“Blessings and longevity to the Empress Dowager.” the statement filled the room, and so did the tension.
“Happiness and peace to Mother.” the Emperor greeted, bowing.
“All rise,” she said, then walking right next to me to face the Empress.
“Thank you, Empress Dowager.” we all said in unison.
I stood up with hesitation and lightly jogged when she turned to shoo me away. Her eyes were piercing. After I placed myself next to Su Yin, the Empress Dowager cleared her throat. “Empress, what are you doing?”
The Empress stood up. “This was a misunderstanding, I was just—”
“I’m sure it was,” she interrupted. “It is disrespectful to put your feelings above this nation and the people in it. Arguing with a Noble Consort because you can’t deal with your emotions is quite improper. You are the mother of this nation, may you act like it.”
“Yes, Mother*.” the Empress mumbled shyly, her eyes concentrated on the floor, rather than the woman in front of her.
I tried my best to hide the mischievous smirk on my face. If I had the chance, I would give the Empress a big, mocking smile. Unfortunately, the Emperor was watching me.
His eyes wandered to me instead of the scene, and I couldn’t help but change my facial expression into a more pleasing form.
Maybe this would be the last time the Empress would try to scheme against me.
I still couldn’t maintain the joy that I had after watching the Empress Dowager shame the Empress. The face the Empress had on was the funniest thing. After the short mealtime, Su Yin and I decided to take a stroll to look at the trees. It was the amazing season of winter now, and the trees looked dead coated with snow on the skinny branches.
The idea was Su Yin’s, though. As we walked together, side by side, she kept bringing up the details of last night.
“How did you manage to do all of that?” Su Yin asked, leaning her face towards mine with curiosity swirling in her eyes.
It was great to have a talk with Su Yin. We needed to catch up on each other’s lives. I had a vague sense that Su Yin didn’t enjoy her life in the harem. I understood. If the Emperor didn’t favour you nor want you, what was the point in living a life filled with luxury when you don’t serve your true purpose? It was like that for Su Yin.
“What do you mean?” I knitted my eyebrows. I knew what she was talking about.
Her light, silky hair brushed against her cheek. The eyes of Su Yin slanted up, like an angry feline cat, yet she had soft features everywhere else on her face. She looked away to face the front. “Go against at least five men?”
“I don’t know,” I chuckled nervously. I took a secretive glance at her direction. “Maybe it was all the...”
“I know you won’t tell me the truth,” Su Yin’s rosy lips parted slightly and her eyes narrowed. “... I just hope you will... eventually. The average woman does not have as much power as a man. It’s weird to see a woman do—”
“But women can do things men can.” I tried my best to remain calm.
Su Yin looked at me with bewilderment on her face. “Ying Yue, you’re talking nonsense. Us women aren’t capable of doing things men can do. They’re far more intelligent than we are.”
I chewed on my bottom lip as she spoke. Her lady-in-waiting and Hua Er behind us stayed silent throughout. Without making any fusses or scenes, I stayed quiet after what Su Yin said. But any of it wasn’t her fault, it was their society, their government.
I’ll see about that...
When we walked towards a bridge with a small rooftop. I felt an arm hold me back. I quickly turned my neck to see a concerned face of Jia Ying. I turned back to look again and there they were, Niu Lin and her ‘friends’.
“Jia Ying, let her go,” Su Yin whispered, her tilted eyes narrowed again in annoyance. “She can handle it.”
I pretended that I didn’t hear them.
We walked past them in a well-mannered fashion. They surprisingly made way for us, the lower ranks bowed their heads down towards me. Yet again, they were seemingly quiet and respectful.
Niu Lin pouted and cocked an eyebrow while she waited for me to walk towards her. I exhaled again, thinking about what she could possibly say this time.
Maybe a ‘so, did you pay them?’ Or a ‘you must be an idiot to think you won the Emperor’s favour.’ Or she can put a thinking question of ′how long do you think you can survive under Her Majesty’s control in the harem?′ If it was that one, she must be incredibly intelligent. That question would have me thinking in no time, like in a thinking question in a math exam.
“What is that?” Niu Lin pointed directly at the side of my neck. She tightened her lips as she said it and scowled at me.
My fingers immediately ran through my neck. I rubbed softly at the freshly made cut from the fight. “Must you have to worry about me all the time, sister?”
I felt Su Yin’s presence stay still beside me without leaving my side. She knew if she said anything that may tick the witch in front of us, she could be punished. Yet she remained giving Niu Lin an unpleasant glare.
“Ah, I see,” Niu Lin threw her head back and laughed. “You are tainted! That will leave a scar! His Majesty wouldn’t even want you if that doesn’t go away soon.”
“So much for almost dying to win the Emperor’s favour...” another girl muttered under her breath with a sly grin on her face. My senses told me that she was a consort. A Noble Consort. Which explains why her attitude was so out there towards me.
Su Yin began to open her mouth but I squeezed her hand immediately before I moved closer towards Niu Lin. I cleared my throat. “What did the Empress Dowager say? Do you think your actions will reflect mine? Your lack of benevolence, quite frankly, gives the women in the harem a bad example.”
I refused to listen to more of her bullshit. Niu Lin gaped at me, like a fish about to get caught by a fishing rod because a worm was dangling in front of it. Once the worm is in its mouth, it begins to elevate above water.
The river below us soothed my anger, though.
“Y-You... You...” Niu Lin stumbled on her words before two maids rushed by her side. They grabbed ahold of her arms each, but Niu Lin refused to let me win this battle. She lunged forward.
She broke free from her maids’ grip and pounced on me like a small kitten after being petted for too long. I casually stepped back. Before I could react, the palms of her two hands were already pressed firmly on my neck. Her fingers continuously clung onto the skin of my neck.
Niu Lin’s fingernails burrowed into the fresh-cut. I realised how crazy she truly was. I grunted under my breath as her entire body weight was pressed against me. The chaotic screams from everyone around us placed me back into reality. High pitched screams, eunuchs trying to tear her away from me, everything was truly a magical scene.
“Die! Die!” she began to squeeze harder. Her eyes were whirling with hatred, even watering with the amountof anger she held in her small body.
I grabbed the wrists of Niu Lin and twisted it. I applied pressure to her pressure point and held onto her wrist tightly before prying it away from my neck.
Even when that happened, I remained silent with a stoic expression on my face. In reality, I was internally screaming.
Inhale. Exhale. All I had to do.
I almost passed out.
I leaned against the bridge railway and tried to catch my breath. I still couldn’t believe what had just happened. My lungs were working harder as ever while Niu Lin was still shooting daggers at me in a six-meter radius.
It was Chang Ying that came to the rescue. I turned to spot Chang Ying hastily trying to get to us with a shocked look on her face I’ve never seen her have. Not only did I notice her, but so did the other concubines. All of us bowed before her.
“Greetings to Your Grace.”
Chang Ying wore a beautiful, silk green hanfu and had her hair half up in a hairpiece and half down with her hair flowing down her waist. As always, she was stunning. But at this moment, I was slightly afraid to acknowledge her.
“Your Grace, there’s been a fight-” a eunuch attempted to explain what went wrong but Niu Lin cut him off.
“Madame Chang Ying! Noble Consort Han was being foul to me! She provoked me into attacking her.” her whiny and nasally voice irritated me, I wish they invented noise-cancelling AirPods at this time.
I stayed silent. My heart started drumming faster, which I had no idea why. Chang Ying would take my side, I just know it.
She calmly looked at Niu Lin and then at me. “Someone who isn’t Ying Yue nor Niu Lin, tell me what happened.”
“Lady Niu Lin said that His Majesty will never like her because of Lady Ying Yue’s cut on her neck and that she is tainted. Then, it proceeded to Lady Ying Yue referring to the Empress Dowager, saying that the women in the harem should follow her benevolent ways. Lady Ying Yue also claimed that Lady Niu Lin’s remark was a lack of benevolence and a bad example to women in the harem,” the eunuch’s words faded at the end. He caught his breath before continuing onwards. “This led to anger from Lady Niu Lin, and she threw herself onto Lady Ying Yue.”
Great commentary, sir!
I nodded at Chang Ying to show her that I wasn’t a crappy person, but she continued to eye Niu Lin. Niu Lin looked fairly uncomfortable under Chang Ying’s glare.
“What he said was right, Your Grace.” I broke the silence.
Chang Ying took a deep breath, then faced the eunuch (who came in clutch). “She must kneel in front of my residence for an hour.”
“Your Grace! This isn’t fair!” Niu Lin, with her whiney voice again, was pleading.
“What is fair, is for you to be at my residence at this moment before I tell His Majesty what you have done.” Chang Ying snapped. The heat of anger was rising on her face. She looked like a mother punishing her annoying, whiney, bratty excuse of a daughter.
Niu Lin was escorted by eunuchs to wherever Chang Ying’s estate was. Her whines and pleads were heard even a kilometer away. Once that was finished, mostly everyone had fled the scene.
I bowed towards Chang Ying. “I apologize for starting anything unnecessary.”
“You did no such thing,” the Imperial Noble Consort that favoured me, gave me a soft smile. “I’m inviting you to my palace for dinner, if it’s alright with you?”
“I’d love to, Your Grace. Thank you,” I said before walking to my destination.
Jia Ying had a sympathetic look on her face when I turned around, but I acted like I didn’t notice her. I gave Hua Er a quick friendly nod. We headed to our residence.
“I doubted you, didn’t I?” Jia Ying broke the noticeable tension between us.
I curled my lips politely and squinted my eyes. “I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm. But I hope in the future, you don’t treat me like I am vulnerable.”
Jia Ying bit the insides of her cheeks, nodding as well.
“Although I am new around here, not as much anymore may I add, I can still handle things,” I explained in a solemn tone.
“Ah! I agree,” Jia Ying squeezed her eyes shut and slapped her forehead. “I didn’t know it affected you this much. Please forgive me.”
Hua Er, a ray of well-known sunshine in my book, flashed a bright smile. “Ying Yue is brave! If she can handle five tough men, I’m sure she can handle a group of delicate snobby women!”
I handled enough to know that I was fairly able to succeed in this foreign place. But there was one thing that I practically couldn’t handle.
That was Jaxon.
Jaxon was waiting for me in an empty palace. I don’t actually know what it’s called, I just knew it was empty and where it was located. Nobody occupied the space, which was our new rendezvous place in daylight. After saying our byes to Su Yin and Jia Ying, Hua Er left to do errands and I met with Jaxon.
I wasn’t nervous, nor did I think I was. The feeling in my heart was strange and left me feeling stranger as I walked alone. Jaxon was so beautiful under the dim window lighting, while he was protecting my mother-in-law.
He looked cool. Something about that picture in my head makes me feel a little queasy, in a good way, of course.
“Here I am!” I announced, thrillingly throwing my flowy arms up.
His bright brown eyes glinted at me, followed by a precious eye smile. I lowered my eyes to his always soft lips and briskly reverted my eyes to his. Jaxon’s hair was in a bun rather than letting it flow. “You’re glowing today.”
The dimples on each of his cheeks when he smiled was visible, and I couldn’t help but let out a wide grin.
“I only glow today? How about every day?” I raised an eyebrow and leaned in closer.
“No, only today,” he teased, leaning forward while resting his upper torso on the side of the wall. “Did you get the pin?”
Of course. Most of the time we met up, it was always about getting home. As much as I wanted to get home, it was so hard not to rush things because the ingredients can take time. Besides, the pin idea was stupid. No offense to Jaxon...
When we did meet up to have a nice conversation, it lasted at least twenty minutes. The funny thing is, we got to know a lot more about each other in a short time span. I feel like I knew him. I already felt like I’ve been living with him for three years.
Before replying to his answer, I shook my head and tucked a strand of hair behind my ears. “No... There was nothing there in the room. It was just a needle that I had mistaken for as a pin.”
Jaxon let out a secret sigh but I caught it. He tightened his lips and released. “That’s okay. We’ll follow through with our original plan, I guess. I’m in no rush anymore, actually.”
My invisible dog ears shot up, more so because I started to become skeptical. I recalled the memory of Jaxon ignoring my question with the jewellery box, avoiding me like what I asked was insignificant. It had importance.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” I started to walk towards him, closely eyeing his behaviour. “Where did you get the box from? And, you know, I was really excited that you gifted me something! Then I opened the stupid thing and it turns out it was just a note!”
He didn’t take me seriously. His eyes were boring into mine, gleaming from amusement now. Jaxon’s lips curled. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you wanted an actual piece of jewellery. I also can’t tell you where I got the box.”
I flushed in rage underneath my mellow demeanour. What does he mean by that? For some reason, Jaxon had his head tilted with his eyebrows raised up in confusion.
“What do you mean? So we’re keeping secrets from each other now?” I voiced, maybe in an obviously angry tone because Jaxon’s face lit up with levity.
“I just can’t! You’ll get mad at me, and I don’t want that.” was all he said before he took one step to the left. He was trying to run from me.
“Answer me! I promise I won’t get mad! If it was a concubine’s jewellery box, I won’t—” I pleaded a little.
Jaxon enlarged his eyes into shock. But he looked slightly amused. “How did you know?”
I couldn’t tell if he was sarcastic or not, but I was so frustrated, I ignored logic. My heart stopped. I took a step back and whipped my head to the side to avoid looking at him. He knew it was practically illegal to have an affair with a concubine. So, why did he do it?
There was something inside of me that died.
”Okay.” was all I said but before I walked out on him, Jaxon burst out into fireworks of laughter.
His eyes smiled at me. “I’m just kidding. I stole it from your room.”
Weirdly enough, a short breath of relief released from my nostrils while I stepped closer to him again. It was like asking your mom for money after you had a fight with her a couple of minutes ago... But not that extreme.
Jaxon had such a teasing manner, that I couldn’t help but laugh at myself. I was the biggest masochist. Of course, I would eat all of Jaxon’s words up. Besides, every time Jaxon joked about things, I’d laugh and swat him away with my hand.
“You have to admit, though,” he broke the silence of my contemplation of his betrayal. “I was so smart. I told Hua Er in front of the maids that you dropped the jewellery box on the ground. They bought the story!”
I said nothing.
Even in this gloomy-looking place, Jaxon’s eyes were bright. It was always bright. Always. Which was weird because I didn’t know it was possible to get lost—literally—in someone’s eyes like that.
Jaxon shrugged. “Well, you can’t say anything because you and the Emperor—”
“The Empeor and I didn’t have sex, Jaxon,” I sharply turned my head to face him. His face softened. “I’m still sad that I didn’t get anything.”
I slouched my back and pouted like I was a small child waiting for her father to say ‘yes’ to ice cream. Jaxon shifted uncomfortably as I stared him down.
“...I have this used needle if you want it?” Jaxon said, in a questioning tone, which also had a tenderness feeling to it.
“Used?” I questioned.
”Yeah, someone tried to poison one of the Consorts because it was rumoured that she was pregnant,” Jaxon explained. “A eunuch had to dip the needle in for her, and it turned black. See, look at it.”
Jaxon held the tip of the needle in front of him. Half of the needle turned black. “I kept it with me because it was so cool. Next time, you should keep some with you, just in case.”
“I’m sure I’ll be needing that advice. I got into a fight today.” I let out a dramatic sigh before leaning against the wall beside Jaxon.
Before Jaxon could ask, I began to explain my story. He nodded once to show that he was still following me. We haven’t talked like this for a long time, but I’m glad we did.
* The Empress will usually call the Empress Dowager ‘mother.’