The Phoenix Feather II
by Sherwood Smith
Twenty-five years ago, a sworn bodyguard and a reluctant bride fled an angry prince, married in secret, and vanished. That prince is now the emperor, with a very long memory.
The second volume of Smith’s Pandemic Escapism Project comes out today, an epic martial arts adventure with all her favorite tropes stuffed in.
The children of the missing pair are now making their way in the world under assumed names, hoping to avoid the emperor’s wrath while following their special Talents.The eldest son Muin is rising the ranks of the army. The second son Yskanda, a remarkable painter, is a prisoner in the lethal, silken cage of the imperial court.
The youngest, disguised as a boy named Ryu, studies martial arts and the mysterious Essence power while leading the Redbark Sect that fights for justice for commoners. Her closest companion hides dangerous secrets of his own.
Meanwhile the emperor’s own children test the boundaries of royal power and intrigue, stirring ripples that threaten guilty and innocent alike.
Anyway, the sailors were pulling up the ramp, and nobody seemed to be unduly worried about two orderlies coming aboard, for there was Shigan lounging up to stand next to Yaso.
Mouse retreated to the far end of the deck as the sailors began doing things to ropes and sails, putting the ship underway.
Mouse sat tucked up between a barrel and the hull, out of the chill wind. The sun warmed the top of her head, and the rocking of the ship made her drowsy. She was beginning to drift into dreams when a rough hand shook her. “Wind’s shifted,” someone said cheerily, as thunder rumbled in the distance. “Rain on the way. Best get below.”
She dragged herself to her feet, wondering why she was still so very weary, after two days of doing nothing but walking and sitting on a rock staring at the sea. Icy splats of rain struck her cheek, rousing her. She got to her feet and went below.
This ship was not nearly as large as the one that had brought her to the training island, but it was also not as crowded. She saw shelves built along the compartment she was pointed to. Blankets rolled neatly at the ends indicated one could lie on them. But were they reserved for sailors?
She hovered uncertainly, as conversation went on around her.
“. . . Turtleback told me the moment the dock hands saw those longboats running in with no lanterns, they woke everyone and climbed to the roof with fish spears to hand. But the pirates ran straight up to the fortress, as if they weren’t even there.”
“Pirates,” a big, broad sailor repeated scornfully. “I’ve seen pirates. I’ve fought ’em. Everything they say, those were hired swords. Mercenaries.”
A tall woman whistled. “Mighty expensive expedition, that. For what? Everything they have there they grow, or we bring it.”
Mouse spotted Shigan sitting against the hull, knees up, his long eyes open, reflecting the light in the lantern swinging overhead. Yaso bent over a basket of something. Mouse went that way, and sank down against the hull between the two, as the big sailor said, “They wanted into that fortress. My guess is they were after someone, or someones.”
“But they raided the village,” someone else said.
The woman nodded. “So Turtleback told us. They were chased out of the village, but not before they grabbed villagers. Maybe it was a slave expedition, sell them to the Western Islanders—”
The big man, who had sailed between the docks at the fortress and Te Gar, said, “I was there. Those were hostages. To force the fortress doors open. I’ve been fighting pirates off and on for twenty-five years, and let me tell you, those weren’t pirates, or slavers. Not from what we heard. They wanted in, and since there isn’t anything inside that fortress but a lot of boys eager for the kill, they were desperate to get at someone.”
“Who would they want?” asked a sailor, with extreme skepticism. “I’m told it’s all second sons and the like there. They also take anyone—carter’s boys, sweepers, doesn’t matter as long as he can hold a sword.”
“Someone rich sent those hirelings,” the big man said stolidly. “Why do rich people do anything? Maybe one of those second sons got himself kicked out and wanted revenge against the masters. Or there’s a clan feud going.”
“Clan feud,” someone else repeated. “That sounds more like it. The rich do love their clan feuds, though it’s always the likes of us doing the dying.”
“That’s right. Unless someone even more powerful goes after them, then it’s every head that bounces, from the clan chief’s granddam to the newborns,” another remarked sourly. “I’ve heard about those clan feuds. Ayah, the main garrison will be sending the inquisitors, and they’ll find ’em out, ha ha.”
“Food’s ready,” an older woman interrupted them, pointing to the galley. She turned toward the three passengers. “Crew gets served first.”
The storm broke overhead in a roar of thunder as people moved to get their meal. When the rumble rolled away to the west, Shigan turned to Mouse. “Teach me your style of defense,” he said in an undervoice.
From habit Mouse was about to refuse, for Heaven and Earth, and the martial arts style based on it, had always seemed to be part of The Story. She and Muin had kept it secret in case it somehow led back to Father—for the tassels knew their island of origin.
But now she was free, and if she told no one where she came from, then no one could trace her, or Heaven and Earth, back to Sweetwater. And Father had only made her promise not to reveal it to anyone in the village. “If you tell me what you know about joining the gallant wanderers,” she said, “I’ll show you what I can until we go our separate ways.”
Shigan sat back, tension leaving his shoulders, his hands, his forehead. He didn’t say anything more, but shut his eyes. A very short time later, when one of the sailors came around with grilled fish and sticky rice balls, he didn’t react. Then they saw that he was sound asleep.
Over the next few days, Shigan mostly slept. Mouse found herself less listless each day, especially after Yaso brought her more of that medicine to drink. Its pungency was distinctive. Not bad, not good. More . . . odd. It tasted much as the ground smells after the first thaw of spring.
When Mouse asked what it was, Yaso said, “I had to use most of the precious herb on the wounded, but I did save a bit. I’ve brewed slivers for your tea.”
Four mornings later, they sailed into the harbor at Te Gar Island.
Mouse had thought the harbor at her home island large, but it was not half the size of the one they sailed into.
The sailors expected them to help bring to the deck all the empty baskets and receptacles that would be filled again next month. Mouse was relieved to feel closer to her old self again. But too many days had passed since she had done Heaven and Earth, and she felt stuffy and crowded inside her own skin.
At last they dropped into the back of one of the longboats to be rowed ashore.
The ship captain said, “If you’re going up to the garrison, I can show you the way.”
Mouse took out the letters. Her heart drummed as she held them out. “Will you take these? I want to get in a day of liberty before I go.”
The captain laughed, taking the letters and the tally. “I usually do, and it means a free meal for me. Oh, to be young again!”
Soon the longboat bumped up against a piling. They climbed up a barnacle-covered stone stair to the upper part of the dock, where boats tied on when the tide was high.
The sailors wished them a good journey, then headed off toward the warehouses as Mouse, Shigan, and Yaso started up the quay toward the main street.
As soon as they were alone, Mouse turned to Shigan. “Should we seek the Hall of Justice? There should be a wall with notices.”
Shigan’s brows slanted at a steep angle. “Why would you want that? All you’ll see are warnings and capital lists—and there’s sure to be someone watching to see who is interested in them. Which the gallant wanderers aren’t. They have their own ways of communicating. We just have to find one who will talk to us.”
“Oh.” Mouse shivered at the idea of unseen eyes watching to see who read the notice boards. She was now glad that she was with Shigan, annoying as he could be.
They followed a stream of people up onto the quay, and then to a street that led into the city. Everything was new and interesting, from the ornamental trees to the accent the vendors called out in. But familiar smells drifted on the cold air, waking her appetite.
Mouse stared in a swooping combination of amazement and consternation. The street was fascinating, but had one common factor: everyone seemed to have a hand out for money. Her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten for what now felt like an age, and she was aware of a pulse of regret about the garrison. At least it would be familiar, unlike this world in which money was charged for lychee nuts, and melons. At home, when you wanted a snack, you picked and peeled the nuts yourself, and same with fetching a melon off its vine.
Familiar—and back to the old questions, she reminded herself as Shigan lounged along with scarcely hidden boredom. And Yaso . . . was just Yaso.
Under Commander Weken’s orders.
Mouse stopped suddenly, and when the other two stopped, she turned to Yaso. “You’ve been really good to me. I don’t want to lie to you. But I’ve decided to leave army training.”
“All right,” Yaso said amicably.
Mouse frowned, unsure whether Yaso was hiding something, or didn’t understand.
“Ayah,” she sighed. “I overheard some fourth and fifth years once saying something about deserters. I think they only behead you if you run from battle, but still, if you feel you have to report on me to Commander Weken, I’d rather we part now.”
Yaso said, “I want to follow you.” It was simply said, with sincerity Mouse could feel.
“Let’s go, before those sailors finish up their other cargo, and see us standing around,” Shigan suggested.
The three followed the crowd up toward a vast intersection with what appeared to be a main road, running parallel to the coast. Mouse stared avidly at the shrines, the performers hoping for coins, and the shops, the embodiment of the country bumpkin. The three of them caught the eye, Shigan for his striking good looks and sauntering indolence, wearing his plain dun robe as if it were five layers of silk. He ignored everyone and everything except for scraps of music, grimacing as if offended when he heard false notes, or fumbled rhythm. Otherwise he looked bored.
One of those whose eye followed them was a sharp-faced woman with long reddish hair worn high on her head and streaming down her back. Her robes swished beguilingly about her legs above her scuffed boots as she loitered outside the most popular inn for travelers.
She watched Shigan for half the length of the street before shifting her gaze to Mouse, the perfect clueless outsider. She matched their pace, drifting nearer, and finally, when the three turned a corner, she bumped up against Shigan, raised a hand around which she wore a bracelet of tiny bells, and as she shook these, and her targets’ eyes went to it, with the other hand she reached for Mouse’s sash pouch.
Which was completely empty, but five hard years had bred in Mouse a dislike of being touched. In a move faster than the eye, the woman found her hand knocked away.
She smiled beguilingly at Mouse, displaying sharp little white teeth as she said, “Looking for fun, sweet boy?”
“Only if it’s free,” Mouse said, wondering what this odd person’s idea of fun might be.
“Free for you and fun for me,” she replied, still smiling. “Come with me. Meet some friends? They’ll treat you real well—” She stopped abruptly as her wide-set eyes encountered Yaso’s limpid gaze.
The woman backed up a step, turned, and with a flick of her fluttering skirts that somehow resembled the flick and flutter of nine tails, she vanished into a crowd—from which a roar reverberated. Mouse gave a puzzled glance at Yaso, who hadn’t said or done anything that she’d heard, but then she was distracted by the sounds of shouting and laughter.
There was a raised fighting ring off to the right, built between two buildings, boards hammered and poised on a multitude of barrels, and railed by wedding-red bunting. A burly man stood in the center of a ring, arms upraised as the crowd roared around him. Another man limped to the rail, climbed painfully over, and vanished into the crowd.
“I’ll fight anyone here, any weapon!” the burly man roared in vernacular. “An imperial boater if you beat me!” He held up a silver, boat-shaped tael, which was astounding wealth to Mouse.
Shigan grinned, his eyes wide. “If we won that, we could get a room at an inn. Baths. Clothes. Maybe even a weapon.”
Mouse frowned. “Neither of us could grapple that man. Look at the muscles on his neck. He’s got muscle on top of muscle.”
“He said any weapon. See the rack of swords and spears on the back wall of the ring? After two years I ought to have learned something.” Shigan raised his voice, his vernacular Imperial-accented. “I’ll try!”
Before Mouse could utter a protest, he pushed his way into the crowd. She followed after, Yaso behind.
Those nearest the ring howled, laughed, and shouted mocking encouragement. Clearly they were there to be entertained—and to lay bets on the contestants, Mouse saw when she glimpsed the side table where a woman was taking money and handing out carved markers.
Another roar as Shigan climbed into the ring, and surveyed the weapons rack: a throwing spear, a halberd, a steel sword, a wooden sword. His hand reached for the steel sword, and the spectators uttered a low, “Oooooo!”
But before he could touch it, he snatched his hand away and picked up the wooden sword, which was very much like the ones they had used for scrapping for two years. He whirled it to warm up his wrist, but the spectators took it as posturing, and some Ooooed again, while others called mocking encouragement, or comments.
“Afraid of steel, eh?”
“Come on, pretty boy, let’s see your sword swing!”
Shigan flushed, which puzzled Mouse until the innuendo caught up with her. She was so used to boys bragging and comparing and otherwise making remarks about parts that she didn’t have, and didn’t want to have—she thought her own arrangement, with everything nicely tucked inside where no one could kick or punch you, so much better—that she’d gotten adept at ignoring such blather. But Shigan was a boy, and it clearly irked him.
He snapped the sword up to the ready. It whooshed nicely, and this time the spectators Ooooed appreciatively again, though there were some more catcalls, too.
For the space of about ten heartbeats, Shigan whacked away fearlessly, his form so much better than it had been. But he fought in that stamp-and-jerk method that Mouse now suspected would be most effective in a line. Alone, and against a huge veteran fighter, he was a gnat attacking a tiger.
The burly man let Shigan get in enough blows to test him, and then he took the offensive. Mouse winced as she watched it happen. She saw the moment of decision, the smirk and shift of balance and tightening of the right shoulder as the man came on the attack. First he feinted, then slapped aside Shigan’s thrust. The sword whipped around, then smacked Shigan on the arm hard enough to make him drop his weapon.
He could have backed up, but no. He whirled the blade around and smacked him across the face with the flat of the blade, not hard enough to wound. It was meant to entertain the watchers, but at the cost of humiliating Shigan, whose face now sported a telltale red mark. Then the sword arced a third time and whacked Shigan on the butt, knocking him into the rail hard enough to almost send him flying over.
The crowd roared with laughter as Shigan clutched desperately at the bunting strewn along the rail.
Mouse burned with indignation. Shigan could be irritating, but not right now. He’d volunteered to earn something for them all, and even if he had been his usual annoying self, knocking the weapon away was fair. But slapping his face with a wooden sword . . .
Mouse pushed her way through the crowd until she reached the rail. She hopped up, and vaulted over.
As soon as her foot hit the ring, the laughter redoubled, some with tears on their faces as they pointed at her. She shut all that out as she picked up the wooden sword Shigan had used. It was damp with sweat. She used the end of her robe to wipe the handle so that it would not slip in her hand, and faced the man.
He stood with his head to one side. “What are you doing here, urchin?”
“Fight,” Mouse said. She heard her own high voice, and flushed. But she held her ground.
“Fight,” the man mimicked in a squeal. Then he tipped his head the other way. “I’d lose face to even consider it.”
Mouse didn’t answer. She waited where she was, her body humming with Essence. She hadn’t entirely lost it!
The man sighed. “Will someone remove this puling infant for me?”
Two men clambered over and separated, each reaching for one of her arms. Mouse whirled the sword in an arc too fast to see, striking the first on the point of his elbow, and the second on the knee. Both stumbled, one falling, the other clasping his arm and dancing in a circle, cursing.
The big man’s smirk thinned. “Interesting. Ayah, if that is the only trick you know, little worm, here’s a lesson—”
And he struck.
Or, he meant to strike.
But Mouse had heard the intake of breath, saw muscle-tightening of intent, and neatly sidestepped so that the sword slapped the air. She brought hers around and smacked the man, hard, on the shoulder, same place he’d hit Shigan.
The crowd’s noise shifted in tone, most staying with scorn, some surprised, and not a few laughing. Mouse shut it all out. Her unwinking gaze stayed on the huge man before her, as she breathed in Essence.
The man came at her again, this time testing, still fast, still hard, but watchful. But his breathing, his muscles, signaled every blow, every block, and she evaded him, often by a hair’s breadth, and when she next struck, it was at his face.
His head twisted at the last instant—and the blow mostly struck his nose. She had pulled the blow the way he had, to slap and not to wound, but on a nose, any blow is painful. Worse was the unspoken lesson here: he had badly underestimated this runt.
He attacked once again, this time with full force and fury—to discover only air. Then pain blossomed too quickly to see: shoulder, opposite knee, and then a very hard poke in the ass.
The man dropped his sword, clapped a hand to his knee, and let out an unwilling laugh. “You win this bout, young master. We don’t usually get gallant wanderers. What sect are you?”
The noisy crowd quieted, most of those in front wanting to hear the answer. Mouse took her time laying the sword in the rack, thinking fast. She ought to have considered that type of question! She could not mention Heaven and Earth, which was a style, not a sect. In fact, it wasn’t even a style, but the names for two drills, in typical guard humor, Father had said: fighting upward against mounted warriors being Heaven, whereas Earth was fighting straight ahead and downward against foot warriors.
In any case, Mouse would never say those words around anyone but family, lest it somehow reach the evil emperor. Her mind cast about rapidly, then lit on a cherished memory, the Essence-drenched sacred space under the redbark trees . . .
“The Redbark Sect,” she said.
“Why is your senior so bad?” The man pointed at Shigan, who stood beside Yaso, one cheekbone swollen slightly.
“He just joined us,” Mouse said.
The man’s voice quickened. “Where? Who is your master? Where can I find him?”
“We wander,” Mouse said—and, remembering her hero tales, “If you are fated to find out more, you will.”
To her relief, the crowd actually accepted that. But for how long? She knew she couldn’t deal with any more questions. She stuck out her hand. “I’ll take that silver now.”
The woman dealing with the betting stood up, holding out the silver tael. Mouse took it. The woman said something, but Mouse didn’t hear it. The noise of the crowd was too loud, and Mouse didn’t care. She didn’t owe them anything. She readied herself, leaped to the top of the rail and then somersaulted over the heads of the crowd.
A roar went up, this time of approval.
As they turned, some shoving to follow, she said in Imperial, “Let’s go.”
They ran, Mouse heading straight uphill.