We are so excited to share a sneak peek of Mimi Yu’s incredible debut novel, The Girl King! We love this book so much. Warring sisters. Betrayal. Intrigue. This book has it all!
All hail the Girl King
Sisters Lu and Min have always understood their places as princesses of the Empire. Lu knows she is destined to become the dynasty’s first female ruler, while Min is resigned to a life in her shadow. Then their father declares their male cousin Set the heir instead – a betrayal that sends the sisters down two very different paths.
Determined to reclaim her birthright, Lu goes on the run. She needs an ally – and an army – if she is to succeed. Her quest leads her to Nokhai, the last surviving wolf shapeshifter. Nok wants to keep his identity secret, but finds himself forced into an uneasy alliance with the girl whose family killed everyone he ever loved . . .
Alone in the volatile court, Min’s hidden power awakens – a forbidden, deadly magic that could secure Set’s reign . . . or allow Min to claim the throne herself. But there can only be one Emperor, and the sisters’ greatest enemy could turn out to be each other.
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The sword cut through the air a finger’s width from Lu’s face. She suppressed the instinct to flinch. The thrust was meant to throw her off balance so her opponent could knock her to the ground. Once that happened, she would be done for.
She wasn’t so easy. Sorry to disappoint, Shin Yuri.
Lu leaped back lightly, swinging her own blade in a hard, upward parry just as the sword master sent his crashing down upon her. She was ready for it. Their weapons met with a flat thwack. Wood on wood.
“Good!” her shin barked, dancing back from the blow. “Now, fix your stance!”
Lu darted a look down at her feet. Shin Yuri took advantage of her distraction. She barely had time to raise her sword before he fell upon her.
“Don’t use your eyes to fix your feet!” he scolded between thrusts. “The body knows the body. Eyes are for the opponent!”
Idiot! A beginner’s mistake. Hardly befitting a princess who had picked up a practice blade at the age of seven and spent the past nine years training daily. A princess who in a few short hours would be named her father’s successor . . .
Yuri came at her hard, raining fresh blows on her. She shuffled back, taking him with her. His movements were violent, almost wild, but she wasn’t fooled. His control was ironclad. Still, a man his age could not keep up this pace for long.
“Keep me moving!” Shin Yuri barked. “Let me use up my energy.”
I know that!
The shadow of Kangmun Hall’s massive red walls fell over them as they danced along the perimeter of the Ring. The hall was named for the first ethnic Hu emperor—her own great-grandsire—who had led his army of nomad warriors south to conquer the failing last Hana dynasty. They had had the Gift of the tiger back then, allowing them to rend their enemies with tooth and claw. But that was long ago.
Yuri pushed her back another step. Lu imagined herself in the bronze-laced red wooden armor and orange tiger pelt of the old Hu kings, like those she had seen hung in reverent display in the Hall of the Ancestors.
She leaped forward and swung hard. The blood pounding in her ears became the thundering hooves of a thousand Hu warriors astride massive black war elk. The warriors screamed for victory—for her—their magnificent mounts foaming at the mouth in their toil.
“Reckless!” she heard Shin Yuri shout. “Control your strokes! Fewer swings, more knowing.”
His words meant nothing to her. She was what thousands of years of warriors had wrought. She had the blood of the tiger in her veins. Who was he to tell her how to swing a sword?
She drove him back another step. As Shin Yuri raised his blade, she spun away from him, then reversed the motion, circling back toward him, raising her sword high above her head. She brought it down, hard, just as he completed his own stroke. The force of her unexpected blow knocked the sword clean from his hands.
Shin Yuri dove after the blade, but Lu kicked it out of reach. He hit the sandy ground, rolling away from her. He bounded back to his feet, poised to dash, only to find her wooden blade at his throat.
Lu kept the sword steady in one hand and used the other to pull off her leather practice helmet, the heavy black rope of her plait tumbling down her back.
“I believe there is a saying for this situation, is there not?” She grinned, wiping away the sweat brimming on her upper lip with her sleeve. “Something about the student becoming the shin?”
Pride and annoyance tugged at the old man’s features, but before he could speak, applause broke out, sharp and unexpected as the ringing of a glass wind-chime.
Lu turned and saw three girls gathered just outside the chalked perimeter of the sparring ring. Against the sandy practice yard, the trio’s pastel-hued robes gave them the misplaced look of flowers scattered in the dirt: Lu’s younger sister, Princess Minyi, and two of her nunas, Butterfly and Snowdrop. Seeing the surprise on her face, they burst into pleased giggles.
Minyi’s sallow face was sun warmed and flushed. She was dressed as their empress mother preferred her to be, in the old Hana way, her layered robes of pale pink cinched high at the waist. The empress had never tried to dress Lu this way, even when she was a young child. But then, between the two of them Min had always been the more malleable.
Butterfly and Snowdrop wore the yellow batik robes customary of palace nunas, topped with a hooded cape—a symbol of modesty. But Butterfly and Snowdrop had uncovered their heads to enjoy the late summer sun.
“Ay!” Lu hollered, striding over to them. “What are you doing here?”
“We overheard you sparring,” Min said. Her voice was ever tentative, like the tip of a toe testing hot bathwater. “It sounded so exciting that they—we—wanted to watch? Just for a moment.”
Lu blinked in pleasant surprise. It had been some time since Min had watched her spar—years, truly. She’d always assumed Min wasn’t interested. Her sister had always been a sensitive creature, flinching at even the clashing of practice swords.
“Don’t be cross, Princess,” Butterfly interjected, pulling Lu’s gaze away. “We just wanted to see if the rumors were true, that you’re as deft with a blade as a man.” Snowdrop let loose a fresh peal of laughter.
“What’s so amusing? You don’t think I’m as good as a man?” Lu demanded good-naturedly.
“Oh no, it’s not that!” Butterfly smirked. “Snowdrop was just commenting that in your practice robes and helmet, Her Highness cuts as handsome a figure as any crown prince could hope to—”
“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.”
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.
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 empress.”
“Certainly. A future empress 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 old 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’s 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 arms’-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.
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.
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.
Not Set, was all she could think. Anyone but Set.
The dread in her blossomed into outrage, its vines scrabbling at her guts and climbing into her throat, as though trying to escape through her mouth. Some part of her registered that if she allowed it out, it would come as tears.
So she choked on it, bit and swallowed it back down. Crushed the life from it until it was nothing more than a blackened pit.
How could he do this to me?
Lu looked to the emperor with beseeching eyes, but her father was still gazing out at the cheering crowd. And then Lu noticed her mother and sister looking at her from their seats. Minyi was bent at the waist, hunched over; she had been scratching at her calf again when their father’s pronouncement came and was too stunned to right herself. Their mother was as still as ever, her face unreadable.
You, Lu thought. Their mother had to be behind this, just as she had been when Set and Lu were children. Even after all these years, she had never given up on her heinous nephew.
The empress ever possessed a studied air of stern, benign dignity. At least in public. The only time Lu ever saw her speak sharply was in the closed company of her amma and her daughters—the usual targets of her ire. Some, like Lu, more often than others. Even in relative privacy though, Lu rarely saw her look excited or pleased.
But now, as the emperor called the meeting to a close, her gaze still locked with Lu’s, the empress smiled. With teeth.