Hello! The penultimate chapter of Little Moon took longer than expected because for the first time in writing this story, I wondered if I should deviate from my original plot. I have grown to really love the characters as I wrote this story, and I truly considered if this was the way the story should move forward. And, indeed, after some reflection, I felt that I needed to follow what I had planned. This was the true path of my story - I promise it will all make sense in the end.
Thank you, readers, for the support. I will see you soon at the finishing line.
Chapter 16: The Emperor’s Women
I looked at Yue Er in her beautiful red robes. Her face lifted up towards me, radiant with happiness, “Uncle, I cannot wait.”
In the morning, a royal maidservant came to my bedchamber and announced that Crown Prince Hsiao had requested an audience. “Let him in,” I said.
I was not surprised – did Hsiao come already to insist that he did not need Hu Jun (护 (Hu – protector) 俊 (Jun - handsome))? I had sent Hu Jun, the best of my bodyguards, to be Hsiao’s head protector, but knowing Hsiao’s aloof personality… it was likely he was already here to reject this.
I raised my head to the empty golden gilded bird cage that hung over the wooden carved window. The golden glint of the bird cage caught the sunlight like time shining one last time before it loses its sparkle and fades away. It has been at least five years since Hsiao had stepped once again into my bedchambers.
When I had first entered the palace, I was enamored by its grandness and magnificence. There was no lack of precious stones, gold, silks, rare herbs, more physical riches than one could ever fully possess. One soon got bored with material luxuries. One day, when the Emperor asked what he could give me, I turned to one of his bird cages that hung in the garden pavilions and said, “The bird is so young and adorable. I want to release the bird.”
The Emperor had laughed. He was tickled, because no concubine had asked for such a gift before. He clapped his hands and announced, “I hereby give you the right to release any bird in the palace.”
I was soon known as the Emperor’s favoured concubine that loved birds, the concubine that loved releasing birds. I was given precious and rare birds from all over the Yan Kingdom. Soon, I was releasing birds by the tenths, and even hundreds on special occasions. A thousand birds were said to be released at my coronation as the Empress.
Even though, those were my young ignorant days, they were my happiest. I imagined a little golden glow of goodness coming out of every bird I released, and I was adding these all up for my child. I would like for him to be bathed with such goodness and blessings, for him to only know light.
Hsiao was my dawn. The light awakening from a peaceful slumber, a long period of blissful ignorance.
When Hsiao was six, he started to look sadly at the birds that were released from the bird cages at my palace. When I asked him why did he look so sadly at the birds receiving their freedom, he had turned to me and said, “Mother Empress, don’t you see? People catch birds for you to set them free.”
I had never thought about where the caged birds came from, or why the birds were caged. I suddenly realised that the birds had always been free. It was only power that foolishly imprisoned things, then exercised its power by releasing them.
The Emperor is known as the Dragon, the Empress is known as the Phoenix. I was a beautiful mythical bird, but what made me beautiful and mythical, was the grandness of my own cage. From that day on, I no longer released birds. My only wish since was to give Hsiao wings.
No, I always knew Hsiao had his own wings, I only wished he had the sky to use them. When Hsiao turned sixteen, I asked Shi Xiong (Sworn Brother) for his help to take care of Hsiao, and requested the Emperor to allow Hsiao to roam outside the palace, to be able to discover the Yan Kingdom for himself.
No one stays clean in the palace. There are too many desires, needs, wants. These desires compete with each other and cancel each other out. I watched as Hsiao entered my bedchamber, resplendent in his white robes, and was reminded of the one letter he sent to my palace every year on my birthday. It would say, “祝你平安” (Wish that you are safe and well). I never replied, although I always wanted to say, "Hsiao, 你平安就好 (All is good if you are well)".
“Greetings to Mother Empress,” Hsiao bowed. I quickly asked him to rise.
We exchanged a long glance. How long has it been since I had a good glance of my son? He has grown to be such a fine man. My heart warmed.
“Mother Empress,” Hsiao started, uncharacteristically he hesitated not out of uncertainty but of slight embarrassment, “I have a favour I need to ask of for your help.”
“Ask away,” I said, keeping my face calm, though my heart was racing. For so long, Hsiao had not asked for my help.
“Mother Empress, I have met a girl that I really love and I intend to marry her. I want to give her a worthy marriage token from our family, and I seek your help,” Hsiao said.
I laughed, “Is the girl An Chi?”
Hsiao looked surprised, and quickly shook his head, “She is someone I met outside the palace.”
I beckoned for Hsiao to come closer to me. I stretched out my wrist and showed Hsiao a jade bangle. There was a golden clasp around the jade bangle that was sculpted into a delicate phoenix.
“This was the only jewellery I brought when I entered the palace. They belonged in a pair, a family heirloom made for… my twin sister and me,” I said as I slowly removed the jade bangle from my wrist, “I have tons of jewellery that are worth more… more grand, more valuable… but I can think of nothing more deserving for your heart’s desire.”
I placed it in Hsiao’s palm, which was warm, alive, loving. “Jade and gold, 金玉良缘＊ I wish both of you a beautiful fate.”
*One of my favourite Chinese proverbs – it means a beautiful marriage affinity just like the perfect combination of jade and gold.
A day had never felt longer. I looked at the beautiful jade bangle Mother had given me, and a smile played on my lips. The sun was finally setting. Soon, I would meet Yue and her Uncle in the Capital’s greatest Temple of Matrimonial Bliss.
Hu Jun knocked before entering my bedchambers, “Crown Prince Hsiao, Lady An Chi from the Premier’s Residence has sent a message seeking for you. She says she needs to see you urgently before nightfall.”
Ever since I left the palace five years ago, I have not met An Chi. The young girl that always followed along Big Brother Qing and I…
Perhaps, it was only right to make clear my intentions before I married Yue.
When I arrived at the Premier’s Residence, Lady An Chi’s maidservant stated that Lady An Chi only wished to meet me alone. I asked Hu Jun to wait at the Main Hall as I followed the maidservant to a garden hidden at the back of the Premier’s Residence. It was a quiet, almost deserted enclave.
The maidservant left me at the entrance, and said that her lady was waiting for me at the heart of the garden.
It was not difficult to find Lady An Chi. A beautiful maiden sat waiting in a small pavilion beside the pond that laid in the middle of this garden. Big Brother Qing, An Chi and I, we used to play here all the time.
She raised her face up towards me when I arrived. Her face seemed too thin, almost gaunt, but she had inherited the soft slender beauty of the willows.
“Hsiao Ge Ge (Big Brother),” She smiled at me, though the smile was happy, it had traces of worry.
“An Chi Mei (Younger sister),” I smiled back.
She beckoned for me to sit on the table as she reached out to pour tea into a tea cup for me. Her robe sleeves fell back slightly at this action and there was a glint of jade around her wrist.
“Hsiao Ge Ge, I heard you went to see Mother Empress this morning and…” Before An Chi could finish, a most familiar male voice resounded behind my head.
“You want everything, don’t you? After taking the throne, you also want to take An Chi,” I heard Qing scowl behind me.
I turned around but no look of surprise betrayed my face, “Impressive, you even have spies at Mother Empress’ residence. You are wrong anyhow, because I…”
“Enough rhetoric, your beautiful words can fool father, but they don’t fool me. Your mother and you both possess a serpent’s tongue. You are so well protected in the palace that not a single of my man can enter. But finally, you are here, alone. Take out your sword and fight like a man,” Qing said as he brandished his sheathed sword at my chest.
I looked at Qing’s eyes that held only ice cold fury. I shook my head, “I don’t wish to fight you. I cannot give you the throne, but I wish for you and An Chi only happiness.”
An Chi gave a slight gasp of surprise, “Hsiao Ge Ge, you would bless Qing Ge Ge’s marriage with me?”
Before I could answer, Qing had unsheathed his sword and started slashing it furiously at me. Each stroke had the full intent to kill. The strokes did not hit me, but they slashed at my heart. Each stroke I blocked with my own sword was a quiet resignation to our twisted fates as brothers.
Finally, I saw an opening, I quickly unsheathed my sword and pointed the sharp edge at Qing’s throat, “Do you really want to force me to kill you?”
Qing let out a deep gravelly laughter, “Be my guest.”
I cut a faint thin line at Qing’s throat and stepped back, “I will ask Father Emperor to give An Chi to you in marriage and to send you to the far military outpost facing the Wu Kingdom, never to return to the Capital again.”
The sun had completely fallen and night had descended. I had no time to lose, and quickly turned to leave.
I could hear the metal clanging of Qing’s sword behind me and was going to turn to dodge it when I felt warm flesh and blood pressed into my back. I quickly turned and caught a falling An Chi into my arms.
Qing’s sword was deep into her abdomen.
An Chi smiled and lifted up her right hand towards Qing’s shocked face, “I knew when I agreed to help you that I would pay with my life – whether it’s treason against the Emperor or against the Crown Prince. Because, I knew most of all, I cannot watch Qing Ge Ge kill Hsiao Ge Ge.”
I recognized the jade bangle on An Chi’s wrist as Qing trembled holding onto An Chi’s wrist.
“There’s no time to lose. I will carry her to the Main Hall, you go call for the doctors!” I cried and carried An Chi carefully up.
The moon was so full, there seemed to be no start or end. Its glow filled up the entire passageway towards the altar of the Temple of Matrimonial Bliss.
I saw the black horse, with a white star on its head, race like a bolt of lightning towards the Temple.
The man, with his distinguished golden aura, in his white robes stained with blood, came down his horse and looked with hopeful and fearful expectance at me.
I looked at the bright moon, its light particularly stark tonight, “Lady An Chi has passed away, hasn’t she?”
I held out a thin red thread, the red of the blood that stains the bone, “She waited for you until there was no time left.”
He staggered and fell down on his knees. He let out a howl so deep, and so heart wrenching, that it seemed to cause all the dark clouds to suddenly gather around the full moon. The rain started to fall from these dark clouds as if desperately trying to unburden this unknown weight of grief.
It had been so long since I stood in the rain. The droplets fell on my face. They tasted salty. Because the rain was salty, or salty from my tears, I did not know.