Queens Ascendant

one: the dark forests of our night

Had any but Javan asked it, Xiùxiāo would not have considered confinement. Her mother's mother, and her mother, and all her sisters had stayed in the world while carrying. They had all born strong daughters and strong sons, with gleaming eyes and sharp claws and fur that shone like fire in the sun. It was in her blood. Had any but Javan asked, she would have laughed before considering confinement; hers was a will unyielding as steel, a health sturdy as mountain stone, and she would use both to birth her cub.

But it was Javan who asked. And Javan's people had begun to carry a sickness in their blood.

Xiùxiāo retreated behind the thick woven tapestries that separated what would be their cub's sleep-room from the rest of the royal suite.

Javan did not twitch the tapestry aside. But every day — without fail — he came to the other side of the tapestry and spoke to her through it. The seasons changed, her body changed, her moods changed, but his daily presence did not.

Before her pregnancy, Xiùxiāo had been fond of him. She had respected Javan, admired him, been proud of him. But she had not loved him. Love had not been necessary.

But Javan spoke to Xiùxiāo every day, even though he could not see her. He wondered what their cub would be like: strong, or swift? Good-humored or watchful? Brash and loud as a tiger's roar, or subtle and stealthy? He mimicked the family elders he sat in council with.

He told her his dreams for their people.

He wanted the tigers to unite as Thundera had, rather than live in isolated clans that all paid fealty to the blood of Tygus. He wanted the tigers to have prosperity from farms, wealth from trade. Wanted them to have time to make music for music's sake and art for art's sake.

He wanted their cub to inherit all this, to rule it, to protect it, to love it, and for it to rule him, protect him, love him in turn.

His imagination and his voice painted pictures that shone all the brighter for not being seen with her eyes.

And Xiùxiāo began to fall in love.

Xiùxiāo looked up from her loom, then carefully pushed herself away from it. She had been hurting for a few days now, but everything had been sharper today, and the pains had come more frequently. Water dripped down her legs as she stood, soaking into her fur.

She braced a hand against her lower back, made her way to the gong, and rang it.

She heard the others in the cavern burst into activity. Some ran toward the main caverns and the mountain courtyard, others whispered or spoke excitedly. Only a few ran toward her, and of those few, she knew only one by name.

On the other side of the tapestry, Amur asked, "Xiùxiāo? Is it time?"

The apprentice midwife sounded hesitant, as if she knew she was asking a very stupid question.

Xiùxiāo took in a deep breath rather than waste time snapping at a newly-grown woman. Then she winced and let the deep breath out.

"Yes," she said. "Tell Javan. And where is Bali? I want her here!"

Amur said nothing for a few moments. It wasn't a long silence, but between the sharp pangs and focusing on her breathing, it seemed to stretch.

"Lord Javan cannot come," Amur said, very carefully. "And Bali has been wrapping the dead."

"Why not? What is more important than his cub being born? Tell him Caspin can handle the family elders! And what is Bali doing wrapping the dead?"

"I'll have him told, but he cannot come in. He has been feverish."

"And Bali? Make her stop. Tell her to come here, where she's needed!"

The tapestry twitched aside, and Amur stepped into the room with a pile of furs. She drew the tapestry back, and turned to Xiùxiāo. "I am sorry, my lady."

"They've caught it," she realized, and the next contraction seemed to radiate up her spine, to her heart. She closed her eyes. "They've caught the sickness."

Amur said only, "Would it help you to walk, or would you rather save your strength?"

Amur and her sister Tranil stayed with her through the night.

She walked, she knelt, she squatted, she stood, she walked again. At dawn, Amur tied a yellow cord around her hips. At noon, when Xiùxiāo's screams rang from the cavern walls, Tranil warmed milk at the fire.

Javan had wanted to be the one to cut their cub from her womb. He had set aside a knife for just that purpose.

But it was Amur who cut the last tie between Xiùxiāo's body and her son's.

Tranil washed him in the warm milk, and swaddled him in a fine-woven blue blanket.

"Tell Javan his son is born," Xiùxiāo said. "Tell him not to die. I want Tygra to know him, not just his dreams."

At noon the next day, Caspin drew the tapestry aside. He bowed his head as he entered the nursery.

Xiùxiāo sighed, tired as she had not been the night before. She was too tired to feel more than a frisson of fear at seeing her husband's chief advisor rather than her husband.

"Caspin. What is it?"

He closed his hand into a fist. Then he placed the fist over his heart. "I am sorry, Xiùxiāo. Javan is... gone. He left us just now."

"Gone where?" The question was out of her mouth before she could stop it. "Oh," she said. "How long was he ill?"

"He fought it away for almost two months." The corner of Caspin's lip curved up in a bitter smile. "That's a record."

"Who will wrap him?" She wanted to be the one. If they had been among her people, it shouldhave been her.

"Bali will. She watched his birth. Who better, among the sick, to give him back?"

His wife, Xiùxiāo did not say. She was not sick. "I can think of no one."

Caspin nodded his agreement, then paced toward the fire. He looked down at the empty bassinet by the fireplace. "Will you return to your people?"

Xiùxiāo rubbed her knuckles against the faint marks on Tygra's face. He shifted fitfully, but slept on.

"Why would I?"

Caspin bent to peer into the embers. She hated when he avoided her gaze; it always made him seem like he was lying or afraid.

"You're not from here. You're not one of us. Without Javan... without Javan at your side, the council will see no place for you."

"That is ridiculous. If I must be defined by my relation to this holding, I am Javan's wife and Tygra's mother."

"Go home," Caspin said. "Return to your people. It's safest for you."

"And Tygra?"

"Leave Javan's son to his blood."

"I am his blood," she told him. "And I'm not leaving."

Caspin bowed his head. "You have time to change your mind."

Xiùxiāo said nothing. He wished to believe she would yield her son to the care of a dying holding and simply go home. It clearly brought him some measure of comfort after his king's death. And she saw no reason to crush that perverse little hope if it meant he would leave her nursery.

She did not cry until, hours later, Tygra opened his eyes. His gaze darted around, slow and unfocused, as if he were looking for something and not seeing it.

He would never know his father.

She would never listen to her husband again. His dreams, the dreams she had fallen in love with, would forever be stories spun to amuse a quarantined queen.

She thought it might have been better if she had not begun to love him.

Xiùxiāo looked down at Tygra, then at the council, and then up at the sun.

"The laws say that the Lord Tiger must be of the blood of Tygus," she told the council. "Through Javan, Tygra is a son of Tygus. Tygra is my blood, also."

"By that logic," said one of the family elders, only a touch wry, because pride was their virtue and their fall, "you are blood of Tygus."

Xiùxiāo looked back to the council and lifted her chin a little. "I am."

That drew raised eyebrows.

"If I stay, I will rule as Lord Tiger. If I go, my son goes with me, and you will be left with a crisis of succession as well as a plague. These are your choices."

They chose.

Xiùxiāo eyed the gathered family elders and wished the old ways permitted Amur to sit with them. If she had commanded, they might not have gainsaid her. Most of the council were young, far younger than the men who had sat this council when Javan ruled.

The plague had feasted first on the very young and the very old. Then it turned its hunger to the weakest of those it had not yet devoured. It stalked the hungry, the exhausted, the grieving, until at last it fell upon them.

"It's only a matter of time," said Segur, who spoke for the families in the North Fang. To hear him tell it, the fever had decimated that mountain's inhabitants.

"There is nothing we can do?"

Amoy shook his head. "We have found no way to cure the sickness. Lord Javan drank day astrid tea and coal broth, and only slowed it. Without medicine, we'll have to abandon these mountains"

"And leave all the sick behind," Segur added, mouth straightened into a grim line.

Neither Amoy nor Segur had spoken loudly, but those words seemed to toll through the chamber nevertheless. It was a discordant and deeply disquieting note, as startling as if they'd tugged the wires of a wooden windchime and been answered by the deep brass of a gong.

Caspin set down his mug of coal broth just a little too harshly. A thin veil muffled his cracked, horase voice. "We can't simply leave. This is our home! What about magic?"

"We've cast every spell of healing we know." Amoy looked to the other councilors before his gaze turned to her, as if he expected to divine something from their reactions.

But nobody reacted.

Babur, who spoke for the West Fang, offered, "We could send to Thundera for aid."

"Yes, let's go crawling back to the ones who cast us out," Caspin snarled.

Segur made a thoughtful noise low in his throat. "It's a thought."

"How much do you think we'll have to beg just to get an audience?"

Babur frowned. "I would beg every morning and every night if it would cure us all."

Xiùxiāo stood. Thanks to the bulk she hadn't yet dropped, it was too slow and gradual a movement to get their attention immediately. She drew herself up to her full height.

"I've heard enough." Caspin opened his mouth to speak, so she growled, "From all of you. The cat who is too proud to admit his thirst will die parched."

Xiùxiāo drew aside the tapestry shielding Tygra's nursery. She took Tygra from Tranil's arms and sank, weary, into bed. What a piece of irony, that sitting and talking could leave even her bones tired.

Amur busied herself picking up blankets and pillows, then moved onto scrubbing down parts of the nursery — especially the parts of the nursery nearest the tapestry — with warm water and a rag. After that, she filled the lamps and stoked the fire.

Xiùxiāo watched her flutter about the room. She'd yet to meet a tiger who didn't move gracefully, but Amur had none of the sleek stealth their people were known for. She looked entirely too fretful.

After watching a few more moments of fidgety task-hunting, Xiùxiāo finally said, "Amur. You're making me tired just watching you. Come sit by me."

Amur jumped, startled, and that more than anything else made Xiùxiāo certain Amur had never trained for combat. "Lady Xiùxiāo?"

"Lord Xiùxiāo," she corrected. "Come sit by me, Amur."

The other tiger abandoned her pretense at cleaning and crept closer. At length, she perched on a stack of furs and pillows. "Have you and the council come up with an answer?"

"To what question?"

Tranil frowned. "But surely you see something has to be done. About the sickness."

Xiùxiāo said nothing for a few moments. Amur fidgeted uncomfortably, while Tranil looked as terrified as if Xiùxiāo had ordered them thrown off the highest mountaintop for Amur's insolence.

"I know." She looked to the gong that had not summoned her husband. "I've decided."

Note: Rather heavy on original and secondary characters in this chapter, but I can assure you we'll get to more known quantities right at the start of the next.

For those curious, the name Xiùxiāo is written "Mountain peak+[tiger] roar." (I would display the hanzi, but Chrome, my own character set, or FFN itself appears to be failing me.)