“Your Grace.” we bowed as she approached us nonchalantly. Behind us, were her maids. I recognized Lei Shu. It has been a long time since I’ve seen her, but I had no energy to smile at her so I nodded at her politely.
Two physicians walked past the maids and rushed quickly to Su Yin’s location. They unwrapped her body. One of them carried a large container of warm water, and the older physician dipped the container in and cupped the water.
Chang Ying paced behind and ushered me out of the room. “It’ll be alright.”
“She’s... pregnant?” I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her shivering body as I backed away.
I couldn’t believe it. I had an expression of a dead fish on my face because Su Yin being pregnant was so shocking. Since she remained as an Imperial Concubine for so long, I couldn’t picture the image of the Emperor with her. Not because she wasn’t enough for him, but Su Yin herself said that it was hard for her to rank up.
It was harsh for me to say this, but I didn’t know whether to be happy for her or feel upset for myself. The Emperor was seeing one of my close friends in the harem. But it was the harem. It was how things were meant to be.
Realising this, made me sympathize with the Empress or the rest of the girls. How could they keep up with this?
“How long has she been pregnant?” I whispered in Chang Ying’s ear.
Chang Ying thought for a second. “I’m not sure but she discovered she was pregnant two days ago. Su Yin missed her menstruation cycle and vomited in the morning. She could be approximately three weeks pregnant.”
She never told me she was pregnant.
“Your Grace, Noble Consort Jiao is keeping the coal to herself!”
“Where is it?” Chang Ying asked. She had a grim expression on her face that made the consort shrink.
Chang Ying was intimidating but polite. I noticed that before but I haven’t processed it until now. The way she disciplined a concubine was like how a mother scolds her children. Surprisingly, it worked.
Noble Consort Jiao let out an annoyed exhale and gave her lady-in-waiting a look. Not so long after, her lady-in-waiting came back with a large pot of coal. I raised my eyebrows in shock at the extreme quantities of coal left over. This girl was psychotic. With this amount, it could’ve heated the entire residence and made it feel like an oven!
The lady-in-waiting dropped the pot and it hit the ground loudly. Chang Ying widened her eyes and gasped.
“I cannot believe this kind of behaviour still exists. You almost murdered one of His Majesty’s children by attempting to freeze a pregnant concubine to death,” Chang Ying yelled, her finger was wagging at Noble Consort Jiao as she spoke. She looked at all of us. “How many of you didn’t get coal?”
A majority of the girls raised their hands. I stood there awkwardly because I didn’t even know if I had coal or not. It was pretty cold in my room, now that I realised. I lived in Canada all my life. I was used to it.
Chang Ying’s pursed lips separated. Her eyes were piercing. Chang Ying shook her head in disapproval while looking at the nearest eunuch. “Notify the Empress. Now.”
“Wait, no! Please! It was a misunderstanding! I wasn’t trying to harm her,” the consort pleaded. She dropped down onto her knees quickly and clasped her hands together and begged. “Your Grace, please! It wasn’t intentional!”
“You were afraid that she would take the title of Consort and work her way up to Noble Consort, isn’t that right?” Chang Ying questioned while the eunuch quickly rushed to get the Empress.
“No! No! Why would I? I have a higher-ranking title!” Noble Consort Jiao screamed. Her tears were beginning to build up.
The rest of us stood there and watched in horror. She let out demonic screams of terror. Her tears were rolling down her cheeks like two parallel river streams. Or two water slides. I shouldn’t have had sympathy for her but I did slightly pity her.
“You were and are still the least favourite Noble Consort. You were afraid that Imperial Concubine Lee,“—Chang Ying emphasized Su Yin’s formal title—“would steal that title because the Emperor has been seeing her a lot.”
“And,” Chang Ying added. The consort was still crying. “You didn’t want that. You didn’t want her to get His Majesty’s favour. I don’t understand why you were afraid.”
“These assumptions won’t do anything for your sake!” the consort stood up and leaned her face towards Chang Ying. She narrowed her eyes at her.
Chang Ying didn’t even flinch. “They aren’t assumptions, sister. I heard it as I walked by one of the bridges. I told one of the eunuchs to rummage through your chamber in hopes of finding something.”
The consort swallowed.
“Do you remember writing something along the lines of ‘Su Yin will not be able to bear her child, she will die before she can. She and her baby will die together’?” Chang Ying was challenging her. “I told Eunuch Zheng He to keep an eye on you. You moved so fast, haven’t you?”
A few gasps interrupted the long silence of Noble Consort Jiao. At this moment, she realised she had screwed up.
“The Empress has arrived!” a loud voice chimed in.
The beautiful Empress walks towards us with disappointment written across her face. The golden headpiece was symmetrically placed on her head, and the beads dangled as she walked. The Empress watched as we all got on our knees and bowed to greet her.
“You may all rise,” she said solemnly.
Chang Ying swiftly moved out of the Empress’s way. The Empress had a small, folded note between her fingers. The consort’s face was fully turned away from her. She was not crying anymore.
Without a single movement of the Empress’s face, the Empress thrust the note in her hand in front of her. I eyed it carefully.
“Open it,” the Empress ordered. “Open it and read it.”
The consort was sulking as she took the note and unfolded it. Her hands were shaking. “Su Yin won’t bear her child. She will die before she can. Her baby can die with her.”
“Your Majesty, I apologize for not remembering the exact words.” Chang Ying bowed.
The Empress nodded her head. “That’s fine. It’s close.”
I spotted Niu Lin slowly backing away from the crowd. Was she really trying to make a run for it? It was starting to get juicy too!
“Execute her.” was all the Empress said. The eunuchs nodded their heads. They acted so casually, it made you wonder how often this happens here.
Those two words set an alarm in Noble Consort Jiao’s head because she started to burst into tears again. She screamed for help but the eunuchs had already locked her arms to theirs. “You can’t do this! I’ll tell His Majesty!”
“Put this on my Imperial decree, then,” the Empress’s expressions did not change but she raised an eyebrow in slight amusement. “I am permitted to have you executed if you cause any harm towards anyone, right?”
What a hypocrite. Didn’t she try to get me killed a couple of months ago? Or was it a month ago? I lost track of time.
Noble Consort Jiao’s cries began to slowly evaporate into the midst of the hallway as she was being dragged out. That was the last time we saw her. And that was the first time I’ve ever witnessed such a fast execution. The Empress could have someone killed. She could’ve had me killed. I loathed the Empress but I am thankful that she hasn’t plotted against me for a while.
I cringed at the thought of the cell I slept in. I think it traumatized me so much that when I hear the word ‘cell’, it made me shiver. I don’t think I’ll ever talk about biology anymore.
I might not even be able to speak about biology at all! If something good doesn’t happen to me soon, I might as well be trapped in this era. It’s been so long since I looked at a meme. I hated these reality checks. I hated the random thoughts of not being able to return home. If I wasn’t standing with a group of concubines, I would’ve cried.
After sentencing the consort to death, the Empress turned around to face us again. She still had the same stern expression since she entered the residence, but a small smile was present.
The Empress sighed as she shook her head. “It’s almost the start of winter. I want you ladies to behave because it’s stressful for me. I have to tend to Dong Mei constantly. Physicians have to prepare Dong Mei’s medicine in the morning and I have to deliver this medicine.
“I have to carefully watch her. Now, I have to carefully watch Imperial Concubine Lee,” she continued.
I caught myself shaking my head at the last sentence. I quickly stiffened my head before the Empress glanced at me. If the Empress lays her dirty hands on Su Yin, this will be war. There is no way I’m letting the Empress murder Su Yin or her child.
“I’m serious,” the Empress cleared her throat. “The winter solstice celebration is forthcoming and His Majesty and I do not want to tolerate any of this nonsense.”
“We will obey your instructions, Empress,” we said in unison, bowing with our heads down as we spoke.
The Empress gave us an approving look. “Very well then. I will be looking forward to seeing you all in the morning.”
Inside of me was groaning. I hated greeting the Empress every morning sometimes. It was like a chore or an errand. I’d rather make out with an old eunuch or something. It was just that terrible.
Coal this, coal that. I’ve been starting to go insane. I kept on hearing the word ‘coal’ that I’ve started to doubt the authenticity of the word.
I was walking with Hua Er, all of my maids and Lian Ying walking carefully behind me. The new black fur cape Hua Er made for me was hugging me snugly. It was times like this that I was happy that I could afford an abundance of silk. I, in 2018, could never have that luxury.
“Your Majesty, please! I need it!” a female voice croaked. I reckoned it was Dong Mei.
To get on everyone’s good side, it was my choice to visit Dong Mei. She was almost due for her baby. This would be exciting for the Emperor and I was almost happy for him, yet the memories of us under the snowfall still circled in my head.
Dong Mei lived in her own palace, separate from my residence. But it seems to me that Dong Mei wasn’t alone. There was someone else with her.
“Get up! I didn’t come here for unnecessary begging!” the Empress’s voice was heard.
As I entered in the hall, the yelling was more audible. I took cautious steps towards the bedroom of Dong Mei’s. Snoopy, the quiet maid, grabbed my arm and pulled me back. She frowned. “Milady, please don’t get yourself into a situation like this.”
“Don’t worry,” I whispered.
I hastily walked towards the destination but Chen Xi whispered, “It’s Madame Dong Mei and Her Majesty, this is very risky. You’re not in any power to do anything. Reconsider this, please, milady.”
“Thank you for your concern, but I can handle this,” I reassured my maids, glancing at all of them as I spoke. I let my legs do all the work towards the arguing women.
Dong Mei was on her knees. Her eyes puffed up as if she’s been crying. The messy red smudges on her lips and tear-stained cheeks confirmed it. She didn’t look half-bad, though. The Empress stood tall, lifting her chin as she glared down at Dong Mei.
It was bad. My maids were right, I shouldn’t have come in. This looked like something the two of them should handle between themselves. But, I was here so I might as well go through with it. Dong Mei had to have a good image of me by the end of today.
The room was a little cold, but it was better than mine. This place was half the size of my chamber, let alone two chambers. When I stepped in and tried to make myself known, Dong Mei was too busy crying and the Empress didn’t notice me at all.
I forced a smile and bowed. “Joy and bliss to the Empress, greetings to Madame Dong Mei. I apologize if I interrupted something important but I’m here to visit Dong Mei.”
“This was an unexpected visit.” Dong Mei immediately wiped her tears with the back of her hands.
“Your Grace, I apologize, please forgive but I’m here to see how you were doing,” I gave Dong Mei a small smile, but I didn’t receive one back. She looked at me for a while and didn’t reply. I panicked. “If you don’t mind me asking, is there something going on?”
The Empress raised an eyebrow at me and slowly turned towards me. “If you are here to visit Dong Mei, then I will take my leave.”
There was something extremely unsettling in this atmosphere. These two women radiate bad vibes; they looked and acted like they were dead inside. Dong Mei especially. The Empress was merely wicked and arrogant...
I’ve never seen Dong Mei cry. Her heart was ice cold. The only woman who can make her cry was the Empress.
“Your Majesty, please! I need more coal...” Dong Mei groaned, slightly rubbing her stomach as she said ‘the baby’.
“There is a sense of hypocrisy in Your Majesty.” I blurted out.
I threw my hand over my mouth to prevent me from spewing more but the Empress already looked as if she was going to chew me and spit me out. She furrowed her eyebrows at me and laughed. An amused laugh. I wasn’t trying to be funny.
“I beg your pardon?” she took a few steps towards me.
Her eyes bored into mine but the cocky smirk on her face left me puzzled. The Empress was testing me... and I was shaking. I felt Hua Er’s presence coming closer, which was the moral support I needed.
I shook my head in denial and laughed. I felt my cheeks heat up. “No, I meant that—it’s strange to see you take coal from Dong Mei yet you punished Noble Consort Jiao for it.”
“That is different,” she said right after I finished my sentence. “Imperial Noble Consort Yang believes she’s in favour of getting more coal because she’s pregnant.”
You’re just jealous she’s pregnant. I wanted to say it.
The devil on my shoulder was practically urging me to speak my mind but I wasn’t trying to drink poison and die. I smiled. “Well, it is slightly cold in this room compared to mine. Dong Mei needs to be warm so His Majesty’s child can turn out healthy. Wouldn’t you like that, Empress?”
Dong Mei, still on her knees, lifted her head up to look at me. Her eyes bulged out in shock. In the corner of my eyes, I noticed her having the power to stand up. Once she stood up, she bowed facing the side of the Empress.
“Noble Consort Han is correct,” Dong Mei said, bobbing her head in a nod. She quickly glanced at me and looked back at the Empress. “After I bear my child, I will not be needing so much coal. I will assure you, Your Majesty.”
The Empress let out a frustrated sigh and blinked hard. There was a slight glint in her eyes. She sharply tilted her head at me. “For once, you are right. Imperial Noble Consort Yang will get extra coal...”
Before the Empress left the palace, she turned to her side to give me another lecture. “But in case you’ve forgotten, I’m the Empress. Not you. Don’t ever try and ask for another favour. You make your own choices for yourself, don’t mind the others.”
“Besides, I don’t think I’ve had you flogged yet,” she scowled.
“Yes, Your Majesty. I apologize for any inconvenience I have caused you.” I said softly, bowing my head.
Coal this, coal that. This was only the beginning of my returning feud with the Empress.