I woke up in the Emperor’s arms. I found myself on my side as he embraced me. It was the position I was afraid I’d be in when I woke up. The blanket that wrapped around me was almost stolen from the Emperor. It only covered three-quarters of my body. My left arm was cooler than my right arm, while my entire body was shivering. It was fall transitioning into winter, but it felt like winter already.
With caution, I clenched onto the blanket and attempted to pull it towards me but the Emperor’s grip was too forceful. I continuously tugged onto it before noticing a slight twitch of the Emperor’s eye.
“Good... morning, Your Majesty,” I said with a soft tone. I nervously tried to withdraw my hands away from the blanket but the Emperor grabbed my arm. “Please forgive me for trying to steal your blanket...”
“Please forgive me for stealing the blanket,” he jokingly says. His arms devour my tiny body, suffocating me into his affection. “Did you have a good sleep last night?”
Right after his question, I instantly thought of our semi-intimate scenario last night and cringed. Whoever that woman was, was not me.
The Emperor’s voice was raspy but in an attractive way. Morning voices were always hot.
I eyed the Emperor’s cheeky smile but refused to speak upon last night. “Besides Your Majesty stealing the blanket... I think I slept well. Your body was very warm close to mine.”
I heard a calm chuckle from the Emperor. I took it in.
His laughter, even if it was small, was still so melodic to me. It was rare. He always had a dull look on his face when he was seen by the public. It was his job, as the Emperor, to put a mask of strict authority. A gentle, kind look doesn’t always help you sometimes.
I wonder who he truly was. Maybe he had different personas for each concubine he slept with. Maybe the Empress knew his true character.
Another flashback of last night played in my head. He was a good kisser, but probably because of practice with other women in the harem. I indirectly kissed those women. I started to feel disgusted. I didn’t feel envy, but I felt like having that knowledge repulsed me. Never would I ever share a husband with anyone else.
Besides, I was leaving soon.
Shortly after our small talk, several maids walked in carrying a tray of tea and a meal. They all bowed in front of us. “Greetings to the Emperor, greetings to Noble Consort Han.”
“You may rise.” the Emperor sat on the edge of the bed and stretched.
I watched them carefully. They all got up at the same time and thanked him at the same time. How do these women synchronize all of that? It must be a talent. They all had the same mannerism. It was so... eerie?
“Lady Ying Yue, Eunuch Lian Ying is outside to escort you back to your chamber,” a young maid, who had a small pin to hold her bun in place, said to me before carefully helping me up in bed. “His Majesty has a morning assembly.”
I swatted her hand away. “No need, I’m alright.”
The maid immediately looked taken aback. However, she looked amused. When she looked up at me, I leaned in forward to get a closer look. She was stunning. Her skin was glowing; there were no blemishes visible on her skin. The maid had full eyebrows that didn’t look too thick, nor look too full. It was different.
“I see,” the maid says, watching me attentively as I proceeded to stand up. “Right this way, milady.”
“I shall take my leave.” I bowed to the Emperor.
“I would like to see you soon, Ying Yue,” he spoke with professionality.
Not the Emperor I knew from a few minutes ago.
The maid let me out of his chamber and bowed before letting Lian Ying accompany me. I turned around to thank the maid but she had already gone back. After formal greetings, Lian Ying walked me back to my estate, where I was bombarded by a variety of women.
I walked past the concubines, knowing that they were envious of me. There was an abruptness of questions. With a little bit of humbleness left inside of me, I stayed silent. Until the inevitable happened.
She was leaning against the wall of her chamber. Some concubines and their lady-in-waiting peeked their head out to witness our quarrel. Niu Lin looked me up and down, then formed a smug look on her face. “You didn’t end up sleeping with His Majesty?”
“That’s none of your business,” I spoke.
“I’m sure it’s not, but,” Niu Lin smoothed her hair, cocking an eyebrow at me. “You were chosen, you had an opportunity that nobody else in the harem had. And you blew it. His Majesty will never choose you again with that sort of attitude. He doted on you then, now he’ll never make any eye contact with you!”
A faint sound of snickers was heard.
Niu Lin scoffed. “How selfish of you to get this opportunity, and not even use it? Anyone else would’ve laid with him. His Majesty must despise you now.”
I gaped at her, slowly forming my gasp into a big smirk. “But was I the one who got slapped? Did His Majesty lash out on me because I was harassing a woman in the harem?”
There were louder sounds of snickers.
“Well, at least I didn’t almost get executed for assassinating His Majesty—” Niu Lin began.
“And I was framed. You clearly had your intentions straight,” I flicked my hair back before walking towards her. “If I had you slapped, I can have you executed.”
I ignored her small tantrum and headed to my chamber.
Once I stepped in, there was a strong, familiar scent of fresh green tea. I was greeted politely by Hua Er and my maids. Once my maids had bowed to me, questions were thrown aggressively at me.
“Milady, how was it?”
“Milady, did you sleep with him?”
“Ying Yue, you slept with him, didn’t you?”
“Did he compliment you on your scent?”
I slowly stepped back while they continued to ask a large number of questions that I never knew could come out of five people in less than a minute. All of them had their eyes opened, curiously waiting for my response. I was glad I had four maids, not six. I felt like I was a celebrity, walking down the red carpet with paparazzi questioning my personal life.
It was strange, wasn’t it? Once the Emperor calls you in, everybody tries to get into your mind and business. Palace rumours also spread so quickly and easy. I still don’t know who told who that the Emperor called me in. I wonder how much gossip there was in the harem and whether Su Yin knew it all.
Once I froze during the apocalypse of curiosity, their voices began to fade out. I waited for them to silence themselves before speaking. “Nice to see you all as well... I didn’t sleep with the Emperor, I thought out of everyone here, you people would know.”
Guan Shu shook her head. “You’re too silly. How can you give up the opportunity—”
“I felt uncomfortable,” I interrupted, frowning as I said those words. After I poured my own cup of tea, I looked at Guan Shu. “It’s not in my nature. The Emperor had a good time, whatsoever.”
Staring at Guan Shu’s reaction, I felt a little bit of guilt. Guan Shu was just looking out for me. I was still fed up with the pressure of having to sleep with the Emperor. This was still a culture shock to me.
My hands began to sweat a little.
My maids found the ground more fascinating than me after I had my burst of anger. It was natural. But to them, I doubt it. I’ve never been angry at my maids, nor have I scolded them. Whenever there was discipline, I tried my best to stay kind. This time, I got too worked up and unintentionally lost my cool at my favourite maid. For that, I was wrong.
“I apologize,” I started to say while I reached for her hand. I clasped it between mine. “I lost my temper for a short second.”
“Please forgive us,” Guan Shu kneeled down to bow. The rest had followed. “It was presumptuous of us to ask you too many questions.”
I glanced at Hua Er. I stared at her fidgeting hands that tugged at the hem of her nightwear. She wasn’t looking at the situation, rather away from it. The chamber had a dull tint of grey. Like dark clouds were about to fill up the area with rain, defying every evidence of logic.
While the maids continued to bow, Hua Er proceeded to get on her knees with hesitation.
“Please do get up,” I instructed immediately before Hua Er’s knees could reach the ground. Continuing to avoid eye contact, Hua Er was on her knees, lifting her hands up with her elbows bent.
It was so unexpected, I didn’t have time to react.
My lady-in-waiting, my friend, kowtowed to me, although we weren’t strictly professional. Nobody in the Palace had kowtowed to me before as I was not the Empress.
Seeing the closest person to me in this small space, giving the respect I didn’t deserve, caused bewilderment.
“Ying Yue, please forgive me for not explaining the purpose of a concubine in the Imperial Palace. Please forgive me for urging you to sleep with the Emperor,” Hua Er’s voice was muffled. “Please bestow a punishment.”
“Hua Er, get up,” without a second thought, I grabbed her arm to pull her up. “Stop this! Stop this!”
She had tears streaming down her face already. As awkward as I felt, I lowered myself to embrace her. There were no noises coming out of her mouth, just silent tears. I gave a quick look to my maids. They kept their head down and left the room.
I still had my arms wrapped around her. My lady-in-waiting cried because of two simple mistakes. “Ying Yue! I’m sorry... I’m sorry... I didn’t mean to put this on you. I should’ve helped you in a better way. You were forced to do this. I was stupid to tell you to reconsider...”
“Without you, I wouldn’t be able to do so many things here. You’re speaking nonsense. I hate seeing you apologize for things like this. I made the choice of being here, didn’t I?” I stared straight into her eyes. Hua Er nodded. “I had a decision to make, and I made it. None of this is your fault.”
I wiped her tears with my sleeve and brushed the hair out of her face. She looked at me with innocence and vulnerability, like I was the nurturing friend and she was the baby. It was hard to see, but it was honestly the opposite. Hua Er spent more time taking care of me. This was the first time I could repay her for that. “How about tomorrow we go and eat pastries? I’ll ask Uncle Bin to make your favourite bean paste bun?”
Hua Er kept her lips pressed together but nodded as a reply.
“Should I come another time? Or...”
That voice... My body shivered. I felt little pricks on my arms, I swear the room was getting a little colder. Hua Er uncomfortably squirmed under my stiffened embrace as she faced the person standing by the window.
I don’t know why but I couldn’t bear to look. The thought of the secret meetings and exchanges of words, and especially the thought of the scene that we both agreed on to forget about, slapped me across the face. Did I betray him? We weren’t together. Our relationship was strictly companions because we needed to get home.
Yet I couldn’t gain the courage to face Jaxon, look him in the eye, and greet him. It was just weird, to kiss someone else that wasn’t him. It was weird to kiss the Emperor, it was just...
“No, do come in,” I said, ushering him towards my chair. “Here, sit.”
Jaxon and I both glanced at each other for a few seconds before Hua Er interrupted the uneasiness of the atmosphere. “Would you two like some tea?”
“Yes, please.” Jaxon did not keep his eyes off of me.
Once Hua Er set the two cups down in the middle of the table, I placed my elbows on the table and supported my chin with the back of my hands, leaning towards him. “What’s up?”
As much as I anticipated for Jaxon to bring up the recent gossip, only so I could reassure him that the Emperor and I did not have sex, he didn’t. He was leaning back on the chair, effortlessly, before he said, “I know a way we can get home.”
I wanted him to ask me about the Emperor. I wanted him to ask me what I did last night. I wanted him to at least act curious. Here he was, sitting in front of me, with his calm demeanour like he didn’t care what I did. I know he wanted to know. I know Jaxon was itching to ask me about my night. Why didn’t he?
“How?” was all that came out of me. I watched his every move but he stayed completely still, like all he wanted to do was come here and talk to me about going home.
“There’s a small golden hairpin with a phoenix tip at the end of it,” Jaxon explained solemnly. “It’s rare. There’s only one here. It can get us out.”
“Right, and once we find it?”
“We stab ourselves with it.”
I scoffed. “You’re kidding, right?”
A shuffling sound of his mianfu was heard. My eyes, that were staring into his, shifted away uncomfortably. I started to feel lost. I knew where I was and what I was doing, but I felt so disoriented and helpless.
The only way to get back home was to stay back and mentally torture yourself in a battlefield of women, or commit theft and stab yourself with the object that could prosecute you.
Was it even worth it anymore?
I started to feel hopeless. Everything I’ve done, all the things that I’ve been through in this harem felt like nothing. I don’t even think I have the motivation to keep going... I don’t have the motivation to keep doing this—let alone stab myself with a stolen pin.
I’d live in guilt for the rest of my life.
As much as I had no feelings toward the Emperor, I still didn’t want him to see me like that. I don’t want him to see me with a small stolen pin deeply engraved into my skin. And if it isn’t my soul that leaves and it is my body in total, I don’t want the Emperor worrying about my disappearance. What if he interrogates Hua Er and Lei Shu? What if he interrogates Chang Ying? I couldn’t let that happen.
Jaxon was staring at me with so much dependence, I didn’t dare tell him the truth—the truth was that I couldn’t do it... that I was too weak and cared about people that I wouldn’t see ever again. I was helpless. Imagining everyone I was close within this palace, being tortured and asked to answer questions they don’t even know the answers to, I just wouldn’t.
But I looked into the windows of Jaxon’s soul, stared straight in with a clear mind. And lied. “I’m going to find it.”