Years ago, Bai Qian and her cousin Crown Prince Won created a secret place to sneak him out to play. In the most eastern section of the palace was an open yard. Within that vast area, neatly stood rows upon rows of brown earthen ceramic containers holding all sorts of pantry stables for the royal family’s menu.
In the east, absorbing the morning light, Doenjang soybean and brine fermented bean paste that color varied from reddish dark brown like goshari sun-dried fernbrake to what her cousin teasingly called baby poop pale brown depending on the stage of fermentation. Rich blackening soy sauces, some aged over a hundred years old. There was also a fine collection of plum, ginseng, exotic liqueurs, and makkoli, rice wines.
The dimension of these carefully cleaned and monitored lidded jars ranged from small being knee and waist-high to massive enough to fit two adult bodies with ease. Behind the most oversized urn in the farthest corner was a hidden passage in and out of the palace.
Blood cousins Crown Prince Won and Bai Qian had produced this entry like naughty puppies digging under a fence from opposite sides. It had started small in size, barely large enough to fit toddlers but over time, as the children grew, so had the size of the secret entrance.
Bai Qian returned to the monastery first after leaving Prince Ye Hua on his horse Shadow. The loyal steed was complaining the entire time that his master would never forgive him. She then headed to the palace, and as she rode, she contemplated what to do? Her heart told her, one reaps what they sow. Her royal aunt had killed her foster mother. In return, like karma, her royal aunt deserved the very same, no? Yet in her mind, she recalled how profoundly devastated Queen-mother had been when she saved Sujia by killing the wicked slavers.
She had been proud to rid the world of evil men and releasing the children, but Queen Cho told Bai Qian that it wasn’t her place to judge, jury, and executioner. Regardless of the wicked actions one does, when taking someone’s life, lest not forget even those who sin have parents who will weep for their loss.
Queen mother then raised her pants, exposing her royal calves in front of everyone, and had Bai Qian who deserved the beating. Instead, her foster mother ordered the young girl to whip her mother’s calves with a thick willow branch for every man she killed since she, as her guardian, had failed to raise her daughter correctly.
That shame, that inner blame of whipping her mother for her mistake, that terrible regret never went away, and now as Bai Qian crouched by the private entry to kill her aunt, it was impossible. Still, she sensed Queen Mother caressing her head and telling her to go back. “Forgive me, but I can’t stop myself.” Speaking to the phantom hand, she closed her eyes, apologized to her foster mother for not being a filial daughter, and snuck into the hole only to be greeted by her cousin Won.
The Crown Prince was typically a playful young man who smiled more than he should, but his expression was forlorn tonight. He wore his heavy heart on his downcast face, “I didn’t know what mother was planning. I found out after the fact.” He spoke, not being able to meet Bai Qian’s eyes. “I loved Queen Cho also. She never hated me even though I was the reason for her exile.”
“She used to hug and caress me more than my mother, so one day, I apologized, and she said without hesitation, “Children are innocent. Crown Prince, one day, you’ll be a great king.” Crown Prince snuffled, didn’t hide the fact that tears were running down his face.
He looked up at the sky as the tears from his eyes trailed down his cheek and neck. The tears were creating a dark spot on his royal blue and silver robe. “If you want to kill mother, I won’t stand in your way, but if you do, know this much. As of now, Queen Cho, deposed or not, will become a great martyr in Joseon. The people still love and remember her. But if you kill my mother, your aunt, you’ll turn innocent Queen Cho into a conspirator and suspect to schemes you don’t know of because they will create them to mar her noble name.”
“Qiana, my mother wasn’t planning on killing you. She made a deal with Minister Shao to have your” guilt caused the Crown Prince to turn away, unable to look at his broken cousin who was rocking herself in place, “To make you dirty… Have her niece raped. The guards were to use your body so you’ll be unable to become Empress when you reach the Forbidden City. Such a shameful plan. How can my mother live with herself? Does she not fear Heaven’s wrath?”
He sighed and looked much older than fifteen. “I’ve sent my guards to where they were going to… anyways. There are two girls, one dressed in the identical hanbok you left in and the other as Sujia usually does. They are going set fire to the sedan with the girls inside.”
“Set fire with the girls inside?! Are you insane?! I can’t allow someone to suffer in my place!” Dazed, Bai Qian suddenly came out of her stupor after hearing the graphic details of her cousin’s grotesque idea.
The sound was a dull thud when Crown Prince flicked his cousin’s forehead with his thumb and third fingers as he had since they were young and rebutted, “I’m not a heathen. The twins were to become nuns, but my father selected them to serve him as concubines. The sisters tried to kill themselves.”
“As punishment, my father promised to take them both tonight side by side, but they begged me for a way out, and I gave them an option. They both jumped at the opportunity. I honestly don’t blame them one bit. The King isn’t known for being cavalier, tender, or gentle when it comes to his fleshly habits. They’ll be drugged, unconscious, and won’t feel anything with their virtue intact.” He paused and spoke with the newfound maturity that comes when one grows due to hardship.
“Qiana, the world will think you’re dead. I’m sorry this is all your powerless cousin can do for you. Give you something I’ve never had or ever will. Total freedom from your surname, status, role, you can be anything, even join a traveling band of entertainers like we dreamt of and marry anyone you want. You can marry for love. Now scram before it’s too late..”
An affectionate farewell to his sister-like cousin. He kissed her forehead and advised, “Run far away and be happy, living joyful but double for me too!” Crown Prince Won led his younger cousin back to their secret hole, delicately pushed her through, and covered it with large rocks on his side since it would never be used by either of them again.
From there, everything was a blur. She couldn’t remember getting on Shadow or the entire ride back to where the others were waiting. She saw him rushing towards her, Prince Ye Hua, and braced herself to get roughly yanked off the horse and scolded but instead felt tender hands, holding, lifting, supporting her, and his voice was so calming when he murmured, “I have you, Bai Qian. It’s ok. You’re going to be alright. You’re safe now.”
Prince Ye Hua placed her back on his horse. She was so numb, he could have thrown her on the stallion like a bag of rice, and she wouldn’t have felt the difference. Yet, he was careful when he settled her in front of him, mounting behind her, embracing her waist with one arm lopped around and the other holding the reins as they left Joseon.
Like a child, he cradled her while sternly instructing the others, “We need to make distance and ride all night.” His assertive voice softened to a soothing pitch when he whispered, “Don’t look back, Bai Qian only forward. It’s time to take you home, Princess.”
It’s not as if she had the energy to turn back, and she didn’t. Suddenly Bai Qian couldn’t keep her heavy eyes open… they are shutting on their own. No, she was fainting in Ye Hua’s arms, and as she collapsed, she saw pink skies. The gay laughter of children echoes in her ears, and she was… It was delirium, that’s all. Confusion and shock from the terrible day had her temporarily insane because she felt like she was home in Prince Ye Hua’s arms.
‘Just for today,’ she promised herself as she began to fade into safe darkness. She would lean on this man and find solace in his protective arms, feeling his chest pressed against her backside only today.
Empress Zhang Da Xia
I was eight when my older sister Da Chun met the young Crown Prince, who was out in disguise to enjoy a stolen moment of normalcy. My sister and I were at the lantern festival while stuffing ourselves with tangula and freshly steamed sweet red bean baos.
I wanted a yellow lantern. We went to the merchant when a young man wanted to buy the same lantern as us. My sister asked politely, but when he refused, she openly accused him of being ungentlemanly, suddenly pinched my side to make me cry to create a tremendous scene, and humiliated him into conceding.
Looking back now, I think the Crown Prince knew he wasn’t going to win because when he offered her twenty times the value of the paper lamp to back off. She shamed him further for flaunting his wealth and yelled out to the crowd, “This generous, gracious man just announced he would buy all the lanterns here!” Then stuck her tongue out at him.
He and my sister wrote their wishes. After settling their issue, they went to opposite sides of the bridge with Da Chun still glaring at him over her shoulder. After releasing our lantern, my sister and I went off to watch the puppet show without a single look back.
The next day a royal proclamation came from the palace. It wasn’t even selection day when the Emperor ordered my sister to marry the Crown Prince as his first legal wife. It wasn’t until many years later; we found out the reason for such a sudden command. Call it fate, unbeknownst to each other; both had written the same thing on their lamps.
‘Ten thousand years, long live the Emperor. Peace to our great Dynasty.’ That wasn’t the only coincidence. Both my sister and the Crown Prince had drawn a single butterfly in flight above their filial wishes. Heaven destined them. The royal advisors informed the Emperor of the perfect marriage match.
They married that same month. When the newlyweds were outside the Forbidden City in the Prince’s palace, I visited and watched their interactions in awe. Often they sat in silence, but my sister would play the zither before abruptly blushing wildly, and he would giggle at their private joke. They were like that—peas in a pod. Perfect for each other.
It still brings a smile to my face when I recall how he used to give her piggyback rides around their courtyard just for fun. Or he’d make her sit on his lap and ride the garden swing together as the servants watched. He didn’t care what others thought. Much to my sister’s shock and secret delight, he used to kiss her face, even her lips, in public.
That was their honeymoon phase then everything changed. The following winter, the Emperor passed away, making the Crown Prince, Emperor, and my sixteen-year-old sister the Empress in charge of the rapidly growing harem. The previous Empress Dowager was an obstinate woman, ignored the mourning period, and selected twenty new girls that year alone.
Call it youthful naivety, but I found it all so exciting and glamorous. On my first visit to the Forbidden City, my sister spoke these somber words to me. ‘Life in a harem is far from glamorous, and those tall red walls, I think, become brighter every year because they are evidence of the blood tears the many women who live there cry in their loneliness.’
Her melancholy words could have been both a prediction and prophecy. Loneliness? Everyone assumes I know a thing or two about the subject. Some go as far as to think me a bit of an expert. Since the girls mockingly call me the Virgin Empress behind my back, the Virgin Empress will explain her attitude on the considerable difference between being alone and lonely.
I’m never alone. With a dozen servants at my call, I’m rarely alone. Then I must be lonely? It’s comical to the harem females that I’ve never laid with my husband, the Emperor, due to his weakened state or received a man’s touch, so then I must be lonely, needy, and unknowing of my worth. Isn’t that the consensus and the reason for the constant squabbling? Aren’t they all fighting for one man’s attention?
Had my sole purpose in life been to please a husband, or had I been an average woman, such a term would be derogatory. Should I be bothered or offended to be a virgin at the age of forty-two? Appearance aside, silly men and their fickle affections and lies? No, thank you. You can feed that nonsense to the dogs.
When I say dogs, I’m referring to the bitches in the harem. They don’t know the sweet taste of freedom with endless privileges.
Contrary to common belief, I consider myself quite fortunate. I enjoy my own company just fine. I don’t have a husband pestering me with his manly needs and weird sexual kinks. I can eat anything I please without ever worrying about gaining weight and becoming undesirable. Share my excellent bed with an old snoring, flatulating man, never. HA, I’m the luckiest one here! Everyone else can suck a dic… Oopsy, I mean, mind their own business.
Life of luxury living in the Grand Palace of Longevity and Good Health as Empress Zhang, Second Empress, blood younger sister to the deceased, still honored Empress Da Chun. My most rewarding responsibility has been seeing my sister’s children grow. It’s been a joy and blessing rearing my sister’s twins sons, my adopted children, as she did me. Infinite love, she showered on me when alive. She has left this world, but her affection I reciprocate to her children most willingly with interest.
Allow me to go back to the original question. Am I lonely? Not the slightest with children like Mo Yuan and Ye Hua as my sons. If only I had someone clever to day-drink and play games with, then my life would be perfect.
To be continued…