Chapter 31: Answers of the Night
It was a beautiful night, the stars twinkling in a floating sea of black. Joaolong easily lost himself in the view. Outside his chambers, Disung restrained Huian. Sweat trickled down his face and he grinned when Joaolong joined them. The gift of wine calmed the drunken maid and she agreed to stay.
Peach wine had always been Joaolong’s favourite, laced with fond moments. It was the first alcohol Joaolong tasted, graciously stolen by Disung in their early years together, and the one always shared with Yenay on special occassions. The burning trail the liquid left in his throat weighed down the euphoria; he would never see Yenay cringe at the sensation. Quickly, he drank another cup before the happiness completely left him.
“I’m going to tell you a story,” Huian said suddenly, draining her cup retrieved from Joaolong’s chambers. “Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there lived a village of animals. Each had a master of their species to protect them but it was the most kind and powerful dragon that kept them hidden from humans.
“One day, a wolf from this village grew too ambitious. He showed talent and everyone told him he would be the next master but the dragon denied him a title. The wolf felt humiliated from rejection and trained harder, desperate to prove himself. It was never enough. The dragon could see the wolf’s true greedy nature and after several rejections, it came out.
“Blood painted walls as the wolf killed many, from the masters who tried to protect the other animals to any families standing in his way. This included his own kin. The dragon stopped him but it was too late. The village was destroyed and nearly everything was lost...”
Huian poured more wine into her dish. “I wish to tell my own children this tale to warn them of ego and the damage of selfish ambitions. The wolf did not seek the master title for others but for himself, and that was the very reason the dragon rejected him over and over. A wolf cannot protect a herd of sheep.”
The story was captivating, the crickets chirping along with every word, listening in too. Disung looked in awe, his eyes flickering in the moonlight as if reliving the tale. In every word that Huian spoke gently, the more he left the present.
“You are a good storyteller. I could envision the tale in my mind as if it were real,” Disung awkwardly laughed.
Huian glared at him and drank more wine at a rapid rate; the comment struck a chord with her. “It is more real than you or I.”
“That is enough wine then. You are spouting drunken nonsense,” Disung said and attempted to take the pot of wine away but Joaolong stopped him.
The drunker the maid became, the more answers she would spill. This was the reason they brought her to noble chambers. A normal maid would never act the way she did.
“Where did you learn that story?” Joaolong asked, ignoring the tick in Disung’s jaw that showed his unwillingness to comply with the manipulation. The maid must’ve meant something to him. Joaolong shouldn’t have been surprised; the guard had constantly flirted with her at every opportunity.
Huian became quiet, the pause showcasing the emotions she failed to express. “Somewhere very far away.”
“Did you learn to fight in that place as well?”
Huian nodded and slurred a reply. “Master a goooood man. I should have shown more obedience aaand gratitude. But that chance is gone.”
“Master must have loved the mountains,” Joaolong said, adding his own twist on the words.
“The mountains are a cruel mistress that tempts you with beauty and lures you to death! Only her closest allies know her curves and wicked tricks. Master is one of few that finds love from that landscape. Just because the wolves don’t eat him during storms…”
The elaboration about mountains sped up Joaolong’s heartbeat and he got confirmation he desired. Of course, the maid could be referring to any range or higher ground but Joaolong’s mind foolishly went to the Mountain Masters. “You could consider him a Mountain Master—”
“Even he did not know about my sister!” Huian interrupted, a slave to her own drunken thoughts. The conversation topic changed too quickly and Joaolong sensed he could not return to the topic of the Mountain Masters easily. The chance was lost. He drank his irritation. “No one did! No one except that dirty Zhao Cheng.”
Disung laughed. “Dirty Zhao Cheng. That is a perfect way to describe an old, scheming man.”
“Next time I see him, I’ll beat him so badly that he will not walk again,” Huian proclaimed. Disung scoffed which she took offensively. “I could beat both of you while blind!”
Disung sloshed the wine in his own cup and flicked Huian in the middle of her forehead, snorting in laughter at her slow reaction. “You are so harmless that you can’t even defend yourself against that!”
“Boy,” Huian growled and retaliated, flicking him harder between his eyebrows.
“Hold this,” Huian ordered Joaolong, shoving the cup of wine into his hands, then a jade and wooden bead necklace that was hidden in her clothes. She handled it over delicately and gave it a fleeting, worried glance as it rested with someone else. “Do not lose it.”
The beads slowly lost their original warmth in Joaolong’s hand and he studied the necklace, entranced by the craftsmanship. It was beautiful and of high value; the item did not belong with a sold slave. It reminded him of a similar item Bai Juan wore around her neck, resting softly against her chest and bouncing with each step. Joaolong couldn’t shake how similar the jade appeared or the familiar dark tones in the wood. This cannot be Juan’s necklace, he thought. But it looks precious. Why would a sold slave wear such an expensive item? There was definitely more to her than met the eye.
The drunken fight commenced and Joaolong dismissed his concerns, wanting to watch the foolishness instead of question his life. Huian and Disung swayed and stumbled whenever they rose to their feet to attack the other, while flopping like breathless fish on land when they wrestled. The whole fight looked sloppy, from the stances to the attacks and defences. Both opponents disregarded the potential self-harm of certain moves and proper techniques to defeat the other person. Huian dodged Disung’s hand by a coincidental sway of her body then grabbed the bridge of his nose, yanking it towards her so she could flick his forehead. While close, Disung also flicked her head. Red marks blossomed on both of their skin but neither cared, using it as a target. If anything, it only encouraged them to laugh in victory when the spot on the opponent’s forehead became redder.
After tangling limbs, the fight moved the ground for the third time. Disung and Huian wrestled on the courtyard grass, their clothes turning filthy. Huian didn’t have a second to wipe the dripping sweat from her hairline because Disung took every opportunity to attack. In a blink of an eye, she was rolled onto her back and Disung sat on top, pinning her arms down. The grin of triumph faltered when he looked at her neck where the teal fabric was askew. It was removed – primarily as it proved hasslesome in their game – and revealed a shimmering pink line. The game was instantly forgotten.
“Joaolong,” Disung called, finding sobriety.
“Get off me!” Huian wiggled, trying to break free. “You can’t call for reinforcements!”
Life often took unsuspecting turns, surprising anyone with coincidences and events. Tonight, Joaolong found himself staring at a strange, unfathomable meeting. The scar on the maid’s neck was clean, caused by a sharp blade, but the story it told was much greater than a simple, healing wound. It was recent and according to Disung’s accounts, Bai Mingzhu should have a similar cut on her own neck that led down her chest, as this one on the maid appeared to do so. Looking at the dishevelled hair, full of subtle auburn streaks, and bright eyes, the similarity between the maid and Juan was undeniable. This woman had to be Bai Mingzhu.
The maid rolled her eyes, unable to understand the predicament in her drunken state. A huge secret was revealed and she had no care for it. Instead, she wriggled herself free from human restraints and got to her feet. Without hesitation, she flicked both Disung and Joaolong on their stunned foreheads and then clumsily searched for more wine. “You lost. That means I get more wine in my belly!”
Disung grinned madly, his eyes wide and excited. “I challenge you to a drinking contest! Bet you three green rings that I will win.”
“Prepare to lose, boy!”
Joaolong felt confused how to react to anything. In one night, he discovered a poison in Qiaolian’s compartment, a maid turned out to be Bai Mingzhu and he was drinking with a possible enemy. It seemed ridiculous. Yet, the wine encouraged him to consider the consequences tomorrow. So he joined the foolish games Disung and Mingzhu played, found himself laughing and dived into the mind-numbing effect of obnoxiously consuming alcohol without restrain.