“Your—” the Empress began and while she spoke, the rest of us greeted the Emperor politely.
“Empress, is this what I’ve taught you?” her husband spewed anger. His eyes turned dull and nothing glistened like the last time he looked at her. The eyebrows of this royal man were furrowing and stressed to the point where he couldn’t even move from his one spot.
I was trembling beneath my hanfu. While I was staring at him, I couldn’t even move a muscle.
The Empress kneeled and kowtowed to him shortly after. Her nails scratched the material of the flooring. “Your Majesty! I-It was—”
“This is what you are teaching the concubines in the harem? As the Empress, you need to be virtuous, kind, and a role model in the harem... But what I walked in to was the opposite of that,” the Emperor let out everything in his body. I already knew he was stressed before this incident, and now he’s taking it all out on her. “You have a role. It is to set an example for other women in the harem, but you... I can’t have this conversation.”
Woah, what a king. I’m surprised she hasn’t cried yet. Niu Lin and I exchanged glances and both of us were widening our eyes at each other. That was the only time I ever bonded with her.
“Please! Let me explain myself! It was a punishment, Chang Ying deserved it She disrespected me!” the Empress reached out to grab the Emperor’s leg, still kneeling.
“No, the Empress was upset because there were rumours that Chang Ying was favoured in the harem,” I interjected.
This time, she won’t win.
The Empress glanced behind to give me the dirtiest look before bowing again. “That’s only because Noble Consort Han told me that! Your Majesty, please let me bestow twenty flogs on her.”
I want to slap the—
“I-I’m sorry if I caused any inconvenience, Your Majesty. The Empress is virtuous and blesses all of the women in the harem with her care, I would never want to compare—” Chang Ying began.
“Be quiet!” the deranged women screamed before the Emperor pried her hands away from him.
“I heard enough. You’re going to be held in the Contemplate Palace for three days,” he said sternly before he reached for the exit. “You two, return to your place at once. Empress, come with me.”
He paused, before sighing. “I’m starting to love you less now.”
Chang Ying and I scurried off. We both looked behind us to see the Empress’s reaction. The night was near, and I wanted to sleep.
The Empress’s punishment was the gossip of the harem, which spread to other parts of the palace. It was the first time in forever that she got punished. It was embarrassing for her.
I’ve been cautiously trying to keep myself reserved and away from any drama, but it always seems to come up. With my popularity and name in other people’s mouths, I always end up running into trouble.
It’s getting chillier now. I can sense winter coming. It’s been almost three months since I’ve been in the Palace and I’ve been starting to get mini anxiety attacks in my chamber when I’m alone. The homesick feeling in my gut isn’t helping anything. By the time it starts snowing, I might as well risk everything in order to get home.
Su Yin, Jia Ying, Hua Er, and I were getting closer. We treated each other like sisters, and for once, I had close friends in the harem. Su Yin and I both attended lessons together. The lessons were once every week. Su Yin has all the knowledge but she goes just for me.
“Sister,” Su Yin slightly bowed when she walked towards me. I furrowed my brows as I studied her face closely. She didn’t look happy. “It’s going to happen again.”
“What is?” I dropped my brush, then reaching for her hands.
“The Empress... I’m afraid she might—”
“What? Su Yin?”
“Dong Mei is pregnant.”
I gasped. Hua Er and I exchanged glances before looking back at Su Yin. Dong Mei’s pregnancy will definitely be important. It’ll be the Emperor’s first offspring, which will be celebrated. Even though Dong Mei gave me off negative vibes, I’m still happy for her.
“What does Her Majesty have to do with anything?” Hua Er questioned.
Su Yin nervously bit her bottom lip. She tilted her head down. “I’m afraid the Empress may try and kill her.”
“Don’t be silly, the Empress and Dong Mei are friends, aren’t they? They have a sisterly bond.” Hua Er gave Su Yin a reassuring smile, but as I turned back to Su Yin, she didn’t even flinch.
“The story of who I told you about, Ying Yue, isn’t fiction,” Su YIn spoke. “Throughout the nine months in this palace, we must lay low. The Empress will displace her anger on us. Eventually, she’ll—”
“What are we talking about?” we all turned as Chang Ying walked along the pathway in a light, blue hanfu. She powerfully strutted with her maids carefully walking to the side of her.
I almost forgot about last night’s incident. Once I saw Chang Ying, the most immediate thought I had was the Empress’s motions of almost slapping her face. Even when she slapped me across my face, she didn’t look as angry as she did last night.
“N-Nothing, Your Grace...” Hua Er stammered, almost kicked her chair to bow to her. Su Yin and I stood up to bow but Chang Ying interrupted us shortly.
Hua Er, someone that was too submissive for her wellbeing, was irritating me. I wouldn’t mind making her tougher. If I’m trying to survive this place, I need Hua Er to be less obedient to higher authority figures. She was almost as red as a tomato from the embarrassing kick of the chair.
“Ying Yue, tell your lady-in-waiting that she doesn’t need to be nervous around me,” she laughed as she patted Hua Er’s shoulder.
We all crowded around the bench table. While the three girls were discussing Dong Mei’s pregnancy, I was hesitating to talk about last night. It went by too fast, and it was something I never expected to happen. Why did the Emperor go into Niu Lin’s chamber? I had the basic knowledge that the Emperor never goes to the concubine’s room for night attendance, and rather it’s the opposite.
Lucky for me, Su Yin brought it up. “How did last night even happen? Who initiated it first?”
“I can’t disclose that information, but I was heading to Niu Lin’s chamber to set a warning for her,” Chang Ying spoke. “Niu Lin was in on this scheme somehow. From other witnesses—”
Hua Er inhaled sharply through her mouth and created a weird noise. “I’m so sorry! I forgot to tell you, Ying Yue!”
“What? What is it?” I shot up.
“Niu Lin and a few other concubines and maids were at your chamber when it was the trial! They were supposed to plant the evidence of poison, so I hid. When they went to leave the room, I quickly took the poison and poured it into the urn near your mirror.”
Urn? I fumed.
“Wait, which urn? Hua Er! I needed that!”
“The small one! The small one!”
I leaned my head back and breathed out. “Alright, I’m fine...”
“Ying Yue! They almost got you killed and you’re worried about an urn?” Su Yin scolded me.
Chang Ying had her chin propped up with her fist while her elbow was on the table. “Niu Lin was in on it, but─”
“─Why would His Majesty be visiting her chamber last night?” we both said in unison.
A few chuckles left our mouths, but it soon died out when all of us were in our own thoughts. Did Niu Lin try to frame Chang Ying?
“What if Niu Lin wanted to frame Her Majesty?” Chang Ying whispered.
“I thought she would’ve wanted to frame you?” Jia Ying, Su Yin’s lady-in-waiting, broke her silence. She was fidgeting with her sleeve throughout the entire time; I felt bad because I knew she had a lonely feeling of not belonging.
I nodded. “I thought so as well.”
Chang Ying shook her head. We waited as she gulped down all her tea. “I thought so as well, but the Empress happened to be in the room. As I walked in, the Empress began scolding me so much, I haven’t had time to scold Niu Lin. Most of the time, Niu Lin was shockingly quiet.”
“So Niu Lin would have called the Emperor and said something so he can visit her chamber,” I finished her thought. “Which is why His Majesty walked in at the right time. Actually no, there was a huge delay.”
I was putting the puzzles together for her, and I felt smart. If I can understand plots and schemes in the harem, I can easily avoid any consequences and make my way up to the top. This is starting to get deadly.
Thinking about it, Niu Lin was always obedient and at the Empress’s side at times... Why would she want her in trouble?
“This still doesn’t make any sense,” Jia Ying looked around frantically before leaning in towards us. “Niu Lin wouldn’t try and sabotage the Empress because she’s afraid. She’s also just a Noble Consort. She has no benefits if the Empress was caught at the right time.”
Everyone was in deep thinking. There was nothing else to discuss. It still didn’t make any sense, but we all changed the topic quickly. Chang Ying left early to run a few errands, which shocked me. I didn’t know Imperial Noble Consorts had so many things to do. I always thought it was a care-free lifestyle. The rest of the time, we sat and played cards. Most of the time, Su Yin won.
“What’s happening?” I whispered over to another concubine as we all huddled around the middle of the hall. We waited for Dong Mei to arrive for instructions, but everyone else was moving our heads like chickens in confusion. There was a murmur of talking between the girls.
She was startled. Her eyes widened before she looked at me again. “E-Er... I think it has something to do with Dong Mei’s pregnancy celebration.”
“Why would we be crowded around here for a stupid pregnancy celebration.,” I uttered under my breath before gazing at the small group of maids and eunuchs behind Dong Mei.
It was a small selection of women in the harem that was with me, an approximate of ten to fifteen concubines and consorts. Everyone had people to talk to, but me. At that moment, I knew I should’ve made more friends.
The rowdy chattering of the girls faded while Dong Mei approached closer. We all bowed and greeted her.
She was simultaneously smirking at us and rubbing her stomach before she cleared her throat. “As you all know, I am carrying His Majesty’s child. There is a celebration next week, which the Emperor would like to see some of his favourite women dance.”
What a weirdo.
It’s such a shame he’s good-looking... But I have a quiet urge to be the dancer that outshines everyone else.
“But Madame Dong Mei-” another whined.
“I didn’t finish,” Dong Mei interrupted while glaring at her with a frown. She looked around grinning at us once more. “The best dancer, picked by His Majesty, may serve him at—”
My eardrums were in immense pain. I couldn’t even hear, nor hear myself think for that matter. The sound concubines shrieking among themselves was shattering my eardrums. I would never understand it, and I don’t think I ever would. I looked around the room and some of the girls were attractive, but they acted as if they’ve never even touched the Emperor at all.
“Have you slept with the Emperor yet?” the same girl I talked to whispered to me.
“No!” I scrunched my face before realising how I reacted. Her bottom jaw hung down. I nervously laughed. “I-I told His Majesty that I wasn’t ready... yet...”
Her reaction started to become even more exaggerated. “The Emperor asked—”
“The Emperor asked who?” another one popped in our conversation.
“I heard from one of the Noble Consorts that if you sleep with the Emperor on a full moon, you will increase the chances of conceiving!” a tall concubine with a grin on her face called out from behind me.
“Enough!” Dong Mei shouted.
“Sorry, Your Grace!”
“Please forgive us!”
“We were being too loud!”
Some were frantically whining, and a handful of them even did the part to kneel and bow. I flushed with embarrassment. These people are who I have to be cooperating with for the past week.
“Please stand up,” Dong Mei instructed before nodding politely at us. “One of the palace women will be here to guide you through. She’s almost finished the choreography. I would like you, girls, to practice and believe in yourself. The Imperial family will be there. Don’t mess things up for me.”
Scanning through most of them, they don’t seem half bad. The only thing on my mind was dancing for the Emperor, and how much I’d like to shine the day of the celebration.