At dawn a servant darkened Ashne’s doorstep, bearing the Speaker-Consort’s woven reed-and-gold insignia. Ashne had waited. Lingered, feverish and listless in her sun-baked hut, thirsting for the balmy green embrace of the old capitals. Yet now, as she hurried along the streets to the new palace, she barely even noticed when the first drops of rain spattered upon her face and surged into a downpour.
After a moment she glanced up at the sky, startled, and darted for shelter. A perhaps misplaced sense of duty urged her to hasten on. Instead she hesitated, looking out at the emptying marketplace in dismay, stirring at last from the numb haze that had enveloped her in the weeks since her return to the northern capital.
No summons had come until now. Ashne knew the queen of Awat had intended her a kindness, but even now a part of her remained convinced of the Lady Consort’s disappointment.
A curtain of water streamed down from the eaves, obscuring her view. She unclenched her fingers from around the hilt of her sword and reached out into the rain.
She whirled around. Stepped back, sword half drawn.
Joining her beneath the eaves stood a man with a shock of unruly white hair. His robes were a plain, dark blue, indicating little of his status other than that he was no peasant, and he was unarmed, carrying nothing but a muddy, battered basket on his back and a walking stick in his left hand. Like an immortal or an ancient sage descended from his mountain hermitage, Ashne thought. Or like the mad old drunkard she had once seen sprawled out on the road, ranting and raving at the top of his lungs, though this man, with his smooth, untattooed face, stood too tall and too straight to be drunk, or even very old.
That he had been able to approach without her noticing was truly a sign of how her skills must have deteriorated.
Her face must have betrayed her disbelief, for he snorted. Looking at him closely now, she could see that he was indeed young despite his hair, perhaps no more than a few years her senior at most.
“Your posture,” he explained, without prompting. “The way you move. You favor your right, though your pace is otherwise steady and even.”
He spoke in the tongue of the Dragon Court, but that in itself was not so unusual. Many now had adopted Dragon ways over the old traditions, especially so close to the Court’s domain. No, odder was the fact that he spoke with the elegant clipped accent of the north, though he wore his hair short and loose about his face. The Court’s northern territories lay not so far away now as they once had, but the warriors often joked that no man of the Court would be caught dead with his hair unbound.
Yet he was unlikely to be from vanquished Khonua either. Most who resided now in this northern capital were of Ashne’s own people. Those of Khonua had long since been forced out of the fortifications to dwell in their old villages.
“An old injury,” she said at last, wondering uneasily how long this stranger had been watching her. She had not thought the evidence still so obvious.
“What, one month? Two?” He seemed more amused than insulted by her brusque response.
“It’s none of your business.”
“Oh, but it is. You see, I happen to be a traveling apothecary.”
A strange way to sell his wares! She relaxed, but did not take her hand off her sword — a nameless blade, but sharp enough.
“My apologies. I have already been treated by the finest physicians in Awat.”
She braced herself for his next sally, and was surprised when he simply shrugged and said, “Is that so? Odd that they did not confine you to bed before you fully recovered.”
“I was released from convalescence last week.”
“And are now up and about already, in such weather, no less.”
Ignoring him, Ashne decided, would be easier than responding. She turned away. At her silence, he seemed to lose interest, much to her relief.
Then she felt a tapping at her shoulder, and flinched.
“Take this, at least,” he said, with a hint of irritation in his tone at last. “You look as miserable as a drowned rooster, and it looks like we’re going to be stuck here for a while.”
In his hand was a steamed pork bun. She reached out for it tentatively, wondering if he had poisoned the food, and if it might not be better to refuse.
“And why on heaven and earth would I want to drug you, when I have already openly stated my profession?” he muttered, as if reading her mind. “You are no one important. And you are hardly my type! Riverfolk. Always so distrustful. Can’t you take a gesture of good will for what it is?”
Uncertain again of how to reply, she said, “You could be trying to peddle antidotes, or stomach medicine.”
For a moment he stared. Then he threw his head back and laughed and laughed. “Here,” he said, and took a bite out of the bun before handing it back to her. “Satisfied?”
The bun was still warm to the touch, and juices trickled out from where he had bitten. Their appetizing scent wafted to her nose easily in the chill air, and her stomach finally deigned to remind her that she had not yet eaten since the previous night.
“Thank you, Master Apothecary,” she said, rather stiffly.
His reply was scathing but good-humored. “Good. I can’t stand it when people refuse to take proper care of their own bodies.”
After that, they fell into a comfortable silence. The rain pattered on in her ears. Across the street, an unlatched door creaked and moaned. Ashne wondered, as she chewed, what fiefdom he hailed from, and how his hair had lost its color. Perhaps he had been exiled, and his head had turned white in his grief. Or perhaps he had eaten some strange herb during his travels. (She was, for some reason, more inclined to believe the latter.)
As Ashne finished the last of the bun, a sharp wind arose, spraying her with rain. She shrank back, realizing that the matter of the summons had fled her mind.
Two years now had passed since Awat’s final victory over Khonua; so too had Ashne and her sworn sister Zsaran resumed their old bodyguard duties, but for that final secret mission back south. And now that the deed was done, she must once more return to her lady’s side.
That was all there was to it. There was no need for concern.
Nor any reason for her to dawdle any longer. She would brave the weather after all, though Zsaran would surely scold her for neglecting her health, just as the apothecary had.
At that thought she turned, intending to thank the man once more for his small kindness.
What she saw gave her pause. Beside her, the apothecary peered out towards the sky, raising his hand to brush strands of hair from his face in an impatient gesture. In that brief moment, an unnatural stillness in his sleeve caught her eye: the voluminous cloth hung limply in the air, seemingly unaffected by the wind.
She watched on, alert, preparing to ward off a strike from a hidden weapon.
There was a twisted flicker of movement.
But nothing happened. She blinked, and the sleeve was flapping around again like the rest of his clothing. Ashne stared, bewildered.
“Looks like a storm after all,” said the stranger.
Her eyes had never failed her. And so she responded, without thinking, “What, are you a diviner as well as an apothecary?”
He did not reply immediately, but when he did there was a note of mild amusement in his voice again. “The study of sorcery is discouraged by the Son of Heaven, may he live ten thousand years.”
And perhaps it was the strangeness of his answer and his peculiar choice of words that spurred her on, though Zsaran often teased her for having the curiosity of a rock.
“Lords and kings discourage many things,” she said, “yet that does not keep people from doing them nonetheless. And the Son of Heaven’s word holds no power here.”
“Those who are wise enough to value their lives refrain from taking such risk. Besides, your king is known to be just as wary of the ancient arts as the Son of Heaven. No superstitious barbarian lord is he, or so it is said.”
He had again couched his words in such a way that she could not tell if she were meant to take offense. Despite herself, she felt a vague sense of relief, for the conversation had progressed to a point where she did not know how to continue regardless.
At that moment, the wind began to fade, just as suddenly as it had arisen. The rain, too, drew gradually to a stop.
“It seems you were wrong,” said Ashne, unnerved.
He shrugged and grinned, as if to say, You see? “Ah. Then I must be on my way. Pity. Good day, injured miss!”
With those words, he strode off, white head fading steadily into the distance, like mist fleeing before the first rays of morning. Ashne shook her head, unable to cast aside the sense that she had been dreaming.
Then she ventured out under the still overcast sky and headed on her own way, down the opposite direction.
* * *
She arrived without fanfare at the north gate. Even after a year she still found it easy to lose her way in the nested layout of the palace grounds. Though it was true that she had been absent from the capital at Mount Ranglhia for the greater part of that time, Ashne nonetheless felt it her responsibility to have familiarized herself with these surroundings by now.
Loathe to ask the stationed guards for assistance, she wandered through the walled courtyards alone, ducking out of view from servants and guards alike, feeling rather like a petty thief in her own residence, though neither was she a burglar, nor this place her home. All the buildings looked the same to her: all squareness and curved eaves and patterned color, all reason and order, differing only in size.
There was no room here, in such a place, for such irrational feelings as guilt.
Their last mission had been a success. The last blood heir of Khonua was dead, his life cut short before he had even grown into manhood.
As she turned the corner, a familiar husky voice rang out from across the courtyard. “Oh, there you are!”
Ashne looked up, unable to keep a smile of relief from flickering across her face. “Zsaran.”
How long had it been since they last spoke?
Zsaran laughed as she approached, hair flying here and there like spilled ink against the meticulous, vibrant designs of the ceiling above them — “Let me guess, you got lost?” — and only laughed harder when Ashne looked away, embarrassed.
“It rained,” said Ashne. “And I met a strange man. Claimed to be an apothecary.”
“Oh? Must have been a handsome one, if he kept you so long.”
Flustered, Ashne started to explain — about her injury, about his hair, his accent — before realizing that Zsaran was no longer laughing. She trailed off, confused.
“Are you all right?” asked Zsaran in a low tone.
Ashne knew then that it was not only the injury that Zsaran inquired after. “Improving,” she said, which was not entirely a lie.
Zsaran’s dark eyes flashed with some unrecognizable emotion. But she did not press the issue. Instead, she grinned and said, “Well then, shall we have a little bout later on? To see just how much you’ve recovered?”
Ashne started to grin back, but Zsaran glanced away, as if checking to make certain no one else was present.
“I...” Zsaran stopped, shook her head.
“The summons. Did the lady tell you why?”
“No. What’s the matter? Did something happen?”
“Not exactly,” replied Zsaran, hesitating again. She said, brightly, “I don’t suppose you’ve heard the rumors. Of course, you couldn’t have.”
“Zsaran, what rumors?”
“Dead buffalo. Missing children.”
“Tiger?” Rare as tiger sightings had become in recent years, to think Zsaran so easily affected by such hearsay was unthinkable. Indeed, the last time Ashne had seen her so agitated...
“Yes, but you see, the funny thing about the reports is, the buffalo were unmarked. No blood, no broken bones, no signs of sickness. It’s as if they just suddenly dropped dead in the middle of the fields.”
Her stomach clenched; a ghost of pain passed through her.
“And then I couldn’t help but remembering. From before.”
“You remember too, don’t you? What he said.”
With a chill she thought, for the first time in weeks, of the mercenary of Pra.
She was a fool to dwell on him even now.
“The children?” she asked instead.
“The reports were inconclusive. Orphans, strays. No bodies have yet been found. The work of a sorcerer, they say.”
The study of sorcery is discouraged by the Son of Heaven, murmured a voice in her heart.
And deeper still, another voice whispered, They’ve returned.
“Some sort of plague. Or sacrifices. Perhaps the gods have simply taken their due...” she began, but Zsaran snorted. Raised a hand, absently tracing the lines tattooed on her cheek. Gods and spirits, kings and generals: all were the same to her.
Ashne tried again. “You think this is why the lady has called for us, then?”
“I don’t know,” Zsaran replied, tense with obvious frustration.
“I thought she was unhappy with us,” she said quietly. “With me. The last mission...” No matter how she tried, all her thoughts turned back to this.
Zsaran softened, placed a hand on her shoulder. “The lady has no reason to be displeased with you.”
“I should have been at your side. At the lady’s side.”
“For what?” She laughed. “You worry too much. Nothing of note has happened over these weeks. And with that wound...”
“Nothing of note, save for a few stray rumors.”
Silence. “You know what else he told me? ‘You are meant for greater things,’ he said. ‘It’s in your blood,’ he said. Foolishness. Vague, incoherent nonsense, all of it.”
“He was just joking,” Ashne offered tentatively, confused by the apparent change in topic.
“Of course he was just joking. But I wonder now... I wonder just how much he knew.” Her expression was strange. She looked at Ashne, lips struggling to form words. “I —”
Then she stiffened, and Ashne realized that they were no longer alone. From the shadows limped out old Shranai, with her pinched patchwork face and nostrils flaring like a hound that had scented its prey.
“Are you two quite done yet?” she said in Dragon Court tongue, every syllable carefully enunciated. She leaned forward against her walking stick and continued without waiting for a reply. “The lady awaits.”
“My apologies, Eldest Sister,” murmured Ashne, switching as well to Court speech.
Zsaran was strangely subdued, and Ashne’s dread returned as swiftly as it had fled.
* * *
Rows of flickering candles illuminated Queen Marnua’s audience chamber. Kneeling in wait were the Sparrow twins in matching sky blue robes, Jenhra to the right and Nalum to the left. They bowed in formal greeting.
Shranai and Zsaran inclined their heads in reply before moving past them to kneel and bow towards the head of the room, where the queen lounged. Ashne, however, froze. The queen, sprawled upon a pile of cushions behind her beaded curtain, hair and waist adorned with glittering gold, was not alone. Kneeling behind her was the sickly princess in a rare public appearance, and to the side knelt stern King Khosian, facing his two highest-ranking ministers.
Quickly collecting herself, Ashne sank to her knees and bowed. The floor, cold and hard through the fabric of her hemp skirts, reminded her where she was. Who she was.
“This humble servant presents herself at the honored lady’s request.” Even after years of practice, she found these northern rituals overly complex and difficult to remember. But she understood the necessity of them. Only this way could King Khosian establish legitimacy as a hegemon of the Dragon Court.
From behind the beaded curtain arose the thin, reedy voice of the queen. “You may rise, child.”
As she raised her head, Ashne’s gaze was drawn once more towards the king. Wide silk sleeves covered what she knew were incomplete patterns of protection tattooed along his arms; his face, however, was unmarked. Both his beard and his hair, grown long and bound in an austere headpiece, were streaked with coarse iron gray. To most discerning eyes, he appeared to be a nobleman born and raised in one of the Court’s domains.
Ashne knew better. Khosian was the High Speaker, and his presence boded only ill, even if he no longer spoke with the voice of the gods.
“Do you know why I have summoned you here today?” The queen waved a delicately embroidered red sleeve in what seemed like a gesture of boredom. She had readily embraced the elegant attire of the Dragon Court long ago, but observed little else of their formalities.
“No, most honored lady,” said Ashne, legs stiff and numb, chest tight with fear. She thought of Zsaran’s whispered words in the courtyard. Wondered. Waited for the queen to continue.
But it was not the queen who spoke next, but the king, uttering a single harsh command.
One of the servants waiting in the wings immediately escorted in a short, wrinkled old man dressed in what Ashne recognized vaguely as the plain white robes of Court divination. The man bowed, once to the king and once to the queen, then drew out a batch of yarrow stalks.
“The same query as before!”
The old diviner scattered his stalks on the ground in a single shimmering movement, and began to sort them into piles, mumbling and counting under his breath. Ashne watched the practiced motions of his hands with morbid fascination.
When the diviner finished, he inclined his head and clasped his hands before him. “The answer remains the same, my lord.”
“The tiger’s legacy endures.” The king’s voice was colder than the murkiest depths of the sea.
“Yes, my lord. Wind and thunder, strength and gentleness. To stand fast amid the coming storm, you must embrace whatever may yet come.”
“I must endure.” This time there was no mistaking the dark irony of his words. “You are dismissed.”
The tiger’s legacy.
For a moment she thought Zsaran had been correct. That the diviner spoke of the buffalo. The missing orphans. Of a wild beast on the prowl.
But then the king turned to her, and Ashne shrank back, the unspeakable dread that had been haunting her all day beginning to coalesce into dim comprehension.
“Well? The brat is alive. Did you take pity upon him at the last moment, with your woman’s heart? Or are you truly so incompetent that you could not even dispose of a mere child?”
So that was what the king believed.
He had not been a child, but a youth on the brink of manhood, sickly and undernourished for his age. No self-respecting man of Khonua would ever bring himself to follow such a boy, Zsaran had argued. And the mercenary from Pra had replied, Death will come as a mercy to him.
The queen spoke before Ashne could dredge up any response. “My lord, but can this diviner be trusted?”
The king snorted. “What would you have me do? Sacrifice a pheasant? Or perhaps that cripple of yours?”
“I am only saying that these northern diviners seem to be but mere charlatans with honeyed tongues.”
The king was unmoved. “Even the ‘Son of Heaven’ on his distant throne employs these so-called charlatans in his service.”
“If this humble servant may speak, Sire,” interrupted quiet, stocky Earth Minister Muntong, who did not flinch at the king’s hard gaze. “The Maidens are honest and loyal to a fault. It is difficult to believe that any of them would deliberately flout a direct order from her majesty the queen. Should it not be wiser to hear what the girl has to say?”
A faint sneer marked the king’s face. “Well? Speak!”
She could not look at Zsaran, suddenly aware of what must have been troubling her all along, but was all too aware of her solid, comforting presence beside her. Before them, she could make out little of the queen’s face behind the curtain, and the princess sat still and quiet as a doll.
I will kill him, Ashne had said that night, by the flickering light of their campfire.
And so she said now at last, praying that her voice did not betray her, “This humble servant killed the prince with her own hands. There can be no doubt about it.”
“Hn. And yet what proof do you have? Where is the royal blade Hazsam?”
She hesitated, then, at the ghost of pain that skirted across her torso. Hazsam, the conqueror’s blade, feared even by the fiercest of tigers. A treasured sword, one of the few of Khonua’s collection that was not originally of Awat make, though fashioned in the same style. The diamond-patterned blade and the equally intricate coiling bird and fish design of its paired scabbard had served as proof of succession to the Khonua throne for countless generations.
For a few brief moments she had held the sword within her own hands. She had not uncovered the blade, but the scabbard and the overwhelming power that emanated from within had been unmistakable.
If the diviner spoke true, if the king were not mistaken, there were only three possibilities. The boy had survived. They had killed the wrong boy. There was another.
And yet it could not be, for the sword Hazsam sang only truth. And its power had died with the boy.
Ashne said, this time with quiet resolution, “It was with him, but most unfortunately lost in our flight. It lies now with the turtle lords of Gokho Lake.”
She had lost it, that sword worth more than an entire kingdom. And for that she had paid.
The king’s eyes seemed to pierce right through her. At last, he snorted again.
“I should have had the brat killed twelve years ago. Then there would be none of this doubt that plagues us now!”
It seemed, for the moment, that her testimony had been accepted. Yet Ashne could not relax.
You are meant for greater things.
That she believed. Had always believed, even as a child. Zsaran had always blazed with the light of a thousand suns.
Beautiful Zsaran. Brilliant Zsaran. Zsaran, who had been wasted on the tiny backwater village of their birth. Who should have better been born the daughter of kings.
It’s in your blood.
The late King Pashrai of Khonua had been a notorious womanizer.
And yet the sword Hazsam sang only truth.
Water Minister Aorang, whose smooth narrow face and skinny arms were tattooed in matching sets of designs, spoke in a most unhappy tone. “My lord, if this humble servant may interrupt — more than the issue of the young heir, one has reason to be concerned of the recent talk of a powerful foreign sorcerer. Khonua now is little more than a snake without fangs, whether or not the young heir lives. But if his bereaved supporters ally themselves with such a powerful man...”
Her mind turned briefly to the apothecary from that morning as the minister spoke. But she dismissed the idea as ridiculous. Foreign though he might be, he was no shaman, no sorcerer. Of that Ashne was now certain. The old arts were diluted, their true power long lost. And those who paid tribute to the Dragon Court believed only in their diviners and stargazers, mere observers who did little but watch the world around them, forever fumbling to read the signs granted them.
How foolish her doubts! Surely the king consulted his own foreign diviner now only for show. But for whom the pretense was meant, Ashne could not say.
“Still spouting such nonsense, Aorang?” The king laughed unpleasantly.
“Sire, there are many among the court who still remember Woodcutter Mountain... And among the citizens of Khonua, tales of Tiger Hill are told to this day. And now the reports of the dead buffalo would seem to indicate some greater power at work.”
“Some greater power? A plague, I should think, is more likely!”
“All the men sent to investigate report no such signs. And plague does not explain the children! The spirits —”
“Water Minister, the realms of spirit and human are as disparate as night and day. They watch us as if from the bottom of a murky pool, unable to touch or to feel. There is nothing to be feared from them.”
“But they say that this sorcerer has the ability to bridge the gap between worlds. The spirits walk with him, they say —”
The king slammed his fist on the ground, an act that seemed to her again more for show than out of any true anger. “They say this, they say that. Whatever happened to that old courage of yours, Water Minister? Has the loss of your wife left you little more than a simpering fool? I thought you a man made of sterner stuff.”
Minister Aorang bowed and said no more, face shadowed by a curtain of his bronze-toned hair. But Ashne noted that his own fists were clenched in his lap.
Minister Muntong took the opportunity to speak again. “Sire, though the Water Minister’s fears may be groundless, he is correct about one thing, at least: whether the young heir is alive or not, whether the self-proclaimed sorcerer truly has such powers or not — in themselves they are of little threat. But the people remember, and believe. And it has not been an easy year. Our victories are no longer so recent. The land grows restless once more.”
The king’s sneer turned into an impatient frown. “Very well. Seeing as how you both insist on wearying me with this subject, let us continue this discussion at the temple. Call for the generals as well.” He stood abruptly. “Guards! Throw the millet-haired girl into the cells, and see if she will not change her tune! If not...”
He had not believed her, after all. Ashne stood, trembling. Was this, too, a part of his pageantry? But when she recalled the oaths she had sworn, so long ago now, no cries of protest escaped her lips.
Without even bothering to turn, the king continued, this time addressing the queen. “As for the rest of your Maidens, deal with them as you see fit!”
As he strode away with his ministers, a pair of guards stepped forth. The queen sighed and raised a hand to halt them.
“Ashne, child,” she said, in a tone still balanced perfectly on the edge of boredom, “Zsaran explained everything to me on the night of your return. I will not ask you to repeat the tale. But I will ask again: you are certain the boy is dead?”
Ashne nodded before managing to force out, “Yes, my lady.”
“Very well, then. The diviner is wrong, or else his interpretations are flawed. There is no helping it. I shall speak to my husband again in private.”
The queen’s placid demeanor was not reassuring at all. Ashne and Zsaran had been at the queen’s side for fourteen years now, almost two thirds of their lives — long enough for Ashne to recognize that this, too, was but another form of theatrics. Even more disturbing to her was the princess, kneeling straight and still in the background, as if deaf and blind to the world.
But Ashne merely bowed her head and allowed the guards to take her sword and lead her away. The twins’ gazes were lowered and Shranai’s expression remained as forbidding as ever, but Zsaran offered her a sad, helpless smile, a strange lost look reflected in her eyes.
And that, thought Ashne, was most disturbing of all.
* * *