Wen Yu Yang is a regular contributor to Tharunka.
Content warning: violence
Things had come naturally to Lian, the same things that the girl would pay for with sweat and blood, but she had never resented Lian for that.
The girl had spent days trying to replicate her sister’s dance. They said that Lian had danced as if on water, twirling amongst dragonflies and blushing lotuses. Lian’s fingers would drag slowly as if to draw ripples, and her body dipped to kiss the water’s surface. The Lotus, legendary dancer, that was what they called her sister.
The tea tower was a place where business contracts were sealed over rims of steaming cups and where threats were threaded subtly in the steady strum of strings. The uppermost level was entertained with a succession of lazy chords and harmonies, accented by crisp notes that curled deliciously in the air. Incense burned, a luxurious delight. Girls danced behind near-transparent silk curtains. They parted and Lian’s shadow emerged, a disguise wrought by speed, agility and precision. Misdirection. Magic. Lian had been graceful. The girl was another creature entirely.
Months after, as she drew to a final stop before the palace crowd and the applause sounded and the hollers began, she realised that they couldn’t tell the difference. The blurred memory of Lian’s soft jaw sharpened, eyes darkened, and Lian’s grace became the girl’s raw strength. The audience saw what they wanted to see.
Word would spread the following day and the next: The Lotus was reborn.
The second visit to the palace was the last one the girl made before Lian’s death. She had been twelve.
Lian’s face had become pale and had been made paler by the white powdered onto her face, to hide shadows that lurked underneath her eyes and below her jaw. But it did nothing for the diminished light in her eyes or the weight hanging on the ends of her lips. When Lian had smiled at her, she was reminded of the faint flickers from the broken streetlamp outside their house.
‘My dear sister.’ Lian’s whisper was burdened with unshed tears.
The girl had demanded to know what was wrong. Lian only smiled again, shaking her head gently, a half-hearted reprimand. Nothing was the matter, of course. Everything was fine. Yes, the long-sleeved dress was fine, the court favoured it.
But you love the sun against your skin. You only ever wore sleeves that one time when you tripped over the pond and bruised.
Yes, the heels were fine, they made people look powerful.
But you hate heels, they rub your feet raw.
When Lian linked arms with her, she didn’t resist, but she had been putting up a rather sullen front after their exchange. Lian sighed.
‘I’m sorry, little one. Some things are better left alone. Here. You can have this for now. It’s getting cold.’ Lian pulled out a scarf and wrapped it around her neck. It was heavily scented with incense that were placed in rooms of pleasure. It was what Lian had come to smell like. When she looked up at Lian, her sister’s gaze wavered. ‘Listen to me. If anything happens. You seek out the High Consort or the Empress Dowager, do you understand?’
‘I don’t like either of them.’
Lian laughed, a surprised and unchecked sound. ‘It matters not. They are the only ones to be trusted, should you need any help.’
‘You’re the only one I trust.’
Lian’s eyes concentrated on a spot just below her ear so they wouldn’t drift up to meet hers. ‘I’m sorry.’
She hadn’t understood what Lian was apologising for back then.
‘Please talk to me.’
Lian’s reply did not come in time.
Both girls whirled around to where the General stood. ‘I am to escort you to dine with the court.’
The girl had searched Lian’s face, expecting to find a glow in her eyes, she found none. When Lian smiled, it wasn’t hers, gentle and true. This one had been practised, a weapon to be wielded on the stage of the boy-Emperor’s play. Lian promised her more time afterwards. She told Lian she understood. This was Lian’s duty, after all, and she was supposed to support that.
That was the day Lian left her.
The girl opened the box that night, one of the first following Lian’s death. It had been sitting in the corner of her room for days after she had discovered it in Lian’s trunk. She had left it there out of spite, out of fear, she wasn’t sure which. She was ready now. At least that was what she told herself.
Gifts, likely from Lian’s admirers. Some were letters, most of them untouched. Exquisite fabric from lands across seas, embroidery by hands impossibly skilled. It reminded her of the scarf Lian had given her, the one she had worn ever since. She lifted it from her neck. It trickled through her fingers, yellow, liquid joy. Lian, Lian, Lian.
There was a subtle jolt beneath her fingertips. Water over a pebble. She hadn’t noticed it before.
She traced the fabric, searching. There. A slight bump. She sliced it out.
This was a letter of a different nature entirely. Every word slashed through her mind, as if it were severing her nervous system bit by bit.
Such a letter was not unexpected in the palace. What made it impossible was the familiarity of delicate lifts of the brush and the signatory that sat at the end of it all. In her head, the letter shouldn’t exist.
Instructions to assassinate the Emperor, issued by the Consort, affirmed by Lian.
Lian must’ve had hidden it in the scarf and wrapped it around her sister’s neck for safekeeping. Lian was supposed to return for this, was supposed to get the paper to the executioner, was supposed to be alive.
The Empire had failed Lian, so Lian had struck back. A blow that never landed. But at least, she thought with some comfort, Lian had fought.
The girl decided then if she couldn’t bring Lian back to the living, she was going to rewrite Lian’s death.
It was, of course, his birthday. Birth week, month, year. Every day of the month of the year was his birthday.
The court loved gatherings. Smiles, curved swords. Masks on until backs were turned. Delighted laughs, sweet poison. There were circles of power which fish flowed between, most adept and slippery, some caught on rocks and bled. Crows perched everywhere, waiting to swoop in for leftovers.
This day, in particular, was an excuse to raise the scale of decadence to pantomime. Woods hung with smoked boar. Springs sprouted wine that came from the Northern Fairlands. Dancing girls were even barer than before. The palace reeked of braying laughs, drunken reciting of tasteless poems and broken glass littering the floor.
Lucky her, the girl was the star in this joke.
The silks that were put on her bound parts of her arms and legs, the other parts of her—most parts—were cuffed by silver, emerald, jade. Every spin, the silver bounced and jingled. Every spin, she drew closer to the boy-Emperor and his uproarious friends. Every spin, fingers accidentally brushed her legs. Every spin, palms unwittingly discovered her. Every spin, hot, intoxicated breath licked her skin.
The next spin, it was the boy-Emperor’s hooded eyes, watery smile, parted mouth. You’ve grown into quite the beauty, he murmured, his skin on hers. The girl was trying not to think: Lian had left her for this. And the next, it was her behind him, him claiming her slender arm. Then the next, her wicked hairpin of a bone pressed against his neck.
‘I will cut his throat before any of you can put an arrow through me,’ she said. The lotus on her hairpin bloomed with glee. Bows pulled taut, hands gripped hilts.
‘Woman, put your weapon down.’
‘Why, when I’m practically dead?’
Lian had been willing to risk her own life for someone to carry out this moment’s cause. To be that someone for Lian, the girl sacrificed hers, which wasn’t much of a life after Lian had gone without her.
‘Put it down.’ The General’s eyes were dark.
‘I’m here to finish what my sister started,’ she continued, then whispered her next words to the trembling boy-Emperor, ‘She wanted to kill you, you see.’
He let out a cry. The surrounding men looked wondrously distressed. This was probably the last thing they’d suspect. They saw what they wanted to see. Girls, dancers were weak creatures, too busy pitting at each other to notice the foulness around them.
She felt the arrow before it was released. The agitated man to her left. His fingers had been twitching on his bowstring. She let her years of training take over her and sidestepped the missile.
A pig-like screech escaped the boy-Emperor when the pin nicked his skin. Blood trickled out. He might’ve had soiled his fancy pants. He was definitely sobbing.
Horror paled the archer’s face. ‘What are you?’
Her hint of a smirk gave him his answer. Freak, disgrace, animal, monster, demon.
‘Don’t do this,’ the Consort’s lips said, as her eyes said: there is a better way.
From the corner of her eye, she found the person who hadn’t stepped forth, hadn’t protested. ‘What say you, Empress Dowager?’
The room’s eyes shifted to the Dowager, who stood, silently removed. Those eyes were blank when they met hers, already grieving.
‘Make it quick.’
‘Mother!’ Outraged and desperate. The boy-Emperor directed that look on the General. It screamed: Fix it. This is on you.
The Dowager’s gaze dragged from her disgraced son to the girl in sliver chains, jaded cuffs, emerald studded choker. In her place, the Dowager saw her own reflection from years ago. Or perhaps the Dowager saw shadows and duplicates, layers ironed upon layersr. Then those eyes moved to the sharp pin and understood how it was, at last, going to shred through it all. Grief became resolution, which turned into regret that transformed into hatred.
‘Whore,’ the General snarled, eyes flashing with anger that barely concealed the underlying fear. ‘Just like your sister.’ There it was, the snake had shredded its skin, fangs protruded in response to immediate threat. The room was that of horror, turned defeat, and then reluctant acceptance. Something in her mind registered that and ice crept through her veins.
‘What did you do to her?’ the High Consort demanded, turning on the General.
His reply, ‘Only what she deserved.’
The girl slit the Emperor’s throat. The room let out a ghastly wail. And the next second she was on the General.
They screamed and scrambled away. Some stood to the side, uncertain. There wasn’t a clear target.
She had a head start, but the General had decades of experience. Steel against water. No one dared to come into striking distance: this was a war for two. Her arms and legs had been nicked, but she was fast enough to avoid the major blows. Still, this had to stop, soon. Sweat beaded on their foreheads. The sun was merciless, a harsh judge spectating with an extreme glare. The moment came, she twisted.
Light speared into his eyes, he flinched, and her blade drove home.
He stared blankly, blinded by sunlight, before disbelief dragged him to the ground.
She watched as he choked on his blood, eyes bulging, body convulsing. And then he was no longer.
After a while, she blinked. The sun had bled out, its judgement made. Lian fell into peaceful rest. The White Lotus became.