Book Riot’s Top 8 Adult Dragon Fantasy Books
Lose yourself in this fusion of Asian and Western fantasy, which critics extol as “wonderfully opulent,” “Breathtaking,” and “Unique.”
Only the lost magic of Dragon Songs can save the world. Only an awkward girl with the perfect voice can rediscover it.
The Dragon Singers of old summoned typhoons and routed armies, liberating mankind from the orcs before fading into legend. Now, with the world again facing a new cataclysm, the power of music stirs in Kaiya, a naïve misfit with the perfect voice.
Without a master to guide her, she must rely on Hardeep, a disgraced foreign paladin, to help awaken her latent magic. His motives might not be entirely noble. When he leads her to the fabled Dragon Scale Lute, which only a Dragon Singer can wield, it is up to Black Lotus Clan to intervene.
Because the instrument’s fell power can save the world…
Or destroy it.
PROLOGUE: The Dragon Scale Lute
With the echo of the Dragon Scale Lute fading around him, Avarax coiled his hind legs and vaulted skyward. He stretched out his wings to catch an updraft. Cool wind caressed his scales as he climbed higher. After three hundred years imprisoned in the pathetic body of a human, it felt good to be a dragon again.
Down below, in the sparkling city of domes and spires and canals, thousands of bronze-skinned humans pointed at him and screamed. The world thought he had slumbered for a millennium, telling stories about how a honey-toned slave girl sang him to sleep with a Dragon Song. He had let them believe that tale, to prevent enemies from tracking him down.
He belched sparks with his laugh. Now, it was time to announce his return with a blast of his fiery breath. It would immolate a million people, and the city. More importantly, it would destroy the artifact that could again force his unwilling transformation. He filled his lungs with a deep breath and exhaled in an ear-splitting roar.
Not even sparks. Avarax’s breath remained locked away. He wrapped his consciousness around the gemstone in his gullet, a dragon’s source of almost infinite energy. Its pulsations pounded like an angry river against a dam.
Below, the Dragon Scale Lute’s strings moaned again, vibrating in answer to his roar. Its wail swelled, scattering the pitiful humans like a disturbed rats’ nest. Then, with a disjointed pop, the sound ceased.
CHAPTER 1: Not-So-Chance Meetings
If marriage were a woman’s grave, as the proverb claimed, sixteen-year-old Kaiya suspected the emperor was arranging her funeral. Entourage in tow, she shuffled through the castle halls toward the garden where General Lu waited. Given his notorious dislike of the arts, the self-proclaimed Guardian Dragon of Cathay had undoubtedly envisioned a different kind of audition when he requested to hear her sing.
After all, she was dressed like a potential bride.
She buried a snort. The Guardian Dragon—such a pretentious nickname. The only real dragon, Avarax, who lorded over some faraway land, might make for a more appealing audience. A quick trip down his gullet would spare her a slow death in a marriage with neither love nor music.
And she wouldn’t have to wear this gaudy dress. It compensated for her numerous physical imperfections, but stifled the only thing that made her special. How was she supposed to sing with the inner robe and gold sash squeezing her chest, in a futile attempt to misrepresent her woefully underdeveloped curves? The tight fold of the skirts concealed her lanky legs, but forced a deliberate pace. At least the short stride delayed the inevitable, while preventing her unsightly feet from tripping on the hanging sleeves of the vermilion outer gown.
At her side, Crown Princess Xiulan glided across the chirping floorboards. Kaiya suppressed a sigh. If only she could move with the nonchalant grace of her sister-in-law, or even the six handmaidens trailing them. She dug her nails into clammy palms. Through this choreographed farce, appearances had to be maintained, lest she embarrass her father, the Tianzi.
Chin up, back straight. A racing heart threatened to ruin her already meager semblance of imperial grace. Eyes forward. Servants knelt on either side of the looming double doors, ready to slide them open. She forced a smile, with her best approximation of feminine charm. If only she’d lived before Dragon Songs had faded into legend, she could’ve sent the realm’s victorious hero fleeing with the song he supposedly wanted to hear.
An aging palace official stepped into her line of sight.
Singular focus on the doors broken, she blinked. Her fluttering pulse lurched to a stop as she blew out a breath.
His blue robes ruffled as he tottered forward with averted eyes and a bobbing head. He creaked down into a bow. “Emergency, Dian-xia,” he said, using the formal address for her rank. “The Tianzi commands you to greet a foreign delegation in the Hall of Bountiful Harvests.”
Her heart remembered to beat again, and she looked first toward the doors and then down at the man, whose insignias marked him as a secretary for the Ministry of Appointments. Outlandish excuses had mercifully cut short each of her previous meetings with eligible young lords: six times in all.
But a foreign delegation? Before even meeting the suitor? That was a first. Her expression slipped as much as it could beneath the layers of pearl powder caked to her face. Mouth dry, her voice came out hoarse. “There must be a mistake. Surely the honor would fall to the Crown Prince.”
He bowed his head again. “No, Dian-xia. With your linguistic talents, the Tianzi thought you better suited to meet with them.”
Apparently, small talk with some foreign lord’s wife constituted an emergency these days. Still, the unspoken message needed little interpretation: the foreigners were beneath a prince.
At least it meant delaying the matchmaking. Kaiya cast a glance at Xiulan. “Then shall the Crown Prince take my place and sing to General Lu?”
Her supposed chaperone covered a giggle with slender fingers. The wide sleeves of her aquamarine gown slid and bunched in her elbow, revealing the porcelain-like skin of her arm. It was as perfect as her complexion.
The man’s eyes darted back and forth, his lips quivering. “I…I…”
Xiulan stepped forward and brushed a gentle hand across Kaiya’s arm. “Go on, meet with the foreigners. I will explain things to the general.”
Kaiya bowed her head. “As you command, Eldest Sister.” She turned to the official, gesturing with an open hand for him to take the lead.
As she wobbled after him, two of her handmaidens fell in behind. They were more beautiful than her, even after her hours of preening to smother meddlesome acne and subdue unruly hair.
Which now meant she’d look ridiculous receiving dignitaries. Like an opera singer, maybe. “Who are our guests?”
The official coughed. “Prince Hardeep Vaswani of Ankira.”
A man? Kaiya’s stomach leapt into her throat. With limited court training, she might be able to entertain a lady. But a prince… Without any experience in diplomacy, that was an international incident waiting to happen. Given the choice between greeting foreign royalty and the prospect of marriage, that trip into Avarax’s jaws sounded tempting. “What does he want?” she asked.
“He has been in the capital for a week now, incessantly requesting an audience.”
And now they were sending her, an awkward sixteen-year-old, undoubtedly as a message. Prince Hardeep wouldn’t see the Tianzi until her complexion cleared or the orc gods returned on their flaming chariots, whichever came first. A betting princess would wager her money on the orc gods.
She sighed. After preparing to play the role of demure and dainty maiden before a potential husband, this new situation required a confident demeanor…and neither came easily.
There was no time to tone down the make-up or change the extravagant gown. Unpinning the outer robe’s constraining fold, she squared her shoulders and lengthened her gait.
No, this wasn’t bad. A reprieve from meeting a dour general. She could do this. How hard could it be? With each step, she concentrated on composing a dignified expression. By the time they arrived at the moat separating the castle from the rest of the sprawling palace grounds, she’d mentally transformed herself from prospective bride into imperial representative.
Right. She still looked like the former, and felt like neither.
At the head of the bridge waited eight imperial guards dressed in blue court robes. The magic etched into their breastplates’ five-clawed dragon evoked awe, though she’d grown used to it over the years.
“Dian-xia,” the guards shouted in unison. They each dropped to one knee, fist to the ground. The most talented swordsmen in the realm submitted to a pimply girl, for nothing more than the circumstances of her birth.
If only she could live up to the accompanying expectations. Kaiya acknowledged them with a nod. Bowing, the handmaidens shuffled back. The imperial guards deployed behind her. She crossed the stone bridge, leaving behind the relative comfort of private life to enter the formal world of the imperial court.
They wound through stone-paved alleys. White buildings with blue-tiled eaves rose up beyond spotless courtyard walls with circular windows. At the Hall of Bountiful Harvests, Kaiya walked up the veranda and stepped over the ghost-tripping threshold.
Inside, three chattering men gestured at the green ceiling panels and gold latticework. Their burgundy kurta shirts hung to their knees, collars riding high on their necks. On their left breasts sparkled an embroidered nine-pointed lotus, the crest of the embattled nation of Ankira.
The visitors’ discussion came to an abrupt halt as they turned to greet her, heads bowed, and palms pressed together. Dark bronze skin and rounded features marked them as ethnic Ayuri. Meticulously coifed black hair fell to their shoulders. The centermost man looked no older than twenty. Taller and more handsome than his companions, he met her gaze.
With blue irises. Luminous like the Blue Moon, Guanyin’s Eye. They captured her image in their liquid depths and reflected it back, more beautiful than make-up could ever accomplish. Maybe even as beautiful as Xiulan.
He tilted his head and flashed…a smoldering smile.
Kaiya cast her eyes down, only to peek up through her lashes. Her lips twitched, struggling against all discipline in their urge to return the smile.
Ridiculous! Where had the carefully crafted mask of an imperial diplomat fled to? She tightened her mouth, squared her chin, and looked up.
When he spoke, his deep, baritone voice flowed out of his mouth like honeysuckle vines, entangling her. “I am Prince Hardeep. You must be the Princess of Cathay. The stories of your beauty do you no justice.”
What? Nobody could say her plain looks warranted praise, at least not sincerely. Yet his earnest words sounded nothing like the hollow compliments of court sycophants and suitors.
Heat rose to her cheeks, threatening to melt away her make-up, and her nominally dignified expression with it. His language tumbled off her tongue, accent lilting in her ears. “Welcome to Sun-Moon Palace, Prince Hardeep. I act as the ears of my father, the emperor.”
Cringe-worthy. She could speak Ayuri better than that. Almost perfectly, but—
“And your voice! Saraswati, our people’s Goddess of the Arts, would be jealous. Perhaps you would sing for me?”
Kaiya’s head swam. Her mouth opened to beg off the unexpected request, but no words came out.
He waved a hand, and his manner stiffened. “I forget myself. Your song would certainly invigorate me, and I confess I hoped to catch a glimpse of you during my visit. However, my country’s needs are more pressing. I have a request of your emperor.”
Whatever spell his previous tone had woven through her mind loosened enough for her to find her voice. “I am afraid you misinterpret his intentions. By sending me, he has already denied you.”
No. Did she just say that out loud? Kaiya covered her mouth. If only Avarax would swoop in and devour her now.
The Ankiran prince’s lips melted into a frown and his attention shifted to her slippers. “Please hear our entreaty. The Kingdom of Madura occupies almost all of Ankira, in part because of their twice-renewed trade agreement with your glorious nation. For almost thirty years, Cathay has sold them firepowder. Now, our soldiers are weary, and our coffers depleted. The agreement expires soon. We ask—no, beg—that you not renew it.”
Released from his gaze, her mind began to clear. “How were you able to make it through the Maduran lines?”
Prince Hardeep raised his head. Kaiya avoided those mesmerizing eyes, and instead focused on his chin as he spoke. “One of your lords, Peng Kai-Long, has long supported us. I came with him on a Cathayi trade ship.”
It made sense. Cousin Kai-Long served as a trade negotiator in Ayuri lands and knew many influential people in Tivaralan’s South. He had recently returned to the capital to attend the upcoming wedding of Second Brother.
“He is my father’s favorite nephew,” she said. “I am sure he could present a more convincing argument to the Son of Heaven than I.”
Prince Hardeep shook his head. “Search inside yourself and speak with your heart. A father cannot deny the compassionate voice of his beloved daughter. Please. Our riches have been plundered; our people enslaved.” His voice beckoned her head up. “Widows must sell their bodies, while orphans starve in the streets.”
His dejected gaze twisted into her. Her heart, suddenly hot, sank into her belly. All those unfortunate people, suffering because of Cathay’s firepowder, while she enjoyed the comfort of the palace. Father must not have known the consequences of the trade agreement, since he ruled with the moral authority of Heaven. Someone had to speak for these downtrodden people.
“I will convey your message. Please make yourself comfortable until my return.” She paused for a moment to search his expression. All signs of his earlier frivolity were gone. He’d just been toying with her to get what he wanted.
It didn’t matter. It was the right thing to do. All the heroes from her favorite songs would’ve rushed to his aid. He was only asking her to speak to Father. With an inward sigh, she turned and swept out of the hall, her guards marching behind her.
Outside, Kaiya took a deep breath of cool spring air to calm her thoughts and ease the hot constriction in her chest. Never before had a man made her pulse race like that. Then again, she had nothing but six fawning suitors with which to compare him.
No, this had nothing to do with Prince Hardeep’s charm. An entire nation suffered, with Cathay’s complicity. Father had always preached morality, demanded her to always do the right thing.
In her mind, she hummed a ballad recounting heroic Dragon Singers and the perils they willingly faced. Her heart swelled, and she turned to the official. “Where is the Tianzi now?”
The old man gawked. “I do not think—”
She cast a silencing glare.
He bowed his head. “In the Hall of Supreme Harmony.”
As the palace’s central audience chamber, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was just a few minutes away, up one hundred sixty-eight arduous steps. Father rode an ornate golden palanquin to the top, but Kaiya, like anyone else who wasn’t the Tianzi, had to climb.
Each step planted a seed of doubt in her head. A princess had no business in politics, besides solidifying loyalties through marriage. Remonstrating the Tianzi in front of all the lords and ministers would embarrass Father, so much that he would have no choice but to punish her.
CHAPTER 2: Treacherous Intents
Eighteen-year-old Zheng Tian knelt by the blockwood door, cursing under his breath. In his former life as Princess Kaiya’s childhood confidante, he would’ve never broken into a warehouse. Now a Black Fist, whose clan served the Tianzi, he was picking a warehouse lock.
“Hurry up.” Cell leader Yan Jie’s whisper tickled his ear. “The guards are halfway to the corner.”
Tian glanced up to the south, where the alley between the warehouses provided a view of the smallest of the three moons.
Swirling with colors like a soap bubble, it waned to its fourth gibbous—two hours before dawn. The guards were running ahead of schedule. He hadn’t heard them coming, but Jie’s half-elf blood gave her adorable pointed ears with exceptional hearing.
He motioned to the lock. “Shine the light there.”
The roll of her eyes carried in her hushed tone. “A blindfolded orc with three fingers missing would have broken in by now.”
Now, even his ears picked up the guards’ laughter. He twisted the pick in the narrow hole for the third time. With a soft click, the lock yielded. A little pressure on the door confirmed the hinges were well-oiled, and he pushed it open. Without a sound, he pulled Jie in and closed the door behind them.
In the silent darkness, Jie tapped her fingers on his forearm in clan code. Two guards, now turning corner… Now passing door… All clear.
He blew out a breath. As risky as the work was, he fit in better among spies and assassins than with the realm’s ruling elite. Not like he could ever go back to that life. Not after what he’d done to Princess Kaiya.
A dim light from Jie’s magic bauble spilled from between her fingers, casting her childlike features in a shadowed hue. Though ten years, three months and two days his senior, she looked no older than fourteen, thanks to her elf heritage.
He rotated the lock back into place with another quiet snick. “It’s a new device. Dwarf-made. Very expensive. I noticed it during the last harbormaster inspection.”
Jie’s large almond eyes narrowed to normal Cathayi size as she squinted at the door. That look…she was more interested than she let on, if only about the dwarven lock. “A nice lock doesn’t mean they are hiding anything.”
How could he even begin to explain the incremental increase in value on deliveries using specific ships in specific months, to this specific warehouse, when specific customs officials were on duty? The patterns, so clear to him, never made sense to anyone else. “Their manifests were suspicious. Come on.” He beckoned her toward the dozens of wooden crates.
Yawning, she padded after him. It was doubtless feigned boredom—if anyone ever supported him, it was Jie, the clan master’s adopted daughter.
He stopped at a crate with the word fragile painted around the lid. Its markings listed an origin of Wailian County in the unsettled North, with a destination of Yutou Province in the South.
He slid a finger over the rough edge of a crate and held it up. “Ground rice powder.”
“So, they want to keep something dry. That could be just about anything. Beef jerky and pearl powder aren’t going to lead to the realm’s downfall.” Shrugging, she produced a nail extractor from one of the twenty-seven hidden pockets in her utility suit.
“Wait.” Tian stayed her hand. If only he could explain things as quickly as the thoughts came to him. Customs forms declared the box’s contents to be sesame seeds, whose oils would be ruined by rice powder. Not to mention that Yutou Province was the largest supplier of sesame seeds in the realm. So unless Yutou’s Tai-Ming Lord Liang planned on cornering a low-margin market by buying up every seed in the nation and labelling them fragile, it wasn’t sesame seeds in that crate.
He picked up a nearby crowbar and gingerly wedged it under the lid, far from any of the nails. Wailian County’s chief resource was saltpeter, shipments of which were restricted to the capital. It wouldn’t do to send any sparks flying. Opening the lid sent a cloud of rice dust into the air.
Jie waved a hand in front of her eyes and peeled open the cloth lining inside, revealing… “Imagine that, a box marked sesame seeds having…sesame seeds.”
With a frown, Tian knifed his hand into the seeds. Half a foot in, his fingers, rough from ironpalm training, thunked against wood.
Her ears twitched. “How deep?”
“Seven inches.” He indicated a handlength, then eased a large box out with a rustling of sesame. This was why he was meant for spying. Even if it meant never seeing Princess Kaiya again.
He cast a triumphant glance at Jie. “There’s more in there. Several.”
“I could’ve told you that.” She blinked innocently as she ran a hand across the lid.
Of course. He swatted her hands away. Opening the box revealed a fine black powder. Tian had expected coarse white saltpeter. He exchanged glances with Jie. “What is it?”
She sucked on the right side of her bottom lip. “I don’t know.”
“Take a sample—”
Jie’s ears perked up and her head jerked toward the door. She stashed the light bauble, drowning the room in darkness.
The door whispered open with a breeze, and light crept in from a light bauble lamp. Three cloaked men pushed their way in and closed the door behind them. None of them looked familiar; they were certainly none of the sixteen guards who rotated shifts around this building. Their clothes bore no identifying sigils.
Pulse racing, Tian eased the lid back on top of the incriminating crate as quietly as he could. His fingers worked the nails back into their holes. If the conspirators discovered the tampering, they would cover their tracks.
“There are twenty crates marked fragile,” said the smallest of the men, his enunciation thick with the North. He held up the lamp and opened its shutters. It illuminated the front third of the building, leaving Tian and Jie in the dark. “I’ll show you where they are spread throughout the warehouse.”
The largest man crossed his arms. “You could have put them all together, close to the front. The porters’ guild would charge you an extra ten percent.”
“Then it’s a good thing you aren’t with the guild.” Lamp Man’s lips drew into a tight frown.
The porter crossed his arms. “I’m sure the porters’ guild, harbormaster, and other authorities might take issue with, how shall I say…”
The third man, a fellow with a fat nose and the telltale bump of a short sword concealed beneath his cloak, exchanged glances with Lamp Man, then waved a hand. “My lord is more than willing to pay five percent.”
Tian’s ears perked up. Fat Nose’s lord was someone from the South, if he shared the same rough features and accent.
The porter grinned. “Plus a silver jiao for dragging me over here at this hour.”
“Two silver jiao for the inconvenience and discretion,” Fat Nose said.
The porter licked his lips. “The porter guild is scheduled to unload the Wild Orchid at first light. My other men will come to collect your shipment tonight.”
Tian tapped his chin. The Wild Orchid, belonging to Tai-Ming Lord Peng in Nanling Province, had been sighted at sea late this night. Yu-Ming Lord Tong of Wailian County had never before used it to transport the questionable shipments.
“Then we are agreed.” Fat Nose gestured toward the crates, inviting the men to follow him.
Tian’s muscles tensed. If the conspirators discovered them, someone would likely die. He backed deeper into the warehouse, with Jie pressing her back into his stomach as if he needed the prompting. Her fingers tapped on his forearm. Left two mine. If necessary. On my signal.
Of course she would leave the one with the sword to him. Hopefully, it wouldn’t come to that. What was the old proverb Princess Kaiya had first told him, four thousand, twenty-one days ago? Hold the dragonfly with care, for even their fleeting lives have value.
What was the value of a man’s life? Tian looked from face to face. As long as these new arrivals didn’t find evidence of tampering, they would live to see the morning.
There had to be a way to ensure that, if only because the porter had a family to go home to. At least, the carp marriage charm around his neck implied as much. He tapped on Jie’s forearm. I distract, you seal crate.
“That one.” Lamp Man led the way, pointing to several of the boxes marked fragile.
Treading quietly just outside the edge of the lamp’s light, Tian worked his way toward the entrance. If they moved the light over too much, they’d see him.
As the three men continued, the light shifted deeper into the warehouse. Once the darkness enveloped the front door, he eased it open and slipped out. On the other side, he closed the door and looked past the setting full Blue Moon to the Iridescent Moon. Never moving from its seat in the heavens, it now waned halfway between its fourth and fifth crescents. An hour and a half to dawn.
He rapped on the door. “Harbormaster’s office here,” he yelled.
A brief commotion broke out, followed by silence. A set of footsteps approached the door. It opened, and Lamp Man peered out and scrutinized Tian up and down.
“Harbormaster’s office.” Tian flashed an apologetic grin. With a black utility suit instead of the blue robes marking him as a government official… “Two ships coming in. Before dawn. Anything to declare?”
Lamp Man’s forehead crinkled. “Who are you?”
“I’m from the Harbormaster’s office. On my way to work. I saw you three enter.” Tian memorized Lamp Man’s fine features and light complexion as he stalled…with the light at the door, Jie could work those nails back into place with her iron palms.
Lamp Man looked Tian over again. “You don’t look like an official.”
“Just a scribe, sir.” Tian wiped his hands over his clothes. Almost all people in Cathay believed the Black Fiststo be nothing more than boogeymen who kidnapped unruly children. At least, that’s what mothers told children to keep them in line. “My robes are at work.”
Lamp Man reached into his cloak, sending Tian’s hand for his hidden knife. Then, Lamp Man proffered a copper fen. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Zheng.” Tian peered at the coin for a few seconds, then plucked it up and bobbed his head. Let Lamp Man believe a bribe went a long way, as it certainly did with many government officials, and it might be a means of finding out more information.
“Well, Little Zheng, I may need you in the future.”
Tian bobbed his head a few more times. “Happy to help. But soon. I will be transferred in a few weeks.”
Lamp Man nodded. “I will be visiting the harbormaster’s office this afternoon. I will need some help filing some documents.” A silver jiao appeared in his hand.
Filing, or perhaps forging. Tian feigned an avaricious grin and swiped it. There was a conspiracy brewing, and his curiosity would nag at him until he put all the pieces together.
CHAPTER 3: Incendiary Rumors
As a half-elf raised among humans, Jie hated being treated like someone half her age. Especially by Tian. She’d been in charge of him since he’d joined the clan as a sheltered, clueless kid eight years ago.
Now that they were safe in a nearby alley, she swatted his hand away as he tousled her hair. He was just as impertinent as he’d been as a child; but whereas he’d been pudgy and smelled of sweet red bean paste back then then, everything about adult Tian was honed, tempered steel.
“You left me!” she said. And not for the first time in their lives as partners.
“My improvisation worked, right?” Tian’s grin begged to be slapped.
Jie snorted. When he improvised, it usually led to disaster. His plans, on the other hand, had a high rate of success, as long as she was the one executing them.
He tapped his chin. “Did you push the nails back in place?”
Jie made a show of examining her fingernails. “Yes, but with such calloused fingers, I won’t be sent to the Floating World to trawl for information anytime soon.”
“You wouldn’t belong there, anyway. The Night Blossoms of Floating World are beautiful beyond compare.” Tian reached for her hair again.
As if he didn’t remember she’d once trained to be a courtesan there! It’s where they’d met. And he remembered everything. With a swipe of her hand, she seized his and pushed up on his elbow to put him in a chicken-wing lock. Before she could finish the motion, he grasped her wrist and twisted. Not to be outdone, she snaked her arm out of his grasp.
“Are you quite done?” she asked.
“Yes.” Tian pointed to the warehouse entrance, a block away. “I’ll keep an eye on Fat Nose until I report to work. You check out the Wild Orchid’s cargo.”
Jie sucked on her lower lip. Not only did he treat her like a little girl, he also gave orders–even though she was his senior, the clan master’s adopted daughter, and the cell leader. The things she tolerated, if only from Tian. “Fine.”
He didn’t even notice, so intent was he on crouching by a stack of kegs and peering at the warehouse. Harrumphing, Jie turned toward the docks.
Night still hung over Jiangkou’s harbor. Even if her no-good father had abandoned her as a baby, at least he had left her with exceptional elven senses. Now that the crescent White Moon and the Blue Moon Guanyin’s Eye had set, human eyes would strain in the darkness. However, the world appeared clearly in shades of green to her elven vision.
Pausing in an alley between warehouses, she uncovered the plain breeches and shirt she’d stashed just for this purpose. After slipping into them, Jie adjusted a thick headband to cover her ears. When the clan needed a seasoned Fist disguised as a kid, she was the one who invariably got stuck playing the part.
She peered out onto the long stretch of wharfs along the harbor front. An enormous sablewood vessel towered over the local trading ships. A handful of non-guild longshoremen milled about, scrounging for a piece of Cathay’s wealth.
With its ships and trade routes dominating the western seas, the nation was like a golden pig, fattened to the point that the lords swam in riches and even the poor wanted for little. If only the citizens knew what the Black Lotus Clan did: that yet another rebellion brewed in the North. Fueled by greed, it was kept in check only by the delicate systems of interdependence set up by the dynasty’s founder.
Out in the water, the Wild Orchid made its way toward a pier. Sails lowered; its oarsmen rowed to the beat of a drum. Jie headed in the same direction, slipping between the growing crowds of workers. With dawn stretching tendrils of red and pink through the morning clouds, her vision shifted to color. Her attention was drawn from the Wild Orchid to the huge black ship, already docked. Its green flag, emblazoned with a silver sun with nine points, marked it as Tarkothi. With treaties demarcating trade spheres between the world’s great naval powers, it was strange to see one this far west.
By the time she reached the Wild Orchid, dockworkers were already tying down the moorings. Jie sighed as she mixed in with the queue of garlicky-smelling child laborers.
With the possibility of insurrection, there were a dozen more interesting and less malodorous places to be than here. All on Tian’s hunch. The sailors’ banter, laced with language that could make a Night Blossom fake a blush, provided the only entertainment during the wait.
At last, the gangplank lowered. Twenty-one black-haired, bronze-skinned people wobbled down. The men wore threadbare kurta shirts, while faded saris hung from the women’s shoulders. Ayuri folk, but from which nation, and why would they come to Cathay? “Finally!” Speaking in the Ayuri language, a middle-aged man with a scar on his cheek dropped to his knees on the dock.
A woman patted him on his shoulder. She had a large birthmark on her neck, and a toe ring marked her as married, per Ayuri custom. “We can start a new life here.”
A younger woman, face partially obscured by a scarf, found Jie’s gaze. Unlike her comrades, this one had a lighter, cinnamon complexion and more slanted eyes. Half-Cathayi, perhaps, and beautiful in an exotic way. She ducked her head and hid her face beneath the scarf. In that flash of her hand, a black birthmark, or perhaps a tattoo, peeked out from the brown henna patterns on her wrist.
As curious as she was about these people, Jie couldn’t ask in their language lest she reveal herself as anything other than a boy looking for a job. Still, it wasn’t hard to deduce their story: refugees from Ankira, which was steadily losing a thirty-year war to Madura.
At the head of the dock, a group of Cathayi men dressed in the red-and-black livery of Nanling Province approached. Their leader pressed his palms together and bowed his head in Ayuri fashion to the refugees. In perfect Ayuri he said, “On behalf of Young Lord Peng Kai-Long, I welcome you to Cathay.”
All the refugees returned his salute.
“You must be tired after your long journey. Young Lord Peng has made arrangements for you to join your countrymen. Please come with me.”
“I need ten boys,” yelled a voice in Cathayi from the gangplank. “Two copper fen for a day’s work.”
Just what she had been waiting for. Forgetting the Ankirans, Jie deftly slipped between the reaching, shouting boys.
At the front, a man with a leathery complexion chewed on what appeared to be salted meat, pointing at recruits. Jie hip-butted a kid and placed herself in the line of his finger.
He started to shake his head, but paused. His focus locked on her. “No, you’ll do. It takes small, nimble hands for the job I have in mind.” He beckoned the boys up the gangplank, but smacked an unchosen one who tried to board. He led the group across the deck, pointing out work.
When they passed the hatch to the lower decks, Jie waited for him to turn his back, then dashed through and took the steps down two at a time. Dimly lit by banks of oar holes, the open space was full of benches and oars, small chests and hammocks. It reeked of sweat and seawater. Crew berths, in all likelihood, with plenty of places to hide. With their backs to her, six men worked winches, bringing a platform of crates up from yet another hatch near the middle of the ship.
Using the creaking of pulleys and yawning of ropes to mask her footsteps, Jie crept closer, and then dropped behind a nearby bench. They unloaded the crates and lowered the platform.
“Load up!” a man shouted down.
When they carried the crates to the upper deck, Jie slunk forward and inspected the hatch. Ropes attached to pulleys and winches led down into the very bowels of the ship; below the waterline, by her best estimate. Below, a man set a keg on the platform and spun around.
She leapt down, catching one winch line and swinging to another before landing in a forward roll. It stank of sweat and curry powder. Even her elven vision wouldn’t penetrate the darkness here; luckily light bauble lamps provided illumination as well as shadows in which to hide. If any of the porters had seen her before she ducked behind a crate, they were hopefully too concerned with their own work to care about a trespasser.
Jie picked her way among the cargo, glancing back at every voice and footstep. Red paint marked contents and destinations. The bulk of the crates were labelled as Ayuri gooseweed and Levanthi spices, imported by Golden Fu Trading Company, bound for Nanling Province’s villa in the capital. Tian’s suspicions, though rarely wrong, were wrong now. Hardly worth the risk of mingling among boisterous sailors. If they discovered her, found out she was a girl…
The smell of rotten eggs, unmistakable but likely undetectable to a human nose, caught her attention. She sniffed, following the scent to several kegs. The writing marked the contents as turmeric, a ubiquitous ingredient of Ayuri cooking, originating from Pelastya and bound for Wailian County.
Jie examined one of the kegs. Well-sealed, no residue. There was no way of telling the contents without opening it. However, turmeric didn’t smell like rotting eggs, and Pelastya didn’t grow turmeric. It did have volcanoes and sulfur mines.
Sulfur, bound for Wailian County, the world’s only major source of saltpeter. As clan master’s daughter, she was privy to the closely guarded recipe for firepowder. The only major ingredient left would be charcoal.
Against the laws of interdependence that kept the nation at peace, someone was making firepowder in the rebellious North. If that was the mysterious substance they’d found in the warehouse, it was being sent south to Yutou Province. An alliance of North and South, ready to fall on the capital.
Jie needed to alert the clan. She started back toward the hatch.
“You!” a male voice called.
CHAPTER 4: Intents and Purposes
The shuffling of court robes and the cloying scent of incense greeted Kaiya as she stepped over the high threshold and into the cavernous hall. Dozens of golden columns vaulted toward the ceiling, where a tiled mosaic depicted a dragon and phoenix circling each other. Chest so tight that each breath hurt, she considered their symbolic significance. The male dragon and female phoenix represented balance, even though men and women’s roles were far from equal.
All the more reason not to be here, presenting a case Father had no intention of hearing. Palms clammy, Kaiya ventured down an aisle formed by dozens of kneeling ministers and hereditary lords. Save for Eldest Brother Kai-Guo, all pressed their heads to the marble floor as she made her way toward the white marble dais. Carved into its sides were dozens of bat and lotus symbols, which she counted to calm her nerves.
Father slouched on the Jade Throne, which was chiseled in the form of a coiled dragon. Yellow robes embroidered with auspicious symbols on the chest and elbows hung over his gaunt frame. Gone was the robust optimism she remembered from her childhood. Mother’s recent passing had left the gold phoenix throne at his side as empty as his heart. As always, General Zheng, bearing the Broken Sword, stood a step behind him.
A lump formed in Kaiya’s throat. She sank to both knees. Stretching her arms out to straighten her sleeves, she placed her hands in front of her as she pressed her forehead to the floor.
The Tianzi’s voice wobbled. “Rise, my daughter.”
Kaiya straightened and met his piercing regard, one that warned not to mention the foreign prince. Her clenching chest squeezed out all her resolve.
No, Father would never condone the suffering of Prince Hardeep and his people for mere profit. The assembled lords must be hiding the truth. Someone had to tell him, lest Heaven punish the realm for its immorality. She lifted her chin. “Please hear the request of Prince Hardeep Vaswani of Ankira.”
Behind her, the lords and ministers stifled gasps.
Yet Father’s expression softened. “What does Prince Hardeep ask of Cathay?”
“Huang-Shang,” she said, using the formal address for the Tianzi. “He asks that we cease sales of firepowder to the Madurans.”
The ministers broke into a low murmur until Chief Minister Tan rose to one knee, head bowed. “Huang-Shang, I negotiated our original agreement with Madura. It has been mutually beneficial.”
Beneficial. Riches for Cathay, conquest for Madura. Misery for Hardeep’s Ankira. The Dragon Singers from the old songs would’ve never tolerated such injustice. Breaking all decorum, Kaiya spun and scowled at Chief Minister Tan. Fine lines of age framed his triangular face, giving him a foxlike appearance. When she released him from her glare, he averted his eyes as protocol demanded.
Knees beginning to ache, she turned back to Father. “Huang-Shang, do the Five Classics not say that a ruler must act morally? Our actions have led to an unenviable situation in Ankira that we should seek to rectify.”
Cousin Kai-Long rose up to one knee. “Huang-Shang, I agree with the princess. Not only that, but once the Madurans pacify Ankira, and the trade agreement does expire, they will turn their ambitions toward us.”
Chief Minister Tan shook his head. “We are their source of firepowder. They will make war with someone else.”
And spread despair, with Cathay’s complicity. Kaiya formulated a dignified response in her head. What kind of country put profit over people? Not only should they not renew the trade agreement… “A moral nation would terminate the treaty now.”
More murmurs, undoubtedly from greedy lords and officials who cared more about gold than morality.
“Unfortunately, that is not an option,” the Chief Minister said. “In the original negotiations, I bore an imperial plaque. To go against our word, sealed with a plaque, is tantamount to the Tianzi forsaking the Mandate of Heaven. It would invite another Hellstorm.”
Kaiya sucked in her breath at the implication. Three centuries before, the last emperor of the Yu Dynasty had reneged on his plaque-bound obligations. The gods rained divine fire from the sky as punishment, blasting open a new sea in the fertile plains of the Ayuri South and plunging the world into the Long Winter.
It was unusual for an imperial plaque to be used in simple trade negotiations, since it represented the honor of the Tianzi. However, as a girl—even as a princess—she couldn’t challenge the Chief Minister’s word directly. She raised an eyebrow at him. “How much longer does the agreement last?”
Tan’s brows furrowed as he looked to the ceiling. “A year, maybe? I do not recall.”
Prince Hardeep didn’t have a year. Kaiya turned back to Father. “Should we delay a decision until we find the original contract in the Trade Ministry’s archives?”
The Tianzi straightened on the throne. He waved toward the lords and officials. “Everyone but Crown Prince Kai-Guo, Young Lord Peng, and Princess Kaiya will withdraw for tea.”
All present bowed their foreheads to the floor before rising. Whether they drank tea or not, the Tianzi’s suggestion left no doubt, they would drink something, somewhere else. They filed out in precise order.
Pulse skittering, Kaiya folded her hands into her lap. Father’s stare might as well have been a dwarven anvil on her shoulders.
Once the room cleared, servants closed the doors. The hall seemed more cavernous with only Eldest Brother, Cousin Kai-Long, and a dozen imperial guards remaining, and was made even more so by the Tianzi’s echoing voice.
“Kai-Long,” he said. “It seems the foreign prince ignored the unspoken denial and deigned to pressure the princess into acting as his mouthpiece.”
Cousin Kai-Long pressed his head to the floor. “Huang-Shang, forgive me for suggesting it.”
Kaiya found him in the corner of her eye. Her stomach felt hollow. She’d failed all their expectations, even when doing the right thing by helping Ankira.
“I warned you, Cousin.” Eldest Brother Kai-Guo’s lips drew into a tight line. “Kaiya isn’t trained. She should have just occupied him with idle banter. She is more musician than diplomat.”
Heat pulsated in Kaiya’s cheeks. Apparently, they’d forgotten she was kneeling right there beside them. Then Eldest Brother’s attention fell on her hand, which was subconsciously twirling a lock of her hair, proving his point. She jerked the hand back to her lap.
Kai-Guo looked to the throne. “Father, may I speak freely?”
“I would not have sequestered the family if not to allow you the latitude.”
Kai-Guo bowed his head. “Then if I may, you dote on Kaiya to the detriment of the realm. She wastes her time on music when she should be learning how to be a proper princess. You could have ordered her to marry any six of the previous young lords she met. Instead, you not only allowed her to choose, you pulled her out of matchmaking meetings.”
Father’s brows clashed together for a split second. “She is not ready to be married, not to one of those men.”
Kaiya’s head spun. So the interruptions had been Father’s doing, but why? What was wrong with those suitors, besides their lack of wit and self-absorbed attitudes?
“She needs to marry one of those men,” Kai-Guo said. “A princess’ duty—”
The Tianzi’s lip quirked just a fraction into a frown. Kai-Guo fell silent and bowed.
Father’s expression softened as he turned to her. “My daughter, it was unfair of me to assign you this task after shielding you from court intrigue all this time. I indulged your love of music when I should have prepared you to become my eyes and ears in your future husband’s fief.”
Suppressing a sigh, Kaiya bowed her head. To the realm, her worth as a musician would never surpass her value as a bride. “Why one of those six men?”
Father’s eyes searched hers. “What do they have in common?”
Besides having less personality than a rock and egos larger than the three moons combined? Kaiya cocked her head. “They are all sons of Yu-Ming lords.”
“Yes. Second-rank prefectural and county nobles.” Father’s stare bored into her. “From where?”
Why was it important? Especially compared to Ankira’s plight? She caught herself before twirling the stubborn lock of hair again. “The North. Regions near the Wall.”
“What can you tell me about the area?”
Had she known a geography test would follow matchmaking and greeting foreign dignitaries, maybe she would have stolen a few minutes out of her rigid schedule to study a map. Her brows furrowed. On her last trip, she’d seen… “Rolling hills rise into mountains. Bloodwood and Yue trees dot the mountainsides. The land is poor for farming, but the counties thrive from mining.”
He looked to Eldest Brother and Cousin Kai-Long. “See? She understands more than it appears.” He turned back to her. “My daughter, while the realm may seem prosperous and stable, not all under Heaven is well. My spies say several of the lords of the North harbor rebellious intent. They are as hard as the mountains they defend. To keep them content and docile, we buy saltpeter from their mines and process it in the capital to make firepowder.”
Kaiya stifled a gasp. For Prince Hardeep and his Ankira, that meant… “We need foreign markets to sell the firepowder to.”
The Tianzi tilted his head a fraction. “We reserve the freshest for ourselves and sell older stocks.”
She sucked in a breath. “What about Ankira? We profit from their misery.”
“Sometimes, practicality shades moral precepts.”
At her side, Brother nodded. Cousin Kai-Long’s lips pursed.
Kaiya lowered her hand from where she was again twisting that lock of hair. Her own father was rationalizing actions which caused another people’s suffering. Wasn’t this the paragon of nobility who had taught her songs of past heroes and ingrained a sense of morality in her? “But—”
His eyes narrowed, their warmth replaced by authority. “Convey my regret to Prince Hardeep.”
Cowed by his stern tone, she bowed. Kai-Guo and Kai-Long followed suit.
When she raised her head, Father’s regard softened. “You are so beautiful, my daughter. I will announce your betrothal at the reception tonight. After you send the foreign prince away, go meet with General Lu.”
The bottom dropped out of her belly. Betrothal! To the commander of the armies in the North. Their planned meeting had been more than a choreographed farce, and with a possible rebellion brewing, perhaps the self-proclaimed Guardian Dragon of Cathay had not been the one to request it after all.
She started to speak, but Father’s genuine smile stifled her protest. Her heart sank into her stomach. Betrothal appeared as immutable as Cathay’s agreement with Madura. She’d be married, probably as soon as she flowered with Heaven’s Dew, perhaps even forbidden by a dour new husband from singing. Forget her stomach; her heart lay shattered on the marble tiles.
Rising, she trudged out of the hall, back into bright sunlight. This had to be a dream. Marriage. Like Xiulan, night after night of trying to make babies with Eldest Brother Kai-Guo. Monotonous routines all day. But at least Xiulan could practice the magic of her Dragon Script with friends and family.
Not Kaiya. She’d be shipped away to barren hills. Devoid of music. Alone. No, it couldn’t be real. She took a deep breath to slow her stuttering pulse. A smooth river pebble found its way from her sash into her hand.
Cool and soothing, it was a token from her childhood friend Zheng Tian, the boy she’d once laughingly promised to marry. How simple and carefree those days were! When there was no grey area between Right and Wrong, just like in the songs. If only she could marry him instead of some pompous soldier. But no; even though he might be the son of a first-rank Tai-Ming lord, he’d been banished years ago for a stupid mistake.
She glanced back at her senior-most imperial guard, Chen Xin. He was looking at her pebble, frowning. Even on the worst day of her life, it would not do to let anyone see weakness. With a wistful sigh, she straightened her spine and squirrelled the keepsake back into its place in her sash. Before meeting her future husband, there was first the equally onerous task of walking back and denying a desperate plea. Thoughts of her own dismal future would have to wait.
Outside the Hall of Bountiful Harvests, she paused and composed herself. Prince Hardeep was just a man. A handsome one, for sure, but she’d met many other good-looking men without wilting into a starry-eyed fool. Steeling herself against whatever magic Prince Hardeep had used to beguile her, she stepped over the threshold.
The prince pressed his hands together and bent his head as she entered. He looked up expectantly.
His irises. They again entranced her.
Her straight posture softened as her insides somersaulted. She bowed low. It broke formal court etiquette, and indeed, the ministry secretary clucked his disapproval. At least it would conceal her spine melting to jelly. She held the position and focused on the prince’s red-and-gold-threaded shoes. “I am afraid that Cathay must honor its agreements, lest the Tianzi lose the Mandate of Heaven and the realm descend into chaos.”
“Do not apologize.” His voice was sweet again, with a touch of melancholy. General Lu would probably never speak to her with such affection. “Please, raise your head.”
His last words filled her like a warm breath into a soap bubble. She straightened.
Shoulders slumping, the prince tilted his eyes downward. He was handsome, even in sadness. “Will you sing for me? As a memory of our meeting?”
A song. Kaiya’s heart flitted. She would do this for him, appropriate or not. At least someone today would appreciate her voice. She looked over her shoulder toward the official, who scowled and shook his head. No? Who was he to defy her wishes?
The prince’s lips trembled into a brittle smile.
Her first foray into diplomacy might have ended in disaster, but with music, very few in Cathay could rival her. Perhaps if the fabled magic of Dragon Songs still existed, she could sing the rebellious lords into submission. Then, Father would value her ability over her marriage prospects. She lifted her voice in song, her soul soaring with each breath. The Broken Sword recounted how the Founder had transformed weakness into strength. Perhaps it would give Hardeep hope.
Exultation surged through her spine, into her limbs. All uncertainties and self-doubts melted away. With each note, she shed her poor imitation of imperial grace, replacing it with the sincerity of her soul. Not even the tight dress could contain her. Verse upon verse rose to a crescendo, her spirit floating with it.
Prince Hardeep’s blue eyes sparkled. “Even Yanyan would envy your voice.”
Heat rose to her cheeks. How could he compare her to the girl from a thousand years before, who had summoned storms with her music and sung the dragon Avarax to sleep? “Yanyan charmed an orc army into surrender with her song. I could not even convince my father to change his mind.”
“You spoke from your heart, and the emperor listened.” His forlorn smile sent a chill up her spine. “With an indomitable spirit, you can move your people to do the right thing.”
Could she? Besides Cousin Kai-Long, none of the men in the Hall of Supreme Harmony had shown any concern for morality. She sighed. “If I had the voice of Yanyan, he would have listened.”
Those blue eyes searched hers. “Channeling magic through artistic endeavor is the gift of your people, just as the fighting arts are ours. Come with me, and scatter the Maduran armies with the power of your music.”
Was he suggesting running away? With him? Escaping marriage with General Lu? She glanced back at the official. If he told anyone, the prince might lose his head. And if only shirking duty were so easy. They wouldn’t make it to the front gates, even if she could bring herself to take up his offer.
And who knew? Maybe he was trying to kidnap her, and hold her hostage to get what he really wanted: an end to Cathay’s trade agreement with Madura.
Tearing her gaze away, she shook her head. “Even though master performers from our past could accomplish amazing feats with Dragon Songs, those skills have since faded into legend. You would need an elf.” Like Father’s councilor, Lord Xu. Too bad nobody could predict when the enigmatic elf would make an appearance.
Prince Hardeep took her hands in his. Excitement rose in his tone. “With your voice and musical talent, you have the potential. We will research. I can help you scour your records. Together, we could learn how the masters of old did it.”
His touch sent heat up her arms and into her core. Behind her, the official sucked in a sharp breath and the imperial guards stepped forward. Kaiya withdrew, for his safety, and raised an open hand to assuage the guards. Was Hardeep’s idea even possible? “How can I learn from books what the elf angel taught Yanyan?”
“I would hazard to guess that singing a dragon to sleep is just a little more difficult than convincing a doting father to do the right thing.” He put a finger to his chin. “And if—no, when—you succeed, you will save my nation.”
Yes! No. Even if it were possible to learn from dusty old books, using magic to change a Tianzi’s mind flirted with treason even more than running away. She met his gaze again. Those eyes implored her, making her belly flutter. No, helping Ankira was the moral thing to do. Here was a chance to show that music was still worth something. That she was worth something, beyond her value as a bride to some lord. “I will try.”
A grin bloomed on his face. “Ankira owes you a debt of gratitude. I owe you.”
Kaiya twirled an errant lock of hair. “We will need to retrace Yanyan’s steps. To find out exactly where she met the elf angel.” Which meant a trip to the imperial archives.
After the mandated matchmaking with General Lu.
She looked into the prince’s eyes. No. He was here, close, and marriage to the general seemed so far away. Hardeep’s people needed her help, because everyone else would just let them suffer. Again, her hand found Tian’s pebble, firm and resolute beneath her sash. He’d support her decision.
They’d go now, even though it meant disobeying Father.
You can also download Prelude to Insurrection, a FREE prequel story that follows Jie.