Natural. It was starting to feel more natural here. I started considering this place my home. I always stay in my chamber now. My bed was the most comfortable place I could ever be in, next to the composed melody of Hua Er’s guqin.
The season was starting to change. The white noise of the crackling fire was lessening, and without Hua Er’s guqin, I indulged in the silence of my chamber.
The topic of the Empress was never brought up again. She continued to despise me and I said cheeky things to the Emperor just to spite her. It was a silent feud between us. I’d like to say that both of us kept it that way to benefit ourselves.
Dong Mei was someone we never brought up but everyone here was raving about how she was going to give birth soon. It could be today, or tomorrow, or in a week. Predictions were rarely accurate considering the fact that this was ancient times.
“Ying Yue,” the guqin stopped playing and Hua Er’s eyes glistened. “Can we be able to look at the flowers today? Or will you be busy?”
“Of course we can. This book was getting boring anyway.” I replied, tossing the book on the side of my bed. I yawned. Reading about ancient Chinese medicine was like reading a math textbook.
I hopped out of bed and let out a big stretch, moaning loudly to assert my dominance in case the palace women heard me. As Chen Xi and my youngest maid in which I kept on forgetting her name, Fen Ai, placed the hanfu over my head, Fen Ai broke her silence.
“Milady, why do you never bother to wear clothes in your chamber?”
Hua Er chuckled. “Leave her alone, Ying Yue is just preparing for when the Emperor walks in on—”
“Don’t say anything you’ll regret, Hua Er.” I interrupted, maintaining a straight face. But as Hua Er gave me a teasing look, I cracked a smile.
My body felt more lightweight, more free, free because the breeze was finally rubbing against my skin. It was time to ditch the fur coat and heavy winter attire. No more coal burning, shivers under thick blankets, and finally, a chance to truly blossom. Flowers were blossoming, bright, vivid colours were coming to life.
Pollen. There was also pollen.
“Achoo!” my eyes tightened and my body was firm.
Snoopy giggled. “Milady, you have seasonal allergies?”
I rubbed the bottom of my nose furiously, sniffling a couple of times. “Ah... Yes, I do. I get used to it after a week or two.”
As Hua Er and I walked through the gardens, a smile was spreading across my face. Hua Er had noticed but kept her silence. It was refreshing. The winter was moody, blue, and dark. There was nothing eventful. I stayed in the dark most of the time, usually dying of boredom. I feel as if, spring, could be a season of wonder, a new season to discover the beauty of the Imperial Palace.
“Can you smell the flowers, Ying Yue?” Hua Er asked. I heard her deeply inhale the pink flowers next to me. I refused to step close to it.
I shook my head. “I am against breathing in the flowers. If I do, I’m afraid I might die right here.”
She laughed. “I apologize. I forgot.”
A concubine was walking towards us, and it was soon to be revealed, it was Su Yin. She looked different, a sense of fatigue, but additionally, increased maturity on the face. When coming face to face with her, she bowed to me but a wonky bow.
“Please do not, you’re pregnant.” I rushed to help her upper body up. My eyes caught on the slight bump on her stomach. A rush of emotions I couldn’t explain was electrifying my thoughts but I maintained strict eye contact with her.
Su Yin’s eyes drooped low and there was darkness forming under her eyes. I wonder what this pregnancy put her through. The way she handled herself was fantastic. The Empress stayed clear of her, meaning she didn’t regard her as a competition or an opposing enemy. This was good news for Su Yin. In a way, it could be vaguely degrading.
“Sister, I haven’t seen you in a while! You look even more gorgeous than the last time I saw you,” she says, the palm of her hands still rubbing against mine.
“Su Yin! Your baby bump!” I exclaimed enthusiastically. There was a tint of jealousy with the way I talked to her. It was impolite to make it known that I was envious of her relationship with the Emperor.
Su Yin’s grin was forming, but it looked ingenuine.
How many sleepless nights have you encountered, Su Yin? Is your medication doing you justice? I wanted to ask her. I wanted to ask her things because my true self, the sincere persona I had established at an early age, was concerned for her health. But I couldn’t bear to ask.
“Has His Majesty visited you often?” I got straight to the point and slowly let go of her hands. A smile was still plastered on my face. My cheeks started to hurt.
What was taking over me? Su Yin could have seen right through me, but I sternly sunk into the continuity of this act. Besides, how could I let this pregnancy taint our friendship? The Emperor did not belong to me. He belonged to no one, yet, all the women in the harem, belonged to him. And even though it bothered me, I, myself, chose not to sleep with him.
“He has,” Su Yin nodded firmly. Her grin faded into a slight frown. “But he is so busy with Dong Mei’s soon-to-be-born child, that I am not receiving the same treatment.”
I dunked my body into a bathtub of pity.
Su Yin continued, scoffing as she spoke, “I am a low-ranking concubine. Dong Mei’s offspring would be more important but, I wonder, will my child still receive the same favour? The same privileges?”
“The idea that His Majesty is neglecting me, I am fine with that... The idea that my child may not receive the same favour... I must not think about such things...” Su Yin turned her head away from me.
I couldn’t hate her. No matter what, I couldn’t. She was too thoughtful, too kind. Behind the tough exterior she puts out, she was only a caring person. There was no way in the world could I ever get mad at her. Still, jealousy was tingling inside of me, but I knew it was morally wrong to be jealous.
She only wanted care for her child, and she wanted to hold a secure position. I could not judge her. Su Yin would be an amazing mother, I can feel it.
“If His Majesty does not give your child the same privileges, I will stomp right to his palace and put him in his place!” I declared but kept my voice in a low tone just in case anyone was around us.
Su Yin only smiled.
I scrunched up my forehead. “Why are you not laughing at my joke? You always laugh at my jokes, even my bland ones!”
“Sorry, I-I’ve been so tired. I can’t sleep, I’m stressed, I...” Su Yin started but a big yawn interrupted her.
“You need to take good naps then. Please take good care of yourself,” I gently patted her shoulder. “If His Majesty treats your child with disrespect and if anyone ever harms your child, I will gladly land a punch.”
“We’ve been standing in the same spot for minutes now, let’s walk around and talk.” Jia Ying ushered us in front of her, in a nagging way.
I gasped. “I haven’t seen you in a while! Where have you been?”
“I’ve always been here, I think you just don’t notice me,” Jia Ying jokingly rolled her eyes. “I apologize, my social status is not...”
“That is not true!” I uttered, then tucking a small strand of hair behind Jia Ying’s ear.
Su Yin, walking next to me now, turned her head to face me. She was quite tall. She stood approximately five feet six. Whenever she talked to me, she would crane her neck slightly. Su Yin thinks that I wouldn’t notice, but I do, yet I don’t bring it up because she probably doesn’t mean any harm when she does it.
Her eyes glistened. “Is Her Majesty still bothering you?”
The last time we had talked, Su Yin and I, it was about the Empress. In fact, I told all of the closest friends of mine what the Empress had said to me. I trust them. Although, Jaxon had psychopathic tendencies and suggested the idea of manipulating the Empress.
“Her Majesty never did after that. But, she still looks bothered every time I am in the same space as her.” I shrugged.
Su Yin responded with a slight laugh, then pointing at the figure in front of us.
Guan Shu and Rong Er, walked slowly but casually grinning so widely that their cheeks were compressed. I knelt to face Rong Er, giving him a warm embrace. “I’ve missed you! How have you been?”
Rong Er had grown taller. His features were less babyish, but he was still an adorable toddler the last time I saw him. As I placed the palm of my hand on his cheek, he grinned with purity. “I missed you too! Mother told me that you said something cool and His Majesty and his friends were very interested! Is that true?”
“Oh,” I replied with astonishment, raising my eyebrows and laughing with Guan Shu. “Why, yes it was. It was a bit of a struggle at first, but I’ve come to terms of the oppression they put against me, yet I conquered!”
Rong Er blinked a few times.
“Ying Yue,” Hua Er scowled. “You do not know how to talk to children!”
A burst of laughter erupted. I rolled my eyes and patted Rong Er’s head, “Please, I know Rong Er is an intelligent boy and he can understand my—”
“I don’t really know what you just said.” Rong Er shrugged, a small smirk of guilt was forming on his face.
We walked in silence. The birds were singing now, and how I’ve missed their soft, melodic touch to the atmosphere. There would be no more dark, wintery nights. I did long for them sometimes. It was nicer listening to the gu qin in a moodier atmosphere. But it was so melancholic to me.
“Did you know Madame Dong Mei might give birth today?” Su Yin broke the silence.
I shook my head. “No, I wouldn’t know. The Empress... how is she feeling?”
“I don’t know. Maybe upset? Crying in her pillow as of now?” Su Yin chuckled. “Regardless, I sure hope Dong Mei is alive and well after this. But, the Empress has been in a moody state lately...”
“Time will tell,” I declared.
Across from us, was one of the pavilions, known to be a concubine hang-out place. Hua Er and I never stepped foot there. Mostly because of my reputation. I had no genuine knowledge about how they feel about me. Maybe anger? I didn’t come from nobility nor a prestigious household, was that why they were upset with my promotion?
I didn’t know, nor did I care.
Their head was dipped when I walked past, but I refused to acknowledge their presence. My eyes were directly in front but I slightly turned my head towards the flowers. The pond was there, unfrozen now. I felt calm when the soothing sounds of the water become active.
Jaxon and I were once together to get lost in this area... It was during our rendezvous, of course.
“Lady Ying Yue,” the voice of one of the girls called.
I haven’t remembered any of their names, except for Niu Lin’s, and the pregnant one... There was no mockery in the tone of her voice. I gracefully turned around—it would’ve looked so much better if I wore a dress made for an empress—and held a smile. I proceeded to walk towards them nonchalantly. My maids followed but my friends did not. They stood and waited.
“Yes?” I calmly spoke, friendlier than usual.
I recognized some of the faces, yet, I was unable to pinpoint each and everyone’s names. I can remember most, but I chose not to acknowledge their presence. Besides, they were the ones who ridiculed me.
“I apologize for my behaviour towards you, you may have gotten over it,” she said as she looked down refusing intimate eye contact with me. She wasn’t ranked low, she was a Consort, which I have never been. I skipped the title of Consort. Still, with her head low, she smiled. “But, I do want to let you know that... I am very proud of your accomplishments in the harem. Well, not only in the harem, but you interfered with other affairs and helped out.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Was that an insult or were you truly complimenting me?”
“No! W-Why would I? I meant it. I truly meant it, sister.” a rush of panic raised her voice then slowly, her body unstiffened itself.
“Then,” I cautiously held her hand and smiled. “I appreciate your support. Us women in the harem need to stop hating each other and love each other instead.”
She hesitantly smiled back at me.
I dropped her hand and gave her a nod, then looking around to make eye contact with the other girls. “If the harem was in harmony, His Majesty would love that. Do you know how much stress he has?”
A few nods, a few solemn faces, but at least I got my message across. Although I didn’t like some—I mean most—of them, I still had to fake it.
It took guts and courage to talk to me and ask for forgiveness. I didn’t even know her name, but it was too rude of me to ask for her name. I kept my mouth shut. I would ask Su Yin later. If I remembered...
Oh no. I feel it.
A tingly feeling in my nose was rising. It rose and decreased, rose and decreased until I finally let out the tension with a sneeze.
“Allergies?” the Consort asked, giggling.
I sniffled. “Yes.”
“Well, thank you, Lady Ying Yue. I won’t forget your kindness!” the Consort exclaimed.
“Your Grace, please remain calm!” the nurse, kneeling next to the consort’s bedside, soothing the lady in labour by running her hand through her hair. One hand was holding her hand.
“How can I remain calm when I am—” the consort began but the room was filled with an earth-shattering scream, almost killing the eardrums of the women around her. The slimy form of human flesh slipped into another nurse’s hands.
Empress Nian Shu had a bright grin, her face radiated in the room filled with stress. Her husband, the Emperor, was situated outside of the chamber. It was superstitious for him to be in the room. His expression, was not as bright as the Empress, but it was in his heart that he was enthusiastic. His face was as if he was listening to a tedious speech. He spoke nothing to anyone, but there was full of anticipation in his bloodstream.
This child could perhaps be the heir to the throne... only if the Empress couldn’t bear a son. In his mind, he doesn’t expect the Empress to bear a son. The Emperor doubts her quite often. They’ve been trying for so long that the seduction turned into exhaustion. After the death of the Empress’s mother, it was strange to see how the Empress was still conforming to their sexual acts.
It was a shame, shame that the couple could not birth an heir to the throne.
“Congratulations, it’s a princess!” the nurse, wiping down Dong Mei’s area with a towel, exclaimed. But her smile was slight.
The newborn, covered in a thick blanket, was hidden from Dong Mei’s view.
An old eunuch entered the room holding a small tray with a porcelain bowl on it. He bowed as the Empress held the tray from both sides. She proceeded to walk towards Dong Mei, grinning too wide for her being.
“Dong Mei,” she says, kneeling slightly to give Dong Mei the tray. “Guan Shu and Physician Xi prepared this medicine specifically for you. Aren’t you so glad they took the time, months and months, providing you with healthy medicine? Please, drink this to regain back your energy. It must have been hard to go through all of this.”
Dong Mei accepted, and due to thirst, chugged the medicine. “Thank you, Your Majesty, for being so kind as to assist me throughout my whole pregnancy period.”
The Empress steps back. She tilts her chin up and again, plasters a warm smile across her face before turning to look at the nurse. “How is she?”
“She’s turned out quite unhealthy...” the nurse responds, almost in a whisper before Dong Mei’s eyes bulge out.
“What do you mean unhealthy? Let me see my baby! Let me see my baby! Is she ill?” Dong Mei pushed her upper torso up from the bed but refrained from any movement due to the Empress’s restrictions.
The Empress’s face moved towards the consort. She pushed her body down again, pinning her wrists against the bed. “You are weak, sister, let the nurse handle it. You mustn’t—”
“You move away from me, you wench!” Dong Mei exclaims, kicking away but it is no use. After birth, her body had been weakened.
“I’m afraid you can’t see her.” the nurse spoke, in hesitation, but twists her body enough for Dong Mei to view her child from a certain angle. The Empress glared at her.
Dong Mei, still held against the bed by two other nurses now, pleaded to hold her daughter in her arms. As much as she tried, there was no use. The nurse holding the baby, now opens her mouth to speak when the Empress left the chamber. “Your Grace, the Empress will find a physician to see what is wrong with your baby, for now—”
“Inform His Majesty! Inform His Majesty right now! Where are my maids?” Dong Mei cried out in despair, she wept slightly but not enough for the nurse to pity her.
It was not a pleasant sight to see. Once the physician had arrived at the scene, it took him only five minutes to diagnose the baby. The weary, worried consort was in the blink of passing out, bombarded the physician with questions. It only brought more annoyance.
“Someone had been tainting your medicine. Who has been providing you with medicine?” he asked, furrowing her eyebrows.
“Medicine... Medicine was from the Empress, but Guan Shu and Physician Xi prepared it together...” Dong Mei whispered, then in a second, she realised. Her temper was rising, her cheeks were as red as her child, and she soon never hated anyone as much as she hated Guan Shu.
Guan Shu... She was the maid of Noble Consort Han. Noble Consort Han was definitely in on this! Oh, how standing up to the Empress for me... It was just an act. Just an act. Noble Consort Han might look innocent on the outside, she might look as if she minded her business, but she got into the business of my child! This despicable low-born consort! This despicable wench! That wench will have to face my wrath!
And just as timing had synchronized, Guan Shu, the one and only, Guan Shu, the maid of Noble Consort Han, arrived with a simple smile.
Meanwhile, the Empress, walking out to inform her husband of the delivery, enthusiastically walked towards him. “You must not come in yet. It is very superstitious! You must let the nurses finish, and we can bring the little princess out!”
“It is a girl?” the Emperor said, still with no smile on his face.
“Yes! It is a healthy baby! Aren’t you excited, Your Majesty?” the Empress gave him a gleeful giggle, then gently touching his hand before he swatted it in a soft gesture.
He gave a curt smile. “Of course I am excited. I want to see Imperial Noble Consort Yang. Empress, is she okay?”
“She is more than okay! But, she is worn out,” the Empress said, scowling to an extent. “You must not go in unannounced, Your Majesty.”
When Dong Mei, in a quick reaction, spotted the devious maid who sabotaged her, she was outraged. Heat was rushing to her, to her chest, to her face, to every inch of the heart that was once working. The frustration was building up, like tobacco tar on a smoker’s lungs.
“You vile woman! How dare you! I don’t know what you and Noble Consort Han are up to, but you will not succeed! You...” Dong Mei rushed to get up. She refused to calm down, she refused to. Her body was so tensed, and the medicine she finished consuming was causing her to be drowsy.
“I-I don’t know what you’re on about, Madame Dong Mei! I wouldn’t dare do anything harmful to you! Your Grace, I just wanted to check up on you, in regards to—” Guan Shu stammered. It was never like her to get in trouble with the women in higher ranking as her.
“Don’t... Don’t you dare act like you don’t know! You and Physician Xi... Maybe even Noble Consort Han... plotted against me!” Dong Mei coughed.
She continued to cough. Her coughs increased in power every time she coughed. Her breaths were irregular before the Empress had finally made her return to the room.
“Oh, Dong Mei, how oblivious could you be?” the Empress said before sitting on the chair in front of Dong Mei.
The tension between the two that has never been expressed before, was finally letting loose. Empress Nian Shu shook her head and snickered. “Your little princess, she is healthy, and I have been giving you the medicine. It was me. I was to weaken you during birth. ”
Dong Mei shook her head, raising her arms out to reach for her child. “My child... My child...”
“And the medicine you just consumed,” the Empress proceeded to get up from the chair, walking nonchalantly towards the bed. She kneeled to face Dong Mei. “Let’s say... it’ll give you a soothing death. I had to stir you up so this poison takes its place faster.”
The Empress scoffed. “Dong Mei, I am an ethical woman. I believe you must die from something peaceful, as you have obeyed all my orders and have been a true companion of mine.”
A lie. That was a lie. The Empress does not consider any woman in the harem as a friend of hers. But, she did feel something for Dong Mei. Maybe like a little sister? Or a daughter? But if you truly loved your little sister or your daughter, you wouldn’t go through great lengths to kill her.
The consort stared the Empress down, but there was no use. She had lost. Her baby, she had never gotten to hold, the love from the Emperor, will no longer exist. Her fantasies of the Emperor holding her, telling her that he was proud of her, telling her that he loves her... They will only remain as fantasies. They will only remain as a wish.
“Please... Let me see the baby... Let me hold my baby... If you won’t let, Empress, let me see His Majesty... One last time.” Dong Mei sobbed silently. The warm, hot tears were streaming down her cheeks. She couldn’t speak well. The medicine was starting to take its course. Dong Mei continued, continued to let her voice out, yet she could only taste the salty taste of defeat in her mouth.
The two women were so close to each other, inches away. They held each other’s hands. Like a friend about to die from a sickly disease.
Then, the Empress shook her head. With ease, she whispered quite softly for only the consort to hear, “Goodbye, friend.”
She leaned back and stood up, then towering over Dong Mei. It was only herself to decide whether she had remorse at this moment.
She held the baby who was wrapped in a thick fabric. Gracefully, the Empress rocked the newborn in her arm, singing softly. She was kind and compassionate only if you’ve never seen who she was outside of this visualization. She looked motherly and nurturing. She looked happier than she’s ever been in months.
Then, realising the lady behind her, that witnessed the murder, her act of affection left her body. The Empress, still holding the baby of another in her arm, paced around. “You mustn’t tell anyone about what just happened.”
“You killed her.” Guan Shu whispered. Her eyes were wide and watery as she spoke. She didn’t notice her gaping expression, nor did she notice the informality of the way she spoke to the Empress.
Guan Shu backed away from the murderer in front of her. Her shaky hands were brought to her face to cover her mouth in shock.
The Empress pursed her lips. “No, I did not, do I make myself clear? I did not kill her. Imperial Noble Consort Yang died due to childbirth and—”
“You killed her!” Guan Shu screamed, hoping anyone, anyone, could hear the screech from inside the chamber.
As Guan Shu continued to back away from the Empress, the Empress only moved forwards. Guan Shu’s body was shaking beneath the maid attire, and the Empress had noticed. But she did not care. She smiled, “Guan Shu, say one more thing and I will have you killed. If you keep this between us, and not tell anyone, especially not Lady Ying Yue, nothing will happen to you.”
A single teardrop rolled down Guan Shu’s cheek. Her eyes were still widened. Her body was still in shock. “I...I... Yes... Your M-Majesty. Your Majesty, I will... I will...”
“Good,” the Empress smirked. “Remember, Dong Mei died from childbirth.