Read an Excerpt From Joan He’s Sound the Gong

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Sound the Gong, the conclusion of Joan He’s YA fantasy duology The Kingdom of Three—publishing with Roaring Brook Press on April 3rd.

All her life, Zephyr has tried to rise above her humble origins as a no-name orphan. Now she is a god in a warrior’s body, and never has she felt more powerless.

The warlordess Xin Ren holds the Westlands, but her position is tenuous. In the north, the empress remains a puppet under Miasma’s thumb. In the south, the alliance with Cicada is in pieces.

Fate has a winner in mind for the three kingdoms, but Zephyr has no intentions of respecting it. She will pay any price to see Ren succeed—and she will make her enemies pay, especially the enigmatic Crow. What she’ll do when she finds out the truth… Only the heavens know.

“Hello, Lotus. We meet again.”

I saw him from above, as a spirit, but it’s different, so different, confronting him in the flesh. Firelight from the braziers falls over us both. His face is underlit, the planes of his cheeks and forehead shadowed. If only I could clear the shadows like I would a mask. I’m suddenly seized with the urge to do just that—to draw him into the light, out of these pretenses, and put my lips to his ear. Yes and no, Crow.

We meet again, but not as Crow and Lotus.

But I don’t act on whims, and neither does Crow. “Any particular reason for sending this?” He holds up the letter, and though I’ve been waiting for him to ask, I’m caught off guard. It’s his manner. His tone, so blasé, as if the letter is just a piece of paper. I expected… more.

Fool of me to. He’s a strategist, like myself. Emotions are a liability. Of course he’d hide them. I should look to his actions. They speak more than his words. I’m in his tent.

I have his attention.

“I wanted to meet with you,” I say, lightening my own tone. “I seem to have succeeded.”

Crow regards me carefully. It’s nothing like the last time we met face-to-face, by the lake. Why would it be? Crow’s forces are here to break the siege. This can only end with one victor, one loser.

“Indeed you have,” he at last grants. “Did Zephyr give this letter to you too?”

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Sound the Gong

Too. What else did I, as Zephyr, supposedly give to Lotus? Then I remember another time I felt this pinned. In the dark of the stables, cornered by Crow, I’d claimed that Zephyr had told me his name. He doubted me then—still doubts me, by the lilt of his voice—and I untense. He cares, enough to have an opinion on what Zephyr would or would not share.

I have more than an opinion. “No. She didn’t.”

“I didn’t think so,” Crow murmurs.

“We found it with her body.” The head of which Miasma collected first. Surely Crow knew of her revolting actions. He is her strategist. An enemy who holds a secret pertinent to this siege. Ask him

“Tell me, then.” Crow speaks before I can. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

“I challenge you to a duet.”

“Still two on one zither?”

Mmm, Dewdrop thinks, as if the prospect is delicious.

I’ll squash her right after I squash my rival. “One zither each,” I say to Crow, willing my face to cool.

“A proper duet.” Crow lets the words hang for an uncomfortably long second. “If my memory isn’t failing me, you weren’t eager to play during our last encounter.”

“I’ve been practicing since. I liked it.”

His stare is cryptic.

I was cryptic too, the night I sat at his zither as Lotus. I left him wanting, left him wondering how a warrior like myself could unlock the instrument’s qì with just one note.

Now’s your chance to find out, I think to Crow. Can you resist it?

I know I wouldn’t.

“Bring them,” he finally says, eyes never leaving mine as the guards depart, carrying out his order. They return with two zithers. I recognize the first as Crow’s. Midnight wood. Strings white as snow. He takes it to a table at one end of the tent. I take the second zither to the opposite.

We sit.

Since we last played, I’ve been thinking over a dilemma. Zithers are a conduit for the truth in one’s heart. Why would a strategist agree to a duet if they’re at risk of leaking secrets that could end wars or incite them?

The answer I arrived at solidifies when I meet the challenge in Crow’s gaze. We each have secrets, and he’s betting on his skill that he can access mine first. A strategist’s duet is no different from a warrior’s duel in this respect. Both parties stand to injure themselves.

Neither backs down.

Crow raises his arms, black sleeves cascading. “What topic shall we play about?”

“This siege.”

“Hmm.” My heart tremors at the syllable. “I’d like to play about you,” Crow says, and plucks. The open note travels through me, and I with it. Back in time and place. My hands—Lotus’s— are under Crow’s.

We played this very note, by the lake.

Focus. This scene is safe. I play as well, and the space between us swirls, air gone to water. Mist curls—fronds of qì, taking on color. The night appears. The two of us, bent over the same zither. The lake shines behind us, liquid moonlight, as the music rises.

An image within an image.

It changes as we play on. Crow and Lotus disappear, replaced by a hut. My breath stops. Thistlegate?

It’s not. The image clarifies, and I see the pig carcasses, strung from the thatched roof. What—?

Lotus. She’s from a family of butchers, Cloud once told me. Relief—I haven’t leaked my identity—turns into bewilderment. I shouldn’t have these memories. I don’t remember these memories.

How, then, can my music be conveying my thoughts?

Something’s wrong, Dewdrop thinks. Stop playing. This

Crow plucks another note—two. They vibrate, like rubbed stones. A question sings in the resulting harmonic.


I can’t leave empty-handed.

I play my response, throwing my notes. The image ripples. Changes. I see Lotus and myself—as Zephyr, in Qilin’s body— crossing a river together. Cloud is up ahead. Tourmaline brings up the rear, and Ren—she’s beside me, between Lotus and Zephyr, just like the old times—

Before my eyes, Zephyr starts to fade.

Quickly I play louder, faster. The image changes to the siege. I strike the zither and Bikong ignites. Arrows soar and our soldiers rush the walls. Smoke blooms and blood spills—enemy blood.

Fight back, my music says, or we will slaughter you.

Excerpted from Sound the Gong, copyright © 2024 by Joan He.

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