Bent at the waist, Eunuch Bo curved while in wait, just five paces behind his master in his usual place. It didn’t take a scholar to understand his highness’s disappointment. Rushing in to celebrate the good news of the upcoming births would have been more fitting. Instead, Crown Prince Mo Yuan stood perfectly still like a marble statue before the coral meditation mala beads hooked on his ring finger began to roll. Slowly, soundlessly the bright orange balls steadily moved reflectively perhaps of his thoughts on the spectacle coming from inside Imperial Consort’s residence.
“Those hideous rags and that weird rotting root, everything from that so-called princess, is rubbish! Trash! And all these other gifts from the concubines burn them all. From now on, accept nothing from any palace. Don’t accept any gifts or food from anyone! These whores are all jealous of the little prince in my stomach!” Imperial Consort Shao Wan carried on in her typical commanding tone.
Hurried shuffling sounds of rushed footsteps followed as her servants raced to do her biddings. Still, one disgruntled attendant whispered outside in the courtyard, “Aya. Our Mistress is so cold and stingy. What a waste! She could have given these to us to make new dresses, and this wild ginseng is over a hundred years old. Not even our Emperor would be displeased. She even threw away the hairpin from the Empress.”
The other snapped back in a fearful hush, “Nǐ fēngle ma!? Are you crazy!? Don’t say another word unless you want a beating or go to bed hungry again! Our Mistress is more temperamental from hormones and out of her mind, furious about Consort Xiang’s pregnancy. Soon we will witness a war as they both strive to give birth to the first little prince.”
The rushing girls turned the corner and ran out the main gate, nearly fainting, when they saw the Crown Prince and his serving attendants standing there. They plummeted, dropped on their knees, and shook like autumn leaves when his highness wordlessly reached down to retrieve the golden hairpin from the heap of tributes in their arms before sliding it inside his golden dragon embossed coat.
Crown Prince Mo Yuan didn’t speak a word, nor did his expression change. Just a subtle sigh was enough for Eunuch Bo to anticipate his royal highness would be spending the night with his consort while openly ignoring his currently pregnant childhood sweetheart, Imperial Consort Shao Wan. He could read his master’s moods with brilliant clarity even though he wasn’t born to become a eunuch. He was the first and only member of his family to serve the royals.
His father, a high-born scholar well known for his calligraphy and paintings, fell in love with the family maid and left his family and status for her. Their status differential love was taboo, but Kuoli was already tucked away safely inside his mother’s womb with a heartbeat when the forbidden lovers married and set up a little stationery in the marketplace.
Eunuch Bo Kuoli’s childhood was simple but full of art and beautifully painted words on long bamboo and silk scrolls. If he had to conjure his first memory, it was a scent. Burnt, the sooty smell of charred pine tree roots from the yellow mountain exuded from his mother’s breasts when he nursed from her buxom inside the private living quarters behind the ink and paper store. His second memory was a feeling, love. The sensual way black ink licked, covering the white surface before overpowering it, was like peeking at lovers sharing a passionate kiss. Before he learned to read the characters, he believed the scrolls were love letters.
That was his mindset and upbringing. His family was far from being affluent, but affection was abundant; he had four siblings. They were a typical family until robbers killed his parents. Kuoli, at age ten, the eldest, became the head of the household. Debt was all his parents left behind to their five children. Lacking funds, he could not bury them properly, and his young siblings grew hungrier with every passing day. Out of nowhere, unknown relatives like vultures plunged in, proclaimed the store as theirs, so he, a mere child himself, began to work night and day.
He toiled like a beast of burden, and there weren’t any tasks beneath him when his siblings’ bellies needed filling. He transported human waste out of the city and then carried fresh water from the high mountain springs back to the markets for sixteen hours a day. He was a handsome young boy with appealing features. It didn’t take long before he caught the eyes of a brothel owner. On the pleasure boat, he washed soiled linens, scrubbed floors, and cleaned the rooms. The wage was higher than transporting fluids. He would have stayed there, but two years into his employment, a drunken man stumbled in while Kuoli was changing the bedding in one of the girls’ rooms.
This older man, a wealthy merchant, was dressed in fine silks, with massive gemstone-laden rings on every finger. Those ringed fingers left cuts and bruises all over his body when the drunkard roughly raped the young boy before throwing coins at him when the attack was through. Little Kuoli never knew men could be raped until it happened to him. He finished all his tasks and never uttered a word about what had happened. He kept the meager money. It was a few coins at best, but its weight in his pockets was nearly insufferable.
He never knew such unfathomable shame existed. Kuoli wanted to drown himself in the river, and suicide was all he could think of as he limped home from his attack, but then who would support his young siblings? What would become of them? They would become beggars or, even worse, endure what he had. He hadn’t any choice but to carry on as if nothing had occurred.
His mind told him this, but the tears wouldn’t stop falling down his face. He spotted a watering hole paused to wash his tear-streaked face when a man’s voice from behind asked, “Child, boy, are you injured? There’s blood on your clothes.”
Kuoli didn’t know it then, but this empathic man with wrinkled eyes would forever change his life, for this soft-spoken traveler was none other than the Emperor’s senior eunuch. After performing funeral rites for his mother and going back into the Forbidden City, Eunuch Lo noticed and followed the crying boy partly out of curiosity and concern.
Maybe it was the gentleness of his tone or having anyone ask of his well-being after his parents’ deaths that young Kuoli sank to his knees and sobbingly revealed to a complete stranger the horrific details of the most disgraceful act he had endured.
“Aya, such evil. You poor háizi, demons do walk amongst us.” He had responded without judgment, sympathy pouring from his gaze to the broken boy in need of comforting.
This kindly man not only consoled him but offered him an opportunity to change his life. He warned Kuoli that it wasn’t a painless path, but more demands would be made of him within the Forbidden City, but wages were higher than those on the streets from doing everyday dirty tasks. However, the trade-off was steep. Kuoli would sacrifice the part of his body that made him a male and the ability to become a father.
The hefty price was castration.
Fatherhood didn’t interest him. He was already father to his four siblings: tarnished was all concepts, manhood, and the ability to experience sexual pleasure after his trauma. There wasn’t any resistance or hesitation; the boy followed the gentleman’s sedan into the palace.
Castration was painful. Kuoli feverish bled for many days. It took time to adjust to his new body. Like all the other servants, he registered his family name for an internal audit to ensure he didn’t have any associations with other families within the palaces.
It wasn’t intentional. If anything, he tried his best to blend in with the others, but he stood out amongst his peers. He was highly literate, educated in a domain of illiterate servants. He worked with an apparent eagerness taking on more work than others. He never complained, loafed about, or conveyed rudely and never spoke out of turn. He didn’t expect any special attention, nor did he desire to be looked upon favorably. He was quick to surmise situations and could seemingly predict the needs of those he served.
He began to get noticed as he did in the marketplace, and soon royal family members requested him by name. Within three years, the impossible happened. The clever, heavy-lipped, even-tempered junior servant became Crown Prince Mo Yuan’s immediate assistance. His relentless studies of the senior eunuchs’ mannerisms had paid off, making this fifteen-year-old one of the most powerful servants in the Forbidden City.
His shifu Eunuch Lo said he was the first to move up the ranks quickly. Some congratulated him. Others who were jealous were swift to fill his head with horror stories. Kuoli had been fearful of the silent and stoic future Emperor, and his twin fourth Prince Ye Hua having heard all the stories from the different eunuchs that had served them previously.
The first day he assisted in dressing Crown Prince Mo Yuan, Kuoli nearly vomited from nerves. He could barely pour tea or set the royal meals the first few weeks without trembling. He blushed terribly and stammered when the harem women commented about his handsome face and teased him about dressing him as a woman. He often made mistakes, and every day, Kuoli expected a thrashing for his failures, but that never happened.
Around the second month, Kuoli noticed the Crown Prince’s clean inkwell and rushed to grind the dragon imprinted inkstone. That smell of charred pine root with a hint of floral coming from the inkstone reminded him of his mother, and the thick black tar-like color reminded him of home that, for the first time in front of his highness, the nervous servant relaxed and smiled a smidge with joy. The Crown Prince had delicately graceful hands. The young monarch’s brush handling was artistic, beautiful when he drew one perfect circle, wrote Kuoli’s and his royal name in the center, and talked more than he had before or ever would in the future.
He said, “Do you understand the meaning of this? Eunuch Bo, you are in my inner circle.” He addressed him as Eunuch Bo, not the informal name, Kuoli’er as the other had, “I demand utmost loyalty and privacy. Anything that transpires within these walls must never circulate. As one of my closest aids, you’ll see me at my most intimate state. You are my left hand as the Head of Guards Bai Zhen is my right.”
With a bit of tilt of his head, Crown Prince Mo Yuan motioned to the box by his feet and said, “A token for your new position within my household and a warning in case I haven’t made myself clear.” Inside the wooden crate was the decapitated head of the man who had sexually molested him several years ago.
The servant had thrown himself at his master’s feet, kowtowing as blood trickled down his forehead until someone yanked the back of his garment and uttered, “Pff this Mo Yuan is really shameless. I cut that man’s head off his useless neck, yet our Crown Prince sits here lollygagging, looking all dashing and slurping up all the glory.”
Dressed in all black except for the pearl and silver hairpin, Fourth Prince Ye Hua knelt, squinted his slanted eyes looking closer at the servant’s bleeding face, and declared shaking his head, “Aya, no more bowing. I’ll take the sentiments only. No need to bruise that pretty face all our meimeis’ princesses carry on about.”
With one arm, the Fourth Prince raised the servant to his feet, roughly patted his back as one would do to a friend, eyed the circle on the Crown Prince’s desk, and cursed, “That fucking chart is missing a name, and everyone here knows whose’s name it is. Big brother, that’s not your real name. Let me correct your error.” He stated in a dramatic tone full of exaggerated arrogance before the younger sibling leaned in, grabbed the brush from his brother’s hand, crossed out the Crown Prince Mo Yuan’s name, and wrote over it with bold strokes of ink.
Prince Ye Hua’s lips flattened into a line reflecting his defiance as he wrote, ‘Wǒ de húndàn wángzǐ Prince of my asshole” before both brothers broke out in hearty laughter and Kuoli wasn’t afraid of them anymore. He saw their love for one another. It felt as if they were revealing a secret and he was ever fortunate to see the affectionate bond between them. Since they were showing their candidness to him, it also felt like acceptance. He understood them.
There were rumors the royal siblings were fighting each other for the throne, but that was the very opposite; the brothers were closer than anyone knew. They lived in two separate bodies but clearly functioned cohesively as one team. Kuoli would throw down his life for his two masters, and if he outlived either of his highnesses, he would willingly be buried alive to serve them in their next lives.
I liked Shao Wan because she was fearless and bold. She wasn’t always such an absurdly arrogant and ungrateful female. She’s changed, not for the better, while my feelings for her remain sincere.
I recall when we met. We were both five, and this was shortly after my eldest brother’s assassination attempt on Ye Hua and me. It was a strange time in the palace, and nobody was allowed to speak of the coup. I thankfully had Ye Hua to share my feelings with, but nobody else dared to mention our older brother’s name. Except for this silly button-nosed plump girl. She had the rosiest cheeks like two ripen apples.
Shao Wan entered the Forbidden City to become my younger sister’s companion when she spotted me, looked straight at me, ran up to me, and declared, “Hey, I’ve heard your older brother tried to kill you. He was a traitor, so don’t feel bad that he’s dead.” She looked me up and down then said, “I’ve just decided we’re going to get married.”
With fisted hands, she exclaimed, “I’m Shao Wan, and I’ll beat up anyone who tries to hurt you again. I have sharp teeth, and I’ll bite anyone, even the Emperor. I know you’re supposed to marry someone else, but I’m pretty sure you’ll fall in love with me and ask your father to change his mind because I want to be your Empress.”
She was right. I fell in love with her cute face and fighting spirit, and I asked Royal Father to amend his royal decree. He denied my request and said, “One day soon, you’ll understand my choice, and that must be today because I do.
Shao Wan is beautiful but lacks kindness or benevolence. She isn’t worthy of becoming the Empress. Now I’m going my Consort Xiang; I pray the news of her mother’s death won’t be too much in her delicate condition.
Losing our mother is a pain she and I now share. I’ll gift her the beautiful hairpin Shao Wan so haphazardly discarded from the Empress, my adopted mother, and I might tell her that out of the two, I hope she is the one to bear my first child.
To be continued…