It was a full yue tonight and the air was perfumed by the aroma of peach blossoms. Feng Er sat on the stone steps with her jian on her lap. Under the candle lit paper lanterns, she traced the sharp edge of her jian with her fingers while staring into her reflection on the blade. She was no longer the young wanderer who had come to the Capital City of Chang An more than a decade ago; but a personal guard to Royal Adviser Meng Mei.
A hand maiden approached her and bowed.
"Miss Feng Er, Royal Adviser Mei is ready to see you now,"
Returning her jian back into its scabbard, she thanked the hand maiden and had her lead the way. Walking down the open-air corridor, she noticed the trees in the garden. Pink powdered flowers basked under the warm glow of paper lanterns swaying in the wind as crickets orchestrated a soft lullaby.
The Empress Zetian's ailing health had been the top concern of the Royal Adviser for the past few months. Rumors had circulated around the palace that soon a new Huang Di, would ascend the throne.
How fitting, Feng Er thought. When the winds of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills.
After taking another right turn at the end of the second walkway, they arrived at their destination. This set of screen doors was painted ruby red with gold outlines of flowers painted on them. As the hand maiden announced Feng Er's arrival, she quickly straightened her clothes.
The room was brightly lit with a round lacquer table as its centerpiece. The table had a marble center with intricately designed animals and flowers made from sheets of gold and silver, peeking from under the porcelain dinnerware filled with aromatic dishes. An elegant lady sat at the table, sipping a small porcelain wine cup of bai jiu.
"Feng Er is here as you have summoned, Royal Adviser Mei," the personal guard announced, as she knelt down on one knee in respect.
Meng Mei smiled as she placed the cup down gently and spoke, "Spare the formalities with me, Feng Er. We are not in court or in the presence of others. Come, drink."
Obeying orders, Feng Er took a seat beside her as she poured Meng Mei a drink. They both shared a smile as they sipped the light fragrant liquor, before tasting some of the dishes before them.
"Do you remember how we first met?" Meng Mei asked, as she took another sip from her wine cup. She covered her wine cup with her long flowing sleeve. The red fabric of the sleeve perfectly matched the color of her lips, contrasting her pale complexion.
"I do, my Lady... Meng Mei. We met in Spring... in the Man Li Market. It was my first time in Chang An and I saved you from a passing horse carriage."
They shared a laugh before Meng Mei continued the story, "Then, I took you in as my personal guard and you have been by my side ever since. Thirteen years, Feng Er; so much has changed."
Back then, Meng Mei held no rank in the Royal Court. But Meng Mei was of noble birth and had become close friends with the Empress Zetian.
"You chose a difficult path, Meng Mei. Staying by the Empress regnant's side and advising her, despite what the other ministers said."
"And you chose to ensure my safety and out of the grasp of our enemies. Do you remember what you swore, when I took you into my service?"
Nodding, Feng Er recited, "For the sake of our Great Tang, I will protect you till the day you die."
Countless of times have they tried to slip poison into the Empress's and Meng Mei's food. The Great Tang Dynasty had seen an increase in women joining the ranks of male officials for years but many were still unhappy. It was not tradition. Many of the ministers looked down on the Royal Adviser and spread rumors that she and the Empress regnant were dragging the Great Tang's name into the dirt. Chancellor Zhang and his loyal ministers had attempted on numerous occasions to remove the Empress from power. They even tried to frame her for crimes and corruption allegations she did not commit. Being the Empress's closest confidant meant she knew many state secrets, matters only the Royal Family should know.
As the Empress's health declined, Grand Chancellor Zhang's grasp on the Royal Court grew stronger. He had even begun to weed out many of the Empress's loyal supporters. Over the last two months, Royal Adviser Mei had tried desperately to seek audience with the Empress but it was always declined. Only the Grand Chancellor a few selected individuals had audience with the Empress in her quarters.
Meng Mei took another sip, but the bright smile had turned into an overcast. Feng Er noticed and she got up from her seat and knelt before the Royal Adviser with her left hand formed into a fist, covered with her right hand.
"Feng Er's life is yours, Royal Advisor Mei. I will do as you ask."
Shocked by her actions, Meng Mei raised from her seat, her midnight blue silk gown moving gracefully as wrapped her hands around Feng Er's. Their eyes met for a split second before Meng Mei drew back, her gown flowing behind her as she turned away, hiding her tear filled eyes.
"It is easy to find a thousand people, but hard to find a good friend. I could not have asked for a better personal guard and friend in you, Feng Er. But I cannot be selfish and keep you by my side forever. Hence," Meng Mei hesitates, but she knew what must be said, "I... I relief you from your duty as my personal guard, you may leave anytime you please."
Feng Er's eyes widened and her jaw dropped. The room was drowned in silence.
"If Feng Er has done something to upset Royal Adviser Mei, please tell me. Feng Er promised to protect you, even at the cost of her own life. My promise, my commitment to you will never change, my lady!"
Just then, a shadow appeared through the paper screen door and a muffled voice was heard.
"Royal Adviser Mei, Grand Chancellor Zhang has arrived and seeks immediate audience with you."
The two women stared at each other, in disbelief.
"At such a late hour? Very well, bring him in then."
Feng Er stood up and grabbed hold of the Royal Adviser's arm.
"Pardon my rudeness, Royal Adviser Mei. But this is obviously a trap..."
Before she could finish her sentence, the Royal Adviser shot her a smile.
She knows, Feng Er thought.
As Feng Er released her grasp, the hand maiden walked into the room with Grand Chancellor Zhang and a Eunuch tagging along behind. Feng Er took a few steps back, right hand on the hilt of her jian. With a stitched smile, Meng Mei greeted the Grand Chancellor and so did Feng Er. The old chancellor was too friendly but what caught Feng Er's eye was the eunuch who followed him in. In his hands was a red lacquer tray with two carved jade wine cups, the size of shot glasses; and a bronze colored small wine vat. The beginning conversation between the adviser and chancellor was an exchange of formalities, which Feng Er muffled out.
"This is a special century old preserved baijiu specially ordered from Shan Xi Province, Royal Advisor Mei! I heard that you like sweet flavored baijiu so I had to bring you some, together with these lovely wine cups as a gift."
"You're too kind, Grand Chancellor Zhang, I accept your gift with many thanks. But please, do stay for a cup before you go."
Instantly, the colors on the chancellor's face drained but he quickly regained his composure, assuming no one noticed it.
"Oh no... no, not today. One cup and I would not make it to the Morning Court session tomorrow! It's getting pretty late, I will not impose on you any further. I will take my leave,"
As quick as he arrived, Grand Chancellor Zhang left as the eunuch placed the tray clumsily on the table. Meng Mei dismissed the hand maiden who bowed and closed the wooden screen doors as she left, returning silence to the room. Feng Er removed the red paper seal from the wine vat and poured wine into one of the wine cups. From a small hidden pocket in her sleeve, she pulled out a silver needle and dipped it in.
"There's no need to test the wine, Feng Er. It's a gift from the Grand Chancellor..."
Just as the needle left the wine, the tip that was dipped turned black. Meng Mei attempted to take the needle away from her, but it was too late.
Avoiding eye contact, Meng Mei took a few steps back and spoke, "Feng Er, I... I relief you from your duties as my personal guard. You may leave... go wherever you wish to go."
Meng Mei picked up a jade wine cup, hands trembling as she filled it with wine from the vat. Feng Er held her hand down as Meng Mei's eyes began to tear. Stitching a smile, Feng Er filled another jade wine cup with the same wine.
"If you drink, I... I'll drink too. I promised to protect you till the day you die, Meng Mei. Allow me to fulfill my promise to you."
"Till the day, you breath your last,"
Realizing Feng Er's intentions and her unwavering loyalty, Meng Mei remained silent. They knocked their wine cups together and downed the sweet baijiu. A century old wine tasted different from the usual; a tinge of bitterness, barely masked by the fragrance of sweetness.