Dec 29

Excerpt: Chapter 1 of The Dragon Scale Lute

Chapter 1: Not So Chance Meetings

If marriage were a woman’s grave as the proverb claimed, sixteen-year-old Princess Kaiya suspected the Emperor was arranging her funeral. Entourage in tow, she shuffled through the castle halls toward the garden where General Lu waited. With his notorious dislike of the arts, the self-proclaimed Guardian Dragon of Hua undoubtedly envisioned a different kind of audition when he requested to hear her sing.

After all, she was dressed like a potential bride.

She stifled a snort. The Guardian Dragon, such a pretentious nickname. The only real dragon Avarax, who lorded over some faraway land, might make for a more appealing audience. The quick trip down his gullet would spare her a slow death in a marriage with neither love nor music. And it wouldn’t matter what she wore.

The gaudy dress compensated for her numerous physical imperfections, but stifled the only thing that made her special. How was she supposed to sing with the inner robe and gold sash squeezing her chest in a futile attempt to misrepresent her woefully underdeveloped curves? The tight fold of the skirts concealed her lanky legs, but forced a deliberate pace. At least the short stride delayed the inevitable, while preventing her unsightly feet from tripping on the hanging sleeves of the vermilion outer gown.

At her side, Crown Princess Xiulan glided across the chirping floorboards. Kaiya suppressed a sigh. If only she could move with such nonchalant grace as her sister-in-law, or even the six handmaidens trailing them. She dug her nails into clammy hands. Through this choreographed farce, appearances had to be maintained lest she embarrass her father, the Tianzi.

Chin up, back straight. A racing heart threatened to ruin an already meager semblance of imperial grace. Eyes forward. Servants knelt on either side of the looming double doors, ready to slide them open. She forced a smile, with her best approximation of feminine charm. If only she’d lived before the magic of music had faded into legend, she could’ve sent the realm’s victorious hero fleeing with the song he supposedly wanted to hear.

An aging palace official stepped into her line of sight.

Singular focus on the doors broken, she blinked. Her fluttering pulse lurched to a stop as she blew out a breath.

His blue robes ruffled as he tottered forward with averted eyes and a bobbing head. He creaked down into a bow. “Emergency, Dian-xia,” he said, using the formal address for her rank. “The Tianzi commands you to greet a foreign delegation in the Hall of Bountiful Harvests.”

Her heart remembered to beat again, and she looked first toward the doors and then down at the man, whose insignias marked him as a secretary for the Ministry of Appointments. Outlandish excuses had mercifully cut short each of the six previous meetings with eligible young lords. Six times in all.

But a foreign delegation? Before even meeting the suitor? That was a first. Her expression slipped as much as it could beneath the layers of pearl powder caked to her face. “There must be a mistake. Surely the honor would fall to the Crown Prince.”

He bowed his head again. “No, Dian-xia. With your linguistic talents, the Tianzi thought you better suited to meet with them.”

Apparently, small talk with some foreign lord’s wife constituted an emergency these days. Still, the unspoken message needed little interpretation: the foreigners were beneath a prince. At least it meant delaying matchmaking. Kaiya cast a glance at Xiulan. “Then shall the Crown Prince take my place and sing to General Lu?”

Her supposed chaperone buried a giggle with slender fingers.

The man’s eyes darted back and forth, his lips quivering. “I…I…”

Xiulan stepped forward and brushed her hand across Kaiya’s arm. “Go on, meet with the foreigners. I will explain things to the general.”

Kaiya bowed her head. “As you command, Eldest Sister.” She turned to the official, gesturing with an open hand for him to take the lead.

As she wobbled after him, two of her handmaidens fell in behind. They were more beautiful than her, even after her hours of preening to smother meddlesome acne and subdue unruly hair. Which now meant she’d look ridiculous receiving dignitaries. Like an opera singer, maybe. “Who are our guests?”

The official coughed. “Prince Hardeep Vaswani of Ankira.”

A man? Kaiya’s stomach leapt into her throat. With limited court training, she might be able to entertain a lady. But a prince… without any experience in diplomacy, that was an international incident waiting to happen. Given the choice between greeting foreign royalty and the prospect of marriage, that trip into the Avarax’s jaws sounded tempting. “What does he want?” she asked.

“He has been in the capital for a week now, incessantly requesting an audience.”

And now they were sending her, an awkward sixteen-year old, undoubtedly as a message. Prince Hardeep wouldn’t see the Tianzi until her complexion cleared or the Orc gods returned on their flaming chariots, whichever came first.   A betting princess would put her money on the Orc gods.

She sighed. After preparing to be demure, the new situation required a confident demeanor. No time to tone down the makeup or change the extravagant gown. Unpinning its constraining fold, she squared her shoulders and lengthened her gait.

No, this wasn’t bad. A reprieve from meeting a dour general. She could do this. How hard could it be? With each step, she composed a dignified expression. By the time they arrived at the moat separating the castle from the rest of the sprawling palace grounds, she’d mentally transformed herself from prospective bride to imperial representative.

Right. She still looked like the former, and felt like neither.

At the head of the bridge waited eight Imperial Guards dressed in blue court robes. The magic etched into their breastplates’ five-clawed dragon evoked awe, though she’d grown used to it over the years.

Dian-xia,” the guards shouted in unison. They dropped to a knee, fist to the ground. The most talented swordsmen in the realm submitted to a pimply girl, for nothing more than the circumstances of her birth.

If only she could live up to the expectations. Kaiya acknowledged them with a nod. Bowing, the handmaidens shuffled back. The Imperial Guards deployed behind her. She crossed the stone bridge, leaving behind the relative comfort of private life to enter the formal world of the imperial court.

They wound through stone-paved alleys. White buildings with blue-tiled eaves rose up beyond spotless courtyard walls with circular windows. At the Hall of Bountiful Harvests, Kaiya walked up the veranda and stepped over the ghost-tripping threshold.

Inside, three chattering men gestured at the green ceiling panels and gold latticework. Their burgundy kurta shirts hung to their knees, collars riding high on their necks. On their left breasts sparkled an embroidered nine-pointed lotus, the crest of the embattled nation of Ankira.

The visitors’ discussion came to an abrupt halt as they turned to greet her, heads bowed and palms pressed together. Dark bronze skin and rounded features marked them as ethnic Ayuri. Meticulously coifed black hair fell to their shoulders. The centermost man, taller and more handsome than his companions, met her gaze.

With blue irises. Luminous like the blue moon Guanyin’s Eye. They captured her image in their liquid depths and reflected it back, more beautiful than makeup could accomplish. Maybe even as beautiful as Xiulan.

He tilted his head and flashed… a smoldering smile.

Kaiya cast her eyes down, only to peek up through her lashes. Her lips twitched, struggling against all discipline in their urge to return the smile. Ridiculous! Where had the carefully-crafted mask of an Imperial diplomat fled to? She tightened her mouth, squared her chin and looked up.

When he spoke, his voice flowed out of his mouth like honeysuckle vines, entangling her. “I am Prince Hardeep. You must be the Princess of Cathay. The stories of your beauty do you no justice.”

What? Nobody could say her plain looks warranted praise, at least not sincerely. Yet, his earnest tone sounded nothing like the hollow compliments of court sycophants and suitors.

Heat rose to her cheeks, threatening to melt away her makeup, and the nominally dignified expression with it. Words of his language tumbled off her tongue, accent lilting in her ears. “Welcome to Sun-Moon Palace, Prince Hardeep. I act as the ears of my father, the Emperor.”

Cringe-worthy. She could speak Ayuri better than that. Almost perfectly, but–

“And your voice. Saraswati, Goddess of the Arts would be jealous. Perhaps you would sing for me?”

Kaiya’s head swam. Her mouth opened to beg off the unexpected request, but no words came out.

He waved a hand and his tone stiffened. “I forget myself. Your song would certainly invigorate me, and I confess I hoped to catch a glimpse of you during my visit. However, my country’s needs are more pressing. I have a request of your Emperor.”

Whatever spell his previous tone had woven through her mind loosened enough for her to find her voice. “I am afraid you misinterpret his intentions. By sending me, he has already denied you.” No. Did she just say that? Kaiya covered her mouth.   If only Avarax would swoop in and devour her now.

The Ankiran prince’s lips melted into a frown and his attention shifted to her slippers. “Please hear our entreaty. The Kingdom of Madura occupies almost all of Ankira, in part because of their twice-renewed trade agreement from Cathay. For almost thirty years, you have sold them firepowder. Now, our soldiers are weary and our coffers are depleted. The agreement expires soon. We ask, no, beg that you do not renew it.”

Released from his gaze, her mind began to clear. “How were you able to make it through the Maduran lines?”

Prince Hardeep raised his head. Kaiya avoided those mesmerizing eyes, and instead focused on his chin as he spoke. “One of your lords, Peng Kai-Long, has long supported us. I came with him on a Cathayi trade ship.”

It made sense. Cousin Kai-Long served as a trade negotiator in Ayuri lands and knew a lot of influential people in Tivaralan’s South. He had recently returned to the capital to attend the upcoming wedding of Second Brother.

“He is my father’s favorite nephew,” she said. “ I am sure he could present a more convincing argument to the Son of Heaven than I.

Prince Hardeep shook his head. “Search inside yourself and speak with your heart. A father cannot deny the compassionate voice of his beloved daughter. Please. Our riches have been plundered, our people enslaved.” His voice beckoned her head up. “Widows must sell their bodies, while orphans starve in the streets.”

His gaze twisted into her. Her heart, suddenly hot, sank into her belly. Father must not have known the consequences of Hua’s trade agreement, since he ruled with the moral authority of Heaven. Here was a chance to show her understanding of statecraft, to prove she was worthy of her noble birth, while helping a downtrodden people.

“I will convey your message. Please make yourself comfortable until my return.” She paused for a moment to search his expression. All signs of his earlier frivolity were gone. He’d just been toying with her to get what he wanted.

It didn’t matter. It was the right thing to do. With an inward sigh, she turned and swept out of the hall, her guards marching behind her.

Outside, Kaiya took a deep breath of cool spring air to calm her thoughts and the hot constriction in her chest. Never before had a man made her pulse race like that. Then again, she had nothing but six fawning suitors to compare him to.

No, this had nothing to do with Prince Hardeep’s charm. An entire nation suffered, with Hua’s complicity. Father had always preached morality. She turned to the official. “Where is the Tianzi now?”

The old man gawked. “I don’t think–”

She cast a silencing glare.

He bowed his head. “In the Hall of Supreme Harmony.”

As the palace’s central audience chamber, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was just a few minutes away, up one hundred sixty-eight arduous steps. Father rode an ornate golden palanquin to the top, but Kaiya, like anyone else who wasn’t the Tianzi, had to climb.

Each step planted a seed of doubt in her head. A princess had no business in politics, besides solidifying loyalties through marriage. Remonstrating the Tianzi in front of all the lords and ministers would embarrass Father, so much he would have no choice but to punish her.

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1 comment

  1. Francis Mills

    Hello there,
    I did a one hour read of your book and I thought it was very beautifully written. I posted a review on http://www.amazon.com and on my own website.
    That being said I would like to invite you to do an Author Interview on my webpage. E-mail me if you are interested.
    In addition to this I’m also a Sword & Sorcery indie author. If you wanna take a look at my books and maybe give me a review I can send you free copies.
    Thanks, Keep writing! Keep supporting indie authors!
    Francis Mills

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