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An Emperor's Cruelty.
Xu Xi sneaked a glance at Long Fei-li's expression, but the Emperor's face was a picture of serenity, as though unaware of the presence of that small figure.
Taking a seat beside the Empress, Long Fei-li said warmly, 'Mother, you have been feeling unwell lately and should be resting in your quarters. Why have you organised a banquet?'
The Empress Dowager had aged beautifully despite her years. Her elegant brows furrowed slightly but she only smiled, saying, 'The Empress and your other consorts have been so worried for my health lately. This banquet is just my small gesture of appreciation to them.'
'Is Your Majesty unhappy with me? It was my idea to visit the Queen Mother.' From a corner, the lilting chimes of a woman's pleasant voice sounded.
A snow-white complexion; that voice belonged to an exquisite beauty: Noble Imperial Consort Hua of Qinfang Palace - the Empress Dowager's niece.
Lightly, the Empress Dowager chided her niece, 'Min'er, you are too harsh on yourself. Surely, the Emperor will reward you.'
Of course, everyone in the pavilion understood that Consort Hua's words were merely for show, an attempt to take credit. A few of the other concubines seethed darkly, but they did not dare to make a sound of protest. After all, not only was Consort Hua ranked highly within the harem, the Emperor also doted on her. And, with her illustrious background and the Empress Dowager as her backing, who would dare to speak against her?
In the Imperial Harem, of the five most prestigious quarters occupied by the highest-ranking consorts, there existed one Hall and four Palaces. Empress Yu Mixiu resided in Luanxiu Hall. Directly ranked beneath her were the four consorts - two Noble Imperial Consorts and two Imperial Consorts.
Consort Hui, the other Noble Imperial Consort, beamed. 'Look at me,' she laughed. 'I was still under the impression that it was the Empress' idea to visit our Queen Mother, yet it turns out that it was Consort Hua's. I am ashamed to say I cannot compare to Consort Hua.'
How could Consort Hua not detect the silver of sarcasm within Consort Hui's words, so sweetly spoken? Or the insinuation that she had overstepped her authority, by infringing onto the Empress' control over the imperial harem?
Hearing Consort Hui's words, a flicker of a shadow crossed Empress Yu Mixiu's face. Alarmed, a wave of apprehension washed over Consort Hua who immediately moved to explain and diffuse the situation.
But the Empress only said, 'Consort Hui is too concerned. The Emperor has been busy with state affairs, and now, with our Queen Mother's illness, he has to worry over her health as well. At such a time, does it matter who among us shares his burden?'
Long Fei-li's response was a faint smile, his hands reaching across to envelop the Empress'.
Consort Hui gritted her teeth.
Long Fei-li said, 'Min'er, you still deserve to be punished.'
Consort Hua paled. Biting her painted lips, she looked at Long Fei-li.
Smiling, the Empress Dowager said lightly, 'It is a rare and joyous occasion to have everyone gather at my place. Your Majesty, I think we can waive this punishment.'
A slight crease appeared in Long Fei-li's brows. 'Mother, we should be distinct when handing out rewards and punishments.'
The Emperor having spoken, the matter was settled. The Empress Dowager understood the futility of further words. Raising a cup of tea, she took a small sip.
'I still have some documents to read. Tonight, Consort Hua can attend to me.'
Hearing his words, a wave of elation swept over Consort Hua. Beaming, she immediately said, 'It is my greatest honour, Your Majesty!'
The Empress smiled. Long Fei-li released her hand. Inside the sleeves of her elaborate robes, her slender fingers clenched into a fist.
Consort Hui, who had been delighting at the Emperor's stern warning to Consort Hua, was left frustrated by the Emperor's sudden words and his unfathomable heart.
From the corner of her eyes, she saw a flurry of movements: it was a few servants, currently moving pots of flowers near the rear of the pavilion.
With her pent-up anger swelling from within, Consort Hui was itching to take her frustration out on someone. Raising a slender hand, she pointed towards one of the female servants.
'Bring the flowers over.'
Startled, the servant stumbled, knocking into another servant.
A crash, and a cloud of dirt: the servant who had been knocked into had accidentally broken the pot of flowers she had been carrying.
The two servants immediately pleaded for mercy, their knees falling to the ground.
'You dare to break this precious gift? What is this - an act of rebellion?' Consort Hui's suppressed anger finally erupted. She laughed coldly, and gestured towards the other attendants. 'Drag them away, and flog them a hundred times each.'
'Your Highness, it was my fault. I broke this pot of flowers. Please, let me endure the two hundred flogs alone.'
These words, once spoken, caused a flutter of shock in the hearts of everyone in the room.
To be flogged a hundred times was already a difficult punishment to endure. Even a strong man in his prime would have a hard time surviving it, let alone a frail servant girl. To ask to be flogged two hundred times was akin to throwing one's life away!
Consort Hua, who had a long-standing rivalry with Consort Hui, was reluctant for things to go the way of her rival. Simply for the sake of opposing her, Consort Hua casually remarked to the servant, 'Lift up your head and look at me.'
Hearing the command, the servant slowly raised her head.
There was a sharp intake of breath.
Features no longer hidden, the unlucky servant was revealed to be the very same consort who had so recently fallen from grace - Nian Xuanji.
Before her downfall, though Consort Hua enjoyed the favour of the Emperor, the affection she received could not be measured up to Xuanji's. At this moment, even though Consort Hua originally spoke to spite Consort Hui, she could not help the sudden burst of infuriation and jealousy which bubbled up within her at the sight of this long-standing foe.
A moment's pause.
Then, she said, 'Consort Hui has a point. Drag these two servants away.'
Of the other concubines and consorts currently seated within this pavilion, though their ranks were not as prestigious as that of the Empress' or even the four Imperial Consorts, they were still titled concubines within the harem. Like Consort Hua, they had spent years enduring the Emperor's wholehearted love and devotion solely concentrated on Consort Nian. Now, seeing Xuanji's imminent punishment, their hearts were too singing with joy.
This sudden turn of events also surprised Consort Hui, who did not expect that her unthinking summons of a random female servant would land precisely on her archenemy.
Surreptitiously, she glanced at the Emperor, only to see him engaged in deep conversation with the Empress, his lips upturned in a smile, unaware or perhaps unconcerned of the events playing out before them.
'Wait a minute.'
A woman's voice rang through the air, gentle, but with a hint of urgency. For a moment, Consort Hui thought the Empress had spoken, only to realise the voice belonged to the Empress Dowager's Head Attendant, Wen Ruyi.
'Ruyi, the two consorts are disciplining a servant. Why have you interrupted them?' The Empress Dowager said, her brows creasing.
Wen Ruyi immediately moved forward. With a quick glance at the Emperor, she knelt and said, 'Your Highness, you should not permit this punishment! With your body still feeling unwell, meting out such a harsh punishment may dampen your good fortune. The matter concerning the two servants is a small one, but your health is of utmost importance.'
Having said her piece, Wen Ruyi bit her lips, looking nervously at the Empress Dowager.
The Emperor Dowager smiled. 'Am I to be afraid of two lowly slaves?' She turned to Long Fei-li, and continued, 'Your Majesty, what is your opinion on this matter?'
As she said these words, her dark gaze flickered towards Xuanji. Xuanji only lowered her head, her eyes on the floor.
Long Fei-li smiled faintly. 'Mother, I leave the decision of this matter into your hands.'
'Very well. We can follow Ruyi's advice and forget about this punishment. Today is a happy occasion, after all,' the Empress Dowager said benevolently.
Hearing the Empress Dowager's decision, Consort Hui did not dare to press further. Yet Consort Hua refused to relent, her lips curling.
Ruyi, who had been quietly observing Consort Hua, quickly said, 'Your Highness is immeasurably kind.' Turning to the two servants, she hissed, 'Why are the two of you still kneeling there? Quickly deliver a cup of tea to the Emperor and his consorts to make your apologies!'
'Yes. Thank you, Ruyi,' Xuanji said softly. She moved to help the other servant stand.
Without missing a beat, Ruyi hastened to pass the tray of teacups into Xuanji's hands.
Consort Hua, whose protests had been interrupted by Ruyi's interjection, said coldly, 'Nian Xuanji, what are the red welts on the back of your hands?'
In an instant, all eyes fell upon Xuanji's hand. Xuanji, who had spent the morning carrying those pots of flowers, had both her hands stained with dirt. Beneath the mud, scores of red welts and blisters were stark against her pale skin. At this unsightly image, some of the concubines wrinkled their noses, their laughter filling room.
'Answering Consort Hua, these are frostbites,' Xuanji said in a detached tone.
Her impassive attitude caused a flare of anger to rise within Consort Hua, who said coldly, 'Revolting! This cup of tea - you don't have to give it to me.'
'Precisely! Look at her hands, the dirt on her face. I wonder how many days has passed since she last showered?' All around, disdainful murmurs and scornful laughter resonated.
'If I were Consort Hua, I wouldn't drink this cup of tea either,' Consort Hui smirked.
'Ruyi, let this slave present tea to the Emperor and Empress instead.' The Empress Dowager, who had been picking at a lotus seed, said in a bland voice without looking over.
'All right.' Long Fei-li, whose sharp stare momentarily landed on Xuanji's hand, immediately shifted his gaze away, as though disgusted by the sight of those ruined hands.
'Yes, Your Majesty,' Ruyi answered. She took the old cup of tea from Xuanji's hands and passed a handkerchief over to her.
Nian Xuanji's eyes held a glimmer of redness, but she only smiled faintly, blinking away the tears which had welled up in her eyes. Thanking Ruyi, she reached over to accept the handkerchief.
At this moment, Xuanji was trying her best to pretend that those ruined pair of hands did not belong to her, as though they were a foreign entity. Only by doing so could she avoid the sharp stab of pain in her heart.
Hurriedly, she wiped those hands with the handkerchief, but the sudden force of her movements caused one of the blisters to break, pus and blood flowing, staining the white handkerchief a vibrant red.
Consort Hui sneered, 'You're no longer a consort, yet your arrogance remains. Xuanji, you don't have to be in such a hurry. If one handkerchief isn't enough for you, I have more here.'
'Thank you, Your Highness.' Xuanji said emotionlessly. Turning to Ruyi, she said in a low voice, 'Ruyi, I will return you your handkerchief once I've washed it.'
Ruyi, who had opened her mouth to refuse Xuanji's suggestion, changed her mind and nodded.
Another concubine scoffed, 'Why do you put Ruyi in such a troubling position? Who would dare to touch that piece of cloth, now that your hands have dirtied them?'
Xuanji did not reply. Smiling bitterly, she walked over to Long Fei-li and knelt, presenting that beautifully-carved cup of tea to him.
With the cup raised high in the air, her slender hands were hidden beneath it, the red welts on her snow-white skin no longer in sight. But what about her defeated person?
Perhaps, just like the gentle coils of clouds imprinted on this exquisitely sculpted cup, a person's presence could just as easily be ignored.
She did not look at him.
She detested him, and him, her.
Why bother to deepen this mutual hatred?
Except, the words she once said to him suddenly surfaced in her mind.
'Ah Li, the women and children in the Nian family are innocent, unaware of what their husbands and fathers were plotting. My little brother is only six years old this year. You know him; you've hugged him before.'
He did not reply, only turning to look at her, his face blank.
'He is only a child. Can't I use my life in exchange for his?'
'Xiaoqi, your life was never yours to control.'
The candlelight was extinguished. The hint of a smile flickered across the man's face; his eyes clouded with emotion. Those words, gently spoken, were reminiscent of the long-gone days where they lay, shoulder-to-shoulder, on his bed, where he murmured those sweet words of affection to her, where he cradled her within his arms.
Indeed. Her life was his to control.
Was that why, when he executed the three hundred odd people in the Nian family, when he clutched at her throat with his strong hands, she did not protest?
Why did he spare her?
Perhaps, no matter how pathetic her life had become, she still had one final use to him: in sparing her, he was demonstrating to the world the affection and respect he had for his Empress, Yu Mixiu.
What a beautiful conclusion to the bloody rebellion! This young Emperor had written a compassionate ending to this ruthless play of events.
At present moment, Long Fei-li only narrowed his eyes. He did not reach to take the cup.
A small smile remained on Xuanji's face. A sudden thought crossed her mind: did this fanfare of humiliating events played out on her pathetic displays amuse him?
From behind her, Consort Hua interjected sweetly, 'I know that Your Majesty is a benevolent person, and it isn't my wish to make a fuss of the situation: only, if we were to let these two servants off so easily this time, what would the others think?'
A picture of alarm crossed Ruyi's face.
Yet, with a sweeping glance across the room, the Empress Dowager had already said, 'Min'er, your words are not without reason. How do you feel should we handle this?'
'Since this was a mistake caused by their hands, in my humble opinion, we can change their punishments to zanzhi as a show of mercy in this joyous occasion. Though their hands will be ruined, their lives will not be in danger,' Consort Hua said.
The Empress Dowager's lips curved into a benign smile. Turning to look at the Empress, she said, 'The Emperor has said he would not interfere in this matter. Mixiu, as the head of the imperial harems, what do you think?'
Empress Yu Mixiu appeared startled by this sudden question directed at her. Forehead creasing, she said in a soft voice, 'I -'
Zanzhi - an ancient punishment, where, with the use of wooden sticks positioned between one's fingers, a person's fingers would slowly and agonisingly be crushed, their bones fracturing into smithereens.
Silence descended. A few concubines looked at Consort Hua in horror: in the end, that woman with an angel's features did not intend to let the fallen Consort Nian off lightly.
Ruyi gritted her teeth.
Long Fei-li suddenly reached over to pull Yu Mixiu into his embrace, and in a bland voice, said, 'Xiu'er, what are you hesitating for? Just go with Mother's suggestions in this matter.'
Xuanji, whose hands were clasped tightly on a cup of tea, trembled - a faint, involuntary movement. Raising her head, she looked towards Ruyi. With a soft smile, she shook her head, another minute movement.
She turned away, the gaze in her eyes hardening.
Of course, how could she not understand the Empress Dowager's true intentions? The Queen Mother had only used Consort Hua as her mouthpiece to achieve her desires. Mercy? Once the sentence of zanzhi was carried out, both her hands were bound to be ruined. Only… If they are to be ruined, then let them be ruined. After all, her hands have long been an unsightly wreck, disfigured by the crisscrossing network of red welts and blisters.
Xuanji smiled bitterly. She had only been forced to near insanity, but she wasn't dense. In the end, after all the innumerable back-and-forth and endless prevarications, what they wanted was her life.
If that were so, why drag the others into her mess?
Seeing the resolute gaze in Xuanji's eyes, Ruyi fell silent.
A satisfied smile stretched across Consort Hua's red lips. Turning towards the Eunuch standing by her, she said, 'Announce the sentence.'
In the silence that descended, Xuanji said quietly, 'If Your Majesty does not despise this cup of tea, please, take a sip. Perhaps, this would be the last cup that I serve.'
'This is a rare thing for you to say,' Long Fei-li said, his voice emotionless.
Her eyes fixed on him.
From his detached, unfathomable eyes to the arrogant curve of his cheekbones; from his lips, coldly upturned in a frozen smile to his dispassionate voice, the Emperor was ruthless and unsympathetic, and she could look nowhere else.
A sudden stab of sadness filled her heart, which had only moments before been twisted with hate and bitterness.
Once, in those early mornings before dawn, she had walked, barefoot, into the lakes to collect the fragrance of the lotuses; had walked, in the snow, to collect the dewdrops of plums.
She had done these, only because she had been willing to.
She had done these, only because Long Fei-li was Xuanji's Ah Li.
From a corner, a voice, sharp and jarring to the ears, sounded; footsteps, a steady thump against the hard wood floor, echoed.
The Eunuch carrying out the sentence had arrived.
Her arms, which were beginning to ache from presenting those teacups high in the air, raised themselves a notch higher.
Suddenly, she felt a pinprick in her knees, followed by a blinding pain. When she recovered her senses, the cup of tea had already splashed across the Emperor.
Once, it was an elegant hand, snow-white and unmarred.
Now, the back of it was an angry red, scalded by the hot tea.
Xuanji was seized with a sudden moment of shock. Before she could react, her body had already been violently kicked to a side by Long Fei-li.
Pain gripped her heart, clawing at her.
Heaving, she coughed out a mouth full of blood, her body slumping against the floor.***
With the Emperor injured, chaos erupted in a flash.
In her dizziness, she heard the sound of urgent footsteps, the shrill screams of a woman. In her confusion, clinging onto the last vestiges of consciousness, absurdly, she could clearly distinguish his voice, cold with barely suppressed anger.
'Confine her in the department of Internal Affairs.'
Internal Affairs. That place was famous for its cruel ways of torture; of death.
She could not help the small smile spreading across her lips.
As darkness enveloped her vision, her last thought was: this time, she would not survive.