Discover what it means to be an animal wife in this exclusive look at EMPRESS OF ALL SEASONS!
In the world of Emiko Jean‘s Empress Of All Seasons, there are humans who rule the land and there are yōkai, supernatural creatures that the emperor seeks out and enslaves.
Mari is an animal wife– a human-appearing shapeshifter yōkai hiding deep within the empire with one goal: Go out into the world, marry well, then steal their husbands’ fortune to bring back to their community.
Mari has been tasked with the biggest challenge of all animal wives. She must go to the imperial city and be the one girl to conquer the often deadly seasonal rooms in the Palace of Illusions, winning the hand of the reluctant Prince Taro and his vast fortune along the way. Can Mari cheat death and bring a royal fortune to her people? Or is she meant for more?
You’re probably asking yourself how Mari got involved in this extreme battle to rule, especially since her yōkai status puts her life in even more danger. We have an exclusive excerpt thanks to HMH Teen that gives a detailed look at Mari’s relationship with her mother and her unique yōkai community, all of which are major factors in her impending fate.
Take a look!
It seemed like any other morning. Tami puttered around, scooping rice from an iron pot into an amber glazed bowl. Sensing her daughter’s presence, she glanced over her shoulder. “I see you slept as poorly as I did,” she said, her gaze sweeping over Mari’s pale face, half-moon shadows under her eyes.
Mari made a noise of agreement as she settled into a sitting position at the low table. The room smelled of boiling rice and fire. Mari continued to track her mother’s movements. She was a study in serenity. Mari didn’t like it.
Remember, she is an accomplished actress. She fools men into love. How hard would it be to fool her own daughter?
From a blue porcelain jar, Tami dug out strips of pickled ginger. “You need to bring Hissa her gifts. They should have been delivered yesterday.” Two packages sat in the corner. Mari had passed Hissa’s house last night on her way home. Already, bereavement gifts littered her front porch. The parcels were wrapped twice in stiff washi paper and tied with twine, and would most likely contain coins or incense. There were also silver bowls overflowing with persimmons, pears, apples, and peaches. Fruit was the food of grief. Even in death, sweetness would be found. Her friend would be allowed to mourn forty-nine days and no more, just enough time to recover from childbirth. Then she was expected to venture back into the world and find another man with a fortune. Mari’s pulse dulled at the thought.
Tsuma’s survival depended on new life. New female life. Once an Animal Wife bore a girl, her duty was complete. She was celebrated. Revered. Most importantly, she could retire, raising her daughter in the quiet solitude of their mountain village.
The last baby girl was born five months ago. Yuka’s daughter, Mayumi, was beautiful, with a round face, pink cheeks, and the longest eyelashes Mari had ever seen. All the wives doted on her. Mari would look at Mayumi and wonder, Is this all there is? Marrying men, stealing their fortunes, and having babies?
Tami slid a steaming bowl of rice topped with pink ginger and black sesame seeds in front of Mari, then sat down opposite her. What game is she playing? Clearly, her mother didn’t want to discuss the previous evening. So be it. I can act as well. Coolly, Mari reached for her hashi. A wooden trunk rested just under the window. “Is that new?” she asked, holding the chopsticks with a bite of rice near her mouth.
Her mother smiled, and Mari had a sudden sinking feeling. “It’s for your trip.”
She blinked. “My trip?”
“Yes. The competition begins in two weeks. It will take you at least a week to travel to the Imperial City. I thought to keep you here for another few days. But in light of recent events . . .” Tami shrugged. “You will depart tomorrow.”
A tremor started in Mari’s fingers, snaked its way down her spine. She’d known she would have to leave soon, but not having time to say goodbye? Now she understood: this was her punishment for running from Tami, for staying out all night. Tami smiled serenely as she continued sipping her tea. Cold. Calculating. Cruel. This was her mother’s true nature.
Tami chuckled. “You think I don’t know about him?” Her derisive laughter faded; her fine eyes narrowed. “You think the Son of Nightmares will take you away from here?”
Mari lowered her gaze. An angry flush crept up her cheeks. She hadn’t ever considered that option. She only knew what she didn’t want. She did not want to marry. She did not want to go to the Palace of Illusions. She did not want to bear baby after baby in hopes of having a girl. To all this, there was a single antidote. Freedom. That is what I want. A life without obligation, without expectation.
“You have nothing to say?” Tami spat. “You are a disobedient child, an ingrate.”
A woman’s worst trait is her temper, Tami had advised Mari. But white-hot anger beat in Mari’s chest. She would most likely die in the competition and never see Tsuma or her mother again. Why measure her words any longer? Why play the part of obedient daughter for one more second? Why pretend? Lip curling, Mari growled, “I may be a disobedient ingrate, but that is far better than what you are! You are a child killer. Two of your own boys you’ve put in the river, and how many others? And now you sacrifice your own daughter.” Her hands, her voice, shook. Though she knew it wasn’t true. The boys didn’t die in the river. Her mother didn’t know that, however. And Mari used that information like a weapon.
Tami’s eyes widened, and she leaped across the table. Rice, tea, pink ginger, and hashi scattered across the tatami mats. Thwack. Mari’s head whipped with the force of her mother’s palm. Her mouth tasted of blood.
“You think you know everything,” her mother said, voice raspy and raw. Tears shimmered in Tami’s eyes.
She never cries.
Tami wrapped her arms around herself, a shaking shield. “But you know nothing of sacrifices. You do not know what it is like to cast your sons into the river. You do not know what it is like to have a daughter and finally think your life has begun. Or what it is like to watch that daughter grow, to receive pitying glances when her plainness becomes evident and her beast remains all but hidden. Even though you think she is the most beautiful thing in the world.” Her mother rocked. Mari’s anger deflated, and in its wake, numbness set in. Words tumbled from Tami’s mouth, tiny boulders that shook the foundation of Mari’s world. “You do not know what it is like to have the Animal Wives whisper about your child. Mari must be sent away; she is of no use to us; she is not beautiful; she has only a partial beast; she is not one of us, they told me.”
A thickness built in Mari’s throat.
Her mother continued, undaunted; her eyes dulled, and her hands opened in front of her. “Don’t you see? The training, the promise of an imperial fortune—it was the only thing I could think of to convince them. It was the only way I could keep you.”
Mari’s mouth parted, but no sound formed. Tami gathered herself and strode from the room. At length, Mari rose too. The weight of her mother’s confession slowed her movements. She picked up the overturned bowl and teacup and swept up the sticky rice and ginger from the floor. Hissa was right. Animal Wives were cursed. Mari’s chin trembled, but she did not allow herself to cry. I am an accomplished actress too.
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In a palace of illusions, nothing is what it seems.
Each generation, a competition is held to find the next empress of Honoku. The rules are simple. Survive the palace’s enchanted seasonal rooms. Conquer Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall. Marry the prince. All are eligible to compete—all except yōkai, supernatural monsters and spirits whom the human emperor is determined to enslave and destroy.
Mari has spent a lifetime training to become empress. Winning should be easy. And it would be, if she weren’t hiding a dangerous secret. Mari is a yōkai with the ability to transform into a terrifying monster. If discovered, her life will be forfeit. As she struggles to keep her true identity hidden, Mari’s fate collides with that of Taro, the prince who has no desire to inherit the imperial throne, and Akira, a half-human, half-yōkai outcast.
Torn between duty and love, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance and forgiveness, the choices of Mari, Taro, and Akira will decide the fate of Honoku in this beautifully written, edge-of-your-seat YA fantasy.