|The Legend, Loyalty and Laments of Zhen Ji
Author: Lady Grasshopper PM
She is the mother of the future ruler and wife of the current emperor. She is the living image of a goddess. Her name is Empress Zhen and she was born for greatness. Please review!Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Drama - Cao Pi & Zhen Ji - Chapters: 24 - Words: 61,663 - Reviews: 74 - Favs: 14 - Follows: 14 - Updated: 03-24-13 - Published: 02-21-11 - Status: Complete - id: 6764355
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Empress Dowager Zhen Ji tried to keep her mind off of Sima Yi's plans, but it was the only thing that her thoughts were capable of contemplating. She couldn't think of anything else. It was driving her away from everything else, even her children. She felt her sanity was slipping away.
"You can't really blame yourself. I would be more worried if you didn't think about it." Shao Len assured her as she helped Zhen dress for the latest council meeting.
However, that wasn't really the kind of comfort she needed. She dropped her arms to her sides and turned to face Len and Jing Jia. Her face was serious.
"Len, Jia, before I go, I want both of you to promise me something."
"Anything, Zhen." Jia responded.
"After everything we've been through, you still simply call her 'Zhen'. She's the Empress…"
"Stop, please." Zhen interrupted. "I can't stand being called that. Just swear that if anything ever happens to me or Zhang Liao, get the children out of the city as fast as possible. Go into hiding in the country and never come back."
"Why Zhang Liao?" Jia asked.
"Because right now, he's the silent muscle protecting me. Sima Yi must know that I would never return to Xuchang if it meant endangering myself or the children. So he knows that there's someone watching my back. If he finds out its Zhang Liao, he'll kill him. Then he'll go after the children. Swear it!"
"We swear." They both said, almost annoyed that she would have to go to such an extent to be assured of their loyalty, but were still understanding about it.
Zhen turned back to the mirror. The brightness of her golden brown eyes was slowly fading to a dull brown. All this stress was aging her, yet she was still in her mid-twenties.
"I don't know how Cao managed to do this. He's gone to meetings like this his entire life. I've only been here a week and I'm already dreading waking up in the morning."
"Cao never had to worry about his children's lives at the hand of his rival." Len simply said.
"He had to worry about Zhen's safety, when it came to Cao Zhi." Jia reminded.
An idea hit her.
"Yes, he did. Zhi was his biggest rival. Just like how Sima Yi is my rival. Cao Pi got rid of his rival as soon as he could, as soon as he over-stepped his bounds. That's what I'll have to do. As soon as Sima Yi does something he shouldn't, I'll have him banished. That's how I'll get rid of him when this is over!"
"What if Shu asks for his help?" Jia asked.
"They won't. They've never been the kind to employ a man who might turn against them. Remember how Liu Bei stopped Cao Cao from employing Lu Bu because of how Lu Bu killed his former master?"
"Then what about Wu?"
"Wu hasn't done anything since Hefei. I think they're finally content with the lands they have now. We'll worry about them later."
She let out a laugh.
"What?" Len asked.
"How is it that I can accomplish more when I'm getting dressed with my handmaids than when I'm in council with generals and strategists?"
All three of them smiled.
"Never leave to dozens of men to do what three women can do." Len summarized.
They all laughed.
An hour later, Zhen was sitting at the end of the table in the council room. She was listening to the men's pointless squandering. Sima Yi wanted to send in an assassin. Zhang Liao and the other generals wanted to storm Luoyang to take it back from Shu.
"We cannot destroy the capital." She proclaimed.
"Nor can we meet them elsewhere. They're cowards, they won't leave the city walls." Sima Yi told her.
"So what are we going to do?" Cao Ren asked.
"We'll launch a surprise attack." Sima Yi announced as he stood up. "In the middle of the night, we'll send a task force to open the gates. Then the rest of the army will take the city by storm. Finally, we'll take the castle."
Everyone looked to her when the strategist stopped speaking. They were looking for her opinion.
Storming the city at night… The innocent people would be asleep in their homes, but it would make them harder to distinguish from the Shu soldiers in the dark. However, it seemed to be the best choice. No, it was the only choice.
She stood up, her mind already made up.
"Do it. Sima Yi, prepare the strategy. Cao Ren, prepare the supplies. Xiahou Dun, prepare the men. Zhang Liao, prepare the horses. We move out in three days."
Everyone smirked. The entire force of the Cao Wei Empire was going to come crashing down on Shu. They would win, there was no doubt. The only problem would be preventing the death of the innocents and the destruction of their city.
When they all left the hall, Zhen went to the northern courtyard, where she knew Len and Jia would have her children. She found them sitting in the grass under one of the peach trees. Dong Xiang saw her and came running with a wide cherry stained smile on her face.
Zhen bent down and picked her daughter up.
"What have you been up to, huh? Have you eaten all the cherries?"
Xiang giggled. Rui came running over to her and grabbed the fabric of her dress.
"Can I go riding!?" He asked excitedly.
"No, not right now." She calmly answered.
"Then can Daddy take me?"
Her throat tightened. Her stomach turned over and her eyes began to swell.
"No, Rui. Daddy can't take you riding. He's… he's away and he's not coming back for a long time."
"Empress." A voice interrupted. "Zhang Liao requests your presence at the throne room."
She turned to face the messenger. Xiang was still in her arms and Rui was still holding to the folds of her dress. With her pink eyes, it must have been quite a pathetic sight.
"Can't it wait?"
"He's says it's important." The messenger insisted.
She rolled her eyes. Of course it was important. Every damn thing a messenger came to tell her was important.
"It's Lady Guo. Zhang Liao's found her."
Chills ran down her spine. This time when a messenger said 'important' it actually was so.
"Who's Guo?" Rui asked.
Zhen turned to the maids, who had Xie wrapped up in a thick bundle against the cool autumn air.
"Take the children to their rooms." She ordered.
"Mom!" Rui and Xiang both shouted.
"Don't argue with me." She told them as she put Xiang down. "I'll meet you for dinner."
Len and Jia gathered the children and herded them back into the castle. Zhen watched them go and reminded herself that everything she was doing was for them. The only reason she was here was for their futures.
It was strange that just because of their paternity, their lives were in mortal danger.
Had she not told Cao Pi about Yuan Shao's attack, then if she had lived through the invasion of the castle, then the children she would have had wouldn't be in this kind of danger. However, they wouldn't be the same children and there wouldn't have been any Cao Pi. Could she have fallen in love with someone else, or was Cao Pi the only man for her? She would never find out. As Empress Dowager, she couldn't marry again and not cause an uproar about it. After all, that man would be the husband of the empress and wouldn't that mean he was the new emperor? No common man could be emperor. That meant, she would be a widow for the rest of her life. However, she would rather be Cao Pi's widow, than any lesser man's wife.
Thinking of wives, her husband's other wife had been found.
The question was; what to do with her? She should kill her. After all, she did help with Cao Zhi's and Sima Yi's rebellion. She plotted to kill Rui and she wanted Zhen to kill herself. There were more than enough reasons for Zhen to have her executed.
She turned and began making her way to the throne room, the same throne room that Sima Yi had murdered Cao Zhi in because Sima Yi wanted all the power for himself. Guo knew none of that. In fact, Zhen didn't know what she had heard about Zhi's death. Cao Pi and his men had discovered the body when they took the city back. Who knows what Guo knows concerning how Zhi actually died?
Zhen turned the final corner to the throne room. Before her stood two very distinct figures, one of them was Zhang Liao in his usual blue and silver armor and the other was the former Empress, Guo Nuwang.
Rage flowed through Zhen's veins. The hair on the back of her neck stood up. She clenched her fists, but kept her face as calm as she could. She had to do this. She had to face Guo now, or later. Of course, if she waited till later, there was no knowing what circumstances that would be under. Guo had been a part of the last plot to kill her son. So Zhen had no doubt that Guo would take part in this one as well.
Zhen let out a silent breath and let her legs sweep her away, towards Guo and Zhang Liao. Guo saw her and gave her a disturbing, hair-raising, smile.
"Empress Zhen, actually."
Guo gave her a look.
"Right. Dowager Empress. Our husband is dead afterall."
"Are you forgetting that I am the mother of the future Emperor and not some bastard child?. Not to mention that I'm the one who was running the kingdom while you were off…"
"Ladies!" Zhang Liao interrupted. "Right now you're both forgetting something."
He gave Guo a meaningful look. When she saw this, she glared at Guo for an explanation. Then she let out another breath, which she had been holding since the moment Zhang Liao first interrupted her. Guo shifted all her weight to one foot and put a boney hand on her skinny little hip.
"I've come to help you." Guo stated.
A thousand comebacks flashed through Zhen's mind, but none of them made it out. She was speechless. Guo, the one who wanted to watch her drown herself was offering help!? The woman who schemed to kill Rui behind hers and Cao Pi's back came here, to offer help!?
A minute of silence had gone by. Both Guo and Zhang Liao were waiting for a response from her. She gave them one, a really loud one.
"YOU!? Why would YOU help me!?"
Guo rolled her eyes.
"You!?" Zhen continued. "After you've nearly killed me and brought all of Wei down, why would you help me now!?" She screamed.
Zhang Liao raised his hand to stop her from making a move on Guo. He must have seen her clenched fists.
"Shall we continue this in a more private setting?" He suggested.
He was right. Sima Yi's spies could be anywhere. She didn't voice her agreement out loud, but she didn't voice any objection either. Zhang Liao must have known that that was as good of a reaction he could get from her. So he took advantage and led both of them away. Zhen watched Guo very closely from the corner of her eye. If Guo tried anything, like pulling a knife or lunging for one of Zhang Liao's weapons, Zhen would see it. If she tried to run, Zhen would have seen it long before she gained any speed and would have her tackled to the ground in a flash.
They walked down the halls for a ways and eventually stopped at where Zhang Liao thought they would be alright. Zhen didn't waste any time with getting started again.
"Why in the name of the heavens should I trust you!?"
"Think Zhen! Use that little brain of yours. I know that you and Sima Yi are battling it out when the council's out. If Sima Yi wins, then he'll kill or enslave everyone that's ever been associated with Cao Pi, including me and Nu Ming. So I have to help you, for my daughter's sake."
"Why would Sima Yi kill your daughter? It's not like she's Cao Pi's flesh and blood."
Zhang Liao went wide eyed.
"Sima Yi doesn't know that and if he had us at sword point, he wouldn't believe me. He would just think that I was saying what he wanted to hear to save her life."
Zhen stared at Guo for a long moment, looking for any sign that she might be lying, but there was none. Guo kept her cold and motionless composure true to her usual standards. Then Zhen found a flaw in Guo's story and brought it to everyone's attention.
"You said that you came here to help me. I sent out a small army looking for you for the past week. If you were safely in hiding, then why would you come back? Why wouldn't my soldiers have found you?"
Guo rolled her eyes.
"Please, I knew your men would find me eventually. I decided to come before they dragged me here and I had no desire to be brought in by one of your men the way Zhango Liao brought you. How many days did you spend locked in your room after that?"
Some color rose in Liao's cheeks.
Anger flashed through her all over again. It wasn't the fact that Guo was suggesting there was an affiar on between her Zhang Liao. It was how Guo learned about Zhen's time in hiding that bothered her. How could Guo know that. More importantly, who would Guo find out from?
"I don't trust her!" She repeated. "She tried to kill me and Rui after trying to use us as leverage against Cao Pi. She tried to raise Wei to the ground and allied herself with Sima Yi and Cao Zhi. Both of whom were Cao Pi's biggest threats and rivals."
She was pacing the floor of Zhang Liao's chambers. It was the only place they deemed safe to have their talks. He sat on the chair of his desk and watched her wear down the wood of the floor with her shoes.
"I know. I may not have been there, but I realize the damage that was caused."
She didn't like how he chose to say 'damage' instead of 'pain' or something like that. Then again, he was probably referring to the political and military consequences of the rebellion, rather than the emotional and domestic ones. There were political damages. They may have not seen it at first, but after the rebellion, Shu saw their chance to attack. Looking at it through their perspective, why not attack a kingdom that had been at war with itself? Cao Wei was only beginning. It was new, fragile, but it had a strong foundation. It had servants like Zhang Liao and strong future leader, Rui. No one could deny that he was a strong emperor in the making.
However, this was exactly the kind of thing that would destroy everything, war with an outside kingdom while war was brewing once again on the inside. Sima Yi knew this too, that was why he wasn't making his move. He knew that to seize power, he needed her half of Cao Wei. Lady Guo only complicated things. Was she really on her side? She had to be if she knew that it was Sima Yi to murder Cao Zhi, the father of her daughter.
Still, it wasn't comforting that Guo had agreed to join them so easily. Something just wasn't right. She couldn't explain it. It just wasn't right.
Meeting Zhang Liao privately in his chambers didn't help this feeling of unease. It gave people like Guo reason for suspicion.
"Is she really that valuable of an asset?" Zhen questioned.
Zhang Liao gave her a stern look.
"Zhen, I know where this is going. I know I'm sworn to protect you, but I won't kill Guo for you."
Zhen spun around from her latest stride to face the general.
"I don't need you to kill her. I can…"
"Don't say it. What would people say if your arch rival, which suddenly showed up, suddenly died as well? Even if you could do it to look like natural causes, it would have dire consequences."
She continued her excessive pacing.
"People won't stop whispering about it." Liao continued. "They'll be talking about it for a long time. Even Rui could be affected, an Emperor with a murderer for a mother. Who knows what people will say?"
Zhen stopped in her tracks so that she was barely two paces in front of Liao's desk.
"Guo is the concubine! She's the sonless concubine." She specified. "I'm the Empress Dowager that's leading the kingdom until my son can take over. The people won't remember her. They'll remember me."
It may sound selfish, but it was true. Guo's 'accomplishments' paled in comparison to hers. She had given Cao Pi two sons, one of them being his heir, she accompanied him on his conquests and she was leading the kingdom against Shu. What had Guo done? She'd birthed the bastard daughter of Cao Pi's rival, she spent half her life in Hefei doing nothing and she'd participated in the rebellion against Cao Wei.
The odds of being remembered were clearly in her favor, not that she was particularly concerned with that right now.
"I want Guo gone." She stated.
Liao was quick to counter her.
"She's only on our side to save her own skin. This is exactly the kind of talk that would give her reason enough to go crawling back to Sima Yi."
"But Sima Yi murdered Cao Zhi!"
"Guo doesn't know that and we shouldn't tell her."
"Why? If we are going to keep her, then she should have more reason to stay on our side."
Zhang Liao stood up and moved over to the door.
"Simple. There's already one emotionally unstable woman in Xuchang. I couldn't handle having another one."
Zhen knew that there was more meaning to what Liao had said than just what his sentence implied. That's the only reason she went out the door when he opened it for her.
When she finally got back to the wing with the children's chambers, she found out from Len and Lia that they were already in bed. Then when she herself got to bed, she realized what it was like to miss valuable family time. Now that Zhen was in Cao Pi's shoes, she felt terrible for how she had been angry with him at times for not getting out of council early enough to be with her and the children. The only difference was, she was spending most her time with Zhang Liao and Cao Pi had been with Sima Yi, the man she was conspiring to kill. However, he was planning to enslave her and kill her children. So the scales were even, almost even, that is.