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The sleeping quarters of the Imperial Concubines is separated into dormitories and chambers according to rank.  Those ladies currently favoured by the Emperor sleep in rooms created from embroidered partitions on which dansims bloom and cranes fly or perch on branches of cherry trees.  Those ladies lie on soft, silk covered mattresses, under down-stuffed duvets. The less favoured ladies, or those who have only recently joined the Imperial household, sleep in dormitories, with plain white walls and no privacy, to encourage them to behave.  

My own mattress is covered in clean, white cotton and tonight I will rest my head, not on a hay filled sack as I have done in days past but on a pile of pillows so high that I suspect I shall not sleep at all.

I sit upon the bed and my red silk hanbok spills like new blood across the sheets.  On the folded blanket of crimson flowers lies a boxed wrapped in thick, lilac paper embossed with the Emperor’s seal.

“A token of esteem from his majesty to welcome you,” says the eunuch who herded me here.  He continues as I contemplate the box: its size, its shape, its weight. “Rest now, my lady.  You will want to be fresh and alert when you are summoned in the morning.”  But he does not leave and I cannot rest.  I realise that he is waiting for me to open the box and I do so, as that is what is required of me.  

The lilac paper parts to reveal a box of black lacquer decorated with slices of mother-of-pearl that show a phoenix in flight over mountains and a lake.  Inside, lying on black velvet is a golden cuff on which two cranes have been carved to join at the point of their beaks.  Where there eyes are, lie stones that flash points of green, yellow and red, against as blue background.

“Opals,” says the eunuch.  “His Majesty is pleased that you are come.”  My lips rise to form a smile; my eyes do not.

Story by Mai Le Dinh

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