The Will of the Empress Excerpt
3–5, 6–8, 9–12
A young man five feet nine inches tall walked through the slums beyond the East Gate, leading a pack-laden donkey. Atop his more usual burdens the donkey carried boxes with an assortment of shakkans, or miniature trees. The young man was a handsome fellow with bronze skin, broad shoulders, and glossy black hair that he wore cropped an inch long. His eyes were gray-green, turning darker green as he returned the admiring glances of the women who passed him by. Those eyes were set over a thin blade of a nose, a sensitive mouth, and a firm chin. He wore a Yanjing-style round-collared coat and leggings in tree green, and rough leather boots with fleece linings. A closer examination revealed what looked like flower tattoos covering his hands, while very close examination showed that the flowers lay under the young man’s skin and nails. They also moved, grew, put out leaves, and blossomed.
Tris immediately changed course. If she hurried, she could have a batch of Briar’s favorite spice cookies in the oven when he reached the house.
That night Tris set the dining room table for four. Daja walked in as Tris laid out plates of olives and warm, fresh bread.
“What, no wine?” asked Daja. She was still wet from scrubbing her face and hands after a day at the forge. She carried the tang of hot metal around her like perfume.
Tris raised nearly invisible eyebrows. In here, with more control and fewer drafts, she wore her clear spectacles. “You drink it?” she asked, skeptical. “You never did before.”
Daja shrugged. “I just thought, you being all fancy with fresh bread…” She peered inside one pitcher, nodded, and poured out cider for herself. “No, you know wine meddles with my magic. But maybe Briar can drink it.”
“Maybe this runs backwards,” Tris called over her shoulder as she went back into the kitchen. With practiced skill she collected the roasted chicken stuffed with dried fruits, a plate of cheese pastries shaped like small pots, and a bowl of leeks cooked with eggs. The foods had all been among Briar’s favorite when the four had lived at Discipline.
It seemed Daja had remembered Briar’s fondness for pomegranate juice, since she had filled his cup with that.
“Hakkoi pound it, do you want us to roll away from the table?” she asked, amused, as Tris set down the food.
Tris scowled at her. “He’s too skinny, if you didn’t notice,” she said tartly. “What was he eating all this time, leaves?”
“No, there were some grubs, too.” Briar leaned against the door, watching Tris. “Daj’, what, you’re too cheap to hire a cook?”
Tris stuck her tongue out at him — as if she would let a hired cook fix his favorite dishes! — and returned to the kitchen. Going to answer a knock on the door she heard Daja say, “My cook left three days after Tris moved in. I have a kitchen maid who helps during the day, and I’ll need to hire a second housemaid. Whom you’re under strict orders not to frighten,” she called after Tris.
“Not if she does the work right,” muttered Tris. She opened the kitchen door to find Sandry, wrapped in an oiled cloak against icy rain. “Why couldn’t you come in the front like a civilized person?” Tris asked as she let the other girl in. “And wipe you feet. Don’t tell me you walked from Duke’s Citadel.”
“No, but your manservant’s showing my guards where to stable the horses, and this was easier,” Sandry replied quietly. She let Tris take her cloak and hat. “Is he here? I thought so, but he’s closing me out, just like you and Daja.”
“And you’re wide open, are you?” Tris asked, hanging the dripping clothes on pegs. “Yes, he’s here. And my supper is getting cold.”
Sandry turned up her small nose and sniffed the air. “I smell fresh bread,” she said happily. “Have you headache tea? I’ve been reading dull old reports from Namorn all day.”
“I’ll make you a cup. Go say hello to him,” Tris urged.
“How could you be doing reports? No mail comes from Namorn this time of year.”
“Uncle suggested it. He thinks it’s wise to do a review of the last three or four years all at once, to see what’s changed. I know he’s right, it’s just so tedious.”
“I thought it was you,” said Daja from the doorway.
“Didn’t you come here to say hello to our boy, not talk about reports?”
Sandry looked past her and saw Briar. “Oh, you’re so thin,” she said mournfully, and walked past Daja with her arms held out.
Tris poured the tea water, noticing that her hand on the grip of the pot trembled. It’s all wrong, she told herself. We should be in Discipline, with the kitchen and the table all in one room, and Lark and Rosethorn…Stop it! She ordered herself tartly. She put down the teapot and slid her fingers behind her spectacles to wipe away tears. When she could see again, Daja had taken charge of the teapot.
“This change,” Daja said softly. “We change with them. We sail before the wind. We become adults. As adults, we keep our minds and our secrets hidden, and our wounds. It’s safer.