The knife was an ordinary one used for cutting apples and had been sitting on an abandoned plate near the napping prostitute. But in the cover of night when emotions were taut, who would know the fake from the real? Meifeng smiled internally as everyone froze, even Wan Xiaomei.
System screeched, "Master, there is more to life! Don't give it all up!"
The young girl ignored its words, as usual, focusing on the shallow movement she was starting to detect within Yonghe Temple. In the distance between the slats of the gate, she could see a building light up, the paper window glowing warm yellow and a shadow moving within.
Something warm trickled down Meifeng's neck and she didn't bother to wipe it off, allowing the dark red to stain the wide-open collar of the dress she had stolen from the brothel.
The chubby matron initially stood in shock with everyone else, but she had worked in a brothel since she was a little girl - what tricks hadn't she seen? Snapping out of the shock, the matron pointed a thick finger at Meifeng and scolded her, jarring others back to life.
"What are you all looking at? You thieving wench, you think I don't know your type? You won't slit your throat at all!" she cried, calling Meifeng's bluff. The surrounding security was moved by the pitiful sight of a beautiful crying girl, but nonetheless, they began to menacingly approach Meifeng and Wan Xiaomei from the previous semi-circle they had stood in.
The matron was indeed correct. However, Meifeng wasn't performing for her.
It could be heard from within the temple grounds the sound of someone undoing a lock, the clank of rusty iron startling everyone once more. Wan Xiaomei was still hovering over Meifeng at a total loss in the situation. But she could glean that her benefactor seemed to be performing some sort of skit.
"Benefactor, what game are we playing?" she asked in a half-whisper as everyone waiting to see who would exit the temple grounds so late at night.
Meifeng flung a look over her shoulder. "Don't forget, I said to call me Young Miss. When the time is right, act excessively concerned for my wellbeing."
"Yes," Wan Xiaomei replied, rubbing sweat from her palms despite the low temperature of the winter evening.
The matron was nervous from the sound and had already signaled for the men to back off slightly so she could play it by ear. Yonghe Temple was the resting ground of a few famous female nuns and esteemed noble visitors, she did not wish to bite off more than she could chew. However, right as she was planning to enter her creaky palanquin and return back to her old haunts, the glint of her ruby necklace sparkled from Meifeng's decolletage, where the audacious girl had half hazardously left it.
Greed sank its eager claws into the matron once more, turning her previous escape plans into dust. She hated how the deep red color of her ruby necklace suited the young, pale girl so much better than her flabbier folds caked in thick rice powder. As she looked longer and longer at the crying display, the more indignant the matron felt. This kind of thieving girl, no matter how beautiful, was not someone she would ever bring back to serve at her brothel lest she wake up one day and find her collection of hard-earned gifts gone. The matron just wanted to punish her for stealing the clothes and makeup that she hated spending a single extra tael for.
The door opened and the slim figure of a female nun slipped out. She held a simple lantern suspended from a short wood staff and her hair was covered in a plain gray cap. She carried herself with a dignified air as if she were above all worldly affairs but the irritation on her face was clear, especially when she laid eyes upon those who stood outside the gate.
"Greeting visitors," the nun said, biting off the end of visitors with disdain. No one could point at her and criticize her actions, but anyone could plainly discern that she was looking down on the gathered individuals.
The matron was actually in favor of the nun's high handed attitude, as it meant that the nun would more than likely look the other way if she decided to drag the two thieves down the mountain.
"Kind nun," the matron said with a simpering bow that deepened the frown on the nun's face, "Sorry to disturb this humble temple. These two are girls from my brothel, but they have stolen from me and run away. The younger is prone to dramatics, don't pay her any mind. If you give me a few minutes, I will have my people take them away lest they disturb your important work."
The matron's bootlicking was formidable, honed over the many years of pandering to wealthy male guests. Indeed, once the nun heard that the crowd gathered outside Yonghe Temple would be dispersed quickly, her expression didn't change but she looked away and prepared to return inside, only saying, "Good. Be sure, not to leave any filth behind."
But how could Meifeng allow the situation to deescalate so quickly?
Dramatically crawling to the female nun's legs, Meifeng disregarded the look of pure disgust as she tugged at the austere gray robes. Tears welled up in her eyes, turning the rims of her eyes red and making her look more pitiful. If the matron wasn't so upset to see the thieving girl still acting, she would've applauded her for her mastery over emotions. The matron was a hard-hearted woman, but she could acknowledge that such tears would find no opponent against any man.
"Kind nun," Meifeng gasped out in a distressing manner, "I am a good woman. But my parents died and some evil servants tried to sell me to a brothel for extra money. I wish to protect my chastity. Please take me into the temple, or watch me die and give me a decent burial."
The female nun narrowed her eyes at the ultimatum the crying girl had uttered, the dark words at odds with the lyrical, sugary sweet voice that uttered them. Her heart was not moved in the slightest and she still carried the previous disgust. Looking away from the girl to regard the crowd that hung on her every word, the nun enjoyed a feeling of superiority as well as nervousness. Nervousness, as she feared the loud din the gathered simpletons were making would attract attention from noble guests. If it was known that lowly prostitutes frequented the entrance of Yonghe Temple at night, the fame and prosperity of the temple would cease.
"I'm telling you," the nun said viciously, kicking Meifeng away, "This is not a place for the likes of you to make trouble. Leave and harm yourself elsewhere!"
If it hadn't been for the wicked girl threatening to cut her throat and spill her foul blood upon the entrance of the blessed temple grounds, the female nun would've been content ignoring the group until dawn. A fierce wind blew by, slipping under her thin cloak and the nun's fury reached new heights.
"Ayo! Young Miss!" Wan Xiaomei wailed loudly, drawing attention to the second girl who had previously been blending in with the scenery. Wan Xiaomei could feel every eye on her, but she ignored it as she rushed to Meifeng's side and frantically ran her hands across the girl's still body.
"Young Miss, you can't die. Please speak to me!" Wan Xiaomei cried. She clutched Meifeng, who was laying on the ground playing dead.
The female nun was stunned, the matron was amused by the two girl's commitment. The matron knew that the female nun would not help them, thus she decided to wait out the act and give the two a good thrashing once she took them back. However, the nun knew how well sound could carry on the quiet hill Yonghe Temple was built on and could feel a bead of sweat drip down her head as she hurried to silence the two.
Turning a sour face at Wan Xiaomei, she exclaimed, "She's not dead, there is no need to yell like that. I barely touched her."
Wan Xiaomei nearly responded to the nun's rude rebuttal, but Meifeng, whose eyes were still shut, gently tapped her leg. The young daughter shook her head and focused on her task of unleashing her own barrage of tears, which wasn't difficult as she was terrified for her life.
"Young Miss!" she wailed again, releasing Meifeng's body to take a step back and drop into a full kowtow. "This servant will accompany you into the afterlife. You have been wronged so much in your long life, first by your parents' deaths and then those old servants' betrayal. Who would've thought that a blessed place like Yonghe Temple would actually be the one to condemn you to death? Heaven truly has no eyes, to witness your suffering and do nothing!"
Listening to the servant turn black into white, the female nun could not withhold her anger any longer.
"You lying wench!" she screeched losing her false serene persona, "You-"
The gate creaked once more. "What is going on?" a calm voice asked. An older nun emerged from the temple, a younger subordinate carrying a lantern to light her path. Her step was light and her face appeared tranquil. It could be seen that the calm aura of the temple had long seeped into the very fiber of her being. Behind her, the stern faces of older servants could be seen, dragging the color out of the matron and the female nun's skin.
Meifeng had long noticed the approaching lights from inside, but Wan Xiaomei's riveting performance had captured the surrounding crowd's attention long enough for the real audience to arrive. The matron knew very well what older servants of noble families looked like, having suffered the scolding of a few when an unfortunate madam found out her husband was dabbling in a brothel instead of paying attention to herself. She cursed herself for not snatching up the girl's sooner and threw caution to the wind, deciding to make the first move.
"Distinguished guests," the matron said with a simpering smile as she grabbed Meifeng herself from Wan Xiaomei's grasp. "My sincere apologies for disturbing you late at night. These two girls of mine have made a disturbance, we have come to retrieve them."
"Don't bother," the senior nun said firmly, her face as warm and kind as ever. It could be seen that she wasn't a simple woman.
"No, no, no. It's fine, we will leave right away," the matron fretted, nervously tugging at Meifeng's clothes and revealing the snowy shoulder of the 'unconscious' girl.
The female nun already knew she was in trouble and changed her tune quickly, drawing a hypocritical gaze from the older servants who had come to see what was causing the disturbance. They had all heard the last words that were thrown around before they arrived and believed the story that Meifeng and Wan Xiaomei had told. The servants almost couldn't believe that the nun before them had been so violent as to actually hit the girl. It seemed that Yonghe Temple was lacking in its training of newer nuns.
"What are you saying? How dare you try to drag away this innocent girl. And right in front of our most senior nun? She is the esteemed Pushan Nun, hurry and pay your respects!" the female nun ordered, quickly jumping ship without realizing that those who had just arrived had already witnessed her previous actions.
The matron was shaky and nervous with the beady eyes of the older servants settling upon her, their gazes seeming to promise retribution for the humiliation of being commanded by their madam to seek out her husband at a brothel. One looked particularly wealthy, the outer cloak the servant had thrown on embroidered around the hem with flowers. She folded into a messy curtsey, only for the senior nun to halt her halfway.
"No need," Pushan Nun said softly, her voice still managing to carry over the entire pavilion. "As long as you leave, we won't seek recompense with you for the disturbance."
The older servants couldn't help but nod with approval at the senior nun's benevolence. They found her to indeed be worthy of her famous name, her humility and forgiveness making her a model amongst women. The matron too was dumbfounded by the Pushan Nun, her thoughts heading in an illicit direction as she marveled at the nun's attractive face, barely marred by any wrinkles. With the gaze of a hunter sizing up his game, the matron stared until the rude female nun cleared her throat loudly.
"Oh," the matron said in embarrassment, glaring down at the 'unconscious' Meifeng with resentment, "Then I shall get going. Sorry for disturbing your rest."
Wan Xiaomei released a breath as she watched the cross matron poorly disguise her anger as she stomped into her palanquin. The male servants, who were exhausted from the chase up the hill, were visibly unsteady as their feet struggled to find purchase on the stone ground. One nearly slipped, eliciting a muffled scream from within the palanquin.
As the last man disappeared down the dark descent from the temple, Wan Xiaomei was shocked to find herself suppressing a laugh. It felt very much like a hiccup, jolting her chest and causing Meifeng to nearly tumble from her lap where she still held her. She could scarcely believe what had just happened. She had enjoyed her first warm bath in months, stolen from a brothel, been chased halfway through Jiangnan, nearly died, and performed as if she were in an opera.
It was wild. It was incredible.
Wan Xiaomei's heart was about to beat out of her chest and a strange high overcame her spirits. Perhaps she would've even started singing, if Meifeng didn't tap her leg slightly, settling her soul back in her body.
Pushan Nun approached the duo, prompting Wan Xiaomei to start wiping tears and releasing the heavy breaths one is prone to after a good cry. Meifeng was pleased with her subordinate's display, finding the girl infinitely more useful than System who only knew how to whine and give useless information.
"Girl," Pushan Nun called out to Wan Xiaomei who was pretending not to notice the nun who had walked over. "It's okay. Your ordeal is over. You can come with us. We will give you and your mistress a safe place to sleep tonight."
She patted Wan Xiaomei's back slightly, allowing Wan Xiaomei's cries to taper off.
"But my mistress," Wan Xiaomei sniffed pitifully, "She is still unconscious from that nun's fierce kick. She is of delicate constitution, I'm afraid...".
She skillfully allowed her voice to trail off, casting a fearful glance at the offending maid. If the nun had thought that her righteous scolding of the brothel's matron would free her from consequence, then Wan Xiaomei had cast trouble upon her once more.
Pushan Nun similarly looked at the offending nun, who was toeing the ground and no doubt wishing for the earth to swallow her up. "No worries, we shall deal with her according to our temple's rules. Zhu'er?"
The lantern carrying nun scurried over. "Senior nun?"
"Assist these two into one of our guest housing for the evening," Pushan Nun ordered smoothly. She straightened up and took a look at the delicate girl lying unconscious in her maid's arms. The girl was in a lamentable state, the smear of blood visible on her pristine neck. A young miss with no options left to turn to, the thought brought back bitter memories to the esteemed senior nun, leaving an unreadable expression on her routinely serene face.
"See to their every need," she reminded the young nun sternly, causing the teenage nun to straighten and nod repeatedly like a woodpecker.
The show was over for the older servants and they all agreed amongst themselves without words that the famous Pushan Nun indeed lived up to her reputation. Once their noble masters within Yonghe Temple awoke the next morning, they would inform them of their good findings. As for the unconscious young miss being carried inside the gates, none had much pity for her. They had long worked for distinguished families, which of them didn't know the importance of a woman's reputation? Unfortunately for this young girl, her destined path would remain within the tranquil grounds of Yonghe Temple for the rest of her life.
How wrong they would all soon turn out to be.
Long chapter to make up for the late update ;)
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