Barsalayaa Shefali, famed Qorin adventurer, and the spoiled divine warrior empress, O-Shizuka, have survived fights with demon armies, garnered infamy, and ruled an empire. Raised together since birth, then forced into exile after their wedding, and reunited amidst a poisonous invasion—these bold warrior women have faced monumental adventures and catastrophic battles.
As they come closest to fulfilling the prophecy of generations—Shefali and Shizuka will face their greatest test yet.
The Warrior Moon, the sequel to The Phoenix Empress and striking conclusion to K Arsenault Rivera’s wildly buzzed about epic fantasy, which began with The Tiger’s Daughter, will be available on September 24. Please enjoy the following excerpt.
Within the Bronze Palace there is a war room, and within that room is a massive table. On that massive table is a painstaking replica of the Hokkaran Empire—the mountains rendered in gleaming porcelain, the forests represented by gathered twigs and grass. All the major roads are marked, with well-armed soldiers representing patrols; all the rivers flow in miniature down to the drains around the edges. That is the trouble with the map—while it leaves the Empire itself looking splendid beyond imagining, it does not include the Father’s Sea.
O-Shizuka, seasoned Empress and nascent god, remedied this problem with a simple wooden board she placed along the western side of the table, just over the drains. With her impossible calligraphy, she has labeled all the major port cities of the coast. Her wife, Barsalyya Shefali, says that it won’t be as accurate that way, since Shizuka hasn’t measured the distances with exactitude, but Shizuka continues all the same. She’s in no mood to summon a cartographer.
For boats she’s chosen to use the replica siege engines, which will be confusing down the line. Shefali’s told her that, as well, but Shizuka will insist that there aren’t enough model ships, and if she paints the siege engines gold, no one will make any mistakes. Thus there are two dozen catapults now gathered off the shore of Nishikomi, south of shards of broken clay. The Father’s Teeth, pulled from Grandfather Earth.
At least the horses are all right, Shefali tells herself, shaking her head. There are near a hundred of them over the Wall. She spends more time staring at their little manes than she does preparing for the meeting. There’s no need, as far as she is concerned; Shizuka will do most of the talking, and it isn’t as if Burqila Alshara would deny Naisuran’s daughter aid. Oh, she’ll be gruff, and blunt, and likely insult the whole table—but she will say yes.
It’s the meeting with Baozhai that Shefali’s worried about.
Baozha the Thorned Blossom Queen, who has overseen Xian-Lai through its recent growth; the woman who, before that, lent her army to Shizuka for the purposes of overthrowing the old Emperor; Kenshiro’s wife, Baoyi’s mother, Shefali’s sister-in-law. To trifle with her was to trifle with a hurricane.
There was, of course, also the fact that Shefali was dying—but in the face of Baozhai’s arrival that is hardly a concern at all.
“Perhaps my mother was right,” Shizuka says. “I should have been an artist.”
Shefali does not have the heart to tell her wife that her contribution to the war map is, at best, unsightly. Shizuka’s proud of it, and so it’s beautiful. That is how Shefali’s world has always worked.
“You can be,” says Shefali. “No rules against it.”
Shizuka blows air between her lips. “No rules, but no time, either,” she says. “I suppose my decrees will have to suffice. What a bore. Have you arranged the Qorin?”
Shefali did not realize she’d been given an assignment. She picks up the horses with ginger hands and moves them over to Fujino. Even that feels too rough. Whoever crafted these little creatures really did do a wonderful job; that one has such a healthy coat—
Shizuka covers her mouth with her sleeve, stifling a laugh. “I should have known you’d get distracted,” she says.
It is the happiest she has sounded in days. Happy enough, almost, to erase the memory of why they’ve come to the war room at all. A smile blossoms on Shefali’s face only to die away. They are here to plot an attack on the Traitor. The beginning of Shefali’s final journey, one way or another.
No rules, but no time.
There were now only weeks left, at best.
Well. If Shefali died a warrior’s death and made her wife laugh, three weeks would be plenty.
Shefali’s reverie ends as four servants arrive in lockstep. Two women in elaborate hairstyles, their bodices tightly fitted beneath gauzy silk jackets, launch into playing their flutes the moment they cross the threshold. The two men following them wear something closer to a deel and riding pants, and bow at perfect right angles on either side of the door. Xianese, then.
Baozhai has come.
“Announcing the arrival of Her Eternal Majesty, she who shields the nation, the Thorned-Blossom Queen!”
Ah. Not Baozhai at all. Shefali repeats the title under her breath. Names are important things, not to be misused. The Qorin have always known this, and it seems the Xianese do, too. It is only the Hokkarans who fell behind. Even if it is difficult to think of her sweet sister-in-law as such an imposing figure.
That notion is dispelled the moment the Queen walks into the war room. Gone were the soft greens and violets that their sister-in-law so often wears, replaced with verdant emerald and deepest black. Gone her Hokkaran-styled robes: now she wears a gown beneath an over-sized coat, her sleeves so long they nearly touch the ground. The embroidery alone must’ve taken a small village’s worth of people years to finish. Sable lines her sleeves and collar, the lush black fur drawing attention to her exposed collarbones.
And that is only the dress! Her hair is piled higher than any Hokkaran woman would dare, tightly bound so that it juts out over the front of her head. In lieu of the hanging ornaments Shizuka often favored, Baozhai wore emerald pins in the shapes of various flowers. Where Shizuka has painted her skin white and her teeth black, Baozhai wears a face full of color. A green-violet flower is painted between her brows, her eyelids shimmering with the same. Even her lips bear a dot of green and violet at the center.
Baozhai always had a regal bearing—but that is comparing a pleasant stream to the raging rapids of the Rokhon. It is that river that stands before them now.
A woman who does not bow when she enters, only inclines her head; a woman who dares to meet the Empress’s eyes; a woman as imposing as she is beautiful.
Were it not for the smell of her, Shefali would swear that it wasn’t her sister-in-law at all.
But there she is—and to Shefali’s surprise, Shizuka is the one who bows first.
“Thorned-Blossom Queen,” she says. “We of the Empire thank you for hosting us.”
“And we of the South thank you for your invitation,” says Baozhai. She dismisses her servants with a wave of her hand; two golden talons gleam on her lowest fingers. “What will be the language of the discussion?”
At first Shefali thinks of it as a strange question—but it occurs to her after a beat that Baozhai speaks all three languages with varying degrees of fluency.
Shizuka and the others speak only two.
Shefali expects such barbs from courtiers; not from Baozhai.
“We suggest Hokkaran,” Shizuka says, “the common language for all who will be present today. We’ve prepared a seat for you, if you will?”
“We doubt there will be need,” says Baozhai. How it vexes Shefali to hear them both speak to each other in such a way—all this plural talk. The Kharsa speaks for all Qorin, and you do not hear her saying “we” this or “we” that.
But something in the air changes, just then: a note of salt and metal meets Shefali’s sensitive nose. Not from Shizuka—who for all her outward calm smells like a storm—but from Baozhai.
“Empress, we will keep this brief out of respect. Xian-Lai will not be lending you any foot soldiers for your campaign,” the Thorned- Blossom Queen says. Though she speaks a touch more quickly than usual, her eyes never leave Shizuka’s. “We gave you our daughters and sons twice-two years ago; we granted you the Bronze Army to seize your throne. We cannot continue to die for you. We welcome you to use our ships, provided you man them—but we will not provide you people.”
Shefali winces. It was the right decision for Xian-Lai. The right decision as a Queen. Yet Baozhai is more to them than this. Hadn’t she sworn earlier this week that she would help in whatever way she could?
Shizuka has fought to keep her mask in the face of the Thorned-Blossom Queen—but these words are a hammer against porcelain. Already she is shattering; already she grows sharper.
Shefali cannot say anything to mend this—but she can abandon setting down the miniature horses; she can stand at Shizuka’s side as she says whatever foolhardy thing she is going to say.
“The Traitor himself is marching on Nishikomi,” says Shizuka, “and you will not send your army?”
“The Traitor is a problem of the North and East,” Baozhai answers. She anticipated this. How talented she is—so little emotion shows in her face, but Shefali can smell how this is paining her. “The South has no cause to join this war.”
“How can you say that?” Shizuka snaps. Shefali touches her hand. Shizuka squeezes hers in answer, her temper cooling not at all. “How can you stand here and say that to me, knowing what I’ve done?”
“Empress,” says Baozhai. Level and calm. “This is not a decision we’ve made lightly. We speak for our nation, as you speak for yours; we guard our people as you guard yours.”
For a long while there is silence. Shizuka trembles as she endeavors to contain her wrath. Baozhai is the first to falter, the first to break eye contact.
“We can provide only ships,” she says, but it is quieter now, almost an apology.
Shizuka’s gaze is a pyre. “Is this the decision of the Queen of Xian-Lai?” she asks.
“It is,” says Baozhai. “We regret the pain this causes you—but we must think of our own people.”
Shizuka sniffs. “Very well,” she says. “We of the Empire accept your ships. Your gracious offer.”
“Empress, our offer is as gracious as it can be,” Baozhai returns. At last her level tone begins to break; at last she is starting to sound angry. “We will send further word—but our sailors at Chenyi will depart as soon as they can. The nearest port in your territory is—”
“Sejan,” finishes Shizuka. “They will be ready.” The line across her face seems harsher given the glare in her eyes. “Is that all, Thorned-Blossom Queen?”
“Should we not be asking you that question?” returns Baozhai. “For it was you who summoned us, and not the other way around. We’ve nothing further to discuss in such a state as this. If you should wish to visit us by the violets, that is another thing entirely.”
Shefali is grateful, just then, that she loves both woman and Empress. To love one and not the other would be an agony—and it is agony gnawing at the edges of Shizuka’s soul now. Perhaps Baozhai’s mention of violets has soothed her somewhat, for when she finally answers, the air around her has cooled.
“We would enjoy that,” she says. “In two days, perhaps, after prep- arations are complete.”
Then, for the first time, Baozhai looks right to Shefali. The sudden attention makes Shefali conscious of her size, of how little experience she has with tactics. What could the Queen of Xian-Lai possibly have to say to her?
“And you, Empress Wolf?” she says. “Will you be traveling to Nishikomi with your honored wife?”
So calm, the question, and yet—she knows. Shefali’s mouth goes dry.
“Yes,” she says.
And there—for the first time, the Thorned-Blossom Queen cracks.
A shadow passes over her like the clouds over the steppes.
“We wish you well,” she says.
What misery—to hear such words and know them to be sincere!
“Thank you,” Shefali mumbles.
All three of them exchange bows. Baozhai leaves with the same pomp and circumstance as she arrived—the servant women reenter to recite a poem prepared specially for the occasion. Shefali wonders if all that opulence is meant to make Shizuka seem modest by comparison. She wonders what the fashions will look like in ten years, when Xian-Lai has further asserted its independence, and when Shefali will not be around to see them.
“I can’t believe she’d say that,” Shizuka mutters. Shefali throws an arm around her. “I . . . I’ve told her about you and me, and him. Every single Hokkaran ruler has had his corrupt blood flowing through their veins. How can she say it isn’t her problem?”
“Not the South’s problem,” Shefali says. A gentle correction, born of love. “She’s worried about you. Her people aren’t.”
Shizuka leans on her shoulder and lets out a long sigh. Shefali knows well enough by now the way crowns change the women who bear them, but that does not mean it does not hurt. Shefali thinks of changing the subject—bringing up Ren, or Sakura perhaps—but Shizuka acts first as always.
“You moved all the horses,” she says. “I was worried you’d start naming them.”
Shefali did, but this isn’t the time to admit that. “They’re warhorses,” she says. “They have important jobs.”
And cute, accurately reproduced saddles.
Shizuka chuckles. For a moment Shefali thinks that perhaps things will be all right, or as all right as war can be. Baozhai has refused them, but Burqila won’t. The road to Nishikomi will be a long one— the last one—but Shefali will travel alongside her family, nearly all her loved ones. When they strike down the Traitor, she will be happy to join the stars.
If the Traitor does show himself. The woman, Sayaka, was probably right; it is probably a trap.
But it is one they’d face together.
“Your mother’s almost here,” Shizuka says.
Shefali can only nod. After all the anxiety of the past few days, the arrival of her family should be a blessing. Instead it has created a particular kind of knot in her stomach. Alshara wrote not long ago—she is proud of her daughter. And the rest of the Qorin must be eager to sniff her cheeks and tell her she smells as if she is dying. Her lips turn up at the corners at the thought. Qorin humor is one of her few remaining comforts.
There is no one better at Qorin humor—and no one Shefali dreads seeing again more—than her cousin Otgar. Otgar, who had been at her side through six years of wandering; Otgar, who knew her better than almost anyone. Otgar, who told her when she left for Hokkaro that she was a disappointment to her clan and her ancestors.
Barsatoq has not seen you in eight years. Burqila has not seen you in twelve—and you’re telling me you’re picking your wife over her?
Shefali squeezes her eyes shut.
“It won’t be as bad as you think,” says Shizuka. Gone, her earlier fury; gone, her amusement. When the two of them are alone, Shizuka wears her most private expressions—her amber eyes go honey sweet. “She’ll be happy to see you.”
“I’m dying,” Shefali says, for it is the abject truth of the matter.
Shizuka flinches. She takes Shefali’s hand in her own and holds it against her cheek. “All the more reason,” she says. “Petty squabbles are meaningless now, aren’t they? You’re her favorite cousin.”
“I’m certain you are,” Shizuka says. Shefali squints. She and Otgar share well over a dozen cousins. Many of them are funnier than Shefali, many of them are better wrestlers, almost all of them have spent more time with the clan.
Shizuka—the Empress of Hokkaro, the final scion of the storied Minami line, descendant of a Traitor god—grabs one of the stools and drags it behind her wife. Before Shefali can ask her what she’s doing, Shizuka is atop it, her delicate hands on either side of Shefali’s shoulders.
“Relax,” is the answer, accompanied by a tap on Shefali’s head. “You do so much for me, and I know you’re in pain.”
She is. Pain has become something of a sense to her, at this point— an ever-present sensation she must try to tune out if she is to get anything done at all. Some days she is more successful than others.
Today it is only a little pain. Shizuka’s massage, truth be told, doesn’t do anything at all to alleviate it.
But they have only a few weeks left, and Shefali will treasure every moment they have together.
Copyright © 2019 by K Arsenault Rivera
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