Songs of Insurrection
by JC Kang
Series: The Dragon Songs Saga (#1)
Published: March 12, 2021
Genre: Epic Fantasy, Coming-of-age
Pages: 441 (Print Length)
CW: Violence, Torture
Possible Ultimate Tour Experience Tickets: Let’s get the party started, An unforgettable sidekick, Represent, Elves and dwarves and orcs, oh my!, Snark it up, Love actually, Here be dragons, Bring on the magic
Book Riot’s Top 8 Adult Dragon Fantasy Books
Lose yourself in this fusion of Asian and Western fantasy, which critics extol as “wonderfully opulent,” “Breathtaking,” and “Unique.”
Only the lost magic of Dragon Songs can save the world. Only an awkward girl with the perfect voice can rediscover it.
The Dragon Singers of old summoned typhoons and routed armies, liberating mankind from the orcs before fading into legend. Now, with the world again facing a new cataclysm, the power of music stirs in Kaiya, a naïve misfit with the perfect voice.
Without a master to guide her, she must rely on Hardeep, a disgraced foreign paladin, to help awaken her latent magic. His motives might not be entirely noble. When he leads her to the fabled Dragon Scale Lute, which only a Dragon Singer can wield, it is up to Black Lotus Clan to intervene.
Because the instrument’s fell power can save the world…
Or destroy it.
If marriage were a woman’s grave, as the proverb claimed, sixteen-year-old Kaiya suspected the emperor was arranging her funeral. Entourage in tow, she shuffled through the castle halls toward the garden where General Lu waited. Given his notorious dislike of the arts, the self-proclaimed Guardian Dragon of Cathay had undoubtedly envisioned a different kind of audition when he requested to hear her sing.
After all, she was dressed like a potential bride.
She buried a snort. The Guardian Dragon—such a pretentious nickname. The only real dragon, Avarax, who lorded over some faraway land, might make for a more appealing audience. A quick trip down his gullet would spare her a slow death in a marriage with neither love nor music.
And she wouldn’t have to wear this gaudy dress. It compensated for her numerous physical imperfections, but stifled the only thing that made her special. How was she supposed to sing with the inner robe and gold sash squeezing her chest, in a futile attempt to misrepresent her woefully underdeveloped curves? The tight fold of the skirts concealed her lanky legs, but forced a deliberate pace. At least the short stride delayed the inevitable, while preventing her unsightly feet from tripping on the hanging sleeves of the vermilion outer gown.
At her side, Crown Princess Xiulan glided across the chirping floorboards. Kaiya suppressed a sigh. If only she could move with the nonchalant grace of her sister-in-law, or even the six handmaidens trailing them. She dug her nails into clammy palms. Through this choreographed farce, appearances had to be maintained, lest she embarrass her father, the Tianzi.
Chin up, back straight. A racing heart threatened to ruin her already meager semblance of imperial grace. Eyes forward. Servants knelt on either side of the looming double doors, ready to slide them open. She forced a smile, with her best approximation of feminine charm. If only she’d lived before Dragon Songs had faded into legend, she could’ve sent the realm’s victorious hero fleeing with the song he supposedly wanted to hear.
An aging palace official stepped into her line of sight.
Singular focus on the doors broken, she blinked. Her fluttering pulse lurched to a stop as she blew out a breath.
His blue robes ruffled as he tottered forward with averted eyes and a bobbing head. He creaked down into a bow. “Emergency, Dian-xia,” he said, using the formal address for her rank. “The Tianzi commands you to greet a foreign delegation in the Hall of Bountiful Harvests.”
Her heart remembered to beat again, and she looked first toward the doors and then down at the man, whose insignias marked him as a secretary for the Ministry of Appointments. Outlandish excuses had mercifully cut short each of her previous meetings with eligible young lords: six times in all.
But a foreign delegation? Before even meeting the suitor? That was a first. Her expression slipped as much as it could beneath the layers of pearl powder caked to her face. Mouth dry, her voice came out hoarse. “There must be a mistake. Surely the honor would fall to the Crown Prince.”
He bowed his head again. “No, Dian-xia. With your linguistic talents, the Tianzi thought you better suited to meet with them.”
Apparently, small talk with some foreign lord’s wife constituted an emergency these days. Still, the unspoken message needed little interpretation: the foreigners were beneath a prince.
At least it meant delaying the matchmaking. Kaiya cast a glance at Xiulan. “Then shall the Crown Prince take my place and sing to General Lu?”
Her supposed chaperone covered a giggle with slender fingers. The wide sleeves of her aquamarine gown slid and bunched in her elbow, revealing the porcelain-like skin of her arm. It was as perfect as her complexion.
The man’s eyes darted back and forth, his lips quivering. “I…I…”
Xiulan stepped forward and brushed a gentle hand across Kaiya’s arm. “Go on, meet with the foreigners. I will explain things to the general.”
Kaiya bowed her head. “As you command, Eldest Sister.” She turned to the official, gesturing with an open hand for him to take the lead.
As she wobbled after him, two of her handmaidens fell in behind. They were more beautiful than her, even after her hours of preening to smother meddlesome acne and subdue unruly hair.
Which now meant she’d look ridiculous receiving dignitaries. Like an opera singer, maybe. “Who are our guests?”
The official coughed. “Prince Hardeep Vaswani of Ankira.”
A man? Kaiya’s stomach leapt into her throat. With limited court training, she might be able to entertain a lady. But a prince… Without any experience in diplomacy, that was an international incident waiting to happen. Given the choice between greeting foreign royalty and the prospect of marriage, that trip into Avarax’s jaws sounded tempting. “What does he want?” she asked.
“He has been in the capital for a week now, incessantly requesting an audience.”
And now they were sending her, an awkward sixteen-year-old, undoubtedly as a message. Prince Hardeep wouldn’t see the Tianzi until her complexion cleared or the orc gods returned on their flaming chariots, whichever came first. A betting princess would wager her money on the orc gods.
She sighed. After preparing to play the role of demure and dainty maiden before a potential husband, this new situation required a confident demeanor…and neither came easily.
There was no time to tone down the make-up or change the extravagant gown. Unpinning the outer robe’s constraining fold, she squared her shoulders and lengthened her gait.
No, this wasn’t bad. A reprieve from meeting a dour general. She could do this. How hard could it be? With each step, she concentrated on composing a dignified expression. By the time they arrived at the moat separating the castle from the rest of the sprawling palace grounds, she’d mentally transformed herself from prospective bride into imperial representative.
Right. She still looked like the former, and felt like neither.
At the head of the bridge waited eight imperial guards dressed in blue court robes. The magic etched into their breastplates’ five-clawed dragon evoked awe, though she’d grown used to it over the years.
“Dian-xia,” the guards shouted in unison. They each dropped to one knee, fist to the ground. The most talented swordsmen in the realm submitted to a pimply girl, for nothing more than the circumstances of her birth.
If only she could live up to the accompanying expectations. Kaiya acknowledged them with a nod. Bowing, the handmaidens shuffled back. The imperial guards deployed behind her. She crossed the stone bridge, leaving behind the relative comfort of private life to enter the formal world of the imperial court.
They wound through stone-paved alleys. White buildings with blue-tiled eaves rose up beyond spotless courtyard walls with circular windows. At the Hall of Bountiful Harvests, Kaiya walked up the veranda and stepped over the ghost-tripping threshold.
Inside, three chattering men gestured at the green ceiling panels and gold latticework. Their burgundy kurta shirts hung to their knees, collars riding high on their necks. On their left breasts sparkled an embroidered nine-pointed lotus, the crest of the embattled nation of Ankira.
The visitors’ discussion came to an abrupt halt as they turned to greet her, heads bowed, and palms pressed together. Dark bronze skin and rounded features marked them as ethnic Ayuri. Meticulously coifed black hair fell to their shoulders. The centermost man looked no older than twenty. Taller and more handsome than his companions, he met her gaze.
With blue irises. Luminous like the Blue Moon, Guanyin’s Eye. They captured her image in their liquid depths and reflected it back, more beautiful than make-up could ever accomplish. Maybe even as beautiful as Xiulan.
He tilted his head and flashed…a smoldering smile.
Kaiya cast her eyes down, only to peek up through her lashes. Her lips twitched, struggling against all discipline in their urge to return the smile.
Ridiculous! Where had the carefully crafted mask of an imperial diplomat fled to? She tightened her mouth, squared her chin, and looked up.
When he spoke, his deep, baritone voice flowed out of his mouth like honeysuckle vines, entangling her. “I am Prince Hardeep. You must be the Princess of Cathay. The stories of your beauty do you no justice.”
What? Nobody could say her plain looks warranted praise, at least not sincerely. Yet his earnest words sounded nothing like the hollow compliments of court sycophants and suitors.
Heat rose to her cheeks, threatening to melt away her make-up, and her nominally dignified expression with it. His language tumbled off her tongue, accent lilting in her ears. “Welcome to Sun-Moon Palace, Prince Hardeep. I act as the ears of my father, the emperor.”
Cringe-worthy. She could speak Ayuri better than that. Almost perfectly, but—
“And your voice! Saraswati, our people’s Goddess of the Arts, would be jealous. Perhaps you would sing for me?”
Kaiya’s head swam. Her mouth opened to beg off the unexpected request, but no words came out.
He waved a hand, and his manner stiffened. “I forget myself. Your song would certainly invigorate me, and I confess I hoped to catch a glimpse of you during my visit. However, my country’s needs are more pressing. I have a request of your emperor.”
Whatever spell his previous tone had woven through her mind loosened enough for her to find her voice. “I am afraid you misinterpret his intentions. By sending me, he has already denied you.”
No. Did she just say that out loud? Kaiya covered her mouth. If only Avarax would swoop in and devour her now.
The Ankiran prince’s lips melted into a frown and his attention shifted to her slippers. “Please hear our entreaty. The Kingdom of Madura occupies almost all of Ankira, in part because of their twice-renewed trade agreement with your glorious nation. For almost thirty years, Cathay has sold them firepowder. Now, our soldiers are weary, and our coffers depleted. The agreement expires soon. We ask—no, beg—that you not renew it.”
Released from his gaze, her mind began to clear. “How were you able to make it through the Maduran lines?”
Prince Hardeep raised his head. Kaiya avoided those mesmerizing eyes, and instead focused on his chin as he spoke. “One of your lords, Peng Kai-Long, has long supported us. I came with him on a Cathayi trade ship.”
It made sense. Cousin Kai-Long served as a trade negotiator in Ayuri lands and knew many influential people in Tivaralan’s South. He had recently returned to the capital to attend the upcoming wedding of Second Brother.
“He is my father’s favorite nephew,” she said. “I am sure he could present a more convincing argument to the Son of Heaven than I.”
Prince Hardeep shook his head. “Search inside yourself and speak with your heart. A father cannot deny the compassionate voice of his beloved daughter. Please. Our riches have been plundered; our people enslaved.” His voice beckoned her head up. “Widows must sell their bodies, while orphans starve in the streets.”
His dejected gaze twisted into her. Her heart, suddenly hot, sank into her belly. All those unfortunate people, suffering because of Cathay’s firepowder, while she enjoyed the comfort of the palace. Father must not have known the consequences of the trade agreement, since he ruled with the moral authority of Heaven. Someone had to speak for these downtrodden people.
“I will convey your message. Please make yourself comfortable until my return.” She paused for a moment to search his expression. All signs of his earlier frivolity were gone. He’d just been toying with her to get what he wanted.
It didn’t matter. It was the right thing to do. All the heroes from her favorite songs would’ve rushed to his aid. He was only asking her to speak to Father. With an inward sigh, she turned and swept out of the hall, her guards marching behind her.
Outside, Kaiya took a deep breath of cool spring air to calm her thoughts and ease the hot constriction in her chest. Never before had a man made her pulse race like that. Then again, she had nothing but six fawning suitors with which to compare him.
No, this had nothing to do with Prince Hardeep’s charm. An entire nation suffered, with Cathay’s complicity. Father had always preached morality, demanded her to always do the right thing.
In her mind, she hummed a ballad recounting heroic Dragon Singers and the perils they willingly faced. Her heart swelled, and she turned to the official. “Where is the Tianzi now?”
The old man gawked. “I do not think—”
She cast a silencing glare.
He bowed his head. “In the Hall of Supreme Harmony.”
As the palace’s central audience chamber, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was just a few minutes away, up one hundred sixty-eight arduous steps. Father rode an ornate golden palanquin to the top, but Kaiya, like anyone else who wasn’t the Tianzi, had to climb.
Each step planted a seed of doubt in her head. A princess had no business in politics, besides solidifying loyalties through marriage. Remonstrating the Tianzi in front of all the lords and ministers would embarrass Father, so much that he would have no choice but to punish her.
JC Kang’s unhealthy obsession with Fantasy and Sci-Fi began at an early age when his brother introduced him to The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek, and Star Wars. As an adult, he combines his geek roots with his professional experiences as a Chinese Medicine doctor, martial arts instructor, and technical writer to pen epic fantasy stories.