“The life of a concubine is filled with pain and pity.”
That was what I had always been told as a child. I could almost hear my mother’s scratchy voice repeat this warning to me over and over again while I lay in the quiet Garden of Tranquility under the clear, warm midday sky.
Not even a breeze blew through to stimulate my senses. This particular garden was one that I both loved and hated most in the Pavilion of Concubines. It was a little ways away from our living courters and I was grateful for the lack of gossip and scheming that was prevalent in that hellhole.
This is the fourth year of me living in this gorgeous prison. Squinting up at the cloudless sky, I tried to think of any outstanding memory since I had entered the palace as a nervous 17 year old. I was not nervous to enter the mysterious palace; I had heard many stories from my mother of her own time as one of the previous emperor’s concubines that I felt like I knew it more than my actual home at times. I was nervous about meeting the man who sat on the most powerful throne in our kingdom.
A little, white butterfly fluttered above me, pausing to land on one of the blue lilacs near me. It reminded me of the simple white and blue dress that I had worn that day. The memory of it all washed over me like a wave:
It was raining that day. We all sat on our knees in the courtyard, hands folded in our lap, quietly shivering under the thick drops that soaked us through our once elegant clothing. My dark, curly hair laid flat against on my head, making the skin on my neck, face and shoulders itch uncomfortably. I heard sniffles coming from some of the other girls around me and I jerked me head to face the girl on my right, who had just let out startling sneeze.
She was about my age (they all were) and she wore a light, pink dress that was now glued to her tiny frame. Her pale milky skin contrasted with my chocolate brown complexion and her golden hair fell down her face in a mess of strands and tangles, probably due to her constantly trying to brush it away from her face futilely
No one turned to look at her like I had, all too preoccupied with trying to stifle their own sneezes and coughs, and I couldn’t help but feel bad for her when the Head Maid shushed her for letting out such an inappropriate sound.
Tradition dictated that all new concubines were meant to kneel in the Purity Courtyard for 12 hours, before being graced by the emperor and receiving their marriage gift from him. This rule was absolute and neither rain nor snow could change that. We were all to wear light dresses, no makeup and jewelry, with our hair hanging loose down our backs as a symbol of our pure and honest intensions towards the emperor and the kingdom.
So far I estimated that the 12 hours had long passed about 40 minutes ago, which made me clench my hands around the fabric of my skirt. Picking up my head slightly, I squinted through the heavy sheets of rain to look at the palace maids standing around us. Like us, they stood under this merciless assault from the sky above but their duty was to guard us to prevent us from running away or disrespecting the ritual. They would soon be our own handmaids once we were allocated our own rooms or smaller palaces, and most of them had served in the palace for half of their lives. They stood still and unflinching under the heavy torrential rain, probably used to treatment far worse than this. The stories I had heard of maids being tortured and possibly killed by their own masters and mistresses were sad enough to make me sympathise with their rigid strictness to follow the rules.
Turning my head back down to my lap, I imagined how my time in the palace would be for the next five years. Every five years all of the children from the noble clans were to enter the palace at the minimum age of seventeen. The girls were to be the emperor’s concubines and the boys were to serve in his personal guard, The Gold Army.
This mandatory time served was for the nobility to show their absolute loyalty to the emperor and the kingdom, being both willing to provide future heirs to rule the throne and lay down their own lives to protect the royal family. There were hundreds of noble clans in The Gold Empire, more than all the smaller kingdoms around us, and they were all equal to one another. Theoretically. Of course some used their positions in the court to garner more power and wealth, but none could refuse to sacrifice their children to serve the kingdom.
I already recognized a few of the girls around me when we entered through the Gates of Purity and I would make it a point to avoid most of them as much as possible. I remembered visiting their opulent estates as a child, faking the amount of fun I was having with my spoiled and rude counterparts. Not all of them were that bad but there were definitely a good number of them who may be evil incarnate in my opinion. I mean, who throws a plate at a maid for ‘being too slow to bring us snacks’ in front of everyone?
Scarlet Rose, that’s whom. She was the first person I saw when I stepped out of my carriage and I almost jumped when she slapped her maid sharply. She didn’t notice me standing there while she yelled something about her dress being crinkled and it somehow being the old maid’s fault. Scarlet’s cheeks were red with anger, a few shades lighter than her dark copper hair. Like all of us, she wore her hair down her back and the large curls bounced with her exaggerated head movements.
She wore a soft green coloured dress that flattered her lightly tanned complexion and I couldn’t see any crinkle on it from my angle. With a huff, she stormed through the large, silver gates to join the girls inside and her maid kept her head high as she walked to back to their carriage. There was already the red mark of Scarlet’s hand forming on her cheek and the few people around who had witnessed the interaction gave her sympathetic glances, but none approached her to offer said sympathies.
I groaned quietly at the thought of running into Scarlet before walking through the gates myself, thunder rumbling somewhere in the distance to warn us of the incoming storm.
The rain started about eight hours into our ceremonial kneeling and it kept increasing in intensity since. Now it had been thirteen hours and it was impossible to stop the wet snot that dribbled out of my nose. I sniffled painfully; wishing that out torture would end soon.
“Where is the emperor?” I’m sure all of the girls around me were thinking the same thing. It was unheard of for the emperor to be this late in meeting his concubines.
As if hearing my thoughts, the Head Maid stepped to the front of our group to announce in a surprisingly clear voice:
“The Royal Emperor and Empress wishes to give their sincerest apologies to you fine concubines. His Highness is feeling unwell and he is unable to personally see you all enter his palace. The ceremony will be held on a different day and you are all permitted to occupy your rooms in the Pavilion of Honour.”
The girls whispered their disappointment at this and I was also miffed at not seeing the mysterious emperor. If there was only one thing I wanted to gain from my time in the palace, it was to finally see the faces of our emperor and empress for myself. Even though we are all of noble birth, no one outside the palace had ever seen the faces of the royal family. Any time we were in their presence they would be sitting behind a thin screen or they would cover their heads with gold and silver silks, so my curiosity had enough time to grow overtime. All I knew was that they were both young and we were only the second group of concubines to enter the palace since he had inherited the crown.
I slowly stood up after the Head Maid gave short nods to the staff around us, my legs shaking from uncomfortable position they had been in for so many ours, and I brushed as much of my hair out of my face as I could to see where we were being led to now. The thin girl who was next to me took longer to get to her feet and she wrapped her arms around her torso to maintain some form of warmth, I suppose.
I must have been staring at her for too long because she jerked her head up to look at me. Her big, honey brown eyes seized me up from head to toe and she stumbled a couple of times from my distracting her. I tried to give her a smile but I’m sure it came out a lot creepier than intended because she quickly turned away from me and hurried her pace to walk further away from me.
Rolling my eyes at both her and myself, I let out an amused scoff and followed our line into the beautiful grounds of the Pavilion of Purity; my home and my prison…
“Kiva! What are you doing over there?” A sweet, high-pitched voice called out to me a couple of meters from where I lay.
Smiling at the butterfly, I shooed it away from the flower and jumped up to greet my closest friend in the palace.
“Enjoying this blessed summer weather, Shakes,” I replied cheekily. “Wouldn’t you like to join me?”
Marigold threw her head back, laughing at the familiar nickname, making her loose golden hair fall back behind her one shoulder. Her small frame was covered in a pretty green dress with a thin pink belt around her waist and matching pink floral designs decorating her skirts. I made my way over to her and she giggled between her words,”When…are you going…to let that go? It’s been four years.”
“When are you going to stop pulling me away from my peace to hear your gossip of the day?”
She let out a fake gasp. “That’s not all I come here for, liar.”
I raised my eyebrow at her, linking her arm with mine as we walked down the stoned pavement of the garden. We were the only people in this part of the pavilion, save for a maid here and there. Most of the other girls preferred to hang out near the many libraries and art halls on the other side as they were well-known to be the emperor’s favourite places to visit his concubines.
“Okay, today I have gossip but that’s just a coincidence!” she conceded. “Scarlet is pregnant.”