The Xiagu Market was once a place of unparalleled delicacies and unrivaled views.
From Chun State, on the other end of the continent, people had journeyed to the fertile valley of Xia for a taste of the market’s offerings—thousand-spice pig trotters, oxtail soup simmered with pickled chrysanthemum greens, bear paw braised in hawberry wine. Bellies satiated and palates tingling with new sensations, travelers then paid their respects in the floating temples high above the valley floor, where serpentine water dragons frolicked in lotus ponds and four-winged dragons danced over the eaves to the amusement of deceased ancestors.
But now, the dragons hung in the open windows of ramshackle market stalls by the ends of their spear-tipped tails, glazed and glistening like roasted ducks, curled wings smoked to leathery crisps, while skeletal children circled in hungry anticipation.
Outside the Blessed Gourd Teahouse, one of the few pre-famine establishments to have survived in Xiagu, a young woman of strong build and graceful step stopped and wrenched open the door to a smoke-filled kitchen. She lingered on the threshold as though steeling herself for something unpleasant. Large, lamp-like eyes peered out from beneath bushy brows knitted in distaste. The tip of her nose ended in a slight upturn, and her large ears fanned outwards from the sides of her face, peeking through a silken sheet of dark hair.
Stepping through the door, she was greeted at once by the acrid smell of dragon meat and the indignant voice of the head chef.
“Wei, Bai Jing’er, where the hell have you been? The day’s shipment is rotting away in their baskets while you dawdle outside.” Her employer glared at her through red, watery eyes, his fleshy, porcine cheeks flushed with anger. “Are we feeding flies or people?”
Jing’er squinted back through the putrid haze, her ears twitching with annoyance. It was the same every morning, no matter how early she arrived, and she had long grown accustomed to the head chef’s blustering speech. Still, she couldn’t help taking a jab when the opportunity presented itself. “With your shit cooking, probably both corpses and flies,” she muttered darkly.
“What was that?” the chef roared as other teahouse servers and cooks tittered in agreement.
“Nothing, chef,” Jing’er said, smiling ingratiatingly. “I’d better get the baskets before anything else rots.” Not waiting for a response, Jing’er rolled up the sleeves of her rough hemp robe and set about her tasks as the teahouse’s dragon butcher.
First, she brought in the morning’s haul from the back porch—three large baskets of water dragons: slippery eel-like creatures with the antlers of a stag and the talons of an eagle. Then, she began rearranging the baskets according to size. The smallest dragons, about the length of her hand, had the most tender meat and fetched the highest prices. These would be served intact for their wealthiest patrons looking to impress and entertain their guests. The larger dragons, as long as the full length of her arm, were comprised of leaner meat, and these would be chopped up, their body parts and organs divided and repurposed for various uses to compensate for their lower market price.
As she sorted through the coiled corpses, Jing’er carefully examined each dragon from the tips of its curved horns to the end of its serpent tail. Day after day, since she had taken up this post, she had searched for a sign, a message that her days of toil and hiding away were about to end. She didn’t know what she was looking for, only that she would know once it appeared.
And today, something finally caught her eye. In her hand, she held a medium-sized dragon, and between its hind legs was a small knife nick where three scales had been carefully dislodged—too intentional to be an accidental injury. Heart nearly prancing in excitement, she imagined the journey the dragon must have taken to arrive at her doorstep from its watery home. That journey would have started with a lure, a hook, and some bait.
If the Elder wanted to send her a message that only she would be able to find, there was but one place to look for it.
She finished sorting the remaining baskets before setting the marked dragon on her chopping block, an ancient tree stump as wide as she was tall. Though she itched to tear through the soft flesh of the dragon’s belly—and it would have been so, so easy in a different form!—she had a role to play, an illusion to maintain. Here, she was nothing but a butcher, and she would need to first prepare the dragon as such.
Holding the dragon by its tail, she began scraping with the blunt edge of her knife. Brilliant azure scales came flaking off like flurries of snow, blanketing the stump in a layer of shimmery blue. These, she gathered into piles and discarded. While the scales of winged dragons were prized for jewelry-making, the scales of the water dragons were as worthless as fish scales.
Next, she removed its head and tail with clean, swift strokes and set them aside to later be simmered in soup. The legs followed. Each foot had four claws, and these she trimmed before putting the legs away to be stewed with soy sauce and lantern peppers. With the limbs severed, all that was left was a long slab of flesh. She made a clean incision down the full length of the dragon’s belly, then folded the body outwards to expose its innards.
The action called forth a memory of the ceremonial paper dragons that the children used to fold and place before the altars of the ancestral shrines. While her kind had not worshipped the dragons in the same way, Jing’er had never imagined that she would one day be folding and unfolding real ones with such callousness and impropriety. Yet, even the hearts and livers of these once revered beasts were now reduced to mere ingredients in a braised medley. She removed the twelve air sacs, linked together like sausages, that enabled the dragon to float, to be air-dried for their best-selling dessert—snow pear soup with dragon maw.
Finally, she unraveled the intestines and glided the back of her knife along it to remove any residual waste. A small, hard object emerged with the excrement. Her nostrils flaring from the olfactory assault, she quickly uncorked the watertight capsule and retrieved the message within.
It took mere seconds to decipher, but in those seconds, Jing’er realized that her life had been irrevocably altered.
The day had finally come.
It was a stroke of good fortune, or perhaps, the will of the dragons.
Tucked in the back of the leather shop, away from suspicious eyes, was a selection of dragon goods: saddles crafted from the soft hide of a dragon’s belly, wine gourds and flasks fashioned from dragon horn, and hunting boots and bracers from the toughest dragon leather.
“How much for this?” Song Youli asked, pointing to a leather saddle patterned with rippling arcs of grey-blue, like the surface of Lake Qiulong in a downpour.
The shopkeeper glanced up from his accounting. “Fifty copper strings.”
She pretended to examine the leather wistfully, her fingers shaking as she traced the indents where the dragon’s scales had once been inlaid.
“And what of this?” She pointed to a pair of vambraces crafted from the hide of a lotus dragon. Crimson teardrops adorned the leather bracers like dancing carp in a lotus pond.
“Twenty copper strings,” came the reply.
“What exceptional dragon leather!” she exclaimed, raising her voice just a pitch in girlish excitement. “May I ask, kind sir, where you received such a fine shipment of specimens from? They must be even more splendid alive!”
The shopkeeper, a middling man with a wispy beard and a graying topknot neatly bound by a strip of leather, looked up, this time fixing her with a hard stare.
She did her best not to notice. Instead, she continued her careful perusal of the shop, noting the stained earthen walls, the rotting beams overhead, and the rough, unpolished appearance of the assistants outside.
“Spare parts from the restaurants in town. I suggest you inquire there,” he said coolly. “Now, please, if you’re not going to purchase anything, I need to close up shop.”
She swallowed her retort and turned to face the shopkeeper with an impish smile.
“Now, sir, you can hardly expect me to believe that such fine leather came from the leftover bits and pieces the restaurant butchers sell you!”
The shopkeeper hardly blinked. “I have no expectations regarding your beliefs, miss. It is merely the truth.” He stood up and walked towards the open doorway. “Please,” he said, gesturing for her to leave.
Youli cursed silently. There was no time for this—every word and asinine smile was a moment she could use to track down her target. It was time for a change in tactics.
She strode towards the door, cutting ahead of the shopkeeper. “No need to see me out, sir. I can see where the door is,” she said, trying to look crestfallen. On the threshold, she gave the two assistants outside a smile before quickly pulling the door in and latching it shut. Spinning around, she unsheathed a thin jade dagger from her hair and pressed it against the surprised shopkeeper’s throat.
A real smile tugged at her lips as she cocked her head at him. “Let’s try this again, shall we?”
Fists pounded the door from the other side.
“And tell your lackeys to scram if you don’t want to end up nailed to your own wall,” she whispered, using the point of her blade for emphasis.
The knot in his throat bobbed as the man cleared his voice carefully. “Leave us! Father has some… private matters to deal with.”
She frowned. “Those outside are your sons?”
“Yes, my sons,” the shopkeeper said. He looked nervously at the blade, then continued in a hurry. “Please, noble miss, have mercy on an old man.”
She loosened the dagger slightly, startled by the tears suddenly spilling forth from the man’s gruff face. “Those aren’t guards?” she asked, a hint of doubt creeping into her voice.
“No, of course not! The business has suffered much during the famine. No one comes to Xia anymore, and the people here would rather eat their horses than saddle them. How could I possibly afford extra hands?” he implored, his voice audibly strained.
Youli considered this. The shop was in need of serious repair, that was true, but she knew live-skinned dragon hides when she saw them—only the painful process of flaying a dragon alive could have preserved those saddles and bracers in such quality.
But live dragons were difficult to transport, to keep sedated with dragonthorn powder until they could be butchered. Most hunters and merchants resorted to more lethal methods of capture, but the rewards of a successful transport—fresher meat, higher quality goods—were great enough that the occasional desperado was still tempted to try. Someone was transporting live dragons to the small border town of Xiayuan, a traveler’s waypoint between the states of Qiu and Xia, and Youli intended to find out who.
She kept the dagger at his throat. “Say I believe you. Where did those dragon hides come from?”
“Miss, I speak the truth! They are but the skins I get from the restaurants.”
“How do the restaurants in Xiayuan get hides of such quality?”
“Live dragons,” he answered promptly. “As I’m sure the noble miss has already guessed. The restaurants have connections to the underground markets and enough coin and muscle that they’re not afraid to transport them live.”
The restaurants in Xiayuan did look in much better shape than the leathersmith’s shop, Youli conceded reluctantly. Still, something didn’t seem quite right.
“Did a caravan with live dragons recently pass through Xiayuan?” she inquired.
“And it unloaded at the restaurants?” she pressed.
“Where is it going next?”
“Xiagu Market. It’s the dragon meat capital of Xia.” He paused as though debating his next words. His eyes darted nervously. “When you leave Xiayuan, the road will split as you head further north. Take the pass on the left. The forest growth is sparser. A small group of riders can easily overtake the caravan from there. Please, miss, spare what little I have left—I’ve told you all I know.”
Youli listened carefully as he spoke. She noted the indecisive inflections, the hesitant and fearful way his voice wavered as he gave up the caravan’s information, as though reluctant to share such a secret. Yet, she had not asked for him to tell her which path to take, only where the caravan was going.
It was too intentional. Feigned, intentional reluctance, she thought. Knives spilled words quickly, she believed, but in this case, it had taken no cuts to spill them.
“You’re lying,” she growled into his ear, dagger poised to pierce the fluttering pulse on his neck.
“Wh-what?” His eyes widened.
“You’re lying,” she said again, more calmly. “You’re right about one thing—only someone with connections to the underground market would have the coin and muscle to get such a shipment of dragons, but I think that guy is you.”
She noted that he did not deny her charge. And he no longer seemed fearful, his expression once again cold and unyielding.
“Those men outside weren’t your sons. I doubt sons would be dismissed so easily. They would fear for their father; they would protest. Yet where have they gone?”
The shopkeeper suddenly threw his head back and laughed bitterly, heedless of the dagger scraping against his throat. “Gone? Yes, my sons are gone. They perished years ago in the famine when I was but a useless man blindly praying to indolent gods.”
She said nothing and let the man rave.
“When my sons died, I skinned those dragons with my own hands! Alas, I should have done so much sooner,” he cried, the blade stitching red threads of blood along his neck.
Youli stepped back and sheathed her dagger. She had the information she needed.
“Oh, have you taken pity on this old man?” the shopkeeper mocked.
Youli was already halfway through the door when he spoke again.
“Either the dragons die, or we die.”
She looked at him with contempt. “Then it’s better for you to die, dragon butcher.”
The Imperial Dragon of the State of Qiu was old, deaf, and nearly blind. It was also the last of its kind. The girth of three elephants and the height of five men standing upon one another’s shoulders, it had scales the color of autumn leaves and two pairs of wings that had grown too stiff for flight.
Livestock and grain, enough to feed a village, were brought to the dragon daily by timid servants pushing giant, wheeled carts. By evening, the carts were always empty.
It was said that on occasion, Lord Wudi, ruler of Qiu, would pray in the palace’s ancestral shrine and consult the Imperial Dragon on national affairs, but it was difficult to imagine the beast doing anything but sleep and eat.
On a moonless night, a sure-footed assassin entered the Palace of Qiu.
She dispatched the guards stationed outside the ancestral shrine with quick, clean cuts of her knife, then pushed open the doors to where her target lay.
Coiled around the altar where the ancestral tablets of the rulers of Qiu were honored, deep in repose, the old dragon seemed hardly alive.
The assassin readied her blades. It was a task she knew well.