“Queue up and register your presence! Then line up as you’re told inside!”
It doesn’t take too long until it’s my turn and I line up following what the previous people have done. After all hundreds of candidates have lined up, the female servant with a little bit more elaborate hairdressing and uniform, probably the head-servant here stands up and talks with a loud and clear voice.
“As all of you have known, you’re all not yet servant. There’ll be training starting from tomorrow to judge how fit each and everyone of you are, to be the palace servant. It may sound low to all of you, but palace servants are supposed to carry elegance and grace in handling chores, especially when the palace is holding a banquet or ceremony. There should, and must, be no flaw ever or even nine lives are not enough to save you.” The head-servant pauses for a while before continuing again.
“Training will only be carried out for three days. In those three days, you have to perform your best in order to be shortlisted as servants. The best of the best could be chosen as new servants for the important figures in this palace, such as the concubines, princes and princesses. The ones with bad performances…” She pauses again.
Can go back home? Can we go back home?! If we can, I’ll purposely perform badly!
“Will be downgraded to clothes washer until you’re released from the palace.” Her lips form a smirk, eerie enough to scare all the girls around and create goosebumps. Wash the clothes? Of all chores that I’ve ever done in the Leanne family before, washing clothes is the hardest chore to do, especially in the winter. The freezing cold water is unbearable and you’ll have to wash and wash and wash again stained clothes to remove the stains. They must be perfectly clean, especially when this is the palace. And seeing the humongous size of this palace, I believe that the number of clothes to wash is innumerable.
“But before all of you are led to your chambers today, standing by my side will be your instructor for the next three days.” The head-servant stands aside, letting another seemingly high-ranking servant to take her place.
“My name is Manda. Call me Head-servant Manda. I don’t tolerate unpunctuality so make sure that before the training starts, each and everyone of you are already here. Unpunctuality is recorded and you’ll immediately be downgraded to clothes washer.” Everyone looks down, stealing glances at each other. It’s nothing different from war, a war of smaller scale, a war of survival, a war for a better life among the servant candidates.
“Now all of you follow me!”
I scrape off the dirt in and out of the jug, making sure that there’s no scratches and it’s shining clean. This is one of the training. Waking up early, so early that even the sun hasn’t risen up yet sure is really tiring, especially when I did not sleep well. I look around again, everyone is busy doing their work. Some has even made friends, while I’m just a lonely bird at the corner, trying not to offend anyone, trying my best to survive.
“Hi.” A girl approaches me from behind, squatting down with me as we both clean our own assigned jugs.
“Err.. Hi.” I look at her, she looks innocent, like a gullible fifteen years old, as if she knows nothing about the world.
“I’ve always wanted to talk to you. We were in the same wagon, remember? I sat in front of you.” Now that I pay attention to her face while trying to recall again, she does look familiar. I smile and nod my head. She returns my smile with a bright grin.
“My name is Autumn! What’s yours?”
“Uh… Jade. My name’s Jade.”
“You have such a nice name!” It’s the first time someone has ever praised my name, not even Rowena has before. It feels like butterflies are surrounding your heart as spring arrives. Warm and happy. I can’t hide the joy in my eyes.
“Thanks, but you have a really graceful name. I like it.” I reply. We both smile and continue cleaning the jugs, washing it over and over again with water and handing it up to Head-servant Manda.
I’ve made a new friend. Probably I’d never be able to make one if I were to stay at the Leanne house. This palace sure is big, probably there’ll be more to it. Maybe I can know a lot more people, make more friends and acquaintances before being released and married off. That’s still at least ten years more. I can take my time and worry about it when the time comes.
“These two girls are impudent. They dare to talk back to their instructors. How could I let these kind of people be passed as the palace servants? Palace servants are supposed to be the best servants in our empire. They are the ones with the best behavior and actions, the most efficient and obedient of all. These girls who dare to talk back and badmouth those of higher ranks, should just stay in the clothes washing department!” Head-servant Manda announces to all of us with stern tone and blade-sharp glare, making sure that no one dares to repeat what the two girls have done. I look at them, both kneeling and sobbing. Their lives are practically over. Clothes washer are not paid much, yet they work the most and the hardest. They are pulled by the guards away to the clothes washing department as they scream for forgiveness. The life in the palace sure is merciless. I secretly glance at Autumn, her hands are shaking as we all are. Scared. All of us are scared, scared to be clothes washer.
“How much I want to be the servants of important figures in this palace.” Autumn says with her jaw resting on both her palms. It’s currently our break time and is already the second day. The Head-servant Manda sure is amazing, favoring no one and praising no one. She doesn’t raise the hopes of anyone, everyone has equal chances of being the higher ranking servants. She says nothing about our performances, her lips are glued tightly. Only at the end of our training will she reveal our results.
“Tomorrow’s the time. I hope both of us will stay together. I’m afraid of being alone in this big palace. It’s big but it makes you feel lonely if you know no one.” Autumn continues. I nod in agreement, we both stare up at the sky. Today’s sky is dark, gloomy as the grey clouds have gathered. The wind is growing stronger as well. The weather is turning bad, as if it’s trying to give us an omen that something really, really bad is happening.
All the servants are gathered. Today is the final day, the day where the decision is passed down. According to the tradition, of hundreds of servant candidates, twenty or more will be sent to the washing department, ten or less will be upgraded to higher ranking servants while the rest have to work their way up from the bottom, praying that they don’t go otherwise. I grip my skirt, praying in my heart that I would not be downgraded as the clothes washer. I don’t mind being the normal servant, as long as I’m not the clothes washer. Head-servant Manda goes down the row, trying to recognize faces as she pulls some of the girls out of the line. She walks nearer to me and stops by my side. Looking at my face, her eyes sharp like an eagle’s. I hold my breath, looking down.
Then she walks past me and pulls the girl behind me out of the line.
“Those that I’ve pulled out, you’re going to the washing department.” I heave a sigh of relief. My heart may not be able to withstand the pressure that I’ll be going through in the upcoming ten years. I look at where Autumn’s standing. She’s still at her position, which means we are both either safe or lucky. I look at the newly chosen clothes washer, their faces are filled with devastation as if they’ve lost their meaning of life. They can no longer smile, yet they can’t cry here either. It’s a terrible sight.
“I’ll be announcing the people who’ll be going to serve the important figures in the palace next.” The competition starts now.
“Consort Lana, Rain.” A girl gasps, her face is filled with delight while the other girls look at her in jealousy, wanting to destroy her. Head-servant Manda continues, after about four girls, she calls out the name I’m very familiar with.
“Third Prince, Autumn.” I look up at Autumn, she’s smiling brightly and I’m happy for her. Maybe I’ll just be the normal palace servant and work my way up from the bottom. I start to daze into a point while Head-servant Manda continues.
“Crown Prince, Jade. That’s all. Those chosen as higher ranking servants, follow Head-servant Delia here. Those in the washing department, go with Eunuch Snow and the rest, follow me!” I look up in surprise. Everyone else as well, they look at me, amazed. The girls look at me in jealousy and envy, but I notice that those seniors that have been in the palace for quite some time, in their eyes are pity. I wonder, am I supposed to be happy or otherwise?
“Amazing Jade! You’re serving the Crown Prince!” Autumn approaches me as we both walk towards Head-servant Delia, the one from the other day.
“Maybe.” I’m starting to worry, what do they mean by those pity looks?
As we all crowd around Head-servant Delia, she points to the gate which we all are not allowed to go near during out training days. It’s the gate that leads to the other places outside of the servant chambers here. I’ve never seen what’s outside of here, and I’ve been dying to.
“You all can now follow me to your posts in the palace. As all of you are now serving the important imperial family members, you’ll have to stay in their own palaces. It’s your honor as they may reward you with gifts if you serve them well. Now, follow me!” We all walk behind Head-servant Delia. When the gate is opened, my eyes widen in surprise. The palace sure is not a place to be joked with. The intricate designs of each building and pavements, the fences, the big pots of flowers and bushes and the walls dividing the inner palaces and the outer palaces, all are built and taken care of properly. The guards are always standing by each gate and doors, some are patrolling. And at the vast empty field, I can see some servants bustling around, rushing to do their chores. Some are the higher-ranking servants, some Head-servants and some normal palace servants. We follow Head-servant Delia pass the smaller gate to the side of the palace and walk further in.
“Here is the Seventh Princess’ Palace. Ann, go in.” The servant with the smaller build bows to all of us and goes in after confirming with the guards. I see another higher-ranking servant fetching her inside, bringing her into the Seventh Princess’ chamber.
As we move again, pass another gate, Head-servant Delia comes to a halt and curtsies. All of us follow her as well. I look around to see what’s going on, and notice a crowd passing through. There is a sedan chair in the middle, surrounded by a mass of guards and servants. On the sedan chair is an astonishingly beautiful woman with intricate and delicate hair ornaments. Her clothes are made of silk with bright colors such as orange, yellow and pink and she’s fanned with two big peacock tail fans. She must be an extremely high ranking imperial family member. After the crowd has passed, we all stand up again. Then Head-servant Delia turns around, reminding us.
“That was Consort Shine. She’s currently the Emperor’s favorite Consort and therefore, don’t ever offend her. This doesn’t mean that you are allowed to offend the other imperial family members. You should never offend any of them if you still dear your head.” After telling us this, she walks again, sending each of us to our master’s palaces. I happen to be the last one to reach my assigned place.
“Crown Prince’s palace is furthest away from the Emperor’s palace. Thus you are the last to arrive. Go in, there’ll be someone who’ll guide you about what to do inside.” I bow to Head-servant Delia and goes in. I look at the closed gates of this palace and at the two guards standing outside. They look at me, curiously. This is where I’ll be living from now on.
I look around nervously, noticing that this place is quit deserted for someone titled as the Crown Prince although indeed it is more lavish than the Leanne’s house. The flower pots are carved with intricate curvy designs but the flowers are…wilting. The wilted ones are not even being removed. The leaves on the pavements and grounds are not swept. And more importantly, no one comes out to fetch me and instruct me on what to do.
Feeling curious, I quietly walk around, pushing the dark-brown colored wooden doors open. The creaking sound breaks the silence of this place, inside of the doors is a dark place even the sunlight can’t penetrate.
“Who are you?” Someone taps me by my shoulders. I gasp and jump forward, my heartbeat picks up it speed as I turn around slowly, finding another servant looking down at me.
“N-new…servant.” I say, almost whispering. Her eyes widen, surprise is evident from her facial expression. I can’t even tell whether she’s elated or shocked. Probably a combination of two.
“Oh heaven’s!” She helps me up, but pulls my hands strongly into her embrace. She jumps happily, laughing like a child though she does look younger than me, maybe around two to three years younger. Her hairdressing is messed up and she excuses herself for a while to touch up. I help her with it. I notice that all this while, she’s been holding on to a mopping cloth.
“So, what’s your name?” She smiles while grasping both my hands in her palms. She emits happiness, so much that tears are swelling up on her eyelids.
“I’m Cherry, oh my heaven! It’s such a good thing that you’re assigned here!”
“What’s the ruckus, Cherry?” A deeper, hoarser voice arises from the dark. Cherry gasps and stands up, immediately lowering her body to a curtsy.
“Greetings, Crown Prince.” Cherry keeps her head low while I immediately follow her in a frantic movement.
“Gre-greetings, Crown Prince.” I can feel him staring at me, stare of curiosity and ignorance.
“Who’s she?” The Crown Prince asks, his body leaning towards Cherry. I want to look up but the Palace’s regulation for the servants state that servants are not allowed to look at their masters in the eye while curtsying. It’s considered as insolence.
“A new servant.” Cherry answers, short and simple, straight to the point. We are both still in our curtsy position, afraid of moving even just a little inch. My knees start to hurt as I’m not used to this position much.
“A new servant?” He chuckles, his tone full of mock. “What’s that wench thinking about, taking twelve away, giving back only one? I’d rather she gives me none than only one.” He laughs, a laugh full of bitterness and contempt. It leaves me questioning but I should not meddle myself with the imperial family’s life. All I should do is merely serve well, hope for rewards and leave this place immediately, forever.
“What’s your name?” Now he points at me.
“Your humble servant’s name is Jade.” He steps closer to me, standing directly in front of me. He chuckles again.
“You must be the one with the worst performance then.” He continues, before heading out of the poorly-lit room. That leaves thousands of questions clouding my mind. At the door, he pauses as he turns around.
“Ah… I forgot. Rise.” He speaks, shortly. Then he walks out of the door while me and Cherry stand up, gladly. I rub both my knees while Cherry smiles at me. I look at her, amazed that she’s not even faltered by the curtsy position she has to do for that amount of time.
“You’ll slowly get used to it.” I nod, holding both my hands together, waiting for instructions. I clearly know nothing about what to do, or what to start with.
“We have a lot to do, be prepared.” Cherry quickens her way to the door, gesturing me to follow her. Now, I really don’t know what to do in this Crown Prince’s palace, where there are only two female servants to attend to the seemingly-arrogant Crown Prince while at the same time having to clean and do the chores of this huge palace as well.