The Choice

((Court alchemist Chowa has made Leanna an offer, one she is having trouble seeing the downside of. Then again, Chowa is a master player of court games. Can even her assistant trust her? The summer solstice approaches and Li, as the imperials call her, has time to reflect on the changes in her life so far. She is a long way from home, but is that a bad thing?))

The workshop opened its doors and a flood of women entered. The emperor would return to the flower hall tonight after the ceremony in the hall of law. None of the residence of Flowers would be present for that, but Ashioto would be coming back to the Flower hall that night. That would be a chance for the concubines to re-establish the order of power, or for there to be a transition. Ceseed had sunk an entire platinum into a massive order of cosmetics and skin treatments. She was determined to keep her hold on the emperor but other women now thought they had a chance. After all, Ceseed herself had become favourite after just such a period of absence and the boy Emperor was notoriously fickle.

Leanna raced to keep up with the clamouring servants and slaves who jostled to be served. The press of bodies in the small workshop soon had the northerners sweating and uncomfortably hot. Leanna could smell her own body and it was making her eyes water. The scent of sweat had never bothered her in her the clan. Now she showed daily, used hair oil and occasionally perfume. Chowa would give her the bottles that were about to go past their best and so unsuitable to sell. Li revelled in the heady scents, citrus and floral being her favourites.

The workshop store closed with some disappointed clients. Frez and Li had simply not had time to serve everyone. Chowa had said this would happen.

“If the simpletons leave their preparations to the very night they see as so vital to their elevation, then they do not have the aptitude to move up within the flower hall.”

Leanna smiled as she scrubbed down tables and cleaned the stone floor. Frez melted away to get ready and the shower was free by the time Leanna had banked the furnace for the night.

She still loved the hot water that rained down on her. She was not sure how she ever thought a bath in her own sweat was a good way of getting clean in her clan days. Frez was waiting for her when she emerged, it was a good thing the workshop was so warm because she only has a scrap of towelling to wrap herself in. Frez was dressed in his best cotton tunic, dyed forest green. The colour complemented his blue eyes and dark blond hair beautifully. Chowa had insisted Leanna have new clothes also for the event and Frez had obtained them.

Leanna could not help but gasp at what she saw laid over her work bench. A shi of green silk. The garment was plain and nowhere near as complex or ornate as the shi the concubines wore. It did not matter. Leanna had never dared to hope she would ever wear anything of silk. Chowa was sending a message. If her assistant made the right decision then such things would be hers as a matter of course. Li knew it was blatant temptation, but to a certain extent it was working. She wanted to have nice things of her own.

“Touch it,” said Frez with a chuckle. “It is yours.” Trembling fingers, scarred and calloused from a life gutting fish and exposure to the cold northern winds and burning ice. Those fingers were never meant to touch such finery and yet they bushed over the garment with careful reverence. If water had a skin then this is what it would feel like. Soft, flowing, undulating, but also strong.

“Now don’t get too giddy when you put it on,” chuckled Frez. “You have to dance and sweat in it,” Leanna pulled a face and Frez barked a laugh. “Now sit, if you are going to wear a nobles garb you need a noble hair.” Frez oiled and pinned her brown curls up in a complex series of ringlets.

Chowa had created a new ‘polymer’ as she put it and while it had many applications the main one she had used it in was in fixing spray for hair. It glued the strands in place but could be washed out after. Liberal amounts were applied to Li’s head and she sneezed.

Leanna could not have too much in the way of hair ornaments. They would fall out with the performance she had to put on. The pinned sections pulled unpleasantly on her scalp, but the pins needed to be tight or her hair would be a tangled mess mid shimmy.

“You’ll do,” Frez said at last. “Best get to the hall. The emperor will be arriving soon.” He left what everyone hopped for unsaid.

He would be arriving after the news crier had told the hall of the new edict. That is, if he had made one.

The hall was a throbbing mass of bodies pressed together. The chatter was vibrant and exited female voices joined together in a cacophony that made Leanna’s ears ring. She had no idea how she would find her dance partners in all the hubbub. The room stank of every kind of conceivable perfume with sandalwood incense weaving through it all.

The lamps were lit even though it was early and coloured paper had been placed before them, making the light filter through blue, green and red. The screens at the back of the hall were being opened slowly. Sword maidens sweating in their light amour as the pushed and shoved at the heavy mahogany panels with their waxed paper windows.

Hot, humid air began to circulate through the room, the scents of the garden mixing with the concubines perfume. Petals from the blossom trees outside fluttered in with the breeze, eddying downward like pink snowflakes. Leanna smiled up at the sight, fascinated. She was the only one. The rest ignored or did not notice. A quirk of their character Leanna decided, looking round the hall full of dark haired women, almost all of whom were shorter than herself.

Imperials were rigid and unbending. Their pride was their strength. They were the last civilisation, they had the potential to help the rest of the world become civilised once more. The common people were happy and hard working. By contrast the palace was a hotbed of intrigue, backstabbing and was frankly was very far from the imperial values the commoners were told to uphold. Then again these were the people with power. Without them the system would fall and the nation would implode.

It was imperfect and fragile but without it humans would fall further and possibly regress into the anarchy of the days of the dark. It was said back then that the sun could not shine through the grey skies for five cycles. Humans, once in the millions reduced in number by over half. Starvation and a strange sickness that the demons spread killed so many that the survivors did not bother to even honour the dead. Bodies were piled up and abandoned to the scavenging animals that now thrived.

Leanna shook her head to clear it of the gloomy history she had spent most of her life learning. The Empire was light and possibility. Humans had spent generations recovering and now were on the cusp of clawing back some of what they had lost. Chowa believed this was the way forward. Stability would breed educated humans free of superstition who would take forward what she was dedicating her life to, uncovering the secrets of the forgotten past. Her offer was enticing.

Leanna could feel herself wanting to believe in her.



“You may leave us now,” he dismissed Chowa without even looking in her direction. Chowa bowed anyway and withdrew. Li’s instinct to follow her heightened. There was a delicate yawn behind her. She turned to see the ninth concubine was reclining on a padded bench behind the door. The bench did not look comfortable, but the way the concubine draped herself over it showed all her assets to advantage.

“Misra Ceseed,” Li said in greeting and bowed. “Forgive me for not paying my respects.” The concubine gave a dismissive gesture and closed her eyes. Li could see the woman was tired.

“Pretty girl!” said a high pitched voice. “Pretty girl!” Li spun around looking for the owner of the voice. “Hungry, feed me!” squawked the voice. Li was aware the Emperor and Ceseed were laughing at her but she could not see where the speaker was.

“EMPEROR’S BALLS!” the voice screeched making Li gasp in horror. Her eyes flew to the emperor himself who was covering his mouth with his sleeve while his shoulders shook. Who could get away with saying such things before the ruler of the empire?

“Put the girl out of her misery before her head overheats,” said Ceseed with a scornful chuckle. The emperor made a curt gesture for her to follow him and seemed to compose himself.

He walked to his desk, upon it was a golden cage with a small and unassuming black bird within. She had seen many beautiful birds for sale as pets in the market. The bird opened its yellow beak and cried

“Kiss me!”

Li burst out laughing in spite of herself. The bird could talk.

What a wonder!

She was at a loss how to converse with a bird, but it was the emperor’s pet so Li thought she better be cautious.

“Greetings to you,” she said bowing. “Please tell me how you prefer to be addressed…” There was more laughter for the rooms occupants. The bird looked at her and screeched

“Whore!” Li’s head snapped up from her bow. The Emperor was laughing so hard he was in danger of choking.

“Forgive me,” he spluttered between chuckles. “I should have explained.”

He mastered himself and gestured for Ceseed to quieten her spiteful chuckles.

“The bird is a mimic, it does not understand us it only repeats what it has been taught.” Li straightened, flushing with embarrassment. She had bowed to a bird before the emperor. Frez was never going to let her forget this.

“The bird belonged to a sailor from the haven islands before I acquired it,” the emperor continued. “He taught it many things that should not be said in polite company. I heard of the creature from Princess Itzander. I did not believe such a bird existed so she purchased it from the sailor before he returned to his homeland.”

“THIEF!” the bird screeched. “PRETTY, THIEF… WHORE!”

“But as you can see, it will mix up what it has been taught. As for as it knows, it is singing a beautiful melody.”

“Sounds wonderful to me,” enthused Ceseed. “Fairly accurate too in this case.”

“Put away your claws Ceseed,” chuckled the emperor. “Save them for the ministers you enjoy tormenting so much.”

“I would not torment them if they would listen to me,” she pouted. “The grand highway project being shelved is idiocy. We need to improve trade and the best way to do that is invest in our infrastructure.” The Emperor rolled his eyes.

“Enough politics, I have heard nothing but such nonsense for an entire sub,”

“Yes, but-” the concubine protested, but was silenced by a sharp glance.

“Thank you assistant Li for the entertainment,” I shall call on you again when I feel the need for amusement.”

Li bowed and left.

She sighed. She did not relish telling Chowa what the Emperor had called on her for.

She began to hate him, just a little.

She was just another squawking bird in a cage to amuse him.

The Garden

The Observatory lay just outside the fortified town, but the monks had erected their own grand wall complete with spikes and a guarded gatehouse. Before the gate Leanna pulled Prickle to a halt, the reigns jingled and the bird honked in protest. Her eyes grew large and her breath stilled in her chest.

The first thing she noticed was the water. There were pools and steams everywhere inside the walls. Insects the colour of precious stones buzzed lazily from pool to pool in the fading evening light. The grass was a short and neat carpet of green spears. Only walkways of bright white stone broke the ordered green perfection.

Small bushes immaculately pruned, grew around the edges of the pools and grass. One or two took pride of place in the middle of the lawn. These shrubs had leaves of deep red, orange and purple.

Insect wings sang and blended into a harmony with the songbirds twilight song.

Fish, some bigger than she would find in her father’s nets, glided beneath the surface of the water. Their ghostly white heads occasionally broke the surface to snap at the bright creatures that flew too close.

The humid air was heavy with the scent of the white globe-shaped flowers that bloomed on many of the bushes. Here and there artfully scattered, were moss covered rocks and stones. Some were as large as the passhara Leanna sat astride.

The place seemed to have an aura of peace and ease about it.

At the centre was a domed building of white stone that almost glowed in the dwindling light. The dome was rather like an upturned eggshell. Perfectly smooth, with not even windows to mar its flawlessness.

“I am willing to wager,” said Frez’s voice from behind her. “That you have never seen a pleasure garden before?”

Leanna did not bother to reply. She was watching a tiny frog that had just leapt out of a pool. It shuffled its webbed feet, blinked its golden eyes twice then puffed out its throat to sing the most extraordinary song.

She laughed at the frog, delighted.

“What is all this for?” she asked, gesturing to the garden.

“Relaxing in,” said Frez, now standing alongside her bird. “These gardens grow no food. They are to make people smile.”

Leanna beamed down at the top of Frez’s shaggy blond head. The gardens were truly remarkable and were pleasing to her northern eyes.

“You will see plenty of such when you get to the palace,” said Frez with amusement. She guessed her reaction was probably endearing to one who had been in the empire for cycles rather than the few short subs she had spent as an imperial. “If you think these gardens beautiful, you will be enchanted by the ones in the palace.” He suddenly tipped his head up to fix his blue eyes on her. “It is considered rude to talk to someone who is on foot while you are mounted,” he scolded.

Leanna added this to her growing metal list of things that offended Imperials. Once dismounted one of the novices of the order moved gracefully up a path towards them. Her white garments and elegant carriage reminded Leanna strongly of the fish in the pools.

“I’m a baymans daughter,” she thought to herself. “Everything for me will always be about pissing fish!”


Li was in a foul mood. All she wanted was a hot meal and somewhere dry and safe to sleep. So why, in the name of all that was good and true, was she having to run for her life? The night was complete in its inky blackness now the city had been left behind and the moons were yet to rise. The darkness added yet more weight on Li’s already frayed nerves. She was frightened and being angry seemed the best way to stop herself sinking to her knees in one of the muddy puddles she was splashing though and crying until she was either caught or died from exhaustion and exposure.

Pain bloomed in one of her unshod feet. The mud of the track hid many sharp stones. She was surprised she had not ripped her feet open before now. She hopped onwards, cursing in three languages as silently as she could. If they were being followed then it would be foolish to give away their exact position. Hopping on one foot was not the most stable of positions on a muddy trail. Her uninjured foot slithered sideways. She knew she was not going to catch her balance in time. She squinted her eyes shut and put her hands out, bracing herself for a face full of mud, or worse, rock.

A strong hand grabbed her by the hair and yanked her upwards, snarling words in a hard, guttural language. She squealed like an infant as her hair pulled on her scalp. Fear and pain fanned the flames of her anger.

“Get off me!” she howled. She was released immediately and almost lost her footing again.

“Still your tongue or I will rip it out,” hissed her saviour.

Planting her feet more carefully Li glared at the direction she thought her reluctant companion stood in.

“You can’t threaten me!” she hissed, though she was mindful to keep her voice down. If he thought for one moment he could order her around then she would take great pleasure in informing the fish humper that…

A sharp nailed finger poked her in the ribs, threatening to slice open the black jute fabric she had been forced to wear for over a cycle. Perhaps running around naked would not be such a harsh alternative. The material still scratched against her skin and would attract lice in the summer if it was not washed correctly.

“I will not warn you again,” growled her companion and owner of the sharp nails. “Keep your emotions in check or you fill my head with your vulgarities and I lose focus…” she heard the deliberate pause in his scolding of her. They both knew what happened if she got too emotional, it was an annoyance to him but it could be much more than an inconvenience for her.

Something inside her burst. A flood of resentment, anger and vitriol came pouring out. She realised she was shaking and screaming into the darkness words that would have made her mother disown her. There was a warning growl to her left and a sharp reprimand from a voice to her right. There were five of them in the darkness and she suddenly hated them all. She did not care; she was not listening to any of them again. She normally always did as she was ordered, look where that had got her; skidding through the mud in the middle of the night like a common criminal.

“She has gone mad,” said a crisp female voice to her right. “I always suspected she was slightly moon touched but…” Li’s rage turned as cold as the voices tone.

“Do us all a kindness and either hold your tongue, or even better, find a man and get shafted,” she spat at the shadow to her right. “Maybe then you will start thinking like a woman and not the ice hearted reptilian you are.” Leeanna steadied herself, not wanting the mud to cut her tirade short. “You don’t hold my leash anymore!”

The shape fell silent. Li grinned, thrilled at her victory. She suspected the alchemist was not used to her former servant arguing back yet. Li placed her hands on her hips and widened her stance, daring any of them to chastise her; her righteous rage pushing all thoughts of pursuit from her mind. She had never felt like this! She did not care what any of them thought and said. They were all equals now, whether they cared to admit it or not was immaterial.

“Please!” whispered a quivering voice behind her. “I don’t want to die!” The terrified tone, full of distress and tears, brought her back to as close to sanity as she could be, given the circumstances. “If we separate now we won’t make it to the observatory,” the voice quavered.

Li mastered herself and sighed, still trembling with the rush of her unchained passions. It was hard to govern herself now she did not have to think about every word that left her lips.

Only one of them could see in the dark. She was tied to him at least until morning. Then there were… the other complexities of their relationship. She would do some research on the subject when they got to the observatory. The monks there were custodians of a vast library, there must be something on possession within the tomes they had gathered. She wiped the rain slick hair from her face and sighed. How had she got into this mess? She had been a good person, or as good as she could be. She growled another curse and plunged onwards into the darkness. If she made it to dawn with her life it would be a minor miracle.

“I want to go home,” she muttered to herself. That was almost as unachievable as living to see the sun rise and it was the fault of her companions that she was not with her family at that very moment.