For my stop on the blog tour, I have a brilliant extract from the beginning of the novel. Enjoy!
The Girl King
The sword cut through the air a finger’s width from Lu’s face. She suppressed the instinct to flinch. The thrust was meant to throw her off balance so her opponent could knock her to the ground. Once that happened, she would be done for.
She wasn’t so easy. Sorry to disappoint, Shin Yuri.
Lu leaped back lightly, swinging her own blade in a hard, upward parry just as the sword master sent his crashing down upon her. She was ready for it. Their weapons met with a flat thwack. Wood on wood.
“Good!” her shin barked, dancing back from the blow. “Now, fix your stance!”
Lu darted a look down at her feet. Shin Yuri took advantage of her distraction. She barely had time to raise her sword before he fell upon her.
“Don’t use your eyes to fix your feet!” he scolded between thrusts. “The body knows the body. Eyes are for the opponent!”
Idiot! A beginner’s mistake. Hardly befitting a princess who had picked up a practice blade at the age of seven and spent the past nine years training daily. A princess who in a few short hours would be named her father’s successor . . .
Yuri came at her hard, raining fresh blows on her. She shuffled back, taking him with her. His movements were violent, almost wild, but she wasn’t fooled. His control was ironclad. Still, a man his age could not keep up this pace for long.
“Keep me moving!” Shin Yuri snapped. “Let me use up my energy.”
I know that!
The shadow of Kangmun Hall’s massive red walls fell over them as they danced along the perimeter of the Ring. The hall was named for the first ethnic Hu emperor— her own great- grandsire— who had led his army of nomad warriors south to conquer the failing last Hana dynasty. They had had the Gift of the tiger back then, allowing them to rend their enemies with tooth and claw. But that was long ago.
Yuri pushed her back another step. Lu imagined herself in the bronze- laced red wooden armour and orange tiger pelt of the old Hu kings, like those she had seen hung in reverent display in the Hall of the Ancestors.
She leaped forward and swung hard. The blood pounding in her ears became the thundering hooves of a thousand Hu warriors astride massive black war elk. The warriors screamed for victory— for her— their magnificent mounts foaming at the mouth in their toil.
“Reckless!” she heard Shin Yuri shout. “Control your strokes! Fewer swings, more knowing.”
His words meant nothing to her. She was what thousands of years of warriors had wrought. She had the blood of the tiger in her veins. Who was he to tell her how to swing a sword?
She drove him back another step. As Shin Yuri raised his blade, she spun away from him, then reversed the motion, circling back toward him, raising her sword high above her head. She brought it down, hard, just as he completed his own stroke. The force of her unexpected blow knocked the sword clean from his hands.
Shin Yuri dove after the blade, but Lu kicked it out of reach. He hit the sandy ground, rolling away from her. He bounded back to his feet, poised to dash, only to find her wooden blade at his throat.
Lu kept the sword steady in one hand and used the other to pull off her leather practice helmet, the heavy black rope of her plait tumbling down her back.
“I believe there is a saying for this situation, is there not?” She grinned, wiping away the sweat brimming on her upper lip with her sleeve. “Something about the student becoming the shin?”
Pride and annoyance tugged at the old man’s features, but before he could speak, applause broke out, sharp and unexpected as the ringing of a glass wind- chime.
Lu turned and saw three girls gathered just outside the chalked perimeter of the sparring ring. Against the sandy practice yard, the trio’s pastel- hued robes gave them the misplaced look of flowers scattered in the dirt: Lu’s younger sister, Princess Minyi, and two of her nunas, Butterfly and Snowdrop. Seeing the surprise on her face, they burst into pleased giggles.
Minyi’s sallow face was sun warmed and flushed. She was dressed as their empress mother preferred her to be, in the old Hana way, her layered robes of pale pink cinched high at the waist. The empress had never tried to dress Lu this way, even when she was a young child. But then, between the two of them Min had always been the more malleable.
Butterfly and Snowdrop wore the yellow batik robes customary of palace nunas, topped with a hooded cape— a symbol of modesty. But Butterfly and Snowdrop had uncovered their heads to enjoy the late summer sun.
“Ay!” Lu hollered, striding over to them. “What are you doing here?”
“We overheard you sparring,” Min said. Her voice was ever tentative, like the tip of a toe testing hot bathwater. “It sounded so exciting that they— we— wanted to watch. Just for a moment.”
Lu blinked in pleasant surprise. It had been some time since Min had watched her spar— years, truly. She’d assumed Min wasn’t interested. Her sister had always been a sensitive creature, flinching at even the clashing of practice swords.
“Don’t be cross, Princess,” Butterfly interjected, pulling Lu’s gaze away. “We just wanted to see if the rumours were true, that you’re as deft as a man with a blade.” Snowdrop let loose a fresh peal of laughter.
“What’s so amusing? You don’t think I’m as good as a man?” Lu demanded good- naturedly.
“Oh no, it’s not that!” Butterfly smirked. “Snowdrop was just commenting that in your practice robes and helmet, Her Highness cuts as handsome a figure as any crown prince could hope to— ”
“You truly are the Girl King, just as they say!” Snowdrop interrupted, dissolving into fresh laughter.
Lu caught herself before she reacted, but from the corner of her eye she saw Minyi stiffen.
“Girl King” was the derisive nickname Lu had earned among both court officials and commoners contemptuous of her ambitions— as Snowdrop well would have known, had she the sense of a child half her age. She understood the language of awkward silences at least; she went quiet, sensing her error.
“The Girl King?” Lu said with a deliberate smile. The tension eased just slightly from Min’s shoulders. “Perhaps I will be! We’ll see soon enough.”
Very soon. By the end of the day, she would have her new title, and finally put to bed all the rumours: that she was too weak to rule, that the Hu dynasty was on its last legs, that her father was planning to marry her off to her stupid, drug- addled Hana cousin, Lord Set of Bei Province.
“Yes,” agreed Min. Her voice was rushed in eagerness, grateful to move past the discomfort Snowdrop had initiated. “We should probably head over to court soon.”
“Court?” Lu repeated. She cursed, looking toward the sun. “Is it that late already? Why didn’t you say so sooner?”
Min flushed as she always did when sensing the slightest displeasure directed her way. “Well, it’s not so late yet— ” she amended quickly.
“Snowdrop, take Princess Minyi to her apartments and get her dressed for court,” Lu interrupted, her thoughts racing. It wouldn’t do to be late today of all days. “Butterfly, run ahead to my apartments and tell my nunas to prepare a hot bath and lay out my clothes. The formal teal robes, and the plum underskirt with gold trim. Make sure to speak to Hyacinth directly. She knows the clothes and how best to prepare my bath.”
Lu turned toward her sister. “I’ll see you at court.”
“Should we meet beforehand so we can walk to Kangmun Hall together . . . ?” Minyi ventured hopefully. Lu tamped down a sigh; Min hated making an entrance on her own. Most days Lu didn’t mind playing the chaperone . . .
“Not today,” she said brusquely. “I can’t afford to be late.” “I won’t be . . .”
“Best hurry now!” Lu flashed her an encouraging smile before turning away.
She hurried back to Shin Yuri, who had removed his sword belt and was now worrying the shoulder buckles on his sparring jerkin.
“I apologize for the interruption, Shin Yuri.”
“Interruption?” he said blandly. “What interruption?” A smile quirked at the corners of Lu’s mouth.
Shin Yuri spat in the dirt, then turned to fix her with a tight frown. “Time for court, is it?” He didn’t wait for her answer. “Well, before you go, allow me to do my duties as a shin and give you some notes on your performance today.”
Lu sighed, hands on her hips, but Yuri was immune to her impatience by now. “I’m an old man, Princess. Half a century on this earth wears on the body,” he told her, extracting a handkerchief from his tunic. He wiped his face, soiling the fine silk. “You did well today, used your speed to your advantage. But
you would not have succeeded against a man— an opponent— the same age as you.”
Lu bristled. Her arms rose to fold over her chest— a defensive gesture. She willed them back down. “You can’t know that.”
“You have talent and strength on your side. Good instincts. But that will take you only so far. If you’re going to survive in a battle, you need to develop your mind as well as your body. Efficiency of movement comes from experience, keen observation, and observation can only be done with— ”
“Patience!” she snapped. “Yes, I know. You’ve told me a thousand times before.”
“And I’ll tell you a thousand times more if I think it will help you survive.” His eyes locked with hers, and Lu was struck with the uneasy sense that he was speaking of more than just sparring.
He is just being condescending, she told herself fiercely. Her father was about to name her his successor; what did she have to fear? One day she would be Yuri’s empress, and yet he persisted in trying to put her in her place like she was a child. Why were old men so tiresome?
As though hearing her thoughts, he said, “If you do not trust my words as your elder, then trust my experience as a warrior.”
A warrior who abruptly resigned from his post in the North for the comforts of the capital, a nasty voice in her head hissed. This was the undercurrent of gossip that had been following Yuri around since he had returned to court some five years ago. An odd tension— to be labelled both the best and a coward.
“I trust you,” she told him, scuffing the sand with the toe of her boot.
Yuri resumed the task of loosening his jerkin. “I should hope so,” he said. “If you don’t, I’d have no business being your shin.”
He dismissed her with a wave. “Best get prepared for court. You have a long day ahead of you.”
“Yes,” she said firmly. “I do.”