“You may leave us now,” he dismissed Chowa without even looking in her direction. Chowa bowed anyway and withdrew. Li’s instinct to follow her heightened. There was a delicate yawn behind her. She turned to see the ninth concubine was reclining on a padded bench behind the door. The bench did not look comfortable, but the way the concubine draped herself over it showed all her assets to advantage.

“Misra Ceseed,” Li said in greeting and bowed. “Forgive me for not paying my respects.” The concubine gave a dismissive gesture and closed her eyes. Li could see the woman was tired.

“Pretty girl!” said a high pitched voice. “Pretty girl!” Li spun around looking for the owner of the voice. “Hungry, feed me!” squawked the voice. Li was aware the Emperor and Ceseed were laughing at her but she could not see where the speaker was.

“EMPEROR’S BALLS!” the voice screeched making Li gasp in horror. Her eyes flew to the emperor himself who was covering his mouth with his sleeve while his shoulders shook. Who could get away with saying such things before the ruler of the empire?

“Put the girl out of her misery before her head overheats,” said Ceseed with a scornful chuckle. The emperor made a curt gesture for her to follow him and seemed to compose himself.

He walked to his desk, upon it was a golden cage with a small and unassuming black bird within. She had seen many beautiful birds for sale as pets in the market. The bird opened its yellow beak and cried

“Kiss me!”

Li burst out laughing in spite of herself. The bird could talk.

What a wonder!

She was at a loss how to converse with a bird, but it was the emperor’s pet so Li thought she better be cautious.

“Greetings to you,” she said bowing. “Please tell me how you prefer to be addressed…” There was more laughter for the rooms occupants. The bird looked at her and screeched

“Whore!” Li’s head snapped up from her bow. The Emperor was laughing so hard he was in danger of choking.

“Forgive me,” he spluttered between chuckles. “I should have explained.”

He mastered himself and gestured for Ceseed to quieten her spiteful chuckles.

“The bird is a mimic, it does not understand us it only repeats what it has been taught.” Li straightened, flushing with embarrassment. She had bowed to a bird before the emperor. Frez was never going to let her forget this.

“The bird belonged to a sailor from the haven islands before I acquired it,” the emperor continued. “He taught it many things that should not be said in polite company. I heard of the creature from Princess Itzander. I did not believe such a bird existed so she purchased it from the sailor before he returned to his homeland.”

“THIEF!” the bird screeched. “PRETTY, THIEF… WHORE!”

“But as you can see, it will mix up what it has been taught. As for as it knows, it is singing a beautiful melody.”

“Sounds wonderful to me,” enthused Ceseed. “Fairly accurate too in this case.”

“Put away your claws Ceseed,” chuckled the emperor. “Save them for the ministers you enjoy tormenting so much.”

“I would not torment them if they would listen to me,” she pouted. “The grand highway project being shelved is idiocy. We need to improve trade and the best way to do that is invest in our infrastructure.” The Emperor rolled his eyes.

“Enough politics, I have heard nothing but such nonsense for an entire sub,”

“Yes, but-” the concubine protested, but was silenced by a sharp glance.

“Thank you assistant Li for the entertainment,” I shall call on you again when I feel the need for amusement.”

Li bowed and left.

She sighed. She did not relish telling Chowa what the Emperor had called on her for.

She began to hate him, just a little.

She was just another squawking bird in a cage to amuse him.


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