twenty-three
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Seasons came and went, pressed on by the relentless wheel of time. The green of leaves faded into shades of red and yellow, while the air became crisp and chill. Meanwhile, the Queen’s belly grew to a size unimaginable to my naive mind. If there had been anybody questioning her pregnancy, there was no denying it now.

The workload at the servants’ quarters was also increasing. There were so many preparations needed for giving birth that I had never known about. For example, building a “birth hut”. A fortune teller had been invited to pick a spot for the hut based on the approximate month of the birth. It ended up being a fifteen-minute walk south from the Queen’s residence into a more secluded part of the palace. We spent weeks preparing the birth hut; scrubbing the floors, preparing the straw bedding, and stocking up with supplies.

I had an additional role of working with the royal chefs and physicians to create new diets for the Queen. Apparently, herbs like sage and licorice could allow the birth to go smoother. Fitting these ingredients into the Queen’s limited preferences would have been a tough task to do in the past, but she had become significantly less picky—and ate significantly more.

The Queen had also been busier; the Sanggung had been nagging at her to walk outside more, despite the weather getting colder each day. I was always too busy with my other duties to accompany her on the walks, and my heart stung with jealousy whenever I heard about how yet another maid got to stroll three long hours with the Queen.

Today, however, I was promised more time with the Queen; I was to follow the head palace lady and help the Queen with a set of new exercises she had to do.

When we reached her chambers, the Queen was sitting next to her bed. The little toy bear sat by the pillow. My heart did a small somersault. It had been months, and it still made me squeal with joy to see the Queen treasuring my gift.

“Your Majesty, my Queen,” the Sanggung greeted. “It is almost a month to your birth. We have to begin the exercises I told you about. We will have to do this every day, on top of your walks.”

The Queen let out a long, tired sigh.

“Please, Your Majesty, the more we do now, the easier the birth will be.”

Slowly, the Queen nodded.

We helped her to her feet. With the Sanggung’s instructions and my assistance, the Queen began to stretch her body. Lifting her arms, she reached in all directions; occasionally, I had to hold her waist to prevent her from falling over. She kept her breaths slow and her motions gentle. The exercises were simple, but with a baby in her body, it took a lot of effort to get through them.

After twenty minutes, the Queen leaned against the wall. “I can’t do this anymore, Sanggung. I am already exhausted from the walk in the morning. Can we take a break?”

“Yes, Your Majesty, we can continue this tomorrow.” The head palace lady cast me a pointed look. “But there is one more thing we need to start doing, Your Majesty. Not to worry, it is not an exercise, it is a massage.”

“Massage?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. The tissues around your vaginal entrance may… tear if you don’t massage it and stretch it out.”

Tear?

My fear was mirrored in the Queen, as her eyes darted downwards in dismay. “Oh. How… How should I massage that… area, Sanggung?” she asked.

The head palace lady took in a shaky breath. “You should sit down, Your Majesty, with your back against the wall, and then… you could either do it yourself, or you could ask someone to help you with it.”

“Seul-Ki,” the Queen called immediately. There was no hesitation on her part. “Come, help me, please.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” There was no hesitation on my part too.

I moved toward the Queen as she slid to the floor and spread her legs apart. My heart pounded as blood rushed to my head. This was a familiar position, one that I had taken most nights, but now, the Sanggung was sitting an arm’s length away, staring at me, staring at us. I gulped.

The head palace lady pushed two bowls forward. “Wash your hands in the basin, Seul-Ki, and then lubricate your thumb with almond oil.”

I gulped again and did as she said. The water was icy cold and the oil was pleasantly warm, but as I placed my trembling thumb near the Queen’s entrance, it scalded from the heat.

“Insert your thumb about one inch deep,” —the head palace lady’s every word seemed to weigh down on my back, crushing my lungs— “and then press down towards the floor.”

“P- Press down, Sanggung?” I asked.

“Gently. You should feel a bit of stretch, Your Majesty, but it should not be too painful. And it will get easier the more we do it, just like the exercises.”

The Queen nodded stiffly, and I took that as a cue to proceed. She was tighter than I was used to—her entire body was taut with tension—but my oiled thumb was able to slip in easily. And, as instructed, I pressed.

A strained moan escaped from the Queen’s throat—and it was not the good kind. I stopped immediately.

“Are you alright, Your Majesty?” I turned to the Sanggung. “It hurt her!”

“It’s... It’s not too bad,” the Queen assured with a whisper.

“That is the point of stretching,” the Sanggung insisted. “Continue, Seul-Ki. Press and cycle around for two minutes. Your Majesty, please remember your breathing exercises.”

The Queen inhaled, long and slow. Our eyes met, and she gave me a small nod.

Clenching my teeth, I pressed again. This time, the Queen did not make a sound, but her expression stabbed me in the heart. Her pursed lips, her twitching brows, her squirming arms—they were features I drew from her at night, but I knew this was very, very different. She did not enjoy this one bit.

“One more minute.” The head palace lady was as adamant as ever. “Your Majesty, breathe in slowly, and now exhale, and in again… Yes, just like that.”

The Queen had her eyes closed now, her head leaning against the wall. Her chest rose and fell as she followed the Sanggung’s directions. Nausea hit me, making my stomach churn. She was suffering. And I was making her suffer.

I wanted to sob, but the cry stopped in my throat. Despite how much we hated this, I had to keep going. This was good for her. This was for an easier, safer birth.

By the time the Sanggung told me I could stop, the world was spinning around me. I slumped on the floor, and the Queen also cried out in relief. As I looked around, I noticed the little toy bear across the room. It looked like it was staring at me, glaring.

The heat in my cheeks grew.

“We need to do this a few times a day until the birth, Your Majesty,” the head palace lady reminded.

Silence fell between us. The Queen and I exchanged a long, weary look. Then, she forced out a thin smile. “Understood, Sanggung, but I’d really like some rest now.”

“Yes, Your Majesty, I will leave you to your rest.”

The head palace lady bowed and departed the room. We watched the door slide close before we turned towards each other, faces flushed and eyes wild.

And we burst into awkward chuckles.

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