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Phoenix Fate

The woman in crimson phoenix robes stood barefoot on the frozen river, her long black hair streaming in the icy wind. Hairpins and bangles wrought of the finest mutton-fat jade traced a littered path back to the snowy shore. Barely visible against the crest of trees, the glow of festive lanterns from a sprawling estate blushed the evening sky wedding-red.
Steam curled past the woman's painted lips as she breathed in and out. She took a step forward and slipped to her knees with a grunt. Pushing herself laboriously back to her feet, she laughed, shaking out her softened wrists. With her internal energy suppressed by poison, her knees ached fiercely. Not that it mattered. The edge of the ice was just within reach.
Streaks of white darted out beneath her feet at each step, the ice starting to crack under her weight. As she took another step, someone coughed lightly behind her. She turned her head, her heart rising to her throat--then dropping back to her stomach. A stranger stared back at her from the bank of the river. An old woman, silver-haired in a plain brown homespun, a basket of herbs clutched against her belly.
Not the person she hoped for. Or didn't hope for.
"Esteemed lady," the old woman said. "Your death does not have to be so pointless."
Having expected panic or some sort of exhortation, the lady in red glared at the old woman. "Presumptuous."
"Why get so upset over your husband marrying in a concubine? It's not uncommon for people to have three wives and four concubines, let alone Prince Xuan."
Princess Xuan sniffed. "Does your husband have so many women in his back yard? Did you spend your days fighting for favor, afraid of being poisoned, spending your dowry and your family's influence in his name while he hugs in one pretty new face after another?"
The old woman laughed. "He should so dare." Tears welled against her cheeks, only to disappear as they rolled into the wrinkles etched in her skin. "He did not have the time to marry in anyone else--he died building a wall, leaving me nothing. Not even his bones."
"A wall? Where?" As one of the daughters of the current Prime Minister, Princess Xuan had gone seamlessly from being trapped within her father's estate to her husband's, largely ignorant of state affairs. "Has there been a new corvee?" The last one had been decreed by her grandfather.
"Come back to the shore and I'll tell you about it." The old woman beckoned.
Princess Xuan looked back over the river. "Old woman, what is your name?"
"Meng."
"Fitting. No mere commoner would be so insolent. This must be a dream." Princess Xuan pursed her pale lips. "A nightmare, one that began when I was eight. A phoenix alighted on the sycamore tree by the yard I shared with my mother, in so doing setting me out as someone with a so-called phoenix's fate. The fate of a queen-to-be. I was betrothed to Prince Xuan the next day. He was twelve."
"He is not the crown prince."
"No," Princess Xuan said with a hard smile, "and perhaps if I walk forward a few more steps, he will never be."
"Don't you think he's prepared for this? You left your yard and bypassed security to come to this cold river all too easily. Die if you wish, but your death will only give those who hate you what they want."
Princess Xuan whirled, her red sleeves billowing in the snow as she bared her teeth. "What then? I can't demand a divorce. Even were my parents to agree to such a shame, the prince will never let me go. There is no escape from this cage. Even were I to go to a nunnery."
The old woman dropped the basket beside her in the snow. "Do you know why the divine incarnation of the female spirit is a phoenix?" She took a step forward, the snow steaming beneath her sandalled feet. "An ever-burning bird, one whose display of majesty and beauty requires constant self-immolation." Another step, and the woman's feet began to glow, cherry red. "Yet it feels no pain, because the fire that lends it its wings is but the smallest manifestation of its rage."
Princess Xuan gasped. "You--you're." She let out a bitter laugh. "My grandfather's corvee. Was choosing me your revenge?"
As the phoenix's sleeves turned into tongues of flame, she whispered, "Revenge? No. You were not yet born when the corvee was decreed. I seek change: the sort of change that can only be born from rage. My chosen child, you who now bear a phoenix's fate--is the bottom of an icy river the sole denouement to your fury? How disappointing."
As the phoenix rose into the night, it burned the clouds away, forcing a second sunset that chased the brilliant fan of its tail in its wake. When the estate's guards and maids arrived at the river, Princess Xuan stood on the bank over a melted patch of snow, her nails digging bleeding pits into her palms. She closed her eyes, let out the breath staggered within her chest, and turned to meet them with a hard smile.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 17th, 2022
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