Above the Great Keep of Khir and the smoky bowl of its accreted city, tombs rose on mountainside terraces. Only the royal and Second Families had the right to cut their names into stone here, and this small stone pailai was one of the very oldest. Hard, small pinpoints about to become white or pink blossoms starred the branches of the ancient, twisted yeoyans; a young woman in blue, her black hair dressed simply but carefully with a single white-shell comb, stood before the newest marker. Incense smoked as she folded her hands for decorous prayer, a well-bred daughter performing a rare, unchaperoned duty.
Below, the melt had begun and thin droplets scattered from tiled roofs both scarlet and slate, from almost-budding branches. Here snow still lingered in corners and upon sheltered stones; winter-blasted grass slept underneath. No drip disturbed the silence of the ancestors.
A booted foot scraped stone. The girl’s head, bowed, did not move. There was only one person who would approach while she propitiated her ancestors, and she greeted him politely. “Your Highness.” But she did not raise her head.
“None of that, Yala.” The young man, his topknot caged and pierced with gold, wore ceremonial armor before the dead. His narrow-nosed face had paled, perhaps from the cold, and his gaze—grey as a winter sky, grey as any noble blood-pure Khir’s—lingered on her nape. As usual, he dispensed with pleasantries. “You do not have to go.”
Of course he would think so. Her chin dropped a little further. “If I do not, who will?” Other noble daughters, their fathers not so known for rectitude as the lord of Komori, were escaping the honor in droves.
“Others.” A contemptuous little word. “Servants. There is no shortage.”
Yala’s cloud-grey eyes opened. She said nothing, watching the gravestone as if she expected a shade to rise. Her offerings were made at her mother’s tomb already, but here was where she lingered. A simple stone marked the latest addition to the shades of her House—fine carving, but not ostentatious. The newly rich might display like fan-tailed baryo, but not those who had ridden to war with the Three Kings of the First Dynasty. Or so her father thought, though he did not say it.
A single tone, or glance, was enough to teach a lesson.
Ashani Daoyan, Crown Prince of Khir newly legitimized and battlefield-blooded, made a restless movement. Lean but broad-shouldered, with a slight roundness to his cheeks bespeaking his Narikh motherblood, he wore the imperial colors easily; a bastard son, like an unmarried aunt, learned to dress as the weather dictated. Leather creaked slightly, and his breath plumed in the chill. “If your brother were alive—”
“—I would be married to one of his friends, and perhaps widowed as well.” Now Komor Yala, the only surviving child of General Hai Komori Dasho, moved too, a slight swaying as if she wished to turn and halted just in time. “Please, Daoyan.” The habit of long friendship made it not only possible but necessary to address him so informally. “Not before my Elder Brother.”
“Yala…” Perhaps Dao’s half-armor, black chased with yellow, was not adequate for this particular encounter. The boy she had known, full of sparkstick pride and fierce silence when that pride was balked, had ridden to war; this young man returned in his place.
Did he regret being dragged from the field to preserve a dynasty while so many others stood and died honorably? She could not ask, merely suspect, so Yala shook her head. Her own words were white clouds, chosen carefully and given to the frigid morning. “Who will care for my princess, if I do not?”
“You cannot waste your life that way.” A slight sound—gauntlets creaking. Daoyan still clenched his fists. She should warn him against so open a display of emotion, but perhaps in a man it did not matter so much.
“And yet.” There is no other option, her tone replied, plainly. Not one I am willing to entertain. “I will take great care with your royal sister, Your Highness.”
Of course he could not leave the battlefield thus, a draw achieved but no victory in sight. “I will offer for you.”
“You already would have, if you thought your honored father would allow it.” She bowed, a graceful supple bending with her skirts brushing fresh-swept stone. “Please, Daoyan.” Her palms met, and her head dropped even further when she straightened, the attitude of a filial daughter from an illustration scroll.
Even a prince dared not interrupt prayers begun before a relative’s tomb. Daoyan turned, finally, boots ringing through thin snow to pavers she had not attended to with her small broom, and left the pailai with long, swinging strides.
Yala slipped her hands deeper inside her sleeves and regarded the memorial stone. Bai, of course, would have sniffed at the prospect of his little sister marrying a man with an honorless mother, no matter if he had proven himself in war and the Great Rider had legitimized him. Bai would also have forbidden her to accompany Mahara. He was not the clan head, but since he came of age their father had let him take heavier duties and listened to his counsel. Bai’s refusal would have carried weight, and Yala could have bowed her head to accept it instead of insisting on her duty as a noble daughter must before a distinguished parent.
Perhaps that would have been best. Was the cringing, creeping relief she would have felt cowardice? The other noble families were scurrying to keep their daughters from Mahara’s retinue, marriages contracted or health problems discovered with unseemly haste. The Great Rider, weakened as he was by the defeat at Three Rivers and the slow strangling of Khir’s southern trade, could not force noble daughters to accompany his own, he could only…request.
Other clans and families could treat it as a request, but Komori held to the ancient codes. It was a high honor to attend the princess of Khir, and Yala had done so since childhood. To cease in adversity was unworthy of a Komor daughter.
Burning incense sent lazy curls of scented smoke heavenward. If her brother was watching, he would have been fuming like the sticks themselves. A slow smolder and a hidden fire, that was Hai Komori Baiyan . She could only hope she was the same, and the conquering Zhaon would not smother her and her princess.
First things first. You are to pay your respects here, and then to comfort your father.
As if there could be any comfort to a Khir nobleman whose only son was dead. Hai Komori Dasho would be gladdened to be rid of a daughter and the need to find a dowry, that much was certain. Even if he was not, he would act as if he was, because that was the correct way to regard this situation.
The Komori, especially the clan heads, were known for their probity.
Her fingertips worried at her knuckles, and she sighed. “Oh, damoi, my much-blessed Bai,” she whispered. It was not quite meet to pronounce the name of the dead, but she could be forgiven a single use of such a precious item. “How I wish you were here.”
She bent before her brother’s grave one last time, and her fingers found a sharp-edged, triangular pebble among the flat pavers, blasted grass, and iron-cold dirt. They could not quite plow yet, but the monjok and yeoyan blossoms were out. Spring would come early this year, but she would not see the swallows returning. The care of the pailai would fall to more distant kin from a junior branch of the clan.
Yala tucked the pebble in a sleeve-pocket, carefully. She could wrap it with red silken thread, decorate a hairstick with falling beads, and wear a part of both Bai and her homeland daily. A small piece of grit in the conqueror’s court, hopefully accreting nacre instead of dishonor.
There were none left to care for her father in his aging. Perhaps he would marry again. If Bai were still alive…
“Stop,” she murmured, and since there were none to see her, Yala’s face could contort with grief. “He is not.”
Khir had ridden to face Zhaon’s great general at Three Rivers, and the eldest son of a proud Second Family would not be left behind. The battle had made Daoyan a hero and Bai a corpse, but it was useless to Khir. The conquerors had dictated their terms; war took its measure, reaping a rich harvest, and Zhaon was the scythe.
Khir would rise again, certainly, but not soon enough to save a pair of women. Even a cursory study of history showed that a farm could change hands, and he who reaped yesterday might be fertilizer for the next scythe-swinger. There was little comfort in the observation, even if it was meant to ease the pain of the defeated.
For the last time, Yala bowed before her brother’s stone. If she walked slowly upon her return, the evidence of tears would be erased by the time she reached the foot of the pailai’s smooth-worn stairs and the single maidservant waiting, holding her mistress’s horse and bundled against the cold as Yala disdained to be.
A noblewoman suffered ice without a murmur. Inside, and out.
Hai Komori’s blackened bulk rested within the walls of the Old City. It frowned in the old style, stone walls and sharply pitched slate-tiled roof; its great hall was high and gloomy. The longtable, crowded with retainers at dinners twice every tenday, was a blackened piece of old wood; it stood empty now, with the lord’s low chair on the dais watching its oiled, gleaming surface. Mirrorlight drifted, brought through holes in the roof and bounced between polished discs, crisscrossing the high space.
Dusty cloth rustled, standards taken in battle. There were many, and their sibilance was the song of a Second Family. The men rode to war, the women to hunt, and between them the whole world was ordered. Or so the classics, both the canonical Hundreds and supplements, said. Strong hunters made strong sons, and Yala had sometimes wondered why her mother, who could whisper a hawk out of the sky, had not given her father more than two. Bai the eldest was ash upon the wind and a name on a tablet, the second son had not even reached his naming-day.
And Komor Madwha, a daughter of the Jehng family and high in the regard of the Great Rider and her husband as well, died shortly after her only daughter’s birth.
Komori Dasho was here instead of in his study. Straight-backed, only few thin threads of frost woven into his topknot, a vigorous man almost into the status of elder sat upon the dais steps, gazing at the table and the great hearth. When a side-door opened and blue silk made its subtle sweet sound, he closed his eyes.
Yala, as ever, bowed properly to her father though he was not looking. “Your daughter greets you, pai.”
He acknowledged with a nod. She waited, her hands folded in her sleeves again, faintly uneasy. Her father was a tall man, his shoulders still hard from daily practice with sabre and spear; his face was pure Khir. Piercing grey eyes, straight black hair topknotted as a Second Dynasty lord’s, a narrow high prow of a nose, a thin mouth and bladed cheekbones harsh as the sword-mountains themselves. Age settled more firmly upon him with each passing winter, drawing skin tighter and bone-angles sharper. His house robe was spare and dark, subtly patterned but free of excessive ornamentation.
The very picture of a Khir noble, except he was not, as usual, straight as an iron reed on his low backless chair with the standard of their house—the setting sun and the komor flower—hung behind it.
Finally, he patted the stone step with his left hand. “Come, sit.” His intonation was informal, and that was another surprise.
Yala settled herself, carefully. With her dress arranged and her feet tucked to the side, she lowered her eyelids and waited.
Lord Komori did not care for idle chatter.
The great hall was different from this angle. The table was large as it had been when she was a child, and the cavernous fireplace looked ready to swallow an unwary passerby whole. The braziers were blackened spirit-kettles, their warmth barely touching winter’s lingering chill. Flagstones, swept and scrubbed even when winter meant the buckets formed ice that needed frequent breaking, stared blankly at the ceiling, polished by many feet. Yala stilled, a habit born of long practice in her father’s presence.
The mouse that moves is taken. Another proverb. The classics were stuffed to bursting with them.
As a child she had fidgeted and fluttered, Dowager Eun despairing of ever teaching her discretion. It was only in Yala’s twelfth spring the weight of decorum had begun to tell, and she had decided it was easier to flow with that pressure than stagger under it. Even Mahara had been surprised, and she, of all the world, perhaps knew Yala best.
After Bai, that was.
“Yala,” her father said, as if reminding himself who she was. That was hardly unusual. The sons stayed, the daughters left. An advantageous marriage was her duty to Komori. It was a pity there had been no offers. I wonder what is wrong with me, she had murmured to Mahara once.
I do not wish to share you with a husband, Mahara answered, when she could speak for laughing.
“Yes.” Simple, and soft, as a noblewoman should speak. She wished she was at her needlework, the satisfaction of a stitch pulled neatly and expertly making up for pricked fingers. Or in the mews, hawk-singing. Writing out one of the many classics once again, her brush held steady. Reading, or deciding once more what to pack and what to leave behind.
She wished, in fact, to be anywhere but here. After a visit to the ancestors, though, her presence at her father’s wrist was expected. Brought back to endure scrutiny like a hawk itself, a feather passed over her plumage, so as not to disturb the subtle oils thereupon.
“I have often thought you should have been born male.” Komori Dasho sighed, his shoulders dropping. The sudden change was startling, and disturbing. “You would have made a fine son.” Even if it was high praise, it still stung. A formulaic reply rose inside her, but he did not give her the chance to utter as much. “But if you were, you would have died on the that bloodfield as well, and I would have opened my veins at the news.”
Startled, Yala turned her head to gaze upon his profile. The room was not the only thing that looked different from this angle. The thunder-god of her childhood, straight and proud, sat beside her, staring at the table. And, terrifyingly, hot water had come to Komori Dasho’s eyes. It swelled, glittering, and anything she might have said vanished.
“My little light,” he continued. “Did you know? I named you thus, after your mother died. Not aloud, but here.” His thin, strong right fist, the greenstone seal-ring of a proud and ancient house glinting on his index finger, struck his chest. “I knew not to say such things, for the gods would be angry and steal you as they took her.”
Yala’s chest tightened. A Lord Komori severe in displeasure or stern with approval she could answer. Who was this?
Her father did not give her a chance to reply. “In the end it does not matter. The Great Rider has requested and we must answer; you will attend the princess in Zhaon.”
This much I knew already. The pebble in her sleeve-pocket pressed against her wrist. She realized she was not folding her hands but clutching them, knuckles probably white under smooth fabric. “Yes.” There. Was that an acceptable response?
He nodded, slowly. The frost in his hair had spread since news of Three Rivers; she had not noticed, before. This was the closest she had been to her father since…she could not remember the last time. She could not remember when he last spoke to her with the informal inflection or case, either. Yala searched for something else to say. “I will not shame our family, especially among them.”
“You.” He paused, straightened. “You have your yue?”
Of course I do. “It is the honor of a Khir woman,” she replied, as custom demanded. Was this a test? If so, would she pass? Familiar anxiety sharpened inside her ribs. “Does my father wish to examine its edge?” The blade was freshly honed; no speck of rust or whisper of disuse would be found on its slim greenmetal length.
“Ah. No, of course not.” His hands dangled at his knees, lax as they never had been in her memory. “Will you write to your father?”
“Of course.” As if she would dare not to. The stone under her was a cold, uncomfortable saddle, but she did not dare shift. “Every month.”
“Every week.” The swelling water in his eyes did not overflow. Yala looked away. It was uncomfortably akin to seeing a man outside the clan drunk, or at his dressing. “Will you?”
“Yes.” If you require it of me.
“I have kept you close all this time.” His fingers cured slightly, as if they wished for a hilt. “There were many marriage offers made for you, Yala. Since your naming day, you have been sought. I refused them all.” He sighed, heavily. “I could not let you go. Now, I am punished for it.”
She sat, stunned and silent, until her father, for the first and last time, put a lean-muscled, awkward arm about her shoulders. The embrace was brief and excruciating, and when it ended he rose and left the hall, iron-backed as ever, with his accustomed quiet step.
He is proud of you, she had often told Bai. He simply does not show it.
Perhaps it had not been a lie told to soothe her brother’s heart. And perhaps, just perhaps, she could believe it for herself.