The other wives were still at their paints and powders. All that was required to freshen the bloom of the Peony was to pinch my cheeks and bite my lips. I strolled to the rosewood gate that marks the entrance to the Pavilion of Pleasures. My eyes wandered over the carved scene of ducks and cranes gathering around a pool, a sharp-beaked parrot peering down at them from a pomegranate tree. I used to love the parrot until In-Sa explained the water-fowl were symbols of married bliss, the pomegranates of fertility, and the parrot a warning to wives to remain faithful. Before she told me that, I thought he looked comical; now he seemed an annoying busybody. At last the others straggled in, still fastening robes or putting on their jewels.
When Zaj the eunuch opened the gates, the emperor did not enter the Pavilion of Pleasures alone. A skinny little girl walked through beside him, her tiny hand grasped in his.
Oh, the light in his eyes! I hadn’t seen him look like that since my arrival at the royal court.
My entire body shook. But I smiled even wider, stood even straighter, and pressed my breasts forward so the emperor would remember how much he adored them, the petals of the Peony, as he called them. They were still firm and plump, even after suckling two sons. I had weaned little Han-Su a few months ago, but only his recent departure to Suvik had enabled me to wean the emperor. I was sorry now that my milk had dried up.
“This is Shijerra, my Twentyfirst wife,” he announced. “Welcome her, be kind to her.”
He merely glanced at us. Enough to show he’d given an imperial command, and we would pay for disobeying. Then his eyes flew towards the girl, as if she were a ripe peach and he a man who hadn’t eaten since yesterday. He brought her tiny hands up to his lips and kissed them.
“Until tonight, bride of my spring.”
I kept standing, straight and tall, fighting the urge to launch myself onto the girl and scratch out her eyes.
The emperor left. The rosewood gates closed us in.
Firstwife In-Sa stepped toward the new bride first, as was her duty. “Welcome, Shijerra. May you bring the emperor joy.” An old lady, motherly toward the rest of us, she had been won by the emperor as a youthful prince in the war against Sehkal. Though grateful for the children she had borne him, he had never loved her. It was easy for her to be kind.
“I am Secondwife Ta-Lin.” A renowned beauty decades ago, she now was sour and pinched, as full of loathing for the rest of the wives as Mother In-Sa was full of love. There was no danger in her malice, though; she spent her days feeding herself haru leaves, living in dreams of the distant past, when she had enflamed the passions of the heroic young emperor.
I thrust myself forward.
“Welcome.” My lips fought off a snarl. I tamed them into smiling. “I am Kir.”
Surely the tale of my rise to emperor’s favorite had reached even Suvik. How three years ago the emperor had seen me on a visit to the province of Sheetow. How, no noblewoman, I had joined the parade of peasants offering gifts. How my natural beauty overcame him the instant I knelt to spill at his feet a bounty of peonies from the hothouses of the lord of Sheetow. And how the emperor had brought me to the palace, an honored bride at the age of fourteen.
I introduced the other wives to the newcomer.
Shijerra was perhaps fifteen, a northerner, clearly a prize won in the treaty with Suvik. Slim and graceful and impossibly beautiful, she looked like the paintings of goddesses on the ancient scrolls that In-Sa had shown me. Her face seemed chiseled from white jade. If butterflies could mate with pink roses, they might resemble that dainty mouth, designed for kissing. But it was her hair. Black as a summer pool on a night of no stars, of such a glossy sheen that all the colors of the world shimmered inside it. It fell all the way down to her ankles, so smooth it looked as if no wind could ever trouble it. A flock of hands reached out to touch it.
“Ooh, it’s like dragonsilk!” foolish Cinja cried.
Shijerra laughed shyly. “That is what Barrrr-am calls me!”
Bar-am, not “the emperor.” The chit. And her ridiculous accent. She couldn’t even pronounce his name.
“The emperor,” Ta-Lin corrected, “will not want his treasure pawed over by hands not his own.”
We dropped our hands at once.
We passed the afternoon asking questions about Suvik, answering questions about ourselves. Every so often, the slight girl cried when speaking of her homeland. Foolish creature. I made certain to take the lead in showing Shijerra about the Pavilion, forcing her to taste tidbits from my own plate as if she were a lap-dog, selecting a pale pink peony from the hothouse for her, giving her a necklace of precious pearls from my own treasure-box and a bottle of rare scent from my cabinets. The child hugged me, teary-eyed, for my generosity and vowed that we should become great friends.
That night, I lay waiting for a summons that never came. The winds howled outside. Were they always so loud?
“You are the bride of my winter, Kir,” the emperor had whispered when I first arrived. And so many times since. How I had cherished those words! I’d thought he meant I was the bride of his old age, for he was sixty, and I was his twentieth and surely his last wife. But I see now he just meant the season. The Sorcerers’ War had left us in winter for so long I barely remembered the other seasons. The curse was said to be coming to an end soon, but it was hard to believe in spring.
In three years I had rarely spent a night in my own apartments, except when I was pregnant. I was the emperor’s Peony, as fresh, as fair, as bountiful as the spring flower. Even when I failed to arouse him (and this seldom happened), he enjoyed the sight of my plump, smooth body, the feel of it against him when he slept, my scent greeting him when he awoke.
I did not love him. But I loved awakening his desire, the power it gave me over Bar-am, the Lord of Three Realms, Fount of Wisdom, Celestial Glory. And the power that, in turn, gave me over the other wives. I loved my nights in the royal bedchamber, the feel of imperial silk on my skin, and the white fox furs atop them keeping me warm, so warm, the huge fire lit all night. It never felt like winter there.
Next morning, I rose early. How to repair the damage done by such a sleepless night? I told Lan-Lan to go outside and scoop snow into a bowl. She soaked a cloth in the snow and held it to my closed lids. The treatment helped reduce the puffiness but left me chilled all morning.
In the dining hall of the wives, I ate little. Shijerra did not join us.
Ta-Lin, indolent with the effects of haru leaves, also did not eat. But she watched me push away my laden plate, and laughed, a low, long laugh.
“The Peony wilts,” she slurred, and laughed again.
Cinja and Mei giggled. They would not be sorry to see my supremacy come to an end. I’d won over the others with my easy nature and occasional false flattery. With them, the wives closest to me in age, I’d needed to concoct this or that tale to make them lose the emperor’s favor. But surely Bar-Am was merely infatuated with the northerner—like someone tasting pickled octopus for the first time. Who could eat pickled octopus every day?
Late in the afternoon, the wives sat in the winter-garden listening to In-Sa’s dull recitation of Bar-am’s ancient victories. My mind wandered even worse than usual. My fingers kept straying to my mouth; I had to constantly remind myself not to bite my nails. Shijerra finally joined us, her cheeks flushed. No doubt she found the heat of the emperor’s chambers taxing.
She bowed courteously to In-Sa first, then all the wives. I marshaled my lips into a hearty smile. Shijerra chose to perch on the ledge beside me.
“How lovely you look,” I murmured. I have learned it is possible to be coquettish not merely with men. The means are different, but the goal is the same: power.
As if it had a will of its own, my hand crept up to caress the night-black hair. Indeed it felt like dragonsilk. No thing softer.
In-Sa resumed her tale of the emperor’s exploits. When she’d finished, Cinja and Mei strolled arm-in-arm through the indoor garden. In-Sa went to visit her grandchildren, escorted by one of the eunuchs. Her daughters were all older than I, and had married distant kings and lords, but some of her sons still lived in the imperial palace with their families. She was always visiting them. I rarely bothered with my sons. Bohai and Han-sun were hardly entertaining, always whining or wet or drooling. I’m sure I’ll like them better when they’re older. Ta-Lin reclined, half-dozing. The haru leaves brought her dreams of the emperor’s love; you could always tell when that simpering smile crept across her lax features. The rest of the wives fell into their customary twos and threes. When Geiyun approached me like a hopeful puppy, I turned away. From the corner of my eye, I watched her slink off.
“I’m restless. Let’s walk, too.” I led Shijerra to a more secluded path. The failure of spring had crept indoors and beds of chrysanthemums showed themselves mere ghostly stalks. Outside the protected glass room, the faded sun pouted over snowy hills. Black branched trees flaunted their nakedness. Indoor gardens are better than none at all, but how I pined for the sight of fresh green grass.
The girl stared at the view, then wiped her eyes. “Forgive me. Perhaps once the curse lifts I will find your land beautiful. But oh, I long for the blue hills, the golden wheat-fields of Suvik!”
We walked on in silence. I was sure she wouldn’t long for fields if she’d ever had to break her back harvesting the wheat.
We passed a bed of fat melons. My mouth watered thinking of how they’d taste. A scrawny willow tree cast a patchy shadow onto the path. Shijerra stopped in its shred of darkness and placed a tiny hand on mine.
“Kir,” she whispered, “may I ask you something—private? You are not much older than I am so you must know ….” I had to nod before she would continue. “Since we were married, the emperor—visits—me every night. It hurts. Not just at night, but all the next day. When you are married long, does it stop hurting?”
Much to my credit, I didn’t slap her. Instead, I offered sisterly advice. “It will stop hurting soon, my dear. And think how happy you will be when those pains become the pangs of childbirth! But if your sacrifice to the emperor’s pleasure dismays you, you must ask the wu to provide you with a remedy.”
The thought of the wu was timely. I could not abide the child’s presence another moment. “I have some business with her, it so happens. I can ask for you. Yes. You lack the wisdom to handle such a delicate matter. I’ll ask her now.”
“Oh, thank you, Kir!” The ridiculous creature hugged me as I rose to go.
The wu was painting inscriptions on a turtle-shell when I entered her rooms. Her talismans jangled prettily as she turned to greet me.
“My thoughts have been with you, Kir,” she said.
“You didn’t tell me!” I hadn’t known I’d blurt it out like that. Like me, Xhin was not well-born; on the other hand, she belonged to the separate aristocracy of sorcerers. With her, I always danced back and forth between impertinence and awe.
“Tell you what?”
“About her—the new bride!”
“I may attend the imperial wives, “Xhin said, with neither scowl nor smile, “but my concern is for the emperor. Even so, the oracles gave no indication that he would be bringing home a bride.”
“Perhaps your oracles cannot be relied on.”
Xhin chuckled. At home on the farm, I hadn’t believed in sorcerers. Village folk laughed at the emperor’s reliance on so-called sorcerers—until the Sorcerers’ War brought us the curse of a five-year winter. Who better than farmers to tell when spring fails? I had only glimpsed the imperial sorcerers, the solemn men in dragonsilk, from a distance. But the wu lived among the wives in the Pavilion of Pleasures (although she had the freedom to leave it when she wished), caring for our health, but more importantly, in charge of ensuring our fertility and prophesying the futures of our children. Since my arrival, I had plagued Xhin almost daily, observing, questioning. She knew that I, foremost of anyone in the palace, had faith in her magic.
I resumed my pretense of keen interest in Shijerra’s welfare.
“It is on her behalf that I’ve come to you, Xhin.” I told her the new bride’s complaint.
Xhin narrowed her eyes as she listened. She didn’t for a minute believe my concern for the girl. I suppose she knew me too well.
“I’ll be visiting her later today,” Xhin said. “I must finish this shell first.”
She dipped her brush again into the bowl of ox-blood and resumed writing on the shell. Of all her magics, this was the one that intrigued me most. The other wives could read and write but I, a farmer’s child, of course had not been taught. By observing Xhin at work, I had learned the meaning of some of the characters. Unlike the other wives, I knew more of the magical script (of which they were entirely ignorant) than of ordinary writing.
“With this you are calling the gods of Earth and Sky for aid,” I said pointing to the two largest characters. “This is the character for ‘wife,’ this the one for ‘sons’ or ‘heirs.’ This one means ‘health.’ I don’t recognize these.”
“Well done, Kir.” Xhin blew on the writing to hasten its drying. “This is the character for Suvik and this means ‘twenty-first.’ I am invoking the gods to protect the emperor’s twenty-first wife, and asking them to tell me what her future holds. So you see, we both are occupied with the new bride.” She smiled in a way I did not like.
Was this new girl now the center of the universe?
Xhin finished the inscriptions. I always admired the way she painted so carefully that not a jot of blood dripped onto the shell. Today it took all my restraint to keep from smacking her arm and forcing it askew. Let it spill, let it spill, I thought. Wash the shell with blood!
“I want to help place it in the fire,” I said. “I want to watch you read it.”
“It must dry first.” Xhin must have enjoyed having an audience to let me haunt her as I did. I suppose even an old woman like her, just past childbearing, wants to be admired. “Meanwhile, I’ll prepare the new bride’s bath salts.”
I watched her choose this ingredient and that. Along with the herbs, powders, and vile-colored liquids, there were collections of bones, corals, seashells, dried toads, mummified monkeys’ paws and other oddities. Used to my perpetual curiosity, the wu let me wander at will. Today she reached for a jar on a high shelf, moving others aside. For the first time I noticed a fantastically ugly root in a large glass bottle. It was knobby like ginseng, ending in blood-red tendrils, and mossy with green mold. Its twisted shape resembled some strange, savage creature. I reached towards the bottle.
“No! Never go near that! Merely to touch it would call down disaster.”
I snatched back my hand.
Xhin finished mixing her ingredients and spooned the bath salts into a porcelain jar.
“Now it’s time to place the turtle-shell in the fire.”
With a long pair of tongs she picked up the shell and held it in the fire. A nastily sweet odor arose, but I ignored it. Lines corrupted the surface, the fire showing through from the other side. I loved the way the flames encroached upon the shell, how the impenetrable-seeming surface began to crack. New patterns of characters leapt to life. I wished I could read it! What worlds of power were contained there! What might I not do if I could command the gods—not merely bow to them in order to do the emperor’s bidding like compliant Xhin. I would shatter hothouses! Hurl thunderbolts! I would raise armies of demons and trample half the earth!
The letters glowed. The wu had to be careful now and not let the shell burn too far. Already the edges crisped. I crept close, clutching Xhin’s shoulder, so I could be a part of the moment when she drew the radiant shell from the fire and placed it in the brass dish. As I did, I touched the dragonsilk of her robe. Somehow every time I visited the wu, I managed to stroke her garment—I could not help but desire to touch it, its softness superior even to that of imperial silk. I loved everything about it. Its brilliant yellow-gold. The thousands of embroidered dragons. The magical characters spelling out who knew what mysteries. Did dragonsilk come from the same worms as other silk? Who made it? I’d asked Xhin a thousand times and she always merely smiled, full of her secrets.
“What does it say? What does it say?” I asked.
But Xhin was lost in studying the scrawl of glowing characters. She would only have moments to analyze them before they faded. I watched them extinguish one by one.
“What does it say?”
Xhin roused herself from her scrutiny.
“Shijerra will live a long and fruitful life, the mother of untold children. She will become a legend. All this despite the ill-will of the Peony.”
My breath almost stopped.
“It spoke of me?”
“Look.” She pointed to the last still-glowing character. It was the one for ‘Peony;’ I recognized it from my own divinations.
In the next breath, it burnt out. The shell broke along the cracks and crumbled to silent pieces.
I knew then that I would do anything to make the turtle-shell a liar. The ill-will of the Peony would destroy the new bride’s destiny.
“I will take the bath-salts to Shijerra,” I said, anxious to escape the knowing smirks of the wu.
“No, I will deliver them to her, along with the pronouncement of the turtle-shell. As soon as I have spoken with the emperor.”
That evening, my hatred turned me giddy. I was more pleasant than I’d been for days, my lips almost sore from smiling. At dinner I made sure dear Shijerra had the most succulent bits of crab. My funny stories made everyone laugh, even Ta-lin.
Afterwards, when we removed to the main hall where there were couches for lounging, I sang for the wives. They loved to hear me sing. This, along with my merry disposition, had enabled me to win their trust when I’d first arrived. I knew nothing courtly, just such songs as peasants know. Most were complaints about ill weather, mothers-in-law and poor harvests, but many were crude songs not fit for imperial wives. At first the ladies had been shocked to hear them; In-Sa would rush off to her sons. But Qiu and Huilang in particular begged for songs like “The Wife of 99 Positions.”
Gales of laughter had just followed my performance of “Ning, Whose Jiji was Mistaken for a Cashew.” A satisfied silence followed.
“Why don’t you sing for us, Shijerra?” I asked slyly. She with her mousey little voice and mincing ways—if she could carry a tune at all, it would be a miracle.
“Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly.” She blushed.
The others would have let her off the hook, but I insisted.
“Please, dear Shijerra, let us hear you sing! Something from the north, a song of Suvik.” I knew talk of her homeland could not fail to move her.
“Well, then, yes. Let me think of something that would please you. Ah—‘The Ballad of Benserris.’ That is one of our greatest songs.”
She rose, closing her eyes, her little hands clasped before her.
When she opened her mouth, out came a sound of such expressive sweetness, my fan rolled from my hands. She had a voice worthy of a professional court performer. Yet there was a kernel of something so real, so true—it made your heart hurt.
I rolled my eyes at her sentimentality. I imitated Dragonsilk’s gestures, trying to get the others to poke fun at her seriousness and self-importance. Spellbound, they wouldn’t even look at me.
I stopped trying. The notes flowed over me, making me too sad, too caught up in that sweetness, to mock the singer.
And the words. They made you yearn for something you knew didn’t exist. Yet—could not a woman love a man of her own choosing, who loved her for her very self and not for any pleasure he might gain by her or wealth win from her? A love so pure, it was more precious than my ruby peonies, warmer than the fires in the imperial bedchamber. Warmer than summer used to be.
Dragonsilk’s voice grew in power. I closed my eyes, too. Goose-pimples covered my arms. Shijerra’s voice died away to a wisp of smoke.
Finally she finished. I opened my eyes. Hers were still closed. She swayed slightly. The room hummed with her song. Ta-Lin’s face was streaked with tears. Moments passed before the silence was broken.
“Oh how beautiful!”
The others crowed and crowded around Dragonsilk, praising her.
I could not hang back. I swallowed my resentment and rushed over to my rival.
“I have never heard anyone sing so well!” I grasped her by the shoulders as if carried away by my enthusiasm. If I shook her too hard, no one noticed. “You must sing for us every night!” It was the last thing I wanted. But I had to say it.
“Every night? No, no,” she mumbled, casting her eyes to the floor. She sank back onto her couch. “I will be happy to sing for you now and then, that is all that is fitting.”
What a cunning ploy! As if she didn’t know she’d win every wife’s sympathy with her false modesty!
“Oh, Dragonsilk, your name is only half right!” Huilang said. “You are all silk and no dragon!”
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “Dragons aren’t real. They only live in stories.”
“But you are wrong!” Shijerra jumped to her feet, facing the rest of us like a terrier barking at a pack of lionesses. I had never seen her more animated. “Not in my country! They are as real as you or me! They have merely flown away and wait for better days before they return.”
Ta-Lin sniggered. Geiyan poked Shu, and they both tittered behind their hands.
“It’s true! My ancestors are descended from the Great Dragon Javanoth. For centuries, my forebears—the kings and queens of Suvik—called upon the dragons to bring rain, temper the winds, swell the grain. And the dragons listened. It is only in these shameful days of corruption and greed that the dragons have disappeared from sight. But they are real!”
I could not have hoped for a better ending to the evening. Shijerra had ruined what she’d accomplished with her song. Now all the wives, even generous In-Sa, laughed at her simplicity.
“It is different for you here,” she averred hotly. “Your dragons are merely stories. But they are the heart of Suvik.”
The laughter grew louder. Dragonsilk stared at her hands, which folded in upon themselves helplessly.
“You must not let them bother you,” I said, drawing my arms through hers. “Come, let’s go to the winter-garden. It’ll be quiet there, away from the clucking of these hens.”
I picked up a lantern and whisked her away.
It was eerie in the winter-garden at night. The lantern threw odd shadows amongst the planters of trees and the raised flower-beds. Outside, the night seemed oppressively dark. Shivering like a cold child, the glass rattled in its frame.
“You are so kind to me,” Shijerra sniffled. “Like a sister.” She hugged me closely.
I thought of my sisters back home. We’d enjoyed chasing each other in the fields, pelting each other with stalks of wheat, but I hadn’t missed them at all since coming to the palace. My sisters were part of those memories of shabby clothes and dirt and cold. Warming myself against the flank of a cow as I milked it. The never-ending work. I was well rid of it all! Who needed a sister?
Yet somewhere deep down, a part of me wished I did not hate Shijerra. With her here, I was no longer the youngest wife. She looked up to me. There was something about her more genuine than anyone I’d ever met. She wasn’t silly like Cinja and Mei. What would it be like to embrace her, to make of her a friend? My heart leapt like a tiny flame. What would it be like to no longer feel alone?
A servant shuffled into the garden.
“A thousand pardons, my Ladies.” She bowed low, her long sleeve trailing in the gravel path. Once I would have given anything to wear a robe as nice as hers—now of course, I thought of it as mere servants’ trash. “The emperor requests Empress Shijerra to join him in his bedchamber.”
Dragonsilk cast a sad smile at me as she followed the servant to her master. The tiny flame extinguished in a puff of smoke. In its place, my desire to crush the new bride re-kindled. Oh, how I burned.
Weeks passed. The emperor did not call for me. I felt indeed like a peony past its prime, and wondered if in time I would seek the oblivion of the haru-flower like Ta-Lin. I understood now the urge to dream and forget.
But I would not dream; I could not forget. I schemed and plotted. And now I waited.
A few days later the opportunity I’d been hoping for came my way.
“I cannot let you hold the tongs, Kir,” Xhin said. She was watching over another prophecy. “Only the wu may do that. How many times must I tell you?”
I sulked, peering over Xhin’s shoulder to see the flaming characters take shape. Every day Xhin burned a turtle-shell for Shijerra; the emperor fretted over when she would bear him a child.
Feet pounded through the hallway. Something was wrong. The door banged open.
“Come quickly, mistress Xhin!” The servant panted. “The empress Ta-Lin has taken too many haru leaves! She will not waken!”
Xhin dumped the incomplete turtle-shell into the brass basin so it wouldn’t burn. Hastily she poured three liquids into a bottle. Red, yellow and blue lost their separate brilliancy and turned the color of mud. Pausing only to stopper the bottle, Xhin rushed after the servant.
I was left alone in the wu’s rooms. The characters just coming to light in the turtle-shell still glowed. I poked them with the tongs.
Oh, the light I shall extinguish soon! I thought.
I pushed a chair over to the highest shelf, searching for the jar with the peculiar-looking root, and brought it down to the worktable. I found Xhin’s pearl-handled knife. I’d always admired it, a pretty instrument involved in doing who knew what deeds. Magical characters I didn’t understand were inscribed on the blade. I found a rag amongst Xhin’s herbs. With utmost care I held it against the deadly root so I wouldn’t touch the poison. I cut off a tiny piece, making sure to get some of the red tendrils; they looked so evil, surely that was where the potency lay. From the pocket of my robe I pulled a cinnabar jar I had stowed away for this exact purpose.
I hid the jar in my room before I made my way to Ta-Lin’s apartments. The younger wives clustered outside. Mother In-Sa and the elder wives were inside with Xhin, helping her revive Ta-Lin. Zaj the eunuch waited with us, cringing, as he debated whether to summon the emperor. I almost pitied him.
Whisper, whisper, whisper. The imperial wives set up a storm of gossip, thrilled with the drama.
“I always knew the old lady would take too much. She was stupid and careless,” Yuan said.
“You’re a fool,” Liqin chided. “It’s all because of Dragonsilk. The emperor’s love of his new bride was more than Ta-Lin could bear.”
“You think she did it on purpose?”
Who cared? The old woman’s life had been a waste for years. I for one wouldn’t mourn her. Neither would the emperor.
Shijerra, Shijerra, Shijerra, the wives whispered. Sometimes the name Dragonsilk cut through the murmurs like a knife.
Dragonsilk stood apart from the others. Her fists were balled up against her sobbing mouth. She looked like a child. Mingled with my hatred and envy came a desire to sweep her up and comfort her. But I caught myself, remembering all she’d stolen from me. It was right that she should pay.
“My sister,” I insisted gently, “come away from this scene of tragedy.” I led her off, my arms half-embrace, half-support. “Don’t let their cruel words hurt you. You are utterly blameless! Ta-Lin has been unhappy for many, many years. Since before your birth she’s clouded her mind with haru leaves. If your coming made her see just how low she’s fallen in the emperor’s esteem, it’s surely not your fault.”
Dragonsilk made a desperate little cry. My kind remark had hit its target.
“Ah,” I said, as if suddenly remembering, “I had meant to give you another preparation from the wu. It’s a special cream I use to keep my skin soft. I know you think that, young as you are, you needn’t worry about such things. But you will see, as the days of your wifehood ripen, your beauty will fade. The emperor is always praising my soft skin.” She was too ignorant to doubt my words.
“You are too kind, sister.” She smiled gratefully. I knew it was not the promise of increased beauty but my caring that she prized. She joined me in my apartments.
I handed her the ointment. I hated even to touch the jar.
“You must put it on out of sight of the emperor, when no one, not even your maid, is nearby,” I warned. “It’s best to do it in the daylight, when the rays of the sun first shine. As soon as you leave the emperor’s bed.” It cost me to say that last. “It may sting at first. Don’t worry. That’s good! That means its power is waking.”
“Thank you, Kir.” She hugged me.
“Now, go to your room and rest. Don’t worry about Ta-Lin. If something bad happens, your worrying can’t make it better. And if she gets better, well, you can’t help with that either. Sleep well, dear Dragonsilk.”
I myself couldn’t sleep. I waited, listening. How would it happen? Xhin hadn’t said. Would Shijerra drift into a slumber from which she’d never awaken? Too peaceful, I thought. A slow gnawing of the gut? Fierce explosive pains? Or would she burst into flames? I sat up, biting my nails to nubs.
Dawn came. My stomach fluttered.
At last I heard the screams.
I raced to Dragonsilk’s rooms. Mine were farthest from hers, which was the best part of the plan. I would be the last to arrive.
Her maid cowered on the floor, head buried in her lap, hands covering her head as if to protect it. Mei and Cinja huddled against the wall. Mother In-Sa embraced Geiyun.
Was Shijerra dead?
No, she stood in her doorway, her pretty little face distorted. She stared at her arms, holding them out to us, as if asking us to behold, to confirm what she could not believe she saw. They were covered in scales. Golden-green and silver-blue like those of a fish. And the scales kept increasing, marching across her arms, her body, bit by bit. Her hands contracted, misshapen like an old woman’s, then lengthened, at last becoming claws—the nails growing longer, sharper, alien. Still Shijerra held them out for us to witness. She put one to her breast—and accidentally raked it, leaving a streak of blood on the white flesh. Which soon vanished, covered up by scales. They consumed the little white feet, still bare as they’d been when she’d risen from her bed.
Shijerra saw me, where I shrank against the wall amongst the other wives. Looked straight at me—and suddenly laughed. Her eyes sparkled. Not with tears but a bizarre joy. She shook with laughter—she of the demure mouth, the delicate ways, now rocked with mirth.
She is hysterical, I thought.
“See, Kir?” she said. “Dragons are real! We are real! Look at me!”
With one scaled claw, she reached across her back and ripped the flimsy silk robe. Her other claw reached for the opposite shoulder. The robe fell down. My first ridiculous thought was the shame of her showing us her naked body, which belonged only to the emperor. But already the scales were engulfing her budding breasts and belly. I saw now why she’d freed herself from the robe. On her back, blue-gold wings were unfurling like young fern-leaves.
There was no sense of horror in Shijerra now. Her expression reminded me of how I’d looked when I beheld myself for the first time in a mirror as imperial bride—a combination of astonishment and glee.
“Now I can go home!” She laughed again, drunkenly. “I can go home! To the mountains and fields of Suvik, to the land of my people!”
Her laugh became shriek became roar, as her face exploded, a dragon snout thrusting out from the fully-scaled body. Gone, gone, the magnificent hair. Nothing of Shijerra remained, except the expression of rapture. The creature burst past me, rushing in the direction of the winter-garden. I heard the burst of shattered glass.
Ta-Lin is dead; she died the night I led Shijerra away from the whispering wives. Xhin is dead, too. The emperor executed her for failing to divine his bride’s fate.
I think the wu did not fail completely. The turtle-shell did not lie. I believe Shijerra prospers despite the malice of the Peony, that she will live long, and become the mother of many of her kind.
But if she becomes a legend, it will not be here. We are forbidden to speak of Shijerra, or even Suvik. It is a proscription none of the wives wishes to break.
I’m the emperor’s favorite once more. Yes, this is as it should be. But for months, I felt chilled, even under the fox coverlets of the imperial bed. Now, a new warmth creeps through me. The child I carry, I’m certain, is a girl. Instead of sharing the emperor’s disappointment, I’m glad. I rub my belly, anxious for her arrival. When she’s born, I will take her into the gardens, the true gardens outside. I will speak to her as I might have to my rival, my lost sister, the only person I have ever missed.
On the day Dragonsilk left us, I went to the winter-gardens to see for myself if any trace of her remained. An entire wall had collapsed, letting in the cold air. I stepped outside. In the glitter of snow and glass, I detected green shoots, the first crocuses announcing that spring had come at last.
Sandi Leibowitz is a native New Yorker who writes speculative fiction and poetry. Her works have been published in magazines such as Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit, Apex and Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year volume 5.