All of the characters in this story are actual historical figures. However, I do not claim to know what these people were like personally, whether by themselves or with one another. I was inspired by my study of Qing (Ching) Dynasty history.. I deliberately left out most of the names so I could focus on the dialogue and feelings. A cookie goes to those who can figure out who the people are.
22nd Day of the 10th Month of the Year of the Monkey (33rd year of the Reign of the Guangxu Emperor)
The air in her aunt's chamber was stifling despite the cool late-autumn weather with incense and body odor. Lan tugged at her collar, trying to loosen it as her eyes darted around the room. Her head was weighed with the ornate pins, flowers, and headdress secured around her bun, but it was a light load compared to the pain she felt in her heart.
Just the day before, her husband had died. The gods had not favored him with good health and he had suffered various ailments as a child that only exacerbated in his adulthood – a hardly fitting life for the Son of Heaven. How often had she prayed to the gods, or made sacrifices in the fervent hope that the gods would smile down upon him, and perhaps her husband would then smile at her. For nearly twenty years, she had prayed for this so many times she had lost count.
The almost inaudible murmur of the servants felt deafening to her, and her gaze flicked over at her aunt. Only a couple of hours ago, the Empress Dowager had the eunuchs put her on the throne so she could hold Court, however briefly. Wrinkles surrounded her eyes, but the irises were so dark as to seem black, and Lan swallowed as these eyes fixed on her. This wasn't the first time her aunt had fallen sick, but the elder had determination and will. She had to, given all the events of her life.
This imposing crone had once been a beautiful young woman, considered worthy of the honor of being part of the Xianfeng Emperor's harem. She had to deal with the fierce competition of the many concubines she had to share her husband with, and came ahead by giving her husband his only son – something even the then-Empress – now long dead – had been unable to do. Her husband had died leaving her a five-year-old that was expected to fulfill his father's duty even at that tender age. She had to contend with with the opposing factions that fought for control of the country even as foreign forces tried to destroy the country from within and out. Her son died, and now this long-suffering woman had outlived another generation.
The elderly dowager was still an imposing sight, her wig firmly in place, her jeweled nail-guards on the appropriate fingers, priceless jade and other gems hanging from her ears and wrists. Lan's eyes darted to a sudden movement, seeing her aunt's fingers twitch against the satin comforter. It was slight, but seemed to be beckoning.
She approached the dais, leaning down as she gently placed her hand over the older woman's.
"My life has not been easy." Aunt started, her voice sounding as if it took all of her strength simply to sound out the words, "Nor will yours be."
The younger woman started to shake her head. Her aunt had become better before, and would again! Lan did not want to think about what life would be like without the presence of the dowager. Aunt was a pillar of strength, a woman who did the best she could in a male-dominated world, dealing with adversity after adversity.
Heaven had not smiled upon Lan either, she had failed to bear her husband a child. Again, a heir had to be picked out from a different branch of the family. Aunt would just choose who she thought was best and then raise that heir. Hopefully he would have better luck than his three predecessors. She consoled herself with that thought, using it to distract herself from the reality that she was a widow. As a widowed Empress with no child – not even a concubine's child that she could adopt – what was her place in the grand scheme of the Ching Dynasty?
The odor of the incense was stifling despite the fact that someone had opened a drape. Her head was hurting, and she was feeling slightly nauseous. There was another smell lurking on the fringes of her consciousness. Aunt's hand was cool, and her breathing was labored.
"You will get better. You must. Is there anything I can get you?" Lan whispered. The seemingly countless eunuchs and servants would fetch the dowager anything she wanted. But she had already turned away the bitter-tasting medicine offered by the doctor and declined even the sweet teas and treats that were offered to rouse her appetite and strength.
"All the things I want... nobody here can give them to me. I... tried my best. Heaven cursed all those that I cared about... still care about." The old woman's dark eyes were filled with sadness, something Lan had seen all too often in private moments. The younger woman sighed quietly.
"You do your best. This I know, since you are my teacher. The gods have not been kind, but we cannot help ourselves if destiny cast us this lot." The course of the Empire had already been set before she was born, determined by the acts of Emperors and foreign rulers long dead. Her aunt's husband and then son had been handed the throne to a struggling empire, and her own husband despite his best efforts was unable to save the dying dynasty. But nobody had the courage to voice out loud that the rule of the Manchu appeared to be headed in the same direction as the Han-ruled Ming Dynasty.
"Jingfen..." The younger woman looked up at the mention of her childhood name – the name that she had left behind years ago. She had thought no one would ever utter that name again, and strangely, it was comforting.
"I only wanted you to be happy. And my nephew as well." The old woman looked up at her for several moments, and Lan looked away for a second. Nearly twenty years ago, she was a fresh-faced bride, with the highest hopes for her future. It had seemed like a good match, and Lan had been honored that her aunt considered her worthy of being Empress even though there were many women more beautiful and graceful than she. Guangxu was shy and polite, with a friendly if a bit nervous disposition.
Despite what seemed like a promising start to the marriage and a husband who seemed pleased enough with her company, he drifted away. She knew that was due in part to his frail health and the stresses of being Emperor to a strife-laden country, and she had tried her best to comfort and support him. But whether out of embarrassment or revulsion, he sought comfort elsewhere. Lan had done her best to not make him feel pressured about siring a heir, but it was impossible to ignore the subject, even more so when the young Emperor faced teasing from his uncles or cousins, or even gentle reminders from the well-meaning Empress Dowager. She had even hoped that the concubine he liked so much would give him a son, just to ease his worry. No such luck there, of course.
"I know. I've watched you struggle for so long. Everyone blames all the troubles of the country on you. I assure you, do not worry over my troubles." She squeezed the thin hand. She felt angry with her aunt's detractors. How cowardly and simple it was to use her as a scapegoat for their woes! Never mind that the foreign devils helped themselves to China's treasures, or that the rulers or ambassadors of these foreign lands lied to and took advantage of the country's woes or that people conspired from within to undermine the Ching Dynasty! "Please, be at peace. You need your rest. Clear your brow of worries."
"I wish I could, but the time has long since passed." The older woman picked up her free hand, gesturing to her forehead. Lines were visible from the slight frown on her face. Her hand dropped to the blanket.
"Are you cold?" Lan asked.
"I don't feel anything." Aunt's voice was distant, and the other woman felt her stomach constrict painfully as she caught the peculiar odor in the air again. It was dark, musty, even... rank. She shuddered. "Pray that Heaven treats you more kindly than it did me."
"Now, please, don't..."
"The Son of Heaven could not hold back death, what makes you think I could?" A bitter, wry smile appeared on Aunt's lips before she made another come-hither movement. The putrid odor mixed with the smoky incense filled her nostrils, almost suffocating her. She didn't bother hearing what her aunt had to say to the head eunuch as she quickly turned around and fled the room.
The night air was almost like splashing her face with cold water, and Lan took a deep breath as she stood outside, blinking as she saw her breath came out in a misty wisp. The garden spread out before her, but she was in no mood to appreciate its quiet beauty. Commoners envied those in the Forbidden City, talking of the treasures and luxuries beyond its walls, but they would never know the frustrations of Courtly life, of the pressures of someone in her position, and the sadness and misery that seemed to hound anyone who came to live within the walls of this lavish estate.
The smell of wet, dead leaves lingered in the air despite the fact that the gardens were swept and raked every day. But Lan found the earthy smell to be comforting. It was real, a natural smell compared to the manufactured scent of perfume and incense.
She barely noticed the temperature, standing still as she felt a faint, nippy breeze on her cheeks. Several moments later, she heard footsteps approach, slippered feet padding across the veranda. The eunuch dropped into a bow, and she turned her head, barely hearing his words.
All she could register was that the last remnants of a struggling dynasty was now her problem to deal with. She knew bleakly that she would never be able to restore the dynasty to its former glory, and that China's troubles would only exacerbate as the years passed. Her aunt had known it despite her best efforts. It had frustrated her husband to no end and contributed to his early death. Still, she would take an example from her aunt and do her best.
"Very well. Start the preparations." She already felt tired as she thought about what she would have to do.
"Yes, Empress Dowager."
It felt funny being referred to as that. For nearly twenty years, she had simply been the Empress. She was the quiet one, content to let her aunt and husband have the attention. She had just become the highest-ranked woman in the Forbidden City – and more than that, since she was now Regent to the two-year-old boy that had just been named Emperor. But she had no one to share it with, no true friends, no one she could trust. The luxuries of the palatial surroundings merely served as a shining screen that concealed the miseries of countless souls, especially the women and eunuchs. The title of Empress Dowager was hollow to her. It offered no reward she wanted, no solace from the crushing loneliness of her life. She slowly turned around and went back inside. The servants and eunuchs dropped into bows, just as they did for the woman now dead in the elegant, canopied bed.
"All hail the Empress Dowager, may she live a thousand years!"
Lan had to stop herself from rolling her eyes at that. However many times that was said, no one lived even a hundred years. Lives began and ended, dynasties rose and fell, nothing lasted as long as anyone wanted it to.
"I wouldn't want to live a thousand years of this life." she muttered.
"Pardon, your Majesty?"
"There are many things to do." Lan waved her arm dismissively, wishing to be alone. There were so many people in the Forbidden City, servants and eunuchs alike. It seemed that everywhere she turned, there was always at least one lurking in the shadows. Several remained in the room to attend to the dead woman. Lan went back to the bed, looking down at her aunt. The face she had come to know so well was now devoid of quite a few wrinkles, the expression relaxed in the peace of death. Her husband had a surprisingly similar expression, She could not help but feel a bit of envy, that this peace be so... complete.
It was tempting to go after that same peace. She could hang herself from the rafters or swallow poison, but that would be the coward's way out.
Lan pulled away from the bed. Like the servants, she had a lot to do. Hopefully, it would serve as some distraction to the pain, grief, and resentment of her life.