He stood in the lines mixtured of man and woman in their mid 10s and early 20s. He was in the third row from the front, right at the end. He could see the palace guards standing under the scorching sun as well as him in their gear-up and their sword at their side, ready to lash at any intruders in the great election.
He learned that standing in the end of the row makes you the hundred person in line. Which means he is number 300 among this 5,000 other people who wish for a better life in the palace even though they received the title of the imperial concubine of the Emperor.
Stares and whispers has been felt a while since he got to the palace complex. He arrives in his usual brown colored shirt and loose pants made out of hemps just like everyone else. He had travel from Cheongju to the capital, Hanseong.
“Isn’t that Kim Wooseok?”
“You haven’t heard? The Calla-lily of Chungcheong.”
“He’s very beautiful. I think I will never have a chance to become the Emperor concubine if he’s here.”
“Hush! He might not be of the Emperor’s taste. Haven’t you seen the Empress?”
“No..? They rarely visits Jeonju.”
“The Empress is very fit. While that man is… well. Lanky.”
“You’re right! He’ll probably get eliminated by the first round for being too thin.”
By then suddenly the great door opens, the Emperor advisor walk through it with his head hang high looking at 5,000 people, young man and woman, competing to be the Emperor’s concubine. All of them filled the palace complex, stood with their heads hang low in respect towards the nobility and shame for they were surrounded by man of money and power.
“You’re here because the Emperor’s request of having a royal concubine by his side. But, of course, we cannot let anyone in the palace. So we will select you. We will test you. We will see if you’re fit to be a nobility.”
“First round starts today. We will eliminate you by eyes.”
After that, he was once again gone behind the great door. Leaving his subordinates to do the job of judging people’s body. The once silent complex become a mess. People here and there shouting and groaning and wailing.
“Too fat. Eliminated!”
He had heard the person in charge shout the to the person in the front row.
“Too thin. Eliminated!”
“No! Sir, My Lord, I beg you!”
A lady probably 16 years old fell onto her knees rubbing her hands, pleading for a re-consideration of the man in charge.
But they were ruthless.
He shoves her out of his way and continues to judge.
This is hell unfolding.
Wooseok clenched his hands tight by his side, praying to the god above, he must survive this. He had put a lot of mind and energy to be standing in the palace complex now. He cannot fail now. He is aware that he is thin for the size of a man, but he has little hopes. There’s nothing he can do with his size knowing well how much food was distributed by the time it gets to his place.
In his line of vision he looks at a pair of black shoes. He takes a courage to look at the man. A guard with full attire and a sword by his side. A very familiar man.
It was only a whisper of the guard’s name, no one could possibly heard it among the ruckus that is happening now. But the guard looks at him menacingly. As if he had commits treason.
He shouts, startling Wooseok.
Wooseok then bow his head again. Letting Seungwoo walks to the row behind him, before suddenly a guard steps in front of Wooseok and voice out his judgement towards Seungwoo. “Chief! He’s too thin!”
“I said he passed. Are you doubting my judgement?”
“N- no, Chief.”
“Good. Now move to other rows. We got a lot of things to do.”
Wooseok didn’t realize he had been holding his breath when the other guard finally leave his side.
He had to stand under the sun for a while until the palace guards and the advisor subordinates completes their judgement through the whole 5,000 people standing.
By the end of the day there were 1,000 people eliminated. Wooseok was not one of them.
On the second day at the palace complex, the remaining 4,000 line up to get tested by eunuchs of the palace. He had heard that the second test was actually the hardest round to get through. The eunuchs will intensively examined their bodies, and evaluate their voices and general manner.
Wooseok entered the palace library, where the test was held, by the sun starting to set. He could tell the eunuchs have no interest in him as he saw a lot of names before him scratched in red tint. The eunuchs probably think of his as another dimwitted man that goes after a place in the palace.
They’re not entirely wrong.
But Wooseok was intelligent. He had learned while others have not. Education was hard if you’re not a nobility. But Wooseok had help in the past. He could read and write, although not as good as the nobility.
“Kim Wooseok of Chungcheon, I am Eunuch Park Seonho. I will examine your body intensively and after that I will test your intelligence. Please loose your clothing.”
He stays silent and look at others beside him. All of them stands naked, man nor woman, when the eunuchs told them too.
And he follows.
The rest when by a blur. All he knows he gets to stayed another night in the palace while he had heard rumours there were 2,000 people eliminated that day.
The third day was spent by the palace chosen maids observing their hands, feet, and grace of movement.
Wooseok was no doubt graceful in his movement. He is always calm and collected. He had proper teaching in manners from his late-mother.
And thus, another 1,000 has been eliminated.
The internal war has begun. Things are getting tensed now they were left with only a thousand out of five.
The fourth day was gynaecological examinations. It was a test that prove your cleaness and how much you take care of your body for your whole life. 700 failed the examination leaving 300 others standing on their toes.
They were allowed into the inner court of the palace. Residing in the maids chamber, he finally sleeps in a bed so soft he feels like he is melting into it.
They were told the next round was not a one day examination but instead a month long test of intelligence, merit, temperament and moral character.
He was watched for the whole month. Everything he did was supervised.
Noted with ink.
The month ended with only 50 remains.
It was the most nerve-wrecking time for Wooseok. He and the other 49 people in the chamber know that out of the fifty of them only three will remain. Only three will serve the emperor. The remaining was force into their old life, working for so little money.
He had friends. After all a friend would actually help his mental state through the hellish things the nobility put them through. There were 2 of them.
A man aged 19 with soft facial features, pink plump lips and stood tall in 180 cm, named Kim Yohan.
Yohan was not like him. Yohan was not a nobility, but his family had enough money to enroll him for education. He was supposed to apply to train to become the palace guards in the first place. But he had heard that every family in the nation must send one of their child through this election, and he cannot let his sisters to be a concubine.
So instead he takes their place.
But Wooseok thinks differently. Yes, Yohan might be build for guarding the palace and nation. But there was a slight doubt that Yohan did this only for the sole reason of protecting his sisters. There’s got to be another reason.
But Wooseok push the thought away. Yohan had his reasons.
And so does he.
The second was a woman. A very young woman only age 15 years old. She was forced to by her family. As her sister rather not be the Emperor’s concubine but she chose to chase after a nobility in her town.
Her name was Lee Jungah.
In spite of him having friends, it comes with having enemy as well.
There were two man who always picks on him whenever they got the chance. They were Choi Byungchan and Lee Sejin.
Byungchan had always mention that he was supposed to be eliminated by the first round by judging of his thin body, but Wooseok had different judgement. Byungchan’s friend, Sejin was not that tall either.
In the palace they got education. Wooseok finally had a taste of a formal education held by the government and not just reading off of books that already crippled and consist of fading ink.
He was thought maths, literature, and art.
He had a month to learn until the final test.
The final test will scores your knowledge from the education you earned in the palace. He had no doubts that Yohan and as well Sejin well pull through the test.
Yohan mentioned that he and Sejin went through the same school after all.
The night before the test, Wooseok in his sleeping attire still made out of hemps, just a little bit better ones than the one he was used to, sitting on his bed, looking through the gaps of the window when everyone else was asleep.
“Wooseok-oraboni.. Why are you not sleeping? Tomorrow’s the test..”
He whips his head to the side, finding Jungah looking at him from her own bed.
“I’m praying. To do well.”
“You’re naturally smart.. I envy you. I wouldn’t pass the test.”
“Jungah.. What happens when you get back?”
“I honestly don’t know. They’re probably ashamed of me.”
“You must pass the test..”
“It’s not possible. I would never make it.”
Truth to be told, two days after that night he saw Jungah escorted by the guards onto a carriage to be taken back to her home. He didn’t get any chance to say goodbye to her, but he did see she pass on a message to the guards that is, Seungwoo.
“Congratulations Kim Yohan of Hanseong, Lee Sejin of Hanseong and Kim Wooseok of Cheongchun. You have earned your place in the palace as the Emperor’s imperial concubine.”
The advisor after almost three months not seen, was finally back in front of them. He wears a smile on his lips, one that doesn’t reach his eyes.
“There will be maids to take care of you from now on. You will be bathed to cleanse yourself to be appropriate before the Emperor. You will also be trained. And the Emperor’s mother, Taebimama, will judge your fitness in serving her also examines your sleeping habit.”
Wooseok was grateful that he actually have Yohan in the palace with him. But he was also scared because Sejin was more vocals with his dislikeness towards him.
Two palace maids approached him and bows to him, making him panics at the sudden politeness serve for him.
“My lord, I am Maid-Namin and this is my subordinates Maid-Haea. We will be escorting you to your bathing chamber. There’s four other maids currently cleaning your sleeping chamber. Please do follow me.”
Maid-Namin was a woman probably only older than Wooseok by 2 to 3 years old. She walk in front of Wooseok to lead the way and Maid-Haea was behind him, guiding his way.
He was brought to a quarter greater and architecture-ly more pleasing than the last he stayed in with the other fifty. He entered a chamber with big marbled tubs filled with water and rose petals on top of it, with so much sweet fragrance that he was starting to feel dizzy.
“Please loose your clothing, My lord.”
Maid-Namin said while bowing her head once again.
Wooseok complied reluctantly. He was standing with no clothing in front of two woman and Maid-Haea was taking his clothes from the floor and took it with her outside the chamber.
“Where is she going with my clothes…?”
“Haea will burn it, My Lord. As clothes made out of hemps are not suitable for someone residing in the palace. Please get into the tub, My Lord.”
He complies. The water was warm. It was the perfect temperature. It was so different from the water back home. He has to clean himself with the cold river water.
“My Lord, please close your eyes. I will rinse your hair now.”
And so did Wooseok.
He admires himself in the mirror. He was wearing coral colored silk robe that fits perfectly on his waist and a very beautiful pink petals hairpin on his hair. Never in his life ever he imagine himself wearing a silk clothing.
“Maid-Namin.. This is beautiful.”
“I am most content with your answer, My Lord. Dinner will be served in a while and Haea will escort you to the dining hall. You will be dining with the other imperial concubines for tonight. After that I will personally escort you back to your chamber, while Lord Yohan will spends his first night with Taebimama.”
“Yes, My Lord.”
“Very well, thank you.”
Wooseok says as he smiles allowing Maid-Namin to exits his chamber, giving him a room of privacy and little freedom.
Wooseok eyes the bed, it looks so soft with white silk coverinf the whole bed and pillow. He approached the bed and press the soft matress with his hands.
It way much softer than the one he slept on a night ago.
He was giddy and happy. So he jumped.
He jumped onto the bed, and rolls on it. Ruining his perfectly neat hair and making crease on the silk he is wearing.
“I know you’re overjoyed but you’ll create creases on your clothes, My Lord.”
A deep voice with authority snaps Wooseok out of his bubbles and he quickly sits up on the middle of the bed.
“Seungwoo! I mean- Han Gunkwan. Apologies for my behaviour, Sir.”
The guard, Han Seungwoo, chuckles and closing the door to Wooseok’s chamber.
“At ease, Wooseok. It’s only the two of us now.”
He approached Wooseok’s bed and stand in front of it with a smile that reach his eyes.
“Seungwoo.. Are you even allowed here?”
“You fool! Then why are you here?”
“A long friend of mine has finally earned his place in the palace I have to welcome him, don’t I?”
“And also… someone great we know makes a highly-confidential request and he asks me to deliver this to you.”
Seungwoo placed three white flowers on the bed, right in front of Wooseok’s laps. Wooseok stares at the flower at recognition.
“Seungwoo, this flower!”
“Calla-Lily. Yes. He also ask me to pass a message for you. He says welcome to his house, Wooseok.”
Wooseok stares at Seungwoo, who teases him with a smile and exits his chamber with no further words.
“He welcomes me.”
Wooseok whispers as he take the flowers into his hold and held it close to his chest. A smile gracing his features.