Chapter 1: Not so Chance Meetings
If marriage were a woman’s grave as the proverb claimed, fourteen-year-old Princess Kaiya thought herself too young to pass out shovels. Entourage in tow, she shuffled through the castle halls toward the garden where General Lu waited. No doubt, the self-proclaimed Guardian Dragon of Hua envisioned a different kind of audition when he requested to hear her sing.
After all, the general was notorious for his dislike of the arts, and she was dressed like a potential bride.
The constricting inner robe and gold sash, meant to misrepresent her woefully underdeveloped curves, barely allowed her to draw a breath, let alone sing. The fold of the dress concealed her lanky legs, but forced a deliberate pace. Hopefully, the short stride would prevent her unsightly feet from tripping on the hanging sleeves of the vermillion outer gown.
She stifled a snort. The Guardian Dragon, such a pretentious moniker. The only real dragon Avarax, who lorded over some faraway land, might make for a more appealing audience. It wouldn’t matter what she wore for a quick trip down his maw, and it would spare her a slow death in a marriage with neither love nor music.
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. The rejection would have to be…subtle.
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. Smile, with a best approximation of feminine charm. The realm’s victorious hero would get his song, but not his next conquest.
An aging palace official stepped into her line of sight, breaking her focus on the doors. His blue robes ruffled as he tottered toward her 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.”
Kaiya froze, looking first toward the doors and then down at the man, whose insignias marked him as a secretary for the Ministry of Appointments. Family emergencies had mercifully cut short each of her 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.”
The man 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, since 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 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 with her hours of preening to smother meddlesome acne and tame 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 her 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 Last Dragon’s jaws sounded tempting. “What does he want?” she ventured.
“He has been in the capital for a week now, incessently requesting an audience with the Tianzi.”
And now they were sending her, an awkward fourteen-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.
With a sigh, she bent over and unpinned the constraining fold of her robe. Composing her expression, she squared her shoulders and lengthened her gait. By the time they arrived at the moat separating the castle from the rest of the sprawling palace, she’d mentally transformed from prospective bride to imperial representative.
Even if she still looked like the former.
At the head of the bridge waited eight Imperial Guards dressed in blue court robes. A five-clawed dragon etched into their breastplates magically 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 eyes. 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 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 her discipline in their urge to 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 honey, enveloping 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. Hehad to be lying.
Heat rose to her cheeks, threatening to melt away her makeup, and the dignified expression with it. Words of his language tumbled off her tongue, her accent lilting in her ears. “Welcome to Sun-Moon Palace, Prince Hardeep. I act as the ears of my father, the Emperor.”
Cringeworthy. 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.
The Ankiran prince’s smile melted into a frown and his eyes 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 to them. 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. Ankira’s capital was on the coast, but they had no oceangoing vessels. “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 her second brother. She said, “He is my father’s favorite nephew. 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 gaze up, and their eyes met. “Imagine the widows and orphans.”
Kaiya tried to maintain a serene appearance, but his eyes twisted into her. Her heart, suddenly hot, sank into her stomach. What if Hua were occupied, subject to the ravages of an aggressor? It was worth a try, even if Father had no intention of hearing the request in the first place. “I will convey your message. Please make yourself comfortable until I 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. 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 heart 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, undoubtedly surprised she planned on actually conveying Prince Hardeep’s plea. “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.