Back at the Yonghe Pavilion, the situation was hectic. Eunuch Zheng nearly had a heart attack at the prime age of nineteen when he saw what had happened to the emperor.
'An assassination attempt?'
As the head of eunuchs, Zheng He was taught to remain composed at all times. And despite the worries in his heart, he was the first to collect himself. As the servants erupted in clatters of messy speculations on what could have happened to the emperor, he gave a resounding order.
He yelled for the imperial guards. "Secure every corner of the Yonghe Pavilion! Close the palace gates!"
He then turned to the gossiping maids.
"Not one word gets out of this room. Otherwise, it's your heads that will roll!"
The chattering immediately came to a halt.
Two bodyguards were already carrying the emperor out of the courtyard's doors.
"Send for the imperial physician to wait at the inner court," he told an attending subordinate eunuch. Fortunately, the emperor had only seemed to pass out and his dragon body was unharmed.
Eunuch Zheng then addressed Concubine Zhou, who looks unruffled by the event despite having her hands slippery with sweat.
"Niangniang, something major has happened to the emperor. This eunuch will take his leave now." He rushed after the emperor without waiting for a response.
Concubine Zhou felt her heart beat a million times per second, her hand clenching and unclenching as if she could squeeze the sweat out. She slid out of her chamber to cool her head.
From the corner of her eyes, she saw a figure coming in from the side gate. She felt red eyes that were ablaze with unhidden fury locking down on her from a few distances away.
Her heart gave a start. "Wan Mei!"
Concubine Zhou tried her best to meet Feng Mian's eyes with a steady gaze. Somewhere inside her, there was a feeling of guilt that she refused to acknowledge. She hardened her voice.
"Where were you? Why are you soaking?"
Feng Mian stood in front of her drenched and unblinking. Like death warmed over.
"What of it? It's not the first time I've been drenched." Feng Mian had forgone all common courtesy between master and servant, no longer referring to herself as 'this servant'. The moment she saw Concubine Zhou, all her anger and disappointment came to surface.
System 555: "Uhhh… Xiao Mian, maybe you should calm down a bit."
"NO! YOU CALM DOWN!" Her temper flared.
Now, even the maids in the room were peeking out from the paper windows to see the continuation of tonight's drama.
'Yo, first the emperor was found passed out at Yonghe Pavilion. Then, the concubine's own personal maid was picking a fight with her own mistress, looking to sign a death wish. Why is tonight so festive?'
Concubine Zhou was caught off guard. She knew she was in the wrong, but felt her dignity as a master was trampled on by the uncivil approach.
She kept her voice firm to disguise her guilt. "Pardon me?"
"YOU SHOULD BE!" Feng Mian yelled in a burst of anger.
Now, even the concubine's anger was stroked. "Insolent! How dare you! I am your mistr一一"
"一一NO. NO. You... don't get to say anything. It's my turn now. You listen!"
Feng Mian didn't know where to start, and at what point things went so wrong. She brushed back the wet fringe stuck to her forehead in frustration. Like a bottle of oil that spilt over, her mouth began to spill all her years of grievances.
"You- how could you? All those years of companionship... are they like cabbages you can buy on the street?"
She didn't give Concubine Zhou a chance to respond.
"No overtime wages. No worker health care benefits. Not even a guaranteed pension! I worked like a dog! Even a dog would have long quit!"
The longer she went on, the more sorry she felt for herself. "But, YOU! You don't appreciate me at all, do you? I trusted you. I took care of you. I chopped woods, I cleaned rooms, I sew jackets, I padded clothes so you wouldn't experience the winter cold! I was there when everyone and no one else was there for you!"
She couldn't feign the three lonely years at the Cold Palace as something she merely did for the sake of her own mission.
Feng Mian choked. "What am I to you!?"
Concubine Zhou hesitated, feeling like she had only truly recognised close her servant for the very first time today. Her voice had unconsciously lowered an octave.
"I did it for your own good. You're still young so you don't know yet how good it is to have the emperor's grace一一"
The spectators in the background have already dropped their popcorns on the floor.
"You didn't do it for me. You did it because you didn't love him!"
You could cut the tension with a knife. Concubine Zhou stood statue-still.
"But, so what? What does that have anything to do with me!? Do I look like a free handout? You, as a woman, had lived, eaten, and slept under his roof. If you don't like him then you should suck it up and tell him to go piss off yourself!"
The maids in the background have felt that they've heard the earth split into two. There was a long silence between the two before Concubine Zhou broke the stalemate.
"Are you done?" She regained her calm.
Feng Mian sniffed, wiping some of the tears that escaped roughly with her sleeve. Her voice was hoarse. "Yeah, I'm done."
"Then follow bengong inside."
System 555: "I'll remember to light incense and send some paper money on your way to the underworld Xiao Mian."
Concubine Zhou turned and walked back into her chamber with Feng Mian in tow. The group of servants dispersed like a choreographed sequence, some even pretended to wipe the panels of the non-existent door.
Feng Mian maintained a certain distance from the Concubine who sat on the seat, enough to reach the emergency exit in time if she so much as opens her mouth to say, 'Servants, come. Flog this impudent servant to death!'
Concubine Zhou did none of that.
"That year bengong was sent to the Cold, bengong knows that it's been hard for you. Bengong also knows that out of all the maids, you are the most loyal."
Concubine Zhou fiddled with her nail guards uneasily. "Tonight… it was bengong's mistake. Those things won't happen again in the future."
She knew that it would be unwise to offend a superior who had already eaten the humble pie and apologised. If she dragged this on, the one in the loss would be her.
Feng Mian sniffled. "Really?"
"Really." Concubine Zhou finally smiled.
"Bengong owes you an explanation. You were right. Bengong had done it because bengong's heart was not with the emperor. Every minute that bengong has to spend with the emperor is every minute that bengong cannot breathe properly. It is suffocating."
Concubine Zhou reached out for Feng Mian.
"Women in the harem are like glass ornaments. Pretty on the outside but empty on the inside. Bengong doesn't want to be one of the many ornaments destined to spend their years like floating duckweeds in the palace. With nowhere to go and no end in sight."
It was the first time Zhou Yunqin had bared her soul to someone and she felt some of the burden lifting off her shoulders. She caressed Feng Mian's plump cheeks.
"Whatever bengong's reason was, it was unfair of bengong to sell you out. Wan Mei, forgive me."
Feng Mian was also surprised by Concubine Zhou's transparentness. She took this chance to ask, "Do you have someone else in your heart niangniang?"
The hand on her cheek paused.
"Un. Bengong does. We are childhood sweethearts."
Feng Mian placed her head on the concubine's lap. She thought she might as well scrape all there is to scrape while the concubine was being softhearted.
"Oh, what happened then?"
"Originally, we were supposed to be wed and had already planned a set date for the engagement. But the emperor later took a liking to bengong and made bengong an imperial concubine."
"But… the emperor seems to treat you well niangniang."
"A cage, no matter how glamorous and how much gold it is decorated with, is after all still a cage. Is locking the person you like where no one else can see the act of treating someone well?"
"Is that why you don't like the Fifth Prince niangniang?" 'Because you don't like his daddy?'
"Blood is thicker than water. How could bengong not like bengong's own child?" Concubine Zhou sighed.
"But every time bengong looks at him, bengong can't help but think of the emperor and all the unhappy times. Bengong… also feels a bit guilty towards the child. Moreover, that child is mute. He won't have an easy time in the palace"
Feng Mian decided she's going to row the boat to the current. After all, if Junli wants to survive he'll need the backing of his own mother.
"Wan Mei definitely thinks that His Highness has inherited niangniang's good looks. Every time this servant looks at the little prince, this servant can't help but think that he's a split image of niangniang. The emperor is a bit ugly, the prince is so handsome. He definitely couldn't have the emperor's genes for physical DNA transferred. At most he only contributed the sex chromosomes!" Feng Mian mocked the emperor with no pressure.
Concubine Zhou couldn't understand what genes, DNA, chromosome and whatnot were but she laughed heartily nonetheless.
Feng Mian's nose was flicked. "You, this smooth talker!"