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Meet the #FearlessWomen: Barsalai Shefali from The Phoenix Empress

Written by Lisa Ickowicz

I am Barsalai Shefali, and I have earned that name twice over.

Barsalayaa Shefali is a woman of few words, but she is fierce, loyal and compassionate. Born to a Qorin family—a tribe of nomadic peoples within the Hokkaran Empire—her early years are filled with riding horses and learning to shoot a bow and arrow. Her life is not easy or privileged. The Hokkarans hate her dark horse-like looks and her own Qorin people dislike her because they think she is too pampered. Growing up Shefali only has one real friend: O Shizuka.

Shefali has her destiny intertwined with Shizuka’s from birth. Shefali’s mother is a dedicated servant and loyal friend to Shizuka’s mother. The girls grow up together and though they live across the empire’s borders they keep in contact through letters. Shefali can’t read or write Hokkaran, but she painstakingly learns—perfecting her calligraphy to impress Shizuka. The friendship between the two girls grows into a love between two women.

In , Shefali is returning to Fujino to see O Shizuka after eight years in exile. But she soon finds that she is not returning to her beloved wife, but rather the Hokkaran Empress—a woman whose habits she does not know. Adorned in empress robes, with a painted white face, and glassy eyes, Shizuka is not the same woman Shefali left behind. Shizuka’s love of her ink bowl and calligraphy has been replaced by an obsession with getting drunk on wine. And it’s in that drunken state that Shefali finds her when they reunite. Instead of showing anger or resentment towards Shizuka, Shefali scoops her into her arms. She lays with her and calms her night terrors with a song. She is and always has been Shizuka’s rock. Shefali has endured trials the most superstitious would not believe in order to return to Hokkaran court and claim her rightful place next to Shizuka. Yet she still willingly wants to carry the weight of her wife’s troubles.

“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Shizuka says. “You carry so much already. My suffering is a grain of rice, and yours is a boulder.”

 Shefali kisses her on the forehead.

 “You didn’t ask,” she says. “And suffering is not a contest. Losing a limb, losing a horse, losing a friend—the pain’s different, but the crying’s the same.”

 Shefali constantly balances her role as a loyal, caring wife and a fierce, fearless warrior. But when a familiar demonic force grows closer, and tragedy befalls her, Shefali must do all she can to save herself, Shizuka, and the entire empire.

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