I'm still tweaking bits in the book (I ALWAYS find things I want to change, EVERY time I go over the story) but it should be ready by this week!
Here's another excerpt, featuring the hero Fang. You can also read the opening scene of the heroine first.
The sound of hooves clattered over cobbled stones as the third son of Governor Shue returned home. Fang was a young man around twenty, tall and broad-shouldered and bronze-skinned. A handsome fellow, with eyes the colour of ripe blackberries, high cheekbones, and a strong, aristocratic chin, he turned many a girl's head when he rode by. He wore a long, flowing red cape, an expensive black leather belt, and boots of deer hide. He looked just everything a young man of privilege should be—well-groomed, virile, and confident. Another young man followed him, also similarly attired in hunting clothes.
"Young Master!" A servant rushed from the stables to take the horse. "How was the expedition?"
"Several hares, two wild pheasants, and a mountain deer. We'll be having a feast tonight."
"Your father will be pleased to hear it."
Fang grinned. Turning to the young man behind him, he asked, "Chow, you're joining us for tonight?"
The man shook his head and tossed a large sack of game at him. "You're welcome to my share."
"Ah, you're in a hurry to be home?" There was a mischievous gleam in Fang's eyes. "Can't wait to see Opal? One whole year and you're still like glue together?"
"Quit it." Chow pretended to swipe at him, though a blush spread over his face, right down to his neck. "Rather than making fun of a married man, why don't you concentrate your energy on wooing your girl, instead? Last time I've heard, you didn't even have the gumption to present her a gift."
"You know she isn't the type to be swayed by expensive gifts," Fang said, though his jubilant mood waned slightly. "But I have plans. Just wait and see."
"I'll look forward to the wedding day," Chow said with a smile.
"Me too!" the servant, who was still standing nearby, echoed.
With a glare at both men, Fang removed his cape and handed over the reins. "I need a bath. Tell the servants to draw up hot water immediately."
"Right away, Young Master!"
When Fang emerged from his bath, all spruce and clean, he called for Shu-Mo, a manservant who was only a few years his junior. Shu-Mo had worked in the household since he was a child and had practically grown up with him. Sometimes they were more like friends than master and servant.
"I need your opinion." Fang held up a jade belt hook and a gold pendant. "Which one do you think looks better on me?"
Shu-Mo couldn't help chuckling. Fang, usually so confident and assured, was actually looking nervous, and Shu-Mo knew the reason why.
"I believe jade is more—er—sophisticated, Young Master," he replied with a grin. "It's what Master Shue himself usually wears."
Fang considered a moment. "Yes, I think you're right." He fastened the hook on his belt and ran a hand through his hair. "Do I look all right?"
"Oh, surely you'd rather hear it from the lady than me." Shu-Mo winked. "All right, our Young Master is positively ravishing." Then, with a touch of reluctance, he added, "At least several maidservants I know are eager to gain your attention. Silver Peony begged me the other day to have the privilege of changing your bedsheets and sweeping the floor of your room."
Fang grinned, but soon his shoulders slumped. He knew he was good-looking, but it was hard to tell if the girl he wanted to impress would be drawn by his looks alone. He highly doubted it; they had lived under the same roof for ten years, yet she never giggled, batted her eyelashes, or pretended to drop her handkerchief when she was around him.
"Well, send for Hong now. Tell her that I want to hear her play the song that she performed at Eldest Brother's wedding feast."
When Shu-Mo hurried away, Fang dropped in a chair and tried to think of what to say when she arrived. Then he shook his head and laughed. It was absurd, him being worried about how a maidservant should see him.
But then she was no ordinary maid. Hong had come from a noble family, but her father had lost favour with the emperor and been thrown into prison. His compound and possessions had been confiscated, and Hong and her mother had been sold as slaves. Were it not for the compassion of his father, Governor Shue, it was likely that they would have ended up in a brothel.
He didn't know how long he had been drawn to her. It seemed strange, since there were so many pretty maids in the house, and considering his looks and status, he could pick anyone, or several. A couple of his brothers did just that—taking several concubines in addition to one wife, and still frequenting the brothel. Hong didn't stand out either—Golden Lotus was prettier, Silver Peony was more solicitous, but something inexplicable about Hong attracted him.
Fang cast his gaze over the garden outside. There was a magnificent pine tree just a few paces from his room, stretching over a small pond with pink lotus flowers floating on the still waters. Eleven years ago, he had been first introduced to Hong, right under this tree. His nanny had been friends with Hong's mother, who had occasionally paid a visit to the governor's house.
He could still remember seven-year-old Hong, with round pink cheeks and pink ribbons in her black hair, peering shyly at him behind her mother. He remembered how his nanny, Nurse Chang, had taken his hand and told him to "be nice to the little sister and show her around."
He remembered their first game: playing hide-and-seek with her in the garden. He had turned his back against her as he leaned into the pine tree and counted from one to twenty. He remembered she had wanted to catch the yellow butterflies hovering near the peony bushes, and he had asked for a net. He remembered sharing a big ripe pear with her, simply because neither of them could finish the pear on their own.
They had only played together a few times, but he had always looked forward to her visits.
However, everything had changed when Hong's father was persecuted.
Fang never forgot the day when his father had taken him for a walk, and right in the city centre was a display of slaves for sale. He noticed Hong right away—even though her clothes were dirty and tattered, her skin smudged with dirt, her hair bushy and unkempt.
When she had entered the Shue household, still a child of eight, she was quiet and reserved. She never complained or demanded special treatment. Sometimes he would hide and watch her practise the lute. He loved the serene, calm expression she wore, and the lovely music that seemed to flow from her heart, not just from her fingers.
But he was clueless on how to approach her. Although Hong was technically a servant, she had gained favour in his father's eyes. Shue Song allowed her to transcribe and sort books for him, and treated her well. When an elderly relative demanded to buy Hong, Shue had tactfully refused. He would not have Hong removed if she was unwilling.
Which was why even Fang, the governor's son, who could have any maid in his service, could not simply order Hong to come to him. Not that he would force any maid to be his concubine, anyway. Shue had long ago taught him that he should never abuse his power as one of the masters in the house.
Fang sighed. In a way, he preferred to court Hong, like the heroes in the romances he read. But Hong treated him just the same as everyone else. She was reserved, polite, and respectful around him—which only made things more frustrating. He didn't know what he could do to make her notice him, to realise that he was not simply a childhood friend. He wanted to make her his, keep her by his side, rather than seeing her serve his family and allowing them a share in her attentions. It was time to do something.