"Strong female characters, interesting new magical elements, and creative world-building show off the work of the author of Wintersong. The story is enhanced by Chin's talented narration." - AudioFile
Sailor Moon meets Cinder in Guardians of Dawn: Zhara, the start of a new, richly imagined fantasy series from S. Jae-Jones, the New York Times bestselling author of Wintersong.
Magic is forbidden throughout the Morning Realms. Magicians are called an abomination, and blamed for the plague of monsters that razed the land twenty years before.
Jin Zhara already had enough to worry about—appeasing her stepmother’s cruel whims, looking after her blind younger sister, and keeping her own magical gifts under control—without having to deal with rumors of monsters re-emerging in the marsh. But when a chance encounter with an easily flustered young man named Han brings her into contact with a secret magical liberation organization called the Guardians of Dawn, Zhara realizes there may be more to these rumors than she thought. A mysterious plague is corrupting the magicians of Zanhei and transforming them into monsters, and the Guardians of Dawn believe a demon is responsible.
In order to restore harmony and bring peace to the world, Zhara must discover the elemental warrior within, lest the balance between order and chaos is lost forever.
A Macmillan Audio production from Wednesday Books.
Release date: August 29, 2023
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Print pages: 384
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Guardians of Dawn: Zhara
And in the 2,647th year of the Mugung Dynasty, the emperor—being afflicted by magic—was cursed by the Immortals and transformed into an abomination. The Gommun Kang, known throughout the Morning Realms as the Warlord, rode down from the north with his Golden Horde and put all magicians—suspected and otherwise—to the sword in order to rid the land of a blight. The tools of the magician were also put to the pyre— the brush, the inkstone, and the seal—and any citizen with knowledge of the Language of Flowers was burned alongside the books of magic. Every year thereafter, the Gommun Emperor decreed there be a purge of every city, every town, every village, and every province, so that the embers of magic might never again grow into the wildfire of abomination.
—From Annals of the Great Bear
THE RENT WAS DUE, RODENTS HAD GOTTEN into the rice, and Zhara had just dumped a bag of salt into the custard filling.
“Mother of Demons!” she swore, trying in vain to scoop the excess out of the mixing bowl with her fingers. Bits of beaten egg and flour spattered an open book propped up on the counter and Zhara yelped, frantically wiping at the mess with her sleeve. “No, no, no, no, no, no,” she moaned, dabbing at the stains. “Master Cao is going to kill me.”
On the pantry shelves above her, a small, scruffy ginger cat gave an amused snort from his perch.
“Hush, Sajah,” Zhara said irritably, struggling to get the page to lie flat. Over the years, the little bookseller down in the Pits had allowed Zhara to borrow as many titles from him as she liked, providing she returned them all in perfect condition. “The Maiden Who Was Loved by Death,” she said mournfully, smoothing down the cover. “And the next volume comes out today.”
The Maiden Who Was Loved by Death was the most popular romance serial in the Morning Realms—so popular that Master Cao and his scriveners could scarcely keep up with demand each time an installment was released. There were only so many copies a person could write out by hand, so each little paperback volume was worth a premium. One Zhara could not afford.
Prrrrt, said the cat, the tiny bell about his neck jingling as he jumped from his perch to nose at the coin purse tied at her waist.
“I know, I know.” Zhara weighed the purse in her palm. Their coffers were rather empty of late, with every spare coin going to the astrologer, the aesthetician, the dressmaker, and the matchmaker in the hopes of securing a good marriage for her little sister, Suzhan. Nearly all the wages Zhara earned as an apothecary’s assistant disappeared into their ever-growing pile of debts, but every month she managed to save a few coins for herself and her small but growing collection of secondhand romance novels. Just enough for a harmless little treat every now and again.
Not enough to make her stepmother suspicious.
Zhara counted the coins, glancing at her threadbare slippers beside the kitchen threshold. She desperately needed a new pair, but she figured she could fix the stitching herself and pay Master Cao back. A new book cost more than two pairs of shoes from the cobbler down by the docks. Reading was a luxury, and one she could not often afford.
Miaow, Sajah said, batting at the bowl of salted custard filling.
“Blast.” Zhara winced. “The custard buns.” She had hoped she could tempt Suzhan into eating something—anything—before meeting her future husband at the matchmaker’s later that
morning. Nerves dwindled her sister’s appetite to nothing, and Suzhan needed all the strength she could get.
They needed all the strength Suzhan could get.
“Maybe it’s salvageable.” Zhara dipped a finger into the mixture for a quick taste. She gagged. “Never mind.” She choked.
Niang, said the cat, primly washing his whiskers.
Zhara cast a desperate eye over the paltry contents of their pantry. It was too early for the shops to open, and all they had left were two shriveled onions, a bunch of dried hot peppers, a vase of cooking oil, a jar of fermented black-bean paste, and a leaking crock of soy sauce. While Zhara was well acquainted with the alchemy of stretching one meal into two or three or five, even her creativity had limits. “I can work magic,” she muttered. “Not miracles. Although…” She trailed off, looking to the wooden plaque on the wall above the stove. It bore the name Jin Zhanlong.
Miaow, Sajah cautioned.
A faint glow glimmered where Zhara’s skin met the smooth curve of the bowl. She could hear her father’s warning voice at the back of her mind. Be good, little magpie girl. Be good, and be true.
“Small magic, baba,” she said to Jin Zhanlong’s death tablet. “Too small to be of any notice.”
Miaow, Sajah said again, but Zhara ignored him, closing her eyes and finding the light inside. She had always imagined her magic as a steady flame within her, and the world around her as her kitchen. Elements were ingredients to be played with, like dough beneath her fingers. Zhara held her breath and concentrated, applying her magic to the mixture in her hands like heat to a pot of water.
A sudden, bright burst of light nearly startled her into dropping the bowl, but Zhara managed to catch it and set it gently on the counter. Dipping her finger into the mixture once more, she took a tentative lick.
“Well,” she murmured.
with a satisfied smile. “Maybe I can work a little miracle every once in a while.”
The cat sniffed.
“Yah,” Zhara protested. “Considering I have no idea how magic even works, I think that was pretty impressive.” She finished making the custard buns, tempering the beaten eggs, milk, sugar, and rice starch over the stove. “Like cooking without a recipe!”
There had been recipes—spell books—in the Morning Realms once, but they—like her father, like every other magician in the land—had been destroyed in the purges following the Just War. It was not only rare to be a magician; it was dangerous. Not only because someone might turn her over to the Falconer for treason, but because of the harm she could accidentally cause with her power.
Had accidentally caused.
Once the custard had thickened, Zhara took the pot off the heat and reached for the ball of dough she had set aside earlier, dividing it into palm-sized balls and rolling them out into thin discs. Sajah butted her arm with his head, purring suggestively.
“Not for you,” she said, adding a dollop of custard in the center of each disc. “We can barely feed ourselves, let alone a stray.”
The cat scowled and gave a spiteful swipe at her knuckles.
“Aiyo!” she hissed. With a deft twist of her fingers, Zhara sealed the buns shut and set them in a steamer basket. “At least you have somewhere else to go.” Cats were sacred to Zanhei’s guardian beast, the Lion of the South, and it was unlucky to turn one away. “Unlike the rest of us,” she said quietly, studying her father’s death tablet.
“Sajah’s not a stray, nene,” said a voice behind her. “He’s part of the family.”
Zhara turned to find her stepsister standing at the kitchen threshold. “Suzhan!” she said, leaping forward to take the girl’s hand. “I didn’t hear you come down.”
“I left my cane upstairs,” Suzhan said wryly. “I didn’t want to wake Mama with the tapping.” Her eyes wavered. “You know how she gets after a late night at the tavern.”
Zhara did know.
The two of them had woken up with the bruises to show for it often enough. “You’re up early, mimi,” she said instead, fetching the low stool from the corner and setting it down before her sister. “Dawn’s not for an hour yet.”
“Couldn’t sleep. Too nervous.” Suzhan felt for the seat and missed, knocking over the stack of paperbacks by Zhara’s bedside. “What’s this?”
“N-nothing,” Zhara said quickly, shoving the books beneath her pallet. “Just some notes for Teacher Hu.”
Her sister gave a little smirk as she settled onto the stool. “You mean The Girl Whose Lover Died, nene?”
“The Maiden Who Was Loved by Death,” Zhara corrected, a trifle defensively. “I mean,” she said, panicking a little, “I d-don’t know what you’re t-talking about.”
Suzhan laughed. “You’re a terrible liar,” she said. “Your tongue betrays you whenever you try.”
A flush of shame heated Zhara’s cheeks. “Don’t tell Madame,” she said, stacking the books back into a neat little pile. “Please.”
Suzhan looked hurt. “I wouldn’t tell Mama,” she said. “You know I wouldn’t.”
Zhara’s gaze fell to the constellation of fading welts on her sister’s calves and shins, twins to the welts on her own legs. “I know,” she said softly, but secrets were hard to keep in the face of the Second Wife’s capricious cruelty. Zhara cleared her throat and opened the steamer basket to check on the custard buns. “Anyway,” she said, “I’ve made breakfast. Are you hungry?”
Suzhan shook her head. “I’m not sure I can eat anything,” she said, rubbing her hands over her belly. “My stomach’s all tangled up in knots.”
“You should try to have a bite anyway,” Zhara urged. “Bad luck starting a new venture on an empty stomach, lah?”
“True.” Suzhan wrapped her arms tighter about her middle. “It’s just that I can’t stop thinking about what would happen if Lord Chan decides not to go through with the marriage.”
Several other offers for Suzhan’s hand had fallen through before. “I’m sure it will be fine,” Zhara said with a confidence she did not quite feel.
“Will it?” Suzhan raised her gaze to her sister’s face, pupils flickering across
Zhara’s features as though trying to find purchase. “What if Lord Chan meets me and decides I’m”—she gestured toward her eyes—“damaged goods?”
Shame swept over Zhara like wildfire. Her little sister had always been nearsighted, but no spectacles—no matter how strong—could improve the dimness of her vision. Not anymore. Not after what Zhara had done. Magic lit her hands with a faint glow, as though the memory of her mistake still lingered in her skin. “Th-that’s not your fault, mimi,” she said, hiding her hands behind her back. “You’re not flawed.”
Suzhan’s lips thinned. “That’s not what the others said.”
Even though her sister couldn’t see her expression, Zhara still looked away. “Lord Chan knows about your blindness and still wishes to marry you,” she said quietly, taking the steamer basket off the heat and setting the buns on a plate to cool. “Surely you can take comfort in that.”
“Can I?” Suzhan nervously picked at her lower lip, her eyes twitching back and forth even faster than before. “What sort of man settles for a girl like me, especially a man so rich and powerful?”
Zhara cringed, hearing the echo of her stepmother’s acid judgment in her sister’s tone. “A good man,” she said, wanting her words to be true. “A kind man.”
“Do you truly believe that?” Suzhan sounded skeptical.
“Of course I do.” Zhara brought the plate of custard buns to her sister. “Here, mimi. Your favorite.”
Suzhan sniffed appreciatively. “Ooh, nene,” she said, face brightening. “Custard buns?”
“Yes.” Zhara smiled. “Eat up.”
Her sister needed no further encouragement. Suzhan picked up the first bun and took an enormous bite, closing her eyes to savor the taste before immediately devouring the rest. The first was gone in three bites, and the next disappeared even faster. “These are amazing,” she said through squirrel cheeks.
It warmed Zhara’s heart to watch her sister eat with such gusto. “Slow down, mimi,” she laughed. “You’ll give yourself the hiccoughs.”
Suzhan paused halfway through chewing. “Oh,” she said, swallowing and setting down her half-eaten custard bun. “Maybe I shouldn’t finish them then.”
“What?” Zhara was startled. “Why?”
Suzhan hunched her
shoulders. “Mama says I should be mindful of what I eat,” she said, her voice scarcely audible. “No man wants an oafish giant of a wife.”
Sudden, sweeping indignation stoked the furnace at Zhara’s core. “You are neither oafish nor a giant,” she said fiercely. If anything, her sister was far too thin, her bony wrists and ankles on painful display beneath the hems of her too-short clothes. At thirteen, Suzhan was growing faster than a bamboo shoot during monsoon season and suffered terribly from both muscle and hunger pangs. “You’re just tall, mimi,” she said.
“Yes, well.” Suzhan picked at her lip again. “She also says no man wants to marry a girl twice his height.”
“Bog rubbish,” Zhara scoffed. “Madame is tall and she’s been married. Twice.”
“Yes, but Mama is beautiful,” Suzhan said glumly. “And I’m—well, I’m not.” As the plain daughter of a pretty mother, Suzhan was painfully and acutely aware of her less than perfect appearance. The Second Wife had once been considered one of the Five Great Southern Beauties in her youth, praised by painters and poets alike for the symmetry of her face.
Zhara took in several deep breaths to calm the rage—the magic—within her. Her palms itched with power, and the desire to just do something with her gift was overwhelming. What was the point in having magical abilities if she could do nothing to help those she loved? Then she remembered the last time she had tried to help Suzhan with her power. It had not turned out well.
“Yah,” Suzhan said suddenly, squinting in Zhara’s direction. “What’s that light over there?”
Looking down, Zhara saw that her hands were bathed in a rosy luminescence. That light—that glow—was one of the few signs of her magic she could not hide. “Oh,” she said, tucking them into her apron. “Probably the rising sun. I should probably get to work soon.”
“But the drums haven’t sounded the daybreak hour yet.” Suzhan frowned, her unfocused eyes fixed on the muffled glimmer in Zhara’s pocket. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” Sweat broke out along Zhara’s hairline, although the late-spring morning was still pleasant and cool. “Eat up, mimi,” she said, pressing a custard bun against her sister’s lips. “I’ve got to go.”
“But I—aiyo!” Suzhan snapped her head back in surprise. A glowing red mark lingered on the edge of her bottom lip, almost like a burn, where Zhara’s fingers had brushed her skin. “Something stung me!”
For one heart-stopping moment, Zhara thought she had done it again, that she had somehow hurt her sister, but the burn on Suzhan’s lip soon faded away. “Oh,” she said, hastily setting the custard bun back on the plate. That sting—her magic touch—was
the other sign she could not hide. “M-maybe you should w-wait until the others cool before eating the rest.”
Her sister narrowed her eyes. “Your tongue betrays you again, nene. Is something the matter?”
Just then, a persistent drumming sounded from the city watchtowers, signaling the daybreak hour. “I’m s-sorry, mimi,” she said hurriedly. “I h-have to go. You’ll be all right getting upstairs on your own?”
“Yes.” Suzhan tilted her head. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Of course,” she said, wrangling her words into obedience. “I’ll see you tonight, lah?” Zhara stuffed her copy of The Maiden Who Was Loved by Death into her work satchel and slung it over her shoulder. “Good luck, mimi. Eat up.”
She could feel her sister’s worried, unseeing gaze on her back as she hurried across the courtyard. “There aren’t enough custard buns in the world for all the luck we’ll need,” Suzhan murmured. “Is there, Sajah?”
The cat did not reply.
Zhara was practically to the courtyard gate when the sharp, nearly acrid tang of cheap osmanthus perfume assailed her nose.
“Child,” came a disembodied voice from the corner. “A moment, if you please.”
Whirling around, she caught sight of the Second Wife lounging beneath the wisteria tree, an elegant but threadbare robe draped about her willowy frame. Zhara’s stepmother was never awake at this hour; like the night-blooming cereus, the Second Wife was withered and wilted by dawn, having come into her full brilliance the evening before in the taverns and teahouses of Zanhei City. Fear suddenly drenched Zhara’s body with cold dread.
“Of c-course, M-madame,” she said with a bow, clutching her satchel to her chest. “How m-may I best s-serve Madame?”
The Second Wife leaned against the courtyard wall, arms crossed, expression unreadable. “I don’t want anything from you,” she said. The reek of stale rice wine lingered in the early-morning haze. “I’m here to issue a warning.”
The Second Wife drew close, studying her stepdaughter’s appearance with narrowed eyes. At this distance, Zhara could see her stepmother’s bloodshot gaze and the vessels about her nose and cheeks, bursting in a drunkard’s flush. “Beware,” the Second Wife said, blowing a boozy breath in Zhara’s face, “they say that Kestrels have flocked to Zanhei.”
An entirely different sort of terror washed over her. “The W-w-warlord’s peacek-k-keepers?” she asked. In an instant Zhara was ten years old again, hiding at the bottom of her stepmother’s clothes chest while the Kestrels dragged her father away. “Wh-why?”
It was a long moment before the Second Wife replied. “There are rumors,” she said quietly, “of monsters in the marsh.”
Her stepmother’s expression hardened, etching lines of age and worry deeper into her face. “Abominations.”
Zhara went still. She had been but a baby when the Just War began, but she was old enough to remember the stories of magicians transforming into monsters—hideous, uncanny, unnatural creatures that scarred the mind and devoured the flesh. Old enough to remember the slurs that had trailed her parents as they fled from town to town, two steps ahead of the Warlord’s horde. Magicians were an affront to reason. Anathemas. Abominations. Bile rose in Zhara’s mouth, bitter
like ghosts at the back of her throat.
“A Kestrel’s eyes are sharp,” the Second Wife said softly, lightly tapping the back of Zhara’s wrist with her fan. The telltale glow of magic was still visible in the early morning light. “So be careful.”
She had taken much harsher strikes to the wrist before, yet an unexpected prickle of tears stung Zhara’s lashes at the uncharacteristic concern in her stepmother’s voice.
“I will, Madame,” she breathed, pulling her sleeves down over her hands.
The Second Wife flicked open her fan and waved it desultorily before her face. “It’s a dangerous world out there, Jin Zhara,” she said. “Remember what your father told you, lah?”
“Be good, and be true,” Zhara whispered.
“Yes.” Her stepmother smiled, but it was as warm as the winter sun. “Be good, lest you forget who has protected you all these years.”
It was the Second Wife who had hidden Zhara from the Warlord’s peacekeepers the day they took Jin Zhanlong away, tucking the little girl beneath layers and layers of robes and gowns until the danger had passed. Zhara’s stepmother was the only one who knew of her magic, the only one who kept her secret, the only one who kept her safe.
“I will never forget,” Zhara said with a bow. “I am indebted to Madame in more ways than one. My gratitude knows no bounds.”
“Excellent.” The Second Wife slapped the fan shut with a crisp snap! “Don’t be late tonight,” she said, tightening her robe about her slim figure. “I’m in the mood to celebrate my daughter’s betrothal with something delicious for dinner. I’m thinking”—she pursed her full lips—“braised beef short ribs, Azurean style. What do you think, Jin Zhara?”
Zhara swallowed. “Beef is expensive, Madame,” she said. “But would steamed pork spare ribs suffice?”
The Second Wife narrowed her eyes, her gaze flitting to the book poking out from Zhara’s satchel. “If we must,” she said coolly. “Although I must say I’m rather disappointed.” The Second Wife’s tone was neutral, neither cruel nor casual, and it was this state of uncertainty that made Zhara the most anxious.
“I—I will see what I can do,” Zhara stammered. She thought of the mixture she had transformed from salty into sweet not even an hour before, and her magic flared in response. Her stepmother glanced down at her hands, and Zhara curled her fingers into fists to hide their light.
“There’s a good girl.” The Second Wife’s eyes glittered. “I shall look forward to celebrating tonight. I do so enjoy your cooking, child.”
Zhara cringed. “I t-try my b-best, Madame.” She lowered her gaze and bowed.
For a long moment,
the Second Wife said nothing, and Zhara could feel the stinging intensity of her stepmother’s gaze on the back of her neck like a sunburn. The moment stretched taut between them, growing more unbearable by the instant before the tension was broken by the Second Wife yawning in exhaustion.
“Well, be off,” she said dismissively, turning to head upstairs to her sleeping quarters. “I trust you won’t let me down.” The Second Wife paused and glanced over her shoulder. “After all, you are a good girl.” Casual malice laced her words. “Aren’t you, Jin Zhara?”
THE SKIES HAD ONLY JUST BEGUN TO thin from gray to pink, but Lotus Bridge was already crowded with foot traffic as Zhara made her way down from the city to the Pits. There was an unusually large number of people teeming about, and Zhara wondered if there wasn’t some sort of festival going on. A significant population of peoples from beyond the Shining Sea lived in the marshy lowlands just outside Zanhei—Buri, Malang, Cham, Tuong—and all celebrated their own gods and holidays in the Morning Realms. She wouldn’t be surprised if this festival was for one of their minor deities.
Officially, the name of the settlement across the Great Canal from the city was Zanhei Port, but for as long as anyone could remember, it had been called the Pits. Far older than the walled city across the water, the Pits had first been settled centuries before by traders and migrants from every corner of the empire and beyond. They brought their cuisines, clothes, and customs to the Infinite River delta and established the heart of trade in the southern provinces. At the center of the myriad waterways stood the Temple of the Immortals, surrounded on all sides by the oldest covered market in the empire, where both Master Cao’s bookshop and Teacher Hu’s apothecary were located.
“Hoi, miss!” shouted the shopkeepers and stevedores as she passed. “Stop and have a bite of breakfast with us!”
The tantalizing smells of sizzling red chiles, tarragon, garlic, red pepper, cumin, coriander, tamarind, fresh basil, and lemongrass filled the air as vendors set up their portable grills and braziers in their boats along the canals crisscrossing the covered market. Each floating restaurant boasted its own particular specialty—broad, flat
noodles sautéed in black-bean sauce, steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves, crab and river shrimp stew served over rice—dishes from every culture.
“Another time,” she called back regretfully. Today, as every other day, her pockets were as empty as her stomach.
Still, looking cost nothing. As she drew closer to the heart of the covered market, Zhara stopped before Master Cao’s bookshop to stare longingly at the tables in front, stacked high with brand-new paperbacks. The latest volume of The Maiden Who Was Loved by Death. A large crowd was already gathered before the still-shuttered doors, and Zhara found herself jostled about by the press of pedestrians.
“Yah!” she yelped as a tall student in black-and-white university robes carelessly stepped on her shoe. Zhara felt the last of the stitching holding her soles together give way. So much for holding out on buying a new pair. “Watch where you’re putting those enormous feet of yours, learned one.”
The student turned and gave her an awkward, belated bow, tripping a little over said enormous feet. “Pardon, pardon, a thousand pardons.” The reek of stale sweat and rice wine wafted from their robes, and Zhara wondered if they weren’t a little drunk. University students often came to the Pits to avail themselves of the many pleasures in Flower Town before stumbling back home by dawn. “I just didn’t expect so many people to be at the bookshop today.”
“Are you also here for The Maiden Who Was Loved by Death?” Zhara asked with some surprise. She didn’t think university students were keen on light romance novels.
“The what?” The student’s eyes kept darting to a pair of northerners several yards away, conspicuous in their knee-length woolen tunics and leather boots, which were too heavy for the humid southern spring.
“The Maiden Who…” Zhara trailed off when the student met her gaze, suddenly struck by how good-looking they were. Chiseled cheeks and pouting lips were framed by an angular jaw, while large, round, puppyish eyes were anchored by a strong nose ever so slightly too big for their face.
“The maiden who what?” The student stared quizzically at her.
Zhara coughed, feeling giggles rise up like bubbles in her throat. Oh no. The Good-Looking Giggles. She resisted the urge to clap her hands over her mouth. “The next volume of The Maiden Who Was Loved by Death,” she managed.
“What’s that?” the student asked.
“Only the most popular romance serial being written at the moment,” said an excited voice over Zhara’s shoulder. The student startled when Madame Hong, the mussel-monger, appeared at their elbow with her copy of the previous installment of The Maiden Who Was Loved by Death pressed to her ample bosom. “They say Master Cao and his scriveners were up all night making copies, but there are only three hundred to be had.”
“So few?” Zhara asked in dismay. “There were four hundred and fifty available last time.”
“Yes, but I heard
several of his scriveners disappeared last night.”
“Disappeared?” the student asked. “Where would they go?” Their gaze flickered back to the northerners over and over, their hand going to a small pendant on a ribbon at their throat. The northerners wore their hair in the steppe fashion, with the sides shaved and the rest worn in a long horsetail braided with beads and feathers. Twin long-bladed knives were strapped crossways on each of their backs, causing the hairs to rise at the back of Zhara’s neck. Only nobles and the Warlord’s peacekeepers were allowed to carry blades throughout the Morning Realms.
“Who knows?” Madame Hong shrugged. “None of his scriveners ever lasted long anyway. More likely they quit because of hand cramps or something.” She rolled her eyes. “If you ask me, that little bookseller is doing this on purpose, just so he can drive up the price.”
“I doubt that, auntie.” Zhara laughed. “Bookselling isn’t seasonal; its supply doesn’t come and go like the tides.”
“Well, that makes more sense than the other rumor I’ve heard.” The mussel-monger grinned.
“Which is what?” the student asked, fiddling with the pendant about their neck. It was small and round with a hole in the center, like a coin.
The fishwife dropped her voice so the student had to lean in close. “That the bookseller is running some sort of illegal smuggling operation in the basement of his bookshop.”
Zhara shook her head. “There aren’t any basements in the marsh, auntie.”
“That’s just what I’ve heard,” Madame Hong protested. “Scriveners go missing all the time, in and out of that shop, and the man is chronically understaffed. What other conclusions am I supposed to draw?”
“Understaffed, eh?” Zhara asked. “Do you think Master Cao is looking to hire someone new? I could use the extra wages.”
“Don’t lie.” The mussel-monger slapped her good-naturedly on the arm. “You just want to read what happens to Little Flame and her supernatural lover before the rest of us. I’m on to you, child.”
“It would be the only way I could afford to read the next installment now.” Zhara sighed, thinking of the stained copy stuffed in her satchel. “Unless you’ll let me borrow yours, auntie.” She twinkled at the fishwife. “Please?”
“Get on with you,” the mussel-monger said, playfully shoving her away. “I know how you treat your books. Scorch marks and soot everywhere from falling asleep reading before the hearth.”
Zhara stumbled over her broken shoe and straight into a broad, barreled chest.
One of the northerners, short and stout. “Pardon, pardon, a thousand pard—” The words froze in her throat.
A white swath of silk, onto which a pattern of black wings had been embroidered, banded around the northerner’s left arm. The Warlord’s Golden Horde was comprised of the north’s most elite warriors organized into five wings—the Red, the White, the Blue, the Green, and the Yellow—each focused on a different branch of military strategy and weaponry. But there was also an unofficial sixth wing, the Black, that served as the Warlord’s eyes and ears throughout the empire.
The rest of the realm called them Kestrels.
“Did you see where the student you were speaking to went?” the stout northerner asked in their flat northern accent.
“The s-s-student?” Zhara whirled around, both relieved and surprised that she was not the target of the Warlord’s peacekeepers. She found the student crouched down low among a few hopeful readers in line at Master Cao’s bookshop, trying their best to disguise their most distinguishing feature—their height. Their eyes met hers, and Zhara carefully looked away. “N-n-no, I have not,” she said. “My apo-pologies to Their Excellency.”
The Kestrel grunted, giving her and Madame Hong a long, hard stare before moving away.
“Where black wings flock together, black hearts will be found,” the fishwife murmured. “A bad omen.” She glanced in the direction of the Temple of Immortals, its towering, multitiered red gate visible for yards around. “It’s happening again, isn’t it?” The mussel-monger traced something over her heart with the tip of her finger, a shape Zhara did not recognize.
“What’s happening again, auntie?”
But Madame Hong did not reply.
It was several moments
before Zhara was able to clear the crowd around Master Cao’s bookshop and make her way to the apothecary shop. She was going to be unforgivably late, not that Teacher Hu ever noticed. Sometimes she wondered why the old herbalist had even hired her, since there wasn’t much work to do for the apothecary at all. Most of the time, Zhara sat behind the counter and read romance novels while Teacher Hu came and went from her own shop.
“Li Ami and her father are long gone,” said Master Cao’s voice from a darkened alleyway. “The girl hasn’t worked in my shop for the past six months.”
To her surprise, Zhara found the good-looking student on their hands and knees before the diminutive bookseller, forehead pressed to the dirty ground in supplication.
“Then could you—Master Cao—could Master Cao at least tell me where they went?” The student sat back on their heels, hand going to the pendant about their throat.
“No.” The bookseller’s answer was uncharacteristically curt. “I can’t.”
“Can’t, or won’t?”
Master Cao did not respond.
“If the bookseller can’t tell me where Li Er-Shuan and his daughter have gone,” the student said, snatching the pendant from their throat and pressing it into Master Cao’s palm in desperation, “then can he tell me where I might find the Guardians of Dawn?”
At that precise moment, the bookseller caught Zhara’s gaze and stiffened. She ducked behind a pillar, feeling terrible for eavesdropping. It was none of her business, although she couldn’t help being curious. The Guardians of Dawn were a fairy tale, legendary elemental figures and companions of the Sunburst Warrior, who defeated Tiyok, Mother of Ten Thousand Demons, by sealing her in a realm far beneath the earth.
“Ah,” said Master Cao. “I see. And why are you seeking the Guardians of Dawn?”
“I—I have a little brother,” they said in a halting, hesitant voice. “A little brother with … gifts.”
Something about the way the student said gifts caught Zhara’s ear. She peered around the pillar, curious despite herself.
Master Cao studied the pendant in his palm before returning it to the student. “Then I have a book that might be of some interest to you.”
“A book?” The student was confused. “What sort of book?”
“A primer,” Master Cao said. “Full of a secret language and secret codes. Codes that, when properly deciphered, might lead you to what you are searching for.”
“A map?” the student
The bookseller cast another glance in Zhara’s direction. “Be careful,” he said in a low voice. “For the walls have ears.”
“Eh?” The student looked over their shoulder and caught Zhara’s eye.
Feeling guilty, Zhara immediately made herself scarce and headed toward the apothecary. As she made her way through the covered market, she discovered there was a much larger Kestrel presence in the Pits than she had realized. Around every other corner, brown-and-white tufted feathers fluttered, noticeable among the smoothed-down topknots or bare heads of the southerners. Something jangled lightly above her head. An unusual reddish bird of prey with a bell around its neck looked down at her from its perch on a nearby shop roof, its fierce golden gaze piercing and sharp. A crawling sensation tickled between her shoulder blades and she couldn’t help feeling as though she were being followed. Out of the corner of her eye, there was the persistent flap and flutter of fabric disappearing from view. Zhara picked up her pace and ran—
—straight into a very broad, very firm chest. Her satchel went flying as she stumbled to the ground, scattering the contents everywhere.
“Pardon, pardon, a thousand pardons!” It was the tall, good-looking university student, crawling on all fours to help gather her things. “But I had to cut you off before I lost you.”
Suddenly she realized the color of their school robes matched the flutter of fabric that had chased her throughout the covered market. “That was you?” she asked, half flattered and half annoyed by their attention. “Why were you following me?”
“Because I had something I wanted to give you,” the student said earnestly, reaching to undo their waistband.
“Hold—hold a moment,” Zhara said. “I’m not that sort of girl, learned one. At least”—she winked—“not before someone buys me a meal.”
“Eh?” A wrinkle
of confusion creased their dark brows before smoothing away into an expression of abashed embarrassment. “Oh no, no, no, no, I’m not that sort of boy either.” He laughed nervously, his cheeks flushing pink. The student pulled a slim paperback out from his sash and presented it to Zhara with a bow. “Here.”
She frowned. “What’s this?”
“A copy of that really popular romance book,” the student said. “The Damsel Who Married a Demon. ...
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