The Prince's concubine



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The small, but powerful, province by the Chinese coast was a rich such; a flowering centre for trading and happy people serving the imperial family. Yes, happy people who worshipped the imperial palace… the huge masterpiece behind high walls of pale stone, beyond the flowering garden - cared by hundred of keepers. Who else would keep the huge peach trees growing towards the bluest of skies? Truth to be told, the whole thing was a mere scar over the beautiful face of the province. Even so, a place of dreams in gold and red. The palace with it's endless passages in constant peace, in contrast to the constant flow of servants in the smaller corridors. All those rooms without a better purpose than existing. As the numbers of people in the royal family decreased over the years as life took its toll, the number of unused rooms grew. But the size of the imperial power or land never reduced.

This was the year of the snake, a year -according to the sayings- which would be lined with mystery and wealth. Though the new year, as well as any other year, could have been greeted by more beautiful things than the anniversary of the deceased Emperor. 3 years had gone by since that dreadful day. 3 years since the Empress had got hold of the throne. 3 years since madness had broke loose in the imperial palace. Which from behind the high walls seemed as peaceful as ever, but once in once could sense the turmoil. There was no question that the many counsellors of the imperial family often criticised the ruling Empress, for the woman in charge was nothing but mad. A disgrace towards everything that the province and the imperial power stood for! Just take her servants as an example; they were dressed in ridiculously few clothes and were far to many for them all to have anything to do. And the ones closest to her she dressed in jewellery, collars and such - just like animals! The small amount of clothes, the excuse for it, could only be compared to the ones of barbarous creatures. The ones who could be found in many of the books in the imperial library, too huge to be placed in the actually palace but had a whole annex to itself. As well as the dormitories of the servants was in another annex, a much smaller one.
…Was this only of his imagination? Had perhaps this been the case for all this years, only that he had not come to see this before now? That could be the case, but it didn't make it less disgusting.

A deep sigh emerged as he put his pale fingers to his pounding temples. The ache in his head had been coming and going since the sun had set the day before. He could not get rid of it, regardless what he did. As for the breathtaking heat, it did not make things easier; as it was now, with the cooling breezes coming with longer gaps, nothing helped. Not even could he, unlike the servant girl who just had passed him, enjoy the coolness from the marble floor. For his feet, as the rest of his body, was covered in thick silk.
In contrast to the servants he was everything but shallowly dressed. His gown built by, gods know how, many layers. Indeed his chest was slightly exposed as the fabrics were a bit pushed to the sides, baring his pale skin beneath. People like himself was not to wear the same sun-brown-hue as the servants, no that was not even thinkable. If that had been the case than, gods forbid, you could as well get mixed up with one of those people! However, the small area of exposed skin did not make his body cooler; the heath constantly reminded him about its presence, every time the lovely breezes drew away. As for his dressed feet, there was not a change someone like him could take the footwear of, that was not a respectable things to do but something left for the servants - a nicer word for what they truly were, slaves. Nothing more.
Clouds in weak lemon colours flowed across the sky, looking like a giant canvas getting attacked by thousands and thousands of paint brushes. It met with the trees in the horizon and mirrored itself in the sea so that the whole valley seemed golden. Unfortunatelly, not everyone could share the sight of this wonder. The workers of the palace almost never caught more than a small glimpse. Maybe sometimes, when they washed their own clothes in the river or when they cared enough to steal a view from one of the windows. For most of the workers, beauty wasn't attractive anymore. Living alongside such graceful characters as the nobilities of China, being privileged with the honour of changing the vibrant fabrics of their bed sheets; all of this could make one blind enough not to notice what was so extraordinary about it. Somewhere along the road you started to cherish other things. Things like a friendly smile from one of the elders or perhaps a new family member. Things that were basic became the most precious and the most yearned for.
The rules at the palace were simple. Don't meet the eyes of your masters and never speak with them. Do what you can to be useful and go to sleep with gratitude. It wasn't difficult - not even unfair. It was custom. But to those who had never been acquainted with these kind of places it was both a paradise and a living hell. The wondrous shapes of the mountains and the pale flowers that spread around them made the new load of strangers mad with passion and the different set of rules made them insecure. Some of them would be shipped further. Some would be asked to stay. No, not asked really. They would be bought and put to work.

Especially the birds of this exotic landscape fascinated Junjie. His never changing face followed them most attentively, examining their graceful stances and eyeing their quick movements. The way they moved their heads around reminded him of how babies turned to look at every inch of a room, moving their necks to either one or the other way rather than their eyes. The people were different too, even though he wasn't from a place very far away. Still, it was like another universe.
"Straighten you back, idiot. You'll be lucky if you get hired at all with that look on your face. Say something for once!" The guard was yelling at him with such force that Junjie got stains of saliva on the right side of his face. He answered him with no more than a look. He preferred to pretend to be mute and had done that as to avoid every kind of trouble that was possible. Maybe sometime they'd even let him go in fear of him being useless. However, those were only wishes and he knew that it was a long shot. Some people preferred those who never opened their mouths. He had a good build too so he'd surely get offered some kind of work soon enough. This place wouldn't be so bad, actually. The palace was an exquisite work of art and its inhabitants surely had a lot to do. If they bought him he'd most probably be able to blend in among the others quickly. Hopefully.
The light chirping sounds of birds flying by was of no interest to the Prince, looking like a statue where he sat. He had heard the tunes of their changing songs before, it was no more exotic than the colour of his hair or the air he breathed. He had grown up with this; therefore he did not longer see the beauty around him, but only the flaws.
”My most beloved son!”, the high pitched voice cut through the momentarily silence. Killing every chance of keeping his peaceful state of mind. A deep sigh emerged as he exhaled and once again pressed his slender fingers to his trembling temples. Through the high wooden doors at the far end of the hall you could see a slender woman walking towards him on light feet; the apocalypse on two feet - as he had heard someone say.

”Xiang?!” the Empress demanded, now standing at the end of the stairs to the throne. It was tempting to just ignore her.
”What do you want now?” he muttered as he closed his eyes with a irritated sigh - loud enough for her to hear his dissatisfaction. With all the servants, which had come after her, being quiet - they knew better than to speak- sound travelled fast in the hall.
”I thought I should tell my magnificent son that company is expected, very soon, and well…”, Xiang cast a puzzled glance towards his young mother, a hint of suspicion in them as well. Pretending not to see it the Empress continued,
”I am in need of your help with certain th-”
”YOUR HIGHNESS!!” the brutal roars that broke the Empress's speech came from a small man. A small man who on quick legs hurried through the long corridor before the gates of the throne room. The horrible nasal voice could only identify him as Empress's advisor. The sight contributed further to his headaches.
”My most beloved Empress, they have arrived!”
The Empress looked astonished , but nod to her advisers. Xiang on other hand quietly made his way down from the throne. Whereupon he discreetly tried to make his way to the smaller wooden door in opposite directions of the gates, well hidden behind the throne. However, he quickly became unveiled thanks to the noise from all of his bracelets that echoed in the sudden silence. For this, his mother took hold around his wrist and dragged him back across the floor -that suddenly seemed so slippery under his feet.
”Move faster you incompetent creatures!” the low sound of the vicious, dark voice from the end of the corridor made Xiang rise his gaze. The day suddenly seemed doomed to drown in utter darkness.
The ropes that held them together cut into Junjie's wrists. The wounds had become sore and dirty a long time ago. Protesting would be meaningless if you wouldn't happen to want the ropes to be any tighter than they already were. The pack of slaves were brought in in a long line. Their feet were dragging across the dirty and cool stone floors, leaving a trail of dust behind them. Some looked worse than others, some looked clean. Junjie looked like he usually did, unchanging. His long short cropped hair didn't move, his light grey eyes were cold as always and his two feet stood steadily on the floor. They stopped before well dressed men and women in colourful clothes and wrappings in a room that was more than beautiful. Junjie's eyes moved over the long silk curtains that thew shadows of blue, green and yellow across the room, over to the stone pillars that seemed to be carved by God himself. If there were deities, these were them. The line of slaves analyzed the room with fascinated gazes. Never had they been allowed to enter such chambers before. The leaders of this palace seemed eager to choose their workers for themselves, sorting out the valuable toys from the scum.
"They're all from different places, Your Highness. Picked them out myself, I did," said a muscular man in dark robes that had led them from where ever they'd come. His moves were slow and his voice was deep, as if he'd eaten stone for breakfast.
"I'd be happy to see you choose some of them," he added greedily, baring some of his ugly and broken teeth.
The expression on Xiang's face grew more and more disgusted as the group of humans were brought to them, leaving traces behind them and making the floors dirty - just like a pack of snails. His mother however seemed as pleased as ever before, obviously happy with the variety this time. The circus that then played before him he ignored, as he looked in another direction, didn't care and therefore didn't want to waste energy witnessing it. However, after some time the mandatory question came: Shouldn't he also pick a couple? The same question as always.
“I have no use for something like that” he answered, a chilly tone in this displeased voice. He knew better, really, than to decline something like this - if he didn't say 'yes' his mother would drive him crazy. It was not even worth the try. With this thought Xiang gave up, just like that. He didn't have the energy in him to argue back this time, it would anyway lead to the exact same decision as the one he'd made now.
With a deep sigh he stepped forward to the line of boys and girls, beginning at the end of the row and then slowly walking forward.

There was really only one he found interesting enough to examine further; he had unwillingly noticed the male when the pack of snail's had entered the room. With not so much as a word he tilted the males face up at the same time as bending down some, to get a better view. The eyes which met him made something move inside of him. The colour amazed him; made him fascinated and disgusted at the same time.
“Open your mouth” he said, looking at the other male with cold eyes.
Junjie didn't flicker with his eyes, didn't move as much as a muscle except for those in his lips, but just half the way. He was intensely focused on not spoiling anything. That would only be a burden to him. Especially since the pack that he travelled with thought that he was incapable of everything. No, it was better to play stupid for now.
"He's a mute, my Lord, but a good worker," laughed the guard and choked hoarsely. He then moved up behind the man and hit his back forcefully so that he stood straighter and made Junjie flinch. It hurt badly and the ring that the guard wore left a red mark on his back, a drop of blood trickling its way down. The guard moved on to a tall man next to Junjie that looked much like a caveman with his dirty hair tied in a leather band.
"May I suggest this one? He's our strongest one," he coaxed darkly.
Letting go of the male's chin Xiang straightened his back again. Mute, hu? That didn't matter, he wouldn't get him for the sake of his voice. It was those eyes… The sound and sight of the guard smacking the light eyed man made Xiang flinch and in anger reach out to grab the ugly man's neck. His sharp nails digging into the fat neck of the trader.
“Keep those ugly hands of yours to yourself, or I'll make sure you won't have any left!” he snarled coldly behind clenched teeth. He quickly calmed down again and fiercely let go of the man's neck, his eyes however still fierily intense with anger. No one touched his belongings, especially not with such filthy hands.
“Cut him loose” he demanded, taking a step back while wiping his hand with a towel that one of the servants just now had brought him; the trader was filthy and gross and nothing he wanted to have on his hand.
The man tried to hide his surprise but his eyes gave him away when the guard humbly cut the thick ropes that had kept him imprisoned for all these months. He didn't dare react to the attack against the guard but tried to concentrate on being silent instead. If he so much as groaned it could give him away. But it did affect him. He'd never experienced this kind of thing before; never even in his own world. The wondrous royal highness before him had an out of reach aura. Almost godlike was his stance and more so, his features that were as lovely as those of the other nobles in the room. Junjie's eyes were stuck on the floors to prevent being sent back before they'd eve left. The guard was still apologetic before his powerful leaders.
"Is there anything else, your Highness?" he asked the Empress, glancing at Junjie with a face that told exactly what he found him to be. Nothing more than a stain of dirt on his shoes.
The outraged move by Xiang had left the empress speechless, even when the guard spoke to her. The following conversation did not interested Xiang a bit and therefore he turned around to emerge the hall. The air in there was so full of filth that he felt like suffocating.
“Get It cleaned up and bring It over to my room” he demanded of the servants to his left, and then left the contained space. About calling the man “It”- he was too filthy to be called a human, so for now the man was 'It'.

The girls who'd been ordered to take the man with them immediately hurried to his sides in silence. Getting hold of him on each sides the began pushing him forward; they both had acknowledged the Princes bad patience and therefore did not want to waste one second.
He was definitely hired to do dirty work. Junjie was led by the women to a small chamber a few stairs down. There was barely any light and they must have been used to it, because they all managed to tap up a bath in a large wooden tub and washed his hair and body until he could be counted as a human being. A couple of them giggled degradingly when they noticed his weird eyes and they commented on his silence in hope that he'd be provoked enough to say something. He did not. After the bath, he recieved a set of clothes that the girls dressed him in. They were two layers of fabric; black and silver. It was all very strange. Was he even allowed to wear these kind of clothes? A woman, Peizhi, led him away, offering him not as much as a look.
"I don't know where you come from but you'd better stick to the rules or they'll get rid of you before you know it!" Her face was old and one of her legs dragged a little as she walked. She walked on and on. Led him through passages, through the pulse of servants and to a closed thick door.
"Good thing you can't speak. You look like a trouble maker," she said and gestured for him to stand still. She knocked on the door once and then trotted away with a face that looked as though it'd been massaged with a lemon. Junjie wasn't sure what to do so he waited still. His hair was combed - it smelled fresh. His whole being felt cleansed. And yet they hadn't done very much with him. Was this going to be good for him?
A low curse left his mouth as he pierced his fingertip on the spiky end of one of the hair ornaments he had been wearing this day. No, the day was not over but he did not feel like wearing heavy objects on his head just for the sake of beauty. A light knock on the door got the woman beside him move to it, who up until now had been helping him with the ornaments. He was well aware of the servants talking about this; him taking in a male. He had always surrounded himself with women, never before -if it hadn't been against his will- had a man been part of his inner circle of servants. It had surprised them all, as well as got them talking about his motives. Of course he had to had his motives - according to them anyway. To him it was only a matter of way to study something new. The teacher would probably laugh at him for this. Xiang rarely smiled, but thinking about this made the corner of his mouth twitch. When the door was slid to the side the excuse for a smile disappeared and he looked as cold as ever. “Bring him to me, then leave us” he said coldly as he continued with entangling his long hair from the ornaments.
The women in the room exited and let him go inside. This was nothing like the village he had lived in as a boy. He discretely studied all that came into view. Eyed it with utmost excitement. How could he not have known of such heavenly gardens, these extravagantly coloured cushions and the view that suited a king? Junjie had never heard of it and now as he saw it, his heart throbbed and ached. Yet, he did nothing more than just stand there in front of the man, waiting for him to open his mouth. He didn't care much for what the man wanted. He was more interested in how long he was going to be able to witness this paradise of earth. His gaze was angled at nothing. His face showed nothing. He was only to wait.
Xiang kept his eyes in the mirror in front of him as he spoke,
“You are not under any circumstances to touch anything, speak up, or even breathe unless I say so. Do not misunderstand the situation. I own you, therefore I can do whatever I want with you, so you better stay obedient.”, a painful expression came upon his face as he accidentally poked his head with the sharp end of one of the ornaments, “Now, come help me get these forsaken things out of my hair!” he demanded, dropping his hands from his hair, where he'd succeeded in entangling the ornaments even further. He rarely did this job himself, so why had he insisted on doing it himself this time? That had been utterly foolish. He could not see the man from where he sat, but he could feel the sent from the soap, it smelled clean which satisfied him enough to relax some.
Junjie walked up behind the man, unsure of where he was supposed to begin. He carefully touched one of the blue pieces of jewellery that held the bundle together. It gleamed in the light of a lantern that hung on the wall. Junjie tried his very best to untangle the pieces one by one - and did it without accidentally entangling them deeper into the mass of soft dark hair. The trick was not to hurt oneself on the short but sharp pins that were under them. That - he did. But when he was about to unclip the last one, a golden flower in the size of a small egg, it picked a whole in his finger. It didn't hurt remarkably but in a reflex, he flinched and accidentally hissed a quiet "ouch"! It made him panic. He wasn't sure if he should just pretend like nothing or just run away. Instead he stood still in apathy and wondered if it had even been noticed. His fingers started to tremble as he put the jewellery on the table that was in front of Xiang.
The sudden noise -everything but his own voice was noise- made Xiang turn his attention to the man behind him; looking at him through the mirror with scrutinizing eyes. Wasn't he supposed to be mute? A small grin came upon his painted lips, "Wasn't you supposed to be mute?” he said, the grin growing meaner. Turning around with high speed he grabbed the man's wrist and pulled him towards him. Stopped him a few inches away from himself with one of his nails digging into the chest of the other one. Their faces only inches from each other. The grin remained on his face as he continued speaking.
“Why is it you don't speak?” he asked, something gleaming in his almost black eyes as he looked into the light ones of his servant. The colour made him want to know more, and he really didn't want to feel this feeling of interest. It was disturbing.
The sudden movement shocked Junjie, a shock that was well reflected in his face that stared back at the young man's eyes. He took the opportunity to have a fair look at Xiang's face before he let go. Something small and sharp was pressing against his chest. Was he going to be killed? If so, the last he saw wouldn't be the ashes of his birth place. This even had a spirit and an impeccable beauty in it. Junjie could live with that. He hesitantly moved his lips again. It was strange to do that willingly after so long time. Strange but not bad.
"People prefer the silent," he whispered confidently, just stating the facts, "Since my master owns my voice too, what should I do with it?" he continued, louder this time. His eyes did not waver.
The grin transformed into a smug one as Xiang snorted lightly,
“Keep it to yourself if not told otherwise” he said whilst letting go of the other one and swirling back, facing the mirror again. “Oh,” he then began, “if you bleed, make sure you don't get it anywhere”, looking at him through the mirror the smug smile was replaced with cold and ice again. As said, he didn't like filth, less did he like blood. The mere look of it could ruin his whole day.
“Where are you from?” Xiang then asked, no longer looking at him but fingering on a small music box that was placed on the dark wooden desk. It was a beautiful one, adorned with highly detailed flowers in gold and gems in various colours. Probably a treasure from somewhere far away.
Junjie licked away the little drop of ruby blood on his finger in with a peck. It wouldn't be a problem to be quiet. After months and months of uttering nothing, he was more than thankful for these restrictions. He might bite his tongue if he spoke too much!
"I don't know. I called it 'home' and that was it." Junjie was talking slowly; taking one word at a time. Rushing was idiotic. Only the unwise and young rushed. Those who didn't were lucky to actually be able to experience life.
"I was isolated in many years until the village was burned down. Then I was captured. I only remember of the world outside what I saw on the way here." He wasn't in anger and not in fear. It had passed a long time ago. In this environment - all other life sounded surreal.
In utterly discretion Xiang turned his eyes towards the one behind him. Was this a feeling of sympathy that rushed through him? No, that was not possible. Perhaps it only was that he recognized an aspect of his own life in what had just been said. As others may look at the high walls and speak about them in admiration, he could only look at them with sadness - seeing it as the walls of his prison. Truth to be told, the times he had been on the outside could be count on one hand. The only thing he knew came from old books that his teacher told him about. However, he thought as he collected his feelings, who wanted to see the outside world? It would be such a disappointment, seeing it being even more ugly than this. With that the understanding in him was once again locked behind walls like the ones outside.
“Brush it as well,” Xiang said, “It easily tangles”, partly of his focus was once again on his hair, while one part of him still wondered about those eyes. The question about his home had only created more of that kind. Would he ever find out? His intense gaze followed the light eyed one behind him.
It had been a long time ago since Junjie had spoken to a living person. And now he even got questions. Maybe it was because Xiang was suspicious of him. Well, anyone could understand that, what with the servant's sudden decision to quit being permanently silent. He himself was surprised. He'd uttered more words in a minute than he had in two years. Unbelievable was the fact that he still knew how to. The man that sat in the beautifully carved seat before him had changed his life in minutes. Did he know that? No, probably not. And he surely didn't care about such trivialities. Junjie wouldn't. A palace bading in the glory of these surrounding curvy mountains and the heavenly sky, the trees that were heavy of ripe fruit and the people around whose long dresses swirled together in a sea of mosaic colours as they walked through the buildings; had he grown up in such a place, there wouldn't be much room left for unimportance in his thoughts.
Junjie obediently followed the commands from his master. It would be foolish not to. Being able to be in touch with such a mysterious soul made him only the more curious and intrigued by this place. At first, Xiang had appeared to be held captive by a simple minded disposition. Maybe he was, but not only. As Junjie drew the brush through the silky hair, he thought of how unpredictable life could be. Mere hours ago he'd still been on foot - looking for a permanent hire. If this was going to be permanent or not, he wasn't sure of that. But at least he got to enjoy it for now. The smooth and soul calming movements of the brush. A simple tool, one might think, but it was carved out of cherry tree in a half moon shape and gleamed with metallic colours in the faint light of the setting sun that was still shining through an opening in the wall. Junjie breathed with an inner peace, almost meditational. Something about the atmosphere made him feel safe.