Dragonlords—those who are both
human and dragon. They come to Jehanglan. They will bring war to the Phoenix.
So said the rogue Oracle. And the words of an Oracle were truth.
But now his Oracle was dead. She would never See for him again.
Lord Jhanun pondered the prophecy once again. Had he known the girl had a weak heart, he would not have ordered that she be given such a large dose of the forbidden drugs. But her words had been so tantalizing …
His fingers smoothed the piece of red paper on the desk, discovering its texture, gauging its precise weight. Each piece of
paper was subtly different. A true disciple revered such individuality.
He made the first fold. “This is a true thing, these—” he hesitated over the uncouth foreign word—“Dragonlords?” He glanced at the man who knelt a few paces before the desk.
“It is, lord. There are a certain few, far to the north, who are born with the joined souls of dragon and human,” Baisha said.
Fold, crease, fold. “And these weredragons—they are able to change forms as do the weretigers that haunt the mountains?” Jhanun asked.
“Yes, lord. But they may change form whenever they wish, not just at the full moon.”
Jhanun ran one end of his long mustache through his fingers and shuddered. Abomination! He must calm himself, else the paper would sense his disturbance. Fold, fold, a quarter turn of the sheet … “The creature now beneath the mountain—it is not one of these … ?”
“No, lord; it is a northern dragon, else it would have Changed and escaped as a human.”
“I see,” Jhanun said, thinking.
One alone—the Hidden One—means the end of the Phoenix. But four will give you the throne—
A pity the girl died with those words; more would have been useful. How was one more dangerous than four? he wondered. He would get no more; he
must gamble with what he had. The crisp red paper hummed as he slid a thumbnail along a crease.
Jhanun said, “The Phoenix must live. You will lure these unnatural creatures to the sacred realm. You know the prophecy; you know what must be done and the best way to do it.”
After all, according to the prophecy, the vile creatures were coming no matter what. He would merely make certain that it would happen in the most advantageous manner—for him.
Turn, fold, crease, fold.
Baisha smiled to the precise degree allowed a favored servant to his master. The hands resting on his thighs suddenly turned palm up. They were empty. Then he pressed them together and brought them up to touch fingertips to forehead. Then he laid them palm up in his lap once more.
This time a silver coin lay in one hand.
The Jehangli lord nodded in understanding; the creatures would be tricked. “You’re certain they will come?” asked Jhanun.
“Yes,” Baisha replied. “They will come, the noble fools.”
“So be it.” He studied this, one of his three most faithful and trusted servants.
Pale skin, yellowed now, wrinkled and lined; a bald head fringed with thin white hair bleached by the powerful phoenix of the sun: A
a foreigner indeed.
The Jehangli lord went on, “I raised you from slavery. I covered you with the hem of my robe though you were not one of the children of the Phoenix. I gave you what your own people denied you.
“Now I give you this task. The journey will be long and hard, the task difficult. Do not fail me.” A final fold, a last crease, and a paper lotus of a certain style lay before Jhanun.
“It will be done, lord. I will bring you the required number of Dragonlords.” Baisha rose and bowed. His eyes burned with fervor. “I know what will bring them. I won’t fail you.”
Stirred by such devotion, Jhanun rose from his desk and came around it. Bending slightly, he rested his fingertips on his servant’s shoulders, a mark of great favor. “I know you will not fail. Now go; there’s much to be done.” He let his hands drop once more to his sides.
Baisha bowed once more, backed the required three steps, then turned and strode to the door.
With a satisfied smile, Jhanun folded his hands into his wide sleeves.
It was beginning.
Shei-Luin fanned herself as she watched the tumblers with their trained dogs and monkeys performing in the open space between the two gazebos. She sat
by the railing of the Lotus Gazebo in the choicest spot, as befitted her current status as favorite concubine. Her eunuch, Murohshei, stood at her left shoulder, keeping the lesser women from crowding her.
The Lotus Gazebo and its companion, the Gazebo of the Three Golden Irises, stood in the heart of the Garden of Eternal Spring. Winter never came here; the leaves of the plum and peach trees never withered from cold, the bright green of the grass never turned sere and brown. The might of the Phoenix ruled here, a gift to its royal favorite, the Phoenix Lord of the Skies. Or so said the priests who chanted here at the solstices.
To one side sat the Songbirds of the Garden. A group of boys and young eunuchs chosen for the incredible purity and beauty of their voices, their sole purpose was to sing for the emperor whenever he chose to visit the Garden. They were silent now, except for giggles as they watched the performers. They were, after all, just boys.
Shei-Luin hid a smile behind her fan as she glanced at the youngsters. Many rocked back and forth, holding their laughter in lest it disturb his august majesty in the Gazebo of the Three Golden Irises. One boy eunuch, Zyuzin, the jewel of the Garden, had both hands clapped over his mouth as he doubled over in mirth; his three-stringed
lay forgotten on the grass before him as he watched.
For one of the tumblers ran in circles, waving his arms and crying exaggerated pleas for mercy as a lop-eared, ugly, spotted dog chased him. Each time the dog jumped up and nipped at the man’s bottom, the man would grab his buttocks and leap into the air, squealing like a pig with a pinched tail.
The Songbirds giggled and pinched each other in delight.
A loud, braying laugh shattered the air. Shei-Luin winced delicately, careful that no one should see it, and looked into the opposite gazebo.
Xiane Ma Jhi hung over the railing, laughing as the ugly dog persecuted its master. He called encouragement to it, slapping the shoulder of the man standing by his side and pointing at the tumblers. The man grinned and said something in return.
Shei-Luin’s heart jumped at the sight of the second man. He was Yesuin, second son of the
of the Zharmatians, the People of the Horse, the Tribe; Yesuin, once her childhood love and now hostage to his father’s good behavior. How she’d cried when he first came to the palace, knowing what it meant to him to lose the freedom of the plains. She’d remembered all too well what she’d felt when the walls of the imperial palace closed around her. But his misfortune had become her salvation.
Between the Phoenix Emperor and Yesuin was a certain resemblance; the concubine who had borne Xiane had been a woman of the Tribe.
Yet such a difference! Yesuin was all fire and grace; Xiane …
does not bear thinking about,
Shei-Luin told herself.
He looks like a horse and brays like an ass.
As if he sensed her thoughts on him, Xiane looked across the lawn into the gilded structure where Shei-Luin sat with the other concubines and their eunuchs, the only males allowed there beside the emperor himself. Their eyes met. He made a great show of licking his lips and leering at her. Shei-Luin’s stomach turned; she knew that look. Unless he drank himself into oblivion, he would come to her chamber tonight.
She pretended modest confusion and hid behind her fan, gaze lowered. Later she would send Murohshei to bribe Xiane’s cupbearer into seeing that the Phoenix Lord’s wine bowl was kept full.
The other concubines tittered. Shei-Luin considered ordering them all flogged. But no; she had not the power for that yet. She must become
, a servitor of the first rank; she must give Xiane an heir.
An heir that he could not give himself. But she had found a way; for she alone knew the ancient secret of the palace. And then …
The scene before her changed. The tumblers and their animals gave way before the female wrestlers that were Xiane’s current mania. Shei-Luin sat up straighter.
Not because she enjoyed the wrestling. Far from it. She thought these women hideous beyond belief. They were as ugly as the women soldiers who guarded the harem; big women, solid as oxen, and muscled like them, too.
But this was the fourth troop of wrestlers in the past span and a half of days, and if Xiane remained true to form … She watched the women, naked save for loin clothes and breast bands, grapple and struggle with one another, and waited as patiently as she could.
At last! Xiane stood up. A servant ran to take the robe he shrugged from his shoulders. The loose breeches beneath came off next and the emperor of Jehanglan stood clad only in his loincloth. He vaulted over the railing, calling over his shoulder, “Let’s have some fun!”
Laughing, the other young men in the gazebo followed suit. For once they were freed of the restrictions of the imperial court, where every move was ancient ritual, every word and glance noted, debated, dissected for insult or weakness.
Only in this garden and among the troupes of entertainers that he delighted in, could the emperor of Jehanglan, Phoenix Lord of the Skies and Ruler of the Four Quarters of the Earth, relax. Shei-Luin felt a momentary pang of sympathy. The Phoenix was cruel, setting this man upon the Phoenix throne instead of making him a performer.
But that moment was lost as she watched Yesuin run lightly across the lawn to stand beside the emperor. Her heart hammered in her chest; it was a wonder that all could not hear it.
They might almost be brothers, they look so much alike standing together!
But similar as the men were in build, it was the thought of Yesuin that thrilled
her. The memory of Xiane’s body on hers made her feel ill. It amazed her, how differently she could react to two men so much alike.
Neither was tall but both were well-made and athletic. Xiane’s skin was the paler, legacy of his imperial father, and smooth; Yesuin’s scarred here and there from the battles he’d fought before coming to the imperial court as hostage. Some of the courtiers cast glances of mixed admiration and disdain at the sight of the scars; when those gazes fell upon the Zharmatian’s thigh and the brown birthmark there, they were pure contempt.
So the People of the Horse don’t kill their children for every little blemish,
Shei-Luin thought fiercely, dismissing those contemptuous glances with an unconscious flick of her fan.
They’re not the cowards you are. They don’t fear your demons.
She watched him, and him alone, as he wrestled first with the women, then with any of the courtiers brave—or foolish—enough to challenge him. She knew what was to come.
It happened all in a heartbeat. Yesuin and Ulon, one of the courtiers, rolled across the lawn as they grappled; Yesuin caught his opponent in a choke hold. As if by chance he looked over Ulon’s head and into the Lotus Gazebo where no man’s gaze but the emperor’s might fall. Shei-Luin was ready.
She dropped the fan.
she mouthed, quick as a thought. He blinked. Then Ulon twisted, and he and Yesuin rolled away once more.
It was enough. She would be ready.