(Diao Chan POV)
Diao Chan, the top four beauty in the country of Dong.
Diao Chan, the unattainable flower.
Diao Chan, the perfect beauty that can move nations.
Diao Chan, the bird in a gilded cage.
Those were all the titles that were given to me, none of them inaccurate.
I was adopted by my father when he found me in an orphanage, having landed there after my village became a casualty of war.
My father had controlled my life ever since then. As a daughter of a noble family, I had no say in what I wanted to do.
Here, in the country of Dong, power was everything.
The current king had overthrown the previous one through sheer military force, marching into the capital city when he was least expected and executed the king within the throne room itself.
He ruled tyrannically, beheading anyone who did not share his views and silenced dissenters with his army.
Most dared not to cross the king as he had his adopted son, Feng Xian, by his side.
Feng Xian was known as the strongest warrior of the country, his martial strength unrivalled.
A Practitioner could still be in the middle of circulating his quarks and Feng Xian would've pierced them with his halberd.
With such a powerful warrior by the king's side, he easily subdued the surrounding nations and consolidated the continent's power.
My family only survived as a noble because of their unwavering support to the king.
What no one knew then was my father had always had his eye on the throne as well but did not have the strength to dispose of the king.
That was when I came in.
Groomed and trained into the perfect beauty with skills in dancing, singing and other forms of entertainment, I was used to capture the hearts of both the king and Feng Xian.
My father had introduced me to the king during a banquet, promising to offer me as a concubine for the king's harem. Feng Xian was invited to my home the next day, where my father promised him my hand in marriage.
Thinking Feng Xian to be my chance to escape the gilded cage I was locked in, I readily followed my father's plan to the letter, using my charms to make both men fall for me.
It was not that hard for me, all I had to do was to follow the script father wrote out for me, like always.
The king had taken me in as a consort, enraging Feng Xian.
He demanded an explanation from my father, only to be told that it was the king who demanded my service.
He intruded into the king's courtyard to find me, listening to me spinning a sob story of how the king abducted me from my home and forced me to be his consort.
The king returned to see him embracing me, causing him to throw a sword at Feng Xian which he managed to duck in time.
The king chased him out of the courtyard before confronting me, only to find me crying in his embrace.
I then spun a tale of how Feng Xian had forced himself upon me, playing the role of a hapless maiden.
Thus began the souring of relationship between the two, all according to the script my father had written for me to follow.
My father had, in the meantime, convince Feng Xian to 'rescue' me.
He provided Feng Xian with a plan to stage a coup on the king, stating that he should overthrow the tyrant king and be the new king instead.
With father's moral support, Feng Xian marched into the king's courtyard accompanied with his own men. I was beside the king when Feng Xian demanded the king's abdication, only to be met with scorn.
The king hadn't taken Feng Xian's demands seriously and paid the price for it.
With Feng Xian leading the charge, no amount of palace guards were enough to take him down.
The king was stabbed through the back when he tried to run, his last sight was me standing over him, staring at him with scorn.
As soon as Feng Xian pulled out his halberd from the king's deceased body, the courtyard was surrounded by numerous archers and soldiers.
Standing at the front of said soldiers was my father, charging Feng Xian with treason and ordering his execution.
At that time, I was supposed to stab him in the back while he was distracted like father scripted.
But I had chosen not to.
It was the only part of the script I had chosen not to follow. The first time in my life that I had actually made a conscious decision for myself.
No, it was not out of love for him or anything stupid like that.
I knew if Feng Xian fell here, I would be forced back into my gilded cage as father's little prize, to be used as a chess piece in his political play for power.
I would forever be just one of his little actress, to dictate as he desired while being kept like a songbird in a cage.
Instead, I had held on to Feng Xian, acting all scared and vulnerable and pleading him to escape.
He fell for it. Hook, line and sinker.
With me by his side, he cut a path through the encirclement, sacrificing his men in the process but managing to escape with me and four of his closest aides.
Unfortunately, he had to take an arrow to his side and leg, disabling him from further combat.
My father had assumed power, his own private army taking over the capital city within hours as there was no one to stop him, not when Feng Xian already did the heavy lifting for him.
We fled to the Death Mountains, seeking refuge in the country of Beiyang.
It was during that journey that we heard from the other refugees that the strongest Sect there was Heaven Sect.
With neither shelter not a destination in mind, we decided we would try to seek refuge within that Sect. After all, where else could the strongest warrior from the country of Dong go?
We passed their little entrance test easily, though I had no idea why back then, but I was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.
I entered the Sect alongside Feng Xian and his little posse. By then, I had already questioned my decision to run away countless of times.
I realised that I had been so naive.
Where the king and my father had treated me like a little bird in a cage and locking me somewhere within their sight, Feng Xian was worse.
He treated me like I was a bird with clipped wings, never allowing me to do anything.
I had thought of sneaking away, but the sheltered me had no idea of what to do once I was free. Thoughts of being caught alone outside in the wilds at the mercy of everything terrified me.
The trip through the Death Mountains had sobered up the jaded me, that the outside world was not as magical as I had thought it to be.
Encountering multiple near death experiences could do a lot to the mind.
The men were used to it because of the wars they fought, but I had never seen spilled blood before Feng Xian led the coup. The mountains were like the culmination of my nightmares.
A girl who had grown up in the lap of luxury, surrounded by nothing but gems and glittering stones was suddenly thrown out into the wilds. The only thing that glittered there were the eyes of hungry wolves and prowling monsters in the darkest of nights.
A girl who had only slept in the comfiest of beds finds herself sleeping in a leather tent on the cold, hard ground, trying her best to ignore the bugs that were crawling on her skin while she slept with one eye open. She could not be sure that the monsters that pursued them all morning wouldn't show up again at night.
A girl who only learned how to sing and dance now had to sit by the dug-out cooking pit, trimming the sticks to be used as kindling while keeping a shortsword close by. She had learnt it was prudent to have a weapon close at hand in case another group of bandits attacked them. It was the first time she had received a wound on her flawless skin.
A girl who had everything just by following directions, but now had lost everything because she decided to go off script once.
That was when I realised how cruel this world truly was.
The number of times I found myself hanging off the edge of life and death in that one journey were too numerous to count. As much as the other four tried to coddle me, nothing could take away the fear that had taken root in my soul.
I began to feel lost, was this what awaited me when I had freedom? Is this worth it?
That was when I yearned for a script to follow again, to guide me in what I should do. But memories of my previous circumstances felt equally stifling to me, as though I was living a life that was not mine.
Thus began the irony of my want of freedom and my deathly fear of it at the same time.
For the next few weeks we were left mostly alone within Heaven Sect.
They had told us an expert by the name of Master Lin was supposed to teach us but he was preoccupied with other disciples at the moment.
It was only when they came back from their so called Sect Showcase Festival did I finally meet the mythical Master Lin.
I hadn't thought anything of him at first.
He was a little younger than I was and Feng Xian did not take him seriously.
But my perception of him changed when he showed up that Feng Xian so naturally.
He didn't care about Feng Xian's identity.
Rules did not apply to him.
He was bound and beholden to no one.
He was free.
His presence made me decide to sneak out from Feng Xian's sight for the first time. It wasn't that hard since he had been seething with rage after the exchange with Master Lin, locking himself within his own room.
I asked the other disciples for Master Lin's courtyard and was pointed to the top of a solitary hill.
Entering the courtyard, I found him surrounded by three young women and a little girl, conversing casually.
I came up with an excuse to be there to test him, finding out that my charm had no effect on him and neither did he cared about my circumstances.
He had the potential to free me from my cage.
He could be my safe haven to acclimate myself to the outside world.
I left there that day, determined to return again to begin my own plan of having him free me.
But I had made a mistake.
When I returned and convinced him to explain my supposedly special circumstances, I had assumed him to be another man who sought to taste my body or at least possess me like everyone else.
With how the other girls had been fawning over him, I had thought it was only natural. For a man like him to be surrounded by such beauties, who else would have thought he was celibate?
Judging by what has worked so far, I had chosen to go with the face of a girl that is angry at having to offer her body up, it would instill the desire of a hunt in most males.
At that time, I thought that it would be a good decision.
That facade would cause most young masters to feel challenged and will not hesitate to leap at the chance for a hunt, then thinking they had won when the female shows a little favour to them.
I would be able to skip the tedious first base and head straight for the end goal, but who could have known that I would incur his disciples' wrath.
I was slapped by two of his disciples on the face.
Their actions enraged me, my first thoughts were that they had blatantly stepped out of line. How could someone serving under such a Master possess this much freedom after all?
That was when I laid eyes on his face.
He had no blame for his disciples' actions, but his anger was directed at me.
His anger felt like a hurricane.
An absolute force of nature that blew away everything in its path where nothing could stop it.
It was intoxicating.
His threat only served to enhance his charms.
Right then I felt the most freedom I ever had in my entire life.
The thought of him hurting me seemed so
I knew then he was no mere mortal man.
That amount of freedom could not be possessed by a mortal after all.
Everyone in this world was shackled in one way or another.
A noble daughter like myself is chained to her family.
A homeless, starving man will be tied down by his own circumstances.
Even the highest of kings is beholden to his people.
But not Master Lin, nothing shackles the hurricane from wrecking havoc.
And in extension, his disciples who stand protected in the eye of the storm shared a bit of that freedom.
I wanted it.
I had fled his courtyard, locking myself inside my room to try and sort the mess of feelings within me.
I wanted more from him.
Where others saw me as a caged bird who could do nothing for herself, he alone never did.
I needed that feeling.
And I will do anything to get it again.
I was still in the midst of forming a plan to ingratiate myself to him when he kicked down my locked doors, dragging an unconscious Feng Xian behind him.
Was he here to punish me?!
Please be here to punish me!!