The Girl King (The Girl King #1)(7)

Not Set, was all she could think. Anyone but Set.

The dread in her blossomed into outrage, its vines scrabbling at her guts and climbing into her throat, as though trying to escape through her mouth. Some part of her registered that if she allowed it out, it would come as tears.

So she choked on it, bit and swallowed it back down. Crushed the life from it until it was nothing more than a blackened pit.

How could he do this to me?

Lu looked to the emperor with beseeching eyes, but her father was still gazing out at the cheering crowd. And then Lu noticed her mother and sister looking at her from their seats. Minyi was bent at the waist, hunched over; she had been scratching at her calf again when their father’s pronouncement came and was too stunned to right herself. Their mother was as still as ever, her face unreadable.

You, Lu thought. Their mother had to be behind this, just as she had been when Set and Lu were children. Even after all these years, she had never given up on her heinous nephew.

The empress ever possessed a studied air of stern, benign dignity. At least in public. The only time Lu ever saw her speak sharply was in the closed company of her amma and her daughters—the usual targets of her ire. Some, like Lu, more often than others. Even in relative privacy though, Lu rarely saw her look excited or pleased.

But now, as the emperor called the meeting to a close, her gaze still locked with Lu’s, the empress smiled. With teeth.


The Apothecarist’s Apprentice

A fat green fly lit upon Bo’s haunch, pierced the mule’s flesh, and began to suck. Nok smacked it dead.

A rote prayer for the loss of life rose to his lips, but he did not say the words. His mother had taught them to him when he was small—picking grubs off fruit, pinching fleas from his neck. Or had it been his aunt? It didn’t matter. They were all gone now—his Kith and all the others—and Nok didn’t pray anymore.

Bo continued eating, oblivious to both fly and boy. He was a dull, indifferent creature, but Nok didn’t mind. Some livestock grew skittish around him, as though they could smell the residue of something predatory—something canine—on him. Something he’d rather not think about.

He rubbed his hands together, brushing off blood and bits of fly. The ropey scars crisscrossing his palms caught and chafed on one another. They used to hurt when he was tired, or sometimes when his dreams were especially bad, but that had been years ago. Now they felt nothing.

He stooped to pat his boot and confirm the knife he kept there was in place. The blade was made for cutting herbs from the garden, but it would go through a man’s eye, if it came to that. Not that he had any reason to expect trouble—but experience taught him trouble didn’t come only when expected.

He was triple-checking the saddlebags to make sure he had everything he needed for Market Day when Omair emerged from inside the house.

The house was carved from one of the many thick-bodied silver trees that dotted Ansana’s sloping hills. The farmers along the northern periphery of Yulan City had built their homes like this for centuries, developing a method of hollowing out the tree so it still lived and grew around them.

“Oh, good, you haven’t left yet.” Omair sauntered forward, slowed by his perpetually swollen knees.

“Stay there, I’ll come to you,” Nok said, already hurrying forward.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re treating me like I’m old,” Omair groused, but he stopped.

Nokhai did not know Omair’s exact age. At times, the apothecarist seemed almost gleefully ancient. Then, at turns, the decades seemed to slough off his stooped shoulders until he looked no older than forty, maybe fifty.

He was a short, stout man with a bald head he oiled until it gleamed. Barely visible beneath the hoary bracken of his beard, his brown face teemed with pockmarks and limpid trails of scar tissue. But his eyes were an odd, misplaced gift: a warm, lively red-brown shot through with veins of yellow, like rivulets of gold running through good earth.

He held out a poultice. “Do me a favor and give this to Adé. It’s for her mother.”

Nok frowned, not taking it. “Adé? I was just going to run the errands and come straight home.”

“If you’re going all that way you may as well see her,” Omair tutted. “I worry about you, living out here with no friends. It’s not healthy for a sixteen-year-old boy to be so lonely.”

“I’m not lonely,” Nok said immediately.

Most of Ansana’s denizens were closer to Omair’s age than his own sixteen years. Their closest neighbors, the Wangs, had two boys Nok’s age; they ignored Nok on good days, and pitched rocks at him on worse ones. But Nok had never felt a lack for it. Solitude was safety. Trouble only happened when other people were around to start it.

It had been nearly seventeen years since Omair moved to Ansana and rehabilitated an abandoned house, filling the desperately empty niche of a village healer. But in towns like this, families went so far back it was as though they had emerged there, right out of the damp earth at the dawn of time.

“The old man’s hiding something,” they would mutter. “Did you see how fast Peng’s ax cut healed up? Unnatural. And he says that boy’s an apprentice, but where did he find him? Just appeared one day, in the dark of night. Who—what is he really?”

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