9: Punishment Display
Mingzhu returned from the mountains and waved around cream roots at people in the small village.
“Ginseng! Ginseng from the mountains! Fresh and ready for purchase!” She yelled to attract attention. The lump of roots were handed to Juan, who cleaned them before selling.
“How much?” Cheng asked, approaching curiously. The man spelt strongly of osmanthus. The air of nobility around him made Mingzhu prepared herself to deal with another arrogant and wealthy traveller.
"How much are you willing to pay? The ginseng is fresh from dangerous areas in the mountains. It won’t be cheap,” Mingzhu replied, slouching on a walking stick and tilting her head to the side. These cocky mannerisms and her dirty clothing caused people to often mistake her for a pretty boy.
“Seven green rings,” Cheng replied.
In the kingdom, currency came in forms of smooth, thick rings. Intricate designs and colour determined wealth; gold dragons were worth the highest while grey swirls were the cheapest ring. Many men wore the currency as jewellery to show off their fortune.
Mingzhu laughed at his suggestion. “Two red rings or no ginseng.”
Unfamiliar with denial, Cheng paused for a few moments and changed his tactic, redirecting his attention to Juan. The beauty radiating from her made him temporarily forget the problem at hand; her features were delicate and posture refined. Fortunately for her, she took after their mother and looked like a graceful bird. Meanwhile, Mingzhu appeared to be a wild raven.
“How much would it be, Miss?”
Juan blushed. She looked to her sister, considering her reaction and sighed. “You insist on green value and my sister insists on red value. It would be wise to choose in-between these amounts. I suggest only one red ring.”
“You are as reasonable as you are lovely,” Cheng said and removed a red ring from his finger, dropping it into Juan’s hands.
Mingzhu hated him.
The memory reminded her about her own foolishness. She ignored her initial impression only to face disaster later. Years later, she still hadn’t learnt from this mistake. She underestimated Xiaoli.
The threat from the noblewoman a few days ago was fulfilled wholeheartedly. Xiaoli accused Mingzhu of stealing a honey pot from the kitchen, which a rat-faced kitchen maid supported. Then, another maid found the missing item in Mingzhu’s belongings. This sealed Mingzhu’s fate.
She glared at Xiaoli, a cloud of rage engulfing her judgements at the injustice. One movement and she could knock the woman unconscious. A simple step and cartwheel was all that was needed. It felt almost impossible to control her anger. She reminded herself of her task. A weak appearance benefited the mission; no one would suspect her during the festival. Thus, she let Miss Tang yank the robes near her neck and drag her to an open servant space. Unfortunately for Mingzhu, her punishment was a public whipping display.
Two pairs of tall, thick bamboo trunks were spaced in metres. Various weapons hung from them, included chains, belts, whips, wooden floggers and much more. Thick, leather straps, connected to the bamboo, bound Mingzhu’s arms and stretched her back. This left an easy target for the whip to hit. The punisher stepped back from Mingzhu, marveling their own precision at their work of tying her.
“This brings back memories,” Mingzhu muttered to herself. The sting of her father’s whip tingled her scars.
Someone else – also secured by bindings – chuckled breathlessly beside her.
“Did you come from a bad family or had a terrible master?” Disung said too merrily for the situation.
Unlike Mingzhu, his clothing had been ripped apart so his bare skin glistened in the sun. This ensured the punishment would be harsher and leave scars. The tainting of skin in maids demoted them but for a soldier, if given outside battle, served as a reminder of wavering loyalty to the emperor.
Why is it him? Mingzhu wondered. Do the gods hate me that much? His presence at the Lotus Palace worried her. Curiousity and fear filled Mingzhu. No matter how many times her mind pondered over it, she struggled to understand how he lived. Or why he was here. Nevertheless, she couldn’t ask him. The mission would be put at risk. Instead, she avoided him. He should hate her because of that day and she couldn’t die just yet.
“You already know the answer.” Mingzhu gasped the last word, surprised by the foot roughly pushing her head down.
Miss Tang spoke about misbehaviour and defiance towards the emperor. The spiel continued for minutes, encouraging a crowd to gather. Then, whips slashed at both Disung and Mingzhu. The bite of pain dragged along Mingzhu’s shoulder to her opposite hip. All her body tensed, silently fighting against the onslaught. You need to scream, Mingzu reminded herself silently and swallowed her pride. The image of her father appeared and her fear escalated. You must appear weak. Remember the mission.
The next lashing came just as powerful in the opposite direction, creating a red ‘X’ under the maid’s clothing. This time, after slight hesitation, Mingzhu yelped and cringed at the helplessness in her voice. The prickly pain on her back lingered and helped fuel her cries. It felt like a burn.
The fire engulfed the building, the flames licking the walls. Dark smoke filled the room. Mingzhu felt groggy. Her body refused to move. Breathing became difficult. Each limb remained heavy. In her blurry vision, she saw Cheng save Juan. He carried her away, uttering words of safety. Mingzhu wanted to scream for help. A pillar collapsed near her, covered in flames. The heat rippled across Mingzhu’s skin. The fire inched closer to eat her alive. Cheng left her to die. He wasn’t coming back.
For some absurd reason, the man next to Mingzhu screamed and tried his best to keep the pitch high. This earned him a harsher whipping from his own punisher. When Mingzhu dared to look, she saw Disung grin, somehow implying the yelling was a game. The loudest cry became the winner. Mingzhu hid her smile, finding the idea ridiculous. Of course he found fun in dire situations. Just like his father. Before she could stop herself, Mingzhu indulged in the game and screamed louder, happy to forget her father.
The lashings continued until a familiar warm, wet feeling covered Mingzhu’s back on the fifth and final lash. Blood stained the cheap undergarments and the onlookers hollered and cheered, placing bets on how long until the maid fainted.
“I wonder if she’ll be that boisterous with her lover!” Someone exclaimed in the crowd and Mingzhu wanted to crawl in a hole and die. Her pride shrieked.
“No man would want that mauled back!” Someone else criticised.
The uniform ripped, revealing part of Mingzhu’s skin. Scars riddled her back, from various fighting wounds to animal bites. Each had glazed over into a glorious white line, the reason for its settlement begging to be told. The man spoke truth; no one would ever marry her. Scars were ugly in Shanhe. But Mingzhu didn't care. She would be dead soon.
“This is not enough!” Xiaoli deemed and turned to the crowd. “Shall we try five more? Or do it until she faints?”
The onlookers approved. Mingzhu felt her loathing grow at a rapid rate, causing blood to violently rush in her eyes. Men were violent and horrible. She experienced that first-hand. But women were a different breed of evil. For the first time, Mingzhu learnt their true manipulative nature.
The punisher’s whip dragged along the ground. Mingzhu braced herself, tensing her back and listening intently to behind her. The man cracked his shoulders as he lifted the weapon up again. The whip flicked back, ready to strike. Mingzhu held her breath. Already, her skin wept to stop. The next infliction would be excruciating. The whip came down and—
“I will take her punishment too!” Disung suddenly shouted during his own whipping. It caused Mingzhu's whip to divert sideways and avoid her.
The exclamation caught everyone’s attention.
This isn’t right. Why would he take my punishment? Mingzhu thought, bewildered. Disung should’ve been relishing in her torture and tattered pride. He wants me to suffer in more guilt. That has to be the reason. “I will continue the punishment!”
“Maid, be reasonable. I am stronger and do not fear whippings. A lady with scars will have problems marrying or continuing life in the palace. Reconsider and accept my generosity.”
Mingzhu glared at Disung, her eyes lighter in colour, dictated by her pain. The burning fire, flickering among her irises, captivated everyone. Even Disung’s breathing changed. Usually, tears formed a waterfall on a maid’s face at any punishment but Mingzhu’s cheeks remained dry.
“I. Can. Take. It.”
“Continue!” Xiaoli shouted, grasping the opportunity.
No one made a sound after that. Mingzhu felt blood drip onto her feet with every lash. Lost in pain, she didn’t notice when the five extra lashings finished, nor when the crowd scattered to continue their day. Everyone acted like nothing happened.
“You must be happy the Fox has returned,” Mingzhu blurted out to distract herself from the pain radiating from her back. Already, she felt lightheaded and could hear her father’s disappointment about her weak body. It had been years and his ghost still lingered to taunt her.
Disung looked flabbergasted. “Do you know the Fox?”
“Do you not recognise me?” Mingzhu asked, equally shocked. Was he pretending to be stupid?
“I am certain I would remember a maid who screeches like a demon… Oh, we have met in the study before. You did not scream then so you can’t expect me to recall you instantly,” Disung replied cheekily.
“You truly don’t remember…” How did he not? They grew up together. They were enemies. Then her family ruined his. What happened then in the last ten years? “It is better this way. Remember that. Heal fast, boy.”
Interrupting at a perfect moment, Meifan ran over. She sobbed hysterically as she released Mingzhu from her binds. Meanwhile other servants assisted with Disung. Neither Disung or Mingzhu exchanged words as they separated.
Inside the servant chambers, Jiang's treated Mingzhu’s wounds. The woman was a firm believer in tough love. The ointment was roughly applied. It made Mingzhu grit her teeth. Blood ruined the sheets and Meifan collected them to wash.
“Rest,” Jiang instructed and bandaged the wounds. “But don't think I will let you slack when you return to your duties. Understand?”
“Please stay in bed,” Meifan begged when Mingzhu fixed her garments and left the room.
“I am not a weak slave. I do not need rest,” Mingzhu snarled before she left, irritated by the humiliation of the public display.
Embarrassed seemed too lenient of a word for the endless shame felt. She slammed her fist abruptly into a wooden beam once outside. The sharp sting and tension in her fine bones felt refreshing. Mingzhu attacked a tree too, exerting her sizzling fury. She vowed never to be humiliated the same way again.