She found him most often in the gardens, usually when the sun was beginning its descent and the world was bathed in its soft, warm glow. He went there to ponder, she knew, to reminisce about times less turbulent, less violent, and to cherish the memories of a dear friend dead and gone. It was for much the same reasons she spent her evenings there, trying to ease the overwhelming sense of loss she felt by immersing herself in the scents and colors of the flowers and trees. He never noticed her and she was not surprised by this; she was, after all, simply a servant in a great house, and he one of its lords. And so she observed from afar and in silence, and so she began to learn about the young man known as Zhou Yu.
Many things were said about him in the underworld occupied by servants, squires and serfs. He was a brilliant strategist, almost the equal of the Sleeping Dragon. His battle prowess was unparalleled; he had led Wu to many a victory. The women sang him praises as well – he was quite possibly the handsomest man in all the land; his charm, wit, and poise were by far unrivaled. All of these things echoed throughout her mind as, night after night, except for those when he was gone on militaristic campaigns, he would appear in the gardens. She had seen him before, of course, at the large banquets held in his or some other officer's honor, and always he was surrounded by either a crowd of noble women or the other officers of Wu he served with. He seemed imperious at these times, untouchable, but all of that faded away during his time in the gardens, and he became somehow softer, more at ease. It was a transformation she watched with rapt attention, to see the layers of the famous general, of the sometimes arrogant lord peel away to reveal the vulnerable young man beneath.
He seemed – almost- like someone she could talk to.
But she couldn't, for even in the garden their statuses remained with them; for her to speak with a lord would be an unforgivable transgression. And so she would watch him from behind the fragrant blossoms of the calla lilies, trying to content herself with the fact that she would never know him beyond the person she could see.
And for a time, it was enough.
She came to know his visage well, the strong, smooth lines of his proud face and the piercing dark eyes that dominated it; when he was in the garden, those eyes were clouded always with grief. The straight, thick fall of his dark hair often shone even in the growing dark that came with dusk, and when he would bow his head and it would fall over his shoulders to obscure his face she wanted nothing more than to brush it carefully back. As time progressed, as she saw him more and more often, the yearning to speak with him, to touch him, to know him became increasingly stronger, until she realized that she, a servant of the third class, had fallen in love with the lord Zhou Yu.
Idiot! She berated herself one day as she worked, toiling over a metal tub filled with water, cutlery, and dishes in dire need of cleansing. Foolish, foolish girl! For what hope was there for a servant who loved a lord, a General? None, none at all, and though she knew this she couldn't help the bitter tears that prickled at her eyes, nor the awful, longing sensation that settled in her very core. It wasn't something she could prevent, this feeling, for who in the world could control where their heart wandered? She would break this spell, she decided grimly that night, and would never wander the gardens again. She had first done so to try and forget the loss of her brother and father who had served as common infantry, lost in one of the many wars against Wei; now the garden's entire purpose was for her to glimpse the man who had unwittingly secured her deepest affection.
It was not so easy to shrug off her feelings, however, and so it was she found herself padding, barefoot, through the simple sand paths that wound throughout the garden well after midnight. She had fought with herself for hours instead of sleeping, and when finally she had risen and hurried outdoors she realized that perhaps she would be too late, perhaps the lord would have already retired; she proceeded anyways. She crept silently through the hanging boughs of the red leaved trees, trying not to rustle as she waded through the silver-green grasses that rose to brush gently at her thighs, and when finally she stood before the familiar white blooms of the calla lilies her chest was tight with expectation. Was he here? Had she missed him?
"What have we here?" A soft and sonorous voice, undeniably male, asked, and heart thundering furiously she whirled with a breathless gasp.
It was, as she knew, the lord; he stood calmly before her with hands clasped behind his back, clad still in the finery he had worn to the evening's earlier celebration banquet. In the dying light his expression of mild curiosity was still evident; one eyebrow arched slowly higher as he awaited her response.
For a moment she contemplated fleeing, running as far from here as she could never to return again. This was not the man she loved – this was the Lord Zhou Yu, authoritative, imposing, impenetrable. She wet her lips nervously, and began to speak, faltering, "Lord, forgive me … I-I simply needed fresh air …"
"Then there is nothing to forgive," he said with a kind smile, and in that instant he became the man she was most familiar with. "I am often in need of the same, it seems, and this is the perfect place to attain it."
"I have seen you here before," she said, and the moment the words fell from her lips she felt her eyes grow wide in horror. She had just admitted to watching him during his private sojourns throughout the garden …
"Have you?" He asked, and the gleam in his eyes became both shrewd and sharp.
"I-I … I am sorry, Lord. I am here often, as well, and did not think it prudent to impose upon you …"
Immediately his demeanor softened, sensing, perhaps, that the reason that she roamed the garden at night was the same as his. "There is no law against walking these paths at night," he said, "The serenity that lingers here should be for all to share."
"Thank you, Lord,"
"Think nothing of it," he replied with another smile, "I apologize for not noticing you before. I just did not see you."
Tears abruptly flooded her eyes, for the words he spoke bore the truth that kept her - a servant - entirely separated from knowing one such as he.
I just did not see you.
A servant, she knew numbly, was meant to be invisible.
"I shall continue on," he said with a nod, stepping past her with a rustle of fine fabric. "May you find what it is you are looking here for."
"I have found it," she whispered as her eyes followed his movement, his long, contemplative strides carrying him towards the quarter where the roses grew. "I have found it, but I am never to have it."
That night marked the last of her time in the garden.