Read an excerpt from historical fantasy novel, The Tiger's Daughter
In October, Tor will publish The Tiger’s Daughter, a Mongolian-inspired historical fantasy novel by K. Arsenault Rivera that follows two goddesses as they try to fend off demons threatening the nearby villages before they overtake the whole empire.
EW can now exclusively reveal the novel’s beautiful cover and an excerpt below. But first, check out The Tiger’s Daughter’s official summary, here. The Tiger’s Daughter hits shelves Oct. 3, 2017.
Excerpt from The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera
Empress Yui wrestles with her broken zither. She’d rather deal with the tiger again. Or the demons. Or her uncle. Anything short of going north, anything short of war. But a snapped string? One cannot reason with a snapped string, nor can one chop it in half and be rid of the problem.
When she stops to think on it—chopping things in half is part of why she’s alone with the stupid instrument to begin with. Did she not say she’d stop dueling? What was she thinking, accepting Rayama-tun’s challenge? He is only a boy.
And now he will be the boy who dueled One-Stroke Shizuka, the boy whose sword she cut in half before he managed to draw it. That story will haunt him for the rest of his life.
The Phoenix Empress, Daughter of Heaven, the Light of Hokkaro, Celestial Flame—no, she is alone, let her wear her own name—O Shizuka pinches her scarred nose. When was the last day she behaved the way an Empress should?
Shizuka—can she truly be Shizuka, for an hour?—twists the silk between her first two fingers and threads it through the offending peg. Honestly. The nerve! Sitting in her rooms, taking up her valuable space. Taunting her. She can hear her father’s voice now: Shizuka, it will only be an hour, won’t you play me something?
But O Itsuki, Imperial Poet, brother to the Emperor, heard music wherever he heard words. Scholars say that the Hokkaran language itself was not really born until O Itsuki began to write in it. What use did he have for his daughter’s haphazard playing?
Shizuka, your mother is so tired and upset; surely your music will lift her spirits and calm her!
But it was never the music that cheered her mother. It was merely seeing Shizuka play. The sight of her daughter doing something other than swinging a sword. O Shizuru did little else with her time, given her position as Imperial Executioner. Wherever she went, the Crows followed in her footsteps. Already thirty-six by the time she gave birth to her only child, O Shizuru wore her world-weariness like a crown.
And who could blame her, with the things she had done?
Ah—but Shizuka hadn’t understood, back then, why her mother was always so exhausted. Why she bickered with the Emperor whenever she saw him. Why it was so important to her that her daughter was more than a duelist, more than a fighter, more like her father, and less like . . .
The Empress frowns. She runs the string along the length of the zither, toward the other peg. Thanks to her modest height, it takes a bit of doing. She manages. She always does.
Perhaps she will be a musician yet. She will play the music Handa wrote for View from Rolling Hills, she thinks.
The melody is simple enough that she’s memorized it already, soothing enough that she can lose herself in its gentle rise and fall.
Funny how you can hate a poem until the day you relate to it. Then it becomes your favorite.
She strikes the first notes—and that is when the footfalls meet her ears.
Footfalls meet her ears, and her frown only grows deeper.
No visitors, she said. No treating with courtiers, no inane trade meetings, no audiences with the public, nothing. Just her and the zither for an hour. One hour! Was that so difficult to understand?
She shakes her head. Beneath her breath she mutters an apology to her father.
One of the newer pages scurries to the threshold. He’s wearing black and silver robes emblazoned with Dao Doan Province’s seal. Is this Jiro-tul’s latest son? He has so many, she can’t keep track anymore. Eventually she’s going to have to make an effort to remember the servants’ names.
The new boy prostrates himself. He offers her a package wrapped in dark cloth and tied together with twine. It’s so bulky the boy’s hands quiver just holding it.
Some idiot suitor’s latest gift. Only one thing makes a person foolhardy enough to contradict the Empress’s will, and that is infatuation. Not love. Love has the decency to send up a note, not whatever this was.
“You may speak,” she says.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” he says, “this package was, we think, addressed to you—”
“You think?” She crooks a brow. “Rise.”
The boy rises to his knees. She beckons him closer, and he scrambles forward, dropping the package in the process. It’s a book. It must be. That sort of heavy thwack can come only from a book.
“Doan-tun,” she says, “you are not in trouble, but tell me: Why are you bringing me something you can’t be certain is mine?”
He’s close enough now that she can see the wisps of black hair clinging to his upper lip. Good. From a distance, it looked like he’d taken a punch to the face.
“Your Imperial Majesty, Most Serene Empress Phoenix—”
“‘Your Imperial Majesty’ suffices in private conversation.”
He swallows. “Your Imperial Majesty,” he says, “the handwriting is, if you will forgive my bluntness, atrocious. When I received it, I had a great deal of difficulty deciphering it.”
O Shizuka turns toward the zither as the boy speaks. For not the first time in recent years, she considers trimming her nails. But she likes the look of them, likes the glittering dust left behind by the crushed gems she dipped them in each morning. “Continue.”
As he speaks she runs her fingertips along the strings of her zither. If she closes her eyes she can still hear View from Rolling Hills.
“I sought out the aid of the elder servants,” he says. “One of them pointed out that this is in the horse script.”
O Shizuka stops mid-motion.
No one writes to her in Qorin. No Hokkaran courtiers bother learning it. Horselords are beneath them, and thus there is no reason to learn their tongue. It’s the same reason only Xianese lords learn to read and write that language, the same reason Jeon is a cipher more than a tongue, the same reason one only ever reads of Doanese Kings in faded, musty scrolls.
The saying goes that to survive is Qorin—but the same can be said of the Hokkaran Empire, scavenging parts from the nations it swallows up, swearing that these borrowed clothes have been Imperial Finery all along. How did that drivel go? Hokkaro is a mother to unruly young nations, ever watchful, ever present. Shizuka always hated it.
So the letter cannot be from a Hokkaran, for what Hokkaran would deign to debase themselves in such a way? Burqila’s calligraphy is serviceable, if not perfect; the servants would have no trouble with anything she sent. Which leaves only one Qorin who might write to her in the rough horse-tongue.
It’s been eight years, she thinks, eight years since . . .
“I asked one of your older handmaidens, Keiko-lao, and she said your old friend Oshiro-sun couldn’t write Hokkaran at all, so I thought—”
Sun. There are thirty-two different honorifics in Hokkaran—eight sets of four. Each set is used only in specific circumstances. Using the wrong one is akin to walking up to someone and spitting into their mouth.
So why was it that, to this day, Shefali remained Oshiro-sun? The boy should know better. Sun is for outsiders, and Shefali was . . .
“Give it to me,” O Shizuka snaps.
He offers it to her again, and when she takes it, her hands brush against his. That fleeting contact with the Empress is more than any other boy his age could dream of.
Naturally, he will tell all the others about it the moment he has a chance. His stories will be a bit more salacious, as he is a young man, and she is the Virgin Empress, and they are alone together save the guards standing outside.
O Shizuka’s hands tremble as she reaches for the paper attached to the package. Yes, she who is known as the Lady of Ink, the finest calligrapher in the Empire: her hands tremble like an old woman’s.
The Hokkaran calligraphy is closer to a pig’s muddy footprints than to anything legible, but the bold Qorin characters are unmistakable.
For O Shizuka of Hokkaro, from Barsalyya Shefali Alshar.
Nothing could make her smile like this, not even hearing the Sister’s secret song itself.
“Doan-tun,” she says, her voice little more than a whisper. “Cancel all my appointments for the next two days.”
“What?” he says. “Your Imperial Majesty, the Merchant Prince of Sur-Shar arrives tomorrow!”
“And he can make himself quite comfortable in whichever brothel he chooses until I am prepared to speak to him,” O Shizuka says. “Unless my uncle has finally done me the favor of dying, I am not to be bothered. You are dismissed.”
“But, Your Imperial Majesty—”
“Dismissed,” repeats Shizuka, this time sharp as the nails of her right hand. The boy leaves.
And she is alone.
Alone as she has been for eight years. Alone with her crown, her zither, her paper, her ink, her Imperial bed.
But as she unwraps the package and uncovers the book underneath, she can hear Shefali’s voice in her mind. She can smell her: horses and sweat, milk and leather. And there, pressed between the first two pages—
Two pine needles.
When her eyes first land on the Qorin characters in the book, O Shizuka’s heart begins to sing.
Blossoms Long Ago
Shizuka, my Shizuka. If Grandmother Sky is good, then this finds you sitting on your throne, eating far too many sweets, and complaining about all the meetings you must attend.
My apologies for the awful calligraphy. I know you are shaking your head even as you read this, saying something about my brushstrokes not being decisive enough.
I have so many questions for you, and I’m certain you have just as many for me. Here in the East, I hear rumors of what you’ve been up to. Is it true you returned to Shiseiki Province and slew a Demon General? You must tell me the story. And do not brush off the details, Shizuka. I can almost hear your voice.
“It really was nothing. . . .”
The day will come when we share stories over kumaq and rice wine. I know it will. But until then, paper and ink are all we have. They are old friends of yours, and have kindly agreed to keep you company in my absence.
Do you remember the first time we met, Shizuka, or has that long faded from your memory? It is my favorite story in all the world to tell. Oh, you know it well. But let me tell it all the same. Let me have my comfort. Without you, I am in the dark. It has been so long, Shizuka, that I might mistake a candle for the sun.
Our births—that is where I should start, though I doubt there exists a soul who has not heard about yours. Hokkarans rely on numbers and superstition more than they rely on sense, so when you popped out of your mother’s womb on the Eighth of Ji-Dao, the whole Empire boomed with joy. Your existence alone was cause for celebration. Your uncle, the Emperor, had let fourteen years go by without producing an heir.
And there was the matter of your parents, as well. The most well loved poet of his time and the national hero who slew a Demon General with nothing but her fabled sword and my mother’s assistance, those were your father and mother. When you were born, both were nearing forty.
I cannot imagine the elation the Empire felt after holding its breath for so long. Fourteen years without an heir, fourteen years spent tiptoeing on eggshells. All it would take was one errant arrow to bring your entire dynasty to its knees.
So you saved them. From the first moment of your life, Shizuka, you have been saving people. But you have never been subtle, never been modest, and so you chose the eighth of Ji-Dao to be born.
The eighth day of the eighth month, in the year dedicated to the Daughter—the eighth member of the Heavenly Family. Legend has it, you were born eight minutes into Last Bell, as well, though no one can really know for certain. I cannot say it would surprise me. You do not do anything halfway.
But there was another thing about your birth—something we shared.
The moment my mother put you in your mother’s hands, two pine needles fell on your forehead, right between your eyes.
One month later, on the first of Qurukai, I was born beneath the Eternal Sky. Like all Qorin, I was born with a patch of blue on my bottom; unlike the others, mine was so pale, it was nearly white. I was not screaming, and I did not cry until my mother slapped me. The sanvaartains present told her that this was a bad sign—that a baby who did not cry at birth would make up for it when she died in agony.
I can imagine you shaking your head. It’s true—Qorin portents are never pleasant.
But my mother scoffed, just as your mother scoffed, and presented me to the sanvaartain for blessings anyway. Just as the sanvaartain held the bowl of milk above my head, just as the first drops splashed onto my brow, she saw them.
Two pine needles stuck together between my eyes.
There are no pine trees in that part of the steppes.
When my mother told yours about what had happened, our fates were decided. The pine needles were an omen—we would always be friends, you and I, always together. To celebrate our good fortune, your father wrote a poem on the subject. Don’t you find it amusing, Shizuka? Everyone thinks that poem was about your parents, but it was about us the whole time.
When we were three, our mothers introduced us. Shizuru and Alshara wrote to each other for months about it. For all your mother’s incredible abilities, for all her skills and talents, conceiving was almost impossible for her.Your mother, the youngest of five bamboo mat salespeople, worried you’d grow up lonely. Burqila Alshara wasn’t having that. She offered to take you in for a summer on the steppes, so that we might share our earliest memories together.
But the moment you laid eyes on me, something within you snapped. I cannot know what it was—I have no way of seeing into your thoughts—but I can only imagine the intensity of it.
All I know is that the first thing I can remember seeing, the first sight to embed itself like an arrow in the trunk of my mind, is your face contorted with rage.
And when I say rage, you must understand the sort of anger I am discussing. Normal children get upset when they lose a toy or when their parents leave the room. They weep, they beat their little fists against the ground, they scream.
But it was not so with you. Your lips were drawn back like a cat’s, your teeth flashing in the light. Your whole face was taut with fury. Your scream was wordless and dark, sharp as a knife.
You moved so fast, they could not stop you. A rush of red, yes—the color of your robes. Flickering golden ornaments in your hair. Dragons, or phoenixes, it matters not. Snarling, you wrapped your hands around my throat. Spittle dripped onto my forehead. When you shook me, my head knocked against the floor.
I struggled, but I could not throw you off. You’d latched on. Whatever hate drove you made you ten times as vicious as any child has a right to be. In desperation I tried rolling away from you.
On the third roll, we knocked into a brazier. Burning oil spilled out and seared your shoulder. Only that immense pain was enough to distract you. By the time your mother pulled you off me, I had bruises along my throat, and you had a scar on your shoulder.
O Shizuru apologized, or maybe O Itsuki. I think it must have been both of them. Your mother chided you for what you’d done, while your father swore to Alshara that you’d never done anything like this before.
Before that day, before you tried to kill me, no one ever said no to you.
You did not come to stay with us that summer.
Soon, Shizuru scheduled your first appointment with your music tutor. The problem, in her mind, was that you were too much like her. If only you fell in love with poetry, like your father; or music or calligraphy; cooking or engineering or the medical arts; even acting! Anything.
Anything but warfare.
And as for my mother’s reaction? As far as my mother was concerned, O Shizuru’s only sin in life was not learning how to speak Qorin after all their years as friends. That attitude extended to you, as well, though you had not earned it. O Shizuru and Burqila Alshara spent eight days being tortured together, and years after that rescuing one another. When the Emperor insisted that O Shizuru tour the Empire with an honor guard at her back, your mother scoffed in his face.
“Dearest Brother-in-Law,” she said, “I’ll run around the border like a show horse, if that’s what you want me to do, but I’m not taking the whole stable with me. Burqila and I lived, so Burqila and I will travel, and let the Mother carry to sleep any idiot who says otherwise. Your honored self included.”
Legend has it that O Shizuru did not wait for an answer, or even bow on the way out of the palace. She left for the stables, saddled her horse, and rode out to Oshiro as soon as she could. Thus began our mothers’ long journey through the Empire, with your father doing his best to try to keep up.
So—no, there was nothing your mother could do wrong. And when you stand in so great a shadow as O Shizuru’s, well—my mother was bound to overlook your failings.
But my mother did insist on one thing—taking a clipping of your hair, and braiding it into mine. She gave your mother a clipping of my hair and instruction, for the same reason. Old Qorin tradition, you see—part of your soul stays in your hair when the wind blows through it. By braiding ours together, she hoped to end our bickering.
I can’t say that she was right or wrong—only that as a child, I liked touching your hair. It’s so much thicker than mine, Shizuka, and so much glossier. I wish I still had that lock of hair—I treasure all my remnants of you, but to have your hair in a place so far from home . . .
Let me tell you another story, the ending of which you know, but let us take our time arriving there. May you hear this in my voice, and not the careful accent of a gossiping courtier. May you hear the story itself, and not the rumors the rest may have whispered to you.
When I was five, my mother took my brother and me back to the steppes. We spent too long in the palace at Oshiro, she said; our minds sprouted roots. She did not actually say that out loud, of course—my brother spoke for her. In those days, he was the one who read her signing. My mother uses a form of signing employed by deaf Qorin, passed down from one to another through the years. Kenshiro did not spend much time traveling with the clan, due to my father’s objections, but my brother has always been too studious for his own good. If he could only see our mother once every eight years, then he wanted to be able to impress her.
Thus, he taught himself to sign.
Was my mother impressed? This is a difficult question. As commendable as it was that my brother went to such lengths, he was Not Qorin. He could never be, when he wore a face so like my father’s, when he wore his Hokkaran name with such pride.
But he was my brother, and I loved him dearly, and when he told me this was going to be the best year of our lives, I believed him.
On our first night on the whistling Silver Steppes, I almost froze to death. The temperature there drops faster than—well, you’ve been there, Shizuka, you know. It’s customary for mothers to rub their children down with urine just to keep them warm. No one sleeps alone; ten to fifteen of us all huddle together beneath our white felt gers. Even then the nights are frozen. Until I was eight and returned to Hokkaro, I slept in my brother’s bedroll, and huddled against him to keep the cold away.
On one such night, he spoke to me of our names.
“Shefali,” he said, “when you are out here, you are not Oshiro-sun. You know that, right?”
I stared at him. I was five. That is what five-year-olds do. He mussed my hair as he spoke again.
“Well, you know now,” he said. “Our mother’s the Kharsa, sort of. That means she’s like the Emperor, but for Qorin people.”
“No throne,” I said.
“She doesn’t need one,” said Kenshiro. “She has her mare and the respect of her people.”
Ah. Your uncle was a ruler, and so was my mother. They must be the same.
I did not know much about your family back then. Oh, everyone knew your uncle was the Son of Heaven, and his will in all things was absolute. And everyone knew your mother and my mother, together, killed one of the four Demon Generals and lived to tell the tale.
But I didn’t much care about any of that. It didn’t affect me as much as you did, as much as the memory of you did. For you were never far from my mother’s mind, and she was always quick to say that the two of us must be like two pine needles.
Yes, she said “pine needles”—the woman who lived for plains and open sky. I always thought it strange, and when I learned it was a line of your father’s poetry, I thought it stranger.
But still, I grew to think of you as . . .
Not the way I thought of Kenshiro. He was my brother. He taught me things, and spoke to me, and helped me hunt. But you?
I did not know how to express it, but when I touched the clipping of your hair braided into mine, I knew we were going to be together again. That we were always going to be together. As Moon chases Sun, so would I chase you.
But during my first journey around the steppes, I learned how different our two nations were.