The Girl King (The Girl King #1)(9)

It was Adé who had helped Omair nurse Nok back from the dead, back when Omair had first taken him in. She’d been the old man’s first apprentice. Once Nok had recovered, the two of them spent their days side by side, mashing herbs and beeswax into salves, until two years ago, when Adé’s mother Lin Mak decided to move the family back to Yulan City.

“Where’s Bo?” Adé pushed past him to peer out the window expectantly. She turned, horror dawning on her face. “Oh, heavens. He hasn’t died, has he?”

Nok had to laugh. “No, he’s still kicking. Literally. I stabled him at the Northern Gatehead this morning.”

“So,” Adé leaned in conspiratorially. “You must have heard the news.”

He shook his head. “What news?” Outside of making Omair’s purchases, he hadn’t spoken to anyone.

“The emperor announced his successor today.”

“Oh, that.” He’d heard murmurs about the so-called Girl King in the market, but he’d shut them out. Just the mention of the princess made him feel eleven years old again, even after all this time.

She’d been an aberration back then, drenched in scarlet, every hair in place, apparently oblivious to the desert heat. Even stripped of the jewels, the silks, she would have been unmistakable as royalty. That tall oaf Chundo had sneered she had a face like a sand fox; Nok had secretly thought if that were true, it wasn’t such a bad thing.

Some traitorous part of him wondered what she might look like now.

Tall, probably, he thought, firmly putting an end to it.

“Makes no difference really who the emperor is,” he heard himself say. “It’s not like she’s going to help people like us.”

Adé’s eyes widened in surprise. “Goodness, you haven’t heard, have you?” She shook her head before he could respond. “The emperor didn’t pick Princess Lu—he named her cousin. Lord Set.”

The very name tore Nok from the present, and suddenly he was there again.

I’ll kill you!

The girl’s screams rent the still desert air. Her fists were flying, lashing the body beneath her again and again.

Mercy, mercy—

Back in the marketplace, Nok’s scars began to throb.

“You know,” Adé prodded, mistaking his silence for confusion. “Set, the Hana scion? The empress’s nephew? Decorated general of the northern territories?”

“No—I,” Nok said. His voice sounded weak. His father would hate that. He cleared his throat. His father was dead. “No, I know. Just—surprised is all.”

And how must the princess feel?

I’ll kill you!

And she nearly had. For all the good it had done her, in the end.

“I think we were all surprised, but then, we’ve never had a woman emperor before, have we?” Adé sighed. “And now I suppose we never will. Not in our lifetimes.”

She shrugged. “So, how long until you head back to Ansana? It’s hot today. Let’s go get some iced fruit—my treat!”

Nok looked around the crowded shop, regaining his bearings. “Are you not working? It looks like you’re working.”

She winked. “No worries. Mei will cover for me.”

“Oh?” he said. “Does she know that?”

But Adé’s mind was made up. “Mei, cover for me, would you?” she called out to the other shopgirl.

Mei’s face soured. “I covered for you two weeks ago.”

“I had to walk my brothers to school.”

“That wasn’t my problem.”

“I’ll take all of your Market Day hours next moon!” Adé pushed Nokhai toward the front door. “Come on. Go, go! Before she decides to rat on me. She hates me,” she whispered confidentially.

“I can’t imagine why,” Nok said.

“Oh, who knows?” Adé sighed, letting the door slam closed behind them. “Some people are just awful.”

The crowd along Kangmun Boulevard had grown since Nok had run his errands; it moved like thick mud. Someone swore loudly at him to get out of the way. Nok jumped aside. An elderly woman hobbled by, pulling a wagon laden with knives that gleamed fiercely in the afternoon sun.

“Come on!” Adé seized his hand and lunged down the street. The noise and smells of Market Day always seemed to invigorate her as much as they exhausted Nok. “Come on,” she repeated, tugging at his wrist like she meant to wrench it off.

“Cut it out,” he complained, trying without success to shake his hand from her grasp. It wouldn’t do to have someone see them hand in hand. People might talk. People always talked, even where there was nothing to say.

Adé wedged her way between the swollen belly of a free-roaming donkey and a cart of dusty yams. Nok had no choice but to follow.

“I’m not as tiny as you are!” he protested, jabbing the donkey with his elbow to avoid being crushed to death.

“Tiny!” she yelped. If she had more to say about it, though, he didn’t hear. Her voice was drowned out by the mumbling drone of the crowd.

Nok caught up with her as she extricated a slippered foot from a dark, suspicious-looking puddle. “I should’ve changed out of my work clothes,” she said forlornly. “If I get anything on this stupid dress the Ox will kill me. And if that happens, my mother really will kill me.”

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