Kyoko drifted through the world as if it were a dream. Faces and scenes blurred, becoming a mass of swirling colors and noise. She couldn't focus on anything except one solid fact echoing inside her head.
I just became a concubine to the first prince of Ashuron.
A cascade of water woke her from her daze. She yelped, the cold making her shiver as her surroundings came into focus. She was in a large room with tile floors and white walls. Several large basins meant for bathing dotted the room. She currently occupied one of these basins, surrounded by foaming water. When had she undressed?
A "Humph" alerted her that she wasn't alone. A Beautiful woman occupied the room with her. She held an empty bucket—presumably the one that had doused her in water—and was studying Kyoko as if she were an interesting specimen, eyes cold.
"You awake now?" said the woman.
Kyoko glanced around. "Where am I?"
"You are in the bathing room set aside for the Prince's concubines," said the woman. "I was told to help you adjust and get you presentable for Kuon."
"Ah." The words reminded her of the situation, sending her back into her daze. Had she really agreed to do this? Maybe it would have been better to rot in the dungeon after all. She wasn't naive enough to not know what the duties of a concubine included. Was she seriously expected to—
—Another bucket of cold water stopped her thoughts.
The woman set the buck on the ground, ignoring Kyok's sputtering coughs. "Please try to live in the here and now Kyoko. My name is Setsuko, and if you want to survive the week I suggest you listen."
"What do you mean?" said Kyoko.
"I mean just that." Setsuko grabbed a bottle of soap and dumped some onto Kyoko's hair, massaging it into her scalp. Kyoko closed her eyes, enjoying the water and the sensation of someone massaging their fingers through her hair. When was the last time she had a bath?
"I'll be helping you get started," continued Setsuko "Teach you the basics, clean you up. Make sure you don't make a fool out of the people you now represent. I plan to do my job well, so you need to get your head out of the clouds before you embarrass all of us."
Kyoko nodded. Setsuko's cold and collective scolding was calming her down, forcing her to look at her predicament. If she didn't learn what to expect, it could mean more problems in the future.
"If you are expecting to live a pampered life here in the palace, think again," said Setsuko "Each of the women in this harem was chosen for a reason, and we take our duty very seriously. There are several of us who wish to become the future queen consort." The fingernails on Kyoko's head clenched briefly for a moment, making her yelp. "We don't take kindly to more competition. No one is going to watch over you. If you can't stand on your own, you'll quickly fall"
The threat and use of 'we' didn't go unnoticed, but she wasn't intimidated. After living with Sho's family for years, many girls have become jealous of her closeness with the idiot. Jealous, angry women weren't anything new to her. That wasn't what she was afraid of. She was more afraid of being expected to fulfill her duty.
"I don't think you'll have much to worry about from me," said Kyoko. "I didn't want to become the prince's concubine. He forced me to as punishment for getting in his way. He's not interested in me like that."
The hands on Kyoko's head paused.
"Kyoko," said Setsuko. "You do realize a statement like that is like an explosion. Don't ever tell any of the other girls that Kuon chose you to become a concubine against your will."
"Why not?" asked Kyoko.
"Because it sounds like you're bragging."
Setsuko began rinsing Kyoko's hair, using a small cup to scoop water from the tub. "It doesn't matter what the facts are. If they found out you were chosen by Kuon on a whim while they had to use every trick and talent they possessed to become a concubine, you would find yourself in some very serious trouble."
It made no sense to her but she took the warning to heart. Setsuko was making the concubines sound like a pack of circling lionesses, ready to pounce on anyone that showed weakness. She was going to have to tread carefully the first couple of weeks until she got her bearings.
"Thank you for your warnings Setsuko," said Kyoko. "You're a kind person."
"Don't misunderstand me." Setsuko stood up, toweling her hands dry. Kyoko couldn't help staring. Setsuko looked regal even when doing something as mundane as drying her hands. "I warned you for the sake of our reputation. It wouldn't do for the harem to be looked down on because of one fool messing everything up. I might not actively seek to destroy you—I doubt you'll be much of a threat. But I won't help you either. If you find yourself in a bad situation, you're on your own."
The warning was more in her eyes than in her words.
Setsuko grabbed a bathrobe and held it out to Kyoko, who left the tub and slipped into the soft fabric. It felt like she had wrapped herself in a cloud. It was disorienting to have her head buzzing like flies over a carcass while her physical state had never been more relaxed and pampered.
Setsuko led Kyoko out of the bathroom to an adjoining room. Inside, there were several four-poster beds lining the walls, dressers, and nightstands beside each one. Setsuko pointed to one of the sets.
"This is your bed," she said, "New clothes, jewelry, makeup, and anything else you might need are in the dresser, but for now I'm going to help you get ready."
Kyoko had stopped listening after hearing this was her bed. It was enormous! At least two people could have fit in it. Even more if there hadn't been so many pillows and cushions. The wooden four posters were draped with dark blue sheets. Her covers matched and gave her the overall impression of sleeping in the night sky. Was this really hers to use?
Fingers snapped in front of her.
"Stay with me Kyoko," said Setsuko, "This is very important."
Setsuko held out a golden choker. It was thick, with several white jewels hanging in chains from the main body of the piece. A large blue stone sat in the center of the entire piece.
"This necklace is what marks you as one of us," said Setsuko. "As long as you wear it, no one can touch you."
"This is for me?" said Kyoko, awed. She reached out and took the necklace gently, almost in fear of it vanishing. She had never worn a piece of jewelry in her life! And she got to wear such a beautiful thing? It was too much.
Her awe quickly disappeared as she realized what the necklace represented. Putting it on would mean accepting her role as a concubine. She would brand herself as his. As Kuon's.
The necklace now felt like an enormous weight in her hands.
Setsuko shook her head. "If you're impressed by this, you're never going to get used to being here."
She was right. When Setsuko showed Kyoko what she was expected to wear, Kyoko nearly fainted from a mixture of both delight and horror.
"You made her a concubine?"
Kuon flipped through a ledger on his desk, indifferent. He had been working for an hour before his godfather had entered the room. It had to be a record. It usually took the man a full two hours to find out what Kuon had done. And less than minutes to come to bother him with the gossip.
"What of it?" said Kuon.
Lory "humphed" as he sat down on one of the couches. A lover of excentricities, Lory had a large snake wrapped around his neck like a scarf. It wasn't the weirdest pet the man had obtained, but at least this one was quiet. As the former archduke of Ashuron he had dedicated most of his life to Ashuron's welfare. He had given most of his responsibilities over to his son, but he still retained some of them though most people did not realize how big a part he still played. The man was entitled to his distractions.
"What of it?" spat Lory, as if he couldn't believe Kuon's lackadaisical attitude. "You were just accusing her of being part of a conspiracy. Now you've changed your mind after she batted her large doe eyes at you."
Kuon's brow twitched in irritation. "I have no interest in her like that. I still think she could be an accomplice."
Lory seemed to get it, which was good because Kuon had already wasted thirty minutes explaining his reasoning to Yukihito, his attendant. The man was currently watching the exchange with rapt attention, a fellow lover of gossip.
The reason Kuon made Kyoko his concubine was to keep her near so they could observe her. "Keep your friends, close but your enemies closer" kind of thing. And if it turned out she was innocent and her story was in fact true, then she would benefit from being there as well. It was a win-win situation for everyone, which was why he was confused with Lory's next statement.
"I don't like this. You should release her."
"Why would I do that?" said Kuon.
"Because you have no evidence," said Lory. "Having a random young girl enter your harem just isn't right."
"I'm not too fond of the idea either," said Yukihito.
Great, now he had his attendant against him as well.
"Look." Kuon set down his quill, finally giving Lory his full attention. "This girl is the only lead we have to go on regarding the specter. Everything else has already gone cold. If we release her, we are potentially losing our only hope of solving this mystery."
Lory gave him a sympathetic look. Kuon ignored it. He knew what the duke was thinking. The man had told Kuon multiple times to let it go. To let everything that happened during that time stay in the past but it just wasn't possible.
"Can I ask you to look into her background?" asked Kuon, changing the topic. "And on the man that collapsed as well?"
"Already on it," said Lory. "I'll let you know what I find out."
Koun was about to ask just exactly how he planned to find out when there was a knock at the door.
"Come in," said Kuon.
Two women entered, bowing and addressing him. Kuon of course recognized Setsuko, which meant that the other girl had to be Kyoko. If he didn't know he wouldn't have recognized her.
She had undergone a complete transformation. The grime and dirt-covered coyote that had snarled at in the streets had been replaced with a young woman. She wore a pink top with short sleeves that fell off her shoulders. The shirt was cut short, exposing her stomach, the fabric decorated in white designs and crystals. She wore white harem pants under a pink skirt that was hiked up on the side. A long sash stretched across her chest over her shoulder and back down between her shoulder blades before wrapping around her waist, the excess length hanging from her side. Her short black hair was combed down, a small pin decorating it. Two simple hoops hung from her ears, and a single armlet gripped her upper left arm, matching the necklace she wore. Kuon dimly registered that she was wearing a lot less jewelry than what his concubines usually wore. They were usually dripping in gems.
He had to admit, she was very pretty. Not beautiful, at least not yet. Kuon could see a lot of potential. She was still young after all. Give her a couple more years to mature, and she was sure to become absolutely stunning.
Kuon took two seconds to take it all in, keeping his face impassive.
"Your Highness," said Setsuko. "I have done as requested. I thought you might like to see her after cleaning up."
"Is this the young lady I've heard about?" said Lory, standing up and walking to Kyoko. He gave a small bow, taking her hand and kissing it. She looked apprehensive, but that might have more to do with the snake draped around Lory's shoulders.
"Yes," said Kuon, making the introductions. "Kyoko, this is Duke Takarada."
"It's nice to meet you," said Kyoko, eyes on the snake.
"I didn't recognize you, Kyoko," said Yukihito taking her attention away from the snake "You look so beautiful."
Kyoko blushed at the praise, bowing and thanking him.
"Setsuko is amazing isn't she?" said Kyoko. "To turn someone as plain as me into someone pretty. She truly is like a magician casting a spell on me, the outfit is so dazzling!"
Yukihito looked confused. "I wasn't talking about the outfit..." he started, but the girl wasn't paying attention.
"I've never worn such magnificent things in my life. I feel like I'm dreaming." She clasped her hands before her, eyes sparkling.
Kuon raised his eyebrows. He had so far only been acquainted with her angry and fearful expressions. This adoring sparkling countenance completely changed her features. It was astonishing that anyone's eyes could go that wide, or that someone with the capacity to glare like the summer sun could smile just as brightly.
"You truly look different Kyoko," said Kuon, interrupting her current rant about gems and fabric. "I'm glad to hear that everything is to your liking."
Kyoko stared at him as if he was a three-headed camel.
"And you came at a good time." He shrugged off her response, even if it pricked him for some reason. "As I was saying, Lory here is in charge of all the physicians here in the palace. You could say his unofficial title is the Duke of Medicine."
Kyoko's head snapped back to the Duke, finally seeing the man behind the snake.
"I heard you were interested in learning more about medicine," said Lory to Kyoko. "If you want, you can come by my office sometime to learn and help out."
"Can I?" said Kyoko, the sparkle back in her eyes. Kuon might have believed that she loved medicine if he didn't already know her true motivation was revenge.
"Of course," said Lory kindly. "I could use a little help. You can come over anytime you're not busy."
Kyoko bowed, thanking him profusely.
They started chatting about medicine, and Kuon stopped listening. Setsuko walked over to her, hips swaying seductively.
"Well," she said. "How'd I do."
"You did a good job," said Kuon. "I almost didn't recognize her."
He watched Kyoko for a few seconds as she tentatively tried to touch the snake. It flicked its tongue out at her and she jumped back.
"Even I was surprised at what was underneath the dirt," said Setsuko. "But even then, I don't understand why you chose her as a new concubine."
He noticed the tightness in her voice. She never did like it when he added a new girl to the harem. It was understandable, but he wasn't going to apologize. He didn't have any interest in Kyoko like that.
"Just keep a close eye on her," said Kuon, going back to the ledgers on his desk. "Let me know if there's anything unusual."
Setsuko sulked but agreed.
Kyoko retired to her room late, the other occupants already asleep in bed. It felt like her head hit the pillow when a stray beam of light sliced through the curtains and pierced her eyes. Kyoko bolted upright, body on alert after waking up in an unfamiliar place. It took her a second to remember where she was and why she was there.
Groaning, Kyoko flopped back down on her pillows.
So it wasn't a dream, she thought, staring at the underside of her canopy. I really have become a concubine. At least she wouldn't have to worry about everyday things like food or a bed. But would those things be worth her freedom in the end?
Someone entered her field of vision, and she sat up to see Setsuko, the woman's mouth drawn in a hard line.
"Get up," said Setsuko. "You have twenty minutes to bathe. You have a lot to learn before we can even think of letting you near the prince."
And so began the day's lessons. The first thing Kyoko learned was how to dress herself. She wouldn't have thought putting together an outfit was so important. Or tiresome. There were dozens of different outfits and jewelry to choose from, each with their specific occasions for wearing. It took a good portion of the morning just to teach Kyoko how to put on makeup.
The next thing on the agenda was a lesson in manners. As it turned out, a concubine wasn't just responsible for helping the prince with physical needs. Needless to say, Kyoko was very happy when she was told this. Some of the responsibilities included accompanying Kuon to parties, entertaining guests, or even attending events as a representative for the prince if he couldn't make it. As concubines sometimes dealt with royalty and other politicians, it was imperative to understand the proper protocol. Her head spun with the different names of important families and their titles and her neck ached from hours of practicing subservient bows and their various inclinations.
As the day wore on, Kyoko learned to both fear and respect Setsuko. The woman expected the best from the harem and she wasn't shy in stating her opinion. Talented, beautiful, and commanding, Setsuko's temper was a force to be reckoned with.
"How many times must I tell you?" said Setsuko. "Keep your knees turned out until after you complete the turn. Not during. And what were your arms even doing? You looked like a dragonfly with half its wings ripped off."
Kyoko didn't say anything. One of the first corrections Setsuko had given her was to stop apologizing for every little thing and just fix it. "It wasted less time," or so she said. They were in one of the many rooms set aside for the harem's living quarters, Setsuko giving Kyoko a crash course on dancing. Kyoko was beyond embarrassed with just the outfit. Her top was essentially a glorified strap of cloth covering her breasts, leaving her shoulders and stomach completely bare. The slits on both sides of her skirt weren't any better, reaching all the went up to mid-thigh. How was expected to wear this while dancing?
"Again," said Setsuko, plucking at the harp in her hands. Kyoko began dancing but not ten seconds later, Setsuko stopped. She rubbed at her temples.
"Why did Kuon have to pick such a hopeless case as his concubine?" grumbled Setsuko.
Kyoko didn't blanch at the comment. After hearing similar words all day, she had gotten used to it. Mostly.
"I need a break," said Setsuko, putting down the harp and standing up. "Be back here in an hour."
Kyoko didn't need to be told twice. She shot to her feet, sprinting out the door and down the hall. Setsuko would scold her later for lack of decorum, but she didn't care. After being cooped up with her all day, Kyoko felt like she would go mad. She spotted the edge of a garden from the window and began making her way toward it. It would be the perfect place to recharge her energy.
She entered the garden, stepping reverently into the grove. It was beautiful. She hadn't seen a place like this in years. The garden stretched further than she could make out, enormous bushes, cacti, and yucca blocking her view. Pebble paths spread out in every direction. She suspected it wrapped around the whole palace. There were several trees dotted throughout, benches resting beneath them to give visitors some shade. Hundreds of different desert plants spanned in every direction, their green, red, and yellow colors contrasting the gray ground beneath them. Kyoko could see the outline of a small oasis from where she stood, most likely the one supplying the plants with the water they needed. There had to be some sort of magical contraption in the water to help keep all these plants healthy and growing.
Kyoko took a deep breath, filling her nostrils with the scent of the life around her and enjoying the hot sun on her face.
It had been a long day. She could still hear Setsuko's voice, issuing corrections in a constant unrelenting stream. Just how much did that man expect from his concubines? She closed her eyes, frowning.
Last night, after being cleaned up by Setsuko they had gone to Kuon's study. It had been odd. She had expected to see the dark aura she'd come to associate with Kuon but instead had found something completely different. His aura had felt completely normal. Actually, it felt more on the kind side now that she thought about it. If she hadn't known to look closer, she would have missed the darkness being suppressed underneath. The effect of that change was enormous. He was no longer terrifying to her, and he had actually smiled. What sort of man had the capability to appear both so kind and so murderous at such small intervals?
Kyoko shook the thoughts from her head, determined not to spend her free time thinking about Kuon. It didn't matter who he was, she planned to associate with him as little as possible, despite being under his employ.
Kyoko spent a good half hour wandering through the lanes. She ran into the gardener, Goro, an older man with a stooped back from years of bending. His face was wrinkled and dark, making him look a lot older than he actually was. Goro was wary of Kyoko at first, then soon warmed up to her after he started talking about the plants. Kyoko recognized a few, as they had medicinal purposes, but Goro was more than happy to fill Kyoko in on the others.
"Now these here are wood weed," Goro was saying. "They're a little temperamental as they had a habit of climbing nearby plants to fight over the sun, but that makes them easy to manage as they don't need to be watered or taken care of. Well, as long as you don't mind cutting them back every few weeks." Goro laughed, amused by the antics of the plants he treated so carefully. He pointed to the next flower.
"And these flowers are—"
"—crystal aster," cooed Kyoko. She reached out, caressing the velvet blue petals. The flowers had long stems, an odd thing for a desert flower, and jagged oval leaves. Depending on where the sun hit, the layers of petals transitioned from blue to white and back again. Even after years of seeing these plants, the sight was always magical to Kyoko.
"I'm betting those are your favorite flowers, miss," said Goro
Kyoko nodded, eyes still glued to the flower.
"How would you like to take some back to your room?"
"Can I?" said Kyoko, hopeful.
Goro smiled. "Of course. They don't require much sunlight compared to other flowers and can last for weeks in a vase. But you probably already knew that. Here."
He pulled out some clippers hanging from her belt and snipped off a few stocks. Kyoko took them tenderly, and he chuckled again.
"Thank you," said Kyoko. It had been such a bad day and seeing these flowers had recharged her energy. And now she got to bring them back into her room! Maybe this day wouldn't be such a bad day after all.
They talked for a few more minutes, but soon it was time for her to leave. She bade the gardener farewell, promising to return. "Come back as soon as those flowers wilt yah hear? I'll give you some new ones."
Feeling immensely satisfied, she walked down the path humming to herself. She already knew where she was going to put her flowers once she got back. When she turned a corner, she saw Kuon and Yukihito coming towards her down the path.
Her good mood deflated slightly at seeing the prince. It would be very rude to ignore them as they had spotted her and there wasn't enough room on the path to pass by without saying anything. Resigning herself to be civil, she approached.
"Good evening your highness, Yukihito. It's nice to see you." She said the last sentence while addressing Yukihito.
"It's nice to see you as well Kyoko," said Yukihito.
Kuon only nodded his head in greeting.
"What brings you out here to the garden?" asked Kyoko, determined to have a pleasant conversation with Yukihito, even if that other lump wasn't going to say anything. His aura wasn't scary again, thank goodness.
"We were discussing some business regarding the trade routes," said Yukihito. He took the smallest of glances at Kuon. "We decided to do it while walking rather than spend another hour cooped up inside. What about you?"
"Pretty much the same," said Kyoko. "Needed to get outside for a while. And look at what the gardener let me take back with me." She held out the flowers, excited. "Aren't they beautiful? I'm going to stick them in my room."
"That was nice of Goro," said Yukihito. "I'm actually surprised. He's usually pretty grumpy with new people."
"Oh, he was a very kind man," said Kyoko. "I didn't even say anything and he offered to let me take the crystal asters back with me. And he promised to let me come back and get some more after these had wilted!" She gazed at the flowers, lost in her joy.
"You really like those flowers don't you?" said Yukihito, bringing her attention back to them.
"Oh. Yeah, I have good memories with this particular flower."
Yukihito and Kyoko smiled at each other, two similar spirits at peace. Well, mostly at peace. The effect was somewhat ruined by the tall statue that still wasn't speaking. He was staring at Kyoko with an odd expression and she couldn't quite place what it was.
Finally, she decided to speak up.
"What?" she said to Kuon. "You've been giving me a weird look for a while. Did I offend you or something?"
His lips twitched into almost half a smile.
"I was just wondering," he said. "Did you sneak out of dance practice or something?"
Kyoko cocked her head.
"I'm taking a break. Why?"
He gestured at her. "You're still wearing your dance outfit."
Kyoko looked down at herself in shock. She was still wearing that revealing outfit! How had she not noticed it till now? She'd been so eager to leave the studio that changing hadn't crossed her mind. Well, it was now, and she was blushing from head to foot.
"I—I'm t—taking a b—break." Her smile could have been chiseled into stone, it was so stiff.
Kuon looked amused "Yes, I believe you said that already. Though I wonder if you're just slacking off if you're out here picking flowers."
Her smile became, if possible, stiffer. "I'm just taking a—"
"I thought you took your work seriously," interrupted Kuon, shaking his head "I had assumed you were someone who would try their best to overcome anything."
"But you must be pretty carefree to think that your revenge would fall into your lap while picking flowers in the gardens. Honestly, I'm disappointed. Your revenge must mean so little to you."
Kyoko's smile snapped. She took a long—deep—breath. Then stuck her face in his.
"I'M TAKING A BREAK YOU #$%^&!"
Kyoko barely registered their shock before sprinting back to the castle, the flowers cradled in her arms.
What was his problem? Why was he picking fights with her? Hadn't he made her life miserable enough? There wasn't anything wrong with taking a small break to smell the flowers. She had deserved it after working to the bone with Setsuko. That woman was a slave driver!
Kyoko arrived at her room, setting down her flowers before rifling through the room for a vase. She found one and stuck it on her nightstand, placing the flowers inside it with some water. Satisfied, she took a step back and admired her work. The flowers looked beautiful in their new home, managing to match the color of the bedroom set. She basked in their glory for another minute before letting her glee drain away.
Kuon had been right. She hadn't been trying to learn anything all day. She'd been unconsciously dragging her feet in the vain hope that if she failed to meet their standards, they would let her leave. But then what would happen to her revenge? Was what Sho did to her worth so little?
No, she thought to herself, her determination rising. No pain no gain. Watch out Sho, I'm going to become an amazing physician and make you cry.
But first, she would need to master being a concubine.
Thank you for reading!
I will try my best to update at least one chapter a week. It's either that, or let school/life/quality of writing go to pot. Thanks for all your comments and thoughts. I'm glad people are interested, and I'm excited to write the rest of this story. =D