Sunset overlooked the magnificent capital, its light dusting over the golden roofs of the palace.
Thousands of different colored lanterns already lit the grand square where the new emperor celebrated his coronation. Hundreds of dancing girls twirled on the raised stage as advisers, generals, and scholars sat around, admiring the sight and toasting each other in celebration.
“Majesty…will you be mine tonight?” The concubine whispered as she drew circles on his chest. Zhu Ming drank another cup of Jasmine Wine and smiled at the newest addition to his harem. They sat on the dais above everyone, overlooking the grandeur. She lay, half in his arms, feeding him tasty morsels with her slender fingers.
He kissed her lips, “If you’re good. I’ll make you a royal concubine.”
The beauty giggled, “I’m only your Majesty’s humble servant, here to make you happy.”
Zhu Ming pinched the girl’s cheek, “Pretty thing. Make me happy enough and I’ll give you everything your heart desires.” The concubine smiled, the look of victory in her eyes.
As if on cue, Minister Tan laughed, “I am glad my niece has greatly pleased your majesty.”
The other ministers chorused in agreement. Minister Tan was the leader of the Left, and only a step down from the Prime Minister. If his niece became queen, then he would be a powerful force in the court.
Another lord quipped, “Concubine Tan is the most beautiful of women.”
Zhu Ming stroked the young girl’s cheek, “She is a jewel in my palace.”
Minister Tan looked meaningfully at another Lord on his right hand side.
The man nodded slightly and spoke, “Only Concubine Tan is fit to sit next to the greatest Emperor in history.” The other ministers nodded in agreement.
Concubine Tan blushed modestly and looked at Zhu Ming.
Zhu Ming’s smile did not reach his eyes, “Surely Lord Oh knows that I already have a queen.”
“Yes your Majesty. But a woman of Concubine’s talent and standing should be elevated to Royal Concubine at least. Even you, my king, thinks she is a jewel. And jewels are meant to shine.” Lord Oh persuaded.
Zhu Ming suddenly tilted Concubine Tan’s face to his, “My little jewel, what do you think? Would you like to be my queen? Your uncle would be greatly pleased if you became his new and powerful ally in the palace.” His voice was soft with a hint of amusement.
Concubine Tan smiled, her eyes downcast “Majesty, I serve only at your pleasure. Even if I were a servant girl, I would be pleased.” Inside, she was already trembling in fear, this new Emperor was more snake than man. She was never sure if he would kill her or reward her.
Zhu Ming kissed her lips sweetly. Suddenly he let her go and stood up. The musicians, seeing the motion, stopped the music, the dancers stopped and knelt down. Thousands of officials and their families looked up upon the high dais. They hushed, not sure what was going on.
The Emperor was like god. He was seen in all of his glory from afar and above, but he was not often heard.
The Emperor smiled, “Beloved subjects, tonight my Queen- to-be is too ill to attend. While I am saddened by this, I wish for my coronation to have all the luck and joy heaven grants.” He paused and smiled at Concubine Tan, she smiled back excitedly. Would he give her a new title?
The emperor pointed to Minister Tan, “My lord, come and help me bring good fortune to this night.”
Minister Tan’s eyes lit in excitement as he bowed and shuffled next to the Emperor. At the Emperor’s feet, he knelt patiently, waiting for the Emperor’s next words.
Zhu Ming looked onto the great square once again, his voice ringing in the night, “It is said that seeing red is the best sign for good luck.”
Without warning, he pulled out the ceremonial sword from his belt, grabbed Minister Tan’s head and slit his throat.
Blood, thick and hot, gushed from the veins. The man clawed at his throat helplessly as he gurgled, drowning in his own blood.
The Emperor let go of the man’s head and kicked his body down the great steps of the palace. Blood colored the creamy white steps as Minister Tan’s body rolled down.
No one spoke, no one dared to even breathe in those moments. All eyes were on the Emperor who had just killed one of the most powerful men in the country.
Zhu Ming smiled as he surveyed his subjects, “Tonight, we will feast in the memory of Minister Tan. He and all of his family will be giving their blood in honor of me.”
He turned and went back to his seat, gesturing for the music to start again. A servant came forward with a towel. Zhu Ming took it and cleaned his hands, all the while smiling at the frightened concubine. Her face was ashen as she stared at his bloody hands.
“My dear. Jewels only shine if I, the sun, allow them to shine.” Zhu Ming’s hands encircled her face. She could still smell her uncle’s blood on them. She forced herself to look into those eyes, “This way, you will shine only for me.”
The Phoenix Palace, Yue Kingdom
Away from the noise of the coronation was the Queen’s Pavilion. A beautiful complex of lakes and garden, elevated pagodas and viewing platforms surrounded by lush flowers in all colors. It was built for the queen-to-be.
Tonight she stood by the tall azalea tree that grew on the hill, looking in the direction opposite of the celebrations. Her pale face impassive. Often, she would bring her hand to her lips and cough, ignoring blood that would run down her fingers.
“Your Majesty, please come inside. You won’t heal if you don’t take care of yourself.” A maid begged. She held a long and heavy ermine cloak that Hua Er had refused many times.
Hua Er ignored the maid’s gentle pleadings. She didn’t deserve to live. She had killed Yu Zhu, she wanted to die.
Hua Er sighed, if she died now, the fragile bond between the two kingdoms would break. She couldn’t afford to die.
A pair of footsteps sounded. The maid turned to look and gasped. The man put a finger to his lips and waved his hand for the maid to leave.
Hua Er did not turn around as she felt a thick ermine cloak settle over her shoulder.
“Let’s go inside.” The voice was gentle.
Hua Er did not respond, only choosing to look into the distance.
The man sighed and turned her around. Hua Er’s eyes seemed as cold snow. She looked at the man briefly, “Your Imperial Majesty.”
“Zhu Ming.” The Emperor corrected. He took out a handkerchief and began to wipe the blood from her lips, “Even if you don’t want to marry me, you do not have to kill yourself.”
She took the handkerchief, “Thank you, your majesty. I can manage.”
Zhu Ming sighed, “Hua Er, you are to be my wife soon. Won’t you at least call me by my name?”
Hua Er turned around.
Zhu Ming felt so much anger he could barely breathe. He grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her around, “I know you love him. But is he worth dying for?” His eyes were red and wet as he continued, “He has promised you to me, accept your fate and be my wife. Let me take care of you!”
Hua Er said nothing, she coughed and more blood trickled out of her mouth.
Zhu Ming’s rage faded as quick as it came when he spied the ribbon of red. Hurriedly, he wiped it away, his hands shaking, “Haven’t you taken the antidote?”
“DOCTOR!” He turned and roared.
Li Sun appeared after a minute, his brow furrowed.
Zhu Ming’s expression was thunderous, “Why is the Queen still sick? I already gave you the antidote. What good are you?”
“Guards!” Zhu Ming called out.
“No.” Hua Er said softly, Zhu Ming turned to her immediately, “Li Sun has done his duty.”
“Then why are you still so ill?” Zhu Ming worried.
“Concubine Tan’s poison is strong.” Li Sun said suddenly, “The Queen needs more time to recover.” If she lets her self recover. He thought to himself.
Zhu Ming glared at Li Sun, “Leave us.” Li Sun sighed and left.
“You should be at the celebration.” Hua Er said, her voice as cool as the night.
Zhu Ming grabbed her hand, “I killed Minister Tan’s family for you.” He smiled, like a little boy asking to be praised, “They thought they would get away with it. I’ve sent a message to everyone that you are not to be harmed.”
Hua Er pulled her hand away, “Your majesty should not waste your time on me.” She walked slowly away.
“You are all I think about.” Zhu Ming said, his voice low. “From the moment I saw you, as an Emissary to the Dian Court all those years ago. But you never looked at me. You only looked at him.”
He closed the gap between them and hugged her from behind, “Hua Er, If you give me a chance, I can be the one for you. I am a young and healthy. I will always be by your side. He is dying, he has maybe weeks–”
A knife was at his throat in a instant, “One more word about Xu Long Hui, and I’ll dethrone you.”
Zhu Ming reluctantly let her go. Hua Er took a few quick steps and turned around, her eyes were emotionless, “Do not mistake my tolerance for acquiescence. Do not test my limits.”
She turned and walked away, a slender figure disappearing into the night.
*Music courtesy of TaiGekTou