Kari slammed into a nearby table. It toppled over with her, its half-empty cups and saucers shattering on the hardwood floor. She clenched her aching stomach where the guard had kicked her with his armored boot. Instinct demanded she stay still and motionless beneath the heavy table, and she obliged.
“Kari!” Suying struggled against the guards as they shoved her through the teahouse doors and out into the streets of Valceem.
Kari’s chest heaved with each frantic breath. She stared wide eyed as the door slammed shut and her friend vanished from her sight. She grabbed the edge of the square wooden table as if to rend it off her, but she froze instead. Her warm breath beat against the skin of her fingers.
What was she doing? Any more resistance and the guards wouldn’t deal her a simple kick to the gut but rather a sword to the heart. Or worse, she would join Suying in her fate and end up being a plaything for the emperors in their harem.
“Damn it!” Kari gritted her teeth.
If it had been anyone else, she wouldn’t give it a second thought. Kari would turn a blind eye, and only be glad it wasn’t her that was taken. But not Suying. Kari would not let them take her without a fight. At least, that was what she told her body, but it didn’t comply with her wishes. She remained still, staring at the closed door across the teahouse.
Her grip on the table’s edge loosened, despite her desire to move.
Kari closed her eyes in shame as the watchful glares of the teahouse’s patrons descended upon her. They were waiting to see how the songstress would respond. Would she submit and allow her friend to be taken, or would she die to protect her? No one would blame Kari for submitting. She had already done more than most. She tried to pull Suying away from the guard’s grasp, only to be swatted away. No one would judge her now.
But she would.
Kari took a deep breath, trying to chip away at the boulder of fear that crushed her heart.
It was strange. She remembered stories from her childhood where gallant heroes would find the courage within them to continue to fight. The way the stories were told, courage would wash over the heroes, fueling them with the strength and will to battle against all odds, but it was fear and indecision washing over her, preventing her from moving out from under the shelter of the table.
The cool floor and wooden table served as a comforting shield against the brutality of reality, and they beckoned her to accept the safety of their embrace.
The muffled cries of Suying permeated through the teahouse walls, filling Kari’s ears and haunting her thoughts. For three years, they had been inseparable. Now, in a few moments, Suying would be gone forever.
“I have to move,” Kari told herself, trying to force her arms to obey her command, but her body remained still and motionless. “I have to move. I have to move now! Or she’s gone.”
“Stay down, girl,” the faceless voice pleaded. Or was it her own thoughts reverberating in her mind?
Suying’s last scream pierced through the wooden walls, penetrating Kari’s heart. Her whole body cried out in response as passion overcame logic, and she forced her body into action. She tossed the table to the side, leapt to her feet, and darted passed the dumbstruck patrons, out of the teahouse door, and into the city streets of the capital. The change from dim teahouse lighting to blinding sunlight strained her eyes as beams glistened off the green roofs of the cramped buildings.
“I won’t let you take her!”
Kari stood defiant, facing down the guardsmen who stared in bewilderment at the young girl before them. What was she doing? The words left her lips before her mind had time to process them.
“Stand aside, girl,” one guard ordered, stepping forward.
A quick scan of her surroundings revealed three carriages, each with two drivers, nine guardsmen, and a small crowd that had gathered to watch the commotion. The guards shoved Suying over to the middle carriage before tying her hands with rope. Two other girls with bound hands already sat in the carriage.
“I said you’re not taking her,” Kari repeated, less sure of her own resolve now than when she stood from under the table.
“Get back in the teahouse where you belong.” The guard sneered. “Or perhaps you’d like it if we burned this whole district to the ground.”
“You can’t do that,” someone from the crowd cried out.
“We’re Imperial guards. We can do what we want.”
“Just let them go. There’s nothing you can do. You’ll only make things worse for us,” an old man called to Kari.
Kari clenched her fists, turning her knuckles white. The looks of panic on the faces of those in the crowd mirrored her own. They were right. There was nothing she could do, but the situation had escalated beyond repair. Her fate had been sealed the moment she stood from the floor.
The empire didn’t attempt to hide its more colorful activities. Stories spread across the countryside of those who dared to question the emperors’ authority. Anyone who opposed the empire was executed, whole families murdered, buildings razed, and the bodies of the dead mutilated and left as a warning to others. The emperors demanded everyone in the empire bow their heads in respect to them, and any who questioned or even showed the slightest inclination toward disobedience were brutally dealt with.
Kari’s resistance would not be tolerated, regardless of what further actions she took. There was no turning back.
“You again?” The guard who had struck her in the teahouse shoved Suying toward one of his comrades, then stepped forward to confront Kari. “I’ve grown tired of this. Let’s kill her and be done with it.”
Three guards drew their swords, advancing on Kari. They wore lamellar armor of iron and leather riveted together and stained Imperial red. Even with a sword, which she didn’t have, fighting three armored opponents was not wise.
Could she do this? Kari had trained from an early age to survive—a necessary skillset for her people. However, the first rule of survival was to always run when given the choice, especially in hopeless situations. Now every fiber in her body told her to turn and flee, yet her eyes were fixated on Suying. Tears streamed down the young girl’s cheeks as she watched the guards advance toward Kari.
Kari had no weapon or plan, just an audience to witness her execution. She might die, but she wasn’t helpless. She focused her spirit energy into her hands, her fingers tingling in response.
Kari blocked out the cries from the crowd. She couldn’t afford any distractions. The slightest mistake would only expedite her death. Kari needed her full attention dedicated to the guards. She wasn’t a warrior, yet she would fight, and she would die for the opportunity to protect her friend. Kari’s muscles tightened, and she braced herself as the guards approached striking distance.
“Stay your blade,” a man ordered, stepping out of a nearby carriage.
His black hair accented his goatee and mustache, contrasting with his crimson daopao robe. The gold edges and collar of his robe indicated him to be of nobility. By the looks of it, he was in charge of the roundup.
“It would be a shame to see such a lovely young thing carved to pieces,” he said, examining her.
“You have no right to do this.” Kari cursed her shortsightedness. How much more absurd could she be? Was she really challenging the man holding back her death?
“I have every right.” The man glared at Kari, looking down his nose as his lips curled into a frown. “If you are ignorant as to who I am, then I suggest you occasionally emerge from your filth and familiarize yourself with your betters. I am the high chancellor to the Imperial Tian. Everything under the sun belongs to the emperors. I have every legal authority to conscript in their name.”
Was this really High Chancellor Cai Ren? Why would he be leading the effort to abduct women? Not that he had a reputation of being such an outstanding individual. Quite the contrary. But it seemed like an odd task for an official of his station.
It didn’t matter who he was. She had come this far and pushed her luck, so she might as well see it to the end.
“This isn’t right. She’s only fourteen.” Kari balled her fists, planting her feet. He may be holding the guards at bay, but she wouldn’t let him intimidate her.
“We are gracious enough to grant you Imperial protection. It is only fitting some of you return the generosity by serving the empire and submitting to the will of the heavens. Unless you think your lovely songs bar you from service to the throne?”
Kari’s brow furred, her eyes narrowing as she glared. He knew who she was—that she was the songstress of the Bamboo Garden. Had he been spying on her and Suying? What else did he know about them?
“Don’t look so surprised. We have eyes all throughout the kingdom. You have quite the reputation for your lovely singing voice, and I hear your songs have made you immensely popular among the worms in the Bamboo Garden. I wonder if your talents would be of better use in service to the Imperial throne. If that doesn’t suit you, then I suggest you return to your songs.”
Kari’s heart skipped a beat. Her options were as she suspected, and now they were placed in front of her. However, the high chancellor was still giving her an out, or so it seemed. She could turn back now and hope Cai Ren would keep his word and her head wouldn’t end up decorating the end of a pike in the Imperial palace. Otherwise, she would face certain death or subjugation.
Kari hung her head low, her eyes shutting tight. What little courage she had found earlier faded. Her legs weakened under her weight, and her muscles relaxed as her resolve dissipated.
“So that’s your answer.” Cai Ren chuckled, motioning to the three guards to stand down.
“Help me,” Suying whimpered. She struggled against the guard as he forced her into the carriage. Her face showed her age. Her expression was that of a terrified child waking up from a nightmare—a nightmare that was just beginning.
This was no fate for a child. Kari wasn’t much older, only seventeen, but she wasn’t going to allow them to take Suying.
“Take me in her place!”
What had she said? The words erupted from Kari’s mouth as if independent from her mind.
“What?” A wicked smile broke across Cai Ren’s face.
“Take me in her place.” Kari regretted the words, but swallowed her fear, burying it beneath her resolve. “I’m older and better endowed, and, as you know, I can sing and dance. I would be far better suited than Suying for the harem and to entertain the emperors.”
Cai Ren stared at her, sizing her up. “Are you volunteering on your own accord?”
Kari hesitated. By the goddess, was she really going to do this? Join the harem? Volunteer for this nightmare?
Suying’s eyes were wide, and she shook her head as if to say, “Not for me.” Kari sighed. Unlike Suying, she would at least be better suited to escape.
“I am.” Kari clenched her jaw.
“You heard that!” Cai Ren announced, addressing the crowd. “The songstress pledges herself to the service of the Imperial throne on her own accord. Let no man say otherwise.”
Kari winced as a guard seized her arm, his fingers digging into her flesh.
“What about the girl? Should we release her?” a guard asked.
“No, take them both.”
“What? We had a deal!” Kari lunged at Cai Ren, but the guard’s grip halted her assault. She struggled to free herself from his grasp as she was pulled toward Cai Ren.
“I made no such deal.” He waved her concern away with a flick of his sleeve. “I agreed to accept you as an attendant, not to release her. If you wish to dispute the arrangement of our agreement, I would be more than happy to plead your case to the court. Would that satisfy you?”
Kari slouched, staring at the ground. As high chancellor, Cai Ren was effectively the highest-ranking judge in the empire, second in power only to the emperors. It was all a farce, and the bastard knew it. There was nothing Kari could do.
“Very well. Then it will behoove you to submit to our arrangement. Bind her hands,” he ordered.
A guard tied Kari hands together, the tight ropes cutting into her wrists. She wanted to unleash her full fury on Cai Ren, but even if she could, death would quickly follow any further outbursts. She was powerless. Kari stared at Suying, who had begun to cry.
At least they would share in the nightmare together.