The Girl King (The Girl King #1)(11)

In front of the double doors of the hall, twelve women draped in burnt-orange robes waited in two orderly lines. Ammas.

Lu stopped short. She knew who she would find inside, and it was not Shin Mung.

She could leave. Lead her nunas back to her own apartments, where—where what, exactly? She would bar the doors and crawl into bed? Weep and moan and tear out her hair, turn away food until the unlikely day her father changed his mind? Unthinkable. Some other girl in her position—Minyi, perhaps—might lower herself to that. But not Lu. She did not run, and she did not cry. If conflict came at Lu, she would rush to meet it.

She squared her shoulders and walked into the hall, nodding at the ammas in respect as she passed. Her nunas followed closely behind.

The empress was waiting for her at the far end of the hall’s long, incense-clouded colonnade, gazing up at the ancestral portrait of Emperor Kangmun. Her head was cocked thoughtfully, as though she had never seen it before. She still wore the full ceremonial regalia from court, drenched in layers of floor-length muted-vermilion silk. The trim was embroidered with flowered vines that clambered up her bodice and high-necked collar. They looked like they were reaching up to choke her.

Lu cleared her throat. The sound echoed down the hall. Her mother did not tear her gaze away from the portrait. “Is that how you greet your empress? I know you were raised better than that. I saw to it.”

“Where’s Shin Mung?” Lu demanded.

Her mother finally turned, with a rattle of swaying jewelry and a disdainful purse of her painted lips. “Elsewhere. He had important matters to attend to,” she said. The implication was clear enough: Your lessons aren’t important. Especially now.

Lu smelled the bait, bloody and rancid and old. She wouldn’t bite.

“Were these theatrics really necessary?” she asked instead. “Tricking me into seeing you?”

“It hardly seemed worth the effort, true. But I sent for you several times this past week, only to be told you were nowhere to be found. You’re a difficult person to track down.”

“Well, you found me. What do you want?”

Her mother raised one perfectly sculpted eyebrow. “To begin with, I want you to address me with respect.”

“I’m sorry,” Lu said. “What do you want, Your Highness?”

Cold fury flashed in her mother’s eyes, but only for half a breath. When she turned her gaze toward Lu’s nunas, it was placid and cordial. “Girls, go wait outside with the ammas. We won’t be long.”

Halting movement rippled through the handmaidens, as though the empress’s words were a physical force prodding them to action. They glanced nervously at one another, then looked to Hyacinth. Hyacinth was looking at Lu, still and implacable as the figures of the ancestral portraits surrounding them. She’d been the only one not to respond to the empress’s command. Lu loved her for it.

“Stay,” Lu told them. It was stupid—a childish act of rebellion. But while she may have lost her father’s love and the throne in one fell hour, Lu was still a princess. And a princess alone directed her own nunas.

She opened her mouth to say as much, but her mother spoke first, in clipped, irritated tones. “After the day you’ve had, do you really want to give them more fodder for gossip?”

Lu’s jaw clenched. “They would never gossip about my affairs. I trust my nunas.”

“That’s touching, but I would rather not suffer for your lack of judgment,” her mother replied. “And I do not have the day to sit about entertaining your misplaced loyalty.”

“So go, then,” Lu snapped. “I wasn’t the one who ambushed you.”

“Don’t be dramatic. I mean to speak with you now, woman to woman. Though I wonder if it will come to anything. Time and again, you insist on playing the child.”

Lu crossed, then uncrossed her arms. No one could agitate her like their mother. She wasn’t certain if the reverse was true—her mother was easily agitated by so many things—but it often felt that way. At any rate, it was only a matter of time before one of them said something truly ugly. Perhaps it was better her nunas weren’t around to witness that.

Lu glanced at Hyacinth and jerked her head toward the door. Her friend nodded once and directed the others back outside.

Once they were gone, her mother slipped a pale, elegant hand from one sleeve and beckoned Lu closer. “Come here. I won’t have this conversation yelling across the hall at you.”

Lu huffed, reluctantly closing the distance between them. Her mother’s citrus perfume and musky powders cut through the hall’s permanent fog of incense, and the combination turned her stomach.

“What do you want to speak of?” she asked.

“As your mother, it’s my duty to guide you through the journey you’re about to take.” The trill of triumph in the empress’s voice was unmistakable. It was as though she herself had been named heir to the empire.

For her mother, this was likely as close to power as she could ever hope to get: Set, her blood, her beloved nephew, her proxy on the throne. Pathetic, Lu thought. Until she remembered that the same was now true for her.

The empress continued: “The Betrothal Ceremony, your wedding, and all the duties you will have as the wife of the emperor, the mother of his children—the court will expect you to execute all of them seamlessly, as though it were in your very nature. But in truth, there is nothing natural about it; only hard work, planning, and practice will allow you to succeed.”

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