The Girl King (The Girl King #1)(5)

There would be more people outside the closed gates—unlucky lower gentry whose family rank did not warrant a seat within the Heart, and supercilious First Ring gossipmongers who bandied fresh information as currency. There might even be a few Second Ringers lucky enough to sneak through the Ring walls under some pretense or another. All of them waiting to hear secondhand tellings of the emperor’s pronouncements.

Word of my succession will spread fast. Lu’s chest tightened in anticipation. At long last, it was happening.

“Really? You can’t even wait for them to open the doors?” The voice was low in her ear. Lu jumped, whirling to find her eldest nuna Hyacinth doubled over in silent laughter.

“Cut it out,” she hissed. But she was unable to suppress a smile. “I’m just gauging the crowd,” she said with exaggerated primness. “Reconnaissance.”

Hyacinth snorted. “You look like a child sneaking into her birthday gifts.”

“I think you mean I look like a future emperor.”

“Certainly. A future emperor sneaking into her birthday gi—” She broke off into a strangled giggle as Lu poked her in the ribs.

“Oh!” Min exclaimed. “I’d forgotten. The pink men are visiting today.”

Her sister was peeking through the gap in the doors. Lu leaned back in over her shoulder and glimpsed three foreign men in the crowd, their pale pinkish flesh and bulbous facial features marking them as the delegation from Elland.

Lu pulled her sister back from the doors. “Call them Ellandaise. Not ‘pink men.’”

Min flushed at the admonishment. “Of course. The nunas call them that sometimes . . . It’s just a bad habit. Forgive me.”

“Commoners use that term. It does not do for a princess,” Lu told her. Then she frowned. “It doesn’t become a nuna, either. Well-bred girls from Inner Ring gentry with sky manses ought to know better. I’ll see that Amma Ruxin has a talk with them.” The stern old amma in charge of training Min’s handmaidens would not stand for such behavior.

“I understand, sister. I’m sorry—”

“So,” Hyacinth’s effervescent whisper came in her other ear. “What will be Emperor Lu’s first decree?”

“Stemming the northern expansion,” Lu said, turning away from Min. “We’re bleeding resources needed for the city’s poor into the colonies.”

“It’ll be difficult to walk back those mines. The wealth from the sparkstone they’re dredging up—it’s enticing. And popular.”

“What is popular is not always what is right,” Lu countered. “We’ve encroached onto northern land for too long.”

Hyacinth tilted her head, considering. “It’s not like there are any slipskin clans left to give it back to.”

“Right,” Lu snapped. “Because the few Gifted we didn’t kill are languishing in the labor camps.”

“It’s time! Everyone into their places!” Amma Ruxin snapped, giving both Lu and Hyacinth a reproachful look as the doors began to open. Hyacinth rolled her eyes at the woman’s turned back. Then she winked at Lu and stepped into place with the other nunas.

“Good luck,” she mouthed.

Lu took a deep breath and stepped outside, in front of the assembled court. Min trailed so closely it looked like she was trying to hide beneath her skirts. Even a regular court session left her little sister anxious; a crowd this size might kill her. Hopefully Butterfly would catch her if she fainted.

Their parents were already seated on the stone portico, side by side, though somehow they made the arm’s-length distance between them look much wider. Theirs had been a marriage of politics, arranged to strengthen ties between the ethnic Hana aristocracy and the ethnic Hu royals, and they had never found reason to make it anything more.

“Come on, then,” Lu directed Min. “Let’s play our parts.” She said it with the edge of a shared joke—one only they in the whole world could share.

Her sister blinked, a surprised smile quivering across her mouth, chasing away the rictus of fear for a moment.

The sisters filed over and fell to their knees before their father, Emperor Daagmun, ruler of the sixteen provinces of the Empire of the First Flame. “Your child and subject bows before the Lord of Ten Thousand Years,” they recited in unison.

“Rise, my daughters.”

Lu stood easily; Min’s heavy layered robes made the task more difficult. Butterfly and Snowdrop hurried over, heads still bowed in respect, to assist the younger princess.

Their father caught Lu’s eye and smiled. He looked well today, resplendent in formal robes of saffron and gold—all signs of illness tucked away beneath silk and royal pomp. He looked every bit the strong and formidable Hu ruler he needed to be.

Lu stepped forward and dropped a warm kiss on his hand. It trembled in hers and she swallowed a pang of sadness. He could not hide his disease forever. From this close she could see the tired lines of a much older man around his eyes.

By contrast, Empress Rinyi looked ten years younger than her thirty-some years. Lu had always felt there was something almost urgent in the care she took with her appearance—all those oils and salves and meticulously applied powders. As though she were preserving her beauty for some later occasion. Lu nodded curtly in her direction, and their mother responded in kind, her fixed smile barely hiding a poisoned well of disdain and impatience beneath.

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