Authors: Miriam Forster
To Nicolas and Rebekah Casey, and to all the others who speak for the children. This book is for you
CITY OF A THOUSAND DOLLS
The City Council
, The Matron of the Houses A
, the new Head of the City Council On the grounds
, wild spotted cat, leader of the cat tribe J
, wild spotted cat, Nisha’s best friend R
, wild spotted cat B
, wild spotted cat V
, wild spotted cat At the House of Combat
, House Mistress T
, Josei’s assistant At the House of Flowers
, House Mistress T
, novice, betrothed to the High Prince M
At the House of Beauty
, House Mistress L
, novice L
, novice At the House of Jade
, novice D
, novice Z
, bond slave, former novice at the House of Music At the House of Music
, House Mistress B
, novice At the House of Pleasure
, House Mistress A
At the House of Discipline
, Mistress of Order C
, Kalia’s assistant At the House of Shadows
, novice THE BHINIAN EMPIRE
From the Capital
, heir D
, courier U
, healer The Kildi Camp
, Stefan’s mother-in-law S
, Stefan’s daughter M
, Stefan’s son E
, Nisha’s father (deceased) S
, Nisha’s mother (deceased) I
, camp healer THE CASTES
Flower, for the nobility
Jade, for the learned
Bamboo, for the merchants
Hearth, for the farmers
Wind, for the wanderers
It was the storyteller Elina who spoke for the children.
She sat before the Emperor, the Second Lotus Emperor, jangled the bells of her bow, and sang of girls unwanted, of babies left to die,
of a future where women were scarcer than gold.
And the Emperor listened and heard the words of the singer
and her song of sadness.
The Emperor listened,
and he built a city.
All who wanted could bring their daughters to this place, where they would be taught, cared for,
and kept safe.
And the people honored the Emperor for his wisdom.
The Song of Stone and Blood
, a story-song of Elina the Bow-singer
“DON’T MOVE, NISHA.” The words were playful, but the sharp slash of light along the blade of the throwing dagger was not.
Nisha Arvi forced herself to go still. Splinters dug into her shoulder from the wooden target wall behind her, but she didn’t twitch.
A few paces away, her friend Tanaya twirled her dagger with careless grace. A smug and confident smile curled the edges of her mouth. “Don’t look so frightened, Nisha. Trust me.”
“You always say that,” Nisha muttered, trying not to move the muscles of her face. Sweat from staff practice dampened her legs, and her loose cotton trousers clung to her skin like cold hands.
“And I’m always right.” Like Nisha, Tanaya practiced her fighting skills in the rust-brown tunic and trousers of the House of Combat. But Tanaya’s tunic was of a finer weave than Nisha’s, gold embroidery circling the neckline and sleeves. She polished her dagger on the edge of her tunic, and Nisha closed her eyes.
Nisha cracked her left eye open. The dagger hilt quivered a finger’s length from her cheek. Beyond the wooden handle, she could make out the copper-trimmed brick of the House of Combat and the smooth roof of gray sky.
Nisha sagged against the target wall. “You’re getting better,” she said weakly.
Tanaya gave a mocking imitation of an Imperial Court bow. “Why, thank you. You should see me performing the Dance of Fans and Daggers.”
Nisha heard the shouts of instructors and the clangs of curved swords from inside a nearby building. Novices—and the outsiders the House Mistress brought into the City to help train them—practiced archery in the broad field behind them, the snap of their strings echoing across the flat ground. The sounds were straightforward, simple, comforting.
Nisha stepped away from the wall and pulled the dagger out of the wood. It was unexpectedly heavy, and she offered it hilt-first to Tanaya.
“I thought you were going to faint for a moment,” Tanaya said. She sheathed the dagger in the hidden belt under her tunic. Tanaya was two years older than Nisha and wore every inch of her eighteen years with authority. Her light hair shone like polished beech wood, and her smooth hands danced like butterflies. Nisha had the charcoal hair and amber skin so common in the Bhinian Empire, and her hands were rough and callused.
“You wouldn’t laugh if you ever dared to spar with me,” Nisha said, picking up her practice staff and lunging at Tanaya.
The older girl jumped back. “Careful! You know I’m not allowed to do anything that could cause bruising.” Tanaya’s voice was playful, but the smile slid from her eyes.
She dusted off her hands and started walking down the gray stone path that led to the House of Flowers, Nisha behind her.
“Besides, think how it would look. The future wife of the High Prince attacked by an assistant.” The good humor returned to Tanaya’s face, and she giggled. “Do you remember the first time you came to my House to deliver a message? You were so shy, all big, scared eyes and dark, dark hair hiding your face.”
Nisha grimaced. She’d been so nervous, but also proud to deliver messages to the grand House of Flowers. Her satisfaction had lasted only as long as it took for a group of Flower girls to decide she was an easy target in her plain gray asar and untidy braid. It was her first experience of the dangers that lurked in the corners of the City of a Thousand Dolls. But it hadn’t been her last.
The back of her neck prickled. Nisha’s steps slowed as the prickle spread from her neck to her shoulders. It was the feeling that had become all too familiar in the past few days, the feeling that someone was watching her. She stopped.
“What is it?” Tanaya asked.
“Hold on,” Nisha said, holding up a hand. She turned slowly, scanning the buildings around her. Then she saw the figure standing in the shadows of the armory.
It was Josei, the Mistress of the House of Combat, her hard stare fixed on Nisha.
Nisha whirled around and started walking.
Tanaya quickened her pace to keep up. “Nisha, what’s wrong?” she hissed.
“Look over by the armory,” Nisha said. “The House Mistress is watching me again.”
Tanaya looked around, and her eyes widened. “So she is. I wonder why she seems to be spying on you? Is she trying to get you into trouble?”
“I don’t know why she’d want to,” Nisha said. Without looking around, she could imagine the House Mistress perfectly, her rust-brown asar wrapped so it came only to her knees, the short sword at her side. Josei was lithe and muscular and moved like a wolf. Just being in her presence made Nisha feel clumsy and anxious.
Tanaya laughed. “She frightens you.”
“If you had any sense, she’d scare you, too.” But there was a very good reason why Tanaya wasn’t scared of Josei, or anyone. Tanaya was important.
Nisha’s fingers crept to the base of her neck. There was a mark that looked like a stylized tiger just under her collarbone, and she rubbed it absently.
“I know what will make you feel better.” Tanaya took her arm, and Nisha caught the delicate scent of the night-queen flower, Tanaya’s favorite scent. “I’ll let you borrow you one of my asars for tonight.”
Nisha felt her cheeks flush. “But your House wears Imperial Court asars. If Matron finds out, she’ll be furious.”
“So don’t tell her. Come on. You can wear the overrobe to hide it until you’re outside the walls. Don’t you want to wear something
for Devan for a change?”
Nisha looked down at her dirt-streaked tunic and felt herself waver.
“You can come and change into it now,” Tanaya said. “I have some time before my next lesson, and I can show you how to wrap it just right. Then you just have to stay out of sight until it’s time to meet Devan.” Tanaya’s voice was rich with confidence, the same confidence that she had shown on the day Nisha first met her.
The Flower girls had surrounded Nisha like a pack of wolves, teasing her for the plainness of her clothes and the untidiness of her hair. She remembered biting the inside of her cheek, trying desperately not to cry. And then … Tanaya, swooping down like a guardian spirit. Like the other girls in the House of Flowers, Tanaya was training to join the nobility. She wore a vivid yellow Court asar patterned with butterflies, and her mere presence seemed to bring light and heat to the courtyard as if there were a flame burning inside her.
Even then—before she’d ever been spoken for—Tanaya could command a crowd.
Don’t you girls have something better to do than stand here chattering like common starlings?
she’d asked, cold disdain in her deep-brown eyes. Tanaya had taken Nisha’s hand and pulled the astonished little girl away.
, she’d said with a smile that flew straight into Nisha’s lonely, uncertain heart.
But you can call me Tani
Nisha had adored her from that moment on. Even now, ten years later, she found it hard to refuse her friend anything. Tanaya made people want to please her. She would charm and tease until she got what she wanted, and she never, ever gave up.
“All right,” Nisha said. “But not a fine one. I’m going outside the walls, and I don’t want the dirt to ruin it.”