The Price of Silk

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The Flank Court

I left the palace, still staggering under the weight of what had occurred within its walls. Bats dipped and wheeled overhead, silhouettes against the waning gibbous moon, light spilling like blood from its wounded side. I must have been dreaming, locked within the strange, internal logic of my mind’s most obscure passages. All of it was so absurd, so completely unfathomable. I raised my eyes heavenwards, searching the stars for some sign, some answer. But I was no astrologer. I was no one at all. Therein lied the mystery to my fate.

Still, it had happened. In the flick of a single, imperceptible wrist, my fortune had turned like a coin in midair, landing me in the service of the most powerful woman in the Empire. Not only would my father be saved from starvation, but I would be raised to a position unimaginable to any woman of my station. Even the best of marriage arrangements, even the birth of a thousand sons could not have held such prestige as working within the Imperial Court.

I followed the attendant, Xiaoli, in a daze across the broad expanse towards the gates of the Western Palace. Once the residence of the Emperor, it was now abandoned by all the Imperial family but for the Crown Prince.

“The junior concubines live there, as do the female slaves,” Xiaoli explained. From the looks of her, she must have been among the former category, so delicate were her features, so elegant was her every move. I found myself staring too long and far too often. “Many of the slaves are there to pay for crimes committed by their male relatives. Our Empress was one such woman before finding favor with the Son of Heaven.”

I stopped abruptly, suddenly recalling my father’s words to me a few days prior. His blasphemous mutterings. Did they know? Would I too be doomed to such a fate? “What crime did her kinsmen commit to enslave her to the Court?”

Xiaoli paused in her stride, looking back. “Her Highness was the daughter of the previous dynasty’s Emperor,” she replied.

That was a high crime indeed. After squandering the Empire’s resources on failed military ventures, heaven’s mandate had been withdrawn from the previous dynasty several years before my brother and I were born. Insurrections had broken out along the northern border, a duke seized the capital, and the incompetent ruler was deposed. My father used to say that every peasant in the kingdom breathed a collective sigh of relief when news reached them. No longer would our sons be forced to break their own limbs to avoid the unending slaughter upon the Korean Peninsula. We didn’t really care much which dynasty ruled us so long as they left us in peace.

“But…” We resumed our stride across the courtyard. “Wasn’t it the Emperor’s father who overthrew the previous dynasty?” We all remembered the elaborate rites upon his death, the word of it spreading through every prefecture like ripples in a pond.

“Yes,” Xiaoli affirmed. “She was his concubine for many years, but bore no children. None of the eunuch’s records indicated that she was even called to his bed. Thus, upon his father’s death, His Majesty took her for his own.”

We stopped at a gate where Xiaoli showed the guards a charm in the shape of a fish. “And he made her his Empress?” I asked.

The gate opened, then slammed its jaws shut behind us. “No,” Xiaoli answered. “But the previous Empress was found to be barren and after a time was… put aside.”

Upon passing through another moon-shaped portal, my remaining questions turned to ash in my mouth, finding myself suddenly in an altogether different world. Arching like perpetually weeping maidens, a grove of willows bowed along a babbling stream, moonlight shattering like scattered pearls upon its cascades. Among the twisted writhings of juniper hedges, azaleas and peonies burst from between boulders. Lanterns hung like heavy fruit from the boughs of mulberry trees and peacocks strutted freely beneath them, a trail of lapis lazuli glimmering in their wake.

So fitting was it that my introduction to the Flank Court would be one of its many gardens: all the wonders of nature carefully selected, cultivated, grafted, and artfully arranged so that one might see all the beauty of the world, but none of its ugliness. And as with anyone who has known struggle and sorrow, it drew me in, trapping me in its embrace, rendering all its walls and gates superfluous. What need was there for bars on such a prison? No one in their right mind would ever leave of their own free will.

The journey became all the more wondrous as we entered the walls of the Palace, silk screen doors giving way to spacious halls filled with painted screens, embroidered draperies, vast murals between columns of sandalwood. Upon one, I recognized the image of Leizu, goddess of sericulture, seated beneath a mulberry tree where she drafted filaments from a cocoon in her teacup. Only the dwindling glimmer of sunset peered between the intricately latticed windows, and eunuchs rushed to light candelabras, lanterns, and braziers to illuminate the space. Lifting one of the lanterns from its stand, Xiaoli led me to an outdoor walkway where I could see more gardens, pavilions, artificial lakes beyond the colonnades.

Finally, she led me to a room filled from wall to wall with curtained beds. A few other women were there, seated at low tables, gazing in bronze mirrors, combing out their inkwell locks, scrubbing white powders and rouge from the canvas of their face. A few nodded to us as we entered, but continued in their tasks. Xiaoli fetched a few quilts from a chest of drawers and began making up a bed. “You can sleep next to me,” she said. “Tomorrow, I will show you around the grounds before the start of your training.”

“Training?” I laid down in the newly prepared nest of linens, sinking into the softness like clouds.

“Every newcomer must undergo etiquette training,” Xiaoli explained. “We are Treasures: ladies of the sixth rank. If you hope to move to any higher rank, you must observe the proper protocols.”

The potency of her words left me dizzy. A lady of the sixth rank. Two days ago, I was a peasant digging for mushrooms in the woods. Now I was a titled lady. There had to be a catch. It was impossible that so much fortune could fall into a person’s lap without some stipulation.

“How…” I cleared my dry throat. “How exactly does one move to a higher rank?” I asked, already suspecting the answer.

Xiaoli’s own cheeks darkened at the question. “By winning the Empress’ favor, of course.”

My brows furrowed in confusion. “Empress? Don’t you mean the Emperor?” Ignorant peasant though I was, even I knew the Emperor’s word held sway over all. He was the Son of Heaven. The One above all.

“No.” I caught a quaver upon her voice. “I mean the Empress.”

She showed me around the Palace grounds the next day, vaster than my father’s farmlands and all the more unearthly in the sunlight. Any space which was not occupied by meticulously-kept gardens was filled with polo courts, archery halls, and man-made lakes. There was a series of workshops, a mulberry grove, a stable for the Imperial horses. But what struck me as grandest of all was the Institute of Letters, which held a library and offered lessons in literature, mathematics, history, and any number of subjects to all the palace women.

“Do you think they would teach me how to read and write?” I asked Xiaoli.

She smiled, somewhat piteously. “Of course,” she said. “What sort of lady would you be if you could not recite poetry or write beautiful calligraphy?”

But it was not poetry I cared about. Rather, I imagined that I might write letters to my father. He would not be able to read them himself, but perhaps the courier might read aloud to him, let him know that I was safe and well at the Palace. So too might I write to Yingjie when he returned home from the war, telling him everything about this strange and beautiful world I now found myself in. Every day, I felt his absence a little more keenly, aching like a missing limb. I imagined I might bridge the gap of our endless separation by a few letters upon the wind.

However, it was etiquette training I found more difficult than learning my letters. Every minor faucet of life was to be carried out in the most meticulously stylized fashion, from walking, to eating, to sleeping. We were to be the embodiment of grace with our every movement, the epitome of decorum with our every interaction. Protocol was to always be observed. Rank was to always be respected. Any offense against either could lead to punishment, the severity of which corresponded exactly to the discrepancy in rank between persons. Deaths were known to occur. The accumulation of bodies along the north gate was evidence of that.

Therefore, it was only in the workshops where I found my peace. After classes and the midday meal, I would make my way to the Imperial silk workshops where my lack of grace and lowly birth might be disguised behind the threads of the loom. The silk workshop was located in a heavily guarded compound behind the archery hall. It housed a silkworm nursery a thousand times larger than my own back at home, bamboo shelving stacked from wall to wall where the silkworms whispered in their trays. Most of the inmates of the Flank Court worked here, carrying in baskets of leaves from the surrounding mulberry groves, sweeping out the trays, gathering up the cocoons to be spun. From there, the compound divided into multiple courtyards, one containing boiling vats to steam and reel the cocoons, another to wind them upon spindle wheels, another to sink them in vats of dye and hang upon clotheslines to drip so much color that all the flowers bloomed in variegated hues. It was there that I would sometimes catch sight of Xiaoli, floating among the fluttering veils and tassels, selecting newly dyed skeins for her embroidery. Occasionally she would turn to see me watching her from the weaving rooms, and she would smile where she caught my gaze.

Quickly, I would look away, returning to my loom. It was different from what I had at home, its levers and mechanisms a mystery at first, but the whispering of the nursery soon reached my ears, guiding me through the labyrinth of threads. The patterns that I had banished for so long began to reemerge, warning of a harsh winter to match the brutality of this passing summer. I became all the more desperate to learn my letters so that my father might be warned.

After the day’s labor, I would always go find Xiaoli. I did not have many female friends back in the village. Between my silkworms, my weaving, I rarely found the time to socialize with the other women. Female friendship seemed a pointless endeavor in any case, impossible to maintain in its post-nuptial state. We were all temporary fixtures in our families’ households, born to leave one and occupy another. And besides, I had my brother for a friend.

But now, being so cut off from all we loved, only Xiaoli’s company could stave off the encroaching loneliness, her kindness, her gentle comportment, reminding me of my brother in so many ways. I later learned that she too was of low birth, the daughter of a wealthy southern merchant, a fact she disclosed in only abashed whispers. Lower in status than even peasants, merchants were usually forbidden to serve in the Imperial Court, but rumor of Xiaoli’s prolific musical talent had reached Empress’ ears and earned her a summons.

There were other girls like us among the sixth rank. Lan, a green-eyed tribute slave from Sogdia, who distilled so well the essence of every flower, spice, and herb, that butterflies alighted upon the Empress whenever she wore her perfumes. There was also Lien, a miner’s daughter from Hunan, whose skill with minerals allowed her to create cosmetic powders that glittered like iridescent beetle shells upon the Empress’ skin. Lastly, there was Li Mei, the daughter of a Khotan jeweler, who fashioned ornaments of gold, silver, jade, coral, pearl, and kingfisher feathers, wrought into shapes of flowers, birds, butterflies, tigers, and elephants.

But it was Xiaoli whose company I liked best, confiding in her my every secret joy and sorrow. We would often picnic together beneath one of the willows in the western gardens, where I would tell her about my brother, the loss of our mother, and his years of mandatory conscription. All the while, Xiaoli would listen, strumming a soft tune on her pipa.

“That is why you should strive to win the Empress’ favor,” she told me. “She could give you news of his welfare. She could even get him promoted or secure him a position among the Gold Bird Guards.”

The words were spoken so casually, yet they left me stunned by their impact. “The Empress could really do that?”

“And more,” Xiaoli affirmed. “If you advance in rank, you will be given a monthly allowance of silk, jewelry, coppers. You could send some home to your family if you wished. Those of us who serve the Court have a chance to better our families’ lives in a way daughters rarely can.”

The thought had never occurred to me. Having spent so much of my life on the lower rungs of society, I had naturally assumed that my will would always bend to the Empress’, never the other way around. Yet already, even with what little favor she granted me, I had managed to secure my father’s welfare for so long as I was employed by the Court. What else might I be granted if I were to grow higher in her esteem?

“But how does one win the Empress’ favor?”

Such a question came with a straightforward answer in regard to the Emperor. If one could be called to his bed, could win his admiration and affection, status and wealth were sure to follow. Women, however, were never so easy to satisfy.

Xiaoli shrugged. “The way you win anyone’s favor, I suppose.” Her fingers danced across the frets of her instrument. “You must find out what you have to offer that might be of value to her.”

It was a simple enough answer, yet still one season passed, and then another, without so much as glimpsing the Empress. I could not imagine that I possessed anything of value to her beyond my abilities at the loom. Therefore, I contented myself with my position, with the few meager favors it allotted me, up until the following spring. Only then, with the leaves new upon the mulberry trees, with the newly hatched silkworms in the nursery, did a new message come through in my work:

The Four Garrisons would fall once again to Tibetan control.

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