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The Night Ends with Fire

Author K. X. Song On Tour
Paperback
$18.00 US
5.94"W x 8.97"H x 0.88"D   (15.1 x 22.8 x 2.2 cm) | 13 oz (380 g) | 24 per carton
On sale Jul 02, 2024 | 432 Pages | 978-0-593-81845-9
| Grades 9-12
Sales rights: US, Canada, Open Mkt
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Infused with magic and romance, this sweeping fantasy adventure inspired by the legend of Mulan follows a young woman determined to choose her own destiny—even if that means going against everyone she loves.

The Three Kingdoms are at war, but Meilin’s father refuses to answer the imperial draft. Trapped by his opium addiction, he plans to sell Meilin for her dowry. But when Meilin discovers her husband-to-be is another violent, ill-tempered man, she realizes that nothing will change for her unless she takes matters into her own hands.

The very next day, she disguises herself as a boy and enlists in her father’s place.

In the army, Meilin's relentless hard work brings her recognition, friendship—and a growing closeness with Sky, a prince turned training partner. But has she simply exchanged one prison for another? As her kingdom barrels toward destruction, Meilin begins to have visions of a sea dragon spirit that offers her true power and freedom, but with a deadly price.

With the future of the Three Kingdoms hanging in the balance, Meilin will need to decide whom to trust—Sky, who inspires her loyalty and love; the sea dragon spirit, who has his own murky agenda; or an infuriating enemy prince who makes her question everything she once knew—about her kingdom and about her own heart.
One

An empire is like a cherry tree; if it is blooming, its petals must one day fall. If it is barren, its petals must one day bloom. Thus it has always been.

-Book of Odes, 856

War is coming . . ."

The rumors took wing and flew through the capital, leaving behind a trail of astonishment, fear, and, in some cases, a stirring hunger for glory. Only in my father's house were they met with apathy.

"I will not go," my father said, his face obscured by a cloud of smoke. The unaired room smelled of sweat and opium, but Father refused to let us open so much as a window. He claimed the sunlight would hurt his eyes. But I think he simply did not want to see the state of what he'd become.

His wife stood beside me, trembling. Xiuying was my stepmother, though we were only seven years apart. The servants had expected me to hate her upon her arrival, but against Father's increasing rage and lunacy, we bonded over a common enemy. As the years passed, we became more than allies; we became laotong. Old sames.

Now, Xiuying clenched her hands into fists, trying to conceal her emotions. "The draft is the heavens' mandate. To lie to the Imperial Commander is punishable by death-"

"For skies' sake, just tell them I'm unwell! Make something up. You're awfully creative when it comes to finding ways to spend money. Use some of that creativity to lie."

The injustice of this remark stole my breath away. How dare he accuse her of losing all our money? "It's your gambling habit that's brought us-"

Xiuying covered my mouth with her hands. "No, Meilin," she whispered.

Father blew out a delicate ring of smoke from his pipe; he hadn't even heard me. Lost in his thoughts, he murmured, "I won't go to war. I refuse. It doesn't befit me, a man of my stature." His hand trembled as he emptied his pipe against the old ashtray. The porcelain had once belonged to my mother's dowry. It was now chipped and stained, ruined like everything else in this household.

"Why don't you send the old footman in my place?" said Father, chuckling at his own idea. He set his pipe down at last, the full weight of his attention falling upon us. "He can pass for me."

"Father," I said loudly, unable to curb my tongue. "Zhou is not long for this world."

"Did I ask you to speak?" he snapped, his eyes lighting on me. Xiuying shot me a frightened glance, but I shook my head at her while Father laughed.

"Even better," he decided. "Two birds with one stone, as the scholars say. Better he die out there than waste our household resources any longer. These days even the dogs contribute more than he-"

"Uncle Zhou has done more for this household than you ever have."

The words were out of my mouth before I could think twice. Xiuying gasped; Father narrowed his eyes, then lurched to his feet, grabbing hold of the table to steady himself. He was advanced in years, but he was still a large man, several heads taller than me. They used to say he could command a room with his presence, before the opium commanded him.

He lumbered toward me now, his long hair loose on his shoulders, his gait sloping and precarious. With a snarl, he grabbed me by my chin, forcing me to meet his watery glare.

Our faces were inches from each other. I hadn't been this close to him in years.

Xiuying once confessed she'd thought him a handsome man when they first met, with his dark, luminous eyes, his straight nose and high cheekbones. "You're blessed with beauty, like him," she'd said, trying to compliment me. I hadn't told her it felt like the worst kind of insult.

"That Zhou raised you to insolence," Father muttered. "After your mother died, I shouldn't have let him interfere." He turned my face from side to side, like a butcher inspecting a pig for slaughter. When I tried to pull away, his grip only tightened.

"How old is she?" he asked, glancing at Xiuying. His voice took on a mocking lilt. "How old is my dear, lovely daughter?"

Xiuying's voice quavered as she answered. "Only just past eighteen," she said. "I still have much to teach her in the ways of women's-"

"Silence." Father released me, his eyes roving down my body now. "Eighteen is far too old to be uncommitted. Have Zhou call for the matchmaker tomorrow. I expect a dowry by new moon."

The new moon was in a fortnight. "No," I bit out. "I refuse to marry."

I didn't see his hand until it smashed into my cheek, the force of the slap snapping my head to one side. I blinked, forcing back tears.

"You will do as you're told, Hai Meilin," he said, a lethal undertone to his voice. "And if you fail to fetch a handsome dowry as a first wife, I will sell you as a concubine."

"My lord, please . . ." I hated the pleading look in Xiuying's eyes.

"You will not intervene!" He raised his hand to strike her, but I grabbed her first, pulling her behind me. Xiuying was shaking so hard I could feel her tremors in my bones.

"My orders are final," he said. "Meilin has lived under my roof for eighteen years, using my name, partaking at my table. It is time to pay back her debts." His hand twitched, seeking his pipe. "Now get out of my sight."

Xiuying opened the door to flee before he could change his mind.

"And don't let any of the warlord's messengers into this house!"

The door slammed shut behind us. We didn't dare stop until we were down the hall, ensconced in the women's chambers at the other end of the courtyard. Only then did I allow myself to come apart.

"Mei Mei," Xiuying whispered. She tucked my face into her chest and rocked me back and forth as we both wept-quietly, for even in our own chambers the walls had ears.

"It won't be so bad," she murmured. "The matchmaker will find you a kind and decent man. He will treasure and protect you."

"I wager that's what the matchmaker said about Father too, when she paired you with him. They lie, all of them!" My voice was scraped raw. "I hate him."

Xiuying shushed me. "Don't blame your father. He's under much stress," she said. "The debt collectors come every day now."

I raised my head. "I thought you dismissed most of the servants."

She sighed. "Still, the way things are, the household cannot go on for much longer. Perhaps it is a good thing war is on our doorsteps." She paused, biting her lip. "Skies forgive me for saying such a thing."

I tried to wipe away my tears, the realization dawning on me. "You need my dowry, don't you?"

Xiuying opened her mouth, then closed it. "Well," she said, "with war approaching, I believe the debt collectors will be otherwise occupied."

"Jie!"

My little sister ran into the chamber, clutching her beloved rag doll. She was only five years old, but already she had an intuitive sense for knowing when conflict was brewing. Living in this volatile household necessitated it.

"Rouha," I said, drying my eyes and standing. Xiuying patted her on the head and smoothed her braids.

"I told Plum to hide in the nursery," Rouha said. "I can tell Father's in a foul mood."

"Clever child," said Xiuying. "Play with your brother and stay out of the way tomorrow, all right? Jie Jie and I will be occupied."

"What are you doing?" She clung to my legs, peering at me with dread and apprehension. So she had overheard.

"The matchmaker will be paying us a visit," I said, opting for honesty. "I'm going to bring home a big dowry for all of you. Then you'll have new silks for dresses!"

"I don't want silks," Rouha said. "I hate dresses!"

Xiuying forced a laugh. "You fear dresses like the phoenix fears iron."

"And I hate the matchmaker!" Rouha's cheeks were flushed crimson-the telltale sign of an emerging tantrum.

"Shhh." Xiuying pinched her cheeks. "They're nice people. They read the stars and bring good fortune to families across Anlai."

"Good fortune," I scoffed, though I tried not to sound overly critical in front of Rouha. She too would one day speak with the matchmaker, and the same fate would fall upon her. The thought sent despair coiling in my gut. No wonder Anlai mothers tried so hard not to love their daughters. It was like exiling a piece of your own heart.

"I'm thankful to my matchmaker," Xiuying said softly, meeting my eyes over Rouha's small head, "for she brought me to you, sister."

Two

Men build cities; women tear them down.

-Analects of Zhu Yuan, 889

Xiuying fretted over me the next day, dressing me in one of her remaining dowry pieces that she hadn't yet sold off. It was a pale blue silk embroidered with fluttering willow trees, once beautiful but now fallen to decay. The sleeves were worn and threadbare, and the hem unraveling. Still, it was the finest piece we owned, and Xiuying was determined to leave a good impression on the matchmaker.

I was only determined to survive the day.

At noon, I climbed the rooftops to watch for the matchmaker's palanquin. Outside the walls of our complex, the streets were in an uproar over news of the impending war. Travelers poured in from outside the city gates: merchants hawking their wares, young men reporting for duty, courtesans hoping to turn a profit before all of the soldiers left for the battlefield. The crowds were rife with anticipation and excitement, the feeling of opportunity in the air. Only our household remained unaffected-the atmosphere inside our walls as still and somber as a tomb. I was signing away my future, wasn't I? Not that I had ever had much of one to begin with.

The familiar panic settled in my bones. I forced my eyes closed and released the muscles along my jaw and neck, down my spine. Uncle Zhou's instructions echoed in my head as I breathed in and out, channeling my qi, my life force. Wood, fire, earth, metal, water, I recited, balancing each element within my own blood and breath. It was Uncle Zhou who'd taught me qi gong and kung fu from a young age, until my ability surpassed his, surpassed that of even our local grandmaster, who knew how to keep a secret. My natural gift did not stem from my physical strength, which remained middling at best, but my mental fortitude, which martial arts had only further honed, a whetstone to steel. Without the release of qi gong, I was not certain I could've endured my mother's passing.

They say a girl with an ill-fated mother is doomed to follow in her footsteps. For Rouha's sake, I hoped the superstitions carried no truth. My mother passed away when I was twelve, and Rouha too young to remember her. Uncle Zhou claimed it was due to her weak heart, but we all heard the other servants whisper about her madness.

A gaudy, lurid palanquin turned the corner, lurching from side to side until it stopped in front of our gate. The woman who emerged wore more expensive robes than I did. Her hair was seeded with gray, but she still bore the vigor of a woman in her prime. She brushed aside help from her palanquin bearers and hobbled through the gates on her own. Then I remembered myself. I was no longer a bystander to the outside world. She was coming for me.

I scrambled back inside my window and rushed down the stairs, nearly barreling into Xiuying.

"There you are! Uncle Zhou said the matchmaker's arrived."

Xiuying dragged me to the sitting room, which had been aired out in anticipation of the matchmaker's visit. Still, I could detect the rancid odor of opium in the air, impossible to entirely extricate. Father had left his mark everywhere.

"Thank you for coming all this way, Madame Shu," said Xiuying, before pouring oolong tea for the matchmaker.

Madame Shu's eyes were shrewd, calculating. "It's a busy season for weddings, and I won't waste time on small talk. Let's get to business," she said, in a brusque tone I hadn't heard many women use before. "The state of your home astounds even me. And I hear all the rumors. Lord Hai has a fondness for gambling, doesn't he?"

Xiuying gaped at her blunt words. Clearly, Madame Shu did not care to hold her tongue.

"Please, sit," I said, motioning toward the only sofa in the room. We'd sold most of our furniture to the debt collectors long ago. Through her eyes, I saw the barrenness of our home anew.

It wasn't always like this, I wanted to say. Father was from nobility, the eldest son of the Hai clan, and yet, in the wake of my mother's passing, his penchant for gambling and opium had sunk him far. And because he was the patriarch of our family, where he went, we all followed.

The matchmaker sat, then pointed at the folding fan hung across the wall. "Is that a likeness of your mother?"

I nodded. The fan was illustrated with an ink portrait done by a former friend of my mother's, too worn to amount to any money. We knew, because we'd tried to sell even that.

"Beautiful figure, that one," said the matchmaker, reminiscing. "Pity what happened to her." She leaned toward me. "I heard she claimed to be communing with spirits by the end of her days. Is that true?"

Xiuying interceded. "Of course not," she snapped. "No one in this household would ever invite such trouble."

"That's the sort of evil that lingers," said the matchmaker, raising a suggestive brow at the state of our house. "And your husband seems never to have recovered after her passing."

Xiuying's cheeks turned the color of a New Year lantern.

"My mother was very sick by the end," I said quietly, "but we've always obeyed the Imperial Commander in this household."

The matchmaker nodded. "Very good," she said. "Come here."

I first glanced at Xiuying, then inched closer. With little ceremony, the matchmaker took my face in her hands, pinching and prodding every part of my body from my earlobes to my breasts to the loose skin on my elbows. She tsked at my lack of curves but continued her thorough examination down to the arches of my feet. Finally, she perched on the sofa and pursed her lips. Her expression did not bode well.

"I have a man in mind." She sighed, flipping through her ledgers. "He's the best I can do for you."
The Night Ends with Fire is what blessedly happens when the themes of Hua Mulan’s legend are combined with wuxia principles and a powerful new voice in adult fantasy. K.X. Song’s soaring, emotive prose takes the reader on an unforgettable adventure in a painstakingly realized world, laced with fascinating characters that effortlessly play off of one another and twists that leave us reeling. I devoured every page of this truly epic tale.”—Thea Guanzon, USA Today and New York Times bestselling author of The Hurricane Wars

“Sweepingly epic and tenderly romantic, The Night Ends With Fire is a fiercely feminist adventure about a young woman fighting to shape her destiny in a world of lore, magic, and war. One not to miss for fans of Mulan.”—Amélie Wen Zhao, New York Times bestselling author of Song of Silver, Flame Like Night

"An awesome, engaging fantasy that takes a hard look at the cost of being true to yourself.  Adventure, romance and dragons abound in this fantastic tale."—Patricia Briggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Mercy Thompson series

“Exhilarating and intricately told, The Night Ends with Fire is both a breathless adventure and an unflinching portrayal of power, female ambition, and the costs that come with it.” —Grace D. Li, New York Times bestselling author of Portrait of a Thief

The Night Ends with Fire is a cinematic tale of epic proportions, with jaw-dropping twists and a take-no-prisoners heroine yearning for freedom, recognition, and glory. An explosive start to a captivating new series.” —Axie Oh, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

 “As defiant and courageous as its protagonist, The Night Ends With Fire ushers in a stunning new fantasy world. I couldn’t put it down - and I know I’ll be thinking about it for some time to come.”—Nalini Singh, New York Times bestselling author of the Psy-Changeling series

 "The Night Ends With Fire is a truly enthralling epic fantasy. I was blown away by how good it was! With an immersive and compelling story led by a seriously fabulous heroine and sparkling with both magic and romance, it's the perfect wuxia drama, and I loved it. Make sure you have plenty of time free when you start reading, because it quickly becomes addictive!"—India Holton, bestselling author of The Ornithologist’s Field Guide to Love

“The climactic ending will leave readers anticipating the duology’s conclusion. . . . Song’s poetic prose brings together cardinal spirits, a flawed protagonist, and a plot inspired by the legend of Mulan.”Library Journal

"Legendary in scope with unforgettable characters, The Night Ends With Fire is an incredible journey that will set your imagination ablaze. Drawing on classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Mulan, the machinations are complex, the vying factions fascinating, and Meilin's struggle for identity utterly gripping as she clashes with those who want to exploit her lixia for their own purposes. K.X. Song is going to set the literary scene on fire with her awesome new novel."—Peter Tieryas, author of the Mecha Samurai Empire series and Narrative Director at Nicalis
© Ruan Yunong
K. X. Song is a diaspora writer with roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Raised between cultures and languages, she enjoys telling stories that explore the shifting nature of memory, translation, and history. She is the author of An Echo in the City and the forthcoming The Night Ends with Fire, her adult fantasy debut. You can learn more at kxsong.com. View titles by K. X. Song
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About

Infused with magic and romance, this sweeping fantasy adventure inspired by the legend of Mulan follows a young woman determined to choose her own destiny—even if that means going against everyone she loves.

The Three Kingdoms are at war, but Meilin’s father refuses to answer the imperial draft. Trapped by his opium addiction, he plans to sell Meilin for her dowry. But when Meilin discovers her husband-to-be is another violent, ill-tempered man, she realizes that nothing will change for her unless she takes matters into her own hands.

The very next day, she disguises herself as a boy and enlists in her father’s place.

In the army, Meilin's relentless hard work brings her recognition, friendship—and a growing closeness with Sky, a prince turned training partner. But has she simply exchanged one prison for another? As her kingdom barrels toward destruction, Meilin begins to have visions of a sea dragon spirit that offers her true power and freedom, but with a deadly price.

With the future of the Three Kingdoms hanging in the balance, Meilin will need to decide whom to trust—Sky, who inspires her loyalty and love; the sea dragon spirit, who has his own murky agenda; or an infuriating enemy prince who makes her question everything she once knew—about her kingdom and about her own heart.

Excerpt

One

An empire is like a cherry tree; if it is blooming, its petals must one day fall. If it is barren, its petals must one day bloom. Thus it has always been.

-Book of Odes, 856

War is coming . . ."

The rumors took wing and flew through the capital, leaving behind a trail of astonishment, fear, and, in some cases, a stirring hunger for glory. Only in my father's house were they met with apathy.

"I will not go," my father said, his face obscured by a cloud of smoke. The unaired room smelled of sweat and opium, but Father refused to let us open so much as a window. He claimed the sunlight would hurt his eyes. But I think he simply did not want to see the state of what he'd become.

His wife stood beside me, trembling. Xiuying was my stepmother, though we were only seven years apart. The servants had expected me to hate her upon her arrival, but against Father's increasing rage and lunacy, we bonded over a common enemy. As the years passed, we became more than allies; we became laotong. Old sames.

Now, Xiuying clenched her hands into fists, trying to conceal her emotions. "The draft is the heavens' mandate. To lie to the Imperial Commander is punishable by death-"

"For skies' sake, just tell them I'm unwell! Make something up. You're awfully creative when it comes to finding ways to spend money. Use some of that creativity to lie."

The injustice of this remark stole my breath away. How dare he accuse her of losing all our money? "It's your gambling habit that's brought us-"

Xiuying covered my mouth with her hands. "No, Meilin," she whispered.

Father blew out a delicate ring of smoke from his pipe; he hadn't even heard me. Lost in his thoughts, he murmured, "I won't go to war. I refuse. It doesn't befit me, a man of my stature." His hand trembled as he emptied his pipe against the old ashtray. The porcelain had once belonged to my mother's dowry. It was now chipped and stained, ruined like everything else in this household.

"Why don't you send the old footman in my place?" said Father, chuckling at his own idea. He set his pipe down at last, the full weight of his attention falling upon us. "He can pass for me."

"Father," I said loudly, unable to curb my tongue. "Zhou is not long for this world."

"Did I ask you to speak?" he snapped, his eyes lighting on me. Xiuying shot me a frightened glance, but I shook my head at her while Father laughed.

"Even better," he decided. "Two birds with one stone, as the scholars say. Better he die out there than waste our household resources any longer. These days even the dogs contribute more than he-"

"Uncle Zhou has done more for this household than you ever have."

The words were out of my mouth before I could think twice. Xiuying gasped; Father narrowed his eyes, then lurched to his feet, grabbing hold of the table to steady himself. He was advanced in years, but he was still a large man, several heads taller than me. They used to say he could command a room with his presence, before the opium commanded him.

He lumbered toward me now, his long hair loose on his shoulders, his gait sloping and precarious. With a snarl, he grabbed me by my chin, forcing me to meet his watery glare.

Our faces were inches from each other. I hadn't been this close to him in years.

Xiuying once confessed she'd thought him a handsome man when they first met, with his dark, luminous eyes, his straight nose and high cheekbones. "You're blessed with beauty, like him," she'd said, trying to compliment me. I hadn't told her it felt like the worst kind of insult.

"That Zhou raised you to insolence," Father muttered. "After your mother died, I shouldn't have let him interfere." He turned my face from side to side, like a butcher inspecting a pig for slaughter. When I tried to pull away, his grip only tightened.

"How old is she?" he asked, glancing at Xiuying. His voice took on a mocking lilt. "How old is my dear, lovely daughter?"

Xiuying's voice quavered as she answered. "Only just past eighteen," she said. "I still have much to teach her in the ways of women's-"

"Silence." Father released me, his eyes roving down my body now. "Eighteen is far too old to be uncommitted. Have Zhou call for the matchmaker tomorrow. I expect a dowry by new moon."

The new moon was in a fortnight. "No," I bit out. "I refuse to marry."

I didn't see his hand until it smashed into my cheek, the force of the slap snapping my head to one side. I blinked, forcing back tears.

"You will do as you're told, Hai Meilin," he said, a lethal undertone to his voice. "And if you fail to fetch a handsome dowry as a first wife, I will sell you as a concubine."

"My lord, please . . ." I hated the pleading look in Xiuying's eyes.

"You will not intervene!" He raised his hand to strike her, but I grabbed her first, pulling her behind me. Xiuying was shaking so hard I could feel her tremors in my bones.

"My orders are final," he said. "Meilin has lived under my roof for eighteen years, using my name, partaking at my table. It is time to pay back her debts." His hand twitched, seeking his pipe. "Now get out of my sight."

Xiuying opened the door to flee before he could change his mind.

"And don't let any of the warlord's messengers into this house!"

The door slammed shut behind us. We didn't dare stop until we were down the hall, ensconced in the women's chambers at the other end of the courtyard. Only then did I allow myself to come apart.

"Mei Mei," Xiuying whispered. She tucked my face into her chest and rocked me back and forth as we both wept-quietly, for even in our own chambers the walls had ears.

"It won't be so bad," she murmured. "The matchmaker will find you a kind and decent man. He will treasure and protect you."

"I wager that's what the matchmaker said about Father too, when she paired you with him. They lie, all of them!" My voice was scraped raw. "I hate him."

Xiuying shushed me. "Don't blame your father. He's under much stress," she said. "The debt collectors come every day now."

I raised my head. "I thought you dismissed most of the servants."

She sighed. "Still, the way things are, the household cannot go on for much longer. Perhaps it is a good thing war is on our doorsteps." She paused, biting her lip. "Skies forgive me for saying such a thing."

I tried to wipe away my tears, the realization dawning on me. "You need my dowry, don't you?"

Xiuying opened her mouth, then closed it. "Well," she said, "with war approaching, I believe the debt collectors will be otherwise occupied."

"Jie!"

My little sister ran into the chamber, clutching her beloved rag doll. She was only five years old, but already she had an intuitive sense for knowing when conflict was brewing. Living in this volatile household necessitated it.

"Rouha," I said, drying my eyes and standing. Xiuying patted her on the head and smoothed her braids.

"I told Plum to hide in the nursery," Rouha said. "I can tell Father's in a foul mood."

"Clever child," said Xiuying. "Play with your brother and stay out of the way tomorrow, all right? Jie Jie and I will be occupied."

"What are you doing?" She clung to my legs, peering at me with dread and apprehension. So she had overheard.

"The matchmaker will be paying us a visit," I said, opting for honesty. "I'm going to bring home a big dowry for all of you. Then you'll have new silks for dresses!"

"I don't want silks," Rouha said. "I hate dresses!"

Xiuying forced a laugh. "You fear dresses like the phoenix fears iron."

"And I hate the matchmaker!" Rouha's cheeks were flushed crimson-the telltale sign of an emerging tantrum.

"Shhh." Xiuying pinched her cheeks. "They're nice people. They read the stars and bring good fortune to families across Anlai."

"Good fortune," I scoffed, though I tried not to sound overly critical in front of Rouha. She too would one day speak with the matchmaker, and the same fate would fall upon her. The thought sent despair coiling in my gut. No wonder Anlai mothers tried so hard not to love their daughters. It was like exiling a piece of your own heart.

"I'm thankful to my matchmaker," Xiuying said softly, meeting my eyes over Rouha's small head, "for she brought me to you, sister."

Two

Men build cities; women tear them down.

-Analects of Zhu Yuan, 889

Xiuying fretted over me the next day, dressing me in one of her remaining dowry pieces that she hadn't yet sold off. It was a pale blue silk embroidered with fluttering willow trees, once beautiful but now fallen to decay. The sleeves were worn and threadbare, and the hem unraveling. Still, it was the finest piece we owned, and Xiuying was determined to leave a good impression on the matchmaker.

I was only determined to survive the day.

At noon, I climbed the rooftops to watch for the matchmaker's palanquin. Outside the walls of our complex, the streets were in an uproar over news of the impending war. Travelers poured in from outside the city gates: merchants hawking their wares, young men reporting for duty, courtesans hoping to turn a profit before all of the soldiers left for the battlefield. The crowds were rife with anticipation and excitement, the feeling of opportunity in the air. Only our household remained unaffected-the atmosphere inside our walls as still and somber as a tomb. I was signing away my future, wasn't I? Not that I had ever had much of one to begin with.

The familiar panic settled in my bones. I forced my eyes closed and released the muscles along my jaw and neck, down my spine. Uncle Zhou's instructions echoed in my head as I breathed in and out, channeling my qi, my life force. Wood, fire, earth, metal, water, I recited, balancing each element within my own blood and breath. It was Uncle Zhou who'd taught me qi gong and kung fu from a young age, until my ability surpassed his, surpassed that of even our local grandmaster, who knew how to keep a secret. My natural gift did not stem from my physical strength, which remained middling at best, but my mental fortitude, which martial arts had only further honed, a whetstone to steel. Without the release of qi gong, I was not certain I could've endured my mother's passing.

They say a girl with an ill-fated mother is doomed to follow in her footsteps. For Rouha's sake, I hoped the superstitions carried no truth. My mother passed away when I was twelve, and Rouha too young to remember her. Uncle Zhou claimed it was due to her weak heart, but we all heard the other servants whisper about her madness.

A gaudy, lurid palanquin turned the corner, lurching from side to side until it stopped in front of our gate. The woman who emerged wore more expensive robes than I did. Her hair was seeded with gray, but she still bore the vigor of a woman in her prime. She brushed aside help from her palanquin bearers and hobbled through the gates on her own. Then I remembered myself. I was no longer a bystander to the outside world. She was coming for me.

I scrambled back inside my window and rushed down the stairs, nearly barreling into Xiuying.

"There you are! Uncle Zhou said the matchmaker's arrived."

Xiuying dragged me to the sitting room, which had been aired out in anticipation of the matchmaker's visit. Still, I could detect the rancid odor of opium in the air, impossible to entirely extricate. Father had left his mark everywhere.

"Thank you for coming all this way, Madame Shu," said Xiuying, before pouring oolong tea for the matchmaker.

Madame Shu's eyes were shrewd, calculating. "It's a busy season for weddings, and I won't waste time on small talk. Let's get to business," she said, in a brusque tone I hadn't heard many women use before. "The state of your home astounds even me. And I hear all the rumors. Lord Hai has a fondness for gambling, doesn't he?"

Xiuying gaped at her blunt words. Clearly, Madame Shu did not care to hold her tongue.

"Please, sit," I said, motioning toward the only sofa in the room. We'd sold most of our furniture to the debt collectors long ago. Through her eyes, I saw the barrenness of our home anew.

It wasn't always like this, I wanted to say. Father was from nobility, the eldest son of the Hai clan, and yet, in the wake of my mother's passing, his penchant for gambling and opium had sunk him far. And because he was the patriarch of our family, where he went, we all followed.

The matchmaker sat, then pointed at the folding fan hung across the wall. "Is that a likeness of your mother?"

I nodded. The fan was illustrated with an ink portrait done by a former friend of my mother's, too worn to amount to any money. We knew, because we'd tried to sell even that.

"Beautiful figure, that one," said the matchmaker, reminiscing. "Pity what happened to her." She leaned toward me. "I heard she claimed to be communing with spirits by the end of her days. Is that true?"

Xiuying interceded. "Of course not," she snapped. "No one in this household would ever invite such trouble."

"That's the sort of evil that lingers," said the matchmaker, raising a suggestive brow at the state of our house. "And your husband seems never to have recovered after her passing."

Xiuying's cheeks turned the color of a New Year lantern.

"My mother was very sick by the end," I said quietly, "but we've always obeyed the Imperial Commander in this household."

The matchmaker nodded. "Very good," she said. "Come here."

I first glanced at Xiuying, then inched closer. With little ceremony, the matchmaker took my face in her hands, pinching and prodding every part of my body from my earlobes to my breasts to the loose skin on my elbows. She tsked at my lack of curves but continued her thorough examination down to the arches of my feet. Finally, she perched on the sofa and pursed her lips. Her expression did not bode well.

"I have a man in mind." She sighed, flipping through her ledgers. "He's the best I can do for you."

Praise

The Night Ends with Fire is what blessedly happens when the themes of Hua Mulan’s legend are combined with wuxia principles and a powerful new voice in adult fantasy. K.X. Song’s soaring, emotive prose takes the reader on an unforgettable adventure in a painstakingly realized world, laced with fascinating characters that effortlessly play off of one another and twists that leave us reeling. I devoured every page of this truly epic tale.”—Thea Guanzon, USA Today and New York Times bestselling author of The Hurricane Wars

“Sweepingly epic and tenderly romantic, The Night Ends With Fire is a fiercely feminist adventure about a young woman fighting to shape her destiny in a world of lore, magic, and war. One not to miss for fans of Mulan.”—Amélie Wen Zhao, New York Times bestselling author of Song of Silver, Flame Like Night

"An awesome, engaging fantasy that takes a hard look at the cost of being true to yourself.  Adventure, romance and dragons abound in this fantastic tale."—Patricia Briggs, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Mercy Thompson series

“Exhilarating and intricately told, The Night Ends with Fire is both a breathless adventure and an unflinching portrayal of power, female ambition, and the costs that come with it.” —Grace D. Li, New York Times bestselling author of Portrait of a Thief

The Night Ends with Fire is a cinematic tale of epic proportions, with jaw-dropping twists and a take-no-prisoners heroine yearning for freedom, recognition, and glory. An explosive start to a captivating new series.” —Axie Oh, New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

 “As defiant and courageous as its protagonist, The Night Ends With Fire ushers in a stunning new fantasy world. I couldn’t put it down - and I know I’ll be thinking about it for some time to come.”—Nalini Singh, New York Times bestselling author of the Psy-Changeling series

 "The Night Ends With Fire is a truly enthralling epic fantasy. I was blown away by how good it was! With an immersive and compelling story led by a seriously fabulous heroine and sparkling with both magic and romance, it's the perfect wuxia drama, and I loved it. Make sure you have plenty of time free when you start reading, because it quickly becomes addictive!"—India Holton, bestselling author of The Ornithologist’s Field Guide to Love

“The climactic ending will leave readers anticipating the duology’s conclusion. . . . Song’s poetic prose brings together cardinal spirits, a flawed protagonist, and a plot inspired by the legend of Mulan.”Library Journal

"Legendary in scope with unforgettable characters, The Night Ends With Fire is an incredible journey that will set your imagination ablaze. Drawing on classics like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Mulan, the machinations are complex, the vying factions fascinating, and Meilin's struggle for identity utterly gripping as she clashes with those who want to exploit her lixia for their own purposes. K.X. Song is going to set the literary scene on fire with her awesome new novel."—Peter Tieryas, author of the Mecha Samurai Empire series and Narrative Director at Nicalis

Author

© Ruan Yunong
K. X. Song is a diaspora writer with roots in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Raised between cultures and languages, she enjoys telling stories that explore the shifting nature of memory, translation, and history. She is the author of An Echo in the City and the forthcoming The Night Ends with Fire, her adult fantasy debut. You can learn more at kxsong.com. View titles by K. X. Song

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