27: The Imperial Flower Dies
Not many people sought company with the empress, apart from Jiang or Joaolong. They either saw her as too soft, dull or a nuisance. Hence, the rarity of two separate invites for tea during one day led her to be suspicious. The emperor’s company only brought heartbreak; he made her feel pitiful for remembering their son. Nevertheless, she could risk being her true self with the emperor. Tea with Qiaolian required more caution.
The concubine brushed Yenay’s hair and yanked harshly on the tangles. Yenay remained unperturbed and stared in the duchess mirror. Her face looked sunken, reflecting the distress she felt for Joaolong’s wounds since the hunt. With a water bowl and cloth, she wiped her face and removed the painted symbol on her forehead that signified empress. Qiaolian requested the empress remained ‘natural’ during their rare, personal meetings; it inflated her ego to be the most beautiful wife of the emperor. Since the empress didn’t invest in pettiness or appearances, she always complied; it was better to create light than spread darkness.
“Is the tea ready?” Yenay asked.
“Yes, Empress.” Xiaoli bowed again, the jewels on her green dress glittering in the candlelight. She had the same indulgence for luxury as Qiaolian.
The white tea-set on the table looked beautiful with the additional swirls of greens leaves and pinks petals. This particular design only appeared during special and festive occasions. From memory, the emperor gifted it to Qiaolian on their wedding.
“I hope it is to your liking. I ground the leaves myself,” Xiaoli said and poured the tea. Familiar with Yenay’s tastes, she added nectar – a delicacy only for high nobility – to the cup. “It is rose tea.”
“I am certain it will taste divine. When is the wedding, Miss Ju?” Yenay inquired while she took a sip. “You will make a beautiful bride and loving wife to the Crown Prince.”
“The emperor has discussed that come the new season, the prince and I will be wed,” Xiaoli replied bashfully.
“We are truly blessed,” Qiaolian added with a grin. “If only could share in the enjoyment of extending your family. I am fortunate for my son to choose such a beautiful bride.”
Yenay cleared her tightening throat. “May I make a suggestion, Miss Ju? To remain a woman of desire, do not serve your husband sweet tea like this. It makes it obvious that it has been poisoned.”
Qiaolian’s smirk dropped. “You know?”
“I have not lived obliviously in the palace for most of my life. After my son’s death, I learnt that no one can be trusted, especially an ambitious young woman like yourself, Zhao Qiaolian. I also know your relationship with Zhao Cheng would have made it easy to assassinate the infant prince and if your brother was willing to do that, I suspect he also caused the fire that killed my whole family. Since gaining the position as a royal concubine, I have always been waiting for you to poison me.” Yenay drank the rest of the contents in her fine cup and ignored the burning in her mouth. “I assume the emperor is dead too?”
Qiaolian returned to her smug state and cackled like a witch. “Of course but that is not important. I heard your bastard of a son is alive. How? If you tell me, I could give you the antidote to the poison.”
“A cactus can survive the driest of seasons. My son is the same.”
“Who is it?” Qiaolian demanded and slapped the empress to spark fear from the calm woman. “Who is he?”
“In the years we have been acquainted, you have taken my husband, my children, my family, my power and now my life. I will not let you take my only son.”
“Fine! Die here! I will find out who it is! Ju Xiaoli, let us leave!” Qiaolian exclaimed and Xiaoli followed, looking like a lifeless puppet.
This left Yenay alone to suffer. The burning in her mouth increased but as soon as she refreshed her palette with water, the abdominal cramps started. A cold sweat broke out on her forehead, the beads cooling her tingling skin.
Jiang came rushing in with a sword. Her crumpled uniform and messy hair made her look insane. The usual squinting eyes were wide opened and panicked, unwillingly replaying some horrible event over and over. Still, Yenay thought her beautiful and cherished each frenzied touch.
“The nectar was poison. I cannot survive,” Yenay rasped through the fire in her mouth and pointed weakly at the sword. Tears streamed down Jiang’s face, aware it was too late to save her. “Please kill me. End my suffering.”
“I have been selfish towards you. I deprived you of a family to keep me company through the lonely years and I still beg more from you. I am so sorry.”
“You need not apologise. If I could relive my youth again, I would continue to follow you anywhere. I gave that oath to you as a young woman and I promised I would do anything.”
“Even this?” Yenay asked, hopeful.
“Even this if it brings you peace.”
Yenay felt the woman’s body shake and harsh sobs escape her. Still, she nestled into her body warmth and sighed at the scent. For a moment, she forgot about her irritated skin and internal pain.
“Please hold me. I want my last memory in this life to be of you and thoughts of my son.”
“Are you ready?”
Pain tore through Yenay’s chest. The sword plunged into her body until it reached the hilt. Rich, red blood soiled her clothes. Yet, the empress remained focused on Jiang’s tight embrace and the memory of her son’s face. She wanted to apologise for lying to him. She wished she could watch him rule. Maybe in another lifetime, the gods would be kinder. At least they were letting her die in Jiang’s arms.
“I love you. May the spirit life bring you peace, my sweet Yenay.”
“Tell Hong Yondan…” I love him. Yenay never finished her final request.