It was late winter when Lin Kairu, Princess Yongan of Yue, arrived at the Borders.
Immediately, Kairu disliked her new home. Unlike Yue, with its bright blue skies and beaches covered in soft white sands, the Borders had skies of ink-washed gray, and hills covered in dead yellow grass. Here, the cold seeped into her bones despite the dwindling snow (dirty, gritty, and nothing like the glittering pearl powder her tutors had said it would be). Even indoors, she would wrap herself in several shawls to ward off the drafts.
Of course, her comfort mattered little to her parents. What mattered was her safety, and that nobody — especially not the enemy — would find her here. The Borders were the edge of the world: an ideal place to hide a princess from a war-torn country, particularly one who was to inherit the throne. Kairu was twenty-one and old enough to understand the stakes involved, yet she couldn’t help but feel angry about her situation.
As a parting gift, Mother had given her a small peach tree. “For protection,” she had said, although Kairu thought it unlikely anything malevolent could be found here in this lonely place. (Father had insisted she take her armor and her sword, just in case, but at least this was a sensible precaution to take.) But Mother had been superstitious since she was young, and because of her, peach trees stood sentry in the palace gardens.
Kairu’s peach tree now sat in its celadon pot, small and forlorn in the dim, anemic sunlight. Although she tended to it faithfully, not a single bud appeared on its branches, and with each passing day it seemed as if it would stay dormant — or worse, languish away, leaving Kairu alone in this terrible place.
Around the end of the third month, when the sun seemed brighter than usual, Kairu wrapped herself in a woolen cloak and ventured outside.
The air still nipped at her cheeks, but tiny green shoots were already peeping out underneath the snow. Seeing them, Kairu thought of the listless peach tree in her chambers. Once it was warmer, she would take it from the castle and transplant it to the garden. Maybe then it would thrive.
In the sunshine, the woods seemed less forbidding than usual. Inky black trees reached into the bright blue sky, with hardly a leaf to be seen, but instead of ice, droplets of water hung on their branches like tiny jewels. As Kairu wandered farther, she heard birdsong overhead, although she could find no birds. It might not be so bad here, she thought.
On her way to find the stream that served as the castle grounds’ border, a flash of crimson caught her eye. Curious, Kairu made her way over and found herself in a tucked-away grove, surrounded by coral-red roses that were, much to her surprise, in full flower. Their fragrance filled the air, lovelier than any perfume.
What sort of roses bloom this early? she thought, plucking an especially beautiful specimen for closer inspection. Its petals were velvety soft, but she was mindful of the thorns that studded the length of the stem.
“That rose isn’t yours to take,” a voice said from behind her, colder than the morning air.
Kairu turned to find herself face to face with a young man, so slight in stature it looked like even the tiniest movement would break his bones. Dark, wild hair framed his unnaturally pale face, his features far from delicate. With that sharp, birdlike nose, it was as if he had been carved with a knife instead of a chisel. The only thing she found pleasant was his eyes, which were wide, long-lashed, and the blue of qinghua porcelain.
“Why?” she asked. “This grove is on castle grounds, and therefore the roses are mine, aren’t they?” Perhaps this was all a misunderstanding — surely everyone in the castle was aware of her presence by now. Still, the retinue of servants was so small that she could go days without speaking to anyone, so she chose to be forgiving.
Yet instead of bowing and offering apologies, the young man only scowled, the movement drawing her attention to a prominent snaggletooth, like a demon’s fang. “They’re not yours,” he said. “And I think I would remember a scrawny, moon-faced, brown thing like you, scurrying about like a rat.”
Kairu was well aware that she was small and spare, face a little too round and skin refusing to whiten despite an endless supply of hats and creams. “Whether or not you find me beautiful has nothing to do with the matter at hand,” she said.
“Either way,” replied the young man, “you’ve taken something that doesn’t belong to you, and you must leave something in its place.”
“You want me to pay for one rose?” Kairu asked, incredulous.
The young man held out a hand. “I’d take a kiss, if you were prettier,” he said, his lips twisting into a cruel smirk.
Speechless, Kairu gaped at him. Then she reached up and pulled out her silver hairpin, hair spilling in a thick mass down her back as she dropped it in his palm.
“That should buy all of your roses,” she said, and then stalked away before he had a chance to answer.
When Kairu went to the castle garden the next day, everything was still merely stirring from its slumber, from the tiny leaves on the hedges to the tight garnet buds on the trees. Even in Yue, where the days were much warmer, roses didn’t bloom until late spring at the earliest. And though Kairu found rosebushes in the garden, they, too, were still dormant.
More curious than ever, she returned to the grove. She’d consulted the maps: the grove was located on castle grounds without a doubt, and she had yet to see the stream that served as a border. She brought the little peach tree along, covered to keep off the chill — if that young man tended the roses, maybe he could help her.
No sooner had she approached one of the rosebushes than the young man appeared, angrier than before. “You again!” he growled. “What are you doing here?”
“Don’t worry,” said Kairu, “I’m not here to take any more of your roses.”
“Then leave. You’re not allowed here.” He tried to seize her arm, but she snatched it out of the way.
“I am, actually,” Kairu said. “I checked the maps, and this is on the castle’s property. But I have a more pressing matter at hand. Do you tend these roses?”
The young man’s anger faded some, replaced by confusion. “I…I guard them. I keep them from harm. And thieves.” He threw a pointed look at Kairu.
“You care for them, then,” Kairu said.
He nodded. “Why are you asking me this?” he asked, warily.
Locking eyes with him, Kairu replied, “This tree is from my homeland.” She showed him the covered celadon pot. “I’ve tended it as best I can, but it hasn’t been doing well since I’ve come here. I thought you might know a thing or two about how plants grow here, with the way your roses are.” She gazed up at him innocently. “Unless I’m mistaken?”
The young man blinked once, twice, and then snorted. “If I do this for you, will you stay out of the grove?”
“Of course,” said Kairu, setting it on the ground. “I’ve been watering it and putting it in front of the window that lets in the most light, but it’s still like this. I’m afraid it might even be dead.”
Crouching, the young man undid the wrapping and inspected the tree’s branches with a surprisingly gentle touch, as though he were handling spun glass that would crack with the merest breath. “Is everything from your country as small and brown as you are?” he muttered.
“So you agree it’s not doing well, then,” said Kairu, brushing aside the insult. “I don’t know what else to do until it gets warm enough.”
“Put it outside.”
“And let it die?” Kairu asked, incredulous.
“No,” he snapped. “Bring it inside at night to keep it warm, if you must. But it’s clearly not getting enough light in that dank place. I’m surprised you haven’t killed it by now.”
Kairu bit the inside of her cheek to keep from saying something regrettable. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll do as you say.”
The young man harrumphed, getting back to his feet. “I’ve no further dealings with you, then,” he said. “Take that sickly thing and get out of my sight — it makes my skin crawl.”
Finally, the fraying threads of Kairu’s temper snapped. “This ‘sickly thing’ is a precious reminder of my home,” she replied sharply. “It is my only companion in this strange country, and I won’t have you insulting it in my presence!”
When her answer was nothing but stunned silence, she pressed on. “I don’t know when I’ll be able to return. Perhaps my father might summon me back home this summer, or perhaps he’ll wait for a few years. There is a possibility,” she said, voice poisonously sweet, “that I may not have a home at the end of all this. It’s always hard to tell when it comes to war.”
Seeing him blanch, Kairu had the strong temptation to step closer, put her lips to his ear, and whisper to him of village after village razed to the ground, smoking days after the enemy had sacked them; of a soldier bleeding out in her arms while she screamed herself hoarse for a medic; of Father telling her the enemy was closing in; of the gray hairs threading like cobwebs through his topknot as he told her, “If you die in this war, Yue is lost.”
Instead, she picked up the little peach tree, cradling its pot in her arms. “I won’t be in your grove again,” she said. “Thank you for your help.”
Then she walked back to the castle, fuming with every step she took.
Once planted in the garden, the peach tree began to flourish, little by little. By the fourth month it had stopped drooping, and by the end of the fifth month tiny leaves had appeared on its branches.
As for Kairu, she stayed out of the woods and the grove, keeping to the castle garden. There were plenty of wonders for her, from lilacs with their heart-shaped leaves to the fruit orchards that were her peach tree’s new home. Kairu would often wander among the apple trees, settling underneath them and dozing under their cool shade. For a time, this was enough to keep her mind off the grove, the roses that grew there, and their ill-tempered keeper.
Then, one summer day, her curiosity got the better of her, and she decided to explore the woods. They’re on the castle grounds, she thought. Who is anyone to keep me from them, so long as I don’t go beyond the stream? She slipped out of the castle, a dagger in her skirts in case she encountered the young man once more. There was also a chance that he might have friends who were more skilled in combat, and Kairu wasn’t about to take them on unarmed.
By the time she reached the stream, it was a welcome sight to behold, for her clothes stuck to her skin with sweat. The water was delightfully cool, and so clear she could see the rocks lining the streambed as she took her slippers off to dip her feet. Overhead, the trees provided a soothing canopy from the sun’s heat, although the leaves still let some light through, reflecting off the water’s surface like a gem. This wasn’t Kairu’s beloved sea, but even so, here in these woods she felt a deep contentment.
The sudden sound of snapping branches startled her, and her hand went straight for her dagger. “Who’s there?” she called, glancing over her shoulder.
The young man clambered out onto the bank, his hands held up in surrender. “I only want to talk,” he pleaded, but Kairu didn’t lower her dagger.
“Why should I believe you?” she asked.
“Because I came here to apologize,” the young man replied, and while Kairu was still suspicious, his contrite demeanor gave her pause. “May I join you?”
Kairu gestured at a spot with her free hand. “Over there.” She kept her dagger trained on him as he sat cross-legged on the ground, his hands still in the air.
“I’m sorry for my behavior when we first met,” he said. “But the grove-”
“I haven’t been in the grove,” Kairu stated matter-of-factly, “although I’ve consulted the maps and they clearly show that it’s on castle grounds.”
He shook his head. “It’s…it’s complicated,” he said, running a hand through his tousled hair. “Too complicated to explain. But it doesn’t excuse how I acted toward you, and it won’t happen again.”
“Why the change of heart?” she asked, with a skeptical tilt of her head.
The young man straightened. “I know what it’s like, being sent away,” he said. “My father did the same to me, years ago, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Does he find me a kindred spirit, then? Kairu wondered. “Did he do so for your own safety?” she asked.
His laugh was bitter and brittle. “Nothing so kind,” he said. “He decided to stop and rest in these woods while we were riding one day. When I woke up, he was gone.”
Kairu lowered her dagger but did not sheathe it. “You seem to have done well for yourself,” she said — he wore simple but tailored garments, made from good cloth without any tears or patches.
“I am well kept,” the young man said, but despite his smile, the bitterness lingered in his eyes, like tea that had been steeped for too long. He changed the subject before Kairu could ask anything more. “How is your tree?”
“Doing well,” Kairu said. “I’ve put it out in the garden to get more sunlight. There are leaves now, although they’re small. Still, it’s much better than when I first arrived. Without your help, it would be dead by now.”
There was no bitterness in the young man’s smile this time — in fact, Kairu found it surprisingly charming. “I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “You said it was from your country?”
“Yes,” she replied. “My mother gave it to me, for protection.”
“Protection? Why would a tree protect you?” He gestured at Kairu’s dagger. “You seem like you can protect yourself well enough.”
Sighing, Kairu smoothed her pale pink skirts. “My mother is superstitious,” she explained. “When I was born, she ordered peach trees planted in the gardens and a branch hung over my cradle, to keep away demons.”
“Has it worked?” the young man asked.
It makes my skin crawl, he’d said, all those months ago. “Well, I haven’t come to any harm yet.” Kairu got to her feet. “Anyway, I must be going.”
“Yes?” Kairu asked, reaching for her slippers.
He took a deep, nervous breath. “You can’t go to the grove,” he began, “but the stream — the stream’s all right. You can come here whenever you like.” A childlike hope shone in his eyes.
Kairu frowned. “I’m curious,” she said. “Why are you being so kind to me all of a sudden? There has to be more to it than similar circumstances.”
Eyes dimming, he looked away. “There were others, before you, who came to the woods,” he said, after a moment’s hesitation. “They said they’d stay, but…” He shrugged, giving her that bitter smile again. “They didn’t.”
Hearing that, Kairu felt a twinge of pity. “Thank you for telling me,” she said.
He nodded. “You’ll come, won’t you, Lady…?”
“My surname is Lin,” Kairu offered. In Yue, given names were for family and close friends.
“Lady Lin, then. My name is Finn,” the young man said, although “Lin” wasn’t pronounced quite right, so it rhymed. “Only Finn, though. I’m no lord.”
“Well, Finn,” Kairu said, sheathing her dagger, “I’m in your care.”
Kairu met Finn at the stream often after that day. At first, she would go because she had nothing better to do, having spent most of the spring in the castle and its garden, but soon she found herself genuinely enjoying his company. Every day when Kairu left, it felt like it was much too soon.
“You say you’ve been living here since your father left you,” she said to Finn one day. “Where, exactly?”
“Oh, nearby,” Finn replied, with a vague wave of his hand. “Nothing as fine as your castle, I’d say, but fine enough for me. Do you still miss your home?”
Kairu nodded. “Every now and then,” she said.
I hope Yue is still the same place I remember, she thought. It had been more than half a year since she’d left, but she still heard Father’s sharp admonishment, cutting off any more protests about being sent away. “You are the next ruler of Yue, Ru’er,” he’d said, using her childhood pet name. “I can’t lose you.”
“I’d like to see that ocean of yours someday,” Finn said, with that open sense of wonder in his voice that made Kairu’s heart beat faster. “I can’t imagine seeing so much water in one place! Enough to swallow these woods?”
“More than enough,” Kairu said with a small smile. “The woods and the castle combined would only be a tiny morsel. That’s one thing I like about it — it’s so vast and endless.”
Finn smiled back at her, flashing that odd yet charming snaggletooth. “It sounds wonderful, you know,” he told her, “seeing so much water in one place. The stream’s the closest thing here.”
“There’s an ocean here, too,” Kairu said. “Haven’t you been there before?” With its gray-blue waters and sharp rocks, it had its own compelling beauty, although it was nothing like hers.
“No,” said Finn. “I haven’t left the woods since my father left me here.”
“Not even to see the castle?” Kairu asked.
Finn shook his head, a brief, needle-sharp flash of pain in his eyes. “Look,” he said. “We’re here.”
In front of them was a dense thicket, heavy with dusky purple berries. Finn plucked one, holding it out to Kairu. “Try this,” he said. “It’s very good.”
The fruit was slightly sandy, but with a delicate sweetness, tasting faintly of lemon and pine needles. Deciding she liked them, Kairu reached for a branch so she could pluck more for herself.
“Wait,” said Finn. “There’s a trick to picking these.” Covering Kairu’s hand with his own, he turned it so that the berries rested in her palm. His skin was a little rough to the touch, but Kairu’s hands were hardly soft, either, after years of holding a sword.
She watched Finn curl her fingers around the berries, tugging them gently from the branch.
“See?” He opened Kairu’s hand, barely touching her fingertips, now dusted with lavender powder. “That way you don’t crush them.”
His warm breath stirred a few errant wisps of Kairu’s hair, and all she could do was nod.
One night, when summer was fading into autumn, Finn took Kairu stargazing.
How he’d been able to find her on a moonless night Kairu had no idea, but he navigated the woods with ease, even without the weak light of her lantern. In the darkness, the trees were everything from unnerving to outright frightening, twigs catching on the hem of her tunic like claws.
They stopped at a clearing, where the grass was long and downy. Tugging on Kairu’s wrist, Finn urged, “Lie down. The view’s much better that way.”
The grass tickled her cheeks as she lay on her back. Then all she could see was the vast night sky overhead like she’d never seen it before. In Yue, viewed from her balcony, it was merely a deep blue-black, dotted here and there with pinpricks of light; here, the stars were fat, luminous pearls that glowed in the darkness, so numerous that Kairu thought the sky might burst, spilling its bounty onto the two of them in a celestial windfall. For the first time, she saw the River of Heaven as her tutors had described it to her: a silver mist gleaming against the inky dark night.
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered. “I’ve never really thought much of stars until now. Come to think of it, I’ve never paid the sky much attention unless it’s to watch fireworks or the moon during Mid-Autumn. Why don’t we come back then? We can see the full moon together.”
Finn’s hand wound around hers, squeezing. “That sounds nice,” he said, “but I can’t see it with you, Lady Lin.” There was a catch in his voice, like he was choking back tears.
Kairu turned to face him, but his expression was hard to make out in the lantern’s dim light. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
Finn sat up, pulling Kairu along with him. His hair fell over his face as he clasped both her hands in his own. “I can’t see you anymore after tonight,” he said.
In the flicker of the lantern’s glow, Kairu saw a tear roll down his face. “Remember how I told you about my father leaving me here?”
“A woman in green found me that day,” Finn said, “and she took me to live with her, in a nearby hill. She told me she was the faerie queen, Lady Lin, and that I was hers. I’ve lived there ever since.”
Kairu remembered him saying, “I am well kept,” and the lingering bitterness in his eyes. “Is she angry that you’re seeing me?” she asked.
“No,” said Finn, running his thumb back and forth across Kairu’s knuckles. “She doesn’t even know you’re here.” Swallowing nervously, he gripped her hands hard enough to hurt. “But the faeries — they owe the devil an offering every seven years, for their livelihood, and the faerie queen, she’s chosen me.”
Ice pooled heavily in the pit of Kairu’s stomach. “You’re to be sacrificed?” she asked.
“Yes,” Finn said, “when the harvest season ends.”
“You could escape!” Kairu exclaimed. “I could hide you. You’ve never left the woods, they might not know where to look — ”
Finn shook his head despondently, wiping his face. “I can’t,” he said, and his voice cracked into a sob. “I can’t. The last sacrifice tried to escape, and the queen turned her into a birch tree. I see it every time I come to meet you. I tried to leave once, too, and the faerie queen caught me when I was almost out of her grasp, so she bound me to these woods. Do you know why she has me guarding those roses?” He didn’t wait for Kairu to answer. “She wants me to see the human realm every day, to remind me of how close I came to freeing myself.”
“There has to be a way to get you out of this,” Kairu said.
“It’s impossible,” Finn replied. “Someone would have to claim me on the night of the sacrifice to break the faerie queen’s hold. But nobody would claim me, that’s what the faerie queen said. That’s why I was her choice.”
Kairu asked, very quietly, “What about me?”
“No,” Finn cried, seizing Kairu by the shoulders. “No, Lady Lin, you can’t, the faerie queen’s magic is too powerful for you. I won’t have you risk your life for my sake!”
She took Finn’s hand in hers, interlacing their fingers. “Did I ever tell you I fought in the war that sent me here?” she asked. It was true: she wasn’t a hero, but she’d been able to handle herself on the front lines of battle before Father sent her away.
A small, sensible part told her to get up and leave the woods behind her. What sort of daughter would she be if she threw her life away for someone she’d only known for less than a year? It was hardly the sort of responsible decision for a future empress to make.
But Kairu’s parents had sent her away for her own safety. Finn’s father had abandoned him, and the faerie queen’s reasoning that he wasn’t worth saving infuriated her. How could she leave Finn to such a horrible fate?
I’ll just have to win, she thought, and asked Finn: “Where can I find you when the time comes?”
“I don’t know,” Finn said, “but it’s likely we’ll go along the stream.” He stared at her, terrified. “Do you really mean to go through with this?”
I could say no, Kairu thought. I could go home and wait for Father to summon me back to Yue and treasure the memories we made here until I’m on my deathbed. For a time she didn’t say a word, instead listening to the chirping crickets.
“The faerie queen said nobody would come for you,” she finally said. “She’s wrong. I would, and I mean to.”
“Lady Lin, I — ”
“Kairu. My given name is Kairu.”
“Kairu,” Finn whispered, with such reverence in his voice that it sounded like a prayer. “I don’t deserve your kindness. Not when you’re putting yourself in so much danger.”
The light in Kairu’s lantern was now little more than a weak yellow flicker. “Wait for me, Finn,” she said. “That’s all you have to do.”
She would see this through. She had to.
That night, Kairu couldn’t sleep. For hours she lay awake, mind reeling at the magnitude of the task she’d taken upon herself. The consequences would be disastrous if she failed — not only for herself, but for Finn as well.
This is a battle I chose to fight, she thought. Even if Finn would forgive her for leaving him to the faerie queen’s mercy, his memory would haunt her for the rest of her life.
Kairu heard birdsong outside her window, a sign morning was approaching. Resigned, she got out of bed, dressed, and went to the garden for a short walk.
Finn had told her where she could find him at the end of the harvest season, but that wasn’t enough. Who were the faeries, exactly? What were their strengths and weaknesses? They possessed powerful magic — Kairu knew that much. They were intelligent, considering how Finn had been bound to the woods to prevent his escape.
With so little information, this was going to be a difficult battle, but losing was not an option Kairu was going to accept.
The leaves were already changing to a riot of gold, orange, and russet, despite it only being the ninth month of the year. In better circumstances, the sight would have pleased Kairu, but now it served as a reminder of how little time she had left.
Suddenly she was startled by a sharp cracking sound from the orchards. At first glance, the apple trees appeared undisturbed, but then Kairu saw something strange, right where the peach tree stood: bright pink blossoms, as if it were the height of spring instead of autumn.
When she came closer, she saw her peach tree, no longer a sapling but fully grown and in full bloom. At its roots lay a branch, like an offering. Picking it up, Kairu realized if she sanded and smoothed it properly, she could fashion it into a proper weapon. A sword wouldn’t be much use against faeries, but peach wood…
Mother was right, she realized. She sent the tree to protect me from evil, and that’s exactly what it’s doing.
“Thank you,” she told the tree. “I won’t let your gift go to waste.”
At last, the harvest season came to an end.
Kairu donned her armor, wrapping herself in a deep red cloak that appeared nearly black in the darkness. The peach branch, sanded and polished into a sturdy staff, was strapped to her back. She’d spent the past few weeks reacquainting herself with its use, and now she wielded it as if it was part of her body.
She had left a note in her room, in case she failed and didn’t return. It was an unpleasant thought, but if she died, Father and Mother deserved to know what had happened to her.
The woods were eerily quiet, without even a single hooting owl. Once Kairu reached the stream, she snuffed out her lantern and climbed up a nearby tree to hide. Her heart was pounding in her chest as she steadied herself, ready to strike.
Kairu’s arms and legs began to cramp from staying in the same position for so long. The silence was so overwhelming that she feared it would drown her. She wondered if Finn would ever come, if the faerie queen knew that she was here, lying in wait, and had changed the route.
Suddenly she heard a tinkling sound: chiming bells, she realized, followed by the steady clopping of hooves.
There was the faerie queen, at the head of the procession on a black horse: her golden hair shimmered with a light of its own, a jeweled circlet on her brow. Kairu held her breath as she passed by, but the queen’s cold gray eyes stared straight ahead.
Behind her rode Finn, hollow-eyed and ashen, on a white horse. As soon as he came near, Kairu leapt from her perch, tackling him with both arms around his waist.
He began to change before they even hit the ground, and Kairu found herself holding a python as thick as herself, coiling around her chest and choking the life from her. So this was what he’d meant by the faerie queen’s magic.
Her vision was flickering in and out when the python’s hiss became a roar, and she found that Finn had changed into a lion much more fearsome than the statues guarding Yue’s palace gates. His breath stank of rotting meat, and his sharp claws tore painful gashes into one arm, but Kairu held on anyway. She’d said she would see this through, and she had no intention of wavering.
The lion’s mane glowed orange, and suddenly Kairu felt a searing pain on her arms and chest as she realized she now held a burning ember as long as her forearm. She bit back a howl and tightened her grip. Finn had whispered her name like a prayer when she’d said she would claim him, and she wasn’t going to let him down.
And that was when she remembered the stream, right behind them. Kairu whirled around, rushing to the bank and plunging her arms into the water with a great splash, followed by a hissing louder than the python’s.
What broke the surface wasn’t an ember or a lion but Finn, gasping for air, wet hair plastered to his face, and stark naked. Kairu tore off her cloak, wrapping it around him as he pulled himself out of the water.
“Who are you that would take my tithe?” a voice asked, so high and clear it sent shivers down Kairu’s spine. The faerie queen stood before them, fire in her eyes. A few feet away, still on the path, a courtier held the reins of her horse.
Kairu stood, drawing her staff. “I am Lin Kairu, Princess Yongan of Yue,” she replied, “and I claim Finn for my own.”
“Take off your helmet, child,” the queen said. “Let me see your face.”
Kairu pointed her staff at the faerie queen’s throat, a warning to come no further. The queen’s skin cracked and peeled, blisters bubbling across her collarbone, but her face remained impassive. An alarmed shout rose up from the procession, but the queen held up a hand, and they fell silent.
With one hand, Kairu removed her helmet and dropped it on the ground, glaring at the faerie queen. This was the woman who’d held Finn captive all these years, who had told him he wasn’t worth claiming.
Finn’s wet hands clamped on her shoulders. “Don’t do anything reckless,” he whispered. “You can’t take her on by yourself.”
That doesn’t mean I can’t try, Kairu thought.
The faerie queen peered at Finn. “Do you really think this girl will love you?” she asked him. “How do you know she won’t tire of you, like your father?” She glanced dismissively at Kairu, as if she were a mere ant, then turned her attention back to Finn. “She’s a princess, dear boy. Be realistic now, surely she’d rather have a prince and not some grubby orph — ”
Enraged, Kairu swung her staff in a short, sharp arc, landing a blow to the queen’s temple with a satisfying smack. She heard Finn shout from behind, but the queen was only pushed off balance. Kairu aimed for her knees, and she sprawled on the ground, her hair smoking and black blood streaming down half her face.
“Enough,” Kairu spat. Her wounded arm stung as she pointed the staff at the queen’s throat. “One day, faerie queen, I will be empress, and if I hear of you stealing humans during my rule, my armies will sail across the great sea and destroy every last one of you. Is that clear?”
The queen’s smirk looked more like a grimace. “If I’d known a princess would come for you, armed and dressed for battle,” she told Finn, “I would have turned you into a tree long before her ship set sail.”
The next morning was calm, with a mother-of-pearl sky and rosy pink clouds. Outside, the air had once again grown cool enough for Kairu to wear a shawl as she went to the orchards.
Despite the fact that it was already mid-autumn, her peach tree bore little green fruits. It would be winter by the time they were ripe, given how quickly the colder seasons came around here. But maybe that wouldn’t mean anything to the peach tree, because there was already a new branch growing where the old one had broken off.
Kairu would need to save every pit from those peaches and plant more trees, like Mother had back home. Perhaps she could distribute branches to nearby villages, so they could protect themselves from the faeries as well.
She heard footsteps in the grass and turned to see Finn approaching. “Good morning,” he said shyly.
Kairu smiled. “Good morning. Did you sleep well?”
Finn nodded. “What about you, princess?”
“Kairu is fine,” she said. “I wouldn’t have given you my name otherwise.” She laid a hand on the peach tree’s trunk. “Do you remember this tree?” she asked.
“It’s a very nice one,” said Finn, “but I don’t think I’ve seen it before.”
“When I first showed it to you, you said it made your skin crawl,” Kairu said, her voice teasing. Seeing Finn turn bright red, she hid a giggle.
“This tree?” Finn exclaimed. “It doesn’t feel the same at all. I feel calmer in its presence.”
“I made my staff from one of its branches,” Kairu said. “I don’t think things would have gone so well without its protection.”
Finn’s eyes widened. “You made that yourself?” he asked. “What can’t you do?”
Shaking her head, Kairu said gently, “It served its purpose, that’s all,” as she adjusted her shawl with her good arm. Her injuries weren’t deep, but moving without reopening them was awkward nonetheless.
“Oh, no.” Finn blanched, seeing the bandages around Kairu’s arm, as though he now remembered the struggle. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I never wanted to hurt you.” He reached out to her hesitantly, and then stopped short, as if thinking better of it.
Before Finn could pull away, Kairu clasped her good hand over his. “You weren’t yourself,” she told him. “I have had worse. I’ll be fine.”
“I didn’t think you would come,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t have, if we’d switched places.”
“Of course I did,” she replied. “I promised, didn’t I?”
Finn went quiet for a moment, struggling to find words. “When I saw you last night, in your armor, I…I…” He gathered Kairu in his arms, careful of her injuries, and buried his face in the fall of her hair. “I was so scared you wouldn’t come,” he said. “But you did, and you saved me from her.” He began to weep, tears soaking into the wool of Kairu’s shawl. “Thank you,” he whispered.
Kairu drew back, dabbing Finn’s eyes with her sleeve. “What will you do now?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a bit early for that, isn’t it? I don’t know if my father will want me back, or — ”
“You could stay here, with me,” Kairu blurted out. “And I could take you to see the ocean — the one from my homeland — that is, of course, if you want to?” She clasped her hands together, nervous.
Finn’s eyes lit up, like the starry sky they’d seen together, along with a smile as radiant as the sun’s warmth after a long, cold winter.
“Oh,” he breathed. “Oh, I never thought you’d ask.”
“Is — is that a yes?” Kairu asked.
Finn lifted her up in the air, spinning her round while his laughter bubbled up between them. It was one of the sweetest sounds she’d ever heard.
“Yes,” he said, “yes, I’d go anywhere with you.”
|Mina Li is a Taiwanese-American writer who was born and raised in Michigan. When she is not writing, she likes to take long walks in her neighborhood, weather permitting, to get lost inside her head. More of her work can be seen in the upcoming anthology An Alphabet of Embers. She can found at minasli.wordpress.com and tweets at CodenameMinaLi.|