I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It took me a long time to adjust to the short, broken passages and lack of quotation marks, but once I did I was fascinated by them. The book had such a strange rhythm and pace and I couldn't get it out of my head.
We had created a set of characters that had – up to that point – had no "voice" or set story. I used them as my guinea pig to try to experiment a bit with something more stylistic than my usual action/adventure fare. It's…still pretty action/adventury. But it's easier than I thought to write and I've been enjoying it immensely.
Thanks for reading!
The Giant and the Emperor of the Night
She moved through the cold without thinking. Thinking meant feeling and feeling meant going back and going back meant dying and dying meant nothing. So she didn't think. She moved through the cold without thinking.
But a cry from behind her, far in the distance, stayed her steps. She stood, to her knees in the snow, a tiny form almost lost in the falling white, and her lips trembled. Her eyebrows drew down, resisting the urge to turn around. Resisting the urge to look.
Don't look back, her mother had told her.
Just keep heading west.
A shape in the wind, startling and sudden. She hissed and struggled to draw her sword – her mother's sword – but the weapon was far too large, or her hands far too small, and the weight of it was stuck in the snow.
She froze with her hand wrapped as far around the hilt as possible, her heart beating like a bird's.
Not a threat, the shape. A sign. A message.
A crimson ribbon, stained darkly, carried to her on the wind.
Last seen around her mother's neck.
She lunges forward before the small, frail thing is lost in the snow again, snatches it out of the air. Clutches it to her breast and bows her head.
If this is here…
She can't help it.
She looks back.
She is far, but the moon is bright, and the palace alight with the invader's fire. On the top of the bulwark, silhouetted against the large and angry moon, stands her mother's killer, holding something up to show his hordes below.
The ribbon in her cold hands is wet and sticky.
She opens her mouth in a wordless song of grief and rage and plunges on through the snow.
She tells herself a story. An old trick to distract herself from the injustices of a twelve-year-old's life. The story is an ongoing saga. It is about an oni – a fierce and powerful demon. But not just any oni – an Oni Princess. The Oni Princess is not beautiful. She has eyes that are too round, and a mouth that is too wide, and a smile with too many teeth. She is too tall.
Her mother tells her that if she wants to be an Angel, for her mother is an Angel Queen, and the most beautiful of all Angels and everything, everywhere, then first she must travel west, to the dark lands. To the lands where the sun dies. And there she must find the Oni King. The Oni King will teach her things. He will show her things. And if she learns her lessons well, then she can become an Angel.
But the Oni King is tricksy, and does not give up his secrets easily.
And the Oni King is cruel, and unfond of Angels.
He will try to trick the Oni Princess into staying an Oni forever.
But the Oni Princess is tricksy too, and more than anything she wants wings like her mother's, wings of fire and life.
So she travels west, to the dark lands.
To where the sun goes to die.
The little girl had never been on a boat before.
In truth, the little girl had never left the palace before, but she memorized the way to the boat from a very young age indeed. She could draw maps to it. She knew who she had to talk to when she got there. She knew what she had to tell him. She had to tell him that the Phoenix Empress had died, and her daughter sought Justice. And then the man would put her on a boat and she would go to the west and she would find Justice – only Justice wasn't a thing, wasn't a reckoning. He was a man and that was his name and the little girl had never met Justice before but that was what her mother had told her to do and that was what she was going to do.
Go west, her mother said. Go west and find Justice. Give him this letter. Give it to no one but him. He will know what to do. He will protect you.
The boat was much larger than she had expected. It loomed out of the darkness of the night like a giant, ancient and evil, and her stomach twisted unpleasantly when she looked at it. She twisted the ends of the crimson ribbon that held back her long black hair around her hand.
The man was not what she expected either. He was small and frail and indescribably mortal. The news of the Phoenix Empress' passing seemed to shatter him on the inside, like all his bones had crumbled and now nothing was left but his skin and his eyes. He stared at her like she had killed him, and she wanted to make him shut his eyes, but instead she said nothing.
She wondered if her mother's eyes had been open when the man had cut her head off.
She wrapped the ribbon around her hands so tightly the blood couldn't get to her fingers and they turned purple.
She wondered if mother's toes would turn purple, now that all her blood was gone.
The man dragged himself listlessly out of his booth and limped off toward the boat. She untangled her fingers from the ribbon and followed him wordlessly.
She wondered, distantly, what it was that Justice knew to do.
The boat was worse than a giant. The wind dragged it across the seas like she had once dragged wooden, wheeled toys on strings. And the sea itself…it went on forever and ever and ever and she couldn't see the end of it. She had never thought the world could be so wide. Never thought the world could go on and on and on forever. It was like time, she thought. It was everywhere and anywhere and just kept going on and you could never reach the end, and never find your way back to the beginning.
She wondered how far the west was.
She wondered how long she had been on the boat.
She wondered how many days had passed since her mother had died. Her ribbon wasn't wet and sticky anymore, but it was still stiff in some places. She supposed she should wash it, but she couldn't bring herself to. Her mother was the Phoenix Empress. The Phoenix always rose from the ashes, that was what they said. But you had to keep the ashes, right?
The air smelled like salt and brine and fish. It wasn't an unpleasant smell, but it was a strange one and she didn't like it. She wanted it to smell like bamboo and rice and old parchment and hard steel. Like the Samurais' garden, and the palace kitchen, and her mother's training grounds. Sweat and blood and art. She wanted it to smell like home.
But it didn't.
So she went back down into the hold.
She didn't like the way the Captain looked at her. She understood that he was the boss. The Captain was the Emperor, and the boat was his Empire, and the people on the boat were either his subjects or his prisoners depending. But she was the daughter of the Phoenix Empress, and the Phoenix Empress was dead, which meant that she was the Phoenix Empress, even if there was no empire to rule over anymore, and an Empress could never be someone else's subject, and even if they could be imprisoned, the little girl wasn't actually the Captain's prisoner either.
She didn't think he liked that very much. She didn't think he liked anything he couldn't put into one of those categories.
Your way's been paid, that's what he kept telling her. Your way's been paid, but that don't mean you can cause trouble. I ain't been paid for trouble. Then he would look at her, and even if she didn't exactly understand the expression or the need that drove it, she could read men's hearts, and his was black as any demon's. He meant her harm.
She kept her mother's sword close.
The days at sea were long, and stretched and blurred unbearably into one another. She was used to being busy. She was used to having more to do in a day than was humanly possible. Training with every weapon in her mother's armory, learning to be as quiet as a stalking cat, as fast as a startled mouse. Learning to write and to read and to sing. Learning how to be a fine lady, and how to be a Princess, and how to be an Empress. Learning to navigate the dense and intricate maze of rules that surrounded every moment of every interaction imaginable. Say this, stand here, mind your tone, don't bow your head, it shows shame, don't hold it too high, it shows pride, give nothing away, don't play with your sleeve, make them fear you, don't swing your feet, make them love you.
At sea there was nothing to do. So many places she wasn't allowed to go. She could stay in her spot on the floor of the hold, or she could go up to the deck and stand at the rail, but that was it. If she went anywhere else, the Captain would find her and he would give her that look and he would ask her if she was causing trouble.
And she would mind her tone, and would not bow her head, and she would give nothing away and say nothing to him and just stare right back at him and wonder how to make him fear her.
She didn't want to make him love her, even if she could.
She didn't like him.
The Oni Princess doesn't like cages. Truly, no Spirit does. And so it is, when the Oni Princess finds herself imprisoned in the giant's dungeon, she calls on all her power and shatters the bars of her cage and walks freely throughout the lair. As silent as a stalking cat, as quick as a startled mouse, she explores her captor's home.
She finds the place where it keeps its supplies, barrels upon barrels of food and fresh water. No meat, though, she notices, wonderingly. Everyone knows giants were carnivores of the highest order. How strange that it would have no meat.
She finds the place where its minions sleep, one atop the other in strange nets, twisted to hold them above the ground and keep them from crushing their fellows with their weight. She wrinkles her nose at the stench of too many bodies in too small a space for far too long. She stares at the nets and wonders if the giant's minions aren't prisoners as surely as she is.
She finds the place where it feeds. The room smells worse than its minions, fetid and rank, and crawling with rats. Here she can smell it – the distinctive putrescence of rotting meat – but try though she might she can't see any. Whatever had been here must have been devoured. She doubts sincerely that it was cooked first.
All of this she finds, and more, as she explores the giant's lair, until there is only a single room left, the doors barred behind a cold iron lock, meant to ward off spirits of all kinds – good or bad. But she is no oridinary Oni – she is the Oni Princess, and cold iron means little to her. She takes the lock in her hands, hissing at the sting, and shatters it with a word. She throws the broken pieces to the side and walks into the room with her head held high.
Laid out before her, crammed in so tightly there is scare room even to breathe, is a collection of the most wretched forms she has ever seen. Skin as dark as the Oni King's heart, eyes sharp with hunger and woe, hearts and bodies twisted and torn. And all bound together, with a single, silver chain, wrapped around their ankles.
It would seem she has found the meat.
They stared at the little girl with surprise and trepidation on their faces, and she stared back at them with the same. She had never seen people like these. They seemed made of night, like the oni from the stories, but no demons were these. They were men, as surely as the captain was a man, and mortal besides. On their hearts she could read pain and fear, loneliness and heartbreak, and the deep, unquenchable rage that is the sole domain of the deeply wronged.
There was one among them whom the others trusted. One among them who led as much as possible from his chains. This one, she approached, and nodded her head slowly, to show her respect. She did not bow. An Empress never bows.
The man, perplexed and amused, and at the same time afraid for himself and the little girl should the captain find her in there, returned the gesture. From this the little girl surmised that he must also be an Emperor, albeit of a conquered people, for he had not bowed.
I will give you a present, said the little girl, and took her knife and cut off a lock of her long, raven hair. She took the dark man's hand and tied the lock around his finger, her movements careful and precise.
I have nothing to give you in return, said the dark man, confused by the gift. They have shaved my head to prevent the spread of lice to the other slaves, and I own nothing but the rags I wear.
An Empress wears her hair long to show her station, her power, and her responsibilities, responded the little girl, and pointed at the man's new ring. She wears a chain as surely as you, and that is a link from it. I would ask the same of you. Give me a link from your chain.
The dark man offered her a sad smile. Would that I could, little Empress, he said respectfully, but my chain is not so easy to cut as yours. I fear it is unbreakable.
No chain is easy to cut, the little girl responded. But no chain is unbreakable, either. This is why I exist. This is why I was born.
To break chains?
To be a hammer and an anvil for you to strike them on, she said, and there was something deadly serious in her face and for a moment the dark man was not sure he was looking at a little girl. No chain can be broken except by he who wears it. But all chains can be broken.
You are wise, little Empress, said the dark man with a shake of his head, but I am not so sure.
You owe me, dark man, she responded, offended. I have given you a link from my chain and I demand a link from yours. The debt must be repaid, or you will dishonor me.
Once my chains are broken, then, said the dark man, I will give you a link. But I would not hold my breath.
You will not have to, said the little girl, and gave him a smile too wide for her small face, before she turned and dashed from the room.
The dark man stared after her, and wondered.
West, west, west. Always west. Interminably west. Unbearably west.
The little girl had decided she hated west. She hated the word. She hated the direction. If west had been a man, like Justice was a man, she would have hated him too. Perhaps she would have killed him. She knew how.
They are different things, he mother had told her. To know how, and to do. They are not the same at all. You know how to do many things, daughter. But when the time comes, knowing will not be enough. Choose, as your father would say, and act.
Who is my father? she had asked, but her mother would not say.
To know how and to do. Her mother was right, they were very different. She'd always known how to go west, what to say and who to talk to. What boat to take and what coach to hire when they landed, and what towns to stop in, and what questions to ask. She knew how to do that.
But the doing was very different.
If west was a man, she would kill him. She would choose, and she would act.
The Oni Princess does not forget the men made of night and bound in silver. For three days and three nights she sits atop her broken cage in the giant's lair and ponders them. Sometimes she goes to visit them, or speak with their Emperor.
They were taken, he tells her, from their Kingdom in the south. The giant consumes their souls and eats their flesh, or turns it into leather goods, which it takes to the market in the guise of an old man to sell to those who know no better.
She asks the Emperor of the Night what substance makes up his chains. Moonlight, he says, and his heart echoes fear. It is forged in the heart of a star, he says, and his heart echoes, in the shadows of the hearts of men. And tempered with dust from the bones of the sky, he says, and his heart echoes, hatred.
We have begun to believe, says the man, that perhaps this chain is our Fate, and there is nothing we can do. And no echo comes from his heart at all.
And at his words the Oni Princess grows angry, and her rage is terrible to behold.
I will kill Fate, she tells him, and makes a fist of her hand. I will kill him with my sword and I will present his head to the Oni King and he will make me an Angel. And then what will you do? Will your chains still bind your ankles? Will your fear still blind your eyes?
Then we would break our chains, says the Emperor of the Night, and she can see he is proud, but still mortal for all that, for Fate would have no hold on us.
Fate holds none but he who fails to choose, the Oni Princess says, and her voice is cold and her teeth are sharp in her face. The giant has tied you to the ground, but it is you who have chosen your chains.
Will you help us? the Emperor of Night asks. Can you break our chains?
But the Oni Princess has already gone.
Why are those men chained in that room? the little girl asked, and met the Captain's stare as a stone would. Who are they?
They are dogs, or less, replied the Captain without thought or care. They are slaves, taken from their homes in the dry, hot places of the world and sold to me by their own people.
What will you do with them? she asked.
It's not your business, the Captain responded. His answer offended the little girl and he rolled his eyes and smacked his lips in a gesture of impatience. I will sell them, he told her, to whoever offers me the most coin. Now leave me be. I have work to do. And stay away from the slaves. Pretty little thing like you…no telling what those savages would do to you. And he walked away, cackling like a hag.
The little girl stared after him with hate in her eyes.
Men, she said, should wear no chains but those they have chosen.
The little girl was an Empress, but she was also more than that, as her mother was. As, she was sure, her father must have been. She was not mortal, although she could die. She was made of stronger stuff than mortals, though she was forged in the hearts of men, and existed because they needed her to. Even among others of her kind, though, she was unique.
You are not created, like the rest of us, her mother told her once. You are called. We are created by men, but you are born of us. The difference is nothing, and everything.
She understood little of any of this, being only twelve-years-old and unconcerned with much outside her own sphere.
She simply was what she was and did what she did without guile or art.
And so it was she found herself in possession of a chisel and a hammer.
What is this? said the dark man. The little Empress has returned. You will get us all in trouble, small one. The Captain is a cruel man and I have seen the way he looks at you. It would be wise not to give him an excuse.
The Captain, she said, is a fool, and I have little patience for him. I am a guest on his ship, but he oversteps his bounds with his orders and his rules. I am an Empress, and that is far greater than a Captain.
True though that may be, said the dark man gravely, do not tempt his wrath. You have been kind to us as few have since we were taken. It would wound me to see you hurt.
I have a gift, she announced, bored of the discussion and seeking to change the subject.
Another one? said the dark man, with laughter in his eyes. I have not repaid the first! And he held up his hand to show her he still wore the ring of her hair. This pleased her greatly.
This one is different, she said. I do not give it to you as an Empress. I give it to you as a friend, for I think you my friend, and no debt is incurred if you accept.
Well then, said the dark man with a slow nod, I have little reason to refuse the gift, as I think you my friend also. This, too, pleased her.
Then this is my gift to you, said the little girl, and handed him the chisel. The first is an edge. It is sharp and it is hard. It is a tool or a weapon according to the writing on your heart. It is strong and it is sturdy and it will not break so long as you hold it true.
What shall I do with it? the dark man asked.
That is up to you, said the little girl as gravely as though she had fifty years more than she did. You must choose what to do with it. Where to set it. What to strike. And then you must act.
She handed him the hammer and held his gaze.
Choose, she said, closing one of his hands around the chisel, and act, and she closed his other hand around the hammer. This is what my father would tell you, were he here. I don't know his name, but I know he must have been a great man, for truer words were never spoken.
But before the dark man could respond, the door flew open as though the wind itself had demanded it be so, and the Captain roared into the cramped room. You! he bellowed, wagging a finger at the little girl. His face was a mask of rage. I told you to leave these dogs alone! You're causing trouble!
The dark man hid the tools beneath his fellow and stood, placing himself between the little girl and the furious Captain. Sir, he said, ducking his head, all signs of pride gone from his body, if not his eyes, sir, please, the little girl didn't mean it, sir. It was my fault. I called her in here. I—
The Captain crossed the floor in two strides and struck the dark man, sending him sprawling into his fellows with a cry and a great rattling of the chains. The little girl cried out and tried to approach her stunned friend, but the captain wrapped his hand in the back of her dress and dragged her back toward the door.
Choose! she cried as she struggled against him. Chains are not made of iron and rope, they are made of choices, and broken by the same!
And then the Captain had pulled her from the room and the door slammed shut once more.
The dark man's fellows stared either at him or at the door and a collective fear gripped them.
He's going to kill her, said one of them to the dark man.
He's going to do worse than that, said another grimly.
A third handed him his chisel and his hammer.
He stared at them, gripped them tightly in his hands.
And he acted.
The Oni Princess fights fear as much as she fights the giant. It is so much larger than her, dwarfing the houses she remembers from the village, and shaming the trees themselves with its size. And it is so strong. When it strikes her she feels each blow shudder through her tiny frame. Her bones creak and groan and it is all she can do to keep her mouth from doing the same. But she is quick, and not so easy to hit for all that. Thrice she has wriggled from its grip, as limber as a monkey, as loose as a snake.
It has taken her sword from her, else she would have killed it already. Discarded it on the floor like garbage, and she cannot get to it. The giant stands between her and it. So she claws at it with her talons, and strikes it with her fists. She tears into its flesh with her teeth like a blood-crazed tiger. She is an Oni Princess. She does not need her sword.
But it is still a giant and she is losing the fight. Every blow she strikes, every drop of blood she draws, does little to make it stop. It has only to hit her once to send her reeling, smashing her into the ground or a wall. Every time she hurts it, she makes it angrier. Each strike she takes is harder than the one before it.
She is angry too. The Queen of Angels warned her she would have to fight to get to the Oni King. Taught her how to. Trained her in all the arts of war. But the line between knowing how and doing is a vast gulf and she cannot seem to cross it. The Angel Queen could have killed the giant, would have felled it with a single blow, a single thought. She would have struck it through the heart, or flown high enough to stab its eye or crush its skull. The Angel Queen could never be defeated by the giant.
But she was not an Angel Queen.
She was an Oni Princess.
And that was not good enough.
The giant grabs her at last, and she is finally too weak to struggle free, for all that she continues to try. It slams her down hard onto its bed, and she closes her mouth and steels her jaw, grinding her teeth and vowing not to make a sound. Not even if it consumes her soul, and cuts the flesh from her body while she yet lives.
And now, rumbles the giant with a hideous chuckle, I'm going to punish you for thinking you could strike me. You're nothing to me, you got that? I don't care who your mother was. She's dead.
She can't protect you.
The dark men moved through the ship with the brutal efficiency of a pack of starving wolves. Malnourished, abused, and wounded, but hearts afire with something they had not felt in weeks, since they had been taken from their homeland and chained to each other and this boat. They had been warriors once, not so long ago. Fierce and proud and dangerous.
Hope had made them so again.
By the time the crew had been alerted to the danger it was too late. Enough had fallen silently before the unexpected assault that the dark men were now armed with swords and pistols and daggers. One of them had found a rifle. Another had taken a butcher's knife from the kitchen.
The little girl's friend clutched a bloody hammer and chisel in his hands.
He will have taken her to his quarters, he said. We don't have much time.
At the giant's words, the Oni Princess finds strength in a sudden fury. She lashes out with a foot and drives it into the giant's stomach as it tries to climb onto the bed. It gasps and she kicks it again. My mother is not dead! the Oni Princess cries, baring her teeth at it. She kicks it again, but this time it grabs her foot and twists cruelly. She still does not cry out, though sudden tears sting behind her eyelids.
She is dead, the giant growls, its only eye huge and hideous and amused. My master made her kneel before him and cut her head from her body.
Your master? the Oni Princess says, and at last she reads the giant's heart. It's wrapped in so many chains she can hardly see it. Each carefully chosen and lovingly wrapped around it by the giant. Each forged by the sworn enemy of the Oni King, who stands at their end and holds them all.
Fate is the giant's master.
Fate killed the Angel Queen.
And the Oni Princess cries out at last, in rage and hate and grief.
And at her cry, the giant's door flies open with a bang.
It turns, startled. What—?!
It is the Emperor of Night and his people. He is clothed once again in his fine robes, spun of starlight and clouds, and he wears the moon on his brow as a crown. He speaks not a word, but draws back his arm and throws a knife carved from of a piece of the cold north wind.
His aim is as true as his heart. The giant rears back, releasing the Oni Princess, and screaming as his eye bursts and bleeds.
Then the other men made of Night fill the room, like a spring bursts forth from the ground, and the air is filled with thunder as they strike at the giant with the force of their dark storms.
The Oni Princess lays where she is for a long moment, drenched in the blood of her giant captor, and waiting for the smoke to clear.
Her heart and her face twist with grief.
Mama, she whispers.
The dark man crossed the floor in three long strides, pausing only to retrieve his chisel from the Captain's skull. Little Empress, he said quietly, approaching her still form fearfully. Little Empress, are you all right?
Her eyes were open and she stared at the Captain's corpse and her face was a strange mask of grief and fear.
My mother is dead, she said. She was the Phoenix Empress and now I am the Phoenix Empress and she is dead.
I am sorry, said the dark man, and he picked her up as gently as he could. She held her face as still as stone, but he could see the pain in her eyes when he moved her. She was badly wounded, but alive, and he did not think the Captain had time to steal her innocence.
You have freed us, said the dark man, and we will not forget that kindness.
You freed yourselves, she said automatically, wrapping her ribbon inattentively around her swollen hand as he inspected her wounds. I simply gave you a chisel.
The dark man cradled her kindly for a long moment and neither spoke. At last he asked her, what was your mother's name?
Hope, the little girl answered, her voice thick though she did not cry. Her name was Hope, and hope is what she was.
Then she is not truly dead, said the dark man, for she is with us now. You have returned her to us. And he pressed a cold, iron link from a broken chain into her hand, over the ribbon.
Perhaps, whispered the little girl, peering at the link. But she cannot hold me.
No, said the dark man sadly, she cannot.