Gossip started to take off in the harem. My reputation in the harem, well, was complicated. Nobody thought of me as shameful, more like ungrateful and strange. They thought it was strange of me to pass up the opportunity of sleeping with the Emperor.
It eventually got to the Empress, and according to Chen Xi, the Empress wasn’t pleased. She went off on a rampage, questioning why I was such an ‘ungrateful, distasteful wench’. But she cooled off and was pleased that I wouldn’t have the chance to give birth to any children.
Truthfully, it could’ve been worse.
“The tea is ready, milady.” Guan Shu said softly as she leaned over to place a black tray in front of me.
I watched my youngest maid, with her trembling hand, pour the hot liquid into my teacup. She avoided eye contact with me.
“You know that I’m not bothered by the gossiping, right?” I assured her, insisting that I was strong enough to handle all the criticism. The criticism that happened overnight.
How the maids acted around me after I heard the gossip, was hard to explain. Tension, maybe? They were pretty tense. It was new to me. I think it was because of the lack of sensitivity I had to the rumours. The concubines they’ve served might have been whining and complaining once they were under the negative spotlight.
Some may have killed themselves.
Suicide was prominent in the harem. Even the concubines with the ranks of ‘Noble Consort’, the third-highest ranking title, killed themselves. The harem was tough, extremely tough. I couldn’t even handle it. I didn’t expect the harem to be this brutal. I have to adapt to this place. Fast.
Once Chen Xi spoke about the gossips, my heart ached for half a minute. But it doesn’t matter because I was sanguine that the Emperor will visit me again.
I know it.
After my sixth cup of tea, I gradually rose from my chair. I puckered my lips so I could inhale sharply. I exhaled. “Let’s go for a nice stroll, Hua Er.”
“Ying Yue...” Hua Er jerked her head up from her guqin to raise her eyebrows at me. “You mustn’t...”
“Milady, I don’t think it’s a good idea—” the quiet maid, which I nicknamed in my head, ‘Snoopy’, bowed in front of me.
My maids gingerly stepped out of my way but Snoopy persisted into holding me back. I lifted my chin a little and made a gesture with my index finger towards Hua Er. “Hua Er, get up. We are going and that is an order.”
“We will obey your orders, milady.” Guan Shu said with uncertainty. She walked behind me and made an indicated motion with her head to the other maids.
The outside breeze was chilling but not as chilling as it was before. The white fox fur around my neck softly rubbed against my skin.
From any other person’s perspective, I must’ve looked absolutely alluring.
Hua Er and I walked together; she was slightly behind me. Snow has yet to fall upon us so we have to deal with the ugliness of winter. It wasn’t the season of winter yet, but fall transitioning into winter. I could tell because my hair was flowing neatly behind me. I could hear the soft whistles of the wind in my ear. Once my hair is flying all over the place and the wind makes war cries, then I will know that it is wintertime.
It must have been the energy of queasiness amongst Hua Er and my maids because the early afternoon stroll was dead quiet. I paused for a moment and turned my head to the side to look at Hua Er. I side-eyed my maids. “You all are awfully silent. I just don’t understand why all five of you are so worried.”
“It’s because...” Chen Xi began but didn’t finish her sentence.
They were still quiet. I wasn’t going to cope with this tension. I headed to the left of the garden, ignoring Hua Er’s concerns.
“There’s a lot of concubines there, Ying Yue, please—” Hua Er grabbed my arm.
With a swift motion, I tugged my arm away from her. In the far distance, I can see Niu Lin and five other concubines discussing something very important. Their maids and a few eunuchs stood at the far back, quietly watching from afar.
It’s my time.
I resisted my maids’ pleas and fixed my posture. Right now, this was my runway. This is my turn to shine. When I almost arrived at my destination, my heart skipped a beat.
“Noble Consort Han, is it true?” a concubine with big, light brown eyes gazed over at me. She had a mocking expression on her face. I could tell as she couldn’t help but smirk.
“True about what?” I cocked an eyebrow.
One of the Imperial Concubines that mocked me before, stepped in front of her and scoffed. “That you are ungrateful and do not deserve the Emperor’s favour!”
“How can a lower class woman, a farm girl, give up sleeping with the Emperor? I can never comprehend this!” Niu Lin tilted her head, then stared straight into my eyes like I didn’t just intimidate her a few hours ago.
This was the moment I was waiting for. Right when Chen Xi spoke about the gossips, I had to do what was right for me. With Hua Er and my maids watching, it was more of an honour for me to be harassed right now.
I tucked a few strands of my hair behind my ear before taking a deep breath in. I looked at the Imperial Concubine. “You.”
She quickly gave Niu Lin a look and turned to face me. “Yes...”
“You are just an Imperial Concubine,” I cooed softly, although my petite height, I still towered over her. “You must realise that I am two ranks above you.”
The now afraid concubine, that was surprisingly bold a couple of seconds ago, was stepping away from me. I cupped her face with a small smirk before sharply giving the nearest eunuch a look. “Slap her twenty times.”
“You can’t do that!” Niu Lin burst, walking towards me as she swatted her lady-in-waiting’s hand.
“Niu Lin, you said she wouldn’t—” the pitiful concubine exclaimed.
Niu Lin looked at me murderously, but I was entertained.
Adrenaline was pumping through my body, flowing through my veins. I have yet punished a low-ranking concubine. I was enjoying this rush. The emotions everyone must have felt while the concubine’s face was in the palm of my hand. There was no more submissiveness when it comes to these things.
I will never be submissive in front of these women.
My lips spread widely as I eyed my maids and Hua Er’s reaction. This was satisfying. Extremely satisfying. Their gaping expressions with cherry pie eyes and jaws dropping at the scene... was so satisfying.
“I can, can’t I?” I retorted.
The eunuch slowly walked towards us with two other eunuchs. Two of them held the concubine back but she heavily resisted them. While they locked their arm with her’s, the third eunuch stepped forward.
He was old; he was approximately the age of forty-five. His stance was firm and serious, which frightened the concubine being held back. I studied his blank expression on his face. No emotion. No pity. No sympathy. Was this what they were trained to do?
I stepped back and bit my inner cheeks. I couldn’t let Niu Lin and the others see me sympathize with her. This would teach them.
They impatiently crowded around. Even some of the maids were craning their necks to look at how this event will unfold. I avoided looking back at Hua Er and my maids, afraid to see what they would think of me. But no matter what they said to me, I know they can never see me as a weakling. I was stronger than this, much stronger.
The elderly eunuch lifted his hand up high and swiftly struck her across the cheek. The concubine whined in fear. My eyes unintentionally trailed to the single teardrop that rolled down her cheek but I stopped myself from ending her punishment. It had to be done.
Besides, she deserved it.
Her cheek was getting redder for every time the palm of his hand hit her cheek. I wanted to wince, cringe, and tell him to stop, but my body remained calm. I glanced over at Niu Lin. Her hands covered her mouth and her eyes were ten times larger than it was before.
The wind was blowing more forcefully now. The concubine that was squatting down—her arms held behind her back by the two eunuchs—tipped over and her back hit the ground. She kicked her legs up to prevent the eunuch from coming closer to her, but she was lifted back up to get slapped again. Her cries and whines were louder than the wind itself.
“Sister! Please! I apologize, please forgive me!” she whined, struggling to release herself from the harsh grips on her arms.
“Ying Yue, I think she’s had enough...” a Consort whispered.
As the elderly eunuch turned to look at me, I gave him a motion with my hand to keep going. My heart began to hammer against my chest. After another slap, I leaned forward to face her. “I’ll forgive you after you take your punishment with silence.”
After the four peaceful slaps were finished, the three eunuchs bowed and walked to where the maids were standing. The concubine managed to get up on her feet by herself and ran to Niu Lin. The other concubines took two steps back, holding back any laughter. I furrowed my eyebrows.
“She made them slap me! She made them! What do I do? I’m so humiliated!” she wailed with a fist full of Niu Lin’s hanfu. I was shocked to see Niu Lin comforting her, but—
“You’re ruining the material!” Niu Lin screamed. She was holding her in her arms before but was quick enough to push her away. “If you’re going to whine so much, just apologize to her!”
With my surprise, the concubine held up the bottom of her hanfu and ran to me. She carefully got on her knees and kneeled. “Ying Yue, please forgive me! I will never speak negatively towards you!”
I saw innocence in her.
“Please get up,” I reached for her arm and helped her up. She had one cheek redder than the other; there was still a rosy handprint on it. I exhaled quietly before I gently ran my thumb on the area. “Guan Shu, please have someone deliver the ointment to her chamber.”
Refusing to look at others for their approval or disapproval, I turned around and headed back to my chamber.