A Time of Celebration
China, Song Dynasty circa 1070
Two years pass since the girls left the palace and I have never thought about how being a concubine is such a pain. It all seem to have dissolved into the past after that night. Fy Song often calls on me and some times on other eager women, for the sake of being fair to them; it’s not like he could ignore all of them and at the same time keep them as concubines. By now, no one would be surprised if I told them that most of the women hated me. Having special treatment was not what I wanted but nonetheless, the emperor offered it as a token of our close friendship. I now reside in my own private quarters close to his chambers, where he could easily come and go through the hidden wall passages. It is understandable that the emperor of China could not always do as he pleases, especially if his guards are always there watching his every move. He comes to talk most of the time, asking me what I have been up to at that day when he would be attending political meetings and social events of a political matter. Recently, he has been busier with ever-growing economic problems as well as private matters. His advisors are pestering him about some things that he cannot even tell me because of his anger towards the matter.
With those two years, he had grown up quite well; he is taller than me now, a good five inches. It bothers me to no end whenever he teases me about my height these days. I have always been proud about it when I was taller than him. However, with his sword practice five times a week, he completely had a growth spurt that certainly did surprise me. He became leaner and he developed reflexes like I have never seen before. I am shocked at such an outcome; I had thought he would hate having to fight and hold a sword but he actually likes fighting and holding a sword. He is such a show off; I do not mind seeing what he learns from practice but I do mind when he insists on showing me a hundred different things in one day, and it would usually be around nighttime when every other person would want to sleep. He does not seem to be heartbroken about Chang’s recent developments either. In fact, he’s acting completely positive about the whole thing. He hears that Chang is expecting a child, and he only tells me, “Fate, Dalho. It’s fate.” I have no inkling as to why he is saying such things, but I am happy as long as he is happy, which he is most of the time. Chang is still his closest friend and I do not see the tension that was there before the emperor confessed his feelings for him. As far as I know, they have not touched on the subject after that night between them passed. Chang is still the emperor’s most trusted general. I have actually talked to him and we have a sort of relationship you would see from distant cousins being forced to talk to each other. I am not saying we hate each other, only that it is awkward. I guess we are still in the process of getting used to each other’s company. Fy Song always laughs at our conversations. It would usually start with me and the emperor talking and all of a sudden Chang shows up and interrupts and calls Fy Song into some meeting, to which the emperor would say “Chang, keep Dalho company while I’m away; I’ll be back in a little while.” Then Chang would nod briefly and say hello to me and I to him, (I would be asking him a question by this time; I always ask him a question, otherwise he’ll just look at me for the duration of Fy Song’s absence and say bye when he came back) and all the while Fy Song would be standing quite a ways from us and start laughing as he went on to his meeting. It was not very comforting knowing Fy Song was torturing us on purpose. I wonder from where and whom he developed such sadistic behaviors? I am blaming it on his sword practices for now until I know more.
“Lady Dalho,” my new lady-in-waiting calls from the door; she’s only been with me for a week and I really like her. I am hoping that unlike the other ones before her, she would last far longer than two weeks.
For some reason, the ladies-in-waiting that are appointed to me are trying to kill me--I am not sure whether it is voluntary or not on their part. Three of them poured scalding hot water accidentally on my evening dress which happens to be what I had been wearing last, but I survived.
I am still lying in bed being lazy at ten in the morning. “Hm? What is it, Xian?” Footsteps scuttling around the bed. I keep my eyes closed for the moment. Either her coming to my room is due to something important or it may not be.
“His Majesty, the emperor, wants you to accompany him on his trip tonight.”
I sit up in surprise. “To where?”
“He informed me nothing of the location and said that if you asked, I am to say that I do not know.” She fidgets while she talks, unsure of herself.
I shake my head wondering what the whole thing is about. “Alright.” I am curious, he had never taken anyone with him to his meetings in other parts of the country. I had heard that he will be going on a trip to meet with some other officials tonight. I wonder what kind of politics he will be dealing with to require my moral support. I get up and get ready.
In the afternoon, my things are packed, although it is not much. Xian was told by the emperor to pack only for the length of three days. Three days, I thought; it must not be very far. I walked around the women’s quarters and ventured into the library for a bit of quiet time before the scheduled departure. Fy Song was still not back from his meeting with his advisors. I sat down with a good book, familiar to me—I have read it a few times before, and I find it interesting no matter how many times I come back to it. I think I fell asleep after a couple of hours. A quiet voice in my ear wakes me.
“Dalho,” the voice says, “Wake up.”
I groan at the interruption of my sleep. Then I remember about Fy Song’s trip. My eyes open to the emperor’s pleased grin. “Oh, you’re meeting’s over?” I manage to mumble.
“Dalho, you looked so pretty when you were asleep. Were you dreaming of something lovely?” He completely ignored my question.
I cannot ignore his statement. “No favors; I don’t even know where we’re going yet.” I cannot ignore his question either. “And no, I did not dream of anything lovely.”
He laughs. “I didn’t ask for any favors; I was just complimenting you.” Well, how's that for an odd afternoon? Complimenting, huh? I think to myself.
“And how was the meeting?” I am not letting him change the subject.
He shrugs his shoulders. “Nothing much happened. Boring stuff.” He puffed himself up, looking excited. “Are you all set for the trip?”
“I am, but I’m hungry. What time is it?”
“No dinner for you before we leave. It is only five in the afternoon.”
I have no idea why he is being odd. He usually never lets me get hungry. He knows how much I love my food, but today it is different. We ride in the carriage and after a few hours, I start feeling dizzy from the rocking carriage.
“Fy Song,” I say quietly. “Why didn’t we have our supper before we left?”
He looks at me with a hint of guilt in his eyes that disappeared almost immediately. “Oh, you can have this for now.” He took out some sort of bag from the hidden pocket in his robe. “It’ll keep your sugars up.”
“Candy? You’re giving me candy?” I am getting irritated. “How long is this trip going to take anyway?” I ask with annoyance. Hunger turns me into a completely different person.
He chuckles, obviously unfazed by my mood change. “Dalho, you can pout all you want, but that is all I’m giving you for now. You and your bottomless pit for a stomach.”
“You mean we don’t have anything else with us as provisions for the trip.”
He nods his head. “That’s right.”
“God help me if I don’t jump out of this thing to look for food,” I murmur in the air, which made him laugh. I eat the candy in a hurry until there is not even a single piece for him. “May you go pay for this day, emperor,” I say to him in contempt.
“You’re going crazy,” Fy Song says with a laugh. “Bear with it a little longer, I promise, you’ll be rewarded if you in are in your best behavior.”
For another hour I contemplate whether to beg him to stop and order his guards to get food or just to ignore him totally during the entire trip. I find it hard to make the decision.
He peeked out of the curtain and smiled. “We’re here.”
I dive for the window to see where we are. “This meeting better be worth the hunger strike you’ve put me through.” As I am finishing my words, I am astounded by what I see beyond the window curtains.
There in front of my eyes stands the Vacation House. I have stayed there before and I remember telling Fy Song it was one of the best retreats I have ever been to. That was over a year ago. I look back at him in confusion. “Why are we here? Are you having a meeting here?” I ask in disbelief.
Fy Song laughed again. “No, I never did say this trip was for a meeting, did I?”
I shook my head. “What I heard from around the palace was that you have a meeting tonight.” He sometimes takes a concubine with him to his meetings but recently he has been taking me often.
“I just let that spread, so you wouldn’t know about this.”
“So why are we here?” I doubt he’s exhausted with his work. He looks happy as a clam.
Still smiling, he wagged a finger at me. “Not telling. We have to go in first.” As adorable as he might be at the moment, I’m still annoyed at the way he’s keeping everything from me. What an odd day indeed. First, complementing me. Then, making me hungry, and now this.
I followed him into the huge mansion, looking back at the amazing night view of the ocean not too far away. He is busy giving orders and cryptic messages to his attendant who nods and utters ‘Yes, your Majesty’ extensively. Since Fy Song was determined to keep me out of the loop, I feasted my eyes on the house instead. The same marble pillars and marble floors, the same golden railings and decorative dragons hanging on the walls. Ah, there it is; the curtains and linens around the house are different from before. It used to be purples and reds, but this time the curtains were green, my favourite color, and gold, another favorite color of mine. I was pleased that we managed to come to the house with such good timing. I am lucky; being in a Vacation House and have its color theme match your favorite color is supposed to be an auspicious sign. This thought brings a little spring in my steps, making me skip a little, and I do not notice that Fy Song had turned around and stopped walking; he was watching me with expectant eyes.
I feel like I just got caught doing something illegal. “What?” I ask, slightly annoyed at myself.
“Nothing.” He turns around and walks on ahead. When we reach his bedchambers, the doors to the terrace is wide open, letting in the cool and refreshing breeze. There is a dinner table set in one half of the room. The aroma of food compels me. I walk quickly to the table stretching out my hand to grab a golden spring roll when Fy Song stopped me.
“Not yet.” He starts giggling like a little boy. “I have to show you something first.”
“No.” I shake my head and back away a few steps from him. “Why are you being so strange today? You’re scaring me.”
He laughs loudly, as though expecting me to say what I just did. He comes up to me with the handsomest smile and clasps my hands. “Oh, sweet Dalho. You’re the best.”
I frown. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I let him lead me to the terrace. “Fy Song, should I be worried right now?” With all the strange things he’s been up to, it is hard for me to get a grip on what his intentions are. He faces me, looking straight into my eyes.
He shakes his head, smiling. “I don’t think so.” He takes a deep breath and continues, “Okay, now be quiet so I can say what I have to say.”
I am about to say something scathing about his ordering me to shut up but I decide against it; I’ll let him talk first then teach him a lesson.
He kisses the palm of my hands before kneeling on one knee in front of me. “Dalho, you’ve been such a wonderful friend to me and I finally decided that my future will be much better with you in it. Dalho, will you marry me?”
My eyes must have been about to pop out of their sockets while I stare at his handsome face in horror. The marriage had been long gone from my mind that I sort of forgot about it. It isn’t supposed to be a surprise to me, but I had thought he would warn me before he would announce his proposal for my sanity’s sake. This is indeed not how I had thought Fy Song would go about asking me.
Fy Song’s smile is starting to fade. “Dalho?”
I smile nervously. “Why so sudden?” I chuckle nervously. “I mean you already know the answer but why did you have to do it like this? You could have just told me beforehand.”
Fy Song’s smile gets wider. “Can you answer my question first?”
I blink. “Uhm, yes. Yes, I will marry you.” I smile stupidly. My answer sounds stupid in my ears.
Fy Song laughed as he stands up and kisses me right on the lips. I make a sound of protest but he does not seem to care. When did he become so aggressive? And since when did he find it even tolerable to kiss a girl on the lips? He raises a brow when he ends the kiss and says, “Ooh, candy flavored lips are nice.”
My jaw just about drops to the floor. “What did you say?!”
“We need an engagement celebration!” He laughed like a maniac, not at all like his other lovely laughs which I was accustomed to. Where is he learning all these brutish ways? My mind still suspects his sword practices. He claps his hands together briskly and in comes his servants with trays full of food. “And for saying yes, you get your favourite dishes.” He smiles handsomely at me. He takes my hands together. “You’re speechless right now, aren’t you?”
I blink at him, unbelieving all this. “You’re right, I am. Why would you do this to me?” I sound like he had just betrayed me.
He beamed. “I learned from the masters of courting.”
“And who might those masters be?” I hazard a guess. “Your teachers at sword practice?”
He pouts. “Well, some of them. How’d you guess?”
I shake my head disapprovingly. “They sure have peculiar ways.”
“You didn’t like the surprise?” Fy Song is starting to look unsure of himself.
“No, it’s just too surprising, I guess. Oh, never mind. Let’s just eat, I’m starving.”
That night I lay beside Fy Song, thinking how everything is about to change. I would not be able to just slack around and sleep during the day. I feel a little bit of regret but I know the whole thing is for the best, for Fy Song, for the country and for me, too, I think. I wonder what the other girls are up to lately? I have not heard anything from them in a long while. They all wrote me a letter of thanks when they left the palace but I hardly heard much afterwards. My mind slowly brings back the memories. I stare at the ceiling for a long while.
“Hm? I thought you were asleep already.”
“Are you kidding me? I prepared all that today and you expect me to just sleep it off in the next minute?” He turns to face me. I try to read his expression in the little light that the moon gave.
“You weren’t talking or moving for a long time,” I say in my defense.
“I was trying to get you to talk first, but,” he sighs, “it seems like I have to start.”
“If you don’t want it, just tell me and I won’t go on with this.”
How sweet of him to say that; I smile to myself. “It’s fine with me. I just wish it wasn’t so--” I stop when I suddenly remember something I had wanted to ask him earlier. “Who are your instructors?” It’s time I confront him about it.
“My what?” he ask, clearly confused by my sudden question.
“Your instructors at your sword practices; who are they?”
“Oh. Why do ask? Oh.” He remembers. “Well, I was just asking them for a few pointers, you know, since I have no experience in this sort of thing and they seemed to know a whole lot.”
“Oh. I’d like to meet them. They sound interesting.” I am planning on giving them a little bit of a talk about how they’re acting around Fy Song and what sort of things they are teaching him. “What sorts of things do they advice you?”
“Hm. Always compliment the girl. Be the savior knight. Be romantic, be sweet.”
“And who told you to kiss?”
“Nobody. Isn’t that how a proposal always goes?”
I could feel myself blushing. He did that all on his own? It’s scary how he’s starting to think differently. I’m not used to it. I like the Fy Song before this. The Fy Song that was like the sweetest little brother to me. The new Fy Song is almost a stranger to me. This does not mean I hate him; only it is hard to get used to all the different quirks that Fy Song has now.
“And who else did you get pointers from?” I ask, as he scooches closer to me.
“Hm?” He was not listening.
“Who else are you referring to when you say masters of courting?”
“Oh. I can’t say. There’s this guy who’s a secret agent; I can’t possibly reveal him.”
Must be one of the secret assassins’ group that work for the emperor. I only know of two: Silent Moon Assassins and the Shadow Blade Assassins. I have no idea if are there are more. I’ve heard rumors around the palace about their existence. Some servants are said to be assassins. I have no protests if that is the case. Nobody seems too suspicious looking in the palace at least.
“Fy Song, come on. Can’t you trust me?”
“Dalho, I do trust you, but think of the man’s safety.”
I sigh exaggeratedly. “Fine.”
He chuckled. “Somehow I feel like you don’t like the people I’m associating myself with recently.”
“You got that right.”
“I’ll let you meet him, but I won’t tell you when. If that’s what you want.”
“Sure, sure.” I’m sure he is just saying that to make me feel better. “Goodnight.”
I stay quiet for a while. “Do you still want kids?”
Fy Song shot up from bed. “What? Aren’t you thinking too far ahead, Dalho? I mean--”
I crack up in laughter. “Ah, it’s good to see my Fy Song back even for just a little while.”
He opens his mouth to say something back but closes it again. He sighs. “I’m not any different, you know. I just learned a few different things.” He lays back down and hugs me. “I’m always the same Fy Song you know.”
I pat his arm. “I know that.” I close my eyes to sleep.
In the middle of the night, my eyes open to darkness and the sound of cricket songs. Wide awake and momentarily lost, I sit up. Fy song lies beside me, breathing deeply in his sleep. I softly move out of the bed and take my morning coat with me as I exit through the balcony. The morning chill seeps into my bones even through my clothes. As I take the first few steps down to the sandy shore of the ocean, I hear a noise a few feet away from me. I instantly stop in my tracks, trying to see who or what the noise had come from.
“Lady, as the future Queen of China, I suggest you stay in the emperor’s quarters where you are safe.”
I sigh. One of his guards. “It’s alright, I’m only going for a short walk; I can’t sleep.”
“I will advice against such activities; it is not the best time for a walk, Lady Dalho.”
“You know my name; did Fy Song tell you?”
“You call the emperor by his given name?” A sound of curiosity and puzzlement in his voice. He moves closer; I hold my ground.
“I meant the emperor; did he tell you?” This person, whoever he is, has a very quick mind. I cannot see his face; a deep shadow or a mask renders him unidentifiable.
“No, Lady. Everyone knows your name as head concubine of the emperor.”
“Oh. Okay, so what’s your name, guard? I want you to know, I’m alright. It will only be a quick walk, a really quick one. Just stay there if you want and you can even time me if you wish.” I doubt he would do what I ask but I had to try.
“Disclosure of personal information is prohibited.” He moves closer and now I can see a pair of eyes. “Lady, I strongly suggest you go back.” He sounded a tiny bit annoyed.
“Look, whoever you are, I’m fine. There is no need to be so protective of me; I’m not even the queen yet.” I take a step forward. He does not move. “Please, let me through. I won’t take long, I promise.”
I hear him sigh. “As you wish. I will be following you then.” He moves to the side and blends into darkness. I continue down the grassy path towards the beach. The sound of the waves were calm and relaxing; I could not hear him following me. I keep walking, now preoccupied with thoughts of being the Queen of China. I feel a fear of being unfit for such position but I know I have my duties as Fy Song’s friend. Somehow, my thoughts take me to when I lived freely in the village. Of all the times to get homesick, this day had to be it. I recalled my mother’s sad smile and my father’s hug as they bade me farewell. I have written letters to them in the past but lately they have not been responding as much as they used to. There must be something the matter for them not to be able to write anymore. I stop in my tracks and look at the horizon. The faintest hint of light is coming soon. Walking slowly towards the ocean, I lift up my skirt to avoid getting it wet. As I took off my slippers, the guard--whose presence I have almost forgotten--clears his throat. “Madam Dalho, you should be going back to the mansion now.”
I roll my eyes and turn to face him. “Alright, I get it. Just give me a few more minutes to--” The man is not a guard; he is an assassin of the emperor. Wearing all black from head to toe, he stood a good deal taller and broader than me. His hands lay on either side of him, but I can tell that he is not as relaxed as he seems to be. His silver eyes look sharp and probing.
“You’re an assassin!” I am shocked. I did not realize that Fy Song had some of them following us here; it was a vacation house after all. “Why are you here? Why are you even out in daylight?”
“It is not day yet, Madam. And I am here upon the request of the emperor to protect both of you from any harm.” He gave a deep bow. “If Madam is concerned about my presence, I suggest you go back inside this very minute and I shall vanish as though I never was.”
“Look here, you’ve been bugging me about going back inside, but I haven’t even been out here for more than a few minutes. Some people need their privacy, you know.” I turn around to look at the ocean; he is beginning to get on my nerves. I take deep breaths; deep, long breaths.
“I am only concerned for your safety; I beg your pardon, Madam Dalho.” I hear some shuffling behind me. Turning around to see what it is, I see nothing. No sign of the man all clad in black.
I scoff. “My safety, indeed. So he leaves me here all alone, hmph.” I tiptoed to the cool water. The sensation awakens my senses and relaxes me.
“I had the impression you wanted me to leave, Madam.” I jump at his voice. “I only obliged you your privacy,” he says, standing close beside me this time.
I shake my head. “You know, this conversation is really starting to irritate me.” I turn to face him. “What’s your name, assassin?”
“As I have told you earlier, Madam, disclosure of such information--”
“Is prohibited,” I finish his sentence for him. “I get that, but I want to make sure that Fy Song is aware of a certain pestering assassin working for him.”
His eyes flashes angrily for a moment, and I almost think he would harm me, but his voice is calm when he speaks. “I am the head of the Shadow Blade Assassins, Madam. I assure you, the emperor knows about me quite well.”
I am taken aback by what he has just stated, but I try not to show it. “Oh, good. Then I will speak of this issue with him first thing in the morning and he will know for sure who I am talking about.”
I turn away from him and walk back purposefully to the mansion, letting the man brood over what I have just said to him. Head of the Shadow Blades indeed, I think to myself. Fy Song will know what to do with him. Not that I expected something big or anything like that. I sigh inwardly; some days I think I am not quite myself anymore.