Kira Atsusuke, heir to the royal throne of Onosano, prostrated herself before the raised platform where her mother, Empress Sakura, sat. To Kira’s left, her younger sister the Princess Yuuki, also bowed in supplication. Their faces were pressed against the bamboo covering on the throne room floor, neither of them daring to move until her Imperial Eminence, the Divine Ruler of the five kingdoms of the Sunset Empire, commanded otherwise.
Two red-uniformed soldiers of the Sea Guard flanked the throne, katana swords at their sides, mouths held in grim lines beneath their dark, curled mustaches. Fashioned out of gold, their mother’s ceremonial throne contained intricate, jade sea serpent inlays reminiscent of the gleaming statuary lining the gilded seaside hall.
Outside, the shrill cries of seabirds drifted in on the late afternoon air.
“You may rise,” the Empress said. She extended a hand with the Royal Seal for Kira and her sister to kiss.
Kira’s lips brushed the metal ring, the raised serpent on its golden face cold against her mouth. Alongside her sister, she kept her eyes lowered as she backed down the stairs to stand at the bottom, head bowed. Kira arranged the folds of her peach tunic to conceal her legs, then snuck a glance at Yuuki. Despite the modest covering, the princess’s curves more than made up for what she lacked in height. She lined her eyes with kohl to appear older than she was, a mere fifteen years to Kira’s twenty-one.
“The wedding preparations are complete,” the Empress said.
“Yes, your Eminence,” Kira said.
Kira had nothing to say about the arrangements. She was to be married the following day to a suitor of the Empress’s choosing: Prince Suenaga of the kingdom to the northeast of Onosano. The Empress dearly desired an alliance with his father; she’d made it clear that the fate of the Empire depended upon it.
“Excellent,” the Empress said. “Following the ceremony, a banquet for the attendees will be held in the Royal Hall. But before the fireworks, there will be an additional … display.”
Kira peered up at the embroidered hem of the Empress’s gown, then down again. “Display, your Eminence?” Anxiety churned through her stomach.
“We have captured the Commanding General of the Maritaki,” she said. “To usher in the festivities, I have ordered his execution. The beheading will take place at high noon.”
Kira inhaled sharply. She swayed slightly on her knees.
Next to her, Yuuki stared unblinking at the floor, the quick rise and fall of her chest Kira’s only indication that her sister was as horrified as she was.
Which Commanding General did she mean? Such a cruel act of barbarism on Kira’s wedding day was the ego of a powerful monarch, not a benevolent mother. It was bad enough being used as her mother’s pawn in a state of war, to form alliances and secure treaties, but to behead a man as a wedding present? The bile in her stomach rose to Kira’s throat, burning twice as she forced it back down.
No, she would not permit it to happen.
“Your Eminence, I must object.”
“On what grounds?”
“I do not want bloodshed on my wedding day. It would be an ill omen for the union.”
The Empress drew in her breath. Her lacquered fingernails clicked against the jade inlay of the throne’s armrests.
It was progress in the right direction, however slight. The Empress’s intolerance toward objection was firm, swift, and often as painful as a cut delivered from a freshly sharpened knife. The fact that she hadn’t already dismissed Kira was proof of her consideration.
“I disagree,” she said. “The Imperial Army has fought valiantly, and at the same time, suffered great losses due to General Nariari’s armies. Rather than keep him imprisoned, we shall make an example of him. The boost to public morale will enhance their support of the war and will serve to remind the troops that their efforts are not in vain. The war will not end until the southern kingdom of Maritaki is subject to the rule of the Empire.”
The knife’s edge was there in her mother’s reply, slicing through the familial bond that should have existed between them.
Kira fought to maintain her balance. The Royal Pavilion and its warren of boarded walkways was built over a marshy inlet. If only the floor would open now and provide her with an escape.
Ando Nariari was the breath of her soul. They’d played together as children before their kingdoms were at war. Later, when they’d come of age, she’d fallen in love with him. She couldn’t bring herself to believe he’d been captured. His captivity in the Royal Prison was a new form of agony; the bitterness of lotus roots laced with the sweetness of summer honey. A torrent of thoughts raced through her mind. How had he been captured? Was he hurt?
“General Nariari, your Eminence? Beheaded at my wedding to Prince Suenaga? Spare me this, I beg you.”
“You will do as I command,” the Empress said, the harsh lines of her brows drawn together.
What other argument could she make in front of Yuuki and the guards? She was shackled by her mother’s agenda. Relieved when the Empress dismissed them, Kira exited the throne room and sank against the outer wall.
Yuuki put her arm around her and whispered in her ear. “What were you thinking, challenging our mother like that?”
“She’s gone too far,” Kira said. “The execution must be stopped.”
Yuuki’s dark eyes clouded. “What of the celebration she chooses to make afterward? Sister, you are more fortunate than most. Just think of it. You’ll be married to the Prince.”
Kira tilted her gaze at Yuuki, observing the interplay of fear and desire mingled together in her features. So. The Prince had an admirer.
Her sister’s cheeks colored slightly, but Kira pretended not to notice.
She must tap into hidden reserves of her patience. Acting on her last hope would have to wait longer, until the red-gold sun had begun to set over the waters of Onosano.
During the summer months, the Empress reclined in her open-walled Pavilion overlooking the Sea of Onosano to the southwest. After the bustle of state dinners, she relished the quiet time to herself to think. It was often said that during these hours, the alliances she plotted ensured that the sun would never set out of reach of imperial lands.
Kira’s wood-bottomed sandals clicked along the pristinely arrayed boards of the winding path. With a passing breeze, clustered pink blossoms tumbled over her hair and down the sleeves of her tunic. The peach trees were magnificent this time of year, both for the petals they shed and for their sweet perfume that scented the air.
She was aware that the invaders from the southern kingdom of Maritaki had crept farther north over the past decade, claiming more of the Empire’s tenuous outer holdings than the Empress dared to admit to all but her closest advisors and military leaders. The war had been long, bloody, and costly, and through it all, Kira had never dared breathe word to either her mother or sister that she’d kept in touch with the General.
By the time she’d fallen in love with Ando, their kingdoms were at war.
Kira stepped past the guard and through the fluttering curtain into the Empress’s Pavilion. Alone on a red and gold chaise, her mother reclined, her dark hair drawn up into a layered bun, set with small red rosebuds the same color as her richly stained lips.
“Good evening, your Eminence,” Kira said. She usually dropped the formality when they were alone. Tonight felt different. Vastly more important.
To her right was a small bureau holding the preparations for the Empress’s tea, as well as her books, incense, and stone gods for worship. Inside a carved wooden bowl on top of the bureau lay a collection of keys on separate iron rings.
Kira’s heart pounded in her chest. The master keys to all the government buildings on the mainland, including the prison.
The Empress turned in her seat. “Kira. Why have you come? You should be resting the night before your wedding.”
Kira stopped before the table, blocking her mother’s view. The key to the prison was within her reach. “I came hoping to convince you to change your mind about the execution.”
Slowly Kira grasped the key, not making a sound.
“I am decided on it,” the Empress said. “Support for the war is flagging, and the soldiers have grown weary. They need a visible reminder of the Empire’s resolve to win. You cannot sway me.”
As she spoke, the sun dipped lower on the horizon, spreading pale orange light over the sparkling surface of the water. Dying embers.
“A wedding celebration is no place for a beheading. Spare me your political maneuvers at such a time as this.”
The Empress had sensed Kira’s scorn; she arched her back and lowered her voice. “A wedding is political when you’re a princess, daughter.”
Kira scoffed at the admonition, masking her joy at having tucked the key to the prison inside the fold of her sleeve. The Empress continued.
“An alliance with the northeast is essential. Your marriage to Prince Suenaga will ensure the Empire has the military aid it needs to bring this war to an end.”
“So, you’ve stated. I understand it is my duty.”
“I am glad we agree on this. Yes, it is your sacred duty. Now leave me. I wish to be alone.”
With one swift motion of the Empress’s hand, Kira had been dismissed. Though her mother’s face was turned away, Kira bowed her head and left the Pavilion.
Kira mounted the stone staircase at the rear of the prison, shrouded by the darkness of night. Disguised in a dark cloak with the hood lowered over her face, she convinced the guard to accept the considerable sum she handed him in exchange for her entry. When he swept her through without asking her to reveal herself, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Inside her pocket, she clutched the prison key.
The stone jail cell smelled of human filth and the pungent traces of rot. Flickering flames cast eerie shadows along the walls. Kira removed a torch from a nearby sconce and crept past each cell, peering into the darkened corners from under the protection of her hood. The prisoners moaned in their sleep, angular bones protruding under the skin of malnourished bodies.
When she reached the fortified cell at the end of the hallway, she hesitated. The massive bulk of a well-muscled warrior sat atop the wooden bunk, head in his hands. His long, dark hair hung to his waist. Scores of fresh wounds crisscrossed his flesh.
“Ando?” Kira whispered, pushing back her hood.
The warrior lifted his gaze and stared at her, his eyes pools of midnight black. A glimmer of hope passed over his face.
Kira’s heart jumped. The brow line was his, the fine stubble along his jaw, the slightly crooked nose. The softness, combined with a strength in the subtle curve of his mouth.
It was Ando.
He inched closer to the bars. “Kira?” he whispered, astonished. “Stars above, I never thought I’d lay eyes on you again.”
Kira fought to recover her voice. “My mother has ordered your execution tomorrow at noon. We must make our escape.” Clutched inside her palm, she held the key to his release.
“I’ve come to free you,” she whispered. “Let us flee this place.” She fumbled to fit the key in the lock.
At the end of the hall, a guard snapped to attention. “Hey, you there!”
Kira’s gaze darted between her lover and the approaching guard.
“Quick,” she said, passing him the key. “Hide it.”
Ando’s fingers slid over hers and disappeared inside the darkness of the cell. The guard flew down the hallway toward her, cobbled boots ringing on the stones.
“Princess?” The guard stared at her, shocked.
Kira dropped the torch and it fizzled in a puddle of water.
The guard seized her, carefully pinning her arms behind her back. He would pay the price if her hands were bruised in the morning. “You’ll answer to the Empress for this.”
“No!” Ando cried.
Blood pounded in Kira’s ears as the guard dragged her through the prison hall and carted her outside. He forced her west, toward the castle.
The guard stopped in front of the painted wooden entrance to the royal bedchamber and knocked. From underneath the door, a dim light shone.
“Enter” came the Empress’s voice from within.
He unlatched the handle and stepped inside, Kira in tow. Half a dozen candles were lit, their flames dancing in the breeze from the open windows. The bed was untouched. Across the room, the Empress sat at a long wooden desk, clad in a richly embroidered silk tunic, books and loose papers spread before her.
“The Princess was discovered talking to the prisoner, your Eminence,” the guard said.
The Empress glanced at Kira, the practiced impassivity of her expression eclipsed by a fleeting trace of concern, like shadowy clouds flitting across the moon.
“Leave us,” the Empress commanded.
The guard bowed his head and closed the door behind him.
“I make no apology for what I’ve done.”
Her mother sighed, the gentle skiff of a heron’s wings over still waters.
“I beg you to release me from the duty of marrying the Prince tomorrow morning,” Kira continued. “Not only can I not endure a beheading, I cannot endure such a marriage.”
“It is true, then. You love Ando Nariari.”
The Empress knew of her love for Ando? She must tread carefully. “How long have you known?”
The Empress huffed. “Long before you were pledged to Suenaga.”
“Yet you would have me marry him for the sake of the Empire,” Kira said. “Why do you torment me like this? Will you not be swayed in your intentions?”
“We agreed it is your duty to the Empire.”
Kira scoffed. “I am sick to death of duty.”
Her thoughts drifted to the prison cell where she’d left Ando. He’d taken the key from her, but what had happened after she’d been apprehended? Had the guards searched his cell and found the key?
The uncertainty drove her wild. What if, in attempting to free him, she’d cursed both their fates? No matter the risk to her own life, she would not allow him to be propaganda for the Empire at the swing of an executioner’s axe.
Kira fingered the small knife hidden in the folds of her cloak. “I love Ando. Why must I marry another because of your imperialistic lust?”
“If there is one quality a leader must possess, it is conviction in the face of adversity,” the Empress said. The poise of a royal, with a heart harder than stone.
Kira clutched the knife harder. “Do you say this for my benefit? Do you say it to threaten me into marrying Prince Suenaga?”
“I say it because I know the price of power.”
The Empress drew a measured breath, then fixed an impatient gaze on her.
She held up a hand to silence her mother, unable to disguise the tremble in her lower lip. “Not another word,” she rasped. “You have no idea how much I’m willing to pay.”
In one fluid movement, Kira withdrew the knife and placed it above her heart. A single tear slid down her cheek. “I will not. Marry. Prince. Suenaga.”
Her voice faltered, her knees weak and watery beneath her, but she held herself upright in defiance.
The Empress rose from her seat, snatched her daughter’s wrist, and wrestled the knife from her grasp. It hit the wall and fell to the floor with a clang.
Kira fought to recover her breath and fainted instead. As she came to, her mother’s face floated before her, grave and serious, etched with fine wrinkles under the thick layers of her makeup. She bent to help Kira sit up, then returned to her seat at the table.
“I was in love once, before I met the Emperor. Your feelings are not an enigma to me,” she said.
Kira held back, too shaken to stand. The salt-laden breeze from the window revived her and stilled the tremor in her hands. She breathed deeply of the familiar scent. In the distance, a night heron called.
“What are you saying?” She uncurled her fingers. They ached from having been so tightly clenched.
The Empress gazed off into the night, past the billowing curtains, across the waters of the Sea of Onosano. Her voice grew strangely quiet, tender even. “I’m saying love doesn’t color inside the lines. I know that as well as anyone. When I was your age, I made a choice to uphold the Empire, and I will continue to do so as long as I reign.”
“It is my intent for that man in the jail cell to die tomorrow whether there is a wedding or not. A strong display of the Imperial Army’s success is what’s needed to strengthen the hearts of the people. The battle rages on and they need hope of victory.”
Kira puzzled over her words, stunned at the underlying implication. Slowly, she rose.
Whether there is a wedding or not.
She dared to ask the question burning through her mind. “Are you giving me your permission to go?”
The Empress drew herself up in her seat and held her chin high, every inch the authoritarian. “Of course, not. The people will require an explanation as to why the marriage hasn’t taken place, as well as how the Commanding General of the Maritaki managed to escape a fortified prison cell under the protection of two separate guards.”
The candle flames leapt and sputtered with a fresh gust of air. After their brief dance, they resumed burning, their crackling the only sound amidst the weighted silence between Kira and her mother.
The Empress knew, then, had always known, that Kira had stolen the key and slipped it to Ando inside his cell. Kira had been a fool to think she could ever outwit her.
Yet her mother, the Empress, was permitting both her and Ando to walk free.
“You would do this for me?” Kira breathed. “Allow us to leave tonight?” Despite her disbelief, hope beat strongly in her heart, threatening to break her in half. The agony and the sheer joy of it, both. She didn’t know whether to laugh or weep.
It was the greatest kindness, and the greatest sacrifice, her mother could have ever offered her.
The Empress turned sad eyes toward Kira. She bore the weight of centuries in her gaze. Voice lowered, her lips formed each word slowly, with the utmost deliberation. “May you live long, my daughter.”
Something inside Kira collapsed and she folded her mother in a warm embrace. She breathed in the jasmine-scented hair, felt her mother hesitate, then melt into the space separating them. Like the pink blossoms that tumbled from the pear trees, this moment would not last.
When they separated, Kira held the Empress’s gaze. “How will you explain my absence?”
The Empress glanced at the knife that lay on the floor, then back at Kira. “Prince Suenaga may be a worthy suitor, but who is to say the lengths a princess will go in order to avoid an arranged marriage?” In the candlelight, her dark eyes gleamed.
“You will fake my death then, and make up a story to explain Ando’s escape?”
The Empress made no immediate reply. Her mouth ticked up at the corner in the faint trace of a smile. A moment later, the controlled visage of the cunning ruler had returned.
“Your new kingdom is at war with my Empire,” she said, grim-faced and stern. “We will never see each other again, and you will speak of this to no one, especially your sister. You are dead to the Empire, Kira, though the love I bear for you in my heart will burn eternally. Now go. I will find other means of enticing Prince Suenaga.”
As Kira turned to leave, she glanced back once more. Standing by the open window, the Empress stared across the night-blackened waters of the Sea of Onosano. In the distance, a night heron called.