The Dragon’s Child
The ground trembled and the mountains shook, bringing all motion in the great courtyard of the wizard’s complex to a halt—guards and servants alike stilled in fright. Jia-li clung to Kseniya’s arm until the tremor passed, her dark eyes wide.
Breath steaming in the frigid air, Kseniya glanced down at the girl and squeezed her hand. “It’s over now.”
Jia-li’s brows drew together. “I can feel the dragons under the mountain, and they are angry,” she whispered.
The dragons’ fury had become more evident the last few months, the quakes growing more frequent, making Kseniya wonder if the wizard’s control over them had grown lax.
Jia-li shivered. “They don’t want to be there. I told my father so. I told him he should let them go, but he just says I don’t understand.”
A thing he often told her. The wizard kept Jia-li at lessons most of the day, a hard thing for any child to endure. That the child was also his daughter made no difference to him. He showed no love for the girl, nor any interest in her beyond her general health and what talents she demonstrated. And with her mother dead, only Kseniya remained to care for her.
Kseniya knelt in the snow and straightened the collar of the girl’s quilted jacket. Even after eight years, she still found it disconcerting that Jia-li had her father’s eyes, dark brown with a distinctive hooded shape. Only the lighter hue of the girl’s hair gave hint of her foreign mother’s blood. “Come, you don’t want to be late. He would be angry.”
Jia-li nodded dutifully. Two guards stood at the outer gate, so Kseniya stopped there while Jia-li walked up the wide red-painted stairs of the wizard’s grand house without looking back.
It would have to be soon, Kseniya decided as she watched Jia-li disappear within those walls. Now that the girl was old enough to make the trek through the mountains, Kseniya had to find a way to steal her away before the wizard broke the girl’s spirit and corrupted her soul.
In the pale afternoon light that slipped through the high windows of the storeroom, the fine silk of a red veil slid through Kseniya’s fingers, and she wondered when a bride had ever come to this bleak mountaintop. Underneath folded lengths of more mundane fabrics, she’d found an old wooden chest, and secreted inside lay a fortune in embroidered silks—tunics and jackets and trousers—the answer to her prayers.
She had always known that if she were to steal away with her niece, it must be in winter when the dragons preferred to sleep. These long-forgotten silks would provide warmth during their passage, and when they escaped the mountains she could sell them for food.
She shut the lid and quickly rearranged the fabrics over the chest, only regretful she’d not found any weapon within. She took a deep breath and forced down her excitement. She could not risk giving away her intentions.
Calmed, she gathered up the length of plain ramie Bao-yu had sent her to fetch and hurried back to the inner hall of the women’s house. The old woman took the cloth in her wrinkled fingers, then smiled and patted Kseniya’s hand in thanks.
Unable to speak, Bao-yu was still the closest thing Kseniya had to an ally atop this mountain, the only one of the servant women willing to associate with the outlander held among them. Bao-yu didn’t seem to mind her foreign style of dress or strange accent. Nor did she look away from Kseniya’s scar-lined face, as most of the women did.
The mountain froze in the winter and no rain fell in the summer, making it inhospitable, so servants never stayed long, neither the men who guarded the wizard’s complex nor the women who did the cooking and washing. Only Bao-yu had lived there longer than Kseniya, and she supposed the old woman simply had no place else to go.
Bao-yu resumed her work, embroidering a hidden luck-token on the inside of the collar of one of Jia-li’s tunics. It was one of the dragons native to this country, Kseniya realized, not the fiery creatures the wizard held captive. The servants told tales of the dragon the wizard had driven away with his horde ages before—one who brought the spring and rain—but Kseniya thought that creature a myth. Even so, Bao-yu’s furtive rebellion against their master warmed her.
When a knock sounded on the outer door, Kseniya went to open it, expecting her niece returned from the wizard’s house. Indeed she found Jia-li there, the wizard’s bodyguard with one hand on the girl’s shoulder.
Her eyes properly downcast, Kseniya didn’t catch his movement in time to retreat. He laid a hand upon her arm.
Startled, she slammed his hand into the doorframe and trapped it there, her fingers clamped about his wrist. A knife lay concealed under his jacket’s sleeve, stiff against her palm. His fingers stayed relaxed, though, not resisting her hold.
Aghast at her actions, Kseniya grasped Jia-li’s jacket with her free hand and dragged the girl into the warmth of the hall. Then she stepped back and let go of the man’s wrist. She kept her eyes on the ground, desperately wishing she could look at his face to gauge his reaction.
To her surprise, he didn’t strike her in return. “I need to speak with you,” was all he said, the words delivered in a whisper. Then his dark-booted feet moved out of her range of vision.
Kseniya raised her face and stared after him, her heart pounding, but he was long gone. What had she done?
There would be trouble later due to her rashness, threatening all her planning. Letting loose a shaky sigh, Kseniya closed the door.
Jia-li stood in the foyer, her pale face worried. “What happened?”
“He startled me, dearest. That’s all.” Kseniya didn’t think she’d heard the man’s voice once since his arrival on the wizard’s mountain late in the fall. She didn’t know what it meant that he’d spoken to her. In all her time on the mountain, none of the guards had ever come near her, repulsed by the scars that mapped her skin. She bit her lip. “Does he ever talk to you?”
Jia-li shook her head. “He just watches.”
Easy to believe, for the man had alarmingly sharp eyes. Kseniya had tried to avoid him, reckoning him more of a threat than the old bodyguard he’d replaced.
It would have to be tonight, she decided then, even though the moon was not full.