The Dragon and the Pearl - By Jeannie Lin Page 0,2

going away. The earth element in her longed to remain grounded in one place. Travel never held good tidings. Abrupt change brought back memories of being uprooted and taken some place far and unknown. It always seemed to come to that, and she knew from experience there was never a way to return.

The survival instinct returned to her, encasing her like a second skin. She sharpened her senses and became aware of everything around her. Li Tao prepared for war with swords and soldiers. She had her own weapons.

Over the next days, the open road faded beneath the shadow of a mountain and the soil became dark and rich. They travelled into a verdant forest of bamboo. The stalks rose high overhead. They called it the bamboo sea, not for any vast stretch of water, but for the rhythmic sway of the bamboo and the rustle of the spear-tipped leaves in the breeze. The green canopy engulfed them on all sides. When she blinked away from the window, a red haze remained over her eyes, veiling the world in an unnatural glow.

Suyin peered out of the window of the sedan to search for Li Tao. He rode tall in the saddle with his back straight. His dark robe stood out against the forest green. Naturally, he became her main focal point. He had all the power and she had none.

He’d barely spoken to her except for the scant conversation they’d exchanged by the river. Why would he go beyond his barricades to take her captive? Her influence had died with the August Emperor. She was merely a relic now, faded and wrung free of any usefulness.

The caravan came to an abrupt stop and the curtain was swept aside. Once again, Li Tao stood before her. He extended his hand and she had no choice but to take it, pressing her fingers briefly over his before letting go. The fleeting warmth of the touch lingered on her skin and a disturbing awareness curled around her as she stood beside him. She knew how to identify influence and power, but had never been so recklessly drawn to it.

She redirected her attention to the mansion nestled among the towering bamboo. It was twice the size of her home and built in the same opulent style of imperial architecture. The silhouette invoked the elaborate pagodas of the palace with wooden beams and tiled rooftops. Its grand structure intruded upon the tranquil forest.

‘Why am I here?’

‘As I said, it was not safe for you by the river.’

Her head tilted to him in challenge. ‘So the governor has appointed himself as my protector?’

His only reply was a wry twist of his lips before he gestured toward the front of the mansion. The man hoarded his words like gold coins. Every action was so controlled, she wondered if he ever lost himself in anger or passion. The last thought sent a shiver down her spine.

Li Tao remained behind her as they moved past the twin-lion statues that guarded the entrance. With every step, she became more aware of his dominance. His stride was confident and his authority complete. The illusion of deference he presented by allowing her to lead the way was laughable. How long would it be before he made his true demands known?

Household servants filed into the entrance hall one after another. Only seven of them, a small number for such a spacious compound. A grey-haired, round-faced woman headed the assembly. She gasped when Li Tao made the introduction.

‘Ling Guifei!’ The old woman bowed and bowed. The narrow bones of her shoulders protruded through the brown servant’s robe.

‘Jinmei, show Lady Ling to her apartments.’ Li Tao cast a dismissive glance in Suyin’s direction before turning to leave.

Insufferable. She flushed hot with anger as he disappeared down a corridor. He had treated her with the same indifference throughout the journey. She had been taken from her home under force of arms, yet he cast her aside as if she was of no importance at all. It was—it was worse than being interrogated and threatened. At least then she’d know what his plans were.

The head woman touched her arm gently. ‘Come with Auntie Jinmei.’

The guards marched behind them as she led Suyin through the spacious hall.

‘Guifei is more beautiful than they say,’ Auntie cooed, using the revered title the August Emperor had bestowed upon Suyin. ‘We are honoured and overjoyed for this visit.’

A pleasant visit indeed. Escorted by fifty armed men.

Auntie padded along in her slippers and