The Girl King (The Girl King #1)(10)

She sighed, shaking her foot. Foul-smelling muck splattered everywhere, leaving a sad gray stain on her shoe. “I’m supposed to see Carmine this evening, and Mama gets so worked up if I don’t look perfect for him.”

Carmine. So, Adé’s Ellandaise suitor was still around, then. A sturdy, well-fed young man with pink skin, pale dun-colored hair, and an easy smile. Nice enough. His father was a merchant. Rich and well connected.

“How’s Carmine doing?” Nok asked lightly.

“Good,” Adé said, hesitant. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about that. I—”

But Nok’s attention was drawn away. A troop of soldiers had materialized up ahead, by the gate embedded in the wall of the Ring.

“Hey,” Adé said, sticking Nok in the side with a sharp finger.

“Ow!” he snapped. “What is it?”

“About . . . you know, Carmine and all . . . ?”

“Clear the street! The gate is opening! Make way!” the urgent call came from somewhere ahead of them. Nok craned his head instinctively, searching for its source. The crowd was stirring, agitated—a beehive poked with a stick.

“Clear the street!” the call came again. “Make way for the Ellandaise emissaries!”

Nok couldn’t see how it was possible, but the crowds seemed to intensify, as though a few hundred extra bodies had formed up out of the packed-earth streets.

“We should get off Kangmun Boulevard.” Adé tugged anxiously at Nok’s sleeve. “Is there an open turnoff anywhere? I can’t see a damned thing—”

“Clear the street!” The call came again, now urgent, and close.

Nok spotted an opening beside a cart of persimmons. “There! We can—” Nok turned, but Adé had disappeared.

“Clear the street!” The crier was so close now it felt as if he were shouting straight in Nok’s ears.

“Adé?” he called.

The faint cry of her voice came from somewhere far off to his left. He looked frantically in the direction of the call, but a heavyset man slid behind him blocking his view.


He whirled again, but didn’t see her.

“Adé!” Nok scanned the slowly thinning crowd for her face, but she had disappeared. Cursing, he ducked into the nearest alley. It was blissfully empty.

The crowd was beginning to stream southward, toward the harbor. If he ran, he might be able to outpace them using the city’s alleyways, then scan the passing crowd for Adé. If she hadn’t been crushed.

No. Adé would be fine, he told himself. She’d grown up on these streets, knew her way around far better than he did. He would find her again—so long as he didn’t lose himself in the alleyways, which wound tight and numerous as capillaries around the artery of Kangmun Boulevard.

He headed in what he hoped was a vaguely southward direction.

“Mercy, young man . . . mercy.” A beggar woman rattled a bowl of coins at him as he wended his way through a particularly narrow alley. Just a pair of skinny, leathered hands and ankles poking out of a pile of filthy rags; an unremarkable sight. Nok nearly ran on, until he glimpsed the face beneath her ragged cowl.

Dozens of dull blue dots formed trails of ink just beneath the skin of her cheekbones and down her chin—the unmistakable facial tattoos of a northern mountain temple shamaness.

He did not recognize her particular designs, but then, the mountains had once been full of unaffiliated lesser temples—usually practicing some unsanctioned amalgamation of Hana Mul rites, Yunian traditions, and local customs.

“Mercy,” the shamaness repeated. She shook her bowl at him again hopefully; the coins inside clinking coldly against one another.

In spite of himself, Nok felt a stab of pity. How a mountain shamaness had come to the crooked alleys of Scrap-Patch Row, he could not fathom, but then, how he had gotten there defied belief as well.

He reached into his tunic and pulled two coins from the pouch strapped to his chest.

“Here,” he said roughly, dropping the coins in the shamaness’s bowl. She peered up at him gratefully. She was younger than he would’ve guessed, no more than forty. When their eyes met, her ingratiating smile vanished, and she drew back with a hiss of surprise. Before he could react, she reached out and snatched his wrist up in a surprisingly strong, gnarled hand.

“Slipskin?” she whispered.

Nok’s heart dropped to the pit of his stomach. He’d been found.



Lu scarcely registered her father dismissing the court. She only knew that she had found herself in Kangmun Hall, the doors closed at her back, and her family and their respective attendants gone. The emperor hadn’t so much as looked at her—just allowed himself to be swept away in a deluge of eunuchs and chattering inner court officials. Lu had watched him go, feeling as though she were looking at a stranger.

Someone cleared their throat. Lu looked up. Her dozen nunas stared at her with anxiety and embarrassment in their eyes. Hyacinth came to her side and gave her hand a squeeze, but Lu shook herself free. If she gave in to that bit of sympathy, that suggestion of softness, she would unravel completely.

“What are we waiting for?” she said, forcing a smile like baring her teeth. She turned in the direction of the Hall of the Ancestors. “I still have my Analecta lessons, don’t I? Let’s not keep Shin Mung waiting.”

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