Here’s the first of the vignettes from the life of Master Zoya, whose story was a precursor to the Heartwood Chronicles. This takes place in Serepentina and is more of a character study of her mother, Princess Jouhara. I liked writing her, but she’s not someone I would want to be acquainted with in real life!
Princess Jouhara of Serepentina sat in front of her mirror and examined the proud, pale face reflected in it.
Skillfully applied powder hid signs of fatigue—the shadows under her eyes, the lines around her mouth. A touch of red brightened her thin, nearly bloodless lips. Her shining dark hair was coiled in a complicated knot, the enameled white lily of her lacquered black hairstick starling against it. Her thin eyebrows arched skeptically. Long lashes framed her dark, dangerous eyes.
She was the most beautiful and most powerful woman in the Dragon Court.
She would make that known tonight.
Curse Daiichi, she thought. Curse him for allowing himself to be killed. No emotion, however, was allowed to disturb the tranquility of the madeup face in the mirror. Jouhara turned a long metal pin over and over in her strong white fingers.
A hunting accident, they had told her, false sympathy on their faces.
She knew better. Someone at the court had arranged for her husband to be killed, timing the strike for when Jouhara was at her most vulnerable, unable to extract swift revenge.
And now her schemes had fallen apart. The marriage that had meant to cement her position had abruptly ended, had come to nothing after all.
The pin snapped in her fingers. Jouhara brushed the pieces off her kimono, and they tinkled to the floor.
She would have to start all over again. She could not afford to waste a single opportunity. It was the time of the Maple Leaf, the season of the Lantern Festival. Nobles and dignitaries from all over the empire came bearing tribute and taxes.
She had to salvage what she could from the collapse of her plans.
Jouhara rose to her feet in a whisper of expensive fabric. The stiff silk of her kimono was a pale silver, embossed with white flowers. She was ebony and ice, night and moon. She would stand out amongst the bright colors and fussy decorations of the other women, draw all eyes to her.
They would see that Princess Jouhara, oldest daughter of the Dragon Lord, was still a force to be reckoned with.
Artifice and skill had restored to her face what the past two weeks had taken away. But they could not take away the discomfort of her swollen breasts, the ache between her legs, the soft flabbiness of her belly. Those were to be endured, and disguised by cunningly tailored clothing.
There was a soft knock at the door. Jouhara turned her head. “Enter.”
The door opened. Emi slipped in and sank to her knees, her head bowed, her right hand upon her heart, the lily brand that marked her as Jouhara’s on the back of it.
“Speak,” said Jouhara.
“Your brother, Lord Tobio, wishes to pay his respects. He waits your pleasure in the antechamber.”
“You may bring him into the inner drawing room. I will see him there.”
“Yes, my lady,” murmured Emi.
There was something else. Jouhara could tell from the slight rise of the woman’s shoulder. Plain, colorless, and discreet, Emi made the perfect servant, but her mistress had known her for a long time. “What other news?”
“Lord Tobio came to the capital in the train of the High Priest of the Warrior Aspect, my lady. The High Priest has been granted an audience with the Dragon Lord; they meet this evening.”
“Indeed.” Behind her mask, behind the bored coolness of her tone, Jouhara’s thoughts spun. The monks and nuns of the Warrior Aspect had kept aloof from the court as long as she could remember. Their holdings, their monasteries and abbeys, farms and fisheries and timberlands, were exempt from taxation—much to the chagrin of the princelings and lords of the court.
Why would the High Priest come to court at a time like this? Could it be…?
“You may leave now, Emi. Serve Lord Tobio the ruby Kaidan wine. We might as well use it for something.”
Jouhara lingered in her chamber for some time after Emi left, thinking. Tobio was her favorite brother, but it wouldn’t do to let him presume on their relationship. He was only a bastard son.
Emi waited beside the door to the drawing room when Jouhara appeared and silently slid aside the panel. Jouhara sailed inside, armored in reserve and strength, ignoring the sudden stab of pain in her belly. It still hurt to walk, sometimes.
No one must be allowed to notice it.
Tobio turned away from a brush painting in blue and smoky grey, a new acquisition since his last visit. “Sister.” He came forward, hands outstretched.
“Tobio.” She allowed him to take her hand gingerly in his. It amused her to see him handle it so carefully, as if it were made of the thinnest glass.
“You are well?” Tobio looked into her face, his own scrunched into a worried frown. He was shorter than she was, homely and plumpish. He must’ve inherited his physique from his mother, a woman, Jouhara had been told, who’d been more comfortable than beautiful. The dalliance was considered a mistake on the Dragon Lord’s part, though no one had ever dared say that out loud in front of his daughter.
“Of course.” Jouhara withdrew her hand. “Better than you, in fact.” Tiredness ringed his eyes, stubble covered his cheeks and chin. He had known better than to present himself in travel-stained clothes though; Jouhara approved of the sober-hued material of his tunic and trousers, well-made, good quality, unassuming.
Tobio knew his place. She liked that about him. Liked having someone whom she could relax around.
Not completely, though.
She sank down upon an upholstered couch, its curved legs and back stained black and polished to a high shine. Even the upholstery was a rich ebony, embossed black lilies on a black background, shot through with traces of silver. Tobio remained standing until she waved him to a spindly straight-backed chair. The couch was the only remotely comfortable piece of furniture in the room.
Jouhara did not permit others to get too comfortable in her presence. She liked her visitors a little off balance, a little on edge.
“It has been a while since you were last at court, little brother.”
Tobio tugged at his collar, clearly embarrassed. Well, given the circumstances of his last visit, he would be. Jouhara watched him fidget with faint amusement and fondness. Poor Tobio had never learned to hide his truest feelings.
That was the price he paid for having a sheltered upbringing. Jouhara and her other brothers and sisters had never had one. They were stronger for it.
“I should’ve come earlier,” Tobio said abruptly. “I had hoped I would come at a happier time, but instead I find you in autumn—sorrow and joy intermingled. My condolences on the loss of your husband, sister.” His expression was sincere and earnest.
Jouhara waved a languid hand. “Daiichi let his guard down. Don’t repine too long, little brother. The Dragon Court does not allow anyone much time to grieve.”
“But still—” Tobio caught himself and chewed his lower lip. It was a bad habit he’d been allowed to have too long as a child. Jouhara would have trained him out of it had she had the raising of him. With nine years separating them, it might’ve been possible if he had lived at court and shared a mother with her.
Tobio shook his head. “I came expecting only to partake in your joy. It might be in bad taste now, but…” Again, he hesitated.
Jouhara took pity on him. “Whatever you bring, it will be welcome to me.” She allowed herself a smile, a dip of her head, the lowering of her darkened lashes.
“Then…” Tobio rose, bowed, and proffered her a box in the same lacquered black wood as her furniture. There was something endearingly clumsy about the gesture, and Jouhara knew her expression was softer than necessary as she smiled her thanks and opened the gift.
Her eyebrows lifted as she took in a pair of long earrings set with black diamonds. A tasteful, expensive gift, befitting a princess. So Tobio had learned this much, though jewelry was more the present of a husband or lover than a brother. But Daiichi had gotten himself killed, and it would be good for the court to see her accepting gifts again. The black diamonds would do very well at certain upcoming events.
“My thanks, brother,” she said. “Your gift pleases me greatly.”
“I have something for the little one also.” Tobio produced a light wooden box this time, longer than it was wide, made of a light wood. Its top was painted with flowers, splashes of primary blue, red, and yellow, gaudy and garish. It looked ridiculously out of place in this chamber of night and steel, on her snow-white lap.
Jouhara watched her own hands, the fingernails painted scarlet, slide open the inner drawer. Nestled inside it was a wooden rattle. It clattered faintly as she picked it up, a small thing with a wooden handle that fit completely on her hand. She realized she was frowning; she smoothed her brow.
No one should see anything she didn’t want to convey.
Tobio watched her anxiously. “Does this also please you, sister?”
Jouhara exhaled softly. “It is charming. A good funeral gift for an infant. It will add the right note.”
Tobio’s eyes were shadowed. “So, it is true, what they say? I had hoped that the rumors were exaggerated.”
Jouhara dropped the rattle into her lap. “They are true. The child was born with a weak body, unable to bear her own magic. It is devouring her now, soon it will devour her completely.” No tremble broke her well-modulated tone; Daiichi’s daughter, like himself, was a disappointment.
“Can anything be done?” Tobio asked.
Jouhara lifted a shoulder in a slight shrug. “Perhaps. But she would likely remain of weak body, perhaps of weak mind. It is no kindness to let such a child live.”
“You are harsh, sister,” Tobio murmured.
“I live in a harsh world,” Jouhara reminded him. “As do all of us who are sons and daughters of the Dragon Court. Instead of worrying about a dying infant, you would do well to watch your own back, brother.”
Her warning went unheeded. Tobio perched at the edge of his chair, clasping and unclasping his hands. Jouhara watched him, unmoving. He would unburden himself to her soon enough. Silence was a potent weapon.
“Then let the Warrior have her,” Tobio burst out. “Let the priests and nuns of the Warrior have the child. Let them—”
A metallic shing and the room darkened. Hundreds, no thousands, of steel needles leapt from behind frames, under furniture, from the ceiling. A swarm of them, long, narrow, blind and pitiless, bound to their mistress, pointed at Tobio’s heart, his eyes, his ears.
Jouhara sat unmoving at the heart of her flock. With one twitch of her finger, she could end Tobio’s life—either swiftly or lingeringly, as she desired. She knew it, and he did, too.
“Are you, Tobio,” she said softly, “playing at politics? Using my daughter as a bargaining tool?” At the back of her mind, something darkly bitter-amused stirred. She’d harangued Tobio for years about his careless attitude. Why shouldn’t he finally heed her lessons and turn on her? Shifting loyalties were nothing new in the Dragon Court.
Tobio held himself rigid, trying not to look at the needles poised mere inches from his eyeballs. “No,” he said. “I have no desire to involve myself any further with the Dragon Court. If not for you, I would retire from it forever.” The vehemence in his voice sounded real enough, but…
“The High Priest. You brought him here. What did you promise him, Tobio?”
“I promised nothing that was not mine to give.” Perspiration beaded his forehead, but he held himself straight and looked at her directly. Fearlessly. “I promised only a possibility and my support.”
“Support for what?”
“The revival of the compact between the court and the priesthood. The giving of a royal child to be raised up in the Warrior’s service.”
Jouhara’s eyebrows arched. “That archaic custom? Why does the High Priest want a child now?” The rift between the royal family and the priesthood had occurred a century ago when the balance of power tilted towards the Dragon Court. That had been inevitable, as her ancestors had had the patience and foresight to gather great magical ability into the royal line. Jouhara approved. Power was everything, and nothing was more powerful than magic.
Giving away a child of magical heritage—no matter how sickly—was unheard of.
“Perhaps to bridge the gap between court and monastery.” Tobio hesitated and said, with awkward gentleness, “There are other ways of life out there, sister. Other ways to live than the machinations of the Dragon Court.”
“Those other ways are at the mercy of the strong,” said Jouhara dismissively. “They exist only as long as the powerful suffer them to.” But her mind was racing. If she could turn this sudden sentimentality of the High Priest’s into an advantage…
“What does the High Priest offer in exchange for the privilege of raising a royal child?”
“The taxes on the Yoiji holdings, to be given to you, as the mother losing her child.”
Jouhara tapped the arm of the sofa with one long finger, thinking. The Yoiji holdings were some of the richest territories of the Isles. She would have to gift part of the tribute to the royal treasury, but even with what was left over, she’d have the means to finance her next scheme. It would give her greater freedom, greater flexibility, and dispose her father to look upon her more favorably.
Tobio gazed at her steadily. “There is a place for you at the monastery, too, if you choose it.”
Jouhara flicked her fingers, and her swarm of needles withdrew to their hiding places. “Bury myself in stone and prayer? Is that how you see me, Tobio?” She permitted herself a smile, a mocking twist of her lips.
A long pause. Then Tobio shook his head and dropped his gaze. “No.”
“I want the taxes on Yoiji for sixteen years, even if the child dies.” Jouhara raised her index finger. “A guaranteed annual income based on the average revenue of the past five years. I will not agree to anything less than that. Is the High Priest prepared to meet such terms?”
“I told him you would drive a hard bargain.”
“Our father’s approval is necessary,” said Jouhara bluntly. “The Dragon Lord is loath to give away even a wastling. I have precious little favor with him, and if you wish me to burn it on your behalf, you must pay for the privilege.”
“We understand.” Tobio inclined his head. “Thank you, sister.”
Jouhara made a shooing motion. “Now go. I must think and prepare our approach.”
She met with Tobio again the next day, tired but triumphant. “It is done. The Dragon Lord has given his permission.”
Tobio stood just within the doorway, clad in traveling clothes. The scent of cha-smoke clung to him. “Yes. We leave within the hour.”
Jouhara glanced at the window, at a sky the color of living steel, blue-grey with flashes of sunlight gold. “A storm comes. Travel safe.”
Tobio hesitated. “Will you not come up to the nursery? To say farewell.”
Jouhara leaned her head against her hand. It felt heavy, and the pins that held her hair in place seemed to have found every tender spot on her scalp. “I am not sentimental. You know this.”
“So I do.” He turned to go.
He looked back.
“Don’t get attached,” she warned. “The child will not live long. She has not even the strength to cry.”
He bowed, but said nothing. It was no use him saying anything. They both knew that Jouhara’s words would change nothing.
Tobio’s heart was too tender. He couldn’t help getting attached.
Jouhara sat in silence for a long time after he left, staring at the wall. Plans and schemes swirled in her mind, but she could grasp none of them.
After a while, she realized that she was gripping the wooden rattle that was to have been a funerary gift for that frail, waxen infant who was her daughter. Jouhara lifted it absently and gave it a shake.
A faint clatter stirred the air, was quickly swallowed up by steel and silence, ghost white walls and polished black furnishings. Like the child who had come and gone from her life, it disturbed Jouhara’s life only briefly.
She placed the rattle carefully upon the table. The quiet, efficient Emi would deal with it.
The next time she entered the room, it would be gone.