Chapter Eleven

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Chapter Eleven – The Cold Knife

Xiao Xiao had done enough pacing in her chambers. She also had enough of Xiao Xin’s fussing. Pleading for some fresh air, Xiao Xiao slipped out, wearing the thickest and warmest clothing she could find: ermine furred pao, her favorite rabbit hand mufflers and embroidered silver fur boots. She hung the pouch carrying the pearl around her neck.

The place she found herself walking to was the stables. All the horses and ponies were all huddled in their stalls. A brazier glowed red in the middle of the main stable, supplying some warmth to the horses and the grooms who still labored to keep the animals well-fed.

Barrel whickered at her when she approached him. Xiao Xiao handed him late crab apples which he quickly gobbled up, giggling when his velvety lips brushed her bare palm. He wore a thick blanket to keep his body warm. Even then his nostrils snorted white clouds.

Boots crunched on the ice-covered earth. Xiao Xiao paid it no heed, because grooms were in and out of the stable, carrying bales of dried grass and pails of grains. Horses were being saddled, farriers were looking after the horses’ health.

“Your highness?” The gravelly voice of a man broke Xiao Xiao’s reverie. She gazed up to see a young man dressed in dark clothes. She hadn’t seen him before.

“Yes?” She asked. He must be a new groom. The palace was often employing able-bodied men from the countryside.

There was a flash of a knife. The blade was cold in the light. The man approached her menacingly. Barrel whinnied sharply, catching Xiao Xiao’s fear. Xiao Xiao’s hand flew to her pouch.

A sun exploded in the middle of Xiao Xiao’s chest. Her body expanded.

Ming Zhu/Xiao Xiao rose, roaring, a contained gale. The talons slashed forward, grabbing the man by the neck. They soared over the roof of the stable, the assassin dangling and kicking furiously. The knife pierced skin and the dragon screamed, letting go and dropping the man. The assassin hit the hard ice of the river and struggled before sinking.

Xiao Xiao went back to her chambers, her hand bleeding. Red soaked through her muffler. Her maids panicked. She tried to reassure the two women that she had cut herself accidentally.

Fortunately, the cut dried and Xiao Xiao put ointment on it before wrapping her hand up with strips of clean linen. Her mother was surely going to reprimand her for being careless.

~*~

“Be more careful,” Mingzhu sounded angry in the dream. “You ended up cutting yourself!”

Xiao Xiao felt herself rolling her eyes. “He was wielding a knife!”

The dragon princess snorted. “We were flying!”

“I am going back to bed,” Xiao Xiao grumbled. She didn’t have the heart to argue with the dragon princess.

~*~

The maids were gossiping in the chambers while they changed a less fretful Xiao Xin. Men had found a frozen body in the river.

Xiao Xiao huddled in front of her calligraphy, staring straight at the elegant black strokes. Her hand throbbed. Not surprisingly, Ma ma gave her a sound reprimand. At least, for a couple of days, she had to miss her jian drills.

The assassin was dead. Did she kill him?

Should Ma ma know?

Should she?

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