As civil war sweeps across the Shima Imperium, the Lotus Guild unleashes their deadliest creationa mechanical goliath, intended to unite the shattered Empire under a yoke of fear. Yukiko and Buruu are forced to take leadership of the rebellion, gathering new allies and old friends. But the ghosts of Buruu's past stand between them and the army they need, and Kin's betrayal has destroyed all trust among their allies. When a new foe joins the war, it will be all the pair can do to muster the strength to fight, let alone win. And as the earth splits asunder, as armies destroy each other for rule over an empire of lifeless ash and the final secret about blood lotus is revealed, the people of Shima will learn one last, horrifying truth. An exciting, vivid conclusion to a critically acclaimed series, Endsinger is sure to have fans racing through the pages to savor every last revelation.
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The Lotus War Book Three
By Jay Kristoff
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Jay Kristoff
All rights reserved.
Lightning burned the skies to white, glinting on black glass all around her.
Buruu and Kaiah loomed over her, their thoughts a raging storm in her mind.
And in her head, in her belly, only pain.
What is she talking about?
- TELL HER. -
Tell me what? Who is “they”?
YUKIKO, YOU ARE WITH CHILD—
The girl opened her eyes, the sweet scent of burning cedar in her lungs. It took a moment to remember where she was. Who she was. What had brought them to this.
She knelt beside a firepit in a simple house at the heart of a village in the trees. A bone-deep cold had slunk down from the mountains, hungry as ghosts, stealing through the Kagé stronghold and bringing the freezing promise of winter to come. Yukiko could smell it in the air, waiting at the edge of the stage. Storm clouds and white frost and black, black rain.
Six others sat around the flames. The bleeding remnants of a beheaded rebellion.
Soldiers without a captain?
Or sheep without a shepherd?
Kaori stared at Yukiko across the fire, steel-gray eyes bloodshot and circled with shadows. A long fringe was draped over the scar running forehead to chin, skin pale and drawn. She sat on Daichi’s cushion at the head of the circle—as his daughter, everyone assumed Kaori would take charge now the leader of the rebellion was gone.
No, not gone, Yukiko thought.
Other Kagé sat beside Kaori: Maro, the only other remaining member of the original council, long hair bound in warrior’s braids, a leather patch over his missing eye. Beside him sat the Blackbird, the sky-ship captain who’d flown them from Kigen’s smoldering ruin. The man’s scowl was almost hidden beneath an enormous straw hat, his beard as thick as hedgerows. Then there was Michi of course, small and razor sharp, a chainkatana and wakizashi marked with the sigils of a noble Tiger household across her back. Little Tomo, the black and white pup she’d rescued from Aisha’s chambers, sat in her lap, gnawing a knotted rope.
Lightning arced across an angry horizon.
The forest’s pulse pounded inside Yukiko’s head, the Kenning as loud and bright as she could ever remember. She tried to dim it, filtering it against a wall of herself. She could feel every living thing around her: swooping owls and fleeing mice and every life between, and burning above them all, the minds of every man and woman and child in the treetop village. Her hand strayed to her belly, to the two sparks of impossibly knotted heat she could sense inside her.
There was no room in her head for a thought that shape. No world where it could make any kind of sense.
Akihito took her hand, his massive paw swallowing hers whole. She squeezed his fingers in return. After months spent believing he’d died in Kigen jail, seeing him again had felt like coming home. They’d sat together on the Blackbird’s ship during the retreat from Kigen, the big man speaking of his missing months, his injured leg, finding the street-urchins Hana and Yoshi. Yukiko spoke of the gaijin lightning farm, the sea dragons, the Razor Isles. And at the very end, she’d hung her head and spoken about what was growing inside her, swelling the Kenning beyond anything she’d ever known.
She’d told him who the father was. He hadn’t even blinked. Just wrapped her in one of those fearsome Akihito hugs, kissed her brow, and told her everything would be all right.
He sat beside her now, hair tied back in cornrows. His right shoulder was wrapped in bandages, the Shogun’s tattoo burned from his flesh. Yukiko remembered Daichi doing the same to her, here in this very room. The thought of the old man chained in some chapterhouse filled her heart with flame, her mind with burning images of the boy who’d betrayed them all. Selling out the Kagé leader. Returning to the Guild he’d once fled from. A boy who’d said he loved her.
She sighed, brushing her hand across her eyes.
Gods, Kin, how could you?
She could feel Kaiah circling high overhead, the female thunder tiger delighting in the rumbling storm. Buruu was curled up on the landing outside, watching her with wide eyes. Anxiety written in the sway of his tail, the tilt of his head. He feared for her.
ARE YOU WELL, SISTER?
Feared for the twins inside her.
She tried to swallow with a mouth dry as dust.
“Yukiko,” Kaori repeated. “Are you well?”
She blinked. Shook her head. “I’m sorry. I’m just tired.”
“We’re all tired. Sleep when you’re dead.”
“I’m fine.” She sat up straighter, tossed the hair from her eyes. “Go on.”
“So,” Kaori said. “We must plan our next steps. With Hiro’s wedding foiled, the alliance between the Tiger and Dragon clan has crumbled. Daimyo Isamu of the Fox clan refused to even attend Hiro’s wedding, so we can assume the Kitsune have no love for the Tigers either. This presents opportunity. An opportunity to purge the Guild from Shima once and for all.”
“We have bigger problems,” Yukiko said. “This Earthcrusher you spoke of will march soon, with Hiro leading the assault. Even if he doesn’t have Aisha to tie him to the Kazumitsu line, fear of this machine might still make the other clanlords swear allegiance. Hiro already has the Phoenix armies at his command, and their Daimyo imprisoned. If the other clans unite with him and march north to the Iishi, we have nothing to throw against them.”
“And the Guild know exactly where we are,” Michi said softly. “The betrayer will have told them.”
The puppy climbed off the girl’s lap, began snuffling at the corner.
Yukiko nodded, swallowing bitter rage. “We have to assume Kin told them everything. This forest won’t hide us anymore. I think we should seek permission from the Fox Daimyo to move to Yama city. They have a fortress there, at least. A fleet. An army.”
“You asked us to place our faith in strangers before,” Kaori said. “Look where it led us.”
“… Are you saying Daichi’s capture is my fault?”
“I’m saying my father is in Guild hands because we trusted the strangers you brought to our door. From now on, the Kagé stand alone.”
“We can’t win this alone, Kaori.”
“No? Not even with the mighty Stormdancer at our side?”
“Kaori, I know you’re angry at—”
“My father is a captive because we put faith in your beloved Kin. And your once-lover Hiro is leading an army up here to annihilate us. Forgive me if I don’t place much stock in your judgment, Stormdancer.”
“Kaori, I loved Daichi too—”
“Don’t do that,” Kaori snapped. “Don’t speak about him like he’s already gone.”
Michi’s puppy began dancing in circles and barking at the roof, his tail a blur.
“Tomo!” Michi hissed. “Hush!”
Yukiko and Kaori stared at each other for an age, the crackling fire the only sound between them. Kaori’s stare was almost hateful, finally broken as she turned to Akihito.
“What of the children you brought with you, Akihito-san? The gutter-waifs from Kigen? Two more fighters with the Kenning could be formidable allies, considering we now have two thunder tigers. If one could be taught to ride the female…”
The big man cleared his throat, cast an uncomfortable glance at Yukiko. “I’m not sure we can ask much of them. Yoshi has a bad concussion, probably a fractured skull. Hana is shaken up pretty badly. She’s not sleeping.” He grimaced. “Her eye is hurting something fierce.”
“Her eye is cause for concern,” Kaori nodded.
“It’ll heal,” Akihito shrugged. “She just needs time.”
“No, Akihito-san. Not the one plucked from her socket. The one that glows.”
“Oh.” A nod. “Right.”
“What does your gaijin say about the girl, Stormdancer?” Maro asked. “The way he reacted when he first saw her…”
Yukiko was still staring at Kaori, shock at her words settling in her bones.
“Yukiko,” repeated Maro. “What does your gaijin say?”
She looked out to the silhouette on the landing. Piotr stood gazing into the forest, his wolf skin wrapped against the growing cold. His pipe illuminated the deep scars on his face, his blind eye, dark cropped hair and a pointed beard. Cinnamon-and-honey-scented smoke spilled from pale lips, lightning glinting on the iron brace at his knee.
Buruu was swacking his tail against Piotr’s legs, falling stone-still whenever the gaijin turned to glare. As soon as Piotr turned away, Buruu would swack him again. Piotr had helped them escape the lightning farm, and they both owed him a debt—the thunder tiger was just showing affection in the most annoying way he knew how.
“It’s hard to understand him,” Yukiko said. “Piotr’s Shiman is broken at best. He talks about Hana like she’s … touched or something. I saw a gaijin woman at that farm who had an eye like Hana’s. Same color, same glow. They treated her like a holy woman.”
“You should speak to her,” Michi said. “Hana is strong as iron. And we’ll need to wield every weapon we have against Hiro and his Earthcrusher. Whether we fight here or in Kitsune lands, two stormdancers are better than one.”
Yukiko nodded wearily.
Little Tomo barked again, flaring the headache in Yukiko’s head.
LITTLE WOLF, IF YOU KEEP BARKING YOU WILL BE A LITTLE MEAL.
Burru growled, long and low. Tomo tucked his tail and wisely fell silent.
“There’s also this,” Yukiko said. She produced a battered leather wallet, held it up to the assembled Kagé. “It’s a letter. From the Artificer who fixed Piotr’s leg. He was a captive of the gaijin, taught Piotr how to speak Shiman. If you can call it speaking…”
“A letter from a Guildsman?” Kaori narrowed her eyes. “To whom?”
“Guildsmen do not have—”
“It’s all true, Kaori. What Ayane told us. There is a rebellion within the Guild. Piotr’s Artificer was a member. This is a letter to his lover, a woman named Misaki, asking her to fight on and bring the Guild down.” She removed the worn paper from the wallet, held it up to the firelight. “And I will pray for you, for all the rebels that remain, that you may finish what we have started: Death to the Serpents. An end to the Guild. Freedom for Shima—”
“Death to the Serpents?” Michi frowned.
Kaori’s voice was a low hiss. “My father is being tortured in some Guild hellpit right now because of that spider-legged bitch, Ayane. You expect us to believe anything she said?”
“Lies work best hidden between truths. If there’s a group within the Guild looking to take it down from the inside, if this Misaki exists—”
“You’d have us take up arms beside chi-mongers?” Michi was incredulous.
“You just said we’re going to need every weapon we can get, Michi.”
Akihito frowned, rubbing his scarred thigh with dinner-plate hands. “If the Guild have a rebel faction, some of those we killed in the attack on Kigen could have been…”
“I know.” Yukiko stared at the fire, thinking of the Guild ships she’d destroyed over the Iishi ranges. “They’re just like us. They see the wrong of it. And we’ve been murdering them.”
THERE IS NO MURDER IN WAR.
Buruu’s thoughts rolled over her like storm clouds.
Tell that to the ones they loved.
YOU CANNOT BLAME YOURSELF, SISTER. YOU DID NOT KNOW.
But I know now. We can’t go on like this, Buruu. Whether they can add to our strength or not, we can’t keep killing them. It’s just wrong.
“May I see it?” Kaori held out her hand. Yukiko passed over the letter, watched the older woman scan it with steel-gray eyes, her expression cold as snow.
Tomo barked again, one high-pitched yap that made Yukiko flinch. A curse rose on her lips, and she turned on the dog, pouring into his skull, ready to shout for silence.
… silver razors …
She blinked, pupils dilating.
… red eye watching bad badbad …
Buruu was on his feet, knocking Piotr aside and leaping onto the roof of Daichi’s cabin. Two tons of muscle and beak and talon smashed the eaves to splinters, Maro crying out in alarm, Tomo yelping, the assemblage scattering as the ceiling partially collapsed.
“Maker’s breath, what the hells is the matter with him?” Kaori cried.
Buruu landed amidst shattered timbers, shaking his head like a wolf savaging prey. As the Kagé stood dumbfounded, he opened his beak and spat onto the decking a crumpled ruin of silver clockwork and delicate spider legs, set with a windup key and a glowing red eye.
“Izanagi’s balls,” Michi hissed.
The council gathered around the ruined machine, no more than a handful in size. One of the delicate legs twitched, blue sparks popping as the light in its eye slowly died. Buruu growled, a bass rumble felt deep in Yukiko’s chest. The night fell deathly still.
“What the hells is that?” Kaori hissed.
Michi crouched low to the boards, eyes on the ruined machine. Her terrified puppy leapt into her arms, tail between his legs, eyes fixed on Buruu. The thunder tiger snorted once, tail moving side to side with easy, feline grace.
GOOD EYES, LITTLE WOLF. PERHAPS I WON’T EAT YOU AFTER ALL.
“It’s a Guild surveillance drone,” Michi said. “Kigen palace was full of them.”
Akihito nudged the thing with his boot. “What do they do?”
“What they see, the Guild knows.”
The big man’s eyes widened. He lifted his warclub and pounded it a little flatter.
Michi clutched a terrified Tomo to her breast. “Gods, it’s dead, Akihito!”
The big man shrugged apology, smashed it once more for good measure.
“Where in the hells did it come from?” Yukiko asked.
“Stowed away on the Kurea, maybe?” Akihito looked at the Blackbird.
“Amaterasu’s tits, man.” The captain raised one eyebrow. “Why on earth would the Guild have drones aboard my ship? If they knew I was a Kagé sympathizer, they’d have locked me in a torture cell faster than a Docktown strumpet lifts her kimono when the navy hits town.”
Michi scruffed her puppy’s ears to calm him. “One of the False-Lifers I killed in Aisha’s bedchambers had a thing like this hidden in the orb on her back.” She looked directly at Kaori. “Maybe this one belonged to the False-Lifer you kept prisoner here?”
Yukiko’s heart sank. “Ayane…”
“… She was spying on us,” Kaori breathed. “Even locked in her cell, that bitch could see everything!” She hurled the ruined machine into the firepit, voice rising with fury. “Who knows how long it’s been watching? And you want us to lay with these snakes, Yukiko?”
“Just what? The Lotus Guild has murdered our allies and friends! Butchered thousands of gaijin. If there is a rebellion within it, they’re a pack of cowards, sitting on their hands while this country rushes toward the brink.” Kaori turned to Maro. “Get to the transmission station. We broadcast this news tonight. Name this Misaki openly. We’ll see what the clanlords think when they find out the Guild itself has an insurrection brewing inside it.”
“You can’t do that,” Yukiko said.
“You do not tell me what I can and cannot do, Stormdancer.”
“What do you think the Guild will do if you name her openly? They’ll kill her, Kaori!”
“One less chi-monger. Perhaps her death will spur her comrades into action.”
“Are you serious? Since when were we about murdering innocents?”
“Innocents?” Kaori spat. “Is that a joke?”
“The Guild rebels can be our allies! We’re on the same godsdamned side!”
“Is that so? And what were our ‘allies’ doing while the Guild turned the skies to blood and the rivers to tar?”
“Read the letter! They’ve been working for years, waiting for—”
“Waiting!” Kaori roared. “Waiting while thousands died. Birds dropping from the skies, forests razed, gaijin turned into fertilizer. Waiting for what? An invitation? A perfect moment that would never come?”
“It’s wrong, Kaori. What right do we have to risk their lives?”
“Such a paragon, aren’t you? The mighty Arashi-no—”
“Oh, cut the Stormdancer bullshit!”
Kaori and Yukiko were nose to nose now. Kaori’s hand was on her wakizashi, but Yukiko was yet to touch her katana. The blades were sisters, once wielded by Daichi, given now to his daughter and pupil; women he must have hoped would stand united after he’d fallen.
Buruu growled beside Yukiko, his rising anger mirroring her own. The girl’s fury had also drawn Kaiah, the female arashitora swooping down from the clouds and landing on Daichi’s ruined roof, looking over the rising tempers with narrowed eyes. Lanterns were being lit across the village, sleep-mussed people creeping out their doors to see what the fuss was about. Kaori seemed oblivious, spit flecked on her lips as she continued to roar.
“We are the ones fighting and dying, Yukiko! We are the ones paying the price while these rebels sit in their five-sided slave pits and count the days. Well, now they’ll know what it is to bleed! Like we have bled! Like I have bled!”
“This isn’t about you!”
“This is about all of us! Everyone in this village who called him father or friend.” Kaori’s eyes narrowed to papercuts. “He loved you too. You wear his sword on your hip, yet propose we lie with the dogs who stole him from us? Can you imagine what he’s going through? Presuming they haven’t already boiled him into fertilizer?”
“Godsdammit, this isn’t about Daichi, either! You’re killing our allies! We can work with the Guild rebellion, stronger together than we are alone.”
“There is no ‘we,’ Stormdancer. There is us, and there is them. They deserve everything they get—Kin, Ayane, every one. You want me to weep for these rebels? I spit on them. I damn every one of them to the Yomi underworld! And you shame us all and everything we stand for suggesting we welcome any one of those bastards.”
“You’re so blinded by it,” Yukiko breathed. “The hate in you … Everything you do, everything you say, it comes from the same place. The same moment. My gods, Kaori.” Yukiko backed away, glancing at the woman’s scar. “When Yoritomo cut your face, I’m not sure he realized he’d make you so godsdamned ugly.”
It was an eternity, that moment. Yukiko saw Kaori’s eyes widen, pupils to pinpricks, knuckles turning white on her wakizashi. And then the blade was in her hand, the sharp hymn of steel on the scabbard’s lip, clear and bright. Akihito roared a warning, raising his warclub, Kaori’s strike whistling toward Yukiko’s head.
Yukiko raised her katana, crying out as the swords touched. A burst of sparks and a brittle note of kissing steel, the blow deflected. Kaori stepped forward, kicking Yukiko hard in the chest, sending her tumbling.
Akihito cried warning, his words cutting the air like the steel in Kaori’s hand.
“Don’t, she’s pregnant!”
A roar. Like thunder a few feet overhead, the great booming echo of quaking skies. Buruu stood between Kaori and Yukiko, wings spread and spitting broken electricity. Kaiah landed astride the girl, shielding her with her own body.
Buruu’s eyes were ablaze as he bellowed again, cruel beak open wide, just a hair’s breadth from taking Kaori’s arm off at the elbow, from scooping her insides out and spraying them across the village square before the children’s terrified stares.
The Kagé closed in, weapons raised, broken lightning reflected in their eyes.
“STOP!” Yukiko screamed.
They felt that scream. All of them. Not just in the air around them, every bird in the canopy shrieking into flight, every hair on every body standing taut and tall and trembling. They felt it in their bones, somewhere old and reptilian at the base of their skulls, surfacing now only in hunger or thirst or lust. The beast inside every one of them.
And it was afraid.
“Stop it,” she said.
Kaori’s chest was heaving, frost tumbling from parted lips. Yukiko rolled out from under Kaiah, sheathed her katana, put one restraining hand on the thunder tiger’s shoulder. Buruu growled so low and deep it felt as if the sky were falling. Thunder crashed overhead a final time, a pale wind rising. And with a single arc of brilliant lightning, it began to rain.
Clear as true glass, cold as ice and stinging with the promise of snow. As if Susano-o had been holding it in his upturned palms for weeks on end, unleashed now in one colossal downpour. The heat amongst the gathering dissipated—water dashed onto a smoldering firepit. But deep inside the coals, fire still raged.
“Pregnant?” Kaori’s voice was barely audible over the deluge.
“… Twins,” Yukiko said.
“Who is the father?”
“None of your godsdamned business.”
Yukiko licked her lips. Said nothing.
“Our would-be Shogun Hiro, perhaps?”
Lightning clawed the skies, turning all to lurid, grisly white.
“To be honest,” Kaori said, “I don’t know which is worse. Either way, it explains much.”
“We’re done.” Yukiko clawed damp hair from her eyes. “I’m gone.”
“Gone?” Akihito stared at her, horrified. “Gone where?”
“Yama.” Yukiko raised her voice, turning to the assembled crowd. “Anyone who wishes to come with me is welcome. I will stand by the rebels of the Lotus Guild. Speak to the Kitsune Daimyo and see if he’ll accept my help. And when the Earthcrusher comes, I’ll stand in its way. But I won’t stand by and be a party to murder. And I won’t stay in this village if that’s what this rebellion has become.”
“Go then,” Kaori spat. “Go raise your bastards amongst your Guild dogs. They’ll be in like company, no matter the name of the traitor you fucked to spawn them.”
Buruu’s roar shattered the shocked still. He took one step forward, floorboards crushed to splinters beneath his talons. Yukiko put out her hand, her face bloodless. The thunder tiger turned and looked at her, tail lashing just once, a spray of glittering droplets spilling between the rain. The girl shook her head, lips pressed into a razor-thin line. The arashitora turned back to Kaori with a snarl that made her flinch. But he moved no closer.
The faces of the assembled villagers spoke of astonishment. Of horror. Of an unraveling deep inside that left them breathless and gutted. A girl stepped forward, no more than a child, tears lost in the thundering rain.
“You can’t go! Stormdancer!”
“I can’t stay,” Yukiko said. “Not like this. The Guild rebels see the wrong in this world we’ve built, and they’ve chosen to fight to make it right. How they fight is none of our business. We’ve no right to expose them, or put their lives at risk. We’re no different from them. We’re no better. As soon as we start thinking we are, we’re just another Shogunate, waiting to happen.
“But you can come. Any of you. All of you.” She turned to the sky-ship captain, standing beneath his impossible straw hat. “Blackbird-san, will you carry them on the Kurea? Anyone who wishes to leave and come with me to Yama?”
“You saved my life. My crew and my ship.” The captain nodded. “If you ask, it is yours.”
As Akihito stepped forward, Buruu and Kaiah turned on him with a snarl. Wings flared, tails stretched behind them like whips. The big man stopped dead, his voice low.
“Yukiko, you can’t do this…”
“It’s done, Akihito. All that remains is for you to pick a side.”
The girl climbed onto Buruu’s back, looked amongst the villagers, the cloudwalkers, this tiny knot of rebellion now unraveling faster than any could have foreseen. A fortress made of clay, crumbling to the tune of falling rain.
“All of you,” she said.
Thunder bellowed overhead.
Copyright © 2014 by Jay Kristoff
Excerpted from Endsinger by Jay Kristoff. Copyright © 2015 Jay Kristoff. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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