“You’ve been out so late?” Hua Er’s voice startled me.
As I walked closer to her, my eyes focused on her dainty long fingers brushing against the strings of a foreign instrument.
The instrument had an alluring, soothing sound to it. It spoke sorrow but joy, melancholy but a hint of bliss. I was a sucker for sad melodies. With Hua Er’s playing, I was deeply in love with the music.
I ignored her question and started to gracefully (but jokingly) dance around the room. I twirled and did swift motions with my arms, following by lifting my legs up dramatically. The sleeve of my hanfu flowed as I moved my arms delicately. Although I was dancing in a zany manner, I felt tranquillity in my veins, and I was soon at ease.
Hua Er must have thought I was drunk or something. I did look like a drunk ballerina.
The instrument stopped speaking, and I was soon welcomed by another tune. Hua Er’s laughter.
“I can’t dance now?” I asked teasingly.
Hua Er giggled as I plopped myself next to her. She covered her mouth as she laughed, right before speaking. “Your dancing is very graceful, Ying Yue.”
“So is your instrument playing,” I ran my fingers through the string carefully. The sound was faint, but I was sure it was there. “It’s a delicate noise, this instrument makes. What’s it called?”
“It’s called ‘guqin’. It’s a very popular instrument,” her eyes drifted away from me and onto the instrument. “My mother taught me how to play when I was younger, it was the highlight of my days usually. After my father passed away, my mother and I worked on the farm together, and I never got to play on the guqin ever again. Until now.”
I’ve never felt grief. Ever. I was glad not to. Seeing Hua Er’s eyes water, broke me, but I couldn’t say much. I was oddly speechless. I couldn’t relate to her at all. “Hua Er, I’m sorry for your loss. It must have hurt to lose your father.”
Her lips curled a little as she faced me. “It did, it truly did... I can’t believe I left my mother, Ying Yue.”
I froze at her words. She covered her face with her hands as she sobbed continuously. Guilt and regret wash over me. I’ve never thought about it. I manipulated her mother. I manipulated them. I shouldn’t have asked her for help, now I was sitting down watching an innocent girl weep into her hands, while I caused it. If only I wasn’t selfish for once.
What have I done?
“Hua Er, I-I’m so sorry that I asked you to come with me,” I cautiously shifted her head into my chest and wrapped my arms around her. She would get my hanfu wet, but at this moment, it didn’t matter. “I’m going to ask His Majesty to send you home tomorrow, first thing in the morning.”
“No, I-I can’t, I have to stay with you, I mean, I want to,” she pulled away from me and frowned. “This might be our only income...”
“I’ll stay here and make my way up to a good ranking, then you can go to school and play your guqin. Wouldn’t that be lovely, Hua Er?”
“Ying Yue, women don’t go to school.”
Of course. The simple-minded men in this era would have definitely made that rule. It infuriated me. I subconsciously balled my fists.
But I was just a young girl from another era.
“That’s foolish!” I spat. A burst of energy exploded in my body as I sprang up, pacing around my room.
“I’m not letting the Emperor do that! He must change the law, he must.”
“Ying Yue, please, calm d-”
My blood boiled and my breaths began to quicken. I tightened my fist. I clearly have forgotten about the extreme sexism in ancient history. First, the Empress doesn’t handle political issues and has to accept the fact that the Emperor has sex with women every night, and now women aren’t even allowed to attend schools? My mind was filled with fury and I couldn’t take it any longer. As my fist pulled my arm back, I wanted to punch the wall.
“Ying Yue!” Hua Er exclaimed.
That, by far, was the loudest I’ve ever heard from her. I dropped my arm and turned around. A cliché sigh of relief escaped from my lips.
“I’m so sorry, I-” I paused for a few seconds. “I’m unable to control my frustration and anger sometimes, it’s a little hard for me. I apologize if I worried you.”
“No worries, but you must calm down when you are with others,” Hua Er whispered. “Let’s forget about this. You were out so late, how was your day?”
And so, I explained everything I did to her. She listened attentively, and I was sure this would be a daily thing we would always do. As I got to the formula part, Hua Er looked like she had a light bulb over her head.
“Make His Majesty favour you!” she blurted out, a second after I finished the story.
“I know, but how? There are probably thousands of concubines that can satisfy him, what do I have to do to get his attention? Legally.”
“Being virtuous always wins, Ying Yue, the Emperor likes to go out to the gardens during this time,” Hua Er gave me a flirtatious wink. “The Empress’s mother has fallen ill, ask him about her and be concerned, it might win him over.”
“You’re good at this.” I rested my chin on my fingers, tapping my index finger gently on my temple. My smirk began to turn into a smile.
“Not really, I had to research a little bit before I came to the palace... Before I-” Hua Er interrupted herself with silence as her eyes diverted away from me.
Of course. After the Empress humiliated her in front of a large audience, Hua Er would obviously be embarrassed to talk about her experience in the palace. Her eyes were dull and gloomy. It was surprising because a few minutes ago, they shone. Her experience in the palace must have traumatized her.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” I whispered as I patted her back. “I can wait.”
“It’s just... I will inform you when I’m ready,” she murmured, still keeping her head low as her eyes avoided mine.
I lifted myself up and adjusted my hanfu. “I guess I’ll have to see if I can catch His Majesty’s attention then?”
“Good luck! I believe in you,” my lady-in-waiting grinned, but just a second ago she was frowning.
“Oh, also,” I turned around once more. “It’s your turn tonight.”
As I made my way to the gardens, I was already in awe of the scenery, although I’ve already been here. Memories from our last visit brought a smile to my face, but I had no interest in him.
It was a silent walk, obviously, but a little bit too silent. There were no crickets, no owls, nothing. Just the sound of my low-quality shoes hitting the ground because my high-quality ones were in my chamber.
And a cough. I heard a cough.
“Greetings to Your Majesty,” I bowed. “Please forgive me, I thought I was allowed to roam around the gardens during this time.”
The moonlight illuminated half of his face, but I already knew it was him. I could feel his aura.
“You aren’t,” he replied, slowly walking closer towards me. “But I will allow it, only because I’ve never taken anyone here for a long time.”
“Why me?” I followed him as he walked past me.
I don’t know whether to be pleased or afraid.
He chuckled. “There’s something about you, Ying Yue. I have never seen anyone stand up to me like that. Usually, I’d be furious and you would receive twenty lashes but, you’re quite different.”
Twenty lashes. Okay.
“T-Thank you, Your Majesty,” I responded. I could feel rouge creeping up on my cheeks.
We walked in silence. I was absolutely drained from today, but I still had the energy to take a stroll with the Emperor. As I was alone in my thoughts, I remembered what Hua Er said to me. “How is the Empress’s mother, is she well?”
“I wouldn’t like to sugarcoat things, truthfully, she is not. The physician said she is extremely ill, and she should only be in bed for now.”
“I hope she gets well soon, that must be terrible.”
“Thank you for your concern, the Empress will appreciate it.”
I wondered if he knew what she was really like. He might as well be fully aware of the Empress’s wicked self but refuses to take action. It wasn’t a big hassle to demote or exile her and choose a new Empress. I disliked the Empress. The reason being was because of her unpleasant tone aimed at Hua Er and the bitch even slapped me!
The more I think about it, it wouldn’t hurt to try and become Empress. Then again, it would be too much work. The Empress would already have me dead if I ever tried, and the Emperor just wasn’t for me.
In order to get home, I guess I’ll have to put in more effort.