The Hidden Girl by Ken Liu

It’s my stop on the blogtour for The Hidden Girl and Other Stories and I am pleased to share an extract with you today!

Synopsis

From award-winning author Ken Liu comes his much anticipated second volume of short stories.

Ken Liu’s well-crafted, thought-provoking and award-winning short stories are high water marks of contemporary speculative fiction. This collection includes sixteen of his best science fiction and fantasy stories from the last five years – plus a new novella.

In addition to these seventeen selections, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories also features an excerpt from book three in The Dandelion Dynasty series, The Veiled Throne.

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Extract

Beginning in the eighth century, the Imperial court of TangDynasty China increasingly relied on military governors—thejiedushi—whose responsibilities began with border defense butgradually encompassed taxation, civil administration, and otheraspects of political power. They were, in fact, independent feudalwarlords whose accountability to Imperial authority was nominal.

Rivalry among the governors was often violent and bloody.

On the morning after my tenth birthday, spring sunlight dapples the stone slabs of the road in front of our house through the blooming branches of the pagoda tree. I climb out onto the thick bough pointing west like an immortal’s arm and reach for a strandof yellow flowers, anticipating the sweet taste tinged with a touchof bitterness.

“Alms, young mistress?”

I look down and see a bhikkhuni. I can’t tell how old she is—her face is unlined but there is a fortitude in her dark eyes thatreminds me of my grandmother. The light fuzz over her shaved head glows in the warm sun like a halo, and her grey kasaya isclean but tattered at the hem. She holds up a wooden bowl in herleft hand, gazing up at me expectantly.

“Would you like some pagoda tree flowers?” I ask.

She smiles. “I haven’t had any since I was a young girl. Itwould be a delight.”

“If you stand below me, I’ll drop some into your bowl,” I say, reaching for the silk pouch on my back.

She shakes her head. “I can’t eat flowers that have been touched by another hand—too infected with the mundane concerns of this dusty world.”

“Then climb up yourself,” I say. Immediately I feel ashamed at my annoyance.

“If I get them myself, they wouldn’t be alms now would they?” There’s a hint of laughter in her voice.

“All right,” I say. Father has always taught me to be polite to the monks and nuns. We may not follow the Buddhist teachings,but it doesn’t make sense to antagonize the spirits, whether they are Dao- ist, Buddhist, or wild spirits who rely on no learned masters at all. “Tell me which flowers you want; I’ll try to get them for you without touching them.”

She points to some flowers at the end of a slim branch below my bough. They are paler in color than the flowers from the rest of the tree, which means they are sweeter. But the branch they dangle from is much too thin for me to climb.

I hook my knees around the thick bough I’m on and lean back until I’m dangling upside down like a bat. It’s fun to see theworld this way, and I don’t care that the hem of my dress isflapping around my face. Father always yells at me when he seesme like this, but he never stays angry at me for too long, on account of my losing my mother when I was just a baby.

Wrapping my hands in the loose folds of my sleeves, I try to grab for the flowers. But I’m still too far from the branch she wants, those white flowers tantalizingly just out of reach.

“If it’s too much trouble,” the nun calls out, “don’t worry about it.

I don’t want you to tear your dress.”

I bite my bottom lip, determined to ignore her. By tightening and flexing the muscles in my belly and thighs, I begin to swingback and forth. When I’ve reached the apex of an upswing Ijudge to be high enough, I let go with my knees.

As I plunge through the leafy canopy, the flowers she wants brush by my face and I snap my teeth around a strand. My fingers grab the lower branch, which sinks under my weight and slows my momentum as my body swings back upright. For a moment, it seems as if the branch would hold, but then I hear a crisp snapand feel suddenly weightless.

I tuck my knees under me and manage to land in the shade of the pagoda tree, unharmed. Immediately, I roll out of the way, and the flower-laden branch crashes to the spot on the ground Ijust vacated a moment later.

I walk nonchalantly up to the nun and open my jaw to drop the strand of flowers into her alms bowl. “No dust. And you only said no hands.”

In the shade of the pagoda tree, we sit with our legs crossed in the lotus position like the buddhas in the temple. She picks the flowers off the stem: one for her, one for me. The sweetness islighter and less cloying than the sugar dough figurines Father sometimes buys me.

“You have a talent,” she says. “You’d make a good thief.” I look at her, indignant. “I’m a general’s daughter.”

“Are you?” she says. “Then you’re already athief.” “What are you talking about?”

“I have walked many miles,” she says. I look at her bare feet: the bottoms are callused and leathery. “I see peasants starving infields while the great lords plot and scheme for bigger armies. I see ministers and generals drink wine from ivory cups and conduct calligraphy with their piss on silk scrolls while orphansand widows must make one cup of rice last five days.”

“Just because we are not poor doesn’t make us thieves. My father serves his lord, the Jiedushi of Weibo, with honor andcarries out his duties faithfully.”

“We’re all thieves in this world of suffering,” the nun says.“Honor and faith are not virtues, only excuses for stealing more.”

“Then you’re a thief as well,” I say, anger making my face glow with heat. “You accept alms and do no work to earn it.”

She nods. “I am indeed. The Buddha teaches us that the world is an illusion, and suffering is inevitable as long as we do not see through it. If we’re all fated to be thieves, it’s better to be a thief who adheres to a code that transcends the mundane.”

“What is your code then?”

“To disdain the moral pronouncements of hypocrites; to be true to my word; to always do what I promise, no more and noless. To hone my talent and wield it like a beacon in a darkening world.”

I laugh. “What is your talent, Mistress Thief?”

“I steal lives.”

The Hidden Girl and Other Stories is out now in gorgeous hardback and you can buy it here

My thanks go to Amber Choudhary and Midas PR for the invitation to the blogtour and Head of Zeus for my stunning finished copy of the book.

If you liked my post, please do check out my others, and also the other stops on the blog tour (see below).

Until next time!

@mrscookesbooks

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Published by Mrs Cooke

👩🏽‍💻📚I read and shout 📣 about books 👯‍♀️owner of 2 book-loving Littles 🌳village dweller ✍️stationery fiend 🍸gin enthusiast 📩DM for reviews etc 💌

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