A princess expected to uphold honor and tradition, a man dishonored and shunned by the very society she rules. Their passion may be hot, their will strong, but how can she fall for the man who might be trying to kill her?
When her life is threatened by mysterious events only she can see, Princess Fen has more to worry about than finding a husband. Too bad her parents don’t feel the same way. Desperate to keep her from leaving the planet like her sister, they decide to play matchmaker, inviting wealthy, noble suitors to the palace.
But it’s not a rich suitor that catches her eye, it’s the commoner, Aaron Piers—a man who’s past is clouded with dishonor, a man without family, a man she could never consider marrying. Though her desire for him burns hot, their relationship can never be. Besides, he might just be the one trying to kill her.
Thin trails of smoke curled in the air, surrounding the offering of wine and bread before disappearing along the latticework above the low altar. Darkness shadowed the room, hiding the lone figure that kneeled in meditative prayer, rocking back and forth in desperation as passion burned inside him, deep, haunting, all-consuming.
The dark silk of his robes billowed into a glossy pool around his feet and fell past his hands to cover them completely. The material swam around him, and he looked like a child in his father’s clothing. Like most of the men on his planet, he wore his hair long, but he wasn’t like the other men, not really. He was different, a part of them, but yet was unaccepted. The man rocked faster, his whispered chants growing with each anxious twitch of his body.
Soon. He’d see her again soon.
“Make her burn for me, as I burn for her. Make her burn for me. I beg of you, honored ancestors. Bring me her heart. Make it burn.”
Imperial Palace of the Zhang Dynasty, Honorable City, Muntong Territory, Planet of Lintian
“Qing bang-zhu wo!” Princess Zhang Fen yelled in fervent terror, as she tried not to inhale the thick black smoke that filled the air of her bedchamber. Fire danced in spiraling patterns all around her. She tried to escape through her front door, which led to the hall and front foyer of the building that housed the royal living quarters. Flames cut her off, engulfing the walls as they nearly seared her skin with the intensity of their heat.
“Please, help me. Anyone!” She screamed again, but it did no good. No one came to rescue her. The royal quarters was only one building out of a great many that made up the imperial palace of Honorable City. How could no one hear her calls for help? Where were her brothers who shared the building with her? Had the fire already consumed them?
A chill racked over her spine, causing a brief shiver amidst the fiery temperature. The ghostly presence of her ancestors surrounded her, for whom else could it be? Ancestors showed themselves to those they wished to guide, and she was in desperate need. Fen looked for their transparent forms, hoping they were there to lead her out of harm’s way. She couldn’t see them through the smoke.
“Grandmother? Are you here?” she whispered, knowing her great-grandmother, Zhang An, would show herself if she was. Since her death, An had been residing in the sacred room hidden within the walls of the Hall of Infinite Wisdom.
Fen was in good standing with the ancestors. She always left offerings, especially for An who loved wine. Ever since Fen’s mother, the Empress, had stopped leaving the drink for the old spirit, Fen had snuck wine into the Sacred Chamber.
The Empress was upset with An because the spirit hadn’t been forthcoming when she’d predicted Princess Mei’s future. Everyone thought Fen’s sister would marry Prince Song Lok, whose family ruled the only other dynasty on the planet of Lintian. Instead, Mei wed a space captain and was flying around the high skies, far away from her palace home. She’d just given birth to a son, the first royal grandchild. The Empress missed her youngest daughter dearly and resented not having an active hand in raising the boy.
“Grandmother An, if you get me out of this, I promise to leave you twice as much wine tonight.” Fen watched the smoke for any sign that she was heard. Still there was no answer. Out of all her ancestors, An meddled in their lives the most.
Then, where was she? What better time to ‘meddle’?
Right now, Fen would take the help of any of the spirits who resided within the palace. They could be anywhere at anytime but usually avoided private areas like bedrooms. Another chill washed over her, and she knew a spirit was close, but she couldn’t see who it was. Why weren’t they helping her escape? Or was there no escaping these flames? Were they waiting for her to join them in death?
“I’m not ready. I’m not ready,” Fen said, tears welling in her eyes. Part of her had clung to the hope of liberation, had believed so fully that she’d be saved that she didn’t consider the possibility of getting hurt. But, as no one came and the flames grew, she wasn’t as confident. “Qing, please, I’m not ready. I’m not ready to die!”
The dark silk on her bed melted and curled with the heat, matching the melting silk tapestries that burned along her walls. Her gaze flew to the thin doorways separating the chambers of her room. Both doors had burned, revealing the rooms beyond. Her living space and her decontaminator room were also on fire.
“Grandfather Manchu?” she asked, hoping to appeal to Zhang An’s son. The two were often at odds, but if one wasn’t going to help her then maybe the other spirit would. The building was the private quarters to the royal siblings, and she prayed her brothers had gotten out safely and would find a way to rescue her. “I beg you, Manchu, help me. Protect me. Protect my family.”
Wood crackled as she once more tried to reach the thick bedroom door that would lead to the outside hall and to safety. A piece of the door fell away, and she saw the hall on the other side. It looked fresh and clean, unlike her bedroom. Smoke charred the gold inlay on the carved wood, and she was forced to her knees as it became harder to breathe. Her tears dried before they could trail down her hot cheeks, as all moisture was sapped from the air. A large beam fell from the ceiling, and she screamed, scrambling back to curl into a ball. There was nowhere to go.
“Qing, help!” Fen closed her eyes tight, trying to gain the courage to push through the flames toward safety. “Qing, I don’t want to die like this!”
A shout followed by the crash of her door sounded over her, propelling her into action. Finally, she was saved! Before opening her eyes, she stood. “I’m here….”
Fen froze, her voice dying in her throat as the heat instantly left her skin. The flames were gone and the room stood exactly as it had before the fire started--from the wrinkled covers on her bed where she’d been sleeping to the delicate butterfly and peony patterns on her rugs. Coughing, a small puff of smoke left her lips, the only evidence as to what had happened moments before. She panted for breath, still choked from the heat, as she looked around in shock. Embroidered blue silk again hung over her walls and lay across her bed. The thin doors were shut, completely unharmed as they hid the living area and decontaminator from view.
Shaking, she looked at the main door in confusion. Its gold inlay shone like it had before she went to bed, the thick wood unmarred. Dark blue eyes, the shade of her favorite color, met hers over the short distance. They belonged to the man waiting in the entryway, his body tense as if for battle.
“Princess?” the man repeated, his deep tone softer this time. The rich, low sound of his voice rolled over her like cooling water to the heated skin.
Fen was too stunned to answer. A new fire sprung to life inside her stomach, curling with a gentle warmth. What had happened to the flames in her bedchamber? What magic did this man have that could stop fire and make it as if it had never happened? Her limbs went numb as she looked at his handsome face. A rush of gratitude came over her, even though there was no longer any fire to be rescued from. Part of her wanted to run to him, throw her arms around him in thanks for stopping the flames, to sprinkle grateful kisses on his cheeks and bless him for what he’d done. But there was more than gratitude that hit her when she looked at him. It was an improper feeling, a feeling of attraction and interest, a curling of awareness that here stood a man alone with her in her bedchambers where no others were allowed. The rule was not one of the palace, but her own. Men only brought complication, and she did not wish to be gossiped about by the palace servants.
“If you have no need of my services, princess, please excuse me.” The man bowed politely and moved to pull the door shut. She gaped, wide-eyed at him, not wanting him to go but not knowing what to say to make him stay. “Duibuqi. Excuse me, princess, I did not mean to intrude.”
“Wait,” Fen demanded just before the door shut completely, finally compelled to speak.
The man stopped, and he opened the door once more, standing at rigid attention. His eyes did not meet hers again and she finally felt as if she could breathe in his presence. She studied him, feeling a pull toward him. Had she seen him somewhere before? Did she know him? He wasn’t dressed as a palace guard, nor was he dressed as a noble. The plain black of his clothing was oddly devoid of any decoration, though it was spun from silk and had the traditional Mandarin collar and frog buttons.
Fen continued to study him, her mind wrapping completely around the mystery. His brown hair was long, pulled into a traditional topknot. Though there was a hint of Lintianese in his strong features, but his eyes were not the eyes of her people, his cheekbones were too prominent and his lips curved in such a way as to make them unfamiliar. Whoever this man was, she’d guess he was only half Lintianese by birth. His pronunciation of the language was flawless, indicating that he’d been raised in their ways or had access to a stellar language upload program.
He was taller than most men Fen had been around, though not so tall as Mei’s space captain husband who practically towered over her. Captain Jarek of the Var also happened to be a foreign, cat shifting prince.
“Who are you?” she asked the handsome stranger, not moving.
“Aaron,” he answered. His gaze focused on her feet. Fen resisted the urge to hide her toes from view. They tingled with just a stare from him.
“Aaron?” she repeated, rolling the foreign name around in her mouth. “What is your family name? Or is that your family name?”
“Piers.” The answer was clipped.
“How did you get in here, Piers Aaron?” Fen asked.
“Forgive my intrusion, princess, I heard you scream for help as I walked by and thought you needed rescuing.” His hands gripped in light fists at his side. They were strong, callused hands, the hands of a worker. He glanced around the room, refusing to look directly at her. “I see now you were merely playacting. Forgive my mistake. Duibuqi, excuse me.”
Fen tensed. There was something in his tone that bothered her. It took her a moment to realize it was disdain, mixed with a touch of pity. He thought she was crazy, screaming for help when there was nothing to be rescued from. So much for the theory that this man had magic. Could she really blame his reproach? All evidence of her dire situation had disappeared, making it appear as if she’d been screaming like a madwoman for no reason. Fen hardly needed rescuing from her bedclothes.
The man was so serious, so rigid, as he waited for her to dismiss him that she couldn’t help but tease him in the hopes of putting him at ease. “Do you know there is a penalty for wandering about outside the royal chambers, even if you were waiting to save me from myself?”
Aaron glanced up at her words, and she tried to smile to show she was joking, but the look in his dark eyes stopped her cold. What she could only describe as resentment burned within his gaze. Out of all the Zhang children, Fen was most gifted with charm. It was more than the natural ability to put people at ease, it was a power bestowed upon her at birth by their sacred Jade Phoenix. When she spoke, she could induce a person to tell the truth or show their true emotions. And, to an extent, she could control them by playing their emotions against them with the power of persuasion. It was a great responsibility, one Fen never used for ill intent.
Her powers being as they were, she knew she shouldn’t have been surprised to see the raw emotion in the man’s eyes. To anyone else, he would appear stoic and calm, but she saw his resentment, his borderline anger and hate that bubbled just beneath the surface. Did he hate her? Resent her? Her family? The palace? It was hard to say without knowing who he was or why he was within the walls of the Honorable City. The sudden impact of his hidden emotions made her uneasy.
“I have the Emperor’s permission to stay in Peng You Hall.” Aaron lifted his jaw, the gesture one of pride. Then, as if catching himself, he deliberately lowered his eyes once more. Pride was not something she saw too often in commoners, at least not when they knew she was there.
“You’re a guest?” she asked in surprise.
Aaron nodded once. Fen wasn’t sure if she should believe him. Maybe he trespassed on palace grounds. A thief? Instantly she dismissed the thought. A thief wouldn’t have saved her. But, then who? Being one of the four unmarried royal children still residing at the palace, she was expected to welcome any of their guests. Although, at fifty-one years of age, she hardly considered herself a child, even if she did look exactly as she had thirty years ago.
“Here?” she persisted. “You’re a guest here in the palace?”
He said again, “I have the Emperor’s permission to stay in Peng You Hall.”
Fen weakly nodded, completely aware that she sounded like an imbecile as she forced her poor rescuer to repeat himself as if she were a child. It was hard to gather her thoughts so soon after the strange fire. The pull of his nearness wasn’t helping her concentrate--though to look at him the pull was entirely one-sided.
“If you have no need of me, princess, I’ll take my leave of you.” Aaron glanced up, again showing her the dark blue of his gaze. Fen nodded weakly at him in dismissal. He pulled the door shut behind him and left without further comment.
For a long, silent moment, she stared after him, looking at the gold inlay on the door without really seeing it. Suddenly, as she remembered the fire that had awoke her from her dreams, she looked down, feeling her warm, smooth arms. Finding her flesh unharmed, she sprung into action. Fen grabbed her robe off a nearby chair. As she ran, she slipped it over her shoulders, hurrying to make sure none of her siblings were harmed by the strange disappearing inferno.
The flames hadn’t been a dream. They couldn’t have been. They had felt so real.
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