Passion, p.36
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       Passion, p.36

         Part #3 of Fallen series by Lauren Kate
Page 36


  Luce stepped closer, kneeling to see the object that had had such an effect on the girl. The oracle bone was nothing more than a tortoiseshell, but it was small and polished and pristine. When Luce leaned closer, she saw that someone had painted something in soft black strokes on the smooth underside of the shell:

  Is Lu Xin true to me or does she love another?

  Fresh tears welled in Lu Xins eyes, a crack in the cool resolve shed shown to Luce. He asked the ancestors, she whispered, closing her eyes. They must have told him of my deceit. I--I could not help myself.

  Daniel. She must be talking about Daniel. A secret love shed hidden from the king. But she hadnt been able to hide it well enough.

  Luces heart went out to Lu Xin. She understood with every fiber of her soul precisely what the girl was feeling. They shared a love that no king could take away, that nobody could extinguish. A love more powerful than nature.

  She swept Lu Xin into a deep embrace.

  And felt the floor drop away beneath them.

  She hadnt meant to do this! But her stomach was already pitching, and her vision shifted uncontrollably, and she saw herself from outside, looking alien and wild and holding on for dear life to her past. Then the room stopped spinning and Luce was alone, clutching the oracle bone in her hand. It was done. Shed become Lu Xin.

  I disappear for three minutes and you go three-D? Bill said, reappearing in a huff. Cant a gargoyle enjoy a nice cup of jasmine tea without coming back to find that his charge has dug her own grave? Have you even thought about whats going to happen when the guards knock on that door?

  A knock sounded sharply on the great bamboo door in the main chamber.

  Luce jumped.

  Bill folded his arms over his chest. Speak of the devil, he said. Then, in a high, affected shriek, he cried out, Oh, Bill! Help me, Bill, what do I do now? I didnt think to ask you any questions before I put myself into a very stupid situation, Bill!

  But Luce didnt have to ask Bill any questions. Knowledge was rising to the front of Lu Xins mind: She knew that this day would be marked not just by the suicide of one crappy king, but by something even bigger, even darker, even bloodier: a huge clash between armies. That knock on the door? It was the kings council waiting to escort him to war. He was to lead the troops in battle.

  But the king was dead and stuffed in a wardrobe.

  And Luce was in Lu Xins body, holed up in his private chambers. If they found her here alone . . .

  King Shang. Heavy knocks echoed throughout the room. We await your orders.

  Luce stood very still, freezing in Lu Xins silk robe. There was no King Shang. His suicide had left the dynasty without a king, the temples without a high priest, and the army without a general, right before a battle to maintain the dynasty.

  Talk about an ill-timed regicide, Bill said.

  What do I do? Luce spun back to the dragon wardrobe, wincing when she peered in at the king. His neck was bent at an unnatural angle, and the blood on his chest was drying a rusty brown. Lu Xin had hated the king when hed been alive. Luce knew now that the tears shed cried werent tears of sadness, but of fear for what would become of her love, De.

  Until three weeks before, Lu Xin had lived on her familys millet farm on the banks of the Huan River. Passing through her river valley on his shining chariot one afternoon, the king had glimpsed Lu Xin tending the crops. He had decided that he fancied her. The next day, two militiamen had arrived at her door. Shed had to leave her family and her home. Shed had to leave De, the handsome young fisherman from the next village.

  Before the kings summons, De had shown Lu Xin how to fish using his pair of pet cormorants, by tying a bit of rope loosely around their necks so that they could catch several fish in their mouths but not swallow them. Watching De gently coax the fish from the depths of the funny birds beaks, Lu Xin had fallen in love with him. The very next morning, shed had to say goodbye to him. Forever.

  Or so shed thought.

  It had been nineteen sunsets since Lu Xin had seen De, seven sunsets since shed received a scroll from home with bad news: De and some other boys from the neighboring farms had run away to join the rebel army, and no sooner had he left than the kings men had ransacked the village, looking for the deserters.

  With the king dead, the Shang men would show no mercy to Lu Xin, and she would never find De, never reunite with Daniel.

  Unless the kings council didnt find out that their king was dead.

  The wardrobe was jammed with colorful, exotic garments, but one object caught her eye: a large curved helmet. It was heavy, made mostly of thick leather straps stitched together with tight seams. At the front was a smooth bronze plate with an ornate fire-breathing dragon carved into the metal. The dragon was the zodiac animal of the kings birth year.

  Bill floated toward her. What are you doing with the kings helmet?

  Luce slid the helmet onto her head, tucking her black hair inside it. Then she opened the other side of the wardrobe, thrilled and nervous about what she had found.

  The same thing Im doing with the kings armor, she said, gathering a heavy tangle of goods into her arms. She donned a pair of wide leather pants, a thick leather tunic, a pair of chain-mail gloves, leather slippers that were certainly too big but that shed have to make work, and a bronze chest guard made of overlapping metal plates. The same black, fire-breathing dragon on the helmet was embroidered on the front of the tunic. It was hard to believe that anyone could fight a war under the weight of these clothes, but Lu Xin knew that the king didnt really fight--he only led battles from the seat of his war chariot.

  This is not the time to play dress-up! Bill jabbed a claw at her. You cant go out there like that.

  Why not? It fits. Almost. She folded over the top of the pants so that she could belt them tightly.

  Near the water basin, she found a crude mirror of polished tin inside a bamboo frame. In the reflection, Lu Xins face was disguised by the thick bronze plate of the helmet. Her body looked bulky and strong under the leather armor.

  Luce started to walk out of the dressing chamber, back into the bedroom.

  Wait! Bill shouted. What are you going to say about the king?

  Luce turned to Bill and raised the heavy leather helmet so that he could see her eyes. Im the king now.

  Bill blinked, and for once made no attempt at a comeback.

  A bolt of strength surged through Luce. Disguising herself as the head of the army was, she realized, exactly what Lu Xin would have done. As a common soldier, of course De would be on the front lines in this battle. And she was going to find him.

  The pounding on the door again. King Shang, the Zhou army is advancing. We must request your presence!

  I believe theres someone talking to you, King Shang. Bills voice had changed. It was deep and scratchy and echoed around the room so violently that Luce flinched, but she didnt turn to look at him. She unbolted the heavy bronze handle and opened the thick bamboo door.

  Three men in flamboyant red-and-yellow martial robes greeted her anxiously. Instantly, Luce recognized the kings three closest councilors: Hu, with the tiny teeth and narrowed, yellowed eyes. Cui, the tallest one, with broad shoulders and wide-set eyes. Huang, the youngest and kindest on the council.

  The king is already dressed for war, Huang said, peering past Luce into the empty chamber quizzically. The king looks . . . different.

  Luce froze. What to say? Shed never heard the dead kings voice, and she was exceptionally bad at impersonations.

  Yes. Hu agreed with Huang. Well rested.

  After a deep, relieved sigh, Luce nodded stiffly, careful not to send the helmet tumbling from her head.

  The three men gestured for the king--for Luce--to walk down the marble hall. Huang and Hu flanked her, and murmured in low voices about the sad state of morale among the soldiers. Cui walked directly behind Luce, making her uncomfortable.

  The palace went on forever--high g
abled ceilings, all gleaming white, the same jade and onyx statues at every turn, the same bamboo-framed mirrors on every wall. When finally they crossed the last threshold and stepped into the gray morning, Luce spotted the red wooden chariot in the distance, and her knees nearly buckled under her.

  She had to find Daniel in this lifetime, but going into battle terrified her.

  At the chariot, the kings council members bowed and kissed her gauntlet. She was grateful for the armored gloves but still pulled back quickly, afraid her grip might give her away. Huang handed her a long spear with a wooden handle and a curved spike a few inches below the spearhead. Your halberd, Majesty.

  She nearly dropped the heavy thing.

  They will take you to the overlook above the front lines, he said. We will follow behind and meet you there with the cavalry.

  Luce turned to the chariot. It was basically a wooden platform atop a long axle connecting two great wooden wheels, drawn by two immense black horses. The carriage was made of shiny lacquered red wood and had space enough for about three people to sit or stand. A leather awning and curtains could be removed during battle, but for now, they hung down, giving the passenger some privacy.

  Luce climbed up, passed through the curtains, and took a seat. It was padded with tiger skins. A driver with a thin mustache took the reins, and another soldier with drooping eyes and a battle-ax climbed up to stand at his side. At the crack of a whip, the horses broke into a gallop and she felt the wheels beneath her begin to turn.

  As they rolled past the high, austere gates of the palace, sun streamed through pockets of fog onto a great expanse of green farmland to the west. The land was beautiful, but Luce was too nervous to appreciate it.

  Bill, she whispered. Help?

  No answer. "Bill?"

  She peeked outside the curtains, but that only attracted the attention of the droopy-eyed soldier who was supposed to be the kings bodyguard during the journey. Your Majesty, please, for your safety, I must insist. He gestured for Luce to withdraw.

  Luce groaned and leaned back against the padded chariot seat. The paved streets of the city must have ended, for the ride became incredibly bumpy. Luce was flung against the seat, feeling like she was on a wooden roller coaster. Her fingers gripped the plush fur of the tiger skin.

  Bill hadnt wanted her to do this. Was he teaching her a lesson by bailing now when she most needed his help?

  Her knees rattled with each jolt in the road. She had absolutely no idea how shed find De. If the kings guards wouldnt even let her look out past a curtain, how were they going to let her near the front lines?

  But then:

  Once, thousands of years ago, her past self had sat alone in this chariot, disguised as the deceased king. Luce could feel it--even if she hadnt joined with her past body, Lu Xin would have been here right now.

  Without the aid of some weird ornery gargoyle. And, more importantly, without all the knowledge that Luce had amassed so far on her quest. She had seen Daniels unbridled glory in Chich?n Itz?. She had witnessed and finally understood the depths of his curse in London. Shed seen him go from suicidal in Tibet to saving her from a rotten life in Versailles. Shed watched him sleep through the pain of her death in Prussia as if he were under a spell. Shed seen him fall for her even when she was snotty and immature in Helston. Shed touched the scars of his wings in Milan and understood how much hed given up in Heaven just for her. Shed seen the tortured look in his eyes when he lost her in Moscow, the same misery over and over again.

  Luce owed it to him to find a way to break this curse.

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