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The Grave at Storm’s End (Book 3 Vengeance Trilogy)

Vengeance has come.

Katashi Otako walks with the Vices, burning everything in his path. Now the spirit of Vengeance, he will stop at nothing to destroy Emperor Kin and take the Crimson Throne.

The empire is facing its greatest threat, and with Darius controlling Katashi from the shadows, Emperor Kin finds his every move pre-empted. Out of options, Kin and Hana must marry in secret to secure the support they need, but the ceremony takes seven days and seven days can change the world.

As the flames of vengeance engulf Kisia, Hana will have to fight for the right to defend her empire. A ruler must do what is necessary, but no choice is easy when the enemy is the man she once loved and the guardian she once trusted.

When gods fight, empires fall.

Sample Chapter

When gods walk, the ground trembles

When gods cry, the skies weep

When gods love, the world sings

When gods fight, empires fall

  

Chapter 1 – Hana

 

In darkness we waited. Silent. Tense. A group of Imperial Guards on the east bank of the Nuord River watching for the flash of a lantern.

It was a starless night, and under layers of leather and silk I carried my weight again in sweat. A helmet hid blonde curls. They can’t know, Kin had said to me. You’re just another soldier.

Beside me General Ryoji shifted his weight. He was little but an outline in the darkness, yet the blended scent of leather and sweat and cedar oil was impossible to mistake.

We had been waiting too long.

The smell changed and a whisper warmed my ear. ‘Are you all right, my lady?’

Despite the heat Tili’s voice trembled. General Ryoji had cautioned against her involvement as he had cautioned against the mission, but tradition dictated the presence of another woman, so another woman there would be. Kin would risk no mistake. And Tili was in his debt.

I nodded. ‘You?’

Despite the darkness I was sure she nodded back, but when I felt for her hand, I found it tightly clenched. I squeezed her hand and wondered how more surely an Empath could feel fear.

For weeks there had been nothing but bad news. First we had lost Risian. Then Lotan. News no longer arrived from the north and heavy losses stalked the heels of every victory like a plague we could not shake. We still held Kogahaera because of the Nuord River, its roar even now cutting the silence of an oppressive night.

‘We need to move,’ Kin said in a low rumble.

‘There’s been no signal, Majesty,’ General Ryoji returned.

‘If they’re dead they can’t signal.’

‘If they’re dead we should turn back.’

General Ryoji seemed to hold his breath, statue-still as he waited for a reply.

‘It’s too late for that, General. We go to Kuroshima without them.’

The general bowed, and again I wondered what Endymion might read in his rigidity that I could not. More than fear? More than the ill ease of a man ordered to act against his instinct?

‘Ji. Tanner,’ Ryoji said, speaking over my shoulder. ‘You’re with Lady Hana.’

‘General,’ I began. ‘I am armed and quite capable—’

‘Yes, my lady, but they have their orders.’

Ji and Tanner filled the space he left behind. They were often with me, but though I knew their names and their faces, I trusted neither the way I trusted Ryoji.

Our group started to move, but Tili remained pressed to my side as we climbed the gentle curve of the bridge. At the peak my sandal caught an uneven stone, but the press of soldiers was so close I could not fall, could only jog on as we descended into enemy territory – Otako territory. For years I had carried the name with pride, but tonight I would give it up to become Kin’s wife – Kin’s Empress.

As a child I had dreamed a very different wedding night.

Tili pressed closer, but although she hampered my movement I could not push her away. She had stuck with me too long for that, no sacrifice forgotten, though like Shin’s name they went unspoken.

We gained the far bank. Ahead light flickered through the dense shield of soldiers as it might through trees, glinting off buckles and patches of leather worn shiny with use.

‘Spread out.’

The soldiers slowed and fanned out, weapons drawn.

‘No, not you, my lady,’ General Ryoji said, once more appearing beside me.

‘How can we maintain the ruse if I do not do my job?’ I said.

‘This is not your job, my lady, but keeping you safe is mine.’

He moved away again, toward the pair of lanterns that marked the mountain path. At the top was Kisia’s oldest shrine, at the bottom two figures stood beneath an arbour of becalmed leaves. Both bowed as Kin approached, but when I went to join them Ji blocked my way with the flat of his blade. There was tension in every line of his body and his eyes darted, watching the soldiers move about the silent village. Without lanterns the distant buildings melded into the trees. Dark. Lifeless.

Tili drew closer. Seconds dragged by. At Kin’s side General Ryoji’s hand was as close to his sword as could be considered polite in the company of priests. At last he made a sign and Ji lowered his weapon. ‘My lady,’ he said, and bowed.

Tili and I joined them at the base of the mountain. Other soldiers gathered.

‘What’s going on?’ I hissed at General Ryoji. ‘What of our scouts?’

He glanced at the two priests. ‘They haven’t seen them.’

‘But they are experienced soldiers.’

‘Yes, my lady,’ he said.

‘They can’t have just gone missing.’

The general pulled at his bottom lip for a troubled instant. ‘No, my lady.’

‘It’s quiet. Is the village empty?’

‘All but, like we expected. The war is too close. Even at the base of the old mountain no one is safe.’

‘We are not alone here, General, the risk—’

‘The risk of being attacked while retreating is just as high, my lady,’ General Ryoji said, and I wondered if they were Kin’s words. ‘With none of the benefits of success. We go up.’

He moved on with a nod not a bow, maintaining the pretence that I was a mere soldier.

I edged toward Kin as a flotilla of paper lanterns spread light through the group. I kept one, but Kin refused with a small shake of his head.

‘This is too dangerous,’ I whispered. ‘We should leave.’

‘No, we proceed as planned, a group on each branch of the stairs.’

It was the priests he spoke to and they bowed, their hands sliding down robes burnished by lantern light. Kin did not look at me, just moved away toward the right branch of the stairs taking a group of guards with him. Half our men would stay behind. The rest would climb the left branch with me, braving all one thousand four hundred and forty-four steps to the Kuroshima Shrine.

The forest into which we climbed was thick and dark, our winking lanterns the only stars, our steps the only sound. One thousand four hundred and forty-four stairs, one for every day the goddess Lunyia had waited for her husband. She, the goddess of loyalty and fortune, to whom all Kisians prayed upon their marriage.

At two hundred and ten I gave up counting. A few steps ahead General Ryoji stopped. ‘Lim.’

‘General?’

I turned, swinging my lantern so fast the flame drew dangerously close to the paper. Behind me the guard identified as Lim touched a hand to his sword.

‘Run back down,’ the general said. ‘Tell Rashil to send for reinforcements.’

‘But General, there’s no sign of enemy movement and His Majesty said we could not risk—’

‘Send for reinforcements. There was nothing before the skirmish at Cherry Wood either,’ Ryoji said. ‘Or when they hit us south of Risian. If the bastards want to play games with us then this is the place they’ll choose. Send for reinforcements.’

‘Yes, General.’

Fast footsteps faded away down the steps and I turned back to see the general’s usually handsome features screwed into a scowl.

‘You would think by your expression that you want to be attacked, General,’ I said.

His eyes darted to my face and a rueful smile dawned. ‘Not exactly want, my lady, but I don’t like uncertainty.’

‘They can’t know we’re here. We were too careful.’

Everyone had stopped to listen.

‘Yes, my lady, but Lord Laroth has a habit of knowing things he ought not. I cannot say I liked the man, but only a fool would not respect his skill.’

Darius and I had argued often, but never had I thought to find him truly my enemy. Even after so many weeks it still felt wrong.

A grimace crossed General Ryoji’s face. ‘Apologies, my lady, I did not—’

‘You expressed no thought I have not had myself, General,’ I said. ‘And if you’re right we had better keep moving.’

The whole procession began to move again, faster now as though our enemy were right behind us. I tried not to think about the burning in my thighs and stared instead at the hem of the novice’s white robe as it eddied, ghost-like, about his feet. White robe, white sash, and plain reed sandals. It was an impractical colour for all but those who spent their lives in pursuit of piety.

‘We are almost there, my lady,’ the novice said at last, turning his head enough to show a cheek glistening with sweat.

I made no answer. My whole body ached. One thousand four hundred and forty-four steps from the village to the shrine had left me cursing my robe, my armour, my helmet, and the heavy soldier’s sandals that were like a weight upon each foot.

My stomach dropped as the last step vanished beneath me.

‘Welcome to Kuroshima, my lady,’ the novice said, halting beneath an arch of tangled branches hung with wildflowers. Beside me General Ryoji’s steps crunched to a halt upon the path, light spilling onto his feet. Inside Kin would be waiting. I had asked him to marry me, but it was he, not I, who had sped every formal process to bring us here.

Kuroshima was old and I had expected grand and imposing, not the cosy bird’s hollow I found beyond the arch. There was no gleaming woodwork or fine art, just a simple curved wall of interlocking iron branches rising to form a low, rounded ceiling hung with tiny paper lanterns.

Kin stood in the opposite archway, watching a priest approach across the slate floor. Every fourth tile was painted a jarring red, and whether by accident or design the man avoided them entirely.

‘Your Majesty, it is an honour to welcome you to Kuroshima,’ he said, bowing very low.

‘Thank you, Father,’ Kin returned, gesturing for the man to rise. ‘I have long wished to witness so great a part of our empire’s history, and what better occasion than upon the event of my own marriage.’

He wore serenity like a blanket. Bowed again. ‘Indeed, Your Majesty. We are honoured beyond words.’

Although Kin smiled he did not speak again, leaving the priest to glance around in search of the bride. His gaze hung for a moment upon Tili, a slight frown between his brows at so curvaceous a soldier.

I pulled off my helmet. Sweat-dampened curls fell loose upon my brow and the old priest stared, sucking in a breath before sinking into another low bow. ‘Lady Hana Otako, our shrine is humbled indeed.’

‘You are too kind, Father,’ I said, aware that every eye was on me. ‘There is little that could humble so old and so beautiful a construction as Kuroshima. We are transient, but it endures. Before we begin I require somewhere to make myself presentable.’

The man’s eyes bulged and he glanced at our novice guide. A silent heartbeat passed before the father bowed. ‘Of course, my lady, follow me.’

Once again avoiding the red slates, he led me toward the opposite archway. My armour clinked with every step. I caught Kin’s eye as we passed, but though his lips smiled his eyes did not. His attention, like General Ryoji’s, was elsewhere.

The priest led the way to a small pavilion off the main path. It had a simple reed floor and walls lined with spare robes, white sashes, prayer chains and pouches of fresh incense. Its smell filled every breath with the taste of sandalwood.

Tili followed. Frowning, the father was moved to speak, but I stopped him. ‘My maid, Father,’ I said. ‘We could not be too careful.’

Tili removed her helmet and bowed to the old priest. ‘Father.’

His disapproval did not shift, but with a sharp nod he left, ignoring Ji and Tanner as they took up silent vigil outside the door. There was urgency despite the calm night, and before the door closed my sword belt and weapons were on the floor. Whatever other conventions I had persuaded Kin to set aside, I could not kneel before the Shrine Stone armed.

‘Help me out of this,’ I said, tugging at the soldier’s knot that held my crimson sash. It went first, followed by the leather tunic and its linen under robe, gauntlets and breeches – every trapping of the common soldier made to size and strapped over my ceremonial robe. Its beautiful silk was creased, but arriving dishevelled was a small price to pay. No one watching our progress from the camp at Kogahaera would have reason to suspect Lady Hana made up one of the party. They might recognise Emperor Kin, but what could be more natural than an Emperor making a pilgrimage to Kuroshima in a time of war?

I ran my fingers through my hair and Tili straightened my robe as best she could. We did not speak. There was little to say, and we had not been good at small talk of late. Shin’s name hovered between us, strangling every attempt to resurrect what we had once had.

A knock fell upon the door. ‘My lady?’

I had no mirror to be sure I was ready, but there was no time to do more. ‘Enter,’ I said, running my hands down my creased skirt.

The door slid to reveal the novice who had been our guide. ‘I’m sorry, my lady, but Father Hoto is anxious to begin.’

The young man stared directly at me as he spoke, not effacing his gaze as etiquette required.

My pulse quickened. ‘He sent you?’

‘Yes, my lady, he is anxious to begin the ceremony.’ Still he did not drop his gaze and I hunted his face for some clue of what he was trying to tell me. No fear that I could see, no meaningful glance at my sword.

‘Then I will of course come at once,’ I said, and only then did he step aside to let me pass.

Back outside the air was humid, the night quiet. I tried to make eye contact with Ji and Tanner as I passed, but neither were used to looking at me. All I could do was stride toward the main hollow, counting the steps behind me. Tanner. Ji. The novice. Tili at my side. No surprises, yet I was fretful with only stiff silk at my hip.

The scene I found inside the shrine halted my steps and quickened my breath. Father Hoto knelt at the Shrine Stone, a knife pressed into the sinews of his neck. Behind him stood soldiers in Katashi’s black, hooded and anonymous, while Kin’s soldiers faced them across the red slate floor.

‘Why, Lady Hana, you have kept us waiting.’

I looked at the knife wielder then. Blond. Handsome. His features familiar.

‘Who are you?’

There was a grunt behind me and Ji crumpled, his blood spraying over my feet. The novice pressed a bloodied knife to Tanner’s throat. ‘Don’t even think about moving, my lady,’ he said, his white robe splattered with blood.

‘You—’

‘Yes, me.’

He had stared right at me, not in warning, but in challenge. Challenging me to recognise him. I had made the pilgrimage in company with a Pike.

‘She’s thinking about moving,’ said the man behind the Shrine Stone. No one had moved, this man holding every gaze like a player upon a stage. Kin’s soldiers hovered out of range like wary cats.

‘As you can see, your companions have not been welcoming,’ he said to me, constructing a forlorn expression as he eyed the armed men surrounding him. ‘And to think I only came to give you this gift.’

He gestured to the Shrine Stone. There lay a black sash instead of white. ‘It’s a more appropriate colour, don’t you think?’

No one moved. No one spoke. All eyes were on this man. ‘No? You don’t get it?’ he said, when no one answered. ‘The sash of a whore instead of an innocent bride?’

‘I’ll slit your slanderous accusations from your throat,’ General Ryoji said.

The man clicked his tongue. ‘My my, General Ryoji, how venomous you are toward your guests. But—’ he nodded at Father Hoto. ‘You need him, don’t you? He’s the only one here qualified to perform a marriage ceremony.’

The man laughed suddenly and removed his knife from the priest’s throat. Father Hoto fell in front of the black-clad soldiers, curled up like a child.

‘Father Hoto.’ The intruder knelt at the Shrine Stone. ‘Would you do the honours?’ He didn’t wait for a response, but pursed his lips piously. ‘I, Conceit,’ he said, mimicking a ceremony, ‘most trusted of the Eye of Vice, pray the gods never saddle me with such a whore for a wife. I would not wish my children to be born of such loose loins, smeared by the seed of so many men as they claw their way into this world.’

Conceit. One of Malice’s men.

‘Shut him up,’ Kin ordered. ‘Now.’

Conceit seemed not to hear. ‘In the eyes of the gods,’ he said, ‘I offer the Imperial Whore this black sash—’

An arrow leapt for the unguarded Vice and hit him full in the chest. But there was no satisfying crack of bone. No gush of blood. The arrow clattered uselessly off the wall as Conceit disappeared.

From across the Shrine Stone a new Conceit laughed. ‘I, Lady Hana Otako, the Imperial Whore,’ the second Conceit continued in a high-pitched voice. ‘Cannot wait seven days to have my robe torn off. Take me now, commoner, give me your enormous—’

The second Conceit rolled as another arrow came for him.

‘Ha! Now we’re playing,’ he said, leaping to his feet. ‘You would shoot a woman making her prayers?’ He clicked his tongue reprovingly and behind him the small group of hooded Pikes drew their swords.

‘Hold your ground,’ Kin growled at his men.

‘Is this how you treat every guest bearing wedding gifts?’ Conceit asked as he drew the deadly sickle Malice gave to every Vice in his service. The man was still smiling, but now it was predatory.

‘No,’ Kin said. ‘This is how I treat foul-mouthed traitors. Cut him down!’

As one body the Imperial Guards advanced. Ji had died before drawing his sword, but I snatched it up and ran in on anger-fuelled steps.

‘My lady, stay back!’

‘Don’t you dare tell me I have no right to defend my own name!’ I shouldered the concerned guard out of the way.

Dark figures swarmed. Shouts. A scream. Words lost to the choked air. I dodged a clumsy swing and charged on, looking for the man who called himself Conceit. He, a flash of blond amid the chaos. Curls of incense smoke framed his tragically beautiful face.

‘Why, Lady Hana,’ he said, arching high brows over dead eyes. ‘We’ve never been introduced, but I’ve spent a long time watching you.’

‘Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you,’ I growled, jabbing at his gut.

Conceit danced out of the way, laughing. ‘I didn’t mean what I said, you know. I’d have you no matter how many men had loosened you up first.’

Anger took control and I thrust wildly. A lighter sword might have touched him, but I hadn’t the strength to send this heavy lump of steel through his chest.

‘Dressing like a man doesn’t suit you,’ he said. ‘And that sword makes you clumsy. Perhaps your beloved Kin doesn’t wish you well armed. Here, have mine.’

He threw his sword up and caught it by the blade. All confidence, he held it out to me. ‘Call it a wedding gift.’

I swung at his outstretched arm, prepared to hit bone. But there was no resistance, no real flesh, and I fell off balance as the blade passed through him. Conceit did not retaliate, just stood there with a hurt expression and one arm missing. ‘My lady, I was only being kind.’

I thrust my sword into his gut. I knew there would be nothing, that I was only fuelling my anger, but rage had me in its grasp. Conceit’s laughing face disappeared, yet my blade found flesh. Black sash. Black short robe. A Pike, his shocked cry like the wail of a bird.

The Pike dropped his sword, his slim hands fluttering in panic as he plucked at my sleeve. Beneath the hood his shadowed features looked youthful.

‘I…I…’ He gulped for breath, like a man drowning in a storm. Then a high-pitched moan and a gesture of despair that was all too feminine.

A woman. Dressed in black.

‘Shivatsa!’ I looked into the dying whore’s face. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

Blood oozed down her chin and bubbled in her mouth as she tried to speak and only managed to spit crimson.

‘I’m so sorry.’ I yanked the sword free and she fell to her knees. ‘Stop!’ I shouted. ‘Stop! Don’t kill them, they aren’t Pikes!’

No one seemed to hear me, but it hardly mattered. Bodies littered the floor. Most wore black, only a few crimson sashes there to break the monotony. Conceit was nowhere to be seen. His flair for the dramatic had left behind a massacre.

Someone grabbed my arm. ‘What in the name of the gods do you think you’re doing?’ Kin demanded. ‘How many times have I told you not to do anything foolish?’

‘Foolish?’ I snapped back. ‘Is it foolish to defend my honour? You gave me a sword.’

‘To disguise you as a soldier, yes, not for you to fight with.’

I fought to swallow my rage and said: ‘The man who taught me to fight once commanded your army.’

‘Darius is a traitor.’

‘And so too would I be if I did not fight! Katashi—’

Kin snarled. ‘Don’t you dare throw his name in my face. I will not let your cousin’s actions dictate mine. In seven days you will be my wife and I will not let you run unprotected into battle.’

‘Then as you are to be my husband, I will not let you run unprotected into battle either. Shall we dig out an Errant board and sit back while others fight for us?’

He gave a disgusted snort. ‘You make a drama of everything, my lady,’ he said. ‘An emperor should lead his men into battle, even when the enemy are masquerading whores.’

Kin held out his hand for the sword. My grip on it tightened. ‘I am the daughter of an emperor,’ I said in a soft growl, the words only for him. ‘I will not sit idle and become nothing but a pretty doll for your ministers to leer at. Darius believed in me. Katashi made me a captain and let me fight with his men. You gave me your word and I expect you to honour it, Your Majesty.’

I threw the sword at his feet, the clang of metal on stone loud in the silent space. Kin did not flinch. ‘I told you not to throw Katashi in my face,’ he said, speaking just as quietly. ‘There are enough whispers about you and him to fill The Valley. I don’t need more.’

My heart pounded against my ribs, and the shrine full of dead whores and soldiers faded to nothing but Katashi’s airy chuckle brushing past my ear.

There’s no need to tremble, I’ll be gentle with you.

‘I need you safe, Hana, not dead,’ Kin said, neatening the fall of his bloodstained robe. ‘This is me. This is the man you asked to marry. If it was just the throne you wanted then Katashi would have been a better choice.’

He walked away on the words, already gesturing to General Ryoji. ‘Keep guard in case that kasu comes back,’ he said. The general nodded and moved away leaving Kin to contemplate the mess. ‘Father Hoto!’

The dishevelled and trembling priest peered over the top of the Shrine Stone. ‘Y-your Majesty?’

‘How long were they waiting for us?’

‘S-since this morning, Your Majesty. They k-killed my novices and said that if I did not p-play my part they w-would kill you and Lady Hana too.’ The man straightened, folding his hands together to hide their shaking. ‘I am terribly sorry, Your Majesty, I am wholly at your mercy.’

‘I have no need of a dead priest,’ Kin snapped. ‘Do your job and you may consider yourself forgiven for your part in tonight’s farce.’

‘My job?’

‘I came here to be married, Father Hoto, and married I will be.’

The priest blinked rapidly, then nodded. ‘As you wish, Your Majesty,’ he said, crushing the links of a prayer chain in his hand. ‘Then if you would care to… care to kneel at the um… at the Shrine Stone, we shall begin.’

‘Clear the stones!’ General Ryoji ordered and his men began dragging away the dead, leaving bloody trails on already red stones. One was the Pike who had worn the robe of a novice and led me up the mountain.

‘My lady,’ Kin said, indicating the Shrine Stone. ‘Would you do me the honour?’

I went to him, stepping over a woman no older than myself. Her throat was a bloodied mess and her limbs were tangled. Broken. The stink of blood and fluids mixed with the incense and it was all I could do not to be sick.

Kin seemed not to see the dead. He knelt at the Shrine Stone and waited until I joined him. Once again the night was silent.

Father Hoto clasped his trembling hands. ‘Our goddess the Lady Lunyia,’ he said, seeming to draw comfort from habitual words. ‘Mother of the moon and the rivers and the springs, turn your gaze upon us that you might hear our words and bless this union we have gathered to declare.’

The black sash was gone, whisked away in the chaos leaving a white one draped in its place.

But Conceit had been right.

The thud of my heart drowned the rest of Father Hoto’s words. This was it. From here there was no going back. At the end of the ceremony Father Hoto would tie the sash around my waist and there it would remain for seven days, after which the rite would be complete and my husband would untie it with his own hands. It was tradition, just like the colour. White to mark the virgin bride. But it was not Kin’s hands I knew, not his touch I remembered in the middle of the night. It was Katashi who came to me in the darkness of my tent, his naked body strong and heavy, musky and sweet. His hands on my hips, caressing, grasping, his warm breath stealing past my ear as he chuckled at my desire.

‘Emperor Kin Ts’ai, first of your name, Lord Protector of the Kisian Empire,’ the priest said, shocking me from my reverie. ‘You may now speak your prayers.’

Kin shifted, pulling crimson silk from beneath one knee so the skirt could spread neatly. It was the very same robe in which he had first asked me to marry him for the sake of Kisia, the very same robe I had wanted to spit on.

‘I pray the gods hear my words,’ Kin said, his head bowed such that his neat topknot stood proud. ‘I, Kin Ts’ai, Emperor of the Imperial Expanse of Kisia, pray for your blessing upon my marriage. This day, in your presence, I offer this bridal sash to Lady Hana Aura Otako. Its knot is tied to mend what is broken, and to bring peace to Kisia. This woman I take in good faith and honour, and will protect as my own blood from this day until death.’

I shivered as Kin’s voice faded from the air.

‘Lady Hana,’ Father Hoto said. ‘First and only daughter of Emperor Lan Otako, you may now speak your prayer.’

The soldiers continued to shift bodies as quietly as they could and I tried not to think about it, tried to breathe evenly as I spread my own skirt with shaking hands. The robe had been procured from Mei’lian especially for the occasion – pale pink and embroidered with shimmering gold threads that caught on my dry fingers.

Beside me the ghost of Katashi edged closer through the stink of death.

‘I, Lady Hana Aura Otako, first and only daughter of His Majesty the Great Emperor Lan Otako, kneel now before the gods in acceptance. In humility I beg to be found worthy of such honour and will serve my duties with patience and fortitude.’

We had fought over the words. They were traditional, like the sash and the ceremony. As Kin’s empress I would have a position of power, but as his wife I was expected to be submissive.

‘You may rise.’

Kin did so easily, so used to the great skirt of his robe that he neither stepped on it nor had to kick it out of the way. It wore him as naturally as he wore it.

Mine was more awkward, and Father Hoto held out a helping hand. I did not take it, just stared at the soft wrinkles criss-crossing every finger. The hand was withdrawn and I got to my feet, standing tall and proud while Father Hoto took up the sash. Chanting another prayer to Lunyia, he passed the white silk around my waist. It tightened, as Katashi’s hold had tightened, his hands skimming my naked skin like a sculptor appreciating form.

At my belly the old man’s hands moved quickly, tying the knot a woman only wore once in her life. It was commonly called the Chastity Knot, a complex little flower with long tails, famous for the difficulty of untying it. There was a trick to it, I had heard, a simple tug in the right place and it would unravel, but there were many stories of husbands left to struggle by wives who feared consummation.

Father Hoto let the tails fall and stepped back to appreciate his handiwork. The story would be altered of course, cleaned of bloodshed, but soon every nobleman in Kisia would want his prospective bride gift-wrapped by the hands that had tied Lady Hana for their emperor.

‘Under the divine gaze of the great goddess Lunyia,’ he said. ‘And in the presence of all those gathered tonight, I declare that after the sevenday, the marriage between Emperor Kin Ts’ai, first of his name, and Lady Hana Aura Otako, only daughter of the late Emperor Lan Otako, will be complete. Long live Emperor Kin.’

Amid blood and lifeless flesh the circle of guards bowed, a military witness to a marriage made in war. ‘Long live Emperor Kin.’

 

 

 

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