The Price of Silk

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I don’t know what came over me after that. Returning to my room on trembling legs, I could not fit my mind around what had just happened, what I had just seen. The sight of him coupled with her, the sound of his grunting, the smell of his sweat so filling my nostrils, I gagged on its taste. He has so poisoned each one of my senses, I would have clawed off my skin like a cocoon, meeting the world raw, but clean. My body felt suddenly heavy upon my bones and all sound from the outside world met my ears muffled, overpowered by a terrible ringing. By the time I made the arduous journey back to my bed, I felt that I would never be able to leave it again.

I cannot explain what happened to me over the next several days. As far as anyone else could tell, I had simply fallen ill, but within the confines of my skull, a chaotic violence seized me. My body became a Cold Palace unto itself, filling my mind with visions of blood, flayed bodies, rotting flesh, with tortures so brutal, only a demon could conceive of them. A fault line ran down the center of my being, splitting halves into fourths, eighths, into smaller and smaller incoherent parts, shrieking and arguing amongst each other. I am dying, I thought. I am dying and will go to Hell. It was not the Emperor who came to the room that night, but a demon wearing his skin. A shaman was sent for, an exorcism performed, but still the voices plagued me, the visions tormented me, the weight of my own bones pinned me to the bed. Only when I thought I could bear it no longer did the Empress come to visit.

My maid was boiling water for another pot of tea, the only substance I could manage to keep down, when I heard the door slide open. A tea cup clattered, my maid collapsed to the ground, and even through my hazy vision, I could see her, smeared like tearstained ink.

“My word, you really are unwell,” I heard her say. At the sound of her voice came the images of her and the Emperor from server nights prior. I squeezed my eyes shut to block it out.

Dismissing the servants, she sank down at my bedside, smoothing a hand over my hair. I flinched at the touch. “Poor Little Spider…” she cooed. “Your maid had not been caring for you properly. I will have her beaten for that.”

I hadn’t even the strength to respond. There was nothing I could think to say regardless. Her betrayal had severed my tongue like a blade and now there were no words left to speak.

“Let me make you some tea,” she said. “It will invigorate you.”

As she shuffled away, I was struck by the absurdity of what was happening: an Empress preparing tea for a lowly, fourth degree concubine. Why? I began to wonder. Why was she even here? Did she feel guilty? But why would she? Her duty was to her husband’s pleasure and happiness. Our own feelings were insignificant.

“Here.” She settled in beside me once more, this time supporting me so I could sit up in bed. “Drink.” She lifted a cup to my lips.

The taste was bitter, the liquid nearly too hot to drink, but I swallowed it all down. Only a few minutes after imbibing, my strength returned, my vision cleared, and I was able to sit up on my own. When her face came into focus, she looked more beautiful than I had ever seen her, face aglow with moonlike radiance, eyes deeper than starlit galaxies, lips full and flower-like. Even the silk she wore seemed to have melded with her being, falling with the utmost grace and elegance, almost floating of its own accord. It only cut me deeper, the sight of her beauty paired superimposed upon the keen knowledge of her betrayal. I had to look away.

“Feel better?” she asked.

“Yes, You Highness. Thank you.” The words came cold, listless. I could not even force sincerity into my voice. None of it brought me any gratitude, her summons, her promotions, not even her mastery over this sickness. Over the past several days, I had only longed for death and now she had robbed me even of that.

Still, she seemed oblivious to my resentment, leaning forward to to claim a kiss. Only when I failed to accept her affection did she finally catch on. “Little Spider? What’s wrong?”

The genuine confusion in her dark, fluttering eyes only pierced me deeper. “Nothing is wrong, Your Highness,” I said flatly. “I am just tired.”

Still, her eyes scanned my face, tearing holes through the veil of my dishonesty. “I don’t believe you,” she stated with firm resolution. “I have come all this way from my palace just to visit you. I did not expect to be received so coldly.”

I managed to pull myself up enough to fall into a bow. “Please forgive me, Your Highness. I do not mean to seem cold.”

But even with my face to the ground, she could sense the detachment in my voice. “You are upset with me,” she said.

Again, I spoke the words required of me. “I could never be upset with you, Your Highness. I am honored you came to visit.”

“You are lying.” Now her words were hard, angry. “I will not be lied to, especially not by you. You will tell me what is wrong.”

Her words struck me like steel to flint, sparking a blaze I had long struggled to keep smothered. Slowly, I sat up, the flames leaping up from my belly into my chest, setting fire to my tongue. “‘What is wrong?’” My hands closed into fists. “What in this palace is not wrong?”

I lifted my gaze to hers, shedding every compulsory protocol, gazing beyond her beauty and rank to the formless emptiness behind her eyes. “You are the Empress, ruler of my soul, mistress of heaven and earth. I have seen powerful men tremble before you, I have seen kingdoms rise and fall at your word. Every minister carries out your orders, every court lady regards you with awe. How, knowing your own power and strength, could you so degrade yourself?”

In an instant, the cold impassivity of the Empress’ gaze shifted to started bemusement. I sat up straighter, chin raised. “You are greater than him,” I hissed. “That so-called Emperor. That weak, slug of a man who cannot run his own kingdom yet gorges himself the best of its fruits. That fraud whose incompetence has called heaven’s wrath down upon our fields and brought barbarians to our borders…. How could you allow such a man to touch you?”

My words were a death sentence. Nonetheless, they poured from me like tears, spilling ceaselessly down my face. “He is a worm, a parasite, completely undeserving of your submission, and yet you let him rut upon you like a bitch in heat. How could you let him inside you? How could you force me to witness such an vile act of desecration?”

She stared at me, expression blank, mute and still as stone. Though she betrayed no sense of anger, I was certain she would have me killed. The way I had just spoken, the venomous blasphemy I had just spilled from my mouth, there was no possible way I could be permitted to live. But even knowing this, I was not afraid. Death was a preferable alternative to living in a world where everything beautiful and shining must be subjugated to the stale tyranny of feeble old men. World she carried within her promised life, rebirth, a departure from the order that had stripped me of everything. And yet, so long as that man yet ruled, it could never be anything more than a dream.

I expected her to call the guards, to have me hauled away to be beaten or stranded, but instead she defied all exception, lunging at me and pinning me to the bed. For a moment I feared to execute me in the most intimate way possible—strangulation by her own bare hands—and the last thing I would see of this life would be her eyes, hating me. But her hands instead clawed at my robes, tearing them open, and she pressed her mouth to mine, swallowing my protests whole.

“No!” I twisted beneath her, shoving her away, but she was much stronger than her elegant bearing let on. Pinning my hands beneath hers, she appeared all the more excited by my resistance, kissing me again with feverish urgency. I sank my teeth into her lip, and pulling back with a yelp, she landed a blow against my skull. Blotches of ink spilled across my vision, the colors of the world running like paint on a screen. In my disorientation, her mouth descended again, traveling down my torso, over my breasts, across my belly, finally settling between my legs. “No!” I sat up, clawing at her hair, pushing her back with all my might, but her arms locked around my thighs, and I could not escape. In the end, I relented, my will subjugated to hers as she forced me to the point of climax.

Afterwards, I just laid there, cradled against her chest where she brushed an idle thumb over the dark blossom on my cheek. I was empty, hollow, utterly humiliated, yet still I accepted her touch, savoring its gentleness in the wake of her violence. Closing my eyes, I could have almost imagined she loved me.

“You are right,” she said, breaking the silence. “I am greater than him. I have always been greater than him. I have known that from the very beginning.” In my daze, I struggled to retrace her words back to prior conversation, to remember who we were talking about before, so insignificant was the Emperor in my mind. Still, I cringed at his recollection.

The Empress shifted in apparent agitation. “But I would have you know, I did not always enjoy such an elevated position nor was it given to me without struggle. Like you, I had to claw my way from the bottom, from the lowest rungs of society, across two dynasties, across two emperors, across the bodies of powerful men and women.”

She fell silent, returning her gaze to the ceiling. “My husband’s father overthrew my father’s dynasty. He stormed the Palace, killing the Emperor and my older brothers before setting his soldiers loose through the women’s quarters. There, he put my younger brothers to the sword and let his soldiers take their turn with my mother. Finally, he took me to my mother’s bedchamber and personally saw to my own defilement. I had just turned twelve years-old.”

Her voice broke, falling silent once more, throat working against the swell of tears. “But of course, that is just what happens during a coup. No conquest is complete unless the women are stripped of their honor in turn. Most of them were killed afterwards, but my mother, being the former Empress, was sent with me to the Flank Court to serve as a slave. There, she hanged herself, unable to live with the shame.”

She squeezed me closer, as if to guard her heart against the memory. “So I did what I had to, used whatever means at my disposal to reclaim my birthright. I formed alliances, ascended the ranks of the court, even charmed to new Emperor into making me his attendant. And soon the mighty conqueror found his sons pitted against each other, harboring fantasies of patricide and fratricide. He had no choice but to give the throne to the most passive and malleable of his princes, a prince who was secretly in love with one of his father’s concubines.”

She smiled and, I knew it was true. The Emperor was only on the throne because she had put him there, and weak and ineffectual as he might be, he was a necessary evil, a means to whatever her ends. In this realization I found a measure of security, a glimmer of hope for the future.

“My darling Jiaying.” She stroked my hair with exaggerated tenderness. “I promise you: soon will come a day when it will be well within a woman’s reach to inherit a kingdom. Not just one woman, but all women. One day, our daughters will study for the civil service exam alongside our sons and will assume government positions on their own merits. One day, we will be valued for more than the sons we bear or the men we sleep with. And one day…” She stroked my face, tilting my chin up so that I could see the remorse shimmering in her glassy eyes. “I will no longer have to offer my maiden attendants to my husband for his use.”

Tears stung my eyes, my throat constricting to hear the true source of my pain so directly named. Still, I did not turn from her gaze.

“But I cannot do it alone, Jiaying. I must have your help, your wit, your remarkable insights. You have a chance to serve your Empire in a way that no other woman has. Will you do it? Will you help me create this future for us?”

With that simple question, she broke through my defenses, subduing whatever remaining resistance I held. In that moment, I became hers completely, mind, body, and soul, and only the gods themselves could have put us asunder.

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