No one could sleep on an empty stomach. Meifan stared at the lumpy figure on the floor beside her and empathised. She replayed the day in her head. Xiaoli and the other women were horrible to her, teasing and taunting her skills every chance they could. When she cried after breaking the cup, she could hear the delighted snickers above her and felt so small. The flying rocks were a blessing.
"Fa Huian, are you awake?”
“Huian stomach replied.
The women sneaked out of the servant chambers, careful not to trod on anyone as they escaped into the cooler air. They came to a bridge and halfway across it Meifan climbed underneath. The dirt compacted near the pillars, providing a safe place to hide. The small space became Meifan’s sanctuary when the bullying got too much.
“What is this place?” Huian asked in wonder.
“My safe hideaway. I come here when I want to be alone,” Meifan explained self-consciously and sat on the ground. She had to squish to the side so Huian had room to join her.
They listened to the water lap at their feet. Meifan experimentally played with her hands, stretching them until the point of pain and then curling her fingers back up again. Covered in burns and cuts, they looked far from feminine. No man would love her with tarnished skin.
Huian nonchalantly offered a thick plant part and a few bandages. It seemed unlike her. She always acted uncaring, ignoring Meifan’s questions while wearing an irritated expression.
“What is it?”
“Aloe Vera that I found. It will help the burns. Just crack it open and rub on the sap. Hopefully your hands won't scar. I heard that it's a curse in the palace to be tainted in appearance.”
Meifan's eyes watered in gratitude. “Thank you.”
“Let me dress them,” Huian said and gently grabbed Meifan's wrists.
Just like she instructed, she snapped the long plant part down the middle, revealing a sticky mess inside. Using her fingers, she applied the thick sap to the red and blistered skin. Meifan gasped at the sting but kept still while they were bandaged. It felt like being at home and loved. She missed that feeling.
“Call me Meifan.” Using a first name in Shanhe represented a close relationship between people. Meifan desperately wanted that bond.
Huian hesitated, her contemplation weighing down the mood. “I refuse.”
"You do not want to consider me as a friend. I am toxic."
"You are not! A toxic person wouldn't save me! A toxic person wouldn't be healing me! And I wouldn't have gotten this for a toxic person." Meifan withdrew a bun from her robes and handed it over.
“Where did you get this?” Huian asked as she deeply inhaled the divine smell of bread. Meifan wallowed in shame. “Meifan. Where. Is. This. From?”
“The ladies threw it to me after they retired my service to them. It is their leftovers,” she confessed.
“You took it? Have you no dignity?”
Meifan laughed humourlessly. “We are servants. If you still have dignity, it will only provide you with worse fortune. We withstand torment to survive. Had I not grabbed it, you would suffer. Please eat it.”
An internal fight flickered in Huian’s eyes, her pride unwilling to compromise. Fortunately, her stomach won the silent battle and she shoved the bun in her mouth greedily. When there were no crumbs left, Huian finally spoke again. “I thank you but next time, please do not do this again, Meifan.”
Meifan's heart sung. Someone said her first name. She felt like a child making new friends again. “We servants must stick together. You saved me today and I owe you everything.”
“You owe me nothing at all,” Huian replied quietly.
"I will repay you one day. My wealthy husband will insist on it to teach our children values. "The idea made Meifan smile. She could see herself as a mother, running after several children. They would live in the countryside and the daughters would help her grow rice, while the sons studied in the village.
“Forget it. We are slaves. No one is coming to save us.”
Meifan sighed; the cold Huian returned.