Despite his earnest attempts, Jaejoong was forced to live in the women’s quarters. Every time he asked the chief, the man would just smile at his pleas, continuing on as if Jaejoong had never opened his mouth. Trapped inside, Jaejoong could only observe the lively bustle of the numerous concubines and their children from the sidelines. Day by day, he could feel a piece of him vanish. It was as if the edges of his body were slowly being grated, crumbled into fine sand until nothing remained.
Practically every night, his presence was requested at the chief’s personal quarters. The chief would talk to him, tell little anecdotes that seemed to always start from the middle of a happening and often ended without a proper culmination, leaving Jaejoong confused. It was as if the accounts weren’t previously unknown to him, as if the chief was recounting events that they had experienced together. The chief would use names foreign and hard to pronounce, speaking of their owners as if he was talking about someone as familiar to Jaejoong as the young man’s own relatives.
Sometimes the chief even slipped into his own native tongue, murmuring things entirely incomprehensible to Jaejoong into the young man’s ear as they lay on the chief’s bed in the dead of night. Jaejoong could only nod and hum as if he understood, dreading the moment the man’s slow caresses would turn more intense and demanding.
It wasn’t as if the chief was not a satisfying lover; rather conversely, he was in great contrast to most of the men Jaejoong had encountered in his life. He was attentive and gentle, paying great heed to Jaejoong’s responses to his touch.
However, no matter how pleasant and enjoyable it felt, Jaejoong just had never exactly liked sex. No matter how gentle the chief’s caresses were or how passionate his kisses grew, Jaejoong only waited for the moment it was over. He took an active role when the chief implied he so desired, and he used every skill he had learnt throughout the years to please the man, never letting him notice it was only the hollow shell of a young man engaging in the acts. Jaejoong himself was elsewhere, as he let his mind fly.
Even so, Jaejoong spent his days waiting for the moment Nergüi would come fetch him. There were two places in the palace he was allowed in, the other being the women’s quarters and the other the chief’s tent; and frankly, he preferred the chief’s tent. At first, the chief’s concubines and their children crowded around him, curious and excited, asking him questions trying to find out all about him. It was truly a bizarre event after all, having a male amongst their group. As Nergüi had explained to him during his first day, no men were allowed inside; only female maids worked their way in and out. Jaejoong even saw an older male child taken away as he had grown too old to live among the concubines.
However, after three weeks, even the most insistent kids had given up, disappointed at Jaejoong’s lazy answers and wandering eyes. No matter how persistently they pestered him, Jaejoong would only withdraw into himself, his silence and rejective stance making it ever so clear that he wished to be left alone.
Before they had to give in, the women had also been asking him about the chief. It soon became obvious that the chief exclusively asked for him, something quite out of the ordinary. Some of the concubines explained him how it had happened before when a new girl had been brought in, but only for a short period of time. The chief was not known for his perseverance and patience, he was rather a man who grew bored quickly.
With Jaejoong, the situation seemed to continue. Most of the women in the concubines’ quarters grew bored; they had nowhere to go, nothing to anticipate, no one to wait for. All they could do was spend their days chattering and playing instruments, feeding their children and braiding each other’s hair. It was no wonder there were two affairs the women had polished to a near perfection: the art of braiding hair, and the art of gossip. However, Jaejoong’s endless silence and aloofness hardly provided them with enough material for hushed court talk. They could only base their speculation on the titbits they were able to pry out of the maids; leaving Jaejoong as well the chief that they hadn’t seen for weeks, and everything that happened between the two, a complete mystery to them.
Jaejoong had been entirely indifferent to the matter at first, but when the buzz didn’t seem to abate after a few months, he found himself growing increasingly curious of the situation. His days were all alike, one following another with no change, and he had plenty of time to observe every small detail of the confined world he now belonged to.
The changes were subtle, and Jaejoong only became aware of them happening at all when after a few months, there were suddenly four guards with the chief instead of two when Jaejoong entered the main tent.
He walked over to where the chief was lounging, eyeing the kneeling quartet and their bowed heads warily.
“Look at me, my little flame,” the chief pleaded quickly, anxious to have Jaejoong’s eyes on him already. He never called Jaejoong by his name; he had never even asked to know what it was. It sat well with Jaejoong; the chief had never inhibited any interest in Jaejoong’s life, seemingly content as long as Jaejoong acted freely around him.
Jaejoong’s gaze lingered on the multiplied guards before he turned to look at the chief. The man was wearing an expression that Jaejoong had long grown familiar with; a curious mix of impatience and distress. He looked rather like a small child, waiting for his mother to come back to him.
When Jaejoong reached the divan, the man immediately yanked him down, re-arranging his own limbs to make room for Jaejoong. In an instant, he had nestled Jaejoong against his side, resting his head on Jaejoong’s exquisitely clothed breast.
The night only kept getting stranger. Instead of ordering the guards out as he always had done, the chief merely sighed, rubbing his cheek against Jaejoong’s chest. For the first time since Jaejoong had entered the Great Camp four months earlier, they did not have sex. The chief hardly even talked to him. They merely lay there, the chief’s breathing slow and shallow, his eyes closed.
It was weird. With guards on every corner of their bed, trained gazes politely averted, the chief was letting his own guard down. Jaejoong had never seen him do it before when there were other people in the room. The chief had always retained a certain impervious air, letting himself relax only when they were alone.
Now, the chief was snuggling him like a child would her mother, entirely vulnerable to the surrounding world.
It only got more confusing when Jaejoong finally left the room, escorted back to the women’s quarters by a couple of guards. His company had also been changing in quality. For the first month or so, he had always been walked by a nervous Nergüi trying to make sure he was all right in every possible sense. Afterwards, Nergüi had only fetched him from the concubine’s tent, and a guard had walked him to the main tent. This time, however, there were two soldiers accompanying him on his way back. Both were quite young, dressed in the standard palace guard attire, looking everywhere but at Jaejoong even though they both had a firm hold of his arms. Jaejoong had a hunch they had been strictly taught about appropriate behaviour around him.
When he arrived in the women’s quarters, Nergüi was there to receive him. Her cheeks were flushed, sleeves half rolled up his forearms; Jaejoong could see she was busy. He followed the petite woman, his only friend in his new home, inside.
“I have to iron another dozen bundles of silk,” she explained as she hurried inside, Jaejoong’s long strides helping him to keep up with the hurried woman. “I am very sorry but I have absolutely no time to talk… I miss you, Jaejoong,” she confessed, apologetic eyes on Jaejoong’s politely unresponsive face.
“Don’t worry about it, sister,” he answered her comfortingly, directing a small smile in her direction. With an affirming squeeze to her shoulder, he turned away from her, loosening his clothes.
Nergüi had known the man for a few months now—nearly for as long as her beloved, whom Jaejoong had had no chance of meeting since he had been brought to the chief’s residence, just like Baatar had predicted. She knew better than to trust the cold front Jaejoong put up most of the time. With her, he was never anything short of sweet and caring, but even so, he remained rather quiet and passive. At the first chance she got, she had pried out every single thing her beloved knew about the man; hearing about his breakdown and his admission of having left behind someone when he was captured.
It wasn’t hard to see that the man was lonely. He kept to himself, seemingly indifferent to what happened around him—and even to him. Nergüi could hardly believe the man could take his situation in such a stride. If she was honest, the man seemed to have all but given up, as if he had long lost his reason to live. He continued to function, but it was as if he no longer cared. Nergüi had watched him as his lonely figure sat on a pillow close to the wall of the tent. Days, one after another, he sat there, not exactly waiting in stasis, but not exactly living either.
Nergüi spent every quiet moment she could spare keeping him company. Seeing a smile on Jaejoong’s lips was definitely worth of working a little more quickly and diligently. She could see the man had taken a liking to her, calling him sister in his enchanting northern ways. He had explained that as the bride of the man who had all but saved him during the trek through the steppe, the man whom he called brother, she was automatically his sister as well. Nergüi only smiled, elated at the small gesture of affection. It was delighting to know he wasn’t only the lifeless, vapid coating of a man he sometimes appeared to be.
As she hurried back to the very end of the room where her chores were waiting for her, a small dish filled with glowing charcoals heated up and ready for ironing, she could see Jaejoong sauntering to his usual seat. He was ridding himself of his veil, draping the long headpiece over his shoulders as he combed his fingers through his messy locks.
In fact, Jaejoong wasn’t the only odd one out in the concubine’s abode. There was another woman, hardly involved in the mundanely repetitive everyday life of the other concubines. As Nergüi started up her ironing again, to her great surprise, this woman now slowly approached Jaejoong for the first time since the day he had first been brought to the tent palace.
After the unconventional night at the chief’s tent, Jaejoong studied the women he saw every day with a little more attention than he usually paid them. There was the normal buzz around him; but somehow, it seemed even more restless than usually. People were hurrying around, talking in hushed voices as if the only people around weren’t part of the same gossip circle. It was almost impossible to keep a secret in the small confined community of women trapped in a world inside a world.
His eyes fell on a woman who almost matched the chief in her dignified glory. Sarantuya, he remembered; the woman Nergüi had warned him about. Since that very first day, he had noticed the woman was nothing like his first impression. He would never have pegged the woman to be the reclusive type, but as he had sat there day after day, his eyes wandering around, he had soon noticed he was not the only one who preferred a solitary life.
As Jaejoong stared, she walked right up to him, bowing her head in a gesture of acknowledgement before sitting down right next to him. Jaejoong scooted over, surprised by her sudden advance. She didn’t look at him, staring right onward, resting her hands on her lap. Jaejoong didn’t really know what to do; most of the time he was approached with heap of questions that were mostly easy to ignore. However, this woman didn’t say a word.
Suddenly Jaejoong realised it had been weeks since he had exchanged a word with anyone else but Nergüi or the chief himself. The thought made him feel strangely unsettled.
The woman shifted, sighing as she brought her arm on her knee, resting her cheek against her palm.
“I had a friend,” she drawled. Jaejoong eyed her restful profile. Not knowing what to say, he opted for keeping his mouth shut.
“She was a northerner. Like you.”
Her eyes were on Jaejoong now. He didn’t flinch or avoid her gaze, searching her eyes for a reason to the sudden account. Truthfully, he didn’t need one. The short sentences the woman had said were quite explanatory already.
Sarantuya sighed again, closing her eyes for a brief moment.
“I don’t think I need to tell you she is the reason you were brought here… Or rather, her absence.”
“Her death,” Jaejoong corrected her in a small voice. Suddenly the chief’s odd behaviour since the very beginning made a whole lot more sense. He had always acted as if Jaejoong was someone who had lived there at the Great Camp for a long time already; as if Jaejoong was someone he had known for a long time.
Sarantuya nodded, her eyes still closed. Her shoulders were slumped; she looked like she was supporting a heavy weight over her slim body. Her whole figure was the opposite of the usual majestic way she carried herself.
“I assume Nergüi has told you I am the mother of our chief’s second son,” she continued, leaning further over her crossed knees. “She was the mother of his firstborn.”
Jaejoong could only watch as the anguished woman buried her face in her palms, a quiet, dejected sound escaping her lips. She was silent for a moment, hair flowing over her shoulders, obscuring her hidden face.
“I don’t think the chief loves anyone… I know he doesn’t love me. I know he doesn’t love my son. But he loved her. And he loves his firstborn son.”
Jaejoong felt conflicted, studying the sombre woman with keen interest. He had no idea why Sarantuya was suddenly confiding in him; as far as he could understand, she should have been livid at him, for having replaced her in the hierarchy of wives, for having stolen the position that rightfully belonged to her. No matter how Jaejoong looked at it, he couldn’t conjure up a reason to the woman’s behaviour; but he had a feeling this wasn’t about the chief at all.
“He loved her… And he loves his firstborn son…” Jaejoong repeated Sarantuya’s words, tasting them in his mouth. He didn’t know much of the chief’s children; only that he had countless of them. He had no idea how the ones too old for the women’s quarters lived, or where. “Where is he now?”
Sarantuya breathed in once before sitting up straight. She glanced over the room, seeing that the only one whose eyes were on them was Nergüi, nervously eyeing them from where she was working on the piles of silk clothing. Everyone else was either immersed in their own tasks and conversations, or doing a very good job pretending to.
She faced Jaejoong again, her expression grave. To his great surprise, Jaejoong could see a very familiar emotion in the woman’s eyes; an emotion he would be more than elated to know nothing of.
Sarantuya cleared her throat, squaring her shoulders.
“He was taken away,” she spoke up slowly, her eyes never leaving Jaejoong’s. “She died protecting him. An adult grown man, a renown soldier… His mother died protecting him.”
Jaejoong was taken aback. He had truly been brought here, to another land all the way across the steppe, thousands of kilometres to east of his own homeland, to replace a woman of his own kin, to comfort a man grieving the loss of his family? He couldn’t help but to see the irony behind it, as he was now grieving his own loss, even if he had pushed away the grief to the farthest corners of his heart.
Sarantuya watched the flicker of emotion dance across the man’s face, confirming what she thought she had noticed in the man during these few months he had been living with them. When Jaejoong was first brought to the women’s quarters, she had been angry, furious even; how dare they bring in this young man, no, this scrawny boy with dead eyes, to replace her dearest friend? Queen Anu had been loved by not only the chief but the whole court, if not by the whole of the nomad people. The chief had never been a popular man; too rough and capricious in his ways. They were qualities required of a nomad chief; with the constant pressure of other strong clans and their own chief candidates, it was impossible to retain power without exhibiting unrelenting ruthlessness.
Queen Anu, however, she had been the light keeping their people’s faces turned towards the chief. She had been fresh breeze of west wind bringing them prosperity from the distant lands across the steppe.
More than anything else, she had been the one keeping Sarantuya upright when she was first brought to the court. She had been her comfort and strength when she was still too young and too afraid, she had prevented her from falling into a lifetime of bitterness or mindlessness.
“She was my one true friend,” she confessed to Jaejoong with a thick voice, fighting the ache that she had though she had already settled within herself. “She was my mother and my elder sister and my guardian angel at the same time… My ray of sun. And when I saw them bringing you in, I couldn’t help it. After her death, he was unable to look at another woman; so he brought in a man? Another northerner… How could he ever think of replacing her like that?!”
Jaejoong could now perfectly well understand Sarantuya’s attitude towards him during the time. He couldn’t think of another ever filling the empty hole inside his chest; no, he was barely able to look at the children playing about the concubines’ quarters, afraid that he would accidentally let one of them slither their way into his heart.
Sarantuya bowed her head again, sighing.
“But when I looked at you,” she muttered, “I couldn’t blame you for the chief’s misgivings. And if he ever did anything right, that merciless bastard,” Sarantuya glanced around them, lowering her voice further as she let the defamatory words slip from her lips, “he truly did bring here the spitting image of his dear queen.”
For the first time, Jaejoong saw a genuine smile on the woman’s face as she turned to look at him.
“And when I watched you, sitting here in your corner day after day, I could tell. You are like me.”
It was Jaejoong’s turn to look down, blinking his eyes rapidly.
“He took away from you the memory of someone, didn’t he.”
Jaejoong found himself unable to bring forth any utterance, despite the woman essentially having lain out her whole heart for him to see.
A soft hand was placed on his knee, beautiful tattooed fingers stroking his leg with such deep understanding that Jaejoong found himself unable to not reciprocate the act. He placed his own, now smoothened hand over the woman’s, squeezing it as he squeezed his eyes shut as well. Sarantuya returned his grip, shifting a bit closer to Jaejoong on the floor.
“They were out there, on the steppe,” she explained to Jaejoong in a quiet, calm voice, recounting the story of her friend’s death and the abduction of the chief’s firstborn son. “Riding. He would let her outside, unlike us… She was his queen after all. Unlike us.”
She took hold of Jaejoong’s hand with her other hand too, cradling it between her palms.
“They were rather close to the Great Camp too… I am sure it has increased the chief’s misery. Right there, under his nose, they killed his queen and nabbed his adult son. I heard it was the High King of the southern capital himself who ordered such an act. He wanted the chief’s son for his own diplomatic purposes… And she fought.”
There was a slight pause, and when he heard a quiet sniff, Jaejoong finally opened his eyes. Sarantuya wiped her eyes quickly, coughing a little as she tried to mask her emotions.
“We buried her a year ago.”
Finally Jaejoong opened his mouth. “I am sorry,” he murmured, staring their hands, not knowing what exactly he was apologising for.
“Don’t be,” Sarantuya breathed out. “I just… I just thought you would… You would like to understand.”
She was right. Jaejoong felt like he could no longer aimlessly blame hateful fate for his misfortunes; his abduction had been given a reason, the haze had cleared. Even so, it didn’t remove any of the bitterness he felt; rather, it added up.
He raised his head to see a familiar face staring concernedly down at him. Nergüi shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“Are you alright?” she asked, eyeing the concubine sitting next to him suspiciously.
“Yes, I am quite alright, sister,” he smiled at her. He noticed Sarantuya flinch at his words, at the affectionate way he called the other woman. The concubine let go of his hand and stood up, looking at the maid before sliding her eyes over to Jaejoong. She managed to muster up a small smile at him before turning around and walking away.
“What did she tell you?” Nergüi asked curiously as she plopped herself down on the previously occupied seat next to Jaejoong.
“The truth,” Jaejoong smiled, looking after the second friend he made in his new home.
Even if Jaejoong was now more aware of what exactly was going on in the court and outside of it, his daily routine itself remained the same. There was still a strange gnawing sensation that things were changing, and Jaejoong could still spot weird, subtle changes from time to time. The difference was that now he had someone who knew what had happened; someone who could explain things to him.
Despite Nergüi’s initial distrust for the woman, Sarantuya soon won her over as well. The situation between the concubines and the maids was usually awkward at best, as most of the maids were actually daughters of powerful families kept captive in order to prevent usurpations; daughters of the chief’s close relatives or the heads of other clans. There was a strange strain between the two groups of women, both equally victims of the power struggle of the nomad men.
Nergüi was essential to Jaejoong, a chance for pretence of normalcy; but as grateful as Jaejoong was to have her, she could never actually understand what he’d been through. Sarantuya’s friendship was what Jaejoong noticed he had longed for; a partnership built on a common ground.
Week after week, month after month, Jaejoong spent his days lying on the floor next to the woman, sharing silly stories of their childhood and appraising the other women living in the quarters with mock arrogance. Day by day, he found himself smiling more and more, rendering the other concubines and even Nergüi speechless with the change in his demeanour. Where he previously was cold and impenetrable, he now seemed like an emotional human being. Even so, he still stayed away from the children, especially the older ones, acting indifferent and dismissive.
Sarantuya explained to him how the loss of his firstborn had turned the chief’s position precarious. Despite being a highly hierarchical society, the nomads didn’t usually follow an order of inheritance, as the previous chief was commonly overthrown the moment his old age or sickness made him prone to extensive weakness. However, the queen’s popularity had been remarkable, capable of making the people agree when the chief had announced he wished to be succeeded by his own son, the son of their queen Anu. The moment the queen had died and the son been taken captive, the underlying tensions had flared up. The high-ups all knew how much the queen’s passing had affected the chief; and the heads of each of the five biggest clans entitled to the chief position had immediately started forming alliances with each other, leaving the current chief’s clan at a disadvantage.
Sarantuya told Jaejoong she feared for her own son’s life. As she was trapped in the chief’s residence, she hardly had any chance of hearing from her son. She was extremely worried that the competing clans would try assassinating the chief’s other children in order to entrench their own positions, of course starting with the eldest remaining descendant. She could do nothing but wallow and fret, unable to protect her son in any manner. It would have been in her best interest to get on the chief’s good books, to have him acknowledge his son and bring him in as his next official successor. But Sarantuya didn’t want any of that; if anything, she wished for his son to have a normal life as an average nomad man, free as a wild horse, rid of the constricting commitments of authority. As soon as Nergüi learnt this, she finally approved of Jaejoong and her friendship, ending the flow of warning words she had sometimes slipped to the man since the day she had seen the two whisper to each other on the tent floor. She confessed to Jaejoong that she had always believed the concubines were nothing short of a vicious, scheming lot; only interested in bettering their own position before the chief.
In consequence of his new companion, Jaejoong grew to enjoy his time in the women’s quarters significantly more. He still wished he could move out, and quite truthfully, he missed Baatar dearly. As a common concubine, he had no chance of meeting any other men than the chief himself, the guards watching over the chief’s every movement, and whoever else happened to be present in the chief’s room when Jaejoong was called there.
The chief himself grew more and more detached to life and the real situation they were living in. He hardly ever talked to Jaejoong anymore, not even in his own native tongue. After a year and a half, he would call for Jaejoong more and more infrequently, but he didn't call for any other concubines either. Sometimes Jaejoong was called in during daytime and the chief would merely make him sit on a pile of pillows and caress the man’s hair as the chief lay his head on his lap while he discussed state matters with his officials. Jaejoong rather preferred it to the occasional night-time calls as he could let his mind wander as far as he wished. He wondered if he would be released should the chief grow tired of him for good one day. He guessed the chances were not exactly high as the women’s quarters were full of women who hadn’t visited the man for a good few years.
It was well into his third year in the Great Camp when Jaejoong suddenly was presented with the opportunity. He was once again sitting in the main tent, carefully carding his fingers through the chief’s wiry black hair. The men were discussing diplomatic relationships, a subject that always brought forth furious anger in the chief. Jaejoong was called in every time, as his presence apparently soothed the seething man. Even with him there, the chief would occasionally bounce up from his seat, spacing around the room agitatedly, roaring loudly and gesturing wildly as his officials covered. Once, Jaejoong even witnessed him impulsively killing a messenger bringing a letter from the southern capital. The man’s neck snapped like a chicken’s under the chief’s strong palms, and Jaejoong stared blankly as the poor man’s lifeless body was dragged out of the room. It was a rare moment that reminded Jaejoong how truly frightening the man could be.
The state affair gatherings usually lasted for hours and where often conducted in Jaejoong’s language. Some of the nomad officials came from such remote places that their words sounded like freely flowing water instead of the common staccato of the nomad language. Despite being able to listen in, Jaejoong rarely paid any attention to the conversations, usually watching the scribe always sitting on the chief left jot down whatever was being discussed and decided. The familiar figures of flowing characters comforted him, bringing him back to his childhood, to the days he spent lying on the floor of their hut, reading until his fingertips bled with paper cuts.
It was because of the scribe that Jaejoong started paying attention to the meeting that time. The man wouldn’t stay put, squirming around with the papers neatly spread in front of him. The chief himself seemed impatient, jerking up towards the poor man in an extremely intimidating manner before sighing loudly and banging his head back onto Jaejoong’s lap. It made Jaejoong focus his eyes and gather his drifting thoughts as he eyes the scribe with increasing curiosity.
“How did I ever land myself such an incompetent scribe,” the chief crumbled, throwing an arm over his eyes.
“I apologise a thousand times over, my chief, but it seems the trends in poetry in the court of the southern capital have been changing again,” the scribe hurried to defend himself as he tilted his head to the right, trying to make sense of the highly skilled writing inscribed on fine paper.
“I only ask to know what on earth they are demanding of me now, and yet, you are unable to convey their message to me,” the chief murmured, his tone threateningly calm and cold.
Jaejoong returned his hands in the chief’s hair as he leant closer to the scribe. As usual when other men where in the room, he was veiled from head to toe, only his eyes visible in the gap left between the scarfs covering his hair and face.
The scribe scratched his head, trailing a finger down the paper, over the same words again and again as he tried to understand the sentence. Jaejoong could see the letter was written in a flowing style, a handwritten cursive script hard to read in itself. The scribe was mumbling to himself, and Jaejoong found himself following the characters in the same pace. The scribe’s sentence always came to an end at the same spot, and when he attempted to read the sentence aloud for the tenth time, Jaejoong couldn’t help but the breath out the missing word when the scribe got stuck at the same place as always.
“Excommunicated,” he let slip from his lips, continuation to the sentence he had been mouthing alongside the scribe.
The scribe froze, stiffly turning to face Jaejoong. Their eyes met for a moment before Jaejoong remembered who exactly he was and lowered his gaze quickly.
“What did you say?” the scribe demanded quickly, picking up the paper to peer closer at the incomprehensible character.
Jaejoong kept his mouth shut, slightly panicked. He had never been explicitly told so, but he did know what his place as a concubine, a pleasure slave was; and it certainly wasn’t speaking up during important state gatherings.
Everyone else in the room were sitting on the floor in order to keep themselves lower than the chief splayed out on his divan. Jaejoong had long accepted that he was not treated as a man, and thus allowed to have his head held high even when the chief was lying down. However, when the scribe spoke up, one by one the officials perked up from their lazy positions, following the situation with keen interest.
“Oh by the great Sun Chariot, what are you doing? Stop staring at my little flame and tell me what the letter says!” the chief snapped, massaging his temples with one hand.
“My chief, if you would allow your humble servant this one request,” the scribe rattled off impatiently, his eyes still on Jaejoong, and without waiting for permission, he asked again.
“What did you say just now?”
Jaejoong looked around helplessly, only to find the eyes of every single official on the room set on him. The scribe widened his eyes and raised his brow expectantly, prodding the man on with his expression.
“E…excommunicated,” Jaejoong managed to utter. The scribe looked back to his paper, reading aloud slowly.
“And by the mercy of the Good Rider of all eastern land, we advise You let know the horse people of this new three-day long holiday, as all merchants engaging in slave trade during these sacred days shall be… excommunicated, and if again caught, executed in public beheading.”
“Great, just great,” the chief moaned. “When will these southern idiots stop coming up with these new stupid holidays! I swear, if that fool of a High King informs me of yet another one… I shall encourage my caravans to practice slave trade exclusively during their stupid celebrations! I don’t care if he has my son! I don’t care about his idiotic, womanish diplomatic game—”
When no one answered his words, the chief sat up annoyed, only to find his scribe gaping at Jaejoong with unhidden surprise coating his face. As he glanced around, he could see every single one of his officials staring at the veiled young man with similar expression of utter disbelief on their faces.
“A literate whore! Now this is something unheard of,” one of them chortled, shifting on his pillow.
Jaejoong bowed his head deeper, once again thankful to the stifling cloth covering his face, obscuring his cheeks that were flushed with anger and humiliation from the roomful of men.
“I would have expected better of you, my chief,” one of them exclaimed cheerily. “Spending your nights teaching your whores how to read instead of teaching them how to please.”
“Oh shut your mouth, brother,” the chief answered him sharply. “You know I understand nothing of these ink worms trapped on paper.”
He leant closer to Jaejoong, forcing his chin up to be able to stare at the young man’s eyes. Jaejoong answered the gaze unflinchingly, his expression as unreadable as ever. Trying to think of something else in order to keep his cool, he wondered if the man whom the chief had just called his brother was perhaps Nergüi’s father.
After a few moments of intense staring, the chief released his chin, plopping back down to lie on the divan.
“I care not who you are,” he declared haughtily, “but, my little flame, aren’t you full of surprises. A ghost courtesan who emerges from plain sand in the middle of uninhabited, vast steppe… A literate slave.”
“With your benevolent permission, I will speak now, my chief,” the scribe suddenly spoke up from Jaejoong’s side, “I have been buried under work as of lately; I could use help. With my chief’s wise forethought to order the writing of the history of all nomad peoples and every notable clan, I am inclined to—”
“It was my mother’s idea,” the chief cut him off indignantly. Someone was asking for his concubine, and to work with the official state correspondence of all? Now that was even more absurd than a literate whore!
Suddenly, the scribe switched to the nomad language, demonstrating his point by spreading the pile of letters in front of him on the floor, gesturing towards every single one in turns. The chief was shouting back at him, eyes blown and shooting daggers as they argued, the officials’ occasional chuckles and exclamations backing up their arguments.
For the first time in a long while, Jaejoong actually felt nervous. These men were hollering about his very future. He tried to desperately smother the sparkle of excitement that was igniting inside of him, spreading a nervous flame in his chest.
The chief stood up, slamming his palms against the side of the divan. The scribe shut up immediately, carefully averting his eyes before he stilled his body, waiting for the chief’s verdict.
“Fine!” he shouted, aggravation oozing out of every cell of his body. “Fine! I will give you your literate whore! I will allow you to use him for official state affairs! I will entrust my realm in the hands of a prostitute!”
“My most sincere gratefulness will be weighed upon your entrance to greener pastures, my chief,” the scribe exclaimed with poorly hidden glee, making the formal words sound rather mocking than respectful, as usual.
“Not as if you have ever listened to me,” the chief groused. “Only because you are the only man capable of understanding complicated literature—”
The scribe cut the chief’s speech short. Jaejoong could barely believe his guts.
“My chief, as your most humble servant I ask of you one more thing; I couldn’t possibly work with a woman.”
The chief leered at his disobedient scribe.
“Fine!” he repeated his previous irate consent. “I will let you dress him like a real rider! Give him a horse too now that you are at it! Why don’t you cut off the hair of every single one of my concubines! I swear to Sun—if the life of my beloved son wasn’t dependant on that pen of yours—I would snap your neck right here and now!”
Jaejoong could hardly hear what the men were shouting. The small sparkle of hope had flared up to a great fire burning up his whole body, making his ears roar with the blood rushing in his veins.