Authors: Tim Murgatroyd
Also by Tim Murgatroyd:
Taming Poison Dragons
Newcastle upon Tyne
Published by Myrmidon 2013
Copyright © Tim Murgatroyd 2013
Tim Murgatroyd has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written consent of the publishers.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
For my honoured parents, Jim and Dori Murgatroyd
Hou-ming City, Central China. Spring 1304
Hard ground loomed below the high boundary wall. Yun Shu dangled in mid-air, her legs tensed for a fall. Giggling made her wobble. It was like being a fly in a spider’s web, except the threads holding her were friendly: Teng gripping one wrist, Hsiung the other.
‘Faster!’ she cried, swinging back and forth. Trees and ponds and walls in the ancient garden blurred.
‘Jump!’ urged Teng, his almond eyes wide and earnest.
‘Can’t hear you!’
‘You’re too heavy,’ said Teng, ‘you’ll hurt yourself!’
‘I like it!’
‘We’ll drop you,’ grunted Hsiung, though he was strong enough to swing her by himself. Then he let go. See-sawing wildly, Yun Shu clutched Teng’s hand until he, too, released his hold. She landed with an outraged shriek. The boys hooted as she rose, brushing twigs from her skirt. Two tousled heads vanished over the wall and their laughter faded into the trees.
Yun Shu took a moment to adjust to the silent garden. Earlier she had stalked crickets in dusty lanes, free to exclaim or sing or caper whenever she chose. At home different rules applied, like stepping from sunlight into a cold, bare room.
She glanced around for spies, aware she had been careless to make such noise. Golden Lotus hated noise, and while it might be tolerated from Yun Shu’s older brothers, a girl should never draw attention to herself.
Wandering up the path, shoulders hunched, she did not notice the very object of her fears swaying towards her on exquisite, tiny feet – every step displaying the elegance and power of a lotus gait.
The willowy creature’s make-up was a flawless white mask. Silver and jade hairpieces drew the eye to shiny coils of silken black hair and a figure as neat and pleasing as any fine lady’s. The girl became conscious of her plump legs and unshapely body, her ridiculously long eyelashes and puppy eyes; most of all, her black hair that never combed obediently or stayed in its bun.
‘Why are you scowling?’ demanded Golden Lotus, in a high, singsong voice. ‘How many times must I tell you? Smile and glide! Smile and glide as I do.’
Yun Shu bowed very low – she knew what happened otherwise.
‘Youngest Daughter,’ continued Golden Lotus, ‘Honoured Father wishes to converse with you.’
A flicker of fear. Golden Lotus didn’t use cultured words like
, it must have come from Father himself. But the Provincial High Minister of Salt seldom noticed his daughter, let alone spoke to her.
She followed the swaying young man into the ancient mansion they occupied on Monkey Hat Hill. The area had a reputation as a haunt of scholars and other potential rebels. They passed tiny courtyards with neat gardens and closed doors; venerable corridors gleaming with wax and polish. Golden Lotus’s four inch slippers squeaked slightly as he shuffled along.
He led the girl to Father’s bureau, propelling her into the long room. At once Yun Shu started bowing. She knelt on the floor before Father’s writing table. Salt Minister Gui, a pale, gloomy man with a wispy beard, somehow managed to both notice and ignore his daughter. An abacus clicked in his meaty hands, beads flying from side to side.
‘Five thousand and sixty-three
,’ he muttered to himself. ‘Twenty one thousand b-blocks at s-seventy-two
Golden Lotus remained by the door, cooling himself with a fan.
It was the first time Yun Shu had been invited into the bureau, though far from her first visit. She sometimes stole there when Father was away on official business – which was often – to read old books and scrolls.
‘Ah,’ he said, at last. ‘Good!’
His eye crept down to a letter he had been reading when she entered. Yun Shu pressed her forehead to the varnished floor.
‘Yes,’ he said, clearing his throat. He peered at her as one might at a dubious underling. ‘She’s g-grown, hasn’t she?’
Golden Lotus’s white mask offered no encouragement. It had frozen around a demure smile.
‘Quite right. Straight to b-business,’ said the Salt Minister, awkwardly. ‘Youngest Daughter, you’re getting older. High time to b-be useful! You may have noticed ladies calling here over the past few months?’
Yun Shu nodded seriously, proud of her grown-up knowledge. ‘They were matchmakers,’ she replied. ‘I think they came for Eldest Brother.’ She hesitated then added recklessly, ‘When I saw him last month there was fluff on his chin!’
The Salt Minister blinked in surprise to hear her speak fluently.
‘Of course, you’re quite wrong,’ he said. ‘It was
they wished to discuss.’
Again the abacus clicked. Yun Shu’s long eyelashes fluttered rapidly. ‘But Honoured Father,’ she said, ‘my ceremony of hairpins will not take place for
Five or six to be exact. So long she could hardly conceive becoming a woman.
‘Never mind,’ said Gui, ‘the contract’s signed and sealed. Now we must deliver!’
He looked to Golden Lotus for appreciation. The young man laughed, his painted red mouth open but making no sound.
While Yun Shu knelt dutifully, Father explained the contract in a dull, precise voice. A family of very respectable merchants in Chenglingji with extensive dealings in the salt trade were keen to secure his co-operation. They had even agreed to waive the dowry, a prospect of real advantage to the family.
‘You see,’ he concluded, ‘everyone profits. Especially your b-brothers.’
Yun Shu screwed up her eyes to hide tears. ‘Honoured Father, you have not mentioned who is to be my husband!’
He waved aside this question with clumsy fingers. ‘A son …’ He checked the letter. ‘Ahem, not specified. It is the connection that matters. Do you understand?’
She nodded. Yet it was too sudden a change. To be ignored all her life then learn – years before she might reasonably expect it – Honoured Father had already arranged to get rid of her!
‘There’s something else,’ he said. ‘G-golden Lotus has agreed to ensure your feet are, as specified in the contract, no longer than four inches.’
Yun Shu glanced down. Her feet were already over six inches long!
‘Do you mean to bind my feet, Father?’
‘How else will they shrink?’ He seemed genuinely puzzled.
‘Grandmother’s feet were not bound!’ protested Yun Shu. ‘Mother’s were not bound!’
‘It would have been better if they had been,’ muttered Golden Lotus, fluttering his fan.
‘Father, I’m too old! I don’t want tiny feet! I don’t want …’
Pain silenced her as Golden Lotus tugged her hair. ‘It shows how much your Father loves you!’ he whispered.
The Minister of Salt’s eyes narrowed. He clicked away at his abacus. Golden Lotus tapped Yun Shu on the shoulder with his fan to indicate she should leave.