My mouth began to be dry up as the Empress continued to interrogate me. I waited long enough for the eunuch to fetch Lei Shu. I needed her right now, more than ever. I swallowed with the tiniest amount of saliva while I began to answer her last question.
“Are you quite certain you’re not from another region? You don’t show up on the records.” she raised an eyebrow before she took another longing sip of her wine.
Her eyes didn’t leave my face. The Empress was giving me piercing looks every time I spoke confidently. Her insecurity and co-dependency on her husband scared me because this is what she continues to do when she’s bored.
I already knew why this was going to be the last question. I was too drained to give her a snappy answer. She put me on the spot, and I had nothing to say. I wasn’t on the records at all. No files of me. Nothing. I lost my case, therefore my life is down the drain. My voice was getting hoarser, and hoarser and my migraines were killing me.
“I... Your Majesty, I wouldn’t know why. My parents left me when I was three, stranded in the middle of the market and the maid Lei Shu offered a home for me,” I lied.
“Your Majesty, you see all the excuses she’s making?” the Empress protested as she glanced near the left corner of the hall. Worry struck her eyes.
I turned around. I was welcomed by Lei Shu’s presence. She kowtowed anxiously next to me and greeted the Emperor.
“Your Majesty, may I begin?” the eunuch began to pace back and forth in front of me.
“Proceed,” the Emperor spoke.
“Lei Shu, you were in the room with Lady Ying Yue throughout the time period Her Majesty was with the Emperor, am I correct?”
“Lady Ying Yue requested the Emperor to take you into the Palace to work as a maid, correct?”
“Your Majesty, isn’t this suspicious behaviour already?” the eunuch turned to face the Emperor. Both of his arms were out like he was shrugging.
“Indeed it is.” which the asshole replied back with.
Hua Er’s mother gave me a nod and proceeded to bow to the Emperor. “Your Majesty, we would never do this! Ying Yue was framed! Ask the kitchen chefs and see for yourself! Ying Yue wouldn’t even be able to access anything!”
As I faced Lei Shu, I could tell she had freshly cried before she came to this trial. Her tear-stained cheeks signified her stress over me. Of course, I miss my mother, and somehow Lei Shu soothed that pain.
An erupt noise of feminine footsteps began to thunder against the floor. The chaotic sounds caused Hua Er to pause and set her sewing kit aside.
“It’s this room!” a small but aggravating voice spoke out, and it didn’t take long for Hua Er to figure it was Niu Lin.
Hua Er caught on quickly and jumped right onto her feet. She dashed straight away to the back of the room and behind the large closet. With one hand over her mouth, she peeked out to spot Niu Lin and a few of her minions barging in without a knock. They entered in a scattered format. Hua Er hastily pulled her head back.
Small chatters overlapped each other until one concubine raised her voice. “Milady, we should hide it under the closet.”
“Great idea!” another has spoken, one who has never been able to see the Emperor at all. She has never been blessed by the Emperor’s presence, therefore she was filled with hatred towards ones who were.
“We shall put it there then.” Niu Lin indicated the closet to the girl holding a green bottle. Hua Er winced. Sweat trickled down her temple and her breathing became heavy once she heard fumbling with the bottom of the closet. Her other hand was clenched in a fist position.
The room was silent, fairly silent.
“Not like that!” the voice of Niu Lin was raised, startling Hua Er to a point where her elbow gently brushed against the closet.
“I-I’m sorry, Lady Niu Lin!” the girl groaned, pushing the bottle in order for it to slowly roll deeper in.
As the girls began to exit the chamber, whispering once more.
When silence came upon the room, she slowly, one foot after another, stepped out of the hiding spot. Her toe came in contact with something cold. She let out a low shriek and glared down.
Eyeing the bottle disappointingly, the curious lady-in-waiting squatted down and picked it up gently. The bottle had a dark, muddy green colour. Hua Er brought it up to her eyes and inspected the content in the bottle.
The Empress’s dirty work.
Hua Er began to panic. The search of Ying Yue’s chamber may take place anytime, and Hua Er holding a suspicious bottle of muddy substance is definitely not sketchy at all. She scanned around the room frantically, before dumping the poison inside of a small urn next to the medium-sized, golden mirror. The liquid flowed gently into the bottle and all of the evidence is gone. As she brought the urn to her face, curiosity struck her. Hua Er took a deep inhale of the urn and gagged.
“Miss.” the same eunuch from before entered the chamber.
Hua Er took a sharp turn towards the eunuch and swiftly covered the urn with the sleeve of her hanfu. “Yes.”
“The Emperor wants to see you for questioning.”
“I’ll be right there.”
“Hua Er,” the Emperor said while rummaging through the piles of scrolls laid out in front of him. “How long have you known Ying Yue?”
“Almost all my life, we are practically sisters,” she said without making eye contact.
As Hua Er began to answer the Emperor’s questions, I started to blankly stare at the space between the couple. Soon after, the Empress was approached by two girls, each girl was on each side of the Empress’s throne. I turned to face a large pole to look at the scene through my peripheral vision. As I quietly observed, I recognized one of them.
What the fuck was she doing here?
They both looked distressed. The Empress dully looked at both of them and narrowed her eyes before she whispered something to them. The second girl began to exchange words with her. The Empress had stress on her eyebrows while she was whispering to the two girls who craned their necks to listen.
“Is everything okay, Empress? Don’t take this so lightheartedly.” the Emperor snapped, then turning his head to face the three.
“We apologize, Your Majesty. It was urgent.” Niu Lin’s voice trembled as her and the other consort bowed.
The Emperor snorted. “What can be more urgent than this? Leave immediately, this isn’t your chamber where you can gossip and fiddle around in.”
With that, they both scurried away like little mice.
“Did you even care to listen to the conversation I was having with the culprit’s lady-in-waiting?” the Emperor narrowed his eyes.
“Y-Yes, Your Majesty,” she breathed. “It is still skeptical that Ying Yue isn’t on the records. Your Majesty, do you remember how disrespectful she was when we were selecting new concubines? Her sharp voice against me, her impolite manners and adequate?
She continued. “Is it not strange how Ying Yue knows how to fight, being a woman? What if who she was working for, planned the assassins to arrive just so she can battle to gain your respect? What if that was just a plan, Your Majesty? What if—”
“I personally think you should be asking the deliverer of the wine and who provided you with the information of the wine, Your Majesty.” a voice I am too familiar of had spoken.
I whipped my head back to face Chang Ying. A short eunuch held her hand as she locked eyes with me. She sent me a small nod.
“Chang Ying,” the Emperor greeted, his eyes glistening as she kneeled to bow.
“Great blessings to Your Majesty,” she bowed, then shifting her body to be in front of me. “Happiness and peace to the Empress.”
I suddenly felt extremely protected with Chang Ying around me. After all, she was only one rank below the Empress. I watched as the Empress’s frustrated face turn into confusion.
“At ease,” the Emperor said.
Chang Ying continued to kneel. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
The Emperor adjusted himself while sitting on his throne before clearing his throat. “What brings you here?”
“Ying Yue had nothing to do with the poisoning of your tea,” Chang Ying repeated herself. “Check the main source of the information presented to you.”
“You’re saying I poisoned His Majesty? My own husband?” the Empress scoffed, emphasizing the word ‘husband.’ The sleeves of her hanfu began to visibly move around on her lap. The dark, piercing eyes of her moved around the room, avoiding any contact with the Emperor.
“Are you blaming this on the Empress? Chang Ying, I expected better than you. I advise you to leave.” the Emperor cleared his throat, motioning his hand towards her.
I bit the insides of my cheeks and looked down. A massive lump in my throat kept on causing me to gag and cough every five minutes. As I waited for the response of Chang Ying, I started to doubt her reassurance. The room began to feel heated... or maybe it was just me. My legs started to feel numb from kneeling, which it never did as I was used to it now.
It was hard to explain the feelings in the room. Chang Ying was known to be the Emperor’s favourite, and she eventually got a scolding from him. Maybe shock could explain what everyone was feeling.
Chang Ying’s back was trembling while she was maintaining her posture. “No, Your Majesty. The maid. The maid was the one who poisoned you.”