The Divorcee is a Wicked Black Belly Chapter 66: The Interview
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A chilly, frosty morning greeted Yuqui the following morning.
An Ning woke up at five, the nightmares kept at bay for the time being. She took a bath and dressed herself like she always did at home. Like that home with the twins and Nyra and Dawn and her mother and father. With only her awake in the palace and the silence for once peaceful, she could almost pretend she was back there with her loved ones. Just another day in Saravia. Not in the middle of what century Yuqui.
An Ning left her room and went to the kitchen intending to heat up tea and prepare some breakfast for herself. But when she got there, the kitchen was already humming with activity. Yi Tai was frying rice in a wok and his wife was cutting vegetables on the table.
"Good morning, your majesty," Yi Tai greeted cheerfully. "Is there a particular dish you want to eat for breakfast?"
He doesn't seem to be surprised to see her. His wife nodded her head shyly at An Ning. An Ning came into the room and sat on a chair.
"I thought everybody was still asleep," she said.
"We saw the light was on in your window and thought you might be hungry so me and wife hurried over to make you breakfast."
"You don't have to do that. I'm okay doing my own cooking in the morning. Next time, don't wake up early just for me. I know my way around the kitchen, you know."
Yi Tai didn't answer. He went to the stove and poured hot tea on a cup.
"Would you like to have your tea in the dining table, your majesty?" he asked, putting down the cup in front of An Ning.
"I'm fine eating here. No need to fuzz."
An Ning sipped her tea, watching Wife peel the potatos. She suddenly remembered teaching Lux how to peel an apple then telling her to be careful with the knife. The memory seemed like a century ago. Like a dream perhaps. Like tiny drops of bubbles easily lost in the wind.
"Here you are, your majesty," Yi Tai said, putting bowls of rice, meat, eggs on the table.
"That looks good," Gu Sheng's voice suddenly piped in, surprising everyone who turned to look at him. The emperor entered the room and pulled the chair beside An Ning.
"Yi Tai, prepare another plate for his highness," An Ning ordered.
Yi Tai got busy and soon the emperor was sipping hot tea and enjoying his meal while conversing about nothing with his stepmother.
"You're up early," An Ning said.
"You might need my help."
"You think I don't know how to talk to people?" his stepmother laughed.
"I know you can but I'm here anyway."
The two of them smiled at each other.
"You'd better join us," the emperor suddenly turned to the waiting husband and wife. "It will be awfully busy when the gates finally opened."
Yi Tai and his wife looked at the emperor uncertainly. Yi Tai's eyes met An Ning's.
"Do as he says," she seconded. "This is the only leisure time we have until then so better start the the day with a full stomach."
In no time at all, the four of them were quietly exchanging pleasantries over a hearty breakfast. This was the cozy scene that Yi Hai found when he entered the kitchen to look for his parents.
"Speaking of the devil," the emperor greeted. "Come and pour yourself a cup, Yi Hai, and join us. I was actually looking for you to discuss something."
Yi Hai by now was used to this informality so he wasn't overly shock anymore. He told his father to stay put then poured himself a cup of tea. His mother, however, insisted on serving him. He sat down and waited for the emperor to speak.
"It's chilly and freezing outside. We'll all freeze to death if we conduct the interviews outside the gates. Any suggestions?"
Yi Hai's brows furrowed in thought.
"One of the houses a short distance from the entrance is unoccupied. It's where visitors are usually welcomed and entertained. We could use that as a temporary base, your highness."
"Then let's do that," the emperor ordered. "Open the gates and direct the applicants to the house."
Yi Hai coughed.
"If we open the gates and let the applicants in, I'm afraid the house is not big enough to accommodate all of them."
"Don't tell me everybody is outside the gates already lining up?" An Ning said, shocked.
"Since last night, your majesty."
"Give or take about five hundered."
"Holy smoke," the emperor whistled. "That many?"
"Her majesty the empress dowager sold the palace positions very well among the civilians, your highness. So now, everybody wants to work here."
"Must be the 'rent-free' word that got them," An Ning said, amused. "Anyway, the house you're talking about is not big so what's the back up plan then?"
"We could take them to a much bigger house some distance away," answered Yi Hai. "It's also unoccupied and used to be a dormitory for servants of dignitaries."
"Then let's do that," the emperor said. "Open the gates now?"
"Yes, or else we'll be dealing with stiff corpses instead of applicants. And oh, Yi Tai? Can you serve tea for everybody? I know it's short notice but I feel responsible for those people waiting outside in this weather. Beside's we can't postpone the interview now since everybody waited this long anyway."
"It shall be done as you said, your majesty," Yi Tai bowed.
"Thank you. Okay, everybody ready? Everybody in position then. Let's go."
The weather got really bad when eight o'clock finally rolled over. Luckily, the long line of applicants were directed to stay in the dormitory until their numbers were called. A small room had been readied for the emperor and his stepmother. Yi Tai also made good of his promise keeping everyone warm with hot water and tea. The house had already been fitted with a new kitchen so Yi Tai didn't have to do anything other than boil water in the stove.
The interview was nerve wracking and almost everybody was on edge and nervous. But the empress dowager had a way of countering fear with kindness, doubt with laughter. In no time, the line shortened, the dormitory almost deserted.
An Ning sighed and stood up.
"I think that's about it," she said. "We'd better go back."
"Got everything you want?" inquired the emperor.
"I think so."
There was a sudden knock on the door and a head cautiously peeked inside. The young man dragged his feet inside when he saw them.
"Is it over? The interview, I mean."
The emperor turned to An Ning.
An Ning studied the youth. She remembered him. He was the boy chosen by the crowd to stand in front of her, to be their speaker. He cut a really bedraggled figure, his clothes and hair wet from the rain.
An Ning frowned and glanced outside. It had started to rain without her noticing it. No wonder the boy looked cold. She looked at his hands. He was rubbing his hands together, trying to keep them warm. His lips were blue and his skin damp. He looked somewhat embarrassed when he saw her staring at him.
"Did you walk in the rain? It's freezing out there," she asked, almost angrily.
"I hurried over. I was hoping you were still here," the boy mumbled.
"Sit down," An Ning commanded, sitting herself down again. "Yi Tai, can you bring us a cup of tea? And something to munch on, if you please."
Yi Tai bowed and departed, the door closing behind him.
The boy was staring at An Ning, the young face nervous but unafraid.
"Tell me something about yourself," she invited.
"I'm seventeen years old, your grace. I'm a scholar. I took and passed the civil exam almost a year ago. I used to work for the historical department but had to leave because my father got sick. I took over the management of a little store we owned and helped my mother take care of him. He died two months ago and afterwards my mother also got sick. My parents were not from around here so we didn't have anyone to help us."
"Do you still run the store?" the emperor asked.
Something like pain crossed the boy's face.
"I was forced to sell it, your majesty. My father's illness...the treatment was expensive."
"You said you worked for the historical department? What did you do there exactly?"
The boy looked suddenly embarrassed. His eyes uneasily flickered in the direction of his majesty who gave a small cough.
"He means the archive department," the emperor explained.
"And?" An Ning asked, still perplexed.
"It's part of the treasury but is focused on confiscated or stolen goods," the emperor explained, amused.
"Oh," An Ning said. "Got it. So, you worked there as what?" she said, turning to the boy again.
"I did inventory, your highness," the youth answered.
"Can you read?"
"Okay, report back here tomorrow at eight in the morning. You might want to check your quarters first. It's the courtyard behind the palace. Someone will take you there."
"My quarters?" the boy asked stupefied.
"You have to live close by the emperor. You're going to be his assistant so you'll basically be his shadow. It's a tough job but it's yours if you want it."
"The emperor's assistant?" the boy was beyond shocked.
"You don't like to be his assistant?" An Ning said, smiling.
The boy was speechless. He opened his mouth but no sound came out. In the end, he said the simplest words that showed the depth of his sincerity and gratitude.
"It would be an honor, my lady," he said, bowing deeply.
"What's your name?"
"Kang Jun, my lady."
"Well, Kang Jun, you will be assigned to his majesty as his assistant. You are going to manage his time, his schedule and his workload. Everything that pertains to those three things you absolutely have total control over, is that clear?"
"Understood, my lady."
"Okay, we'll see you tomorrow. Don't be late."
The boy stood up still dazed. Yi Tai was at the door with the tray. He came inside and was about to place the tray in front of An Ning when she stopped him.
"Give it to him. You better have something warm before you get out there again," she said, turning to Kang Jun. "We don't want you getting sick before you even start work."
The boy was shocked but Yi Tai was already setting the bowls in front of him. The boy again sat down, still dazed.
An Ning watched him take the cup and drink the tea. She turned to the emperor and said, "What did Yi Hai say?"
Yi Hai had come in earlier and asked to speak to the emperor. They went outside and it had been a long time before Gu Sheng came back. An Ning forgot about it but suddenly remembered.
"General Chen Lou is on his way back to the kingdom. It seemed he heard what happened to the prime minister and the duke so he decided to check it out for himself."
"Did he really say it like that?"
The emperor smiled.
"The words were 'the south border is secure so I must report to the emperor'," Gu Sheng said.
"Very proper," An Ning complimented. "He sounds like an original. Do you know him personally?"
The emperor shook his head.
"I've met him only once. Father trusted him though. He's been guarding the south border for ages."
"Was he Gu Fang's friend?"
"His father was."
An Ning frowned as if the news came as a surprise.
"He took over from the old general when he died," the emperor explained. "His father and my father grew up together." The emperor suddenly stopped then continued, his voice had softened. "General Chen saved my father's life when they were kids. Father said the general was like a brother to him. When he died, father declared a national mourning for a week."
"I'm glad your father had him," An Ning said, then frowned because she didn't know why she said it.
An Ning was quiet, thinking.
"He always struck me as a man's man, you know, your father. Gu Fang in many ways was an isolated man who needed somebody his equal to bring out the best in him. He told me about his childhood and how everybody hated him because of his background. That circumstance contributed to his isolation. This general, were you related to him?"
"He was my uncle. His mother and my father were cousins. Why? Is that important?"
"It might be," she said. "When do you expect this general to arrive?"
"Probably a week from now."
"Can you be here earlier than eight tomorrow?" An Ning asked, suddenly turning to Kang Jun, who was listening to the conversation shamelessly. The boy started then nodded. "I might need you to do something before the general gets here."
"What do you plan to do?" asked the emperor.
"We'll do absolutely nothing but wait and welcome General Lou back," An Ning said.
"I can read how your mind spins," the emperor said, chuckling. "A parade?"
"A celebration," she corrected. "A welcome fit for the hero and savior of Yuqui."
"Savior? That's going overboard," the emperor was amused.
"Didn't you hear what he said? The south border is secure. It means peace for Yuqui. The general made that possible. Hail the conquering hero is the theme for this celebration. Hail the hero. Hail the general."
The emperor couldn't hold back anymore. He threw his head back and laughed. The sound was so infectious An Ning and Kang Jun broke into huge smiles.
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