They’re coming. It’s early morning, the end of the Bi-Hour of the Cat—and Thanh has been awake for most of it, staring at the wall and trying to cobble together thoughts in the emptiness of her mind. If she closes her eyes, she’ll see Yosolis again, smell the snow and ashes on the night the palace burned—when everyone was too busy evacuating the real princesses to give much thought to the dark-skinned one in the attic room, the “guest” from the South who had been little more than a glorified hostage. Thanh was sixteen then; she’s eight years older now. It should mean eight years wiser, but instead she feels as hollow and as empty as she was at twelve, watching the shores of Ephteria loom into view for the first time, and thinking that alien and cold court would be her life, that the palace in the capital of Yosolis would be the gilded bars of her jail—and, worse, that Mother was the one who had made the choice for her, for the good of Bình Hải, her home country. For her own good. Thanh had returned to Bình Hải two years ago, a homecoming with fanfare and pomp that should have cemented her position near the apex of court. Instead . instead, she came back too soft, too pliant. Too thoughtful and discreet, Mother says. A noise, as the door slides open. Ái Vân, her eldest handmaiden, her face carefully blank and composed. “Your Highness? It’s time.
” Thanh throws one last look at the papers on the bedside table. Reports from spies and magicians, assessments from advisers in the Ministry of Rites and the Ministry of War; everything chronicling the inexorable encroachment of Ephteria into their lives. They’re coming. A trade delegation; a friendly visit from Ephterian delegates. They can all hear the words that aren’t said, the truth of steel beneath the silver-tongued platitudes. “I’m coming,” Thanh says. Ái Vân has the grace to believe her, to turn and wait for Thanh in the corridor when she composes herself. Ancestors, watch over me. As Thanh turns towards the door, something glimmers on the papers: something like a reflection of the sun, and then it stretches and grows, a long, slow trail of orange light like a finger trailing across the topmost sheet—for a moment only—and she holds her breath until it burns in her throat. Not today. She can’t afford to have anything mysteriously catching fire in the bedroom. She can’t have to explain to Ái Vân why things keep turning to cinders around her, as if the fire that burnt Yosolis and still haunts her nightmares had chosen to follow her home, burning ridiculously small things—orchids in vases, the hairs of calligraphy brushes, the vermillion ink of seals, small scraps of paper on her desk, pinches of tea leaves, badges of rank on five-panel dresses .
No no no. The light sinks to the slow, lazy glow of embers: it’s just sunlight coming through the closed shutters. Thanh exhales, and leaves the room—though she already knows that the fire will come back. It always does. * * * In the throne room, Mother is waiting for her. She sits cross-legged on the dais, watching row upon row of assembled mandarins on either side of a richly woven carpet. In front of her is a simple low table with a teapot and three cups of tea. The familiar smell of the tea —cut grass and algae overlaying a sharp bitterness—prickles the back of Thanh’s throat as she moves, bowing to Mother and joining her on the dais, kneeling in front of the teacups. “Child,” Mother says, inclining her head. “I hope you’re ready.
” Is she? Thanh tries to remember all she’s read, the names of the major Ephterian traders, how many ships came and what they sold: what Ephterians value, what they want —everything she’d picked up in Yosolis without meaning to. “I don’t know,” she says, finally. Mother’s glare stops her from elaborating. She knows what’s at stake: Bình Hải’s survival as a country. She knows, too, what Mother hopes: that her time in Ephteria helped her pick up insights and habits that will help build a rapport between the delegation and her. But the only rapport Thanh built—the only insight she gained—is one of which Mother would not approve. “They’re here,” Mother says. Footsteps, from the small flight of stairs that lead up to the throne room. Shadows, crossing the threshold from the gardens into cool darkness. Mother’s face is impassive.
They walk in three abreast, looking left and right at the sea of assembled officials and their square caps, at the carvings on the stone pillars, the dragons and the turtles fighting each other for swords and spears, the eunuchs bowing to them as they head up the dais, the lanterns hung in the rafters, the elaborate confections of carved wood and cloth dancing in the wind. They bow to Mother, but it is small and perfunctory. Thanh knows there was an entire negotiation involved in how deep that bow would be, that they utterly refused to prostrate themselves as any representative of a foreign state would, and that for a moment it looked as though Bình Hải would declare war on Ephteria then and there. And behind them . She walks tall and proud, unbowed, but her gaze is fixed straight ahead and doesn’t waver. The sword at her side goes “tap, tap” against the rich weave of her trousers as her legs move. Thanh’s hands itch, remembering how soft her skin was when she ran her fingers over her legs, when her lips grazed the pale skin of her neck, the same neck that’s now hidden behind a high collar and a ruffle, the lips that are closed, the face bare of makeup, her fair skin glowing like white jade. Eldris. Princess Eldris. “Empress,” Eldris says.
She bows, a fraction longer, a fraction deeper, than her escort. Her eyes—her wide, blue eyes—rest on Thanh, and she smiles. “Princess. It is good to meet you again.” Eldris. Of all people, she wasn’t expecting Eldris. Thanh remembers her—the same age, distant and unattainable at first. She remembers the night of the fire, stumbling out of the burning palace with the serving girl Giang suddenly falling behind her as the entire court turned to look—and, in the center of that press of dignitaries, Eldris’s gaze resting on her, light and curious. Remembers the knock on her door a few months later, and the seventeen-year-old Eldris holding out a single rose to her with a crooked smile. There’s nothing left to her but the frantic beating of her heart—all words scoured clean by fire, by memory.
“Princess,” she says, finally, and then stops. “You honor us with your presence.” “Oh, it’s nothing. It does me good to see the business of statehood,” Eldris says, her tone carefully neutral. “So good to see you children remember each other,” Mother says, but her gaze is sharp. Thanh has never told her much about her time in Yosolis, but what has Mother worked out anyway? “Come, Princess, have some tea.” Mother pours, effortlessly, as Eldris sits: her overcurious attendants have settled behind her, glowering. “I trust your journey was eventless?” Eldris shrugs. “The sea was restless. Sailors speak of angry dragon spirits.
I’m glad that we were able to rest in Hồng Nam. Captain Pharanea”—she points to the eldest woman in the delegation—“fell badly sick on board and needed time to recuperate.” Captain Pharanea nods, gracefully. She looks unsettlingly pale, but the smile she flashes Thanh is pure predator. She is not in this delegation for show. “I’m all better now, Your Highnesses. And ready to get down to business.” She opens her satchel, starts spreading papers on the table: an opening salvo done with as much care as the firing of weapons. “We have so much to talk about.” Thanh recognizes most of the papers Pharanea has put in front of her: letters from Ephterian merchants in their characteristic script, magistrates’ official reports from Bình Hải, with the vermillion seals at the bottom, and maps drawn by Ephterian cartographers with the cardinal directions reversed compared to Bình Hải.
She slowly, deliberately sips her tea, trying not to look at Eldris—not to think of Eldris and the way that her heart still misses a beat whenever Eldris’s gaze rests on her. The liquor is green and luminous and faintly tastes of the sea. “I’m so glad you’re recovered.” She hasn’t brought her own papers from her room: she could have gone for the cheap and theatrical gesture, but she doesn’t need to. “I see you’ve brought us trading disputes.” Pharanea bristles. “Disputes? I should think this is more serious.” She opens her mouth, but Thanh gets there first. “You’re right.” She’s glanced at the seals, had time to sort out which magistrates they belong to.
The province of Đại Ảnh, and what looks like all echelons of the judicial hierarchy from county to prefecture. Time for a leap of faith. “Murder is always serious, isn’t it? The deliberate snuffing out of a life. Depriving a child of their mother, parents of their filial daughter”—she knows that last won’t carry as much weight with the Ephterians, who think filial piety rank superstition, but she has to say it, nevertheless —“an empress of her most dutiful subject.” Mother’s face is set, unmoving. She doesn’t speak. Letting Thanh take the lead, or simply waiting for her to make a mistake she’ll get to berate her for? A silence. Eldris says, softly, when Pharanea doesn’t speak, “It was a trading dispute. A feud between merchants which led to Master Caeth and her clerks killing their Hải trading partner. We wouldn’t want the Great Empress of Bình Hải to have to embroil herself in such petty things.
Let us deal with the offenders. We can assure you they won’t get off lightly.” Thanh inclines her head. The demand is clear. “Extraterritoriality,” she says. Might as well bring things into the open. “You want Ephterian merchants to be exempt from local laws.” Pharanea starts, and looks at her a little more closely, as if an insect had suddenly learnt to speak. Thanh has to grant her that: she recovers quickly. “Of course not,” she says.
“We would never make such a demand of our valued allies. Merely in this matter—” And in the next, and in the next: precedent in Ephteria has force of law. But they’ve brought up something else, too: the alliance. The guns and silver Ephteria sends Mother in exchange for the presence of the Ephterian merchants in Bình Hải; the vital link that enables her to maintain her throne, to send Thanh’s elder sister Linh to quell rebellion after rebellion. It’s not subtle, or unexpected. “As allies, we naturally would want to find the best solution for this,” Thanh says. “We know that the Ephterian merchants have been grateful for the protection afforded by the Hải imperial escorts—” Pharanea smiles, and it’s all sharp, bone-white teeth. “Oh, they are most grateful. But we do feel we have been imposing. It would be easier, surely, if our merchants were able to defend themselves against the rebels.
” So that’s what they want. Not just extraterritoriality, but armies and positions. “They are allowed guns already,” Mother says, sharply—as Thanh watches, horrified, because she can’t stop Mother from walking straight into the trap of this conversation. “Oh, we weren’t thinking guns, of course not. Our merchants are looking to defend themselves, not go on the offensive. No: it would be easier for everyone, wouldn’t it, if they could make their houses stronger? If they could build thicker walls and better defenses—fortify against the rebels, and get a better quality of professionals manning these—” Fortresses. Garrisons. Soldiers. That’s what they want; what they’ve come here for. And they know—they’ve always known—that Bình Hải, propped up by Ephterian silver and guns and beleaguered by internal and external enemies, can’t really afford to refuse them.
“That may not be expedient,” Thanh says, more abruptly than she’s meant to, and she sees Mother’s sharp inhale of breath. “Is it not?” Pharanea smiles again. Eldris is still, carefully expressionless. “That’s such a shame. I was under the impression the alliance had been mutually beneficial so far.” The threat isn’t even subtle anymore. What do they have against it? A threat of their own, of seeking patronage from another northern country? A call to Ephteria’s religious beliefs, beseeching them to have mercy on fellow souls? Thanh’s gaze wanders around the room as she thinks—and that’s when she catches, again, a glimmer of light. At first she thinks it’s from the lanterns in the rafters—the embers burning in the daytime—but then she blinks again and it’s at the bottom of her teacup, in the bunched and soggy tea leaves, slowly lengthening and stretching. No no no. Thanh draws in a deep, shaky breath—and before it has time to reach her lungs the leaves catch fire.
It’s warm and orange: the color of the setting sun, of the flames of the burning palace; she remembers the air smelling faintly of charred wood and molten stone. Small and insignificant, and Mother has gotten up and is arguing with Pharanea, a conversation Thanh catches only hints of because she’s sixteen again, and running through the palace, holding the hand of Giang, the Hải serving girl she found shivering in the attic next to her own bedroom, and they’re running and running, and the fire is in every room and in every courtyard, driving them again and again until it seems their only choice is diving through the flames, until all Thanh can think of is that burning will at least set them free—will at least allow her and Giang to finally breathe . “Your Highness? Your Highness!” When she opens her eyes again, they’re all staring at her. She’s set the teacup down. The leaves have stopped burning: the cup is filled with warm ash and the smell of the fire is spreading, filling her lungs and her mouth until everything tastes sharp and bitter. “I have to go,” she says, forcing herself to speak through burning pain. “We can resume this conversation later.” And, slowly, deliberately, Thanh walks through the sea of assembled officials—waiting until no one can see her face anymore before she allows herself to finally relax.