[ 四 ]
The day of the mushai-riki dawned bright and sunny. No one had stayed indoors; the streets were mortar arteries choked with people, each and every one of them pulsing toward the heart of Illeia – the palace.
The mushai-riki, or Daughters of Iris, was held every ten years. Eligible maidens signed themselves up to be candidates for future wives of the princes, and mothers sent daughters away with hopeful tears in their eyes. For months the palace was their new home, where a rigorous process of selection would take place, until in the end, only the most qualified maidens remained. These maidens were then presented in front of the princes who had come of age, who would choose their favorite. The maidens who were left-over after the choosing had to spend their lives in the royal harem, where they either become concubines of the King, or second wives to the princes should there be the need. Sometimes, if they were lucky, they caught the eye of the younger princes, those that had come of age only after the mushai-riki was over and done with. These women usually had husbands who were five years or more younger than them.
Either way, once you succeeded the mushai-riki, the monarchy owned you, body and soul. There was no leaving the palace, and daughters went years before they could see the faces of their family again. But succeeding the selection meant honor to the family name, as well as a monthly reward of 20 gold pieces to your home. Daughters rest easy knowing their parents’ monetary health was taken care of, and mothers too, rest easy knowing that their daughters led a good life in the palace.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There were many requirements to be met before a maiden was deemed eligible for the selection; a good family background was a must, as well as chastity, and the age too had to be between 18 to 26. Since the mushai-riki came about once a decade, this meant that if you failed it the first time, there would be no second try.
In this dynasty alone, Illeia had produced 25 princes. Out of these 25, 22 were still living, and 13 had come of age. Now hundreds of aspiring maidens thronged the streets, all hoping to be part of the final thirteen who, by mid-autumn, would have a prince dangling off their arm like how a cashmere coat dangled in the hands of a rich man’s wife.
Iseul stood in line, her eyes lowered, demure. She had arrived before the hour of seven, but already the line had stretched several streets. It twisted the lanes of the city, an undulating parade of colorful silks and voluminous gowns, halting all traffic. Nearly all shops were closed today, as the people gathered to watch the maidens, and offer their opinions to whomever that would listen.
Rays of the sun beat down on her back as Iseul waited, patient. Pins with jade insets peeked out of her hair, which had been twisted up into a bun, a few strands artfully let loose to flutter in the wind. Her hazel eyes seemed to glow under her eyelashes, which had been darkened with kohl and crushed berries. Her mother’s earrings dangled from her ears, but her neck had been left bare to draw attention to the slender ridges of her collarbone. She could still hear her uncle’s voice as he mixed the red paste that she would dab on her lips.
“Remember this, Iseul. Beauty is one of the greatest weapons known to womankind. Wield it well, and not only will you have powerful men bending at your fingertips, but you will also have the faculty to stop and start wars with just one blink of your eyelids.”
It was nearly noon by the time she stood in front of the eunuch. A table had been set up with paper and ink for registration, and directly behind it, only a few feet away, was the entrance to the palace. Near the gates there were several girls crying, maidens who had been told they were not qualified. Their pleadings were ignored by both the eunuch and security – those stony-faced guards that stood at constant attention to control the crowd. The audience had not thinned; everyone was eager to see the faces of those who would marry the princes, and perhaps, even be the next Queen.
The eunuch looked up at Iseul, taking in the silk of her gown, the curve of her chin and her straight and calm posture. Despite the morning heat, her features were unruffled and smooth. Any sweat that she might have had was gone without a trace, and her make-up had not run. He bent down and scribbled a few strokes.
Iseul handed over a sheaf of documents that included her birth certificate, her uncle’s reference letter and her self-introductory essay. The eunuch barely glanced through them before tucking all away inside a big fat envelope.
“Name?” he asked, without looking up.
“Han Iseul,” came the reply.
Moderate volume, polite, and with clear enunciation. The eunuch took note of that too.
The eunuch looked up then, and his voice was almost accusatory. “Why did you not apply when you were 18? Surely you must know that that is the minimum age.”
Iseul dipped her head a little in acknowledgement. “My family has been living out of town for as long as I can remember. It was only recently that we moved closer to the palace, and I could make the journey here. When I was eighteen too, I was in mourning over the passing of my mother. Grief clouded me most of time, blocking out thoughts of anything else.”
Speak the truth. It is easy to recall in times of need, and simple to twist. One need only to know how. Another one of her uncle’s advices. She had told the truth to the eunuch, only not the whole story.
The eunuch seemed satisfied. She glimpsed the words filial piety on his parchment, and inwardly she smiled. Obedience and respect were traits one looked for in a wife.
Iseul injected the right amount of sadness in her tone. “Alas, my father too is no longer in the picture. I have no siblings, and my uncle has been kind enough to take me in as his own. That is how I have lived for the past two years. Perhaps you have heard of him? His name is Han Sung, a well-known merchant in Kyrus, and makes a living from selling cosmetics and other beauty products.”
“He seems to have taught you well,” was the dry reply.
She did a little curtsy. “You are too kind.”
The eunuch saw the glimmer on Iseul’s lips, that stemmed from the dust of crushed gems that had been mixed into the red paste. Indeed, it was hard-pressed not to notice it. A chance tilt of the head and suddenly the eunuch’s eyes widened. Iseul knew he had noticed the sapphire gems in her earrings.
Sapphire jewelry itself was already a luxury, but sapphire carved to look like the flower iris was a whole new social status entirely. As the iris was Illeia’s national emblem, it was only allowed on royal items – clothes, jewelry, plates and cups that belonged to the monarchy. For one to own iris-decorated jewelry there were only two possibilities; that he or she was part of the monarchy, or that he or she had been wealthy enough to buy it off a royal, or be given it as a gift. Iseul knew the eunuch would assume the latter, and didn’t bother to correct him as he furiously wrote it down.
After a moment of writing, he finally looked up with a benign smile.
“Well Miss Iseul. It seems as if everything is in order. We have attendants that will carry your things and show you the way to your quarters. From there on, Lady Sha will be in charge. I wish you all the best, and may the gods be on your side.”
Just like that, she had passed the first stage of the mushai-riki. Now her new life of deceit would began in the palace, in the heart of the enemy both she and her uncle fought against.
Two youths took her luggage and gestured for her to come along. Iseul twisted her head around her shoulders, standing on tippy-toes. She wanted to see her uncle, her guardian for the last time, but she could not spot him in the crowd. Then she saw the tall hat, and the gold handkerchief that waved, once. For a moment she felt a semblance of assurance, and then the ornate iron-wrought gates clanged close behind her with loud finality.
Iseul swallowed down her apprehension and stared ahead. Beyond, the red and yellow bricks of the palace loomed.
Lady-in-waiting had just taken on a whole new meaning.