My heart skipped a beat. I stayed still, slowly turning my head to face him. My legs began to stiffen. It was at this point where I was too afraid to move.
Am I in trouble? Did Niu Lin snitch? That rat...
“Y-Yes?” I asked, using a casual tone to hide my anxiousness.
“The Emperor wants you in the grand hall, miss,” he walked towards me hesitantly. “Please come with me.”
I followed the royal guard doubtfully. I had trust issues in the Palace. I’m quite sure sexual harassment could follow, so I had to keep my guard up. No pun intended.
“Right this way, miss.” he bowed, then gesturing his hand towards the doorway.
The same hall that I was in when I disrespected the Empress. This doesn’t look good. A column of females stood in two straight lines, giving me some room to walk through.
The Emperor and the Empress were sitting on their thrones. An older woman was wearing a beautiful purple attire and dangling headpiece filled with expensive, bright jewels. She was sitting in the middle between the Emperor and the Empress, so she was, no doubt, important. This lady was definitely his mother.
“Warm blessings to the Empress Dowager.” I got on my knees and bowed, pressing my hands on the warm carpet.
“Please, don’t stand on ceremony,” the Emperor’s mother spoke softly to me, giving me a warm smile as I looked up.
I stood up fast, still in confusion. The room was filled with many concubines; Hua Er was in the crowd somewhere. As I looked at her, she narrowed her eyes, looked around, and shrugged.
I scanned the room for more information, but everyone else had their eyebrows knitted while looking at each other for answers as well.
Jaxon was nowhere to be found.
“May I ask, Your Majesty, what is this about?” I furrowed my eyebrows.
The Empress Dowager, who was, can I mention, the most powerful in the palace, was speaking to me in a kind manner. She gestured for me to come up towards her. “Come closer, let me take a good look of you.”
I walked up a little closer to her. I kneeled to her as she brought my chin up with her finger. I was slightly creeped out. Actually, I was very creeped out.
“You have been blessed with great beauty,” she breathed, tucking a loose strand of my hair behind my ear. “Where are you from?”
“A... village very near... this palace,” I stammered, timidly mumbling to her when I answered. “I-”
“The Emperor has informed me of your virtue and excellence,” the Empress Dowager announced. “You are a very kind young lady, and I will allow this to happen.”
“Wh-” I quickly turned my head to face Hua Er, but she was nowhere to be found.
I peered at the Empress, who smiled with force. She pursed her lips and stood up to face me. Her eyes were boring into mine as she signalled me to stand up. When I did, the Empress Dowager nodded at me.
“Mother, this goes against the rules,” the Empress whispered, trying her best not to provoke the Empress Dowager.
The Emperor glared at her. “We will allow it this one time.”
“Very well,” the Empress responded in defeat. She took a longing deep breath. “Imperial Concubine Han, step forward to receive your title.”
The Empress said a few sentences that were probably scripted. She also kept the facade of a proud empress on her face. I was still confused as to what was going on. The Emperor noticed when we made eye contact.
“Ying Yue, you are now a Noble Consort,” the Emperor solemnly waved his hand in front of him. “You may have six maids and new attire.”
Hua Er presented me with my new hanfu with a big goofy grin on her face. That’s when I knew she was happy for me. She held onto my beautiful pink hanfu with her life, I thought she was going to ruin the material.
“O-Oh, I’m fine! I’m fine with two... or four, Your Majesty.”
A few chuckles and giggles erupted the room. The Emperor’s mother huffed out a chuckle, but the Empress was still not satisfied. Her eyes never left my face. She stared at me like a hawk to its prey, straight up glaring at me like I murdered her family and set her house on fire. Relax, woman.
“Whatever you want, Ying Yue,” the Emperor replied with a small curl on his lips.
“Oh! Only on one condition.”
“...What would you like?”
“I wish to have Hua Er’s mother live here.”
The Empress Dowager and the Emperor exchanged looks. The Emperor scratched his head. “That can’t be possible, she doesn’t have a duty here in the-”
“My apologies, Your Majesty, then I wish to have her as one of the palace maids,” I bowed. “This is my only wish, I hope you can grant that.”
A few concubines were whispering to each other. I could catch the glance of Niu Lin, standing in the front of the girls. She looked agitated. I laughed to myself.
“Your Majesty, you are going to let a Noble Consort interrupt you and be spoiled?” the Empress chimed in. She had such a stupid pout on her face.
“Please do not interrupt this matter,” the Emperor snapped his head to face her, then turning to face me again. “Of course. I will make sure to arrange that just for you.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty, for breaking the rules just once,” I bowed again. My neck will have abs after this. “Thank you for accepting me, Empress Dowager, and I thank the Empress for your cooperation.”
“We both know you didn’t deserve that.” the familiar voice I know so well, interrupted my thoughts.
I turned around to face the Empress, cocking an eyebrow. “Why so, Empress?”
The tension was heavy. Her jaw was clenched, and so was mine. The Empress’s eyes narrowed at me as she walked towards me. “Ying Yue, have you laid with the Emperor yet?”
“No, er, why do you ask?” I gave her a dazed look, even thinking about my answer beforehand.
“That is my point,” she crossed her arms while she looked around the hallway. “You haven’t laid with the Emperor yet, you didn’t give him a child, and you got yourself ranked up? How?”
“I-I wouldn’t know as well,” I gave her a bewildered look, flinging my hands while shrugging my shoulder. “Your Majesty and I both know I walked into that room, confused!”
Her hooded eyes and her pursed lips already gave me a perfect idea on what’s going on in her head. I didn’t sweat one bit. The Empress was just someone next to the Emperor, I doubt she attended political meetings. Back then, it was rather sexist. She was just the Emperor’s trophy wife who managed the harem and did nothing but destroy concubines to keep her place in the palace.
I genuinely respected her hustle in order to stay the third important person in the palace, I really did. But her ways of shaming lower class people and her ways of insulting me is frustrating. She was nothing but a beautiful, spoiled rich girl who rose to the top because her mother was friends with the Empress Dowager.
That was it.
As she was inches away from me, she narrowed her eyes. She had a mischievous smile on her face whilst she leaned in closer. I could hear her breathe next to my ear.
As she moved a little closer, she snickered. ”Lady Ying Yue, I don’t know what you’re trying to do. Don’t try to take my place because I can get rid of you quicker than you can say-”
She moved away and placed the back of her hand on her forehead, dramatically leaning back with her mouth wide open.
“Oh, Your Majesty! Help me! Help me!” she mocked.
“A little bit upsetting that you think I’m trying to take your place, Your Majesty,” I said, unbothered. “I respect your title and how you maintain it. I will do no harm. If Your Majesty ever wanted to discuss your problems, I will always be here for you.”
“Save it! I don’t want to hear any fake words coming out from your mouth!” she wagged her finger repeatedly. “Y-You think that you can sweet talk to me like that? I will not tolerate this at all, you need a good lashing!”
“Is it wise to alarm the Emperor for no reasoning behind it?”
“Go back to your chamber.”
“Would love to, Your Majesty, have a good evening.” I gave her one last bow and moved ahead.
What an eventful day.
As I went back to my chamber, I noticed Hua Er was gone. Usually, I’d let her in on my gossip and how my day went, but all was left in my chamber was her guqin.
Let me say, I was tragic at it. It sounded beautiful even when I hit the notes wrong, which I gladly admired. It reminded me of when I was in eighth grade and it was music class, I chose a trombone as my instrument. I was atrocious at it.
By atrocious, I mean atrocious. It took me three months to get it right. I didn’t blow enough, I didn’t blow properly, I blew the mouthpiece too hard, everything was failing me. Of course, I finally sounded decent at it, but I promised myself I would never play instruments again... Just because I never got it right.
I broke my promise today. After being lost in my train of thoughts and daydreaming, I found myself plucking the strings delicately. I think I was straight up composing a new Mozart masterpiece.
“I didn’t know you could play.” the Emperor surprised me with his entrance, again. I wasn’t even in my Noble Consort attire.
Oh, shoot! Greetings, greetings...
I stood up and bowed. “Warm blessings to Your Majesty.”
“You’re so stiff, Ying Yue,” he smiled, holding my wrist to help me up from my bent knees.
“Apologies, you are the Emperor after all. I lack social cues when it comes to higher-ranking individuals.”
“You played alright, I don’t remember this being brought into your chamber?”
“I got it here for Hua Er,” I hated lying, but I was afraid to put Hua Er under the bus. “She liked to play so I-”
The Emperor laughed. Laughed. Like, laughed. “Ying Yue, you amaze me!”
Is he weird?
“Your Majesty, what did I-”
“Lying to an Emperor can get you in trouble, but you do it anyway to protect a friend?”