Chapter 28: Another Goodbye
The bells rang across the land to announce the fall of another emperor. Everyone wore white and their waistbands were embroiled with mountains, rivers and lotus flowers. Tubes of wind chimes flirted with each other, gently bumping together to create a soft sound that echoed throughout the palace. This noise supposedly guided the new spirits to a happy afterlife.
Slaves were given permission to stop work and mourn. This caused Mingzhu great difficulty finding Meifan and Jiang, who strayed following their usual routine. It took all morning to belatedly realise one maid took to hiding under the bridge. Meifan sobbed and tightly hugged her knees, as if it stopped her from falling apart. Her hair draped around a sorrow-filled face, failing to hide her pain. The sunlight, struggling to shine through the coverage of building floors and bridges, created an angelic glow to her skin, making her seem mythical.
“Meifan!” Mingzhu exclaimed in relief. “I lost you. Why are you here? Why are you crying?”
“S-Senior L-l-lin!” Meifan croaked. “She never came back. Huian, she never came back!”
“We will find her. She is probably mourning with the others.”
“The b-b-bell is ringing!”
“The bell rings for fallen emperors, not housemaids.”
In the entire palace, Mingzhu felt like the only one who appeared sane. Maids cried while idiotically sweeping grassy areas or hanging up dirty linen. The eunuchs acted worse and wandered around aimlessly, lost without their lord. Mingzhu found it darkly amusing but the humour died with Meifan’s sorrow.
“Y-you are wrong. The maids were talking about it at breakfast. Senior Lin killed the emperor and empress! She w-w-will stand trial tomorrow!” Meifan crumpled over, more tears running down her face and wetting her gown.
It didn’t make sense. Although Jiang shared a dark history with the emperor, there was no motive to kill the empress. The kind lady Mingzhu met always requested Jiang’s company. How could Jiang murder someone so pure? Why now? If anyone was guilty, it would be...
“A flower cannot grow in a tree's constant shadow,” the master spoke in a clear, calm voice. “Give her the mission.”
The council of elders either grunted or nodded, sitting in a semicircle on a higher platform. They perched on small cushions, dressed in different coloured robes depending on their rank. Their faces were half-covered by decorative animal masks yet the leader could be identified by his long white hair and beard. People described Fa Biming as a kind soul, smiling easily despite his tragic past.
"You are indeed right. A child should not be punished for their father’s flaws. However, the person we speak of has not gained our trust either,” Biming countered.
“Use the mission to test me,” Mingzhu pleaded. “If I fail, I was of no value before and you can send a Masked Master. If I succeed, I prove my loyalty to the mountain clan.”
“Preposterous! A Masked Master should be tasked with assassinating the emperor, not our enemy!” The Tiger argued.
This sparked more noise to erupt in the room. The masters talked among themselves, arguing over the offer provided by a daughter of a criminal. The men and women were silenced by Biming, whom raised his hand and put it on his heart. This meant he accepted the proposal.
“If you return with restored peace between the kingdoms, the past sins will be forgiven by all. I swear it by the blood that has smeared these mountains.”
“I swear by the blood that smeared these mountains.” Mingzhu repeated the new oath and kowtowed.
The Masked Masters wouldn’t steal her mission. It was her duty to kill the emperor. No one else would act unless she failed. Besides, they liked order and perfection, not brutal murder that covered the walls in blood. They couldn’t have taken away her duty… could they? Unless the Fox intervened.
The image of the fox mask shook her core. Without the mission, she could never repay her debts and make amends. The gentle chimes in the palace constantly reminded her of this throughout the day. It drove her wild. She needed answers and only one person could give them to her. So when darkness came and rain pattered on rooftops, she sneaked away.
The black outfit, stored in a broken roof tile, helped blend her into the night. A square of teal material covered her face, worn to hide her identity since she sacrificed her face covering to bandage Joaolong. The rain offered more concealment and she weaved through buildings without suspicion from soldiers. Soon, she reached the front area of the palace.
The building looked plain, similar to the guest chambers except for the blocked windows and guarded door. Minghzu watched the two soldiers out the front. Carefully, she raised her bamboo stick and blew hard. Darts shot out of the pipe and into the unsuspecting guards. Within minutes, they fell to the ground with a grunt. The paralyzing agent took full effect, granting Mingzhu access to her target.
The inside of the building divided in half; the open area walls were lined with weapons while the rest of the room formed a cage from thick bamboo stalks. Inside this cell, Mingzhu found Jiang curled into a ball, trying to sleep on the cold, damp and dirty floor. Already, she had withered and crumbled away into half the woman she was. Something tightened in Mingzhu’s throat at the sight, making it difficult to swallow.
“Who is there?” Jiang asked into the darkness around her.
“Someone who wants answers.”
Jiang sighed and continued facing the blank wall. “Are you here to cut out my tongue?”
“Do not mock me,” Mingzhu growled. “I need an explanation for the rulers' deaths. No matter how strange.”
“Leave me be. I accept my fate.”
“Who killed the emperor?” Mingzhu asked but Jiang remained silent. “Who. Killed. The. Emperor?”
Jiang finally turned around. “Someone you cannot win against. Understand?”
Was everyone working against her? Mingzhu’s temper burst and she grabbed Jiang robes, pulling her to the cell bars. The sadness for Jiang had morphed into pity and shame. How could someone turn so weak? Where was her harsh words and glare? “I do not care for riddles and vague replies. I want answers. Did you see any men in masks last night?”
“What did you see?! Who killed the emperor?!” Mingzhu roared along with the sound of thunder.
Something in Jiang’s eyes changed. The self-loathing temporarily left as a great secret stole her attention. “The Crowned Prince killed the emperor. No men in masks.”
Mingzhu exhaled, the worry trickling out of her body. The mountain clan had not doubted her. They were willing to accept her reconciliation. Yet, the prince's actions made her anxious. “Why?”
“Power, of course.” Jiang chuckled humourlessly. “A war is coming and the emperor wanted his son to lead the fight.”
“Was anyone else involved?”
“The Zhao family. Wherever death occurs, they are close by. You understand this well.”
A fire flickered in Mingzhu’s mind and she recalled the farmhouse burning to the ground. She already knew the Zhao family couldn’t be trusted. “And the empress?”
Jiang’s old-self vanished once more. Her face fell back into despair. “I killed her.”
“I killed her!” Jiang whaled. Tears streamed down her wrinkly cheeks. “I plunged the sword into Yenay’s heart for only in death, would her suffering end!”
Silence brewed. The rain pelted down outside. A coldness seeped into the room. The truth had been revealed. But Mingzhu struggled to accept it.
She stared at Jiang. In her dark eyes, she saw her own reflection. Blame, loathing and desperation danced together in dark harmony. It made Mingzhu scared to confront her own demons. Instead, she focused on Jiang, the woman who had cared for her over the months. That was another debt she had to repay. “Do you wish to be saved?”
Jiang shook her head. “I have nothing waiting for me. I am too old to marry and the only person I loved with my whole heart is dead. I am ready to die.”
Unsure what to do and unwilling to leave because of her ocean of emotions, Mingzhu sat down and hummed her mother’s song to soothe herself. In the dulcet melody, she sadly accepted the answer of fate. The sobbing woman beside her wasn’t the senior she knew. Jiang always remained strong and harsh. Compassion hardly shined. Yet, this woman showed her weakness and pathetic side without restraint. It made Mingzhu fear what she, herself, could become.
“Tell me about the empress you killed.”
“Imagine the feeling of a glorious summer’s day with your toes dipping in a cool stream. That was Yenay. Beautiful and soothing. Her beauty was incomparable and her heart remained pure, no matter the struggles she faced. I met her as a child in the village and was taught to be her personal handmaiden. I knew she was destined for great things and most men fell in love with her virtue and grace. I was not surprised the emperor requested her hand in marriage. That love sapped her happiness. Jealousy followed her everywhere. She blamed herself for each miscarriage, not the abuse happening around her. The reason I was demoted to a housemaid was because I protected her. The only joy that came from the palace was her baby. I will never forget the way she looked when her son was born. The day Yenay gave birth, her face was shining so bright that demons would burn in her presence. In that moment, I knew her child was destined for greatness, just like her.”
“It is a shame he died,” Mingzhu said, guiltily prying for information. Master hadn’t replied to her letters about the royal bloodline.
“He almost died,” Jiang confessed. “The Fox saved him. That man saved the prince and took him away for protection. Only the empress, the Fox, myself and the prince’s protector know this secret.”
“Prince’s protector,” Mingzhu repeated, her mind immediately thinking of Joaolong and the pendant. It seemed impossible that an ill man could be a protector. “Why are you telling me this?”
Jiang ignored her. “For someone so pure of heart, Yenay lived a tragic life right until the end. Somehow, she still smiled every day. I truly loved her for that. I hope Song Meifan can do the same. Take care of her. We are not bound by blood but she is my child by spirit. I wish her a happy life with a loving husband and big family.”
“I can free you,” Mingzhu whispered, her chest tightening at the sound of a farewell. “I have the ability. I owe it to you.”
“Bai Mingzhu, it is time we part. Do not risk your life for someone who is already dead inside.”
Mingzhu froze. Jiang said her real name. “You mistake me for someone else.”
“A name is not all I figured out,” Jiang replied and returned Mingzhu’s teal fabric. “Do not let the enemies triumph in the palace. You must protect the true heir of Shanhe. I know you are capable of great things.”
“When did you…?” Mingzhu was lost for words. Jiang knew everything.
“My condolences for your sister. The Lotus Palace is execution for those pure and fair. You lost your sister and I lost my empress. Do not let this tradition continue. Fulfil the lost prince’s destiny to rule Shanhe, as the rightful heir to the throne. Perhaps then, the world will be a brighter place.”
Mingzhu clenched her fist and looked Jiang straight in the eyes. “I will not let you die in vain. I will avenge the wrongdoings of the guilty. In the spirit world, I hope you find peace with this act.”
“Protect the prince and you protect the kingdom. That will bring peace to Yenay and I.”
If Jiang said anything else, Mingzhu did not hear because she ran away. The soldiers had stirred outside, groaning and groggily waking from their forced slumber. Mingzhu had to leave.
The wind stung her eyes and the cold rain seeped into her skin, chilling her to the bone. They both worked together to drown out any other sounds. None of this natural torment compared to the pain in Mingzhu’s heart. Life would be easier if she genuinely cared less for others.