A Forbidden Happiness - Chapter 42 - B_ellthekat95 (2024)

Chapter Text

The girl next to her probably thought Jiayi was a lunatic. For the entirety of the time she sat at the back of the swaying carriage (she was a maid once again; it would be presumptuous to sit inside), she had been staring down at the painting in her lap—a plain, unadorned painting of a hand holding a bundle of yellow and white asters. That was it. To an outsider, it was nothing. To Jiayi?

It was everything.

Jiayi put down the brush and lightly waved her fan across the wet paint.


She turned the painting around and slid it across the table.

"What do you think?" She asked.

Prince Han peered closer at the painting. His fingers hovered over the flower petals. He let out a breath and looked at her, "Asters. For patience?"

"Devotion," she blurted out, quite shamelessly, "And long-lasting, uh, oh,"

Jiayi was shameless but not shameless enough to finish her sentence. Prince Han pinked delicately before smiling. He stared back down at the painting before saying, "It's perfect,"

Prince Han put the painting to dry before setting a fresh sheet of parchment on the table and pulling the bowls of mixed ink closer.

Jiayi pinched a chopstick–a stand-in for the flowers they didn't have–between her pointer finger and thumb. She pressed the hand against her chest.

"Is this good?" She asked.

Jiayi felt awkward and unmoored. She had painted plenty of portraits but had never been the subject of one. Prince Han tilted his head this way and that and said, "It's fine, but I could use a closer look,"

Prince Han held out his hand. They had held hands for what felt like millions of times to Jiayi, but it still made her heart jump when they touched like this. Jiayi bit back a smile as Prince Han gazed deeply at their entwined fingers, his sword-calloused palms making her hair stand on end. All too soon, it came to an end, and Prince Han picked up the brush and began painting. She and Prince Han chirped at one another every once in a while but mostly sat in a silence that surrounded Jiayi like spiced honey.

As comfortable as she was, Jiayi remained alert, burning every facet of Prince Han into her brain. It would be some time before she had a chance like this again.

Most likely, it would be her last chance. She didn't want to miss a thing. Jiayi selfishly hoped that Prince Han's talent didn't extend to the arts. She wanted this moment to last as long as possible. Unfortunately, Prince Han was finished before she had had her fill. Prince Han set down his brush.

"Just in time," he said, glancing at the window, "I almost ran out of light,"

Jiayi started at the deep orange of the setting sun that shone through the paper window. It had been hours since Prince Han started? How could that be?

"How is it?" He asked.

Prince Han slid the painting across the table. Jiayi looked down and felt her breath stop short. There, clenched gently in her fingers, was a pink jasmine. She looked up at Prince Han, eyes wide.

At the sight of her face, his fell.

"It's too much, isn't it?" He reached over to take the painting away, "I just–,"

"No!" Jiayi near screeched, snatching the portrait away, "It's just, um, I was surprised,"

"So, it's not too much?"

"No," she replied, her face so warm she was sure her ears were blushing, "Never,"

Enduring love.

And Jiayi had thought the asters were too forward. Before she could start kicking her feet over the memory, she folded the portrait neatly and tucked it into her blouse. The edges poked at her skin, but she was glad for it.

After a rough welcome from the guards at the front gate, Jiayi walked as quickly as she could toChengqiangong. This time in the afternoon, there usually weren't so many of The Emperor's women strolling around, so Jiayi thought she would be back to visit her mistress in no time at all, only to see Anpinand Wangchang zaiwalking towards her.

Jiayi shifted herself to the side and kneeled so their retinue could pass by. It was a surprising sight, only because Jiayi rarely saw Wangchang zaioutside of the morning greetings. Frankly, Jiayi barely remembered she existed most of the time. Like all of His Majesty's women, Wangchang zaiwas beautiful even though she looked a bit awkward in her first-class attendant garb. She trailed behind Anpinhunched over, shoulders brushing against her ears.

"You there, aren't you Xiangmeimei'sgirl?"

"Yes, Your Highness," replied Jiayi, glancing up.

"Oh thank goodness you're here!" Anpinsaid, "Stand up, quickly!"

"Is something wrong, Your Highness?" Asked Jiayi, confused by the urgency in Anpin'svoice.

"Meimei'sbeen so listless since her accident! I tried to get Degui feito send for you, butmeimeididn't want to bother you,"

"Your Highness–What accident?" Jiayi asked, interrupting Anpin'sbabbling.

Anpincovered her mouth with her handkerchief, "Ah, it was so horrible...I'm not sure if I could speak on it again. Weiwei," she called, staring at the short-faced maid by her side.

The blood in Jiayi's veins turned to ice as Weiwei recounted Xiangpin'sbrush with death and the unlikely culprits.

"Xiangmeimeistill isn't back to herself yet, but I'm sure it won't take long. His Majesty practically chained Hwangtaiyito her bedside, and I pray for her, often,"

"Thank you, your Highness," Jiayi said, fighting back the tears in her eyes.

"Thankfully, it wasn't worse! Shenjiejietold me she sent A'Fang down there to pick a few plum blossom branches right before this all happened. And A'Fang is so clumsy, it's a shock she didn't fall in as well!"

Shenhuang gui fei.

Of course.

"Your Majesty,"

The Emperor looked up from his papers and down at the eunuch kneeling by his side. He bit back a sigh at the sight of the tray of tablets held before him. He was in no mood for any simpering. He waved the eunuch away before going back to his work.

A quiet sigh came from behind him.

"Something to say, Zhang Wei,"

"This slave would not dare," his eunuch replied.

"You've already come this far," The Emperor replied, "Speak,"

"Your Majesty, I worry for you. You serve the country day and night and take little food or tea. And now...well, you haven't flipped a tag in days. How will your body survive this?"

"You're very dramatic this evening, Zhang Wei,"

"Your Majesty, the sun set hours ago, and you still haven't called for dinner. Please don't continue like this, I beg of you,"

While The Emperor would've liked to write Zhang Wei's concern off as whining, there was a tightness between his shoulder blades and right between his eyes that kept getting sharper and sharper as time passed by. A trip to the back palace wouldn't be remiss, but he would fall asleep the moment he folded into anyone's bed, and he wanted to see Huifen the day was through.

"Fine," he said, placing his brush on the holder, "Call for dinner,"

Zhang Wei nearly fell over in relief as he bowed, "Right away, Your Majesty,"

Before Zhang Wei could do so, a eunuch arrived, announcing that Anpinhad prepared dinner for him. The Emperor shrugged and nodded his head. Zhang Wei peered mulishly as An pin's maids decorated the table with an array of modestly painted plates.

"Your Majesty, wouldn't something from the Imperial Kitchen suit your appetite more? This food looks very...common,"

Zhang Wei wasn't wrong. Anpinclearly didn't have a great hand in the culinary arts. Slices of meat were cut awkwardly and seasoned vegetables were laid sloppily on the plate. Sauces looked to be too thin or too thick for their desired dish and The Emperor could tell with one glance that a plate of shrimp was overcooked.

"I've eaten rougher than this many a time," The Emperor replied, allowing his eunuchs to poke around in the dishes with silver needles, "It won't kill me,"

If Zhang Wei had feathers, they'd be flying, "Your Majesty! This servant is too delicate for such jokes! Just the thought makes my heart stop!"

When each dish was confirmed to be cleaned, The Emperor picked up his chopsticks. The first bite was underwhelming, but that couldn't be helped. Anpinhadn't come from any great place. Food like this was as luxurious as it could get for her. She was young. She would learn. Musing about Anpin, however, made The Emperor think about her newest shadow.

"What of Wangchang zai?" He asked, chewing a rubbery, too-salty slice of beef.

"There's nothing much to her, Your Majesty. Perhaps Jiang'spindeath left Anpinlonely, and she's found comfort in Wangchang zai,"

The Emperor found that hard to believe. While he wasn't mired in the muck of the day-to-day lives of his concubines, he was neither deaf nor dumb. Wang chang zai perfectly invisible to the others in the back palace. The chances of her randomly coming across Anpinwere low.

"Has she paid respects to Royal Mother, lately?" Asked The Emperor.

Zhang Wei shook his head, "The Empress Dowager hasn't gone back on her word to cut ties with her,"

The Emperor washed down a dry bite of fish with a mouthful of wine. The situation was odd. Could Wangchang zaitruly be trying to slither her way back into his good graces after so many years? Was it possible that she had decided to try her luck again after he discovered that she was sent into his bed to spy on him on behalf of his Royal Mother?

No, Anpinwas lonely and foolish, and Wangchang zailatched on like a leech. He found it unsightly, but there was no point in interfering.

"How is Huifen?" He asked, changing the subject to something that wasn't so annoying.

"Hwangtaiyisays she'll recover but it will be slow. The water has stagnated Xiangpin'sqi. It will take time for it flow freely again,"

The Emperor grunted, the food in his mouth tasting more and more like ash. He hadn't released Yian or Yihe as of yet.

"Ah! But her maid recently returned and they say Xiangpinis in much better spirits now,"

The Emperor laid down his chopsticks and beckoned over a maid so he could rinse the taste from his mouth.

"I'll visit her," he said.

"Of course, Your Majesty," replied Zhang Wei, "Will you be spending the night?"

The Emperor would've preferred to, but knowing Huifen, she would work herself sick trying to cater to him. No, it was better if he didn't.

"We'll return here,"

As Zhang Wei brought his cap and cape, The Emperor stared down at the half-eaten food that was being cleared away.

"Find something appropriate from the recent tributes to give to Anpinas a thanks for her efforts,"

"Of course, Your Majesty,"

The trip toChengqiangongwas long and boring. These days, boredom stuck to him like a shadow when he wasn't attending to state affairs. Besides visiting Huifen, he went through the motions with his other women, going as far as to confuse them with one another if they were too fresh. Huifen needed to get better soon. A trip to the Summer Palace was well overdue.

Fearing an announcement would startle Huifen, The Emperor silenced his eunuch and entered the courtyard. As he entered the side hall, he heard the soft timbre of her voice through the door.

"This medicine is so bitter," she complained,"Death would taste better than this,"

Turning the corner, he caught one of Huifen's maid scolding her, "Your Highness, please don't joke about that! It's too ominous!"

"I agree," The Emperor said, walking into the room.

Huifen's pallid face lit up at the sight of him, while her servants dropped to their knees. Before she could attempt to stand, The Emperor sat next to her in bed and pressed a hand to her shoulder.

"Don't strain yourself," he said.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," said Huifen, gathering her dog close, "It's so late in the evening. What brings you here?"

"I heard that you were in a cheerful mood today, so I came to visit,"

Huifen pouted, "I was until I had to drink this awful thing. Your Majesty, can't you order your doctors to make it taste better?"

Even so sick, his Huifen was still as playful as ever, "How about this," he said, wrapping his arm around her, "I'll have my kitchen make you some candied fruit to chase away the bitterness,"

Huifen dipped her head, her cheeks flushed with health, "I thank Your Majesty for his grace,"

Having had his fill go Huifen, The Emperor eagerly returned toYangxindianto retire for the night only to find Anpinin his warming room.

"It's late," he said as he passed her on the way to his bedroom.

"I just wanted to thank you for your gift," she replied, following after him.

"It couldn't wait until the morning?" He asked, allowing her to unravel the silk ties around his neck.

She slipped the cape off his shoulders and when he sat down on his bed, kneeled down to remove his boots, "I was just too grateful, Your Majesty. I've never had anything so fine in my life,"

The Emperor watched as Anpintook great care in making sure the milky nephrite bangle on her wrist didn't scrape across the wooden platform of his bed. Fine? That thing was no more than a bauble. The Emperor had never noticed that Anpinwas a bit of a country bumpkin. She was quite a simple girl.

"And I thought," she continued, "That perhaps, I could ask–,"

Fighting back the urge to roll over and ignore her, day clothes and all, The Emperor stroked her forehead, "I'm too worn out for that. Zhang Wei will bring you back to your palace,"

Anpingasped, her cheeks pinking before she shook her head, "Oh! I wasn't asking for that, Your Majesty! I wanted to ask if it would be alright for Wangchang zaito move intoChuxiugong,"

"This is the sort of thing The Empress should decide," he replied.

"I know, but Her Highness has been very busy and so has Shenhuang gui fei. I don't want to disrespect The Empress by just moving Mingxia in,"

The Emperor stared down at her, confused. Mingxia?

Anpincontinued her chatter, "I understand that it's silly to bother you with this, but we've grown very close. She's the only one i've been able to talk to sincejiejie'saccident and even though there are a couple of second class attendants in my palace, it doesn't compare to what we have,"

Ah, right. Mingxia was Wangchang zai'sname. He hadn't heard it in some time. That woman had become close enough that Anpinwas using her name? Honestly, The Emperor was far too tired to care at the moment.

"Why not," he said, pulling Anpinto her feet, "If it would comfort you,"

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Anpin, throwing her arms around his shoulder, "You don't know what this means to me,"

To the Emperor it meant finally getting some peace and quiet after a long day. Anpingleefully let one of his eunuchs escort her out, and The Emperor could, at last, get ready for bed. His servants surrounded him, pulling the heavy silks and brocades from his body.

"Do you think Wangchang zaiis trying to start trouble using Anpin'skindness?" Zhang Wei asked, buttoning The Emperor's sleeping clothes.

The Emperor didn't bother responding to such a foolish question. If Wangchang zaiwanted to strike flint during a storm, she was welcome to do so. In the end, the mess would be The Empress' duty to clean up, not his.

A Forbidden Happiness - Chapter 42 - B_ellthekat95 (2024)
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