I was awakened by Hua Er’s irritable snoring. They only occur when she’s sleeping on my bed.
Hua Er told me that she never passed the test to become one of the concubines due to her terrible snoring. A few years back, the Empress Dowager was more strict when it came to the rules of being a concubine, and had a variety of things the concubines should or should not have. This might sound cruel, but I’m sort of relieved she passed away. Nonetheless, I doubt only snoring caused Hua Er much trauma from the Palace, but she remained reserved when she talked about her experience.
I pulled my blanket off from my face and turned to my side. I groaned when the quiet footsteps of my maids grew closer. “You must be kidding me...”
“We apologize, milady,” my four maids kneeled. “But, you are lucky! Greeting the Empress will be later today. There will be an opera theatre performance in Jiaofang Hall a few hours after.”
“This early in the morning...” I muttered under my breath as I threw my pillow against my face.
“It’s one in the evening, Lady Ying Yue.” Chen Xi, one of my maids, hesitated with the response.
I still kept the same habits from my own era.
“Get up! Time to dress you up!” Guan Shu shouted in excitement as she towered over me. She beamed brightly at me, and how I wondered why she was always so cheerful in the morning.
The dimness of my chamber made me want to sleep for eternity. Living in royalty and in a medium-sized chamber, you’d expect to be able to contain enough vitamin C. There was barely any light in my chamber, just one small window. Even at night, I could open them up a little and still couldn’t feel any breeze against my skin.
My blanket was pulled away by Guan Shu and my body felt the chilly airflow brushing against my arm hairs. My irritation grew. Guan Shu and I were playing tug of war with my blanket; I was tightly holding onto the flocculent texture. “Ah! Why would I want to see an opera performance? And can I say I’m sick so I don’t have to greet the Empress?”
Every day in the morning, all concubines had to greet the Empress. Sometimes the Empress calls it off, but there are times we are forced to go. It’s boring anyway. I zone out in all their conversations.
I felt a soft object hit the side of my face, agitating me even more. I lifted my upper torso and groaned ferociously. “Who threw that?”
“Me... Just let them dress you and let me sleep!” Hua Er sassed, she rolled on her side and faced her back against me.
Hua Er and I have become very close, as whoever hears our conversations can tell. We had a sisterly relationship. By a sisterly relationship, a love-hate relationship would be a more specific term. We were easily comfortable to insult and taunt each other playfully. Hua Er was timid and gentle, while I was confident and bold. Like the Yin and Yang symbol, we were quite the opposite. Even with our differences, we still had a strong bond.
Living with her, breathing the same air as her, and being in her presence made me want to take her back home with me.
But you don’t always get what you want.
“Let you sleep? I had to sleep through your blaring snores!” I grabbed the pillow that was used to attack me and chucked it back at her. I was still groggy in the morning, like always, but I haven’t been woken up by other people in a long time.
My four maids were trying their hardest not to crack a smile or burst out laughing at our frivolous quarrel, so they just stood there until one of my maids interrupted. “Actually, Hua Er, you must attend as well.”
“I’d rather get ten lashes.” Hua Er reluctantly got up from the bed and started to make my bed.
As I watched Hua Er be a competent person, I sighed. If Hua Er is going to make a fool out of me, I might as well just get up. Placing my two legs to the side of the mattress, I did a faulty sit up and surrendered myself to my maids. “Okay, I’m up.”
My two maids began to dress me as I was swishing my oral fragrance pills in my mouth. Hua Er had her body spread out like a starfish on my bed.
I rolled my eyes. “Hua Er, get your butt up.”
“I never heard that phrase before, where have you learned that?” Hua Er asked.
“Dreamt about it.” I shrugged while Chen Xi held up the mirror as I checked my hair and makeup.
‘Dreamt about it’, was a code name I used when other people were around Hua Er and I. Hua Er, Lei Shu, Lan Yun, and Hua Er’s relative were the only people here that knew my real background. It’s not safe to tell anybody else. I can’t risk anything.
“Can one of you adjust this pin?” I ran my hand through the gold pin the Emperor had given me. I rubbed the needle with my thumb, remembering my encounter with the Emperor yesterday. His attitude changes all the time. It was difficult to figure him out. It was like he wears a different mask every time he leaves his palace. “I want it where it’s noticeable.”
I felt a finger at the side of my head. “Yes, milady.”
“I don’t want to go,” Hua Er started, adjusting her hanfu. “I hate almost all of them, Ying Yue.”
“Hua Er...” I began.
“Seriously! They had no right to ridicule you,” she clenched her jaw. “Niu Lin especially! Who does she think she is? A comedian?”
I wandered my eyes off of her and to the maids, which I was looking at through my small mirror in my hand. I barely trust my maids, besides Guan Shu. I don’t know what they do after they leave my chamber, and what they talk about after they leave my chamber. I’m not invited to their Saturday gossip sessions. With Hua Er running her mouth in front of them frequently, she could get both of us in serious trouble.
Before I could shut her up, Chen Xi snickered. “I agree with Hua Er. Lady Ying Yue, you mustn’t be so submissive towards them. Niu Lin is cruel because she’s envious.”
“I wonder if I could make her kneel for an hour,” I mumbled as I scanned my hair in the mirror.
My maid, who I don’t remember her name, chuckled after my remark. “Milady, you and Niu Lin have the same ranking, you don’t have power over her.”
After getting ready, Hua Er and I were off to attend whatever the performance was about. Their entertainment was something I’d have to sleep through with my eyes open.
Not all of the concubines were there. The women that were sitting down were handpicked by the Emperor; it was times like this where I wish the Emperor didn’t really like me. We all situated ourselves along the sides of the hall.
“The Emperor and the Empress have arrived!” I heard a faint voice.
I acted on my taught routine and kowtowed. “Warm blessings to Your Majesty. Joy and bliss to the Empress.”
“You may all rise,” the Emperor said.
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” our voices chimed with harmony.
It must be nice to hear that every single day.
Not too long after, I spaced out and tuned out the Emperor and the Empress’s voices. The performance was starting. I sat quietly and enjoyed my meal. The main storyline I got from it, was that a wife was distressed because her husband was forced to marry someone else. The two casts were dressed up with flashy colours and bright makeup and the secondary roles were dressed fairly proper too.
“I will never fall in love ever again!” the female actress wailed, positioning her body on a wooden table prop. She wept onto her sleeve, whilst her fingers tapped on her thighs in the rhythm of the drums in the background.
Her facial expressions were completely emotionless, nonetheless. No matter how many times I’ve tried to stay focused, she didn’t shed on tear nor make it seem convincing. The following scenes involved her cutting off her hair to pay for her ex-husband’s funeral, yet again, she remained bland.
I yawned behind my hand and took a glance at the Emperor. His face had a stern, fixed expression but his eyebrows were slightly furrowed. The Empress bobbed her head to the music, and so did the dangling pieces of jewellery hanging from her headpiece. The corners of her lips lifted ever since the performance started.
I found myself tapping my fingers on the table to the beat of the music.
In the story, the woman had so much filial piety to her dead in-laws, she was digging their own grave with her bare hands. The gods were moved by this and had built the grave for her.
Hua Er leaned forward to whisper in my ear, “I’m going to get more pastries. I don’t want to stir up any drama if Chen Xi gets it.”
“Get me one too,” I nodded while Hua Er struggled to get up from her spot.
Now, the actress swung a strap of a medium-sized tear-shaped instrument that was similar to a guitar behind her back. As she moved with a slow motion, her hands felt around the pocket of her top.
It happened too fast, but I witnessed it in slow motion. The devious actress extended her arm, with a hand lazily gripping onto a blade. With a striking hurl, she aimed it directly towards the Emperor. I followed the blade with my eyes. The sharp metal object darted across the room, about to hit something at any second.
My eyes stopped at the tracks of my lady-in-waiting with a pair of bulging eyes and a look I’ll never forget.
I watched stunned like everything was in slow-motion, but my fist clenched onto the edge of the plate. With a swift motion, I aimed the plate at the flying object and executed my throw. The sound of two metal objects clashing and Hua Er flinching caused me to spring up in alleviation. Everything began to move fast-paced and so did my adrenaline.
Clink! Clank! The two objects hit the floor hard.
Everyone and everything didn’t make a sound soon after, even the instruments stopped in harmony.
The Emperor slammed the table with the palm of his hands and elevated his body immediately after.
“Protect His Majesty!” a eunuch yelled before plenty of guards stormed in the hall.
I gave Hua Er a slight nod to reassure her, but her body was still visibly shaking. Her eyes were getting glossy and red. I urged her with my fingers to run back to me but she just stared off somewhere.
“You dare assassinate me? Who do you work for?” the Emperor barked.
“Please forgive me, Your Majesty! My hand must’ve slipped!” the actress rushed to the centre and kowtowed clumsily.
His lips were pursed. “What type of excuse is that? What a despicable, loathsome woman! Who sent you?”
I chewed my bottom lip while taking quick glances at the Emperor and the actress, like following a ping pong ball during a match. Fake tears streamed down her cheeks while the palm of her hands was still flatly placed on the ground. “Nobody, Your Majesty, please spare me!”
“What a blatant lie! I saw you use the instrument as a distraction, so you can reach for your weapon and injure His Majesty!” I yelled.
“W-What?” the actress’s make up was slowly wearing off. There were two skin-coloured trails down her cheeks, while the rest of her face was pure white. Her sobs and her anxious cries made her lipstick smudge down her chin. Her beautiful face turned into a swirl of an unrecognizable paint palette.
“Behead her and put her head on the pole,” the Emperor barked. “This will be an example for anyone who wants to kill the son of Heaven!”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” an older eunuch bowed.
She struggled while the guards held onto her arms tightly. She attempted to pry, bite, and fight her way out of it, but they were too strong for her. “Your Majesty! Please! Spare me! Empress, please! Empress, please help me out of it!”
“Your Majesty,” the Empress spoke softly, placing her hand on top of his. “Don’t execute her just yet, you can deal with her later. Let’s not ruin the rest of a good get-together.”
“My Empress, you are right,” he exhaled firmly as he nodded at the older eunuch. “Leave her in the cell, I’ll handle the rest later.”
I watched attentively as the guards dragged her away. My eyes followed her, never blinking once while she elbowed and raised her legs up. It reminded me too much of my initial encounter with their cells. Screaming, struggling, crying, arguing, it was all too familiar. But this time, the girl wasn’t innocent.
The Emperor relaxed his shoulders and slumped back onto his throne. He wrapped his fingers around the wine vessel and raised it, “I’d like for us to raise our cups to Lady Ying Yue, who not only saved me but her lady-in-waiting. May everybody in this room, take action when there is trouble.”
“Not all of us are farm girls who are trained to fight!” Niu Lin’s voice ran and jumped into my head like a parasite. I sharply turn to face her from across the room. She raised her eyebrows. “Us nobles don’t get our hands dirty.”
“What was that?” the Emperor’s small smile faded into a frown.
“N-Nothing, Your Majesty.”
“Please, repeat that. Maybe I’ll spare you from your punishment if you’re courageous enough.”
The consort beside me gulped. Her angsty eyes made contact with my eyes, but I consoled her with a smile. She was a Consort, I could tell, as she was wearing a simple blue hanfu. She must’ve been one of the concubines I was with during the selection.
I pitied her timid manner. She wasn’t fit for the harem life, she’ll presumably be ranked a Consort for her whole life. I breathed in the smell of wine as I lifted the cup towards my lips, winking at her.
I hope she can’t read minds.
Niu Lin’s nostrils flared slightly just as stubborn tears slipped out of her eyes. “I-I... Your Majesty, it was just a thought I had accidentally let out...”
“Your Majesty,” I stood up. “Niu Lin is already facing a punishment right now, it’s improper to give her another one. I can handle a little bit of hatred today.”
“What punishment?” he asked. Lines appeared between the Emperor’s eyebrows as his eyes began to expand.
Chang Ying, who has been quietly sitting at a lower step next to the Emperor, cleared her throat. “Niu Lin, along with five other concubines, were harassing Noble Consort Han, during the practice for Dong Mei’s celebration. The Empress Dowager walked in on them and punished them; the six concubines had to do sewing work in Diligence Hall for a week.”
“Ying Yue, is that right?” the Emperor asked in a tender tone.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” I replied, then turning towards Chang Ying. “Your Grace, how did you know this?”
Chang Ying bowed. “Pardon my manners, Your Majesty, but I may have accidentally overheard the Empress Dowager and her lady-in-waiting’s conversation. Please punish me, if you must.”
“I’ll dismiss it just this once, but do not meddle with my mother’s business,” he slowly placed his vessel down. “Ying Yue, you have such tolerance... Lian Ying,“—which was his trusted eunuch’s name—“slap Niu Lin ten times.”