In Shadows We Fall
Winner of the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novella
You will die. Your children will die. The empire will burn.
Empress Li is out of favour at court. Foreign-born and past her prime, she is to be set aside. But she won’t go quietly. With nothing left to lose, Li will do anything to stop Emperor Lan signing a secret alliance that could tear the empire apart. Yet when her life is threatened, old mistakes come back to haunt her and only a three-year-old boy can change the course of history.
With everything at stake, could an innocent child be the best assassin?
Kisia – Winter 1355
Creeping is a stupid thing to do if you don’t want to be seen. Wearing black is equally suspicious. The greatest asset of any assassin isn’t the ability to go unseen, it is the ability to be seen and yet go unremarked.
I strode along the passage, through pools of darkness and onto their lit shores. Most of the light came from the hearts of intricately carved lanterns hanging overhead like suns, but nearing the corner diffuse light glowed through a screen door. A soft laugh. Footsteps. I walked on wondering who Lady Zin was entertaining tonight. As she got older her men only seemed to get younger.
My wooden sandals snapped upon the wooden floor, but though I cared little for stealth my heartbeat snapped with them. It had sped to a panic the moment I left my room and there it stayed, turning my stomach sick.
It has to be done. It has to be done.
Despite the late hour a servant bustled toward me, a tray balanced on one hand. They stopped. Bowed. Scurried on. I tried not to hurry, though the thud of my rapid pulse urged speed.
It has to be done.
The door came into sight, a flicker dancing upon its paper panes. Still awake, but there was nothing for it. I could only hope he was alone as I had not come prepared to nick the throats of two.
The felt runner hushed the slide of the door. Inside a lamp flickered low, its light touching the dark hair of a man kneeling at the table. His head had slumped forward onto his arm and for a tense moment I thought him already dead, but he snuffled and ground his teeth and slept on.
The door slid silently closed.
A lump moved upon the sleeping mat, more snuffling proving the existence of the fair company I had dreaded. Perhaps now stealth would not be such a terrible plan. If the woman was smart and slept on then she would not have to die.
No wooden boards here, but my steps caused the reed matting to crackle – no more than the crackle of a fire, but enough to disturb a light sleeper. Step. Pause. Nothing. My fingers found the worn leather of the knife hilt in my sash. Step. Pause. The man dozed on. He had been writing, the half finished letter caught under a bent arm.
Not a moment too soon.
My knife failed to glint dramatically in the light, but it did not fail to pierce the soft skin of the man’s neck. His throat offered resistance like aged meat, but I had no time for finesse. I ripped the blade through it, spraying blood. His eyes opened. He wheezed. Bubbled. Failed. Crimson spilled upon the page before I could snatch it away, though snatch it away I did. Just as wide, fearful eyes found me they began to roll back, though whether he recognised my face I would never know.
A flailing arm caught the lantern sending it tumbling onto the matting. No crash of broken glass, but the flame flickered and died as its owner died, a last sigh heralding the beginning of his next journey – judgement.
Movement sounded from the mat. “Irash?”
With no time to stow the dripping blade, I darted for the door, heart in my throat. But as I touched the wooden frame light flared, basking the room in a tender golden glow. A young woman sat upon the mat, her hair in some semblance of a Lady’s Knot though she was no lady. A yiji brought in for the entertainment of an important guest, perhaps, although it didn’t matter. Her quick fingers had doomed her.
“Empress Li!” the woman dropped the flint box and flattened herself into a bow upon the fine silk coverlet. “Your Imperial Majesty, I am but your humble servant.”
“Then I am very sorry,” I said, walking toward the sleeping mat. I had not wanted anyone else to die. But it needed to be done and discovery ‒ even suspicion ‒ would be the end. The emperor was not a forgiving man.
“Sorry?” The girl sat back up and her eyes darted to the dead man for the first time, the sight paling her face despite its thick paint. “Y-Your Majesty, please, I will never tell a soul, I swear. Please let me go.”
I knelt beside her and she flinched, but did not run. Servants did not run from an empress.
“Please, you cannot do this to me,” she said, lifting her hands in supplication. “Please!”
“I can,” I said. “And I must. Because I know what he will do to me if he finds out.”
She rasped her last breaths as the man had done, blood gushing down her neck to stain her nightrobe. Her eyes widened too, hands clinging to me as every gurgled gasp became more of a struggle. I wanted to push her away and run, to let her die where I did not have to see, but I could not. This, I told myself, holding her gaze while the last of her life drained away, is what he has brought me to. But this is nothing to the ruin that is coming.
Numb, unsteady steps took me back to my apartments, the girl’s blood smeared upon the crimson silk of my robe. I had once heard that crimson was the imperial colour so that imperial soldiers could hide their injuries in battle. Whether it was true or not I was grateful for it now. Grateful too that the inner palace appeared to be asleep. I passed no one in the passages, saw no living creature until I came to my own rooms where two Imperial Guards stood sentry.
“Your Majesty,” they said. Neither so much as glanced at my bloodstained hands. Nor did they bow. It was not wise for a soldier on duty to let down his guard, even in the demonstration of proper respect.
“Koto. Cheng.” I nodded to each in turn. “I heard some very odd noises while I was taking my nightly walk and I am afraid there might be intruders. Do check my rooms to be sure no one is lying in wait.”
Nods. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
Though wisdom dictated that one should remain outside on guard, they both entered, Koto in front and Cheng closing the door behind. My apartments were warm and inviting after the chill horror of the emissary’s room. A woven carpet covered part of the matting floor and an army of braziers warmed the air. Painted screens and decorative vases of dry flowers spoke much of Kisia’s culture, but whatever lies history tried to spin for the people it would not keep enemies at bay. Neither would their gods.
“It is done then?” Koto said, his eyes hard beneath slanting brows.
“It is done,” I said. “Unfortunately he had a woman with him.”
The man paced across the floor with heavy booted steps. “It should buy us time.”
“The only question is how much time.” Cheng folded his arms and leaned against the doorframe. “I don’t like how fast this is moving.”
“For all we know he could have been planning this even before the treaty was signed,” I said, clenching and unclenching my fists as the blood dried.
Cheng grunted, the lines of his aging face wrinkling in disgust. “Exactly the sort of thing he would do. He is not going to be pleased about this.”
“That’s why we did it,” Koto said.
“Why I did it,” I interrupted. “Do not forget whose hands are stained.” I held out my blood-stained fingers for emphasis. “Do not forget who is risking everything.”
Koto bowed then. “We do not forget, Majesty, but we are in this mess together now.”
“Mess is right,” Cheng muttered from the doorway. “I ought to have retired already and be well out of it. Ought to have gone back to the farm.”
“But you did not, dear friend,” I said.
“More fool me!”
For a moment there was no sound above the hiss and click of the braziers. In the outer palace the business of ruling Kisia never stopped, and beyond its walls the city of Mei’lian never slept, but here in the very heart of the empire there was only silence.
“And the oligarch?” Cheng again, not having moved from the doorway. He had been the most reluctant conspirator, yet there was no one I trusted more.
“I’m working on it,” Koto said, the harsh lines of his face deepening to ferocity. “I have gained access to an informant inside his household. It’s not going to be easy, but if we can’t get to him then we’ll have to involve the ministers.”
Cheng grimaced. “A dangerous road.”
Though Koto snorted I had to agree. The Minister of the Left and the Minister of the Right were the Emperor’s chief advisors, the ones he relied upon above all others. But they were also men who would not take kindly to being kept in the dark, or to finding out the emperor was making deals with pirates and barbarians behind their backs.
“Scoff all you want, Captain,” Cheng said. “I’m a simple man, always have been and hope I always will be, but I’ve been here more years than you’ve been able to—” a glance at me. “…shave. And I can tell you that making the truth known might well quash the emperor’s plans, but if it doesn’t lead to a coup or a war with his brother then you can call me a bear’s—” another glance my way, this time accompanied with a wry grin. “…Grandmother.”
“I think we are on informal enough terms now to dispense with such niceties,” I said. “If we have to involve the ministers and no war follows, I’ll be quite happy to call you a bear’s cock, Cheng, though it might lead to some interesting questions.”
The man chuckled, the same warm, friendly chuckle I had first heard back in Chiltae. Cheng had been one of the company sent to escort me south with a handful of court ladies. They had been stiff and haughty and had looked down their noses at me, and when Cheng had caught me sticking my tongue out at them behind their backs he had laughed. Of such small moments are friendships built.
“That,” Koto said, bringing the conversation back on track. “Is why we are trying it your way first. If the Chiltaens can apply pressure on the ministers and the ministers apply that pressure to the emperor, then there is a chance we can get through this without anyone needing to know anything about it. Then we can go our separate ways and never speak of this again.”
Cheng nodded. “And I can retire to that farm.”
“If that is what you want,” Koto returned with a shrug.
“When you get to be my age it’s what you’ll want too. Trust me, Captain.”
“I doubt that.”
Before Koto could do more than sneer, I said: “And General Kin? Do we have to worry about him?”
Koto turned his disdain from Cheng’s farm to the absent general. “He’ll ask questions, he always does, but the fool hasn’t yet figured out that his steward likes to gossip. He’s good, but not good enough, and soon the emperor will realise that.”
“And put you in his place?” Cheng said. “If being the leader of Emperor Lan’s guard is your ambition then this is the last place you ought to be.”
“Being the leader of the Imperial Guard is my ambition,” Koto returned with that sneer. “But I never said anything about Emperor Lan.” His gaze flicked my way. He knew I had no love for the emperor, but even Koto knew doubt. And if he wanted to serve as General of the Imperial Guard under Emperor Lan’s heir, then he would need my blessing. Prince Yarri was old enough to make most of his own decisions, but not so old his mother could not whisper in his ear.
“Those are dangerous words.” Cheng folded his arms. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear them. Stopping this foolish alliance if we can is one thing. Assassinating the…” He stopped. “We ought to go back to our posts before General Kin gets wind that we wandered off.”
Once they had gone I stood alone in the centre of the floor and let out a long breath. The blood had dried upon my hands, tightening the skin, but though Zuzue had left a bowl of water I did not move. I had killed before, had walked these halls and sent men to their final judgement before they could have me sent to mine, but this was different. This was the first time I had killed for something bigger than myself. For Kisia. And the first time I had killed a woman.
But it had to be done. When it was my turn to face the gods I could only hope they would judge me with that in mind.