Mei Min lay awake long after the other consorts had gone to sleep. Rain whispered its rhythm on the roof high above, a pleasant sound that reminded her of sleeping in a tent while leading the campaign against the northern rebels. So rather than try to sleep, she reclined with her goblet of wine near the brazier, wrapped in a fur, gazing at the subtly shifting glow of the coals under the bronze and listening to the rain.
The doors to the women’s chamber opened and Jia Fen entered, escorted by guards. The Emperor had desired her that night, and while she’d gone cheerfully enough, Mei Min could see even in the gloom that the girl was crying.
“Jia,” she called softly. The guards bowed themselves out of the room, closing the red lacquered doors behind them. Jia Fen sighed and shuffled towards her, stumbling slightly. Mei Min stretched out one arm and wrapped the girl up in the fur with her. The dim light of the brazier glinted off tear tracks on her cheeks.
“You’re drunk,” Mei Min whispered, surprised.
“The Emperor had much fine wine for us to share,” she said dully. “He kept refilling my cup – how could I refuse?”
Mei Min held her close. The girl’s silk robes were clammy from her passage through the palace. “You couldn’t. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.”
Jia Fen was silent for a moment. “Do you ever think about how easily we’re forgotten?”
“What do you mean?”
“There have been many Emperors, whom we remember, but the many Emperor’s wives, and consorts, and concubines, and all the other names they have for us…” She trailed off. “There are forty-three of us just in this palace. And unless we become Empress or bear a boy child who ends up becoming a prince, they will forget us.” She stared stonily at the brazier. “I thought coming here would bring great honor to my family, and I suppose it has, but the honor is not lasting. Not the way it lasts for men.”
Mei Min looked warily over her shoulder, but the room was deserted. “Jia, you should try to sleep.”
“Don’t you think about it?” she whispered. “Men are remembered on their own merits. Women are remembered for producing men.”
“Usually,” Mei Min conceded. “But women are also remembered for producing poems, or paintings. Not as often as the men, of course –”
“I’m a terrible poet and my paintings are not as good as Lingyue’s or Lady Gao’s.” She looked up at Mei Min. “You’ll be remembered. You’re the great General Mei Min, the Faithful Sword, Guardian of Heaven. Your honor will be lasting.”
“Only if I bear a son,” she said grimly. “I may be the Guardian of Heaven, but I’m still a woman and a wife of the Emperor. At the end of the day, no matter how many battles I’ve won, I still only have one purpose.”
Jia Fen glared into the coals. Fresh tears sparkled in her dark eyes. “That isn’t fair,” she whispered, almost inaudibly.
“Is that why you stole those weapons from the armory?” she asked gently. “Because you thought if you, too, could win battles, you would have eternal honor?”
Jia Fen lay silent. Mei Min waited.
“Do you want us to return them?” she asked finally.
Mei Min sighed. She knew she had many admirers among the women in the palace, from the Empress all the way down to the lowest maids. But she’d been shocked to learn, upon her return from the latest battlefront, that a total of five concubines had stolen weapons in hopes of learning to use them as well as their General. She was partly flattered, but mostly terrified for them. She was not sure if she’d be able to protect them, should they be discovered.
And if she asked them to return the weapons, they would, out of respect for her.
But they were skilled – Mei Min had watched their demonstration and couldn’t help but be impressed.
“Not all the poets and painters are remembered,” she said finally. “Only the great ones.”
“So…we must be great. We must be the best.”
Jia’s eyes lit up. “You mean –”
“How much do you really think you’ll learn from watching those boys train?” She dried the girl’s cheeks. “No – from now on, you train with me. And when the Emperor learns of us, he will have no choice but to remember us.”