Peer Review by Aarushikrishnan (United States)

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The Zenana #firstraycontest

By: korra4life


I walk swiftly, tears blurring my vision. My bare feet make tiny sounds as they pad against the grey marble floor. I know exactly where I'm going: the menagerie. 
"Lady Seo-Ah? Where are you going?" a servant wearing a thick black veil makes her way over to me, concern written on her face. I wipe my face as best as possible and try to push past her but she's much more muscular than she looks. "Lady Seo-Ah, you are not permitted to leave the residential areas of the zenana." 
I glare at her, my hurt brewing into anger. I pull away from her grip roughly. "I want to go. I just want--" 
"The emperor has declared that all of the remaining Flowers must be kept within the residential areas to celebrate their sister's birthday" the servant says in a stern voice. I let out a huff of air. Of course he did. He wants to keep us locked up. 
"Fine. Blessed be the emperor" I mumble. The servant repeats the blessing and waits for me to go back. I spin on my bare heel and walk towards my suite. I hear several of my sisters laughing near the bathing pool but I have no interest in socializing tonight. None of them saw her. They don't know. 
"It's Isla's birthday, remember? We need to celebrate before the emperor comes to see her." Véronique's words echo in my skull. I should have realized that she was warning me. I should have recognized her meaning. Véronique had been acting odd all night, pushing Isla to drink and party more than she was used to. Véronique made sure that at least, if not all of us, Isla had the time of her life. 
I blink away more tears threatening to spill over my cheeks. I hurry towards my chambers but I hear a loud laugh. I turn slightly and see Polina. Her blue gown is fittingly tight against her body, showcasing the few curves she possesses. She skips towards me, her blonde hair falling out of her messy bun. 
"My sister... you should be celebrating! Isla and the emperor must be getting married soon. And if not, Isla will be allowed to go back home. I can't wait to hear the news" Polina gushes and pulls me into a tight hug. I smell the drinks on her and pull away slightly. 
"You should head to your suite. It looks like you've celebrated quite enough, Lina" I chide, gently. A stab of pain causes me to lose my breath as I realize that I just acted like Isla. She was the responsible one, being the oldest of us Flowers. She made sure that no one stayed up past the midnight star and she had specialized beauty treatments for each of us. 
Polina lets out a drunken laugh and grasps my hand tightly as she starts to pull me towards the celebration pool. "Seo-Ah, you must live life! What do they say? Carpe diem!" I try to pull away my hand but Polina's grip is too tight for me to get through. 
We pass tall pillars depicting ancient paintings of gods, dragons, and mountains. She drags me towards the brightest pool. Balloons of all colors float on the crystal water. I see most of my sisters and several unfamiliar faces. Polina lets out a shriek and runs to join Tonderayi and Zehra in their game, letting go of my hand. 
I let out a loose breath and walk along the outskirts of the party, rubbing my face gently. I needed to erase all signs of my earlier sobs. Without a looking glass, I can only guess at my imperfections. I smooth my dress and flip my hair a few times before plastering a smile on and heading into the party. 
I drink anything that is passed to me and speak to my sisters and the imperial guests. I hear splashes as several of my sisters jump into the pool to play another game. I catch the eye of several men but I ignore them, disgust brewing in my chest. 
"Seo-Ah," someone calls. I spin and grin when I see Yamini. Her petite figure is easy to spot in the crowd. I push past people and stop as soon as I arrive in front of her. She was albino, a rare beauty. I'm sure that the emperor will choose her as his wife, if only because of her disease. She smiles, her pink eyes glittering. "That man over there asked me about you. He seemed thoroughly interested. Perhaps you should speak to him." 
I'm taken aback, sound rushing into my ears. "Yamini... I can't do that. I'm a Flower, only for the emperor." I suddenly feel too hot but Yamini doesn't notice my discomfort. She grins. 
"I know but at least talk to him. You can't just ignore men forever" she says. She winks, her pale eyelashes fluttering, before disappearing in the crowd. I glance over at the man that she gestured to and take in a deep breath. I head over to him, stepping around the pool gracefully. 
His back was turned to me as I reached him. I sucked in a deep breath before tapping his shoulder. The man turned, dark blue hair catching the light. He has a lazy grin on but it widens as he notices me. "Hi, I'm Hassan." 
I try to keep my face from revealing anything. "My sister said that you asked about me. Do I know you?" I ask, tilting my head. I know that it's impossible to have seen him before; I was strictly forbidden from seeing any men besides my father, brothers, and occasional cousin.
He runs a tanned hand through his hair and shrugs. "I don't think so. But... I was hoping we could talk. Someplace private?" I feel a blush creeping up my neck but I nod. I slip through the multitude of people and pass murals along the walls as I head towards the menagerie. Hassan keeps up beside me, his footsteps almost silent. A servant watches us, her black veil shifting slightly as she moves her head. However, she says nothing. I am grateful. 
My bare feet slap against the marble floor as we turn corners and slip through tiny rooms. Finally, the menagerie breaks into my sight and I almost cry from joy. As soon as I enter, the chimpanzees screech and swing across the ceiling. 
"What did you need?" I ask Hassan, keeping my eyes on the animals. None of them were in cages. They were all "free" to roam throughout the large menagerie. The tiger prowls in front of us, her muscles flexing as she walks toward her children. 
"Your sister's birthday was today. Isla, wasn't it?" he asks suddenly. I stiffen and stop walking, turning to face him. His gaze was sympathetic as he stared at me. 
"Do you know what happened?" I whisper. He gives a slight nod and then runs his hand through his hair, again. I realize that it must be a nervous habit. 
He bites his lower lip before nodding. "The emperor has peculiar tastes. But he doesn't want to allow any Flower to go back into the world. He wants all of the beautiful women to himself." 
Anger boils in my chest and my fingers tighten into a fist. "So he killed her? You didn't see the way she died. I did!"
Hassan looks away before mumbling, "I did see her. I was tasked with disposing her body." My fist rams into his chest before I can think more of it. He doesn't look surprised and barely budges. I punch him again in the stomach, then in the arm. I keep punching him, tears streaming down my face. 
An elephant watches us, his face curious. I stop punching, my arms trembling and I let out a sob. "Why are you telling me this?" My stomach clenches and unclenches, threatening to get rid of all of the drinks I consumed. The man takes my hand in his and hurries through the menagerie. We pass several animals, all of them attempting to rest for the night, while I wipe my face with my free hand. 
Coming to the large mural of Eden on the far wall, Hassan glances at me. "I want to get you out. I would get all of your sisters but... there isn't a way for me to get everyone out now." I gasp and shake my head. 
"I won't leave without my sisters, especially not Véronique. She can't--" I start but Hassan presses his palm against the painting and the wall shifts, revealing an opening. 
"It's almost dawn, Seo-Ah. You must leave now or we risk getting caught by the emperor" he whispers. I glance at the large doors exiting the menagerie. If I leave now, I may never see my sisters again. But if I stay... 
I turn and crouch down, crawling through the opening. I hear Hassan do the same as he follows behind. Darkness fills my vision and I crawl blindly, feeling regret knot my stomach. 
We crawl for what seems like years before finding the exit. I press my shoulder against the wall and grunt as I push. It shifts slowly, requiring all of my strength. 
The first rays of the orange morning sun fill the tunnel as the wall opens to reveal a waterfall. I stare, my eyes wide in surprise. I barely notice that I am still leaning out, causing me to fall. Wet grass kisses my skin and hair as I slam into the ground. I sit up, glancing around me. Lush bushes and plants cover the land. The waterfall spills out blue-green water into a large lake. Hassan jumps out of the tunnel and helps me up. 
"This is beautiful," I whisper. I've never known what true beauty was. All of my life, my beauty was measured by the proportions of my face, the softness of my skin, and the length of my hair. I have never been outside the confines of my home and the zenana. I turn to say thank you but stop, my mouth gaping open. I can't thank him when my sisters are still in prison in the zenana. "Why did you choose me?" 
Hassan shuts the door to the tunnel; it is masked from view by the vines and plants growing on it. He turns to face me and smiles shyly. "Your birthday was next. You don't have to feel bad for being out here when the others aren't." His words churn something in my chest and I turn back to face the waterfall. 
"I'm not anymore. This is so beautiful." 

Zenana is pretty much the equivalent of a harem. I just thought the word was pretty. 

Message to Readers

This was very long and very random, I know. But I found it extremely interesting to write about a zenana/harem and I wanted to share a story on this. It was influenced by (drumroll, please) The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton and Traitor to the Throne by Alwyn Hamilton.
I hope you guys enjoy my little take on this and please, please, please, comment and review! I really would like to know how I did on this. Also, I was thinking of releasing a Prequel to explain this odd world that Seo-Ah and the other Flowers live in. Let me know if you want this. Thanks!

Peer Review

The thick backstory behind your story completely enraptured me. I love how you just hinted at facts without revealing it, and the smallest details hid mountains.

If you had a scene with an interaction with the emperor, it could have really given Seo-Ah's escape and motive a three-dimensional quality. Your piece is exemplary as it is, though, so feel free to leave it in this form!

Reviewer Comments

Thank you so much for participating in my contest! Your piece was an absolute delight to read, and so very refreshing, thank you for writing it!