The Emperor's Dream - Chapter One

They said that when it rained for multiple days in a row, it was a sign that Yushagai, the sky dragon, was displeased. Wanyi didn’t believe the legends.

**Welcome! This is the first chapter of my current project, tentatively titled, “The Emperor’s Dream.” I’ll be publishing chapters each week, but remember, these are some of the very first drafts, which means you’re in on this at the very beginning. Thank you for being here, friend. I hope you enjoy it.**

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They said that when it rained for multiple days in a row, it was a sign that Yushagai, the sky dragon, was displeased. Wanyi didn’t believe the legends. He certainly hadn’t seen any great beast flying across the sky and changing the weather—and he had spent as much time in the air as any other Sentient. But he wouldn’t have minded an end to the constant damp and gray skies.

The dog made quick work of the last remnants of dried tuk bird that clung to Wanyi’s fingers. He had spotted the poor beast in an alley off of one of the main roads of Shanshia, drinking dirty water from a puddle. As he lifted his hand to scratch behind a pointed ear, he reached out with his mind.

May I? Wanyi asked the dog.

The emaciated creature let out a high-pitched bark, then quickly spun in a circle, its tail wagging energetically.

Oh, thank you, thank you! The dog said in Wanyi’s mind, a female voice that came with a wash of gratitude, along with a spark of hope and a gnawing hunger. I haven’t eaten in so long! And no one has spoken to me in… six sunrises, at least. But you are a kind master. Have you got any more? Her moist nose sniffed again at Wanyi’s hand and, finding nothing, moved on to examine his pockets.

That’s the last of what I have with me, Wanyi said, laughing aloud at the beast’s persistence. The dog looked like it was hardly out of adolescence, with legs slightly too long for her black and tan frame, and manners more befitting of a puppy than a grown working dog. But if you come with me, I’ll find you some more food. What’s your name, girl?

My mother calls me Lishan, but my master calls me Shoe. It never made sense to me, but he doesn’t let me go back home any more. Having given up her search for food, Lishan turned her attention towards Wanyi’s spear, giving the shaft a sniff before trying to chew on the end.

Wanyi let out a sigh. He didn’t have the heart to tell Lishan what her former master had been trying to tell her. With a short whistle, he gently tugged his spear free of the dog’s jaws and turned back toward the main road.

“Come on, then,” he said aloud as he started off, making sure to not let the butt of his weapon drag along the ground. After he had gone a few paces, Lishan bounded after him.

Speaking with beasts wasn’t like speaking with other Sentients. Lan Kuanghi—the art of beastlore—was a far more potent form of communication. Words, emotions, and an intimate sense of the other all came at once when one bonded with a beast. Wanyi could feel, in a sense that words could not convey, the joy that Lishan felt at discovering she was not abandoned, if only for the moment. He felt the curiosity the stray had at the strange Sentient who came with gifts of food before striding off with far more purpose than her previous master. All it had taken was a bit of skill on Wanyi’s part and Lishan’s willingness to step into the bond. Admittedly, it had hardly taken any effort at all. Wanyi had been bonding with animals since childhood. He was Hukan. And that’s what Hukan did—they explored the depths of Lan Kuanghi and worked alongside the beasts they bonded.

As he stepped back out onto the main street, the rush of Shanshia hit him. This area was always crowded in the mornings. Hundreds of people made their way up and down the thoroughfare, streaming like water around obstructions. A few men and women, clearly bonded with an equal amount of oxen, pulled a heavily laden cart through the throng. Hawkers shouted above the din, attempting to sway the passersby to their food stands. Most people ignored them, though a few stopped by to peruse the selection of steamed buns and grilled meats.
Wanyi enjoyed the bustle of the mornings in Shanshia. It gave the otherwise gray stone streets and buildings a wash of color, like a flower growing in the crack between two paving stones. Like a drop of hope for a thirsty, downtrodden people.

Few people greeted him, even amongst those who noticed his chief’s spear. Some gave respectful nods and stepped out of his way once they saw him. Most just passed him by, averting their eyes and shuffling off toward their destinations. Not the proper respect they ought to display to a clan chief, but there was nothing to be done about it. Wanyi would just have to keep working on them. Perhaps one day they would remember him differently. Perhaps one day his father’s integrity would be reaffirmed, and his clansmen would again be proud to wear the insignia of the Owl on their diani.

He turned aside to one of the food stands, its front table piled high with various grilled meats, all seasoned and skewered and emitting a pleasant, smoky aroma. A large Hukan man, broader than Wanyi but not quite as tall, worked over the grill behind the counter top. The fire popped and sizzled as he turned one of the skewers over.

“How much for two of the pork skewers?” Wanyi asked, reaching for his coin purse in the folds of his diani.

“Six copper pieces,” the man said, his eyes flicking from Wanyi to Lishan, who had already begun whining and pawing at Wanyi’s leg.

“Six?” Wanyi struggled to keep the annoyance from his voice. “Surely you can do four, friend.”

“Five, and that’s me being generous, friend. Owl Clan pays extra, and that’s the way of it.” The man had stopped grilling for the moment, his amber eyes locked on Wanyi’s own. The crest of feathers atop his head rose, a sign of his waning patience.

Wanyi forced down his anger. He was used to overpaying, but the outright hostility of the man would’ve had him arrested had it been directed at any clan chief but himself. His jaw firmly clenched, he handed over the coins and took two of the skewers from the pile before striding off.

By the time he had found a calmer spot on the street, his temper had cooled somewhat. Then, it vanished as he proffered one of the skewers to Lishan.

Kind master! the dog said, tearing into the pork with a happy yip. The meat was gone in seconds.

It had been a long time since Wanyi had last bonded with a dog. He had nearly forgotten how lively they could be. Lishan’s simple joy buoyed his mood like a Montililun melody. He smiled as he lifted the remaining skewer to his mouth, but a soft whine made him stop short.

Lishan sat on her haunches at Wanyi’s feet, her head cocked to one side as her eyes widened. Wanyi held the dog’s gaze for a few moments before his resolve finally broke. He held the skewer out to Lishan, who quickly gobbled up the pork and began gnawing on the wooden skewer.

Blast you, you little menace, Wanyi said. If you had said a word, I wouldn’t have given it to you.

Lishan’s pleasure wafted through the bond. I have learned some things since I’ve been on my own. The kind Sentients give me a little of their food when I sit in front of them like that. The mean ones throw things at me.

Well keep it up, and perhaps you’ll find out which kind I am.

Wanyi gave Lishan a quick scratch behind the ears—causing the dog’s tail to wag rapidly—before starting off down the street again. He still had business to be about this morning. A new Band of Montililun traders had set up shop in the Owl Clan’s district of Shanshia, and as per his father’s custom, he was determined to greet them in person and see to their needs.

Most in Shanshia were Hukan, like Wanyi, though the capital city’s northerly position lent itself to a greater amount of trade—and foreigners—than other parts of the Hukan lands. Though far fewer in number, those foreigners were a noticeable part of the city’s population. Tall, dark-skinned Banqilun with beards that obscured the torsos of their robes brushed shoulders—or sometimes their hips—against those of the smaller races. Regrettably, few Hetanzou visited Shanshia, but Wanyi supposed it would be a long time before the hurts between their two nations were healed.

Last of the four Sentient peoples were the Montililun, the Singing Folk, whose eyes sparkled like gems of every color, and even changed hues from moment to moment. Most Montililun who visited Shanshia were traveling entertainers, but the occasional Band of traders came as well, peddling goods from their coastal homeland.

Something is happening, a voice said in Wanyi’s mind. A great crowd is forming in the northwest part of the city.

It was Ban, speaking to him from somewhere high above. He rarely left his manor without bonding with the hawk, and he had sent Ban to fly above the city and alert him at any sign of trouble.

Source of the disturbance? Wanyi asked, quickening his stride.

I do not know how to describe it. A large object, accompanied by fighting Sentients. It shines in my eyes. Perhaps you should look for yourself.

Wanyi took off at a run, weaving as best he could through the crowd. Somewhere in the distance, horns began to sound. From afar, they made only a dull drone, but the pulsing rhythm meant that the clan chiefs were being summoned to gather immediately. Whatever Ban had seen, it likely wasn’t good.

Stay here, he told Lishan, who wouldn’t have heard his conversation with Ban. I will return for you.

A spark of disappointment came from the dog, followed by acceptance when Wanyi didn’t release their bond. Wanyi sensed Lishan growing farther away as she sought out scraps of food in another alley.

Satisfied that Lishan would be alright on her own, Wanyi turned a corner onto a side street, narrowly avoiding crashing into a Banqilun woman coming the other way. He called his apologies over his shoulder and took a few more strides to where the crowd thinned. Once there, he drew upon his bond with Ban, allowing the flow of Kuanghi between him and the hawk to increase. In an instant, he felt a familiar weight settle on his shoulders. Wanyi leapt and spread his wings.

Azure and slightly transparent, the wings he borrowed from Ban were fitted to his body—they sprouted from between his shoulder blades and were nearly a dozen feet across. And despite their translucence, they were truly physical. Flapping powerfully, he quickly rose above the street. People and beasts, food carts and buildings grew small, and the sounds of the busy morning grew faint in his ears, leaving only the wind, the rain, and the pulsing horns. The city of Shanshia lay before him, its many terraces carved like scales into the sides of foothills, and divided into sections by ravines and the River Shan through its center. From this high, he could also see the Dawnwood forest sprawling away to the east, blanketing the foothills of the Dawnfangs as far as he could see. Maybe even as far as Ban could see. Which reminded him…

He drew deeper upon the bond, and the hawk’s sight became his. The trees of the Dawnwood snapped into focus, and beyond them, the hazy shadows of the Dawnfangs—not the farthest peaks, but the jagged ridgelines of the nearest mountains were unmistakable. Below him, people and beasts once again gained detail. Though he could still feel Lishan through the other bond that he held, he could see the dog now, resting with her head on her paws.

Having let his eyes adjust to the new torrent of information, Wanyi wheeled away to the northwest, drawing nearer both to Ban and to the sound of the horns, his spear in one hand, the folds of his diani clasped in the other to keep them from flapping—the belt of his garment could only do so much. He squinted his eyes against the wind-propelled rain, scanning the sky for the reddish shape of Ban.

With both enhanced sight and the bond of beastlore, he quickly located the hawk, soaring a little ways above him.

Here, Ban said as Wanyi drew near. To the northwest of the city, outside the structure you call the Buffalo Gate.

Just as the hawk had said, a crowd had gathered inside the gate. Wanyi descended a bit, enough to get a closer look while still maintaining his distance. As one of the lowest, widest points in the city, the area around the Buffalo Gate had plenty of room for onlookers. Above them other flyers, bonded with various species of birds, had also been drawn to the area and were flying about like a small murmuration of starlings, always shifting yet never colliding. Wanyi didn’t envy the guards on either land or sky patrol. It seemed they were already having difficulty keeping order. Especially considering the source of the disturbance.

Outside the gate, likely waiting for a chief to approve their entry was a contingent of soldiers standing guard around a gilded carriage. Ban had been right about one thing—even the clouds couldn’t keep the sunlight from reflecting off the carriage’s golden ornamentation. It might have hurt Wanyi’s eyes even if he hadn’t been bonded. With his improved vision, it shone like the sun. Squinting, he took in the rest of the company. The soldiers were definitely Hetanzou—shorter than Hukan, and without the feathered crest and mane of the men of Wanyi’s people—which meant they were from the Tohk Empire to the north. Their armor was polished and reflected the ambient sunlight nearly as much as the carriage did.

Soldiers of a high-ranking official, then, Wanyi thought, though the carriage itself had told him as much.

But who could it be? And why would a Tohk official be arriving in Shanshia unannounced? A thicker cloud passed in front of the sun, shading the carriage enough for Wanyi to get a glimpse of the insignia on its side. A golden teak with branches stretched out to the heavens and roots that undergirded the world. The Imperial Tree. Wanyi’s breath caught.


The Tohk Emperor himself had arrived.

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