I had three brothers once. Finlei was the oldest—the brave one. Nothing frightened him, not spiders or needles or a flogging from Baba’s cane. He was the quickest of us four children, fast enough to catch a fly with only his thumb and a thimble. But along with his dauntlessness came a craving for adventure. He despised having to work in our shop, having to spend the sun’s precious light sewing dresses and mending shirts. And he was careless with the needle, his fingers constantly bandaged from pricks and his work marred with uneven stitches. Stitches I would unpick and redo to save him from Baba’s lectures. Finlei didn’t have the patience to become a tailor like Baba. Sendo had patience, but not for sewing. My second brother was the poet in the family, and the only weaving he loved was of words, especially about the sea. He would tell stories about the beautiful garments Baba could sew, with such exquisite detail all the ladies in town clamored to buy them—only to find they didn’t exist. As punishment, Baba made him sit on the pier behind our shop, unraveling thread from silkworm cocoons. Often I stole out to sit with him, to listen to his tales of what lay beyond that never-ending horizon of water. “What color is the ocean?” Sendo would ask me.
“Blue, silly. What else?” “How will you be the best tailor in A’landi if you don’t know your colors?” Sendo shook his head and pointed at the water. “Look again. Look into the depths of it.” “Sapphire,” I said, studying the ocean’s gentle crests and troughs. The water sparkled. “Sapphire, like the stones Lady Tainak wears around her neck. But there’s a hint of green…jade green. And the foam curls up like pearls.” Sendo smiled.
“That’s better.” He wrapped an arm around my shoulders and hugged me close. “One day, we’ll sail the seas, you and I. And you’ll see the blue in all the world.” Because of Sendo, blue was my favorite color. It painted the white of my walls when I opened my window each morning and saw the sea glittering in the sunlight. Sapphire or cerulean. Azure. Indigo. Sendo trained my eyes to see the variations in color, to appreciate the dullest brown to the brightest pink.
How light could bend something into a thousand possibilities. Sendo’s heart was for the sea, not for becoming a tailor like Baba. Keton was my third brother, and the closest to me in age. His songs and jokes made everyone laugh, no matter what mood we were in. He always got in trouble for dyeing our silks green instead of purple, for carelessly stepping on newly pressed dresses with dirty sandals, for forgetting to water the mulberry trees, and for never spinning yarn fine enough for Baba to knit into a sweater. Money slipped through his fingers like water. But Baba loved him best—even though Keton didn’t have the discipline to become a tailor. Then there was me—Maia. The obedient daughter. My earliest memories were of sitting contentedly with Mama as she worked the spinning wheel, listening to Finlei, Sendo, and Keton playing outside while Baba taught me to roll Mama’s thread so it wouldn’t tangle.
My heart was for becoming a tailor: I learned to thread needles before I could walk, to make a line of perfect stitches before I could talk. I loved my needlework and was happy learning Baba’s trade instead of going out with my brothers. Besides, when Finlei taught me to spar and shoot arrows, I always missed the target. Even though I soaked up Sendo’s fairy tales and ghost stories, I could never tell one of my own. And I always fell for Keton’s pranks, no matter how often my older brothers warned me of them. Baba proudly told me I was born with a needle in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other. That if I hadn’t been born a girl, I might have become the greatest tailor in A’landi, sought after by merchants from one coast of the continent to the other. “A tailor’s worth is not measured by his fame, but by the happiness he brings,” Mama said, seeing how disappointed Baba’s words made me. “You will hold the seams of our family together, Maia. No other tailor in the world can do that.
” I remembered beaming at her. Back then, all I wanted was for my family to be happy and whole like this—always. But then Mama died, and everything changed. We had been living in Gangsun, a key city along the Great Spice Road, and our shop occupied an entire half block. Baba was a well-respected tailor, known throughout southern A’landi for his skill at dressmaking. But ill times fell upon us, my mother’s death opening the first crack in Baba’s strong will. He began to drink heavily—a way to drown his sorrows, he said. That didn’t last long —in his grief, Baba’s health deteriorated until he was unable to stomach any sort of spirits. He returned to his work at the shop, but he was never quite the same. Customers noticed the decline in quality of Baba’s sewing and mentioned it to my brothers.
Finlei and Sendo never told him; they didn’t have the heart. But a few years before the Five Winters’ War, when I was ten, Finlei convinced Baba to leave Gangsun and move into a shophouse in Port Kamalan, a small coastal town along the fringes of the Road. The fresh sea air would be good for Baba, he insisted. Our new home occupied the corner of Yanamer and Tongsa Streets, across from a shop that made hand-pulled noodles so long you could get full on just one, and a bakery that sold the best steamed buns and milk bread in the world—at least it tasted that way to my brothers and me when we were hungry, which we often were. But what I loved most was the beautiful view of the ocean. Sometimes while I watched the waves roll along the piers, I secretly prayed that the sea would mend Baba’s broken heart—the way it was slowly healing mine. Business was best in the summers and winters, when all the caravans traveling east and west on the Great Spice Road stopped in Port Kamalan to enjoy our temperate weather. My father’s little shop depended on a steady supply of indigo, saffron, ocher— colors for our dyes. It was a small town, so we not only tailored garments but also sold fabrics and threads. It had been a long time since Baba had crafted a gown worthy of a great lady, and when the war began, there was little business to be had anyway.
Misfortune followed us to our new home. Port Kamalan was far enough from the capital that I’d thought my brothers would never be drafted into the civil war that ravaged A’landi. But the hostilities between young Emperor Khanujin and the shansen, the country’s most powerful warlord, showed no signs of abating, and the emperor needed more men to fight in his army. Finlei and Sendo were of age, so they were conscripted first. I was young enough then that the idea of going to war was romantic to me. Having two brothers become soldiers felt honorable. The day before they left, I was outside, painting on a swath of white cotton. The peach blossoms lining Yanamer Street made me sneeze, and I splattered the last of Baba’s expensive indigo over my skirt. Finlei laughed at me and wiped drops of paint from my nose. “Don’t fret,” he said as I desperately tried to salvage as much of the paint as I could.
“It’s eighty jens an ounce! And who knows when the dye merchants will be back?” I muttered, still scrubbing at my skirt. “It’s getting too hot for them to cross the Road.” “Then I’ll get you some during my travels,” Finlei said. He tipped my chin toward him. “I’m going to see all of A’landi when I’m a soldier. Maybe I’ll come back as a general.” “I hope you won’t be away as long as that!” I exclaimed. Finlei’s face sobered. His eyes pooled black, and he pushed aside a wisp of my windtousled hair. “Take care of yourself, sister,” he said, his voice carrying both humor and sadness.
“Don’t work so hard you—” “Become the kite that never flies,” I finished for him. “I know.” Finlei touched my cheek. “Watch over Keton. Make sure he doesn’t get into trouble.” “Take care of Baba, too,” Sendo added, coming up behind me. He’d plucked a flower from the trees in front of our shop, and placed it above my ear. “And work on your calligraphy. I’ll be back soon to make sure your handwriting’s improved.” Sendo ruffled my hair.
“You’re the lady of the house now.” I bowed my head dutifully. “Yes, brothers.” “You make it sound like I’m useless,” Keton cut in. Baba was shouting at him to finish his chores, and he winced. A smile broke Finlei’s serious face. “Can you prove otherwise?” Keton put his hands on his hips, and we all laughed. “We’ll visit faraway places with the army,” Sendo said, his hand on my shoulder. “What can I bring back for you? Dyes from West Gangseng, maybe? Or pearls from the Majestic Harbor?” “No, no,” I said. “Just come home safely.
Both of you.” But then I paused. Sendo prodded me. “What is it, Maia?” My cheeks were hot, and I lowered my eyes to stare at my hands. “If you get to see Emperor Khanujin,” I began slowly, “draw his portrait, will you?” Finlei’s shoulders shook with mirth. “So you’ve heard how handsome he is from the village girls? Every one of them aspires to become one of the emperor’s concubines.” I was so embarrassed I couldn’t look at him. “I have no interest in becoming a concubine.” “You don’t want to live in one of his four palaces?” Keton asked snidely. “I heard he has one for every season.
” “Keton, that’s enough,” Sendo chided. “I don’t care about his palaces,” I said, turning away from my youngest brother to Sendo. His eyes shone with gentleness—he’d always been my favorite brother, and I knew he would understand. “I want to know what he looks like so I can become his tailor one day. An imperial tailor.” Keton rolled his eyes at my confession. “That’s as likely as you becoming his concubine!” Finlei and Sendo glared at him. “All right, then,” Sendo promised, touching the freckles on my cheek. We were the only two of the family with freckles—a result of our hours daydreaming under the sun. “A portrait of the emperor for my talented sister, Maia.
” I hugged him, knowing my request was very foolish but still hoping all the same. If I’d known it was the last time we would all be together, I wouldn’t have asked for anything. • • • Two years later, Baba received a notice that Finlei had been killed in battle. The imperial emblem stamped on the bottom of the letter was as red as freshly drawn blood, and hurriedly pressed so that the characters of Emperor Khanujin’s name were smeared. Even months later, the memory would make me cry. Then one night, with no warning, Keton ran away to join the army. All he left was a quickly scrawled note on top of my morning laundry—knowing it would be the first thing I saw when I woke. I’ve been useless too long. I’m going to find Sendo and bring him home. Take care of Baba.
Tears filled my eyes, and I crumpled the note in my fist. What did he know about fighting? Like me, he was lean as a reed, barely strong enough to hold up against the wind. He couldn’t buy rice at the market without being swindled, and he always tried to talk his way out of a fight. How would he survive a war? I was angry, too—because I couldn’t go with him. If Keton thought he was useless, what was I? I couldn’t fight in the army. And for all the thousands of hours I spent creating new stitches and drawing designs to sell, I could never become a master tailor. I could never take over Baba’s shop. I was a girl. The best I could hope for was to marry well. Baba never spoke of Keton’s departure, would not speak of my youngest brother for months.
But I saw how his fingers became stiff as stones; they could not even stretch wide enough to hold a pair of shears. He spent his days staring at the ocean as I took over our faltering shop. It was up to me to drum up business, to make sure my brothers had a home to return to. No one had any need for silks and satins, not when our country was devouring itself from within. So I made hemp shirts for the local fishermen and linen dresses for their wives, and I spun flax into thread and mended soldiers’ coats when they passed by. The fishermen gave us fish heads and sacks of rice in return for my work, and it didn’t seem right to charge the soldiers. Toward the end of every month, I helped the women who were preparing their gifts for the dead—usually paper clothing, which was tricky to sew—to burn before the prayer shrines in honor of their ancestors. I stitched paper into the shoes of passing merchants and strings of coins into their belts to ward off pickpockets. I even repaired amulets for travelers who asked it of me, though I didn’t believe in magic. Not then.
On days when there was no business and our supplies of wheat and rice were running dangerously low, I took out my rattan basket and filled it with a few spools of thread, a bolt of muslin, and a needle. I roamed the streets, going from door to door, asking if anyone had mending to be done. But few ships docked at the port. Dust and shadows wreathed the empty streets. The lack of work didn’t bother me as much as the awkward encounters I’d begun to endure on my way home. I used to love going into the bakery across from our shop, but that changed during the war. For now when I returned to Yanamer Street, Calu the baker’s son would be there waiting for me. I didn’t like Calu. It wasn’t because he didn’t serve in the army—he hadn’t passed the imperial health examination, so he couldn’t. It was because as soon as I turned sixteen, he got it into his head that I was going to be his wife.
“I hate seeing you beg for work like this,” Calu told me one day. He waved me inside his father’s bakery. The fragrance from the breads and cakes wafted out the door, and my mouth watered at the smell of yeast, fermented rice flour, and roasted peanuts and sesame seeds. “It’s better than starving.” He wiped red-bean paste off his palm. Sweat from his temples dripped into the bowl of dough on his table. Normally it would have made me wrinkle my nose—if Calu’s father saw how sloppy he was, he’d have a scolding—but I was too hungry to care. “If you married me, you’d never starve.” His forwardness made me uncomfortable, and I thought with dread of Calu touching me, of bearing his children, of my embroidery frames collecting dust and my clothes growing sticky with sugar. I stifled a shudder.
“You would always have plenty to eat—your baba, too,” Calu tried again, licking his lips. He smiled, his teeth yellow as butter. “I know how much you love my father’s puff pastries, his steamed buns with lotus paste, his coconut buns.” My stomach grumbled, but I would not let my hunger overpower my heart. “Please stop asking. My answer isn’t going to change.” That made Calu angry. “Too good for me, are you?” “I have to run my father’s shop,” I said, trying to be gentle. “He needs me.” “A girl doesn’t run a shop,” he said, opening the steam basket to take out the latest batch of buns.
Usually he would give Baba and me a few, but I knew he wouldn’t today. “You might be a fine seamstress—the finest in the village—but with your brothers away fighting for the emperor, isn’t it time to be sensible and settle down?” He reached for my hand. His fingers were powdery and damp. “Think of your father’s health, Maia. You’re being selfish. You could give him a better life.” I jerked away, stung. “My father would never give up his shop.” Calu huffed. “He’ll have to, since you can’t keep it running by yourself.
You’ve gotten thin, Maia. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.” He sneered, my rejection making him cruel. “Give me a kiss, and I’ll throw you a bun.” I raised my chin. “I’m not a dog.” “Oh, now you’re too proud to beg, eh? You’ll let your father starve because you’re so high-and-mighty—” I was done listening. I fled the bakery and stormed across the street. My stomach growled again as I slammed Baba’s shop door behind me. The hardest part was that I knew I was being selfish.
I should marry Calu. But I wanted to save my family myself— like Mama said I would. I crumpled against the door of our shophouse. What if I couldn’t? Baba found me there, sobbing quietly. “What’s the matter, Maia?” I wiped my tears and stood. “Nothing, Baba.” “Did Calu ask you to marry him again?” “There’s no work,” I said, evading the question. “We—” “Calu is a good boy,” he said, “but he is just that—a boy. And he is not worthy of you.” He hovered over my embroidery frame, studying the dragon I’d been stitching.
It was difficult working on cotton, rather than silk, but I’d striven to get every detail: its carplike scales, sharp talons, and demon eyes. I could tell Baba was impressed. “You are meant for more, Maia.” I turned away. “How can I be? I’m not a man.” “If you were, you would have been sent to war. The gods are protecting you.” I didn’t believe him, but for his sake, I nodded and dried my tears. A few weeks before my eighteenth birthday, good news came: the emperor announced a truce with the shansen. The Five Winters’ War was over, at least for now.
But our joy at the news quickly turned to sorrow, for another notice arrived. One with a blood-red seal. Sendo had died fighting in the mountains, only two days before the truce. The news shattered Baba anew. He knelt before his altar for an entire night, cradling the shoes Mama had made for Finlei and Sendo when they were young. I didn’t pray with him. I was too angry. If only the gods could have watched over Sendo for two more days! Two more days. “At least the war didn’t take all my sons,” Baba said heavily, patting my shoulder. “We must stay strong for Keton.
” Yes, there was still Keton. My youngest brother returned home a month after the truce. He arrived in a wagon, legs stretched out as the wheels creaked over the dirt road. His hair had been cropped, and he’d lost so much weight I barely recognized him. But what startled me most were the ghosts in his eyes, the same eyes that had once sparkled with jokes and mischief. “Keton!” I shouted. I ran to him with open arms, tears of happiness streaming down my cheeks. Until I realized why he lay there, propped up against sacks of rice and flour. Grief swelled in my throat. My brother couldn’t walk.
I climbed onto the wagon and threw my arms around him. He embraced me, but the emptiness in his eyes was clear to see. The war had taken much from us. Too much. I’d thought I’d hardened my heart enough after Finlei’s death, then after Sendo’s—to be strong for Baba’s sake. But a part of me cracked that day Keton returned. I fled to my room and curled up against the wall. I sewed until my fingers bled, until the pain swallowed the sobs wracking me. But by the next morning, I had patched myself together. I needed to take care of Baba.
And now Keton, too. Five winters, and I had grown up without knowing it. I was as tall as Keton now, my hair straight and black like my mother’s. Other families with girls my age hired matchmakers to find them husbands. Mine would have too, had Mama been alive and Baba still a successful tailor. But those days were long past. When spring came, the emperor announced that he was to take the shansen’s daughter, Lady Sarnai, as his wife. A’landi’s bloodiest war would end with a wedding between Emperor Khanujin and his enemy’s daughter. Baba and I didn’t have the heart to celebrate. Still, it was good news.
Peace depended on harmony between the emperor and the shansen. I hoped a royal wedding would heal their rift—and bring more visitors traveling along the Great Spice Road. That day, I placed the largest order of silk we could afford. It was a risky purchase, but I hoped—we needed business to get better before winter came. My dream of becoming a tailor for the emperor had faded to a distant memory. Our only source of income now was my skill with the needle. I accepted that I was going to stay in Port Kamalan forever, resigned to my corner in Baba’s shop. I was wrong.