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Tang Dynasty, Chinaad 759
Lady Ling Suyin waited in the parlour at the edge of the Snake hour, her house rendered silent except for the buzz of dragonflies outside. The tea before her had long gone cold. The last servant had brought it that morning before fleeing.
The boldest of them had begged her to join them, but the warlord who was coming for her would burn every village along the river to find her. She wouldn't add to her growing collection of debt. Another stone on the scale.
She straightened at the crunch of boots over leaves at the front of the house. They were steady and deliberate. Her heart pounded harder with each impending step. He'd come alone. Her breath caught as the imposing figure appeared in the doorway, every bit the demon they spoke of in the imperial court. Black robe, dark hair cut short, an impassive expression that revealed nothing to her. That meant she had nothing over him.
'Ling Guifei.' His voice rang deep as he greeted her by title.
'I am no one's Precious Consort any longer, Governor Li.'
Suyin remained seated and let the military governor approach. If she stood, her legs might fail her. The prominence of his features added to her fear. This was a face that could never be overlooked. All sun-darkened skin and sharp angles. A scar cut below his left eye, ruining his stark symmetry. That was new.
The first and only time she had seen Li Tao, he'd stood before the imperial court as a young man being commended for his valour. The restless energy that once had radiated from him was constrained behind a wall of discipline. Time had honed him to razor sharpness. Time had not left her untouched either.
'This humble servant is here to offer himself as the lady's escort.'
All the civility in the world could not take the edge off him.
Her stomach fluttered in warning, but she breathed through it. She propped an elbow on to the table and made her tone as light as possible. All the while, her heart pounded so hard she could barely hear her words.
'A thousand apologies, my lord, but I have no plans for travel.'
'This place is no longer safe for you.'
As if she could be safe with him. There was nowhere safe for her any longer, no allies left to protect her. Would the late Emperor's enforcer come for her after so many years? She had thought her secrets long buried.
Suyin dug her nails into the edge of the table as he stepped closer. She had been left alone to fend for herself before, but she had been young and defenceless. An accomplished courtesan should be able to command her fear. She should be able to command the man in front of her.
Li Tao halted two strides from her and she spied the silhouette of a weapon inside the drape of his sleeve. An assassin's blade. She lifted the cup and took a sip to cover her shock. Cold, bitter tea slid over her tongue. Experience allowed her to keep from trembling, but she had no control over the way her heart raced or how her palms grew damp as he loomed over her.
She managed to keep her hand steady as she set the cup down. Her next words came out in the melodic, careless tone she had perfected. 'Since my lord has come so far for this task, we should not waste any more time. Shall I gather my belongings?'
'There is nothing the lady needs.'
The warlord addressed her as if she were his superior. It wasn't much, but there had to be some way to use it. She caught the trailing edge of her shawl and draped it over her shoulders. She stood straight and paused before gliding past him.
He made no move toward her, but he was watching. All men did.
She stepped through the empty house, listening to his purposeful stride on the floorboards behind her. He was too close. By the time she emerged outside, her fingers were numb from being clenched so tight.
A palanquin awaited her by the side of the single dusty road leading from her manor. A regiment of soldiers outfitted in black and red assembled around the litter. The military governors, the jiedushi, commanded their own regional forces independent of the Emperor's army. No one challenged them within their own domains, but this stretch of the forest was clearly under imperial jurisdiction. This was an affront the Emperor would not overlook.
Li Tao followed her like a gathering storm to the sedan and the urge to flee nearly overwhelmed her. If she ran, it would only remind him that he was a hunter, a warrior, a killer. As it was, some part of him thought he was a gentleman.
'Where are we going?'
That was all he'd grant her. With a heaviness in her chest, she looked back. The August Emperor had built this home for her before his death. The manor itself meant nothing to her. Her gaze drifted to the river beyond, a rolling canvas on which the sunlight danced. She breathed deep to take in the scent of the river, of the surrounding moss and earth. This was what she would miss.
It had been too much to wish that she could be hidden away and forgotten. Perhaps she had always known someone would come for her. Debts had to be repaid in this life or the next.
She stopped before the palanquin and turned to find herself face to face with the most ruthless of the jiedushi. He was a tower of lean strength and corded muscle up close. And he was still assessing her with that penetrating gaze.
She wouldn't cower before him. The rulers of the empire devoured the weak. She waited until he came forwards to pull the curtain aside with a sweep of his arm. The tiniest of concessions.
'Tell me, Governor
' she ran a fingertip across her own cheek '
how did you get that scar?'
His eyes narrowed. 'A woman,' he said after a pause.
Her lips teased into a smile. 'Fascinating.'
His hand tightened on the curtain, the material clenched between his fingers. At once his pupils darkened, his breathing grew deep. The signs were there and she could read them like lines of poetry. How else was a woman to protect herself in the world of men? Li Tao, for all of his supposed cunning, was just another man.
'You do not disappoint,' he said in a low voice.
He dropped into the familiar form of address. The spark in his eyes showed the first hint of any heat beneath the cold exterior.
For a dark moment, she was caught in the call of his gaze. They were close, nearly touching. She had provoked him on purpose, but regretted it as an alarming awareness unfurled itself within her, prickling just beneath her skin. The regiment of soldiers surrounding them faded. There was only one man here she had any fear of.
'And here I had thought the game was over for me,' she murmured.
He didn't respond. Her shoulder brushed against his sleeve as she slipped inside the wooden transport. His black eyes remained on her as the curtain fell back across the opening.
The journey came to Suyin in fragments snatched through the window. She caught glimpses of thick vines growing over the trees, the reflection of sunlight off distant water. Li Tao rode at the front and his soldiers kept her surrounded at every moment. This must be Li Tao's infamous first battalion. They called themselves the Rising Guard and held the reputation of being the fiercest warriors in the empire.
The dense shade and the babble of her river gave way to a dirt road grooved with wheel tracks. They were going south, further away from the seat of imperial power. She no longer had a place in the new Emperor's court, but she clung to the illusion that the centre of the empire was a safe and civilised place. What lay beyond was lawless and unpredictable. That was why they had needed the jiedushi.
On the fourth day, they passed an armed barricade. Grim-faced soldiers patrolled the line and she ducked away from the window.
It was true. The regional armies were assembling. She had isolated herself from the capital city of Changan to escape from the unrest, but news had still drifted to her over the last year through her servants. They made weekly trips to the city markets while she remained shut away in her manor.
There was only one reason for a barricade in the interior of the empire. There was infighting among the military governors. They had been gaining in power for years and continued to seize control in the uncertainty of Emperor Shen's rule. Perhaps she should have gone into hiding with the servants after all.
With a shudder, she pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders. She was dressed in the same clothes she had worn when they had come for her, the only possessions Li Tao had allowed her to bring.
She hated this part. The going away. The earth element in her longed to remain grounded in one place. Travel never held good tidings. Abrupt change brought back memories of being uprooted and taken some place far and unknown. It always seemed to come to that, and she knew from experience there was never a way to return.
The survival instinct returned to her, encasing her like a second skin. She sharpened her senses and became aware of everything around her. Li Tao prepared for war with swords and soldiers. She had her own weapons.
Over the next days, the open road faded beneath the shadow of a mountain and the soil became dark and rich. They travelled into a verdant forest of bamboo. The stalks rose high overhead. They called it the bamboo sea, not for any vast stretch of water, but for the rhythmic sway of the bamboo and the rustle of the spear-tipped leaves in the breeze. The green canopy engulfed them on all sides. When she blinked away from the window, a red haze remained over her eyes, veiling the world in an unnatural glow.
Suyin peered out of the window of the sedan to search for Li Tao. He rode tall in the saddle with his back straight. His dark robe stood out against the forest green. Naturally, he became her main focal point. He had all the power and she had none.
He'd barely spoken to her except for the scant conversation they'd exchanged by the river. Why would he go beyond his barricades to take her captive? Her influence had died with the August Emperor. She was merely a relic now, faded and wrung free of any usefulness.
The caravan came to an abrupt stop and the curtain was swept aside. Once again, Li Tao stood before her. He extended his hand and she had no choice but to take it, pressing her fingers briefly over his before letting go. The fleeting warmth of the touch lingered on her skin and a disturbing awareness curled around her as she stood beside him. She knew how to identify influence and power, but had never been so recklessly drawn to it.
She redirected her attention to the mansion nestled among the towering bamboo. It was twice the size of her home and built in the same opulent style of imperial architecture. The silhouette invoked the elaborate pagodas of the palace with wooden beams and tiled rooftops. Its grand structure intruded upon the tranquil forest.
'Why am I here?'
'As I said, it was not safe for you by the river.'
Her head tilted to him in challenge. 'So the governor has appointed himself as my protector?'
His only reply was a wry twist of his lips before he gestured toward the front of the mansion. The man hoarded his words like gold coins. Every action was so controlled, she wondered if he ever lost himself in anger or passion. The last thought sent a shiver down her spine.
Li Tao remained behind her as they moved past the twin-lion statues that guarded the entrance. With every step, she became more aware of his dominance. His stride was confident and his authority complete. The illusion of deference he presented by allowing her to lead the way was laughable. How long would it be before he made his true demands known?
Household servants filed into the entrance hall one after another. Only seven of them, a small number for such a spacious compound. A grey-haired, round-faced woman headed the assembly. She gasped when Li Tao made the introduction.
'Ling GuifeiV The old woman bowed and bowed. The narrow bones of her shoulders protruded through the brown servant's robe.
'Jinmei, show Lady Ling to her apartments.' Li Tao cast a dismissive glance in Suyin's direction before turning to leave.
Insufferable. She flushed hot with anger as he disappeared down a corridor. He had treated her with the same indifference throughout the journey. She had been taken from her home under force of arms, yet he cast her aside as if she was of no importance at all. It wasit was worse than being interrogated and threatened. At least then she'd know what his plans were.
The head woman touched her arm gently. 'Come with Auntie Jinmei.'
The guards marched behind them as she led Suyin through the spacious hall.
'Guifei is more beautiful than they say,' Auntie cooed, using the revered title the August Emperor had bestowed upon Suyin. 'We are honoured and overjoyed for this visit.'
A pleasant visit indeed. Escorted by fifty armed men.