The unmissable sequel to The Bone Shard Daughter, one of the biggest fantasy debuts of 2020
I’d thought I could set things right in the Empire if only I’d had the means. But setting things right meant weeding a garden gone wild, and with each new weed pulled, two sprouted in its place. It was so like my father not to leave me an easy task.
I clung to the ceramic tiles of the rooftop, ignoring the soft whimper from Thrana below. There was little privacy in the palace of an Emperor. Servants and guards walked the hallways; even at night there was always someone awake. My father had strolled the hallways of his own palace at all hours with impunity; no one had dared to question him, not even me. It probably helped that he kept more constructs than servants, and the servants he did keep regarded him with terror. I wanted to be a different kind of Emperor. Still, I hadn’t counted on having to sneak around my own palace.
I wiped the moisture from a rain- slicked tile with my sleeve and pulled myself onto the peak of the roof. It seemed a lifetime ago since I’d last climbed up here, and though it had in fact been a few short months, my muscles felt the lack of activity. There had been administrative matters to deal with first – hiring servants, guards and workers. Repairing and cleaning out the buildings on the palace grounds. Reinstating some of my father’s commitments and abolishing others.
And always there were people watching me, wondering what I would do, trying to take my measure.
Somewhere below me, Jovis, my Captain of the Imperial Guard, paced the hallway outside my room, his beast, Mephi, beside him. He’d insisted on taking on this duty himself, and though he did sleep at some point, he only did so after he’d had another guard relieve him. Having someone stationed outside my door at all hours made me grind my teeth. Always he wanted to know where I was, what I was doing. And how could I blame him when I’d tasked him with my safety? I couldn’t very well order him and his guards to leave me in peace without sufficient reason. My father had been known to be ill- tempered, eccentric, reclusive. How could I give that order without appearing to be the same?
An Emperor was beholden to her people.
I sat on the peak of the roof for a moment, taking in the damp air, the smell of the ocean. Sweat stuck my hair to the back of my neck. Some of the rooms I’d discovered in the aftermath of my father’s death were pointlessly locked. One filled with paintings, another with trinkets – gifts from other islands. These I set the servants upon to clean and to organize, to display in the newly renovated buildings.
There were other rooms I dared not let anyone else access. I still didn’t know all the secrets that lurked behind these doors, what the things I’d found meant. And prying eyes made me wary. I had my own secrets to keep.
I was not my father’s daughter. I was a created thing, grown in the caves beneath the palace. If anyone ever found me out, I’d be dead. There was enough dissatisfaction brewing with the Sukai Dynasty without adding this to it. The people of the Phoenix Empire wouldn’t suffer an impostor.
In the courtyard below, two guards patrolled. Neither looked to the roof. Even if they had, I’d only be a dark shape against a cloudy sky, the rain that drizzled into their eyes obscuring their vision. I crept down the other side, making my way to a window I knew was still open. The night was warm in spite of the clouds and the rain, and shutters were often left open unless we were in a true gale. Only a few lamps were lit when I slid from the edge of the tiles, my feet finding the sill.
There was an odd comfort in creeping through the hallways of the palace again, my engraving tool and several keys hidden inside my sash pocket. It was familiar – something I knew.
I couldn’t help but peer around the corner to see the door of my room. Jovis was still there, Mephi next to him. He was showing the beast a deck of lacquered cards. Mephi reached out with a webbed claw and touched one. “This one.”
Jovis sighed. “No, no, no – if you play a fish on a sea serpent, that means you lose that turn.”
Mephi tilted his head and sat back on his haunches. “Feed the fish to the sea serpent. Make the sea serpent your friend.”
“That’s not how this works.”
“It worked on me.”
“Are you a sea serpent?”
Mephi clacked his teeth. “Your game makes no sense.”
“You said you were bored and wanted to learn,” Jovis said. He started to tuck the cards back into his pocket.
Mephi’s ears flattened against his skull. “Wait. Waaaaait.”
I pulled back, keeping an ear out for footsteps. Playing cards while guarding the Emperor’s room wasn’t very professional, despite Jovis’s insistences that he needed to protect me. I supposed I’d done this to myself, hiring a former member of the Ioph Carn and a notorious smuggler as Captain of the Imperial Guard. But he’d saved hordes of children from the Tithing Festival and earned a great deal of goodwill from the people.
And goodwill was something I had in short supply.
I made my way to the shard storeroom, ducking down side passages or behind pillars whenever I saw a guard or a servant. Swiftly, I unlocked the door and slipped inside. I moved through muscle memory, taking down the lamp by the lintel, lighting it, striding to the back of the room. There was another door there, carved with a cloud juniper.
Another lock, another key.
I descended into the darkness of the old mining tunnels below the palace, my lamp casting the sharp edges of the walls into stark relief. The constructs my father had placed to guard the way were dead, disassembled by my hand once I’d had the strength. The constructs still scattered across the Empire were another matter. All were commanded to obey Shiyen. And now that he was gone, their command structure had fallen to pieces. Some had gone mad. Others had gone into hiding. There were only two constructs I’d considered mine. Hao, a little spy construct I’d rewritten to obey me, and Bing Tai. Hao had died defending me from my father. Only Bing Tai remained.
At the fork in the tunnels, I veered left, unlocking the door that blocked the way. I’d often wondered what my father was doing when he disappeared behind his locked doors. I still didn’t exactly know.
The tunnel opened up into a cavern and I lit the lamps scattered throughout. A pool filled part of the cavern; a workstation was set up next to it. There were bookshelves, a metal table, baskets of tools I didn’t recognize. And the chest that held my father’s memory machine. It was here I’d found Thrana, submerged in the pool, connected to that machine. As I did every time I entered this cavern, I checked the water. My lamp reflected off the dark surface; I had to squint past that to see into the water below. The replica of my father still lay in the pool, his eyes closed. After the first rush of relief came that familiar pang. He looked so much like Bayan – or, I supposed, Bayan looked so much like him.
But Bayan had died helping me to defeat my father, and when I’d finally taken the time to grieve, I’d realized there was no bringing him back. I was proof of that. While my father had grown this replica by submerging his own severed toe in the pool, he’d grown me from the parts of people he’d collected throughout the Empire. He’d tried to infuse me with the memories of Nisong, his dead wife. It had only partially worked. I had some of her memories, but I wasn’t her.
I was Lin. And I was Emperor.
Even if I could use the memory machine to restore some of Bayan into this replica, it wouldn’t be him.
I whirled, suddenly sure I’d heard something. A footstep? The scuff of shoe against stone? The lamps I’d lit behind me illuminated only stone and water; the only sound I could hear was my heartbeat thundering in my ears. In that one instant of blinding panic, I could feel everything being taken away from me – my years of hard work, the nights spent reading about bone shard magic, the courage I’d had to gather to defy my father – all of it dissolved in a moment of discovery. I was getting paranoid, hearing things where there was nothing. How could someone have followed me down here without the keys? The doors all locked again as soon as they latched shut.
Several of the books and pages of notes my father had gathered lay spread across the metal table. I was reluctant to move them to my rooms, where servants might see them. These were the weeds I was trying to pull: the Shardless Few, the sinking of Deerhead Island, the leaderless constructs and the Alanga. There were answers here, if only I could find them. It was finding them that was difficult. My predecessor’s notes were scattered, his handwriting messy. In spite of the three locked doors, my father wrote as though afraid someone else might find these books. Nothing was straightforward. Often he referenced notes he’d written previously, or other books, but without naming where those notes could be found or the titles of the books. I was trying to assemble a puzzle that had no picture.
I drew up the chair and flipped through page after page, a headache forming quickly behind my eyes. A part of me thought that if only I read enough, if only I read it enough times, I’d figure out my father’s secrets.
So far, all I’d been able to gather was that islands had sunk before, a long time ago. Knowing that more than one had sunk back then, and so far we’d only seen Deerhead Island fall, made sweat gather on my palms. I still didn’t know what had caused Deerhead to sink, or when or how I might expect another island to drown. And the Alanga – another thing my father would have told his heir. Who were they, and if they returned, what could I do to fight them off?
My gaze strayed to the memory machine.
There had still been liquid in the tubes when I’d disconnected it from Thrana. Some held her blood and some held a milky fluid. I’d gathered her remaining blood into a flask I’d taken from the kitchens, and the fluid into another. In his notes, my father had mentioned feeding the memories to his constructs and to me. He’d seemed dissatisfied with his first attempts, reluctant to disassemble the constructs that might be carrying his dead wife’s memories but unhappy with how little they seemed to understand of Nisong.
I wasn’t sure what he’d done with those constructs, but the more pressing matter was where the memories were stored.
I’d corked both flasks, placing them on the table with the books. I’d gotten as far as uncorking the one with the milky fluid and sniffing the contents. But always I stoppered it again, searching Shiyen’s notes for more concrete evidence that the memories were in that fluid. Was I getting that desperate, to consider drinking it without knowing for sure? For all I knew, it could be some sort of lubrication for the machine, poisonous and not meant to be consumed.
But some of that had come from Thrana. I wasn’t sure of the connection – where he’d found her, what sort of creature she was. She was like Mephi, and Jovis had found him swimming in the ocean after Deerhead’s fall.
There was nothing toxic about Thrana.
Ah, I was making excuses because part of me just wanted to drink it. I wanted to know. I couldn’t be sure whose memories might be in that fluid, but I had an idea. Shiyen had been old and ill. He would have been trying to gather his memories, to place them within his replica before he died.
I was looking for answers, and some of those answers might be in the flask. The Phoenix Empire stood on a knife’s edge. What was I willing to do to save my people? Numeen had told me they needed an Emperor who cared. And I cared. I cared so much.
I seized the flask, uncorked it and lifted it to my lips before I could change my mind again.
The liquid was cold, though that didn’t mask the taste. Copper, sweetness and a strange, lingering aftertaste filled my mouth and clung to the back of my throat. I swiped my tongue over my teeth, wondering if I should have tasted it before swallowing. Perhaps it was poison. And then the memory swept over me.
I was here, still in this chamber, though it looked different. Three more lamps were lit in the working area, and Thrana still lay in the water. My hands adjusted the tubing leading into the memory machine. Liver spots scattered across the backs of my palms, tendons pressing against skin. I pushed too hard; my hand slipped and hit the side of the chest. Something jolted loose.
“Dione’s balls!” Frustration welled within me. Always one thing after another. Get something into place; another thing falls out of place. The only thing I had to live for were these experiments. My chest ached as I thought of Nisong, of her dark eyes, her hand in mine. Gone. I felt around the bottom of the chest, pushing the hidden compartment back into line.
My gaze flicked involuntarily to the other end of the cave.
And then I was back in my own body again, wondering if that was what it felt like to be my father. Strangely astonished that he had such strength of feeling at all. I’d always known him to be cold and distant.
He really had loved Nisong. I wasn’t sure why that surprised me. Perhaps it was because, no matter how hard I’d tried, I could not get him to love me.
In the memory, a hidden compartment had come loose from the chest. Experimentally, I struck the side of the chest with the flat of my palm. Nothing jolted loose, but I put my hand where I remembered my father’s hand pressing the wood back in.
There was something there. A small rectangle where the wood felt slightly raised. I struck the chest again.
This time, it came loose. A drawer slid partway open. I pried it the rest of the way out. Inside rested a tiny silver key.
I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to laugh or to cry. Always my father kept so many secrets – secrets within secrets within secrets. His mind was a maze even he couldn’t find his way out of. What if he had truly raised me as his daughter? What if he’d put aside his foolish quest to live on in another body, to bring his dead wife back to life?
The key was cold when I picked it up, the tiny teeth at the end sharp. I’d unlocked all the doors I could find in the palace. This belonged somewhere else.
My gaze flicked to the other side of the cave. He’d looked in that direction when he’d pushed the drawer back into place. I hadn’t thought there was anything there, but perhaps I hadn’t looked closely enough.
I lifted my lamp. Stalagmites blocked my path to the other side; I had to weave between them like a deer through bamboo.
At last, I reached a clear area against the wall – the spot I’d seen my father looking at. As I cast my gaze around, my heart sank. There was nothing here, just stone and the flash of crystal in the walls. I’d walked over here before; I wasn’t sure why I expected anything different.
Secrets within secrets.
No, there was something here. He’d glanced at this spot, and I’d been experiencing his memory. There’d been a reason for it, I could feel it. I dropped to my knees, setting the lamp down and feeling around on the ground.
My fingers found the smallest crack filled with dirt.
I set aside the key, pulled my engraving tool from my sash pocket and used it to clear the dirt from the crack in the stone. Someone had chiseled a piece of stone away and then replaced it. There was something here; I hadn’t been wrong.
The engraving tool bent as I used it to pry the stone out. My fingernails ached as I wedged them beneath the slab, pulling until it came free. Dirt shook loose, catching the lamplight. I peered inside the cavity and found a hatch with a keyhole.
What would my father have kept that necessitated a series of four locked doors? The key slid into the lock easily and turned with a soft click. The hinges to the hatch were well oiled; it opened soundlessly. When I swung my lantern over the hole, all I could see was a ladder descending into the dark.
There might be anything down there. I crouched down, lay on my belly and lowered both the lantern and my head into the hatch.
It was difficult to see very far into the cavern below with only one lamp, and upside down at that. The ladder was long, the bottom farther than I’d first thought. But I could make out shelves against one shadowy wall.
Well, I’d come this far, hadn’t I? And it wasn’t as though I was going to go back and ask Jovis to accompany me into my father’s lair. I’d defeated my father; I could climb into a dark hole by myself. I pushed myself back up, tucked the engraving tool back into my sash, gripped the lantern’s handle between my teeth and set my feet upon the ladder.
The air felt even cooler in this lower cave than in the cavern with the pool. It had a musty petrichor scent, though I couldn’t detect any excess moisture. It was a relief to finally touch ground again, to take the lamp from my jaw, which had already begun to ache.
I shook out the tension in my shoulders. There were perhaps more books down here, more notes, more puzzle pieces I could lock together. I pivoted, lifting the lamp.
And found its light reflecting from two monstrous eyes.