((Court alchemist Chowa has made Leanna an offer, one she is having trouble seeing the downside of. Then again, Chowa is a master player of court games. Can even her assistant trust her? The summer solstice approaches and Li, as the imperials call her, has time to reflect on the changes in her life so far. She is a long way from home, but is that a bad thing?))
The workshop opened its doors and a flood of women entered. The emperor would return to the flower hall tonight after the ceremony in the hall of law. None of the residence of Flowers would be present for that, but Ashioto would be coming back to the Flower hall that night. That would be a chance for the concubines to re-establish the order of power, or for there to be a transition. Ceseed had sunk an entire platinum into a massive order of cosmetics and skin treatments. She was determined to keep her hold on the emperor but other women now thought they had a chance. After all, Ceseed herself had become favourite after just such a period of absence and the boy Emperor was notoriously fickle.
Leanna raced to keep up with the clamouring servants and slaves who jostled to be served. The press of bodies in the small workshop soon had the northerners sweating and uncomfortably hot. Leanna could smell her own body and it was making her eyes water. The scent of sweat had never bothered her in her the clan. Now she showed daily, used hair oil and occasionally perfume. Chowa would give her the bottles that were about to go past their best and so unsuitable to sell. Li revelled in the heady scents, citrus and floral being her favourites.
The workshop store closed with some disappointed clients. Frez and Li had simply not had time to serve everyone. Chowa had said this would happen.
“If the simpletons leave their preparations to the very night they see as so vital to their elevation, then they do not have the aptitude to move up within the flower hall.”
Leanna smiled as she scrubbed down tables and cleaned the stone floor. Frez melted away to get ready and the shower was free by the time Leanna had banked the furnace for the night.
She still loved the hot water that rained down on her. She was not sure how she ever thought a bath in her own sweat was a good way of getting clean in her clan days. Frez was waiting for her when she emerged, it was a good thing the workshop was so warm because she only has a scrap of towelling to wrap herself in. Frez was dressed in his best cotton tunic, dyed forest green. The colour complemented his blue eyes and dark blond hair beautifully. Chowa had insisted Leanna have new clothes also for the event and Frez had obtained them.
Leanna could not help but gasp at what she saw laid over her work bench. A shi of green silk. The garment was plain and nowhere near as complex or ornate as the shi the concubines wore. It did not matter. Leanna had never dared to hope she would ever wear anything of silk. Chowa was sending a message. If her assistant made the right decision then such things would be hers as a matter of course. Li knew it was blatant temptation, but to a certain extent it was working. She wanted to have nice things of her own.
“Touch it,” said Frez with a chuckle. “It is yours.” Trembling fingers, scarred and calloused from a life gutting fish and exposure to the cold northern winds and burning ice. Those fingers were never meant to touch such finery and yet they bushed over the garment with careful reverence. If water had a skin then this is what it would feel like. Soft, flowing, undulating, but also strong.
“Now don’t get too giddy when you put it on,” chuckled Frez. “You have to dance and sweat in it,” Leanna pulled a face and Frez barked a laugh. “Now sit, if you are going to wear a nobles garb you need a noble hair.” Frez oiled and pinned her brown curls up in a complex series of ringlets.
Chowa had created a new ‘polymer’ as she put it and while it had many applications the main one she had used it in was in fixing spray for hair. It glued the strands in place but could be washed out after. Liberal amounts were applied to Li’s head and she sneezed.
Leanna could not have too much in the way of hair ornaments. They would fall out with the performance she had to put on. The pinned sections pulled unpleasantly on her scalp, but the pins needed to be tight or her hair would be a tangled mess mid shimmy.
“You’ll do,” Frez said at last. “Best get to the hall. The emperor will be arriving soon.” He left what everyone hopped for unsaid.
He would be arriving after the news crier had told the hall of the new edict. That is, if he had made one.
The hall was a throbbing mass of bodies pressed together. The chatter was vibrant and exited female voices joined together in a cacophony that made Leanna’s ears ring. She had no idea how she would find her dance partners in all the hubbub. The room stank of every kind of conceivable perfume with sandalwood incense weaving through it all.
The lamps were lit even though it was early and coloured paper had been placed before them, making the light filter through blue, green and red. The screens at the back of the hall were being opened slowly. Sword maidens sweating in their light amour as the pushed and shoved at the heavy mahogany panels with their waxed paper windows.
Hot, humid air began to circulate through the room, the scents of the garden mixing with the concubines perfume. Petals from the blossom trees outside fluttered in with the breeze, eddying downward like pink snowflakes. Leanna smiled up at the sight, fascinated. She was the only one. The rest ignored or did not notice. A quirk of their character Leanna decided, looking round the hall full of dark haired women, almost all of whom were shorter than herself.
Imperials were rigid and unbending. Their pride was their strength. They were the last civilisation, they had the potential to help the rest of the world become civilised once more. The common people were happy and hard working. By contrast the palace was a hotbed of intrigue, backstabbing and was frankly was very far from the imperial values the commoners were told to uphold. Then again these were the people with power. Without them the system would fall and the nation would implode.
It was imperfect and fragile but without it humans would fall further and possibly regress into the anarchy of the days of the dark. It was said back then that the sun could not shine through the grey skies for five cycles. Humans, once in the millions reduced in number by over half. Starvation and a strange sickness that the demons spread killed so many that the survivors did not bother to even honour the dead. Bodies were piled up and abandoned to the scavenging animals that now thrived.
Leanna shook her head to clear it of the gloomy history she had spent most of her life learning. The Empire was light and possibility. Humans had spent generations recovering and now were on the cusp of clawing back some of what they had lost. Chowa believed this was the way forward. Stability would breed educated humans free of superstition who would take forward what she was dedicating her life to, uncovering the secrets of the forgotten past. Her offer was enticing.
Leanna could feel herself wanting to believe in her.