“You must look good, sister.” Chang Ying said quietly as she set herself on the corner of my bed, crossing her legs in grace. In her situated position, she looked at me as if she was my mother, encouraging me before I celebrated my sweet sixteen or something.
I turned to face her, hands running through the headpiece Guan Shu put on for me. My eyes dropped down in sorrow. “I’m still shaking...”
Chang Ying continued to look at me heartily. With her bottom still on my bed, she leaned her back forward towards me and intertwined her hand with mine. My hand was weak under another’s grasp.
The Emperor had returned and we were scheduled to meet him. I was still in shock from the incident. I was still a virgin to the schemes in the harem. It was hard to believe that the Empress despised me so much, she wanted death upon me.
“Madame Dong Mei was a little,” I paused to think of a word to describe her without offending her. “A little...”
“Rude?” Chang Ying questioned, tilting her eyebrow up. A slight smile calmly spread on her face as she laughed from exhaling out her nostrils.
I nodded. “Yes. She didn’t acknowledge me when I was in shock. Madame Dong Mei just... set the eunuchs to execution and didn’t question the Empress at all, Your Grace.”
The Empress, inevitably, got away once again. I was starting to get used to her. Every day, she’ll never acknowledge my presence or if she did, she wouldn’t look at me like I murdered her family and drank their blood anymore. But it was definitely because of what the Empress Dowager had said to her. The Empress acted more professionally.
Dong Mei dismissed the ‘allegations’ of the Empress poisoning Su Yin and I’s medicine. Her precise words: “The Empress would do no such thing, please refrain from speaking upon this matter on forth.”
No idea. I seriously had no idea how oblivious Dong Mei was. Or did she know but had to take the Empress’s side? Was Dong Mei really defending her? Thinking back on their relationship, I can see why she was. The Empress and Dong Mei weren’t exactly friends. They were just women who didn’t go against each other and went for other concubines’ throats. I always thought of the Empress as a lone wolf. She was lonely. As much as I wanted to knock her teeth out, I did pity her.
A hating, vile woman had psychological damage within herself. Therapy should exist in these ancient times.
I smacked my lips after I applied a fresh tint of red. When I finished applying my makeup, I enchanted myself in the mirror. Chang Ying noticed me staring at myself in awe and stayed silent. I grinned when I watched her from the mirror.
“But,” Chang Ying whispered, low enough for me to hear. “I can’t believe Dong Mei dismissed your outburst.”
I had anger issues. I’ve grown up with it. Ever since I was a small toddler, I threw the biggest tantrums. They were so bad that the only person who could handle them was my grandmother. All she had to do was bend down, eye level with me and give me the warmest smile. Her eyes crinkled and iris brightened. She’d calm me down and it was only her who could calm me down.
Nothing lasts forever and she passed away when I was only four.
I was too oblivious. But now growing up, I still feel a gentle wave of sorrow when I think of her.
In a sense, Guan Shu did remind me of her. It felt nice to have a grandmother figure. It was a rebirth of the emotions of having a grandmother.
“How so?” I asked.
I began to organize and clear my table. Crumpled rose-tinted sheets, scattered blush powder, and a few drops of excess eyebrow ink were getting on my nerves. As I put away my last brush, Chang Ying stood up.
“Dong Mei would’ve had you flogged. But she didn’t,” Chang Ying walked towards me. We made eye contact through the mirror as she stood behind me. I was stuck in between her straight arms, hands gripping the armrest of my chair. Her eyebrows were scrunched like she was asking for an explanation. “Why?”
I shrugged. “Your Grace, I wouldn’t know... Perhaps it was because I defended her against Her Majesty. The Empress wanted to provide her with less coal and Madame Dong Mei was crying.”
“I see,” Chang Ying’s face softened. “I’m glad you stayed on Dong Mei’s good side. Who knows what she would’ve done if you weren’t.”
I watched as she brought her face next to my ear. Her hot breath tickled my earlobe, causing me to squirm a little.
“The Empress gave you something that contained hyoscyamus niger that causes you to act insane,” Chang Ying whispered, even quieter than last time. “Dong Mei returned the favour for you once, but she won’t do it again. Be cautious and don’t trust her.”
Louder this time, Chang Ying pulled herself away from my face and smiled at me from the mirror, “I have to go. I’ll see you at the hall, sister.”
I adjusted my headpiece again, turning my head to watch Chang Ying leave my chamber. Why was it that I was scared now? I could feel and hear my heart beating out of my chest as I gawked at myself in the mirror. No longer did I feel safe in my room, in any room in this place in general. I’m starting to be scared. I’m starting to have doubts about whether or not I should stay here any longer.
Should I take Jaxon’s word for it and go for a crazy hunt for that pin?
The Emperor was in the main hall of the harem, this I knew. The Empress walked in front of us with two of her maids next to her. Her other eight maids were already around her throne. We lined up accordingly to our rankings. Chang Ying continued to turn her head to face me and give me a reassuring smile, but I kept getting shivers down my spine. Was I excited to see the Emperor? It’s been two weeks without seeing his face around; I started to forget what he looked like.
“Greetings to Your Majesty.” the Empress bowed, starting a chain reaction from all of us. We repeated the phrase in unison and bowed to him.
He eyed us carefully. A stoic expression remained on his face like he always had on when he was the star of the show. How come I can never read you, Your Majesty? I wanted to say. But the Emperor looked at none of us and said, “Please don’t stand on ceremony.”
My eyes immediately shot at the Emperor holding out his hand for the Empress to take it. They walked up the stage together with grace, while we sat on the sidelines in front of them. I didn’t stop looking at the Emperor. Chen Xi was behind me, gently patting me to stop.
“Drink your water and calm down,” she whispered, motioning the ceramic cup in front of me. “I know it’s hard but please bear with me, milady.”
I nodded solemnly and plastered a bright smile on my face while the Emperor spoke about his trip. All the ‘I learned a lot’, ‘livelihood of the village’, and ‘villagers seemed afraid but won’t tell me why’, went in one ear and shot out from the other. I didn’t care enough to listen to the Emperor’s sweet-sounding voice. The Empress’s voice was the one that struck me like a badly played violin.
It wasn’t the Emperor. I just couldn’t stand the Empress speaking to him, talking to him like everything was okay. I couldn’t stand watching her be praised by women she didn’t even like. And most of all, I couldn’t stand her acting like she didn’t try to mould me into being a damn lunatic!
“Empress, you know that you are second to none,” the Emperor said, loud and clear for all of us to hear... right after the Empress whined about her children-less self.
I rolled my eyes and followed Chen Xi’s advice. Just sip my tea and let things go.
But it was hard to let things go.
It was evening, dinner time. Just as I was about to remove all the traces of my makeup, familiar-sounding footsteps alerted me. I straightened my posture.
“You don’t knock?” I retorted although I was the one who started the conversation.
Jaxon scoffed. “You don’t greet me?”
I stood up from my chair and walked towards Jaxon. His buff build stood a head and a half taller than me. He gave me a small smile and fixed the loose hairs on the top of my head, where my headpiece was before I removed it.
“The Emperor wants to see you,” Jaxon stated, breaking his smile. He looked me in the eyes for almost half a minute. I looked up at him. Tension. “For dinner, I think. Just here to send you the message.”
“I don’t think he would require you to set foot in the harem. He would’ve sent a eunuch.” I said quietly. I probably would’ve got stoned if I didn’t use the Emperor’s honorifics, but it gets annoying to continuously say ‘His Majesty’. Besides, my maids didn’t come in yet.
Jaxon shuffled in his armour and murmured, “I’ll take my leave now.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but I didn’t have the courage to. Jaxon’s back was turned to me, getting further and further until he left through the window. As I sat on the side of my bed, cross-legged, a special feeling inside of me sparked. The chilliness of my chamber made it worse.
Jaxon. Jaxon, Jaxon, Jaxon. Why did he have to make it so difficult? If I had a crush on him, I wouldn’t even look in the direction of the Emperor.
A few minutes later, my maids proceeded to walk in. They walked in a line and kneeled. Guan Shu took the lead and told me that the Emperor wanted to see me.
I faked a smile like this was my first time hearing the news.
My youngest maid noticed my body shivering under the sheer material of my hanfu, and tossed more coal into the fire pit. The flames dancing in all sorts of directions. It hypnotized me. Without noticing the hand of Hua Er in mine, I proceeded to lift my weight off the bed and positioned myself directly in front of the mirror.
The maids watched as my hand started to find the centre of my head with a comb—that didn’t work well with my thick hair—and proceeded to do my hair myself. My hair was so hard to work with, that I applauded my maids for doing their best.
The Emperor was back and he had requested to have dinner with me first. Not the Empress. My grinning face brought satisfaction to me. I couldn’t help but wait for Niu Lin to say something, just so I can rub it in her face for once. I rarely ever boasted about the Emperor. This was a reward for me: seeing Niu Lin’s face of envy.
“Milady, please let us assist you.” Chen Xi quickly rushed towards me and took the comb from my hand. I was too lost in my thoughts to even realise what I was doing.
I tilted my head back and groaned. “I am so tired today!”
“If you want, milady, we can tell the Emperor—” Snoopy wanted to say.
Her voice was so soft that it startled her when I threw my head forward and shrieked, “No!”
I pushed myself forward, resting my elbows on the table. I interlocked my fingers and rested my chin on them. I faced myself. I didn’t look restless. I looked fresh out of the beauty world, my skin was glowing and my lipstick was still fresh. But my eyes were filled with fatigue.
My maids shared a collective glance towards each other. They smirked.
It took me a while to gain consciousness. “My apologies... I don’t want to cancel on His Majesty. Besides, this would be a wasted opportunity.”
Something that I will never hear coming out of anyone’s mouth again, will be ‘wasted opportunity’.
“Greetings to the Emperor.” I kneeled before him, but he urged me to get up. I almost flinched when his large hands wrapped around my petite fingers.
His large chamber was warm. Warmer than mine. Or maybe I just thought it was warm. Maybe it was warm because my heart was pumping and my armpits were a little sweaty. It was a rush to see the Emperor and I was glad I didn’t come late. My internal organs were warm, therefore my hands and feet weren’t ice cold like they were back in my chamber.
Candles were also lit. The room looked brighter than mine and livelier as well. As he walked me to my seat, my hand in his, he pulled the chair out for me to sit. I nodded quietly, wondering whether he felt my anxiety through the palm of my hand.
“You look beautiful,” the Emperor says, picking up his chopsticks. “Did I ever tell you that?”
I don’t even remember.
“I’m sure you have, Your Majesty. It’s a pleasure to see you as well.” I smiled. While I held my bowl in my left hand, I went to pick up meat with my right.
He watched my right hand with a puzzled expression on his face. Then he laughed. A short span of laughter escaped out of his lips that I didn’t expect. I looked up in confusion, my fingers still intertwined with the chopsticks.
“Why do you hold chopsticks like that?” the Emperor asked with amusement in his tone. He asked in a teasing way and I immediately looked down at my hand.
I giggled. Like, giggle. I actually giggled. Like a school girl getting teased. “Ah! That’s just how I hold my chopsticks, Your Majesty! Don’t insult me like that!”
Quite unexpectedly, while my hands were soaking my chopsticks with sweat, the Emperor leaned in forward towards me and reached for my cheek. He squeezed gently. A luminous smile had appeared on his usually bad-tempered face, and my heart skipped a beat. There was absolutely no way this was real. No way was he playfully pinching my cheek like I was a toddler. No way was he genuinely gleaming at me.
“I—” I tried to speak but I was speechless. There was still food in my mouth. I avoided speaking with my mouthful of food so all I did was stare at him with widened eyes and pink tinted cheeks. My heart was dashing out of my chest.
“Very cute.” the Emperor spoke softly. His eyes were twinkling with admiration as if I was a new puppy he got out of the cardboard box.
My cheeks were heated. Red! I can already feel it flushed and hot. It could fry eggs! That’s how hot it was! The Emperor was sitting across from me, eating dinner with me, and squeezing my cheek!
I haven’t gotten my period yet, why am I feeling so hormonal? I swallowed my food after I slowly chewed. I am still anxious.
Before I even had a chance to speak, the Emperor’s advisor with the long white beard down his chin, interrupted, “I apologize for interrupting, but I do have a concern that cannot wait, Your Majesty.”
The Emperor’s smile faded quickly. He clipped a piece of beef between his chopsticks before turning his head to the advisor, sitting a little further away from us. I forgot he was there. Now that I know his presence is near, I felt awkward.
“Speak.” the Emperor chewed the beef.
The advisor glanced at me. “Your Majesty, she—”
“Speak.” the Emperor said sternly, there was a small pinch of agitation in his tone.
The advisor cleared his throat and hesitated. He nervously avoided any eye contact with me while I stared at him hard. Not in a rude way, but I kept looking at him.
“Due to Your Majesty’s exhaustion of the long trips,” the advisor began, shuffling the papers in front of him. “We may have to shorten the trips from twice a year to once a year.”
The Emperor paused for a few seconds. I observed him, analyzing his furrowed eyebrows and side pursed lips. He looked as if he was in a void of his thoughts. I couldn’t read him, I could never read him. Was he upset or was he just thinking of a solution?
My lips slowly parted. I lost myself in the puzzles of his expression. I’m falling into a never-ending pit. Why can I not know what he’s thinking? Mysterious.
Somehow, I liked it. Only sometimes.
He looked up at me and then to the advisor. “I’m not certain if I can do that. The people need me more than ever. There’s a crisis, I can feel it but I’m unable to take any actions if the people won’t tell me anything.”
“Your Majesty,” I said in a quiet tone. He sharply turned his head to me. “I might have an idea... Every twice a year, you can have civilians write about their issues and you can send messengers to pick it up. Maybe ask them to fill out specific information about themselves, like their name, age, occupation and other things.”
I chewed my bottom lip. The Emperor frowned, his forehead pinched as he looked like he was glaring at me. I exhaled shakingly. “Er... And perhaps, they can be able to write anonymously.”
The silence in the room was making me feel queasy but I kept going on. Although I didn’t know what I was saying almost the entire time. “And, Your Majesty can also have a system where an individual can write on paper and every day it can be picked up and delivered to the Palace. Other civilians can send it to other civilians too. That’s... my idea, anyway...”
Mail. I was hinting at mail. There were no mail systems.
The two men looked at me with their jaws locked open. I gently placed my chopstick on the chopstick rest and wiped the palm on my hands on the bottom of my hanfu. The Emperor cleared his throat to speak but the advisor beat him to it.
“Your Majesty... this might be a very interesting system!” the advisor exclaimed, his face brightened like a lightbulb.
“Indeed it is...” the Emperor rubbed his chin and eyed me. “Where did you get this idea from?”
Panic! I knew it! They didn’t have a mail system. It was so obvious.
Your Majesty, it’s because of the time period that I’m from, they have mail! Haha, wouldn’t you want to know what else we have!
I grinned. “It was in my head a lot. I just didn’t want to say it, Your Majesty.”
“Intelligent.” the advisor solemnly nodded his head.
The Emperor cocked an eyebrow and studied me. “Intelligent indeed...”