Dancing Azalea

Shang Li's family has been murdered. Her title and home ripped from her by those who sought to destroy everything she loved. Only she survives, only she will remember, and only she has the ability to restore and avenge the ghost of what once was.

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1. Part 1

I was injured with lasting damaged to my right knee and a large slash across my upper arm that risked infection. It hurt to move, the wound weeping with blood and pus and my body was growing weak with the fight against myself.

That’s nothing, my mind told me. My emotions hurt more than any physical pain, reeling over the last moments of my parents – every second I’d witnessed, every detail engrained in memory. I had no right to feel pain when my family would have felt worse during their last seconds in this world.

I sat in a secluded corner of a tavern near the edge of the Shang faction capital – where I’d lived not more than a week ago as Princess Shang Li. Now, I had no name. Now, I was no one.

My handmaid since childhood was with me, one of the few who had allowed me to escape the purge of the Shang faction royalty. Her small face looked down on the bare wooden table and lazily opened and closed her eyes as if resisting sleep. Watching her now you could assume she was weak, suited only to palace chores of cleaning and fulfilling the every whim of her masters. My maid, however, wasn’t to be taken at face value. Daiyu, was an able and loyal woman stronger than any man my parents had hired. Handy with knives too.

“We need to find a bed for the night, Princess Li,” Daiyu said slowly as her face slipped from her hand. I could tell she was near collapse, having walked for most of the day and had little sleep for most of the previous nights. She too had lost her family – her father being a servant in the palace like herself, now burnt to the ground with presumably everyone still inside – but Daiyu insisted she would follow me to the death in the very far future.

I couldn’t help but be pessimistic – I knew I was living on borrowed time; the purge of my family wasn’t complete until my head was on a spike beside my mother and father by the Shang palace gate. They were looking for me, and they’d catch up with me soon.

“We can’t rest here,” I said stubbornly, in that moment of two minds – One told me I should walk to the nearest prosecutor’s office and hand myself in to be put to death. Only in death could I be with those I loved.

The second part of my mind told me I couldn’t die… Not yet. The spilled blood of my family was still fresh, their bodies still warm. For as long as I physically could, I would pursue their murderers and punish them for it.

“Prince Sui Bai will never know we are here,” Daiyu insisted as she gradually awoken. Her hand clutched tightly a small glass of wine she’d got as we came in. I had done the same, hoping it would numb something inside.

We can’t rest for a moment, a voice inside countered Daiyu’s suggestion. If we stay here too long, we would never be able to keep up with Prince Sui Bai and take revenge.

My revenge however wouldn’t only be done with Sui Bai. My thirst for revenge that had a week to brew insisted I take down Sui Bai’s faction and restore my family to their former glory – and I knew only that could be done if the emperor detracted the title of traitor he’d placed on the Shang family moments before they were speared to death by foreign swords. I had to punish the men who’d held the swords, and the men who’d instructed them to do so. Every noble in the dynasty of Liang would pay.

I wasn’t innocent to politics. My father as Lord Protector of Shang faction had done absolutely nothing wrong. Whatever had been brewing in the capital had been kept from us and so we had been without a defence. It all came so suddenly, entirely without warning. My father would have felt so helpless in his last few moments as the news was delivered that he was now a traitor and was to die with immediate effect.

It’d been a normal day – my mother and I had strolled the garden just outside the main hall where my father was holding court with Shang faction official. A cobbled path lined with flowers wrapped around the hall and then from door to door, from the hall enterance to the walls of Shang palace. My mother was admiring her flowers, beginning to blossom once again bringing a smile to her lips.

As my mother and I rounded a canopy of trees, the palace gates opened abruptly only just within our sight and us out of theirs, our forms obscured by a veil of ivy.

“Go back to your room,” my mother, Lady Shang, had insisted when her eyes fell emotionlessly on Prince Sui Bai, wearing his official military uniform letting everyone know he had every right to carry the sword he did, encrusted with foreign jewels and metals.

It would never cross my mind even if I went back in time that the smiling, handsome figure known in the capital and in his faction as a quiet and mysterious man with a love for all things pure and beautiful would be the one to kill every person I loved.

The only people who entered through those gates and headed straight for the main hall was Prince Sui Bai and exactly five men. My father could have ordered his men in the hundreds at the first sign of an attack to arrest Sui Bai, but when the prince was armed with the emperor’s decree who would dare? My father certainly if the stories among the people held any truth. Even here in the tavern I wasn’t spared gossip of my family’s demise.

A haggard old man with months of grime all over his body just across the room was muttering incoherent sentences in his drunken stupor, a few of those about the traitor my father supposedly was linking him to crimes I knew he certainly hadn’t committed. “Lord Shang had it coming. He knelt like this,” the man demonstrated, “and said nothing as Sui Bai cut off his head.”

I found it hard to sit there and listen as they talked bad about everyone I once loved. My mother, my father, brothers and sister. Me. He continued without a care in the world, his wine slopping over the edge of the bowl and landing on the table that didn’t look like it’d been cleaned in months. “If you count the heads at the top of the palace gates you’ll find there’s one missing. Lord Shang had two daughters and three sons. A daughter is missing,” he said with a grin in his evil voice.

My hand curled around my glass until my nails began to bend, my fingertips turning white. Speculation over where I was would never be far. There’d been no official announcement yet that I’d escaped. Now when only anger was left it became harder to sit still, harder to preserve who I once was as I destroyed myself and everyone in the vicinity.

Daiyu’s hand reached out from across the table and gestured towards the door with her eyes. “We should rest. Just not here,” she said quietly.

“One of the daughters was a dancer, rivals any whore in this city I hear. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s being taken to a brothel in the capital to wait hand and foot on every official of Liang. It’s a shame they couldn’t have shared a piece of her with us though!” the man jeered with his fellow drunks as a round of cheers erupted at the notion.

It took everything in me to compose myself. Remember who I was and rise above. My sister, I thought, they were talking about my sister. She was dead but how were they to know what sister was the legendary fan dancer of Shang faction, a girl prided more by my father than our brothers. Few had seen her perform with their own eyes but words were always enough.

“Let me kill them, Daiyu,” I whispered harshly amongst the loud bustle of busy markets streets still yet to pack up and head home for the night, already escaping the tavern before anything else could he heard. “People like that are the poison of this nation. They don’t deserve to live.”

Daiyu who didn’t look any better from earlier said slowly in return, “people like that get what’s coming to them. You won’t know, Princess, but they’re like the flies and maggots that attack a bountiful hunt. They’ll take what’s not theirs whether they’re welcome or not, only bothersome in numbers.”

Recent storms had turned the roads muddy, coating everything below my knees in a thick plastering of dirt. Twisting into streets that never seemed to end, I replied to my servant, “Well I never knew how many maggots infested the capital.”

We reached a peak that let us look down over hills cascading over a valley in the distance and then even further would be the other factions of Liang – a distance rarely travelled. Daiyu replied as we marvelled the sunset over what once was all mine, “Those men are nothing without their drink, their gossip, and their friends. Take all that away and he’d rot and starve. Pesky but harmless. A maggot is nothing without more maggots and rotting flesh.”

I linked hands with Daiyu as we descended the steep slope, trying our hardest not to slide. At the base of the hill where from here out only farmers of Shang and nomadic people lived, I realised this would be the first time travelling so far without the luxuries I once had. Thoughts of death, blood, and revenge tainted my mind and right now resembled anyone but my old physical self. I walked with a limp and my clothes were the most unassuming I could find, now dirtied and smeared in mud and old blood. This was it. There was no going back.

“I have to do this,” I said suddenly as I peered back behind me, the slope now off in the distance and only the peak of taller houses visible beyond that. “I have to make every last person responsible pay. Those maggot-like men back there aren’t much different from them, from Prince Sui Bai. Alone, they’re harmless.”

“It’s not that simple,” Daiyu interrupted suddenly. “Those drunk men were simple, but Prince Sui Bai… the Emperor… They’re a lot harder to separate from the flesh they feast on.”

“I never said it wouldn’t be hard work, Daiyu,” I muttered in her direction as I paused in my track, a stream ahead and a canopy of trees nestled at the foot of a small cliff. “It’ll take time, but I have plenty of that to spare when all I should live for now is slitting Sui Bai’s throat.”

Daiyu tutted. “Your mother and father would never believe what words you’re uttering, Princess.”

I don’t have a mother and father, I thought, courtesy of the evil that infested this world. I knew what I had to do and I was sure of myself. I had never felt surer of anything in my life.

Right now we were just dancing the border of Shang faction, the smallest of the three that made up great Liang dynasty. Sui faction was to the east, Tang faction to the north-west. At the centre, enveloped by all defending factions was Liang, seating an emperor I once prayed to every night at my father’s request. The emperor whose decree had commanded Sui Bai to hold the sword to my father’s neck. The traitor.

That’s where we had to go. It wouldn’t be far – a carriage would make for a few days travel. On foot, a couple of weeks at this rate assuming the infection brewing in my body didn’t kill me first.

At least I’d die trying. At least then I could be with them and see their faces. It had only been a week but it felt like a month, my memory of the days running up to their death, patchy and damaged. My head wouldn’t let me remember.

The moon appeared, rising in the distance above the cliff peaking over the twinkling rocks. Yesterday at this time, I’d prayed by our shrine with my sister, for the health of the dynasty, our emperor, our family. Tonight I did the same – I prayed for Liang, I prayed for the emperor, and I prayed for my family.

I prayed Liang felt the searing pain that rioted in my chest, I prayed the emperor cried tears of blood and dreamt of my family’s cold and pale faces, and I prayed my family watched over me well in my bid to avenge and then ultimately join them.

I prayed for them to sleep well and not feel a thing.

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