As soon as Feng Mian arrived, she saw the concubine rubbing her temple with the pad of her fingers. She did not look one bit like a concubine eager to receive the emperor's favour.
"You're here." Concubine Zhou acknowledged her arrival without looking at her.
Maids and eunuchs clatter around like cockroaches, trying to get everything ready before the emperor arrives. An incense stick was lit at the centre of the room making the smell of oak wood and jasmine pervasive.
"All of you, retreat!" Concubine Zhou waved her hand.
Once everyone had left, Concubine Zhou gestured for her to come. "Wan Mei, come sit next to bengong."
Feng Mian sat her bottom comfortably on the padded seat, jingling a bit from left to right. She missed her comfortable sofa at home.
Concubine Zhou took off the golden nail guards from one of her hands so she could pinch Feng Mian's chin. She scrutinised the face of the young maid before her for some time.
"You are quite pretty." Although only fourteen, Wan Mei had the visages of a blossoming beauty.
"Un, the DNA of my parents are pretty good." The original host was really not too bad looking.
Concubine Zhou couldn't understand half of the sentence Feng Mian spoke but didn't indulge the conversation.
"Bengong has said that this one will repay you for last month's matter. Today, bengong is not feeling well and is unable to serve the emperor efficiently. How would you… like to serve the emperor tonight, Wan Mei?
System 555 popped out instantly. "Feng Mian, this old leopard is trying to pimp you out! Peh! Want an old cow to graze on daddy's tender grass? Over this daddy's dead body!"
System 555: "Feng Mian, smack this old hag black and blue for me!"
Feng Mian immediately dropped to her knees. She summoned all of her acting skills to be put to play. And like a showerhead, her eyes began to spray water on cue.
"Niangniang! This servant knows that this one is lacking. But the only wish this servant has ever had is to serve niangniang and the little prince well! Begging niangniang to let this servant stay at your side!"
Feng Mian: "How was that? Do I look like a split image of the beauty Diaochan shedding tears?"
System 555: "You look like Meng Guang."
Concubine Zhou frowned. "It is an honour to serve the emperor. This is a once in a lifetime chance that many ladies would fight for. Your status will also be raised considerably, there is also a chance of promotion. You won't need to serve others anymore."
By this time, Feng Mian was so absorbed in her role that mucus had fallen voluntarily. Concubine Zhou felt as if she was doing something blasphemous as those wide apricot eyes looked up at her.
"Don't say that niangniang! This servant has lived under niangniang's roof for so many years. Niangniang's life-saving grace, this servant will remember until my teeth fall out! Nubi doesn't want status nor wealth, this one just wants to serve niangniang just like the time at the Cold Palace."
"Remember? When niangniang was sick with fever, this servant stripped niangniang naked and stayed awake with you all night to wash down your sweat. When niangniang got injured from falling, this servant looked into the deep forest for medicinal herbs all day. This servant even applied the herbs using this one's saliva. Even that time when the servants didn't deliver a chamber pot to the Cold Palace, it was this servant who dug out a trench in the backyard so niangniang won't have to hold it in."
Feng Mian sobbed as if her life depended on it. "How could this servant bear to let others take care of niangniang?"
Concubine Zhou: 'When was she stripped naked?... That was saliva mixed into the herbs back then?... And why are you digging up shameful memories that should be forgotten from years ago?
She really can't continue this conversation any longer.
"You- forget it. It seems like it isn't your luck to serve the emperor tonight."
Feng Mian was lifted up by her hands.
"T-thank you, Your Highness." Feng Mian took this chance to rub her snot onto the sleeves of the concubine. It was due to Zhou Yunqi's strict upbringing that she hadn't immediately flung this servant across the room.
'Let's see if you dare suggest to let this beauty sleep with your old man again.'
Three tables were attached together to make space for the delicacies served by the kitchen that night. The food remained piping hot, with steam still emitting from several of the plates. Feng Mian nearly drooled at the sight of the Peking duck on the middle of the table.
The emperor's entourage of ten arrived not a moment later and Eunuch Zheng whisked his horsetail as he announced His Majesty's arrival.
Concubine Zhou received the emperor at the door.
Emperor Tian Ke's eyes lit up as soon as he saw her. "Beloved, how are you? Zhen has not seen you for some time."
"This concubine has been well. Has Your Majesty eaten yet?" Zhou Yunqi kept a cordial smile on her face, neither too intimate nor too distant. She gave a proper curtsy.
The emperor's smile widened by a whole inch.
"Not yet. It has been a long day and zhen is starving. Why don't we chat over dinner?"
Only she and Eunuch Zheng were left in the room aside from the two highnesses. They stood opposite of each other as they diligently wait to serve their masters.
Feng Mian, who was about to put a piece of Peking duck in Concubine Zhou's bowl, was waved away by the emperor before she could.
Emperor Tian Ke grabbed a piece of the duck from the plate, and with his personal chopstick, put the meat inside of Concubine Zhou's bowl.
It now became awkward for Feng Mian because her chopstick was suspended midair.
'To put down, or not to put down?'
With her chopstick still clamped unto the meat, she stepped back two feet away from Concubine Zhou. The duck was then delivered into her own mouth.
Eunuch Zheng was looking at her from the other side. She felt herself chew slow and long before the duck finally managed to make it down her throat.
The whole dinner's conversation had been one-sided. With the emperor doing most of the talking and the concubine replying with minimal words. The emperor, however, seemed to be content with his one-man charade.
"How was your day beloved concubine?"
"It was fine."
"Did anything happen today?"
"The birds flew by."
"Oh? Were they pretty birds?"
"They were fine."
"If beloved likes birds, zhen can get some sent from the Western region. Zhen hears they rear the best and most good looking ones."
Emperor Tian Ke barely ate, seemingly more keen on piling up dishes into Concubine Zhou's bowl. Even without concubine Zhou's cooperation, the conversation still went on for a little more than an hour.
'This emperor sure has a talent for ignoring others' mood.'
Concubine Zhou had barely finished half of her rice.
She didn't wait for the emperor to finish his meal and called for the water basin to be brought over. She then rinsed her mouth.
Concubine Zhou stood up lightly. "This concubine has something to take care of first."
Before Feng Mian could follow suit, she said, "Wan Mei, you can stay and serve the emperor. Bengong won't be long."
Feng Mian: 'Why don't I believe you?'
Another red flag popped up. "Eunuch Zheng, bengong has something to inquire you. Can Your Majesty allow this concubine to borrow Eunuch Zheng for a moment?"
"En, zhen will allow it. Zheng He, you follow Concubine Zhou out."
Left alone in the room with the emperor, Feng Mian felt immense pressure coating her skin. The emperor turned to look at her.
"You are Wan Mei?"
"Answering Your Majesty, yes, this servant is called Wan Mei."
The emperor casually wiped his hands with a napkin. "Isn't there anything particularly interesting happening in Penglai Pavilion these days? The concubine doesn't seem very spirited."
Feng Mian's mind travelled back to Concubine Zhou's late-night meeting with Prince Tian Yu. 'Is that interesting enough for you?'
This emperor is also a poor chap. A green hat was given to him by his own blood-related brother.
"Ah yes. The concubine does seem quite bored these days."
The emperor nodded in understanding. "You should know her preference best, right?"
"This servant knows a bit."
"Does she like Peking duck?"
"You served her Peking duck, but zhen didn't see her eat much of it."
'No. You served her Peking duck.' She didn't know much about Concubine Zhou's preference, but she knew her own.
"Niangniang used to love eating duck a lot. But nowadays it seems like she is more into fish."
"Is that so? Then you pay more attention to your master from now on."
"This servant obeys."
Emperor Tian Ke didn't ask any longer.
The smell of incense in the room grew stronger.
Feng Mian grew lightheaded and felt the room becoming hotter with each second passing. She grasped at her lapels to alleviate some of the heat.
Feng Mian: "555, don't you think it's quite hot in here?"
Emperor Tian Ke was in a similar state. His eyes were already hazy in confusion. There was an inferno of heat gathering around his lower stomach and he felt as if his blood was replaced with magma.
He loosened to knot on his sash in an attempt to escape from the sudden torrent of heat.
System 555 became immediately alert. It had seen similar cases in the multiple other worlds it has been in and knew that something was wrong.
System 555: "Oh shit! Xiao Mian, you've been drugged!"
Feng Mian seethed.