17: Garden Message
The familiar maid swayed, like a thin stem caught by a breeze. Disung approached and watched her eyes glaze over the garden. The mess of mud, twigs and pebbles made Disung chuckle. He envisioned Joaolong, who he liked everything tidy and in order, furious by the destruction. Whether a jealous nobleman or plotting assassin did this, Disung didn’t care. His focus remained on the woman a few steps away. She looked sickly and withered, the past few days treating her poorly. However, a fierceness continued to flow from her small figure.
The contradictory nature intrigued Disung, as did the mystery surrounding her. They didn’t know each other yet she glared at him like an old enemy. For some reason, she did seem familiar. That day in the study, he couldn’t stop staring at those mesmerising sepia eyes. Something gnawed at him but no memories came. How did he know her? Had they met in the past? These tedious questions turned more demanding after the whipping display. She talked about the Fox, as if knowing the relationship between the assassin and him. It perplexed Disung and then, the impossible idea came to mind; could she be from the mountain clan? This possibility stopped him reporting to Joaolong about her mention of the Fox.
“Are you ill?” Disung asked.
The maid was alone. No prying eyes or ears waited nearby. Disung had yearned for this opportunity over the weeks. Finally, he could ask questions. His heart beat fast. A boyish excitement filled him. He could solve a puzzle.
“Excuse me, Master.” The maid stood straight and tried to walk passed him.
Disung persevered, blocking her path. “You should rest. Your skin looks pale.”
A snarl curled the maid’s top lip. “I have a duty to finish, boy. If I recall, it was at Master Wang Joaolong’s request that I complete more work than others.”
Ah. She is angry about that, Disung thought to himself. The change in punishment aimed to avoid pain. Women always cared about scarring and being hurt. Apparently, the maid preferred quick pain rather than maintaining her appearance. Disung admired that.
“I will discuss your absence of duties with him and Miss Tang. Although you are beautiful, you do not look well.”
The compliment had no effect. "My health is not your concern.”
“Then, if you are feeling fine, you can keep me company.” Disung grinned at her irritation. “What is your name?”
“That is not a master’s concern.”
“Then, I will have to ask someone else. Imagine the gossip that could come from my interest in a maid…”
“Fa Huian," the maid spat.
“It is a pleasure to finally talk with you, Fa Huian. I am Ànshù.”
“Are you really Liu Disung?”
The question caught Disung off-guard. No one asked or used his real name, except for a few, close friends. How did this maid know it? And why did she want to know it? The theory about her belonging to the mountain clan seemed more and more plausible.
“If you want me to be, I can,” Disung said and winked at her.
Huain’s brow furrowed. “How long have you been at the palace?”
“Seven years. How long have you been a slave?”
“I need to return to my duties,” Huian replied firmly. She reached a silent decision about the information he provided. This made him even more curious.
Disung blocked her path again. “How long have you been a slave, Fa Huian?”
"Move." Sensing he would refuse until she gave him answers, Huian sighed and rubbed her temples. “Over a month. Move.”
“And how many times have you been punished?”
“Including this conversation? Four times.”
The fearlessness felt refreshing. No one spoke like that to Disung. Everyone in the Lotus Palace were careful with words, especially towards higher ranks. It made life dull. Disung found entertainment in pushing etiquette boundaries and he just met his match. It made him grin.
“Speaking to a master in such a manner is unwise.”
“I don’t see you as a master.” The maid’s reply came out as a mumble.
“What do you see me as instead?”
Huain’s eyes softened for a brief moment. Then, a cold mask came over her face. The response would be an insult. Disung knew it. He anticipated it. The opportunities to openly taunt someone who bickered back were rare. What would she call him? Would she continue defying her rank? What could Disung retaliate with?
In that moment, Joaolong and Tai joined them. The reply was withheld. Disung wanted to curse. The one time he showed interest in a woman, he got interrupted.
“Did you forget your duties?” Joaolong asked. “I sent you to retrieve a scroll and you fail to return.”
“I got distracted,” Disung replied with a wide smile.
“Are you teasing maids again?” Joaolong looked at Huian. “You look familiar. Have we met?”
“We have acquainted in the garden a few days ago. It was your suggestion I pay the disrespect I showed others through more labour and restriction of food rations,” Huian replied monotonously, after bowing deeply on her knees.
“Is my guard hindering your duties?”
Huian glared at Disung. “Yes.”
Joaolong looked at the mess around him and made a dissatisfied noise. “Did you do this to my garden?”
“Joaolong—” Disung interrupted, recognising the misplaced irritation.
“I was ordered to clean the mess by Miss Tang.”
“You have done a poor job. Re-do it until I am satisfied,” Joaolong ordered.
“Joaolong, you can see she is unwell!” Disung argued. “I was talking to give her a break. Look at her pale skin and sunken eyes.”
No one appreciated the observation. Huian shoulders bunched her shoulders, ready to pounce and attack. Rigidly, she got to her feet but something in her process faltered. Midway through the action, she limply fell toward the ground. Disung caught her before she injured herself. She felt hot. Her body nestled in his embrace. Huian did not wake.
“You should have let her fall,” Joaolong said over Disung’s shoulder.
“You are too cruel today!”
“Sometimes your stupidity astounds me. Think about where we are and the expectation on treatment to servants. If you are caught conversing flirtatiously with a maid, it will only bring trouble,” Joaolong replied and walked onto his porch to view the destruction.
“I was not flirting.” He definitely was.
“If I had arrived a second later, she would be wiping your drool off the ground,” Joaolong retorted.
“Joaolong, I respect you but I refuse to tolerate misdirected anger. Just because you are stressed by the empress’s wish does not give you the right to treat others unfairly. I am tired of you barking at me.”
Joaolong ignored Disung, staring at the garden instead. “There is something far greater to discuss. Wu Tai! Take the maid back to her chambers. Tell the head-stewardess I order the maid to be fed and left to rest.”
Tai followed the instruction without complaint. Disung felt reluctant to let the woman go. She looked like a harmless pup in his arms.
“What is so urgent?” Disung asked when the servants left. He joined Joaolong on the porch.
Clasped in Joaolong’s hand – picked up from the table outside his chambers – was a fox token.
“The Fox is hunting you,” Disung concluded darkly. How did he miss that?
“Because of her,” Joaolong stated and revealed the inscription on the back of the wooden item. The name ‘Bai Juan’ was carved in it. “Now look at the garden.”
“Yes. It’s a mess.”
“Look,” Joaolong emphasised.
At first, Disung couldn’t see anything but the destruction. However, the longer he stared, he realised why Joaolong remained standing in that exact spot. After moving slightly, the choppy cutting of the hedges and ruined ground aligned to form words.
Beware the Imperial Advisor.
“What does it all mean?” Disung asked, lost by how the ruined courtyard and fox token aligned.
“Not all is what is seems. The answer to the Fox’s visit remains with Bai Juan and Zhao Cheng. That means he has business with me too. We must be wary in the hunt. We do not know who to trust."