Before the break of dawn, imperial guards had been dispatched to ransack every single palace in the inner court. Every nook, every box, every wardrobe, and every canny was searched to find collaborators of the coup meant to overthrow the throne. The palace was in lockdown and no one was allowed to move in or out.
Consort Zhou who had finally awaken, woke up with a cold start, her sweat making her clothes cling hermetically onto her skin. Feng Mian was kept on night watch and Tian Junli who refused to go back to his chambers, stayed over at Penglai Pavilion's main hall that night. The duo sat by the bedside to watch over her and chattered quietly to pass the time. They conversed about everything yet nothing at all to keep distracted until the wick dies out.
The dark circles swimming around her eyelids. was a testament to Feng Mian's lack of sleep and restless state of mind. Thanks to someone's shenanigans, she was both sleep-deprived and cranky.
When Consort Zhou woke up, and before she could blink the sleepiness out of her eyes, Feng Mian hadn't bothered to wait for her consciousness to fully return and said directly, "You're really stupid you know that?"
She could even care less to filter her words to make them sound amiable.
Consort Zhou massaged the back of her stiff neck. "Prince Tian Yu... is he...?"
Feng Mian snickered. "He's thrown into jail."
Consort Zhou's brittle heart fell into the pit of her stomach and her eyes shut tightly to conceal the reddened pupils. She wanted to pass this off as a nightmare, but a glimpse at the state of her room made her face reality.
Feng Mian looked at her distraught figure tentatively. This concubine who she considers half a friend had never seemed to grow up in the span of nine years that they knew each other. Other concubines treaded over fire and mountains of sea just to hold onto their small lives in the harem, but Zhou Yunqi was a protected bird in a cage who did not know how to build windmills when the changing winds blow and erected a straw hut instead.
"You were a favoured concubine. You had a bright future ahead of you, but you gave it all up for the sake of a washed-up prince. It's fine if you gave up your own future, you even gave up your son's."
Feng Mian has just about had it with this concubine who never seems to think about anyone else but herself.
Consort Zhou's eyes that looked as if they have aged for a few years snapped open in indignation and she became immediately defensive after being provoked by those words.
"What do you understand?! You've never been in love! Bengong and he have only had each other in our hearts for years!"
Feng Mian was also unwilling to back down. Not this time.
"I don't blame you for loving someone, I'm blaming that you became foolish because of it. In the palace, how many women truly get to see the face of the emperor, let alone have his favour? Nine out of ten of them live to be just living decorations. But you,... you've been spoiled brainless by the emperor. You dream big but you're not capable. You have neither power nor patience, only knowing how to throw yourself and others into a fire pit," she retorted.
Consort Zhou was unreconciled. "This world is unfair to women, why can the emperor have thousands of women but I can't have the only man I want?!"
"Your biggest advantage is the emperor's favour but you insisted on using your lacklustre brain to scheme. Becoming an empress is not impossible with how the emperor dotes on you. When you rise to be an Empress Dowager, who cares how many gigolos you keep on your bed?!"
"Impudent!" Those infuriating words made Consort Zhou lose her grace. "You're merely bengong's servant! How dare you use that tone to speak to your master!"
Feng Mian sighed deeply.
"Penglai Pavilion is under heavy surveillance now, they say that the spy was definitely from our palace. The emperor has decreed that… until the spy is found no one is allowed to leave the palace."
"How are they so sure?"
"The court ministers have all rallied and begged the emperor to investigate. There were witnesses who confessed that an anonymous letter had been sent in and out of Penglai Pavilion. There also seems... to be evidence from Prince Tian Yu's side."
Consort Zhou had been monopolising the emperor's favour for years, and the courtiers whose daughters had been sent to the palace couldn't even catch a glimpse of him, thus the ministers have long been unsatisfied with this Noble Consort. They won't let this chance to throw stones at somebody who fell down a well go easily.
"Niangniang, it's best if you get rid of all the trails that you left. The guards will be coming to our palace soon enough."
The only reason Feng Mian could think of as to why Penglai Pavilion had not been checked first despite being the most suspicious is that the emperor was still holding out hopes for Consort Zhou.
But they both know it's pointless; things have come this far and burying pieces of evidence could only buy them some time. There was already conclusive evidence that the perpetrator was someone from their side. They had no way of getting out of this until someone was found guilty.
"It looks like today is really the end." Consort Zhou sat at the foot of her bed like a stone statue, completely lifeless. The room was enveloped in silence.
Feng Mian gave some room for Consort Zhou to think and stayed by her side quietly.
In the meantime, the gears in Feng Mian's head moved rapidly, trying to think of all the loopholes available for them to get out of this mess. Unfortunately, she couldn't think of a foolproof escape plan without implicating someone innocent. Her forehead creased with worry.
Consort Zhou suddenly spoke up. "Wan Mei, get bengong a set of dress. The one for official consorts to wear."
Feng Mian's heart stopped. "Niangniang, there is still time, we can--"
"Don't say anything. Go." Consort Zhou was firm.
Moments passed before Feng Mian stood up. She bowed respectfully and deeply before leaving the room.
System 555 couldn't help but remind its host. "You're too attached to the people here. Remember, your mission is to only retrieve Hao Junli's soul. At this rate, it'll be hard for you to move on from each plane."
Feng Mian: "I'm not made of stone. Though the consort and I don't see eye to eye for most things, nine years are not short, how would I not feel sad?"
System 555: "So what now?"
Feng Mian: "We'll have to pray that the emperor still holds some affection for her."
Around two dozen guards came and turned over Penglai Pavilion. Eunuch Zheng led them to make sure that no spot was missed. Consort Zhou and her waited in the bedroom and watched with high-strung nerves.
One of the guards yelled out. "There's something here!"
Feng Mian's heart stopped.
A lotus embroidered handkerchief was found snuck in under the mattress of a bed.
Only, the bed hadn't been Consort Zhou's but hers.
The shout had come from a guard who was overlooking the servants' quarters.
Feng Mian stared at Consort Zhou wide-eyed, her face full of disbelief.
She still couldn't make sense of what had happened before she was apprehended and bought to the palace dungeon for interrogation.
Consort Zhou, from start to finish, had not looked at her once.