|Zhang Dynasty: Seduction of the Phoenix
Michelle M. Pillow
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Trade Paperback ISBN 1-58608-777-0
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Prince Zhang Jin is a man raised in honor and tradition, so it is a great surprise when he is compelled to claim a stranger as his bride who has neither. Francesca La Rosa is hardly a match fit for a prince. Though beautiful, she is a thief with one thing on her mind--stealing the sacred Jade Phoenix of his people. But the mystery doesn't end there. With the aid of the spirits of his ancestors he must discover who this woman is, why she would destroy the Zhang Empire and most of all, if she could ever return the love that is growing in his heart.
Part of the New HARMONY™ line, as Seen in Romantic Times Bookclub Magazine, Feb 2006
"Harmony™ line is all about romance and the harmonious blending of races and cultures. These are MULTI-RACIAL romances, not simply interracial romances, and race issues should NOT hang over the storyline like a dark thundercloud. Harmony will bring color and intriguing cultures together so that readers of many backgrounds and races will have characters to fall in love with and identify with....regardless of race, creed, color, or religious background, women are women, the world over, all searching for that special someone to love who will give them love and passion in return." - From NCP Website
SEDUCTION OF THE PHOENIX
Michelle M. Pillow
Imperial Palace of the Zhang Dynasty, Honorable City, Muntong Territory, Planet of Lintian
Prince Zhang Jin watched the women bowing before him, one right after another. Their long sleeves trailed over their hands, falling gracefully to the floor. The delicate silk of their traditional gowns only complemented their beauty. White powder hid their complexions, accenting their red painted lips. They were all lovely, each sent from the far reaches of his home planet of Lintian to present themselves in the Hall of Infinite Wisdom located at his home in the Imperial Palace.
“Yang Ping,” the herald announced as another woman stepped forward.
Jin kept his eyes forward as Yang Ping bowed before him. The yellow silk surrounding her added a pleasing light to her face, as the orange glow of the palace torches reflected lightly off her. The torchlight was only to add ambiance to the ceremony and wouldn’t truly be needed until nightfall. Above, the outside sun was reflected in through small holes in the ceiling. They were so tiny and inlaid into the intricate design that it was impossible to see them.
The herald spoke again, but Jin didn’t catch the woman’s name. He bowed as was expected, bored to the point that his mind had gone numb. Absently, he traced the gold statue of a warrior god standing by the entranceway and imagined the life-size bust to be on the verge of attacking the hall. Jin wasn’t one for violence, but the prospect was more entertaining than bowing and smiling.
This was the Qi-zi ceremony and he was to have his pick of the women for his bride--if he so chose. What none of the elders seemed to realize was that he did not wish to be married. Still, he and his brothers were eligible, each year they’d send women for his inspection and each year he’d send them away as unworthy. He’d done it so many times that he was beginning to recognize some of the women from years before, though they wore different makeup and clothing.
At least he wasn’t forced to endure the tradition alone. His brothers stood next to him, each feeling much the same way he did. They did not wish for brides either. Why marry when they could spend their days at leisure in the arms of a concubine? However, according to their father, when the time to take a bride presented itself, they’d be guided by their ancestors and would have an uncontrollable compulsion to claim her at any cost.
“Yu Xiang,” the herald announced the next eligible lady. A woman covered in a long blue gown shuffled forward and bowed respectfully. The four princes nodded their heads in return. She was pretty, but her virtue was indeed in question. Some experience wasn’t necessarily a bad thing in a bride, but the princes knew well Xiang had enough experience to rival that of all the princes combined--a very great feat. Though, looking at her now, she appeared as unsullied as a virgin. That was another thing he didn’t like about the ceremony. How did you really know anything about a woman by watching her bow? Just a look was supposed to capture his interest and make him want to know more? How could that be possible after so many women came before him? Their faces would blur into one and he wouldn’t remember a Shu Fang from Ting.
Xiang batted her eyelashes at them while pursing her lips. Hearing a noise, Jin looked out of the corner of his eye. His oldest brother, Zhang Haun, winked in his direction. Jin tried not to return the insolent look with one of his own, knowing his father, the Emperor of the Muntong Empire, was watching them carefully. Next to Haun stood the youngest prince, Shen, and then their brother Lian. They also had two sisters, Mei and Fen. Mei was off in space with her husband, a foreign prince, but even if she had been home she wouldn’t have been present. The Zhang princesses weren’t forced to endure these ceremonies.
“Jia Wan,” the herald said and Jin tried not to yawn.
Traditional music, passed down for many generations, played over the quiet hall. The sound of the flute mingled with that of the harp. It was beautiful and archaic. It was tradition. Jin knew that without tradition the people would lose all connection to the past. It was important for them as a royal family to rule in accordance with ideals and to honor the old customs. That is why they never protested coming to stand for hours to watch women parade before them. As much as he loathed it, he out of all his siblings was blessed with a powerful understanding and respect for the past.
The Zhang palace was hidden behind great walls in what was known as Honorable City. Aside from when duty demanded it, Jin never left the city. Why would he want to? The city was a fortress. He was comfortable in his home, surrounded by his family and his scrolls. His needs were tended to and every whim fulfilled. On the outside, the palace walls were protected by a thick moat and there were only two known entrances inside--one in front and one in back of the large rectangular complex.
The Hall of Infinite Wisdom was only one building within the palace walls, located in the center. It was the largest structure, set high upon stone to tower over the surrounding courtyard and gardens. Also within the compound were practice halls where the royal family and imperial guards could exercise. There was a hall where they paid homage to their ancestors, a library, archery range, the Exalted Hall used for weddings and special private ceremonies. Barracks for the guards were near the weapons chambers, which were located close to the royal chambers where the Zhang family lived.
“Dong Xia He,” the herald said, as a woman clad in red shuffled forward. Jin took a deep breath, eyeing the long line waiting behind her.
Emperor Zhang and Jin’s mother, the empress, sat in high thrones above the hall. Carved golden dragons coiled around the royal couple. His father had a long mustache that hung down the front of his tunic. They wore matching yellow embroidered silk decorated with Imperial red dragons and ancient symbols. Just like when their people had lived on Earth long ago, red and gold were the colors of royalty, representing fortune and wealth. The emperor’s clothing matched the buildings, all of which had yellow tiled roofs and dark red walls.
“Let go of me, you son of a Lophibian whore!”
Jin perked up at the very feminine cry. The language wasn’t that of Lintian but he understood it well enough. It was a star language, from a culture that long ago shared the planet Earth with his people. When they were growing up, the emperor had demanded that all his children upload language files into their brains. They’d been on a very strict educational schedule for most of their childhood--but that had been decades ago.
“I’ll kick your ass, you tyrannical brute!”
Jin narrowed his eyes, concentrating on what the woman screamed. The translations shouldn’t have been difficult to do, though it had been a long time since he had used them. Was she really screaming insults or were the translations harder than he thought?
“Zhang Jin,” said an authoritative, old voice. The words were soft, carried as if on a gentle breeze.
Jin turned, seeing the transparent figure of his dead grandfather, Zhang Manchu, standing beside him. Instantly, he placed fist to palm and bowed in respect for his ancestor. “Grandfather.”
Tension curled in his gut. What was his grandfather doing here? Now? At this ceremony? Did the bearer of the female voice bring danger with her? He knew he’d much prefer facing a life and death battle than finding a bride.
“Jin?” Haun asked. His brother’s eyes glanced to Jin’s side. Jin knew his brother couldn’t see the spirit. The ancestors only showed themselves to those they wished to guide.
“Grandfather Manchu,” Jin answered. Haun frowned, but nodded once in complete understanding. The commotion grew louder and the sound of a struggle ensued, distracting Jin from his grandfather’s spirit.
“Takes five of you brutes and a blow dart to subdue a little girl like me? Your parents must be so proud! Is this all you got? Huh? Huh! ”
The line of awaiting women parted in a flurry of blue, green and yellow embroidered silk. Their bodies created a pathway to the large gold doors leading from the hall. Five Imperial guards dragged a woman by each of her limbs, the fifth holding her masked head to keep it from thrashing about. Even clad from head to toe in black, it was easy to see by her curves that it was a female--that and the sound of her ungodly curses as she fought their hold.
“Let go of me you, Kaokin scum.” The woman freed an arm and tried to punch the guard holding her head. The man jerked to the side, wrenching her into a strange angle. She didn’t scream at the painful twist of her body as Jin expected she might, but only got madder. “You’ll pay for that.”
Feeling a hand on his shoulder, Jin looked once more at his grandfather. The dead man appeared apologetic, but didn’t take his eyes off the female. Jin turned back to the show.
“What’s the matter? Can’t understand me? Well see if you can’t understand this!” The woman kicked violently, jerking the guards back and forth with her weight. “Cao ni zuxian shi ba dai!”
Everyone in the hall gasped. Jin couldn’t believe the audacity of the woman. To insult a person’s ancestors, let alone eighteen generations of them, was a striking offense indeed. Either she was very brave or very foolish.
With great effort the guards thrust the woman down before the emperor, shoving her to her hands and knees while forcing her head to bow low in submission. A gold feather dart stuck out from her side. Jin knew the men had tried to subdue her with the tranquilizer dart, just acquired less than a decade ago for use in palace security. From the looks of it the dart wasn’t having much of an effect.
The prisoner squirmed, fighting to get free. The guards twisted her arms back, pulling until she cried out in pain. Jin didn’t move, though he stared with interest. His grandfather’s hand tightened on his shoulder until it felt as if his ghostly fingers were dipping beneath his skin, burning into his flesh. He tried to lower his shoulder to stop the feeling, but his grandfather held tight.
“What is the meaning of this?” the emperor asked calmly, eyeing the prisoner. No one made a move to help her and she did not look around as if she wanted to be helped. Jin suppressed a smile. This one was stubborn, maybe foolishly so. He wished he could see her face. He’d like to look at the woman behind the mask.
“It is time, Jin,” his grandfather said.
“Time?” Jin asked confused, prying his eyes from the woman to study the departed man once more.
Everything moved as if in a blur. His grandfather’s fingers dug deeper, holding him in place, even as his fingers slid over Jin’s heart to his throat. Jin froze, unable to move or speak. He opened his mouth to protest but all that came out was a long hiss of air. A chill worked over his entire body, growing like a frost over his throat and shoulder, down his lungs and into his hips and legs. Gasping for breath, he was helpless as his grandfather’s spirit entered into his eyes, crowding his soul as the ancestor took residence inside him. Before he knew what was happening, his body was taken over, jerkily moving with a will outside its own.
“Cease!” His voice commanded harshly, but the words did not come from him. His body moved forward on the platform, out of his control. He tried to pull back to his spot by his brothers, desperately wanting to reach to them, but he no longer had power over his body.
Grandfather! he thought. Tianna! What are you doing?
I told you, Jin. It is time, his grandfather’s voice answered in his head. The man sounded sad, if not a little apologetic.
No, Jin began to protest, but his brother’s harsh voice interrupted the thought.
“Jin?” Haun said quietly from between his teeth. “What are you doing? Come back here!”
Jin desperately wanted to obey. He’d never felt so helpless in his life. Every part of him tried to resist the possession, but his grandfather’s spirit was too powerful for him to resist. The will inside him was strong, but his grandfather’s hold over him was stronger.
A murmur of sound flowed over the hall, rising and falling like a crescendo of music. His body was forced down from the platform and he was moved before his parents. Jin was only a mere mortal and did not possess the knowledge of the spiritual plane. There was no way to fight off the attack, no way to tell the others what was happening to him. The emperor and empress watched him approach, their expressions blank.
Grandfather! Cease at once! I order you!
The faint sound of laughter in his grandfather’s voice was the only answer he received.
“I have chosen,” Jin announced out loud, bowing respectfully to his parents. He looked down at the woman completely covered in black, as his hand lifted to motion to her. Despite his best effort to keep his mouth pressed tightly shut, his lips moved, forming words that filled him with dread and anger. “I have found my bride.”
His parents didn’t move. The hall was still at the declaration. Out of all the children, he was the first to declare marriage. Princess Mei was married, but she’d defied tradition when she took the foreign prince as her husband. They had been joined in space, away from Lintian in some foreign Var ceremony of joining.
Jin struggled to regain control, but it was no use. It was too late. To take it back now would be to dishonor himself and his family. He looked down at the woman, unable to see her face. It was hard to tell anything beyond the fact that she’d been arrested and had what appeared to be a tight little body beneath the black clothing she wore. Jin felt his body stir with passion. The mocking sound of his grandfather’s laughter filled his head once more. Jin wondered if the desire was his own, or that of his possessor. Even as he wondered, he knew. He desired the woman before him. Her mere presence rocked the foundation of his safe, protected world. The danger in her excited him.
The prisoner’s eyes darted up to stare at him. It was possible the declaration had just saved her from death, and she didn’t look at all grateful for the gesture. Her gaze pierced inside him, jolting him with the anger that her eyes held. They were the color of jade, the precious green jade their ancestors had brought with them from Earth. The only pieces that survived were in the Sacred Chamber, protected by Zhang An, his long dead great-grandmother. To even look upon it was an honor.
Is this a sign? Jin asked his grandfather. What does this mean? Her eyes, they….
It is done, his grandfather’s voice interrupted, reminding Jin that he stood in the middle of the palace hall. Jin held tense, ready to reclaim his body. To his annoyance, his grandfather didn’t act like he had any intention of getting out right away.
This goes too far, laotou. Make yourself known to my family and take it back. I will not be married to this woman. She is unworthy of my family. She is a thief!
It is too late, my grandson. What had to be done is now done.
Jin wanted to scream, but couldn’t, as the old man held him in silence.
© copyright March 2006, Michelle M. Pillow
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Michelle M Pillow