Shapeshifter I

Chapter One

“Lady Li.” The curtains were swept aside by a practiced hand and light filtered pink through her eyelids. Ying turned over in her silken sheets and buried her head with the edge of her embroidered blanket. “Time to wake up.”

She heard flowing water, the soft clink of porcelain and opened one eye. Beads of white light peeked through the embroidered swans. It was morning again. Ying sat up slowly, blinking at the maidservant who handed her a cup. The scent of chrysanthemums filled the air. She breathed into the cup and felt the steam press against her cheeks like two soft hands.

“Today you will have lessons in the morning with Master Yu, then in the afternoon you will meet with the village chiefs. Also there is a letter.”

She swallowed the warm tea which banished the rest of her drowsiness and sat in front of her dresser. “Ah, it is today then. Prepare the Dancing Lotus room for the gathering, Mai. And make sure to show our deepest hospitality.”

Mai smiled behind her and bowed. “Yes, my lady.” Her maidservant had a plain face as was typical of all servants the Li household employed. She was much taller than Ying and slouched to appear meeker. What as odd about her appearance was her eyes, a light soulless grey colour.

She combed Ying’s long black hair into an intricate coil of braids and secured the hair with deep sapphire pins. Ying broke the seal and opened the folded letter as Mai dressed Ying in a grey silk robe and tied her heeled slippers for her.

It read simply: It is ready. ~Zhang.

She folded it back up and slipped it into the hidden pocket in her robe sleeve. “Well?” demanded Ying. “Is breakfast prepared?”

Mai, who was staring at her, started and bowed again with a sinister smile. “My apologies, Lady Li. Yes, breakfast has been prepared.”

Ying clucked her tongue. “You still have much to learn before your maidservant act can be deemed flawless.”

Mai straightened up to her full height for a moment. “As expected of my difficult young mistress,” she replied sweetly.

The Moon Dragon Dining Hall was a large spacious room that overlooked both the inner and front courtyards. The teakwood table stretched across the length of the room and Ying sat alone on the ornate chair at the end of the table.

Mai stood a distance away by the hidden entryway into the kitchen, watching her young mistress eat. The meal was a bowl of warm broth accompanied by dishes of vegetables and hand-made jiaozi. It was Ying’s favourite food and she liked it best when Mai made it.

In the courtyard, two servants were hanging up the washing. One young boy, Jun, and an older girl who did not speak, Lan. There was normally a lot more activity in the House but with the Master and Mistress away at the capital, Ying was left alone with her three servants. The rooms lay quiet and only the birds chirped.

But she relished this sort of silence.

After breakfast, Ying inked a reply to Zhang on the letter he sent her and waited in the Swift Owl study for Master Yu. She gave her maidservant some instructions and with a bow, Mai left the room. She returned briefly with Master Yu before disappearing for the rest of the morning.

Ying listened patiently to the classics Master Yu read, though her mind was elsewhere. Though her eyes scanned the room for something interesting to see, her father had designed the Swift Owl study to contain little else save tall shelves of books and scrolls as well as one other tall study desk. Ying was certain she read the poem pinned to the wall a hundred times before Master Yu’s droning voice halted.

At last, Mai returned, her robes ruffled, the sleeves rolled and the string that held it together at the waist undone, to escort Master Yu out. The young mistress leaned her head on her elbows and sighed. “What a bore!”

Mai came back to the room with a tray of tea, her robes tidied once more. “Do not speak badly of your elders. It is not his fault that you have no interest in the classics.”

Ying sipped the elderberry tea and eyed Mai from the corner of her eye. “And? Did you do as I asked? You were in a mess when you returned.”

Mai bowed. “Zhang was watched so there was a bit of a delay.” She smiled and tilted her head mockingly. “It was swiftly dealt with.” From her sleeve she handed over a small glass phial filled with a dark purple liquid.

Ying held it up to the light and shook the phial languidly. She murmured with satisfaction, “Poison always has such beautiful colours.”

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