Prologue

High in the sky, the moon shone a path for Zhao Cheng, the emperor's middle-aged advisor. He wobbled along the bridge and stumbled into the Lotus Palace. Despite the concerned glances from guards, his merry mood remained. How could it not? The last few hours consisted of an obnoxious consumption of wine among friends in a dance house. The food tasted hearty, the ladies looked stunning and troubles were left at the door. The only thing that made him even more merrier was returning to his gorgeous, young wife. 

In their chambers, the small firelight cast shadows across Bai Juan's standing body. The white robes cascaded to the floor, the excess material emphasising her tiny frame. Those sepia eyes glared at him when he clumsily entered the room. Her expression looked stone-cold; the usual soft smile vanished and her brows twitched, ready to crease in fury. Even her undone hair, with auburn steaks, felt threatening as if it were ready to catch aflame.

 

"My love!" Cheng exclaimed and fawned over his much younger wife.

"Do not touch me." Juan withdrew a knife when he approached. "I am warning you to stay away."

"W-what is the meaning of this?" Cheng slurred as he stared in bewilderment at the blade. Was he dreaming? Maybe he did drink too much. Nothing so horrible could be real.

Juan threw rolled parchment on the ground between them. "I know everything! I know about the past advisors, the fires, the miscarriages, the prince and the war! I know it all! I know what you did to me!"

"What is this?" Cheng dropped to his knees and looked at the notes. The blurry words slowly cleared to document ploys and treachery. Every sentence stated Cheng's involvement in a ridiculous number of deaths and crimes. His heart dropped. Someone was after him. But why? "I do not understand. Someone is trying to frame me! Help me, my love! Someone is-"

"Revealing the truth of your lies," Juan finished.

"This is a misunderstanding! Do not believe them!"

Juan pressed the knife at Cheng's chest when he approached. It served as a warning. The betrayal stung. "Do not touch me with your bloody hands!"

The disgusted words made Cheng snap. "How dare you!"

The noise from the slap echoed around the room. Juan held her cheek in one hand, too shocked to react. He never aimed for her face before. In past drunken anger, he attacked her body that could hide his shameful actions under robes. Yet, his panic and rage refused to be retrained tonight. So, he struck again and kicked her to the ground. The knife fell from her shaking hands. How dare she threaten him! How dare she defy her husband! The thoughts made Cheng lose control. Why won't she help me when I've been targeted?!

 

He grabbed her silken hair. "Where did you find these lies?!"

 

"Are you scared?" Juan spat, full of courage. All her gentleness and pleasant nature vanished. It reminded Cheng of his sister-in-law.

He shoved Juan and kicked her again. He briefly stood on her fingers too so she couldn't grasp the knife steadily, wherever it had landed. "All you need to do is behave!"

"That is all I have ever done!" Juan screamed back, tears ruining her beautiful face. "I have spent my whole life behaving for my mother, my home and my husband! I am tired of it! All it has brought is pain and suffering! I am my own person and if I desire, I will defy even you!"

The knife - retrieved from the ground while Cheng got distracted - sliced through the air. Juan, now on her feet, ran forward. Cheng inhaled. The world went black for a moment. Droplets of blood seeped into the floorboards while Cheng grasped what happened. He felt no pain. His robes were dry. He lived.

His wife did not.

The knife embedded itself into her chest. Blood stained her white gown. That cold expression from earlier melted away into disbelief and horror. Cheng caught her as she turned limp. This made him release the smooth handle of the weapon. Slowly it dawned on him: he had stabbed her.

"Your crimes will catch you." Juan stopped breathing.

"Oh no. Oh no. No, no, no!" Cheng cried out. His body shook. Tears streamed down his face. It had been her fault! Not his! If only she remained obedient. If only she didn't threaten him. Why did she turn her back so quickly? What lies had she believed? It shattered his soul to see her lifeless from her outburst.

A shadow emerged from the doorway. Cheng stared at them, a frenzied desperation alight in his eyes. "Please! Help me! It wasn't my fault!"