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Mai flexed her arms as she donned her mother's armour, amazed at the play of muscles she'd never seen on her arms before. No matter how much Jing said it was an illusion, they looked and even felt real. She itched to try lifting something heavy, like one of the big urns in the garden. It probably helped that she'd bound her breasts flat under her shirt, too. She felt…manly.
Even her mother's shoes had taken a more masculine appearance. They looked more like something her father would wear than the pretty silk slippers she knew and loved. Yet if she closed her eyes, she felt exactly the same. Her balance was the same as ever, and that was what mattered. She buckled on her sword belt and drew the blade from its sheath.
"Be swift as the wind. Plunder like fire, stand as firm as the mountains, and move like a thunderbolt," she whispered, as she did at the beginning of every dance.
She moved through the sequence of morning exercises she'd performed every day for as long as she could remember, noting the places where her armour restricted her movement, few though they were.
In the stable, she found her father's warhorse, saddled, packed and ready, as Jing had promised. Staring up at the huge animal, Mai almost doubled over as doubt punched her in the belly. She shouldn't be doing this. Girls didn't ride to war. If anyone in the army found out, she was as good as dead – to her family, even if she still breathed. It was one thing to spar with her father, who surely had gone easy on his daughter, but to fight armed soldiers in battle? She would die in a heartbeat. Now Mai felt queasy, too. If she rode to war, she would never return. Never see her family again. Her stepmother. Her sisters. Her father…
Mai wanted to run to the shrine, where she knew she would find her father, to bid goodbye to him one last time.
But she could not. If her father saw her like this, he would stop her. Even if it killed her, she had a duty to save her family from the Emperor's wrath.
She found the messenger camped just outside of town, on the outskirts of what looked like an army camp in a fallow field. Some of the men she recognised from the village, but most of them were unfamiliar. There were more men in this one field than in the entire village where she'd grown up. More than enough to slaughter her father's household, if commanded to do so.
All she had to do was walk in, and convince the men she was one of them.
Her heart sank, but Mai took a deep breath as she dredged up her courage. "All war is deception," she reminded herself under her breath. She rode up to the messenger's tent, reined in her horse and managed to dismount without falling. "My father sent me to captain his troops," she announced.
The messenger laughed. "And how many wars have you served in, boy?"
Mai felt her face redden. She hoped Jing's illusion hid that. "None," she admitted. "But my father has been training me for battle since I was six."
"Did you learn much?"
"Some," she said. "He said I could train for a lifetime, but learn more on one battlefield than in a decade of practice." She lifted her chin. "That is why he sent me."
This seemed to satisfy the messenger. "What's your name, boy?"
"Yeong Ma…oh!" Mai clapped a hand over her mouth in horror. She hadn't been here a minute and already she was about to reveal her identity.
"That is your name?" the messenger asked.
Mai nodded, not trusting her voice.
"I hope baldness doesn't run in your family, then. It would be a great pity to have a name meaning thick hair when you have none. Your men would have no respect for a general with a funny name." The messenger laughed, then gestured at the grass behind his tent. "You may set up camp beside me. In the morning, we march for Dean."
"Don't I get to decide when my men move?" Mai asked.
The messenger laughed so hard, he almost bent double. "These are not your men any more, boy. They belong to General Li, as do you. When we reach his camp, he'll make the decisions. My orders are to bring reinforcements, and I will. Untrained farm boys, most of them, but once the general's captains are done training them, even you might manage to kill a man in battle. Or die trying."
Mai smiled wanly and tried to hold back her tears as she led her horse to what would be her campsite for the night. Men did not cry, she told herself. At least, not where anyone could see. Once she had her tent set up, then she could go to pieces at the thought of killing people. That she might die, she had come to accept, but that other men must die at her hands? The very thought made her shudder.
But if a stranger had to die to protect her family…so be it, Mai decided. There was nothing she would not do for those she loved. She might be a girl, but when the time came, she would have the heart of a warrior, until her heart beat its last.
* * *
Mai rode at the head of an army, or at least she thought she did, until the city of Dean rose into view. What she saw made the troops at her back look like a troupe of travelling performers after a night of carousing. Tired, undisciplined and dirty. Mai barely noticed as the men were marched off to one of the fortified camps ringing the city around. She was too busy marvelling at the construction that had gone into besieging an entire city.
Dean itself was huge, its massive walls rising high above the surrounding plain, dwarfing the moat that seemed a mere puddle at its feet.
A second line of walls encircled the first, though they were thinner and made of timber. Tree trunks had been cut down and their tops sharpened into spikes to make these walls, which were broken by camps and watchtowers all the way along. Too many to count. How many men did General Li have? Not enough to man all of this, surely – hence why her father's people had been called up to enlist.
This didn't match her idea of battle. That involved two armies, clashing on the plain. The clash of swords and spears and the twang of bowstrings. How did one fight a war with all these buildings?
Mai pondered the question as she surveyed the encampment. Some of the watchtowers had wheels at the bottom, and were joined in pairs by a sort of skybridge between them. They were siege towers, then, capable of being wheeled to the wall and used to help the General's troops climb into the city. They looked complete, so why had the General not employed them for their purpose? Perhaps he did not have the men.
Still, it seemed foolish to keep the siege towers on display, where they were clearly visible from the city walls. The defenders would know what was coming, and have time to plan a defensive strategy against them. The besieging army would be at a disadvantage, heading into terrain they did not know. An enclosed city, no less, where the defenders lived and knew better than anyone else could.
Now, if they could tempt the city's forces out of the gates, then the besiegers might have an advantage. But what could be tempting enough to entice them out? Perhaps…
"You're to report to General Li," the messenger said, interrupting Mai's battle plans. "I'll take you to the command tent, and then I can return to the capital. Where things are civilised."
Mai followed him into the biggest stockade, which sat on a natural rise on the otherwise flat plain. The General's tent was actually a wooden hut, built on a mound of earth in the middle of camp overlooking what appeared to be a training ground. The General himself was the only man in full armour, though he carried his helmet under his arm as he watched the troops training below.
No, not training. Sparring, Mai noticed with interest. She had not trained with an opponent since she left her father's household, and she was eager to learn to fight better against someone more skilled than she.
"This is the last one. Yeong Mao, Yeong Fu's son," the messenger announced, shoving Mai forward so that she almost overbalanced.
She righted herself before she fell at the General's feet. "My father sent me to learn the art of war, General," Mai said. "He has trained me well."
General Li snorted. "That's what they all say, right up until they turn and run in battle. Cowards. Right. Whatever-your-name-is, go join the other young noblemen down there. First, we'll see how well you can fight, and then give you something to do."
He turned to speak to one of his aides, effectively dismissing her.
The messenger seemed mesmerised by the group of young men the General had pointed to. "Good luck, Yeong Mao," he said softly.
Mai swallowed. "Thank you," she said. "I wish you a safe journey back to the capital."
She joined the circle of boys, who formed a ring around two combatants. The smaller of the two, a boy perhaps a year or two older than Mai and not much bigger, struggled to hold his wooden sword aloft, even as he gripped the hilt with both shaking hands. The other boy – more a man, Mai decided, smacked his own wooden blade against the smaller boy's sword almost lazily, sending it flying across the circle to land at Mai's feet.
Mai reached down for the sword, which felt surprisingly light in her hand. Her father's wooden blades had a metal core, weighting them much like a proper sword, but this one was all wood. She looked up, intended to offer the practice blade back to the disarmed boy, but he now lay on his belly in the dirt, begging for mercy from the bigger boy whose blade merely touched the back of the downed boy's neck.
"Next," the victor drawled, letting his foe up.
The boy scrambled out of the circle as fast as his feet could carry him.
The next challenger was built like an ox. He would have no trouble lifting the light sword, Mai thought, as he tossed it from hand to hand like it weighed nothing. Then the challenger adopted a bold stance, knees bent, facing the victor of the previous bout.
"Try that on someone your own size!" the challenger called.
The victor strode forward, his muscles bunching as he delivered his first thrust.
The challenger managed a clumsy block, but his movements were too slow. He might have the strength to fight, but he had little practice with a sword, Mai decided. The victor delivered a series of slashing blows that his opponent barely managed to block in time, until one cut made it through, tearing through the fabric of the boy's tunic.
Mai glimpsed pale flesh for a moment before the boy dropped his blade, turned tail and ran out of the circle.
"The General will put him to good use, running messages in battle!" the victor said.
A few of the boys in the circle sniggered at this, but the laughter died quickly when they realised the man in the middle wasn't laughing. Instead, he pointed at those who had. "You, you and you. In that order. You're up next."
The boys ducked their heads in obedience, and the first one trudged across the dirt to meet his fate.
Without taking her eyes off the fight, Mai asked the boy beside her, "Who is he?"
"The Prince of Swords, Gong Ji," the boy whispered.
Gong Ji…the man's name was Rooster? Mai tried again. "Who?"
"Best swordsman in the kingdom, or so he says. No one's managed to beat him yet. The General said if we can stay on our feet for a turn of the hourglass in the ring with him, we will be assigned to his camp, and will lead troops in battle when we breach the city walls. The rest of us will go to different watchtowers to stand guard over the city."
Stand guard? There was no honour in guard duty. Leading troops into battle…if Mai wanted to earn honour for her family, then she must find a way to fight this Prince of Swords.
"How many have beaten the hourglass?" Mai asked.
The boy swallowed. "So far, none."
The Prince of Swords was a master swordsman indeed, then. An enemy she must know as well as she knew herself, for Mai to be victorious.
For the first time, she took a good look at the man, instead of his less skilled opponents. The prince lowered his head and barrelled into a boy, knocking him into the dirt. The prince was a big man, who used his size and strength to his advantage against smaller opponents like this one. He held his sword like a man who had trained for longer than Mai had, for he moved with a fluidity that spoke of experience with a good teacher. His sword truly was an extension of his arm – and a long arm, too. He used his bigger reach to attack his opponents before they had the chance to touch him, forcing them to defend against a fast flurry of blows that were designed to distract, not hit, until the prince saw an opening and took it. Not to hurt or to kill – no, he knocked his opponent down. In battle, his enemy would be trampled or run through, Mai knew. She suspected the prince did, too.
She watched him peel off his sweat-soaked tunic and use it to mop his face. Her belly sort of swirled a little, as if she was suddenly hungry for something. Strange. She'd eaten some of her travel rations only an hour ago. Why the sight of a man's muscled body made her feel hungry again, she had no idea. Yet as she stared, she realised he had an impressive collection of scars. Battle scars. The prince was a veteran of many battles, if his back was any indication. He would lead troops into battle. Perhaps he already had – many times. Now Mai's appetite took a different turn – she hungered for his knowledge and experience, so that she might lead troops to victory, too.
"Any of you other ladies want to come and dance with me?" the prince asked, turning slowly on the spot so he could meet the eyes of every boy who dared raise his gaze from the dirt. "Or will you all be standing guard on the watchtowers like the others?"
It was now or never.
Mai stepped forward. "I shall dance with you."
Would you like to read more?
A dutiful daughter. A prince forced to find a bride. If the shoe fits…
Once upon a time…
When the Emperor’s army comes recruiting, Mai signs up, seeing it as the perfect escape from her stepmother and a lifetime of drudgery. Armed with her mother’s armour and a pair of magic shoes, Mai marches off to war…only to find herself sharing a tent with the General’s arrogant nephew, Prince Yi.
The best swordsman in the Empire, Prince Yi wants to make war, not love, but the Emperor insists this will be Yi’s last campaign before he must marry. Prince Yi has never met his match…until now.
Can one woman win the war and the prince’s heart?
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