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.
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.
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?”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
gesture, one a mother might make toward her daughter, dissolved the
hatred in an instant. Xifeng leaned into her touch, forgetting the
“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
“Mind your stitches,” Xifeng told her, earning a baleful glare.
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.
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
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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?”
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.