Have you ever felt completely alone? Like a stranger in your own body and living a life that wasn’t yours to live? Wearing foreign skin that didn’t belong to you? Never fitting in or feeling understood? Not knowing who you are? Even the reflection staring back at me in the mirror seemed deceitful and false.
This stranger was me before they came into my life then everything changed.
Because of them, unconditional love has been mine, and I’ve known unimaginable joys. Fear of my approaching demise, I feel not when my descending body’s weight forces the tip of the blade through my flesh, and instead of cold steel, I welcome the heat—the warmth of his body greeting mine. “Wait, I’m going with you,” I say as fresh blood gushes from my smiling lips, and I beam to soothe his dark, pain-filled eyes but mainly because this is what I want. My act is selfish. I know this even without looking into the other set of eyes staring at me in shock. Deep-felt, unfathomable sadness and regret exactly mirrors his twin’s horrified gaze as he helplessly watches us die, unable to stop it from happening.
Five Years Before
My father said many unusual events happened in the year of my birth. Winter, the night of the first snowfall, a dazzlingly brilliant three-tailed falling star suddenly appeared and hovered in the southern hemisphere before plummeting towards the palace. A few weeks later, the long barren Empress declared her first pregnancy with twins, and days after, my father, Duke Bai, received a message from my mother, Duchess Meixie. She was away visiting her younger sister Princess Linqin, Imperial Consort to Joseon’s King. My mother was stunned, having missed her monthly cycle, and was not only pregnant again, but the imperial physician predicted by the secondary pulse’s speed, she was carrying a girl.
The natural reaction to such news should have been to celebrate, but my mother’s pregnancy was shocking for several reasons. For generations, the Bai family line had not produced more than four descendants and never a female. My fourth brother Bai Zhen was already a grown young man of fifteen, and at age forty, my mother wasn’t in her prime anymore. He sent word advising her to stay put in Joseon for the duration of her delicate state.
Due to the extreme circumstances, my father felt it prudent to keep her pregnancy a secret since any child conceived after the fourth never lived. But within the royal palace, secrets are impossible to keep because the Sovereign knows and hears all. My father’s concerns were his alone and not shared by the Qing Emperor, who learned of my mother’s expecting state and declared the comet’s mysterious sighting. The miraculous events that followed were all divine manifestations, signs from above. He announced a prearranged royal marriage in front of the imperial court to join our families more extensively.
The royals and our noble blood have maintained steadfast harmony since the beginning of the empire. Our deeply interwoven relationships are like a beautiful tapestry. Marriages happen when possible. My eldest brother is married to his first love, Princess Luli, the Emperor’s third daughter, and my mother is one of his younger cousins.
There might have been a Bai Empress had there been any females born before me. All the Bai men have been renowned war generals, heroes who command Qing’s mighty armies and defend our flourishing lands. My father is known for his compassion as much as his brilliant militaristic mind and bravery on the battlegrounds. He is the loyal and highly respected Minister of Defense to the current philosophically sage ruler.
It was an honor, and in all truth, he never expected my mother to give birth to a living child, let alone a girl. Imagine what a shock it was for everyone when the Empress went into labor and birthed twin sons, while my mother down in the southern peninsula gave birth to the first healthy female child in Bai history on the same day at the same hour down to the minute.
Was it mere coincidence or something more meaningful like fate that we were all born on the eighth month, the eighth day, on the eighth hour, 888 in the year of the dragon? The same birthday, identical horoscope between two spouses? Perfect symmetry and balance. Was there a more auspicious sign than this? Adding fuel, stoking the fire, and proving further to the Emperor, our noble houses were indeed predestined by Heaven to forever join through matrimony to bring eternal peace to the nation.
I was betrothed from the moment I took my first amniotic fluid-expelling breath. Firstborn son, Crown Prince Mo Yuan, great Qing’s future Emperor, and I, Bai Qian, were promised to wed. Following the Book Of Rites’ ancient traditions, we’ll bow to Heaven and Earth after Crown Prince Mo Yuan’s hair capping ceremony at age twenty. That’s not for another five years, but I’ll join his harem as his proposed Princess Consort along with his childhood sweetheart, Consort Shao Wan, after my hair pinning ceremony when I’m fifteen.
Did I mention I’ll be fifteen in a few months? Exactly, three months, nine days, and forty-seven minutes, not that I’m counting. Sigh. Goodbye youthful freedom in Joseon, and hello the misery of being just another made-up, perfumed, dressed-in-wait, a lonely woman forever stuck in an imperial stable.
To be continued…