"Yes, it isn't really promising being a merchant. Though we have accumulated much wealth, it was all achieved through blood, sweat and tears. Unlike officials; they just have to sit there and people offer them chests and chests of money. How enviable!" Lin Haihai satirized the current situation of corruption and bribery among officials.
"What do you mean!?" The concubine's high-pitched screech was unbearable to the ears.
"Alright, Concubine Ling, Sixth Princess Consort didn't mean anything. Don't think too much into it," Empress Chen voiced out.
"Your Majesty, if there isn't anything else, this Imperial Consort will be leaving." Imperial Consort Li said arrogantly as she stood up from her chair. She didn't greet Empress Chen goodbye as she took her first step. The other concubines followed suit.
"Stop right there!" Empress Chen didn't raise her voice, but it was loud enough for everyone present to hear.
Imperial Consort Li turned and narrowed her eyes at Empress Chen, replying, "Empress Chen, what are your orders?"
"What time is it now?" Empress Chen questioned the maidservant beside her.
"Replying to Your Majesty, it's close to noon."
"Alright, withdraw." Empress Chen gestured, and the maidservant retreated and stood waiting by the side.
"Sisters, all of you should know the meaning of morning and evening greetings. You should be paying your morning greetings to this Empress in the morning, but it's already close to noon now. My dear sisters must be really busy to have lost track of the time to pay this Empress your morning greetings. Seeing how tough it must be on all of you, this Empress feels bad as well. From tomorrow onwards, there's no need to come and pay your greetings to this Empress," Empress Chen slowly said as she took a sip of tea from her teacup.
"Is Your Majesty finding fault with us?" Imperial Consort Li raised an eyebrow, a smirk appearing at the corner of her lips.
"Your Majesty, how could you say that? It's inevitable for us to wake up late since we have to serve His Majesty the night before. His Majesty hasn't even blamed us and Your Majesty is trying to find fault with us for being too diligent in serving His Majesty?" Concubine Ling replied sarcastically. Lin Haihai turned away, not wanting to see Concubine Ling's face; she felt suffocated.
"This Empress is understanding and sparing all of you the formalities. Why do you have to make it sound like this Empress has ulterior motives?" Empress Chen's brows were pressed together. Such troublesome women!
"I'm afraid Your Majesty has other motives," Imperial Consort Li snorted.
Lin Haihai cupped her forehead; she couldn't take it anymore. Empress Chen answered, "All of you are His Majesty's concubines. Logically speaking, paying greetings to this Empress is just adhering to old traditions and customs. These customs should have long been abolished, but Her Empress Dowager didn't allow it, so this Empress didn't bring it up again. Now, this Empress is sparing you the morning greetings as I have already promised Sixth Princess Consort to help out at her hospital. This Empress will leave the palace in the early morning and won't have the time to wait here for you to pay me your greetings at noon. So, there's no need for it."
"So, Your Majesty is unhappy that we are late?" retorted Imperial Concubine Ling in an overbearing tone.
"Forget it, this Empress doesn't wish to further dispute this matter. Anyway, if you want to pay your morning greetings, then come in the morning; if not, just do away with it. Farewell." Empress Chen was annoyed. She couldn't be bothered with any schemes so she just went straight to the point.
"Hmph, Your Majesty, you are being too much. Aren't we just a little late? Is there a need to throw such a huge temper tantrum towards us?" Imperial Consort Li attempted to heighten the tension between Empress Chen and the others.
"Yes, aren't we just a little late?"
"Is there a need to say that? If Your Majesty is unhappy, you can just say it out loud. Isn't Your Majesty obviously shaming us by beating around the bush?" The concubines chirped in one after another as the tension in the room started to elevate.
Lin Haihai watched on in a daze. Did Empress Chen say anything that was too excessive and humiliating just now? Why didn't I sense it?
Empress Chen tugged on Lin Haihai's arm, saying "Let's go to the gardens." Lin Haihai stood up and took in the concubines' furious expressions before she hurriedly left the room.
"How are you able to tolerate this bunch of crows?" Lin Haihai asked, her heart still fluttering with fear.
"You know, my country is a small nation with a population of only three hundred thousand, and yet it is a country that every other country fights over because of its geographical location. One would have to request to go through my country to attack another country. That's the nice way of putting it; otherwise, it's just a conquest. My Emperor Father was afraid that our country would eventually be conquered and taken over by ruthless and ambitious enemies; hence, he married me off to Xing, seeking protection in the form of a political marriage."
"That's why you can't lose your position as the Empress. Because as long as you remain Empress of Xing , the other countries wouldn't dare to make any reckless moves."
"This imperial palace is like a cage. If there were a choice, who would wish to be trapped here?" A bitter smile formed on Empress Chen's face.
"That's why you agreed to be my technical consultant, so that you can go around to different places."
"Of course. His Majesty has already allowed me to leave the palace. I won't have to stare at those pretentious faces anymore. I will leave the palace in the wee hours of the morning and only return in the night. You must provide me with three meals," Empress Chen said with a smile.
"Definitely! You are our master, everyone still needs you to impart to them your skills," Lin Haihai nodded.
The two women chatted happily as they headed towards the gardens. Reaching the gardens, Lin Haihai looked towards Empress Chen. She wanted to speak but had second thoughts. Empress Chen noticed and asked, "What is it? Ask away."
Lin Haihai ran through the words in her mind before she parted her lips, saying, "Those concubines just now... is Imperial Consort Li His Majesty's favorite?" Actually, Lin Haihai knew she shouldn't be asking such a question, but she really couldn't control her feelings.
"Can I address you as Haihai?" Empress Chen asked in a gentle voice.
"Yeah, of course!"
"Do you like His Majesty?" Empress Chen asked softly, her eyes consumed with worry.
Lin Haihai raised her head instinctively; an explosion seemed to have gone off in her brain. Do I like him? Lin Haihai turned her head away awkwardly. "No such thing!"
"That better be the case. You must know, you are already the Sixth Princess Consort. It's impossible for anything to happen between the both of you."
"I know. I never thought of it. Really, I never did." Lin Hahai hurriedly tried to explain, but the bitter feelings within her rendered her helpless.
"I trust you. I know you wouldn't think of it. But if you really do, you must quickly kill that thought the moment it appears. The imperial family's reputation is at stake and women's lives are cheap commodities. Under any circumstances, we will always end up being the ones sacrificed." Empress Chen's voice was filled with deep grievances, as though she had personally experienced something similar.
"Did something happen to you previously?" Lin Haihai could sense the melancholy in her words.
"What made you ask that?" Empress Chen lowered her head, plucking the dry leaves off the osmanthus plant. Though it wasn't the osmanthus flower blooming season, Empress Chen still took care of the plants meticulously.
"Instinct! My instincts are telling me that you have a sad story tucked away in a corner of your heart." Lin Haihai looked into the distance, as though she was trying to guess Empress Chen's story; at the same time, she pondered over her bitter circumstances.
Empress Chen's hands stopped. She walked towards the thorn apple plants and asked, "Do you know what thorn apple flowers represent?"
Lin Haihai looked around and saw several types of thorn apple flowers. She knew that every color represented a different meaning. Seeing that Empress Chen's gaze was fixated on the black thorn apple flowers, she answered, "Black thorn apple flowers represent unpredictable darkness, death, and displaced love. It symbolizes desperate love. Why would you plant 'desperate love' here?"
Empress Chen stared at Lin Haihai, the passion in her eyes reigniting briefly before dying out once again. Heaving a huge sigh, she fell into the embrace of her memories and slowly recounted her story. "I was eight then. The first time I saw Wen Xuan was at the Hundred Flowers Banquet. He was older than me by two years, and also my Emperor Father's adopted son. Despite being at a young age, he was full of knowledge. My Emperor Father gathered all of us around and told us that Wen Xuan would be our sibling from then on; we must treat him like he's part of our family and not bully him. Actually, none of us would bully him because other than being knowledgeable, he was polite to others, filial to my parents, humble, and studious. We liked him a lot." There seemed to be a glow radiating from Empress Chen; Lin Haihai had never seen her showing such a sweet expression.
"I think from the day I first laid my eyes on him, I had already fallen for him. He likes to tend to plants and flowers, to the extent of being obsessed. To suit his interest, I also started to follow him and picked up gardening. I felt that he liked me as well, but he waited till I was sixteen before he confessed to me. We had a very great time together. However, I wasn't the only one who had fallen for him. My Imperial Sister, who is a year younger than me, had fallen for him too. When she chanced upon Wen Xuan and I exchanging our promises in the Imperial Gardens, she went back and convinced Concubine Hui, her mother, to propose that Emperor Father should send me to Xing for a political marriage. For the sake of national stability, Emperor Father agreed to Concubine Hui's proposition.
"Wen Xuan knelt outside Emperor Father's palace for three days and nights in the snow, to beg him to take back his orders. At the same time, I was grounded in my own palace. I only managed to hear news of Wen Xuan from my maidservant, Xiao Man, who'd secretly passed me messages from the window. My heart hurt as though it had been slashed by a dagger, but I was helpless. I wanted to commit suicide but I couldn't bear to forsake Wen Xuan.
“My Imperial Sister came looking for me. She told me that Wen Xuan was close to freezing to death but still refused to get up. He was still kneeling in the snow. If he continued on, he would surely die.
“My Imperial Sister asked me to write a letter to Wen Xuan to persuade him to let go. He could still seek an opportunity to meet me next time, but I knew that that day would never come. After Wen Xuan received my letter, he sent someone to give me a pot of black thorn apple flowers. It was accompanied with a letter that had only one sentence written on it: Unpredictable darkness!
“On my wedding day, Wen Xuan followed the marriage procession all the way to the border between both countries. Halfway through the journey where we stopped to take a break, I saw him from afar. He was dressed in black, his robes billowing in the wind. From afar, he looked just like a black thorn apple flower. That was the last time I saw him; I couldn't even see his expression clearly.
“After being married here for two years, I received my Imperial Sister's letter. She wrote that on the day after my wedding, Wen Xuan jumped down the Thorn Apple Cliff. The mountain was blanketed with red thorn apple flowers, the terrain dangerous and steep. There was no way he would survive that jump. I wanted to follow in his footsteps, but at that time, I had already given birth to Chuting. I couldn't bear to leave my daughter."
Empress Chen dropped her head into her palms and sobbed. Her trembling shoulders were an embodiment of the grieving feelings within her. With the weight of her country's safety on her shoulders, she had to continue to live on in degradation even if her lover died. It was really a sorrowful and pitiful situation.
Tears welled up in Lin Haihai's eyes. She gently patted Empress Chen on the shoulder, "Cry; you will feel better after crying it all out."