A great evil has come to the kingdom of Dàxi.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from A Venom Dark and Sweet , the conclusion of Judy I. Lin’s Book of Tea duology, publishing with Feiwel & Friends on August 23rd.
A great evil has come to the kingdom of Dàxi. The Banished Prince has returned to seize power, his rise to the dragon throne aided by the mass poisonings that have kept the people bound in fear and distrust.
Ning, a young but powerful shénnóng-shi—a wielder of magic using the ancient and delicate art of tea-making—has escorted Princess Zhen into exile. Joining them is the princess’ loyal bodyguard, Ruyi, and Ning’s newly healed sister, Shu. Together the four young women travel throughout the kingdom in search of allies to help oust the invaders and take back Zhen’s rightful throne.
But the golden serpent still haunts Ning’s nightmares with visions of war and bloodshed. An evil far more ancient than the petty conflicts of men has awoken, and all the magic in the land may not be enough to stop it from consuming the world…
When he was a young boy, Kang dreamed of returning to the palace.
An envoy would arrive at Lǜzhou, a spill of color against the gray skies and black rocks. Musicians playing something bright and cheery, banners fluttering in the wind. A palanquin would deposit a blue-robed court official to stand on the sandy beach where these daydreams often played out before him, and they would unfurl an embroidered scroll—a decree from the emperor. His family would be asked to return to Jia, their positions restored, and he would return to his life among the palace children.
But no envoy came, and those childhood dreams faded away. Only now, waiting before the grand gate to the palace, did those memories return to him. Cutting into him like those northerly winds once did, filling his nose with the scent of salt. He knows the truth, though: The home he knew as a child was no longer. No dowager empress asking the kitchen to bring them another plate of sweets. No emperor uncle demonstrating calligraphy on a stretched canvas. No princess reciting yet another treatise on negotiation before their tutor. He came back under a rain of arrows, bringing with him nothing but lies and destruction. No matter how much he wants to pretend otherwise, he had a hand in everything that will happen after this.
His horse nickers softly, jostling the one beside him. The animal senses the change in the air, the shift in the wind. He thought a coup would be bloodier. Blood and fire, from the stories told by the teachers and his own fragmented recollections of ten years before. Instead, he saw the soldiers of the army stream into Jia’s crevices like water into a dry riverbed. The capital of Dàxī drank them in throughout the night, as the sky turned pale and a new dawn settled over the sleeping city.
The gate opens before him. Kang enters, flanked by his father’s men. Rows of soldiers stand at attention, clad in the black uniform of the city guard. A path had been left for them, and the soldiers bow when they pass. There is no sound of battle up ahead, no defiant clash of steel. There is only that weight of expectation, of coming change.
When he met his father at the teahouse, the general was all smiles, face reddened by wine. His father clapped him on the back, told him that he had done his part. Like a good son, a good soldier. Although he wants to enjoy the warmth of his father’s approval, Kang still feels a sense of unease at the back of his mind, like an itch he is unable to scratch. Zhen’s voice whispers to him: All these schemes coming to fruition, but at what cost? He thought she meant their fraud of a betrothal, but she laughed in his face when he said so.
One of the foot soldiers steps forward to take the reins of his horse, and Kang dismounts. An official greets him with a slight bow, dressed in the black and green of the Ministry of Justice, introducing himself as the Governor of Sù, Wang Li. They slip in through a side door and ascend the narrow stairwell hidden in the high wall beside the Courtyard of Promising Future.
“The General of Kǎiláng!” a herald announces in the distance, and the resulting cry is thunderous, echoing through the stone passage.
“I want to extend a personal welcome to you, my prince.” The governor is all smiles at the top of the stairs, gesturing for him to continue forward. “Welcome back to Jia.”
The sound of that title makes Kang’s skin crawl. Prince.
But the thought is chased away by what awaits him in the courtyard below. From this vantage point, he sees the court officials clustered in the space before the stairs that lead up to the Hall of Eternal Light, surrounded by the red of the palace guard and the black of the city guard. Some of them appear bewildered, while others have already fallen prostrate on the ground in their eagerness to show deference to the soon-to-be emperor. To Kang’s left, the long wall is lined with archers, and he sees similar bobbing shadows along the length of the far wall. Their presence obvious to those below, a reminder of the general’s power.
The general stands at the top of the stairs, adorned in full battle armor. He gleams black and gold from the curved prongs of his helmet to the shine of his boots. Chancellor Zhou stands behind his right shoulder, dressed in formal court garb. There is no question who will rule and who helped him onto the throne.
Kang’s father raises his arms, and the roar of the soldiers falls silent. They drop to one knee in a salute, a coordinated wave of deference. The remaining stragglers of the court still standing kneel as well, following the lead of their peers. But Kang commits those faces to memory, just as he knows the chancellor is taking note as well. The ones who bowed first, and the ones who hesitated.
The general’s arms return to his sides as the herald steps forward again. “Rise to hear the words of the regent, soon to ascend to the throne of our great empire.”
The soldiers stand once again at attention with a thud of their spears, shaking the walls of the courtyard. The officials stagger to their feet.
“For some of you, it may be a surprise to see that I have returned,” the General of Kǎiláng’s voice rings out over the crowd. “I had willingly gone into exile so many years ago, wishing to see the glory of our great empire continue without internal strife. We cannot stand strong when we are fighting from within. I thought I would give my brother a chance, and instead, he sought to bring Dàxī to ruin.”
Father was always one for rousing speeches, known for his ability to stir up the blood of those who follow him, to encourage them to fight on his behalf.
“With all his own ambitions, he never thought one of his own would turn on him. The princess he raised poisoned her own father and attempted to remove those of the court who would stand in her way of consolidating power. I have been entrusted now with restoring honor to the Li name and securing justice for my brother’s death.”
The general’s impassioned speech seems to have thrown a hornet’s nest into the midst of the court, for they can no longer hold still and keep silent; they whisper and mutter among themselves at this revelation. Kang senses attention on him, and he struggles to keep his face impassive, even though his unease grows.
A girl told him about the components of the poison and its origins in Lǜzhou. A princess tried to hide the news of her father’s passing from the rest of the people. He has glimpsed only a small part of his father’s deeply laid plans, and the general has refused to respond to his questions about the origins of the poison.
He meets the chancellor’s eyes, and the man gives him a small smile before turning back to the courtyard.
The doubt crawls deeper under Kang’s skin. Does it matter if his father released the poison? The emperor is no longer, the princess is gone, the throne is empty and waiting for the one who will ascend it. But inside, the question still burns: Was it his father who gave the order?
“I will bring peace and prosperity back to Dàxī. I will root out the traitors, the corrupt,” the general announces with great fervor. “Starting with the palace. The traitorous princess and her pet shénnóng-tú have escaped the palace, but they will not remain free for long. The Ministry of Justice will bring them back.”
Chancellor Zhou steps forward and proclaims, “So wills the emperor-regent of Dàxī!”
“So wills the emperor-regent!” his subjects echo, and they kneel once again to receive his divine command.
His head bowed, face hidden from suspicious eyes, Kang feels his lips curve into a smile.
Excerpted from A Venom Dark and Sweet, copyright © 2022 by Judy I. Lin.