Recently, a reader asked me point blank whether Sister Shi Hua would survive until the end of the Justice series.
I want to say I do my best to avoid the Bury Your Gays trope for the sake of the trope. That doesn't mean people aren't going to die, because let's face it, these folks are in a war whether they like it or not. People die in wars.
But to answer the reader's question since I'm sure others have the same question, yes, Shi Hua survives. That doesn't mean she won't have to make more compromises regarding her sexuality along the way though.
And if any of this discussion is surprising or shocking to you, you might want to reread the first seven books.
We retreated to the Temple of Light so Shi Hua had a chance to rest in her own bed before we attempted to contact Biming. I sent Gina and Elizabeth back to Balance along my winnings from tonight’s Mill tournament.
My fellow justice joked she would keep the bag of money. To which, her future chief warden threatened to resign because she couldn’t work with a dishonest justice. Neither of them realized I planned to buy farewell gifts for both of them before they left Orrin. In fact, I’d already placed the orders with the smiths under contract with our Temple.
As for the rest of my winnings, I just hoped I’d live long enough to figure out what to do with the money. I was so used to the order of Balance taking care of my immediate needs. It hadn’t occurred to me to spend anything. Well, beyond my basic stipend with which I bought treats on Bakers Street.
Balance help me, I hadn’t even been able to do that for the past year. Not with the rash of attempts on my life since I was sentenced to the Balance seat of Orrin. My chief warden put his foot down when it came to me even thinking about leaving Balance without an escort. With closing the tunnels beneath Orrin, I couldn’t even sneak out any more.
Meanwhile, the ambassador had a lively…discussion with Sisters Yin Li and Shi Hua in their own language I made an effort to ignore until I heard my name. Quan finally took Shi Hua’s side and sent Yin Li back to the embassy with the suggestion her son Yin Shang needed her more than Shi Hua did. Yin Li was obviously not happy about his decision, but she bowed deeply before she mounted her horse and left with two of the Jing guards.
While Shi Hua retreated to her bedchamber, Talbert, Ambassador Quan, and I joined Luc in his private dining room. Neither the Jing guards nor our wardens were pleased about being excluded in this discussion, but after tonight’s events, I needed a break from their constant worry rubbing against my mental shields. It was worse than a poorly fitted boot chaffing my heel.
“Po?” I said gently after I removed my cloak and gloves and took my chair. “Is there anything we can do for you?”
He blinked and looked at me from across the table. “I’ve never had the chance to see my nephews.” Out of everything he might have said, family sentiment would not have been my first guess.
“The layers of guards around the imperial palace—” Luc started.
“From what Shi Hua and Anthea describe, this attack was planned.” The ambassador waved his hand. “Maybe years in advance. Quick surgical knife strikes at all the Temple leadership at the same moment. It stands to reason those same targeted attacks hit at our guilds, our schools of philosophy, the nobility, and yes, even the imperial family.”
He closed his eyes. An expression of sheer agony crossed his visage. “I never wanted the throne. Yet, my greatest fear may be coming true.”
“We don’t know what’s happening exactly,” I said.
“I don’t want to be forced back home,” Quan said. “Not this way.”
“Sometimes, we have no choice in our duties,” Luc murmured.
Before I could chide Luc for his insensitivity, his evening assistant Edberth entered with a tray. More Jing black tea from the scent. It was rapidly becoming the only thing to get me through my day. Or in this case, my nights.
Quan wasn’t the only one who feared the news from his homeland. Until I knew the fate of my fellow justice, I would have difficulty sleeping. Nightmares of my own experiences with demons would make sure of that.
“We can plan based on the possible scenarios we face.” Talbert met each of our gazes. “I’m not trying to be morbid. We can expect the best, but we must prepare for the worst.”
Luc chuckled. “That should be your Temple’s motto.”
“The best case scenario is the Temples rally, and they and the schools work with the imperial army to deflect the invasion in Chengzhou.” Quan murmured his thanks to Edberth when the former Light head of household handed the ambassador a cup of tea on a saucer.
“The worst case scenario is the Temple of Death triggered their last resort spells, and the nation of Jing no longer exists,” I said bitterly.
“The Jing Temples of Balance and Death are aware of the techniques you and Chief Justice Elizabeth developed in Tandor, aren’t they?” Edberth continued pouring tea as if we weren’t talking about the potential destruction of the entire Old Continent. Thankfully, he didn’t mention that our idea cost the lives of the surviving Tandoran Death clergy and our own High Sister Bertrice.
Luc looked as surprised at Edberth joining the conversation as I felt.
“Yes, they know,” I said.
“Then trust them to protect the civilians as best they can.” Edberth handed me a cup of tea. “It’s no secret the rest of the world thinks the queens and Temples of Albion and Eire failed, but they saved as many of our ancestors as they could before they activated the last resort spells.”
He continued pouring as if he were discussing the weather. “Not even the Jing clergy would do so without due consideration. I pray matters in your empire do not go so badly they must consider such a drastic course of action, Your Highness. Have faith Light and Knowledge will help them find a way to defeat the demons.”
Those were the most words I’d ever heard Edberth speak at one time. Not even when he served my maternal grandfather Kam as head of household here at the Temple of Light had Edberth been so vocal.
“Wise words, Edberth.” A ghost of a smile crossed Luc’s face as he accepted his own cup of tea. “It’s a pity you decided to cut back on your duties.”
“It was time for Istaqa to take his place within the Temple, High Brother.” Edberth inclined his head. “Shall I prepare any food for you and your guests, sir?” He made a point of looking at me.
I held up my left hand. “No, thank you. I am too worried to eat.”
“What?” Quan mockingly exclaimed. “A day has come where the chief justice of Orrin is, dare I say it, full?”
“You didn’t see the size of the bowl of mashed vegetables she ate at Thief earlier tonight,” Talbert teased. “You’re older now, Anthea. You keep eating the way you do, and you’ll end up as round as Kam.”
“My previous seat didn’t exercise like his beloved granddaughter does,” Edberth said. “You have nothing to fear, Chief Justice. And I believe we still have some almond pastries.”
“Thank you, Edberth,” I said graciously. Istaqa’s obsessive behavior as head of household was starting to make sense. However, there was no real reason to compare himself with Edberth. Nor did the former head of household interfere with Istaqa’s duties. It was simply convenient to keep Edberth on staff in case Luc needed assistance in the middle of the night.
With a start, I realized this was the first time guilt didn’t plague me over the loss of Luc’s left foot.
Edberth smiled at me and left the dining room.
I waited until the door closed behind him before I glared at Talbert. “I may eat like Kam, but I don’t drink wine by the barrel like he did.”
“Which is a good thing,” Luc said dryly. “The Orrin Light accounts show an excess for the first time in years, which is yet another reason Brother Garbhan was sent to spy on me.”
I cocked my head. “Reverend Father Farrell is complaining because you’re not spending enough on wine?”
“More like Lord Aleister is complaining his revenues are down, and the Pana Valley Temple of Vintner reported the losses to their home Temple,” Talbot commented.
“I don’t suppose Light could order extra barrels and trade them, could you?” I asked.
“I suppose I could give them to Talbert for gaming prizes if you would prefer wine to gold,” Luc teased.
“I like the gold.” I shook my head. “Besides, a portion of my winnings will go toward assisting Elizabeth in setting up the new Anacapa Temple of Balance.”
“That should be the responsibility of your home Temple.” Quan frowned. “Surely, your Reverend Mother doesn’t expect you and the Orrin Temple to provide the supplies and coin—”
I held up both hands. “Calm down, Ambassador. I’m using it for gifts I was planning to purchase for Elizabeth and Gina anyway. I can now amend the order with Govind for some additional ornamentation.”
At a knock on the door, Luc automatically reached for his crutches. I couldn’t blame him. My fingers wrapped around the hilt of my dagger, and knives sprang from sheaths hidden beneath Talbert’s sleeves and into his hands.
Warden Tadhg opened the door, and Edberth entered with the tray of pastries he’d promised. Both he and the warden studiously ignored all of us, including Quan, sheathing our weapons.
“Thank you so much, Edberth,” I said as I reached for one. I frowned as I noticed every single pastry had a bite torn out. I looked up at Luc’s evening assistant.
His face heated. “I’m sorry, Chief Justice. All the wardens and the Ambassador’s guards insisted on checking the food.”
Luc rubbed his forehead while Talbert and Quan chuckled. I merely shook my head in weary resignation and bit into the almond pastry. “This tastes like Deborah’s recipe,” I said around the mouthful.
Edberth smiled gently. “Gifting me with a few of Deborah’s recipes was the compromise High Brother Kam and Chief Justice Thalia came to when he tried to hire Deborah away from Balance.”
I swallowed the suddenly hard lump of dough. “Please tell me you are jesting.”
“I would never make light when it comes to a Temple’s kitchen staff, m’lady.” Edberth turned to Luc. “Do you need a fresh pot of tea, High Brother?”
“Yes, please, and an extra cup for Sister Shi Hua,” Luc responded.
Edberth bowed and retreated from the room once again.
I held up the almond pastry. “I have half a mind to spit in Little Bear’s porridge tomorrow morning.”
“They’re only trying to protect us,” Luc said as he reached for a pastry before passing the platter to Talbert.
“No, they didn’t have the manners to ask for some themselves,” I muttered.
“I’ve warned my own wardens to be careful about any refreshment offered,” Talbert said. He passed the platter to Quan, who held up his hand in polite refusal.
We were all quiet as we slowly consumed our treats and sipped our tea. The silence was preferable to acknowledging the uncomfortable truths we faced.
I was licking the last crumb from my thumb when there was another knock on the dining room door. This time, only the men grabbed their weapons. I grabbed another pastry.
Shi Hua entered followed by Edberth with a fresh pot of tea and an extra cup and plate.
Luc opened his mouth, but Shi Hua held up her right index finger.
“With all due respect, High Brother, don’t say a word.” Her finger made sharp slashing motion. “Just don’t.”
“Chao?” I guessed.
She groaned and sat down next to me. “I swear my son knows as soon as I walk into my chambers. Mateqai had put him down to sleep a half candlemark before we returned.”
A trill of part amusement, part resignation, and part sadness from Luc tickled my mind. The Issuran Temple of Light didn’t allow women in their order, though many other nations did. It had been an adjustment for everyone in Orrin to have a priestess of Light, especially for Luc’s staff. On the other hand, the priests and wardens quickly learned to take her seriously, especially when it came to unarmed combat in the practice yard.
Then the breeding edict came down from the home Temples last spring. Having a woman in the Temple had been bad enough. Having a baby like Chao caused more chaos than a demon incursion.
At least, the home Temple of Light hadn’t insisted Luc try to sire another child after the loss of his and Sister Claudia of Love unborn son. It had taken much counseling from Child for Luc and Claudia to deal with their grief. And even more counseling for me since my birth mother murdered the babe in an effort to fuel a demon spell to destroy the city of Orrin.
“Warden Mateqai missed his calling.” I pulled the platter closer to Shi Hua.
She selected one of the pastries, stared at it, and examined the remaining treats. “Why do they all have bites missing?”
“Overprotective wardens,” Talbert, Luc, and I said at the same time.
Edberth set the cup of tea he poured for Shi Hua in front of her. “I’ll bring your eggs and cheese once you finished with your attempt to contact Jing.” He bowed and left again.
“Are you all right, Sister?” Concern was an expression I’d never seen Quan wear, but he was obviously worried about Shi Hua.
She fixed him with a glare. “When you have children, and they poop and spit up on you and never let you sleep, then we will talk, Your Excellency.”
Quan’s left eyebrow rose, but she continued glaring at him. She was hardly a quiet, demure woman. However, she rarely snapped at anyone the way she had tonight.
Luc wouldn’t correct her in front of members of other Temples. Talbert hid a slight smile behind his cup. And technically, I couldn’t reprimand her since I was not her Temple seat. However, I could use one of High Sister Mya’s techniques she used on me after a demon grimoire nearly drove me mad.
I laid my hand on her arm. “We’re all scared of what might be happening in Chengzhou, none more than you and Po. However, lashing out at each other isn’t going to help your friends and family.”
She slumped in her chair. The pastry fell from her right hand, hit the edge of the table, and broke into multiple crumbs before hitting the hardwood floor.
I should have frozen time and rescued the treat. I couldn’t bear the loss of an almond pastry.
“You’re right, Lady Justice,” Shi Hua murmured. “My apologies for my behavior, Your Excellency, High Brothers.”
The Temple bells started tolling. Third Evening. Time to learn the truth.
If they could.