1: New Life

One Year Later

The ink-stained hide, exchanging Bai Mingzhu's life, reached the soldier's grasp without any hesitation. Yanked out of the wooden cage in front of bidders, she watched the handsome payment of stone rings between the buyer and seller before being shoved into the flock of submissive women. No chains bound them but they walked like they were covered in heavy weights from their decision to serve. Mingzhu copied their stance and lowered her head. Yet, she did not share their dismay and instead, allowed herself a tiny smirk of victory as they moved further into Yinying Yueguang. 

The town sat in front of a glorious mountain face, the soft brown hues of buildings blending into the forest terrain. The streets were familiar to Mingzhu and she remembered living in the city alone a year ago. Yet, the soldiers did not allow her to delve into the past and moved the women across the bronze bridge. At the other end waited the only entrance into the water palace.

The Lotus Palace was the grandest dwelling in Shanhe, situated in the middle of Kye Lake. A lotus flower inspired the design; the pale pink border walls curved around soft yellow structures with shimmery bronze roofs. The main buildings, including the imperial chambers, royal relative chambers, study and courtyards were fortunate to be built on protruding land, while those closest to the border wall sat on pillars that dove into the lake.

After passing through the border wall, the women walked under a large, wooden door known as the Divine Gate and into the palace. An array of colours met them on the other side; all the flowers were in bloom, leaving a sweet scent linger in the air. They crossed a small stone bridge, providing passage over the tranquil water from the lake. Mingzhu risked a glance at the pond and spotted numerous golden fish swimming in the depths, hidden by lily pads and other aquatic plants. They didn't swim passed the bridge, unwilling to venture into the slave area like she did.

Near the servants' residence, the soldiers forced the women to kneel. In the harsh sunlight, Mingzhu and those beside her waited for their fate as an older woman approached. She wore bright pink robes with gold thread to symbolise her authority among slaves. Slowly, her eyes wandered across the newcomers. Permanent wrinkles sagged her forehead and black hair lost its youthful shine. These ageing characteristics created an intimidating impression.

“Welcome, new maids. You shall refer to me as Miss Tang. I am your head-stewardess and will be in charge of your placement, duties and punishment. It is unwise to anger me. I shall assign you to a servant role for the royal family and direct you to the correct chambers. You will wash, change into the correct uniform and learn from your fellow maids of the daily duties required. Failure to do this will result in punishment.”

Miss Tang walked towards the girl on the far left, unravelling parchment in her hands. The young slave, unlikely to be over the age of sixteen, wept loudly. Miss Tang was unimpressed. “Water-maid!”

The girl looked up in despair. “Please! I beg of you!”

Miss Tang ignored this and studied the next woman’s hands. She looked at her parchment with a brief approving nod. “Prior experience...good family...serving time, not sold...seamstress!”

The next woman became a kitchen-maid. An audible sigh of relief escaped her and consequentially, caused Miss Tang to reverse her steps. The position changed to a lowly role. “Water-maid!”

Finally, Miss Tang stood in front of the last slave. Mingzhu held her breath. Sold slaves, such as her, were given lowly roles. The grueling daily duties could impact her success completing the mission. She needed a good position. The desperation caused her to perspire and she felt her hands become clammier.

“Housemaid!”

Tension seeped from Mingzhu’s muscles. It took every ounce of energy to hide her relief. The gods were on her side today.

“Water-maids, continue left on the bridges until you reach the last set of servant chambers. You shall reside in room that has a water symbol. Housemaid, your place is behind me in the room with the painted leaf. Seamstress, follow me to the flower quarters. Arrange placement with the other maids, wash up and wear the appropriate uniform. That is all,” Miss Tang announced and the seamstress tailed her. Meanwhile, the soldiers shuffled the other slaves onward, leaving Mingzhu to find her own way.

The housemaid residence lacked the beautiful patterns and colours of the other buildings, despite having the same cultural architecture. Inside looked nicer than Mingzhu expected, the wooden floors and doors polished to a fine standard. Sleeping mats covered the ground and each corner of the room had a drawer to share. Honestly, she had prepared to sleep in rooms similar in care to poor horse stables.

A woman stood near the doorway, blocking further entrance into the chambers. She looked possibly the same age as Mingzhu – freshly twenty – or slightly younger. Her long, ink black hair cascaded down to her lower back, with half of it tied into a sophisticated high bun. This hairstyle was adorned with bronze ribbons and a single hairpiece of a plum blossom ornament; the design was specific for housemaids so members of the royal palace could identify duty and status. Other maids were given different ribbons and flowers depending on their role.

“You must be a new maid! My name is Song Meifan. The senior maid has been called by the empress so I will orientate you with the duties. What is your name?”

“Fa Huian,” Mingzhu lied. The name felt foreign on her tongue, despite rehearsing it during her travels. If anyone discovered her true identity, she would be dead within seconds.

“That is a rather fitting name for a servant. I mean not to offend you. I was just-ah—”

“Where do I find my uniform?” Mingzhu asked curtly.

Meifan quickly searched the drawers closest to the entrance. She mumbled while rummaging through her own items. “The seamstresses just finished sewing yesterday... Here it is!”

The tunic’s main layers were a pearly colour, glimmering in the light. The pink top layer of fabric matched the plum blossom shades. A bronze band wrapped around the waist and this same material was made into ribbons for hair. The design of the uniform served to please nobles and the royal family, since the housemaids appeared before them more regular than other slaves.

“I will help you get changed and tell you about the palace over food. You need your strength after a long journey. When I first arrived, I was exhausted. I lived near the border so it took days to finally arrive here. Where are you from?” Meifan asked as she took the newcomer to wash up.

“It does not matter.”

“Did they take you away from your family too? I was sold so my family would prosper with the money. I haven't seen my parents for years and I left when my brother was young. He would be almost a grown man by now.”

Mingzhu kept silent, unwilling to babble about mundane things. She was not here to make friends. No one needed to act friendly towards her after what she had done. They, too, would become cursed if they got too close. 

“I am sorry for my chatter. I often do that when I’m nervous. I promise I can keep quiet.”

That promise only lasted a few minutes. Unfortunately, Mingzhu had no choice but to follow the talking girl like a stray dog. Whether it was during a bath or dressing, the girl never shut her mouth. She became aghast and curious about Mingzhu's scarred back but when she never got an explanation, she rapidly changed topics.

“The seamstresses are always tired in spring. Blooming flowers means more requests for colourful dresses and difficult embroidery patterns,” Meifan whispered to Mingzhu. "It is why we lack spare uniforms. You are fortunate they finished a new set yesterday."

“That is not my concern.”

“Oh. I just thought –”

“You thought wrong.”

“My apologies,” Meifan whimpered, cowering at Mingzhu’s harshness.

The rest of the evening passed in a blur. The maids went to the kitchen area, located between the servant chambers and imperial building, to collect food and eat near the water. Meifan introduced everyone to the newcomer but within minutes, Mingzhu forgot their names. They weren't useful. Relief only came when the sun set and it was time to rest. As soon as everyone's breaths synced, Mingzhu snuck out of her bed.

The moon hid behind clouds in the night sky. This made it seem darker than usual and Mingzhu waited for her eyes to adjust before moving. Swiftly, she pulled herself onto the roof and walked across it. She tried to step carefully, wincing at the sound of her feet thudding. A loose stone tile nearly caused her to fall and she bit back a curse. As silent as she could, she pried at the tile. The curved design provided enough room for a family of rats shelter. It seemed like a flaw but Mingzhu had an epiphany; she could hide her belongings here. Today was going well.

Feeling clever and confident in her findings, she rested the tile on a crooked angle to find later, and sprinted along the rest of the roof. Nothing brought greater pleasure than running. Straining muscles, the struggle for air and the pushing of limits preoccupied the mind from current problems. Mingzhu loved this freedom from her thoughts but knew it would become a luxury instead of a pastime. The palace wasn’t designed to run; it was a confined cage for the hierarchy.

A soldier on patrol caught Mingzhu off-guard. Her heart leapt out of her chest, her skin tingled and she forgot to breathe. Frozen in place, she prayed her black outfit blended into the night. Any movement now would catch attention. The soldier looked down the alleyways and glanced at the rooftops. Then, he continued marching down the path. Mingzhu exhaled, took a moment to scold her cocky behaviour, and continued jumping roofs with a crazily thumping heart.

During her run, she mapped the Lotus Palace on parchment. Noblemen and guest chambers were near the entrance bridge while servant chambers and their workstations were located to the east. The imperial building rested in the centre of the palace. Gardens and small pathways were drawn to the map, as well as symbols of water. Hopefully, the information appeased her master.

Mingzhu whistled, worried about the sound splitting the air. After a moment, a pigeon flew towards her and landed on her shoulder, offering its foot. The map of the palace was rolled into a small tube, no bigger than a thumb, and tied to the bird.

Thud.

The noise startled Mingzhu and she instinctively flung the pigeon into the air, urging it to fly fast from danger. On impulse, she swung off the roof and flattened herself on a wall. As the seconds ticked by, her heartbeat grew louder in her ears. Suddenly, her darting eyes spotted a moving shadow. The silhouette bounced across roofs towards the Divine Gate then disappeared on the ground pathways.

Someone else disobeyed curfew.