The Fifth Column [CHAPTER SIX]

[ 六 ]

With a wince, Iseul sat down in her chair. Every part of her ached, and the muscles in her calves throbbed. Next to her, Xuerin sank down in the empty seat. It had only been the first half of their day, and already they were quite positively exhausted.

Xuerin groaned. “If they should ever eliminate me from the mushai-riki, it’ll be because I die of weariness than anything else.”

“Touch wood,” Iseul muttered, and she dragged a hand over the surface of the lunch table.

Volume and grousing both increased in proportionality as more girls filed into the dining hall, slumping down in the nearest chairs. They gathered themselves around long tables of aged mahogany, stomachs rumbling as scents of cooking wafted from the kitchens.

“My legs will snap off, I know they will.”

“I can just feel the blisters forming.”

“I hear it’s only going to get worse!”

They had had two classes that morning. A Study of Illeian History, conducted in the Room of Remembrance by a wizened old professor who seemed to drone both himself and them to sleep; as well as The Etiquette of Walking which was done in the large outer court. The history lesson hadn’t been that bad, and Iseul dreaded the assignment more than anything else – a five-page report on the 600-paged manuscript A Barbarian Tale, which told of the times before monarchy came into power in Illeia.

“To be submitted by your next class, of course,” the professor had added.

“But sir,” a girl timidly raised her hand, “our next class is only two days away.”

The professor peered at her, eyes squinting. “Your point?”

No one had answered after that.

Rather, it had been The Etiquette of Walking that had proved itself to be an absolute killer. The court lady in charge of the lesson had an iris emblazoned at the front of her silk robes, which indicated high status and should have had been a warning to Iseul that things were not about to go easy. And indeed they had not; first she made them stretch in positions Iseul was sure the human body was not meant to conform to, then she asked them all to jog several rounds around the court. Then came more rounds of pure walking, which was used to point out and correct every last detail of their posture and gait. From that she concluded that 9 out of 10 of them had terrible balance, which naturally could be overcome by walking on thin metal beams from one end to the other, and for every time you fell off you had to jog the court once. Then they had to walk while balancing items such as books and pitchers on their heads. Not a single one of them was dry after that exercise – the pitchers had not been empty.

“Already tired, are we?” said a voice from the front of the tables.

All around the table the girls snapped to attention and drew themselves straight with much protesting of the joints. “Not at all, Lady Sha.”

Today Lady Sha was wearing dandelion yellow, and her sleeves laced in white. The veil stayed on. Iseul wondered idly if perhaps in her youth she had suffered from a bad case of stroke; her face seemed unable to contort and change itself into more agreeable expressions. Her eyes, as usual, pierced through the food-scented air.

“I certainly hope so. Because after lunch you will be picking your three arts, and classes will begin immediately. I trust you will rid yourselves of those grimaces before then.”

She left in a swish of fabric, and the food arrived. There were steaming pots of lamb, stewed in chunk-sized potatoes and juicy tomatoes, the meat so tender it fell right off Xuerin’s fork. The side dishes were served in small porcelain plates, an endless stream of pickled radish, raw cucumber, spicy bellflower root and stir-fried soybean sprouts. As they ate the conversation turned to the arts, and what three choices should they take.

“But of course, this decision cannot be made lightly. You will be staying with these three arts for the rest of the mushai-riki after all, and you’ll be demonstrating them in front of the princes as well.”

Iseul looked up from her lamb to see who was speaking. The voice rang with an authority that reminded her of the royal bells. It belonged, Iseul saw, to a girl sitting on the left side of their table. Her fingers curved elegantly as she sipped from her glass, and an iris necklace gleamed at the dip in her neck where the collarbones met. Her face would have been beautiful if not for the arrogant bridge of her fine nose.

“Naturally,” she was saying, “you have to pick an art that has strong appeal. I personally, believe that cuisine and knitting are both excellent choices. A wife is expected to do both for her husband, is she not?”

Her audience looked positively enraptured as they all nodded and muttered words of encouragement. Iseul frowned slightly.

One of the listening girls sighed in envy. “I wish I was as smart as you, Hwa! You’re so intelligent . . . you answered all of professor’s questions correctly in class just now, didn’t you?”

Hwa gave an indulgent smile. Delicately she chewed on a bellflower root, dabbing her lips with a handkerchief.

“But of course. My father is the Minister of Foreign Affairs after all, and he makes sure to provide for me all that I require. I had the best tutors since young.” Looking around, her voice hushed conspiratorially. “In fact, I don’t much like telling people this, but one of my tutors teaches the 20th prince as well.”

Eyes widened in amazement and gasps of pure astonishment shook the air.

“No kidding! A royal tutor?”

“Oh, you’re so lucky!”

“Who is he? Is he handsome?” Several girls giggled at the last question.

Hwa pursed her lips prettily as she thought. “We-ell, he was alright, I supposed. We had to stop the lessons after awhile though, because father found out he was sneaking gifts to me through our maids. Oh, it was such a bother. I hardly had any place to keep the presents in my room!”

Iseul let out a low scoff into her lamb stew. A likely story, she thought. She knew for a fact that royal tutors were not allowed to tutor anyone else outside the palace, for fear that personal details of the princes would be leaked out to the public. Since royal tutors were paid well they had little reason to quit their jobs, unless of course they were fired. This all meant that Hwa’s tutor was either a fraud, or a disgrace.

Besides, royal tutors were usually old wise men way past their seventies, so unless Hwa had a thing for much, much older guys Iseul could not comprehend how a royal tutor could look “alright”.

The bell tolled to signal lunch had ended. Iseul stood up from her seat and began stacking the empty plates and used cutlery.

“Iseul!” came the sharp, horrified hiss.

She stopped. Xuerin and a few other girls were looking at her as if she had gone quite mad.

“What are you doing? That is the task of the maids, we are not allowed!”

Iseul froze, her heart jumping halfway through her throat. Maidens who qualified for the mushai-riki had to be middle-class or above, and these families had servants who bent and bowed to their every wish. The children need only concern themselves with their studies and other aristocratic pursuits – knitting, horse-riding and so forth.

Iseul’s uncle was part of the middle-class, but then again she had been living with him for only three years. Life before her uncle was a very different story, and old habits were, so it seemed, hard to break.

Her mind spun as she tried to come up with some sort of excuse. “Pardon me. I quite forgot.”

“You . . . forgot?” Xuerin’s cocoa-colored eyes looked even more bewildered. “Why would you forget?”

Iseul took her hands away from the bowl and smiled, casual and light at Xuerin.

“Oh, I just came back from a three-month stay at a priory,” she lied smoothly. “A journey of self-reflection, you could say. And of course they had no servants there, so all the washing and cleaning had to be done by ourselves.”

The explanation seemed to satisfy Xuerin and they left the dining hall. In the outer court where they had had their muscle-cramping exercise, two large notice boards had been erected. Pinned to the boards were the list of arts they had to choose from, including the names of the teachers, time slots, venues and a short summary of what that particular art entailed.

Many seemed to have taken Hwa’s advice to heart, and were putting down their names in the columns for cuisine and knitting. Xuerin watched them write and tugged at Iseul’s sleeve.

“Quickly, Iseul! Only 20 students are allowed for each art; we have to fill in our names before the slots are full!”

But Iseul hung back. Her eyes ran over the lists, even as Hwa’s words from lunch repeated themselves in her ears.

“Iseul! We have to hurry!” Xuerin pressed.

“No,” Iseul said, slowly. “I’m not taking knitting and cuisine.”

Xuerin’s large eyes doubled in size. “But you heard what Hwa said! Those are wifely traits!”

“For a labourer’s wife, perhaps.” And if Hwa is so intent on picking those two arts, why isn’t she up there writing down her own name? Iseul thought. In fact, the raven-haired beauty was nowhere in sight.

Xuerin was growing more panicked. “Oh dear! Cuisine is full, already!”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s not a choice we should take.”

“But – why? Is it not important for a wife to be able to cook for her husband?”

“What do you think the imperial chefs are for?” Iseul asked instead. “You can never hope to compare with them and their years and years of training. The prince might even call you lacking once he tastes your dishes.”

“Oh!” Xuerin looked like the thought had never occurred to her.

Iseul went on. “As for knitting – the prince will never wear the clothes you make. He can’t. His Royal Highness is obligated by law to wear royal robes on all occasions. The most you can make for him is a handkerchief, and that’s hardly an impressive art.”

“Oh . . . ” Xuerin looked completely lost. “Whatever shall we do then?”

Iseul glanced at the lists again. “You should figure out what a prince needs most, and tackle his interests.”

“A prince needs support,” Xuerin answered immediately. “He needs a pillar of strength to rely on, he needs love and trust; he needs someone to carry on the royal lineage.”

“Precisely,” Iseul murmured. “We must select the three arts that will render our companionship to the princes invaluable.”

She read through the lists again. In her mind she had an extra criteria, she needed arts that would lead her closer to the Red Clover while maintaining her cover. Polo, calisthenics, acrobatics, archery –

Archery?

But of course. The Red Clover uses imperial arrows, doesn’t he? That would be a good place to start. In the end she settled on archery, dancing and healing – the last because it was something she was already good at, and the second because it was completely new. Xuerin picked dancing, horse-riding and chess.

“I’ve been playing chess since little,” she told Iseul. “A lot of the princes play it too. It’s imperative to plan brilliant strategies and chart the future of our nation.”

Out of the corner of Iseul’s eyes, she saw Hwa walking into the court. Hwa was half a bell late and nearly everyone had made their choices. She stopped next to the notice boards and sighed loudly.

“Oh dear. It seems as if cuisine and knitting have both been taken! How dreadfully careless of me! I should not have returned to my room to redo my hair, I thought I had plenty of time . . . Ah well. Seems as if I have to pick something else. What a pity.”

Iseul thought she didn’t looked disappointed at all. In fact, perhaps it might have been her fancy, but was that a smug smirk that had just flitted across Hwa’s lips?

“Oh!” Xuerin piped up. “Shouldn’t we advise Hwa against picking traditional homely pursuits?”

Iseul watched as Hwa read the lists, then wrote in exquisite handwriting her name in the columns for archery, music and traditional massage.

“I have a funny feeling she already knows,” Iseul commented drily.

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