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Sage Empress I

The inside story of the first empress…

Sage Empress I

Author Name:

Release Date : May 7, 2024

ISBN Number : 978-1-63632-239-1


Kindle Reader = Mobi
Others = Epub


The inside story of the first empress…

Set in the tumultuous, magic-filled history of the Phoenix Feather quartet…

How did scholarly, modest Lan Renti, lowest ranking of the troubled imperial clan, rise to become the Sage Empress, first woman ruler in the long history of the Empire of a Thousand Isles?

Aware of how the official records embellish (or sidestep) the truth, she’s determined to set the record straight.

In this first volume, she begins with her life in the imperial palace until the catastrophic injustice that flung her as a young teen into the dangerous world of the Warring Princes to seek her missing brother.

Secret identities, a talking sword, and a friendship that might become something more, land her outside the law as a gallant wanderer. Only, what happens when “the law” becomes increasingly unjust? Ren grapples with that question as her first mission, supposedly simple, becomes fraught with wide-ranging consequences…

Sherwood Smith writes fantasy, SF, and historical novels.

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Blessed by the Heavens
Yslan Renti was born in sight of the throne,
A grace among graces…

It would be dramatic to say that from my earliest memory I wanted to escape the imperial palace, but that is not true. I intend to write the truth as I saw it, or I could spare myself the effort and point to the official records full of polished flatteries, or countless unctuous poems full of dramatic hyperbole. I can’t resist heading my sections with some of the most egregious of these pomposities.

The truth is not dramatic, for I simply had the typical child’s curiosity about the world outside the confines of the nursery. Whenever I saw a door open, I did my best to go out and explore. That curiosity is often scolded, or worse, out of small children—even for the best of reasons, as a small child does not recognize danger—but Nanny was ever patient, merely hauling me back and distracting me with a song or a toy or a story.

When I could not get through the door, I sent my imagination. My earliest memory in that regard is what I thought of as the Empire of Frogs. This was founded upon a priceless nine-fold screen called The Butterflies’ Paradise. When I chanced upon it again much later, I sustained a shock of recognition in spite of how memory had distorted the actuality. As a small child, I could not see the butterflies at all. My attention, and my imagination, centered around the little frogs painted along the lower edge, among different colored pebbles and tiny pools, above which grew a forest of reeds. By the time I was tall enough to step over the threshold between rooms, I had named all those frogs after ourselves—Father, Mother, First Brother, Second Brother, Nanny and me—and I had imagined countless scenes, mostly extensions of daily life blended with Nanny’s small tales from her own youth.

Once I began to be aware of palace life in its rounds of ritual and tradition, I wholly believed what everyone from the briefly glimpsed emperor to the lowest menial united in making into a truth: that palace life had existed forever, and would continue in just this way forever. Our earliest lessons were steeped in ritual and tradition, the most sacred words modified by “ancient.” It has always been done that way was unanswerable, especially by us girls.

“The single most important lesson for a princess is deportment,” my nanny repeated in admonishing me, when I was caught scrambling after my brothers over the wall to raid the peach trees. It wasn’t that we were not given peaches. Oh, the beautiful fruits, there for the taking, in season—and frozen, kept in the ice houses, and made into delectable dishes out of season! But everyone knows that stolen fruit is sweeter, or so Second Brother told me. I believed everything he said until my seventh birthday, when he informed me that from now on I must wear a cow bell around my neck to frighten away demons.

“But you did not wear a cow bell when you turned seven. I remember,” I said, thinking myself quite shrewd.

“That’s because it’s only girls the demons eat up. Here you go! Your very own.” He handed me the bell.

As I had scarcely ever seen my imperial or noble cousins until then, and I had no sisters, I believed him. And the next day, when I had to go out into the garden to practice my court deportment, the cow bell clanged ridiculously as I tripped back and forth. Deportment lessons, I suppose I scarcely need to say, were tedious in the extreme, and I loathed them. The bell was a delightful distraction, and I gleefully noted that my three maidservants—scarcely older than I—were unsure what to do once I told them that Second Brother had given it to me. Whatever my brothers did was almost as sacrosanct as orders from my parents. I was highly entertained, and felt quite bold as well, imagining the demons fleeing on the wind.

Nanny had been supervising the changing of my bedding from spring to summer coverings and hangings, so at first she was not there. But when she heard the unprecedented noise, she scurried out, scandalized, words already tripping off her tongue, “Your highness, a princess is above all noiseless…” She stopped short when she saw the bell. “What is that?”

“Second Brother gave it to me for my birthday, to save me from being eaten by demons,” I explained.

Gift—brothers—charms—these ideas halted Nanny’s fingers in the air before they could touch the grimy cord the bell was strung with. She blinked at me. Then she turned about and vanished inside with a sway of gray robes.

Nanny was back very soon with my mother, who, even in this moment of world-trembling crisis (so it seemed to my seven-year-old self) glided toward me so smoothly that the two golden ornaments dangling on dainty chains from her hairpin scarcely trembled. “I’ll take that bell, Daughter,” she said, and while she lifted the bell (which smelled of cow, incidentally) up from my neck, she asked for the story that I repeated once more.

Mother’s lips compressed as she glanced at the garden wall. Then her delicately plucked eyebrows lifted very slightly, and she said, “Continue your lessons. Soundlessly.”

She took the bell away, which I was sad to see. Not that I feared demons. Mother’s complete disinterest in Second Brother’s threat had dispelled my worry on that score. I had to return to the tedium of practicing my deportment walk—this time under the stern eye of Nanny, which meant I could not conveniently forget, or lay aside, the box that I had to balance on the top of my head.

I thought no more about the bell until we were all summoned to the family’s ancestral shrine at Dragon first hour, when customarily we were summoned to the evening meal.

This could only mean one thing: punishment. The forgotten cow bell came back to me, and my hands turned damp. But it was not I who was summoned before Father, and told to fetch the switch. It was Second Brother.

Father held out the cow bell.

Second Brother protested, “It was just a joke!”

“What did you say to your sister, Second Son?” Father asked sternly. He was tall, but in that room he seemed to be taller than the tallest roof of any three-tiered palace.

“It was only a joke,” Second Brother mumbled, then out it came, in pieces. Every word of our exchange, after which Father turned his gaze to me. He was so tall and serious that the moment seemed terrible, and I trembled as he said, “Is Second Brother’s confession accurate?”

“Yes, Father.” I could barely get the two words out past my constricted throat. They came out like a mouse’s squeak.

Father then turned his remote, serious gaze to Second Brother. “Your true motive? Think before you speak,” he warned.

Second Brother was already pale, then he blanched to the shade of rice paper and mumbled, “I wanted the bell to make noise to disrupt our class.”

“Then it was not a joke at all, but a lie to in order to make your sister your tool in interrupting your education.”

I remembered Mother’s glance at the wall dividing the women’s courtyard from the men’s in our family palace. On the other side of that wall, the younger noble boys would have begun studying under the airy pavilion they would use through the summer until Harvest Festival.

“It is that lie for which you will be punished now,” Father said. “After which you will copy twenty-fold Kanda’s admonitions on the gift of speech. With each gift comes responsibility. Do you want to be reborn a donkey in your next life?”

From the look on Second Brother’s face he would not mind that at all, if he could just leap ahead to that time and avoid the painful interlude to come. But there was no leap of time. Father administered ten swats, but at least he hadn’t used the heavy cane, which was reserved for serious offenses. I had already seen that used once, an experience that so frightened me I could not bear to even look at that cane afterward, though the blood had long been cleaned off.

Second Brother was then told to kneel for the length of an incense stick to reflect on himself before commencing his copywork, after which we left, but when we got to the dining hall, Father turned to me. “I understand that you put one sensible question to your brother, but why did you not reflect on the fact that if there was any such threat, your mother or I would have warned you long before your birthday?”

There was no answer to be made. It was true. I hadn’t thought past the fact that the cow bell was interesting, the lessons boring, and nobody wanted to be eaten by demons.

“You have reached an age to begin questioning irregularities,” Father said to me. “If something takes you by surprise—if you suspect a hidden motive—you must begin to use your brain as well as your tongue. After the meal, you are to write out Kanda’s admonition on the gift of speech, and consider every word, Daughter.”

And so I did not escape entirely; though the admonition was only to be copied once, I was struggling in those days to master my writing brush, and it took a long time. I half-comprehended that I had been admonished for my credulousness, and I resolved never to believe anything Second Brother ever said, ever, ever, ever.

The next morning, the family ate together as if nothing had happened. Once remonstrances and consequences had been completed, we began anew—this was a rule in our household, though I was to discover that in other imperial households, a disgrace meant one had to earn back one’s former place, which might take weeks, even months, during which everyone was supposed to diligently remind the miscreant of their disgrace. Some took great (yes, we’ll call it vindictive) pleasure in these reminders, others were more earnest of intent, as our parents were always reminding us that every look, word, and gesture had consequences.

Father put on his court robe and his Censor hat, and departed for the Hall of Glorious Harmony. Mother put on one of her silken robes covered with embroidered butterflies and flowers, and departed to make her round of calls within the imperial harem. First Brother went to gather his writing case and his books for lessons, and Second Brother made to follow as I turned toward the door leading to the yard to practice deportment, before sewing and calligraphy.

Second Brother stopped me in the hall. “Sorry,” he mumbled, his face, round as the moon, troubled instead of laughing-eyed with mischief. “First Brother told me you got stuck with copy work, too. I didn’t think you’d get into trouble, as long as you didn’t know what I really wanted to do.” And he pushed into my hand his share of the sweet-cakes from breakfast, which I knew were his favorite.

My resentment vanished.

“Does it hurt much?” I asked.

Second Brother rubbed his backside. “Barely stung,” he said. “Father never beats very hard.” He flashed a grin. “And you ought to have seen the boys laughing behind their hands at your clanging and clanking. Everyone thought a cow got loose in the far garden. The old graybeard was furious. It was worth it,” he added stoutly.

I came away from that understanding that I could ask questions, as long as these were offered respectfully (that was Mother’s influence) and precisely (that was Father’s).

Why are there two moons? Was Kanda a real person? I was full of questions, but rarely about what I saw before my face each day. Mostly I thought them up hoping for praise, which I got when one parent or the other deemed a question a good one. I also liked the attention, which was usually reserved for First Brother, especially these days, as he prepared for the Imperial Examination. That was of primary importance in our family, so much that Father laid aside the work he usually had with him at all times, including meals, to put questions to First Brother as we ate. First Brother’s recitations were long, and mostly without flaw; Father felt Second Brother benefitted from hearing. Even I was to benefit, as helpmeet to my future husband, as yet unknown.

That summer, Mother began teaching me the game Circle, which until then I had assumed was one of the many things reserved for brothers and male cousins, like the school from which I heard the rise and fall of those boy voices as they chanted sutras. But she did not teach Circle in military terms. Instead, Mother began in one quarter of the board, with very small mathematical combinations, the moves adding or subtracting the white or black stones. Later, multiplying or dividing.

I turned eight at the beginning of the next spring. We celebrated with nut cakes and fireworks in the garden, and I was given a new ribbon for my hair and a new inkstone. A few mornings later, Mother laid down a scented message that she had received during breakfast, and told me that I had been summoned to accompany her on her visits into the imperial harem, which had recommenced with spring.

What excitement! Feeling like a paper lantern lit from within to rise toward the sky, I began to bounce, but a single reproving glance from Mother pinched out the candle.

In measured voice Mother instructed me. “You will never speak unless directly addressed. No matter what is asked, you always begin with formal thanks, and then you add ‘very fine.’ So. If the dowager empress were to condescend to notice you by asking if you have been a good, obedient girl, what do you say?”

“I go to the floor, and say, thanks to the infinite grace of her imperial majesty, this insignificant child is…obedient?”

“Strives to be obedient,” Mother corrected. “If the empress asks if you are learning your embroidery, what do you say?”

“Thanks to the infinite grace of her imp—”

“You may address her directly, your imperial majesty. Only the dowager empress must be addressed indirectly, as she is too exalted for us to presume a nearer connection. It is for her to bestow the next step.”

“Thanks to the infinite grace of your imperial majesty,” I said, making my low curtsy to the empress, “this insignificant one—”


“—this insignificant child attempts to learn.”

“That will do, at your age. The same pattern will serve for the elder imperial aunts, and the consorts.”

“But I cannot tell them apart,” I whimpered. “I might get them mixed up.”

Mother gave me that look again. “Modulate your voice, Daughter. Practice, even here. I don’t believe this visit will be repeated for at least a couple of years. I suspect there is some discussion about arranging your marriage, and they want a look at you first. As for the aunts and consorts, you must listen carefully to how I address each, and repeat what I say.”

My joy at being included among the grownups began to give way to trepidation as I was bathed again, this time with jasmine to scent the water, and put into my festival robe of peach-colored silk, with bluebells and peonies embroidered down the front edges and along the hem. It was tied with my blue sash. My eyes watered as my maid combed my hair out again, and rebraided it very tightly, so that not a strand was out of place. My best blue ribbons tied each braid high on my head, and Nanny, overseeing this transformation, scolded me nervously not to touch them before I even lifted my hand.

We did not live within the harem, of course. Like the other lower relations of the emperor, we occupied one of the palaces surrounding the imperial garden. The trepidation had completely replaced the joy by the time I trod two steps back and to the left of Mother on her long journey to the dowager empress’s palace.

That first time, everything was new, and overwhelming in the glory of the fine statues and furnishings, the painted screens, the carved scrollwork along the beams overhead, gilt and gleaming richly. Glorious as the rooms were—very different from the relative simplicity of my home—the headdresses of the women, and their gowns and jewels, were finer still. I felt as if I moved in a painting, and I must be very careful not to put a foot wrong, or to relax my hands from their pose, neatly crossed just below the area of my navel, elbows even so that my sleeves draped smoothly.

The dowager empress did not speak to me. The empress did, but when I dared to peek at her on my rise from my curtsy, I discovered that she was not looking at me at all. Her head was turned, her gaze on one of the aunts or consorts arranged on their cushions to either side in strict rank order. My neck prickled at that look. I was glad not to be receiving it.

By the sixth palace, I began to understand why the adults only drank a single tiny porcelain cup of tea. Mother was taking in quite a lot of tea, but there would be no privy visits within the harem!

I dared to widen my scrutiny in furtive peeks, finally noting to my astonishment that I was not the only girl present. There were three others around my age, and several big girls, but all remained behind their mothers, as I did, so it was difficult to catch sight of more than the curve of head framed by shining black hair as tightly ordered as my own, and the quick flutter of gowns far more elaborate than mine. It was then that I realized I was in the presence of my distant cousins, some the descendants of grand princes—like my father was—or perhaps these might even be imperial princesses, hereto only glimpsed from a distance at the ancestral temple on the new year’s first day.

I possessed myself impatiently until we got home, and then burst out with questions. Who were those girls? I would meet them soon, if I attended to lessons properly. Was I to be married? Of course—in many years still to come. Would my intended be in the school with my brothers? Probably, but not necessarily.

And, who was the empress looking at after she asked if I was attending to my lessons?

Mother hesitated, then said, “She was looking at one of the emperor’s new consorts.”

“Why, Mother?”

“That is the sort of question that will have to wait until you are older. However, you may have a partial answer now: the empress has dynastic concerns.”

Dynastic concerns? That seemed to make sense, in a remote way, rather like the distant stars making patterns that I almost recognized, though I was told that they each had name and purpose. Above Mt. Lir, almost a square. Over the House of Eternal Peace, a kind of spear—very proper a sign to be over the place where the imperial guard lived, and guarded prisoners.

But the real meaning eluded me.

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