Girls of Storm and Shadow – Natasha Ngan

DEEP IN THE DARK HEART OF the royal palace, the King was hiding. He’d been there for weeks, eschewing all visitors save for the shamans who worked on his injuries and his two closest confidants to nurse wounds both of the body and of the ego. He would never have admitted this was what he was doing, of course. And if anyone were to dare even suggest he was struggling, he’d swiftly have them executed. None of it was painful. None of it was too much for the great Demon King of Ikhara to handle. Yet like most lies people tell themselves, it came apart in the shadow and quiet of the night. The King, however much he expressed otherwise, was shaken. His wounds had penetrated deeper than flesh and bone. They had burrowed, insidiously, down each vein and cell and pore, until he could feel the fear echoing alongside every beat of his heart. And this fear took a shape. A name. Lei-zhi. He refused to speak it out loud, but his body betrayed him. It whispered her name to him in the rhythm of his pulse.

Showed him her face when he was asleep: blood-splattered porcelain skin; furled lips; wild eyes, those bright golden eyes honed with so much rage it pierced right to his soul, right down to places within him he thought he’d long since stamped out of life. When it got too much—when her name and face would mock him so that he felt he couldn’t breathe and the walls of his rooms were closing in—the King called for a girl. None of those girls, of course. Those girls he had yet to properly deal with. Though he would. But another girl. A pretty Steel caste lynx-form from the Night Houses with softly furred hips perhaps, or a young Paper slave fresh from a raid. He didn’t care. They would bring him a girl, and he would ruin her, just to prove he could. To feel once again that he was all-powerful.

One human girl would not get the better of him—even if the constant sting and ache of his scars reminded him how close she had come. Each day, royal shamans came to heal the injuries to the King’s throat and face. Naja had done well. The shamans had arrived just in time after the girl’s attack to save much of his vocal cords, though it hurt to speak and his voice was hoarser than before: rough, a guttural grunt. His right eye however was beyond repair. The socket had been a mess of severed nerves and pulpy flesh, too damaged even to fit a glass eye. In the weeks since the attack, it had grown a little less horrifying under the magic of the shamans. While it would be many months more until the rest of his face was back to normal, even shamans couldn’t bring back life from the dead, and his missing right eye would forever be a reminder of that night. The King recalled one of his generals, also a bull-form, who’d once come to him about using the royal shamans to remove an ugly slash across half his face. “Battle scars are a badge of honor, General Yu,” he’d told the soldier.

“They are marks of power. To rid oneself of them would be to show weakness. Wear your scars with pride.” Wear your scars with pride. What godsdamned crap. He always knew it, of course, but some part of him had believed in the sentiment once. Not anymore. The King knew now exactly what scars were: reminders of your own failings. And so were those who dealt them. The girl was still out there.

But the King had faith. Naja had not failed him yet. She would find her, just as she promised she would, along with the traitor Ketai Hanno’s daughter, and she would bring both of them back to the palace for him. Because this was something else the King had learned about scars—they were a brilliant furnace of hate. And if rage like this could give a weak human girl the power to attack him… well. They would see what it could do to a Demon King with a ferocious hunger for revenge. ONE FROM THE NIGHT WE ESCAPE THE palace, what was at first a light scattering of flakes grows into a snowstorm. It takes less than twenty-four hours for the first layer to settle. Just over a day until it builds into a thick blanket of glittering white. One more day and the snow has covered everything, a carpet of muffling powder that stings your eyes in the daylight and casts strange shapes at night from the shadows.

After two weeks, it’s as though we’ve lived in this frosted world forever. I trudge through the deep drifts beyond the temple, my boots breaking the snowpack with heavy crunches. The cold has numbed my entire body. I flex my stiff fingertips in my gloves. Melting shucks of ice keep sluicing over the tops of my borrowed leather boots no matter how tightly I lace them. But at least my hands and feet have some sort of protection from the weather. My face battles directly with the elements—and this is a war it is losing. Wind stings my exposed cheeks as I peer through the dancing flakes, trying to see where the leopard demons have gone. We’ve been trekking through the mountains for almost an hour now. The steep forested hills are packed with snow, each leaf-stripped tree encased in ice.

The afternoon is eerily silent: just rustling snow crystals and boot-crunch and my own heavy breathing. “How you doing back there, Little Princess?” I sigh. Not quite so silent. “My name,” I shout back, “as I’ve told you a million times, Bo, is Lei.” No sooner are the words out of my mouth than they are whipped away by the wind. Ice flakes dance around my nose, land cold, wet kisses on my raw cheeks. “Princess?” Bo’s voice sounds again, this time clearer. The siblings must be just a few yards ahead. My breath billows around me as I hurry to catch up. Their tall forms materialize through the snowblurred wind, as long-limbed and willowy as the trunks of the trees around them, and almost human in appearance.

As I get closer, their demon details reveal themselves: snubbed leopard ears, athletic haunches, long tails flicking from side to side, sheathed in the same beige-black spotted fur that covers the rest of their bodies. Green eyes glint from dark-rimmed lids. Their round faces are so similar it’s hard to tell them apart at a glance. One of the two sets of eyes is soft and kind. Nitta. The other pair—her brother Bo’s—dances with amusement. Nitta rushes to me with a relieved cry, brushing the wet straggles of hair back from my brow. “Thank Samsi! We were scared for a moment we’d lost you. Sorry, Lei, we’re moving too fast. We were trying to go slowly, but—” “Any slower, and we’d be traveling back in time,” Bo quips.

“You Papers,” he adds with an impatient cluck, scratching the underside of his chin as he regards me down the length of his flat, feline nose. Nitta shoots him a frown. “Bo.” “What? Anybody born without built-in weather protection is missing out, I say.” “Maybe we should turn back.” Snowflakes dust Nitta’s spotted fur, and she brushes a hand over her brow absentmindedly, looking worried. “We haven’t found anything yet, and Lei looks frozen half to death. Merrin was right. This was a bad idea.” Bo rests a hand on his bony hip.

“You’re going to trust Feathers now? Come on, Sis, what does that bird-brain know?” “You’ll defy Merrin’s orders just to annoy him,” Nitta retorts. “Why else do you think I agreed to let Lei come along on our little hunting trip?” The leopard-boy grins. “No offense, little one,” he tells me, “but it wasn’t exactly for your expert tracking skills.” “A lot of good your tracking skills are doing us,” I point out. “Found anything yet, hmm?” While Bo cocks his head in amusement, I straighten, squaring my shoulders. I’m still barely half the height of the leopard siblings, but it makes me feel stronger all the same. “I asked you to let me come today because I’m sick of hiding away in that temple. It’s been more than two weeks now. If I have to spend another day listening to Hiro’s endless chanting and the rest of you sparring or talking war tactics while refusing to let me do anything, my brain will burst.” I reshuffle my scarf, bunch my gloved hands into fists.

“Now, can we please go catch something good to eat? I’m sick of roasted taro for every meal.” Nitta hesitates, but Bo tosses up his hands. “You know what? Princess is right. If I have to eat one more piece of taro I’m going to become a taro.” With a dramatic huff, he throws himself onto his back. Snowflakes rain down around him. “Look,” he croaks in mock-horror, blinking up at us from a distinctly Bo-shaped hole in the snow. “It’s already starting. I am one with the taro. And it feels… taro-ble.

” He flounces back up, coat covered in ice, and beams his wide, snaggle-toothed smile. “Get it? Taro-ble?” “Oh, Little Bro,” Nitta sighs. “Your jokes are just so taro-if ic.” All three of us laugh at this, the sound breaking the eerie quiet of the snow-draped forest, until a loud crack to our left cuts us off. We whip around, my heart lurching into my throat, only to see a pack of snow that had been balanced on a banyan’s branches crash to the floor with a heavy flumpf. Nitta and Bo straighten from the defensive stances they’d instinctively adopted. Bo snorts, releasing hold of the knife at his belt. “Scared of snow, Big Sis? Afraid it’ll turn your pretty hair wet and scraggly?” Nitta’s eyes slice his way. “Don’t think I didn’t see your reaction.” But there’s a touch of something cautious as she turns around, lifting her nose to test the air.

Her ears twitch, listening. Then she starts forward. “Come on,” she says. “Something’s definitely out there. And, Lei, stay close this time.” We continue into the swirling white. It’s all I can do to keep up with the siblings, their lithe Moon caste bodies slinking easily between columns of ice-wreathed trees. While Nitta and Bo carve the layers of snow cleanly with each neat lift of their lean leopard haunches, I slog clumsily through the thick drifts. The snowpack is as deep as my knees. Hidden tree roots tangle with my boots.

Every drag of frigid air cuts my throat, but despite the chill, sweat beads inside my coat and under the fur scarf wrapped around my neck. The demons don’t let up their pace. We stop only to take swigs of the water flask at Nitta’s waist or to check for signs of the animal she and Bo are tracking, the siblings dipping their heads together to discuss its markings in low voices. After one hour of focused trekking, Bo breaks the silence. “We’re closing in,” he announces, halfhidden by the sheets of driving white where he’s walking a couple of feet ahead. Nitta cants her nose higher. “You’re right. I’ve got something, too. Sharp, musky… what do you think it could be?” “Your delightful natural scent?” her brother suggests. Nitta rolls her eyes.

“See these?” she asks, pointing to a nearby tree. Bo and I move closer. Two deep grooves are etched into its bark, just below my head height. They look freshly made: only a light dusting of snow covers them. Bo traces the marks. “Could be a large mountain goat.” “Wait,” I say, backing up to take in the tree’s low, twisting branches. “This is a mango tree. A mango tree,” I repeat, awed. “Does it usually snow here? We can’t be that high up in the mountains if there are banyans and fruit trees.

” Neither of them shares my surprise. “The Sickness has caused all sorts of weird climate changes,” Nitta says with a shrug, then turns back to her brother, forehead wrinkled. “That would be one big goat. I’m thinking more along the lines of yak.” “Ugh, I hope not. Yak meat is gross.” “Do you want taro for dinner again?” “Better than yak butt.” Nitta peers ahead into the glittering drifts, her rounded ears twitching. Like her brother’s, her ears are peppered with studs and hoops in a variety of tarnished silvers and golds, and dim wintry light winks off them as she looks left and right. “This way,” she says, already moving.

Bo winks at me. “Ready to play your part in the hunt, Princess?” “What part is that?” “Bait,” he replies with a grin. I glower as he stalks off. It takes a few moments for a retort to come to me. I stomp through the snow, ready to deliver it—when a movement to my left snags my attention. I freeze. My heart beats loud in the hush of the ice-limned forest. The still, empty forest. Under my scarf, gooseflesh plucks at my skin. “Are you—are you sure there’s only one animal around?” I call ahead.

Nitta and Bo both spin around, silencing me with identical green-eyed glares. “We need to be quiet—” Nitta starts. There’s the sound of snow crunching. She whips back around, lowering into a defensive stance. Bo points into the swirls. Smoothly, he loosens his knife while Nitta swings her bow from her shoulder. She holds it out in front of her with her left hand, her right plucking an arrow from the quiver strapped to her back. In one swift movement, she fits the feather-tailed arrow in place and draws her right arm back to extend the bowstring, resting the tip of the arrow on her left knuckles. Lean muscles flex under her cotton shirt as she aims into the iced air, but Nitta doesn’t loose her arrow. Not yet.

Ears pricked, face focused, she slinks on between the trees. Bo crouches slightly as he moves after her, fingers clamped around his throwing knife. I fumble at my waist for my own knife with clumsy glove-clad hands. It’s a short, plain blade— one of the others’ spares. Gripping it tightly, I follow the siblings, doing my best to keep to the path they create with their precise steps. My skin prickles with unease. A few times I think I catch movement—not ahead where Nitta and Bo are advancing up the wintry slope, but at the corners of my vision. The shadowy shape of something large and… not human. But when I look, there’s nothing there. Only thick swirls of glittering flakes.

Wind-chill and billowing breaths and deep, blizzardmuffled silence. Nitta and Bo move faster now. Though I do my best to follow them, the gap between us begins to widen. Ahead, Nitta turns abruptly, leading us up a steep incline, the glimmer of a frozen waterfall to our right. My breath comes out in thick clouds as I try to keep up—and then my toes catch on a rocky outcrop beneath the drifts. With a yelp, I fall face-first into the snow. Clumps of ice latch to my skin, melt trickles down the sides of my scarf. Grimacing, I push myself to my knees, shaking the snow from my face and hair, when I sense movement behind me. A voice—light as a feather, yet deep, deep as gods’ bones and earthshakes—uncurls on the wind. I’ve found you.

Something cold trickles down my spine that has nothing to do with the snow. In an instant, his face comes to my mind. Grooved horns, etched with gold, tips as sharp as knife-points. A slim, handsome face, bovine features melded immaculately with human form. A smug, satisfied smile. And those eyes—irises such a clean, clear arctic blue I can recall the feel of them piercing me even now. More than two weeks on from that night, the very moment I drove a blade deep into his throat and cut the life free from him. The King. I’ve found you. Crouched in the snow, I swirl around with my knife brandished in trembling fingers, heart thumping against my ribcage.

But the forest is empty. The trees stand tall, silent sentinels armored in frost. Blood rushes in my ears. I look once more in all directions, shivers still rippling up my arms and the back of my neck. The voice had seemed so real. So close. When I get to my feet to carry on after Nitta and Bo, there’s no sign of them. I’m alone. Then my breath hitches. Because maybe I’m not.

Though I couldn’t have heard the King’s words, the feeling that someone’s watching us could be because we are being followed. Not by the ghost of the dead King, but by one of his soldiers or elite guards. That’s why Wren and the others haven’t let me out of the temple all this time. We know it’s only a matter of time until they find us, if they haven’t done so already. It’s been more than two weeks since the attack on the palace the night of the Moon Ball. Plenty of time for them to have tracked us down, even to our remote location here in the northern mountains. Plenty of time to wait outside the temple, where we’ve hidden ourselves with protective magic. To wait until we leave for our next location, or until I get stupid and reckless enough to disobey my orders to stay hidden. Exactly as I’ve done today. An alarm screeches to life in my head, at the same moment more movement—real, this time, paired with panting breaths and the crunch of breaking snow—comes from ahead, higher up the slope.

“Lei!” Nitta’s yell cuts through the blizzard, pitched in panic. “Run!” Just as a hulking shape leaps across my path and loosens a bone-shattering roar.

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