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Dragon Rising

Dragon Rising

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Hua Minglan wants revenge for the death of her sister, and she'll do anything to get it. 

A war is brewing between Piao and the Kou warriors to the north, a war that has called every able-bodied man in Piao from their fields. 

When Hua's father is summoned to fight, she knows he won't return, most of the warriors don't. 

With a decision that could cost her everything, she leaves her home behind in an attempt to take her father's place training under Commander Jian Li, brother to the emperor. 

Main Tropes

  • Mulan-Inspired
  • Hidden Identity
  • Hate To Love
  • Fade to Black
  • Dragon Shifter
  • Revenge


Sometimes a battle isn't waged on a bloody field.

Sometimes it's won within the heart of one girl.

Hua Minglan wants revenge for the death of her sister, and she'll do anything to get it. 

A war is brewing between Piao and the Kou warriors to the north, a war that has called every able-bodied man in Piao from their fields. 

When Hua's father is summoned to fight, she knows he won't return, most of the warriors don't. 

With a decision that could cost her everything, she leaves her home behind in an attempt to take her father's place training under Commander Jian Li, brother to the emperor. 

The commander is a harsh man, a demanding man, and one with his own desire for vengeance. 

Hua can't get too close. She can't befriend the man who is able to bring her deceptions tumbling to the ground. If he learns the truth about who she is, it won't only see her shunned from the army for disguising herself as a man. 

It will end in her execution. 

Hua never imagines that by joining the army, she brings a greater foe into the heart of Piao. 

What if the Kou are only a distraction?

What if the real enemy is her?

Dive into this full-length Mulan inspired fantasy. Beware of dragons, sword-wielding girls, and a slow-burn, heartbreaking romance. 


Hua Minglan didn’t fear death. 

At least not hers. 

What scared her was watching the people she loved suffer for nothing more than the history in their blood. Because as descendants of the last Dragon Lords of Piao, the Minglans had dragon blood. 

The capital city wasn’t a welcome place for anyone suspected of harboring the ancient power inside them. No dragon had been seen in Piao in a hundred years, yet the legends called their blood royal. It was said those with dragon blood were fit to sit on the emperor’s gilded throne. 

It was also a death sentence. The Wei dynasty had ruled Piao for many generations, and it was the emperor’s duty to hunt down any threat to his power. 

Which brought them to the festival of the dragon, a celebration that hadn’t existed in more than five years—not since the last round of executions took place under the stars with paper dragons dancing through the square. 

Her father tightened his grip on her arm as they entered the city on foot and dropped his voice. “You must be prepared, Hua. It is never a good thing for anyone to be called to the dragon festival.” After receiving a summons from the emperor, her father packed Hua and her mother up and the three of them made the five-day journey from Zhouchang to Dasha, leaving her little brother and grandmother behind. 

Running a hand down her side, Hua felt for the dagger her father insisted she hide beneath the folds of her silk robe. The feel of the curved hilt gave her some sense of calm, of peace. 

Hua Minglan wasn’t like normal girls. Most girls her age spent their time painting their faces and dreaming of the husbands their fathers would choose for them. 

Hua preferred traipsing through the woods with a bow on her back. She’d trained in weapons since she was young because her father wanted her to be able to protect herself no matter who came for her. 

Unlike her older sister, Luna, who’d refused to be anything other than the perfect Piao woman. When the new emperor chose her for one of his consorts, she’d basked in the honor. Their mother gushed about the opportunity. 

Only Hua and her father knew what it could mean. 

Only they wondered if the emperor somehow knew of the history of their family. That they’d changed their family name to separate themselves from any knowledge of dragon blood after her grandfather was executed long before she was born. 

“Hua.” Gen Minglan wasn’t a man to be ignored. He’d been a general during the civil war, fighting for the same man who killed his father. “I want you to find your sister.”

“You mean…” She looked up at him. “I can go off by myself?”

“You can take care of yourself.”

“No,” her mother cut in. “It isn’t proper for a young lady to be unaccompanied.”

“Fa.” Her father sighed. “Hua is capable. She can bring Luna into the open where we may be allowed to speak with her. We may not be able to get close to Luna otherwise, especially if suspicion has fallen onto us. I just need to know.” Thickness coated his words. “We’ve had no word of Luna since she was taken from us. This is our first chance. I just want Hua to find out if our daughter is okay.”

Her mother’s shoulders dropped, and Hua knew she’d argue no more. Her father pressed a dagger into her palm, smaller than the one she had on her, but no less deadly. “Be safe, Hua. We will meet you near the market side of the square.” He kissed her forehead. 

Hua walked across the dark square in front of the royal palace, lit only by a large fire in the center of the square, and the lanterns strung between the two-story buildings. 

When Luna was chosen as consort, the emperor claimed it was in recognition of Gen Minglan’s military service. He’d risen from nothing to lead the emperor’s men. 

Hua knew so little of the new emperor. He was the younger son of one of the old emperor’s lesser consorts—not the empress. Did he mistreat her sister? Did he accuse her of having the dragon blood? 

Very few people in Piao even knew what it meant to have the blood anymore. No dragon had risen in so long, the people forgot. They saw it as a curse worthy of execution more than a blessing. Hua couldn’t say she disagreed with them about the curse part.

Glancing back at her parents, she saw her father speaking to a younger man, a strained smile on his face. She wondered if his limp bothered him or if it was the company of the man he spoke to. 

Now that Luna was a part of the emperor’s court, the family’s status improved, making Hua a desirable match. She knew she couldn’t avoid it forever. Her father wanted to keep her close, to protect her, but he wouldn’t be around forever. 

She folded her arms across the long silk emerald robe she wore. Gold threading showed her rise in desirability, but it also made her uncomfortable. 

Her long, shimmering black hair hung loose, announcing her marriage eligibility to each person she passed. That by tying themselves to her, they too could enjoy status. 

Hua sighed, feeling too many eyes on her. Before her father left for war six years ago, they’d been simple farmers living in Zhouchang, a province east of the Liudong River. 

He’d returned a bit broken but honored as well. Then he’d gone back to his simple ways and allowed Luna to leave them. 

Hua didn’t want to hate the emperor for taking her sister, for being a constant threat to their family. She didn’t want to feel anything about it at all. But she missed her best friend. 

A throat cleared, and Hua jerked her head up, realizing she hadn’t taken notice of where she was walking and almost collided with the man himself. 

Emperor Bo Xu Wei stood with a bemused expression on his handsome face and a retinue of guards and servants following behind him. 

Hua’s cheeks flamed. She hid the dagger behind her back. Showing it in the emperor’s presence would mean instant death. Her eyes flicked to the daos carried by the guards. “Uh, your Imperial Majesty.” She curtsied the way her father taught her before lifting her eyes to his. 

Emperor Bo Xu was a young man a little older than Hua’s eighteen years. He’d been the supreme ruler of Piao for only two years. 

Intense mahogany eyes stared back at her. “Are you okay?” He tilted his head to the side.

The noises from the crowd pushed in at Hua, suffocating her, drowning her. It was too much. The shy girl from the small village wasn’t meant to be around people. She missed her dog, Chichi, and the quiet lands stretching in the distance behind her home. 

“I’m…” She couldn’t breathe. Embarrassment fought with panic as she tried to claw her way to the surface of her emotions. How could she break down in front of the emperor? His people stared at her as if she were nothing more than a serf with no business talking to such a great man.

And that was exactly how she felt. 

Heat burned up her skin, cooling instantly as a hand gripped her elbow. Hua turned her head to find Luna standing at her side. She didn’t know when her sister arrived, but she didn’t care. 

“Luna,” she choked out. 

“Breathe, Hua. Just breathe.” She turned to the emperor and dropped into a much more graceful curtsy than Hua’s. “I am deeply sorry, your Imperial Majesty. My sister has a mental deficiency.”

Hua choked on a protest, wanting to refute her sister’s false words, but Luna elbowed her. 

Sympathy entered the emperor’s gaze. “I am sorry to hear that, Luna. Please send my best wishes to your family.” He turned without another word and led his long train of followers to accost some other unsuspecting citizens. 

Hua’s breathing calmed, and she took the chance to notice the people hanging back, watching them. As consort, Luna was afforded a host of servants—women and eunuchs only. Luna seemed to forget they were there as she gripped Hua’s arm tighter and dragged her away. 

“Ow,” Hua hissed. “I don’t have a mental deficiency.”

Luna pulled her between two buildings where the shadows hid them. “If you embarrass me in front of the emperor again, you’ll have physical deficiencies.” 

“That’s not the way a lady of the court should speak.” Hua rubbed her arm. 

Both girls stood silent for only a moment longer before Luna threw her arms around Hua. “I’ve been searching for you since the festival began.”

Hua sank into her sister’s embrace. She hadn’t seen her in more than a year. “I missed you.”

Luna pulled back, sparing a quick glance for her servants who stood nearby and dropped her voice so they couldn’t hear. “You shouldn’t have wandered away from Father. It isn’t safe for you here in Dasha.”

“We were summoned,” she hissed. “The emperor probably has people seeking Father to arrest him now.” 

A laugh burst free of Luna, and she covered her mouth. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think. I never considered what the summons would mean to Father. The emperor didn’t request your presence. I did.” 

“But he signed it.”

“As a favor to me. I’m a consort, Hua. I’m supposed to cut ties to my family. He saw how much I missed you and offered to help.”

“Wha-why would he do that?” 

She leveled Hua with a stare. “He isn’t his father. There hasn’t been a single execution of the blooded since he came to power.”

“It’s only a matter of time. I know our histories, Luna. The emperors always seek out those they see as threats to their power.”

“Yes, but just because someone has dragon blood does not mean they are a threat. The dragons abandoned Piao long ago.”

She was right, of course. Having the blood meant one was susceptible to a dragon living inside them. It didn’t mean the dragon was already there. 

She blew out a breath and collapsed back against the wall. “Father says I need to marry. For protection.”

Luna’s lips drew down. “Hua.” Her sigh sounded so much like their mother’s it had Hua drawing back. “It’s time. You know that.”

Most of the girls Hua knew in the village at home chattered with non-stop excitement about moving away from their homes to create families of their own. 

But Hua wasn’t like them. She didn’t want to leave her parents or her younger brother. She wanted Luna to return, but nothing remained the same no matter how hard she held on. 

“Come on.” Luna took her hand. “Would you like to meet some of the princes and princesses?” 

Hua wanted to say no. The royal family held no interest for her, especially knowing they’d want her dead if they knew the truth. 

The emperor’s father once had twelve consorts. Ten of them bore children, some more than one. Bo Xu Wei was not the eldest or even the son of the empress, but he was the one his father chose to succeed him.

Unlike his father, Bo Xu Wei only selected four consorts and had yet to hold a ceremony to choose the empress. 

Luna introduced Hua to so many people she would never remember all their names. Their eyes did not alight in interest as the emperor’s had. When they looked at her, she wondered if they compared her to her elegant sister beside her. Luna’s hair, even longer than Hua’s, was parted in the middle and wrapped in a knot at the nape of her neck. 

Her deep purple robe spoke of wealth and status with its long, square sleeves, and elaborate belt. She spoke with confidence and moved with grace. 

Hua never realized just how much her sister would fit the role she was chosen for. She found herself tuning out the conversations and listening to the soft music nearby instead. Two flutists played a sweet melody, punctuated by the light ringing of the bells hanging from their instruments. The steady beat of the hide-covered drums echoed the rhythm of Hua’s heartbeat.  

The warm air of an autumn night had sweat dotting across her brow. She should have been worried about the state of the crushed pearl powder her mother applied to her face, but that would have required energy. 

“Hua.” Her mother’s bark snapped her out of the daze. 

She turned to find her parents crossing the square toward them. Fa Minglan was a small woman engulfed by her yellow robe. She wore her hair like Luna’s, but a less kind expression flashed across her face.

“You found your sister.” Her mother crossed her arms. 

Finishing her conversation and wishing the people well, Luna turned to her parents with a smile. “Mama.” She rushed into their mother’s arms before hugging their father as well. 

“Why didn’t you bring Ru?” Luna asked, her lips forming a pout. “I’d have liked to see my brother.”

Their father smiled indulgently. “It was a five-day journey for us to reach Dasha. Ru is only four years old. We had to leave him with my mother.”

Luna’s shoulders slumped. 

Their mother eyed her servants lingering next to them. “I am glad you’re happy, Luna.” She didn’t bother to actually ask if Luna was happy. She only assumed.

“Are you safe?” their father asked. 

From the smile spreading across Luna’s face, Hua knew the answer to that. “This is… more than I could have imagined.” She reached for Hua’s hand and squeezed. 

A uniformed man approached, and all Hua could do was stare. Clear eyes found her, and a smile lit up the stranger’s beautiful face. He ran a hand down the front of his pressed military uniform, pushing any lingering wrinkles from the fabric, before turning to her father and bowing. “Gen Minglan.”

Hua’s father stared for a moment before recognition lit in his eyes. “Luca Kai. I haven’t seen you since you were a teenager.”

He laughed. “I’ve done some growing up since then.”

“Your father told me you earned yourself a military rank.” 

“I imagine he told you a lot about me.” He turned his smile on Hua’s mother. “Taitai Minglan. It is a pleasure.” 

“General.” She smiled.

Luna and Hua exchanged a suspicious look. Calling their mother taitai was a sign of respect, but also a way to earn her favor, and it wasn’t often their mother softened her countenance. 

Hua’s father put a hand on her back and pulled her forward. “Hua, this is General Luca Kai. His father and I are old friends.”

Luca bowed. “You are as beautiful as I’ve been led to believe, Hua Minglan.” 

She couldn’t stop the scowl from forming on her face. “Why would you need to be told of my looks?”

Her mother clucked her tongue in disapproval, but Luca’s grin widened. “I look forward to knowing you.” 

“Too bad you won’t get the chance.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“Hua,” her father snapped, leaning close. “Luca’s father and I have spoken of arrangements.”

“Arrangements?” She didn’t like the sound of that. 

“He is a suitable suitor who can provide certain… protections.”

Hua froze. Suitor? Her gaze slid over the man before her. Tall. Lean muscles. Smug grin. 

“He has a good position in the emperor’s army, and I trust his family.” 

Luca nodded. “Second in command to General Li himself.”

General Li? Hua knew the stories of the young general who’d already made a name for himself. They spoke of him in the villages in hushed tones. He was said to have an unrivaled ruthlessness. 

But she refused to fear this man her father wanted to tie her to. Lifting her chin, she met his eyes. “No matter what my parents decide, I will marry you if I deem you are worthy.” 

Her mother gasped, but to her relief, Luca laughed. “As you wish. In the coming weeks, I will leave with General Li on a march to the border. May I write to you while I’m away?” 

“You may.” 

He shook her father’s hand once more and bowed to her before sauntering away. Hua watched him for a moment before turning hard eyes on her parents. They met her gaze. It was well within their rights to ambush her this way and negotiate her future with anyone they pleased.

That didn’t mean she’d make it easy on them. 

Luna, ever the peacemaker, stepped in. “Can Hua spend the rest of the festival with me? I promise she’ll be safe.” She gestured to two of her eunuchs and the daos that hung at their waists.

Fa opened her mouth to say something, but Gen cut her off. “Yes. We have some business to attend to in the meantime.”

Their father couldn’t go anywhere without trying to make deals for the yields of their crops, even when a threat hung over his head. Everyone within a week’s journey of Dasha was at the festival. It was the best place for negotiations and provided Hua the escape she needed.

Luna pulled Hua away from their parents and giggled like a girl much younger than her twenty years. “Come with me.”

She led her weaving through the crowd toward a row of columns near the enormous palace steps. The palace sat on a raised platform faced with dark stone. Almost black wooden walls rose toward a sloped tile roof. Balconies spanned the upper floors. Hua had never seen an emperor’s speech before, but she could imagine the young emperor standing high above the crowd, his enchanting eyes peering over them. 

Luna directed Hua through an open plaza to the side of the steps where two stone pillars sat, dragons snaking up their sides as if they could protect the city.

Luna’s servants gave them a bit of space but stayed within eyesight. Luna sat with her back against the pillar and her body shielded from view. Hua followed suit. Someone would have to know they were there in order to find them. 

“I can’t believe they let me walk into that.” Hua groaned. 

“Walk into what?” Luna lifted her face, settling her eyes on the stars above as her voice took on a wistful tone. “That man was perfect.”

“For you, maybe.”

“Hua, when will you start to take your future seriously? You cannot live with Mother and Father your entire life. When next spring comes, you’ll be of age to leave home. And did you even see that Luca man? If I wasn’t pledged to the emperor, I’d be insanely jealous. And a soldier! Is there anything more attractive?”

Hua covered her face with her hands so her sister couldn’t see her burning cheeks. “He was okay.” In truth, men were a mystery to her. Even before becoming a consort, her sister knew how to speak to them, how to make them fall in love with her, a skill Hua could never hope to master. 

“If father trusts him, then so do I. Our lives will never be peaceful, Hua. Not with the threat of discovery hanging over us.” 

“Can we talk about something else?” She lowered her hands. “Please?”

Luna smiled, her white teeth flashing in the night. “I love festivals.” 

Hua snorted. For reasons of safety, she’d never been to a festival or even visited the capital before. And now that she had, all she wanted was to go home to her wide-open fields. She smoothed her robe around her legs, concealing the pants underneath. 

Luna’s lips tipped up into a smile. “Rest easy, Hua. You’re not in danger here. I know father has trained you your entire life to look over your shoulder for enemies, but maybe it’s time you tried to be normal.” She laughed. “Then you can be happy too.”

Sometimes her sister was ridiculous. What was normal? Falling all over yourself to look perfect and act like everyone else? 

“I think I’m in love with the emperor.” Luna’s voice was so soft Hua, thought she’d misheard her. 

“You’re not,” Hua scoffed.

“What would you know?” she snapped. “I’m his favored consort.”

“Luna, don’t be ridiculous. The emperor will choose an empress soon, and it’ll be someone with a much higher status than the daughter of the Minglans of Zhouchang, a family with little history because we didn’t exist before father created the name.” Luna was the only consort whose father held no title. Sure, there would be a ceremony and a competition to choose the empress, but the daughter of an army general turned farmer would never be allowed to win. 

Luna huffed. “It isn’t up to the emperor to choose. I will carve my golden statue and prove that I have heaven’s mandate to be the empress just as Bo Xu has it to be the emperor. He wasn’t the oldest nor the strongest of the old emperor’s children, yet his father recognized heaven choosing him.”

Hua hadn’t seen her sister in so long and didn’t want to make her mad on their one night together. She wasn’t a fighter and wouldn’t win an argument with Luna. “I hope you’re right.”

Luna leaned her head on Hua’s shoulder. “Can I tell you a secret?”

Hua nodded. “You’ve always been able to.”

“I’m pregnant.” Her smile widened. “I will have the first of the emperor’s children.”

A child of the emperor with dragon blood? Hua wanted to be happy for her sister. She didn’t want to be the girl who questioned everything. But what kind of life would Luna have when she had to keep such a secret from the people she supposedly loved? If she told the emperor of their child’s blood, he’d know about the rest of the Minglans and have no choice but to hunt them down just like the emperors before him. Dragon blood was a direct threat to their power. It was said to be royal, giving a person the right to rule. 

Hua wanted better for the sister she loved more than life itself. 

But honesty wasn’t what her sister needed in that moment. Hua brushed a hand over Luna’s soft hair. “I love you, Jiejie.” She smiled at the old term for older sister.

Her joyful laugh filled the night around them. “And I love you, Meimei.” Little sister. They’d been calling each other by those terms since they knew how to talk, and there was a comfort in the familiarity.

They sat in silence for a long while, just enjoying being around each other again. They were young, and that night felt like the beginning of their lives. Luna would be a mother to a prince, and who knew where Hua was headed? Into a marriage with the handsome general?

The sisters weren’t ready to be separated yet. 

It wasn’t until shouting from the square reached their sanctuary that Luna sat up. Her servants ran toward them. The two men had their daos drawn. 

“Madam,” one of the women yelled. “There has been an attack.”

“An attack?” Luna shot to her feet. 

“It’s the Kou.”

The name sent a chill through Hua. Nomads to the north of Piao, the Kou had been terrorizing the border for a decade, forcing a mass migration of people to the central cities. 

And now they’d come to Dasha. Luna and Hua huddled together as they rounded the pillars, searching for any sign of the attack. Shadows ran the lengths of the buildings towering over the square where only moments before, the people of Piao had been celebrating. 

Now, the citizens scrambled for cover as arrows rained down from above. 

“We need to make it up the palace steps,” one of the eunuchs said. “We have no choice but to run.”

“But Hua…” Luna’s panicked eyes met hers. Those not of the court could not enter the palace.

“She will have to find her own way to safety.” The man kept his eyes trained on the archers. “Consort Luna is my only concern.”

Luna shook her head violently, and Hua gripped her hands. “I can’t leave you.”

“Yes, you can.” Hua tried to infuse acceptance into her gaze. All she wanted was her sister to be safe. The only place for that was the palace. A tear leaked from Hua’s eyes. “I need to find Mama and Ba. I also need you to be safe. Promise me as soon as you start running, you won’t look back.”

When Luna didn’t say anything, Hua gripped her tighter. “Promise me!”

Tears streamed down Luna’s face. “Yes.” She squeezed her eyes tight. “I promise.”

Hua released her. “Go.” She looked to the eunuchs and serving girls. “Get her to that palace.”

Footsteps sounded against the stone as the crowd continued to run, ducking into buildings that would be no use as the Kou came down from their perches on high to slaughter them all. Hua’s hands shook as she watched Luna’s people form up around her. With one final glance, Luna started to run. 

She took the steps two at a time, holding the ends of her robe up to prevent herself from tripping. Her ebony hair broke free of her knot and flew about her face. 

Hua couldn’t move from her place until Luna was safe inside the palace. She watched her grow smaller and smaller as she neared the palace entryway. 

It happened in slow motion. A crossbow bolt sailed through the air, ripping through Hua’s life, as it reached its intended target. 

Luna’s body jerked back, frozen in time for only a moment, before slamming into the stone, her chin bouncing off a step. 

Her servants scrambled to check on her, to see if she still lived. 

But Hua knew the moment her sister’s heart stopped beating because it matched the stillness within her own chest. 

An arrow flew through the air near Hua as she sprinted up the steps. Luna’s servants left her, running for their own lives. 

Hua couldn’t blame them for their self-preservation, but she also couldn’t leave her sister. Luna was her everything, her best friend. She collapsed to the ground next to her body, knowing when she felt for a pulse, there would be no beat against her finger. 

Tears didn’t come because it wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. 

Luna was larger than life. She was the joy of an everyday existence, happy and free. She loved and didn’t hold back. Not like Hua. 

Luna deserved to live. 

Hua couldn’t focus on anything other than the chasm opening inside her as she cradled her sister’s head in her lap. People ran by, taking no notice of the girl frozen in grief or the blood dripping down the steps. 

A roar sounded in the distant spaces of her mind as warriors clad in lacquered leather armor cut through the crowd. 

The emperor’s forces ran out to meet them, daos crashing against halberds. Steel glinted in the silver moonlight, reflecting it back into the sky as if this kind of world deserved no light. A world without Luna. A world where even the center of Piao was vulnerable to a brutal attack. 


Hua recognized the voice of the emperor as his guards tried to force him up the steps. 

“We need to get you to safety,” one of them yelled back over the din of battle. 

Hua lifted her face, wanting to see the man her sister claimed to love. Did he even love her? He’d had a claim on her in life, but in death, she didn’t deserve anyone who wouldn’t trade places with her.

He froze, catching sight of her, his eyes drifting to Luna. A cry broke free of his lips, and the young man, the most powerful in Piao, did what Hua could not. He wept. 

“My Luna,” he cried. 

Did he know she’d carried his child? Had she told him? 

Hua used her body to shield Luna from the man who’d done this to her. He’d brought her here. He’d chosen her. She should have married a simple man and been safe in the village not far from her family. Instead, she’d abandoned them for the prestige promised to her.

Was death prestige enough, she wondered. Did it mean Luna earned her place? 

Hua narrowed her eyes as the emperor continued his tortured wailing. His guards forced him up the steps and managed to get to the palace safely. 

A woman’s cry broke Hua out of her daze. “Mama.” She knew it wasn’t her mother, but somewhere out there, her parents ran from the same danger. “Ba.” She jumped to her feet just as a body collided with hers, sending her rolling down the final steps. 

A volley of arrows sailed toward the spot she’d been only moments before. The man, her savior, landed next to her with a thud. 

She wanted to thank him, but the words sat cold in her throat. 

As arrows fell down around her, one flew right for her chest. It struck her right above her heart but did not pierce her skin. She cried out, expecting to feel it tear through her flesh. Instead, it clattered to the ground. Her entire body froze as she stared down at the tiny hole in her robe, a hole made by an arrowhead. 

It wasn’t possible. 

The man who’d tackled her glanced back at her. Did he see that, or was she hallucinating in her grief? He pushed his muscled frame up to his feet. “Come.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her behind the pillars. It was the same place she’d watched her sister fall. 

Tears hung in her lashes, not daring to fall. How was any of this possible? She shouldn’t be standing there. The arrow should have sent her into the next life to join Luna. 

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” the man asked, his voice unkind as he peered around the pillars. His dao hung in a scabbard at his waist. The single-edged sword was a warrior’s weapon. 

But he wore no uniform. Instead, his robe hung to his knees with trousers appearing underneath. 

What would he say if he’d seen that arrow? 

“I have to find my baba and mama.” She breathed heavily, trying to stop the images of her death flying toward her through the sky.  

The man threw a scowl over his shoulder. “You need to stay here and let Piao’s warriors handle this fight. I should be out there, but my brother would be disappointed if I left some… girl… to fend for herself.”

Hua didn’t ask who his brother was. She didn’t ask his name. None of that mattered. Nothing mattered. Not anymore. 

The festival of dragons had turned into a bloody affair, and she wasn’t sure Piao would ever be the same. 

She sure wouldn’t. 

Maybe she’d imagined it in her grief over losing Luna. That was the only explanation. 

A Kou warrior dropped to the ground in front of their hiding place, a halberd stuck in the back of his head. One of the emperor’s men pulled the battle ax free without so much as a second glance at the hulking brute he’d felled. 

The Kou were unlike any foe of Piao’s. Brutal and strong, they hacked their way through countries. They’d been trying to take everything Piao had for a decade. They didn’t want to settle among the Piao folk, only conquer them and control the trading routes along the Liudong River to the sea. 

Hua didn’t know when the fear left her. Maybe it was about the time she wished she could join her sister and stay with her forever. Maybe it was when she faced her own end. But the fight didn’t scare her. 

A Kou man caught sight of them and ran their way. Hua’s savior—as she called him—prepared to meet the charge, and Hua took the opportunity to run past them both, dodging out of the way of the attacker’s long spear. 

Neither of them could follow her as they fought each other. Out in the square, chaos reigned supreme. Dead bodies littered the ground, blood coating the stones. Dasha would never be free of these memories. No matter what happened this night, the blood would never wash away. 

She twisted out of the way of another attacker and darted through the crowd of swarming warriors intent on killing each other. The soldier she met briefly with her father—Luca-- ran past her, throwing himself against the enemies, trying to break them. Hua kept running. 

Ordinary citizens had already either found places to hide, or they were dead. 

She refused to believe her parents left her too. 

“Hua,” someone called to her.

Hua turned on her heel. A man waved her forward. She recognized him as a friend of her father’s but couldn’t recall his name. Sprinting toward him, she didn’t wait until she reached him to speak. “Have you seen them?”

He didn’t get a chance to answer her because her father appeared at the window, and she ran into the shop, launching herself into his arms. “Ba.”

He squeezed her as if he’d never thought he’d see her again. “My dear girl.” 

“Where’s Mama?” she asked.

He pulled her farther into the shop to get out of sight. “She’s here. We’re both okay.”

None of them were okay. Their central city was attacked. People died. Yes, the emperor’s forces would fight them off. They were the best-trained army in the world, and the Kou didn’t stand a chance. 

But still, it would never be okay again. 

She followed her father down a staircase into the back, where more people than she could count huddled together, flinching at every sound. Her mama jumped up when she saw them, climbing over people to reach her daughter. 

She put a hand on each shoulder, checking her over. 

Hua should have told her she wasn’t injured, that her body was fine. But how could her body be fine when her insides felt hollow? How could it be fine when she’d felt the sharp point of an arrow against her skin?

“Luna’s dead.” She spoke so quietly at first no one heard her. 

Her Ba’s brow creased. 

Hua cleared her throat, knowing how empty her voice sounded. “Luna… she’s… she died.”

It took a moment for the realization to sink into her parents. Their eldest daughter would never smile at them again. She’d never dance or laugh until her sides hurt. 

Their faces fell, slowly at first, and then it was as if they collapsed in on themselves. She’d never seen her mother cry before and couldn’t take her eyes from the moisture coating her cheeks. Her father gathered them both to him, only releasing them when a loud bang sounded above. 

For the first time, Hua looked out over the faces in the room. These people were witnesses to the Minglans’ grief, to their heart-wrenching agony. 

Hua broke away from her parents and found a spot in the far corner to curl in on herself and pretend there was something, anything, she could do to fix her family.

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