A Dynasty Warriors / Romance of the Three Kingdoms fanfiction by Lushard
It was the first time I'd seen him on his knees when there were no politicians around. It was the first time he ever knelt—begged at me, and his words are ringing in my mind even as I force my body to be as still as possible.
In front of me is Dong Zhuo. The tyrant who breaks my father. The man who has crushed hundreds of lives and usurped the Emperor.
A man whose lust for me is so palpable I nearly squirm under his gaze.
I have never met him in person, only have heard about him from my father and the officers and the maids back in the house. They painted him as a fat snake who will not even survive a day without wine and women. I thought they were exaggerating.
Apparently they were not.
Clothed in a silk robe that doesn't suit his bearing and figure, Dong Zhuo sits on his throne with his fat fingers drumming against the armrests. He has black, unkempt hair and mane that must have failed to be tamed even by the hands of a master hairdresser. His dark skin tells me that he might originate from the South. His small, dark eyes are ruling this whole palace with fear, and I might have been fooled by his unsightly appearance should I fail to reckon the gleam in those black orbs. To my disgust, they are not the eyes of a fool. They speak of experience, intelligence, and also of ambition and lust for domination.
This is a man who can trample down houses and slaughter children should he feels like doing so.
But I will not lose to him. I won't disappoint my father; I won't let this man deter me. Whatever he's going to do to me, I know that it shouldn't be worth my care, let alone my feelings.
I have emptied myself.
"Ah, what took you so long?" Dong Zhuo asks my father, a grin spreading over his face.
He directs the words at my father, but his eyes are keep darting back to study my figure. The fact that I am clothed in my dancing robe is not going to keep his preying eyes at bay any sooner.
My father—the man who has adopted me into his care five years ago—bowed deeply. "Forgive me, my lord," he said. I nearly choke at the title in which my father uses to address him. "Do understand that preparations are needed before I could assure myself that I have my daughter in the best clothing to stand in your presence."
I force myself to smile then, the sweetest smile I know will delude most men into thinking that I am the only thing they will want to gaze upon, the only woman they will ever want. I will be the only woman they will ever dream of claiming.
The effect is immediate. Dong Zhuo's grin widens; the officers around him are trying their best not to be caught staring, shifting their weight or looking at the windows instead. My father bows once again and reminds them of his presence with a soft cough. Dong Zhuo blinks out of whatever fantasies that have seized his mind. He nods. "Ah, yes, thank you, Minister." He looks at the people around him, the officers, the consultants, and finally, at Lu Bu, who is only two steps away from his throne. "You may all leave," he announces.
It takes two seconds for everyone to absorb that simple command before finally moving their feet toward the large doors behind me. Lu Bu isn't moving. I do look up then, to find his hardened gaze shifting from me to his master. One needs not to be an emotion reader to know that there is a raging storm in those eyes, a turmoil beneath that black chest guard. Dong Zhuo looks at him with a scowl.
"What are you doing still standing there?" The tyrant lifts a sheathed sword which was resting on the armrest a moment before. "You think me too old and rusty to defend myself should situation demands it?"
After a moment of staring into the empty space between me and Dong Zhuo, finally Lu Bu offers a grim, half-hearted nod—so fast and curt the movement I have almost failed seeing it. He walks briskly to exit the room with a rigid posture, all the while having his eyes on me.
And then, just like that, we are alone.
I am alone with this predator in front of me.
"I'm sorry for that, Diao Chan," says Dong Zhuo. His gaze turns tender as he looks back at me.
I ignore the way he so casually uses my name as if I have been a possession of his since a long time ago, and holds his gaze with a plastic smile curling my lips. Hoping that my voice will come out alluring and inviting, I ask, "Now that we are only by ourselves, would you care to see a dance I have prepared for you, Lord Dong Zhuo?"
I have ignited the right candle, it seems. His eyes quickly crinkle with delight and he gives me his permission with a wave of his hand.
I take a step back, lift my right hand, then close my eyes. I have to calm down. The coldness that grips me tightens its grip, sending chills throughout my body as I slowly move.
I have practiced this dance over a hundred times after that night at the garden. There is no chance that I will mess this up—no errors are allowed here. But the coldness lingers, making my movements less graceful, my feet shuffling a little bit more awkwardly than when I first learned the moves. My smile is wavering.
A glance at Dong Zhuo assures me that he's yet to see something is wrong, but I have to remedy this situation quickly if I do not want to be found hesitating. Dong Zhuo treats hesitation with suspicion, and suspicion brings out the cruel tyrant inside of him. A famous tale of him slaughtering a group of ministers the other day have confirmed my assumptions.
So I do the first thing that comes to my mind. I open my eyes without halting the dance, see through the decorated walls of this vast room, reaching for the moments I know I may never regain.
I let myself be lost in the memories of happier days.
X - 0 - x
"You really should stop being so careless."
The boy before me frowned. He kept his mouth clamped shut as I worked on his bruised arm.
"Yi Lin would be worried," I continued, sparing him an exasperated look. After I was done with the ointment, I wrapped the bandage around his arm and tied the ends. He was gritting his teeth to prevent himself from making a noise of protest, I knew. I stood up. "The sun's going to set soon. You'd better go home before Yi Lin comes to everyone's home to seek you again."
The boy, still so stubbornly quiet, only nodded once. He was gazing at the river before us, refusing to look at me or even at his wounds. I could tell that he was battling over whether to confront me or not.
After a moment of heavy silence passed, I relented. "I'm sorry," I said without looking at the person whom I directed my words at. "I should have told you sooner."
He looked at me, his eyes dark and full of emotions. I didn't even know how to react. He stood up abruptly, ignoring the scars that were also present on his calves and thighs, and reminded me of the fact that he had grown old enough to surpass my height now. It was hard to remember how he had been as a preteen. A boy half a year younger than me, a boy almost a head shorter than me. A boy with unreadable gray eyes and a set jaw. Now said boy was two inches taller than me and was using his height to its full advantage to dwarf my stature.
I didn't look away nor did I take a step back. His frown deepened before words came out of his taut lips. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"It was too sudden for me too," I said. "Yi Lin said that I would need to sort things out before I leave—"
"You agreed, then?" His tone was so harsh and tinged with disbelief it hurt me. "You didn't say a word to me or to anyone and yet you agreed to leave anyway! What's wrong with you?!"
"It was not my decision," I said, so soft I could barely hear my own voice.
He heard the quiver still. The bottled anger that had erupted ever so slightly dissipated as he fixed his expression and tried to quell the rage within him. He opened his mouth to speak, but there were no words.
He was confused. I could see it. Confused, and also hurt.
I reached out to touch his cheek, like the way I'd used to when he was trying his best not to cry. His cheek felt cold against my fingertips, and for a moment, I thought he would shy away, refusing to be comforted by saying that he wasn't a child anymore.
He didn't. Instead, his eyes bore to mine, the unspoken questions were dancing in the gray orbs. "I don't know what will happen too," I said quietly, "but I assure you I'm going to be all right. The messenger said that I will be able to see you again in two years or three."
"I know what happens to girls who are taken as dancing maidens," was his response. The frown that had creased his forehead disappeared, and replacing it was a look of dread that colored his face as if someone had just threatened to shower him with acid. I knew what he was going to say: "They don't come back."
Which was true. We had lived long enough in the orphanage to see our stepsisters and neighbors taken to be trained as dancing maidens or musicians. None of them had ever returned, no matter how many promises their letters had piled. "I will," I said, masking my own doubt with a tiny smile. "I will write too."
My promises were not enough; if I were in his position, I too would not be convinced by mere words when hard facts and experience had taught me otherwise. But I knew him better than anyone, even better than Yi Lin—our caretaker—or any adults back in the house. I knew exactly how he was going to behave under these circumstances, what he was going to do and where he would run off to for the night. Yi Lin had said that it was my unique talent since childhood: reading people.
I had not realized it sooner than she back then, thinking that how others would behave and how they would react to a certain issue or situation were what everyone could guess and be right about. After discovering my talent, questions and trials were often thrown at me. 'What is that merchant like?' Yi Lin would often ask me. 'Which one of those merchants is the honest one, and which one is a cheater?' 'Tell me what is that mother thinking.' 'Is that patrolling officer there a dutiful one or a slacker?'
I had not had a clue then that she was testing me.
"If you think I'm going to be bribed by those petty words, you're—"
"—not any smarter than the scarecrows in the fields," I finished for him.
He didn't smile back. "I'm dead serious," he retorted. "If you have time to read my mind than you have half a day to seek for a way out of this. Can't we think of something? Can't you?" His voice was getting higher and more desperate with each word said. "You're the smart one, you must be able to think of a plan to avoid all this!"
I waited for him to finish, then said with a calmness I didn't feel, "Unfortunately, I'm not at liberty to say no to this 'offer.' You know the rules. Once girls have reached the age of fourteen..." I didn't have to finish my sentence. Everyone knew, and feared, that particular rule. I'd seen parents crying after their daughters as they were taken to the palace, caged like songbirds that had their wings clipped and their little feet chained.
I was going to be one of them soon.
I was terrified. More than terrified. But for his sake, I chose to square my shoulders and smile. "Don't you dare bullying Xia Jun when I'm not around," I said, referring to a little girl seven years my junior who always insisted on following him wherever he went.
"Only if she agreed to give up the idea of being my shadow." The ends of his mouth were twitching, but his voice was still low and raw from suppressing his emotions, a subtle reminder of what a crybaby he had been once. I let my smile widen as I touched my forehead to his and closed my eyes to the warm feeling.
This was a gesture private to us. Ever since we'd been tossed into the orphanage four years ago, this was the only thing we would do to comfort each other when words were not meant to be said. We came from the same village, the village of Mu'Er. We have experienced the loss of losing our loved ones in the burning fire of war. And now, that same separation was bound to happen again.
We knew what was ahead of us, and neither of us wanted to dwell on that thought for long.
He was the first one to break away. Pulling my hand to follow him, he said, "C'mon. Let us run along the river 'till dark."
I giggled but made no move to protest. I followed him, forced my feet to run a little bit faster to catch up with his long-legged strides, and reminded myself that this was the last day I was going to have as a girl.
Tomorrow I was going to be an adult. Or to be precise, a woman. Tomorrow I would become Diao Chan, a dancing maiden who would spend her hours practicing dance moves and songs in walled rooms, groomed in silk and colorful robes. If I ever had any time to truly enjoy my last hours as a free spirit, then this was the time.
Some people near the river looked at us when we passed by. Some of them were merchants, some of them were just mothers with their children, but their unapproving glances were not having any effects on us. Not today.
Smiles turned into giggles as we went farther from the village, and giggles into laughter.
We laughed as we ran, our entwined hands never letting each other go.
x - 0 - x
My dance has ended hours ago, but I know that it has only been an opening, or worse, a prelude to a dark tale that I wish I could stop myself from writing.
Now, draped in soft linen, my body feels heavy and cold, even though the sun has awaken me with its light. I only have the sheets and covers here with me; my clothing and hair pins have disappeared during the evening Dong Zhuo had led me into his chambers. Beneath the covers, I turned to one side and hugged myself.
The tyrant has left without waking me up. He has taken me, in ways more than just one. He was gentle with me, undeniably so, no matter how I wished for a rougher night, for it would have made it easier to loathe him. But I am no memory eraser; what I wish has nothing to do with I've experienced. He has been kind, gentle, and adoring.
Of course, I could see the lust coloring his eyes when he exposed my skin to the cold air of the night. It didn't come through his actions. Why, I wonder, is he so different from what I imagined? Is it because he has desired me so? My looks...do they make me anymore different from the other women he had in store?
Pain registers a second too late to warn me that I have been biting my nails into my flesh. I am frustrated; I am dazed and irritated. In what manners he has taken me have nothing to do with the newfound self-loathing that is blooming in my chest now.
I have given my body to a man whose hands are tainted with the blood of the innocents.
The notion strikes me like a thunder. I have repeatedly told myself to prepare for this ever since my father had knelt in front of me, but still... The mental preparation I have made in the solitude of my father's house seems like a child's mere attempt to steel himself before storming into a wild fire. I feel as if I have been tainted. Even 'mortified' is not a word I would use right now.
A knock on the doors rouses me from my dark thoughts. I quickly scramble up, wrapping the covers around me as I search the room for clothes I know Dong Zhuo must have prepared for me. "My Lady, are you up?" a feminine voice calls out from the other side of the doors with an accompanying knock.
I almost blurt out a 'Wait' when the doors creak open. Behind them are two girls who can't be older than sixteen, each with a different tools in hands. One of them, the one with a basket and a towel hugged in her arms, approaches me. Without a word, she settles the tools she has brought with her beside my bed, her face not leaking a single emotion. She looks at me, and waits.
Again I seem to have forgotten that I am inside a palace. In my life as a dancer and an adopted daughter in Minister Wang's residence, I have never had any maids to care for me, let alone to help me clean myself. The girl is waiting for me to let go of the blanket, the only thing that prevented me from baring my nakedness to her.
A thought to dismiss the girls away crosses my mind. It is easy to say that I can manage to wash and clothe myself. But then I remember for what reason have I entered this very palace. With a little smile of gratitude that I hope will diminish my insecurity, I let go of the blanket.
The girls' adept hands work with the towels, warm water and clothes while my mind wanders. Lu Bu is bound to be furious by now, and if I haven't forgotten my father's words, he should be on a guard duty until noon, when the court is in session and Dong Zhuo is seated on his throne. The ministers will leave in the afternoon. Then Dong Zhuo's presence will be required around the East Tower where he will be discussing with his war strategists.
This is not an era of peace. With the many cries of revolt rising in his self-claimed kingdom, Dong Zhuo is not likely to return to his chambers any time before dusk. Which is good. It will give me a few hours of preparation before Lu Bu can infiltrate his master's chambers to look for me.
He will, I know. He will seek me out, trying to at least get a glimpse of my figure. I could read it in his posture, in the way that he had looked at me and then at his own adopted father...
It was coupled a feeling of helplessness combined with fury at the thought of leaving me in the hands of Dong Zhuo. It is a magnitude of feeling exactly like how I need him to have raging within him. When he attempts to confront me, it is then I will play my second card.
The girls have done their task. I am fully clothed in a white robe, my hair dressed and my nails done. I feel a little refreshed after the quick wash, and I let them know with a simple nod and a smile. One of them, the younger one by looks, smiles back and opens her mouth to say something before she closes it again under her friend's glare. I chuckle and say, "You may speak your mind."
The two girls look at me then at each other. Clearly they are not used being talked to when orders are not involved. To encourage them, I quietly laugh. "I'm not going to bite you, you know."
They smile at my words. The younger one lifts her eyes to hold my gaze. I notice her concerned look, and also the admiration that sparkles in the soft brown orbs. "Are you...are you all right?"
I try not to let the bitterness surge out to blemish my smile. "I am," I say, tenderly but confidently. "You have not found me battered and cut when you entered, haven't you?"
Again I see the hesitant smiles. "I... I'm glad," she says. "You are really beautiful, My Lady."
"As beautiful as any woman whom you two have tended in the past, I believe."
"No." She shakes her head, the high ponytail swaying behind her chestnut hair. "I mean, you're far more beautiful than any of them."
"And more so in person," the older one adds. At my questioning look, she explains, "We have heard of you before. Minister Wang has a beautiful daughter who is going to be transferred into the palace. The maids and officers were—are," she corrects herself, "really looking forward to see you."
"Why, I can hardly take such a compliment. I'm sure there are far prettier women than I who have also been in this room. I cannot imagine as to why people would be so curious to see my person."
"Pretty and humble," the older one chirps. She is apparently feeling bolder now that I have responded kindly to their attempts to engage me in a chat. "Not many women who have been here are like you."
I tilted my head to make them know that I'm interested enough to indulge myself in the conversation. "Is that so? Would you mind telling me what they're like?"
The information these two girls are supplying me with are simply astounding. The one hour chat I have not planned on having in the morning leads me deeper into the secrets of these chambers. I realize that if I want to stay here and play my part, I need to adjust and to use everything in my surroundings to my advantage. I need as many information as I can: which party I should avoid, whose attention I have to draw, what does Dong Zhuo like and how he normally behaves; when Lu Bu is usually on duty, and so on. There is so much to take in and I feel slightly overwhelmed by what these two have told me so far.
I am a newcomer in a foreign land. In order to win the land, I need to plan strategically.
"...So what do you say that we escort you to the gardens, My Lady?" Mei Shi, the younger of the girls, asked with excitement she doesn't bother to hide.
"Gardens?" I inquire, not sure if I have heard her right. "As in plural?" I have been told that the palace has more than one garden, but I only thought that multiple gardens meant one large garden dissected with fence.
Lou Fen giggled, confirming her friend's words. "Of course! There are four gardens here in total. The one that connects to these chambers is the Spring Garden. To the south is the Summer Garden, to the north is the Autumn Garden and further from there is the Winter Palace. The places are all so pretty, but only one blooms the brightest in this season."
Considering that we are entering autumn in barely two weeks, I can already guess where these girls will take me. True enough, she continued, "You should absolutely see the Autumn Garden around this time! The reddening leaves are just breathtaking, and there oh, so~ many flowers in that place that all the maids have given up on counting."
"I'm sure it will be lovely," I say, standing up. The girls follow suit. "Please, will you take me there?"
"With pleasure," both of them reply.
We make our way into the Spring Garden, which is just outside the chambers as the girls have told me. I welcome the cool breeze and the scent of nature, silently glad that I have these girls as companies. I know that without them, I would have been drowned into the events of last night and ended up losing myself—which I can't afford to happen. I have to think right now, and the gardens are soothing.
There are not so many guards around. I have never been comfortable with them stealing glances my way whenever I'm in their line of sight. It is nothing really new, but to know that I am in the lair of a big, poisonous snake, I can't help myself into thinking that his lackeys are one of a kind too. I know I will have to be used to this kind of treatment soon, but that is the deal: 'will have to be,' and not 'already.'
The path leading toward the Autumn Garden is filled with wonders. There are flowers which are not in bloom along the way, there are trees which have begun to turn orange and yellow. The nearer we get into the Autumn Garden, the more colorful the world seems to be. The two girls are chatting amiably in front of me, talking about flowers around us that I don't recognize as well as introducing me to a family of trees and fruits I find strange both in color and shape.
The little trip ends with me processing more plant names than I can possibly remember in fifteen minutes and them politely excusing themselves. They have duties to perform; it is very selfish of me to wish for them to stay and accompany me enjoying all the beauties here. I feel the pang of loss the moment they are gone nonetheless.
I inhale deeply to cleanse my head and heart. I take the exquisite sight before me in one sweeping glance, and suddenly, am reminded that even these beautiful reality is only a fragment of a darker, harsher world I live in. Outside of these walls there is a war being fought, conspiracies being planned. Murders being planned.
I advance deeper into the garden to find a little stream that is flowing at the center of the vast area. There is a bridge, and also a pavilion there, flanked by some trees that are larger than the rest. They are half obscuring the pavilion from view.
My feet carry me toward the pavilion automatically. I have expected it to be empty of visitors, but as I near the shelter, I can hear soft murmurs of two people talking to each other. I stop in my tracks, thinking if perhaps I should retreat back into the shadows of the trees. What I hear makes me rethink my previous decision.
"...The officials are against the idea," says a voice that must have belonged to a man as old as or older than my father. "If what we suspect is true, I'm afraid there will be no choice for us but to start a rebellion in the open."
I snuggle closer to a tree trunk just large enough to obscure my figure. I still can't clearly see the persons talking at the pavilion, thanks to the thick leaves and shadows, but I can make out of two figures standing just ten feet away from where I am.
The voice of the old man speaks again, "Should situation requires, I am afraid that we will have to rely on Cao Cao's terms of alliance."
Cao Cao? The name is both alien and familiar to me at the same time. Father used to talk about him, saying that he is someone to be wary of. Much like Dong Zhuo, he is also a man of ambitions. Though unlike him, his methods are far more cunning and his movements steadier. He's still working under the tyrant, if I recall, and I wonder what it is that these people are talking about that concerns someone like Cao Cao and the word 'rebellion.'
"We have heard that he will make a move in a—"
The second voice has just spoken for the first time. It is a male's. Far younger than his companion.
He speaks again, louder this time, "You'd better come out."
I feel my body freeze. The words are directed at me.
My pulse and heartbeat are quickening, my mouth suddenly feels dry as I feel my breath hitched in my throat. They have spotted me.
"Whoever you are," the voice speaks again in a lower, colder voice, "please do come out."
It is an order, I know. Or to be more accurate, a threat.
Panic rises and tightens my limbs, but I force my feet to comply with the order and move really slow. I bring myself out of the shades of the trees and into clear view.
Staring at me are two men: the older one dressed in the purple robe of a minister, much like my father, his hand is on his whitening beard. And his companion... I almost fail to stifle my gasp then.
For the owner of the second voice, the younger man who is staring at me with wide, gray eyes, is someone I have never thought of seeing ever again:
A/N: There are so many conjectures about Diao Chan's existence and tales that piqued my interest. I merely took one of them out to be developed into this fanfiction. Which tale? You guess!
Do Review to let me know what you think.