A queen of a divided land must unite her people, even if they hate her, even if it means stopping a ruin that she helped create. A debut epic fantasy from an exciting new voice
The Legacy of Warlord Tal
They called me the Bitch Queen, the she-wolf, because I murdered a man and exiled my king the night before they crowned me.
Hurricanes destroy the villages and they call it senseless; the winter winds come and they call it cold. What else did they expect from my people, the Oren-yaro, the ambitious savages who created a war that nearly ripped Jin-Sayeng apart? I almost think that if my reign had started without bloodshed and terror, they would have been disappointed.
I did not regret killing the man. He had it coming, and my father had taught me to take action before you second-guess yourself. My father was a wise man, and if the warlords could’ve stopped arguing long enough to put their misgivings behind them, he would have made them a great king. Instead, they entrusted the land to me and my husband: children of that same war they would rather forget. The gods love their ironies.
I do regret looking at the bastard while he died. I regret watching his eyes roll backwards and the blood spread like a cobweb underneath his wilted form, leaking into the cracked cobblestone my father paid a remarkable amount of money to install. I regret not having a sharper sword, and losing my nerve so that I didn’t strike him again and he had to die slowly. Bleeding over the jasmine bushes—that whole batch of flowers would remain pink until the end of the season—he had stared up at the trail of stars in the night sky and called for his mother. Even though he was a traitor, he didn’t deserve the pain.
More than anything, I regret not stopping my husband. I should have run after him, grovelled at his feet, asked him to stay. But in nursing my own pride, I didn’t give his a chance. I watched his tall, straight back grow smaller in the distance, his father’s helmet nestled under his arm, his unbound hair blowing in the wind, and I did nothing. A wolf of Oren-yaro suffers in silence. A wolf of Oren-yaro does not beg.
Almost at once, the rumours spread like wildfire. They started in the great hall in the castle at Oka Shto when I arrived for my coronation, dressed in my mother’s best silk dress—all white, like a virgin on her wedding day—bedecked with pearls and gold-weave, with no husband at my side. My son, also in white, stood on the other side of the dais with his nursemaid. Between us were the two priests tasked with the ceremony—a priest of the god Akaterru, patron deity of Oren-yaro, and a priest of Kibouri, that foreign religion my husband’s clan favoured, with their Nameless Maker and enough texts to make anyone ill. They could pass for brothers, with their long faces, carp-like whiskers, and leathery skin the colour of honey.
My husband’s absence was making everyone uncomfortable. I, on the other hand, drifted between boredom and restlessness. I glanced at my son. He had stopped crying, but the red around his eyes had yet to disappear. It was my fault—on the way to the great hall, he asked for his father as any two-year-old would, and I snapped in return. “He’s gone,” I told him in that narrow corridor, where only the nursemaid could hear. “He doesn’t want us anymore.” The boy didn’t understand my words, but the sharp tone was enough to send tears rolling down his cheeks, a faint reflection of how I had spent the night before.
Now, Thanh rubbed his eyes, and I realized I didn’t want to wait a moment longer. I turned to the priests and opened my mouth. Before I could utter a single word, the doors opened.
“Crown her,” my adviser said, breaking into the hall. His face had the paleness of a man who had looked into a mirror that morning and seen his own death. His sandals clicked on the polished earth floor. “Prince Rayyel Ikessar left last night.”
You could hear the weight of the words echo against the walls. In the silence that followed, I thought I could make out the rising heartbeats of every man and woman in that room. Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of what was lost to my father’s war; even bated breaths could signal the start to that old argument, that old fear that I, too, may one day plunge the land into blood and fire once more.
Eventually, the Kibouri priest cleared his throat. “We must delay until the prince can be found.”
“This day was approved by our order, set in stone years ago,” the Akaterru priest replied. “It is a bad omen to change it.”
“Every day is like any other,” the Kibouri priest intoned. “You and your superstitions . . .”
My adviser stepped up the dais to face them. Both priests towered over him. His mouth, which was surrounded by a beard that looked like a burnt rodent, was set in a thin line. “Warlord Lushai sent a message this morning, congratulating Jin-Sayeng’s lack of a leader. He will march against us by tonight for breaking the treaty if we do not crown her.”
I didn’t bother to pretend to be surprised. “Rayyel is hiding there, I assume,” I said. It was such a bald-faced move: put me in a situation where I could not do anything but create trouble. Throw the wolf into a sea of sick deer—whatever will she do? Warlord Lushai once considered himself my father’s friend, but daring me to make trouble in front of the other warlords was one step too far.
My adviser turned to me and bobbed his head up and down, like a rooster in the grass.
I gritted my teeth. “Get that crown.” I didn’t want to give them a reason to think I wasn’t fulfilling my end of the bargain.
The Kibouri priest was closer to it. He didn’t move.
“My lords,” I said, looking at the warlords, the select few who were not too ill or infirm or couldn’t find the right sort of excuse to avoid the coronation. “You agreed to this alliance. You all signed it with your own blood. Do you remember? Years ago, you all cut your arms, bled into a cup, and drank from it to mark the joining of Jin-Sayeng as one. Not even Lord Rayyel and I have the power to stop this.”
There was a murmur of assent. A whisper, not an outcry, but I went with it. I turned to the priests. The Akaterru priest had already dropped his head, eyes downcast. The other eventually forced his knees into a bow.
They took the smaller crown. It was made of beaten gold, both yellow and white, set on a red silken headpiece. My father had it made not long after I was born, commissioned from a famous artisan from some distant town. I stared at it while the priests began their rituals, one after the other. I could have done without the Kibouri, but I didn’t want to risk offending the Ikessar supporters in the crowd.
They crowned me with reluctance. No spirits came to crest a halo around my brow or send a shaft of light to bless the occasion. In fact, it was cloudy, and a rumble of thunder marked the beginning of a storm. I wondered when they would discover the body, or if they already had and were just too afraid to tell me.
Even after I became queen, the rumours continued. I was powerless to stop them. I should have been more, they said. More feminine. Subtle, the sort of woman who could hide my jibes behind a well-timed titter. I could have taken the womanly arts, learned to write poetry or brew a decent cup of tea or embroider something that didn’t have my blood on it, and found ways to better please my man. Instead, Rayyel Ikessar would rather throw away the title of Dragonlord, king of Jin-Sayeng, than stay married to me.
It changes a woman, hearing such things. Hardens your heart. Twists your mind along dark paths you have no business being on. And perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered if I hadn’t loved Rai, but I did. More than I understood myself. More than I cared to explain.
* * *
I don’t like to talk about the years that followed. Even now, pen in hand while I splash ink over my dress, I find it difficult to recall anything past the cloud of anger. All I know is that five years passed, quicker than the blink of an eye. I was told the anger could do that. That it could rob whatever sweetness there was in the passage of time, add a bitter tinge to the little joys in the life of an unwanted queen. “Will my father come?” my son would ask on his nameday without fail. Each year he would grow taller, stronger, more sure of himself, and each year the question would lose a touch of innocence, be more demanding. “Will my father come?” Soft eyes growing harder, because we both knew that wasn’t what he was really asking anymore. When will he be home? Why did you send him away? Why didn’t you stop him?
And each year, I would struggle to find an answer that wouldn’t make the courtiers turn their heads in shame. They knew I couldn’t have thrown him out—I didn’t have the power to lord over the heir of the most influential clan in Jin-Sayeng. Yet I could not allude that he abandoned his duties. I could say it easily enough to the Oren-yaro, but not in court—not in front of his family’s supporters. As if the weight of the crown wasn’t heavy enough, as if I wasn’t spending every waking hour fending the warlords off each other, off of me. After centuries of Ikessar Dragonlords, I was the first queen of Jin-Sayeng, and all the difficulties didn’t bode well for my rule.
In late summer of the fifth year, I returned after an afternoon riding my horse through the rice fields, where I had been surveying the damage caused by last year’s storms. There was very little a monarch could do about such things, but it gave people strength to see me, or so I liked to think.
Arro stood by the gates, waiting. I slowed my horse to a walk. It was always amazing how I could predict the future simply by my adviser’s expression. If it was going to be a good week, he often greeted me with a smile, his eyes disappearing into the folds of his face. That meant most provinces had paid their taxes, there were no land disputes (or at least none that people had lost their heads for), and every single warlord was accounted for.
He didn’t smile now. His lips were flat—not quite a frown, as if he wasn’t sure he wanted to expend his energy all that way yet. I dismounted from the horse, allowing a servant to take her back to the base of the mountain to the stables. Arro wiped his hands on his beard and held out a letter, which had been opened. No doubt it was checked thoroughly by the staff, in case someone tried to poison me by sprinkling dust on the inside of the scroll that I might later inhale. The Ikessars loved to use such tactics—I had even lost a great-uncle to it during the war.
“What’s this?” I asked, just as my dog Blackie appeared between the trees. I whistled, and he bounded to me, ears flopping while his tail wagged so fast it felt at risk of falling off. I patted my tunic before taking the letter.
I read it once, and then a second time. I could feel my heart pounding, my mouth growing dry. I wanted to ask if this was a dream. It must be. I had so many others like it before. The details were always different: Sometimes it would come from a messenger, his horse slick with sweat. Sometimes it would be a falcon with a note attached to its leg. Sometimes a hooded Ikessar would come bearing gifts before revealing himself to be my husband, years changed and begging for my forgiveness. In each dream, I had fallen to my knees and wept with joy. It felt odd that I now couldn’t muster any emotion beyond cool detachment.
I looked back at Arro and found my voice. “What do you think?”
“The man who abandoned his position, who abandoned you, has no right to demand a meeting on his terms, let alone in a place as far as Ziri-nar-Orxiaro. I smell a trap.”
“He insists that it is a safe place for us to meet. Anzhao City would be on neutral grounds, away from the warlords’ meddling.”
“Easy for an Ikessar to say,” Arro grumbled. Blackie came up to rub along his leg, and he pushed the dog away in disgust. He tugged his rice hat back into place. “Take my advice, my queen. Ignore it. The man disappears for the better part of five years and then thinks that you will come running to him after a mere letter? Such arrogance.”
I was silent for a moment. “The warlords . . .” I started. “A good number of them supported the Ikessars.”
Arro snorted. “They did. And so? They are content with whispers in the dark. None have dared challenge your position.”
“Not yet,” I said. “Whispers in the dark are still dangerous. Did we not learn that in the days of the Ikessars’ rule? They can roust the people, put ideas where they don’t belong. All it takes is one warlord to decide he’s had enough and get two more to agree with him. The rest will follow, and I will be yet another failed Dragonlord in this damned land’s history.”
“It’s like trying to take control of a pack of dogs. Just bark louder than the rest.”
“And you know a thing or two about dogs, do you, Arro?” I asked, watching him try to avoid Blackie’s pestering tongue with a measure of amusement. Finally, I took pity on him and whistled. The dog returned to me. “The other warlords do not challenge me because Rai left of his own accord. They can say whatever they want . . . They have no proof I put a sword to his back and bullied him out of my lands. But it doesn’t mean it will end there. Lately, they have turned to openly blaming me for his actions, and if word gets out that Rai wrote to me and I refused to answer, they will think I meant to hold on to the crown by myself. The idea of a wolf of Oren-yaro on the throne still frightens them.”
Arro looked like he wanted to argue, but one of the things I appreciated about him was that he saw sense even when he didn’t agree with it. He tucked his hands into his sleeves. “I will convene with the others,” he said. “We will have to investigate this letter before we can make a decision.”
“Of course,” I said. “But this is the first time in years that Lord Rayyel has agreed to talk to us. Regardless of our personal opinions, he remains of importance to the royal clans. Don’t do anything drastic—I will not have him frightened into silence.”
He nodded, wiping his hands on his beard yet again. It was an affectation of his, a Zarojo mannerism. Arro had grown up in the empire, brought over to serve my father a long time ago—I would’ve thought he’d have jumped at the chance to visit his home after so many years.
I went up the flagstone steps leading to the garden, Blackie running in circles around me. I was doing a remarkable job at keeping calm. Only when I reached the fountain did my knees buckle. I sat on the edge, listening to the water bubble and the frogs croak.
“I told you to declare war on the bastards five years ago,” a voice called from the gate. I looked up to see my father’s general striding past the rose bushes. He must’ve been there when they first opened the letter. Although I knew it was a precaution, it irritated me that I was always the last to know, that other people were always making decisions for me. Taking a deep breath, I got up to face him.
* * *
Unlike Arro, Lord General Ozo never tried to hide his displeasure, especially his displeasure at my ruling.
He threw a staff in my direction, giving me only a split second to catch it before he charged with bamboo sticks, one in each hand. I stepped back and met his attack. Ozo was a big man, covered in hard muscle that had yet to go to fat, despite his age. Bamboo against bamboo clattered together. I staggered back.
“War,” I repeated. “I told you before, Lord General Ozo. We don’t have the resources.”
He slapped the back of his head with his hand, his arm tattoos a deep black against his sunburnt skin. “I’m the one with the soldiers. I’m the one who can tell you we can crush the bastards if you just gave the order.”
“And I’m your queen,” I said as I tried to jam the end of my staff into his head. Just once, it would be satisfying to see his nose break.
He sidestepped, twirling the sticks in his hands. “Some queen. Your footwork alone . . .”
I bristled as I fixed my feet. “Is that insubordination?”
“That’s honesty,” he snarled as he charged me a second time. I spun on my heel, my staff slamming into his gut. But he only laughed it off. “This land is teetering on the brink of destruction because you can’t make up your mind about what to do with that husband of yours.” He continued to attack. “The other warlords laugh at you behind their cups. The peasants think you weak. You want to see the bastard? Order me to set fire to his holdings, and he’ll come riding back to save his clan. I’ll cut off his head, then.”
“He’s still your Dragonlord,” I gasped, barely keeping up with his assault. I didn’t know where the man still found the energy. He was old, too old to be sparring in broad daylight. Sweat poured down his face as he finally grabbed my staff, dragging me up to him. “Uncrowned, like his uncle before him,” he said. “I won’t submit to it. He’s no king of mine. And you won’t be queen for much longer if you don’t make a decision. You forget that you’re Dragonlord, too.”
He spat on the bushes, a healthy globule that trickled down the leaves. My poor gardener was going to be livid. Then he pushed me away. “Must this end in war?” I asked, relaxing my stance. “If I can find a peaceful resolution . . .”
“A peaceful resolution?” he asked incredulously. “You? You’re Warlord Yeshin’s. Yeshin the Butcher’s daughter. The land will never allow you peace if you don’t crush them under an iron fist first. You want our people to listen to you instead of their warlords, their clans, their families? Put them on a tight leash. Strangle their necks if you have to.”
“Says Yeshin’s general.”
Ozo sniffed, flicking his sticks from side to side. “Or you can walk willingly into this trap for the sake of seeing your sorry sack of a husband and bring shame to the Oren-yaro. After everything your father has sacrificed, you would do this to him. And for what? The man has been nothing but trouble to Jin-Sayeng!” He lunged. The right stick smacked against my face before I could lift the staff to protect myself.
My skin prickled as I twirled the staff, jabbing him on the side. “You would say that, Lord Ozo,” I hissed as I pulled back to jab him again. “You hate his clan.”
“Hundreds of years under his clan’s rule has brought us nothing but sorrow.” He rewarded my efforts with another blow to my head. I reared back, shaking, and he gave a small grin. “You’re the one with every reason to hate them. Their incompetence killed your brothers.”
“Brothers I’ve never met,” I grumbled, wiping my jaw.
“They were good men, and the Ikessars took them from us. Before your father’s war, we had a Dragonlord who chose to wander the world instead of rule. And his father before him . . .” He spat again. “Shoddy rule after shoddy rule, and now this. Now you have the chance to prove to Jin-Sayeng we don’t need the bastards at all.”
My fingers tightened around the staff. “We don’t, Ozo. But this alliance was my father’s decision.”
“A sorry excuse for an alliance. I’ve never seen an alliance where the other party slinks away and refuses to do their part for half a decade. And if you do decide to go to the empire, what then? Do you know how corrupt their cities are? Their officials won’t help you. As far as they’re concerned, Jin-Sayeng is a land of penniless peasants, and they wouldn’t be wrong. And all you’ve got is that cracked halfblood adviser of yours, and Captain Nor. Nor’s Oren-yaro, at least—I don’t doubt her capabilities, but she’s not Agos.”
“Don’t start this, General. Not again.”
He lowered his sticks. “He was the best guard captain my army had produced, and you threw it all away for nothing. Don’t come running to me for help if you get in trouble.” He started to walk away.
“Not another step, General,” I said in a low voice.
“You’ve got a sword. Put me in my place if you want to stop me,” he snarled.
I dropped the staff and drew my sword.
He turned his head to the side and laughed. “Now what? Cut me down.”
“Don’t test me.”
“But I am,” he said, laughing. “I am, and you’re failing. You hesitate. You always do, pup, and I’m sure when the time comes, you’ll hesitate with him, too. Your lenience will be the death of us all.” With a wave of his hand, he walked off. If he was anyone else, I could’ve had him executed on the spot, but . . . he was still a lord. An elder. In many ways, his authority eclipsed mine.
My fingers trembled as I watched him disappear around the bend, the same way my husband had done all those years ago. War. The word twisted inside my gut. General Ozo had wanted it declared the eve of the coronation. War would bolster Oren-yaro rule . . . if we won it. We had the largest army in the land, but that meant nothing if the others united against us.
A second voice, one that most days would have calmed me. Today, it filled me with dread. I sheathed my sword, wiped my face, and turned to my son.
“I heard what the general said,” Thanh breathed. He hesitated. “Is it true?”
“You really shouldn’t be eavesdropping on grown-ups.”
He cocked his head to the side, the way he always did when I called him out for things and he understood he’d done wrong, he’d just rather not dwell on it. I believe my father would’ve called it something like discourtesy. Defiance. I merely found it amusing. “But are you really going to see Father? You’re going to bring him back?”
Up until that moment, I hadn’t been sure what I was going to do. A part of me was inclined to set the letter aside. I had done it before. After Rayyel left, it took a whole month for his first letter to arrive. It was an angry letter, full of his misgivings about our relationship. I left it inside my desk, refusing to read the rest of it. I had hoped he would send another soon, that time would ease the anger, would allow us to speak without throwing barbed words at each other.
That soon became five years. The letter in my hands was his second.
“If I do go to Anzhao,” I said, “I can bring you back a book, or a falcon. I’ve heard they breed such beautiful falcons in Anzhao City. A white one, perhaps. And they have these little dogs . . .”
“I want my father,” Thanh said, his voice growing stern.
I stared at my son, at the way he held himself, firm jaw, straight back, more pride and dignity than most adults I’ve known. My beautiful boy, seven years old, aged by his father’s absence in a way I couldn’t have anticipated. I had watched him turn from that chubby-cheeked toddler calling impatiently for his papa to this calm, quiet child who could no longer recall his father’s face. Do you know what it feels like to see your son looking back at you, waiting for an answer that would soothe away those hurts, all those years of crying for his father in the night? To know that your words could crush his hopes and dreams in an instant? The boy could break me.
I held my breath and spoke before I could even really think it through. “So I will,” I said. “I’ll bring your father back, even if it’s against his will. I promise. We’ll be a family again.”
If they were lies, they were such beautiful lies. The rush of relief in his eyes sealed the deal.
* * *
I’ve never known a life outside politics.
I have been told that monarchs can have hobbies. The last true Dragonlord, Reshiro, kept butterflies. But then again, he was an Ikessar, and only Ikessars would find interest in that sort of thing.
My words to my son ringing in my ears, I returned to my chambers to try to find that first letter. It was gone. The drawers contained other things—a rattle from when my son was an infant, various brushes and empty ink jars. Old books. A wrinkled piece of brown paper I had folded several times over for my son—it had been a boat, and then a hat, and then a frog that could jump if you pressed its back. No letter. It was odd; I was sure I had left it there.
I returned to the new letter and read it a third time. My husband’s words were flat and empty, precise, as if he were asking to meet with any other official. He addressed it to my full name and ended with his, with no hint of emotion anywhere. As if I was nothing. Not his wife, not the mother of his son. Not a woman he loved.
You would think that last part wouldn’t sting anymore. I had considered the possibility enough times in the past—years of silence could do that. He didn’t love me anymore. He never loved me at all. But I knew thinking like this was wasted energy. I could unearth all my memories of him and turn them over in my head until I came close to madness, and I would still come to a different conclusion every time. That look in his eyes as he helped me down the steps when I was heavily pregnant with our son—was it devotion, or was it abhorrence over my weakness? Whenever he held my hand, was it because he wanted to, or because I wanted him to?
That old irritation returned. Assurance was not something I had ever received in my marriage, and it would be foolish to expect it now. I could just as easily shove the letter into my desk again and forget about it for another five years. Life was complicated enough as it was. Rayyel left us. Twist the words however you want; he was the one who walked away.
I sat on the edge of the bed and looked through the window. Out in the courtyard, I spotted members of the Queen’s Guard busy with their daily exercise, the light drizzle cloaking their sinewy forms. Their faces were blank, determined. I doubted that expression would go away even if you threw them naked into freezing snow.
Unfaltering, dutiful, and loyal to a fault—these tenets are why the rest of Jin-Sayeng have labelled our people wolves of Oren-yaro, a term that started as an insult. These wolves, they like to say, these bloodthirsty beasts, these savages who would stop at nothing. But far from taking offense, we decided to adopt the title, bestowing the name wolf of Oren-yaro on all who fall under the shadow of our province. As a people, we embrace these tenets, regardless of clan, regardless of caste, setting us apart from the rest of Jin-Sayeng. It has created a unity never before seen in these lands. We know it. The others know it. It is why the Oren-yaro are as feared as they are revered; the strength of our resolution has toppled realms.
Let me tell you a story. A long time ago, five hundred and twenty-six wolves of Oren-yaro died protecting Shirrokaru, the Jin-Sayeng capital and Ikessar stronghold, from warlords who rebelled. The rebels numbered over three thousand. By the end of the assault, all our soldiers lay dead except for one: Warlord Tal aren dar Orenar. He stood in the middle of that battlefield, covered in the blood of friend, family, and foe, and held his position for over two days in case the enemy dared to return. When the Ikessar lord came to view the slaughter, Warlord Tal was still able to throw his sword aside and bend his knee before he died.
I had no intention of bending my knee, not to the man who had broken his vows. But I thought of Warlord Tal, for whom I was named, as I watched my soldiers out in the courtyard. I watched them go through the motions, their voices drowned by the torrent of rainfall, and thought that if Warlord Tal could do it—if he could fight a battle in the face of defeat and then stand strong between those corpses for the sake of never giving up his post—then I could do my part. I could learn to swallow the silence and face my husband again.