My Fair Concubine - By Jeannie Lin
China, Tang Dynasty—AD 824
Fei Long faced the last room at the end of the narrow hallway, unsheathed his sword and kicked the door open.
A feminine shriek pierced the air along with the frantic shuffle of feet as he strode through the entrance. The boarding room was a small one set above the teahouse below. The inhabitants, a man and a woman, flung themselves into the corner with nowhere to hide.
His gaze fixed on to the woman first. His sister’s hair was unbound and her eyes wide with fear. Pearl had their mother’s thoughtful features: the high forehead and the sharp angles that had softened since the last time he’d seen her. She was dressed only in pale linen underclothes. The man who was with her had enough daring to step in between them.
Fei Long glanced once to the single wooden bed against one wall, the covers strewn wide, and his vision blurred with anger. He gripped the sword until his knuckles nearly cracked with the strain.
‘Bastard,’ he gritted out through his teeth.
He knew this man he’d come to kill. This boy. At least Han had been a boy when Fei Long had last seen him. And Pearl had been a mere girl. Now she was a grown woman, staring at him as if he were a demon risen from the underworld.
‘Fei Long.’ Pearl’s fingers curled tight over her lover’s arm. ‘So now you’ve come.’
The soft bitterness of the accusation cut through him. Pearl had begged for him to come back a year earlier when her marriage had first been arranged, but he’d dismissed her letters as childish ramblings. If he had listened, she might not have thrown herself into ruin and their father’s spirit wouldn’t be floating restlessly between heaven and earth.
The young man stretched himself before Fei Long, though he failed to match him in stature. ‘Not in front of Pearl,’ he implored.
Though he trembled, the boy fought to keep his voice steady as Pearl clung to him, hiding just behind his shoulder. At least the dog managed to summon some courage. If Han had cowered or begged for his life, he would already be dead.
‘Step away, Little Sister,’ Fei Long commanded.
‘I’d rather die here with Han than go to Khitan.’
She’d changed in the five years since he’d seen her. The Pearl he remembered had been obedient, sweet-tempered and pleasant in all things. Fei Long had ridden hard from Changan to this remote province, expecting to find the son of a dog who had stolen her away.
Now that she stood before him with quiet defiance, he knew she hadn’t been seduced or deceived. Zheng Xie Han’s family lived within their ward in the capital city. Though lower in standing, the Zheng family had always maintained a good reputation. His sister had turned to Han because she’d had no one else.
The tension drained out of Fei Long, stealing away his rage. His throat pulled tight as he forced out the next word. ‘Go.’
The two of them stared at him in disbelief.
‘Go,’ he repeated roughly.
Fei Long lowered his weapon and turned away while they dressed themselves. Shoving his sword back into its sheath, he faced the bare wall. He could hear the shuffle of movement behind him as the couple gathered their belongings.
The bleakness of the last few weeks settled into his gut like a stone. When he’d left for his assignment to the north-western garrison, Fei Long had believed his home to be a harmonious place. Upon news of his father’s sudden death, he’d returned to find his sister gone and debt collectors circling the front gates like vultures.
His father’s presence had been an elaborate screen, hiding the decay beneath the lacquered surface of their lives. Fei Long now saw Pearl’s arranged marriage for what it was: a desperate ploy to restore the family honour—or rather to prolong the illusion of respectability.
When he turned again, Pearl and Han stood watching him tentatively. Each of them had a pack slung around their shoulder. Off to face the horizon with all their belongings stowed in two small bags.
Han bowed once. ‘Elder Brother.’
The young man risked Fei Long’s temper to deliver the honorific. Fei Long couldn’t bring himself to return the bow. Pearl met his eyes as they started for the door. The heaviness of her expression struck him like a physical blow.
This was the last time he would ever see his sister.
Fei Long took his money pouch from his belt and held it out. The handful of coppers rattled inside. ‘Here.’