The Fifth Column [CHAPTER FIVE]

[ 五 ]

The sounds of excited chatter filled the dormitory. It was late evening, and Iseul could still taste the sweet mutton sauce on her tongue from dinner earlier. In the kitchen she had looked around, and estimated there to be almost a hundred girls who had passed the mushai-riki. That was some stiff competition right there, and she would have to contend with them, though for entirely different reasons. The longer she stayed in the palace, the more time she had to uncover who the Red Clover was.

Now they were all split into five dormitories, with each dormitory having four rooms. All the four rooms opened out to face the dormitory court, a moderately sized square of packed earth, surrounded by grass and one or two tall trees. Though the walkway outside the rooms might have been sheltered, the court was exposed to sun and rain. And in front of the court was the dormitory double doors, that led out to a plaza, which the five dormitories faced.

Each room in a dormitory held five girls. Iseul perched at the edge of her mattress, unpacking her things. The furnishings in the room was simple; each girl had a small cupboard for clothes, a bedside table and a small dressing mirror. A gap a few feet wide separated each section from the other, and a folding screen could be pulled open for privacy. As Iseul put away her clothes, her mind wandered.

The Red Clover was far more likely to recognize her than she him. If he was truly on their side, then she could expect contact of some kind from him soon, or at the very least be left alone. But if he was a spy, the monarchy would be alerted and she would be placed under investigation. They would do it discreetly of course, but there would be definite attempts to kick her out of the mushai-riki, or worse, a more permanent form of elimination. She felt like a guinea pig let loose on foreign land, to test if this new territory was conducive to life.

Outside a bell rang, loud and clear. The girls looked up. It was the signal for everyone to gather outside, in the plaza. Wide and spacious, it easily accommodated the hundred girls. A female attendant was waiting, and she faced them all importantly.

“Lady Sha will meet you all in the Room of Remembrance at the hour of nine.” She eyed a few of the girls, who were already in their nightdresses. “I suggest a complete outfit change to make yourselves look presentable.”

The attendant walked away, but at the last minute turned around, her voice warning. “Remember. She is the one who will determine who stays and who leaves the palace. So you will do well to leave a good impression.”

There was much flurry of activity after that. Iseul watched some of her roommates bring out hues for their eyes, blush for their cheeks and intricate pins to stick in their hair. For her part she was rather tired after the long day, and there was not enough time to apply cosmetics, at least, not to apply it well. In the end she merely focused on looking as neat and tidy as possible.

There was a worried sigh from the bed to her right. A petite girl was having trouble pinning up her hair. Her raven black tresses were thick and luscious, and her small fingers couldn’t quite get all the strands in place.

Iseul studied her for a moment. Then she completely ignored her and went back to combing her own hair. All these girls, trying so hard. She’ll never get that complicated bun up in time. As if to prove her point, a loud gong boomed through the air, signaling the hour of nine. With one last look at her own appearance, Iseul stood up and made for the door.

The girl next to her started to panic. Her eyes darted between the leaving girls and her mirror, and her fingers fumbled even clumsier. Her mouth opened as if to seek for help, but then closed as if she didn’t dare.

Just before she stepped outside, Iseul paused. She turned back, but didn’t take her hand off the door.

“Just leave it down. We’re meeting the King’s concubine, not the King’s son.”

“Oh!” The girl spoke as if she had never once raised her voice in her life. “But isn’t it messy? My sister says I should tie my hair up in a bun all the time. To look neat.”

“That exposes too much of your forehead. And you’re running late,” Iseul pointed out.

“Well – yes, but . . . ” the girl faltered.

Iseul’s eyes flicked out the door to the court. “Almost everyone has gathered.”

“Oh! Oh – alright, then.” The cosmetics drawer slammed close and the girl bunched up her gown. As she walked past Iseul she gave a shy smile and said, “I’m Xuerin, by the way. Yew Xuerin.”

“Pretty name. I’m Han Iseul.”

“I like yours,” Xuerin said shyly.

After a general consensus on attendance, the girls of dormitory three began walking toward the chengal doors. They didn’t manage to get very far, however.

A cacophony of clucks burst into the dormitory court as a frantic hen flapped its way in, feathers awry in distress. The girls at the front let out a shriek of alarm and backpedaled. Shocked and rather taken aback, everyone watched the animal screech and flit around on the ground. To get to the doors they had to pass the hen, but seeing how feral and agitated it looked, no one dared approach.

Xuerin bit her lip. “Oh dear, what do we do? We’re going to be late!”

Iseul wondered if she could try to chase the chicken away. She was not afraid of it per se, but the animal looked so wild it did left her feeling in doubt.

“What is this?”

“Oh, we must be so late!”

“What a first impression to give!”

“Can we ask anyone for help?”

One of the taller girls inched forward gingerly. She began making soothing noises, even stretching out a timid hand. The hen stood still, its plump body quivering. Slowly, the girl began to trace a tentative circumference around it, aiming for the doors. Everyone watched with bated breath.

The hen shrieked, fluffed up its feathers and the tall girl instantly jumped back to join the crowd. For about five minutes they all just stood there, muttering anxiously among themselves as to what to do, and shrinking away whenever the animal seemed to flap near.

“You would let a mere fowl prevent you from attending to important matters? Or do you not see me as important at all?”

A hush fell over the entire dormitory as a woman glided into view. She was dressed in crimson silk, the skirt sweeping around her feet, long sleeves flaring around slender wrists. One side of her face was veiled in black, but the single eye that could still be seen was keen and piercing. It was a sharp contrast to the rest of her that seemed so soft and slim and mellow.

“Lady Sha!” Iseul heard someone whispered.

Hands clasped below navel, the girls bowed. “Good evening, Lady Sha,” they chorused.

“Time is a treasure, and a cruel master.” Lady Sha’s gait was graceful as she crossed the threshold into the dormitory. “It doesn’t discriminate, and it takes and takes and takes. But just as how it may snatch opportunities from you, it is also generous in giving. You must learn to fight for these opportunities, for regret despite of its reason is still regret. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Lady Sha.”

Wordlessly, Lady Sha bent down. The hen let out a squawk and eyed her suspiciously. A beringed hand reached out to stroke its feathers, and the animal skittered away. But soothing noises drew it back, and easily Lady Sha had the creature purring in her arms. She stood back up. The girls watched in awe.

“While you live in the palace, you will obey the golden triangle. Intelligence, Art, and Etiquette. Each of this have a golden triangle of their own. Under Intelligence we have the study of history, of literature, and of course the monarchy. Under Art you will be required to pick up three skills of your choice. We have many to teach you – the art of cuisine, of dance, of self-defense, pottery, music, theater and henceforth. Under Etiquette you will learn the proper decorum towards your husband, the palace, and the society.”

Her voice carried with minimal effort. Her eyes swept the listening girls.

“Tomorrow I expect a punctual arrival at the Room of Remembrance before the hour of eight. Tomorrow will be your official first day as a lady-in-waiting, and I definitely hope it to be better than your performance today. For tomorrow will either bring into fruition whatever expectations you harbor of life here . . . or shatter them as how glass shatters in an icy storm.”

With a swish of her gown, Lady Sha left.

The place seemed to breathe again.


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