Excerpt Reveal: He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan

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Excerpt Reveal: He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan

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He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan

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. Mulan meets The Song of Achilles.

How much would you give to win the world?

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…

Please enjoy this free excerpt of He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan, on sale 8/22/23


Chapter 1

BORDER OF THE KINGDOMS OF ZHU YUANZHANG AND THE ZHANG FAMILY
EIGHTH MONTH, 1356

“Surely it requires no extended consideration,” the woman’s voice said from behind the stirring gauze curtain of the carriage. “Why not give me your answer now, Zhu Yuanzhang, and save us both the time?”

Even here, far from the sea, the plain beneath the carriage’s hilltop vantage point blazed white with salt as though the wealth of the woman’s kingdom overflowed without restraint. The hot tiger tail of the southern summer had vanished the shal­low lake that usually lay here on the border between the two territories. Above their armies, quickening flags dashed colored reflections onto the expanse. Yellow, for the rebel army of the Radiant King. Green for the Zhang merchant family, the former loyalists of the Empire of the Great Yuan, who had finally bro­ken with their Mongol rulers that spring and proclaimed their rule over the salt and shipping lanes of the eastern seaboard.

Zhu Yuanzhang, her golden king’s armor and gilded wooden hand matching the color of the grass under her horse’s hooves, saw the generals of the opposing armies walking towards each other with deliberate courtesy. Their small noonday shadows sliced over the shattering crust beneath their boots.

To the casual eye there was little between the two generals to set them apart. Two winged helmets in the Nanren style, two sets of lamellar armor with the dark leather taking in the sun and the metal lion’s-head bosses on their shoulders sending it flashing back like mirror signals. But to Zhu, whose general was her brother in all but blood, their distant shapes were as easily distinguished as two faces. That was Xu Da’s unmonkishly tall frame, his joyful stride that of a young man eager to taste the world. The other, General Zhang, of lesser height and build, but carrying himself with the reserved confidence of a man with the life experience of Zhu and her general put together. Zhu knew just how quickly General Zhang had moved after his family’s separation from the Yuan. In the space of a few months he had taken all the remaining cities along the southern reaches of the Grand Canal and moved the Zhang family’s capital to walled Pingjiang on the eastern shore of Lake Tai. Now all that sepa­rated the Zhangs in the east from Zhu’s own kingdom in the west was a stretch of flatlands in the curve of the mighty Yangzi River as it wound its way to the sea.

“Surrender to me,” said the woman behind the curtain. Her voice had a throaty quality, low and flirtatious. It was a voice for a closed room, velveted with suggestion: that though they were strangers who had only just met, perhaps they were mo­ments from becoming as known to each other as two bodies could be. It was one of those tactics that worked only as long as the calculation underneath it remained unseen. Zhu, who not only saw it but also considered herself generally immune to the urges of physical desire, was interested to feel a mild tug in re­sponse. As someone lacking in femininity herself, it had never occurred to her that it could be weaponized. The novelty of hav­ing it wielded against herself amused and impressed her in al­most equal measure.

On the plain the two generals inclined their heads in respect; conveyed and received the formal message of surrender; and withdrew. Their tracks lay bruised blue behind them.

Zhu finally turned to her interlocutor. “Greetings to the es­teemed Madam Zhang.”

“I see you refuse my title,” the woman said archly.

“Why shouldn’t I, when you refuse mine?” Zhu returned. The snap of words sent a current of vitality through her. It was the delight of power mixed with play, as thrilling to her as the tang of brine in her nose and the hot wild wind that snapped her banners and sent the grass rushing and leaping down the hillsides. In a tone of matching archness, she added, “Perhaps my surrender is better given to he who holds the true title. Your husband, the king. I would rather be received face-to-face by my equal than by his honorable wife speaking from behind a cur­tain of propriety.”

The woman gave a manicured laugh. “Don’t worry. Your sur­render will be given correctly. My husband’s reputation may pre­cede him, but a weak man, well managed, is a woman’s greatest strength.” A shadow rippled against the gauze, as if the woman had leaned close. Her lowered voice issued an invitation for Zhu to lean down from her horse, to let her ear drift so close to those murmuring lips that she might have felt each syllable on her skin had it not been for the thin barrier between them. “I don’t think you’re a weak man, Zhu Yuanzhang. But your position is weak. What hope can you have against my larger army; against my general who was even hailed as an equal by the Yuan’s own feared General Ouyang?

“Give me your surrender. Bring your forces under my com­mand. Instead of waiting for the Yuan to send their Grand Coun­cilor and that central army of theirs to put us down, we’ll march on Dadu together. We’ll take their capital, and the throne. And when my husband is emperor, he’ll grant you the title of your choosing. Duke, prince? It will be yours.”

Zhu responded dryly, “When the histories are written, such a title will surely commend me to their authors as a great man.”

The men she and Madam Zhang had each brought here were only for show. This was a meeting, not a battle. But Zhu was under no illusions about her situation. Her army, an infantry­ dominated force built from the former Red Turban rebellion and additional peasant recruits, was barely half the size of the Zhangs’ well-equipped professional army. And with the excep­tion of her capital, Yingtian, none of the dozen cities she held in the south could match even the poorest of the Zhang family’s canal-linked economic centers. It was clear what the outcome of a battle would be. Had their positions been reversed, Zhu would have counted herself the victor and demanded surrender, just as her opponent was doing now.

Madam Zhang murmured, “Is that what you want? To be great?” Her tone was as smooth as the trailing caress of finger­ tips along skin. “Then accept me, and let me make it happen.”

Greatness. Zhu had wanted it her entire life. With a certainty as crisp as shadow cast across salt, she knew it would always be everything she wanted. She straightened in the saddle and gazed eastwards over the sweep of the Zhang family’s realm. The wind rushing against her from that distant tawny horizon seemed to bring it close; it turned that abstract line into something palpa­ble, something fiercely visceral. Reachable. The thought filled Zhu with sharp joy. Stationary and yet soaring on her hilltop, she had the curious sensation of seeing her entire path to her fu­ture stretching before her. From her eagle’s vantage she could see there were no true obstacles on that path—only small bumps that would barely check her as she ran headlong towards her goal.

With a surge of delight, she said to the faceless woman be­hind the curtain, “I don’t want to be great.”

She savored the pause as Madam Zhang’s mind churned, wondering what she had misunderstood about Zhu’s character­, where she had gone wrong with her seduction.

The stump of Zhu’s arm ached inside the too-tight cuff of her wooden hand. But that discomfort, and the daily repercussions of being a one-handed man in a two-handed world, was merely the cost of her desire, and Zhu was strong enough to bear it. She was strong enough to bear anything, or to do anything, for the sake of what she wanted.

“Then—” Madam Zhang began.

“I don’t want to be great,” Zhu repeated. Her desire was the radiance of the sun, an immensity that filled every part of her without exception. Who else understood what it was to feel something of this magnitude; to want something with the en­tirety of their self, as she did? “I want to be the greatest.”

Sparkling crystalline eddies scrubbed across the bare surface of the plain. Life-sustaining salt that, in such concentration, be­came life-denying.

“I see,” Madam Zhang said after a moment. Her flirtatiousness had taken on a sheen of disdain, and Zhu had the mental image of the door to a private room slamming in her face. “I forgot how young you are. Young people are always too ambitious. They haven’t yet learned the limits of what’s possible.”

Lacquered fingernails tapped the inner frame of the carriage, signaling the driver. As the carriage moved off, Madam Zhang said, “We’ll meet again. But before we do, let this elder tell you something. Cast your eye upon my general down below. What respect does he lack from the world around him, for his man­ner, his appearance, his accomplishments? The natural place of a man like that is above others. You would do well to consider your own natural place, Zhu Yuanzhang. If the world can barely stand to let its eye fall upon a man as lacking as you, do you think it would accept you on the throne? Only a fool would risk everything for the impossible.”

Zhu watched the carriage wheel away down the hill. If Madam Zhang had known the true extent of Zhu’s physical lacks-which, as far as matters of masculine anatomy went, included more than broad shoulders or a right hand—no doubt she’d have considered even Zhu’s present accomplishments to have been impossible. But if you were determined to want the impossible, there was a better way to get it. Zhu thought with amused defiance: Change the world, and make it possible.

Copyright © 2023 from Shelley Parker-Chan

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