32: The Funeral

Disung often had nightmares when he drank. The jumble of memories always circulated around his father’s death. People screamed, blood covered the village and the Fox’s mask stared down on him. Tonight, the nightmare drifted from this. In the distant, a young girl’s face stared at him in horror. Those sepia eyes shone like diamonds.

 “Run!” Disung shouted as the Fox noticed the newcomer. “Get away!”

The girl ran towards him, a scowl on her face and eyebrows remaining low in anger. The closer she got, the more she morphed into someone older. At first, she looked four years old but when she reached the Fox, who withdrew a sword, she was ten. A wolf howled in the distance, distracting Disung, and when his attention went back to the girl, she had transformed into a maid. The Fox attacked.  

 

“Mingzhu!”

Disung woke in a panic and held his pounding head. Sweat covered his back, making his clothes stick tightly to him. No forest surrounded him. No Fox rampaged the village. No blood covered his body. He was safe.

In bed, his legs tangled with Huian. This left him no time to comprehend the dream but process the unlikely situation. He was in bed with a woman. The upper portion of her body curled around to rest on his lower abdomen, a beaded necklace and loose strands of hair spread across his exposed skin. The woman wasn’t traditionally beautiful – maidens of Shanhe had round faces and pale skin – but had an appeal of her own. The stern expression suggested she could survive life’s difficulties, her tanner skin showed the willingness to work outdoors while her wide eyes and small frame gave her femininity. Bundled together, they created the uniqueness that was Huian.

No. Disung corrected. Bai Mingzhu. Her name is Bai Mingzhu. A river of recollection flowed steadily through the dam of alcohol that clogged Disung’s mind. The maid could fight. The maid was Cheng’s sister-in-law. The maid was up to something.

“Master. Help me,” Mingzhu mumbled in her sleep. “Master.”

“I’m here,” Disung said and awkwardly and patted her head. “You don’t need to be afraid.”

“Master...I don’t know what to do... Juan...”

A stray hair tickled her face and to stop her twitching, Disung moved it away. In doing so, he noticed her plump lips, coloured a soft pink. During the hunt, they had been covered in soot, blending into the rest of her grimy face. The more he stared, the closer his body moved forward until his face was inches from hers.

While sleeping, she looked much more pleasant and kind. All anger had evaporated. Her skin smoothed out the frustrated creased and constant worry. Some men might have found her attractive in this state. Too bad this peace didn’t last; Mingzhu’s eyes opened and she shoved Disung off the bed.

 “What were you doing?!” She shouted and stood up straight on the mattress. Joaolong appeared from underneath the blankets, awoken by the racket. In their drunken comradery, they all decided to sleep in the same bed.

What was I doing? Disung questioned himself, blushing. At first, he admired her face but why had he gotten so close to her? It must’ve been the weird dream and alcohol. This was why he didn’t drink often.

Unexpectedly, Mingzhu laughed wholeheartedly and Joaolong joined.

“What is it?” Disung asked, perplexed by the sudden change in atmosphere.

“Nothing, young Miss.” Mingzhu bowed dramatically and laughed harder.

The mirror held answers and Disung looked at his reflection in horror. An ugly woman stared back at him, her face painted white but smeared by sleep. Eyelids were covered in a soft red colour and lashes defined by a squiggly black line. The blotchy cheeks matched the red shadow and to emphasise the colour scheme further, lips were overdrawn in bright rogue. The worst part was the thick, angry eyebrows and temporary beard drawn in ink.

“Am I a woman or man? You painted a beard on me!” Disung exclaimed, feeling a mixture of dismay and amusement.

“It will be the best beard you ever grow,” Mingzhu exclaimed and another fit of laughter overtook her. “Serves you right for passing out first. Loser gets punished!”

Disung undid his hair – restrained in two high buns – and stormed over to his friends. Joaolong sat up and raised his hands in defeat. Mingzhu, however, grinned and shoved Disung aside as she glided through the air. In an instant, she fled through the door and disappeared into the palace, obviously still intoxicated. She outdrank them all.

The humour died after that. Joaolong and Disung got cleaned and changed in their own chambers, the required grey robes reminding them of the main event. Today was the funeral of the empress and emperor. To relief restless souls, burials occurred days after death. If the murderer remained unconvicted, the dead could not let go of their life and journey into the spirit realm. Hence, the funeral got postponed until Jiang was sentenced.

The coffins of the empress and emperor were bright blue and grey, carried by eunuchs or willing peasants to the burial grounds. Everyone joined the march, listening to the flutes and wind chimes play at the front of the parade near the dead rulers. No one spoke and the only sounds came from musical instruments and sobs for the departed. This long walk down dirt paths ended deep in the forest, at a specific limestone mountain.

The stone face of the mountain was carved out to create a cave. The entrance purposely resembled a temple; indents emphasised tiled roofs and bricks, along with fake flowers and bells to signify the importance of this sacred place. The cave contained all the past emperors of Shanhe and here, Yenay and Weishan would lay to rest.

Several guards were assigned to safeguard this entrance until early dawn, to protect the belongings of the rulers. This was their final duty to their old masters. Only a monk would join them. The short, bald man supported those in despair and offered entrance into the cave. One at a time, starting from nobles to villagers, people went inside the mountain to give a final peace offering and prayer to the deceased.

The imperial concubine was the first to enter, leaving everyone else to patiently wait their own turn. Disung stood back from Joaolong, wary of his words and actions. To combat sad circumstances, he often used humour to alleviate depression. This often got perceived as extremely rude and inappropriate.

In this time of need, Xiaoli offered Joaolong comfort. Like a moth to a flame, she sought him out and happily gave support. Disung neither liked or disliked her, unable to determine any unique individuality from every other noblewoman; she was snobbish, materialistic and selfish. Apparently, deep down, she had other qualities that appealed to Joaolong. Yet, Disung couldn’t understand. Shanhe women were too proper and precious. This was why Disung became fascinated by Mingzhu, both as a maid and fighter in the hunt.

“How are you coping?” Xiaoli asked softly, looking tenderly at Joaolong. “You have lost all your family. It must be unbearable.”

“The empress will live on in my heart. That is enough,” Joaolong replied.

“Tell her I am truly sorry for what happened. May she be at peace.” Xiaoli clasped Joaolong’s hands in hers and gave a small, comforting smile. Disung saw flakes of skin flutter from Xiaoli’s hands to reveal a red rash that covered most of her fingers.

 

“What has happened to your hands?” Joaolong asked, noticing this too.

“Burns. I spilled some tea. You should not worry about me. Actually, Joaolong, I want to confess something impor—” Xiaoli’s words were cut short by Qioalian’s arrival. In the concubine’s presence, she went silent. Likely, she was going to confess her love.

After mere months together, Disung learnt about Xiaoli’s crush on Joaolong. Small, innocent acts such as tea invites and one-on-one lessons stole the woman’s heart and although she was promised to the prince, she wished to be by Joaolong’s side instead. Disung took any opportunity to tease Xiaoli with delight about it.

“My son is almost finished. I give permission for you to enter,” Qiaolian said to Joaolong, unable to keep the disgust from her voice.

“Thank you. I am grateful,” Joaolong replied softly. “Excuse me.”

Slowly, he disappeared into the fallen rulers’ cave. Despite all the turmoil and grief that was rooted in Disung from the empress’s death, he remained wary. Inch by inch, he moved near the cave and listened. It was vulnerable moments like these that people attacked.