The Royal Guard
In theory, only castration allowed a man deeper insights into the female half of the Yin-Yang Sword Path. And while rival masters might share hushed speculation about my anatomy, none would dare mock me to my face.
After all, no Yin-Yang Sword Saint had ever lost a duel.
Now, I was about to become the first.
Not because I couldn’t vanquish my fourth challenger on this hot day without breaking a sweat. Not even because my stomach churned and my stamina guttered. But rather, because I couldn’t face the consequences of winning.
Little Chen’s zigzagging slashes came in fast. The Path’s Yin aspects guided my twists and weaves out of his lines of attack, while the Yang half propelled me inside his guard. I could end it here and now, but indecision—the fine line between the perfect balance of Yin and Yang, which could tip either way— slowed my hand.
Victory meant surrendering my title as First Sword to the Crown Prince. A loss would dishonor the Path. I slipped out of range and sank into a defensive stance.
“Eclipsing Sun and Moons,” Little Chen droned, naming my entry and withdrawal technique in awe. He gawked, no doubt surprised he hadn’t become my latest victim.
Defeated, like the dozens who’d faced me up to now. Like the thousands who’d dueled every Sword Saint before me. How could I choose between the Yin-Yang Sword Path’s reputation and my heart?
And how could Prince Gong put me in this position? He’d known I’d face this dilemma when he ordered me to compete.
Spinning, back arching under Little Chen’s stab, I thrust my sword beneath his outstretched arm. It stopped a hairbreadth from his neck.
“Sun Breaks Through Clouds,” he said, eyes wide. “It’s as if gravity paused to admire you.”
He took two steps back and flipped his weapon into an underhand grip. Setting his fist into his palm, he bowed his head. “I concede.”
The usually effortless technique had sapped the last of my energy, but I’d won. My gut twisted, forcing me to swallow down the rising bile.
Around us, in the courtyard shaded by the sloping silver eaves of the Hall of Great Harmony, the other candidates all clapped.
“Of course the Yin-Yang Sword Saint would win,” one said, wiping sweat from his brow.
Another chuckled. “Not even the Night Fox could get past Wang Jun.”
I suppressed a snort. The most notorious thief in the Six Kingdoms would never make it past the palace’s front gates, so our paths would never cross in this lifetime.
“Congratulations to Wang Jun,” the Minister of the Left said from the table on the near veranda. He stood, joining the blue-robed deputies and secretaries to either side of him in a bow. After writing my name on a scroll, he stamped it with a jade seal and proffered it with two hands. “You are hereby named Keeper of the Moonstone Key.”
Everyone present, from the officials to the defeated royal guards applauded.
I stared at the scroll. The seal left a red imprint over the flowing script, as if highlighting the fraudulence etched into my nom de guerre.
It was days like today that I forgot I wasn’t really a eunuch, and Jun wasn’t my real name. I took the scroll in both hands and bowed.
“And the Moonstone Key.” The Minister of the Left hung the gemstone from an ornate red ribbon around my neck.
I straightened and studied it. The fist-sized disk was clear. Colors swirled inside, like a soap bubble, like the Iridescent Moon, which now waxed to its third crescent in its permanent seat in the heavens. Careful not to expose the band of cloth binding my chest flat, I tucked the key into my robes.
“Halt!” A sentry shouted near the opening of the courtyard. His sword rasped from its scabbard. “You aren’t allowed here.”
I turned and followed the gazes.
On the far veranda, a palace guard pointed a naked blade at a country girl in a roughspun robes.
Her large, brown eyes widened with shock. She backed up several steps, bobbing in bows all the way, before sinking to her knees and pressing her forehead to the pavestones. Adorable in her backwater mannerisms, she spoke in a southern accent which cloyed her words like incense smoke in a temple. “I’m sorry, milords. I got lost.”
Milords, indeed. Of the sixteen royal guards present, only I had noble blood… not that any of my comrades knew that. Now, they were ogling the stranger, whose loose clothes hung partially open, providing a hint of her breasts. I fought the urge to hurry over and pull the poor girl’s robe flaps closed.
She raised her head, only to duck down again. “I’m trying to find the Orchid Pavilion.”
The officials leaned in, lascivious eyes all locked on the girl, murmuring in low voices.
“The competition’s winner is a state secret,” a deputy said. “She saw the outcome. She must be executed.”
A secretary shook his head. “She’s just a peasant. She doesn’t know the significance.”
“And, it would be a waste of such a beauty.” Another deputy leaned forward, peering at her through his spectacles.
My fingers tightened around my hilt. This was just some poor woman who’d happened into the wrong place. Now, these men were leering at her with one eye, and considering execution with the other.
“The royal physicians are evaluating potential wet nurses at the Orchid Pavilion,” the minister said. “If this girl is the perfect candidate for the unborn prince, then we cannot risk executing her.”
Prince. My heart twisted into a knot. As Keeper of the Moonstone Key, I’d be removed from Crown Prince Gong’s detail and assigned to the pregnant queen’s.
Regardless of my own quandary, the girl was safe for now. Her eyes darted from soldier to minister before falling on me. She didn’t bother covering her giggle like a court lady would.
It was refreshing, and I fought to keep my lips from quirking into a smile.
“You are all dismissed,” the Minister of the Left said. “Return to your duties. Wang Jun, you are to report to the queen. Oh, since the Orchid Pavilion is on the way, please escort this young woman until you find the page in charge of her.”
The other officials’ shoulders visibly slumped. No doubt these decrepit old men wanted nothing more than to walk with a beautiful girl. With a harrumph, I bowed, then strode over to her.
“Thank you, milord.” Remaining prostrate, she pressed her head to the pavestones again, revealing a mother-of-pearl comb in her ponytail. It was pretty, nice enough to have adorned my hair when I was a child. It was probably the most valuable thing she owned.
“Please, rise. I’m not a lord.” I knelt and offered a hand.
She looked up, eyes wide like a startled doe. Her hand trembled as she took mine. The callouses on her fingers spoke of a life of hard labor. “Thank you… Honorable Sir?”
It sounded strange in my ears. “Jun is fine.”
“Thank you, Sir Jun.” Her smile brightened the shadowed courtyard. “My name is Lisha.”
“Just Jun.” I helped her to her feet, then gestured to the arched gate out of the courtyard. “This way.”
I guided her through the winding alleys between buildings, and she stared with mouth agape. It was no wonder she got lost.
“Just how did you get this far from the Orchid Pavilion?” I asked. It wasn’t that far, but still…
“I had to piss.” Lisha shrugged. The nonchalance was so different from a lady who would’ve found some elegant way of deflecting the question, or flushed bright red if forced to answer. “The guide took me to the crapper.”
Now it was my turn to gawk.
“To be honest…” Lisha leaned in conspiratorially, but stumbled. “Oh!’
I caught her. Her body pressed against mine as her comb clattered to the pavestones, scattering her hair askew.
Hopefully, she wouldn’t drop the baby prince if she became his wet nurse. Propping her up, I stepped back, and bent over to retrieve the trinket.
“Thanks.” With no sign of embarrassment, she plucked it from my palm and tucked it back into her hair. Her dark eyes searched mine. “Honestly, I expected all you high and mighty lords to shit gold, but it stank just as bad as the crapper back home. By the time I was done, I couldn’t find my guide. And I can’t tell east from south.”
I chuckled and pointed to the Iridescent Moon. “That’s south. Always. It never moves.”
Lisha threw her hands up. “Everyone knows that! But I didn’t pay attention to where I was in the palace. It’s a big place, and I assumed the guide would wait for me!”
I placed a hand on my chest, finding the moonstone. It felt foreign. “You’re right. The palace is something of a maze, meant to confuse invaders and ghosts. Not even the Night Fox could find their way around here.”
A sweating page rounded the Hall of Bountiful Harvests and his eyes fell on Lisha. His shoulders relaxed as a look of relief formed on his face. “There you are!”
As he shuffled over, an inexplicable sadness crept over me. These few minutes with Lisha’s adorable bluntness had been refreshing. It almost made me forget about Prince Gong.
Most of the hopefuls for the position of royal wet nurse were impoverished country girls in search of wealth and prestige.
Maybe once, I’d been a penniless bumpkin like them. Not anymore. If the palace guards knew who I’d become, they would’ve never let me anywhere near the gates. After all, despite what Wang Jun thought, the Night Fox would never get lost in this palace.
I pulled at my collar. As much as the roughspun robe chafed, it was part of the disguise I’d needed to get close to the competition for Keeper of the Moonstone Key.
Now, the palace physicians were enjoying the physical examination a little too much. Were they as exuberant when treating the queen, princesses, and handmaidens? Or perhaps it was just my imagination. No matter what, this was a necessary inconvenience in order to pull off the greatest heist since the Monkey King stole an immortal peach from the Jade Emperor’s Heavenly Peach Orchard.
The junior physician in blue robes withdrew his fingers from my wrist. It took a little longer tear his gaze away from my chest. How easy it was to distract him! He looked down at the household register I’d forged. “You have the right body type and an auspicious birth date. However, your pulse indicates you haven’t given birth recently.”
Which was exactly how I’d extricate myself from actually having to let the royal whelp suckle me. I’d even eaten a certain berry to confuse their pulse diagnosis. Feigning shock and disappointment worthy of a stage actress, I pitched my voice to desperation to make my lie all the more convincing. “It was a miscarriage. The midwife told me—”
“I am sorry.” He shook his head. “Thank you for coming.”
I hid a smile with shuddering sobs as my hand pressed the Moonstone Key beneath my sash. It’d been too easy to lift it off Wang Jun and swap it with a fake. Now, all I had to do was claim another visit to the privy on the way out, slip my escort, and wait until nightfall—
“Wait.” The senior physician held up a hand as he peered at my register. “Even her time of birth has a perfect Eight Trigram alignment. Since she just miscarried, we can get her to lactate with acupuncture and herbs.”
Shit. The dates I’d researched for my fake birthday, which I’d needed to get this interview, were too good. Bowing my head, I waved my hand back and forth. “I don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“He isn’t due for another month,” the senior said. “It will only take the right diet, herbs, and a couple of acupuncture treatments.”
New ideas danced in my head. A whole month to lounge around and eat food literally fit for a king, all the while learning the ins and outs of the palace. Instead of having one night to find the vault and open it, I could steal the royal regalia at my leisure.
And, I’d never lain with a man—my only reason to get close to one would be to rob him— and therefore never been pregnant. These dirty old doctors could do all the acupuncture they wanted, make me drink all the herbal brews they prescribed, and still never get me to lactate.
In any case, I’d be gone long before the prince was born.
Had I known the physicians were going to jab needles into my poor pinkies, I might’ve had second or third thoughts about going through with my new plan. Still, the food made up for the temporary pain. It was delicious, and since I had a special diet of white-fleshed fish, pig feet, and oxtails, I didn’t have to eat the queen’s leftovers. Indeed, the concubines, princesses, and handmaidens ate mine. I would’ve grown fat, if not for sneaking out most nights to find the dragonstone vault and learn the palace rhythms.
I was supposed to boil the herbal draughts myself; instead, I stashed the packets of expensive roots and twigs behind a loose brick, to sell once I left here. Too bad the fine silk dresses they had me wear would be too cumbersome to abscond with. I confess, my own greed and gluttony kept me in the palace longer than I needed to. Really, if the authorities knew the Night Fox’s weakness was sweets, they could’ve caught me using pastries as bait.
My new residence had an antechamber and bedroom, with furnishings even finer than in my own home. The courtyard of six identical houses was adjacent to the queen’s pavilion, and shared a common entrance from the main grounds. As such, I saw Wang Jun several times a day. The other women in the courtyard all gossiped about how handsome he was, but bemoaned the rumors he’d been willingly castrated. It didn’t keep them from flashing smiles at him during the changing of the guard.
To maintain cover, I joined in, always waving excitedly. Despite the Keeper of the Moonstone Key’s overall dourness, my vapid country girl persona always made his lips quirk. It was rather cute, especially with his effeminate features. Based on a sample size of one, perhaps it was true that the Yin-Yang Sword Path made a man more feminine.
And not just physically. His gaze had lingered a little too long on my comb, after all. On my second day, purely for research purposes, I ambushed him at the changing of the guard. “Sir Jun,” I said, beckoning from the courtyard gate.
With a nod to his departing comrades, he strode over. “Please. Just Jun. How may I help you, Miss Lisha?”
“Just Lisha.” I conjured my best girly giggle. “Join me for tea?”
“I… I would be honored. But why?” His eyebrows clashed together.
And for the first time, I noticed he used kohl to make them look thicker. Maybe because he looked a little paler today than yesterday. “You were my first friend here, and I’m so lonely.”
He looked up to the Iridescent Moon, then back. “I have some time.”
Beaming, I gestured him to a stone table on the veranda. When he took a seat, I brought out plates with my lactation-enhancing dinner.
I sat across from him and poured some tea. “The ladies told me you are a Yin-Yang Sword Saint. Are the rumors true?”
He just about choked on the tea. “What rumors?”
“That you’ve never been defeated.” I dabbed his chin with a kerchief. When he opened his mouth to respond, I chopsticked a piece of fish into his mouth.
“Oh,” he mumbled through his chews. “Yes. No Yin-Yang Sword Saint has ever been defeated.”
I clapped my hands together and squealed. The silly girl persona had served me well when robbing entitled nobles and wealthy merchants, but a little bit of me couldn’t help but feel guilty for misleading Jun.
I didn’t know what drew me to him, especially when males didn’t interest me beyond what I could steal from them. I consoled myself by rationalizing he was just like any other man with his taste for girls with nothing but air between their ears. In this, his sword art clearly wasn’t making him more like a woman.
It also didn’t make him any less confident in his poor sense of direction: he was wrong about the Iridescent Moon always being to the south. Having travelled the length and breadth of the six kingdoms, I knew the smallest of the three moons changed position ever so slightly based on what end of Cathay the viewer stood. Perhaps he’d never left the Luo Kingdom’s capital, where the Iridescent Moon was always due south.
Which meant the vault door would face that direction, with no trees, walls, or buildings blocking a line of sight to the moon. Based on my rough map of the palace, it could only be in one of eleven potential locations. I now had a full month instead of just a day to find it.
The first night brought me to the Ministry of War’s office in the northwest corner of the palace grounds. There was no sign of the vault in the three-story hall, though I was quite impressed by one room whose floor was a detailed mosaic of the Six Kingdoms.
Metal figurines representing ships and military units occupied strategic points and fortifications along the borders. Interestingly, several cavalry units usually stationed close to hostile neighbors were currently within a day’s ride of the capital. The figure representing the king was currently with the army’s elite Lion Division near the Kingdom of Chu.
The second night, it’d been child’s play to slip into the Royal Treasury’s offices. Though it didn’t house the secret vault, I did gain insights into the realm’s finances from riffling through ledgers. Starting four years ago, the throne started paying exactly two percent more for the same goods and services.
Bloating from sweets on the third night made me feel as if I really were pregnant. I touched the side of my lip, from where Jun had dabbed off red bean paste an hour earlier. Chuckling at the memory, I crept into the Temple of Divine Righteousness. My search of the spire, where a window opened to the south, turned up nothing. I did, however, see Crown Prince Gong burning incense at the altar.
A dashingly handsome man, he was the son of the king’s favorite consort. He’d made a name for himself leading the Lion Division in repelling the Yu Kingdom invasion five years ago. To prevent a counterattack, the king of Yu had sent his favorite concubine, Lady Lanyu, to marry Prince Gong. He was apparently besotted by her; and since being named Crown Prince after the death of the queen’s son a year later, he’d been happy to stay in the capital.
I didn’t find the vault until the fourth night, and in retrospect, it should’ve been obvious.
The Royal Guard
For past Sword Saints, the Yin aspects of our art historically aroused an attraction to men. For me, its Yang nature had never sparked an interest in women.
I visited Lisha when my shift ended each afternoon. The poor girl must’ve been so lonely, trapped inside that courtyard. If I were in her shoes, and my only interaction were a dozen servants and palace doctors, I’d invite a lonely eunuch to dinner, too.
Though my reassignment still weighed heavily on my heart, she made me laugh. Her quick wit and clever observations almost made me forget about Prince Gong. If she’d had a noblewoman’s education, who knew what she could accomplish, beyond feeding me her leftovers.
Truth was, my stomach had remained unsettled since the day of the competition. Without her putting food in my mouth, I might not have eaten at all. She always ushered me out before dusk, for fear of what rumors our meetings would spawn. In this, country girls weren’t much different from the court ladies.
On her fourth day in the palace, she didn’t need to hustle me out. Against my better judgement, I left the queen’s pavilion as soon as my shift ended, and headed to the courtyard by the Evergreen Hall.
The ring of metal on metal grew louder, and my excitement grew. I paused at the corner of the Dragonspring Hall and looked.
As was his habit on the fourth day of the week, Prince Gong was sparring with his guards. Though famed for his prowess at horseback archery, he comported himself just as well on foot with a straight sword. His movement was a thing of beauty, gliding like a calligrapher’s brush across a scroll. Wearing his devilish smile the whole time, he defeated Old Chen in short order.
Prince Gong set his fist into his palm. “Thank you for letting me win.”
Of course, no one would hold back against him; he’d never tolerate it. His next duel lasted only a few seconds: he drove his opponent back, coming closer and closer to me. With a twirl and flip of his sword, he sent Little Qin’s weapon flying through the air.
Everyone’s eyes followed its trajectory. It landed not far from my feet.
Prince Gong’s eyes widened, perpetual grin slipping. “Little… I mean, Captain Wang.”
My heart fluttered.
The prince’s smile returned, even more charming than usual. “You ignored my invitation for tea, but came to fight? I’d expect nothing less from a Sword Saint.”
The others laughed.
Face hot, I bowed my head.
“Come along, then.” He beckoned.
I scooped up Little Qin’s sword and handed it to him as I approached. When he received it with two hands, head bowed, I saluted Prince Gong and drew my own blade. It felt heavier than usual, or perhaps it was my listless limbs.
His lips tightened, and his concentration focused, as he only did in our bouts. Without warning, he lunged. Languid from fatigue, my Yang energies guttered. My twist just barely avoided his attack. My counter was usually too quick for him to evade, but he pulled up short, parrying my thrust. Our weapons rasped against each other, and he advanced, pushing me back.
Usually, a practitioner of my art would root with Yin energies and redirect with Yang. Today, my wobbling legs buckled, and my upper body’s rotation creaked like a rusted gear. It was all I could do to keep him from collapsing my guard. Around us, the eight soldiers all murmured.
Before I could process what was happening, my sword was wrenched from my grip, and his blade tip stopped inches from my neck.
His brow furrowed as he lowered his weapon. “I told you never to hold back.”
“I… I didn’t.” Raising my hands, I could only gawk. I’d never been defeated. I could usually best Prince Gong with ease.
He leaned in and studied me. When he spoke, his voice was laced with concern. “You don’t look well.”
“I’ve been tired.”
“That explains it.” His smile returned. “You must be bored, listening to the queen complain to her handmaidens.”
“That must be it.” I let out a nervous chuckle.
“Then this time doesn’t count. Let us have a rematch next week.” Shielded from the others’ view by his back, his lips brushed my ear as he whispered, “Or sooner.”
The telltale sign of the vault was a sentry outside the archway into the walled garden, secluded along the north end of the palace grounds. Why guard a place whose only distinguishing characteristic was a bronze statue depicting Yanyan, the First Dragon Singer, playing a pipa?
Light from the fully open Blue Moon cast the grounds in cerulean shades. Climbing to the eaves of an adjacent building, I jumped over to a pine tree, then across the gap to the garden’s wall. I eased myself down, landed in a crouch, and crept past a carp pond to the statue’s marble base. Cast by a Dragoncarver, the statue magically evoked a sense of drowsiness to the unawares.
I was well aware of the potential for sorcery, but it still elicited a yawn out of me. Darting behind the statue, I looked to the archway.
The sentry didn’t turn.
I blew out a breath, then came back around to the front. The plaque in the marble base was undoubtedly the vault’s door, given the moonstone-sized indentation disguised as the royal crest. It was a testament to Dwarven ingenuity.
With a quick glance back at the sentry’s position, I withdrew the moonstone and set it in the niche. Then, I stepped aside to let it meet the Iridescent Moon’s rays.
This, in itself, was no surprise. Based on my subtle querying of former palace staff in the run-up to this heist, I’d deduced the vault would unlock during a one-hour window, sometime between the third waxing gibbous and full. Now waxing toward its fourth gibbous, I could wait another quarter phase, and test the door again. If it opened, great; if not, it would leave only the hour around the full moon. Instead of hiding out the full three phases, I could just come back on another night.
While I waited, I thought about Wang Jun. During our meals, I would blather some nonsense to coax out information about palace security. Everything he’d revealed had proven true the first three days. Not tonight. Changing of the guards for some units had changed. Patrols had altered routes. If not for—
The plaque clicked, then hissed.
I’d never lost my cool on any previous job, but now, my heart raced. I forced the trembling out of my hand as I pulled it open.
Inside, a kumquat-sized and -shaped crystal with dozens of facets rested on a cushion. It was transparent, with symmetrical veins of impurities running through it.
I’d done it. The royal regalia. Checking for traps and finding none, I gingerly lifted the heirloom out and stuffed it in my robe. I set an origami fox on the cushion to let them know who’d plundered the vault, just in case they found a way to open it.
I should’ve fled the palace then and there; but the stupid, sentimental part of me wanted to meet Jun one last time.
Part of a successful escape was not leaving any hint of it. I went through the next day’s routine as usual: acupuncture, rich foods, hiding my herbs, gossiping with the ladies. At the end of Jun’s shift, I bade him to join me.
Though instead of serving him dinner on the veranda, I invited him inside.
“Red bean paste filling.” He set sweet rice balls on the small table and smiled. “I noticed you liked them.”
Heat rose to my cheeks. While most of my smiles were contrived, one now came of its own accord.
We sat across from each other as we chatted, and I couldn’t help but to lose myself in his eyes. My plans to leave melted away. I had three weeks, after all. In spite of myself, my gaze lingered on his lips.
He must’ve noticed, because he leaned in, lips stopping just out of reach of mine. Hot with need, I claimed the remaining distance.
The world disappeared, leaving only him and me. I’d kissed men before— typically as a prelude to robbing them—but never before had my body craved for more. I reached—
He pulled back, wincing. In the fading sunlight, he looked pale. Sweat clung to his brow.
My heart squeezed. “What’s wrong?”
He grimaced, hand on his stomach.
A royal guard burst in. “Big Brother Wang! The queen has gone into labor. The Minister of Rites is looking for you.”
I exchanged shocked looks with Jun.
He rose and bowed. “Then I will bid my leave for now.”
This was too soon. If the Minister of Rites was looking for him, it was probably in preparation for opening the vault tonight. And when the fake I’d given him didn’t work…
How stupid I was, not considering that Jun would be punished for the missing key. How foolish I was to have gotten to know him. To like him.
I fretted for the next three phases, watching as the Iridescent Moon waxed. I’d already decided to return the dragonstone to the safe at the fourth waxing gibbous; but if the prince was born before then, the midwives would come looking for me.
Well, having never been pregnant, and not having drunk the herbs, I wasn’t going to lactate, anyway. I tucked a vial of sleep toxin into my robe. Provided by an anonymous employer, it only affected males. I snuck past the guards and headed to the statue garden. I had to get there before they opened the vault.
Curiously, there was no sentry outside the archway. Nor had I expected to find Jun’s straight sword, obvious from the hilt and guard ornately shaped as a dragonfly, lying on a large rock beside the pond. Another sword and dagger lay next to it. I held back by the archway and scanned the area.
Jun stood beside the statue. The way Prince Gong embraced him from behind, chin resting on his shoulder, there was little doubt as to why Jun had seemed so sad these days. No, that couldn’t be right. The prince was besotted by Lady Lanyu—
“These past days have been torture,” the Crown Prince whispered, lips close to Jun’s ear.
Something knotted in my belly. Inexplicably, it felt like jealousy.
Well, some men were into Peach Bottoms, and given what Jun had sacrificed to master the Yin-Yang Sword Path, there was little doubt as to who played that role in their relationship. I wasn’t equipped to compete with prince, but that didn’t keep my heart from aching. Our kiss had felt so real, after all.
No matter what, I couldn’t bear the thought of Jun being tortured and executed. I had to return the dragonstone.
A quick look at the Iridescent Moon revealed I didn’t have much time left. If they didn’t leave soon, I’d have to use the toxin to knock them out.
The Royal Guard
When Prince Gong had asked to meet here, I’d planned on ending our clandestine relationship. Lady Lanyu occupied so much of his time, and with me no longer being his First Sword, we would have even fewer opportunities for our secret encounters.
And then, there was Lisha. An echo of her lips lingered on my mine, even now. The kiss we’d shared had been more real than anything with the prince.
Though what would she think when she learned I wasn’t really a eunuch? Would she feel the same way?
Prince Gong’s whisper tickled my ear. “I missed you.”
I didn’t care what he thought anymore. Still… “Then why did you insist I contend for the title of Keeper?” I brushed Gong’s hands away before they wandered into my robes. My breasts were especially sensitive, and I was bleeding with severe cramps, anyway. Turning around, I pushed myself out of his embrace. “You knew I wouldn’t lose, and that my victory meant we’d be separated.”
“Once the prince was born, he’d become heir, and you would’ve been reassigned to him, anyway.” He turned me back around.
I prepared to rebuff him again, but instead found his knee in my lower back. His arms wrapped around my neck.
My head spun as I fought for air. Our weapons lay well out of reach. I clawed at him, but my vision went dark around the edges until blackness overcame me.
I’d crept closer and was already behind the statue by the time Prince Gong had started choking Jun. Even if it might be some asphyxiation fantasy, Jun hadn’t seemed willing. I covered my gasp and prepared to intervene.
“Your Highness!” A voice, accompanied by boots thudding on the pavestones outside the garden.
Jun slumped to the ground. Prince Gong hadn’t held the choke long enough to kill him, so I held back, not sure what I could do against two men.
The prince knelt down and removed the fake moonstone key from Jun’s neck. He set it into the niche. Of course, the vault didn’t open.
The righteous part of me savored his cursing.
“This can’t be right!”
A soldier rounded into the garden. “Your Highness!” His eyes locked on Jun and widened.
“I told you not to disturb me.”
The man straightened. “The King is dead at your command. Word will reach the capital soon. Cavalry loyal to you are now moving into strategic points.”
It all made sense. The king being away, with the troops Prince Gong had led against Yu. The cavalry movements. The extra expenditures.
“The midwives say the Queen is close to giving birth. Shall we kill her now?”
The traitorous prince looked up to the Iridescent Moon, then down at the Moonstone Key. “Wait a quarter of a phase. First, I need to question Wang Jun, then meet the Minister of Rites at the Hall of Supreme Harmony.”
I shuddered. He’d misled Jun to get the key. Now, he’d torture Jun to find the real one. Because I’d stolen it.
The soldier saluted and hurried out. Smirking, Prince Gong retrieved his dagger and came back to Jun.
I couldn’t let this happen. I dabbed the toxin on my finger, jumped out, and ran it over Prince Gong’s neck.
Swaying on his feet, he turned on me, eyes wide, dagger cocked back.
With little fighting skill, all I could do was retreat a few steps.
He started to pursue, but the dagger slipped from limp fingers. He collapsed to the ground.
I blew out a breath. It would’ve better to kill him, but I was no murderer. Instead, I hurried to Jun’s side. His chest still rose and fell, and I gave him a gentle shake. His eyes fluttered open and his arms shot out and locked around my throat.
“Jun,” I managed to gasp.
His grip loosened. “Lisha! What are you doing here?”
To return to the dragonstone. To save him. Lie forming in my head, I gestured to the unconscious Prince Gong. “He’s staging a coup. He took something around your neck, opened the statue base, and removed something. Whatever it was, he gave to an underling, who just left. He was going to kill you, so I knocked him out.”
His expression stiffened as his hand flew to his neck. “How?”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s going to kill the queen. You need to kill him first.”
Jun shook his head. “I can’t.”
“I saw you, I know you have feelings for him—”
“It’s not that. I couldn’t, even if I wanted to.” His face contorted. “And right now, I really want to.”
“Then why not?”
“The royal guards’ tattoos keep us from harming the royal family.” He pulled up the sleeve of his robe, revealing a dragon coiling around his slim forearm.
The magic rolling off it made me shrink back a step. No doubt, it was inked by a Dragonscribe. “All right, then. Come with me, let’s escape the palace before Prince Gong has you killed.”
He shook his head. “I’m sworn to protect the queen, and her unborn son. You go.” He turned on his heel, collected his sword, and raced out of the garden.
“Wait,” I said. “There’s a faster way.”
The Royal Guard
Amid the screaming and clash of steel, we used servants’ doors that bypassed the main paths through the palace grounds. How Lisha knew of them, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. My decisive steps betrayed my wavering heart. Prince Gong, the only one who knew my secret, had manipulated me. Tried to kill me.
And now, several of my brothers-in-arms were committing treason, killing loyal brethren. By the time I reached the queen’s villa, her detail lay dead, taken by surprise. I strode into the courtyard where four of Prince Gong’s royal guard blocked entry. Beyond them, the queen was screaming.
“Wang Jun,” Little Yang said, drawing his sword in unison with the others. “What are you doing here?”
I banished the twisting sensation in my gut. “Make way, and you will not die tonight.”
“Prince Gong will be kng,” Little Yang said. “You will be his First Sword again.”
While these men might be my brothers, they were oath breakers. With a Yang Wave behind my sword, I ran Little Yang through before he could move. The others surged forward, attacking with the efficiency of a dwarven engine. The coordinated attack would’ve eviscerated anyone, but I knew their forms, knew the small openings in their dance of death. Despite my fatigue, I launched into a horizontal spin, above and below synchronous slashes to my head and legs. A thrust of my blade slipped past Old Fu’s guard and into his neck.
I landed in a roll and popped up to my feet, twisting to avoid a stab while parrying a downward chop. With my riposte, I took off Old Kan’s head, leaving Little Qi to stagger back. His sword trembled in his hands, and before he could react, I slid my sword in between his ribs. Limbs languid, I turned and ran into the pavilion, and dashed to the queen’s private chambers.
The queen straddled a wooden birthing chair. Her mouth opened in a rasping scream. She’d taken a stab to her upper chest. Her last loyal guard, grievously wounded, held four of Prince Gong’s detail at bay. His aide de camp and two officers from the Lion Division held back. A physician and several midwives cowered behind the queen, even as they worked to deliver the prince.
The three army officers were the only threats to the Queen, since the royal guards’ tattoos prevented them from harming her. I charged.
The traitors turned to face me, and our lethal dance began again. Swords flashed, metal rasped, men grunted. Somewhere in the two minutes, a baby wailed, welcomed into the world by the screams of dying men. When the last of the seven fell to my sword, I collapsed to my knee, spent and panting.
And I wasn’t sure if the pain I felt came from a cramp or a sword wound.
I stared in disbelief at Wang Jun’s deadly beauty. If his duel for title of Keeper had been amazing, I could only be awestruck watching him dispatch seven men with an unlikely combination of efficiency and grace. Now, he crouched on one knee, propped up only with his sword on the floor.
“There you are!” the physician said, looking up from where he inspected the queen’s chest wound. “You will need to feed His Highness soon.”
I looked past him, to where sobbing midwives were cleaning the tiny prince. Another was offering the queen a steaming herbal brew, but her breaths came out short and ragged. If her lung had been punctured, she wouldn’t last long.
Jun crumpled and rolled onto his back. His robes hung open to the sash, revealing cloth wrapped around his slim torso. Blood stained his robes near the top of his thighs.
I ran over and knelt by him. Eyelids fluttering, he looked abnormally pale. His body lolled as I cradled his head in my lap. “Help him!”
The physician shook his head. “My duty is to que—”
“Help him,” the queen said, voice barely a whisper. “He is the only one who can protect my baby.”
“No,” Jun rasped, waving a feeble hand.
Bowing to the queen, the physician shuffled over. He took Jun’s wrist, and after a moment his brow furrowed. “His pulse suggests he has a testicular tumor, which has just ruptured.”
“That can’t be.” I shook my head. “Wang Jun is a eunuch.”
“Impossible.” The physician loosened Jun’s sash, fighting off feeble protests. He pulled the robe open, revealing the strangest undergarment I’d ever seen on a man. Blood stained the thick cloth. It looked like…
“As I said, testicular—” the physician pulled the cloth to the side. He gasped and averted his eyes.
“What is it?” Now cradling the prince in her arms, the queen winced as she craned over to see.
It all made sense now. I brushed the hair out of his… her face. “Wang Jun is a woman.”
“Which means…” The physician turned to the queen. “Her pulse indicates she is having an early miscarriage.”
“These herbs will do me no good.” The queen guided the porcelain cup in the midwife’s hands toward Jun. “Will this help her?”
The doctor nodded as he withdrew acupuncture needles from a brocade pouch and inserted them into Jun’s shins.
He… she opened her eyes with a groan.
I propped her up and offered her the herbal tea. “Drink this.”
“It will help clean everything out,” the physician said, “and give you energy.”
Jun looked to the queen, who gave an encouraging nod. With a hesitant bob of her head, Jun sipped. In a few moments, color returned to her cheeks.
“Keep your abdomen warm,” the physician said. “Otherwise, this early of a miscarriage isn’t much different from your monthly cycle. You can go about your normal activities.”
I snorted. What was normal for a royal guard?
A messenger burst in and dropped to a knee, fist to the ground. “Your Highness, Prince Gong controls over half of the palace. He is on his way here now.”
With no regard for the needles in her legs, Jun sat up. “Your Highness, you must flee.”
“She is in no condition to move,” the physician said. “She won’t survive the night.”
“Take the prince. He needs your sword.” The queen looked from Jun to me. “And your milk.”
“I…” I started to shake my head. I wouldn’t be providing milk anytime soon. But… I took the prince into my arms and beckoned Jun to follow.
The Royal Guard
Having been raised as a boy by a domineering lord, I hadn’t worn a dress since I was a baby. Lisha held up a hand mirror, allowing me to see my hastily made-up-face and elaborate coiffure. It, and the gown, looked and felt wrong.
“You’re beautiful.” Lisha pulled a mother-of-pearl comb from her hair and tucked it into mine.
My heart pattered at her touch. When I spoke, my voice came out husky, though stronger now that the herbs had boosted my energy. “I’m sorry to have misled you.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for.” She leaned in. Our lips touched, and sparks ran up and down my spine. She pulled back and grinned.
Promising she’d come back for my sword, Lisha insisted we hide it. As she said, its dragonfly hilt was so distinguishable, it would give away my disguise as a handmaiden to her. With the baby slung across her belly, covered by a heavy cloak, she really looked the part of pregnant noblewoman. Still, I worried either his cries or her backwater mannerisms and accent were more of a liability than my sword.
I shouldn’t have. Soon into our escape, I realized she wasn’t just a country girl. She navigated the palace’s back alleys and servants passages as if she were its architect; held us back in the shadows like spies to avoid treasonous guard patrols; and spoke to fleeing servants as if she were a princess.
While we rested in the shadows of the Golden Phoenix Hall, I wrestled with the obvious. “You’re the Night Fox, aren’t you?”
Expression tentative, she searched my eyes. “Does it matter?”
That answer told me everything I needed to know. “Yes. Only the Night Fox can save the prince.”
Her relieved smile was reassuring.
My misgivings began when we had to risk an unavoidable bottleneck. In the courtyard by the Median Gate, we joined a group of handmaidens and servants. Unfamiliar soldiers stood guard, letting commoners leave. As we approached, all my nerves strained taut, ready to reach over and draw one of their swords.
They let us go without a second glance. When we cleared the gate into the anterior bailey, I was about to let out a sigh of relief.
Then, flanked by eight guards and the Minister of Rites, Prince Gong marched toward us.
My heart leaped into my throat, and I felt helpless without a weapon. I joined the women… the other women… in making way, moving to the side and bowing my head.
They walked between us, Prince Gong discussing succession with the Minister of Rites. I couldn’t help but peek up through my uncharacteristically long lashes as he passed.
He froze midstride. Recognition blooming on his face, he locked his gaze on me and came over. I started to bow again, but he lifted my chin with a finger. His eyes roved over my face. Heavens, if the prince cried now…
Prince Gong harrumphed, and continued on his way.
Sitting on the veranda of our courtyard home, I lean back and bask in the afternoon sun. It’s been four years since Prince Gong’s coup, three years since his fiscal indiscretion and mismanagement of the realm led to its fall to the Kingdom of Yu. His consort, Lady Lanyu, had orchestrated it all.
Still, we live close to the palace.
That fateful night, we were stranded in the capital. His loyalists searched house to house for the missing baby prince, but my courtyard home had a secret room which they never found.
Remembering the acupuncture points the royal physicians had used on me, I needled Jun. I fed her the herbs that had been meant for a wet nurse who’d recently miscarried. She’d been eating my lactation-enhancing diet for several days; and before long, her milk came in, providing nourishment for the rightful heir.
I shake the memories out of my head, and shift my attention to Jun teaching our son the Yin-Yang Sword Path. She has taken up the mantle of First Sword to the King of Luo, even if he doesn’t know his true identity. Wang Hong is bright and coordinated for a four-year-old, but he might never attain the highest levels of mastery.
Not if it means mutilating him.
I won’t allow it.
Nor would Jun. She’s resigned to The Yin-Yang Sword Path dying with her, but remains hopeful. After all, despite the belief that a woman could never grasp the Yang half of the art, it had only taken a strict father and competitive brothers for her to understand it. Perhaps a boy raised by two mothers will appreciate Yin energies well enough to become a master.
And maybe one day, dragonstone in hand, he will reclaim the throne with the help of his First Sword and the Night Fox.