“Greetings to Imperial Noble Consort Lu,” two guards greeted. Their voices had a spice of excitement in it, and I already knew why. Chang Ying had fanboys.
“Please do get up,” she spoke. They were not in my view, I couldn’t see them at all, but I knew Chang Ying had a smile on her face. “I’m here to see Noble Consort Han.”
There was silence. ‘Noble Consort Han’ echoed and I could feel my embarrassment rise. There were probably prisoners giggling at me right now. Soft murmurs and whispers were heard until Chang Ying interrupted the guards’ private discussion.
“Thank you,” she said.
I began to prepare myself before she saw me. I have to look as innocent as possible. Although I am—a hundred per cent innocent—I still needed to look like it more than I do now. I leaned my head against the wall, stretching my legs out. I closed my eyes.
It didn’t take long until I could feel the presence of someone watching me. I could hear a faint noise of someone’s nails hitting the cell bars.
I calmly opened my eyes. Chang Ying stood stiffly outside my cell with her eyes staring me down. I couldn’t read her facial expression. Her eyebrows were knitted and her lips were slightly pursed. At first, she looked heated but her eyes had a glisten of concern.
I bowed and opened my mouth to speak but Chang Ying was quick to talk.
“I know you didn’t do it.” she opened the cell door with a key and slid me a large plate. The heavenly smell of the palace’s kitchen surrounded me as Chang Ying raised the lid.
I gripped onto the chopsticks she handed to me and watched her sit down in front of me. “What makes you say that, Your Grace?”
Unlike Hua Er and Jaxon, Chang Ying didn’t look worn out. Her hair was perfectly groomed which was styled with her headpiece. Her hair wasn’t entirely up like the Empress.
I waited for an answer while picking up food and stuffing my face with it. I clipped a chunk of meat with my chopsticks and thrust it towards Chang Ying. She leaned back and shook her head.
“The Empress was with His Majesty last,” she whispered, she looked up in thought. “There’s insufficient evidence to prove that you provided the tea. A simple statement will not justify anything—”
“But Your Grace, the Emperor is naive! His Majesty will believe it!” I hissed, pieces of my food spewed out of my mouth. I placed my finished bowl down and eyed the leftovers. Chang Ying calmly motioned her hand as a ‘have more, please’ signal.
She looked way too calm. Her eyes were fixated on my bowl and she’s been casually speaking. “There is no way you will be executed. I will make sure of it.”
The bowl and the plate were already in a box when I looked down. Chang Ying poured water into the cup that was rolling on the floor.
“I don’t have much time, I’ll get going,” she opened the cell door again and looked behind her shoulder to face me. “I want you to get some rest, I apologize that I couldn’t bring much, but your trial is tomorrow. They postponed the mercenary’s trial to arrange for yours. When you are at Court, do not initiate a discussion about the Empress in any way... That’s an order. Focus on what you were doing at that time and everything else. Again, avoid speaking about Her Majesty.”
“Wait,” I called. “Why are you helping me?”
She curled her lips upwards and sighed. “Nobody has given me emotional support for a long time. I’m returning the favour.”
“T-Thank you, Your Grace.”
Maybe that’s why she looked perfectly fine. She knew I’d be okay. It maybe didn’t mean much to her, but her reassurance lifted the weight off my shoulders.
“Your Majesty,” Nian Shu began, propping herself next to the Emperor in bed. “You’ve been through way too much during this week. I think I should replace you in the trial.”
The Empress gently caressed his arm, proceeding to cross her leg onto the Emperor’s lap. Her face was inches away from him. She continued to lean closer to his body. The warmth of her husband soothed her. This was the first time in years that Nian Shu felt this way due to the busyness of the Emperor.
While she began to gently rub her leg against him, the Emperor inhaled sharply. “Empress, this matter requires me. Although I am extremely busy and restless, I still am obligated to bestow a punishment, if Ying Yue is guilty.”
“You don’t believe she’s guilty?” Nian Shu pulled back, leaning upright to face him.
“I don’t know. There are some gaps in this story,” he breathed out. “I want to believe Ying Yue didn’t do it.”
“I can get this taken care of. Noble Consort Han is in the harem, therefore it is my responsibility. Please, Your Majesty, get some-”
“Nian Shu.” the Emperor sharply raised his voice. He faced her casually and held her hand, clasping it between his.
The Emperor is still very young, but the stress that builds upon him will have him age faster. The constant conflicts in the Palace, many trying to take land and conquer, and usurpation... They all cause sleepless nights. There are multiple occasions where the handsome Emperor wouldn’t even lay with one of his concubines for a week. There are sacrifices when it comes to this role.
He plants a light kiss onto the Empress’s cheek. “You don’t need to worry about me. I might’ve gone aggressive on Ying Yue because I was too caught up in the moment. I truly hope my negative judgement on her is wrong.”
Nian Shu’s rage burst. The last sentence coming out of the Emperor’s mouth woke her anger. Her jaw clenched. Her own husband was taking the side of a woman that tried to murder him.
“You simply can’t say that! Ying Yue is guilty! She tried to kill you, Your Majesty. You can’t let that sick wench get—” she choked back on her tears of frustration and threw herself away from the Emperor. Nian Shu stood in front of him, raising her voice louder than she ever did before.
“ENOUGH!” he roared.
The two most powerful people in the entire empire stared at each other. None of them spoke, they were breathing intensely. Nian Shu’s eyebrows rose up, her lips slightly parted. She slowly exhaled.
Her breathing began to slow down, and the anger that rushed through her veins soon began to settle. Her face was flushed in embarrassment.
“Your Majesty... I—” she began, about to submit to him.
“See you later.” he rose from the bed.
The trial took place in a different hall. A few royal guards lined up and three consorts, one of them was Su Yin, was watching. The Emperor and the Empress sat next to each other in their thrones, eyeing me from above. I was the center of attention in the room, yet I still looked ragged. The Empress had a cunning smirk on her face as she watched my helpless kowtow. The Emperor, like always, looked lifeless with his narrow eyes, relaxed lips, and a rigid posture.
“Han Ying Yue is accused of the use of poison on the Emperor! She provided the Emperor with premium wine that had arsenic material! The perpetrator claims not guilty!” exclaimed a small, lanky eunuch who stood near the Emperor. For a small person, his voice was deafening.
I made eye contact with Su Yin. One of her eyes was twitching.
“What is your defence?” the eunuch looked at me.
“Well, in my defence, Your Majesty,” I bowed casually. “I never thought of providing you with wine and I was in my chamber speaking with Lei Shu. The wine that you were given, was not from me, and I am not associated with it.”
The Emperor chuckled. “You are saying that you didn’t prepare it all? And the Empress was just framing you?”
After the Emperor spoke, there were a few uneasy expressions in the room. Su Yin’s face turned extremely red. She rose up and kneeled beside me. “Your Majesty, sorry for the interruption, but you should ask Lei Shu as a witness since she was there with Lady Ying Yue.”
One point for Su Yin! How could the Emperor be foolish enough not to ask the prime witness?
“Bring in Lei Shu then,” he ordered and a eunuch hastily got up on his feet.
“Your Majesty, sorry to interrupt.”
I turned around. It was Uncle Bin. He walked towards Su Yin and I and kneeled in front of us. “There are no records of Lady Ying Yue taking ingredients. She does not have access to them anyway.”
I peered up sheepishly. I hate to admit it, but my palms were sweating puddles. I began to fidget with my hands under the sleeves of my hanfu.
When I glanced at the couple, I was greeted with an annoyed Empress. She rolled her eyes and stood up. “You two! You two are not allowed in this trial! It—”
“There aren’t any violations, Empress, please let them speak.” the Emperor had his arm in front of her.
I internally smiled.
The room was extremely unsettling and quite awkward. Everyone but the royal guards looked extremely uncomfortable. I already made eye contact with two consorts twice. I felt extremely hot and sweaty under my hanfu, I wanted to take it off. I was visibly shaking and I felt as if my bottom lip had my teeth imprints on it.
With every stab of the needle, Hua Er’s rage increased. Her bony hands were in the process of sewing an effortlessly done hanfu for mother. Every second of the meeting with Ying Yue crossed her mind, and each second aggravated her. The Empress was cruel and stooped too low, but it was dreadful to see her sabotage someone so fast. It was only a month in the palace and the Empress was vile enough to get rid of her sooner than expected. But when you have so much power in your hands, what you do becomes unpredictable.
“Hua Er,” Lei Shu whispered. “Is Ying Yue going to be okay?”
“I don’t know, mother.” her daughter responded with angst, her voice was shaking as she spoke.
“This is all my fault...” Lei Shu hurled the soaking wet cloth. She threw the cloth on the floor. The sound of the loud, wet thud startled Hua Er.
Running her fingers through her hair, Lei Shu situated herself on the lower area of Noble Consort Han’s bed. With her inflamed, red eyes and the massive, darkened eye bags that slept under Lei Shu’s eyes, anyone in the palace could tell that she was not fit to work at the moment. She was too busy stressing about the well-known consort in the Palace and slept with uneasiness.
As Hua Er began to be aware of her mother’s worry, she frustratedly threw the hanfu away from herself and stood up. “It’s not your fault! It’s that wicked—”
“If only I didn’t listen to Lady Ying Yue’s orders to take a break, I would’ve gone to the Empress’s chamber to do her dirty work and—”
“There you go again,” Hua Er paused and rested herself beside Lei Shu. “Blaming yourself because of someone else’s actions and mistakes.”
An avalanche of tears spewed out of Lei Shu’s eyes. She burst out her emotions abruptly. The strong, hardworking mother was crying in the palm of her hands while her daughter patted her back. It was in the warm room that every girl would glamourize to be in. But the depressing situation and emotions of the duo stripped away the walls of the room and replaced it with frailness and vulnerability.
The sounds of Lei Shu’s muffled cries slowly decreased. They both sat in silence together, crying over her soon-to-be-dead friend. The frustrating part is, that they were too weak to do anything about it.
The two heads turned in unison. Four pairs of eyes gazed at the Emperor’s assistant, if they were two dogs, their tails would’ve wagged.
“Which is me,” Lei Shu solemnly said.
“You are asked to testify.”