16: Monsters and Wolves
Mingzhu whistled while she scrubbed the floor to keep her mind off her empty stomach. Yesterday, she ate nothing. This morning, although permitted to eat, the kitchen-maids refused to serve her breakfast. Likely, they were Xiaoli’s allies. This lack of food started to affect Mingzhu. Every movement caused dizziness. Carrying buckets felt impossible. Scrubbing made her want to give up.
Today’s duties extended from sweeping to scrubbing every tiled artwork or statue in the palace with a small brush. This left Mingzhu a lone victim to the blazing sun and soon, a headache bloomed behind her forehead. This forced her whistling to turn into a slow hum. She wanted to strangle Joaolong for his advice; she preferred the beating than this torture.
The only upside to the punishment was access to nobleman’s residence. Miss Tang became too busy to supervise a single maid. This gave Mingzhu an opportunity to explore. For weeks, she wanted answers about her sister. This was her chance.
When no one came near the courtyard, Mingzhu entered Cheng’s room. The familiar smell of osmanthus hit her. It felt suffocating. The last time she smelled it, she nearly died in that fire.
Blocking her nose, Mingzhu continued to search for signs of her sister. There were no portraits or memorial items to represent the life they once had. It infuriated Mingzhu and she looked through every crack or box to find a piece of Juan. This led her to the desk at one end of the room. The compartments held nothing but paperwork. How quick you are, Zhao Cheng, to forget the wife you fought so hard for, Mingzhu thought angrily and carelessly messed up the final draw.
The bottom board moved. Mingzhu pried at it, confused. The fake bottom revealed a secret compartment containing two items; a Fox token and necklace. The wooden animal looked strange, the carving rushed and choppy. Mingzhu knew better than to touch it. But why was it here?
The necklace also didn’t belong. The beads alternated between jade and wood from a plum tree. The opposite materials complimented each other, as if reflecting the Bai twins. Mingzhu’s mother gave it to Juan while Mingzhu got a rusty blade from her father. That day, she realised how distant she felt from her mother. She still remembered the crushing jealousy over the necklace.
This is what she came here for today; to retrieve a piece of Juan. Mentioning her sister among maids would only cause harm and it crushed her to keep silent. She desperately wanted answers. Did Juan hate being married? Did Cheng treat her well? Did she really poison him? These remained unanswered but at least she had some proof Juan existed in the palace.
Hesitantly, Mingzhu draped the necklace around herself. It didn’t suit her. Nothing pretty looked good on Mingzhu. It should still be on Juan’s porcelain skin.
“What are you doing here?”
Cheng scared her. The necklace fell into a gap between her robes, hiding safely among the material. Mingzhu lied, using a water rat as an excuse. Thankfully, this fooled both Cheng and the royal family. She quickly left in a fluster to continue cleaning.
The sun rose higher in the sky and the heat increased. Mingzhu continued to scrub outside without complaint. A few mosaic tiles had gotten filthy over the week and she scrapped off the compacted dirt. They depicted the history of the Lotus Palace, showing the influence of each Shanhe emperor. The artistic story looked beautiful along the walkway, placed just before the main imperial courtyard. Yet, they couldn't keep Mingzhu’s attention.
"I won’t let you,” Mingzhu screamed. “I refuse. We can find another way. There is always a different solution. Your friends could give us shelter and we find some rare herbs...”
“Sister, you must stay healthy. Worry about yourself. This is the only hope we have at living,” Juan replied and handed over a bag of rings. They had switched roles; Juan’s composure seemed strong, shown by her blank expression, while Mingzhu sobbed, completely weak.
“You can’t leave!”
“I must,” Juan replied and hugged Mingzhu. “It will be a beautiful wedding and Master Zhao will treat me well. I can live a luxurious life in the palace with enough food to eat and lovely dresses to wear. This is not goodbye but just a new beginning.”
“If he harms you, I will kill him.” Juan pulled away and walked back to the carriage nearby. “I don’t want to be left behind without you.”
“Stay healthy and safe. Don’t steal the neighbour’s vegetables. Find a good husband and live a good life. We will see each other again. I will send word.”
“Don’t leave me! Please!”
“I love you,” Juan whispered from the carriage window.
Pain radiated from Mingzhu’s fingers; someone stood on them. She blinked, returning to reality. Sweat soaked her gown and made it stuck to her healing back. Hopefully it didn’t ruin the necklace. Mingzhu couldn’t bare taking it off now. The wood and jade felt like a connection to Juan. It alleviated the heartache of losing her sister.
“Fa Huian,” Jiang rumbled. She stood above her, ready to rip her junior to shreds.
A middle-aged woman stood beside her, smiling warmly at Mingzhu. She wore extravagant and flowing cream robes, adorned with embroidered fish and abstract perception of disturbed water in colourful threads. The piece of blue fabric displayed on her chest matched the trimming on the outermost part of the garment. The same blue glimmered in her hair decorations which pinned her thick locks into a unique updo. The hair framed a stunning aged face and the mark of the empress; above a painted green dot and navy line were three red pointed ovals, facing different directions.
“Head up. You are excused from bowing,” Yenay said, her voice chiming like small bells. She even smelled divine, like orchids and vanilla. Mingzhu unfolded herself from the ground and sat back on her heels. “Do you know this maid, my friend?”
“My apologies, empress. She is assigned to work under my guidance. I put faith that she would continue her duties reverently while I was absent,” Jiang explained politely but her eyes remained fixed on Mingzhu. “She will be reprimanded severely for slacking.”
Yenay laughed. “There is always one child that misbehaves. Maid, why are you neglecting your duties?”
“Ah,” Mingzhu slurred and shut her eyes to regain her focus. The headache knocked on her skull in fury. It grew to engulf her whole head. “My apologies, empress. I am not feeling well?”
“You!” Jing burst out at Mingzhu's absurdity that the response formed into a question.
“What was that song you were humming? I have heard that tune before,” Yenay said before Jiang could embarrass herself and the maid.
Mingzhu hesitated. “It is my mother’s song.”
“Ah," Yenay exhaled thoughtfully, her eyes brightening as if discovering a great secret. "Would you teach me to play it? I imagine it would sound divine on a dizi.”
The song sounded whimsical on a bamboo flute. Mingzhu’s mother perched high in trees and played the dizi as the sun rose over the mountains. Meanwhile, her husband watched from below. A sweet smile lit up his face, showing the unwavering love for her. When he turned to Mingzhu, this expression faded and all care vanished.
“Fa Huian! Fa Huain! Fa—” Miss Tang cut herself off at seeing the empress. She joined Mingzhu on the ground, greeting the ruler.
“What is the trouble?” Yenay asked.
“A slight mess in the courtyards. It is this maid's duty to attend to such matters today. I did not mean to disturb you,” Miss Tang replied softly. Just like Mingzhu a few moments ago, she became lost in awe of the empress’s beauty and kind voice.
Yenay nodded and reached for Jiang to guide her away. “Do not let me bother you then. Fa Huian, it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I hope we meet again.”
When did she learn my name? Mingzhu wondered.
Beside her, Miss Tang rubbed her temples and gestured for them to leave. She looked worn out, as if drama had increased among maids. There were always sneaky fights and catty behaviour. Her job had to be challenging, especially with entitled, temporary maids.
“There is a mess in Master Wang Joaolong’s courtyard. A fellow maid accused you but I see now that you've been with the empress. I will deal with her later. These girls will be the death of me. Promise you won't bring me so much trouble in the future. For now, just clean up the destruction before the master notices.”
The courtyard looked horrible; hedges were hacked, leaves and pebbles scattered the walkway and smears of mud ruined ornaments. Mingzhu almost slumped at the sight and the long task ahead of her. However, she could only blame herself for being foolish and saving Meifan. Nothing good came from being kind. This destruction proved that.
It took several long minutes to figure where to begin tidying up. Surveying the damage from Joaolong’s patio, Mingzhu hummed a song from her childhood. The melody distracted her from the pounding headache and spats of lightheadedness. The tune had a slow tempo, the notes rising and falling in short spurts like leaves rustled by wind. Master loved the song, explaining how it reflected Mingzhu’s mother. She always seemed soft and gentle just like Juan. Mingzhu contrasted greatly. She feared her personality appeared similar to the father she despised. The mere remembrance of him put a foul taste in her mouth. Monster, she thought. He was a monster. The wolves were nicer than he.
Blackness clouded her vision. A wave of dizziness made her stumble. Any panic took too long to recognise. You are weak, her father taunted in her mind. You are pathetic. A few days without food and you are helpless. I am disgusted. You are no daughter of mine.