The Dragon and the Pearl - By Jeannie Lin Page 0,1

gathering storm to the sedan and the urge to flee nearly overwhelmed her. If she ran, it would only remind him that he was a hunter, a warrior, a killer. As it was, some part of him thought he was a gentleman.

‘Where are we going?’


That was all he’d grant her. With a heaviness in her chest, she looked back. The August Emperor had built this home for her before his death. The manor itself meant nothing to her. Her gaze drifted to the river beyond, a rolling canvas on which the sunlight danced. She breathed deep to take in the scent of the river, of the surrounding moss and earth. This was what she would miss.

It had been too much to wish that she could be hidden away and forgotten. Perhaps she had always known someone would come for her. Debts had to be repaid in this life or the next.

She stopped before the palanquin and turned to find herself face to face with the most ruthless of the jiedushi. He was a tower of lean strength and corded muscle up close. And he was still assessing her with that penetrating gaze.

She wouldn’t cower before him. The rulers of the empire devoured the weak. She waited until he came forwards to pull the curtain aside with a sweep of his arm. The tiniest of concessions.

‘Tell me, Governor…’ she ran a fingertip across her own cheek ‘…how did you get that scar?’

His eyes narrowed. ‘A woman,’ he said after a pause.

Her lips teased into a smile. ‘Fascinating.’

His hand tightened on the curtain, the material clenched between his fingers. At once his pupils darkened, his breathing grew deep. The signs were there and she could read them like lines of poetry. How else was a woman to protect herself in the world of men? Li Tao, for all of his supposed cunning, was just another man.

‘You do not disappoint,’ he said in a low voice.

He dropped into the familiar form of address. The spark in his eyes showed the first hint of any heat beneath the cold exterior.

For a dark moment, she was caught in the call of his gaze. They were close, nearly touching. She had provoked him on purpose, but regretted it as an alarming awareness unfurled itself within her, prickling just beneath her skin. The regiment of soldiers surrounding them faded. There was only one man here she had any fear of.

‘And here I had thought the game was over for me,’ she murmured.

He didn’t respond. Her shoulder brushed against his sleeve as she slipped inside the wooden transport. His black eyes remained on her as the curtain fell back across the opening.

The journey came to Suyin in fragments snatched through the window. She caught glimpses of thick vines growing over the trees, the reflection of sunlight off distant water. Li Tao rode at the front and his soldiers kept her surrounded at every moment. This must be Li Tao’s infamous first battalion. They called themselves the Rising Guard and held the reputation of being the fiercest warriors in the empire.

The dense shade and the babble of her river gave way to a dirt road grooved with wheel tracks. They were going south, further away from the seat of imperial power. She no longer had a place in the new Emperor’s court, but she clung to the illusion that the centre of the empire was a safe and civilised place. What lay beyond was lawless and unpredictable. That was why they had needed the jiedushi.

On the fourth day, they passed an armed barricade. Grim-faced soldiers patrolled the line and she ducked away from the window.

It was true. The regional armies were assembling. She had isolated herself from the capital city of Changan to escape from the unrest, but news had still drifted to her over the last year through her servants. They made weekly trips to the city markets while she remained shut away in her manor.

There was only one reason for a barricade in the interior of the empire. There was infighting among the military governors. They had been gaining in power for years and continued to seize control in the uncertainty of Emperor Shen’s rule. Perhaps she should have gone into hiding with the servants after all.

With a shudder, she pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders. She was dressed in the same clothes she had worn when they had come for her, the only possessions Li Tao had allowed her to bring.

She hated this part. The