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 almond 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, 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?
In all her time on the mountain, none of the guards had ever come near her, repulsed by the scars that mapped her skin. 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. 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. She would have preferred more light.
Sighing, she leaned down and turned Jia-li’s hands upward so that she could see the girl’s palms. The skin showed red and blistered. “Let’s go back to your room so I can take care of these.”
In the winter the house felt chilly, but Jia-li’s ornate bedroom in the rear of the building retained its warmth. The girl settled cross-legged on her silk-draped bed, her light-brown hair streaming over one shoulder. With her back to the lamp, the flame outlined her small form with a flickering glow.
“It is worse every day,” Jia-li said, her eyes glistening. “He keeps asking me things I can’t do.”
Kseniya knelt and took the girl’s hands in her own. The blisters lay under Jia-li’s skin, not atop it, as if the skin burned from the inside, the fire inherent in the girl burning its way out of her body.
Kseniya concentrated her will into her hands, and where they touched Jia-li’s, she set the damaged flesh to rights, thieving away the pain. She felt grateful for the winter’s cold —it eased the fire that prickled along her skin. She let it flow throughout her body, spreading the dull ache thinly so that it did little harm beyond discomfort. She breathed slowly, her eyes shut, not wanting to worry the girl.
Jia-li’s small hand touched her cheek, tracing along one of the old scars. “I wish you would teach me to heal.”
“When you are older, dearest. You’re not ready yet.” Kseniya opened her eyes and smiled at her.
“I wish he weren’t my father,” Jia-li said.
“I know,” Kseniya whispered. The women’s house had ears, and ill-spoken words might find their way back to the wizard. Whether by magic or some mundane method, it mattered not. Better to give the man nothing to use against them.
For a second, she suspected Jia-li would cry, but the girl squared her small shoulders, determination on her face. “Will you tell me about my mother again?”
Kseniya refused to let her sister’s memory die. As one of their father’s bastards, Kseniya had been raised by Anushka’s side—to guard her more royal sibling. But Anushka’s will to live had faded away after giving birth to Jia-li, lacking the will to endure.
Kseniya tucked an errant strand of Jia-li’s hair behind her ear and resettled herself on the floor. “Your mother was a princess of the Cholodio Mountains, and her people were known far and wide for their healers. When the Emperor heard of them, he decided he must have them. He took all his soldiers there but couldn’t conquer the mountains. So he set his wizard at the task, and he unleashed his dragons upon their lands, destroying their villages and farms.”
It sounded only like a child’s story now, even to her own ears—and she had lived through it. “The princess escaped and hid among her people, but the wizard sent men to hunt her. Long before, a seer had prophesied that the wizard would only be defeated by a child of his own blood. So, to save her people, Anushka gave herself up. When you were born, she hoped you would be the one to free them.”
“And then we can leave?” Jia-li asked in a wistful voice.
She had chosen not to burden the girl with hopes of escape, and even now thought it best to hold them secret.
“Yes, dearest. Then we will go home.”
It was no small matter, waking the girl in the dead of the night, but the moon would rise soon, and Kseniya wanted them off the mountaintop before the light gave away their escape. She stole into the storeroom and retrieved the satchel hidden there, filled now with hoarded food and the finest of the bridal silks.
Jia-li dressed without argument, drawing on layer after layer for warmth. Once satisfied, Kseniya carried the girl through the women’s house and out to the courtyard. They slipped through the side door onto the platform where the washer women rinsed their laundry in a spring that emerged from under the foundations of the house.
A gate led out on the back of the mountain, the path the guards watched least in the winter as it led only down a steep, icy trail. “We must stay in the shadows,” she whispered.
Jia-li nodded fervently, and Kseniya set the girl on her feet. But when they stepped toward the distant gate, it swung inward.
One of the guards, Kseniya realized, sneaking into the women’s house. Heart pounding, she shoved Jia-li behind her. The guard couldn’t help but see her there, but she hoped he might not notice the child cringing behind her.
He stopped twenty paces from them. The rising moon’s pale light crossed his face—the wizard’s bodyguard.
Kseniya didn’t know how he’d guessed they would flee this night, but it was over, her attempt to steal Jia-li away ruined before they even escaped the house. Biting back tears of frustration, Kseniya cursed herself silently. Her aggressive reaction to his touch must have warned the man that she’d been trained to arms, and made him suspicious of her.
The man came no closer, though, holding his hands wide. It seemed an odd gesture, one perhaps meant to lull her suspicions.
“Go,” she whispered to Jia-li and pushed the girl toward the courtyard. She heard the girl’s footsteps patter away, too soft for the man to notice. And once a moment had passed, Kseniya fled the platform as well, her heart like lead.
Kseniya sat in the inner hall of the women’s house, where the morning light from the courtyard served best for mending. Bao-yu sat nearby, completing the embroidery she’d begun the day before.
In the quiet before dawn, Kseniya had returned the silks to the chest and thrown the food out past the gate where the birds could squabble over it. She hoped the wizard might believe she’d merely stood on that platform in the night to look at the stars. The bodyguard might not even have seen the girl behind her. And Jia-li had not known her plan, which should protect the girl should her father question her.
When the groan of the outer gate alerted Kseniya, she went to greet her niece, but it wasn’t Jia-li in the courtyard. Two of the wizard’s guards stood there.
“Come,” one ordered.
Kseniya hadn’t been inside the wizard’s house for years. Large braziers burned on the edges of the room, keeping it over-warm. It reeked of incense, a heavy cloying musk meant to mask the burning smell of the wizard himself. That remembered scent triggered a wave of nausea, and Kseniya paused. Then she lifted her head and walked to the carpet before the dais where the wizard held his court.
He sat on a heavily-carved chair of dark rosewood—a copy of the emperor’s throne, one of the other servants had once told her. The wizard’s dark hair showed far grayer than when Kseniya had last seen him. His handsome face sagged about his almond-shaped eyes, age and power wearing at his flesh.
His robes of blue silk were richly embroidered, dragons flying across them stitched in bronze and red and gold. Not the slender twisting dragons Kseniya had seen on the robes of envoys from the Emperor’s court, but the wizard’s own dreadful creatures, fire and smoke billowing from their jaws. They were carved into the beams of the sanctuary, painted on the red walls.
They looked out of the wizard’s eyes at her.
The bodyguard stood some distance behind the dais, his somber tunic and trousers making him blend into the shadows. Even so, Kseniya could feel his eyes on her. Her two encounters with him had surely led to this pass.
One of the guards pressed a hand on her shoulder, and Kseniya sank to her knees.
“Why did you bring her?” Jia-li asked from somewhere beyond her line of vision. The girl must be several feet behind her, and to the left. The bodyguard’s dark eyes flicked in Jia-li’s direction, confirming that.
“Quiet, girl,” the wizard said. He raised a hand, his long, pointed nails painted with blue lacquer. With one finger, he drew a slashing arc through the air.
Pain seared like fire along Kseniya’s cheek, a line cutting across one of the old scars. She clenched her jaw to keep from crying out. She remembered that pain all too well.
Jia-li screamed. She turned to her father and cried, “Stop it! Stop it!”
The first flare of pain passed, leaving a low burning in Kseniya’s skin like poison. She could sense blood, hot and sticky, flowing down her cheek, but she didn’t dare heal herself. Should the wizard witness it, she feared he might learn the way of healing from her.
And there would be more to come; she knew that from experience. A drop of blood fell to her chest, bright against the drab ramie of her over-robe.
“Now, you will heal her,” the wizard said to his daughter.
“I can’t!” Jia-li protested. “I don’t know how.”
The wizard stroked the air again, and the dragon’s fire cut through Kseniya’s skin, a trail of red blossoming across her left sleeve. Kseniya bit down on her tongue.
“Heal her,” he said. “You heal your hands at night, so I know you have the power in you.”
The girl cast a horrified glance at Kseniya.
The bodyguard hadn’t precipitated this after all, she realized. “No,” she mouthed at the girl.
That defiance earned another stripe, this time running from shoulder to shoulder.
“Heal her,” the wizard ordered, his voice louder.
It had been the same with Anushka—the constant demands that she demonstrate her ability to heal. The wizard had only kept Kseniya alive to provide a victim for his game. I should have warned the girl before, she thought. I knew this day would come.
Jia-li drew herself up to her full height, crossed her arms over her chest, and lifted her chin. “She’s only a servant,” she said in a disdainful tone.
It was a valiant attempt, but the wizard ignored her ploy. He raised his hand, and fire traced across Kseniya’s forehead. Blood seeped into the corner of her eye, and she shook her head, trying to dash it out. One of the guards put his hand atop her head to keep her still.
It went on until Jia-li lay sobbing at her father’s feet.
“Heal her,” the wizard insisted.
Kseniya had no recollection of how she got back to the women’s house. She lay on the cold tiles of her tiny room, the smell of her own blood going stale about her. It must be night, she decided, for only a dim sliver of light showed under her door.
The wizard would do it again, she knew, once she had recovered enough. His talent let him cut flesh, even from a distance, but nothing else. He couldn’t cut her clothes or put out her eyes. His guards, however, could easily do that for him. Little else held much horror for her any longer, but Kseniya feared the day she would lose her eyes.
And there was no hope of escape now. Weakened so, she could never make it through the frozen mountains alone, much less with a child. She pressed one hand over her mouth to quiet the sound of her sobs.
Someone leaned over her in the darkened room, and Kseniya jerked away in sudden fright.
“Hush. I will not harm you.” Light flared about a man’s form as he uncovered one pane of a lantern. The wizard’s bodyguard fetched the pitcher of water and basin from her table and picked up a towel. “I do not think you should lie on your bed yet,” he said. “Can you sit here?”
The wooden chair by the door seemed too far. “I am too weak to walk,” she whispered.
“I will help.” He half-carried her to the chair. Her headscarf slid to the floor and her braid came loose. It fell over her shoulder, looking like a stream of blood in the darkness. “I have an unguent to help these heal,” he said. “I must clean them first.”
She felt too weak to fight him, no matter what he did.
“These are narrow cuts and should knit well.” He dabbed at her face, cleaning away dried blood. “I confess I suspected how you earned all those scars. I regret that I cannot protest.”
The thin lines crisscrossing her face represented hours of pain under the wizard’s phantom touch. “He would not heed you in any case. He is not kind.”
A short, dry laugh greeted that statement. “No. Kindness does not run in his blood. Do you understand what he wants of her?”
Kseniya forced herself to focus. “I believe he wishes to learn to heal himself.”
“But healing is an inborn talent, is it not?” The bodyguard wet the towel again and wrung it out over her basin. “There is a great difference. Save for the dragon’s fire, his own inborn talent, all the arts he practices are learned ones. He cannot learn to heal.”
Kseniya hissed as he caught the edge of a cut.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “She is too young, anyway, is she not?”
Jia-li would not be able to heal for years, not until she reached her full growth. “How do you know that?”
“My mother is of the Condara, who know much of your people.”
Nearly a century before, the wizard had sent his fire-dragons to hunt down the nomadic peoples of the steppes in the name of his emperor. The Condara were one of the few surviving clans. They had lived quietly in the valley south of her own people’s mountains until the day the dragons returned to stamp them out.
Yet this man’s hair and dress proclaimed him one of the Manchu, the Emperor’s clan. With his dark hair and almond-shaped eyes, he looked like he might be of the Emperor’s own family. “I wouldn’t have thought you one of the Condara,” she finally said.
“And you should not tell, either. But you have shown you can hold your tongue.” His dark eyes looked inky black in the dimness of the room. “He wants to be certain that healing is an inborn gift, rather than an art.”
“For that reason, he bred her. To bear a healer’s gift as well as the dragon’s fire, so that when he places his spirit into her body, he will possess both.”
Kseniya stared, uncertain if she’d heard him aright. “He will place his spirit in her body?”
The bodyguard nodded his head and produced from a satchel a small tin, an unguent that smelled strongly of herbs. He patted some against the freshly bleeding cut on her cheek and the pain fled. “You didn’t know?”
“No. What would become of Jia-li?”
The bodyguard dabbed more of the unguent on the cut across her forehead. “He lives on by taking over the body of another—to cheat death and hold onto his power. In time, she will become the Emperor’s wizard, only it will not be her living in that body any longer.”
She had feared his breaking Jia-li’s spirit, but this was far more horrifying. “I cannot let that happen.”
“You cannot stop him. His magics protect him. None can come near him unless they share his blood.”
She shook her head, but the motion made her dizzy.
“You need to rest. We can discuss this later.” He lifted a small bowl from her shelf and poured water into it. Then he pulled a slip of paper out of the satchel, folded to hold herbs, and poured them into the water. “Let this steep for a few minutes, then drink it all. It will help build up your strength.”
Kseniya felt her eyes drifting closed. The bodyguard shook her shoulder. “Do not fall asleep until you have cleaned all the cuts. Can you do so yourself?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Why are you helping me?”
But he was gone. Kseniya eased off her blood-stained robes and tended the cuts across her chest and arms. She hoped the man had good intentions, for though he chose to help her, he could have killed her just as easily.
Kseniya woke, stiff and sore in every part. She’d lain down atop her bed without even bothering to don a shift, allowing the cold to ease away the burn of the dragon’s fire. Flecks of blood marked her fingers where she’d touched one of her cuts in the night. All told, she felt fortunate to be breathing still.
Her first attempt to rise failed, so she lay there and waited until her weakness receded. After a time, she used the chair as a crutch and heaved herself upright.
Her bloodstained garments were scattered about the floor where she had dropped them. The tin of unguent lay near the door, the overturned bowl next to it.
Recalling that she hadn’t seen Jia-li since the afternoon before, Kseniya forced herself to dress, taking fresh garments from the chest next to her narrow bed. The stained ones she bundled together to take to Bao-yu. The old woman could get blood out of anything.
When Kseniya entered the inner hall in the center of the women’s house, Jia-li threw her arms about her waist, sobbing.
“Hush, dearest,” Kseniya whispered.
Jia-li drew away and wiped her streaming eyes. “They wouldn’t let me see you.”
“I expect not, dearest. I was very tired.”
“I was so afraid.”
Kseniya knelt on the floor, feeling better for not standing. She set her hands on the girl’s shoulders and gazed into her dark eyes. “You were very brave. It’s harder for you to watch me hurt than it is for me to endure it. I know. Your mother went through this many times.”
“I don’t want him to hurt you.” Jia-li’s small mouth turned down at the corners.
Kseniya managed a smile that didn’t pull at the cuts on her face. “I don’t either, but I prefer this to his hurting you. Explain to him that you don’t know how to heal. If he doesn’t believe you, then there is nothing more you can do.”
Jia-li leaned closer. “He doesn’t know that you can.”
“He has always suspected.”
“I wish he was dead.”
Kseniya stroked the girl’s pale cheek, wondering if that was the truth of the prophecy—that the girl must kill her own father. “Hush. We will survive this.”
At least, she hoped they would.
The wizard didn’t send for Kseniya that day. Instead he kept Jia-li working at her normal tasks: making fire between her hands and moving small things without touching them. Smaller parts of his talent, Kseniya believed, that would allow Jia-li to control the dragon’s fire. The girl returned to the women’s house with burned palms again.
“He didn’t hurt you today,” Jia-li said as Kseniya inspected her hands.
“He tries to make you dread it.” She knew this game well. “He will wait until you don’t expect it.”
The girl nodded gravely. Kseniya gathered her faded strength to heal the girl’s hands, but Jia-li jerked them away. “No, don’t.”
“Punishing yourself will not change what he’s done, dearest.”
Jia-li’s lower lip slid out, a rare mulish expression. “You should heal yourself instead.”
She had done so where it couldn’t be seen, causing the cuts across her chest and arms to knit. Covered from the wizard’s sight, he wouldn’t know of it unless he had the guards strip her. If he did that, she would have greater worries than explaining healed cuts.
“Perhaps he will wait longer if he thinks I am unwell,” she suggested.
Jia-li refused to let Kseniya heal her hands anyway, and Kseniya honored that decision. Instead, she went to her room and retrieved the tin of unguent. “We can rub this into your palms and wrap them so you don’t hurt them in your sleep.”
Jia-li acquiesced and went to her bed that night with her hands covered in a clean pair of summer stockings.
Kseniya returned to her room and blew out her candle. She lay awake on her pallet for some time, listening. Her patience was rewarded when she heard a quiet footfall in the hallway outside her door. A second later, the bodyguard slipped inside. He closed the door behind him and opened his lantern.
Kseniya caught the faint smell of burning about him, picked up from the wizard during the day, no doubt. Jia-li’s skin bore that same scent.
“What is your name?” she asked as he settled on the floor.
His dark eyes laughed. “I am not going to tell you that, woman, not if there is a chance it could come to his ears.”
“You think I would tell?”
“After yesterday, certainly not. But walls have ears. I am pleased that you seem better.”
“I’m grateful for your aid,” she said. “You know your herbs well.”
He shrugged eloquently. “My mother taught me.”
Kseniya sat back on her bed. “Why did you steal into the women’s house that night, when I saw you in the courtyard?”
“To speak to one of the others. I would prefer you not give her away.”
She gave him a sharper look in the dim light. He was a handsome man, perhaps only a few years older than herself. She should have expected he would, like the other guards, have a girl among the servants. “Of course not,” she said. “Why have you helped me?”
“It is my place to do so,” he said. “I told you what he wants of her. Most of his arts are nothing to him, but controlling the dragons—that saps his life. Soon he will need another one, so I need your help to get Jia-li safely away.”
“Away?” She could hardly keep the incredulity from her voice. “That was my intention that night, to take her from the mountain. Only I thought you knew our plan, so I sent her back inside.”
He laughed shortly. “Ah, I understand now. My apologies, but where did you intend to go?”
“I meant to follow the stars to the north and west—to take her to her mother’s family.”
“It is a dangerous time of year to cross the mountains,” he said, shaking his head.
“But now you say we cannot wait.”
“No, we cannot. I will take care of him, but I need you to get Jia-li away. There is a village halfway down the eastern slope. I know those there who would hide you until spring. You can cross the mountains safely then, if you will accept their help.”
After so many years alone, the offer of aid surprised her, but she was not too proud to take it. It gave her hope again.
She kept her secret to herself, not wishing for Jia-li to have something more she must bear. Nor could the girl be forced to tell what she didn’t know.
Kseniya had just begun to stitch on the tunic left behind two days before when she heard the outer door creak open. A shudder ran down her spine. She hadn’t expected them to come for her so soon. She set the handwork aside and looked up to see two guardsmen enter the inner hall.
“Come,” one of them said.
She rose stiffly. They hauled her out of the women’s house and before the wizard, not bothering this time to make her kneel.
The wizard turned his dark eyes on Kseniya and snapped his fingers. Jia-li came to stand next to him. He grasped her small fingers in his and brought them near to his nose, all the while keeping his burning eyes fixed on Kseniya’s face. “She tells me you used an unguent on her hands last night. Is that so?”
Kseniya bowed, perplexed by the unexpected question. “Yes, my lord.”
The bodyguard stood several feet behind the dais, his dark brows drawn together.
“And where did you get this unguent?” the wizard asked. “Did you make it yourself?”
For a split-second, she considered saying yes, but she had no supplies with which to have made it. “No, my lord.”
“Where did it come from? I have only smelled its like once before.”
Kseniya forced herself not to look in the bodyguard’s direction. “I found a tin of it in the women’s house.”
The wizard’s eyes narrowed. “Foolish woman, this is fresh-made. I know the scent of it. Myrrh and comfrey, ginger and cloves. Where did it come from?”
Kseniya went still. She’d fallen into some sort of trap. “I found it only days ago. In the store room, in an old chest there that holds silk robes. A tin sealed with wax, I don’t know how long, my lord.”
“Hidden in the women’s house?” the wizard said in a flat voice. “So it comes back disembodied to haunt me, the smell of the salve on her skin.”
Her skin? Kseniya didn’t believe he spoke of Anushka, and wondered who that other woman might be. And then an answer came to her. The bodyguard had said his mother taught him the making of the unguent. She must have lived on this mountain once. Kseniya trained her eyes on the floor, hoping that new awareness didn’t show on her face, not when the bodyguard had risked himself for Jia-li’s sake.
“You are not to use it again,” the wizard snapped. “Throw the tin in the spring.”
Kseniya waited for the pain to come. It didn’t.
“Take the girl back to the women’s house and clean her hands.” He released Jia-li’s fingers and shoved her toward the steps. She stumbled, and Kseniya leaped forward to catch her. When she reached the first step, though, a wall of power pushed her back. She fell to the floor, her breath stolen away. She’d forgotten the wizard’s spell that kept others at a distance.
Jia-li ran to her and helped her up. Under the wizard’s dark eyes, she and the girl walked slowly from his sanctuary.
The mountains rumbled as the sun set. From the platform by the side door of the women’s house where the washer women worked, Kseniya and Jai-li stood and stared at the sky. The normal gurgle of the stream went unheard.
Woken from their restless slumber, the dragons rose into the night and flew to the west. They were huge and terrifying creatures, all leathery wings and fire. Hot gusts of wind swirled off their bronzy wing-tips, making the snow sizzle and melt.
Kseniya held her headscarf fast to her head with one hand, using the end of it to protect her face. She had seen this many times before, flights of dragons over her people’s lands.
Frustration showed on Jia-li’s features. “I tried to call them back, but they won’t listen to me.”
“Dearest, you don’t have his power.”
Jia-li sniffed and wiped her eyes with the back of a blistered hand. “I had to try.”
“I know, dearest. Why don’t you go to your room? I will come in a moment.”
Jia-li nodded and made her way from the platform back into the house. Now that the dragons had gone, the cold returned on a bitter wind. The girl hugged her quilted jacket about herself, looking quite small and defeated.
Kseniya watched her go, and then went to where Bao-yu stood watching the dragons’ flight. Her own people’s lands lay in that direction. She could only pray that the wizard hadn’t sent the dragons there to punish them because she’d not told him where she had found the cursed unguent. She glanced down at Bao-yu, reckoning that the old woman knew the wizard’s mind better than any other. “Do you know were the dragons went?”
Bao-yu took Kseniya’s hand and drew her back inside to the inner hall where she kept a tray of sand. The old woman drew in it with one gnarled finger, a simple drawing of a woman with a babe in her stomach, followed by another of a woman with a child.
“Anushka?” Kseniya asked.
The old woman shook her head. She drew a sword and pointed at it.
Kseniya met the old woman’s eyes warily, wondering what the old woman knew of the wizard’s bodyguard, and if he might not have come to the woman’s house that first night to see Bao-yu. “Did he...?”
One of the servant girls walked into the inner hall then and Bao-yu wiped her hand across the sand, erasing her drawings. She walked away without a glance, as if she feared being caught there. Like Kseniya, Bao-yu evidently believed the walls of the women’s house had ears, or in her case, eyes.
Kseniya stood there a moment, weighing possibilities, and then made her way to Jia-li’s room. The girl sat on the edge of the platform of her bed, her hands cradled on her lap.
“Will you let me heal them today?” Kseniya asked.
“No.” The girl shook her head. “He sent them hunting for someone. The dragons will kill people tonight because I didn’t wash my hands well enough. It’s not fair.”
Kseniya sat down next to her and began to braid the girl’s hair. “No, dearest. He is not fair.”
Jia-li heaved a great sigh. “Will you tell me about my mother?”
The rattle of leathery wings woke Kseniya just before dawn, the dragons returning to their place under the mountains. The smell of burning floated on the air, the scent of the dragons.
She’d waited up late, thinking the bodyguard might return to the women’s house, but he hadn’t. She had questions for him, ones that Bao-yu’s drawings had stirred in her mind.
Kseniya rose in the graying light and dressed. Her face ached less. She had cheated somewhat, healing the cuts from within so they didn’t look as improved on the surface. She gingerly touched the torn skin. She and Anushka had once looked much alike, but she hadn’t seen the reflection of her face since coming to the wizard’s home. It could not be as she remembered—she would surely never be called beautiful again.
She combed out her hair and began to braid it, but a tap on her door startled her. She opened it quickly and found the bodyguard waiting there. He stepped inside and she shut the door behind him.
“I must thank you,” he said, “for not revealing me yesterday.”
“You are his son.” She waited for his reaction. He didn’t deny it, his dark eyes downcast. Now that she knew to look, she saw the resemblance. “When did you escape?”
“I was twelve when my mother took us away, near twenty years ago. She discovered what he truly wanted of me, and one of the bodyguards helped us and hid us. He raised me as his own son and took my mother as his wife. That was whom the dragons sought last night. My mother’s household.”
“How can you stand by and watch what he does? How many of your people died last night in the dragons’ fire?”
“They are safe. He will not find them.”
“And what of you?”
“I am changed enough that my father does not recognize me,” he said with a short laugh.
No, she couldn’t imagine him as a boy of twelve. “Can you do what he does? Did he train you as he does Jia-li?”
“Then why not call back his dragons last night?”
“I am sworn not to.” He touched her scarred cheek. “He treated my mother as he does you, to force my compliance. So I swore never to use his arts again, not even the dragon’s fire.”
Which must be inherent in him, she realized. The faint sulfurous smell of his skin must be his own. “Then why did you come back here?”
“I received a message telling me of Jia-li. The Emperor no longer trusts his wizard. He suspects that should the wizard become young again, he might seek to seize the throne. So with the Emperor’s blessing, I came here to keep her safe.” He took the small knife from a sheath at his wrist. “Give this to her. He will be weaker today. I fear he might take her soon to save himself. I will not allow that to happen, but it would be better if she has some defense.”
Kseniya slid the knife inside her dress. “What do you want us to do?”
“Act as normal. Once he becomes weak enough, I can take him myself. You must take Jia-li and flee.” From inside his jacket he produced a second knife, single-bladed and as long as his forearm, and smiled wryly. “I have watched you. When you see the guards at their exercises you look as if you want to join them, so I suspect you know how to use this.”
Kseniya took the blade from him. The leather of the hilt was worn and the balance unfamiliar, but it felt welcome in her hands. “My father had me trained to the sword to serve as my sister’s guardian. Not one like this,” she said, hefting the blade, “but it will suffice.”
“Good. I will count on you to protect her, then.”
Kseniya glanced at the early light slanting in through her high window. “Why did you come so late? The sun is already risen. You must go.”
He took a strand of her hair between his fingers. “I wanted to see your hair. It is the color of fire in sunlight.”
Kseniya simply stared at him, at a loss for words. He let himself out, his footsteps not even audible to her despite the fact that she pressed her ear against the door to hear them.
Kseniya fixed the blade to her thigh using strips torn from an old shift. A careful fold of fabric under her belt hid a slit in the side of her over-robe. Jia-li secreted the little knife inside her jacket. Kseniya had never trained her to use such a thing, but agreed that the girl should have some chance to defend herself.
When the guards bore Kseniya into the wizard’s presence later in the morning, the wizard sat slumped on his throne. He looked far older than the day before, as if he’d aged years overnight. His hair had gone mostly white, something Kseniya would not have thought possible—surely a result of his magics.
The guards shoved her to her knees. One laid his knife to her throat. Kseniya didn’t move.
“Jia-li claims she did not ever heal her hands.” The wizard’s voice rattled in his throat. “I believe that you did.”
Kseniya said nothing, not surprised by his claim.
The wizard raised his hand and searing pain ripped across her throat. Blood sprayed about her. Panicked, Kseniya clamped a hand to her neck, desperate to keep her life from flowing away onto his carpets.
For a moment, everything seemed suspended: the guards jumping back in surprise; Jia-li, her mouth open as she cried out; the bodyguard, moving from his place at the back of the room, crossing the dais toward her.
Only she wasn’t ready to die, not when escape beckoned. Kseniya caused the wound to seal, stopping the flow of blood. For a moment, she sensed only the paths of her body’s energy and the blood pulsing through her veins—what blood remained.
She opened her eyes to see Jia-li leaning over her, red-stained fingers pressed to her cheek. A warm presence at her back told her the bodyguard crouched behind her. Wide-eyed, he leaned over and touched her neck as if searching for the injury.
“I wondered,” the wizard said, “what it would take to get you to reveal yourself.”
The guards closed on either side of the bodyguard and grasped his arms, pinning them behind him. They dragged him to his feet.
The wizard chuckled. “Well, Jia-li, it is time for you to meet your brother, Yun-qi.”
From Kseniya’s vantage, she saw Jia-li’s eyes go round with surprise. The girl crossed her arms over her chest and said, “If he is my brother, they should let him go.”
The wizard pushed himself up from his chair and took two tottering steps toward the edge of the dais. “Stupid girl. He is far more useful to me than you. Why take a child’s body when I could have one full grown? Bring him here,” he instructed the guards.
Kseniya lay on the carpet, too weak to do more than watch. She couldn’t reach the knife strapped to her leg.
“No!” Jia-li cried. “Let him go.” Foolishly, neither of the guards heeded her as she strode toward them. Without warning, Jia-li raised her little knife and plunged it into the thigh of the nearer man.
The guard spat out a curse. With one hand, he backhanded the girl. Jia-li shrieked and tumbled over Kseniya’s body.
The bodyguard jerked his arm loose from the injured man’s grasp and slammed the second guard’s head against a teak beam. The man fell, slumping over Kseniya’s legs. Freed, the bodyguard drew his sword.
Kseniya reached to the face of the guard crumpled unconscious over her legs. Gathering her will, she drained his strength to rebuild her own.
When she opened her eyes, she saw the blur of the bodyguard jumping over her. From outside the sanctuary, two more guards sprinted toward the fray.
Kseniya pushed the guard’s body off her legs. Jia-li still lay on the carpet, her hands covering her head. Kseniya rushed to her and dragged her upright. “We have to go now.”
She grabbed the girl and ran toward the sanctuary doors, expecting the wizard to use his fire to stop her. Nothing happened. At the threshold, she half-turned. The bodyguard still faced two men.
She couldn’t abandon him, she realized, no more than he could Jia-li. She set the girl on her feet. “Stay out of the way, little one.”
Yun-qi swung his sword in a wide arc to warn his attackers back. That gave them pause, but only for a second.
Kseniya drew her own blade and ran back to his side. She struck hard, catching one attacker under his upraised arm. Her blade scraped along his ribs, and the man fell.
The bodyguard finished the other one. Kseniya held out a hand toward Jai-li. The girl ran to her side and threw her arms about Kseniya’s waist.
Yun-qi set one hand on Jia-li’s shoulder and faced their father. “You will not take my life today, nor my sister’s. You will not cheat death again.”
With a flick of the wizard’s hand, red lines appeared across Yun-qi’s face. He grimaced in pain, but dashed the blood from his eyes. The wizard raised his hand again. Yun-qi groaned, one hand pressing to his chest. It came away red. Blood soaked through the fabric of his jacket.
Kseniya advanced on the dais but was thrown back by a careless stroke of the wizard’s hand. Jia-li tried to help her up, but the ground began to shake.
The dragons, she realized. He has called his dragons. Yun-qi dragged Kseniya to her feet. “We must flee!”
The wizard’s skin looked sickly now. He watched them with tired, spiteful eyes. Taking advantage of that momentary weakness, Kseniya grasped Jia-li’s sleeve and ran.
When they reached the outer gate of the house, dragons circled above, swooping down to terrorize the guardsmen and servants who ran about the courtyard like ants. Clutching the girl’s hand, she hurtled down the steps into the chaos. One dragon dove at them like a kestrel, but they reached the protection of the women’s house before it could catch them.
Another dragon set fire to the roof of the guard house. Guards scattered from its doors. A body slammed into Kseniya from behind, propelling her through the gate into the women’s house.
“Hurry! Go!” Yun-qi pushed her toward the inner courtyard.
He shoved her, his hand slippery with blood. “Through the side gate. Bao-yu!” he called as Kseniya hurried Jia-li down the hallway. “Grandmother!”
The old woman met them at the gate, a bundle already tied to her back.
“If we flee, he will just have his dragons fetch us back,” Kseniya said to Yun-qi.
“It tires him to control them. He will soon lose them. Then he is nothing. We must keep moving.”
She stopped and stared at him. “That was your plan?”
He looked startled, as if no one had ever before questioned his wisdom. Before he could answer, a dragon swooped by the platform on which they stood, and fire blossomed on the roof of the women’s house. They would have to cross the unprotected expanse of the courtyard to reach the gate, Kseniya realized.
“Can you not control them?” she asked him, raising her voice over the sudden roar of the flames.
He wrapped his arms about Bao-yu, shielding the old woman. “I am sworn not to.”
Kseniya heard the burning roof groan as one of the creatures settled on it. The bronze edge of a leathery wing protruded over the platform’s shelter. Another came close, its baleful red eye winking at them. It couldn’t breathe its flame on them, she guessed, for fear of killing the wizard’s children—the one thing the wizard needed—but the dragons all knew now where they hid.
She, however, was expendable. Kseniya pushed Jia-li toward her brother. “Stay with him.”
She drew her blade, but Yun-qi stopped her with a hard hand on her arm. “No! Don’t be foolish. He will only cut your throat again.”
“I will not stand here and wait to be burned to death.” But she knew he was right. The wizard would enjoy killing her after all these years.
Kseniya glanced down at Jia-li, who held to her brother’s leg, her eyes squeezed shut against the heat. She knelt by the girl and asked, “Can you talk to them?”
Jia-li’s eyes opened, startled. “I....”
Then a determined look hardened the girl’s features. She stepped away from her brother to the edge of the platform, her dark eyes wide. She held her hands up and closed her eyes. “He’s weak. He’s very weak. I am stronger now.”
Kseniya put one hand on Jia-li’s back and willed the girl what strength she could.
The wind whipped about the four standing on the platform, dragon’s wings stirring the air. The smell of sulfur choked her, and Kseniya held one sleeve over her mouth to keep the burn of it from her throat.
The two dragons nearby were joined by another, and then others until a dozen dragons circled in the sky above the women’s house. Claws scrabbled on the soot-blackened tiles. The snow melted away, and the water in the spring evaporated under the heat.
Jia-li raised her hands to the sky. Abruptly, the dragons fled the women’s house, the hot wind of their passage swirling about the four figures on the platform.
“Quickly.” Kseniya drew the girl toward the gate.
“No,” Jia-li said. “We don’t need to run. They won’t follow us.” The girl led her off the platform and pointed back in the direction of the wizard’s house.
A dozen dragons flew there, the house already in flames. As they watched, a figure in blue robes stumbled down the steps only to be snatched up in the claws of one of the beasts. Like birds, the dragons squabbled over their prize until they tore it to pieces.
Then they rose in the brilliant sky and flew toward the west.
“Where are they going?” Kseniya asked.
“I told them they could go home,” Jia-li said, one hand lifted to shade her eyes. “Far away, where they belong.”
Water began to trickle from the spring. Yun-qi jumped down off the platform, filled one of the pitchers waiting there, and handed it up to Kseniya. She dropped her sword and took the pitcher, giving it to Bao-yu first.
The old woman drank and then coughed. “He is dead,” she whispered.
Kseniya turned back to her. “Bao-yu?”
“The spell on me is gone. He is dead.” The old woman sat down on the singed boards of the platform and began to cry.
Kseniya stood in the ruins of the broken central court, the spring breeze tugging at her hair. The wizard’s house was gone, burned to its foundations. A few beams remained to mark the location of the guard’s house, but the women’s house had fared better. Tiles broken off the roof by the dragons’ claws littered the ground, charred black.
The warm breeze carried with it the faint smell of sulfur. Kseniya turned to find its source and saw Yun-qi approaching. He came and set his arms about her, and asked, “Bad memories?”
“I only wish there was something of Anushka I could take back to our father,” she said.
“You have her daughter,” he pointed out. Jia-li came running in their direction then, her braids flying behind her. They made an odd family, gathered from the ruins of the wizard’s cruelties, but they belonged together.
“Look!” Jia-li cried. She grasped the tail of Yun-qi’s tunic and grinned up at him. “He came! I called him and he came.”
There, rising up in the air, was the native dragon. Scales of white and gold glittered in the morning light. A true dragon, master of wind and water, the creature’s long, sinuous body twisted in wingless flight. His crest and horns flared about his head.
And out of a cloudless sky, rain began to fall. Water trickled along the stones and tiles of the ruins, rinsing away the stains of soot.
“We had best go now,” Yun-qi said, “before he brings enough rain to wash away the buildings.”
Kseniya laughed and held out a hand to Jia-li. “Yes, let’s go home.”