Whatever they thought, this was always where they were going: to the belly of the dragon, or the belly of the sea.
More by chance than good judgment, the young emperor has won his first battle. The rebels have retreated from the coastal city of Santung—but they’ll be back. Distracted by his pregnant concubine, the emperor sends a distrusted aide, Ping Wen, to govern Santung in his place. There, the treacherous general will discover the healer Tien, who is obsessed with a library of sacred mage texts and the secrets concealed within—secrets upon which, Ping Wen quickly realizes, the fate of the whole war may turn.
As all sides of this seething conflict prepare for more butchery, a miner of magical jade, himself invulnerable, desperately tries to save his beautiful and yet brutally scarred clan cousin; a priestess loses her children, who are taken as pawns in a contest beyond her comprehension; and a fierce and powerful woman commits an act of violence that will entwine her, body and soul, with the spirit of jade itself. Amid a horde of soldiers, torturers, and runaways, these people will test both their human and mystical powers against a violent world. But one force trumps all: the huge, hungry, wrathful dragon.
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Did he think she was angry, before?
Well, yes. He did think it, and he was not wrong. He had felt the slow stew of her anger, fed over centuries in chains below the sea; he had seen the sudden flare of it when she was suddenly free, when she destroyed a whole fleet of men and ships for their impertinence, abroad upon her waters; he had endured the storm of it when she found herself not so free after all, when she raged through the typhoon.
He had faced her in her fury more than once, eye to eye and far too close.
He still thought he had never seen her quite this angry, and entirely at him.
Little thing, you promised.
There were proverbs Han knew, teaching people how very foolish it was to make promises to a dragon.
I know I did. She loured above him, where he stood too close. I did promise, and I am sorry. I had not meant for this to happen.
She knew that, she was in his head.
Because she was in his head, she must know this too: that there were just two things he would not willingly relinquish, out of all the world. Despite all terror, and all betrayal. Tien was one of them, and actually this was the other: this constant grinding oppression of scale, this teetering always on the edge of a catastrophic fall. This revealed savagery, this terrible landscape, eternal wrath, this dragon.
He had tried to free her once, and failed. Her chains--or were they his chains?--were more than simple iron, and not so easily cut. He had promised it again, and meant it truly. And had betrayed her anyway, and now he could not free her anywhere this side of death. She was written on his skin, in some spell-crafted liquor more potent than mere ink. And that was Tien's doing altogether, and what he knew the dragon knew, and . . .
I will eat her. If I cannot eat you, little thing. Which they had absolutely established by now: not eat, not drown, not crush or starve or dement him into suicide, no. I will eat your vicious girl instead.
No, he said. You will not.
You cannot always keep her close. You cannot always watch her.
Right now he did not want her close. But, I don't need to, he said. The dragon was in his head, overwhelming; he was in hers, mortal and tiny and insignificant. She was written on his skin, and she could not close him out. If you go near Tien, I will know. I will not let you harm her.
Betrayal made no difference, apparently. He was no more free than the dragon; he could still not relinquish Tien.
He couldn't even match the dragon's anger. Tien understood about sacrifice, where he kicked like a rabbit in a snare. She would have sacrificed herself without a thought. Seizing an opportunity, she had sacrificed Han instead.
He knew. He had been there, helpless under her hands.
He was always helpless, it seemed, except when it came to dragons.
She said, You have to sleep, little thing. Little mortal thing. While you walk in nightmare, I will kill your girl and everything you care for.
No, he said. I don't believe you can. A part of me rides with you, that doesn't need to sleep.
His body was the least of him, it seemed to him these days. Like the paper of a book: fit for writing on, but not itself the words. Not the idea, not the book itself. Not Han.
If that was true of him, of course it must be true of her too. If her body was a vastness, a sodden hulk that reared above him like the stormclouds of her temper, her spirit was immeasurably greater.
He felt the grip of it, and slithered free like a pip between two fingers.
He felt the mighty weight of her mind bear down on his body, cramping and cruel; he rolled writhing in the mud, all pain, all overwhelmed.
But still there was that little part of him that huddled in her head, watchful, untouched. And no mud could smear those words that Tien's needle had driven into his skin, words for sleep and stillness, that he could spill like ink into the turbulent waters of her will.
The pain was unbearable but Han bore it anyway, with something close to patience, till it ebbed. Then he dragged himself shudderingly into the stink of her where she lay slumped and barely aware, sullen and seething, a storm in a bottle.
He sat on one great sprawled foot and stared into the slit of her eye, and even that deep shimmering jade seemed clouded; and he shook his head and said, You can't. However you come at me, however you hurt me, the words will overrule you now. This isn't something we can break. Either of us.
Not till I die, he said, and my skin rots and the words rot with it. Not till then. You'll just have to wait.
You can do that, can't you? he said. Just wait. Another sixty, seventy years. You've waited centuries.
We can find a way to live, he said, for one puny mortal lifetime. The two of us together.
You might enjoy it, even, he said. Once your temper cools. It'll be like nothing else.
When you swim, he said, you'll still have to swim alone; but we can learn to fly together.
And he walked up that unresisting leg, high onto the spine of her; and settled himself like a man astride a roof ridge and loosed her mind from the weight of his words, clinging on grimly with nothing more than his hands now as she rose.
Sometimes Mei Feng got confused, a little, and thought she was the empire, the Hidden City of his heart.
Never more so than now. Now it was almost true.
Her poor feet were sore, from too much running on hard stony roads after too much pampering. She lay in a luxury of cushions, and her boy--no, her man, father of her child-to-be--Chien Hua sat with her poor sore feet in his lap and his imperial fingers smeared with a camphor-scented balm, stroking them down Mei Feng's tender soles until her toes twitched. He smiled, and pressed his powerful imperial thumbs into the balls of her little feet until she gasped, until she closed her eyes and fell back among her cushions and groaned softly in an agony of pleasure.
There was the touch itself, the simple physicality of it, shivers of delight. Riding that like a mage on a serpent came the greater pleasure, whose hands they were. That he was willing to do this--no, better, devoted to it--unbuttoned her from the inside out. This was how they ought to be: kind and careful with each other, intimate and demanding, robust and certain sure.
It was the seedling child in her belly that had brought him back to her. The assassin had helped too, at least a little, but it was the child mainly. Being proved right was negligible against being proved fertile, carrying his baby.
She might tease him with that later, scold him for it, but she didn't truly care. He was who he was, what his mother had made of him. He had dynasties in his blood, written on his bones. Mei Feng loved him regardless.
And now--well. He was lord of all the world and lord of her too. Lord of her body. And she was pregnant with his child. His hopes all lay in her. Which meant, yes, she was the Hidden City for this little time at least, under his hand. All its walls and palaces and people her skin, her belly and her blood. Her feet in the emperor's lap.
She wiggled her toes for his attention, and smiled with a greedy contentment as his astonishing eyes came sliding sideways to find hers.
"Press harder," she murmured, "lord of my feet. You don't need to be so careful, I won't break."
Which was nonsense, of course. He had jade in his bones as well as dynasties. He was the Man of Jade, impervious apparently to steel blades. He could tear her simple fleshly body between his hands like a well-cooked chicken. He knew that, and had always been too cautious. Now he was tentative almost beyond bearing, unless she goaded him.
"Mei Feng, you're pregnant . . ."
"I am." The doctor they had found might be a fraud, but his girl seemed competent and was sure. Which was enough for Mei Feng, who had been sure enough already. Between the two of them, they had convinced the emperor. His mother would want more surety, but she was the other side of a storm-tossed sea. "Still, I am pregnant in my belly, not my feet. Work harder, idle majesty," and she slipped one foot free of his loose grasp to poke him in the ribs with it, to make him squirm and splutter.
Tonight she would make him less careful of her belly too, less careful of her altogether. She was not suddenly made of paper, and she meant to persuade him of it, physically and at length. It had been too long.
For now, his close attention to her feet was enough. It seemed to stand for everything she lacked. Perhaps he understood that; he gripped the errant foot more firmly and worked it between his thumbs until she was the one who was squirming.
"Mmm--yes, lord, like that, exactly . . ."
Her feet were sore, or had been; they were mending beneath his touch. Her heart had been sore too, and was mending too. His touch, his smile, his constant tender services were the best medicine for now. Later they could lay words down like dressings, make promises like stitches to bind open wounds. Better, they could trust the deeper talking to their bodies, oaths sworn in heat and hunger, sealed in satisfaction.
Now, though: now the last whisper of the dragon's typhoon still lashed the walls, rain and wind together. Coming and going, men let the weather in. Even so, Mei Feng had refused to move from here. Even in this strong windowless stone warehouse, even with his most lethal guards around him, one assassin had come close enough to test a blade on the emperor's bare unprotected back. The blade it was that broke, she'd seen the shards. That needed thinking about--and testing, perhaps, with needles: his body, her exploratory fingers and fine needles jabbing, jabbing--but in the meantime she'd keep his precious green-tinged skin as safe as she could manage. Which still meant here, until someone gave her better reason to move on. Built to keep his jade secure, for now it held only the one piece, original and best, the Man of Jade, her own . . .
Holding her cup below her chin and breathing steam because it smelled sweeter than the rank dank air, she watched the doctor and his girl make their way among the injured. No proper cots: men lay on the wet floor, except where their friends had raided godowns for timbers, pallets, bolts of silk, anything to soften the hard time of their waiting.
Left to himself, she thought the doctor would not be going anywhere near those common soldiers. Afflicted as he was, though--well. She watched his girl lead him from one makeshift bed to the next. Even from distance, it was clear which one of them had the knowledge and the confidence to use it. The girl lifted off rude dressings and examined wounds, asked questions, diagnosed, prescribed. The doctor, who should have been her master: he carried the bag of medicines. And nodded, stroked his beard, for all the world as though he tested and trusted his young apprentice.
If they went on following that line of patients along the wall, soon enough they would come to the corner where Yu Shan crouched above his clan-cousin Siew Ren.
Mei Feng set down her cup, kicked herself abruptly free of the emperor's beguiling grip and swung bare feet to the rough stone floor.
Startled, he was still quick; his hands arrested her, shoulder and hip.
"Mei Feng, what are you doing?"
"Going to help."
"There are any number of men here--"
"Yes, and none of them is doing anything useful."
It wasn't true, quite, but almost it was. Some of the hurt had the attentions of their friends, but not enough. Mostly the healthy sat in huddles, quiet and dripping and overwhelmed.
He said, "If you give orders, they will be obeyed."
That was, undoubtedly, true. And would be useful to the needy, and not at all to her.
"I want . . ."
Lacking the words to say what she wanted, she gestured with empty hands. That was it, exactly. She wanted to busy those hands and numb her mind and stop watching Yu Shan. Time and again, her helpless eyes came back to him. Even the emperor wasn't quite distraction enough, even at her feet. This whole building smelled of defeat; defeat breeds sorrow, and what she saw in that corner was the root and the fruit together, black welling misery.
"We need light," she said, "and air. And tea."
"You have tea," he said. "Is it finished? I've had enough, but . . ."
"Me too," she said. "And who else? Who else has had enough? If I can't make people better, at least I can bring them tea and tell them that the rain will soon be over."
"So can other people do that."
"Yes, but they're not."
"Mei Feng," his long arms around her, and that was better than sharing his cup, better than his attentions to her feet, except that he was stopping her from doing what she wanted, "I will send men to find cups and kettles, to make tea for all. They will get wet, and the fire-smoke will make us cough, but I will do it anyway. Only I will not sit here and watch you bustle about like a servant--"
"Come with me, then," she said. "We can do it together. The emperor should be servant of his people. And things will happen twice as fast if you are there," clumsy, unpracticed, adorable: oh, she knew. It ought probably to be what she wanted.
"Things will happen," he said, "as fast as they may, if we only give the orders. You and I, together. Sitting here, supervising. Together. You are pregnant, and you are not going to risk our baby by--"
She was laughing, almost, into his sleeve as he held her. His name was a sweet cake in her mouth as she mumbled it against the fabric. "Oh, Chien Hua. I'm not one of your delicate palace ladies, scared to lift a finger. Peasant women work until their waters break. If there is risk in movement, then I have risked our baby so very much already: on my feet all day and running so far, crossing that angry river on a mad raft in the end because I had to reach you somehow . . ."