The court was crowded in honor of the Emperor’s birthday. Mei Min was seated with the other generals, rather than the harem, an honor she would ordinarily have treasured. Today, though, she needed to be near her Five Small Swords, the wives-turned-secret-guards she had been training, because they needed to assassinate someone.
Mei Min and Jia Fen had overheard Duke Zhongshun bragging about his planned coup: he would strike at the party. They didn’t dare tell anyone – they were mere women, and being Imperial wives and secret warriors made their motives especially suspect. The Five Small Swords were the only ones who knew of the impending danger.
But it was too risky to wait for the Duke to strike. He wouldn’t attack personally – he’d have hired an assassin, or bribed guards – but he couldn’t issue orders if he was dead. All six knew the risk of killing a nobleman with such minimal proof, but the life of their Emperor depended on their success; their honor, and their lives, would depend on his mercy.
Mei Min’s gaze darted between the crowd and her Swords. Their smiles were appropriately demure, though slightly strained. Jia Fen caught her eye with the flutter of a fan. Mei Min followed the gesture and spotted the Duke, deep in conversation.
She excused herself from the generals and made her way across the room, avoiding eye contact with the Five Small Swords even though they were watching for her signal. She hadn’t told them this was her ideal outcome: striking alone, and bearing the consequences alone, for their sake.
She slid a dagger from her sleeve as she closed in, each step a prayer for success.
Four guards had left their posts and surrounded the Emperor’s dais. Mei Min was too far away to act. She could only watch as five girls rose like vipers from their seats and struck.
They had surprise on their side, but they also had skill that could only be learned from the Guardian of Heaven herself. Mei Min seized the Duke, holding her knife to his throat, forcing him to watch as her secret guard defended their Emperor.
They were efficient: three men were killed and the fourth dropped his sword when the remaining Imperial guard surrounded him. The Emperor rose, his face a stony mask of fury. The frantic crowd quieted.
“Here is the perpetrator, Majesty,” Mei Min called, forcing the Duke forward. “There are many witnesses to his treason, including these humble wives.”
He nodded slowly. She was his fourth wife and one of his most honored generals – he trusted her. Hopefully that trust extended to the consorts who had transformed from meek wives to skilled warriors in the blink of an eye.
But before he could speak, Jia Fen fell to her knees. Deep red bloomed across her pale blue robes. The other girls surrounded her, but she reached past them towards Mei Min. By the time she reached her side, though, her friend’s spirit was gone. Her sightless eyes gazed up at the gilded ceiling.
The Small Swords wept. Even Mei Min, who had seen countless comrades die on the battlefield, felt hot tears in her throat. She hardly noticed the guards dragging the Duke away.
The Emperor was safe. And Mei Min’s worst fear had come true.
“She will be honored,” the Emperor said gravely. “Her sacrifice will be remembered.”
Mei Min remembered Jia Fen’s words, uttered only when too much drink gave her the courage: They will forget us.
“Will she?” The agonized words left her throat unbidden. The crowd murmured, stunned.
She stood and faced the Emperor. “We are but women, Your Majesty – will we really be remembered?”
He folded his arms. “You saved my life, so I will grant you a request. What is it you wish for her?”
“A statue,” she said simply. “The same as you’d give any man who served you so honorably.”
He nodded. “It is granted. ”
Mei Min bowed. “You honor us, your Majesty.”
The court buzzed like a disturbed beehive. The Swords on the dais were silent, though, as guards came to bear Jia Fen’s body from the hall. Mei Min knelt, touching the girl’s hand. Many words came to mind, but none of them seemed fitting – she was a soldier, after all, far more skilled with the sword than the pen.
But the other Swords were watching her, so she made a promise, as much to them as to Jia Fen: “They will remember.”