In the dead of the night, a lone silhouette sat by the window sill. Dusk had fallen, and the world was a melancholy shade of blue. Her thin, nimble fingers held a cup of rice wine, bitter like her heart, sweet like her lies.
The Empress was unwilling to acknowledge the truth.
"A life without regret was all I've ever wanted," she softly whispered to the ghosts. They sat by the corner of her room, watching her with keen, tired eyes.
The moonlight basked her body, but she bent her head and hid her face from it. It brought her too much guilt.
"Why did you have to leave?" she muttered to the spirit beside her.
They used to sit like this, in the still of the night, drinking liquor together whilst reminiscing of a life outside the palace. But now, her body was covered in ashes and dirt.
Memories came and went, like a tidal wave reeling in and out as she drowned herself with rice wine. A lone tear slipped down her face as she suppressed a sob. It was chilly outside, as her shoulders shivered.
The flower had withered, and she refused to bloom again. It had been too long, and her roots were poisoned with hatred.
"You promised to stay." Her voice cracked towards the end.
The Empress decided to quench her thirst with another cup of rice wine. This time, she lifted the cup to the window, and towards the gardens, where night orchids bloomed for her. Their fragrance was bittersweet.
"You promised we would be friends forever…"
The Empress squeezed her eyes shut and downed the cup. She poured another cup and lifted it to the sky whilst her other hand tightly gripped the chair.
"Here's to three decades of friendship, wise one."
One final teardrop, one final goodbye.
The Empress did not drink. She shakily brought it to her lips, only to smash the jade cup onto the ground. It shattered into pieces, like her scattered heart. Even now, she could still feel it. The ghost of a hand resting on her upper back, as comforting words were whispered into her ear.
"Nothing you do or say will turn back the clock," the Empress whispered to no one. She lifted her head and peered up at the moon. It had been a while since she was this upset.
The Empress had found the loophole in Lady Ge's story. It did not make sense that Lady Ge was poisoned in the late afternoon only to be discovered early in the morning. If she was by the pond for that long, one of the patrolling guards would've seen her at night. She was found near her estate as well. Who's to say the maidservants wouldn't have searched there first?
"You gave birth to something so precious." The Empress shakily bent down to pick up the broken jade. She flinched when it sliced her finger, as crimson red drops fell onto the forest green.
"Yet, I tainted it with sins and lies."
The Empress could never forget the look of horror on Lady Ge Beining's face the night she was tasked to poison the Imperial Consort. It was the first time her hands were stained with unwashable blood.
"You wanted her to grow up living a sheltered life outside of the palace, and away from the schemes… Yet you birthed her in the very place you despised."
The Empress felt something brush her cheeks. It was cold as ice and light as a feather, a fingertip she had dearly missed. If she squinted at the right time, she could see her.
Lady Lin Bingbing. Lady Ge Beining's mother was as beautiful as the day she died, with a sweat-drenched face, and flushed cheeks. The color slowly left her face shortly after she caressed her daughter's head.
"She wanted a life you could never live. I had raised her in that lifestyle you dreamed so dearly. I gave her the education of a Princess, taught her the elegance of a lady, and shaped her etiquette."
The Empress leaned closer to the window, with one knee bent on the chair. How long had it been since she last wept like this?
"But she goes along and creates havoc, just as we used to do in the Imperial Palace."
"Forgive her, please. She is but a child," a familiar voice whispered from beside her ears.
The Empress's eyes blurred with even more tears. Even in her death, Lady Lin found a way to influence the Empress's life. Even in her grave, she held a presence in this bedroom.
"Forgive her, as I have forgiven you for taking my beloved."
The Empress's head dropped low. She could never forget the day that Lady Lin stepped through the palace's corridors and captured the hearts of everyone she crossed.
And it just so happened, she had captured the heart of the Emperor. At that time, he was the First Prince of Hanjian, weak yet handsome, and she was the second daughter of a warlord, beautiful yet coy.
They were a match made in heaven. But Lady Lin's red string of fate was never tied around the Emperor's. She was just the daughter of a barbarian who lived in large, colorful tents.
"You were jealous of me," Lady Lin said. "The freedom to marry as I please…tease as I please…flaunt as I wish. So, you decided to take what was dear to me."
The Empress ground her teeth. She could still remember the days she ran after the free-spirited Lady Lin, who was as elegant as a swan and sharp as a snake. Back then, the Emperor favored Lady Lin for her beauty and wits. But the Empress was his destined partner. Yet, he played with Lady Lin, up until the day he was forced to marry the Empress.
It was when everything stopped. The affair, the sneaking, the lies.
"You took my beloved, and now my daughter," Lady Lin leaned her head upon the Empress's shaking shoulders. She closed her eyes and softly smiled. "The least you can do is take care of what you've stolen."
The Empress covered her face and continued weeping. Today was not the death anniversary of Lady Lin Bingbing, yet her presence still lingered in this bedroom. The bedroom was large and lavish, spacious enough to hold a gathering. Out of every place Lady Lin's spirit could have latched onto, it was this very bedroom.
"You've dirtied her hands, and ruined her future with that man. You let it get stolen by a foreign Princess, much like how you've stolen the Emperor from me."
The Empress could not bear to hear it any longer. Her heart was already broken into pieces, but this time, it would crumble to dust. It was just her guilty conscience talking, that was all. It was just the rice wine muddling her thoughts.
And when she stood up, Lady Lin Bingbing was gone. She came and left as she pleased. It was what she always loved to do in the palace. Lady Lin would strut down the hallways as if she owned it, as if this land belonged to her. And everyone loved her too much to correct her.
Everyone loved the highly-opinionated Lady Lin, whose tongue knew no bounds. She said things that could've gotten her killed, but people admired her beauty far too much. She was hard-headed and strong, but she was too prideful.
"It's not that easy to get rid of me…" Lady Lin whispered from behind the Empress. She slipped her hands over the Empress's shoulders and chuckled.
"I will never, ever forgive you if you let my flesh and blood ruin herself like this…"
Lady Lin's smile widened. She rested her cheek upon the Empress's dependable back. Her eyes were softly closed, in a peaceful slumber for the rest of eternity.
"You are wise, you are loved, you are more than just Her Grace… You are her mother."
The Empress shook off the ghostly touch. She brushed past the shards of jade on the floor and stumbled towards her bed. Her fingers merely grazed the blankets before her legs gave out.
She sank to her knees and wept. She wept for the woman who should've been crowned the Empress, wept for the mortality of her best friend, and wept for the irreversible guilt.
The Empress closed her eyes. "The Emperor was never yours to take in the first place, but this daughter of yours…was never mine to steal."
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