“And,” Jaxon said, stretching out the ‘a’. “You blew your cover.”
I rolled my eyes. My body was lazily propped on the chair, one leg over the armrest and my legs spread out. I was sure Jaxon could see my panties but I paid no attention to his occasional stares.
The widespread news of my ‘invention’ would cause harm to me, according to Jaxon, and although I agree with him, I refuse to back down on the sexism I faced in court. Regardless of my danger, I was bound to hog the credit all to myself.
“Whatever. It’s hard to find me, anyway.” I answered, dangling my leg over the armrest to provoke Jaxon. Playfully.
Jaxon’s eyes lingered below before looking up at me with a tint on his cheeks. “Close your legs.”
I cocked an eyebrow.
“I can smell it from here.” he teased, crinkling his nose before pinching his nose and scooting away from me. Jaxon was situated on the floor, having the greatest view.
I laughed. “My apologies, I only bathe every three days.”
Jaxon scoffed, then lifting himself from the floor before groaning, “That was a custom I had to get used to.”
He stretched and sat back down.
“It’s terrible,” I said, smiling as I spoke. “Doesn’t it scare you that it would’ve been 2019 over there?”
“Yes... I adapted to this place, it’s going to be so hard to come back and adjust to how everything is.” Jaxon was playing with one of my floral pins gifted from Chang Ying.
A sad smile emerged on my face. “I didn’t even think that far ahead yet...”
I liked this. Sitting casually on my chair, talking to Jaxon. It was a luxury. It was better than attending constant banquets wearing nice clothes with a stomach full of food and wine. Maybe I lied. I did enjoy the nice clothes. But only as of now, I was sitting on a chair with my sleepwear on. A silky, thin hanfu.
The room was silent and I didn’t know whether to speak or let Jaxon think things through. We were close. Kind of. I barely get to see him. I wanted to see him more often but... I don’t know. It’s conflicting. I enjoy the Emperor’s company but Jaxon. Jaxon. I could let loose and be myself with him but something about the Emperor attracted me. Maybe it was his demeanour and the way he presented himself.
Most importantly, he stood up for me in court. Although he attempted to hide me in the dark, he still ended up standing up for me.
As much as I wished to push the two out of my life, I couldn’t. There was a bundle of thread always above my head. I always felt like I had to unknot a knot on a silver chain. It was so messy, so messy. So unorganized in my head. I wish I could write my thoughts down but if someone finds papers with foreign letters scrawled on the sheets, I could get myself in big trouble.
“There’s a banquet you’ll have to attend today,” Jaxon broke the silence. “Evening.”
I inhaled sharply as I faced him. His eyes danced around my face but landed onto my eyes. His expression changed. Tight-lipped. Jaxon wanted to scoot back to his spot, a little closer to where I was but I can tell he was hesitant.
We stared at each other for a few seconds. No words left my lips and neither did he say anything else. His eyes haunted me. I felt something.
I exhaled shakingly and darted my eyes away from him.
“When will there never be?” I asked, sarcastically and rhetorically. Between my words, I slowly rested my leg back onto the seat and slowly closed my legs.
Jaxon bit his lip. There was a small curl in the ends of his lips but I pretended to be clueless. As I settled myself back, comfortably leaning against the backrest, I quickly said, “I-I wouldn’t want everyone to look... look at me differently, you know? Like—”
“Right. It’s dangerous to be out in the open as well in case—” Jaxon started but interrupted himself. “—I saw that.”
My whole body felt hot. My cheeks burned.
I cleared my throat. “Saw what?”
Jaxon imitated me, clearing his throat as well. He slowly shifted towards me, his presence only a few centimetres away. I held my breath as he sprung up and onto his knee. His frame was leaning towards mine now. I clenched my thighs as Jaxon’s large hands ran up my thighs, gently spreading them apart. He gulped. His eyes...
“Why are you wet?” Jaxon’s voice turned huskier, deeper than I’ve ever heard from him before.
It was suddenly hot in my room. It was winter. The windy, cold winter that was neighbouring this place was suddenly changing seasons. I was squirming, yet throbbing, under his touch.
This was happening way too fast, and I couldn’t catch up.
I hastily closed my legs, clasping Jaxon’s thumbs between my thick thighs. “I peed myself!”
Good going, Carmen! What a great reply! Amazing! I love it! Keep up the great work!
Blood was pumping faster past my veins and Jaxon’s eyes bored into mine. I refused to make any eye contact him.
Denial. Denial. Denial.
His thumbs remained between my thighs, almost like my thighs moulded into their shape. It was an unsettling position in an unsettling situation.
My body sprang up from the chair. Jaxon was quick to get up. His face was a few inches away from me, breathing into me, exchanging body warmth in the emptiness of this room. I didn’t speak, not enough, because my breaths were starting to shake. I’ve never considered this to happen. We were here to discuss, here to talk as friends, but we always end up having this tension, this strong tension between us.
I pursed my lips together harshly and shot him a small smile. “Well, I’ll be going for a walk. I will see you at the banquet. ”
Su Yin gaped at me, her slanted eyes were now rounded. She looked at me, doe-eyed for so long that I was wondering when I had to wipe the drool off her bottom lip. “Ying Yue, His Majesty dotes on you so much it’s... Isn’t it exciting?”
“He was just pressured,” I lied through my teeth. The Emperor isn’t likely favouring only me. I was just one of his favourite flavours, and he is bound to have more than one scoop of ice cream flavour in his cone. Sorry, bad metaphor. “Su Yin, aren’t you pregnant?”
“My purpose is to serve the Emperor, but you—” Su Yin whispered quieter now that the buzz in the hall we were in started to fade drastically.
“Quiet! His Majesty has something to say!” the Empress, in her ravishing brocade, red hanfu, blending in with the Emperor’s outfit as she wrapped her hand in his.
Everyone in the room immediately zipped their lips. The Emperor was stone-faced. His eyes were dull when he spoke to a larger audience. It was as if he planned his speeches the night before because the way he talked to us, was like it was scripted. There were no pauses, no stutters, his speech was smoother than butter.
His empress, on the right side of him, turned her head to look at him. She admired him. I could tell. Her eyes gleamed when she looked at the Emperor and the wide grin on her face proved to me that the Empress had a heart. Although she was wicked towards us, she had a soft side for her husband. The Empress loved him, loved him with everything she was and had.
But was this love reciprocated?
After his extremely long speech—which I paid no attention to—it was time for entertainment and dining. A group of actors and actresses were performing in front; instruments were playing lively.
Su Yin nudged me and whispered in my ear. “That lady looks exactly like Niu Lin!”
Her index fingers indicated to a chubbier lady with a pig mask on her face. The actress wore a pink brocade hanfu and had pig ears on the top of her head. I moved my head to get a better look and laughed into my hand. “It really does!”
Not very long after, the performances were finished and the plates were empty.
“I think this was the best performance I have ever seen,” I said to Su Yin, tears of laughter in my eyes.
Her narrowed eyes and widened laughter gave me the hint that she agreed with me. She nodded her head frantically, “Me too! I thought it was hilarious when the pig lady thought she had the last laugh but ended up getting roasted!”
As I stood up to leave the event, a loud crash was heard, startling my already tired body.
My neck snapped towards the right side of the hall, only to find men dressed in all black, holding long swords flocking towards us all. To make matters even worse, those were the same guys that attempted to assassinate the Emperor and the Empress Dowager.
Everything was supposed to run smoothly.
The shrieks of women and the stomping of the Imperial guards were alarming enough that I immediately jumped into combat. With nothing in my hands, I pushed the concubines out of my way, ready to protect the Emperor.
“Protect the Emperor and Empress!” a eunuch cried out.
Other Imperial guards are rushing to get the others to safety, but I stood my ground when a young guard attempted to usher me away from the scene. I turned to face him and watched as he widened his eyes. He nodded shortly and left me.
It was chaotic, not very much different than a Renaissance painting. I disarmed one of the assassins and took ahold of his sword. As I made my way to the Emperor, there was a firm grip on my wrist. My heart was beating. I almost dropped the sword completely, but I swung it so roughly that the lower half of the man’s body was gushing out an immense volume of blood.
There were a couple of times where I had to defend myself, but the only thing I was worried about was the Emperor. Imperial guards were winning against the assassins.
I looked out of place. A small young girl in a crowd of big men going crazy at each other.
When I finally had a view of the Emperor, he was already being escorted out. His back was turned against us but he turned around when a loud, ear-killing scream blasted in the hall. I stopped fixating my eyes on the Emperor. He muttered something with his eyebrows furrowed, causing his forehead to wrinkle. The loud, liveliness sounds of swords clashing against each other immediately stopped. The hall was silent.
No man moved. Nobody made a sound.
I faced where everyone’s eyes were and witnessed the Empress with her hands placed behind me. She was being held by two assassins. The tip of the blade was pressed firmly against her neck. How crazy would it be if they just killed her right now? Although I despised the Empress, I didn’t want to see her die this way. Besides, the trauma the Emperor would face is unbearable to me.
“One more movement and the Empress dies.” the assassin yelled out. His hand gripped on the sword handle with so much strength that his knuckles turned white. Under the mask, his breathing was loud and shaky.
Sweat was trickling down the back of my neck already. My hair was frizzy, I could feel it. The makeup on my face probably melted. But, my hanfu is still in perfect condition, and so was my virtue.
“What do you want?” I asked, my voice was lacking confidence but I still stood firmly. The sword that I had stolen is still held up high.
I could tell all eyes were on me. The Emperor was staring, staring so hard that he might as well be reading my mind. In my peripheral vision, he took a small step forwards. Sorry, Your Majesty, but I’ll have to face this shitshow on my own right now!
I made my bed, I will sleep in it.
My consciousness was not here with me. Why would I go through great lengths to defend the Empress? Okay, maybe not great lengths, but it took bravery to speak up to someone willing to kill her.
“We want? What do we want? His Majesty will have to step down his throne,” the assassin barked. “We want His—”
Right on target!
The sword was flying through the air gracefully before the head of the assassin ended up on the floor. Detached from his body, may I add. There it was. Another loud, obnoxious shriek from the Empress but I had the heart to quickly run up towards her and use myself as a meat shield. The fighting went on immediately after, and when it did, I had the Empress’s hand in mine.
My hands were very sweaty.
I think she noticed because she was reluctant to continue holding my hand. She still did, though. Her head was tipped down like a sad sunflower. I was trying to force her to look at me by continuously facing her, but she refused to even acknowledge my presence. I was hesitating about whether to be petty or not.
I held back.
“Are you okay, Empress?” I asked, slowly, with uneasiness, rubbing circles on the Empress’s back. As I was petting her, I could feel her shaking.
That was when her pretty eyes were finally looking straight at me. Instead of a look of disgust, it was a thoughtful look. She forced a small smile for me, but the smile ended up turning genuine because the unforeseen happened.
The Empress embraced me. Her arms wrapped around my body while I stood there like a statue, speechless as well. I didn’t know what my next step was, but I patted her elbows. I was terrible at reassuring people I hated. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever reassured anyone I hated.
A sniffle was heard next to my ear as the Empress was squeezing farts out of me. Her skinny arms were holding me tightly. I couldn’t let go so I stood there. My right shoulder was getting wet but I’ll just tell my maids to handle it. Or get compensation from the Empress.
Not a good time to joke about that.
I cleared my throat but the Empress didn’t get the memo. Her grip on my body was starting to loosen up and she collapsed onto my feet.
“Is she alright, Your Highness?” I asked softly, my eyes scanning the sleeping beauty’s facial structure.
Princess Hua Yang knelt next to the laying empress with a towel soaked in warm water on her forehead. Her delicate hands brushed the excess hair sticking on the Empress’s face. “She’ll be alright. She must’ve passed out due to shock.”
“You should practice medicine more often. Maybe become an Imperial physician with the princess status. Wouldn’t that be great, Your Highness?” I grinned at her.
“Women aren’t supposed to be practising medicine,” Hua Yang laughed, but her eyes remained still. It was a bland laugh. “His Majesty lets me explore and assist, but I shouldn’t be pursuing anything...”
“Who said that?” I asked, a little aggressively.
Hua Yang’s eyebrows tilted up as her eyes widened, blinking quickly. She opened her mouth to say something, but soon after, she pressed her lips gently against each other again.
I could’ve sworn she saw through me. My anger was building up. My throat and lungs were already burning, it felt as if I engulfed the entire flames in the furnace.
“Your Highness, you will be a great physician,” I repeated. The women here definitely think I’m deranged. But I believe that I can influence the Emperor’s decisions, no matter how insane I look.
The Emperor walked in, not saying a word to any of us.
“Greetings to Your Majesty,” we said in unison but the Emperor only nodded at us and placed himself on a chair, further away from us and the Empress.
The room stayed silent for a tremendously long time. The Emperor was still sitting further away from the Empress, but he observed his sister working.
I stood up, about to leave but we made sudden eye contact.
The Emperor had a frown the entire time. He didn’t say any words to his sister nor me.
I couldn’t read him.
“Ying Yue,” he said, almost groaning my name. I gulped as he reached out for my hand and clasped it between his. “Thank you for saving the Empress.”
“It is my duty, Your Majesty,” I beamed at him.
“But it’s not. You did it from your own heart and I will always see you like that,” the Emperor kept his eyes on mine. I squirmed sheepishly under his fixated gaze on me. “Although the Empress isn’t awake, I am sure she is grateful that you are here in this Palace alongside me.”
I beg to differ!
I wasn’t reckless. I fixed my posture a tad bit before bowing to the Emperor. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I shall take my leave now.”
The fur on my coat rubbed against my neck as I strutted back to my chamber, ignoring the quiet stares melting my skin. I sniffled. The warmth of the harem compared to the outside weather caused my nose to run. It was uncomfortable too, walking alone in the swarm of judgement because I always left my maids to attend other things.
Normally, the women in the harem would have their maids and their lady-in-waiting all the time, but I liked being alone. Maybe it wasn’t courteous of me, or rather, I could be depicted as a certain type of woman, but I couldn’t care less about what they thought of me. It was the Emperor’s concerns that were truly the star on the tree.
Speaking of the star on the tree, I was surprisingly fine with not celebrating Christmas or the New Year in the same manner as in my era. The New Year’s celebration not long ago was a drag and a bore. Now to think of it, every banquet I’ve been to was the same.
It was like attending the same club every Saturday or something.
When reaching my destination, Hua Er had the goofiest smile on her face. She went in for such a big hug, that the maids that were kneeling were in shock as well. My body was so sore and limp that I stood with incoherence. I don’t see her for almost the entire day and she acts like this. I like it. Like a little puppy, Hua Er always felt excited to see me.
“Lady Ying Yue! Are you alright?” Snoopy rushed to me as well, and so followed by my other three maids.
“I’m fine, thank you,” I reassured while Hua Er slowly released me from her embrace. “Her Majesty fainted in shock.”
Chen Xi rolled her eyes. “Her blood is filled with drama! Every day she lives off of this adrenaline of ridiculing us. I longed for her assassination. Good riddance!”
“Chen Xi!” I bit my cheeks to hold in my laugh and quickly swatted the air in front of her face.
Her shoulders lifted as she scoffed. I playfully put my index fingers up to my lips.
“Refrain from such statements! The walls have ears, remember?”
“That quote, is highly overused,” Guan Shu nodded to herself, then putting her hands on her hips. “But I agree with Lady Ying Yue, although,“—Guan Shu cupped her mouth with her right hand and leaned in closer towards us—“I do long for her assassination as well.”
Hua Er set herself down on the bed and carefully touched something laid out in front of her. As she held it up, she smiled with her pearly whites. “Ying Yue, behold, what you’re wearing when Her Majesty awards you!”
The maids clapped in unison, watching as my face turn into a glow of astonishment. Hua Er gently held up the mint green hanfu to show me. It was bright, pure silk. The design was simple, but, had a strong degree of elegance. I examined it quickly and gave them a motherly look.
“The Empress is rewarding me? ... How did you four finish this in less than a day?” I moulded into my chair, cross-legged as I smoothed the fabric out with the back of my hands. It felt cold and... rich.
“Well,” Guan Shu explained, as she poured me a hot cup of tea. “She is obligated to. And, we didn’t know this would come up and we were half-way done this piece. Since you are the spotlight, we might as well finish it and let you wear it for today. This is a significant event, milady, I hope you know this. You showed strength today, not because you saved the Empress, but you risked your life to save a woman that you consider your enemy.”
I watched them in awe, looking at me like proud mothers. Then I laughed, shaking my head, “Considered? She is.”
And so, here I went.
“Noble Consort, Han Ying Yue,” the Empress called out, forcing a big smile and remaining professional while reading off a large scroll. “Is being rewarded for her great virtue, her kindness, strength, and her bravery. We, women in the harem, must follow her behaviour and follow the way she presents herself.”
She continues, “Noble Consort Han is awarded twenty taels of silver, three bolts of silk, and two bolts of brocade.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” I kowtowed, then lifting my head to face the Empress once more.
The Empress Dowager, dressed beautifully in her attire, stared deeply into me and gave me a small nod. Her lips began to curl and finally, a smile was formed. “I don’t know how you do it. You bring out a lot. Please, keep it up.”
Applauses. Applauses. Applauses.
Then the crowd began to leave.
Once I stood up and adjusted the bottom of my attire, the Empress stepped down her throne and approached me with uncertainty. I dipped my head and bowed graciously, but she stood in front of me without a move of her facial muscles.
“I have a proposal.” the Empress raised her chin higher.
The loud conversations from the people have faded. The hall was almost empty.
“What is it, Your Majesty?” I calmly spoke, waiting for her to ridicule me or mock me, or say something to spite me.
The Empress stepped one foot forward towards me. Her maids stood behind her but rested on their standing spot. It was as if I was getting threatened. I chose to stand tall although the Empress’s face was inches away from me, and I didn’t want her to think that I was vulnerable. I did feel a dangerous presence from her. But it was all in my head.
I felt a little uneasy. Although I was two ranks below her, I felt as if I was just a mere peasant underneath her feet.
“Let’s work togeter,” she said in a soft but demanding manner.
The grin on her face was not as convincing as she thought it was. She can charm the Emperor, she can charm the Empress Dowager, she can charm the rest of the people here, but she cannot charm me. I can see through her. Her pale, flawless face and the small, bright red lips, like a porcelain doll, was still something breakable. It will shatter like glass. I can see through her like glass.
The Empress continues, “I can get rid of Imperial Noble Consort Yang”—Dong Mei—“and give you the title of ‘Imperial Noble Consort’. This is a once in a lifetime offer, Ying Yue, I’m not going to ask this again. I will repay you. You saved my life. This is what I will repay you with.”
I gaped at her with disbelief. This woman had the guts and the overestimation of her power to ask me to scheme with her. To scheme against a pregnant woman... a pregnant woman carrying her husband’s baby. And of course, I pitied her. Pitied her because she had insecurities, pitied her because of her envy and hatred, and pitied her because of her inability to satisfy the Emperor with all the attractiveness she had.
She was someone that was misunderstood, I can see that now.
But I still didn’t want to associate with her. I still saw this negative energy radiating from the entirety of her body.
With all the energy I had in my body, I sighed and truthfully, genuinely, with the bottom of my heart, gave her a polite smile and whispered, “Good luck with that, Your Majesty, but this is not why I am here. I do wish you well but I also want Madame Dong Mei to produce a child.”
“As much as I would love to join you—er, as much as I would love to accompany you, Empress, I must say that I’d like to stay true to myself,” I continued.
I gulped. “I shall take my leave, have a good night.”
A speech. A great speech. A great speech that will make the Empress despise me again, and even more this time.
And with that, I turned around and left the scene, leaving her with nothing but a polite smile.