“Milady, that was so cool!”
“What was?” I raised an eyebrow at Uncle Bin. His plump arms were busy whipping another killer dish. The sweat trickling down his temple signified his hard work in the kitchen.
I usually occupied Uncle Bin and the other maids in the Imperial kitchen when I was bored. It wasn’t common for any of the concubines to help out, because they would be deemed to be more ‘servant-like’ and lower class. Frankly, I didn’t care. It was fun helping out, like chopping vegetables or preparing pastries for Hua Er when she visited Lei Shu and her cousin.
The aroma of roasted duck and freshly made noodles filled my nostrils and formed an explosion of bliss in my system. That is another reason why I loved being here.
“Oh, you know,” Uncle Bin nudged me and winked. “How you scared them off!”
“How’d you know?” I winced, ashamed that I let my bruised ego take over me. When I made my way back from that situation, I may have slightly regretted the incident.
Suddenly, one of the maids cleaning the dishes perked her head up. “Palace rumours. No one ever gets bored of it.”
I rolled my eyes. “Because they’re not involved in them.”
Of course, there were palace rumours. There’s never a day that goes by where there weren’t palace rumours. Once, I eavesdropped on Su Yin and Chang Ying’s conversation about how a maid had an affair with a eunuch and it was affecting their work skills, but the Empress let it go. She even helped them have a wedding.
Shocking. The Empress could be kind for once?
I took a small sip of the tea set out for me, a special tea mixed with various herbal ingredients that the maids in the kitchen created for me. Supposedly, it would help improve my skin and internal organs.
“Of course palace rumours... Well, I did provide ointment for her at the end. I am not a crude woman, I promise,” I smiled.
Uncle Bin quickly let other chefs take care of the cooking and set his handkerchief on the table. He sat across me and grinned widely. “Ying Yue, you are not a crude woman. You are a remarkable woman!”
I carefully looked at him for a while before smiling back. His energy reminded me of my father’s. Supportive and will praise you for any little thing you did. They were both gentle, and they both understood me. I consumed the air with my nostrils forcefully to prevent myself from bursting out in tears. Uncle Bin... Guan Shu... They reminded me so much of my parents that I wonder if my subconscious made them up for me so I can be comfortable in this foreign era.
But they were real.
“Thank you...” was all I could mutter out. It was difficult defying my forceful tears, but I blinked continuously behind the cup of tea raised in front of my face. I gulped it down.
After sneaking pastries out, I headed back to my chamber. A group of low-ranking concubines stood in front of the doorway, giggling at something another had said. I ruffled my hanfu to make a sound as I walked closer.
They quickly turned their head in my direction and paved a way for me, also bowing with their heads down.
Quietly, they slowly gathered around behind me to leave the bridge area and shuffled away. Once I made my way in the residence, I spotted the same Imperial Concubine I had punished, peeking out of her room.
At first, I was hesitant, but I gave a short, friendly nod to ease the awkward tension but she didn’t seem to look away. She blinked continuously and pursed her lips together in—perhaps—discomfort.
I wonder what type of nonsense she has up her sleeve.
I straightened my back more and looked straight ahead. As I walked down the corridor without making any eye contact with her, I felt her eyes laying on me.
She made a noise through her mouth and I immediately shot my head back. I stared at her until she spoke but I pitied her because she looked alarmed at my sudden expression. The Imperial Concubine looked too innocent to be cracking up jokes and insulting others, to be honest. There was a dash of kindness within her, I could feel it.
Maybe it was peer pressure.
“... Sister, I do apologize for being reckless with my behaviour,” she said, almost in a whisper tone. “I promise you it will not happen again...”
“I forgive you, I signed up for this and had to face the competitive environment and...” I cleared my throat, slightly tilting my head down to look at her.
I’ve never had a conversation like this before, or even have heard a conversation like this before. A bully learning from their mistakes and having the courage to apologize? Wild. Plus, every time I spoke, she waited five seconds to reply. I felt slightly uncomfortable in the midst of this conversation...
The concubine was fidgeting with her hanfu but stopped and shook her head. “No! It-It’s not your fault... Thank you for the ointment, Lady Ying Yue.”
“It’s no worries,” I said hastily before making my way back to my chamber. I itched the back of my head before entering.
“Milady,” my maids whispered.
Guan Shu hurriedly came over to hold my arms and looked terrified (liked I-murdered someone-in front-of-her type of facial expression). “Oh, milady! You handled it so great out there! You took the palace rumours and—”
Guan Shu balled up her fist and struck up. “Stuck it up every gossiper’s butt!”
The other maids widened their eyes at Guan Shu’s behaviour, but Hua Er chuckled while trying to hide her bright smile. With me, I laughed. Her sudden demeanour changed; she was more youthful and was less lady-like.
I liked it.
I embraced her, still giggling at what she said. “Guan Shu, you know I could never cower away from them! And, what palace rumours?”
Again with the awkward silence. The atmosphere changed and all five women standing in my room were gazing at each other while keeping their mouth shut. It was aggravating that they think that I can’t handle the bullshit the harem puts me through. If I can handle stuck-up customers at a shift at McDonald’s, I can guarantee I can handle anything put out to me.
Maybe except the unfortunate event of jail time the Emperor decided to make me go through.
“I can handle it, just tell me before I do get mad,” I said bluntly while turning my back against them to look at the mirror. I bored my eyes at my reflection as I waited for someone brave to speak up.
Indeed, Hua Er was the one who spoke up. After all, she was my lady-in-waiting and my close friend. I leaned my head to the left to catch a glance of Hua Er nodding at my youngest maid. Hua Er’s eyes drifted towards my reflection now. “They said you are a soft, nice concubine... Never stuck-up, never—”
“The important parts please.” I exhaled.
Hua Er never deserves my incivility but my aggravated self got the best of me.
“Right, uh,” she spoke. “They said you were too soft. Easily to harass and push around because you won’t fight back.”
I scoffed. “They behave like I haven’t fought assassins and saved the Emperor once. If they want, I can kick—”
“Alright, Ying Yue,” Chen Xi gently patted my shoulder. “I know it’s—”
“Don’t baby me,” I shrugged her hand away before standing up from my chair. “I need some time alone. You may all leave.”
“Yes, milady.” my four maids chanted in unison, then walking out my chamber in a line. Guan Shu turned her head to the side to give me an apologetic smile, but I pouted dramatically at her.
It was time to think.
Hua Er, knowing that I was upset, scooted away from my bed and laid on the lower bed of mine. I plopped my body onto my bed and positioned myself further to the left, away from hers. It was a quiet chamber, which I liked. Sometimes I needed silence and tranquillity in my room and four maids chatting upon themselves and talking over each other was sometimes irritating.
But I was frustrated. They doubted me and continuously doubted me. I was not a softie like everybody had said I was. I proved to them that I wasn’t fragile once and they still hesitate to inform me about stupid palace rumours. For what reason?
What was the reason?
I don’t need to be coddled by four women who live their life obeying others.
What the hell do they know about how I handle things?
My body started to get chilly so I pulled the blanket out and slid my body in. I wrapped the blanket around my body, covering everything except for my face and continued to rant inside my head.
In fact, I can’t even talk to Hua Er about this situation because she was the one who was involved. Maybe I needed to talk to Su Yin...
Su Yin wouldn’t know. She’s stayed in the shadows for the longest time. The Imperial harem was similar to ‘The Hunger Games’, and everyone is killing each other because of the envious way of thinking. You had to understand that all these women would kill one another just to sleep with the Emperor.
It was a survival game.
A reality show.
You have to work really hard. You have to plot and scheme. You have to do things you might not want to do, it seems.
Hua Er must’ve felt me fuming under the sheets. She thought she was sneaky by attempting to leave the chamber but I briskly—almost snapping my head—turned to catch her. “What’s wrong?”
“... I know this might be an inappropriate time to interrupt your thoughts but,” she took a jewellery box by my mirror and handed it to me. “Lan Yun told me to give this to you.”
A jewellery box? For me?
My heart did a little flip while I held out the palm of my hands for Hua Er to drop it. It was small but it was usable. It had a dragon symbol in the middle and had floral decorations around the borders.
Jaxon went to give me jewellery?
I looked up at Hua Er in case she had seen me blush. She didn’t. Her eyes wandered away and she sheepishly stood in front of me. I cleared my throat and wiped the smile away from my face before I said, “Thank you.”
“No worries,” she replied.
I ran my finger on the gold embroidery. It was a little cold against my thumb but it felt nice. I wondered what was inside. A necklace? A ring? Earrings? I bit my lip to suppress my smirk. Although the Emperor has rewarded me quite a lot of jewellery throughout the past week, it felt different when it was a gift from Jaxon.
I slowly opened the box to reveal the beauty of whatever it was. My heart was beating, weirdly enough and I couldn’t help but keep it close to my eyes.
A big frown on my face appeared.
Jaxon had only left a note. That son of a...
Then where the hell did he even find the jewellery box from? It must’ve been a concubine’s when he was patrolling around or worse, he stole it from their table. The fact that he was even in a concubine’s chamber evoked my agitation even more.
He was quite smart, though. Putting a note in the box to make it extra sneaky was a clever idea.
I groaned internally as I unfolded the piece of paper and scanned it.
“Empress Dowager’s chamber might have the pin. No rush but let’s meet at nine outside of the Hall of Mental Cultivation” was in the paper, written in pure English.
Hall of Mental Cultivation was where I slept with the Emperor. Hall of Mental Cultivation was where I made out with him. Why can’t you react to it? Did it bother you when your fingers danced to complete the letters of ‘Hall of Mental Cultivation’, or did you shrug it off?
I shook my head to get rid of my thoughts. It clouded my head and distracted the fact that I was to risk my life over a pin.
It was nine.
I met up with Jaxon. His skin was brightened up in the moonlight, like always. I gulped a little too hard when my eyes met with his. He didn’t seem too happy to see me, let alone excited but he gave me a warm smile.
“This plan... isn’t very... foolproof,” he said, looking extremely unsure but downright clueless.
“I figured,” I sneered in a teasing way, and walked a little bit more to be closer to him. “The jewellery box, how—”
Jaxon looked around and grabbed my hand before I could finish my sentence. He dragged us inside of the palace and motioned for me to keep my mouth shut. He whispered, “We can talk later, right now, we need to find this pin.”
He couldn’t see the disappointment in my face but I felt like anyone in this place could sense it. I jerked my hand away from him.
This was such a reckless plan. I could almost see us getting hanged in public for breaking in the hall. Our life would be over—literally—and we can never go back home to our families. We would never see each other ever again.
And I would have to die a virgin.
The Empress Dowager did not sleep in the Hall of Mental Cultivation. She usually slept at the palace I got in trouble for practising in last time. It was close, though.
The main hall we were in felt hollow and cold. It was just us. Two tiny specks in a giant room. Jaxon managed to get a grip of my arm again and held me closer to him. I was glad it was dark.
I started to realise that what we could do was dangerous. Instead of focusing my mind on Jaxon, I finally grasped the situation we were both going into. But I needed Jaxon gone for this case. He was a liability. Although he had an excuse on why he would be here in the first place, he was going to screw this whole thing up.
“Stay here,” I whispered, a little bit more violently than I intended to sound. I began to walk towards a room, not knowing who and what occupies it, but Jaxon grabbed me before I made my way there.
“What are you doing? This is a team job. Carmen, you—” he began, holding me back from walking away from him.
I forcefully pulled myself away from him and snapped, “Just stay here! I can handle it.”
Jaxon urged me to stay by pressing his body against mine but I hastily walked away from him and headed towards the closest room. I had a gut feeling he was going to screw it up for us. Besides, if we got caught, it would look way more suspicious if we were both snooping around together.
It wasn’t the Empress Dowager’s room. The room looked untouched like no one has ever slept here at all. It wasn’t collecting any dust, though. I’m sure maids swept this room and cleaned it up occasionally, but it looked as if there were no residence. No blankets or pillows on the bed, no decorations, no lively things on the drawer that would scream out ‘residence.’ There were no portraits or Chinese calligraphy letters on paper that were nailed or stuck to the walls. It was so empty and quiet in here, that I can hear my rapid heartbeat. I wanted to leave the room but curiosity struck me when I spied a shiny object, glistening in my direction.
Fate. It had to be fate. That was the pin. I tried my best to ninja-walk to the drawer. The window light illuminated the room. A hint of jealousy reached me. I wished my windows illuminated my damn chamber.
I turned to my left to see if Jaxon followed me. My shoulders drooped in relief because if Jaxon did come one centimetre in the room, I’d flee. I was already a nervous wreck.
With quickness, I wiped my sweaty palms on the fabric of my hanfu and made my way to the furniture. As I turned to look for Jaxon for reassurance, I eyed a dark silhouette on the wall. I squealed but covered my mouth shortly.
It was just mine.
My heart started to thump even more. I made noises. I hope these walls were soundproof.
I watched my silhouette slowly get larger and larger, and I finally made my way to the drawer.
But I felt an uneasiness in the room. Maybe it was haunted? Like spirits? My shadow started to spook me out and I was breathing more rapidly than I was before.
Not an anxiety attack here. Not now. Please.
I winced at my sweaty palms and my sinking heart. I attempted to exhale and inhale in an organized timing but I couldn’t focus.
It was fast. In the corner of my eyes, I saw a swift motion of something. Or someone. Or some spirit. My heart was about to bounce out of my body. I stepped forward and forced myself to ignore the spirit. I just needed the pin.
Another sound. More soft thumping noises were heard but I ignored it. I reached out to grab the shiny object. My stomach dropped.
It was a regular needle.
I bit my bottom lip to refrain myself from punching the air. This is a joke. This has to be a joke. Maybe this was Jaxon’s April Fools joke (although it’s only December). Maybe it was all a prank so we can have a nice bond together. I subconsciously shook my head. This was such a waste of my time. If I had to sneak into the Empress Dowager’s chamber, I’d be decapitated by tomorrow, no questions.
“Over here!” I heard a faint voice outside of the room. My heart sunk. The window was still open. The cold breeze was brushing against my bare skin, below the light silky sleepwear, I had on. There were people coming.
Jaxon was standing by the doorway, furrowing his eyebrows at me in concern. I mouthed ‘go, there are people outside!’ But he furrowed his eyebrows even more.
“You need to hide, there are people outside.” I whisper-shouted at him and he nodded quickly. I didn’t care if the Empress Dowager heard me anymore. I didn’t care if the Emperor heard me.
His eyes lingered on me and I soon knew what his stupid self was going to do. Hide with me. Jaxon paced towards me and looked around for a hiding spot. I let out a frustrated sigh. ”Jaxon, hide outside. I’ll hide here.”
“I can’t leave you—” he began but I glared at him. He tightened his plump lips and understood my memo, dashing away from me.
I rushed to hide underneath the drawer. There was space underneath; the drawer had four long legs. And it was a great hiding spot indeed. I curled myself in snugly and closed my eyes in hopes that Jaxon was safe and sound.
Soon, the bigger and better window that I looked in awe of, shattered. The loudest commotion almost made me scream but I repressed my fear. Glass shards flew and landed on the ground. I was almost eye level with them. The glass shards glistened.
These men weren’t just palace folks, they were invaders.