Prologue: One Mother’s Treasure
Mama had told three-Year-OId Yu Ning to stay quiet. Since she was a good girl, she did. It was hard, because they were playing hide-and-go-seek in the root cellar, and she was afraid of the dark. It smelled so dirty and moldy, and the shouts and screams above got louder.
She put a hand on Mama’s big tummy. She was going to be a big sister soon, and big sisters had to be brave. Just like Big Brother Ken. He was up above, keeping the Seekers from finding them.
The door to the root cellar flung open. Bright, afternoon sunlight streamed in. Ning’s eyes hurt. She put a hand on her forehead to see better, and blinked several times.
“Get out,” said a man in a Big Voice.
The Seekers had found them! That meant they’d have to find a new hiding place, and the game would start again.
No. Something was wrong. Mama was sniffling. She took Ning’s hand and rose to her feet. Her voice sounded scratchy. “Come on.”
“Hurry,” the mean mad said.
On wobbling feet, they climbed up the steps.
It was so bright outside. But it smelled different. Smokey, like when the cooks burned the pig. And people were crying.
Ning blinked away the orange in her eyes.
Daddy’s friends lay on the stones. They were bleeding. So much blood. And armored men with blue banners surrounded them, pointing bows.
Ning’s heart hurt. She grabbed Mama’s leg.
Maybe the dark would be better.
Big Brother Ken was on his knees, hands on his head.
Mama pat her on the head. “It’s all right, my Beautiful Lotus. Be a good girl.”
“Young Lord Yu Ken.” A man with a pig face walked over to Big Brother. His armor jingled.
Big Brother bowed his head. “Lord Tong.”
“Your father has been claiming descent from the Last Yu Emperor, and been inciting unrest in Cheng Fu County.”
They were all big words. What did they mean?
“It’s not true!” Big Brother shook his head. “My father is loyal to the Emperor. He went to the court with proof that the rumors are lies.”
“Lord Yang.” Lord Tong beckoned to someone behind all the other men.
A skinny man strode forth, a round basket in hand.
“No,” Big Brother said.
Sobbing, mama pulled Ning’s head into her fat tummy. “Don’t look, my Beautiful Lotus.”
“Your father never made it to the court,” Pig Face said.
Around them Daddy’s men gasped. Mama pulled her closer. What was going on?
“You are a traitor to the North.” Big Brother was using his Big Voice, now. “A running dog to the Emperor.”
“You had promise, Young Lord Yu,” Pig Face said. “Too much.”
Big Brother let out a strange sound.
Heart thumping, Ning pulled away and turned her head.
Big Brother lay on the stones. Blood came from his neck. His eyes were looking at her. But he wasn’t seeing. Pig Face stood over him. He held a bloody knife.
Behind him, Skinny Man was holding…
Ning screamed. It was just too much. She couldn’t be a good girl. She turned her head back into Mama’s tummy.
Hands grabbed her, pulling her away. Ning looked up to see Daddy’s gardener. She never liked him. His skin was so tight, he looked scary.
“Little Sister.” Pig Face drew closer to Mama, and gestured first to Skinny Man, then to a fat man. “You should’ve married Lord Yang or Lord Shi, and joined our families. Then, the North would’ve been stronger.”
“You’re all vile. I won’t marry him. Not then, not now. May Yanluo drag you down to Hell.”
Mama never used such mean words. She was always nice. Gentle.
“Sadly,” Pig Face said, “you don’t have a choice.”
“I refuse.” Mama shook her head.
“Oh, you misunderstand me. You carry Lord Yu’s heir.”
Mama always had a pretty color. Now, her face was white. One hand was on her tummy. She backed away. “It’s a girl. The doctor said it was a girl.”
A girl? Was Ning going to have a sister?
“It’s a boy,” Daddy’s gardener said.
How did he know? Tears ran down Ning’s face. Something bad was going to—
“I’m sorry, Little Sister.” Pig Face grabbed Mama, and put a knife into her chest.
Mama’s eyes grew big. She sank to her knees.
Screaming, Ning pulled free of the gardener and ran over.
Mama fell onto her side.
Tears blurred Ning’s vision. She pulled and pulled. If Mama didn’t get up now, she wouldn’t ever.
“My Beautiful Lotus,” Mama whispered. Blood ran from the side of her mouth. Her next words were almost too soft to hear. Her hand wrapped around Ning’s. Something bit into her palm. Cold and hard. “Remember, you are the Last Princess of the Yu Dynasty.”
Ning wiped the blood with her sleeve. She shook Mama. “Mama. Get up. Please get up.”
Bony fingers pulled her off. She shrieked and kicked.
A hand clapped into her cheek. It burned, and she quieted.
Pig Face’s face filled her world. His breath smelled like garlic when he spoke. “Niece, you would have grown up to be a pawn, married to form an alliance. We can’t have that, not even now.”
Pawn? Daddy and Big Brother played a game with those little pieces. She wasn’t one of those. Ning opened her palm. Mama’s favorite hairpin. Silver. Shaped like a lotus.
“What will you do with her, My Lord?” the gardener asked.
“She has to die.” Pig Face leaned over and pulled the knife out of Mama.
Ning looked from Mama to Big Brother. Then to the basket. Father’s head was in it. Her tummy twisted into knots. Her mouth tasted sour. Tears made everything look strange.
“Please,” the gardener said. “I’ve always wanted a daughter. After I’ve trained her, and a few years go by, she won’t even remember today. And, a decade from now, if your dreams come closer to reality, I can bring her back: the long-lost descendant of the Yu Dynasty, whose husband can claim the North.”
Pig Face’s jaw wobbled back and forth. He looked like more like a cow now. He looked over his shoulder. “What say you, my lords?”
Fat Man exchanged glances with Skinny Man, then both nodded.
“Come.” The gardener gave Ning’s hand a tug.
Sobbing, she pulled and pulled, trying to get back to Mama. “Mama. I want Mama.”
“Mama is going somewhere you can’t follow,” the gardener said. “Not yet. Now come.”
He was wrong. Mama was just asleep. She’d get up.
Something soft and wet touched her neck. It smelled like flowers.
Her head felt strange. Her eyelids were heavy. And all went black.
Many days had passed since the gardener had taken Ning away from home. Most of the time, she rode on his back. He wanted her to call him Father.
He wasn’t her father.
Her daddy was Lord Yu Qiang.
And Mama. She wanted to see Mama.
He wanted her to eat.
But food tasted like wet paper.
And every day, her arms, legs, and head felt heavier. It was almost impossible to stand.
“You’re a bad girl,” he said one day, when she refused to eat. “You’ll die.”
Die. That’s what Mama said when Ning had once stomped on a worm. The worm was gone forever.
Just like Mama.
Her eyes wanted to cry, but nothing came out.
The gardener moved his fingers in front of her. Ning followed the motion, and her head got heavier and heavier. Grey on the sides of her vision darkened to black.
She opened her eyes.
“She’s awake!” a voice, which chirped like a bird said. A faerie appeared over her, with pretty pointed ears and big eyes. Maybe she was a messenger from the gods. “You’re awake. What’s your name?”
Name… what was her name? Who was she? Where had she come from, and how did she get… “Where am I?”
The faerie held up a hairpin, shaped like a lotus. “This is yours. Does it look familiar?”
A lotus. It looked familiar. Her heart beat fast. It was a name. Her name. “Lotus. My name is Beautiful Lotus.” Wasn’t it?
The faerie sucked on her lower lip. “Beautiful Lotus… Lilian. Hello Lilian, I’m Jie. You are at the Black Lotus Temple.”
While the Black Lotus Clan would probably be interested in Tang Li’s possible role in trying to kill the Imperial Family, Jie wanted to find out what the triad fixer knew about Lilian. If Tian hadn’t destroyed their supply of yinghua toxin, this would be so much easier. Then again, if he hadn’t, the Steel Orchid might have succeeded in killing them a few days earlier.
With Tian, Yangyang, and Meisha’s help, they’d brought Tang Li to an unoccupied house near Lord Shi’s. If her claim that Lilian had been the last heir of the rebellious North might’ve been a ploy to stay alive, it was working.
Still wearing the simple maid’s dress they’d captured her in, she was tied to a chair. Jie felt her pulse and studied her expressions, looking for telltale signs of a lie. The method didn’t work if the subject was trained to resist, or was just a pathological liar.
“Do you know who I am?” Jie asked. An easy question, one which would set the baseline.
“Of course. Jie. We were at the Chrysanthemum Pavilion for four years together.” Tang Li’s pulse remained steady, her gaze focused. Whether she knew about their true identities as Black Lotus Fists, they’d find out soon.
“Did you like Gardener Ju?” The now-deceased owner of the Chrysanthemum Pavillion, and later the Peony Garden, had been the aforementioned Steel Orchid.
“Yes.” Tang Li’s pulse stuttered a few beats, and her lips pursed. A sign of a lie, but one trained to resist this detection could fake by thinking of something else. “Not all the time. She was fair, but greedy.”
All true enough. “Did you know she was a Steel Orchid?”
Tang Li’s erratic heartbeat punctuated the silence that hung between them, but that could be the result of not wanting to answer the question.
Jie spun a knife between her fingers. “Answer me, or I will have to resort to less friendly measures.” Ones that had been proven not to work, but the threat would usually cause a change in the pulse.
“I’ve never heard of a Steel Orchid until just now.” Tang Li’s pulse was even, a truth. So what had she tried to hide up to now?
“Are you really Fixer Zhang?” If so, she’d have more answers about Lilian… if Faceless Chang had told the truth, with her dying breaths.
“Yes.” She spoke in an even tone, nothing in her pulse or expression indicating a lie. Of course, there was also the possibility that she was one of the less than one in a thousand people who could dissemble without any physiological response. It would probably be good trait in a Fixer.
The next answer, though, could be verified. “When I met your contact, what did they tell me about Lord Shi’s safe?”
“That its contents would reveal answers about Lilian.”
Since this was true, it verified that Tang Li either was or worked for Fixer Zhang. Jie held up Lilian’s lotus hairpin again. “What is it about this trinket that made you remember that Lilian was last heir of the North?”
Tang Li’s brows furrowed. “I don’t know. I saw it, and remembered my last conversation with her.”
“Go on then,” Jie said. “Tell us more about Lilian.”
“I wish I could tell you.”
Jie bit back a snarl. There had been no sign of a lie. She pointed the knife. “Then you are of no use to me… us.”
“Wait.” Tang Li shook her head. “Let me tell you a story.”
Jie had heard many of them, and this one would no doubt run in circles. If only there were flaying tools on hand. Not because they worked in exacting the truth, because they generally didn’t; but because the frustration was unbearable. “I’m listening.”
Tang Li’s lips quivered. “Although I wasn’t Lilian’s mentor in the House, she came to me often for counsel.”
Jie sucked on her lower lip. Though they’d all lived in the same House, it wasn’t as if they spent every phase of the Iridescent Moon together. Especially after Lilian had started receiving Hummingbirds. After that, they’d grown closer in some ways; in others…
“We spent a lot of time together. Brushing each others’ hair, helping each other with makeup, mending clothes…” Her voice sounded wistful.
Jealousy pitted in Jie’s gut. She was the one Lilian came to, not Tang Li. Tang Li was just a Blossom, trained in the art of acting. It had to be a lie.
“And we’d chat. Mundane things, gossip, dreams.” Tang Li looked up from her reverie. “But there are parts where I remember what we were doing, but not what we were talking about.”
Jie snorted. “Maybe you have a bad memory.”
“It’s more like blank spots. Holes in my memory.” Tang Li’s eyes searched Jie’s, almost pleading.
Blank spots? Holes? As a Blossom, it was possible Tang Li had hit her head against a headboard on many occasions, or had to drink with a Hummingbird until the point of blacking out. But there was something more here.
It was time to retake the initiative. Pretending to care, Jie took a concerned tone. “What is your first memory of her?”
“When you both came to the Chrysanthemum Pavilion. You walked in like you owned the place, while she hung a few steps back, and clung to you like a wet leaf.”
Jie sucked on her lower lip. That’s the way Lilian was, ever since she came to the Temple.
Seven-year-old Jie sat on the veranda of the Hall of Knowledge. The slanted green roof provided shade in the afternoon heat. The buzz and whirr of insects was pleasant. Especially after XXX class.
Lillian skipped out of the double doors, like a rabbit. She was just four, after all. Her eyes met Jie’s, and a big smile flashed across her face. “Big Sister!”
“I hate reading.” Wen’s shoulders drooped as she came out. Of course, every three-year-old hated reading. Lucky for them, kids their age only spent a quarter of a phase each day. Jie’s own class was twice as long, and more painful than her group’s torture resistance training.
Jie chuckled. “Well, no more reading. it’s break time now.”
“What are we going to play?” Lilian hopped up and down.
“You’ll see.” Grinning, Jie took their hands and pulled them toward the playground.
Not six steps later, Doudou barred their way out of the courtyard, his hackled raised. His teeth, white as his fluffy fur and sharp as the shape and keenness of his ears, were bared with a snarl.
Jie’s own spine went rigid for a split second. Wen and Lilian both clutched her arms. Even though the temple dogs knew the children and wouldn’t bit them, they were still scary.
And a test.
Taking a deep breath, Jie melted the tension in her body. She met Doudou’s gaze, and let out a short hiss.
The dog’s posture relaxed. He sat, his expression changing from mean to dopey.
Though both calmed a little, Lilian and Wen still clung to her arms. Jie guided them along, petting his head as they passed.
Wen reached out with a tentative hand, but Jie pulled it back. “Only with confidence.”
Up ahead, Yun and Lan jumped from wobbly pillar to pillar and ran across a narrow beam as they raced toward the XXX. Both girls were Jie’s age. It would’ve been fun to join them, but Lilian still needed help getting used to life at the temple. Even after a year.
Yun and Lan were almost to the climbing wall, where the boys were playing Dodge Blades. No one could hit Jie, unless she let them. She did, sometimes, because it made them like her more, and the practice knives and throwing stars weren’t sharp.
Little Kong crouched behind the climbing wall. He was probably one of the Targets in a game of Hide-and-Go-Stalk. Though no one could see him, the way he breathed and smelled gave him away.
At least, to Jie. She was good at this game, and not just as the Stalker. As a target, she could fit in strange places.
To the west side of the playground, past the swinging spears, kids Wen and Lillian’s age milled about, blindfolded.
Digging in with her heels, Lilian shook her head. “I don’t want play Pin the Knife in the Traitor.”
Neither did Jie. She might be able to see in the dark, but the others were better with their eyes covered as they tried to identify the traitor and poke them with a blunt knife.
“Don’t worry,” Jie said. “We’re going to play Chameleon Skin. Just the three of us.”
Lilian clapped her hands together. It was her favorite game, after all. Since she could never remember her past, it was easy for her to make up stories and convince herself they were true. She walked up behind one of the jumping stones. Taking on a pleasant, welcoming expression, she said, “Welcome to Lilian Bakery. What would you like?”
Jie smiled. This game was fun. Instead of a being an abandoned half-breed, whose elf father had given her up so that he could continue his adventures unburdened by a baby, she could become, at least for half an hour, a dressmaker, warrior, or princess. She turned to Wen. “If Lilian is the baker, then you’re the farmer’s daughter. The one with the hurt left leg.”
Wen’s head cocked.
“You played her in the spring.” And would have to remember every detail she’d dreamt up. Jie grinned.
“That’s not fair!” Wen’s face flushed.
Snorting, Jie pointed to Lilian’s fingers. “You don’t have any burns scars. You can’t be a baker.”
“I don’t work at the ovens.” Lilian shrugged. Of course, she showed no sign of a lie, since kids her age were only allowed in the kitchens to practice cutting meats and vegetables. As they were taught, mixing truths with lies made a story more believable.
Jie shushed her and took Lilian’s hands. “Your hands have too many callouses to be a baker.”
“We work our dough until is the softest in the realm.” While certainly a lie, her tone was no more proud than the owners of the real bakery in nearby Lianjing Town.
Jie suppressed a smile. So far, Lilian wasn’t good at weapons or sneaking, but she was a good liar when she need to be.