends, you and I, always together. To celebrate our good fortune, your father wrote a poem on the subject. Don’t you find it amusing, Shizuka? Everyone thinks that poem was about your parents, but it was about us the whole time.
When we were three, our mothers introduced us. Shizuru and Alshara wrote to each other for months about it. For all your mother’s incredible abilities, for all her skills and talents, conceiving was almost impossible for her. Your mother, the youngest of five bamboo mat salespeople, worried you’d grow up lonely. Burqila Alshara wasn’t having that. She offered to take you in for a summer on the steppes, so that we might share our earliest memories together.
But the moment you laid eyes on me, something within you snapped. I cannot know what it was—I have no way of seeing into your thoughts—but I can only imagine the intensity of it.
All I know is that the first thing I can remember seeing, the first sight to embed itself like an arrow in the trunk of my mind, is your face contorted with rage.
And when I say rage, you must understand the sort of anger I am discussing. Normal children get upset when they lose a toy or when their parents leave the room. They weep, they beat their little fists against the ground, they scream.
But it was not so with you. Your lips were drawn back like a cat’s, your teeth flashing in the light. Your whole face was taut with fury. Your scream was wordless and dark, sharp as a knife.
You moved so fast, they could not stop you. A rush of red, yes—the color of your robes. Flickering golden ornaments in your hair. Dragons, or phoenixes, it matters not. Snarling, you wrapped your hands around my throat. Spittle dripped onto my forehead. When you shook me, my head knocked against the floor.
I struggled, but I could not throw you off. You’d latched on. Whatever hate drove you made you ten times as vicious as any child has a right to be. In desperation I tried rolling away from you.
On the third roll, we knocked into a brazier. Burning oil spilled out and seared your shoulder. Only that immense pain was enough to distract you. By the time your mother pulled you off me, I had bruises along my throat, and you had a scar on your shoulder.
O-Shizuru apologized, or maybe O-Itsuki. I think it must have been both of them. Your mother chided you for what you’d done, while your father swore to Alshara that you’d never done anything like this before.
Before that day, before you tried to kill me, no one ever said no to you.
You did not come to stay with us that summer.
Soon, Shizuru scheduled your first appointment with your music tutor. The problem, in her mind, was that you were too much like her. If only you fell in love with poetry, like your father; or music or calligraphy; cooking or engineering or the medical arts; even acting! Anything.
Anything but warfare.
And as for my mother’s reaction? As far as my mother was concerned, O-Shizuru’s only sin in life was not learning how to speak Qorin after all their years as friends. That attitude extended to you, as well, though you had not earned it. O-Shizuru and Burqila Alshara spent eight days being tortured together, and years after that rescuing one another. When the Emperor insisted that O-Shizuru tour the Empire with an honor guard at her back, your mother scoffed in his face.
“Dearest Brother-in-Law,” she said, “I’ll run around the border like a show horse, if that’s what you want me to do, but I’m not taking the whole stable with me. Burqila and I lived, so Burqila and I will travel, and let the Mother carry to sleep any idiot who says otherwise. Your honored self included.”
Legend has it that O-Shizuru did not wait for an answer, or even bow on the way out of the palace. She left for the stables, saddled her horse, and rode out to Oshiro as soon as she could. Thus began our mothers’ long journey through the Empire, with your father doing his best to try to keep up.
So—no, there was nothing your mother could do wrong. And when you stand in so great a shadow as O-Shizuru’s, well—my mother was bound to overlook your failings.
But my mother did insist on one thing—taking a clipping of your hair, and braiding it into mine. She gave your mother a clipping of my hair and instruction, for the same reason. Old Qorin tradition, you see—part of your soul stays in your hair when the wind blows through it. By braiding ours together, she hoped to end our bickering.
I can’t say that she was right or wrong—only that as a child, I liked touching your hair. It’s so much thicker than mine, Shizuka, and so much glossier. I wish I still had that lock of hair—I treasure all my remnants of you, but to have your hair in a place so far from home…
Let me tell you another story, the ending of which you know, but let us take our time arriving there. May you hear this in my voice, and not the careful accent of a gossiping courtier. May you hear the story itself, and not the rumors the rest may have whispered to you.
* * *
When I was five, my mother took my brother and me back to the steppes. We spent too long in the palace at Oshiro, she said; our minds sprouted roots. She did not actually say that out loud, of course—my brother spoke for her. In those days, he was the one who read her signing. My mother uses a form of signing employed by deaf Qorin, passed down from one to another through the years. Kenshiro did not spend much time traveling with the clan, due to my father’s objections, but my brother has always been too studious for his own good. If he could only see our mother once every eight years, then he wanted to be able to impress her.
Thus, he taught himself to sign.
Was my mother impressed? This is a difficult question. As commendable as it was that my brother went to such lengths, he was Not Qorin. He could never be, when he wore a face so like my father’s, when he wore his Hokkaran name with such pride.
But he was my brother, and I loved him dearly, and when he told me this was going to be the best year of our lives, I believed him. On our first night on the whistling Silver Steppes, I almost froze to death. The temperature there drops faster than—well, you’ve been there, Shizuka, you know. It’s customary for mothers to rub their children down with urine just to keep them warm. No one sleeps alone; ten to fifteen of us all huddle together beneath our white felt gers. Even then the nights are frozen. Until I was eight and returned to Hokkaro, I slept in my brother’s bed-
roll, and huddled against him to keep the cold away. On one such night, he spoke to me of our names.
“Shefali,” he said, “when you are out here, you are not Oshirosun. You know that, right?”
I stared at him. I was five. That is what five-year-olds do. He mussed my hair as he spoke again.
“Well, you know now,” he said. “Our mother’s the Kharsa, sort of. That means she’s like the Emperor, but for Qorin people.”
“No throne,” I said.
“She doesn’t need one,” said Kenshiro. “She has her mare and the respect of her people.”
Ah. Your uncle was a ruler, and so was my mother. They must be the same.
I did not know much about your family back then. Oh, everyone knew your uncle was the Son of Heaven, and his will in all things was absolute. And everyone knew your mother and my mother, together, killed one of the four Demon Generals and lived to tell the tale.
But I didn’t much care about any of that. It didn’t affect me as much as you did, as much as the memory of you did. For you were never far from my mother’s mind, and she was always quick to say that the two of us must be like two pine needles.
Yes, she said “pine needles”—the woman who lived for plains and open sky. I always thought it strange, and when I learned it was a line of your father’s poetry, I thought it stranger.
But still, I grew to think of you as…
Not the way I thought of Kenshiro. He was my brother. He taught me things, and spoke to me, and helped me hunt. But you? I did not know how to express it, but when I touched the clipping of your hair braided into mine, I knew we were going to be together again. That we were always going to be together. As
Moon chases Sun, so would I chase you.
But during my first journey around the steppes, I learned how different our two nations were.
Kenshiro was teaching me how to shoot. The day before this, Grandmother Sky blessed us with rain, and I hadn’t thought to pack my bow away in its case. The second I tried to draw it back, it came apart in my hands; the string sliced me across the cheek and ear.
As I was a child, I broke out crying. Kenshiro did his best to calm me.
Two men who were watching us cackled.
“Look at that filthy mongrel!” called the taller one. He was thin and bowlegged, and he wore a warm wool hat with drooping earflaps. When he spoke, I caught sight of his teeth. What few he had left were brown. His deel was green and decorated with circles. Two braids hung in front of his right earflap, with bright beads at the end. “I tell you, it is because she was born indoors. Burqila is a fool for keeping her.”
My brother was eleven then. For a Qorin boy, he was short. For a Hokkaran, he was tall and gangly, all elbows and knees. He stood in front of me, and I thought he was big as a tree.
“She was born outside,” he said. “Everyone knows that, Boorchu. And if she wasn’t, it wouldn’t make her any less Qorin.”
“And why should I listen to a boy with roots for feet?” said Boorchu. “If she had a real teacher—”
“Her bow was wet,” he said. “Of course it broke. It could’ve happened to you, too.”
“No, boy,” said the tall man. “I know better. Because I was born on the steppes, and I grew beneath the sky, without a roof to suffocate me. You and your sister are pale-faced rice-eaters, and that is the plain truth.”
The shorter one—who was squat and had only one braid—only snorted. I don’t know why. “Rice-eater” is not a piercing insult. “Ricetongue” is far worse. And on top of that, they called both Kenshiro and me pale-faced, when only Kenshiro is pale. I’m dark as a bay. Anyone can see that.
“Boorchu,” said the shorter one then, grabbing his friend’s arm. “Boorchu, you should—”
“I’m not going to stop,” said the tall one. “Burqila never should’ve married that inkdrinker. A good Qorin man, that is what she needs. One who’ll give her strong sons and stubborn daughters, who don’t snap their strings like fat little—”
All at once Boorchu grew quiet. Shock dawned on him, and soon he was the pale-faced one.
Someone touched my head. When I turned, my mother had emerged from the ger. A silent snarl curled her lips. She snapped to get Kenshiro’s attention, and then her fingers spoke for her, flying into shapes I could not read.
“My mother says you are to repeat what you just said,” Kenshiro translated. His voice shook. He squeezed me a bit tighter, and when he next spoke, he did so in Hokkaran. “Mother, if you’re going to hurt him—”
She cut him off with more gestures. Her horsewhip hung from her belt, opposite her sword; to a child, both were frightening.
Kenshiro made a soft, sad sound.
Boorchu stammered. “I said that, I said, er, that your daughter…”
“A good Qorin man?” Kenshiro said, reading my mother’s signs. “I don’t see any here. Come forward, Boorchu.” Then he broke into Hokkaran again. “Mother, please. She’s only five.”
What were they talking about? Why was Boorchu sweating so much, why had his friend run away, why was my brother trembling?
Boorchu dragged his feet. “Burqila,” he said, “I just want them to be strong. If you never let them hear what people think of them, they’ll weep at everything. You don’t want them to be spoiled, do you?”
My mother clapped her hands. One of the guards—a woman with short hair and a scar across her face, with more braids than loose hair—snapped to attention.
“Bring the felt,” Kenshiro translated.
And the guard ran to get it. In a minute, no more, she returned. She bound Boorchu’s hands together with rope and wrapped him in the felt blanket. He kept screaming. The sound, Shizuka! Though it was soon muffled, it reverberated in my ears, my chest. It was getting harder to breathe.
“Ken,” I said, “Ken, what’s happening?”
“You should turn away,” he replied. “You don’t have to watch this.”
But I couldn’t. The sight and sound fixed me in place. My eyes watered, not from sadness, but from fear; my brain rattled in my skull.
“Shefali,” he said, “look away.”
My mother drew her sword. She didn’t bother signing anymore. No, she walked up to the man in the felt binding and ran him through. Just like that. I remember how red spread out from the hilt of her sword like a flower blossoming. I remember the wet crunch of bones giving way, the slurp as she pulled her sword back.
Kenshiro ran his hands through my hair. “Shefali,” he said, “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have… I’m sorry.”
I wasn’t paying attention.
I couldn’t look away from the bundle of white-turning-red. I saw something coming out of it, glimmering in the air, swirling like smoke. As I watched, it scattered to the winds.
This was unspoken horror. This was water falling from the ground into the sky. This was a river of stone, this was a bird with fur, this was wet fire. I felt deep in my body that I was seeing something I was never meant to see.
I pointed out the flickering lights to Kenshiro with a trembling hand. “What’s that?”
He glanced over, then turned his attention back to me. He stroked my cheeks. “The sky, Shefali,” he said. “The Endless Sky, who sees all.”
But that wasn’t what I saw. I knew the sky. I was born with a patch of it on my lower back, and though the birthmark faded, the memory remained. Grandmother Sky never made me feel like this. I felt like an arrow, trembling against a bowstring. Like the last drop of dew clinging to a leaf. Like a warhorn being sounded for
the first time.
“Ken-ken,” I said, “do you see the sparkles?”
And, ah—the moment I spoke, I knew something within me had changed. I felt the strangest urge to look North, toward the Wall of Flowers. At the time, I’d heard only the barest stories about it. I knew that it was beautiful, and I knew that it was full of the Daughter’s magic.
How could I have known that the Wall was where blackbloods went to die?
How was I to know?
Kenshiro furrowed his brow. “You’re just stressed, Shefali,” he whispered. “You saw something you shouldn’t have. But you’ll be all right, I promise.”
I bit my lip, hard. Kenshiro couldn’t see it.
Maybe he was right. Kenshiro was right about a lot of things. He always knew where the sun was going to rise in the morning, and he knew the names for all the constellations.
But that didn’t change the awful feeling in my stomach, or the rumbling I now heard in the distance, or the whisper telling me “go north.” I looked around the camp for an oncoming horde, but I saw none. Yet there was the sound rolling between my ears; there was the clatter of a thousand horses.
It wasn’t there, I told myself, it wasn’t there, and I was safe with my mother and Kenshiro.
But for the rest of that day, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something awful had happened.
Kenshiro told me Tumenbayar stories to pass the time. Tumenbayar is something like your ancestor Minami Shiori—there are hundreds of stories about her. All of them are true, of course, especially the ones that contradict each other.
It was one week later that I received your first letter. When the messenger first brought it out of his bag, I knew it was yours by sight alone. You sent it sealed in a bright red envelope, emblazoned with golden ink. I snatched it out of his hands in a way that made Kenshiro apologize for my rudeness, and I pressed it to my nose so I could smell you.
You might find it strange that I was so excited for a letter from a girl who tried to kill me. The truth is, I never bore you any ill will for what you did. When you first saw me, you were struck with unspeakable rage.
But when I saw you, I…
Imagine you are a rider, Shizuka, a Qorin rider. You have been out in the forests to the north for some time, trying to find something to feed your clanmates. Two days you’ve been hunting. Hunger twists your stomach into knots. You can hardly will yourself to move. Behind you, you hear something in the trees. You turn, you fire, and you slow down enough to see your catch: two fat marmots, speared together by your arrow.
Seeing you was like seeing those marmots. I knew everything would be all right, so long as I had you near me.
So your letter understandably excited me, and getting to smell it thrilled me even more so. A person’s soul is in their scent. For the first time since Boorchu died, when I took a breath of your perfumed paper, I felt safe.
Until I tried to read the letter. Then I only felt frustrated. I stared at the characters and pretended I could read them. I traced them with one finger, and imagined what you might say to me.
Kenshiro caught me at it. “Is that—?”
He tried to take the letter from me. Only Grandmother Sky could’ve pried it away from my grubby little hands. After some coaxing, he convinced me to hold it out so he could read it.
His bushy brows rose halfway up his forehead. “Shefali,” he said, “is this from the Peacock Princess?”
He let out a whistle. “You’ve made an important friend! Can you read this?” When I shook my head, he sat down next to me. “Then it’s time for some tutoring. Follow along with my finger.”
To be honest, I couldn’t follow any of the writing at all. Your calligraphy was beautiful even then, but I could never make sense of it.
You can read Qorin letters, Shizuka. Imagine if every time you blinked, everything changed. Where the letters were. What they looked like. Imagine if they went from right side up to upside down and backwards. That is what happens to me when I read Hokkaran.
I made Kenshiro read it to me so many times that I remember it still.
My parents are making me write this because they think I need to apologize to you. I think that’s silly. You know that I am sorry, so why do I have to tell you again? But my mother wants us to be friends, so I have to write to you.
Big lumpy Qorin horses don’t interest me, and neither does archery. I don’t know what we can talk about. Do you like flowers? I don’t know if they have flowers on the Silver Steppes. Peonies and chrysanthemums are my favorites.
Most of the time I can guess what everyone else’s favorite is, but whenever I try to think of yours, I can’t do it. If you don’t like chrysanthemums at least, then you’re wrong, and I’ ll have to show you all of mine when I see you next.
I’m going to see you again. You’re not getting out of that. My uncle is the Son of Heaven, you know. I don’t really like him but that means people have to do what I tell them.
After horse riding, reading your letter was my favorite way to spend my time. Kenshiro had other things to take care of, though. My mother insisted he learn how to wrestle and shoot and ride in the traditional way.
The trouble was, I didn’t have any friends while my brother was away.
While Hokkarans hate me because I am dark and flaxen haired and remind them of a horse, the Qorin dislike me because they think I am too pampered. When I was a child, it was worse.
My nose didn’t help.
I have my mother’s round cheeks, which you always seemed to have an unending fascination for. I have her wavy hair, her skin, her height, her bowleggedness, her large hands, her grass green eyes.
But of all the features on my wide, flat face, my nose stands out. It is narrow, pinched, and begging for a fist to reshape it. My father’s stamp on me.
Qorin children are not known for being well behaved. One day I was out riding on a borrowed colt, and when I returned, I found a half circle of my cousins waiting for me. At their head stood a pudgy ten-year-old whose face was round as a soup bowl and flecked with freckles.
“You’re Burqila’s daughter!” she said. “The one with the stupid nose!”
I frowned and covered my face. I tried to nudge my horse forward, but my cousins did not move.
“Needlenose,” called my cousin. “Come off your horse, Needlenose! We’ve got to wrestle!”
Wrestling is my least favorite of the three manly arts. Riding? I can, and have, ridden a horse all day. Archery is more a passion than a chore. But wrestling? I’m still a lean little thing, Shizuka; my cousins have always been able to throw me clean across the ring.
“What?” sneered my cousin. She slapped her broad chest, smacked her belly. “Are you afraid?”
I touched my horse’s shoulder. Horseflesh is always solid and firm and warm.
“Then you’d better get down off that horse!” she said. “Don’t make us get you!”
I raised a brow. I was on a horse. The entire purpose of riding was to be able to get away from things fast.
But maybe I was a bit too cocky about that, seeing as I was sur rounded by people who spend their whole lives around horses. Who own horses. And, as fate would have it, the colt I was riding belonged to one of my bully cousins. My mother thought I should learn how to handle a stranger’s mount as well as I could my own. I thought that was silly—as if I was ever going to ride anything but my grey. Still, she plopped me down on this colt and set me off for the day. My cousin couldn’t have been happier. He whistled and pulled out a treat from his deel pocket, and the horse trotted right up to him.
Which meant I was now close enough for my half dozen cousins to pull me off my horse and slam me to the ground.
What followed was a beating that I shall not waste any words on. You know how savage children can be. Qorin traditions forbid us from shedding one another’s blood, but that has never stopped us from beating the tar out of each other. Kicking, punching, hair pulling—none of these draw blood. So it was.
I limped back to the ger in tears. The moment my mother laid eyes on me, she sprang to her feet and wrapped me in an embrace. Through sign language and interpreters, she told me she’d take care of things.
It wasn’t hard for her to find out who put me in such a state, given how few Qorin are left. Within two hours, my mother corraled a half dozen of my cousins near her ger. Mother paced in front of them. Her fingers spoke in sharp, punctuated gestures.
“I understand the lot of you beat my daughter,” Kenshiro translated.
My cousins shifted on the balls of their feet. A boy toward the end of the line cried. I stood behind my mother and sniffled.
“You are children,” Kenshiro continued. “My sisters’ children, at that. If you were anyone else’s brats, I’d have the beating returned two times over. But my sisters have always supported me, even if they have spawned lawless brutes.”
She came to a stop and pointed to the tallest cousin, the chubby girl who wanted to wrestle me. As she stepped forward, I wrapped my arms around my mother’s leg.
“Otgar,” said Kenshiro, “Zurgaanqar Bayaar is the meekest of my sisters. When she was young, she was quiet as Shefali, and half her size. Tell me, would you have pulled her from her horse and beaten her senseless?”
Otgar crossed her arms. “Mom doesn’t have a stupid nose,” she said.
What was it with her and noses? Hers was dumb-looking, too! Her whole face was dumb!
“Otgar Bayasaaq,” said Kenshiro, “you speak Hokkaran, don’t you?”
Otgar nodded. “Who doesn’t?”
“A lot of children your age don’t,” Kenshiro said. Ironic. My mother chuckled at her joke, making my brother speak those words. “And you can read it?”
“Yes,” Otgar said. “My father is a merchant, Aunt Burqila, you know this!”
My mother nodded.
“Very well,” she said through Kenshiro. “Since you have such a fascination with my daughter, you are now assigned to be her companion. For your first task, you will help her learn to read and write the Ricetongue. She’s received a letter from Naisuran’s daughter. Start with that.”
“What?” Otgar and I shouted at once.
“She’s scrawny and dumb-looking!” Otgar protested. “She hates me!” I said.
But my mother shook her head.
“My word is final,” Kenshiro spoke. “Get into the ger now, or I will throw you in it.”
We trudged into the ger, all right, but it was some time before either of us spoke to each other. Two hours in, I decided that even if she was uncouth, if she could read Hokkaran, she could help me.
So I handed her your letter.
She yanked it from me and read it with a frown. “Grandmother’s tits,” she said with all the grace of a ten-year-old. “It really is Naisuran’s daughter. Guess I shouldn’t expect any less from a spoiled tree-baby like you.”
“Don’t like trees,” I said. “Too tall.”
“Yeah, well, they don’t move around either,” said Otgar. “And neither do you.” She sighed. “Fine. Let’s take a look, I guess. Can you write?”
I shook my head. “Can you read this?”
Again, I shook my head.
She tilted her head back and groaned. “I didn’t think Burqila hated me this much,” she said. “But I guess we’ve got work to do.” I can’t remember how long it took us to write back. I knew what
I wanted to say to you, of course. Otgar wrote it down for me and walked me through each character ten, twenty times. She’d write them in the soot and ash of the campfire.
The trouble came when I tried to write them myself. Invariably I’d write a different character from the one I was instructed, and it would be flipped or upside down. Missing strokes, superfluous strokes; it was a mess, Shizuka. And after weeks of trying, I hadn’t learned a single one.
Otgar was at her wits’ end over it. “You speak Ricetongue like a native.”
Pointing out my Hokkaran blood upset people, and she was beginning to think of me as more Qorin than Hokkaran. I kept quiet.
“It’s the writing,” she said. She cracked her knuckles. “Needlenose, you don’t plan on going back there, do you?”
I shook my head. From the way my mother kept talking about things, I’d be spending more time with her on the steppes in the future. According to her marriage contract, she was not allowed to style herself Grand Kharsa of the Qorin, but her children were not bound by such rules. My father wanted Kenshiro to succeed him as Lord of Oshiro. That left me to take up her lost title.
I didn’t know what any of that meant, except for two things: One day I’d be as terrifying as my mother, and the steppes were home now.
Otgar nodded. She reached for one of the precious few pieces of vellum we had. It was a rough thing, jagged at the edges, that reeked of old skin. She grabbed an old ink block and sat down in front of me.
“Repeat what you wanted to write,” she said. “I’ll do it for you. If you do go back to Hokkaro, you’ll have servants to write things down for you anyway.”
Then, as if she realized what she was saying, she grunted. “But I’m not a servant,” she said. “Don’t you ever forget that,
Needlenose. I’m your cousin. I’m helping you because we’re family, and because Burqila asked—”
She pursed her lips. “Asked me to,” she finished. “Now, let’s hear it one more time.”
So I spoke, and so Otgar wrote.
Thank you for saying sorry, even though you didn’t have to. I’ve never seen a peony, or a chrysanthemum. There aren’t many flowers here. Mostly it’s grass and wolves, andsometimes marmots. Every now and again, we will see one or two flowers. Of the ones I’ve seen, I like mountain lilies the most. They grow only on the great mountain GurkhanKhalsar. Gurkhan Khalsar is the closest place there is to the Endless Sky, so those flowers are very sacred.
If you teach me more about flowers, I can teach you how to wrestle, but I’m not very good.
My cousin is helping me write to you. Hokkaran is hard.
I sent that off and waited every day for your reply. Our messengers all hated me. Whenever I saw one, I’d tug their deel and ask if there was anything for me.
We take some pride in our messengers. Before we began acting as couriers, it was almost impossible to get a message from the Empire to Sur-Shar. My mother saw how foolish that was. After she’d traveled the steppes to unite us, she established one messenger’s post every one week’s ride. With the help of the Surians she recruited into the clan, each post was given a unique lockbox that only the messengers could open. Anyone could drop any letters they needed mailed inside the lockboxes. For a higher fee, you could have one of the messengers come personally pick up whatever it was.
Everyone used our couriers—Surians, Ikhthians, Xianese, and even your people. Oh, the nobles would never admit to it, and we had to employ Ricetongues in the Empire itself—but they used us all the same.
Which meant they paid us.
People seem to think my mother is wealthy because of the plunder from breaking open the Wall. In fact, she is wealthy because of the couriers. That and the trading. You’d be surprised how canny a trader Burqila Alshara can be.
But the fact remains that I pestered our messengers so much that they came to hate visiting us. Every single day, I’d ask for news.
For months, there wasn’t any.
But one day there was. Another bright red envelope dipped in priceless perfume. Once I read it, it joined its sibling in my bedroll, so that I could smell it as I went to sleep.
Your calligraphy is terrible. Father says I shouldn’t be mad at you, because it is very strange that I can write as well as I do. I’m mad at you anyway. You are going to kill blackbloods with me someday. You should have better handwriting! Don’t worry, I’ll teach you. If I write you a new letter every day, and you reply to all of them, then you’ll be better in no time.
Where are you now? Mother says you’re traveling. Qorin do that a lot. I don’t understand it. Why take a tent with you, when you have a warm bed at home? Do you have a bed? Do you have a room, or do you have to stay in your mother’s tent? Do you have your own big lumpy horse already? My father says I can’t have a proper one until I can take care of it, which is silly, because I’m the Imperial Niece and there will always be someone to take care of my horse for me.
Maybe you can do it. Mostly I just want to go into the Imperial Forest. Father says there are tigers.
My tutors tell me that I should be afraid of you and your mother. They say that Burqila Alshara blew a hole in the Wall of Stone and burned down Oshiro, and it took years before it was back to normal. They tell me that if your mother hadn’t married your father, then we’d all be dead.
I don’t want us all to be dead, but if your mother could talk to my uncle—he keeps arguing with my father and making everyone upset. Do you think your mother could scare him?
Are you afraid of your mother? I’m not afraid of mine, and people keep whispering about how dangerous she is. No one tells me not to talk to my mother, but everyone tells me not to talk to you. I think it’s because you’re Qorin.
My tutors won’t tell me why they don’t like Qorin, but I’ve heard the way they talk about your people. I’m five years old. I’m not stupid. They don’t like Xianese people, either, but they’ll wear Xianese clothes and play Xianese music all the time.
It doesn’t matter. I like you in spite of your awful handwriting, so they have to like you too.
I hope you’re doing well.
So began our correspondence. You’d write to me; Otgar would read the letter out loud, and I’d say what I wanted them to write in return. I’ll have you know Otgar was indignant when you insulted her calligraphy. She was a ten-year-old, and she was trying hard! Not everyone is born with brush and sword in hand, Shizuka. There are scholars who write little better than Otgar did at the time.
(She’s improved. You’ll be happy to know that, I think. The last time I had her write to you was when we were thirteen, and you commented on the marked improvement. She pretended not to take it to heart, but she made a copy of that letter before giving me the original.)
Through the letters our friendship grew. You wrote to me of your endless lessons, of your mother’s insistence that you take up the zither despite your hatred of it. You’d tell me about the courtiers you met over the course of your day. Soon the letters grew several pages long.
When I was seven, my mother announced we’d be returning to Oshiro for the summer. I told you all about it.
“We will be sure to meet you at the gates,” you wrote. “I will have a surprise for you. Do not be late.”
I cannot tell you how much that simple statement vexed me. A surprise. A surprise for me, from the Emperor’s niece. Kenshiro said it must be a pretty set of robes—something you’d like, that I would hate. Otgar said it would be something foolish like a mountain of rice.
I remember when I came riding back to Oshiro. I didn’t see you at the gates, as you promised. Rage filled my young heart; doubt wrung it dry. What if we were late? I’d pestered my mother into moving faster than she’d planned, and I was riding ahead of the caravan by a few hours. What if that wasn’t enough?
I took my first steps up the stairs into my father’s palace. Servants greeted me with bows and hushed whispers of “Oshiro-sur, welcome home.” My bare feet touched the floors.
And that was when I saw it. The first pink peony, laid out with utmost care at the threshold. I picked it up. It smelled just like your letters. I smiled so hard, it hurt my face, and looked around. Yes, there was another, and another!
I ran along the trail of flowers as fast as I could. Soon I was standing before our gardens, where I came to an abrupt stop.
For there you were, standing in the doorway in your shining golden robes, your hair dark as night, your ornaments like stars. There you were, smiling like dawn itself. Behind you were hundreds of flowers, more than I’d ever seen in my entire life, in colors I could not name. There was the angry red of our first meeting, next to the deep scarlet of our last; there was day’s first yellow, swaying in the wind next to a gloaming violet.
But it is you I remember most, Shizuka. Your face. Your happiness upon seeing me. And all the flowers somehow staring right at you, as if you were teaching them how to be so bright and cheerful.
“There you are,” you said. “How do you like your flowers?” To this day, I do not know how you got them all to Oshiro.
Whoever heard of transporting an entire Imperial Garden? Who would believe me, if I told them? The future Empress of Hokkaro and all her Children, doing such a thing to impress a Qorin girl? Oh, the servants believe it, and I’m sure they’re talking about it to this day.
It is just like you, I think, to casually do the impossible.
Copyright © 2017 by K Arsenault Rivera
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