It’s been a while, Heartwood readers! I’m back with the next Zoya vignette, which is still about her mother. Or more accurately, it’s about a younger brother and an older sister. I’ve also begun the next proper arc, but I’m going to write the whole thing before deciding how to get it to you. Most likely, I’ll include it along with the Cloud Village arc in Volume 2 of the Heartwood Chronicles.
Spring was lengthening into summer the next time Jouhara saw Tobio. He stood in a courtyard, his hands behind his back, staring at a pool, his mind miles away. Jouhara, gliding down a long gallery surrounded by court ladies, paused. She made a brief gesture, a flick of her index finger, and one of the ladies detached herself from the group and went down the stairs to the courtyard and Tobio.
Jouhara leaned against the railing as Tobio walked up and bowed. Her ladies retreated in a rustle of silks and whispers, leaving them alone in a green-scented hush.
“Sister,” he greeted her. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
Jouhara inclined her head. “Indeed.” The match she had made for herself was not as brilliant as her first marriage, but she was satisfied. Her younger husband-to-be was heir to extensive domains. Moreover, he was besotted with her—she had seen to that—and pliable, without falling into dithering stupidity.
She was running out of time. The Dragon Lord favored her counsel and company above all his other children, but he was obsessed with his legacy. She had to have an acceptable child, a grandson, before he named his successor.
Pity the most unlikeable of her brothers were the ones who had bred the most children. And of course, she couldn’t count out Aika, that smooth-haired, smooth-tongued younger sister, who had maneuvered herself into a position of power in the family of their father’s most powerful vassal.
Jouhara’s marriage to Daiichi was to have been the counter-balance.
Little sister, if I discover that you had any hand in Daiichi’s assassination, I will ensure you pay dearly for it.
Tobio’s proper speeches trailed off. Jouhara gave him a gracious smile and straightened, preparing to depart. She had much to plan.
“Ah, sister…” Tobio wore the look of someone with something big to impart. Jouhara nodded, giving him permission to speak.
He blurted out, “The child. She is well.”
Lost in thoughts of treaties and ceremonies, it took Jouhara two eyeblinks to understand what he meant. She arched her eyebrows. “She still lives?”
Tobio nodded. “She survived the winter.” He paused, but Jouhara chose not to respond. “The High Priest—we—named her Alizoya.”
“An old-fashioned name,” Jouhara commented. “And not in the family line.”
“We thought it for the best.” He moistened his lower lip. “The Dragon Lord approved.”
“It has always been his favorite poem.” Jouhara cocked her head. “Well done, brother.”
His gaze was steady. “The heroine Alizoya always reminded me of you.”
“Me?” Jouhara allowed herself a light, incredulous laugh, though the comparison made her feel absurdly pleased.
“Yes.” He hesitated. “I saw you fight, that one time.”
“Only the one,” said Jouhara coolly.
“Will you visit her?” he asked in a rush. “The child Zoya.”
Jouhara was silent, measuring him unhurriedly with a look. It was the sort of expression that made sterner men than Tobio sweat. “If she lives till the age of seven,” she said, “then I will come see her.”
She swept on, turning over dowries and intrigue in her head. The little girl who was her daughter, the promise she had made, were soon banished, submerged under the weight of pressing matters.
How quickly five years pass, thought Tobio as he trudged up the steps, up into the musty dark, his way lit by sullen flames in widely-spaced lamps. We hold time like a fistful of sand; it slips through our fingers and before we know it, only a few grains remain.
His feet scraped against stone as he hauled his tired body up the stairs. His legs felt as heavy as his heart.
This was not the Dragon Court, nor one of the few abbeys still held by the priesthood, but an almost-forgotten northern holding of the Dragon Lord’s, a place so insignificant, it had been nothing but an item in a ledger for decades.
The Princess Jouhara had finally heeded Tobio’s plea to leave the Dragon Court, but he took no pleasure in her acquiescence.
Not now. Not like this.
A carpet of indeterminate murkiness stretched down the corridor at the top of the stairs. It felt cheap and threadbare under his feet. The few lights made little headway against the accumulated gloom of a century.
A woman waited for him outside Jouhara’s room. Emi, greyer and older now, but still faithful, still silent. She bowed low and opened the door. Its hinges were well-oiled, at least.
He stepped inside the room and waited for his eyes to adjust. Only one lamp burned on a small table beside the canopied bed, its curtains tied to the posts. The door swung shut behind him.
A rustle came from the bed. “Tobio?” Her voice was a ghost of its former self, a dry flutter, but it was still calm, still contained. It was still Jouhara.
“I’m here, sister.” Tobio hastened forward and took the hand held out to him. A large hand for a woman, with long fingers, but now her skin felt hot and papery, her bones fragile as a bird’s. The signet she wore on her ring finger felt too large, too loose. Darkness glinted in the heart of its great black stone.
Jouhara withdrew her hand, laid it back upon her chest. “Sit,” she said, and Tobio did so, dropping down on the stool placed beside the bed. The habit of deference to Jouhara was still strong, even after all these years, even after she had proved herself over and over to be only a mortal, as flawed as anyone else.
His adoration of her had been forged in one single instant, a strong and fierce thing that, though tempered over the years, had lost none of its intensity. A single instant in which a young woman in a kimono the color of a thunderstorm had become the savior of a bewildered ten-year-old, plucked out of his own home and deposited into the maw of the Dragon Court. Tobio had not known why imperial soldiers had fetched him from the farmhouse where he had lived all his life with his mother’s parents; why he had had to be a page in the Dragon Court; why he was singled out and sneered at and shoved from behind and tripped by malicious feet.
Back then, no one had told him who his father was. Back then, the Dragon Lord had not owned him, so the thing remained a rumor, a secret undercurrent, something that many guessed but none dared say out loud. Tobio had not proved himself worthy of being owned, a pudgy unprepossessing boy who often ended up with his face in the muck of one courtyard or another.
That was how Jouhara found him one autumn day, snuffling under a leaden sky.
The first he knew of her was the sound of her voice, cool and deep as a well, saying, “Little boy. Little boy, look at me.”
And look he did, raising a face streaked with tears and mud. He beheld her clothes—white swallows against bluish grey—and her proud, moon-pale face, with dark eyes that bored into his very soul.
And though he had never seen her before, he knew right then who spoke to him, and the breath caught in his throat.
The Iron Lily.
“Little boy,” she said again, “why do you lie in the mud?”
Shame spread across his skin and he shriveled away from it, as if he could crawl away from his own body, his own self. But her look pinned him to the spot, forced him to acknowledge who he was.
“I was hit and I fell,” he said, “and I did not get up again.”
“Because I am weak.” He flung the words at his own self, but his self-loathing was a useless thing that scraped lemon-sour against his soul, then slid off to lie in the mud, stuck, useless.
“You are weak,” said Princess Jouhara of the Dragon Court. “But you could be strong.”
Something flickered, flame-like, inside of him. A small stirring of hope. He scrambled up to his feet, his hands balled into fists, tautness straining his muscles. “How?” he demanded. “How?”
The Iron Lily reached out her hand. Her long white index finger touched his forehead, the base of his throat where his heartbeat pulsed, his chest right above his thumping heart. “Find your strength,” she said, “inside yourself. You know the first five ishara forms?” At his nod, she went on, “Practice them. Beat them into your muscles, brand them into your soul, until you can reach your centers of power as easily as you pick up a spoon.”
“And then what?” he demanded.
Her eyebrows arched. “And then you practice the next five. And the five after. Discipline your mind, your body, and your magic.”
A frisson ran through his soul, an electric hope.
“You can be strong,” she repeated, turning away. “The blood of dragons runs in your veins. Use it well.” The sun cracked open the clouds above, and light spilled into the courtyard with a glad, dazzling rush. Tobio squinted and shaded his eyes; when he had blinked away the blurring tears, the Iron Lily was gliding from the courtyard, back up to the high white galleries where only the nobles promenaded.
Tobio blinked again, and the burning memory faded from his mind. Now the Iron Lily lay in the shadows, propped up against the pillows, a sickly pallor on her face, her skin stretched tight against her bones, her dark, dark eyes sunken deep. Her bloodless lips stretched into a tight smile.
“You are shocked, Tobio. Am I no longer beautiful?”
“You could never lose your beauty,” he said, and he meant it. For despite everything, that spark of intelligence, resolve, ambition, still remained in her eyes. She was still Jouhara, and Jouhara was beautiful.
“Beauty fades.” She closed her eyes and drew in a breath, long, shuddering. Tobio could hear the ominous burbling in her fluid-filled lungs. His stomach clenched. “And so do health and power and everything else.”
Jouhara opened her eyes again. Something burned inside them. “The Dragon Lord has named an heir. Keishin has won.”
Tobio said nothing,
“While Takahito and Masaru and I spent our strength striving against each other, Keishin smiled his oily smiles and spoke butter-soft words and outlasted us all. That sniveling weasel.” Jouhara gave a small, bitter laugh that turned into a choking breath, then a coughing fit so violent that Tobio almost ran for Emi. Jouhara stayed him with a hand, and the coughing died away into a series of ragged breaths.
“Don’t talk,” said Tobio.
She lay back, exhausted, her eyes burning and hungry in her wasted face. “I must,” she whispered. “I must. Someone must know, someone must remember…” Her voice trailed away, her eyes stared beyond him.
Long moments passed. He prompted, gently, “Remember what?”
Her hand grasped his wrist, claw-like. “Keishin has lived in the shadows of his betters for too long. He is eaten up with envy, rotten inside. Now that he has the power he always wanted, it will go ill with Serepentina. Can you imagine the Dragon Court with him at its head?”
Tobio could, and shivered.
“I’ll be forgotten,” Jouhara went on in a harsh whisper. “I will make no mark upon history. I lost two husbands, one to assassination, the other to his own sword. What a foolish man, to be lured into a treasonous plot. He left himself no other honorable choice, save taking his own life.” Her grip loosened; Tobio took her hand in both of his. “I have no heirs, save…”
She turned her head on the pillow and Tobio followed her gaze to a long, narrow box on the end table.
“Lands and coin and jewels are all gone,” Jouhara said. “That is all that I saved from the jackals. Open it.”
Tobio took the box, one-handed and awkward, and slid open the lid. Inside lay a pair of lacquered hairsticks, enamelled lilies at the ends, and a pair of black diamond earrings.
“Daiichi gave me the hairsticks when I was with child. You gave me the earrings when she was born. Now they must go to her. They are all I can give her.” Her voice was soft, her eyelids fluttered shut. Her hand in his felt light, insubstantial. “It is I, not she, who will not live… to see… her seventh birthday.”
His eyes were wet. “I will tell her all about you. About her mother, Prince Jouhara of the Dragon Court, the Iron Lily. She will know who you were.”
Her lips twitched. Tobio leaned forward, straining to make out words.
He heard none. Her lips did not move again, her breathing grew shallow and irregular. And finally in the dim reaches of the night, she took a breath and then did not take one again. Her hand lay limp and lifeless.
Tobio held it for a while longer, a cold heaviness falling upon him. He had hoped—prayed—that she would be queen, stern but fair. Without her, the rot at the heart of the Dragon Court would spread unchecked. Now they he must find another way to save the Serepentine Isles.
He placed her hand gently on her chest, stood up, and kissed Jouhara’s cheek.
“You’ll be remembered, sister. You’ll make your mark upon history,” he said, “as the mother of Alizoya, the greatest mage our Isles have ever seen.”