Thousands of red lanterns illuminated the Autumn Palace, suspended on strings so fine the lights looked like kites floating from roof to roof. I could have watched them all night, dancing on the wind and painting the twilight with a burnished glow--but my mind was elsewhere. For beneath the sea of bobbing lights, the Square of Splendid Harmony was staged for an imperial wedding.
Seeing all this red, in celebration of Emperor Khanujin’s marriage to Lady Sarnai, should have gladdened me. I’d worked so hard and sacrificed so much for the peace their union would finally bring to A’landi.
But I wasn’t the same Maia as before.
The Autumn Palace’s vermillion gates rumbled, and I pushed through the throng of servants to catch a glimpse of the wedding procession. At its helm would be Lady Sarnai’s father, the shansen. I wanted to see the man who had bled my country from within, whose war had taken two of my brothers, and whose name alone made grown men shudder.
The shansen, his gold-plated armor shining like dragon scales from under his rich emerald robes, rode on a majestic white stallion. Gray touched the tips of his beard and eyebrows. He did not look as fearsome as I had pictured--until I saw his eyes; they gleamed like black pearls, fierce as his daughter’s, but crueler.
Behind him rode his favored warrior, Lord Xina, followed by the shansen’s three sons, all with their father’s dark, unsettling eyes, and a legion of soldiers wearing patches on their sleeves embroidered with the shansen’s emblem--a tiger.
“The shansen will mount the steps to the Hall of Harmony,” announced Chief Minister Yun loudly, “where his daughter, Sarnai Opai’a Makang, will be presented as our emperor’s bride.
“Tomorrow,” Chief Minister Yun continued, “the Procession of Gifts will be presented to the emperor’s court. On the third day, Lady Sarnai will formally ascend to her place as empress beside Emperor Khanujin, Son of Heaven. A final banquet will be held to celebrate their marriage in the eyes of the gods.”
The wedding music swelled and merged with the clatter of the shansen and his men marching up the stairs. Firecrackers clapped, loud as thunder, and each stroke of the wedding drums boomed so deep the earth beneath my soles thrummed. Eight men strode across the hall bearing a golden carriage draped with embroidered silk and armored with glazed tiles painted with turquoise-and-gold dragons.
When the shansen took his place before the hall, Emperor Khanujin stepped out of his palanquin. The music ceased, and we all bowed to the ground.
“Ruler of a hundred lands,” we chanted, “Khagan of Kings, Son of Heaven, Favored of Amana, our Glorious Sovereign of A’landi. May you live ten thousand years.”
“Welcome, Lord Makangis,” Emperor Khanujin greeted him. “It is an honor to receive you at the Autumn Palace.”
Fireworks exploded from behind the palace, shooting high beyond the stars.
“Ah!” everyone gasped, marveling at the sight.
Briefly, I marveled too. I’d never seen fireworks before. Sendo tried to describe them to me once, though he’d never seen them either.
“They’re like lotuses blooming in the sky, made of fire and light,” he’d said.
“How do they get up so high?”
“Someone shoots them.” He’d shrugged when I frowned at him, skeptical. “Don’t make that face at me, Maia. I don’t know everything. Maybe it’s magic.”
“You say that about everything you don’t know how to explain.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
I had laughed. “I don’t believe in magic.”
But as the fireworks burst into the sky now, lurid splatters of yellow and red against the black night, I knew magic looked nothing like this. Magic was the blood of stars falling from the sky, the song of my enchanted scissors--eager to make a miracle out of thread and hope. Not colored dust flung into the sky.
While those around me cheered, eight more young men carried another golden palanquin toward the emperor. Lanterns hung from its every side, illuminating an elaborately painted phoenix.
A phoenix to match the emperor’s dragon. To breathe new life into the country, helping it rise from the ashes of war.
The attendants lowered the palanquin, but Lady Sarnai didn’t step out. She was wailing so loudly that even from the back of the square, I could hear her. In some villages, it was the tradition for a bride to wail before her wedding, a sign of respect for her parents to show that she was distressed to leave them.
But how unlike the shansen’s daughter.
A soldier parted the carriage’s curtains, and Lady Sarnai tottered forward to join the emperor and her father. An embroidered veil of ruby silk covered her face, and the train of her gown dragged behind her, crimson in the fragile moonlight. It did not even shimmer, as any of the dresses I’d made for her would have: woven with the laughter of the sun, embroidered with the tears of the moon, and painted with the blood of stars. Strange, that Khanujin would not have insisted she wear one of Amana’s dresses to show off to the shansen.
I frowned as she continued to wail, a shrill sound that pierced the tense silence.
She bowed before her father, then before the emperor, falling to her knees.
Slowly, ceremoniously, Emperor Khanujin began to lift her veil. The drumming began again, growing louder, faster, until it was so deafening my ears buzzed and the world began to spin.
Then--as the drums reached their thunderous climax--someone let out a scream.
My eyes snapped open. The shansen had shoved Khanujin aside and seized his daughter by the neck. Now he held her, shrieking and kicking, above the Hall of Harmony’s eighty-eight steps--and he ripped off her veil.
The bride was not Lady Sarnai.
The false princess’s legs thrashed wildly beneath her skirts, the long satin train of her wedding robes rippling beneath her.
“Where is my daughter?” the shansen roared.
Already, everyone around me was placing bets on the poor girl’s fate. Would the shansen slit her throat--or would the emperor beat him to it? No, they’d let her live until she talked. Then they’d kill her.
“I--I--I--I d-don’t know,” she blubbered, her wailing intensifying before she repeated, “I don’t know.”
She let out a scream as the shansen dropped her onto the stone steps.
“Find my daughter!” he barked at the emperor. “Find Sarnai, or there will be no wedding--only war.”
The warning hushed everyone in the square.
Where was Lady Sarnai? Didn’t she care that thousands would die if this marriage did not proceed?
“The war would never end,” Keton had told me. My youngest brother so rarely spoke of his time fighting for Khanujin, I could not forget his words: “Not unless the emperor and the shansen came to a truce. At dawn of the New Year, they met to make peace. The shansen agreed to withdraw his men from the South and reaffirm his loyalty to the emperor. In return, Emperor Khanujin would take the shansen’s daughter to be his empress and tie their bloodlines together.
“But the shansen’s daughter refused. She had fought alongside her father’s army. I’d seen her myself--fierce as any warrior. She must have killed at least fifty men that day.” Keton had paused. “It was said she threatened to kill herself rather than marry the emperor.”
When Keton had shared this story, I doubted its truth. What girl wouldn’t want to marry a man as magnificent as Emperor Khanujin?
But now that I had met Lady Sarnai--and the emperor--I knew better.
Gods, I hoped she hadn’t done anything rash.
I stood on my toes to get a better look at what was happening, but a shooting pain stabbed the back of my eyes and they began to burn. Urgently, I rubbed them. Tears came, trying to wash out the heat. But my pupils only burned more fiercely, and I saw a blood-red sheen reflect onto the track of tears smeared on my palm.
No, no, no--not now. I covered my face, hiding the mark of Bandur’s curse, the terrible price I had paid to make Lady Sarnai’s dresses and secure peace for A’landi.
My heart began to pound in my chest, my stomach fluttering wildly. A rush of heat boiled through my body, and I crumpled to the ground.
Then, suddenly the burning in my eyes vanished.
My vision cleared. I no longer saw the people around me clamoring in commotion. I heard them chattering and fidgeting, but they were far, far away. My eyes and ears were somewhere else, outside of my body.
I was there, on the steps of the Hall of Harmony. The air reeked of sulfur and saltpeter from the fireworks; the sky was scarred with stripes of white smoke.
I saw the girl, her rose-painted lips and tear-streaked cheeks, and I recognized her--she was one of Lady Sarnai’s maids. Imperial guards pulled her up the steps as the emperor approached.
He struggled to contain his ire--his fingers twitching at his sides, inches from his dagger, whose golden hilt was artfully hidden under layers of silk robes and a thick sash with dangling jade amulets.
He knelt beside her, taking her hands into his and untying the cords that bound her wrists. Once, he’d crouched beside me the same way, when I’d been a prisoner. How marvelous I’d thought him then, unaware that I was under a powerful spell the emperor’s Lord Enchanter had cast over him.
Without Edan’s magic, sweat glistened down the nape of Khanujin’s neck, and his back strained under the heavy weight of his imperial robes.
I wondered if the shansen noticed.
The emperor tilted the maid’s chin up to him, his fingers pressed so hard against her jaw they would leave bruises. Cold fury raked his black eyes.
“Speak,” he commanded.
“Her Highness . . . didn’t say. She . . . she asked us to drink some tea with her to celebrate her betrothal to you, and we couldn’t refuse.” The maid buried her face into the hem of Khanujin’s robes.
“So, she poisoned you.”
Fear punctuated her sharp, gulping breaths. “When I woke, I was dressed in her clothes, and she said that if I did not pretend to be her, she would kill me.”
Khanujin let go of her. He raised an arm, likely to order that she be taken away and executed somewhere quietly, when--
“Lord Xina is gone!” one of the shansen’s men cried.
Like whiplash, my sight broke. Whatever had stolen me from my body hurled me back again, until I was among the emperor’s servants as before, ears ringing with the uproar over Lord Xina’s disappearance.
“Find them!” Khanujin shouted. “Ten thousand jens to whoever finds the shansen’s daughter and brings her to me. And death by nine degrees to anyone caught aiding her escape.”
Death by nine degrees. That meant not only the execution of the guilty party, but also their parents, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles--the entire bloodline.
Numbly, I watched the crowd scatter, eunuchs and craftsmen and soldiers and servants all searching for Lady Sarnai. I needed to move too, before someone noticed me--or in case someone had seen my eyes glowing red.
But I couldn’t move, not while the drums boomed so violently the clouds themselves seemed to shake. They rattled me, each thud resonating deeply into my bones and reminding me of what I was becoming.
“Did you know they used to play drums to scare off demons?” I could still hear Bandur taunting me. “Soon the drums will only remind you of the heart you once had. Every beat you miss, every chill that touches you, is a sign of the darkness folding over you. One day, it will take you away from all that you know and cherish: your memories, your face, your name. Not even your enchanter will love you when you wake as a demon.”
“No,” I whispered, pressing my hand over my heart, feeling its unsteady rhythm.
I wasn’t a demon. Yet.
Once the emperor married Lady Sarnai and peace for A’landi was secured--once Baba, Keton, and all A’landans were safe--I would spend every waking moment trying to break my curse. Until then--
Someone seized my elbow, pulling me out of my thoughts--and out of the square.
“Get moving, Master Tamarin,” she said brusquely. She tossed a braid over her shoulder. “You’ll get yourself sent to the dungeon standing around like that, especially now that everyone knows your leg isn’t really broken.”
Then she turned abruptly and disappeared into a throng of serving girls.
I was stunned. My hands fell to my sides, my feet forgetting where they’d meant to go.
Why had Ammi spoken to me so curtly, as if I’d offended her?
A lump rose in my throat. The way she’d said my name, I suddenly understood why she was angry with me.
She’d known me as the tailor Keton Tamarin, not as Maia. The morning I’d returned to the palace, the emperor had divulged to all my true identity. How betrayed she must have felt to learn of my lie from him, not from me, after all her kindness to me during the competition to become the imperial tailor.
“Ammi!” I called, running after her. “Please, let me explain.”
“Explain?” Her round eyes narrowed at me, trying to be cold but not entirely succeeding. “I don’t have time for you. There’s ten thousand jens at stake. Might not be much to you anymore, but it’s a fortune to the rest of us.”
“I can help you.”
“I don’t need your--”
“I can find her.”
My friend’s words died on her lips, and she drew in a sharp breath. “What do you know?”
To be honest, I didn’t know anything. The old Maia, being a terrible liar, would have confessed that right away. But in this small, seemingly insignificant way, I had already changed.
“I’ll show you.”
I started off before Ammi could refuse, and when I heard her reluctant footsteps following me out of the square, I headed for Lady Sarnai’s residence. I should have been glad that she’d come, and I should have tried apologizing to her again, but I didn’t want her asking more questions about Lady Sarnai’s whereabouts. Besides, something else weighed me down. A leaden heaviness in my chest that took me a moment to recognize.
I envied Lady Sarnai. Envied her the chance to be together with the man she loved.
The chance I couldn’t have with Edan.
Come with me, I could still hear him plead.
How I’d wanted to, more than anything. The warmth of his hand on my cheek, the press of his lips on mine--they were enough to melt me.
But even if I could relive that moment, I would still have told that painful lie to make him leave. It was better to endure whatever suffering that would befall me alone--Edan would be free from the bonds that had held him captive for so long.