Wu Zhao knows what they say about her.
They say that she is so cold, her touch burns like frost.
They say she had the clansmen and officials killed, so that no one would be left to challenge her, she who had the Mandate of Heaven.
They say that if her liver were cut out and fed to a dog, it would die from the poison in it.
They say she killed her own daughter, and falsely accused Empress Wang, so that she might rise in the Emperor’s favor with her rival’s fall.
They say she killed the deceased Emperor, the Son of Heaven, her own husband.
They say she is evil, unnatural, and cruel.
Some of these things are true. But everything she has ever done, everything she has ever sacrificed, she has done for the people. If it would serve them to cut out her own beating heart she would do it.
It is not her fault that other people's hearts are so much more useful, still beating or not.
When one aims to grasp greatness, everybody is expendable.
It is Shangguan Jing'er who makes her think of it, angry Jing'er who had grown tired of being smiled at behind men's hands, tired of the condescension and veiled insults. She could not kill everyone who displeased her, after all. Stupid, lazy officials were better than no officials at all.
When Wu Zhao had summoned her, Jing'er had come before her in an official's sober robes and futou. Of course she often wore men's riding dress, as did many of the court ladies, but this was different. It was the futou that made the effect work, Wu thought, transforming fierce, awkward Jing'er who had never quite found her place as the Empress' secretary into a creature neither male nor female, but wholly commanding and nearly beautiful.
Jing'er blushed at Wu's arched brows, but said nothing, and Wu said nothing, either, although she thinks of Jing'er, boyish and strong, later that night.
If she asked it, Jing'er would come willingly. She might even want to, although Wu is not entirely sure the girl knows yet what she says with her eyes.
But the Empress is never alone. There are always guards within earshot, ready to fight off assassins; always a flock of women ready to provide anything she wishes for, except privacy.
For Wu, the arts of the bedchamber have always been a weapon and a defense, no more; the heart did not come into it. Jing'er, for all that she has already done in service to her Empress, is still somehow pure, her heart whole. And Wu knows already what people say of Shangguan Jing'er, the Empress' favorite (the Empress' bitch). Wu will not repay her loyal service so poorly, not without cause.
(They say she repays loyalty with betrayal. They say she has no conscience.)
So Wu keeps her silence this night under her silk quilt, and thinks of Jing'er, that youthful devotion in her eyes; the curve of her breast under her white silks and the sleek fall of her unbound hair; and the clean line of her cheek under the black official's hat. For a brief moment she is a woman and not a ruler.
And afterwards she thinks: if I were Emperor, they could not say that I do not have the Mandate of Heaven.
This is what the Empress would tell the gossips, if their lazy slander were not beneath her notice:
Her skin is as warm as anyone else's; her heart beats like anyone else's; her breath flows in and out like anyone else's.
Why would she kill all her enemies, when the threat of death only drives open dissent into secret rebellion? Is she to be held responsible for what the Chaplain, in his own holy wisdom, might have done?
Her liver is like anyone’s, the seat of her cloud-soul. To suggest otherwise is slander, foulness in the mouths of good people.
What kind of unnatural mother would strangle her own daughter? There were witnesses who saw Empress Wang near the baby. Would you question the justice of the Emperor himself?
The deceased Emperor was ill for so very long. Did she not mourn with all the court? Did she not dutifully accept the regency for her son, as has always been the custom? (She might, if the slanderer is the sentimental kind, contrive to remind him of how she wept all those years ago in the convent when she saw the Emperor again. It was not so hard to summon tears, with a little dirt quickly rubbed into the corner of the eye.)
As for the rest, well, let history decide. All she has done, she has done for unification.
"If the Empress wishes it, Jing'er will stay." Jing'er's eyes are averted, her head bowed as she kneels. She is the image of a perfect servant, her every phrase correct. It took years, and an Imperial command, to convince her that, in certain times and places, she might meet the Empress' eyes. (Jing'er has beautiful eyes, large and bright, the deep brown of a blackbird’s breast; Wu sees no reason to deprive herself of the pleasure of them.)
"I have not commanded it," Wu says, wondering if she has overestimated Jing'er's innocence.
"In this, the Empress does not need to command," Jing'er says. And then she looks up--and yes, Wu had been wrong. Jing'er had always known exactly what her eyes had been saying.
"Leave us." Wu pitches her voice to carry, and her handmaidens bow and flutter away to the outer chamber.
There are many things she could say, but instead she takes Jing’er’s hand and draws her up, and then to the bed. In the mirrors lining the chamber they are reflected a thousand times over in fragments: the pomegranate red of Jing’er’s skirt; the coiled crescents of Wu’s own hair piled like clouds at her temples; the fragile-seeming curve of Jing’er’s shoulder; the glint of light off gold and turquoise hair ornaments; their hands, clasped together.
The next day an official catches fire during an inspection; it is swift and incomprehensible. One moment he is sweating in the midday heat, bouncing awkwardly on the horse he does not know how to handle: the next he is aflame, screaming, and Jing’er has kneed her horse into his path, slamming into his horse to turn him away from where Wu sits her mount, too stunned to urge it out of the way.
And then he is nothing but black ash, crumbling and swirling away in the silent breeze.
He is not the first. He will not be the last to die so, either, but it is the last day that Jing’er will look up at Wu with such pure, uncomplicated love in her face.
Later, Wu will regret bitterly that she did not know to treasure that moment, with Jing’er’s hands brushing against hers as she cupped the bowl of soup, and then the dove’s breast softness of Jing’er’s cheek under her fingers.
She calls for the Imperial Physician, but already she knows it is too late. There is so much blood, staining the Chamberlain’s robes. The Chamberlain had always been meant to die, when he was no longer useful, but she had never meant for Jing’er to die with him.
When one aims to grasp greatness, everybody is expendable. O, what a fool she had been! She drew Jing’er into her lap, commanding the courtiers pressing in about her to leave.
Blood trickles from the corner of Jing’er’s mouth, scarlet as the skirt she wore, that night which seemed a century ago. Her eyelids are painted blue still, her brows colored red, but under the paint she looks gray and ill. She clings to Wu’s wrist, but her grip is weak, and her voice shakes as she gasps out, “Jing'er doesn't know: is it appropriate to ask the Empress of Heaven about one matter?”
“During your life,” says Jing’er, “have you actually truly loved one person?”
Wu cannot answer at first, the words stuck in her throat. Of course she has loved--Jing’er most of all, and she had thought Jing’er knew that. She had thought--well.
Jing’er’s cheek is soft to her touch, still warm, and it seems impossible that she can be dying. Wu tries to smile, still stroking Jing’er’s face. “I have. It's just that the price was very high.”
Jing’er can barely hold her eyes open now; her lips have lost their color. “Was it worth it?”
Wu’s eyes blur with tears, real tears; she needs no artifice to cry for Jing’er, who says again in a faint, broken voice, “Was it worth it?”
She meets Jing’er’s eyes for the last time, and says with all the feeling she has ever had, “It was worth it.”
Years from now, when she is the Sacred and Divine Emperor of all under heaven, founder of the Zhou Dynasty, the only woman to wear Imperial yellow, Wu Zetian will look at slim young Liulang, her latest favorite. With his cheeks rouged and lashes darkened like a woman, he seems a beautiful creature neither male nor female. He will smile at her, hip cocked, lashes lowered. The courtiers think she is a foolish old woman, believing he and his brother want her for more than the favors she grants them. They are wrong: she knows exactly what she is to them, but she is the Emperor, and if she wishes to have beautiful boys in her bed, she will.
She will remember Shangguan Jing'er: her pale face clear of cosmetics, her sober black futou covering her bound-up hair, and her unplucked brows drawn together in a familiar scowl.
She will think of Jing'er and she will almost order Liulang to go wash his face. Almost.
But here, in this moment, Jing'er is the only person under heaven who is worth anything to her. Jing'er's eyes slip closed; her head falls limp and heavy against Wu’s breast, and Wu closes her eyes and weeps.
But a branch in the wind cannot find peace,
Even tears of blood will not bring her back
-Wu Zetian (trans. Hui-Shu Lee)