What is truth? Scholars seek it. Poets write it. Good kings pay gold to hear it. But in trying times, truth is the first thing we betray.
ONE of the ELEVEN on truth
Truth? Why, it's a lie in disguise.
TWO of the ELEVEN on truth
No night was perfect for treason, but this one came close. The three-day mourning ritual had ended; most had gone home to break the fast. Those who lingered in the city streets kept their eyes trained on the Eastern Gate, where the queen would be making her annual return.
Then came the mist. It rolled down the neighboring Shanlong Mountains and embalmed the limestone boulevards. When it descended into the bowels of the palace, so did the girl and her brother.
They emerged from the secret passageways the girl knew well — too well, perhaps, given her identity — and darted between courtyard compounds and walled wards, venturing toward the market sectors. When they arrived at the red-light district's peeling archway, an ember sparked in the girl's stomach. Some came to the seediest business quarter of the imperial city to buy warmth. But she?
She had come to buy justice.
Her brother held her back before she could cross. "Milady —"
She cut him an exasperated look. If he called her "milady" out here, he might as well call her Princess Hesina. "Yes, Caiyan?"
"We can still go back."
Hesina's fingers closed around the glass vial dangling from her silk broad-belt. They could. She could let her resolve fade like the wisp of poison bottled in the vial. That would be easy. Figuring out how to live with herself afterward ... not so much.
Grip hardening, she turned to her brother. He looked remarkably calm for someone risking death by a thousand cuts — crisply dressed despite the rough-hewn hanfu, every dark hair of his topknot in place.
"Having doubts?" She hoped he'd say yes. After all, this was Yan Caiyan. At fifteen, Caiyan had passed the civil service examinations. At seventeen, he'd become a viscount of the imperial court. At nineteen, his reputation was unparalleled, his mind more so. He would be making the first bad decision of his life for her.
Now he countered her question with one of his own. "How would you find the way?"
Caiyan raised a brow. "You're hoping that I'll say 'yes' so you can proceed alone. But that wasn't our agreement. I am to lead the whole way, or I don't take you to this person at all."
Our agreement. Only Caiyan could make treason sound so bland.
"I won't be able to protect you." Hesina scuffed one foot over the other under the hem of her ruqun. "If we're caught ... if someone sees us ..."
A man bellowed an opera under the tiled eave of a dilapidated inn, and something porcelain shattered, but Caiyan's voice still cleaved the night. "You don't have to protect me, milady." Red lantern light edged his profile as he looked into the distance. "He was my father too."
A lump formed in Hesina's throat. She did have to protect him, in the same way her father — their father — had. You can't possibly touch all the lives in this world, he'd told her that winter day ten years ago when he'd brought the twins — slum urchins, one thin girl and one feverish boy — into theirs. But if you can lift someone with your two hands, that is enough.
Hesina wasn't lifting Caiyan up; she was leading him astray. But when he reached for her hand, she held on, to her dismay. The confidence in his grip grounded her, and they crossed into the district together.
They entered a world of slanted teahouses and inns, brothels and pawnshops clustered like reeds on a panpipe. Men and women spilled out of the paper-screened doors, half-clothed and swinging certain appendages. Hesina averted her gaze and pressed closer to Caiyan.
"It'll get better up ahead." Caiyan had once called streets worse than these home, and he guided them around peddlers with impressive ease. He didn't pay any mind to the occasional beggar, not even the one who tailed them down the block.
"Beware the night," cried the man, shaking coins in a cracked ding pot. Hesina slowed, but Caiyan tugged her along. "Beware the rains, the crown, and the sight!"
"Ignore him." Caiyan's gaze glowed with focus. "He speaks of the bygone dynasty."
But on a night like this one, the past felt uncomfortably close. Hesina shivered, thinking of an era three centuries ago, when peasants had drowned in summer floods and perished in winter famines. The relic emperors had pursued concubines, conquests, and concoctions for immortality, while their imperial soothsayers used their ability to See the future to cut down resistance before it could sprout. As for the sick and the starving, too weak to resist, the sooths placated them with visions of the brilliant tomorrows to come.
And they did come — at the hands of eleven scrappy outlaws who climbed the Ning Mountains, crossed the Kendi'an dunes, breached the imperial walls, and beheaded the last relic emperor on his very throne. They emancipated serfs and set them to work on dikes and embankments. Storms calmed. Floods drained. They opened the doors of education to women and commoners, and their disciples circulated the former outlaws' philosophies in a book called the Tenets. The people of Yan called them the Eleven. Legends. Saviors. Heroes.
"Beware the devil of lies."
Of course, heroes cannot be forged without villains: the emperor's henchmen, the sooths. The Eleven rooted them out by their unique blood, which evaporated quicker than any human's and ignited blue. They burned tens of thousands at the stake to protect the new era from their machinations.
Whatever the reason, murder was murder. The dead were dead. Hating the sooths, as the people continued to do, made little sense to Hesina. But occasionally, like now, with the beggar barking ominous warnings, her pity for the sooths hatched into fear and multiplied like termites, eating away at her conception of a sooth until it collapsed and a new one rose in its place with a faceless head attached to a charred body, an eyeless, toothless monster straight from the Ten Courts of Hell.
By the time Hesina forced out the image in her head, the beggar was gone. Another had taken his place and resumed the chants — in an all-too-familiar female voice.
"Beware the one you leave behind."
Hesina whirled as a hooded figure strode toward them.
"My, my. What do we have here?" The newcomer circled Hesina. "I like the linen ruqun. Very commoner-esque. As for you ..." She flung aside Caiyan's cloak and frowned at the plain hanfu beneath. "This is how you try to pass as a sprightly nineteen-year-old in search of a romp? What are you, a broke scholar?"
Caiyan tugged his cloak back in place. "We're going to a music house."
The newcomer placed a hand against her hip. "I thought you said 'brothel.'"
"I said no such thing."
"I could have sworn —"
"I thought," Hesina gritted out, overcoming her shock and glaring at Caiyan, "you were to say nothing about this to anyone. "
Caiyan, in turn, glared at the newcomer. "You said you wouldn't come if I told you."
"You should have known better!" cried Hesina, and Caiyan pinched the bridge of his nose.
"I know, milady. Forgive me."
"Now there, Na-Na." The newcomer lowered her hood and fluffed out her braids. Pinned back like a pair of butterfly wings and woven through with bright ribbons, the braids were a signature part of Yan Lilian's style. So was the mischief in her eyes, a shade of chestnut slightly lighter than her twin Caiyan's. "The stone-head tried. It's not his fault that I blackmailed him. Besides, did you really think I'd let you commit treason without me?"
Hesina wasn't sure whether to be angry or miserable. "This isn't a game."
"You promised." Caiyan sounded mostly miserable.
Lilian ignored him and faced Hesina. "Of course it's not a game. It's a dangerous, important mission befitting a threesome. Look at it this way: you need one person to hear this forbidden wisdom, one to watch the door for intruders, and one to beat up the intruders."
"Send her away," Hesina ordered Caiyan.
Lilian danced out of Caiyan's reach. "I could still tell all your high-minded court friends that the illustrious Yan Caiyan reads erotic novellas in his spare time. Who's the latest favorite? Wang Hutian?"
Caiyan made a strangled sound. Lilian laughed. Hesina was silent, fixated on how their shadows had lengthened under the moonlight.
They were losing time.
"Let's walk," said Lilian, as if reading Hesina's mind. She linked their arms. "You can try to get rid of me on the way."
Hesina knew better than to try. They proceeded in silence, the low-lying shops on either side of them giving way to taller, pillared structures. The song of zithers and pipa lutes replaced drunken improvisations.
"You shouldn't have come," Hesina finally said.
"What's life without a bit of danger?"
"I am, Na-Na." Like a real sister, Lilian still used Hesina's diminutive name long after she'd outgrown it. "Father might be gone, but he won't be forgotten. Not with us here."
"That's ..." Comforting. Frightening, that Hesina had more loved ones to lose. "Thank you," she finished hoarsely.
"Well, we might not be here for much longer, since meeting with this person may end in death by a thousand cuts."
"Sorry. Sorry. Pretend I didn't say that."
Ahead of them, Caiyan stopped in front of a three-tiered building. From the outside, it resembled one of the celestial pagodas rumored to exist back when gods walked the earth. But inside, it was every bit a music house. Beaded curtains fell from the balustrades. Private rooms blushed behind latticework screens. The namesake music — plucked and bowed — rippled through the air. The levity of it all fanned Hesina's anxiety.
"Don't look anyone in the eye," Caiyan instructed as they crossed the raised threshold and came into the antechamber. "And don't take off the hood of your cloak," he ordered, right before lowering his.
"Welcome to the Yellow Lotus," said a madam, weaving toward them through flocks of painted girls and boys. Her smiling, moonlike face dimmed when she got closer. "Ah," she said, eyeing Caiyan in particular. "First time at this establishment, I presume?"
"Let's see ..." The madam scanned the courtesans. "The White Peony might be to your liking —"
"We're here to meet the Silver Iris," cut in Caiyan.
The madam frowned. "The Silver Iris is our most highly sought-after entertainer."
"So I've heard."
"She has mastered the golden triad of calligraphy, music, and dance."
"Again, so I've heard."
"She is choosy with patrons and has limited hours." The madam leaned in and, with a long, emerald-varnished fingernail, extracted a loose thread from Caiyan's cloak. "Her gifts are wasted on the likes of you."
Without batting an eye, Caiyan withdrew a brocade purse. "Is this enough?"
The madam snatched it, loosened the drawstring, and peered in. Hesina couldn't tell what the woman was thinking, and as the madam bounced the purse up and down in her ringed hand, she sweated through her underclothes.
At last, the madam scrunched the purse shut. "Come with me."
As she led them up a set of purple zitan -wood stairs and rapped on one of the many doors lining the second-floor corridor, Hesina resisted the urge to pinch herself. For five nights, she'd tormented herself with questions. Was it right to do this? Was it wrong? If it was, then was she angry enough, sad enough, selfish enough to see it through regardless? She didn't know. She'd gotten this far, and she still didn't know. But now only one question remained: Was she was brave enough to hear the truth?
Hesina knew her answer.
The madam rapped again, harder, and a husky voice unfurled from within. "Yes?"
"You have guests."
"Two," said Lilian. She leaned against the wall beside the door. "I'll be right out here."
"Have they paid?"
The madam moistened her lips. "They have."
"Leave them, then."
Nothing happened immediately after the madam departed. The doors didn't open. Demons didn't descend from the beamed ceiling to exact their punishment, but as they waited, Hesina's mind produced demons of its own. Maybe they'd been followed. Maybe someone had recognized her. Maybe —
The doors parted, and her demons fled, replaced by the face of treason.
It was an exquisite face. Ageless. Pearlescent. Silver-lidded eyes skimmed past Hesina and landed on Caiyan. Rose-tinted lips crimped in displeasure, and Hesina had all of a heartbeat to wonder how, exactly, Caiyan was acquainted with a courtesan before she was ushered past the doors. The courtesan bolted them, the ivory dowel falling into place like the final note of a song.
Sometimes, when Hesina was nervous, she would laugh. As her body began to betray her, she focused on something other than the tickling tension in her chest. The chamber was cluttered enough that it forced her to slow and take everything in. A gallery of pipa hung on the walls, their scrolled necks knuckled with ivory frets, strings drawn tight over their pear-shaped bellies. Scrolls of four-word couplets papered the remaining space. To her embarrassment, Hesina only recognized one from her studies.
Downward unbridled water flows;
Upward unrealized dreams float.
"I assume you'll want to skip the tea."
Hesina nearly jumped at the Silver Iris's voice, which was as metallic as her name.
"That's correct," said Caiyan, standing against the door.
"Then let's have a little demonstration, shall we?"
That won't be necessary, Hesina imagined saying with grace and magnanimity, but it was a lie, and the Silver Iris knew it. A hairpin was already in the courtesan's hand. She pushed her finger into its needle-sharp tip, then held the pin over an unlit candle. A bead of blood fell and burst on the wick.
The wick ignited into blue flame.
Hesina's vision swam. The flame blurred, but stayed blue.
Blue. Blue. Blue.
"A nice parlor trick, don't you think?" asked the Silver Iris. Her tone was conversational, but her gaze picked Hesina apart, straight to the core of who she was: a descendant of murderers.
Hesina's stomach clenched. She wasn't supposed to think the Eleven cruel. They'd built a kinder era, a fairer era — one where a person was judged by their honest work, not the number of sooths and nobles they knew. Everyone was promised rights by the law — everyone but the soothsayers, who had manipulated the public for so many centuries. Death by a thousand cuts was considered kind for them ... and for the people who employed the sooths for their gifts.
People like Hesina.
The Silver Iris sat and gestured for her to do the same. Weak at the knees, Hesina sank onto the silk-cushioned stool. She realized, somewhat belatedly, that she had yet to reveal her face. The disguise seemed silly now. A child's game. She looked to Caiyan in question while Silver Iris swaddled her finger with a handkerchief.
The Silver Iris spoke before Caiyan could. "So tell me, Princess Hesina." She balled up the bloodied handkerchief and tossed it into the brazier at their feet, where it promptly burst into flame. "What is it that you wish to see?"
Too much of a thing — be it success or power — rots the heart.
ONE of the ELEVEN on soothsayers
They had no hearts to begin with.
TWO of the ELEVEN on soothsayers
With shaking hands, Hesina pushed back her hood.
She had come to see the future. The unknown. Yet for a second, all she could see was her father, lying in the iris beds, wearing his courier costume. She wasn't sure how long she'd waited. Waited for him to rise and yawn, to tell her how lovely it was to stroll through the grounds in disguise. Waited for herself to wake when he never did.
That day, Hesina had watched as the Imperial Doctress took up a scalpel, splitting the dead king's stomach like a fish. There was nothing to find, not at first. The Imperial Doctress concluded that the king's death was of natural causes before puttering off to the adjacent chamber.
If only she had stayed a second longer to witness the golden gas rising from the slit. If she had believed when Hesina tried to show her the wisp in the vial, then Hesina wouldn't be here. Her hands wouldn't be clenched in her skirts just as they'd been clenched around the Doctress's robes.
Her voice wouldn't be so strained when she asked the Silver Iris, "Who killed my father?"