The first story of the Second Cycle of "Five Elemental Dragons". All original work © 2012 by A. Dameron, all rights reserved.
琵琶, 二胡, 鼓
Yī kē shù yǒu zhème duō de shēngyīn:
Jìng jìng de tīngzhe, nǐ huì tīng dào
Pípá, èrhú, gǔ
Tu shàng hóngsè, yùshìzhe
Lóng de gēqǔ.
One tree has so many sounds:
listen quietly and you will hear
the pipa, the erhu, the drum
painted red, to herald
the dragon's song.
Courtesan's dedication to the maker of her pipa lute
32nd year of the reign of the Iron Emperor
Shang Xin entered the Imperial Pavilion, the train of her blue gown whispering on the tiles as it
trailed behind her. Her hands cradled her erhu, the two-stringed instrument of her profession.
All eyes focused on her as she stopped in the middle of the Pavilion. She lowered her eyes, as
was proper, and curtsied as best as she could within her cumbersome silks.
The Iron Emperor sat on his throne on the south side of the Pavilion, with his family, courtiers
and guards arrayed all around him. His still-handsome features made Shang Xin's heart skip a
beat. She watched him beneath the lowered lids. As always, he cloaked his intentions within a
neutral expression, but she read his eyes.
Joy, sorrow, regret. The knowledge that all things, pleasant and not, eventually come to an
Her heart broke into pieces. He knew...he knew what all the prophecies foretold. If those
predictions were true, his time in this mortal plane had grown short.
All this came between them in the space of a few heartbeats. She gave him the slightest of
nods to show him that she understood.
He stood from his throne and nodded back at her. With a sweep of his broad hand, he
indicated the empty chair in front of a row of pipa players. “Take your place and play for us.”
Shang Xin bowed her head, this time in acknowledgement. Carefully, she unfolded herself
from her crouch and glided towards the empty chair. Her eyes swept the pavilion, carefully
noting who was present. Two of the three gilded chairs next to the Iron Emperor also stood
empty. The Empress of the Black Lotus, the Iron Emperor's wife, was absent. If the rumors
were to believed, the Empress refused to be part of this world, and sought seclusion in the
Shang Xin didn't blame the Empress one bit. Not this time. Not with the Darkness
encroaching upon Shinwa.
But their daughter, Kai Ming, the Heir to the throne of Shinwa, was also conspicuously
absent. Perhaps she, like her mother the Empress, was visiting the temple. Shang Xin could
understand one of them being excused from this gathering...but both? This was quite
The musician turned and sat, straight-backed, in her chair. Two attendants darted forward to
help her arrange her skirts out of the way. It gave her the chance to survey the rest of the Iron
Emperor's court—and her heart seized at the sight of the Heir's daughter, Kai Huo, sitting
resplendidly at her grandfather's side.
She is here and not among her soldiers. Her father must have given her an ultimatum. It
is the only explanation for her presence, and adorned in courtly robes instead of her
armor. The thought greatly amused Shang Xin. Kai Huo was her grandfather's pride and joy:
tall and proud, with bewitching black eyes and athletic build. The foremost general of the Iron
Emperor's military forces and a member of the Swordswomen. As noble as her grandfather,
and yet...Shang Xin sensed a thrill of Darkness within the Heir.
One of the attendants gently handed her the bow to the erhu. Shang Xin nodded her thanks,
then readjusted her instrument. The erhu sat almost vertically in her lap, the soundbox resting
against her left thigh, the bow held in an underhanded grip within her right hand. The pipa
players also held their instruments at the ready, thumbs and index fingers poised to pluck
the silk strings. Further behind them stood the drummers, the gong and chime ringers. To
Shang Xin's left sat two dizi players, lips ready to blow into their bamboo woodwinds.
They all awaited the Iron Emperor's request.
He turned to Kai Huo, who stared up at her grandfather with a confused expression. The Iron
Emperor nicked his head at the marble stones of the Pavilion. Understanding dawned on the
girl's face, then she stood, untied the outer robe of her formal silks, and walked down the
steps. A murmur went through the court at the unusual action.
“I wish to see my granddaughter perform the hùdié wǔ, as a testament to her grace and
A shocked gasp went through the court. Shang Xin's eyes widened in surprise as the other
musicians hurriedly re-tuned their instruments. The hùdié wǔ, the Butterfly Dance, was
reserved for the Swordswomen, the defenders of Shinwa. It was normally hidden from public
view, a secret shared among those initiated.
But the Iron Emperor changed all that with a single command. Shang Xin's fingers gripped the
neck of her erhu in sudden panic. Of all the songs he could have asked, why that one? And
She shook herself out of her rampant thoughts. There was a reason. There was always a
reason, and it was not her place to question his reasons.
Kai Huo stood in her snow-white silk underrobe, long hair unbound and her bare feet upon
the marble tiles. She unsheathed the blade at her side, prompting another sigh from the Court,
this time in awe. Her weapon was truly made by a artisan, elegant and deadly at the same
She glanced over her shoulder at Shang Xin. The curtain of black hair obscured her face, but
Shang Xin thought she saw the black eyes glitter in the light. “Kaishi,” Kai Huo commanded.
Shang Xin touched the bow to the strings and played a single trembling note. The pipa joined
in, then the dizi and the drums, gongs and chimes, in an upswell of emotion. Kai Huo slowly
raised the sword, unfolding like a catepillar out of its cocoon, to greet the world as a butterfly.
The upswell exploded into a series of notes and Shang Xin chased them with her bow, her
fingers dancing upon the fretboard. She allowed herself to fall into the rhythm of the music, felt
its wind through her hair, and then her soul was flying upon the back of an Emerald Dragon.
The Emerald Dragon circled the sky above the Pavilion, its powerful wings beating against the
air. Shang Xin Saw without Seeing, the lone white-garbed warrior in the center, her sword
slashing and cutting invisible enemies on all sides. To her surprise, the Emerald Dragon spoke.
“Look there, deep within the blade. Do you see it, Songstress?”
Shang Xin narrowed her eyes. Yes, there, within the deep layers of Kai Huo's sword...was
that a mist rising? The ethereal smoke swirled and reformed into a second dragon. Flint gray
eyes, silver scales and claws...Shang Xin's breath froze in her throat. Was that...?
“My cousin, Tiě Wù. Iron Mist. The guardian of the sword,” the Emerald Dragon confirmed.
She angled again for another pass over the Pavilion. “He prevents Kai Huo from becoming
overzealous in her pursuit of justice.”
“Isn't that a thankless assignment?” The blunt question surprised her, even as she watched Tiě
Wù's transparent body whip around Kai Huo's in some strange counterpoint. To Shang Xin's
Sight, it appeared that Iron Mist formed a mystical barrier that pulsed in time with the music.
She understood and sped up the tempo. The Emerald Dragon also beat her wings faster,
gathering power and speed in flight. The symphony rose up again all around them, thundering
pell-mell towards its ultimate conclusion. The drums pounded, the chimes crashed, as Kai
Huo swept her sword for the final kill.
The erhu wailed a single cry, as the other instruments abruptly went silent, and the sword
slashed downward. A burst of Darkness exploded from around Kai Huo, slammed against the
protective shield made by Tiě Wù, and flare brightly at the impact. The Darkness vanished as
quickly as it had appeared.
Kai Huo collapsed on the marble, all energy spent, the sword tumbling from limp fingers. Her
arms and legs splayed out, the white silk arrayed all around her, and her face turned towards
the sky. Those black eyes gazed upward, and Shang Xin shivered at the utter satisfaction in
that face. Tiě Wù circled around the sword one last time before an otherwordly force pulled
him back into the steel. The Emerald Dragon threw back her head and roared in mourning.
And Shang Xin sat up straight with a jolt as the Imperial Court erupted into wild applause.
The performance had ended, the music gone, and her soul ached beyond measure.
“My Lady...your bow, your hands--”
The bow's single string lay broken in her lap. The erhu's twin strings had also snapped under
the strain, the silk hanging limply on the fretboard. The fingers of both her hands bled where
she had gripped the erhu and where the bow had cut into the skin. She looked up at the
concerned expression of one of the pipa players, but did not see it.
“Attend to the Lady! Her hands are bleeding!” the authoritative tone cut through the chatter.
Shang Xin managed to lift up her head and met the stern gaze of the Iron Emperor himself. His
callused hands held her wrists, even as the blood soaked the silks of her robe and dripped
onto the erhu.
I have seen the Darkness. I have played too long. Her arms trembled and she nearly
fainted where she sat. Shang Xin saw Kai Huo standing behind and to her grandfather's right,
the place of honor. Shang Xin thought she would become sick to her stomach at that sight.
“I can no longer play,” she whispered.
Kai Huo's brow furrowed in confusion, and the Iron Emperor's expression mirrored it. “We
can repair your instrument, Lady,” he said, almost tenderly. His grip tightened around Shang
Xin's wrists. “You will rest and heal, and grace us with your music again.”
It took all her effort to look up at the weathered face. She freed one of her hands and gently
touched his cheek. She could feel her soul grow lighter, as the wind carried her upwards,
upon the back of the Emerald Dragon, away from the Darkness.
“No, my Lord. My song has ended and another one has begun.” She managed a smile.
“Forgive me, Kai Ren. I will never touch the strings again.”
The silence in the courtyard deepened as the breeze stirred the chimes. Then they, too, fell
silent, like the broken strings of the erhu.