I was in the grave of danger, struggling to handle the tension of the atmosphere. The silence, the attention, the stickiness of my skin to my clothing. It was as if my legs were tied to a boulder, and my body dumped into the body of a deep, large body of water. As I began to sink deeper and deeper, my body began to plead, my throat and eyes burned, and my mind shut down immediately.
But after the eunuch and the guards arrived into the hall, I felt differently. I felt as if the chain was cut, and the boulder sank faster than me. I was rescued like a lost fish, with a fishnet under my body, pulling me up to the surface of the shore. Freedom and alleviation.
“Peace be with Your Majesty.” a eunuch kowtowed behind us.
“You may rise.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
All of us, in the center of the room, looked around and gave each other hesitant looks, before watching the guards align behind the eunuch. He was still kneeling, nervously giving everyone in the audience a sudden nod. “Your Majesty, we checked Ying Yue’s chamber and found no traces of poison.”
Hua Er and I exchanged glances. She was mouthing something but was bending down to hide her face with her hair. I attempted to jerk my head towards her in order to hear, but she shooed me away with her hands in annoyance.
“Then, call the guilty maid that tried to kill me!” the Emperor’s voice boomed.
All of us cleared the centre of the hall, kneeling to the side of the rug. Su Yin’s hand held mine and gave me a slight, gentle squeeze.
After a couple of minutes, the maid was aggressively thrown in the middle of the hall. She took one look at the Emperor and the Empress, and colour was immediately drained from her face. “Please, Your Majesty! I can explain! I didn’t do this!”
“You didn’t even greet your superior?” the Empress chimed in.
“Greetings to Your Majesty, greetings to the Empress!” she hoarsely exclaimed, kowtowing with her trembling body.
I wanted to cry. This was not how I wanted it to be. She didn’t deserve it, nobody in this palace did except for the beloved Empress. The Empress held such a calm facial expression, I just wondered how she did it. How she could manipulate her maid into doing her sins, how she could make the Emperor stand up for her even though there was plenty of evidence against the Empress. A powerful woman, using her powers wrong. It was truly a pity.
With a single snap, the guards pointed swords that pressed against her neck. I watched. My anger was boiling within me, I could feel my cheeks turning red. But as soon as I was about to open my mouth to say something, I knew it wasn’t worth it. The Empress had already won.
“How do you plea?”
“Not guilty, Your Majesty! Please! Believe me, I was told to! I was told—” the maid wailed, her nose was running and the wetness began to trickle down her lips.
The Empress cleared her throat. “Now, now, we understand that you have your daughter, Xiao Er. We promise we’ll take care of her. One of our maids will be delighted to nurture your child. She will not be left alone. Xiao Er will be happy in the palace. I reassure you... but it’s only if you admit your wrongdoings.”
“This wicked wench...” Su Yin muttered under her breath.
“I-I’m guilty. Your Majesty, I had a clear liking for you, ever since. I always wanted to be one of the girls in the harem, but I am only a low-born maid in this palace. I wanted your attention, but... recently, after seeing Lady Ying Yue,“—she turned to face me—“steal the spotlight, I wanted to get revenge. I wanted her to...”
She choked back her tears, before bowing to the Emperor. “Die.”
With that, the Empress’s maid was later executed, sliced from the waist.
I’ve seen terrible things. Most of these things were online, on the internet where everyone else can see. Murders, cannibalism, creepy and uncanny videos/images that will always be engraved in the back of my head, are things I see frequently when I had wifi. None of them is as terrible as what I’ve witnessed thirty minutes after the trial.
The Empress’s maid was lying on her stomach on a funky looking table. A guard was holding a long sword that towered over her. Some people who are inhabitants of the palace, watched with their eyes opened—some were closed—at the execution of the maid. There were several maids there as well, perhaps the Emperor wanted to warn them. He was unsympathetically standing a few meters away.
Jaxon stood next to me and was discreetly holding my hand to comfort me but I drew my hand back. “I’m fine.”
In reality, my heart was racing. I was unconsciously clenching my jaw. I couldn’t believe I was seeing an execution in live-action, but I also couldn’t believe the Empress would betray her own maid like that. She didn’t stick up for her maid. She even threatened her on the spot. But the most surprising thing I’ve learned was that Chang Ying would offer the maid’s life for mine.
I was spacing out the entire time when the eunuch was stating the Emperor’s decree, I kept on thinking about Chang Ying and how she wanted to save me. She had to risk someone else’s life to save me. It was for the best. The maid would die happily, she wouldn’t torture herself working for the Empress.
As much as I tried to convince myself that what Chang Ying did had to happen, I still detested her. She tried to speak to me, trying to explain her actions, but I gave her the cold shoulder. I didn’t care if she was more powerful than me, I can’t even look at her without feeling nauseated.
“You don’t look fine,” Jaxon whispered to me. He had a strong scent of cypress while he was close to me, I was guessing he rubbed that onto him before he came. I haven’t been this close to him for a while, and I started to enjoy his company even more. Just being in the radius of Jaxon made me flush.
“I’m so mad that I can’t do anything,” I said faintly, on the verge of tears.
When the man with the scroll stopped reading what was on it, I started to panic. The guards spread out. The maid was still begging for her life, and I already had tears running down my cheeks. My eyes threw darts at Chang Ying. She glimpsed at me. Her pouty lips and watery eyes still didn’t make me forgive her. If she thought she could fake a pitiful sombre expression on her face to make up for her actions, she can go and cry in her chamber alone.
Soon after, the guard divided the maid’s lower body from her upper body. I stared without blinking and caught Su Yin and her lady-in-waiting grimacing behind my view of the maid. They both were hugging each other for support. It reminded me of the time my sister and I were hiding in the closet, hugging each other while our parents were arguing in their bedroom.
The difference is that everything was resolved and the situation I’m looking at right now, won’t. The maid will die.
The flashback of my family lingered in my mind while I watched the guards distribute two parts of her body somewhere else.
My heart sunk just thinking of them. The moments of where we would bake for different occasions, and even after our fifth attempt at baking, we would always somehow have something missing or burnt... or both. Now the memories of what I had and whom I had were already running through my mind, while I solemnly watched everybody leave the scene.
“Meet me at the bridge later.” Jaxon tenderly patted my back before he followed the Emperor to the Emperor’s palace.
As I walked forward towards my chamber in the hallway, Chang Ying stood outside of it. Her eyes were red and still, had tears slowly drying up on the side of her eyes. And even after that, she still looked amazing. But I didn’t care for her looks. Chang Ying was still a person that infuriated me.
“Move,” I grumbled with my hand pushing her waist, but she didn’t budge.
“Ying Yue, I’m so sorry,” she pleaded as she hiccuped in between her ‘sorry’. “It had to be done, or else you would’ve died.”
I scoffed as I entered my chamber after aggressively pushing her to the side of the entrance. “Oh really? You had an innocent maid executed.”
I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. Anger was already welling up in my chest after she said ‘it had to be done’, which voluntarily came out of her lips. Even though my back was turned towards her, I still felt her presence following me. She can clearly tell that I was getting irritated, why does she do this?
“Madame Chang Ying, can you please leave me alone?” I said a little louder with heavy abruptness.
“Listen to me, Ying Yue,” she choked back on her tears before kneeling down. “I promised I would get you out, and I did, didn’t I? Please, I had to. In the harem... you have to do what you have to do in order to survive.”
“Wasn’t there another way to deal with this issue? Like... actually framing the Empress?” I spat back, before rolling my eyes. “And, get up, I’m not your superior.”
“I know what I did was wrong, but I did this to protect you,” she said softer this time. I helped her to her feet. “We don’t have proof of Her Majesty to be guilty, which is why I had to risk it. The Empress gave up the maid because she’s afraid to go against me. We needed to put it on someone, and the maid isn’t completely innocent. She still stuck with the plan and offered the Emperor poisonous tea. She worked with Her Majesty.”
I laughed, like hard. How stupid does she think I am? “If the Empress is so afraid to go against you, why don’t you go and usurp her throne?”
“I’m powerful, but I don’t have the potential to become the Empress! I don’t like the attention, I just... I want you to! You have the potential, you have it all!” Chang Ying’s desperation burst into colour. “I can’t do this alone, even though His Majesty favours me the most, I can’t do this alone!
“It’ll hurt if you’re going to be the main woman in his eyes, but I know he’ll always have me in his heart. I can’t stand that inhumane Empress still sitting on her throne and treating us like rubbish. She’s murdered concubines, Ying Yue, she’s murdered innocent women like us in the harem.”
Chang Ying was crying. She desperately wept in front of me, letting her whole heart out while she grabbed my arm. I wanted to hug her and tell her everything is going to be okay, but the selfishness in her act still unimpressed me. She was still muffling into the sleeves of her hanfu, covering her entire face with the sleeves while the sobs were still loud.
“Chang Ying...” I mumbled, awkwardly patting her head.
The beloved consort was wiping all her heartfelt tears, hyperventilating, showing weakness in front of someone who was a lower rank. Chang Ying kneeled immediately. “Sister, if there is anything I can do to make up for it, please tell me. Whether it is a rank up, a visit from the Emperor, if—”
“You think I want power in the harem?” I interrupted sharply, almost losing my train of thought due to the heated anger in my body. “You think that I want His Majesty to come and take my virginity and be another useless woman to him?”
I know my last words hit her and offended her, I know I would’ve been slapped right there and then. I know I should’ve watched my words. I felt pity for her, but now... Deep hatred for her kept on piling up onto my shoulders, and I already wanted to fight her. She truly doesn’t know who I am. She doesn’t know how pathetic her words are to me.
She gulped. “No, but I... I want you to know that I am your friend in this palace. Please...”
As I pondered my very choices at this moment, I refused to believe that Chang Ying was right in this case. I really did.
Unfortunately for me, Chang Ying was right. The Empress would’ve gotten away with it and I could’ve died. And at this moment, I started to doubt the justice system of this place. Life in the Imperial harem isn’t as glamorous as it was in the movies and dramas, it was filled with injustice and selfishness. One man for himself, or in this case, one concubine for herself.
So with that being said, I couldn’t help but say, “I forgive you. And thank you, thank you so much for saving my life.”