Authors: Katy Moran
wiftarrow knelt at the Empress’s feet, bowing low. How long would she make him wait? His forehead pressed against the well-shone cedar floorboards, his right arm brushed the edge of a Persian carpet. To crush his irritation he counted, half listening to the jumble of voices and laughter. Artists, poets, well-known wits and historians claiming ancient knowledge: all flocked to the Empress whenever she wished to be amused.
“Such deep-black brush-strokes – ah, my dear! – and such exquisite misery” … “If you’d heard what she said next, Lady Xiang, you would have flushed scarlet…”
And all of them speaking more or less nothing but nonsense – terrified out of their senses,
Swiftarrow thought. He tried to ignore the scent of hot rice wine mingling with steamed rose oil. Early-blooming peonies floated in porcelain bowls scattered about the Imperial chamber. Below the clamour of chattering courtiers, Swiftarrow heard quick, nervy footsteps and panicked breathing. Servants, flitting about the chamber, removing flowers the moment they began to wilt, replacing them with fresh ones. The servants had every right to be afraid. Only the last ten-night a maid at the Xingqing Palace was drowned in a courtyard well. Why? A vase with a fingerprint that no one managed to wipe off before the Empress caught sight of it.
She treats men and women as nothing more than fleas – to be crushed with scarcely a thought.
Swiftarrow squeezed his eyes shut, fighting anger. He had not killed so much as a fly since the summer of his fourth year, when his mother had died and he had been sent to the temple of the Forbidden Garden.
Seven, eight, nine, ten,
“Rise, little Shaolin, my pretty pet.” The Empress spoke in a girlish tone that sent a chill down the back of Swiftarrow’s neck.
Very well, O Imperial Majesty. Let me hear your wisdom
. He sat back on his heels, still kneeling, head bowed.
For the briefest moment, quiet settled on the chamber, and Swiftarrow felt the heat of many eyes watching him.
“What do you all stare at?” the Empress snapped. “Your mouths hang open like the maws of my golden carp when they wish to feed. It is desperately unappealing.”
“Indeed Your Imperial Majesty is right,” said a drawling, familiar voice. “I beg you, dear friends, do not look at the boy too long. He will grow conceited.” Lord Fang: how many years was it since Swiftarrow had last seen him? Seven? Or was it eight?
Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen,
Don’t let him anger you. Don’t allow it.
“Of course, Lord Fang. Surely the boy’s conceit is not an accident of birth?”
Noise broke out again – mirthless terrified laughter, more chatter, but Swiftarrow did not bother sifting through the clamour to hear what reply Lord Fang made.
Most likely for the best,
Swiftarrow thought, grimly. He pushed Lord Fang from his mind, hiding him away like an unwanted robe at the bottom of a clothes chest.
“Listen to me, boy,” said the Empress. Her voice hissed like wind through a forest of bamboo. “I have a task for you.” She paused, and Swiftarrow guessed she was smiling. He was not fool enough to look at her uninvited. “Word has reached me that far beyond the western desert my husband’s barbarian subjects whisper of rebellion. From his sickbed, my esteemed husband has despatched one General Li to hunt down the Horse Tribes and destroy them.” The Empress sighed. “Unfortunately, this Li has not the wit of a toad, and the Tribes, though they are filthy and foolish, are most excessively cunning. They are certain to evade him. I wish you to go with the general, O my little half-bred Shaolin, and make sure that he succeeds. It is essential to the happiness of my dear husband that you do so. Do you understand?”
The Horse Tribes
, Swiftarrow thought.
She wants me to betray my own mother’s people
But she was the Empress and what choice did he have? It was not only his life that hung in the balance, utterly at her mercy.
Swiftarrow paused for only the briefest moment.
“O Your Imperial Majesty, Light of Light, I shall do whatever you command or lose my life in trying.”
The Empress laughed. “I know you will succeed. After all, I am sure you would not wish your beautiful sister to meet with any harm. Believe me, boy, life as a courtesan is full of danger. One has so many jealous rivals. Or at least I did but, as you can see, I have bettered them all. Let us hope the famed White Swan has the wit to do the same.” She giggled. “Only pray she has not the ambition to take my place. If she does, I will be forced to have the teeth pulled out of her skull.”
Swiftarrow drew in a long, steady breath, glad the Empress could not see his face but praying the sheer, cold depth of his rage did not show in his stance.
If you dare hurt my sister, O Imperial Majesty, I will make you sorry. I will find a way.
“Autumn Moon has trained you well in the Forbidden Garden,” the Empress went on, and then fell silent a moment, as if turning over a thought in her mind. “General Li is a prideful man: he must believe that I expect him to find the Tribes alone. So I should like you to do one other thing for me on your journey to the west, and Li will think it your only task.”
“Your Majesty must only tell me, and it shall be done.”
“The Shaolin have served me well of late. I wish to have another one like you. When you ride to the west, boy, bring me a barbarian for Autumn Moon to teach. Half-bred or full-blooded, I care not. But I think it shall be of great use to me to have another Shaolin with the courage and horse-craft of the Tribes.” The Empress laughed again. It sounded like broken glass. “Do you see, boy? I may be the wife of an emperor, but I still know my housekeeping. I have set a rat to catch a rat.”
lie with my face in the dust, head turned to one side. Stones and grit bite into my cheek, tickle my ear, but I cannot move. Arrows thump into the ground no more than a hand span away. The earth shakes with drumming hoofbeats. Men on horseback armed with spears and bows. A woman falls beside me, her face next to mine. Blood trickles from a corner of her mouth, thick and dark. Her eyes are open but she is dead: she has no spirit-horse and her body is nothing but an empty shell. Grey strands of hair hang across her brow, waiting for someone to brush them away. No one will.
How long have I got before they come for me? How long before I die?
Among the screaming and the din of battle, I hear soft, quick footfalls. I catch the rank scent of wet dog only stronger, sharper. Not dog.
Using the last of my strength, I turn my head. Here he is, dark and brindled grey with scarcely any white in his fur. A shadow-wolf. I should be afraid. I’m not. It is like looking down at my own hand. Light flickers about this beast as if he is made of fire, not flesh, bones and hunger like other wolves.
The wolf draws nearer, moving with quick, silent grace. He pays no heed to the dead woman at my side, even though the scent of her blood must still be hot and good. His eyes are bright, darker than a handful of earth after rain. I reach out with my mind, sifting through the wolf’s inner self as I would with a mare or one of my uncle’s hounds. He doesn’t dream of the kill, or being safe and warm with his clan, or running free, like most of the wolf-kind, because he is not really a wolf: he is a spirit. My guide when I slip beyond a dream’s edge and stray from the world of men; I am a shaman, and he is mine.
says my wolf-spirit,
or this time will come
How can I stop it?
But he is already gone.
I wake with a jerk, breathless. It’s still dark in the tent. That dream again, stalking me night after night. I lie shivering, clutching the blanket about my shoulders. It’s cold.
It’s no ordinary dream. It is a message. Falling arrows and a dead woman? I don’t like this. Who would?
“Help me keep danger from our fireside.” My prayer is swept up with the thin trails of smoke still drifting from the fireplace and out through the smoke-let in the top of the tent. Up to the sky, straight to the spirits.
I hope they listen.
Rolling over in the blanket, I sit up, peering across the shadowy tent at Mama, a sleeping hump wrapped in rugs, her spirit-horse a sleepy silver flicker just by her left shoulder. The place at her side is still empty. Baba and the rest of the men will be home with the next new moon, rich with spices and other treasures got for last year’s fine foals, and tales from the Roads, too. Till then, Mama must sleep with no one to hold her. On the far side of the hearth, Shaman Tulan lies still beneath a mound of hides and rugs: he has been sleeping since we broke our fast yesterday morning.
He’s just old,
Mama said last night, trying to hide her swelling sorrow. We both know that Tulan is making ready to leave us for the next life. Where’s his spirit-horse? Gone. He’s not asleep, then. His spirit has left his body. My heart pounds.
, I beg him silently.
You can’t leave me yet. I’m not ready to do this alone, herding the souls of our people the way Shemi and I herd goats up the pasture.
I lean forwards, looking closer. The pile of rugs rises and falls gently, again and again: there is still breath in Tulan’s body. He is not dead but only travelling again – away with his spirit-horse and his own eagle-guide in the World Above. I shiver, even wrapped in my blanket.
I push away my covers and lie listening to the rain, watching gnat-sized droplets fall through the smoke-hole above and sizzle in the hearth’s embers. I hate waking before dawn. It’s when the bad thoughts come creeping into my head like spiders, scuttling about till I’ve no hope of sleeping again.
Yesterday, when the sun rose above the eastern mountains, my friends rode out to hunt: Shemi, Tela, Yan and sour-faced Unnap.
“I think it’s a shame you can’t come with us any more,” Tela said, not quite meeting my eye. “It’s not fair you’re forbidden to hunt.” Her spirit-horse pranced, skittish, ears laid flat against her head. Tela tries to hide it, but she has been afraid of me since last summer, when old Tulan gave me the rites and I became a true shaman.
“No use mourning what can’t be mended,” I told her, forcing a smile.
“She would only scare away the beasts with her fiery souls,” Yan called. He grinned at me but his smile was brittle like a crust of new ice on the Winter Lake. “You know the shaman can never hunt. Come, Tela, we cannot wait.”
Yan helped Tela up into her saddle and they all rode away to the lake to shoot ducks. Like the rest of us, Tela has been riding since before she could walk. She is well able to mount by herself, but she just smiled at him.
Just as well my tribe forbids me to love a boy as Tela loves Yan,
I tell myself.
At least I shall be spared such shameful weakness
. But tears burn my eyes and slip hot down my face. It is not fair. I did not choose to be born with the spirit of a wolf-cub leaping after me into the world. I did not choose to be born seeing the souls of men and women: silver spirit-horses bucking with joy or peaceful and still – always betraying to me folks’ true thoughts and most secret feelings. My powers come at a cost: not only am I forbidden to hunt, I am also forbidden to love. When I was young, I asked Tulan why he did not have a woman and a tent of his own.