Second Place Winner of Voyage’s Love & War Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Ayana Gray
“If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be;
and if all else remained, and he were annihilated,
the universe would turn to a mighty stranger:
I should not seem a part of it.”
—Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
In the low light of the falling dusk, I found myself thus: half bent over, hands full of Shadowside, the point of a longsword against my neck.
A male voice spoke from behind me. “Rise, trespasser, and drop your loot.”
I froze for the length of two heartbeats, hurtling from shock to rage to bitter regret at being caught. Then, before I’d had time to draw another breath, I uncurled my frozen hands, letting the herbs I’d been holding fall to the forest floor.
As soon as they hit the ground, the delicate purple flowers began to shrivel, disintegrating into the smattering of frost that sat atop the soil. It was Shuang Jiang, late October, season of the Frost’s Descent, and even this far south the chill had already laced the ground with ice.
I clenched both fists, nails digging into palms, and willed myself not to scream.
Seeing the flowers wilting in front of me was a knife twist to the gut. I had spent upwards of half an hour sawing through their woody stems with an increasingly blunt blade, cursing the whole time as my hands stung, cramped, and blistered. There was a narrow time window to gather Shadowside, and that was now—at the confluence of day and night. At this precise moment, its effects were most potent. Any delays meant the power would wane, rendering them useless, and damnit I needed those herbs.
Without them, my grandmother would die.
My heart hammering, I rose slowly, raising my hands to show I was weaponless. Well, my hands were weaponless. I wasn’t going to volunteer information about the blade stowed in my boot.
“Turn around,” the voice said, gruff.
“Remove your sword, sir, so I may do so without slicing my neck.” My voice was even. Not for nothing had I done this dozens of times before—or more.
The moment the sword’s sharp steel relented, I turned, maintaining a leisurely pace. This brought me face-to-face with my attacker.
Typical, I thought, suppressing the urge to roll my eyes. One of the Lancaster men. They were always crawling around the forest like particularly tenacious cockroaches.
Like most of them, this one was pale, his shadowed eyes gray in the crepuscular light. If it was daytime, they would probably be blue. His helmet obscured the color of his hair, but not the tiny rivulets of sweat coursing down his face. Clad in iron, he had the Lancaster sigil—a blue-and-white shield with the silhouette of a tree—blazed across his chest. He also wore a distinct look of terror upon his face. Compared to the wispiness of my gray gauze gown, he looked positively overdressed.
“To what do I owe this honor, my lord?” I said, masking the subtle sneer in my voice. I’d used the Trader’s Tongue, the mashed-up dialect that had evolved along the towns and ports that lined the Stone Route, the primary route for trade. With its innumerable clashing cultures, the Route’s dialect obscured some of the more expository accents of each region, though my long black hair, high cheekbones, and pearlescent skin would no doubt mark me as being from the north.
“Declare yourself, woman,” he demanded, his voice cracking on the last word.
“Liu Jia Yi.” I gave my name promptly. No point lying.
The Lancaster soldier pushed on his sword again, the tip of it indenting the flesh of my neck. “Tell me,” he said, and I felt the tremble in his hands. “What you are doing hunting in the Forest of Seld?” I watched his eyes flick to the trio of dead hares tied to my belt.
The last vestiges of daylight slanted in through the trees, which stood tall and ghost-like, their skeletal shadows being rapidly swallowed by the encroaching dark. Now up close, I noticed the boy’s slightly uneven breathing, the tension in his shoulders, the way his pupils flared. Most of all, I could smell it. Smell it in waves, vaporizing from his skin and permeating the air.
Great, I thought. A new one.
The Lancasters had a habit of rotating their roving guard on a reasonably regular basis. Every few months they would draft in new recruits, fresh from whatever soldier academy they’d been unfortunate enough to land in. The official explanation was that the Lancasters wanted to ensure their ranks were trained evenly, each rookie soldier having the chance to experience all aspects of Lancaster military force. In truth, I suspected the royal family just had little regard for human life, even those that were born, lived, and died to serve them. Especially those sent out here to patrol the traders’ route. The main royal family, safely in their home country of Yske, cared little for the fortunes of the people stationed at such a far-flung outpost. To them it didn’t matter if they sent unblooded youths into such a violent area, when there were countless others waiting to fill their ranks. If the soldiers survived, they’d be drafted elsewhere. If they didn’t, well… There were always more.
They’d even sent their sixth and last son, Essien, as the emissary for the region. Ostensibly, he was of the lowest rank and thus the lowest value. The prince spent his time shut up within the stone walls of his fortress, waiting for his rovers to haul in scammers, thieves, and people like me—sorceresses.
“It is only named the Forest of Seld to you,” I bit back, bolstered by the awareness of my attacker’s fear. “To us, it is Qiān Xīn Lín.”
The Forest of a Thousand Hearts. In the greater scheme of things, it was nothing but a sliver of woodland between the two territories. Supposedly neutral, it was the only place along the Stone Road which belonged to no one. Which had no rule.
Qiān Xīn Lín was known to be cruel, vicious, unforgiving. But to my family, to my sisters, it was life-giving. It was the only patch of forest in this godsforsaken region that had anything approaching sufficient game, our main source of food. The forests in our region had been stripped bare—hunted to the ground.
I supposed I had strayed quite close to Lancaster borders, judging by the pattern of the growing moss and the loose formation of the trees. But I couldn’t help it. These conditions were favorable for growing the Shadowside which I needed. For the medicine I needed.
The Lancasters, though, saw most of the forest as being their own. Like the leeches they were, they continued to push and push out the boundaries of their territory, sometimes with force, but mostly by way of insidious creep.
This Lancaster soldier was shaking, the sword trembling in his obviously-sweaty hands. He couldn’t be more than seventeen, I thought. My own age. Just a boy. A boy holding a girl at sword-point in a forest.
“It is…” He swallowed visibly. “It is dangerously close to Lancaster territory, my lady. I would suggest you—”
I never got to hear what he suggested, because his words were cut off by the boom of a deep, coarse voice.
“What is this, boy?” the voice demanded. Its bearer, a portly man with scraggly whiskers and a deeply lined face, strode into view. He looked down at me, a sneer twisting his ugly features, and his face cracked in a grin. “What are you doing with this rat? Romancing her?”
The boy’s sword trembled even more and I almost felt sorry for him. Almost, but not quite. The sword pushed against my neck had a rather negative effect on my sympathies, quite frankly.
Anyhow, I had more pressing matters to attend to than the Lancaster boy’s comfort. When it had been him, and him alone, I fully expected I could utter some pretty niceties and be sent along on my way. This new man, though, I’d seen before. He was Andres Brisson, the Lieutenant General, one of the prince’s right-hand men. He had a reputation as being ruthless. He lived by the book. And I felt sure he recognized me, by the way he looked at me like I was nothing more than an unpleasant bug to be squashed beneath his foot.
“No, sir,” the boy stammered, and he pushed on the sword a little harder, as if for emphasis. A sharp sting caused me to suck in a breath. I smelled the metallic tang of blood, and Brisson’s grin spread even wider. “I was interrogating her, sir.”
Brisson leaned forward, his sour breath fanning my face. “No need to interrogate, boy,” he said. “Look at her hair. Her eyes. She’s clearly a Liu. A nǚ wū. A,” he spat on the ground, “witch.”
The boy’s eyes widened incrementally, but he made no move.
I held my breath and fought the urge to cringe away. My family and I—we weren’t witches. Not really. But the Yskian’s uncreative use of language meant they didn’t have a name for what we were.
“Well, boy? Are you going to arrest her or not? Neutral territory or no, witchcraft is illegal. Will you skewer her, or shall I?” Brisson spoke with bravado but all three of us knew it was just a front. Essien Lancaster, the sixth prince of Yske was the only man in their territory who could condemn, or pardon, a prisoner. On our side, it was the emperor, although he generally turned a blind eye to our activities.
Brisson could not kill me without angering his superiors. The most he could do was haul me to the fort, where they would give me a scare and then send me on my way. Usually, this was nothing more than a mildly irritating waste of time. But today it was inconceivable. My Wai Po, my only living blood relative and the only person left whom I truly loved, was dying. The very thought was enough to stop me breathing, like a vice tightening around my throat. Time was not something I had—we had—to spare.
I suppose this is why I did it.
Andres Brisson took a single step forward, crushing the Shadowside to pulp beneath his heel. Immediately, anger flared to life in my veins. Fire burned hot in my heart. All I saw was red. All I heard was the drum of my pulse in my ears.
Twisting away from the boy’s sword, I unsheathed the dagger in my boot. My arm drew back, ready to slash, stab, or throw the blade—whatever tactic that might allow me to get away and run.
The boy did not make a move, just stood there, his mouth forming a comical O. It was Brisson who moved, grabbing my dagger arm and twisting it in the wrong direction until I was facing away. I cried out, the dagger dropping to the ground, trying to claw and bite my way to escape. But Brisson just held me against him. In my peripheral vision, I saw him palm the pommel of his sword.
He leaned over my shoulder, reeking of sweat and ale and blood, and spoke low into my ear.
“Prince Essien sends his regards,” he said, and drove the sword right through my back.