The Dragon and the Pearl - By Jeannie Lin Page 0,3

led Suyin past the parlour to the interior rooms. The chambers stood silent and spacious with furnishings laid out in neat angles. Everything was meticulously dusted and nondescript, as unrevealing as the master of the house.

She followed Auntie outdoors through a central courtyard with a carefully arranged garden. The gardener brushed his wiry fingers over a hedge before cutting with his shears. His eyes neither focused on his hands or the sharp blades in front of him as he worked. When he addressed the lanky youth by the fish pond, his gaze remained vacant, stopping just short of fixing on his target.

The youth caught her eye as she passed. He looked to be sixteen, grasping at the edge of manhood. A clump of damp grass hung dripping from one hand while he watched her. His left arm hung rigidly against his side, the fingers of his hand withered and gnarled like a pigeon’s claw. She tore her gaze away with sudden embarrassment.

Auntie beckoned her along. ‘Master Li would want Ling Guifei to have the most luxurious of accommodations. We hope the lady will be pleased.’

The image of the blind gardener and his crippled assistant lingered. In the palace, even the lowliest of servants were chosen for physical beauty to perpetuate the illusion of perfection.

In the eastern section of the house, Auntie led Suyin up a staircase. Her assigned guard stayed outside the double doors as they entered the apartments.

‘Good light. Positive energy from all directions.’ Auntie walked in first, opening door after door. ‘In the mornings Ling Guifei can watch the sun rise over the cliffs.’

The woman reminded her of the elder servants who had served in the palace for so long they nearly held rank. Their speech and manner might be subservient, but they possessed all the cunning in the world after the secrets their eyes had seen. In the palace, Suyin had learned never to underestimate the servants. She had formed alliances wherever she could.

Auntie took her through the sheer curtain on to the balcony. From there she could see the ridge of the grey cliffs in the distance. The clean, crisp air of the forest surrounded them. Gripping the wooden rail, Suyin peered at the yard below.

Li Tao had imprisoned her on the second floor. A vast gorge opened up beyond the edge of the stone tiles. The granite walls plunged sharply to disappear into oblivion. Even if she were brave enough to make the climb from the balcony, there was nowhere to run.

She had been through all of the possibilities. The warlord could be holding her hostage, which was unlikely as she no longer had any allies in the empire. His capture of her could be purely an act of defiance against imperial authority. More likely he thought she held some vital secret. There had been a time when she had had many secrets at her fingertips.

Suyin called out as Auntie started to sink behind the curtain, ‘How long have you served the Governor?’

‘Fifteen years, my lady.’

From the beginning, then. Suyin leaned once more over the rail and breathed deep, catching the scent of moss and dampened earth.

From the very first time anyone had ever heard of a man named Li Tao.

Chapter Two

Li Tao loosened the leather strap that secured the sheath against his arm. He was alone in his study, shut away from his soldiers, the servants, and from her. The illustrious Ling Suyin was deep within his stronghold and far from the grasp of his enemies. Now he had time and space to think. To consider.

He drew the thin blade concealed beneath his sleeve and set it across the desk amongst the folded letters. A pile of grey ash lay beside the candle, the remains of the note that had sent him beyond the barricade on a whim. The message had been unsigned and the language obscured. Deliberately so, no doubt, in order to make it impossible to gauge its significance. The report informed him that the military governor, Gao Shiming, had sent men to capture Ling Suyin, or Ling Guifei as she had been titled by the late August Emperor.

The former Precious Consort. A woman who should have meant nothing in the schemes of courts and men now that her benefactor was dead. She had been installed at an isolated river bend to live out the rest of her days in exile. What would Gao want with such a woman?

His instincts told him it was a ploy, but for once Li Tao ignored