5: Lady Gaze Disaster
The second emperor after the great divide created Lady Gaze for his true love. The beauty of the constantly blooming garden represented his love for the empress; it would always be pure and lasting. Maids and noblewomen repetitively told this tale, enraptured and swooning at the romantic gesture. They looked at the trickling ponds, array of plants and unique ornaments in envy, dreaming of a caring man to court them this way.
Meifan belonged in this fantasy-like garden, among all things sweet and innocent. The real world hurt her too often; every day, she suffered from subtle acts of mistreatment. Meifan’s beauty was accompanied by jealousy, many other maids tripping her, ruining her garments or causing disasters in their cleaning areas. Mingzhu watched but refused to help. To be involved in the petty behaviour would distract her from the mission. It wasn't worth the effort.
“I wonder which has more power in Shanhe: beauty or status,” Meifan pondered aloud while picking the plant leaves. Near the darker parts of the garden were the servant supplies, like wormwood for washing.
“Status,” Mingzhu replied.
“I disagree. I heard that if you are as beautiful as a plum blossom, men will whisk you away to marry, no matter your status. A friend of mine told me it happened to a maid once.”
“Your friend lies. There are no happy endings in reality. The real world is full of secrets, lies and death.” And monsters, Mingzhu added in her head and the image of her father came to mind.
Those dark eyes looked at her in disgust, the thin lips breaking apart to yell more combination of moves. Any attractiveness became overshadowed by Mingzhu’s opinion; smooth skin was tough like leather so no one could penetrate it, a dimple deepening in his cheek was a sign that she messed up again and the mop of hair on his head were long tentacles, ready to attack.
“Status dictates everything. Why else are maids whipped at the slightest mistake? Do not dream of a free life that cannot be obtained.”
“At least we get to visit Lady Gaze. Even people at the border wall dream of seeing this place one day," Meifan said wistfully.
A knife of realisation stabbed Mingzhu. Not everyone saw Lady Gaze. Only a handful of people knew the intricate paths and details. On the map for the mountain clan, she simply wrote ‘garden’ in the blank area. This maze could be advantageous to a Masked Master. How could she be so foolish!
“Let us take the main path back,” Mingzhu suggested, trying to formulate the garden paths in her mind. Another letter needed to be sent, containing a new map as well as the Fox’s appearance. The mountain clan would be anxious.
“No. We cannot. We are slaves and do not deserve to bask in this privilege.”
“It is a garden, not a royal building.”
“I-I do not think it is a good idea...”
Determined to serve the mountain clan, Mingzhu ignored Meifan and walked along the main path. Soon enough, Meifan shakily followed, jumping at every small sound. Meanwhile, Mingzhu visualised a map in her mind, adding details as they explored the garden. They wound around several paths. The main path forked, the right led to a pond while the left continued to spiral around. The pebbled track near the tree had a dead end. The trail with pink flowers opened into a spacious area with a well, designed for tea ceremonies. Another path turned into wooden planks that formed a bridge over the water and–
Three young women interrupted Mingzhu’s process. They all wore floral embroiled gowns, each soft in shade. Their hair was elaborately styled up, showcasing the luscious and tempting skin around their neck. To display wealth, not a single hair rested on their shoulders.
Mingzhu watched Meifan – who bent down low, her hands raised to cover her eyes – and attempted to copy. Over the last few days, Mingzhu received multiple snickers, worried glances and laughs as she did the incorrect movements or ignored noblemen completely. Jiang sat her down and wouldn’t let her sleep until she bowed correctly. Every wrong movement received a hit with her fan.
In the mountains, bowing was different. The younger person’s hands were placed behind the back to represent vulnerability and show submissiveness. The head was bowed to acknowledge the wisdom of the elder. For the recipient, they replied by a small bow and positioning open hands in front of them to offer and share their knowledge. There was a beauty in it, unlike the palace protocols.
“What are you doing lurking in Lady Gaze?” The palest woman asked accusingly. Her oak-coloured hair shined in the sun, complimenting her white skin. An abundance of jewels wrapped around the hairstyle, all shaped like flowers and a fake, red rose signified she was betrothed. A bird would love to nest in there, Mingzhu thought.
“Miss, we did not mean to disturb you. We are collecting wormwood for washing,” Meifan squeaked and shook like a leaf in autumn.
“Then why are you taking the noble path?” Bird-nest asked.
“My apologies. We did not mean to offend you. Time was our focus, not the dismay of nobles. We sincerely regret our actions.”
Something felt wrong. Mingzhu's gut clenched in warning, encouraging her to prepare for danger. Bird-nest, despite the venom in her voice, wore a smile. The hatred in her doe eyes glimmered. She was dangerous.
“Song Meifan. You need to be taught to stay in rank.”
This cued the other noblewomen to shove and prod Meifan. They snickered and delighted themselves with her reactions. The more tears Meifan showed, the more they cackled. She fell to the ground and they kicked her, taunting her about the filth on her clothes. Meifan audibly sobbed. Meanwhile, Mingzhu stepped back and patiently waited until the women were satisfied. This acceptance of bullying ate at her morals. Her hand twitched to react. Yet, she did nothing.
“Have you learnt your lesson?”
“Y-y-yes Miss,” Meifan said through her gasps.
“Good. Do not forget. You are a slave. Be grateful I don’t ruin that pretty face.”
Suddenly, when Meifan stood, Bird-nest shoved her over the small edge of the bridge.
It felt like a dream. Mingzhu’s breaths were calm. Her body numb. Without a thought, she reached and grabbed Meifan’s garments before she fell into the deep water. Then, she turned to the women with eyes alight by a rebellious flame. All her muscles were tense, ready for combat. If they did anything, she would hurt them.
“Ladies. What is this commotion?” A man interrupted.
“Nothing, Master Zhao. We were just discussing manners with maids,” Hong Biyu, daughter of the emperor’s quiet brother, replied. This was the first time she spoke and for good reason; her voice was shrilly and an octave higher than it should have been.
“You there, what is your name?” He barked at Mingzhu, eyes bulging at the sight of her. No doubt the sepia coloured eyes and auburn streaks in her hair reminded him of a ghost.
To formulate a responsible answer felt impossible. The more Mingzhu stared at the average-looking man, the more her blood boiled. The butterflies in her stomach had razors on their wings, slicing her insides to get free and blow away the scent of osmanthus. Her ears rang as her mind became nothing but static, except leaving one clear emotion; pure loathing.
This was Master Zhao Cheng, her sister's husband.
The news flew around, like leaves in the wind. Except these leaves had pricks and scratched Mingzhu. The pain slowly crept to her heart like poison. At first, she couldn't understand the words and when she did, she couldn't accept them.
Bai Juan was dead.
By instinct alone, Mingzhu’s feet dragged her through the cold muddy ground to her old home in a remote village. The journey had been rigorous but she needed comfort. Yet, something equally tragic awaited her.
Mingzhu wanted to kill him. A quick slice to the neck or thigh and he would bleed out. It would be fast, no one else able to react before the damage was inflicted. But she had no weapon. Instead, she could distort the man’s circulation around the body and immobilise him, along with the others around her. Then, she could take time in torturing Zhao Cheng and finally find out about her sister. The fire—
“Fa Huian,” Meifan uttered in alarm. Mingzhu’s face turned frightfully expressionless. When she didn’t answer, Meifan spoke instead. “The maid next to me is Fa Huian.”
“You seem familiar,” Cheng noted. “Which family do you originate from?”
“My family is dead to me,” Mingzhu bit out. How could he destroy the last of her family? Juan was sweet and kind, unable to hurt any living thing. How could he lie and say she tried to kill him? “I am often told I remind people of someone they wish to forget. It is a curse to have an unpleasant face such as mine.”
“Not all can be blessed with beauty I suppose,” Cheng responded, turning his attention to Meifan to look at her entirety. Then, he noticed his gaze lingering too long so returned his eyes back to the noblewomen. “Lovely ladies, shall I escort you around the garden?”
All nobles left happily, walking deeper into the areas surrounded by flowers and ponds. As the women passed the maids, Bird-Nest whispered to Mingzhu. “You should not have interferred. I will make you regret it.”
Minutes after they left, Meifan found her voice again. It trembled. “I am sorry. The fault is mine for you to make enemies."
“One enemy or several enemies does not make a difference to me.” Enemies were a common part of Mingzhu’s life.