“Imperial Concubine Han will receive three hundred taels of silver, three bolts of brocade, five bolts of silk, and a pair of gold earrings.” the Empress declared, her voice booming, loud enough for every individual to hear.
I respectfully kneeled. I was unintentionally smiling from ear to ear. In this place, I felt like a hero, like I was brought here to correct it. Was I selfish and self-absorbed to say this? Perhaps. But I felt honoured to be on my knees receiving materialistic awards. As I listened to the Emperor’s speech, I gave Jaxon a kind look. His dimples appeared when he beamed at me. He thrust a thumbs up.
It’s funny how I’ve been in this hall frequently. It brought a certain type of attention and I—not to sound cocky—loved it.
“It shocked me but seeing you defend yourself, I was intrigued,” the Emperor began. “I’ve been fooled. Perhaps I thought you were a delicate flower in a garden, but you were a unique flower that could never be harmed no matter how much the wind blows. If you were a male, I could have possibly made you my Imperial guard.”
I cocked my eyebrow. “I can be a female Imperial guard, can’t I, Your Majesty?”
“Women aren’t supposed to be Imperial guards.” another guard uttered. I saw his enraged glare at me from the corner of my eye. I’m sorry I was the one who saved the Emperor, better luck next time, pal.
“You can change history with that, Your Majesty,” I stood up bravely. I narrowed my eyes and pressed my lips together. I clenched my fist. “Women can do things men can! Although I am your Noble Consort, I refuse to let-”
“Enough!” he roared, waving his hand in front of him.
I kneeled frantically. My palms whitened due to the pressure of them leaning into the ground. “Please forgive me, Your Majesty, I was just standing up to my beliefs!”
He closed his eyes as he leaned back on his throne. He looked rather calm. There was a pin-drop silence in the room. Everyone had their eyes open, refusing to miss a dialogue between the Emperor and I. The Emperor took a deep breath and slowly released his stress build-up. I followed.
“This is new information I obtained today,” he spoke with power, puffing up his chest with a proper king-like posture. “Ying Yue, I will look into your suggestion. Although there aren’t females that would want this role, I am too selfish to have you as my royal guard.”
“I ask for forgiveness from Your Majesty,” I kowtowed. I rolled my eyes when my face was buried in my arms. “If that is your wish, I will fulfil it.”
“Please get up, there is nothing for me to forgive.” he motioned for me to rise.
I wore my gold earrings shortly after. I struggled to put the last earring in. I spent at least five minutes. I heard murmured whispers coming towards my chamber. I immediately faced the noise.
“Lady Ying Yue, we are your palace maids and are here to serve you.” the girl in the front kneeled. The others followed.
“I thought I told the Emperor that I wanted two maids,” I mumbled.
“Yes, but His Majesty thought you were attempting to be humble,” another one chimed in. “Forgive us. His Majesty originally assigned six maids.”
The four girls kneeling down to me looked clean. I always thought maids in the palace would look untidy and unkempt... As I examined the maids in a non-creepy way, I realised they were still kneeling.
“O-Oh! Please get up,” I stammered in embarrassment. I fidgeted with my jewellery anxiously. I was a little bit diffident. As the maids got on their feet after my order, I felt the power in my hands and I couldn’t grasp the idea of it. “Shall I know your names?”
The four maids looked taken aback. I watched them whisper within each other’s distance. They looked at me. The one maid in the front, which was perhaps the head maid, nervously laughed. “We don’t usually get asked about our names, milady.”
“Well, I want to know them anyway. It’s respectful,” I concluded as I got up from my chair. “I order you four to tell me your names.”
“Go, go!” Jaxon whispered to me.
I giggled as I covered my mouth with my hand. “I’m scared!”
Both of us were tip-toeing towards the kitchen in the palace. As we arrived, Jaxon ushered me near the doorway, raising his eyebrows every time he shooed me away. “I swear to-”
“Alright, alright! Jeez, someone’s a little bit impatient today. I wonder why?” I taunted.
I casually walked in, giving the workers a stiff smile. I awkwardly watched them bow to me like I was someone important. Which I was, of course... “I-Uh... I want bird nest soup, please.”
A faint snicker from behind me caused my lips to curl. I wanted to laugh. The workers looked at me and blinked continuously like I said a two-minute math word problem.
“I... Birds nest soup? I want to drink.. it. Please?” I shifted my legs while my body swayed slowly. I gave them a fumbled grin. I slowly regretted my decision.
“O-Of course, Noble Consort Han.” a maid obeyed. She started to gather equipment immediately, while I continued to stand there like a complete moron.
A medium-sized chef with neatly groomed facial hair approached me with pure happiness on his face. His eyes shrunk in size when he laughed. His friendly expression was very comforting because he reminded me of my father. As I scanned his face, his appearance truly began to resemble my father, which completely threw me off.
“Usually you’d let your palace maids know this,” he laughed cheerfully at my ignorance.
I chewed my bottom lip in confusion. “Sir, I deeply apologize for disrupting the kitchen.”
“No worries! You are always welcomed here. May I ask why you want such a sumptuous dish? Does His Majesty know?” he replied back.
“It would be unpleasant to lie... so-”
“It’s not like I care! Whatever you want, Lady Ying Yue, I can do that for you,” he patted my shoulder. “The brutal battle you had with those assassins inspired me. I look up to you.”
“You are my superior as you are the elderly,” I grinned. “I don’t recall it being a brutal battle. More like a street fight.”
He paused. “A what?”
“Nevermind, I—What shall I call you, chef?”
“Uncle Bin is just fine! Perhaps... You can call me ‘chef.’ It is informal but it sounds glorious! Like I was a royal guard, fighting eight soldiers at the same time. Like I was a hero, like-”
I bowed. “Nice to meet you, Uncle Bin. You seem very into this... fighting concept. May I ask... Why you’re not a royal guard?”
“Too bloody. Not for me. I just want to fantasize about it, to be truthful with you, milady. I just want to be a hero in a story,” he looked out in the distance of the kitchen. “I want to be known to do good deeds in the palace. Either way, I’m an old man. I could never fight!”
Uncle Bin was wholesome. As his eyes shimmered while he talked about the war books he read, I felt almost sorry for him. He never got to chase his dreams. He was maybe in his late 50′s, but still passionate about violence like a ten-year-old boy. It was truly refreshing to have a kind soul in this ruthless place, so I might as well befriend him quickly.
“Here’s your bird nest soup, Lady Ying Yue.” a maid handed me a large, porcelain bowl of soup, bowing as she gave it.
“Thank you.” I held onto the bowl with both of my hands.
I peered down into it with curiosity. The soup bowl looked extremely unappetizing, but I have an urge to try it. I thanked the staff kindly and made my way out of the kitchen.
“What took you so long?” Jaxon was patiently standing outside. He took the bowl from my hands.
“I had a conversation with the head chef,” we started to walk out of the palace. “Uncle Bin. He was quite funny, he was like a little child. His eyes sparked when he recognized me.”
“He’s old, Carmen.” he countered with a teasing laugh.
“Shut up! We both know I didn’t mean it like that...” I pushed him gently. I couldn’t help myself, I laughed as well.
I walked back to my chamber after giving Jaxon a final wave. I sat the bowl down on my table and had my eyes on it for as long as my attention span could handle.
Where did my life come to?
I still couldn’t process this in my mind. I’m in ancient China, living in the Imperial Palace with other girls that love the Emperor and only the Emperor. I’m in a place filled with lunatics and strange customs and I still can’t get used to it. It still frustrates me that I’m here putting effort and doing more work than I’ve ever done before. I want to go home so terribly bad, but the experience of being here overwhelms me with delight and wonder. I hate myself for being indecisive.
I carefully brought my spoonful of soup up to my lips and sipped. I savoured the taste in my mouth, then swallowing the warm liquid. The soup wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It did taste different, but very appetizing. It was known to be a delicacy and is quite expensive.
I was so excited to go back home and tell Cherry I tried it, but the melancholy soon hit me. I may never see her again. Unless I get the ingredients fast.
The wetness of my cheeks tempted me more. As my eyes produced an excessive amount of tears, some ended up falling into my soup. Regardless of my salty tears fusing with the expensive dish, I began to take little sips of it. A disaster. Whichever car hit us, will pay. If I go back, I will make the driver of that car kiss my shoes and kneel down to me.
As I dazed off to the distance with a noticeably glum look on my face, I dropped my spoon and I exhaled all my oxygen in my lungs. I reached to take the vessel designated to hold all the ingredients and poured the remaining soup in the bowl. I didn’t drink a lot. I craved alcohol at this point.
“Lady Ying Yue!” a eunuch walked into the room, bowing with a grim expression on his face.
Do these people ever knock?
I quickly hid the container behind the dresser. I stood up and walked closer to him. “What is it?”
“The Emperor and Her Majesty are making an announcement, please hurry to the Grand Hall!”
“I’ll be there, thank you.”
I quickly redid my make up and fixed my hanfu. What does the Emperor want? Does he live off attention? Doesn’t he have things to do, like solve political issues? They have a lot of political issues here, I can guarantee.
My maids hurriedly entered in my chamber without announcing themselves. They bowed gracefully and guided me out.
The hall gave me negative energy. Everyone looked like they went to war and lost twice. I gulped loudly as I entered, kneeling next to Su Yin.
“What’s going on?” I whispered.
Before Su Yin could answer, the Emperor asked for silence. I kowtowed nervously. I felt like someone died, it had to be. Everyone looked strangely upset over something. I was confused as ever.
“Now, all of you may be wondering why I have escorted you all out to come here,” he somberly spoke. “The Empress’s mother has passed away.”
A few gasps were heard, but some stayed still. I heard chuckling from Su Yin.
The Empress had her head down. She looked extremely vulnerable. Her frown, her eyebrows slanting up, how she avoided the audience, she looked so innocent. I wanted to laugh. I didn’t know her mother, and her mother could have been the sweetest lady, but I couldn’t help but laugh. The Empress was vicious. If she slapped me just for being here, she would’ve done worse to the girls in the harem.
The fact that I’m looking at a gloomy expression on her face rather than her usual hateful smirk, it seemed so unreal and satisfying.
After attending the funeral, the concubines and consorts went to the small river to make lanterns and wish well to the Empress and her deceased mother. I gently placed the lantern on the water and headed back.
Su Yin approached me. “I’m so happy that wench is gone.”
“Why’s that?” I questioned her.
“The Empress and her delusional mother plot against the concubines if they feel that they might threaten Her Majesty’s rank, you didn’t know that?” she tilted her head in shock.
This reminded me of a drama I’ve watched...
“No... Wouldn’t the Emperor know about that?”
“The Empress is feared, as you can see. Her Majesty has people to do her dirty work, that’s why many concubines and consorts in the harem are scared to go against Her Majesty. Even the Imperial Noble Consorts,” she brought her curved hand next to her lips like she was going to whisper something to me. “The Imperial Noble Consorts are afraid of her!”
I covered my mouth and laughed. “What could Her Majesty and her mother possibly do?”
“Lady Ying Yue, they’re insane! You have so much to learn in the Imperial harem. There’s schemes, lies, and betrayals,” Su Yin exclaimed. “There was a Noble Consort, I can’t bring myself to remember her name, but she was pregnant and pregnancy. In case you don’t know, that is a major accomplishment that gets you promoted.”
“Yes...” I nodded.
Su Yin shook her head and looked away. “The Empress found out and gave her daily medicine with the finest herbs... turns out, she’s been putting a small amount of poison in the cups. The poison began to gradually build up in her system, and she passed away.”
“You’re lying!” I gasped, my eyes bulged.
“How would you even know?”
Su Yin scoffed. “Of course I know! When they say the walls have ears, I’m the ears! I’m the wall too... perhaps I’m both? Forget what I just said. I’m quiet when it comes to superior figures, but...”
“Oh! Congratulations on your new title! You can slap Niu Lin in the face now!” Su Yin clapped, then her energy slowly faded.
“Where was I again?” she looked at me.
Su Yin was entertaining to talk to. She was someone I could trust in the harem. When she gossiped and spilt the tea, she looked like she was having fun. Her eyes gleamed like it was her passion.
“Some say that Her Majesty will sabotage a consort. Not a Noble Consort, just a Consort. She’s been favoured by the Emperor and occasionally attends to his palace at night,” Su Yin leaned back. “Her Majesty would not like that!”
“So... the Empress’s mother helps with the... schemes?” I shivered. What type of sick and twisted mother-daughter duo is this?
“Correct. She’s evil, and now that she’s gone, the Empress may not have as much power as before because Her Majesty’s mother cannot advise her anymore,” she looked away from me before speaking again. “Therefore, Her Majesty’s schemes may be a bit sloppy.”
Su Yin inhaled sharply. “That’s why, Ying Yue, I want you to be careful. The Empress is already infuriated with your promotion and how the Emperor dotes on you. As we are speaking, she might already be plotting against you.”
I let out a huge sigh. “This is a lot to take in. Thank you for telling me, Su Yin.”
“It’s nothing,” she held my hand and gently squeezed it. “Ying Yue, you’re a good person, I can see that. I don’t want to lose you too. I’m always on your side. Besides, you’re the first person to stand up against that vicious excuse of a woman. A spoiled little-”
“That’s enough, Su Yin,” I giggled. “The walls have ears... Even if we’re outside.”