The Tower Journal

  Mehrina Asif


   Wolbachia

     

when it begins

 

Diao Chan knew of three ways to break a man's arm and had practiced them all several times in the short course of her life, for the most beautiful woman in China was often also the most harassed. That she knew how to defend herself made the situation twice as intolerable.

Broad nails bit into her shoulder as the usurper pressed her to his side, a crude display to the court and his silent, watchful son. Lord Dong Zhuo’s limbs were thicker than most, but she could still punish him. She thought of how satisfying it would be to snap his bones, sink her nails into his eyes and rip through his skull. But purpose was a bitter mistress and she stayed quiet.

 

________________________________________

 

before everything

 

Diao Chan was an orphan, a runaway, and a thief.

She lived on the outskirts of Luoyang, right where the boulevards of the Heavenly City bled into endless rice paddies fed by the threads of fresh, clean water from the Luo. Nobody knew who her family was, what happened to them, or how she had ended up there. As far as the locals remembered, she'd always been there, skulking under the bridges and behind the fences, a thin wraith flitting from farm to farm, her presence felt only in the absence of stolen food and clothes.

But the way she remembered it, she grew up with lush rolls of green and dark earth on one side and the palace to her back, with sun-lazy days singing in hidden palace fountains, with the tuneless folk songs of the farmers in the fields until they discovered they were missing a bushel of fruit, with the heavy hearted smell of water on dust.

She could have lived in that forever.

 

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after that

 

Her thirteenth winter was the worst anybody could recall. The morning frosted the fields, freezing the soil into one long impossible curve of earth, and the limbs of the fruit trees cracked and fell with the snow every night. Families retreated to their hearths and hearty soups, but for the orphan girl there was no option but to find the house with the warmest walls and hunker next to it for the night.

Unfortunately, that was the night that despite her best efforts, she could not stay awake. Her little hands tucked into the hollows behind her knees, her knees tucked into the hollows of her heart, and the orphan girl of Luoyang closed her eyes and slept-

-only a few hours. Fortunately, this was also the night the lady of the house stepped outside to paint the glowing snow and instead tripped over the half-buried child. Because the lady was kind and wanted children, because her husband was the Interior Minister and could not have any, she took the orphan girl inside and gave her the first hot bath she'd ever had.

When her skin was no longer translucent, the girl awoke long enough to thank the lady. In the strange winter night light, her violet eyes and sun-browned hair appeared to the lady as a true charm, rare and lovely. So the lady went to her husband and told him he now had a daughter. The husband replied that he didn't remember making one, but when the lady blushed he laughed and said a daughter would be a gift.

And it was that night, as the girl was falling asleep in the lady's arms, the lady touched her death-pale face and named her Diao Chan, the sable cicada emerged from the snow after thirteen years of burial in the deep, dark ground.

 

________________________________________

 

and after that

 

“Wild creatures cannot be tamed” seemed to be the common consensus. Diao Chan had never spent the time necessary with people to learn how to behave around them. As a consequence, her every word, every movement seemed to slip out of true, like picking up a knife and finding it sharpened on the wrong edge.

Once, Lady Xiang's sister visited, curious to see her adoptive niece. She worked in the palace as a handmaiden to Prince Xie's mother and was quite proud of it. Diao Chan, who had seen ladies of far more import in the course of her clandestine adventures in Luoyang, promptly told her so.

Annoyed, her aunt told her that cicadas were kept buried for years because they sang too loudly for anyone to love.

But Diao Chan had never let the disapproval of her betters limit her behavior, and to her delight, her adoptive mother was cut from the same rebellious cloth. After bidding her sister goodbye, Lady Xiang looked thoughtfully at Diao Chan's stony expression.

“I have heard you sing in the fields,” she said. “No one here may admit it, but they each have stopped to listen.”

As this made Diao Chan smile, the lady added, “You must always sing as loud as you can, my dear.” And here, her voice lifted into a lovely high note as she sang, “Truly, with no rock to underpin them, what good are empty names?”

 

________________________________________

 

now and then

 

They would sing together, Lady Xiang's clear, high voice, and Diao Chan's lower, fuller notes. Earlier Han poetry was the lady's favorite, and mother and daughter would spend the day reading and learning, talking and laughing. And always, there would be singing.

On days Lord Wang Yun would come home, he would stand in the doorway and smile at his family until they noticed him. He would try to join in once, but as he had very little in the way of musical talent, he would compromise by bringing home gifts and treats and stories from the palace.

And Diao Chan wanted to live in that forever.

 

________________________________________

 

eventually

 

Lord Wang Yun came home one day and said, “The Emperor is dead.”

Lady Xiang put down her brush. Her lips flattened, and after a pause, she said, “Is this unfortunate?”

“My lady!” they exclaimed. Diao Chan looked mildly horrified; Wang Yun somewhat more so.

“Your credit is wasted on him,” she told her husband. “He has run this country to ruin. Half the people lay starving in the streets.”

But the minister was shaking his head, jerks of fearful motion. “While it is true the imperial offices have been mismanaged, I fear his passing leaves us to a much worse fate.” With glittering eyes, he gave the story of the past several months, how Emperor Ling’s death left the crown to Prince Bian, and the powerful minister Jian Shuo tried to assassinate General He Jin in order to put Prince Xie on the throne. 

“He Jin has declared Prince Bian the emperor and executed Jian Shuo,” he said. By now the servants had gathered at the doorway, listening nervously. “The Empress Dowager has been exiled, and the warlord Yuan Shao is bending the new Empress’s ear with He Jin’s help.” He took a gulp of tea, swallowed, put the cup down with hands shivering from fatigue. “They are planning to execute the eunuchs. I have heard whispers of it. I am sure of it.”

Lady Xiang reached for her husband’s hand. Finally, she looked afraid. “Surely this cannot happen,” she reasoned. “Those men are well connected, and the court is indebted to them. To us.”

He shook his head, taking his wife’s hand in both of his. “I do not believe the Empress will act so recklessly, but she has no love for the ministers taking power from her son. If the generals find a way to be rid of us, I doubt she will stop them.”

Sitting next to the lady, perceiving danger, Diao Chan said nothing.

 

________________________________________

 

a little bit later

 

The Empress did not stop them.

A letter came this time, from Lady Xiang’s sister. “The ministers have been ordered to leave Luoyang, and your husband is among them. He will not be able to come to you,” the lady read aloud. “There has been no word from the Empress or the generals, but the court is whispering, dear sister. They say the coup has begun, but nobody knows anything for sure, except that He Jin has written several letters to Liang province. There are rumors that the warlord Dong Zhuo is marching on the city. If this is true, I fear for us all.” The rest, she read in silence before putting her head in her hands. In the heavy silence, Diao Chan could hear her lady’s mind working furiously.

“I know of this Dong Zhuo,” she said finally. “He has a reputation for cruelty and ambition. They will not be able to control him.”

“There’s nothing we can do,” Diao Chan said, watching her lady’s fingers close around the letter, her throat dry.

“My uncle is the Empress’s father in law,” Lady Xiang said. “I cannot reach the Empress but he may be able to. I must help him convince her to protect the ministers and end this madness.” For a moment, she shook her head, her mouth trembling. “This madness,” she repeated.

Diao Chan had seen madness before. True madness was in the hare as it leapt out of the hawk’s reach, in the clutching hands of men who thought they owned the world, in the starving mother wolf as she gave up her kill for her cubs to feed on. She could see it in Lady Xiang now, could see the mad impulse of love and fear as though it leapt from her skin in front of her very eyes.

And Diao Chan, who had lived with madness all her life, stayed silent. She stayed silent as Lady Xiang took half the money from the sum she kept in a chest under the bed and gave Diao Chan the key to the rest, and kissed her goodbye before leaving for the palace. She stayed silent as she read her lady’s letters, of how the ministers had been murdered and Dong Zhuo had installed a puppet emperor on the throne, of how she could not find Wang Yun, but not to worry for her lady was reasonably certain he was alive and she would stop at nothing to find him. She stayed silent until two and a half months later, when the door to the garden slammed open and Lord Wang Yun staggered in.

He looked tired, dirty. He looked awful. He said, “The city is under attack. Get your mother, Diao Chan. We must go, now.”

And Diao Chan said, “What?”

 

________________________________________

 

a long time ago

 

Luoyang in the summer was something out of a dream. The gables of the palace would spread gold tipped fingers to every corner of the Heavenly City, tall and proud as only palaces can be. Impossibly long boulevards and courtyards shaded its occupants with thick green, and the heavy sunlight would polish everything to a brilliant shine. The palace's hidden gardens, of which there were many, perfumed the streets for several li with fruits and fresh flowers, and the most important lords and ladies of the empire would whisper through the corridors of power, secure and lovely.

 

________________________________________

 

in the here and now

 

In the distance, she could see the smoke. Luoyang burned, and Lady Xiang was caught somewhere in it.

When she told him, Lord Wang Yun’s aged knees gave out. Aghast, he cried, “But why would she do that? Why did you let her?”

“If I could have stopped her, I would,” Diao Chan said, stung. “It matters not anymore. What are we to do?”

“She could not leave me behind,” he wept. “And I will not leave her.” So father and daughter left the house to find the mother, but found they could go no further than the first streets into the palace, for the timber and silk buildings had quickly turned into one long wall of towering fire.

On the crossroad, they found Diao Chan’s aunt. She must have been waiting for them, her eyes open and staring at the flames despite the heat that could reach them even at this distance. “Your wife is dead,” she told Wang Yun. “She was tortured for defying Dong Zhuo. She wouldn’t stop pestering him, you see.” She turned her head and spat bile into the whirling dust at her feet. Wiping her mouth, she continued, “The usurper has fled to escape the rebellion mounted by Yuan Shao. But not before razing the palace to the ground, starting with my sister.”

“No!” Diao Chan cried out and hurled herself through the gates, but her aunt caught her and pulled her back. For a moment, she thought the elder woman might fling her to the ground, but their arms caught in an awkward embrace. Both women burst into tears.

 

“We will punish the usurper,” Wang Yun said through halting breaths, for he too was crying. “The murderer.”

Her aunt wiped her eyes. “He is no simple murderer, my lord. His perversion runs deeper than you know.” She clutched Diao Chan close as she told Wang Yun what had transpired in the palace while he had been in hiding, but Diao Chan wasn't listening.

Her years of wilderness had taught her that her best defense was silence. Silence had kept her safe from the village boys hunting her through the fields, from angry farmers trampling through their crop. Staying quiet and out of sight had been as essential for escaping wolves in the woods as for the predators roaming the earth in human form.

But silence had not saved the woman who had rescued her from that horrible, lonely, quiet life.

 

________________________________________

 

a footnote

 

This is a story of betrayal, of vengeance and justice, and how two orphans change the world.

 

________________________________________

 

what happens next

 

Chang’an was nothing like Luoyang. Its pincer walls and long moats made her feel trapped and the sheer volume of people crammed in made her feel claustrophobic. That Dong Zhuo had settled the new capital here made her hate him all the more.

“That is the least of his crimes,” her aunt said, face heavy with foreboding. Diao Chan found out what she meant that very night, at her first banquet in a palace. Courtiers lined long tables arranged in a box meant to imitate the Big Dipper, but really served to force everyone to watch what Dong Zhuo, now prime minister, considered entertainment.

A man was brought in halfway through the meal. Guards tied his arms over a bar of wood placed along his shoulders, which was nailed to a post in the middle of the hall. At the head of the room, Dong Zhuo got up from his chair, gilded and oversized. A hush fell over the assembly.

“Tonight,” the usurper said, “I have a question, my friends.” Under his heavy forehead, inky eyes darted around the room. Diao Chan tensed when he looked her way but his gaze moved on smoothly, as though he expected everyone to react that way. The only one who didn’t was the man next to him, dressed in red, who ignored him completely and remained chewing.

Dong Zhuo’s mouth curled. “Yes, a very important question. You see, my friends, our new emperor is grateful for my humble service to the crown. He wishes to reward me with the title of Grand Master, an honor the imperial court has not seen fit to bestow in an age. ” He paused, letting the silence ring as if to remind them that they dared say nothing.

Turning to the prisoner, he addressed him, “But my lord Yuan Yu, do you not agree?”

The man looked to the ceiling, to his feet, to the doors opening onto the central courtyard. He seemed unable to look Dong Zhuo in the eye. From where she sat, Diao Chan could see his chest leaping.

“For begrudging my reward, I shall give you yours.” He nodded to the guards, who had put on curious aprons in the meantime. “Cut his tongue first,” Dong Zhuo said. “I have heard his deceit. It displeases me.”

The man’s tongue was cut.

“Now his arms. So he knows he cannot raise a hand against me.”

His arms were broken.

“Now…”

By now, most of the court had closed their eyes, swallowing hard. Diao Chan did not. She stared as the scene played on until it finally ended with the mercilessly conscious man thrown into boiling oil.  She stared because this was what had happened to her mother, and it would be dishonorable not to look.

When the “meatball” was finally rolled out of the hall, Dong Zhuo sat down, laughed, and clapped his hands. “Now, my friends, let us eat!”

Next to her, Diao Chan’s aunt turned to look at him. She had not blinked the entire time.

Neither had the man in red, his eyes on Diao Chan.

 

________________________________________

 

but before that

 

Wang Yun held court in the small home he had been given by the Empress, as part of his pardon for the sake of Lady Xiang, who had been her cousin. He had retained his position as the Interior Minister, for Dong Zhuo had not deemed it important, and so had a few other ministers who had claimed some relation to the royal family.

They were all gathered there now, and none of them looked like they had spent a year hiding from the massacre of the eunuchs and the imperial coup. They looked like they were planning their own coup, and that was because they were.

“The usurper’s weakness is his vices,” Wang Yun said. “And fortunately for us, he has many.”

“He is protected by his son,” said a conspirator. “Lu Bu has the strength of a hundred men. His reputation is fearsome, and Dong Zhuo knows this. He keeps Lu Bu close, always, and has appointed him Cavalry Commandant. They say he destroyed Yuan Shao’s unit in Luoyang almost singlehandedly. We cannot touch Dong Zhuo as long as he has Lu Bu.”

“Lu Bu’s weakness is his lack of loyalty,” said Lady Xiang’s sister. “He is not the murderer’s son by blood, but adopted. After he betrayed and killed his own father. Lu Bu can be easily swayed to rebel.”

“So be it,” Wang Yun said. “Let the snake bite off its own tail.”

“But how?” asked the ministers, and Wang Yun turned to look at his daughter.

 

________________________________________

 

eight hours later

 

“My lord,” said the Empress’s handmaiden, bowing deeply. “I present to you my niece for your service.”

Dong Zhuo lifted his head from his collapsed pose on the Emperor’s throne. His eyes widened at the sight of Diao Chan, resplendent in white. Her brown hair hung lustrously arranged around her elfin face, her eyes were soft and dark, and her wrists crossed over her waist were displayed to their loveliest advantage.

“Oh yes,” he said. “A fine gift indeed.”

 

________________________________________

 

the deliberation

 

Enchanting Dong Zhuo was infuriatingly the easiest thing she’d ever done. She didn’t even have to say anything; indeed, her very speechlessness seemed to please him more than anything.

But as simple as the father had been, the son proved all that much more difficult. Except for that first night, when he had stared at her for an indecent length of time, he had shown no interest. He did not seek her out, did not respond to her subtle flirtations, or even look at her. No matter what she did to gain his attention, Lu Bu kept his face almost as blank as his words, which were delivered only on command from Dong Zhuo and in small, tight bursts of information.

When Diao Chan reported no progress to Wang Yun, he slapped the table. “Impossible!” he cried. “Nobody should be able to resist you!”

Diao Chan thought that might have made her smile, in a backhanded sort of way. But Wang Yun was in far from a complimentary mood. “What good are you if you can’t do this much?” he hissed, and her humor suffered a quick death.

“I have done all I can, my lord,” she said.

“No,” he said. “No, you have not. A real daughter-” and here he broke off, blinking rapidly.

“A real daughter,” Diao Chan said, alarmed by the venom in her heart, “would give you the justice you desire.”

 

________________________________________

 

in a place out of time

 

Clear moon brightly shining in the night, crickets chirring by eastern walls. Crowding stars, how thick their ranks! The song poured from her, as water bursting from the dam of painful memory. Cycle of the seasons swiftly changing. She thought of the best, warmest days of her life, when Lady Xiang had taught her this poem. Dark swallows, where did they go? Once we were students together; you soared on high, beating strong wings. You’ve left me behind like a forgotten footprint.

“Truly with no rock to underpin them, what good are empty names?” Someone stepped into the pavilion, impossibly tall, dressed in red and wrapped in gold armor. Lu Bu. “I know that song.”

“Clearly,” she replied, clipped, flushing from the dangerous leap her heart had taken.

He watched her turn away to clear the remaining moisture from her eyes. “Lady Xiang sang it often in Luoyang.”

 

She fixed in place.

“I remember her quite well,” he said. “She was very kind to me.”

“She was an extraordinary woman,” Diao Chan said, and couldn’t trust herself to say any more than that.

“She was,” he agreed, unaffected by her glare. “Take care when you sing that song. Dong Zhuo may become suspicious.”

“My lord,” she said with great, biting patience, “For a man who speaks not a single word for half a season, you seem incredibly confident that no one is suspicious of you.”

And he looked at her then with something more than humor.

 

________________________________________

 

in a time out of place

 

“Why did you do it?” she asked him once, when Dong Zhuo was away from the palace and it was safe. “Why did you join him?”

Large, war-roughened hands twirled strands of her hair as they would a halberd. “Because he offered,” he said simply.

“I heard that to do so, you had to kill your own father.” Diao Chan stared at her hands. “Was he a terrible man, then, your father?”

“He was my foster father,” Lu Bu said, then sighed. “And no, he was not terrible. He was kind, in fact. He treated me well.”

“Then why…”

“Because he asked me to betray the Emperor,” Lu Bu said. “He asked me to betray my honor, and because I loved him, I did what he wanted. I helped Dong Zhuo’s coup, but he gave up the right to my loyalty. You understand, don’t you, Diao Chan?”

She looked at him, orphaned twice, first by fate, then by awful choice. She thought of herself, and understood. “My father would sacrifice me and my honor to the man who murdered my mother for his own revenge. He asks me to deceive and kill Dong Zhuo, turn you against him. He asks me as if I owe him anything.”

“So will you?”

“Wang Yun betrayed me,” she said, and he pulled her into him. “But Lady Xiang did not. So yes, I will.”

 

________________________________________

 justice

 

“I am Wang Yun’s daughter,” she said clearly to Dong Zhuo’s enraged supporters. “My father and I are responsible for the death of Dong Zhuo.”

“Execute them,” the Empress said, and they did.

 ________________________________________

 

(but before that) vengeance

 

“Yuan Shao’s coalition is at the gates,” Lu Bu said, wiping down his halberd. “The city is overrun.”

Dong Zhuo, eyes wide, headed for the door, only to be stopped by a strong hand.

“What is the meaning of this, you insolent bastard!” he roared.

“Lu Bu,” Diao Chan said from beside him. “Cut off his tongue. His words offend us both.”

Lu Bu raised his halberd, and it was done. “Now his arms,” he said, and offered her the weapon. She shook her head, raised her hands.

“I know of three ways to break a man’s arm,” she said, and demonstrated.

 

  Copyright © 2017 Mehrina Asif


Mehrina Asif is a DC-based student of biology and anthropology by day, obsessive reader and writer by night. She believes strongly in death by puns, the power of a good nap, and taking a chance on an aspiring writer.

The Tower Journal
Fall/Winter 2017