I stare at the flowers which I’ve freshly picked from the Phoenix Garden. The drops of dew are still napping on the pinkish-white petals, indicating the freshness of the delicate flowers.
“What are you doing, Jade?” Cherry taps me on my shoulders from behind, causing me to turn around out of reflex. A broom and a pair of scissors are held in her hands firmly, readily.
“I’m thinking of placing these in Crown Prince’s sleeping chamber…to freshen the atmosphere. Be-because it’s always so gloomy in there.” I grip onto the stems of the flowers, however making sure that I don’t bruise them. Cherry smiles faintly, then raises both the broom and scissors up.
“Well, then I’ll go to grooming the garden.” She says, leaving me behind. I walk towards Crown Prince’s sleeping chamber before hearing another sentence from her.
“By the way, please change Crown Prince’s sleeping chamber’s sheets as well afterwards!” I hear Cherry exclaim loudly, before running towards the side garden.
My hands slowly push open the wooden doors leading to Crown Prince’s sleeping chamber. Dark as usual, I carefully close the doors as Crown Prince hates it when the doors are left open whenever he’s in the room. I squint my eyes hardly, trying to get clear vision as much as possible. The windows are tightly closed-almost locked. Plants are purposely grown at the windows to prevent any sunlight to further penetrate into the room, although maybe there’s little sunlight seeping through the gaps of the doors and windows.
My feet kick something that rolls away in return. Wine, I thought to myself. I lift up my arms, trying to reach the surrounding for guide.
“Why are you here?” Suddenly, Crown Prince talks in the complete silence, making me jolt, though luckily I don’t drop the flowers in my grip. With the flowers still in my embrace, I curtsy.
“Yo-your humble servant is here to… To… To place flowers in the vase…” I cowardly answer Crown Prince’s question, afraid that he may be angry at me for meddling too much with his personal space.
“Are you that scared of me?” He asks unexpectedly. I stare at the direction of the voice blankly, shocked and stunned. I’m practically scared of him, since he’s the Crown Prince. But, in a way, I’m not scared of him since he’s never punished me although I accidentally bumped into him the other day, causing both of us to fall down.
“N-no.” I lie. He chuckles, I can hear him gulp down more wine.
“You’re the first one to lie.” He says, clearly having seen through my lies through the tone of my words. My heartbeat speeds up, afraid of angering him.
“The others don’t even answer me.” He continues, my heartbeat slowly calms down, a sigh of relief comes out of me.
“It’s dark isn’t it? Go open the windows a little, do the flowers.” Crown Prince comments nonchalantly, back to drinking. I stand up straight, feeling the surroundings in the dark till my hands touch the windows. Opening it, my eyes squint at the brightness as they seem to have gotten used to the darkness in the past few moments. I turn to look at Crown Prince, finding him staring at me without blinking. I look away instantly, embarrassed. Grabbing a decent-looking ceramic vase with a tint of green, I place and arrange the flowers, making sure that the combination of colors are suitable and beautiful. Spotting a scissors nearby, I use it to cut off the redundant blossoms and leaves.
“What’s your name again?” Crown Prince asks suddenly, out of nowhere. I stop cutting, facing him and keeping my head low.
“Your humble servant’s name is Jade.”
“Jade… Jade…” He pronounces my name several times while I dare not move.
“Drink.” He lifts a bottle of wine to me, chucking it at my hand. I stare at the bottle of wine, startled and scared. “Drink.” He says again. I feel tears starting to build up on my eyelids as I’ve never drunk before, literally. “Drink, faster.” I grab the bottle of wine, closing my eyes as I take a sip. The strong taste of the wine overwhelms me as it spreads out on my tongue, causing me to cough them all out and gasping for breath. Much of the wine is spilled.
“It’s your first time drinking?” Crown Prince bursts out into laughter seeing my pathetic struggle for air after a mere sip of wine. It tastes horrible, really. Maybe I’m just not born for drinking wine, or perhaps my low status has made me so. I look at the laughing Crown Prince, perhaps it’s the first time I’ve seen him laughing ever since entering his palace. It makes him look several years younger than his current appearance.
“Today’s weather is so amazingly good, Your Highness.” A servant holds on to a delicate and glamorous-looking woman’s hands. She looks gentle and humble, barely radiating any arrogance aura, but purely kindness though she’s still a royalty. She looks up from her yard full of yellow flowers and colorful butterflies. The sky is in a beautiful color of blue, decorated by soft cottons of white clouds. She sighs and looks longingly around her garden.
“Where is His Majesty?” She raises her hand-her index finger to gently caress a yellow bloom, flicking it as she watches it bounces up and down gracefully, splashing tiny bits of dew around. Her servant is taken aback for a second before mustering enough courage to answer.
“Probably…at Consort Shine’s palace.” The woman pauses her movements for a while, her eyes blinking several times before she turns around to go back to her chamber.
“Let’s go back inside.” She takes a step before a Head-eunuch is seen entering her palace and approaching her with a group of eunuchs and servants following him.
“Please wait, Consort Lana!” The eunuch attracts her attention. As she turns around, she squints her eyes in disbelief at the face of the eunuch and the people behind who are currently bowing.
“Eunuch Fan?” Consort Lana hurries her feet to approach him. Delight is shown on her face, contrasting what her face was like before. Her servant is happy for her as well.
“Your Highness, the Emperor has ordered me to deliver these to you.” Eunuch Fan rotates his head to the right a little while another eunuch steps forward, in his hands are three red-wood boxes sealed tightly to protect their content.
“The Emperor has received tributes from the North, and he’s personally chosen the prettiest-looking dress and some jewelries for Your Highness.” He says honestly, using the most appropriate words. Consort Lana gestures her servant to receive the gifts and bring it into her chamber.
“It must have troubled you a lot. Please help me thank the Emperor, and say that I’ve prepared his favorite dishes and am waiting for him to come.” Consort Lana says without further inquiring. She grins from ear to ear, can’t wait for the Emperor to arrive.
“Certainly, Your Highness. Now, let me excuse myself.” Still in his bowing position, he takes three steps back before turning around towards the gate, leading the crowd of servants and eunuchs at the back to other palaces. Consort Lana hurriedly rushes into her chamber, urgently opens the boxes of gifts containing presents from the Emperor.
I stand outside the doors of the Crown Prince’s chamber, waiting anxiously. The Empress has just arrived several moments ago and immediately enters Crown Prince’s chamber, commanding every opening of his chamber to be closed tightly. She looked at me, her expression deadly and carries doubts. Recalling it sends chills down my spine as she’s the second highest-ranking woman in this empire after the Empress Dowager. I nervously fidget in my position.
Suddenly the door creaks open and the Empress’ servant asks me to go in. My heartbeat fastens as I enter the dimly-lit room, standing like a display object for the mother and son to examine. The servant closes the door tightly again, immediately reaching towards the Empress’ side. I curtsy
“Stand up.” The Empress commands, her tone cold and unfriendly. I stand up, afraid. As I look at the rarely sober Crown Prince, he stares at me like an empty shell.
“You’re to follow the Crown Prince out to deliver a package tomorrow. It’ll be a trip of three days. You must take care of the supply and every necessities.” Rather than a plead, it does indeed sound like an order. I simply say ‘certainly’ before being ushered out by the Empress’ servant. The doors are closed again while I head to the kitchen and storage room to collect the necessities. Cherry helps me with it although she doesn’t look too happy about me going out of the palace with Crown Prince. I think she may be jealous, but I sense something totally different from the way she looks at me. She’s been living in this palace ever since young, and her looks must have something got to do with what the Empress told me.
“Are you ready?” Crown Prince asks, his eyes not moving from his seemingly fast and strong steed. It’s a majestic brown horse with white fur at its hooves. It breathes heavily, as if it can’t wait to accompany the Crown Prince to yet another journey. Crown Prince himself is wearing a pitch black outfit without his crown while I wear a female commoner’s attire, still long and a little draggy.
“Yes.” I mumble, earning a look of confusion from him.
“I’m asking the horse… But it’s great that you’re ready.” I feel myself blushing out of embarrassment, though I know that no matter how hard I’m embarrassed, my face is simply pale. It’s never turned red except during cold weathers in the winter.
“I’m truly sorry.” I put all the blame on myself. I’m used to it ever since young although it’s become a daily routine since my admission to the palace.
“No problem.” He mounts his horse while I look around, confused. Am I supposed to ride another horse? But there’s no any. Moreover, I don’t know how to ride one.
“You can follow right?” Crown Prince steers his horse towards the forests. I’m dumbfounded for a second, before it registers into my brain that I’m supposed to run and follow after him while carrying all the necessities for three days. Being in and out the palace is simply tiring and busy, as long as you’re the palace servant.
The horse and Crown Prince are starting to get further and further away while my breath grows shorter and shorter. I slow down for a while to inhale more air before continuing again, though indeed my speed is slower than before. Sweat breaks and rolls down my temples, down my neck and drips onto the ground. Strands of hair start to break free from the simple palace servant’s hairdressing I tied them into. I can see him halting his horse and turning around, shouting at me.
“What’s taking you so slow?!” His tone carries annoyance. I gasp for air and drag the bags of necessities containing clothes, food and water.
“I’m…so-so…sorry, Crown… Pri-AAAAAAH!” I trip on a tree’s roots and fall on a thick bushes. I don’t even know whether to curse at my bad luck for having fallen down, or to thank my good luck for having landed on a bush. Then I hear the sound of horse trotting nearing me.
“You should’ve said that you can’t run after a horse.” Yet I thought that no human being can.
The bonfire crackles in the middle of the night, acting as a small source of light other than the moon and stars. I stand beside Crown Prince while he warms himself with the fire I set up. I secretly brush my hands together to create warmth.
“If you’re cold, just join me.” He says without looking at me again. I remain silent, probably he’s talking to his dear horse again. Then he turns around, his eyes looking at me.
“I told you, come and join me.” He changes his tone of speaking and words, making it into an order. An absolute order that I can never defy. I carefully join him in warming our hands at the heat of the fire, though I sit away from him at a distance.
“Isn’t it cold tonight?” He speaks up, breaking the awkward silence between the two of us. I somehow regret having agreed to accompany him in his journey to deliver some secret package.
“Yes. It is.” I reply, short and straightforward, not wanting to drag on the conversation between us. In fact, it should never exist. We just don’t connect in any way, especially our status.
I stare at the fire, my mind wanders aimlessly until it reaches a full emptiness. Thinking about nothing but simply looking at the fire that glows brightly. I sigh, hating the palace life, wanting to break free from everything.
“Where’s your hometown?” Crown Prince asks suddenly. I pause for a while, thinking about which hometown should I mention. My parents’, or the Leanne family’s.
“I don’t have one.” I end up with this vague, ambiguous answer.
“What? Why?” He asks again, his eyes clearly showing boredom.
“Because… I was sold by my parents as a slave…to another county.” I tell him honestly, since I can’t lie to him, my master, the Crown Prince. Lying will earn you beheading and I absolutely don’t want that. I can’t choose not to answer either as he is the Crown Prince, although it feels uncomfortable for me to answer his questions.
“You’re a slave? Then why are you in the palace?” I’m sure he’s currently disgusted by me. A slave is considered as a disgrace to the palace. Thus even a position as low as the palace’s clothes washer must never be those from the slave caste. It’s the lowest of all caste. The caste that has nearly zero chance to climb up even just one level in the caste system.
“I had to substitute my master’s family’s only daughter as the palace servant.”
“Does that mean that you don’t come to the palace willingly?” I choose to remain silent as the answer must have been obvious. Most people go to the palace as palace servants willingly to earn money for their family. Since I’m simply someone without a family, I desire only freedom.
A short twig is thrown at my direction, followed by the next one, and another one.
“No. I don’t.” Then the twigs stop coming at my direction.
“Are you happy?” Another question that’s hard to answer as both answers will surely leave me feeling uncomfortable. When another twig is thrown at my direction, I gather up my courage as I swallow my saliva.
“No.” Perhaps honesty is simply what I should submit to.
“Seems that people like you do feel unhappy being inside the palace as well.” I shoot a confused looks to him, but he just puts out the fire, ignoring me. I sit still for a while, trying to figure out what did he mean by ‘as well’. However, thinking that it doesn’t really matter, I lie down, turning in. The night ends just like that, both of us going to sleep in our own places, the roots of trees acting as our own pillows.
“You wait here and keep an eye on the horse.” Says Crown Prince, who’s currently tying a black cloth covering half his face below his eyes. In his hands are two packages containing some secret things, probably boxes with some more content inside. Although it intrigues me, I repeatedly tell myself that me, as a servant should not bother about my master’s personal life.
He vntures into the forest till he’s out of sight. I nervously hold my fingers together, standing by the horse that the Crown Prince dears a lot. He returns after some time as we both head back to the palace, he on the horse riding it slowly while I walk on my feet.
Consort Shine sits on her chair of her dressing table. With the help of her servant, she undoes her elegant hairdressing filled with gold decorations and a big, red flower. After that, her servant styles her hair into a simple but sweet half-tied hairstyle which makes her look youthful. Her hands reach into her drawers, taking out a pair of identical white hairpins. She positions the hairpins at the side, feeling satisfied as she admires herself in the mirror.
“How do I look, Jane?” Consort Shine asks her servant who puts on a smile in return.
“Your Highness looks very beautiful and young, just like you seventeen years ago.” Jane picks up a comb and straighten Consort Shine’s hair. The looks in Consort Shine’s eyes soften, her expression’s as if she’s longing for certain someone.
“I’m already old. Even the Third Prince is already twenty years old. Time sure flies, seventeen years have passed in the blink of an eye.”
“No, Your Highness. Your Highness will always be young.”
“Am I cruel, Jane?” Consort Shine asks again.
“No, Your Highness. It’s not your fault.”
“I just want to revenge, I’m not the one who started it.” Her voice softens as she caress her long and silky hair, missing her youth days. Then she continues.
“That person killed him. It wasn’t even his fault, but that person blamed it on him.” A tear escapes her eye, rolling down cheek even in a very graceful way.
“That’s why, I have to return the favor!”