If marriage were a woman’s grave, as the proverb claimed, sixteen-year-old Princess Kaiya suspected the emperor was arranging her funeral. Entourage in tow, she shuffled through the castle halls toward the garden where General Lu waited. Given his notorious dislike of the arts, the self-proclaimed Guardian Dragon of Hua had undoubtedly envisioned a different kind of audition when he requested to hear her sing.
After all, she was dressed like a potential bride.
She buried a snort. The Guardian Dragon—such a pretentious nickname. The only real dragon, Avarax, who lorded over some faraway land, might make for a more appealing audience. A quick trip down his gullet would spare her a slow death in a marriage with neither love nor music. And it wouldn’t matter what she wore.
The gaudy dress compensated for her numerous physical imperfections, but stifled the only thing that made her special. How was she supposed to sing with the inner robe and gold sash squeezing her chest, in a futile attempt to misrepresent her woefully underdeveloped curves? The tight fold of the skirts concealed her lanky legs, but forced a deliberate pace. At least the short stride delayed the inevitable, while preventing her unsightly feet from tripping on the hanging sleeves of the vermilion outer gown.
At her side, Crown Princess Xiulan glided across the chirping floorboards. Kaiya suppressed a sigh. If only she could move with the nonchalant grace of her sister-in-law, or even the six handmaidens trailing them. She dug her nails into clammy palms. Through this choreographed farce, appearances had to be maintained, lest she embarrass her father, the Tianzi.
Chin up, back straight. A racing heart threatened to ruin her already meager semblance of imperial grace. Eyes forward. Servants knelt on either side of the looming double doors, ready to slide them open. She forced a smile, with her best approximation of feminine charm. If only she’d lived before Dragon Songs had faded into legend, she could’ve sent the realm’s victorious hero fleeing with the song he supposedly wanted to hear.
An aging palace official stepped into her line of sight.
Singular focus on the doors broken, she blinked. Her fluttering pulse lurched to a stop as she blew out a breath.
His blue robes ruffled as he tottered forward with averted eyes and a bobbing head. He creaked down into a bow. “Emergency, Dian-xia,” he said, using the formal address for her rank. “The Tianzi commands you to greet a foreign delegation in the Hall of Bountiful Harvests.”
Her heart remembered to beat again, and she looked first toward the doors and then down at the man, whose insignias marked him as a secretary for the Ministry of Appointments. Outlandish excuses had mercifully cut short each of her previous meetings with eligible young lords: six times in all.
But a foreign delegation? Before even meeting the suitor? That was a first. Her expression slipped as much as it could beneath the layers of pearl powder caked to her face. “There must be a mistake. Surely the honor would fall to the Crown Prince.”
He bowed his head again. “No, Dian-xia. With your linguistic talents, the Tianzi thought you better suited to meet with them.”
Apparently, small talk with some foreign lord’s wife constituted an emergency these days. Still, the unspoken message needed little interpretation: the foreigners were beneath a prince. At least it meant delaying the matchmaking. Kaiya cast a glance at Xiulan. “Then shall the Crown Prince take my place and sing to General Lu?”
Her supposed chaperone covered a giggle with slender fingers.
The man’s eyes darted back and forth, his lips quivering. “I...I...”
Xiulan stepped forward and brushed her hand across Kaiya’s arm. “Go on, meet with the foreigners. I will explain things to the general.”
Kaiya bowed her head. “As you command, Eldest Sister.” She turned to the official, gesturing with an open hand for him to take the lead.
As she wobbled after him, two of her handmaidens fell in behind. They were more beautiful than her, even after her hours of preening to smother meddlesome acne and subdue unruly hair. Which now meant she’d look ridiculous receiving dignitaries. Like an opera singer, maybe. “Who are our guests?”
The official coughed. “Prince Hardeep Vaswani of Ankira.”
A man? Kaiya’s stomach leapt into her throat. With limited court training, she might be able to entertain a lady. But a prince... Without any experience in diplomacy, that was an international incident waiting to happen. Given the choice between greeting foreign royalty and the prospect of marriage, that trip into Avarax’s jaws sounded tempting. “What does he want?” she asked.
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