Meiyue headed to the feast afterward. Xiaonu had brought some ointment and bandages for her hand and they'd managed to wash away the blood on the princess's coat. Her own performance somewhat surprised even herself, judging by the state of her hand. She had never felt so powerful playing the piece before.
Red tents crowded the courtyard as the celebration unfolded within. Stone lampposts lined the winding pathways that snaked throughout the maze-like area. Carpets were laid above the pavement. Refreshments packed the tables that stood on the emerald grass and male pages scurried by with trays of ceramic goblets.
As she approached the main tents the path opened to a spacious clearing where extravagance was offered to the guests. Tall, fat candles flickered on shining holders placed in the middle of each table. There was a relatively huge one in front of the rest, draped in an elaborate tablecloth, supporting a stock of steaming dishes. The chairs pushed underneath it gave about thirty seats. A rectangular stage was constructed beyond, where dancers were assembling. On either side of the platform sat about a dozen musicians taking position by their respective instruments.
Meiyue caught a glimpse of her tutor before others blocked her view. She was aware of Xiaonu trailing behind her, yet she still felt so alone. It was the price of thoroughly skipping the banquets of the past years. Flatteries and shallow conversations that did not lead to any purpose wasn't something she enjoyed. And by not fitting into any particular group of the court ladies, people came to instead worship her about it.
More guests streamed into the clearing. Meiyue kept her gaze occupied on anything she could possibly lay her eyes on, not wanting to engage in chatters that would delay her assignment. She swept a glance over the crowd, searching for anyone special that could lead her to the Madonna.
When the people she saw were the regular aristocrats she moved on to another table. The sight of all the excessive food brought shame coursing through her. Some were barely having enough rice to sustain their family while the rich had the privilege to waste away on sheer whims.
"Are they not to your liking, Your Highness?"
Meiyue looked up to the speaker. A man about Yuzhe's age, in his early twenties, stood across from her. He wore green attire with a sword protruding at his waist. His square face had a pair of unusual gray eyes fixed on her.
He brought his hands before him and bowed. "I am Jin Qingsheng, son of the Chief of the Trade and Foreign Relations Department," he introduced. "It is an honor to meet you, at last, Your Highness."
Meiyue curtsied. "The pleasure is mine."
"I must say, you have put up with excellent performance," he said, coming over. "Your music was a living thing."
He stopped at an appropriate distance. Meiyue was amazed by his height. "Thank you," she said, "though I apologized for the slight mistake."
"Nonsense," he stated. "Mistakes attract more attention."
In spite of herself, she chuckled. The act helped her ease just a little.
Before she could fully see who was calling her, a young lady practically threw herself at her and caught her arm, (thankfully her right arm), as if they were close friends. "I'm a huge fan of yours, Your Highness," she claimed, beaming at her. Her big black eyes shone in delight.
Meiyue straightened just as another man came in their direction. "Lingling, where are your manners?" he scolded. Then his focus shifted to the princess and the man portrayed a bow. "Pardon her, Your Grace. I am from the Han Household, Han Yimu. This is my sister."
The girl released Meiyue's arm and curtsied gracefully. "I'm Han Lingling, Your Highness." The siblings offered a separate curtsy to Qingsheng standing nearby.
"Nice to meet you," Meiyue said to them.
Lingling again took her hand and said, "We must introduce you to our parents. Come."
Meiyue certainly didn't expect that, though brother seemed greatly content with the suggestion. "Please." He gestured with a hand. The princess had no choice but to be led away to a circle of nobles at the other end of the tent.
There, she was introduced not only to the sibling's parents but also to a crowd of various households. Meiyue struggled to keep up with just their surnames. They exchanged pleasantries and dizzying flatteries were thrust her way, specifically from Lord Bai, head of the Bai Household and Childe Gao. The Gao Household was a prominent subject of the court that had distributed the cure for the plague that wrecked the south many years ago. The members were held in great esteem ever since, having control over wide properties between the north and south.
Meiyue's jaws were beginning to sore from smiling too much. Childe Gao didn't bother conceal his intention of trying to get her to be the lady of his house. Lingling clutched her arm protectively like she had an utterly different plan.
Her mind was spinning by the time the bell rang over their conversation, signifying the start of the second event. Courtiers shuffled out of the main tents.
"We must go," Yimu said next to his sister. "Dage will be performing soon."
Lingling turned to Meiyue expectantly. "Will you join us, Your Highness?"
"I desire a little more break," the princess said, dazed. "Please proceed before me. I wish your brother the best of luck."
The girl pouted. "Then we must talk afterward. I shall introduce you to my friends."
Meiyue nodded and smiled, promising herself to disappear by then. The siblings and their parents parted from the group first, then followed by Lord Bai who inclined his head to her. Childe Gao and his companies left last, but not before he threw her a wink. She pretended she didn't see, pasting the unfeeling smile on her lips until they were all out of sight.
The clearing rendered less lively. A large number of the guests had gone back to the arena, only a few remained by the adjoining tents. Meiyue sagged.
"You seem rather relieved." She almost jumped at the voice behind her. Qingsheng was one of those remaining.
Realizing what he meant, Meiyue briskly said, "Oh, I don't mean-"
"I'm merely jesting," he confessed and smiled. She purely thought he looked rather attractive when he did.
"Is Qingsheng-jun not partaking the event?" she asked him, searching for Xiaonu. The girl was nowhere to be found.
"I wish to accompany you," he said, "that is if Your Highness doesn't mind."
She shook her head slowly. "Not at all."
They walked from the clearing to an adjacent tent at the left, going deeper into the garden. The musicians were tuning a low, serene melody that carried in the winds. The dancers had long vanished from the stage. Meiyue didn't remember seeing them perform yet.
There were more people remaining than she first thought as they continued down the path. She scanned the crowds scattered over the garden greens.
Standing by a lamppost near a bunch of tulips was General Tao Guangli, who held total authority over the army, engaging in a light-hearted talk with a beautiful woman and a young girl. Next to the right, a man attired in leather armor sat on an ornamental rock. Meiyue nearly mistook him as a regular solider until she saw the awful burnt scars engraved to his features. He was the palace watchdog, Tengfei, a man not usually seen in public. His unblinking eyes stared after her even after she withdrew hers away. She shook off her discomfort and moved on to another group.
"Are you searching for someone, Your Highness?" Qingsheng asked from behind. Meiyue startled again, forgotten about his presence since he was so quiet. His gray eyes looked at her questioningly.
She pondered on the possibility of her delivering the letter to the Madonna through an aimless search. Only about a third of the nobles were here and by the time the rest came she'd be searching until morning. And what if the Madonna wasn't here at all, but in the commoners' section?
"Gongzhu?" Qingsheng prodded.
Meiyue looked to him. "There is a rumor about a certain lady named Peacock Madonna, " she said. "I hear that she is here with us. Has Qingsheng-jun perhaps heard of her?"
"Are you both acquainted?" he asked instead.
"No, I'm merely intrigued," she said. Although she wanted to curse Kenshin, sending her the letter meant that she was the only one he trusted with his favor, however obscure he'd had made it.
"The title belongs to a renowned courtesan from the city's biggest brothel," Qingsheng said beside her.
"A courtesan?" She didn't know why she was surprised.
"Peacock Madonna is what everyone calls her, so I believe there isn't an alternative person."
"Is she here?"
He nodded. "Yes. Actually, I saw her a moment ago on my way to the banquet."
Meiyue inwardly facepalmed. "Can you take me to her?"
"Of course," he said and the led the way. Meiyue was glad he didn't pry as she followed him.
They went past the tents and to the outer courtyard where there were no courtiers mingling by. Qingsheng turned toward the marble statue of Guanyin Niangniang, the goddess of mercy, built amidst a grove of carnation trees. The flowers fell in the light breeze and reminded Meiyue strongly of cherry blossoms. She was starting to think that nobody was there at all until she heard a ring of feminine laughter coming from the other side.
Qingsheng walked ahead of her and slowly moved to the source of the voices speaking. When his back was drawn away from her view Meiyue saw a lady so beautiful she'd never seen anyone like her.
"That is her," Qingsheng whispered to her.
The Madonna had two companies of undoubtedly the heads of some noble households. They turned as the princess approached. The lords bowed and told the Madonna of Meiyue's status.
The lady moved forward with sheer grace. Her layers of clothes had exotic collars that exposed her whole shoulders just above her breasts. "Oiran no Kujaku Kaede de gozaimasu. Oai dekite kōei desu," she spoke in kokurenian, her voice like silk, and curtsied deeply.
Meiyue returned her courtesy. "It is a pleasure to meet you as well, Kujaku-dono," she replied back in kokurenien. The language was the global speech, used widely between states' interchanges. A majority of the population knew it.
The Madonna rose and smiled. She was tall. Her dark deeply-set eyes shone in the lamplight like stars, accompanied by a pair of small scarlet lips. Her kimono sprawled over her feet, an ocean of rich blue. Peacock feathers adorned her hair, which was held in the Shimada fashion. Meiyue knew why she was given her title. Even her surname suggested it.
"Would it be alright if I have a word with her, daren?" the princess directed her question to the lords telling the Madonna about herself.
They voiced their compliance and quickly excused themselves. Meiyue turned to Qingsheng, who gave the ladies another bow before taking his leave. The princess thought to thank him later.
"I have not seen any young lady as beautiful as you, Your Highness," said the Madonna once the men left.
Meiyue was taken back at the exact line she thought of. She chuckled lightly. "I apologize for interrupting you," she said. "I have been finding for you to bring you this message, lady." She held the letter to her.
She took it. Recognition lid her pale face after she read who it was from. "Kenshin-sama," she said, with a measure of unexpectedness.
"You are well-acquainted with him?" the princess asked, curious.
"Yes," she answered. A sad smile hiding deeper emotion stretched her lips as she clasped the letter in her hands. "Thank you, Your Highness. It is not usual for that person to communicate with me through a third party. He must trust you well."
"I keep secrets very well hidden," Meiyue declared confidently. She smiled. She was still curious about them but knew it was best not to pry. Then remembering Qingsheng, she added, "I will excuse myself for now, lady. Please join us for the feast later on if you'd like."
The Madonna curtsied. "I will, Your Highness."
Meiyue silently walked out of the clearing, leaving the courtesan to her privacy. Standing among the scattering blossoms in her exquisite garments, she was like a living depiction of the mighty goddess that overlooked the gardens. She couldn't take her eyes away from her as the woman read the letter.
When things were concerned with Nishiki Kenshin it wouldn't be a surprise if he secretly had the nation's top courtesan as a lover.
Xiaonu snuck away from a corner when the nobles started to gather around Meiyue. Her jaws hurt on the princess's behalf by all the bright smiles she needed to give the guests. That was what actually kept her away from public events. It wasn't really the crowds, but the need to serve hospitality to those she did not want to be around. There wasn't anything Xiaonu could do to help, so she went in search of the person who could.
The other section of the banquet was a long walk from the arena. She directed her steps toward the ring first, just in case. She entered through one of the private entrances meant for the officials. The guards, of course, didn't question her after a glance at the imperial pass dangling from her sash belt.
The arena was rearranged for the second event. People cleared away from the ground and occupied only the auditorium seats. There were more commoners now than during the performance. Only a thin line of the aristocrats remained on the high seats. Xiaonu saw the crown princess sitting alone. Guards flanked her section.
She traced the narrow path encircling the auditorium. On the stage were the Abbot, Master Zheshuang, and a couple of his pupils displaying a round of kungfu. The audience watched and praised his prowess despite reaching over the retirement age of seventy.
Xiaonu nearly went a full circle around the arena until she spotted her target, standing near an entrance with his hands behind his back and watching the show. She stomped her way to him.
"Yuzhe-zhuguan," she said once approached, emphasizing the title of supervisor. He turned to her. "I thought you are supervising the banquet. What are you doing here?"
Yuzhe arched a brow at her tone. "I am supervising the guests," he told her neutrally.
"Hmph," Xiaonu huffed, suddenly more exasperated.
He looked at her, puzzled. "How is Meiyue doing?" he asked.
She shot him an accusing glare. "Princess is," she paused, thinking of something better, "doing great." The girl brought up a bright smile. "She was practically trampled by potential suitors the moment she appeared. But thankfully, Lord Qingsheng arrived to save her," she awed. "He is such a gentleman, with striking appearance too. Not only princess is comfortable with him, but he also listens to her wishes. Oh, I'm sure he would make a fine suitor for her."
Xiaonu glanced at him from a corner of her eye and caught a twitch of his brow. Satisfied, she added delightedly, "By now they must be strolling the gardens together."
"Which garden?" he asked.
Xiaonu forced down laughter. "I don't know," she said, innocently. "I didn't want to interrupt."
He was about to pry her for something more when the host's voice bloomed over the ring. "There he is!" the emcee spoke through the bullhorn, somehow pointing to their direction. "The rumored artist who defeated Lord Advisor Zhou in a duet and whom His Majesty personally elected into the court. Li Yuzhe-gongzi!"
Yuzhe whirled to the stage. A sea of faces was now turned to him. Xiaonu quietly edged away to the wall, reaching her limit to maintain a poker-face.
"Would you do us the honor of showing us your talent?" the host requested.
Looking clearly annoyed to have his business announced to the world, Yuzhe raised a hand to decline. But the emcee didn't see it when the Abbot moved to him on the stage and spoke something into his ear. The other pupils lined up neatly aside.
The host dropped his jaws in an utter thrill and hurried back to his speaker. "Ladies and gentlemen! Master Zheshuang, known as the Father of martial arts, has just requested Yuzhe-gongzi to a kungfu challenge!"
A cheering roar thundered from the audience. Xiaonu burst out in laughter. Yuzhe looked at the announcer in disbelief.
"It is an honor hardly given to any participators," continued the host. "Please come on stage."
The Abbot looked up to Yuzhe and bowed. Obviously left with no choice, Yuzhe returned his bow and proceeded down the staircase leading to the platform. Xiaonu stepped out of the shadow, snickering, and heard loud whispers, typically from the ladies, following him down the stairs.
Yuzhe stepped onto the stage. He towered over all the males there. The Abbot only reached his shoulders. He bowed once again to the elder man.
"The rule is simple," the emcee declared. "The first to be thrown off the stage loses."
The spectators roared. Drummers pounded the horizontally-set drums at the back of the platform. The host moved to where the younger monks were standing, out of the way. Yuzhe and the Abbot stood in the center, facing each other. Zheshuang took his stance, but Yuzhe stayed standing. Xiaonu couldn't see his face from her angle.
The beat echoed quicker. Louder. Then stopped.
The Abbot attacked.
He moved at a speed so fast it was like he disappeared and reappeared again, in front of Yuzhe. Yuzhe seemed to read his move and ducked from a sweep of his arm. Zheshuang unbalanced him, but he jumped, landed on one hand, then back to his feet.
The crowd wowed. Xiaonu watched, impressed. The Abbot wasn't called the Father of martial arts for naught. She used to see him sent a student, naughty and feared by the other pupils for his brute strength, kneeling down motionless with just a touch. Anyone who stood against him barely lasted longer than three minutes.
But it was now about ten.
Zheshuang jabbed with his hand. Yuzhe took the blow with his arms and swept a leg to unbalance him. The Abbot jumped and landed a kick in mid-air to his elbow.
Yuzhe was put in the defensive throughout the round. Xiaonu believed he wasn't letting out his full ability, maybe in concerns of an elderly opponent. The stern monk wasn't so merciful apparently. He struck and jabbed and kicked and lunged at him. It was the first time Xiaonu saw him so...worked up. His calme expression betrayed nothing, though.
Zheshuang thrust forward and threw a kick, which Yuzhe blocked from his face. Then the monk turned over and hurled his other leg toward him. But this time Yuzhe didn't defend. He was sent flying off the stage.
Xiaonu cringed when he smashed onto the marble ground. The audience howled. Some stood to see the ground level. The Abbot went to the edge of the stage, staring at his opponent.
The host announced the end of the match. Xiaonu could no longer spot him from the mass of standing bodies. She stood there for a moment, thinking that he could had easily dodged the monk's kick, and wondered if she'd went too far on teasing him. But then she remembered her princess being pulled side to side while he was standing there and watching a show just awhile ago.
Xiaonu turned to his direction on the floor and hmphed for the second time. Then she turned and strode out of the arena.