47: Tricks, Lies and Scandals
The mission depended on death yet, Mingzhu feared for her sanity if she took someone’s life. She knew she would become a monster. To appease her and the mountain clan, Master devised a clever death dance. He thought for many days in the forest about the steps until he realised how to disguise a weapon meant to kill; a sharpened hairpin covered in venom would suffice. The small blade would cut the target, originally the emperor Hong Weishan, and the poison would decide his fate, not the assassin. However, with no letters from the mountain clan after the emperor’s death, Mingzhu grew anxious over the plan.
She remained stuck at a forked road without direction. Still, she continued to practice her dance and arrange to be part of the Moon Festival. Just like master spent days thinking of a solution for murder, Mingzhu spent days deliberating whether to use the death dance to avenge her sister instead. The idea tempted her again and again. No more Cheng meant no more injustice. It appeared perfect. Except for her debts which needed to be repaid.
Unwillingly bottling her loathing, Mingzhu forced herself to consider giving to the mountain clan instead. The answer appeared simple; kill the new emperor. Huli’s paranoia threw the kingdom into despair and his growing army proved he held the same greedy ambition for power as his father. The Masked Masters would want someone to act. But was it the right choice?
During the festivities, still lacking a decision about her target and her eyes continuously spotting Cheng, Mingzhu snuck into the dance house, bribed the woman she replaced handsomely and dressed like those around her. No one suspected anything, especially when she followed the routine perfectly. A thrill prickled her body with each move. She counted the beats and suddenly, it was time. All her practice led to this moment. Her eyes locked on Cheng, then the emperor. Which one to kill, she debated. The beat quickened. Which will be the best choice? Her blood pounded along with the rhythm. It has to be… She turned, reached up and grabbed her concealed hairpin, then threw it.
It pierced the target.
The irrational mother, Mingzhu finished in her head, remembering Cheng’s private words at Juan’s grave. A grieving, irrational mother is far more frightening than a war-hungry ruler. The concubine clasped at her bleeding neck; the pin had sliced near the Qiaolian’s artery. Mingzhu bit inside her cheek; she had been lucky to hit anything. The weapon was meant to land in her chest. Yet, there was no time to wallow in shame as screams and panic erupted. Mingzhu blended into the crowd before rushing off into the darkness before any soldiers scouted the area.
Run. Run. Run. The word repeated with each step. Faster. Faster. Faster. The cries echoed from afar, bouncing from walls and diving through the air like Masked Masters. Chaos exploded in full force behind in the imperial courtyard. The adrenaline pounded in her veins, spiking her nerves. To prevent panicking, she focused on the ache in her legs. It made her smile, as did the pain her chest from the physical demand. How long since she ran? The destruction of the training camp felt like years ago instead of days. The feeling never failed to make her feel alive. Too bad she was running from certain death.
The building came into view. The torches nearby all burnt low, providing greater shadows than the alleyways. She barged in, disregarding the patterned knock arranged prior to the festival. The door slammed after she slid inside and she collided with a warm chest.
“Are you hurt? Are you okay?” Disung asked, clasping Mingzhu’s shoulders and scanning her body.
When did he care so much? She thought and felt more confused by the unpermitted smile on her lips. Why am I happy about this? Is it the adrenaline? Is it about the running?
“I am fine but someone else is not.”
“What are you blabbering about?”
Disung didn’t know what she had done. No one did. Otherwise, she would be imprisoned or one of her new allies would have stopped her. The mountain clan needed this success. They needed the emperor dead, not his mother, Mingzhu scolded herself and bit her cheek again. She wasn’t surprised by the sudden metallic taste in her mouth.
“Where is my uniform?”
“On the bed, as agreed. Put your clothes in the chest.”
Unable to steady her shaking fingers in a hurry, Mingzhu clumsily unclasped the buttons resting on her back. After pulling down her skirt, revealing white puffy pants, she met Disung’s eye. His face turned red and he gawked, unable to speak. She cocked her head and in her pause, she realised the indecency of the situation. In her haste, she forgot she was in the company of a man. A blush blotched her whole body, right to the tips of her toes. Her guts churned and a tickling feeling wormed among the mess inside her.
“T-t-turn around! Pervert!”
“Yes, ma’am,” Disung replied and put his back to her immediately. “I will keep guard.”
“Leave the room!”
“We have no time, as you are aware of. You disregarded your modesty because of that… unless you have a secret crush on me,” Disung said, the cheerfulness returning in his voice.
“I will never think that way about you, boy. Not even in your wildest dreams.”
“You have never visited my dreams then.”
Mingzhu felt his smirk and bore her eyes in the back of his neck, as if hoping they could burn him. Ignoring the flutter of her heart, she shoved her dance outfit in the wooden chest and grabbed her uniform. Had there always been so many layers? She ground her teeth and roughly dressed herself again. They had no time for a perfect appearance, as housemaids should be, and she let the layers of fabric messily cover her body. The material askew on her shoulder was ignored, as was the wide gape below her collarbone; it looked like a child dressed her.
“They are coming. Are you decent?” Disung asked, matching her frenzy at the close sound of footsteps and shouts.
“This stupid belt!”
“Damn it! Forgive me for this.”
Disung rushed towards her and wrapped the material around her waist. Meanwhile, Mingzhu undid the braids in her hair, letting it fall around her face. The pair worked together to return her to a slave instead of the dancer from minutes ago.
“Your makeup!” Disung exclaimed, watching the glitter sparkle on her skin.
“Where is a cloth?” Mingzhu demanded, rather than ask.
Someone banged at the door.
Disung swore. “No time. You must trust me.”
“I would rather trust a dead bird with—”
Without an agreeance, he whisked Mingzhu around, facing her back towards the door. He threaded his fingers through her hair, resting his palm over the glitter, while his other hand rested low on her back.
“Quickly put your hands on my neck.”
Despite her fear of touching him, she obeyed, as if instructed by her master. Disung rested his forehead against hers, closing the space between them. Before Mingzhu could punch him, infuriated and, honestly terrified by the physical contact, soldiers burst through the doors. Behind her, she heard them ransack the room on entry, searching for an assassin. Throughout this, Disung beamed at her and she found herself drawn into his warm, brown eyes.
The noises abruptly stopped.
Disung cleared his throat and looked to the soldiers. “Ah… comrades… Please keep this quiet as my dignity as a virgin which ‘strikes fear to others’ is at stake. Best come at another time when I am not preoccupied with a woman. Enjoy the remainder of the festivities.”
“The festival is over!” A gruff voice replied. “The Madam has been assassinated.”
"What?" Disung blurted, clearly shocked. He briefly glanced down at Mingzhu and she felt keenly aware he connected the dots; she wanted an alibi the same night someone died.
“Have you seen anyone pass by?” Another asked.
“Men, I was in the middle of something with the only person I have seen tonight! If an assassin passed by here, he would not win against the great Ànshù especially with a lover,” Disung spouted.
“Why does she hide her face?”
“Because her reputation will be tarnished!” Disung replied dramatically, appalled by the accusation. “A maid fornicating out of wedlock with a soldier of death will bring terrible rumours. While you are interrupting my precious time and questioning my livelihood, the assassin is escaping!”
“We need you to join us.”
“But! I am busy! Don’t glare at me! Fine!” Disung sighed and looked back to Mingzhu. “We will have to end this splendid night here.”
Mingzhu dug her nails into his necks, satisfied at the pain watering his eyes.
“Men, go! I will leave once this fine lady is dressed. That is an order.”
“Scope the rooftops and inform the men what you find,” the gruff voice spoke again.
“This is not my first assassin scout. You forget your place and who you speak to,” Disung replied, tone deepening to a growl, but a happy expression on his face mismatched his words. It made him appear more psychotic.
“We will be in Lady Gaze.”
The door slammed, indicating the soldiers left. Mingzhu and Disung both released their breaths and a nervous chuckle as their facade vanished. The adrenaline left Mingzhu in a cold rush but she felt warm in the hands of Disung. Where he kissed radiated with heat, his touch feeling like fire. Only once, she felt this way before. It cannot be…
“They are gone, without knowing I hold onto an assassin like a lover. It would have been nice to know you planned on killing a royal tonight."
“You can let go of my hair now.”
Disung grimaced. “I would at once…”
“My hand is stuck.”
Mingzhu scowled. True to his word, the half-undone braids, tangled with jewels, held his hand prisoner. All gratitude about fooling the guards disappeared. The shining saviour turned back into an immature boy once more. The fear over what she might feel for Disung lessened as she cursed at him endlessly.