Silence. I tried to maintain my light footsteps as quietly as possible. My objective was to head over to the Imperial kitchen and get a midnight snack. I woke up with massive hunger, like usual.
The walk to the kitchen was far. It was practically a journey to get there, but with my stomach grumbling every five seconds, I had to make sacrifices.
At last, I sneaked in. The kitchen was deserted; it almost felt weird seeing it without the presence of the palace chefs and maids. Uncle Bin always left food on the counter to my left because he knew I’d be hungry. My shoulders began to relax when I made it to my destination. I took the five sticks of meat skewers from the plate, all five were for me because Hua Er was asleep.
I proceeded to go back to my estate.
It was chilly. The delicate wind was blowing my hair back, but it felt good. I breathed in the smell of fresh air. Nothing beats the smell of crisp royalty. I was on the fifth skewer when I was inside of the harem. Nothing also beats Uncle Bin’s meat skewers. The meat was crispy and tender. When bitten into it, it was juicy and flavourful. They were definitely carefully seasoned. It caught me by surprise when I found out they had spices back then.
I tensed up immediately after seeing Niu Lin’s chamber. Just the knowledge that Niu Lin was apart of that event made me feel bitter towards her. As much as I wanted to knock her teeth out, it was better to stay low.
Just as I passed her chamber, a slight groan came out of it.
I don’t want to admit that I was nosy... Let’s just say I was curious. I sucked in my breath and paused for a few seconds. There was a deafening silence but I couldn’t help but listen. All the girls were most likely asleep by now; it makes me feel safer when I roam around at night rather in the daytime.
I leaned my back against the wall and continued holding my breath. My bat ears picked up the sound of a wine vessel aggressively slamming onto the table.
I didn’t look inside, but I felt more than one presence inside of her room. Her chamber was warmer than the other chambers I’ve walked by. I slowly waited behind the room divider.
“You won’t get hurt if you keep yourself out of this.” a feminine voice said with enough sass that would put a preteen girl in shame.
“I apologize, but I have morals.” there was another woman’s voice. It was a too familiar tone, and I bet my coins it was Chang Ying.
Why was Chang Ying in Niu Lin’s chamber?
I continued to take small breaths in and out. I slid the last meat out of the stick and gnawed on it. My heart was racing. Why was Chang Ying in Niu Lin’s chamber? I doubt she would want to breathe the same oxygen as Niu Lin, rather than get close to her in a fifty-centimetre radius.
“It’s not unlikely for you to stay away from things you should be staying away from.” the voice of the Empress rose... I nearly gagged. A slight shuffle from the feet was heard.
Outside of Niu Lin’s chamber, it was unclean. The maids usually clean every two days but it looked dustier than usual. It looked so unfamiliar even though I was only gone for about three days or so. I started to feel my nose itch and there was a gentle tingling inside the bridge of my nose. I attempted to take rapid short breaths.
It didn’t work.
Time stopped and I saw black for a quarter of a second. I tightened my core and let out a loud explosion of saliva and breath. Slowly opening my eyes again and blinking rapidly, I realised what I’ve done.
Kill me already.
“Who is it?” a stern voice roared and I was soon making eye contact with the Empress. Her posture was upright, with confidence radiating out her body. As soon as I sheepishly gave her a half-smile, her hand lunged forward towards my wrist and grasped it like it was the poor consort’s baby she had murdered before.
“Your Majesty-” I shrieked, forcefully pulling back my right arm. She glared straight at me, her orbs of hatred shot millions of daggers. As much as I wanted to pull harder and give her one big slap across her cheek, I just couldn’t. One look from her demanded me to be submissive and of course, like always, the Empress had won.
“Come with me,” the Empress demanded before she pulled me into Niu Lin’s chamber.
Niu Lin’s chamber was similar to mine, but it was messier than I expected it to be. Who would’ve thought she wouldn’t be able to clean up after herself? A small blush crept to my cheeks when my eyes met Chang Ying’s. It was a muted room filled with unease in both parties. Niu Lin was blinking rapidly and looking around the room, avoiding any contact with me as well.
I stayed silent. My legs felt like jelly while I stood almost at the corner of the room from where everyone else was. The Empress watched me like a hawk. “Why do you like to put yourself in other people’s business? You and Chang Ying love to barge in and ruin things, don’t you?”
“Leave her out of this.” Chang Ying stood up from her chair. She swung her arm in front of me; her hanfu sleeves in motion, waving like a flag.
Out of all the places they could be in right now, they chose Niu Lin’s chamber. Her eyes bored into my face. A widow’s face after her husband died from a car crash could not compare to the expression Niu Lin was holding. I’ll have to sleep with two eyes and my third eye opened.
“You would’ve been dead,” the Empress faced me and spoke with a worryingly casual tone. Turning towards Chang Ying, she grimaced. “If Sister Chang Ying didn’t go out of her way to-”
“That name shouldn’t be coming out of your mouth anymore,” Chang Ying’s words were swift, it wasn’t even for me but even I was taken aback.
A wicked form of melody flew out of the Empress’s lips as she threw her head back. “Don’t get too comfortable... It’s never too late to commit suicide, many concubines do it anyways. His Majesty doesn’t seem to love them anymore, they’re like throwaways...”
I kept quiet. While Chang Ying was controlling her anger, I patted her arm down subtly. There was a big lump in my throat. How could the Empress be so out in the open about her schemes? How powerful can she really be? This powerful wife of the Emperor was so daring, and the opposite of what a true empress can be. There was no virtue, no kindness, only the glow of evil.
I could feel my body heat rising.
If only I didn’t leave my chamber...
“What? Nothing else to say? Does His Majesty still dote on you like before? Why do you think he sent Dong Mei and you away for five months?” the finger of the Empress gently laid on Chang Ying’s forehead and forced her head back.
“There are palace rumours Chang Ying is the Emperor’s favourite woman right now, Your Majesty,” I croaked.
Chang Ying snapped her head towards my direction and so did everyone else in the room. I gulped.
“You—” the jealousy made her raise her hand above her head. Chang Ying flinched and shrunk under her control. She kneeled and faced the Empress who towered over her head.
“What in the Heavens is going on here?”
My beloved Emperor has arrived.