twenty-two
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The Concubine scrambled out of her seat while Seul-Na and I lowered our bodies to the ground.

“Your Majesty, my Queen,” the Concubine greeted at the side of her table, head bowed.

The Queen did not reply as she sauntered into the room, her every step slow and deliberate. She was wearing a bright crimson robe with golden embroidery that complemented her shiny hairpin. As she sank into the Bin Concubine’s original seat, the fabric fluttered in the air—its soft rustle was deafening in our silence.

My breath hitched; this was the robe she had worn on my first day in the palace. On the first day that I met her.

And she was as breathtaking as ever.

“Your Majesty,” the Concubine greeted again, agitation creeping into her voice, “to what do I owe the pleasure?”

The Queen peered down at her, chin raised. She was smaller and shorter than the Concubine, but at that moment, she looked ten times bigger.

“Am I not allowed to say hello to my husband’s concubine?” Her voice was an icy dagger. It sent a chill down my spine—and I was not even her target.

“Of course you are, Your Majesty! I am beyond honored.” The Concubine let out a weak laugh as she gestured at her teacup. “Would you like to try this as well, Your Majesty? It’s oolong tea, specially imported from Yunnan.”

“No.” The Queen’s lashes flickered. “I am not supposed to drink tea. It affects the baby.”

The Concubine gasped and plunged into a groveling bow. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty, I- I did not know that! I wouldn’t have offered it if I did, I swear!”

The silence that followed was devilishly long. By the time the Queen decided to speak, the Concubine’s forehead was glistening with sweat.

“Rise,” she commanded before glancing at me. “How is the tea, Seul-Ki?”

I was not expected to be invited into a conversation between the royals. “It’s- It’s good.”

Her gaze lingered on me as if she was trying to figure out my lie. “I see. A shame I cannot try it.” She turned back to the Concubine. “But I would appreciate it if you would inform me first, Soo-Young, before taking my maid away.”

Her maid. I tightened my hold around the toy bear; its fuzz against my palms was as warm as my heart.

“I certainly will, Your Majesty,” the Concubine said, “and I apologize for any worry caused today. But I saw her walking about in the palace grounds with no shoes on, what poor soul, and I had to bring her in immediately.”

The Queen’s brows furrowed at that last sentence.

“It was clear that today was her day off from work anyway,” the Concubine continued, “since she seemed to have gone on a shopping trip outside the palace.” There was a light chuckle before she added, “Are you already missing her after less than a day, Your Majesty?”

“I am,” the Queen said without hesitation. “I like having her around.”

My cheeks heated. The Queen missed me? And then… admitted it out loud? I had to dig my nails into the poor toy to stop myself from collapsing.

The smile on the Concubine twisted into a disturbing smirk. “I would be careful about that, Your Majesty. Seul-Ki just admitted to liking women.”

The dread from before rushed back like a hard punch in my gut. My heart pounded in my ears as my wild eyes found the Queen’s. “Your- Your Majesty, I… I…”

Once again, I lost my ability to speak. What should I say—what could I say—to salvage this?

“Let’s not cloud our minds with rumors, shall we?” The icy tone of the Queen returned like the tempest wind.

“But Your Majesty, it is important to clarify the truth behind the rumors. People talk, and you don’t want people to talk about this if this is untrue.” The Concubine lowered her voice into a smug, airy hum. “You don’t want the King to hear how you’ve been spending all your time with a maid who has an odd preference for women.”

No, no, no. The toy was now fully contorted in my trembling hands.

Not the King. No one could know, him especially.

The Queen remained as cool as ever. “Why don’t you clarify your own rumors first, Soo-Young?” she whispered. “Is it true you are unable to conceive?”

The atmosphere of the room changed instantly. Seul-Na clasped her hands to her mouth, while the Bin Concubine turned ghostly pale.

“Who told you that?” she snapped.

“Does it matter?”

“Yes, it does, You Majesty!” The Concubine’s face knotted into a snarl that took away all of her beauty. At that moment, she looked hideous. “Whoever spread that rumor deserves to die for making up a lie like that!”

“And whoever spread the rumor regarding my maid deserves the same. Remember, Soo-Young, be mindful of how much weight you put on baseless rumors about other people because they can always do the same for you. Never forget that.” With a swish of her robe, the Queen stood up. “We shall take our leave now. Come, Seul-Ki.”

As she waltzed out of the room, Seul-Na rushed to her feet and ran toward the Concubine.

“Your Ladyship…” she cried, holding onto the arms of a sobbing Bin Concubine.

Our eyes met for a moment before she returned her attention to her master. The sight of my sister helping the person who tried to ruin the Queen’s reputation turned my stomach into a coil.

And I realized, to my horror, that our sisterhood was shattered forever.

Toy bear in my hand, I scrambled out of my seat, mumbled a quick greeting, and sprinted out of the room.

The Queen walked unexpectedly fast; I was out of the building by the time I caught up to the Queen.

“Your Majesty!” I called.

She slowed to a stop and waited for me.

“Did you come alone?” I asked in between my breaths. “For… For me?”

“I came as soon as I was notified about you being in her territory. Sanggung is with me but she is waiting in the courtyards with a few guards. I wanted to be the only one to confront Soo-Young.” She sighed as if letting out the lingering stress in her. Then, she smiled. “Oh, look, you bought a toy.”

I looked down at it. The bear was mangled from all my squeezing. “Yes, Your Majesty. It’s… It’s for you. You said your favorite animal was a bear, so I…”

“So you sold your shoes to buy this for me?”

“I uh… Well, sort of…”

She chuckled. Taking the bear, she stared at it for a while. “Thank you, Seul-Ki.”

My heart fluttered. “A- Anything for you, Your Majesty.”

“I will ask Sanggung to get you fitted for a new pair of shoes. How was the errand for Oppa, by the way?”

“It went well. I really enjoyed going out into Hanyang. The marketplace was so interesting, Your Majesty, I wished you could come along. I- I wished…” I trailed off. The Concubine’s words had been weighing on me, and it was difficult to return to my cheerful self again.

“What’s wrong, Seul-Ki?”

“She…” I gulped. “She said it was unnatural, Your Majesty.”

The Queen raised her eyebrows. “Do you think it’s unnatural?” She did not even ask what I was referring to. She knew.

I took a few minutes to ponder.

“It doesn’t feel like it, Your Majesty,” I admitted. It felt like the most natural thing in the world. It felt like I was meant to love her.

“And that’s all that matters.” We started to walk as she continued, “I had an uncle who was an avid writer and a left-hander. No matter how hard my grandfather tried to get him to use his right hand—tying his left hand to the back, slapping it whenever he used it—he always reverted to his left hand. In the end, my grandfather cut off his left thumb. My uncle could not hold a brush with his favored hand anymore. He stopped writing altogether and became a recluse. He died before I was old enough to remember him.”

“That’s… That’s terrible, Your Majesty.”

“It is.“ The Queen fixed her dark, sincere eyes on me. “The world is cruel to anybody who is different, even if there is nothing wrong with it. Don’t let them stop you from being who you are, Seul-Ki.”

My vision blurred. Wiping my tears away, I nodded. “Yes, Your Majesty.”

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