The Dragon Republic - R. F. Kuang

Map 1

Map 2

Arlong, Eight Years Prior

“Come on,” Mingzha begged. “Please, I want to see.”

Nezha seized his brother by his chubby wrist and pulled him back from the shallows. “We’re not allowed to go past the lily pads.”

“But don’t you want to know?” Mingzha whined.

Nezha hesitated. He, too, wanted to see what lay in the caves around the bend. The grottoes of the Nine Curves River had been mysteries to the Yin children since they were born. They’d grown up with warnings of dark, dormant evils concealed behind the cave mouths; of monsters that lurked inside, eager for foolish children to stumble into their jaws.

That alone would have been enough to entice the Yin children, all of whom were adventurous to a fault. But they’d heard rumors of great treasures, too; of underwater piles of pearls, jade, and gold. Nezha’s Classics tutor had once told him that every piece of jewelry lost in the water inevitably wound up in those river grottoes. And sometimes, on a clear day, Nezha thought he could see the glimmer of sunlight on sparkling metal in the cave mouths from the window of his room.

He’d desperately wanted to explore those caves for years—and today would be the day to do it, when everyone was too busy to pay attention. But it was his responsibility to protect Mingzha. He’d never been trusted to watch his brother alone before; until today he’d always been too young. But this week Father was in the capital, Jinzha was at the Academy, Muzha was abroad at the Gray Towers in Hesperia, and the rest of the palace was so frazzled over Mother’s sudden illness that the servants had hastily passed Mingzha into Nezha’s arms and told them both to keep out of trouble. Nezha wanted to prove he was up to the task.


His brother had wandered back into the shallows. Nezha cursed and dashed into the water behind him. How could a six-year-old move so quickly?

“Come on,” Mingzha pleaded when Nezha grabbed him by the waist.

“We can’t,” Nezha said. “We’ll get in trouble.”

“Mother’s been in bed all week. She won’t find out.” Mingzha twisted around in Nezha’s grip and shot him an impish smile. “I won’t tell. The servants won’t tell. Will you?”

“You’re a little demon,” Nezha said.

“I just want to see the entrance.” Mingzha beamed hopefully at him. “We don’t have to go in. Please?”

Nezha relented. “We’ll just go around the bend. We can look at the cave mouths from a distance. And then we’re turning back, do you understand?”

Mingzha shouted with delight and splashed into the water. Nezha followed, stooping down to grab his brother’s hand.

No one had ever been able to deny Mingzha anything. Who could? He was so fat and happy, a bouncing ball of giggles and delight, the absolute treasure of the palace. Father adored him. Jinzha and Muzha played with him whenever he wanted, and they never told him to get lost the way Jinzha had done so often to Nezha.

Mother doted on him most of all—perhaps because her other sons were destined to be soldiers, but she could keep Mingzha all to herself. She dressed him in finely embroidered silks and adorned him with so many lucky amulets of gold and jade that Mingzha clinked everywhere he walked, weighed down with the burden of good fortune. The palace servants liked to joke that they could always hear Mingzha before they saw him. Nezha wanted to make Mingzha stop to remove his jewelry now, worried it might drag him down under waves that already came up to his chest, but Mingzha charged forward like he was weightless.

“We’re stopping here,” Nezha said.

They’d gotten closer to the grottoes than they had ever been in their lives. The cave mouths were so dark inside that Nezha couldn’t see more than two feet past the entrances, but their walls looked beautifully smooth, glimmering with a million different colors like fish scales.

“Look.” Mingzha pointed at something in the water. “It’s Father’s cloak.”

Nezha frowned. “What’s Father’s cloak doing at the bottom of the river?”

Yet the heavy garment lying half-buried in the sand was undeniably Yin Vaisra’s. Nezha could see the crest of the dragon embroidered in silver thread against the rich cerulean-blue dye that only members of the House of Yin were permitted to wear.

Mingzha pointed to the closest grotto. “It came from in there.”

An inexplicable, chilly dread crept through Nezha’s veins. “Mingzha, get away from there.”

“Why?” Mingzha, stubborn and fearless, waded closer to the cave.

The water began to ripple.

Nezha reached out