Ma Yunlu could not even remember a point in her childhood when she wasn’t aware that death and danger were everywhere.
She had only been nine when the massacre of practically everyone in her family and even extended family had occurred. Strangely enough, the only reason she escaped with her life was because she was near death. While visiting her cousins, she had contracted a serious illness. They had left their youngest son Ma Dai (who was about seventeen at the time) with her, under the belief that a sick girl could not be left alone with servants for a lengthy amount of time, lest they attempt some villainy born of poverty and desperation such as selling her to a brothel and claiming she’d died. In those chaotic years, the fear was not ill-founded.
What ought to have been the worst experience of her life—hearing their entire clan had been slaughtered, and being tied to Ma Dai to keep her from falling off his saddle as he rode like hell in the middle of the night for their sole other surviving relative, with only a slim hope that he could shield them from the same fate—had passed like a fever dream. By the time she had recovered from her illness well enough to fully understand what was going on, the imminent danger had passed. Her cousin, always a joker, even then always managed to have a smile for her and was with her constantly; and they were frequently joined by the man they had run to: her oldest brother, Ma Chao.
Ma Yunlu had been the baby of the family and her brother was much older than her. He had been away for military campaigns for the vast majority of her childhood, so she had seen him as more like a hero, even an idol. Someone she recognized, but not someone she knew.
She got to know him very well, as he kept vigil over her as often as he could. She saw him and her already beloved cousin break down in tears of joy when the doctor said she would certainly recover.
No, the worst part was later, when she was well and her brother and cousin were more frequently gone than not. Every time, she was afraid. Ma Chao went about like a madman in those days before he met Lord Liu Bei. He met, he said, with perfidy and injustice at every turn. Her brother married again, but he lost this woman to another set of assassins. Only another accident—this time a stupid incident with an unlucky kick from a horse—had kept Ma Yunlu from going with her sister-in-law to visit the people who murdered her. She was about twelve then.
When they were together, he trained her in the martial arts constantly. She knew how terrified he was that she would be harmed when he was gone, yet he could not cease attempting to avenge their father and clan.
After Liu Bei, he had calmed somewhat, but then he had begun to talk of someone whom he said “believed she had a right to my head.” Up until then, he had seemed stubbornly oblivious to the idea that heaven could let him die before his just revenge was achieved. His concerns had been all for her, the legitimate concerns of the dangers of leaving a pubescent girl alone, even with trusted servants and allied forces nearby. When she had come to him, confused and crying because she was bleeding from a secret place and it didn’t hurt but it wouldn’t stop, she had inadvertently reminded Ma Chao that there was one easy way to ensure that if her brother died she would have another person, another clan, considering her interests.
She was so young, so innocent! She couldn’t be a wife. How could he do that to her?
But what would happen to her if he did die? She was… so young… so innocent…
And so he had come back to visit one day to tell her that he had found her a husband. A really excellent husband, one of Lord Liu Bei’s most trusted generals, one of his best fighters, the famous Little Dragon, Zhao Yun. He would be good to her and take care of her just in case her brother couldn’t and please, please don’t cry, Lulu—
She didn’t know how to tell him that she was only crying because she could see how he was fighting back his own tears.
Zhao Yun had had a wife once, married at the typical age, in the typical way, when he was serving under Gongsun Zan. Then he met Liu Bei, and the whole axis of his world tilted. His wife did not agree with this shift of allegiance from an established warlord to this upstart grass weaver. She demanded that she be allowed to take her dowry and return home, and he let her go, and did not demand back the bride price.
The next decades were even more chaotic, unstable, and marred by misfortune than his former wife predicted. It was not until he was thirty-four and they had been victorious in taking Yi province from Liu Zhang that he decided that things were finally stable enough that he could find a new bride.
He mentioned it casually among his fellow officers, and that very night, Ma Chao visited him privately. He had a younger sister—here he went on at length about her perfections of spirit and nature, and then, with some brotherly hesitation, said that everyone said she was pretty—and she had nobody else in the world but his cousin, Ma Dai, another soldier, who would be joining him in the campaign for Hanzhong. Her safety and happiness meant everything to the two of them. What would happen to her if they both died? She was—here Ma Chao hesitated again—very young and very innocent.
Zhao Yun had become quite friendly with Ma Chao and he was greatly moved. With more credit to his benevolence than his sense, he agreed, without first ascertaining exactly how young and innocent she was.
By the time he found out she was fourteen, it was too late to draw back with honour. And he found he could not even be angry at Ma Chao. The man had been in an impossible position.
After their wedding, his friends had of course invaded their room to nao dongfang, tricks to break the ice between strangers who were now expected to become lovers. Asking them both to eat from the same apple on a string and then jerking the apple away to try to make them kiss; getting him to carry her around the room on ridiculous pretexts, and of course, lots of jokes and teasing. It had ended with them being cajoled into their marriage bed, the blanket being tossed over them for “modesty”, and demanded to hand over 18 pieces of clothing each, in reference to the saying that a girl changes 18 times as she becomes a woman. Having been warned about this, they had both worn extra layers of underclothes, but even so they were down to not much under the covers as the revellers, laughing and tossing the wedding clothing at each other, left them alone with only the single dragon and phoenix candle burning.
Zhao Yun couldn’t be sure what she thought of it all. While she had been very obviously embarrassed and nervous, she hadn’t been openly miserable. He had been to plenty of nao dongfang parties and it wasn’t unusual that the bride spent much or even all of the time crying, especially when it was a marriage between strangers like this was. The law said she was old enough to get married, but as far as he was concerned she was closer to a little girl than a woman.
On the sworn word of his lord that they would not try any surprises like asking for 36 pieces of clothing each instead, he had worn just enough extra clothing that he was down to his loincloth and trousers, so his torso was bare. He lit a lamp, knowing he would need light, and got out of bed.
From behind him he heard his new wife say in a tone of surprise, “You don’t…”
Zhao Yun turned back. This was the first words she had spoken to him directly that weren’t formulaic expressions of good fortune and consent; he had not even seen her until he had delivered the bride price. “I don’t… what?”
“Nothing,” she said, blushing.
“You can tell me,” he said gently.
“You don’t have any scars,” she said. She was sitting up in bed running the blanket through her fingers, still, from her padded appearance, wearing at least a few more layers under the visible zhongyi. “My brother and cousin have many, so I just assumed you would.”
“I’ve been lucky I guess,” he said, and went back to his task. On display in the corner for the admiration of the guests were portions of her dowry—gold jewellery, baby items, a handsome wooden chest filled with new clothing, and a sewing basket with brilliant new rolls of silk thread, scissors, and needles. He selected a needle.
She stared at him bewildered as he walked back to the bed, but as he lifted up the blanket it turned to panic as she pulled the blanket tight to herself and scooted to the edge. He was surprised, then laughed, and said in as reassuring a voice as he could muster, “I’m not going to stick you with a needle. Relax.”
He moved his left hand down to about where her hips had been not long before, and began pricking his fingers and milking the blood out onto the sheet. Her breathing slowed back to normal as she watched him at his task. When it seemed sufficient, he wiped the needle on the sheet carefully, then returned the needle to the sewing basket. He walked over to the chest of new clothes and fidgeted around in it with only his right hand, not wanting to get the blood from his left on anything. He found a long nightshirt and pulled it over his head. Then he picked up another blanket.
“Is it alright if I put another blanket on the bed?” he asked as he returned to the edge of the bed. “I get really cold when I’m sleeping.”
“Certainly,” she breathed. He heard relief in her voice, and smiled as he spread the second blanket.
“I don’t know whether you sleep hot or cold,” he said, dropping his pants and getting into the bed. “Do you need to take anything off? I can close my eyes.”
“I’m fine like this,” she squeaked, but relinquished her grip on the blanket enough for him to use it as well.
He extinguished the lamp. “Goodnight, Yunlu… or do you prefer Lulu?”
“My family calls me Lulu,” she said.
“Goodnight Lulu, then.”
It was hard for Lulu to see the expression on her brother’s face when he saw the bloodstained sheet fluttering in the wind. She wished she could have told him it wasn’t what he thought.
He hugged her tight and kissed her hair. “Are you feeling alright?” he whispered.
“I’m fine, I’m really fine,” she said.
“I’m sorry it had to be like this. Forgive me?”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” she said, smiling up into his face. “Fight well.”
He stroked her face and released her. “I will. It’ll be easier for me, not having to worry about you so much. You see, I did this because I’m selfish.”
“I know that’s not true,” she said, and would have gone on, but her husband was approaching them and her brother stepped back in a deliberate way.
“You’ll want to say goodbye to your wife in private,” he said, with a correct bow, and was gone.
“It’s hard for him,” said Zhao Yun. “He thinks of you more like a daughter than a sister I think.”
“He’s lost almost everyone, so…” she said, suddenly embarrassed again.
“I know. That’s why I agreed to do this.”
“Right…” she said, suddenly feeling more like a child than ever.
“He’s a fantastic fighter. We’re going to be fine. Probably come back with promotions.”
“Promotions and no scars, ok?” she said, looking up shyly.
He smiled. “Sure. No scars.”
It was more than two years before he came back. One part of their promise had definitely been kept—they had both been promoted to higher and more prominent titles as generals. Their lord had become King of Hanzhong. And now they had won a great victory over Wei at Mt. Dingjun.
It felt odd to be waiting with all the others for the conquering heroes to come back, to be watching for a white horse, yet have it not be her brother that she was waiting for. Ma Chao was staying behind in Hanzhong.
Their lady—now their queen—was outshining all the other women gathered there. Not only was she beautifully dressed, as they all were, but she had stunned everyone by arriving mounted on a horse, almost as if she were the general in charge of them all. Despite the festive victory mood, Zhuge Liang was standing beside her horse looking as if rays of instant death were about to come shooting out of his face.
The crowd of horses came within sight, and with a cry of joy Lady Sun kicked her horse into a sprint. How Lulu wished she too could be streaking along the ground on a horse like that to meet the army, a bow at her hip!
“Isn’t she fantastic!” she sighed to her friend, the prime minister’s wife, Huang Yueying.
Lady Huang blinked, shaded her eyes to peer at the queen, looked at the prime minister, and then back at Lulu. “Ah… in what way?”
In every way! She would have answered, but she saw Zhuge Liang turning to glance at them and remembered that she was supposed to be looking for her husband, not fangirling the queen.
The king, on Hexmark, sped up to meet the queen, and the two horses cantered around each other like they were dancing. The king grabbed the reins of the queen’s horse and she actually jumped onto his saddle facing him and kissed him in front of everyone!
The queen was by no means popular in Shu among the officers and officials, but this gesture clearly pleased the people, as the common soldiers let out a deafening cheer. The mood was infectious. Even the officers began cheering and urged their horses into sprints as the welcoming group at the palace gates began shouting back at them.
There was Zhao Yun! Her heart was beating out of her chest as she watched him ride closer and closer. She felt like she had grown up so much in these two years, but would he think so? Or was she still the bride he had taken on solely as a favour to her brother?
She wasn’t even able to be the first to speak to him. Zhuge Liang had signalled to him, and he had to obey, dismounting and withdrawing a little. Had he even seen her?
Zhuge Liang and Zhao Yun stopped speaking abruptly as Liu Bei rode up on Hexmark, one hand on the reins and his arm around his wife’s waist. The prime minister stepped forward. “Welcome back, your majesty. If I may speak to you briefly before you ready yourself for the banquet?”
For a moment she glimpsed a bit of guilt in the king’s face, though she couldn’t understand what it could be about. The queen’s expression was just as briefly furious; then she covered it all up with a smile, and said “Of course. I will await my lord in his chambers.” She leapt nimbly down from Hexmark, looked briefly over her shoulder at the king, looked back and smiled in a way that showed all her teeth to the prime minister, and sashayed away.
She was so absorbed in watching this little drama that she didn’t notice that her husband was standing right in front of her. “My lady?”
“Oh! M-my lord! I was… you were busy with the prime minister, and I was just daydreaming…” she stammered. “I… I made you new clothing for the banquet.”
“You made it?” He looked so pleased, it made her blush even more.
“Yes.” She smiled. “Would you like to see it?”
Zhao Yun had agreed, but as he followed his wife, he quickly realized that she was leading him to their chambers. Well, that was the obvious place for it, wasn’t it?
It was the obvious place for other things too.
He couldn’t believe that his body was already stirring like this… yes, she was obviously older, but so was he older. He wasn’t really any more of a match for her, and her nervousness and blush didn’t make the consummation of their marriage seem any closer than it had on their wedding night.
Zhao Yun had honestly thought he would be fine with that, but apparently his body now had other ideas.
“Here it is,” she said. She still looked a bit tentative, but no longer overwhelmed. “What do you think? You still have your older dress robes, if you don’t like it. Don’t worry about embarrassing me! I didn’t tell anyone I was making it.”
“It’s very handsome,” he said, and he was being honest. It was a rich green brocade with a subtle motif of dragons and clouds, a nod to his name and style name. “I would be honoured to wear it.”
“Well… well try it on first, to make sure it fits,” she said, pleased, but perhaps not quite willing to take the compliment yet.
She made no movement to withdraw. Of course she had already seen him shirtless, but that had been very briefly by lamplight. Well, if she wasn’t going to be embarrassed, there was no reason for him to be so. She didn’t even turn away as he undressed, but took his dusty traveling clothes from him calmly and placed them where they could be washed. Very wifely.
As he was taking off his pants, she said, bizarrely, “Ah, you kept your promise.”
She took the pants from him and turned to place it with the other laundry. “No scars.”
“Heh. Well, not quite.”
“You were hurt? Where?”
“You’re going to laugh,” he said. “It wasn’t from anything I got in battle.”
Holding the new trousers in his right hand, he extended his left hand out to her so she could see. She surprised him by taking the hand and staring down at the scarred fingertips.
She wasn’t laughing.
“Who would have thought a sewing needle would do that, right?” he said, after the silence felt too awkward.
Her eyes slowly looked up into his. Then, still staring into his eyes, she lifted his hand to her mouth and kissed his fingertips.
They weren’t late to the banquet but it was a very near thing.
Three weeks had passed since the homecoming, and it was the three happiest, most tranquil weeks that had passed in her entire life. She had fallen head over heels in love, and it turned out to be with her husband.
At night, she was learning new pleasures. By day, he was back to the task of babysitting Lady Sun, but she found this all the better, because now she could tag along with her love and admire the queen at the same time.
The queen and the king spent the three weeks in similar contentment, from what she could tell. She had observed, confused, over the past two years how whenever Liu Bei came back to Chengdu, he would always be at first totally overcome with passion for her, and her passion for him would be just as fervent, but from there it always got unclear very quickly what was going on. Sometimes he seemed to want her and be repulsed by her at the exact same time; other times, he would be wholeheartedly devoted for a few days in a row, and then abruptly reject her completely for weeks, to the point of barely acknowledging her, although he was never worse than coolly civil.
It was difficult for her to watch, and she could not imagine the pain of the queen. Lady Sun always maintained her dignity when she was out of favour. She didn’t show any pain, but Lulu was sure she must have felt it… her love for him was so obvious… what was wrong with him?
So for her idol to be as blissfully happy as herself made her joy complete. She began cajoling Zhao Yun or Yueying to spar with her whenever possible, so that when the right moment came for her to get up her nerve to ask her role model for a practice round—or even better, if the queen noticed her!—she wouldn’t totally humiliate herself.
But three weeks was all it lasted.
Liu Bei and Sun Shangxiang were walking arm in arm through the gardens; Zhao Yun had Lulu’s arm and was strolling at a distance of plausible deniability. A messenger approached the king and said something, and the king instantly began to run. His wife ran after him, Zhao Yun ran after her, and Lulu began running after them all, her heart pounding even more than the exertion demanded.
There was a young man at the front gates that she didn’t recognize—restrained and noble in bearing, with wingblades at his sides, in perfect kneeling posture to make a humble, formal report to the king.
Zhao Yun pulled her up short, but they were still both close enough to see and hear everything.
“Guan Xing… where… where is your father?” the king said when he had caught his breath.
The young man spoke with eyes downcast. “My father… sends his apologies. Wu and Wei joined forces against us, and he was slain.”
The king fell to his knees. “No… Guan Yu…”
Lulu glanced up at her husband to see how he was taking all this. His face was grim, but he was not looking at the king.
She followed his line of sight back towards the prime minister. Zhuge Liang looked directly at the queen over the crumpled form of the king. His face was clearly meant for Lady Sun, but the hatred and menace in it actually made Lulu shrink back a little and clutch at Zhao Yun’s arm. “So Wu has shown its true colours,” he said.
Lady Sun’s back was to Ma Yunlu, but one strangled, upset noise was audible as the queen lifted her hand towards her face.
Lord Liu Bei spoke slowly. “Forgive me, my lady… this will be hard for you… but this betrayal cannot go unavenged. I will, by all possible means, utterly destroy Wu. I will stake everything that I have upon it.”
As he spoke, Zhuge Liang’s face underwent such a fascinating yet frightening series of changes that Lulu could not look away. First fear and incredulity, then jealousy, then triumph, then doubt, and then fear, fear and dread… that is what she saw on the Prime Minister’s face.
“You know my loyalties, my lord,” said the queen quietly, and turned and left.
Liu Bei looked up at Zhuge Liang. “My lady spoke exact truth,” said the strategist, just as quietly. “However—“
The king shuddered, got up, and left another direction, leaving the however hanging in the air over the rest of them.
Zhuge Liang’s face had settled into an unreadable mask. He turned to the kneeling young man and indicated for him to rise. “Guan Xing, where are your brothers and your sister?”
“My older brother and my sister were captured by Wu. We have already sent a message asking about ransom. My younger brother is with us, but he was badly injured in his ankle. I am worried he might lose the foot. I took the liberty of asking for Li Kang to attend him.”
The prime minister nodded. “Of course. Your brother’s recovery is of the utmost importance.” He turned his head. “Zhao Yun. Your duty in these uncertain times will become more critical than ever.”
Her husband nodded, and regretfully shrugged off his wife’s arm. “Lulu, you had better go to our rooms for the time being. I’ll see you tonight, don’t worry.”
Zhao Yun set off in the same direction as the queen.
The prime minister was speaking to Guan Xing again as they walked away in yet another direction.
Everything had fallen to pieces in an instant.
Ma Yunlu went back to her rooms. And though she despised herself for being childish, she cried.