I kept on thinking about Jaxon. I kept on thinking about last night’s unexpected rendezvous. It wasn’t as if I liked Jaxon, or I ever considered being with him. We only had each other in this place. How could I not want to be with him? I need him. We both need each other or else we wouldn’t be able to go back home.
Jaxon. The name sounded so good on my tongue as I whispered it to myself in the morning. I wasn’t catching feelings for him but his soft satin-like lips pressed against mine... I wanted to go back into that moment and never pull away.
Maybe I’m just dick deprived.
It was the day. The day of gathering and I was a nervous wreck. When us concubines lined up to get our body measurements checked, for God knows why, and I was starting to get scared. My body wasn’t the skinniest. It wasn’t ‘ancient China’ standards I don’t think. I had a tummy. Not a flat stomach, and not a beer belly, but I had a fluffy stomach that was almost flat. Just not flat enough to societal standards.
“Next!” called a maid, and I looked around first before walking into a small section of the room. Another maid gave me a small bow before pulling a screen to block anyone else from viewing.
I stripped down to my bare skin. The maid stretched a skinny rope and straightened my back. “We’ll have to measure your height first, stand still for me, milady.”
I held my posture and watched as she stepped on the bottom rope and lifted it. I wasn’t the shortest nor the tallest. I was probably average, a whopping five foot four. Or, one point six metres if we’re talking about a better system of measurement.
I felt the rope wrap around my waist, gently pressing above my navel. The maid knitted her eyebrows and checked a scroll. “Milady, have you gained weight? Your waist was at a twenty-four last time, and now it’s at a twenty-five. Your stomach—”
“I might have.” I rolled my eyes. I guess Uncle Bin’s late-night snacks were catching up on me.
“Hips,” the maid says to the other palace woman that was keeping track. “Eighty-five.”
I hope the Emperor likes his women with an hourglass body.
The maids let me out, finally, and I walked out to meet Jaxon. He leaned back against the wall and held a smile for me. “That was fast.”
”Hey,” I greeted.
“Listen, I was researching a little bit. There’s an extremely old book about different worlds and eras hidden under some files,” Jaxon whispers before pulling it out. “We can get back.”
I scoffed. “Well, of course, we can get back, we just need—”
“No, I’m a hundred per cent sure we can get back, not just an ‘if’. But see, we’re not time travelling. A man under the name Pax Manck wrote this book, and it was a theory that we’re in a parallel universe that sprouted off a major event,” Jaxon explained while we carefully walked into another room. “This isn’t time travel.”
“Okay, well, how do we know?” I asked as I seated myself on the chair.
“I mean it makes sense if you think about it. There’s no footbinding because an emperor from two dynasties ago thought they were useless and ugly... There’s not a lot of blatant sexism...” Jaxon began.
“Women can’t go to school, Jaxon.” I cocked an eyebrow.
Jaxon opened his mouth to say something but closed it not very long after. ”Okay, you’re right. But! This whole ‘arranged marriage for women’ thing isn’t prominent in this era. Yes, still sexism but not too much.”
“Still sexism, but go off,” I retorted. “I mean... I’m glad there isn’t that god-awful practice but still extremely sexist.”
“You’re right.” Jaxon stares blankly at one of the pages of the book.
I tilted my head to get another angle of Jaxon’s undeniably attractive face. I wondered if any other maids or concubines wanted something from him. As he looked down, scanning the pages with the deepest concentration, I couldn’t help but be curious if Jaxon was eye-candy for them. “Jaxon.”
“Hmm?” he flips the page without looking at me.
“Do girls ever want to talk to you here?” I asked.
“Why? Are you jealous?” he smirks.
Jaxon caught me staring at him and I would’ve looked away if I wanted to, but I refused to. His earthy light brown eyes were directly in front of me. The pair of small planets in front of me captivated me. Could NASA just let me get inside a rocket and launch me in his eyes so I can get lost in them?
I internally laughed at my lame joke.
“No! I am not!” I crossed my arms.
Jaxon gives me a big grin. He folds the right corner of the page and closes the book. “Well, since you asked, yes. The answer is yes. Young palace women like to swoon over me and some of your fellow concubines like to—”
“That’s all I needed to know,” I interrupted before getting up promptly. “I have a performance to get ready for. It was nice. To talk to you, I mean. I’m going to get us out!”
“Yes, Carmen,” he stands upright after me and embraces me. “We are in this together. You know that, right?”
“Yes, I do,” I pushed my hair back. “Let’s hope the Emperor chooses me to accompany him tonight. So, I could get his hair, ya know?”
Before Jaxon could say anything, I left the room.
My palms were clammy and warm whilst my maids did my hair. They had to do the best of their ability. While my maids ran their fingers through my hair for preparation, I was patting down my face with a large amount of powder, in hopes of hiding my shame and embarrassment.
I patted my eyebags down. Staying up all night to do your best for a simple man was something I’ve never known I’d do. I picked up a small brush to draw a red flower symbol in the middle of my forehead.
“You look stunning, milady.” Guan Shu said in awe as she carefully adjusted my hanfu.
“That’s due to you four,” I replied. I checked myself again in the mirror before reaching into my jewellery box. “Where’s the hairpin His Majesty gifted me?”
I opened my mouth to say something, but the empty box alarmed me. My heart stopped. My hands roamed around my table, touching everything and anything. I patted myself down and frantically rummaged through boxes and boxes.
Chen Xi grinned before holding the gold pin with the jade stone to my face. “Did you think I’d forget about this?”
“Chen Xi! You gave me quite a scare!” I scolded before sitting back on my chair.
My mischievous maid shivered before kneeling to me, almost instantly after I sat down. “Please forgive me, milady, I thought it would be-”
“Get up, I was only kidding around,” I lifted her arm, still situated on my chair. “I must leave soon, please hurry.”
The entire hall was crowded. We were at a palace near the water, where most performances usually take place. The building the audience was in had a missing wall so there was a view of the lake. They situated themselves in and out of the building; they sat depending on their ranking. The performances usually took place on the large deck but they decided not to let us dance on it.
It was relatively chilly with the slight breeze against my clothing. We waited patiently, tightly packed together. The Emperor couldn’t see us. I covertly poked my head out a little to see what was going on. There were a few unfamiliar faces, that I’ve never seen before, sitting closer to the Emperor, Empress, and Empress Dowager.
I had a sinking feeling in my heart. My foot continuously tapped the ground impatiently. I couldn’t help but think about when I tripped over the concubine a few weeks ago. I chewed my bottom lip as I stood slightly closer to a Consort that closed her mouth during the incident.
Deep breaths in. Deep breaths out.
“Send the performers in!” the loud voice of a eunuch is heard, and in a haste, I wiped my sweaty palms on the side of my new hanfu.
The group of concubines all sashayed in harmony and took their places behind the deck. In a well-organized placement, the concubines began to dance with the instruments. Every individual wore identical rosy pink hanfus that swirled and flowed with the breeze acting with them. It was like the wind and the women were in harmony, feeling the connection of impressing the Emperor.
“How are you enjoying it so far?” Empress Zhang—which was Nian Shu—brushed her lips against her husband’s ear to whisper to him.
There was a tone of jealousy in her voice, but she buried it under her concerning attitude. Ever since Dong Mei announced her pregnancy, the Empress hasn’t been receiving enough of the Emperor’s devotion. If a concubine from the rosy pink cluster of women twirling around in front of her becomes pregnant, she’ll lose her sanity.
The Emperor lifts her chin up with his index finger and plants a light kiss on her lips. “I am enjoying every second of it... With you, my love.”
The simple statement was enough to keep Nian Shu silent and crimsoning.
The dulcet tones of the guqin, pipa, and guzheng blended nicely together. The concubines who played delicately couldn’t stop glancing over to wait for the Emperor’s approval, and hopefully a smile. But, the Emperor wasn’t paying attention to them at all. His eyes wandered off to the radiant woman in the entire room. It was her role to be in the middle now and she shone.
The concubine raised her arms up to snap twice, then leaning her head back to smoothly rock her hips. Without ending the seductive eye contact with the Emperor, she slyly smooths the opening of her hanfu down to reveal a small part of her cleavage, before twirling around hesitantly. The Empress solemnly placed her hand on the Emperor’s hand.
Her twirl was in sync with the guzheng solo. It was almost perfect; it was like she had been practising for months. Her finishing move was to gently but swiftly extend her left arm out with the back of her right hand against her chin, before jerking her head up to the left and switching positions with another.
Nian Shu attentively listens to the Emperor gulp. And she squeezes his hand, already knowing she had lost.
After the performance, we all bowed and beamed at the audience. I sighed to myself as it was over. The loud applause, the nods, and the big grins on everyone’s faces left me satisfied. At least I didn’t trip over that bitch.
It was getting dark. It had such a wintery feel, the callings of the insects were fading. An old eunuch quietly approached me before suggesting to walk me home. “Lady Ying Yue, would you like me to lead you back to your estate?”
“Please,” I said while taking his hand. I placed the palm of my hand on his. I don’t quite understand why this was an etiquette. It’s like they think women aren’t capable of handling themselves. Whenever my maids try to lift me up when I kneeled to bow, I always swatted them away.
We had been walking for a couple of minutes in the silence until the eunuch, this time, started a non-making-anxious conversation while we walked together. He had a small grin on his face. “You did excellent today, milady.”
“Really? You think so?” I scoffed, doubting my abilities once again.
“I don’t think so, I know.”
“I don’t—I don’t really know if what I did was too much or—”
“Mustn’t worry, milady,” the eunuch replies before raising a hand for the guards to let us in. I was slightly embarrassed but felt joy from his words. The Emperor immediately appeared on my mind as I arrived outside my chamber. The eunuch bowed before I got inside. “Good luck, milady.”
He smiled with his eyes and turned to leave. I hesitated to ask for his name but it could be a bit inappropriate since he never assisted me. I cleared my throat. “Thank you but wait! May I have your name?”
“Lian Ying, milady,” he replies politely before walking back.
I stepped inside of my chamber to spot Hua Er sitting down with her guqin in front of her. A sorrowful look played on her face until she looked up to smile at me. She was going in for a bow but stopped herself. “Ying Yue, how was it?”
It was also rules and etiquette to bow although we had a close relationship. I never allowed for Hua Er nor Lei Shu to bow if it was just us three in a room.
“Cold,” I groaned while I leaned against my large chair. Hua Er, who sat down shortly, quickly stood up to prop a blanket over me. “At least I didn’t trip.”
Hua Er sat herself down on the bed facing me. She chuckled before reaching in to remove the pins from my hair. I blocked her hand with the back of mine. “The Emperor hasn’t chosen anybody yet.”
“They’re still celebrating as of now?” Hua Er asks frantically, then shooting her eyes to the burning incense.
“We’ll have to wait for several minutes to pass by until a eunuch pops in the door and tells me I’ve been chosen,” I quietly sipped on the warm soup. “And that’s only if I get chosen.”
“Are you going to...” Hua Er begins but her voice ends up fading. Her head tilts away from me and she looks in another direction.
“What?” I narrowed my eyes.
“T-To...” she starts to say but shuts her eyes tightly. “To sleep with the Emperor!”
I gaped at her with my eyebrows raised at her innocence. She refused to look directly into my eyes and was only eyeing the little window in my chamber. I burst out with laughter. I threw my head down and exploded while slapping the armrest of my chair.
Hua Er’s eyes stared blankly at me. “Why are you laughing?”
“You”—I caught my breath—“I can’t even—” I struggled to find my balance sitting down. “You should’ve seen the look on your face! Why were you so embarrassed?”
My innocent lady-in-waiting attempted to stay mad at me, with her lips pursed. She gave into me and giggled at herself.
“What concubine for tonight, Your Majesty?” Eunuch Lian Ying said patiently to the Emperor, setting down a wooden tray of listed concubines.
“Noble Consort Han.” the Emperor replies with swiftness.
Eunuch Lian Ying smiles broadly and bows. “Of course, Your Majesty.”