A dull ache throbbed at the base of Zhao Ming's skull. 'Oh, my head…' She hadn't yet opened her eyes when the sobs of a girl reached her ears. "Young Madam, you must wake up. How tragic it is, your loveless marriage."
"Master hasn't even visited once in the three months you've been in this coma. No matter what's keeping him away, you're still his wife. He should be here," the maid lamented, tears flowing.
Zhao Ming's mind raced. 'Young Mistress? What's going on?' For a fleeting moment, she considered this might be the afterlife.
After people die, they are believed to go to heaven or hell. Where is she now? Who is crying and mourning for her so miserably?
'Did I really die or... No. It can't be a dream.'
Because the painful memory of her death was still vivid to her. She wasn't the sheltered Young Mistress, surrounded by luxury and affection. Nor does she have anyone to mourn like this for her.
Rather, she was Zhao Ming, the daughter of the esteemed military doctor, Zhao Bai. A lineage defined by unwavering dedication to their country. The Zhao family had selflessly served for generations, but their reward?
Betrayal, public humiliation, and a cruel demise.
Zhao Ming had inherited profound medical knowledge from her father. But rather than serving the people, her heart had other plans. She fell deeply in love, forsaking her legacy for romance. Her beloved was no ordinary man but Ji Cheng, the Crown Prince.
As the daughter of Zhao Bai, the trusted military doctor and physician to His Majesty and confidant to the old emperor, her union with Ji Cheng was both a tale of love and destiny.
While their marriage was arranged by the Old Emperor, for Zhao Ming, it was a matter of the heart. The moment she laid eyes on Ji Cheng, she was captivated, entangled by a love that was both instant and profound.
Betroned by the old emperor to be with the Crown Prince, Ji Cheng, she had hoped for a love story.
The first time Zhao Ming laid eyes on Ji Cheng was in the old Emperor's chamber when they were young. She was instantly smitten, feeling a depth of emotion she had never known. Yet, despite her genuine affections, he remained indifferent and cold, never even sparing her a glance.
Their first meeting, in the old emperor's chamber, had been a whirlwind.
She had hoped, perhaps naively, that time and patience would soften the edges of their relationship. But the events of their wedding night dispelled those rose-tinted illusions. Instead of the gentle intimacy and understanding she yearned for, she was met with his blood-shot gaze and forceful actions, making her feel less like a cherished wife and more like a mere possession.
Still, she rationalized this might be the norm, unfamiliar as she was with the dynamics between spouses.
The loneliness that followed was a stark contrast.
Shortly after consummating their union, Ji Cheng departed for war, leaving his new bride to fend for herself in the sprawling palace. Newly married, yet left isolated in her vast chambers. To her, the palace felt like an unfamiliar maze, echoing with eerie silences. Without Ji Cheng by her side, its grandeur became oppressive, each shadow hinting at unseen threats.
Her love ran so deep, that she endured the constant belittling from her mother-in-law or even the servants who were treated better than her. Her background wasn't noble; she was the offspring of a military doctor, not of royal lineage.
In stark contrast, Ji Cheng's new consort, Xiao Li, a princess from another kingdom, was celebrated and pampered.
With the old Emperor gone and only the Empress Dowager left, Zhao Ming found herself cornered, her respect dwindling. But after being crowned as the Empress of the Ji Dynasty, she wore her title-like armor, hiding her vulnerability.
She bore the indignities, hoping that one day Ji Cheng would see her worth and return her love. But love betrayed her, once again.
Instead, she encountered betrayal on a fateful night by the pond.
Pushed by an unseen hand into the watery abyss, she found herself sinking. Although she knew how to swim, it was as if her senses betrayed her. Her thoughts were hazy, her limbs felt numb and heavy, and her vision was clouded. The water around her grew darker as consciousness began to slip away.
The cold water enveloped her, and as she sank deeper into its embrace, fragments of her past began to flicker before her eyes like a disjointed movie. There she was, a young girl full of hope and dreams, staring with adoration at Ji Cheng.
The saddening moments of silent yearning, the sting of his indifference, the whispered cruelties from other consorts, and the sharp rebukes from her mother-in-law. Each memory seemed to pierce her heart anew, reminding her of the love she offered and the pain she received in return.
The overwhelming weight of her unfulfilled desires and shattered dreams dragged her down, and the encroaching darkness threatened to swallow her whole.
Her last thought was a desperate yearning for Ji Cheng's affectionate gaze, but death claimed her first. Before she passed, her last memory was of suffocating darkness and the bone-chilling cold of the water.
It was downright eerie and terrifying.
Upon awakening, memories of her past surged, causing a sharp pang in Zhao Ming's heart. Who could harbor such intense animosity towards her? She hadn't wronged anyone, so why this?
Her past love had cost her everything: dignity, family, and life itself. She didn't even know who her enemies were in that treacherous palace.
What comforted her was that she was free from that palace—a place that had stifled her every breath and drained her joy with each passing moment.
Beyond its walls, even hell would seem a heaven to her.