Once upon a time, (in the year 208 BC to be exact), there was a beautiful princess named Kim Điền. One of the youngest children of Emperor Hùng Duệ Vương 18th of Vietnam, she was born to a minor concubine, but stood out amongst her siblings as a stunning beauty with high intellect. Gifted with a multitude of talents, she was carefully schooled in all the classic arts and literature, including music and dancing.
Kim Điền loved music. She would dance the afternoons away in the castle courtyard, surrounded by heady scented tropical flowers, and play happy melodies on her various instruments along with a musical retinue of her maidens-in-waiting. On special occasions, she would also engage in musical ensembles for the royal family’s enjoyment.
Her adoring cheering crowd was small. As the princess of an emperor, she would not have been allowed to parade herself and show off her skills to anyone other than her family and her future husband, but Kim Điền didn’t care. She loved life, and she was happy to share her gifts with her family.
The cherry-blossomed springs turned into swallow summers, which transitioned to harvest moon lanterns to be followed by the white-winged frost bird of winter. It seemed as if her charmed life would go on forever, but nothing beautiful ever lasts long in this world. The threat of war was always on the horizon.
Before she had reached her teenage years, her older brothers had all been deployed out to the front lines to fend back the uprising from the north and the northwest. The only brother left at home was the eldest, and crowned heir apparent who she never saw at all because he was always surrounded by his teachers and tutors who were preparing him to take over the role of ruler, on the day that their father stepped down, either through advanced age, illness, or death.
It was the winter of her fourteenth birthday when her father gathered a retinue of armed men and horses and took off for the southern region.
One of the southern chieftains, Lord An Dương Vương, had mutinied against the emperor, and was fighting against the soldiers who had been sent as delegates to calm the area. Emperor Hùng Duệ Vương 18th had no choice but to rally his troops and head down to retain the lands.
It was only a matter of a couple of months before word was sent back to the castle that situations were deteriorating on the front lines. There was a royal edict for the princess Kim Điền to join the emperor at the southern region.
To be perfectly clear, the only reason that a royal princess of high birth would ever travel that far away from her home would be to get married. Since Kim Điền was almost 15, it seemed as if a decision had been made to marry her off to some high-ranking official—a political marriage so to speak.
Although Kim Điền was not thrilled about having to marry some strange old man, there was not much she could do. She had witnessed her other sisters being sent off to various kings, princes, and lords around the realm, so she knew it was only a matter of time that the same fate would happen to her. The king’s word was law.
As a princess, she was given a full retinue of soldiers and her entire entourage of hand-maidens, all of whom had been handpicked by Kim Điền herself, for their musical abilities. If she had to leave home, she would at least be able to play music with her ensemble.
Upon reaching the emperor, she and her retinue of followers stayed with him at his fort, but after that initial meeting with Hùng Vương 18th, she was left to her own devices. He was constantly at the front lines, controlling the forces with an intensity akin to desperation. It seemed to her as if the fighting was dragging on for weeks on end, and it also looked as if the emperor was not able to contain the Hùng-Thục war.
Four weeks after she had arrived at the fort, Kim Điền was called in to the emperor’s hall. Instead of the usual retinue of guards and mandarins at his service, the emperor was alone. This would be a hush-hush matter. Full of apprehension, Kim Điền approached the emperor.
You want me to do what? She gasped, unable to believe her own ears.
I want you to do what the court wizard asks you to do. The king’s eyes were steel cold.
Why? What’s going on Father? She asked
You need to assist the court wizard to defend the country. If we cannot hold this line, we will lose the war. If we lose the war, it will be on you to take revenge for the mother country.
But—why me? I’m not trained in fighting or spying or anything. All I can do is sing and dance and play my musical instruments. She protested, panic rising into her throat.
Because you are the chosen one. He said with no emotion. The day you were born, the stars aligned so that you would be the one to step up and take on the fight. I have sent all my other daughters of marriageable age off to be married to chieftains and kings of other areas to keep the scale from tipping against us. Why do you think you are the only one of marriageable age that I have not sent?
Kim Điền could not believe her ears. She had always thought the reason why she was never sent off was because the family enjoyed her music, so she did her best to entertain them.
She never wanted to leave her home forever, to be married off to some old king with ten other wives, in some far away land where she could not even speak the language or understand the customs; however, that choice seemed to be far more desirable than what the emperor was now asking her to do.
She never thought she would have to service the court wizard because of such a random occurrence as her birth date. For a moment, Kim Điền was speechless…but then reason took over.
The day I was born? She asked with incredulity. Why does this matter?
Out of all my children, you were the only girl born on August 15th. In you, the universe bestowed the peak of powers. You are the only one who can do this.
Hush child. You are a princess of the realm. Your highest duty is to the country. Hurry now. Time is drawing short. He waved his hand and two soldiers immediately appeared by her side. As they escorted her away, Kim Điền took one last look at her father through a veil of tears.
It would be the last time she would see his face, stricken with sorrow and fear.
(to be continued)