eighteen
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I had never seen the Sanggung cry before. Her face was contorted and awash with tears as she wiped mine clean. Devoid of her usual anger and annoyance, her expression spoke of immeasurable pain. Of vulnerability.

Of fear.

She had been ordering me around for so long that I had forgotten she was just like me—a servant. Weak, powerless, and afraid. Subjected to the whims and fancies of the real people in control.

When the basin of water was a deep red, she handed me two hard-boiled eggs.

“After your face stops swelling, rub this around to absorb the toxins,” she instructed with a congested voice.

I nodded, although I was tempted to eat the egg instead.

She sniffed at me before turning towards the Queen and holding a hand out. “Your Majesty, please.”

The Queen did not respond. Her head was lowered while her gaze burned a hole in the ground. She had been sitting like this the entire time I was being treated, facing away from me, trying to not even glance at me, no matter how much I had told her I did not blame her for what she did. Had I become so ugly from the slaps?

“Your Majesty,” the head palace lady begged, “please, give me your hand.”

It took a few moments more before the Queen complied. And when I saw her quivering hand, I gasped. “Your Majesty!”

What used to be a smooth, pretty palm was now blistered and bruised. The sight pierced my heart more than anything the Queen could ever do to me.

“It’s alright, Your Majesty,” the head palace lady muttered as she wrapped the injured hand in bandages. “It will… all be okay…”

“Will it?” the Queen whispered—and that anguished voice was yet another dagger through my heart.

“It will, Your Majesty. She will not end up like Chae-Won.” The Sanggung gave the Queen’s bandaged hand a small squeeze. “You made sure of it, Your Majesty.”

Chae-Won?

“Who…” I started to ask, but the words disappeared in my throat. The look the two women gave me was too ominous.

When they turned back to each other again, years of history and unspoken stories hung in the air between them. I had always known the head palace lady had served the Queen for a long time, but it had been lost to me how long. And how much I had missed out on.

Then, the Queen sighed. “Let us go back to the study.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” we chorused.

Our journey out of the Great Room was peaceful and quiet. As we trudged through the long hallways, the other maids and guards were nowhere in sight.

When we reached the study, the zither I had placed on the ground was still there, spotless and unscathed, impervious to the commotion that had happened a few rooms away.

The Queen sent the head palace lady away before settling onto her seat. She gestured for me to sit down as she began to caress the instrument. Her bandaged hand grazed against the wood like sandpaper. Her hand was not supposed to be like sandpaper. Her hand was supposed to be smooth.

She let out a sudden chuckle. “You know, it’s facing the wrong direction, Seul-Ki.”

“Oh.” My swollen cheeks warmed in embarrassment. “I’m- I’m sorry, Your Majesty…”

But if this stupid mistake could make her laugh, I would do it all over again.

Her smile lingered as she plucked a string. It was just a note—a singular note—and I was already craving for more.

“The day I was declared Queen,” the Queen said, jolting my attention back to her, “it was the darkest day of my life. The ceremony was long, and the night was… painful.”

I clenched my fists. Everything about that sentence made me want to shrivel up inside and cry.

The Queen plucked another string nonchalantly. “Growing up, I learned all these skills. Zither, calligraphy, dance. Everything I know, they were learned for the sole purpose of entertaining men. My husband. The King. The day before the ceremony, my mother taught me one more skill. She taught me all about… bedding a man. She taught me about the things I should do, the words I should say, in order to please my husband. And bear a child.” Her voice lowered. “Nobody cared about pleasing me.”

“They should,” I snapped.

She gave me a wistful smile before turning back to the instrument. “That day… I needed someone to vent to. Anyone. Chae-Won was my maid. She was… sweet. Afraid of me, like everyone else, but sweet. She was so keen on listening, and I felt so safe telling her. And so I did. I… complained to her.

“The next day, word spread around that the King was bad in bed. That silly girl. She must have thought it was funny and told the story everywhere.” The Queen laughed at this, but the edge of her voice trembled as if she was on the verge of tears. “And then, I never saw her again.”

“What… happened to her?” I whispered.

“I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to know.”

A long silence ensued. The lingering question had been answered, but now I wished I did not ask. I wished I did not find out about this.

The Queen began to cry again, bending over the zither as her injured hand clutched at her chest.

“Your Majesty!” I rushed to her side. Wrapping my arms around her waist, I hugged her from behind. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I promise you, I will watch what I say from now on. I won’t put you in this position again. I won’t make you cry ever again. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

She shook her head; her every sniffle sent a wave of despair through me. “It’s not your fault… It’s mine. I- I put you in danger. I hit you…”

“I don’t care about that at all, Your Majesty! I don’t care if you hit me, or pinch me, or even stab me. Please, Your Majesty, I just don’t want you to be upset again. You deserve to be the happiest person in the world!”

We sobbed like this for a long while, the Queen leaning into her zither, and I leaning onto her. I had never seen the Queen this upset before, not even when she was crying about the King. And there was nothing I could do except hold onto her.

When we calmed down, she sat up and turned to face me. “Seul-Ki, one day… one day we will get out of this hell hole together. I promise you.”

I blinked. “Can… Can we?”

“Yes, of course we can.” She cupped my face gently—and pulled away when she saw me wincing.

I grasped her hands and placed them back on my cheeks. My injuries did not matter as much as the Queen’s touch.

“Oh, Seul-Ki,” she mumbled, remorse taking over her expression once again. “I’m sor—”

“Please don’t apologize anymore, Your Majesty,” I insisted.

She pursed her lips. “Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?”

“You could… kiss me?”

She chuckled. But instead of kissing me, she said, “There is something you can do to help relieve my guilt. Will you do it?”

“What is it, Your Majesty?”

The Queen took in a shaky breath.

“Slap me back, Seul-Ki.”

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