“What’s taking you so long?! Hurry up! Clean the floor! Prepare new sheets for My Lord’s sleeping chamber! Mine as well!”
“Y-yes Madam.” I sigh, keeping aside the mopping cloth in my hands. Seems like I’ll have to clean the front yard and the gates later. I head over to My Lord’s sleeping chamber. I’ve always hated to be there. I know that he’s got something towards me. He’s always been looking at me inappropriately, pretending to accidentally bump into me often. But I can’t say anything, or the jealous Madam will take it out on me. Despite knowing that My Lord’s never a faithful husband, she chooses to defend My Lord than me, this lowly servant. She’ll lose face knowing that My Lord would rather touch me than sleeping with her. From what I’ve heard, it’s been half a year since My Lord summoned her to his sleeping chamber.
I carefully carry the new sheets over to My Lord’s room at the second floor. Luckily he’s not there, maybe out to do his duty as a government official.
I push open the windows, the sunshine breaks through. The fresh air seeps in, the smell soothing. I look at the silhouette of the mountain far away, starting to miss my parents. Are they still alive? I should be hating them for selling me. But I know, it’s for our survival. I might have died if I were to stay by their side. They too, would’ve died with me as an extra burden.
“What are you doing?” I’m snapped out of my daydream, turning around to find a black-haired brown-eyed girl, looking the same age as me. Her hair is half-pulled up, decorated with yellow ribbons while some delicate-looking white magnolia flower and pearl pins snuggle comfortably on her nest of hair. In her hands are some snacks I can never savor in my whole life, which name I could never memorize. She’s the only daughter of this family, the Leanne family, Lily Leanne.
“C-cleaning, My Lady.”
“Then clean properly!” She throws the rest of the cake on the floor before purposely kneading it with her foot, completely destroying what could’ve been a life savior to someone else. Smirking, she turns her back on me, giggling away as she exits My Lord’s sleeping chamber. I’m used to it, to people in this house bullying me. It’s already nothing, since they can’t come up with something new to torture me with.
I finish doing what Madam has asked me to, then move on to doing other senior servants’ work, then….mine.
“Jade!” A light voice, calls out my name from far behind. I turn around, finding a pale-skinned girl with freckles on her face, her eyes brighten up in delight.
“Rowena!” She lifts up her skirt slightly, running towards me with something in her rough hand, caused by too much house chores. Mine too, are no different. Rough, peeling skin with red patches. Sometimes, even in the winter, we have to wash the clothes out in the cold. The cold-as-ice water is tormenting, but we can’t help it.
“The kitchen lady gave me this! Let’s share!” She opens her hand, in her palm are two pieces of some snacks, which reminds me, I have yet to take my dinner due to how busy this whole day has been. I gladly take one, biting it, letting the sweetness explodes, creeping into every corner of my mouth.
“It’s so delicious!” She says, smiling. I return her smile, lifting the basket of dirty clothes up, holding it tightly.
“Washing clothes?” Rowena asks.
“But the sun has set!”
“I can still see. Now, I’ll go first!” I exit the huge house via the backdoor. Slowly pacing my way to the river, I overhear some people gossiping about the palace is going to hire more young palace-servants as the senior ones have been released. I always wonder, how big is the palace? How does the life of a palace-servant feel like? This house is the biggest in this province and I’ve never been to the capital. Like what they call, I’m just a mere frog in the well.
After I’m done washing the clothes and squeezing them dry, I hurry back as the night sky has fallen. I hang them at the backyard before running back to the servants’ sleeping chamber. Tomorrow’s gonna be the same, busy day as today.
“No! They want our Lily to go as the palace servant?! Never! She’s a government official’s daughter! How could she be considered as on par with those palace servants?! She’s definitely higher than them!” I overhear Madam screaming at My Lord. My Lord sighs, he himself not knowing what to do. He realizes that he’s just a lowly official, nothing comparable to those ministers and generals that he often talks about with his fellow government officials he invites to the house.
“But who else can go from this house?! They want every single house to surrender someone suitable enough to be the palace servant candidate! Lily is the only one suitable for that!”
“And you want to waste the upcoming concubine selection?! I’ve already been educating Lily to prepare herself for that! Ask any other servant to be the candidate! Anyone but Lily!” I gasp, my hand hits into the wall, attracting the attention of the two.
“Who?!” Madam shouts, her eyebrows furrow and her eyes sharp as eagles. She quickens her steps to me, grabbing my hand as I look up at her, scared.
“Jade?” She chuckles, an evil smile clearly evident on her face. She turns around to look at My Lord.
“Put her name in our family’s registry, we should send this little servant as a candidate.”
“N-no…” A faint whimper escapes my lips, my eyes grow wide as Madam glares down at me. In the blink of an eye, a shadow fast as lightning slaps my cheek. It turns out numb at first, then hot and pain follows. I look down, scared. Afraid. I try my best to hold back my tears.
“You’re the slave of this house. I bought you, now you listen to me and return all the favors you’ve owed me!” Madam pushes me down, letting me fall on the floor. My vision blurs as drops of tears roll down by cheeks, for real this time. I’m helpless now, I don’t want to go as a palace servant.
In the palace, where servants have to either stay in there forever without freedom or to be married off at a certain age where a woman has already lost all her beauty and glory, servants have no freedom. Not at all. You can’t go out of the palace walls without permission. And there’s almost no reason you can come up with to get the permission. Servants and guards in the palace are basically birds in steel cage with the lost key. Either burn the cage or they’ll die there.
Moreover, I’ve heard that the Emperor is someone who unhesitatingly orders any servants or commoners to his sacred sleep chamber. Even the Empress can do nothing about it. He’s the Emperor, the Heaven’s son. Who can go against him?
“Jade.” Rowena grasps my hand, noticing that it’s trembling. She tightens her grasp, pulling me into a hug. We both fall into silence, she sobs quietly, trying to hide it from me.
“I don’t know why is it me.” I ask her as she pulls herself away from me. We all know, the chances of every female servant getting summoned to the Emperor’s sleeping chamber is high. It’s really really high unless you’ve been personally assigned to serve his children and wives. But even so, once the Emperor has his eyes on you although you’re the Empress’ personal servant, you must serve him no matter what. This has been enlightened to the public every five years when they release the senior servants, who in turn reveal what life is like behind the walls of the palace. Most of them are no longer virgin and have lost their only value as a woman. They often become secondary wives of some lowly merchants, or even the wives of some poor farmers. Some don’t even come out of the palace alive.
No one wants to end up like that. Including me.
“The date of surrender is in two days.” She says. I know, I’ve been taught a little by Madam, mostly about how to be obedient and how to persevere. They are not important. What’s important is how to survive not being caught by the Emperor or how to avoid him.
I’ve been dressed in light blue, the uniform that the messengers had delivered to each houses before. It’s simple, specially designed so as to not reveal our beauty and cover up as much skin as possible. I’m currently waiting by the front gate, with My Lord and Madam putting a pretentious cry to show to public how much they dote me. To show to the palace official who will be fetching me later that I’m Leanne’s family’s daughter and how heroic of them to have surrendered their daughter as a servant candidate.
I hear the trotting of horses, the silhouette of several wagons appear from afar. My vision blurs again as tears start to swell on my lower eyelids.
“Don’t cry you little damned slave!” Madam pinches my arm, hard. I wince at the pain, biting back my scream. The wagon has carried many young girls. Some look unexpectedly delighted as they don’t know what’s ahead of them while the others look gloomy.
“Go, my dear Jade. Don’t forget about us.” Madam pushes me forward towards the wagon. The looks in her eyes clearly show that what she’s said earlier means something else. She wants me to return the favor if I ever become the Emperor’s concubine. It is possible if you’ve gained the favors of the Emperor.
I climb the wagon, positioning myself at the corner. Once the wagon starts shaking and moving, it’s time for me to realize that I should stop dreading my fate and submit to it, by surviving the palace life.
The shaking of the wagon stirs up dizziness among almost all the girls, after about half a day without rest, the capital city appears from the horizon. As we get nearer, twenty eight pairs of eyes belonging to the servant candidate widen in awe. We are all dumbfounded by the size of the capital, huge, extremely huge. My hometown is nothing compared to this. Maybe it’s just a grain of sand in a jug of rice.
The wagon moves forward again, entering the gate of the city. People bustling around in the market area, merchants moving around here and there, advertising their goods to potential customers with their loud voices, workers pushing carts and unloading loads of goods from wagons. Everything is simply fascinating.
But I notice that everyone on the streets are staring at us, as if we are weird human beings, weird creatures on display. I look around, everyone looks solemn, extremely disappointed that the palace is drawing near. I sneakily take a peek out of the via the front opening where the coachman is, seeing only bricks other than the coachman and the horse themselves.
“Come down! We are here!” A hoarse female voice orders us from outside the wagon. She’s probably old, around sixty, judging from her voice. Everyone in the wagon jumps down, and it appears that there are two more wagons at the back, all filled with servant candidates as well. I turn around, my hands unintentionally cover my mouth, my eyes widen as I’m dumbfounded. The palace wall. It’s… Extremely high, wide, limitless into the horizon. It’s impossible to escape indeed, seeing the number of guards they place at the gates.
Here, from here on. My life is already shaped. I can already predict my future, how I’ll stay here forever. Today, will mark the end of the hopes that I’ve been harboring for these fifteen years. The hopes where I, Jade Yeva or Jade Leanne in the government’s documents, would one day be free of my servant life.