Having stayed in the Crown Prince’s palace for five days, I come to realize that all this while, the one who does the cooking, cleaning and serving the Crown Prince is Cherry alone. The one who does the other rough work is Crown Prince’s lackey, Mal, Cherry’s twin brother. From what they told me, Crown Prince took them in to repent for his sins when his subordinates accidentally killed their parents during an expedition. They hated him to the core at first, but are now the most loyal followers of him.
It still amazes me how hard it must have been for the two ever since young. It may have been hard on me, but they have entered the palace since young as servant and lackey, which is unimaginable to me.
I hold onto the shaft of the broom, sweeping the leaves slowly. The sun has just risen, so the sky is still fairly dark. I take a look at the door leading to the Crown Prince’s chamber.
“He has it harder. He was accused of a crime he never did, yet he’s being punished like this. Consort Shine, the one in charge of the palace together with the Empress, suggested to the Emperor to take away all the Crown Prince’s servants and put him here, the furthest palace away from the Emperor’s. Even the Empress can do nothing about it although the Crown Prince is suffering. Of course, it’s because Consort Shine is the Emperor’s favorite. That’s why you see that this palace is deserted and empty.” I recall what Cherry told me. So he’s an abandoned Crown Prince, no wonder this palace is unusually deserted and silent, even more silent than the Leanne’s house.
I don’t quite understand why Consort Shine must treat the Crown Prince this way. But perhaps, each has their own reasons, which others can’t and don’t know. I sigh, trying to brush away the useless thoughts and continue sweeping. The leaves fall endlessly, the dust that has accumulated seem impossible to be removed.
The silence I’ve been enjoying is suddenly pierced broken by the creaking of the wooden door followed by light footsteps approaching.
“What are you doing just lazing around! Go in and tidy up my sleeping chamber!” Crown Prince shouts his command without even batting an eyelash at me. His long hair covers his face as usual. In his right hand is a pot of wine, dripping. I look down at my feet, my hands are both gripped together.
“Right away, Crown Prince.” I curtsy before taking quick steps into his sleeping chamber. With little sunlight in the room thanks to the tightly closed windows, I find myself hitting into furnitures and kicking bottles of wine often. Finding the them irritating, I bend down to quickly pick up the bottles of wine and carry them out.
Carefully walking down the steps due to the bottles blocking my view, I bump into someone.
“AAAAURGH!” That person screams, irritation clearly evident in the tone.
“What happened?! What happened?!” Cherry’s panicking voice can be heard from the distance. The pain on my chin causes me to squint my eyes and wince uncomfortably. I push myself up, fear accumulating in my heart when I recognize the young man under me who happens to be the Crown Prince. His hair is swept to the side due to the fall, uncovering his undoubtedly-stressed face. For a man of twenty one years old, he looks thirty.
I’m prepared to lose my head. Maybe I’ll never make it out of the palace alive. I stand up immediately, kneeling down and keeping my head low.
“I deserve to die! I deserve to die!” I repeatedly ask for forgiveness from him, though ironically it sounds more like asking for death. This is what servants often do in the palace, be it head-servant or anyone higher. To bow their head down to their masters, asking for forgiveness using the same line, same method.
Crown Prince gets up with the help of Cherry, he stares down at me angrily. The familiar sudden movement of a shadow causes me to close my eyes instantly. What I’ve expected, a slap, does not come. He holds his hand on the air, twitching.
“Annoying!” He spits, throwing the bottle full of wine onto the grounds. It smashes and shatters into pieces, the shards of the pot fly into the air, cutting my face and hands. He stomps into his chamber again, leaving me and Cherry with the mess.
“He’s actually not a bad person. It’s just that the punishment has caused him to be in this state. He was really kind, you know.” Cherry picks up the pieces of the pot up while squatting beside me. I join in on her as well. She sighs as she misses the true character of Crown Prince which has embarked on a journey, which she doesn’t know when will it return.
I’ve just done cleaning the grounds of Crown Prince’s palace. Feeling annoyed by the condition of the palace which should never have been this way, I go to find a pair of scissors, starting to cut the wilted leaves and flowers off, shaping the bushes to look more interesting and appropriate for a palace. Especially a Crown Prince’s palace.
“Wait, Third Prince! You shouldn’t come in! Crown Prince is-” Mal’s voice can be heard from afar, near the gate. I look up from my position, a man of around twenty years old wearing lavish-looking outfit barges in a barbaric manner, followed by three other younger-looking men in similarly lavish outfit. Seeing the crown resting on top of his head, it easily registers in my mind that he’s a member of the imperial family. I lower my body to the curtsy position.
“Eh? Who’s she, Mal? I’ve never seen her face around.” The man who seems to be the one in higher power among the four approaches me, his intense stare enough to instill fear inside me.
“She’s Jade, the new servant here.” Mal answers obediently.
“Eh? Weird. How come mother actually assigns a servant to be placed in this rotten-looking palace?” He scorns. My knees start to hurt again.
“Hey young girl. Do you know who I am?” He cups my chin up to look at him. I instead look down, making sure that our eyes don’t meet. My eyelids blink several times out of fear and the awkward closeness between us.
“N-no…” I reply while shaking my head, scared.
“Oh no. The Crown Prince must be a really bad master to you. He doesn’t even tell you who I am? I’m the Third Prince! Consort Shine’s son!” He boasts his obviously high position in the palace to me, as though I need to know of it. A lowly servant like me needs no information like that, as all imperial family members just have high position.
“Hey look at her face. There’s a scratch! What a pitiful servant isn’t she?! Should I take her back to my palace?” Third Prince laughs, amused by the injury on my face. The three other young men laughs with him as well, clearly faking it. But it seems that they fake it just to keep being in the favor of the Third Prince, in his wings.
“You shouldn’t do that, Third Brother! I think she’s actually the worst-performing servant, thus Consort Shine assigns her to the Crown Prince’s palace!” The man standing right beside Third Prince voices up his similarly mocking opinion, which stirs up their laughter even more.
From behind us, the door creaks open, directing their attention from me to the figure standing in front of them. Footsteps approaching us can be heard as the three men standing behind the Third Prince shut their mouths tight, fear clearly written on their stiff faces. Third Prince however, lets go of my chin and stands up straight, his lips form into a smirk.
“How are you, Crown Prince? I’ve missed you for this several days. As you can see, the Emperor took me with him to the Dragon Pavilion at the south to enjoy the blooming flowers.”
“Rise, Jade.” Crown Prince grabs me by my arm, pulling me up into standing position. Third Prince looks intimidated at how the Crown Prince simply ignores him. I notice that he is much neater now, probably to show the Third Prince that he’s been having a good and appropriate life of a royalty.
“What? What have I missed? Are you possibly interested in her? That makes me want to ask mother to let me have her, you know.”
“Well, you can have her then. I have no need for her since she’s practically useless. Seems like you want my trash, Third Brother. Take it.” Crown Prince retaliates back to what Third Prince has said. They treat me like a property, no, more of an object. An object they have no use of, which they find redundant. I glance up at Third Prince’s face, his expression is deadly as you can see him gritting his teeth and trying to hold back his anger by fisting his palms.
“Let’s go back. It’s about time Father Emperor comes to my mother’s palace.” Third Prince scoffs before turning his back on us and stomps away, disappearing beyond the gates. The three other princes follow him like dogs following their master. I stand still, scared and confused about what to do. The wind blows away the wilted parts of the bush that I’ve cut and set side. I dread having to gather all of them later.
“Your face, go and get some ointment from Cherry.”
The soothing and refreshing aroma of the incense fills up the luxuriously-decorated room. The pillars are painted in red with gold trims, the translucent silk beige curtains drape from the high ceilings of the hall of the palace belonging to someone of high rank, loosely touching the ground in its very own graceful way, dividing chambers from rooms. Beautifully-embroidered carpets cover the floor, enhancing the already-lavish palace’s interior. Three steps up the stairs lay a long dark-wood bench with cushions covered in gold sheets. The woman with extremely high hairdressing and extensive gold hair decorations with phoenix carvings lay on the bench, her right arm acts as a support for her upper torso. There are two servants with slightly prettier uniforms fanning her at the back while another two standing at her left and right, ready for any instructions and orders. The sound of feet stomping can be heard from the entrance of that extravagantly-decorated palace, slightly irritating the woman known by the entire palace as Consort Shine.
“Mother! Why did you let the Crown Prince have another servant?! He should just stay in that isolated palace with only one servant and a lackey! Why?!” The Third Prince stomps in while shouting, echoes can be heard within the huge palace. Third Prince runs towards his mother’s side, demanding an instant explanation.
“So noisy.” Consort Shine gets up slowly, a servant immediately going to her side to help her. Third Prince sits by her side immediately.
“Why? You don’t have to pity him!” Third Prince adds on, still eager to find the answer to his question. Consort Shine looks at him, her lips form into a devilish smirk and her eyes glint in the most feminine yet dangerous way.
“You don’t understand, do you?” She smiles at her own son, her fingers are lifted up to caress his well-chiseled jaws, admiring her son she’s always proud of. The facial features, achievements and talents, all are beyond human level. She herself believes that her son is the most prominent prince of all princes in the palace. But deep down, she knows that the Crown Prince is better than her Third Prince. Jealousy has flawed her self-esteem, thus she has resorted to dirty-tricks. Pressure from other concubines has long killed the innocent her. There’s no going back already when she’s already climbed so high up.
“What do you mean?”
“Me giving the Crown Prince a servant although he’s being punished, I wonder how will the Emperor think about me?” She smiles, her bright-red lips curl up wickedly. Her eyes turn to her son’s, finding him smiling brightly. Having received a satisfying answer, Third Prince excuses himself right before the Emperor arrives. Entertaining the Emperor should just be his mother’s duty, he thinks. Upon the arrival of the Emperor, Consort Shine shivers in disgust. However, she knows that she must withstand his perverse behavior and bossy attitude. She’s managed to learn how to manipulate all those into her advantage, the cruel and competitive palace life has trained her to. She smiles again as she recalls her glorious and glamorous palace life which earns envy looks from other women, though the women don’t know what kind of price she has to pay for it. Nothing is free in this world, is what she truly believes.
I exit the Crown Prince’s palace into the pavements. I’m currently tasked to collect some charcoals from the House Supply Department. Cherry just orders me to collect the charcoals while she prepares herself to get ready to cook. In this isolated place with almost no guards around, I can only wander off the pavements into a much more beautiful place with ponds and flowers blooming gracefully. Such a magnificent view takes me back by wonder. I almost lose myself into the temptation of enjoying the scenery, but my task resurfaces in my mind. I shake my head and turn around, trying to find anyone helpful enough to guide, or at least show, me the way to the House Supply Department. Reaching another dead-end, I sigh and turn around, back to the other gate with no guards that leads me to somewhere I don’t know. Reaching the gate, I turn right and accidentally bump into someone who screams femininely in return.
“Who?!” The girl asks, annoyed. I try to help her up but my clumsiness only irritates her further and she slaps my hands off. The servant behind her bends down to help her up, at the same time shouting at me.
“How insolent! You’ve met the Seventh Princess yet you don’t greet her!” Surprised, I immediately lower myself to curtsy.
“Greetings, Seventh Princess.” Seventh Princess touches her hair, making sure that masterpiece of hours of sitting in front of the mirror isn’t smudged or damaged. Then she proceeds to brushing her long, soft and silky purple dress of hers that drags whenever she walks. The same servant helps her with brushing dirt and keeping the dress neat.
“Which palace’s servant are you?” Seventh Princess asks, looking at me from above her nose to show superiority.
“Your humble servant is from Crown Prince’s palace.” I answer, being careful about my choice of words.
“Crown Prince’s palace?! Are you perhaps a new servant?” She asks. I nod my head slowly.
“What is Consort Shine thinking about?” She furrows her eyebrow, diving into deep thinking.
“What my mother’s thinking about has got nothing to do with you, why are you being such a busybody?” Third Prince appears from behind the wall, surprising the three of us. I turn into his direction, greeting him again.
“Greetings, Third Prince.”
“And so, why can’t I? This is called curiosity, not being a busybody.”
“I think you better return to your palace now and improve that failing embroidery skill of yours. Don’t blame me if no man wants you because of your inability as a wife.” Third Prince laughs at Seventh Princess who’s currently pouting, taking out and throwing one of her hairpins at him. Her servant chases after the poor hairpin immediately while the two continues their verbal fight. They seem close, although maybe the verbal fight is what make them seem so.
“Just go, okay? You’re annoying me.” Third Prince says while pushing Seventh Princess away. She huffs but compromise with him in the end, still holding an expression full of questions when she looks at me. Third Prince turns around to look at me, raising one of his eyebrows.
“Why are you still in that position?”
“Oh fine fine. Rise. Rise!” He says, brushing his hand at me. His lackey at the back looks at me, pity is shown in his eyes. Is that how everyone looks at me in the palace? Is that pity sincere? I don’t know. Human’s heart can’t be guessed, no matter how predictable you are. The cruelest may actually keep a piece of kindness at the corner of his heart, while the kindest may in fact be the most cunning person. No one is trustworthy in the palace. Not even the servants. The servants and guards, all of them are as sly as fox, capable of resorting to inhumane method as long as it benefits them. Of course, there’s always someone behind all their deeds.
“Where are you going?” Third Prince asks. I secretly rub my knees, trying to make it as normal as possible. Of course it fails. He knows I’m rubbing my knees after curtsying for some time.
“Supply Department, to…collect charcoal.” I pauses for a while, hesitating as it may not be a good idea to tell him. After all, he hates the Crown Prince. That’s my conclusion after witnessing his quarrel with Crown Prince earlier. He smirks, giving out an unexpected and unreasonable command to his Lackey.
“Wan, go to the Supply Department. Take all the charcoals. Say that me, Concubine Shine and the Emperor need them. Hurry, now!” I look at Third Prince in disbelief, my eyes starting to water in fear. I look down at my feet again, making sure that I don’t offend him. When his lackey, Wan, hurriedly run to the Supply Department, I look at his back, hoping that he’ll be kind enough as to leave some charcoal for us. Crown Prince needs it as no matter what, he’s still the Emperor’s son. The Empress’ son. He doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment.
But what can a lowly servant like me do? Palace servants can only leave everything to fate, unless they are bold enough to put their heads at risk. I’m not that bold. This person in front of me is the Third Prince, the son of Consort Shine, the extremely gorgeous woman I saw the other day. They are both untouchable, protected by a big fortress they call Emperor.
“The Empress has arrived!” A sudden loud announcement made by a eunuch takes us both by surprise. Turning our eyes to face the direction of the voice, a woman with incomparable royalty aura walks slowly and gracefully, like the swan dancing on water. She holds her head high up as expected of her Empress title. Her long orange-red dress with yellow phoenix embroideries is well-suited with her maroon silk shawl with white embroideries as its trimmings. It’s extremely long, dragging behind her every time she takes a step. Her hairdressing is done such that it’s extremely neat and high up, her hair silky and seems healthy. Elaborate gold hair decorations in the form of phoenix rest on her hair, blossoming big and wide. Pearls are dangling from parts of her pure gold hairpins, long, reaching her elbow. Above the space between her eyebrows is a lotus-shaped red ink, as red as her lips, enhancing her elegance.
“Greetings, Empress.” Even the Third Prince bows his head down to the Empress, the woman with the highest ranking in this palace. I dare not say a word but still curtsy, afraid of disrupting the conversation between the two important imperial figures. As the silence persists, the tension grows. It’s starting to become more and more suffocating.
“You seem to need lots of charcoals, Third Prince.” Says the Empress after studying me and the Third Prince for quite some time. Her eyes currently stay at the direction of Third Prince, he’s starting to break a sweat. No matter how much the Emperor favors Concubine Shine, there is always Empress suppressing their powers, maintaining the balance of the harem.
“Although the spring has just arrived, the coldness of winter seems to prevail. Having weak bodies, both Consort Shine and me need more charcoals to keep our bodies warm.” I can hear the silent scoff of the Empress, smirking as she looks down at the Third Prince who dares not look up at her, or, who is not allowed to look up at her. She enjoys the feeling of superiority towards the offspring of her enemy.
“I seem to have taken too much of charcoals last time. Lis, deliver enough charcoal to the Crown Prince’s palace.” The Empress commands without batting her eyelash, she looks straight in front.
“And since the palace is currently short of finance, I hope the Third Prince will be considerate enough to have half of his monthly allowance be contributed to the Finance Department.” I see the Third Prince gritting his teeth, anger shots up to his face as veins beneath his skin are shown clearly. He says nothing and remains silent, clearly unhappy about the Empress’ superiority.
“Both of you rise.” The Empress says, diverting her gaze at me. She squints her eyes, as if trying to recognize my face.
“Which palace are you from?” She asks, her tone is mandatory. Rather than question, that was more of an order. Obviously the Empress only asks questions to the Emperor and Empress Dowager.
“Your humble servant is from the Crown Prince’s palace.” The Empress twitches a little, her curiosity gaze soon turns darker, even the world knows nothing about what she harbors behind those eyes.
“Let’s go.” She orders to her servants and guards. The crowd passes and I follow Third Prince who bows down to send the Empress off. After they’ve disappeared behind the gates, he turns around at me, wanting to vent his annoyance but he just stomps his feet on the ground. Feeling unsatisfied, he kicks the pot of flower. The whole thing topples, the pot breaks and the plant lies there helplessly. Then he leaveswithoutsaying a word.
I stare into nothing, in my mind unbelieving the drama hidden behind the enormous walls of the palace. Although these imperial family members are gifted with such luxury and comfort in their lives, deep inside their heart lie uncertainty and fear. Fear of what the future may hold for them. That’s what’s been fueling the fire of drama inside the harem, and seems that the eternal fire will never die. I look at Third Prince who’s currently walking to the opposite way of Empress. Although they are born into the imperial family, receiving the endless stares of envy from others, they are actually harboring deep feelings of sadness and fear. Something that people outside the palace will never know.