This chapter in the Story of the Phoenix Feather begins with the remainder of the Redbark companions—Ryu, Matu, and Petal—left watching in distress as the imperial army marched off with Shigan.
Who had, to Ryu’s horror, turned out to be Imperial First Prince Jehan Jion.
Of all those listeners inside and outside Madam Swan’s entertainment house, only Ryu understood ancient Imperial, and how the sinister imperial ferret Fai Anbai most unfairly staked everyone’s lives against their imperial prince’s. She was wild with anger and grief—but so tired after talking nearly all night, then only a brief sleep, that she stood there beside the window staring into the rapidly emptying square as everyone in the world burst into question and comment around her, mostly variations on, “What were the imperials saying? Why did they take away the dancer?”
“They went to their knees, did you see that?”
“He must be a runaway noble.”
“Why would anyone run away from riches and anything you want?”
“Who understands anything nobles do? Thank the gods it was his bad luck that brought the imperials down on his head, and not mine, that’s all I know.”
And everyone judiciously made signs warding bad luck.
Ryu roused when Madam Swan’s voice rose to an almost piercing level. “Oh, yes, that must have been the infamous Firebolt who left last night. I am so shocked! Why, if I had known he was so infamous, I would never have taken his custom. I have to think of the reputation of my house, you know!”
Then she was there in a swirl of pink silk and rose fragrance, saying, “Yes, these might be the Redbark Sect companions, but I believe Firebolt left them behind.”
Only then did Ryu remember Matu and Petal on the other side of the room. They had been whispering fiercely, but they looked up when confronted by a man dressed like an ordinary traveler. This man then turned to glance at Ryu, as an armored imperial wearing the feather-and-tassel hat of a captain entered the room, flanked by guards who shooed everyone else out.
The civilian gestured to the three of them as the captain stood by, holding a sheathed sword. Even in her misery, former cadet Ryu noted that sword gripped in his left hand—ready for a fast draw with his right.
The civilian said, “I have a few questions.”
Matu’s usually pleasant face hardened. For a sick moment Ryu wondered if he was going to turn on her for lying about her gender . . . but then she saw that his angry gaze was not on her. She remembered that Matu’s father, laboring in some imperial mine on an island named Benevolent Winds, was an eternal knot in Matu’s heart, never far from his thoughts whenever he saw, or heard, imperials. He was not going to give these imperials anything they didn’t already have, no matter what they threatened.
But the questions turned out to be brief. It was clear that to the imperials, the important action was over. Did they know his name, Shigan Fin, did they know where he was from, no, Redbark asks no questions, all are welcome . . . Petal did the talking. Ryu tried to follow, to think ahead, but her thoughts stumbled, nearly paralyzed by the overwhelming emotions, and exhaustion, that pressed down on her soul. Her heart. She drooped miserably, wanting to curl up in a ball and cry.
She blinked when the captain’s voice sharpened. “. . . you answer me, boy?”
Petal said hastily, “Matu here is a loyal member of our sect, but he’s a little slow.”
The captain looked from Matu to Ryu hunched there by the window—and she felt herself dismissed in the way adults dismiss children. Never before had she been glad to be short and round-faced as the captain said to the man in plain clothing, “I believe we are finished here.”
As soon as the imperials were seen out the door by deferential staff, Madam Swan went through the entire house, and anyone she didn’t recognize she smilingly escorted to the common room, offered free food and drink, then gestured for the Redbarks and her staff to meet her in the kitchen.
“You three,” she said to Ryu, Matu, and Petal, “ought to go before they decide to come back and take you along for further questions. The rest of you, you know nothing at all, and offer free drinks. Let’s get this past us as quickly as we can.”
“Why did they take the Comet?” the lead dancer asked.
Madam Swan raised her hands, looking upward—and in that moment Ryu suspected that the woman also understood the ancient tongue, or enough of it to hazard a guess. “Who knows? One thing I am certain of, anything with the imperials is political in nature, and politics is a den of tigers. Do you really want to poke a straw up a tiger’s nose?”
“No!” everyone agreed, and dispersed.
The three remaining Redbark companions packed up their new things and left.
They passed by the Five Heroes and up a randomly chosen side street, to another smaller square. Here they stopped.
Ryu looked uncertainly at Matu. For it had been Matu who blurted out her after Shigan’s Stay with him.
Ryu braced herself to face the consequences of having lied to them all, from the beginning—but Matu was not thinking about that. “What was wrong with Shigan?” he asked, low-voiced. “They knelt down. But then they took him away.”
Long habit prompted Ryu to let Shigan tell his own story.
If they ever saw him again.
Fresh grief knotted painfully in her heart, and she sighed heavily. “Madam is right. Imperials mean something political.”
“Just like my father,” Matu said bitterly. “I always suspected Shigan might be a noble. But I thought . . .” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter what I thought.” Then, after a deep breath, “Before that feather-hatted army noser butted in. We were talking about what to do.”
“It’s all right. You don’t have to include me,” Ryu said, eyeing his not-quite-at-her gaze. “Ayah! I’m sorry I lied. About my . . . not being a boy, I mean.”
Matu sidled uncomfortably, but before he could speak, Petal said firmly, “That’s your business.” And to Matu, in a low voice, “You ought not to have told Shigan.”
Matu studied his boot tops. “I don’t know why I said what I did. It—it just seemed wrong for Shigan not to know,” he mumbled.
“And so you grabbed a boiling kettle,” Petal said. Matu flushed as Petal turned to Ryu. “You’ve been such a good leader, I for one would be glad to keep following you, girl, boy, or whatever you want to be.”
“Thank you.” Ryu held out her hands, palms up. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any idea what to do. If you’ve got ideas, I’d be glad to hear them.”
A brief silence ensued, then Petal, who seemed determined to speak the truth even if it frightened her, said, “I would rather not spend another winter in the far north. Too many rumors of trouble up there.”
Matu looked up long enough to say, “I’m not ready to go back to Ten Leopards yet.”
Ryu ducked her head. She’d been about to suggest that. Not that she was thinking of his large, sometimes bewildering family. The lure—and it was increasingly strong—was Grandfather Ki, and his knowledge of Essence. Now that Yaso had left them, she had no guidance whatsoever.
Ryu turned to Petal. “What would you like to do, if you could go anywhere?”
Petal’s chewed lips pressed to a line. Then she said in that same high, gritty determined-to-speak-the-truth-voice, “I want to at least check at Te Gar.” She twisted her hands in the old way at the mention of her one-time home. “I keep worrying about my sister. If that marriage ended, or something happened, and she was forced to go back to her. I need to know. If I can. Before I go anywhere else. If it was up to me . . .”
Matu interrupted that morass of conditions to say in a low voice, “I’d go with you. If you want me.”
Petal’s smile brightened her entire countenance.
Ryu looked down at the ground. She did not want to go south, which was into imperial territory. Shigan—an imperial prince—the imperials showing up so suddenly—she felt as if a tiger had leaped toward her out of the blue, but then passed over her head to chase an unseen prey behind her. She would be foolish to turn around and begin chasing the tiger, and going south felt like it would be chasing the tiger. But if the others wanted to go there, maybe she ought to go too, to protect them—and to try to mend whatever it was that she’d broken between Matu and her.
Matu said, “If you will consider a suggestion . . .”
Ryu stared at her feet, the knot in her heart twin to the one in her stomach when she realized that Matu had stopped calling her Redbark Brother Ryu. “What is it?”
He looked away, then back, his shoulders straightening. “I know the Ki clan owes you nothing, nor you the clan. But you ought to understand what it means when Grandfather Ki said he was waiting for you. He never did that for any of us.”
Ryu looked up, hope in her face. She said truthfully, “You’re wrong about my not owing them. If you and Petal hadn’t brought them to that Shadow Panther lair, Shigan and I would be dead by now.” And when Matu flushed, but didn’t deny it, she asked tentatively, “Do you think Grandfather Ki would still welcome me?”
“From everything the elders say, he would like nothing better. He won’t care about . . .” Matu blushed even redder as he made a vague gesture toward the front of his clothes. “It’s your skill. He can teach you about Essence. I can draw a map how to find the island.”
Ryu looked at the pair, aware of herself as an awkward third. “I’d like that, too,” she said.
And saw a quick look of relief in Matu’s face—no more than she felt herself. The decision seemed to be made. Everyone looked at everyone else, and saw agreement.
Ryu slid her hand into her pack, and pulled out the bag of cash. “Let me split this three ways while you make the map.”
Both things were soon done, and the three of them faced one another once more. Petal spoke up, her voice husky with conviction. “Wherever I go, I will always take Redbark with me.”