A large group of men swarmed in the room but passed the drawers. They stormed out of the room. I was safe... well, not quite. It took me a few seconds to take in what had happened. I crawled out of the humid hiding spot and kicked the glass pieces away from me.
A high pitched scream was heard and I knew I had to get out of here. I made my way out of the room but was alarmed to see the men in all black. They looked extremely similar to the men I fought when I was accompanying the Emperor.
They must be from the same clan or group or organization or—
I sprinted out the chamber to follow the screaming. As I looked around the large empty hall, I noticed that Jaxon had left. Swords started to clash against each other, men started to grunt, and I started to fear for my life. This was happening. This was really happening.
My breaths started to get abnormal but my brain still had gears spinning. I grabbed the nearest weapon in the hall (which was a weird triangular lamp) and rushed to the Empress Dowager’s rescue.
Never in a million years did I think I’d be doing this. The enormous amount of time I’ve spent practising self-defence was put to good use, but I’d never think I would use it for this purpose.
I lunged forward into the room to see palace guards and the assassins fighting to the death of themselves. It seemed to me that it was a tie. The assassins had black cloth-like costumes that covered their face except for their eyes, like ninjas... It was fascinating to watch them, but I had to keep in mind that I am walking into a dangerous route.
My eyes wandered off to the Empress Dowager. Jaxon was shielding her, completely focusing on countering the men’s attacks.
The lamp was cold and heavy but I could manage. I threw my arm that held the lamp up and swung it across the nearest assassin’s face, knocking him out cold. More and more began to tower over me and I soon panicked.
“Is that one of the Emperor’s women?” one had said, licking his lips.
“Well, it sure is... Today is our lucky—” the man beside him began but didn’t expect a hard upper kick under his chin.
I felt hot under the hanfu as I fought with my best to take down these fools. I dropped the lamp and attempted to dodge a close swing of a sword, but it slashed my left neck. I winced at the pain. It felt like a long, painful papercut. I then gripped the sword by its handle and kicked the owner of the sword in the stomach. With the sword, I was invincible—although my swordsmanship wasn’t that good.
Enemy bodies—corpses—hit the floor and the allies and I heavily breathed in the air from the sweaty Imperial room. I didn’t sign up for this.
“Noble Consort Han...” Empress Dowager said in a soothing yet stern way.
“Peace and longevity to the Empress Dowager.” I hastily got on my knees and kowtowed to her, knowing that this might be the last time I set foot in this place. Why? Because she’ll have my head in a few seconds. Many guards followed my movement.
The Empress Dowager smoothed down her silk-like hair that still looked healthy but ninety per cent of it was grey. Her piercing brown eyes remained fresh, and her lips did not thin as they were suppose to. The Empress Dowager shuffled under the blankets, still in shock but remained a calm demeanour. “May I ask why you’re here?”
“I—” I began.
“Actually,” the Empress Dowager paused. She contemplated for a few seconds and nodded to herself. “You and these guards rescued me. I am not going to question why you were near my residence, I will forgive you this time... like I did the last time. But Ying Yue...”
“Yes, Your Majesty?” I flinched as I tried to soak the blood from the slash with my sleeve.
“If you do this again, I will have you flogged fifty times,” she spoke with sincerity and turned her head a little towards the guards. “Thank you... You may all rise. We shall discuss this tomorrow, do not notify the Emperor about this until then.”
“Thank you, Empress Dowager.” we all said in unison and stood up. The guards looked at me with admiration, but some had their foreheads pinched in ignorance.
As the guards left the room, Jaxon gave me a small smile before leaving. I rushed to get out before the Empress Dowager starts scolding me again, but I was too late.
“Han Ying Yue,” she called out to me, this time, in a colourless voice.
I inhaled deeply before turning around to face her. “Yes, Your Majesty?”
“Let me see your neck.” she demanded.
The light shone into the poorly-lit room and I squinted to see her clearly. She used her four fingers to motion a ‘come here’ gesture. I casually walked to her with obedience and kneeled before her.
Her face towered over me. She was comfortably laid out on her bed and I would kill to be sleeping right now. I couldn’t read the expression on her face but her eyes twinkled a little bit. The Empress Dowager’s delicate fingers pressed gently on the side of my cut and immediately caused me to flinch.
Her eyebrows knitted and she was inches away from my neck. “You’ll need to clean this up before you get it infected. Wait here.”
I continued to stay still, watching my—technically—mother-in-law move towards another section of her palace. It was weird to see her softened because she was always a hard-shelled woman. Her motherly instinct rose quite quickly. I have to praise the late Emperor for choosing the right wife.
But who knows what the Empress Dowager did to keep her title... or even earn her title.
She returned shortly with a damp cloth. Her lips curled up slightly while she squatted down. “Look over to your right.”
“Y-Your Majesty, you don’t have to do this, I can do this myself—” I murmured anxiously.
“There is no problem. Here, let me help you.” her voice was less stern this time. The wet, warm cloth touched the cut. It burned but I felt refreshed and less dirty. I was too in shock to move my body, in case I did offend her in any way. I already messed up twice, I sure didn’t want to mess up again.
I felt more water trickling down my skin when she squeezed the cloth ever so slightly to clean my cut. When she was done, I looked at the bloody towel. “That’s a lot of blood.”
Why did I say that?
Our eyes met and her lips curled into a wide smile. The sound of chuckling came out of her lips. The shaking of her head made me feel at ease. I made her laugh.
“Thank you,” I started to say. “For not getting mad at me. And helping me with my injury, Your Majesty.”
“Yes. I’ll have a eunuch escort you back to the chamber, it’s dark outside.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. Have a good night.”
When the news of the attack broke out, the Emperor was furious. It was an immediate call to the Southern Palace. Guards and government officials were called in to take action and discuss. The Empress Dowager sat on the side of the court and watched from afar. I stood next to the guards, ignoring the rest of the odd stares/glares from the chancellors, ministers, and whatever the hell these old people are.
As the Emperor spoke, one official in the row to the right walked towards the middle and knelt. “Your Majesty, what does this concubine have to do with anything? Women in the harem shouldn’t be involved with court affairs.”
The Emperor cocked an eyebrow before giving me an awed look. “Noble Consort Han was also one of the people that had enough courage to fight against the invaders to bring safety upon my mother. She will be rewarded after this session.”
The government officials whispered amongst themselves after the Emperor’s statement. I felt all eyes on me; I couldn’t help but shy away. I hid behind a guard’s arm... The same guard that said that women couldn’t be guards.
He looked down and gave me a reassuring nod.
“Well then,” the government official said before he narrowed his eyes in confusion. “Your Majesty, may I ask why she was near the Empress Dowager’s chamber so late at night?”
He was short and... stout. Like a teapot. But a middle-aged teapot. His beard was surprisingly long. I’ve never seen a Chinese man with a beard before.
“She was doing some late chores for the Empress Dowager, is there something you’re hinting at?” the Emperor leaned his head forward. His hands gripped onto the armrest of his throne. The Emperor’s ‘agitation meter’ was rising.
“No, Your Majesty.” the official cleared his throat before going back to his spot.
I felt warm knowing that the Empress Dowager covered for me. She was a mother, a very nurturing mother. There wasn’t any reason for her to feel sympathy for me. She could’ve thanked me for saving her and later on flogged me until I was left in severe agony. Yet she didn’t.
“Han Ying Yue has shown her benevolence and filial piety, by risking her life defending the Empress Dowager,” the Empress held a laid out scroll in front of her. “By the Empress Dowager’s decree, she is being rewarded with fifty silver taels, three bolts of silk, and new gilded silverware.”
I chewed my bottom lip as the girls who stuck to Niu Lin like she was a magnet, grimaced and glared at me. After the eunuch finishes a small speech, I kowtowed gently to the Empress and to the Empress Dowager. “I thank you, Empress Dowager.”
“Do get up,” she curls her fingers up in a ‘get up’ motion, a smile forms on her face. “A fellow sister has proven her benevolence in the Palace, may all of you learn from her actions.”
“Yes, Empress Dowager, we will follow your teachings.” all of us said in unison, monotonously may I mention.
My eyes trailed off at the Emperor. He was grinning from ear to ear, his eyes were looking straight at me. Once our eyes met, I gave him a sheepish smile. Was he proud of me? We haven’t had communication for a while, I wondered if this would remind him that I’m here to accompany him.
Nevertheless, there were chatters and whispers amongst the women sitting on the sidelines. I could already see it. Niu Lin would make the face she always makes when she sees me. She would say something, and some concubines would laugh. It was Niu Lin nature. One day, I just wish we could put our differences aside and work together to overthrow the Empress and let Chang Ying take the throne.
But that’s just something too good to be true. I would never want to be friends—let alone acquaintances—with an easily envious person. Plus, I just want to go home.
“It’s strange, isn’t it, Your Majesty?” the Empress fluttered her eyelashes and slowly turned to face the Emperor.
“What is?” he questions, still subtly smiling.
Does she ever just shut up and let me have my moment? It’s like she’s some cliché antagonist in a mediocre Wattpad story and I’m the ‘inferior’ protagonist. The Empress had such a sly look on her face, my fists were subconsciously balling up inside the sleeves of my hanfu. There will be one day I will wipe that look off her face.
The Empress was scheming.
Her eyebrows tilted up, pinching her forehead as she slightly pouted before she spoke. The eyes of this devious queen twinkled. “Noble Consort Han could have hired assassins herself, Your Majesty. When they invaded, they weren’t actually going to harm the Empress Dowager. The assassins looked as if they were going to attack until Noble Consort Han walks in the room and deceives the Empress Dowager by fighting the assassins herself.”
I wasn’t lying when I said that she was scheming.
The whole room was speechless. Everyone looked completely baffled at the Empress’s senseless theory. I was supposed to be infuriated by her but I really couldn’t take what she was saying seriously. Even Niu Lin was doe-eyed, knitting her eyebrows in perplexity.
But the Empress wasn’t finished.
“Noble Consort Han just wanted Your Majesty’s and Empress Dowager’s favour,” the Empress said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Everyone can see it. The gods of Heaven and Earth can be my witness.”
There was at least a one minute silence amongst us all, just trying to process the Empress’s words. I bowed my head down. “Empress, I wouldn’t dare do anything malicious to gain the Emperor’s and the Empress Dowager’s favour! I also would never dare go against you to gain His Majesty’s favour.”
“The Empress will always be an empress. She is from a prestige household and the daughter of a very high-ranking official, who attends the Emperor’s court with wisdom and vast intelligence,” Niu Lin immediately stated after my justification. “Her family is in a high nobility ranking. The Empress will always be an empress.”
I remembered when the Emperor told me that the Empress was a peasant. That meant he lied to me.
“Besides, Ying Yue is a Noble Consort. There are already two positions for Imperial Noble Consort filled,” Chang Ying retorted. “The Emperor will not be able to promote Noble Consort Han anymore.”
I know he wished he could, though.
Chang Ying motioned for more tea in her cup, and the maid obediently tipped over the teapot. I was relieved at the support and gave Chang Ying a warm nod before facing the front. It was odd to see Niu Lin giving her two cents, but I liked it because now the Empress can leave me alone.
“Empress,” the Emperor said soberly. “Do not say sudden accusations with no evidence. It is apparent that you are worked up over nothing.”
I nodded. “Quite frankly, this is slander.”
“You—” the Empress shot up from her seat, fury on the rise.
“The Empress Dowager has arrived!” the faint voice of a eunuch was heard.