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The first time I met her, all I saw were feet.

Smooth, delicate, and pale.

They glided in front of me, peeking out from under a dancing crimson silk. Every so often, the red fabric lifted just enough for the ankles to be exposed—the equally smooth, delicate, and pale ankles.

Tap, tap, tap.

Every time her feet touched the wooden floor, they were soft, quick, and gentle. As if they were barely landing, as if she were afloat and hovering, as if she were a goddess gracing the earth with her presence.

And I could not stop staring at her.

Or rather, what I was allowed to see of her—her feet.

And occasionally, her ankles.

“Your Majesty, please,” the head palace lady cried out next to me.

“No.”

The Queen’s voice sent a shudder through me. It was cold and sullen, like a defiant winter chill in the middle of spring. But it was also velvety and soft. So, so soft. Like her feet. Like the satin dress caressing her ankles.

Curiosity burnt inside me. I craved to find out what she looked like. I needed to look at her. But I could not. I was a low-ranked maid, and I had to keep my body low and my head bowed.

“Your Majesty, I beg you,” the head palace lady continued. “Please try it, at least.”

“No.”

“But you have not eaten properly for days, Your Majesty.”

“No.”

“But you requested this dish, Your Majesty. The royal chefs spent hours on this.”

The pacing stopped. The pair of feet was now right in front of me. Billowing red silk caressed the Queen’s ankles, flaunting them for mere moments only to hide them again, mocking me and my growing desire. Teasing me.

I gulped.

Then, a swish—and bronze plates clattered to the ground, their contents splattering all over. My body clenched but I remained in place.

The head palace lady gasped. “Your Majesty!”

“I said no, Sanggung.”

The four words were a quiet whisper, but they reverberated throughout the room, sending yet another shudder through me.

The older woman slumped on the floor and whimpered. “But… Your Majesty…”

“I’m heading back to my quarters,” the Queen said.

With that, the feet pivoted around and drifted away. I watched as they became smaller and smaller, while my heart sank lower and lower.

When the Queen stepped across the sill of the sliding door, I mustered up every bit of my courage and finally lifted my head.

The only thing I saw was red.

Long, flowing red. It was the silk robe that had been taunting me. It covered the rest of the Queen’s body, only leaving the feet exposed. Golden embroidery covered the back, filled with intricate patterns I did not understand.

As my eyes traveled further up, the bright rays of the morning sun blinded my eyes. I squinted and lowered my head. I did not have the right to look at the Queen, and heaven was punishing me for even attempting to do so.

“What are you two waiting for? Clean it up!”

I jolted at the head palace lady’s orders. I scrambled up onto my feet and, together with the other maid in the room, wiped the dining floors clean.

***

The head palace lady could not stop muttering to herself as we made our way back to the servants’ quarters.

“This is bad, oh, this is really, really bad.” She tugged on her dress and took such long strides that the other maid and I had to jog to keep up with her. “I need to think of something, anything, whatever to get Her Majesty to eat again. Oh, this is the worst job ever!”

I snuck a peek at the girl next to me. She looked to be about my age, maybe even younger. I had only met her this morning, right before I was pulled to this task, but her expression was the same as it had been—anxious and frazzled. We were both holding trays of the fallen bronze plates, but she was clutching onto hers like her life depended on it.

“Her Majesty, the Queen…” I ventured a question. “She… doesn’t like to eat?”

She only gave me a small, tired smile. She was too out of breath to talk.

“What are you fools doing?” the head palace lady barked at us. My unanswered question had caused us both to falter in our steps for just a millisecond, and that was enough to fall unacceptably behind. “Hurry up! Come on!”

We were silent for the rest of the journey, but my curiosity continued to blaze. Memories of the Queen flooded my mind; her feet as she paced about, her voice, the quiet anger, the hint of exhaustion.

I wanted to find out more about her. I needed to.

When we reached the servants’ quarter, there were a dozen maids chatting and laughing in the courtyard. The head palace lady exploded at the sight, venting the rest of her frustrations on the poor servants.

“Why are you all just standing around here?” she yelled. “Get back to work, lazy bums!”

“Y- Yes, Sanggung.”

As they scurried away, the older woman huffed into the building, my companion and I following closely behind. We entered the prep kitchen and began unloading the bronze plates from the trays.

“You’re new here, right?” the maid next to me finally asked after she had a few moments to catch her breath.

I nodded. “I’m Seul-Ki. Nice to meet you.”

“I’m Mi-Nyu. You were… from the Kang family before this?”

I nodded again.

“Oh, I see. I’m sorry about… that,” Mi-Nyu muttered, shifting the weight on her feet.

I shrugged. I had seen the grimaces people make whenever they talked about the Kang family and their tragic downfall, but I did not care enough about my previous masters to feel anything about it. I had grown up in their quarters and I had been fed well, and that was that. The only people I cared about were my fellow servants, and we were all spared from the punishment.

“Did everyone there end up at the palace?” Mi-Nyu asked.

By this time, a small crowd of maids had gathered around us. As usual, everyone was intrigued by my previous masters’ misfortunes; there was always something about a tragedy that drew people in.

“After that day, the servants were all re-allocated to the Royal Court,” I confirmed. “I’m the only one who ended up here. My sister is working for the Bin Concubine. I don’t know where the other servants went.”

Gasps echoed around me.

“The Bin Concubine!” a maid said behind me.

“I hear she lavishes her closest maids with gifts,” another added.

“She is so beautiful too. I’ve taken a peek at her face once.”

“Is she?” I asked, curious now. The Bin Concubine was the most senior concubine, and second to the Queen. It made sense that she must be beautiful. But surely not as beautiful as the Queen…

Mi-Nyu let out a small sigh. “Well, I’m sorry you were allocated here, Seul-Ki.”

“Why? I like it here so far.”

She glanced around, exchanging a few knowing looks with the people around. “I mean,” she said with a lowered voice, “did you not see the tantrum the Queen threw just now? She is like this all the time. She is always so picky about everything, and she gets mad when you don’t give her exactly what she wants.” She gestured at the head palace lady who was fussing over a different group of maids at the other end of the room. “Sanggung is so stressed out all the time because of her too.”

A few more people chimed in about their gripes with the Queen. But the more they complained, the more intrigued I became. A strange, tingling sensation crawled up my heart. Once again, the image of the Queen flashed in my head—her feet, her robe dancing about her ankles, the golden sun casting a halo-like outline around her… 

And her voice. It lingered in my ears, still making me shudder. She had sounded so sad. So… resentful.

“Okay, second try of the day.” The head palace lady dispersed our group with a loud announcement. “The only thing Her Majesty eats these days is fruit and dessert. She’s still refusing real food, but we can try to sneak some nutrition into her tea time dessert. We have to sneak it in, somehow.” She shook her head in frustration. “If the Queen faints again, the Queen Dowager is going to kill me.”

Clapping her hands together, she added, “Anyway, I need someone to come with me to prepare. Who wants to volunteer?”

My heart jumped. Another chance to see the Queen.

“I- I do!” I had to stop myself from screaming the words out. Remembering my manners, I quickly added, much softly, “S- Sanggung.”

My cheeks flushed as I felt every pair of eyes in the room staring at me.

“Alright then, new girl. Follow me,” the head palace lady said before trotting out of the room.

Glancing around, I saw everyone’s contorted expressions. I caught Mi-Nyu mouthing a “Good luck,” while giving me a shaky wave. I gave her a wave back and followed the head palace lady out.

I knew I was supposed to be frightened by the Queen’s attitude, but I had never been more excited.

I was going to see her again.

And I could not wait.

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