The Dragon Scale Lute

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Chapter 2: Intents and Purposes

The shuffling of court robes and the cloying scent of incense greeted Kaiya as she stepped over the high threshold and into the cavernous hall. Dozens of golden columns vaulted toward the ceiling, where tiled mosaic depicted a dragon and phoenix circling each other. She mused over their symbolic significance. The male dragon and female phoenix represented balance, even if men’s and women’s roles were far from equal.

All the more reason not to be here, presenting a case Father had no intention of hearing. Kaiya ventured down an aisle formed by dozens of kneeling ministers and hereditary lords. Save for her eldest brother Kai-Guo, all pressed their heads to the marble floor as she made her way toward the white marble dais. Carved into its sides were dozens of bat and lotus symbols, which she counted to calm her nerves.

Her father slouched on the jade throne, which was chiseled in the form of a coiled dragon. Yellow robes embroidered with auspicious symbols on the chest and elbows hung over his gaunt frame. Gone was the robust optimism she remembered from her childhood. Mother’s recent passing left the gold phoenix throne at his side as empty as his heart.

A lump formed in Kaiya’s throat. She sank to both knees. Stretching her arms out to straighten her sleeves, she placed her hands in front of her as she pressed her forehead to the floor.

The Tianzi’s voice wobbled. “Rise, my daughter.”

Kaiya straightened and met his piercing regard, the one that warned not to mention the foreign prince. Her resolve faltered. No, there was little point in bringing it up.

Except that Prince Hardeep and his people suffered. Her chest clenched again. “Please hear the request of Prince Hardeep Vaswani of Ankira.”

Behind her, the lords and ministers stifled gasps.

Yet Father’s expression softened. “What does Prince Hardeep ask of Hua?”

Sheng-shang,” she said, using the formal address for the Tianzi. “He asks that we cease sales of firepowder to the Madurans.”

The ministers broke into a low murmur until Chief Minister Tan rose to one knee, head bowed. “Sheng-shang, I negotiated our original agreement with Madura. It has been mutually beneficial.”

Beneficial…riches for Hua, conquest for Madura. Misery for her Prince Hardeep’s Ankira. Kaiya turned and glared at Chief Minister Tan. Fine lines of age framed his triangular face, giving him a foxlike appearance. When she released him from her gaze, he averted his eyes as protocol demanded.

She turned back to her father. “Sheng-shang, do the Classics not say that a ruler must act morally? Our actions have led to an unenviable situation in Ankira that we should seek to rectify.”

Cousin Peng Kai-Long rose up to one knee. “Sheng-shang, I agree with the princess. Not only that, but once they pacify Ankira, and the trade agreement does expire, the Madurans will turn their ambitions toward us.”

Chief Minister Tan shook his head. “We are their source of firepowder. They will make war with someone else.”

And spread misery, with Hua’s complicity. What kind of country put profit over people? Not only should they not renew the trade agreement…Kaiya composed a dignified response in her head. “A moral nation would terminate the treaty now.”

More murmurs.

“Unfortunately, that is not an option,” the Chief Minister said. “In the original negotiations, I bore an Imperial Plaque. To go against our word, sealed with a plaque, is tantamount to the Tianzi forsaking the Mandate of Heaven. It would invite another Hellstorm.”

Kaiya sucked in her breath at the implication. Three centuries before, the last emperor of the preceding Yu Dynasty had reneged on his plaque-bound obligations. The gods rained divine fire from the sky as punishment, blasting open a new sea in the fertile plains of the Ayuri South and plunging the world into the Long Winter.

It was unusual for an Imperial Plaque to be used in simple trade negotiations, since it represented the honor of the Tianzi. However, as a girl-- even as princess-- she couldn’t challenge the Chief Minister’s word directly. She raised an eyebrow at him. “How much longer does the agreement last?”

Tan’s eyebrows furrowed together as he looked to the ceiling. “A year, maybe? I do not recall.”

Prince Hardeep didn’t have a year. Kaiya turned back to Father. “Should we delay a decision until we find the original contract in the Trade Ministry’s archives?”

The Tianzi straightened on the throne. He waved toward the lords and officials. “Everyone but Crown Prince Kai-Guo, Young Lord Peng and Princess Kaiya will withdraw for tea.”

All present bowed their foreheads to the floor before rising. Whether they drank tea or not, the Tianzi’s suggestion left no doubt they would drink something, somewhere else. They filed out in precise order.

Kaiya folded her hands into her lap. Father’s stare might have been a dwarf anvil on her shoulders.

Once the room cleared, the servants closed the doors. The hall seemed more cavernous with only her brother, Cousin Kai-Long and a dozen Imperial Guards remaining, made even more so by the Tianzi’s echoing voice.

“Kai-Long,” he said. “It seems the foreign prince ignored the unspoken denial and deigned to pressure the princess into acting as his mouthpiece.”

Cousin Kai-Long pressed his head to the floor. “Sheng-shang, forgive me for suggesting it.”

Kaiya found him in the corner of her eye. She’d failed all their expectations.

“I warned you, Cousin.” Eldest Brother Kai-Guo’s lips drew into a tight line. “Wit doesn’t make up for a lack of training. She should have just occupied him with idle banter. Smart as she may be, she is more musician than imperial representative.”

Heat pulsed in Kaiya’s cheeks. Apparently, they’d forgotten she was kneeling right there beside them. Then, Kai-Guo’s eyes fell on her hand, which subconsciously twirled a lock of her hair, proving his point. Heat tinged her cheeks as she jerked the hand back to her lap.

Kai-Guo looked to the throne. “Father, may I speak freely?”

“I would not have sequestered the family if not to allow you the latitude.”

Kai-Guo bowed his head. “Then if I may, you dote on Kaiya to the detriment of the realm. You could have ordered her to marry any six of the previous young lords she met. Instead, you not only allowed her to choose, you pulled her out of matchmaking meetings.”

Father’s brows clashed together for a split second. “She is not ready to marry, not to one of those men.”

So the interruptions had been Father’s doing, but why? What was wrong with those suitors, besides their lack of wit and self-absorbed attitude?

“She needs to marry one of those men,” Kai-Guo said. “A princess’ duty--”

The Tianzi’s lip quirked just a fraction into a frown. Kai-Guo fell silent and bowed.

Father’s expression softened as he turned to her. “My daughter, it was unfair of me to assign you this task after shielding you from court intrigue all this time. I indulged your love of music when I should have been preparing you to become my eyes and ears in your future husband’s fief.”

Suppressing a sigh, Kaiya bowed her head. To the realm, her worth as a musician would never surpass her value as a bride. “Why one of those six men?”

Father’s eyes searched hers. “What do they have in common?”

Besides having less personality than a rock? Kaiya cocked her head. “They were all sons of Yu-Ming lords.”

“Yes. Second rank prefectural and county nobles.” Father’s stare bore into her. “From where?”

Why was it important? She caught herself before twirling the unruly lock of hair again. “The north. Regions near the Wall.”

“What can you tell me about the area?”

Had she known a geography test would follow matchmaking and greeting foreign dignitaries, maybe she would have stolen a few minutes out of her rigid schedule to study a map. Her brows furrowed. On her last trip, she’d seen… “Rolling hills rise into mountains. Bloodwood trees dot the mountainsides. The land is poor for farming, but the counties thrive from mining.”

He released her from his gaze and looked to Kai-Guo and Kai-Long. “See? She understands more than it appears.” He turned back to her. “My daughter, while the realm may seem prosperous and stable, not All Under Heaven is well. My spies say several of the lords of the north harbor rebellious intent. They are as hard as the mountains they defend. To keep them content and docile, we buy from their saltpeter mines and process it in the capital to make firepowder.”

Kaiya sucked in a sharp breath. For Prince Hardeep and his Ankira, that meant… “We need foreign markets to sell the firepowder.”

The Tianzi tilted his head a fraction. “We reserve the freshest for ourselves and sell older stocks.”

She sucked in a breath. “What about Ankira? We profit from their misery.”

“Sometimes, practicality shades moral precepts.”

At her side, Brother and Cousin nodded.

Kaiya lowered her hand from where she was again twisting that lock of hair. Her own father rationalized actions that caused another peoples’ suffering. Wasn’t this the paragon of nobility who had ingrained a sense of morality in her? “But--”

His eyes narrowed, the warmth replaced by authority. “Convey my regret to Prince Hardeep.”

Cowed by his stern tone, she bowed. Kai-Guo and Kai-Long followed suit.

When she raised her head, her father’s expression lightened. “You are so beautiful, my daughter. I will announce your betrothal at the reception tonight. After you send the foreign prince away, go meet with General Lu.”

The bottom dropped out of her stomach. Betrothal! To the commander of the armies in the north. The meeting had been more than a choreographed farce, and with a possible rebellion brewing, perhaps The Guardian Dragon of Hua had not been the one to request it after all.

She started to speak, but Father’s genuine smile stifled her protest. This deal appeared as immutable as Hua’s agreement with Madura. She’d be married, probably as soon as she flowered with Heaven’s Dew, perhaps even forbidden by her dour new husband from singing.

Rising, she trudged out of the hall, back into bright sunlight. This had to be a dream. Marriage. Like Xiulan, night after night of trying to make babies with Eldest Brother Kai-Guo. Monotonous routines all day. But at least she could practice her art with friends and family.

Not Kaiya. She’d be shipped away to literally foreign, barren hills. Devoid of music. Alone. No, it couldn’t be real. She took a deep breath to slow her stuttering heart. A smooth river pebble found its way from her sash into her hand. Cool and soothing, it was a token from her childhood friend Zheng Tian, the boy she’d once laughingly promised to marry. How simple and carefree those days were! If only she could marry him instead of some pompous soldier. But no, even though he might be the son of a first rank Tai-Ming Lord, he’d been banished years ago for a stupid mistake.

She glanced back at her senior-most Imperial Guard, Chen Xin. He was looking at her hand, frowning. No matter the feeling, it would not do to let anyone see weakness. With a wistful sigh, she straightened her spine and squirrelled the pebble back in its place in her sash. Before meeting her future husband, there was first the equally onerous task of walking back and denying a desperate plea. Thoughts of her own dismal future would have to wait.

Outside the Hall of Bountiful Harvests, she paused and composed herself. Prince Hardeep was just a man. A handsome one, for sure, but she’d met many other good looking men without wilting into a starry-eyed fool. Steeling herself against whatever magic Prince Hardeep had used to beguile her, she stepped over the threshold.

The prince pressed his hands together and bent his head as she entered. He looked up expectantly.

His eyes. They again entranced her.

Her straight posture softened as her stomach summersaulted. She bowed low. It broke formal court etiquette, and indeed, the ministry secretary clucked his disapproval. At least it would conceal her spine turning to jelly. She held the position and stared at the prince’s red and gold-threaded shoes. “I am afraid that Cathay must honor its agreements, lest the Tianzi lose the Mandate of Heaven and the realm descends into chaos.”

“Please, do not apologize.” His voice was sweet again, with a touch of melancholy. General Lu would probably never speak to her with such affection. “Please, raise your head.”

His last words filled her, like a warm breath into a soap bubble. She straightened.

With a defeated smile, the prince tilted his eyes downward. He was handsome, even in sadness. “Will you sing for me? As a memory of our meeting.”

A song. Kaiya’s heart flitted. She would do this for him, appropriate or not. At least someone today would appreciate her voice. She looked over her shoulder toward the official, who scowled and shook his head. No? Who was he to defy her wishes?

The prince’s lips trembled into a brittle smile.

She lifted her voice in song. Her first foray into diplomacy might have ended in disaster, but with music, very few in Hua could rival her. The Long Walk Home, recounted a soldier’s perilous journey home after a battle during the First Age of Empires. With each note, she shed away her poor imitation of imperial grace, replacing it with the sincerity of her heart. Not even the tight dress could contain her. Verse upon verse rose to a crescendo, her spirit floating with it.

Prince Hardeep’s blue eyes sparkled. “Even Yanyan would envy your voice.”

Heat rose to her cheeks. How could he compare her to the girl from a thousand years before, who summoned storms with her music, and sang the dragon Avarax to sleep? “Yanyan charmed an orc army into surrender with her song. I could not even convince my father to change his mind.”

“You spoke from your heart and the emperor listened.” His forlorn smile sent a chill up her spine. “With an indomitable spirit, you can move your people to do the right thing.”

Could she? Besides Cousin Kai-Long, none the men in the Hall of Supreme Harmony had shown any concern for morality. She sighed. “If I had the voice of Yanyan, he would have listened.”

Those blue eyes searched hers. “Magic in artistic endeavor. It is the gift of your people, just as the fighting arts are ours. Come with me, and scatter the Maduran armies with the power of your voice.”

Was he suggesting running away? With him? Escaping marriage with General Lu? She glanced back at the official. If he understood, the prince might lose his head. And if only shirking duty were so easy. It’s not like they’d make it to the front gates, even if she could bring herself to take up his offer. Tearing her gaze away, she shook her head. “Even though Master performers from Hua’s past could accomplish amazing feats with music, those skills have since faded into legend. You would need an elf.” Like her father’s councilor, Lord Xu. Too bad nobody could predict when the enigmatic elf would appear.

Prince Hardeep took her hands in his. Excitement rose in his tone. “With your voice and musical talent, you have the potential. We will research. I can help you scour your records. Together, We could learn how the masters did it.”

His touch sent heat up her arms and into her core. Behind her, the official sucked in a sharp breath and the imperial guards stepped forward. Kaiya withdrew her hands, for his safety, and raised an open hand to assuage the guards. Was it even possible? “How can I learn from books what the elf angel taught Yanyan?”

“I would hazard to guess that singing a dragon to sleep is just a little more difficult than convincing a doting father to do the right thing.” He put a finger to his chin and smiled. “And if, no, when you succeed, you will save my nation.”

Yes! No. Even if it were possible to learn from old books, using magic to change a Tianzi’s mind flirted with treason even more than running away. She met his gaze again. Those eyes implored her, making her belly flutter. No, helping Ankira was the moral thing to do. Here was a chance to show that music was worth something. She was worth something, beyond her value as a bride to some lord. “I will try.”

A smile bloomed on his face. “Ankira owes you a debt of gratitude. I owe you.”

Kaiya twirled an errant lock of hair. “We will need to retrace Yanyan’s steps. To find out exactly where she met the elf angel.” Which meant a trip to the national archives. After the mandated matchmaking with General Lu.

She looked into the prince’s eyes. No. He was here, close, and marriage to the general seemed so far away. They’d go now, even though it meant disobeying Father.

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