The Girl King (The Girl King #1)(4)

“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 rumors: 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.”

“Yes, Princess.”

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 labeled 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.”

The drums heralding the start of court beat solemn and orotund, steady as blood. The theater of power. Standing with her sister and their nunas like actors waiting backstage, Lu peered through the seam of Kangmun Hall’s closed front doors, out into the Heart. The massive yellow stone courtyard was made small by the scores of court officials, magistrates, prefecture governors, and Inner Ring gentry pouring in.

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