As usual, I would like to thank everyone who took the time to read this. Special thanks to those who reviewed and/or emailed me. As I like to personalize them, please bear with me as I thank each reviewer.
Kick-It-Aus Style Mal's – Thank you! Hope you enjoy the final chapter.
Darth Padfoot – Thank for you calling it beautiful =) I agree that Zhao Yun is a little arrogant in the fanfic, but I think it helps create a little more drama.
Adriannu225 – Don't be ashamed, it's my fault you had forgotten about this. If I didn't go on hiatus, it would have been much better, ne?
pinkmmlover – Update is finally here, after such a long wait too. I hope the finale doesn't disappoint you.
Luving Randomness – Thanks! Hope you enjoy.
yauksiei – update on it's way!
Laurie H – I know what you mean with life, school and everything else get in the way. It's a shame really, we really need to be enjoying ourselves more, don't you think? I'm glad to have someone who's also a LB/SSX fan! I've noticed there aren't many fics dedicated to this pairing, which is sad, so hopefully, mine gives the pairing a little a justice! I'm really happy to hear that you've noticed I've somewhat tried to follow their history. I haven't stayed entirely true to it, unfortunately and I have made up quite a few things. I've noticed with a lot of the female characters in the Three Kingdoms, they don't get much of a back story. Again, thanks for reading, and though this chapter has been long overdue, I hope you enjoy it!
– Thank so much! Zhao Yun's loyalty is to Shu. I personally think he's a little stubborn too, which makes it hard for him to trust her. But, we'll see I guess ;)
EmoUchihaRayne – Yay! Another SSX/LB fan =)
dorisXgaga – Thanks comment! Enjoy the update!
amikaze – I'm sad to read that you thought it was pointless reviewing, BUT you still reviewed nonetheless. Thank you! It really is encouragement to write again when I suddenly receive reviews out of the blue. And it makes my day too! Thank you for pushing me back into writing!
To everyone: Thank you so much reading this fic. And thank you so much to those who took the time to review and/or email me. It was very nice of all of you as it makes my day and it really does push me forward (I know, I have to work on that). Your encouragement kept this fic going and finally, I can say that I've completed it. This is the very last chapter to Arranged Love. I hope you all enjoy it!
Does anyone know why asterisks don't work when I upload my .doc file?
To my dearest husband,
I wish I could have told you this myself, but I fear I do not have the time. My mother is dying. Although I am in the Liu family now and forever will be a Liu, I cannot forget my filial ties. I truly wish you were here so that I may ask for your permission to return to Wu to see my mother one last time before the heavens take her. I fear she cannot wait that long, so I am writing this letter to you, begging for your forgiveness. I truly do wish to be a dutiful wife to you, but I will have wronged you twice by the time you read this letter, so I ask for your clemency as I will be going back to Wu with Liu Shan without your consent. My mother wishes to see her grandchild before she passes. I will take great care of Liu Shan while he is with me and I will bring him back without a single loss of his hair. I will be gone for a few short days, but I know it will feel like an eternity as I will be further from you than I am now. Please know that I love you very much and that my heart, body, and soul belong to you.
Loving you forever and ever,
The man held the letter in his hand gingerly, reading the words over again. He closed his eyes and paused for a few moments taking in the meaning of the letter. He tilted his head upwards to the sky and took in a deep breath before casting the letter into the blazing fire before him. He opened his eyes and looked into the fire without a slight bit of remorse. He could feel the heat on his face and smell of smoke sinking into his clothes and blowing through his long hair. His face was emotionless, but inside, he was relieved.
"You had no right to do that." A female voice said beside him.
The man did not bother to face her. She was a rather plain woman, dressed mostly in grey and green, but her face was wise beyond her age. "I respect your opinions, Lady Yue Ying, but we both know this is for the better."
Yue Ying faced the man; her eyes cast a shadow of sadness. "Do we really?"
"Throw the rest of the junk into the fire!" A second man bellowed out as servants continued to toss various items into the fire; books, several articles of female clothing, cosmetics. "You were not with us when we saw her leave, Ying." The large muscular man threw a dresser into the fire. "That woman is a harlot! She was feeling up that man like a whore! Isn't that right Zhou Yun?"
"What if it was all just some misunderstanding, General Zhang Fei?"
"There was no misunderstanding! Wu was never up to any good. This was all planned! She tried to kidnap the little Lord while brother Bei was away! Don't you be standing up for her, Ying! That wench is a sly fox! She's been feeding you nonsense the day she got here! Just like what she's been doing to brother Bei!"
"Zhang Fei is right, Lady Yue Ying. She was up to no good. Do not be sad, she does not deserve it. She will not return. The general that came for her fought with his life. This was staged, I am certain of it. It will be better for Lord Liu Bei and for the kingdom of Shu to forget this woman."
Yue Ying looked at the fire sadly. Everything that Shang Xiang had left behind was now burning to ash. Zhou Yun and Zhang Fei were right; it was suspicious how sudden they had come for her and left, but Yue Ying did not want to believe that Shang Xiang would have done all this on purpose. She wanted to believe with all her heart that Shang Xiang would come back. She wanted to believe that Shang Xiang truly did learn to love the Lord of Shu.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Shang Xiang sat quietly by the edge of the boat watching the water ripple across the sea. She had been silent since they had left Shu, which worried Lu Xun. The Shang Xiang he knew was not like this at all. She was boisterous, carefree, and full of spirit. What had happened there? What had changed the Princess of Wu?
With his wound heavily bandaged, Lu Xun made his way toward Shang Xiang, but before he was even there, Shang Xiang spoke out. "You should really be resting. Your wound will get worse if you strain yourself." Shang Xiang continued to gaze into the sea.
"I'm worried about you."
"I'm more worried about you," She finally stood up from her spot and looked at Lu Xun. "You look pale." Shang Xiang walked up to him and took his good arm to lead him back to the berth. "Thank you, Xun."
"And I'm sorry, for putting your life in danger for me."
"Shang Xiang," He said quietly as she sat him on the bed. "We practically grew up together. There is no need to thank or apologize." That and because this was my mission.He silently added to himself. "I should be the one apologizing. I failed to help you bring the child back."
"Liu Shan..." She whispered barely audible. Though her face showed little emotion, her mind was in turmoil. She shook her head mentally, as if brushing away all her thoughts to bring her back to reality. "How are you feeling?" She took a look at his bandages, making sure blood hadn't seeped through.
"I've been better." He gave a weak laugh, closing his eyes as they began to droop heavily.
"Rest," Shang Xiang said, almost in such a warm and motherly way that Lu Xun felt he was a child once more. "I'll wake you when we're in Wu."
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Sun Quan had been pacing around the dock for nearly half an hour now. His anxiousness was making the people around him nervous. They had never seen their leader in such a state, not even in the face of imminent defeat. Every couple of steps, the Emperor of Wu would stop in his tracks and look out into the sea, only to be more upset as nothing new would be in sight.
"They're late! Where could they possibly be?" He muttered to himself as he continued to pace.
"Your majesty," Lu Meng interrupted the Emperor's deep thoughts, "Perhaps it is best if your majesty had some rest. The guards will inform us if they should see any ships in sight."
"No. I have to be here. I cannot rest until I know she is safe." The words were heavy to his heart. He could never forgive himself for bringing her to ruin. He looked up to the sky and prayed to the heavens once again for the safe return of his dear sister. In the midst of his prayer, one of the generals shouted, "A ship!" His heart pounded in anticipation. She was back and she was safe, was all he could repeat over and over again in his mind. His hands clenched into a fist as if he was holding onto an invisible fine thread. He held it as tight as possible because he felt that to lose hold of it would bring disaster.
It felt like an eternity had passed as the ship slowly made its way back to port. He squinted his eyes into the setting sun trying to make out any figures on this ship, but he could see no one. No. No. No! Don't tell me something has gone wrong? Where is she? Where is Lu Xun? His mind raced alarmingly when the ship began to dock without anyone approaching. Where is she?He screamed in his head.
Just as the plank had dropped onto the pier, Sun Quan raced up to the ship to find his sister. He was about to break down the door to the berth when the door opened with Sun Shang Xiang carefully supporting the injured Lu Xun. "Shang Xiang." Sun Quan mumbled out breathlessly. Relief rushed past him the moment he saw his sister. He had been so worried about her that he didn't even notice how injured Lu Xun was.
"Xun, you fool!" A voice behind him rang out, bringing him to his senses. "Thought you were smart! But lookie here, you got banged up!" A muscular man with bells attached to his waist jumped up and took Shang Xiang's place to carry Lu Xun. "Good to see you back in one piece princess. Nothing less of what I'd expect of you!"
"I apologize, your majesty," Lu Xun began weakly. "I have failed you."
"No, you did well General Xun. Thank you for bringing Shang Xiang back safely." Sun Quan motioned a few servants to come forward. "Take General Xun back to his chambers and bring a doctor to see him." The servants nodded and with the help of Gan Ning, escorted Lu Xun to the palace.
Sun Quan looked at his sister. Seeing her there in one piece felt like the whole world was finally lifted off his shoulders. As a brother, he loved her, and he had knowingly sent her to a faraway place where she must have suffered a great deal. To him, bringing her back was almost like setting a bird free of its cage. "Shang Xiang," he opened his arms for an embrace. She stood there for a few moments with hesitation before giving a weak smile and hugging him back. "Brother."
He pushed her back by an arm's length, holding her shoulder to examine her face. "You do not look well. The past [year] must have been rough for you Shang Xiang. I am glad you are back."
"I am glad to see you again. Are you well, brother?"
"Things could be better. But enough of that, you're back, and that's all that matters. Come, you need to rest."
Shang Xiang shook her head, "I want to see mother. How is she doing?"
Sun Quan had a troubled expression across his face, but before he could respond, a sharp voice rang from the back. "Mother, is fine." From behind the generals an elderly woman with several servants tromped towards the siblings. All the men in the way quickly moved away to open a path for her. She wore dark colors, but everything about her seemed regal. "I am glad to see you well, Shang Xiang." She said as she approached them, giving a quick look to Sun Quan. Even as emperor of Wu, he felt intimidated by her presence.
"Mother... but I thought you were ..." Shang Xiang wore a look of shock. She was told that her mother was gravely ill. She had been expecting to see her mother in a bed looking sickly and frail with death looming over, but here she was, full of life and passion as ever. Of course Shang Xiang was quite relieved her mother did not look like death, but she did not understand what was going on.
"Dying?" The elderly woman finished. "It seems here I have done something terribly wrong in my past life to have a son who wishes death for his dear old mother." Again she flashed a quick glance to Sun Quan, full of distaste. "No, Shang Xiang, mother is quite well and I suspect I still have a few more years before the heavens take me." She took a long look at her daughter before going on. "You have grown to be a beautiful woman, Shang Xiang. Come, have tea with me, I would like to hear about Shu and Lord Liu Bei."
Shang Xiang looked over to her brother with a questioning look in her eyes, but Sun Quan avoided eye contact.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Shang Xiang awoke the next day in a strange, but familiar bed. It had been so long since she was back in Wu and to be sleeping in her own bed again felt almost foreign. She lay there for a while just staring at the canopy of the bed, disappointed that she was back in Wu. She wished that everything that had just happened in the last few days was just a dream. She hoped that she dreamt about receiving the letter from Wu. She hoped she dreamt about the fight at the docks. She hoped she dreamt about seeing her mother and brother again. Unfortunately, she knew that none of it was a dream. Shang Xiang brushed her fingers on the spot next to her, imagining the warmth of her husband there. She closed her eyes to picture her husband's sleeping form, cracking a slight smile on her lips. Unfortunately for her, her daydream ended rather abruptly when the door to her chambers opened.
Mei Li, dressed in traditional Wu outfits, brought in a basin of water and her face cloth. Shang Xiang was half expecting her maid in Shu, Fu Ying, to follow in afterwards to bring breakfast for her and Liu Bei to share. But to her disappointment, no one else entered her room.
"My lady, the sun has risen high and you are still in bed. Lord Sun Quan is worried about you." Mei Li said as she helped Shang Xiang out of the bed to get ready for the day.
"Mei Li. I want to go home." Shang Xiang said softly, holding back silent tears.
"My lady, you are home."
"No Mei Li, my home is with my husband." She said quietly as a tear slid down her cheek. Her maid looked to the ground to avoid her eye contact. Although Mei Li knew how much heartache her lady was feeling, she could no disobey the Emperor of Wu.
"Don't be foolish, sister." A voice came from the entrance of her room. Both ladies looked up to see Sun Yi entering the room. He motioned Mei Li to leave. She bowed her head respectfully before closing the door to leave. Sun Yi sat at the table in her room and poured himself a cup of tea. "Shang Xiang, did you forget that this is your home?"
"My home is now with my husband." She replied boldly.
Sun Yi angrily threw his cup to the wall, smashing it into tiny pieces. He rose from his seat and stomped towards Shang Xiang. "You are a Wu!" He shouted at her as he tried to remind her of her place.
"No. I am no longer a Wu. I am Lord Liu Bei's wife. When I die, my ghost will be a Liu ghost." She said calmly. Her brother raised his hand and slapped her across the face leaving a dark red mark on her cheek. Despite the pain, Shang Xiang raised her head to face her brother again. "I am married now. You should not hit another man's wife." Sun Yi raised his hand ready to slap her again, but stopped mid-air. He flung his arm back in frustration and stormed to the table, slamming his hand down. There was a moment of silence, but Shang Xiang could practically feel his anger seething out.
"Shang Xiang!" He shouted out before burying his hands into his face to calm himself. "Shang Xiang." He repeated, this time with more control. "Shang Xiang..." He said a third time, followed by a long deep sigh. "You've changed so much since you left to Shu." He paused for a moment taking a deep breath. "I'm sorry I hit you." He turned around to face his sister and he gave a nervous chuckle. "You would have never took it so calmly. In the past, you would have ran out of the room in anger." He smiled weakly as he reminisced. "Don't be angry at Quan. He only had good intentions for you."
Shang Xiang scoffed. "If he had good intentions, he would let go back to Shu. Instead, he traps me here like a prisoner. How can this be my home?"
"Shang Xiang, do you know why Quan has done what he's done?" Yi asked, but Shang Xiang only looked away. "He thought they were suffocating you there in Shu. Ever since he had to let you go, he's felt a heaviness in his heart, as if he'd sent you to your hell. For months Quan had sent letters to you and tried to find out any information on how you were doing."
"Letters? What are you talking about? I did not receive a single one! I was the one who sent letters to Wu with no response. In a time when I needed someone the most, there was no one there. Now that I had accepted my Fate, and have learned to love my new home, my new family, and my husband, you tear me apart from it with lies!"
"Quan did send letters to you. He used different messengers, he used pseudonyms, he tried everything he could think of, but none of it worked. Don't you see Shang Xiang? All of yours and Quan's communication had been intercepted." Shang Xiang gave a puzzled look, but Yi continued. "A couple months ago, Quan saw mother burning one of your letters. It was half burned by the time Quan got it out of the fire, but in that half letter, you wrote how unhappy you were. You wrote how everyone treated you with mild disdain and how your husband did not acknowledge your presence. You're letter begged for a way back home."
Shang Xiang raised her hand to cover her mouth in surprise. That was the last letter she had sent back to Wu. It was true she wrote all those things, but that was before she got to know Liu Bei better. She had assumed all her letters had somehow lost its way, but had her mother been intercepting and burning all of them?
"Quan could not rest after that. He came up with many plans get you back home safe and sound without raising alarms. When news came that Liu Bei was going on this campaign, Quan had to act fast. Do you know why you finally got a letter from us? Quan made Xun hand deliver it to you in disguise." He stopped to let the information sink in. The pieces finally started coming together now.
"But, why Liu Shan? Why did brother want to take Liu Shan if his goal was to take me away from Shu?"
"Protection." Yi said, but continued when he knew Shang Xiang did not understand. "Brother had sent only Xun to rescue you. He didn't want to raise any suspicion by bringing a large fleet. If he did, Shu would take that as a threat and attack us. But Quan was afraid Xun would not be enough if Liu Bei returned just as you were leaving. The boy would have been a bargaining chip for you to return if that be the case. We would return the boy for you freedom."
Shang Xiang shook her head. "No, he wouldn't have. What if nothing happened? What if I took Liu Shan back to Wu? Brother would not have returned Liu Shan. He would have used him against Liu Bei!" Shang Xiang shook her head again as her voice was rising in anger. "Quan is not as noble as you make him to be!"
"Sister, wake up!" He shouted back. "How did those generals treat you as you were leaving? They tried to kill Xun!"
"Only because we were taking Liu Shan!"
"They did not care about you! Did they try to hold you back? Did they try to make you stay? You can't return there sister, they will kill you! You are an enemy and have always been an enemy to them. You have no home there!"
His words rang true. They did not care about her. They never wanted her there. And he was right, if she returns, they would kill her. Tears began flowing freely from her eyes now. She desperately wanted to believe Liu Bei would forgive her and take her back, but she knew that could not happen. Because of her, Shu and Wu were officially enemies again and she may never see her husband again. She wished with all her heart she had never written those letters.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Liu Bei closed his eyes as he brought a handkerchief to his mouth to cover a faint smile that crossed his face. He had only been traveling a few days, but his heart missed home dearly. He had not felt like this for a long time, but he wanted to go home and soon. Liu Bei had been so engrossed with his thoughts, he was startled when Guan Yu rode up beside him. "You miss her, don't you?"
"What? What are you talking about?" Liu Bei exclaimed off guard.
Guan Yu chuckled quietly as he stroked his beard. "You can hide it from the rest of the men, but I know you well enough to know what I see."
Liu Bei cleared his throat as if to recompose himself. "A man has his duties to his family."
"Indeed." Guan Yu replied as he continued to stroke his beard.
The men rode in silence for a while as they continued on their way to meet up with the rest of the army. The wind began picking up quickly and soon Liu Bei and his troop were struggling to move against the wind. Pang Tong had made his way towards the front with Liu Bei and Guan Yu, holding onto his straw hat tightly. "This wind is unnatural." He commented. "I sense danger, my Lord. We must be on our guard."
A sudden strong gust of wind blew, snatching the handkerchief from Liu Bei's hand. Reactively, Liu Bei quickly turned to grab the handkerchief before the wind could take it any further. Just as he moved, an arrow flew straight to where he had been positioned only a moment ago. The arrow narrowly missed him and struck the poor unsuspecting soldier behind him. "Ambush!" Guan Yu shouted against the wind as he held out his halberd in front of Liu Bei to protect him.
His men quickly got into position in front of the generals and held out the shields to defend against the imminent volley of arrows. As Pang Tong began chanting, the generals surrounded him, eyes darting to and from as they were unsure where the next attack would come from. Pang Tong's chants were calming the winds when the men heard a rally cry coming from other the hills. Each of the men was determined to survive this ambush, but none as much as Liu Bei.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Several days had passed since the ambush and what was left of Liu Bei's men were trudging back home. The campaign against Cao Cao had failed, but the men were lucky to be alive. All of them were wounded, but they managed to escape with minimal casualties. Liu Bei clutched onto the handkerchief tightly as he thanked the Gods for sparing his life so that he may return to his wife. He had never been so afraid of death before, always believing it was a part of life and when the time came, he would have no qualms. But that day, his greatest fear was to leave Shang Xiang and Liu Shan behind.
He clutched onto the handkerchief she had given to him tightly as if to lose hold of it would be to lose her. He didn't believe in the spirits as strongly as Pang Tong did, but he felt sure that when the handkerchief had been blown from his hands, it was a sign. He was sure Shang Xiang had somehow saved his life again.
"We're home." One of the men behind him mumbled in relief as the view of Shu came into sight. The men's pace began picking up as each was glad to finally be home.
As Liu Bei approached his palace, he had been expecting to see Shang Xiang waiting for him on the front steps, but all he saw were Zhang Fei, Yue Ying, and Zhou Yu holding Liu Shan. Each of their expressions was grim. Had something happened? Concern flooded Liu Bei's mind. Where's Shang Xiang?
"My Lord, we are glad to see you return. Welcome home." Zhou Yu said giving a slight bow before motioning several doctors to lead the men into the great hall and treat their wounds.
"What has happened? Where is Shang Xiang?" The mention of Shang Xiang's name caused Yue Ying to stifle a short sob. Liu Bei turned to her and asked again. "Where is Shang Xiang?"
Before Yue Ying could answer, Zhao Yun cut in. "I'm sorry my Lord, she has left."
"It was planned brother! A Wu ship came while you were away! They..." Zhang Fei wanted to continue, but Zhao Yun held out his hand and shook his head to silence him.
Liu Bei could not believe the words. Why would she leave? Although wounded, the Lord of Shu rushed towards his bedchambers to see for his own eyes. Had she really left him? Was that what the handkerchief meant? No. He didn't want to believe it.
As he approached the bedchambers, there were no ladies-in-waiting standing there. He pushed the doors open and suddenly realized how empty the rooms were. Shelves had been emptied, furniture was missing, and when he opened the dresser, her clothes were gone. All of Shang Xiang's belongings were gone. It was almost as if she had never existed. Had the past several months been all a dream?
"She left on a Wu ship a few days ago brother." Zhang Fei's voice came from the doorway. "They had planned this brother. She tried taking Shan with her. They were going to take him hostage if it weren't for Zhao and I."
Liu Bei shook his head. Words could not come out. He couldn't believe it. She loved him, did she not? She loved Liu Shan like her own son, didn't she? Or was that all a lie? Had she really been in this ploy the whole time? To make him vulnerable so that she could take the most precious thing in the world to him? Had she done everything so cunningly to make him... fall in love with her?
"The general that came for her fought with his life. She is not coming back brother. We should be thankful their ploy failed. You should forget about that wench! That general laid down his life for her! They don't have an ordinary relationship! She was never your wife!" Zhang Fei shouted in an attempt to knock some sense into his sworn brother.
"Get out." Liu Bei said quietly.
"Wu had never planned to honour their peace treaty! They were waiting for us to drop our guard!"
"Get out!" Angrily, Liu Bei flung the porcelain tea set off of the table, smashing it onto the ground. Zhang Fei was startled as he had never seen his oath brother so angry before. Knowing better than to anger him further, Zhang Fei left the room and quietly closed the door behind him.
Liu Bei pulled out the handkerchief from his breastplate roughly and threw it to the ground. The cloth that was stitched so lovingly by his wife, slide under the table, soon to be forgotten.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
How long has it been? Days? Weeks? Months? Shang Xiang was unsure now. She was refusing to eat and her body had grown weak. She couldn't stop thinking about her home. She couldn't stop thinking of her husband. Her tear stained face felt dry, but she didn't care. All she wanted was to go back into the arms of her husband she loved so dearly. But they would not allow her. They said it was too dangerous.
There was a knock on her door, but Shang Xiang did not bother to respond. It was no one she wanted to see. "Shang Xiang, may I come in?" Her brother's voiced called out as the door slowly opened. Shang Xiang did not bother to look at him and merely stayed in her bed, staring upwards at nothing in particular.
Sun Quan entered with Mei Li holding a tray of soup and congee. He and Mei Li carefully helped Shang Xiang into a sitting position. Sun Quan took a seat beside her and blew on a spoonful of congee to cool it down. He held it out to feed her, but she refused to open her mouth.
"My lady, please." Mei Li cried out desperately. "You have to eat! You're wasting away like this!"
Shang Xiang did not care. She already felt like she died anyway. What did it matter with what happened to her body?
Sun Quan put down the bowl of congee back on the serving tray. "I'm sorry Shang Xiang." He sighed. "I was wrong." He admitted. At these words, Shang Xiang turned to face her brother. As the Emperor of Wu, admitting his error was a great feat and even Shang Xiang knew this. A tear slid down her cheek. She truly did love her brother, but she had been so angry with what he did, it was hard for her to forgive him. "Shang Xiang, you know why I can't send you back there. They will kill you as an enemy the moment you set foot on their lands. And I can't send a messenger to ask them to retrieve you either, because they will assume it is a trap." He took a deep breath, struggling with the words to say next. "But I can't stand seeing you like this. You are my dear sister, and will forever be in my heart. But I know your home is not here anymore." He took another deep breath before continuing. "The moment Shu sends a request for you, I will send you back to your husband at once."
Shang Xiang stared at her brother for a moment comprehending his words before opening her mouth, waiting to be fed.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
"We will be heading to Luocheng, Ying. Please take care of the household." Zhuge Liang said to his wife as the men prepared to leave. Yue Ying held out small pouch and Zhuge Liang looked at it questionably. "It's a care package." She said. "To remind you of home when you are so far away." Although she wanted to hug her husband farewell, she and everyone else had been treading cautiously around Liu Bei. Except for that brief incident with Zhang Fei when they had returned back, Liu Bei did not mention one word of Shang Xiang. In fact, he acted as if she had not been in his life at all; as if it had all been a dream. But people knew better. On an outward appearance, he looked fine. But everyone close to him, knew he was struggling inside. He was too calm, even for him. His mind was only on the war now, and though they had only returned for a few short days, he was prepared to leave again.
Yue Ying turned towards Liu Bei and held out a similar pouch to him. Liu Bei was a little shocked and looked up at Zhuge Liang as if to ask what this meant, but Zhuge Liang was equally as shocked. A man's wife did not give care packages to other men. "To remind you of your home, my Lord." She held it out for a moment before Liu Bei took it from her uneasily and quickly stuffed it along his belt.
Zhuge Liang touched Yue Ying's shoulder softly. She turned and smiled at him. "To remind him of his home." Zhuge Liang nodded as he came to understand his wife's actions.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Days had passed and Liu Bei's army was nearing Luocheng. Pang Tong could not shake this uneasy feeling he had. "Zhuge Liang," he approached the wise man, "I'm afraid I've been having difficulties understanding the spirits of late. I can't understand what they are saying."
"Clear your mind Pang Tong. The more you think of yourself, the cloudier your view is. The spirits don't like telling a person their own Fate, so the more you think of your problems, the angrier they get."
"We'll set up camp here." Liu Bei announced. "We should all get as much rest as possible." The sun was setting and Liu Bei did not want to continue traveling in these unfamiliar lands in the dark.
In a few short moments, the men had set up tents. Liu Bei went into his and took off the heavy armour. He was troubled lately, but did not to worry his men about his problems. Instead, he focused all his energy on the war. He was a leader, he kept reminding himself. He could not show any weakness.
As he undressed, a small pouch from his belt. He picked it as he reminded Yue Ying handing him the care package. He hadn't bothered opening it and actually forgot about it until now. It was strange for her to give him this, and if Zhuge Liang had been any other man, he would have probably assumed Yue Ying was having an affair. Why else would she give a care package to another man? He scoffed. Women. The cause of man's downfall. At that thought, Liu Bei's heart ached in pain. Repressed thoughts of Shang Xiang suddenly flooded his mind. He closed his eyes briefly to allow the thoughts surround him. He could smell the flowery scent of her hair, he could hear the water rushing down the river during their walks, he see the sparkle in her eyes during their spars, and he could feel her soft milky skin. His heart ached for her, but the heart can be weak. He opened eyes again and forced those painful memories out. He could not pine for her, she was never going to return.
He opened the pouch and pulled out a handkerchief. Strange, he thought. Why would Ying give me this? As he turned the cloth over, he recognized the sloppy stitching of two doves and the word 'love' on it. A tear escaped his eyes as a briefly considered going to Wu to bring her back, but quickly brushed it away and tossed the handkerchief behind him without a second thought.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
The next day, Pang Tong arose early. He had been having trouble sleeping lately and could not understand why. He stared up into the gray sky thinking of what it all meant. The rest of the men were slowly rising now and Pang Tong was still unable to connect with the spirits. It was early morning now, but the sky was still gray as the clouds were roaming in. The men were taking down the tents as Liu Bei exited his fully armoured and ready to go. Hex Mark neighed loudly at the sight of his master. That was when Pang Tong finally understood what it all meant. The spirits had been trying to communicate with him all along. Zhuge Liang was right. He had been thinking about himself too much that he was unable to see what the spirits were trying to say.
Pang Tong rose from his seat hastily and gathered with the generals as they went over the plans for the day. Pang Tong interrupted rudely, "Liu Zhang expects us." He announced suddenly. All the other generals began mumbling in hushed whispers so that the soldiers could not hear. Was their a spy among their ranks?
"How do you know?" Zhuge Liang asked calmly.
"I have read the Heavens." He said matter-of-factly as if it explained everything. "There is a path to Luocheng through the valley. I suggest Liu Bei take a small group and travel through there to attack from behind and I will take the main force straight to Luo Cheng."
"No. Why should you face such danger, Pang Tong?" Liu Bei argued. "If Liu Zhang's forces are waiting to ambush us through front, I should lead there. "Pang Tong, since you know of this shortcut, you should take lead the group through there."
"Okay." Pang Tong responded without any hesitation. Liu Bei had not been expecting such a quick response was thought Pang Tong would put up a little more fight, but he did not question it. "I will need a swift horse if I'm to hit them from the back at the same time as when you arrive."
Liu Bei nodded and motioned the soldier to bring his horse. "Take Hex Mark, he will swift."
"Thank you my Lord. I must leave immediately." Pang Tong quickly gathered a handful and men and was about to leave when Zhuge Liang stopped him, but Pang Tong pulled away. "Trust me Zhuge Liang. When you hear the news, make sure Lord Liu Bei rushes into Luocheng." He paused for a moment. "Do not waste time."
Zhuge Liang did not have a good feeling about this, but Pang Tong was so confident in his plans that he could not say no. Without another word, Pang Tong was galloping away. Zhuge Liang could only pray that his feelings were wrong.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
As Pang Tong neared the valley, he stopped suddenly and turned to the small group of men following him. "Shields." He started. "I forgot shields." The men with him were confused, they all had brought shields. What did their general mean? "Hurry, return to the main army and bring back 30 more shields!" The men stood in their positions, not sure of how to react. "Go now! Time is of the essence! I will wait here until you return with the shields!" The men were still confused, but did not want to disobey him, so they all turned around and rushed back.
Pang Tong took off his straw hat and threw it to the ground. He looked up into the sky which was now a dark gloomy gray and sighed. "Well, here goes." He muttered to himself as he kicked Hex Mark to go forward. He patted the horse on his head. "You knew, didn't you?" He said, talking to the horse. "But you came with me anyway." As if acknowledging his words, Hex Mark picked up his speed and raced into the valley.
Pang Tong could feel the wind rushing through his loose hair when he felt the first arrow pierce his arm. He saw a second arrow strike the horse's neck before hearing a rally cry from all around. Pang Tong patted the horse on the head again as Hex Mark continued forward, without slowing down. "You're a brave one."
The sky blackened as arrows rained down on Pang Tong and Hex Mark. Cries of victory echoed through the valley as the ambushers chanted, "Lord Liu Bei of Shu is dead!"
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Mei Li had just entered her lady's room when she saw Shang Xiang tying up a small bundle. "My lady?" Mei Li asked.
It had been a couple days since Shang Xiang started eating again, but she still looked frail and to be out of her bed would be pushing her strength and energy. "Mei Li, please. You have been good to me, but I belong with my husband. I cannot stay here any longer."
Mei Li rushed to her mistress, "But Lord Sun Quan said he would send you back the moment Shu sends for you!"
Shang Xiang gave a weak smile. "I know, but I cannot wait any longer. I will return to Shu myself."
"News from Shu m'lady!" A maid cried out as she crashed into the room uninvited.
"What news?" Mei Li snapped at the disrespect. Shang Xiang looked up hopefully. Was her husband requesting for her back?
"Lord Liu Bei of Shu is dead!" The maid announced. The moment Shang Xiang heard those words, she collapsed.
"Quick! Call a doctor!" Mei Li shouted as grabbed Shang Xiang's wrist to check her vitals.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Her eyes fluttered opened to be greeted by the warm sunlight. Mei Li was relieved to see her mistress had regained consciousness. "Thank goodness you are well, my lady." She sighed a deep breath of relief. "Let me go get the doctor. He has gone to report back to Lord Sun Quan." Mei Li was about to step out of the room when Shang Xiang spoke out.
"The sun is shining. The river is so beautiful on these days."
"Yes. The water sparkles in response to the sun." Mei Li replied, confused with Shang Xiang's strange comment. She quickly exited the room and rushed towards the audience chamber where the doctor and Sun Quan would be. As she neared, she heard the two men talking.
"How is she?" Sun Quan asked.
"She will survive, however..." He paused for a moment before continuing. "The baby's pulse is weak. If she does not regain her health soon, the baby will be lost."
A baby! Mei Li thought excitedly as she turned around to tell her mistress the good news. If my lady knows she's with child, surely she will try to regain her health again!
"My lady, my lady!" She cried out in excitement as she pushed open the door to Shang Xiang's rom. "My lady, good news!" She said as she looked around for her mistress. "My lady?" She called out again when she did not see Shang Xiang in her room. "My lady?" She cried out in panic now. Where had she gone? She was too weak to travel. "My lady?" She shouted out.
"What has happened? Where is Shang Xiang?" Sun Quan asked with concern as he and the doctor came in.
"I... I... I don't know where she is!" Mei Li looked at Sun Quan in worry. "I only left the room for a few moments to get the doctor but when I returned, she was..." Mei Li stopped in realization. "The river!" She exclaimed. "She said the river was beautiful on sunny days!" Mei Li shouted as she bolted out of the room and towards the river.
Oh no, no, no, no! She screamed in her head. Please, please, please, don't do anything stupid! Please Shang Xiang! Please! Just as the river came in sight, Mei Li saw the form of her mistress sink into the waters. "My Lady!" She screamed at the top of her lungs. Please don't let me be too late, please don't let me be too late. She begged the heavens as she continued down.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Liu Bei and his closest friends sat gathered in silence. The men were grief-stricken. They had lost an invaluable ally and friend. But none felt as much pain as Liu Bei. Pang Tong knowingly died for him, and it was something he could never forget.
Zhuge Liang was the first to stand up. "Come now, Pang Tong would not wish for us all to be like this. We will never forget his memory nor what he has done for us. But we should also continue on in his memory."
The men nodded in agreement.
... ... ... ... ... ... ...
Several weeks later, the rumour of Lord Liu Bei of Shu was dead, settled down. All of Shu's enemies were disappointed to learn the truth. Liu Bei continued on his duties as Lord discussing strategies with his generals. They had set camp in the fields one clear night. The stars littered the sky with their sparkles and the men were thankful to take a break.
"My Lord, a woman wishes to see you." A soldier announced in the middle of their meeting.
"A woman? Out here?" Zhang Fei questioned. They were practically in the middle of nowhere. Why would a mere woman be traveling so far from the city?
"She claims to carry a pendant of Shu's crest, but refuses to show anyone but Lord Liu Bei." The soldier continued.
Shu's crest? Liu Bei thought. No one should have that except...
"Lady Sun?' Zhuge Liang mumbled barely audible.
"Bring her in." Liu Bei said, his heart briefly skipping a beat before he regained his composure.
A cloaked woman walked into the tent. Liu Bei motioned for the soldier to leave. Just as he left, Zhao Yun held out his spear at her defensively. Liu Bei gestured for him to lower his weapon. Zhao Yun hesitantly obeyed. "I was told you carry something that belongs to me."
The woman nodded and held out her hand. On her palm, a pendant of Shu's crest shined in the candlelight. Zhao Yun took it from her and handed it over to Liu Bei. Liu Bei looked it over carefully. He touched it softly as he remembered the moment he had put the pendant around Shang Xiang's neck.
"Who are you?" The woman carefully pulled her hood back and looked up at Liu Bei. Zhao Yun immediately raised his spear again. "Mei Li?" Liu Bei almost questioned in surprise.
"I have come here with a message." She said calmly.
"You have guts woman, to enter enemy camp like this." Zhao Yun said threateningly, but she did not flinch.
"I do not want to hear it. Leave now and your life will be spared." Liu Bei said turning his back on her.
"My lady, Shang Xiang is dead."
Liu Bei turned to face her again. Had he heard those words right? He looked at her face carefully and examined her expression. Even in the dim candlelight, he could make out her pale complexion.
"She never forgot you, Lord Liu Bei. She never betrayed you." Zhang Fei scoffed in disgust, but Mei Li continued. "She had been tricked to leave you. But she tried desperately to return. And when she couldn't, it was as if she had already died. She stopped eating and she grew weak by the day. She was at a point that I could not see life in her eyes anymore. Lord Sun Quan finally agreed to let her return should you ever request for her... but that never happened."
Pain seared through his heart. Was what she said true? Did Shang Xiang suffer that much because of him?
"Lies of a whore!" Zhang Fei shouted.
"My lady is dead! I have no reason to lie!" Mei Li flashed a daring glare at Zhang Fei. She was brave to do so because in a fit of anger, Zhang Fei could have easily killed her on the spot. But her face expressed so much pain, even Zhang Fei knew she was telling the truth. She continued, "Slowly, she regained her health, not in the hopes that you'd send for her, but because now with her brother's blessing, she would go back to Shu herself." Tears began forming in her eyes now. "But news travels fast. And soon it reached her ears that Lord Liu Bei of Shu was dead. He was killed in the Valley of the Fallen Phoenix. My lady collapsed when she heard the news." Mei Li took a deep breath to steady her quivering voice. "Her last words to me were 'The sun is shining. The river is so beautiful on these days.'"
Liu Bei placed a hand on the table to steady himself. The words were familiar to him. She had said those words to him on their strolls by the river. He suddenly remembered the day she had said them. It was a rare day they could spend alone together and he had decided to take her by the river. The sun was beaming brightly that day and she was wearing a light green dress to match his outfit. "There's a river by my home where I grew up," she said. "I used to play in it when the water was low." He remembered watching her dip her foot into the water. "The sun is shining. The river is so beautiful on these days." He remembered touching her face softly. "Not as beautiful as you." He remembered saying to her.
"She drowned herself in the river that day." Mei Li continued, tears now flowing freely. "She loved you with all her heart and could not bear to live without you." She paused to sniffle. "But what she didn't know was..." She paused again to sob. "...she was pregnant with your child."
Liu Bei staggered back and fell into his seat at her words. He closed his eyes as he reached under his breastplate and slowly pulled out a handkerchief with two doves and the word love stitched on it. He clutched onto the cloth tightly as a tear slid from his eyes.