12: Stones for Birds

The light refracted on the frozen mountain dew. Snow settled on the plants and gave the mountains a whimsical appearance, the beauty outshining the temperature. Mingzhu followed her master unwillingly up the slopes, slipping several times and struggling to warm herself. Master, wearing rags and less clothing, showed no signs of discomfort.

They stopped at a cleared field, high on the mountain. The strong wind struck Mingzhu’s body and felt like millions of sharp pins. She crouched over, wrapping her arms around herself and facing her back to the wind gusts.

“Today, you will begin training. Try to take this token—” Master said and showed a carved, wooden boy, “—from me.”

Mingzhu begrudgingly got to her feet. Her teeth chattered. “I can't take it off you. I am not a fool.”

“Stop complaining and try,” Master instructed and hit her legs with his makeshift cane. “I'll even loosely tie it on my belt. Each week, the better you get, the harder I'll hide it.”

“I hate you,” Mingzhu said and attempted capturing the wooden boy.

Master hit her hands way with his makeshift cane. A content smile from him encouraged her to continue trying. Using all her rage, Mingzhu endlessly attacked. In the process, she received several new bruises. Finally, she fell to the ground and accepted defeat despite her pride screaming in agony. The cold seeped into her clothes, matching how she felt inside.

 “You dared attack me directly while you have lost all skills,” Master said with a toothy grin. “Patience is a virtue. If your enemy is stronger, it is best to use surprise to cover your weakness. Cunningness defeats brawn. You have a lot to learn.”

“I can't learn it if you don't teach me!” Mingzhu yelled at him, her temper fueled by failure. “I haven’t trained since I left the clan!”

"Ice is formed over days."

Mingzhu rolled her eyes at her master’s usual mistake. “Ice that is three feet thick is caused by bitter cold for not only one day. You are terrible with proverbs. Just like you are a terrible teacher!”

Master rubbed his bald head before thinking of another thing to say. “Fall into a well but learn from drowning.”

“Fall into a pit, a gain in your wit,” Mingzhu corrected again. “Don't dare try to say another or I will hurt you.”

Master whacked her on the head with his stick and laughed. Just as he opened his mouth to say another mistaken proverb, she tackled him.

 

“Stop it!” Mingzhu yelled and woke herself up. She groaned over her sore back. Most of it had healed over weeks but the remaining bruises still caused her pain.

“Nightmare?” Meifan asked, half-asleep.

“It is nothing worth concern,” Mingzhu replied.

Jiang walked over and kicked both girls, which had become part of her morning routine. “Time for work! Stop being so lazy! Understand?”

At breakfast, the maids were chatty. Mingzhu watched them while eating her gluey porridge. Each girl had some news about the Fox’s visit. Then, another added their theory why he came to the palace. The insight, although mostly rumours and fabricated tales, gave a new perspective for Mingzhu to consider. Yet, it didn't stop the Fox’s arrival troubling her; no one knew his true intention.

“Song Meifan!” Miss Tang yelled over the gossiping and everyone hushed immediately. Meifan stood and bowed her head.

 

“Good morning, Miss Tang.”

“You have been requested by the noblewomen to attend to them today. I trust you behave in their presence.”

If a noblewoman requested a maid, misfortunes were bound to follow. Everyone gave Meifan a pitied blessing as she followed Miss Tang. This left Mingzhu in the company of Jiang for the daily duties. They tirelessly worked and Jiang didn’t converse much. In the past, Mingzhu would have relished this but she had grown fond of Meifan's innocent babbling. She worried about her and that fearful expression.

 “You are to finish the paths by yourself. I am to attend to the empress,” Jiang suddenly said, watching an approaching messenger.  

 

“Why does the empress want you?” Mingzhu blurted.

 “None of your concern. Keep sweeping or I’ll punish you when I return. Understand?” Jiang snarled.

Mingzhu begrudgingly complied. She kept sweeping, diving in and out of deep thoughts. The Fox ruined her training. The emperor recruited more soldiers to guard the palace, enforcing a stricter curfew. Less opportunities arose to practice for the mission. If Mingzhu made one false move, the assassination would be ruined. Then, she would fail the mountain clan. Something had to be done.

An overhanging branch prodded Mingzhu out of her concerns. The wood stabbed her tender flesh and she cursed. Then, she noticed her surroundings. It smelled sweeter. More shade sheltered her body from the harsh sun. Streams trickled and bird sung. A beautiful array of flowers and leaves were at every turn. She had accidentally wandered near Lady Gaze.

Loud, feminine voices led Mingzhu towards a new entrance into the garden. She spotted none other than Ju Xioali, along with her two snickering friends, under a large archway. Meifan stood among other attending maids, wearing a gloomy face.

 “Servant One!” Xiaoli hollered. The green material of her robes shimmered from the water’s reflection, attracting the eye of every human and animal. “Pour the tea for us.”

Meifan bowed and obeyed, gulping as she grasped the teapot. Slowly, she filled each cup with the brown liquid and placed it in front of each lady. As Meifan went to move the final teacup, someone bumped her.

“Ow!” she yelped. Hot tea burned her hands. The fine cup fell to the ground, smashing into various sized shards. All the women either gasped or screamed in surprise. “My apologies, Miss! I am sorry! I am sorry! I am so sorry!”

“Stop apologising for your clumsiness and pick up the mess. You would not want me to hurt myself,” Xiaoli replied viciously.

“As you wish.”

Meifan dropped to her knees and collected the pieces. One of the other noblewomen, considerably younger than the rest, bumped her knee into the maid. The shards in Meifan’s hands slipped. Each piece sliced her fingers. Blood pooled in her hands. When Meifan choked on a desperate cry, something inside Mingzhu snapped.

Without thinking, she threw a rock. It glided towards the women. A teacup smashed. More small pebbles sailed through the air. The women screamed. Mingzhu lost control. Her heart pounded in time with the smashing pottery. Never hurt the hand that aides you, she thought vengefully over and over.

“Who was that? Come out now!” Xiaoli said with bravado. Her whole body visibly shook and colour drained from her cheeks.

 

“Fa Huian!” Miss Tang roared.

Any dark satisfaction felt from the destruction fled Mingzhu. She muttered a curse. Slowly, she stood up, trying to think of a believable cover. Suddenly stopping her act showed guilt. Continuing showed defiance. Either choice had a high risk. What should she do?

Mingzhu threw another rock. “Stop it and leave, scoundrels! I'll get you! Just wait and see!”

“Fa Huian!” Miss Tang grabbed the maid by the scruff of her neck, twisting her around so their eyes met.

“Oh,” Mingzhu mouthed. “Miss Tang. Sorry to disturb you.”

Miss Tang dragged the maid deeper into the garden. When they reached the noblewomen, she threw Mingzhu on her knees. “Explain yourself!”

 “I fear there is a grave misunderstanding,” Mingzhu said, dragging out her words to create an alibi. “As I was sweeping, I noticed... a few large birds nesting nearby. These animals swoop and become aggressive if anyone harms their young. Someone could get badly hurt in this season. I threw some pebbles to scare them away but misjudged my aim. I was too focused and did not notice the ladies dining.”

“Fa Huian! You broke a tea-set from such immaturity!” Miss Tang scolded. “Your actions do not justify your behaviour!”

“I agree,” Xiaoli said, dusting herself off. “Something must be done. Miss Tang, I suggest a beating to the legs with her own broom. The tool will be a reminder of her true responsibilities and the injury will force her to reflect on her lack of dedication.”

Mingzhu wanted to kill Xiaoli. She had enough humiliation at the whipping display. Yet, she let them force her to the archway beams and conduct the punishment. The broomstick hit her calves relentlessly. It made her lip twitch but she kept quiet, unwilling to show weakness. Even when a glowing red mark appeared, getting angrier by the second, she maintained composure. Just like her father trained. However, he never encouraged such reckless behaviour over others.

Why did she throw those rocks? When did she start caring about a maid? Was it atonement? In the past, she couldn’t save Juan but at least, she saved this innocent maid. For today. Already, she regretted intervening. It made no difference if she acted or not; Meifan would undergo bullying on another day.

 “Why is it every time we meet, you are in trouble?”

The owner of the voice and Joaolong approached. They showed no astonishment at the scene occurring before them, accustomed to servant punishments. Miss Tang greeted the masters, along with the other women who acted shy. Mingzhu couldn’t determine if this shift in attitude was caused by Disung’s deadly reputation or Joaolong’s handsomeness.

“Servants are becoming more and more difficult of late,” Joaolong stated nonchalantly. “Why is a maid being punished today?”

 

“She was throwing rocks, Master Wang Joaolong. She claimed it was to chase away the birds but in the process, destroyed a tea set,” Miss Tang explained nervously. "As the head-stewardess, I have failed."

“Miss Ju also got injured because of this!” Hong Biyu added unnecessarily, seeking to appear affectionate and caring.

“Let me see the damage,” Joaolong requested urgently, worry evident in his softening eyes.

“Oh no! It is fine, Master Wang. You should not concern yourself over me,” Xiaoli replied bashfully and hid the bloody hand behind her back. The blood on her skin belonged to Meifan, not her.

“What is the punishment?” Disung asked and leaned against the rail.

“The maid will be beaten until the ladies are satisfied that a lesson had been learnt,” Miss Tang replied and continued the punishment.

Those dark eyes rested on Mingzhu and he took his time checking every inch of her as she got hit. It felt like a butcher eyeing his prized meat for market. Strangely, instead of disgusted, Mingzhu became self-conscious and embarrassed by her red, beaten calves. She scowled. He hated her. He probably looked to determine where was best to stab her. Meanwhile, she acted foolish. Why did she feel like a stupid maiden? She was a warrior of death, not a woman of desire that begged to be saved.

“I remember you were much louder during whippings,” Disung cheekily whispered to Mingzhu. “In the courtyard, your screams won against mine. I owe you a green ring for that.”

 

“Bastard.” The insult accidentally slipped out with the next thrash of the wood.

Only Disung caught the word. His eyebrows shot up. Mingzhu tensed, ready for a harsher punishment to be demanded or worse: a sincere, grovelling apology. Most masters wanted some form of action to re-establish their power and higher position. The idea made Mingzhu, with a stubborn pride, shudder.

“Quiet strength suits you. I like it," Disung acknowledged and held her gaze.

Blood rushed to Mingzhu's face. She felt her heart beat faster. The way he stared made it seem like he saw past her mask, into her soul. No one else except Master and Juan complimented her like that. Don’t act this way. He hates you for what you did. Form no attachments. This is a trick. Thankfully, another whack from the broom pulled her out of the trance. Disung was dangerous.

“Master Wang Joaolong,” Disung formally addressed, communicating a hidden message through the timbre of his voice. Mingzhu’s master spoke to her in a similar way.

“If you continue to beat her, she won't be able to walk and then unable to complete duties,” Joaolong stated suddenly. “It would be wiser to compensate the tea seat by withdrawing it from the maid’s food rations, both as of tonight and tomorrow. Also, to do such a foolish action means she has enough energy to distract herself during duties. Miss Tang, you should assign her more jobs for the rest of the day and tomorrow to tire her free spirit.”

“A noble and wise decision, Master Wang,” Xiaoli complimented. “Would you care to join us for tea?”

Without another word, he sat beside her on the floor. At the sound of coughing, Xiaoli rubbed his back out of habit. The simple gesture showed their deep friendship. This made Mingzhu mentally categorise Joaolong as an enemy by association.

Meanwhile, Miss Tang addressed the fading problem. “Fa Huian. Your food rations are hereby withdrawn until the day after tomorrow. When the sun rises again, you shall complete your duties and clean all noble courtyards alone. You are dismissed until I call on you later.”

Mingzhu gritted her teeth. At least if she worked alone, there were chances to train. The idea helped restrain the temptation to hit Joaolong and Xiaoli.