Chapter 2
The Young Lady and Her Future

Royal Precinct, Tianjing

Yasuko remembered reading a book once about a Circassian girl who was made a part of the sultan's harem. The author went into loving detail of the beauty treatments she was given before being presented to the sultan. Yasuko remembered this book because it felt like she had undergone much the same experience. All her mother said was to have her bathed and dressed, but there was apparently a lot of other stuff between the lines that no amount of protest on her part was going to stop.
Besides being scrubbed raw and rubbed down with perfumes that made her gag, they waxed off all her body hair and sprayed her head-to-toe with some kind of clear polymer that left her skin all slick and slippery. She looked like a plastic doll, the kind she would play with when she was a little girl. If she wasn't wearing a cotton under-robe, the silk kimono they dressed her in would probably slip right off, no matter how tight the damnable obi sash was.
Speaking of the kimono, she only had vague memories of wearing them before her father took her away to the surface. She didn't quite remember them being so tight. She could barely move one foot in front of the other. The clothes strictly enforced delicate, tiny lady steps. Yasuko hated it. She needed her mobility. You never knew when and attack might come, or the chance to strike for that matter.
She surrendered her sword to the bodyguard Jung-hwa and all the rest of her gear was confiscated when she was taken in for the bath. She wouldn't be surprised if they burned her old clothes. Now what was she supposed to do?
As she sat alone in the bedchamber prepared for her, she turned over the thoughts in her head. In all truth, she hadn't really thought out her plan all that well. How was she supposed to take down the Celestials all by herself? Even if she managed to somehow blow the space elevator back in the Hidden City, the capital would remain in orbit. They had ships to go back and forth. The space elevator was just a convenience.
She hadn't counted on being brought into the upper echelons of the Capital, though. She'd almost forgotten that she was half-Celestial herself. With her mother being married to a prince, perhaps there was more opportunity to do greater damage than she realized. She would have to lay low for a while, though.
That Prince Sturla, he seemed to know what she meant to do, but he didn't take any action against her. He even spared her father the consequences of attacking him. That didn't mean he didn't have anything planned for later. She had to be on her guard.
It was all so much to take in. She felt foolish for thinking that everything would come together so long as she could get into the Hidden City. All that effort was only for the first step. She still had a hundred more ahead of her and she needed to start thinking if she was going to move forward with her plan.
The door opened and a new maidservant stepped in and bowed. She was only a year or two older than Yasuko.
"Hello, young mistress," the maidservant said. "I am Yoon-hee. I will be serving you as your personal attendant."
"Call me Yasuko."
"As you wish, Miss Yasuko."
"So... what's your story?" Yasuko asked.
"My, my story, Miss Yasuko?"
"How'd you get stuck here?"
"Begging your pardon, Miss Yasuko, but my family has served House Suzuki for over a hundred years. We used to work in Liuyiyuan, but after the Great Purge, your lady mother needed servants here in the Capital. About half of us were transferred from Liuyiyuan, but the rest were new hires."
"The Great Purge?"
"You tease me, Miss Yasuko. Surely you know of the Great Purge."
It didn't seem like she would get anywhere by admitting that she knew nothing, so Yasuko took a different tack.
"I wanna hear it in your words," she said.
Yoon-hee gulped nervously before saying, "The Great Purge was the greatest tragedy to strike House Suzuki. Nineteen years ago, assassins from the former House Feng--cursed be its memory--attacked the family estate here in the Capital, killing Lord Kunihiko and Lady Feifang and everyone else, man, woman and child. Lady Masako was captured and sold to the Infernals. Were it not for the actions of your lord father, Miss Yasuko, House Suzuki would have been completely destroyed."
It was coming back to her slowly. Vague memories. Bit and pieces. She seemed to remember something about a story of how her father rescued her mother from some bad men, but there was obviously a lot more to it, not that you'd get into all the gory details with a little kid.
Changing the subject, Yasuko asked, "So what'm I s'poosed to do 'round here?"
"Do, Miss Yasuko?"
"Yeah, you know, as in work."
"Miss Yasuko, you are the daughter of my lady. You do not have any work as such, but if you mean your responsibilities, then you have your lessons and other preparations for your debut. You are of age, after all."
She remembered her mother mentioning something about a debut to that Lord Grima the day before, prompting her to then ask, "What's this debut business about?"
At first, Yoon-hee gave her a confused look, then she looked like she got some sort of epiphany that convinced her.
"Ah, I see, Miss Yasuko. You have been testing me because I have been newly assigned to you. I understand now." She cleared her throat with a dainty little cough and said, "It is the custom of the highborn to restrict the social activities of their daughters until they have been sufficiently trained in the necessary arts and etiquette to make their formal debut into society. The debut typically occurs between the ages of 15 and 20, but there have been prodigies who have debuted as young as 13. Your lady mother debuted at 15, for instance, thanks to her great talent with poetry, flower arrangement and the koto, a traditional stringed instrument of the Wo people.
"A young lady who does not make her debut by the time she reaches the age of majority may never have the opportunity to participate in society as a full member, if at all, bringing great shame to her family. That is why her training, which begins between ages three and six, is so important. Not only is her performance in society a reflection on her family bit it can also be the deciding factor in arranging an advantageous marriage."
You would think she was the one who had been drilled since the age of three, and maybe she had.
"Uh, yeah, top marks," Yasuko said.
Yoon-hee bowed to her.
"Thank you, Miss Yasuko. It is my honor to have performed to your satisfaction."
It turned Yasuko's stomach, seeing someone appearing so happy in bondage, but maybe that was how people like Yoon-hee survived. Most people don't have the means to change their circumstances or the courage to try, so why not be happy with what you've got?
What would it mean for people like her if Yasuko succeeded in her plan? Would they rise up and take charge of their existence or would they be left adrift without any purpose in life? If she did something like blow up the Capital, wouldn't that mean she'd be killing a lot of people whose only crime was being born into a life of servitude? Could she live with that kind of sacrifice if it meant freeing the paisanos on the surface from the Celestials' control? There had to be another way...
"Shall we be going, Miss Yasuko?" Yoon-hee asked. "Your lady mother is waiting."
"Yeah," Yasuko replied.
That was as good a place as any to start. For now, she would play along and use this time to learn more about the Capital and the Celestials. Once she had more information, she could come up with a plan to make them suffer like they deserved. And maybe she could find a way to minimize the collateral damage along the way so girls like Yoon-hee might actually have a shot at a real life.

* * *

Yoon-hee led Yasuko into a narrow corridor. To their right were these flimsy panels with wooden frames and paper screens and to their left was a simulated garden projected onto the wall with bamboo and odd trees with twisted branches and a little pond ringed with stones in the center. Even the floor was overlaid with what was either real wood or some sort of composite that convincingly mimicked the real thing.
Eventually Yoon-hee stopped and turned toward Yasuko while kneeling down. Before Yasuko could ask what she was doing, the wall panel next to her slid open.
"Come in, Yasuko," her mother's voice said.
Yoon-hee bowed as Yasuko entered the room. It was mostly bare except for a wall scroll flanked by two sconces with thin leafy branches. There was some kind of matting on the floor--tatami she thought it was called. It wasn't that different from the straw mats she'd seen elsewhere, but these looked a lot nicer, as you'd expect in a Celestial estate.
Her mother was sitting at one end of the room in front of the wall scroll with a maidservant on either side of her, not unlike the wall scroll with its sconces, sitting on her knees with her hands folded on her lap.
"Have a seat, Yasuko," her mother said.
There was a flat cushion a couple meters from where her mother was sitting. Yasuko realized that she was supposed to sit on her knees as well. Of course, given how restrictive her kimono was, if she tried to sit down on her rear, she might never get back up again. Once she was seated, Yoon-hee quickly shuffled into the room at took her place beside Yasuko, just far enough back that Yasuko could barely see her in her peripheral vision.
"Bow, Miss Yasuko," Yoon-hee whispered.
Yasuko sort of tilted the upper half of her body, much unlike the low bows of the maidservants on either side of her mother or Yoon-hee either for that matter.
"It is good to have you back, Yasuko," her mother said. "You were only a little girl when your father took you away and now you are nearly a woman grown. I have missed so much--too much..." She sighed. "But now that you are back, we have to think about your future. It will be difficult, but I would like to see you make your debut within the next two years. You have lost much time and are at a considerable disadvantage, but it is my hope that you prove to be a quick study. Your first lessons will begin tomorrow."
They hadn't seen each other in ten years and all she could think about was that debut nonsense?
"Mama, I--"
"Yasuko," her mother interrupted, "you are an adult now, or near enough to it. 'Mama' is a child's word. You should address me as 'Mother'."
Yasuko's Celestial wasn't that good, mostly what she picked up from soldiers and the like. She could more or less follow along with what her mother was saying, but she couldn't respond with the same level of formal speech.
"Mother, you're hittin' me with this all a' the sudden. How'm I--"
"Yasuko," her mother interrupted again, "it would seem that elocution lessons need to be made a priority as well. Your speech is nearly as slovenly as your father's when I first met him. It has taken nearly all this time to get him to speak in a way that is at least halfway civilized. I will not have my daughter made into an object of ridicule.
"Speaking of that man, I have heard what you are calling yourself these days. The 'Esposito' in your name is more of your father's poor taste. From now on, you are Yasuko Suzuki Rodrigues. I will not say that you can claim the full honors of House Suzuki, regardless of my own wishes, but perhaps with a little training you could find a place among the Empress' maids of honor until I can arrange for a suitable match. I would love to make you one of the Crown Prince's concubines, but I fear you would not meet his tastes. The important thing is that I get you close to Imperial Family."
Yasuko couldn't believe it. Her own mother wanted to pawn her off as a concubine to the Crown Prince. That was the same difference as being sold off as a whore as far as she was concerned. Worst of all, her mother acted like it was a good thing.
She had to tell herself that her mother was a Celestial. This was what they were like, buying and selling even their own flesh and blood for the sake of their damned political games.
She wanted to shout and make a fuss to vent her outrage, but she checked herself. As angry as it made her, this was a prime opportunity. Thrust into the higher echelons of Celestial society, she'd have access to the very people she wanted to destroy unlike anything she could manage on her own. She couldn't afford to think like a child. She had to be utterly ruthless. Even her mother had to be counted among the enemy.
This was infiltration. The deeper she could go, the more damage she could do. She had to play along. Do what they wanted her to do and always be looking for her chance to strike.
"I will do as you say, Mother," Yasuko said, surprised to find the words coming so easily to her. "I hope to bring honor to you and to our house."
Her mother smiled.
"There may be hope for you yet, Yasuko. I am expecting great things from you. After all, you are my daughter."
She nodded to Yoon-hee and said, "Yoon-hee can show you more of the estate. This is your home now, Yasuko. I want you to rest yourself today. You will have nothing but busy days ahead of you starting tomorrow."
"Yes, Mother."
"Supper will be served in three hours. I will see you then."
Yasuko's mother and her two maidservants stood up and exited the room out the opposite side from where Yasuko came in. A maidservant was kneeling by the door to open it for them.
"Shall we be going, Miss Yasuko?" Yoon-hee asked after they had gone.
"Yeah, sure," Yasuko replied.
When she tried to get up, though, she found it wasn't going to be so easy.
"My, my legs've fallen asleep..."