38: New Position

“Where were you?” Meifan asked, her voice raspy after a week of silence.

This is certainly delayed, Mingzhu thought to herself. The question was about the late morning arrival last week, after a night of absence. Judgement met Mingzhu at every corner since then, whispering about her dishevelled appearance and tipsy state days ago. Matters became worse when she, unwillingly, served Disung during imprisonment. No one acknowledged how every maid cowered at the thought of meeting a killing tool and she was chosen due to her nonchalance. By now, everyone believed she disgracefully fornicated out of wedlock and sought a higher slave position.

“I grieve my own way,” Mingzhu finally replied. “I prefer to be alone.”

 “You shouldn’t disappear all the time. People think you’ve been up to trouble,” Meifan scolded.

The comment irritated Mingzhu. Since Jiang’s death, Meifan became recluse. She ignored everyone. Now, when they were both emotionally raw, she wanted to finally talk and criticize inappropriate behaviour. It felt overbearing and hypocritical, turning Mingzhu cold and snappy.

“You hold your tongue next time you want to pass judgement, Song Meifan. We do what is necessary to survive through tragedies.”

“I was just trying to help.” Brimming tears turned Meifan’s eyes into small ponds. This was common since Jiang’s death.

 “I do not need your pitying advice. It is a blessing we are to split,” Mingzhu spat, hating herself for the cruelty.

The last words broke Meifan. Silent tears trickled down her face. Mingzhu felt the sting of her words but felt too overwhelmed by grief and exhaustion to rectify her mistake. Instead, she convinced herself it was better this way.

Speaking to each other put them under suspicion, since their senior had been charged with murder and treason. Starting tomorrow, they had new roles and would be evaluated monthly. Mingzhu felt certain that becoming enemies would benefit them both. At least, that is what she told herself. No friends and allies means heightened wariness. This way, the mission will be successful. It is for the best, she reminded herself, ignoring the ache in her chest at Meifan’s despaired expression.

“Fa Huian. You are requested,” a eunuch announced and Mingzhu pounced at the chance to leave the damage her words caused.

They walked to the nobleman’s personal area, then up the stairs of Joaolong’s building. The eunuch knocked and after whispered permission, beckoned Mingzhu inside. Waiting for her was Joaolong, Miss Tang and a bruised Disung.

 He looked like a rotten peach; some skin had split into cuts and yellow patches covered his body. The main discolouring remained at his wrists which showed how tightly the guards restrained him. Rumours told some noblemen tried to torture him, in vengeance for his loose tongue, but he broke his binds with a vicious smile that frightened them into incontinence. More horrifying than the bandaged finger, the black tip peeking out to declare it broken, or the maroon shading around his eye was the fact he held a key to escape. He allowed the beating to happen. He pretended to yield to the emperor’s mercy. For that, Mingzhu felt tidal wave of admiration wash over her; he deserved to be among the Masked Masters who shared similar control and cunning. She wondered if her debt to him could be repaid if she helped him climb among the ranks of the clan.

 “Greet your masters,” Miss Tang commanded.

While bowing, Mingzhu’s mind switched to determine her summoning. A punishment was the most reasonable explanation. Yet, she had not done anything worthy of beating. She kept meek and quiet for once, mimicking everyone else’s mourning. The only person willing to destroy the sombre atmosphere was Disung, who kept in high spirits. Was he grateful for her sacrifice? Was this a private reward acknowledging her attempt to save him? Mingzhu doubted it, for he did not escape and looked terrible. Then, amongst the confusion, Meifan’s question from earlier came to mind. Was this about stealing the wine? Or did she say something stupid while drinking with the men? Any recollection of that night and the following morning were a fuzzy mess. She suddenly worried what happened in the blank spaces in her memory.

 “Kneel, Fa Huain.” Miss Tang stood in front of her. “I have been advised your position is no longer. You will not work with the washers. From today, you are to serve Master Wang Joaolong as a personal handmaid. You will work dutifully with Wu Tai. I expect exceeding reports. This is an honour. Not many noblemen choose a sold slave to serve them, especially with such a lacking appearance.”

Mingzhu stared blankly ahead, unable to comprehend the role or react about the insult. Her? A personal housemaid? There had to be a mistake. Meifan told her it never happened and if it did, Mingzhu was determined to serve Cheng to discover his secrets.

“That is all, Miss Tang. I will guide her from here,” Joaolong said. “You are dismissed.”

When the woman left, Mingzhu found her voice. “Master Wang, I do not understand.”

“You saved me so I am saving you. That is all.”

“I never saved you. Our only encounters have been either through punishments or drunken foolery,” Mingzhu lied, well aware of his inference about the hunt.

“Bai Mingzhu, do not play dumb. I am aware of most happenings in the palace, including your attempts to save my guard.”

Mingzhu’s eyes bulged at her real name. How did he know her? She wanted to curse. A feeling settled in her gut and she knew she said something stupid during that drunken night. Wine made her eager to talk and giggle; it was embarrassing to imagine. She truly hated herself and wanted to run from the confrontation.

 “What do you want?” She snarled. “I can see through this play. You are not expressing gratitude: you want something. Why else use my name?”

Joaolong smiled. “Clever maid. It is true I seek more than that. I need your help and your strength. My guard will be requested at difficult times to serve the emperor, leaving myself unprotected. I need another to fulfil his role. However, while he remains by my side, I need someone I can trust to find answers I seek. In return, I will give you safety.”

“I decline.”

“You are refusing a valuable position. Will this not even benefit the mountain clan?”

Mingzhu flinched, as if the accusation stung her like a bee's tail. How much had she said? Anger boiled in her. She bit her inside cheek until she tasted something metallic. It served as a minor punishment for her irrational babble. Never again would she drink. “I do not understand why you are speaking of legends.”

The mountain clan remained silent, like they didn’t exist, since the rulers’ deaths. It worried Mingzhu greatly. Not even Master sent word. Due to this, she served no purpose in the palace which meant she had not repaid her debt to the mountain clan. Waiting for a response felt impossible, the anxiety bubbling inside her. Recalling Master’s words about the true heir and the token found with Joaolong, Mingzhu decided to investigate alone. This was her chance to prove her worthiness to the clan without their explicit instruction. She needed this opportunity.

“Do not play dumb. You confessed your origin while drinking my wine.”

You are an idiot, Mingzhu. This is why the mountain clan distrusts you. “What if I refuse to comply with your plan?”

“Then I could tell everyone your true identity.”

“I will kill you before you get that chance,” Mingzhu seethed.

Joaolong chuckled. “Can you really defeat the great Anshu and get to me?”

“I have before.”

“I said I could reveal your identity, not that I would.” Joaolong beckoned Mingzhu to stop kneeling and join him at the table. She refused. “I am not here to form enemies. If you wish to leave, you may. Keep in mind that I am presenting you with a great opportunity. Having a nobleman with connections on your side will help with whatever you are planning. I can save and defend you whenever necessary, as you will do for me. Is that really worth ruining because of pride?”

Mingzhu fidgeted, deliberating the options, knowing he was right. With him, a noble, she could move around the palace easier, relay more information to the mountain clan and meet Cheng more often. The truth about Juan would be in her grasp. To add to the temptation, she could discover more about the pendant from the hunt.

“You offer me protection and help. What do you want exactly?”

“Have you ever played Weiqi?”

The question perplexed Mingzhu and made her more sceptical about Joaolong’s sanity. “Only with rocks and sticks.”

“Life is like Weiqi,” Joaolong said as he began setting up a board from under his table. “Someone is always plotting against you, thinking how they can get the upper hand and defeat you.”

“What is your point?”

“I need to be prepared for my enemies. My guard is compromised. That is why I want you to protect and work with me—”

“For you. This arrangement still makes me a slave. I have no choice.”

“Ah but you do. Why do you think I asked you for help?”

“Because you have something on me.”

“I have been observing you, Bai Mingzhu, since the first punishment. You are honest, loyal but come with many secrets. Maybe, I could help achieve your hidden goals and you do the same in return. That is why I believe we will mutually benefit from this alliance. That is why I offer this to you.”

Mingzhu remained wary. Her eyes wandered to Disung. To be a spy for Joaolong meant she would be in contact with her past more often than desired. It might trigger Disung’s memory. If that happened, he would definitely kill her.

“Will you join me?” Joaolong questioned as she lost herself further in silent deliberation.

It took every rational argument not to curse at the men and storm off. Asking for help made her feel weak, as if she couldn’t cope with the Masked Master’s assignment. Although she didn’t want to admit it, she needed connections to stay in the palace unharmed for longer. Only a fool would toss this deal aside and as Master told her, she was not always a fool.

“Prove to me that I can trust you.”

Disung grinned, pushing himself away from the wall. “I thought we already made an emotional and unforgettable connection that sprouted trust—”

“You have something on me,” Mingzhu directed at Joaolong, mostly ignoring Disung except her cheeks, which turned red in embarrassment. He never failed to make her heart beat faster in anger. It annoyed her immensely. “Give me something on you.”

Tension filled the space. Joaolong tapped his finger on a Weiqi stone, creating a steady beat. Seconds ticked by before he shifted in his spot, coming to a decision. “I am committing treason. It started long before the new emperor. If you are outside, near the bridge on the first night of a new moon, a farmer will arrive and deliver a basket of herbs. At the bottom is a message.”

Mingzhu hid her shock about the confession. The weak man hid tricks up his sleeves. Clever. Necessary to survive the palace. It also meant they quite possibly shared similar goals. “If I am your personal housemaid, how can I access it? I expect to be busy serving you.”

“It will be part of your duties.”

 Something still bothered Mingzhu. “Why commit treason?”

 “Simple: along with everyone else, I did not wish to experience a war nor follow a tyrant ruler. Unfortunately, those fears are our new reality. Now, I just want to live. Do you accept my offer?”

“I will give my answer after evidence of your treason,” Mingzhu replied.

“Then let us play for now.”

Mingzhu and Disung approached the board at the same time.

“Fetch the tea,” Disung ordered, acting like a dignified nobleman.

Mingzhu raised an eyebrow and her face ticked in irritation. No matter how indebted she felt, she refused to obey the commands of the snotty boy she knew years ago. “I am invited to play Weiqi.”

This time, Joaolong replied with an arrogant smirk. “You are my new personal housemaid. Slaves do not play. Slaves fetch the tea.”

 

The only thing stopping Mingzhu from attacking Joaolong was Disung’s laughter.

 

***

 

A cold breeze flew around the night. Stars illuminated the land and the moon blended into the sky. Just as told, the farmer came and delivered the basket. As soon as he fled, pretending to leave something at home, Mingzhu rummaged through the bag. The dried herbs pricked and crumbled under her destructive fingers until she found the cloth.

The faded brown material flapped in her hands. Cut into a rectangle and torn at the edges, it appeared invaluable. Yet, the message painted onto it, written in codes, was the greatest treasure. Each word contained information about Linlong and response to Shanhe’s change in power.

“You son of a…” Mingzhu let the sentence drift off and instead, smiled widely. She made an alliance with the right person.