Good morning, friends! Today is the day that Devin Madson’s We Ride the Storm publishes in the UK, and I cannot wait for you all to read it! I’m currently reading it myself and am absolutely loving it. You want assassins? You got it. Clever princesses? Yep. Respectful beheadings? Check!
I’m lucky enough to be sharing an extract of the book today — read on to get a sneak peek, and don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour!
They tried to kill me four times before I could walk. Seven before I held any memory of the world. Every time thereafter I knew fear, but it was anger that chipped sharp edges into my soul.
I had done nothing but exist. Nothing but own the wrong face and the wrong eyes, the wrong ancestors and the wrong name. Nothing but be Princess Miko Ts’ai. Yet it was enough, and not a day passed in which I did not wonder whether today would be the day they finally succeeded.
Every night I slept with a blade beneath my pillow, and every morning I tucked it into the intricate folds of my sash, its presence a constant upon which I dared build dreams. And finally those dreams felt close enough to touch. We were travelling north with the imperial court. Emperor Kin was about to name his heir.
As was my custom on the road, I rose while the inn was still silent, only the imperial guards awake about their duties. In the palace they tended to colonise doorways, but here, without great gates and walls to protect the emperor, they filled every corner. They were in the main house and in the courtyard, outside the stables and the kitchens and servants’ hall— two nodded in silent acknowledgement as I made my way toward the bathhouse, my dagger heavy in the folds of my dressing robe.
Back home in the palace, baths had to be taken in wooden tubs, but many northern inns had begun building Chiltaen-style bathhouses— deep stone pools into which one could sink one’s whole body. I looked forward to them every year, and as I stepped into the empty building, a little of my tension left me. A trio of lacquered dressing screens provided the only places someone could hide, so I walked a slow lap through the steam to check them all.
Once sure I was alone, I abandoned my dressing robe and slid into the bath. Despite the steam dampening all it touched, the water was merely tepid, though the clatter of someone shovelling coals beneath the floor promised more warmth to come. I shivered and glanced back at my robe, the bulk of my knife beneath its folds, reassuring.
I closed my eyes only for quick steps to disturb my peace. No assassin would make so much noise, but my hand was still partway to the knife before Lady Sichi Manshin walked in. “Oh, Your Highness, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise you were here. Shall I—?”
“No, don’t go on my account, Sichi,” I said, relaxing back into the water. “The bath is big enough for both of us, though I warn you, it’s not as warm as it looks.”
She screwed up her nose. “Big enough for the whole court, really.”
“Yes, but I hope the whole court won’t be joining us.”
“Gods no. I do not wish to know what Lord Rasten looks like without his robe.”
Sichi untied hers as she spoke, owning none of the embarrassment I would have felt had our positions been reversed. She took her time about it, seemingly in no hurry to get in the water and hide her fine curves, but eventually she slid in beside me with a dramatic shiver. “Oh, you weren’t kidding about the temperature.”
Letting out a sigh, she settled back against the stones with only her shoulders above the waterline. Damp threads of hair trailed down her long neck like dribbles of ink, the rest caught in a loose bun pinned atop her head with a golden comb. Lady Sichi was four years older than my twin and I, but her lifelong engagement to Tanaka had seen her trapped at court since our birth. If I was the caged dragon he laughingly called me, then she was a caged songbird, her beauty less in her features than in her habits, in the way she moved and laughed and spoke, in the turn of her head and the set of her hands, in the graceful way she danced through the world.
I envied her almost as much as I pitied her.
Her thoughts seemed to have followed mine, for heaving another sigh, Lady Sichi slid through the water toward me. “Koko.” Her breath was warm against my skin as she drew close. “Prince Tanaka never talks to me about anything, but you—”
Sichi’s fingers closed on my shoulder. “I know, hush, listen to me, please. I just . . . I just need to know what you know before I leave today. Will His Majesty name him as his heir at the ceremony? Is he finally going to give his blessing to our marriage?”
I turned to find her gaze raking my face. Her grip on my shoulder tightened, a desperate intensity in her digging fingers that jolted fear through my heart.
“Well?” she said, drawing closer still. “Please, Koko, tell me if you know. It’s . . . it’s important.”
“Have you heard something?” My question was hardly above a breath, though I was sure we were alone, the only sound of life the continued scraping of the coal shoveller beneath our feet.
“No, oh no, just the talk. That His Majesty is seeking a treaty with Chiltae, and they want the succession confirmed before they talk terms.”
It was more than I had heard, but I nodded rather than let her know it.
“I leave for my yearly visit to my family today,” she went on when I didn’t answer. “I want— I need to know if there’s been any hint, anything at all.”
“Nothing,” I said, that single word encompassing so many years of uncertainty and frustration, so many years of fear, of knowing Tana and I were watched everywhere we went, that the power our mother held at court was all that kept us safe. “Nothing at all.”
Sichi sank back, letting the water rise above her shoulders as though it could shield her from her own uncertain position. “Nothing?” Her sigh rippled the surface of the water. “I thought maybe you’d heard something, but that he just wasn’t telling me because he . . .” The words trailed off. She knew that I knew, that it wasn’t only this caged life we shared but also the feeling we were both invisible.
I shook my head and forced a smile. “Say all that is proper to your family from us, won’t you?” I said, heartache impelling me to change the subject. “It must be hard on your mother having both you and your father always at court.”
Her lips parted and for a moment I thought she would ask more questions, but after a long silence, she just nodded and forced her own smile. “Yes,” she said. “Mama says she lives for my letters because Father’s are always full of military movements and notes to himself about new orders and pay calculations.”
Her father was minister of the left, in command of the empire’s military, and I’d often wondered if Sichi lived at court as much to ensure the loyalty of the emperor’s most powerful minister as because she was to be my brother’s wife.
Lady Sichi chattered on as though a stream of inconsequential talk could make me forget her fi rst whispered entreaty. I could have reassured her that we had plans, that we were close, so close, to ensuring Tanaka got the throne, but I could not trust even Sichi. She was the closest I had ever come to a female friend, though if all went to plan, she would never be my sister.
Fearing to be drawn into saying more than was safe, I hurriedly washed and excused myself, climbing out of the water with none of Sichi’s assurance. A lifetime of being told I was too tall and too shapeless, that my wrists were too thick and my shoulders too square, had me grab the towel with more speed than grace and wrap it around as much of my body as it would cover. Sichi watched me, something of a sad smile pressed between her lips.
Out in the courtyard the inn showed signs of waking. The clang of pots and pans spilled from the kitchens, and a gaggle of servants hung around the central well, holding a variety of bowls and jugs. They all stopped to bow as I passed, watched as ever by the impe rial guards dotted around the compound. Normally I would not have lowered my caution even in their presence, but the farther I walked from the bathhouse, the more my thoughts slipped back to what Sichi had said. She had not just wanted to know, she had needed to know, and the ghost of her desperate grip still clung to my shoulder.
Back in my room, I found that Yin had laid out a travelling robe and was waiting for me with a comb and a stern reproof that I had gone to the bathhouse without her.
“I am quite capable of bathing without assistance,” I said, kneeling on the matting before her.
“Yes, Your Highness, but your dignity and honour require attendance.” She began to ply her comb to my wet hair and immediately tugged on tangles. “And I could have done a better job washing your hair.”
A scuff sounded outside the door and I tensed. Yin did not seem to notice anything amiss and went on combing, but my attention had been caught, and while she imparted gossip gleaned from the inn’s servants, I listened for the shuffle of another step or the rustle of cloth.
No further sounds disturbed us until other members of the court began to wake, filling the inn with footsteps. His Majesty never liked to linger in the mornings, so there was only a short time during which everyone had to eat and dress and prepare for another long day on the road.
While I picked at my breakfast, a shout for carriers rang through the courtyard, and I moved to the window in time to see Lady Sichi emerge from the inn’s main doors. She had donned a fine robe for the occasion, its silk a shimmering weave that defied being labelled a single colour in the morning light. Within a few moments, she had climbed into the waiting palanquin with easy grace, leaving me prey to ever more niggling doubts. Now I would have to wait until the end of the summer to discover what had troubled her so much.
Before I could do more than consider running down into the yard to ask, her carriers moved off, making space for more palanquins and the emperor’s horse, which meant it wouldn’t be long until we were called to step into our carriage for another interminable day on the road. Tanaka would grumble. Edo would try to entertain him. And I would get so bored of them both I counted every mile.
Tanaka had not yet left his room, so when the gong sounded, I went to tap on his door. No answer came through the taut paper panes and I leant in closer. “Tana?”
My heart sped at the silence.
I slid the door. In the centre of the shadowy room, Tanaka and Edo lay sprawled upon their mats, their covers twisted and their hands reaching across the channel toward one another. But they were not alone. A grey- clad figure crouched at my brother’s head. A blade hovered. Small. Sharp. Easy to conceal. Air punched from my lungs in a silent cry as I realised I had come too late. I could have been carrying fifty daggers and it would have made no difference.
But the blade did not move. Didn’t even tremble. The assassin looked right at me and from the hoarse depths of my first fear my cry rose to an audible scream. Yet still he just sat there, as all along the passage doors slid and footsteps came running. Tanaka woke with a start, and only then did the assassin lunge for the window. I darted forward, but my foot caught on Tanaka’s leg as he tried to rise. Shutters clattered. Sunlight streamed in. Voices followed; every servant in the building suddenly seemed to be crammed into the doorway, along with half a dozen imperial guards shoving their way through.
“Your Highnesses, is everything all right?” the first demanded. Sharp eyes hunted the room. One sneered as he looked me up and down. Another rolled his eyes. None of them had seen the man, or none of them had wanted to. Edo pushed himself into a sitting position with his arms wrapped around his legs, while Tanaka was still blinking blearily.
“Yes, we’re fine,” I said, drawing myself up and trying for disdain. “I stepped on a sharp reed in the matting is all. Go back about your work. We cannot leave His Majesty waiting.”
That’s it for today’s post! Don’t forget to check out the reviews and other content on the blog tour!