Cao Cao and Lady Bian share a few minutes before he leads his army to Red Cliffs. A one-off
She walked along the raised stone wall that surrounded the palace, knowing he would be here. The crafty man had slipped out of her bed without waking her, something that betrayed his womanizing abilities, but she could not hold that against him. Cao Mengde was a man of passion and she always understood that, but it was her who he came home to and slept beside. It was only in her arms that he felt at home. No matter the dozens of concubines in the Bronze Bird Cage nor the tales of his seductions, all that mattered was that Cao Cao considered her his empress and his companion. The others were merely bodies to play with, she was his to cherish. Her child would take the throne; it was her blood that would continue his dynasty after he left them all.
The clack of armor and weapons combined with the whinnies of horses and shouts of officers to remind her of the true purpose of this ritual. Today they assembled not for practice, but for war. The Wei army was moving out and taking with it a piece of her soul. Her eyes surveyed the crowded square and she immediately picked out the tall and confident figure of Xiahou Dun, a man that had been a part of her life for as long as she could recall. The one-eyed general was Mengde's most trusted officer and rarely left his side, something she had confessed to him eased her mind. The cousins were formidable warriors, but knowing Dun was always close made her happy. Safety wasn't the only issue; Dun was Mengde's closest friend and having him near ensured the Wei lord would relax every now and again. She worried for his health; those migraines were becoming more frequent and more severe, something she attributed to the stress of his position. She could only do so much, but where she could not go Xiahou Dun could be.
She was distracted by the quick striding Zhang Liao who was rapidly closing in on Xiahou Dun's position. While Dun could look menacing and in control by simply standing stroking his beard, Zhang Liao achieved the same by never remaining in one position for more than a moment. His cape fluttered behind him as he marched across the stone court, his steps echoing off the palace wall despite the cacophony of the army shuffling. When Liao spoke his body emphasized his words. Hand gestures and nods were never lacking from a conversation, whereas Dun could simply reply with a cocked eyebrow. The two men who were such extreme opposites in personal mannerisms and attitude, but she could never question either's loyalty to her lord. Dun was with them from the beginning, whereas Liao joined after insulting Mengde as he was preparing to be executed. She smiled, Wei was made of so many different kinds of men and that is why they were so successful.
"What are you smiling about?"
Lady Bian jumped as a hand grazed her lower back and Cao Cao materialized behind her. "You scared me half to death..."
"Looking for someone?" His eyebrows raised and his dark eyes twinkled playfully. "Already counting on me returning in a coffin....sizing up your other options?"
She frowned and planted a light kiss upon his cheek. "Don't you even joke about not coming home to me!"
"If anything your sons will be what kills me." Cao Cao rolled his eyes.
"My sons? Mengde, those boys inherited very little from me."
Cao Cao looped his arm around her petite shoulder and kissed her forehead. His army was looking sharp and he was feeling very good, damned good. "It will be a swift victory; I have the largest army in the land. Even a combined force cannot stop me."
"That's not what I want to hear, my love." Her hands tugged on his tunic, begging for the words she needed him to say.
"I will come home to you, I promise." He bent down to kiss her, his lips met hers and his arms enveloped her. He savored the moment knowing it may be months before he could return to the woman he loved. The only one who truly understood him and never questioned him no matter his actions.
"Mother, I can't seem to find my new bracers...Oh gods..."
Cao Cao sighed as he broke off his kiss. Before he could turn and smack his eldest son for the intrusion a soft hand caressed his chin and stroked his goatee. Her touch dulled his rage and he turned to look at Cao Pi. He was surprised at what he saw. "Did your mother dress you this morning?"
Cao Pi stood before his parents as a new man. He was now the official heir to Cao Cao's empire and his mother thought it best that he look it. Two days of subjecting himself to the whims of his wife and his mother had produced a look he was quite proud of. He now caught everyone's eye and felt more powerful, especially with his twin blade glistening in his hand....that is until he saw the amusement in his father's eyes. "I wish to look the part of your successor..."
"You let her cut your hair?"
"Mengde! Stop it!" Lady Bian smacked away her Lord's hand as he tugged on Cao Pi's bangs. "He looks wonderful and you know it!"
"Wait till he chokes himself with that cape and his mommy isn't there to pick him up." Cao Cao chuckled.
Lady Bian watched her son roll his eyes. Both of them knew any jovial comment from Cao Cao was to be received as a compliment no matter what the content. Pi always felt like second best in the eyes of his father. His brother, Cao Zhi, had always been the old man's favorite son but the fool had thrown it away by drinking and carousing too much. Never mind that Cao Cao's younger days had seen a lot of the same activity, such vices in a future emperor only foretold a troubled empire. Pi has seized the chance and befriended Jia Xu who assisted him in his quest for the throne. Now it was up to him to show his father he was worthy of the honor. He already had Lady Zhen by his side and now his character needed some fine tuning. He had to exude the qualities men looked for in a leader, while downplaying his callous and condescending side. Obviously his father saw this for what it was; a superficial change, but at least he gained a touch of respect for the effort. She could not have been more pleased with her son. "Make me proud, Zijian."
"I will mother." Cao Pi brushed past his father purposely swooshing his cape in the old man's direction. "I promise I'll look after him too, he is getting fragile in his old age." Gently he placed a kiss on his mother's forehead.
Lady Bian smiled as her son bade her farewell. She could resist fiddling with the broach that pinned his cape on. "You better all come home to me."
Cao Cao made a face as the young man trotted down the stairs. It quickly faded as his empress turned on him. "It makes him stronger."
"Mengde, don't be so hard on him."
"Spoken like a woman."
"Spoken like a mother." She took his hands in hers. "Be careful, please?"
Cao Cao heard the hearty laughter of his cousin and looked up. Cao Pi had made it down to the courtyard to talk with his uncle and Zhang Liao. Dun was laughing as Liao inspected Pi's cape and gave the young man his own opinion of the new attire. Xiahou Yuan joined the small group and took his helmet off, dramatically hit his knees and bowed before Cao Pi. The Wei lord knew his portly cousin too well, he was proposing to Cao Pi, mocking the young man for his pretty new look. Cao Cao smiled, he did try and warn his son that this would happen. To try and save face, the young and foolish Cao lifted his twin blade in the air to impress the fellow generals. A raised eyebrow from Xiahou Dun preceded the Kirin Fang crashing down on the extended hilt of the blade, cracking it in half.
Lady Bian turned to watch the small group burst into laughter at her son's expense. Her beloved Mengde began laughing as well while Cao Pi stood holding two new swords, mouth agape. She bit her lip as her son chose to retaliate...by yanking his Uncle Dun's eye patch off. A momentary silence was all it took for Pi to realize he had made a grievous error. Instantly the young man was sprinting across the courtyard away from his enraged Uncle, leaving Xiahou Yuan rolling on the ground laughing. Mengde's chest vibrated as he too joined in the laughter. As sad as she was to see her son chased across the town, she enjoyed the moment. As long as it brought a smile to her lord's face. He so rarely enjoyed himself, and she loved his laugher....it was something that was too rare these days. It seemed to erase the wrinkles and grey hairs that had worked their way across his face through the years. "I miss you."
"It will get better, my love." He kissed her once more, allowing his lips to linger on hers. "This will be the final battle. With this our country will once again be united and my job will be done. Then we can enjoy it, together."
"There will always be someone Mengde..."
"This will end it. If these selfish fools would only see how their ambitions are doing nothing but tearing the country apart..."Cao Cao shook his head. "Only I have the ability to unite, rule and defend this land. Only I have the experience serving the people that these upstarts lack."
"Save your speech." She ran her hand over his cheek.
"Sorry, force of habit." He grinned and squeezed her. "I'll return victorious and we can enjoy what time we still have together."
His goodbye kiss left her week in the knees, but her heart began to ache the moment he let go of her. His warm smile said the 'goodbye' he could not voice as he strode down the stairs to the main square. Upon reaching the regiment before them he stood proud and tall before his men and began a speech he had been rehearsing the previous night. She sighed and looked at the men who stood behind him. They could be trusted to keep him safe, there was no more that she could do but worry.