Today’s post is straight out of my novel in progress, Jade. It’s the opening chapter, so it will help set the stage for my future Jade posts. So, sit back and enjoy the opening of Jade.
The mood inside the banquet hall was light and jovial. Paper lamps glowed against the smoky haze that obscured the ceiling. The incessant buzz and drone of a hundred indistinct conversations reverberated off teak and jade rafters, mixing with the aromas of feast and soft hues of lamp light, creating a tide of senses that washed over the assorted nobility. In the front of the hall, upon a throne which looked down from a towering elevated platform, sat a massive man – red faced and slurring through a song. The Emperor. He was surrounded by concubines and lords, watched over by his Dragon Guards – those imposing men with the steel helms of snarling dragon visages, razor-sharp katanas slung from their waists. Below him, on the next level of the elevated platform, was the royal family. Almost hidden in the shadow of the Emperor’s throne, the Empress and the two princes sat between the assorted guards and hangers-on delegated to keep company with the royal family. Finally, at the far end of the table, sat the daughter. She had no guards around her, no servants to fetch her wine, or to fan her when the heat of the room became oppressive. She preferred the solitude, as much as she could prefer anything seated so close to her father.
More out of fear than respect, the Emperor’s family would laugh when he laughed, fall silent when he talked, and toast his name between every word. Except, that is, for the daughter. As they laughed, her head would drop. As he spoke, her eyes would stare down at her hands, cupped within her lap. And with each toast, her cup would remain full. But, as defiant as she may have been, no one noticed. She had spent years staying hidden, small from the world as she disappeared from her life. It paid off to be invisible, especially when your father was the Emperor, and your life was full of moments where just one pair of disapproving eyes could spell doom.
Luckily, as was usually the case, every eye was on her father that night as he began his customary story. No one paid any attention to her – a small, pale, wisp of a fifteen year old. In fact, the only eyes that she ever noticed that weren’t locked on her father were always from the back of the room, within the shade of the cooking alcove. Those eyes had always belonged to one individual. The young soup chef, one of the Emperor’s royal chefs. Tall and dark-skinned with shaggy black hair and bright blue eyes that sparkled like polished sapphires. A blue so bright they made her breath catch in her throat. For years, she would catch glimpses of those eyes, flashing through the steamy haze that swirled over the slavish crowd. Eyes that ignored the Emperor, simply to focus on her. And, even more remarkable, whenever her eyes would meet his, he would look down and busy himself with his soup, fumbling with utensils and slopping broth over the sides of his pots. Those eyes, bold enough to defy the Emperor’s honor, but too shy to meet her gaze longer than a second. That simple act had been the highlight of her days for years. One of the few aspects of her life to bring a smile to her face. It was foreign to her, the feeling of attention, no matter how slight it might be. But, it was enough to keep the tiny ember of spirit that glowed within her alive day after day, despite the cold reality of life that inundated every other waking moment.
She expected the same routine that night, and eagerly awaited the warm flood of delight that would settle in her stomach as she spotted the kind flash of blue. However, as she brought her gaze up over the enraptured crowd, she felt a difference. Her skin prickled, as if a thousand tiny needles had just brushed over her. She looked up, finding the sapphire eyes waiting for her. Her gaze shifted to the face around the eyes and, to her surprise, realized that the chef was smiling. It was a small smile, and she could tell from the way his eyes flicked between her and her father, it was meant just for her. She beamed in return, feeling her pulse begin to race as fluttering filled her stomach. Unsuccessfully, she fought to contain her sudden happiness, and was rewarded with, to her horror, a sharp giggle that escaped past her lips. With barely enough time to notice the young chef’s cheeks flush ruby, she feigned the giggle into a sudden coughing attack.
“Sayomi!” A voice slurred down to her, loud and booming, shattering the crypt like silence of the hall that had descended while the Emperor had been speaking. His voice reverberated off of the cavernous ceiling slopes, sending the servants that surrounded the throne table into spasms of clucking gasps, like a flock of startled hens. “Girl, what is wrong with you? You have interrupted my story.”
“Sorry, father. It is…” her eyes flicked to the back of the dining hall, hoping to glimpse the chef’s smile once more. Slightly dismayed, she found the chef leaning over a pot of soup, his face obscured by the billowing steam that wafted up from the pot. “It is nothing, father. I am…fine.” She turned back to her father, her sentence ending in a whisper. He had already turned away from her, resuming his story and roaring in laughter as his words reached their climax. She lifted her eyes one last time and scanned through the steamy haze of the back for a glimpse of friendly eyes, but there were none to be found. She sighed to herself, dropping her gaze and staring down into her hands as she became small again.