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The small box lay heavily in Mai’s small hands. It was a strange feeling, knowing that the tiny slips of white paper, that sat there gently against its wooden bottom were to, that very night decide the fate of three women. Her trembling hands played with the bright beads that hung from the beautiful black lid. This had been her job now for maybe three years and it still never got any easier, the weight on her shoulders still never got any lighter. Quietly she continued her walk down the corridor towards the bright green rooms where her master slept. Just a little further and she’d be at the door of the small waiting room where the guards stood and several servants sat, awaiting use. Mai shook her long black hair shaking her guilty thoughts and grim expression away as well. The bright blue flower she wore in her hair shed a petal, with a gentle gaze she watched it fall. The beautiful flower she had picked this morning was beginning to wilt, an omen perhaps? The girl sighed and knocked on the glossy wooden door of the waiting room. Closing her dark eyes she forced a pleasant expression on her face and took a step back. A moment passed before the wide door opened revealing a handsome young soldier dressed in the customary emerald green tunic and fitted black breeches given to all military personnel assigned to the imperial palace. Mai’s pale young face offered him a soft smile before stepping through the doorway. In return he flashed a bright award winning smile, all glimmering white teeth and dimples. The young woman giggled and this time her pleasure was genuine. Her large eyes sparkled and her deep dimples revealed themselves.
“Good morning Lady Mai.” He greeted cheerfully before he let his dark eyes glance at her elegant clothing. A low whistle escaped him as he gazed at the fine blue kimono she wore. It was made of expensive silk and depicted a lovely scene at the hem, of a pair of black and white swans flying serenely through the sky, pink rose petals riding gently on their wings.
“That’s one lovely dress my lady.” He murmured appreciatively.
Mai blushed and tucked a lone strand of silky hair behind one pearly ear. Out of force of habit she gazed down at her feet.
“It was a gift.” She responded.
The guard‘s dark eyes glanced at the fine oak door that led to the master’s suite.
“A gift from the emperor you mean.”
There was a slight undertone of accusation in his voice that made Mai flush but this time with anger. Despite what those horrible harpies at court said Mai’s relationship with the Emperor was strictly professional. She looked down at her soft chubby figure and frowned. How could they think it could be anything more? Mouth still set in a pout she glared up at the guard and ordered him to tell the emperor that she’d arrived. Knowing he’d offended the sweet tempered lady he ran off to do her bidding. Huffing in indignation she sat in one of the soft green chairs that decorated the small cozy room and waited. A moment later the soldier returned, a sheepish smile tugging at his lips. A little awkwardly he slipped into a more formal bow and announced that the emperor would she her now. Lady Mai sighed, she was never did know how to keep a grudge. Smiling sweetly at him she returned his bow and walked into the Emperor’s study, white hands still clutching the small black box.
The emperor's study was a small dimly lit room with thick emerald rugs on the floor and tall sturdy bookshelves lining each wall. A large desk covered with stacks upon stacks of various papers and small expensive statues sat right in the center of the room and behind the lovely thing sat the emperor in an elegant dusty gold chair lined with real fox's fur. He was a slim man with long dark hair pulled back in a tight ponytail and a sharp handsome face. Today he wore a pale gold jacket with heavy embroidery at the sleeves over a pale silk tunic the color of baby tea leaves. His light brown eyes guarded heavily by thick black lashes concentrated on the cream colored parchment before him. Mai gave him a moment to finish reading then cleared her throat softly. The man let his eyes sweep over one last line then pinned her with his sharp gaze. Blushing slightly Mai bowed and greeted him:
"My emperor, it is an honor to be in your presence this fine morning."
The young ruler inclined his head in acknowledgement, but his expression was grim.
"I have a feeling that for my three youngest wives this morning shall prove to be rather bleak."
Startled, Mai openly stared at him.
"But your majesty how could you know already? Has someone else informed you before me?"
The emperor shook his head and let a small smile grace his features.
"The eyes are the windows to the soul." He quoted softly.
"That is especially true when it concerns you, Lady Mai. I have known you long enough now that I can read the glimmering patterns in your eyes. At the moment they tell me that you are crying for the three women that will today meet their end." The emperor's eyes held hers and tears blurred her vision.
"Forgive me your majesty. I know that I exist only to serve you, to carry out your wishes as best I can. I also know that these women do not deserve my sympathy, for they have betrayed your loving kindness, but part of me cannot help but cry for these young girls, that will perish before understanding the beauty life can bring." Mai let out a sob before continuing.
"Please dispose of me your majesty. For you have no use for a weeping woman."
There was a pause in which Mai heard only the crackling of the fireplace and then the faint rustling of silk. A cold white hand wrapped around her chin and gently but firmly lifted it until she was staring directly into the hazel eyes of her emperor.
"You forget your place, lady. You are no one to tell me who deserves to be in my service. If you are here it is because I wish it. And as to your other concerns, do not think that I do not share these feeling, for, to some extent I do. I would think you cruel if you did not feel for these girls. And besides..." He said thoughtfully.
"Among such hard men and glacial beauties it is comforting to have such a pleasant spirit in my company."
Mai blushed at the compliment and nodded before gently taking a step back. Sighing deeply she took a moment to compose herself and then spoke softly.
"Shall I order their execution?"
The man thought for a second and then shook his head.
"No. As sorry as we might feel for them, adultery is a sinful crime and it deserves a more severe punishment then just a regular execution. Their treachery must be well known. I will not play the part of the villain."
Mai nodded, she understood what he meant. If the emperor were to do away with them without reason the court would most likely question his morals. And that would just not do. A ruler must be impeccable in every way. Handsome, smart, brave, ruthless, elegant, and kind.
"Shall you announce it at the banquet then your majesty?"
The grim ruler nodded.
"I shall expect to see you there. Now be gone, and keep your ears open for anything else that might be of interest to me."
The young lady nodded and quietly exited the emperor's study, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Lady Mai walked slowly through the busy hall stopping only to bow her head at the various servants that passed her. The girl raised a hand and touched her temple gently. A sharp pain had penetrated her skull as soon as the emperor had stated he would she her at the banquet. She most definitely did not want to be there to witness the humiliation of those poor women. Mai sighed; unfortunately there was no hope of escaping it. The emperor's will was law. Shaking her head the tired young lady entered her own set of rooms and made a beeline for her favorite red sofa. Sighing, the lady rested her head against a silken throw pillow. Lazily, her eyes began to close and a smile to settle on her face when a loud tsk was heard in the silent room. Startled Mai stood up to look at the intruder. Her oldest maid Kailia stood in the center of the room fists propped up against her slim hips an irritated look marring her worn yet still lovely features.
"Kailia..." Mai began before the annoyed maid cut her off.
"My lady please have some consideration. Do you have any idea how long it takes me and the girls to iron every part of your kimono? Please don't give us more work by sleeping in it."
Mai's face flushed with shame.
"Forgive me Kailia; a lady must be more considerate with her servants. Would you help me undress then, and change into something more appropriate for sleep? I'd like to rest before the banquet."
The maid's expression softened and she nodded.
A few minutes later Lady Mai lay atop her silken cushions, eyes closed and breathing deeply. A red silk robe thrown over her plain white sleeping gown, Kailia stroking her hair tenderly.
"Are you so very tired my lady?" she asked quietly.
"Though to be honest it is more emotional exhaustion then physical." she replied
There was a long cautious pause before the maid spoke. Mai awaited her reply, she had a feeling she was not going to like it.
"The emperor is like a beautiful butterfly. He goes from flower to flower. Do not take it personally if his eyes begin to wander."
Mai jumped away from her favorite maid as if she'd burned her.
"Oh, not you to. How dare you? I might have a soft spot for you Kailia but do not for one second that I won't have you punished for spouting such nonsense! Get out and send Gaia, she will be the one helping me prepare for the banquet tonight. Get out."
The maid stood and fled the room. Her lady was usually quite sweet tempered; to earn her wrath she must find your actions very offensive. Kailia had tears in her eyes. What had she been thinking? She'd practically accused her lady of being the emperor's w****. Oh no wonder the kind lady was so livid. Ashamed of herself the maid walked towards her own small quarters.
Mai stood perfectly still as her maid Gaia dressed her in her favorite kimono. It was a glorious garment the color of fresh blood with golden butterflies dancing along the hem. When the young girl finished Mai dismissed her wordlessly. She was still quite upset with her old maid. Upset and very hurt. How is it that even the woman who'd practically raised her believed her to be the emperor's w****? Did she think so little of her? The girl bit her lip to keep from crying and cursed silently. She'd ruined her lipstick. Thoroughly annoyed she applied a thick red layer to her full lips, pinned a jade dragon broche along the red silk collar, and wrapped a golden shawl around herself. Taking one last look in her bright oval vanity mirror she called for her four maids and ordered them to brush their hair and wear a fresh tunic before escorting her down to the banquet hall. The young girls gave a quick bow and went off to do her bidding. While she waited Mai walked to her window sill and cut the loveliest flower that bloomed there. It was bright red with a crisp stem and leaves like emeralds. Smiling the girl placed it in her hair for good luck. At that moment the servants returned, dressed in matching green tunics and long black skirts. They all wore there hair loose, combed neatly, and well oiled with rosewater, marking them as unmarried maidens. The lady nodded.
"You all look very nice. Now let us be off. I won't insult your intelligence by reminding you of your duties, like certain ladies do. You all know exactly what is expected of you."
Smiling the girls nodded and followed their lady through the wide corridors of the Imperial Palace towards the Banquet hall.
Lord Tailen stood at the emperor’s side, awaiting the perfect moment to begin a conversation, which truthfully he’d planned on having with him a very longtime ago. At the moment though the young ruler was too preoccupied flirting with his three youngest wives, which, if truth be told was incredibly out of character for him. He almost never spared a glance towards his ladies in public. He’d said many times that it was never smart to let your enemies know your weaknesses. Tailen himself, having never been anything more then excited physically by a woman did not really understand of what weakness he spoke. Perhaps the marriage he was at the moment contemplating would give him a suitable wife to try and love, but truthfully he doubted it. Political marriages rarely resulted in true love. Though if the couple was lucky they sometimes did result in friendship or maybe even a gentle affection for one another. A loud musical laugh from the emperor interrupted his thoughts. Tailen followed his ruler’s gaze and found it led him to Lady Mai Torre. His eyes narrowed in his attempt to study her. She was a chubby little thing dressed in red silk with golden designs at the hem and long black hair that barely brushed her ankles. At the moment the lower half of her face was hidden behind a golden fan and her large black eyes were smiling gently at the young serving boy that was pouring a fair amount of wine into her silver goblet. When the boy finished the young lady reached into her wide sleeve and pulled out a few pieces of copper, causing a beautiful smile to take over the boy’s sweet face. So happy was the child that he practically skipped away. Tailen smiled at the display. Lady Mai, was kind which, considering the superior attitude of most of the noble class was a rare and lovely quality.
“She is very kind don’t you think?” Startled Tailen turned to his emperor with a slight smile.
“Yes she is.” He answered truthfully.
“She is also very rich.” The emperor added.
Tailen tensed but forced a smile on to his handsome face.
“Truly? Forgive me I was not aware.” He replied cautiously.
The emperor smirked and looked him in the eye.
“Do not act the fool Lord Tailen. All the bachelors of my court are aware of how very wealthy she is. After all, her father was my uncle’s second in command, how could she be anything but?”
Tailen flushed but remained silent.
“I am also perfectly aware that the only reason she is not being flocked by suitors is because the court believes that she is mine.”
Tailen gave him a side long glance. How is it that he always knew what was on his mind?
“And before you ask, I will tell you now, that this is true. But not in the way the people suspect. She is mine yes, but that is only because her father left her under my uncle’s protection when he died that responsibility passed over to me. And in all honesty I bare it gladly, she is a charming girl.”
Tailen opened his mouth to speak and was cut off with a gesture from the emperor.
“Before you ask let me also tell you that you,” the room became silent as the emperor raised his voice “ as well as every other eligible gentleman in my palace has my expressed permission to court the Lady Mai Torre.”
A murmur broke out among the crowd and Tailen looked over at the lady who sat surrounded by her maids, face as red as her dress but eyes still sharp and boldly staring at the several pairs of male eyes that came to rest on her. Before he could look away her eyes grabbed on to his and held them in a tight grip then as quickly as they came they left. Tailen continued to gaze at her. Kind and dignified, an interesting combination. The emperor’s laugh once again interrupted his thoughts and he turned quickly to him.
“You have your answer now be gone I have an announcement to make.”
Mai was seething behind her fan. How dare he? Emperor he might be but that was just cruel. It was like dropping a plump hen into a den of hungry fox. The lady shivered at the thought. Soon she would have men showering her with attention and gifts, trying their hardest to win her heart, not to mention her incredible fortune. Mai stood abruptly and her maids scrambled up quickly behind her. With a curt gesture she ordered them to stay seated and walked purposefully towards the emperor. He looked magnificent tonight, though that was pretty typical. His hair was loose and curled gently around the pale blue collar of his tight silk tunic. Regally he leaned his head against his white hand and gazed at her, eyes openly reflecting amusement. The look made Mai’s blood boil. Though on the surface her expression was neutral. Emperor or not she was not about to stand for this.