The third book in Devin Madson’s bold and bloody epic fantasy quartet, perfect for fans of Mark Lawrence, R. F. Kuang and Anthony Ryan
I loosed an arrow, heart thrumming in time with the bowstring. It hit the target with a satisfying thud as I took another from the barrel. Around me camp noise swirled on, while like two statues, Minister Manshin and newly promoted Minister Oyamada stood watching. Neither had addressed me since arriving, instead keeping up a stiff flow of conversation.
“And wine?” Manshin said.
“Some,” came Oyamada’s reply. “We will have to be careful in its distribution, especially heading into winter. Rice too. Millet we have in greater abundance, also beans and dried meats, and we can make use of any river we pass.”
Manshin grumbled as I loosed another arrow into the rapidly filling target. A small crowd of soldiers had gathered to watch, quietly murmuring amongst themselves.
“Of course. And . . . arrows. Wood for defences. We have plenty of wood and metal in the south, you know.”
“Too bad we can’t eat them.”
“We are not lacking in food,” Oyamada said. “Wine will just need to be rationed. Wise if you want your soldiers to stand upright.”
Minister Manshin shifted his feet, a sidelong look thrown to the watching men. “And never could you more clearly prove you know little about how armies work, Excellency.”
“I have commanded—”
“Troops of guards hired for trade caravans do not count. You focus on maintaining our supply lines, I’ll decide how to make use of them.”
I loosed another arrow and turned before it hit the target, catching Minister Oyamada opening his mouth to retort. “Your caution is very wise, Minister Oyamada,” I said, glancing a look of censure at Manshin. Of the two I trusted him more, had been with him longer and needed his skills, but without Oyamada I would have no soldiers. We had seen Jie’s body off that morning, back to his mother to be laid to rest. Under other circumstances he would have been buried in the imperial gardens, but smoke still rose from the burning ruins of Mei’lian.
Both men bowed, Oyamada with something of ironic thanks, Manshin in stiff apology.
I drew another arrow, increasingly aware of the swelling crowd around us.
“Majesty,” both ministers said, their first sign of unity. “We ought to call a meeting before the generals begin to worry,” Manshin added. “They may take being kept waiting as a sign of disrespect.”
“I don’t intend to keep anyone waiting.” I nocked the arrow, while lying at my feet, Shishi’s tail stirred on the churned mud. “But neither do I want to be at a disadvantage at our first meeting. So, I am going to see the rest of the camp. And meet some of my soldiers.”
“Are . . . you sure that’s wise, Your Majesty?” Oyamada made all too obvious a twitch in the direction of our audience.
“Yes. If I have to sit in a stuffy tent while men talk down to me, I will first ensure I understand what they are talking about. We will meet tonight. I’m confident you will help them accept this decision, Minister Oyamada.”
He received my confiding smile without returning one of his own, but taking it for the order it was, he bowed and departed.
“You need to give him time,” Manshin said once he was out of earshot. “You killed his grandson only two days ago.”
“And you need to not belittle the skills he brings to our cause.”
A humourless smile turned his lips, deepening the dark rings beneath his eyes. “You mean the money he is bringing to our cause.”
“His cause now too.”
Manshin bowed in acknowledgement and I took another arrow from the barrel. A gust of wind whipped through the narrow mud patch, flapping my surcoat about my feet and ruffling Shishi’s fur. I nocked, compensating with barely a thought, and loosed—the whole process second nature, as meeting with generals had been second nature to Emperor Kin.
Despite the wind, the arrow hit more or less where I had intended—more than could be said of my plans.
“You cannot rely on your prowess with a bow to impress the generals, Your Majesty,” Manshin said, eyeing the watching soldiers. “At best they will see it as intimidation, at worst as a reminder of your father.”
“Of Emperor Kin? I see no issue with that.”
“Not who I meant.”
“No,” I agreed. “But here and now I have only one father and he was Emperor Kin Ts’ai. Only one brother and he was Emperor Jie Ts’ai. My mother was a traitor. My twin a fool. These are the truths I have to live if I want Kisia to survive. But since I also need generals who will listen to me, who know they cannot walk all over me as I am sure they intend to, I will do everything I can to give myself an edge.”
He nodded. “They will push to see how much power they have, and will hate you if you give them none and hate you if you give them too much.”
“And hate me if I hit this target and hate me if I don’t. Hate me if I act like a woman and hate me if I don’t.” I nocked the arrow. “I know this won’t be easy, Minister. But knowing they will hate me no matter what I do is more freeing than you might imagine.”
I drew and loosed, taking joy in the thud of arrowhead meeting hemp coil. Minister Manshin watched, his brow furrowed.
“I can do this,” I said. “You took my armour in Mei’lian so I might live to fight another day; surely you did that because you believed in me.”
The watching soldiers could not have overheard, yet Manshin lowered his voice, almost losing it in the general chatter. “I fear they will not put aside old wounds,” he said, “whatever the feelings of the common soldiers. Whatever the needs of Kisia. These are southern men whose homes and families have not been threatened. To them the loss of Koi is something to cheer. Emperor Kin stoked the division in his ongoing war against your mother.”
I sighed. “I will not forget, but if I am going to rule Kisia that means all of it, not just north of the river.” I lowered my bow, disliking how different it felt in my hands. In leaving Hacho in Syan I felt like I had left behind part of myself.
“Walk with me, Minister,” I said. “I wish to see the camp and talk to my soldiers as Emperor Kin did.”
“As you wish.”
A boy took my bow, but I left the bracer tied around my wrist as a reminder of my skill. Had Kin considered such details? I had never before wondered how much had been true and how much constructed, the real man an enigma.
As I made to leave the training area, chatter rose from the gathered crowd, and with Kin’s performance in mind, I said, “Thank you for attending my practice. Tomorrow I will see how many arrows I can split.”
This was received with more surprise than excitement, but I needed to start somewhere.
“You ought not play for them, Your Majesty,” Manshin said as I fell in beside him, our boots sinking into the mud. “Emperor Kin would never have done so.”
“But I am not Emperor Kin.”
“As you continue informing me, but as a woman you must demand the respect due to you even more than he had to as a commoner.”
“But he wasn’t respected because he demanded it. He was respected because he earned it.”
Manshin walked on in silence, hands clasped behind his back and his head high, the weak sunlight only serving to deepen the lines about his face. Being imprisoned by the Levanti had taken its toll, leaving a slimmer, harsher man walking with me, a man who might now be questioning the sacrifice he’d made to save my life. My soldiers were not the only ones whose respect I needed to preserve.
The row of tents along which we walked had been set upon grass, but the walkway between them was a muddy trough. Soldiers bowed as we passed and I nodded and smiled to them all, feeling like I was in a parade rather than strolling about an army camp.
“How do I make the focus on them, not on me?” I said as we turned into a wider channel that was equally muddy. A pair of boys scampered past carrying trays of food, eyes widening at the sight of me. “I want to . . . talk to them. Get to know them.”
“Then talk to them.”
“But what do I say? Court small talk is all about weather and hair and what an unfortunate colour of robe so‑and‑so has chosen today. How did Kin do it?”
“By asking them about themselves and remembering things so they felt important. There is nothing men like better—especially soldiers—than talking about themselves.”
I had never heard him say anything so cynical, and my laugh drew the attention of a young soldier just stepping out of his tent. He flinched at the sight of me. Bowed. Stammered “Your Majesty” and stared at the ground, twisting his tunic in his hands.
“I must be quite the fearful sight to earn such a response,” I said, approaching with Manshin in my wake. “What is your name, soldier?”
“Tanaka Ono, Your Majesty.”
He said it with such consciousness, such reluctance, that I was grateful for his thoughtfulness even as the name sheared through my skin, my flesh, my bones, to strike deep into my heart. My forced smile trembled. “Tanaka,” I said. “One of my favourite names. And where are you from, Tanaka Ono?”
“From Anxi, Your Majesty. At least, I was born there. I grew up in a small town to the west you’ve . . . probably never heard of.”
He seemed to consider if this was some sort of test, but said, “Boruta, Your Majesty.”
“Ah, one of the many towns catering to travellers along the fur trails, famed for its warm baths and excellent wine.”
The further widening of his eyes was as satisfying as the thud of an arrow hitting its target. “Yes, Your Majesty, that’s the one.”
“Well, given the beauty of your home, we are doubly fortunate to have you with us.”
With that, I nodded to him and continued on with the minister. “That,” I said as we walked away, “was easier than I thought.”
“For the most part they are men of simple needs, Your Majesty. However, I’m surprised you’d heard of so small a town.”
“I haven’t. I guessed its attractions based on the general character of the area.” An area I had recently walked through in my underrobe with only a Levanti for company.
“I am not sure if that makes your display more or less impressive, Your Majesty. Ah, here are the two generals who weren’t present for our . . . display the other morning,” he added, nodding at a pair of men in fine crimson surcoats, talking together near the quartermaster’s tent. “The taller of the two is General Senn Mihri, while the other is—”
One of the two generals Jie had expected would control the empire in his place.
The pair bowed as we approached.
“Generals,” Manshin said as we halted before them, he at his ease while I pretended I was oblivious of both men searching my features—no doubt to ascertain how much an Otako I was. “I present Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Miko Ts’ai.”
They bowed again, murmuring “Your Majesty,” and when General Mihri went to speak his name, I said, “General Senn Mihri, youngest son of the great General Mihri. As famed for his leadership skills as for the quality of the horses bred on his estate west of Anxi. You were promoted after an engagement against the mountain tribes in 1370 and have been stationed there since, defending our western border.”
I lifted my chin. “You served my father, the great Emperor Kin Ts’ai, with strength and honour, and I welcome your continued service to the empire.”
The hardened soldier’s brows lifted, and in a gruff voice he said, “Many thanks, Your Majesty.”
I turned my attention to General Moto, who before I could speak, said, “My name is General Moto, Your Majesty. Commander of the forces stationed at Ts’ai since the last border skirmish with Chiltae in 1385.”
If he had hoped to leave me nothing to say, he reckoned without the wealth of detail Minister Manshin knew about the generals under his command.
“General Tai Moto,” I said, noting he was shrewd. “First of his family to achieve the rank despite the second sons of the Count of Tatan having served since the family took the title in 1236.” I owed too many hours of memorising family names and honours for that one. “When you were a captain in Mei’lian’s standing battalion, you defended my father against a pair of assassins who attacked while he was inspecting plans for rebuilding the city’s defences.”
And as I had to General Mihri, I lifted my chin and said, “You served my father, the great Emperor Kin Ts’ai, with strength and honour, and I welcome your continued service to the empire.”
No surprise this time, but with the appreciative nod of a move well played, he smiled and said, “Many thanks, Your Majesty.”
We left them and walked on, sure they were watching us as we departed. Once we were well out of earshot, Manshin said, “Well done, Your Majesty.”
“Oddly, that was easier than talking to the soldier.”
We walked on, stopping here and there to exchange a few words with captains and common soldiers alike, even with one of the boys who sped about the camp carrying messages and supplies and food. When I greeted him, he stared open-mouthed for many long seconds before stammering, “Your Majesty. What . . . what can I do for you, Your Majesty?” with a deep bow.
“Tell me about you.”
“About . . . me, Your Majesty?” The poor child looked horrified.
“Why don’t you start with your name.”
“A‑Ani, Your Majesty.”
“And where are you from, Ani?”
“I don’t know, Your Majesty, but . . . but I was living on the streets of Mei’lian when the recruiter found me.”
Had someone asked me whether poor people lived on the streets of Kisia’s cities I would have said yes, their existence impossible to avoid, but with a jolt of shame I realised not only that I’d never spoken to one before, but that I’d never asked myself why they were there at all.
Another thing I would have to change.
We spoke a little longer, but he got no more comfortable, so I let him escape back to his task.
“I’m unsure what that conversation achieved,” Manshin said, having stood like a stern statue beside me the whole time. “You don’t need the favour of those who don’t fight for you.”
“But without these boys, would the camp run as smoothly as it does?”
“No, but that is for the generals and the quartermaster to control.”
The argument didn’t seem worthwhile so I let it drop, though Ani’s simple admission that he didn’t know where he was from lingered long on my mind.
We had almost done a full lap of the camp when Minister Manshin nodded at two men sitting before a cooking fire like common soldiers despite their generals’ regalia. “I think I told you about General Yass and General Alon, our two barbarian generals.”
“You did,” I said. “But if they fight for Kisia and live in Kisia, how is it we still call them barbarians?”
“The term is not used in disrespect, Your Majesty, merely to indicate they are not Kisian.”
“What makes one Kisian, I wonder,” I said, more to myself than because I wished an answer.
“Being born here is a good start.”
I had no time to retort before the two generals rose from their meals, and in a hurried under voice, Manshin added, “I’ve been informed both refused to give allegiance to Emperor Jie. You must tread carefully with them.”
“Is treading carefully the best way to earn their respect?”
“No, but with them, demanding it is the surest way not to get it.”
There was no time for more as we came within earshot and the two men bowed, which seemed like a good start. At first sight there was nothing about either to mark them as not Kisian, as Manshin put it, except that General Yass had shorter hair than was fashionable even amongst soldiers, and General Alon wore a full beard. And when they opened their mouths, their southern Kisian accent was heavy.
“Your Majesty,” General Yass said, and where another general might have filled the brief silence with an observation or question, both men merely stood waiting to be informed what I wanted. There was something both uncomfortable and wonderful about men who did not fill silence for the sake of it, talking to no purpose.
“Ah, you like your speaking direct, I see,” I said. “Rather than court chatter.”
“We have neither of us been to court, Your Majesty,” General Alon said, and it was odd not to clearly see the movement of his lips and the lines about his face. In its way, his beard was a mask. “We are but simple soldiers.”
“Then allow me to get to the point,” I said. “As I’m sure you understand, new emperors, and empresses, usually request an immediate oath of allegiance from their generals as a way of feeling . . . less vulnerable. I understand my brother requested this, but I will not as it goes against your ways to give loyalty that has not been earned. The very honour that makes this so gives me confidence you won’t betray me, and I trust that if you have a problem with my decisions you will afford me the same degree of plain speaking as I have afforded you.”
My heart hammered throughout this speech as I hunted their expressions for some sign they understood, that they appreciated my decision, but their faces were implacable. And when I finished they merely bowed, more acknowledgement than anything, and I wanted to be sick.
Until General Yass said, “Your plain speaking is appreciated, Your Majesty. We may give no oaths to those who have not earned them, but we fight for Kisia, so while you fight for Kisia you will find us at your side, sworn allegiance or no.”
“And we don’t stab people in the back,” General Alon said, with a gruff laugh. “We stab them in the front.”
My relief was potent and I couldn’t but grin, an expression that would have horrified my mother. “You served my father, the great Emperor Kin Ts’ai, with strength and honour,” I said as I had to the others. “And I welcome your continued service to the empire.”
“Your Majesty,” they said.
We walked on, leaving the generals to their meal, and once we were out of earshot, I awaited a compliment on how well that had gone. But Minister Manshin maintained a noncommittal silence, not even pointing out other leaders or areas of the camp as we went.
“No congratulations on my handling this time, Minister?”
“I feel there is a line between being too distant and too . . . forward, Your Majesty.”
“There was something more forward about my interaction with them than any others? I am afraid I don’t see it,” I said, stung by the injustice.
I looked up, but he didn’t meet my gaze as he said, “They conduct themselves differently, but you are their empress. This is Kisia, not the mountains. It is weak for you to conform, and in your position, indelicate to speak so to barbarian men.”
His tone chastened, yet his words filled me with a frustration I could give no voice to, could not even explain, let alone argue over.
“Only the barbarian ones?” I said, keeping my question deceptively cool.
“Let us say especially the barbarian ones.”
“Are they more dangerous to my virtue?”
He looked down at me, a scowl cutting his brow. “This is hardly a useful conversation.”
“No, you’re right, it’s not.” I stopped walking. “I’m feeling fatigued and will rest in my tent until it’s time for the meeting.”
Minister Manshin bowed. “Your Majesty.”
I walked back to the central tents alone, caught in my own abstraction. Everything was noise and movement, but it seemed to calm the thoughts swirling through my head, thoughts I could barely catch let alone dwell on, such did anger speed them from my grasp.
A soldier stood guard outside my tent, bearing the expression of one with something important to say. I let go a reluctant sigh. “What is it?”
“Your Majesty. You have a visitor.”
“A visitor? Who?”
“That would be me.”
I spun, breath catching at the sound of so recognisable a voice. At his ease a few paces away stood General Ryoji. Ryoji who had trained us. Ryoji who had been my mother’s most loyal guard. Ryoji into whom I had stuck a blade the night I had protected Emperor Kin against Mother’s coup. For all the good it had done.
He didn’t look any worse for it, but he had aged since I’d last seen him. Or perhaps it was merely that I’d never seen him out of uniform.
Despite the way we had parted, despite everything, it took all my self-control not to run to him, not to touch him to be sure he was real. Not to demand news of my mother and how he came to be here. The answers would hurt too much, and too many people were watching. I was fast learning there were always people watching in an army camp, much like at court.
“General Ryoji,” I said with great self-control. “It has been quite some time since I last saw you.”
“Indeed, Your Majesty.” He bowed, and I could not but think of how long he had bowed to my mother and called her Majesty. “You are remarkably difficult to find.”
“I was unaware you were alive, let alone looking for me.” I turned to the soldier standing guard. “Have someone bring food and wine to my tent. General,” I added, gesturing an invitation to enter. “Do join me.”
He bowed again. “I would be honoured, Your Majesty.”
The interior of my tent owned few comforts of rank amid the practicalities of life in a military camp. Especially a military camp where I was trying to prove myself useful and necessary, not merely a figurehead sitting on a nonexistent throne.
No finery, but there was a table, and I gestured for Ryoji to sit. He hesitated, something of a wry smile twisting his lips. “What a reverse this is.”
“Isn’t it,” I agreed. “I must admit I prefer the power balance this way around.”
“So did your mother.”
He seemed to regret the words the moment they were out of his mouth, his smile fading into wariness.
A hundred questions banked behind my teeth as I sat down, intent on maintaining my imperial bearing whatever our history. He had known me from a child, but I would give him no reason to look at me and still see that child.
“Well,” I said. “I think you owe me quite the tale, General, but first, where is she?”
He bowed his head. “I don’t know.”
I had not been prepared for grief and ought to be glad I’d been spared it, yet this ongoing limbo was somehow worse. “You had better explain yourself.”
I hoped I looked as grim as I sounded, hoped he had not forgotten the blade I’d stuck in his flesh. I wanted to trust him, but I was well past trusting people merely because I hoped I could.
Letting out a sigh, General Ryoji ran his hand along the tabletop as though smoothing wrinkles from the wood. “I tried,” he said, the words a whisper. “I tried, Miko, I really did, but they came so fast. One moment the city and the castle were secure, then they were inside slaughtering everyone. I’d headed for the gates at the first sign something was amiss and by the time I realised how bad it was I couldn’t get back to . . .”
He stared at his own hand sliding over the table. “We were overrun. There was nothing I could do. I ought to have fought and died, but . . . it seems my loyalty to your mother is stronger even than my sense of duty and honour.”
I refrained from pointing out his support of her coup had been evidence enough of that.
“I took a Chiltaen uniform from a fallen soldier and got out into the city. I began planning how to get back in to save her, but by morning they had already left.”
“I understand the hieromonk took her south with him. I followed their trail, but it went cold at Suway. What little was left of the northern towns were in no state to remember anyone passing through, or perhaps they weren’t following the roads, I don’t know.” His hand stilled and he looked up. “I went every direction I thought they might have gone and found nothing. I don’t even know . . .” His gaze flicked away again. “She was suffering a bout of illness the night they took Koi.”
I thought of my mother banked up by pillows with Master Kenji kneeling at her side, thin trickles of blood draining from pinpricks in her arm. She had always been so well I had thought it a ruse to gain pity.
“She was really sick?”
General Ryoji nodded. “The Imperial Disease.”
Of course I had heard of it, had seen it listed often enough in our family history to ask what it was. No one seemed to know, only that it had plagued the Otako family for a long time. Fatigue. Weakness. Slowing of breath and vitality. Nothing seemed to help.
“Had she had it? A few years, getting slowly worse. Each bout more debilitating than the last and getting closer together. With care Master Kenji thought she had a year left, maybe two. Without his care . . .”
He left the words hanging, the rest of the thought not needing to be spoken aloud for how completely it filled my mind. Without care she could already be dead.
“By the time I gave up trying to find her,” the general went on, not wanting to dwell on the fear that must have been in his mind as much as it was in mine, “Mei’lian had fallen to the Chiltaens and my search for you turned up as little as my search for your mother. Until now.”
“Well,” I said when I could swallow the lump forming in my throat. “For what it’s worth, it’s good to see you again, General.”
“And kind of you to call me so when I am now a mere commoner.”
He would have to earn my trust, but he was as useful as his presence was comforting. I allowed myself a smile. “Not a kindness, merely an acknowledgement of your continued position.”
He looked up so sharply he banged his elbow on the edge of the table, shock and pain mingling in his face. “You want me to . . . ?”
I hadn’t realised how much anger I had been carrying toward him until its knots loosened in my gut. “Yes,” I said. “Despite what happened at Koi, I wish you to command my Imperial Guard. Unless you wish to keep searching for my mother.”
He breathed a bitter laugh. “I fear continuing to throw myself at the impossible would be to allow grief to consume me.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. He had never spoken about his relationship with my mother, the secret everyone at court knew but only whispered.
“Don’t worry, I don’t mean to get sentimental on you,” he added. “There was always a level of mutual ambition in what we had, but you don’t spend that much time with someone without developing more love than you ever planned to allow them.” He let go the elbow he’d been rubbing and met my gaze. “If you will have me back I will do all I can to serve you, Your Majesty. Your mother made a promise her child would sit on the throne and we cannot let her down now, can we?”
* * *
I ran my gaze along the table of generals, each quieting as they took their places, gazes flitting Minister Manshin’s way as they waited. General Moto in particular I watched, wary.
Once they had all stilled, I cleared my throat and began. “Welcome to our first council meeting,” I said. “I believe I have met you all, so we can get straight to the most important business.”
In the pause before I went on, a few murmurs sounded as they quietly questioned this woman who would sit at the head of their table and dare to lead them when Minister Manshin was far more qualified and sat right there.
“The Levanti are consolidating their hold on the northern half of our empire,” I went on, determined to be taken seriously. “There is a chance Chiltae may regroup and attack them, but it seems more likely after losing much of their army they will hold their borders and stay out of this. It would be an easy enough battle to get these barbarians”—I winced at the word, but there could be no space for nuance, no accepting they were no such thing when I needed to rally an army against them—“out of our lands were they not allied to a number of northern lords. Some may have joined out of a pragmatic wish to not be trampled, but others appear to have eschewed loyalty to the empire for power and personal gain. Chief amongst these being Grace Bahain.”
No muttering followed. They had all heard, but for a moment I was sitting across from Edo at Kiyoshio Castle as he wrote this treason for me to see. The realisation of having no allies left, of being wholly alone, had hollowed me with a fear I had not yet shaken.
“We cannot strike at them head-on with such support,” I said. “But we may be able to if we can peel Bahain away from his new emperor.”
“Attacking Kogahaera would be suicidal,” General Rushin said.
“Not Kogahaera. Not yet.” I shook my head. “Syan.”
A moment of utter stillness held them in its grip, before they looked to Manshin to see if he’d heard my mad utterance. When he gave no sign of surprise or derision, the complaints began.
“I’m sure you must realise Syan is one of the most fortified cities in Kisia, Your Majesty,” General Moto said.
“The castle is behind at least three layers of walls.”
“It has never been conquered!”
“Yes, even though pirates have raided the city for decades, the castle has never fallen.”
I weathered their exclamations, much like Kiyoshio weathered the furious sea, and waited for them to die away. Eventually they did, perhaps because they had uttered every complaint there was,or because one by one they noticed I was sitting, untroubled, waiting patiently for them to finish.
“We are going to take Kiyoshio,” I said when they fell silent.
“May we ask how, Your Majesty?” General Mihri said. “You have a plan, perhaps.”
“Yes. I do.”
Now they were all listening.