3: Maid a Slave
The slaves in the Lotus Palace contained a variety of people from differing status. The earliest Shanhe emperor's rule demanded every common woman to fulfil a maid’s duty for a year. This servitude trained daughters to progress into worthy wives. Among them were sold slaves who came from poor families repaying debts. Commonly, the positions offered to these commoners were lowly unless their face was beautiful.
The two people Mingzhu worked beside were sold slaves. Meifan seemed naïve about the world while the older maid, Lin Jiang, acted worn from serving at the palace for years. The senior was a tough woman, with greying hair and squinty eyes. She didn't take nonsense from anyone except the masters but even then, had limits. Rumours circulated that she refused to be a concubine in her youth because she insisted to serve the empress. In the last year, she repositioned to an ordinary housemaid because of the emperor’s order.
“You will bring me trouble,” Jiang said at Mingzhu.
Immediately, the elder restyled the new maid’s hair – with heaps of yanking and tugging – and fixed any ill-fittings on the uniform. During this, she purposely pricked Mingzhu with a needle; it was a lesson to never dress poorly again.
“Follow carefully or you will get lost,” Jiang said as she took long strides around the palace.
The maids completed their duties in designated areas. They washed linen, swept floors and maintained gardens. As soon as one task finished, another began. Jiang worked endlessly, never willing to pause for food or water.
“Scrub the floors. Understand?”
The word 'understand' always accompanied Jiang's instructions. It was unusual if she didn’t say it every few minutes. Mingzhu followed the orders without hesitation, adapting to the workload over the week. She needed to keep this role for the mission. Yet, the Fox threatened that.
His return caused an uproar. Gossip greeted Mingzhu at every turn and she felt foolish for not listening to the wild rumours about him years ago. The stories could have warned her of the chaos that would ensue. The Fox was causing too much trouble. If only-
“She is strict this week,” Meifan sighed when Jiang left for the toilet. This pulled Mingzhu out of her thoughts.
They were cleaning the study either by wiping shelves, tidying scrolls or dusting beams. Before Jiang left, she concocted a herbal mixture that reeked. This needed to be used to scrub the floors.
Mingzhu stretched her sore back, reminded of her strenuous routine as a child. The memory caused a shiver up her spine. “Hard work reaps rewards.”
“Our reward must be not gaining attention from the maids or nobles,” Meifan replied in a high-pitch, shocked by Mingzhu’s willingness to talk.
Too bad, Mingzhu thought. One nobleman’s attention she desired above all else. Their paths hadn’t crossed but there was still time. Mingzhu was determined to meet her sister’s husband. She needed the truth. “Will we be in direct contact with any noblemen?”
“Oh dear, no!” Meifan replied. “Unless they walk into the study. We are just lowly housemaids and cannot handle such important matters regarding the masters. We clean vacant rooms, wash bedding and clothing. That is all. The higher housemaids serve tea and are in the masters’ company. Even now, we return the bedding the assigned personal housemaids.”
“Is there any way to become a higher housemaid?”
“You need to be born in a prestigious family or gain experience. On rare occasions if a master takes high interest in you, then perhaps it is possible. You are ambitious to ask of such things already.”
“You misunderstand. I want to be cautious to avoid it,” Mingzhu lied.
Meifan sighed loudly, lost in her thoughts. “It is too bad I had to sell myself early rather than serve as a maid willingly. Then I could have met a nobleman to marry.”
“I could never imagine a worse fate,” Mingzhu replied. “To marry is to choose to be a slave to a man. I prefer being forced into slavery. These noblemen would skin you alive if you were their wife.”
Someone cleared their throat behind them.
Mingzhu cursed in her head. Of course, the one time she spoke honestly, someone powerful overheard. Slowly, she turned around and bowed to the master. She could hear Meifan's breathing change to rapid inhales. They were in huge trouble.
“Raise your head,” a deep voice instructed and both maids obeyed.
Handsome was too lenient to describe the man. He had a strong jawline, intense, dark, almond eyes and full lips. The small, black beard and moustache transformed him to appear wiser than his true age. Mingzhu guessed he was in his twenties. His robes were a dull green, trimmed with yellow. Thick, black hair glided into a topknot, as was the custom in Shanhe, and encased with a lily pad inspired hairpiece. This leaf represented his relationship to the royal family, likely a cousin or nephew.
This must be Master Wang Joaolong, Mingzhu speculated. Most of the maids spent their time dreamily describing his face and unmarried status.
“What witty tongues and gossiping natures you have when there is still work to be done,” Joaolong commented.
Meifan looked distraught. “My apologies, Master Wang. We did not mean to offend you. Fa Huain is a new maid and is slow to accustom to the rules and surroundings. Please take pity on us.”
The apologetic spiel continued on but Mingzhu ignored it. She became distracted by the other nobleman accompanying Joaolong, who shared an equal interest in her. His robes were brown and rather plain in comparison to Joaolong, and his features more boyish than masculine. The nobleman’s hair wasn’t neat either, messily tied into a bun. This dishevelled appearance felt familiar to Mingzhu but she couldn't explain how.
When she frowned, the man winked at her, amused by her reaction and wanting to stir. The unabashed stare morphed into a silent game. Mingzhu unknowingly played, searching for answers in those warm, brown eyes. They knew each other. She was certain of it and the more she stared, little whispers from the past talked to her.
“Leave now, boy! You are such a nuisance!”
“You are the nuisance! I am taking my sister home before you do something stupid,” the young boy said and tugged at his younger sister's chubby arm. “Let's go before she hurts you again.”
“We were playing,” the toddler whined.
“Leave us or I will fight you!”
The boy ran a hand through his hair. “Dammit! Do not make me beat you up!”
Mingzhu blinked. It wasn’t possible…
The man raised his eyebrows and smirked, silently signalling his victory in the staring contest. This behaviour, so familiar and childish, only increased the fear in Mingzhu’s heart. It couldn’t be him.
Meifan nudged Mingzhu, encouraging her to speak. Quickly, she blurted out an apology. “The fault is mine. I spoke inappropriately and promise to be more respectful to the masters. Take pity on me.”
“And?” Joaolong said.
“And... we'll continue cleaning?” The words fell from Mingzhu's mouth before she could stop herself. Master did a similar thing when he was unsure how to answer; he spoke in a questioning tone.
Surprisingly, the nobleman accompanying Joaolong laughed wholeheartedly. The noise sounded pleasant and genuine. Again, the familiar feeling unnerved Mingzhu. They had met before.
“Is there anything wrong, young masters?” Jiang asked in a panic as she entered the room. Without hesitation she bowed low.
Before Joaolong said anything, his companion interrupted. “We were inquiring about a missing scroll.”
“We do not touch such things, Ànshù. Have you asked the other noblemen?” Jiang replied.
“Not yet. Thank you for the advice. We shall leave then,” Ànshù finished and playfully pushed Joaolong to the door.
Just before they left, Joaolong turned back to Jiang. “Ensure the new maid learns to speak respectfully at all times.”
A minute of silence passed. Then, Jiang snapped. “Fools! I leave you alone for a minute and you cause trouble. As punishment, you will do all of my personal washing tomorrow or otherwise, I will inform Miss Tang of your misbehaviour! Understand?!”
For the rest of the day, duties were completed in silence. The sun set deep in the mountains when all the servants returned to their residence. Each maid kept quiet, their posture and appearance proper until they reached the slave’s bridge. Whilst walking over it, they slumped their shoulders and groaned. Mingzhu and Meifan didn’t utter a word during this and even ate their boiled mullet in silence.
Finally, later at night, Meifan spoke. “Fa Huian. Are you awake?”
“What do you want?”
“Do you think Master Wang Joaolong is handsome?”
So that was Master Wang Joaolong, Mingzhu confirmed. “No.”
“I think he is. I also think he was kind to us today. Masters would beat you for impudence.”
“Who was the other master with him?”
“Ànshù. The emperor bestowed him the name to warn others about his great capabilities in combat.”
“Is that his real name?”
“No. I think his name is actually Wu Di? Lu Dong? Liu Disung? No one really knows.”
Mingzhu inhaled sharply. Any intention to sleep left her. Liu Disung was supposed to be dead.