A/N: Some of the ‘hall’ names are fiction.
After the three days of the Empress’s punishment, everything in the harem went back to normal. It was riotous when she wasn’t present. The women didn’t think twice to punish lower-ranked concubines and abuse them for a mistake they’ve done. Chaos was everywhere without the Empress in power. Dong Mei had to rest and the only one in authority within the three days was Chang Ying.
Although Chang Ying was able to work under extreme pressure and stress, she couldn’t even handle it. It was like a battlefield, almost. When the Empress returned, she was in a moodier state.
“Dong Mei’s celebration?” she said as we all huddled together for our instructions for the dance.
“Yes, Your Majesty.” Niu Lin replied. She was still fond of the Empress and the Empress was fond of her. I still didn’t know why Niu Lin was doing what she was doing, but I guess I’ll never know.
The Empress shifted aside for a palace woman. She had her hair braided down and two bronze hairpins at the back of her head. “Warm blessings to Your Majesty, I’m here.”
Shockingly, the Empress nodded and returned the palace woman’s kind gestures. She smiled with grace, then turning her head again to face us. “Well then, I hope you all have a great time practicing. Don’t mess things up for Dong Mei.”
A concubine snickered. “Has anyone told her that the best dancer gets to—”
Everyone shushed her.
“Lady Ying Yue,” Guan Shu, my trusted maid bowed as I entered her room in the servant’s palace. “It’s lovely to see you!”
“Guan Shu! Please don’t be so formal with me!” I scolded as I held her up. I scanned around her room; it wasn’t as small as I thought it would be and it looked cleaned up. “Where’s Rong Er?”
Guan Shu grinned at me. “Oh yes! Rong Er, come and greet Lady Ying Yue!”
A small timid child peeked behind a separate wall before slowly walking towards me. “Warm blessings to the Empress!”
“No! I’m not the Empress! I’m—” I gasped.
“Rong Er, she is Lady Ying Yue! We went through this before! Quick, apologize!” Guan Shu exclaimed as she bent over to give him a slight push forward. Her eyes curled up.
I chuckled and squatted down. “Hello, Rong Er. How old are you?”
This was a real-life toddler I was seeing in the palace. I’ve never seen one before, and this would be my first one. I held his hand while his big eyes looked back at me in awe. He was so innocent and pure, I wanted to squeeze him.
“I apologize, milady,” he mumbled. “I’m four.”
I passed time by watching Guan Shu take care of her son. She told me about the stories and gossip in the Palace. She was another mother figure I had here, second to Hua Er’s mother. Rong Er was starting to feel comfortable with me and let me fly his kite.
“Look how high it is!” he squealed with excitement as we both ran across the bridge, watching the owl-like kite fly into the sky.
Guan Shu watched silently but had a smile spread across her face the whole time.
I felt at peace. It was getting chillier than ever, but when the light breeze ran its gentle fingers through my hair, I couldn’t have asked for more. It was pure bliss; I think I was suddenly having baby fever. There were no worries while flying a simple kite with a giggling child next to you non-stop. He was more amused than I was and I’ve never flown a kite before.
My homesickness was starting to fade as Rong Er called my name. I looked behind my shoulder and smiled. “What is it?”
“Do you want to be my big sister?” he grinned, rushing over to hold my hand tenderly, before letting me have the kite.
I held onto the string and held back my sorrowful tears. I missed my little sister, and I missed my family. The sun was still radiating, the large white fluffs in the sky were huddling around together... like family. But as Rong Er looked up at me and waited for a response, I started to let go of this ‘I miss my family’ bullshit and start to fill this void in my hole by appreciating things now.
I’m going to miss him and his mother when I go back home.
Sighing as my lips curled, I exhaled gently. “Yes!”
We walked back into my residence while we all ate in silence. Hua Er awkwardly situated herself between Rong Er and Guan Shu but was too afraid to get up and sit next to me. After we ate, Rong Er and Guan Shu had to leave.
“I’ll see you later, Lady Ying Yue!” Rong Er giggled. He started to hop around in hopes of earning my laughter, and he did.
His hair was crispy falling onto his upper eyelid. I carefully swept his hair up and squatted down. “Bye Rong Er, be good to your mother, alright?”
“Yes!” he nodded before reaching for his mother’s hand. I looked up at Guan Shu.
She gave me a teary-eyed smile. “Thank you.”
“Thank you,” I whispered back. My favourite maid turned around and left my chamber. I held my breath before the waterworks spilled.
Although I kept telling myself that Guan Shu and her son could keep me sane from losing my mind over not seeing my family, I knew I was wrong. I was so homesick in this place. I’ve been having sleepless nights; I’m starting to wonder if doing this is worth it.
I had my head buried in Hua Er’s chest and my muffled cries could’ve been heard from the next room. I continued to let everything out. I felt the warmth of Hua Er’s embrace and the gentle reassurance of her words, and I started to loosen up.
We both held each other in silence. I didn’t want Hua Er to feel bad for me. When I leave this place, I’ll be sure to convince the Emperor to let them leave. Or perhaps, he can take good care of them. Now thinking of it, I wouldn’t know what to tell the Emperor before I leave. I’d have to fake a suicide or something.
Or a murder.
I can make it look like the Empress murdered me... She’ll be deposed. I paused my thinking. I was starting to get too ahead of my game; I need to be in the present.
“Hmm?” she continued to play with my hair.
“What’s my schedule for today?”
There was quiet in the chamber for a few seconds. I had Hua Er remember my schedule. I was surprisingly really busy the past few days. There was the dance I had to practice, I still had to attend proper etiquette classes. I’m almost done, but it’s a bore. I’ve also been practicing martial arts (just in case).
“You can start practicing for the dance,” Hua Er said before gently pushing me off herself and getting up to find my hanfu.
“Okay, it goes... one, two, three and four, five, six...” I whispered to myself.
Tranquil Hall was a very beautiful hall. The Imperial family are the only ones allowed in to relax and take their time off of things. The princes and princesses liked to practice their hobbies in this hall, according to Hua Er after she swooned over some prince. This setting was beautiful, but the problem was that anyone else outside of the Imperial family, was not allowed to be here.
It seems to be rebellious but everyone is so busy over planning things for the first offspring of the Emperor, that I doubt anyone would be in here. This place is so fun for dancing, that I wished I could get my phone and blast music.
The music was nowhere here but I could still dance to the rhythm of my humming. “One, two, three and four, five—”
As I took my last step, my back hit something foreign. A loud glass shattering noise echoed in the room. Slowly and carefully, I took deep breaths and scanned the area.
Exactly six pieces of the vase behind me was on the floor. I don’t know how valuable and important this was but I quickly bent down to pick it up.
“Leave it there.” a hoarse voice of a woman demanded.
From the corner of my eyes, I could see a tired middle-aged woman dressed in a soft silky yellow sleepwear. It was around eight o’clock, the palace wasn’t quiet. I squinted a little at the lady and I almost had a stroke.
I kneeled and kowtowed to the Empress Dowager. “Peace and longevity to the Empress Dowager.”
“Get up,” she yawned. “Do you know how rare this vase was? And how much value it has?”
“I do apologize, Your Majesty, I didn’t mean to! I was just busy practicing for the dance.”
She carefully fixed her hair. The Empress Dowager hadn’t spoken a word. She remained peaceful until she walked over to me. Her hands carefully picked up the vase before I stopped her. “No, Your Majesty, I’ll pick it up...”
“Enough! This vase was here long before you were,” the woman who was more powerful than the Emperor, was yelling at me. I admired her but I was sweating profusely. “And I don’t recall permission for you to be here, this palace is not for concubines. Do you know these rules you’re breaking? Or were you napping when they were teaching you proper manners and etiquette?”
Surprisingly, she wasn’t as mad as I thought she would be... She was still mad, though. I kneeled again to let her assert dominance and kowtowed. Without lifting my head, I nervously exhaled. “I apologize, I deserve to be punished.”
“Yes, you do,” the Empress Dowager scoffed. I winced. “You know, I liked you, Han Ying Yue. You aren’t like most of these concubines in the harem. You have a unique character, and you weren’t afraid to stand up to those god-awful assassins. But today from now on, I no longer will respect you.”
“I’m too tired to even speak and look at you. Kneel for an hour and go back to your estate.”
With that, she left the large room.
It was about twenty minutes before I began drifting off. An hour of kneeling? Who the hell does she think she is? Is she even allowed to make me kneel for an hour? If so, can I make Niu Lin kneel for an hour?
The Emperor’s mother sure knows how to ruin my day. Besides, it was only a vase, get a grip, woman. I rolled my eyes, knowing I was alone.
“Milady.” a delicate, deep voice greeted. I looked around in the darkness to find a shadow, but I couldn’t.
“Er... Hello?” I mumbled. I was about to get up, but this could’ve been one of the Empress Dowager’s tests. I’m not so oblivious to these schemes after all. Or... maybe I was hallucinating.
The rug material was tickling my knees and by the time I got up, I knew I was going to have a weird imprint on my two knees. This was even worse than being behind bars in a cold, mouldy dungeon.
My eyelids were getting droopier but I still felt tension with the whole shuffling going around in the room. I wasn’t exactly scared. As soon as I raised my hand to yawn, the gorgeous face of Jaxon soared above me.
“You shouldn’t be here, Lady Ying Yue,” he raised an eyebrow.
“Shut up, the Empress Dowager can’t hear us,” I groaned, “I have to kneel as punishment. The old hag has a different way of teaching me things.”
He let out a laugh before scanning around the room. “What did you do? Well, besides being here.”
“I was practicing my dance for the celebration. Long story short, I broke a vase,” I explained while Jaxon slid two fabrics underneath my knees.
”Tsk, tsk, that’s what you get... When can you—”
“Yes. Please keep me company, I already feel like falling asleep.”
Jaxon plopped himself on his bum next to me. The scent of fresh herbs and his natural skin was intoxicating. “Should I kneel with you too?”
“Be my guest,” I smirked.