The market was boisterous and unbearable as ever as the Head Maid padded through, elbowing her way through the swarms of bodies. She had to make sure several times not to lose sight of the girl she was following, but the city folks weren't making that task easy. They cut in from across her and chatters rang from all sides, along with whispers of admiration. She didn't need to guess whom it was targeted at.
Had the Queen not order her to, Fauglin would not entertain any opportunities to step into the city fair.
Colors of clothes blurred together. The Head Maid looked over the sea of heads and searched for a familiar one, with elaborate hairstyle and jewel hairpins.
Among the commoners it was easy to pick them out by their distinct garments and shinning accessories. The princess and her maid trod slightly ahead. She wore a long rosy robe with white gauze as a jacket that bellowed in the late morning breeze. Her servant was in the official maid uniform. And unlike Fauglin, their faces were fully exposed to the world.
The disorder of the market did not seem to disturb their pace, nor did the gazes from some folks that were thrown to the princess. They carried on side by side like teens on a morning stroll. Fauglin suspected that this wasn't the first time Meiyue was out of the palace. She supposed the guards weren't in any place to stop or snitch on her.
She could only guess how the Queen suspected her own daughter of some misbehavior and how she would have her dealt with, especially while she was all about maintaining appearances.
Fauglin slowed down when the two ahead of her turned toward and disappeared into a pawnshop. She watched them enter the low-ceilinged store from a candy stall, and frowned behind the gauze veil that hid half of her face.
Meiyue was the youngest princess of the monarchy and somewhat her relative too. The Head Maid was sister to the King's former consort, who had died of an tragic of incident fifteen years ago.
What treasures available could be brought upon the girl by mere whim. Fauglin didn't understand what use she had for a pawnshop or the reason behind it as she ignored the vendor's call and went for closer inspection.
The shop's folding doors were pushed aside, so Fauglin couldn't get close enough to catch what the princess was exchanging with the pawnbroker without being seen. She waited at a safe distance.
As moments ticked by, and the Head Maid starting to find it an utter folly, Meiyue stepped out with her maid beside her. The girl-servant was holding a stuffed sack and they proceeded further out of the main square, muttering things that made them squeal in excitement.
Fauglin followed loosely from behind, readjusting her veil and eased her pace. She couldn't see the content of the bag. Yet what pawnshops offered was value. Meiyue must be bargaining for gold.
Confusion and curiosity in her mind, the Head Maid determined to find out what her half-niece was up to. After a few turns around some corners, they stopped before a tiled gate. The banner at the top wrote the name of a renowned stable, not long established in the city. Fauglin had heard the name from guards, and it was where some of the finest horses in the palace were brought from.
Meiyue raised the ring punctured to the engraving of the gate and knocked. Soon afterwards the door pushed open and a figure was at the threshold. It seemed to be a man dressed in a plain sandy robe. Fauglin shifted to get a sight of the man's face when Meiyue spoke something and he ushered them both inside.
It was then after the princess and her maid had gotten inside that Fauglin caught a short glimpse of his face. She wanted to believe she was mistaking it, that it was because she was too far to make out the man's features clearly. Tricksters of the eyes and the past.
Her heart drummed when the door was once again shut and she stood somewhere off staring holes into the wood. Her mind came apart for a moment before she managed to gather herself back to the present.
And the Head Maid ran for the palace.
She needed to report to the Queen immediately.
The way to the monastery was deserted of visitors as the Queen crossed the stone arch bridge of the moat leading outside the Private Ward, her ladies-of-attendance following in a heap of swishing skirts. It had been an early morning, the sun still a gentle light on the horizon, when the Queen concluded it was a fair time to pay the temple a visit. New moon was today and counted as one of the four holy days of the month. By late morning, the altars would be overloaded with offerings from ladies of the high and low court and prayers would join among the hundreds in hopes that it would reach the holy deities. And Her Majesty desired the peace offered to her as the first visitor.
The royal temple was permitted to every citizen within the Forbidden District, thus it stationed at the very back of the district that stretched along the eastern coast. The Queen had chosen to walk upon the open pavement instead of the usual route of the porch. On the right side was a makeshift garden of colorful tulips, intended for the growth of yellow chrysanthemum and daffodils when the needed provisions of more soil and fertilizers were attained from the South. Across to the left was the red wall of the Private Ward behind the moat of deep dark water. Not even the Queen herself knew what creatures resided underneath the layer of lotuses that covered the surface.
The monastery rose ahead with its distinct dark gray rooftops and a lighter gray for the structures. They housed high-ranked religious guardians of the entire Ethereal City and acted as a training ground for the younger pupils who wished to dedicate their lives to asceticism and martial arts.
The monks roused early for prayers and a few was seen sweeping and keeping the garden in place a distance away. The air filled with the sweet aroma of chrysanthemums as the Queen stepped into the territory. Here was home to most chrysanthemum flowers that had grown within the kingdom, every possible gap was blooming with more bright yellow and orange than green. Butterflies fluttered above petals. Without the garden the atmosphere of the monastery would have been bleak and grim.
The Queen focused on one particular butterfly when she noticed a monk in gray uniform approached, and bowed courteously.
"Good morning, Your Majesty," greeted the Abbot, Zheshuang. He was an elderly man with a straight posture and white beard extending below his chin. He was also one of the rare people who were allowed to meet the the Queen's eyes. "I see that you are the first here to pay respect for our Heavenly Grandfather, as always," he spoke, and the Queen's stern expression softened into a smile. "Please follow me."
He gestured with his hand before subtly making his way toward the massive vaulted building at the center of the property. The Queen climbed the short stairs and entered the temple, and was immediately washed by the serenity of the represented presence of the deities.
On the highest dais rested the marble statue of the Jade Emperor, Heavenly Grandfather, painted in gold. And accompanying his sides stood Wangmu Niangniang and Guanyin, known as the goddess of mercy. The Queen looked up to the three deities as they stared out blankly to oversee the doings of the newborn day. Her servants took turn to spread out the offerings of fresh fruits and suitable pastries on the spacious altar that adjoined the daises.
Zheshuang appeared beside the Queen and proffered her a handful of fragrant incense, in which she accepted. The was no need for candles as daylight streamed in from the many windows surrounding the room. The rest stepped back as the Queen knelt on a cushion and said her silent prayers.
After she was finished, she paused to admire the beings beyond humanity and turned to the Abbot for her occasional readings. He counted his fingers with his mind, one hand behind his back as he calculated possibilities and futures. When he opened his eyes it was as if he too was curious of the answer he had deduced.
"What is it?" the Queen spoke aloud for the first time since the visit.
The monk retreated both of his hands behind his back and said in a hopeful voice, "I must say, Your Majesty, that you will encounter again someone from a long past."
Her interest piqued. Zheshuang didn't earn the title of Abbot from his intellectual and martial arts capacity alone. And he was rarely wrong. "Who?"
The monk stroked his long beard and shook his head. "Your pardon, but that is the extend of what I can come to."
The Queen considered it for a moment, going over a small list of people from the past whom she had last seen, when Zheshuang added a moment later. "I am incapable of ascertaining the identity," he said, "but one thing is that there will change after that encounter. An influential change."
She wanted to question further about the matter but the look on the monk's expression deterred her. And she thought they were both wondering about the same thing.
What change it would be. And would it be for the better, or for the worse.