The Dragon and the Pearl - By Jeannie Lin
Tang Dynasty, China—AD 759
Lady Ling Suyin waited in the parlour at the edge of the Snake hour, her house rendered silent except for the buzz of dragonflies outside. The tea before her had long gone cold. The last servant had brought it that morning before fleeing.
The boldest of them had begged her to join them, but the warlord who was coming for her would burn every village along the river to find her. She wouldn’t add to her growing collection of debt. Another stone on the scale.
She straightened at the crunch of boots over leaves at the front of the house. They were steady and deliberate. Her heart pounded harder with each impending step. He’d come alone. Her breath caught as the imposing figure appeared in the doorway, every bit the demon they spoke of in the imperial court. Black robe, dark hair cut short, an impassive expression that revealed nothing to her. That meant she had nothing over him.
‘Ling Guifei.’ His voice rang deep as he greeted her by title.
‘I am no one’s Precious Consort any longer, Governor Li.’
Suyin remained seated and let the military governor approach. If she stood, her legs might fail her. The prominence of his features added to her fear. This was a face that could never be overlooked. All sun-darkened skin and sharp angles. A scar cut below his left eye, ruining his stark symmetry. That was new.
The first and only time she had seen Li Tao, he’d stood before the imperial court as a young man being commended for his valour. The restless energy that once had radiated from him was constrained behind a wall of discipline. Time had honed him to razor sharpness. Time had not left her untouched either.
‘This humble servant is here to offer himself as the lady’s escort.’
All the civility in the world could not take the edge off him.
Her stomach fluttered in warning, but she breathed through it. She propped an elbow on to the table and made her tone as light as possible. All the while, her heart pounded so hard she could barely hear her words.
‘A thousand apologies, my lord, but I have no plans for travel.’
‘This place is no longer safe for you.’
As if she could be safe with him. There was nowhere safe for her any longer, no allies left to protect her. Would the late Emperor’s enforcer come for her after so many years? She had thought her secrets long buried.
Suyin dug her nails into the edge of the table as he stepped closer. She had been left alone to fend for herself before, but she had been young and defenceless. An accomplished courtesan should be able to command her fear. She should be able to command the man in front of her.
Li Tao halted two strides from her and she spied the silhouette of a weapon inside the drape of his sleeve. An assassin’s blade. She lifted the cup and took a sip to cover her shock. Cold, bitter tea slid over her tongue. Experience allowed her to keep from trembling, but she had no control over the way her heart raced or how her palms grew damp as he loomed over her.
She managed to keep her hand steady as she set the cup down. Her next words came out in the melodic, careless tone she had perfected. ‘Since my lord has come so far for this task, we should not waste any more time. Shall I gather my belongings?’
‘There is nothing the lady needs.’
The warlord addressed her as if she were his superior. It wasn’t much, but there had to be some way to use it. She caught the trailing edge of her shawl and draped it over her shoulders. She stood straight and paused before gliding past him.
He made no move toward her, but he was watching. All men did.
She stepped through the empty house, listening to his purposeful stride on the floorboards behind her. He was too close. By the time she emerged outside, her fingers were numb from being clenched so tight.
A palanquin awaited her by the side of the single dusty road leading from her manor. A regiment of soldiers outfitted in black and red assembled around the litter. The military governors, the jiedushi, commanded their own regional forces independent of the Emperor’s army. No one challenged them within their own domains, but this stretch of the forest was clearly under imperial jurisdiction. This was an affront the Emperor would not overlook.
Li Tao followed her like a