There was a saying that Mei’s mother used to chant every morning, just before beginning the chores of the day.
As the whistling wind blew in from the lush green mountains to the west, Mei knelt before the altar. She breathed in the sweet aroma of the tall grass that shot upward across the meadows of her aunt and uncle’s property. The scent of lavender always wafted in with the morning breeze.
After lighting the candles, she settled onto her knees, and whispered those words her mother passed down to her.
“Ancestors, guide me, protect me, keep me safe,” she said, hoping that for once in her eighteen years, that they would hear her, speak, and tell her that everything would be all right.
A shudder raced through her as she realized that her mother and father were now with their ancestors, and that they might actually hear her call.
“Mama?” Mei called, and closed her eyes. “Baba? Can you hear me? Can you come to me now?”
Her heart ached to speak to them again. Tears burned behind her eyelids as she forced back memories of being held in her mother’s arms, or working in the rice fields with her father.
They’d been alive just a month ago, and her heart hadn’t truly begun to repair.
For a moment, she thought she heard a faint song humming inside her head. She tensed, and opened her eyes, as the excitement rose.
Hope fluttered in her belly, and a slow smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
Her anticipation was quickly dashed as her two younger cousins raced into the temple, giggling.
With a frown, Mei turned to them.
“Quiet,” she said, with her index finger pressed against her lips, and brows furrowed. “Do you want to awaken the dragon and have it burn you to bits?”
Shu and Lian both snapped their mouths closed and stared at her with eyes as wide as tea cups.
“Dragon?” Lian said, with a gasp as her gaze landed on the bronze dragon statue on the shrine. She brushed dark bangs from her eyes. “A real one?”
“You better believe it. A real one,” Mei said, and waggled her finger at them, mocking the sternest look she’d ever had directed at her.
Then, she jumped up and roared.
Lian and Shu’s faces lit up and they released excited squeals of delight as Mei chased them from the shrine.
Alternating roars and laughter, Mei chased them from the hall, and toward the courtyard that stood in the middle of her aunt and uncle’s home.
It was a beautiful sanctuary for Mei, one that she wouldn’t dare take for granted. She and her parents had lived in the countryside. It was a simple life, but vastly different from the life of a merchant. When her aunt had been matched to a man above her status, it had been a blessing for the family. Mei remembered it well, she just never expected to have to join her.
They ran through the stone yard and toward the wall, where her older cousins loved to climb and peer over to the edge.
Leaving the safety of the walls was forbidden, and it was no secret why. These were uncertain times with war brewing with the north and south, and dark magic sparking all around. She stopped running and laughed as they ran from her as fast as their little legs would carry them.
The sun beamed down on her, warming her face as the soft breeze blew her long dark hair.
Workers walked by, carrying loads of food from the market. Giant sacks of rice were marched into the kitchen, and two men carried a pig that hung from a pole with its legs tied to it. More men lugged casks of wine in a procession to the kitchen, while Mei’s younger cousins eyed them. She shook her head with a smirk as she watched the prepubescent boys plot to sneak a sip of that wine.
“I’m watching you two,” she said to them, and placed her hands on her hips the way the cook did whenever they were caught stealing sweet cakes before supper.
Chang and Kun shot her startled looks.
“Mind your own business, Mei!” Kun shouted, and they hurried into the kitchen behind the workers.
She snickered and shook her head once more.
With a heavy sigh, she took it all in. There would be a feast that evening. Uncle Chou had spared no expense, even though she could tell he mostly did it because he would be happy to be rid of her.
Nonetheless, this was meant to be her very special day—the day she said goodbye to her childhood, and welcome her phase of womanhood. Most young girls were matched with husbands around fifteen or sixteen, but Mei was still to find a suitable match.
Mei just hoped the feast that evening would be a celebration of a joyful future—that she would no longer be a burden to the Chou family household. Aunt Biqi already had seven children. She didn’t need her niece adding to their expenses.
“Come on, Mei!” Lian shouted, then laughed. “You’re slow like a big fat cow.”
“Or a one-legged goat,” Shu added, in her high-pitched voice.
“Oh, I can still beat the both of you any day!” Mei grinned and began to chase them toward the wall when her aunt called her name.
“Zhou Mei,” Aunt Biqi called.
Mei paused, and turned to her. As she did, her stomach tightened and her palms grew sweaty.
“It is time,” Aunt Biqi said. With hair cut short to her chin, she reminded her so much of her mother. They shared much of the same facial features; dark eyes, freckled skin, and full lips. “She is here.”
Mei’s blood ran cold at those words, and all traces of joy vanished from her face.
Stoic, refined, and beautiful, Aunt Biqi nodded toward the main house.
Mei followed her gaze and noticed the new arrivals. There were horses being cared for in the stables, and a beautiful covered cart on wheels.
She wrung her hands and focused on her breaths. This day would change her life forever. It could give her a brand new life of abundance like Aunt Biqi’s.
Or, it could ruin it.
Breathing deeply, Mei refused to allow herself to think such daunting thoughts. She had survived the massacre of her village for a reason. Even if she didn’t know why, she had faith that there was more to her fate than the life she left behind.
“She’s waiting inside for you,” Aunt Biqi said, and offered a small smile of encouragement. “Make us proud.”
Swallowing back a lump in her throat, Mei nodded. She could see in her aunts eyes that she was as nervous as she was about what the events of the day would bring.
Mei could only hope that she would bring honor to the family.
She glanced down at her dress. Aunt Biqi had sewn it herself, and added embroidered flowers around the trim of the skirt. She looked at her thin pale hands which now pulsed with anxiety, and felt a shift in the wind.
It was time to face the most powerful woman in all of Beijing.