The Price of Silk

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The Master of the Way, Lao Tzu, once said “the great man abides by what is solid, and eschews what is flimsy; dwells with the fruit and not with the flower.” But any peasant farmer could tell you not every plant is cultivated for its fruit. Some are only kept for the flowers, others are dug up for their roots, others still used only for their fragrant leaves. So it was that among the women of the Flank Court, kept and cultivated within the walled garden of the Western Palace, only a very few were destined to bear fruit. The remaining flowers, abundant and ever indistinguishable, offered their beauty and fragrance solely at their master’s pleasure, destined as they were to perish by the Autumn’s end.

How then could anyone blame us for pursuing what ephemeral pleasures there were to be had? Cut off from hearth and home, family and friends, all dreams of marriage dashed against the rocks, we sought love wherever it might be found: in the keeping of pets, in the care of Imperial children, or in the arms of other women. Such relations not entirely frowned upon, after all. Even within the sphere of private households, a wife’s affection for her husband’s concubine may leaver her less disposed to jealousy and more inclined to familial harmony. And if that wife happened to be the Sovereign Lady, the Mother of the Empire, the Empress herself, such affection was surely a prize to be treasured.

She called me to her chambers nearly every night after that, where, like a priestess, she initiated me into love’s most secret mysteries. and Every new ecstasy, I became ever more the eager acolyte, receiving her love in all its manifold varieties, given some nights as sweet words and soft kisses, and other nights, as stinging scores down my back. Others still, she tied my wrists with lengths of silk and tormented me with agonies so ecstatic, I wept for joy and mercy. But like a stray dog, no matter how I was beaten or caressed, I returned to her eagerly, night after night.

Afterwards, we would often linger in bed, tangled up in each other as she spoke of history and poetry, astrology and politics. I would listen to with rapt attention as she would spoke of her upbringing as an imperial princess, her training as a court lady. Together we would laugh about the rigidity of court etiquette and all our many blunders. All the while, I would fall ever more deeply in love with her.

She became my obsession, filling my every thought, distracting my every task. I could hardly keep my eyes off her in the audience chamber, and as I sat at my loom, phoenixes covered the expanse of the weave. So too did she conquer every corner of my heart, pushing all thought of duty and family far from my mind. Even Xiaoli faded so far into the shadows of my periphery, it was only several weeks later, after a series of nights without the Empress’ summons, that I even remembered her face.

I had waited well beyond sunset for her call, only dismissing my maid when the moon was high and my heart sunk low. I went to the gardens to seek my solace. The air was chilled, glittering with lantern-lit snowflakes, swept off the eaves by a biting wind, but with my body caught aflame with frustrated desire, I hardly noticed. Standing by the ice-glazed pond, I closed my eyes, imagining her lips against my skin, her hands at my waist. I could feel the softness of her breasts, the heat of her breath clouding the frozen air.

The sound of someone’s voice started me from my reverie. “Lady Wei?”

My eyes snapped open to behold Xiaoli peering at me across the garden, an open parasol haloing her moon-like face.

“I beg your pardon.” She bowed. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Only… I saw you standing out here without at coat and became worried.”

Looking down, I noticed for the first time that I was indeed without my coat. Still, not even a shiver passed through me. The heat of all my nights with the Empress seemed to have seeped into my skin, warming me from within like a brazier.

“Please.” Xiaoli stepped forward offering the parasol. “Would you permit me to give you this? To keep the snow off your gown?”

Tentatively, I took it, thanking her.

“Have a good evening, my lady.” Her words were too formal, the chasm of rank too broad between us. us. She gave another bow, but as she turned to leave, I called out to her.

“Where have you been, Xiaoli? I have hardly seen you lately.”

She stopped, turning towards me again, head low, body slightly stooped so as not to stand too high. “Forgive me. My lady has not invited me to visit her,” she said. “Otherwise, I would have gladly come.”

A flush met my face with shame. Of course, I hadn’t even considered inviting her for a visit. Every part of me was too preoccupied with the Empress to even spare her a thought. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I have been very busy attending to the Empress. I haven’t had as much time for social calls.”

Xiaoli took a few tentative steps towards me. “Has Her Highness been calling on you often?”

I smiled, flush deepening. “Yes,” I admitted. “Almost every night.”

I could tell right away that Xiaoli understood me, her expression shifting from bemusement to embarrassment in a matter of seconds. Looking down at the ground, she cleared her throat. “I see…” she said. “And… are you very pleased with this new arrangement.”

“I am.” I look towards the Eastern Palace wistfully. A warm light glowed through the torchlit windows, rendering the entire structure a lantern unto itself. Like a moth, I would have beat myself against them just to be united with the object of my desire. “She is like no other woman I have ever known. So graceful, so intelligent. I didn’t know it was possible for such women to exist.”

Indeed, her beauty, her strength, her power: she was everything I wanted, bound up in a single being. A woman who was bowed to, a woman who was heard, a woman who misery and starvation could never touch.

Xiaoli came to stand beside me, peering up at the distant temple. “So you are quite taken with her as well…” she sighed.

“Of course.” I balked at her, nonplussed. “Aren’t you?”

A smile touched her lips briefly with melancholy affectation. “I suppose I was at one time. But…” She paused, searching for the words. “As great an honor it is to serve the Empress, she could never give me what I most desire.”

I raised a brow to that. “Which is?”

Again, that sad smile. “Children.”

I turned away with a grimace. Though I would never say so aloud, it came only as a relief that my service to the Empress might spare me the obligation of child-bearing. The act brought only misery and death to my own mother. Still, for most other women, there was no greater conceivable calling, hoping to fill the void within their bodies with the simple pleasures of domesticity: husband, children, grandchildren. Ironically, such a commonplace vocation was unlikely to find fulfillment within the Emperor’s gynaeceum.

“I have no other desire besides her,” I stated resolutely, affixing my gaze once more to the Eastern Palace.

Xiaoli’s expression shifted from one of sadness to concern. “I would advise you to guard yourself more carefully in this matter,” she warned. “You are not the only one she loves, nor are you the only one who loves her. Many have suffered in the quest to win her heart.”

“I know that,” I snapped, not bothering to hide my annoyance. Of course, this truth was as apparent to me as it was to any other woman. My beloved would never be entirely my own. The best I could do was lay claim to some small corner of her heart, crowded alongside her husband, her children, her hundred other duties, and affections. Still, the reminder was unwelcome and only served to increase my night’s yearning.

Xiaoli offered an apologetic bow. “I have overstepped,” she said. “I beg your pardon.” She began to walk away, but still, I could not let her leave.

“Xiaoli,” I said.

She stopped, turning back, snowflakes caught like petals in her dark hair.

“I promise I will call on you again soon.”

She smiled, nodded, then departed, leaving me alone with her parasol in the snow. Her words did not leave me though, and as the days slipped by without a summons from the Empress, the truth of them weighed more heavily. Perhaps she had forgotten me. Perhaps she had tired of me and moved on to someone else. Still the phoenix pattern appeared in my weaving, kindling my hope and increasing my anticipation. Surely, it was a sign that she would send for me soon.

I did not know what to make of the other form that appeared in my design, its maw hanging open, its claws outstretched. It should have been obvious. A dragon coiled around the phoenix emblem like a snake moving to strike. What else could it possibly mean?

Still, when I received the summons from the Empress that night, I rushed to her chambers, elated and drunk with joy. She hadn’t forgotten me, and when I arrived at her door, she embraced me, pulling me deeply into a kiss. “I missed you, Little Spider,” she cooed, her hands already moving to unbind me from my robes. I wilted into her arms, opening to her like a flower in the sun.

She was exceptionally tender with me, cradling me in her bed, fondling my breasts, slipping her fingers between my thighs, whispering sweet words like incantations. Her adoration filled me like those first tasted morsels after the famine, my months of confinement in the Cold Palace. I could not imagine that anything could disturb such bliss, nor could I sense any other presence in the room.


Jiaying’s words trailed off. The men were asleep now, the fire banked, and only a single sentinel standing guard. Naran had lit a small fire of their own where they crouched by the cliff face. In its flickering, she watched the weaver’s expression shift from one of fond recollection to lightless vacancy. She had observed similar movements upon the faces of newly captured brides, and even that of her own mother. The cause was always the same, though so commonplace among the tribes of the Steppe, no one could discern it. Sometimes these women were brought to her as patients to have the impure spirit driven out after their husbands’ failed to beat it out. Naran would always perform the purification ritual as expected, burning sage and juniper, sprinkling spring water over the patient’s head. But what seemed most healing was when, in the seclusion of her yurt, Naran would embrace the afflicted woman, rocking and humming as she wept like an infant in her arms. Some spiritual pollutions, she learned, could only be purified through tears.

But the woman with her now would not cry. Her pride would not allow it. The light went out of her eyes all the same.

“I didn’t know…” Jiaying’s voice was once more faint and salt-rasped. “I didn’t know he was waiting behind the screen…”

I was too lost in my own passion to notice. It wasn’t until I saw a shifting in the shadows that I even knew we weren’t alone. As the candlelight illuminated his face, I nearly screamed in outrage, thinking him a eunuch come at an inopportune moment. But his clothes were too fine, his hair bearing ornaments too precious to be a servant. When it struck me that he was a courtier, I scrambled to cover myself, but the Empress’ hands locked around my wrists.

“Good evening, Your Majesty,” she purred.

My stomach plummeted through my bones, a cold sweat breaking all across my naked flesh. The man, the Emperor, took another step closer. Again, I jerked in an attempt to sit up, to perform the necessary obeisance before he called for my head, but still, the Empress wouldn’t release me. His shadow fell over me as he drew nearer the bed, and I froze like a deer on the plain.

Every year of his advanced age showed through lines on his face and the gray in his beard. So too did his luxurious living hang heavily on his belly, filling out his cheeks, drooping over his eyes. But it was the eyes themselves that filled me with dread, narrow and devoid of warmth, so reptilian, I half expected a forked tongue to flash between his lips.

“My love,” he murmured. “What have you brought for me tonight?”

He sank onto the bed. Again, I tried to pull away. She wouldn’t let me go.

The fire popped, and Jiaying flinched at the sound. Altan shifted restlessly on Naran’s shoulder as if in agitation. Above them, the Heavenly River spanned the sky, sweeping the stars into its current, and in her silence, Jiaying appeared as faint and remote as those distant divinities.

“I should not have been so surprised. I shouldn’t have been so… shaken,” she said. “Indeed, I should have felt honored. Such an encounter with the Emperor was the dream of every woman in the Western Palace. Perhaps…. Perhaps she even intended it as a gift. Any other concubine would have gladly received it as such…”

She paused. Her throat worked. Her eyes turned glassy in the firelight. “Only, I was so caught up in her, I had forgotten all about him. He was so far from my sight, from my mind, that like the very air I breathed, I had all but forgotten who was truly master of my body and soul.”

But in that room, in that bed, he appeared only flesh and blood. Too much flesh, weighing me down, and too much blood, most of it my own. All the while, the Empress held me still, cooing and whispering in my ear, her words incomprehensible, the whole ordeal so unimaginable, I felt a piece of myself break away. From a distance, it seemed that some other woman was being held down, some other woman was being mounted and rutted by a man who would call himself “Son of Heaven.” But she was not me. I could not allow her to be me.

It was only as he approached his climax that the Empress let go, drawing him away from me and into herself. There I laid, watching with numb detachment as the woman I so loved was groped and defiled by that boar of a man, that grunting beast, until, with a groan of abandon, he found release in her embrace. It was only then that my illusions were shattered, that the woman I believed so beautiful and strong was revealed for exactly what she was: a slave, like me, forever at the mercy of powerful men.

A/N: Sorry for the slow update. I have been working through some issues as of late. I'm usually more consistent with my updates.

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