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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2. Part 2

Days had passed without event. We moved like mice through the valleys separating the factions until eventually we approached a tiny village at the foot of large waterfall, carrying a river towards the Sui faction capital where Sui Bai was no doubt sleeping comfortably. The village was poorer than most I’d seen nestled perfectly in the landscape, easy to overlook when you weren’t searching. We were already in Sui, but only just.

Daiyu once again was growing weak, having resisted sleep during the hours we slept in order to protect us both. I was becoming delirious still, the wound on my upper arm refusing to heal as the clothing clung to the pus that oozed from the wound. The bleeding had stopped, but that was about it.

The village mustn’t have been more than a kilometre square. Few houses, a few store fronts, a blacksmith radiating clouds of black, thick, fog from the fire pits inside, and another tavern-like building playing host to more half-humans. It was the tavern where we knew we’d find a bed for the night, but it wasn’t a pleasant thought when I considering meeting more people I knew would likely set my confidence back.

We navigated our way inside, drawing little attention looking as we did. Daiyu went off to find the appropriate person to talk to, leaving instructions not to move. I gazed around by myself, light only just reaching the other side of the tavern through the tinted glass, a ray passing sharply through the open air slicing the room in half. On the other half of the room, a woman sat by herself.

Our eyes met, and she smiled in return. I didn’t gesture back. Her face was worn, skin like thick beaten leather and hair wiry like straw. On her body, contrasting everything else about her, she wore a luxurious silk gown of two pieces, one wrapping above her chest and the second part draped over her shoulders. It resembled the pieces my sister wore for only the most special of occasions. Daiyu stepped in my line of vision, distracting my thoughts.

“Shang Li,” she said, under strict instruction to refrain from using the term ‘princess’, “they have a room. Come, come.” Her arm slipped gently around my own, towing me towards a set of stairs nestled in the far corner. A man stood waiting, a gruff expression on his face partially obscured by an impressive beard.

He followed behind as the noise of the tavern seceded. A door with a metal locking mechanism bolted into rotting wooden beams were the first thing in sight. The man grumbled some inaudible words and pushed past us. “Just one night and out early tomorrow morning,” the man said, his voice rough in the same way everyone around here appeared. “I need the room for some other guests.”

Daiyu and I followed the man across a small hallway, passing two doors and then stopping at the dead end, facing a final door that he also had to unlock with the large ring of iron keys. The door fell open with a squeak, revealing the first roof we could stay under since the beginning of our end. The first night not under the heavens.

I’d had the time to come to terms with what happened, but it didn’t make it any less painful. In the lone room, in the foreign faction of Sui, I reminded myself again that they were never ever coming back. I hadn’t felt anything so painful in days.

The man gestured with his pudgy hand around the room before blowing away the dust that’d settled on the candle by the door. Our beds were mere sheets on the ground stuffed with hay. There was a single window directly opposite the door, but covering in grime so thick it was impossible to see from it. Our host lit two candles as I took a step into the threshold, casting everything in a haunting glow.

“I didn’t think we’d be staying in a stable,” Daiyu muttered at the looming figure blocking the doorway.

The man shrugged and tossed from hand to hand the large pendant she’d traded for our night shelter. “It’s all you’ll find around here, and even if there was anything better they wouldn’t be taking a stolen necklace as payment,” he replied without a care, oblivious to who he was talking to and that the necklace was one of my own.

The blue jewel glistened in the sparse light and for a moment I lingered. The limited amount of possessions I’d managed to take from the palace upon my escape was just that, limited. On my person I had two more necklaces stuffed discreetly in my shirt and several delicate rings stuffed in my shoes. Living in the palace required neither Daiyu nor I to handle money.

“It’s not stolen,” I quietly replied as a sudden roar of celebration rattled up from the tavern below.

The man spat a laugh before he tucked the necklace out of sight. “Whatever you say, but no one will believe you. Remember, out early tomorrow morning,” he replied freely before turning and closing the door in his stead, shaking the delicate walls of the upper floor.

Silence enveloped us, and for the first time in what felt like months we sat on dry floor with the air still around us. I didn’t need the sheets to fall asleep when simply having four walls wrapped around me was enough. A black haze came over me as I tucked myself into a ball in one empty corner. Daiyu said nothing. My eyes sank shut. Time melted away.

It was then in my dreams that I saw the people I cried to meet again. I walked through the palace, a tall traditional structure coloured in reds and black. Paper and wood frames divided the part of the palace both my sister and I lived. My dream-self floated through the room, the sliding door moving without touch to follow after my sibling, light pouring through every opening.

Older by a few years, she was always my rival. Everything I done, she could do better. My body floated down into a cushioned chair, watching Shang Ru from the other side of the room. She delicately embroidered like how I’d usually find her in the early afternoons, an activity my mother hounded me to copy. Embroidery among other things my sister excelled at were things I refused to partake in much to my parents dislike.

My ghost-like form smiled before dropping off into my lap, taking in the fabric spilling over my lap and down around my ankles. A sheer golden wrap over a floor-length gown, standard dress for most in and around the palace. My sister in comparison never liked to be the same and wore a busy pattern of colour, styled in exotic fashions not custom to our faction.

Shang Ru began to talk, but no words reached my ears. Her delicate lips moved to form words I could almost decipher… But didn’t.

My eyes shank shut, and then reopened.

In front of me was no longer Shang Ru. I moved delicately through the gardens without sensing the body I was in. I recognised where I was; down the small cobble path I’d join a large square filtering everyone off into their appropriate quarters. The gardens overflowed with flowers of every kind, grasses and ivy entwining through beams and posts and round and round the small ponds littered around the palace.

My foot knocked into a red stained wooden platform connecting onto the kitchen wing of the palace just a couple paces away. It was the first time I became conscious of walking.

Taking a step up I let my head fall backwards until I saw nothing but clouded skies, stopping just before the palace gates separating me from the real world. Clouds hovered past fraction by fraction until the sun peeped out from behind the storm. The garden soaked in light and the flowers began to grow at impossible rates, reaching my knees as they hugged the platform I stood.

The first flower had grown tall enough, pruning forward before grazing the inch wide slot of skin between my ankle and shoes. It recoiled into itself, the edged of its green leafs turning a sour brown. The petal to have touched me shrivelled up and dropped off not a moment later. The entire plant shrunk away until nothing was left and the clouds rolled back in to cover the sun.

Transparent hands stemming from the body I stood reached over and grasped the edge of the fence enveloping the platform. It was then I watched like a wave rolling out from flower I touched, every piece of nature turning back and crumbling like ash. Like a wave had rolled in and went back out, taking everything with it, except this wave didn’t shrink back. It continued on.

The blackness stemming from my body on the platform moved out over the pond, a single frog floating to the surface belly-up before a small lotus on the same pond surface crumpled into itself and disintegrated into the gradient black waters.

It stopped at the furthest point I could see in the garden, until all that was left was black ash beginning to pick up with the winds. The sun no longer beamed down, the birds no longer sang.

I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t be sure if it were a dream or reality because it all felt too real but I still knew it couldn’t be… Nothing like this was possible. But my eyes were seeing and I was very sure the person was me.

My home began to sieve away like a plug had been pulled, the ash being carried up into the sky. In the same ash that rose up in a wave of black was my family. Three brothers, one sister, mother and father worked into the ash like they were one with the wave until they disappeared upwards as I sank down.

Everything went black.

***

I woke to hushed voices in the unfamiliar room. Daiyu, I recognised Daiyu without even having to open my eyes. So quietly they conversed that I failed to make out the words. With a groan I tried to roll over but found it harder than I’d anticipated. I felt like I’d been asleep for days and not a few hours like the sun outside – or lack of – indicated.

The voices stopped. I opened my eyes to the dull candle light but faced the wall. Pain ripped its way up my arm rendering my body paralyzed for that split second. I struggled to grasp a breath as if I’d ran a far distance.

“She’s sick,” the foreign voice said clearer.

Daiyu’s hand reached out and touched below my wound, helping me to lay on my back but not without pain. Sweat instantly formed on my forehead drowning me in cold shivers. “Shang Li, I’ve found a doctor,” she explained.

Fear was the first thing that registered. I couldn’t tell Daiyu off for the risk she’d taken in front of the so-called doctor and held that in for later. Weakly, I looked away from Daiyu and up over her shoulder at the taller figure on the opposite side of the room.

My eyes adjusted to the bright contrasting colours of the woman’s clothing, dazzling royal blues, white, and yellow. As I took in her face, I realised where I’d seen her before – in the tavern just earlier, the leather faced woman. Like before, a frown seemed to be her resting expression before her thin lips flicked kindly at the corners to form a small smile. “I could smell death over your shoulder from even when I first saw you,” she said, referring to earlier in the day.

Daiyu pried my clothing off my wound, ripping the fabric in the process to expose it to the air. I’d refused to look at it for the last few days as if forgetting it was there would make it better, and while the pain had faded, it had returned worse than before at Daiyu’s touch.

The tearing of fabric cut the air with its sound until suddenly a putrid stench was released upon revealing the mark.

When Daiyu and I had fled the palace, it all happened so quickly. Sui Bai had only brought five men, only five men to execute and burn down a palace of hundreds. It hadn’t seemed to take much effort, fights breaking out between our own men, swords flying just a pace over your shoulder wherever you went. I’d been disguised in my attempt to flee the palace so no one would have known, no one would have cared to avoid spearing the fleeing servant. Somewhere in the chaos, a sword had grazed my upper right arm and I’d fallen and injured my already delicate knee.

It was fate laughing in my face that the chance they’d given me was also the thing to kill me.

“She musn’t die,” Daiyu pleaded at the feet of the lady, radiating a superior aura and I wondered briefly who she really was. “A doctor must have medicines to cure all ailments. We’ll take them all!”

The lady snorted to herself before shaking her head. “Can’t cure death when it’s already taken hold. I can offer something to help with the pain though,” she said before reaching inside a compartment of her gown and cloak. “Here, but it’s not cheap.”

Daiyu peered back at me, but I was barely conscious just listening in. I struggled to form a thought and this must have given Daiyu all she needed to know. “We can pay you whatever you want. She will live.”

I watched lethargically as the lady produced a small red satin bag filled with what I assumed to be medicinal herbs. “Will numb the pain,” she said, “but it won’t cure it. A couple pieces of silver would cover the pouch here and last you until it’s over.”

Daiyu stuffed her hand into a pocket, revealing a delicate shimmering necklace. I recognised it as one she received for a birthday from her father. The delight on her face was fresh in my mind as young girls when she came to show me what her father had bought for her.

“No, Daiyu, I can pay for it,” I said, however unable to retrieve the rings in my boot.

She ignored me, opening the lady’s palm to hand over the necklace and snatching the satchel of herbs from the other.

“Best boiled in water and drank as a tea but you could soak them in water and apply it as a paste to the wound also. Whatever you prefer.”

It was sometime between then and the moments of lost consciousness that the woman left the room, and Daiyu too at one point returning sometime later. Pain was only slight when she cleaned and prepared the wound and then sometime after that I was propped up and being urged to drink a bowl of tea.

Time moved slower when you got into your head that you didn’t have a lot of it left. Despite Daiyu’s attempt to swat off the old lady’s words, I still slumped down and gave in. Just like that. I was going to die, a week after my whole family, having wasted whatever chance I had before to live and live for everyone else. I tried to feel sorry towards them all and especially those I’d leave behind, but I could only feel sorry for myself. It hurt, and I wanted it to end sooner rather than later if this was my fate. If it wasn’t my fate, I’d soon find out. Or not find out.

Night passed without event. Sure enough, the tea concoction and paste had helped – I no longer felt a thing. However without distraction I was victim to my own thoughts, sitting prisoner in my mind watching dreams as if they weren’t my own, always the same dream over and over. The gardens turning to ash. My family emerging from the ruin.

I would have preferred if morning hadn’t come at all but the rising sun told me nature as usual wouldn’t care what anyone wanted and was going to do it anyway. With the sun and blue skies came the man from before knocking at our door.

“I said I wanted you both out early. My guests will arrive soon and I won’t be taking the blame if it’s not ready in time.” He banged down the door so hard I worried it might split in two. With each heavy knock, dust flew off the frame and dispersed around the room.

Daiyu looked angrier than I’d ever seen her, refreshed from a night sleep and upset that after everything things weren’t looking any better. Her small hand grabbed the edge of the door and threw it open, cracking noisily against the door frame. Her hand behind her clutched the handle of a small dagger out of the tavern owner’s sight. “We’re leaving,” she growled, not having to worry about packing or gathering belongings we didn’t have. We simply had to take ourselves and get out of there.

She peered back at me, already aware I was in no state to move and for a moment her face read worry, a crease forming between her eyebrows as she averted her eyes. The bearded man followed her gaze and peered in the dim room. He looked at me in this state but he didn’t care.

I got up with a struggle as the two began to argue again. It was painful, but with the help of a protruding block of wood I managed to wedge my foot enough to get to my feet. Everything was muted. I struggled to feel and realised my thoughts too were beginning to escape before I got the chance to process them. Was this what it was like to slowly shut down? Was it the medicine?

Daiyu hoisted my arm over her shoulder, aiding me like she were a crutch out the room and then slowly down the stairs, with the burly man behind us every step of the way just to make sure we wouldn’t try and turn back. I couldn’t recall the journey through the tavern, the people around us, or how long it took.

What I could clearly remember however was stepping out into the cool air. The sun beamed down and bounced back off the dirt, bathing my pale body in a showering of light, a warmth spreading throughout me.

Taking my arm back, I dug deep for some confidence to get me moving and stronger for what would likely be a long journey ahead if we got that far. Daiyu said nothing as I stumbled a step on my own, having to remind myself there was nothing wrong with my legs. I was overreacting. I wasn’t sick. If I told myself I was fine, I’d be fine.

The rays of sun penetrated a week of grime, making me feel alive and free and refreshed. Perhaps it was just a state of delirium, but everything felt great whilst simultaneously being non-existent.

A commotion began down the road to the right of the tavern down a straight road leading out of the village and into the valleys – the same path we’d travelled to get here from Shang faction. I only just registered the man’s sigh of relief before muttering, “Just in time. Now clear off!”

Daiyu spat stubbornly at his feet before kicking a cloud of dirt up at him like a horse.

The real horses ahead were blurred, my field of vision shortened to just mere meters in front of my face. I made out brown beasts draped in colours with men atop yelling as they approached. Whoever these guests were, they looked important and therefore people we didn’t want to encounter.

Daiyu had the same thought as she guided me backwards but before we got more than a pace away a lightness spread from the centre of my skull and down my neck in a wave, a sensation of blood rushing to the very tips of my finger. My head felt empty. Like weights on my limbs, dragging me to the ground. And that’s what happened.

My friend was strong but not strong enough now. I fell out her grasp before she even realised what was happening. Sharp pain echoed through my head and then also through my bad arm. The stampede of horses slowed.

Nothing. Numb.

Someone dismounted their horse, their feet just meters in front of my face. Brown leather boots caked in fresh mud. My hearing dithered, but as everything fell away the only sound that registered was the soft twinkle of keys, jangling together in a pocket or in someone’s hand.

It was a pleasant noise, not like the rush of peoples and horses. Not like the shout of the man who’d aggressively evicted us from our room. Not like the yells of the men who killed my family and burnt my home.

Then the ground fell out from under me.

 

 

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