An unmissable debut from a major new voice in fantasy, The Bone Shard Daughter is by turns intimate, epic and thrilling – a triumph of storytelling perfect for fans of City of Brass, The Poppy War and Empire of Sand.
Father told me I’m broken.
He didn’t speak this disappointment when I answered his question. But he said it with narrowed eyes, the way he sucked on his already hollow cheeks, the way the left side of his lips twitched a little bit down, the movement almost hidden by his beard.
He taught me how to read a person’s thoughts on their face. And he knew that I knew how to read these signs. So between us, it was as though he had spoken out loud.
The question: “Who was your closest childhood friend?”
My answer: “I don’t know.”
I could run as quickly as the sparrow flies, I was as skilled with an abacus as the Empire’s best accountants, and I could name all the known islands in the time it took for tea to finish steeping. But I could not remember my past before the sickness. Sometimes I thought I never would – that the girl from before was lost to me.
Father’s chair creaked as he shifted, and he let out a long breath. In his fingers he held a brass key, which he tapped on the table’s surface. “How can I trust you with my secrets? How can I trust you as my heir if you do not know who you are?”
I knew who I was. I was Lin. I was the Emperor’s daughter. I shouted the words in my head, but I didn’t say them. Unlike my father, I kept my face neutral, my thoughts hidden. Sometimes he liked it when I stood up for myself, but this was not one of those times. It never was, when it came to my past.
I did my best not to stare at the key.
“Ask me another question,” I said. The wind lashed at the shutters, bringing with it the salt- seaweed smell of the ocean. The breeze licked at my neck, and I suppressed a shiver. I kept his gaze, hoping he saw the steel in my soul and not the fear. I could taste the scent of rebellion on the winds as clearly as I could the fish fermentation vats. It was that obvious, that thick. I could set things right, if only I had the means. If only he’d let me prove it.
“Very well,” Father said. The teak pillars behind him framed his withered countenance, making him look more like a foreboding portrait than a man. “You’re afraid of sea serpents. Why?”
“I was bit by one when I was a child,” I said.
He studied my face. I held my breath. I stopped holding my breath. I twined my fingers together and then forced them to relax. If I were a mountain, he would be following the taproots of cloud junipers, chipping away the stone, searching for the white, chalky core.
And finding it.
“Don’t lie to me, girl,” he snarled. “Don’t make guesses. You may be my flesh and blood, but I can name my foster son to the crown. It doesn’t have to be you.”
I wished I did remember. Was there a time when this man stroked my hair and kissed my forehead? Had he loved me before I’d forgotten, when I’d been whole and unbroken? I wished there was someone I could ask. Or at least, someone who could give me answers. “Forgive me.” I bowed my head. My black hair formed a curtain over my eyes, and I stole a glance at the key.
Most of the doors in the palace were locked. He hobbled from room to room, using his bone shard magic to create miracles. A magic I needed if I was to rule. I’d earned six keys. My father’s foster, Bayan, had seven. Sometimes it felt as if my entire life was a test.
“Fine,” Father said. He eased back into his chair. “You may go.”
I rose to leave, but hesitated. “When will you teach me your bone shard magic?” I didn’t wait for his response. “You say you can name Bayan as your heir, but you haven’t. I am still your heir, and I need to know how to control the constructs. I’m twenty-three, and you—” I stopped, because I didn’t know how old he was. There were liver spots on the backs of his hands, and his hair was steely gray. I didn’t know how much longer he would live. All I could imagine was a future where he died and left me with no knowledge. No way to protect the Empire from the Alanga. No memories of a father who cared.
He coughed, muffling the sound with his sleeve. His gaze flicked to the key, and his voice went soft. “When you are a whole person,” he said.
I didn’t understand him. But I recognized the vulnerability. “Please,” I said, “what if I am never a whole person?”
He looked at me, and the sadness in his gaze scraped at my heart like teeth. I had five years of memories; before that was a fog. I’d lost something precious; if only I knew what it was. “Father, I—”
A knock sounded at the door, and he was cold as stone once more.
Bayan slipped inside without waiting for a response, and I wanted to curse him. He hunched his shoulders as he walked, his footfalls silent. If he were anyone else, I’d think his step hesitant. But Bayan had the look of a cat about him – deliberate, predatory. He wore a leather apron over his tunic, and blood stained his hands.
“I’ve completed the modification,” Bayan said. “You asked me to see you right away when I’d finished.”
A construct hobbled behind him, tiny hooves clicking against the floor. It looked like a deer, except for the fangs protruding from its mouth and the curling monkey’s tail. Two small wings sprouted from its shoulders, blood staining the fur around them.
Father turned in his chair and placed a hand on the creature’s back. It looked up at him with wide, wet eyes. “Sloppy,” he says. “How many shards did you use to embed the follow command?”
“Two,” Bayan said. “One to get the construct to follow me, and another to get it to stop.”
“It should be one,” Father said. “It goes where you do unless you tell it not to. The language is in the first book I gave you.” He seized one of the wings and pulled it. When he let it go, it settled slowly back at the construct’s side. “Your construction, however, is excellent.”
Bayan’s eyes slid to the side, and I held his gaze. Neither of us looked away. Always a competition. Bayan’s irises were blacker even than mine, and when his lip curled, it only accentuated the full curve of his mouth. I supposed he was prettier than I would ever be, but I was convinced I was smarter, and that’s what really mattered. Bayan never cared to hide his feelings. He carried his contempt for me like a child’s favorite seashell.
“Try again with a new construct,” Father said, and Bayan broke his gaze from mine. Ah, I’d won this small contest.
Father reached his fingers into the beast. I held my breath. I’d only seen him do this twice. Twice I could remember, at least. The creature only blinked placidly as Father’s hand disappeared to the wrist. And then he pulled away and the construct froze, still as a statue. In his hand were two small shards of bone.
No blood stained his fingers. He dropped the bones into Bayan’s hand. “Now go. Both of you.”
I was quicker to the door than Bayan, whom I suspected was hoping for more than just harsh words. But I was used to harsh words, and I’d things to do. I slipped out the door and held it for Bayan to pass so he needn’t bloody the door with his hands. Father prized cleanliness.
Bayan glared at me as he passed, the breeze in his wake smelling of copper and incense. Bayan was just the son of a small isle’s governor, lucky enough to have caught Father’s eye and to be taken in as a foster. He’d brought the sickness with him, some exotic disease Imperial didn’t know. I was told I got sick with it soon after he arrived, and recovered a little while after Bayan did. But he hadn’t lost as much of his memory as I had, and he’d gotten some of it back.
As soon as he disappeared around the corner, I whirled and ran for the end of the hallway. The shutters threatened to blow against the walls when I unlatched them. The tile roofs looked like the slopes of mountains. I stepped outside and shut the window.
The world opened up before me. From atop the roof, I could see the city and the harbor. I could even see the boats in the ocean fishing for squid, their lanterns shining in the distance like earthbound stars. The wind tugged at my tunic, finding its way beneath the cloth, biting at my skin.
I had to be quick. By now, the construct servant would have removed the body of the deer. I half- ran, half- skidded down the slope of the roof toward the side of the palace where my father’s bedroom was. He never brought his chain of keys into the questioning room. He didn’t bring his construct guards with him. I’d read the small signs on his face. He might bark at me and scold me, but when we were alone – he feared me.
The tiles clicked below my feet. On the ramparts of the palace walls, shadows lurked – more constructs. Their instructions were simple. Watch for intruders. Sound an alarm. None of them paid me any mind, no matter that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I wasn’t an intruder.
The Construct of Bureaucracy would now be handing over the reports. I’d watched him sorting them earlier in the day, hairy lips fumbling over his teeth as he read them silently. There would be quite a lot. Shipments delayed due to skirmishes, the Ioph Carn stealing and smuggling witstone, citizens shirking their duty to the Empire.
I swung onto my father’s balcony. The door to his room was cracked open. The room was usually empty, but this time it was not. A growl emanated from within. I froze. A black nose nudged into the space between door and wall, widening the gap. Yellow eyes peered at me and tufted ears flicked back. Claws scraped against wood as the creature strode toward me. Bing Tai, one of my father’s oldest constructs. Gray speckled his jowls, but he had all his teeth. Each incisor was as long as my thumb.
His lip curled, the hackles on his back standing on end. He was a creature of nightmares, an amalgamation of large predators, with black, shaggy fur that faded into the darkness. He took another step closer.
Maybe it wasn’t Bayan that was stupid; maybe I was the stupid one. Maybe this was how Father would find me after his tea – torn to bloody pieces on his balcony. It was too far to the ground, and I was too short to reach the roof gutters. The only way out from these rooms was into the hallway. “Bing Tai,” I said, and my voice was steadier than I felt. “It is me, Lin.”
I could almost feel my father’s two commands battling in the construct’s head. One: protect my rooms. Two: protect my family. Which command was stronger? I’d bet on the second one, but now I wasn’t so sure.
I held my ground and tried not to let my fear show. I shoved my hand toward Bing Tai’s nose. He could see me, he could hear me, perhaps he needed to smell me.
He could choose to taste me, though I did my best not to think about that.
His wet, cold nose touched my fingers, a growl still deep in his throat. I was not Bayan, who wrestled with the constructs like they were his brothers. I could not forget what they were. My throat constricted until I could barely breathe, my chest tight and painful.
And then Bing Tai settled on his haunches, his ears pricking, his lips covering his teeth. “Good Bing Tai,” I said. My voice trembled. I had to hurry.
Grief lay heavy in the room, thick as the dust on what used to be my mother’s wardrobe. Her jewelry on the dresser lay untouched; her slippers still awaited her next to the bed. What bothered me more than the questions my father asked me, than not knowing if he loved and cared for me as a child, was not remembering my mother.
I’d heard the remaining servants whispering. He burned all her portraits on the day she died. He forbade mention of her name. He put all her handmaidens to the sword. He guarded the memories of her jealously, as if he was the only one allowed to have them.
I didn’t know where he kept the copies he distributed to Bayan and me. He always pulled these from his sash pocket, and I didn’t dare try to filch them from there. But the original chain of keys lay on the bed. So many doors. So many keys. I didn’t know which was which, so I selected one at random – a golden key with a jade piece in the bow – and pocketed it.
I escaped into the hallway and wedged a thin piece of wood between door and frame so the door didn’t latch. Now the tea would be steeping. Father would be reading through the reports, asking questions. I hoped they would keep him occupied.
My feet scuffed against the floorboards as I ran. The grand hallways of the palace were empty, lamplight glinting off the red-painted beams above. In the entryway, teak pillars rose from floor to ceiling, framing the faded mural on the second-floor wall. I took the steps down to the palace doors two at a time. Each step felt like a miniature betrayal.
I could have waited, one part of my mind told me. I could have been obedient; I could have done my best to answer my father’s questions, to heal my memories. But the other part of my mind was cold and sharp. It cut through the guilt to find a hard truth. I could never be what he wanted if I did not take what I wanted. I hadn’t been able to remember, no matter how hard I’d tried. He’d not left me with any other choice than to show him I was worthy in a different way.
I slipped through the palace doors and into the silent yard. The front gates were closed, but I was small and strong, and if Father wouldn’t teach me his magic, well, there were other things I’d taught myself in the times he was locked in a secret room with Bayan. Like climbing.
The walls were clean but in disrepair. The plaster had broken away in places, leaving the stone beneath exposed. It was easy enough to climb. The monkey- shaped construct atop the wall just glanced at me before turning its limpid gaze back to the city. A thrill rushed through me when I touched down on the other side. I’d been into the city on foot before – I must have – but for me, it was like the first time. The streets stank of fish and hot oil, and the remnants of dinners cooked and eaten. The stones beneath my slippers were dark and slippery with washwater. Pots clanged and a breeze carried the sound of lilting, subdued voices. The first two storefronts I saw were closed, wooden shutters locked shut.
Too late? I’d seen the blacksmith’s storefront from the palace walls, and this was what first gave me the idea. I held my breath as I dashed down a narrow alley.
He was there. He was pulling the door closed, a pack slung over one shoulder.
“Wait,” I said. “Please, just one more order.”
“We’re closed,” he huffed out. “Come back tomorrow.”
I stifled the desperation clawing up my throat. “I’ll pay you twice your regular price if you can start it tonight. Just one key copy.”
He looked at me then, and his gaze trailed over my embroidered silk tunic. His lips pressed together. He was thinking about lying about how much he charged. But then he just sighed. “Two silver. One is my regular price.” He was a good man, fair.
Relief flooded me as I dug the coins from my sash pocket and pressed them into his calloused palm. “Here. I need it quickly.”
Wrong thing to say. Annoyance flashed across his face. But he still opened the door again and let me into his shop. The man was built like an iron – broad and squat. His shoulders seemed to take up half the space. Metal tools hung from the walls and ceiling. He picked up his tinderbox and re- lit the lamps. And then he turned back to face me. “It won’t be ready until tomorrow morning at the earliest.”
“But do you need to keep the key?”
He shook his head. “I can make a mold of it tonight. The key will be ready tomorrow.”
I wished there weren’t so many chances to turn back, so many chances for my courage to falter. I forced myself to drop my father’s key into the blacksmith’s hand. The man took it and turned, fishing a block of clay from a stone trough. He pressed the key into it. And then he froze, his breath stopping in his throat.
I moved for the key before I could think. I saw what he did as soon as I took one step closer. At the base of the bow, just before the stem, was the tiny figure of a phoenix embossed into the metal.
When the blacksmith looked at me, his face was as round and pale as the moon. “Who are you? What are you doing with one of the Emperor’s keys?”
I should have grabbed the key and run. I was swifter than he was. I could snatch it away and be gone before he took his next breath. All he’d have left was a story – one that no one would believe.
But if I did, I wouldn’t have my key copy. I wouldn’t have any more answers. I’d be stuck where I was at the start of the day, my memory a haze, the answers I gave Father always inadequate. Always just out of reach. Always broken. And this man – he was a good man. Father taught me the kind of thing to say to good men.
I chose my words carefully. “Do you have any children?”
A measure of color came back into his face. “Two.” He answered. His brows knit together as he wondered if he should have responded.
“I am Lin,” I said, laying myself bare. “I am the Emperor’s heir. He hasn’t been the same since my mother’s death. He isolates himself, he keeps few servants, he does not meet with the island governors. Rebellion is brewing. Already the Shardless Few have taken Khalute. They’ll seek to expand their hold. And there are the Alanga. Some may not believe they’re coming back, but my family has kept them from returning.
“Do you want soldiers marching in the streets? Do you want war on your doorstep?” I touched his shoulder gently, and he did not flinch. “On your children’s doorstep?”
He reached reflexively behind his right ear for the scar each citizen had. The place where a shard of bone was removed and taken for the Emperor’s vault.
“Is my shard powering a construct?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I don’t know, I don’t know – there was so little that I did know. “But if I get into my father’s vault, I will look for yours and I will bring it back to you. I can’t promise you anything. I wish I could. But I will try.”
He licked his lips. “My children?”
“I can see what I can do.” It was all I could say. No one was exempt from the islands’ Tithing Festivals.
Sweat shone on his forehead. “I’ll do it.”
Father would be setting the reports aside now. He would take up his cup of tea and sip from it, looking out the window at the lights of the city below. Sweat prickled between my shoulder-blades. I needed to get the key back before he discovered me.
I watched through a haze as the blacksmith finished making the mold. When he handed the key back, I turned to run.
“Lin,” he said.
“My name is Numeen. The year of my ritual was 1508. We need an Emperor who cares about us.”
What could I say to that? So I just ran. Out the door, down the alleyway, back to climbing the wall. Now Father would be finishing up his tea, his fingers wrapped around the still-warm cup. A stone came loose beneath my fingertips. I let it fall to the ground. The crack made me cringe.
He’d be putting his cup down, he’d be looking at the city. How long did he look at the city? The climb down was faster than the climb up. I couldn’t smell the city anymore. All I could smell was my own breath. The walls of the outer buildings passed in a blur as I ran to the palace – the servants’ quarters, the Hall of Everlasting Peace, the Hall of Earthly Wisdom, the wall surrounding the palace garden. Everything was cold and dark, empty.
I took the servants’ entrance into the palace, bounding up the stairs two at a time. The narrow passageway opened into the main hallway. The main hallway wrapped around the palace’s second floor, and my father’s bedroom was nearly on the other side from the servants’ entrance. I wished my legs were longer. I wished my mind were stronger.
Floorboards squeaked beneath my feet as I ran, the noise making me wince. At last, I made it back and slipped into my father’s room. Bing Tai lay on the rug at the foot of the bed, stretched out like an old cat. I had to reach over him to get to the chain of keys. He smelled musty, like a mix between a bear construct and a closet full of moth-ridden clothes.
It took three tries for me to hook the key back onto the chain. My fingers felt like eels – flailing and slippery. I knelt to retrieve the door wedge on my way out, my breath ragged in my throat. The brightness of the light in the hallway made me blink. I’d have to find my way into the city tomorrow to retrieve the new key. But it was done, the wedge for the door safely in my sash pocket. I let out the breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding.
Bayan. My limbs felt made of stone. What had he seen? I turned to face him – his brow was furrowed, his hands clasped behind his back. I willed my heart to calm, my face to blankness.
“What are you doing outside the Emperor’s room?”