As Huian led them through the winding hallways of the estate, Meifeng began to wonder where the girl received her strength from. They passed through hallway after hallway of wooden floorboards until finally arriving at a terrace which overlooked a grand courtyard. The only strange thing was that unlike the rest of the estate, the garden was wild and in disarray with weeds running rampant and wilted flowers everywhere. Even the road which winded through the garden was barely kept.
As Huian led Meifeng and the she-demon through the courtyard, Meifeng asked, “Why is the courtyard so unkempt?”
Abruptly stopping in a way that Meifeng and the demon almost fell over, Huian responded, “It has always been the duty of the wangfei to look after and manage the courtyard.”
“Then what about the previous wangfei?” Meifeng asked.
Walking at a slower pace while still dragging Meifeng and the she-demon, Huian responded, “This estate has long not been blessed with a wangfei,”
Realizing her meaning, Meifang carefully said, “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have asked.”
“It’s alright. This is no secret and is old news,” Huian said.
Noticing that the path they were taking led to a large ancient style stone gate, Meifeng asked, “Are we really leaving the estate?”
Meifeng had always assumed that like women in ancient times, she would not often have a chance to leave her home. Even after hearing Huian’s earlier proclamation, she had assumed that it was just empty words to make her feel more at peace.
“Yes, this servant said as such, did she not?” Huian responded.
“I know, but is it allowed?” Meifeng asked.
The demon let out a loud laugh that was stopped from a harsh tug by Huian.
Clenching her free hand into a tight fist, Meifeng said, “I don’t see what’s so funny.”
The demon pushed her long black hair out of her eyes with her free hand while saying, “What’s funny is that you think Diyu abides by the same regulations as Earth and the Heavenly Jade Court.”
Giving her friend a glare while keeping a brisk pace, Huian interjected, “What this child means is that many of the demons and officials have a duty to punish sinners. Therefore, we, more than any being in the Heavenly Court or Earth understand what might cause someone to sin. Due to this, the residents of Diyu and those souls awaiting judgement live in a way simply not possible in any other dimension.”
“My shifu never told me this,” Meifeng muttered.
“If your shifu is from Earth or the Heavenly Court, of course she wouldn’t. To them we are barbarians who deal in death and punishment,” the demon said with a strange look in her black eyes.
“That’s enough chitchat children, we’re almost at the gate,” Huian said, finally releasing both Meifeng and the demon from her tight grasp.
Huian then reached into the inside of her pink hanfu and pulled out a set of keys. In a way that told Meifeng the maid had done this many times before, Huian placed the key in the lock of the main door and pushed open the large wooden doors.
Outside greeted Meifeng a sight the likes of which she had never seen nor thought to witness. Unlike the dreary painting her shifu had instilled into her mind, the streets were filled with all manner of people and demons. Although the people with demonic features all dressed in Hanfu there were also many beings that looked like people from the present too. Moreover, not all the human looking people wore hanfu. Some wore dressed in republican era qipao dresses like the jazz singers Meifeng loved listening to. While others wore clothes reminiscent to the Manchu style of the Qing Dynasty. Still others dressed in modern clothing. Looking at it all, there were even a few styles of dress that Meifeng didn’t recognize and assumed belonged to some ethnic minorities.
The strangest thing of all was that rather than cars and scooters, the streets were filled with horse driven carriages and demon-pulled rickshaws. From the corner of her eye, Meifeng could even notice how the stalls and markets resembled more traditional marketplaces. Even all the people that moved about belonged to all genders and ages. It was truly a sight to behold.
Smiling, Huian said, “Wangfei, I am proud to introduce to you the city of the seventh court where demons and souls awaiting judgment thrive and live together.”
“I-I-It’s so….” Meifeng’s voice trailed off.
“Out of date? Strange? Unlivable?” The she-demon snidely offered.
“No…amazing! Absolutely amazing,” Meifeng exclaimed.
The she-demon faltered and slowly said, “You’re different than what I expected.”
“But different is good, wouldn’t you agree,” Huian offered.
“I’m not sure yet. Its too soon to tell,” the she-demon responded.
Shrugging, Huian waved her hand and called over a rickshaw man or demon. Meifeng wasn’t too sure considering the fact that although he looked more human than the she-demon, he had four tails sticking out of the rear of his hanfu. Getting into the wooden two-wheeled cart, the three women got comfortable before the demon picked up the two protruding pieces of wood and moved at a speed not humanely possible.
As the rickshaw raced through the city, Meifeng tried to absorb as much of her new home as possible. The traditionally tiled roofs which covered ever building and even some walls gave the city an ancient feel hard to find in the modern world. At the same time, Meifeng wondered if there were any other bits of technology like the music room’s record player in this city.
In her peripheral vision Meifeng witnessed a large wall surrounding the city. Strange enough there seemed to be some structures beyond the wall, but Meifeng wasn’t sure what they were.
When Meifeng thought to ask, the rickshaw cart jumped and Meifeng had to hold on to the wooden cart for dear life, her previous questions gone.
Instead, Meifeng asked, “Where are we going?”
“Downtown,” Huian answered.
“What’s in downtown,” Meifeng asked.
“The teahouse district,” Huian responded, seemingly unphased by movement of the rickshaw.
“We’re here,” the she-demon said before Meifeng could ask another question.
At her voice, Meifeng saw that the rickshaw bridge has arrived at a large gate with the characters for “Teahouse District” painted in large golden traditional Chinese characters at the top of the gate.
After the rickshaw slowed to a stop, Meifeng found that although Huian and the she-demon were fine, her legs could not stop shaking, making it hard to get out of the cart.
Seeing her struggle, Huian offered Meifeng her hand for the second time that day.
When Meifeng finally got out of the cart, the she-demon commented, “Do you have to be so slow?”
“A lady must always be gentle and kind, yet firm in resolute,” came the words from Meifeng’s shifu into her head.
It was these words that stopped Meifeng from reacting and once she had regained her footing, she just walked straight ahead without commenting.
“Are you ignoring me,” the demon exclaimed.
This time Meifeng turned her head and said, “If you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all” before continuing to walk in a random direction.
“Leikhan, you said you would be gentle,” came Huian’s soft voice from behind the she-demon before Huian yelled, “Young Miss, wait for us!”
Very quickly the two women caught up to Meifeng. Not that Meifeng was particularly surprised. The she-demon was huge and athletic in build while Huian appeared to be a lot stronger than her small and slim appearance gave her credit for.
Meifeng continued her brisk pace until she abruptly stopped in front of what looked to be an outdoor noodle shop. Although she was a proud Shanghaiese southerner who preferred rice over noodles, food was food. On that thought, Meifeng realized she hadn’t eaten anything in over twenty-four hours.
“Right!” the loud exclamation followed by a clap from Huian pulled Meifeng from her thoughts.
Turning to Huian, the maid said, “I don’t think we had time for you both to introduce yourselves.”
Meifeng looked at the she-demon in a suspicious gaze that the she-demon returned as they both said, “Introduce ourselves? To her?”
“Yes, children, to each other. After all, we will be spending a lot more time with each other and this is about trust,” Huian reasoned in much the same way an adult might reason with a child.
“Wait, Huian, I have a question,” Meifeng interrupted.
“What is it,” Huian responded.
“What do you mean by being together a lot?” Meifeng asked.
“Right when I was alive, female soldiers weren’t very common,” Huian mused.
The she-demon said, “Well, as much as I love this conversation, I’m hungry and-”
“Leikhan, stay and introduce yourself,” Huian suddenly narrowed her eyes and ordered in a tone that seemed, to Meifeng, uncharacteristic of her.
“Fine,” the demon grumbled crossing her arms over her chest.
“Young miss, you too,” Huian said.
In slight shock, Meifeng nodded and said, “I am surnamed Jia and named Meifeng.”
“I am surnamed No and named Leikhan,” the she-demon who Meifeng now knew to be named Leikhan responded.
“And,” Huian stressed, seemingly unsatisfied with Leikhan’s response.
“and I was assigned as your personal bodyguard,” Leikhan said in lightning speed, not pausing to take a breath.
“Good, now that that’s over with, shall we have breakfast?” Huian cheerly said to the hesitant nod of both Meifeng and Leikhan.
The three proceeded to sit on a long wooden bench in front of a low wooden table.
“Now, I’m going to order our food. Both of you make nice while I’m gone,” Huian said with a smile, but for the oddest reason Meifeng felt as if the small girl was threatening them.
Unfortunately, there seemed to be a long line of demons and souls trying to order food. Looking around, Meifeng saw that all five surrounding benches were also packed with people.
It’s a miracle we even found a seat in this crowd, Meifeng thought.
Looking at her ram-horned companion, Meifeng tried, “So…”
“I don’t like you,” Leikhan immediately interjected.
Tilting her head to the side, Meifeng replied, “I noticed, but I’m not entirely sure why. Have we met before?”
“No,” Leikhan answered.
“Have I ever wronged you?”
“Have I harmed your love ones?”
“Are you in love with my husband?”
“Then, by the laws of reason, why do you dislike me if,” at this Meifeng began ticking off the fingers in her right hand as she said, “We have never met before, I’ve never wronged you, I never harmed your loved ones, and you aren’t in love with my husband.”
“I don’t want to talk with someone who is so unworthy that they were abandoned on their wedding night,” Leikhan said before turning her head away in slight disgust.
For a moment, the words didn’t register in Meifeng’s mind. She was sure that she must have heard them wrong. Then she recalled all the times Huian kept dancing around the issue whenever she asked about her husband.
Still, she needed to be sure before she acted rashly and did something she would regret.
Ignoring the pain in her heart, Meifeng said, “I wasn’t abandoned.”
Leikhan suddenly grabbed Meifeng’s arm and pulled up the white sleeve of her hanfu, revealing an unmarred beauty mark, proof of Meifeng’s maidenhood.
“Then what’s this?” Leikhan inquired in judgement.
Pulling her arm away, Meifeng quickly covered her sleeve and said, “Something happened.”
“Do you really believe that?” Leikhan retorted.
“The books in the room matched my preference and the music room even had records and instruments that I enjoy,” Meifeng responded, trying to reassure herself.
“Yeah, you’re from the village. There’s a report with everything about you written. Your room was prepared to your preferences with that report. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a way to make you more comfortable since brides from the village are normally nervous and violent,” Leikhan said.
Meifeng had never considered herself a violent person, but she had never been so angry before either. Without thinking, Meifeng raised her hand and slapped Leikhan in the face. When she realized what she had done, Meifeng felt the tears pricking her face and ran from the table into the crowd. She didn’t know where she was going or even how long until Huian and Leikhan would start to follow her. All she knew was that she needed to be alone for a little while and that she had a lot to process.