A day after the reveal of another concubine’s pregnancy, the harem was getting hectic. So far, three women are pregnant and none of them is the Empress. I tried my best to refrain from going outside, just in case the Empress notices me and tries to harass me.
Princess Hua Yang, the eldest princess, decided to stay in the Imperial place rather than the capital. The face she made after she looked at me was something I couldn’t get rid of in my head. Why did she look startled? What was my reputation outside of these walls?
Hua Yang knew my name as well, without asking me the first time. I felt guilty for not knowing her name, but she smiled at me with her eyes and understood me. I always thought princesses were snobby because they were born in prestige—not knowing poor people struggles—but Hua Yang was very humble.
On the other hand, the youngest princess was not.
“Your Highness, did you steal my pastries? That was my lady-in-waiting’s.” I interrogated the bratty little princess.
The youngest princess stood a few inches below me. She squinted at me like I was absurd and crossed her arms. “Why would I steal your bitter pastries? I can ask my brother to give me a dozen!”
“I don’t know. I saw you in the corner of my eyes... Give it back!” I exclaimed. As much as I wanted to slap her across the face, she was my superior. This frustrated me to the point where I had the urge to run to the Emperor and snitch on her like I was back in grade school.
“Chase after me, then!” the princess shrieked, proceeding to run around in my chamber. I prayed that the pastries didn’t slide off the plate.
She jumped on my bed and jumped back down. Her mischievous grin said it all.
The youngest princess looked older than Hua Yang, but her personality was as childish as a toddler. It was weird to think that she was fifteen. I’ve never met a teenager that juvenile in my life. Indeed, I thought princesses were taught etiquette and precise mannerisms when they are in their adolescents. So why was she running around in my room?
I had a suspicion that she wasn’t even permitted to step foot in the harem but she did anyway.
Hua Er and I swapped glances. She was occupied with the novel in her hand that she barely cared about the teen triumphantly jumping on the bed. Hua Er wasn’t a big fan of children, let alone a teenager acting like one.
“Mei, get down now!”
I whipped my head around to catch a view of a beautifully structured man at my doorway. His features were remarkably defined. The sun-kissed skin was so rare to see in this day and age. The cheek definition, the strong jawline, the narrow but beautiful eyes. I almost fainted.
No way. I had to put up a front. I was loyal to the Emperor and only to the Emperor.
I rolled my eyes.
“Greetings to Your Highness.” Hua Er quickly got up from the bed and kneeled, I followed quickly although I couldn’t believe that he was related to the Emperor. The Emperor was also good-looking but they did not look alike.
The Emperor had an angry pale face and the prince had a gently, lightly tanned face. A great difference there, actually.
“Brother! You interrupted our playtime!” the princess hopped off my bed and casually walked over to the prince.
“Mei, apologize to Noble Consort Han right now,” he demanded angrily before facing Hua Er. His face softened. “It’s ‘Lordship’ now, but please do get up.”
The princess groaned and turned to look at me. When she placed the plate on the drawer, she stuck her tongue out and tried to run away from the scene. We watched as she struggled to run but stayed in the same spot.
I tracked the issue. The fabric was caught in the drawer. I let out a loud, mocking laugh.
While still laughing, I tugged at the fabric and watched as her face hit her brother’s chest. I peered down at Hua Er, who went back to her position on my bed but with a sneer on her face.
The Emperor’s brother smiled and patted the brat’s head. “That’s the gods punishing you for your actions. Let’s head back.”
As the brat headed out the doorway, the prince gave me an apologetic smile. I returned the favour and politely nodded. The Emperor could be testing me and I wouldn’t know. When my eyes landed on the brat, I watched her bow.
“Happiness and peace to the Empress!” the brat’s voice squealed. I quickly snapped my head towards Hua Er’s direction. She widened her eyes, frantically looking around the room before rising from the bed again.
The Empress slowly walked in, peeking behind the prince and making strong eye contact with me. Hua Er and I greeted her in unison while the prince bowed only.
“You may get up,” the Empress said impassively. She approached me like I was a regular concubine that didn’t go against her.
Good. I watched her as she turned her head towards the prince, informally placing her hand on his shoulder. “I came to find you. His Majesty wants to talk.”
“Ah, I see. I apologize, Empress. Zhi Mei ran off to the harem and I had to find her,” the prince began, rubbing the back of his neck. “Please forgive my mischievous sister, she has a lot to learn still.”
The Empress smiled brightly at him and then grinned at ‘Zhi Mei’, formally known as ‘brat’, but the princess rolled her eyes. The Empress turned her attention to the prince again. “No worries, I was ill-mannered at that age as well.”
‘You still are’, was what I wanted to say, but the Empress kept her cool around me. I was glad that I didn’t have to deal with her envy. It was probably because there were already three pregnant women in the harem, and the Empress knew where to find her victims now. I mostly cared for Su Yin.
The Empress walked out at the speed of a snail. The prince shifted his body towards me and looked at me as if I was one of the gods watching over them. A pleased expression was mixed in with his golden skin on his face.
“I was very delighted to meet you in person,” he says, his smile growing stronger. “At first, I thought it was just a false palace rumour, but it is true. Although there are some misinterpretations...”
“What is?” I asked as I leaned my frame towards him more.
The prince chuckled freely and shook his head. “Ying Yue, you are quite oblivious. People have been informed of this ill-tempered concubine who fights off assassins! It’s exaggerated like you ruthlessly killed them.”
“Although, it was questioning why they depicted you as an ugly but favoured concubine,” the prince rubbed his chin and ran his eyes over my face. “That was something they got wrong.”
Warmth began to invade my cheeks as I let out a nervous laugh. Was the prince flirting with me? Or was he just being polite or cheeky? The small voice in my head was telling me that he was just being friendly, and I shouldn’t flirt back. I listened to it.
“Thank you, Your Lordship,” I said, almost whispering it. I bowed my head and kept it there longer than usual to hide the fluster on my face.
As soon as the brat and the handsome prince left, I headed off to Su Yin’s chamber to give her a piece of my mind. My mind was lingering on the rumours outside of the palace. People were talking about me. This clan or group of assassins know who I am.
Although I should be feeling scared out of my mind, I wasn’t. My ego was getting stroked and I was living for it. My smile never left my face until I got to Su Yin’s residence. When I walked in, she tipped her head up to look at me and beamed.
I cleared my throat, awkwardly standing a few metres away from her. “Congratulations...”
It was weird when it came out of my mouth. I don’t think Su Yin considered my words as genuine, but I refused to correct my tone. Su Yin didn’t inform me about her pregnancy. She didn’t say anything about it. I thought our friendship was a friendship where we could tell each other about things. Anybody could say that I’m overreacting, but I valued our friendship. And I value telling each other if we were pregnant or not.
There, Su Yin was, putting the spoon back in the bowl in front of her and standing up to face me. Her feline eyes had sadness behind it, yet she still had a smile on her face. I couldn’t tell if she knew what I was going to say, but I waited for her to speak up.
“Thank you, sister,” she massaged her stomach with one hand, and with the other hand, she motioned for me to sit down. “Please, sit.”
Su Yin’s hanfu hid her pregnancy very well, but I think it was because she was newly pregnant. It was strange for me to see Su Yin with a baby bump as I didn’t expect the Emperor to give her attention. But I was happy for her, nonetheless. Instead of laying in boredom in her chamber, Su Yin was receiving gifts and affection from the Emperor.
Probably more than me.
“You didn’t tell me,” I spoke softly, hoping not to intimidate Su Yin. Her maids set down a short, black teapot in front of us.
My eyes lingered on the boiling hot tea water, flowing out and into my cup. Su Yin looked at me directly. She took a quick sip and set it down on the saucer. “... I know. I didn’t know if I was pregnant or not. It would be so embarrassing if I tell you and it turns out I was only food poisoned!”
I couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle. Quickly, I forgave Su Yin and grimaced. A mental image of the Empress’s face in rage was projected to me.
“Su Yin,” I whispered, leaning in towards her. “Be careful. I’m worried. I don’t want the Empress to hurt you.”
“Her Majesty wouldn’t hurt me. I’m a low-ranking concubine. I’ll get ranked to Consort and that will be the end of it,” the concubine in front of me paused to scoff. “The Emperor doesn’t care about me, Ying Yue. He’s visiting the Imperial Concubines because if he chooses a Noble Consort like you, Dong Mei will be in envy.”
I was confused. “So what?”
“The Emperor loves Dong Mei. Not as much as he loves Chang Ying or you," Su Yin’s smile faded quickly. “But, he loves Dong Mei so much that he needs her to be stress-free. If His Majesty, for instance, gets Noble Consort Qi—” Su Yin rolled her eyes “—pregnant... Dong Mei... She’ll freak out.”
I realised how informal I was for calling Niu Lin by her name.
“His Majesty has no idea what goes on in the harem. He’s clueless.” I replied in a matter-of-fact tone.
Su Yin nodded but looked upset. “He is, but Dong Mei wants to be the star of the show... Ying Yue, I’ll be fine. Trust me. I’ve been in the harem for so long, I know.”
“I hope so, sister. But if anything goes wrong, I’m here for you,” I reached out to place the palm of my hand on hers. “I promise.”
“Let’s take a walk.” Su Yin grinned at me.
I let out a sneeze, probably louder than the gongs in the temple. The sky was painted with midnight blue and more stars appeared. It was winter and it felt good. I also felt the cold breeze brushing against my skin, which I think was the culprit for my sneeze.
Su Yin left early. Her maids informed her that she couldn’t be outside for too long because the baby’s health was very important. I strolled with my maids, listening to the melody of the wind and the cacophony of my thoughts. I may have been somewhere far away from my true home, in a dangerous battlefield, and participating in a competitive survival reality show, but I for once, felt at peace. Every time my boots pressed onto the snow, I felt serene.
“Milady, you might get sick. Let’s go back to your chamber.” my youngest maid rubbed my arm gently.
I sniffled and tried to sniff the snot back into my nose. Gross, I know. My body refused to move. It was too content in the feel of the breeze and the feelings of the season passing through it. “No worries, you all can go first. I’ll return in a few more minutes.”
My maids paused for a while and soon left me. Although they didn’t want me to catch a cold, they couldn’t defy my orders. I think after the situation with Hua Er and me, they finally understood when to leave me alone.
When I made my way to the gardens, which was in the way of the residence, there were whispers below the large bridge. I sighed before cautiously making steps onto the bridge. As I tried my best not to make any noises, I also refused to stand near the side of the railing. I’m minding my own business... Just minding my own business...
Still, my thoughts couldn’t drown the whispers underneath my feet and I can hear the melody of my name. “Noble Consort Han”, was what I heard. I tensed up my legs at first, stopping myself from walking ahead. I stood there for at least ten seconds before I rushed to the railing side to listen. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did, and I think I should be glad I did. The vocals of the winds died down and the wintery night was silent at last. The only sounds that surrounded me were the whispers of two women.
“I have to take advantage!” the woman said. I can hear the smile on her face.
“And what if it doesn’t work? You’ll make yourself look bad!” another woman replied, in a more earnest tone.
I was too afraid to even breathe. I held my breath as I carefully leaned down.
“Ah! Sister, don’t doubt me,” the woman who wants to take advantage of me whispered back. I can seriously sense the amusement in the tone of her voice. “I’ll have to hurry. Noble Consort Han’s already on her way back! This is fate playing its part. Heaven and the gods are on my side!”
There was haste shuffling underneath me. I immediately jogged back to where I was minutes ago. My breaths were becoming jagged. I breathed quietly but my lungs were begging me for air. As I continued to walk normally, my chest continued to puff up every half a second.
Eavesdropping is a really good idea. It always is. I swear by it. Yes, it’s disrespectful and impolite. And not to mention, it’s an invasion of privacy... But, when it comes to women in the harem, I think eavesdropping is essential. It’s like a compass in those mathematical kits. You think you won’t need it, but you end up using it.
I walked promptly to my destination. If I get to my chamber before the girl does, she already blows her chance. I kept on looking behind my shoulder in case she shows up behind me with a knife over my head. If ‘Heaven and the gods’ is a legitimate concept, then I hope they protect me from a madwoman murdering me in front of the residence.
Another concubine was walking in front of me, a hand on her stomach. Her eyebrows were slightly pressed together and her lips quivered. I wanted to smile at her but she looked straight ahead. She acted like I wasn’t even there.
How rude. I was her superior!
I snarled when she was almost a metre away from me. But alas, her head slightly shifted to my direction and her eyes locked with mine. As she bent her knees to bow, her entire body weight dropped to the ground. As I took cautious steps towards her, I immediately backed up when I had a clear idea of what was going to happen next.
“Your Majesty! Your Majesty! Ying Yue tried to kill me!” the concubine screamed and whined as she rubbed her stomach.
I held back a smirk when I noticed the Emperor walking towards her, casually like she wasn’t having a dramatic outbreak on the floor. As he came closer, my heart was beating faster. This concubine was smart, but not smart enough to realise that I was almost six feet away from her.
She also wasn’t smart enough to realise that the Emperor couldn’t care less about her child.
“Greetings to Your Majesty,” I lowered my head down. Before I could get down on my knees, he grabbed my wrists immediately. His grip was tender.
“That won’t be necessary,” the Emperor spoke sternly and then turned to the pregnant concubine. “Get up.”
The concubine frowned with her mouth open. She squinted her eyes in hopes of faking a tear but even a toddler can tell that this was utter trickery. I can’t believe I was concerned for her when she almost passed out on the floor during the banquet. She must enjoy being on the ground because she’s practically on it all the time.
The girl, red in embarrassment, felt so uneasy that she couldn’t even speak for herself. Or make up any excuses.
The Emperor shook his head in disapproval, pressing his lips together until he didn’t have any. “I’d like to believe you were just poking fun, but I don’t think you were. Li Mei, you’re staying in your chamber for two weeks.”
“You’re still going to visit me, Your Majesty? Right?” she worriedly looked him in the eyes, even pouting like a child.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. She didn’t even deny the fact that she was trying to frame me. This concubine hasn’t been spending time with the Empress at all.
“No.” the Emperor sighed.
If the Emperor came just a few seconds later, I would’ve been in that same prison cell crying my eyes out.
Heaven and the gods might be on my side after all.