I cannot remember how I allowed myself to be put in this palace. I mean, I never wanted to be a concubine for the emperor, and neither did the nine other girls in this room. I am not saying we are the only ones, but we are the ones who were forced into this lifestyle, partly by our parents and partly by the ministry of the emperor. All the numerous others are glad to be here, so more luck to them, but we, on the other hand, cannot find it in the life of us the reason to want to be here. I think that is why we are all sharing this hall, not to mention our living quarters, to pass the days groaning and sighing as our ladies-in-waiting fix our hairs and fan our faces. However, I am curious as to why, for the past years that we have spent here, the ladies-of-the-court never ever think of sending us home. Maybe because that would decrease the number of concubines? Who knows, really. Only the emperor of China can answer that question.
All ten of us have been in this place for four years now. Why, you ask? Well, because we are all from the same city. I shouldn’t even call it a city; the population size is just too small. It is more appropriate to be called a large village; and out of nowhere one sunny morning, it was announced to us villagers that our village was being scouted for concubines for the young emperor. Anyway, in the village where we are all from, I have come across some of them at least once. It’s a good thing too because here I at least feel somewhat at home when I’m with them.
There, at the middle of the room, the three older girls, and I say older because they are older than my twenty-four years, pouts and mumbles to each other. They always seem to be getting along so well with each other; maybe because their age differences are not too wide. Pruma, the red haired beauty, is the twenty-eight year old daughter of a merchant who wants to handle her father’s business, but instead she has been sent here to become the emperor’s concubine. She was practically steaming with anger when I first saw her called out by the emperor. Even the ladies-in-waiting were scared to walk behind her violent stomping steps. Since then, the emperor rarely called on her. He only calls her these days when he needs someone to play chess with, and she is one great chess player. Celina, the long-haired brunette of twenty six years of age, sits beside Pruma writing a letter to her parents with pursed lips. Ever since the day we arrived in the palace, she has been writing them, asking them to take her back to the temple of Xiao Hou where she longs to be the head priestess. She is truly great in meditating and telling us about all sorts of things about spirits, chakras and the such. Rarely have I seen her burst out in anger as well, she is that good in controlling her emotions, although of course, she has her moments. For example, when the emperor was reportedly bombarding her with personal questions one humid afternoon, she just stormed out of his Majesty’s room. Nobody dared asked her just what question triggered the outburst, even to this day no one can bring up the courage to do so. Although, I believe she’ll eventually tell us. Then there is Ginwa, the twenty five year old who longs to marry a handsome young man whom she had promised to give her love for as long as she lived. She is such a romantic, that one, but most of us cannot resist her dreamy stories of escapades and sweet conversations with her love. She even tells the emperor about him. Only the heavenly gods know how he reacts to the stories. She would never tell us no matter how much we pry, but since she is still being called on, we assumed he does not take offense or even get angry at her. I personally think the emperor enjoys her stories like we do. We sigh and swoon and lean in close towards her when a kiss is coming, but she’d always crush it with something like ‘but then our maid came running and we had to pretend we weren’t doing anything special’ or ‘but then I would remember what my grandmother told me.’ At those times, I’d shake my head in disappointment, and even Pruma would comment on how Ginwa loved to leave us hanging in the air when the story was going just right.
The six others are lounging or playing cards or mahjong while their ladies-in-waiting ran here and there, trying to keep up with the requests. Rosario, a half-foreigner of my age, has the blood of a Spaniard warrior within her. As she laughs boisterously, even slapping the table–I am guessing she won again, for the third time today–I can recall the times when she would wake up early in the morning just to train. The ladies-of-the-court would get extremely angry with her when she would come back sweating and heaving like a warehouse labourer, but she’d only roll her eyes and scoff at them. Oh, I almost forgot about that day when she showed off her skills to the emperor; it was said that he was so surprised beyond words and two ladies-of-the-court who had been escorting her were absolutely shocked at her behaviour that they forbade her to go see the emperor until she has stopped her ‘manly ways’ as they call it. I’ve seen her in the village running laps around the parks and lakes and I always admired her; I still do. Lately, there has been no one scolding her, so I assume she’s being extra careful and extra secretive about her training. Rosario acknowledges it, too, that she has no plans of stopping her training for anyone; she only refuses to tell us how she manages to do it without anyone seeing her or catching her in the act. Across the table from her sits the twenty year old Min-Lei, who apparently is a direct descendant of the legendary Chinese warrior Xiao Ming–and very proud of it, may I add (even the emperor now knows about it)–accusing Rosario of cheating for the tenth time. She is such a loud mouth but we all love her dearly because she cries a lot too. No, she is not a crybaby; she’s just very emotional and when she is thoroughly upset or mad, she tends to cry even if she doesn’t want to. The two other girls playing with them, who are both seventeen years old, Talis and Vera, are trying to calm Min-Lei down while also trying to hide their annoyance at Rosario for winning again. For some reason, those two look alike even though they are not related. The same curly hair, only different in shades, and even the same mannerisms. For example, when you catch either one of them staring off into space, they are inevitably twirling their hair unconsciously. It must be because of the amount of time they spend with each other. They are like twin sisters attached at the hip; we barely see them apart. When the emperor asks for one of them, the other tends to get lonely and introverted, but they are actually such sweet darlings who both are amazingly good painters and dancers. Seeing them in their art together, it brings forth a feeling of contentment.
Severo, the bookworm, is sitting alone at the table beside the four. Books are piling at her left and right. She reads and reads and tells us about what she reads. I used to wonder if she was lonely deep inside, but when I see her face when she reads a book, there is always that twinkle in her eyes and the small smile on her lips as she comes across an entertaining character. She gets extremely animated when she retells the stories and the only one who doesn’t appreciate her extremely–and when I say extremely, I mean it takes us four hours to listen to one story–descriptive retellings is Min-Lei. Min-Lei would interject in the middle of the story and tell her to get on with the story. Once, both Pruma and Rosario whacked her on the head to keep her quiet. It was truly funny seeing that; Min-Lei, of course, made the entire room remember who she was by yelling out her family tree. The guards outside had called for the ladies-of-the-court thinking we were all fighting with each other. Then there is Alice, a girl of merely fifteen years of age, who lay sleeping on a red lounging chair. She is a fairly big girl who absolutely adores food. I had thought she was big because she is fond of food, but I recently found that her entire family are big people. I remember one time she was telling me that her father once forbade her to eat and when I asked her why, she told me that it was because she was too lazy. I don’t know if I would call her lazy after being with her for four years in the palace; she just doesn’t care very much about anything. She used to have a job before, when we were still in the village; she used to be a tax-collector. Tax-collectors were assigned to only three women who would have to dress up in thick layers of clothing to give off the impression of big bodied persons. Their faces would be painted white then they would wear black masks that would not even give a hint of their true identity. They would also wear those shiny, curly raven black wigs on top of their heads just to throw everyone off and so no one can guess who they are. It’s not because it was hard to guess or because the people hated tax-collectors, it was because no one cared, really. I still remember walking past them one afternoon and I remembered thinking, That’s Alice right there. I can easily tell because of that blank look she always has in her eyes. I don’t know why but over time I developed a really close friendship with her, as peculiar as her views are. I asked her a long time ago what she wanted to do if she wasn’t a concubine for the emperor and she answered me simply with one word, ‘Sleep.’ I think there is something beyond her beguiling words but I’m not even sure anymore. Sometimes I think the deeper meaning is there then sometimes I think she really did mean she wanted to sleep.
Looking at all of them, I remember all their ambitions and their goals for their own future and how they were all crushed the moment we entered the palace to become concubines for the emperor. Well, even Alice’s ‘sleep’ is a goal for her so it still counts. Sighing, I take a small sip of water as I shut my eyes, thinking I can have a short nap while waiting for the ladies-of-the-court to come and get one of us, or not. The other other women, who are all ecstatic to be here as concubines, occupied the living quarters far from ours. Of course, every day no one knows who the emperor will pick, but all ten of us can care less.
The emperor, Fy Song, is a year younger than me and although he has been educated into becoming a great emperor, it is evident that he doesn’t have much experience with women. Not even his good looks can get him anywhere. Those dark brown eyes and wonderful cherry lips won’t save him even if he tried. It’s something about his personality that nobody truly understands. He is such a shy person, or so we believe, when it comes to girls. He doesn’t really court anybody either. When he calls one of us, it’s only because he has to or he wants somebody to talk to or he’s bored out of his mind and wants somebody to bother. He has a habit of asking us women personal questions, from childhood days to our first loves. It’s something not all of us are willing to talk about, except for Ginwa of course, but there are limits when it comes to her lover as well. Yet I find that I tolerate him the most out of all of us in this room. He told me so, quite a few times, too. I think it’s because of my intuitiveness. It is, after all, what made me realize he has no interest in women.
I found out not too long after I have been assigned as a concubine. The two of us, alone in his room, happened to be talking about his friend, Chang, and that’s when I noticed it. Something about the way he described him to me, the way he had talked about their friendship that started years ago. Something in his mannerisms gives it away, too, no matter how subtle it is. Yet, after four years, only I know this fact. I have never thought of saying anything to the other women. They never ask, nor do they seem to even have an inkling about the matter. Thus, the secret remains between the emperor and me.
“Why don’t you tell anyone?” Fy Song had asked me then.
“Because I’m not obligated to,” I answered. Then I frowned, “Am I?”
He had laughed, giving me pat on the shoulder. “No one knows except you, Dalho.”
I had looked at him in confusion. “Not even your friend knows?”
Ah, how his reaction gave away his feelings that day. Since then, I ask him about Chang often but he replies as though we never had the conversation we did a few years back. I hate to see him that way, pretending he has no feelings for the man who protects his life day and night. I’ve only seen Chang in glimpses and personally I find him perfectly suitable for Fy Song, if ever he is interested in the emperor. He’s tall, with skin slightly darkened by the sun and he has that thin moustache that reminds me of my father. From far away, he looks stoic and he seems distant, but from what I hear from the emperor, seeing Chang face to face is a completely different matter. It is stressful to think about what the emperor feels whenever he interacts with his friend, Chang. It makes me sigh a lot; I wish I could help him, although I don’t know how.
“Ehem!” A shrill voice calls out above the chatter and breaks through my thoughts. “Where is Dalho? The emperor wants to see her.”
I sigh before getting up and straightening my dress. “I’m right here.” As I look towards the ladies-of-the-court I see their eyes looking at me with contempt for reasons I know too well; namely the displeasure of being concubines. My reason for not wanting to be here is my own secret; I must not disclose it. One thing I will say is that I do believe in destiny. I believe I have been chosen to come here for a purpose and until I find that purpose, I will try not to be incredibly depressed about the whole concubine idea.
Walking down the hallway between the two ladies-of-court, I get a peek of the setting sun for moments at a time in between the rich red curtains. My lady-in-waiting walks not too far behind me. Upon reaching Fy Song’s chambers, the ladies-of-the-court and my lady-in-waiting stands aside and opens the door for me. Passing through, I murmur a thank you before they shut the doors behind me. Raising my head high, I walk down the carpeted marble floor lined with soldiers wearing armours of gold. Finally, two guards open the inner doors into the emperor’s private rooms.
“Your Majesty?” I call out. I can’t see him from where I stand.
Soon enough, Fy Song comes out from behind a curtained archway, looking despondent amidst his purple and gold robe. “Dalho. I want to ask you something.” He walks towards the huge bed and sits close to the pillows, hugging one to himself. I follow him and I sit at the edge of the bed.
“What is it?”
“Can you stay here for the night?”
I frown. If he calls one of us, it automatically means we stay for the night, which means we sleep in his private rooms. With him asking me that question only gives me ideas of what he could possibly be troubled by. “Of course I’m staying, Your Majesty.”
He sighs exasperatedly. “We both know you don’t really call me that.”
I grin at his expression. “I was checking if you were still yourself.”
He frowns. “Why would you say that?”
“Why would you ask me if I could stay for the night when we both know the fact that I’m here right now means I am staying for the night?”
He opens his mouth, about to say something to defend himself I’m sure, but he doesn’t say anything and instead lets himself sink back into the pillows. “Something’s bothering me.”
I put my hand on his lightly. “I can tell.”
He looks away from me, blushing slightly. “Well, I don’t think I want to talk about it tonight. Let’s go have dinner.”
We eat the scrumptious dinner in good spirits, like old friends, teasing and laughing at each other. Yet he is constantly trying so hard to avoid the subject but even I could tell what the matter is. There is only one thing that can make him like this. As I watched him talking on and on about random court stuff while he lounges on the bed, I sigh quietly. I have to get him to talk about it.
“Fy Song,” I cut him off mid-sentence.
His smile is frozen on his lips while his brows furrows slightly.
“Tell me what’s bothering you.”
The smile dies quickly and the emperor looks away, troubling or embarrassing thoughts in his mind. “Well, it’s not really all that important,” he mumbles.
I stand up from where I had been sitting to sit right beside him. “Oh, come on. If it’s bothering you this much, then just tell me; I might be able to help.” I give him an encouraging smile.
He sighs and shakes his head from side to side. “It’s too embarrassing.” Slowly, his face turns crimson from the neck up. I almost laugh at his reaction. His face is too cute; I want to hug him.
“Try me.” I look him straight in the eye in all seriousness.
Another sigh from Fy Song. “Chang’s getting worried,” he mumbles.
I lean closer to him, quite sure I misheard his words. “What’s he worried about?”
Fy Song looks at me, shocked at my question. I think he gasped.
I frown at him in return; I don’t know why he’s giving me that look. “You said he was getting worried. About what?”
The emperor pouts and hides his face in his hands after telling me that that was not what he said.
“Oh, sorry. Then what did you say?”
Hugging a pillow to his face, he mumbles his words into it. I hardly recognise the words.
“What? I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
Fy Song looks up, his face burning. “Dalho, Chang’s getting married!”
“Oh.” That is really shocking. Mixed feelings are swirling inside of me and yet part of me is already thinking of a way to help the situation. Suggestions are at the tip of my tongue. Stop him then, you have the authority. Tell him to pick you. Announce your feelings for him for all to hear. Or refrain from doing anything and just let it go. Forget your feelings for him. You have your duty as emperor. But I refrain from voicing them out. I have to truly understand the situation at hand. “What are you going to do about it?”
He sighs yet again. “I don’t know. Nothing.” He looks at me with pleading eyes. “I know he has to marry but…” The tears came. I hug him close to cover the sobbing noise; if he cries too much, I may end up crying alongside him.
“Fy Song.” Seeing him cry for the first time was a truly scary sight to witness; I feel like he wants to kill himself for some reason. “Fy Song, listen to me.”
The emperor tries to hush his crying as he looks up at me.
“If this is going to make you do something unwise, then I suggest you tell him your true feelings.”
“Unwise? What do you mean?” he asks, confusion in his voice.
“I’m not giving you any ideas, and stop trying to change the subject. Just tell him, Fy Song.”
He resumes his crying as he hides his face on my shoulder once more. “I can’t. I just can’t, Dalho.” A sniff. “He’ll hate me. He’ll hate me for sure.”
As he sits there crying his heart out on my shoulder, I feel the tears form in my eyes. I have to be strong for him so I blink them back as I look up at the ceiling. “Well, you’ll never know that unless you try.”
And try he did. At least that’s what he told me two nights after our talk. He calls me again to tell me how it had went. I honestly am so surprised at seeing his expression. I can tell something good had come out of it. “It went well?”
He smiles sweetly at me as his eyes well up with tears. “I won’t stop him.”
I frown at Fy Song. I’m almost afraid to ask. “Are you sure about that?”
He nods and the tears fall down his cherry cheeks. He laughs as he grabs me by the shoulder and sits me on the bed. “You’ll think I’m lying if I told you.”
“Told me what?” I am thoroughly confused now.
“He knows but we both agreed. It’ll be alright.” He sniffed, then laughed once more.
“Tell me what happened already.” Judging from his ecstatic expression, it must be something wonderful.
“We slept together.”
I gasp in shock. “You did what?”
He laughs at my reaction. “Listen and I’ll tell you the entire story.”
I feel satisfied to have made him take action upon his dilemma. “I’ll listen to the very end.”
Fy Song smiles sweetly at me before he gets that distant look in his eyes. “As usual, he was visiting my quarters to check the area. I got into a little conversation with him.” He laughs bitterly. “I was only avoiding the topic of his marriage, however. Until the man mentions it himself. He was so serious about it that I had to joke around to delay what he would inevitably ask me.” He stops, breathing in deeply before continuing on. “Chang can be very blunt sometimes. He just went right out with it. ‘Is Your Majesty in favour of my marriage?’ It was awful. I couldn’t even face him. I mean, he was my friend. I did not want any ill wishes for him but I couldn’t answer him, Dalho. I couldn’t.” Fy Song hugs a pillow closer to his chest. “He knelt in front of me and then said that if I disapproved of the marriage, he would not continue with it.” He shakes his head. “Dalho, I couldn’t do that to him. Not ever.”
I nod and touch his hand gently.
“I told him to continue with the wedding and I was doing very good at hiding my feelings until he reached out and wiped a tear from my cheek. I didn’t know I was crying.” Fy Song’s eyes fills up. “I cried right in front of him. And you know what he did? He hugged me and said ‘I know how you truly feel and that is why I needed to ask.’ I must have looked pitiful. An emperor crying? What a hoot.” He smiles at me again and squeezes my hand. “Anyway, at that moment, I was at my weakest. I told him that I loved him. I thought he would hate me for sure for actually saying it, but he held me closer instead. ‘Know that I would be glad to return your feelings were you not under such scrutiny as an emperor. I do not want to endanger you by engaging in what our country considers a sin.’ Dalho, the happiness and the sorrow I felt at that moment, I don’t think I will ever forget the feeling. Then he kissed me.”
“Don’t go too much into details now.”
Fy Song laughs. “Of course. It happened all too sweetly but I would never tell anyone. Not even you.” He winks at me.
“Of course. Privacy is what everyone prefers.” I smile at him. “Curious as I may be at this moment, I would like you to stick to your word and not tell me anymore beyond that kiss.”
“Roger.” He gives me a mock salute.
“We should sleep.” I prepare the bed while Fy Song goes off to change into his sleeping attire.
That night, laying side by side, we stare at the ceiling. Thoughts are swirling around my head. “Fy Song, will Chang still be by your side?”
“Yes,” he whispers in the air. “Even though he will be bound to another, I will treasure what happened on that night. At least now, I can face the future knowing what he truly feels towards me.” He chuckles as he hugs me close. “Dalho.”
The room is silent for a few moments. “I’ve been thinking about getting an official empress too. For the country’s sake.”
I smile. “That’s a good thought. When are you planning to get married then?”
“Not so soon, maybe in two or three years’ time. I hope by that time, I’m mentally prepared.” We laugh at that. Then he whispers to me. “Will you marry me then?”
I remain quiet for a while; shocked. “What?”
“Will you marry me? I mean, you’re a very dear friend and I may as well keep you beside me.”
“Fy Song, do you know what you’re saying?” I sit up on the bed. He pulls me right back down and embraces me.
“Dalho, tell me what I can do so you’ll marry me.”
I thought for a while. “Will you let the girls go and let them choose their future?”
“Your pals?” He sighs. “I will miss them, but yes. They are an interesting bunch.”
“All the more reason to let them go, don’t you think?”
He leans his head closer to my hair. “I’ll do even that so you’ll marry me.”
I feel like I’m being used for substitute but I know better. I know Fy Song. “Okay. I will definitely miss the girls, too, though.” I sigh.
The room is silent again. “Really?” he asks.
“Yes, really.” I turned to pat his cheek. “But what are you going to do about heirs, dear?”
Fy Song let go of me promptly. “We’ll figure it out as we go along.”
I laughed before I gave him a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll figure it out.” I close my eyes, knowing that the rest of the girls are going to be back on their feet and walking towards their destiny. I guess my destiny is here in the palace, after all. I am the one who can help Fy Song fulfill his destiny.
“Thanks, Dalho. Goodnight.”
That is one of my short stories that come to me in a flurry. No plot thought of ahead of time, or any of the characters for that matter. Sometimes, the writer inside me just knows what words to put down and it just flows out like a river. That’s why I feel a special connection to this piece, but then again that’s how I feel towards most if not all of my writings. How do you like it?? =)