The Girl King (The Girl King #1)(2)

The only difference was the young man.

He stood opposite them, dead center in the gate, like a false reflection in a mirror. He was tall and handsome, well dressed for the elements. His hand was outstretched toward them, and in it he held a gun.

Vrea had a moment to marvel. She’d seen guns once before, in a vision given to her by the Ana and Aba. It had been imperial soldiers then, clunky with unfamiliarity and hands more accustomed to crossbows. They were a new thing, even in the Below.

This gun was smaller than those, more elegant, its dark wood handle inlaid with shiny bits of mother-of-pearl, and its user held it with cool certainty. He did something with a finger and a bit of metal clicked. Vrea followed the sound with her gaze—

An explosion. Small but garish. She smelled burned steel and sulfur and sparkstone. That was to be expected.

What was not was where the bullet went.

The seal of the gate should have kept all matter that belonged to the Below in the Below. The bullet from the gun should have shot out over the open water of their lake before slicing into its cold, swallowing depths.

Instead, the bullet flew, fleet and dispassionate through the gate, into the Inbetween, and past Jin’s ear.

Vrea’s body was miles away, safe in the sanctum. Even so, she felt her heart stop.

Shen and Jin reached instinctively for their swords. “Wait! Don’t . . . !” she began, but it was too late. They released her hands.

They were gone before the warning even left her mouth, yanked back to the sanctum. She felt the tug herself, but managed to hold on. Her grasp was weak, though, without the amplifying support of her brothers; she would be drawn back soon enough.

Hang on, she told herself. Just a while longer. You have to figure out what just happened—

“It worked!” screamed the young man in the Below. He was still holding the gun. “Did you see?”

For a moment she thought he was mad, that he was speaking to himself. But then another man emerged out of the fog behind him. He was much older, slight. His head was shorn, just like hers. A monk, then, though the dun brown of his robes did not resemble any order with which she was familiar.

“I told you this was the gate,” the possible monk said mildly.

“Never mind that,” the young man said, grinning. He had a beautiful smile, with straight, oddly even teeth. They looked like porcelain. “I can’t believe the bullet is passing through.”

“Using that northern sparkstone from the mountains makes all the difference,” the older man told him. “It’s just as I theorized. There’s magic left in these mountains, even down here. Loose, in the water, in the rocks. It seeks its source. And where it goes, we will follow.”

The young man lifted the gun and shot again. The bullet flew past Vrea. She heard it skitter against the rocks behind her.

“And where do you suppose it’s going?” the young man asked. He stepped closer to the gate, as though hoping to catch a glimpse. “What do you suppose is over there, on the other side?” he asked.

“Power,” said the monk, stepping in close behind him. “True power.”

“Next time, we need to try the cannon.”

“We need more than a cannon. We need an army.”

“In that case,” the young man raised the gun again and aimed, “it is time I write to my aunt.”

He shot. This time as the bullet flew by her, Vrea felt it. There was something familiar in its core—some entrenched thread of feral magic. She reached out her energy and felt it tug at her currents, at the fibers of the spells wound about the gate.

She looked up at the two men gazing through at her, oblivious to her presence.

Only not.

The older one, the monk, looked at her, and for a moment, as she shook loose the reverberations of the strange bullet, he saw her. There was comprehension on his face, and wonder, edged with hunger, avarice, jealousy. Want. Almost lustful. He saw her, and he knew what she was.

She was reciting the spells of protection before it even occurred to her to act, swaddling the gate back up under spools of gathered magic. She tore it from the air, from the stones beneath her feet so quickly it sparked and smoked as she bound it. The faces of the two men warped and paled, then disappeared behind the shroud she wove.

It took the last of her energy. She heaved out a final spell and collapsed onto the ground, felt the vague cold of the lake-smoothed stones beneath her.


She opened her eyes. Shen was gazing down at her. For a moment he looked so aged, she thought he had adopted Jin’s slippery failing, his inability to stay in the moment, in his true body. But, no. It was merely concern that made his face so weary and drawn.

“Are you all right?” Jin was on the floor beside her.

“What happened?” Shen demanded, seizing her hands in his. “Who was the man with the gun?”

She stood on shaking legs. Her body felt sullen and heavy and foreign, the way it always did after a sending. Warmth fell across her face and she looked up at the small windows at the top of the temple walls. Each had become a muted square of cool gray light. The sun was starting to rise. Morning in the Inbetween.

“What was it?” Shen pressed. “What did you see?”

“Something new,” she rasped. “And it saw me.”


Mimi Yu's Books