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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4. Part 4

The palace was unlike any I’d visited before. I couldn’t recall if I’d been to Sui as a child with my family, but I was sure I’d remember a palace like this.

The palace couldn’t be seen from outside the palace gates because it was set so far back in the landscape, like a city within a city. The palace itself towered high like one might expect, but not in typical architectural styles I’d seen in my limited travels.

Gardens were minimal and wings of the palace were connected by indoor corridors rather than separate houses. Packed together in a small space, one room atop another. Compared to the home I was used to, Sui palace was most intimidating. From the entrance in, everything was dull. The lack of windows and open space made for easy tripping setting the mood for what I knew would probably come.

“And this is the actual palace?” I asked towards Sui Feng’s back that continued confidently.

He answered towards the air in front of him, saying, “It is. Nice, isn’t it?”

I couldn’t even bring myself to laugh knowing he was probably fully serious. To a commoner like he assumed me to be, the palace of Sui would be more than nice. It was stable. It was warm. It wasn’t infested. I wouldn’t die here.

If they wanted to ward off unwanted guests though, they were certainly getting that right.

A bustle of life in what I was beginning to think was a dead palace appeared as we got closer to a deadend. I tiptoed to peer over Sui Feng’s shoulder but his form was just far too large to get a look over. Sui Feng without realising my struggle turned his head only slightly to the side to mutter in my direction, “Some of my siblings are here as well.”

It only took one of Sui Feng’s siblings to notice us for the rest to follow. The smallest of the lot who seemed ostracized from the group turned his head and caught my eye first in the shadow of Sui Feng. He looked curious but that was quickly wiped when he caught the gaze of his older brother.

“Feng!” one of them happily greeted as the large group in an illuminated reception area finally took us in.

They shared a brief brotherly pat on the back before a younger girl, who looked tiny compared to the others in the room, stepped out with a large grin on her small face. “Brother!” she exclaimed before she too enveloped him in a hug. “It’s been too long,” she said innocently, appearing no older than mid teens.

The others who stood around had little to no reaction and I immediately caught hint of the relationships they had with each other. I could only imagine how hard a relationship was when you were all rivals pitted against each other in a faction like this.

I could have missed him, standing at the back unassumingly staring up at the ceiling in thought and out of everyone’s way but his face was one I’d never be able to gloss over. Sui Bai looked comfortable, and that irritated me.

He donned that expression that had girls swoon for him; like he were in thought, pondering the meaning of life and how he could shift the stars. Like someone important – places to go, people to see. Sui Bai never had that effect on me though – he was a Sui and that had always been enough to have me wary. The Sui faction wasn’t known for their peaceful nature and on top of it he was a general of the Sui forces.

I had planned to keep in the shadows of Sui Feng, acting like a servant he’d brought along like it appeared many of the other siblings had done. Sui Bai had a quivering maid standing obediently by his side while another had a blank looking eunuch replicating his every move.

A familiar face also had a maid, and he was staring at me before I got a chance to stare at him. Lian Cuo looked the same but in the slightly better lighting his skin looked smoother whether the result of a wash or a shave or something else entirely I wasn’t sure. A playful glint took place where I’d seen hostility before as if life to him might be one big game to play.

Seeing him here had at least confirmed who he was, but had Sui Feng told him who I was?

Conversation moved from Sui Feng and back into little groups. Discreetly, I reached out to tap Sui Feng’s shoulder and craned up to say softly, “What are we waiting on?”

Sui Feng pursed his lips as he looked over our other company and then muttered so only the two of us could hear, “Lord Sui is currently meeting with his ministers. We’ll be invited in at the end and answer his questions.”

“But why though?” I pushed, not understanding the point in Sui Feng’s visit to the palace.

I realised I was pushing boundaries, but Sui Feng although annoyed said little about it. He took a step to his right, twisting his body towards me as he said, “How can he pick an heir if he knows nothing of what his children are up to?”

I understood his point, and partly thought the hassle was his fathers own fault – Lord Sui wasn’t the emperor, so it was entirely not needed to have all these children to keep tabs on. Picking an heir? I had to snort. That was something only the emperor could decide. He wasn’t picking an heir, Lord Sui was keeping up with his sons so he could stay in favour with the most powerful and hopefully allow himself to live out the rest of his days in the palace.

The emperor of Liang would choose an heir for Lord Sui, and if Lord Sui got on the emperor’s bad side then the emperor would choose the least favourable. I knew this from my life as Princess of Shang. I knew these brothers and Lord Sui also knew quite well too.

No one took any notice of me. It seemed it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Sui Feng to bring a servant or any of the other brothers. Their discussions went back to the less serious matters, those involving their princely conquests and dealings in their own private outer palace homes. I tried to study Sui Bai from the side-lines, listen to what he had to say… but there wasn’t much.

I had imagined him to be telling on repeat the story of how he slaughtered my family with his very own sword, proud like one might be if they’d just speared a boar for the family supper when all they usually had was half a chicken from the local market. He’d parade the boar through town and taunt everyone with his hunting prowess and achievements.

Sui Bai, through purely what I’d heard, seemed more like the type to never let anyone forget and brag for days. The type who’d get drunk and brag about the boar for the fiftieth time that week as if everyone hadn’t heard it before.

But everyone seemed like they hadn’t heard the story. No one mentioned the death of the Shang faction rulers. No one mentioned that they died by Sui Bai’s sword and no one mentioned what was going to happen next.

I wanted to see some form of reaction, even one that I would hate, anything just so I could prove some of the blame lay with him. I knew some of the blame lay with him but I wanted the words to come from his own mouth first.

Before I could become lost in the thoughts that went round and round teasing me to speak out and stand up to the culprit right in front of me, the door separating the siblings and I from the main hall cracked open.

The frame was a dark hardwood, glossed in a black translucent stain and then hugged with a brilliant gold trimming contrasting everything in the palace so far. Perhaps an indication of what to find inside.

The light beamed out from within, framing the servant who appeared from the crack in the door. The bowed once in the general direction of the siblings and then pushed open the door to allow us in. We funnelled in silently, with the exception of Sui Feng who muttered down to my side.

“You shouldn’t say a word,” he said so only I could hear.

I gritted my teeth and stood in line with my pretend-master. “There’s a lot I shouldn’t be doing like being here right now, but here I am.”

Sui Feng didn’t reply, visibly irritated with my response and presumably regretting even allowing me to come with him. It was a huge risk on his part, a risk he didn’t even need to take considering he owed me absolutely nothing.

I could only conclude that he was a sucker for a woman’s word and couldn’t say no. Demanding him to bring me here today, he didn’t have to allow it. I could have been anyone for all he knew but it was purely his stupidity that allowed him to assume I was a meaningless peasant he could play with. The consequence if anyone found out who I really was would truly be terrible for Sui Feng.

The hall opened up in front of my eyes as everyone filtered away towards their designated position. The room was filled with windows, illuminated with the natural light of day revealing the true colours hidden out in the halls. The floors, stained the same now appeared clearer, the grain of the wood shooting off in front of me towards the top of the hall and under the feet of those I followed before hiding under a brilliant red rug.

I glanced around to get a scope of the place. I could run from side to side in under two claps of my hand. It was when sizing out the hall I skimmed over Lord Sui’s ministers. Much like my father’s they all wore a robe in the colour of the faction and sat on a small cushion, lining on either side of the walkway towards presumably the throne at the top.

The siblings, if Lord Sui managed his meeting like my father had, would sit behind the ministers closest to the throne.

Sui Feng suddenly reached out blindly and roughly shoved me into his shadow, his hand forcefully jamming into my side forcing me into a bow just as he was beginning to bend at the waist in front of his father.

Lord Sui was someone I’d seen only a handful of times, or at least, he was someone I thought I’d seen. He wasn’t memorable, he never done anything noteworthy, and his face was forgettable. Today I thought no different.

Sitting on a throne of gold and jewels, emitting a radiance that screamed conquer and control it took up much of the elevated platform only his majesty was allowed to set foot on. On either side were two pillars and like ivy had a wrapping of gold spiralling from the top. Lord Sui himself wore a red robe, unable to wear gold like the emperor would. It was still something to see – his robe detailed in fine embroidering I was too far away to study bar the Sui crest featuring the fluid form of a lizard.

The man in the robe, sitting in the throne, on the platform… As I thought. Forgettable. His face was old, wrinkles forming where even a man ten years his senior would not. His face was round, one most of the Sui brothers had not inherited. Lord Sui’s body was masked by the robe that drowned him but I thought it fine to think there was likely little to be seen. Peeping out from the sleeves were pale claw-like fingers, clutching onto the arms of his magnificent throne.

Lord Sui didn’t look like he was supposed to be sitting there and he likely knew that too.

I barely noticed the three ladies sat in front of the throne platform on a raised bench, saved being sat on the floor like the Sui siblings and ministers. His queen and two noble concubines. Lord Sui had many more than three concubines, I already knew. These ones would be his favourites.

Sui Feng towed me off towards the left and sat me with a shove on the floor behind his floor mat. In another world, I might have been mad at his clear insults but today I had to brush it off. I ignored him and instead glanced around at the Sui Siblings. Some sat on the left, others on the right. Sui Bai, ideally, was directly opposite Sui Feng.

“My children,” Lord Sui croaked, giving away how he was as if his appearance wasn’t enough. “I’m glad most of you could make it.”

The comment caused the sister and a few brothers opposite us to glance around awkwardly as if they had no idea who might be missing.

A minister on the far end of the hall coughed loudly to get the lord’s attention. Lord Sui shook his hand allowing the minister to continue. The small man draped in the red robe got up at the end furthest from us and said gruffly, “I need the report from Lian Cuo today, Lord Sui. Lord Tang is becoming restless.”

The minister remained standing as Lord Sui’s mouth twitched at the corners. He gestured with his free hand in the direction of Lian Cuo, his playful demeanour invisible from sight in front of his father. Like a dog, the lord beckoned him towards him.

Lian Cuo, dressed in more modest clothing of simple neutral tones, dropped to his knees and didn’t meet his father’s eyes. “I have a written report and it’s waiting in a safe place at my manor. I can take the relevant people with me to have it delivered.”

The other siblings watched the happenings as if they were no big deal, but I liked to think them either ignorant or rude. Lian Cuo’s hands rubbed over his thighs folded beneath him as if nervous and sweating. His brow was creased. He visibly looked worried.

I didn’t know Lian Cuo, what he was like, what he’d done to be so worried in front of his father, but I could feel sympathy. It reminded me of my youngest brother, Shang Ji Hoon. He was the mischevious one but never meant any harm. He was happy so long as you were too and it was never his intention to make you upset.

I remembered the time as children when he picked my mother’s most beloved flowers from her garden, but unfortunately for him they were not ones my mother was pleased to have plucked. His hands also, in result, burned red for days with large bursting blisters. Ji Hoon was never allowed back in mother’s garden but he never tried to pluck flowers again anyway.

He was certainly the black-sheep of the family, but that was out of his choice alone. While I certainly wasn’t like my sister, there was still only the two of us and I still felt part of the Shang family. Ji Hoon had two other brothers, both alike and he therefore stood out the most – the one who wouldn’t listen and did everything wrong, or at least compared to his competition. Ji Hoon knew he was no contender for the seat of Lord Shang even in the emperor took a mad turn.

Lian Cuo, without knowing his story, without knowing his person… He reminded me of Shang Ji Hoon.

Lord Sui visibly rolled his eyes and let his beckoning hand fall back onto the arm of the chair. My father would never have treated Ji Hoon like this though. “Go. Now. Once this over we can go back to how things were and I’ll make the decree as I promised,” Lord Sui said loudly, suddenly finding the will to be awake and functional.

I couldn’t tell by expression alone if the brothers knew what the emperor was talking about and Sui Feng in front of me didn’t look like he was particularly bothered by what was being said. I made a mental note to ask him later and chance getting an answer. Or even Lian Cuo himself – he seemed familiar with what I assumed was Sui Feng’s manor.

Lian Cuo sank further into the floor in a bow before standing rigidly and turning away on signal from his father towards the awaiting minister at the back of the hall. I shook my head. Even his name indicated he wasn’t a favoured child from a favoured concubine of Lord Sui’s. I would have guessed all Sui children would take the name Sui, but Lian had took a name not custom to any Liang dynasty royal family.

The meeting rolled on quickly and the emperor began by taking updates from his clearly favoured children, starting with his only present daughter Sui Su Hee. She was around the same age as my sister – a few years older than myself. The discussion focused mainly on the girls marriage prospects. Sui Su Hee tried to make a few points of her own but her father, as expected, only knew one way and that was his way. He said matter-of-factly that the girl would be married by the end of the year and that was that with Sui Su Hee.

I felt sorry as her face fell, the opposite side of her emotional spectrum – having seen the high side when she’d greeted Sui Feng just a short while ago.

The lord moved through much of the brothers until he landed on the subject of interest. “Sui Bai,” he finally said, a small smile waiting to release praised planted on his lips. “Have you brought good news? You’ve made it near impossible to get anything more than hearsay.”

Sui Bai didn’t get up unlike his other siblings had when responding to the Lord, comfortable in his position both literally and figuratively. “It was dealt with well,” he said in a deep monotone, speaking for the first time all day.

I studied his face more than I probably should have. As a servant I ought to have had my eyes down at all times but Sui Bai wasn’t someone I could ignore. I watched, I glared, I hurt, and I cried all in my head.

Be specific, my mind urged.

“The arrangements are being made now to split the Shang faction. In honour of your hard work you’ll receive a portion of that land and be names honorary lord until you ascend a bigger title in years to come,” Lord Sui explained as if Sui Bai didn’t already know. I hadn’t known this fact however and found the breath catching in my throat. Shang faction would cease to exist and would be absorbed into Sui and Tang.

Sui Bai would be named honorary lord – nothing but a title – but one he didn’t deserve as a murderer.

“The emperor is considering a tomb separate from the Royal Crypt. They may be treasonous criminals but the emperor insists. I’ll have you transport the bodied as soon as you can and have them delivered to the capital,” Lord Sui explained. At the mention of dead bodies my stomach began to turn. My family.

Sui Bai spat a laugh quietly, something his other brothers wouldn’t get away with. It was the first trace of real emotion I’d seen so far. “I’m afraid that’ll be hard. I wouldn’t have left their heads above the palace gates and their bodies in the pig trough if I thought the emperor would honour them with a funeral.”

I heaved without care for who heard, but only Sui Feng cared enough to snap his gaze over his shoulder and look worriedly in my direction – worried that he might be blamed for his bad servant.

The image stuck of my family’s vessels, rotting in the afternoon sun like they’d committed ultimate sins against the top being. Their once delicate and kind faces deteriorating and melting away leaving nothing but more rotting flesh and bone.

Lord Sui laughed harder than he had all day, the breath spewing from his chest as he wheezed and struggled to breathe. “You truly are my son,” he jested, “no worries – it’s only a formality. Whether we stuff their coffins with hay or their bones, no one is to know. How many did Lord Shang have?” he suddenly enquired.

Sui Bai answered immediately, as static as a rock. “Five children.”

The communicated like they were the only two in the room. “And they dead also?”

The demon opposite Sui Feng and I took a moment to reply, for the first time faltering in his reply. No, I thought. Four were dead. One missing. I was missing. Sui Bai had to be searching for me. Just when I thought Sui Bai was going to admit his shortcomings, he nodded his head and confirmed vocally, “All dead.”

Lies! I screamed internally, now seeing him even worse from before – now he was no only a calloused murderer with the emotion of a rock, he was a liar working towards his own gain. If I were still alive and the emperor knew, Sui Bai would have failed his missions. He’d still have to search for me under immense pressure of the emperor’s watch.

I was better off dead to everyone else anyway.

Lord Sui nodded his head before he clapped his hands a couple of times. “Good. Although I hear their eldest daughter was a fine beauty – a dancer too. Had the emperor thought, he could have seized rather than killed her. Perhaps gift her to your harem, Sui Bai. What use is beauty to a dead girl,” he muttered, thinking only of women and their primitive uses.

Sui Bai didn’t respond that time, and probably just as well. Shang Ru was someone you had to see to believe, and I struggled to believe Sui Bai had truly seen Shang Ru alive and when truly was an envy. He didn’t know what he missed but my sister would have preferred death than be with Sui Bai anyway.

“Sui Feng!” The emperor suddenly said, his gaze switching sides of the room towards the man sat in front of me. “I almost forgot about you,” he muttered, having found more energy. No doubt perked up from the good news Sui Bai had to bring. “Did you pacify the rebel villages without trouble?” he asked, his expression changing from a loving fathers to merely Lord Sui.

Sui Feng looked surprised at the sudden demand of information, having sat zoned out for at least the best part of an hour. “Of course. The rebels were quashed and the men all returned safely. No casualties. No prisoners,” Sui Feng said, getting to his feet fast unlike the brother before him.

Sui Feng shrivelled under his father’s scrutiny. The lord’s eyes narrowed with a thought behind them. “There wasn’t no prisoners though because upon your return you locked a woman up in the palace dungeon,” Lord Sui said with a humoured glint behind his eyes as if Sui Feng had been caught out. As if he wanted Sui Feng to mess up in some way.

The man in front of me smiled softly before peering just the once back at me. “I pacified the village with no trouble. On my return however I met a pair of troublesome women who inflicted more damage on my men than the entire village put together,” he said clearly, becoming surer of what he was going to say towards the end.

The lord looked curious and allowed him to continue with a gesture of the hand. Sui Feng took that as his queue to reach down and take hold of my upper arm, pulling me up to the position beside him. All eyes fell on me. “The woman locked in the cells is the one who broke the arm of one of my men. The other, who was dying of a terrible infection merely a week ago, is right here.”

Before Lord Sui could set off in a rage over whatever assumption he was going to make, Sui Feng cut in early. “The woman here collapsed at the feet of my parade on our way home. She should have died, but she lived. If I allowed her to die I reckon that would have been wishing bad fortune on the nation of Liang don’t you agree?”

Whatever comment that had been balancing on the tip of his tongue was swallowed back down as the cogs turned in his head. I wasn’t much concerned with what he was doing and more the entire room of Sui ministers and children, at least half of them watching both Sui Feng and I.

In particular Sui Bai, who remained unchanging at the sudden change of attentions – him limelight cut short. I glanced over at him from under my lashes and found him watching straight back.

Sui Feng was nervous. His hand that clutched onto my arm was shaking. His brow was beginning to sweat. He looked desperate for a reaction, knowing this could be taken one of two ways.

It seemed to me like bringing up Daiyu’s capture was more a method to catch Sui Feng out. Why would his own father want to do that?

For the first time in that whole meeting, the oldest of the three consorts spoke up with her hand in air demanding attention. “If you would allow it, your majesty, I’d like to see this young woman,” she said, her voice thick with age.

I watched her figure rise up from her position, hitting a beam of light that glinted off her clouded eyes. The consort was blind.

Without word from Lord Sui or anyone else, she approached like she could in fact see. The skin on her face was delicate like she’d never seen the light of day. Her body was frail but able unlike her Lord who was frail but weak. Her body was draped in robes that differed from the Lord’s and other consorts – instead of red, her robe was a simple glossy brown satin.

Her request to see, I began to think, was more than what the words literally meant when I realised she actually couldn’t physically see. Sui Feng looked concerned for me for the first time, cautiously guiding me in front of his body to stand in front of the approaching lady.

Sui Feng took the lady’s hand, guiding it towards my own. Her fingers were slim and long, decorated in beautiful rings and long finger embelishments. The moment her skin touched my own, shivers shot through my entire body.

She closed her already unseeing eyes and began to tighten her delicate grip until it rivalled Sui Feng’s, possessing a strength I didn’t think she’d have. Whoever she was, whatever she was doing, I suddenly felt small.

Everything became muted around us until all I saw was our entwined hands. I couldn’t convince myself to pull out her grip. It could have been a figment of my imagination but suddenly I felt bare, unable to hide the answers she sought from in me. Like a spiritual energy flowing out of me with a copy of my person embedded.

Flashing before my eyes were the faces of my family, Daiyu, the people I’d once known. A house once familiar to me and completely different from the one I was in now. In a land I called home and living the comforts of my privileged life. The scene wasn’t like the life I was pretending to live, the one Sui Feng had made up for me.

Right then in that moment I feared the consort had seen through me via her strange power. She could read me like an open book and truly see everything I was whilst not seeing me at all. Would she have anything to say, would she tell Lord Sui who I really was if she knew herself and expose Sui Feng’s foolishness?

Minutes ticked past in what felt like seconds before the consort dropped my hands like scorching hot coals. I jumped I fright into Sui Feng’s chest before the consort opened her eyelids revealing once again her cloudy pupils. “Death is written into the girl’s story but not because she will die. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Is she to be trusted?” Lord Sui asked seriously as if the consort would have any clue.

The consort nodded just once. “She is to be treasured.”

I gulped louder than I intended. Treasured. Treasured and paraded or treasured and locked in a trinket box, sealed off until everyone forgets?

 

 

 

 

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