The Girl King – Mimi Yu

It was well before dawn when the Ana and Aba stirred the priestess from her bed. Had she been anyone else she might have been deep in slumber. As it was, she did not sleep much, and though she’d been still and supine, her eyes had been open. Gods did not bother with words, but they had their own language. When she felt em surge like lifeblood through the stone walls and floors of the temple, she knew, and she rose. e priestess was unsurprised to find her brothers waiting for her in the sanctum. e city’s borders fell under Jin’s purview as the Steel Star; he would have felt the disturbance at the gate in his blood, like the first distant rumble of thunder before a summer storm. As for Shen, little that happened in Yunis ever escaped his attention. The men sat on their crystalline thrones before the fire. Shen was already staring into it, his face stern and tense. Jin stifled a yawn; soft and rumpled with sleep, he looked half a boy. He’d been young, no more than twenty, when the city fell and they’d been forced to flee into the Inbetween. Time flowed strange and uneven here. It had been seventeen years since, but he hadn’t aged a day. None of them had.

“It’s the lake gate again, ” Jin said, as though she didn’t already know. “What do you suppose it is this time? Another deer? Maybe a mouse?” His tone was wry, but there was an eagerness beneath it he couldn’t quite hide. It was his duty to oversee their army, but here that left him with little to do. A threat at the gates would give him purpose, at least. “We should go in person, ” Jin continued. “Why waste Vrea’s energy with a spirit projection? Let’s just saddle up some elk—” “It’s nighttime, ” Shen said shortly. “—and grab some lanterns, ” Jin added, undeterred. “Last time I let you patrol the border in person, you went Below and were seen!” Shen snapped. Jin’s smile faltered. “That was an accident, I told you.

” “Seventeen years we’ve kept ourselves hidden, and you spoil it all on a lark.” Shen was always grumpiest at night; Vrea would never say it to his face but she found it endearing. A rare lingering human quality in their stoic elder brother. “You’d better hope this disturbance tonight doesn’t have anything to do with your little ‘accident.’” “I don’t hope for anything anymore, ” Jin shot back. Maybe because he’d been so young when they left, it sometimes seemed Jin was still one foot in that place. Or perhaps it wasn’t a foot Vrea was thinking of—something more vital, a mind, a heart. “Let’s go, then, ” Shen said as Vrea took her seat. “Whatever is at the gate, I’d like to deal with it before morning.” “Yes, let’s not keep those deer waiting, ” Jin quipped, but his good humor was worn thin.

He sat forward, brow creasing in concentration. A sweet, hapless simulacrum of his older brother. Vrea held out her hands. e men took them. Shen’s grasp was perfunctory, Jin’s warm and affectionate, like that of a trusting child. e priestess closed her eyes to the violet-black flames. en she willed the three of them out and away. ey lifted from their bodies, light as a cool summer wind in the Below. When she opened her eyes again they stood, the three of them, at the edge of the lake. It was lit silver-pale by a young moon and permanently fringed with dense gray fog—a by-product of the high concentration of feral magic around the gate.

Tonight though, the fog was thicker than usual, swirling on the wind like it were agitated. Whatever was at the gate, it may not just be deer, after all. Something was off. e spirits were riled. “Is everyone accounted for?” she asked. Her brothers stood on either side, translucent but stable. ey clung to her hands carefully—releasing their grip would break the projection, pulling them back into the sanctum where their bodies rested in wait. “Come on, ” Shen said. “We’re not far.” ey drifted through the fog.

ey could scarcely see arm’s distance before them, and so hugged the edge of the lake to keep their bearings. An unnecessary precaution; as they neared, Vrea could feel the gate thrumming, calling her forth. Still, it would have been easy enough for the naked eye to miss. e fog thinned out and there it was: just an odd blur, like haze off rocks on a hot day. An aberration in the air, shiny as new scar tissue, in the shape of a door. ere were no obvious landmarks, no signifiers, no adornments. That would have gone against their purposes. Vrea turned toward the gate and whispered under her breath, stripping away the protective spells—just enough to peer through from their side. As she tugged free another layer, she felt Jin shift at her side, itching to reach for his sword. She needn’t remind him of the obvious: they weren’t there, not truly.

Whatever waited for them at the gate couldn’t hurt them, would not even be able to see them. But she could understand wanting the familiar security of holding a weapon. A final word off her tongue and another layer of magic dispersed. e gate opened out onto the opposite side of the lake in the Below. rough the haze of the remaining protective spells, the Triarch could see a shore no different from the one upon which they stood: water-slicked rocks, cold gray water, swathed in the pale eerie fog of feral magic. The only difference was the young man. He stood opposite them, dead center in the gate, like a false reflection in a mirror. He was tall and handsome, well dressed for the elements. His hand was outstretched toward them, and in it he held a gun. Vrea had a moment to marvel.

She’d seen guns once before, in a vision given to her by the Ana and Aba. It had been imperial soldiers then, clunky with unfamiliarity and hands more accustomed to crossbows. They were a new thing, even in the Below. is gun was smaller than those, more elegant, its dark wood handle inlaid with shiny bits of mother-of-pearl, and its user held it with cool certainty. He did something with a finger and a bit of metal clicked. Vrea followed the sound with her gaze— An explosion. Small but garish. She smelled burned steel and sulfur and sparkstone. at was to be expected. What was not was where the bullet went.

e seal of the gate should have kept all matter that belonged to the Below in the Below. e bullet from the gun should have shot out over the open water of their lake before slicing into its cold, swallowing depths. Instead, the bullet flew, fleet and dispassionate through the gate, into the Inbetween, and past Jin’s ear. Vrea’s body was miles away, safe in the sanctum. Even so, she felt her heart stop. Shen and Jin reached instinctively for their swords. “Wait! Don’t . !” she began, but it was too late. They released her hands. ey were gone before the warning even left her mouth, yanked back to the sanctum.

She felt the tug herself, but managed to hold on. Her grasp was weak, though, without the amplifying support of her brothers; she would be drawn back soon enough. Hang on, she told herself. Just a while longer. You have to figure out what just happened— “It worked!” screamed the young man in the Below. He was still holding the gun. “Did you see?” For a moment she thought he was mad, that he was speaking to himself. But then another man emerged out of the fog behind him. He was much older, slight. His head was shorn, just like hers.

A monk, then, though the dun brown of his robes did not resemble any order with which she was familiar. “I told you this was the gate, ” the possible monk said mildly. “Never mind that, ” the young man said, grinning. He had a beautiful smile, with straight, oddly even teeth. They looked like porcelain. “I can’t believe the bullet is passing through.” “Using that northern sparkstone from the mountains makes all the difference, ” the older man told him. “It’s just as I theorized. ere’s magic left in these mountains, even down here. Loose, in the water, in the rocks.

It seeks its source. And where it goes, we will follow.” e young man lifted the gun and shot again. e bullet flew past Vrea. She heard it skitter against the rocks behind her. “And where do you suppose it’s going?” the young man asked. He stepped closer to the gate, as though hoping to catch a glimpse. “What do you suppose is over there, on the other side?” he asked. “Power, ” said the monk, stepping in close behind him. “True power.

” “Next time, we need to try the cannon.” “We need more than a cannon. We need an army.” “In that case, ” the young man raised the gun again and aimed, “it is time I write to my aunt.” He shot. is time as the bullet flew by her, Vrea felt it. ere was something familiar in its core—some entrenched thread of feral magic. She reached out her energy and felt it tug at her currents, at the fibers of the spells wound about the gate. She looked up at the two men gazing through at her, oblivious to her presence. Only not.

e older one, the monk, looked at her, and for a moment, as she shook loose the reverberations of the strange bullet, he saw her. ere was comprehension on his face, and wonder, edged with hunger, avarice, jealousy. Want. Almost lustful. He saw her, and he knew what she was. She was reciting the spells of protection before it even occurred to her to act, swaddling the gate back up under spools of gathered magic. She tore it from the air, from the stones beneath her feet so quickly it sparked and smoked as she bound it. e faces of the two men warped and paled, then disappeared behind the shroud she wove. It took the last of her energy. She heaved out a final spell and collapsed onto the ground, felt the vague cold of the lake-smoothed stones beneath her.

“Vrea!” She opened her eyes. Shen was gazing down at her. For a moment he looked so aged, she thought he had adopted Jin’s slippery failing, his inability to stay in the moment, in his true body. But, no. It was merely concern that made his face so weary and drawn. “Are you all right?” Jin was on the floor beside her. “What happened?” Shen demanded, seizing her hands in his. “Who was the man with the gun?” She stood on shaking legs. Her body felt sullen and heavy and foreign, the way it always did after a sending. Warmth fell across her face and she looked up at the small windows at the top of the temple walls.

Each had become a muted square of cool gray light. e sun was starting to rise. Morning in the Inbetween. “What was it?” Shen pressed. “What did you see?” “Something new, ” she rasped. “And it saw me.”

.

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