To celebrate the publication day of my latest historical fiction novel, PROMISE THIEF, I have provided a one chapter sample from the novel (which includes the prologue too!).
I really really hope you enjoy reading it 🙂
If you want to purchase the novel, you can find all the links to your preferred store HERE.
This novel is the second book in my Promise series, but each book can be read as a stand-alone. 🙂 Find out more about the first book, PROMISE SEASON, here.
PROMISE THIEF SAMPLE EXTRACT
I cannot tear the words from my mind.
You are like a wild animal, Chungjo. You bite the hand that reaches out in kindness.
It’s what she said but it is not true. I am no animal. Instead, I am Chungjo the monster. That is what they should call me. What they do call me.
I cannot say why I think of such vile words, now, while the city rages all around. As screams echo in the distance, rising from desperate crowds. A thatched building erupts with fire and I flinch back. The roof caves in and smoke heaves black into the waning sunshine of the sky.
Perhaps I think such thoughts because I may die tonight. It makes me ponder how I’ve lived. And real terror is brewing in my chest. A woman alone on the streets is a death sentence. I’ve heard the things people do during riots. They turn feral. I clench my hands around his arm, whisper the words without meaning to, “Don’t leave me here.”
He stares down at me.
The sun is setting, shadows waning long and low across the crunching snow as the building opposite glows against the falling dusk. Firelight reflects in his black eyes and his skin burns orange.
How could this be happening? For the first time things were falling into place, finally, and now…
“Chungjo, do you trust me?”
I stare up at him in disbelief. Trust? I trust no one. Only myself. That is how I survive.
You are like a wild animal, Chungjo. You bite the hand that reaches out in kindness.
He reaches out his hand, offering it to me palm up. He grins wide, razor sharp. “Do you trust me?”
Chapter 1: The Pavilion
Candlelight flickers in the dark, pooling across the low table. Dishes of the finest porcelain gleam beneath the seeping light, grape preserves and bamboo shoots arranged to entice. I haven’t touched the desserts. My attention remains focused on only one thing – the man seated across the table.
I smile beneath lowered lashes, for truly I believe he is a drowning man, only he doesn’t know it yet. “Chief Inspector Ahn, please, drink more.”
He is pleased with the attention, much too easy to read. He leans close. “How considerate. Your name was…?”
I curl my painted lips for already I have told him once. “Chungjo, Nauri. My name is Chungjo.” I address him respectfully, as I should one of his status.
He accepts the liquor and drinks deep. “Never have I been attended by such a lovely gisaeng. Your beauty is transcendent.”
His regional accent is undulating and uncultured, a man of the provinces through and through. Whispers of him burn through Hanyang like wildfire. They say Chief Inspector Ahn was brought to the capital and raised up much too high and much too fast by the new king who perhaps is also a fool.
All the better for me if both are so.
I watch the man drink, careful that he doesn’t notice how I pick him apart. He isn’t prepared for this. The way everyone in this city will claw at him until he relents and gives what they want. For a moment I almost feel sorry for the newly promoted Chief Inspector Ahn. He will be ripped apart. First by me, and then by every other desperate manipulator in the new king’s court.
The feeling doesn’t last. I am not often given over to sentimentality, after all. I am young still, it is true, yet I have lived long enough to feel the softness leak from my bones like water, to grow hard as stone.
I do not care for others, and they do not care for me.
It is the way of survival in this harsh world, and I do not search for softness anymore. Those days are long gone. Washed away by rice wine and groping hands. And lately, by desperation, mine. Growing harder to ignore each day.
I retrieve the pitcher of clear rice wine to refill his cup, yet half the liquid spills across his silk sleeve as Chief Inspector Ahn lurches drunkenly. I laugh, pretending it is all a game, the way I must serve him in this thick stuffy room with the lanterns smoking above our heads.
Others are scattered throughout our small party, too – young and old, men lounging around a low table setting, picking at fine delicacies and drinking deeply. Conversation swells, talk of the new king on everyone’s tongues. I am one of the few women in the room, yet I watch only Chief Inspector Ahn and ignore all others.
Winter winds whistle and howl beyond the latticed windows. The banquet hall is deep within the innermost corridors of the Pavilion, where our patrons demand privacy and secrecy. I almost laugh again. They do expect so very much from us gisaeng, decorated as we are in rich silks and twisted head-pieces, jewels pinned against hair. They want respect and discretion, warmth and wit.
I wrinkle my nose, looking at the man across the table. The new naïve chief inspector everyone in this teeming city is gossiping about.
Eyes glazed, he has high cheekbones and a weak curling mouth. He is younger than I expected, not quite yet reaching his fortieth year, I’d guess. Slightly more pleasant looking too, though my heart remains untouched.
When I look at him, I see only one thing.
A doorway into my future. My single last hope.
Chief Inspector Ahn peers back, clearly enamoured, whispering again about my beauty. It is all I can do to keep my lashes turned downward. It was simple to charm him. Perhaps tonight I will even be in a position to ask him for the favour I require.
My heart soars. Until a different voice breaks into my dreaming, smashing everything to the ground.
“Have you heard, Chief Inspector Ahn? There is talk of riots brewing in the city.”
I turn to glare at the new speaker, a younger man, handsome and overflowing with confidence I suspect is unearned, judging from his age. He is dressed in the clothes of a nobleman, hair twisted into a topknot beneath a wide-brimmed black gat. Robes of the palest blue shimmer beneath the dancing candlelight. He smiles at me, all white teeth and charming black eyes, lounging against embroidered cushions.
“You have your work cut out for you, Chief Inspector Ahn,” the newcomer continues in a drawl. “Crime is steadily rising. Refugees swarm through our gates with nothing to their name. And things will only get worse as more arrive. Being chief inspector here will be quite different from your old work as magistrate, I suspect.” The stranger leans on the table and holds out his empty cup to me without a word, mouth stretched wide as he waits for a refill.
“Indeed, indeed,” slurs Chief Inspector Ahn. “It will be very different here. Yet I have the full support of the king, and he will show me the way to success, I am certain.” He nods at me, a silent order to refill his own cup as well.
I grit my teeth, smiling tightly as I obey.
The intruder downs his glass in one shot, head slung back to reveal the long lines of his throat as flame-light dances across his skin. He tilts his head to the side, lifting his cup toward me to be filled again as he talks over my head with the chief inspector.
“Indeed. Having the king’s full support is a wonderful thing. However…” He pauses. Waits for the older man’s attention to slide from my face.
Frowning, Chief Inspector Ahn prods, “However…?”
The stranger leans forward, close enough that I must breathe him in. I avert my face to avoid contact. He acts as if I am not here.
“However,” he says, his voice low, “one would not want to overstep the boundary between king and subject. Even between good friends.”
Swallowing heavily, the chief inspector blanches. “What can you mean by this, Baek Sang Moon?”
I glance at the stranger. Baek Sang Moon. I dislike his name as much as his face. And I’ve seen his kind before. Men who believe the whole world is theirs to bend and shape. Men who are too confident, too charming. Too handsome. I loathe his kind.
Words wait on the tip of my tongue to cut him with, ready to draw blood.
Yet I hold back. For now.
My hands clench as Baek Sang Moon leans over me again to speak with the chief inspector, his voice pitched low. His tone is cultured and sharp, the accent of a yangban lord of a high family, educated here within Hanyang, the capital city of Joseon.
“Chief Inspector Ahn, you will most certainly require money to resolve problems that may arise within the police force. Perhaps you do not know, but that is how issues are often resolved within our glorious city. With … gifts.” Baek Sang Moon smiles, his teeth sharp and his expression suddenly cold. I watch this transformation with fascination, despite myself. His voice too is changing, filled with unfamiliar cadences unlike his previous tones.
“But it wouldn’t do to continuously beg such finances from the new king,” continues Baek Sang Moon, clearly unaware of how his voice and expression have changed. He looks like an animal now, sharp and dangerous and focused on his prey. “In fact, the new king might even become bothered by it, no matter how close you both became when you resided together in the countryside.”
Silence blooms between the two men, though the rest of the stuffy room hums with conversation. All of the patrons tonight are important men, official clerks and military officers, and a few other yangban noblemen like Baek Sang Moon, whose affiliations remain a mystery.
Clearly deep in thought and struggling against the alcohol he has soaked himself with, Chief Inspector Ahn finally slurs, “And what is it you suggest, Scholar Baek, to ease this burden on the relationship I hold with our king?”
My gaze scans Baek Sang Moon’s handsome face. He doesn’t strike me as a scholar, a man whose entire existence is driven toward knowledge and education. I smooth my skirts, silent and watching. I am curious to see how this conversation unfolds. In Hanyang, knowledge is power, and it would not be the first time a stupid man has spilled his secrets in front of a lowly gisaeng. I lower my lashes, pretending I do not exist and giving Scholar Baek what he wants. A moment alone to push Chief Inspector Ahn in the direction he wants him to go.
Baek Sang Moon has no idea who I am, what I am capable of.
He has underestimated me.
Most people do.
Readjusting the black ties of his wide-brimmed gat beneath his jaw, Baek Sang Moon clears his throat. “It seems to me, Chief Inspector Ahn, that you require a friend in this vast city. Someone trustworthy and discreet you can approach with favours when the need arises. How much better to be offered aid from a friend, particularly financial aid, instead of taking every small concern all the way to the king.”
I roll my eyes at this little speech, though Chief Inspector Ahn is clearly soaking up Baek Sang Moon’s silken words. “You refer to yourself, Scholar Baek?” he says. “You are offering to be my friend?” The older man sways, holds out his cup to me without even looking my way, attention only for Baek Sang Moon and his offer.
I obey the wordless command with impatient fingers, pouring clear liquid into the depths of the porcelain cup. I am careful not to spill any even as the chief inspector’s hand shakes.
“Yes,” answers Scholar Baek. “I am offering to be your friend. Please Chief Inspector Ahn, I assure you I will be an invaluable friend to you. Shall we not leave this party early and discuss the many ways I can aid you in your goals?” Baek Sang Moon shifts as if to leave the table, and already the chief inspector is nodding in agreement.
I slam the pitcher onto the low wooden table, startling them both. When their attention turns back to me, I feign embarrassment, pretending to have dropped it.
No one else in the stuffy room notices the sudden tension between us, all caught in their own murmuring private conversations. Lowered heads and whispered words. Tonight’s meeting is filled with secrets it seems. Not so surprising in our troubled times, yet I have missed all that I could have learned by choosing the chief inspector’s side tonight. And I am not allowing him to leave without giving me what I want.
I smile at Baek Sang Moon who blinks back at me, as if only now remembering I am here.
“Please, Scholar Baek, sit.” I incline my head toward the cushion from which he has risen. “Let me explain. The chief inspector here already has friends in the capital.”
The scholar raises his brows. “You? A mere gisaeng offers friendship to a man as powerful as this?”
He exchanges a look with the chief inspector and I flinch at his wording, pushing down the boiling fury that lurches within my belly.
“Chief Inspector Ahn,” I say through gritted teeth. “Please introduce me to your new friend.”
I incline my head toward the young man with the sharp tongue and glittering eyes, and my voice shakes only a little, my anger buried deep. Yet the scholar throws his head back and laughs, attention pointedly on my hands clutched into bloodless fists. As if he can see right through me.
He collapses back on his cushion anyway, as if interested to find where this new game takes us. I glare at him, earning a wide slow smile in return.
The older man clears his throat. “Of course, my beautiful … my lovely…” His voice trails off, slurring and clutching at wisping memories, his uncultured country accent heavier now infused with drink.
I sigh, irritated. “Chungjo, Chief Inspector Ahn. My name is Chungjo.”
Lounging on his cushion, Scholar Baek hides a laugh behind a silken sleeve. Fury roils inside my belly. It is more than I can bear.
I take deep breaths. He will see. He will see he does not know me.
“Of course, of course! Chungjo.” The chief inspector nods sloppily at me, gaze dancing over my body, drinking me in. “I heard tales of your beauty before ever stepping foot into this great city of Hanyang. Your reputation is spread far and wide. It is why I simply had to see you.”
The corners of my painted lips lift and curl, and leaning forward I say softly just for him, “And you have not yet seen me dance, Chief Inspector Ahn. When you have, you shall never leave my side again.”
He chuckles, thoroughly charmed and drunk, and I flash a triumphant smile at the lounging scholar. He grimaces back, eyes raised to the ceiling. And while he is distracted, I take my chance. I am nothing if not resourceful, and I take my opportunities where they lie.
I slide my body closer toward Chief Inspector Ahn in a flurry of floating silk skirts, the coral beads pinned in my hair tinkling as I press against the hulking side of the older man. He wavers, dropping his porcelain cup to the table, and stares at me in a way that means he is mine. Like a wriggling fish caught on a bamboo spear, Chief Inspector Ahn has nowhere left to go.
He watches me, eyes dark with liquor, dark with me, licking his lips. I’d be disgusted if I wasn’t so pleased.
Behind me Scholar Baek clears his throat. He sounds as irritated now as I was only moments earlier.
“Chief Inspector Ahn,” he calls, his voice controlled and pleasant. “You were about to introduce me to the absolutely charming Chungjo here, were you not?”
I spare him a withering glance over my shoulder. “I think perhaps he has forgotten you, Nauri.”
I address him respectfully as I should, yet my voice bites. I do not care. I hope he hears the knives beneath my words. How dare he attempt to ruin the introduction I have spent weeks organising. I have pulled strings and called in favours from all over Hanyang, just for this single opportunity to meet Chief Inspector Ahn. I huff over my shoulder, turn my back to the scholar once more.
Smoothing my features for Chief Inspector Ahn, I lower my lashes demurely as I’ve heard he likes. A simple man. A country man. Only recently raised up by our new king, he remains untested and untried. He has not yet wised to life in the city, this twisted sprawling mass of people and despair that is Hanyang. Yet before he learns to play the games of the capital, I will squeeze every last ounce of him dry. Take what I want.
I glance around the latticed wooden walls of the Pavilion, painted in bright colours. The paper screens made with hanji, the sprawling men and low tables of colourful delicacies.
This place will not be my home forever.
“Come now, Chief Inspector Ahn! Please do not ignore me for the sake of a woman.”
This fool of a scholar will not give up.
I turn and glare at him, but am pointedly ignored, his words rolling on. “Look at this gisaeng, you speak so highly of her beauty yet I simply must disagree. Have you not seen her face?”
Baek Sang Moon flashes his teeth pleasantly, as if he is not making an enemy of me with his words. He raises his brows when I bristle, as if we now share a secret joke. Yet when he next speaks it is to the older man by my side, voice lazy and drawling. “Chief Inspector Ahn, it seems to me her nose sits quite crooked.”
I recoil, fingers flying unbidden toward my face. At the last moment I catch myself, force my hand back to my lap before I can touch the changed shape of my nose, no longer symmetrical. My fingers curl into fists, pressed tight and shaking against my silk covered thighs. I bite my lip so hard I am afraid it will draw blood.
How dare this young man play with me?
I will show him who I am.
I fire back, “It seems to me, Chief Inspector Ahn, that your guest here, Scholar Baek, presents himself to you as a fine man of our capital, yet when he spoke earlier was that not a regional accent I heard within his voice?” I flutter my lashes innocently as Baek Sang Moon stiffens.
“An accent, Scholar Baek?” The chief inspector leans across me, his breath warm against my throat. “Did you not say you grew up here, in Hanyang?”
Clearly flustered, Baek Sang Moon shakes his head. “No, Chief Inspector, I am certain I did not say such a thing.” He hesitates and then adds, “In fact I admitted I lived in the northern countryside for some time before coming back to Hanyang only recently. Sometimes I feel as if I lived away from home so long that my accent changes when my tongue is loosened.”
He shakes his empty cup at me, but I ignore him.
“Strange, Scholar Baek, that a regional accent should show through when you are drinking and your guard is down.” I smile at him sweetly, although sweetness has never come naturally to me. “My experience is that a true accent shows through when one is inebriated. Are you certain you grew up here in Hanyang? Perhaps you are not all you say you are?”
A booming laugh breaks out and Chief Inspector Ahn throws his head back, hand reaching for my shoulder. “What a sharp tongue! Watch yourself, Scholar Baek, this Chungjo here will not let you off.”
My lips curl at the corners, pleased, for finally I have managed to ensure Chief Inspector Ahn recalls my name. Progress. Also, I have gained knowledge to file away for later – he prefers his women sharp and witty, not simperingly bashful. Which suits me fine. The old man presses his mouth against my cheek in a wet kiss that makes me grimace.
Baek Sang Moon catches my expression and raises his brows, though I do not care what he thinks. He cannot truly believe all gisaeng enjoy being kissed by wet old fools.
“It is late. I must wake early tomorrow for I visit the king.” Chief Inspector Ahn begins to rise, and for a moment, just a single moment, both Baek Sang Moon and my eyes meet, a shared look of panic running between us.
“No, Chief Inspector, please do stay,” I protest at the exact same moment Baek Sang Moon says, “Surely it is not yet late.”
We frown at each other as the chief inspector ignores us both and stands, smoothing his crushed robes and waving away our protests.
“Chungjo, I am sorry to miss you dance tonight.”
I rise gracefully, lowering my chin and peering at the older man from beneath my lashes. “Then you must return, Chief Inspector. I will work on a dance only for you. I am sure you will be impressed.”
“Aha, see how she charms me?” He nods at Baek Sang Moon, who has risen to join him.
Scholar Baek grimaces. “I do see. Come, Chief Inspector, allow me to escort you home.”
“Certainly not! Stay, Baek Sang Moon, enjoy yourself. There will be much time for us to meet again in the future, I am certain.” Feet stumbling, the chief inspector waves away our objections, already gesturing for a servant boy to help him to his waiting palanquin outside the Pavilion’s gates. In moments he is gone.
I sink to the floor beside the table. With a bitter laugh, I swallow the shot of clear liquor still sitting in the scholar’s dainty porcelain cup. “Well that was an utter waste of time,” I say when the burning alcohol has retreated down my throat.
Scholar Baek glares at me hard. Through gritted teeth he says, “If you get in my way again, gisaeng, we’ll see how long you live here happy and tranquil.”
I pour myself another drink, taking my time, before rising to stand before his chest as I gulp back the burning liquid. I smile. Wide. Chin raised. “Happy and tranquil? In this place? You are more of a fool than you look, Scholar Baek.”
I step closer, so my body is held only a breath away from his, my raised chin close to his throat. “Get in my way again and we’ll see how long you live posing as a Hanyang man. I can hear the countryside dripping from your voice, it’s smeared all over you.”
His shoulders stiffen. With a final glower, Baek Sang Moon turns and strides from the stuffy room without another word.
Thank you for reading this chapter, and I really hope you enjoyed it 🙂
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LEE EVIE is a podcaster, blogger and author of dark historical fiction set in old Korea.
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