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2 Wedding Palanquin

    Chief Jiang and his wife were still rubbing their eyes from sleep when their eldest daughter showed up on the front steps, a horde of iron-clad men behind her. Her father did a double take when he saw the words embossed on the flags. "Welcome to our humble home," he said. "Would you care to step inside for tea?"

    The leader -Liqin assumed he was of a higher rank, a captain perhaps- waved his hand. "There's no need. Chief Jiang, your daughter has been selected by the Emperor himself to join his harem.

    Everything happened at once. The twins tore down the stairs, screaming at the top of their lungs for food. Liqin's mother nearly wilted with happiness. Her father was sent into a surprised coughing fit, and once he recovered, a wide grin spread over his face. Wu came running around the house, but he skittered to a stop when he saw the scene.

    Liqin was shocked still. What? Harem? Emperor? Her ears were ringing, and she could barely make out what her parents were saying. "No, there's been a mistake -" she began, but her mother cut in.

    "The Jiang family is honored. Long live the Emperor. Please take good care of our daughter. She will serve His Majesty well." She shot Liqin a dark look that forbade her to talk.

    "Please, wait -" Liqin protested as she was gently pushed towards the waiting palanquin. "I can't go!" she screamed. Her father's face twisted in anger.

    "This better not be about that Wu boy," he snarled. The captain paused, turning back around.

    "A lover?"

    "Yes!" Liqin hurridly interjected before her parents could say otherwise. "I am planning to marry him." Behind her, she heard her mother wail in frustration. She bit her lip.

    The soldiers glanced at each other, unsure of how to handle the situation. The captain tilted his head in thought. "Are you still a virgin?"

    The question was so blatant, it completely caught Liqin off guard. "No! We've never shared a bed." Instantly, she regretted telling the truth because the captain straightened, pleased with himself.

    "Then it shouldn't be a problem. If I were you, I would not disregard a direct summons from the Emperor himself."

    Before she could say more, a large hand clamped down on her shoulder. Her father said, "Excuse us for a few moments." She was drawn away from the door. In the kitchen, her entire family was gathered. All her siblings, her grandma, aunts, uncles, and cousins had overheard the conversation. Chief Jiang turned to her.

    "I'm not even going to mention Wu. Don't you see how fantastic of an opportunity this is? You've been accepted into the Emperor's harem. That's an amazing accomplishment. We're lucky your portrait was chosen."

    "But I'm scared!" Liqin said, and it was the truth. She'd never been beyond the walls of the village, and she'd certainly never imagined herself with another man besides Wu. Her mother pulled her into a tight embrace.

    "Dumpling, we want you to have a better life besides that of a farmer's. Look at your poor skin, how tanned it is by the sun! Living in the harem is sure to be comfortable. Alongside that, they send monthly payments to the girls' families. We may not look like it, but we too are struggling financially along with everyone else in the village. The Jiang Family is depending on you."

    "I..." Liqin was at a loss for words. Then she remembered what the captain had said. This was a direct order from the Emperor! If she disobeyed, she could implicate her loved ones. "I will go and bring honor to the Jiang Family, and to you, mother and father."

    "That's my girl," Chief Jiang said, beaming.

    Liqin already had her most precious belongings. She bowed and paid respects to her parents and then grandma. The old woman bent down with a genial smile, gently patting her on the head, and Liqin felt tears spring into her eyes.

    When she finally climbed into the wedding palanquin, reality set in. This was it. She was leaving the little village where she grew up for good.

    Her hand brushed over the soft red silk cushions, marveling at the texture. With a grunt, four men lifted the palanquin onto their shoulders, and they began to move. Liqin brushed aside the curtain to peer outside. She spotted Wu standing by the fence, and her heart ached tenfold. His strong jaw was set grimly and his face was apathetic, but his eyes blazed with the fires of determination. They seemed to say, I will come find you, no matter how long it will take.

    I trust you, she mouthed, hoping he could read her lips.

    Wu became nothing more than a dot on the horizon, and Liqin was truly alone.
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