My husband will be pleased.” The customer inhaled the steam rising from
her cup, dabbed her nose with a kerchief. “We have one daughter, but
Hot tea's earthy aroma blended with morning's incense and the scent of blooming
peonies outside the window offered a serene atmosphere inside the matchmaker's
“This union will be blessed, Mrs. Chen, I guarantee.” The matchmaker
dried tea leaves in paper, tied it with a red silk string. “Siu.”
“Yes, mother.” Siu poured hot candle wax on the knot then stamped
it with the jade seal. She set the seal in its box holder by the brushes and
inks on the dark walnut desk, blew on the melted wax then extended the package
to the customer. She bowed. “Thank you, Mrs. Chen.”
Mrs. Chen sat in a chair across from Siu's mother. She wore a purple silk robe
embroidered with chrysanthemums in gold. Gold hairpins and dangling earrings
matched the outfit. Every finger bore a gold ring. Rather extravagant compared
to the matchmaker's simple gown of green and blue cottons. Mrs. Chen's father
owned the timber factories in the region. He helped her husband become the governor.
Petite and lovely, she wanted Ken-li. Siu’s Ken-li.
“I'm looking forward to meeting him very much.” Mrs. Chen gazed out
window to admire the grove of trees.
“Drink it while it's hot.” The matchmaker indicated the tea.
“It's such a bitter taste to acquire.” Mrs. Chen traced the flowery
engravings on the tiny porcelain cup. She sipped slowly, made an obvious effort
the herb-infused concoction.
“You won't be disappointed.” The matchmaker tapped the scroll lying
by the brushes. “You saw his painting. He's a fine young man. The Chen
family will celebrate the birth of a son within the year.”
“I expect it.” Mrs. Chen watched the young maiden in the green dress
quietly by the matchmaker. “What about your daughter? I know a jewelry
merchant. Needs a concubine.”
“Siu?” The matchmaker glanced at her daughter - long, glossy hair,
face, but sad eyes. “She'll take over the business when I'm old, no time
for childbirth or marriage.”
“If she passes her prime, it'll be too late to reconsider.” Mrs.
her cup on the desk.
“Invite your friend to come in anyway. I've plenty of other healthy virgins,
much prettier.” The matchmaker rose from her seat, looked to Siu. “Escort
Mrs. Chen out.”
Siu ushered Mrs. Chen outside. She came back to find her mother standing, bamboo
switch in hand.
“Do you know how much money the Hong son brought in?” The mother
the switch at Siu. “Kneel.”
Siu dropped her head and knelt on the cold stone floor. She lifted her outer
layer of dress up above her waist. After twenty successive lashings to the back
and legs, Siu's mother returned to the desk.
Trousers torn and bloodied, Siu wiped the tears from her face, defiance in her
eyes. “I love him, mother. He’s mine.”
“He belongs to me.” The mother slammed the switch on the desk. “His
father signed him away as soon as his mother weaned him. He's been drinking my
teas, eating from my kitchen. Until his contract expires, he is the property
of this company that will be yours one day.”
“I don't want your company.” Siu tightened her jaw, straightened
her back. “I
want Ken-li. You have dozens of other boys. Show them.”
“The Hong boy is the most handsome in this age group.” The mother
the marbled beads of an abacus. “He has three good years, after that he'll
sire girls for a full year before giving boys again. Damn you, Siu, his first
fertile year was wasted because you kept his scroll hidden.”
“You know how I feel, how I've always felt -“
“I should have figured it out sooner.” The mother shoved a scroll
basket underneath the desk. “Mrs. Huang and Mrs. Chen kept asking for him
after seeing him in the fields, but when I bring them into the office, you’d
present another candidate.”
“I want to marry him.” Siu pushed up to stand, but her legs gave
slumped to the ground, wept.
“Silly girl.” The mother came from around her desk. She placed a
hand on Siu's head. “Ken-li's type aren't for marrying.”
Siu sobbed louder, her shoulders shook.
“Forget about him.” The mother slid a piece of paper from under the
Huang's husband is infertile, but that arrogant pig will divorce her if she's
not with child soon. Mrs. Chen's husband can only sire girls. Weak ones. Only
one of their daughters survived. Bastard. Blames his wife for his inadequacies.
These women placed very high bids.”
Tears fell to the ground to pool beneath Siu's fingers.
“He's a fine product with an expiration date. With his looks and his build,
can be hired out many times over what I've spent on fostering him.” The
mother made for the door. She looked down on Siu. “After a few customers,
you won't want him anymore. You'll get over it.”
The mother left. Siu crawled to the desk, loosened her tight green belt and exhaled
her relief. She fingered through the piles of scrolls in the basket under the
table, yanked out the one with Ken-li's name on the end and unrolled it.
Name: Hong Ken-Li. Sign: Rooster. Parents: No known diseases. Height: 5'11”.
Features: No visible flaw. Treatments: Since age five. On the bottom was a brush
painting of him. Long hair, strong chin, dark eyes. Wonderful eyes.
“He's perfect,” she whispered, outlining the silhouette with her
“Who's perfect?” came a man’s voice from the door.
“Ken-li.” Siu dropped the scroll back into the basket, shook out
to make sure it covered the trousers. In pain, she stood. “Did you run
into my mother?”
“No.” He gathered her into his arms and gave her a firm hug.
She stiffened at his touch, beads of sweat formed on her forehead. “You
“I came from the kitchen.” His cheeks dimpled when he smiled. “They
said you had my tea.”
She pushed him away, a refreshing scent lingered. “You smell different,
He wore a long robe of red and orange. Birds embroidered in black silk adorned
front and back. Gone was his everyday peasant's garb of slippers, knee-high trousers
and loose-fitting work shirt. His face glowed. His hair shone.
“Your mother sent me to the bathhouse, courtesy of the Chen's.” Ken-li
a stray hair from Siu’s eyes. “Been in the fields? You’re a
“Busy day.” Siu retrieved the basket of scrolls from beneath the
table. She shoved the basket into a cabinet by the window.
“Are those the scrolls of the eligibles?” He peeked around her to
get a glimpse. The scrolls on the top shelf bore green ribbon. The ones on the
bore red. “The green ones are for marriage contracts, right?”
“Right.” Siu rested her head on the cabinet door. “Don't go
with it. Don’t do it, Ken-li.”
“I have a family farm to save.” He nudged her arm.
“You're always making light of things.” Siu slammed the cabinet door
should tell your father he had no right to sell his own son!“
“Siu, we've been arguing about this the entire year. My mother was sick,
needed the money.” He adjusted his sleeves. “Fifteen years I must
serve once I’m of age, otherwise my parents will be charged with stealing
from your mother.”
Childhood friends, they fished together, picked tea leaves together, stole treats
from the kitchen together - they were best friends, childhood sweethearts, meant
to be together.
“You will regret it.” Siu leaned on the desk, tilted the box with
in it to reveal a small compartment underneath.
“Summer's nearly over.” Ken-li stared out the window. He watched
from tree to tree. “I'll miss the harvest.”
“We can run away.” Siu retrieved a tiny key from the compartment.
it to open the desk drawer. “I know where mother stashed all the money,
we could -“
“I thought you were kidding about that.” He grabbed her arm, slid
shut. “Your mother has been good to my family.”
“Only because she knew she could sell you to the highest bidder.” She
off his hand, pushed past him out of the office then down the hall.
Ken-li followed her into her bedroom. A simple space. A wooden table with two
chairs, one dresser with a mirror, and a bed with mesh netting hung from the
ceiling. No windows.
“What are you doing?” Ken-li closed the door behind him.
“What I should have done the day I found Mrs. Chen admiring you in the
pulled out a trunk under the dresser, opened drawers and yanked out clothes. “Help
“I'm not running away with you.” Ken-li fidgeted with the oil lamp
Siu stopped, letting the clothes slip from her fingers and fall to the ground. “But
you love me.”
He undid the knot in his belt.
“What are you doing?” Her face paled.
“I may have been bought to provide an heir to the Chen name,” he
off his robes, “but I want you to have me first.”
She turned her back to him. “This isn't what I want.”
He stepped closer. “This is all I can offer.”
She felt the warmth of his body close to hers. His cologne engulfed her, wrapped
her in a scent that swayed her.
“Ken-li.” Tears welled in her eyes. “We can leave the city
a farm in the countryside.”
He reached for her shoulders, but stopped. “I was never meant to be a farmer.”
His breath against her neck softened her determination. She closed her eyes and
bit her lip, hard. She tasted blood, relaxed her jaw.
“No.” She maneuvered away from him. “Not like this.”
“Dammit.” He snatched his garment off the floor. “Don't you
understand? It's too late. Once Mrs. Chen made up her mind, refusing her would
to my entire family. Her husband's the governor.”
“The governor will never find out. Mrs. Chen and her kind pay well to keep
“She'll create fake charges. Her kind are good at that.”
“But you can't guarantee you'll sire a son.”
“You know the guarantee. She drinks the teas, comes here on designated
to interact with her purchase.” He shrugged on his robes. “She waits.
She'll be pregnant within a month. Your mother's brews never fail.”
Siu made a fist and went after Ken-li. Her anger dissolved against his chest.
He let her cry on him, but when he moved to hold her, she jerked away.
“No.” Siu composed herself, pushed her shoulders back. She sucked
in a slow
breath. “I knew you wouldn’t be convinced.”
“You gave me an extra year of freedom.” Ken-li tied his robes in
ran a hand through his hair. “How long did you think you could trick your
There was a knock on the door.
“That must be your afternoon dose of tea,” said Siu. “Come
An old hunched servant with grey-streaked hair entered. In his hands he held
a clay pot and cup.
It's been simmering all morning, mistress,” said the raspy voice of the
servant. He limped towards Siu. With unsteady hands, he tipped the contents of
the pot into the cup. A woodsy scent filled the room.
“You may go.” Siu took the cup from the servant.
The servant bowed, his movements slow and rickety.
“Old fool. Mother’s retiring him.” She watched the servant
out. She handed the cup to Ken-li. “Here, drink.”
Ken-li accepted the tea. He downed it in one gulp. He coughed. The cup slipped
from his fingers, fell to the ground and cracked. His breathing labored. He clutched
at his chest.
“Siu,” he gasped. He slumped to the hard ground, eyes red and swollen. “You
can't do this. My parents. Mrs. Chen will -”
“Mother’s got plenty others. Mrs. Chen will never know the difference.” Siu
walked over his immobilized body and out the door. “Have a long and prosperous
“Mistress,” came a raspy voice. A wrinkled hunchback with silver-streaked
hair limped in with a tray of dried tea leaves. “For this season's brew.”
Siu, hair pulled up into a bun, head in a book and hand on an abacus, acknowledged
the old servant with a nod. She accepted the tray from him.
“Interesting how in their dried state, it does nothing.” Siu crumbled
leaves in her palm. “Yet when boiled and mixed with other elements, it
can heal or destroy.”
“Your mother's brews can be brutal.” With shaking hands the servant
“Excellent batch.” Siu clapped her hands clean. “The leaves’ potency
is very concentrated.”
“Anything else, mistress?”
“You may go.” Siu pushed aside the tray of leaves and went back to
The click of the beads on the abacus echoed in the room. “And stop calling
me mistress, Ken-li.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dana Y.T. Lin lives in Southern California. Using her
life's intrusions as muse, her love of American classics and Chinese
mythology, she creates original stories with characters uniquely Asian
fused. When not writing serious works of fiction, she enjoys bantering
with her group of writer friends called, The Bunions.