As someone who’s lived in the twenty-first century for their whole life until now, it gets a bit unnerving to witness a real-life assassination. I claim this place, ancient China, as a reality. The air, the food, the different faces, the mannerisms, they’re too realistic for me to think that I’m in a coma. I wasn’t alive to witness the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, or Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or John F. Kennedy. But the failed attempt of the assassination that I just witnessed, sparked a fascination yet a fright inside of me.
There was an abundance of historical pieces and scenarios here that I—if I wasn’t stuck here—would be excited about. I’ve been privileged to be stuck here, ironically. Every day I watched incense sticks burn, slowly shortening every single minute. I’ve spent so much time and energy staring at the sticks, longing for my escape, that I forget to ease myself into a journey.
‘In the middle of a catastrophe, cherish it’ was written on a large scroll. I gave myself a satisfied smile before dropping my ink brush.
“Milady, your calligraphy has truly improved!” my youngest maid complimented. I felt her presence behind me.
I placed two stones at each side of the scroll before tidying up my table. “Thank you.”
“A-And... I also want to say that,” the maid stumbled upon her words and paused for a while. “That was sly of you...”
“What was?” I questioned. I hid my smirk.
My maid ogled the floor, avoiding any eye contact with me whatsoever. “When you brought up Niu Lin’s punishment, milady.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I replied, chuckling as I did so. “We both know that all I did was try to be fair to Niu Lin, but His Majesty got mad instead. It’s late now, you should leave.”
“Yes, milady,” she bowed. “I’ve learned a lesson about benevolence, due to you. I shall take my leave now.”
Hua Er was already sound asleep on the lower bed. No obnoxious snoring coming out of her mouth.
Peace and quiet alas, in my own chamber. It felt eerie but calm. I was alone with my thoughts, finally. With so many things happening during this week, I felt like a tangled pair of earphones.
Although I had goosebumps from the slight chilliness in my chamber because of the slightly opened window, owls were hooting outside, presenting me with a feeling of a serene blanket around me. The silk material of my hanfu rubbed my bare skin leaving me a little bit cold. I couldn’t change into something warmer because the men who were in charge of the actress expected me to interrogate her soon. I had to look unprepared and in my ‘nightgown’.
As I dipped my brush into the small bottle, coating the tip of the brush with black ink, a eunuch entered my chamber. He kneeled and kept his head down. “Lady Ying Yue, I apologize for disturbing your peace, but the Emperor needs to see you.”
“Of course,” I exhaled forcefully. “I’m still in my nightgown, though.”
“Please follow me, milady,” he says, getting up hastily.
We awkwardly walked side by side. I kept my distance, and he kept his, but I was really hoping he would start up a conversation. I continued to chew my bottom lip while I paid attention to where we were heading. My silk nightgown continued to rub my bare skin, sending shivers everywhere.
“It’s getting darker earlier.” said the eunuch.
I nodded in response. “And colder.”
Scratch that. My heart was pounding even harder, I could’ve sworn the man next to me could hear it. The small talk had me sweat even more than I originally was. This is the first, and hopefully the only, time I can prove my bravery and worth to the Emperor. I doubt anybody in the harem has ever stepped into a torture room to get a criminal to spill out the truth. No concubine has, except for me.
“Greetings to Your Majesty.” I kneeled on the rough, cold cement. The lamp the eunuch was holding up partially illuminated my face, but the Emperor could tell it was me. Although I could barely see in the dark, there were more than enough guards and eunuchs in the... shed? Room? Palace? I wouldn’t know. The devices here looked either sharp, complex, or deadly.
“Get up,” the Emperor softly instructed. His hand was held out for me to reach. I daintily placed the palm of my hand on his and pulled myself up so I could stand.
I moved closer to the crowd and the light radiated more onto my surrounding area. I stopped walking when I spotted the actress. She was in a strange device; her arms spread out and tight bamboo-like materials were hugging her body. Her hair was ragged like someone messed up her hair and continuously pulled on them.
The eunuch raised the lamp beside her as I examined her carefully. I didn’t know what to say or do. I was lost for words. The whole room was quiet, all I could hear was the quiet footsteps of mine.
I swallowed my saliva right when she started to lift her head. Her lifeless eyes greeted mine and I almost tripped backwards. The actress’s breath was abnormal; I could tell she was hyperventilating. There was a bit of drool next to the corner of her mouth. A single drop of tear ran down her cheeks as I lifted her chin up. I faced the Emperor. “Why was I sent here, Your Majesty? Clearly, the interrogation took place without me.”
A guard cleared his throat before bowing. “We need you to examine her.”
“Here’s the bag she brought with her, milady.” Jaxon dropped a small, beige bag next to my feet.
I picked it up with my shaking hands and emptied it on the floor. The sound of items hitting the ground echoed. I scanned the items carefully, but there was nothing that could cause potential harm. There were bottles of water, another foreign instrument, and makeup. I checked it over again three times.
“Your Majesty, she has no harmful weapons besides the dagger,” I said before patting both of my hands on the side of her waist. I looked at Jaxon. “I might have to do a body check. Get her out of the... whatever that is.”
“Yes, Lady Ying Yue.” he obeyed my orders with readiness and removed the actress away from the machine. He held her up by her arms, but her weak, limp lower body was dragging itself on the ground.
My hands—non-sexually—wandered her body. The actress’s eyes were barely opened. She cooperated fine, though, as she never moved a muscle during the search. I felt between her thighs with my hand and felt a paper-like material. I rubbed the back of my hand against it. “There’s something between her thighs, Your Majesty.”
“There are things between everyone’s thighs...” a guard softly whispered to another. I gave them a polite smile before reaching under her hanfu to pull it out.
A folded sheet of paper was soon in my hand. The eunuch moved the lamp slightly above so everyone else in the room can see it. I cleared my throat before revealing what was in it.
“A letter.” the Emperor only said. I held out the letter towards him with both hands as he walked towards me.
It was a regular sheet of paper with Chinese writing neatly written on it. At the bottom right corner of the letter, there was a big red stamp with a phoenix in the middle. I leaned in forwards to quickly read the letter over.
“A hundred silver coins, I’ll give you a gold pin. Actress. Tomorrow morning,” I read it out loud. “That’s not very specific...”
The Emperor nodded. “It surely isn’t, but we get the message. Lian Ying, put this on my desk immediately.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.” his eunuch bowed, accepting the letter with two open palms. He quickly walked out.
I chewed my bottom lip. The woman in front of me was sniffling, but no tears were leaving her eyes. Her eyes met mine and I quickly looked away. “Your Majesty... What will we do with her?”
“I have no choice but to execute her,” he replied casually.
The guards acted promptly with hearing those words, dragging the actress away. No screams, no kicks, no fighting. Her lively yet dead body remained stiff, but her eyes continued to watch me. I gulped hard. I could’ve sworn she mouthed my name, but I could be hallucinating. My sweating and shaking had disappeared but I was still in shock.
During the time the guards were heading out of the shady torture shed, I called out to Jaxon before he exited.
He looked behind his shoulder and walked towards me. I looked at the eunuch who continued to hold the lamp next to his face and nodded. “You may leave.”
Jaxon and I waited for him to leave. Once the eunuch was a few metres away from the door, I started talking. “How did one of the concubines know that I was kneeling at Tranquil Hall?”
“I swear I didn’t tell anybody, except for the guard that was camping outside the hall,” Jaxon whispered. “He had to know. Why are you asking? Someone knew?”
“I got made fun of for it back at practice.” I groaned.
“Guards gossip too,” Jaxon sighed before giving me a warm smile. “I promise I don’t share secrets.”
I pressed my back against the wall as he leaned towards me. Both of us were staring at each other with a feeling I can’t describe.
My breathing intensified as my lips subconsciously puckered a bit while his strong arms gripped onto my waist. Although it was pitch black and I could barely see his face, I felt the warmth of his body as he pressed against mine. Without hesitation, our lips crashed into each other like we’ve been craving this for months.
His hands fondled around and explored my body while my tongue explored the inside of his mouth. We continued for a while now, not catching a break, still roaming each other’s softness. A euphoric rush into my bloodstream had me craving for more. I arched my back and leaned in more, hungrily playing tag with his tongue. As our kisses began to start feeling sloppy, I instantly pulled back.
I’m so glad it’s dark because I could feel my cheeks getting hot.
I cleared my throat. “I—”
“I don’t know why...” Jaxon whispered but I could tell he was smiling.
“N-Neither do I,” I stammered as I felt his hands leave my body. “Um, can you walk me back to...”
”Yeah, of course, I mean...”
“Cool, okay, let’s... Let’s go...before, you know...” I wiped my sweaty hands on the side of my hanfu.
Jaxon nervously laughed as we were near the exit. “I agree, before you... I don’t know. Before what, exactly?”
“I actually”—I cleared my throat—“don’t know what I was talking about...” I cleared my throat again before the cold hit me without a warning.
“This... didn’t happen, right?” Jaxon scratched the back of his head.
“Oh! Of course not, no!” I chuckled with uneasiness while shuddering.
We walked in silence.