Miles from home, with only her delicate butterfly swords for defense, she enlists the reluctant protection of a blue-eyed warrior .
Battle-scarred, embittered Ryam has always held his own life at cheap value. Ai Li's innocent trust in him and honorable, stubborn nature make him desperate to protect herwhich means not seducing the first woman he has ever truly wanted .
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
758 AD ChinaTang Dynasty
The palanquin dipped sharply and Ai Li had to brace her hands against the sides to stay upright. Amidst the startled cries of her attendants, the enclosure lurched again before crashing to the ground with the splintering crack of wood. She gasped as the elaborate headdress toppled from her lap and she was thrown from her seat. A tight knot formed in her stomach, and she fought to stay calm.
What she heard next was unmistakable. The clash of metal upon metal just beyond the curtain that covered the wedding sedan. Sword-strike, a sound she woke up to every morning. With her heart pounding, she struggled to free herself from the tangle of red silk about her ankles. This skirt, the entire dress, was so heavy, laden with jewels and a hundred li of embroidery thread.
She fumbled behind the padded cushions of her seat, searching frantically for her swords. She had put them there herself, needing some reminder of home, the way another girl might find comfort in her childhood doll.
Her hand finally closed around the hilt. She tightened her grip to stop from shaking. From outside, the sounds of fighting grew closer. She ignored the inner voice that told her this was madness and pulled the swords free. The short blades barely fit in the cramped space. She had no time for doubt, not when so much was at risk. With the tip of one sword, she pushed the curtain aside.
A stream of sunlight blinded her momentarily. The servants scattered like a flock of cranes around her, all posts abandoned. Squinting, she focused on the hulking figure that blocked the entrance and raised her blades in defence.
A familiar voice cried out then, 'Gongzhu!'
Old Wu, the elder lieutenant, rushed to her while she faced the stranger. Her armed escort struggled against a band of attackers. In the confusion, she couldn't tell who was who.
Wu pulled her behind the cover of the palanquin. The creases around his eyes deepened. 'Gongzhu, you must go now.'
She stared at the thugs surrounding her. Wu had been a bit too successful at finding men to pose as bandits.
'There are clothes, money.'
Wu spoke the instructions and the head 'bandit' grabbed on to her arm. Instinctively, she dug in her heels to resist him. Everything was unfolding so quickly, but she had known there would be no turning back.
The stranger relaxed his grip, but did not release her. An act, she reminded herself, fighting the panic constricting her chest.
'There is no more time,' Wu pleaded.
'Your loyalty will not be forgotten.'
She let herself be pulled through the trees, stumbling to keep up with the ragged band. Who were these men Old Wu had enlisted? When she looked back, he was standing beside the toppled sedan, his shoulders sagging as if he carried a sack of stones. The secret he'd revealed to her two days ago weighed heavily on her as well. Ai Li hoped that she could trust him.
God's teeth, the scent of cooking rice had never smelled so sweet.
Ryam's stomach clenched as he stared across the dirt road. An open-air tavern stood empty save for the cook stirring an iron pot over the fire. The establishment was little more than a hut propped up in a clearing: four beams supporting a straw-thatched roof. Bare wooden benches offered weary travellers a place to rest between towns and partake of food and drink.
Travellers with coin, of course. The only metal Ryam had touched in months was the steel of his sword. He was nearly hungry enough to eat that.
The proprietor perched at the entrance, whip-thin and wily in his black robe as he stared down the vacant trail. Nothing but wooded thickets in either direction. A single dirt road cut through the brush, leading to the stand.
Ryam pulled his hood over his head with a sharp tug and retreated into the shade. He was too big, his skin too pale, a barbarian in the Chinese empire. Bdi gui, they called him. White demon. Ghost man.
He wrestled with his pride, preparing to beg if he had to. Before he could approach, a mottled shape appeared in the glare of the afternoon sun. The proprietor jumped into motion and waved the newcomer into the tavern.
'Hudny ng, gu z , hudny ng,' the proprietor gushed. His head bobbed as he bowed and bowed again.
Welcome, my lord, welcome.
Four men followed the first traveller inside and tossed their weapons with a clatter onto the table. Their presence forced Ryam back beneath the branches. A heartbeat later, he realised what was bothering him. That was no man at the centre of this rough bunch. Not with hips that swayed like that. He was wrong about many things, but there was no mistaking the instinctive stir of his blood at the sight of her.
The woman wore an owl-grey tunic over loose-fitting trousers. A woollen cap hid her hair. With her height, she could have passed for a lanky youth. She affected a lofty confidence as she addressed the proprietor. Behaviour appropriate for a male of superior status.
Ryam knew the rules of status. As a foreigner he was the lowest creature on the ladder, a hair above lepers and stray dogs. It was one of the reasons he skirted the back country, avoiding confrontation. The promise of a hot meal had tempted him into the open. The sight of this woman tempted him in another way. Beneath the formless clothing, she moved with a fluid grace that made his pulse quicken. He had forgotten that irrational pleasure of being distracted by a pretty girl. Blind masculine instinct aside, the determination with which she carried on with her ruse made him smile.
He wasn't the only one paying such careful attention to her. The proprietor cast a scrutinising glance over his shoulder while he spoke to the cook, then donned his previously submissive demeanour as he returned to the table, balancing bowls of rice soup on a tray. Apparently, the woman overestimated the effectiveness of her disguise.
The proprietor set down the last bowl before his customers, then looked up. His mouth twisted into a scowl the moment he saw Ryam across the road.
'Away with you!' He strode to the edge of the stand. 'Worthless son of a dog.'
Ryam let his hand trail to the sword hidden beneath his cloak. He had become a master at biting his tongue, but today the sun bore into him like bamboo needles and the ache in his belly felt all the more hollow. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't think to use his weapon against this fool, but he seriously considered it as the verbal abuse continued. It was like being pecked to death by an irate rooster.
He gritted his teeth. 'The old man does not own this road,' he muttered.
At least he hoped he said that. All the years on this side of the world and the only phrases he had at his command were bawdy insults and a smattering of pillow talk.
The rooster ducked inside, only to re-emerge with a club bigger than his arm. Ryam straightened to his full height with a warning growl. From her seat, the woman craned her neck at the disturbance. The men around her turned in unison. The four of them pinned him with their cold stares. He was making a wonderful impression.
'Leave him, Uncle.' The woman's voice rang clear across the road, lowered in an attempt to further her pretence. 'He means no harm to you.'
The proprietor backed away, muttering about foreign devils. The woman rose then, and Ryam stiffened with his back pressed against the tree. Now was the time to leave, but pure stubbornness held him in place. Stubbornness or reckless curiosity.
He focused his attention on her boots as she came near. The hilt of a weapon teased over the edge of the tanned leather. He wondered if she could wield it with any skill.
'Are you hungry, Brother?'
She held her bowl out to him, extending her arm with great care as if approaching a wild beast. The steam from the rice carried hints of ginger and scallions to his nose and his stomach twisted in greedy little knots.
He was well aware of how he must look to her. Another one of the hordes of beggars and vagrants roaming the empire since the collapse of the old regime. Against his better judgement, he lifted his head and for the barest second, forgot that he was stranded and that he was starving.
Her eyes widened as she met his gaze. Hazel eyes, like the turning of autumn leaves. How anyone could mistake her for a man was beyond his understanding.
Now that she had seen who he was, he assumed she would recoil in fear or disgust or, even worse, pity. Instead she regarded him with curious interest. Next to kindness, it was the last reaction he expected.
'Xi xie.' He mumbled his thanks as he took the food from her slack fingers. Any words he knew would be inadequate for this moment.
She nodded wordlessly and backed away, still staring. Only when she had returned to her companions did she take her eyes off him. By then the rice had gone cold. He gulped it down in three swallows and set the bowl on the ground before pausing to steal a final glance.
Inside the hut, the group finished their meal with little conversation and tossed a scatter of copper coins onto the table. A sense of desolation fell over him when she turned to go, but she did look back. He nodded once in farewell. They were both in hiding, after allhe in the shadows and the woman behind her disguise.
Once she disappeared down the road, he scarcely had time to straighten before the old man returned with his club and his viper tongue. Ryam presented his back to the stream of insults.
He trudged westwards, as he had done for the last month. The last remnants of their legion remained in the marshlands outside the north-western border. Perhaps he would no longer be welcome, but he had no other place to go.
Five years ago, they had fought their way across the silk routes to end up at the edge of the Tang Empire. The Emperor had tolerated their presence, but Ryam's last blunder had likely destroyed any hope of a continued truce.
A hundred paces from the tavern and his feet began to drag. He swayed, caught off guard by the lurch in his step. A tingling sensation stole to his fingertips and toes. This feeling was all too familiar. Heavy headed, off balance, tongue thick in his mouth.
He was drunk.
Not drunk, drugged. The little beauty had drugged him and then abandoned him . But that didn't make any sense. Cursing, he shook his head to clear the fog in his skull. Thinking was becoming an even harder task than moving.
The woman had given him her food which meant the drug was meant for her.
He reached for his sword, then froze with his fingers clenched over the hilt. This was the sort of impulse that had almost got him killed. His head spun with whatever they had slipped into the rice. He grappled with the odds. He was an outsider. He knew nothing about her or her bodyguards.
But those startling eyes had looked at him as if he was something more than an animal.
To hell with it.
Lifting one leaden foot after another, he forced himself around and drew his sword, lumbering back towards the tavern. The old proprietor shrieked when he saw him. The stack of bowls he carried crashed to the ground as the man scrambled for cover. Ryam ran past him and continued on the road.
He heard shouting in the distance and tore through the undergrowth in pursuit of it. Branches snapped against him, scraping over his arms and face. He stumbled into a clearing and everything slammed into his head at once: the pound of footsteps and the flash of steel. A dozen bandits armed with knives surrounded the swordsmen from the tavern. Ryam blinked through the haze clouding his eyes and searched for the girl.
She stood her ground at the centre of the swarm, wielding a blade in each hand. The swords flew in a whirl of motion. Rushing forwards, Ryam slammed his shoulder into one of her opponents and then struck the hilt of his sword against the man's skull. The bandit crumbled to the ground.
One down. With an air of satisfaction, he swung to face her, grasping at the proper words. 'I'm a friend'
Her boot slammed neatly into his groin.
Pain exploded through his entire body. Nauseatingly bad pain. He should have left her to the wolves.
Without mercy, she came at him with the swords while he was doubled over. He hefted his blade up and parried once and then again. God's feet, she was fast. He shoved her aside roughly. His body begged to sink to the dirt.
'Here to help,' he ground out.
Her arm stopped mid-strike as she focused on him. Another one of her companions collapsed as the drugs took effect and the bandits circled closer. She swung around, swords raised to face the next attack.
The battle continued for him in bits and pieces. He struck out again and once again he connected. In minutes he would be useless. He grabbed the woman's arm.
'Too many,' he forced out.
She hesitated, scanning the field before going with him. More bandits gave chase, but he drove them back with a wild swing of his blade. Then he was running. Tall grass whipped at him while his world tilted, strangely yellow and dark at the edges. He blinked and when he opened his eyes the surroundings were unfamiliar. The woman had pulled ahead and she was shouting something at him. He stumbled and the next thing he knew was the smack of solid earth against his chin.
The muddled taste of blood and dirt seeped into his mouth. Spitting, he rolled himself over, his arms and legs dragging. He could no longer feel them. He could no longer feel anything.
The swordswoman hovered over him, her lips moving soundlessly. He fought against the blackness that seduced his eyelids downwards, but the ground felt really, really good. Unable to resist any longer, he let his eyes close. He hoped he'd have a chance to open them again.
The foreigner lay on his back, denting the wild grass while his breath rumbled deep in his chest. Taking hold of one shoulder, Ai Li shook him as hard as she could.
The man was built like a mountain.
With a sigh, she looked back at the line of the trees, head tilted to listen. No footsteps. No one chasing after them. The dense undergrowth provided cover, but if they found her she was lost. She did not know who the attackers were, but she hoped they were merely outlaws. She prayed they weren't men sent to take her back to Li Tao.