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Excerpt: The Phoenix Empress by K. Arsenault Rivera

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Welcome to #FearlessWomen! K. Arsenault Rivera returns to the world of The Tiger’s Daughter in The Phoenix Empress, available on October 9th.

Since she was a child, the divine empress O Shizuka has believed she was an untouchable god. When her uncle, ruler of the Hokkaran Empire, sends her on a suicide mission as a leader of the Imperial Army, the horrors of war cause her to question everything she knows.

Thousands of miles away, the exiled and cursed warrior Barsalyya Shefali undergoes trials the most superstitious would not believe in order to return to Hokkaran court and claim her rightful place next to O Shizuka.

As the distance between disgraced empress and blighted warrior narrows, a familiar demonic force grows closer to the heart of the empire. Will the two fallen warriors be able to protect their home?

One: Barsalai Shefali

It is an hour into Sixth Bell on the third of Nishen. Playful zephyrs swing through the narrow streets of Fujino. Outside the teahouses, girls in soft greens and pinks call to the passersby. They play their shamisens despite raw red fingers, conjuring songs about tea leaves and marital fortunes. Cooks standing behind stalls wave meat on skewers. Down the alley, two men are arguing over the proper price for coal.

When Barsalai Shefali was younger, she imagined this city was the busiest place in the world. This city’s closer to the steppes than it is to Salom, where the cities are piled atop one another like a Hokkaran lady’s robes. It’s not so imposing as Alaraas, either; the castles in Ikhtar’s capital are like teeth on the horizon. Here only the Jade Palace looms—and it can hardly be said to be looming when its shape is so pleasing to the eye. In the earliest hours of the morning, when the fog settles around the palace, the whole city is a hymn of green.

How she’s missed this. Strange—she never imagined she would.

With any luck, Shizuka’s finished with whatever it is that called her away. Shefali does not have a head for it. Listening to supplicants? Settling tax disputes?

Shefali imagines the Empress of Hokkaro sitting in front of her desk, her dress slipping off her shoulders. Her slender neck and graceful wrists. The way she’d look over her shoulder with that knowing smirk.

No matter how awful the day has been thus far, her wife is less than an hour’s ride away.

The people of Fujino give Shefali a wide berth as she rides through the streets. An army walking six men abreast would have less space to itself. That is fine with Shefali. The more space, the better. This way she can afford to look up at the sky and hum the Bandit King’s song without fear of veering into a crowd.

Come to think of it—aren’t there fewer people here? Yes, there are the singing girls; yes, there are guards; yes, there are merchants and messengers and wives running errands with their babies on their backs—but there are fewer of them. The cacophony she hated as a child has dimmed to a dull roar.

The palace itself is surrounded on all sides by a wall. Just past the wall are the Imperial Hunting Grounds, with tall evergreens like aggressive strokes of paint. Anyone attempting to lobby the Imperial Family for assistance must make their way through the hunting grounds. The rich hire guides.

Shefali has never had need of a guide. The steppes raised her as much as her mother and aunts and uncles. If some starving animal should come across her, they will hunt together for food. That is all. She finds herself almost hoping to see one of the famed beasts of Fujino—it would be a relief to hunt the proper way again. To once more string her bow.

All the hunting she did in the East involved fangs and claws.

But that time is behind her now—she is sure of it. As the stables rise up ahead of her, she feels the tension slide off her back like water.

The hostler knows better than to offer to take Alsha. Shefali respects him for it. Once, when she and Shizuka were children, this man caught them holding hands. Back then, he chided them. His silence now is growth.

She allows herself a moment with Alsha, with her oldest friend aside from Shizuka. Shefali slips her gray mare a sweet. In the slow thunder of her heart, the steady winds of her breathing, Shefali feels the steppes.

Home. She’s finally home.

Or she will be, when she’s back in Shizuka’s arms. Somewhere in the palace is Shefali’s wife, and she means to find her.

Before, Shefali never bothered to learn the layout of the Jade Palace. To this day, she does not know which way leads to the gardens, or the library, or the barracks. Whenever she needed to find one of these places as a child, O-Shizuru and O-Itsuki sent guards with her. O-Shizuru often sent her along with an apology for having to put up with the place.

But now Shefali has her nose. Every few steps, she sniffs the air and searches for a trace of her wife’s scent. The downside? She also picks up the scents of guards and servants and courtiers. Brief flashes of their lives play out in front of her. Some are ordinary—preparing tea, tucking in children. Some are . . .

Well, now she knows which of Shizuka’s servants work for Ren.

The closer she comes to Shizuka’s room, the more ghosts there are. They stand along the hallway as faded images of their former selves. Many bear wounds. A woman stands with her own severed head in her hands; a man on his knees scrambles to shove his ghastly entrails back into his body. One plucks ants from her ears, pinches them between her fingertips, and eats the remains.

Shefali pays them no mind. That is the trick of it. The moment you acknowledge a ghost, it latches on to you.

I am Barsalai Shefali, and I have earned that name twice over, she thinks to herself. Over and over she thinks this; over and over she pictures her hand in her mind. These are her fingers; these are the poems written in their webbing; this is the half-moon scar of her childhood promise. This is her hand. She will not allow it to change.

As she nears the next turn—why are there so many in this castle? As if an army would be waylaid by bad architecture. Shefali kneads her palm with her thumb and forefinger. Yes. This is her hand. A small victory for the day, then, that she did not lose control.

The door is before her now. Two guards in red enamel armor bow to her.

“Empress Wolf,” they say to her.

Is that what they are going to call her here? So many names she’s borne—what’s one more? Yet “Empress” has never been Shefali’s title, and to wear it now would be to wear robes over her deel.

“Barsalai,” she corrects them, and as they slide open the door, Shefali’s heart leaps up, her soul singing the song her wife once wrote for them.

But when the door closes again, there is only silence.

Silence, and the treasures of an Empress who no longer values the material comforts as she did in her youth. Amidst the less-loved representations of wealth, in the corner of the room is a screen where Minami Shizuru—the Queen of Crows, Shizuka’s beloved mother—stares at the viewer. The tattoo on her arm is both plainly visible and reproduced accurately.

Silence, and the altar to the parents Shizuka has lost. There, up on a shelf where the sunlight can find it in the mornings: a misshapen lump of bronze that was once a war mask; a scroll of beautiful writing Shefali cannot read, but knows to be the words of O-Itsuki, the Poet Prince. Shizuka’s father, Shizuru’s husband. Dust has settled on most of Shizuka’s possessions like the first snow of winter—but there is no dust on the altar.

Looking back toward the doors, Shefali yet finds only silence, though her eye falls on the instruments that could break it. A zither inlaid with pearl and gold next to her writing desk; a shamisen with phoenix’s head for a neck. These, too, have been recently used, even as the stack of papers on Shizuka’s writing desk grows taller than Baoyi.

Only silence and these things; only silence, and not Shefali’s wife.

It should not hurt. Of course Shizuka is busy. It is nearly Seventh Bell, but she is the Empress now—there is much that demands her attention, much Shefali cannot fathom about her duties.

But it is that—precisely that—which is the arrow in her throat.

Barsalai Shefali journeyed for eight years through the desert and the mountains to return to her wife. For eight years, the focus of her life has been narrow and sharply rendered; a blade against her suffering. Nothing mattered except the feather. Nothing mattered except returning home to Minami Shizuka, to her wife, to the girl who laughs like a popping fire.

And now that she is here—what are all these things? From whence came this statue of Shizuka cloaked in a phoenix’s wings? Where is the room they’d shared as children, where is the bed Shefali sneaked into over and over? She does not recognize the massive one in front of her, circular and raised up off the ground, the sheets embroidered with peacock feathers. These papers on her desk—Shefali runs her hands over them. Why are there so many? Why is Shizuka’s writing desk so dusty when it was one of her prized possessions? The ink bowl is missing—why is the ink bowl missing?

Eight years she’s spent trying to return to Shizuka—and she returned to the Empress instead. A woman whose habits she does not know.

Eight years she’s spent trying to return to Fujino—and she’s found the streets empty instead. A city she recognizes only in the vaguest sense, like a friend she met once when they were both children.

Of course, nothing is the same. She was a fool to assume otherwise. This journey has never been about her—and still she made it about herself. On their way back from the Womb, Shefali did not even bother to visit her own family. That, too, eats away at her. What has become of the Qorin since the Toad lost his throne? She tries to tell herself that they must be doing better than she remembers. If Shizuka is Empress, then surely she’s granted the Qorin their freedom; surely she’s granted Shefali’s mother her proper title.

Surely.

But then—

* * *

Shefali thought Shizuka would be home by now.

And she expected to see more people in Fujino; she expected to see more happy faces. Shizuka swore she’d look after her people. That is why she stayed. That was the whole point of her staying.

And if she didn’t…

What use are any of that girl’s promises? She does not know the weight of an oath. She is not a proper ruler.

Strange. Shefali is used to the voices that call to her. After eight years of dealing with them, she knows each one as well as her own cousins.

But this voice—this man’s voice—is new.

Shefali pushes aside the thought. A spasm it was, no more. Indulging it will lead nowhere good.

So Barsalai Shefali alone breaks the silence with a sigh. In her deel is a small piece of near-black Surian wood. Before they went into the Womb, she’d started whittling away at it to pass the time. Debelo did not share her sense of urgency, after all, and she could not find the place without him. So she waited, and she whittled.

The piece remained untouched after they emerged.

She takes it from her deel now. A vague snout, two rough-hewn legs, the rest of the body still trapped in the wood. Once, she dreamed that this would be a wolf.

Shefali holds her knife in her hand. She lets herself feel the weight of it and, more important, the stiffness of her fingers around it. Whittling requires fine control—another reason she’s given it up. Some days she can hardly close her fingers together.

It is the third of Nishen. Today, she can close her fingers together. Today, she can whittle.

And so the wolf begins to take shape.

Shefali doesn’t hear her wife coming—it’s Last Bell, and the criers are wandering the halls, reading from the Divine Mandates: “A flower blooms only when nurtured. It is the Hour of the Daughter.”

The lead crier starts the chant. By the third syllable, his junior begins, and then his junior, and so on, so that a simple phrase becomes an echoing cacophony. Shefali doesn’t understand the practice. Labeling hours is an affront to Grandmother Sky to begin with—she will tell you what time it is with the changing of her cloak, with her two great eyes. Labeling your hours with needless racket when everyone who can sleep should be sleeping, all for the sake of some supposed spiritual edification—there is nothing more Hokkaran to Shefali.

Except, perhaps, her wife.

Shizuka is approaching, finally. Shefali can smell her: peonies and chrysanthemums, sharp metal and sweet wine. It is the wine that most concerns her. That smell has clung to Shizuka like her innermost set of robes for as long as Shefali’s been in Fujino. At first she said nothing, for who would begrudge the Empress a drink? Who would say to her: No, you cannot celebrate the return of your wife?

But it has been three days.

And Shizuka has returned to the room later and later each day, today at Last Bell, today fumbling with even the flimsy paper door between them, today tripping over her eight robes as she crosses the threshold.

Shefali is there to catch her. She has always been there to catch her; tonight is different only in that it is at last physical again. For eight years, she dreamed of this: her wife in her arms, the smell of her, the weight of her, the sound of her laughter. And she is laughing now, as she nuzzles against Shefali.

But her face is painted white, her teeth are painted black; she has shaved off her eyebrows, and she wears the full eight layers of a Hokkaran Empress of years past. Her amber eyes have gone glassy, her laugh is…

Well, she might be laughing at anything.

“Are you all right?” Shefali asks her, though she knows what the real answer is. She scoops Shizuka up into her arms. She hardly weighs anything at all, even in all those layers.

Shizuka reaches up for Shefali’s cheek. She pinches it, as she used to when they were younger, though there is no longer any fat there to pinch. Only skin and muscle. Shefali indulges her—Shizuka’s touch fills her with warm joy, even when her new habits confuse.

“I,” says Shizuka, and she makes the word last several heartbeats, “have never felt better.”

“Never?” says Shefali. She finds herself smiling in spite of the situation, in spite of the drunkenness. So much of her is happy just to be with Shizuka again. She kisses her wife’s forehead. If the white paint smears onto her lips, she hardly cares. “Not once in all our time together?”

“Hmmm,” says Shizuka. She shifts in Shefali’s arms, laying her head against Shefali’s heart. “Well. You’re right. Maybe I have felt a little better than this.”

“Only a little?” Shefali says. She sets her down on the bed she does not recognize. Shizuka holds on to her deel and tries to pull her in.

Shefali wants to join her. Truly, she does. This teasing they’re doing is as natural to her as firing a bow, as natural as steering her horse. She does it without thinking—just as she helps Shizuka out of her outermost robes.

But as she sheds each robe, she comes closer and closer to her unadorned wife. As Shizuka drunkenly wipes her makeup off on a proffered cloth, as her scar is revealed, Shefali comes closer and closer to the woman she left behind.

And it gets harder to reconcile her with the woman who has lost her ink bowl, with the woman who leaves important papers unattended, with the woman who comes home later and later and drunker and drunker.

“Only a little,” says Shizuka, her face now bare, tugging insistently at Shefali’s deel. There is hunger in those glassy eyes. “Perhaps you can come and make your arguments, if you feel differently…”

Gnawing at her heart. The core of her soul wants nothing more than Shizuka—nothing more than the feel of her skin against Shefali’s, her impossible warmth; nothing more than to let herself consume and be consumed by her.

But she wants Shizuka. And this woman before her is not quite her.

Shefali kisses her forehead. She holds Shizuka’s face in her hands, running her thumb over the raised skin of her scar.

“Maybe another night,” she says.

And it is as if she’s struck Shizuka—her warm skin goes as pale as the makeup she’s now shed, and she takes Shefali’s hand with startling urgency.

“Are you all right?” she says. Her voice is clearer now; the worry sops up her drunkenness like a sponge. She tries to sit up and only flops back down.

Shefali catches her and kisses her on the forehead again.

“I am,” she says.

Shizuka wrinkles her nose. Her scar pinches at her skin. Shefali winces; she should have known better than to lie to Shizuka.

“Something’s wrong,” says Shizuka. She’s slurring a little, but the clarity’s returning to her eyes. “Shefali, what’s wrong? Have I done . . . I’ve done something, haven’t I?

Shefali watches her cover her face with her hands, hears her take a deep, sharp breath. She presses her lips together.

“We can talk about it tomorrow,” says Shefali. “When you’ve rested.”

“It’s my fault, isn’t it?”

“Tomorrow,” says Shefali. Again she kisses her cheeks, her forehead, both eyes in turn. Even as her soul aches—it’s her fault, she’s upset Shizuka—she forces herself to hold together. In the morning they can speak of all this at length, in the morning they can—

A small thought, a whisper she does not consciously hear: What use is it to talk to her about any of it? Four months of peace. You wanted four months of peace.

The man’s voice again.

Shame’s wave swallows her. Is it better to let the matter lie? What did she intend to say? I wish you would stop drinking, you’re not yourself anymore? What did she think that would accomplish? Is it worth it to hurt Shizuka if it means…If it means getting her back?

Anything is worth it to return to who they were. She’d promised to slay gods with Shizuka—and how is she meant to do that when the woman can hardly function? How can they be like two pine needles when they spent eight years so far apart?

Shefali opens her mouth once, and then twice. The words live in her heart somewhere, if only she can summon them.

I want to be with you. Really be with you, when you can remember that I’m here.

I want to know who you’ve become.

I want to know what’s happened to this place, to this Empire, to my people.

But the words are stubborn, and not inclined to leave their ger in the middle of the night.

Tomorrow. She said tomorrow.

Perhaps that answer satisfies Shizuka’s worries, or perhaps she resigns herself to it; perhaps the drink has finally caught up with her, or perhaps it is the crown that saps away her strength. The result is the same: in the time it takes Shefali to come to her realization, Shizuka falls asleep in her lap.

Seeing her like this—yes, it is for this she traveled. For the calm on her wife’s face, for the way she curls up against Shefali, for her curtain of black hair and her skin soft as the morning clouds.

Four months of this—yes. That is what she wanted.

Shefali walks her fingertips across the bridge of Shizuka’s nose. Tomorrow. Will Shizuka remember in the morning? And if she does—where will Shefali start?

In the quiet, in the dark, she makes her oath.

“Four months of peace,” she says, “four months with you.”

Shizuka begins to shift in her sleep. At first only a little—she takes her thumb out of her mouth and rolls, burying her face deeper into Shefali’s lap. At first it is only this, and though Shefali can smell the cherry-sweet fear coming off her, she soothes her by smoothing her hair, by caressing her face and whispering to her.

But it is getting worse.

A low moan leaves her, going higher and higher until she is near screaming. Her rolling turns to thrashing. When Shefali tries to hold her—tries to keep her safe from whatever is making her so terrified, she smells so sweet—the thrashing only gets worse. Shizuka shoves her, hard. Shefali backs away—she wants space? She’s asleep, this must be another nightmare; should she stop it? Should she wake her when she doesn’t want to be touched?

Now Shizuka is screaming, now she is curling up into a ball, now she tears at her own hair, and Shefali’s heart drops into her stomach. The sanvaartains say that if you wake someone during a nightmare, part of them will always be trapped within it—you must overcome the dream yourself if you are to be free of it. Shefali cannot count how many times she was awakened in the middle of the night by one of her cousins screaming just like this.

“Leave them to it,” her cousin Otgar always mumbled. “It’ll make them stronger.”

But confronted with this sight, Shefali knows nothing about it will make Shizuka stronger. She doesn’t need to be stronger, anyway, with all that she’s been through.

And so Shefali scoops her up into her arms, in spite of how she thrashes; and so Shefali wraps her arms around her wife and holds her close, so close.

“Shizuka,” she says, smoothing her hair. “You’re safe. You’re only dreaming.”

She is gasping now, she is gulping in breath as if it were water and she has been wandering through the desert for years. But she is not awake.

“Shizuka,” she says. “Please. I’m here. Listen to me, listen to my voice. I’m here, and you’re safe.”

Still—she’s growing more still. Her heart isn’t, of course; Shefali feels it like a hummingbird against her chest. Shizuka herself, though—the tension is falling away. She’s starting to slump against Shefali now, and as Shefali keeps repeating that she is safe, her breathing begins to slow. Each breath—each slow breath—is a victory.

For long moments, Shizuka remains slumped against her. At some point she must have woken, for she’s returning Shefali’s embrace, but it seems she cannot yet bring herself to speak. That is all right. Shefali well knows the value of silence—and she can smell the fear, the guilt, the shame coming off her wife already.

“Take whatever time you need,” Shefali says to her. “I’ll be here.”

The clock tick, tick, ticks the seconds—but it is a liar. That sort of time has no meaning here, not anymore. There are eternities between each tick: lifetimes and generations. As far as Shefali is concerned, the rest of the Empire—the rest of the world—can hold its breath until Shizuka says it can breathe again.

She rocks the two of them back and forth slowly, slowly. Her aunts used to do this when her cousins awoke, frightened conquerors of their own imaginations. There was a song, wasn’t there? A song that they would sing? Shefali never heard it clearly—Burqila Alshara sang for no one—but she’d heard the melody. She wakes the memory of it now, hums it as she rocks Shizuka back and forth, back and forth.

“I missed your singing,” Shizuka whispers. Soft and precious, that sound; Shefali squeezes her tighter.

“I’m here now,” she says. “I’ll sing whatever you want.”

Shizuka half laughs, half smiles, laying her hand flat against Shefali’s chest. “Careful now,” she says. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

“Songs are easier to find than phoenix feathers,” Shefali says.

“So they are,” says Shizuka. She sighs, balls her fist, taps it against Shefali’s chest. “I…My love, I’m sorry. I thought—”

“Shh,” says Shefali. She kisses the top of her head. “When you’re ready.”

“I thought I was ready!” Shizuka answers. “I thought…I always thought that when you returned, I’d be better. That I wouldn’t…That I could sleep, that I wouldn’t want to drink, that I’d stop being so afraid. When you left, I felt so—”

“I’m here now,” Shefali says. Being apart from her was a wound she’d stitched together, but hearing all this is tearing it open anew.

“I know,” says Shizuka. She lays her head against Shefali’s shoulder. “And I thought that would help. Shefali, I thought that would help, but I’m . . . I’m not getting better.”

As porcelain under a hammer—Shizuka’s voice, Shefali’s soul.

“What do you mean?” Shefali says. “Shizuka. Whatever it is that’s troubling you—you have my sword to slay it.”

Shizuka pinches her nose. Shame, again—she smells of shame. “I owe you a story,” she says. “The letter you wrote me was so beautiful, and I . . . I should tell you, really, everything that’s happened. There’s…if you knew all of it, you might not…I owe you a letter.”

When did the bold O-Shizuka start stammering like this?

“But I can’t even do that,” Shizuka says. “I can’t even write to you. Because of the…Because of the water. I can’t look at it. Just a bowl of it, Shefali. Just a bowl. Looking at it makes me remember, and—”

Shizuka sucks in a breath, shivers, trembles. As if she is trying to cry but the tears will not come.

Shefali holds her wife tighter. “When you are ready,” she says, “I will carry your weight.”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Shizuka says. “You carry so much already. My suffering is a grain of rice, and yours is a boulder.”

Shefali kisses her on the forehead.

“You didn’t ask,” she says. “And suffering is not a contest. Losing a limb, losing a horse, losing a friend—the pain’s different, but the crying’s the same.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by K. Arsenault Rivera

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