The Girl King (The Girl King #1)(6)

As Lu and Min took their seats the drums stilled, leaving in their wake only the sharp crackle of the First Flame, burning bright and eternal at the center of the Heart. According to Hana legend, the flame had been ignited by a drop of the sun thousands of years ago—a gift from the gods to their then-fledgling kingdom—and kept alive ever since.

Her father spoke: “Ours is the greatest kingdom this world has ever known,” he began. For a moment, his voice cracked, and she flicked a sidelong glance toward him. Was he having one of his spells now? But, no. He remained steady and upright in his throne. She relaxed as he continued.

“Our kingdom comprises an empire the likes of which our ancestors could not have imagined. Beyond what even my bold, visionary great-grandsire Kangmun, the first Hu emperor, foretold. Each day our borders grow wider. Our colonies are hungry, thriving, like the topmost branches of a great tree, stretching ever closer to the sun. At the same time, our towns and cities grow more prosperous and efficient—the strong roots of the empire.”

Her father went on to describe news from the northern front. The mines were dredging up enormous wealth from the earth—sparkstone enough to soon see the entire imperial army fitted with firearms. Settlements were sprawling, and soon they would make proper colonies, worthy of women and children, shops and cities.

There had been another—highly improbable—sighting by scouts in the Ruvai Mountains of a battalion of men clad in the white and gray uniforms of Yunis soldiers.

Her father did not mention the bandit raid on prison camp eight two weeks ago that had sprung over fifty laborers and left her cousin Lord Set, General of the North, looking the fool. Everyone knew of it, though.

Lu hid a satisfied smile and parsed the crowd. The left side of the Heart was filled with officials, while on the right were the First Ring gentry. Each was ordered such that the most important among them were seated in front, closest to the emperor.

A few rows deep, she spotted Hyacinth’s parents, the Cuis, and her nuna’s three younger sisters. With them sat a boy of thirteen or fourteen she nearly didn’t recognize—until she noted the small birthmark on his chin. Wonin, Hyacinth’s younger brother. He must nearly be of age to begin his studies at the Imperial Academy. It had been some time since Lu had last seen him, and in the intervening moons he had grown into a tall, elegant-looking youth.

Another boy a few rows behind—older than Wonin, though considerably less well mannered—met Lu’s gaze as it moved over him. He gawped at her as if she were some kind of court dancer, eyes traveling down the length of her body. She felt her face go cold, and he blushed, dropping his stare into his lap.

Soured, Lu closed her mind to the crowd. She had chosen today’s robes not just for how their cut elongated her elegant figure, but because the teal gave her a cool, imperious air. Memorable, yet dignified. Smart. But in the end, would any man see that, or was she only a pretty thing for them to gaze upon? It irritated her that she couldn’t say.

Beauty was a weapon—one that required honing and care, like a sword. But also like a sword it could cut both ways.

We will see who cuts whom once this is over.

A flutter of movement caught the corner of her eye; Min bent in her chair to scratch at her calf through the layers of her skirts. The beads dangling from her hairpins rattled from side to side with the movement. Lu bit her tongue; better not to draw further attention now. She vowed to speak to Min about it later and turned her attention back to her father’s words.

“. . . Even at the best of times, an empire must not leave anything to chance. A strong emperor does not just rule for the present—he plans for the future.”

His words sent a trill of excitement traipsing down the notches of Lu’s spine, like a series of bells, each amplifying the last until her body rang with it.

The future.

It was finally happening. She kept her face trained in a mask of assured solemnity.

“And so, today,” her father continued. “I will announce my successor.”

He was looking at her. Lu gazed back with the slightest of smiles.

And then it happened. He looked away, as though ashamed of himself.

An unfamiliar sensation seized up her insides, then released, like the black and spotted fronds of a dying fern unfurling in her gut.


All pretense of poise and gravity evaporated. Lu was shaking her head in a mute “no” before her father even said the words.

“I hereby betroth my eldest daughter, Princess Lu, to Lord Set of Family Li, General of the Fifth Regiment in Bei Province. He will be your next emperor.”

Stillness fell, tentatively placid as a newly frozen lake. The only sound was the murmur of the First Flame.

What happened next, Lu supposed, depended on one’s belief in ghostly interventions. Either the hungry fires consumed a bit of still-damp kindling, or some greater cosmic force was stirred by her father’s speech. In either case, the First Flame reared up high, then let off an excited pop that resounded through the walled Heart. A shower of sparks rained down in its wake, forcing those seated closest to it to lunge back in alarm.

The crowd took it as a sign. Their roar was deafening. For a disorienting moment, Lu thought they were angry. But then, no; she could make out the words. Long Live the Emperor! they shouted. Long live the Empire of the First Flame!

It was like hearing the ocean at a distance. Blood thrummed so hard in her ears it was as though the drums that had signaled her entry to Heart had taken up again.

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