The procession stretched down the cobblestone road, a serpent made of men in red and gold, the Emperor’s colors. They marched forward, ignoring the slack-jawed townspeople gaping at the banner they carried: a dragon with a forest curled within its talon, the emblem of the royal house. A palanquin draped in scarlet silk appeared, resting on the shoulders of four men. People craned their necks to see the occupant, but caught only a tantalizing glimpse through the swaying curtain: blood-red lips, golden blossoms in shining hair, and robes that cost more than any of them would see in a lifetime.
“Another day, another concubine.” A bent old woman bared the three teeth she had left. “It seems he has a taste for pretty village girls. May blessings rain down upon him,” she added hastily, in case a soldier heard her criticize their sovereign.
“He must not discriminate by class when it comes to beauty,” another woman agreed. She was not as old as the first, but she was just as bent. Most of her weight rested on her good leg, while the other hung crookedly, like a dead branch. Her shrewd gaze moved from the procession to the girl beside her.
She was not the only one looking at this girl. More than one soldier admired her as he marched by.
The girl wore tattered, faded clothing like everyone else. But she had a face like a painting: a perfect oval, with lotus lips blooming beneath a sweet stem of a nose. She appeared docile, virginal, but the eyes she lifted told a different story with their sparkle of intelligence. They were the kind of eyes that flashed from the shadows of a darkened room.
“He must not discriminate,” the woman said again. “What do you say to that, Xifeng?”
“I wish the Emperor joy, Guma. She must be special indeed if he chose her for his own,” the girl said respectfully, even as her coal-black eyes burned.
At the palace, slaves would bathe the young concubine’s feet in orange flower water. Every inch of her would smell like jasmine, and when the Emperor put his lips on her skin, he would know nothing of her hardship and poverty—the same hardship and poverty that coated Xifeng like sweat.
“She is no more special than you.” There was no love in Guma’s statement, just fact. But they were mere words, ones she had said for years. She shuffled closer and hooked a claw-like hand around Xifeng’s elbow. “Come. It may be silks and riches for her,
but it’s back to the needles for us. Tonight, we will read the cards again,” she added as gently as she ever could.
Xifeng knew these rare glimpses of kindness from her aunt could be swept away the next minute by a dark mood. So she inclined her head in a show of grateful obedience, picking up the basket containing their meager purchases, and the pair trudged back home.
They lived a short distance from the center of town—rather a grand term for a muddy square. There, ragged farmers and crones with more brains than teeth hawked wares that had seen better days: maggoty vegetables, cracked pottery, dull knives, and cheap hemp fabric.
It had rained the night before, a torrential downpour of early spring that would be good for the rice and crops but had turned all else into a pungent soup of mud and debris. A few scrawny chickens ran by, a trail of droppings streaking behind them, as a woman emerged from a soggy cottage to scream at her brats.
Some days, Xifeng thought she would gladly watch this town burn. She ached to leave it all behind and never look back. To think she was trapped here forever, while the Imperial palanquin carried that other girl straight into the Emperor’s swan-feathered bed.
She felt Guma’s sharp eyes on her and took care to keep her face neutral. To show discontent was to rebuke her aunt for all the sacrifices she had made. After all, Guma had not been required to raise the bastard daughter of a sister who had shamed their family and killed herself. And despite being eighteen, Xifeng knew any small sign of displeasure would earn her a dozen stripes with the bamboo cane. She flinched inwardly, thinking of the scars on her back that had just begun to heal.
And then there he was, walking toward them, as though her thoughts had conjured him.
Wei. The reason for those scars.
His proud, shaven head was turned away, watching the innkeeper across the street argue with a customer. His features were sharper in profile, brutal and beautiful, and the other men gave him a wide berth as he cut through the crowd. With his shoulders like a bull, bare arms that rippled with muscle, and ferocious storm of a gaze, he was the living embodiment of war. But those large, capable hands, which now carried a stack of rusted swords to be repaired—Xifeng knew how gentle they could be. She remembered how they had felt on her skin and struggled not to shiver at the memory of it, because Guma’s clever eyes were still watching to see her reaction.
“What would you like for supper?” Xifeng kept her voice steady, as though she didn’t know the man approaching them at all.
Wei faced forward. He had noticed them now; her skin prickled with his awareness. She wondered if he would say something. He had an idea that because he was physically strong and Guma weak, he could overpower her and free Xifeng from her control forever. But there were different kinds of strength, and provoking Guma to release hers was the last thing they would want.
She patted her aunt’s tense arm as though there were no one else dearer to her in the world. “I could make a soup of these prawns. Or I could fry the turnips, if you prefer.”
And then the moment passed. Wei walked by without a word. Xifeng reserved her sigh of relief to release later when she was in the kitchen, alone.
“Do the prawns,” Guma said calmly. “They’re already beginning to smell.”
A few steps more, and they arrived home.
Xifeng’s grandparents had once owned the entire building with its handsome dark oak façade and imposing doors carved with a phoenix rising. They had been successful tailors before the war, and Guma and her younger sister, Mingzhu, had grown up here. Xifeng found it more difficult to imagine Guma as a child than to picture the splendor that had long worn off these faded walls.
Despite the poor condition of the place, they had managed to rent the downstairs to a couple as a teahouse. Guma and Xifeng lived on the drafty upper floors with Ning, the girl they had hired to help them sew and embroider. She was waiting for them by the door, and though she was fifteen and scrawny, the glance she gave Wei’s hard, retreating back was that of a woman. It was not the first time Xifeng had caught her gawking at him, but she had never seen the girl’s longing so raw and sharp. She could practically feel the waves of lust radiating off her.
Xifeng felt something growl deep inside.
But before she could do or say anything, Guma released her arm and cracked a vicious slap across Ning’s face. “What are you doing there? I don’t pay you to stand idling and ogling,” she snapped as the girl touched her reddened cheek and sniffled. “Get back upstairs.”
Ning turned wet eyes to Xifeng before obeying, and though a note of pity rose up inside Xifeng, she remained silent. She knew that slap had been meant for her,
but she had hidden her emotions so well that Guma had to vent her violence on the hired girl, like a teapot with built-up steam. She watched Ning slouch upstairs, both feeling sorry for her and thinking she deserved it if she thought she could steal Wei for herself.
But Xifeng’s relief was short-lived. Guma grasped her arm again, pinching hard enough to leave a bruise. Her face had begun to wrinkle like a rotting pear, making her appear much older than her forty years. “Don’t think I don’t know you want the same thing from him,” she hissed, her sour breath filling Xifeng’s nostrils. “Don’t think I don’t know you still sneak around, no matter how many times I pull out that cane.”
Xifeng kept her eyes down, biting the inside of her cheek at the pain of Guma’s fingernails, hatred boiling within her. No matter how hard she worked and how obediently she behaved, she received only scorn and beatings in return.
“He’s not good enough for you, do you understand? You deserve better.” And though one hand still gripped Xifeng’s arm, the other gently stroked her cheek.
That simple gesture, one a mother might make toward her daughter, dissolved the hatred in an instant. Xifeng leaned into her touch, forgetting the pain.
“Now help me upstairs, child.”
The upper level had always seemed an endless labyrinth to Xifeng, even now as a grown woman. Once, these chambers had been full of purpose. Dried flowers still littered the floor of one room, where years ago they had hung from the rafters above vats of boiling water, ready to be made into fabric dyes. Across the hall, wisps of thread still clung to abandoned looms, unwilling to relinquish the past. The large room at the back had housed an army of hired girls, whose quick, clever hands had embroidered endless lengths of silk for noblewomen.
But those days were long gone. Nowadays, they used only four rooms: two for sleeping, one for cooking, and one for eating and sewing. She led Guma to a stool in this last room, where Ning sulked and hemmed a square of cotton with blue-dyed thread.
“Mind your stitches,” Xifeng told her, earning a baleful glare.
Ning had come from one of the coastal villages, reeking of fish and poverty. Guma had hired her when she saw what she could do with a needle. Since then, the girl had become Xifeng’s shadow, the irritating younger sister she’d never had. Ning followed her, asking questions and imitating her movements, the way she spoke, and the style in which she arranged her hair. But there was a sense of competition, too, and Xifeng suspected the girl’s interests had shifted from trying to impress Guma to making Wei look at her the way he looked at Xifeng.
Ning darted a frightened glance at her, and Xifeng realized she had been staring. She turned away, draping a length of pale pink silk over Guma’s lap.
For weeks, they had been embroidering plum blossoms all over the fabric. Her aunt had sneered at the choice of color and design, which belied the humble origins of the lady who had commissioned the tunic for a banquet. Truly well-bred women preferred silks dyed darker colors, which cost more. But Xifeng thought wistfully that she would wear the cheapest of silks if it meant she too could enjoy herself at some festival.
“Go prepare the meal, and don’t be long about it,” Guma told her crossly. “We need to finish this in two days, and you’ve wasted too much time gawking at the new concubine.”
Xifeng held her tongue at this injustice. It was Guma who had wanted to wait for the procession on this chilly spring morning, so she could compare her niece with the new addition to the Imperial harem.
“Was she beautiful?” Ning asked timidly.
“Of course,” Guma snapped, though she hadn’t seen any more of the woman than anyone else.
“Do you think the Emperor would choose an ugly girl like you to bear his children?”
Xifeng turned to hide her smile and carried the basket down the hall. Guma was right. Wei would never
look at such a plain, moon-faced girl. Not when he had her.
But Ning didn’t choose to look the way she does,
Xifeng thought, with another twinge of pity. Any more than I did.
She put a pot of water on to boil, gazing at her own reflection.
She had seen that face every day for eighteen years in the washbasin. She never needed to open her mouth. She never needed to do much. All it took was stepping out with that face, and she would get a wink from the innkeeper, the best cut of meat from the butcher, and a pretty bead or two from the tradesmen in the square. One of them had even given her a pomegranate once. Wei had been furious when she told him, and would have made her throw it away if she hadn’t already brought it home to Guma.
“I don’t ask for these things,” she had protested, comparing it to his natural-born talent for metalworking. The town craftsman had hired him because he could shape a beautiful sword from the ugliest bronze. But still, Wei had been gruff and grim and unwilling to understand.
Perhaps the Emperor’s new concubine had been born with a face like hers. Lovelier, even, since it had won her a home in the Imperial Palace.
The water began to boil, and Xifeng turned away bitterly to season the prawns. She sliced the last of the ginger and scallions, hoping their client would be satisfied with the pink silk and pay immediately. They couldn’t afford more vegetables until then, and eating plain rice—something they’d had to do many times in the past—always put Guma in a fearsome temper.
Xifeng carried the meal into the front room. They ate in peace, interrupted only once by Guma criticizing how she had cooked the prawns, and then worked until the sun went down.
She recited poetry as she worked, something Guma always required her to do. Her aunt had drummed into her head that poetry, calligraphy, and music marked a well-born lady, and so she had endured many a sleepless night to study. She would have resented it, had it not proven that Guma wanted and expected
a better life for her.
The moon shines down upon us, beloved The water a vast and eternal mirror A voice whispers from every tender branch Turn your face from the world’s apple-blossom fragility And embrace this boundless night
Guma paused in the midst of stitching a plum blossom petal, her nostrils flaring. “Where did you learn that?” she demanded.
“From one of your volumes.” Xifeng gestured to a dusty stack of faded texts in the corner, the meager remnants of her mother and aunt’s school days. She often marveled at the wealth her grandparents had possessed, to have afforded such things for mere daughters.
“Show it to me.”
The tone of her aunt’s voice made her put down the needle immediately. Xifeng located the volume, one thinner and newer than the rest, and presented it to the older woman. Guma examined it, lips thinning as she ran her fingers over the unembellished back and turned it over to look at the title: Poems of Love and Devotion.
She hastily shoved the book back at Xifeng, as though it had burned her fingers. “Ning, isn’t it time you went to bed?”
Xifeng kept looking at her aunt as the girl put away her work and lit the red tallow candles. She hadn’t realized the sun had set until she felt the candlelight relieve her strained eyes. As soon as Ning was gone, she asked, “Did the poem remind you of something, Guma?”
Her aunt spoke often about the past—mostly to complain about the riches she had then that she didn’t have now—but rarely mentioned her sister. All Xifeng knew of her mother was what she had been told only once: that Mingzhu had been beautiful and brainless and had gotten herself pregnant and abandoned by a nobleman. The pinched expression on Guma’s face suggested she was thinking of her now, but when she spoke, it had nothing to do with her.
“I know that poem. It was . . . told to me many years ago.” She licked her dry lips, her gaze flickering from the text to her niece with something like terror.
Xifeng had seen that fear twice in her life: once, when Guma had hobbled home in a frenzy to shut all of the doors and windows without explanation, and again after she had woken from a nightmare of spiraling black snakes.
There was a long silence.
“It’s time to read the cards,” Guma said.
Copyright © 2017 by Julie C. Dao. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.