Feng Mian carried little Junli around the room, pointing at various objects and items she thought would amuse the young child.
"Look Junli, a bird!" Junli gaggled, his hands clumsily reaching in the bird's direction.
The bird, who had been disturbed by the noise, flapped its' wings and flew away briskly.
Half an hour ago, Nurse Lu had brought in the Fifth Prince who was sobbing and shedding silent tears. Nurse Lu thought that it may have been the unfamiliar environment that had made him agitated, so she brought in some familiar toys he usually plays with but Tian Junli was inconsolable.
Hence Feng Mian took the young prince with her, and under the boggling eyes of Wet Nurse Lu, she performed a series of aeroplane moves on the toddler.
"Boosh! Boosh! Junli, fly high!"
She manoeuvred him like how one would manoeuvre a steering wheel, flipping him 180 degrees; up, down, left, right, upside down, and round the bends.
Nurse Lu, for the first time since they've met, dared to open her mouth and reprimand the head maid for the rough play. "Ah! You can't do that Miss Wan Mei! You might drop His Highness!"
Concubine Zhou stood in place as she saw the scene of her maid playing around with her child. Since he had been born, it was the first time she had visited him and as soon as she laid eyes on him there was a recognition of a mother and son connection. A wave of maternal feelings washed over her.
"Let me see him." Concubine Zhou held out both her hands to receive the toddler. She was a bit clumsy at first, but eventually got him into the proper holding position with Feng Mian's help.
Concubine Zhou made a bout of cooing noises. "You've grown big."
The softness of his palm wrapped around her finger and the feeling transferred to her heart. One by one, she plucked off her nail guards as to prevent him from pricking his dainty fingers.
She felt like she couldn't look at him enough.
"Let's go take a walk in the garden." Concubine Zhou proceeded to carry Tian Junli out.
Feng Mian took on her assigned duty and held the parasol up for Concubine Zhou. It wasn't particularly sunny outside, and the weather was just nice for a walk outside with the breeze carrying the fragrance of flowers. The whole of Concubine Zhou's entourage was enveloped in a good mood.
"Wan Mei, it'll be the Qixi festival in one week." Concubine Zhou ushered the rest of the servants to stay further away, out of hearing's range.
She whispered, "His Highness Prince Tian Yu will be leaving the day after that. Bengong…. wishes to see him before he goes. Can bengong count on your help to leave the palace?"
Wan Mei knitted her brows. "Won't the emperor find out?"
Concubine Zhou shook her head. "He'll be busy overseeing the drought in Guangzhou Province. It's the last time that I'll be able to see Prince Tian Yu." She held Feng Mian's hand.
"Can you offer this favour to bengong this once?"
Feng Mian wavered for a bit before nodding her head. "I'll see what I can do."
Feng Mian held unto the two tallies in her hands.
She had asked Eunuch Zheng for leave to celebrate the Qixi festival with some of her peers.
"Head Eunuch Zheng, my niangniang says I could have the day off for Qixi."
"Oh? You're going somewhere?"
"Uh-huh. The festival will be bustling and I heard that there's a lot of food from different nations being sold at the vendors and taverns. You wanna join? The pretty jiejie from Yonghe Palace says she'll also be going."
Eunuch Zheng gave her an indescribable look before agreeing.
"No need, I'll be accompanying the emperor. Don't eat too much," he advised.
As for the other tally, she bribed one of the other maids who was also planning to spend the evening out. But one look at the silver ingot in Feng Mian's hand, made her change her mind pretty fast.
She retrieved a set of a second-class servant hanfu around Concubine Zhou's size before asking her to put it on. With the festival attracting many palace personnel to go out, there were plenty of people at the palace gate and the guards didn't bother to take a second look at their identities after seeing the exit tallies on them. They left the palace unhindered.
To draw less attention to themselves and to prevent anyone from the palace recognising them, Concubine Zhou had put on a veiled hat while she herself wore a face veil that only revealed her apricot eyes.
It was the first time that Feng Mian had been out of the palace in three years. The Song dynasty's Qixi festival was a really big celebration. There were couples all around engaging in activities like flying lanterns, solving couplets from the stands, watching fire dances, and that one group date holding out a poetry competition while drinking on the floating pavilion.
Concubine Zhou led her to the riverbank. A huge brightly decorated boat was waiting for them alongside the river. The shimmering lights from the stones changed colours when reflected at different angles; and on the roof of the boat, were paper lanterns with kinetic drawings hanged.
Prince Tian Yu waved from the boat.
The bridge of the boat was let down and he came to receive them. He smoothly grasped Concubine Zhou's hand to lead her up the deck.
Feng Mian, a single dog who was treated as a surplus accessory: "..."
'Was she a free gift that people got when they shop at the supermarket?'
She trudged up the bridge that connected to the boat while staring at the happy couple who were making gooey eyes at each other walk in front of her and deliberately made a few chomping noises with her feet.
The couple sat in front of each other, one with a shy smile, the other with a handsome grin.
On the deck, there was another man wearing a straw hat and clad in a black robe from head to toe. A sword's sheath could be seen poking out of the robe's left side patch.
Feng Mian: "Hey, hey, 555. Do you think he's a ninja? Isn't the Tang Dynasty the most open cultured? The Japanese should have sent over a few ninjas for exchange ba."
System 555: "... That's a bodyguard host."
Feng Mian walked to the man and stood beside him. 555 heard its host whispering to the bodyguard in a low voice, "Itachi Uchiha?"
The man turned his gaze to her, his cold eyes speaking superfluous words that his lips did not.
Feng Mian tried to brush it off awkwardly. "Haha, nothing. Just making sure. You do your thing yah?"
System 555 said deadpanned, "You idiot."
There was an ivory zither in front of Prince Tian Yu and his long fingers strung it gently as he sang a poem. His voice was pleasing to the ears and carried a melodic tune.
"In spring the river rises as high as the sea,
And with the river's rise the moon uprises bright.
She follows the rolling waves for ten thousand li,
And where the river flows, there overflows her light."
System: "Ohh, a Zhang Ruoxu poem? This Tian Yu is sure a romantic alright."
No wonder Feng Mian felt like she has heard of it before, turns out it was 'A Moonlit Night on the Spring River.' The song turned into a duet.
"From ten li of peach blossoms,
His bamboo flute sang of unspeakable yearns,
Drunk again when the flowers wither.
Meeting and parting; summer and spring."
This Concubine Zhou is quite the poet herself, the reply verse came not two seconds after the first poem. Truly a Cao Zhi who is able to construct a poem in seven steps. Feng Mian saw for herself how a couple embodying a heart beating as one looks like.
The zither became the sole accompaniment to their voices as it wavered into the night.
"You are truly the only one that understands benwang's heart." Prince Tian Yu commented.
Underneath the veil, Concubine Zhou's ears reddened.
"This poem makes me think of the old times. Back then, we used to collect a lot of Du Fu's and Li Bai's poems. Some of them, we still remember deeply in our hearts. This Wan Mei yatou used to transcribe poems for bengong. We saw that her talent was not bad and later made her our personal servant girl."
Prince Tian Yu's interest was averted to the yatou standing quietly on the boat's ledge. "Oh? This yatou can read poems?"
Feng Mian who was suddenly put under the spotlight straightened. The expert was the previous host, amd definitely not her who had to retake her Chinese examination.
"Haha, just a little. A little bit. Not a lot," she said offhandedly.
System 555: 'What a little? What not a lot? You don't even know one.'
Prince Tian Yu gave her an encouraging smile. "Why don't you try it now? Benwang and Concubine Zhou would like to hear one of your poems. Let's see… You look like a young and spirited girl. Why don't you compose a poem with the theme of 'Youth'? It's decided then!"
Feng Mian: 'Why are you deciding by yourself? Have you asked my opinion?'
System 555 popped up to lend a helping hand.
System 555: "Would you like me to search up a poem for you host?"
Feng Mian firmly refused. "No, no, cannot! I'm a good law-abiding student who won't plagiarise."
System 555: 'Suit yourself then.'
Feng Mian cleared her throat.
555 nearly tripped on air as soon as he heard the first line.
"Tis! Ye were both young when thee first saw you,
I close thou eyes and the flashback starts, oh,
Thine! Little did thou know"
Feng Mian dramatically drawls every line out, embellishing it with thee thou and whatnot to make it ancient-sounding and flow better. Inspired, she imitated the style of the famous Edgar Poe who was known for his dark themed poets, so even though what she was citing was actually a love song, it sounded like a requiem for death. She recited in all seriousness.
"That thou were Romeo, thou was throwing pebbles,
And thy daddy said, Stay away from Juliet"
System 555: 'Make it stop.'
555 could only commend its host efforts in trying and nothing else. But this act of passing off dung as diamond can't be unnoticed.
Feng Mian recited until the second verse of the song before she came to a stop.
There was no applause, no standing ovation, only silence.
System 555: "You can't plagiarise poems, but you can plagiarise songs?"
Feng Mian: "What do you know? That's called paraphrasing. I even made my own rhythm."
Prince Tian Yu, who didn't know what kind of vegetable Romeo or Jao Li En was, remarked, "It's the first time benwang has heard of such unique verses. Truly a spirited little yatou."
Feng Mian's face reddened from the appraisal and she looked down shyly.
System 555: 'What are you being shy for? He wasn't complimenting you!'
That night, the people on the boat parted with different thoughts running through their minds.