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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3. Part 3

The bedding below me was soft and smooth, like the ones I’d had in my room in the palace, made of luxurious silks and embroidered and dyed in wonderful colours that reflected the rainbow. For a second, forgetting all that had happened to lead me here, I opened my eyes with a smile.

The sun blinded me, streaming through a large open frame peering over an empty field and then some houses at the other side. As my eyes adjusted, I took in the room surrounding me. A nook for sleeping housed my body before I drifted across the room and took in the various valuables and ornamentals – a vase decorated in foreign images, a gold coloured box that I could only imagine housed fine jewels, and countless other objects and paintings bathed in the same light that caressed me.

“I was worried you wouldn’t wake up,” a smooth male voice said quietly, out of my sight.

I tried to sit up but regretted it immediately. I fell back the small height I’d managed to sit and groaned into the air in pain.

Footsteps followed, revealing a lean figure clad in a short non-traditional robe often worn by horse mounted men. His face was soft, gentle with no trace of facial hair. Downturned eyes and a small, flat nose. The sun enveloped him like a halo before everything became clearer. As he came closer, the sun faded around him. His wide shoulders were double the width of my own, his neck thick like the trunk of a tree.

“Who are you?” I asked as even my hands refused to cooperate, desperately trying to grab a blanket as if it’d act like a shield between me and this stranger.

He only laughed before throwing a glance over his shoulder at nowhere in particular. His hand blindly went searching inside his robe before revealing a small porcelain jar as he replied, “I saved you. You were dying.”

My hand shot up with the most energy it had in a while and tapped gently my other injured upper arm. There was no pain. I’d been clothed and presumably bandaged. “What happened?” I muttered quietly as I grabbed the sleeve and tried to pry it up my arm.

“You were dying,” he repeated. “But nothing I couldn’t fix.” He held up the bottle, decorated simply with small flower petals over white.

“I was told there was nothing that would help,” I said as a cream cotton bandage peaked out from under my sleeve. No blood, no dirt. I’d clearly been bathed too.

The man shook his head as he pursed his lips. “Well whoever told you that clearly hadn’t met me before. I brought in a good doctor. Stitched up your arm, removed the infection, and now you have some medicine you need to take for the next week. Will probably leave a nasty scar but I didn’t think you’d mind.”

I let my head fall back as I stared up at the top of the bed nook, wondering where I should even start. “But… Why?”

“Do you not remember?” He laughed as he sat himself on the corner of the bed, his hands clasped together. “You very well near died in front of my men the moment we rode into town. Straight down at my feet. Bad luck that is, even if you are just a peasant. If I just left you, that’d be wishing bad luck on the nation.”

A puzzled expression etched on my face as I thought through what he said. I couldn’t understand the logic, but I understood I was only getting part of the story. I’d collapsed at their feet, who exactly were they?

The man was quick to catch on and quickly explained himself. “I haven’t introduced myself have I? I haven’t told you much at all. How worried you must be. And your friend… She’ll be wondering how you are.”

He absentmindedly began to mutter but at the mention of who I thought was Daiyu I suddenly found motivation and energy to move that’d been absent before, startling the man who thought I was unable to move when my legs came flying into his side. “Where is she?” I said in a rush.

The man scratched his head before an awkward laugh escaped his lips like this were all a game and a laughing matter, which to him it probably was. “Not here, but she’s safe,” he replied. “A close friend, this person?”

“Her name, her name is Daiyu. She wouldn’t have left me here. Where is she?” I pressed, knowing fine well that Daiyu wouldn’t have left me here with just anyone and especially not people like this. I had no idea who they were, what they wanted, what they knew.

“Her,” he muttered as if he were annoyed, “Tried to fight off my men after we tried to bring you here. Consider me superstitious but who am I just to watch another person die just as myself and my parade arrive? She fought with a few of Lord Sui’s men who are under command of the Liang Emperor. What she has done could be considered treason, obstructing the will of my men who are only acting on command of the emperor. She’s been locked up.”

“The emperor?” I asked as I grew worried, forgetting who I was, who I am. This man didn’t seem to know or care, he seemed to think I was a normal citizen he’d saved from certain death. “Then who exactly are you?”

There was a moment of peaceful silence. “Sui Feng,” he replied moments later. “A son of the Sui faction.”

My heart skipped a beat. Was this a blessing or a curse? This was Sui Bai’s brother – Sui Bai who’d killed my entire family. Sui Bai who might as well have killed me too for all my life was currently worth.

Now the people from this family would take it one step further and kill the last person to be there for me, unknowingly. It made my blood boil more than it’d ever had the chance to before. No upset to mask the storm. Just clouds rolling in with no sun behind them.

“You better hope she’s not dead,” I said bluntly, staring up directly into the eyes of the man who had supposedly saved my life. “Release her! Or take me to her at the very least.”

Sui Feng looked more amused than offended by the demands and smiled lightly in return. “And who are you to command me around like this? Nevermind, I’ll take it that you’re not in your right mind. Your friend is fine. She’s in the capital, we’re in the capital. I’ll take you to her soon, but first I have some business to attend to.”

He got up from his perch on the sheets and stood tall again, heads above me as he wandered towards the open frame on the other side leading to an illuminated corridor.

Before he stepped through, he twisted his head over the shoulder giving me a last chance to say something else.

“When can I leave?” I asked as if I needed his permission.

He scoffed at the suggestion and pivoted slightly from his heel. “Leave? After all the money I’ve invested in medicine and doctors? You need to repay me first,” he replied with a laugh, sauntering away before I got the chance to yell after him.

“Repayment?” I muttered to myself as I found myself sitting up. “I didn’t ask him to save me.”

No, I thought, this was working out for the better; of all people to save me – whether out of the kindness of their hearts of depths of their evil plans – this couldn’t be going better. Sui Feng, he was merely someone I’d heard of, never seen in person like his more famous brother Sui Bai, a military commander and Liang dynasty sweetheart. Sui Feng could be an angel from the heavens or a spawn of the devil. Sui Feng could be my foot up the ranks, closer to those untouchable people who I’d once been like too. Those untouchable people who’d pay for the things they did to me and my family.

My being here with these people was seemingly a coincidence, but I was going to do everything I could to get the most out of it.

***

My father wasn’t a traitor. In fact, he was often admired by the emperor on the two occasions I’d met him – once when I was a very little girl, and the other when I was in my early teens. Both occasions, in the presence of all other faction lords the emperor had praised solely him. My cloudy memories made it hard to find the exact praises, but one had always stuck with me maybe because I saw it every day with my own eyes – the emperor had admired Lord Shang’s loyalty.

My parents never spoke frankly and simply lived and thought as they were supposed to – unlike many others, you could say. I watched and lived under it – living out our days in the Shang faction palace breathing solely for Liang, eating solely for Liang. Existing only so the emperor and Liang could exist. My parents were great people who helped their poor and held high morals for themselves and everyone around them. My sister was a perfect product of the way they tried to bring us up.

She knew several languages, was fully prepared to sacrifice her happiness for her country, knew how to present herself in front of many important officials at dinner, and was a pride of our faction. Maybe that was why everyone knew my sister and no one had heard of me. I lived in her shadow, but I couldn’t say I didn’t like it; I enjoyed not having to be a certain way.

I realised then it was the only reason I escaped the slaughter. Who would remember me in anything but an afterthought? By the time the afterthought struck, I’d already escaped the palace.

As memories from past years danced over the back of my closed eyelids, I had to wonder what had went wrong. Did my father know Sui Bai was coming for him with the emperor’s decree? Was he really a traitor, only he hid it from us well? Did he know nothing yet still accept the will of the emperor to put him to death?

No one was more loyal to the Liang dynasty than my father. Look where that got him. If he were a traitor, then I’m a dead girl walking.

The sun was setting slowly over the landscape, bathing my room in a dull orange hue. I got up from the mountain of sheets and let blankets collapse around me at my unstable feet. For a second I stumbled.

I’d taken more medicine, knowing right now I had no other choice but to obey. I was full of energy able to walk but still expecting my feet to fall out from under me. My mind was sharp, but still expected the thoughts to drain away into darkness. Sure enough I was cured.

I reached down towards the hem of my gown, brushing my ankles, and cautiously began to gather it up in my hands up and over my under garments until I’d bunched it just above my bellybutton. There was no trace I’d ever wandered for over five days and nights through the Shang faction wilderness. No trace of the suffering. I resembled the unassuming princess from before. I resembled Princess Shang Li, but I wasn’t allowed to be her.

The gown fell back down around my ankles as I reached out to roll up my sleeve, disbelieving that I was now completely fine. The bandage unravelled easily in my hands not sticking to the wound like I partly expected. It fell away towards the ground, revealing a red puckered scar only delicate to the touch. Stitches embraced the puckered lip, smothered lightly in a dull green paste painted smoothly over the surface.

I was cured, using medicine I knew I wouldn’t have been able to get myself unless I was the person I was before. I owed Sui Feng nothing, except maybe a thank you.

I wandered quietly out what I was thinking would become my open prison, following a trail of candle light down a hall that spanned off in a few different directions. I didn’t know where I was going but it didn’t scare me, no, it took a lot to scare me now.

My feet glided over the varnished wooden floors, my hands only brushing the corridor on either side of me housing minimal decoration and branching off into other darkened rooms presumably empty. Was Sui Feng asleep? Were all the maids asleep too?

I took another turn and saw a bathing of moonlight at the other side. Realising I’d finally navigated myself through the maze of an estate, I walked faster.

The gardens stretched out in front of me just below a decked structure ascending from the doorframe I’d stepped down from. A path wound round in a U-shape before ending on the other side right in front of me, gazing out over the same field I could see from my window. I realised then I was back at my room, only looking at it from the outside. I audibly sighed.

I wasn’t planning on running, I told myself. I was staying here, I had to stay here for Diayu and until I at least figured out what to do with myself. There was no need to sigh. I was alive and kicking. I was getting stronger. Sui Feng had unknowingly helped the enemy and that was his loss not mine. I should be laughing, I should be delighted at fate’s delicious way of going about things.

I jumped down the single step and landed in the damp grass, the blades of grass tickling my bare feet. There was a path. The grass filled the entire inner garden, decorated minimally with a single sculpture in the centre, a path circling before snaking down towards the step. Beautiful white flowers dotted the grass, but not much else.

It didn’t remotely resemble the magnificent gardens of the Shang palace I’d grown up in, the gardens bearing dozens of exotic plants and wildflowers, perfectly pruned flowering trees, and large gold statues that danced in the sun. But the simplicity here was nice.

Everything was still for a moment, maybe too still, and that’s why I noticed the moving shadow on other side of the horse-shoe just opposite me. Too close for comfort, I thought. I could still be lying in that room oblivious to those who wandered just a wall away.

I wasn’t stupid to think whoever it was hadn’t already seen me, and they weren’t purposely trying to hide the fact they were here. In one swift motion, they suddenly jumped over the bannister and landed with a dull thump just two meters in front of me.

The light limited most of what I could see, but their figure matched Sui Feng’s – tall and broad – but this wasn’t Sui Feng. The light caught only fractions of their face but their features were different. Half their face was shrouded in darkness but I caught glimpse of their eyes, narrowed in suspicion but naturally almond in shape. Their lips were proportionate to their elongated face that caved just below the cheekbone. Their jawline was clear no matter the lighting. They took a slow step forward. I hopped back.

“You’re one of my brother’s women, I imagine?” They asked quietly, their voice smooth like silk. Like a snake if it could talk. I stared up at their face, not used to shying away like a lower person might in the face of who was likely a noble figure.

So this is another Sui brother, I thought to myself. Well isn’t this perfect. I let any comments slide off my lips as he continued to stare me down, a look of disappointment donning his face.

“Sui Feng has many consorts in the capital. Whatever tale he’s told you, promise he’s made, Sui Feng won’t keep it,” he muttered, almost sympathetically as his calloused hand reached up and neared my face. “He doesn’t treat his women well.”

I swatted his hand away as his thumb neared my chin forcing him back a step. His eyes widened in surprise for a second before he took back his stance. “I’m Sui Feng’s guest,” I spat, surprising both myself and the man opposite me with my confidence. If I had planned to play the part of a peasant that was firmly out the question now.

A small smile licked at the corner of his lips. “And his guest is?” he taunted, his figure more looming that his siblings, more intimidating than those first impressions and I forced myself out of a cower. And I still had no clue who exactly he was or how he fit in the complicated family picture.

I stuck my chin out and tried my best to not look pathetic, two heads smaller and standing in unflattering nightwear. “If it were your business, you’d know,” I replied. “You could be anyone for all I know.” Although I was confident that this man was actually a relation of Sui Feng and Sui Bai’s. The resemblance was startling and I realised their genes were strong ones.

It was a pity the genes in my family were not – my sister had inherited my mother’s beauty but unfortunately I’d only inherited her stubborn nature.

The man scoffed. “I’m Lian Cuo,” he proclaimed, “doesn’t that make this my business?”

The name floated between us as if he expected me to grasp it out the air and jump with it. Instead it sank like a dead weight. His smug expression began to fall as if he hadn’t anticipated my lack of reaction.

Looking at his face, I realised that was supposed to mean something. Despite being Shang Li, a princess of Shang faction, I hadn’t heard of everyone – not even every complicated branch of the Sui family tree, assuming he really was a brother.

Whoever he was, he never flew under the radar often by the looks of it.

“Well, Lian Cuo, I still can’t trust who you say to be so I’ll have to let you find out who I am from your brother,” I replied, turning promptly away with intention of heading back to my room concerned now I’d started something when I just wanted a quiet life for now.

I heard him roughly kicking the dirt before laughing in disbelief. “This girl,” he muttered as I rounded the outer porch towards my room – that I hadn’t realised was there before - rather than navigating my way through the indoor maze. His gaze followed me but I couldn’t be sure for how long, trying my hardest to focus on the wood below my feet. “I hope you have status to be talking to a prince of Sui like this!” he bellowed into the night like a spoiled child.

I fiddled nervously with the a small latch on the door – the ones peering out over the field – and they quickly fell open. I stepped inside as composed as I could and didn’t look back. The door slammed behind me. Lian Cuo, presumably, stormed away.

***

The carriage was cramped and hot, two bodies stuck inside on a hot summer’s day. It didn’t make for good travelling but I was coming to learn that while Sui Feng was a prince, he wasn’t high up the rank of princes. At least not the level of his brother, Sui Bai, who I know wouldn’t have the embarrassment of travelling in a carriage like this.

The Sui faction was one that never stopped growing; the king had plenty woman and a demand for sons. He had more than I cared to count and so a ranking was necessary so they knew their place in the palace, assuming they even made it there.

In my home faction of Shang, my father had embraced close relations – he had taken two wives, a queen and a concubine; the concubine died when I was a child and never bore any children, the queen – my mother – lived a loving life until the day she died alongside my father, sister, and brothers.

I found the situation in the Sui palace pitiful, to be honest.

“When we arrive we will head straight towards the prison. I’ll be going to the palace later to meet Lord Sui but you won’t be allowed to come. I trust you’ll be fine on your own for a few hours but I’ll allow one of my men to stay behind and keep watch anyway,” he said without room for bargain as we seemed to go over a ditch in the track.

It was mid-day outside but you’d never have known, the light inside the carriage being darker than late evening. “Why can’t I come into the palace?” I questioned, even though I was fine staying out with Daiyu. It gave me the chance to catch up with her and discuss what we wanted to do next.

Sui Feng looked distant as he squinted through a small gap in the fabric covering the open frame, bathing his face in light revealing his youthful features. After a moment, he replied, “I’m not sure my father would appreciate having a peasant in the palace. Maybe if you were a noble or even a blacksmiths daughter… Besides, you have no business in the place.”

But I had plenty business, I thought. My reply spilled from my lips before I had a chance to review and contain. “But I thought I was your good luck charm,” I muttered.

He spat a laugh as if he hadn’t said it himself – but he essentially had. “Whatever made you think that?”

I let my eyes fall down towards my lap in thought as I comfortably replied, “Well you only decided to spare my life when you realised I was about to die at the feet of your men on parade. If I died there, it would be wishing bad luck on both yourself and the emperor. You saved me, dispelling the bad luck. It was a miracle I survived. You’ve said it yourself.”

He nodded along but didn’t appear to be fully following. “That makes sense,” he said, chatting with me as if we were old friends. “You might possibly be a bringer of good fortune. But that still doesn’t mean you have any business in the palace.”

I laughed discreetly at being the bringer of good fortune. If things went how I hoped to plan, I’d be the bringer of their demise more than anything else. It was a strange feeling, the satisfaction brought by such wicked thoughts and deception of people who tried to trust me. I’m now truly not the person I once was.

They deserve it though, a side of me countered.

The carriage came to a halt soon after that and a servant of Sui Feng rushed to his side and pulled open a small door for us both to crawl out of. The sun touched my skin for the first time in hours and the sickness welling up inside of me from the constant motion immediately began to sink away. As I composed myself and vision adjusted, I began to look around.

We’d arrived in a square just opposite tall granite walls surrounding their palace, invisible from where we stood. The palace might have been in the centre of the Sui capital, but I had no way of knowing – I hadn’t watched a single moment of our journey and that was probably a mistake.

The square was grand but I knew that much like the faction of Shang, the extravagance and luxury would dither the further from the palace you got. The slabs beneath me were each intricately carved. A road of carriages went around in a turning circle just meters behind us. Immediately behind that streets began the most expensive looking houses in this small area.

While my home faction also liked to show off, I thought the case here was a little excessive. How many people were starving, just miles away from here? How many people could fed themselves for a year with the money used to make just a single cobble beneath my feet?

“Come,” Sui Feng said, gesturing for me to following him just at the foot of the grand opening towards the palace gates. Instead of heading on towards them he sharply turned left.

A discreet gate was just on from there, guarded by men who wore military uniforms rather than that of a eunuch like those who manned the main gate. Sui Feng only had to look at them for the men to step aside like obedient dogs. The frame was so low, Sui Feng had to duck under it.

Worry began to well up inside me, the reality of Daiyu being in a place like this suddenly hitting me as real. I’d been so caught up in myself and my problems to realise Daiyu was in fact a person and not just my person.

A courtyard sprawled out in front of me, a dull square leading off into a tall brick building, many military men dotting the yard and strolling around. None took notice of us, presumably because they all knew who Sui Feng was. Sui Feng seemed familiar with the yard and split straight down the centre and towards an empty frame directly opposite us staring down into darkness.

“The cells,” Sui Feng explained, pointing off into the same darkness. Daiyu was here?

A single man led us in, a candle in his hand to light the way inside. Unlike the exterior, the interior was dull and decaying but that was probably the point. A festering environment for the worst of criminals – but Daiyu was no criminal. The walls wept and seemed to narrow as we approached a staircase leading down into the bowels of presumably the palace.

Sui Feng turned back as if to check I was still following, but I had no escape with another man to my rear guiding us down into the prison. It may have been the expression on my face, I wasn’t sure, but Sui Feng wasn’t trusting that I wouldn’t run away. He reached down and clamped my wrist between his thumb and finger, towing me after him.

He ascended the stairs but not for long. One guard went ahead and lit several candles, basking what at first appeared to be another cramped corridor in an ocean of orange glow. The room opened up before me as the light travelled, revealing wrought iron bars to the right of us.

Several men were cramped into the far cell and their eyes reflected the candlelight but otherwise shrivelled up as if they were allergic to fresh air. A guard stamped forward and they all clung together like beaten dogs.

For a moment I thought Daiyu wouldn’t be here – she wouldn’t be kept in such conditions. It was barbaric. Locked in darkness where hours would feel like days, unlikely to be fed, unlikely to be set free. However in the cell closest to me, it was her voice that called out to me first.

“Li,” she said simply, her voice rough but strong. On any other occasion I may have berated her for calling me Li, but use of my full name Shang Li was a danger when in such close proximity to my enemies. I would have to conjure a new one.

She stepped closer, letting me see the full scale of damage done to my only other person in the world. She wore the same thing as when I’d last seen her, still dirtied, still bloody. She’d somehow gotten to clean her face but that appeared to be it. Daiyu moved with a limp but that was the least of my worries.

My eyebrows furrowed in confusion as to why this was even necessary to a woman who was hurt enough as it is. Why they would heal me but toss away my companion. Why any of this was even happening and why it couldn’t be stopped.

I turned pointedly to Sui Feng. He looked expressionlessly along the wall of prisoners without much visible thought. Angered, I growled, “Did you have to do this?”

He glanced over my shoulder at the guards before his gaze flicked back towards mine, a hint of annoyance settling under his lashes. So Sui Feng was fine with my attitude so long as he wasn’t embarrassed in public? “I don’t have to do anything, it was your friend who broke the arm of a man in my parade pursuing a duty of the emperor. She could be tried and executed for treason,” he replied matter-of-factly.

Daiyu shrunk back and observed, wondering what I’d managed to develop in the days I’d been awake and kicking. We both knew how the other thought. “It’s only treason if you make it. She didn’t know your man was carrying out a duty of the emperor so she shouldn’t be tried for anything. I feel it would be wise to let her go,” I carried on saying.

Sui Feng discreetly reached out for my wrist again, growing confident in his physical power over me and pulled my arm towards him only just in the shade of other watchful eyes. He forced out between clenched teeth, “she is here now and awaiting trial. Even I have no power to let her walk free – only Lord Sui, his congress, or the emperor have the power to let her out of here now.”

I looked back at Daiyu and she smiled sweetly. What contrast to the girls we once were. I could remember days in the palace with Daiyu going about her daily routine. She would wake me up, eat breakfast with me, serve me tea, and put me to bed all while being a true friend. We’d share make up and do our hair. I’d gift her my old clothes and she’d teach me how to shoot arrows like how she’d learnt from her father. We were too alike not to get along.

That could be me being those bars, facing the same situation as her if I wasn’t so lucky. But she was lucky, I had to remind myself. She could always be dead just like her family.

“I’m fine. It could be worse,” she said, her voice carrying through the room like an echo. I agreed; it could’ve been a lot worse but that of course wasn’t the point.

If the only way to get Daiyu out of there was to have any one of those people say the magic word, so be it. I’d make it happen. I’d had my way my entire life, I even lived through the massacre of my faction’s royalty less than a month ago. I cheated death by curing an infection that should’ve killed me and now I was standing freely in the dungeons of the Sui faction palace and not behind bars. No one suspected a thing, no one was worried about me.

Daiyu was the last person on my side – on Shang Li’s side, the second princess of Shang faction. I’d live for her like how she lived for me and if she died then my life wasn’t one worth living. I can’t seek revenge on my own, not from here.

“When is your meeting with Lord Sui?” I asked casually as the guards in the background tossed scraps into the loaded cells. The prisoners scrambled like rats making an awful noise.

Sui Feng looked annoyed as he reached yanked me towards him and leaned down over me to whisper close to my ear, “You’re crazy but if not for your crazy I may have left you to your own devices to day you woke up. It’s your charm, Li.” Sui Feng leaned back, his words still bouncing around my ear trying to make sense with so much moving around us. “You still have no business in the palace though if that’s what you’re getting at.”

It was me this time who pulled him closer but said loudly anyway, “you’re mistaken. I do have business there. I want to meet Lord Sui to ask why he’s falsely imprisoned Daiyu and you will take me with you so we can discuss it.”

He looked more than fed up as he turned to escape back up the staircase. “Yeah, well, if you’re not careful you’ll be the in the cells next,” he muttered only just audibly, “But whatever you want. You were getting bothersome anyway.”

I only had seconds to glance back at Daiyu and caught little indication of how she felt or what she was thinking. She’d sunk back into the darkness of the cells and slumped against the weeping walls, a small lump of food in her hands that a guard had tossed into the cell as if feeding the hounds.

Just wait, I thought, I’ll get you out of there soon.

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