When Li Mei was escorted back to her chamber, the Emperor was in mine. His eyes traced down to my exposed neckline but quickly settled back on my face. It was embarrassing being flirtatious with the Emperor when you knew your maids and lady-in-waiting were listening to every single word.
The Emperor was going on a trip to the Hangzhou region to see how things were operating. His chancellors and advisors would come with him and take notes on things they can improve on. I liked that about the Emperor. He cared.
But when he told me he was going to leave for two weeks, I couldn’t take it. It wasn’t a big deal that I wouldn’t see him for two weeks, but it was a big deal because the Empress would have my head chopped off before the Emperor returns. It’s inevitable. I already knew it was coming. There’s no way the Empress will let me off the hook. The Empress could eliminate Dong Mei’s baby or Dong Mei herself!
I braced myself for it. It was time to lay low for a while. I’ve been starting to adapt to this foreign place and it’s starting to feel like home to me. Home. It felt strange to call it home, to call my residence a place I feel comfortable and safe in. During the first month of sleeping in an unfamiliar placement, I went to bed feeling like I was sleeping with jeans.
Yes. It was that painful.
And nowadays, I still miss home. I still miss my parents, my annoying little sister, and my close friend. Cherry was definitely still balling her eyes out and listening to the playlist I created for her when she first officially broke up with her boyfriend.
But instead of thinking of her ex-boyfriend, she’d think of me.
My heart sunk deeper into the pitch-black void; when I think negative thoughts, it constantly reoccurs in my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had before I fell into a world that didn’t have the internet or even a telephone. Imagine being in a BC era with people who don’t act like you or talk like you.
It was gratitude that kept me going. Although I lost all contact with everyone I have ever loved, I remained grateful that I was being well-fed and well-treated where I am. Most of the time, at least. I was grateful that I had Jaxon by my side, who I could relate to and stare at when I was bored. I was grateful for Hua Er to substitute Cara as a temporary sister and best friend for me. I was grateful for Lei Shu to randomly pop up at my doorway and see how I was doing, even taking her time off as a maid because she was heavily working. Lastly, I was grateful for Guan Shu, Chang Ying, and Uncle Bin. They didn’t know my situation at all. They didn’t know me at all. Yet they took my side and continued sticking up for me and being with me.
My hot, sorrowful tears never came out for a long time because I was grateful. I started to appreciate everything that happened. I had a free ticket to ancient China! I was lucky. There were joyful things that I didn’t appreciate before. I am so lucky for Guan Shu’s son to compliment me and treat me like I was the Empress.
I felt ecstatic. I made myself feel good. It was good to feel good! It was good to let go of the things I was stressing about that I couldn’t immediately fix. Overthinking and self-doubt kept me up all night but I slept like a baby during the past few weeks.
The Emperor had kissed me goodbye before he left. It was weird to have his lips press on mine, I still haven’t adapted to it. But the smile on my face when he headed off said otherwise.
The oldest prince was temporarily in charge. He didn’t do much of the Emperor duties, I assumed. Women in the harem weren’t supposed to know a lot about politics and state affairs going on, but I heard the Emperor and Dong Mei talk a little bit about it before he left.
“Ah! You’re getting sick!” Guan Shu moaned, swatting a warm, wet towel around after I let out five consecutive sneezes.
Guan Shu gently patted my bare face down. It wasn’t like every day where I would wear makeup. I don’t think I would need to since the Emperor wasn’t here. My purpose in the harem was to be the Emperor’s eye candy, wasn’t it?
“I’ll be fine,” I mumbled but Guan Shu and the other maids rushed to pour me a cup of tea. They bowed as they gently placed it in front of me.
Snoopy pressed her lips together and tilted her eyebrows up, a gentle look was on her face. “Su Yin might have caught a cold as well. I hope she’s alright with her baby.”
“Hope so too,” I swallowed the warm fluid. The earthy taste in my mouth soothed me. “I might as well check on her today.”
I was guilty of letting her catch a cold. They didn’t have advanced anti-bacterial medicine at this time. I kept on thinking about searching up the medical practices in ancient China but I always forget that my old iPhone is in its particular hiding spot—with a 40% battery life the last time I checked—wouldn’t even have service here. I’d be surprised if the battery life was still at 40%. Knowing how low-quality iPhones get once they release more products, I had a feeling my phone was dead anyway.
Sudden urges like that always appear. A quick flicker of frustration overpowers me but it soon dies out. I feel like I’ve lost something within me like I am grieving over something. I felt like Spongebob in the episode where he was dehydrated in Sandy’s house.
Yes, it was dramatic, but my need for the internet was so bad, that I realised how bad my addiction was.
I’m fairly used to it now, way more than a month ago.
As I step into Su Yin’s chamber, her frail frame was bent over, twitching as coughs escaped her lips. One of her maids stood next to her. The maid was slightly leaning down with a steaming cup in one hand, and the other hand was patting her back. The chamber was darker than mine. There were barely any lights. There was a lamp that was turned on at the far side of the room. Su Yin, still coughing—or hacking out phlegm—didn’t notice my entrance like the rest of the maids did. The one who noticed me first, stood up to address me.
“Lady Ying Yue.” the maid bowed, smiling as my name rolled out her tongue. As she greeted me, the rest of the maids gave me a brief bow. Su Yin raised her head as if there were bricks on the back of her neck. She exhaled deeply once she faced me.
My maids stepped back without making a noise. I chewed my bottom lip so roughly, that I felt that it was going to burst and explode like a gusher. “Sister, my apologies. I shouldn’t have taken you out for a walk.”
“Don’t apologize! It was my fault,” Su Yin swatted her hand. She scoffed and gave me a disapproving look. “Please, sit. Have some tea while you’re here.”
“I thought you’d only have a small cold but yours is quite serious, isn’t it? I’m only having a small sinus infection.” I sniffled as Guan Shu offered me a tissue.
The guilt continued to soak into my skin. I was clueless about ancient Chinese medicine. Would a cold kill your baby? Would catching a cold kill your baby and yourself as well? Is the medicine good enough to cure the sickness and also prevent any health damages to the child as well? Not only was I ignorant about ancient Chinese medicine, but I was stupid about health and sickness in general. I kept staring at Su Yin with pitiful eyes.
I realised I blanked out and a wet trail of snot was running down my philtrum. With haste, I fumbled with the tissue and swiped the snot with it. Su Yin let out a loud unmannerly laugh, one hand holding her stomach for support.
And I was living for it.
The authenticity of her laugh was beautiful. In private, this is where every woman in the harem can be themselves without putting up this fresh, gracious facade. Su Yin, although she always had a sort of rebellious side to her, could be authentic with me here in this room.
She continued to laugh. My laughter had died down but I did grin while Su Yin was busy dying on her chair. She laughed and laughed and laughed. And laughed even more after that. I had no shame and I knew she knew. But I sat sipping on my tea as she continued to laugh her head off.
“Are you done?” I questioned, trying my best not to smile.
Tears were welling up in her eyes. “I... Haven’t laughed so hard in months! Ying Yue, there is nothing and no one that compares to you!”
“Shut up,” I chuckled, my cheeks warming up. My nose was so stuffy, I couldn’t even savour the earthiness of the tea. “I’m concerned that if you aren’t well, your offspring won’t be. Please prove me wrong.”
As Su Yin opened her mouth, I loudly blew my nose. The trumpet noises... I swear I heard it echo in the room. She stifled a laugh. She exhaled aggressively and waited for me to finish.
“Don’t be. I’ve been taking medication and drinking soup made for—” Su Yin began to explain but I cut her off by blowing my nose again.
I blew my nose again, louder.
I covered my left nostril and blew out of my right.
“I don’t do much, so it’s easy—”
I covered my right nostril and blew out of my left, louder.
Su Yin kissed her teeth at me and crossed her arm. She slightly pouted. Her feline eyes slanted towards me, staring into my raw soul. I felt like I was in an interrogation room. It looked as if she was angry at me but I knew it was just Su Yin. I busted out laughing.
It took her a while to hide her amusement, and Su Yin ended up laughing as well. She looked youthful and happy, which was something I wanted to see after the incident not too long ago. Su Yin was having mood swings. It was typical.
Our laughter died down and silence emerged into the room. We sat together without speaking words, our fingers wrapped around the teacup and our gaze falling into the warm liquid below us. I sneaked a look at Su Yin. She was different; I felt a difference. I was worried about her pregnancy yet I couldn’t wait to see her baby.
The Emperor’s baby as well.
Something inside of me died. I am not in love with the Emperor. But when I looked at Su Yin, I thought of the Emperor. When she spoke, I thought of the Emperor. Everything about her reminded me of the Emperor and it made me want to be with Su Yin even more. Yet, I wanted to scratch my eyeballs out because looking at Su Yin reminded me that we were sharing the same man and she was pregnant with the man I kissed on a wintery evening.
The same man I laughed and teased with as it snowed. The same man who gently let me refuse to sleep with him, giving me the same love as he had for me before. The same man that defended me against his true love. Maybe it was jealousy, maybe it was just a comedic situation. But I couldn’t let the image of the Emperor and Su Yin having sex float away from my mind.
I shook away the thought of it and tried to start another conversation. “The recently pregnant concubine tried to frame me yesterday.”
“Li Mei?” Su Yin questioned as she placed her cup down.
I nodded my head.
“She made it look like I pushed her when the Emperor walked by. Her timing was flawed, though.”
“The Emperor must have punished her greatly,” Su Yin rested her chin on the fist she made, elbow resting on the table. “Isolation, maybe?”
“Correct. His Majesty couldn’t do much. I mean, he wants children,” I gulped. “And she’s pregnant too.”
Su Yin scrunched her eyebrows in confusion. I felt her eyes studying me but I refused to let my eyes leave my teacup. The earthy, polluted-looking water suddenly looked interesting. The thought of Su Yin and I’s friendship going to waste because of my envious thoughts are going to haunt me. I can’t be jealous. This was the harem, the battlefield of women clawing at each other’s throats because of one man. I started to question whether I could control myself. I don’t know what I was feeling. I don’t want to know.
The eyes of Su Yin were burning holes into my forehead, yet she didn’t say anything that triggered a response. Either she knew, or she didn’t.
And I’m guessing she did because she sighed deeply and said, “Ying Yue... My pregnancy will not change our friendship.”
I instantly glanced up to look at Su Yin. Her feline features stood out as her eyes narrowed to study my reaction. Of course, Su Yin knew, Su Yin could read the Emperor’s expressions even when he has his same stoic face on. That was something I could never do; read the Emperor’s thoughts and feelings when he was stone-faced.
“What are you saying? Of course not!” I attempted to laugh it off with my excellent acting skills. It was easy to brush things off rather than addressing it.
“Good,” Su Yin started, solemnly and quietly. “You are one of my best friends here. I would never try and go against your title.”
“My pregnancy with the Emperor will do nothing for me,” she scoffed and rolled her eyes. “I will bear the child for His Majesty and that will be the end of it. Ying Yue, you realise I do not love the Emperor?”
“We deeply apologize for interrupting but we are here to deliver medicine.” an elderly eunuch stood to the side of the doorway. Another eunuch came inside, holding a wooden tray with two grey bowls.
Su Yin and I looked at each other with knitted eyebrows. I cleared my throat while they placed the tray vertically so we had easier access. I smiled, nodding to the eunuch as he stepped back. He looked grumpy but his lips curled slightly.
I felt a sharp pain on my knee. “Ouch! Su Yin!”
She kicked me again, harder this time. My forehead hurt from my confusion. Her face was telling me something but my brain cells were dancing to EDM music and I couldn’t process what she was mouthing at me. She tightened her lips, uncrossing her arms as she looked into the bowl.
“Who sent this?” Su Yin asked.
“The Empress, milady.” the second eunuch said, coughing as he spoke.
Su Yin and I exchanged glances and suddenly I caught on.
“It seems like you’re coughing,” I gently pushed the bowl towards him. “I’m not having any coughs. May you please try it?”
The eunuch, quite predictably, shook his head and chuckled. “No, milady, of course not. This is yours!”
“Drink it,” I ordered to the eunuch, startling Su Yin as well.
The sweat beads running down his temple and his tensed grin made it even more obvious. He waved his hands in front of himself and was quite stirred up. “Please, milady. It’s not—”
I slammed the palm of my hand against the table. It hurt but I was too furious to feel the pain. Not only did the Empress’s minions interrupt Su Yin and I’s conversation, but they wanted to kill us. I was on my feet. My butt was off my chair and my arms supporting my weight on the table. I stared at the two bowls in front of me, pitch-black viscous medicine.
Su Yin’s chamber was completely silent except for the heavy breathing through the two eunuchs. My heartbeat was rapid and increased every time my jaw clenched and unclenched. My head slowly turned to the right. Boring my eyes into the first eunuch’s, I let out a small groan.
“Is this poison? Tell me! Is this poison?” I screamed. Rage was quickly rushing into my bloodstream. This time, I couldn’t control it. If I was alone, if Su Yin wasn’t used to the mess of plots and schemes, I could’ve fucking died! I felt the heat rush through my body. It was too hard to control myself now.
I connected my fist to the hard cheek of the first eunuch, knocking him off of his feet. Su Yin’s squeal couldn’t stop me from what I was going to do next. I grabbed the nearest bowl and swung it at the second one. He dodged it efficiently but the bottom of the bowl hit his left ear.
“Ying Yue! Enough! Enough!” Su Yin managed to pull me away from the two men, but my adrenaline was pumping through every single vein in my body. I balled up my fist, attempting to pull away from Su Yin’s grip. The two eunuchs, one on the floor, looked at me like I was a monster.
The cries and screams coming out of my mouth could’ve been heard by the entire harem. I didn’t care. Let them hear! Let them tell the Empress what I’d done! Let the Empress deal with me.
I’ll kill her if I have to.
Su Yin’s voice and the eunuchs’ yells (calling me a monster and a lunatic) was just a white noise in my head. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Everything was a blur. My body was still trying to remove itself from Su Yin’s grip.
“What in the Heavens is going on here?” Dong Mei, standing in the doorway, looked restful. Her presence was calm.
The entire scenario paused and all eyes were directed at Dong Mei. I bowed, “Greetings to Your Grace.”
Su Yin and the eunuchs followed. The one laying on the floor slowly rose. Instead of asking the eunuchs, Dong Mei turned her attention towards me.
“What is this commotion? Ying Yue, appease your anger!” Dong Mei sympathetically looked at me, her eyebrows raised and her eyes widened.
“The medicine the eunuchs gave me,” I caught my breath. “Poison... The Empress told them to poison it...”