My muscles began to tense up, reluctantly letting me ease into the information I was hearing. As Guan Shu spoke, our eyes laid heavy on hers, not refusing to break the invisible line our eyes held to her face. It was never where I had all my close companions from the Palace in a room together. It felt unfamiliar to do so. Uncle Bin had joined the mix, and so did Lei Shu.
I did want Jaxon, but only Hua Er and Lei Shu were the ones who knew who Jaxon truly was to me. It’s too risky to bring him into this.
“Guan Shu, do you suppose that Her Majesty may end up framing you?” Chang Ying was the first one to speak up, she spoke in a very strict tone.
Guan Shu shook her head and sat herself down. “I hope not, but if the Empress finds out I told you all, then I’ll be in deep trouble. Dong Mei’s maids have claimed that they think her death was murder. I feel as if the Emperor is already starting investigations.”
“And you might be the scapegoat.” Su Yin sighed, leaning back against her chair. She fixed her eyes on the ground.
When I held Guan Shu in my arms, awkwardly, I felt her body shiver. The warmth of her body radiated still, but she was in such anxiety, that she was trembling under me. I gently stroked her hair.
Guan Shu usually stroked my hair. It felt nice to comfort her knowing that she had comforted me on many different occasions.
“Guan Shu, if you get framed for this, I’m going down with you,” I said reassuringly, and I meant every word. I laughed softly. “I just find it amusing how she told you not to tell anyone, yet you tell six different people about it.”
“Why are you finding this funny? It’s quite likely the Empress will have you framed, Ying Yue,” Hua Er panicked, then rushing closer to me. “We’ll just have to be nice to Her Majesty and she won’t—”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “Why would the Empress claim that Guan Shu and Physician Xi prepared the medicine? Why couldn’t she just say it was hers throughout the entire pregnancy?”
I didn’t understand. Well, I wasn’t in the right headspace to even think for myself at the moment. It was hard to adjust yourself in a situation where you might potentially be the suspect of a murder. Especially the murder of a high-ranking consort. I should’ve been panicking. I should’ve been sweating, and shaking, holding onto my friends to say goodbye.
There was only adrenaline rushing through my body like I have been alive for the first time. I was grounded, almost. I felt awareness of my surroundings more. When I was idle in my chamber, I felt like a zombie. I did nothing.
Now that there was a major issue to be solved, oddly enough, I was excited.
“Well,” Uncle Bin broke his own silence from listening to us. “Madame Dong Mei could have informed other people who was preparing her medicine. They would be the key witness in the trial, which isn’t looking good.”
I nodded. “This is going to be troublesome...”
Guan Shu narrowed her eyes. “No, it isn’t because of that... Her Majesty told her it was me to stir up more emotions in Dong Mei so the poison can kill her sooner.”
“Lady Ying Yue!” one of my maids called out, hastily barging into my chamber and kneeling before me.
“What happened?” I asked.
Fen Ai, my youngest maid, was still on her knees, catching her breath loudly. She never talked actually, she might have earned the new title of Snoopy. She swallowed in pain as she spoke. “One of the physicians announced that Dong Mei has been poisoned over time, with more poison in her system as of today. Investigations are still happening.”
All of us stood up, I lifted a finger for Fen Ai to rise. My heart rate started to go out of line. My thoughts started to linger, building up every time I looked around in the room. “How did he investigate that so fast? We don’t have much time...”
“The Empress poisoned her and we have full evidence of it.” Chang Ying exhaled.
I furrowed my eyebrows and looked at her. Until I caught on.
“It’s almost the start of winter. I want you ladies to behave because it’s stressful for me. I have to tend to Dong Mei constantly. Physicians have to prepare Dong Mei’s medicine in the morning and I have to deliver this medicine.”
It was when Su Yin had her coal hogged. It was when she was shivering because of the lack of heat. I remembered it so clearly now, that it was almost ridiculous for me to forget.
“The Empress said that she makes Dong Mei’s medicine in the morning!” Chang Ying and I both exclaimed, I had two happy fists in front of me.
“We’ll be fine! We have prime witnesses to get the Empress in trouble,” I laughed. “Thank you all!”
“Great blessings to Your Majesty, happiness and peace to the Empress!” we all chanted, kowtowing as they walked past us.
“You may all rise.” the Emperor announced, more monotone than the last hundreds of times.
There was a deafening silence in the room. Usually, there would be a conversation start-up, but everyone was in grief. Maybe not everyone. Niu Lin, across from me, was busy daydreaming in her mind about something. There was an obvious grin on her face which I refused to ignore.
If I didn’t know about what had happened, I would’ve thought Niu Lin had something to do with it with the smile on her face.
Why was she even smiling too? What a psychopath, seriously.
No one smiled or even looked a tiny bit amused. Their strong empathy for the Emperor must be huge because when the Emperor sat down, they all frowned in unison.
“As all of you may know,” the Empress said, there was a slightly coy expression on her face when she spoke. She remained acting as if she cared. “Imperial Noble Consort Yang, or Madame Dong Mei, has sadly passed away from childbirth. We shall wear white for a week to show that we are grieving and to show our respect.”
“Does that mean there’s an open slot for the title of ‘Imperial Noble Consort’?” Niu Lin asked immediately.
Niu Lin knew how to spark up uneasy reactions. I looked next to her and spotted another Noble Consort elbowing her gently, but Niu Lin kept her position upright. Even the maids surrounding us widened their eyes in dismay.
A Noble Consort next to me, leaned in forward to whisper in my ear. “She dared to ask that...”
“I know,” I whispered back.
The Emperor calmly, while gritting his teeth, eyed Niu Lin to the point where it just started to get even more discomforting and tense. When the Empress opened her mouth to speak, the Emperor gestured her not to speak by raising his hand.
“Niu Lin, your impudence is showing. A fellow woman in the harem has died, and you are worried about rankings?” the Emperor spoke, his voice was deeper and powerful.
There was so much restlessness in his eyes. If he wasn’t losing sleep over the death of Dong Mei, I guarantee that he would’ve had her kneel for an hour.
Niu Lin’s head shot up frantically, then dipped her head down and bowed. “I apologize, Your Majesty! I was wrong for asking!”
“Just for that, you will be guaranteed to not hold the title for Imperial Noble Consort!” the Emperor exclaimed as his hand quickly balled up into a fist.
The Empress cautiously placed her right hand on his arm, rubbing it gently to relax the Emperor. As she frowned at Niu Lin, she spoke in a sorrowful-sounding tone. “Imperial Noble Consort Yang had passed away, but, it is apparent so that there might be murder attached to her death.”
The Empress did it
You did it.
I wanted to say it, so bad, but Snoopy was behind me. She gently held my shoulder to stop me.
I was furious. The Empress could put up this good-girl front but murder one of the only consorts that obeyed her every single command. Chang Ying had quarrels with the Empress, but Dong Mei never did. I thought the Empress could be a good person if she wanted to be, but now I painted her as this evil villain. And I wasn’t wrong.
When the Empress brought up murder, I exhaled sharply. Although I was reassured that Guan Shu and I would not be framed for it, I still had a bad feeling about it. If there was no one she could find to frame them as the murderer, she’s going to find someone.
And that someone, could lead to me.
I stopped worrying about it because I knew things will be better. The Empress had no evidence to frame me or Guan Shu. Besides, almost everyone in the room heard the Empress talk about how she delivers the medicine.
“But, the baby survived.” the Empress said, but with a twisted grin right after.
I searched for Su Yin’s eyes and finally found it. We both made a face.
“Bring in Princess Li Hua!” a eunuch calls out loudly.
A short, timid nurse walked quietly into the room. As she gently walked towards the Empress, she made small movements to rock the baby. Her smile didn’t seem sincere.
She definitely knows.
The Empress widened her arms out like a mother bird swooping her child. The thing was, Li Hua was not her child. When she settled the baby in her arms, the maid bowed hurriedly and exits the hall.
Instead of invoking joy to the Emperor, I noticed it had brought pain. He took a sharp inhale and eyed the baby.
“Isn’t she so beautiful, Your Majesty?” the Empress says cheerfully, rocking the baby in her arms.
“Yes, it is a shame that her mother won’t be able to interact with her anymore,” the Emperor sighed but rubbed his index finger on the baby’s cheek. “The funeral will take place shortly.”
As the Emperor spoke, the Empress was too busy eyeing the child. Her face radiated with pure bliss when she walked down the short stairs in the middle of the room. She looked as if she was a proud mother, showing her child to the entire family.
The Emperor’s dull eyes pierced the Empress’s back, doing so when he finished his speech. Nobody paid attention.
The Empress stood in the middle of us. We were all standing in coordinated positions but a lot of the girls took a step forward to see the baby. Many risked the punishment to crowd around the Empress. I know a lot of thoughts were going through their heads. ‘When will I have my own baby?’
Li Hua, who probably felt the Empress’s energy, started wailing. The same nurse who arrived before hastily took the baby and did some calming gestures with her arms. I don’t know what the gestures were. It didn’t look like she was rocking it.
“Oh, my apologies! I don’t know how to raise a baby!” the Empress joked, chuckling as she let the baby into her arms again.
The nurse leaves.
Chatters started to erupt and the Empress was smiling and talking to the girls individually. She looked genuine, looked as if they were her friends and she was talking about how excited she was for Li Hua to grow up. For once, the Empress didn’t get angry at the concubines for invading her personal space.
I had to ruin the moment.
“She’s just as beautiful as Madame Dong Mei.” I grinned as I leaned in.
Chang Ying nudged me with her elbow and jerked her head my way. The Empress turned to look at me and held the smile on her face. “Yes, she does. She has His Majesty’s eyes and nose and Dong Mei’s lips!”
We held eye contact for longer but I nodded my head and continued to grin.
“Ah, Chang Ying!” the Empress shifted her body around to face Chang Ying.
Chang Ying raised her eyebrows. “Yes, Empress?”
“Your Majesty,” the Empress calls out, turning her body to face the Emperor to get his attention. He cocks an eyebrow. The Empress again, turns her body to face Chang Ying. “Sister Chang Ying must be stressing over plenty of things. She lost a fellow Imperial Noble Consort and... it is a very upsetting matter.”
The Empress smiled at Chang Ying, still talking to the Emperor. “I ask Your Majesty to let Chang Ying take a vacation for a while.”
“But, who will do my duties?” Chang Ying questioned, she looked intrigued.
The Empress shook her head and laughed. “Of course I will! Sister, you are suffering from this... grief and so is everyone else. But... you and Imperial Noble Consort Yang had such a great friendship. I insist. Take a few days off—”
“I will not let that happen.” the Emperor rose from the throne and hurriedly walked towards them.
“Why not? Your Majesty, if you love her... I—You can see the dark eye bags under her eyes! She looks so tired!” the Empress pouted.
Chang Ying gritted her teeth.
The Emperor shook his head. “Empress, I know you are being considerate but—”
“I would like a vacation, Your Majesty,” Chang Ying softly said, bowing gracefully. “I won’t be gone for too long.”
The rest of us watched quietly as she held the Emperor’s arm, smiling as she did. Her headpiece dangled as she leaned towards the Emperor’s face slowly. So this might have been how she seduced him. Everyone knows that Chang Ying was favoured.
As the Emperor struggled to face his decision, the Empress walked closer towards them, giving him a slight nod. “Your Majesty, I will take full responsibility for Chang Ying’s duties. Please, let her have some time off. Her close friend has passed.”
I doubt Dong Mei and Chang Ying were close friends but I kept quiet.
Su Yin gripped my arm tightly. I turned to face her but she had no expression on her face.
“Alright,” the Emperor sighed. “But, Empress, who will take care of Li Hua?”
The Empress’s eyes rounded while her lips slowly parted from each other. “I can still be able to take care of her! She is safe under my wing.”
“No, it would be too much work for you...” the Emperor shook his head and looked at us. His eyes scanned the room until they reached mine.
I raised my eyebrows at our sudden eye contact.
“I can handle it perfectly, Your Majesty,” the Empress whined. She was putting herself in a submissive position in front of us, which we rarely ever see. “Please, Your Majesty!”
Was the Emperor about to choose me?
The couple bickered for a while before the Emperor sighed heavily and finally turned to look at the Empress. I felt slightly awkward for Chang Ying because she just stood there watching them. I stifled a peal of laughter at the awkwardness she must have felt.
“Fine.” the Emperor rubbed his temples while the Empress, still holding the baby, grinned and glowed with plastic innocence. She peered over Dong Mei’s child as if it was her own, and kept a genuine smile on her face.
“The Emperor is to take his leave, you all are dismissed.” a eunuch announced, and many rushed to leave the hall to gossip.
Snoopy held my hand as I walked to the exit door. I had my eyes glued to the Empress holding the baby. The Empress probably felt my eyes lingering on her as she slowly raised her head to scan for me. When our eyes met, she walked towards me and dismissed my maid.
Snoopy bowed. Once she lifted her head, she gave me a cautious look before she left.
”Lady Ying Yue.” the Empress called, almost in a purr.
Is she desperate? Now that Dong Mei is gone, is she going to force me to be her minion? I turned to face her, forcing a harsh annoyed look on my face. “I already told you my decision, Empress. I am not—"
“Dong Mei was murdered,” the Empress raised an eyebrow. “The ‘Imperial Noble Consort’ title is open. Your maid, Guan Shu, is on the top of the list for suspects. Do you see where I am going here?”
“Stop this,” I shook my head. “If you are here to frame my maid, I will kindly suggest that—"
“There will be no framing... or at least from me,” she pursed her lips and lightly lifted her chin. “I will guarantee a position for ‘Imperial Noble Consort’ if you help me frame Guan Shu.”
Is she being for real?
That’s rich! Does she think I will frame my own maid for her benefit? This was just a setup. The Empress is not a smart woman. I don’t know how any of the other girls believe anything this woman says.
I scoffed. “Frame my own maid? Sorry, Your Majesty, I’d like to pass on that. I will work my way up myself.”
“And,” I gestured my index finger up. “You wouldn’t have asked me to frame anyone if you didn’t do it, Your Majesty. Your actions are very suspicious...”
“I didn’t do it. It was—" the Empress casually began but I walked away before I let her have her word.