by Laurie Tom
Laurie Tom writes fantasy and science fiction from the comfort of her childhood home. When not composing stories about things that don’t happen in real life, she enjoys video games and anime. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, and the Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk.
I realized that Heaven had a different fate in store for me when Imperial Father married off my younger sister while I was still unwed. The celebration was held at the Palace of the Tranquil Sea, where the waters of the southern ocean lapped at sandy beaches and the dragons could easily climb from the surf to give their blessings. Guests consumed meat and wine, and tried not to look my way, to look at Fourth Princess with only a guardian lion at her feet and attendants for company.
Sek-fung’s fur was not the coarse stone it appeared to be, though, and I rubbed her shoulders vigorously as an excuse to ignore the questioning glances that people gave when they thought I could not see. Stone lions did not judge and she did not know this celebration from another. She lay her head at my feet, bored.
“Don’t worry, Fourth Princess,” said Mung-laan, who had been my attendant since we were thirteen. “I am certain the Emperor is being particularly careful with your marriage.”
But even when we returned to the imperial palace, he did not speak of marriage, either to me or my mother. Imperial Father was old, and no matter how many concubines he took, had produced no children beyond the fifth princess, and no sons at all. Mother folded her hands confidently and told me to be sure to keep the Emperor’s favor. Though unlikely, it was not impossible to think that he would still manage a son, and that would ruin my chances. Mother was only an imperial concubine, but still she dared hope that one day she would be Empress Dowager regardless if her issue had been a girl instead of a boy.
It helped that I was born a geomancer and blessed by the Five Gods with command over the elements. Most emperors were geomancers. It was easier to claim the favor of Heaven that way.
But I was only sixteen and my situation could change, so I resolved only to be a dutiful daughter, come what may. As Emperor, my father had many things to consider. He made decisions like a farmer grows rice. My future was but one patch of the land he tended.
Since my younger sister’s marriage, Imperial Father bade me to sit whenever he spoke with his ministers. He showed me the petitions that came to the capital from across the Kwanese Empire and tested me on what I read, asked if I understood. Eunuch Lei told me in private that the Emperor had said I was the brightest of his daughters. Imperial Father said nothing to me himself.
When I was twenty, the eunuchs and maids bowed to me deeper than they had when Fifth Princess was still unwed, but sometimes I caught them unaware in the midst of gossip. The Emperor is still trying, they said, when they thought I could not hear. He must be very anxious. Maybe one of the new concubines will do better. But for now poor Princess Gwan-yu has to wait.
A proper emperor wants a son, a Crown Prince who will take his place as wongdai when his time is done. But if one isn’t born, the Emperor cannot be without an heir. He cannot marry off all his daughters where they will honor the ancestors of their husbands and leave no child for himself and his own.
Everyone in the palace knew why he could not arrange my marriage. He still hoped for a son, and so I would have to wait until he no longer wished to try. Sometimes I would hear of other daughters held back from marriage while their fathers tried for sons. Then when no son was born, their fathers would arrange for a groom to marry into their family. The groom’s children would bear his bride’s name so there would still be someone to continue the family line and honor the family’s ancestors.
But my father was the Emperor. A man with just a wife could only try for so long before his wife would leave her childbearing years. My father took new concubines every few years in hope of a son. I could wait a very long time.
I was twenty-two the first time I traveled to the northern territories. Every other year Imperial Father would take a retinue of courtiers with him to keep ties with our nomadic cousins, to camp in tents like our ancestors and remember what it was like before our armies swept through Kwan and made this country ours. They would be out there for weeks.
Imperial Father requested I accompany him. I would have to learn, just in case.
My days were spent sitting quietly behind a low-slung table in the largest tent, listening to Imperial Father praise the virtues of living on the steppes and hearing the Hangul clan leader compliment the skill and fortitude of my father’s servants. Though we slept in tents, we lay in beds with blankets and there was tea and sweet meats enough to last throughout our stay. The servants, long accustomed to such biennial sojourns, had prepared well.
Our only cause for worry came the time it rained and we thought the camp would flood. The geomancers in Imperial Father’s retinue streamed out around the perimeter, calling on the strength of their prayers to move the earth and water to dig trenches and form new rivers around us. But the ground was hard and would not yield.
Imperial Father strode out of his tent and glared out into the rain, with one of the eunuchs scrambling behind him to hold an umbrella over his head. The Emperor’s gaze swept over the soggy camp and he barked a command for the geomancers to clear a space for him. I watched from the opening flap of my tent as Imperial Father knelt in his fine golden robes, heedless of the muck at the camp perimeter, and placed his hands on the stubborn ground.
The earth trembled as the Yellow Dragon, patron of the imperial throne and highest of the Five Gods, answered his call. Prayers from the other geomancers echoed around him as they joined in the channeling. They dug grooves around the camp, diverting the water away from us.
It was not just for our safety, but also a subtle display of power toward our nomadic cousins. Imperial Father was satisfied, I could tell, as he raised himself to his feet. He was not simply a man to whom others would bow. The Five Gods themselves had seen fit to bless him with the power of their domains, and he wielded it better than any other geomancer here.
Though most of the geomancers knelt panting, arms crossed over their bodies from the pain that came from strenuous prayer, Imperial Father walked stoically back to his tent without a hint of discomfort. In private, I knew, he would allow himself to feel the pain, but not where others could see. It was a privilege to see a member of the imperial family command the elements. The servants would remember this.
Once the rains had passed and the ground had dried, the Hangul leader suggested a friendly competition to brighten the mood and take our minds off the work we had done to repair the camp. Imperial Father and the clan leader would select men from both our camps to participate in some archery on horseback. I came out to watch, glad for the reprieve from always sitting.
When Imperial Father asked Eunuch Lei to suggest someone to represent Kwan, the old eunuch immediately suggested a young soldier who had come to him highly recommended. He told the Emperor that the son of General Syun-hoi, of the Tiger Clan, was with them as part of his escort, but Imperial Father simply shrugged.
“If he represents us well, that will suffice.”
I struggled to even recall General Syun-hoi. He was not a favorite of the Emperor, though if he was general he could not be incompetent.
The Hangul set up rows of targets for the riders to strafe, and the two chosen men rode out on their sturdy mountain horses, quivers at their sides and bows in their hands.
That was when I first saw Jing-lung. He rode as one who had grown up in the barracks, and shot arrows with the eyes and nerve of a hawk. One. Two. Three. The arrows planted themselves deep in the thatched grass. Four. Five. Six. He guided his horse with just his knees and did not miss a single target, leading the Emperor to proudly proclaim that the Dorgan people had not gone soft since taking residence in the palace in Kwan.
Imperial Father called Jing-lung to him and the young soldier dismounted, handed the reins to a groom, and knelt before the Emperor. He did not even flinch before the two stone lions that flanked the Son of Heaven day and night. Imperial Father told him that in honor of his performance he should ask for a gift. Jing-lung looked up, and though he beheld the face of the Emperor, he also looked past him and saw me. I smiled at him, and he almost did in return, before catching himself and lowering his head once more.
My days out on the steppes still consisted of meetings and formalities, but sometimes I would see Jing-lung as I walked through the camp. Our eyes would meet and I would smile and give him a wave if circumstances allowed. Since he was currently in the Emperor’s grace, I thought it acceptable to speak with him, and I knew I would be in no danger with Sek-fung beside me. There were few chances to speak with men my own age in the palace, save for my cousins, and they were too familiar.
“Have you been in many battles?” I asked him. He was young, perhaps even younger than me.
“A few,” he said. “Mostly on the western border. Guarding the Emperor is a first for me. My father worked hard to get me this assignment.”
General Syun-hoi had done well in that regard, because the Emperor now knew who Jing-lung was. It was an auspicious start to a military career.
“Do you think you will be a general as well someday?” I asked.
“If the Son of Heaven sees fit,” he said. He smiled. “But I would like that. Fourth Princess will need someone to protect the empire, am I correct?”
I grinned. “How do you know I will not protect it myself?” I picked up a twig and held it between us. It smoldered for a moment, curls of smoke rising from its bark, before it bloomed with a tiny flame.
He chuckled. “The barbarians will flee before your burning twigs. I am serious, though. Even the most blessed emperor will take comfort in knowing that he has a shield.”
The stronger the prayer, the more the prayer demanded of the body. The imperial family did not often call on the Five Gods because the strongest prayers left us vulnerable, and so were not to be used except in times of need, and then not all of us were as powerful as geomancers of legend. Imperial Father was very talented. I was not so much.
“That proverb,” I said. “It was the Hung-ying Emperor who said that.”
“My father is fond of it,” said Jing-lung.
“Do you know any more?”
“Proverbs? I can see if I remember…”
Jing-lung was no scholar, and his brief attempts at poetry made me laugh, but he was good company, and my time in the steppes was not so boring because of him. When summer ended and we packed the tents to return to the capital I was sad, not because I would never see him again — as the son of a general he was likely to visit the palace from time to time — but because we would no longer be able to talk freely. I watched him ride ahead of me on the trip home. I wanted to remember how the long braid of his hair swayed against his back.
We next met at the Black Turtle Festival, when I and my maids went out into the wind-swept city to watch the fireworks and eat lotus cakes. Sek-fung padded alongside us for protection, a clear sign that we were a party of nobility. It was the start of winter, so we bundled ourselves well in our fine things, though it rarely snowed in the capital.
Mung-laan saw him first, recognizing him from our sojourn to the north, and she giggled when she told me that a bunch of young fellows were teasing that fine soldier, trying to get him to come over and speak to me. I saw Jing-lung shake his head, but when his friends realized that he had my attention, they gave him a push.
Unable to escape, he walked up to me and bowed. “Greetings to Fourth Princess.”
“Please rise,” I told him.
“Is Fourth Princess enjoying the festival?”
“The fireworks and the dances are very pretty. But I have yet to taste the lotus cakes.”
My heart beat as I considered my words. Could I ask? Would Imperial Father hear of it? I heard giggling behind me. Mung-laan. If Imperial Father asked her of course she would tell him. But, I was very valuable to the Emperor right now, and if I was to be heir, I should not be shy about speaking to the men who would be in my army. Moreover, Imperial Father had approved of Jing-lung and rewarded him with silver taels for his performance out on the steppes.
“I am on my way to Madame Wu’s,” I asked. “I hear her staff rib the crust of the lotus cakes so that they resemble the shell of the Black Turtle herself. Would you like to join me?” I asked.
The silence behind me gave me a perverse joy. Mung-laan had not expected me to be so forward. Jing-lung’s fellows were equally stunned.
“Of course, Fourth Princess.”
Jing-lung was so formal — he had to be — but when I looked in his eyes I saw how happy he was.
I still remember eating the lotus cake with him and learning that he had yet to marry, though at twenty he was certainly old enough. He said he was a younger son and his father busy. He didn’t mind that he was still unwed.
And a part of me was foolish enough to wonder if I could ask Imperial Father. But Jing-lung’s family was not prominent enough. I knew now that General Syun-hoi was in charge of the training barracks in the south, a quiet but responsible position with little chance of action seeing as we had an ocean for our southern border. Jing-lung would be a fine match for a minister’s daughter, or perhaps one of my cousins, but not for a princess. It would have helped if he was also a geomancer. The gift was not always passed on to one’s children, but bearing such a blessing would surely enrich any household.
Ten days later, Mung-laan was beaten for allowing me to so openly consort with a man in public. Never mind anything that might have happened in the private room at Madame Wu’s, though my maids had been in earshot the entire time and Sek-fung had not leaped to my defense. Jing-lung was sent away to fight on the western frontier. Imperial Father did not punish me himself. He knew what had happened to Mung-laan and Jing-lung would hurt deeper than any blow.
On the day of my twenty-sixth birthday, Eunuch Lei dared to suggest to the Emperor that it was time for me to marry. Unlike a son, my reproductive years were limited, and as a woman I could not increase my chances for a child by taking concubines. Imperial Father silenced him with a glare so sharp Eunuch Lei fell to his knees and apologized for his impertinence. I had no doubt the Emperor was very aware that a held daughter could only wait so long before she was no longer of any use for the purpose she was held.
For a period of time, Imperial Father had hope that he would no longer need me. When one of his concubines became heavy with child, the geomancers prayed daily around her, asking the Five Gods to deliver a healthy boy, but the palace was soon graced with a sixth princess, much to the chagrin of the Emperor. I could feel his black mood just walking past the door to his study.
“What do you think of Minister Wing-gat’s son Chi-ji?” he asked me one night as we pored over a new proclamation.
“He is quick to speak,” I said, “and like a charging bull he does not easily stop, but he has a sharp mind. We can use him.”
Imperial Father nodded with approval of my assessment, but I thought I saw a shadow darken his face. Perhaps he had not been considering a government appointment and instead a son-in-law. But Chi-ji was not fit to be the consort of a wongdai. An empress must let her husband rule, and so must any consort of mine should I be formally named heir. It was a reversal a man would find difficult. Some men answered to their wives regardless through force of personality, but for me, my husband would answer as well to the Daughter of Heaven.
“How about Magistrate Chung-ping of Ying Ga?” said the Emperor.
“The Ying Ga corruption was investigated by him, but I have heard that he was a part of the scandal and covered his involvement by turning against the officials beneath him.” I grimaced. “And he already has a wife.”
Imperial Father gave me a sharp look and I realized I had spoken out of turn. Magistrate Chung-ping was surely not for me. A wongdai would never be concubine to another man.
Jing-lung married during this time, and though I was disappointed, I knew it would happen. His family would not allow him to remain unmarried forever. He had redeemed himself out on the frontier and come back with victories enough that Imperial Father named him sub-commander to the General of the West. He was a man to be proud of, but when I next saw him in the palace I found I didn’t want to ask him about his campaign, or hear the story from his own lips, about how he had saved the wounded General Song from the barbarians and rallied his undermanned battalion to hold their fort.
So when I saw him, walking out from the audience hall and into the courtyard, I just asked him, “Are you all right?”
And I watched him standing there, knowing who I was, but uncertain of himself. He looked splendid in his formal robes with the lion insignia of his rank emblazoned on the front, and I thought the red and black felt cap of an official suited him especially well. He lifted his arms, then dropped them to his sides and bowed. “Fourth Princess.”
He could not hold me as he had in the shadows of Madame Wu’s where we had gone to eat lotus cakes. It was not that a man was forbid another woman. Gossip thrived on the stories of a man who neglected his wife in favor of the concubine he truly adored. But I was still Fourth Princess and a held daughter. Jing-lung would not make the mistake that had sent him to the frontier a second time.
“I am well,” he told me.
“Will you be in the capital long?”
“Through the new year, then I will return to the west.”
“How dangerous is it out there?”
“Better than it was, Fourth Princess. The barbarians have been beaten back and they lick their wounds. We will probably not hear from them for a while, but the border must be secured to discourage them from returning.”
It was the appropriate response, from a soldier reporting to the royal family, but it was not what I wanted to know. I wanted to know how dangerous it was for him, to know what his chances were for returning another time. I turned away, not wanting my feelings to show. We were in the courtyard, and there were too many people who could see.
“Fourth Princess,” said Jing-lung, “I will be careful. When you are Emperor I will be there to lead your army.”
I sighed. “Don’t say such things. You are not yet a general, and Imperial Father has not given up.”
“You are right, Fourth Princess, but the flow of a river cannot be stopped. I am certain the Emperor is aware.”
By the time I was twenty-eight, most of the palace maids I’d known as a child had been freed from service to marry and begin families of their own. I had a new set of maids, but they still marveled at the held daughter, and gossiped about how long I would wait.
Jing-lung told me not to worry, and I was happy that he still had words for me. He was often away from the palace, but he never forgot me. I liked to spend time with him in the imperial garden, in a pavilion surrounded by the empress’s favorite lilies, where we would watch the mandarin ducks as the pairs swam together in the perfect image of married harmony.
My new maids did not know of my history with Jing-lung, so they obeyed when I shooed them a respectful distance away, but because we could never be sure who would hear, Jing-lung and I only talked about the situation at the border; details about army strength, patrols, supply lines.
I did not know if he had children, what he thought of his wife, or how much time he spent at home. I wanted us to be the ducks in the pond, bonded for life, but that possibility had already passed us by.
I was twenty-nine when Imperial Father finally announced that I would take the role of Crown Prince. My youngest sibling could also have been made prince, but by now the Emperor had invested so much in me that he was loath to have to teach a second heir. I suspected with his growing age that if he had sired a boy yesterday he still would not have changed me for the babe. He was done with children now and warmed himself with the thought of grandchildren.
His first three daughters and the fifth had children, and he would read about them in letters from their husbands and visit them if time and distance allowed, but I had yet to marry. Imperial Father decided he would fix that.
At the Green Dragon Festival we welcomed the spring, and in the lantern light of the evening banquet he called me before him and invited Yan-cheung of the Horse Clan to join us. The empress praised how good we looked together and the Emperor nodded in agreement. It was no whimsical decision, I knew, but a way to politely present us in public together for the first time.
Yan-cheung was tall and thin with oversized hands, but he had a scholarly look to his face that spoke of wisdom. He was not as old as I, but that was to be expected. Most families did not hold their sons from marrying.
He was an eldest son as well. His family was eager indeed to relinquish their best for the future wongdai. I would have to be wary of them. If I was not careful they would seek to control me through their son, and Yan-cheung might have plans of his own as well. His father was already a favored minister of Imperial Father, so plainly his family would seek to keep the power they already had.
I had not spoken with Yan-cheung before, but I knew him to be a promising official of good reputation and a geomancer besides. Being the eldest son of an already prominent family he was an elegant match worthy of a female wongdai. He was not Jing-lung, but he would do, and I would be charitable to him so long as he understood his place.
An auspicious day was chosen for our wedding, and many of the prominent officials and their families were invited. Jing-lung as well. I knew from the military dispatches that he would return from the border and be in the capital during the time of the wedding. I did not know what I would say to him, but as an officer of the third rank he could not in good faith refuse to come.
The Imperial Palace was festooned with red banners and crimson lanterns. The geomancers blessed the halls in the name of the Vermilion Bird of the South, lighting celebratory fires with no spark but the touch of their hands, and the women wore feather-shaped hairpins of red jade in their headdresses.
My maids wove my hair tight and carefully pinned the winged wooden frame atop my head, beaded tassels hanging down to either side, and over that they draped the red veil of my wedding dress. Traditionally the groom would remove it once he joined his bride at her bridal bed, but I determined I would remove it myself. I would not be his. He would be mine. It was into my family he was marrying and our children would bear the name of my clan. I would be wongdai.
Yan-cheung was gracious throughout the ceremony and at the banquet that followed. He did nothing, said nothing, to tarnish my reputation as heir, but how could he with Imperial Father still alive and attending? I knew the Emperor’s concubines made plays at power, my own mother among them, trying to sway Imperial Father’s opinions if he was willing to listen. Fairly or not, I could not discount the possibility that Yan-cheung would think he would have my undivided attention.
As the banquet wore on I realized that I had yet to see Jing-lung among the guests. Concerned that I had missed him, I asked one of my maids if he had come at all, and she had not seen him. Disappointed, I wondered if he had been so heartbroken he would risk the Emperor’s disfavor rather than see me married to another.
I learned the answer a few days later when apologies arrived that General Syun-hoi’s household was in mourning. Jing-lung’s wife had died of illness.
He was free again, but I was not.
My first son was born when I was thirty-two. Imperial Father, now in ill health, was thrilled to see that our dynasty would continue. He rarely left his study anymore and no longer traveled to see our brethren in the north. If not for my son I would have traveled in his place this year. Instead I sent Yan-cheung, who I found I could trust, even if I could not love.
The palace geomancers offered to make me twin sachets, bonded together so that the two people who wore them would know the feelings of the other even when they were far apart. The geomancers would fill them with herbs and dried flowers, scents that would remind me and Yan-cheung of our time together, so the fragrance of the sachets would know that they belonged to each other, would share feelings with one another, after the geomancers prayed upon them and bestowed the blessings of the Green Dragon of the East. They believed the sachets would ease my parting from Yan-cheung, especially in this time while our baby was young. But I knew I would not miss him nearly enough for that, and I could think of no scent that would remind me of Yan-cheung. I thought only of lilies and ducks in the imperial garden.
Jing-lung came by the next time he was in the capital and I took his report in the Emperor’s place. By now he was an officer of the first rank, and Imperial Father said he would soon name him the new General of the West. Jing-lung would be a general to lead my army once I became Emperor, just as he promised.
After my servants brought tea to my office, I dismissed them and bade Jing-lung sit in one of the chairs along the wall. I had no difficulty in following the army movements he discussed. By now, I had a good head for both military and political affairs, even if I should never set foot near an actual battle myself. Jing-lung did not try to pass failure for success either. Some less scrupulous officials hoped that I in my womanhood and Imperial Father in his dotage would not catch the mistakes or even outright corruption on their part, but I had to be ruthless. No one could question my right to the throne.
When all news had been given, we sat in awkward silence. Then I asked, “Are you happy on the border?”
He paused, gathering his thoughts, and said, “It is rough, but I have gotten comfortable there. Even the dust does not bother me as much as it once did.”
“Your family has pleaded otherwise. They say you have not remarried, and they fear it is because the border is not a safe place for a highborn lady. Would you like to be stationed closer to the capital?”
He clenched his hands and looked away. “Fourth Princess, why do you have to make such an offer? My parents, they have grandchildren through my brother so their line is safe, but my duty on the border is the only reason I have not to remarry. Father wants to arrange something for me, but I can tell him that I am making this sacrifice for the Emperor, because he trusts me, and I cannot care for a wife while I am so far away. Yin-jan, my departed wife, did nothing wrong, but I was never there for her.”
I reached out to him, wanting to hold him, but I only touched his shoulder. Jing-lung could never be wonghau to my wongdai. I already had my husband, now titled as a prince.
“Jing-lung,” I said, “would you still consider marrying me?”
He turned to me, disbelieving. “You already have a husband, and you’ve borne him a son. You can’t dissolve your marriage, not even as Crown Prince.”
“No, I cannot.” I removed my hand from his shoulder, and took his hand in mine. “I wish I could. But as Emperor, even as a woman, I am allowed additional consorts. There have been few female wongdai in the past, but it is not unprecedented. The Ming-ying Emperor had three.”
I could see the thoughts tumble around his head. He did not like the idea, I knew. I could feel the shake of uncertainty in the hand I held.
“Imperial Father might not like the idea, because he may remember what happened when we were young, but you are a decorated officer now and won many battles for our country. The western border is safe because of you.”
“Fourth Princess,” he said, his voice rattled and uneven. “Fourth Princess will always have my affection, but I do not think I could share you with another man.”
“I have done my duty to Yan-cheung,” I said. “If the child grows healthy and strong there will be no need for us to visit each other’s beds. Your family will no longer pressure you to marry, and the two of us… We might be able to have a child of our own.”
He withdrew his hand and stood. “I don’t know. I don’t know if I could. Only a poor man should have to share his woman with another. Even if you are Emperor… Is it selfish to want you just for myself?”
I shook my head as I looked down at the floor. “Before I met you, before I knew Imperial Father would even consider me as heir, I knew someday I would marry, and though a princess will be a wife and not a concubine, I was sure my husband would be a man of means so he would marry concubines in addition to me. For a noblewoman, this is what happens, and we do not expect otherwise. But how can it be that if a woman is wongdai she cannot do the same as the wongdai before her just because she is a woman and they were men?”
“May your servant be excused?” he asked. I could not bring myself to look at his face.
If I were free to divorce Yan-cheung, if he had been an awful man instead of a competent and loyal husband, I would. Once Imperial Father passed I would be wongdai and no one could question whom I chose to marry, and now Jing-lung was worthy.
“You may go,” I told him.
Before a year had passed, the western barbarians had returned, bringing a larger force of foreign allies with whom we rarely had reason to quarrel. Imperial Father now promoted Jing-lung to General of the West, and placed the entirety of the western forces at his disposal, as well as granting him use of the capital’s own soldiers to drive the barbarians all the way back to their own country, which he would then claim for the Kwanese Empire.
I knew this would be a long campaign, and instead of months it could be years before I saw Jing-lung again. Imperial Father made a grand show of him surveying his soldiers, knowing that the people must believe Jing-lung would win if they were to support the war through their taxes and their sons. And Jing-lung rode tall on his horse as though already master of a foreign land.
At the end of the inspection he rode up to where Imperial Father and I stood at the head of a retinue of geomancers. He dismounted and knelt. “Your soldiers are ready, Emperor.”
“Please rise,” said Imperial Father. “A finer force this country has not seen in generations. I look forward to hearing of your success.”
“I will not fail. You will leave this world with a larger empire than when you arrived.”
The Emperor nodded, pleased, and carefully climbed into his carriage to return to the palace. He would retire to his bedchambers once he returned. The outer courtyard was as far as he wished to go these days. I would channel the blessing for our army and see our soldiers off.
I reached into the long sleeve of my gown and removed a small box I had tucked within. “This is for you,” I said to Jing-lung, my voice quiet so only he would hear.
He opened it and saw that there was a single silk sachet inside where there was plainly room for two. It smelled of lilies, of the imperial garden, of the pond where we would watch the mandarin ducks, and as awe washed over his face I knew he could see me in his mind as well as his eyes.
“I made it,” I said, feeling very much a young girl again. “It is a funny thing for a Crown Prince to shut out maids from her quarters while she cuts and dries flowers from a pond, but there has been gossip enough in days past. If you breathe the scent of the flowers from the sachet you will be able to reach me. And I have its partner, so when you think of me, I will be able to see you as well.”
The sachets would only allow emotions, and not words, and in that way he could say no more to me that he could through the reports I knew he would send, but I would at least be able to let him know that I loved him, that I missed him, and I hoped he would feel the same.
His hand closed over the sachet and he tied it to his belt. The box he closed and returned to me.
“I will treasure it, Fourth Princess.” And he bowed.
If not for the people still in the courtyard, I would have told him the formality was not necessary. If not for the people in the courtyard, Jing-lung could have refused me.
“Will you wait?” I asked. “When I am Emperor, if I ask you… ”
“What can a mandarin duck do when it is no longer part of a pair?” he asked, head still down. “Is it free? Can it find another?”
I did not know.
“You will go with the blessing of the Emperor,” I said, “and mine as well.”
I looked over my shoulder to the other geomancers, and as one twenty heads bowed in prayer. We called today to the White Tiger of the West, ferocious guardian and master of metal, to make our swords sharp, our arrows true, and our cannons sound. I asked him to protect the general who now led an army destined for his domain.
“Your sword, please,” I said.
He drew his sword, laid it flat across his upturned hands, and knelt before me. I touched it gently with the tips of my fingers and felt all the imperfections that had been worn into the blade that even meticulous care could not entirely erase. But the White Tiger could.
My prayers smoothed the nicks and scratches, the flaws that the eyes could not see and the fingers could not touch. I willed this sword healthy and strong, so that it would protect Jing-lung in the months and years to come. This was the blessing the Emperor would give his general if he were well. I was not Imperial Father, not as powerful as Imperial Father, but I prayed that my desire for Jing-lung’s safe return was enough to overcome all that.
One day, perhaps soon, I would be wongdai, and I wanted Jing-lung beside me.
After the army left, I went out to the imperial garden with my maids and sat in the pavilion by the pond where I could watch the ducks. Sek-fung lay beside me, snoring in her old age. One of my maids cooed and pointed at a new bird that I had not seen before. He circled the pond alone, and I wondered if he might try to join with one of the other pairs.
I picked up one of the cakes from the tray of sweets my maids had brought and broke it apart in my hands, much to their shock. When the duck swam near I threw the pieces before him, and he bobbed through the water, plucking the bits of cake in a series of quick gulps as he followed the trail of food to the walkway beside the pavilion where I was now waiting.
I held out my hand with a bit of cake upon it and the duck gobbled it from my palm.
“There’s no reason for either of us to be alone, is there?” I told him.
I felt the sachet tingle at my side and in my mind I saw Jing-lung riding out to the frontier. His thoughts were warm, and I smiled.
“The Held Daughter” first appeared in Galaxy’s Edge, July 2013.